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.

"Merry Christmas" versus "Happy Holidays" is a manufactured crisis.

Background image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

By the time I got on Facebook the morning after Thanksgiving, it had already started.

There was the meme saying “It’s okay to say Merry Christmas! Share if you agree.” Another friend shared an article saying something like “the post-Christian America will be a meaner place.” And among liturgists, there was the discussion of “should we try to convince people not to sing O Come, O Come Emmanuel before the 17th of December?”

Why are we wasting so much time and outrage on all the wrong things?

I have a lot to say about this, so for today, I’ll just address the first example.

Getting mad about “Merry Christmas” versus “happy holidays” is fight picking.

It doesn’t matter.

In fact, this supposed conflict doesn’t actually exist. Who is going around trying to force anyone not to say Merry Christmas?

True, some people (including lots of advertisers) have chosen to say “Happy Holidays” instead of Merry Christmas, out of a sense of respect for those who celebrate holidays other than Christmas. What’s wrong with basic, common courtesy? In what way is empathy and thoughtfulness for others contrary to Christianity?

(Breaking news: it’s not.)

Also: there’s no reason for Christians to object to the word “holiday.”

Further: In fact, there are multiple holidays (i.e., “holy days”) at this time of year. Thanksgiving and Christmas and Hanukkah and New Year’s, yes. But even within Catholicism, there are many holy days that are important to different ethnic groups: St. Lucy in one part of the world, Guadalupe in another. For all of us, Mary, Mother of God.
It is perfectly fine to say “happy holidays.” It is not contrary to our faith. In fact, that phrase originated with the Christian faith.

Plus, we need to be realistic. When people say “Merry Christmas,” they’re thinking about parties and presents and decorations and travel way more than they’re thinking about Jesus Christ. Even those of us who believe that Christ is the reason for the season spend way more bandwidth during it on things that have nothing whatsoever to do with Incarnation and salvation. The two terms are completely interchangeable.

I get frustrated about such nonsensical manufactured crises because they are part of a completely unnecessary culture war, and because they take up too much bandwidth that is needed for things that actually matter. Getting angry because someone says “happy holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” distracts us from focusing on the things we ought to be caring about—the real issues that God cares about.

Of course, questions of violence, poverty, suffering, abuse of power, and injustice in the world are a lot harder to deal with. But substituting manufactured crises does damage to us as individual followers of Jesus, because whatever time we waste on this nonsense, we’re not devoting to the things that matter. And it does damage to the Church as a whole, because why would anybody take us seriously when we’re howling with outrage over persecutions that don’t even exist?

When people try to turn this into a culture war, they are picking fights for the sake of causing division. At this time of year above all others, we should not accept that. When you see those memes, just scroll on past. God will not send you to hell for not sharing. I promise.

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.

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?

Dignity vs. comfort

Over the years I’ve fussed a lot about religious platitudes. In liturgical composers’ circles, we’re often urged to take out all the religious clichés and see if there’s anything left. (Often, there’s not.) In my own writing I’ve talked a lot about deadly generalizations in how we talk about the faith. When you talk big picture, everybody can get on board, because it doesn’t actually challenge us. It’s when we get into the nitty-gritty specifics that we start feeling defensive, which is not a guarantee, but at least a warning sign that we might be guarding an idol.

“The dignity of the human person AND THE COMMON GOOD,” Pope Francis says, are more important than coddling the comfort of the privileged people of the world.

I doubt most of us recognize ourselves as those privileged people, but I can just about guarantee that every person reading this right now is a member of that group, just as I am. I know my audience is basically white American and middle-class or higher. We don’t see ourselves as privileged, but we are. Living with oceans to protect us from the vast bulk of outside violence is a privilege. Living in a place where we have the right to go to church is a privilege. Living in a place where we have a government willing to step in and rebuild our homes in the face of increasing climate events is a privilege. Living in a place where we trust the police to be on our side is a privilege (and that one, not even all Americans share).

Giving up “comforts” could mean any number of things. It could mean paying more in taxes so as to better support education, social security, or a host of other things our faith calls us to support. It could mean curtailing certain gun rights so as to better protect the common good. It could mean something as simple as turning off your car while waiting in grocery store parking lots and pickup lines, and thereby accepting that you may have to sit under a tree and be hot in the heat, or turning off your car and just bundling up in the winter. It could mean being willing to live in proximity to people who make us uncomfortable. (People of different races, people of different education levels, people with disabilities, people who are poor or even homeless…you get the idea. Someday I’ll do a post about solidarity.)

I’m aware that everything I listed there is a challenge to conservatives. Anyone who would like to comment and leave parallel comforts to those who lean left, please feel free. I am trying to cram a lot of things into my days right now, and I don’t always have time to do real justice to these reflections. 🙂

“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!