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Thinking and writing at the intersection of faith and culture. We focus on both sacred and secular issues, and everything in between, because God does too.
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Truth First, Then Reconciliation

Tue, 02/07/2017 - 02:00

Despite having just had eight years with our first (and only) Black president, racism continues to shape so much of the reality in our country. We can see this in the continuing gaps in wealth, education, and incarceration that in some cases have even widened. And so as always, but maybe just more clearly after this election cycle, there is a real need for racial reconciliation. But is that where we’re currently going?   

“Reconciliation” is used in many ways and for many purposes, but its necessary first step is a deep acknowledgement of the truth, no matter how unpleasant or uncomfortable. Catholics know this well from the Sacrament of Reconciliation which teaches us that before we can move forward, we must first examine ourselves to get to the deeper roots behind our sin. Only by courageously admitting the truth of what we’ve done can reconciliation happen. Likewise, in these admittedly scary times, it’s clear that yes, as a country we must work for reconciliation, but we need to also realize that this can’t happen until we are willing to fully face our country’s intensely racist past.

 

How We Look Back

What are some of the damaging and false ways we look back on the past that prevent reconciliation in the present? I remember my introduction to the “good and evil” lens with which we learned about the Civil Rights Movement in elementary school. There were the clear good guys (“us”: more advanced, progressive Northerners) and the clear bad guys (“them”: backwards, bigoted Southerners) as our textbooks encouraged us to forget the deeper, messier realities. I was grateful, for example, to learn about events like the desegregation of public schools in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. The sad irony, lost on me at the time, was that everyone in my class pretty much looked the same.  

Thankfully, I had dedicated teachers who taught us to dig deeper into our history to get to the truth of what really happened. For example, what is not often taught in Civil Rights History is that Dr. King also marched in Chicago as part of the fight to desegregate housing. After facing continuously brutal violence while marching in all-white neighborhoods he said: “I’ve been in many demonstrations all across the South, but I can say that I have never seen – even in Mississippi and Alabama – mobs as hostile and as hate-filled as I’ve seen here in Chicago.”

But aren’t Northerners supposed to be the good guys?

Another way we can look at the past is through the “good old days” lens, which holds that at some point everything was great in America. The problem with this view is that it has little grounding in truth and it tends to whitewash the serious wrongdoings on which our country was built. A clear example of this was in 2010, when the Texas Board of Education approved certain changes in their history curriculum. One such change was the subtle renaming of “slaves” to “workers.” If not for the objections of a concerned student and his mother, this change could have remained, erasing the reality and legacy of the millions stolen to build our country.

Side stepping or simplifying the truth is more attractive because it’s easier, at least in the short term. It’s definitely easier than facing hard realities like hearing James Baldwin (quoting Malcolm X) remind us, “the most segregated hour in American life is high noon on Sunday.” It’s more comfortable to proclaim “color-blindness” or to tweet #alllivesmatter than seek to understand why too many in power act as if Black lives don’t matter. But when we replace the truth with lazy, simplistic, or inaccurate history, we can’t possibly begin to work toward reconciliation. This is because reconciliation doesn’t magically happen; we have to work for it in truth.

 

An Example of Reconciliation

In the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide of 1994, the new government was faced with the question of how to heal in a country where many perpetrators and survivors still lived side by side. Given the choice between overburdened courts and indiscriminate revenge, the new government chose to revive a traditional, community-based justice system called Gacaca (“justice among the grass”). Here, local tribunals would determine the truth of what happened with the help of witness testimony in the hopes that the country as a whole would reconcile. Though not perfect, this process is conducted with brutal honesty, in the communities where the killings took place, and in the presence of the survivors. The result for many communities in the country has been peace, renewed trust and long-awaited closure. I don’t pretend to know the difficulties of this experience, but it seems that without it, 1994 would likely have been just another chapter in a book of ethnically-fueled mass murders.

Gacaca is just one example. There are other such structures, as well as dedicated individuals and groups, rooted in the recognition of truth that have helped communities and countries move forward in authentic reconciliation when times seemed darkest.

 

Moving Forward

Reconciliation is tough and takes hard work. But, if we hope to truly reconcile, there’s no other way but to look honestly and critically at our history. Then we need to embrace the messiness of its truth.

Whatever our political views, we’ve become too willing to allow facts and reality to be changed because they make us ashamed. However, the consequences of this are clear if we have the courage to look. This goes for racial divisions as well as the many other fault-lines that we pretend not to see, but which still hurt people. If we keep allowing the truth of our past, the truth of how we really got here, to be distorted for any agenda, the cycle is guaranteed to continue and there will never be actual reconciliation.

****

Cover image courtesy FlickrCC user Michael Coghlan, found here.

Categories: Things Jesuit

A Super Bowl Comeback to Dignity and Inclusion: Did You Catch It?

Mon, 02/06/2017 - 02:00
Embed from Getty Images

In the light of the seemingly constant political and social conversation which has been ongoing for nearly a month, it comes as no surprise that Super Bowl LI would have political and social statements… BUT, who could have predicted the extent?

These weren’t simply anti-Trump ads; in fact, any direct reference to him was noticeably lacking. Rather, something more happened—and I’m not talking about the historic comeback of the Patriots.

Artists made subtle statements with their actions, companies advocated for inclusion and decency, and the overall tenor of advertisers was directly opposed to fear and anger. All combined into a concerted effort to shift the national conversation: towards hope, towards togetherness, and towards a more positive tone.

In the midst of all the plays and the crazy comeback, did you fumble the message or did you catch it? Here’s a top almost-ten re-cap of a different kind of comeback.

1. Papa Francisco!

Sunday morning, Papa Francis encouraged us to look at the Super Bowl as “a sign of peace, friendship and solidarity.” His video started the tone of encouragement which continued throughout the night.  

2. Singing of “Sisterhood”

Several stars from the award-winning musical Hamilton, took the stage before the national anthem. In magnificently singing “America the Beautiful” they extended the language for inclusion: “And crown thy good with brotherhood, and sisterhood, from sea to shining sea.”

3. Budweiser Advocates for the Immigrant: “Born the Hard Way.

At first, the commercial shows a young man coming to America. We have an Ellis Island-type of introduction: passports, long lines, a lack of welcome, insults, even a fire on a riverboat… and then, an American staple: Anheuser-Busch. While the commercial stretches the story of the founding of brewery, it does emphasize the fact that we are nation of immigrants. Our greatness, our identity, and even our staples lie in that diversity.

4. Lady Gaga’s Patriotism and Embrace

Often the halftime show begins with one of the headlining artist’s best-selling songs. So when Lady Gaga launches the halftime show singing “God Bless America” and “This Land is Your Land” on the roof of NRG stadium with drone-created red, white, and blue background floating in the sky: it’s a statement. She stands overlooking the stadium and the Houston skyline—and by extension the United States of America. But then she took it a step further. She ends her rooftop entrance with a thesis statement cribbed from the Pledge of Allegiance: “One Nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” All of her performance will be a message as desiring unification and inclusion. Grounded in her faith and patriotism, her statement is not one of criticism or cynicism, but one of hope.

For all of the dancing and pyrotechnics and costumes and jumping off of the roof of the stadium, the image that most haunts from her performance comes at the end of “Million Reasons.”  The hope-drenched song ends with her walking into the crowd, holding and hugging a young (brown) woman while the chorus’s command to “stay” echoed through the stadium. The implications of Lady Gaga’s action are clear: go embrace the stranger.

5. Coke’s “Oh Beautiful.”

The chorus is haunting and elegant, as they sing “America the Beautiful” with multiple voices and in multiple languages. It’s not a new advertisement—it originally appeared in 2014, and that in itself makes a powerful statement. Coca-Cola purposely chose to highlight the diverse makeup of the beauty of America. It’s an invitation to look at what makes our country great: each other.

6. #WeAccept: AirBnB’s Many Faces

Airbnb’s commercial features a collage of faces, slowly changing, and including different hair color, eye color, genders, races, etc… There are no words spoken, but a message slowly appears before the faces: “We Believe no matter who you are, where you’re from, who you love, or who you worship, we all belong. The world is more beautiful the more you accept.” The message and the faces are accompanied by a gentle, echoing piano. Ending with the hashtag #weaccept, it is a striking statement of both encouragement and inclusion.

7. 84 Lumber: “The Journey Begins” & “The Full Journey.”

Easily the most political, this ad is also the most moving. The Journey Begins shows a little girl and her mother making their way into the United States. It begins with a sense of destitution and desperation, opening with the girl and her mother waking up in “their house” which is one step up from a shed. As they travel, we see intense hardship punctuated with intimate moments of joy between the mother and daughter. We also see the little girl grabbing little plastic bits of red, white, and blue garbage. Only half of their story aired on television.

The Full Journey continues, showing further hardship and stress in a desert. Interspersed in their journey, brief images appear of men working construction. The mother and daugher eventually arrive at an impossibly high wall. In that moment, the mother starts to cry and the daughter pulls from her bag an American flag made from the bits of plastic she had gathered along the way. As the mother and the daugher cling to one another, they hear a truck of one of the construction workers driving away. They run towards the noise and find a door. Together they push it open, light washes over them baptizing them in newness and hope. The camera then moves to the truck driving away, and the commercial ends with the text: “The will to succeed is always welcome here.”

8. Morgan Freeman’s Delight in our Differences: Turkish Airlines

Perhaps it’s my deep affinity for Morgan Freeman’s voice or perhaps it’s the depth of the words contained in this 45 second advertisement, but I find the tone of the message striking. Freeman identifies “those of us” who explore with a “sense of wonder” and those “bridging worlds” and “finding delight in our differences.” He then turns that identification into an invitation, “to widen your world.” It appeals to a sense of adventure but also to the genuine depth with which we need to meet others in order to learn more about them. Instead of protesting, the tone of the message is one which invites us to enter deeper into encounter with the other.

9. Google Home: Images of Life, Home, and Togetherness

It may seem strange to close the list with this piece, but the images are so striking in the video that I cannot help but point to more occurring below the surface. It’s a simple premise behind the advertisement: Google Home helps you with life. To express this, Google shows moments of coming home, people laughing, surprise parties, father-daughter laughter, cooking advice, and greetings. Families of diverse cultural and racial backgrounds appear, but that actually matters less than what they are doing. It’s the images which are striking: it’s just people living, people of diverse backgrounds simply, joyfully living. This ordinariness and joy echo both an appeal to “go and live” and a reminder to us of what matters: family and friends. In the midst of all the tense political and social conversation as of late, Google’s commercial reminds us of each other. It reminds us that we can find comfort, life, and joy in those we love. It’s a message which certainly we need to hear more often.

Categories: Things Jesuit

A Review of Unfortunate Events

Fri, 02/03/2017 - 02:00

If you are interested in articles with happy endings, you would be better off reading something else. In this article, there is no happy ending, no happy beginning, and very little that is happy or spoiler-free in the middle. This is because not many happy things happen in A Series of Unfortunate Events. My name is Sean Barry, and it is my solemn duty to review this series.

***

It is fair to say that I am not a very good person to offer a review on Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. This is because I approached it with a great deal of “nostalgic bias,” a term which here means that I read the books on which the series is based as a child and they were some of my favorite stories.  

I first ran across the books by happenstance at a school book fair when I was either in fifth or sixth grade. I quickly devoured the books, partially because they were easy reads but also because I found something of value visiting a world where tragic misfortune is not the end. Each book follows the three Baudelaire orphans, Violet, Klaus, and Sunny, as they find themselves in many unfortunate situations, as the title would suggest.

If you’re unfamiliar with the books, the antagonist is Count Olaf — Neil Patrick Harris at his best — the Baudelaires’ first guardian after they become homeless orphans at the hands of a fire. He is constantly after their considerable family fortune which will only be available to them once Violet, the eldest, comes of age.  Count Olaf will stop at nothing to get his hands on their inheritance, even killing several of the Baudelaires’ guardians in his mad quest.

He is a sickening character. He thinks only of himself and has the singular focus of stealing their fortune. In contrast, the children simply try to grow up together in a world where nothing is stable for them. They earnestly care for each other, as well as the others around them. And, I loved seeing how the siblings use their talents to better work together and foil his plans at every turn. But, with each successive plot, the circumstances grow more dire and their escape even more tenuous. It is clear that they are never going to completely escape the Count, so how do they adapt?  How can they survive?

When I was young, these books gave me a sense of hope 1—No matter what evils or unfortunate events befell the Baudelaire children, there was an underlying sense of hope that they would manage to overcome them, though that hope dimmed with each successive book.  At the same time, the mystery and intrigue of their world grew. Why does the tattoo on Count Olaf’s ankle continue to show up? How are all of these guardians related to the children?  Who really were their parents?

I found the books fun despite their dark scenarios, and the series neatly captures the darkness and the fun. In the first episode of the Netflix series, Count Olaf says to the children, “You may think I am a terrible person. You haven’t the faintest idea.” Even as this gets fleshed out through the Count’s heinous actions in the books, the other dark elements, the vile characters, and the unfortunate circumstances … it’s still a testament that good can overcome evil. No matter how much power evil seems to have, it is conquerable. In addition, the books taught me how others make pain and misery bearable.

The Netflix series does a marvelous job of capturing these feelings. The scenarios are ridiculous but never out of the realm of possibility, such as Count Olaf pretending to be a sea captain on a lake. (None of the adults can identify him). At times the plot can feel rushed or jokes can fall flat, but the series does a beautiful job of expressing the world the Baudelaire children inhabit. I eagerly await the adaptation of the next books in the series.

***

Of course, I would like to see the children find a stable home in the midst of this series.  But that’s not how the story goes. They are doomed to continue this series for an unlucky thirteen tales. If this scenario bothers you, then I suggest you look away and find something more cheerful to occupy your time such as enjoying a walk through the park or some other whimsical activity where misfortune cannot interfere.

Categories: Things Jesuit

Being Black in White America

Thu, 02/02/2017 - 02:14

African-American History Month started yesterday. Founded in 1926 as an annual week in February, it was expanded in 1976 to encompass the entire month. Wasn’t one week enough? Do we need an entire month to acknowledge the presence of African-Americans in American culture and society?

Given the history of African-Americans, the answer must be yes.

***

Let’s recall that history. First, Africans were hunted and captured throughout the African continent. Second, they were forced into crowded slave ships that sailed across the Middle Passage to the Americas. Third, they were transformed into chattel to be sold on an auction block into slavery. This process reduced to animals to be owned by white persons, and created a social order literally built on the marginalization of the black race.

Fourth, when they were finally freed from slavery and began to rebuild their lives, they faced lynching, segregation, and Jim Crow laws which rendered them equal to dogs. It was only in the 1960s’ that legislation eliminated Jim Crow laws. That means African Americans have only been considered fully equal under federal law for 52 years.

If we look at a timeline from 1618 to today, those 52 years of legal equality correspond to 13% of African-American history.1

***

Given the continued racism that perpetuate their unequal opportunities, it’s not surprising that scholars like Charles Mills argue that our country is a white supremacist society.

I know: this term is really controversial. When we think “white supremacist,” we have images of the KKK from the 1950’s and fringe neo-nazi groups today. Mills is making a different argument. “Supremacy” here is a synonym for superiority. Clearly pre-1965 whites were seen to be superior to blacks. But what makes this argument different today from the standard KKK image is that African Americans are socialized to see themselves as less-human than other people.

What does this mean, less human? It means that because of media imagery, police brutality, neighborhood inequality, and inferior schools, black children grow up having to negotiate what it means to be black in a society that privileges all images of white persons. It means negotiating complex feelings about oneself, because the dominant imagery renders them not equally human – because they are not equally white.

This is admittedly a really complex thing to grapple with, and certainly it is one I deeply struggle with. Am I truly part of a white supremacist society, one that always sees whites as superior to anyone else – including myself as an ethnic minority?

I, though not white, grew up believing that being white was the superior, more American way to be. This was not taught to me by my family, but inherited via school, the television shows I watched, and the books I read. Should I have learned about the African-American experience, it was on the fringe for this one month each year. This is not just a sad story for African- Americans, but for all of us. When I began to question my own assumptions about society, I didn’t want to give up my image of the superior white idol. Untangling my assumptions was painful because it meant I am implicated in a structure of white supremacy – and I must constantly wrestle with it – even today.

But that is precisely my call, and, I believe, our call as fellow Americans. As a nation, we cannot continue to live with the false idol that one (white) group is superior to all others, for this impedes our own journey as humans. To be fully human is to be a person who is free of labels that lower one’s status. It also means to be free of needing to subjugate others to build one’s own identity.

Said another way, this African-American History Month is about recognizing the struggles blacks have had and the system of white supremacy that made black and non-black lives possible.

It’s about questioning how I understand who counts as the ideal American, and patriotically pledging to wrestle with this in my engagement in all aspects of my life. That includes working against social structures that perpetuate the racial hierarchy.

This is a difficult task, perhaps utopian in its goal. Yet until our black brothers and sisters are not formed to think they are existentially “less than,” coupled with breaking away from the subconscious belief that white people are superior, then none of us will ever be free.

Categories: Things Jesuit

Sitting With A Stranger: On Injury and Empathy

Wed, 02/01/2017 - 02:09

“That’s not my name,” I shouted, “My name is Damian!” I was angry. Maybe there were tears, I can’t remember, but I remember shouting a third grade shout. “Leave me alone!”

“Okay, Taco Paco.”

“Stop!” I yelled.

“Whatever, Burrito Pete.”

“My name is DAMIAN!”

“No, your name is Poop Crusty!” They laughed a third grade laugh, piercing and volatile and mean.

“That’s not my name!” Now there were tears. My skin was being compared to feces. I may have been eight but I understood the insult. I tried to be strong, but sometimes I just couldn’t be.

At my well-to-do Catholic grade school I was one of a handful who had brown or black skin, the only one in my class. I was also very shy and overweight. I was slow at reading. I still solved math problems by counting on my fingers. The Payless shoes I wore didn’t compare to the name brands running around at recess. And I felt more comfortable playing hopscotch and foursquare than touch football.

I wasn’t aware how these attributes made me different until my classmates taught me. It was like a real life game of, “One of These Things is Not Like the Other.” I never had a chance to fit in. Those kids made me into an eight-year-old with handicaps, a fatso, retard, hobo, stupid gay-wad. I was pushed around, spat on and laughed at; bullied, by any other name. Teachers said it was just boys being boys, kids being kids. “You need to toughen up,” one teacher said. I may have been a kid, but those words weren’t comforting coming from an adult.  

***

A few years back I witnessed a homeless man being shoved around by teenagers. My heart sank and my legs sprang into action, running towards the scene, shouting: “Stop! Stop!” A levee of emotion burst and I began shoving these kids to the ground. They ran away, and I saw the man’s ashy face streaked with tears, his change cup ripped and money strewn about. As he collected himself and his things, we spoke. Actually, it was more like…we sat. Something in me didn’t want to leave him alone.

The distance between me and where he decided to sit expressed the deep distrust of strangers.  He was beside himself, rife with tears and audible cries. Eventually I said something. I can’t remember what exactly, probably some comment on the weather. Whatever I said, it was a place to begin. Gradually, the gap between us narrowed. I learned about his dreams of wanting to own a barbershop. He had three kids and an ex-wife, Lucy. He had an obsession with washing his hands and sneaking pumps of lotion from the Walgreens down the street. And being harassed by kids wasn’t new to him.

From the trembling of his voice I imagined a heart already too shattered to break, almost eviscerated by the teasing and taunting of teenagers. To be homeless wasn’t a requirement to understand this man’s grief. All I could do in that moment was offer dignity and companionship. To do that, I drew from the afflictions in my own life story to grasp the emotion of what he was going through. Two hours and a Subway sandwich later, we parted.

***

My experiences at the well-to-do Catholic grade school branded themselves into my psyche.They’ve informed the ways I’ve engaged my world, my relationships, and my self-understanding. It’s taken an enormous amount of time to mend the damage and nurse the bruises. But I’ve recognized more and more, with damage and bruises comes a kind of sensitivity –  a sensitivity for myself and even more, a sensitivity for others.

I could hear suffering and loneliness,  anguish and misery from that homeless man. The course of his life made these feelings particular to him. But the particulars of these sentiments in my own life gave me the ability to sit with him, to hold his hand through tears and stretches of silence as he gathered his thoughts and felt his way through the pain. I was able to listen to him beyond words, because his pain was in his heart and I understood.  

There are many instances where I find myself drawn to people pushed to the edges of society. I recognize myself in their shoes even if the shoes I’m wearing are a different color. My life includes wonderful memories and beautiful, life-altering moments. But it also includes profound rejection and hurt. Pain I didn’t want, but pain I received.

So if I can, I’ll confront a name-caller. I won’t tell anyone they need to toughen up if life is getting hard. I’ll create an atmosphere of inclusion with whomever is in my presence. And if someone tries to shove me to the ground because of who I am, I have hope a stranger will fend them off, sit with me, and maybe buy me a sandwich.

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The cover image, from pexels.com, can be found here.

Categories: Things Jesuit

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