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In the late ‘90s, a young American conservative found himself in an awkward position. Although he had long thought of himself as a conservative Republican, he had come to value things that many conservatives did not: the environment, the poor, buying locally, a neighborhood where people knew each other, and even wearing Birkenstocks. These experiences led him to write a book in which he argued that conservatism had lost its way:
Too many people who call themselves conservative share the fundamental conviction of many liberals, namely, that individual fulfillment is the point of life. Conservative, perhaps, in their sexual views, they are, however, libertarian in their economic principles, and believe that the free market should be the guiding light of our lives together… Both mainstream liberalism and conservatism are essentially materialist ideologies.1
The book is Crunchy Cons, and the author is Rod Dreher. He sleuths his way through a variety of topics in the book, from homeschooling to the environment, but – and I can remember being surprised by this at the time – it is only at the end of the book that he addresses religion directly.
Fast forward 20 years, and religion has moved from the back to the front of Dreher’s books. In this new book, The Benedict Option, Dreher puts front and center the question of how Christians should live their faith in 21st-century America. Recently I chatted with Dreher about how this book is a fruit of his faith journey. While we spoke by phone at a distance of about 1400 miles, his passion and moral clarity resonated in his voice as though he was sitting right next to me.
That journey, Dreher explained to me, began by recognizing two things. First, the extent to which his worldview arose from his politics rather than from his faith. “I was [in the process of] allowing myself to be more formed by Catholicism than by my political commitments,” Dreher said to me over the phone. “But it was an ongoing process of conversion.
[W]e are formed more by our popular culture than by the Church, but it’s something we have to overcome. I can remember reading things that Pope Francis wrote in Laudato Si’ that really inspired me as an Orthodox Christian about how we have to regard the natural world. But this was something that set so many of my conservative friends off, and that’s a real tragedy.
As his feeling of homelessness in contemporary conservatism led him to pen Crunchy Cons, so an analogous sense of homelessness in contemporary culture inspired The Benedict Option.
The idea behinds the Benedict Option is simple: American culture is in decline. Even more, it has become toxic for Christian life. Hyper-consumerism, the popularization of the mores of the sexual revolution, progressive politics’ fixation on false notions of equality, the whittling away of religious liberty: all of the signs of the times simply do not help Christians cultivate their faith; in fact, they actively impede it. So Christians need to make spaces where they can imagine and construct their own faith-nurturing institutions and practices.
The need to retreat is as old as Christianity itself: Jesus himself did it. Indeed, as a Jesuit who makes annual 8-day retreats, I can testify to the power of occasionally fleeing the noise and confusion of modern life. But retreat is not flight, and I have wondered at times if Dreher is urging people toward such flight, to cut themselves off from and stop evangelizing the culture. When I raised that criticism, Dreher was quick to correct it: “That is the thing that drives me crazy,” he said with evident pain in his voice. “I can explain over and over again that that’s not what I’m talking about, but people hear what they want to hear. It’s an interesting question why this is so difficult for people to understand.”
Then he continued: “If we are going to be leaven for the world,if we are going to be salt and light for the world, then we have to protect our savor and we have to protect our light.” In other words, Christians should create this kind of protected space not despite, but precisely because of our Christian vocation to share the Gospel.
Of course one can disagree with many aspects of Dreher’s argument, and he is very happy for one to do so. I, for example, tend to agree with Jacques Maritain that history in all of its ups and downs is fundamentally ambiguous: Dreher’s narrative of decline is just too simplistic. But the best commentary I have seen finds the kernel of hope in the Benedict Option that should challenge everyone. At its best, the core of the Benedict Option is not an exit strategy from modernity, but a choice about how to engage it:
So what I call the Benedict Option is the choice that I believe is before all believers – Catholic, Protestant, Eastern Orthodox – whether we are going to continue to try to shore up the empire, so to speak, or whether we will make the radical choice to live in community as faithful Christians.
Dreher’s depiction of the United States as an empire that must be shored up strikingly departs from the thrust of Crunchy Cons, as Dreher now thinks we should look beyond a political renewal to a renewal of our whole culture. And that renewal will happen not through grand, large-scale structures, but within small, intentional communities. There is an intimacy and delicacy to those communities that Dreher articulates well in describing his encounter with the Benedictine Rule:
The thing that amazed me the first time I read the Rule of St. Benedict is that I expected that it would be a book of hidden knowledge, of spiritual secrets that would help me become saint. In fact, it’s really quite boring. It’s a thin little book about how to live as a monk in a monastery, when do we eat, how to say your prayers, and on and on. But there’s genius there, because Benedictine spirituality, as I later discovered, is all about the everyday, about making the everyday sacred, and about doing the ordinary routines but consecrating it all to God. And doing that faithfully, realizing that — day by day, slowly, slowly, slowly, if you’re doing it with all your heart, with a penitent heart — you will be changed. You will be refined and made more Christ-like.
I could hear a calm peace in this description of Benedictine life. In shifting his allegiance away from a political party, Dreher, I sensed, is finding the spiritual freedom to embrace greater things, even as he discovers that greatness in the little acts of daily living.
Dreher often flirts with a narrative of decline. To be sure, in The Benedict Option Dreher contributes to an ongoing conversation about the cracked foundations of contemporary American society. Many progressives will find this sort of pessimism off-putting, and perhaps uncharitable to Christians trying to engage that culture. Indeed, regular readers of Dreher’s blog will know that he does not always suffer fools lightly. But note that Dreher is here rejecting something that most on the Left find no less troubling: the jingoistic optimism of the Religious Right. When I asked Dreher about this, he responded: “The wonderful thing about Roman Catholicism is that it doesn’t track one-to-one with American political divisions, and for me that was one of the liberating things about being a Catholic.” Indeed, if nothing else, arguments like Dreher’s should hearten those who lament the dependence of so many Christians upon the GOP, and it ought to wake up those Republican Christians who still don’t see the problem. As a political scientist myself, this liberation from political parties is certainly of interest to me. When I asked him about it, it was evident that Dreher was, too:
It’s good to step outside your ideological puzzle and realize that the Gospel is much bigger than your political commitments, and sometimes being faithful to the Gospel means standing up to your political allies. I have progressive friends who do that on the issue of life, and I have conservative friends who do that on the issue of the environment or economics. But that’s liberating, frankly. When you don’t feel captive to a political party, when you realize that the Church is not the Republican or Democratic party at prayer, that opens up some really amazing possibilities for your own growth as a neighbor and as a citizen and as a Christian.
Listening to Dreher, I felt a hope that arguments like The Benedict Option could free social and religious conservatives from knee-jerk dependence upon the Republican party. As Dreher indicates, the Option ought to challenge such conservatives to be “faithful to the Gospel” in all its breadth and depth, not just the parts that fit party orthodoxy. This is advice that Dreher admits can be hard for even him to take: “We always need reformation and conversion.”
In admitting the failures of both conservative politics and the Church in evangelizing U.S. culture, Dreher to my mind exercises courage, pushing back against pride, vainglory and fear: the pride of our status in society, vainglory for more of that status, and the fear of what we could lose if we re-examined our fidelity to the Gospel.
Dreher himself has much to say about pride, telling me that he saw the pride of the Church in his investigations as a journalist into the clerical abuse scandals. He was a “very fervent and political Catholic in the 90s and early 2000s,” he related to me. “I thought the line between good and evil in the Church could be divided between liberals and conservatives.”
I had so much pride, And I thought: I’m not like those liberals who don’t respect the hierarchy: I respect the hierarchy… I was a Catholic triumphalist, but [now] I don’t have any patience for that in any church, because the brokenness of the Church at the end of late modernity is profound… It’s a temptation to think that I’m serving Christ, when all I really want to do is argue Church politics.”
The struggle to serve God rather than himself, Dreher urges, is a daily one. And so it became more clear to me that the Benedict Option alludes not only to St Benedict’s historical role in shaping European culture, but also to the concrete ways in which the saint cultivated holiness in everyday life.
More subtly, Dreher calls us to scrutinize our own commitments to pluralism and dialogue. As I noted above, Dreher describes the Benedict Option as a “radical choice” between Christ and empire. The moral richness of this “radical choice” first hit me when I asked Dreher about whether the Benedict Option meant retreating not only from the “empire” but from the task finding common ground as well. “That criticism is on point,” he said,
but I am less concerned with finding common ground than I am with being faithful. That doesn’t preclude finding common ground with others outside of my faith tradition, and I look for that. But that is not the thing that I am most concerned about.
This left me speechless. Everyone today talks about the need for finding common ground, for embracing pluralism, for resurrecting civil dialogue. What could be more important?
Simply put, for Dreher, living out one’s faith is more important. And while this doesn’t meant that Dreher is against dialogue – he’s not – he certainly is challenging the priority many give it. He led me to wonder: Am I living out my deepest commitments? Do I live out those commitments even as I interact with others of different beliefs? Ultimately, do I think that God is in charge? Dreher’s readers can give more value to pluralism than he does, as I do, and they might also assign more efficacy to grace within that pluralism, as I do, as well. But we can still be grateful for the questions Dreher raises about pluralism. He may also give us incentive to return to some of the leading theorists of Catholic engagement in pluralism, such as Jacques Maritain and John Courtney Murray, for the insights they offer our times.
Throughout our conversation, Dreher impressed me with his humility: he is not seeking to emulate St. Benedict as the grand savior of Western civilization. Benedict’s goal was a modest, if all-encompassing, one: to serve the Lord in daily life. And where the Dreher of the Crunchy Cons wanted to rescue Western civilization from itself, the Dreher of the Benedict Option has a Benedictine modesty, too:
I was really struck by how St. Benedict did not set out to save Western civilization, to shore up the empire that has fallen. All [the early Benedictines] set out to do was to establish what St. Benedict calls in his Rule a “school for the service of the Lord.” All they wanted to do is learn how we can live faithfully in community in the time and place and with the challenges we have been given. And by doing that work faithfully, seeking nothing but the face of Christ, and ordering everything else to that quest, they ended up spreading throughout Europe, evangelizing European peoples, teaching them how to do practice things like agriculture, things that had been forgotten, and preserving within those monasteries the writings of the Church fathers… Each monastery was like an ark, and, without really knowing what they were doing, they prepared Europe for the rebirth of civilization.
That an ark was Dreher’s guiding image remained with me: while an ark is needed in the fearful times of a deluge, the ark’s presence evokes the hope of safety from the flood. Just so, the Benedict Option is not about fear for Dreher, even though it does arise from fears about American society. Fundamentally, the Benedict Option is about hope: not in America, not in oneself, but in God. When I asked Dreher what he learned from the process of writing the book, he said : “I learned that we don’t have to win the victory in this lifetime, and it can’t be won in this lifetime. All we have to do is to do the very best we can where we are and let God do the rest.”
Those words reminded me of a prayer attributed to someone with whom Dreher is not often identified: Oscar Romero. Or, more particularly, the prayer to which his name is often added. The “Romero prayer” offers a similar quiet hope, reminding us that the future is in God’s hands, not ours: “We are prophets of a future not our own.”
Gone is the triumphalism of Crunchy Cons, gone is the complacency of the Morality Majority, gone is the sectarianism of the Religious Right. In their place, Dreher offers an eschatological expectation that is breath-takingly Christocentric: God will triumph, even if humans fail.
This hope is what the liberal critic of the Benedict Option should push Dreher on. For it would be easy to retreat out of fear, to withdraw out of an unwillingness to confront the obstacles to proclaiming the Gospel in our time. It would also be easy, by the way, to reject the Benedict Option out of fear: out of the fear of what it might cause us to learn about ourselves, out of a fear of learning that God is indeed bigger than us.
One cannot speak with Rod Dreher without sensing that his God is indeed very great. For all the ways I might disagree with aspects of his proposal, there is no question that, for a moment, I felt very close to him in our mutual desire for Christ. It is that desire that impels the Benedict Option forward, and with which Dreher ended our conversation:
The world still wants Christ. The question is, do we still want him and are we still willing to live sacrificially for His sake?
If you’ve read this far, then like me you would probably respond to this question with a yes. But what do we do with that yes? How are we to live “sacrificially” for Christ?
I have no firm answer to that question. But I do know that Dreher has challenged me to approach that question – to live that question – with renewed urgency. And for that, I am grateful.
Images courtesy of Penguin Random House.
In 1991 Disney made history when “Beauty and the Beast” became the first animated film ever to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture (See above). Now, Disney has re-imagined “Beauty and the Beast” as a live action film. This remake counts on spellbinding its original audience while winning a new generation of Disney movie lovers. But is this “tale as old as time” really in need of a reboot a quarter of a century later? Is there “something there that wasn’t there before?”
In 1991, Belle was to be the Disney Princess ahead of her time. She was supposed to be a stronger, more complex character, unlike her arguably-shallow predecessors—think Snow White and Sleeping Beauty heroically slumbering till prince-savior arrives or Cinderella and Ariel whose life-dreams seem to end at elopement. This new iteration of princess was supposed to be a young woman who didn’t dream of falling in love with a prince, let alone chasing a happily everafter. She would be free thinking, strong and independent. Regardless of what anybody thinks, she wouldn’t be afraid to take a stand.
Belle was poised to reach this new, higher bar, and she came close. She was selfless in the what she did to save her captured father. She was also assertive enough stave off the advances of a “boorish, brainless” Gaston.
Belle was gentle enough tame a cold-hearted Beast, who she ultimately fell in love with. Her efforts to stand up and defend the Beast against the fearful accusations of the townspeople are laudable. Does she actually reach this raised bar, though?
As progressive as Belle was supposed to be, there was still some scent of typical Disney princess. She was supposed to be a smart and thinking young woman. So why is that she only reads romance stories? Are these supposed to be proof of her intellect? And aside from reading romances, all we see her doing is shopping in that “poor provincial town,” a menial task in a place she does not fit in.1 She sings that she wants “so much more than they’ve got planned,” but these aspirations are never named! Does she even know what they are? How strange for a character who has big dreams and knows what she wants, right? Does she really want a prince to whisk her away to happily ever after, like all the rest of the of the Disney Princesses? She appears more than content with it at the end of the original movie, housewife to a handsome prince and caretaker to his charismatic possessions.
26 years later, Emma’s Belle would do Betty Friedan proud. This Belle overtly works against sexism. She teaches the girls in her town how to read, because the village school is just for the boys. She invents a mule-powered washing machine to free up her time to teach reading. This time, her rejection of Gaston is more than a fantasy recounted musically. She bluntly tells him that they could never make one another happy as she slams the door in his cocky face. They still call her “a funny girl” that no one understands. But now it’s less about distracted bookishness than outright transgression of gender roles.
Still courage and ingenuity are not Belle’s most noteworthy characteristics. It’s these two other things that drive her that are the most compelling: her strong feminist principles, and her heart full of selfless love. It’s because of her principles that she educates the town’s girls. It’s because she’s selfless that she tricks her father to take his place in prison. But Belle’s depth of compassion comes to view when she is faced with the opportunity to escape the Beast forever. In this moment, she is transparently torn between seizing back her life and doing the right and more difficult thing.
Belle may not have the physical strength of Gaston or the Beast, but her head and her heart grant her power nonetheless. And while Belle gets stronger, interestingly enough, the Beast gets weaker. That’s not to say that he’s a wimp, but he’s definitely more vulnerable.
— Lonna Converso (@LonnaLexi) March 20, 2016
In this version, a more vulnerable Beast shares more of his backstory. He picked up selfish behavior from his father. His mom, who was teaching him to be selfless and kind, died when he was young. He is orphaned and is essentially raised by his servants. As the Beast drops his guard, we understand that behind the ugliness of the Beast and his actions, is a broken human who is worthy of love.
We all learn from “Beauty and the Beast,” “not to be deceived by appearances, for beauty comes from within.” And for the first time in a Disney film, we witness a male character who exposes that inner beauty by being unabashedly vulnerable. Showing his vulnerability does nothing to emasculate him, in fact it strengthens him. It takes a lot for men to be honest emotionally, and this is never more apparent than when he sings out with all the robustness of a Broadway divo “I learned the truth too late/I’ll never shake away the pain.” He sings his song of lament, “Evermore,” when he releases Belle as his prisoner and believes he’s lost the newly found love of his life. And this vulnerability–or better, humanity–pierces the heart as he hopelessly belts “And as the long, long nights begin/I’ll think of all that might have been/Waiting here for evermore.”
The new Beauty and the Beast remains faithful to the original, while lavishing Belle and the Beast with layers of reality and depth more common outside of fairy-tales and storybooks. Belle finds a way to the Beast’s heart by being strong and selfless. The Beast makes his way into Belle’s heart by being vulnerable and showing a willingness to learn from his mistakes. And at the end, when the the Beast sheds his abominable appearance, we too are transformed by the beauty we each posses within when we seek out the beauty in those around us. A flesh-and-blood reboot definitely offers “something there that wasn’t there before.”
“I thought about him every day for eighteen years,” she said. “And we may have been a little delayed, but now, it feels just perfect.”
My flight was delayed 45 minutes. Moments before the delay was announced, I was sprinting through the Chicago Midway Airport, backpack bouncing wildly across my shoulders. I was all but desperate to be in line at gate B23, but then a tinny loudspeaker voice gave me the gift of time. A long day at work, a stressful standing-room only train ride, traversing moving walkways and dodging little girls dragging pink princess roller bags – all of it stopped. A 45-minute delay. What to do with 45 minutes?
It was St. Patrick’s Day. So I made a beeline for a bar and ordered a Guinness.
The bar was awash with weary travelers. As a table opened up, the bartender handed me an overflowing glass. I carefully balanced the full, black pint in hand while I collected my bag and made for a stool. Another couple had the same idea – Jen and Jack. “Let’s sit together,” they said, smiling.
Jen and Jack were 40 and 39, respectively, and they were engaged to be married. “Destination wedding,” they told me. “Cancun. Too old to get married anywhere cold.”
“How did you meet?”
They met eighteen years ago at a bar they both frequented. As it turns out, they were engaged once before. She broke it off – the struggles of single motherhood were substantial, and she didn’t know how to accept the love that Jack offered. “I didn’t think I deserved it,” she said after a painful moment of pause.
Both of them got married to other people – “a–––––––,” as Jack described them. Jen and Jack both admit, though, that they somehow thought of each other every day for eighteen years. Both got divorced from those a––––––– and then, one night, Jen sent Jack a Facebook message. She mentioned that he had popped into her mind and wondered whether they might meet up. They did, and after a year-and-a-half Jen and Jack were engaged again. A Mexico-bound marriage in the making. They weren’t ready for their love long ago, but it lingered through memory and time. Delayed, but not abandoned.
The first time I considered the Catholic priesthood was on the heels of a service trip I made between my junior and senior year of high school. A young priest – Fr. John – accompanied our group on that retreat, and during the closing Mass, he swore in the middle of the homily. The word began with ‘s’ and ended with a hit right to my gut. I thought – if this guy can swear during a homily, then maybe one day I will too. I saw myself in him somehow, and not only in his use of curse words. He was passionate and happy. I wanted those things.
Thoughts of the priesthood lingered in some way every day. During my senior year of college, I seriously considered applying to the Jesuits. But, in my quietest, purest moments, I doubted my value and I didn’t feel worthy of the call. At my loudest moments, I was scrambling to write papers, going to meetings, drinking, smoking cigarettes, and building an incapacity to think ahead and decide anything. So, I moved on to almost eight years of other stuff. Daydreams of the priesthood remained – eight years of challenging relationships, survival on an educator’s salary, even moments of doubt about whether or not God existed at all.
And one day, after a bright moment amidst work-related exhaustion, I returned to my office and made a call. I realized, somehow, that if I didn’t pursue the priesthood, I’d never be happy. Half-a-year after that, my parents dropped me off at the side door of my first Jesuit community. “It’s about time,” my dad told me just before he and my mother drove away the next day. A call to love delayed for years.
Why not make big life decisions right away? Jen and Jack could have married each other years ago, a house, kids, and joint savings account taken care of. I could have entered the seminary after high school and been ordained a priest at age 26. But that’s not how it happened. There we were at an Irish airport bar, I a priest-in-training and they engaged to be married for the second time. Everything delayed.
Perfect callings in life don’t reveal themselves perfectly. We usually don’t allow them to. We get in the way of that perfection, that goodness – we fight against it, we doubt it, we run as far away as we can, and only after it has worn us down for years and years and years do we come to realize its possibility and and its truth.
“Sometimes, I feel like we missed out,” Jack said. “But mostly, I’m glad to be where I am now, her hand in mine. It’s just right.”
Two more pints and 45 minutes later, I said goodbye to them and headed for gate B23. A bit delayed, sure – but, I still ended up where I was supposed to be.
You probably know someone like us. Our weekly Thursday meeting was moved to Wednesday. A Friday conference call was scheduled for the Creighton game’s halftime. The mood at Saturday’s dinner was funereal, West Virginia having just massacred Notre Dame. Agony passed into ecstasy as Gonzaga punched their sweet sixteen ticket later that night.
Those who’ve never seen their alma mater at the Big Dance gawk at our fanaticism in a mixture of awe, confusion and pity. The NCAA basketball tournament is underway and March has turned us mad.
And this madness brings us together. Hardly anything can more quickly conjure a sense of family like a bar filled with monochromatically-clad patrons drinking a beloved team to victory. But that instant and fleeting sense of community pales in comparison to the fellowship found on the other side of the screen. Because hardly anything can more deeply conjure a sense of family than playing on a sports team.
Nigel Williams-Goss is Gonzaga University’s starting point guard. See why:
Williams-Goss is that rare combination of Wooden Award finalist and charming writer. He goes from court to pen to share an insider look at what it’s like to be a member of one of those sixteen families going to battle this weekend. Take this from his latest Players’ Tribune essay:
Everyone knows Mark Few by reputation: 18 years as coach at Gonzaga, 18 straight NCAA tournament appearances, 15 conference titles. But beyond those stats, Coach Few is also known as the guy who put a Jesuit college in eastern Washington with 5,000 students on the national basketball map. He’s one of the reasons I came here.
I get to see a side of him most people don’t. So I’m going to try — as a psychology major — to give you my impression of him.
Coach Few has a lot of different sides to his personality. He’s a family man. He’s ultracompetitive. He delivers fiery speeches and he’s not afraid to be a disciplinarian. But at the same time, he also has sharp sense of humor — bordering on sarcastic — that caught me off guard at first.
In December we were in L.A. to play Arizona at Staples Center — a big game. Coach Few was getting really fired up in the locker room beforehand. He seemed to be freestyling his pregame speech. He was letting a bunch of expletives fly.
“We’re not here as a %&#* courtesy!”
He went on and on like that. He was much more animated than usual.
When he finished, we all sat there in silence. Even though we were ranked eighth, and the Wildcats were 16th, we hadn’t beaten them since 2011.
And then Coach said, “Oh man, and I just came from church right before this,” Coach said. “You better make that speech worth it.”
He was shaking his head, but we thought it was hilarious. We all busted up.
We won 69–62 that day. I don’t know if the mood he set before the game had anything to do with it. But I don’t think it hurt.
In that moment, I knew that coming to Gonzaga was the best decision I could’ve made. It felt like a family.
As you watch the Sweet 16 whittle themselves to a Final Four, enjoy the rest of his essay on how life on the campus of a Jesuit university feels like being part of a family. Read it here.
A great man died Saturday morning. And I hardly knew him.
Rev. J. Donald Monan of the Society of Jesus passed away peacefully in a Jesuit health care facility west of Boston. Fr. Monan was president of Boston College from 1972 to 1996, steering the university from a struggling commuter school to a world-renowned Catholic, Jesuit institution. But he was more than a skilled administrator. He was a kind and gentle scholar of Aristotle. And he was dedicated — even after his health made him move out to Weston, Mass., Fr. Monan came in to campus on weekdays in his role as chancellor to BC. Each day he would wear a clerical shirt and black suit, which would hang off his thinning frame in his latter years. I’d see Fr. Monan, serene as a fawn in open field, sitting in the entry of St. Mary’s Hall as he waited for his fortunate guest du jour. Waiting, no doubt, for one of thousands of people he touched in his long time in Boston.
* * *
I was preaching at an evening Mass on campus later Saturday afternoon. When it came time for the prayers of the faithful, we prayed for recently deceased parishioners. At the end of the list, I added, “…and for Fr. Donald Monan, SJ, who passed away this morning.”
A collective gasp sucked the air from the Church of Saint Ignatius. It was clear that I was the bearer of sad news for many of the parishioners. BC had lost a cherished leader, and this was the first people had heard of it.
* * *
In an age of ready access to information, news and content streams right to our desks and living rooms, often in isolation. Our iPhone and laptop screens help us laugh at viral video clips, and coo at pictures of our grandchildren taking their first steps.
But these screens shine on the good and the bad alike. The New York Times or Fox News pushes alerts to our smart phones, delivering news items that are tragic or frivolous — whatever to keep people plugged in. We read and register these notifications alone. Sometimes the news breaks us; more often than not, though, the stories wash over us as we move on to the next-shiniest story. So how do we process these bits of sad news, big and small?
After I delivered the news of Fr. Monan’s death at the Mass, the gathered parishioners’ mood seemed to change. There was a discernible solemnity, made clear when people came forward to receive communion. I noticed a weight in many of their faces — the weight of loss, yes. But also of empathy. The weight of learning of your brother’s cancer. Of your sister’s divorce. Of your father-in-law’s new Alzheimer’s diagnosis, and the anguish it carves in your spouse’s features.Of people suddenly mourning the death of a beloved leader, who had been a reliable fixture for over forty years.
* * *
The digital age can awaken us to grief and tragedy around the world. And yet the internet cannot help us totally process life’s griefs, because the internet works to keep us in distracted isolation. We may come together to mourn at funerals and prayers services, surely; but the initial shock of others’ sad news, by and large, comes through the protective distance of a glowing screen. In isolation, we are free to engage, or disengage, with another’s grief. But physical proximity — the kind you get when you rub shoulders in a pew, a march, or a demonstration — fosters solidarity to share one other’s joys and griefs. We can “like” or “sadface” a Facebook post about someone’s dying mother; but calling him up or visiting in person entails a commitment. A commitment to empathy, to sharing that weight of loss.
Funny isn’t it? When life is tough or uncertain, we tend to remember who showed up to walk with us — more so than our own uncertain feelings. The last time I remember being in collective shock was watching 9/11 unfold as a sophomore in college. My friend Zach and I were glued to the television, surrounded by guys from our dormitory. While few events have risen to that level of horror, many solidarity-worthy tragedies (mass shootings, terrorist attacks, loss of innocent life, etc.) settle like silt. They never rise to the level of physically proximate, communal support. Yes, there are candle flame profile-pics, or monuments lighted in a mourning nation’s colors. There are marches and vigils organized online and enacted in person. But the fact that we first turn our face to a screen for support – a screen that cannot look back — is precisely the point. We outsource empathy to the internet, as a way of managing — avoiding? — the uncertainties and griefs that are best shouldered together.
An interesting thing happened after Mass that Saturday. A woman in her forties came up to tell me her memories of Fr. Monan from her college days. She remembered how her dad told Fr. Monan to “keep an eye out for her!” Fr. Monan responded by surprise-visiting her apartment as a senior, to the delight of all her roommates. And she told the story, with wistful tears, of Fr. Monan pitching in to help a family move their son’s boxes into his first dorm room. Story after story of his kindness, humility, and generosity. In the balance of life, I could see the weight of her grief slowly shifting to the consolation of memories. And as she told stories between laughter and tears, I saw again that we are not meant to endure grief alone.
* * *
As I write now, I think of memories of wispy but alert Fr. Monan, sitting in that long hallway of St. Mary’s at Boston College. I had introduced myself to him several times in the past two years, but I figured he might not have the bandwidth for a new acquaintance in his 90s. “I don’t want to bother him…” I’d say to myself, and I would pass his kind face with a polite smile and a wave. He would summon a smile and wave back, watching me as I’d carry on quickly with my day.
I wonder what went through Fr. Monan’s mind as he sat watching a crop of students who were barely two years old on September 11, 2001. Or the scores of younger Jesuits my age, who never saw the Challenger explosion, or watched in awe at the moon landing. Who hadn’t seen Walter Cronkite remove his glasses to announce that President Kennedy had been slain in Dallas, some 38 minutes ago. I wonder what he might think of us all in the prime of life, walking across campus staring into screens, with a long life ahead of us. Lives of joy, but also of griefs. Lives of successes ahead, but also the weight of loss and inevitable diminishment. A life full of daily opportunities to share the joys and sorrows of another person, face to face. To surprise someone at their apartment with a smile, or help lighten the load of an unsuspecting family on move in day.
* * *
I trust that Fr. Monan now sees God face to face. On his final journey home, I hope that he heard the plaintive gasp of a parish that learned, together, of his return to God. And I hope that we can all learn a bit from him — about the power of presence, kindness, and empathy. We may be able to connect in an instant to news across the world. But it’s not worth it, if we miss connecting with the gentle souls waiting for us just across the hall.
Rest in peace, Fr. Monan.
The call arrived at 7:12am, two minutes after morning Mass ended. Sister Barb got it first; her 90’s throwback Nokia ringtone echoed in the church vestibule. Then Father Edmund’s, the ubiquitous iPhone ringtone. My pulse quickened, excited, as they both put it on speakerphone: snow day. Before the automated schoolwide recording finished, though, my gut had already turned and tumbled and I was shaking my head, mumbling. Not another one. Sister Barb smilingly said, “Have a great day!” Bah humbug, I thought.
South Dakota can’t be accused of being unprepared. We’re allotted six snow days a year without having to rob any moments from sweet, sweet June. But by Valentine’s Day this year, we used ‘em all. So you’d think that with all this practice I’d have mastered the art of the snow day, but six times I tried and six times I failed.
The first snow day: I slept in, and then ate too many pancakes, and then felt like congealed frypan grease the rest of the day. The second: my self-inflicted punishment, I rewrote my course’s vocabulary list, wrote three letters, twelve e-mails, finished two books and went back to school the next day even worse off than the day after the pancake day. Snow days three through six: utterly lost to memory, unspectacular in every sense of the word, and not even unspectacular in a refreshing sort of way.
At the twilight of day six, though, something happened. Twilight, the time of day when I’m unfailingly either prefecting a basketball game, driving a bus or going for a run- since all of these were summarily cancelled, I read the news.
Well, reading the news wasn’t new — I teach a course in Faith, Service and Justice, so the news is every lesson’s springboard. But, embarrassingly, before that snow day, I had never let the news sink in, preferring to keep it at mind’s length: Read, discuss, move on. But, dangerously, on that snow day, I let the news sink in. I couldn’t help it.
Reading the news this time, I felt it all. My heartbeat accelerated. My palms started sweating. A giant weight flung from somewhere-out-there landing squarely on my shoulders. A few articles later, I sighed, clapped shut the laptop, and walked to the chapel.
It was a snow day: I had nowhere to hide, nowhere else to be, nowhere else to go, no other work I could do. A teacher and minister, with all my children out throwing snow.
December, January and February were very, very dark for me. At first I felt a sort of darkness: inexplicable illnesses, fatigue, etc… Then I could name it, and it is less about my political views than it is about my fear. I am afraid for my family friends, my friends, and my friends’ families. Each executive order or presidential threat–despite being unsurprising–seemed powerfully surreal and crushingly violent. From friends’ faces in Syria or Chicago, my mind flicked home to the Pine Ridge Reservation and the faces of the students who themselves vocalized these fears. With two swipes of a pen, the Dakota Access Pipeline- formerly halted for an environmental review- is now promised. A giant drill is parked beside the Mníšoše, the Missouri River, poised to lay perilous pipe through the heart of life for thousands. When I think about it, I think of my students’ faces, their families’, all whose lives would be deeply threatened by a future leak.
But, it was a snow day: I had nowhere to hide, nowhere else to be, nowhere else to go, no other work I could do. Up until that snow day, my response to all of this darkness had just been work… and by that, I mean overwork: Overwork that doubled as an excuse to not read deeper. Overwork to not let it all sink in.
A clash of warm and cool air in the atmosphere took that away from me. A blizzard shut down the campus, halted my momentum of avoidance and stopped me in my fleeing tracks. The weather marooned me on a quiet campus with just the news, its anxieties, and my insecurities. So it all sank in.
I don’t remember anything about going to the chapel except that I did and that I left something there and brought something out: with this simple call to prayer, I at once confronted my fears and found the strength to keep working despite them. The next day of school was a great one. I saw the classroom anew, with its little hopes surging, its gritty conversations purging, and its collective voice proving that these fears are only part of the story… I wonder now if that energy was already there two days before, and I was just the last one on board, needing that snow day to see it.
My Bah Humbug missed something. These snow days were, in fact, gifts. But I had to learn their lessons–and I’m not just talking about the pancake situation. Now, I’m ready to forge boldly forward. God, give me another if you think I have more to learn. But not too many – I don’t want to go to school in June!
I hadn’t been listening to her translation. Like all good undergraduate Latin students, I was busy looking over the following paragraph in mortal dread of being called on next to translate in front of the class. But I finished just in time to hear her complete the sentence from Ovid.
“…nam hominium sententia fallax; for the opinions of human beings are deceptive.”
The professor, without a moment’s hesitation, replied: “Use ‘men’; ‘For the opinions of men are deceptive’. Shakespeare wouldn’t use the word ‘humans’.”
At the time, this struck many in the class as odd, if not insensitive. Hominium, from Homo, means human being; it is not gender exclusive.
When questioned on this point the professor simply replied: “Well…you know what I mean.”
Although that was nearly ten years ago, the battle for inclusivity in higher education no longer focuses solely upon language, but increasingly upon the content of the curricula itself. Students across the nation, as well as overseas, are increasingly calling for the decolonization of what has been traditionally referred to as the Western Canon; or as one student at Seattle University recently stated: “The only thing they’re teaching us is dead white dudes.”
The Western literary tradition, the hallmark of a liberal arts education, typically follows the literary and philosophical endeavors of ancient Greece and Rome and the subsequent 1,500 years of European development. As such, the vast majority of the authors in the Western Canon are, from our perspective, both white and male; a pedagogical dominance largely unquestioned in the West until the mid-twentieth century following the emergence of civil rights activism, large scale European decolonization, and successive feminist movements.
Reforming the Euro-centric curriculum to remedy the highly selective narrative of traditional academia – which frames the West as sole producers of universal knowledge – by integrating subjugated and local epistemologies. This will create a more intellectually rigorous, complete academy.
Even as someone particularly attached to the Western literary tradition, it is hard for me to ignore the glaring discrepancies of diversity in our intellectual heritage, built it would seem, upon the dual phenomena of both white privilege and male privilege. But the case against dead white dudes begs several questions which immediately complicate the otherwise stark narrative created by these student movements.
To begin with, we must ask ourselves in what sense many of these authors were “white”. White privilege, the inherent and unwritten advantages experienced by white people in contrast to people of color, depends largely upon socio-economic and political segregation which goes back no more than 500 years.
Would Plato or Aristophanes have considered themselves white? In what way does the work of Chaucer or Dante reflect white privilege in a world which claims little or no variation in skin color? For much of Roman Imperial history, it was the Northern European skin tones which represented the “barbarians,” and during the height of 5th century B.C.E. Athens, there remained a feeling of inferiority among the Greeks towards the yet dominant, and darker skinned, Persian empire. While the emphasis here is undoubtedly Western or European, it is less clear to me that it is specifically “white” in the modern sense of the term.
The paucity of women authors in the Western Canon is, sadly, the result of minimal educational resources at the disposal of most women throughout most of human history. It is notable that this is not merely a Western problem. But here again the problem does not seem to be that our educational establishment has privileged male authors over women by deliberately excluding scores of women intellectuals; but rather that for indefensible historical reasons there are simply more male authors than there are women authors.
It is clear, at least to me, that the Western literary tradition is indicative of a problem, but perhaps it’s more of an historical problem than anything else. The dominance of dead white dudes in our curricula reminds us that for most of Western history a large portion of the human experience went unrecorded. But this says nothing about the value of the Western Canon itself.
British historian Lawrence James, a living white dude, found it striking that all the principal leaders in the Indian Independence Movement had been the products of a liberal arts education in England.1 In fact, it’s hard to understand people like Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. without a knowledge of Tolstoy, Thoreau, or the Bible. It’s hard to understand many modern theories of social justice, universal human rights, and international law without Cicero, Thomas Aquinas, Locke, or even Dickens.
It is true that Shakespeare was a white dude, but would we not lose something of the human experience which transcends his white dude-ness if he were removed from our curricula? It is interesting to note that nobody is calling for the removal of Darwin, Einstein, or Tesla from science curricula on similar grounds. Might there be something of value here which is accidental to these authors’ gender and race?
And while I remain skeptical towards some of the more superficial arguments for any wholesale destruction of the traditional liberal arts curricula, the dominance of a narrow Western male experience is a difficult fact to whitewash (forgive the pun). But this difficulty might be one point in its favor. War monuments serve a twofold purpose; to honor the dead and to remind us of what doesn’t bear repeating. For better and for worse, the Western intellectual tradition is the deposit of our collective intellectual memory, which would seem dangerous to neglect.
So in the words of some dead white dude: “That which thy fathers have bequeathed to thee, earn it anew if thou wouldst possess it.”2
And mothers… Anyway, you know what I mean.
Image courtesy FlickrCC user Marco Poggiaroni.
We’ve all been waiting for it, and now it’s here: new music from Lorde. The artist behind “Royals” and “Team” is back, and her return comes with a dramatic shift in sub-genre and theme. Melodrama is the name of the fresh album, with tracks “Green Light” and “Liability” released so far. If “Royals” once provided a craftily poetic yet affectively stoic commentary on the enthralment of fame, Melodrama now serves as a counterbalance, issuing a riveting and intimate expressionism that moves listeners through an honest mix of triumph and tears. It’s quite the transition. Let’s break down what’s happened.
every time i see “@Pontifex” i think it’s some super hyped new metal band or something
— Lorde (@lorde) September 25, 2015
“Royals”1 was part of Lorde’s first album Pure Heroine, the opus of a teenager on the edge of glory.2 She openly shuns the superficial materialism and petty Darwinism of popular culture even as she catapults into it. “We’ll never be royals,” she sings with blissful conviction, hinting at her stage name’s play on a fascination with lords, kings, and princesses. Her pre-album peasant status relegates her to living out her royal “fantasy” by seeking “a different kind of buzz.” She finds this alt-high in the pure zenith of life with ordinary friends who travel to parties by public “train,” the transport of the hoi polloi. Other VIPs roll up to the club in pristine Corvettes and stretch limos while Lorde and crew laughingly stumble off the subway. The irony is evident, for soon her career will propel her into the exclusive “love club” of the world’s finest musicians. Singing, “Glory and gore go hand in hand,” she wonders how she will leave the barbarous Coliseum of celebrity with her integrity unscathed.
“Royals” and “Team” were the hits of Pure Heroine3 that first shot4 Lorde into the arena, but true innovation came in the clashing agitation of “Glory and Gore” and the surreal euphoria of “Love Club,” two other standouts from the album. Similar to “Royals” in lyrical content, “Glory and Gore” is a cold, sarcastic critique of high society. Back-up singers crown an assortment of lines with under-the-breath raps against hollow revelry. It’s dark and intense, morbid and frigid. By the third set of verses, the instrumentation breaks apart, and a pitted dud of mis-struck percussion emphatically builds the ambience of uneasiness. Casually, in the midst of this chaos, the singer’s persona asserts, “I don’t ever think about death.” Fame gives the illusive impression of immortality. It creates a distance from what is real. Though many revel as if they were to never die, the sarcasm of “Glory and Gore” tells us Lorde understands “it’s not forever.”5
— Lorde (@lorde) June 6, 2015
After a couple-year hiatus (apart from some smaller projects), Lorde has returned to take a second look inside. Now, instead of treating the sweet disease of fame, she has turned to examine the fresh wounds of jaded love and tattered friendships.
In “Green Light,” the first release from Melodrama, Lorde’s voice has the same scratchy rawness and youthful intensity, but the tune is much more danceable than anything on Pure Heroine. Shockingly, the track opens with a somber piano coupled with an equally sombre lyric: “I do my makeup in somebody else’s car.” She is disillusioned, embittered. It all sounds so depressing, but it doesn’t stay so for very long. The beat picks up, the score diversifies, and Lorde lifts herself from the asheap of heartbrokenness. The static ballad transforms into a dynamic dance against despair.
The music video is an incarnation of this inner dynamism. The camera initially confronts an image of Lorde’s face. She looks older, and her features betray a sense of anguish. As if holding back a wince, her eyes close for several seconds. It’s emotionally hard to watch. Soon, however, piano quickens, and Lorde emerges from her isolated state, walking confidently out into the street. The walls of her inconsolable emotions no longer enclose her. Pain remains, but she won’t be defined by it. Rather, she dances even as she throws an elaborately choreographed fit atop a black SUV. She basks in red fluorescence, a tribute to her recent past. The whole thing is rather theatrical, but there is a mysterious truth about it that cuts through the drama.
In a very candid interview with Zane Lowe of Apple’s Beats 1, Lorde claims that the song is the product of many months of processing what she “wanted to say next.”6 Green Light, therefore, is not a one-off but rather a crucial part of the coordinated statement she wishes to make with Melodrama. The album title and the track hint at what’s likely to come: a rollercoaster of emotions displayed in music that embraces the climactic rifts and drops of dance pop. However, instead of producing songs that match the market, Lorde hopes to remain “a bit of a weirdo.” She affirms, “I had to tell the truth….”
The song’s brilliance is its intricate and personal transformation. It evokes hope in a rise after a fall. The pain of a broken heart is real. Its unrelenting bite traps us. It feels like our despair is inescapable. We’re shattered to pieces, yet something somehow tells us that time heals. Tomorrow is only a day away. The best of us learn from our misfortunes while retaining confidence that our vulnerability won’t always leave us hurt. Such hope takes faith. To explain, Lorde gives us an interesting, down-to-earth analogy. The song is like the journey of a drunken fraternity girl. On night one of a breakup, she is an absolute mess. She’s bawling at a party. She’s inconsolable. However, when she wakes up the next morning (or afternoon), she starts to rebuild, even if she doesn’t notice it’s happening. What’s so convincing about the narrative of the song is its reality. Lorde has had this experience. It comes from her life.
it’s the first chapter of a story i’m gonna tell you, the story of the last 2 wild, fluorescent years of my life. this is where we begin
— Lorde (@lorde) March 1, 2017
Evidently, the betrayal of love is not the sole emotional experience that Lorde enshrines in the album. The second track release is “Liability,” a song so affectively penetrating that it has taken her somewhere “she had never been before.” It opens with the same slow piano, but now there is no pivot, no joyful transformation. As if in rebellion, she stays true to herself by prolonging her state of grief. Here we find the artist’s pure expression. The world tells her to be consoled, but she is inconsolable. The world tells her not to produce such a sad and bitter song, but she does anyways. In doing so, she unearths a social pressure that often goes unnoticed: the pressure to say, “I’m okay.” The song reveals a glimpse of the meaning of the album’s title. We’ve been taught to hide our vulnerability. We’ve been instructed to paper over our feelings. We’re asked to have “our s— together,” but what if it’s not? The moment we start to be “dramatic,” people run away. They say, “What a drama queen!” Confronted with such rejection, Lorde doubles down on her emotions. She reclaims the image of the drama queen. She reclaims melodrama because melodrama is the truth of her life, and we can’t hide from the truth of what we feel.
The truth! The world is tired of lies and virtual realities just as much as it is tired of celebrity culture’s “jet planes, islands, [and] tigers on a gold leash.” There is a restlessness for reality in Lorde’s music that speaks of humanity’s restlessness for true expression. Our hearts are moonlit theaters of war–battles pitting lies and comfort against truth and love. That’s why we like Lorde’s work. It is conflictive, like we are. It is melodramatic, like we are. Amidst the soulful sounds of the young idealist, Eros and Thanatos gladiate. An impulse to life struggles against an impulse to self-destruction. There is ecstasy, and there is withdrawal. The two fight each other. The battle springs from a divided and all-too-human heart, and I’m glad this sort of heart is on display in Melodrama.
The ‘D’ subway car is packed today, which requires me to lean ever so slightly to make space for the two women who slide into the seats next to me. My eyes are focused on the book I’m reading, but my ears perk when I hear one speaking Portuguese to the other. I quickly glance down to check if I’m wearing my Brazilian soccer jacket. Nope. Relief. I can stay hidden away in my book and pretend that I don’t understand their conversation.
The irony of this moment is that I’m headed to the Brazilian parish in New York I’ve been attending since 2015. I am about to speak a lot of halting Portuguese, but the parishioners are used to my accent and the grammatical errors I know I make. Not so with these strangers.
Save it for Marisa, I think. She’s my dear friend who has been in New York for decades and loves to spoil me with food and affection. In the familiar environment of her home, my heart patters much more controllably than it does when I’m caught off-guard by unfamiliar compatriots of my first nationality.
My family’s move to Iowa from Brazil when I was 9 years old naturally brought on all kinds of uncertainties. My worries were less substantial than those of my older, teenage sisters – being a middle or high school transfer student from thousands of miles away can be brutal. My worries were easily pacified, too.
My neighbors also like to ride bikes?! The library has Roald Dahl books?!
Then there was the benefit of being an anomaly in a small-town classroom.
“He’s from Brazil?! Cool! I bet he can teach us cuss words in Spanish…or Portuguese or whatever!”
And so a new identity formed: the Brazilian soccer star. As those first years progressed, I stabilized myself in that identity while the physical and emotional chaos of my family’s big move slowly settled down.
Imagine my confusion, seven years later, upon my first visit back to São Paulo. My older sister’s friends had to look to her for a translation of the Portuguese I was speaking. Then there was the shock of being just an ordinary player of the game that had fueled so many of my vocational dreams! The caliber of competition in my brother in-law’s recreational soccer league was better than I had faced in years. “Someday you’ll have to choose whether you’re going to represent Brazil or the US in the World Cup,” my dad had playfully remarked on a couple occasions. The playfulness of that remark was sinking in.
Feeling destabilized in my identity, I retreated from superfluous interaction and plowed through the first three Harry Potter novels – in English – until I boarded my return flight. Iowa was home. Iowa was where I could be the stud Brazilian soccer player. Iowa was where I could debate with myself about which jersey I should be wearing when I notched the winning goal of a future World Cup final.
Busy in her kitchen, Marisa humors my desire to pitch in by letting me chop vegetables as we catch up. Normally, it’s just the two of us, but today she sets the table for four. My heart clenches reflexively as I realize I’ll have to converse with unfamiliar people in Portuguese.
Chill out, man, I think to myself. Nobody is going to question your “Brazilian-ness.”
And I’m right. Sort of. The evening unfolds. Conversation is engaging, company is lovely. I ask one of the guests – who has raised children here – how well her daughters speak Portuguese. I don’t remember her answer because the conversation quickly turns to my Portuguese. Damn. I asked for that.
“I don’t think he has an accent,” Marisa states. “He just doesn’t necessarily speak correctly.”
One guest responds, “Hmmmm, the accent is there. Unique, but it’s there.”
I smirk at the unfolding conversation because, surprisingly, I don’t feel insecure. The reason behind my desire to speak flawless Portuguese is to seem more Brazilian than I actually am. I want to fit a category I’ve created in my mind about what it means to be Brazilian. That confusing experience from my first return trip to Brazil as a teenager left its mark.
Around this table I sense a fragmentary freedom from the echoes of early destabilization. Who I am is what brought me to this table, not a particular nationality. Kinship with Marisa is what brought me to this table, not how correctly I can use the subjunctive tense. Deaf to that insecure voice, I palpably experience gratitude. As we break bread together, strangers become friends. Around this table I feel known, even to these two women I just met. Around this table I am not hidden away in a book but am embraced and celebrated for all that I am.
Clicks and bright flashes. Hop off the bus, take some photos, hop back on, and head to the next stop. My students saw these beautiful but sad creatures in their natural habitat. Poor Ecuadorians invited us into their homes, showing us their dirt floors, cardboard walls, and grime-covered belongings. My students took selfies.
I stood outside, appalled that my students treated these families like exotic animals, appalled at myself for not better forming my students prior to our service trip.
Last summer, I chaperoned a high school service trip for the first time, although I had experiences from college of going on and leading trips. My experience leading the Ecuador trip has made me stop and consider – Are service trips actually worth doing?
Spring break is right around the corner, so I can’t help but wonder: Can these short-term service trips be done well? Do they contradict their own aims and goals? Should we even be doing them at all?1
My trip to Ecuador mixed both a service component and an immersion component: we performed tasks to help around the community, as well as learn about the history and identity of Quito.
On the service side, we primarily completed manual labor, such as painting classrooms, preparing meals, and digging holes for new septic tanks. When students were not working on manual tasks, they would play soccer, offer piggyback rides, and read to the smaller children.
On the immersion side, students also got to learn a great deal about the culture, history, and social challenges of Quito and the surrounding region. They engaged questions of urban and rural poverty, economic division, and colonial history. They saw great works of Late Baroque architecture, indigenous arts, and incredible natural beauty.
And they took pictures. They took hundreds of pictures of all of these activities.
While selfies of piggyback rides and group shots of a completed house are by no means bad, they are incredibly incomplete. These pictures can create a mirage of superior white Americans helping to fix places and solve people’s problems. The photos often show either the brokenness of the community, or how the service trip saved them from their need. Photos might show a freshly painted community center, but they can’t capture the underlying social and economic injustices.
Photos allow us to disconnect from realities. They allow us to see people and communities at a distance, as an other. Cameras prevent us from truly engaging and dialoguing. Indeed, there is a danger that our service trip ends up being more about the images we take than the stories that communities offer. The photos become the focus, dominate the memory and treat people, culture, and places as a backdrop to the student’s experience.
These photos fail to tell stories of resilience, hope, hurt, or liberation. They tell a story of poverty tourism. Furthermore, they aren’t the only danger of short-term service trips.
Short-term service trips can easily affirm us in our comfort and privilege. We can congratulate ourselves for doing a good deed, for making a difference. We are able to brush over the long-term struggles of living in poverty and focus instead on the smiles and laughter of our brief interactions.
Even on our service trips, we bask in our comfort rather than diving into the challenging realities of poverty, sexism, racism, and oppression. But why not dive in? Why not make students incredibly uncomfortable? Why not make them squeamish, sad, heartbroken, and distraught? I and many of my students benefit from structural racism, sexism, and economic injustice. This benefit is true of a plethora of students across Jesuit education. Our service trips, however, frequently mask those benefits and our participation in systematic injustice. These trips fail when they allow students to assuage whatever white guilt they have with pictures of pick-up basketball games and house painting, without ever going any deeper.
Though there are challenges and often pitfalls, service trips can be incredibly impactful and vital in facilitating solidarity – a sense of kinship and commitment to each other’s well-being. During my freshmen year at Creighton University, I went on a spring break service trip to ShadowBrook Farm. Our group dug fence post holes in the still-frozen Nebraska soil, and I overslept my 4:30AM turn for milking the goats. Our group also spent time learning about questions of sustainable agriculture and ecological justice. This felt like a service trip done right. The communities shared stories, helped us learn about injustice, and taught us how to stay engaged beyond our week at the farm.
Sophomore year, I went on a service trip to Parmelee, SD, on the Rosebud Reservation. While we performed some service – cooking, cleaning, repairing – we spent much of our time learning about the local history and culture. What created the poverty of the reservation? Who was responsible? How did they maintain rich cultural identities? How and why do we continue trying to hide genocide? The community shared their stories and cultural practices.
In both of these trips, our coordinators deemphasized the work we were completing. Rather, the communities themselves were at the center of the trips. We realized that our work was not world-changing. It would not radically alter the lives of the people we met. The communities, however, would radically alter our lives.
I am still unsure of the value of service trips. They run the risk of merely assuaging feelings of white guilt, of patting ourselves on the back for completing nominal tasks. More sinisterly, service trips can be a way of taking advantage of the poor to gratify our need for giving back. They can be a way of making brief contact with the oppressed, a quick-fix for an otherwise privileged life.
Service trips can be wonderful if we enter with hearts open to what communities offer, rather than what we give. They introduce us to our neighbors. Service trips can make us uncomfortable, challenging our privilege and helping us question systems of injustice.
While I remain undecided on their value, I pray for the communities and students participating in service trips over spring break. I pray that their trips cause discomfort, challenge their perceptions, and offer new experiences. But most of all, I pray that students do not focus on taking the best photos to post and share, but on taking to heart the stories and reality that communities share with them.
“If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us walk together…” – Lila Watson, Australian Aboriginal woman, in response to mission workers
I am living the American dream, but it’s only while people who look like Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Freddie Gray, Michael Brown, are living the American nightmare.
You probably already know the story about my American dream. My parents grew up in working-class and poor families. They worked hard, went to college, and made a wonderful life for my sisters and me. My parents’ dream was passed on to us. We have always had a choice: what to study, what city to live in, what friends to make, what we want our life to be about.
As white people, what we don’t know is the American nightmare. We know about it, true. We know that around midnight on a Tuesday, Sterling was selling CDs in a parking lot when police shot and killed him. We know that the very next evening, police pulled over Castile for a broken taillight and killed him while he was reaching for his driver’s license. We know Sterling and Castile were African-American men. We know the officers who shot them were white.
I actively participate in structures that are designed to keep people like me in power. What kinds of structures, you ask? Schools, for one. Research has consistently shown that the single most important factor for student learning is the socioeconomic status of other students in the classroom. As a student in primarily white, upper middle class schools – I am on the path to success while my African-American and Latino neighbors are stuck.
Jobs, for another. A 2004 study at the University of Chicago showed that candidates with stereotypically white names like “Brendan” were 50% more likely to receive a call back than those with stereotypically African-American names like “Jamal,” even when they submitted the exact same resume.
So, yes, I benefit from racism. And the police and military protect the status quo of white privilege.
Did I purposefully create this situation? No, but I absolutely benefit from the racism that recurringly generates this scenario. I don’t holler slurs, write nasty Facebook posts, or try to avoid people of color. But that’s not racism. That’s prejudice. Racism, rather,
“is the normalization and legitimization of an array of dynamics…that routinely advantage whites while producing cumulative and chronic adverse outcomes for people of color. It is a system of hierarchy and inequity, primarily characterized by white supremacy – the preferential treatment, privilege and power for white people at the expense of Black, Latino, Asian, Pacific Islander, Native American, Arab and other racially oppressed people.”1
Some say that Philando Castile and Alton Sterling died because of a tragic misinterpretation, or, at worst, a couple of rogue police officers. I see it differently.
I think these two men died for the same reason that the American dream succeeds: the power structure that perpetuates both my success and their suffering. My dream is built off of the American Nightmare created for people of color. Theirs is a nightmare of poverty, mass incarceration, inadequate education, faulty healthcare, collapsed housing, and oppression. Too often, their nightmare ends in death.
In the United States, the wealth gap between whites and people of color continues to grow. In 2011, “the median white household had $111,146 in wealth holdings, compared to just $7,113 for the median Black household and $8,348 for the median Latino household.”2
Rampant inequality like this is violence. While many white people like me have the resources to college, Alton Sterling is selling CDs in a parking lot. Once I was pulled over for having a taillight out: the policeman was kind and the problem was easily fixed. In fact, when I showed up to court, I had my ticket waived. We saw what happened to Philando Castile.
I’m pissed about this unjust power structure. I’m sad in a way that I can barely articulate. But my emotions can hardly compare to those who have actually suffered this violence. As Michael Dyson said in the New York Times, whiteness is blindness and I can never truly understand.
If this is my American dream, I want to wake up. Waking up, however, can be startling, scary, and uncomfortable. Thinking about and praying about this reality forces me to realize that communities of color often live a constant Good Friday so that I can live Easter Sunday. But I must wake up and take action.
I refuse to live at the expense of my sisters and brothers of color. I refuse to let others live at their expense. I want to stand with the crucified.
I could tell you to write letters to politicians, march in rallies, and join activist organizations. You and I already know to do those things. But perhaps more importantly, I should get to know persons of color. It’s time for me to honestly ask myself, “When is the last time I had a conversation with a Black man? With a Latina woman? A woman of Native American descent?”
Maybe the best way to do this is to pray together. We’ve recently heard, “We don’t want your thoughts and prayers, we want your action.” But pray. Perhaps as part of Lent, pray with people of color. Pope Francis states, “Lent is the favorable season for renewing our encounter with Christ, living in his word, in the sacraments and in our neighbor.” Go worship with communities of color. Visit the communities we abandon and leave behind. Pray with those communities. Know and love people of color so to know and love Christ.
#BlackLivesMatter #PhilandoCastile #AltonSterling #SayTheirNames
Image courtesy FlickrCC user Johnny Silvercloud.
When Moonlight won Best Picture at Sunday’s Academy Awards, it was an upset: La La Land was predicted to sweep the night away – including a win for Best Picture – and for a split second, America thought it did.
Now, I think Moonlight was the Best Picture this year, and was proud that the Academy thought so, too. But La La Land received fourteen Oscar nominations and six wins. Said simply, America loved La La Land because of its charm. It managed to romanticize traffic-filled freeways, smoggy views from Griffith Observatory, and young actors and musicians trying to make it in a city overflowing with talent.
But that description suggests La La Land is a superficial feel-good movie. Is there anything in the film that draws us from entertainment to deeper reflection? Does the film have more depth to be explored? I want to suggest its charm and nostalgia point us towards gratitude.
For much of the film, we think that La La Land will follow the standard Rom-Com:
- Boy meets Girl.
- Boy and Girl fall in love.
- Life appears like it will be happily-ever-after. But it’s an unsustainable, wild dream.
- Drama ensues and Boy and Girl break up.
- But, in a moment of serendipity, fate brings Boy and Girl back together.
- And thank God, Boy and Girl live happily-ever-after. The end.
This is something different. Beyond the charm of a typical rom-com, La La Land evokes a longing for a nostalgic past. Sebastian wants to bring back the lost art of jazz by opening a jazz club. Mia aspires to be a Hollywood actress. Mia and Sebastian meet and fall in love. Typical. After they struggle together to fulfill their dreams, they have a fight. Believing her acting career is over, Mia returns to her parent’s home. We see her bedroom – covered in middle school and high school awards. We watch her ache for a time when she felt like a successful actress. Sebastian drives to Nevada to tell her she’s received an offer to make her first feature film in Paris. They’re back together. So far, so good.
They look out onto that glamorous city of stars from a vista at Griffith Park. Standing above their city of stars, they nostalgically remember the good times they had together, and then say goodbye.
They realize that perhaps, though they love each other, their dreams are propelling them in different directions. It is time for Mia to go to Paris to fulfill her acting dream. They must choose between careers and love, and they choose careers.
But this is a superficial feel-good movie, right? As their farewell scene ends, we just know that somehow they’ll get back together.
The film fasts forward. It’s five years later, and Mia is a successful actress. Sebastian has opened his long-hoped for jazz club – named Seb’s, the name Mia suggested for him. We’re waiting to see them together.
The scene shifts to Mia’s elegant home. She comes home from work to greet her child and nanny. We’re waiting for Sebastian to give her a welcome-home kiss. And then we see Mia, poignantly, has married someone else.
* * *
What makes the film memorable isn’t the charm. It’s the nostalgia scattered throughout the film, but culminating in the final scene. Mia and her husband David, out for their dinner date, end up in Seb’s by chance. She realizes it’s his club. Sebastian gets on stage and their eyes meet. And we all experience together – that moment when they wonder, what might have been.
In a beautifully shot ten-minute musical number, we see a glimpse of what could have been – if everything would have worked out as a perfect romantic comedy. But it’s a dream of another time, of what could have happened, of nostalgia for a love lost and a different path taken.
As David and Mia walk out of the club, she and Sebastian make eye contact one last time. Without speaking to one another, they say a final goodbye. Like that final moment between Whitney Houston and Kevin Costner in The Bodyguard, their goodbye is more sweet than bitter. Whether or not they’ll always love each other is unclear. Perhaps, they’ll hold onto the fondest moments, often seeing one another in their wildest dreams.
Both Mia and Sebastian are better people today because of each other. And it’s clear they both know it and are grateful: Mia smiles slightly and walks out. Sebastian recognizes he’s grateful too, and begins to play the next song.
Whether it makes it worthy of a Best Picture or not, that’s the deeper meaning of La La Land. It doesn’t tackle racial inequity, sexual difference, or psychological trauma. But it does invite us to find gratitude in the path we’re on, especially when we’re confronted again with a lost someone or something. We can re-remember those moments with fondness and not sadness, with gratitude and not avarice. We can see that our lives have unfolded the way they have and there’s no other road. What we have is good enough.
Image courtesy FlickrCC user Jazzuality dot com.
It’s Lent. Again. And again I think about what it is I’ll give up.
My Lenten sacrifices are almost always connected to food. At 288 pounds, it’s safe to say I’m an eater. In fact, as I’m writing this I’m eating a cheese, mayo, and Doritos on rye. And I’m having a Coke. I shouldn’t be having a Coke. I shouldn’t be having a sandwich. I’m diabetic. And it’s 1:25 in the morning.
Food has always been a struggle in my life. And so too, food is part of my Lent. My Lenten history includes giving up chocolate, soda, candy. Two Lents in a row I gave up whole meals like breakfast or lunch. Not long ago I chose to fast one day a week. And there was that one time I went paleo – nuts, fruits, red meat – stuff cavemen would eat. I took on Lent as a diet, which is not what Lent is for.
And yet, food has never failed me. It always shows up when I need it the most or when I don’t need it at all. It’s like the friend I’ve never had and yet the worst kind of friend I’d never want. Tomorrow I will wake up, check my blood sugar levels, and I will see how good this friend actually is.
It’s a Wednesday in January, 2015. I’m required to eat dinner in my community on Wednesday nights. But today I’m not feeling it. Today I’m too upset. I buried my mom a few weeks ago and I’m not adjusting well. So I’ve decided to leave.
I live on the third floor of an early 20th century walk-up in Chicago. Behind the building is the wooden fire escape I use to avoid everyone. I walk down the alley and up the street to a pizza parlor. I’ve been there before but on happier occasions.
I walk into the restaurant. Immediately I order three slices of cheese and pepperoni and the largest Coke they sell. Before I pay I snag a double chocolate chip brownie sitting in a red plastic basket near the register. I take my receipt, claim my tray, and find a table.
I proceed to inhale everything.
My reflection is in the glass of the window ahead of me. I see myself eating among the cars passing by on the other side. I look a lot like my mom. And so I see my mom eating. Tears are falling down my face. I’m experiencing the unspoken lessons of my mother playing out in my life in real time. I am eating my feelings, trying to rest in the comforting familiarity of food. But it’s not working. Food was the accomplice to my mother’s demise.
I will turn 39 in July. The same age my mom was when she married my dad 30 years ago. Glancing back on memories I notice how much I am actually like my mother. The other day I was watching TV. My right hand rested under my chin and my left hand found a place under my thigh. My legs were extended out in front of me, and my feet were rocking back and forth. I was sitting exactly like my mom. Then there’s the way I smile and laugh and wipe tears from my eyes. And that’s not even the half of it. My mother’s imprint runs deep.
My mom used food as an escape, and so do I. She may not have readily admitted this fact about herself, and I don’t want to either. But like she always said: “Actions speak louder than words.” When she was in pain the food would go in, and my mom was a woman who hurt. But don’t get me wrong, she also knew how to celebrate, and food was there to punctuate the joy. And like my mom, I hurt too. And I celebrate, just like my mom. And food is at the center of it all. I am my mother’s son.
I love how I was raised. I love who I have become and am becoming, and all of this is due partly to my mom. She laid solid foundations for me to be me. But not everything she taught me I want to keep. I want food to be the thing that sustains life, not what diminishes it.
This desire to change my relationship with food isn’t about the typical Lenten sacrifice – taking something good away for the sake of an experience of discomfort. I want to take the discomfort away so I can live better. Perhaps even longer than my mom did. Or if anything, live healthier than she did. But I’m still trying to figure that out, how to unlearn and let go, and even though it can be difficult, to not be so much like my mom.
There is a lot of bad news going around these days. From trucks driving into parades to beheadings of kidnapping victims, one’s stomach can be easily turned at the sheer badness of things. Yet in the midst of all this evil, something particularly heinous caught my eye recently: about 100 gravestones at a Jewish cemetery had been vandalized.
The photos show the stones lying supine, seemingly crying out like the blood of Abel. This truly wrenched my insides. I had heard about the similar incident in St. Louis which prompted a visit from Vice President Pence, but I admit I had not seen the photos or read an article. After my initial reaction of shock and disgust, I reflected about why this, among all the violence and gruesomeness in the news, affected me in such a way. No one was physically injured and the damage seems easily repaired, but I venture to guess that I am not the only one so offended by this act of clear hatred.
Perhaps the purity of the hatred is why it strikes me as so evil. There is no other reasonable explanation for the act or benefit to those who committed it: no money stolen to feed poor children, no personal revenge or righteous anger. It seems to have been done only to cause emotional and spiritual harm.
These despicable acts are even more heartbreaking when seen as evidence of the re-emergence of that ancient and perduring evil of anti-Semitism. The Holocaust rightly serves as a collective reminder of the danger of ignoring this current of hatred toward the Jewish people.
I think another reason I was so moved by this story is that it offended my Catholic sensibilities. The dead hold a special place in the Catholic worldview and in the cultural milieu of my upbringing. Thinking of the dead and visiting graves are treasured traditions and tasks of the Church on earth. Praying for the dead is a spiritual work of mercy and we even set aside a whole month, November, to do it.
So when I learn of such a heinous act that dishonors the dead as well as attacks our Jewish brothers and sisters, I am moved to pray for the living and the dead. I am also moved from indignation to hope by stories of the response of some folks such as the Muslims who are responding by raising money for the cemeteries. Let us stand in solidarity.. If you are interested in donating for the repair of the cemetery also, I encourage you to visit the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia website. May the souls of all the dead rest in peace.
Image courtesy FlickrCC user MJM_999.
I loved La La Land.
Yet among other better-written and more powerful films like Manchester by the Sea, Hidden Figures, and Moonlight, I never for one thought it deserved to win the Academy Award for Best Picture this year. Still, I knew that La La Land was the overwhelming favorite1 going into tonight.
And – for a moment, what America expected came true. My heart dropped with disappointment as the La La Land cast walked up the stage. While I adored the nostalgic portrayal of Los Angeles, the romanticization of highway traffic, and the musical numbers that delighted my heart, the film couldn’t communicate the deep struggles people face because of race and sexual difference. It charmed my heart, but couldn’t pierce it.
My heart lay with Moonlight. That film documents the intersection of race, class, and sexuality in emergent Miami boy Chiron. Growing up with a single-parent, drug-addicted mother, Chiron realizes early on something is different about him. So do the other kids whose treatment of him lead him down a path he couldn’t have dreamed for himself. The movie reflects life, being at the same time painful and hopeful.
The film deserved to win best picture this year.
Regardless of your film preference, the next moment was literally horrifying. Some backstage producer2 emerges on stage. Was he really collecting Oscar awards from the La La Land group?
And in a frantic moment, Moonlight was declared the real Best Picture this year.
While it was good to see a movie more important to me win the big prize, it still hurt that Moonlight’s win was literally overshadowed by a controversy of someone else’s making. This seemed a cruel irony. A movie makes (beautifully) visible the struggle of someone who has been invisible to Hollywood and its moment in the sun is stolen.
* * *
Earlier in the evening, when accepting the award for Best Adapted Screenplay, Barry Jenkins said the film seeks to speak for “all you people who feel like there’s no mirror for you” especially during these troubled days in our democracy.
Tarell Alvin McCraney whose semi-autobiographical play3 became the screenplay stood with Jenkins and proclaimed the film to be for “all those black and brown boys and girls and nongender conforming who don’t see themselves, we’re trying to show you, you, and us.”
And so, in Faye Dunaway’s Steve Harvey moment,4 the story of someone who is already nearly invisible — a black boy growing up poor trying his best to make sense of his emergent sexuality — was made less visible still. And this is a story that needs telling: how our demonizing of some traumatizes and stunts the humanity of others.
But, more importantly, Chiron’s story needs telling because it is a story of hope. It calls us to imagine that there is another world possible — one where we can break out of those early traumas to find redemption and healing. One where people can break out of categories aimed to limit, constrict, and marginalize.
That message is fragile and elusive. When we lose our focus on those whose lives are marginalized in any way, they disappear. It is so easy to allow our own insecurities, prejudices, and selfishness to propel us into ignoring people who we don’t understand. And we can lose sight of the humanity in people who we do not see. I hope this doesn’t get lost in the mix up.
It’s hard not to notice the theme of the other in recent news: executive orders, refugees and migrants, protests, racial tension within our country, and the countless occurrences of violence. Even if it doesn’t paint an overt struggle, it creates a separation between us and the other.
Thankfully, I’m Cajun. So when my faith challenges me to mercy—to encounter and love the other—I’m good. At least that’s what I thought until recently.
What is a Cajun, you ask? Think Southern Louisiana, swamps, crawfish boils, good food, hospitality, kindness, and a sort of revelry in joy including boucheries, zydeco, fais do dos, and Mardi Gras—Laissez les bon temps rouler! Hospitality and kindness are hardwired cultural values. Many times I’ve walked into a house for a short visit, been offered food, declined the offer, and yet somehow ended up with a bowl of gumbo in my hand anyway. I have had extensive experience in receiving kindness and hospitality, and I’d like to think that I’ve a fair bit of experience offering it as well.
I brought that experience to my work last year with men and women struggling with addiction and homelessness. Before I began, I could meticulously describe the economic policies and occurrences which might render someone homeless. I had studied enough of addiction to list off the failed structures in a person’s life which might force them onto the street. I knew the statistics, figures, and trends, but not the other.
My work at the center began with a somewhat awkward start. I wanted to do something to help these people, but that wasn’t where their need was. I thought in doing, that I could fix them and fix their problems. I tried defaulting to my Cajun roots—offering hospitality and kindness. It was a man named Chris who messed up my plan:
“Chris, how is your day going?” I’d politely ask. He’d respond, “Fine.”
Another day, I’d ask, “Chris is there anything I can get you? Need anything?” He’d reply, “Nah man, I’m OK.”
A week or two later, I asked, “Do you need anything from the center? Can I point you in some direction?” He looked at me and replied, “No, I’m fine.”
Nothing was working. Nothing I could do seemed appropriate or helpful. Nothing.
After weeks of not getting anywhere with him, I finally asked, “Chris, can I sit with you?” He looked at me and smiled somewhat suspiciously, “OK.”
When I sat down, I met a man who was exactly my age. He has two children he loves desperately. He had a hard time with work and family, which led to his dependence on substances and ended with him on the street. What I found, though, was not a failure of coping mechanisms or systems. I found a man who truly, deeply loved his children. He wanted more than anything—more than being clean or stable again—just to provide for them and to show them his love.
Kindness and hospitality were not what Chris wanted or needed. He wanted to talk about his children and his story. He wanted someone to spend time with his humanity and suffering… he wanted to spend time with our sameness.
Eventually, my work at the center transitioned into pastoral counseling. While often I worked on coping skills and evaluating systems of support, most of my work entailed simply listening to others’ stories and acknowledging their humanity.
What Chris and others needed was not stuff I could ‘do’ for them, but they wanted to be reminded that they were loved and still human after all they had been through. I needed to listen to their joys and sufferings… and, in response, offer mercy: genuine encounter and love. And here is my quick confession: mercy was a lot harder than kindness and hospitality.
What I knew of economics, addiction, or the laws didn’t mean that I understood mercy. I needed to let a face, an individual, break my heart. Chris’s life and story were much messier than just facts, and at times it was difficult just to hear some of his struggles.
I’m Cajun. I have good food, celebration, and joie de vivre flowing in my veins. I’m hardwired to be polite, kind, and hospitable—but that’s not quite mercy. Being Cajun is not enough. I am Christian, and so I’m called to more than hospitality or kindness. I have to encounter and love the other. If Christian is truly part of my identity, I should be hardwired for mercy. To sit with the other, to meet Chris and others and listen to their stories. I am called to mercy: to encounter and to love the other.
TJP sat down with Laura Field and Austin Hart, founders of Real News Revival, to learn about how they are working to promote good journalism despite the proliferation of “fake news,” and how they “trust that even a small effort will make a difference.”
What is Real News Revival?
Laura Field [LF]: The Real News Revival is a new organization, devoted primarily to getting more people out of their media bubbles, reading (relatively) reliable sources of news.
Austin Hart [AH]: We want to spark a lasting civic commitment to journalists and journalism in a healthy democracy. If we honor and respect their work, then we have to do whatever it takes to keep them afloat.
What does Real News Revival do?
[AH] Our goal is to celebrate and support quality journalism. First, we ask anyone who values investigative work to support it actively through subscriptions. At a time when even major news organizations are in layoffs, we have an obligation to pay for the news we depend on. We advocate a buy-one-give-one approach: treat yourself to a subscription and give one away. Real News Revival is happy to help you at both stages. We maintain a list of “Real News Outlets,” and we donate newspaper and news magazine subscriptions to shelters, schools, hospital waiting rooms, etc. (learn more about our New Year Revival campaign).
Second, we promote philanthropic support for investigative journalism. In the same way that donors fund endowed chairs at universities, we want to help committed citizens create endowed research positions or investigative teams in newsrooms throughout the country.
Why did you start it?
[AH] We didn’t like the focus of the conversation after the election about fake news: how can we make it so everyone knows fake news is fake? Trying to ban fake news or label stories fake just seemed like the wrong approach. It’s too easy to shout “fake news” at information we don’t like, and that just amplifies the problem (as we’ve seen in the last month). So we wanted to do something positive instead. Let’s celebrate real news. Let’s support the work we depend on to understand the world beyond our daily experience.
[LF] Our aims are nonpartisan, but there’s no getting around the fact that Donald Trump’s election is a sign of increased polarization and political uncertainty among the American public. We are worried about the state of civic discourse in the country. There is a lot of anger and frustration on all sides, and not enough listening, thinking, and talking to one another. We think good journalism can work as a sort of compass for the broader discussions that we need to be taking on.
What is “fake news”? Is it a new phenomenon?
[AH] Fake news is a story that aims to deceive the reader. It isn’t just that the information, or some of it, is incorrect. What distinguishes fake news from simple misreporting is that fake news is incorrect on purpose. Purveyors of fake news want to blur the lines between truth and fiction, to make us distrustful of information (true or not) that doesn’t fit our prior understanding of the world. In essence, it overwhelms our capacity to make sense of the world around us.
Fake news isn’t unique to one presidential candidate, political party, or era. Our second president, John Adams, faced a fake news crisis that prompted the Sedition Act. The yellow journalists of the late 1800s waged what we might consider a fake news campaign in the lead up to the Spanish-American War.
[LF]We know that the motives of the authors are not always political. Sometimes these people just want to write something that will get a lot of clicks so that they can make money off the advertising. To get a lot of clicks, stories have to appeal to people, and the trouble is that people aren’t always attracted to pleasant, true things. Kittens seem to be the exception here. History tells us – and Plato, too – that human beings tend to love scandal and intrigue and drama and extreme emotional upset – not to mention affirmation of their most dearly held beliefs and prejudices. People love scandal, especially when it involves the ‘other’ side.
Second, for fake news to ‘work’ and get the most clicks, it can’t just be scandalous tabloid, and it can’t just be satire: it has to look real. So, the real art of creating fake news involves, I would assume, finding that sweet mix of salaciousness and believability that both entices and persuades. They are exploiting a weakness of human nature.
What has been the role of fake news in recent months?
[LF] This is a loaded question, and it’s impossible to know exactly the effect that fake news has had. But throughout the election a lot of false stories were put out that got a lot of attention, and they seem to have been written with the intention of misinforming the public and ultimately influencing their vote choice. There are some alarming statistics about how widely read some of the stories were, and lots of concern too about where the stories were originating.
[AH] We don’t see much value in searching out and shouting down stories as “fake news.” We’d rather celebrate the good and important work that real journalists still do every day around the world.
What made you think that you could make a difference?
[LF] Well, it’s more that we felt we had to try. There are plenty of examples of individuals making a big difference in the world, but we won’t flatter ourselves yet. We want to see if we can make this take off, and if it doesn’t work out, then we’ll learn from it and be in a better position to be more effective next time. Also, the press has seen major shifts and fluctuations in the past, so we think it’s worth trying to revive the industry even though it seems to be faltering.
How has the effort gone so far?
[AH] It’s been exhilarating, and slow and difficult, and pretty rewarding. We’ve been surprised how hard it is to reach people in meaningful ways and to get noticed.
[LF] We are committed to working on this incrementally over the course of the next year and seeing where it goes.
Who are y’all?
[AH] Expert revivalists! Actually we’re college professors, though neither of us teach journalism, or revivalism. We’re just really committed to finding simple ways to promote a thriving press in this country.
[LF] We both have PhDs in political science, but approach politics from very different perspectives. For all our differences, we both think reason is really important and that you can actually make a lot of progress in understanding – including political understanding – by reading, and thinking, and talking things through in a spirit of openness. The key thing though is that you have to be open to changing your mind.
Can ordinary individual citizens make a difference? What advice would you give someone passionate about an issue but who feels powerless to effect change?
[LF]I would advise them to try not to wallow in that feeling of powerlessness but instead to trust that even a small effort will make a difference. I think we are seeing a civic awakening across the political spectrum, and this is one great outcome of the election. Take heart in the actions of those around you, try to be good to your fellows, spend time reading and listening, and put your energy where your passions and talents meet.
Where can we go to find out more?
Do I love Trump?
As we celebrate Presidents’ Day, I have spent a great deal of time thinking about our new President, and this is a question I am honestly struggling with. Do I love him? What does it mean for me to love him?
Surely I am called to love him, just as I am called to love my brother and my sister, the homeless beggar by my school, the driver that cut me off, the undocumented immigrant, the unborn child, a convicted felon, an investment banker, my out-of-the-closet friend, and the Jesuit in my community that gives homilies that run too long.1
Admittedly, some of the people on that list are harder for me to love than others. And sure, I find myself wondering what it even means to “love” them. But I don’t question the fact that I’m called to love them all.
Do I love Trump?
Very few people, it seems to me, are just lukewarm about our President. Partisanship and polarization in our country have reached new heights. People have taken to the streets en masse to advocate for women’s rights and protest Trump’s executive orders. Meanwhile, participants in the March for Life expressed a sense of hopefulness with the start of the new administration and the nomination of Judge Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. Fury in many, hopefulness in others. And a monstrous gap between them.
It is this polarization that provokes such strong reactions to a comment like…
“I love Trump.”
What does it mean: to “love” Trump? Despite the abundance of words in the English language, we apply the word “love” in such different contexts that its meaning can be tough to decipher.2 In this article, I am focusing on the Christian sense of “love” from the Gospel call of Jesus.3
The prolific Christian author C.S. Lewis wrote that in the Christian sense, “love is not an affectionate feeling, but a steady wish for the loved person’s ultimate good as far as it can be obtained.” By Lewis’s understanding, “to love someone” according to the Gospel call is not the same as “to like someone” in affectionate terms. Nor is it the same as to agree with them, or follow them, or support them, or vote for them. It leaves room for disagreement and even dislike.
To love Trump, then, does not mean “he’s my ideal president” nor “I agree with all of his policies.” Instead, it could be re-phrased as, “to wish the best for him.” That seems to be an easier question for me to answer. I do wish the best for him and for his Presidency. I wish the best for our country in his care. I wish the best for the world during the duration of his time in office. In that sense, I feel comfortable saying it: yes, I love Trump.
What does loving Trump look like?
Loving Trump means celebrating his victories and any progress that comes during his presidency: whether that involves protecting the lives of the unborn, investment in infrastructure, job creation or a rising stock market. Loving Trump means not sinisterly wishing that everything goes wrong during his time in office to prove he was unfit or a poor choice.
Loving Trump means looking for common ground as a starting point. If we want to break down the barriers of divisive partisanship and polarization, we have to be able to work together in relationships rooted in love even when we disagree on important topics. Today we can recall the efforts of the great American President Abraham Lincoln to bring together a diverse cabinet of advisors from different political parties. It wasn’t always pretty, but it helped create compromise. What a far cry from the echo-chambers we now tend to occupy and the one-side cabinets our political leaders construct.
Loving Trump means praying for him. For this, I find inspiration in the early Jesuits. St. Ignatius, the founder of the order, wrote letters of instruction to early Jesuits about befriending nobles in order to advocate for justice, and he encouraged fervent prayers for royalty and political leaders, including and especially those that opposed the Church. With the great influence leaders have in the lives of so many, they need our prayers that God’s love might manifest itself in their leadership.
What does “loving Trump” not mean?
Loving Trump does not mean I have to be indifferent or approving in regard to all his actions as President. I wish the best for him, but I also have my uncertainties and fears. From executive orders banning many immigrants and refugees to the threat to repeal expanded health care, many of Trump’s policies have set off alarm bells for me, as well as many leaders in the Catholic Church.
Loving Trump doesn’t mean I have to abandon my principles or passively accept his policy choices. Rather, loving him should be guided by my faith-rooted principles. Loving him should include raising my voice in objection to actions he might take against the common good, against the poor and marginalized, and against the care for our common home.
When we talk about leaders (political, corporate, or otherwise), we have to recognize the ways their actions have implications beyond themselves. A president’s decisions affect millions of other lives. Our call to love an individual does not supersede our call to love all people, with particular concern for the most marginalized (also a Gospel call).
How then do we advocate for the marginalized? Resistance and protest are essential on issues of justice, but it’s important to remember that they are most effective when grounded in nonviolence and love. A combination of violence (in language or action) and hatred undermines the core values which form the basis of such resistance.
In Pope Francis’s message on the World Day of Peace last month, he wrote about this very theme. “Active nonviolence is a way of showing that unity is truly more powerful and more fruitful than conflict…Certainly differences can cause frictions. But let us face them constructively and nonviolently, so that ‘tensions and oppositions can achieve a diversified and life-giving unity,’ preserving ‘what is valid and useful on both sides.’” Active resistance should involve unity, not polarization; nonviolence, not conflict; love, not hate.
“Love Trumps Hate” has been a popular slogan for anti-Trump protesters. We all need to take that message seriously and confront the hatred that we carry, regardless of our political ideology. Protesters risk falling into the very trap they are protesting against and harboring hatred: for Trump and his supporters. The truth is that people on all parts of the political spectrum have been guilty of inciting hate and exclusivity. We are all sinners; we all need to grow in love. Because ultimately love – a love oriented towards justice and truth – really does trump hate.
We are called to love one another. We cannot too easily dismiss this call. It is challenging and outright exhausting at times. But it can also be world-changing. It is radical: we are called to go so far as to love our enemies. Like or dislike Trump, friend or foe, we are called to love him. To wish the best for him. To oppose any injustices, yes. But also to celebrate when he brings justice. To pray for him. Yes, to love him.
It might not be easy, but then, who said it would be?
I have made up my mind: I will love Trump. Will you?
Image courtesy FlickrCC user Gage Skidmore.
It’s been a thirty-minute grading break, and here I am now: furious, sad, exhausted, confused, and deeply torn… I felt obliged to read the comments on an article about the attempt to sell off federal lands. But, it left me wondering… Why do I hesitate to read comments on a news article? Why am I stuck wondering what sparked someone’s Facebook discussion? Why do I linger on infuriating Tweets? Why do I walk away from social media at times, feeling exhausted, angry, or less myself? Is this even good for me? … It sure hasn’t felt like a break.
Social media seems to be bursting at the seams with opinions on recent stories ranging from fights over vaccines to #NoDAPL to SNL’s recent work, and the tenor of the conversation often carries a bitter edge.
I try to engage the conversation when I read news, blogs, and commentaries (especially TJP). But, it doesn’t take long on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or any other feed for me to begin to question: What am I doing? Should I have liked that? Should I have made that comment? Am I making things better or worse? Why do I feel so stressed, exhausted, and despairing?
These are difficult questions, but thankfully I know some old wisdom to help answer modern questions: the Examen Prayer.1 The prayer reviews a person’s day, or a portion of their day, seeking to look at “movements,” meaning growth towards God or away from God. Ignatius encourages people to look at these movements within their lives without judgement, and to use that awareness to help them continue moving towards being better and towards God.
The Examen is a helpful tool for evaluating my engagement with social media. Praying more closely with the way I read, the way I respond, and the way I engage the discussion will offer some guidance. Perhaps, I can work towards growing closer to others, to being more myself, and to moving more towards God.
Navigating Social Media, with God
I. Begin, in Gratitude:
- Take a moment to dwell on one genuine encounter on social media: a conversation with a friend or loved one, a laugh or inside joke, a moment of joy and/or grace, a good memory …
- Dwell with that moment, savoring it as a moment of gift and grace from God.
II. Review, with God: (Here are some questions to help.)
- Ask are my actions, likes, and comments on social media making me more… me?
a) Do my actions show my true self? Do they hide behind a keyboard, or do they match what I would say or do in real life?
b) If I read my comments or actions aloud, or out of context, would they seem angry or kind?
c) Does my activity on social media reflect my values? Does my use of social media contribute to my growth as a person or hinder it?
- Ask do my actions, likes, and comments on social media bring me closer to others?
a) Does my presence on social media contribute positively or negatively to the tone of the internet? Do I acknowledge the good intentions of others, or do I assume the worst in their comments?
b) When I comment or like something, is it an attempt to continue a discussion or to force my opinion into the conversation? Do I seek understanding and encounter, or am I seeking to preach?
c) Do I see people as people on social media, or does my use encourage me to objectify their opinions, bodies, or humanity? Does my activity on social media acknowledge the humanity of the other person or do treat others as “less than” with my actions?
- Reflect, does my use of social media bring me closer to God?
a) Does my activity on social media help my grow in faith, hope, and love? Do my actions on social media make me a holier person? Do I seek out images or messages which undermine my faith or values?
b) Do I seek out opinions which upset me? Do I filter out all messages except for those I agree with? Does social media make me more cynical or sarcastic?
c) Do I read or respond in ways which I would be proud to acknowledge before God? Do I invite God’s guidance and input into my actions on social media? Do I activity seek God’s work on social media?
III. Process the review with God.
- Take a few moments to sit with the reactions to the questions and the probing of your activity on social media. Are there moments or actions or emotions which you notice?
- Without judging those moments as good or bad, simply invite God’s presence and guidance into your reflection. How is God calling you to respond? Is there something God wants you to celebrate? Is there something God may be calling you to change in the future?
IV. Move Forward, in Gratitude.
- Briefly close your prayer in thanks to God for allowing you this time to review your social media activity. Also, ask for God’s guidance moving forward.
- Take a moment to resolve, with God’s help, to move forward more graciously, prayerfully, and lovingly in your activity and time on social media.
- Perhaps, you can close with a short prayer such as…
God, You have given me gifts and opportunities to grow. Continue to work with my heart to allow these opportunities on social media, to become moments which draw me closer to You… closer to others… and closer to the person You have called me to be. Guide me so that I can responsibly use these opportunities and gifts for Your greater glory. Amen.
A special thanks to our TJP Contributors, Ken Homan, SJ, & Colten Biro, SJ, for compiling the reflection and Examen. Previous writings and biographical information of either author can be found on their author pages by clicking their names.
It’s easy to think of love on Valentine’s Day. It is, after all, a day we dedicate entirely to the saccharine, stuffed teddy bears gripping stuffed hearts, heart-shaped boxes of chocolates, and in Chicago, heart-shaped deep dish pizza. There are, for one day, endless romantic professions. I cannot survive without you, they say to each other. My heart is yours. I will never leave you. My gift to you is my whole self, the very blood pumping through my body more quickly when you’re around.
My love isn’t exactly directed that way. I spend my days with college students. I teach and tutor and advise and support and plan and plan and plan. It never ends. It is totally unbridled and exhausting. Some days, I’m not sure I’m going to make it. And so on Valentine’s Day I, as I do on every other day, carry on wondering where the fullness of my love will be drawn.
My church is a humble black parish in the West Haven neighborhood, just a few blocks from where the Bulls play. The church has a primary school attached to it, and last week, a group of students were slated to take the lead in providing voices for the service. They would offer the readings, the prayer intentions, and when they finished they would return to the choir and sing. They were all girls, young and bright and bouncing, happy to have a place in front.
One of them wore pink-stemmed glasses and had a pile of thick braids on top of her head. She approached the altar and bowed awkwardly, a deep and robotic gesture she was clearly coached into making. She went to the book of scripture, loudly adjusted the microphone, and slowly began: “A reading…from the book…of the prophet…”
And then, a gaping pause – she looked to the priest, and then to a white lady in the congregation, her teacher maybe – she didn’t know how to say Sirach. Old women in the pews leaned forward, gripping the stained wood, sensing her hesitation. They called out to her – “Speak, little sister! Proclaim that word!”
“Sigh-RACK,” she said, unafraid and unashamed, encouraged by those around her to keep going. She finished, “the word of the Lord,” and returned to her seat beaming, legs kicking above the floor too far away for her feet.
Then the choir kicked in. They were, with the exception of one girl who’s good with a tambourine, a timid group. They barely moved their mouths, and while the piano, drums, organ and trombone stomped out a joyful noise, these girls’ voices were nearly drowned out by sound bouncing around the vast interior of the worship space.
As the service continued, the priest took to the altar and began offering ancient prayers that have the power to change bread and wine into body and blood. As he prayed, I noticed all these girls in their school uniforms. They were mouthing the words of these prayers in unison with the priest. Through the priest, God consecrated that moment, but these girls confirmed it.
And I realized – I wanted these girls to have everything – long, happy lives, feasts with family on Sunday afternoons, a city street they can stroll down free of fear. I wanted to give them my whole heart, all my love, all my energy, all my time. The Mass ended with a gospel song. The words are clear and true, and became my prayer: You are important to me – I need you to survive.
My love rests with these girls who face tremendous adversity in their lives. And more broadly, with all people who have been subjected to the very worst things our world is offering – poverty and racism and needless death. When they sing and read and pray, they bring vitality and joy. They show me their worth and show me my own. They draw me out of myself and into a realm of community and compassion that reminds me of what it means to live for the other. Not just one other, but many. To say to them that I cannot survive without them, that all my heart is theirs, that I will never leave them, that my gift to them is my whole self, the very blood pumping through my body more quickly when they’re around.
My life may be unbridled and exhausting at times, and so is my love. But, it will never go away. It is relentless. And so are they. And so, I must be.