About a taxicab

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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.

“Irksome!”

I love this passage so much. It makes me chuckle, because it’s so dead-on, and it’s not couched in airy-fairy language. “Irksome,” indeed! That’s a dead-on assessment of the reaction these concerns usually get. People are irked at having to think about them.

This whole section of Evangelii Gaudium is talking about economic systems and the need to make sure they are truly equitable and provide for the poor. It’s a procession of plain-speaking, conscience-pricking paragraphs: welfare should be considered a temporary solution, the dignity of the human person should shape all economic policy, inequality is the root of social ill, we can’t trust the market to do this work, and on and on. It’s so good. Take time to read it!

Discipleship = Love

Love is one of those words we throw around a lot. I often get frustrated when homilies focus on love, not because it’s wrong to do so, but because so much of the time, it stays in the realm of the theoretical. We can all nod our heads sagely and agree that to be a disciple is to love, but it’s awfully hard to recognize the concrete ways in which we don’t love at all.

It’s easiest to spot in the kids. One kid comes home stressed by lack of time and homework. He has a veritable comic strip cloud hanging over his head, with lightning bolts coming out of it. He bites off the heads of his brothers, who aren’t actually doing anything wrong, and they react by being predictably hateful. I may or may not, recently, have shouted, “All the religious formation in the world is useless if you can’t figure out how to live it in real life!”

Every parent reading this post probably chuckled and nodded sagely just now. We’ve all dealt with it.

But it happens to us, too. We’re just a lot more sophisticated with our stresses, and far more skilled at justifying ourselves for not acting in love.

Primary Motivator

The readings this weekend were all about money. Amos was talking about the dishonesty of those with money–how they were so focused on their own profits that they didn’t really care what happened to the “have not”s of the world. And Jesus said, “Guess what? How you use your money matters.”

Listening yesterday at Mass, it really struck me how those readings should skewer America. The obvious application is the question of income inequality: how many of the huge profits made by companies are held by those at the top of the food chain, how little is actually shared with those down the ranks.

But you know, so much of what we talk about in America centers on money. Many would like to believe we’re a Christian nation, but money–capitalism–is the primary thing that preoccupies our social and political discourse, even among Christians. So many things come back to money: health care and social programs would require more taxes, and we can’t possibly suggest raising taxes. Immigrants are perceived as a threat to American jobs, so again–it comes back to money. The question of whether a president deserves re-election is always about the economy. We’re having all these discussions about China and intellectual property and trade fairness, but nowhere on anyone’s radar is the question of just wages for labor, which is–let’s face it–the only reason manufacturing went overseas in the first place. It went overseas because we, the rank and file Americans, aren’t willing to pay what it would cost to make a product while paying a just wage to the laborer who made it.

We have a lot to answer for, and I don’t pretend to have a pat solution. I personally try to take a step back from the consumer culture by starting with secondhand clothing purchases as much as possible. But those clothes, too, were made by cheap labor overseas, and I order from Amazon just like every other red-blooded American. What do I think God will say to me when it comes time for me to answer for my choices? I don’t like pondering that question any more than anyone else.

In any case, when I was looking through the possibilities for things to share today, this quote from my Beatitudes book seemed to dovetail with what we heard at church yesterday. Because what if? What if, instead of money, we made God’s will, God’s kingdom, God’s priorities, the central principle that guided every other choice?

Book Recommendation: When Helping Hurts

How about a chance of pace for a Monday morning? I have a book recommendation to share:

When Helping Hurts:
How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor…And Yourself

I can’t say enough good things about this book. Written by two Christians (not Catholic) who have been involved for decades in mission work, they share wisdom on how to be helpful, rather than going in with great intentions and making everything worse. In a nutshell, it boils down to this: we can’t come in and be saviors. Our job is to facilitate others helping themselves. There are three types of help: relief, recovery, and development. Most of the time, what’s needed is development, but the vast majority of the time what we offer is relief–because it’s easier. It’s easy to measure, its results make good reports to the investors.

The authors take a “both/and” approach. Many Christians look at the poor and assume they got that way by their own bad choices/sins; therefore their problems are theirs, not ours, to deal with.

Sin is an issue, the authors stress, but so are unjust societal institutions. As an example, they point to civil rights work in the south in the 1960s, and a particular pastor who didn’t speak out on racism.

“Both Reverend Marsh and the civil rights workers were wrong, but in different ways,” the authors wrote. “Reverend Marsh sought the King without the kingdom. The civil rights workers sought the kingdom without the King.”

The authors address overseas missions as well as efforts undertaken within the U.S. When Helping Hurts suggests that successful solutions are not either/or; they have to acknowledge both the effects of personal sin and the effects of institutional oppression, because those two things exert an influence over each other:

“What happens when society crams historically oppressed, uneducated, unemployed, and relatively young human beings into high-rise buildings, takes away their leaders, provides them with inferior education, health care, and employment systems, and then pays them not to work? Is it really that surprising that we see out-of-wedlock pregnancies, broken families, violent crimes, and drug trafficking? Worse yet, we end up with nihilism, because these broken systems do serious damage to people’s worldviews. Worldviews affect the systems, and the systems affect the worldviews.”

(p. 92)

When Helping Hurts offers the concept of “poverty alleviation” as a solution to the complexities of institutional injustice and personal sin. It is a “ministry of reconciliation” in which we use our money in such a way as to empower those in desperate circumstances to begin to help themselves. It acknowledges that they do, in fact, need help from outside, but that as much as possible we should honor the God-given human dignity of the poor by allowing them to be the leaders and the experts in their own lives. That our job is to empower them, not rescue them.

I’ve long believed that in most issues we bicker about, God is in the middle. This book shows us a Godly middle to issues of poverty. Both conservatives and liberals will find things that resonate and things that challenge in this book–which is, to me, the strongest argument that they are on target.

Inequality leads to violence

It’s interesting to hear this argument, given the conversations/arguments we are having as a nation about gun violence. I’ve never heard anyone talk about this factor. Of course, violence goes way beyond mass shootings:

– Domestic violence is made possible by unequal relationships between life partners.

– War is quite often a symptom of one group imposing its greater power upon another weaker (i.e., unequal) population.

– Violent protests are quite often a symptom of a weaker, poorer, or oppressed group rising up against the institutions of power that hold them down. (Race protests in the wake of police shootings come to mind right away. And what happened in Puerto Rico.)

And so on. I find this statement really striking because we bemoan violence, we come up with all these ideas for what will stop it, and we miss this obvious reality, which means we can’t talk about violence without also talking about race, poverty, discrimination, and so on. It’s the spaghetti bowl principle all over again.

Truth and Social Media

Photo by Danielle Scott, via Flickr

I have a love-hate relationship with Facebook. Like everyone else, I love getting “likes,” and I love sharing and staying in touch with friends and professional contacts. It eases an introvert’s anxiety going into social situations if I already know something I can talk about with the people I’ll be seeing.

But the very thing that makes Facebook so great—how easy it is to share with others—also encourages us to share indiscriminately, without taking time to think through whether it’s inflammatory, whether it’s manipulating our emotions, and in fact, whether it’s reliable information at all.

Having been caught myself too many times by reacting instead of pausing to think–embarrassing for someone who strives to be fair-minded–I’ve become a huge skeptic of all inflammatory social media posts. I’ve spent the last several years fact-checking things on Facebook and trying desperately to get others to do the same–mostly without success.

There are plenty of non-religious reasons why we ought to be making sure what we share is actually true and not skewed:

-the ease with which outside powers manipulate us and endanger the trustworthiness of our elections;

-the way half-truths and distortions inflame anger, which leads us to abandon the middle ground–where compromise and fair progress are birthed–in pursuit of the extremes;

-the way families and friendships have been damaged by commitment to views formed by bad information;

-the shattering of lives in the wake of private mistakes becoming public humiliations.

But if we set aside all those reasons and focus solely on our faith, there’s another one:

We should fact check because honesty is in the Ten Commandments. It’s fundamental to right relationship with God.

Throughout Scripture, the righteous one is praised: the one who does not swear, the one whom everyone knows can be trusted to be truthful. One who speaks with integrity. Let your yes mean yes and your no mean no (a shot at the hyperbole that characterizes modern “communication”). The upright one is like a tree planted by a running stream. And so on.

Telling the truth is one of those basic rules of humanity we teach our kids. Dishonesty from our kids is one of the most relationship-damaging offenses, because it destroys trust.

And yet when it comes to social media, we forget all of this. We take every meme at its word, without even pausing to think, “Maybe I should double-check whether this is legit before I hit ‘share’.”

Or: “Does this even make sense?”

The misinformation, distortions, and misleading inflammatory things we share online may not be our own words, but they become our words when we speak them, and therefore it is our responsibility as Christians to make sure we do our due diligence before sharing. If a headline makes you angry, you’d better be on your guard, because it’s probably a sign that someone’s taking liberties with the truth in order to manipulate you.

Everybody wants lots of likes, you know, and too many don’t care if they bend the truth to the breaking point to get them.

It takes all of 30 seconds to type a search string into Google and see if something’s been flagged on one of the fact-checking sites. Also, we need to pay attention to the sites where we get information. We tend to trust any “news” site that agrees with us in their editorial slant, and we turn off the brain God gave us to think critically about what we take in. Some sites routinely shared by Christians ought to be boycotted altogether, because they’re among the worst offenders.

Honesty. It’s one of the foundations of our faith, let alone any successful society. If we want to stand before God with a clear conscience, we have got to check the accuracy of the things we choose to share.

Clinging to security

Background image by KasunChamara, on Pixabay

People are starving, not just for food, but for being treated with dignity and for acknowledgment of their wounds. Earlier in #49, Pope Francis talks about preferring a Church bruised and hurting from being out there with people to one that is “unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.” That description seems uncomfortably apt.

He also names a fear that I think drives a lot of religious people: the fear of “going astray,” which I interpret as the fear that if we go out into a sinful world, we’ll be corrupted by it. (We put our kids in bubbles for this reason, too.)

It occurs to me that if our faith is so weak it can’t survive the challenge of being around temptation, then the solution isn’t to hide from temptation, but to do some good work strengthening our faith.

I freely admit that I am no model for going out into the world and getting my feet dirty. In my case, it’s a result of an introvert’s paralyzing dread of interacting with strangers. But it’s something I’m thinking about a lot these days, and feeling called to address in that intersection of my own faith and the real world I inhabit.

Okay, But Who Is the “Other” We’re Talking About Here?

If you reacted to this with, “well, duh,” I hear you. This is the kind of religious platitude that we usually skim right over: so general and familiar, we can nod our heads and move on, totally failing to see how it applies in concrete ways in real life.

What if, in place of the word “others,” we substituted the actual people we struggle to love, i.e. will the best for? For example:

“to see God in and seek the good of…

…. that political figure I think is possessed by the devil. (And people have thought that about more than one recent figure, so be honest and don’t write this one off. It applies to both sides of the political spectrum.)

…those people who hold beliefs contrary to my own on important issues.

… that person who likes the OTHER kind of liturgical music.

…. that person who told lies to me or about me and deeply harmed my emotional well-being.

…. that school administrator/boss/coworker who is combative and uncooperative and makes my life miserable.

…that refugee on the southern border whose desire to come here feels threatening to me on some level.

If you didn’t squirm at this recitation, then you probably didn’t dig deep enough, because I definitely squirmed writing it.

This is the problem with religious platitudes: we can all, whatever our opinions on divisive matters within the Church and outside it, applaud and feel affirmed by such statements as long as we don’t dig down to what they actually mean in real life.

That’s why I’m here, doing this work at Intentional Catholic: because we don’t grow in holiness until we dig deep enough to get uncomfortable with the status quo.

To Love Is…

Since the Church considers this quote important enough to be underscored in the Catechism, I thought it deserved a graphic of its own, even if I did already write a whole post on the topic. Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words, right?