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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.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

#430: 10 Reasons to Choose the Life Penalty

After several weeks of a trial to convict the Boston Marathon bomber who had already admitted his guilt, the question now is: will the jury choose life or death?

Martin Richards, the 8 year old boy killed in the Boston Marathon bombing, went to school just a few hundred yards down the street from my house.  This week his killer’s trial has entered the penalty phase, when jurors will decide if Dzhohkar Tsarnaev will be sentenced to death or to life without the possibility of parole.

But just before the penalty phase began, the boy’s family publicly requested that the death penalty be set aside.  No one suffered more than the Richards.  Martin’s sister lost a leg, his mother suffered serious injuries, and his father was forced to make the soul-rending decision to leave his dying son in order to say his sister.  Their plea now is to be released from the further suffering the death penalty would bring.  Known as active Catholics in a heavily Catholic neighborhood, the Richards intended to speak only for themselves, yet they can also be seen as representing modern Catholicism’s increasing rejection of lethal violence.

The taking of human life has many forms, but none is more central to Christianity than the death penalty.  Jesus himself was a victim of capital punishment, and the instrument of his execution--the cross--has long become the “trademark” of his followers and their faith.  Indeed, we’ve become so accustomed to the cross, and even the crucifix, that we might be shocked to imagine, as one Bostonian suggested this week, walking into a church to find Jesus hanging from a noose or strapped to an electric chair.

Most of Jesus’ apostles were also killed by the authorities.  We call them martyrs, but they effectively spent their last days on death row.  The same is true for more than a few Christian saints even into the 21st century, executed for their faith.  The image of Christians killed by ISIS is tragically fresh news. 

Sadly, Catholics had been not only victims of the death penalty, but agents of execution as well.  The Inquisition regularly tried and condemned “heretics” and “witches,” even if the actual killing was done by civil authorities.  And we should never forget that France’s patron saint, Joan of arc, was only canonized after being burned at the stake following the Church’s condemnation.  Over the centuries, then, the Church has been both the victim and the perpetrator of the death penalty. 

But recent years have brought a dramatic shift, as Catholic teaching has come to reject virtually every argument used to justify capital punishment.  That teaching has had its effect: fewer than half of U.S. Catholics support the death penalty, down from 70% a generation ago.

But it is still worth seeing why the Church now opposes virtually any use of the death penalty, even for cases as uniquely heinous as the Boston Marathon bombing.  In view of Pope Francis’ plea to build an encounter culture, these reasons might help us to encounter others at this very moment, when the death penalty is urgently debated.

The Vatican, the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the U.S. bishops collectively, and many bishops of individual states have gone on record opposing the death penalty.  They have joined together in a growing consensus about why the death penalty is wrong.  Drawing on their views, here are 10 good reasons:



1. Playing God.  Catholics believe the power over life and death belongs to God alone.  Murderers usurp that power for themselves, which is the most profound reason for calling murder evil.  And executioners, no matter how good their intentions, usurp God’s power as well.

2. Cycle of violence.  Catholics are supposed to believe that violence is not the greatest power on earth.  We believe, in fact, that love can conquer violence.  But answering violent acts that take human life by taking another human life means we give in to the power of violence and thereby perpetuate it.

3. No deterrent.  There is no evidence that executing people reduces crime.  In fact, states that execute have higher crime rates than states that don’t.  And European countries, all of whom ban executions, have much lower crime rates than the U.S.

4. Expensive and inefficient.  It cost several times more to implement a death sentence than it does to impose life without parole.  Years or decades of appeals often mean criminals eventually die on death row anyway before they can be executed.

In the specific case of the Marathon bomber, the killer’s lawyers publicly stated that, had the federal government taken capital punishment off the table, Tsarnaev would have pleaded guilty, thus avoiding any trial at all, and would already be out of sight, serving a life sentence without parole. Thus the trial was only needed for one thing: to secure a death penalty. That means that this week’s penalty phase—as well as the entire trial before--are but one wasteful part of the unnecessary price we pay by insisting on the death penalty.

5. Prolongs victims’ sufferings.  Execution is not magic.  It will not bring back the dead, or make their families suffer less.  On the contrary, the death penalty keeps a case alive far longer than the disappearing act of a life sentence.  This is precisely why the Richards family fears the anguish they will undergo after a death sentence.  The Boston Globe’s Kevin Cullen, who has listed all the terrorists already waiting on death row since 1993, predicts Tsarnaev’s death sentence would never actually be carried out.

6. Racism.  In U.S. history as well as today, minorities are disproportionately targeted by the death penalty.  In part, this reflects the difficulty poor people have obtaining effective counsel.  The result: a double standard by which better-off criminals are likely to evade the death sentence. Thus, while African-Americans make up only slightly more than 10% of the American population, they constitute more than 40% of those on death row.

7. Innocence. According to the Death Penalty Information Center, 152 people sentenced to death have been exonerated since 1973. An increasing number of these were exonerated when DNA evidence proved they were innocent. On average, these people spent 11.2 years on death row before being released!

No human institution will ever be perfect, so we must always be prepared to identify and correct our errors. But once a person is executed, it is too late to correct that mistake! How many innocent have been executed before they could be exonerated? How many innocent deaths are justified by our desire to kill the guilty? 

8. Cruel and unusual?  Cruel and unusual punishment is prohibited by the U.S.  Constitution, but those words have yet to be clearly defined.  Yet every attempt to invent a more “humane” form of execution ends up in grotesque suffering, mistakes, and mishaps.  The result is the irony of people shocked to learn that a state might return to firing squads because lethal injections have proved so difficult to implement.  As the rest of the world leaves the death penalty behind, the American practice of it appears even more to be cruel and unusual. 

Some argue that while in general the death penalty is wrong, in the specific case of the Marathon bomber it is uniquely justified.  But of course that simply makes the penalty that much more unusual, and no less cruel. 

9. Last resort.  In its attempts to promote a “seamless garment of life,” the Catholic Church now teaches that the death penalty must be regarded as a last resort--to be used only when there is no other way to protect society from a criminal.  But the high security prison in Colorado to which the U.S. has already sent convicted terrorists means that any threat is removed, and any further suffering is prevented.  In practice, then, the Church’s teaching of a last resort faces us with the truth that there may be no situations where there is no other alternative.  Clearly, in this case, as in virtually every other case, life without parole is an available option.  Those seeking death face the burden of explaining why the alternative cannot be justified.

10. It is bad for us.  Virtually all advanced democracies have eliminated to the death penalty--except the U.S.  By now, moving beyond executions is the world’s mark of a truly civilized country.  Given the alternatives, capital punishment serves only one real purpose: revenge. And the world now regards revenge as a relic of a more primitive culture.  In short, the presence of the death penalty in our society separates us from the truly civilized world. Thus resorting to the death penalty appeals to the worst instincts in our nature, and makes us less as a people. 

Listen to the joint statement of Jessica Kensky and Patrick Downs, newlyweds who each lost limbs in the Boston Marathon bombing, as they describe the spiritual challenge before us all:

In our darkest moments and deepest sadness, we think of inflicting the same types of harm on him.  We wish that he could feel the searing pain and terror that for beautiful souls felt before their death, as well as the harsh reality of discovering mutilated or missing legs.  If there is any one who deserves the ultimate punishment, it is the defendant.  However, we must overcome the impulse for vengeance.  

By overcoming that impulse for vengeance, by    rising above those dark instincts and choosing life, we become more—we become a better people.  And still justice is done.
© Bernard F. Swain PhD 2015

Saturday, March 28, 2015

#429: 10 "Francis Effects"


It’s become commonplace to talk about “the Francis Effect.” Now, two years after Pope Francis’ election, we can see that does not mean one thing, but many things. Here are the key examples.


The First Papal Selfie
1. Rebranding the Roman Catholic Church. After 25 years of declines, 15 years of scandal and closings, and more than a decade of culture wars, the Catholic Church wore the brand of a tired, mismanaged, even corrupt institution ineffectively pursuing a stubborn holding action against modern life. Francis almost immediately injected fresh air into the Church’s wheezing body with his vitality,  humor, and easy manner—and sent the clear message that the Church would return to its core mission of serving the world with good news and love. This injection has been a booster shot for millions of discouraged Catholics, who once again have started feeling pride in their Church.

2. Reversing Catholicism’s Bad PR.  Anyone old enough to remember Vatican Council II (1962-1965) remembers clearly the euphoria that surrounded the Council and its activities.  This was partly, of course, a “John Effect” created by the popular personality of Pope John XXIII, but it was also due to the sense that the Catholic Church was finally responding to the challenges of modern life after centuries of defensive stasis.  The upshot was the most positive media and public attention the Catholic Church had received in more than a century, not only from Catholics but from other Christians, other religions, and even the secular world at large. 

It is safe to say that, after 1968, that favorable public image began to cool and weaken, reaching its lowest point in the last 10 years. This resulted from a combination of factors, including the gap between Benedict XVI’s brilliant ideas and his clumsy public communication skills.

Francis has reversed all that, as his own wildly popular public image has rubbed off on the institution as a whole.  We Catholics are enjoying the best PR of the last 50 years--at the very moment that we observe the 50th anniversary of Vatican II!

3. Reviving the Ghost (spirit) of John XXIII.  One of the casualties of the long reign of John-Paul II was that an entire generation grew up in his shadow.  They were “John-Paul II
John  XXIII
Catholics,” and in too many cases his giant public presence overshadowed both the Council that had preceded and produced him and the pope that made it possible.  None of the papacies we have seen since 1965 could be imagined before that, and all of John’s successors depended on and benefited from his vision of the Church’s future.  Francis has made sure we do not forget John’s impact.  That is precisely why, when it came time to canonize John-Paul II, Francis ensured that John XXIII was canonized on the same day.

4. Retrieving the Legacy of Vatican II.  Not a few Catholic leaders and commentators in the last 20 years arrived at the conclusion that the legacy of Vatican II was either accomplished, or at least on a settled path that could not change.  But Francis has clearly expressed the view that much of the Council’s vision has been left unfulfilled, and has personally described himself as “humble enough and ambitious enough to try to do something about that.” In that sense, his agenda as pope leapfrogs back over his predecessors Benedict and John-Paul II to the papacies of Paul VI and John XXIII.   

These were the popes who initiated and completed Vatican II.  These were the popes who set the Church on the course-correction called “renewal”--a course correction of historic proportions.  Francis has staked his papacy on recovering the momentum of that time.

5. Dethroning Clericalism.  This is hardly a case of the emperor’s new clothes, since the Catholic Church has worn imperial trappings for more than 15 centuries.  And the corrupting impact of human nature on the Catholic hierarchy has been largely ignored and evaded for generations.  Now Francis, in a pioneering move, has identified the symptoms that corrupt the vocations of ordained man in too many places within the Church.

Francis has made it clear that, after centuries of treating laypeople as helpless children and the ordained as faultless parents, too many clerics pursue the wrong motives for personal benefit, acquire habits that impede their service, and set themselves apart from the rest of the body of Christ.  He has even called himself “anticlerical” in the face of clericalism. Images of the many glum faces among his Vatican staff during his highly critical Christmas message reflect the wider alarm felt by Bishops and priests in many lands, who now realize that their ambitions of churchly glory have been exposed.

6. Elevating Humility.  From his very first papal moment on the balcony at Saint Peter’s, Francis has consistently eschewed any place of honor, privilege, imperial trappings, rank, or luxury.  In the true Jesuit spirit of poverty, he has refused to place himself apart from or above others, and has thus ironically elevated humility to the rank of the highest leadership gift.  His very unwillingness to pretend superiority has already made him stand out, not only among much of the hierarchy, but even among some of his predecessors.  That humility now becomes a model, not just for the hierarchy, but for all of us in all of our roles as we serve others in family, in workplace, and in community.  Thus Francis becomes the epitome of leadership not by command but by example. In the process, his humility has made him arguably the world’s most loved, admired, and respected officeholder.

7. Restoring Mercy.  It was at the opening address of Vatican II that John XXIII rejected condemnations and harsh execution of laws and rules as the norm for pastoral leadership in the Church.  Instead, he said we must replace such things with the “medicine of mercy.” Somehow someplace along the line, this message got lost.  Francis has brought it roaring back to life, making it one of the hallmarks of his papacy.  He never ceases to speak of the mercy of God, and makes it clear that this enjoins the rest of us to practice mercy as well.  For Catholics who grew up before 1960, John’s focus was a welcome relief from the notion that Catholicism was merely a set of rules to be followed.  In this day and age, Francis’s insistence on mercy brings warmth back to an institution that, in recent years, too many had found cold-hearted.

8. Promoting the Poor.  It goes without saying that the Gospel message, and the mission of the Catholic Church, has always given a central place to the poor of the world.  But it also goes without saying that the Catholic Church, as the world’s largest organization, has not always kept that priority in focus.  We now live in a world of unprecedented wealth, but also of unprecedented inequality.  Francis has made it clear that the desires for peace, prosperity, and a sustainable world will all be impossible if the problem of inequality is not solved.

This focuses our attention on the Catholic social teaching which calls for the redistribution of wealth when inequality reaches harmful dimensions. Thus Francis implies a great challenge for us and the citizens of other wealthy nations: how can inequality be reduced?  How can we redistribute the wealth? 

For Americans, of course, imbedded in the world’s largest capitalist society, this is complicated by the fact that we face not only the inequality between the wealthy and poor nations, but also the inequality between the 1% and the 99% in our own land.  In this sense, Francis has become an especially prophetic leader for Americans.  This will make his pending address to the U.S. Congress in the fall 2015 that much more intriguing and challenging.

9. “Cooling” the Culture Wars.  Catholic leaders in America in the last 10 to 15 years have often been characterized by their preoccupation with issues now identified as the “culture wars”: abortion, contraception, artificial insemination, euthanasia, same sex marriage, gay rights, sex education, etc.  Francis has been quite blunt on this matter. He’s not criticizing or questioning traditional Catholic teachings on any of these issues, but he is convinced that the culture wars made two mistakes. First, their preoccupation on these issues distracts them and Catholics in general from our mission to evangelize with mercy and joy.  Second, they distort Catholic tradition:

The proposal of the Gospel must be more simple, profound, radiant. It is from this proposition that the moral consequences then flow.

Francis has announced in no uncertain terms that he does not want culture warriors nominated to be future bishops, since he believes that the culture wars represent a distortion of our core priorities as Catholics.

10. The “Cooling” of the Papacy.  The first two years of the Francis papacy have been not only dynamic but remarkably congenial. Even when uttering controversial, off the cuff remarks, this pope tends to be lighthearted, quick to smile, easy to approach, comfortable in his own skin.  The image of Pope Francis beaming into the camera on the cover of
Rolling Stone magazine now overshadows the radiant, even regal image of “John Paul Superstar” on the cover of Time magazine. 

Francis lacks both the looks and the charisma of John-Paul II but, like John XXIII, he projects a down-to-earth, human appeal that people find nearly irresistible.  It was one thing to attract 3 million youth to the World Youth Day in Rio (his two predecessors had performed similar feats). 
Listening to a reporter's question on the plane from Rio
But the 90 minute interview on the plane back to Rome showed a man willing to walk back to the press seats and mingle with the media in a familiar, ingratiating way.  And his decision to wade into Rio’s worst slum on foot to greet poor residents showed a fearless love of people that is making him the most beloved pope in many people’s memories.


So the papacy itself has suddenly become cool! Two short years ago, few Catholics would have believed that this could happen, and none of us believed it could happen so fast. 

Francis himself speaks as though his papacy will probably be a short one.  But the accomplishments of his first two years are already enough to mark him as a historic figure--and a gift from God.
© Bernard F. Swain PhD 2015

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
     me—
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