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Zombie-walking into my brother’s apartment after a late-night flight, I barely noticed the cookbook on the counter surrounded by root vegetables and greens. I dropped my bags on the guestroom floor and would soon drop myself beside them for a long night’s sleep, but not before a snack.
“You hungry? There’s some homemade rosemary wheat bread over there and in the fridge is some cacio e pepe butter I made a few days ago.”
Mmmm, I replied, as I began my transformation into a pumpkin, basically falling asleep against his countertop.
“I was thinking we’d have celery-apple-peanut salad tomorrow night with some roasted radishes with brown butter, chile, and honey. We can also have cream of cauliflower soup with our homemade croutons. That sound good? I’ll take you to our farmer’s market after work tomorrow to get the stuff.”
Mmmm, I replied, a step closer to pumpkinhood.
It honestly didn’t matter much to me—I was just happy to see the guy. We live on opposite ends of the American Midwest with equally-small airports, separated by prohibitively-expensive flights. But my summer travels finally made this visit possible.
A work day later for Trevor and a hilariously unproductive vacation day later for me, we stood under the tents of a market in a nearby parking lot. We bought a vegetable from a kind farmer who appeared to be perpetually winking. We discussed homegrown mushrooms with a woman selling them for her son. Then, we bought long, white radishes from a farmer who just got back from another stand with a sandwich in hand.
The farmer was particularly knowledgeable on peppers, indulging my questions with a tour de chile wherein I learned, notably, that chipotle peppers (my favorite) are actually just smoked jalapeno peppers.
There was a man playing music on an acoustic guitar in his own tent.
Dinner happened about two hours later, after a full review of Trevor and Kayla (his wife)’s porchedge herb, greens and tomato farm and a precise but leisurely process of chopping, frying, braising, and plating. To give me the title sous-chef would have been generous; I mainly drank beer and talked. Trevor had carefully selected a local brew to “try” with me.
We ate dinner for more than an hour and threw a frisbee afterwards. Then he went to bed for another workday, I for another hilariously unproductive vacation day. I ate more bread and butter before sleeping, leafing through the newly-bought but already widely stained and annotated cookbook on the counter.
Kayla woke from her nursing nightshift as I was getting ready to eat breakfast the next “morning” (recall: hilariously unproductive vacation day). I helped myself to a bowl of granola from two beautifully-thrifted corked glass carafes that Trevor pointed out the night before: “You know what that is? Remember that Granola Recipe of Doom you gave us? Enjoy it—we’ve been making it for years!” I recalled naming it that on the recipe card, but couldn’t exactly recall why. Then I tried it. I was wired for an hour.
Not much later, lunch. I met Trevor at the Yaffa Grill—and with two nights of significant sleep under my belt—we hit our strides, myself a theology major and he a Masters. We talked about his teaching, his writing, about food, catching side glimpses from other patrons as we accelerated through words like “co-creation,” “catechism,” “solidarity” and “vocation.” It culminated in a spirited conversation with the woman beside us, a joyful Lutheran pastor also on lunch break.
We went to a local pizzeria.
We went to Cincinnati to visit Kayla’s twin sisters, and, according to Trevor, “the best Indian restaurant I’ve been to since India.” Trevor and the restaurant’s owner joked about south-Indian cuisine that the rest of us, having never been to India, could not hope to understand.
Trevor and I got soft pretzels after a long hike, somehow inherited a dozen more from the bakery’s closing staff, and took them to Kayla and her fellow labor-and-delivery nurses.
We went to one last farmer’s market on the way to the airport. He researched prices for local eggs while I poked around at potatoes.
We did a lot. We even saw one of our favorite bands and talked to them before and after the show. We played a lot of darts. I lost a lot of darts. We did at least two hikes and saw a very old tree. I thriftshopped with both Trevor and Kayla on separate occasions, each time in awe of their focused prowess.
But all these paled in comparison. I mostly remember the food.
But this wasn’t just a foodie’s daydream or a week of gluttony. The food was memorable for the intentionality we gave it: the buying, the preparing, the cooking, the plating, the eating, the savoring and then the cleaning.
The food slowed us down.
It got us talking to one another. It got us talking to farmers. It got us talking to restaurant owners. It got us talking to fellow eaters. And at an age where we’re learning how to be adult brothers long distance, it was just what we needed.
How could I possibly thank him?
A 10 ¼ inch cast iron pan did the trick. At the time of writing this, it was already used “seven times in one day.”
I can’t wait to go back and be sous-chef again.
First a city-wide curfew… now this, I groaned. I swear I’m in a warzone or something. And all I hear are those damn choppers.
With news and police helicopters whirring above me I was driving my usual route to Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Baltimore under most unusual circumstances. It was time to return to school 36 hours after the Freddie Gray unrest. Baltimoreans of all types began another day while holding their breath in the hopes that life might return to normal.
Baltimore City did its part to realize these hopes by commencing a quasi-military occupation. The city imposed a curfew whereby all residents, except those going to work, needed to be off the streets by 10 pm. Charm City 1had enlisted as much muscle as possible to prevent any future disturbances. Maryland state troopers teamed up with troopers from Pennsylvania and New Jersey as well as the Maryland National Guard to maintain a nervous yet well-armed peace. Street corners morphed into guard posts as concrete barriers, law enforcement personnel, and automatic weapons kept a close eye on the city. The parking lots at the sports stadiums held Humvees and other military transport vehicles.
In the midst of these sentries were students and citizens waiting for city buses. They stood together wearing their ubiquitous Baltimore City Schools polos, security guard uniforms, or scrubs. And there they were, wearing blue or olive drab camouflage and holding weaponry. Many of my students took the bus to Cristo Rey and many could very well have been on street corners like those I saw that morning. I got defensive, first of myself and then of white folk. I looked awfully like many of the officers and Guardsmen stationed throughout the city. My students did not. How would I discuss this with them? I had labored the last 20 months or so to show my students that white folk could be trusted, that we weren’t that bad, that we could work together in a school like Cristo Rey and in the corporate world to transform Baltimore. I believed it.
Then my defensiveness shifted to my students. Why the weapons? Why the Humvees? Why the show of force? I wondered how my students must have felt with people bearing automatic arms and wearing fatigues on the same corner as them as they waited for their bus. I became suspicious and my suspicion began to align with what I imagine my students must experience every day. Generations-old social and racial tensions had always pulsed through the city, but after Freddie Gray these tensions made the city jittery. A jittery populace around a security force could easily turn angry, repeating earlier unrest and putting more people into harm’s way. At this point Baltimoreans had seen enough and we all wanted a reprieve from this show of force.
God forbid a nervous Guardsman or angry teen… I shoved the thought deep into the back of my brain. I kept driving, passing students and troops. I felt a little better; I didn’t need to take the bus.
I navigated regional rail, buses, and subways in Philly as a high school and college student. Early on in my teaching career, I thought this fact might demonstrate a kind of solidarity with my students. It would be a point of common ground between us. Like my students, I needed to plan ahead to ensure my two buses (#65 and #125) got me to work from school on time. Like my students, I cursed the local transportation authority when a train, unannounced, became an express and I had to double-back from Center City – adding at least 45 minutes to my commute and causing me to miss class. But I survived and thought I was a better man for it. Transit became a challenge to overcome, and by golly I wanted them to be mini-Horatio Algers who pulled themselves up by their transit bootstraps and get to my level of transit freedom. It was their responsibility to deliver themselves out of their transit mess. But when I made these claims to show I “got” them, to show some empathy or solidarity, I still sensed distance between us. I just couldn’t close the privilege gap.
In Baltimore, transportation and privilege are directly related. Very quickly I learned that the city seemed to facilitate movement in certain directions at certain times of day that favored certain groups of people. Going north-south was remarkably easy if one’s start- and end- points were downtown Baltimore and the immediate northern suburbs. The Jones Falls Expressway (JFX) bisected Baltimore and, though rush hour could provide some annoyances, it was pretty direct and allowed commuters to move freely. If I wanted to get out of downtown easily and avoid the JFX then Charles Street and Calvert Street were timed to stay green to facilitate movement out of the city to Baltimore County. These streets routinely became highways as speed limits became suggestions, especially for me. I once clocked a 15-minute trip from Federal Hill (a young, trendy neighborhood just south of downtown) to our community at Loyola University Maryland via Charles and Calvert. I only ran one red light.
My experience of driving through Baltimore contrasted with the east-west morass my students encountered daily. Many of my students traveled this way – most of the Latin Americans and some Black students from the east, most of the Black students and some Latin Americans from the west and south. Lights were not timed well to get across town nor were east-west streets as wide as north-south streets to move traffic quickly. Moreover, there is no east-west urban highway counterpart to the north-south JFX or I-95. I-170 was supposed to ease movement from I-70 into downtown, but all the infamous “Highway to Nowhere” did was separate traditionally Black neighborhoods from each other on the West Side. Further, the state government in Annapolis has prioritized highways and trains throughout the state and DC suburban mass transit over Baltimore transit. It also left Baltimore City off a transportation infrastructure map.
System-wide inefficiency hurt my students much more than me. For me, driving east-west was an occasional inconvenience. For my students, it was a daily cross that ranged from getting annoyed to “catching a hack” – the Baltimore tradition of flagging down passing motorists and paying a below market taxi price for a ride. Even in the age of Uber and Lyft, it is still common to see people walking along the road pointing down, the signal for a hack. When I asked a student at lunch if he were trying to catch a hack the previous afternoon as I drove by, he responded, “Yeah I was. Why didn’t you pick me up?”
It was a challenging question and it made me uncomfortable. The question cut to the heart of my willingness to head down the same road as my students, to suffer embarrassment and discomfort, contempt and humiliation with and for them. If my privilege won out, then their lives would remain distant curiosities that would forever elicit sighs of pity from me. If I accepted abasement, then I would have a chance to learn why they rode those roads in the first place.
From my start at Cristo Rey, I became acutely aware that differences like transportation between my students and me reinforced a social hierarchy that benefitted me. I often stumbled over omnipresent power dynamics that loaded many of my words and actions. Cristo Rey had about an 80/20 Black/Latin American student ratio as well as a 60/40 female/male student ratio. This context contrasted starkly with my high school student experience: all-male and about 85% white. I quickly learned that mentoring and patronizing differed greatly and so did disciplining and policing. It didn’t help that I looked like various other novice teachers they’d had in middle school who entered their underprivileged world underprepared for the job. Such teachers taught them a short period of time and moved on. There was a good chance I could end up a blip on my students’ life-radar.
The way to bridge the gap created by these differences was abasement, the act of being belittled or humbled. I learned this very well my during first year teaching. Like when my very first class lesson was a dud as my students didn’t know how to read a map of Baltimore. Like when most of my students failed the first history test I gave. Like when a student in my homeroom ripped up the detention slip and threw the confetti on the floor in front of me. Like when another student in that homeroom exclaimed as I ordered him to leave the classroom, “You’ll miss me when I’m gone!” He was right; he was asked to transfer after his freshman year and I still miss him.
Exasperated after my first week of classes, I vented to my mentor. His response? “This ain’t Saint Joe Prep, buddy.”
That understatement encapsulated how the privilege gap affected me and my students. I idolized unrealistic expectations and my students suffered from my ignorance of them and my inexperience as a teacher. My incredulity increased each time I perceived they could not maintain their attention in class, sit still, keep quiet, write clear paragraphs, and keep up with homework. As my frustration became more obvious, their level of trust remained low. I tried to tighten discipline even more and control my students so they could be students at a school like Saint Joe’s Prep, my beloved alma mater in Philly. I hit rock bottom in my first year when I took an entire class out in the hall, lined them up, and waited for them to keep silent for a single minute before we returned to the lesson. It took twenty-five minutes to get one, but I felt that my policing set the proper tone for class.
Because of privilege, my students were stuck at the Cross and I was stuck in the City of Brotherly Love.
Abasement transported me to the Cross at a slow, tough pace that forced me to learn and listen twice as much as I tried to control proceedings. First, this meant I needed to acknowledge my own ignorance as a teacher. What worked at The Prep didn’t work at Cristo Rey and the quicker I accepted that, the better. Observing other teachers and paying attention to my students, I figured out my students learned best with multiple visuals and shorter, quick activities to reinforce the lesson. This also made me realize my students weren’t all that unique; the majority of students – inner-city, rural, or suburban – learn best that way. I still fondly remember one of my finest lessons from about mid-way through my first year. We studied the Progressive Era. All my sections clearly understood the posted learning goal – Students Will Be Able To… explain the rise and goals of the Social Gospel Movement. I gave basic information via quick lecture and photos. Then my students worked with a partner to draw a before and after of a city following Social Gospel mandates. They actually learned history that day. Solid pedagogy allowed me to take a small but firm step towards credibility.
Second, I needed to learn about my students from my students at their will. With more knowledge about them, I could build relationships with them. These relationships would help keep class running smoothly. Relationships were tough to build though, so I undertook any means to understand the students, often putting myself at their mercy. One easy way to understand my students better was to listen to their favorite music. When I added 92Q to the classic rock and pop presets in the community car, I started to become better versed in Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole, and Drake. This allowed me to take another step towards credibility. By no means was I a hip-hop expert, but I knew enough to badger my homeroom one morning, prompting an uproar in my classroom equal parts friendly and fierce. It started when I criticized Drake’s style.
“You don’t like Drake!!?? ‘Views’ is straight fire!”
“Kendrick Lamar is better, just saying.”
“Marchionni, you don’t get it; when he back home, they throw parades for Drake.”
“Okay, I’ll give you ‘Jumpman’ but –”
“Of course Marchionni gonna say ‘Jumpman!’ The class burst out in laughter. It was the most-played song and thus the most likely one for a white man to listen to.
“But listen – overall Drake just talks over a beat. I think Kendrick Lamar got better flow, just saying.”
They then proceeded to destroy my argument, let me know exactly which songs on “Views” to listen to, and then let me know about popular local Baltimore rappers with similar styles. That was the sort of pummeling I needed to show my comfort around them. This put both of us at ease.
Finally, abasement began to bear fruit in the trust my students showed me. Granted, these baby steps towards credibility and trust took over a year. But my students sensed that I was learning from them and that they were playing an active role in the teacher-student relationship. In these privileged moments, the typical teacher-student power dynamic played out with sincerity and compassion – no grades, no deadlines, just accompaniment. There was nothing I or my own privilege could do but to experience my students’ reality on their terms. On the surface, they had the standard inner-city stories. They had witnessed shootings and been victims of racial profiling. They’ve sacrificed to come to this country and have sacrificed to stay here. They visited family members in prison and hoped others don’t end up there. Gangs ran some students’ neighborhoods and tempted them with quick money. Trite as it seems for this foreigner to their context, these conversations allowed me to put a face and story to the statistics. When I hear about a homicide in the city, I know which students are from those neighborhoods and pray they’re safe. I fear a few have succumbed to gangs since leaving Cristo Rey and are on the corners now. I could empathize with the common privileged high school student problems involving some similar themes, but not with these. Life seemed dark and my stomach routinely sank as I found it tough to plan lessons knowing my students’ stories. How much could I blame them if they were distracted by the drama and couldn’t study? How much could I blame them if they were caring for younger siblings instead of finishing my homework?
These moments dragged me from Pilate’s court down to the Cross with my students. These moments when they spoke and I listened liberated us from the dual diseases of control and mistrust. There huddled by Christ’s brokenness I caught a glimmer of my students’ reality. Christ sanctified the struggle and gave us consolation that we could endure this reality together. In these brief moments of trust, accompaniment, and vulnerability, the Cross liberated us.
Any of my students could have been Freddie Gray. I learned about him on my way to school in mid–April 2015. I looked at the day’s Baltimore Sun laying out on a table in the community. On the front page was a photo of a young black man laid up in a hospital bed after being taken into police custody. The tubes, wires, and neck brace dehumanized him for me – I could barely see the person behind the machinery serving his vital needs. I shrugged and went on with my day, but not before sighing to myself presciently, “Shit. This is going to be bad.”
When the school administration heard rumors of a “purge” happening over West Side the afternoon of Monday, April 27, our principal dismissed us at 3:00 pm. By 3:02 pm, I was in a community Corolla and booking it north. Rush hour was just starting and though roads were busy, we all moved along swiftly. It was as if a city held a large-scale fire drill – crowded though we were we needed to move quickly and quietly. It was the same on the roads. I went north from Cristo Rey but cut over quickly to the JFX to get out of the city faster, just in case. It seemed all cars were heading north except for police who were hauling it west; their response just seemed to urge us northward with more vigor and to confirm everyone’s collective hunch: get out while you can. Siren after siren alerted us that Baltimore was in peril.
Scrambling out of the city was easy for me. I drove my own car and traveled the path that privilege set out for me. It was not as easy for students and many working people taking public transit. They were going into the teeth of the unrest. To get home many of my students had to go through the two transit centers closest to the unrest: Mondawmin and Penn-North. The MTA closed each one that afternoon as unrest spread over the West side. For students and adults alike, it became time to improvise as people were picked up at bus and subway stops in other parts of the city. As I binged on live news reports that ranged from sober to absurd, I thought about my students. I thought about why the center of the unrest and worst of the arson was in some of their West and East Side neighborhoods. I thought about what they’d feel with Baltimore in the national and international spotlight. I thought about all the ways Baltimore lived up to the reputation that The Wire formed in popular culture and how my students tried to shun it. I thought about how suburban whites like myself would react to the unrest and how they would ignorantly label my students. I got mad.
I went on a social justice warpath the next day – I had the time since city schools were all closed. While everyone caught their breath, cleaned the streets, and processed the event, I researched Baltimore’s economic and social history inside and out. Our social studies department was supposed to help the students process the event academically, and was I prepared to lecture my students all about our city and to give them ideas (orders?) about how to save it. With the best of intentions, control crept back into my pedagogical repertoire. It appeared differently, though, as now I unwittingly set myself up to be the patronizing white savior I tried so hard not to be. I had come a long way from being a task master, but I had flipped to the other extreme.
Our department chair kindly and firmly put me in my place. She reminded me that this was their event as much as, if not much more, than mine. They are likely traumatized and need to find their voice, so just let them share and listen. As a department, we’ll figure out what to do when we accurately sense where they are with the event.
Oh. I sunk down a little in my chair and my shoulders sagged, annoyed at myself for this latest instance of abasement. I had to accept that I was not from the city as my students were. Moreover, my research had fed my needs and curiosity; it had never crossed my mind that my students might have different questions about or reactions to the event or their city.
And so I rejected the temptation to assume that I was one of my students and that I could accurately speak for Baltimore after my 20 or so months there. I shut out the news and police helicopters whirring above us and listened to my students. Period after period echoed the same refrains – adolescent ennui and cynicism mixed with a dearth of economic and social opportunities. “What can the city do?” I asked. Bring back our rec centers so kids won’t be on the corner, they said. How about some job training? they asked. One student’s critique was pointed at the mayor – “How about she start by not calling us ‘thugs.’ Like, you don’t know me. You don’t know us. Who you think you are calling me a ‘thug’?”
The increased police presence that greeted all of us on our commutes to school – via car or public transit – was too little and too late for my students. From their perspective, these helicopters and barricades were the first visible signs that the civic authority was paying attention to them. My students’ system-wide mistrust of the city government and police matched the perceived mistrust the city and police harbored about them. Mistrust outweighed the constructive or positive moments one had with the other, and both became worse for it. The city has been trying some new initiatives recently, but these were a distant hope in the aftermath of the Freddie Gray protests.
Their responses that day were visceral, raw, and based in my students’ concrete reality. None of their responses matched the data I had collected the day before in my research.
I’m writing these reflections from a great distance – literally 30,000 feet. As I type I’m flying cross-country from Baltimore to Berkeley, CA. I fly regularly as part of my Jesuit formation because I am expected to see family (on the east coast), attend events (on the east coast), and participate in ongoing development to make me the well-rounded servant the Church needs (around the country and the world). American – especially white – Jesuits are privileged and yet it is exactly this privilege that allowed me to attend the Cristo Rey Baccalaureate Mass and Commencement this year. This privilege allowed me to see my students walk across the stage and proudly cheer and yell, especially when former homeroom students received their diplomas. This privilege allowed me to show them that I was still around somehow, someway. This privilege allowed me to let them know they have an ally and a listening ear whenever they needed. But I am in California now and many will stay in Baltimore, and we will lack the physical proximity necessary to cultivate solidarity.
Over three years in Baltimore I used my privilege to try to eschew privilege. The tension from this paradox is ever-present and I do not know how well I engaged abasement in my road from privilege to solidarity. I know I love my students and, judging by reactions at graduation, they love me. But our roads differ so vastly that it will take more than my three years of work to achieve authentic solidarity. The privilege gap deepens distrust and cynicism cements itself in the minds of youth. If I ever returned to Cristo Rey, I’d have to undergo the same abasement process with new students. I’d need to earn their trust and my credibility as I did with my homeroom. I’d need to travel more roads to solidarity with more students and welcome the various roadblocks, inefficiencies, and delays. But my own roadblocks won’t be men with automatic rifles. It will be the instances where students see me as a traveler, an interloper, a colonist, an appropriator of culture, or a redeveloper of a neighborhood. There are no shortcuts and it won’t take 18 minutes to arrive at solidarity.
At graduation I chatted with a former student who could hardly contain herself as she told me about an upcoming family vacation to Florida. It will be the first time she has ever gone on a plane and she was a bit nervous. I tried to reassure her, “Don’t worry – BWI to Orlando is like 2 hours. It’ll be a breeze.” Easy for me to say, of course. My first flight was also a family vacation to Orlando so I could empathize a bit and…
Who was I kidding? She’s 17. I first flew to Orlando at age six and yet I still have very far to go.
This interview is Part I of a two-part series. Check back next Monday for the second half!
TJP: Your book has garnered a great deal of attention. What has that reception been like for your personally? Has anything about the reception surprised you?
Martin: The word that comes to mind is intense. The book has garnered some intense reactions. The most common are from LGBT people I’ve met at parish talks – in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Massachusetts – who cry when they talk to me or want to give me a hug. And the size of the crowds has also taken me aback. I think we had something like 700 people at St. Cecilia’s in Boston a few days after the book came out.
At first this really confused me. Because, frankly, the book is pretty mild. It doesn’t challenge any church teaching (it’s been approved by my provincial and endorsed by two cardinals, after all) and it doesn’t call for anything revolutionary. Its overarching theme is welcome, encounter and dialogue. Certainly those are things that people must have heard before. A diocesan priest friend of mine read the book, and said with a laugh, “Don’t take this the wrong way, Jim, but I read the book and wondered what all the fuss was about!”
It took a while to figure out the reason for the crowds and to understand the incredibly intense emotional reactions. I suspect it may come from hearing a priest saying these things. Seeing someone in a collar say these things, even if they are mild, may be new for people. It serves to remind me that there is still a hunger among LGBT Catholics for welcome from their own church. And when you’re in a collar that’s who you’re representing.
Another surprise has been the emotional reaction of parents and grandparents in particular. When I wrote the book, I imagined the target audience as two groups: LGBT Catholics and church officials. My aim was to build a bit of a bridge between them. But as more and Catholics are public about their sexuality and identity, the issue affects more Catholic families—parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, brothers and sisters, and so on. I think that group has also felt for a long time the desire to be embraced by the church. So ministry to LGBT people is ministry to a much larger portion of the church than I imagined.
At the same time, the book has driven a few people, mainly online, into near hysteria. There have been some incredibly hateful comments from some websites; and the anger, contempt and ad hominem attacks have surprised me. Mind you, this goes beyond disagreement about the book and crosses into pretty clear homophobia, contempt and hatred. But I guess that’s what this community has had to deal with for many years.
TJP: Your book has a specific goal: to encourage respectful, compassionate and sensitive dialogue between the LGBT community and the Catholic Church. It often seems that your critics, however, wanted something different from you – and tend to judge the book in light of their own goals. What are their goals? What have you learned from critics of your book? Have they shown you other bridges that need to be built?
Martin: That’s a good point. I told my publisher early on that I could probably anticipate the critiques from both sides. From some in the LGBT community it would be, “Not far enough.” From some in the institutional church, “Too far.”
As you point out, a lot of reviewers review the book that they wish had been written. Some reviewers wanted a book that said that the LGBT Catholics should never deal with the church, or never approach bishops with respect, which is a ridiculous position to take if you’re a Christian. Certainly they’ve been hurt, but reconciliation is always part of the Christian worldview. And some wanted a book that simply excoriated LGBT Catholics, or told them over and over and over how sinful they were, which I was also not going to do.
What are their goals? Among some on the far left, it seems to be a complete rejection of the church. Among some on the far right, it seems to be a complete rejection of LGBT people. What have I learned? That there can be common ground among people of reason and charity, but finding common ground with people with closed minds is harder. As for other bridges, I think that those who continually condemn LGBT people need to meet a few of them.
TJP: Explaining why you didn’t talk at length in your book about Church teaching on sexuality, you noted in a July 14 article that, “Theologically speaking, you could say that these teachings have not been “received” by the L.G.B.T. community, to whom they were directed. So I intentionally did not focus on those topics, since not only are those teachings well known, but they are also areas on which the two sides are too far apart. I preferred to focus on areas of possible commonality.”
What do you mean by “received” here? To what do you attribute this failure of reception? Is your approach of respect, compassion and sensitivity intended to ease that reception? What would do so?
Martin: To take a theological perspective, a teaching must be “received” by the faithful. It’s a complex topic (and I am no professional theologian) but, in general, for a teaching to be complete it must be appreciated, accepted and understood by the faithful. The tradition is that the faithful possess their own inner sense of the authority of a teaching. That’s the sensus fidei or sensus fidelium. You can find out more about it in the Vatican document Sensus Fidei. Here’s a quote that’s helpful:
The sensus fidei fidelis is a sort of spiritual instinct that enables the believer to judge spontaneously whether a particular teaching or practice is or is not in conformity with the Gospel and with apostolic faith.
This has always been part of church teaching. In any event, it seems like the majority of the LGBT Catholics community does not agree with the church’s teaching on same-sex relations: that is, they are impermissible. From what many LGBT people tell me, that particular teaching doesn’t fit with their own experiences as human beings who love and are loved. So that teaching, it seems, has not been “received” by the LGBT community, which is the community most affected by it.
Here’s an example: a longtime friend of mine named Mark, was in a religious order for a few years (not the Jesuits). After he left, he came out a gay man, and entered into a relationship with another man. For the last 20 or so years, they’ve been together and Mark has also cared for him through a serious, long-term illness. So one question for the church is: Is that a form of love?
Thus, the “respect, compassion and sensitivity” that I’m calling for means that a bishop or church official would be open to meeting Mark, and his partner, and hearing what they have to say about their experience of love, and their receptivity to that teaching. That’s part of the bridge. What could a bishop learn from Mark? And what could Mark learn from a bishop?
Being a news junkie today is to be hit daily by an avalanche of bad news, a lot of it sensationalistic. News of mass shootings, deportations of the parents of young children, and the rise in hateful speech – so casually spewed – often overwhelm me. That is not to say that I am unaware of the good going on. I just wish there were more of it.
This is why I was refreshed by the tone and message of a pastoral letter issued last Tuesday by Bishop Mark Seitz of the diocese of El Paso, Texas. He addresses the situation of migrants and refugees in his border city, separated from its sister city Ciudad Juarez, Mexico by the Rio Grande. Rather than just lament the suffering, poverty, and violence that brings migrants to the USA, or dwell on the ways that fear of round-ups and deportation migrants face in the current political climate, he speaks a word of hope to all people caught up in these realities.
The title of the bishop’s letter, Sorrow and Mourning Flee Away, comes from Isaiah 51:11, which tells of the final joyful entry of the dispossessed and exploited in Jerusalem. It’s a message of God’s promise of salvation being fulfilled for his beloved suffering people. He goes on to connect the literal desert in which El Paso is located—in which many migrants die trying to cross—and the metaphorical desert of fear and marginalization migrants are facing today, with Isaiah 35:7-10, which prophesies that the desert will turn to springs and burning sands to pools of water.
This is not a head-in-the-clouds letter, however. El Paso has a history that resonates with these scriptures and this vision of hope – and the bishop stays grounded in that history. The bishop recounts that the area is the ancient home of several indigenous groups, then a long list of migrants have come in turn—first the Spanish, then from the Republic of Texas, the young United States, Ireland, China, refugees from the Mexican Revolution, escapees of the Cristero War, and now those fleeing Mexican and Central American drug lords and gangs. The city’s ability to welcome and absorb each group has created the integrated shared culture that freely spans the border.
Echoing Pope Francis’ constant exhortation to build bridges, Bishop Seitz blames no particular group for the current mess. Starting from what is common—a shared agreement that our immigration system is broken—he proposes a vision of reform that upholds both national security and the right of people to migrate when life becomes untenable at home. This is not a new message. The US bishops have been advocating comprehensive immigration reform for many years, and Congress has continually failed to act. This pastoral letter, however, takes the matter from the level of policy and principle and roots it in contextual spiritual discernment that is incumbent upon each person and the community at large.
He names three sequential steps: (1) encounter, (2) conversion, and (3) compassion. El Paso has been and continues to be a place of encounter between people of different backgrounds. In an encounter with others, approached with openness and the belief that all people are made in the image and likeness of God, God is revealed. This leads us to conversion, because we encounter God in the other and are challenged and changed. Conversion then motivates us to do things and to do them differently – with Christ-like compassion. More than a pastoral approach to a problem, Bishop Seitz offers a model for unity of the Church, the unity of the Body of Christ, which we manifest and pray for in every Sunday Eucharist.
Bishop Seitz is connecting many dots that we often fail to: linking worship, the web of relationships, Catholic teaching, public policies, and collective action. The message is clearly focused on what can unite rather than divide, build bridges rather than walls, encounter rather than isolation. This message of reconciliation is so unusual and refreshing to me in the United States of 2017. I’d like to shout it out from the rooftops: Sorrow and Mourning Flee!
“Ye come seekin’ adventure and salty old pirates, eh? Sure, you come to the proper place. But keep a weather eye open, mates, and hold on tight—with both hands, if you please. There be squalls ahead! And Davy Jones waiting for them what don’t obey. And mark well me words, mateys: Dead men tell no tales!”
Anyone who’s been to a Disney theme park will know of its famous attraction “The Pirates of the Caribbean” with the equally famous theme song, “Yo ho, yo ho, a pirate’s life for me.”
This year marks fifty years of sending landlubbers on swashbuckling voyages on the high seas. Originally debuted at Disneyland, California in 1967, “Pirates of the Caribbean” was the last attraction that Walt Disney personally commandeered before his death three months earlier. This attraction was a real game changer in that it raised the standard of what a theme park attraction could and should be. “Pirates” was an elaborate story told through Audio-Animatronics, staged in immersive environments, all viewed from aboard a boat that plunges down (and up) waterfalls.
As a kid, this attraction was a favorite because I could gently cruise through creepy caverns, past thunderstorms and underneath the volleying of cannonballs all from the safety of a very seaworthy vessel. As my boat coasted onward, I’d imagine myself alongside those scalawags as one of them, because for 16 minutes it was okay to (or at least ok to want to) pillage, plunder, rifle, and loot — “Drink up me hearties, yo ho!”
Having been a Disneyland Cast Member (employee of the Walt Disney Company) for a number of years, I can assure you that Disney Parks pride themselves on being able to tell stories and immerse their guests into them like no one else can. The secret to Disneyland’s success is its ability to put you right smack in the middle of those very stories. Take my childhood experience, for example: I became part of the ride, able to to fantasize about a pirate’s life for 16 minutes.
That being said, I learned that it is definitely better to abandon ship. Look more closely at the ride: we see evidence of how the pirates met their demise, whether they are locked up for looting, impaled by swords from a fight over treasure, drunk to death, blown to smithereens, or sitting atop a pile of wealth that they could not take with them. These men who tell no tales all died in vain.
Moral of the story: Yo ho, yo ho a pirate’s life is NOT for you.
Over the last half century, “Pirates” has undergone a handful of updates both as social consciousness shifts and in order to keep it fresh and relevant to park guests today. This is a mandate from Captain Walt who promised that as long as imagination is left in the world, Disneyland would continue to grow and change. Three specific changes come to mind:
From Lust to Lush: Throughout the 20th century, public opinion began to change – especially in how we understand gender. Most notably, the original attraction featured some lustful pirates chasing women. While we never did see them catch them, we know what their intentions are. Real life pirates did, in fact, rape women; we’re left to presume that’s what those pirates did too. Over the decades this became a sight that no one wanted to see while they vacation away from the real world at “The Happiest Place on Earth.” This scene has since been reworked to show the pirates chasing the women for the food, treasure and libations they bear.
There was also the “tired pirate (5:10)” who talks about “hoisting his colors on a wench” and how he’s willing to share. Thankfully, his script and role has been changed too as he now monologues about keeping a treasure map and key hidden. I look at these instances now and marvel at how perverted it all seems, and I wonder how this was ever acceptable. Disney did the right thing in changing these scenes, but is exchanging lust for gluttony any better? Just because this type of show was acceptable in the past, it doesn’t make it any less tasteless or anymore okay. It’s good to know that The Walt Disney Company will respond to changes in public opinion. But is that Disney’s primary motivation?
Captain Jack Sparrow Comes Aboard: With the wild success of the attraction-inspired “The Pirates of the Caribbean” movie franchise, Disney infused elements from the films into the existing storyline of the beloved attraction. Take Disney’s newest theme park in Shanghai: it is a far cry from Walt’s original attraction but clearly more spectacular and thrilling. Previously at Disneyland, you would hear a ghostly pirate voice – manifested in the form of a skeletal pirate sitting on a mount of gold – warning us landlubbers as we exit the caverns: “ye’ve seen the cursed treasure, you know where it be hidden. Now proceed at your own risk. Thes be the last ‘friendly’ words ye’ll hear. Ye may not survive to pass this way again.”
Today, however, Disney has seen the cursed treasure that the Pirates franchise brings into the company and thus is choosing to capitalize on using characters such as Captain Jack Sparrow, Captain Barbossa, and Davy Jones. Doing this is a smart move to keep the attraction relevant as a new generation of park goers are no doubt familiar with these films. Thus, instead of the pirates blasting themselves out of the water, the attraction now ends with a very inebriated Captain Jack Sparrow (10:25) gloating about how, for him, a pirate’s life is the pinnacle of success. The moral of the ride seems to be fading away as us landlubbers are left thinking maybe a pirate’s life is for us too.
The “Wench” Auction Scene: Currently, “The Pirates of the Caribbean” features an auction scene where lascivious pirates can bid to “take a wench for a bride.” When I was a kid, I thought it was humorous that a plumpish “wench” was eager to show her “larboard side” and “superstructure” in the hopes of bagging a pirate.
My favorite “wench” in the auction scene is “the redhead.” She is beautiful and she shamelessly flaunts her beauty as the onlooking pirates across the way give cat calls and shout “We wants the redhead.” I guess that growing up, I didn’t really think about what the pirates wanted to do with the sexy redhead. Later as a Cast Member, one of my favorite co-workers was a redhead. Still without really thinking about what those pirates meant, I could be heard calling out to my redheaded leader “We wants the redhead!”
How did we ever think that this jovial display of sex trafficking was ever ok? Do gender expectations and lack of financial resources lead her to think that the only way to get a husband is to put herself up for auction? This is just in poor taste on Disney’s part. And while we can easily shift blame to a previous generation, I too am responsible for promoting this culture when I cat-called back to my red-headed co-worker.
Disney has now decided to alter this scene because let’s face it, sex trafficking shouldn’t be funny or taken lightly. This is clearly a good thing. I applaud Disney for stopping the promotion of sex trafficking or, for that matter, any abuse of women.
As the re-imaged story goes, the redhead becomes the first female pirate. She and the other women are no longer up for auction. Now she stands with rifle in tow, assisting with the auctioning of the goods that the townspeople seem forced to bring over. Instead of shamelessly flaunting her beauty, she now shamelessly exploits people for their goods at gunpoint.
But is this latest change actually all that good? While Disney put an end to selling off women, I have to wonder if making the redhead a pirate was the right thing do. Can women really be proud that they are now represented as pirates? Does changing the auctioning of women for the auctioning of stolen goods make it that much better?
I will always love Disneyland, the “Pirates of the Caribbean” attraction, and I applaud Disney’s efforts in rolling with the tide of public opinion. But what is left in the process? Has Disney lost the idea that a pirate’s life is a bad thing in especially these last two changes? Is it okay to promote priate values as long as the films make money? By giving Disney guests the first female pirate, and by phasing out the moral of the attraction does it mean that the American public thinks it’s okay “pillage, plunder, rifle and loot? Drink up me hearties, yo-ho”?
Cover image courtesy Orange County Register.
I sat on the edge of my seat awaiting the opening credits of the third incarnation of Spider-Man. The first Spider-Man taught us that superhero movies could hold a dominant place in Hollywood. The Amazing Spider-Man brought us closer to the Peter Parker—Spider-Man’s unmasked identity—from the comic books. But, what would the most recent Spider-Man bring to the table?
Tom Holland appeared in the red and blue suit in his official cameo in Captain America: Civil War. His character was notably younger than his Avenger peers, but what would this fresh face in the Spidey-suit bring to the franchise?
As I sat leaning forward slightly, I was surprised to find a Spider-Man and Spider-Man movie which was distinctly millennial.
Wait, Did Spidey Just Facebook Live?
One of striking features of a millennial is their comfort with technology and social media. It isn’t terribly shocking as this generation has had access to cell phones, the internet, and social media for a large chunk of their life. But, I was not expecting to find the presence of this generational trait in the opening of Spider-Man: Homecoming.
In the first scene featuring our high school hero, we get a recount of his appearance in Captain America: Civil War. Yet, the version in this movie appears as a video taken on Peter Parker’s phone. It includes selfies. It reflects him placing the phone down and narrating into the phone. It mirrors a Facebook Live video, a vlog, or a YouTube video. It includes Peter’s narration of the events from the former movie, exuding all the fanboy-wonder one might hope for in someone who meets their heroes. He does everything but ask for a selfie with Captain America and the other Avengers.
Happy Hogan, Tony Stark’s bodyguard in the Iron Man series, appears in Peter’s video as the handler who brought Spider-Man to the big fight scene in Civil War. At one point, Happy Hogan tells Peter something to the effect, “you know you can’t show anyone that.”
Which is a funny line to hear, both because we are watching his story unfold on the screen, but also because when Peter’s friend Ned uncovers Peter’s identity he says, “You’re the Spider-man from YouTube!” The line lands, and it is obvious: this isn’t the Spider-Man of Tobey Maguire or Andrew Garfield’s Spider-Man.
Where the general public meet the two previous Spider-Men from the newspaper The Daily Bugle, Tom Holland is the Spider-Man who appears on YouTube. Phones and videos capture his heroics, rather than traditional print media. Tom Holland is the Spider-Man of the internet and social media. His character exists in the world similar to our own—where a web of unfathomable information is one ‘click’ or ‘like’ away.
Is Our Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man an Advocate for the 99%?
In the Avengers an alien force invades New York. In their defeat, New York had been ravaged with both the destruction from the battle and the bodies and technology of the invaders. In this aftermath, Spider-Man: Homecoming introduces Adrian Toomes who owns a small construction company which has been hired to do clean-up.
Toomes is blue-collar. He offers kind advice and guidance for his contractors. He seems like a “good guy.” Within moments, a governmental organization arrives to take over his clean-up contract. His business venture, his investment, and his hard work are gone. To make matters worse, the governmental organization which steps in to take his job, is co-funded by Tony Stark.
It leads to an interchange between two employees:
“So now the assholes who made this mess are getting paid to clean it up?”
“Yeah, it’s all rigged.”
Their discussion reflects a deep thread running throughout the entire movie: a deep mistrust of the ‘big players’ or the elite. Underlying the entire film was the same tension and outrage in the Occupy movements and even Bernie Sander’s presidential campaign: “We are the 99%!”
Adrian Toomes is the movie’s antagonist, but he never receives the vilification one might expect of Spider-Man’s usual sinister adversary. Unlike most superhero movies where the villain exists as super-human or otherworldly, Toomes remains entirely human and down to earth. In fact, I don’t remember him even being referred to as “the Vulture,” his name in the comics. Instead, in the film he is constantly painted as the little guy, just trying to make ends meet.
Toomes is easily one of the most sympathetic villains in any superhero movie: a contractor turned thief because of circumstance. His fiercest moments occur not when fighting Peter, but in the challenging instances where the comfort of his family is at stake. He loves his family and desperately wants to provide for them in a system rigged against him.
This theme is pushed further by the constant call for Peter Parker to be “a friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.” Tony Stark at one point even recommends, “Stay close to the ground and build your game helping the little people, like that lady who brought you the churro.” All of this is to say, while some superhero movies bring in the big, the global, and the billionaires, Spider-Man struggles to keep the little people at the forefront.
Did Spider-Man Troll Us with the Extra Scene?
The movie ended with Spider-Man saving the day, but—as per tradition at the end of comic book movies—I waited for the extra scene. In a final millennial act of mischief, Captain America appears on the screen delivering one of his public service announcements which we see throughout the film:
“Hi, I’m Captain America. I’m here to talk to you about patience… and why you waited around for something so disappointing.”
At first, I laughed at the public announcement from the Captain, but then it hit me: they just pranked me! Marvel, knowing I was looking forward to clues about the next installment, just did the film-equivalent of rickrolling the audience. In true millennial fashion, Spider-Man: Homecoming had used the technology available and my own expectations to troll me.
“Okay, mijo, make the number three with your fingers and hold them together.” My grandfather’s hard, gruff voice could cause a nine-year-old to quiver. “Place your fingers at the bottom of the glass, like this,” he guides my hand to do what he’s describing. The familiar smell of Old Spice and tobacco bookmarks this moment into my memory. “Pour whiskey into the glass; stop when you reach the top of your fingers. Add some ice. And some soda.” He takes a drink. He smacks his lips. He gives a satisfied smile. “Now you know how to mix a drink.”
I have a large extended family. A family that loves to eat, drink, dance, and party well past nightfall. And when the momentum of our gatherings moved late into the night, drink orders increased. As kids, my cousin Laura and I would play a game of pretend. We called it “restaurant.” We’d hang towels on our arms and carry trays in our hands.
“Grab me a beer,” someone would shout. “How ‘bout…(shaking the glass, sounds of ice indicating emptiness).” And off we’d go. Pulling off beer tabs and mixing drinks, mostly Jack and Cokes or Seven and Sevens.
Needless to say, I got real good at making these simple cocktails. And as I grew older I knew how to make them without the use of my fingers. By 16, I was no longer pretending. I could hold my own with my family.
It’s 2010 and I’m exploring the possibility of a priestly vocation. I live in Chicago and I’ve reached out to the Jesuits. I’ve been invited to attend a July 4th cookout at Loyola Chicago. Because I don’t know Jesuits very well I was told this is a great way to begin making myself familiar. Sounds perfectly legit. I start to get nervous.
I’m a bashful person, but once I warm up, I can be a social butterfly. The easiest way for me to move from shy to butterfly is to imbibe. So when I arrive, I locate the table with all the alcohol. I’m hoping for Jack and Coke or Seven and Seven. But, there’s only Canadian Club and Sprite. It’ll have to do. I mix. I take a swig. I feel less tense. I gulp what’s left. With a deep breath I exhale away the edge and mix another. Now I can sip and socialize.
I have a few of these drinks throughout the evening. More than a few. And I’m talking and laughing. All those insecure thoughts that run through my head are muted:
You are out of your league.
You don’t belong here.
No one likes you.
Luckily I know how to hold myself in proper decorum after having consumed several glasses of liquid courage. I scrunch my eyes, furrow my brow, and deliberately nod to make myself appear focused. I even make audible sounds like, “mhm” and “yes” and “oh,” to punctuate this effect. And just to be sure I’m balanced, I stand with my feet shoulder width apart, or find gentle support from a wall or table, especially when holding an overpoured rocks glass of whiskey soda.
I drink to let go of my timidity. When I’m restrained I remain quiet, observant, passive in my participation. Thanks to Canadian Club and Sprite at this July 4th celebration – crowded with strangers – I’m uninhibited. I’m no longer reticent in how I participate in conversations. I’m actively engaging discussions. On this particular festive day I achieve my goal.
Prior to my Jesuit life I managed where I went and who I met. Self-doubt, deficient self-confidence, and anxiety lacked ample opportunity to reveal themselves. But if they did I never felt compelled to acknowledge them. Choosing to rely on the dependable drinks of my family I could pretend my way through anything. Exactly as I did on that particular 4th of July.
Now I do things I would never independently choose to do – like return to school to study philosophy. And it seems as if I attend large social events constantly. All of it an invitation to step out of my comfort zone. I meet these experiences with enthusiasm and joy, but the fervor I feel clashes with an intense disquiet. So I mix some familial drinks and cope. Which isn’t healthy. And mixing insecurities with whiskey has occasionally roused friction between me and people I love. The fun I found in drinking is diminishing.
To pray about my consumption of alcohol is to wrestle with deep unresolved pain and hurt. I no longer want a crutch in self-perceived uncomfortable situations. Through therapy and a stable prayer life I have grown, but there remains more work to be done. After some 20 years of drinking it’s a little sobering to face the reality I may need a change. Perhaps it’s time to stop. Perhaps it’s time to discover new ways to have fun. Perhaps it’s time to grow up. No matter how this self-examination unfolds, it is clear God walks with me. No more pretending. It’s time to mix a new recipe for being me.
On the day that I sat down for lunch with Tori, I didn’t have a plan in mind. Tori is one of my most energetic and inquisitive Algebra students, as well as my youngest. I had asked her if we could have lunch together sometime; as her teacher, I wanted to get to know her better. She agreed, and on the next Monday morning asked me bluntly, “Do you still want to have lunch with me?” Of course I did, and we decided we would meet at a table in our combination cafeteria, auditorium, and testing center known simply as The Great Room.
“I just feel like I’m never good enough, and I’m never going to be good enough. It’s like there’s a hole in my heart where my dad is supposed to be and I’m trying to fill it with all different things, but none of them are working.” Tori’s statement floated above the din of The Great Room, bringing a momentary pause to our lunch of chicken tenders and PB&J. I didn’t know this part of her story.
Our daily interactions in Algebra class were lively and peppered with questions, many about my personal life: whether I wear a black clerical shirt all the time (even when I sleep and bathe), if I listen to music in the car, if I’ve ever smoked marijuana, and would I still be allowed to be a Jesuit if I had. It was this inquisitiveness that made me think to ask Tori to sit down for lunch. She was always so curious about my life, and yet I had rarely stopped to ask about her own. Now, I realized that I knew startlingly little about it.
Once begun, Tori’s words poured out. I learned about her family, her interests, her aspirations. I sat eating my sandwich and listening, at one point silently motioning to help herself to the Twix Bar I had brought for dessert. The conversation shifted gradually from Tori’s favorite foods and music to her feelings of woundedness and fear, and I watched her body language, wondering if it would change with the deepening subject matter. I had registered the shift in our conversation, but if Tori had, she did not show it. Her words remained steady, her eyes clear and unwavering.
The bell rang and I encouraged Tori to be on time for her next class. It seemed she would have been glad to stay and talk despite the volunteers cleaning tables around us. I sensed from her eagerness to share that she liked this lunchtime conversation – one of the few between us not driven by Algebra or my own agenda. I liked it, too.
Still, as she left I became aware of a feeling of discomfort in my stomach. Along with gratitude for our time together, I recognized discomfort at my sudden awareness of Tori’s pain. It was well into the spring and I saw her in class every single day; why didn’t I know these things about her? She always had such specific questions for me. Even my leading sentence at lunch had been more of an imperative than a question: “Tell me about yourself!” Tori sped off to class, and I wasn’t sure how to respond to what was left behind.
* * *
On another day I arrived at school early and greeted the students who had arrived even earlier. Three of my students were sitting together, laughing loudly. Sitting down at a free seat, I listened to the story being told by one, emphatic commentary from the other two playfully filling in even the smallest gap.
The previous Sunday had been Easter, and our student storyteller was relating an unexpected encounter with her father. It was informal; they had crossed paths at a gas station. This prompted another to share her last memory of seeing her dad. She had been staying with her grandmother for the summer in another state, now many years ago. Their laughter never stopped and so I smiled hesitantly along with them. I took their apparent comfort with the telling of these stories at the beginning of the school day as my cue to be comfortable, too. Suddenly the third student turned to me and asked, “Did you ever have daddy issues, Mr. Nicholson?” A moment of silence fell between us as I took in the question and reflected on my own childhood. I thought of my father, and countless happy memories we shared together quickly came to mind.
I couldn’t relate to the experience of my students. Ours wasn’t a perfect family, if such a thing exists, but waiting for my dad to get home from work each day and kissing him goodbye before business trips were the stuff of my childhood. And so we passed by the situation the way we often handle things that are hard: a witty remark from one and a little laughter allowed the moment to pass, and each of us continued about our day.
* * *
My student Nicole and I sat on coarsely textured, beige plastic chairs in the waiting room of the Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, Georgia on a Saturday in late April. In the chair to my left sat a woman who had come to visit her brother, recently arrived from Mexico, even more recently detained by ICE. He was awaiting an immigration court date that statistics showed would not go his way. To my right sat Nicole, a bubbly freshman with an easy smile.
We had packed up a school van that morning and driven two hours south of Atlanta to spend the afternoon visiting immigrants detained at Stewart. Each student from our group had to be paired with an adult, but it was really the students’ chance to visit with someone. We had spoken about the realities of detention and deportation of immigrants on the ride down, and the students were both excited and nervous for their encounter with an unknown person on the other side of a plexiglass wall.
Wanting to make sure that Nicole felt comfortable, I asked her if she had ever done something like this before. I told her I’d be happy to initiate the conversation with the man with whom we were matched, if she would prefer, then hand it over to her. My offer was sincere, if in retrospect somewhat naive.
“Oh no,” she said, “I used to visit my dad in a place just like this. We would talk all the time… he lives in Mexico now.” With that, a young man arrived at the place opposite our seats. He smiled at Nicole, who smiled back, leaving the seat next to mine and walking calmly over to the telephone. “Oh,” was all I could think to say before she left.
I talk differently about my students than I do with my students and I don’t like that. I can’t seem to describe them without falling back on language that doesn’t feel right as it comes out. “Our school is about 55% Hispanic, 40% African-American, and 5% ‘other’,” I say, momentarily repeating words I’ve read on a brochure. “Many of our students face tremendous challenges in their lives,” I add. I sound more like a politician than a high school teacher.
It’s harder to talk about how my students relate to me. It is an odd relationship, I suppose: I just turned 31 and they’re celebrating quinceañeras and sweet sixteens. I’m a white Jesuit scholastic from outside Boston, they are Black, Hispanic, East African, and Southeast Asian, with lives that have brought them to Atlanta and its surrounding cities and towns. I’m not practiced in explaining what kind of relationship overcomes those gaps. At least not without resorting to cliches.
My mom helped me rehearse fielding questions about teaching once. I had just finished my first semester at Cristo Rey and my first six months living in Atlanta. It was Christmas, I was home in Massachusetts, and I was struggling. I wasn’t comfortable with my new assignment yet: a feeling of wild incompetence characterized most days in the classroom, and I didn’t know how to speak about the impact that my students were having on my life. I didn’t know what was mine to say.
I sat in the back seat of my parents’ car as my dad drove us to a family party. My mom, knowing well that I don’t know how to say things halfway, helped me prepare some true but concise responses I might give to folks who inquired about my first year of teaching. “You know what they say about first-year teaching,” I would say with a smile. It helped.
The trouble with the way that I talk about my students is that it never seems to capture their depth. Each one of them holds a significant place in my life. More importantly, each one of them has a life of their own, and that’s what seems to fade into to the background as soon as I begin to speak. Then I’ve done the very worst thing: I’ve shown them as glossy images on a school brochure. Even the best brochures are only ever two-dimensional, no matter how flattering the pictures they contain. Brochures can be set back down after a glance, a perfunctory “oh, how nice.” Brochures don’t require responses.
My students don’t fit in a flat world. They tell their stories with humor, courage, and liveliness; they show up each day with spontaneity, strength, and resiliency. They’re surprising and complex, and their very presence makes a claim on me: that I see them for who they are, and that I recognize their three dimensions.
It was sometime between 5:55 and 6:10am on Friday, March 10 when I realized that I wasn’t letting my students live in three dimensions in my life. I know this only because I made a note of it after my morning prayer. That day I wrote simply: “March 10, Morning Prayer: My students need to write their own stories in their own voices. They are the protagonists of their own lives.”
A few weeks had passed since my lunch with Tori, and my initial feeling of discomfort had not gone away. In fact, it had deepened. What was sitting with me was how easily I reveled in the funny moments we shared in class – and Tori is just unthinkably funny1 – but how resistant I felt to follow her sadness, wherever it led. I remember sitting in the chair in my room where I pray each morning, nauseous at the realization: I wasn’t letting Tori be Tori. I was taking the parts that were easy for me to accept – happy to consider the laughs and think what a nice job I had – and leaving the rest at the periphery of my consciousness, if anywhere at all.
* * *
Anthony was walking to the door after Algebra class some weeks later when he turned back suddenly at its threshold. “Hey, I love you,” he said, pointing back toward me as I sat at my desk. His voice inflected up at the end of the statement; it seemed he was actually asking me if I already knew that. My mind went a hundred different places: I was moved by Anthony’s confession even as I wondered what about this moment had prompted it. I considered whether “I love you, too” was an appropriate response to a student; was I supposed to say that kind of thing?
Anthony and I had been talking more about his life at home in free moments after class recently, and trust was certainly growing between us. Nevertheless, that day seemed much like any other to me. I considered my response in the fraction of a second that I had to decide. “Thanks, Anthony,” I said, and I meant it. “That means a lot to me.” He smiled and left, seemingly relieved for having confirmed that I did, in fact, know that he loved me. He was right: I did know that, somehow, even before he said it. I loved him, too.
I turn this moment over in my mind for the hundredth time as I sit in my brother’s apartment in Boston, sipping a cup of coffee. The school year is now a month behind me, and still I’m struck by the simplicity of the encounter. Nothing heroic occurred on either of our parts. No one swooped in and saved the day; nothing needed saving. Anthony revealed to me his affection with exceptional care and vulnerability. This was the moment he chose, this the setting. Although it wasn’t a side of him I had encountered so explicitly before, this was Anthony, being himself. Class was over for the day, and he had something to tell me. He was being himself.
It was the last day of classes before exams at Cristo Rey, and one of my classes had written on the whiteboard in the back of the room: “We’ll miss you, Mr. Nicholson!” Tori’s class entered for the next period and high school chatter and excitement quickly turned to fear when she and her classmates read the note. “You’re leaving, Mr. Nicholson? I thought you said that you’d be here next year!” I explained that the last class had only meant they would miss our time together in class, that I would indeed be present the next academic year.
The fear subsided, but not without some residual looks of worry. I was glad to ease their concerns in that moment even as I anticipated the same scene playing out the next year. One more year, maybe two, and I would be leaving Cristo Rey to continue my Jesuit formation. I wished in that moment I could tell them I would never leave, but that simply wouldn’t have been true. It wouldn’t have been helpful, either; it was what I needed to say, not what they needed to hear.
In spite of all the data in the world, it’s hard to know for sure what’s happening in the classroom. Frequently I wonder: how much are they learning? Is it enough? I ask these questions because my students deserve a truly excellent education.
But, along with these questions, I am learning to add others. Have I been as curious about my students as they have been of me? Has each one held a place in my prayer? Am I allowing them to change me? Do they remain smiling faces in brochures or do I see them as the protagonists of their own lives – rich, three-dimensional characters who present themselves on their own terms? While I’ve been busy asking these other essential questions, relationships of love and care have opened up before my eyes. These are the “softer” questions of teaching, perhaps. Still, I have been astounded by the way that the answers have mattered, to my students and to me.
* * *
One last anecdote: Brandon is naturally gifted at school, with work ethic to match his ability. His ACT scores are through the roof, and he has a corny sense of humor that endears him to classmates and teachers alike. Throughout the year, Brandon would wander into my classroom before or after school and share whatever was on his mind. I could never quite tell what made Brandon walk in when he did.
On one occasion he told me about winning a middle school science fair, on another he shared about an experience of subtle racism in his workplace that had really bothered him. Brandon’s way of speaking was always the same: a bit singsong in a way that was friendly, but that I imagined was useful in providing safe distance. It could be science fairs or racism, the delivery was the same, and it was for the listener to decide how to respond.
The day of the very last exam this year Brandon once again wandered into my room. Students were milling about, cleaning out lockers and saying goodbyes. I was distracted. I get anxious in those situations, wishing I could attend to each person around me and overthinking every interaction that takes place.
“Are you gonna miss me, Mr. Nicholson?” Brandon asked with familiar, cultivated indifference. I don’t know what happened next. I heard the question and can picture Brandon, tall, mild-mannered, standing before me in a small crowd of students. Perhaps someone else asked a question just a second after Brandon’s, perhaps I was taken aback by the directness of it. Before I could respond, Brandon turned and started to walk away, leaving as unexpectedly as he had arrived.
I think that Brandon knows that I care about him. We joke about the things he’s learning in school, like whether he could be the next Napoleon Bonaparte, but perhaps without dying on an island in the South Atlantic. (He isn’t interested in the exile part of the gig.) I love to see him and his teammates race by my classroom door when they stay after school to practice tae kwon do. I’ve been so glad to meet his parents this year, kind people whose quirky personalities and intelligence leave no doubt where Brandon gets it from. Brandon knows that I’m interested in his life, and so he wanders into my room once in a while to tell me about it. I like that.
“Of course I’ll miss you, Brandon,” I said too forcefully after him. I was afraid that the moment had passed. Brandon turned back for a moment and offered a kind smile before continuing on his way out of the room and into the summer that awaited him.
Next year, I hope he’ll visit my classroom. And I hope he’ll tell me something new about himself, however grave or ordinary. Anything he wants to share will be fine by me.
The lights went off, the surround sound was cranked up. As soon as the intro music was heard, everyone started salivating and humming along to the powerful wind instruments. We couldn’t just hum, we had to move. We would almost break into some tribal dance as we prepared to watch. We were pretty giddy. It was like we were marching to the beat of the drum. It was mesmerizing!
This almost cult-like experience is what manifested itself during my first few weeks of being exposed to Game of Thrones, well after the first two or three seasons were completed. Huddling up with a handful of brothers in our community TV room to watch Thrones became an event. A tantalizing phenomenon. And last night, HBO did not disappoint with the premiere of Season 7. As if it was those very first days, I was transported to Westeros, mesmerized once again.
The Thrones phenomenon is mesmerizing for four reasons:
First, the cinematography is out of this world! I am a huge fan of nature and its many varieties of forests, plains, and mountainsides. Thrones captures the wonderment of nature and the natural elements of fire, earth, wind, and water to the max. Who doesn’t love finding themselves taken to another beautiful world for an hour?
Second, the show moves seamlessly with the twists and turns of its rich plots and I am always intrigued to see what will happen in the next episode. Yes, many high market shows have a seamlessness and ease to them but not to the depth of creativity and mystery as Thrones does. That’s the advantage of a show placed in a world that looks like ours but has its own Medieval fantasy style and prose. For all this, I have never seen a boring episode, and isn’t that the point of good entertainment? Bore me not my sweet escape!
Third, the acting is very good, and the characters are well casted. I know I am not watching Days of Our Lives and I am forever thankful. Unlike a cheaply-made TV show, Thrones casts actors who exceptionally portray characters with an edge to them and a distinct personality that carries the drama and intensity of the show. The acting is so remarkable that I find myself forgetting the names of the actors themselves, quite a feat for us living in a culture obsessed with celebrities.
And this brings me to my last point – my own personal reaction to the excellent acting. It is really easy for me to root for some of the characters and loath other ones. The personalities of each major character have a real way of drawing out my affectivity – I can’t help but have all kinds of visceral feelings towards the good, the bad, and the ugly. All these interior movements cause me to question where each persona resonates with my own.
I won’t name names of who makes me feel what way or what was my favorite moment of last night’s new episode. What I will do is say, last night’s episode has me ready for another thrilling season. Like so many across the globe, I’m already drawn back into the majestic world of Thrones – a world where I find myself an invested participant in a global masterpiece.
Image courtesy FlickrCC user Natty Dread.
Jesus warned about it. Luther revolted against it. Pope Francis is trying to deal with it. Yet clericalism – a priest or clergyman placing himself above the laity – is still alive. We all know its effects are negative: abuse of power, passivity of the laity (“pray, pay, and obey”) and “project[ing] an image of power and privilege” of the Church in the context of poverty. Conceretely, it’s why many have left the Church in disillusionment.
So why does clericalism continue? I think in part because it sneaks up subtly, and over time. In my own case, I get excited about the current movement against clericalism. Yet though I may not be into the private jets or mansions (yet?), I’m beginning to realize that I’m still prone to this very temptation.
There are the little signs. For one, I’ve noticed that I don’t really contribute to church collections anymore (“I give in other ways,” I often rationalize). I also like when people let me say whatever I want – and they listen, too! These perks of being a Jesuit are nice. It’s nice to be on a pedestal, and sometimes it may be necessary. What’s problematic is when these nice but passing gifts become ends, rather than means. And that usually happens without me noticing it.
But clericalism is not just for clerics. Regardless of the type of vocation, and despite the best of intentions, versions of clericalism can emerge almost anywhere. Whenever privileges and power are readily available, our original intentions can get muddled along the way. It’s easy to want more – and to be thought more of – and forget about doing the right thing. That’s because unexamined attachments, though not necessarily always bad, can have unintended consequences. This has far-reaching results, but the beginning cause is usually quiet and individual. This happens when we don’t take the time to look inside.
Ignatian Spirituality, especially the examen, can be helpful here. Ignatius taught the importance of noticing our internal movements, naming them, then determining which movements to follow. In the quiet space of the examen, we can ask the important questions that we may otherwise avoid: not the easy questions of what’s right or wrong, but the subtle ones when we’re already trying to do right. Where is my drive to do good coming from? Is it only for the next affirmation or something more? Am I fully present with others, or wondering what the caption on social media will say?
As we examine our lives, we get to see where God is nudging us away from the lull of “clericalism.” Listening in prayer is important.
Another great help are those close family and friends who know us well. They can give fresh, informed, and loving perspective on how we’re living our lives. This perspective is a gift that lay people especially can give people in religious life – and indeed, to the Church as a whole.
Even the “bad” times can teach us about tendencies we should watch. For example, when I experienced negativity or indifference towards my Jesuit-ness during ministry, I would often get overly frustrated. I had to ask myself why that was. I eventually realized that I had some very strong expectations about how I should be received. I had gradually become accustomed to automatic respect and deference for my “noble” life-path. For the future, I continue to learn ways to move away from my need for the externals – to center myself on something concrete. That’s the only way I can expect to live this vocation fully.
Any time the treats of our individual vocations become more than gifts to be graciously used, we’re on a slippery slope. Trying to live on what’s pleasing, but fleeting, may feel good at first, but won’t work in the long run. It can also lead to hurting of self and others. The spiral of clericalism tricks us into believing more and more can eventually satisfy; but only that which is life-giving is substantial enough to thrive on.
Of course on reflection, we know all this, but in the day to day, that knowledge gets lost really easily. But identifying it in ourselves early and often is a start.
Image courtesy FlickrCC user Shelly.
President Donald Trump won the conservative and mass-attending Catholic vote in the 2016 general election. For this demographic within the Church, Trump was not the ideal candidate, but he did prove to be more palatable than his opponent Hillary Clinton.
To better understand right-wing Catholics’ decision to ultimately back Trump, it is helpful to look at his recent speech in Poland. While there are noteworthy differences in both tone and substance between his rhetoric in Poland and his rhetoric on the campaign trail, many of the elements that appeal to Catholic conservatives remain.
His discourse in Warsaw animated a crowd of Catholic Poles, and it equally rang true to conservative Catholics across the Atlantic. As an example, Kathy Schiffer’s article at the National Catholic Register bears the title “President Trump Makes a Powerful (And Very Catholic) Speech in Poland,” and she claims that there is much within it to “warm the Catholic heart.” Some of the speech is openly pro-Catholic, especially pro-conservative Catholic. Other sections are less overtly pro-Catholic but rather contain tips of the hat to a worldview accepted by many conservative church people. These subtler, yet broader remarks are the subject of this piece, and they constitute significant components of conservative Catholic thought in Poland and the United States.
There are five reasons for this connection, and each emerges at least once, if not multiple times, in the Polish speech. Primarily, Trump’s discourse points to the core of conservatism, a core that the Catholic Church shares: the necessity of conserving the wisdom of the past. Second, the speech revels in the role of the Church in Poland’s and the broader West’s defeat of totalitarian communism in Europe. Next, Trump shifts his gaze towards “radical Islamic terrorism,” an enemy of both the United States and Catholicism. At the level of theory, the speech hints at St. John Paul II’s teaching of philosophical “personalism,” which contains conclusions that many conservative Catholics and Republicans hold in common. Finally, the President’s pro-life rhetoric energizes Catholics who have been waiting eight years to make national progress on rights for the unborn.
The Church today stands on the shoulders of historical people and events. Christ communicated the good news to his disciples, and they in turn handed on the message to their descendants to the present day. All Catholic doctrine comes from this deposit of faith or depositum fidei.1 St. Paul instructs, “Stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by our letter” (2 Thessalonians 2:15). The American conservative parallel to this reality would be a dedication to an “originalist” interpretation of the Constitution, that is, an interpretation that allows for no more than the document’s writers originally intended. The Constitution, as the depositum fidei, is complete and sealed off to change.2 President Trump’s nomination of justice Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court aligns with this way of proceeding.3 In Poland, conservatism’s desire to conserve the ideals of the past shows up in “clear and distinct” ways. Trump states, “We celebrate our ancient heroes, embrace our timeless traditions and customs.”4 To look into the specifics of this past/present embrace, it will help to consider the speech’s frequent and powerful references to Poland’s triumph over totalitarian communism.
The Cold War is fresh in the collective memory of many of Trump’s older conservative Catholic voters, and it is even more present in the minds of the Polish people, whether they have dwelt in the U.S. for generations or whether they live today in the Polish cities that still bear ugly scars from the conflict. The Cold War is also alive in the hearts of millions of Catholics who joyfully welcomed Pope Francis’ canonization of Pope John Paul II in the spring of 2014. Many of these Catholics recall the critical role that the Polish Pope played in the downfall of communism. With this history in mind, President Trump boldly retold the story of John Paul II’s first visit to Poland as Pope:
And when the day came on June 2nd, 1979, and one million Poles gathered around Victory Square for their very first mass with their Polish Pope, that day, every communist in Warsaw must have known that their oppressive system would soon come crashing down. (Applause.) They must have known it at the exact moment during Pope John Paul II’s sermon when a million Polish men, women, and children suddenly raised their voices in a single prayer. A million Polish people did not ask for wealth. They did not ask for privilege. Instead, one million Poles sang three simple words: “We Want God.”
This selection is incredibly appealing to conservative American Catholics who saw the Republican President Ronald Reagan fight strongly against worldwide communism, especially in Poland. It is no surprise that Trump makes reference to a statue of Reagan in Warsaw earlier in the speech. Moreover, like Reagan, Trump earns points with Catholics on the right for his unapologetic inclusion of God in a political speech.
Trump acknowledges that communism is no longer a serious threat to Poland, but he continues by asserting that there is now a new enemy: “radical Islamic terrorism.” It is well known that the Polish Law and Justice Party has closed off the nation’s borders to Middle Eastern immigrants. Trump’s travel ban shares this goal. The rationale used by Trump and Law and Justice is twofold: (1) Middle Eastern immigrants do not assimilate, and (2) some of them may be terrorists. The former is part of a larger populist and conservative Euro-American movement to protect Western culture from the influence of Islam. A short anecdote from a German friend might help explain this idea. He once explained, “A group of Muslims come to a small town in Germany and build a mosque bigger than our cathedral. A group of Catholics go to the Middle East and get shot for making the sign of the cross. It isn’t fair. It isn’t equal.” The latter is a response to ISIS’ claim that it hides terrorists among refugee families seeking to enter the U.S. and Europe. This thought pattern does appeal to the populist, conservative wing of the U.S. Catholic Church, which emphasizes the rights to national sovereignty and national security over the rights of migrants and refugees.
There is one final component of the Polish speech that is representative of Trump’s ability to mobilize the right in the Church, and it has to do with the philosophy of “personalism.” This system of thought, especially promoted by the Polish Pope, discards any philosophy that treats human persons primarily as objects, whether objects of economic systems, political systems, or scientific thought. Rather, the human person’s inalienable dignity and agency must be the center and foundation of any worldview. In the case of theistic personalists, God is the guarantor and ground of this dignity and agency. Following this line of thought, one can see that personalism resonates much more with the right than with the left.5 Whereas the left often looks at people from the perspective of the broader structures in which they move, the right has tended to focus on centrality of the individual person. An example would be the right’s language about “hard work” and “personal resolve.” Trump’s speech follows this personalist line: “Our own fight for the West does not begin on the battlefield — it begins with our minds, our wills, and our souls.” In Trump’s speech, the transformation of structures and systems is always secondary to the transformation of the human heart, beginning in the household.6
Strategically, Trump helped himself the most among conservative Catholics by selecting the unabashedly pro-life Governor Mike Pence as his running-mate. The decision calmed some skeptical minds who were questioning Trump’s unstable record on abortion. The conservative Catholic pro-life outlet Life Site News received Pence with open arms last summer, saying that he “racked up a record as a pro-life conservative during his six terms in the U.S. House of Representatives.” Many conservative pro-life Catholics, vocal and well-organized, see abortion as the single issue that determines their votes. When it came to Trump versus Clinton, Trump, now side-by-side with Pence, appeared to be the better option. It was inevitable that Trump would make at least one reference to the topic in Poland. He declares, “And above all, we value the dignity of every human life, protect the rights of every person, and share the hope of every soul to live in freedom.” The point is oblique, but the same Life Site News read it as strong enough to be a “pro-life declaration” and titled an article, “Trump gives incredible pro-life, pro-God speech in Poland.” Though a weak pro-life candidate in many respects, Trump passed the test for many pro-lifers in 2016 and continues to do so from the Oval Office.
Together, these five rhetorical patterns are like five fingers pressing down to tip the conservative Catholic scale slightly in Trump’s favor. Some have abandoned Trump between his inauguration and the present, but many continue to see these points as reasons to maintain their support. For those in the Church for whom any support of Trump is unimaginable, the rhetorical strategies above are unconvincing, inauthentic, and/or downright scary. These Trump opponents have a duty of conscience to oppose him on areas of difference–be it through publish protest, legislative action, or judicial action. However, there is also a challenge for anti-Trump Catholics to refrain from removing themselves from political dialogue out of anger or fear, even if such anger or fear is justified. The Second Vatican Council calls Catholics and all people of good will to “foster [sound] cooperation” with the “political community,”7 and, at present, the governing political community is composed of a majority of Republicans in both legislative chambers and in the White House. The degree to which democracy in the United States survives largely depends on the extent to which Trump supporters and Trump dissidents are willing to talk to each other–and that means engaging with the rhetoric above. There is no peace without justice, yet there is no justice without cooperation.
My book was neatly stored in the seatback in front of me. My seat belt was tightly clamped long before the flight attendants asked. I’d taken ample Dramamine for motion sickness. I had taken every variable into account. I was prepared, ready, and in control.
As we began the slow taxi towards the runway, I realized the sheer number of children on the plane. Two seats over, a little girl in a lacy-purple, Sunday dress sat on her mother’s lap. She opened and shut the window, over and over and over. The entire time she was laughing, and so was her mother.
There was a family with three children sitting in front of me, quietly bargaining over who got what tablet and when during the flight.
And over my left shoulder, a slight growling. I turned my head to see a small boy in the row behind me with a set of crayons and paper pad. He drew one dog after another, demonstrating each new dog and growl to his mother and sister. When the flight attendant announced to store up his seat table, a complicated negotiation followed between the boy and his mother—all the while the older sister laughed, spurning him on.
And there I was, in the middle of it all, gripping the arms of my chair with white-knuckle abandon.
“Umm… Eh hem. Ladies and gentleman, I’m just getting some information from the tower. It seems there is a little, umm, weather between us and Denver. So, we’re working to revise our path and approach. I think we’re going to be able to, uh, work it all out. So just sit back, and try and remain seated and buckled. Thank you.”
I thought about re-plotting a course. Having seen the estimated flight pattern, engine specs, and safety guide, I tried calculating the sort of leeway we had with fuel. I was calculating with math which I didn’t understand, spiraling in circles of meaningless numbers of worry.
At the same time, the little girl two seats over slept. The family in front of me played games on their tablets. A row behind me, the little boy quietly drew more dogs.
The flight was quiet until my ears started popping and the seat belt sign pinged. The pilot asked that we return to our seats and buckle up. Then, the flight attendant made an identical announcement.
My thoughts ran quickly through a gambit of uncertainty: Why would they make the same announcement? Why did it take two different voices to say something? Is it going to be that bad? Am I ready for this? Should I take more dramamine?
Then, we dropped. I’d like to think it was an epic drop, but honestly—as hyped as I was at that moment—it was most certainly minor. Still, my chest tightened.
My hands gripped the chair. I held my breath. Two seats to my right, clapping and laughing. The little girl danced on her mother’s lap. Bouncing on her mother’s knees, she giggled and hummed.
On the final approach, the plane turned. I don’t mean the plane gently turned. I mean that the knot in my stomach, the popping in my ears, the racing of my heart, and the cringing-closed of my eyes—WERE ALL ON THE WRONG AXIS.
We were sideways in a way that no plane should be.
The two kids in front of me roared, “WOOOoooaaaahhhh!” They threw their arms into the air; I Kung fu gripped my seat belt. They were on a roller coaster ride; I was petrified. They couldn’t hold in their glee; I could barely hold back the desire to vomit.
On the way to the luggage claim, I stood next to the family who had sat in the row ahead of me. The mom asked the kids, “So? How was your first flight?”
“It… was… AWESOME!” The two little boys erupted into a ruckus of giggling and the “vroom” noises you make when imitating a plane. I was still spinning from motion sickness.
I’m not often on planes, but I’m also never far from stress landing and overcoming my life—I doubt I’m alone in this feeling.
In these takeoffs and landings of worry and anxiety: would playing with the windows while giggling help? Could drawing dogs with the accompanying silly growls and snarls help? Might simply throwing my hands into the air with an impulsive ‘WOAH!’ help? Would taking a breath to laugh freely like a child help relieve the tension?
Maybe. At least that sounds like a good idea, if my head ever allowed my heart to believe it.
But, I rarely give myself permission to laugh in the passionate abandon and joy of a child. I rarely give myself over to the giggle of simply enjoying the moment, the faith that it’ll all work out and be OK. Instead, my default is to plan, to solve, and to take control of the situation which—on planes and in life—doesn’t particularly work.
So in one month, I’m returning to Saint Louis. I’ll undoubtedly pack Dramamine, and a good book… and hopefully one thing more: permission simply to laugh and enjoy the ride.
The heat of the summer is on. It is so hot these days, planes can’t even take off. So it makes sense that across the country, air conditioning units are humming along, making this weather just a little more bearable.
Unfortunately, those same units might also be making this weather just a little bit worse.
There are a few things that immediately come to mind when I think about environmental pollution: vehicle exhaust, industrial waste, coal plants, littering. But air conditioning?? It is something I have always taken for granted and always taken as necessary.
But air conditioning is not a necessity. It is a luxury. It is something that billions around the globe cannot afford, and perhaps one that the world itself cannot afford.
I never gave much thought to air conditioning until I moved into the tropics. Despite the round-the-year heat in Nicaragua, air conditioning is nowhere near as ubiquitous as it is in the US (where 87% of homes have AC). For example, none of my co-workers have AC in their houses, and on the hottest days, common watercooler talk revolves around the difficulty of sleeping through a steamy night.
Thus, on a recent reading of Laudato Si’, a papal encyclical about the environment and care for our common home, one paragraph jumped out at me:
“People may well have a growing ecological sensitivity but it has not succeeded in changing their harmful habits of consumption which, rather than decreasing, appear to be growing all the more. A simple example is the increasing use and power of air-conditioning. The markets, which immediately benefit from sales, stimulate ever greater demand. An outsider looking at our world would be amazed at such behaviour, which at times appears self-destructive.” Laudato Si’ 55. (emphasis added)
Air conditioning: a harmful habit of consumption? Self-destructive? Those were not my typical word associations.
Air conditioning runs on power, and unless you are getting your power from a renewable energy source, your AC is polluting the environment. And AC units require a lot of energy: a typical room AC unit uses 10-20 times as much electricity as a ceiling fan.
Energy usage (and its accompanying cost) is the main reason cited by my co-workers for not buying an AC unit for their house. While the unit itself is not necessarily cost-prohibitive (similar to saving up to buy a TV or a smartphone), the monthly energy costs add up, and they come around every month. This recurring cost is particularly challenging for people in a hot tropical country in the developing world (or a low-income family in the U.S. Deep South, for that matter). Thus the conception in Nicaragua that air conditioning is NOT a necessity: it is a luxury.
Air conditioning used to be worse for the environment. AC units used to use chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) as a refrigerant, which contributed to the damage in the ozone layer. Those have since been phased out to lower the environmental impact. Additionally, the AC units we make these days are increasingly more energy efficient, which means they are polluting less. Less CFCs, more energy efficient… sounds like we are making progress, right?
Not exactly. Consider this: sales of luxury items correlate with rising incomes. So not surprisingly, air conditioning sales in India and China have exploded recently as incomes have risen in those countries. For example, sales of AC units in China alone have doubled in the past five years. Roughly 60 million air conditioners are sold in China annually – EIGHT TIMES the quantity sold annually in the US! While the AC units might pollute less and use energy better, this is more than offset by the dramatically increasing quantity of AC units being sold and used around the world.
It has also been hot and getting hotter. Our use of AC in our homes fluctuates with the weather – no one is turning on their AC during a Minnesota winter. With global temperatures hitting record highs the past few years, AC use has likewise increased. World energy use for cooling has outstripped the energy used for heating.
It makes sense: who can endure 110 degree heat?? That level of heat is dangerous and even life-threatening. A heat wave in India in 2015 led to roughly 2,500 heat-related deaths. In an increasingly hotter planet, air conditioning can be a life-saver. But if it is contributing to heating the planet, does that balance out?
We cannot abandon AC altogether, and that is not what I want to propose. (I will leave that suggestion to this writer in the Washington Post.) But we need to reflect more on our use of this energy-consuming luxury item. Let me offer three suggestions toward that end:
- Evaluate the spaces that you occupy every day. We spend hours every day in our home and the place where we work. How energy-efficient is their design? Is there good air flow? Ventilation? When I picture the typical US office building, I imagine sealed concrete boxes filled with rows of cubicles: work spaces that only function in the summertime heat because of air conditioning (can you even imagine those without AC??). Why do we design buildings that way? Because we take AC for granted. We should not. We need to design for better energy efficiency. Our designs have improved (like the many LEED certified buildings), but more work remains. Start with your own home and consider getting a home energy consultation.
- If you use AC less, you will need it less. That’s science. Your temperature preferences depend on your temperature history, which is to say, if you are used to warmer temperatures, you tolerate and even prefer warmer temperatures. Many Americans become accustomed to living between 68-72 degrees, which is why we use a lot of summertime AC and a lot of wintertime heating. That is not the case around the world (many Europeans are dumbfounded by the amount of AC use in the US). Use it less and you will find yourself preferring it less.
- Advocate for more renewable energy in the power grid. Did you know that in 2016 Costa Rica got 98% of its electricity from renewable sources? While the country has some geographic and demographic advantages, this accomplishment should at least suggest that such a reality is possible. For pointers on how to advocate for change, use tools like the Catholic Climate Covenant where you can sign up for action alerts and get advice on how to get more involved. Sign their St. Francis/Laudato Si’ pledge to commit to living out the vision of the Pope’s encyclical concerning our care for our common home.
The increase in AC sales across the world, accompanied by rising global temperatures, has caused a vicious cycle. We need AC more than ever, but we also need to cut our energy use more than ever.
Only a renewable energy power grid will rid us of the dangerous environmental costs of AC use. Until then, we need to reflect on how we design and cool the spaces we occupy, how much we depend on AC for temperature control, and how we can advocate for more of the change that the world needs.
We can’t afford not to.
Image courtesy FlickrCC user Niall Kennedy.
This past week my social media feed has been inundated with information about #CharlieGard. If you’ve missed out, here is a quick refresher:
10 month old Charlie Gard was born with a genetic mitochondrial disorder, infantile onset encephalomyopathic mitochondrial DNA depletion syndrome, or M.D.D.S. At this stage, it has placed him in need of life support. His parents started a GoFundMe to help get him to the USA for an experimental procedure yet to be tested on humans. The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) has determined with the ethics board of the hospital, Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH), that it would be unethical, painful and dehumanizing to continue his life support, and that he should not be taken the United States.
Charlie’s condition is so rare that he is only the sixteenth reported case. The treatment may have as high as a 4% success rate. What is also uncertain is whether or not the experimental therapy will stop Charlie’s further deterioration or help him recover. As some have pointed out, his brain has so little function that a respirator is required for his breathing. It is also unknown if the experimental treatment, if successful, would improve his condition or allow his body to heal and repair itself. A Crux article mentions the recover of Arturito Estopinian, but it is unclear if he received the same treatment.
The case has even gone to the Vatican. Two statements have been made, one by the Pontifical Academy for Life and another from Pope Francis. As reported in the above Crux article, Pope Francis has asked if he could take in Charlie so he could receive medical care at the Vatican. The answer was an outright “No” by the ECHR. For the ECHR, this is not about money: it’s about ethics and allowing Charlie’s M.M.D.S. to run its course while he receives palliative care.
The case, however, continues to develop. New evidence has come forth that the experimental therapy treatment may be more successful than originally thought. GOSH and ECHR are willing to re-hear the case. If nothing else, this helps to show their good will, that they are not actively seeking to end Charlie’s life but, like his parents, hope for him to both live and die well. The events surrounding Charlie have been reminding me of my ministry as a hospital chaplain in the first months of my Jesuit formation.
I was standing next to him, a premature baby: John Doe – the parents weren’t read to name him yet. So small, in need of so much. I stood there with his mother, and we prayed silently together for his healing. I handed her a plastic rosary that the chaplaincy office had in multitude. We prayed an Our Father and Hail Mary. I moved to the next glass crib to pray over a child without a parent’s presence.
I am not a medical expert, nor am I a moral theologian. There are clear, strong arguments for the autonomy of Charlie’s parents. But there is also a case for the advice and opinion of the medical professionals, who have deemed it unethical to allow Charlie to continue a life of suffering when the odds of his survival are incredibly limited, and would rather allow him to die comfortably. Yet, parents do not have complete autonomy over their children: that’s why we have organizations such as Child Protective Services and require both adopting and foster parents to undergo extensive screening and check-ins.
There are conflicting rights: the right to the parent’s autonomy as care givers and the right of medical professionals to do no harm. But what if we spoke in the terms of Catholic Social Teaching? In particular, human dignity and the common good? Human dignity demands that Charlie deserves to be treated with a dignified life and death. Likewise, this value demands that all those involved in the decision making process, parents, doctors, judgets, be respected and heard. The value of the common good helps to clarify what specific actions need to be made. How might the community be affected by whatever decision is made? Monetary cost can never place the value of a human life, nor can a desire to experiment in order to help others if it would cause undue suffering on the person or they have not given consent. But what if there is also hope in a cure or treatment, or an opportunity to move closer to one?
I was asked to join the head of the chaplaincy office to the ICU floor of the hospital to witness something unfold. An elderly and very frail woman was lying in a hospital bed. The doctors asked if the head of the department could help convince her children to sign a DNR – Do Not Resuscitate – order. Maybe they would listen to a brother in a cassock rather than a white coat? He explained to them what aid could be given if her respiratory, cardiological, or kidney function failed, and what her quality of life would be like afterwards. Compressions would likely break her sternum, a breathing tube would make it impossible for her to be comfortable if she were not sedated, she would need dialysis or other invasive and painful treatments. A DNR order would ensure that if something happened, they could relieve her pain and let things run their course, they could donate her organs to save others’ lives. They agreed that this would be better.
A minute later we held a prayer service with the entire family now gathered in a once spacious-now cramped room. Each member of the family made the sign of the cross over their beloved mother, grandmother, great-grandmother. There was healing and hope for her and her family.
The rarity of M.M.D.S. and odds of the experimental therapy working may be the main point of contention within the greater question of conflicting rights. Is a 4% chance of success enough for hope? Of course it is. But we also have to be realists, and that makes me worry about how Charlie’s parents are being accompanied. Charlie’s parents are very much like the family members I encountered as a chaplain: they are clinging onto a sliver of hope, which does exist. As I imagine Charlie on life support surrounded by his parents, I also imagine the patients and family members I have met and prayed with, hoping for a miracle. But to what extent do we also need to be able to listen to medical and ethical resources at our disposal? I wonder what kind of pastoral care Charlie’s parents have been offered as they go through this process? How prepared are they to say good-bye, and who is helping to prepare them if it such a strong possibility? I can only begin to imagine the difficulty they are having in this moment.
In light of these questions, I have to ask myself how I can accompany others around me who face insurmountable odds and difficult decisions. How can I be an instrument of hope? For those times when an ethics board alone cannot help us, we all need some form of community for solidarity in sharing the joys and sorrows we experience. Whether it is a family struggling to determine how to proceed in the treatment of a sick family member, a person trying to find work for themselves and their family’s well-being, or a student struggling to pass exams, all of us experience a need for some kind of hope. We can respond by listening well to what is happening in their experience, offering both our presence and prayer – to be with them in love as they make their decisions.
With my hope that the Gard’s are making a well formed decision, it ultimately seems like it would be worthwhile for the hospital and ECHR to determine that any chance of survival as well as the possibility of an ethically sound experimental therapy is an act of hope in line with both Charlie’s and his parents’ dignity. If the therapy fails to treat him successfully, it will at least be a step forward to potentially helping the common good. Hopefully the entire community gathering around Charlie will be witnesses to him and his family of the importance of the human dignity of all in light of the common good.
Image courtesy Catholic News Service.
On June 30th, Nintendo did something a bit unorthodox. It released downloadable content (DLC) for the most recent entry in the Legend of Zelda franchise: Breath of the Wild. The game itself breaks from the traditional model of Zelda games of a sequence of large dungeons in favor of a more open-world feel, complete with more realistic weapon physics, i.e. weapons that can break, and actively replenishing health by cooking instead of using potions or finding health containers around the environment.
Most simply, DLC offers a player the opportunity to purchase additional (ideally optional) weapons and tools, characters, or story side-quests for a given game. Since its inception, it has been divisive among the gaming community. Some praise it for giving new life to beloved games, while others look at it an excuse for greedy companies to charge more for a complete experience.
Over the years, Nintendo has been willing to innovate with its major franchises, but it has been loath to offer DLC for its games, only having done so a handful of times. This decision plays to Nintendo’s general philosophy that a game should be fun and a full experience upon taking it out of the box. If they offer DLC, it is as an attempt to make a game more expensive without radically changing how it plays or markedly improving it.
To be honest, when I see the letters DLC, I immediately become somewhat hesitant. It is easy for DLC to feel like a money-grab from publishers, especially when it comes shortly after the game is released (or even on the release day). Keep in mind that a typical video game costs around $60 on its own, ignoring any additional features a player can buy with DLC.
DLC is often superficial and appeals only to certain players. Examples of this include increased multiplayer content. For me, unless I truly enjoy a game’s multiplayer experience, I am unlikely to consider purchasing this sort of DLC. It adds nothing for me if I prefer a game’s single-player experience.
However, I realized that DLC has its place in the world of gaming, too. When DLC is done right, it expands a player’s experience of a game, whether in the single-player or multiplayer realm. It adds non-essential content to a game, such as a new quest or a new area which ultimately does not affect the main plot of the game. If new characters are introduced here, they do not impact the main storyline, or if they do they do so in a way that their absence does not cause the story to feel incomplete.
Good DLC allows the player the chance to connect with a game’s world, characters, and mechanics once again in a meaningful way. The protagonist(s), side-characters, or even antagonist(s) become more fleshed out through new interactions with other characters. The world becomes more vibrant and complete with new stories, areas, and characters. The game’s lore is expanded in a way that rewards a player for their engagement and exploration. If only it were that easy in real life!
Who hasn’t read a story or watched a television series that they wished was just a little longer or went a little deeper? It’s complete on its own, yes, but you’re left wanting more. Not a full sequel, but just one more chapter or one more episode. What about that conversation with a good friend you hoped lasted a few more minutes or the long run you hoped was just one more mile? This is the feeling DLC aims to address. All of these beautiful experiences are fleeting, but the DLC allows me the chance to linger just a little longer with a game I have come to love.
And this brings me back to Breath of the Wild. I admit that I am a big Zelda fan and am somewhat biased towards the franchise. The game itself has been universally praised for its innovative gameplay. Just completing the basic game on its own can easily take 40 or 50 hours, without looking for extras and collectables, which can double its length. Nobody would say that this game is incomplete or needed something extra to be fun.
Breath of the Wild’s DLC allows players to attempt a more difficult version of the same game, as well as an extra (optional) part of the story. The Trial of the Sword pack allows players the opportunity to increase the power of the franchise’s iconic weapon, the Master Sword, by completing a difficult dungeon. However, it doesn’t seem that the players who failed to purchase the DLC will lack the ability to complete the game. It instead serves as an additional quest, akin to other optional ones in previous games.
I am hopeful about this DLC pack, because it will breathe new life1 into a game that took the gaming world by storm. If DLC continues to be a source of hope and excitement to players, like this one has been, then perhaps the term will stop being mired in controversy and instead be a way to extend the life of games in a healthy way. Journey on, my friends.
Image courtesy FlickrCC user Brett Chalupa.
For well over a decade, I made an annual trip to Door County, WI for a 4th of July celebration. Months ahead of time, I would stew in blissful anticipation of the affair – long nights of deep conversation and stargazing that ended with sunrise, bocce ball and boat rides, coolers filled with beer and Mike’s Hard Lemonade (which we all loved, despite incessantly denying it), Mrs. E’s couscous salad and Mr. P’s ‘Sven and Ole’ jokes.
In the summer of 2002, our country was still in the deep wake of 9/11, and a few folks – close friends of the host family – were going to be with us for the 4th. These friends were from New York, and so to urge on the healing process the matriarch of the event asked if I would play ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ on my trumpet as a prelude to their fireworks show. And so, I played. The familiar tune left my solitary horn and was sent out over calm waters, echoing and reverberating into the deep night, a haunting but hopeful sound. As I held the last note, the darkness was filled suddenly with bombs bursting, rockets glaring red.
I’ve missed the previous seven 4th of July extravaganzas, a happenstance result of entering religious life. The party has tamed a bit – a smaller crowd, no fireworks, and no trumpet performance; different than it was all those years ago when I gazed up into that deep Door County sky, half-drunk and fraught-less about the realities of the world. The sound of my trumpet did help us heal, but at that point in my life, I wasn’t aware of the fullness of the pain I played through. It feels more real to me, more urgent now after 15 years. Imagining playing that song again, I am filled with lamentation and left doubting whether the anthem means anything to me anymore.
When I go to the gym, I see one of three things on flat screens that surround my sweaty companions and me: news tickers revealing the latest fireball from Senate hearings and Spicer briefings gone awry, Chicago Cubs baseball highlights, or Shark Tank. I give all of them their due, because when it comes to screens in public places, I’m like a moth to the flame. Call me unpatriotic if you like, but there’s not too much of front-page America that I readily celebrate these days. I don’t care much if the Cubs repeat or if Mark Cuban tries to purchase 50% of the latest health food fad. I expect the words ‘Russia,’ ‘email investigation,’ Flynn, Sessions, and Trump to incite talking heads. What once was the chaos and unknown of America has become, well, predictable. Or perhaps I’ve become numb to all of it.
And in that, I’m reminded of the simplest reality of my own response to the pain that exists here today – I don’t have to respond. America was built for people just like me – privileged in every way. I don’t have to explore any of it further. I could get away with playing bocce and enjoying couscous and going to an air-conditioned gym forever. If I have been numbed, it is because America hasn’t changed for me at all. I haven’t had to let it change me. It has always been free for me. It is easy for me to say I’m brave.
I recently made a silent retreat, and one afternoon just before dinner, I took a short walk outside. The sun had begun to set, white billowing clouds piling high and casting playful shadows across vast fields.
But as I meandered through a small grove of tall cottonwoods, a harrowing chorus of crow calls cut through the cool summer air. I had a sense that some evil was building behind me, a murder of crows moments from swooping down upon me and tearing at my neck. My pace quickened; I was suddenly desperate to be out of those woods. As I escaped and my heart settled, I knew that if anything like that ever happened to me – anything that would jerk me out of the safety the world offers me – I would never be the same. It’s easy for me to say I’m brave when the world doesn’t demand that I be fearless. But fear often sits just below the surface in my life, and I realized just how deeply I hold on to my own security and comfort.
But still, I am invited to something different – to seek and co-create a world in which all people are free and in which bravery, not fear, takes the lead. A world in which the songs we sing don’t only herald a fiction of home that is free and brave, but a place that has established justice and will honor it.
I reread the lyrics of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ recently. O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave? The last line is a question, one that demands an answer in our and for all time. Does that flag still wave over a free and brave land? Has it ever?
In spite of everything, even in spite of myself, it still could. And so, if ever invited to play it again, I will play it as a new song, not of what is, but of what could be.
In the middle of a heated debate about healthcare, I find myself in the Capitol building on a guided tour of the House of Representatives. Amidst the hordes of summer tourists, I walk through the halls of Congress with one intent: to witness the opening of the day’s session in the House. Sitting in the gallery above the floor where House legislation is debated, I wait hoping that I might see famous Congressional leaders or hear impassioned appeals for reforms that might help the poorest Americans.
Instead, I see business as usual – Speaker of the House Paul Ryan walks into the room – almost empty, bangs a gavel on the desk and declares the day is in order. The chaplain gives an opening prayer, and Ryan walks out after. I immediately am filled with anger: I guess I had an unrealistic expectation that I would be witnessing important deliberations about health care reform. Why can Ryan so easily able to walk out the door and not listen to cries for affirming a basic human need?
Like many other media outlets, I am left wanting to deny his very humanity and turn him into a demon to throw away.
Frederick Douglass has recently made a comeback into American politics. A speech of his that never gets old is his treasured 1852 speech entitled “What to the Slave is the 4th of July?” In this speech, Douglass depicts the existential anguish experienced by the African-American slave: on the one hand, not unlike our celebrations this year, he watched the country celebrate the victory of the free world where persons are promised life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Yet, amidst this celebration, all he can do is mourn:
I say it with a sad sense of the disparity between us. I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity, and independence bequeathed by your fathers is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought light and healing to you has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth of July is yours, not mine.
What he means is that, for he and other African-American slaves, the Fourth of July did not apply because they lacked that very life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness freely given to certain members of the population. Calling for society to end the enslavement of some for the economic benefit of others, Douglass passionately spoke that this would give July 4th credibility.
But, as Douglass saw and experienced, his humanity was stripped so that others might use him and others as a form of chattel.
Today many will celebrate the 4th of July by watching fireworks as we grill hotdogs and hamburgers with family and friends. We ritually remember how many people gave their lives so that we can enjoy life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness today. We feel patriotic – a pride in our country and for those who help support it.
But to be truly patriotic, we cannot simply take for granted the precious gifts of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We must also ask ourselves what it means to be given those three grand gifts guaranteed in our Declaration of Independence:
- Life: What does it mean to be truly alive? What do we need to ensure that? Whose life matters? How do we live together?
- Liberty: What is true freedom? How do we protect that from threats – internal and external, personal and societal?
- The Pursuit of Happiness: What is happiness? Is that happiness dependent on how much others have? How do we know when we’ve found it? How do we ensure that pursuit is as equitable as possible?
Said another way, part of being truly patriotic is to ask ourselves if our actions and structures as individuals and communities prioritizes human persons. This means asking the question about our feelings and actions towards others, and our culture and social mechanisms. Do we or our social and cultural arrangements restrict others from fully actualizing themselves as persons? Do we restrict their happiness – or worse, demean their humanity in service of ourselves?
For example, slavery took away the humanity of many African-American men and women. Though slavery has ended, its legacy is a sin that continues to affect the black community today through racialized social policies and segregated neighborhoods.
In my own way this week, I too have refused to acknowledge the humanity of another when I attempted to strip it away from Congressman Ryan. My own attachment to disagreements with Ryan tempted me to dismiss him as less-than-human, and thus readily disposable. But arguably, so has Ryan: in continuing to push for health care “reform” that strips insurance coverage away from literally millions of Americans, his plan deems the most vulnerable in our society disposable too.
The Fourth of July asks us to be truly patriotic. It asks us to build a community where all persons – including those who differ from us – are able to be truly free and thriving persons. True patriotism is opposed to drawing us-versus-them lines. Instead, true patriotism involves asking for forgiveness for our own complacency and blatant sinfulness. It means challenging our culture, our communities, and our institutions to be less sinful and more loving. That means recommitting to seeing all persons as part of our community and none worth disposing of – even when we don’t like their ideas or think their lives are too expensive. To live that challenge, I must start with myself. I must see others as fully equally human, worth loving, worth being prayed for, and worth having a full life of freedom and happiness.
If we commit to this, we may begin to live truly patriotically. If we do not see the challenge that patriotism presents us with, however, using it instead to feel good about ourselves, then we may find ourselves yet again blind to the work of freedom yet to be wrought.
Image courtesy FlickrCC user Gareth Sloan.
When was the last time you used the word “evil” in your daily life?
I was compelled to use it last week when a colleague showed me a graphic video (warning: it is intensely violent) of an assault and robbery in the French Quarter of New Orleans, where I am working for the summer. We both knew the general content of the video, but were concerned that the sensationalism of the story might be related to the fact that the perpetrators were black while the victims were white. We were ready to lament the perpetuation of a racist narrative.The violence in the video, however, is nothing short of evil.
My mind immediately sought to justify the robbery as due, in some way, to desperation or anger at injustices suffered. But the sheer evil of the act remained with me. I recalled the idea of Socrates that “it is always and everywhere better to suffer evil than to commit it.” Even if these men had suffered greatly or were starving, what they have done is nonetheless evil.
This is not to say that what they might have suffered is not also evil. Certainly, the evil of racism is a reality. Who knows what inequality or injustice these young men have faced throughout their lives?
It struck me, as I pronounced this act as evil, that we tend to shy away from using such strong moral language. “Injustice” is a fairly popular term among the socially conscious, but “evil” and it’s cousin “sin” are often absent from the mainstream. We tend to avoid these words because they have a strong negative connotation and seem to put something, or someone, beyond redemption. I think a part of our reticence to use these words is because “evil” and “sin” also tend to remind us of “guilt” — that feeling that a lot of Catholics and former Catholics like to disparage. If an act is evil or a sin, somebody must be guilty, and nobody wants to be guilty or make others feel guilty.
In the classical Christian tradition, evil is merely the absence of a good where a good ought to be. When we call something a “moral” evil, or sin, we mean that it is the result of free human choice in the world. The perpetrators of the violent crime in the Quarter committed moral evil by depriving the victims of the goods of possessions and wholeness.
What is it that gives us pause in describing others’ actions as evil or even sinful? As I reflected on my own thought process when confronted with the robbery video, I realized that once I identified the act of violence as evil, it felt as if I was putting the assailants on a lower level than myself. My egalitarian instincts kick in and say, “So you think you are better than they are? That can’t be right.”
I think this discomfort is a large part of what keeps us from recognizing and pointing out evil around us. If we point to someone’s action and call it evil, we can be tempted feel superior or say to ourselves, “I’m glad I am not like that person.” So to avoid this temptation, we would rather just not call out evil, despite our perception that a good is lacking.
But this internal conflict arises from a misunderstanding of reality. First, naming an action as evil is different than calling a person evil. All persons as creatures of God have an inherent goodness that cannot be taken away from them despite their capacity for evil acts. Second, a commitment to the truth reminds us to recognize and name evil wherever we might find it, even in ourselves.
In the case of the violent robbery, I must resist the temptation to demonize the perpetrators as evil. Responsible for their actions? Yes; But actually evil? Impossible. Since evil is an absence, a no real thing can be evil. Making evil into a thing, or personifying it, might make it easier to grasp. When we do this, however, evil begins to take hold in our own hearts.
Recognizing that act of violence as evil also forced me to look within myself for the capacity to do such harm. I tried to put myself in the culprits’ shoes and asked if I would be able to do the same thing. I sought to rationalize the actions to prove that no one simply chooses evil — especially not I.
Yet as I sifted through my memory, I realized that not only was I capable of doing evil, I had done it, numerous times. Perhaps not in the same manner or to the same degree as a violent crime, but evil was certainly present in my soul.
This is an uncomfortable reality, yet if I am willing to call out the evil actions of others, I need to be able to admit my own. Guilt accompanies this admission, but guilt is not a feeling to be wallowed in; it is a motivation to seek forgiveness, reconciliation and healing.
By the end of the 1960s, most of Africa was finally under native heads of state. People of African descent around the world celebrated, reinvigorated by a new sense of self-love and solidarity. This culminating sentiment of “Pan-Africanism” was expressed in many forms, like when Muhammad Ali and George Foreman returned “home” to the DRC (known then as “Zaire”) for 1974’s Rumble in the Jungle. But already by that time, national dreams of a successful future were eroding; today, very little seems to remain of that seemingly bright future. Instead, there’s continuing violence and under-development from an array of seemingly intractable problems. It raises the question, for this large state (and many others in Africa), why are such tragedies in the DRC still making headlines 57 years after independence, or more simply, what went wrong?
The “Dark Continent” to the Belgian Congo
There were different motives for Africa’s colonization in the 1880s. Some sought exploration and adventure while others hoped to save the people of this “dark” continent.1.] Ultimately, despite various proclaimed causes, the effect of Europe’s latest thrust into Africa became clear: African resources were to be extracted by any means necessary for European industry and wealth.
Like all colonial powers, Belgium was able to gain large territories (the DRC is about 77 times Belgium’s size) through “divide and rule” which exploited relationships among local people and placed Europeans at the top. As chronicled in the best-seller, King Leopold’s Ghost, the ensuing Belgian rule was brutal, unchecked, and saw the deaths of approximately 10 million; many others were intentionally maimed to maintain rubber quotas for export to meet global demand. As a result, even other colonial powers, educated by missionary and human rights’ groups’ reports of torture, genocide, and rape, forced the Belgian state to take control of the colony from the King who had been ruling it as his private property. Ultimately though, it was shifts in demand for rubber over the following decades rather than altruism that eased the conditions of de facto slavery for the Congolese.
An Unclear Independence
Independence finally came on June 30, 1960 under Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba. Freedom though would be complicated as Belgians remained heads of many industries and fields. The Belgian head of the Force Publique infamously explained the situation to his Congolese troops and police bluntly: “before independence = after independence.”
Congo also had the misfortune of being born during the Cold War and its rich reserves of uranium (among many other resources) were a prize for the US’ or USSR’s nuclear weapons’ programs. In fact, uranium from the Belgian Congo was used in the atomic bombs dropped on Japan. It didn’t help either that during Lumumba’s independence speech, rather than kowtow to the Belgian King and thank him for Belgium’s “civilizing mission,” he instead memorialized those who died under Belgium’s brutal rule. The King, who was in attendance, was deeply embarrassed. Lumumba’s speech pushed Belgium further away from a clear recognition of Congo’s independence and it continued working on a new version of “divide and rule” where resource-rich, pro-Belgian regions within Congo would be supported in seceding and/or overthrowing Lumumba – an early exercise in neo-colonialism.
When the UN refused to use its peacekeeping forces in-country to protect the increasingly fragile government, Lumumba was forced to request Soviet aid (a few years later, Che Guevara and Cuban military advisors spent time in the country). Lumumba was branded a communist and the next year, with the help of the CIA under orders from President Eisenhower, the Belgian government carried out the removal of Lumumba from power and had him secretly murdered, his body dismembered, and his remains scattered.
Le Grand Kallé’s Congolese Rumba hit “Indépendance Cha Cha”, sung in Lingala and French, was the theme song for Congolese independence and for African independence as a whole.
Congo Today and the “Resource Curse”
Why do rich states like the DRC so often fail? A common answer is the resource curse – that richly endowed countries like the DRC are manipulated, internally and externally, for their valuable resources, leaving them under-developed and susceptible to conflict. Fighting over resources like coltan – Congo has 80% of the world’s supply – is at the roots of the current fighting (which includes the recent “Africa’s World War” which cost 5 million lives). Not only is coltan essential for phones and computers, but also for video game consoles. Since demand for newly released technology has repeatedly correlated with a greater intensity of fighting, Congo’s violence has sometimes been called The Playstation War.
Though international players contribute to the situation for financial gain, this could not be possible without the collusion of elements within the country’s government that have been accused of corruption and greed. It’s been government forces that carry out much of the violence on the ground, likely including the kidnapping and brutal murder last month of two aid workers, as well as the exponentially more deadly humanitarian crises that have followed. Add to this various rebel groups who want a piece of the action. With such stakeholders benefiting from the chaos, it’s easy to see why there is so little effort to make concrete, positive change.
How do we fit in?
Because we’ve been living in a globalized world for a long time, our actions often have far-reaching consequences, so here are some things to consider doing as we think of our part in the DRC’s story:
- Reflecting on our consumption. The hardest, but most critical step. Since demand for the latest gadgets fuels destruction in the DRC, it’s important to consider what is and isn’t important to buy.
- Educate ourselves from a wider range of reputable sources like All Africa and Africa is a Country; avoid those that can give incomplete versions of what’s happening in Africa and why.
- Advocate to our governments to remove policies that subsidize (through our taxes for defense spending) our out-of-control arms industry. America is by far the world leader in weapon sales and our ballooning (under both parties) military budget sustains this industry which means direct and indirect supplying of weapons for conflicts abroad like the DRC’s. This is why, for the month of June, Pope Francis has called on us to pray for national leaders to put an end to the arms’ trade, which he called an “absurd contradiction”.
Confronted with harsh realities like these, it can be tempting to turn a blind eye and retreat into our own spheres to handle our own problems, which at times is as it should be; we have very real problems here at home too. The other temptation is an ultra-mea culpa mindset where we feel that all the problems of the developing world are our fault. But a view, individually well-discerned, somewhere in between, is best to determine our parts in the solutions.
Image courtesy FlickrCC user vfutscher.
My dad has lived all over the world – from Iowa to Italy, Brazil and back. As a result, he’s spent years of his life navigating multiple languages. Because of this acuity for words, he’s become a man who produces eye-rolling, head-shaking puns. Rather than discourage him, the pained reactions from the victims of his puns fuel his fire.
Once, back in 1995, my dad spoke up during the announcements portion of mass in São Paulo. It was an English-speaking church community connected to the international Catholic school where my parents were teaching. Everyone had some fluency with Portuguese. It was Pentecost. My dad started narrating the story of a newly arrived English speaker in São Paulo who went out to run errands. The anecdotal character had limited Portuguese vocabulary, but he knew the only way to expand it was to dive in. He wandered into a shop that sold various toiletries. He saw a comb, which he needed, and was pleased with his quick recall of the Portuguese word for comb: pente. Unfortunately, he blanked on how to formulate the rest of the sentence regarding the cost of the comb. So he simply held up the comb to the vendor and asked, “pente cost?”
The communal groan was particularly memorable. I’ve never heard “Pentecost” in the same way since. I don’t doubt that my dad’s puns have ruined words for other people. They are memorable. So is he.
In Brazil, many indigenous, cultural, and syncretistic traditions weave their way into the practice of Catholicism. Candomblé, an Afro-Brazilian religious tradition initially developed by enslaved West Africans, is one of them. Dance is an important aspect of Candomblé. In fact, the word Candomblé means “dance in honor of the gods.” The horse is an important symbol in this tradition, as the person doing the ritual dance summons a divine spirit to take him/her over like a rider mounting a horse.
When my dad moved on from that school community in São Paulo, he was gifted a sandstone sculpture of a horse; the sculpture still holds a prominent place in my parent’s living room. The school janitor carved it for my dad by hand, a sign of their friendship. The horse is unbridled, confidently traversing rocky terrain with its head bowed-down, as if summoning the energy from within to march ahead. Much time and thought was put into this personalized gift, and I suspect the detailed craftsman was also an observant friend.
An educator for the past 37 years, the various communities my dad served knew to expect him everywhere. Seventh-grade girls basketball game? He’s there cheering. Rotary Club fundraiser? He’s serving the food. Parish First Communion? He’s cantoring the mass. It’s hard not to remember Steve Hanson when he is everywhere. He’s a true workhorse. He is a man possessed by the Holy Spirit.
My dad just retired, but retirement will not contain him. Inactivity isn’t in his blood. In Portuguese, the noun ‘retiro’ is used colloquially the way we use ‘retreat’ in English – the activity people undertake to take stock of their lives, usually in a spiritual sense. As a man who truly credits God for the things he accomplishes, my dad would not have taken any initiative to see himself recognized. But this was the desire of many community members, so he retreated to the party thrown to celebrate his years of service.
At the actual Pentecost, there were people gathered together from every nation under heaven waiting for the Holy Spirit. While we weren’t quite every nation, we did represent most of the places my dad has lived and worked.The party wasn’t Pentecost, but as we stretched out our hands in a gesture of blessing over my dad, we confirmed that his work isn’t done. We need him to continue being the Holy Spirit’s ‘horse.’
After the blessing, the former school board president who hired my dad approached me and said, “If this community only knew half of what your dad has done for us! He is so humble, such a gentleman, and a true Christian.”
The apostles were suspected of having too much wine at Pentecost. Maybe I had a little too much wine at the party, but wine wasn’t the spirit moving my heart and deepening my love for my dad.