Sometimes It’s Not Talking About Us. And Sometimes It Is.

“Trample my courts no more!
To bring offerings is useless;
incense is an abomination to me.” (Is. 10:13)

Isaiah really didn’t mess around, did he? Most of the time we focus in on the feel-good prophecies about the coming of the Messiah.

But in yesterday’s first reading, Isaiah says, “Guys, seriously. God’s not interested in what you’re bringing to the altar. You’re trying to substitute ritual for meaningful action in your real life. Your worship is useless. What gives worship meaning is what you do outside these walls, and you’re not doing it.”

This reminded me powerfully of a lengthy reflection I read a few weeks ago. The context is race, but the part that struck me most profoundly was about the way we interpret various passages in Scripture. When we hear passages like today’s, we shake our heads at those poor blind, hard-hearted Israelites. But when the readings of comfort come, we think they’re meant for us.

Today I just want to share a couple of paragraphs from that article, which was an uncomfortable but eye-opening read. In fact, the article is one of many in a magazine issue devoted to forgiveness; the whole issue this came from is on my to-read list. I encourage you to click through.

Though there is a place for the individual in theology, white theology, in profound syncretism with American culture, has distorted the Bible to be solely about individual redemption. So it is blind to the reality that when Scripture says, “I know the plans I have for you”, the “you” is plural and addressed to an entire community of people that has been displaced and are in exile. All Scripture has been reduced to individual interactions between God and a person, even when they are actually between God and a community, or Jesus and a group of people. As a result, white theology defines racism as hateful thoughts and deeds by an individual, but cannot comprehend communal, systemic, or institutionalized sin, because it has erased all examples of that framework from Scripture.

Secondly, white Christianity suffers from a bad case of Disney Princess theology. As each individual reads Scripture, they see themselves as the princess in every story. They are Esther, never Xerxes or Haman. They are Peter, but never Judas. They are the woman anointing Jesus, never the Pharisees. They are the Jews escaping slavery, never Egypt. For citizens of the most powerful country in the world, who enslaved both Native and Black people, to see itself as Israel and not Egypt when studying Scripture is a perfect example of Disney princess theology. And it means that as people in power, they have no lens for locating themselves rightly in Scripture or society — and it has made them blind and utterly ill-equipped to engage issues of power and injustice. It is some very weak Bible work.

Erna Kim Hackett, “Why I Stopped Talking About Racial Reconciliation and Started Talking About White Supremacy”

Wedge Issues, Tone Policing, and the Christian call

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

There’s a lot on my mind these days that speaks to how we live the faith in the real world—a world that, at the moment, is defined by crises and division. More now than ever. I didn’t think that was possible.

It seems there is no safe subject; even small talk leads to conflict. This morning on a bike ride, I encountered my kids’ former bus driver, and stopped to chat (from across the street). I asked about coming back in the fall. The answer was a hard pushback on the forthcoming citywide masking requirement—a requirement that makes a lot of sense given that during the first wave, we had practically zero cases, and now we are averaging 30+ per day. “I’m VERY strongly anti-mask,” she said. ”I think it’s a personal choice.”

How does one respond to such vehemence? I know what I WANT to say. I WANT to say that as Christians, our world view is supposed to reflect a Gospel that tells us self-emptying, treating the other’s needs as equal to our own, is the way of discipleship. A Gospel that we believe tell us life is precious, and the right to life far outweighs personal “choice.”

I WANT to say, “Can’t you see that you’re setting aside your prolife convictions? That you’re using the exact same language used by the pro-choice movement for decades?”

But how do you communicate any of that without sounding holier-than-thou, preachy, and generally self-righteous?

It didn’t matter, because all I got out was, “Oh, I’m not.” Then she was pouring out her grievances, and thirty seconds in, I thought, I’m supposed to be home in 40 minutes. I just need to politely say “good luck” and move on.

So I did.

I spent the rest of my ride pondering this exchange and others. So many things have become wedge political issues that have no business being so. A pandemic should NOT be a political wedge issue. Racial justice should NOT be a political issue. Supporting women who have experienced harassment, abuse, or assault should NOT be a political issue. These are things people of faith should be unified on. Certainly the Catholic Church, flawed as it has been in practice, has spoken clearly on them all. How on earth has politics become more important in forming our world view than our faith?

But I realize that a lot of the refusal to budge on these issues is a reaction to scrupulousness–a scrupulousness that leads to making assumptions about people. From there, it’s a short skip to judgment.

There’s a lot of judgment on social media these days.

*I’m* judging a lot. Most of the time I don’t post my judgy thoughts, but that doesn’t mean they’re not there.

I think those of us who believe we have a societal responsibility to public health, who care passionately about racial justice and victims’ rights–those of us who care about these issues are so angry, we don’t always recognize that our words and our tone can do more harm than good. That sometimes, in our passion for justice, we cross the boundaries of Christian charity.

I know, that sounds like “tone policing.” I get it. But tone DOES matter, because when we make assumptions about what people are or aren’t doing; when we pass judgment; when we belittle and dismiss and make sweeping generalizations about everyone who (fill-in-the-blank)—

When we do these things, we make everything worse. We aren’t bringing people to a greater understanding of the truth. In fact, all we’re accomplishing is hardening people in their perception of persecution. They become less open to hearing, less open to examining the conflict between their worldly perspective and the Gospel.

Below (in the comments, on Facebook), I am sharing an op-ed that really hit me hard. I don’t often share (or read, for that matter) from the New York Times, because to so many people, it epitomizes the “liberal media.” But I think people across political spectrums will be surprised by what this man has to say.

The social quality of personal property

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.

Public limits on personal property

A few weeks ago I decided we’d all adjusted as well as we could to COVID and I could return to Gaudium et Spes. I posted once, with the quote “…man should regard the external things that he legitimately possesses not only as his own but also as common in the sense that they should be able to benefit not only him but also others.”

Right after that, current events overtook me again. But here I am now, sharing this quote, the second in a group of three that really struck me. In our polarized political atmosphere, a point of view has developed that believes government has no right to limit personal property–that to do so is an overreach.

But it turns out that this point of view is inconsistent with Church teachings. This sequence from G&S (it’s paragraphs 69-71) makes very clear that government *does* have a right to regulate private holdings. We can debate all day the extent and the appropriate use of that right, but government does have a licit and totally morally upright role.

Interesting, right?

If you want peace, work for justice

The basic premise behind “Intentional Catholic” is that we should examine everything we encounter–every gut reaction, every human encounter, every decision, every news story, every moral question and political issue–through the lens of our faith.

Many of the songs we love and sing robustly at church are about justice: Canticle of the Turning; Send Down the Fire; All That Is Hidden; Anthem; Christ Be Our Light; We Are Called; City of God; We Will Serve the Lord; Lift Up Your Hearts, to name a few.

These songs stir us because they awaken in us a connection between a real, tangible world and “Thy kingdom come ON EARTH AS IT IS IN HEAVEN.”

They stir us, in other words, because they underscore that justice is *supposed* to be something to be something we work toward on earth. That’s literally what we’re praying for in every Our Father we recite.

This presupposes that we have a role to play in that, because as Teresa of Avila famously said, we are now God’s hands and feet on the earth. They stir us to desire that just, peaceful world.

But when it comes to putting in the effort to make that happen, we crash into our own idols. We start fussing about what actually constitutes “justice,” because we start to realize seeking it is going to threaten some of our own worldly priorities and political philosophies. At some level, we begin to recognize how our idols might have to give way in order to truly see the Kingdom made reality on earth as it is in Heaven. We start feeling threatened by how much we might be asked to give up.

And in the end, we’re stirred by the music, and we talk the talk, but we don’t walk the walk.

And so justice remains a far away dream. People who have experienced oppression protest. Some among us look for reasons to justify dismissing them, while others with the best of intentions react so strongly to such dismissals that they end up perpetrating a whole other kind of injustice.

I’m really struggling with the world right now, if you can’t tell. Toss some hope my direction.

In Which I Wrestle With Race

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I was so clueless.

I went to a park to meet a friend and her son, my godchild, to social-distance celebrate a birthday. She was upset, and I didn’t immediately realize why. She had to lead me almost all the way there.

I have rarely felt the privilege of my own skin color so keenly.

Because unlike me, she and her son are not white. And while the events of the past week, beginning in Minnesota and spreading all over the country, are a source of grief to me, for her they are inescapable realities that she has to wrestle with on a daily basis.

What is the future for her child? For all her male loved ones? Can they not go running in their neighborhoods? Do they really need to be afraid every time they see a police officer?

We rarely recognize how deeply our unconscious biases affect us. How many ways we have taken worldly values (self-reliance, personal responsibility, small government, and money, always money–it’s my money, no one has a right to it, especially a central authority, even to help lift up vulnerable populations) and tried to use our faith to justify them.

It’s not that those values are without merit. Of course they have merit. But they so easily become idols, when the Gospels make it clear that people ALWAYS come first.

Photo by Ivan Bertolazzi on Pexels.com

As my friend and I talked, I could empathize–sort of. The cluelessness of white America is, for her, something like the cluelessness I encounter about issues surrounding disability. Whenever I share a frustration I experience with institutions that interact with my daughter–health care, schools, etc.–I get pushback from people who oversimplify the situation. People who don’t understand that the pat solutions that seem so obvious to them simply don’t work. The tangled complexities of the situation are invisible to those outside it. Even those who are closest to us generally don’t “get” it, because they haven’t experienced it themselves.

Last fall I tried to explain our family’s struggles with special ed to a group of health care workers who were studying issues surrounding special needs. I thought I could tell the story in twenty minutes. At twenty-five minutes, I realized I was only a quarter of the way through, and the audience was zoning.

Even an audience of people most poised to understand really couldn’t “get” it.

So I understood, on an intellectual level, my friend’s deep frustration and woundedness. But I don’t *understand* what it’s like to be black in America. Not at a deep, visceral level, the way the black community does.

The only solution to all this is to “hear with open hearts,” as the pastoral letter from the US Bishops on racism teaches. To accept that what we cannot “get” at a visceral level is nonetheless real, and to recognize that it calls for a response from us. Not just an express-my-outrage-on-social media, write-a-blog-post response, but a “don’t blame the victim for the way things got out of control” response. A “hold my leaders accountable for their inflammatory words and lack of positive action” response. A “quit giving them a pass because they check the box on a single issue, regardless of how poorly they reflect the rest of my faith” response.

Because this cannot continue. It must change.

It MUST. CHANGE.

Ruled by economics

Background image by HealthWyze from Pixabay

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.

God vs. mammon, indeed.

How Does a Christian Respond to the Coronavirus?

I’ve never succumbed to communal panic about crises. The closest I came was my senior year of high school, when some dude who’d “never been wrong” in predicting an earthquake predicted the biggest one ever on the New Madrid Fault, and it happened to line up with the day I was out of town auditioning for all-state band. I think my response was to pack a blanket in the car.

So it felt very… wrong… somehow, yesterday, to go to the grocery store a day early and spend more than twice what I normally spend on a week’s worth of groceries to freeze–vegetables, snack packs with nuts & cheese, milk & pizza makings. It felt like abandoning a long-held principle.

But if things do follow recent patterns, we could find ourselves quarantined in our home for two weeks, and if that happens, well, I have six people to feed. Extra groceries seems like a reasonable precaution.

Here’s what I’m realizing this week: in the coronavirus era, more than ever, living the faith intentionally requires humility and self-checking one’s biases.

I, for instance, have been very resistant to the limitations on worship that have come down. But I remind myself that devotion to purity of worship is a golden calf just as deadly as idols of political philosophy or money. There are immuno-compromised people to consider, and their dignity is more important than the externals of worship.

We all have some hangup to get over. Some people are so certain that “on the tongue” is the only proper way to receive the Eucharist, they are unwilling to bend in the interest of public health. Others insist we shouldn’t ban the Cup or stop the sign of peace because obviously God will protect us.

For all of us, the coronavirus outbreak is a wakeup call. For years, we’ve been warned that something like this was inevitable, but we all shrugged it off.

And now that it’s here, we’re reaping the fruit of our collective failure to listen and compromise. While Americans up and down the political food chain have been busy screaming at each other about a handful of hot button issues, a bunch of critical things have been ignored. We’re not prepared for a health crisis like the one China and Italy have been facing. This morning, a family member sent the text of an article from the Economist (a British magazine which is rated “least biased” by Media Bias/Fact Check, a rare distinction), which stated that “In 2010 the CDC budget was $12.7 billion in current dollars; today it is $8 billion.”

Meanwhile, the talk in some quarters is more tax cuts. Tax cuts *might* stimulate some minor economic movement (although with everything closed/canceled, what are we going to spend it on?), but the nation is already deeply in debt. You can’t keep cutting government’s funding and expect it to be able to carry out its proper function–i.e. the protection of the population.

Our basic vocation as Christians is to care for each other. Sometimes that’s on an individual basis, person to person. But if we want to be a “Christian” nation, then we should view that as a collective, societal vocation. To accomplish that is going to require taxes. Taxes are not evil; the pandemic illustrates that some functions simply *cannot* be carried out on an individual basis. They *require*, by definition, centralized intervention. We can’t hold any philosophy, whether it’s Communion under both species, Communion on the tongue, or low taxes, so tightly that we give up the thing that’s most important–the Christian call to care for each other.

“New humanism”

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.