A few days ago, the Bible in a Year highlighted Eleazar’s martyrdom in 2 Maccabees. Eleazar was unwilling even to pretend to eat pork because what kind of message would that send to the next generation about God’s law?
This is the “sin of scandal”— something I’ve heard about my whole life, but in that moment, in the midst of the election cycle where a whole bunch of politicians were courting Christian voters by telling flat out lies about stolen elections, I realized: We, as a Christian community, have a pretty big double standard about what constitutes the sin of scandal.
We’re very cognizant of it where the sin of scandal involves sex.
But there are a lot of other areas where it doesn’t even register, and if I name them, hackles will be raised. As I am sure they were in that second paragraph.
There are other issues, too. Environment, gluttony, and greed, to name a few. The issues I talked about last week.
And as for elections, after January 6, 2021, I wrote to my Senator who claims to be Catholic while loudly and stubbornly proclaiming clear falsehoods about stolen elections.
That is a sin of scandal, too. (And I told him so. Though I doubt his handlers even let him see the note. At least I tried.)
I hadn’t considered the sin of scandal for years, but having it highlighted resonated—and annoyed. Resonated because of course! I know for certain that there are people being driven away from God at this very moment by the sin of scandal in the political realm.
And annoyed, because when people talk about the sin of scandal, I suspect—in fact, in my jadedness I am certain (though I’d love to be humbled and proven wrong, truly)—that they are only thinking about sexual issues, while giving greed and dishonesty and selfishness at the expense of the future of humanity a total pass.
The call here is for us all to better examine our lives and recognize the disconnect between what we BELIEVE (in God terms) and what we believe (in world view terms). We’d all like to think those two are in lock step, but they aren’t. For any of us.
I have thoughts about that, too. I’m sure you’re shocked to hear. 🙂 But I’ll save that for next week.
I woke up early on Sunday morning to the sound of a much-needed long, soaking rain. I laid in bed a long time, alternating prayers of gratitude with wrestling something that is probably going to get me in trouble.
Sunday, of course, was 9/11. At my parish on any national commemoration, it’s become tradition to sing America the Beautiful as a recessional. I’ve been in a leadership role in music for twenty-two years now, and in that time my feelings on this have gone back and forth multiple times. I’ve led the song PLENTY of times.
America the Beautiful is a beautiful song. It’s an aspirational song—in other words, it describes what America is meant to be.
But I’m not sure it belongs at Mass.
For a long time, the single phrase, “God mend thine every flaw” has saved it for me in a liturgical context. But Sunday morning, lying in bed, I thought:
We have a strong contingent of Americans who are systematically trying to erase America’s flaws from history books. They don’t think we need to know them. They think it’s unpatriotic to name America’s national sins… even though this same philosophy calls America to “get back to its Christian values,” which would include the reality that acknowledging our failures is intrinsic to the practice of Christianity.
In contemplative circles lately, I have been encountering the idea of holding conflicting ideas in tension. America has been a place of great freedom, innovation, and human achievement. It has also been, in the same places and the same times, a place of great oppression, injustice, and hedonism and the pursuit of money without concern for the good of others. (A modern example: Regulation is looked at as bad because people perceive it as stymying economic growth. By our national actions, then, we demonstrate that we believe money is more important than safety, health, and the dignity of human beings made in God’s image. Theology of the Body in action: it is through our bodies that we do–or don’t–make God’s image visible in the world.)
I love America the Beautiful. But I think when we tear up singing it, it’s not because of what America COULD be or SHOULD be, but because of a false sense that this is what America IS.
Christian life—for Catholics especially—is supposed to embrace the tension between what we aspire to be and the ways we fall short. We have penitential seasons. We are supposed to go to confession often.
But most of us don’t, and even those of us who do (full disclosure: I am not one of them, by default of busy-ness, and I recognize that’s just an excuse) don’t recognize the flaws in the way we view patriotism.
In recent years, a large segment of Christianity has wrapped up the cross in the flag. A lot of people have pursued, and more have justified, or at least winked at, some pretty heinous things in pursuit of that false worship. False, because God and patriotism are not the same thing. God comes first. Way, WAY before country.
There is no question that it is appropriate to sing America the Beautiful at patriotic events.
But at church?
Doesn’t singing America the Beautiful put things in the wrong order? Like, we put the nation in first place, highlighting its ideals and ignoring its failures, and then, as an afterthought, ask God to bless it?
I’m asking this as a legit question. I’m willing to listen to another perspective on this, for sure. Because of COURSE, it is totally appropriate to ask God to bless America. But what purpose does it serve to ignore the divided, toxic reality in which America exists right now and substitute an idealized version of America that never has really existed except in our hopes and prayers? Not a Godly one.
A lot of people died on 9/11. They deserve to be remembered. They deserve to be prayed for. They deserve to be remembered and prayed for at Mass. But America the Beautiful doesn’t do any of that. It shifts the focus away from the victims and substitutes rah-rah patriotism. Wouldn’t it be more appropriate to sing, for instance, “On Eagle’s Wings” or “Be Not Afraid”?
If we want to show a proper priority of God and country, wouldn’t it be better to observe national holiday weekends with “Eternal Father, Strong to Save” or “This Is My Song, O God of All The Nations”?
Basically, we use America the Beautiful because it’s beloved on a secular level. We do it because of the “pastoral” judgment. But I’m not convinced it actually IS pastoral in impact.
As I said, I am willing to be convinced, but I ask that if you respond, please do so courteously and respectfully, and with prayer, as I prayed through the discernment of this post. I am putting this out there for respectful discussion in the spirit of Jesus Christ.
If you notice the copyright on this, it comes from 1986. In the grand scheme of things, I suppose 35 years is not a huge length of time. Nonetheless, it’s been more than a generation, and we’re still bickering about the same things. That feels a little disheartening to me.
The rest of this quote says, “These wounds will be healed only by greater solidarity with the poor and among the poor themselves.” Solidarity is a scary word. A lot of us live in a pretty significant bubble, which allows us to view the problems of others in an abstract way, rather than as something concrete and heartbreaking and intensely personal. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no paragon of virtue in this respect. I’m no better at solidarity than anyone else, despite my best intentions. But it twinges my conscience and forms my approach to the political and social issues that so preoccupy modern discourse.
I know this is kind of a long quote to process, so let me rephrase it to clarify why it struck me so forcefully. If we forget that our personal property has a “social dimension,” we’ll end up making an idol of it, making it all about ME and what I want. Getting resentful at the suggestion that the “social dimension” exists at all.
And when that happens, it’s easy for people to say, “See? This system of private property is corrupt. It doesn’t serve the common good.”
In other words, if we are too grabby about what’s MINE, it’s going to give people ammunition to suggest that the whole system is flawed.
The writers were undoubtedly thinking of giving ammunition to communism when they wrote this, but given the unpardonable and growing disparity between rich and poor these days–underscored by who gets COVID and who doesn’t; who has to put themselves at risk to go do low-income “essential” labor while the rest of us work safely from home–it seems like a pretty spot-on reminder for our day and age, too.
There are basically two kinds of posts filling up my Facebook feed right now. I’m sure it’s the same for you.
On the one hand, there are the conspiracy theories and memes filled with outrage over having to mask or social distance or really, having to endure limits and inconvenience of any kind. The we-should-just-open-up-and-get-herd-immunity posts. The the-numbers-are-always-changing-and-that’s-a-sign-that-it’s-all-baloney posts. Yesterday I saw a meme that bemoaned ruining our economy for a disease with a death rate of only .1%. (FYI: I went to the CDC and did the math, because I’ve been wrong before. The death rate is 6%.)
On the other hand, there are strident posts that imply that it’s universally too soon to open up, that everyone should stay in lockdown, that no church anywhere under any circumstances should sing, because it’s dangerous. Posts that pass judgment on others’ choices, without knowing the circumstances and in some cases, exaggerating the level of the violations.
Those who share the first type of post are almost exclusively from rural areas where the case load has been low. Those who share the second are almost exclusively urban dwellers living with ongoing trauma caused by the exploding body counts in their vicinities.
The thing is, both these points of view contain nuggets of truth. Where I live, it makes no sense to deny assembly singing; we’ve only had one death and a hundred cases since the whole thing began. That would be a precaution that causes unnecessary damage to communities without any benefit.
On the other hand, there *is* real mental health suffering going on because of the shutdowns; I’ve thought since day one that we could have a whole generation in need of counseling after this is over. I have four children. I did counseling myself for the first time in my life during this pandemic. Parenting during this is a nightmare for a person who suffers scrupulousness and, by extension, anxiety. What if I’m the one who ends up passing the disease to dozens of others and causes the deaths of hundreds because I’m too cavalier? What if the hospitals get overrun and my developmentally disabled daughter is the one who has to be denied a ventilator?
But because I’m so sensitized to my children’s mental health, to my own anxieties, and to the high stakes for my own family, I’m really cognizant of the need for balance.
In some places (like where I am), the damage being done by shutdown might, in fact, be worse than the damage avoided.
But maybe not. Because maybe shutting down prevented us from becoming a hot spot. Prevented us from the unbelievable anguish of burying our loved ones without being able to say goodbye or gather to remember them and send them off to Heaven.
The trouble is, we don’t know. We won’t know until it’s over and all the data is in—and maybe not even then. In real time, the situation is always in motion; the numbers change because new information comes to light, not because of some great conspiracy.
There *are* places where the fears are totally justified. As we, out here in the low-caseload areas, start reopening, it’s tempting to assume that what is true here is true everywhere. And then, to judge others for being more cautious. And our lack of sympathy causes people in areas where the danger is real to react more strongly—which makes us lash out more strongly still—which makes them angry…
It’s American tribalism on full display, in all its ugly, unchristian glory.
The beautiful thing about being human is that we are capable—if we will choose to exercise the ability—of adapting our understanding based on new information. But when the stakes are so high, our Christian responsibility to be cautious about what information we choose to partake of is more crucial than ever.
I propose that as Christians, our responsibility—our DUTY, in fact—is to check the bias of EVERY source BEFORE we click through, and to refuse to click through to any source that leans strongly right or left. Moderately left, moderately right, these sources are balanced enough that we can properly form our consciences. Clicking through to extreme sources only encourages greater extremism. If we want our media to behave with integrity, we have to quit rewarding them for misbehaving. If we want integrity in our news reporting, we have to demand it by not supporting those who violate our trust.
Frankly, on this Memorial Day, committing to greater integrity in our information consumption seems like a good way to honor those who gave their lives to protect this country. Don’t you think?
The past two weeks have been really intense for me as it is crunch time/deadline days for preparing presentations for the NPM (National Association of Pastoral Musicians) convention, which went online this year because of COVID-19. At the same time, where I live we are opening up. From this point forward, the discernments get harder. Now we have to weigh our responsibility to uphold the life and dignity of our fellow human beings against the danger of being so overprotective of physical health that we cause lasting damage to the emotional and mental health of ourselves and those we love. To say nothing of causing unnecessary suffering from deepening poverty, as more economic damage happens.
For weeks before opening, we’d had virtually no new cases where I live, so the calculation looks quite different here than it does in many other places. In some ways, it makes it more difficult. How long can we remain isolated from those we love? Yet if we loosen up in some areas and loved ones loosen in others, then we’ve both just multiplied our exposures. My state has been open 2 1/2 weeks now, and naturally we are seeing cases again. Not a lot, but to see regular cases after weeks of almost none makes it clear that we can’t be cavalier.
Which brings us, among other things, to the “do we mask?” question that has become yet another a lightning rod, another opportunity for political division in our country. The reaction of certain quarters of our population (“I’m not wearing a mask! When I woke up this morning I was in a free country!”) is what, specifically, made this Chesterton quote jump out at me this morning. This is one of those moments in which we are challenged to recognize where a worldly value has come to be more important than Godly ones. Has become an idol.
I don’t wear a mask at all times, and in masking, in opening up, every moment requires a discernment for me to make sure I’m practicing what I preach. Or at least, to try. I don’t like it, but it is the spiritual exercise of life right now–for all of us.
It’s been a hard slog, the last couple of months. Although Memeland USA has tried to lighten the mood by joking about it (my personal favorite was a picture of Doc and Marty, with the words “First Rule of Time Travel: Never go to 2020!”), the humor is only an attempt to bleed off some of the stress. Some among us are struggling financially because of lost income. Some because of the stress of illness or death–coronavirus-related or not–in a time when families can’t even gather to grieve. Some because mental health is hard to maintain in a time of anxiety and isolation.
That last was the struggle for me and my household. It took us a full month to get our equilibrium–which I achieved partly by counseling, partly by a 100% withdrawal from all news sources. And prayer, of course, but prayer guided me to those real-world solutions. Prayer is rarely a fix-all on its own. In prayer, God guides you to what *else* you need. God is the creator of science and psychology, after all.
I still have to be vigilant about mental health in certain quarters in my family, but I know we had it pretty easy compared to others. My Facebook feed is filled, top to bottom every day, with evidence that more people are still struggling than not.
I’ve started dipping a toe back in the news now, and the vehemence and acrimony of the protests against stay-at-home orders and masks are really striking. I heard a report this morning that in Stillwater, Oklahoma, a man threatened a business owner with a gun because he didn’t like the citywide requirement to wear a mask inside businesses. I mean, really? REALLY??
Full disclosure: I’m a flute player. Wearing a mask makes me feel like I’m suffocating. But I’m wearing them anyway, not when I’m outside, but when when I go to the grocery store or the hardware store. Why? Because I trust the medical authorities who say this is one small sacrifice we can make for the greater good.
That news story this morning just blew my mind. I don’t know what that man’s beliefs are. What I can say for certain is that his actions show a lack of respect for life and the Gospel. The Christian call is about self-emptying, about placing others’ needs ahead of our preferences.
And that’s my point for today. The whole point of being “intentional” about the faith is to take it out of the realm of the vague generalizations. It’s easy to talk in general about self-emptying, but the real test is what happens when you’re asked to make a sacrifice for others. Especially when you’re already struggling with loss of income or freedom of movement or mental health or loved ones.
For years, we in the religious community have criticized American culture for being hedonistic, for the idolization of instant gratification and “me, me, me.”
Those are totally just criticisms.
But the response to this pandemic shows that hedonism, instant gratification, and “me, me, me” is just as much a problem among religious people. (How many of those signs demanding an end to stay-at-home orders invoke God?)
This pandemic is nothing if not a series of opportunities to make sacrifices. When I think of people in Italy and Spain, who weren’t even allowed outside (because where would they go without encountering others?), it is abundantly clear to me that my stay-at-home order, which allows for biking and hiking and playing outside and taking walks in the neighborhood and going to the grocery store and on and on and on, is really a *very* small ask for the health of the community.
And now, as my community begins to open up–today, in fact–the discernments are going to get more complex. With schools and businesses closed, there wasn’t really anywhere to go, anyway. We had no choice but to honor the greater good by staying home.
Now, we have to start learning a new balance, because as important as “flattening the curve” was, economic motion is vital to the community, too.
But we can’t be cavalier about it. To be a Christian in this new reality means we have to think, rethink, and rethink again. All the rules and rituals we take for granted have to be re-examined. How do we best balance the safety of the community and the need to slowly expand exposure to this new virus, against the need to get the economy moving again so that everyone can regain the dignity inherent in work?
It’s inevitable that for the foreseeable future, we’re all going to have to give up things we’d like and deny ourselves things we’d like to do on our own schedule, but which now have to be planned around the greater good. It’s not going to be fun.
But we can view this as an invitation to grow in faith and holiness–by self-emptying, by doing the things we don’t like for the greater good.
Ever since “it’s the economy, stupid,” this has been how every issue is approached, both personal and societal. Who am I kidding? If the Vatican II bishops were talking about this, clearly it’s been this way since before the 1990s. But it’s impossible to escape the message these days. No matter what crisis is happening (coronavirus is one, but there have been plenty of other instances), the go-to response is always “how is it going to impact the economy?” As if that were the only–or even the most–important factor.
As a Catholic striving to put my faith above all else–far, far above money, which is supposed to be how we survive and do good in the world, not the defining factor of existence–I find this fixation problematic. We say we want to be a Christian nation, but that only holds as long as the topic is some moral issue that costs me nothing, because it doesn’t impact me personally. As soon as it’s a Gospel directive that affects *my* pocketbook, it’s a whole different story.
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!