Turning my little corner of the web over to the Truth Over Tribe podcast today, because I thought this was so valuable.
Their most recent guest is a Christian woman who worked counterterrorism under George W. Bush and came back to work under Trump, so she has seen the shift from worrying about Islamic extremists to home-grown extremists. Her perspective on what has happened politically in our country was really interesting, but most interesting was the nuance on what constitutes extremism and how there is a “funnel” effect that takes people who aren’t extremists and can radicalize them. There were good messages for me as well, as a person who is alarmed by this trend and doesn’t always handle communications around it in a healthy, holy way. Really good listening.
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.
This quote landed in my email inbox this morning within the Center for Contemplation and Action’s daily reflection*. Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s words here affirmed the convictions that have been growing in me for the past decade and a half or so: that the political issues of our time are part of our responsibility as Christians to address.
The blatant examples of racism in the U.S. are an easy target–the way in which nationalism has become inextricably (and bafflingly!) tied to racism.
But I would argue that stopping there is the easy way out. If we make the Proud Boys et al the scapegoat, then it’s tempting to give ourselves a pass on the subtler manifestations of racism—the ones that make many of us squirm when we are forced to look at them honestly. Things like inequality of educational opportunity and funding, unevenness in the justice system from top to bottom, the generational ripple effect of redlining and discrimination in housing and the GI bill… and on and on.
For sure, the idea that racism is baked into American society, and that I, as a white person, am benefiting from it, is uncomfortable! To accept that would mean that if I want to be a Christian, I am required, by my faith, to do something about it. And it might even mean working against my own worldly interests, i.e., my own comfort.
The static from certain quarters surrounding critical race theory strikes me as a perfect example of comfort bias.
Which brings us right back to Desmond Tutu, doesn’t it? What is a Christian’s response to evidence of baked-in racism? Will we lean into the discomfort and allow ourselves to be made holier by advocating for just and equitable systems in our nation? Or will we dig in to our biases and continue to “spit in the face of God”?
*The reflection carried this note about sourcing: Desmond M. Tutu, “My Credo,” in Living Philosophies: The Reflections of Some Eminent Men and Women of Our Time, ed. Clifton Fadiman (New York: Doubleday, 1990), 234, 235. Note: Minor changes made to incorporate inclusive language.
A few years ago, we went to Washington, D.C. We took the kids out of school for a week. We toured the Capitol, saw the Declaration and Thomas Jefferson’s library. We liked the Smithsonian. We couldn’t get into the African American museum, which was new, or the Holocaust museum. We had great food. We walked the national mall at night. My husband & oldest child ran on the National Mall like Captain America. We saw the Tomb of Christ exhibit at National Geographic, and explored the Spy Museum.
But I was deeply underwhelmed by the things I expected to find the most stirring. In fact, as we looked at the Washington and Lincoln memorials, I found myself more jaded than moved. They were overrun, and all I could see was the sinful division in our country rendering impotent everything we believe in.
Our last morning in D.C. was gray and drizzly and cold. We had a noon flight. We packed up and, on the way to the airport, parked along the Tidal Basin to walk from the Jefferson Memorial to the FDR to the MLK.
That morning, at last, I felt the swelling of patriotism. I’m sure, in part, I was reacting to the solitude, since the memorials were deserted. But I also think it was because in those memorials, I recognized the proper relationship between God and country. I saw how country can reflect Godly ideals—of making God’s will for humanity known: in justice, in care for each other.
I once read an opinion piece in which someone said that many who lionize Martin Luther King, Jr. would be very uncomfortable if they actually read all his words. It took a long time to understood that, which is why it’s stuck with me. But I realize now: it’s easy to get on board with “I have a dream,” because “I have a dream” doesn’t ask us to leave our comfort zone. But when you start dissecting the practicalities of what is required to transform from dream to reality, it’s a lot more threatening.
Enough from me. I want to share Martin Luther King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, which is my reading project for today, in honor of Rev. Dr. King. Will you join me?
I have not been posting much the last few months. I keep chewing over the same baffling questions again and again, and feeling that I am shouting into a void. So I’ve focused my energy instead on my fiction. There’s precious little time in my life for splitting my focus these days, anyway.
But the US bishops’ daily reflection Friday morning was on the topic of division and unity. A house divided cannot stand, Jesus cautioned. If good work is being done, it can’t be of the devil. And if there’s division, it is not of Christ.
The Church is a hot mess of division right now, just as our nation is. Every time I come up against an entrenched position that baffles me, because it is so clearly contrary to my faith, and it’s being held by people who are using their faith as justification for their beliefs, I think of this question of division. I think, “How can this be, when we all claim to believe the same things?”
Spoiler alert: if you’re reading this post in hope of there being an answer at the end, prepare to be disappointed.
Every time I come up against one of these, I think, “There’s no way God could be calling both of these sides to these beliefs. Is there?” Then I pause to search my own conscience and try to see how I could be the one who is wrong. I frequently find that I am wrong in my anger toward, judgment of, and assumptions about people who think differently than me. But I have rarely found the Spirit nudging me that I am, in fact, wrong in my beliefs. Not given the information I have.
So then I go and do research to see if my information could be wrong. I look at the sources, I think, “Nope, not going to read that, it’s too far left and I can’t trust it to be objective. Nope, not going to read that either, because that’s clearly a group with a dog in this fight. There, that’s a moderately-right-leaning source, that should give me a good counterbalance to my own biases.” Occasionally I moderate a position; I think, “this thing people are freaking out about on the left is probably not as big a deal as they’re making it out to be.”
But not often.
It is deeply disturbing to me that so much of our discourse these days is arguing over things that are so easy to disprove. It really isn’t hard to discern between credible sources and conspiracy-theories.
A good friend of mine recently left Facebook, because it was an exercise in scrolling through things that made her angry. “I feel like we’re conditioned to look for the next thing to get angry about,” she said. “I just needed to get away from that.”
How do we seek unity—Christ—instead of division—the devil—when it seems that so many of our conflicts are based, not on reason, but on appeals to all that is sinful within us—our selfishness, our lack of empathy for others?
So there’s an election next week. Let’s talk politics? (Yippee!)
Because I feel pretty certain that the timing of the release of the encyclical “Fratelli Tutti” was not accidental. Pope Francis released it right before the US elections for a reason.
Over the course of my life, papal documents have generally been pointed at someone else. At least, that’s how it felt. Like America was the good guy–not that we were perfect, but generally we were on the right side of the Gospel–and all those other countries were the ones getting their body parts handed to them by popes.
Fratelli Tutti doesn’t feel that way. In fact, it feels the opposite.
#15 begins a section subtitled “lacking a plan for everyone,” and ouch! does it ever capture modern American life. He calls out politics that make use of hyperbole, extremism and polarization. He talks about strategies of ridicule, suspicion and criticism. About political life being focused on marketing techniques rather than long-term efforts to better the plight of humanity. I mean, that’s a mirror for all of us, whatever our political persuasion, if I ever saw one!
In #18-21 he returns to a familiar topic of the “throwaway culture,” naming the unborn and elderly, and expanding the circle to recognize that wastefulness (like food waste) is also a symptom of the throwaway culture, one that harms the most vulnerable. Discarding people also comes in forms like corporate cost-cutting and racism, and even the declining birth rate.
This is the part where I pivot from “Here’s what the pope says” to “here’s my reflection on it.”
This list of modern problems echoes the questions that preoccupy me, the ones I gnaw over, day in and day out. Trying to understand how good people can fail to recognize bad things, and end up embracing them instead. The frustration that people will always point these kinds of examens at others, refusing to examine our own consciences for times when we, too, participate in or enable evil.
This concept of universal brotherhood is the central problem of our time. Well. Of all human history, but it seems particularly apt in this day and age.
We deal with problems in our families in a far different way than we do in matters of policy. In a family, we have our own concerns, but we also recognize the rights and needs of others, and we know we must look for solutions that serve everyone’s interest.
If we truly regarded everyone in America as members of our family, how would that change the way we look for national solutions? I think we’d have to move beyond “how does this affect ME and MY rights” and add, “How can I balance my needs against the valid needs ofthis other person with a conflicting interest?”
We need both right and left in order to keep us in balance. What we don’t need is the villifying, the mocking, the “contrast ads” and editorials and memes whose “truths” are stretched so far, they’re actually falsehoods. We wouldn’t treat our families this way. How can we, as Christians, think it’s justified in politics?
I’ve been trying for several days to find the entry point to reflect on the first section of Fratelli Tutti’s Chapter One. Like many papal encyclicals, FT begins by laying out the problem. It seemed, Pope Francis says, that for a few decades the world was heading in a positive direction–greater peace and international cooperation; an understanding of where we’d been and why we didn’t want to go there again. But it’s been shifting in recent years. He calls out “myopic, extremist, resentful and aggressive nationalism” and individualist ideologies that shred the idea of “social sense.”
This whole section is rich with resonance to me: consumerism, corporations that succeed by feeding individualistic priorities, leading to a loss of the sense of human interconnectivity and even an understanding of history. (This is my best attempt to sum it up. Really, you just need to read it.) In such an environment, high ideals such as democracy, freedom, justice, unity, etc., become meaningless catchwords that can be abused by anyone. Hence, the quote above.
Pope Francis catches a lot of flak in some quarters for being “liberal;” as far as I’m concerned, passages like this disprove that. To me, this sounds like the same conservative rallying cry that permeated my childhood. For decades, popes have been warning that when big conglomerates control the narrative of the world, it’s bad for us. Certainly, in my conservative Catholic upbringing, Hollywood and the music industry were the focus of this criticism.
I think we’re getting ready to hear that those targets aren’t the only ones–just the easiest to call out.
This seems like such a simple quote. I was going to let it stand without commentary, but I realized that this is really the essence of the convictions of all Christians who are passionate about social justice. To be a Christian is to care, in a self-emptying, physical, sacrificial way, for others. And to recognize that the things we do now have ripples down through history, on generations not yet born.
This quote expresses why we have a responsibility to act on environmental issues, on racial issues, on issues of poverty and inequality–the whole range of questions that are the most uncomfortable to address, because they challenge cherished ideals of self-reliance and rugged individualism.