WELCOME! Do you find contemporary life a challenge? Are you a confused Catholic, or even just someone seeking to understand faith? Since 2003, CrossCurrents has appeared 40 times each year. My aim: to provoke thought and enrich faith by interpreting current events in the light of Catholic tradition. I hope you find these columns both entertaining and clarifying. Your feedback and comments are welcome! Find information about my pastoral consulting at http://www.crosscurrents.us/ NOTE: TO READ OR WRITE COMMENTS, CLICK ON THE TITLE OF A POST.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

#428: Lies Will NOT Set You Free

Sometimes several events converge into something like a prism that splits out the colors of our lives and offers us a clearer view of our reality.  February 2015—approaching the 12th anniversary of the Iraq invasion-- brought one of those convergences.

First, Jon Stewart announced he was leaving The Daily Show later this year. Shortly after, his friend Brian Williams of NBC was caught fabricating elements of his news stories from Iraq. Meanwhile, Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper was climbing to #1 one as the top-grossing “war movie” of all time--just as the trial of Chris Kyle’s alleged killer approached its conclusion (the guilty verdict arrived as February ended).

When Williams’ deceptions surfaced, the commentary on The Daily Show was vintage Jon Stewart.  First, because Stewart had long proven that he would not spare his friends.  Second, because he once again found a way to wring insight out of humor--with a stinger of truth:

“Finally!” Stewart said.  “Finally someone is being held to account for misleading America about the Iraq War!”

This was no cheap laugh, since Stewart had been among our chief skeptics challenging public officials about Iraq since 2003. His viewers are well aware that he believed the war was mounted on a vast fabric of lies for which no one has ever been held to account.  Thus his joke about Williams’ echoed 12 years of commentary on the failure of U.S. media to hold our leaders in check. (You can see Stewart’s scathing commentary here: http://thedailyshow.cc.com/videos/j3ware/guardians-of-the-veracity )

This also implied that Williams’ fabrications were part of a larger failure by the U.S. news media.  In retrospect, the image of Williams’ many appearances on Stewart’s “fake news” show now acquire a bitter, even tragic cultural irony: we now know that, as the comedian interviewed the newsman, it was the comedian who provided the honest truth and the news man who invented stories.  And Stewart’s popularity stems largely from his viewers belief that he is generally a more reliable source on public affairs than the so-called “news professionals.”

Certainly, the mainstream media (like NBC, ABC, CBS, CNN) in recent years have tended to fake objectivity by employing a strategy of “one side says this, the other side says that” to cover major controversies over public policy, while the partisan media (MSNBC, Fox News, talk radio) have tended to preach consistently and predictably to their respective choirs.

The result is that we no longer develop a public consensus about controverted issues, because no one offers a critical judgment on them.  So camp followers stay in their camps, and the mainstream news treats every question as a 50-50 proposition.  Thus, 12 years later--after the U.S. invaded a sovereign nation based on lies, paid for it on credit that exploded our national debt, killed 150,000 people, and triggered a hellish upheaval in Iraq that now includes ISIS--there is still no official public acknowledgment of guilt, shame, or remorse.

And Jon Stewart’s joke summarized this entire sorry truth like a prism showing us the true colors in our light.

This media failure enables bad public policy that costs lives, damages human rights, and promotes injustice and terror.  It also conditions the American public to take bad policy for granted and even accept rationalizations that label our policy mistakes “heroic” and label those who carry out that policy “heroes.” (No doubt such distortions are aided by residual guilt over the mistreatment of veterans returning from Vietnam 40 years ago.)

Thus the public is encouraged to confuse our veterans’ service with their accomplishments.  This masks the uncomfortable truth: yes, of course, our veterans have, by definition, served their country.  But that service has not accomplished what is generally claimed.  Has it protected us?  Not in Iraq, because there was no threat in the first place.  Has it preserved our freedom?  No again--and who thinks Americans are as free now as we were before 9/11?

Amid all this, American Sniper became a box office smash.  Based on social media reactions and media commentary, it appears most of the ticket sales are to viewers who see Chris Kyle as an American hero.  This has provoked liberal and left-wing rejection of the movie as “pro-war propaganda,” led Michael Moore (whose uncle was killed by a sniper in WWII) to remark “I was always told snipers were cowards,” and probably cost American Sniper many Oscar votes among the liberal Hollywood establishment.

CrossCurrents readers know my opinion that viewers often missed the real movie on the screen, instead projecting their own meaning onto the images they see  (see CrossCurrents #418 on the film “Gravity”).  This has clearly happened to millions of viewers of American Sniper.

Conservatives on the right see a story of bravery and dedication under fire to protect America from its dangerous enemies.  Liberals on the left see a glorification of war that fails to expose the lies about Iraq and promotes the fiction that our invasion protected us.

Both sides are blind to the movie itself.  Granted, some actions in it required bravery and dedication.  Granted, the movie totally ignores the historical and political context of the Iraq invasion.  But the truth is that for 2-plus hours American Sniper tells another story.

It shows us Kyle’s father praising his son for showing that he possesses “the gift of aggression,” and we sense the “kill or be killed” values in his upbringing.  It shows Kyle’s consistent denial of the inner struggle he suffers doing his job.  It shows his wife pleading with him to stay home, clearly conscious of the toll combat is taking on him.  Her one desire is for him to “be human again.”

What American Sniper reveals is the bleak reality of the damage war was does to the warriors.  As Boston Globe critic Ty Burr observed, “‘American Sniper’ may be the hardest, truest movie ever made about the experience of men in war. Why? Because there’s no glory in it.”

Burr is right. The film may be SET in Iraq, but is not really ABOUT the Iraq war. It is about the experience of war itself. By ignoring the history, the politics, the arguments--even by ignoring the lies--Eastwood presents, not one particular war, but “WAR” as a generic reality in excruciatingly concrete detail. It echoes, with no little irony, the old 1960s slogan “The Real Enemy is War.” My wife and I left the theater a bit traumatized and not a little relieved to get out. Personally I would count it among the great antiwar imagery in movie history, along with “All Quiet On The Western Front,” “Apocalypse Now,” “Platoon,” and even “M.A.S.H.”

But that does not explain the ticket sales, for we also worried that others would see a patriotic tale on the screen, rather than a cautionary tale.  Indeed, American Sniper’s success owes less to the reality Eastwood presents and more to the skewed expectations of his viewers.

Given our media failure, many people come to American Sniper assuming that the Iraq invasion was national self defense.  They admire Kyle’s technical skills and nerveless focus, and they accept his claim that he was merely killing to protect his buddies.  Such viewers forget that no sniper would be needed to protect our troops if our troops had not invaded in the first place.  They ignore Kyle’s own failure to reflect on his place in a fraudulent mission, content to function mechanically as a cog in the war machine.  And they miss Kyle’s denial of the toll his experience of war has taken on him.  When his wife shows alarm at her husband’s dehumanized state, her words and worry go unnoticed by such viewers.

Thus both liberals and conservatives miss the mark on American Sniper.  Liberals miss its dissection of the horror in all war because they’re too busy looking for a critique of the policies behind one war.  Conservatives miss the same horror because they project their acceptance of the fraudulent Iraq policy on the screen they are watching.  Thus liberals consciously lament something that is not there, and conservatives unconsciously add something that is not there--and they both miss what is there.

All this reflects our cultural malaise today.  We begin with bad policy from misguided leaders; this gets 50–50 treatment from an uncritical and unreliable media; this in turn conditions the public to accept distortions, deceptions, and outright lies.  So bad policy persists, heroes are praised, and God Blesses America at all our public events.

Amid such confusion, who will speak truth to power?  Who will call bad policy “bad policy”?  Who will say we disserve those who serve our country by sending them on bad missions?  Who will remind us that the real enemy is war?  Who will be our conscience?

The Hebrew prophets were once the conscience for their people. Many Christian saints (like Francis of Assisi) likewise spoke truth to the powers of their day.  Our Church attempts to offer wisdom to power in our day (two popes and Catholic bishops worldwide warned in 2003 that invading Iraq would “destabilize” the entire region), but our Church is too often ignored.

Perhaps the job has fallen to our comics.  Like the court jesters who once exposed kingly follies with humorous ridicule, satirists like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert puncture the pretensions of the powerful and debunk our day’s conventional wisdom.  As Jesuit theologian Bernard Lonergan observed in his famous book Insight--A Study of Human Understanding:

Satire breaks in upon the busy day...It enters not by argument but by laughter.  For argument would presuppose premises, and premises that would be accepted easily also would be mistaken.  But laughter supposes only human nature…Moreover, as it is without logical presuppositions so it occurs with apparent purposelessness; and that too is highly important for, if men are afraid to think, they may not be afraid to laugh.  Yet proofless, purposeless laughter can dissolve honoured pretense; it can disrupt conventional humbug….Satire can help man swing out of the self-centeredness of an animal in a habitat to the universal viewpoint of an intelligent and reasonable being.

In doing this, our satirists make room for a reasonable critique that unmasks the lies America is living by.

Those lies will not set us free.  Nor will media that have abandoned their prophetic role because they themselves are now part of the corporate power structure.  Nor will an American public prone to patriotic platitudes.  So maybe for now we must rely on jokes to set us free, for those jokes can speak the truth no one else will.

All of which makes people like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert national resources with whom God has blessed us. And it makes their departure unsettling. It leaves us wondering: when the emperor’s next new wardrobe arrives, who will joke about its fake fabric?
© Bernard F. Swain PhD 2015

Friday, January 30, 2015

#427: Tourist--or Pilgrim?

This week’s 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz has revived an indelible image from my long–past (but not lost) youth.

One November day during my college year in Paris, I killed time between classes by wandering the area around Notre Dame Cathedral. After a few minutes exploring the Pope John XXIII garden behind the church, I noticed a low stone wall at the far end of a small green across the street, and crossed over to get a closer look at the words carved into the stones.

My French was still pretty basic, but I managed to figure out that the wall commemorated 200,000 French deported by the Nazis who occupied France during WWII. Actually, it was not a wall at all, but the roof of a (mostly) underground building, with stairways cut into it leading down into a courtyard.

This was the Mémorial de la Déportation. I had never heard of it, but I was about to experience it for the first time. I would emerge convinced it was the most powerful monument in all Paris---and I would emerge a changed person, someone whose personal pilgrimage had taken a sudden unseen turn.

The roofline rose around the narrow stairs as I descended, squeezing me between the stone walls. The same high wall enclosed the deep-set courtyard itself, blocking any sight of the city beyond. The Seine’s waters just below showed through one small grated opening, topped by the jagged points of a plate-iron sculpture that looked like barbed-wire enlarged 100 times. It felt like I was standing in a prison yard.

Turning back toward the stairs, I saw two massive stone slabs splitting a narrow space leading inside.

I squeezed through and found myself in an underground crypt softly lit by faint light coming from its four corners. In each corner I found a barred doorway to a stone jail-cell; the light came from windows one could not see from outside the locked empty cells. Carved into one stone wall is a poem reflecting the spiritual anguish of the camps:

I've dreamt so much of you
I’ve walked so much
Talked so much
So much loved your shadow
That there is nothing of you left for
What’s left for me is to be
The shadow between the shadows
The shadow that will come
And come again 
Into your sunlit life.

Returning to the center, I stood before a fifth set of bars blocking entrance to a low, long, tunnel-shape corridor. 
It led, like a horizontal black hole, to an invisible destination, but along both sides I saw thousands of tiny, faint-white lights, and instantly knew each one represented an individual lost to the Nazi genocide machine.

 Just beyond the bars, at my feet, was a raised coffin-shaped black stone, to mark the resting-place of an unknown deportee. Just behind me, in the middle of the floor, burnt an eternal flame.
And as I turned to go I saw, carved over the huge slabs leading out, the plea:  “Pardonne, n'oublie pas”—“Forgive, but Don’t Forget.”

When I climbed up the cramped exit stairs to ground level, cold drizzle greeted me like a refreshing breath of life after the stunning, symbolic specter of so many deaths. The few minutes I had spent inside had marked me, and shadowed the rest of that day and the weeks that followed.

I remained in France another eight months, and returned to the Mémorial every three or four weeks. In a city unrivaled for its cathedrals, monuments, places of historical significance and breath-taking beauty, this obscure, almost invisible memorial became my own personal place of pilgrimage.

Three years later I returned to Paris, and made time one morning to visit the Mémorial. After a few minutes of reflection I noticed the guard on duty approaching me.

“Excuse me, Monsieur, I do not mean to intrude. But I was wondering—you have been here before, non?”

I admitted I had.

“But it was some time ago, was it not? Two, maybe three years? And more than once?”

Yes, I agreed.

“You see, Monsieur, most people who come, they are just on tour—they walk in and walk out, maybe they take a photo or two. After five minutes they are gone, and have already checked this place off their list of sights to see. But you would come and stay, spend time, and you would return again.”

“Yes, it’s true,” I said. “But I was studying here, not on tour. I was here a whole school year.”

“That is what is even more striking, Monsieur. You see, the people who live here, the Parisians? They do not come at all. Most of them don’t even know it exists. And frankly, Monsieur, many would not care to know.”

He then added that I was not the only pilgrim who returned, telling me of the US officer who led the first US liberation of a Nazi death camp in January 1945.

“He saw what there was to see, Monsieur, and immediately said, ‘Ike (Supreme Allied Commander Dwight D. Eisenhower) has gotta see this.’ He got Eisenhower to come, and (Generals) Bradley and Patton with him. The man was marked for life, and every year, when he returns there to observe the anniversary, he also comes here to pay his respects.”

“You see, Monsieur, I can tell the pilgrims from the tourists! That is why I remember you.”

My first visit came only 23 years after the camps were liberated. It shocks me to think how near that awful history was to me then, and how fast the time since has passed.

Now, this week, we observe the 70th anniversary. That old guard is gone (as are, of course, most of the holocaust survivors), but the Mémorial remains.  It is still mainly seen by tourists who traipse in and out and check it off their lists. It is still largely invisible to, and ignored by, the average Parisian.

In 1995, on the 50th anniversary of the Holocaust, Boston erected its own Holocaust Memorial, an evocative rendering of 6 glass chimneys symbolizing the 6 major death camps, each one etched with 1 million numbers—one for each of the victims. It is a haunting venue, and I am grateful to have it near my home.
The New England Holocaust Memorial, Boston

But whenever I return to Paris, I still make sure to go back to the Mémorial. Often I bring someone along: one year, it was a Parisian friend seeing it for the first time; in October 2013, it was my daughter.

And more than once I have returned to my old American school in Paris to arrange an official tour of the Mémorial for the students. This tour includes an upper level inside the building containing a great deal of historical documentation.

On one occasion, several English–speaking tourists tagged along with our group. Realizing this, the tour leader, who spoke only French, asked me to act as interpreter. For half an hour I translated her remarks for the tourists. So once again this place touched me in a personal way.

In the last 10 years, however, the Mémorial de la Déportation has been largely displaced by the new Holocaust Memorial, only a few hundred meters across the Seine, which is the largest center for Holocaust research in Europe.

So when I go back to this place—and I do, as often as I can—I know it will probably be quiet, or even empty, and unchanged. It will still urge me “Pardonne, n’oublie pas”—Forgive, but Do Not Forget.

For our generation, this has become a sacred duty. We face a time when, more than ever, faith and violence seem linked by emerging Holy Wars waged by global crusaders. The horrifying prospect: genocide may not yet be buried in our past, as long as fanatics seek a “final solution” for their fears by liquidating the hated evil enemy.

 As former President Jacques Chirac said in 2005 at the Holocaust Memorial’s opening: “The refusal to forget is all the defense we have against the renewal of barbarism.” And part of what we remember is that Nazi genocide emerged, not from a historical vacuum, but from the history of Christian anti-Semitism.

The holocaust was, indeed, mass murder—but it was more than that. It was a deliberate, intentional program aimed at making the Jewish people extinct. And it was carried out by people who claimed the Christian faith as their heritage, and a “Christian” view of Jews (as, for example, “Christ-killers” guilty of “deicide”) as their justification.

So, as we journey out of the shadow of the 20th century (history’s bloodiest century) into this new century of terror and revenge, our refusal to forget—our determination never to forget, to remember always—may be all that determines, for each of us, whether we are mere tourists or genuine pilgrims.

“Am I Tourist or Pilgrim? Just sightseeing, or sharing a journey?” If we ignore this question, we cannot give the right answer.
© Bernard F. Swain PhD 2015

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

#426: Getting Beyond Terror

It’s high time for some sanity and realism about terror

Barely 21 months after the Marathon bombers made “Boston Strong” a household phrase, we now have “Je Suis Charlie.” Amid a deluge of strong emotions and sloppy thinking, I offer some reflections on points that I believe we must resolve, lest our lives become permanently unhinged by “terrorism.”
We Should Define Terms.  Are “terror” and “terrorism” really helpful terms?  Too often, they are self-serving labels that mean merely “violence we do not like.” These terms can apply to so many events that we can end up wondering what they all have in common.  Think of  the lynchings of blacks across the United States 1900-1955, attacks by Zionists in mid-1940s Palestine, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Timothy McVeigh’s Oklahoma City bombing, the school attacks at Newtown and Columbine, the IRA in Northern Ireland from 1969 to the Good Friday accords, the Red Brigades, the Baader-Meinhof, and Munich Olympic attackers in the 1970s, the death squads in El Salvador and the Contras in Nicaragua in the 1980s, the bombers of New York (1993), and Paris (1995 and 1996), the 9/11 attacks, the sarin gas attacks in Japan, U.S. drone attacks in Yemen and Pakistan, Boko Haram abductions and massacres, et cetera, et cetera. 

If we’re going to use these terms, we should define them consistently. But we seldom do.

Ends and means.  For me, terrorism is a tactic that uses violence to generate fear to gain some goal. So the goal (whenever it is) is the end, and terror tactics are the means.  Often those goals are claimed to be high-minded political or religious causes (whether it is the surrender of Japan on the establishment of Sharia law) which are “supposed” to justify the terror tactics.

But Catholicism has long taught that the ends never justify the means.  This clarifies our notion of terrorism, since we object to the means of terror regardless of the goals.  We don’t care if the attackers are capitalist or communist, Christian or Jew or Muslim.  We don’t care if they seek a classless society or the end of World War II or peace or freedom or justice or heaven on earth.  We only care that their tactics are evil.

Equal Opportunity Tactics.  This also means that anyone can be guilty of terrorism.  It can be a deranged individual like Timothy McVeigh, it can be radicalized brothers like the Tsarnaevs in Boston or the Kouachis in Paris.  It can be a tribe, a cell, a movement, a radical organization, a quasi-military militia, a political or religious party, or even a government.

By their tactics you shall know them, whether you regard them as friend or foe, good guys or bad guys. Trying to distinguish between “terrorists” and “freedom fighters” who use the same tactics—as if there is “good” terrorism and “bad” terrorism--only leads us to a double standard.

Double Standards. Even the Paris killings reflect this problem of double standards.

Few people support absolute free speech with no limits, and this can lead to a double standard. In the name of free speech, blasphemy is allowed in France, so Charlie Hebdo is honored and protected.  But “hate speech” is not allowed, so the UPI reported that:

Fifty-four people were arrested Wednesday after the French government ordered a crackdown on hate speech and the glorification of terrorism.

And the International Business Times detailed the government’s rationale:

Justice Minister Christiane Taubira said hate speech has to be fought with the "utmost vigor," urging prosecutors to act quickly against those who condone terrorism or carry out racist or anti-Semitic acts. Prime Minister Manuel Valls added that freedom of speech should not be confused with anti-Semitism, racism and Holocaust denial

Of course, this just heightens the hostility between Muslims and Jews (who appear to receive special treatment--it seems even Charlie Hebdo had avoided satirizing Jews). 

In fact, most “free speech” champions make exceptions that create a double standard. It is a crime in many European countries to deny the Holocaust. It is a crime in the U.S. to commit “hate speech” against gays, blacks, Jews. These exceptions to free speech reflect the history of these countries. But they are still double standards. To prohibit these forms of speech while allowing blasphemy (an offense which reflects the history of OTHER countries) is at best inconsistent and at worst hypocritical. And when such hypocrisy enables blasphemy that offends even moderates, that only undermines their moderation and makes us riper targets for fanatics willing to use terror tactics.

And there is a third double standard. It focuses on threats to the West but overlooks attacks elsewhere, as if only western lives matter.  The same week when 17 Parisians were killed, Time Magazine reported that Boko Haram “murdered up to 2,000 civilians” in Baga, Nigeria, and a few a days later “used a 10-year old girl as a suicide bomber to kill at least 16 people at a market.”  It goes without saying which tragedy commanded more attention.

Granted, we took the Paris attacks as attacks on western values that are “sacred” to us--but are we surprised if the southern hemisphere concludes that we care less about their lives?  And do we really believe that sending that message helps us fight such violence?

Blaming Religion Honors the Terrorists.  I am increasingly weary of media references to “jihadists” and “radical Islamists” etc.  Yes, these people claim to act in the name of Islam--but why do we honor their claim?  It is a false claim, and it provides them cover to rationalize their atrocities to others. At the same time, it pits people of different faiths against each other.

Thus Pope Francis has urged all religious leaders to denounce any such violence, saying “To kill in the name of God is an aberration”:

For the sake of peace, religious beliefs must never be allowed to be abused in the cause of violence and war. We must be clear and unequivocal in challenging our communities to live fully the tenets of peace and coexistence found in each religion, and to denounce acts of violence when they are committed.…

I express my hope that religious, political and intellectual leaders, especially those of the Muslim community, will condemn all fundamentalist and extremist interpretations of religion which attempt to justify such acts of violence.

Thus it is not just the violence we condemn, but also the hijacking of religion itself. No terrorists represent authentic Islam. This was made crystal clear by Malek Merabet, as the brother of Ahmed Merabet, one of the police officers killed in Paris:

Islam is a religion of peace, love and sharing. It's not about terrorism, it's not about madness…My brother was a Muslim and he was killed by people pretending to be Muslims. They are terrorists – that's it…Don’t tar everyone with the same brush; don't burn mosques – or synagogues. It won't bring our dead back and it won't appease the families.

Linking terror to Islam only increases Islamophobia, and at the same time it alienates more Muslims.  Using such terms helps the terrorists and hurts the efforts of genuine Muslims to make peace with western, secular culture. Blaming Islam is doing just what the terrorists want.

In fact, blaming Islam for terrorism, combined with our “free speech” double standard, only convinces others that we really are the enemy.

Of course, to overcome this temptation to blame religions, we must heed Francis’ answer when challenged about visiting a Buddhist temple:

The Protestants when I was a child, in that time, 70 years ago, all the Protestants were going to hell, all of them. That’s what was said. Do you know what was the first experience I had of ecumenism?...When I was four or five years old walking down the street with my grandmother, I saw two women from the Salvation Army, wearing those old-style hats, and I asked my grandmother, “Tell me, are they sisters (nuns)?” My Grandmother said “No, they are Protestant but they’re good (people).” It was the first time that I heard a person speaking well of people of another religion. At that time in the catechesis they told us that they all went to hell. I believe the Church has grown a lot in its consciousness (understanding) and in its respect (for other religions), as I said in the interreligious encounter in Colombo the other day, when we read what the Second Vatican Council about the other religions, and the values in other religions. The Church has grown a lot in these years and in respect. There have been dark periods in the history of the Church too, and we have to say that with shame. We’re all on a path of conversion, which is a grace; always from sin to grace. This inter-religiosity as brothers, respecting each other always is a grace.

No More “War On Terror.”  This unfortunate phrase has caused two problems.  First, it created a “crusading” climate that accepts too many evil tactics in a worthy cause: invasion based on lies, torture, rendition, imprisonment without charges, killing without due process, restrictions on Americans’ privacy and freedom.  Second, it deluded us into thinking that we could “win” this war--that the right strategy would bring “victory” and “end” terror. That we could kill the “last terrorist” and enjoy “victory.”

The brutal fact is that human history reveals an unending supply of people willing to employ evil tactics--even to kill the innocent--to gain their goals.  One cannot kill all the terrorists and end terrorism because one cannot uproot from human nature its potential for evil. The “last terrorist” does not exist.

Such people are criminals, and our criminal justice systems must be our main defense.  Most terrorists collaborate, and collaborating to commit crime is conspiracy, and conspiracy itself as a crime before any shot is fired, any bomb is wired, any plane is hijacked.  The best strategy against terror is the same strategy long used against organized crime: investigate, infiltrate, incriminate for conspiracy, prosecute, and punish. 

This is precisely how French Police followed up the Paris attacks, arresting four suspects believed linked to one of the gunmen involved in the attacks. They appeared before an antiterrorism judge on charges of “terrorist conspiracy to commit crimes against people.”

But the bottom line is: we will always have terrorists.  Terrorism is nothing new, and no matter how old it gets, it is not dying out. Terrorism, like poverty, will always be with us. 

But this fact points to our real hope.

The Long Term Fix.  Nearly all terror attacks of the last century reflect the attackers’ resentment for perceived injustice.  That resentment has nearly always been fueled by poverty.  Arguably, terrorism and poverty go hand in hand: the more poverty, the more terrorism--and the less poverty, the less terror.

This premise cries out for urgent consideration.  For it implies that the trillions we spend on military invasions are futile--and worse, they preclude our chance to spend such resources on reducing poverty.  If the links between terror attacks and poverty are compelling--and I believe they are (just look at profiles of suicide bombers)--then attacking poverty becomes our number one weapon, our number one hope, against terrorism.

The Prospects? These reflections do not leave me optimistic.  I fear we will continue to define “terrorism” sloppily, continue to follow hypocritical double standards, continue to blame religions and alienate others, continue to criticize people’s goals instead of condemning their tactics, continue to condemn radical parties while exempting governments, continue to pretend we can “wage war” to end terrorism, and continue to waste both money and lives in that futile pursuit.  We will continue to praise “our warriors” who “protect us.”  And we will continue blindly blundering along with strategies and tactics that will guarantee that our situation, already unmistakably worse since 9/11 due to such blundering, will deteriorate even further.

That is, it will continue to worsen unless we begin to heed the voice of reason.  But who speaks that voice today? And who is listening?

   © Bernard   F. Swain PhD 2015

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

#425: Francis’ New Way Out of the Wilderness

We are beginning to see what actual changes the new pope can make.

When Jorge Bergoglio was elected Pope Francis, his unique style was immediately apparent to all.  But many questioned whether that style could translate into substance--whether, in addition to inspiring people, he could actually implement practical changes.  In the last few months of 2014, the contour of those changes has become clearer, as he has taken practical steps consistent with his rhetoric. 
He convened a Synod on the Family that could make Catholicism more welcoming to divorced people, gays, and alienated Catholics everywhere. He has delivered a blunt critique of his own Vatican bureaucracy, the Curia, which makes a change of the Vatican’s culture (and probably the rolling of some of its heads) inevitable.  He has named bishops who share his vision to new posts, and expelled some with conflicting vision.  He was instrumental in convincing President Obama to make his diplomatic opening to Cuba.  And he is supporting the move to make Bishop Oscar Romero an official martyr of the church, emblematic of the Church’s fight for social justice for the oppressed and the poor.

In my view all these moves put to rest the question of whether Francis offers big rhetoric but little action.  And so, less than two years into his reign, we can begin to see not only how he is leading the church with his unique style, but where he is leading it with his decisions.  But to grasp what this means, we must see his actions in their full context--in fact, in four different contexts. 

BEFORE: The Regal Papacy of Pius XII
1. The Context Before Francis. To understand what is really going on, it is important to see how the office Francis holds has been transformed even before he was elected.  I often tell listeners that, since the death of Pius XII in 1958, every single subsequent pope has changed the office in a visible and important way.  The result: today’s papacy looks and acts dramatically different from the 1950s papacy.  In fact, I would argue that no public office on the planet has changed as much as the papacy.

Of course, this transformation all started with John XXIII, who convened Vatican Council II (1962-1965).  And the 50 years since then have been marked by the continuing, chronic, so far unresolved struggle over the meaning and impact of Vatican II.  Francis is, of course, the first pope since John who did not participate at Vatican II.  He experienced it as we all (who are old enough) did, from the outside looking in. Thus he brings a fresh view that may yet finally cement Vatican II’s legacy for the Catholic world and beyond. 

At the same time, Catholicism has witnessed an enormous demographic shift: now 2/3 of all Catholics live south of the equator.  Francis is, of course the first pope from the southern hemisphere, so he brings yet another new perspective. 

The last 20 years have also witnessed a rash of scandals, crises, and closings that have heavily damaged both Catholic life and Catholicism’s public image.  Indeed, in America the Catholic Church is hemorrhaging members faster than any other religion.  And despite his academic brilliance, Pope Benedict XVI seemed incapable of keeping his foot out of his mouth. 

The net result of these recent developments has been a reversal of the incredibly positive PR Catholicism gained from Vatican II.  One may argue that, prior to the election of Francis, the public image of Catholicism had never been worse in our lifetime.

2. The Context of Francis. That public image shifted dramatically almost at the moment of Francis’ election.  As the first southern hemisphere pope, as the first Jesuit pope, as the first Francis, he signaled a shift in papal leadership in the first 10 minutes of his first public appearance, when he asked the assembled crowd to bless him before he blessed them. This show of “Franciscan” humility has marked his papacy ever since.  But when, soon after his election, he accepted an Italian editor’s open invitation for an interview, he went beyond humility to indicate a new, ambitious direction:

Our goal is not to proselytize but to listen to needs, desires and disappointments, despair, hope. We must restore hope to young people, help the old, be open to the future, spread love. Be poor among the poor. We need to include the excluded and preach peace. Vatican II, inspired by Pope Paul VI and John, decided to look to the future with a modern spirit and to be open to modern culture. The Council Fathers knew that being open to modern culture meant religious ecumenism and dialogue with non-believers. But afterwards very little was done in that direction. I have the humility and ambition to want to do something.

AFTER: The "Cool" Papacy of Francis
Notice the way Francis linked humility and ambition--and linked both to a retrieval of Vatican II’s lost legacy. This combination of humility and ambition quickly made Francis a huge PR success, reflected by Time magazine selecting him as 2013’s “Person of the Year.”  And when his smiling face appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine, it was clear that he had become the first “cool pope” in history! 

But this stunning reversal of the Church’s appalling public image--which is no small matter, for it led millions to abandon the Church--was not the whole story.  Instead, Francis has emerged not only as an inspiring figure but as an agent of reform, whose course correction for the Church includes battling corruption, careerism, obsessive preoccupation with the culture wars, and also battling the trickle-down theory that dominates the wider culture and economy.

(On this last point, note that a new book by La Stampa's Vatican watchers, Andrea Tornielli and Giacomo Galeazzi, titled Pope Francis: This Economy Kills, is being released this week in Italy.)

3. The Context of Mercy. Francis is not the first pope to put mercy at the center of his agenda.  In fact, this was a hallmark of John XXIII on the very day that he opened Vatican II:

We see, in fact, as one age succeeds another, that the opinions of men follow one another and exclude each other. And often errors vanish as quickly as they arise, like fog before the sun. The Church has always opposed these errors. Frequently she has condemned them with the greatest severity. Nowadays however, the Spouse of Christ prefers to make use of the medicine of mercy rather than that of severity. She consider that she meets the needs of the present day by demonstrating the validity of her teaching rather than by condemnations…the Catholic Church…desires to show herself to be the loving mother of all, benign, patient, full of mercy and goodness toward the brethren who are separated from her

There’s nothing new about an emphasis on mercy, of course. Catholics have long subscribed to (though perhaps many of today’s Catholics are not aware of) the action-steps known as the “Corporal Works of Mercy” and the “Spiritual Works of Mercy.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Works_of_mercy)

For Francis, Mercy lies at the center of the Church’s mission:

Throughout history, some have been tempted to say that the Church is the Church of only the pure and perfectly consistent, and it expels all the rest.  This is not true!  This is heresy!  The Church, which is holy, does not reject sinners; she does not reject us all; she does not reject us because she calls everyone, welcomes them, is open even to those furthest from her; she calls everyone to allow themselves to be enfolded by the mercy, the tenderness, and the forgiveness of the Father…

But besides quoting the pope on mercy; we must also ask: what does he mean?  The question matters because the English word “mercy” badly translates the pope’s words.  “Mercy” comes from a Latin word meaning “wages.” It referred to God’s reward gives for those who do good works. 

But centuries ago, that word was replaced in the Latin languages for another word, which English never adopted.  The new word, “Miserecordia,” means almost the opposite of the English word.  Instead of the reward we get after doing good, it is the big-heartedness that impels us to do good in the first place.  Like the English word “compassion,” which means to suffer with another, Miserecordia refers to a heart that goes out to those in distress.  This is the word Francis uses, whether he speaks or writes in Latin, or Italian, or Spanish (it is the same word in French and Portuguese as well).

So while “mercy” in today’s English often means “pity” or “leniency,” we would do better to think of it as the impulse to help that comes from “big-hearted compassion”--as if it comes from the heart of God.

With this understanding, we can see why Francis might be regarded by some as a troublemaker, and why “mercy” might even seem a dangerous word.

For the pope’s emphasis on mercy pits him against an introverted Church in favor of a Church that reaches out to the poor.  It pits him against a Church committed to the “counter-culture,” in favor of a Church that promotes an “encounter-culture.” It pits him against any hostility to other religions, including Islam. It pits him against inequality, which makes peace impossible, and in favor of a restructured economy that redistributes wealth and honors solidarity. 

It commits him to a Church that “steps outside” itself, and thus to a Church whose mission is, above all, evangelization.  It commits him to a Church in which doing good is more urgent than arguing over doctrine. Indeed, he has criticized theologically-minded people who dispute doctrine endlessly, saying that we will not live long enough to see these disputes resolved but must act in the meantime.

In sum, Francis wants a new way for us to be Church:

The Lord wants us to belong to a Church that knows how to open her arms and welcome everyone, that is not a house for the few, but a house for everyone, where all can be renewed.

4. The Context of Our Lives. This new pope’s agenda touches us all as individuals, as families, and as communities.  For him, the dynamic is an active one that leads from the big-hearted impulse of God’s infinite  mercy, to the joy that brings us, to our mission to bring that mercy to the world.  For him, the works of mercy are like the beating of a heart, the systolic and diastolic rhythms of compassion and action. 

It is no surprise that among his favorite images from the gospel is the story of the prodigal son, of the father who watches endlessly for his son’s return and rushes out in joy when that return finally occurs.:

In the church, the God we encounter is not a merciless judge but is like the father in the gospel parable.  You may be like the son who left home, who sank to the depths…God is always waiting for you.  God embraces you, kisses you, and celebrates.  That is how the Lord is. 

For us, observing and listening to this man in action, the choice is clear. As he shows a way out of the wilderness that has lost Catholicism both its members and its impact, how do we respond? Do we identify with the Father who continues to reach out to embrace those who’ve been lost? Or are we more like the “good son” who stayed behind, resentful that others get the attention we might deserve, unhappy to hear that relieving their suffering is not only more urgent, but more important,  than our continued comfort? The choice is ours. But he is already showing us the way.

   © Bernard   F. Swain PhD 2015