Public Prayer and Religious Freedom

Image by Beverly Lussier from Pixabay

Every so often a meme goes around Facebook that riles up Christians about public prayer and religious freedom. It’s not always the same one, but the idea is the same: we Christians are persecuted, we should rise up and demand that America act like the Christian nation it is.

The problem is, America is not a Christian nation. Many of America’s first immigrants came here to escape religious persecution. That persecution was very much on the minds of those who set up the system of government. They structured America specifically so that nobody’s faith would get to knock down anyone else’s. Everyone gets the chance to worship as they see fit. Whether we as Godly people like it or not, that also means freedom FROM religion. Not having publicly-sanctioned prayer is not persecution. It’s simply a recognition that we are a nation built on religious liberty. No one’s prayer can be imposed on all.

We as Christians may not like that idea, but this is what makes America great. Because in fact, it’s a system that mirrors God’s own heart.

As the saying goes, God is a gentleman. He doesn’t force himself on us. When has it ever gone well for us to try to force him on others? The Crusades. The Inquisition. The suppression of native cultures. Every time we try to force God on others, we end up gravely sinning in His name.

Our job is to do as God does: invite.

Instead, I would argue that much of what we as Christians display publicly is not inviting at all. Inviting could mean different things in different situations, but surely the fundamental quality of one who invites is a joyful heart. A heart so welcoming and kind and compassionate and peaceful in spirit that others say, “Hey, I want some of that. How do I get it?”

Instead, so often we Christians display anger, resentment, bitterness, judgment, and attitudes of exclusion when faced with those in crisis situations. We focus on our own preferences and emotional comfort while turning a blind eye to inconvenient facts—like the fact that if my free expression of religion requires the suppression of someone else’s free expression of religion, then it really isn’t religious freedom at all.

Like the fact that if we were truly a Christian nation, we wouldn’t be looking for ways to avoid helping our neighbors in desperate need. (“Who is my neighbor?”) Like the fact that a truly Christian nation would prioritize making sure all its citizens have health care and equal opportunity in education. Would prioritize support for the poor, recognizing that poverty, lack of opportunity and inequality are factors that undercut our ability to build a holistic culture of life.

When we turn a blind eye to these realities (which admittedly are hard, complicated to navigate, and resist neat and tidy solutions) and instead let ourselves be manipulated into outrage over something that’s really not a threat at all, we damage our ability to evangelize. We alienate those we are meant to invite.

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.

How to Discern?

We all have our preconceived ideas about what elements of modern life run counter to God’s plan. I could list mine, and no doubt some of them would be quite different from yours. Contradictory, even. We’d probably get into an argument about it. Isn’t that what happens every time we talk about guns, immigration, health care, poverty initiatives, race, or climate change? Half of us think the kingdom points in one direction; the other half sees that direction as heresy.

When God works in our lives, we are challenged to grow. Growth requires change, and change is threatening to our equilibrium. So we resist. We come up with a hundred ways to dismiss what we recognize as a threat to our own comfort.

How, then, do we truly discern when God is at work, challenging our preset assumptions, as opposed to when something is truly counter to God’s plan?

I would argue that we have to start by subordinating our preconceived opinions long enough to think around divisive issues and see them from another side. We might not change our minds. In some cases, we shouldn’t. But we’ll recognize the nuance and complexity of the issues, and that would allow us to enter into conversations in a productive, rather than toxic, way. It would go a long way toward bringing us, collectively, out of the place of acrimony and extremism in which we, as a nation, have become imprisoned. And that, in turn, would bring us closer to God’s kingdom.

Love Is A Concrete Thing

Photo by Ylanite Koppens on Pexels.com

Tell me if this sounds familiar: you tell a kid to put away a piece of clothing, and ten minutes later you look and discover it hasn’t been done. You tell them to do it again, and this time it makes it up the stairs and gets dumped on the floor. By the third time, you’ve pretty well lost your temper, and it’s all downhill from there.

This is my life right now: dishonesty, serial disobedience, and difficulty discerning how much is developmental and how much is spacey personality versus testing behavior. My husband reminds me we’ve been through it before and we’ll get through it this time, but it’s wearying.

Why does this warrant a blog post on a site about living the faith?

Because I’m starting to recognize that this parenting issue has a lot to teach us about love—real, self-giving, sacrificial love. How can we teach such a big concept to our children without starting with small, intimate relationships and small—maybe even petty—examples?

Little kids experience the world in concrete ways, after all. I need my child to learn that love doesn’t just mean cuddles and kisses and being tucked into bed at night and giving me a hug on the way out the door. That’s a tiny child’s version of love, but as they grow, they need to learn that a bare minimum, love means you don’t do things that harm the other.

And since Jesus Christ was never in the business of bare minimum, I’d go a step further and say, as the Catechism says: love means willing the good of the other.

So your actions show your love—or the lack of it.

To wit: if you cause your favorite parent to LOSE HER EVER LOVING MIND because you just don’t feel like doing what she asked you to do, then you’re causing harm and you’re definitely not willing the good of said parent.

In other words: NOT. LOVE.

Okay, it’s petty, I know. But really, if you start spinning out the implications, this is a big deal, and not just for the kiddos, but for us as adult Catholics.

Because if:

a) everyone is our neighbor (Luke 10:29-37), and

b) loving God means loving our neighbor (Luke 10:27-28; Galatians 5:14), and

c) love means willing the good of others (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1766)…

…then we’d darned well better be thinking about willing the good of asylum seekers at the southern border.

And about how to alleviate the strain on of living on women who see abortion as their only option.

And how to erase discrimination (which might mean, for a start, acknowledging that it still exists).

And what it means to steward the earth God gave us for future generations.

And how to create policies that put the good of workers and society before personal or corporate profit.

And how to protect victims of abuse and assault, rather than shame them and blame them and assume they’re lying for underhanded political reasons.

Because with every word we speak about those issues and every policy solution we advocate (or fight against), we show our love for Jesus Christ.

Or the lack of it.

The fruit of the Spirit

Image by Bruno Glätsch from Pixabay

In today’s Gospel, Jesus talks about false prophets and urges us not to trust too easily. “By their fruits you will know them,” he says. Bishop Barron’s accompanying reflection referred that back to the fruit of the spirit. (Item: an editor once pointed out that it’s not “fruits,” plural, but “fruit,” as in: a single fruit with all these facets. I had never noticed that before.)

What struck me this morning was that it sounds great to say “by their fruits you will know them,” but discernment is harder than it looks. We all produce fruit both good and bad. We can be incredibly generous in certain situations (natural disasters) and appallingly stingy in others (homeless people at intersections). We can be generous in thought, giving the benefit of the doubt to some (many within our close sphere of influence), and yet we leap instantly and irrevocably to the worst conclusions about whole groups of people (the assumption that asylum seekers are freeloaders and/or criminals; the assumption that immigration opponents are racists).

The fruit of the spirit is distinctly lacking in our public discourse today, and I don’t just mean the leadership. It’s on us, too. Is there a single one of those facets that we do not see violated daily on both sides of every debate? There are real problems in the world, real things to be angry about, but when we indulge the worst that is within us, we dump fuel on the fire instead of working toward the Kingdom. (This is one of the topics I discuss in my new Beatitudes book.)

Today’s reading is a reminder that a prophet who does not seek to manifest the fruit of the Spirit can and will be dismissed, no matter how true the message. It’s a personal challenge to each of us to shape up, and an equally difficult one: not to give our leaders a pass, either.

Racism is a prolife issue

Open Wide - prolife

This quote may seem shocking, but it speaks to the larger prolife issue. To be truly pro-life, we have to be thinking beyond the legality of abortion; we need to think about the larger issues that exert societal pressures. Why is the abortion rate so much higher among black women, do you think?

I have a lot of thoughts on the current state of the debates around abortion, but I will leave this for now and hope that it encourages many to click through and read the whole pastoral letter.

Encountering others

Open Wide - peripheries

In my upcoming book on living the Beatitudes in this day and age, in this place and time, I talk at one point about the risk of living in a bubble. We worry about perceived “bad influences” and thus cut off exposure to people whose experiences are different than ours. This can be true around religion, around politics, but it’s especially noticeable with race. How many of us actually have friends, by which I mean people we hang out with on a regular basis, of a different color skin?

 

 

“With Open Hearts”

Open Wide - opportunities to hear

Returning to Open Wide Our Hearts for a day or two, as the subject of immigration comes back up in the national news. This quote really stuck out at me when I first read it, because so much of our national discourse these days involves firing shots over opponents’ shoulders, without ever actually pausing to listen “with open hearts,” as the US Bishops said. The obvious application of this quote is to black-white race relations. How often do we dismiss the experiences of our African American brothers and sisters, thinking, whether we admit it out loud or not, that they’re overreacting, or reading into situations things that aren’t there? Open hearts, indeed.

But black-white relations aren’t the only instance where this quote applies. How much of the immigration debate these days is framed around the belief that people coming from south of the border are out to get us? Whole swaths of the country have bought, hook, line, and sinker, the idea that most of those seeking entry to the U.S. are criminals, even though research shows the opposite to be true.

The other thing we aren’t talking about, nationally, is the fact that the violence that is causing the mass migration that has created a crisis at the border came from the U.S. in the first place. MS-13 originated in Los Angeles. (Given the above paragraph, I take a moment to acknowledge this example of crime within the immigrant community, but also–it has to be seen within the larger context; the gang came into being to protect the immigrant community from gang violence from American-born criminals. So hey, Americans taught immigrants to be criminals.) This 2005 article from the L.A. Times illustrates that the seeds of the current crisis were sown by our own failures decades earlier.

And yet now, we choose to ignore our own role in this crisis, and try to blame others?

Open hearts, indeed.

The problems at the border are real. The questions are real–the ones posed by people on both sides of the debate. But the hysteria and demonizing done on both sides does not reflect the heart of Christ. How are we supposed to bring people to Christ if we’re not even reflecting him?

For further reflection, here’s a homily Archbishop Chaput gave on the topic.