Sometimes atheism is our fault

Look! It’s another one of those “no duh” quotes that we all think applies to someone else.

This is a sentiment that conservatives aim at liberals, with the assumption that only people who haven’t studied the faith properly could possibly hold such nonsensical ideas about redistribution of wealth, about mercy and tolerance; could possibly fail to see that things are either right or wrong, and any attempt to say otherwise equals relativism. (I know this, because that was me not that many years ago.)

But it’s also a sentiment that liberals aim at conservatives, with a hair-pulling level of frustration that people can’t see that Jesus was all about justice, and that money as an idol is behind many of the ideas held up as “traditional values” by conservatives. (And yes, I have to admit, this better represents where I stand now.)

Yesterday, I was reading a passage from Philippians, in which Paul took for granted that Christians living the faith would be united in thought and idea about how to view the world.

I don’t even know to deal with that. I know the Christian community was probably never as uniform as some Scripture passages make it sound, that division is an inescapable part of fallen humanity.

But where we are now–I started to try to lay it out, but the causes are too complex. There’s Steve Bannon going after the Pope, and confusing political ends with Godly ones. There’s the mishandling of the abuse crisis, which hits liberal and conservative bishops & priests alike. There’s clericalism and an inability to see outside “the way it’s always been done,” even though the world has changed around it and that model no longer works (i.e., we don’t have a glut of priests to do all the jobs in a parish, so you actually have to hire people to do work). There’s a passive laity, still thinking that our primary job is to show up and be done to, even though the mega churches have taught us that churches flourish best when everyone is involved.

All of these are examples of ways in which we, as believers, contribute to the flourishing of atheism. And it doesn’t fall on one side of the political spectrum–or of the left-right divide in the Church.

When we are nasty on Facebook, when we share emotion-heavy, but fact-questionable memes;

when we buy into stereotypes that Trump supporters are all uneducated rednecks or that people demanding just wages and just racial treatment are essentially lazy and need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps;

when we fail to recognize the ways in which our own privilege shapes our prejudices;

when we fail to recognize that we have prejudices at all;

when we make assumptions or pass judgment or don’t fact-check (or fallacy-check) whatever inflammatory argument suits our purposes–

In all these moments, we, as Christians, are part of what causes people to doubt the existence of God altogether.

We need to own that…and do something about it.

A world in peril

Context is important…Gaudium et Spes was published in 1965, during the cold war, and no doubt the bishops who wrote it, as well as Pope Paul VI, were thinking about the threat of nuclear war. But it’s interesting how much these words resonate today, isn’t it?

Globalization

I don’t think the word “globalization” was in use yet in 1965 (though I don’t know that for sure), but that’s exactly what this is talking about. Nationalism has surged as a backlash against the reality that we’re all connected, but it doesn’t negate the reality. We are all connected. Nowhere on earth is more than a commercial plane ride away. The bombs can drop anywhere. We can Skype with someone in Thailand or Malaysia or Ukraine or Antarctica instantaneously. Parts for our technology may be made in one country and the whole assembled in another, and get shipped to a third.

We are inextricably tied together. We can’t deny that reality, no matter how threatening it feels. In fact, the overwhelming majority of us buy into it implicitly by the way we depend on smart devices and online purchasing.

We are tied together now, and if injustices and suffering in one part of the world cause conflict, the ripples will spread outward and hit us, too. That’s what we see in the refugee crises of the last few years–Syrians fleeing to Europe and Central Americans to the U.S. border, to name the most obvious. We have to recognize that the history of U.S. involvement in Central America over the past decades contributed to the suffering there (a topic I only know a little about, but enough to be aware that cold-war-era anti-Communist efforts are a factor***, and the fact that MS-13 originated in L.A. and its members were deported; now they’re a big part of the mayhem now happening). Ergo, we can’t just close up our border and say “Nope, your problem.” First, because we helped create it, and second, because this is the reality of an interconnected world. Your problems are my problems, whether I like it or not.

And the thing is, this is what Jesus called us to do voluntarily, as part of the Christian call. Jesus’ response Cain’s flippant protest, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” was this:

“Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.” (Mt. 25:41)

Well worn, but hard to embrace.

And isn’t it amazing that Pope Paul VI and the bishops of the second Vatican Council could see all this in the mid-1960s, before any of this had taken place?


***I tried to do some good research on these contextual factors this morning so I could share reliable sources about them. What I discovered is that a) Fox news doesn’t talk about it at all, only left- and left-center-leaning sources; and b) it’s too complex for me to dive down the rabbit hole to understand fully in one morning when I have deadlines pressing. What it tells me, most of all, is that we as Americans (myself included) are sinfully negligent in understanding the conflicts and sufferings outside our own borders. So for today I am relying on the understanding of faithful Catholic friends who actually know about these situations.

About a taxicab

Photo by Tasha Kamrowski on Pexels.com

I spend most of my time here reflecting on things I’ve already discerned, words of wisdom shared by popes and bishops and saints. Sometimes I worry that I look like I think I have it all figured out (read that: holier than thou).

I don’t.

I’ve been in a bad frame of mind lately. Aware of it, pondering it, praying about it, but not seeing any improvement. Yesterday morning, I was driving across town when I saw a minivan owned by a taxi company. It had a Scripture reference plastered on the side. I didn’t even see what the Scripture was. I just had an immediate negative reaction.

I was sort of shocked by how strong it was. It should be a good thing for a person to witness to his/her faith publicly. This should spark warmth, joy, affirmation. Not negativity. What does it say about me, as a person of faith, that my first reaction to expressions of faith in business owners is such a negative one?

How terribly jaded I have become.

Not without reason.

There are an awful lot of people walking around wearing Christianity on their sleeve and saying terrible things, shredding the human dignity of others through memes and tweets and nasty social media comments, sharing clickbait headlines that don’t even reflect the article content accurately, let alone reality, from websites that demonstrate by their publication choices that they consider taking things out of context, twisting the truth, or deleting inconvenient facts as justifiable in pursuit of their agenda. (Agenda outranks Ten Commandments.) Christians who say “thoughts and prayers” after every natural disaster and mass shooting while turning a blind eye to the scientific consensus on climate change and insisting that “it’s mental health, not guns,” while simultaneously advocating cuts to mental health funding because cutting taxes is more important than taking care of the earth God gave us or being our brothers’ keeper.

That’s the sin I see in too many people who share my faith.

Now here’s mine.

It’s a sinful judgment to assume that one who puts Scripture verses on the side of his or her business car is also sharing inflammatory memes and tweets and making nasty social media comments and sharing clickbait and substituting “thoughts and prayers” for action.

But God forgive me, that’s where my mind goes.

I don’t like this about myself. I want my faith to be a source of joy, for me and for others. I want to assume the best of others, as I so often admonish others to do. (Doing religious writing really is a round-the-clock examination of conscience.)

I don’t want to feel reluctant to talk about praying for others–but I do, because too many people have been on the receiving end of “prayers” that are really judgments. “Prayers” that are holier-than-thou rather than expressions of solidarity.

I don’t want to be judgy of others (“Stop judging, that you may not be judged,” Mt. 7:1). I know the upheaval it took to pry my mind open and force me to recognize the things I see now. I should offer grace, not judgment.

I want Christianity to be all it was meant to be by Jesus, and I want to be able to talk about it without sounding holier-than-thou (read that: off-putting).

I have no idea how to fix any of this. In myself or in the larger world, either one.

I came face to face with my own brokenness yesterday, and it wasn’t pretty. I don’t have it figured out, and I won’t pretend I do. The one thing I know is that without such honest self-reflection, there is no moving forward.

“Should abortion be the most important issue for Catholics?”

Rather than add to the plethora of verbiage out in the e-universe today, I thought I’d share an article that came across my Facebook feed last night. Regular readers will already be aware that the intersection of politics and faith has been much on my mind of late–as I am sure it is on yours as well. This article offers a take on the pre-eminent question of our time–voting pro-life–that challenges all of us to recognize that we shouldn’t have to choose, and that we’re actually asking the wrong question when we argue about it at all. Here’s a screen shot of the page:

A couple excerpts:

The reason Catholics are stuck in this downward spiral is because even as we debate the moral duties of faithful voters, we as a Catholic community have not succeeded in forming faithful candidates.

Sam Sawyer, S.J.

Every four years, we confront another choice about what moral evils we will ignore in order to oppose others. We—the bishops, the clergy, the Catholic media and the Catholic faithful—continue to fail to convince any significant political figure to defend both the innocent unborn and our brothers and sisters at the border. The two parties fail to uphold Catholic teaching in different ways. Democrats almost universally support access to abortion, but are at least persuadable on a range of other critical issues the church focuses on. Many Republicans are pro-life, but are significantly opposed to Catholic priorities on a number of other issues, such as immigration, climate change and care for the poor.

Sam Sawyer, S.J.

Take time to read the comments as well (but be sure to click on “all comments” first), because there is some thoughtful (and respectful!) dialogue there. One of the things that flagged my attention was the assertion that there were far, far more abortions in 1930 than there are now. I had never heard such a claim, and so, being committed to good information, I went down some rabbit holes trying to confirm or deny it.

I couldn’t find any right-leaning sites that addressed the question at all–which makes sense, as, if true, it would undermine the position that outlawing abortion would save the lives of unborn babies. All this to explain why I am linking to an article from the Guttmacher Institute, which Media Bias/Fact Check rates as left-center bias, which addresses the issue of the number of abortions in the years before Roe v. Wade. I don’t know about you, but I certainly assumed that abortion was quite uncommon before the sexual revolution. It appears that is not the case at all. Please do take the time to read both these articles, from America and from Guttmacher, as I think they both include thoughts that challenge all Catholics, wherever we stand on the question of whether abortion should be the only issue that matters in elections. (And if someone knows a moderately right-leaning–as opposed to a clickbait inflammatory–site that addresses the question, please share with me, and I’ll edit the post to include that as well. Life Site, Breitbart, etc. need not apply. Use Media Bias/Fact Check to see where a source falls; it’s the gold standard in online fact checking.)

Religious Freedom

Here’s an interesting one. There’s a section in Evangelii Gaudium focused on the need to offer to others the same religious freedoms we expect for ourselves–particularly in regards to Islam. But the pope puts this cautionary stamp on it, too. This will resonate with many who lean right politically. It’s worth some real soul-searching on both sides of the question of religious freedom as to what that really means, and what the cost is, and to whom. Because religious freedom has to include both sides of the coin: freedom *from* religion and freedom *to* practice one’s beliefs. It’s inevitable that those two freedoms will come into conflict at various points. So we have to take great care in discerning how to respect one side without suppressing the other.

Many of us who are religious view our own concerns higher than the concerns of those without faith. But if we want to convert the “nones,” we’re shooting ourselves in the foot by trying to force something down their throat that pushes them away. We need to live in such a way that others say, “Hey, what do you have that I don’t? I want some of that. How do I get it?” We witness by implicit invitation, in other words–but we also have to recognize that others are not obligated to respond to that invitation. That’s how God approaches all of us, and if we want to image Him in the world, we have to do the same.

So–that being the case, how *do* we ensure that the rights of religious people are respected, without trampling the rights of those who choose not to espouse faith?

I have no answers, only–as always–underscoring that hot-button questions like prayer at public events and services for weddings are less straightforward than we, the faithful, would like them to be.

Culture of life: idea versus reality

Most ideas work in theory (i.e., in a perfect world). The question is, how do they interact when they bump into reality?

Take the idea of small government and low taxes: we should all be responsible for our own lives and fix our own problems. It makes perfect sense. In theory.

But here’s an example that shows things aren’t so straightforward when ideas butt up against reality.

For years, my daughter required extremely expensive orthotics to try to correct the “pronation” of her feet resulting from low muscle tone and loose ligaments. This is very common for people with Down syndrome. And when I say expensive, I mean $2000-$5000 per pair. Now, we never had to pay that bill, for two reasons: 1) we have great public insurance through my husband’s work, and 2) the county where we live has a dedicated tax to fund benefits for people with disabilities. Between those two realities, we were covered. Yay for us.

But what about the vast majority of people who have neither of those advantages? They just have to figure out how to pay $2-5000 for a pair of shoes, because individuals, unlike doctors’ offices and hospitals, aren’t allowed to negotiate lower rates with insurers.

It’s a heavy burden, and it’s only one example among many, where disability is concerned. Therapies are expensive, too. OT, PT, Speech. Heart surgery. Gastrointestinal surgery. The need for adult supervision long past the age it would normally be necessary.

You can see how easy it would be to receive a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome and be overwhelmed by the financial burden of raising this child. How easily these realities–which simply ARE; you can’t argue them away because they’re inconvenient–can be used to justify terminating a pregnancy. The burden is real.

This was one of the first realities that made it clear to me that the idea of small government, low taxes, and personal responsibility is not necessarily conducive to a culture of life. Sometimes, in fact, it will push us the opposite direction. This example shows how a centralized, universal health care system could, in fact, support a culture of life.

Countless Church documents over the years have stressed that government is meant to be a force for good. That it has a real role in making God’s justice manifest on earth. For generations, popes have been saying this.

But the modern counter-argument is that individuals and private charity can meet this need without requiring government intervention. So let’s take a look at how that idea plays out in reality.

First: outside of the families directly impacted, who even knows this need exists? (Did you?) How is the knowledge of that need going to reach the individuals and charities who might be able to meet said need?

But, for the sake of argument, let’s say someone does learn of the need, and creates an organization to meet it. The likelihood that they’re going to create a big charity with a wide reach is extremely low; the need is too specific. So at best, they’ll probably set up a charity that deals with their particular region. Yay for the kids in that region, but what about those in the next region over?

Best case scenario, someone else hears about it and sets up an organization there, too. Which means now we have two organizations, with two different leadership, doing the same job, competing for the same pot of charitable money. And meanwhile, the people three regions over still aren’t getting any help at all.

On the other hand, if this need were acknowledged and met through a publicly-funded entity–whether that’s something like the system in place in my county, or through a “Medicare for all” kind of national system–then we are actually being MORE efficient, because we have one administration, one funding stream, and one source.

Plus, we as a society are standing up and saying–with our pocketbooks–why yes, in fact, children with disabilities DO have value, they DO a right to be here, and to live fully.

It’s human nature to want to simplify the world, but the Gospel call has to be lived out in a messy reality. If we want to make any headway at all, we’re going to have to recognize that our ideas have to be “worked out,” as Pope Francis says, in the context of an immutable reality. That means being willing to listen to and learn from those impacted by any given issue, and to compromise with those who have different ideas on how to address the same problems.

Mercy Heroes

Photo by monkeyatlarge, via Flickr

Shortly after noon on a Holy Thursday, I was in my van, ferrying four fifth graders from the parochial school to the Food Bank to spend a couple of hours sorting bulk grocery items into family-sized bags. A great field trip to start off the Triduum celebration, especially for someone who’d been trying to spend Lent focused on “mercy.”

Although, to be wholly truthful? My in-flight entertainment consisted of death threats and body humor. So I couldn’t quite get that “I’m doing something holy” vibe going.

Which, come to think of it, isn’t all bad.

The thing about good deeds—and probably the reason certain Christian denominations are so suspicious of considering “works” a vital component of salvation—is that when you do good things, you tend to get really, really self-aware about it. You get this warm glow of self-congratulatory satisfaction, as if you can actually feel your halo expanding.

Image by OpenClipart-Vectors from Pixabay

Well, anyway, I do.

And that’s problematic for growth in holiness. It seems to me that the people who are truly merciful are the ones who would say, “What, this? This is no big deal. It’s just what I do.”

To give a different example: I get up every day and I exercise and I write and I cook meals…a lot of meals. I don’t need affirmation or congratulations, I don’t get all goosebump-y with pride about it, it’s just what I do. It’s who I am; what else would I do?

There are people who are like that with good deeds. It genuinely doesn’t occur to them that someone might compliment, praise, or affirm them for the mercy they show to others. They run the Giving Tree at Christmas, they buy a sandwich for the guy on the corner, they talk to emotionally needy/annoying people without betraying the least hint of impatience. They offer words of wisdom without any of the ego that raises others’ defenses. They don’t speak ill of anyone. Ever. At all. (Can you sense my awe?)

And they seem unconscious that any one of these individual attributes is amazing, and bringing all of them together is downright heroic.

In case I am being at all unclear, I am not one of those people.

My experience of Holy Thursday at the Food Bank was, if not self-congratulatory, at least a little giddy at the fact that I was, y’know, separating miniature chocolate chip cookies into bags for two hours. In the company of fifth grade boys, no less. It felt good to be involved. But still, I couldn’t help thinking, “chocolate chip cookies? I mean, does anybody really need  these? This isn’t big enough! It isn’t grand enough! I should be down there in the trenches, washing the face of Jesus, not sitting (well, all right, standing) safely in the volunteer room of the Food Bank, with zero chance of having to interact with a real live person in need.”

And then I thought, “But this is a whole lot easier.”

Clearly, the distance between me and the Mercy Hero I described above is vast.

But I think the key is practice. Like anything else that begins with great concentration and difficulty and painful self-awareness (learning Spanish from an audio course comes to mind), the more a thing is practiced, the more automatic it becomes. I’m sure the first time I blew in a flute I was feeling very self-aware. But now, thirty-odd years and two degrees later, it’s closer than second nature. I choose to place my hope in this little truism I picked up I don’t know where and with which I now drive flute students absolutely mad: practice makes permanent. Not perfect. Permanent.

Make mercy permanent in me, God.

(Note: this post originally posted on my personal blog, as part of a series I did on the year of mercy.)

Go Beyond the Surface

Background image by analogicus from Pixabay

Whether we are talking about the justification for raising or lowering taxes, the question of Dreamers and refugees, whether “voting prolife” must mean voting Republican or whether it can or should incorporate a larger view of the total life issues, or arguing over musical styles in worship, one thing is pretty much universally true: conflict gets ugly because we focus on issues instead of people.

Am I talking about the dignity of the person on the opposing side of the debate? Yes, but also the dignity of the people who are impacted by whatever issue we’re talking about. It’s much easier to look at issues as black and white, with no room for discussion or working together, when they are looked at in the abstract, rather than considering the real life people involved. When you start thinking about the dignity and well-being of refugees and Dreamers as beloved children of God, and of the Biblical call to be “our brothers’ keeper,” it becomes a lot less defensible to chant “build a wall” and tell Dreamers to go to the “back of the line.”

When we consider the dignity of the people involved, we have to look for solutions that take into account everyone, not just our own well-being. If we want to be a Christian nation, this is what we must do. It’s unsatisfying. Every one of us would be happier if the world laid itself out neatly in exactly the way we think it should. But we have to recognize that the world is flawed, and we’re not God. We can’t see the whole picture, and the only way we get anywhere close to seeing the big picture is by looking through the eyes of everyone else and figuring out how to set up the world to meet their needs as well as our own.

This is a lesson we learn as children: walk a mile in another’s shoes, see the situation through their eyes. Why do we stop thinking it matters when we reach adulthood?