Facing Facts… All of Them!

Delusions are really dangerous. Denying reality abdicates responsibility only at our own peril. It is not that pretty bad and awful “things” are happening — people, human beings, are doing those pretty nasty, horrible things to one another. We can turn a blind eye, deluding ourselves with denial — the consequences are lethal.

All the more reason to open our eyes, face reality — all of it!  There are some hopeful and positive things happening amid the mass exodus of Christians from Iraq and the carnage of war in Gaza. We imperil ourselves if we shut-down, look away, aren’t paying attention.

Case in point… what percentage of people in Minneapolis-St Paul do you think are even aware that the Muslim community is nearing the end of the Holy Month of Ramadan? Media reports would reenforce the dangerous delusion that Christian, Jewish and Muslim relations are accurately symbolized by perennial strife in the Middle East.  Not true — or at least it need not be so!

There is a wonderful story out of London that gets buried in the on-slot of bad news. Just like Ramadan (ends at sundown, July 28), I bet virtually none of us are aware of the courageous and inspiring actions of Rabbi Natan Levy. He has stunned members of the Jewish community across England by observing the Islamic month of fasting. [link]

Like millions of Muslims across the globe, for 30 days, he will not eat or drink from sunrise and sundown and refrain from sexual intercourse. The 40-year-old religious leader said he was encouraged to take part after witnessing first-hand the lack of engagement between Judaism and Islam.

“I hope this gets us thinking and talking as a community about two things; the hungry poor in our midst, both Jewish and non-Jewish. Ramadan is a time for charity and hungry people care about hungry people,” he told the Jewish News in London.

Some of us will remember that Pope John Paul gathered leaders of the world’s religions at Assisi to pray for peace shortly after 9/11. How many Americans are aware that in the very same overture he encouraged Catholics around the world to fast on the last day of Ramadan 2001 (December 17) as prayer for peace and gesture of mutual understanding? The dominant political rhetoric of the moment buried that part of the pope’s appeal and it went virtually unreported.

Yet prophetic actions like those of John Paul and Rabbi Levy are happening still and closer to home. Each year the Muslim community of Minneapolis-St Paul shares a Dialogue Iftar Dinner to which non-Muslims are invited. “Iftar” is the name for the meal at sunset that breaks the day’s fast.  This year the dinner will be held in North Star Ballroom at University of Minnesota at 7:30 PM on Saturday, July 26th. I feel honored to have been invited.

None of us can put an end to the animosity that grips the Israelis and Palestinians. We cannot protect the Christians fleeing the perversion of religion in Iraq. But’s let’s not succumb to negativity and despair, deluding our ourselves that we can do nothing. Yes, we face some pretty painful facts. But open our eyes we must! We can change the reality in which we choose to live.

Here is a simple suggestion… what if we each called our churches and asked that a prayer in solidarity with our Muslim brothers and sisters concluding the Holy Month of Ramadan be included in our services this Sunday? Our prayers for world peace can become so rote and anemic as to be meaningless. Why not make our prayer explicit in a way that might actually transform our attitudes and actions?

Who was it that said, “There is no one so blind as the one who will not see.”? Let’s celebrate and create real evidence that humans — yes, even those we hate and kill as well as those we love and embrace — are created in the image of God. No exceptions!

A Bad Day Amid the Ruble

Yesterday was a pretty crappy day! Anyone paying attention would have to conclude that we are in pretty dire straits.

Long gone is the consoling image of Pope Francis’ head pressed in prayer against the wall separating Israel and Palestine on the road to Bethlehem. Who even remembers Pentecost Sunday with Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew hosting Presidents Abbas and Peres in a prayer for peace?

Now Israel has begun a massive ground offensive in Gaza, a passenger plane was shot down in the Ukraine leaving some to say the pilots should have known better than to fly over a war zone, all the while Iraq implodes leading me to wonder what the hell is the point of tens of billions of US dollars and tens of thousands of human lives!

Our collective anxiety and national paranoia are epitomized in the White House lockdown yesterday because an unattended package was found on the lawn. It turned out to be nothing!

On our fenced borders a humanitarian crisis unfolds as children relegate us to bumbling and blundering about an appropriate response. Some would send drones to patrol the border reinforced with even higher fences. They would fast-track legislation to close porous loopholes in US immigration policy.  For God’s sake (literally), it’s not as simple as all that!

Before these zealous protectors of the “American way” adjust their flag lapel pins or a candidate requests another contribution from a faith-based PAC I would ask two things. Please, review your own family history and immigrant roots — why did your family come? … how were they received?

Instead of going to church services this Sunday I propose that more of us stay home and silently pray with Scripture instead. We would do well to begin with Mt 2:13-23, the Flight into Egypt.

Those familiar with the practice of Ignatian mediation might want to assume in prayer the role of the innkeeper — hearing ourselves say, feeling in our own managerial hearts, “There is no room here for you in our inn.”

Or, reenact with Francis the trek to Bethlehem.  Pick a wall, any wall in your home will do.  Press your head against it in silent prayer.  Absorb the tension and anxiety of Mary and Joseph as they traveled this route.  What were their aspirations, what does every child — Israeli, Palestinian, Iraqi, American, Guatemalan, Ukrainian — deserve?

Yes, there is plenty of evidence to indicate the world is a mess and hurting. Despair is one response. Feeling impotent is understandable. Shaking our heads in disbelief is not an option!


A Death Too Many

Do students still read The Diary of Anne Frank in school? For our generation it was chilling and fresh. Less than twenty years had passed since the 14-year-old had been betrayed, deported to Auschwitz and died in the Bergen-Belsen camp just a few weeks before it was liberated in 1945. Yesterday would have been Anne Frank’s 85th birthday.

With the naiveté and innocence characteristic of youth we thought we were studying the horrors of the Holocaust. Only much later did I recognize that a youthful Anne presents herself as the picture of indomitable hope, if not happiness. It now seems incongruous.

Although she was held hostage in hiding, Anne felt secure. She had the solidarity of family although there was precious little more than an oak branch visible through a solitary window to break the monotony of each day. She wrote with youthful idealism and imagined a bright future.

Her diary stops with a stark sentence: “This is where Anne’s diary ends.” Anne was prevented from writing after she was imprisoned in the concentration camp. We remember her still youthful spirit and grieve that one so full and free did not live to celebrate her 85 years.

Students reading The Diary of Anne Frank today bear the ignominious distinction of being hostages in a way my generation never had to imagine. American students today – along with their families – fear school is where their life stories may end.

Tuesday’s shooting in Oregon is at least the 74th instance of shots being fired on school grounds or in school buildings in the last 18 months. There have been at least 37 school shootings in 2014, which is just barely half over. We are on pace for nearly one shooting per week since the horror in Newtown, CT.

Georgia, which passed an expansive pro-gun law this year, has been site of the most incidents, with 10 shootings reported. Florida was next, with seven. Tennessee claimed five, and North Carolina and California was home to four each. Atlanta was the only city that had three. Shootings across 31 states have made this a truly national travesty.

What sort of society has America become? What horrors are we willing to tolerate? What will end our collective sense of denial? When is enough enough?

In no way do I equate the incalculable tragedy of the Holocaust with the insanity of gun violence in America. I do want to hold up the example of one, solitary young life. We collectively grieve the death of Anne Frank because, together, we came to know her.

Emilio Hoffman is the 14-year-old who was shot dead in Oregon.  Police are still looking for a relationship between Emilio and his killer.  Emilio’s generation lives within a different sort of hiding.  Our national betrayal of them is equally horrendous.

Are we so fragmented as a nation that our students must study within protective custody? …that the death of even one, solitary student in our schools is not one death too many?

Clearly, America is not exempt to social insanity! We have long past the realm of legal rights – we are living a moral obscenity. What hath freedom wrought?

Doing Our Mothers Proud

Sunday will be the eighth Mothers Day without my Mom. I no longer turn away from the greeting cards prominently displayed at Target. Pop-ups offering flowers interrupting my web-surfing don’t make me sad as they did. Yet, I still miss my Mom and wish I could tell her again – with new insight and fresh motivation – how much I love her.

A few days ago I even posted a request on Facebook: share your best suggestion for how those of us who have lost our mothers are to mark this weekend holiday. Friends offered some great ideas: make one of her favorite recipes, do something she enjoyed doing, share favorite stories about her with others, visit someone in a nursing home.

The suggestion I like best did not come from Facebook but from columnist Nicholas Kristof. The world community is increasingly aware and outraged by the 276 school girls kidnapped by religious fanatics in Nigeria. His “update” from yesterday deserves to be read [here] regardless of his great suggestion for celebrating Mothers Day.

Neither Mr. Kristof nor I begrudge anyone celebrating our mothers with flowers, chocolates or out-for-brunch. I wish my Mom were here to enjoy them. Kristof’s brilliant idea is to celebrate them by honoring the girls still missing in Nigeria. Think of their mothers’ anguish.  In my family’s case this would be especially appropriate.

Regulars here will recall that my favorite Grandmother was orphaned at age 7 and sent from Boston to South Dakota on an orphan train. Her formal education ended at the third grade. My mother earned the highest score in her county on her eighth-grade standardized exam. However, cultural values prevented her from going to high school, despite the protestations of her teacher, because my grandparents presumed she had enough education for what they envisioned her future to be. (Read my previous post [here]).

The greatest threat to the extremism of the Nigerian kidnappers is a girl with a book. Boko Haram, whose name means roughly “Western education is a sin,” admits responsibility for this violent abuse being played out in Nigeria. The greatest antidote to their fanaticism would be to educate and empower women. I am absolutely certain my mother would agree.

Kristof offers a number of excellent suggestions: One would be a donation to support girls going to school around Africa through the Campaign for Female Education [link]; a $40 gift pays for a girl’s school uniform.

Or there’s the Mothers’ Day Movement [link] which is supporting a clean water initiative in Uganda. With access to water, some girls will no longer have to drop out of school to haul water.

You may wish to support something closer to home. This year I plan to send what I would have spent on flowers for my Mom to Avenues for Homeless Youth [link].  On any night in the state of Minnesota, 4,000+ youth and young adults are homeless and unaccompanied by an adult. Youth homelessness has jumped 63% in Minnesota since 2009.

Other than keeping the pressure of global outrage on the tragedy in Nigeria, there is little you and I can do to rescue the kidnapped girls. Whether our mothers are with us to receive our expressions of gratitude and love or they have passed from us, there is still so much we can each do to honor these girls and celebrate the lives of our mothers.

Let’s make them proud!

Until Death Do Us Part!

The botched execution in Oklahoma, in conjunction with a conservative estimate that 4% of current death row inmates are innocent of the crimes for which they have been convicted [link], should ignite moral outrage. I am grateful to live in a state that does not resort to the death penalty. And, I’d be proud to compare Minnesota crime rates – or any state that does not impose the death sentence – with states that do at any time!

Sadly, nothing is likely to change. Too many seek revenge and retribution and tenaciously hold to disproven beliefs that the death sentence serves as a deterrence – it doesn’t! All it does is to give expression to a vindictive impulse within a fearful populace.

I admit personal interest in the topic – my cousin’s son Peter was sentenced to death for a contract murder I have no doubt he carried out. Only a minor fluke in Constitutional Law enabled his sentence – begrudgingly by Nebraska legal officials I might add – to be commuted to life in prison. My previous post on this topic is available [here].

Yet, with a persistent and perennial hope that things can actually change, that societies like individuals can mature and become more enlightened, I dust off “Ten Reasons to Oppose the Death Penalty” first published in 1982. Perhaps something in Mary Meehan’s collection of arguments will provide the tipping point for America to finally claim some civility and sanity in our execution of justice. 

1. There is no way to remedy the occasional mistake. 

2. There is racial and economic discrimination in application of the death penalty. 

3. Application of the death penalty tends to be arbitrary and capricious; for similar crimes, some are sentenced to death while others are not. 

4. The death penalty gives some of the worst offenders publicity that they do not deserve.  

5. The death penalty involves medical doctors, who are sworn to preserve life, in the act of killing. 

6. Executions have a corrupting effect on the public. 

7. The death penalty cannot be limited to the worst cases.

8. The death penalty is an expression of the absolute power of the state; abolition of that penalty is a much- needed limit on government power. 

9. There are strong religious reasons for many to oppose the death penalty. 

10. Even the guilty have a right to life.

You may read Mary Meehan’s 1982 article in it entirety [here].

Redeeming Pain

There is more than enough tragedy and suffering to go around. Instant global communication has compounded the impact. For example, outrage at the killing of Jesuit Father Frans van der Lugt in Syria yesterday ricocheted around the world within 24 hours. Such moral outrage is necessary and important – but it can be numbing. All the more reason to celebrate healing, success and grounds for hope!

Thanks to a friend from the Minnesota International Center who shared a [link] to a really powerful piece about forgiveness and reconciliation in Rwanda. Stunning photos accompany disarming profiles of human anguish and triumph – a testimony to healing and hope for what is possible within a generation of the horrific genocide in which 1 million Rwandans were killed.

We have witnessed such reconciliation and reason for hope before. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu provided a mechanism for people to confess their participation in human rights abuses during apartheid and receive amnesty. Some argue that those responsible for the policies of apartheid should have been held criminally liable. But that is not the route chosen by the Nobel Peace laureate archbishop or President Nelson Mandela.

The moral genius of the TRC was the public airing of the painful truth which prevented the violence of apartheid from being buried in the past.  Rev. Marie Fortune warns on her [blog], the Shakespearian advice to “forgive and forget” is too often directed at victims and survivors of violence. “Forgiveness does not come from a position of powerlessness but from a place of empowerment and a degree of safety; forgiveness is never about forgetting the past, but in remembering the past in order to strengthen our efforts not to repeat it.” Justice requires truth-telling and remembering before forgiveness.  We see this in Rwanda.  And, as numbing as it can be, instant worldwide news reporting has the potential to serve this essential purpose.

Coincidentally, David Brooks has a marvelous piece in today’s NYTimes entitled “What Suffering Does” [link]. He is quick to point out, “there is nothing intrinsically ennobling about suffering. Just as failure is sometimes just failure (and not your path to becoming the next Steve Jobs) suffering is sometimes just destructive, to be exited as quickly as possible.” Yet, Brooks celebrates those transcendent survivors who have the capacity to understand their suffering in some larger providence:

It’s at this point that people in the midst of difficulty begin to feel a call. They are not masters of the situation, but neither are they helpless. They can’t determine the course of their pain, but they can participate in responding to it. They often feel an overwhelming moral responsibility to respond well to it. …  

The right response to this sort of pain is not pleasure. It’s holiness. I don’t even mean that in a purely religious sense. It means seeing life as a moral drama, placing the hard experiences in a moral context and trying to redeem something bad by turning it into something sacred.

Recovering from suffering is not like recovering from a disease. Many people don’t come out healed; they come out different. 

Martyrdom in Syria, the hard work of reconciliation in Rwanda, requisite remembering with truth-telling of Marie Fortune, suffering’s ennobling potential cited by David Brooks… wherever we look a world in anguish invites us – desperately needs us – to embrace the paschal drama of Holy Week.

All the Same God

A friend who commiserates with my impatience and frustration with politically correct God-talk which too often degenerates into namby-pamby babble sent a You-Tube link she knew I would appreciate. Canadian Bruxy Cavey, leader of The Meeting House ministry, brilliantly addresses in 2 minutes and 42 seconds the all too common question: “Don’t we all believe in the same God?” There are times and places where it is appropriate to ignore that question and move on to social banter about the relative benefits of Arizona in February over sub-zero Minnesota. But willful complicity with slopping thinking and post-modern relativism is inexcusable.

When the occasion is appropriate Cavey proposes a simple, honest and respectful formula: Ask lots of questions. Learn what you can. Affirm all that you are able to affirm. Build bridges on anything you hold in common. Respectfully share what you believe. Notice – and this is very important – the questions and dialogue are mutual, genuine and sincere. They are not a clever snare to catch the other in their error or ignorance so we can demonstrate our superiority. We all see such traps coming and are sick and tired of such foolishness and waste of everyone’s time.

Cavey’s core message really hit a responsive chord in me and has provoked fertile “dis-ease” for my Lenten reflection, perhaps yours as well. He states with transparent conviction that he believes in a God so loving and so relational that he comes to us in Christ most clearly, most explicitly. Then Cavey delivers the clincher: “I love a God who loves us so much he dies for his enemies rather than slays his enemies. Most gods would slay their enemies. This one dies for them, to forgive them, to embrace them.” WOW!

Intellectually I have mouthed that truth for decades. Getting it into my heart – and gut – is a lifelong challenge. At this time, this year, this Lent the challenge has much less to do with the ontological nature of God and everything to do with my belief, my conviction, my willingness to follow this Christ:

“But I say to you who hear, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. Whoever hits you on the cheek, offer him the other also; and whoever takes away your coat, do not withhold your shirt from him either.…” (Luke 6:27-29)
You may view Bruxy Cavey’s 2 minute 42 second video [here]

Just People

Forty-nine years ago I was popping my buttons with pride.  High school was a tough time for me with peer pressure dampening any spontaneous expression of individuality. But inside I was exploding with satisfaction, pleasure, even a dash of adolescent smugness.  My big brother was marching in Selma, Alabama with Martin Luther King.  No one else at my elite, all-male, JESUIT Creighton Prep could share that distinction with me.

Lest we forget, it was illegal for whites to marry a black person or an Asian during my seemingly idyllic childhood in Nebraska.  That barrier fell two years before Selma but it was not until 1967 that the U.S. Supreme Court overturned all such prohibitions remaining in recalcitrant states.  Unjust laws were crumbling and a wave of much-needed reform was sweeping our nation.  My brother was atop that wave.  Not until last Sunday afternoon, March 7 was I reminded of the anniversary.  I regretted not having honored that momentous event on these pages.

This weekend provides another chance.  Today, March 14 is the anniversary of the death of a famous icon of the civil rights movement.  Fannie Lou Hamer died on this day in 1977 from breast cancer at the age of 60.  She lived most of her life as she was born – a poor black sharecropper in Mississippi with a fourth grade education.  The system persisted well beyond emancipation as nothing more than a system of “debt slavery” enforced through insidious segregation and intimidation veiling all too real brute force.  This began to change for Hamer when at the age of 45 she heard a preacher encourage blacks to defy racist repression by doing something as radical as registering to vote.

It remains difficult for us to accurately recall the shame and injustice of these years and admit the oppression and degradation that was part of the air we breathed in America.  But somehow, somewhere this poor, black, uneducated woman had the inspiration and courage to decide that subsisting by sharecropping a “master’s” land was not what God had in mind for her or for others like her.  She would pay a heavy price!  In 1963 Hamer was one of a group arrested in Charleston, South Carolina for having the temerity of illegally entering the side of a bus terminal reserved for whites.  While in jail she was savagely beaten and left with a damaged kidney and eyesight permanently impaired.  In 1964 she would be part of a “Freedom Delegation” from Mississippi challenging the credentials of that state’s slate of all-white delegates to the Democratic National Convention.  Though thrown out, Hamer’s eloquent defense touched the conscience of a nation.

A few weeks back I wrote on this site about a friend who teaches at a Catholic high school. Regulars here will recall she wanted stories about the great men and women of faith her students needed to know about.  Today I nominate Fannie Lou Hamer.  Yes, she was powerfully motivated by the unspeakable injustice she and others like her had to endure.  But, she was empowered and sustained by her faith!  She cited Ephesians 6:8-9 as her touchstone: “Put on the whole armor of God that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.  For we wrestle not against flesh and blood but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.” Isn’t this the sort of hero, mentor, role model, woman of faith, saint we would want our young people to emulate?

And what about us?  Are we willing to confront the structures of injustice that permeate the familiar “world” that props up our seemingly secure and predictable lifestyles?  Are we willing to courageously change course even in mid-life – Hamer was 45 – when suddenly we hear the Word of God calling us to live lives of integrity and self-transcendence.  Are we willing to pay the price that all God’s children are rendered the equal dignity, inalienable respect, practical opportunities and legal protection which we would demand for ourselves and for our children?

Fannie Lou Hamer died of breast cancer at age 60.  She freely gave her life for causes far greater that we might put an end to human degradation and structures of violence.  We are blessed that her compelling witness comes to us during Lent.  We, too, are called to repentance, conversion, and transformation in the way we give flesh to the Word of God.  Like Hamer, my brother was just an ordinary sort of guy.  We have heroes, mentors and role-models all around.  What about us?  What about today?
I was inspired by and recommend to you the story of Fannie Lou Hamer for today, March 14 in All Saints: Daily Relfections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time by Robert Ellsberg.  Crossroads, 1999.