February 27, 2006

Guest Blog: The Hungry Multitude in the Age of Mass Culture

Witnessing in a crowd has a particular role to play. As when Jesus dispensed the five loaves and two fishes that fed the crowd of hundreds, sharing actually proliferates and foments grace among individuals until it affects the people around them. The miracle is that in sharing, good things actually multiply until they fill every hungry mouth.

If you believe an active group can accomplish more than individuals in isolation, that it can build up individual courage, and allow individual talents to shine, then you believe in aggregated witness.

So I'd like to share two examples from my own work.

The first has to do with bloggers and readers, just like the guest blog you're now reading. The Internet allows a special kind of witness, making it possible for you, the reader, to create your own witness in response to mine, instantly.

The second has to do with activities afoot right now among Progressive Christian activists, by which I mean both those concerned about addressing issues like poverty from within church congregations, and those who would prevail upon Christians to make issues like poverty matter once more in American politics. Their witness intends to begin direct and tangible appearances in American society within the next year.

For the hunger that haunts America is at once physical hunger in the shape of the 37 million Americans who live in poverty, the one million added each year, those who live down the very street each of us live on who by some accident, injury, or mistake will be unable to feed their families -- and a spiritual hunger, in the form of fake religion, fake compassion, fake values, fake diplomacy, and fake dialogue.

Both hungers are worsened in the age of mass media, where it has been, until recently, all but impossible for voices of compassion to break through the white noise of fake Christians, empty values, and the politics of blind-eye-turning to human cruelty.

Witnessing on the Internet

When witnesses come to town, souls wake up. The Internet brings witness to everyone's town. Bloggers serve a role that itinerant ministers played in the age of John Wesley.

Wesley's Methodist circuit riders took the gospel by horseback to poor miners and farmers who never before had the opportunity to engage Christian teachings. The long-term result of their work was what we call the Progressive Era of politics, a sudden boom of concern for the poor. Progressive politicians got poor children out of the mines and into schools; they passed acts to protect divorced and abused women; they legalized unions, and laid the foundations for Civil Rights.

Spreading information to people who don't have access to it creates the possibility for working together among people who have hitherto been suppressed by powerful, entrenched interests.

Bloggers write because they've been transformed. People respond because they're moved by witnessing such a transformation. Street Prophets, the major discussion board for progressive religion, regularly gets fifty comments to a single post, of which there may be twenty a day. The newspapers of America regularly report on the expansion of bloggers and blog-readers -- getting and sharing information this way is becoming part of everyday life for many people. The bloggers at Sollicitudo Rei Socialis and throughout the Progressive Christian Bloggers Network are actively testifying to the power of witness, so much so that the stranger who googles the phrase "Christian Blogger" learns first about Progressive Christians at work, not about Pat Robertson. As the patterns of reading and sharing on the Internet expand, the power of this form of witness will continue to expand.

Aggregating the Witnesses

Sneaking links into this information is powerful: it means that if you find one blog, soon you know that there's a movement, whether or not the blog explicitly tells you so. Information in the same place is also good for encyclopedia-like power to search under topics -- that's what Google did for all the information on the Net, but also what Progressive Christians could do for Progressive Christian sermons and blogs.

Finally, shared information means helping collaborate in the most basic senses -- at the moment, the National Council of Churches and Sojourners only know about each other's events, lobbying, press releases, and mailing lists haphazardly. To plan for greater numbers at their turnouts, greater participation in their conferences, and greater effect behind their important lobbies, they, as well as smaller groups and tiny blogging communities and Sunday School clubs, need to share.

CrossLeft.org is one example of an aggregator that seeks to network Progressive Christian work. CrossLeft newsstreams pull together hundreds of Progressive Christian blog headlines into a dozen different streams (clergy's personal stories, just politics, mostly theology, etc.), so that after an event like the horrible bombings in Samara, you can literally watch as reactions spread through the Progressive Christian community: prayers are posted, political Jeremiads are delivered, proposals for relief mooted, all by bloggers and their readers.

Aggregation is powerful because it enables individuals to feel that they're not alone, and shows strangers that we inhabit a neighborhood of other people with similar experiences.

CrossLeft is only one form of aggregation. Co-blogging, like the Sollicitudo Rei Socialis guest blog and the regular Progressive Faith Blog Carnival, is another way. This form of aggregation brings strong voices into the same room, and offers real quality to readers. Discussion boards like StreetProphets are yet another way of showing numbers and solidarity. Linking to each other's sites is also a good way for people with weblogs to testify to the fact thay they're in community with other people whose work they value.

For people who run organizations, conference calls are another way of sharing. Live conferences for denominations is another.

Individuals can also share information, wisdom, and experience, just by letting others know what they're up to. Even without a blog, you can share sites and articles you found valuable, by noting what you've been looking at with the tag PROCHRIST (PROgressive CHRISTian) on information sharing sites like Del.icio.us and Flickr, which let individuals tell the world which websites or pictures they're looking at. Going to a local church where there are people you feel comfortable with is another great way to share. There's no one way to share, but the sharing is vital to our life as a community.

In the faces of other members of the church, we see Christ's own features; in the charitable works of their hands, in every loving word or comment exchanged, we feel the loving touch of Christ's own hands.

From Aggregation to Agenda: The Progressive Christian Leadership Summit, Feb. 4-5, 2006

In the name of aggregation, CrossLeft recently held a summit of activist leadership in San Francisco.

We had fifty leaders of Progressive Christian organizations; new groups in Nevada and Oregon; solid think tanks from the Washington, D.C. beltway; ninety-year-old crowds like the million-person California Council of Churches.

Our goal was to put on the table the values, issues, and actions that Progressive Christians are working toward. We wanted to find the political issues and cultural ideas that had the greatest purchase in American culture.

We wanted to review what everyone was doing, and to choose a couple of big actions for collaboration that represented issues everyone cared about. We wanted to get as many organizations as possible to sign up to help participate in these actions.

You can read an overview of the values, issues, and actions we talked about on the CrossLeft site. You will eventually be able to access a database of groups' strengths, weaknesses, and contact information.

Essentially, the summit allowed us to point to what, to the best of our knowledge, represents the five big actions the Progressive Christian Movement will be working on in 2006. These are:

  • To elect Progressive Christians to office, principally through the distribution of Christian Values Voting Guides;

  • To oppose the Iraq War, especially through church school programs and adult study toolkits;

  • To map moderate-to-progressive churches and Progressive Christian organizations;

  • To establish a national network of Progressive Christian groups on college campuses;

  • To engage in protests and lobbying focusing on the budget as a moral document.

CrossLeft suggested, and will promote, a very straight-forward plan for accountability. On top of each action is one coordinator, a representative from some activist group. The coordinator's job is to keep calling and writing all groups, from Sojourners to the local church, who are involved with the coordinator's particular project. The coordinator will ask them to brainstorm together, share resources, think about areas where their work is redundant, and think about what still needs to be done.

Our disorganization and isolation is the single biggest factor working against the Progressive Christian Movement. Collaboration across organizations is difficult, and it's never really been tried before in the Progressive Christian Movement, where Methodists work with Methodists and not Episcopalians, and peace activists work with peace activists and not homeless advocates.

The reason we're so dispersed is a throwback to the sudden way we came to meet each other: many participants in the summit confessed that they had an "aha" moment on or around 9/11. Thus, many of the organizations that showed up are only a year old or less, although some are already powerhouses like the above-mentioned California Council of Churches. The flourishing of a new generation of activists is a testament to the times, and a witness to growing interest in the movement and its work.

The new generation needs to learn how to work together. Only when we understand who's out there and what they're working on will these attempts to put together large movement-wide collaboration come together.

Only with the best and brightest of all backgrounds can we really begin to develop strategies to win cultural battles, to break through the fortress of the media, to defeat the idiom of right-wing pseudo-Christian politics for good, and to win back real territory for Christian values.

That's why we need you to read and to witness, in whatever form your calling takes you. Witnessing is the work that brings the broken pieces of God's body together.

Let that witness be about sharing information, spreading the loaves and fishes through the entire crowd, until so great a multitude is transformed that the faith will last another thousand years.

A Call to Witness: Lent

The last month's several shared blogs and the San Francisco summit both set the course for an experiment in movement that will be taking off in the next several weeks, even while the church invites Christians to participate in one of the great religious rituals of collective discernment through Lent.

Lent is an invitation for the individual to take some comfort and offer it up to God. That action, in its act of pure, arbitrary will, makes room for the individual to change according to a greater plan.

There are many individual readers who feel discouraged and isolated, fed up with American politics and the culture of the self, hungry for political change, and unsure of where to give their talents. Even among bloggers and organizers, there is legitimate concern about how to best strategize with each other, that our poor, solitary efforts should amount to more than a futile series of protests.

Let me therefore offer, in the spirit of sharing and inspiration, a very small spiritual practice in the form of a meditation, which may be engaged as part of a Lenten discipline.

  1. What issues do I personally feel most moved about?

  2. What is it that the movement itself needs to succeed, regardless of where my own talents or inclinations lie?

  3. What form of working with others allows me to share the most good?

The first question is extremely personal, the innate emotional pull of where an individual is at the moment. The second is detached and political, even theoretical -- what form of action would produce the desired change, by any means, at any cost? The last question, of where the individual fits, moves back to what the individual in question can do to change at this very moment.

This is a circular movement, from the personal to the selfless and back to the personal. It mirrors a form of Lenten practice in confession, self-denial, waiting for discernment, and final return to a re-awakened everyday practice.

Sharing relies on noting the self and leaving the self, then leaving the strategy to return back to life. This is a form of witness to which the Progressive Christian Movement, on the Internet and in the board room, immediately aspires.

May we enter then, together, into this season of Lent, conscious of the great multitude which waits to be fed, conscious of our own hunger, as of our talents, and of the miracle of sharing, manifesting even now among us.

- - -

Jo Guldi is the Communications Director for CrossLeft, a strategy clearing-house and central hub for grassroots activism among Progressive Christians. She is a PhD student in history at Berkeley, a former Gates Scholar at Trinity College Cambridge, and a graduate of Harvard College. Jo is a member of the Episcopal Church of the Advent of Christ the King in San Francisco.

February 23, 2006

Gaudium et Spes 20

Gaudium et Spes continues its analysis of atheism:

Modern atheism often takes on a systematic expression which, in addition to other causes, stretches the desires for human independence to such a point that it poses difficulties against any kind of dependence on God. Those who profess atheism of this sort maintain that it gives (people) freedom to be an end unto (themselves), the sole artisan and creator of (their) own history. They claim that this freedom cannot be reconciled with the affirmation of a Lord Who is author and purpose of all things, or at least that this freedom makes such an affirmation altogether superfluous. Favoring this doctrine can be the sense of power which modern technical progress generates in (humankind).

I think there is the lure of technology, yes. I wonder how much reliance on human independence is a staking out of personal independence in response to the experience of injustice. In other words, "Now that I'm finally free of my ... abuser/corrupt government/the people who tried to keep me down"--fill in the blank--" and God wasn't with me in any of this, why should I lean on him now?"

Not to be overlooked among the forms of modern atheism is that which anticipates the liberation of (people) especially through his economic and social emancipation. This form argues that by its nature religion thwarts this liberation by arousing ... hope for a deceptive future life, thereby diverting him from the constructing of the earthly city. Consequently when the proponents of this doctrine gain governmental rower they vigorously fight against religion, and promote atheism by using, especially in the education of youth, those means of pressure which public power has at its disposal.

They're talking marxism, right?

The marxists certainly hammered away on the passive approach to life's problems: "Just wait till you die and heaven awaits in the next life." Of course that would be unsatisfactory. Not necessarily from a selfish view, but even from the view of wanting a better life for one's neighbors, friends, and even one's children.

Blind spots and black holes

Great op/ed piece by David Hirst, the Guardian reporter from the Middle East for like, a gazillion years, about how the Hamas victory exposed a giant blind spot in U.S. foreign policy.
It has long been said that in so far as Arabs and Palestinians ever formally accommodated themselves to Israel it was Arab despotism, not democracy, that made it possible. To be sure, Arab public opinion might have been moving away, if only in the weariness of repeated defeat, from the all-pervading "rejectionism" of the conflict's earlier stages, but never far enough for those rulers who did make peace with Israel to do so with anything seriously resembling a popular mandate. "Israel," said Aluf Benn in the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz, "could always do business with Arab dictators, a barrier protecting it from the rage of the 'Arab street'. That was the basis of the peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan, Yasser Arafat and his heirs and the rules vis-a-vis Syria and Lebanon. But those days are over. Henceforth Israel will have to factor into its foreign policy something it has always ignored - Arab public opinion."

...If there is a chance of checking the resurgence of Palestinian and Arab rejectionism, it is by checking the persistent rejectionism of the other side and getting Israel to accept what in practice it never has: that very partial restitution of Palestinian national rights embodied in the Oslo accords and their two-state formula..."
I think a return to Oslo is fi mismish, as they'd say in Eygpt -- so not gonna happen. But Hirst's point that the US and Israel are going to have to stop their own rejectionism of Arab public will is well taken. Hamas may eventually get around to recognizing Israel, but not until they know they're going to get some real recognition in return.

And then there's a scary piece from Alternet about a new Army Corps of Engineers contract with Halliburton via KBR for the construction of detention centers in the U.S. in the event of "an emergency influx of immigrants into the U.S., or to support the rapid development of new programs."

New programs? Dare I even ask? ::shiver::

February 21, 2006

Partial Birth Abortion

The Supreme Court today agreed to hear Gonzales v. Carhart, a case on the constitutionality of the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act passed by the 108th Congress in 2003. Three lower courts have ruled that the ban is unconstitutional because it does not include an exception for the health of the mother, even though nine years of congressional investigations have revealed that partial birth abortion is never necessary for the health of the mother.

It's possible (perhaps even likely) that the Supreme Court will overrule the lower courts and uphold the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act. The last Supreme Court decision on partial birth abortion struck down a Nebraska state ban in Stenberg v. Carhart -- Justice Sandra Day O'Connor was the deciding vote in that 5-4 decision, and it's likely that her successor, Justice Samuel Alito, will swing the court in favor of the dissent which held that Nebraska's ban on partial birth abortion was constitutional. Of course, this is also dependent upon Chief Justice Roberts sticking with the dissenting opinion of the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist.

Planned Parenthood has responded to the Supreme Court's decision to hear Gonzales v. Carhart, referring to the decision as "a dangerous act of hostility aimed squarely at women's health and safety." Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood, added references to "judges far outside the mainstream" and "anti-choice politicians" for safe measure -- even though most Americans oppose partial birth abortion. Unfortunately, Ms. Richards did not address the argument involved in Gonzales v. Carhart, that Congress has already determined that partial birth abortion is never necessary for the health of the mother and that a provision for the health of the mother would therefore be superfluous. Maybe far-left rhetoric will win the battle for partial birth abortion in the court of public opinion and maybe it won't, but I doubt that it will carry much weight with any serious jurist concerned about upholding the law rather than appeasing Planned Parenthood.

The fact of the matter is this: Almost a decade of congressional investigation has determined that partial birth abortion is never necessary to preserve the health of the mother, meaning that partial birth abortion is an unnecessary and barbaric abortion procedure which actually takes the lives of viable babies who could be brought to term and live. We cannot allow such a grievous and indefensible violation of the most important and fundamental human right, the right to life, to be protected by our nation's highest law and those responsible for interpreting it. A federal ban on partial birth abortion is long overdue, and it is time for the Supreme Court to uphold it and stop abusing the Constitution to protect the most serious abuse of human rights that our nation is currently engaging in. History will look back on Gonzales v. Carhart and see either a ruling which upholds the dignity of the human person like Brown v. Board of Education, or a ruling which denies the dignity of the human person like Dred Scott v. Sandford. It will be up to the justices what kind of history they're going to make.

In the meantime, while it is true that the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act would put an end to a brutal abortion procedure, it is also important to point out that it would not prevent a single late term abortion. There are three other late term abortion procedures, all of which are more painful for the child and all of which are more painful and dangerous for the mother. If the Supreme Court upholds the constitutionality of the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act, Congress cannot be satisfied -- it's time for a ban on all late term abortion procedures, all of which are flagrant violations of human rights and none of which are necessary to preserve the health of women. In the meantime, pro-life Catholics must work for both social justice and charitable endeavors which would reduce and eventually eliminate the factors which lead women to seek abortion so that we can truly create a culture of life in which all human life is welcomed and respected.

February 20, 2006

Gaudium et Spes 19

Gaudium et Spes 19 begins with a basic religious tenet, then begins to address the phenomenon of atheism as well as some related notions.

The root reason for human dignity lies in (the) call to communion with God. From the very circumstance of (their) origin (humankind) is already invited to converse with God. For (people) would not exist were (they) not created by God's love and constantly preserved by it; and (they) cannot live fully according to truth unless (they) freely acknowledge that love and devote (themselves) to (their) Creator.

This would be the psalmist's thinking:

When you take away their breath, they perish and return to the dust from which they came. When you send forth your breath, they are created, and you renew the face of the earth. (Ps 104:29b-30)

And the council bishops are careful to speak of two sets of folks: those who have never been exposed to God, and those who have rejected God:

Still, many of our contemporaries have never recognized this intimate and vital link with God, or have explicitly rejected it. Thus atheism must be accounted among the most serious problems of this age, and is deserving of closer examination.

One might thnik a more accommodating view would be to see the phenomenon of atheism as an opportunity, rather than as a problem. But the council counts it as a "serious problem."

The word atheism is applied to phenomena which are quite distinct from one another. For while God is expressly denied by some, others believe that man can assert absolutely nothing about Him. Still others use such a method to scrutinize the question of God as to make it seem devoid of meaning. Many, unduly transgressing the limits of the positive sciences, contend that everything can be explained by this kind of scientific reasoning alone ...

The flip side of this would be those who insist that God can indeed be deduced by natural observation ...

... or by contrast, they altogether disallow that there is any absolute truth.

Yes, we have a recognition of relativism.

Some laud (humankind) so extravagantly that their faith in God lapses into a kind of anemia, though they seem more inclined to affirm (people) than to deny God.

And they mean a humanism? Just for the record, I think we need to take the liturgy scuffles over "we" songs with a grain of salt when it comes to this principle. A critic would be hard-pressed to get any singing parish, much less any composer to admit the liturgy is heading to a self-congratulatory state. That's an unverified criticism coming from many people who have their own ax to grind when it comes to the issues of art, leaderhsip, liturgy, and personal taste.

Again some form for themselves such a fallacious idea of God that when they repudiate this figment they are by no means rejecting the God of the Gospel. Some never get to the point of raising questions about God, since they seem to experience no religious stirrings nor do they see why they should trouble themselves about religion.

Yes, the notion of raising questions: that's a difficult one for some non-atheistic folk. GS 19 notes that some people bring laudable values to their personal approach, but falter when such values are elevated to the level of God. Recent human experiments in marxism, capitalism, and other non-Christian philosophies.

Moreover, atheism results not rarely from a violent protest against the evil in this world, or from the absolute character with which certain human values are unduly invested, and which thereby already accords them the stature of God. Modern civilization itself often complicates the approach to God not for any essential reason but because it is so heavily engrossed in earthly affairs.

Undeniably, those who willfully shut out God from their hearts and try to dodge religious questions are not following the dictates of their consciences, and hence are not free of blame; yet believers themselves frequently bear some responsibility for this situation.

In a document addressed primarily to Christians, if not Catholics, it's appropriate for us to examine the ways in which we fail at evangelization, or worse, we succeed in a sort of anti-evangelization. Chasing people away, that is. Or as one of my commenters so brilliantly put it, SCGS*.

For, taken as a whole, atheism is not a spontaneous development but stems from a variety of causes, including a critical reaction against religious beliefs, and in some places against the Christian religion in particular. Hence believers can have more than a little to do with the birth of atheism.

"More than a little" is a generous statement.

To the extent that they neglect their own training in the faith, or teach erroneous doctrine, or are deficient in their religious, moral or social life, they must be said to conceal rather than reveal the authentic face of God and religion.

This is very much in the "spirit," if you will, of Vatican II. An acknowledgement that we have a "serious problem" in the world. A corollary acknowledgement that Christians bear partial responsibility for it. And a challenge to renew the Church so as to address our culpability.

When I read sections of Gaudium et Spes or other council documents, I find a deep sense of sin -- something which I'm not altogether sure has vanished from the Church. I think certain Catholics have certain blind spots in this regard. The challenge of Vatican II was clearly not a condemnation from the bishops, but a challenge to believers to work more faithfully in the realm of religion and the spiritual.

* Small Church Getting Smaller

February 19, 2006

A Retraction, Re: Sen. Brownback and "Fruits"

On January 27, I made the ill-advised decision to believe everything I read in magazines. I posted about a quote by Sen. Sam Brownback (R-KS) which was taken out of context in an interview with Rolling Stone, so that it appeared that Sen. Brownback had referred to gays and lesbians as "fruits." Rolling Stone has since retracted its "interpretation" of Sen. Brownback's remarks, and I also issued a retraction on January 30 after Sen. Brownback's press office clarified his comments.

But I also wrote something else which, up until now, I have refused to retract:

I also call upon all Catholics to think long and hard about supporting the bid for the presidency that Sen. Brownback is sure to make -- and ask yourselves, reading the article carefully and paying close attention to his words, if he is even really Catholic. I do not see a Catholic in his words, but a fundamentalist pseudo-Christian hiding behind the relative normalcy of the Catholic Church.

It was wrong for me to attack Sen. Brownback's faith and to call into question the authenticity of his conversion, especially as a convert myself who knows how hurtful it can be when other Catholics question your Catholic "credentials" over one issue or another. Sen. Brownback and I received the same sacrament of reconciliation, made the same profession of faith, and received the same Holy Spirit in the sacrament of confirmation. We have since been members of the same Body of Christ, each of us bringing our own gifts to the People of God. I have sinned against him by presuming to judge the authenticity of his faith, and I have sinned against the God of Love by attacking Sen. Brownback so personally and questioning his response to God's call. I retract and apologize for what I said -- and I ask Sen. Brownback, our readers, and God our Father for forgiveness.

February 18, 2006

Really pro-life?

AlterNet: Did the Pro-Choice Movement Save America?

In keeping with Sexual Responsibility Week, I thought I'd post a link to this interview with Cristina Page, the author of a new book that looks at how well, or not so well, the pro-life movement has been doing at reducing the number of abortions in the United States. Much of it is most assuredly provocative, but there is a great deal of food for thought for pro-lifers who are willing to get past the inflammatory nature of her comments.

Locked up

My sister has been spending the week here at Tyler Elementary School. Ninety percent of its pupils come from the Potomac Gardens housing project, a place infamous for its open air drug market, frequent gun shots, and just plain being "truly ugly".

The kids know her from their participation in Camp Heaven, a summer day camp at which my sister has been involved for the last two summers. Her boys from that first year have her absolutely enchanted. She spends all school year in Corvallis at Oregon State University dreaming of the time when she'll see them again. This week she's been interviewing with inner city teaching programs in DC and Baltimore. And her boys have been delighted to spend time with her as she's volunteered at Tyler. One jumped out of his classroom seat and ran to her the minute he saw her. Another, who recently moved in with his aunt and away from his abusive parents, clung to her when she gave him a hug.

As you might imagine, Tyler Elementary is not known for its exemplary academic record. The DC public school district has some of the lowest performance scores in the nation and Tyler some of the worst in the DC district. The school disctrict, like many around the country, is facing enormous budget deficits, and the talk is that they are thinking about closing Tyler and busing the kids elsewhere.

Which will mean a lot of those kids won't even bother with school.

A lot of kids across the country come from dysfunctional families, but how many have to deal with people getting stabbed and shot in their own home? So far two of Tammy's boys have. Their parents are often apathetic about education, or too wrapped up in their own drug-induced world, or just not there. One of her boys, when you ask him where his father is, will say in a matter-of-fact, slightly disdainful way, locked up! It's funny to hear the way he says it, yet of course it's heartbreaking at the same time.

One in three African-American males will spend time in prison at some point in his life. For young African-America males in our nation's capital the figure is close to 50%. Year- round unemployment for African-American males ages 20-64 is near 25%. Life expectancy is almost seven years less than white males. And Tammy's boys, at just seven and eight years old, know that they are not going to amount to much. As do the girls, like the one Tammy was helping with reading the other day. This girl was little Miss 'Tude, but as they worked through her assignment, she really did try. After struggling and struggling, she finally stopped and said under her breath, I'm just stupid. While Tammy can tell her she's not and celebrate with her when she does manage to get through her assignment, it will do little to counteract the negative reinforcement this girl gets everyday.

Taxpayers in DC complain that their school district spends more per student than most school disctricts throughout the nation. But frankly, it's because their students need more money than students from middle class suburban schools with parents who don't just make sure their kids get to school, but also to soccer practice and band concerts. As one community website pointed out, Tyler Elementary needs an "educational Marshall Plan."

But as Kanye West so aptly put it a few months back, George Bush doesn't care about black people. And I would add, neither do most white Americans. Not enough to do more than donate some canned goods and feel a moment of sympathy on their way to the Gap.

Cardinal Martino and his Common Ground on Four Points of Social Justice

Cardinal Renato Martino, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, spoke in Havana on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the Cuban National Ecclesial Meeting:

(The Church's social doctrine is) a formidable instrument of openness and dialogue with believers of other religions and with all (people) of good will.

His four point plan, as reported by Zenit:

1. Life must be protected from conception to its natural end. He emphasized the importance of the family in this area, and said that the family is the key to the future of humanity.

2. Hunger and poverty must be eliminated, and this requires effort on the part of wealthy countries, and honest and intelligent cooperation on the part of developing countries.

3. Peace must be attained through the attainment of justice, reconciliation, dialogue and an end of the arms race.

4. Freedom, especially religious freedom, the foundation of all other freedoms, must be granted to all.

February 17, 2006

Sexual Responsibility Week

As noted on our sidebar, this week has been Sexual Responsibility Week. I would like to conclude the week with a few statistics on HIV/AIDS and other STIs, pregnancy, abortion, and their relationship to sexual protection -- followed by some brief thoughts on Catholic moral and social teaching in a less than ideal world. This post will focus primarily upon these issues as they relate to the United States.

It must first be pointed out that young people are having sex, and that abstinence education just isn't working. By their eighteenth birthday, 60% of young women and 70% of young men have engaged in sexual intercourse, and a sexually active teenager who does not use birth control has a 90% chance of becoming pregnant within one year's time. 75% of teenage pregnancies are unintended, and 25% of these end in abortion. The United States has a significantly higher teenage pregnancy rate when compared with nations that employ comprehensive sex education -- twice as high as Canada and the United Kingdom, and nine times as high as Japan and the Netherlands. American teenagers are also more likely to have shorter and more sporadic sexual relationships but less likely to use birth control than are their peers in Canada, France, Sweden, and the United Kingdom.

The Czech Republic, Denmark, the United Kingdom, Finland, Norway, Slovenia and Sweden all have an abortion rate between 10-20 abortions per one thousand teenage women, and most of these nations employ comprehensive sex education. The United States has a rate of 29 abortions per one thousand teenage women, maintaining one of the highest abortion rates among developed nations (the Russian Federation has the highest at 56 per one thousand teenage women).

Because they have more sexual partners and use condoms less, American teenagers have higher sexually transmitted infection (STI) rates than their peers in other developed nations.

Catholic moral teaching is clear in its opposition to premarital sex and the use of sexual protection. Nevertheless, it is important to point out that we do not live in an ideal world, as we have just seen in the above statistics. It is true that Catholic moral teaching speaks strongly against premarital sex, but that doesn't change the fact that American teenagers are having premarital sex with multiple partners. It is true that Catholic moral teaching speaks strongly against sexual protection, but it is also true that such sexual protection could lead to a decline in the rate of unintended pregnancies and subsequent abortions, as well as reducing the rate of HIV/AIDS and STIs.

The question is not whether or not we want our children to have premarital sex; for the vast majority of us, the answer is an unambiguous no. The question is not whether or not we believe in the use of sexual protection; among Americans, even among American Catholics, the answer to this question varies greatly and is complicated by a number of issues. The question is whether or not we want to continue watching our children suffer through unintended pregnancies, heartbreaking abortions, and life-shattering STIs. We do not want our children to have premarital sex, we may not believe in sexual protection -- but do we want our children to suffer, maybe even to die? This and this alone is the question we must ask ourselves when we discuss issues of sexual responsibility.

February 15, 2006

Gaudium et Spes 18

Death: the inevitable mystery and our reaction to it provides the meat of the material of Gaudium et Spes 18

It is in the face of death that the riddle a human existence grows most acute. Not only is (a person) tormented by pain and by the advancing deterioration of (the) body, but even more so by a dread of perpetual extinction. (A person) rightly follows the intuition of (the) heart when he (or she) abhors and repudiates the utter ruin and total disappearance of his (or her) own person.

People also rightly follow their instinct of charity and justice by considering the death of others. That is why the passions are so aroused by life-and-death issues: war, abortion, capital punishment, and the like.

(People rebel) against death because (they bear in themselves) an eternal seed which cannot be reduced to sheer matter. All the endeavors of technology, though useful in the extreme, cannot calm ... anxiety; for prolongation of biological life is unable to satisfy that desire for higher life which is inescapably lodged in (the human) breast.

So what does this say about the end of life? That the desire to prolong life is natural, understandable, and instinctive. But it is not the greatest desire for the Christian. The hope is that we long for some "higher life."

Although the mystery of death utterly beggars the imagination, the Church has been taught by divine revelation and firmly teaches that (humankind) has been created by God for a blissful purpose beyond the reach of earthly misery.

That blissful purpose seems to be an original quality of the human person, not an exclusive reward for the believer.

In addition, that bodily death from which (people) would have been immune had (they) not sinned(Cf. Wis. 1:13; 2:23-24; Rom. 5:21; 6:23; Jas. 1:15) will be vanquished, according to the Christian faith, when (humanity) who was ruined by (its) own doing is restored to wholeness by an almighty and merciful Saviour.

The completion of the plan of salvation, in other words.

For God has called (people) and still calls (them) so that with (their) entire being (they) might be joined to Him in an endless sharing of a divine life beyond all corruption. Christ won this victory when He rose to life, for by His death He freed (humankind) from death. Hence to every thoughtful (person) a solidly established faith provides the answer to ... anxiety about what the future holds ... . At the same time faith gives ... the power to be united in Christ with ... loved ones who have already been snatched away by death; faith arouses the hope that they have found true life with God.

If you are unfamiliar with Gaudium et Spes and operating on hearsay, you might be surprised by the philosophy and theology that dominates the reading of this document. I know I was the first time I read it. I had been led to believe that the peace and justice would be blaring from this constitution from word one. Instead, one can see a steady building up and a balance between affirmation of the human person with a serious acknowledgement of the reality of sin and evil. In this section, the reality of death as part of our fallen nature.


Irresponsible democracies

U.S. and Israelis Are Said to Talk of Hamas Ouster - New York Times

The United States and Israel are discussing ways to destabilize the Palestinian government so that newly elected Hamas officials will fail and elections will be called again, according to Israeli officials and Western diplomats.

So, destabilizing duly elected governments is what passes for responsible democracy these days? Yeah, I know. The U.S. has a long history of destabilizing duly elected governments -- or worse (Chile anyone?). But while the New York Times led with the above story, Ha'aretz, a leading Israeli newspaper, pointed out that

The Hamas military wing, Iz al-Din al-Qassam, has recently finished registering and collecting weapons used by its activists in the northern Gaza Strip, a process sources said began at the order of the Hamas political bureau, after Hamas' victory in the Palestinian parliamentary elections last month.

Look, as distasteful an organization as Hamas might be, if you truly want peace, you will deal with whoever is actually capable of bringing that about. Abbas and Fatah are completely powerless at providing security for Israelis (not to mention Palestinians) whereas a deal with Hamas would actually stick. Almost a year ago Hamas agreed to a truce and has shown it has the discipline among its rank and file to maintain the truce - something neither Islamic Jihad nor Al-Aqsa Brigade (a Fatah offshoot) have managed.

And Hamas is even making progress in the direction of recognizing Israel. Their position as always been that they aim to liberate Palestine "min bahr ila al nahr" -- from the river to the sea. Yet now they are suggesting that they are willing to consider the 1967 borders. Yes, they need to renounce violence. But so also does Israel.

Both the people of Israel and Palestine want peace. One would hope the governments of the U.S. and Israel would do all they could to bring about that peace rather than act like petulant children who, in being so sulky and irresponsible are laying the groundwork for further bloodshed and suffering.

February 14, 2006

CBA Nominations

I just wanted to let our readers know that Sollicitudo Rei Socialis has been nominated for Best Design in the 2006 Catholic Blog Awards. We're honored and we appreciate the nomination; we also appreciate any votes we receive, and we wish the other nominees the best of luck.

I also wanted to point out that our own Susan Rose Francois has had her Musings of a Discerning Woman nominated for Best Blog by a Woman. She faces some tough competition, but we have all the confidence in the world that she'll give them a run for their money. Finally, I wanted to point out that friend and frequent commentator Christopher Blosser, contributing editor for Catholics in the Public Square, has had his Against the Grain nominated for Best Presentation.

Polls are open until noon on February 21. Go vote!

Gaudium et Spes 17

Gaudium et Spes 17 comments on the quest for goodness:

Only in freedom can (people direct themselves) toward goodness.

... and notes how freedom is easily corrupted:

Our contemporaries make much of this freedom and pursue it eagerly; and rightly to be sure. Often however they foster it perversely as a license for doing whatever pleases them, even if it is evil.

So freedom is defined within a condition:

For its part, authentic freedom is an exceptional sign of the divine image within (the person).

... and God hopes that the human longing for goodness and for the Divine will come to a fulfillment:

For God has willed that (people) remain "under the control of (their) own decisions,"(Cf. Sir. 15:14) so that (they) can seek (their) Creator spontaneously, and come freely to utter and blissful perfection through loyalty to Him.

That quote from Sirach is but part of a significant wisdom passage on free will, Sirach 15:11-20. It alludes to Moses' challenge before the people Israel toward the end of the Torah (Deut 30:15-20). Whether the choice is life or death (Deut. 30:15) or fire and water (Sir. 15:16) the choices are laid upon us mortals, and the wisdom figure chides those who would say, "This misfortune is God's will." (Cf. Sir. 15:11)

Hence (human) dignity demands that (people) act according to a knowing and free choice that is personally motivated and prompted from within, not under blind internal impulse nor by mere external pressure. (People achieve) such dignity when, emancipating (themselves) from all captivity to passion, (they pursue their) goal in a spontaneous choice of what is good, and (procure for themselves) through effective and skilful action, apt helps to that end.

The choice of the word "spontaneous" is interesting, don't you think? On one level it implies a free person--a truly free person--is so imbued with the longing for goodness that right choices come easily, spontaneously, if you will.

Since (human) freedom has been damaged by sin, only by the aid of God's grace can (they) bring such a relationship with God into full flower. Before the judgement seat of God each (person) must render an account of his (or her) own life, whether he (or she) has done good or evil.(Cf. 2 Cor. 5:10)

Whether a matter of spontaneity or struggle, individually we are called to account for our actions.

February 12, 2006

Gaudium et Spes 16

Gaudium et Spes 16 is a single paragraph, which begins:

In the depths of ... conscience, (humankind) detects a law which it does not impose upon itself, but which holds it to obedience. Always summoning (a person) to love good and avoid evil, the voice of conscience when necessary speaks to (the) heart: do this, shun that.

Is the urging of conscience so straightforward? I think so. Long deliberations may be more the result of the attempt to squirm away.

For (humankind) has in (its) heart a law written by God; to obey it is the very dignity of (humankind); according to it it will be judged.(Cf. Rom. 2:15-16) Conscience is the most secret core and sanctuary of a (person). There (the person) is alone with God, Whose voice echoes in (the) depths.(Cf. Pius XII, radio address on the correct formation of a Christian conscience in the young, March 23, 1952: AAS (1952), p. 271) In a wonderful manner conscience reveals that law which is fulfilled by love of God and neighbor.(Cf. Matt. 22:37-40; Gal. 5:14)

GS 16 reminds us that conscience is a point of congruence between Christians and non-Christians:

In fidelity to conscience, Christians are joined with the rest of (people) in the search for truth, and for the genuine solution to the numerous problems which arise in the life of individuals from social relationships.

And the conscience must be exercised, lest it lose its vigor:

Hence the more right conscience holds sway, the more persons and groups turn aside from blind choice and strive to be guided by the objective norms of morality. Conscience frequently errs from invincible ignorance without losing its dignity. The same cannot be said for a (person) who cares but little for truth and goodness, or for a conscience which by degrees grows practically sightless as a result of habitual sin.

A direct and brief assessment of conscience, leading the way for upcoming discussion on goodness, life and death, and making moral choices for the betterment of the planet.

Pentagon Prepares for Strike Against Iran

From Daily Kos and The Telegraph: The Pentagon is preparing for bombing raids against Iran's nuclear sites as a "last resort" option to prevent the Iranian government from continuing its nuclear program, which may or may not include the development of nuclear weapons. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-CT) are among the voices speaking up for a preemptive strike against Iran.

In their 2004 statement, Faithful Citizenship: A Catholic Call to Political Responsibility, the American bishops expressed grave concerns over the preemptive use of force:

Catholic teaching calls on us to work to avoid war. Nations must protect the right to life by finding ever more effective ways to prevent conflicts from arising, to resolve them by peaceful means, and to promote post-conflict reconstruction and reconciliation . . . While military force as a last resort can sometimes be justified to defend against aggression and similar threats to the common good, we have raised serious moral concerns and questions about preemptive or preventive use of force.

Both the late Pope John Paul II and his successor, Pope Benedict XVI, have been similarly concerned about the preemptive use of force.

It is important to note that military action against Iran could not be construed to meet just war criteria as outlined in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (#2309):

  1. The damage inflicted by the aggressor on the nation or community of nations must be lasting, grave, and certain;

  2. All other means of putting an end to it must have been shown to be impractical or ineffective;

  3. There must be serious prospects of success;

  4. The use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated. The power of modern means of destruction weighs very heavily in evaluating this condition.

A military strike against Iran would not meet any of these criteria. Since Iran has not attacked any other nation, and certainly not our own, a military strike against Iran could not be interpreted as defensive rather than preemptive as some interpreted the war against Iraq. Given the fact that the United Nations and the international community have just begun to work on ending the diplomatic conflict over Iran's nuclear program, it would be difficult if not impossible to make the case that all other means have already been exhausted. The prospect for success in Iran is even more grim than it was in Iraq, and in fact there is a good chance that attacking Iran could ignite greater violence in the Middle East and destabilize the entire region -- thus violating the fourth criterion of just war teaching.

My hope is that Catholics and other Christians who supported the Iraq War will think long and hard about lending their support to a military strike against Iran, which would be an even clearer violation of just war teaching than the Iraq War has been.

February 08, 2006

Budgets as Moral Documents

"Faithful citizenship calls Catholics to see civic and political responsibilities through the eyes of faith and to bring our moral convictions to public life." - Faithful Citizenship, A Call to Political Responsibility, US Bishops 2004 Statement

There was much fanfare and hullabaloo during the 2004 election in the media coverage and general public discussion of the Catholic political controversies … namely a few bishops deciding who does and doesn't get to participate in the Eucharist based on their political beliefs and actions. But our responsibility as faithful citizens does not end on election day. We have a responsibility to speak up and bring the perspective of our faith to the civic table.

Right now there are MAJOR decisions being made in Washington as the Federal Budget is crafted and discussed. Our president has proposed massive cuts, looking to cut 141 domestic programs to save $15 billion dollars out of $2.77 trillion dollar federal spending plan for next fiscal year. Congress recently voted to cut $49.9 billion in “savings” that will slash programs such as Medicaid, food stamps and student loans.

As Catholics and as Americans, the questions we need to be asking are how do these budget proposals affect the least among us? Do our spending priorities reflect our values? How do they affect our neighbors, our brothers and sisters across the globe? The US Bishops conference is asking these questions. But of course no one seems to be paying any attention.

“The federal budget is more than a matter of accounting: it reflects our values and priorities as a nation. The budget choices you make in the coming days will directly affect the lives of real people, especially "the least of these" in our midst. This is a time for a genuinely bipartisan commitment to focus on the common good of all, and on the special needs of the poor and vulnerable in particular. On behalf of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, I urge you to make that commitment by working for a budget that does not neglect the needs of the most vulnerable among us.” - December 13, 2005 letter from the President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Bishop William S. Skylstad, to both Houses of Congress.

What can you do?

  • Pray for our elected leaders to make good moral choices as they craft the budget.
  • Pray that the least among us will not be made more vulnerable by our spending choices.
  • Learn more about the federal budget and its life and death effects on the poor.
  • Contact your elected officials and tell them you care and you are watching them during this off-election year. The Network Lobby Legislative Action Center makes it super easy to drop them a line.

Evangelical Climate Initiative

From TalkingDonkeys: More than 85 evangelical Christian leaders have come together to form the Evangelical Climate Initiative, addressing the morally imperative issue of global climate change. They have signed a statement called "Climate Change: An Evangelical Call to Action." Although written by and primarily for evangelical Christians, the statement is rooted in biblical teaching that should ring true with Catholics as well. It reads, in part:

While we cannot here review the full range of relevant biblical convictions related to care of the creation, we emphasize the following points:

  • Christians must care about climate change because we love God the Creator and Jesus our Lord, through whom and for whom the creation was made. This is God's world, and any damage that we do to God's world is an offense against God Himself (Gen. 1; Ps. 24; Col. 1:16).

  • Christians must care about climate change because we are called to love our neighbors, to do unto others as we would have them do unto us, and to protect and care for the least of these as though each was Jesus Christ himself (Mt. 22:34-40; Mt. 7:12; Mt. 25:31-46).

  • Christians, noting the fact that most of the climate change problem is human induced, are reminded that when God made humanity he commissioned us to exercise stewardship over the earth and its creatures. Climate change is the latest evidence of our failure to exercise proper stewardship, and constitutes a critical opportunity for us to do better (Gen. 1:26-28).

Love of God, love of neighbor, and the demands of stewardship are more than enough reason for evangelical Christians to respond to the climate change problem with moral passion and concrete action.

The statement also points out that "the consequences of climate change will be significant, and will hit the poor the hardest." In Catholic terms, climate change doesn't just touch upon the Catholic social principle addressing stewardship of God's creation; it also touches both directly and indirectly upon the dignity of the human person, common good and community, the preferential option for the poor, our rights and responsibilities, the role of government, economic justice, the promotion of peace, social participation, and global solidarity. In short, every principle of Catholic social teaching indicates to the faithful that global climate change is a morally imperative issue that should matter to all Catholics.

February 07, 2006

Catholic State of Our Values

Following President Bush's State of the Union address on January 31, people of faith have come together to deliver diverse reflections upon the state of our American values. As American Catholics, we have a distinct values system based upon the principles of Catholic social teaching -- principles which find their roots in the constant tradition of the Church, articulated so well by popes and bishops before and after the Second Vatican Council. It would be foolish not to recognize the contribution made to American Catholic values by the late Pope John Paul II, who constantly exhorted both Church and State to see and respect the image and likeness of God in every woman and man. We look forward to living the legacy of his pontificate, in communion with his successor Pope Benedict XVI, who has so recently made the most bold declaration of all: God is Love.

As Catholics living in America's religiously pluralistic society, our values have been formed in dialogue with our sisters and brothers in other Christian Churches and non-Christian faith communities. Our values draw strength from the example left to us by the late Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King, who have recently departed this world to behold the face of God and live in his love forever. Although not Catholic, Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King lived the most fundamental of our social teachings every day. For the courage and the strength they have imparted to the movement for peace and social justice, we owe them a debt that can never truly be paid; but we must begin by taking up the cause they've left us, the cause of respecting the dignity of every human being and giving each human being equal respect under the law.

In many ways, the state of our American Catholic values is strong. We have seen the strength of our values especially in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, when Catholics from across the nation have left home and family and livelihood to help their sisters and brothers in the Gulf Coast to recover from devastation unlike anything America has ever seen. We have seen the strength of our values when we have seen bishops working side by side with laypeople, seeing to the works of mercy and caring for Christ in the poor and suffering. We have found the strength of our values in the hearts of ordinary American Catholics doing extraordinary things, revealing a God who is not to be found in the devastation of natural disasters but in the human compassion afterward. We have found the strength of our values in the women and men who have shown the American people that our God is a God of love, not a God of wrath.

Nevertheless, it is also true that American Catholic values are under attack and being weakened by those who would reduce them to partisan talking points for political gain. It is difficult but necessary to acknowledge that some of these partisan activists are our own Catholic sisters and brothers, manipulating the truth of our faith to exert influence over the nation's conscience for the gain of their political allies.

We see that our values are under attack when we see our Church's most sublime teachings on the dignity of the human person reduced to four or five "non-negotiable issues," all designed to benefit conservative politicians, usually from the Republican Party. We see that the dignity of the human person is under attack by those who claim to be its most dedicated champions when they condemn abortion but embrace the unjust war in Iraq and the escalating conflict with Iran. We see that the dignity of the human person is under attack when Catholics adamantly condemn assisted suicide and euthanasia but turn a blind eye to the burdens of health care costs and prescription coverage for the poor, disabled, and elderly. We see that the dignity of the human person is under attack when Catholics beat their breasts about the taking of innocent life in the womb, but turn away in apathy when lives brought to term are later crushed under the burdens of poverty and ignorance.

We see that our values are under attack when we see our Church's teachings on common good and community distorted and turned into partisan wedge issues to divide Americans over issues like gay marriage. We see that our values are under attack when we see our Church's teachings on the preferential option for the poor ignored, as Catholics turn a blind eye to one heartless budget after another. We see that our values are under attack when we see our Church's teachings on rights and responsibilities ignored, as Catholics give their silent approval to our government's violation of human rights abroad and civil rights at home. We see that our values are under attack when we see our Church's teachings on the role of government and subsidiarity perverted, used as a justification by some Catholics for abandoning the poor and vulnerable, for ignoring the demands of the common good, and for violating every American's right to religious liberty.

We see that our values are under attack when we see our Church's teachings on economic justice ignored, as Catholics refuse to stand up for human rights like a living wage or the just treatment of immigrants. We see that our values are under attack when we see our Church's teachings on the stewardship of God's creation carelessly ignored, as Catholics continue to turn a blind eye to the destruction that our government is bringing to that which God has created for us. We see that our values are under attack when we see our Church's teachings on the promotion of peace and disarmament ignored, as Catholics continue to defend non-diplomatic aggression toward other governments, the torture of war prisoners, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and the militarization of our budget at the expense of our most pressing domestic needs. We see that our values are under attack when we see our Church's teachings on political participation ignored, as Catholics defend the erosion of our own political participation in election fraud and irregularities even while defending our government's decision to reject the political decisions of people like the Palestinians who have chosen governments that are not to our liking. We see that our values are under attack when we see our Church's teachings on global solidarity and development ignored, as Catholics allow our government to spend more on killing people abroad than it does on saving lives, as Catholics turn a blind eye to the crushing conditions of the developing world in places like Sudan and Kenya.

But I believe that for every Catholic who would reduce the dignity of human life to a few wedge issues, there is another Catholic who embraces a consistent ethic of life. For every Catholic who would pervert our belief in the common good in order to divide America, there is another Catholic working to unite Americans in the common pursuit of justice and peace. For every Catholic who would sacrifice the poor on the altar of political expediency, there is another Catholic who sees Christ in all of the vulnerable and who is working for his liberation. For every Catholic who is willing to sacrifice the rights of others for his or her own self-centered political goals, there is another Catholic who will stand up for the rights of each human sister and brother. For every Catholic who would pervert the principle of subsidiarity and turn it into a principle of indifference or communitarian tyranny, there is another Catholic who realizes that subsidiarity does not and cannot conflict with the common good and human rights.

For every Catholic who is willing to abandon the worker and the immigrant, there is another Catholic fighting for their rights. For every Catholic who devalues God's creation, there is another Catholic who sees its beauty and works to preserve it. For every Catholic who defends aggression and weapons proliferation, there is another Catholic who values diplomacy and demilitarization. For every Catholic who believes in tyranny rather than democracy, there is another Catholic who believes that all people deserve to be free. For every Catholic who sees no brothers and sisters outside his own borders, there is another Catholic who sees sisters and brothers in every woman and man on earth.

Like America itself, the American Catholic Church has been lamentably divided, and American Catholic values along with it. We have been divided by political partisanship and bitter ecclesiastical disagreements. We have been divided by our own selfishness. If the state of our American Catholic values is still strong in the hearts of American Catholics, it is only by God's grace that this is so. We must turn, therefore, to he who is the only one capable of uniting what has been fractured by sin. We must turn to God our Father and ask him with all our hearts to answer the prayer of his beloved Son: that we may all be one -- for the United States of America, for the American Catholic Church, for the entire Catholic Church, and for our broken world. Come, Holy Spirit! Amen.

When cartoons aren't funny

A friend and I were discussing the other day the recent violent demonstrations over the Danish cartoon about Muhammad. "It's a lot like this friend of mine who is really sensitive so that I have to watch what I say," she said. "But I resent that I can't say what I think. I hate having to deal with someone else's problems."

And lately it's Denmark who has been having to deal with other people's problems -- sorta.

So, why are Muslims so outraged? Why are they being so darn overly sensitive about something so trivial as a cartoon in an obscure Danish newspaper?

First, this isn't about the West versus Islam specifically, but rather a secular society versus a traditional one. If you would have dropped Andres Serrano’s "Piss Christ," a photograph of a crucifix dipped in the artist’s own urine, in much of Europe or the United States a hundred years ago, I venture there would have been a fair bit of violence. Less than twenty years ago the movie, The Last Temptation of Christ, provoked enormous outrage in supposedly secular Europe and North America, including the bombing of a cinema in Paris that resulted in several badly burned people. Even that same provocative Danish newspaper that published the cartoons of Muhammad chose not to publish cartoons lampooning Christ for fears that it would offend some of its readers.

The Qu'ran itself does not prohibit physical depictions of people (though, just like Catholicism, Islam is not a "sola scripture" religion -- hadith or sayings of the Prophet, as well as tradition all play a big role in Islamic theology), but the tradition developed during the founding of Islam as part of the Semitic fear of graven images. It hasn't always been adheared to. In Ottoman or Mughal art, you do see paintings and drawings of people, though I can't think of any offhand that had anything to do with the Prophet or other figures of Islamic reverence. But mostly it's a lot of animals and arabesque art along with lots and lots of flowing Arabic calligraphy. Christianity also struggled with this in the Iconoclast controversies, and more recently during the Protestant Reformation. While Christ nor the Bible ever encouraged icons or statues, needless to say, it has become a very important part of Christian worship and reverence.

And even though we praise freedom of speech in our society (as I'm glad we do), there is still some speech that we deem so offensive that it would elicit a huge uproar or worse in our tolerant, secular society. If the cartoons were making fun of abused women, blacks or Jews, there would be tremendous outrage (as well there should). In some European countries it is illegal to deny either the Holocaust or Armenian genocide (something Iran is well aware of and has now decided to see just how we'll respond when the tables are turned on us). And if you dress up as a suicide bomber as a means of protest, or joke about blowing up a plane in an airport, you will also probably find yourself arrested, if not shot under certain circumstances.

Second, and probably most significantly, I doubt this would have turned as vicious as it did if it weren't for the fact that the United States currently occupies two Muslim countries (Iraq and Afghanistan), transplanted Europeans and Americans occupy another (Israel), and the United States and Europe are threatening yet another with economic conflict or worse (Iran and sometimes Syria). Along with that has been two hundred years of British, French, Dutch, Russian, and Italian colonialism and occupation in which natural resources were diverted from the indigenous to fuel European economies and those who protested against this theft were thrown in prison, tortured, starved, executed and/or blown to smithereens. When there wasn't direct military rule, there was economic domination, such as the European takeover of the Ottoman economy after 1875 (imagine some guy in, say, France deciding what the U.S. Congress can and cannot spend -- while there are moments I might find some merit in the thought, most Americans would find it terribly demeaning).

For over two hundred years Muslims have felt humiliated as the West has raided and dominated their lands when Islamic empires throughout the millennia in Spain, Damascus, Baghdad, Constantinople, and Agra had been superior technologically and seemed more enlightened when compared to medieval Europe. Somewhat like an older relative who resents being treated like a child simply because he isn't as spry as he used to be. And now that we have dominated him militarily and economically, we are casually spitting on what he holds most dear.

Third, the Muslim world has become increasingly conservative in the last thirty years and, in addition to the reaction against imperialism, a lot of that is due to Saudi Arabia. Imagine for a moment that John Calvin and his theocratic state of Geneva was still around and suddenly came into unimaginable wealth. Then took over a lot of the Vatican, most Protestant seminaries, as well as started many, many more throughout the developing world. That's what's been happening in a lot of the Muslim world as the Saudis have been exporting their unique, reactionary form of Islam throughout the world. And frankly folks, we share complicity in this. Partly through our use of petroleum-based products, but also through our government's support of the Saudi family. It's one more reason for us to reconsider what our economic choices are doing to the world.

In any society, secular or traditional, dominant or controlled, people react emotionally to whatever grievance they have in ways that are often self-destructive. These protests have hurt Muslims far more than secular Danes as it has been Muslims dying during the violence. While I may not agree with some of their methods of protest, I do appreciate that I live in a secular society in which my country controls what goes on many of those countries where the protests are taking place, or is threatening violence against some of those it does not control. And because I live in a position of privilege, I know I have the choice to listen to what is happening behind the violence. Even if, on the surface, it might sound annoyingly hyper-sensitive.

Gaudium et Spes 15

The fifteenth section of Gaudium et Spes begins:

(Human beings judge) rightly that by (their) intellect (they surpass) the material universe, for (they share) in the light of the divine mind. By relentlessly employing (their) talents through the ages (they have) indeed made progress in the practical sciences and in technology and the liberal arts. In our times (they have) won superlative victories, especially in (their) probing of the material world and in subjecting it to (themselves).

Despite our accomplishments in the material world, we also seek for something deeper. It is part of our God-given intelligence that we are able to probe and begin to perceive aspects of the universe that transcend "data alone," or science, if you will:

Still (they have) always searched for more penetrating truths, and find them. For (their) intelligence is not confined to observable data alone, but can with genuine certitude attain to reality itself as knowable, though in consequence of sin that certitude is partly obscured and weakened.

Sin is acknowledged as an aspect that thwarts not only our moral make-up, but impedes our ability to engage our intellect. Sin is a given for us, but the solution is the search for wisdom:

The intellectual nature of the human person is perfected by wisdom and needs to be, for wisdom gently attracts the mind of (a person) to a quest and a love for what is true and good. Steeped in wisdom, (a person) passes through visible realities to those which are unseen.

The Church recognizes the need for wisdom. Note that it is defined above as a human quality, not necessarily a religious one.

Our era needs such wisdom more than bygone ages if the discoveries made by (humankind) are to be further humanized. For the future of the world stands in peril unless wiser (people) are forthcoming. It should also be pointed out that many nations, poorer in economic goods, are quite rich in wisdom and can offer noteworthy advantages to others.

In addition to the fruits of wisdom, Christians recognize that God inspires an awareness of the "divine plan."

It is, finally, through the gift of the Holy Spirit that (humankind) comes by faith to the contemplation and appreciation of the divine plan.(Cf. Sir. 17:7-8)


February 06, 2006

Gaudium et Spes 14

We begin Gaudium et Spes 14 with a rejection of dualism and an elaboration of a philosophy of the goodness of the created world:

Though made of body and soul, (the human person) is one. Through (their) bodily composition (they gather to themselves) the elements of the material world; thus (these elements) reach their crown through (human beings), and through (human beings) raise their voice in free praise of the Creator.(Cf. 1 Cor. 6:13-20)

Or as Jesus said, Even the stones would cry out (Cf Luke 19:40).

For this reason (people are) not allowed to despise ... bodily life, rather (are) obliged to regard (the) body as good and honorable since God has created it and will raise it up on the last day. Nevertheless, wounded by sin, (people experience) rebellious stirrings in (the) body. But the very dignity of (human beings) postulates that (they) glorify God in (the) body and forbid it to serve the evil inclinations of his heart.

If others are somewhat more familiar with JPII's Theology of thee Body, feel free to comment on this part.

Now, (people are) not wrong when (they regard themselves) as superior to bodily concerns, and as more than a speck of nature or a nameless constituent of the city of (humanity). For by (their) interior qualities (they outstrip) the whole sum of mere things. (They plunge) into the depths of reality whenever (they enter) into (their own hearts); God, Who probes the heart, (Cf. 1 Kings 16:7; Jer. 17:10) awaits (them) there; there (they discern their) proper destiny beneath the eyes of God. Thus, when (they recognize) in (themselves) a spiritual and immortal soul, (they are) not being mocked by a fantasy born only of physical or social influences, but is rather laying hold of the proper truth of the matter.

If the human person is one, it is hard to separate the mutual relationship of the physical and the interior soul. It could be said that a crime against a person's body is an act against the human soul. Indeed if the interior nature of a person is harmed, it would be logical to assume that the crime is more seriously grave than a mere bodily transgression.

Particularly heinous in the Church's eyes would be aggression directed against the soul. Note that Church teaching does not differentiate between a Catholic and non-Catholic soul, or between believing and unbelieving souls. Actions which offend the spiritual sensibilities of anyone are considered grave.

February 05, 2006

You Pick Your Battles ... or, What's Really Important?

Since I haven't been to the movies in a while, I thought I'd do a little posting on what kind of immoral trash they're circulating these days under the guise of "entertainment." So, two days later, here's what I recall being exposed to:

»»» Two non-extensive episodes of pre-marital sex
»»» Two shots of a woman's bare breasts
»»» A couple shots of a guy's backside
»»» Occasional use of the f-word as an expletive (as opposed to a common adjective)
»»» Some drinking and smoking, neither to great excess
»»» An extra-marital affair, occuring every couple years or so
»»» Perhaps two minor fist-fights
»»» A disemboweled sheep

I tell you, the garbage they're putting out these days in the movie theaters, it just makes me sick. Can you believe it? Can you believe that they were actually able to produce this movie, and make money on it? I mean, really! And they managed to do it with an R-rating. Incredible!

Because, if you think about it, there are PG movies out there "worse" than this. Whole heck of a lot more sex, drugs, violence, and language. As movies go today, this was a pretty clean film. And yet it was R?

Oh, that's right, I forgot to mention .... the "affair" involved two men.

Ah, what a difference gender makes.

Explain to me, please, why the "morality" of this film warrants more uproar than the "morality" of a film like "The 40-Year-Old Virgin."

I'm totally serious here. How many movies today (as well as TV shows and video games) glorify violence, and relay the message of "Shoot whoever gets in your way"? How many promote the idea that sex is for pleasure and if your spouse isn't cuttin' it, then feel free to look elsewhere? How many encourage the objectification of women (or men) as something to merely be used for one's own pleasure? How many support the attitude of "Money is Everything" and that it's completely OK to do whatever is necessary to get it?

And yet this film, with its minimal nudity, minimal violence, and minimal language, is the biggest threat to our society today?

OK, fine. You don't like homosexual activity being presented in such a fashion. You're entitled to your opinion. But please answer me this one question:

Is it the worst?

I remember when I worked at a boarding school; the motto of the principal I worked with was "You pick your battles." You can't fight everything, so you decide which is most important and/or most fixable, and focus on those issues.

And so I ask again:

That listing of "offensive content" with which I began this post .... does this listing demonstrate the most depraved content of American entertainment today?

I don't think so. Heck, if it was between a guy and a girl, it'd get a PG rating and no one would want to go see it because it's so clean-cut.

But putting the affair between two guys, all of the sudden it becomes worse than all the shoot-em-ups in the world.


I have a problem with this, because I have a problem with the priorities that it shows.

If you're choosing your battles, people, then how can this movie be the biggest battle? At least this movie doesn't encourage killing anyone. At least this movie doesn't glorify illegal substances. At least this movie doesn't turn people into things. But ... it does show an unattainable love.

Here's the deal, folks. There are gay people out there, whether you like it or not. You can argue nature versus nurture, you can debate if it's changable or not, but the fact of the matter remains. There are gay people out there.

And again I ask: Is this the worst problem facing our world today?

Then tell that to the parents of the 7-year-old girl who was shot at her daycare center in an upper-middle-class suburb of Washington, DC, last week. She was shot by an 8-year-old classmate whose father, a convicted felon, had shown him just the day before how to cock and release the hammer before pulling the trigger.

Tell that to the Southern Baptists of Bibb County, Alabama, who had no church to attend this morning, since someone had decided that torching five area churches would be fun.

And all the world-wide violence erupting over the Danish cartoon of Muhammad?

But no. Apparently, the biggest issue facing our world today is who is allowed to love whom.

Which, in and of itself, is thoroughly absurd. It's not like the world is overflowing with this massive surplus of love and we need to cut back or else we'll drown in a flood of kindness.

I'd put good money on even the most adament advocates against this movie knowing someone to whom this movie has spoken. They might not be aware of it, but I bet they know gay people. You know why? Cuz they're just like you and me. Oh, sure, some of them really buy into the "gay culture" and make a big deal out of it, but you know what? There are a lot more who are just normal people, living with the one they love. Heck, I've got some different friends where I'm not even sure. Are they just good friends and roommates, or are they "good friends" {wink wink nudge nudge}?

Does it even matter? In the grand scheme of the world, does it even matter?

What I've found rather interesting in the last week or so of blog-surfing is discovering people's shifting understanding of gays and lesbians. Faggots on the Third Floor have been detailing the major health issues of their son, The Chuzzle, and the illegalities of the donor bank with whom they worked. Here is a brief snippet of an e-mail Estelle recieved from an unknown lurker:

I'm guessing you & I could not be more different, I am a married, conservative, Christian, rebublican wallflower. I honestly always dissaproved of children being raised by same sex couples & I never considered the woman who did not bear the child a mom. Until you. I read your blog to learn about Charlie's rash & I found myself desperate to take the pain away from your son. .... As I continued to read, my sympathy grew for you as well. I could also feel your pain in your words and it hit me: this is a mommy desperate to help her child, who cares that their family is different then mine? This woman is fighting so hard to help her family, just as I would. ... Wishing you all health, happiness, and the joy that only mommy's and their sons can share.
ham & cheese on wry has also been posting an episodic presentation of a friendship that, much to her surprise, became much more than "just" a friendship; one of the comments on Part V said:

Very, very nice piece of writing Curly. I've never had those feelings, and honestly, couldn't see how two females could fall in love. I feel ashamed to think that I was so naive to think that love didn't "happen" the way it did with straight people. You've opened my eyes and changed my perception and I am grateful for that.
Heck, even Focus on the Family editor Gary Schneeberger has a bit of a conversion of heart. Granted, he's ultimately promoting the "We Can Change Them" program, but he still brings up an excellent point:

It's only been in the last couple of days that I've realized where this kind of thinking had illogically led me: to the conclusion that I have all the moral high ground. And it's only been in the last several hours, as I've wrestled with getting these thoughts out of my head and onto the computer screen, that I've realized how dangerous — and shameful — such thinking is.
In the cultural and policy battles we fight every day, particularly on issues like the normalization of homosexuality and the availability of abortion, it's easy to take on airs of superiority like those I've been wearing. Maybe it's because we have the truth of Scripture on our side; maybe it's because we're fallen human beings prone to arrogance and pride and every other sin under the sun — just like those on the other side of the ideological aisle. Most likely, it's a combination of the two.
Whatever causes it, though, there is no disputing it cripples our witness for Christ — no matter how we wind up faring on the Culture War scorecard. A victory won gracelessly or gloatingly is no victory at all; even if we eventually succeed in making abortion no longer legal, what have we really accomplished for the Kingdom if our tactics and attitudes drive the people who most need God further away from him?
To watch a film like "Brokeback Mountain" and react the way I did does not please the Lord. He loves those who laughed at that tragic scene I described earlier precisely as much as He loves me. He longs to heal their hearts. If I hope to be a tool He uses to do so, and that ought to be my goal as someone who has felt called to work at a Christian ministry, I've got to do more than sniff at the insensitivity and immaturity of those gay men and women I watched the movie with. I've got to do more than be disgusted at the subject matter of the film. I've got to consider why they laughed — and, in the larger context, why they view this film as such a watershed moment for themselves and their movement.
And so again I ask .... is this truly the biggest issue facing our world today? Are these people like Estelle and Curly single-handly contributing to the downfall of Western Society as we know it?

One of the couples who got married when the whole thing first exploded in either San Francisco or Boston was these two women who had been together for 54 years.

Explain to me how their committed relationship does more damage to the idea of "marriage" than Britney Spears' 55-hour marriage -- brief enough that the headline includes both the wedding and annulment.

I have one student who, in her introductory paper for me, explained that her parents and stepparents have all been divorced, her uncles are all divorced, one brother is divorced and the other is in the process of getting divorced. During Vocations Awareness Week, one of our sisters was asking her kids about the four vocations (priest/deacon, religious brother/sister, married, single) ... except the four they remembered were "priest/deacon, religious brother/sister, married, and divorced." Hmmm. And the 54-year commitment of those two women caused this?

I'm all about making marriage mean something. But shouldn't we start with the pre-nup? The "I'll say I'm doing this for life, but when we split up, I'll get this and you can have that." The quickie Vegas chapels? The overabundance of divorce attorneys? The media messages that say, "If it's broke, don't fix it. Just throw it out and buy a new model"?

An yet, even with all that, I find it hard to see "the sanctity of marriage" as the biggest issue facing our world today. I'm curious about the amount of time, energy, and money that is being spent on the idea to "change the constitution" so that its definition of marriage matches mine, or to say what movies can and can't be shown.

And is that really the best use of that time, energy, and expense?

There's no bigger need?

What about the troops who don't have the right armor? What about the folks in Missippi, also destroyed by Katrina but in the shadow of New Orleans? What about those on Medicaid who can't get their prescriptions right now because the kinks in the new system haven't been worked out yet? What about all the people living on the streets of our Nation's Capital -- supposedly the richest nation in the world? What about the rural kids getting way too involved in meth? What about the miners who have to risk their lives to put food on the table?

We're so worried about who can share a house that we don't consider those who don't have a house. We're so worried about who can share medical benefits that we don't consider those who don't have medical benefits. We're so worried about who can raise a child that we don't consider those kids who don't have someone to raise them. We're so worried about who can visit the hospital that we don't consider those who don't have someone to visit them.

Is that really where the focus should be?

I teach my Social Justice kids that we need to be meeting people's basic needs. Once the world has been clothed, and fed, and housed, and given their rightful dignity, self-worth, and value .... then we can worry about who's allowed to like whom. Until then ....

Let's worry about what really matters.

[cross-posted at Narrow at the Outset]