Wednesday, February 21, 2018

The fast in Nineveh

Today is Wednesday of the first week of Lent. The first reading at Mass today was from the wry Book of Jonah, about a reluctant prophet. I read it with a deliberate slant, with hospitality on my mind.

Jonah goes to Nineveh, reluctantly, to warn the city that God will destroy them in 40 days. Unfortunately for him, they repent, and God opts not to wipe them out; he looks like a fool, just as he had predicted.

They “repented.” What does that mean?

Well, they fasted, didn’t even drink, and they put on sackcloth. The king joined the fast, and went out to sit in the ashes. That’s a familiar story; I’ve heard this stuff before. But it’s still pretty weird. Why did they do all that? Who were they trying to convince? What were they trying to say? What’s the connection between all that stuff and the preferred outcome – presumably, avoiding annihilation? Is there any discernible logic to it? And what does any of this have to do with repentance, whatever that it?

Augustine used Matthew 25 as a jumping-off point for understanding all of Scripture. Okay, can we?

In Matthew 25, Jesus says, feed the hungry and give water to the thirsty and welcome strangers and clothe the naked and tend to the sick and visit prisoners. In the fast in Nineveh, the people skipped food and water, and set aside their good clothes. Okay, the lists overlap; maybe there’s something here. Maybe.

Maybe this. Repentance is about changing direction, turning around, trying to get your heart right. And the point of a fast is to push that change along. We don’t know what the problem(s) were in Nineveh, but for sure they included something that ruptured or distorted relationships between God the people, and also among the people. All this fasting stuff does two things. It re-establishes a proper understanding of the relationship between God and us: everything we have is a gift from the Creator, and we depend on him for our daily bread. And also, although fast doesn’t address the difficulties of the poor, it is – or can be – an expression of solidarity with neighbors who are hungry or thirsty or cold (or, in the king’s act, homeless).

Maybe repentance is about right relationships with God and neighbor. And maybe fasting is can be a rational step toward repair.


(Book of Jonah. If you want a delight, read my cousin’s novel. It’s got nothing to do with all this fasting stuff, but it’s a quirky bit of thought-provoking joy. Set in New York, Amsterdam, and Las Vegas, it’s a love story – Jonah’s girlfriend is Judith the peg-pounder. The villain is a real estate mogul, although the novel was written before the Trump erumption; it is, after all, a novel about a prophet.)
https://www.amazon.com/dp/B00EGJ3328/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?_encoding=UTF8&btkr=1

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

defense of priorities

[posted on FB Jan 14, 2018; edited]
I had an unpleasant encounter yesterday. A group of pro-lifers were engaged in a debate about how pro-lifers should respond to Trump’s racism. It was a fiery and interesting debate. But there was a guy who participated, denouncing Trump – as I do – and his allies – which I consider a key battleground. After quite a bit of back and forth, it came out that this guy was not asking pro-lifers to pull away from Trump; he was asking pro-lifers to forget about abortion. He was strengthening the ties between pro-lifers and Trump, insisting that they are natural allies. I was appalled. Some pro-lifers stick to Trump because they believe that – like it or not – Trump is the key to stopping abortion in the USA, and to achieve that goal they will put up with just about anything. So telling pro-lifers to dump-Trump-and-forget-abortion strengthens Trump. I thought the guy was among the most effective pro-Trump voice I’d encountered.

Let me clarify why I am a pro-lifer opposing Trump. This is a sketch, but 1400+ words.

First: NSSM 200.

I don’t think Roe v. Wade was the most violent document ever penned. I think NSSM 200 launched far more abortions that RvW. National Security Study Memorandum 200 was a definition of threats to American security, written by officials in the Nixon and Ford administrations. “Security” here doesn’t mean money in the bank; it’s diplomatic language for the things about which this nation is prepared to go to war. The document said that our deadly enemies were:

Commies in Europe, to be fended off by the military;
Commies around the Pacific Rim, also to be fended off by the military;
Commie propaganda in Latin America, to be resisted by the CIA; and
African women having babies, to be stopped by the Agency for International Development.

Under these two Republican presidents – and everyone since until NSSM 200 was scrapped in – hm, hm, was it scrapped? – our enemies were Commies and black babies. To stop them, we had nukes and abortion. I over-simplify, but you see the point.

The take-away: NSSM 200 led to far more abortion than RvW. Pro-lifers who focus on RvW are dilettantes, overlooking most of the abortions launched by the USA. We started abortion globally, and we have to stop it globally. Abortion inside America – the whole RvW thing – is about 2% of the abortion problem.

Second, Sherri Finkbine.

The propaganda push for abortion in the USA did not begin with RvW. The propaganda push began with Sherri Finkbine. She had a TV show in the 1950s, called “Romper Room,” a popular kids show sort of like “Mister Rogers” or “Sesame Street.” She took thalidomide, a sedative that was used then to treat morning sickness. But then news broke that thalidomide was “teratogenic”: it caused serious birth defects, including severely shortened limbs. Parents were afraid their kids would be born with flippers, not arms. So Sherri Finkbine, the Mrs. Mister Rogers of the decade, went to Sweden to get an abortion. And wasn’t it awful that she had to go across the Atlantic to avoid having a disfigured baby.

Two quick lessons. The push for abortion in the USA began with eugenics. And abortion cannot be considered a national problem; it was international before RvW.

Third, population control.

Population control isn’t a sideshow; it’s most of the abortion battle. And a detail of population control is now and always has been immigration restrictions. When Hitler was trying to wipe out the Jews, some fled to the United States. But our immigration policy sent some back to Hitler’s camps; you can get a list of some of the people who saw Miami, weren’t allowed in, and went back to Europe to get killed. When the Chinese launched a one-child-only depopulation policy, some women fled to the USA. We debated whether to let them in: a prolife policy and pro-immigration policy overlapped, and most pro-lifers saw it clearly. The same thing is going on now. Women are fleeing from depopulation policies – and other violence. Will we protect women and children? To me, that’s a no-brainer. I simply do not recognize this new “pro-life” movement that turns away pregnant women at the border. What happened to you?

Fourth, Lopez Trujillo and the Mexican Yellow Pages.

I had a squabble one year with the head of the Pontifical Council for the Family. He hosted a pro-life conference in Rome, and during the conference, I invited participants to meet to pray outside an abortion clinic at a hospital close by. He was appalled, and wanted my boss to ship me out of Rome promptly. In the ensuing discussion, one of the details that emerged was that he wanted good laws on the books, but didn’t care much what actually happened. In Mexico, for example, the law about abortion at that time was pretty good (from a pro-lifer’s perspective), and he wanted that. But abortions were advertised in Las Paginas Amarillas. The law was unenforced; it meant nothing. I thought reality mattered more than the damn law. He wasn’t interested in that; he wanted good laws.

Many Irish pro-lifers are as blind as Cardinal Lopez Trujillo. They are focused on preventing abortion in Ireland. That’s a good interim goal, but banning abortion in Ireland might not save a single child and family, not one. You can get from Ireland to England and back for the price of a carton of cigarettes. It’s a nuisance, and an added expense: killing Irish citizens in England takes several extra hours and adds maybe 20% to the price tag. Stopping abortion in Ireland, completely, has almost no connection with protecting Irish babies; it’s a tiny first step, no more.

The lesson: there’s a difference between (a) protective laws on the books and (b) actually protecting mothers and babies. They aren’t completely unrelated, but they are not the same thing. If you fail to change the thinking and habits of a pro-choice society, changing the law is almost meaningless. (Also impossible, but that’s a different issue.)

Fifth, the father’s failures.

One of the many appalling crises facing Americans today is that white males have lost their sense of purpose and identity. Schools across the nation stare at the stats, baffled. Every demographic group in the nation is improving from one year to the next on test scores – some groups with large gaps still to overcome, but there’s steady improvement. Every group is improving, except one. While males, starting at the top, have been declining slowly but steadily for years. Their scores are not declining relative to other scores: that is, the decline is not really just another way to say that everyone else is improving. No. While male scores are declining this year relative to white male scores last year, year after year. Why? Your guess is probably about as good as anyone’s.

I think that a piece of the problem is that a huge portion of the men in the nation – a quarter, more or less – are parents of a dead child. So are the women, but there’s been a lot of thought given to that. For men, I think that the test scores at school point to an unexplained problem, and men’s total failure at their first duty in life may be a partial explanation. What did you do when your first child was scheduled to die? Nothing. You bottled it up, got depressed. Maybe you did your best to cherish and support your partner in her crisis. But your child?

There’s no quick fix to that problem. But one detail that is clear, that men can address now: you can work to ensure that women don’t have abortions because they feel trapped and abused. That’s not the whole issue, but it’s a real part, and it’s fixable. So when someone attacks a woman, and makes her feel stupid or helpless, step in. You can’t protect a child unless the child’s mother feels empowered. When some male monster says it’s okay to grab pussy, fix his thinking; you may be saving a child’s life. That kind of thinking and language isn’t just a little gross, a little naughty, a little juvenile; it’s deadly. I don’t know what “fight” means to you; but when somebody talks about grabbing pussy, a child’s life is in danger. Fight. Fight for children, and for women, and for dignity, and for the future, and for everything on earth that has value.

Enough. Each point here deserves a book, but my overall point is clear and simple: pro-lifers should oppose Trump.

It is true that Trump said he would resist abortion, and specifically that he would appoint pro-lifers to the Supreme Court. He did appoint Gorsuch, and it is possible that Gorsuch will vote to overturn Roe v. Wade, although Gorsuch himself casts doubt on that prediction. But RvW by itself is a sideshow. What really feeds abortion? What’s the real issue?

1. It’s an international struggle; “America First” is silly.
2. It’s based on eugenics; Trump’s on the wrong side of the eugenics fight.
3. It’s about racist depopulation, which includes restrictive abortion, Trump’s main political goal.
4. It’s about reality, not just about the law; but when Trump spoke – once, briefly – about why he’s against abortion (the Raymond Arroyo interview), his little tale was transparent fiction.
5. It’s about men abusing women; Trump is the poster boy of using women as toys and/or decorations and/or status symbols.

Trump made a promise to pro-lifers. But in my view, the promise was superficial. In fact, I think Trump is now and always has been a staunch proponent of everything that leads to abortion. Opposing Trump is not the same thing as abandoning the pro-life movement. I’m a pro-lifer, AND SO I oppose Trump with everything in me.

Some former co-workers of mine have accused me bitterly of abandoning the pro-life movement, and going off to some other movement – the immigration movement. That’s silly nonsense. It is true that I can’t tell the difference between the pro-life movement and the pro-immigration movement; I follow Pope Francis.


But do I prioritize immigration over ending abortion? I do not; that’s a flat lie. I prioritize immigration over reversing Roe v Wade.

balance in the Our Father

Tuesday of the first week of Lent. The Gospel reading at Mass today is about the prayer that the Lord taught his disciples, the “Our Father.”

I was struck by a detail. When the prayer turns from words about God to words about us, we make two requests – for bread and for forgiveness, for hospitality and for healing and forgiveness. The second request has a balance: forgive us as we forgive others. But the request doesn’t have anything like that, just gimme. Why?

I think that the nature of hospitality, following Abraham, includes balance, has a built-in balance. The host-guest relationship, like a marriage, reflects the life of the Trinity: it starts with two people, but moves inexorably toward unity. We welcome the Lord, and he feeds us: who’s the host?

Why do we ask for bread, not – say – meat and potatoes, or kasha, or lovely rice pudding again? Why bread? Well, bread is the classic basic food: when you’re packing to travel across the desert, bring some compact bread. Bread is simple, but evocative: see Neruda’s “Ode to Bread.” It’s a common food, simple nutrition, familiar to billions of people; but also, it’s been used in religion (Eucharist) and politics (French Revolution). It touches every level of human life. Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God. Mostly, it’s the most familiar symbol we have of unity: when we break bread together, this isn’t just about our bodies.

Give us bread, and draw us into forgiveness: hospitality and healing are conjoined everywhere.


whatsoever you do to the least

The Gospel reading at Mass today (Monday, first week in Lent) is the Last Judgment passage from Matthew: whatsoever you do to the least of my family, you do to me. It’s the passage that led me into an exploration of Scripture and immigration. When Jesus said that we will welcome strangers and meet the Father, or turn them away and go to hell, what did he mean by “stranger”? We can figure that out.

According to an Australian scholar, Raymond Canning, this passage was of the two passages that St. Augustine used as the take-off point for understanding all of Scripture. (The other was the story of Paul on the road to Damascus: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” There too, Jesus identified with people in trouble: what you do to them, you do to the Lord, personally.)

Augustine spoke specifically about refugees pouring across the Mediterranean: if you want to meet Jesus, invite a refugee into your life.

And Jerome also spoke about refugees on the shore of the Mediterranean. Addressing the idea that we can sort them out, and welcome some refugees while rejecting others, Jerome reached out for a rhetorical boost from his favorite pagan writer, Virgil, who wrote about secure and snug citizens – who watched human being drag themselves out of the savage sea into the hands of worse savagery ashore, the savagery of smug and smiling self-righteous rejectniks. The passage bursts with anger and contempt: Virgil can’t think of a crime lower than inhospitality.

Jesus, Augustine, Jerome, and the Pope. Listen up!


Thursday, February 1, 2018

An insight from Fr. Paul Marx

I learned a lot from Fr. Paul Marx, OSB, SOB.

I worked for him, or with him, for eight years. He had a large vision; he traveled around the globe for decades, talking and talking about sex and violence. He wrote short pieces about his observations that were often insightful, sometimes bombastic. He listened to people from a vast array of backgrounds – listened, really listened. He saw himself as a teacher – in fact, as a man with a mission – and was quick to push his own views with vigor. But he listened, always with interest, often with insight, sometimes with politeness – always with a global vision. When he was in Kenya, he had an eye on Switzerland. When he was in Japan, he had an eye on Italy. When he was in the Amazon, he didn’t forget Baltimore.

He was from a Midwest German family; I’m from a New England Irish family. But we shared a lot. We argued often, and fought occasionally.

A couple of years before the tough old man died, I wrote him a longish letter, thanking him for what he had taught me, apologizing for the wrongs I had done him, setting aside the wrongs he had done me, making peace. It remains painful to me that several narrow-minded and nasty enemies of his stole that letter off his desk and plundered it, using it as a source of dirt. Some people know no bounds in their bitter vandalism.

That’s a lot of background for a short point. I learned from him that people can fixate on problems to solve, evils to fight, for two very reasons. Some people fight abortion because they have been through something – abandonment, or loss of a child, or abortion, or a friend’s abortion – and others fight it because they can’t imagine it. C. S. Lewis was once asked why he wrote about all kinds of sins, but skipped two. His critic was specifically curious about “gambling and homosexuality.” Lewis replied that he only wrote about things he understood. Fr. Marx helped me see that some people wrestle with sins of passion – anger and lust, primarily – and draw on their own experiences to understand and resist abortion. But others wrestle with, say, arrogance and greed – and hate not their own sins but rather the sins committed by those people over there.

The greedy and arrogant denounce the sensual and impulsive. And vice versa. They share a blindness.

The perspective of an inexperienced outsider or a na├»ve and innocent observer isn’t worthless. The perspective of a struggling sinner isn’t unreliable, either. But you want to know which is which. You want to understand both.

I have great difficulty getting inside the mindset of people who commit acts of inhospitality. They astound me, baffle me. The joy of meeting strangers and stumbling slowly into a new perspective seems so obvious to me! So to get at the mindset of the inhospitable, I have to approach crabwise, with odd analogies. Some calm people don’t understand explosions of anger.