Thursday, January 30, 2020

For Want of an Authentic Culture of Life

"You can't be a Christian and a Democrat."

If you've spent any time in online forums, or around evangelical Christians in real life, you've probably heard this.

My first reaction is generally, "You can't be a Republican either."

Here's a report card on the 2020 presidential candidates that The Catholic Worker recently released. Notice who gets the higher overall grades.

Bernie Sanders, Tulsi Gabbard, and Andrew Yang are among those with the best scores, while Donald Trump comes in the lowest of all, with a D-minus.

And yet, once again, spend any amount of time online and you'll hear Christians thanking God for Donald Trump and berating his Democratic opponents as the face of evil.


Because far too many Christians have reduced their Christianity to two overriding issues: opposition to homosexuality, and opposition to abortion.

I see the latter all the time in Catholic culture, while it's the evangelical Protestants who tend to be more vocal about the former.

Take another look at the Catholic Worker report card and you'll see why right-wingers love Trump. In a world where abortion overrides everything else, Trump trounces his opponents. That's why this year's March for Life essentially turned into a Trump re-election rally when the president, who regularly exposes his disdain and contempt for the most vulnerable members of society, showed up to proclaim his solidarity with the pro-life movement.

The problem is, following in the way of Christ involves far more than just opposing abortion. As the report card reminds us, it also entails fighting poverty, opposing capital punishment, and welcoming the stranger. That's the essence of Catholic social teaching and the heart of the Catholic church's seven Corporal Works of Mercy.

But what do we see among so many Christian Trump supporters? Do we see them promoting values rooted in compassion and mercy? No. We see them defending policies that demonize migrants and rationalize the caged separation of mothers from their children. We see them supporting the eye-for-an-eye vengeance of the death penalty. We see them cheering on the U.S. assassination of another nation's political leader and longing for war with Iran. We see them applauding when the U.S. Supreme Court upholds a Trump administration policy allowing the denial of green cards to anyone who may be likely to need public assistance.

I'll believe that the pro-life movement is truly pro-life when its members pour as much energy and passion into defending the human rights of refugees, supporting the social safety net, and opposing the death penalty as they do taking a stand against abortion.

Moreover, I'd love for a Trump-supporting Christian to show me where he or she sees the president upholding the values of the Sermon on the Mount (blessed are the poor and meek, do unto others, love your enemies, turn the other cheek), or how his policies square up with the pronouncement of the sheep and goats in Matthew 25 ("whatsoever you did for the least of these, my brethren, you did for me"). I'd also love them to point out which fruits of the spirit Trump embodies -- love, joy, peace, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

At this point, Trump-loving Christians will be ready to smear me as an America-hating communist. But that's the problem with our binary politics. Disliking what one "side" does is not an automatic endorsement of the other "side."

When it comes to social justice, the Democratic Party indeed does a better overall job, in terms of its support for social programs that help the poor and needy. But the left also has a gaping blind spot when it comes to abortion, which is reflected in the Catholic Worker scores. Just as the right dehumanizes migrants coming to our border as animals, thieves, freeloaders, and criminals, so the left dehumanizes the unborn as clumps of cells or parasites or "products of conception."

The establishment left, moreover, is just as complicit as the right in its support for American empire. If you criticize our endless wars, and the massive amounts of money we waste every year on supporting militarized violence and death, you'll be slandered and smeared as an enemy of freedom, a Russian bot, or worse. Just ask Tulsi Gabbard.

And then bring up the spiraling cost of our profit-driven healthcare system that drives Americans into bankruptcy and forces people to choose sickness and death over care they can't afford, and the left will pay lip service to the idea of a universal single-payer system. But when push comes to shove -- i.e., when the lobbyists push back -- suddenly healthcare reform becomes just too big a hurdle to overcome. Sorry to all those who are suffering and dying under our current predatory system.

And so we end up with a situation that's an affront to all humanity and decency, whereby we can spend three-quarters of a trillion dollars a year on the military and no one bats an eye, but when it comes to ensuring access to affordable healthcare for every American, the conversation invariably centers on asking "how are we going to pay for that?"

Moreover, the left has an unfortunate tendency to sort people into collectives based around immutable characteristics like sex and race, with the inevitable end result of ostracizing anyone from those identity groups who challenges the political ideologies that prop them up. Diversity of appearance is great; diversity of thought, not so much. This is why censorship is de rigeur among the "tolerant" left these days.

It's not hard to see, of course, how such a rigid ideology demands scapegoats -- someone to blame for every identity group's problems. Hence, cancel culture, with its thoughtcrimes and its blanket demonization of certain elements of society -- typically, straight white males who play the role of the devil in this worldview.

Indeed, as religion loses its grip on society, it's obvious that cancel culture has become its own substitute religion, complete with dogmas, heretics, original sin, and blasphemies, and with transgressors expected to recant on bended knee. And don't even get me started on the weird Gnostic-like trend that sees humans as sexless blank slates, flipping the very notion of being created male and female in the image of God on its head.

And so the witch hunts and inquisitions of old have been repackaged for the 21st century, under the banner of being "woke." It's essentially Christianity with no chance of redemption.

And that's no laughing matter, because as Christianity wanes and becomes replaced with a dangerous Frankenstein-ish imitation of itself, we're also casting aside the very ethics and values that were the cornerstone of Western civilization.

If it feels like the fabric of our society is being torn apart, that's because it is. A diverse and democratic society will ultimately splinter if it no longer has a firm set of beliefs and ideals at its core that its citizens can all agree on.

And so neither "side" in American politics reflects Christ much, if at all. Yet each "side" continues to try to fit Jesus into its political paradigm, from the most liberal Christians to the most right-wing evangelicals.

And that's the whole problem. We try to make Jesus conform to us rather than allow ourselves to be challenged out of our paradigms, our certainty, the comfort of our political echo chambers that see "us" as the good guys and "them" as the bad guys.

The thing is, Jesus doesn't care about your political allegiances. But he does care about how we do unto others, with a special concern for the most vulnerable members of society. So Republicans oppose abortion and Democrats support the social safety net for the needy. That's great. But what else do they do? How do they otherwise reflect or oppose Christ? That's a question all Christians need to examine when they decide to hand over their allegiance to a political party. Do you fit Christ into your politics, or your politics into Christ?

The only U.S. political party I've found that genuinely strives to do the latter is the American Solidarity Party. The two major parties certainly don't.

I've always wished I could feel an allegiance with the pro-life movement, but I never have. And it's because of how the people who make up the movement so rarely show themselves to be "pro-life" outside of one issue, and on that issue they seem to have a distressingly naive notion that abortion can simply be banned. Or, worse, there's a significant contingent of the movement that reveals its deficiency of compassion by thinking it's appropriate to either shame a woman out of an abortion or to even hold her criminally liable for her actions.

It's essentially the right's version of the gun-control crusade. Both groups think the thing they dislike can somehow be legislated out of existence. It's magical thinking in both cases. If people want to get a gun, they'll get one. If women want to get an abortion, they'll get one. To get to the root of either issue, you have to persuade people to see a different point of view. You have to change hearts, not laws.

But our society craves simple solutions to complex problems, so we look for the easy fix -- legislative restrictions -- rather than encourage a true culture of life in which violence becomes unthinkable. A world that embraced the radical love and hospitality of Christ would reject death as a first-line solution to its problems, as our society so often does. 

I wish I could say that the disconnect on life issues that I see in this movement is the exception and not the rule. But no. These are the folks who cheered for Donald Trump when he showed up at their rally, and who so often reveal their true colors when it comes to war, the death penalty, care for pregnant women and young mothers, aid for children, life-saving affordable healthcare, and so much more.

Just bring up the issue of detention of migrants and refugees, for example, and you'll eventually hear someone ask, "Are you going to feed and house all these illegals?" The irony, of course, is that this is precisely the same question pro-choicers point at the pro-life movement: "Are you going to adopt all the unwanted babies?" It all circles back to which people you choose to dehumanize. Put aside for a moment that Christians are charged to help the "least of these" and that the point of the parable of the Good Samaritan is that anyone in need is your neighbor: You simply can't say things like this and call yourself pro-life.

After this year's Trump-adoring March for Life, I'm afraid the movement has sacrificed any credibility it had left. It's no wonder the world sees Christians as hypocrites. Principles and integrity matter, and sometimes the truth hurts.

We can do so much better. As the hands and feet of Christ in this world, we have to do better.

I'll close with a prayer for peace to Our Lady that I'm quite fond of -- one that if, taken to heart, can surely help us build an authentic culture of life.

Mary, Queen of Peace,
we entrust our lives to you.
Shelter us from war, hatred, and oppression.
Teach us to live in peace,
to educate ourselves for peace.
Inspire us to act justly,
to revere all God has made.
Root peace firmly in our hearts and in our world.

Friday, January 3, 2020

Blessed Are the Peacemakers, and the Families

Blessed Are the Peacemakers, George Bellows.
Recent events involving American Christianity have served as a somber reminder of the current state of the faith.

First came the editorial from the centrist Christianity Today, calling for Donald Trump to be removed from office. That piece brought howls of derision from the evangelical wing of American Christianity, along with ludicrous claims that CT, founded by the esteemed late Billy Graham, is a far-left journal. The reaction to the even-handed piece certainly said a lot more about the critics than it did about the magazine.

Then there was the regrettable church shooting in Texas, in which two people died before an armed parishioner killed the assailant. The church member who shot the gunman dead has been hailed as a hero and an example of why the Second Amendment is necessary for defending lives.

But the question has to be asked: Why are Christians defending a president who couldn't be any less Christ-like if he tried, and why are we making a hero out of a follower of the Prince of Peace who was packing heat in a church building?

On the first point, it's notable that CT, and many of its current critics, were both telling us during Bill Clinton's impeachment that character mattered in our elected leaders. CT has remained consistent in its criticisms, leaving its current detractors looking like crass political opportunists who cast their principles aside when a moral degenerate happens to be pushing a political agenda they approve of.

On the second point, I find it tragic that we have so much gun violence in America, that someone would come into a sacred place and start shooting people, and that Christians would be carrying lethal weapons in that same sacred place. You can argue that the quick reaction of the armed parishioner saved even more lives from being lost, but is this what Jesus called us to do in the face of conflict? To meet violence with violence?

Well, in fact, he said quite the opposite. He called on us to love our enemies, to do to others what we would want done to us, and to turn the other cheek to an assailant who has just struck us on the opposite cheek. "Blessed are the peacemakers," he reminds us in the Beatitudes. He saved a woman from being stoned to death even though she was eligible under the law to be killed. He didn't fight back when the Roman soldiers were beating him to a pulp. He didn't resist being nailed to the cross. He didn't ask his disciples to avenge his death. The only thing he did was to ask God to forgive those who put him to death. To the very end, he remained humble and merciful.

But Jesus said to sell your cloak and buy a sword!

Yes, he did, to fulfill the prophecy in Isaiah that he would be "counted among the transgressors" and arrested when in the presence of the soldiers. He never intended to go into battle with a sword. That's why he told the disciples that two swords were enough, when that never would have been sufficient for a fight. It's also why, when Peter actually used his sword to cut off the ear of the high priest's servant, Jesus healed the man and rebuked Peter. "Put your sword away," he said, "for all who live by the sword shall die by the sword."

But he said he came not to bring peace but a sword!

Yes, he did, but context matters. Again, he said this to fulfill prophecy that he would cause division among friends and family members. He wanted his followers to be all in behind him, not lukewarm. Accordingly, people would take sides for and against him. That was the meaning of the sword in this context. Likewise, when Jesus appears in the Book of Revelation with a sword protruding from his mouth, it's to be seen as his words laying waste to the nations of the earth.

But he whipped the moneychangers in the temple!

Actually, scripture only says that he fashioned a whip and drove the moneychangers out. It never says that he struck them with the whip. Only the Gospel of John mentions the whip, and only John and Mark make mention of Jesus' flipping over the tables. Matthew and Luke say only that he drove the moneychangers out.

The Gospels paint a consistent picture of a man who resisted violence and loved his enemies. The early church also understood this, in the days before Christianity allied with Constantine and empire. "Christians, instead of arming themselves with swords, extend their hands in prayer," St. Athanasius wrote. "The Christian does not even hurt his enemy," wrote Tertullian. "Christians are not allowed to correct by violence sinful wrongdoings," wrote Clement of Alexandria. Christians were even expected to renounce military service. Quakers and Anabaptists still hold this ancient view of Christian nonviolence today.

That all sounds great in theory, but when you have an active shooter, you need another gun, not prayers.

Gosh, now you sound just like all the atheists who mock the pointlessness of prayer.

The thing is, if your religious principles fall apart when the rubber hits the road, then your principles were pretty flimsy to begin with.

Well, Jesus wouldn't have just sat there and done nothing while innocent people were being mowed down!

You know what Jesus would have done? He would have placed himself between the gunman and his targets. Because that's how much Jesus loves us. If you really believe that Jesus is who he said he was, then you believe that he essentially took a bullet for all of us.

Now, how many of us would lay down our lives like that for those we love?

I don't know what I would have done in that situation, but I also acknowledge that Thou shalt not kill isn't just a bunch of hot air. Nonviolence and pacifism, after all, don't mean that you refrain from action in the face of evil. They simply mean that when confronted with violence, you find ways to counter the violence that doesn't result in death. In the case of the church shooting, the parishioner could have done any number of things besides taking the gunman out with a head shot. He could have been tasered, pepper-sprayed, shot in a place that would incapacitate but not kill him, tackled, had the gun wrested away from him.

This isn't a question of gun control. Our society tends to want simple answers to complex problems, and rather than do the hard work of understanding why so many people are angry, hateful, and despondent enough to carry out mass shootings, we think we can fix the problem with "just a few more" gun laws. And so we never get to the root of the problem and never address the behavior that gives rise to the violent action in the first place.

Guns are not the problem -- but for Christians, they're also not the answer. Carrying a weapon comes from a place of fear. I ought to know, because when we lived in Seattle, I eventually bought some pepper spray and a taser to add to the family survival bag. My wife had had some close encounters with violent and mentally unstable people when she worked in Seattle, and I thought it would be best for the family to have some kind of weapon at hand in case of a violent conflict. And why did I make that decision? Out of fear for my and my family's well-being. Fear. I'd never entertained the idea of owning a weapon of any kind, yet there I was.

But should followers of Christ do such things? We're told that perfect love casts out all fear. If we say it's unrealistic or naive to engage with the world in such a manner today, then again we're left to ask whether we really do follow and trust in Christ. For Jesus asked, point blank, "Why do you call me Lord and not do as I say?" Either we trust in his way of nonviolent enemy-love or we don't. And in a country that immerses itself in the idolatry of nationalism, that wraps the cross in a flag, that spends a quarter-trillion dollars annually to wage war on the rest of the world but claims there's no money for universal healthcare, and that's bombing Iraq and assassinating Iranians as I write this, it seems as if we're a Christian people in name only.

And so once again, I'm left to ponder why I hang in there -- why I continue to call myself a Christian when Christianity has become so tainted by those who call themselves followers of Christ. And I suppose my answer, as usual, is that I have yet to find so perfect and convincing of an ethical treatise as Jesus laid out in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus isn't the problem. It's his followers.

And I think in some sense that in siding with the church, I'm also siding with Western civilization. Because the church built our civilization, and it's painfully obvious that our society is crumbling into madness as our shared Christian values begin to wane in the face of postmodern narcissism that lets every person become his own god, redefining himself in his own image as he sees fit.

To that end, I was very happy to hear an excellent homily from the priest at our church on the Feast of the Holy Family. The readings included Paul's infamous decree for wives to be submissive to their husbands, and I wondered how the priest was going to rescue that one from the flaming Dumpster. To his credit, he spoke lovingly of the importance of honoring the different roles, including the different strengths, of both sexes. In a country where almost a quarter of our kids live in single-parent homes, the highest rate in the world, it's obvious that something has gone wrong with the family unit, and our kids suffer for it. My wife and I always felt one of us should be able to stay home when we had a child, and my work has allowed me to do that for our daughter. Now we're both home with her, hopefully for a long time.

But sadly, a lot of people don't have that option in our late-capitalist society that keeps people working to the bone at multiple jobs just to scrape by. I feel fortunate that we've avoided that fate so far.

Our priest used to be married, so he knows a thing or two about married life, and the compromises you need to undertake to make the marriage work, not to mention the complementary roles that mother and father take in raising their kids. To that end, our priest noted that the liberties our society has taken with relationships and the roles of the sexes has not been to the benefit of the family or the culture. Men need to be men and women need to be women, he said, and you can read quite a bit into that statement, especially when we have an aggressive minority of people trying to forcefully redefine what male and female even mean. Always love others, for certain, but don't throw your common sense out the window in the process.

He also spoke of the importance of not pumping the garbage that passes for entertainment into our houses, as that also has a degrading effect on people and families. I think we have a fairly good handle on that in our house, as we don't watch TV, and I've long been appalled at what people -- again, even self-proclaimed Christians -- extol as good entertainment. When we praise the most graphic and vulgar actions as enjoyable things to talk about around the water cooler, again, can we be surprised at the state our society is in?

But as much as I despair for our society, I sure am glad we have people like our priest standing up for family, faith, and goodness. I don't know his views on guns, and given that he's ex-Marine, I probably don't want to know. But I doubt he'll ever make favorable comments about our current administration. Catholics aren't evangelicals, and although we have our Trump-loving rad-trads, I would like to think that most of us are at least dimly aware of Catholic social teaching -- including workers' rights, the preferential option for the poor, the opposition to capital punishment, and the need to care for God's creation -- and realize that our national leaders aren't even close to living up to the ideals that the church wants us, as followers of Christ, to strive toward.

May we do better, as Christians and Americans, before it's too late.