Latest from the Jesuit Post
In almost 500 pages, Hillary Rodham Clinton’s new memoir What Happened says what many might say in two words: she lost. Her explanation nuances her own personal mistakes, her emails, Russian intervention, Bernie Sanders, sexism, and the intersection of race and class. But this is only a fraction of what makes the book so compelling and important to read. In her own words, Clinton says she’s letting her guard down.
Not unlike her political career, the book has received mixed reviews. Democrats aiming to rebuild the party after Clinton’s loss claim she and her subsequent Hillary Clinton Live book tour are a distraction. Others say presidential candidates don’t immediately write books explaining why they lost the election. And finally, there’s the obvious: we’ve been talking about what happened since that early November morning.
That being said, the book is more than an explanation of why Clinton lost the election and is worth the read for the following three reasons:
Her Prayer Life: Part of what Hillary Clinton recounts in What Happened is her inner spiritual life. She admits early on that many people won’t believe her discussion of her prayer life after the election. One of the reasons for this skepticism is that Rev. Bill Shillady plagiarized spiritual reflections he sent her. Although this may discount Shillady’s credibility, these reflections still shaped her personal prayer during the campaign.
Whether one is skeptical of her prayer life or not, there’s much more to be gained from taking her at her word. She describes how she reread The Return of the Prodigal Son by Henri Nouwen, a book that has guided her prayer for over twenty years. Seeing herself in the position of the older brother, she admits that the book challenges her to the discipline of gratitude:
To be grateful even for our flaws, because in the end, they make us stronger by giving us a chance to reach beyond our grasp. My task was to be grateful for the humbling experience of losing the presidential election… It’s because of our limitation and imperfections that we must reach out beyond ourselves, to God, and to one another.
In what must have been the most painful experience of her life, her experience of gratitude calls her out of her pain and propels her into the future. For each of us who have faced losses in our lives, her story urges us to not allow our hearts to grow bitter, but to continue to find God working on our lives and the lives of others.
The Need for Radical Empathy: During the campaign, Clinton herself admitted it was odd that a presidential candidate would speak about the need for more love and kindness. Her message might have appeared weak to some, but is now more important than ever. She’s calling us to move farther to radical empathy: to “try to walk in the shoes of people who don’t see the world we do.” That includes her. She acknowledges cultural change, lack of belonging, economic insecurity, and even abortion as reasons why someone would see the world differently than her.
While not excusing the unleashing of hate in America since the election, Hillary Clinton urges us to work to build bridges between persons who are different:
We have to fill the emotional and spiritual voids that have opened up within communities, within families, and within ourselves as individuals. That can be even more difficult, but it’s essential. There’s grace to be found in those relationships. Grace and meaning and that elusive sense that we’re all part of something bigger than ourselves.
As her prayer life demonstrates, she’s decided to let go of bitterness and try and build bridges. So too must we.
Embracing Her Own Mistakes, Flaws, and Failures: Many people see the Clintons as thinking they are “above the rules.” Perhaps one way this played out is her admitting throughout the book that she never expected she would lose the election. Furthermore, she’s apologized for not winning the election without blaming her campaign staff. But more than anything, she’s found grace in her mistakes and flaws.
Take one concrete example from the final pages of the book: returning to her alma mater Wellesley to give the 2017 commencement address, she hears the student speaker say that it is our flaws that make us who we are. Listening to the student, she reflects to the reader how she’s learned to see her own flaws as character marks of her own authenticity, something that many see her as hiding over her years in public office.
And perhaps that is why, despite the controversy, Hillary Rodham Clinton has written this book and re-emerged in the public sphere. Perhaps the whole process has been less of a desire to tell what happened that led us to November 8th, 2016. Maybe instead she’s showing us what happened next in her own acceptance of her flaws, mistakes, and public humiliation. Simply said, she’s found grace, gratitude, and healing there.
Her book invite us to do the same. She implicitly asks us for critical self-reflection that is more than just what happened last November. Like her, we’re invited to consider our limited perspectives so that we might stretch them and grow to be radically empathetic. And in the process, she subtly requests us to find what she found – how God is laboring beneath our flaws so that we might find ourselves good enough, strong enough, and ready to move onward together.
The cover photo is featured courtesy of Ali Shaker/VOA and can be found on the Wikimedia Creative Commons.
One might assume that a special release of a television show in IMAX would come with striking clarity and amazing special effects, but with ABC’s Marvel’s Inhumans I found myself struck not by the wonder and the ‘super’ but by the sheer humanity involved. While villains might exist in the series, the very person of the characters lies central to the conflicts and the underlying themes of the narrative.
Marvel’s Inhuman series follows a race of humans who possess extra genetic potential, making them “different” from humans and forcing them into exile as refugees. In exile in the city of Attilan, they create an entire society based on “potential”—it is so important that King Black Bolt, his wife Medusa, and the rest of the royal family personally supervise each individual as they undergo their transformation when they come of age. That genetic transformation might awaken “powers” within the person or it might not. A person’s “powers” may seem far afield in terms of fantasy and science fiction, but the attention to each person and their potential turns the story inward towards the humanity and pressures involved.
Maximus, the king’s brother who lacks superpowers, faces the challenge and frustration of being underestimated by all around him. The society continually highlights him as “just human,” which leads to the very human experience of jealousy and self-loathing. Maximus turns this jealousy and anger into a weapon which eventually motivates a coup d’état for the throne of Attilan. It’s painful to watch, as everyone around King Black Bolt can see the jealousy and manipulation of his brother Maximus building. Yet, in this escalating tension, Black Bolt remains silent. Even though Maximus seems evil, his brother cannot see it, and he cannot help but underestimate him.
Silence and inaction are important themes for Black Bolt. By comic standards, Black Bolt is perhaps one of the most powerful superhumans in the Marvel world. His voice—which is his weapon—excites the very atoms which stand in his way, disintegrating everything. A single word can demolish a city or an army, and if he raises his voice the scale of destruction would be limitless. The power and potential of his voice remains feared, but also silent: Black Bolt knows that with a single word he can defeat anyone and anything, but his potential scares him more than empowers him.
We see a glimpse of his power in a single moment when Black Bolt it punched. He releases an insignificant grunt, but that sound—no louder than a whisper or exhale—crushes and flips a police car hundreds of feet. This accidental manifestation of power brings him to his knees. Ashamed and afraid, he surrenders. His power and potential remain self-silenced by the shame he has for those mistakes he has made in his past and his fear of future destruction.
As a result, Bolt remains silent. He sits within the very human tension of holding potential and not knowing what to do with it. His fear of destruction, much like the human fear of failure, ties his hands and his actions. He is the most powerful, rendered powerless… a feeling not inhuman at all.
ABC’s Inhumans pits two opposing human experiences against one another: the frustration of being underestimated, and the fear of your past mistakes and future potential.
The two human experiences come to a moment of pregnant tension at the close of the series premier. Maximus sits upon his brother’s throne, having proven himself so much more than just a human. As he sits, he receives a call from Medusa who says, “the king will have words for you.” Her statement of course implies the use of Black Bolt’s power, but more importantly it indicates that Bolt is going to move beyond silence and inaction. Maximus though, unwilling to be underestimated again, replies that he is looking forward to it.
The closing conversation captures the tension which will unfold not in superhuman or inhuman terms, but in terms of the underestimated and unrealized potentials of the person. The superpowers, the inhuman capabilities, and the special effects all fall into the backdrop of a distinctly human tale. We may be entertained by the superpowers and special effects, but we are fundamentally drawn to the way a super-tale allows us insight into our own human experience.
The cover image is courtesy of Jamie of the Flickr Creative Commons.
I spend time each week in a pod at the Cook County Juvenile Detention Center – the JDC. Each pod is visible through thick panels of glass which, sadly, makes it feel like looking into an exhibit at the Lincoln Park zoo. But instead of animals, there are 14 to 18-year-old boys awaiting trial, sentencing, or transport to prison. Each pod has a bathroom area on one end and a TV room on the other. Roughly 15 cells line the back wall with heavy grey doors and a mesh-wired window. Usually when I arrive some of the boys are either playing cards or watching TV. Others are already locked up until morning.
One evening a young man named Kevin, about 18 years old, sat down to talk. He was a Chicago boy and grew up in a tough neighborhood. He had been a leader in a gang, but now wanted to leave that life behind after having seen the suffering it brought him.
Kevin was a talented writer, and in a later conversations he would share a poem he authored about his past life. It was filled with loving companions, painful losses, hope, anger, and fear. He had not graduated high school, but he wanted to earn his G.E.D. Beyond that I don’t remember specifics, but I do know that he had a strong desire to help other young people like himself.
After speaking for some time, I asked him how he was feeling. He paused for a moment, his eyes glancing away from mine. When he finally spoke, he slowly grasped his chest with his hand, as if trying to massage a chronic ache or feel an old wound that could possibly crack open again. He was trying to indicate something palpable within him that he couldn’t quite describe.
“Yeah, I just…I have this feeling in my chest like a weight or… like something in me that feels like even though I want to do this, I can’t.”
It was normal for me to speak to the boys about the difficulties they would face when leaving. But Kevin was expressing something much more profound than a lack of social or psychological resources. He recognized that there was a more fundamental mystery of weakness that resided deep within him. A weakness beyond external difficulties that he feared might keep him from being able to do what he truly hoped to do.
I am very different from Kevin. I am a 27-year-old white man from South Dakota who took vows in a Catholic religious order. I have the freedom open and close my bedroom door as I please, eat what I want, and freely talk to the people I love.
But, there are also things in my life that keep me locked down, chained, unable to move. A year ago, I was diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), which I have struggled with for years. It’s not that I hoard things, or have to wash my hands every five minutes. Instead, I will obsessively ruminate for hours over whether I hurt someone, spoke poorly of them, or did something “wrong.” This rumination is accompanied by gnawing anxiety wherein I can’t focus, my stomach becomes a knot, and I feel like there’s a fire alarm going off, even though nothing is burning.
I know these fears are unreasonable, but I can’t let them go. And I cannot keep myself from getting anxious, no matter how badly I want to, or how much I can see that I don’t need to be. My mind is locked up, and I feel powerless against it.
As Kevin and I talked, I sensed that the fear and powerlessness he now felt – and that I felt with my OCD – though born from different places, were the same. A fundamentally human fear of being helpless against a force that pulls away from life and toward imprisonment, sin, pain, and despair. A weakness that is not artificially created by some abstract ideal he or I hold up for ourselves, but an undeniably real experience – a part of simply existing. In this way, whether held captive in the JDC or by OCD, I saw that Kevin and I both understood what it means to be truly weak.
Yet almost immediately in the midst of this recognition, I was moved to something else I’ve come to know: that it’s precisely in these places where my own power and self-sufficiency wear out that God meets me. And as I remembered this, I thought Kevin could meet God in the same way.
So I asked if he would like to pray, and he said yes. I didn’t plan what I spoke. All I could speak of was what I knew to be true in my own heart: that there is a gift of grace that transforms even the deepest despair and fear into life and hope. I prayed that Kevin would experience this in his own way.
As I prayed, I could feel this power with us – palpable, real, and liberating. I sensed light breaking through darkness and the birth of confidence born of faith in something larger than ourselves. I ended, and we both sat in the echo of a message I believe we both understood. It was us two with God, being reminded of this hope we can truly claim and hold on to.
The last time I was in a hurricane, I was four years old and remember a few things. We hid in a closet with the glow of a flashlight while wind howled outside. The next day I still remember seeing palm trees that had blown over and knew that it was a miracle, even though I didn’t know that word, that our house wasn’t hit.
My experience of Hurricane Harvey, was not boring in the least, despite being stuck in my house for nearly five full days. At first, there was the excitement that school had been cancelled and we were getting a long weekend. Plus, I’ve always enjoyed storms when in the safety of a home. Once the initial excitement passed and I had a day to catch up on work, I realized that this was going to be a lot longer, and more boring, than expected. But then… Jesuit community! We rode out the storm while playing board games, cooking, and eating together. We were comfortable and happy, but certainly aware that a dangerous amount of water was coming down.
A couple days in, news started turning from what might happen, to what actually was happening. We lounged around a television, watching the water rising around Houston. It began pouring into people’s homes and the mood shifted from conviviality to seriousness, then gravity, then shock.
I vividly recall watching a spokesperson for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers explain that they were going to be releasing water from the dams to prevent them from breaking. The amount of water in the reservoir was pushing it beyond the Corp’s capacity to keep it under control. It was surreal to think that our city had to systematically flood more homes to prevent unknown, but likely much worse, damage. An ethical analysis would be incredibly complex, but the bottom line is that everyone seemed to understand the necessity. The Army Corps of Engineers has not been excoriated for making that difficult decision.
Five days after it began, Hurricane Harvey moved north, leaving a sopping wet community in its wake. We’ve spent all the time since then trying to assess the extent of the damage and letting the realization sink in of how much time recovery will take. It has been terrible, wonderful and in my better moments, awe-inspiring to see the aftermath. The destruction is terrible; the goodwill and energy among volunteers is wonderful; both of them are awe-inspiring.
The rivers have run through our city and carried with them our security. No one could have predicted who was going to be hit and how badly. There’s fear in that recognition, yet the response by people has overwhelmingly been one of optimism and energy as resources are mobilized. People are working industriously and with hope already. Even people who are in need of aid are making efforts to give back at the same time. As one lady said to me on a visit, “This is just another storm. Storms come and go. New life comes after every storm. We are going to come back stronger.”
It’s going to take a lot of hard work to get there and a lot of help from each other. From what I’ve seen, there is no reason to doubt she’s right.
To read Marc Fryer, SJ’s account of praying for his hometown of Houston, click here.
Cover image courtesy National Museum of the U.S. Navy, found here.
As a Houstonian, the past few weeks have been a struggle. As a Houstonian living away from home, rather than dealing with flood damage and other chaos, I have struggled with being away from family and friends when they most needed help. As a Jesuit with a vow of obedience, I go where I’m told. Currently, I’m assigned as the assistant pastor in Albuquerque, New Mexico. From nearly 900 miles away, I watched on the news and on social media as the city I love was torn apart. I saw desperate posts from friends and co-workers at Strake Jesuit High School (my alma mater and former employer) who watched as the water rose higher and higher in the streets outside of their homes and eventually came inside. I watched as co-workers from the fire department I worked at prior to my life in the Jesuits struggled to respond to the sheer volume of calls and rescues necessary during such a tragedy. I felt, and was, helpless to do anything about the suffering. For more moments than I would care to count, I even considered that I may have had a mis-fire on my vocation – perhaps I should have been a diocesan priest? At least then I would be able to serve God in the midst of the people I know and love in my hometown while they cope with tragedy.
On the Wednesday before the storm hit, I celebrated Mass for the parochial school at our parish. That morning I asked the students to pray in a special way for all of those in the path of the storm. As we prayed and offered petitions for Texas, I reminded the students that they should keep the soon-to-be-impacted areas in their prayers with their families before meals and prior to falling asleep at night. Later in the day I went over to the school to spend time with the younger students in their classes. One of the first graders raised his hand as I entered the classroom. He said to me, “Father Marc, do you think other people are praying for us like we prayed for the children who are about to get hit by the hurricane this morning at Mass?” My immediate response was, “Well, yes, of course! I’m sure they are.”
As I returned to the church, I stopped for a moment, gripped by the question the young student had asked. Kids have a great way of getting to the point. Catholics spend a lot of time praying FOR things. We pray for the ill, for our families, for support during natural disasters and tragedies. I had sent countless texts and messages to friends on the Gulf Coast, reassuring them of my prayers for them. How often, though, do I stop and think about people praying FOR me? What do those prayers do? What does the knowledge of other’s petitions on my behalf do for me and my relationship with God? It is comforting to know that somewhere out there someone else is praying for me. But is my comfort the point?
Perhaps the point lies in the connections and bonds built among the faithful as we weave this web of prayers. When we’re suffering, we are united with others through their prayers for us. We come together as the faithful, strengthening the Body of Christ, when we offer prayers for others and are the subject of the prayers of others. While our prayers may not directly result in the cessation of flood waters or the rescue of a loved one, they do result directly in the fortification of the bonds we all share as Christian disciples. The Holy Spirit is alive and well, present and accounted for, when we offer and receive prayers. So, as the hashtag on Twitter said, #PrayForHouston, as Florida faces Irma, #PrayForFlorida, and know that somewhere, someone is #PrayingForYou.
To read Juan Ruiz, SJ’s firsthand account of Hurricane Harvey, click here.
Cover image courtesy NOAA Satellites, found here.
By now most readers have heard about Steve Bannon’s disgusting comments on DACA. The bishops’ support for DACA, Bannon argues, can only stem from their crass self-interest:
The bishops have been terrible about this. By the way, you know why? Because unable to really – to come to grips with the problems in the church. They need illegal aliens. They need illegal aliens to fill the churches. That’s – it’s obvious on the face of it. They have an economic interest. They have an economic interest in unlimited immigration, unlimited illegal immigration.
To be fair to Bannon, such self-interest is precisely what drives immigration debates in Washington: both political parties have benefitted from avoiding meaningful solutions to immigration. So it is little wonder Bannon can’t imagine the bishops playing any other kind of game.
But given that Bannon is Catholic, it is sad that the Church has not challenged him to see a vision of something better. And so I actually agree with Bannon: the Church has not “come to grips” with many of its problems, including its poor catechesis of Catholics like Bannon. But speaking out for the dignity of all persons is not one of those problems.
Bannon’s screed shows the difficulty of being Catholic and Republican: the Gospel call to serve the poor isn’t even on his radar. You can argue that Bannon does not represent the GOP, and there’s no confusing him with John McCain or George W. Bush. But his vitriol arises from some of the worst tendencies of the Republican party, especially the new, ascendant parts. That is a problem for Catholics, particularly when we see care for the poor and the marginalized in the crosshairs.
Thank goodness Catholics have another party.
Oh, about that.
Senator Dianne Feinstein, the senior U.S. senator from California, recently questioned a prospective federal judge’s fitness for office. It turns out the nominee, Amy Barrett, is just a little too Catholic for the senator’s taste:
Whatever a religion is, it has its own dogma. The law is totally different. And I think in your case, professor, when you read your speeches, the conclusion one draws is that the dogma lives loudly within you, and that’s of concern when you come to big issues that large numbers of people have fought for for years in this country.
This is sad coming from Senator Feinstein. I doubt she has any problem with the Gospel call to serve the poor, and she is known for the strength of her own convictions, convictions that she is generally happy to force on others. But the minute a truth comes up that she dislikes, in this case arguments against abortion, then suddenly conviction becomes “dogma” and the truth loses its right to a public voice.
As if working in tandem, Senator Dick Durbin, himself Catholic, asked Barrett directly, “Do you consider yourself an orthodox Catholic?” When did the Democrats start requiring religious tests for public office?
Again, you can argue that these senator’s views don’t represent their party. But at its worst, the Democratic party is deeply skeptical of any claims to truth or authority. And that is bad for Catholics who recognize the salvific truth of the authority of Jesus Christ, and indeed want to assert it on behalf of the poor, vulnerable and marginalized, including the unborn.
You can’t make this stuff up. Completely unplanned, two figures as different as Steve Bannon and Dianne Feinstein – a Trump-supporting Breitbart writer and a progressive California hero – inadvertently teamed up to remind Catholics that anti-Catholic bigotry is alive and well in both political parties.
Every day Catholics argue about which party represents better the Gospel. Have that argument if you like, but don’t forget the bigger picture, a point that we desperately need to remember: neither party can be the home of the Catholic voter. You might vote with a party, you might support parts of its plank, you might donate money and time to it: but you are never really home there. It can never be where you belong, where you discover who you are, what you most deeply care about and what you should do with your gifts for the world.
If you want to object that one party is better than the other for Catholics, you are missing the point. Even if one party were better, the fact remains that neither party is a good source of values and teachings for Catholics engaged in politics. If you are going to be selective about the values and policy preferences you hold within the party, you cannot learn that from the party itself. And you won’t bother to anyway if you find yourself more invested in partisan politics than in the Gospel.
But what bothers me the most about Bannon’s and Feinstein’s comments is that I fear that many Catholics are not so different from them. I fear that many of us disregard Church teachings because we fundamentally don’t believe that the Gospel is calling us to fight for the Kingdom. I fear that many of us don’t really think our faith should have a public voice because we fundamentally don’t believe that the truth will set us and others free.
Instead, we preach our own political beliefs. Sure, we invoke the Gospel when it conveniently aligns with what we already believe, when we can use the Gospel as a weapon against our enemies. But what if the Gospel is challenging us, too? Is that what we are running away from?
Today is 9/11, and TJP could have run something about the tragic events of 2001. But 9/11 is actually the perfect time to meditate on this bigotry. 9/11 reminded us, albeit in a most unwelcome way, that life and death are bigger than politics. Yet Bannon and Feinstein are asking us to sacrifice what we hold most dear for political expediency.
We can fall into their trap by joining in the ideological warfare that plagues our society, refusing to recognize the humanity of others. Or we might surrender to our frustrated apathy with politics, vaguely accepting that our private selves will never find meaningfully public expression.
But maybe, on this day when so many lost their lives, we can ask what life is, and what makes it worth living. Rather than be discouraged or embittered by hate and violence, we can remember what we hold dear, and feel gratitude for all the people who give us hope that goodness is still possible in the world. Because it is.
As a “PS,” I invite readers to weigh in on two questions:
How do you maintain hope today?
Do you identify with a political party? If so, how do you maintain spiritual freedom from the beliefs and practices of that party?
Tomorrow our Church celebrates St. Peter Claver (1580-1654), patron saint of, among others things, African-Americans.
But for me, and I suspect for not a few Black Catholics, Mass on September 9th has the same unsettling feel of the first day of Black History Month. At best, the tip of the iceberg of our history will be briefly revisited. At worst, this history will be inaccurately presented.
Researching the life of St. Peter Claver gives me the same feeling. Many sources rightfully laud his tireless efforts among African peoples in Colombia. Called “slave of the slaves,” he did the work that few or none wanted to do. But though Claver did much for the Africans he encountered, he never worked to end the system that held them in bondage nor was he a pioneer for racial justice or equality.
Despite that, Claver’s life is often revisited as a model for addressing our contemporary racial tensions. But trying to mold him (consciously or not) into fitting that narrative is problematic because this is not what Claver’s life and work was about. Though his efforts should not be ignored, we have an obligation to also learn the full story of what happened, who was involved, and what legacies remain. Only in such a spirit of truth can we hope for healing today.
St. Peter Claver’s story in context
African enslavement had existed in South America for over a century before Claver’s arrival. One of the earliest advocates of the institution was Bartolomé de las Casas. Las Casas had taken part in atrocities committed against Native peoples but would later reverse his position and push for Native rights and freedom. He advocated instead for Black enslavement as a replacement for their labor. Las Casas eventually entered the Dominicans and there wrote that he’d “repented” of the mistake of supporting Black enslavement as well and realized that the enslavement of any group was wrong.
This raises an interesting question: Was enslavement a universally accepted way of life of the era? De las Casas’ conversions, as well as the long history of enslaved resistance and the abolitionist movement, seem to indicate the answer to be no. Still, as las Casas had done, many continued to interpret Just War Theory 1 and the “curse of Ham” 2 is taken from the Biblical story of Noah cursing his son Ham’s descendents with servitude to his other two sons, see Genesis 9:20-27. Though the text didn’t mention skin color, the text was at times used to explain that Ham was a common ancestor of Black Africans and that darker skin was a continual marking by God to indicate that their enslavement was part of, or at least condoned by, Divine Will.] as reasons enough to legitimize African enslavement.
Like many Europeans of his time, Claver functioned within these beliefs. According to a biography, it was thought that Claver felt, for Africans, “that it was better to die a Christian slave in Cartagena [Colombia’s major port] than a native chieftain in the Congo.”3
By Claver’s time, the Spanish Jesuits had taken the lead in evangelizing enslaved Africans in South America. The Africans were in terrible conditions as about 40% died between initial capture and arrival in the Americas. Thus, not only were theirs spiritual needs, but also physical ones. The ministry was intense work. In his efforts, and with the critical help of Black translators, Claver baptized over 300,000 people. He was also noted for his unique compassion and his singular ability among the Europeans to endure work in the deplorable cargo holds of the ships that enslaved people were forced to live in for months. By his death, from his contracting one of the many diseases common among the enslaved people he ministered to, Claver’s dedication had become well known as many flocked to the house where he died.
And for his work, Claver is worthy of a certain degree of veneration and imitation. He was a man who was deeply moved by the conditions endured by Africans, the poorest of the poor. Yet his good intentions were never turned towards ending the cruel system that fueled Black suffering. It would not be until 1839, almost two centuries after Claver’s death, that Pope Gregory XVI would condemn the trade of enslaved Africans.
“Don’t call me a saint [yet]”
Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement, is often quoted as saying “don’t call me a saint, I don’t want to be dismissed that easily.” I think that when she said this, she was sensing the focus wrongfully shifting from the unjust poverty in which she was immersed to herself.
This tends to happen with Claver. It’s tempting to gloss over truths of his life and era to instead move on quickly to something else because we get uneasy talking about racism. It’s another temptation to insinuate that his work excuses the injustices of his era or ours.4 It’s easier to venerate Claver’s work and leave it at that.
Yet promoting his charitable actions while ignoring his (or the larger Church’s) inaction in ending the institution of slavery can condone such silence. By extension, it can encourage a similar silence in us. But silence in the face of systemic evil is the same as consent, no matter how much good we may do. Unfortunately, many popular versions of St. Peter Claver’s life can make it seem that praising good deeds in our saints, our Church, or ourselves is enough for moving forward. It’s not.
Was St. Peter Claver morally right for what he did or didn’t do? The debate continues. But right now perhaps the more pressing issue is how do we face and use his legacy today. Making him into something he wasn’t, or focusing only on one aspect of his life over another, confuses the truth and is troubling enough. But what would be worse is if we allow such narratives to unjustly excuse us from our call to work for justice today. This would not only disrespect the actual good work Claver did but is also a roadblock to much-needed progress and reconciliation.5
At night, when the world was sleeping, I would don an orange mask and take a shortcut to St. Matthew School. I’d quietly slide a heavy metal grate from one of the storm drains and, nunchuks in hand, leap into the darkness. The battle for my school was about to begin again.
When I was in first grade, I thought that I was a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle – a crooked-smiled, cowabunga-shouting Michelangelo, to be exact. It’s not that I dreamed of being a Turtle – I was a Turtle who, by day, took the form of Eric Immel. As a Turtle, I felt the real threat of the Foot Clan and the Shredder who sought to destroy the place I loved most. I took the council of Master Splinter, heeding sage words and making them my mantras. I moved in the shadows, three thick green fingers gripping the rough-hewn handle of an ancient ninjitsu weapon. I kept our school safe. And I told everyone as such.
At recess one day, I was regaling my classmates with tales from the previous night’s tangle. Two boys – John and Mike – called out my deception. “You’re definitely NOT a Ninja Turtle,” they said. We argued back and forth for a moment. What about the nunchuks? A cheap, plastic set my mom bought me at Toys-R-Us. My orange mask? A bandana with two janky eye-holes. My three-fingered turtle-hands? Five-fingered, like everyone else I knew.
Until that moment, I thought I had everyone convinced. I had convinced myself. But in an instant, I realized that my whole life was a lie.
I haven’t been to the dentist in three years. And, I don’t really floss. And, on some Saturday mornings, if I don’t have much going on, I’ll drink three cups of coffee, eat breakfast, go to church, and go to the gym before I brush my teeth. At the risk of making myself seem like a failed member of the hygienic community, I should tell you what I see in the mirror.
I see teeth that are white enough and clean enough. I see a bright and ready smile. I see a man who is busy with work and prayer and all the other things Jesuits are busy with. I see someone who thinks, almost daily, that he should make an appointment to go see the dentist. I see someone who disappoints Dr. Martin and Sandy, my childhood dentist and hygienist. I see someone who is afraid to fail people, and who fears being found out for my three-year hiatus. And then, I see someone who has, in his mind, actually gone to the dentist.
When I stop staring at myself in the mirror and the topic of dentists comes up, I gloss over my failure to floss and act like everyone else who visits the dentist every six months.
Almost as soon as these fictions fabricate themselves, they become a sort of truth – a truth that isn’t true at all.
If someone asked me in first grade whether I was a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, I would have said yes. If someone asks me tomorrow whether I’d been to the dentist recently, I’d say yes. I’m convinced that I should, so I say I do. But eventually I’d get caught, and the truth would come out.
What else have I convinced myself of? What lies do I continue to tell myself? I’m no ninja, and I’m certainly not on top of taking care of my teeth. Do I simply say that I want to eradicate racism, or do I actually work to eradicate racism? Do I want people to know I stand with DACA recipients, or do I actually stand with DACA recipients?
When I was in first grade, I thought people needed me to be a hero. I wanted to be a hero. And so, I fashioned myself into one, even though my pretending made me something of the opposite. Adults go to the dentist, and so I “go to the dentist,” even though I don’t go to the dentist.
I spend a lot of time guessing at who I think others want me to be – others who I want to impress or attract, who have what I don’t have, who are something I’m not. If I become what I think others want me to be, I’ll be right with the world. An advocate for justice, a writer, a ninja, a committed patient of dentistry.
But then it becomes clear that if these things are not truly who I am, then this effort is nothing more than a subtle and toxic way of telling myself I’m not good enough. If the world doesn’t know I feel that way about myself, I can keep up the lie. As Master Splinter says: “The path that leads to what we truly desire is long and difficult.” The harder way – the right way – is to become who I am called to be – a person who is nothing more than himself.
And, a person who makes a dentist appointment as soon as I finish typing these words.
Come by here, my Lord, come by here.
Come by here, my Lord, come by here.
Come by here, my Lord, come by here.
Oh Lord, come by here.
It is a Sunday afternoon in late September, and the famed Chicago wind is still hot this far west of Lake Michigan. I am pulling up to the school where I teach in my standard-issue Jesuit Toyota Corolla so I can get some grading done before Monday hits me like a pile of bricks.
My parking spot is across the street from Moore Park. It’s a smaller version of the typical West Side park – swings, slides, basketball hoops. Usually on a Sunday afternoon Moore Park is packed, the basketball court a vibrant stage; the energy as amped as the volume. I’m used to that kind of energy. But that’s not the kind I’m seeing today.
People are everywhere, but this energy isn’t fun, it’s frenetic. Police cruisers are pulling in at high speeds, one after the other, lights flashing, sealing off the area. People are running, eyes wide. My thumb hesitates to punch the orange latch on my seatbelt. I have no idea what is going on.
But I need information. So I slide out of the car toward the ice cream truck parked curbside. It’s run by Tee-Tee, she’s posted up in that spot – her spot, next to the basketball courts – every weekend selling hot chips and ice slushes. She sees everything on this block.
As I stride over, I can hear Tee-Tee’s voice high and tight, describing to the clientele how, not five minutes prior, a young man had ridden up on a bicycle, pulled out a pistol, and opened fire into a bunch of kids. I hear tell how a little girl has been shot in the ankle and hauled into one of the ambulances. As we listen, the ambulances are pulling away. We listen to Tee-Tee talk over the sirens. I’m poking at my raspberry-lemonade slush, confounded – Why is a kid shooting up a public park? – when a young lady runs up to Tee-Tee, out of breath. “Baby what’s wrong?” Tee-Tee asks her.
It’s only after that question that I realize that I know this young lady. It is Jamani;1 she’s a senior at my school. Always mellow, always cool, Jamani is the kind of almost-adult that, when she sees me, smiles, and says, “What up Mr. Peters!” But now she is frantic, wide-eyed, and her voice is uncharacteristically clipped. “My little sister is in the park,” she yelps, “I told her to stay in the house! Have you seen my sister?” Jamani knows about the little girl being shot and she’s desperate. I have no idea what to say. We are all looking at Tee-Tee. “I told her!” Jamani screams. “I told her – don’t go out in that park!” She is crying now. But I have brain freeze in my throat, and I think it’s in my heart too.
It’s Tee-Tee who breaks the tension, “Baby, I don’t think your sister was with that lil’ girl who got shot. I saw the whole thing.” Jamani’s eyes are wide as she listens, but she only pauses for another moment before hustling off in search. We are quiet for after she leaves.
“Praise God, no one was killed,” Tee-Tee says.
Come by here, my Lord…
It is Friday afternoon and not even a week has passed since Jamani was crying and Tee-Tee was giving us the scoop in Moore Park. Tomorrow it will be my birthday, and I’m excited because, after parent teacher conferences, I’ve rallied some colleagues to celebrate. And we need it because – as every teacher knows – the pace of the fall is exhausting.
I know I spent the better part of September waking up before 5 a.m., hustling to school, greeting the 1st shift maintenance crew, putting the finishing touches on a lesson plan, running to class, then to meetings, and then to class, and then, and then, and then… Until it’s 11:00pm and I’m standing in my room holding a toothbrush and looking at my severely balding head in the mirror and hearing the voice of a sophomore I teach say: “Mr. Peters, you lookin’ scraggly. Why don’t you just shave yo head?” Because I can barely muster the energy to brush my teeth most nights, Marquan! I hear myself think. Teachers need a Friday night, too, and I’m excited.
But as conferences wrap up a pall descends on the gymnasium. I have no idea what is going on but bodies suddenly seem harried; colleagues are having hushed conversations. Word slowly matriculates, and it is this: one of our busses has been caught in crossfire. The bus had pulled off the expressway to avoid the thick traffic until, less than a mile east of school, a bullet ripped through a front window, grazing the bus driver’s head and exiting through the roof. The students have been evacuated and shuttled to safety. Our bus driver is almost to the hospital. I hear the words, but it does not seem real.
We mill around the buzzing gym for too long until, finally, an email arrives. Please do not to speak to the media, it asks us, please leave the school premises quickly, it says, and please pray for our students and their families. Need it or not, we will not be celebrating tonight.
(Later – at home, watching the national news – I find out that our bus driver has been released from the hospital. His injuries are only minor.)
On Monday morning I decide to scrap my lesson plans for the week, to process the trauma instead. I am perched on the edge of a desk, my roman collar stretched tight across my neck, when a student says, “You telling us that we shouldn’t live our lives in fear, but I’m afraid.” Her eyes flick between her desk and my face. “That coulda been our bus!” she says, “that bullet coulda hit one of those kids or killed that bus driver.” “Yes,” I say quietly, “It could have.”
Six months later – months filled with counseling, prayer services; forums with local law enforcement to help our students and ourselves process the shooting – I am talking with a colleague. She still gets sick to her stomach, she tells me, when she remembers calling our students’ loved ones to tell them about the shooting. “I was on the phone for four hours,” she says. Four hours, I think. Four hours of inducing shock and then disbelief, distress and then anger, details and then dismay – with maybe little comfort thrown in besides. No wonder you still get sick to your stomach.
Like Tee-Tee said: Praise God no one else was injured on that bus.
Come by here, my Lord, come by here…
It is mid-May, and the light at the end of the school year tunnel is at last shimmering down the hallways. I am sitting at my workspace, in the Ministry Office, in front of my all-too-familiar laptop, when an email arrives. Yesterday evening, it informs me, one of our juniors was playing basketball in the park near his house when gunshots rang out. Antwan was shot through the leg. Crossfire again. I sit at my desk, my hands on the keyboard, and read.
“Thankfully it didn’t hit any bone or ligament,” it says, “No one else was injured. Antwan has been treated and released. He will be on crutches when he returns to school later this week.” The email is succinct, helpful, and mundane. I am profoundly sad at its tone.
I have known Antwan for three years, since he walked through our school doors as a bright-eyed, smiley, uncharacteristically-polite freshman. I taught him as a sophomore and witnessed his attitude shift to something more… aloof. As I sit at my desk in the Ministry Office I remember him – remember how once, when I gave the class an assignment, he smacked his teeth and put his head down. When I asked him if everything was all right he raised his head just enough to non-angrily mutter, “I just don’t care about school anymore, Mr. Peters. That’s all, I just don’t care.” He sounded equal parts jaded and sorrowful.
Which is exactly how I feel, sitting at my desk, when I think about how Antwan was in the wrong place, at the wrong time. When I think about how all these shootings are becoming routine here on the West Side of Chicago. When I think about how we talk about them like we’re sending emails. Jaded and sorrowful, succinct and mundane – about the bullet ripping through a young man’s calf muscle.
Like Tee-Tee said: Praise God that neither Antwan nor one of his friends were killed that night.
Come by here, my Lord, come by here,
Oh Lord, come by here!
Fr. Joseph Brown, SJ is one of my mentors. He is the kind of man who can weave Kendrick Lamar into the fabric of a classic Negro Spiritual. The kind of man who can make the moniker “Child of God” sound like a warning. Aside from being a professor of Africana Studies, Fr. Brown writes a blog called The Sankofa Muse. The word Sankofa is derived from a Ghanaian word meaning “to go back and get it.” This, as Fr. Brown has taught me, means that we must know where we come from in order to know where we are going.
In the spirit of Sankofa, he teaches his students – he has taught me – about origins, history, roots; about the “Gullah” people from the coastal islands off of South Carolina. He teaches his students about the Gullah because they need to know. He taught me about them because I need to know. I am teaching you about the Gullah for that same reason, because you need to know.
As Fr. Brown tells it, the Gullah are called the Gullah because that’s how the word “Angola” sounds when it’s spoken with a heavy African-Creole pidgin. Angolans, as you may know, derive from the Yoruba people in West Africa, which is now part of present day Nigeria. Like so many they were ripped from their native soil, trafficked in slave ships across the Atlantic Ocean and transplanted as property to work the plantations of the American South. Thankfully, in the ships and in the fields, Gullah spirituality was as strong as their accent. And during the long years of their enslavement they sang a song based on the second chapter of the Book of Exodus. This is what that Book says:
A long time passed, during which the king of Egypt died. The Israelites groaned under their bondage and cried out, and from their bondage their cry for help went up to God. God heard their moaning and God was mindful of his covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. God saw the Israelites, and God knew…
The Gullah knew that God was mindful of them as well. And they knew it not just in their minds, but in their bodies and in their songs. They knew it in their tears and they knew it as they cried out “Kum-ba-ya, Lord! Kum-ba-ya! Someone’s crying, Lord, Kum-ba-ya! Someone needs you, Lord, Kum-ba-ya! Kum-ba-ya, Lord, Come by here!”
Come by here, Lord. Come by here. Fr. Brown says that he considers this song – a song many of us first learn to sing around campfires when we are kids, and then learn to mock as we get more “mature” – the first great text of Black Liberation Theology. Fr. Brown writes:
Theology is the story of God’s intervention in human history. Black Theology begins with trans-located Africans exploding with the insight that if God could ‘deliver Daniel from the lions’ den,’ then why not every man? Finding the initial biblical cry of oppressed slaves and knowing that the groaning of the lately oppressed and abandoned would be heard, the spirit-possessed singing believers – with the sound of their voices – became the Israelites anew. The Exodus story describes the action. The song, Kumbaya, becomes the action. The song is the prayer itself. It possesses the power to make the desire a reality.
It’s ironic that a song of such power has been so badly misappropriated. Knowing this, being possessed by this knowledge, has had consequences for me, though. And now that you know this, it has consequences for you. I have had to learn how to teach people the true meaning of Kumbaya. And now you must do the same.
Because Kumbaya is not a campy folk song. It is not naïve. Kumbaya is simultaneously a lamentation and a hope, a cry of pain and a plea for emancipation. It is a true prayer.
It is the only prayer I knew how to say for Jamani’s panic, or for the bullet-grazed bus driver. The only prayer I knew how to whisper onto Antwan’s bowed head.
My most authentic prayers have always come from a place of either great need or great love. There is a harmony between these two places, a rhyme between need and love. It is this: whether in need or in love, I am not in control.
Suffering is a disdainfully common part of the human condition. Women bear children, farmers labor in fields, and patients endure chemotherapy. Sometimes in the midst of suffering, humans cry out to God in desperation. When I encounter suffering, I often feel like I’m wading into deep, muddy water. I cannot see or feel love because I’m terrified.
I know that the Gospels say that God is love, but I have learned that God’s being love does not make suffering any less terrifying. Which is not to say that it is irrelevant that God is love – it is to say that it means something different.
It means that, if I surrender control, there is a chance that love can transform suffering into something bearable. This is, in fact, what the word “suffering” etymologically means: “to bear up under.” In this sense, love is the muddy water, but I no longer have to wade. Instead it bears me up. And in the very moment I am swept up, I float. I am not alone. I am never alone.
My brother once heard a priest he knows say that God expresses love through fidelity. And fidelity, the priest said, “means we stay around even when things get difficult, even when we don’t feel noticed or appreciated.” I think that I am at my best – that we are at our best – when we mirror this type of fidelity to others. When we stick around. Fidelity might not always seem sexy, but I believe that it expresses love as purely as it’s possible for a human to do.
The cancer patient who trusts in their doctor witnesses to fidelity. The farmer who cultivates, harvests fidelity. The mother who labors in delivery, gives birth to fidelity. We cannot survive without love. And we cannot love without staying. And we cannot stay unless we are willing to suffer alongside, to stand by one another in that place of need.
It is November, and we are all hoping that the cold fall winds will cool these hot Chicago streets. I am sitting in my office staring anxiously at my to-do list when the door bursts open. Kamyria is balling, and Jazzmyn is shuffling in behind her with a distinctive, “I have no idea what to do” look on her face. Both of these young women have been my students in years past and here they are now, permeating my office with raw emotion and vulnerability.
It’s the tears on Kamyria’s face that force me out of my little world of to-do lists and timelines and remind me to look up, to wonder what is hurting her. I walk over, hand Kamyria a Kleenex, and wait until she can explain. She was in class watching a film on the slave days, she says, and finally the dam broke; she is overwhelmed. Then comes the question for which I will never be ready: “How did the slaves make it, Mr. Peters? Where did they get their strength?”
Sobbing, she continues, “I don’t think I could have made it, Mr. Peters. I don’t think I could have been as strong as they were.” Then she buries her tear-ridden face into my shoulder, and weeps.
I do not know how to answer, not really. It’s only thanks to others – to Tee-Tee, to Fr. Brown – that I know that this Child of God’s question can be answered at all, that it can still be answered by a Gullah song. It’s thanks to my elders that I knew it, but it was thanks to Jazzmyn my student that I remembered it then, as she laid a hand on Kamyria, turned to me and said: “Can we, like, pray or something, Mr. Peters?”
Her question clears the fog that had begun to settle in on me. It is like that rare breath of wind that reaches from the lake all the way to the West Side of Chicago.
So we huddle together. Kamyria and Jazzmyn and me, and Tee-Tee and Antwan and our bus driver, and every single person on the West Side. We huddle together and I pray – to the God of the Gullah, and to the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. I call upon the God of Moses who led the Israelites out of bondage in Egypt, and the God of Harriet Tubman, who followed that old North Star to freedom from the Apartheid South.
I prayed. We prayed. And God knew.
How much is our labor worth? Think about these questions:
- How much money should a barber make for cutting hair? The same basic haircut in Mexico costs half the price it does in the United States.
- How much should a nanny get paid? NPR’s Planet Money reported on a nanny in New York City making a staggering $200,000/year (!!!). Yet salary estimates peg the average nanny wage in NYC at a much more modest $19/hour (or around $40,000/year)- still a lot more than a nanny is making in India, or even Indiana.
- What about a coffee picker? Nicaraguan coffee laborers annually cross the border into Costa Rica, where wages for the exact same work of cultivating coffee can be five times higher.
So how much is our labor worth? It is not so easy to stamp a price on it.
Right now, a debate over the value of labor is raging across the United States as the Fight for $15 movement advocates a raise in the minimum wage to $15/hour.
The Fight for $15 movement has gained traction in the past year. The states of California and New York have passed laws to raise the minimum wage to $15/hour through a series of gradual increases in the upcoming years, along with dozens of other cities and municipalities. The city of Seattle is the furthest along in the journey, as they just bumped wages to $13/hour at the start of 2017 on their way to a $15/hour minimum.
How do we end up with such varied wages for the same work? What is the Fight for $15 movement all about? And what do economists have to say about it?
The barber, nanny, and coffee picker examples highlight the wage differences (often extreme ones) that exist between cities and countries.
Six-figure nanny salaries, cheaper haircuts in Mexico: how the heck does this happen? Prices for locally produced and consumed services, like restaurants, taxis, and barbers, vary based on area income levels. In places where incomes are high (like New York City), average price levels for these types of services are higher. In places where incomes are low (like Mexico), average price levels for these types of services are lower. Thus you find more expensive nannies in New York and cheaper haircuts in Mexico.
A higher paycheck might sound like an inherent advantage, but it can be offset in higher income areas where basic goods are more expensive. A taxi driver in San Francisco will make more money than a taxi driver in Santiago, Chile, but the prices for renting an apartment and riding the local bus will be much higher in San Francisco than Santiago. So a worker might make more, but also has to spend more for basic necessities.
The objective of the Fight for $15 movement is a raise in the minimum wage, but the motives are deeper. They are fighting for minimum wage earners to be able to support themselves and their families with their labor. Too many workers across the U.S. work full-time jobs, and still can’t afford to cover their daily expenses of housing, transportation, food, health care, and education for their children. Many people resort to working multiple full-time and part-time jobs in an attempt to make ends meet. Despite their efforts, they can still come up short.
Remember that the United States is a high income country, so its average prices are high. It costs a lot to afford a place to live, to get around town, to eat healthy, to see a doctor, and get a good education. These necessities are expensive.
The Fight for $15 movement and its supporters want workers to be able to earn a living wage: sufficient payment for their full-time labor so that they can live a healthy life and care for those dependent on them. Given the cost of living in the United States, the current federal minimum wage at $7.25/hour fails to meet even the lowest estimates for a living wage in the cheapest parts of the countries. Thus minimum wage earners are stuck in poverty, even as they log full-time hours at their job. This is unjust and unacceptable.
What are the effects of a minimum wage increase? Economic models propose that in a perfect market, wage floors like the minimum wage are counterproductive and lead to lesser demand for labor by employers, which is called the employment effect. In other words, those who work might get paid more with a higher minimum wage, but fewer people are able to get jobs because fewer employers are inclined to hire someone at that wage.
A problem with these economic models is that they assume a perfect market, and the real world market is anything but perfect.
There are other potential economic pitfalls as well. An employer trying to grow a profit has the incentive to look for cheaper labor. Thus factories leave the U.S. and move abroad, which has been happening for decades. A higher minimum wage could further decrease opportunities for manufacturing workers within the US. Fast food restaurants and beauty salons cannot outsource their services, but other industries can, and they would be further incentivized to do so if the costs of labor are higher.1
Who will pay for higher minimum wages anyway? The assumption is that profitable corporations can afford to pay their workers more money instead of passing on all the profits and benefits to owners or shareholders. These companies can still turn a generous profit if their payroll expenses are higher. Of course, corporations might not want to see their profits decrease at all. They could respond by raising prices, thus deferring the cost of higher wages to the consumer. Workers might start making more money, but if prices start rising as well, the cost of living will rise. Will the higher wage be enough to cover these rising costs?
Enough about theory: how do things turn out in the real world? All eyes have been trained on Seattle this year as its minimum wage rose to $13/hour on its way to $15. It has become a real world test model for economic theory. Politicians and economists across the country are following closely. What will happen as minimum wages rise?
An early report was published this summer as a working paper produced by economists at the University of Washington. These are preliminary findings and have not been subject to a peer review. The report suggests that the initial increase in the minimum wage from $9.47 to $11 had negligible effects, but the more recent increase from $11 to $13 led to overall employment losses. In short, the report makes the case that the recent increase has been counterproductive for workers. It could be that the increase to $13/hour has taken the minimum wage too high or risen too quickly.
In contrast, a separate report from the University of California, Berkeley looked at just the Seattle food services industry. The results of this study found that wages increased in this sector and that employment was not affected, which suggests that the minimum wage increase had a favorable impact for workers.
Supporters of the increase have jumped on the latter report that supports their cause, and those opposed to the raise are citing the first report. Suffice it to say that at this point, the jury is still out as these theoretical economic problems get tested in the real world arenas of cities and states across the country.
How much is our labor worth?
At the heart of this question is the dignity of work and the dignity of the worker. In the words of Pope Francis, “Work is fundamental to the dignity of a person. Work, to use an image, ‘anoints’ us with dignity, fills us with dignity, makes us similar to God, who has worked and still works, who always acts; it gives one the ability to maintain oneself, one’s family, to contribute to the growth of one’s own nation.” This should be at the heart of the debate over the minimum wage.
Fundamental to the dignity of work is a living wage that can provide for the livelihood of a person and their family. Full-time work that does not cover basic material necessities degrades and exploits the worker. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us, “A just wage is the legitimate fruit of work. To refuse or withhold it can be a grave injustice” (No. 2434). Although they have not published a position on the Fight for $15, the USCCB has long supported increases in the federal minimum wage to “ensure that no full time worker and their family lived in poverty.”
It remains unclear whether raising the minimum wage to $15/hour will be able to overcome the theoretical economic problems it faces. Nonetheless, as we engage this issue and evaluate results, we need to avoid the temptation to make it purely about numbers and economic theory. Let’s keep our mind on the worker and the just wage that he or she deserves. This is the minimum that we can do.
Cover image courtesy FlickrCC user M.o.B 68, found here.
What would you do if you could write a name in a notebook and that person would die? Is it justifiable? If so, when and towards who?
These questions are central to last week’s new Netflix adaptation of Death Note, an acclaimed anime series from 20061. The film follows Light Taylor, a high school student who finds a notebook with the power to kill anybody whose name is written in it. After a little coaxing from Ryuk, the mysterious death god who guards the notebook, Light agrees to test it by writing the name of a school bully. There is a clear personal motivation here as previously, he stood up to that very bully but wound up in trouble while the bully got away.
Soon, Light and his girlfriend Mia decide to use the notebook by writing the names of those who do evil and are not punished for their crimes. These people will suffer judgment of “Kira,” the alias Light uses to mask his true identity.
The gruesome deaths of major criminals, including terrorists, make sense for Light. If you eliminate the bad people and give other people incentive for not being bad, then you eliminate crime and make the world a better place. It’s a twisted sort of logic that makes sense in the mind of a high-school boy.
L, a brilliant and eccentric detective, deduces Kira’s location and begins his attempt to track him down and bring him to justice. Announcing his presence through a press-conference, he dares Kira to find and kill him, issuing a challenge to his pride. What follows is a series of actions taken by both sides to try and trip the other up. The conflict cannot end until one of them is brought to the other’s idea of justice.
While the adaptation can feel a bit too action-heavy and gory, the final scenes capture Light’s brilliant thinking. He masterfully uses the notebook to manipulate others and achieve his ends, reclaiming control of a situation which appeared hopelessly out of hand. The film leaves the viewer questioning the consequences of his actions, ending without a true resolution.
Certainly, this adaptation was made to bring the cultural phenomenon of Death Note to a wider and broader audience. (How well it succeeded is debatable). In doing so, it attempts to grapple with the same central question of what real justice is, but it is sloppier in its execution.The film does not have time to flesh out its characters’ conceptions of justice and often focuses more on gore or romance instead of the central philosophical and psychological conflict of the original.
And the question still remains: who is right?
Is it justice to eliminate criminals and rid the world of evildoers by killing them? Light certainly achieves results, but at what cost? The film does not linger on the effects of using the Death Note on him as a person. By eliminating criminals and attempting to rid the world of evil, he becomes corrupted himself. While he was always cynical, Light is clearly a less virtuous person at the film’s end, choosing to protect his vision of goodness at any cost.
Is it justice to follow the law alone? Light’s father seems to follow this route, even putting his life on the line in the pursuit of bringing Kira to justice. But the criminal justice system has let people down before. Light’s mother was killed and the justice of the courts let the man who killed her off without any punishment.
Is it justice to catch an evildoer no matter what? L’s justice is more of a game at some level but it is difficult to deny that there is something compelling about his justice. For him, there is nothing more important than solving this case and thus bringing Kira to justice. It is a single-minded pursuit of a goal. However, would his justice include killing someone who took the life of someone close to him, if he thought he could get away with it?
The ambiguous ending of the film leaves the viewer to decide what is right. Or, perhaps, none of the models of justice presented here truly are justice.
As a society, we are often tempted to believe in Light’s version of justice. There certainly is a great deal of evil present in the world; however, if people refrain from doing evil for the sake of fear of retribution, then nothing has really changed. That is a far greater tragedy. Real justice can only come about when people’s hearts change.
There is no easy solution to justice. It is never as black-and-white as either L or Light seem to think it is. And perhaps this is what is most important about this new Death Note film: it prompts us away from easy selfish solutions and towards asking difficult questions about how we ought to live and treat one another. This justice is grey, amorphous, and very difficult to define, let alone live out. But that difficulty makes it all the more valuable.
The cover image is featured courtesy of WishCarole of the Flickr Creative Commons.
Let’s try a contemplation. I want you to imagine one of your favorite outdoor adventures. I’ll give you a second…okay, got it? Now where was it? Who was with you? What beauty most stood out to you? What made that place special, important, and worth remembering? What causes you to remember it so vividly?
Do you care if that place is protected?
Herein lies the best way to protect our federal lands: to fall in love. So let’s think about this as as love story.
Our public spaces are truly a gift, a reminder of incredible creation and the vault of our public history. They shape and form us, but we only know their real value when we have deeply experienced them. Speaking of St. Francis of Assisi in the encyclical Laudato Si’, Pope Francis eloquently writes, “Francis helps us to see that an integral ecology calls for openness to categories which transcend the language of mathematics and biology, and take us to the heart of what it is to be human. Just as happens when we fall in love with someone, whenever he would gaze at the sun, the moon or the smallest of animals, he burst into song, drawing all other creatures into his praise.”
Pope Francis clearly calls for greater love of creation. But how do we protect that creation? Let’s address the three greatest threats to our national parks, as outlined in Part II of this series: direct human impact, indirect human impact, and neglect. Except this time, we’ll work backwards.
What is the start of every love story? You have to meet each other.
Public lands are my high school sweetheart: I first encountered them as an adolescent hiking through the forests on family vacations. There are many people who meet and fall in love with our public lands at a young age, but this is not the case for everyone. Indeed, there are huge discrepancies in who accesses public lands.
Communities of color enjoy federal public lands at a far lower rate than white people. In 2014, just 22% of national park visitors were people of color, despite composing about 37% of the total population. Over a quarter of Black and Latino visitors saw national parks as unsafe or unwelcoming.
Several organizations have emerged to rectify these discrepancies. Groups like Outdoor Afro and Latino Outdoors have grown to help Black and Latino communities connect with nature. The National Park Service has even created a branch to increase diversity and inclusion. Other programs are seeking to rectify the lack of rangers of color. Hopefully these efforts will further expand the love that diverse communities feel for public spaces, facilitating a sense of ownership, responsibility, and desire to protect them.
A vast number of federal lands celebrate the histories of indigenous nations and communities. Yet tragically, fewer than 2% of park visitors are American Indian, and 61% of American Indian visitors say they don’t know enough about sites to visit. This is land that the US government forcefully stole from indigenous peoples by genocide, deception, and outright lies. It is true that federal lands began protecting the history of indigenous culture starting in 1906, but only after removing the people who lived those cultures. And until recently, American Indian nations were still excluded from federal land management.
In the last few years, there have been greater efforts to include Native Americans in the management of natural resources. A 2016 rule from the Department of Interior opens the door for federally-recognized tribes to voice input on federal lands that are historically, culturally, or geographically significant to tribes. For example, Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota works with twenty different tribes protecting a site connected to several creation stories. Efforts are by no means perfect, with lawsuits pending over natural resource extraction in Arizona or pipelines through Nebraska.
For many communities, the opportunity to fall in love has been denied. People in poverty and people of color visit public lands at far lower rates than wealthy and white people. In order to help others fall in love with these lands, it’s absolutely vital to overcome these obstacles and develop the relationships necessary for love.
Where does the love story go from here? Once you meet, a relationship begins. You start talking, maybe going on a few dates. You like the way things are going. What’s the biggest threat to this budding relationship? Dramatic change, like, say, a change in climate…
Climate change presents probably the greatest threat to federal lands, largely due to its myriad of complex and tangled challenges. For example, to fight climate change, we need more and healthier forests, but climate change has directly resulted in an increase in forest fires. How do we break this cycle? After all, the climate, as Pope Francis states in Laudato Si’, “is a common good, belonging to all and meant for all.” Between being a complex challenge and a common good, it can be incredibly difficult to discern what exactly we should do to address the impact of climate change on our federal lands.
Pope Francis further writes, “Humanity is called to recognize the need for changes of lifestyle, production and consumption, in order to combat this warming or at least the human causes which produce or aggravate it.” Put simply, public lands are in danger of becoming part of our throwaway culture. We easily consume and throw away what we do not love. To truly protect federal lands, we must change how we love, appreciate, and enjoy them.
What does this mean practically? We need to combat climate change. But the complex web of connections grows. Should we halt offshore drilling? We should, but it funds the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Should we get rid of coal mining in Wyoming? We should, but it supports other wildlife programs. Should we cut our emissions? We should, but does that mean we stop visiting far away national parks? There is no simple solution here, which can be incredibly frustrating. Like the climate, our public lands are a common good. Protecting them from climate change will take common action, understanding, and sacrifice.
Over time, our relationship grows and deepens as we spend more and more time together. We fall in love. But we need to continue to care for each other.
How do we directly care for our public lands? We humans leave many traces when we visit public lands. From damaging areas near trails to getting too friendly with the wildlife, we can easily destroy God’s creation. Perhaps the simplest and one of the easiest ways to avoid this is familiarize yourself with Leave No Trace. This program began in 1994 to help people learn best practices for minimizing impact when enjoying nature.
While avoiding degradation is important, we can also take strong steps to improve the areas we visit. Last summer, I spent a week with the Wilderness Volunteers, a group that sponsors trail building and clean-up. During that week, we backpacked, built new bridges, improved erosion control, and took a day off for exploring the backcountry. Groups such as this offer an opportunity to vastly improve visitor experience, protect natural resources, and deepen our own appreciation for these public spaces.
While some of us love playing lumberjack, not everyone enjoys using a draw knife to clear the bark off a 25’-long log. There are opportunities out there for people with a variety of backgrounds and interests. Perhaps you’d rather be a campground host? Give tours and teach about the Guadalupe Mountains? Bike patrol national trails? Support botany efforts in the Grand Canyon? The federal government sponsors each of these volunteer opportunities, as well as thousands more volunteer, internship, and job chances.
In Part II, I noted that one of the worst direct impacts that threatens our public land is encroachment of land development into natural areas. Several programs exist to defend our public lands from this threat, such as the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which works to purchase or protect lands. The Farm Service Agency helps farmers and ranchers combat soil erosion, maintain wetland habitats, and restore forests. These programs face massive budget cuts and environmental protection rollbacks. Where the federal government cannot afford programs, private groups often step in. In 2011, for example, The Conservation Fund helped purchase a 5,000 acre ranch next to Wind Cave National Park and transfer it to the park when funding did become available. Supporting these organizations can further help protect our public lands.
When discussing public lands, it’s important to remember what draws us back there. It’s love. My family likes to tease me for my attachment to Wind Cave National Park after working there for a summer. It’s hard not to love a place after learning its intricate stories, favorite spots of solitude, or incredible scenery.
Those who do not have a strong attachment to a place are not likely to protect it. For many, that relationship may never come to be unless we take action. For those already in love, we need to build opportunities to express that love more fully. Our public lands need us, and we need them.
Let us know what you love about public lands and why you want to protect them. If you’re looking for ways to get involved, check out the following organizations.
- The Student Conservation Association is an organization that helps connect youth to public lands. They arrange programs ranging from trail building to being a guide to fighting invasive species. For folks 15-22 years old, this is a great place to get started.
- Sierra Club is largely an advocacy organization for the outdoors, but they also organize some amazing trips to get you into the outdoors. They’re a good place for learning to fight climate change.
- The Wilderness Society is another advocacy organization that focuses primarily on wilderness, those places in America that are largely untouched by humans. They work with agencies to plan and hold them accountable.
- Wilderness Volunteers is an organization to help adults get out and work on the trails. They have dozens of trips every year for all skill levels to help them give back and maintain public lands.
- American Rivers fights for the protection of our rivers. While we often focus on just the lands, rivers are a rich and vital part of our history that this organization strives to protect.
I would like to add a personal thanks to the many friends, family, and acquaintances who made this piece possible. They offered many beautiful and important stories that I did not have the space to include, but provided a great deal of hope and direction for this series. Reader John W. beautifully captures the spirit of these pieces, stating that “watching how ecosystems worked was like reading the handwriting of God.”
We’re in town this time to practice curbs: if you bump one on the driving skills test, you automatically fail—no bus driver license for you today. Better luck next week.
Easier said than done. Buses are three times longer than the little city cars I’m used to driving, and right hand turns are surprisingly claustrophobic when you’re 40 feet long and have to cross into oncoming lanes just to clear that curb with your back tires.
So we’re “in town” again, driving the only square, curbed block in Pine Ridge, South Dakota—the most populous, 3,308-person community on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, home to the Oglala Lakȟóta oyáte. The city block that we repeat again and again includes the inimitable Big Bat’s restaurant/gas station, Sacred Heart parish, the town Subway, Pine Ridge’s tribal offices, fire station, courthouse, and one of the two traffic lights in the county.
Make no mistake: it’s midday in the middle of summer. Roads and sidewalks are filled with cars and people. And here we are, trying to weave this enormous yellow bus through dust and traffic.
On the way home, we practice studentless student pick-ups and studentless student drop-offs, railroad crossings at imaginary tracks, and emergency-less emergency highway stops. With each stop, the bus flashes absurdly with hazard lights or amber warnings lights followed by red warning lights. With each stop, my STOP arm halts traffic, my doors fling open and closed, my engine echoes in the quiet summer afternoons. Kids come to windows wide-eyed, horrified at (what seems to be) the doom of school’s somehow expedited arrival; parents come to the windows perplexed:
“No, no, we’re just – I’m sorry – no, no—” I mumble pathetically and inaudibly into my dashboard, quick-yanking the handle to shut the door and end the charade, “—we’re just practicing!”
But I feel more than awkward. I feel completely out-of-place. I feel like an intruder. I feel my whiteness as noticeably as the bright yellow bus. I imagine that everyone who sees me is thinking, what is he doing here?
“Practicing, we’re just practicing!”
Making the same circuit two years later, all these memories come back to me in vivid detail, popping up alongside the road as I hang over the grey rubbery front seat, coaching another right turn.
I’m no longer the driver trainee, the CDL hopeful. I am now a bonafide, de facto, no mistaking-it “bus driver.” In these last two years working at Red Cloud Indian School, I’ve easily tallied five-thousand plus miles of before-school, after-school, sporting and field trip bus driving—and I’m not alone. I’m joined by about twenty other twenty-something college grads (Red Cloud Volunteers), who each pick up a route or two alongside their volunteer day job as educators. I’m “training” one of the new ones today, and I can see on her face that she’s feeling all the same things I felt two years ago.
Today, I see things differently.
Eyes not darting dutifully from passenger mirror to concave to convex to crossover mirrors every 9 seconds, hands not white-knuckling the wheel, feet not tapdancing the brake and gas pedals trying not to Iurch this multi-ton beast—I can look around.
I see two of my former students—one looks up and waves back.
I glimpse a friend working under a truck at the fire station.
I notice the choir director’s car in the parking lot at Sacred Heart parish and try to guess which songs we’ll sing this Sunday.
I wonder about a friend who lives in a house we pass.
Pleasant moments aside, I still feel like an intruder here, as obvious and out-of-place as a blinking yellow bus in mid-summer.
What am I doing here? I imagined every confused face was asking on those practice days two years ago.
What am I doing here? I still sometimes ask myself, painfully aware of the colonial history I represent (and can unwittingly perpetuate) as a white man, a wašíču, a non-Lakȟóta on Lakȟóta land.
What am I doing here? I still ask myself, and often get an answer straight from my students and their parents and my friends here: I am an educator. I am a bus driver. I am learning what I can. I am giving what I can. All imperfectly, but all with as gentle of a heart as I can muster.
It will all make sense again, on Tuesday, when I hop onto the stuffy, number 13 bus at 3 o’clock in the hot sun. Unbuttoning my collar, turning the key and turning on the fans—all in one swoop—my first glance into the overhead passenger mirror catches the eyes of row after row after row of my favorite students. They somehow also happen to be looking at exactly that moment—and smile.
It will all make sense again, when a middle schooler breaks that beautiful moment by clomping up the bus’ steps to my right. When she looks at me, sighs and rolls her eyes, dragging out a “not youuuuu again” before breaking into a huge smile, saying, “Hi, Garrett! You’re back! You remember where I live, right?”
Having a young Jesuit as a teacher naturally piques the interest of high school sophomores. Does it mean you can’t get married? Who do you live with? How long does it take to become a priest?
But the one part of Jesuit life that tends to provoke a strong response is that we go to Mass every day.
“Really?!” they usually ask in disbelief.
In many parts of the world, the response would be “Really?! Where?” or “Really?! Wow, you’re lucky”, because Christians could be killed for going to Mass.
But here the sense of the response was more like “Really?! Why would you do that?”
That’s understandable. Ask anyone who doesn’t regularly go to Mass why they don’t and one of the top answers you will get among youth is because it’s boring (among young adults, that response turns into “I don’t really get anything out of it”).
Who can blame them for that answer? We go to the movies to be entertained. We go to concerts or the opera to enjoy music. We go to sporting events to watch our team beat their/our opponents. As spectators, we expect to sit back and get something out of the performance, or else it’s a waste of our time.
However, seeing the Mass as a performance at which we are merely spectators misses the point. Mass is about how we participate actively in remembering and celebrating our purpose in life: eternal life with God.
Recently, the media picked up on some comments Pope Francis made about the liturgy, fuelling the flames of an apparently ongoing “liturgical war” between two camps. One camp is caricatured as wanting to bring back the form of the Mass celebrated only in Latin, with Gregorian chant, incense, and all the bells (literally) and whistles (figuratively), and with the congregation mostly in silence. The other camp is caricatured as wanting Masses celebrated in every language you can think of, clapping and dancing, a band consisting of guitars and tambourines, where Marty Haugen’s “All Are Welcome” is sung every week.
Some of the most important words in Mass are, “Go forth, the Mass is ended.” Upon hearing these words, we the Church exclaim “Thanks be to God!” not because we’re glad Mass is over, but because having experienced the joy of our destiny of eternal life with God, we can’t help but start living it out. In the words of the Irish Benedictine monk Blessed Columba Marmion, we can’t help but get caught up in the “divine current,” which rushes us towards God, starting from the Eucharist at Mass to encountering our Creator in his creation.
The focus of liturgy is therefore primarily on what God has done for humankind and how he invites us to actively participate in it. Jesus came to serve especially those whom society ignores.3 How do we participate in this ministry of mercy? Jesus came to proclaim the Kingdom of God.4 How do we prophetically proclaim this same Good News that Jesus redeemed all of us, the children of God? Just as we offer up bread and wine to God during Mass with the priest, are we offering up our own lives to God the other 167 hours of the week?
I hope so, because that’s really what being an Ignatian “contemplative in action” means. It doesn’t mean that we have quiet time and busy time; that would just mean we are at times contemplative and at other times at work. Being a contemplative in action means that, while we recognize the importance and necessity of quiet personal prayer, we live out that prayer. Similarly, as Christians, we must live out our communal prayer at Sunday Mass. After all, the Eucharist is a Sacrament, a visible sign of an unseen reality. When we receive Communion, it is a visible sign of the unseen reality that God has chosen us to be with him eternally and we have chosen to respond to his love.
Are there problems with the liturgy that need further discussion? Absolutely.5 But while we wait for the theologians to figure it out, we can begin and continue to participate actively in liturgical life – a life that is a ceaseless giving of ourselves to God in every thought, word, and action of ours. Only then will the “work of the people” as liturgy take root in the deeper meaning arising out of the Second Vatican Council.
Who knows, maybe what we experience just might surprise us enough to make us want to ask Jesus, “Really?”
“Desert sky, dream beneath the desert sky.
The rivers run but soon run dry.
We need new dreams tonight.”
— U2, “In God’s Country,” The Joshua Tree
“Therefore, I will allure her now;
I will lead her into the wilderness
and speak persuasively to her.
Then I will give her the vineyards she had…”
— Hosea 2:16-17
Apparently, my favorite band irks a lot of people.
I can’t deny that. I once heard a U2 fan decry the “political B.S.” that always finds a way into the band’s shows. The problem, author David Dark suggests in his recent article, is that U2 tries to blend “pop hits and social justice.” Their music “offers prophetic critique” and “asks us to look hard at what we are doing.” And prophets irk people.
The band is about to return to the U.S. for a second leg of its Joshua Tree tour, an album that was prophetic upon its release thirty years ago, and which remains prophetic now. It criticizes U.S. military action in foreign lands (“Bullet the Blue Sky”), laments the hopelessness of drug addiction (“Running to Stand Still”), and empathizes with coal miners who have lost their livelihood (“Red Hill Mining Town”).
Sure, the songs apply to different contexts now than they did in 1987. But like a prophetic text from the Bible, they are still relevant so many years later.
I began listening to The Joshua Tree album in May, and went out of my way to see The Joshua Tree tour in June, largely because I was drawn to the prophetic element of the music. I had just taken a course on the Hebrew prophets, who frequently call the people Israel to a period of repentance in the desert. The idea was to return to the stark poverty of the wilderness, where Israel had begrudgingly learned to rely on God — and not merely on themselves — for food, water, and shelter.
I found The Joshua Tree so fascinating because it appears to take the prophets’ advice to heart: Go into the desert, where God will speak. 1 Specifically, the band immersed itself in the desert of Joshua Tree National Park, where they wrote the album. The music that emerged is the band’s effort to share what they heard from God, or what they experienced with God, in the desert.
To call U2 “prophetic” may seem simply to glorify the band. But no genuine prophet gets off that easy. In ancient Israel, as now, prophets were rarely popular. 2 They point out problems and tell harsh truths. They challenge us to reevaluate the way we live our lives, individually and as a society. 3 They point out the ways we have gone wrong, and this irks us. It hurts.
But prophets do not irk people just for fun, or out of spite. Rather, their criticism — angry and harsh as it sometimes may be — is an act of love. Hosea famously marries a prostitute to symbolize God’s love for Israel, a people that just can’t seem to give its whole heart to God in return. Hosea, like God, gets angry with his unfaithful companion. But Hosea, like God, cannot help but forgive his spouse and love her anyway. 4
Thus The Joshua Tree, even as it sharply criticizes aspects of American society, is also an act of love. Dark calls it “a love letter to the United States, celebrating its promise while skewering its foreign policy.” Notice that there is no contradiction here. The band can be angry at the United States even as it loves — and perhaps because it loves — the United States. U2 wants the best for us. They want the American Dream to be reality. They want liberty and justice for all. So when they see us falling short of our ideals, naturally, they are disappointed.
Consider “In God’s Country,” which falls in the middle of The Joshua Tree album and, thus, at the heart of each Joshua Tree concert. The band, which is Irish, not American, nonetheless bestows the title of “God’s Country” on the United States. The lyrics proclaim the beauty of America’s “desert skies,” which inspire one to dream. The song also extols Lady Liberty, a symbol of hope to those who dream of coming to America: “She is liberty, and she comes to rescue me!”
But this is no facile ode to America, for the band also notes: “Every day the dreamers die / to see what’s on the other side.”
Even after thirty years, these lyrics seem to speak directly to our immigration crisis. So many migrants, desperate to find liberty in the U.S. — from war, poverty, gang violence, or other problems — quite literally “die to see what’s on the other side” of the U.S. border. Sure, Lady Liberty holds out a torch that guides “the tired, the poor, the huddled masses” to safe harbor in America. 5 But perhaps we have made it so difficult to legally enter the country that the American Dream rings hollow. Rather than find liberty in the U.S., many meet their death. The dream, all too often, becomes a nightmare. And so, as U2 sings, “we need new dreams tonight.”
Lest we write off The Joshua Tree as a mere liberal rallying cry, the album also laments the plight of coal miners. It is no secret that our current president has promised to bring back coal and to send immigrants back home. While it is easy to view these two groups, immigrants and coal miners, as opposed, The Joshua Tree challenges us to see that justice is lacking for both.
U2 invites us to empathize with coal miners — or with anyone who has lost job and livelihood — in “Red Hill Mining Town.” Bono takes on the voice of an unemployed coal miner, for whom Labor Day is no longer a cause for celebration. On the contrary, Bono mourns the days when coal miners had work: “Our Labor Day has come and gone.”
Not unlike the refugees from “In God’s Country,” Bono’s coal miner tries to cling to the American Dream: “I’m hanging on! / You’re all that’s left to hold on to. / I’m still waiting!” 6 Even though he is a citizen, even though his family might have lived and worked in the U.S. for decades, the coal miner finds himself waiting — still — for the comfort, security, and prosperity that America purportedly promises. You can hear the pain in the miner’s voice as Bono moans, “We see love slowly stripped away; / Our love has seen its better days.” The song offers no happy resolution. It ends with surrender, or perhaps even despair: “The lights go down on Red Hill Town.” Without coal mines and the power they provide, the miner’s town — and a whole way of life — is extinguished.
If we are to live up to our ideals and fulfill the American Dream, U2 challenges us, then we all have some growing to do. “All are welcome here, left or right,” Bono said in Chicago. But all are challenged too. Those who oppose immigration reform need to empathize with the migrants who would “die to see the other side” of a U.S. border wall. At the same time, those who support immigrants and refugees, myself included, must learn to empathize with poor American workers who feel, after years of labor in some of the country’s hardest jobs, they’re “still waiting” for the American Dream to kick in.
This, in essence, is what makes U2 prophetic. They love America, but they also know we can be better. They see injustice and point it out, on the left or on the right. That can be irksome. But if we are never irked, if we tune out the voices that call us to change, we will never grow. We will simply stagnate, staying stuck where we are, dreaming the same old dream.
The cover photo is featured courtesy of Gisueppe Milo of the Flickr Creative Commons and is a photo of the current U2 Joshua Tree Tour 2017.
There was a time when nuclear war was a regular conversation topic in my family. It’s 1987. The Cold War is four years away from ending. President Reagan just called for Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.” There are more than 65,000 nuclear warheads on the planet, my mom is engaged, and I’m nine years old. And I’m watching The Day After1.
The Day After was a made for T.V. movie back in ‘83 about a fictional nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union. The setting – my hometown of Kansas City, Missouri.
The opening scenes are a love letter to the heartland, country fields and small towns. We see downtown Kansas City, the Kauffman and Arrowhead Stadiums, the Liberty Memorial. We’re introduced to a gamut of Midwestern people reacting to news broadcasts of an escalating conflict in Europe as they live their lives in flyover country. Then suddenly missiles begin to fly. There is confusion and panic and…BOOM…the attack sequence begins. Bright lights, mushroom clouds, fires, screams. Life interrupted by war.
And my nightmares of nuclear proliferation begin.
Watching any movie took more commitment back then. The VCR swallowed the black VHS tape as my grandpa nudged it with his fingers. He pushed play and adjusted the tracking so the audio and picture would align more precisely. There’s a night sky on the screen, white dots sprinkled throughout the blackness. Then a startling martelé of violin strings accompanied the appearance of unblinking eyes in the darkness. A yellow title emerged beneath: The Man Who Saw Tomorrow2.
I grew up in my grandparents’ house. They were tongue-speaking, prayer-meeting, hand-laying charismatic Catholics. And they read the book of Revelations3 often. And they spoke about the end times. And this man who saw tomorrow – Nostradamus – had a clairvoyance that fit right in with their interests.
Watching this documentary was like a drug. Everyone told me it would give me nightmares, but I couldn’t help myself. Orson Welles – the rotund narrator with his white beard and cigars and hollow baritone voice – terrified me. He was looking at me. He was talking to me. He was telling me why and how I was going to die. My grandparents bought it, and so I bought it. And I wasn’t even ten. The end times – this was real life to me.
My bedroom was on the first floor across from my grandparents’ room. We lived in a neighborhood where gunshots and sirens were customary. My ears and child-like sensitivities had acclimated to this cacophony of activity. But the sound of the box fan wedged inside my window, rapping and banging against itself, activated my nine-year-old imagination – it sounded like missiles. And with the book of Revelations and The Man Who Saw Tomorrow and The Day After…everything appeared to be the end of me.
In panic I’d knock on my grandparents’ bedroom door. My grandma would answer. Taking my hand in hers, she’d walk with me, supported by her wooden cane, and return me to my room. She’d sit at the edge of my bed, tuck me in, rub my head, and pray. They were prayers for peace of mind. For peaceful dreams. Then she’d pray in tongues.
Though I never understood what she was saying, her praying voice brought me solace. There was a rhythm to her prayer. It sang. And it calmed me. Then we’d say a prayer to St. Michael the Archangel to protect us through the night. She’d kiss my cheek. Then make the sign of the cross on my forehead with her thumb.
I will not mince words here. President Trump scares me. Kim Jong Un scares me. They have agitated an uneasiness I had long forgotten. President Trump continues to escalate his war of words against North Korea and vice versa. This clash is filled with ultimatums and antagonization. News stations in California and Hawaii are reporting on what to do in the event of a nuclear attack. And the United States and North Korea are pushing each other. And, what if this pushing ends with a pushed button, sending bombs across the world? And, we have no control over the power they have.
My mind races with questions through sleepless nights and anxious prayers. But then I think of my grandma. I’m reminded of the place I found serenity. I hear her voice through the negative noise. I hear the rhythm of peace and the song of calm that undulated from somewhere deep in her soul. I hear her blessing embodied by her thumb marking my forehead with a cross, sanctifying my safety in the arms of God. It’s a warm peace. The kind that settles me down, encouraging me to embrace life and not fear it. Today, at least, the world continues to spin and I am alive.
The events in Charlottesville this past weekend were sickening and horrifying. A march by hundreds of torch-bearing White Nationalists and neo-Nazis in an American city was unthinkable. What is perhaps more stunning is that many of those White Nationalist and neo-Nazis consider themselves to be Christians. Obviously, one cannot claim to follow Jesus and be a white supremacist at the same time. The two are completely incompatible: white supremacy is a moral abomination which has no place within Christianity. Yet, the neo-Nazi marchers in Charlottesville had convinced themselves otherwise, morphing Christianity into something unrecognizable to fit their political and social agenda.
Sadly, the bastardization of the Christian faith to fit an political agenda is all too common. Both conservative and liberal Catholics can be selective in their application of the faith. Perhaps the most obvious example of this kind of “selectivity” within the the Catholic Church is the debate over the death penalty.
The topic of the death penalty within Catholic circles can be a contentious one. Despite the USCCB’s universal rejection of the death penalty in the United States, many American Catholics still support capital punishment.The Church technically allows capital punishment in extreme cases, where the safety of the public cannot be secured by other means. However, these cases are incredibly rare. In the United States such cases are non-existent, a point affirmed by Pope St. John Paul II, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, and Pope Francis in the strongest terms. Their views are both authoritative and correct.
This support for death penalty by certain Catholics is understandable to a degree, albeit wrong. People want justice done. The crimes that warrant the death penalty are terrible and represent the worst of humanity. Justice seemingly demands retribution; the perpetrator must die to set things right. Departure from Catholic teaching on the Death Penalty is often rationalized in two ways. First, to restore a semblance of balance between the perpetrators and the victims. Second, to satisfy the moral obligation of the state to punish those who commit capital crimes in kind. To withhold such punishment would call into question the morality of the state. However, both ways ultimately fall short of achieving their stated goals, and instead compound the injury done to the victims and the state while denying the humanity of the perpetrator.
A capital crime, like murder, is the ultimate violation of the dignity of another, and thus seems to warrant the imposition of the death penalty. It is argued that only the death of the perpetrator would be enough to balance the scales and restore the victim’s (or their survivor’s) dignity and position within society. However, whether the scales could ever be balanced in such cases becomes questionable. How is the death of one person lessened by the death of another? It cannot bring the victim back or give survivors back what they had lost. As a society, we have several punishments that can adequately convey how seriously the state and its people take capital offenses. It is bewildering to imagine that anybody would conceive of a life sentence as a “light” punishment. Intuitively, we want those guilty of crimes to be punished and are justly angered when a punishment seems inadequate (e.g. convicted rapist Brock Turner’s three months in prison). Yet, the death penalty cannot be weighed in the same manner as its non-lethal counterpart, i.e., a life sentence. Far from balancing the scales, the death penalty misses the pan altogether and serves neither the state nor the victim(s). If the death penalty does not serve the interests of justice then it must serve a baser need, vengeance, in a clever guise.
An additional problem, and perhaps more damaging, for retributive justifications of the death penalty is that assumes a nearly perfect system. It assumes that those put to death were given the full protection of law and were treated with equity. However, we know this to false. Black and brown men are far more likely than their white counterparts to be sentenced to death for the same crime. Evidence tampering and prejudiced law enforcement officials are a part (albeit, a small part) of our justice system. While these factors might not be present in every capital case, they are undoubtedly present in some. The irony here is that many proponents of the death penalty do not trust the government to do anything else well. They are quick to question the motives of elected officials and the intent of new laws, yet assume that capital judgements are beyond reproach. Of course, once a capital sentence carried out there is no means of correcting a flawed judicial process. If you do not trust the state to spend your tax dollars, why on earth would you trust them to execute a fellow citizen?
Putting aside the systemic issues mentioned above, some theorists argue that the state has a moral obligation to kill those guilty of capital offenses, that if they were lenient with such criminals it would be a miscarriage of justice.1 The state, as an agent of justice, is ideally placed to justly kill offenders. The problem with this argument is that it antithetical to the Christian faith. God does not deal with us as we deserve, instead his mercy is unlimited. Jesus’s disciples were far from worthy of being called, yet Jesus surrounded himself with sinners.
When faced with capital crime, the women caught in adultery, Jesus chose mercy over punishment. When he was sentenced to die, he forgave those who killed him. If Christian life is meant to imitate the master, why would we treat people according to their worst action? Obviously, this does not mean we should abrogate all punishment and imprisonment: the state must protect society. However, the safety of the state and its people do not require that a perpetrator be killed. As Christians, we are called to mercy, to treat those who harm us with mercy, and to love and pray for our enemies. If we insist that death is the only just recourse, how can we call ourselves Christians?
It is tempting to alter the faith to fit our political leanings, it makes Christianity easier. Loving your enemy is hard. However, if we alter the faith we run the risk of losing sight of Christ and losing what it means to be Christian.
A single dollar was awarded to Taylor Swift in a recent legal case. While that might not sound like much in terms of a victory, that dollar was worth so more than its monetary value. But why?
In December of 2013, before performing in Denver, Taylor Swift attended a promotional photoshoot—a local meet and greet with her fans. David Mueller, a local radio personality, attended the promotion and appeared in pictures with Taylor Swift. During these photographs, Mueller slid his hand under Taylor Swift’s skirt and grabbed her butt.
The next day, Taylor Swift’s agent contacted the radio station filing a complaint; the complaint contained the photographs and Taylor’s account of the sexual assault. After a short investigation of the allegation, the radio station fired David Mueller. Two years later in 2015, Mueller sued Taylor Swift for $3 million dollars in lost wages. Taylor’s response?
She countersued him… for a single dollar. She alleged that David Mueller sexually assaulted her by groping her during the photoshoot, and she sued for the total damages of one, single dollar. It was never about the money; it was always about something more. And, she won.
The court dismissed David Mueller’s case against her, and the court ruled in Taylor Swift’s favor.If Only It Didn’t Have to be Taylor Swift
We should admire Taylor Swift for the way she handled this court case, but we shouldn’t feel comfortable with a world of systems and assumptions which require the victim to explain why they ‘ruined’ someone’s life. And, we shouldn’t feel comfortable with the fact that it took someone with popstar status and money to overcome victim shaming.
After the case, Mueller commented that he is planning on paying the settlement with a Sacagawea dollar, because: “I mean this is all about women’s rights… it’s a little poke at them, a little bit. I mean I think they made this into a publicity stunt, and this is my life.” Mueller’s comment—while certainly abrasive—is partially right: this is his life. BUT, his comment misses a more important problem: this is also Taylor’s life, and this was Taylor’s body.
The court transcripts and public comments are disturbing to read, because the burden of proof seemed to rest upon Taylor Swift. She had to present a case demonstrating that she was in fact sexually assaulted—evidence, witnesses, testimony, and cross-examination required just to explain that she was the victim. Taylor’s mother was called to testify about Taylor’s comments and demeanor on the evening she was groped. Taylor Swift’s bodyguard was also called to testify. He affirmed her story: “I know I saw… a violation of her body.”
Taylor herself had to testify, and when Mueller’s attorney attempted to imply that the grope might have been an “accidental brush” perhaps of her “ribs,” Taylor responded sharply:
“He did not touch my ribs. He did not touch my arm. He did not touch my hand. He grabbed my bare ass.”
“Right as the moment came for us to pose for the photo, he took his hand and put it up my dress and grabbed onto my ass cheek, and no matter how much I scooted over, it was still there. It was completely intentional… It was definitely a grab. A very long grab.”
At one point during the trial, she produced a photograph which clearly shows Mueller’s hand below her waist. Then—because it does not show Mueller explicitly gripping her—the attorney accused her of lying about the photograph. Taylor responded, “The only person who would have a direct eye line is someone laying underneath my skirt, and we did not have anyone positioned there.”
It sounds disrespectful for someone on the witness stand to include sarcasm or to say the word “ass” so many times, until the reality settles in: Why is she the one on trial? Wasn’t she the victim?
Taylor Swift endured a shaming which is all too common for women and victims of sexual assault. Though she was the victim, she was painted as the person responsible for Mueller’s financial problems. Taylor responded courageously to this, and she even succinctly captured the hypocrisy of the situation: “I’m being blamed for the unfortunate events of his life that are a product of his decisions. Not mine.”
Taylor Swift has the advantage of being a successful singer and performer, and she recognizes that position:
“I acknowledge the privilege that I benefit from in life, in society, and in my ability to shoulder the enormous cost of defending myself in a trial like this… My hope is to help those whose voices should also be heard.”
This entire incident and trial should lead us to admire Taylor Swift for being so brave, but it should also accuse us: Why did it have to be Taylor Swift? What about all the other victims of sexual assault? What about those women and assault victims who don’t have the resources for a legal defense or prosecution? What about those victims who experience shaming? What happens to them?DON’T “Shake It Off”
Taylor Swift didn’t “shake it off” like the lyrics of her famous song. She stood up for what she believed, and bravely fought not simply to win, but to make a difference. She won a single dollar, but Taylor exposed the way victims are treated—which is worth so much more for future victims. She did not accept the shame they tried to put on her, and her sharp responses only shamed them for their callousness. As her attorney claimed: “that dollar, that single dollar, is of immeasurable value in this ever-going fight to figure out where the lines are, what’s right and what’s wrong.”
The next step falls on us to not shake off the power of that single dollar, or the power of her stand and fight. It is up to us to be bothered by these sort of occurrences. It is up to us to assist those around us by creating a world in which a victim of sexual assault doesn’t need exceptional bravery, strength, or power simply to tell the truth of what happened to them. We need to create a world where the victim is not on trial.
The cover image is featured courtesy of Eva Rinaldi of the Flickr CC.
I’ve got to be honest: when Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s “Despacito” was released in January and took off in the late spring, all I heard was a particularly successful link in a long chain of Latin pop-reggaetón and Spanish music in general. But don’t get me wrong: I love pop-reggaetón and its recent rise in mainstream popularity.
While Spanish language music has been in the current US since the Spanish founded the first European settlements in 1565, Petra Rivera-Rideau suggests that the recent rise of pop-reggaetón like “Despacito” has broken racial barriers and brought people together. So it was with me.
I heard about the musical genre reggaetón for the first time while visiting a hospital patient whose fingers had just been cut off. Ricardo was 18 and had recently moved from Puerto Rico. He was fixing a machine in a factory near Chicago when, all of a sudden, it started up again. The blade came down on both of his hands, severing them in two. After the doctors sewed everything back together (apparently you can do that) and placed leeches at the tips of the dead fingers to draw blood up to them (apparently you can do that, too), I asked the teen, “So… ¿qué te gusta hacer?” He smiled, turned his face towards me, and said in a voice that betrayed the high dosage of painkillers he was taking, “Reggaetón. Me gusta escuchar reggaetón.”
I had no idea what reggaetón was, so that evening I returned home and typed it into Youtube. There was stuff from Ozuna, J Balvin, and Daddy Yankee. I remember listening to “Ginza.” The beat entranced me. The drops were insane, and the bass’ rhythm hit me with a fit of euphoric intensity. It was like nothing I had heard before. The lyrics were, well, explicit, but my love for the sound overpowered my disgust towards the message.
The next day I returned to the hospital eager to speak with Ricardo. We exchanged saludos and immediately launched into a discussion of the music. The convo left him laughing and smiling–probably mostly because he was intrigued by the idea of a young “priest” who liked the sound of reggaetón. The music connected us. By sharing it, he had opened a part of his soul to me, and my reception of that piece of him gave him the confidence to share more. It ignited a beautiful heart-to-heart about other things that were important to him.
From that time on, I’ve continued listening to reggaetón. And especially this summer, hearing the sound of “Despacito” took me back to Ricardo.
Music is all about relationship and memory. I hear an old song, and my mind races back to the past. I think of related people and places. Give me the name of a friend, and I will give you the name of a song. Name a place, I’ll name a song. The same is true of genres. Country is Jim. Rap is Sara… And pop-reggaeton will always be Ricardo.
If you’re unaware, Arrupe College is the first of its kind: a two-year college embedded within a Jesuit university. Arrupe seeks to provide greater access to higher education for students who, by no fault of their own, wouldn’t otherwise have many chances to attend a four-year institution of higher learning. For two years our (now) graduates have been pioneers in an effort to dramatically reimagine who deserves a college education and what it takes to grind it out all the way to the graduation stage.
Perhaps I’m just a skosh biased; I do work at Arrupe, after all.
But, I’ve seen enough to know that what unfolded this past Saturday was something singular – a moment that stood in defiance of the narratives about who can succeed in college and who has the capacity to shift the course of their own reality. A moment during which I felt as if the whole world had been changed for the better. Mortarboards bedazzled with messages of sacrifice and hope. Scores of people who had never seen a college graduation before. Young adults who have faced tremendous challenges and thrived anyway.
Just before they began classes, the first students of Arrupe College (and every one since) were given a frame, empty and waiting for an embossed diploma bearing the name of St. Ignatius of Loyola. That frame represented a promise that came to fruition on Saturday – that if a student commits, they will not be forgotten, they will not be given up on, and they will earn a degree. Now, the majority of students who began at Arrupe are moving on with filled frames and into the world of four-year institutions and meaningful employment.
For all of us, the story of Arrupe College means that in spite of ever-rising costs of higher education in America, in spite of ever-widening achievement gaps, and in spite of under-resourced and underserved primary and secondary schools nationwide, we can make college education a real opportunity. All this despite adversity and injustice which threatens our entire country and its education system.
Not surprisingly, love was the word of the day, and love was the key ingredient. In the words of the student speaker, Asya Meadows: “It all began when I fell in love. It was slow, steady, and it happened unexpectedly. The love I found embraced me and made me a better person. It’s been one of the great loves of my life – the kind of love everyone hopes they will have the chance to experience. Now, before you go searching for this person in the crowd, let me give you one crucial detail: it not a person. Actually it’s not just one person – it’s people; It’s Arrupe. Not Maguire Hall, or its walls, or stairwells – or the elevators that only seem to work sometimes. But the people: the students, professors, staff – even the security guards who yelled at me to leave the building. Everyone.”
This love is all-encompassing and contagious – this fall, the second Arrupe-model school is opening at the University of St. Thomas in the Twin Cities. And, there’s no question that this love still matters deeply. Those very same days when Arrupe celebrated a series of firsts, we were yet again reminded of what hatred can do, this time in Charlottesville. For every moment shared among people in love there is, sadly, a moment of hatred waiting to bring it crashing down.
Arrupe College’s first graduation stands as a living monument to the reality that fear and hatred will not win the day. On that day I saw that it was love that brought these students through their two years and it is love that will move us forward.
Congratulations, graduates. Again, Asya: “So savor and remember this great moment…it’s our time now to continue…and live with greater love than fear.”
To see more images of Arrupe College’s Inaugural Commencement, click here.