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Thinking and writing at the intersection of faith and culture. We focus on both sacred and secular issues, and everything in between, because God does too.
Updated: 1 hour 13 min ago

Mystery, Murder, Theft, and Google

13 hours 43 min ago

Undisputed Fact: I love books. No, I don’t think you quite understand: I love books. If I were to tell you the number of books sitting on shelves in my room right now, I’d probably scandalize you. If I talked about the number of books about books that I’ve read, you’d probably recommend that I pursue healthier hobbies. If I were asked to find a word that could better communicate my obsession and love affair with books, I’d start my search in, yes, a book. All of this is to say that I love books and firmly attest to the mantra “when in doubt, go to the library.”

But, while adventures leap from the dusty folds of dog-eared pages, stories about books are often, well, quite boring. At least that was my running presumption, until I discovered the Atlantic’s recent article “Torching the Modern-Day Library of Alexandria.”

It’s the story—drama and tragedy, nearly science fiction—surrounding Google Books. It contains mystery, intrigue, and conflict. And while it doesn’t contain murder, it contains stakes which seem much higher.

Act I: A BIG Idea.

One of the Co-founders of Google, Larry Page, had an idea: scanning all the books ever written, creating a sort of universal digital library. His alma mater the University of Michigan attempted a similar project with its library collection of 7 million volumes, which would take the university nearly 1,000 years to complete on its own. Larry Page thought Google could accomplish the feat in 6 years.

They struck a deal, a deal which soon expanded to include Harvard, Stanford, Oxford, the New York Public Library, and more… Google created custom scanners and special software, and dedicated tons of money (40-50 million dollars per year) to the endeavor.

A decade later, Google announced that it had scanned 25 million books, which is nearly 1/5th of the estimated number of books published in the entirety of human history. The feat is astounding, but it also raised questions.

Act II: The Plot Thickens with Complications and Ideas

In response, publishers and authors filed a class action lawsuit against Google alleging copyright infringement. Google responded by claiming that its copying was limited to “fair use” asserting that their intention was to only use “snippets” of the works. They were merely using small sections of the books, scanning these books/sections into a complicated network of linked citations. The central question of the legal suit was whether or not this scanning and use of snippets was fair use, but it led both sides to a question: Couldn’t Google easily do more than simply search books?

And then the plot thickened: Google could easily do more, especially when it comes to out-of-print or “back catalogue” books. An idea developed: Google could bring to life books long dead; it could bring these books back to general consumption and research. It could create an eternal library which encompassed the entirety of human knowledge and publication. The idea was a very “google” idea concerning human knowledge, both vast and futuristic, but it also seemed that it might be in the publisher’s and author’s interest to let it happen.

Google’s digitizing out-of-print books could not only preserve the knowledge and works, but also inspire new interest and research in the forgotten works. Out-of-print books are dead weight to publishers and, frankly, dead to authors. The Google option would relieve the weight, would give attention to lost or forgotten works, and would provide compensation to copyright holders that they would not receive otherwise. Maybe it would be in the best interest of everyone to allow Google to resurrect the back catalogue: “The plaintiffs… had gotten themselves into a pretty unusual situation. They didn’t want to lose their own lawsuit—but they didn’t want to win it either.” 1

Act III: A Settlement in the Middle Ground, that Never Happened.

Soon, it became apparent that both Google and the authors and publishers were interested in more than simply the question of “snippets.” The authors and the publishers were driven by the idea that, in fact, creating this sort of eternal and universal library—with protection for the copyright holders—might be a good idea. Here’s the crazy thing: Google agreed.

What started as a class action lawsuit concerning snippets, developed into a possible settlement which extended much, much further. Google would create a digital library of all the books ever written using a sort of creative, collective licensing agreement—an agreement from which authors and publishers could “opt-out” at any time. The agreement would allow for the library, and even sale of books with 63% of the revenue from sales funding a new entity: “The Book Rights Registry.” This entity would be tasked with 1) distributing the funds from the sales and use to the copyright holders, and 2) discovering who actually held the rights to the books—a particular challenge for all out-of-print books.

It appeared like it was too good to be true for both Google and the authors. In one settlement: the universal library would be created, Google would implement a system of public access for schools and libraries, previously lost books which were out-of-print would be accessible, and authors and publishers would be paid. The ramifications would be vast and unfathomable—nearly a story of science fiction, which is exactly why the settlement failed.

As a class action, the settlement “could theoretically bind just about every author and publisher with a book in an American library.” 2 It would bind them to a single corporation, the mighty Google. The sheer scope of the settlement proposal and the allegations that it would create a sort of monopoly of access to books eventually killed the settlement.

Act IV: A Court Case, But Who Won?

Instead of a settlement, the case went to trial: Google won, but everyone lost. Google could legally use its “snippets” of books as part of fair use; and since Google’s scanned copies were “fair use,” the authors and publishers received nothing. Google was not allowed to create its universal library, and the out-of-print books exist somewhere, scanned and ready but locked away.

Act V: So… Now what?

The end of the drama concludes not with a murder or further intrigue, but rather with a quiet whimper. The Atlantic article concludes with the scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark when the U.S. Government takes the Ark of the Covenant and simply shelves it away. As a lover of books and knowledge, the image resonates with me.

A simple flick of a switch, a short line of subroutine, and suddenly over 25 million books become instantly accessible. An eternal, universal library erected as “one of the great[est] humanitarian artifacts of all time.” 3.

BUT, with the excitement of such a possibility also lies the scary reality: a single corporation would hold the keys to this universal library. All of human knowledge and publication held by a lone, colossal mega-corporation. It sounds like the plot for a science fiction movie, except that it very nearly happened.

Categories: Things Jesuit

John Jesus Muhammad Eric Clapton ________

Wed, 04/26/2017 - 02:01

My only thought was to get him out of the building. I’m not a small person; I’d use force if I had to.

He slipped in on the heels of a high school group who had come to tour our school. I greeted the eager, young, college-bound kids, and just like that I was faced with a true stranger. A man probably experiencing some form of poverty and mental instability. A man who didn’t belong, who wasn’t supposed to be there.

He walked right up to me. He wore sweatpants cut off below the knee. And over the sweatpants, a ragged pair of camouflage shorts doctored to look and function like a makeshift tool belt, torn, dangling pockets bulging with items unseen.

He spoke. “Shanti, shanti, shanti – as-salamu alaykum, alaykum, alaykum – Shanti, Shanti – as-salamu-alaykum!” Peace. Peace be upon you.

In the moment, it didn’t register with me that he was offering words of tranquility. The situation was anything but tranquil.

***

We shared perhaps 10 seconds of pleasantries, but my hesitation about him didn’t fade. I told him my name was Eric. The front desk worker looked on, dialing a phone lifting it up to her ear. A nondescript call to campus safety.

“Eric the Red! A viking!” he said with enthusiasm. “No one knows my real name. But, I’ve had five names in the past. Five powerful names.”  His eyes pierced me, bright blue with pupils rimmed by a subtle golden sunburst. He had a dark round circle on his right temple, maybe a birthmark or a coverup for some old tattoo on his face. Sprawling across his dry, cracked hands were black lines, serpentine permanent ink that twisted away beneath his long sleeves. His knuckles were bleeding, freshly sliced open.

He asked for the pen in my pocket, took out a business card, and began to scribble as he spoke with rapid-fire words.

“My first name began with a ‘J’ – John the Baptist, the messenger, and my second name began with a ‘J’ – Jesus Cristo…”

“My friend,” I interrupted. “It’s so beautiful outside. Do you mind if we enjoy the sunshine together while you tell me your names?”

He obliged without hesitation, and I made eyes with the desk worker. Relief.

As we left the building, he continued. “My third name was Muhammad,” he said. “The prophet. And, you’ll never guess my fourth name.”

“Joseph Smith?” I asked. I thought maybe I had his pattern down.

“No, no man – Eric Clapton! Clapton! He could wail. Eric – just like you. Eric the Red, but your beard is more brown than red. Nope. It’s not even red at all. It’s just brown. But you’re still Eric the Red. Eric the Red with the brown beard…”

By now, a campus safety officer had arrived, and my (to that point) four-named friend sensed his time was up. The officer was kind and gentle, encouraging John Jesus Muhammad Eric Clapton along. Before he left, though, I asked whether he needed anything.

“Yeah, man – I need a little more time with you. I have so much to say – 23rd floor, Triple – A, above Abraham’s attic, V. Edwin, my grandfather, who was scared of the letters of his name…I only live on the 23rd floor above Abraham’s attic. My grandfather left me because he was so scared of his name. ‘IT’S JUST ONE SIMPLE NAME’ I’d tell him, but he would never live above Abraham’s attic with me…”

“Hey, listen – I’d love to chat more, but I have to work. You understand, right?” Those piercing eyes met mine, and his bloody knuckles extended out. I offered my own, and after our fists met, he started walking away. He turned back and launched into a rap-poem-prayer of some kind. I turned to head back inside and teach, leaving the officer to watch alone.

***

I’ll likely never know his fifth name. John Jesus Muhammad Eric Clapton ________. Maybe Taylor Swift or Donald Trump or Cookie Monster. And if I meet him again, I suspect that he wouldn’t be able to relive or recall the moment we shared. It started with an alarm that had to be silenced, but once I understood him a bit, I knew he wasn’t someone to be afraid of. Perhaps just someone who wanted to be heard for a while.

And, perhaps, someone who in a sense was all those people.

John the Baptist – a messenger, calling me to patience, greater love, and reminding me that it’s not about me. Jesus, who came among us in an unexpected way and who got pushed out from time to time. Muhammad – a prophet, one who offers words that are hard to understand but hold great significance. And Eric Clapton – one who, when he does what he does, leaves people with a memory that doesn’t fade.

His real name will remain a mystery. And, I didn’t give him as much time as he wanted. But, his names revealed a deeper truth: he was just who he said he was.

-//-

The cover photo was taken by Jennifer Aguilar (an Arrupe College student). Check out her Instagram page.

Categories: Things Jesuit

Why does the Left have a religion problem?

Tue, 04/25/2017 - 02:14

The American Left has a religion problem.

The problem is that there is no religion on the American Left, or not in a meaningful way. The largest religious group in the Democratic party, for instance, are “nones”: almost 4 in 10 Democrats. That’s bad for the Left, bad for America, and bad for the Church. It’s even bad for the Right.

Where is the Religious Left?

The phrase “Religious Left” is a strange-sounding phrase, and that’s my point: we associate religion in politics with the Right. While conservatives don’t hold a monopoly on issues of religion and politics – one thinks of Catholic social justice advocates – the Right has managed to convince Christians it does.

But this is simply bad for the Church: Christian teachings are not the same as any party’s platform, and nothing is worse than the appearance that it is. Take the most obvious example: Donald Trump is arguably the least Christian president in U.S. history. While Trump is a Presbyterian, many have argued that his moral character hardly reflects the heart of the Gospel. And yet because he ran against a Democrat widely feared by the Religious Right, he won more evangelical votes than Bush, Romney or McCain.

Meanwhile, the lack of religion on the Left means that the Left approaches such issues as tone-deaf outsiders. Many have argued that the Democratic party should re-think its pro-choice party platform. This is unlikely to happen. What is problematic, too, is the lack of attempts of the Left to try to understand how abortion is connected to religion for many people. Even if Hillary didn’t lose because of abortion, there is no question that the Left’s perceived anti-religiosity hurts it at the polls. As one former Obama aide put it, the Democrats are “not even pretending to give these [religious] voters a reason to vote for them.”

So where does the Left’s religion problem come from? For one thing, the Left is young, and young people are less likely than older age cohorts to be religious: 5 in 10 millennial Democrats are nones. That’s a huge problem: who is going to replace the Baby Boomers on the Christian Left?

Second, the “Religious Right” has made the idea of a politically active religion off-putting for many on the Left. This point is so obvious that we don’t even know we know it. 

Third, one cannot forget the secular tendencies of the progressive Left. While the Left in the U. S. has historically had a warm relationship with religion, many strains of the European Left view religion with suspicion. Are such attitudes affecting the American Left as it becomes more progressive?

There is no question that the fastest way to rebuild the Christian Left would be to evangelize millennials, as someone like Jim Wallis at Sojourners is doing. But this will be tricky. Most “nones” were raised in a religious household but then left that religion, often because they stopped believing its teachings.

We also need to ask hard questions about the secular ideologies of the Democratic party. The Democratic party is known for its support of equality and human rights, but why does that support always put it on a crash course with Christians churches, and especially the Catholic Church? That can’t always be Christians’ fault.

Most importantly, Christians will have to find a way to rebuild a distinctively Christian politics of the Left. What do I mean by distinctively? Bishop Barron has recently called attention to the “identity/relevance dilemma”:

The more we emphasize the uniqueness of Christianity, the less, it seems, the faith speaks to the wider culture; and the more we emphasize the connection between faith and culture, the less distinctive, it seems, Christianity becomes.

Speaking of Rod Dreher’s The Benedict Option, Barron argues that Christians on the Right have lost the point of the Christian message in their attempt to join forces with conservatives and become politically relevant.

Perhaps there is an analogous problem on the Left. Has the Religious Left, in its desire to join the broader coalition of the Left, ceded its ability to argue for the distinctiveness and power of religion on the Left, allowing itself to be just another bland facet of the Left in exchange for relevance? Certainly many Christians on the Left have worked very effectively with secular movements to secure basic human rights and needs. But do they do so as just another NGO? 

These arguments cut both ways. As I came to see in my interview with Rod Dreher, we desperately need a Religious Right that puts its faith before its politics. But at least the Religious Right is having that conversation. Where is the Religious Left’s crisis?

What do you think? What can we do to repair the Left’s relationship with religious voters?  And how can the Religious Left lead the way?

***

Image courtesy FlickrCC user Roger Jones.

Categories: Things Jesuit

Pope Francis: The World is Not Round

Mon, 04/24/2017 - 02:14

Globalization has drawn a wide range of cultures into encounter with one another. While this process of globalization affects everyone, it particularly challenges Catholics as they struggle to reconcile this reality into their faith lives. How do such culturally diverse groups of people ascribe to this one, universal Church? Pope Francis provides an image of two contrasting geometric figures to aid in rethinking how we encounter the multicultural Church. It is an image, moreover, from which any person of good will can benefit.

At General Congregation 36, a world-wide meeting of Jesuits, when asked about his thoughts on the effects of globalization and the problems of colonization, Pope Francis spoke about the danger of conceiving this process as a “sphere,” that is, as a process of standardization. This standardizing process seeks to impose a single world-view, a homogenous vision for society, economics, politics and culture. In contrast,  the polyhedron, a multi-sided geometric figure, better preserves this multicultural richness. “Our image of globalization should not be the sphere,” Pope Francis reflects, “but the polyhedron. It expresses how unity is created while preserving the identities of the peoples, the persons, of the cultures.”1  

For Pope Francis, this geometric metaphor offers a way to shift the individual’s disposition when thinking about the issues of globalization. We should not see the world as a homogenous, standardized sphere, but rather a multi-sided, yet unified, polyhedron. He has used this metaphor previously, and as other writers have noted it is potentially complicated. Pope Francis, however, is merely advocating for a shift in thinking about the process of globalization as potentially positive. In fact, all people of good will can benefit from adopting such a shift in how better to encounter the multicultural world.

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To see the globalized world in regards to the polyhedron requires both cultural humility and spiritual openness. Humility is a central spiritual disposition in the Christian life, and is especially important in Ignatian spirituality. Spiritual poverty, or humility, allows us to be empty of our preferences and be wholly open to Christ. Cultural humility speaks to a similar tension. If in our multicultural encounters we lack an openness to learn or, worse, have an unreflective arrogance, we indeed block ourselves off to the richness of the body of Chris. We intentionally or unintentionally globalize in the spherical fashion. Rather, like Christ who models humility for us in the Gospels, we too ought to seek a cultural humility in our encounters to better open ourselves up to the experience of Christ in others. Having this spiritual openness better disposes us to grow in our own faith lives, and it deepens our experience with the truly Universal Church. But even for non-Catholics, recognizing how cultural humility and an attitude of openness better prepares ourselves for richer encounters with our neighbors across the globe. Adopting such a disposition is easier said than done, but it will be a great start to keep a spirit of  humility and openness at the center of our cross-cultural encounters.

The polyhedron can be a helpful way to understand the desires Pope Francis has for each of us. Seeing the globalized world and the multicultural Church as one united through a variety of rich identities will help us grow as a global society and in the Body of Christ. We must reflect on our own cultural heritage in the context of a globalized society, recognize the reality that we will continuously be drawn into global encounters, and better dispose ourselves to be culturally humble and spiritually open. The unity of all Christians and all people lies not in our cultural identities, however, but in our faith in Jesus and our trust in one another. If we start there, we might be surprised at how we continue to grow in appreciating the many rich cultures both in the Catholic Church and throughout our polyhedron world.
This post is an adaptation of a presentation given at Saint Louis University’s ATLAS Week.

***

Image courtesy Catholic News Service/Paul Haring.

Categories: Things Jesuit

A Therapy Session with John Mayer

Fri, 04/21/2017 - 02:00
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It was the summer of 2003 and the Counting Crows and John Mayer embarked on a US tour. Me and a couple good buddies went to see the Crows hoping they were the headliner. Nope. The headliner was this skinny guy in his mid-twenties in a t-shirt with his band and his guitar.

I didn’t come to see John Mayer. I thought he was “poppy pop pop”. “Your Body Is a Wonderland” and I’m not interested. Girls go Ga Ga and I go OK pal what you got? Turns out he had more than I ever knew he had. When he played, I didn’t hear anything but his guitar. And O that guitar. According to my friend Drew, that guitar brought tears to my eyes.

I was a man who spent his college years listening to Zeppelin and Jimmy Page, Hendrix, Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan, even a little Robin Trower.1 These are some guitarists man! The best and brightest! And this skinny guy reminded me of all of them and somehow sounded such that he was taking it to a whole-nother level. All I remember is Mayer’s guitar screaming into the night and illuminating the sky with every lick and sensationally stunning run. Then I forgot all about Mayer. His music just didn’t reach me.

Many years later, I encountered Mayer’s Born and Raised album. I was in my late 20’s feeling like I was still very much trying to find my way. I was asking the big questions and was trying to retrace my steps, examine my conscience, and wonder where to go from here. When Mayer was singing “all at once it gets hard to take, it gets hard to fake who I won’t be” he was singing straight to me, singing to my soul, to the depths of me. Mayer was singing to me and I was like, what in the world? Who is this man? I thought I knew. I didn’t have a clue.

Turns out he didn’t have much clue either.  He was finding himself right before my eyes, letting go of whatever wasn’t true and beautiful and everlasting. Like me, Mayer was undergoing a transformation. A much needed one. After a pair of interviews featuring a certain shallowness and insensitivity, he became hounded by the media and a persona non-grata to his peers.2  So, seeking rebirth he took off for for Montana in 2010 where he examined his conscience.

This year, when asked by NPR how he got over being perceived as a shameful inhuman womanizer, he literally said: “just die and come back to life.” What? Die and come back to life? That’s crazy talk man. That’s what spiritual gurus say. That’s what people say after they’ve gained wisdom and realized it ain’t about them, it’s about who they are becoming, about who they desire to become, and what they are doing with their gifts. After his awakening, Mayer doesn’t get himself wrapped up in what other people (most of whom “don’t care about him anyways” are saying). He doesn’t get wrapped up in the cycle of shame anymore.

So, reborn in the hills, he “found home”. Which is to say, he started to accept himself. He began to accept his limitations, his shortcomings, and his fears of failure. He became rejuvenated in mind, body, and spirit. In his words he became “a man”, he became a “grown-up”.

What’s more important is why Mayer had to “find home”. From a 2012 Rolling Stone profile:

The kid had his own worries. For one, his parents fought a lot, which he says led him to “disappear and create my own world I could believe in.” Also, he’d begun to suffer from anxiety attacks and feared ending up in a mental institution.”

He sought psychiatrists and therapists to help cope. He would often deal with his anxiety by isolating himself in his room to play guitar.

At the height of his stardom, his anxiety largely involved his fear that his career as a musician and the fame that comes with it would flame out if he wasn’t being lavished with praise. He was anxious because he was constantly worried about his persona in the public eye. He wanted to give flawless performances to gain the approval of the masses. He wanted to impress and please. One negative comment about a song or performance would send him into ruminations that would only intensify his anxiety and leave him feeling ashamed.

The problem with shame is that I feel like I am unlovable as I am. Shame is poisonous and it is linked to my anxieties over whether I “measure up” or not. Shame often isolates me and leaves me lonely and afraid. Mayer has had his fair share of experience with loneliness as I’m sure I’ve had and will have again.

When Mayer and I reject our imperfections we reject ourselves. We shame ourselves into believing we are a bad person. This shaming entraps us in fear and anxiety. It keeps us from being free to love, to express compassion and courage. When I am courageous enough to open up and be honest and transparent like Mayer does in his music, he and I can help those we open up too and ourselves in the process.

I’m grateful John Mayer endured the trials he did as a budding teen and has the imperfections he has as a self-proclaimed “recovering ego addict” so he can write music that literally calms the anxieties of others and keeps them from having their own panic attacks.  Thank God for that skinny kid who can wail on guitar.

Categories: Things Jesuit

Sexual Abuse and the Culture of Fear

Thu, 04/20/2017 - 02:14

It’s official: Bill O’Reilly is out of a job. After accusations of sexual harassment began to snowball against him in recent days, even a last-minute visit with the Pope couldn’t save his top-rated FOX News slot.

O’Reilly is the latest in a line of high profile cases of sexual misconduct, including those of former Fox News chair Roger Ailes, Uber, Choate Rosemary Hall, and Sterling Jewelers (owner of Kay, Jared and Zales). Unfortunately, the list goes on and on.

In most, if not all of these cases, the accusations betray a larger cultural problem beyond just an individual’s reprehensible behavior. Abuse or worse goes unreported because of a culture of silence and fear.

The story always seems to run the same way. Victims are afraid to speak up because it would rock the boat, harming their careers, socially isolating them, and causing themselves tremendous psychological pain. Other members of the institution turn a blind eye, because they say it’s not their problem or are unwilling to deal with the awkwardness. Victims remain silent until a critical mass is reached, when many finally feel safe to come forward. Then the evil becomes news.

How can we combat this culture of silence and fear? “The truth will set you free” (Jn 8:32). Institutional and personal transparency and accountability are essential to beginning to address this cultural problem. Institutions must adopt policies and procedures to address claims fairly and with concern exclusively for the wellbeing of people over the reputation or preservation of the institution. Responses along these lines are the common response after the scandal breaks.

Personal transparency and accountability is a less common response, but are just as important for preventing abuse. Men especially need to own up to their own weaknesses and impulses, and learn to deal with them in healthy, appropriate ways. These internal issues are not exclusively related to sex, but are often psychological and social, especially related to power dynamics and self-worth. While external policies and procedures can and should hold people accountable after the fact and disincentivize misbehavior, ultimately what is internal to a person is the only thing that can truly prevent abuse.

I don’t know if Bill O’Reilly is guilty of sexual harassment, but if he is, I hope that he might live up to his principles and be honest with himself at least. Especially as a Catholic and a self-professed defender of conservative “family values,” he owes it to himself, his family, his viewers and especially his victims to admit that he did wrong, that he fell short of his faith, and that he depends upon God’s mercy for forgiveness, healing and reconciliation. Only when we all are able to be honest with ourselves, admit to our faults and ask forgiveness, will we be able to build cultures based on mutual respect and dignity.

***

Image courtesy FlickrCC user Justin Hoch.

Categories: Things Jesuit

You’re right.

Wed, 04/19/2017 - 02:01

“Garrett, you’re sick of us, aren’t you? All day today you’ve been kind of snappy every time we asked a question.”

“No, it’s just that…”

Insert excuse here. Insert another. But before I began, she bravely turned her head to look me in the eyes, a sort of exclamation point or double underline or italics for her words – words that, frankly, already made their point quite well. I stopped. And despite the tremendous fatigue of four days of overtime chaperoning, my mind sprinted through the millions of things that I could say.

***

They say that in make-or-break moments, moments your brain calculates to be worth the adrenaline rush, the blast of that natural drug slows time down and we somehow have an eternity to react in such a way that ensures our survival. The adrenaline kicked in; I weighed three possible responses in what seemed like infinite time.

First possible response: I solved this already.

Why are you asking about the schedule today? Saturday and Sunday we went through this same thing, again and again. I was the sole possessor of the trip itinerary, y’all asked me what was next, I responded, again and again, patience fading with each response, until I realized the problem. And then I solved it. I gave you the schedule. I put it in the groupchat. Along with a funny, clever and apologetic meme. You have it now. Problem solved…right?

…right?

Second possible response: Yes, we’re all tired.

Yes, I am tired. Yes, we are tired, all four of us chaperones…this is a lot of work. Can you cut us a little bit of slack? We ARE trying. I’ve been this tired since day one, and I have been trying my best to be the most compassionate and patient version of myself every time I get flustered, like just now, but this time I couldn’t pull it off.

You got me.

Third possible response: I’m far more overwhelmed than I look.

*Sigh*

I have the same schedule that you do. And though I co-planned the trip, I don’t know much more than you do.

This is the first time I’ve planned one of these! It sounded delightful in my mind – an “intercultural exchange”, a “two-way cultural immersion” – proposed by the campus minister of the other school. It sounded awesome, a meeting of two groups of 10 high schoolers from a mostly Mexican-American high school in Waukegan, Illinois and a mostly Oglala Lakȟóta high school in Pine Ridge, South Dakota. It sounded exciting and adventurous, an immersion first in Waukegan then in Pine Ridge: visitors would become hosts, hosts would become visitors, sharing prayers, foods, service and 35 hours of I-90 round-trip road tripping…and, truth be told, this is turning out to be far more delightful than I even imagined–but, truth be told, also far more demanding…

These things don’t plan themselves. You can only do so much before you dive in, because you can’t plan for what you don’t know to plan for…

Yes, we have a schedule, but this is all-new territory for both me and the campus minister at Cristo Rey. Yes, we have a schedule, but we’re also making it up as we go along, hustling when we see you all getting antsy, staying when we see you getting deep, and trying to ride these waves as best we can.

You all have been so good, so open, such good listeners, such good sharers, so patient with our long days and short nights…I am truly grateful. But your question hit me right where I’m most vulnerable right now…

***

Back to reality. As she looked up again, I responded with something between my head’s snappy comeback and my heart’s sappy declaration of insecurity:

“Mariah, you’re right… I have been snappy today. I am sorry.”

“No, that’s okay. It’s just if you leaders get crabby, we get crabby, too.”

“Ah…well, honestly, we’re just standing by right now, waiting for our next move, letting some of the folks over there finish talking. We’ll all be going to the service site, soon. How was lunch? Crazy story that guy told, huh?” I felt my tone shift, immediately, and watched hers shift to match.

“Yeah…” Her mind seems to switch tracks – “So do we really need to wear hair nets at that service thingy this afternoon?”

The next day, the three other chaperones and all ten of my students slept soundly through the first six hours of the long drive home. Seven albums in a row, a sunrise in the rearview mirror, an open road ahead and a minibus without cruise control all to myself–I catalogued all my favorite moments of the trip. 

I wondered how I was so awake, so happy, and so ready to host ten students and chaperones at our place in less than two weeks–a bit of a surprise after the previous five days’ mounting fatigue. I won’t tell you what my favorite moment was, but I’ll give you a hint: it was an unexpected one. It was bold. It was a game-changer.

-//-

The cover image, from Flickr user Sandro Lombardo, can be found here.

Categories: Things Jesuit

Sins of the Past and Hope for the Future

Tue, 04/18/2017 - 02:14

“Oh honey, my family’s been working for the Church for a long time.”

I knew from the playful twinkle in her eyes, the seriousness on the rest of her face, and the way she said “long” that she didn’t mean her mother had been the parish secretary before her. She meant her family had been working for the Church for a very, very long time — and not by choice.

I had just met a descendant of slaves. I, a Maryland Province Jesuit and alumnus of Georgetown University, was standing face-to-face with a woman whose biological forebears were the slaves of my spiritual forebears. I don’t think my jaw dropped, but my heart certainly fell.

***

In 1838 The Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus sold 272 men, women, and children. Prior to that sale, slaves had been used to maintain plantations that helped support and finance the activities of Maryland Jesuits, including the operations at Georgetown. Jesuit leaders eventually concluded, however, that slaves were no longer an economically viable model for maintaining operations.

As a result, these 272 people were sold for $115,000, which is the equivalent of approximately $3 million today. Some of the money of the sale was used to pay off construction debts at Georgetown, and so helped to keep the school open. Several decades later and for unclear reasons, two buildings at Georgetown were named after the two Jesuits who organized the sale.1

***

I’ve known Georgetown and the Maryland Jesuits owned slaves for a while. I first learned about it from a Jesuit I met in college.

After I entered the Jesuits, that same Jesuit took my fellow novices and me on a tour of the part of Maryland where the Society of Jesus first came to what became the 13 original colonies. We learned about the Jesuits’ participation in a voyage across the Atlantic driven by a desire for religious tolerance, the early efforts of Maryland Catholics to peacefully coexist with local Native Americans, and how the Maryland Jesuits not only survived the Universal Suppression of the Society of Jesus but managed to come out of it a full nine years before the Suppression was officially lifted by the Pope. We got to visit the longest continually-operating Catholic parish in the country and a number of original missionary outposts dating back to the 17th century.2 Finishing that tour I felt like I was standing on the shoulders of giants. I was proud.

As an alumnus of Georgetown University I was even prouder. My alma mater looms large in the history of the Jesuits in that region, and when I learned how Georgetown can trace its roots all the way back to 1634 I was all set to declare Georgetown the oldest university in the country. (#sorrynotsorry, Harvard!)

And our Jesuit guide taught us more about the slaves. At that point, the best evidence suggested that some of the proceeds of the sale of the slaves had gone to support the expenses of Jesuits in formation.3 I remember immediately wondering if blood money had contributed to the money I had just used to buy lunch. Suddenly my chicken salad sandwich became less appetizing. The recognition that the same religious order that brought Catholicism to this part of the country had chosen to treat human beings as property and were more concerned with economic evaluations than human dignity made me feel that the giants on whose shoulders I stood became noticeably shorter.

However, my pride continued to swell as we visited a small parish that used to be staffed by Jesuits. This parish had originally been founded because the black Catholics in town weren’t welcome to pray alongside their white sisters and brothers. A Jesuit, Horace McKenna, came to be involved with this new parish, which eventually culminated in significant involvement in the Civil Rights Movement.

When learning about the history of this parish from one of the women who works there, I was immediately struck by the continued vitality of the parish and the pride she and the other women involved there took in both the past and present of their community. And so I asked how long she’d been at the parish.

And then, there I was, speaking with a woman whose ancestors may well have worked on plantations just a few miles from where we stood at that very moment. And those plantations might have been owned by the same men who helped shape the Jesuit and Georgetown history I’d been spending all day feeling so proud of.

I was shocked. I was embarrassed. I didn’t know what to say.

While I’m reluctant to speak on behalf of this woman, it didn’t seem like she was blaming me for enslaving her ancestors. But it was clearly important to her that I, a Jesuit, know that we shared not only this conversation in the present, but the reality of Jesuit slaveholding in the past.

Meeting this woman has stuck with me ever since that afternoon in June of 2012. I’ve found myself carrying this question of how to respond to Georgetown and the Maryland Jesuits’ history of slaveholding into my prayer and my studies. A philosophy term paper, which required at least as much prayer as academic research, led me to conclude that I needed to become more responsible for the enduring legacy of slavery the day I enrolled at Georgetown University, and even more responsible the day I entered the Society of Jesus.

***

Over the last couple of years, Georgetown has taken significant steps in investigating and coming to terms with its slave-owning past. Much of the fruit of that work culminates today, April 18th,, as Georgetown, along with the Maryland Jesuits, hosts a Liturgy of Remembrance, Contrition, and Hope and offers a formal apology for its slave-holding past in the presence of descendants of the former slaves. Additionally, the buildings formerly named for the Jesuits who organized the sale will be rededicated and named for one of the slaves sold in 1838 and a freed woman of color who founded a school for black girls in the Georgetown neighborhood.

These actions, while important, do not erase the grave sins of the past. However, if we have any hope of working toward a more just future we have no choice but to honestly and courageously engage the challenging and painful realities we find ourselves facing in the present.

It seems appropriate that Georgetown is taking these actions so shortly after Easter. When Jesus rose from the dead, the scars of his crucifixion didn’t magically disappear. On the contrary, Christ’s wounds became the starting point of reconciliation with Doubting Thomas. In the same way, our society still bears the scars of slavery and racism, and the only way we too can work towards reconciliation is by recognizing the wounds of those who continue to be marked by the legacy of slavery.

So what do we do about this “legacy of slavery” thing? Is that even real? Didn’t slavery end with the Civil War? And if not, the Civil Rights Movement certainly took care of any lingering racial inequality, right? Do we really have to spend time thinking and talking about this?

I think that seeing the on-going impact of slavery causes a lot of us to have the same reaction I had when the woman in Maryland told me she was a descendant of slaves. We get uncomfortable, embarrassed, and don’t know what to say. We want to look away. That seems, to me at least, to be an understandable initial reaction. But our reaction cannot stop there.

When the resurrected Christ appeared to Doubting Thomas, I’m sure Thomas felt embarrassed and uncomfortable. But rather than quickly looking away, he took the time to honestly look at and accept the reality of the wounds still evident on Christ’s body, even though the event of the Crucifixion was now in the past. The wounds were still there. The wounds are still there. We should follow Thomas’ example of not looking away.

Because we follow the wounded and resurrected Christ, we love and serve his wounded people. We know that the suffering and death of Good Friday must lead to the resurrection of Easter. Thus we should not and cannot allow the sins of our past to dictate the way we continue to act in the present and future.

Whether or not you can be present at Georgetown’s Liturgy of Remembrance, Contrition, and Hope, I hope we can spiritually join with both my brothers and the descendents of our slaves in remembering the sins of the past, expressing contrition for their impact in the present, and praying in hope that the wounded and resurrected Christ may help us build a better future.

Author’s note: Special thanks to Fr. David Collins, SJ for his work as the chairperson of Georgetown’s Working Group on Slavery, Memory, and Reconciliation, clarifying the historical details included in this piece, and introducing me to so much of Jesuit history, including this dark chapter.

***

Image courtesy the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus.

Categories: Things Jesuit

Will Charity or Love Prevail?

Mon, 04/17/2017 - 02:14

(The Latin “caritas” is translated into English as “love” as well as “charity.” Starting over after our Lenten almsgiving, we can take time to reflect and ask ourselves: are they really interchangeable?)

 

Charity shows itself in words
Love shows itself in deeds

Charity is: “I’ll see you when I can”
Love is: “every distance is not near”

Charity likes to be comfortable
Love likes to bring comfort

Charity has all the answers
Love listens for the answers

Charity hates mistakes
Love thrives in the messiness

Charity is from my surplus
Love is from my depths

Charity is for “those people”
Love is for “us”

Charity seeks the selfie
Love seeks to be present

Charity is: “I will save you”
Love is: “Your liberation is my liberation”

Charity looks for obstacles
Love finds opportunities

Charity doesn’t “see” color
Love faces reality

Charity pities the “poor”
Love knows that I too am poor

Charity can wait for tomorrow
Love always lives for today …

… because charity wants “good enough,”
And Love desires me to greatness now

 

Categories: Things Jesuit

Time Well Spent, or 8 Reasons You Must Watch ‘Dr. Who’ Series 10

Sat, 04/15/2017 - 02:30
Embed from Getty Images

One muggy day in August 2015, I sat down to watch my first episode of Dr. Who.1  As it turns out, that was a fantastic decision.  I heard the intro music for the first time and watched a blue Police Box float through a wormhole.  Before I knew it, plastic mannequins came to life and started to attack this young girl, Rose Tyler.  My heartbeat quickened as I asked myself what kind of series this was.  Horror?  Sci-fi?  Rose seemed doomed.  And then we meet the Doctor.2  He takes her hand and leads her out of danger.  Though a bit rude and brash, his witty lines won me over in an instant.

I fell in love with the series and raced through nine Series and 12 Christmas specials over three semesters.  And, as we prepare to welcome the Doctor back for Series 10, I thought I would share some of the reasons we should be excited for the Doctor’s return.

1. It’s been a while.

via GIPHY

The short answer is simple: no episodes have aired for Dr. Who since the Christmas special, “The Return of Doctor Mysterio.”  That three-month-hiatus is enough for me.  For more long-term fans of the series, there has been nothing but that special since December 2015.  A year is more than enough time to wait to get back inside the TARDIS.

2. Getting to know Dr. Who

via GIPHY

The series’ title  asks one central question: who is the Doctor?  He has been portrayed by thirteen different actors throughout the series’ run.3  Each incarnation has a different personality, but deep down is the same character. With each new body, another aspect of who he is comes to light.

The Doctor can range from silly, as he defends his choice to wear a bow tie or a fez (regardless of what anybody else says),4 to serious, in his speeches in the face of hostile aliens.5  Operating between these two extremes, he demonstrates just how complex people really can be, as a Time Lord who effectively can live forever.

3. The companions who shape the Doctor

via GIPHY

At their best, the companions make the Doctor a better person.  Rose Tyler taught him to care again after the scarring effects of the Time War and Donna Noble stopped the Doctor from turning into a monster in her debut.

This series, we are introduced to a new companion, Bill and we know little about her.  How will the Doctor react to travelling with a new person, especially after he went through hell6 to try and save the last one’s life?

4. The Fandom is bigger on the inside

The Whovian community has produced a number of adaptations of songs and a band that writes music inspired by the series.  The fandom extends far beyond costumes and music too.

The St. Louis Science Center hosts a Dr. Who night (where yours truly may or may not have been in attendance. A number of people dressed as characters from the series, including some incredible handmade costumes.  One person had hand-knitted the Fourth Doctor’s scarf and another had made her own habit for this obscure character.

Did I mention that I have acquired three posters and a TARDIS travel mug which sits proudly on my desk.  And how else can I get away with wearing a bow tie and suspenders in public?

Sadly, no fez. River shot it. (courtesy of the author)


5. Tight writing takes you deep.

One thing that snuck up on me in watching Dr. Who is how tight the writing can be.  Sure, plot holes exist  in the overarching narrative, but the series does a wonderful job of subtly tying its series together.  Innocuous references throughout a series turn out to play a big role by the series finale.  Spoilers: count the number of Bad Wolf references in series 1 or Saxon in series 3.

Individual episodes also can carry tremendous weight.  Blink from series 3 contains perhaps the most well-known speech and explanation7 of time travel.  And the two-part story right before it explores the Doctor’s chance to be human.  It still gives me chills.

6. Villains, classic and new

via GIPHY

The series continues to bring back classic villains like Daleks and Cybermen, while at the same time introducing new ones like the Weeping Angels.  Each antagonist, particularly the repeat ones, provide a different challenge for the Doctor and his companions, a different feel to the story, and it is richer for it.  What makes it even more interesting is that these villains often have great strength, powers, or weapons, but the Doctor can only use his wits to defeat them.

7. It’s fun!

via GIPHY

When I stop and think about the series, I recall that I am following the (mis)adventures of an alien and his human companions as they travel through time and space in a blue Police Box.  As a premise, it is silly and nonsensical, and that is why I love it.  It can be sad to say farewell to companions8 or to the Doctor,9 but they make the series stronger and more versatile.  Still, Dr. Who is a fun romp at heart.

8. Something Big is going to happen.

Sadly, Peter Capaldi has announced this will be his last series as the Doctor.  This means that, by the Christmas special this year, we will be introduced to a new Doctor.  This is also the last series with Steven Moffat as the head writer.  The last time this happened, David Tennant tied together all of Russell T. Davies’ universe and opened the doors for Moffat’s brilliant writing.

Consider this an invitation to grab your Sonic Screwdrivers and join me.  Allons-y!

via GIPHY

Categories: Things Jesuit

Taking a ‘Long, Loving Look’ at Kendrick Lamar’s Disturbingly ‘Humble’ Hip-Hop

Fri, 04/14/2017 - 02:00

Disclaimer:  The following video contains explicit content and material intended for mature audiences aged 18+

This post is not meant to be read as a 140 character tweet. This is a thoughtful response; not just a commentary off reading headlines or skimming the most contentious portions of an article or video. This is the beginning of an important conversation that we cannot be afraid to have.  And there’s already a conversation going on among more than 57 million viewers,1 and it’s our choice whether we want to engage those millions or not.  So, with the release of Kendrick’s new album today on Good Friday, here’s a spiritual response to Kendrick Lamar’s controversial music video to his single, Humble.

Okay, what has already been said about the video?

Twitter has exploded claiming this to be a diss video or ‘beef’ with rapper Big Sean. One site posted the click-grabbing religious headline: “Kendrick Lamar Portrays Himself as Jesus…’. XXL, the Hip-Hop website, posted “Kendrick Lamar’s “Humble” Song Sparks Feminist Backlash. Comments on YouTube and other sites were quick to dismiss Kendrick as a “blasphemer,” “degenerate,” “mocking God” and “misogynist.”2

If we stay with the above commentary alone, the video is quickly dismissed and the conversation ends right here. Thanks for reading.

But …

… What if the conversation was never meant to end after the 3:03 minute music video was over? What if we were to hold up and

Step 1: Put on our Christian-Spirituality-caps3
Step 2: “Contemplatively” watch this provocative music video
Step 3: Engage each other in fruitful dialogue

Could we, as one spiritual writer put it, take a “long, loving look at the real” in this video and encounter something surprising and new?

Let’s Begin with the Long Look …

Most religiously sensitive viewers might have been struck immediately by the ‘scandalous’ representation of the rapper in Papal robes in the opening shot.

Or Kendrick’s placement of himself in Jesus’s center seat in TDE’s rendition of Leonardo Da Vinci’s ‘The Last Supper’ portrait.

Hastily viewing these gifs in isolation, one might be quick to stop watching, close the YouTube page, and denounce Kendrick as just another rapping egotistical maniac. Just another musician with a “god-complex” whose fans perpetuate his inflated sense of self.

On the other hand, take a look at what Brad Wete over at Billboard has to say:  

As the opportunity to exaggerate our best features and highlight only portions of our lives grows thanks to the magic of Instagram filters and Twitter posts, Kendrick Lamar has noticed what apparently many have yet to: The world — his generation, at least — is shifting away from practicing humility and authenticity.

Billboard’s headline aptly reads: “Kendrick Lamar Exposes the Fake to Encourage the Real.”

It’s easy to see the powerful “contradiction” and “tension” between religious imagery and the track’s stereotypical rap braggadocio; he’s juxtaposing traditional notions of humility and their contemporary equivalents.

This is nothing new for Kendrick. Since his early mixtapes and first album, Kendrick has shed light on his own personal spiritual struggles between his internal angels and demons.4 Kendrick processes and negotiates these tensions throughout his contrasting lyrical and visual rhetoric. For Kendrick, the shocking contrast can yield some clarity for his listeners and for himself.

Again, I pause and respectfully ask the question:

Is there something surprisingly refreshing and prophetic about this song and its use of sacral imagery? Well, if there is, we can definitely only see it by staying “long” enough with the video content to understand it.

via GIPHY

[Insert Controversial Title Here]: The Real Look…

So let’s go right into Kendrick’s idea of humility — especially as a publicly identifying Christian.5

He’s pretty clear.  The chorus repeats,  “Sit down…b—- … Be humble.” Yet, the shots consider Lamar doing the exact opposite. He does not conform to his surrounding environments. In the scene with an ocean of bald heads, he is the only one with hair and facing directly at the camera:

Next, he is the only one unmasked with fire atop his head, as his black-outfitted men are head wrapped with kerosene ropes aflame, resembling some dystopic Pentecost.6

Finally, he is the only person dressed in white, as all others dress in black in what appears to be a funeral.

Humility for so long has been erroneously synonymous with conforming. Associating phrases like: “Don’t speak up! You are weak! Hide yourself!” But both Kendrick… and Jesus?… show us otherwise.

W.W.J.D.: The Jesus Look…

Even the “meekest” and “most humble” of them all, Jesus, was not verbally or physically silent in the face of injustice:

He made a whip out of cords and drove them all out of the temple area, with the sheep and oxen, and spilled the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables, and to those who sold doves he said, “Take these out of here, and stop making my Father’s house a marketplace.”7

Jesus even speaks one of the most controversial words of the Gospels:  “Do not think that I have come to bring peace upon the earth. I have come to bring not peace but the sword.”8

Back in 2015, BuzzFeed published an article by Reggie Ugwu titled, “The Radical Christianity of Kendrick Lamar.” In it, he makes the case for some of the unconventional methods used by Lamar to reach his audiences:

[Lamar] gives full voice to his internal struggles and those of the people he grew up around, deliberately speaking in the language of transgressors. In the Bible, there is some precedent for this approach. Jesus famously broke from thousands of years of religious dogma by breaking bread with those thought to be morally and spiritually compromised, extending the gifts of God to prostitutes and the unclean. In Mark 2:17… “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”

There is no doubt that the savior of all humanity was also a cause of division throughout his salvific mission on earth. Even Jesus’ own family thought he was “out of his mind.”9 The Pharisees and Scribes stated that “He [was] possessed by Beelzebul” and that “By the prince of demons he drives out demons.”10

Similarly, the art of MCing, in its traditional form, was meant to stir and even disturb the hearts and minds of their listeners, to convey raw and gritty truth through rhyme. It’s not tough to see the connection between Jesus’s own disturbing and prophetic rhetoric, and an MC’s ability to denounce the ugly side of reality using the very imagery and rhetoric he despises.

To be “humble” for Lamar is not to fade into the background by conforming to society’s established superficiality and fakeness. To be humble is to be courageously “real” and not afraid to speak the truth in the face of criticism. Again, for many parents, the words or actions in the music video are not a ‘good role model’ for kids who already idolize rappers. Is it a perfect song? No. Are there growing edges to Kendrick’s “woke-ness”? Yes.11

But embracing the complexity of our full humanity sounds more “Jesus-like” than blasphemous to me.

The Definition of Humble: To be Real before God

I once read somewhere that “True humility is seeing yourself the way God sees you. Nothing more. Nothing less.” Thus, if we remain silent out of some inauthentic humility, we are part of the problem; not the solution. Speaking humbly, Jesus sometimes appeared a bit “crazy”, but it got the point across.

Final Food for Thought: Hip-Hop and “Prophetic Beauty”

Real MC’s ignite the fire for conversation beyond the music. It is our role to learn from the conversations and accompany people in learning from the brilliant light this fire can shed on society’s concerns. Thus, if we are quick to judge the fire the rapper ignited rather than addressing what the fire’s light has revealed about society, then we will surely be burned by the rapper’s prophetic fire. In the end, it was never about the fire to begin with, but what the fire pointed to.

Thus, the imagery in this video is not the cause of immorality in society, but simply points to the flagrant symptoms of a much deeper issue … our own lack of humility being one of them.12  

We must sit down together and ask ourselves: “What is Kendrick really saying; not just in one image or one line, but in the totality of the song and within the prophetic purpose of Hip-Hop? And even after all this is said and done, maybe Kendrick’s new video is still just an attempt at self-glorification, placing all other rappers in the industry beneath him — “humbling” them. Yet, this is the beauty of art. It takes on a life of its own. A great music video has the potential to be more than what even Kendrick or the creative directors envisioned. Can’t God use even the most ‘disturbing’ Hip-Hop videos to speak prophetically to God’s people? In the words of our very own Fr. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, “By virtue of creation, and still more the incarnation, nothing here is profane for those who know how to see.”13

Categories: Things Jesuit

Suicide, Pain and ‘Thirteen Reasons Why’

Thu, 04/13/2017 - 02:00

Content Warning: Nearly every episode of the Netflix series 13 Reasons Why contains content “that some viewers may find disturbing and/or may not be suitable for younger audiences.” The warning is well-deserved as the series abounds with graphic descriptions and depictions of violence, underage drinking, drug usage, sexual assault, and suicide…

Yet, as Selena Gomez—who was one of the executive producers—comments, “We wanted to make something that can hopefully help people.”1 And, Selena did it. They’ve made it hard to stomach the depictions of adolescent suffering and suicide, but they also made it real. The hope is that the series will change us into braver and bolder peoplewilling to reach out when we need, and willing to offer help to those silently suffering.

There are several resources for those struggling with sexual abuse and suicide listed at the bottom of the article—many of which will provide support anonymously. If you, or someone you know, might need help… Please talk to someone.

*****

“Hey, it’s Hannah. Hannah Baker.

Don’t adjust your… whatever device you’re hearing this on.

It’s me, live and in stereo.

No return engagements, no encore, and this time, absolutely, no requests.

Get a snack. Settle in.

Because I’m about to tell you the story of my life.

More specifically, why my life ended.

And if you’re listening to this tape, you’re one of the reasons why.”

—Hannah Baker

The haunting words from beyond the grave immediately pulled me into Jay Asher’s novel Thirteen Reasons Why. The basic plot is that Hannah Baker, a young teenager girl, has recorded a series of 13 reasons why she committed suicide. The book follows Clay, a friend of Hannah’s, as he wrestles with hearing the tapes of Hannah’s full story—her slow spiral out of hope and towards inevitable suicide. Each side to the tapes is associated with one person or interaction which Hannah attributes to her end.

“Is it you? How did you end up on these tapes? Maybe you did something cruel, or maybe you just watched it happen. Maybe you didn’t realize you were being cruel. Maybe you didn’t do anything at all. Maybe, you should have. Too late.”

—Hannah Baker

The book held a frantic energy, both of Clay following Hannah’s story and Clay’s question: “Why am I on the tapes?!” Clay’s struggle affects the reader who accompanies him, agonizing both through Hannah’s story and the reader’s own horror underlying Clay’s question: how have I played a part in someone’s suffering? … I ran through the entirety of the book in a single sitting, but it left me raw—I couldn’t put it down, but it wasn’t an “easy” read.

But, watching the Netflix adaptation was much harder: I cursed at the screen, I had to mute it and look away, and I cried—several times. Hannah’s slow, painful spiral from the novel was even harder to stomach as it appeared vividly on the screen.

“What happened to Hannah,

I wish that would never happen to any other kid, ever.

And if giving you this helps then…”

—Tony Padilla

According to the short feature, 13 Reasons Why: Beyond the Reasons, the series creators and actors consulted health professionals, survivors, and families affected by sexual assault. That attention to accuracy communicates the pain and the terror of the victim, the stomach-turning violence of the action, and rippling consequences of such an atrocious event.

In addressing the sexual assault that occurs within the novel, the producers “didn’t look away, because to look away is to minimize what the character and teenage girls go through every day.” So, we see it, and it physically hurts to watch. When talking about ‘table reads’ of the assault in the script, Justin Prentice claimed “that just reading it on paper was devastating.”

But seeing it vividly portrayed is far worse. The depiction does not glorify or romanticize, but pierces with the horror and reality of it all. It is violence not minimized to entertain, but designed to shock you away from accepting that such a reality is in any way tolerable.

Beth Dubber Netflix

Similarly, the series shows Hannah Baker’s suicide on screen. Watching is a visceral experience… My heart raced as Hannah prepares and eventually climbs into the bathtub. My stomach knotted as Hannah cringes and begins crying as she cuts her wrists. And then, as she sits there in visible despair, I uncomfortably sat covering my mouth so as not to curse too loudly or scream. All the while, Hannah and I quietly cry… It is slow. It is uncomfortable. It is not sentimentalized or celebrated. As the producers claim:  “We worked very hard not to be gratuitous, but we did want it to be painful to watch, because we wanted it to be very clear that there is nothing… in any way… worthwhile about suicide.”

In many ways, that response reflects a central goal of the Netflix series: to illuminate the difficult content—to show the seriousness of the sexual assault and suicide.

As I sat and watched the series, I needed to take breaks and take walks: it was too heavy, too real. The actors expertly communicated the gravity of the topics, pulling me into their pain and struggle. By portraying these topics as it did, the Netflix series elicits the viewer’s reaction to the seriousness of the content. It was unsettling, difficult to stomach, and hard to imagine… But, so are the topics of suicide and sexual assault.

“Some of you cared. None of you cared enough. Neither did I. And I’m sorry.”

—Hannah Baker

“I think we should blame ourselves. I think we all could do better.”

—Clay Jensen.

That I cursed, cried, cringed, screamed, and could barely stop shaking at moments show how effectively the creators communicated the genuine pain involved. That discomfort though is meant to lead to discussion and eventually to hope. As Thirteen Reasons Why author Jay Asher conveys:  “The whole issue of suicide is an uncomfortable thing to talk about. But it happens, so we have to talk about it. And it’s dangerous not to talk about it, because there is always room for hope.”

The Netflix series creators along with the author all hope for one thing: we can be better. In 13 Reasons Why: Beyond the Reasons the actors and producers communicate their hope that the series will lead people to talk about the topics of sexual assault and suicide. They hope that we will be encouraged to seek help, and to realize that suicide should never be an option.

Even further though, they hope that the series will communicate the seriousness of reaching out to those who are suffering. They hope, that all of us will be better towards one another. Perhaps, each of us only ever know 1/13th of someone’s story, and maybe that’s why it’s so important for us genuinely to care for others. There seemed to have not only been 13 reasons, but 13 different opportunities for things to go differently for Hannah, for people to care—and that’s the hope of the series.

As Clay offers towards the end: “It has to get better, the way we treat each other and look out for each other—it has to get better somehow.”

*****

Resources for Help:

Categories: Things Jesuit

This Side of the Green Grass

Wed, 04/12/2017 - 02:01

“I want to be able to get to the point where I’m on your side of the table.”

Fernando takes a couple of seconds to let his own comment sink in. The calm he exudes while telling his story contrasts with its content – anger, hurt, resentment. Alcohol is his coping mechanism. During the silent pause, I glance down at his light blue non-slip socks. He leans back and crosses his feet over the hospital scrubs that match, the only one not wearing an ID badge in the room saturated with chaplains. This week, no one else in the detox unit wants to participate in the group session.

Fernando’s comment rattles me. The comment isn’t anything particularly provocative. What a gift his lived experience would be to any recovering addict he might accompany. It’s just that I hear myself saying his words. The old adage comes to mind – the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.

***

I take off my glasses, close my eyes and massage the bridge of my nose. I’ve been staring at this screen for hours. There’s no grass even visible from the territory I’ve claimed in the library – just the smell of old books and a panorama of concrete outside the nearest window. I’ve been working on a thesis inspired by my detox unit ministry for a number of months. The excitement I had at the beginning of the project has withered and the looming pressure literally forces me outside to catch a bit of life I feel seeping out of me.

Mesmerized by the green-ish grass and breathing in the cold air of a stubborn winter, I think about how much “good” I could be doing if I weren’t stuck in the library. I find myself daydreaming about stops I’d make along the camino de Santiago 2 or 8 years from now – anything other than writing. I’m craving positive feedback, not the persistent critique roaring in my ears like a passing lawn mower.

***

Emerging out of the silence, Fernando says: “I’ve been on this side of the table for so long – I just don’t know where to take my first step. I’m not an educated man.”

My interior, emotional response is lightning-fast. Education?! There is no classroom that can give you the education your experience has given you! I’ve sat in classrooms for the last three years and very little of it has taught me how to sit here with you!

Rather than vocalize that charged response, I reflect Fernando’s quiet and calm. His humility and vulnerability are schooling me and I observe him intently, gleaning the lesson being offered.

I have a tendency, especially considering my detox unit ministry, to minimize my struggles. My admiration of Viktor Frankl resurfaces as I come to grips with this particular tendency. He makes an analogy of suffering being similar to the behavior of gas – it fills the empty chamber into which it is pumped completely and evenly, no matter how big the chamber.1 The gas of Fernando’s struggles is much denser and more toxic than mine, to be sure. But our unique struggles fill our respective chambers completely and evenly.

“What do your relationships look like when you’re sober?” I ask.

“When I’m clean, my kids and my wife know it. They run to me when I get home to give me hugs and kisses. My wife holds me closer. I see the hesitation in her eyes, though. She knows this moment isn’t forever.”

Rattled again. I do not envy the crosses this man has to bear or the fragility that alcoholism brings to his relationships. But all I feel in this moment is a deep longing for the affection he just described. The green-ness of that scene makes the proverbial grass I’m standing on seem pretty dried out.

***

When I’m standing on the soccer field to play in one of my NYC recreational leagues, the grass is definitely green. On our Bronx-bound train back home, my teammate Kate brings up my thesis. She’s heard me lament about it throughout our season.

“It’s so cool that you get to explore ideas that interest you! I opened up my undergrad thesis last year and made some edits on it! I can’t wait to take on another big project!”

Her cheerfulness punctures my chamber, releasing some of the toxic attitude in which I’ve been stewing. I know she’s right and I let her optimism clarify my perspective. It makes me see the fence I have up. Kate, because she cares for me, hops right over it.  

I think of Fernando in that moment because he took his first steps toward something better by inviting me to his side. No fence to hop. And, in spite of myself, I joined him there. And together, somehow, we head toward greener pastures.

-//-

The cover image, from Flickr user XoMEoX, can be found here.

Categories: Things Jesuit

The Trouble with Pax Americana

Tue, 04/11/2017 - 02:14

In 1884, the British government dispatched a single officer to an obscure Sudanese town to oversee the peaceful evacuation of Egyptian citizens from the Sudan. The Anglo-Egyptian government had decided to leave the Sudan to self-governance in the face of national uprisings and the financial difficulties of governing such a large expanse of desert. The officer, Major-General Charles Gordon, remained longer than he was ordered and organized a defense of the city against the Mahdist Sudanese nationals. After a 10-month siege, Gordon, along with the entire garrison, was killed.

Thus, with British public opinion strongly in favor of reprisal, other African nationalist movements watching for any show of British weakness, and other European governments harboring imperial ambitions of their own in the region, Britain, which less than a year before wanted nothing to do with the Sudan, went to war in the Sudan.

*****

The same question which a British citizen might have asked in 1884 comes to mind for many Americans today: What does an expanse of desert half a world away have to do with us?

The Syrian Civil War is a complex and little-understood event for many Americans. In fact, its complexity is precisely why the United States has refrained from outlining any solid foreign policy towards Syria to date.

But perhaps a refresher:

In 2011, Arab Spring protestors in Syria were violently suppressed by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. In response, the mostly peaceful protestors took up arms and began an outright rebellion to depose Assad’s regime. The rebels, with significant aid from Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Turkey, were likewise supported by Jihadist elements, including Al-Qaeda. Assad, in turn, was supported by his principal allies: Iran and Russia, the latter of which has maintained military bases in Syria since the Cold War. In 2014, a splinter group of rebels calling themselves the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, broke off from the main body of rebels and invaded part of northern Iraq. The atrocities committed by ISIS have been universally condemned in the West, leading to European and American declarations against ISIS. Russia, with the stated purpose of making airstrikes against ISIS, has instead aided Assad in making air strikes against the Syrian rebels. The United States, unwilling to support Assad’s tyrannical regime or Jihadist backed rebels, has largely confined itself to strategic air strikes against ISIS in northern Syria and Iraq.

But the question remains: what does this have to do with us?

Like Britain, the United States has, in the past 70 years, forged an empire of sorts. It is not a vast territorial empire in the traditional sense, but a geo-political empire based upon economic dominance and military supremacy. As a former colony ourselves, the idea of colonial empire has largely been distasteful to American sensibilities. But if World War II propelled Americans from their traditional isolationist viewpoint to a more globally interactive perspective, the Cold War galvanized the American penchant for moralizing our foreign engagements.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the United States emerged as the sole remaining superpower. This global preeminence, however, comes at a cost. Maintaining global geo-political hegemony means being present in almost every facet of the contemporary world to assure that events turn out favorably to us and our allies.

So what are our Syrian options?  

Doing Nothing: With Russian and Iranian backing, the Assad regime remains in power, thus continuing to act as an unfavorable counterbalance to American interests in the Middle East, and signaling to our allies in the region that we are unwilling or unable to take a stand against genocidal regimes. Russia’s dominance in the region is assured, thereby strengthening their ability to flout American and European diplomatic pressure in other areas, including Eastern Europe. Innocent civilians continue to suffer from a brutal regime and the reinvigoration of an unchecked ISIS.

Getting Involved: Boots on the ground regime change…we’ve been here before. A possible escalation with Russia and Iran, which are both using Syria as a proxy war for dominance in the region. Diplomatic means are available, of course, but what are the chances they will be successful?

Doing Something: Launch 59 Tomahawk missiles at an air strip to demonstrate that we mean business?

*****

In truth, there are no easy answers. It is easy to say that it is none of our business, and perhaps it isn’t. But one can’t help feeling like one should help a bullied victim if it’s within one’s power to do so. This moral force, naive thought it may be, is a strong factor in our collective desire for a response. If we have the power to stop genocide, oughtn’t we to use it? There are at least two points, however, which we should consider.

First, Denmark is not asking themselves this question. Nor are most countries in the world. They simply don’t have the power to intervene. Our moral quandary is dependent upon our superpower status. The United States asks itself these questions because we have the power to intervene.

Second, it is not clear that US military involvement will produce our desired outcomes. One aspect of any traditional just war theory is that the action must have serious prospects for success. For the present, it’s not clear what success in the Syrian Civil War would look like.

Thus, with American public opinion strongly in favor of reprisal, other terrorist organizations watching for any show of American weakness, and the Russian government harboring geo-political ambitions of its own in the region, the United States, which less than a year before wanted nothing to do with Syria…

Look familiar?

Categories: Things Jesuit

Best (Holy) Week Ever

Mon, 04/10/2017 - 02:14

The Oscars are long gone. March Madness is over. The Masters just wrapped up. Summer blockbusters are still weeks away. House of Cards? Not out until May. Game of Thrones? July.

Do not fret! We have just begun the best (liturgical) week of the year!

That’s right- with Palm Sunday yesterday, Holy Week has started. Despite what contemporary culture wants us to think, Easter is more than pastel colors, dyed eggs and bunny rabbits.

A confession: I am no liturgical guru. But even as a Catholic in the pew, I just can’t get enough of Holy Week. It is the richest and most intricate liturgical season of the year. Don’t let the best of it pass you buy as you wait for Easter Sunday. The Triduum, starting on Holy Thursday, kicks off three amazing days of liturgy.

Here’s what you don’t want to miss:

 

Holy Thursday: The Last Supper Re-Lived and Feet Washing

Holy Thursday specifically commemorates the Last Supper, when Jesus celebrated dinner with his disciples before his arrest, crucifixion and death. Of course, we celebrate this event at every Mass, but Holy Thursday is special. Don’t believe me?

Take, for example, the foot washing. During the Last Supper in the Gospel of John, instead of “breaking of the bread” as he does in the other three Gospels, Jesus kneels before his disciples and washes their feet. It is a moving image that carries a beautiful message of humility.

Think about the dusty feet of sandal-clad Israelites. Jesus tenderly washes them clean in a large basin of water, moving from one to the next. “I have given you a model to follow, so that as I have done for you, you should also do,” Jesus tells the disciples.

So…when exactly do we follow this model of Jesus? Holy Thursday of course! It is the one liturgy of the year that includes the “washing of the feet” rite. It is a favorite of Pope Francis, as we can recall his moving acts of washing the feet of inmates and migrants of various faiths. In fact, under Pope Francis’s instructions, the rite was modified last year so that more people could partake in it. Pretty special, right?

 

Good Friday: Darkened Churches, All-Night Vigils, and Kissing the Cross

Good Friday commemorates the crucifixion and death of Jesus: a solemn day to be certain. And sure enough, there are some unique liturgical events to capture this day.

You don’t have to wait long. When the Holy Thursday Mass ends, the great drama of Good Friday begins. The altar is stripped, and the Eucharist in the tabernacle is taken away. The transformation is stark: the main church sanctuary is left darkened and bare. The Eucharist is brought to an “altar of repose”: basically a temporary or separated altar that is solemnly decorated in another part of the church or the parish property and left accessible throughout the night for adoration.

A great way to check out the altars of repose is partaking in the tradition of the Seven Churches Visitation. After the Holy Thursday Mass, groups make a pilgrimage to seven different altars of repose in neighboring churches. You can see if your local parish organizes such a group, or just get some friends together and google search “Catholic churches” near you. It is impressive to see the different ways the altars are set up, and to join in prayer with people from various parish communities. Plus it has the feel of a holy scavenger hunt.

During the daytime, don’t go looking for a Mass: Good Friday is the only day in the whole year when NO Mass is celebrated.1 Instead, the day’s liturgy takes on a character all its own. It starts similar enough with the readings, although during the Gospel, the full Passion account is read, just like Palm Sunday. Don’t get drowsy during the lengthy retelling of the Passion: in most cases, even the congregation has parts to read aloud. It is interactive!

Without the whole Eucharistic prayer of a typical Mass, the second half of the liturgy puts the focus on the cross. Literally. A big wooden cross is stationed in front of the altar for the Adoration of the Cross. Everyone has the opportunity to approach the cross and make a sign of veneration, such as a light kiss or a gentle touch. Between the solemn music and the slow procession of people, it is a captivating experience.

Although there is no consecration during the service, Communion from the “altars of repose” is distributed to the congregation. So yeah, it is kind of like a Mass, but definitely not a Mass, with the adoration of the cross. How is that for unique??

 

Holy Saturday: [Time Out]

Hold onto your seats because the best is yet to come! (Hint: Jesus’ Resurrection) But you’ll have to wait. Technically, Holy Saturday is the only day without its own liturgy.2 Nothing to do all day? Just think about Jesus’ disciples. This day, sometimes called the “Long Sabbath,” was a full day in which Jesus’ body was in the tomb and the disciples were hanging in uncertainty. Try to place yourself in their shoes for this day. The man they had been following, who they believed was the Messiah, was brutally tortured and hung to die. Most of the Apostles betrayed or abandoned him. Now he’s buried. So, now what?

 

Easter Vigil: Blazing Fires, Salvation History Retold, and New Catholics (Alleluia!)

Gratefully, we know how the story ends. And the beauty of the Easter Triduum strikes the highest note with the Easter Vigil that starts after sundown on Holy Saturday. This is the Mass to end all Masses. The U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishop’s website literally describes it as “the mother of all vigils” (is that a hashtag?) and the “greatest and most noble of all solemnities.” Buckle up, it is quite a ride!

The Vigil starts with the “Service of Light,”3 which (conditions permitting) takes place around a blazing fire outside of a darkened church after nightfall. The Paschal candle makes its debut: this giant candle is in the church sanctuary throughout the year, but it gets replaced every year during the Easter Vigil.

The Paschal candle gets lit from the roaring bonfire and everyone processes into the Church with it. From that one candle, the flame is passed around until everyone in the congregation has a lit candle. The darkened church is aglow with candlelight, all originating from the one Paschal candle. This gives me chills every time.

One thing to know about the Easter Vigil: it is not quick. Rich in meaning and packed with different rituals, this is not one of those Masses that clocks in at one hour on the dot. Case in point is the readings. There are usually seven from the Old Testament, two from the New Testament, and a psalm in between each one. Yes, nine readings altogether, plus the psalms. But in all those readings, you get the whole picture of salvation history. The readings include the creation story of Genesis (“In the beginning…”), stories of Abraham and Moses, readings from the prophets (“All you who are thirsty, come to the water!”), and of course, the Resurrection account. The classics.

Along with all the readings, two celebratory parts of the Mass that get omitted during Lent make a triumphant return on the Easter Vigil. The Gloria and the Alleluia. Sing them loud and proud!

After the Liturgy of the Word, it is time for the rituals of initiation, when new Christians are welcomed into the Church through baptism and confirmation. For those catechumens and candidates who have been preparing to enter the Church, this is the big day. The entire ritual is filled with meaningful moments. For example, the new Paschal candle is plunged into the baptismal font to bless the water; the baptismal candles gets lit from that same Paschal candle; the catechumens dress in white garments signifying the entrance into new life with Christ through baptism. For both baptism and confirmation, the oils that were just blessed at the Chrism Mass4 from Holy Thursday are first used.

The ordinary minister for Confirmation is a bishop, as anyone who was confirmed through their Catholic grade school can attest. But the Easter Vigil is the most common instance when the circumstances permit a priest to perform a confirmation. Are you catching the theme: this is not a normal liturgy!

Once we finally arrive at the Liturgy of the Eucharist (usually a couple hours after we started this whole adventure), the Mass proceeds as expected. But remember, this is the first celebration of the Liturgy of the Eucharist since Holy Thursday, back when we were washing feet. Whew, what a journey!

 

Easter Sunday: Pastel Colors, Dyed Eggs, Bunny Rabbits…oh, and Christ is Risen!

If you have made it through all of that, sleep in on Sunday.5 But if you couldn’t make the Vigil, Easter Sunday is a beautiful, joyful Mass. The Gloria and the Alleluia are back, and there is a beautiful Paschal “Sequence” (a special chant or hymn) before the Gospel. The readings talk of the Resurrection, and we celebrate the start of the Easter season.

Yes, the Easter season- the Triduum and Easter Sunday don’t just bring Lent to an end. They start the 50-day long Easter season with the octave of Easter. It is a celebration so big, it can’t be contained in just one day!

And there is much to celebrate during those 50 days. Summer blockbusters are coming, the NBA and NHL Playoffs are starting…and more importantly, Christ has risen!

***

Image complied from FlickrCC users Bruce Alexander, John Ragai, and Daniel Parks.

Categories: Things Jesuit

What we wish Trump’s Tomahawks could do for us

Fri, 04/07/2017 - 02:31

Warning: this article contains images that readers may find distressing

He’s not wrong. I sometimes wonder if I’ll ever reach a point where I’ve seen one too many videos or images for them to hurt me, where I’ll stop feeling an urge to vomit or cringe or cry or scream. Maybe. Not this time.

Yet I only worry about growing numb because I’ve been here before. We’ve been here before. Not just in an abstract sense of 24 hour cable news cycle bombarding us with scenes of human horror. When I say that we’ve been here before, what I mean is this particular here.  We’ve already had the images of dying Syrian children that we thought we’d never forget. Remember the boy on the beach? Or the child covered in rubble and blood?

This boy Pulled from under the rubble (hush-hush; after a Russian airstrike) on Qaterji district in Aleppo todaypic.twitter.com/cl6DOoNQ6J

— Mannfred Nyttingnes (@MannfredNikolai) August 17, 2016

What U.S. citizens are not going to be able to get away from is how we’ll be spending the next few days, or weeks or months — for however long this news cycle lasts, we’ll be clicking through thesaurus.com to find new words to express our unrelieved sense that this attack was Bad. Very Bad.

And all the while we do not admit refugees. It’s bad. Intolerably bad. Horrifically bad. Etc. But not so bad that we’ll admit refugees, whether that’s because of a still-unproven threat, or whether it’s an expense, or whether that act of mercy might mean change, as it has for some German villages accepting massive numbers of refugees. We’re outraged, horrified, disgusted. Just not enough to confront our fears and absorb the costs that come from welcoming the stranger. That hits us where we live. That forces us to change.

It costs too much, materially and interiorly. So instead, we fire 59 Tomahawk missiles at $1.41 million a pop at the problem and hope that a few extra zeros in a defense budget most of us will never see will quiet our conscience for the next time we see a picture of Syrian parents keening over their child. Not offering safe harbor so they don’t have to die in the first place.

This image of the body of a Syrian boy drowned today on a Turkish beach is emblematic of the world’s failure in Syria pic.twitter.com/IYiIPgvieG

— Liz Sly (@LizSly) September 2, 2015

So, no, it’s not really a moral thing.

But if it’s not a moral thing, it’s not merely a policy thing either. The Pentagon called this a “proportional response to Assad’s heinous act.”1 Even the Pentagon is hitting the thesaurus for the right word for Bad. If this was just realpolitik, we wouldn’t bother with moralizing pretense. But we do. The President’s language, the Pentagon’s, and so many others all scream that they’re trying to find some moral footing in this. It it were just a question of “national security interest,” we wouldn’t need the picture, or the language about “beautiful babies.”

So it’s not really a policy thing either. We don’t know what we want this thing to be. And that’s where we find ourselves: we don’t want to open a nation’s doors to shelter the same people we’ve seen dying and dead in videos and pictures for the last day. We decided that that cost, in dollars or fear, is too high. But our conscience won’t leave us alone either, and I doubt that 80 million dollars worth of missiles dumped on some airstrip will silence our guilt any time soon. It won’t for me.

Maybe the problem isn’t that we don’t know what we want the attacks to be. Maybe the question we need to ask is whether we know what we want to be. And as Passion Sunday approaches in a few short days, the question of who we are, who we care about, and what we’re willing to give could hardly be more urgent.

Categories: Things Jesuit

Finding Treasure

Wed, 04/05/2017 - 02:03

“Hey, you got a cigarette? No? Okay. God bless you anyways.”

Meet Treasure. He’s a prostitute. He’s standing on a corner in Boystown, Chicago, holding a broken and bent cigarette in his mouth. He found it near the gutter next to him. His nails are long and dirty. His hands, dry and ashy. There’s a large open can of beer in one pocket of his coat, another one on deck in a plastic bag.

“T, you gotta light for that cig? Can I get a bite?” This is Fury, a name given to him because he says the word all the time: The fury of the cold makes you tired of fighting it. The fury of the heat just beats you down. Fury is always standing alongside Treasure. “We’ve been out here for years. We protect each other, with the fury of these streets, boy, you need protection.”

“Or at least a friend…a fierce friend…am I right?” Treasure replies with intermittent yawns and a raspy voice.

“You right, T, you so right.” Fury constantly looks like he’s hopped up on something. The naive part of me says caffeine. The realistic side of me knows it’s something you can’t get in a convenience store.

Men in a similar position to Treasure and Fury – T and F, as they’re known – acknowledge their reputation in this circle as they walk by the duo. Fury is the friendliest between the two, laughing and telling jokes with anyone who stops. Treasure never makes eye contact – with anyone – and seems to always be on the lookout for danger.

After giving a fist bump to another friend Treasure remarks, his head darting every which way, “These are our boys, you know? Just another one of us, am I right, Fury?”

“You right, T, nailed it right on the head.”

***

I met Treasure and Fury when I was volunteering with Emmaus Ministries a couple years back. It’s an organization serving men surviving the streets through prostitution. The ways these men have found themselves here vary, but their histories are similar: abuse of all kinds, drugs of all kinds, deep poverty, rejection from family. They work the streets because their self worth has been ripped out of them. Treasure and Fury share this life. They share this struggle, and through struggle they’ve created a bond.

Struggle. We all have it. To struggle in partnership with others makes the act of confronting obstacles a little easier and not as lonely. That’s how I heard Treasure’s acknowledgement of Fury’s friendship. Vulnerability itself can transform into safety when you are included instead of isolated. Wherever there is struggle there are people who endeavor to come together, lightening a burden too burdensome to bear alone.

***

I’m walking towards the train when I do a double-take. The face looks familiar: five o’clock shadow, uneven complexion, missing teeth, worn knitted cap. But I can’t place him. Then I hear him ask a passerby, “Hey, you got a cigarette? No? Okay, God bless you anyways.”  It’s Treasure. I’m used to seeing him in Boystown, not here, outside the campus where I go to school.

“Hey, Treasure, how’s it going?” I’m hovering between over friendly and obnoxious.

“You got a cigarette?”

“Sorry, I don’t, but I can buy you some over –”

“Naw, it’s good.” Treasure seems a little more distant than what I remembered him to be.

“You waiting for Fury? He around?”

“He dead. Couple weeks now.” His eyes darting back and forth, avoiding mine. “Could I get a pack of cigarettes?”

“Yeah, let’s go, I can buy you two packs if you want, over there.” I point to the convenience store a few feet away.

I buy him the cigarettes. I also buy two beers. We walk to a slightly secluded place near the train. We open the beers. We light cigarettes. We take sips and drags. Treasure smokes fast, I try to keep up, but I can’t, I haven’t smoked in a long while.

Treasure is more than halfway through his cigarette when I decide to break the silence, “How you been doing?” I don’t know what to say. It’s clear he and I aren’t friends, only familiar strangers.

“I’m good.” He takes a long drag, tosses the cigarette in front of him, places the beer in his pocket. “Thanks.” He returns to the street. Almost immediately I overhear Treasure ask someone if he could buy a cigarette off them. I grin. He has two packs in his pocket. But in his asking he’s not looking for a cigarette, he just wants to be acknowledged, to be seen.

I see you Treasure. I see you.

-//-

The cover image, from Flickr user Marite Toledo, can be found here.

Categories: Things Jesuit

Paying for the Future: Who America Ought to Be

Mon, 04/03/2017 - 02:14

Today marks seventy three days since the Inauguration of President Trump. In those seventy three days, we’ve seen immigration bans, and dashed plans to dismantle the Affordable Care Act. We’ve also seen an Executive Order that repeals protections against climate change.

The Trump Administration has also released its proposed budget. Included on the chopping block is funding for the EPA, affordable housing programs through HUD, and grants for Catholic Charities.  Also on the table are massive cuts to the budget for the National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, PBS and NPR. Finally, refugees around the world who are displaced from their homes because of war and natural crises would be severely hurt.

At the same time, the budget proposes a $54 billion increase in defense spending. While military spending is lower than years in recent past, this still this marks an increase from the estimated $597 billion in 2016. The National Priorities Project estimates the military represented over fifty percent of government discretionary spending in 2015.

We should be concerned because the budget impacts our daily lives: we drive on federal highways and use city transportation, listen to National Public Radio, and enjoy better communities due to community block grants. Thus, budget cuts should prompt us to think more deeply than just our personal interest. As Zach Carter and Arthur Delany write, “a presidential budget isn’t so much a policy proposal as a statement of an administration’s moral vision for the country.” Just as in personal planning, budgets represent the priorities of our national community. Said another way, the budget prompt us to ask hard questions about the kind of America the budget imagines. Is this the America we ought to be? Are these the values we should organize our community and country around?

At the core of this budget is greed and selfishness. The mentality lurking beneath the surface is a belief that what is most important is profit-maximization and safety. It is an assertion that protecting the environment is not necessary, nor is caring for the most vulnerable persons. Sesame Street, and a Jesuit-led documentary on Flannery O’Connor are cut due to the same logic: what Trump is proposing is that creativity is important – but only if it enhances one’s ability to make money. In response, some argue we need authentic creativity – especially via the humanities – more than ever.

In fairness to Mr. Trump, the problem is not new. In the late 1960s, Martin Luther King Jr. suggested that

if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.

 

What King is saying is that if we think more about money and security than the persons around us, we have sided with evil. Our democracy needs different organizing values – we must break out of an ideology that suggests profit and efficiency are more important than people and relationships. If we value being “we the people,” we must recognize that our democracy depends on having public goods shared in common. Our earth is our common home and in need of protection for ourselves and future generations.

King suggests that “a time comes when silence is betrayal.” Betrayal to our neighbor, our community, and our earth.

***

We must take action if we are to live faithfully.

  1. We can contact elected officials: With email and cell phones, it is easier than ever to contact Congressional Leaders. We can also target specific committees including the Budget Committee in both the House and the Senate. We can also contact the White House directly, though President Trump is only receiving emails slightly longer than a tweet.
  2. We can stay informed or give money to organizations committed to making America whole again – helping the poor, standing up for civil liberties, and protecting a free press.
  3. We can learn about specific programs that will be cut, and participate in them – through community groups, we can think creatively together about how to support, supplement, and replace threatened programs like those that support food-security and affordable housing.
  4. We can link our prayer with these actions.   

 

And finally, we can dialogue with one another to ask questions of what our country ought to look like. These questions hit deeper than whether to increase or decrease spending: they strike at the root of how we envision our community. We can sit down at the kitchen counter or over a coffee with a friend and ask these hard hitting questions. Furthermore, we can talk with that relative or friend we disagree with – not just about policy decisions but about national identity. We can see where our visions of America differ and come together.

To return once more to Martin Luther King Jr., “We are at the moment when our lives must be placed on the line if our nation is to survive its own folly. Every man of humane convictions must decide on the protest that best suits his convictions, but we must all protest.” If we don’t, we risk sacrificing our country to the gods of fear and greed. This is our moment to stand with and for our community and earth.

***

Image courtesy FlickrCC user WhatTheFeed .com.

Categories: Things Jesuit

Why Power Rangers would be Pope Francis’s favorite superhero movie

Fri, 03/31/2017 - 02:00

There are two reasons why it was appropriate to celebrate my 30th birthday by watching the latest Power Rangers film: 1) this film is targeted towards an audience in its late-20s/early-30s nostalgic for the superhero group that defines our generation and, more importantly, 2) my 10th birthday party centered around watching the previous Power Rangers movie in theaters. At the threshold of my 30s, this seemed like an easy way to hold on to being a kid just for two hours longer. As a fan, who had his misgivings about this reboot, I had expectations about what it should be – what it needed to be.1  I was not alone in this: some critics also reviewed the film with their own expectations.2

Bandai, TV Asahi, Toei Company

This is a shame. Going into this movie with expectations compels viewers to look for specific lines, tributes and homages and to reconnect with all-too-familiar characters. Stuck in the past, they’re cheated out of encountering a group of strangers for the first time.  They miss out on new, diverse characters with greater depth than we knew they could have.  

[Spoiler alert: the following content contains details about plot elements in the film]

Originally, there was one trait that all the Power Rangers shared — shallow characterization.3 But these five don’t even share that.  There’s a teen with autism whose curiosity and inventiveness landed him in detention; a bad boy who is over-confident about everything he does; a mysterious girl who likes to do things by herself, on her own terms; an ex-cheerleader who landed in detention after knocking out a guy’s tooth with a punch; and a star-athlete who is under police tracking after a prank went wrong.

Yet, if they want to morph into the Power Rangers, they need to find a way to work together.  And working together is impossible, unless they really know each other as human beings with unique life experiences and stories instead of through prejudicial judgments … or predetermined expectations.

In the world of high school, why would anyone want to talk to any of them? The five of them didn’t even want to talk to each other. Finally, one night gathered around a rock-quarry campfire,4 Zack suggests that they each share their life stories. The others pick up on the cue of vulnerability and lower their defenses. Billy the Blue Ranger explains that he doesn’t view his autism as something that holds him back, but something that has allowed him to hold on to memories of quality time spent with his now-deceased father. Zack the Black Ranger, confident though he may appear, reveals that he lives in a trailer park with his dying mother and is afraid to spend too much time away from her lest she dies alone. Trini the Yellow Ranger discloses that she is always by herself because her family doesn’t understanding her struggle with her sexuality. It’s this getting to know one another as people with stories that shears away prepackaged judgements or faceless ideas about others.  Stereotypes turn into human beings with whom one can have a connection.

Just after Billy, Zack, and Trini share their stories, Kimberly, the Pink Ranger, tells them she doesn’t want to share hers. Later that night, she breaks into Red-Ranger Jason’s trophy-filled bedroom for a heart-to-heart. She confesses that a friend of hers sent her a private picture, which Kimberly subsequently texted to other people. When a mutual friend had pointed out that Kimberly was “the meanest person ever” for doing what she did, Kimberly punched him in the face, knocking out a tooth. She regrets how deeply she betrayed and hurt her close (ex-)friends and just wants to escape the horrible person she thinks she has become. Jason, fulfilling the star-athlete who also genuinely cares about others role, reminds her that she needs to forgive herself. She fires back that she cannot undo her mistake. He replies that she cannot let her past action define who she is.

Jason might be channeling Pope Francis.  To the Pope, we are all  “lowly yet chosen.”  Though all of us are sinners, God has called each of us to follow Him. Kimberly, like the other four, is broken and recognizes that she should not have passed on that picture. However, sinful and all, she was among the chosen five. Their youth/weakness5 and their imprudent life choices do not alter the fact that they have what it takes to be the Power Rangers. And in this way, they’re just like us — our weakness in our struggles with sin do not mitigate the fact that we are children of God. Weakness is a fact of our lives, but it’s not something to run from. In fact, it is through our struggles that we ought to recognize more clearly our limitations and to ask God to strengthen us.6 It is a reminder that only through God’s mercy that we find strength to be the child of God that we are each made to be.  

Papal inspiration notwithstanding, is the film perfect? Nobody (and I mean nobody)7 is saying anything remotely of that nature. It is definitely a product of its time, unfortunately loaded with crude humor, innuendo, and in-your-face product placement. However, it is also fortunately a product of its time, bringing into focus the increasing isolation and breakdown of community especially due to snap judgments and often-false narratives and over-generalizations about groups of people. We see this play out in our own culture in terms of sex, ethnicity, place of origin, religion, socio-economic background, sexual orientation, political affiliation, educational attainment, physical ability, stage of life, etc. We also live in a time when it is hard to admit fault and ask for forgiveness, because we equate a people with their actions so that making bad choices somehow means being a bad person. If we admit to our faults or limitations, we expect others to judge us negatively. After all, that is what we tend to do to others (and ourselves) and what critics tended to do to this film.

Judgment has the power to condemn. A 38% rating8 on Rotten Tomato can deter people from watching a film just as easily as not questioning one’s own prejudices can deter someone from getting to know the strangers in her or his life. If people expect this to be another superhero movie, they will find that it is underwhelming.  There’s less here than in a Marvel or DC film.9 Power Rangers can be cast aside for another franchise. However, if the movie speaks for itself, free from pre-judgement, it can have shortcomings and still invite fans to enter into a journey of how five teenagers-with-attitude encountered each other with open minds.  The Power Rangers discovered that in the midst of seeming isolation, a community was waiting for them to form and live together.

Who would have expected that?

Categories: Things Jesuit

Offering a ‘Welcome Home’

Wed, 03/29/2017 - 02:00

After college I moved to Louisville to attend law school.
With time, I would eventually find a wonderful group of friends.
And with time, I’d be able to navigate the city rather than continually rely upon Garmin’s directions.
And, true, eventually with time I’d fall in love with the city’s quirky character and charm.
When I first arrived though, it was far from my home.

***

One of my first Sundays in town, I walked to the church at edge of my street. From my apartment balcony, I could see its towering spires. Daily, I could hear its bells chiming.

The church stood before me, a baroque edifice of grey stone decorated with flourishes and statues. I had five minutes until the start of Mass, but I was surprised to see an empty parking lot. Perhaps everyone walks to Mass?

The stone steps, aged and buckling, were uneven as I climbed to the front door of the church. The door towered over me as my hand gripped the handle. Locked? I tried the other door, also locked.

Three minutes till Mass. I looked at the sign in front of the church which listed the mass times. I looked down at my watch, confused. Where was everyone? I looked back to the sign which read in big, bold letters: WELCOME.

Yet, there was no welcome, and there was no community, and I never made it through the door.

***

The next Sunday, I drove into an old German neighborhood. The church’s red bricks offered a sense of comfort: old, worn, and persisting.

I walked inside, found a pew, and had a seat. No one sat near me, but I didn’t take it personally. When the sign of peace came, I politely waved and smiled. One or two people nodded in return.

Just before communion the priest made an announcement, “Umm… We seem to be short a minister. Can someone volunteer?” I didn’t move—it wasn’t my place. But, no one else moved or volunteered either. The priest cleared his throat, “I still need one more minister.”

Still, no one moved. Should I volunteer? No. They don’t know me…It would be weird to help them without knowing them, right? I had served in college, so I knew the words, motions, and role. I could do it, but should I?

The priest called again, and I looked around the room. No one was moving.
So, I stepped forward solemnly and walked up to the sanctuary…

After mass, a hand motioned me over. It was a little old lady wearing a blue dress and a yellow shawl. Finally, a real welcome. I introduced myself, but she did not say her name in return: “You’re too young to give communion! I don’t know what you were thinking! It’s kids like you who are the problem with…” She went on and on… Thankfully, I was too shocked to respond. I let her speak, then I nodded and wished her a good week.

I thought they wanted me. I thought they accepted me. I even thought they might have needed me.
But, I guess not.

***

A few Sundays later, a different church. At the door, I was greeted immediately by a little boy in a blue suit. His father stood proudly behind him, smiling and wearing an identical blue suit. I thanked them as I walked past.

The pink marble and granite of the church appeared gentle and welcoming—full of the life, light, and colors cast by the stained glass in the morning sun. A low whisper of voices and movement filled the room. I walked along the left side and found a seat in an empty pew. A moment later, a small hand rested on my shoulder. I looked up to see an elderly lady and an elderly man.

“Excuse me, sir. My family sits here.” My heart dropped in my chest, and my mouth gaped. Could she be serious? Is she asking me to move? Am I supposed to leave?

I quickly mumbled, “Oh, I’m sorry,” but with a hand wave she cut my apology short.
Then, she winked at me, “Well, I guess you’ll just have to be in our family this week.”
Before I could react—she hugged me.

She and her husband sat on either side of me. Their family trickled into the pew and the surrounding pews. I met their children and their grandchildren. I even saw the little rosy-colored nose of their great-granddaughter sticking out from the blankets. All the while, the couple introduced me as “adopted” into the family.

I may have walked in a stranger, but I left welcomed into a family.
I was excited to return week after week to a community who lovingly adopted me.
They had given me a home.

-//-

The cover image, from Flickr user StevenW., can be found here.

Categories: Things Jesuit

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