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Thinking and writing at the intersection of faith and culture. We focus on both sacred and secular issues, and everything in between, because God does too.
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Sexual Abuse and the Culture of Fear

Thu, 04/20/2017 - 02:14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

Image courtesy FlickrCC user Justin Hoch.

Categories: Things Jesuit

You’re right.

Wed, 04/19/2017 - 02:01

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

“No, it’s just that…”

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

***

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

First possible response: I solved this already.

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

…right?

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

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

You got me.

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

*Sigh*

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-//-

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

Categories: Things Jesuit

Sins of the Past and Hope for the Future

Tue, 04/18/2017 - 02:14

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

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

Image courtesy the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus.

Categories: Things Jesuit

Will Charity or Love Prevail?

Mon, 04/17/2017 - 02:14

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

 

Charity shows itself in words
Love shows itself in deeds

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

Charity likes to be comfortable
Love likes to bring comfort

Charity has all the answers
Love listens for the answers

Charity hates mistakes
Love thrives in the messiness

Charity is from my surplus
Love is from my depths

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

Charity seeks the selfie
Love seeks to be present

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

Charity looks for obstacles
Love finds opportunities

Charity doesn’t “see” color
Love faces reality

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

Charity can wait for tomorrow
Love always lives for today …

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

 

Categories: Things Jesuit

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

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

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

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

1. It’s been a while.

via GIPHY

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

2. Getting to know Dr. Who

via GIPHY

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

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

3. The companions who shape the Doctor

via GIPHY

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

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

4. The Fandom is bigger on the inside

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

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

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

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


5. Tight writing takes you deep.

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

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

6. Villains, classic and new

via GIPHY

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

7. It’s fun!

via GIPHY

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

8. Something Big is going to happen.

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

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

via GIPHY

Categories: Things Jesuit

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

Fri, 04/14/2017 - 02:00

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

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

Okay, what has already been said about the video?

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

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

But …

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

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

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

Let’s Begin with the Long Look …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Again, I pause and respectfully ask the question:

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

via GIPHY

[Insert Controversial Title Here]: The Real Look…

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

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

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

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

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

W.W.J.D.: The Jesus Look…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Definition of Humble: To be Real before God

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

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

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

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

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

Categories: Things Jesuit

Suicide, Pain and ‘Thirteen Reasons Why’

Thu, 04/13/2017 - 02:00

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

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

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

*****

“Hey, it’s Hannah. Hannah Baker.

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

It’s me, live and in stereo.

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

Get a snack. Settle in.

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

More specifically, why my life ended.

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

—Hannah Baker

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

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

—Hannah Baker

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

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

“What happened to Hannah,

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

And if giving you this helps then…”

—Tony Padilla

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

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

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

Beth Dubber Netflix

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

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

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

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

—Hannah Baker

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

—Clay Jensen.

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

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

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

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

*****

Resources for Help:

Categories: Things Jesuit

This Side of the Green Grass

Wed, 04/12/2017 - 02:01

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

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

-//-

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

Categories: Things Jesuit

The Trouble with Pax Americana

Tue, 04/11/2017 - 02:14

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

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

*****

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

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

But perhaps a refresher:

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

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

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

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

So what are our Syrian options?  

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

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

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

*****

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

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

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

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

Look familiar?

Categories: Things Jesuit

Best (Holy) Week Ever

Mon, 04/10/2017 - 02:14

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

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

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

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

Here’s what you don’t want to miss:

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Holy Saturday: [Time Out]

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

***

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

Categories: Things Jesuit

What we wish Trump’s Tomahawks could do for us

Fri, 04/07/2017 - 02:31

Warning: this article contains images that readers may find distressing

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

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

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

— Mannfred Nyttingnes (@MannfredNikolai) August 17, 2016

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

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

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

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

— Liz Sly (@LizSly) September 2, 2015

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

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

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

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

Categories: Things Jesuit

Finding Treasure

Wed, 04/05/2017 - 02:03

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

“You got a cigarette?”

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

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

“You waiting for Fury? He around?”

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

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

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

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

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

I see you Treasure. I see you.

-//-

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

Categories: Things Jesuit

Paying for the Future: Who America Ought to Be

Mon, 04/03/2017 - 02:14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

***

We must take action if we are to live faithfully.

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

 

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

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

***

Image courtesy FlickrCC user WhatTheFeed .com.

Categories: Things Jesuit

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

Fri, 03/31/2017 - 02:00

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

Bandai, TV Asahi, Toei Company

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who would have expected that?

Categories: Things Jesuit

Offering a ‘Welcome Home’

Wed, 03/29/2017 - 02:00

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

-//-

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

Categories: Things Jesuit

Saviors of the Culture? Or Servants of the Savior?

Mon, 03/27/2017 - 02:14

In the late ‘90s, a young American conservative found himself in an awkward position. Although he had long thought of himself as a conservative Republican, he had come to value things that many conservatives did not: the environment, the poor, buying locally, a neighborhood where people knew each other, and even wearing Birkenstocks. These experiences led him to write a book in which he argued that conservatism had lost its way:

Too many people who call themselves conservative share the fundamental conviction of many liberals, namely, that individual fulfillment is the point of life. Conservative, perhaps, in their sexual views, they are, however, libertarian in their economic principles, and believe that the free market should be the guiding light of our lives together… Both mainstream liberalism and conservatism are essentially materialist ideologies.1

 

The book is Crunchy Cons, and the author is Rod Dreher. He sleuths his way through a variety of topics in the book, from homeschooling to the environment, but – and I can remember being surprised by this at the time – it is only at the end of the book that he addresses religion directly.

Fast forward 20 years, and religion has moved from the back to the front of Dreher’s books. In this new book, The Benedict Option, Dreher puts front and center the question of how Christians should live their faith in 21st-century America. Recently I chatted with Dreher about how this book is a fruit of his faith journey. While we spoke by phone at a distance of about 1400 miles, his passion and moral clarity resonated in his voice as though he was sitting right next to me.

That journey, Dreher explained to me, began by recognizing two things. First, the extent to which his worldview arose from his politics rather than from his faith. “I was [in the process of] allowing myself to be more formed by Catholicism than by my political commitments,” Dreher said to me over the phone. “But it was an ongoing process of conversion.

[W]e are formed more by our popular culture than by the Church, but it’s something we have to overcome. I can remember reading things that Pope Francis wrote in Laudato Si’ that really inspired me as an Orthodox Christian about how we have to regard the natural world. But this was something that set so many of my conservative friends off, and that’s a real tragedy.

 

As his feeling of homelessness in contemporary conservatism led him to pen Crunchy Cons, so an analogous sense of homelessness in contemporary culture inspired The Benedict Option.

The idea behinds the Benedict Option is simple: American culture is in decline. Even more, it has become toxic for Christian life. Hyper-consumerism, the popularization of the mores of the sexual revolution, progressive politics’ fixation on false notions of equality, the whittling away of religious liberty: all of the signs of the times simply do not help Christians cultivate their faith; in fact, they actively impede it. So Christians need to make spaces where they can imagine and construct their own faith-nurturing institutions and practices.

The need to retreat is as old as Christianity itself: Jesus himself did it. Indeed, as a Jesuit who makes annual 8-day retreats, I can testify to the power of occasionally fleeing the noise and confusion of modern life. But retreat is not flight, and I have wondered at times if Dreher is urging people toward such flight, to cut themselves off from and stop evangelizing the culture. When I raised that criticism, Dreher was quick to correct it: “That is the thing that drives me crazy,” he said with evident pain in his voice. “I can explain over and over again that that’s not what I’m talking about, but people hear what they want to hear. It’s an interesting question why this is so difficult for people to understand.”

Then he continued: “If we are going to be leaven for the world,if we are going to be salt and light for the world, then we have to protect our savor and we have to protect our light.” In other words, Christians should create this kind of protected space not despite, but precisely because of our Christian vocation to share the Gospel.

Of course one can disagree with many aspects of Dreher’s argument, and he is very happy for one to do so. I, for example, tend to agree with Jacques Maritain that history in all of its ups and downs is fundamentally ambiguous: Dreher’s narrative of decline is just too simplistic. But the best commentary I have seen finds the kernel of hope in the Benedict Option that should challenge everyone. At its best, the core of the Benedict Option is not an exit strategy from modernity, but a choice about how to engage it:

So what I call the Benedict Option is the choice that I believe is before all believers – Catholic, Protestant, Eastern Orthodox – whether we are going to continue to try to shore up the empire, so to speak, or whether we will make the radical choice to live in community as faithful Christians.

Dreher’s depiction of the United States as an empire that must be shored up strikingly departs from the thrust of Crunchy Cons, as Dreher now thinks we should look beyond a political renewal to a renewal of our whole culture. And that renewal will happen not through grand, large-scale structures, but within small, intentional communities. There is an intimacy and delicacy to those communities that Dreher articulates well in describing his encounter with the Benedictine Rule:

The thing that amazed me the first time I read the Rule of St. Benedict is that I expected that it would be a book of hidden knowledge, of spiritual secrets that would help me become saint. In fact, it’s really quite boring. It’s a thin little book about how to live as a monk in a monastery, when do we eat, how to say your prayers, and on and on. But there’s genius there, because Benedictine spirituality, as I later discovered, is all about the everyday, about making the everyday sacred, and about doing the ordinary routines but consecrating it all to God. And doing that faithfully, realizing that — day by day, slowly, slowly, slowly, if you’re doing it with all your heart, with a penitent heart — you will be changed. You will be refined and made more Christ-like.

 

I could hear a calm peace in this description of Benedictine life. In shifting his allegiance away from a political party, Dreher, I sensed, is finding the spiritual freedom to embrace greater things, even as he discovers that greatness in the little acts of daily living.

Dreher often flirts with a narrative of decline. To be sure, in The Benedict Option Dreher contributes to an ongoing conversation about the cracked foundations of contemporary American society. Many progressives will find this sort of pessimism off-putting, and perhaps uncharitable to Christians trying to engage that culture. Indeed, regular readers of Dreher’s blog will know that he does not always suffer fools lightly. But note that Dreher is here rejecting something that most on the Left find no less troubling: the jingoistic optimism of the Religious Right. When I asked Dreher about this, he responded: “The wonderful thing about Roman Catholicism is that it doesn’t track one-to-one with American political divisions, and for me that was one of the liberating things about being a Catholic.” Indeed, if nothing else, arguments like Dreher’s should hearten those who lament the dependence of so many Christians upon the GOP, and it ought to wake up those Republican Christians who still don’t see the problem. As a political scientist myself, this liberation from political parties is certainly of interest to me. When I asked him about it, it was evident that Dreher was, too:

It’s good to step outside your ideological puzzle and realize that the Gospel is much bigger than your political commitments, and sometimes being faithful to the Gospel means standing up to your political allies. I have progressive friends who do that on the issue of life, and I have conservative friends who do that on the issue of the environment or economics. But that’s liberating, frankly. When you don’t feel captive to a political party, when you realize that the Church is not the Republican or Democratic party at prayer, that opens up some really amazing possibilities for your own growth as a neighbor and as a citizen and as a Christian.

 

Listening to Dreher, I felt a hope that arguments like The Benedict Option could free social and religious conservatives from knee-jerk dependence upon the Republican party. As Dreher indicates, the Option ought to challenge such conservatives to be “faithful to the Gospel” in all its breadth and depth, not just the parts that fit party orthodoxy. This is advice that Dreher admits can be hard for even him to take: “We always need reformation and conversion.”

In admitting the failures of both conservative politics and the Church in evangelizing U.S. culture, Dreher to my mind exercises courage, pushing back against pride, vainglory and fear: the pride of our status in society, vainglory for more of that status, and the fear of what we could lose if we re-examined our fidelity to the Gospel.

Dreher himself has much to say about pride, telling me that he saw the pride of the Church in his investigations as a journalist into the clerical abuse scandals. He was a “very fervent and political Catholic in the 90s and early 2000s,” he related to me. “I thought the line between good and evil in the Church could be divided between liberals and conservatives.”

I had so much pride, And I thought: I’m not like those liberals who don’t respect the hierarchy: I respect the hierarchy… I was a Catholic triumphalist, but [now] I don’t have any patience for that in any church, because the brokenness of the Church at the end of late modernity is profound… It’s a temptation to think that I’m serving Christ, when all I really want to do is argue Church politics.”

 

The struggle to serve God rather than himself, Dreher urges, is a daily one. And so it became more clear to me that the Benedict Option alludes not only to St Benedict’s historical role in shaping European culture, but also to the concrete ways in which the saint cultivated holiness in everyday life.

More subtly, Dreher calls us to scrutinize our own commitments to pluralism and dialogue. As I noted above, Dreher describes the Benedict Option as a “radical choice” between Christ and empire. The moral richness of this “radical choice” first hit me when I asked Dreher about whether the Benedict Option meant retreating not only from the “empire” but from the task finding common ground as well. “That criticism is on point,” he said,

but I am less concerned with finding common ground than I am with being faithful. That doesn’t preclude finding common ground with others outside of my faith tradition, and I look for that. But that is not the thing that I am most concerned about.

 

This left me speechless. Everyone today talks about the need for finding common ground, for embracing pluralism, for resurrecting civil dialogue. What could be more important?

Simply put, for Dreher, living out one’s faith is more important. And while this doesn’t meant that Dreher is against dialogue – he’s not – he certainly is challenging the priority many give it. He led me to wonder: Am I living out my deepest commitments? Do I live out those commitments even as I interact with others of different beliefs? Ultimately, do I think that God is in charge? Dreher’s readers can give more value to pluralism than he does, as I do, and they might also assign more efficacy to grace within that pluralism, as I do, as well. But we can still be grateful for the questions Dreher raises about pluralism. He may also give us incentive to return to some of the leading theorists of Catholic engagement in pluralism, such as Jacques Maritain and John Courtney Murray, for the insights they offer our times.

Throughout our conversation, Dreher impressed me with his humility: he is not seeking to emulate St. Benedict as the grand savior of Western civilization. Benedict’s goal was a modest, if all-encompassing, one: to serve the Lord in daily life. And where the Dreher of the Crunchy Cons wanted to rescue Western civilization from itself, the Dreher of the Benedict Option has a Benedictine modesty, too:

I was really struck by how St. Benedict did not set out to save Western civilization, to shore up the empire that has fallen. All [the early Benedictines] set out to do was to establish what St. Benedict calls in his Rule a “school for the service of the Lord.” All they wanted to do is learn how we can live faithfully in community in the time and place and with the challenges we have been given. And by doing that work faithfully, seeking nothing but the face of Christ, and ordering everything else to that quest, they ended up spreading throughout Europe, evangelizing European peoples, teaching them how to do practice things like agriculture, things that had been forgotten, and preserving within those monasteries the writings of the Church fathers… Each monastery was like an ark, and, without really knowing what they were doing, they prepared Europe for the rebirth of civilization.

 

That an ark was Dreher’s guiding image remained with me: while an ark is needed in the fearful times of a deluge, the ark’s presence evokes the hope of safety from the flood. Just so, the Benedict Option is not about fear for Dreher, even though it does arise from fears about American society. Fundamentally, the Benedict Option is about hope: not in America, not in oneself, but in God. When I asked Dreher what he learned from the process of writing the book, he said : “I learned that we don’t have to win the victory in this lifetime, and it can’t be won in this lifetime. All we have to do is to do the very best we can where we are and let God do the rest.”

Those words reminded me of a prayer attributed to someone with whom Dreher is not often identified: Oscar Romero. Or, more particularly, the prayer to which his name is often added. The “Romero prayer” offers a similar quiet hope, reminding us that the future is in God’s hands, not ours: “We are prophets of a future not our own.”

Gone is the triumphalism of Crunchy Cons, gone is the complacency of the Morality Majority, gone is the sectarianism of the Religious Right. In their place, Dreher offers an eschatological expectation that is breath-takingly Christocentric: God will triumph, even if humans fail.

This hope is what the liberal critic of the Benedict Option should push Dreher on. For it would be easy to retreat out of fear, to withdraw out of an unwillingness to confront the obstacles to proclaiming the Gospel in our time. It would also be easy, by the way, to reject the Benedict Option out of fear: out of the fear of what it might cause us to learn about ourselves, out of a fear of learning that God is indeed bigger than us.

One cannot speak with Rod Dreher without sensing that his God is indeed very great. For all the ways I might disagree with aspects of his proposal, there is no question that, for a moment, I felt very close to him in our mutual desire for Christ. It is that desire that impels the Benedict Option forward, and with which Dreher ended our conversation:

The world still wants Christ. The question is, do we still want him and are we still willing to live sacrificially for His sake?

If you’ve read this far, then like me you would probably respond to this question with a yes. But what do we do with that yes? How are we to live “sacrificially” for Christ?

I have no firm answer to that question. But I do know that Dreher has challenged me to approach that question – to live that question – with renewed urgency. And for that, I am grateful.

***

Images courtesy of Penguin Random House.

Categories: Things Jesuit

Remaking a Better Belle

Fri, 03/24/2017 - 02:00

In 1991 Disney made history when “Beauty and the Beast” became the first animated film ever to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture (See above). Now, Disney has re-imagined  “Beauty and the Beast” as a live action film.  This remake counts on spellbinding its original audience while winning a new generation of Disney movie lovers. But is this “tale as old as time” really in need of a reboot a quarter of a century later? Is there “something there that wasn’t there before?”

In 1991, Belle was to be the Disney Princess ahead of her time. She was supposed to be a stronger, more complex character, unlike her arguably-shallow predecessors—think Snow White and Sleeping Beauty heroically slumbering till prince-savior arrives or Cinderella and Ariel whose life-dreams seem to end at elopement. This new iteration of princess was supposed to be a young woman who didn’t dream of falling in love with a prince, let alone chasing a happily everafter. She would be free thinking, strong and independent. Regardless of what anybody thinks, she wouldn’t be afraid to take a stand.

Belle was poised to reach this new, higher bar, and she came close. She was selfless in the what she did to save her captured father. She was also assertive enough stave off the advances of a “boorish, brainless” Gaston.

Belle was gentle enough tame a cold-hearted Beast, who she ultimately fell in love with. Her efforts to stand up and defend the Beast against the fearful accusations of the townspeople are laudable. Does she actually reach this raised bar, though?

As progressive as Belle was supposed to be, there was still some scent of typical Disney princess. She was supposed to be a smart and thinking young woman. So why is that she only reads romance stories?  Are these supposed to be proof of her intellect?  And aside from reading romances, all we see her doing is shopping in that “poor provincial town,” a menial task in a place she does not fit in.1 She sings that she wants “so much more than they’ve got planned,” but these aspirations are never named! Does she even know what they are? How strange for a character who has big dreams and knows what she wants, right?  Does she really want a prince to whisk her away to happily ever after, like all the rest of the of the Disney Princesses? She appears more than content with it at the end of the original movie, housewife to a handsome prince and caretaker to his charismatic possessions.

26 years later, Emma’s Belle would do Betty Friedan proud. This Belle overtly works against sexism. She teaches the girls in her town how to read, because the village school is just for the boys. She invents a mule-powered washing machine to free up her time to teach reading. This time, her rejection of Gaston is more than a fantasy recounted musically.  She bluntly tells him that they could never make one another happy as she slams the door in his cocky face.  They still call her “a funny girl” that no one understands.  But now it’s less about distracted bookishness than outright transgression of gender roles.  

Still courage and ingenuity are not Belle’s most noteworthy characteristics. It’s these two other things that drive her that are the most compelling: her strong feminist principles, and her heart full of selfless love. It’s because of her principles that she educates the town’s girls. It’s because she’s selfless that she tricks her father to take his place in prison. But Belle’s depth of compassion comes to view when she is  faced with the opportunity to escape the Beast forever. In this moment, she is transparently torn between seizing back her life and doing the right and more difficult thing.

Belle may not have the physical strength of Gaston or the Beast, but her head and her heart grant her power nonetheless. And while Belle gets stronger, interestingly enough, the Beast gets weaker.  That’s not to say that he’s a wimp, but he’s definitely more vulnerable.  

#belle #BeautyandTheBeast
Lesson: We learn from The Beast in true love we are #vulnerable pic.twitter.com/v1TwyyJsF0

— Lonna Converso (@LonnaLexi) March 20, 2016

In this version, a more vulnerable Beast shares more of his backstory.  He picked up selfish behavior from his father. His mom, who was teaching him to be selfless and kind, died when he was young. He is orphaned and is essentially raised by his servants. As the Beast drops his guard,  we understand that behind the ugliness of the Beast and his actions, is a broken human who is worthy of love.

We all learn from “Beauty and the Beast,” “not to be deceived by appearances, for beauty comes from within.” And for the first time in a Disney film, we witness a male character who exposes that inner beauty by being unabashedly vulnerable. Showing his vulnerability does nothing to emasculate him, in fact it strengthens him. It takes a lot for men to be honest emotionally, and this is never more apparent than when he sings out with all the robustness of a Broadway divo “I learned the truth too late/I’ll never shake away the pain.” He sings his song of lament, “Evermore,” when he releases Belle as his prisoner and believes he’s lost the newly found love of his life. And this vulnerability–or better, humanity–pierces the heart as he hopelessly belts “And as the long, long nights begin/I’ll think of all that might have been/Waiting here for evermore.”

The new Beauty and the Beast remains faithful to the original, while lavishing Belle and the Beast with layers of reality and depth more common outside of fairy-tales and storybooks. Belle finds a way to the Beast’s heart by being strong and selfless. The Beast makes his way into Belle’s heart by being vulnerable and showing a willingness to learn from his mistakes. And at the end, when the the Beast sheds his abominable appearance, we too are transformed by the beauty we each posses within when we seek out the beauty in those around us. A flesh-and-blood reboot definitely offers “something there that wasn’t there before.”

Categories: Things Jesuit

Call and (Delayed) Response

Thu, 03/23/2017 - 02:01

“I thought about him every day for eighteen years,” she said. “And we may have been a little delayed, but now, it feels just perfect.”

***

My flight was delayed 45 minutes. Moments before the delay was announced, I was sprinting through the Chicago Midway Airport, backpack bouncing wildly across my shoulders. I was all but desperate to be in line at gate B23, but then a tinny loudspeaker voice gave me the gift of time. A long day at work, a stressful standing-room only train ride, traversing moving walkways and dodging little girls dragging pink princess roller bags – all of it stopped. A 45-minute delay. What to do with 45 minutes?

It was St. Patrick’s Day. So I made a beeline for a bar and ordered a Guinness.

The bar was awash with weary travelers. As a table opened up, the bartender handed me an overflowing glass. I carefully balanced the full, black pint in hand while I collected my bag and made for a stool. Another couple had the same idea – Jen and Jack. “Let’s sit together,” they said, smiling.

Jen and Jack were 40 and 39, respectively, and they were engaged to be married. “Destination wedding,” they told me. “Cancun. Too old to get married anywhere cold.”

“How did you meet?”

They met eighteen years ago at a bar they both frequented. As it turns out, they were engaged once before. She broke it off – the struggles of single motherhood were substantial, and she didn’t know how to accept the love that Jack offered. “I didn’t think I deserved it,” she said after a painful moment of pause.

Both of them got married to other people – “a–––––––,” as Jack described them.  Jen and Jack both admit, though, that they somehow thought of each other every day for eighteen years. Both got divorced from those a––––––– and then, one night, Jen sent Jack a Facebook message. She mentioned that he had popped into her mind and wondered whether they might meet up. They did, and after a year-and-a-half Jen and Jack were engaged again. A Mexico-bound marriage in the making. They weren’t ready for their love long ago, but it lingered through memory and time. Delayed, but not abandoned.

***

The first time I considered the Catholic priesthood was on the heels of a service trip I made between my junior and senior year of high school. A young priest – Fr. John – accompanied our group on that retreat, and during the closing Mass, he swore in the middle of the homily.  The word began with ‘s’ and ended with a hit right to my gut. I thought – if this guy can swear during a homily, then maybe one day I will too. I saw myself in him somehow, and not only in his use of curse words. He was passionate and happy. I wanted those things.

Thoughts of the priesthood lingered in some way every day. During my senior year of college, I seriously considered applying to the Jesuits.  But, in my quietest, purest moments, I doubted my value and I didn’t feel worthy of the call. At my loudest moments, I was scrambling to write papers, going to meetings, drinking, smoking cigarettes, and building an incapacity to think ahead and decide anything. So, I moved on to almost eight years of other stuff. Daydreams of the priesthood remained – eight years of challenging relationships, survival on an educator’s salary, even moments of doubt about whether or not God existed at all.

And one day, after a bright moment amidst work-related exhaustion, I returned to my office and made a call. I realized, somehow, that if I didn’t pursue the priesthood, I’d never be happy. Half-a-year after that, my parents dropped me off at the side door of my first Jesuit community. “It’s about time,” my dad told me just before he and my mother drove away the next day. A call to love delayed for years.

***

Why not make big life decisions right away? Jen and Jack could have married each other years ago, a house, kids, and joint savings account taken care of. I could have entered the seminary after high school and been ordained a priest at age 26. But that’s not how it happened. There we were at an Irish airport bar, I a priest-in-training and they engaged to be married for the second time. Everything delayed.

Perfect callings in life don’t reveal themselves perfectly. We usually don’t allow them to. We get in the way of that perfection, that goodness – we fight against it, we doubt it, we run as far away as we can, and only after it has worn us down for years and years and years do we come to realize its possibility and and its truth.

“Sometimes, I feel like we missed out,” Jack said. “But mostly, I’m glad to be where I am now, her hand in mine. It’s just right.”

Two more pints and 45 minutes later, I said goodbye to them and headed for gate B23. A bit delayed, sure – but, I still ended up where I was supposed to be.

-//-

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

Categories: Things Jesuit

March Madness and Family

Wed, 03/22/2017 - 01:56
Embed from Getty Images


You probably know someone like us.  Our weekly Thursday meeting was moved to Wednesday.  A Friday conference call was scheduled for the Creighton game’s halftime.  The mood at Saturday’s dinner was funereal, West Virginia having just massacred Notre Dame.  Agony passed into ecstasy as Gonzaga punched their sweet sixteen ticket later that night.  

Those who’ve never seen their alma mater at the Big Dance gawk at our fanaticism in a mixture of awe, confusion and pity.  The NCAA basketball tournament is underway and March has turned us mad.

And this madness brings us together.  Hardly anything can more quickly conjure a sense of family like a bar filled with monochromatically-clad patrons drinking a beloved team to victory.  But that instant and fleeting sense of community pales in comparison to the fellowship found on the other side of the screen.  Because hardly anything can more deeply conjure a sense of family than playing on a sports team.  

Nigel Williams-Goss is Gonzaga University’s starting point guard.  See why:

Williams-Goss is that rare combination of Wooden Award finalist and charming writer.  He goes from court to pen to share an insider look at what it’s like to be a member of  one of those sixteen families going to battle this weekend. Take this from his latest Players’ Tribune essay:

Everyone knows Mark Few by reputation: 18 years as coach at Gonzaga, 18 straight NCAA tournament appearances, 15 conference titles. But beyond those stats, Coach Few is also known as the guy who put a Jesuit college in eastern Washington with 5,000 students on the national basketball map. He’s one of the reasons I came here.

I get to see a side of him most people don’t. So I’m going to try — as a psychology major — to give you my impression of him.

Coach Few has a lot of different sides to his personality. He’s a family man. He’s ultracompetitive. He delivers fiery speeches and he’s not afraid to be a disciplinarian. But at the same time, he also has sharp sense of humor — bordering on sarcastic — that caught me off guard at first.

In December we were in L.A. to play Arizona at Staples Center — a big game. Coach Few was getting really fired up in the locker room beforehand. He seemed to be freestyling his pregame speech. He was letting a bunch of expletives fly.

“We’re not here as a %&#* courtesy!”

He went on and on like that. He was much more animated than usual.

When he finished, we all sat there in silence. Even though we were ranked eighth, and the Wildcats were 16th, we hadn’t beaten them since 2011.

And then Coach said, “Oh man, and I just came from church right before this,” Coach said. “You better make that speech worth it.”

He was shaking his head, but we thought it was hilarious. We all busted up.

We won 69–62 that day. I don’t know if the mood he set before the game had anything to do with it. But I don’t think it hurt.

In that moment, I knew that coming to Gonzaga was the best decision I could’ve made. It felt like a family.

As you watch the Sweet 16 whittle themselves to a Final Four, enjoy the rest of his essay on how life on the campus of a Jesuit university feels like being part of a family.  Read it here.

Categories: Things Jesuit

The Gift of Empathy: RIP, J. Donald Monan, S.J.

Mon, 03/20/2017 - 02:14

A great man died Saturday morning.  And I hardly knew him.

Rev. J. Donald Monan of the Society of Jesus passed away peacefully in a Jesuit health care facility west of Boston. Fr. Monan was president of Boston College from 1972 to 1996, steering the university from a struggling commuter school to a world-renowned Catholic, Jesuit institution. But he was more than a skilled administrator. He was a kind and gentle scholar of Aristotle. And he was dedicated — even after his health made him move out to Weston, Mass., Fr. Monan came in to campus on weekdays in his role as chancellor to BC. Each day he would wear a clerical shirt and black suit, which would hang off his thinning frame in his latter years.  I’d see Fr. Monan, serene as a fawn in open field, sitting in the entry of St. Mary’s Hall as he waited for his fortunate guest du jour. Waiting, no doubt, for one of thousands of people he touched in his long time in Boston.

* * *

I was preaching at an evening Mass on campus later Saturday afternoon. When it came time for the prayers of the faithful, we prayed for recently deceased parishioners.  At the end of the list, I added, “…and for Fr. Donald Monan, SJ, who passed away this morning.”

A collective gasp sucked the air from the Church of Saint Ignatius.  It was clear that I was the bearer of sad news for many of the parishioners.  BC had lost a cherished leader, and this was the first people had heard of it.  

* * *

In an age of ready access to information, news and content streams right to our desks and living rooms, often in isolation. Our iPhone and laptop screens help us laugh at viral video clips, and coo at pictures of our grandchildren taking their first steps.  

But these screens shine on the good and the bad alike. The New York Times or Fox News pushes alerts to our smart phones, delivering news items that are tragic or frivolous — whatever to keep people plugged in. We read and register these notifications alone. Sometimes the news breaks us; more often than not, though, the stories wash over us as we move on to the next-shiniest story. So how do we process these bits of sad news, big and small?

After I delivered the news of Fr. Monan’s death at the Mass, the gathered parishioners’ mood seemed to change. There was a discernible solemnity, made clear when people came forward to receive communion. I noticed a weight in many of their faces — the weight of loss, yes. But also of empathy. The weight of learning of your brother’s cancer. Of your sister’s divorce. Of your father-in-law’s new Alzheimer’s diagnosis, and the anguish it carves in your spouse’s features.Of people suddenly mourning the death of a beloved leader, who had been a reliable fixture for over forty years.

* * *

The digital age can awaken us to grief and tragedy around the world. And yet the internet cannot help us totally process life’s griefs, because the internet works to keep us in distracted isolation. We may come together to mourn at funerals and prayers services, surely; but the initial shock of others’ sad news, by and large, comes through the protective distance of a glowing screen. In isolation, we are free to engage, or disengage, with another’s grief.  But physical proximity — the kind you get when you rub shoulders in a pew, a march, or a demonstration — fosters solidarity to share one other’s joys and griefs. We can “like” or “sadface” a Facebook post about someone’s dying mother; but calling him up or visiting in person entails a commitment. A commitment to empathy, to sharing that weight of loss.

Funny isn’t it? When life is tough or uncertain, we tend to remember who showed up to walk with us — more so than our own uncertain feelings. The last time I remember being in collective shock was watching 9/11 unfold as a sophomore in college. My friend Zach and I were glued to the television, surrounded by guys from our dormitory. While few events have risen to that level of horror, many solidarity-worthy tragedies (mass shootings, terrorist attacks, loss of innocent life, etc.) settle like silt. They never rise to the level of physically proximate, communal support. Yes, there are candle flame profile-pics, or monuments lighted in a mourning nation’s colors. There are marches and vigils organized online and enacted in person. But the fact that we first turn our face to a screen for support – a screen that cannot look back — is precisely the point.  We outsource empathy to the internet, as a way of managing — avoiding? — the uncertainties and griefs that are best shouldered together.  

Together.

An interesting thing happened after Mass that Saturday. A woman in her forties came up to tell me her memories of Fr. Monan from her college days. She remembered how her dad told Fr. Monan to “keep an eye out for her!” Fr. Monan responded by surprise-visiting her apartment as a senior, to the delight of all her roommates. And she told the story, with wistful tears, of Fr. Monan pitching in to help a family move their son’s boxes into his first dorm room. Story after story of his kindness, humility, and generosity. In the balance of life, I could see the weight of her grief slowly shifting to the consolation of memories. And as she told stories between laughter and tears, I saw again that we are not meant to endure grief alone.

* * *

As I write now, I think of memories of wispy but alert Fr. Monan, sitting in that long hallway of St. Mary’s at Boston College. I had introduced myself to him several times in the past two years, but I figured he might not have the bandwidth for a new acquaintance in his 90s. “I don’t want to bother him…” I’d say to myself, and I would pass his kind face with a polite smile and a wave.  He would summon a smile and wave back, watching me as I’d carry on quickly with my day.  

I wonder what went through Fr. Monan’s mind as he sat watching a crop of students who were barely two years old on September 11, 2001. Or the scores of younger Jesuits my age, who never saw the Challenger explosion, or watched in awe at the moon landing. Who hadn’t seen Walter Cronkite remove his glasses to announce that President Kennedy had been slain in Dallas, some 38 minutes ago. I wonder what he might think of us all in the prime of life, walking across campus staring into screens, with a long life ahead of us. Lives of joy, but also of griefs. Lives of successes ahead, but also the weight of loss and inevitable diminishment. A life full of daily opportunities to share the joys and sorrows of another person, face to face. To surprise someone at their apartment with a smile, or help lighten the load of an unsuspecting family on move in day.

* * *

I trust that Fr. Monan now sees God face to face. On his final journey home, I hope that he heard the plaintive gasp of a parish that learned, together, of his return to God. And I hope that we can all learn a bit from him — about the power of presence, kindness, and empathy.  We may be able to connect in an instant to news across the world.  But it’s not worth it, if we miss connecting with the gentle souls waiting for us just across the hall.  

Rest in peace, Fr. Monan.

Categories: Things Jesuit

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