Latest from the Jesuit Post
Are you ready to give up the wheel?
Self-driving cars are coming. In fact, they are already here. A self-driving truck transported beer in Colorado. In California, they are logging literally thousands of miles. Car manufactures and major tech companies like Google, Uber, Tesla, and, most recently, Apple are competing to stay on the cutting edge of this technology.
It’s no longer a matter of “if,” but rather “when” the streets and highways of our world become populated by self-driving machines with people and cargo as their idle passengers.1
Technological change usually comes upon us whether we like it or not. But even a feeling of inevitability shouldn’t excuse a lack of reflexion. Technological progress isn’t an inherent good. It brings with it much more than that.
Let’s take a look at self-driving cars, and THE GOOD, THE BAD, and THE UGLY.
Self-Driving Cars: THE GOOD
Over 37,000 Americans and 1.3 million people globally die every year in automobile accidents. Those are staggering numbers. It’s the ninth leading cause of death globally (just ahead of HIV/AIDS), and it’s the only non-disease entry on the top ten list.
Have you ever thought about the power that’s in your hands when you drive a car? It’s actually quite remarkable that we entrust millions of people across the world (you and me included) to navigate two-ton metal machines speeding at 60 mph between buildings, pedestrians, and other vehicles. We’re not even that good at it.
While human driving error is not the sole cause of all 1.3 million deaths, some estimates put the number of accidents committed through human error as high as 94%. Self-driving cars might not be able to eliminate all driving fatalities, but couldn’t they lower the number?
It seems pretty safe to assume that self-driving cars would at least outperform a drunk driver or a texting teen, which would go a long way to saving lives on our roads.
Almost a third of fatal traffic accidents in the U.S. are caused by drunk drivers (around 10,000). Additionally, cell phone use and texting have led to a spike in accidents related to distracted driving. According to the Center for Disease Control, distracted driving kills more than eight people and injuries more than a thousand people each day in the U.S. alone. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that 80% of traffic accidents and 16% of traffic fatalities are related to distracted driving.
And so we arrive at THE GOOD. While further arguments could me made for efficiency gains,2 financial benefits,3 and even the prospect of creating transportation independence for the blind or disabled, let’s just stick with the biggest argument in favor.
THE GOOD: Self-driving cars can save lives!
Self-Driving Cars: THE BAD
Think about your most recent drive: did you pass any delivery trucks? A local bus? Maybe a taxi or two? All those vehicles are piloted by paid employees. And lots of people make a living by driving- millions of people, in fact.
Roughly 3.5 million people in the U.S. make their living from driving vehicles around.
NPR made noise a couple of years ago when they published a map showing the most common job in every state, and truck drivers dominated by leading the way in 29 of the 50 states. While these statistics don’t paint the clearest picture, the fact is that roughly 2.8 million Americans make a living by driving trucks.
On top of that, there are taxi drivers. New York City alone has over 13,000 medallion-licensed taxi drivers, not to mention all the Uber and Lyft employees (errr…contractors?). Across the country, the total number of U.S. licensed taxi drivers and chauffeurs is around 190,000, while Uber claims the engagement of around 160,000 drivers. Throw in half a million school bus drivers and around 170,000 transit bus drivers, and you get the picture. Lots of jobs.
So we arrive at THE BAD. Let’s skip over the periphery jobs that could also be lost,4 and excuse the fact that the job statistics are U.S.-focused.5 An argument could also be made for the negative health effects of safer driving that would worsen the shortage of organ donors.6 But there is one argument against self-driving cars that is the most prominent.
THE BAD: Self-driving cars will eliminate jobs!
Self-Driving Cars: THE UGLY
What about accidents that do occur? What about accidents that are unavoidable?
Results have shown that human error has played a primary role in almost every reported accident with a self-driving vehicle, but the increased use of self-driving vehicles will inevitably involve more accidents, including fatal ones.
In May of last year, the fatal crash of a self-driving Tesla in Florida applied the strongest brakes to the self-driving car movement and tempered enthusiasm. In the incident, a tractor trailer made an ill-advised left turn into oncoming traffic, and the white side of the trailer against a brightly lit sky wasn’t picked up by the vehicle (nor the driver who was still behind the wheel). The self-driving car did not “see” the tractor trailer. So who is responsible for this accident? The rider? The manufacturer?
This was the first case of a fatality from an automation error. But a bigger ethical question looms. How will we program self-driving vehicles to confront situations where an accident is inevitable? What if the outcome varies based on different maneuvers?
Let me illustrate by example:
Car A and Car B are two self-driving cars that are side-by-side on a highway. An inattentive child darts in front of the car on the left (Car A). The car’s computer notices the child, and calculates the following options:
1- Swerve left to avoid both the child and the other car, and head into the median where Car A’s rider has a 60% chance of survival.
2- Swerve right to avoid the child, but collide with Car B from the passenger side, where Car A’s rider has a 80% chance of survival but Car B’s driver has just a 30% chance of survival.
3- Apply the brakes swiftly but maintain a straight course. The child has a 1% chance of survival, Car A’s rider now has a 99% chance of survive, and Car B won’t be impacted.
A human driver who has to confront such a situation wouldn’t have time to calculate the odds, and would have to react instinctively. Given the frightening outcomes, we would be quite sympathetic regardless of how the driver responds.
But with a self-driving car that can run calculations and make decisions in fractions of a second…how would we want it to respond?? That is to say: how would we program it?
Should it swerve left to assume the lowest odds at killing someone, although the highest risk would fall on the car’s rider/owner? Should it swerve right to protect a young child, even if it risks adult riders? Should it stay the course to protect the safety of its owner above all others?
An ethical dilemma like this should give us pause. The more that we allow technology to interact with us in the world, the more we force technology to confront ethical dilemmas. In the case of self-driving cars, we are literally placing a potential killing machine (a 2-ton vehicle) in the control of a computer.
THE UGLY: the ethical puzzle of self-driving cars is complex and controversial.
Have we given sufficient thought to these factors? Have we weighed THE GOOD, THE BAD and the UGLY?
I’m afraid not.
That is to say, I am literally afraid that we have not considered all of these factors, especially not THE UGLY.
Why? Because there is one “GOOD” that I did not address: the earning potential for manufacturers of self-driving cars.
In the U.S., we are in a seven-year streak of growing sales in the auto industry, with 17.6 million cars sold in 2016. As for the global level, hold your breath. In 2010, we passed the one billion mark for the number of cars on the roads. Projections suggest that the total could reach 2.5 billion cars by the year 2050 (!!!). That’s a LOT of cars; that’s a LOT of cars to be sold. And if the wave of the future is self-driving cars, that includes a lot of cars to be replaced.7 In other words: $$$.
Here’s the bottom line: the financial incentives for automakers and tech companies is enormous. Literally billions of dollars in profits are at stake.
Let this give us pause to reflect.
- THE GOOD of reducing traffic fatalities and accidents in general is valuable and a tremendous human good.
- THE BAD of lost jobs is frightening, as we continue to confront the loss of millions of lower-skilled jobs to new technology (in which we basically always favor the technological gains to the preservation of the jobs).
- But THE UGLY, especially in this case, is something that deserves even more thought and reflection. A self-driving car is not on an equal level as all other forms of technology, especially when it comes to life and death ethical choices.
While your iPhone might be a real time-suck, it’s not going to make a decision that could take someone’s life. Drones have the power to kill, but we still haven’t granted them the ability to choose their own targets (and for good reason). With self-driving cars, there is no avoiding it. A two-ton vehicle speeding among other cars and people will inevitably make contact. Ethical choices will have to be embedded in their programming.
We cannot allow the inevitability of technological advance to impede us from reflecting on the risks at stake. We cannot allow profit-driven corporations to play up the benefits of new technology while diverting attention from the unavoidable ethical dilemmas contained within. What values guide our policies on the programming and development of self-driving cars? Ethics? Or financial gains?
We have to give more careful consideration to all aspects: THE GOOD, THE BAD, and THE UGLY. Only then can we make informed decisions about how to create and control the technology that will become a part of our future.
The time to reflect is now, while the wheel is still under our control.
It’s a classic “he said/she said” scenario: John Doe and Jane Roe were a brief college couple at the University of California, San Diego, and had engaged in sexual activity one Friday night after drinking at a party. But after breaking up, she says that it was rape, while he claims that it was consensual.1
The undisputed details of their story are not as much disturbing as they are commonplace in the mainstream culture of college campuses. They planned to attend his fraternity party on Friday night (the night they had sex) and her sorority formal on Saturday. She dropped an overnight bag in his room before going out on Friday. On Saturday, the two spent the night together in her room after attending her formal. Their sexual relationship ended that night. Three months later, she reported to the university’s sexual assault resource center that he had assaulted her on that Saturday morning.
According to a Justice Department report, one in five female college students have been
victims of sexual assault. Although this statistic has been subject of dispute, it would not surprise me if one in five undergraduate women had been in Jane Roe’s situation. Many of such cases undoubtedly go unreported. Regardless of what the actual statistics are, this level of sexual assault is unacceptable.
The atmosphere on college campuses, particularly elite and wealthy campuses, is often called a “hook-up culture.”2 The term “hook-up” varies in meaning, and the hook-up culture is difficult to define. I see the hook-up culture as referring not just to casual uncommitted encounters but to a larger culture of expectation even within committed relationships: the expectation that everyone will have sex in some form so long as they can find a consenting partner.
It is in the context of this culture that the story of Jane and John played out. Jane, a Mormon raised in a religious household, who had never drank or had sex before college, decided to experiment in college. This is not necessarily a bad thing, nor do I think that this means Jane is in any way responsible for what happened to her against her will. But sex and alcohol have large roles in what is portrayed in media and popular culture as the “ideal college experience.” This culture puts pressure on new college students to seek out opportunities for sex and, when there is a mutual desire, to push the envelope as far as possible.
The current campus hook-up culture idealizes casual sex in a way that makes it seem far more simple than it actually is. The fallout after regrettable sexual encounters or the psychological suffering of sexual assault victims are rarely present in college movies or in the consciousness of first-year students. In reality, sex is more than simply an a pleasurable activity that parties agree to participate in. That is why rape and sexual assault are such heinous crimes. Sex involves deep emotions and psychological factors, not to mention biology and spirituality. In order to foster a healthier culture of sexuality on campus, we need to find an ideal of sexuality that takes these factors into account and does not just accept consent as the only qualification.
A recent book by sociologist Lisa Wade describes a darker side to the mainstream culture, identifying “a persistent malaise: a deep, indefinable disappointment” in which one third of those who hook up say that their intimate relationships in the last year have been “traumatic” or “very difficult to handle.” Her research concludes that a third of students do not hook up at all, but also that only 15% of students actually enjoy hooking up.
John Doe and Jane Roe could have been my friends in college. I think that is why the story struck me as hard as it did. A healthier culture might have prevented that whole situation, by removing the pressures on both parties to have sex. As someone vowed to chastity, I can attest to the freedom and joy of reconciling a holistic view of sexuality to my own life. I hope that college campuses can become places where young men and women integrate their sexualities in ways that lead to genuine human flourishing.
Image courtesy of FlickrCC user Yu-Chan Chen.
I’m at Santa Clara University. Nine Jesuit universities have sent delegations of students and advisors to the fourth annual IgnatianQ Conference – a student-led symposium focused on the intersectionality of faith, sexuality, and social justice at Jesuit universities. The talk I gave just concluded. And it’s Q&A time.
“I have a question.” Her hand reluctantly ascends from her lap, a nervous smile unfurling. “First, thank you for your talk. Your words about God’s love for LGBT students like me is something I really needed to hear.” The room booms with applause. “My name is Benita, I’m Cuban, I’m a devout Catholic, and I’m a lesbian.”
“Hi, Benita.” Her posture relaxes a bit, but her hesitant smile turns serious. Most of these students land somewhere on the LGBTQIA+ identity spectrum.1 Most are Catholic, many are Christian, some are Jewish, a few are agnostic. All are trying to understand how they fit into the worlds they inhabit.
“I feel like I can only be Cuban and Catholic at home. I can only be lesbian and Cuban at school, sometimes. My university is very white, with lots of privileged students – sometimes I have to work at being less Cuban.” Many students of color snap emphatically, a gentle action of affirmation. These tensions Benita describes are real and true. “My Catholic identity also gets sidelined with my lesbian friends, while it’s placed on a pedestal with my family. Is there even a place for me in the Catholic Church? Can I be Catholic, Cuban, and lesbian all at once or will I always have to choose between my identities?” The conference room of 120 students fills with claps, snaps, and cheers of agreement.
And I notice their eyes turn to me for an answer, pens and paper at the ready to write down what I am about to say.
As Benita speaks, my grandmother’s soft voice floats into my mind – “You are always representing something or someone, mijo, keep your head high.”
This idea of representing has never left me. And I have appropriated my grandmother’s philosophy into everything.
So here I stand, wise words reverberating through my mind, cognizant of all that I am. Benita’s question looms over me. And I’m profusely sweating. Heart pounding. Palms sticky. I’m in front of these students representing the Catholic Church and the Society of Jesus. And my school. And my gender. And my race. And my sexuality. It’s overwhelming.
Benita has finished asking her question. I’m nervous. I reach for my cup of water and gulp. Dry mouth. And she is leaning in, and they all lean in, waiting for me to respond.
I open my mouth, thoughts fall from my brain, hope rises from my heart, vocal chords begin to vibrate, and suddenly, sound is forming…
“I’m gay! And I’m Cuban!” A young man raises both his hands. “We should talk!” Everyone laughs and snaps.
“Yes, yes, yes,” I say, “absolutely!” Whatever was going to be said immediately departed from my mind. “You are Catholic. And there is a place for you at the Lord’s table, for all of you. Do not forget that, and do not let anyone tell you otherwise.” I’ve never thought of myself as an authority on anything, but eyes
are widening all around me. They are glued to every word. In this moment I can tell I am seen as some sort of an expert. I sweat even more. “Connect and speak to each other. Share your truth. Take advantage of this time together. And pray. By doing this you will discover how God invites others to answer the same questions you’re asking. And I bet you’ll uncover answers to other questions as well!”
Smiles are forming on faces. Pens frantically noting my response. Perhaps what I’m saying makes sense to them even if I feel my answer is incomplete. But, my answer pours out from my own experience of seeking support, or affirmation, or community. And it comes from those occasions I’ve felt disaffected or dismissed by the Church. Mostly, though, it comes from Benita’s bravery to ask the question in the first place.
Afternoon flight back to Chicago. The sky is amazingly blue. That moment with Benita runs through my mind. I close my eyes and say a prayer.
I recognize there is much work to be done in the Catholic Church to help marginalized peoples feel welcome in its pews. Recalling Pope Francis asking us to smell like sheep, maybe we don’t quite smell like sheep enough to admit how exclusive our Church can be. Many of the students’ stories and questions, like Benita’s, reflected an experience of the Church that still causes some confusion and pain, leaving them feeling alienated and lost.
As I gaze out across the sky, sipping my ginger ale, I pray these young adults keep persevering. I pray they remain in the Church and don’t leave out of resentment or frustration. I pray for their unanswered questions and uncertainties. And I pray for my own strength because I’m asking myself the same thing: how can I be all of me all at once in this universal church we call Catholic? I pray because I am with them. I pray because we are all just like them, never only one thing in this world.
The world needs to listen more attentively to the voices of teenage girls. Lately, they’ve been raving about the handsome and talented Harry Styles–One Direction band member who went solo on Friday with his debut album Harry Styles. At a school not so far, far away, I can almost hear a young lady whisper longingly, “He’s so dreamy,” with her chin cupped between two scrawny palms. Not far away, a group gathers outside a classroom door. Circled around an iPhone, they swoon as Styles tenderly sings, “Meet me in the hallway.” When he softly repeats, “Meet me in the hallway,” they fall to the floor in unison.
Something about this man has attracted 30 million followers on Twitter and 15 million “likes” on Facebook. He’s one of the heartthrobs of our age. People are dying to hear his music, and his message is reaching the masses, or at least the masses of teenage girls.
Many frown when I mention that Harry is now among my favorite male artists. They eek, “Yeah…you and a bunch of sixth grade girls.” However, their misogynistic comments don’t get me down. They don’t phase Harry, either. In an interview with Rolling Stone, he rightfully quips,
Who’s to say that young girls who like pop music – short for popular, right? – have worse musical taste than a 30-year-old hipster guy? That’s not up to you to say… How can you say young girls don’t get it? They’re our future. Our future doctors, lawyers, mothers, presidents, they kind of keep the world going. Teenage-girl fans – they don’t lie. If they like you, they’re there. They don’t act ‘too cool.’ They like you, and they tell you. Which is sick.
So enough with the condescension. Let’s get to the heart of the matter: why is Harry Styles a thing? As any good essayist, I’ve got three points: (1) he’s got style, (2) he’s retro, and (3) he’s constantly in and out of love.
The guy is dapper. By that, I mean that he is “neat, trim, and spruce” according to the OED.1 You might think, “Yeah, he’s dapper, but we aren’t meant to judge by looks, right?” Wrong. I happen to think that looks are important, at least for people who have sufficient discretionary funds to be able to choose their style.2 He’s stylish, and, frankly, human beings are a body-soul union. Those who refuse to care for their appearance degrade the dignity of the human person. Harry is not one of those people, which brings me to my second point.
Harry has a particular style: retro. A few weeks back on SNL, he performed his album’s biggest hit “Sign of the Times.” Wearing an old-school, double-vested, plaid Gucci suit from the Fall 2017 collection, he made a clear statement about the relationship between his new album and what has come before.
The young man is aware of his place in the history of pop rock. His dress signals a broader trend towards musical pastiche that his album frequently employs. While he clearly “pastes” sounds and styles germane to his parents and grandparents, he does so without losing his distinctive contemporary flare. He speaks to the present with an awareness of the past. The album is not a reinvention of the wheel: it’s more like an elegant-yet-surprisingly-flashy rim. It spins on its own within a pre-existing frame. It’s not surprising that his second outfit on SNL was a combination of styles.
This move in attire acts as bridge between the old and the new, which parallels the message of “Sign of the Times.” The epic power ballad is dreamlike and apocalyptic. Its lyrics speak of the “final show,” encouraging an escape in the face of an impending “end.” Despite the doom and gloom, Harry’s voice is resolute and detached from any hint of sensationalism. “We never learn, we’ve been here before,” he sings, a message of simultaneous condemnation and reassurance. He’s rooted in a history that contextualizes the present.
In the struggle for justice, we’ve moved through seemingly dark times before, and we will again. Harry explains as much to Rolling Stone: “’Sign of the Times’ came from ‘This isn’t the first time we’ve been in a hard time, and it’s not going to be the last time.’” As an old history professor of mine liked to claim, if you think it’s bad now, then you don’t know your history. Harry concurs. His retro style gives an impression of maturity, a quality confirmed by his music. He might be young, but there is a real wisdom here.
“Kiwi” and “Only Angel” speak of mad love, an initial, rapturous surge of passion. He rocks out, chanting , “She drives me crazy, but I’m into it.” Notes from guitars rip and swell like blood coursing through the valves of an infatuated heart. “From the Dining Table” and “Meet Me in the Hallway” speak of jaded love. Like blood, love fills us with life, but, when we get hurt, it forms bruises and scars. Now far removed from the enthrallment of newfound desire, Harry speaks of a state of isolation. He’s “alone in that hotel room,” feeling frustrated and rejected. Nothing seems to click. “Even my phone misses your call,” he sings in desperation. Hushed streams of chords are his only companions.
Similarly, “Two Ghosts” speaks of fading love. It’s a slower tune with hints of country. The mood is nostalgic. Time has reduced the billowing flames of a raging fire to smoke and ashes. “We’re not who we used to be,” he admits with a voice full of somber nostalgia. Love, it seems, brings both ecstasy and withdrawal.5
There are heavier rock songs that communicate the thrill of love, and there are lighter, soft rock songs that convey the melancholy of a wounded yet longing heart. There is a song for every stage in a relationship. Touring through his memories, Harry also tours through several generations and styles of music. He’s in touch with his musical roots just as he’s in touch with his feelings.
He’s achieved his self-stated goal of being “honest.” The pastiche of musical forms isn’t unintentional, lazy and derivative; rather, it is the musical DNA with which he transcribes his story. The listener can tell by his voice that the lyrics are more than words on a sheet or tips of the hat to his predecessors. They mean something to him, and this candor resonates with the emotions of humanity’s most sincere population: teenage girls.6
Like Harry Styles, teenage girls are vulnerable with themselves. They experience its highs and lows in real time. They live for the rollercoaster of love. Even in the lows, something tells them that love is worth the risk even though others have given up on its pursuit. But, others have wounds and resign themselves to never seek love again. Others, paralyzed by a fear of getting hurt won’t even get on the ride.
Styles cuts through all of this. He and the youth of this world reject the worn-out somberness they see around them, and–at times–within them. Rather than surrendering to a stale pessimism disguised as realism, they want to soar. There is a desire for love that persists even as Harry reveals his wounds. In his earnestness, faith, hope, and love remain in the midst of doubt, despair, and fear. The album is a tribute to these deep, pure desires, which extend beyond earthly limitations.
We might be tempted to roll our eyes as Styles takes flight in the “Sign of the Times” music video, but he and his fans pity those whose feet are too firmly planted on the ground. Harry feels for those “running from the bullets,” avoiding love for fear of heartbreak. He doesn’t want to live fleeing his wounds, and he doesn’t want you to either. As some close themselves off from love, Harry doubles down, belting, “We should open up.” As others mope with heads turned towards the ground, Harry wants you to break “through the atmosphere.” There is a love yet to be found, and Styles hopes that he and his teenage fans aren’t the only ones still looking for it.
Mom began sprinting up the hill, pushing me in the wheelchair. As we reached the halfway point of the walkway, the front wheels caught a spacer in the pavement. CRACK! The front wheels snapped off, immediately halting the chair and turning me into a human projectile. I landed on the ground, half-laughing, half-panicking as mom frantically tried to figure out what to do while worrying about the broken leg that put me in the wheelchair in the first place.
I often like to tease my mom about funny stories like this one. Reflecting on it a bit deeper than the immediate humor, however, I’m struck by how it reflects my relationship with my mom. Sure, Mom got rambunctious and started sprinting with her child in a wheelchair. But deeper than that, Mom realized how the 7th-grade bullying plus the broken leg had reached a tipping point. Not only did she let me skip school, but she took a day off of work to bring me to the Missouri Botanical Gardens. The Gardens had been a favorite spot for the two of us as I grew up. Visits there usually involved feasting on poppyseed bread smothered in butter before going to feed the koi in the Japanese garden.
This Mother’s Day, I want to look beyond the requisite flowers and phone call home to something a bit fuller – What did Mom teach me about Mother’s Day?
When I was in the fourth grade, my class had to re-design animals in a way that was both creative and that had some kind of positive impact on the world. Vegetarian lions? Extra-egg producing chickens? Nope. Mom pushed me to imagine a breed of catfish that would extract mercury from the water, thus improving the environment and making other fish safe to eat, especially for pregnant mothers.
Fast forward to AP Statistics during my senior year of high school. All my classmates worked on baseball, football, and hockey analytics. As for me? Mom directed me to analyze the effects of lead paint on maternal and child health.
And I would get mad at my Mom, telling her to stop taking over my projects and allow me to do my own work. Yet all these years later, lead paint and environmental justice are the exact things I teach my juniors about in our Catholic Social Doctrine class.
Among her favorite hobbies, Mom likes to imagine what my future should be, including not only if I should continue in my studies, but what exactly she thinks I should study and what communities I should serve. She sometimes considers calling my Jesuit superiors to enlighten them to her plans. That’s when I get frustrated: sorry, Mom, it doesn’t work that way!
Yet all of these examples are emblematic of my relationship with Mom.
Now, Mom is President of the Sinai Urban Health Institute, the public health arm of Sinai Hospital. Although much of her research currently revolves around reducing gun violence, her lifetime focus has been on maternal health. While she has always been an excellent mother to me, Mom has done amazing work to ensure the livelihood of all mothers.
Each little memory of my mom – the wheelchair, school projects, imagining my future, my frustration, and Mom’s enduring patience – point to something far greater that Mom taught me. Her dreams for my future are never about appeasing her, but fighting for a more just world for all mothers. Pushing my education has never been about status or achievement. It’s about challenging me to help shape the world so mothers don’t have to fret about lead paint, mercury levels in fish, or proper maternal health. Her imagination is not only directed at what might happen to my life. Rather, she imagines how I can give and share my life with others.
Mom taught me that love for her was never directed solely at her. Mom’s love went further than that. Mom was always thinking about other mothers. So she taught me to love, cherish, and tenderly serve others with a wild imagination. She helped me see that my love was never just for her. It needs to be for all mothers, because all mothers are affected by the problems of the world, from environmental pollution to lead paint.
Through projects, dreams, degrees, and imagination, Mom has shared her love with me. And it is a love that cannot be shared only over flowers and a phone call, but demands that my love goes further beyond. So what did Mom teach me about Mother’s Day?
Selfless love: for others, and especially for mothers.
To the biostatistics professor, environmental defender, hiking buddy, and dreamer who taught me to love Mothers: Happy Mother’s Day.
Ma’alesh, translated to “it’s not so bad,” is used often in colloquial Arabic in Egypt. For all the troubles and resulting cynicism that may plague their lives, Egyptians attempt, at least in their vocabulary, to be optimistic.
But ma’alesh is a word that probably hasn’t been heard much in Coptic circles these past few weeks. On Palm Sunday, April 9th, ISIS brutally bombed two Coptic Orthodox places of worship, a cathedral in Alexandria, and a church in Tanta. 49 people were killed.
I vividly remember the shock and horror that I felt as I woke up that Sunday: most of my extended family lives in Egypt, and some of them are Coptic Orthodox. Of course, I had experienced that mix of disgust, rage, and heartache when reading about previous terrorist attacks, but this time around, I worried immediately that some of my relatives were directly affected. Thankfully, all of them had been spared. Even still, I continue to fret about what daily life must be like for my family and for the 9 million Christians who live in Egypt. If one can’t feel safe in a church of all places, then is there really any sense of security at all?
While there’s no quick solution to this situation, I was encouraged to see Pope Francis visit Egypt just 20 days after the bombings. In his poignant homily, the pontiff first grieved over the immense loss of lives, then transitioned to faith’s role in these senseless acts. “True faith,” he proclaimed, “spurs us on to spread, defend and live out the culture of encounter, dialogue, respect and fraternity. It gives us the courage to forgive those who have wronged us, to extend a hand to the fallen.”
Pope Francis’s message of charity, unity, and brotherhood was clear when he met with Coptic Pope Tawadros II a day earlier. For the first time ever, both leaders recognized each other’s baptisms, a symbol of deepening roots in a time and a country with deep tension and division. In an extension of this inviting spirit with Islam, Francis also met with Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, a prominent Muslim imam.
In another speech, the pope strongly condemned violence on all levels, declaring, “To counter effectively the barbarity of those who foment hatred with violence, we need to accompany young people, helping them on the path to maturity and teaching them to respond to the incendiary logic of evil by patiently working for the growth of goodness.”
Again, there is no cure-all for this conflict, but Francis was both wise and pragmatic to suggest dialogue and accompaniment in this speech. Terror groups like ISIS arguably gained momentum by appealing to people who felt just the opposite: isolated or under-represented in social spheres.
So, why was Francis’s visit last week such a big deal? Not only did the pope risk serious dangers to visit the country, but he also made milestones in unprecedented dialogue with prominent Coptic Orthodox and Muslim leaders. Given that Egypt is the most populous country in the Middle East, and that the threat of terror is likely increasing around the Sinai peninsula, the country is thirsty for hope.
Saying ma’alesh still isn’t easy, but Francis reminds us of a lived faith rooted in the hope of the resurrection and magnified by charity towards others: “Those who do not pass from the experience of the cross to the truth of the resurrection condemn themselves to despair.”
Emmanuel Macron was elected on Sunday to serve as the 9th president of France. With 65% of the vote, Macron defeated Marine Le Pen of the National Front in the run-off election to succeed François Hollande.
The previous statements make the French presidential election seem as if what has transpired was nothing more than run of the mill French politics, resulting in the usual transfer of power from one leader to another. It has been anything but that.
Consider the following:
- Hollande, the incumbent, has reached such low levels of popularity that he polls in the single digits (in comparison, President Trump’s popularity sits in the 40s) and chose not to run for re-election, a first since the Fifth Republic was inaugurated in the 60s.
- The leading parties that have dominated French politics since World War II, the Socialists and the Gaullists placed fifth and third in the first round, respectively.
- Le Pen, the candidate of the far right National Front, had more in common with the far leftist candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon of La France insoumise than with Macron, the centrist candidate, and Francois Fillon, the candidate of the traditionally conservative party.
- Fillon, who placed third, won the support of the traditional conservative party by winning the votes of self-identifying Catholic voters in a country that has strongly embraced secularism and public identification with a religion is rare, before falling in the polls in the wake of a political scandal.
- Macron, an Economics Minister in the Hollande government and investment banker, would resign to launch an independent candidacy and be the first independent candidate to make it through to the run-off.
- Macron, who has never held elected office before and was little known in French politics as much as three years ago, would at the age of 39 win the presidency.
Except for scandal bringing down a political front runner, no part of this election has conformed to the recent trend of French politics. It is as if French voters, having perused the pre-approved political script, refused to green light the film.
That Macron emerged the winner after having reached the second round is unsurprising: the National Front has struggled to grow its share of the vote totals when it has performed well enough to reach the run-off in the past. The bigger question concerns what the election means for France’s future and European politics more broadly. In the past decades, France has struggled, as many developed economies have, with slow growth, higher unemployment, and increased inequality as some regions and cities of France have grown more quickly than others in a globalized economy. Tensions over immigration and the integration of Muslims, mostly immigrants from North Africa, into French society has periodically erupted, including most recently over the so-called “Burkini” Ban in the summer of 2016. Terrorist attacks in Paris and in Nice over the past few years have heightened security fears.
None of which seems to fully explain the anxiety and discomfort of a country that has developed an obsession with ideas of decline. Just last year, déclinisme formally entered the French vocabulary.
It does not seem probable that Macron’s proposed policies of abolishing the 35-hour work week and fiscal tightening will do much to alleviate tensions when the average monthly rent in Paris ($3350) exceeds the average monthly wage ($3000). Nor does it seem any more likely that Le Pen’s proposals to restrict immigration, lower the retirement age, and renegotiate France’s treaties with the European Union would have lessened social tensions between groups competing over access to France’s extensive network of public housing. French voters have apparently little confidence that this election will lead to greater change, with only 65% of eligible voters participating and roughly 4 million voters casting a blank ballot.
It seems as if France’s existential problems exceed the capacity of public policy to deal with, though that’s never an excuse to slack off on policies that promote equality, justice, and prosperity. Rather, it seems that France like many western countries, especially the United States, suffers from a solidarity deficit in which many fail to understand and identify with the hopes, dreams, and difficulties of their fellow citizens and of those who live outside of their national borders. Politics, rather than serving to bring people of many nations together, serves as an ever-stricter social marker and source of separation between peoples.
In his recent TED Talk, Pope Francis, alongside calls for a “revolution of tenderness”, explicitly urged the conference attendees to embrace solidarity. He said:
How wonderful would it be if solidarity, this beautiful and, at times, inconvenient word, were not simply reduced to social work, and became, instead, the default attitude in political, economic and scientific choices, as well as in the relationships among individuals, peoples and countries.
As France wrestles with questions of identity, equality, and prosperity, it would do well to heed Pope Francis’ advice and embrace a wide-ranging solidarity as a first step to confronting its 21st-century reality.
It is too soon to say, even after Macron’s victory over Le Pen, that this election amounts to a major political realignment in French politics. In five years, it may be that the major political parties of the past century rediscover their core voters, sideling Le Pen’s National Front. Or it may be that this election has broken the old divisions between Left, Center, and Right in French politics and that newer, more modern coalitions will form around Macron, Le Pen, and other politicians outside of the traditional parties. In any case, we can hope that Pope Francis’ call for solidarity and a revolution of tenderness is heard in France and, indeed, around the whole world.
Too Fast for the Satire, and Too Slow for a Movie:
I stand firmly by the theory that the book is always better—and that certainly is true in the case of The Circle. Not even the combined talents of Tom Hanks and Emma Watson could save its fundamental flaw: Dave Eggers’s The Circle is too subtle a satire/thriller for film.1
The narrative begins with Emma Watson’s Mae starting a job at a tech company. She immediately faces questions about her privacy and participation in technology. The progression of questions driving the novel and the film are the same, but they land differently:
Should Mae want to be socially engaged in her work? Of course! Should she ‘like’, click, and support her colleagues? Of course!
Wouldn’t it be helpful if our preferences were all recorded—that way we wouldn’t have weird or offensive advertisements wasting our time? Yeah. Wouldn’t it be helpful if our tastes, foods, and physical activity were monitored so that we could be healthy? Sure, why not.
Wouldn’t it be helpful to have cameras in your parent’s house to visit with them even when you’re busy—or what if you had a sick parent, then wouldn’t that mean keeping them safe? Yeah, ok, I guess. If we had a way to recover lost or kidnapped children in a matter of minutes, shouldn’t we? Well, yeah!
If a corporation could save our government trillions, isn’t that a good idea? If a company could handle voting procedures more effectively and attain 100% participation in government, shouldn’t we invest in that? Hmm…
Should there be a camera so that we can protect protesters from tyrants and human rights violations? Well, of course! Shouldn’t our government and politicians be totally transparent? Sure, yes. Wouldn’t we all behave better if we knew people were watching us at all times? I mean, wouldn’t that mean we’d be our best selves instead of keeping secrets or lying to others? If a corporation could nearly end crime altogether, then shouldn’t we allow it to monitor every aspect of our lives?
Wait. Woah… What?
The saying goes that secret in cooking the frog lies in the incremental increase of temperature which imperceptibly leads to boiling. The tension in The Circle builds with choices in the narrative which seem miniscule at the time. They appear harmless, but—when they are compiled and reach a boiling point—it’s horrifying. That’s exactly the slow building tension which doesn’t translate well from a novel of 491 pages to a movie of 1 hour and 50 minutes.
The thrill, horror, and satire of the slow, logical progression is lost.
Even the boiling point—the climax where the consequences of Mae’s choices become clear—radically changes in the film.
Not to Spoil the Ending, But the Film Did:
The satire of Dave Eggers’s novel focuses upon our consumption of technology in order to lead us towards the realization: something must change—we must realize that our privacy matters and our decisions about technology have consequences
In the novel, Mae’s slow choices lead her to climb in notoriety and influence within the Circle. She competes to attain top “participation” points, eventually becoming a celebrity. These minor choices represent a sort of indoctrination, and when they come to a boil, it’s shocking. The novel ends with Mae sitting beside her best friend, Annie, who is in a coma. As she looks at Annie lovingly, Mae also looks at the monitors for brain activity. She reflects that it is simply wrong that her unconscious friend is not sharing her dreams, and Mae makes a mental note to bring this up to the corporation’s leadership. It is horrifying to see how far Mae has surrendered any concept of privacy, but it makes sense that she would have gotten here from all of her steps along the way. Eggers’s satire shocks the reader into realizing that simple choices about technology may not be meaningless or without consequences after all.
In the film version of The Circle, Emma Watson is empowered to rebel and to break the inevitable omnipotence and omniscience of a corporation that profits on lack of privacy. This time, there’s no coma. Annie simply escapes the company and the pressure. Instead, the surprising death of Emma Watson’s semi-love-interest actually redeems her in the film. The result is that Watson works within the company, to overthrow the problem. It makes for a “nice” ending, but it takes away the power from the entire endeavor.
Emma Watson ends the threat of the total destruction of privacy by forcing the company’s two leaders to “go transparent.” This holds that the solution to the dangerous progression of ultimate transparency (the disappearance of privacy), lies not in identifying the need for privacy but in ensuring that ALL are transparent. The answer to technology is in fact technology.
But doesn’t this miss the point? Where Eggers’s novel leads a reader to see value in privacy and to question technology, the film claims that the answer to the danger of transparency is MORE transparency. How can that work? Instead of pointing out how problematic it can be for humans to be watched 100% of the time, the film holds that in fact if we simply apply it evenly we can overcome any injustice or oppression caused by such a technology.2
Instead of leading the audience towards change or caution, the filmmakers end The Circle with a happy ending: Emma Watson walks literally and symbolically “into the light.” It’s happy, and the audience can all breathe a sigh of relief. Of course, the sigh of relief that the film offers undercuts the protest and power of the novel.
The film not only disappoints, it’s dangerous in doing so, reassuring people when they should not be reassured. Where the novel terrified me into action, the film fell flat, only proving my theory: the book is always better.
Is religious freedom in peril in the United States? Is Trump’s executive order its salvation? Or is religious liberty a cover for bigotry and intolerance?
Trump campaigned as the voice of religion against secularism, and his new executive order certainly reflects that priority: it directs the IRS not to enforce the Johnson Amendment, and moreover would offer “regulatory relief” for conscientious objectors to the contraceptive mandate of the Affordable Care Act.
Just what is the Johnson Amendment? NCR’s Father Reese puts it well:
The Johnson Amendment is named after then-Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson, who was upset that a tax-exempt organization was supporting his opponent during an election. In response, he offered what became known as the Johnson Amendment in 1954, which prohibited nonprofit 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organizations from participating in campaigns for political office. If a tax-exempt organization violates this prohibition, it can lose it tax-exempt status, which means it would be subject to taxation and donations to it would not be tax-deductible.
The Amendment’s origins, which sound a bit like an Opposite Day version of Henry VIII’s founding of the Church of England, have always raised eyebrows, but the real fight has been over principles. For some critics, the Johnson Amendment is an “an illiberal hat-trick undermining the Free Speech Clause, Free Exercise Clause, and Establishment Clause.” For others, it is a vital dimension of the “separation of Church and state.”
What is the likely impact of the order? It’s unclear, but possibly not much. As Reese notes, the IRS has rarely enforced the Johnson Amendment. So defanging the Amendment might not change much of the IRS’ activity. What will be interesting, however, is how churches respond to it… Will it embolden some to become more politically active? And how will politicians respond? Even if getting in the electioneering game is bad for churches, politicians will have a great deal to gain from encouraging churches to do just that.
The provisions for conscientious objectors to the contraception mandate is similarly weak tea:
The Secretary of the Treasury, the Secretary of Labor, and the Secretary of Health and Human Services shall consider issuing amended regulations, consistent with applicable law, to address conscience-based objections to the preventive-care mandate
The bigger question, however, is how this order fits into Trump’s broader administration. Is the Trump administration really serious about cultivating religious liberty broadly so that believers can live out all the teachings of the Gospel? Or is the administration rather interested in scoring political points by advancing the select causes that make the headlines and please conservative elites?
American Public Theology
The merits of Trump’s executive order are disputable. But one thing is certain: religious liberty is a partisan issue in our time. It has seemed to many that religious liberty conflicts with gay rights, or that it is primarily the weapon of conservatives against liberals. Indeed, even most religious Americans are opposed to allowing businesses to refuse services to gay or lesbian persons for religious reasons.
To complicate matters, Americans disagree on the status of religion in the U.S. While once Protestants felt complacent and Catholics were on edge, now evangelical Protestants are more likely than Catholics to see widespread cultural hostility to religion.
In other words, the very idea of religious liberty has become contentious. For many U.S. Catholics, what religious liberty means depends upon their political ideology. But for even more Americans, religious liberty is at best unimportant and at worst a cover for power.
What are we to do in this situation? First, we must recognize that no law is going to settle these disputes about the proper place of religion in public life. Profound shifts in public opinion on religion are underway, and President Trump is not going to change that. Indeed, those who think Trump can somehow save the religious liberty agenda have evidently not seen his approval numbers.
Second, a new conversation in our time about religious liberty is all the more urgent: what is the role of religion in public life, and how do we preserve the liberty of everyone involved? To propose a dialogue, however, is to ask people to get out of their trenches and sit down at the table.
For Catholics’ part, we have much to rethink. The average American Catholic probably thinks that the First Amendment was issued by the Vatican. Indeed, U.S. Catholics are more likely to imbibe their Church-State opinions from American constitutional history than from other Church teaching: from the First Amendment, from Thomas Jefferson’s “wall of separation,” and perhaps most importantly from the post-war Catholic effort to integrate into Protestant America. That integration, like so much in American life, has spun off into left- and right-leaning movements.
There are powerful reasons why conservative Catholics think religious liberty is a problem in this country, and liberal Catholics do not. For many Catholics and Christians more committed to action and social justice, government policies should be judged in terms of their effects upon the poor and marginalized. But Catholics and Christians more committed to life issues are more likely to judge government policies in terms of their effects upon religious organizations. To take an obvious example, the Catholics who were worried about whether “Obamacare” would increase access to health care were not often the same Catholics worried about how it would affect the Little Sisters of the Poor. Overcoming our divides over religious liberty, then, requires us to confront ideological divisions within the church.
It’s hard to believe this now, but John Courtney Murray, SJ described the Religion Clauses as “articles of peace”: they have served to ensure peace between religious groups and protect government and religious bodies from one another. But do the Religion Clauses of the First Amendment still function as “articles of peace”?
And what is the Catholic teaching on the subject? Or, more fundamentally, where would one begin with the question if one didn’t have the First Amendment to rely upon? Where would one begin if the population were no longer primarily Catholics and various Protestant groups, but people of all faiths and none? And where would we begin if the question were not only liberty, but also equality: how can we invoke religious liberty in ways that respect the rights of others?
And so we are back to John Courtney Murray. The solution to our problems cannot just be political: it must be cultural and social.
1. How does the French Presidential Election system work?
- The French directly elect their president every 5 years.
- France has a semi-presidential system where the President leads the executive branch and selects a Prime Minister who is responsible to both houses of Parliament.
- Elections for President take place in a two-round system, where the second round is between only the top two candidates if no clear majority has been won. April 23 was the first round of Presidential Elections and the final round is on Sunday, May 7.
- Within France on the day of the election, no results can be published until polls close. There is also no campaigning after 12am the Friday before the election.
- Power has customarily shifted between the center-left Parti socialiste (PS) and the center-right Les Republicains (LR). Still, France is not exactly like our two-party system because politics is conducted through forming coalitions among multiple parties.
2. Who are the two presidential candidates and their parties?
The two candidates for the May 7 Presidential Election are the winners of April 23’s first-round: Emmanuel Macron (EM: En Marche!) and Marine Le Pen (FN: Le Front national).
Former-Parti socialiste member, Emmanuel Macron later called himself an “independent” but also held ministerial-level positions under President Hollande where he pushed pro-business legislation. He comes from a finance background and has never held an elected office, but is seen as a favorite to win the presidency. Last year, he created En Marche! (Forward!) as a progressive, non-partisan, centrist, pro-market, pro-European Union party. He placed first on April 23rd with 24% of the vote.Embed from Getty Images
Le Front national was founded by Marine Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, and she succeeded him in 2011. In the 2012 elections, she placed third in the first round with almost 18% of the vote. The populist, right (or far-right, depending on one’s view) party has often faced controversy for some of its views and statements on race and history. In 1987 for example, Jean-Marie Le Pen called Nazi gas chambers “a detail” of World War II. Madame Le Pen though is trying to distance herself and her party from such statements. In 2015, she expelled her father from the party and is attempting to further “soften the party’s image,” pushing out neo-Nazi elements as well as explicitly condemning anti-Semitism and racism. Especially under Marine Le Pen’s leadership, the party has grown in strength and popularity, securing victories at the local as well as European Parliamentary level. In her presidential campaign, she has pledged to continue seeking much stricter controls against illegal immigration and to promote secularization, in particular toward religious observances in public spaces. She placed second on April 23 with 21% of the vote.
3. Who got eliminated?
Eleven candidates made it to April 23’s first round. Here are the top two of the nine that were eliminated:
Francois Fillon of Les Republicains served as Prime Minister under former-President Nicolas Sarkozy. He surprisingly won his party’s nomination and described himself as a “Thatcherite.” He is critical of the European Union and hoped to take a tougher stance against terrorism as well as strengthen France’s borders. Once a favorite, March’s “Penelopegate” scandal about paying his wife for a fake job with public money ruined his chances. He placed third on April 23 with 20%; it was the first time the center-right party did not make it to the second round. After the first-round was over, he called Macron to congratulate him on his victory and has revealed that he will vote for Macron as well.
The dark-horse candidate, Jean-Luc Melenchon, placed fourth in the 2012 elections with 11% of the vote. He is a former-Parti socialiste member and is now head of the Parti de gauche (PG – Left Party). The far-left eurosceptic wanted to promote environmental causes, dramatically increase France’s minimum wage, and tax the rich at 100%. His France insoumise (FI – France Unbowed) political platform sought to establish the French Sixth Republic with him as president. He again placed fourth on April 23, this time with 19.6%.
4. Why is the incumbent, Francois Hollande, not running and who replaced him?
At the end of last year, Hollande told his Parti Socialiste that he would not run, which paved the way for Benoit Hamon to win the nomination. Hamon had served under Hollande as Minister of National Education in 2014 but resigned within months. Hamon was also a strong supporter of getting France on renewable energy and said that “[economic] growth has become a pseudo-religion.” Once a top-contender, Hamon’s campaign fell apart for many reasons including being seen as too focused on the future as opposed to more current issues; he placed a distant fifth on April 23 with about 6%.
Francois Hollande is the first president in the history of France’s Fifth Republic (created in 1958) not to seek re-election. His popularity has been as low as 4% but has fluctuated much during his term. People within and outside of his party see him as having drifted away from socialist principles such as with his economic policy. Harsh remarks by Hollande, high unemployment, terrorist attacks and his policy on Syria have contributed to his unpopularity. After the first round, Hollande endorsed Macron.
5. Is this a typical election or something new?
Le Monde called the 2017 election “unprecedented and confusing since the start” which is safe to say because of the quick rise and falls of so many different parties and candidates. Perhaps most surprisingly, neither of the two major parties made it to the final round. Macron’s EM party is only a year old but it has advanced to the final round and he is the favorite to win. Le Pen’s FN too has made serious gains. So, is France moving away from typical de facto two-party (with coalitions) politics between the traditional center-left and the center-right?
With the FN specifically, some argue that its recent rise shouldn’t be surprising. In the 2002 election, the party made it to the final round of the presidential election (though it lost, 17.8% to 82.2%) and in 2012 it came in third in the first round. A few believe that this is the year the populist FN could pull an upset, as seen in the 2016 American elections or the referendum results on the Colombian Peace Agreement. On the other hand, the Austrian election last year is one of example that the strength of the current wave of far-right populism may be waning.
6. How are French people reacting?
The first round of voting was the first to be under a state of emergency due to the November 2015 attacks. Terrorism continues to lead to national feelings of sadness, anger, fatigue, and fear and this has played out in different ways; for example, it has perhaps contributed to the recent increase in Mass attendance in typically secular France.
Political malaise may be up too. France usually has high election turnouts but during the run-up to April 23rd, over 30% said they wouldn’t vote. According to one poll before the first round, these feelings particularly hit the youth with only 55% of 18-24 year olds saying that they would vote in the first round. The actual turnout in the first round, though, was almost 78%, only a little less than the 2012 election (80%). Yet getting to and through the final election, another question to consider is: how will each candidate now seek to form coalitions from among the losers and their supporters, some of whom refuse to support either candidate?
7. How are outsiders reacting?
Shortly after the terrorist attack of April 20, President Trump tweeted that it would likely help Le Pen’s chances. President Putin invited Madame Le Pen to the Kremlin in March and there have also been accusations of Russian interference in the presidential election.
Pro-EU European leaders, including the President of the European Parliament, have urged people to vote for Macron over Le Pen, while Brexit supporters in Great Britain are excited at the prospect of a possible ally in an anti-EU France under Le Pen. As election day approaches, more outsiders will select a candidate to endorse.
8. What are some other implications of the election?
Some of the eliminated candidates were the strongest on the environment so their absence in this round will have obvious serious implications. The candidates’ economic and trade policy too, which is connected to immigration policy, will always have effects on the domestic and global economies. Concretely, the Euro went up when Macron won the first round and markets will continue carefully watching what will happen on May 7.
The FN has continued its rise in France, gaining more support than expected in the first round, even more than in 2002. This is because it has managed to capitalize on feelings in France, in particular regarding the perceived loss of national identity. Though Le Pen is becoming the “human face of the far-right” many are disturbed by her stances on Islam and immigration. Further, her promised referendum on “Frexit” and possible ensuing departure of France, a founding EU member, would very likely lead to the dissolution of the European Union. A victory for her party in the final round may also set off another wave of populism, which would impact Legislative Elections in June and/or strengthen populism’s worldwide movement. Often left out of the conversation though, if Le Pen and her party do win the election, she would be France’s first female president.
Macron, relatively new to politics, has also said that he is willing to change France as necessary. His views appeal more to the center and he continues to seek support around this moderate base. Though less internationally known than Le Pen, his fresh views, as well as the overall un-usual nature of the election up to this point, have already changed a lot in French politics society. So, if he wins, continued change in France and Europe is still guaranteed, though like with Le Pen, exactly how that change will happen can only be a matter of speculation.
Most days at the school begin in the same fashion. I stand in the back of the classroom as the teacher calls attention to the front of the room. Inevitably, a contest breaks out over who can speak louder—each voice requesting to lead the opening prayer. A voice is chosen. The student begins, “In the name of…”
Competing voices emerge in the room at different cadences, each on their own trying to lead the group. The pace is scattered, the volume is raucous, but the words are all the same, “Lord, Teach me to be generous…”
Yet, in the midst of their memorized prayer of generosity, I quietly pray something different. I pray the same words each time I visit the class: God, give me patience. Help me to help them. I don’t know if I’m doing any good here, but I hope so…
He stands in front of me, his chin held up with bravado. My chin is tilted down in order to look him in the eyes. His chest protrudes forward and his feet are firmly planted—it’s a stance of strength.
But, I have a hard time taking him seriously. He is in sixth grade, and I am not. While he is braced in defiance for a fight, I struggle not to laugh at the situation. I’m not as scrawny as I appear; I am nearly a foot taller than him—besides, I must have at least 40 pounds on this kid… Yet, here he is, battlelines drawn in the sand.
He squints slightly, tilting his chin upward. He grins nonchalantly, “I dunk on people like you.”
He punctuates the statement and maintains eye contact. I don’t play basketball. I don’t particularly watch or care about the sport. Yet, I know that’s not why he said it. He said it to prove himself: brazen, defiant, and “his own man.” The line was a challenge to me, a dare. How would I react to such an affront? He waits, staring me in the eye, trying as hard as he can not to blink.
As I see this young man in front of me, I realize how little I understand him: I would have never squared off to a teacher or volunteer in the way he has now. I would never have stood in such a posture, or attempted such an insult… And yet, here he is. A sixth-grader squared off against a man a full head taller, a man wearing a black clerical shirt and white collar. What has he seen or heard in his life to make this OK? What has happened to him? How hard has this kid’s life been?
As I stand in front of him, all I want to do is give him a hug. Damn it—Just be a kid for a little while!
He hasn’t blinked, and neither have I. His grin has faded, “Like LeBron…” He nods to accentuate the claim. Dunk on me, like LeBron, huh?
I smile, intentionally and gently, “Yeah. I bet you could.” My hand instinctively raises to his shoulder, where it rests as I look him in the eye. “Can you have a seat in your desk, please.”
His chin lifts, acknowledging my request. Then, he shrugs. He pivots towards his seat and walks away. It’s clear that it’s on his terms, but I’d like to think he heard me.
A few weeks later, and I’m in the class again. The bell rings. It’s time for lunch, and the students file out in a variation of a stampede. He walks up to me, “Mr. Biro, you coming tomorrow?”
“No. Sorry, I don’t usually come on Friday, remember? I’ll be back on Tuesday, though.”
“Oh… You should come on Fridays, too.”
With that, he walks out the door of the classroom following the rush towards lunch. I straighten the desks, collect the books, and pick up the spare sheets of paper the class has left behind on the ground.
There are plenty of things I’m good at doing, things with concrete results that I can see and measure. Yet at the school, I am just a volunteer—often, I’m just crowd control. It’s only my presence that I offer to the teacher and the students. I have no idea how to measure the effectiveness or return on that investment.
But as I walk out of the school, back to my house, it hits me: He wanted me there. I have no idea why, but he wants me there.
I don’t know what I’m doing right or well at the school, but he wants me there. That feels important, and so I go, I work, I hope, and I trust that I’m doing good—even if it’s all guesswork with mysterious and immeasurable results. But he wants me there, and that is enough for me.
A few days after Easter break, I’m sitting in my theology class. One student raises her hand, and asks if the Resurrection makes a difference to us today. Her voice is tentative, and the professor senses it. He decides to pounce and asks the class, “Does the Resurrection have any significance today?”
Silence. No one speaks. My professor asks the question again. Does the Resurrection have any significance today?
I feel awkward. I should have a quick answer. I certainly think this is important. And yet, like everyone else, I am consumed with an uncomfortable silence.
If we believe in these fifty days of Easter, then it means we believe in the entire life of Jesus – the one that begins with God deciding to be born into poverty. That God takes risks in the world: God ate with social outcasts, healed people who were deemed un-healable, and helped others find self-love and acceptance. That God also called into question the social order, proposing that we might arrange our society in a more welcoming, loving way. But challenging social order is dangerous. As a consequence, resentment built, enemies were made, and that God died a violent criminal death.
Death is an ending. An ending to a life, an ending to an idea, an ending to a movement. For those who were resentful, death meant that society could go back to the way it was before. The ministry of Jesus could be shelved away as a failed-experiment, and business could proceed as usual.
Now enters the power of the Resurrection. That Jesus rose from the dead invalidates business as usual. It means that God still stands with those who are marginalized by the social order. It means that the Christian faith consists of tenderly caring for one another. This happens in community.
If we believe that God intended to reorder our communities so that we might truly care for one another, then the Resurrection has implications for us as individual persons and local communities. One place we might reimagine is our relationship to our Church, a place tasked with helping us navigate this very Gospel message. In our political world and faith communities, it is often easier for us to retreat into our comfortable ideological camps. As sociologist Tricia Bruce writes in her forthcoming book, Parish and Place, we can increasingly silo ourselves into faith communities that offer our favorite version of Catholic faith. Like greater trends in American culture, consequently, we may know few people who have differing practices and ideas about who our Church ought to be. The echo chamber we live in becomes both political and spiritual, and we dismiss the concerns of people who might see the Church differently than ourselves.
Easter prompts us to care for the whole Kingdom of God, the whole Church – to question in what place we stand and who is unwelcome in our communities and in our hearts. Two clear examples come to mind:
- Our Church is doing some powerful work in the world and the nation. Do we stand up for our Christian faith and our institutional Church when genuine threats to religious liberty emerge?
- Our Church makes mistakes in the world, sometimes with painful and long-lasting consequences. Do we recognize these mistakes and call our institutional Church to be more in line with the Gospel?
These two questions tend to polarize the Church into two camps who disagree radically on the answer to it. If you’re like me, these questions are met with the same response as I had in my theology class last week: uncomfortable silence. Yet, that silence is a good: it is an offer to encounter that same God who rose from the dead on Easter Sunday. It is our invitation to listen closely and to discern how we ought to give the Resurrection significance in our communities and nation today.
Image courtesy FlickrCC user fady habib.
There’s been much in the news lately about tense confrontations between airline passengers and the flight attendants doing their best to manage large crowds in narrow spaces. But once in the air, I can enjoy looking out an airplane window, seeing the clouds and landscapes passing by underneath — it is a rarified feeling. I also prefer flying because it is much faster than road travel. A long bus ride is just that — long.
But a recent bus trip was much simpler than most of my plane trips. There wasn’t online check-in 24 hours ahead. No security line. I got to kept my shoes on. No worry about getting space in the overhead bin near my seat. No risk of being dragged off the plane. The trade off, though was I had seven long hours to kill.
Sounds like fun, right?
Seven hours is a long time. But there remains a nostalgia for bus travel. My mind conjures up images from the movies. Planes, Trains and Automobiles, Ghost World, The Graduate and The Fugitive or The Shawshank Redemption. All have scenes of buses traveling. They evoke a sense of freedom, longing, uncertainty, even danger.
The reality, I learned on my trip, is not nearly as dramatic as that. Just ordinary people on a bus. Before all else, bus travel is egalitarian. There is no first class or business class on Greyhound. Not even premium economy. Just people. People getting from point A to point B. A long journey, yes, but not much class warfare once we’re on board.
The journey on a bus is as much an experience as the destination. I know it’s rather cliche to say that, but I had to make the most out of the seven-hour trip. Having a Jesuit companion does help, but we wouldn’t be talking for the entire trip. So without packing my electronic device with three full-length movies, there was only a few other ways left to keep me occupied. Pray, sleep, read, check Facebook, and look out the window.
* * *
As the bus sailed along the interstate, I had front row seats to the passing sceneries outside.There is a constantly changing view outside the window, yet not moving too quickly that I wasn’t able to appreciate it. Rolling hills blanketed in snow, frozen rocky mountainsides dripping with icicles, and bare-boned trees that dotted the countryside. As the bus spun around a turn, a new landscape unfurled, as if just for me. And as I watched this winterscape, I found myself imagining what this part of the world would look like in different seasons. The hills would be covered with the spectacular colors of autumn leaves. Of spring and summer greens.
The bus trip allows me to be taken on a journey through the landscapes that I would normally pass over rather quickly looking down from above. It affords me enough time to savor what I am seeing. The views hold me, keeping me from being distracted by the next trifling thing I might otherwise do to pass the time.
* * *
I can hear you sighing. “But time is money, and I don’t have that kind of time. Yes, it is true we often can’t afford to take a long bus trip, even if it is more affordable than a airplane ride for the same distance. But even if I had flown, I would have to take two flights and a total of five hours of travel to my destination. So it wasn’t costing me that much in the long run.
But on a deeper level, flying begs an important question – what are we willing to do to “save time”? We pay to sit closer to the front of the airplane. We pay to get into the airplane ahead of almost everyone else. We pay money (and forfeit a lot of personal information) to bypass the normal security check and immigration clearance, just to keep our shoes and belt on. We join frequent flyer program to accumulate mileage so we can get upgrades and premier/elite status. We get to use the airline clubs to get away from the hustle and bustle of the ordinary waiting areas. We humblebrag about how we got the lie-flat seat upgrade. We read travel blog article on which credit card that would allow the most transferable frequent flyer points.
Seems like that’s a lot of energy and money spent in the interest of saving time.
Don’t get me wrong. This is not a criticism of the premium frequent flyers and airfare bargain hunters. Everyone needs a hobby, and I did all of that at one stage of life or another. And, what did they give me? A bit less stress and more comfort than the ordinary flyers, I suppose. A couple of (seemingly) freely tickets.
But not until I sat on a Greyhound bus did I realise the absurdity of it all. Of air travel and the things we do to get a little bit ahead. To save a bit more time. To be a little more comfortable. To feel a bit more ‘refreshed’ so I can hit the meeting soon after landing.
No doubt, there are real reasons for all of that. Today, air travel in coach/economy class (notice the terms) with no frequent flyer perks is an unpleasant and stressful experience. So to alleviate or minimize the stress and frustration, and increase time saving, we pay for Early-Bird Check-In and all the little more incremental travel-perks the airlines have invented. We expect to save more time, be more comfortable, and have less stress. But we still have to fly or pay more to get the perks. Money and time separate those who have more and have less, all sitting on the same airplane. But “in the unlikely event of an emergency” those in first class and in economy are going down on the same airplane. An extra few inches of comfort doesn’t amount to much then.
Yet, in the back of my mind is that bit of hope that I still can accumulate enough frequent flyer miles to get an upgrade to a long-haul Qantas business class seat one day. It’s a challenge to change the human nature that drive us to strive to be the elites.
And, what do we do we when we get on the plane? We want to be left alone to our newspapers, our works on the laptop, and our inflight entertainment system. And, when the airplane arrives at its gate, we are all murderously itching to get off the plane. Don’t believe me? Stand in the aisle unloading your overhead slower than you need to, and watch the faces of those trapped behind you flush with anguish and rage.
* * *
By contrast, my no-frills bus trip let me slow down and appreciate the distance and time that it takes to reach a physical destination. The long ride on the bus, other than showing me the landscapes and towns I haven’t passed through before. It has given me the time to idle, to reflect and ask questions without the distraction of trying to keep myself occupied.
* * *
Have we lost sight of time as a gift?
Yes, we can buy more time with our Elite Gold status memberships. But, it is really more about what we do with the time we have, and to whom and what we give it. The experience that came from receiving such gift is more valuable than money can buy.
My bus trip affords me a new perspective on travelling simply. It brought me down from rarified airs to the ordinary ground that I spend the rest of my life on. On this bus, I was with ordinary travellers, where the Elite Gold status didn’t really matter. It was a lesson that took me seven hours to learn — and it was worth every minute.
Cover image from US National Archives, available on Flickr here.
Image of woman on bus by Flickr user Tais Sirole, available on Flickr here.