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Tuesday, December 25, 2018


Transubstantiation. Big word.

The word goes back to medieval theology and the term "substance," which in turn went back to Aristotle. The "substance" of a thing is that which makes the thing what it is, regardless of the trappings which surround the thing (the trappings were called "accidents").

The substance of a table is tableness. The accidents are the color of the table, the number of legs it has, its weight, its use, what kind of a top it has, and so on.

The medieval theologians used those terms to describe the Eucharist. The substance of the Eucharist is the person of Jesus Christ. The accidents are his body, but could also be the accidents of bread: its color, texture, and so on.

I don't want to scrap that theology. Not just because I would get excommunicated if I did, but because we no longer think in terms of substance and accidents. Those terms no longer speak to people today.

The story of an idea

I got to where I am today by reflecting on the scientific belief that most of the cells in the human body get replaced regularly. Only a relatively small number of cells that were in my body a year ago are still there. That caused me to ask, "then who am I?" I came up with the idea that I am really the history of my cells, and of the molecules and atoms that have made up my cells. A history is a type of story. I am the story built on what has been done by the cells in my body during the time they were part of me. Once they leave me, they are no longer part of my story, but  my story remains.

A story, of course, requires a story-teller. I am one of my story-tellers, but others have been telling my story ever since I was conceived. Others are still telling my story. We know from psychology that we are often not the best judge of how our stories should be told. We know that others can tell our stories in ways that are harmful to us, or they can tell our stories in ways that build us up.

A digression on junk

An heirloom is junk with a story attached. Once a physical object loses its story, it becomes junk. I have a tiny ivory emblem owned by my grandfather, who was a cooper, a barrel-maker. The ivory object was the symbol for the craftsmen who made barrels. I know what that little piece of ivory means. It has a story. If I discard the emblem, it will lose that story. Someone else may attach a different story to it--they may not know that there was an occupation called "cooper," and that the ivory is a symbol of that occupation--but that story is not the story that makes it important to me.

Junk goes to the landfill. The valley of Gehenna was Jerusalem's landfill. So when I read in Matthew 10 that I should fear the one who could cast me into Gehenna, I thought of Gehenna as the place where my story would be forgotten.

The Last Supper

Jesus took bread and wine and said "This is my body, this is my blood." He was attaching his story to bread and wine. That is not so different from people attaching my story to the particular set of cells that make up my body. But Jesus was doing more than that. He was saying that when his followers gathered, and used bread and wine that way, he became part of their stories. They became part of him. We are all part of the story of Jesus.

To be a Christian means to accept your own personal story as the story of Jesus, death and resurrection included.

So when I take the host and the wine at Mass and repeat the words of Jesus, I see those physical things as tied to the story of Jesus every bit as much as his story was attached to his physical body two thousand years ago. That way of thinking about the Eucharist is more meaningful to me than the language of substances and accidents.


I could not take this line of thinking very far without being faced with the phenomenon of idols. An idol is a physical object with a story attached. It is not a huge leap to think of a particular image as having a story that could be threatening to me, or beneficial to me, and therefore that I need to take seriously. The issue is, what kind of story.

There are religious movements that forbid the use of images for religious purposes. In Christianity they were called "iconoclasts"--icon smashers. I think Islam has a similar prohibition. Some of the Protestant reformers accused Catholics of worshipping idols because we had statues. The issue is, what kind of story is linked to the object.

This is all pretty poetic. I am too far along in life to get tangled in philosophical speculation and try to defend the ideas I just presented. Look at the ideas as poetry. The label "poetic" covers a multitude of sins.

I confess that I have never read Teilhard de Chardin. I was too much of a dutiful Catholic, and the Pope said his writing was dangerous. But the little I knew of what he wrote led me to conclude that he was mostly writing poetry with scientific language. Maybe that is all we can do in a scientific age.

My soul is my story. I tell my story. You tell my story. God tells my story. When my cells give out, God will remember my story, and will tell it some day in the most loving way possible--the Last Judgment. The Apostles Creed has the phrase "the resurrection of the body." That suggests that some day God will attach my story to another set of cells. The book of Revelation describes heaven as a city. That emphasizes the belief that we are all in this with other people. I would like to think of heaven as this present beautiful world, and all of us in it together. Since that is hard to visualize, perhaps those theorists have it at least partly right when they describe heaven as a single "now," without time, a resting in the reality of God and others in a perpetual instantaneous moment. 

But if my body is resurrected, there will have to be time and space. And when you say time and space, you say mountains and streams and birds and fish and animals. Otherwise what kind of fun would it be? And if Scripture tells us anything, it tells us that eye has not seen nor ear heard what God has prepared for those who love God. Surely heaven will include beagles.

Monday, December 17, 2018

The Existence of God

My fellow friar here at Holy Cross, Fr. John Ostdiek, 96 years old, is very disturbed by the loss of so many young Catholics to the Church. He says 40% of young people "raised Catholic" no longer consider themselves Catholic.

Then there is the disillusionment caused by clergy abuse scandals. The Church seems to be falling apart.

These realities are in the back of my mind as I prayed the psalms this morning. A question lurks back there: am I doing something that no longer makes sense? Am I just soothing my spirit with illusions?

Then I recall a remark of a professor during my brief stay at the Harvard Divinity School: "Someone should do a study of atheism in Hindu culture." He was commenting on the stereotype that millions of people in India are devout practitioners of the Hindu religion, and speculating that the stereotype is not true.

These days I am reading the prophet Jeremiah. He writes as though everyone in Israel is against him. They are all happily marrying, giving in marriage, singing, dancing, and not paying the slightest attention to God. In the words of one of the psalms, "God does not care, he never sees."

"Proofs" for the existence of God

There seems to be a consensus that Thomas Aquinas's five proofs for the existence of God are no longer convincing. I couldn't name the five anyway. Here is mine.

Science has developed a consensus that the universe as we know it began with a "big bang" 13.8 billion years ago. I know of no scientist who discusses what or who caused that event. They argue that such a question is beyond the reach of scientific investigation. That may be true, but science also refuses to accept that events are without causes. Something or someone caused that bang. The question is: what is that Something or Someone like?

Billions of people down through history have created stories to answer that question, so we have world religions. The sociologist asks: what is the cause of such a persistent human behavior? Emile Durkheim said it is that people realize that there is something beyond their individual realities, so they posit a god, without realizing that the something they call a god is really just the group, the society. Sigmund Freud said that people live yearning to return to the womb, and religion satisfied that yearning--we should just grow up. Karl Marx said that the dominant classes invented stories to keep the subordinate classes under control, and religion is the most effective such story. Religion is an opiate to keep suffering poor people from thinking.

Billions of people down through history have lived as though there is no god, which has caused no end of distress among religious people. We observe that people get religion when everything else in their lives falls apart. What does that say? Dietrich Bonhoeffer asked the question: what are we going to do when science and technology solve all our human problems? We won't need God any more. Bonhoeffer didn't know. But science and technology do not seem on the verge of doing what he feared. His formulation of the problem seems naive.

And religion goes on. Atheism goes on. Prophets arise and no one pays attention, just like in Jeremiah's day. The Israelites paid no attention until Assyria and Babylon came in and destroyed their world. Our prophets these days are saying that no one is paying attention, and the things we have done and continue to do to our environment are going to come back and bite us.

Meanwhile, some of us continue to be convinced that the Someone who started the universe as we know it loves, and is delighted when we love in return. We Christians have a story of how that Someone intervened in our history, a story we accepted from the Jewish people, and which we have taken in new directions. The story has resulted in both good and evil down through history--one friend of mine thinks religion has been the source of most of the evils in our world. I think he overlooks the good that religious people do, but he has a point--our fellow religionists have caused a lot of suffering.

Religion has been for me a source of delight and a motive for living. I am not alone, but I may be in the minority, perhaps a tiny minority. But there are people around me, all over the world, in all kinds of cultures and languages and political systems, who see the world the way I do, and that reinforces my way of seeing the world. To use Peter Berger's metaphor, we create a "sacred canopy," a structure of meaning that envelops our world. We create it, but just because we create it does not mean it is an illusion. Maybe the Creator snuck into our hearts the seeds of that canopy.

That's my explanation for why I believe in the God I live by and for.

Friday, November 16, 2018

A Franciscan Approach to Science

Some years ago I attempted to write a textbook in sociology from a Franciscan perspective. Some of the writing still seems pretty good to me, so I decided to put pieces of it here on this blog.

The first section is my attempt to describe "science."


The Enlightenment proposed science and intellectualism as replacements for the institutions of monarchy and religion. There was a strong moral content to the proposal: kings and priests had failed to do good. They had stood by idly while people suffered, and refused to allow good things to happen that might free others in body and in spirit from centuries-old shackles. It was this moral passion that gave the Enlightenment much of its force, and it is the loss of this moral passion that has undercut the Enlightenment metanarrative in the last decades.

And in fact the Enlightenment did do much good. It helped to facilitate the industrial revolution, and certainly opened the way for the democratic revolution that gave birth to our own nation. On balance most people would say that the development of industry and of democracy have been good things.

The postmodern attack on science faults science because it has become evil: it tyrannizes and degrades people. Science has become a tool of those in power that facilitates their oppression of the rest of us. It has lost its right to guide.

As I suggested above, the Enlightenment contained the seeds of its own delegitimation because it promised to eliminate evil, and failed to account for the human frailty of its own backers. Any number of religious metanarratives have the potential to ground a scientific quest in a more solid human context. The Franciscan story is one such metanarrative.

A Franciscan approach to science says that science is meant to be part of the kingdom of God preached by Jesus. It is a human activity, as flawed as any other human activity, but just as open to grace any other human action. The goal of science, just as the goal of everything else in life, is to give glory to God. It does this by helping human beings to become more fully human. The goal is salvation, a word with the same Indo-European root as the Latin word sanus (healthy), and even sacer (sacred).

There are two other Latin words that underlie a Franciscan approach to sociology: scientia and sapientia.

Scientia, which becomes the English word “science,” comes from the Latin verb scire, to know, or to understand. Sapientia has its root in the Latin sapio, which means to taste or to savor. We translate sapientia as “wisdom,” in Greek, sophia.

We need one more Latin word to situate sociology in a Franciscan context: speculatio, which can be transliterated as speculation. The word comes from the Latin word for mirror, speculum, and has the connotation of peering intently at something. Michel Foucault, one of the key writers in the movement known as postmodernism, sees the action of gazing or peering as the key to the modern approach to the world.

Scientia, sapientia, and speculatio were important words in the university world that was just beginning in the years after Francis’s death. The first universities, Paris, Oxford, and Bologna, were just coming into being. Some of their students and faculty found themselves drawn to the new Franciscan movement, where they ran head first into the radical poverty and simplicity of Francis.

How could one reconcile a university life of reading and intellectual searching with a Franciscan ideal of living without property and influence, especially at a time when books had to be copied by hand and were therefore tremendously expensive and rare?

The earliest indication of the tension comes from a 43-word message sent by Francis to an Augustinian religious who had become a follower of Francis shortly before Francis’s death, Anthony of Padua. Anthony, who had been educated earlier in his life, had been asked to teach theology to the brothers, but did not wish to do that without the approval of Francis. Francis wrote him: “I am pleased that you teach sacred theology to the brothers providing that, as is contained in the Rule, you ‘do not extinguish the Spirit of prayer and devotion’ during study of this kind.”

“Do not extinguish the Spirit of prayer and devotion.” That is the phrase, found in the Franciscan rule as the norm for all work, which is the key to understanding a Franciscan approach to science and wisdom. There would be tensions between the use of books and Franciscan poverty, but the central value was to be the “Spirit of prayer and devotion.”

Both scientia and sapientia were legitimate projects for a Franciscan. Speculatio was permissible as long as it was not vana speculatio, “vain” or “empty” speculation. Vana speculatio was doing intellectual work for the sake of idle curiosity (another catch phrase of the time), or for the sake of one’s own human glory. Scientia and sapientia are to be good for something, good for something greater than mere intellectual amusement or personal pride. They were to be tools for doing something good, for others and for God.

And that is the central contribution that a Franciscan approach to sociology has to offer to the crisis in metanarratives we have today. Science is to do good. Otherwise it is empty and possibly harmful.

I will examine the concept of “good” later, when I talk about cultural diversity. For now I will argue simply that most people do science, and have always done science, because they see science as a way of doing something good in the world.

Some early Science

The story of Galileo shows how science sometimes challenges accepted ideas. However, his story does not show how science benefits ordinary human beings.

Galileo observed carefully, using a new tool, the telescope. The tool allowed him to see things that people had not been able to see previously. He used his observations as evidence in favor of a theory that showed the earth as moving around the sun. The theory is “counter-intuitive,” in that our first observations would lead us to say that the sun goes around the earth.

Theologians, people who speculate on the intellectual meaning of religious beliefs, were attracted to the theory that the sun goes around the earth because they believed that Jesus Christ was the center of the universe. If Jesus was the center of the universe, the earth must be the center of it, because the earth is where Jesus became incarnate. As further proof, they cited statements in Scripture that implied that the sun goes around the earth.

Aside from those theological issues, it is hard to see how theories of sun and earth had much effect on human affairs. The only possible benefit I can see from Galileo’s new theory is that it might have improved navigation by providing better mathematical models of the movement of sun and stars. The older mathematical models had worked, but they were more complicated. Historians say that navigation was helped more by the invention of the compass, which freed sailors from dependence on observing the sun and stars.

Later scientific discoveries had more practical effects. The discovery of the circulation of the blood in the body was an important step forward in coping with accidents. The harnessing of water power to cloth-making equipment did not depend on any innovative scientific discoveries, but it led to mass production and the factory system for manufacturing.

Even though the 1700s did not see scientific breakthroughs that changed the world dramatically, thinkers of the time could see what was coming. The French thinkers called the Encyclopedists presented a vision of human life guided by reason and guaranteed to bring prosperity and freedom to all humankind. The movement they led, which we call the Enlightenment, was optimistic and self-assured.

In a much-reprinted article that has had great influence on my own thinking, the anthropologist Clifford Geertz contrasts four styles of thinking: the common-sense, the scientific, the artistic, and the religious. For the purpose of this contrast, he describes the scientific attitude as essentially questioning. It of course is more than questioning, but I like to push the questioning aspect to its limits, as follows.

Nothing in science is sure; everything is open to question. This is why scientists need some kind of religious faith and religious community. If you try to live your life as a pure scientist, you never get to breakfast. You question whether the coffee really exists, or whether the fire on the stove will be as hot this time as it was last night. You go crazy.

Since most of us don’t want to go crazy, we put aside our questions while we eat breakfast. For those brief moments we are not scientific. But of course, breakfast is not enough. We put aside our questions while we drive to work, while we enjoy a play or a game, while we praise God, while we marry a spouse, while we raise children. But during the moments when we are being scientific, we question everything. We question our own and others’ research, and our own and others’ theories.

Research means observing something closely and, if possible, counting something.

We question our research because observing is not a totally objective activity. What you see may not be what I see. We need to look at the factors that make us see things differently. Our goal is to arrive at descriptions of reality that most people will agree fit what is “out there.”

But observing reality is not enough. Pure observation creates what C. Wright Mills called “abstracted empiricism.” Observation without theory is usually a hodge-podge of trivia. The trivia may be fascinating or it may be boring, depending on your frame of mind, but trivia goes nowhere. We have to know what it means. We have to have theory.

Theory is a story about what causes something.

Scientific theory is story. Let me give an example.

In 1854 there was a terrible epidemic of cholera in London. A doctor named John Snow decided to do some careful observation (= research). He made a map of London and put x’s on the map at the address of every cholera victim. He noticed that the x’s clustered at a certain point on Broad Street. There was a pump on Broad Street from which the neighborhood got its drinking water. On a hunch, Snow ordered the city to take the handle off the pump. The epidemic stopped.

Thus far Snow had done nothing except observe what we call a correlation. A correlation means “when one thing happens, another thing also happens.” Cholera cases go with having a pump. No pump, no cholera. He was doing what we today call “epidemiology”--mapping where events occur. As happens in most epidemiology, the correlation was enough to suggest a solution: take the handle off the pump. It worked.

From one standpoint, Snow had accomplished his objective. The epidemic stopped. But no scientist would quit there. Scientists have to know why the epidemic stopped. They have to have a story of what is going on. What causes cholera, and why did taking the handle off the pump cause the epidemic to stop?

Maybe the stopping had nothing to do with the pump handle. Maybe the epidemic stopped for some other reason altogether. That possibility raises the issue of what we call “spurious correlations” and “spurious variables.” When two things correlate, one may not be the cause of the other, but there may be some third cause out there somewhere that we can’t see at the moment.

Eventually scientists did develop a theory. The theory went like this: there is a little bug that causes cholera. If you drink water with this bug in it, you get the disease. The bug lives in polluted water. The Broad Street pump water was polluted. When Snow took the handle off the pump, the neighbors could no longer drink the polluted water, the bugs could not get to the people, and the epidemic stopped.

However, creative scientists can spin a hundred theories out of every little bit of evidence. That’s why we need people to evaluate our theories as well as our research.

Science as seen by a Franciscan

St. Bonaventure wrote a small book that he called De reductione artium ad theologiam, which I would paraphrase as “How all the arts and sciences lead to God.” The Latin word ars, art, has the meaning of “something one does skillfully.” It refers to action, while science refers to understanding. People have always linked the arts with the sciences because they realize that what we want to achieve is skillful practice guided by good understanding.

In the book Bonaventure lists all the arts of his day, including such obsolete ones as hunting and armor-making, but including also some modern ones such as medicine and agriculture. There are four levels of art, he says: art that deals with physical objects, art that deals with our sense experiences, art that goes beyond experience to reach intellectual understanding of reality, and finally, art that helps us respond to God’s grace and influence, starting with God’s Word in Sacred Scripture. All of the arts come from God--“every best gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights” is the quotation from James (1:17) that he uses as the opening words of his book.

The book works its way systematically through all four kinds of art, with the goal of showing how all of them lead to God. Here is the concluding paragraph of his book:

“And so it is evident how the manifold wisdom of God, which is clearly revealed in sacred Scripture, lies hidden in all knowledge and in all nature. It is clear also how all divisions of knowledge are servants of theology, and it is for this reason that theology makes use of illustrations and terms pertaining to every branch of knowledge. It is likewise clear how wide the illuminative way may be, and how the divine reality itself lies hidden within everything which is perceived or known. God may be honored, character may be formed, and consolation may be derived from union of the Spouse with the beloved, a union which takes place through charity: a charity in which the whole purpose of sacred Scripture, and thus of every illumination descending from above, comes to rest--a charity without which all knowledge is vain (vana) because no one comes to the Son except through the Holy Spirit who teaches us all the truth, who is blessed forever. Amen.”

That is how a Franciscan approach to science should start, and end.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

A letter to the Quincy Herald-Whig

(printed around October 29, 2018)

The earth is God's gift to us and we want to pass it down to those after us in better shape than we received it. We should also not ruin other people's lives when we use it. Some people have fewer resources than we do to protect themselves from dangers. Such people usually bear the brunt of environmental disasters.

An international scientific report recently predicted that the weather disasters we have seen so far will be nothing compared to what will happen if we do not reduce carbon dioxide and methane emissions. Massive droughts will occur. The refugee flows that we now see will multiply all around the world. For example, as the Sahara Desert expands southward in Africa each year, more people are forced to leave what had been productive land. Where are they supposed to go?

The Clean Power Plan is a federal effort to put limits on carbon pollution from power plants. The current federal administration is planning to roll back many of its rules. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that such a rollback would cause thousands of premature deaths and asthma attacks in our country, not to mention what it would do to weather patterns that cause droughts and hurricanes.

We take extraordinary precautions to make sure that a child will not accidentally open something harmful. Opening pill containers becomes a challenge. Yet we ignore the probability that millions of children and adults will die of starvation and disease if we do not take precautions reasonably recommended by the scientific community.

We must not allow politics to trump science.

The EPA is taking comments during this month of October through its website: www.regulations.gov. Refer to Docket ID No. EPA-HQ-OAR-2017-0355. If enough people tell the EPA that the rollback is not a good idea, they will listen.

I'm a Franciscan priest, but I am writing this as a citizen with a degree in a scientific field. I don't preach this from a pulpit. I write it here so you can answer if you agree or disagree. Please do that. Thanks.

Joseph Zimmerman

Monday, September 24, 2018


A lot of cars I ride in have a gauge on the dashboard called a "tachometer." It tells how fast the engine is running, using "rpm" (revolutions per minute) as the unit of measurement. My car seems to operate in the 1000 to 2000 range most of the time. The engine can run a lot faster than that. Toward the end of the gauge the scale turns red--DANGER. If your engine is running fast enough to get into that range, the engine might destroy itself.

I suppose any piece of moving machinery is in danger of running out of control and destroying itself. Some people used to install a gadget called a "governor" on their cars--a device that would keep the engine from running past a certain limit.

Our economy is a runaway engine. We do not seem to be able to slow it down enough to keep it from destroying our environment. Every person in the economy is under pressure to produce more and more, faster and faster. That is how we measure "productivity." Productivity is supposed to make all of us wealthier. So we pile up material things. Our landfills get bigger and bigger. We waste more and more on packaging, and these days, we spend more and more on moving stuff from one place to another. It is becoming possible for every meal we eat to be delivered to our door.

That is capitalism. It baptizes greed.

"Greed" is a moral term, not pleasant to hear. We prefer words like "incentive." Capitalism incentivizes everything. But the more we incentivize, the more we are digging our own graves--in our landfills. We need a governor.

I think I have a candidate for such a governor. The governor that could slow down our overly-incentivized economy is a rule that everything we do should take account of what it does to other people.

We already do a lot of that. We do not let people pave over wetlands, because we know that wetlands are necessary to keep biological diversity intact. The norm against paving over, which is challenged by capitalist enthusiasts, is broadly supported, which means that we have a moral agreement about its value. We just need to extend our thinking further, and pay attention to the costs of our behavior that we are making other people pay instead of ourselves.

Another way to look at this is to say that we need principles of accounting that take account of the costs of what we do for everybody in the human community.

If every economic decision were to take account of the effects that decision will have on every person in the world, capitalism would slow down--it would be governed. Our environment might be saved. As it is, if the engine does not slow down, it will damage the environment so much that the whole structure will come crashing down, and then capitalism will no longer be salvific but demonic. It is already demonic for a large proportion of the world's population. It will just be demonic for everybody. In the worst case scenario, the human race will become extinct. We will not be the first species to disappear from the earth.

We don't need socialism. We need capitalism under control.

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.