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Saturday, September 15, 2018

Letter to the Quincy Herald Whig

printed September 13, 2018

Why is it that the first thing politicians promise when they seek office is "jobs"? This is strange, because the next thing they say is that the government cannot provide jobs, only the private sector can do that. And politicians are the government.

Last Sunday's paper featured an article describing how Madison Park Christian Church packs meals for children so they will have something to eat over the weekends. That is a blessed program, and I pray that it will grow and grow. But does the need for such a program have anything to do with jobs?

Contrary to the popular stereotype, all those hungry children do not have parents who are free-loading. Many of those parents either cannot find jobs or have jobs that are not paying them enough to live a respectable life. By respectable life I mean a life that allows them to have time with their children, time to observe the "Sabbath," time to go on vacation with their families, even time and money to enjoy the theater, the symphony, occasional trips to other places besides Quincy.

I am a member of a religious order that provides for its members without compelling them to work. We have free-loaders in our group. The Rev. Francis Jerome, one of my legendary former QC colleagues, used to say "Father So-and so should be buried upside down, so as to give his backside a rest.” Yet our Franciscan freeloaders are few and far between. They are part of the cost of living together as human beings.

We Franciscans do our best to take care of our own. Our problem in this country is that we do not see every man, woman, and child in this country as "our own." Too many of our neighbors are “the other.”  

No, they are not the other. They are our own.

That is a problem, and we Americans are proud of our ability to solve problems. Our country can solve this problem if it wants to.

The Rev. Joseph Zimmerman

[I sign my letters "Joseph Zimmerman, O.F.M." The paper always corrects that to "The Rev. Joseph Zimmerman" with no "O.F.M."]

Saturday, August 11, 2018

The Law isn't saving us

The Law isn’t saving us.

Once again, as so often in the past, I found  myself this morning praying the psalms, in this case, Psalm 5 (ICEL translation):

Hear my words, my groans,
my cries for help,
O God, my king.
I pray to you, Lord,
my prayer rises with the sun.
At dawn I plead my case and wait.

I plead my case and wait. I can do nothing right now. I just have to wait for the Lord to act.

You never welcome evil, God,
never let it stay.
You hate arrogance
and abhor scoundrels,
you detest violence
and destroy the traitor.

When I prayed the verse, “you hate arrogance,” I thought of Donald Trump.

Then, verse 4:

In the face of my enemies
clear the way,
bring me your justice.

Once again I am waiting for the Lord to act. The Lord will bring justice.

Their charges are groundless,
they breathe destruction;
their tongues are smooth,
their throat an open grave.

I am reading a biography of Ulysses Grant. Recently I was reading how vigilante groups in Mississippi in the 1870s were systematically re-enslaving their former slaves, by roaming the countryside, killing Blacks, and terrorizing any Black person who dared to try to vote. Grant saw the entire effort of the Civil War, with all of its bloodshed and horror, going for nothing. Slavery was being re-imposed. He was powerless, because northern political sentiment had turned against any further effort to use force to insure the rights of former slaves in the South.

God, pronounce them guilty,
catch them in their own plots,
expel them for their sins;
they have betrayed you.

A plea to God to act. “Expel them”--expel them from what? Presumably from the Jewish community. The psalmist is praying about evil within his or her own people. It is neighbors who are sinning.

But let those who trust you 
be glad and celebrate forever.
Protect those who love your name,
then they will delight in you.

For you bless the just, O God, 
your grace surrounds them like a shield. 

Grace was not surrounding the former slaves in Mississippi like a shield. Should they have revolted with violence? The story of the civil war in Syria shows what can happen when violent revolution fails. The psalmist is praying from a position of helplessness. Only God can remedy the situation.

My entire life has been dedicated to building a society where, to use one slogan, it will “be easier for people to be good.” Functionalist sociology imagined a society where the “structures” of a society would function as smoothly as a machine or a healthy organism.

But “structures” are laws. The vision promised that the right system of laws would produce the good society.

What has happened instead is that the effort to construct the perfect system of laws has imprisoned us. Every time we turn around there is a new law restricting what we used to do. We spend a lot of our resources defending ourselves against the possibility of lawsuits. Think of what schools spend for security against “active shooters.” The law is really hog-tying us into a prison of our own making.

This is what Paul was arguing against when he said that the Law kills.

We need to accept the reality that our neighbors--and that means the people “like us”--are as sinful as we are, and they can do  bad things to us. The effort to restrict them by law is only making us less free. We would be better off accepting the existence of evil in ourselves and our loved ones, and ask the Lord to help us overcome the evil. The Gospel would say that the only way to overcome evil is by uniting ourselves to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

Things are even worse when we decide that the evils we suffer are caused by people not like us--by immigrants, or minorities. Then we set ourselves up for war. We are already far along that path. The money we spend on dealing with active shooters is nothing compared to the money we spend on a nuclear arsenal that we will never be able to use, against potential enemies that we are creating by our own foolish policies.

Law is not saving us.

Monday, July 30, 2018

Second Thoughts

Last March I put a short essay on this blog with the title “religion is fun.” Ever since then I have had second thoughts. I wonder if I took religion seriously enough. Or better, if I took love seriously enough.

When I re-read the piece, it seems satisfactory. But it does need to be supplemented.

My basic point in that essay was that people do not continue to do things if they find no reward in doing them. So if people keep “doing religion,” they must be getting some kind of reward.

Philosophically, that is pure utilitarianism, and it is not enough to describe how we human beings behave. There are many examples of people who keep doing things that are very costly to themselves. A philosopher could say “Well, yes, but they must be getting some reward out of it when they do it.” But that does not take into account how the people themselves would tell the story of what they are doing.

Even more importantly, the philosopher’s statement does not take into account the example that Jesus used: “There is no greater love than to lay down your life for your friends.” It is hard to see how my giving up my life is going to result in a reward for me.

The purist will say “But the giver experiences a reward in the few moments before he or she gives up life for someone else,” but I don’t think that is what is going on. People who give up their lives for others are acting in the moment, without thinking, and especially without thinking of themselves or their reward. I suspect that if there is any story line going through their heads, it is, “God will take care of me. I need to do what this other person needs, even if I lose my life doing it.”

In other words, in such life and death situations, religion is deadly serious, literally. It is definitely not “fun.” It is love, pure and simple. I think of the statement in the Song of Songs: “For Love is strong as Death, . . . Its arrows are arrows of fire, flames of the divine.” (8:6)

Religion is not only fun, but it is also deadly serious. It tells stories about ultimate issues, and those stories help us to go on living, and even to quit going on living because we love someone else.

I recently read a book by two priests, Michael White and Tom Corcoran, who argued that the biggest failure of the Catholic Church, and probably of other Christian churches, is that we have come to see parishioners as consumers rather than as fellow disciples of Jesus. Consumers act on the basis of rewards, on the basis of what is “fun.” Disciples make their story the story of Jesus.

People need more than fun. They need love, and love is even stronger than fun.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Talcott Parsons

Probably nobody today knows the name of Talcott Parsons.

But in 1960 he was one of the best-known figures in sociology. He was at Harvard, head of a combination of academic programs that he called the “Department of Social Relations.” The department included Sociology, Cultural Anthropology, Clinical Psychology, Social Psychology, and Political Science. He would have liked to include Experimental Psychology, but B.F. Skinner was in charge of that and would not go along with his project. Neither would the Physical Anthropologists, the people who went around the world measuring skulls.

I knew none of this. When my Franciscan superiors told me to study sociology, they told me to have Fr. Gabriel Brinkman advise me where to go. Gabriel said “Go to Harvard.” He had just finished his own doctorate in sociology at Catholic University.

Being the docile religious, I packed up my stuff and arrived in Boston in June of 1964. I was advised to stay with the friars of New York Province in their house in Brookline, a Boston suburb. I asked one of the friars there how to get to the Harvard campus. He said, “Take the trolley downtown to Pock Square and transfer to the subway going to Cambridge.” I said, “How do you spell “Pock Square”? He replied “P-A-R-K.” My first introduction to the Boston Irish accent.

I had enrolled in the Harvard summer school by mail. During the summer, through contacts at the “Catholic Student Center” (Harvard’s version of a Newman Club), I met a Dutch friar named Theodore (“Theo”) Steeman. He advised me to sign up in the fall as a “resident graduate” at the Harvard Divinity School. I could take half my courses in theology there and the other half in sociology in the “Yard,” the Arts and Sciences division. For my Yard courses, he advised, “Take Parsons. He is an easy grader.”

So I took my first course with Talcott Parsons. He had a reputation as a horrible writer. One of his books outlining his theory was labeled by his students “the pink peril,” because it had a pink cover. Everybody kept asking, why can’t this man write intelligibly? But in class he was clear. Probably my background in neo-scholastic philosophy helped me. Because Parsons was not so different from Thomas Aquinas in his approach to understanding social reality. In class he developed his thought slowly, with pauses that allowed me to catch up with his thought. His classes were small--twenty or thirty students at most.

Here was his basic idea: all knowledge is related, so the sciences studying human behavior are basically one science. They just approach their study by focusing on one aspect of that behavior. So why not unite the academic departments focusing on those aspects into one department? And why not create one academic theory covering all social behavior? That’s what he did. He called it the “theory of social action.” Social action is human behavior that is guided by goals or motivation.

Theo advised me, “Take Tiryakian. He likes Franciscans.”

Edward Tiryakian taught courses linking sociology to phenomenology and existentialism. But he had been a teaching assistant to Pitirim Sorokin, and always tried to get people to take Sorokin more seriously.

Pitirim Sorokin had been born in Russia and got his degree there before the Russian revolution of 1917. He had been part of the first 1917 revolution that drove the Czar from power, but as often happens, a more radical group, the Bolsheviks, took over and Sorokin ended up being exiled. He was at the University of Minnesota in 1931 when Harvard decided that it was time to create a Department of Sociology and got him to come to Harvard to start it. At that time Parsons was an instructor in economics.

Sorokin  was widely known--his works were translated into multiple languages. He saw human history as a series of cycles. At one time, society focuses on ideas and spiritual things, and then it swings to more materialistic things in a period of decadence, which he saw happening in the twentieth century. Eventually the pendulum will swing back away from materialism.

I recall visiting Sorokin’s home, no doubt through Tiryakian’s invitation. He had a huge painting of a Moscow scene above his fireplace. He was convinced that eventually Russia and the U.S. would reach a convergence of cultures.

During the 1930s Parsons rose in influence and succeeded eventually in driving Sorokin out of his position and replacing sociology with social relations.

What I did not realize when I was taking courses from Parsons was that his star was setting. A revolution was taking place in sociology against Parsons’ theory, which was usually labeled “structural-functionalism.” The over-arching theory Parsons was developing was based on the metaphor of a physical organism (Parsons had majored in biology as an undergrad). Every structure in an organism has a function. In social life, the structures are norms. Each norm has a function. Society is an organic structure designed to carry out a universal set of functions such as reproduction, governance, material sustenance, etc.

All of this is not too different from medieval scholasticism and the concept of natural law. God has designed the world with structures that we can use to deduce moral norms. The human body has a design that requires that we behave certain ways if we wish to live. Contraception is against natural law, because conception is a physical process that should not be messed with.

The thinking that was developing in sociology was that human social behavior is better understood not as an organism but as a game. As people interact, they develop rules, but the rules can change, and people cheat. Things can appear pretty chaotic--when I watch basketball or soccer, all I see is chaos, but the players are following play books. There are rules and patterns. The game metaphor does not imply chaos, which is what natural law theorists would argue. When people interact, they usually develop rules that lead to peace. When the rules do not do that, they change the rules.

The game metaphor seems to describe human behavior better than the natural law organic metaphor. We are learning that nature plays tricks with what we thought were universal patterns. The experiences of gay men and women are being taken into account. Now we have expanded to transgender people. I would prefer to let such people speak for themselves. A political strategy of respecting people’s own definition of their sexuality seems to be more conducive to living together in peace than a strategy of judging them morally failing and worthy of punishment. We are changing the rules, but the game is not being destroyed.

Structural-functionalism was criticized as being too static, and indeed it was. It was the kind of thinking that guided Robert McNamara as he dealt with the conflict in Vietnam.

I come at this theorizing from a Franciscan approach shaped by Duns Scotus and William of Ockham. Ockham’s name is linked to the term “voluntarism,” which I interpret as meaning that he stressed free will and the openness of rational beings, including God, to surprise and innovation. This does not throw everything up for grabs. Ockham said we deduce ideas from experience. There are no universal ideas out there like Plato thought. We are free human beings, flawed, unfinished, hopefully open to grace and repentance. None of us, including the Pope, has an inside track on understanding what is good or bad in human behavior.

Parsons is no longer remembered. Why should Aquinas, or Scotus, or Ockham, be any different?

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Winning teams

Loyola of Chicago, a Jesuit school, just lost in the Final Four to Michigan. Then Villanova, an Augustinian school, beat Michigan. Two of the Final Four were Catholic schools, including the final winner.

Disclaimer: two weeks ago I did not even know those teams were playing. But throughout my life I have been tuned to events where Catholics have come out on top. Catholics are winners.

But the more I am steeped in the thought world of the New Testament, the more I realize that the followers of Jesus Christ did just fine without being winners. The didn't even come close to being winners until Constantine took their side in the 300s, and his action started us on a very unfortunate path, to where Christians thought they had to control everything: politics, religion, and everything in between.

So why do we think we need to be winners today?

I am thinking of the hand-wringing about the "loss" of so many Catholics to other religions or to no religion. Why do we have to hang onto the allegiance of every person who happened to be baptized Catholic? Answer: if we don't, we're losing.

But we don't need to win. Each one of us just has to be open to the Spirit in the time and place where God has situated us. So some of us go elsewhere. We are conditioned to see their decisions as indications of a failure on our part. We must be doing something wrong. We probably are, because we are unfinished in so many ways.

We can mourn the departure of friends to other religious places without the assumption that we have failed to control their decisions. God loves them as much as God loves us. God can be working in their decisions as much as God works in ours. We are not called to control or manipulate their decisions. We are called to be faithful to what God calls us to do, right here and now. Maybe our behavior will motivate others to join us, and maybe it won't. If we are doing our best to be open to God, hopefully we will find our way of approaching God good for us, and we will want others to share our way. But wanting is not controlling.

We do not need to be winners. just players.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Religion is fun

Is religion disappearing? I don’t think so. The reason I don’t think so is because religion is fun. It is no more likely to disappear than music will disappear. Music is fun too.

I say that religion is fun from my own experience. I enjoy doing religion. I always have, as long back as I can remember. I was a pious kid.

People here in Quincy keep going to church. They don’t have to. Nobody will punish them if they don’t. But 50 or so people are at the 6:30 am Mass at St. Francis every weekday, and hundreds are at the parish church Masses on Sunday. Some of them may be going out of sheer habit, and some may be going because it will advance their own political or economic ends. But most of them keep going because they enjoy doing it. They are not much different from people who go to the opera because they enjoy it.

I owe the music analogy to the sociologist Max Weber, who wrote about “religious virtuosos.” The word “virtuoso” is a musical term, not entirely positive. It describes a person who is technically proficient at music without necessarily being artistically creative. People can be technically religious without necessarily being holy, or close to God. Sometimes I wonder if I am one of those people. I am definitely a religious virtuoso.

By saying that religion is fun, I am not rejecting the experiences of people who take religion much more seriously than play. Religion can be a matter of life and death. We react to extreme situations with religious rituals. Think of birth, and death, and extreme danger.

But people take music very seriously also. For some people, artistic expression is a matter of life and death. For that matter, so is athletic performance, and making money, and falling in love.

Religion is not likely to disappear, any more than music or athletics are likely to disappear. What is disappearing are forms of religious activity, activity done with other people. Weber would suggest that there is a certain proportion of any population that is just not into religion. In our society, those people have probably already abandoned religious observance. There is another proportion that do religion because it is enjoyable, and when it stops being enjoyable, they quit doing it. Finally there are people who just can’t stop doing it, any more than some musicians can abandon music.

God is behind any activity that people just can’t stop doing. Music and athletics and even economic performance can open one up to the divine.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018


A devil is a story that sneaks into our consciousness and tempts us to follow its story line. It is like the script in a play.

For example, I accidentally see a pornographic image somewhere. A story pops into my head. In the story I am using the picture to produce sexual arousal in myself, a story line that could take several minutes. The story is a devil.

In the biblical book of Samuel, a spirit “rushes upon” Saul and causes him to prophesy. A story snuck into his consciousness and tempted him to follow its story line, the script of an ecstatic prophet.

There are two kinds of devils: personal and institutional. A personal devil is a story that sneaks into me as an individual. Institutional devils are what St. Paul calls “principalities and powers.” These are story lines that guide entire institutions, businesses, governments, armies. I have no control over such principalities and powers. Paul says that Jesus Christ does have control over them. At least, Jesus is with us as we suffer their effects, and brings life to us even though the principalities and powers continue to shape our shared history. In that sense, the principalities and powers cannot win out.

There is a link between a personal devil and an institutional principality or power. There are moments when I might be able to influence the institutional devil, for example, when I vote. My personal devil is a story that tells me to ignore the voting process.

The Boston politician Tip O’Neill gave us the saying “all politics is local.” This is true in the sense that we have some control over the people in our immediate physical vicinity, and it is there that the politics of the larger society take shape. If the people in my local community take seriously the task of selecting their leadership, Republican or Democratic, that will lead to the parties taking seriously the selection of state and federal representatives. When our personal devils hand us the story line that we do not have to worry about politics at any level, the institutional devils take over and we have principalities and powers that operate to do very bad things, such as allow violence to take over whole parts of our cities. The U.S. ends up with an infant mortality rate that keeps getting worse, to where it is worse than many of the poorer nations of the world. We are not taking care of our own. The principalities and powers are at work.

Terrible things are happening to people who had been living comfortable middle class lives in Syria and Afghanistan. The principalities and powers have descended upon them and destroyed their homes and driven them from their countries. If they had had a vital local political environment, perhaps such terrible things would not have happened. Was it their fault that they did not have such an environment?

Let us ask ourselves. Is it God’s graciousness that has allowed us to live in a political environment where violence is controlled and people can live with relative freedom? Or is it the vigilance of many people who reject the personal devils of non-involvement? If enough of us follow the personal devil of non-involvement, we could end up living the same story that so many other people around the world are living. Our political ancestors were very conscious of the stories of Greece and Rome, and of how those societies allowed themselves to be conquered by principalities and powers. Our founding fathers and mothers tried to set up a political system that would make it harder for the principalities and powers to take over. They continually fought against our tendency to forget the stories of what happens when we are careless. When we forget those stories, we are set up to follow the stories that lead to disaster.

We are indeed surrounded by devils. Stories float around us that tempt us to do things that destroy life rather than help us live more fully. There are principalities and powers so powerful around us that they can take over an economy and allow a tiny proportion of its people to control almost all of its resources. They come into countries like Brazil and cause people to destroy hundreds of thousands of acres of rain forest so that cattle can be raised to feed the desire of wealthier nations to enjoy hamburgers. Profit trumps God. In the name of Profit, all other values must yield. We practice idolatry no less than the people of Babylon.

But we are followers of Jesus Christ. He walked among us in a society that was ruled by the great principality and power called Rome. The book of Revelation tells the story of how the followers of Jesus deal with that Power. Jesus gave them a story more powerful than the story of the Great Satan, and the story of Jesus eventually brought down the Great Satan--for a time. The human race still lives with its devils, both personal and institutional. Every age has its Great Satan, and every age has its martyrs who are sacrificed to the Great Satan, the hundred and forty-four thousand described in Revelation.

We are a people who live in a world intended by God to be a place of justice and peace and life. But there are devils around. Jesus has shown us how to deal with devils. We deal with them by love, by respectful, vulnerable, faithful involvement with the people around us, including the people who help to create the institutional principalities and powers that threaten us.

The human race now has the power to destroy itself, quickly through nuclear war, or slowly trough environmental degradation. There are devils and principalities and powers who can lead us down the path of destruction. My hope is that God will keep those devils from destroying all of us as they destroyed Jesus.

I don’t think God wants us to burn up in our own foolishness. Let us pray for deliverance from the demons that threaten us.