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Saturday, February 24, 2024

Hubris in the Democratic party

Who are the people supporting Donald Trump for a second term as president?

Theory Number One, which I have tended to accept, is that they are people who have been left behind in today’s culture, a culture that has turned a useful human invention, the market, into a demonic force. The divinized market has been immensely successful in allocating to itself an unfair share of the products of labor, and in the process has robbed a growing segment of the population of resources needed for a life of dignity and reasonable security. Theory Number One is that this latter segment, the “left behind” folks, the rust-belt casualties residing in mid-America, is rebelling against the system that is robbing them. Trump is their hero because Trump will blow up the system.

Theory Number Two is that there is another segment of our society that is not at all a casualty of the system. This segment is not disadvantaged. It is people who have done everything right—are blessed with stable marriages, are members of a faith community, have a decent education and a job that provides a dignified living—these people are also leaning towards Mr. Trump. Many of these people—most of the ones I know are Catholic—are speaking favorably about Mr. Trump for a different reason. 

People of faith accept as true the statement that human affairs are not totally under human control. There is something beyond human capability that needs to be taken account of, especially as we face unprecedented environmental disasters. People of faith take a higher power seriously. People of faith take God seriously.

Theory Number Two says that people of faith look favorably at Mr. Trump because his Democratic opponents look down on people of faith, mostly by ignoring them.

The Democratic leadership, and probably a lot of what middle America calls the “coasts,” suffer from a disability that keeps them from appreciating how most people in the world see the world. The sense that we are all responsible to some kind of “higher power” is common to men and women with religious roots in every part of the world.

The theory labeled “secularization” says that as a society becomes more industrialized or “modernized,” religious faith disappears. But as Ryan Burge asks, from his study of survey data about religion, why is it that the poor in our country are the least churched and most secularized among us? And that it is people who have done everything right, “checked all the boxes,” that are more likely to be members of a religious community?

Shaun Casey was appointed to a post in the Obama State Department, a post charged with making government officials aware of how religion can affect political behavior around the world. Mr. Casey, in his book Chasing the Devil at Foggy Bottom, quotes Madeleine Albright, in a book she published five years after her term as Secretary of State in the Clinton administration, a book titled The Mighty and the Almighty, regarding the role of religion in political affairs:

Drawing on her experience, she noted that while religion had played important roles in varied locations, including Vietnam, the Balkans, Iran, Poland, Uganda, Lebanon, Israel and Palestine, Saudi Arabia and Iraq, the State Department in her tenure had no experts for her to draw on.

 

Secularization theory has not fared well in explaining and predicting trends in modern history. A theory more accurately telling the story of modernity might be called “hubris theory.” As people become politically and economically successful, they move in circles that reward success, both real and imagined. They feel less responsibility to anything or anyone beyond themselves—they are self-made men and women. It is that attitude, “we can solve any problem,” that religions challenge.

Hubris causes people to think that they are the wave of the future, that the important people are all like them, that their opinions are self-evident. They do not realize that their world is limited in space and time. Not everyone is as self-made as they are.

It is that attitude that is infecting the Democratic leadership. They are discarding important segments of the voting public, segments that accept the idea that there is something or someone beyond themselves to which they are responsible. When those segments feel disenfranchised, they react by throwing bombs—casting their vote for Mr. Trump.

Some observers claim that the Catholic vote will be critical in November’s election. Many Catholics I know are turned off by the confident secularity of Democratic leaders, especially by their full-throated acceptance of abortion. They are influenced by an American Catholic hierarchy that has been cultivated too successfully by Republican leadership.

Abortion is evil. The term “pro-choice” used to mean that a decision about abortion should be made by the woman carrying a child, with or without the support of a physician. A Catholic can accept that as a morally legitimate position, because not all moral evils should be dealt with by governments and their laws. Democratic strategists have discarded choice and replaced it with a claim that abortion is a positive good. That is something that many Catholics see as morally repugnant. It enough to turn them into Trump supporters.

The Catholic vote is not the only such vote, though it is the largest in numbers. There is a huge ex-Catholic population that may be as religious as the Catholic faithful who are still committed to the church, and those two populations, ex-Catholic and Catholic, make up a significant voting bloc, more significant even than evangelical voters.  Democrats should not discard this important group that traditionally voted Democratic, and includes a growing Hispanic segment that, Catholic or ex-Catholic, takes the existence of God seriously.

Christians should not seek to control, but they do wish to be respected and taken seriously.  Few things anger human beings more powerfully than when people disrespect them.

Wednesday, February 21, 2024

A revised rosary

We call them “mysteries” of the rosary. I’d rename them “stories.” They are stories about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

I have grown up with three sets of five stories each: the joyful stories, the sorrowful stories, and the glorious stories.

The idea seems to be that you should think about those stories as you vocalize the prayers, one Our Father and ten Hail Marys for each story. I grew up thinking that the idea was to forget about the words of the prayers and just think about the stories. I discovered later in life that there is merit to thinking about the prayers and let the stories sort of float in the background.

I had one problem with the traditional three sets—they skip over all the events of what we call the “public life” of Jesus, the things he did as an adult in the years before he died. So I invented what I call the “public” mysteries or stories. Here are the five I created:

1. John the Baptist baptizes Jesus.

2. The devil tempts Jesus.

3. Jesus eats with sinners.

4. Jesus heals people.

5. Jesus teaches people.

Before I explain further why I chose those five, I should tell you that Pope John Paul II had the same idea, only I invented mine before he made his public. His five are:

1. John the Baptist baptizes Jesus

2. Jesus turns water into wine at Cana.

3. Jesus proclaims the kingdom of God.

4. Jesus appears to his apostles transfigured.

5. Jesus institutes the Eucharist at the Last Supper.

 

Why my five

Both John Paul and I chose the baptism of Jesus as the first story for reflection as we pray the rosary. It was a crucial event in Jesus’s life, with the voice of the Father and the Spirit appearing as a dove.

The temptations described in three of the gospels are surely a literary way of saying that Jesus continually faced three paths that would divert him from his mission. The first was to seek his own well-being (by avoiding hunger); the second was to focus on fame (through a dramatic descent from the height of the temple pinnacle); and the third was to bring about the kingdom through political power. That Jesus was tempted is a very important way in which he was “like us in all things except sin.”

Jesus’s eating with sinners was an important way in which he broke with people’s expectations. The Pharisees more than once complained about the way he ignored ritual rules about eating, and especially rules about eating with the wrong people. Table fellowship cements social friendships—look at how seldom interracial contact at work results in dinner invitations. The scripture scholar Robert Karris, who focused on the gospel of Luke during his career, said “Jesus was crucified because of the way he ate.” Karris meant that he was crucified because of who he ate with.

Surely Jesus’s healing was a significant part of his life in Galilee and Judea. “People kept coming to him,” says the gospel of Matthew, “bringing to him all those who were sick with various diseases and racked with pain, those who were possessed, lunatics, and paralytics, and he cured them.

And finally, Jesus taught, especially through his parables about the kingdom of God.

 

Mystery revisions

I was fifteen years old when Pope Pius XII declared that Mary’s being taken up body and soul into heaven was a dogma of faith. At the time he said that her “assumption into heaven” was a reminder of a doctrine in the Apostles’ Creed, "the resurrection of the body."

The idea that we are to be resurrected in both soul and body led to much reflection on my part about the significance of the physical in our lives and deaths. So I replaced the term “assumption” with the phrase “resurrection of the body” for the fourth glorious mystery.

That was my first revision. Then my revisionism picked up steam.

The fifth glorious mystery or story, that Mary is crowned queen of heaven and earth, bothered me. First of all, there is no scriptural basis for this story. There is no scriptural basis for the story of Mary’s assumption either, but at least there is a more credible tradition of belief down through the centuries for that idea. Second, I have an American negative reaction to kings and queens.

So my first revision was to replace the coronation with the phrase “life everlasting,” based, like the “resurrection of the body,” on the last phrases of the Apostles’ Creed.

The Apostles’ Creed got me to think about re-doing the last three glorious mysteries or stories as follows:

Third glorious mystery: The Holy Spirit comes to the apostles at Pentecost, forming the holy Catholic church. (“I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy Catholic church . . .”)

Fourth glorious mystery: the communion of saints, and the forgiveness of sins. (“. . . the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins . . .”)

Fifth mystery: the resurrection of the body and life everlasting. (“. . .the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting.”)

 

The mysteries as doublets

Those last three glorious mysteries suggested ways of thinking about all the mysteries as doublets, two events each.

First glorious mystery: Jesus rises from the dead and appears to Mary Magdalene and others.

Second glorious mystery: Jesus commissions his followers to make disciples of all nations (the “Great Commission”) and ascends into heaven.


The Joyful Mysteries

1. The Angel Gabriel appears to Zachary,  and to Mary

2. After Mary visits Elizabeth, she prays her “Magnificat,” and Zachary prays his “Benedictus.”

3. Mary and Joseph cannot find lodging; Jesus is born in a stable.

4. The family is visited by shepherds; the family visits Simeon and Anna in the temple.

5. Magi visit Jesus; the teachers in the temple marvel at his wisdom.

The fourth mystery or story shows Jesus being acknowledged by less important people (shepherds and Simeon and Anna—Luke’s gospel does not say that Simeon was a priest).

The fifth mystery shows Jesus being acknowledged by important people: magi and teachers in the temple.

 

The public mysteries

1. Jesus gets in line with sinners for baptism; the Father and Spirit publicly acknowledge him as “beloved son.”

2. Jesus fasts; Jesus is tempted.

3. Jesus eats with ordinary tax collectors like Matthew; and with rich ones like Zacheus.

4. Jesus heals physical maladies; and possession by demons.

5. Jesus teaches using parables; and feeds thousands after his teaching.

 

The sorrowful mysteries

1. Jesus eats with his followers at the last supper , he suffers agony in the garden of Gethsemane.

2. Jesus is condemned to death by the Sanhedrin; and condemned by Pontius Pilate.

3. Jesus is spit upon; and crowned with thorns.

4. Jesus takes up the cross; and falls on the way to Calvary.

5. Jesus is nailed to the cross; and dies on it.

 

This revision of rosary mysteries is a work in progress. Most of the ideas have been road-tested, but I composed a few, especially the sorrowful ones, as I was writing this piece.

Anyone can change things about a private prayer like the rosary, in whatever way they find spiritually fruitful. Of course, when we pray together, any changes are a distraction for other people, and we shouldn't impose our innovations on them.

The spirit of prayerful adventure that allowed me to manhandle the rosary is something I got from Fr. Martin Wolter, a friar who invented a whole batch of ways to make prayer more meaningful for people.

A rule that I find useful for any prayer form, liturgical or otherwise, is one that I modify from the psychologist Erik Erikson. He was describing interactions between a mother and her infant, but the description fits prayer very well. His advice, modified for prayer: Prayer forms should be familiar enough that they don’t distract, and innovative enough that they’re not boring.

 

 


Monday, February 19, 2024

How free am I?

What does it mean to be free?

My Franciscan educators, back in the 1950s and 60s, contrasted their philosophy with the philosophy promoted by most of the rest of the Catholic academic world, philosophy shaped by Thomas Aquinas. Our Franciscan heroes were John Duns Scotus and William of Ockham. Those writers stressed freedom as an essential characteristic of the human condition. Through three years of study of that Franciscan version of Neo-Scholasticism, I came away with a sense of the beauty and wonder of freedom. But that freedom did not mean I could do anything I wanted to do. Freedom meant that I could do loving things and know that I was doing them freely because I wanted to do them. Nobody was forcing me to do them.

That became the basis of my thinking of love as a gift.

When I love someone, when I deliberately choose to treat that person with respect, with vulnerability, and with faithfulness, my love is a gift to that person. I don’t have to give it.

A gift implies freedom. A gift does not have to be given. A gift cannot be bought and sold. We have the wonderful custom that we do not allow price tags to be attached to a gift.  Cutting off the price tag removes the gift from the realm of measurement and strict reciprocity. It is true that a gift creates an expectation of a return gift, but the return cannot be in exact dollars and cents. It need not be immediate—the expectation can lie dormant for months and even years. “I owe you one” is a statement of solidarity between two people, not a statement of dependence. When the person receiving the gift feels oppressed by the dependence that a gift can create, the gift has gone off the rails.

In our Franciscan vision, everything is in some sense a gift from God. God did not have to give me life. I do not have to return that gift. When I do actions that I see as a return on the gift of life to me, I am acting freely. I do not have to do that. I do it because I want to. That gives me an intense dignity.

Every one of us has that kind of freedom, the freedom to respond to God’s gifts of life and love. From the earliest moments when a child is conscious of self, a child can give freely to God. That is one basis of the dignity of every child. Every child should know that they have that wonderful freedom and power—they can love God freely, just because they want to. My limited experience of children with disabilities tells me that even a child with serious mental disability is able to freely respond to love from others and from God.

How free am I?

In some ways, the story of my life can be seen as a story of “limited” possibilities. My family of origin had many limits, economic and psychological. When I decided in sixth grade that I wanted to be a Franciscan priest, was I free? The educational program that structured my joining the Franciscans took fourteen years. At any point during the first ten of those years I was free to walk away from the program. Then, at the end of ten years, I made a promise to “live the gospel” for the rest of my life. Was I free to do that?

There were factors that surely played into my decisions. In grade school I was generally not well accepted by my peers, mostly because I was fat and had almost no athletic skills. I looked forward to living in the seminary where I would not have to play softball. I was seriously mistaken, because the high school seminary program required every one of us to take part in every sport: softball and touch football in the fall, basketball and bowling in the winter, and baseball (“hard ball”) in the spring. We could ice skate when the seminary pond froze. I was good at none of those things. Why did I stay?

Surely I was rewarded in grade school by some of the Franciscan sisters who taught me. I got good grades, and was obedient. I do not recall comparable rewards at any later point in my seminary career, though certain teachers quietly recognized that I had certain abilities that other young men did not have. Was I free all along those years to continue pursuing the goal of living as both Franciscan and priest?

In some sense, I felt that I had to make that choice. I didn’t know why. Nobody was forcing me. Neither of my parents put any pressure on me. Even weeks before my ordination, my mother was saying “If you should be ordained . . .” Was I free?

I have concluded that freedom is a story that I tell about myself. I can tell the story that I was pressured to do something, and I can tell the opposite story that I did it freely and without pressure. When I tell my story as a story of freely doing things, I feel calm and joyful. I refuse to tell my story as a story that says I did something because someone else made me do it.

So maybe freedom is simply a choice between versions of the stories of my life.

Some people seem to go through life telling the story that they have no choice about important things in their lives. Are they mistaken? Is the story that they have no choice a demon from which only someone else can free them? Is the story that I have been free to make the important decisions in my life an angel?

The language of angels and demons reminds us that there are stories we tell about ourselves that are put on us somehow by others, and that those others can make our lives joyful or painful.

My Christian faith says that God wants every human person to tell their life story as a story of freedom and love, and that every one of us is called to try to free others if a demon of powerlessness seems to have taken over their story.

Maybe any one of us can be an exorcist, but we can’t practice exorcism without support from a loving God.

 

 

O


Saturday, February 10, 2024

The tree of knowledge of good and evil

 

March 20, 2014

  One of the readings for the first Sunday of Lent describes Eve and Adam’s eating of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, the basis for the doctrine of original sin.

 Most people take such a story as a descriptions of an actual physical event. It is only in recent decades that we have become more aware of how symbols and metaphors function in human understanding. In some ways every statement we humans make is based on symbol and metaphor.

 Take, for example, our description of the ultimate particles that make up the atoms of our universe. Scientists describe these “particles” as either waves or packets. The very term “particles” is metaphorical. It makes us imagine something like a grain of sand. A “wave” makes us think of bodies of water whose surfaces are moved by the wind. A “packet” suggests something that you would put into the mail.

 In fact, scientists cannot reconcile the fact that this elementary particle sometimes behaves like a wave and sometimes like a particle, so they use both metaphors. They cannot avoid using metaphors to speak about what they are studying. Every scientific description is based on metaphors, and every scientific explanation is a story, a “fictional” description of what we think is happening. 

 Example: “Cholera” is a disease that used to devastate cities (for example, Memphis in 1878). It reappears in conditions where sanitation is not provided, as in refugee camps. What causes the disease of cholera?

 Scientists will talk about a “microbe,” which is a tiny living organism. All of those words, “tiny,” “living,” and “organism” are metaphors, based on experiences from our everyday lives.

 Then scientists tell a story. The microbes live in water that has been polluted by sewage. When a person drinks that water, the microbe is transferred to the blood stream of the person, and the person gets sick.

 This is a fictional construction, a story. The actual event is far more complex. The microbe can be described in far greater detail, nowadays down to the level of its genetic composition. So can human blood be described in far greater detail, and how microbes “behave” in human blood.

 Back to Adam and Eve

 The Church accepts the theory (story) that the authors of the books of Scripture were human beings who were writing under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. They were not providing scientific descriptions of events, or perhaps more accurately, they were not providing descriptions any more detailed than the everyday “scientific” theories of their time.

 The traditional story developed from that original story is enshrined in later Scripture, for example, in St. Paul’s letter to the Romans. Adam and Eve “sinned” (a metaphor). They “disobeyed” God (another metaphor). This use of metaphor results in a story where God is like a human parent who gives orders to a child. When the child “disobeys,” the parent punishes the child. “Satan” tempted Eve.

 Here is another way to read the story. God (the term is metaphorical, so metaphorical that Jewish custom forbade even pronouncing the Name) created humans and knew that they would be tempted to push the boundaries of any situation. The “tree of the knowledge of good and evil” is a metaphor for human thinking and theorizing.

 Applying this to our present human condition, I use two examples.

 Nuclear fission. We have learned that by “splitting” the atom we can release immense amounts of energy. That knowledge (of good and evil) can free us from the problem of providing energy, or it can destroy our world.

 Genetic engineering. We have learned that we can manipulate the genetic code that underlies all living cells. That knowledge of good and evil can provide cures for terrible diseases as well as genetic disaster for the whole human race.

 God knew when God created us that we would not be able to resist pushing the boundaries. What happens when we push the boundaries?

 We get hurt. Adam and Eve got hurt. They had to leave paradise (a metaphor). The inventor of dynamite thought that he was providing something that would end wars. The exact opposite happened.

 God did not “punish” Adam and Eve. God created unfinished creatures, who would push the boundaries, get hurt, and have the possibility of living more fully as a result.

 Admittedly this interpretation of the story is not compatible with Paul’s interpretation of it in Romans. But we can live with competing stories, just as scientists live with the competing stories about particles as waves and as packets. We can read the Adam and Eve story the way Paul read it, or we can read it as I just re-told it. My way of re-telling it seems more compatible with the kind of God that Jesus described as “the Father,” a God passionately “in love” with each human being.

 Aside: the Adam and Eve story makes no mention of “Satan” or “the devil.” It is the “serpent” who tempts them. It is only later writers, like Paul, who identify the serpent with Satan.

 Our problem is that, down through the ages, we humans have been too ready to translate our stories into descriptions of actual physical facts, “scientific” facts. We have not appreciated how stories function in  human behavior.

 

"Any support you might have had . . ."

April 1, 2015

 

[This was published as a letter to the Quincy Herald-Whig around April 2015. I had footnoted the word “qorban” but the editors omitted the reference, which must have made that word meaningless to most readers.]

 

You shall love your neighbor as yourself.

 Who is my neighbor?

 A man who fell among robbers.

 In our town, Quincy, there are people who have fallen among robbers. We are told that food pantries are in greater demand than in times past. People who had jobs have lost those jobs. We are told that successful politicians will provide jobs, while at the same time we are told that politicians should not provide jobs, private enterprise should.

 Young people who want to "contribute to society" find that society does not make contributing easy. They are told that they should do well in school. But it is hard to do well in school when you do not eat breakfast. It is hard to eat breakfast when one of your parents is in prison and the other one is working three jobs and is at work when you should eat breakfast. It's hard not to be in prison when the color of your skin makes people suspect you of bad intentions when you walk down the street. If people treat you like a criminal, why not just be a criminal and prove them right?

 The man who fell among robbers should have been more careful. He should not have been traveling alone. It was his own fault that he got robbed.

 When people are poor, it's their own fault. They don't work hard enough.

 Any support you might have had from me is qorban* [Mark 7:11]. Any support you might have had from me will be taken care of by the invisible hand. But it takes patience. The invisible hand is slow.

 The invisible hand might move faster if the government would give it a boost, but that would mean raising taxes. The Third Great Commandment is: do not raise taxes. Under no conditions should you raise taxes. Everyone needs every penny they earn, no matter how many pennies they earn. Don't touch my pennies.

 We love our neighbors as ourselves. We contribute to the Good News of Christmas. That should be enough. We pass by on the other side because we work hard, and that poor man should have been more careful. We are in a hurry. If we don't hurry, the invisible hand will punish us.

 We love our neighbors as ourselves.

 

 *(Mark 7:11)

 

 

 


When a pope apologizes

April 16, 2010

          Every time I pass a certain house on Lind Street in Quincy, I think of the time when a group of students living there were arrested for throwing a dog off the bridge into the Mississippi River at Quincy. They were drunk, which of course was no excuse.

          But then I think of a story my father told, more than once. When he was young, probably around 1915, he used to “fire boilers” at the Dominican Sisters’ convent in Springfield, Illinois. A sister there befriended stray cats. The cats became a nuisance. So my dad would shoot the cats and throw the corpses into the boiler. Telling the story years later, he would end by laughingly quoting the sister, “I can’t imagine what is becoming of my cats.” He was proud of his ingenuity.

          Our sense of what is morally acceptable changes. One generation sees no problem with shooting cats (or drowning them in a sack, which was another common custom). A later generation arrests you for doing it.

          There are far more serious changes in history. For centuries, church authorities, both Catholic and Protestant, regarded charging interest on loans as immoral (the practice was called “usury”). For centuries, Catholic church leaders defended the institution of slavery as morally acceptable. After all, didn’t the apostle Paul write a letter to Philemon telling him to take back a runaway slave? Paul didn’t question the institution of slavery itself.

          A Latin quotation from my seminary days comes to mind (courses were taught in Latin back then): “In processione generationis humanae, semper crescit notitia veritatis.” “In the course of human history, the knowledge of truth continually expands.” The quotation is from the Franciscan theologian John Duns Scotus. It would be hard to find a stronger affirmation of what might be called “evolution” in human thought.

          Catholic theology is in a bind again, just as it was in the days when it had trouble with usury and slavery. Today it is dogma about contraception, stem cell research, and homosexual behavior.

          Today the bind is worse. Before 1871, the evolution of Church teaching was accepted. Change was usually controversial, especially when politics or economics were involved (as it was both regarding usury and slavery), but the change eventually came about. But in 1871 the First Vatican Council declared that the pope is infallible when he speaks ex cathedra on issues of faith and morals. That locked the Catholic Church into a position as untenable as the ancient custom of the Persians, who, according to the biblical book of Esther, regarded any decree of the king as unchangeable.

          The position didn’t look untenable when the Council bishops passed it, though two American bishops left the Council rather than vote in favor of it. (One of the bishops was from Little Rock, Arkansas. The joke was “the Little Rock met the Big Rock.”) Probably the other bishops regarded the move as a gracious gesture of support for the aging Pius IX, who was in the middle of the trauma of losing control of the Papal States.

          Statements ex cathedra (“from the chair”) are so rare that there have been only two since 1800: the declarations by Pius IX and Pius XII regarding Mary’s immaculate conception and assumption into heaven. The problem is that Roman authorities have not been able to resist the temptation to throw the cloak of infallibility over everything else that they put into the mouth of the pope.

          Pope John Paul II seems to have done everything in his power to undercut the concept of infallibility. The author Luigi Accattoli, in his book When a Pope Asks Forgiveness: The Mea Culpa's of John Paul II, counted, as of 1998, 94 times when John Paul apologized for something one of his predecessors did. The condemnation of Galileo was the most famous case. Yet John Paul II never took the implied step of saying that the doctrine of infallibility is untenable.

          Catholic moral practice, in the U.S. at least, is moving inexorably away from the official positions of the papacy. Judging from the birth rate among Catholics, the practice of contraception is not seen as immoral. A small group of conservative Catholics use this as an example of how the Church has sold out to secularism and modernity, but I know all kinds of adult Catholics who take their faith very seriously, make great sacrifices to make their faith real in their everyday lives, but never talk about contraception. Neither do most priests.

          Homosexual behavior, stem cell research, and artificial nutrition and hydration are issues where Catholic doctrine is slowly losing credibility. This is sad, because a Catholic sensibility has much to say about those issues. Instead, we are asked to keep silent about the ideas and go to war about the politics.

          There is a fine line between “selling out to secularism” and “dialogue with the culture.” We Catholics cannot ignore that line.

 

  

A Glossary for Nonviolent Prophets


written on September 4, 2008


        Aggression is the intent to hurt someone.


        Violence is the intent to hurt someone physically.


        Nonviolence is the strategy of being prophetic without intending to hurt anyone.


        Prophecy is trying to change something that other people do not want changed. Prophecy leads to conflict.


        Conflict is when one person takes a stand and another person takes an opposing stand.


        Conflict does not need to be aggressive. Conflict is part of healthy involvement with others. The goal of conflict is to create change that will benefit both parties. 


        The prophetic person takes a stand for change that she judges necessary for her own well-being. The person being challenged to change will benefit if the challenger can live more fully, because when one person suffers, all people suffer.


        Rosa Parks was a prophet. She judged that a change in the rules for riding buses was necessary for her own well-being. She took a stand by refusing to move to the back of the bus. The people who made the rules took the opposing stand. The result was that Rosa Parks was arrested and charged with violating the law. She continued to take her stand and was joined by others. 


        Rosa Parks was not just a woman who got fed up with a situation. She was part of an organization that was studying the tactics of nonviolent resistance with the goal of changing the racial situation in her community. 


        When Rosa Parks was arrested, this gave her nonviolent fellow prophets the occasion to take a public stand against the rules about riding buses. Throughout the struggle, the goal of the protestors was not to hurt the city officials and those who defended them. The goal was to change the rules. The hope of nonviolent protest is that the people opposing the protestors will come to see the justice of the protest and accept the change demanded. 


        Nonviolent protest often provokes violence against the protestors. That is the price of nonviolent prophecy. The prophet who suffers violence does not return violence with violence, because the intent to hurt another person is always counter-productive. 


        It is very hard to maintain a stance of nonviolence. The urge to strike back when you are hurt is very strong. Many, and maybe most, nonviolent movements eventually become co-opted by people who become impatient with the refusal to hurt in return. That is the story of the protest started by Rosa Parks. Martin Luther King was overtaken by Stokely Carmichael and Malcolm X, who shaped the later history of the civil rights movement. It is the story of nonviolent movements in Palestine, in Kosovo, and in Chechnya, to name some more recent conflicts. 


        Anger is a feeling.


        A feeling is a form of passion. The word “passion” comes from the same word as the word “passive,” which means that one is not in control. Feeling means that you are not in control of the hormonal physiology of your body. Feelings are neither right nor wrong, they just are. Anger is neither right or wrong, it just is. You don’t control it. You control your behavior when you are angry, but you don’t control the anger.


        When someone is hurting you intentionally, the natural reaction is anger. The nonviolent protestor does not react by trying to hurt the person causing the pain. The protestor can share the feeling—she can let the opponent know very clearly how she feels about being hurt, but she does not lash out intending to hurt the opponent. She uses “I” statements—“I feel hurt, I feel like a child who has just been kicked by another person.” 


        Anger is in itself not bad or counter-productive. It can be a powerful aid in staying motivated to change a situation. What is bad and counter-productive is to try to hurt the person you are angry at. The behavior needs to be controlled, not the emotion. 


        Example of violent protest. You tell me I cannot do something. I react by calling you a slut, or a bastard. Words like “slut” or “bastard” are aggressive words. Their intent is to cause hurt, and they succeed. If words do not seem to be enough, I throw something at you, or I strike you. 


        The more I try to hurt you, the stronger my anger becomes, and the situation escalates. This is what it means when you say that I am “out of control.” 


        Example of nonviolent protest. You tell me I cannot do something (for example, ride in the front of the bus). I react by refusing to go to the back of the bus. I am not trying to hurt you. I am taking a stand for what I think is right. You react by trying to hurt me. I refuse to try to hurt you back. 


        Nonviolence as a political strategy requires the involvement of many other people. Rosa Parks’s protest succeeded because thousands of others in Montgomery joined her by refusing to ride buses. Eventually the cost of the protest became so great for the defenders of the status quo that those defenders gave in and changed the rules. 


        Changing the rules was painful for the officials of Montgomery, but the goal of the protestors was not to cause the pain. The goal was to change the rules. There is pain on both sides of a nonviolent conflict. 


        The nonviolent protestor can use several theories to explain the strategy of nonviolence. One theory is that nonviolence leads to redemption. This is the story of Jesus. Another is that nonviolence leads to political change. This is the story of Gandhi. Martin Luther King appealed to both theories. He sought political change and spiritual redemption, for the good of the protestors and for the good of their opponents. 


        An opponent is someone against whom you are taking a stand. An enemy is someone you want to hurt. Nonviolence uses the term “opponent” rather than the term “enemy,” because the protestor hopes that at some point the opponent will become a friend. 


        Nonviolence is not non-resistance. The nonviolent protestor resists but does not try to hurt. Resistance can provoke violent reactions, and in fact usually does so. It is striking how violently political officials attack nonviolent protestors. 


        The Dalai Lama is trying to hold to a strategy of nonviolence, but Chinese officials react by accusing him of fomenting violence. This is the same reaction Dr. King faced. It seems that violent reactions are so ingrained in human cultures that any resistance is interpreted as aggressive, and is therefore met with violence.



        “Respect” is a key concept in conflict situations. Many conflicts escalate because one party does not “show respect” for the other.


        To show respect is to use rituals of deference. Examples of rituals of deference: paying attention when you speak, not interrupting you, bowing, rising when you enter the room, shaking hands, smiling. 


        Examples of rituals of non-deference: ignoring you, staring at you, refusing to answer when you speak, calling you a name.


        Violence is the height of disrespect. 


        The nonviolent protestor continues to use rituals of deference towards her opponent. The prophet respects the opponent. 


        To tell someone, even a child, that she is not allowed to speak is disrespectful. 


        A child should be taught to behave respectfully. There are rituals of deference that children should pay to parents, but keeping silent is not one of those rituals. 


        Parents need to be respectful to children. I think one ritual of deference that an adult owes to a child is to listen to the child. 


        Young people should be taught to engage in nonviolent conflict. Their anger can be beneficial, if it does not lead to aggressive attempts to hurt others. School officials need to experience that anger. We adults want to back up the children in their struggle to see changes made in the bad behavior of school personnel. We want to teach them how to resist bad situations in ways that will be both redemptive and effective. Since we ourselves are not sure how to do that, we must engage them in the discussion of how to do it.