A single dollar was awarded to Taylor Swift in a recent legal case. While that might not sound like much in terms of a victory, that dollar was worth so more than its monetary value. But why?
In December of 2013, before performing in Denver, Taylor Swift attended a promotional photoshoot—a local meet and greet with her fans. David Mueller, a local radio personality, attended the promotion and appeared in pictures with Taylor Swift. During these photographs, Mueller slid his hand under Taylor Swift’s skirt and grabbed her butt.
The next day, Taylor Swift’s agent contacted the radio station filing a complaint; the complaint contained the photographs and Taylor’s account of the sexual assault. After a short investigation of the allegation, the radio station fired David Mueller. Two years later in 2015, Mueller sued Taylor Swift for $3 million dollars in lost wages. Taylor’s response?
She countersued him… for a single dollar. She alleged that David Mueller sexually assaulted her by groping her during the photoshoot, and she sued for the total damages of one, single dollar. It was never about the money; it was always about something more. And, she won.
The court dismissed David Mueller’s case against her, and the court ruled in Taylor Swift’s favor.If Only It Didn’t Have to be Taylor Swift
We should admire Taylor Swift for the way she handled this court case, but we shouldn’t feel comfortable with a world of systems and assumptions which require the victim to explain why they ‘ruined’ someone’s life. And, we shouldn’t feel comfortable with the fact that it took someone with popstar status and money to overcome victim shaming.
After the case, Mueller commented that he is planning on paying the settlement with a Sacagawea dollar, because: “I mean this is all about women’s rights… it’s a little poke at them, a little bit. I mean I think they made this into a publicity stunt, and this is my life.” Mueller’s comment—while certainly abrasive—is partially right: this is his life. BUT, his comment misses a more important problem: this is also Taylor’s life, and this was Taylor’s body.
The court transcripts and public comments are disturbing to read, because the burden of proof seemed to rest upon Taylor Swift. She had to present a case demonstrating that she was in fact sexually assaulted—evidence, witnesses, testimony, and cross-examination required just to explain that she was the victim. Taylor’s mother was called to testify about Taylor’s comments and demeanor on the evening she was groped. Taylor Swift’s bodyguard was also called to testify. He affirmed her story: “I know I saw… a violation of her body.”
Taylor herself had to testify, and when Mueller’s attorney attempted to imply that the grope might have been an “accidental brush” perhaps of her “ribs,” Taylor responded sharply:
“He did not touch my ribs. He did not touch my arm. He did not touch my hand. He grabbed my bare ass.”
“Right as the moment came for us to pose for the photo, he took his hand and put it up my dress and grabbed onto my ass cheek, and no matter how much I scooted over, it was still there. It was completely intentional… It was definitely a grab. A very long grab.”
At one point during the trial, she produced a photograph which clearly shows Mueller’s hand below her waist. Then—because it does not show Mueller explicitly gripping her—the attorney accused her of lying about the photograph. Taylor responded, “The only person who would have a direct eye line is someone laying underneath my skirt, and we did not have anyone positioned there.”
It sounds disrespectful for someone on the witness stand to include sarcasm or to say the word “ass” so many times, until the reality settles in: Why is she the one on trial? Wasn’t she the victim?
Taylor Swift endured a shaming which is all too common for women and victims of sexual assault. Though she was the victim, she was painted as the person responsible for Mueller’s financial problems. Taylor responded courageously to this, and she even succinctly captured the hypocrisy of the situation: “I’m being blamed for the unfortunate events of his life that are a product of his decisions. Not mine.”
Taylor Swift has the advantage of being a successful singer and performer, and she recognizes that position:
“I acknowledge the privilege that I benefit from in life, in society, and in my ability to shoulder the enormous cost of defending myself in a trial like this… My hope is to help those whose voices should also be heard.”
This entire incident and trial should lead us to admire Taylor Swift for being so brave, but it should also accuse us: Why did it have to be Taylor Swift? What about all the other victims of sexual assault? What about those women and assault victims who don’t have the resources for a legal defense or prosecution? What about those victims who experience shaming? What happens to them?DON’T “Shake It Off”
Taylor Swift didn’t “shake it off” like the lyrics of her famous song. She stood up for what she believed, and bravely fought not simply to win, but to make a difference. She won a single dollar, but Taylor exposed the way victims are treated—which is worth so much more for future victims. She did not accept the shame they tried to put on her, and her sharp responses only shamed them for their callousness. As her attorney claimed: “that dollar, that single dollar, is of immeasurable value in this ever-going fight to figure out where the lines are, what’s right and what’s wrong.”
The next step falls on us to not shake off the power of that single dollar, or the power of her stand and fight. It is up to us to be bothered by these sort of occurrences. It is up to us to assist those around us by creating a world in which a victim of sexual assault doesn’t need exceptional bravery, strength, or power simply to tell the truth of what happened to them. We need to create a world where the victim is not on trial.
The cover image is featured courtesy of Eva Rinaldi of the Flickr CC.
I’ve got to be honest: when Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s “Despacito” was released in January and took off in the late spring, all I heard was a particularly successful link in a long chain of Latin pop-reggaetón and Spanish music in general. But don’t get me wrong: I love pop-reggaetón and its recent rise in mainstream popularity.
While Spanish language music has been in the current US since the Spanish founded the first European settlements in 1565, Petra Rivera-Rideau suggests that the recent rise of pop-reggaetón like “Despacito” has broken racial barriers and brought people together. So it was with me.
I heard about the musical genre reggaetón for the first time while visiting a hospital patient whose fingers had just been cut off. Ricardo was 18 and had recently moved from Puerto Rico. He was fixing a machine in a factory near Chicago when, all of a sudden, it started up again. The blade came down on both of his hands, severing them in two. After the doctors sewed everything back together (apparently you can do that) and placed leeches at the tips of the dead fingers to draw blood up to them (apparently you can do that, too), I asked the teen, “So… ¿qué te gusta hacer?” He smiled, turned his face towards me, and said in a voice that betrayed the high dosage of painkillers he was taking, “Reggaetón. Me gusta escuchar reggaetón.”
I had no idea what reggaetón was, so that evening I returned home and typed it into Youtube. There was stuff from Ozuna, J Balvin, and Daddy Yankee. I remember listening to “Ginza.” The beat entranced me. The drops were insane, and the bass’ rhythm hit me with a fit of euphoric intensity. It was like nothing I had heard before. The lyrics were, well, explicit, but my love for the sound overpowered my disgust towards the message.
The next day I returned to the hospital eager to speak with Ricardo. We exchanged saludos and immediately launched into a discussion of the music. The convo left him laughing and smiling–probably mostly because he was intrigued by the idea of a young “priest” who liked the sound of reggaetón. The music connected us. By sharing it, he had opened a part of his soul to me, and my reception of that piece of him gave him the confidence to share more. It ignited a beautiful heart-to-heart about other things that were important to him.
From that time on, I’ve continued listening to reggaetón. And especially this summer, hearing the sound of “Despacito” took me back to Ricardo.
Music is all about relationship and memory. I hear an old song, and my mind races back to the past. I think of related people and places. Give me the name of a friend, and I will give you the name of a song. Name a place, I’ll name a song. The same is true of genres. Country is Jim. Rap is Sara… And pop-reggaeton will always be Ricardo.
Each month the Pope’s Worldwide Prayer Network releases a prayer video with a special intention the Holy Father asks us to remember. For August 2017, the intention is, “That artists of our time, through their creativity, may help us discover the beauty of creation.” Explore the intersection of Arts and Faith with the series of that name from Loyola Press. How do you discover the beauty of creation?
IgnatianSpirituality.com ® is a service of Loyola Press, a Jesuit ministry.
If you’re unaware, Arrupe College is the first of its kind: a two-year college embedded within a Jesuit university. Arrupe seeks to provide greater access to higher education for students who, by no fault of their own, wouldn’t otherwise have many chances to attend a four-year institution of higher learning. For two years our (now) graduates have been pioneers in an effort to dramatically reimagine who deserves a college education and what it takes to grind it out all the way to the graduation stage.
Perhaps I’m just a skosh biased; I do work at Arrupe, after all.
But, I’ve seen enough to know that what unfolded this past Saturday was something singular – a moment that stood in defiance of the narratives about who can succeed in college and who has the capacity to shift the course of their own reality. A moment during which I felt as if the whole world had been changed for the better. Mortarboards bedazzled with messages of sacrifice and hope. Scores of people who had never seen a college graduation before. Young adults who have faced tremendous challenges and thrived anyway.
Just before they began classes, the first students of Arrupe College (and every one since) were given a frame, empty and waiting for an embossed diploma bearing the name of St. Ignatius of Loyola. That frame represented a promise that came to fruition on Saturday – that if a student commits, they will not be forgotten, they will not be given up on, and they will earn a degree. Now, the majority of students who began at Arrupe are moving on with filled frames and into the world of four-year institutions and meaningful employment.
For all of us, the story of Arrupe College means that in spite of ever-rising costs of higher education in America, in spite of ever-widening achievement gaps, and in spite of under-resourced and underserved primary and secondary schools nationwide, we can make college education a real opportunity. All this despite adversity and injustice which threatens our entire country and its education system.
Not surprisingly, love was the word of the day, and love was the key ingredient. In the words of the student speaker, Asya Meadows: “It all began when I fell in love. It was slow, steady, and it happened unexpectedly. The love I found embraced me and made me a better person. It’s been one of the great loves of my life – the kind of love everyone hopes they will have the chance to experience. Now, before you go searching for this person in the crowd, let me give you one crucial detail: it not a person. Actually it’s not just one person – it’s people; It’s Arrupe. Not Maguire Hall, or its walls, or stairwells – or the elevators that only seem to work sometimes. But the people: the students, professors, staff – even the security guards who yelled at me to leave the building. Everyone.”
This love is all-encompassing and contagious – this fall, the second Arrupe-model school is opening at the University of St. Thomas in the Twin Cities. And, there’s no question that this love still matters deeply. Those very same days when Arrupe celebrated a series of firsts, we were yet again reminded of what hatred can do, this time in Charlottesville. For every moment shared among people in love there is, sadly, a moment of hatred waiting to bring it crashing down.
Arrupe College’s first graduation stands as a living monument to the reality that fear and hatred will not win the day. On that day I saw that it was love that brought these students through their two years and it is love that will move us forward.
Congratulations, graduates. Again, Asya: “So savor and remember this great moment…it’s our time now to continue…and live with greater love than fear.”
To see more images of Arrupe College’s Inaugural Commencement, click here.
I was prepared for an ordinary workday in the field. I was dressed in nice jeans, comfortable shoes, my work polo and matching hat.
Five months into my job at the Roncalli Association-John XXIII, I had adapted to the rhythm. Part of the week was typically spent in our Managua office to arrange activities and keep up with the requisite reports. But the highlight of the job was the days spent out in the field with beneficiaries of our development projects in one of the various municipalities across Nicaragua.
This day, I was heading to Tipitapa, a semi-urban municipality located 20 miles up the highway from Managua. A few weeks prior, I had visited the local cooperative there to help run a one-day workshop on the papal encyclical Laudato Si’ about care for the environment. At the end of the workshop, participants developed a series of commitments to improve their local surroundings, including a plan to reforest the area along a local drainage canal. I was heading to Tipitapa with a co-worker this morning to plan the details of the reforestation project.
Or so I thought.
¿Por qué estás vestido así?
“Why are you dressed like that?” asked my puzzled co-worker, Gladis.
Porque vesto así cada vez que salimos de la oficina. ¿Qué pasa?
“Because I wear this every time we work outside the office. What’s up?”
Vas a morir en este calor y ensuciar tu camisa institucional. ¡Tenemos doscientos árboles de sembrar!
“You’re going to die in this heat and get your work polo all dirty. We have two hundred trees to plant!”
Um, excuse me? Two hundred trees to plant? Today?!? I thought we were planning the reforestation project, not, you know…doing it!
This was not a simple mix-up on my part. Gladis and I had spoken about this day several times. She had, to her knowledge, been very clear of the plan. But I had missed something in the conversation, because (did I mention this?) all our conversations are in Spanish. Despite two months of language studies and five months of daily practice on the job, I was still struggling with communication in a second language. And it was rarely as clear as that day in Tipitapa.
The cooperative members broke into laughter as Gladis recounted my misunderstanding. Frustrated with myself and embarrassed, I peeled off my work polo to spend the day planting trees in the sun in my sweat-stained white undershirt and heavy jeans.
Welcome to the deep dive of cross-cultural immersion.
Before my life as a Jesuit, I had spent time working abroad in South Africa. The experience impacted me in a variety of ways: it not only triggered my vocational discernment but it also inspired an interest in international development.
When I was sent to study at Fordham University as part of my Jesuit formation, a unique opportunity presented itself to further explore this interest. After a year of Philosophy studies, I enrolled in Fordham’s master’s degree program in International Political Economy and Development, or IPED. The degree tackles questions like why some countries have so much and others so little, and what political and economic factors contribute to these inequalities.
It was the perfect degree for my background and interest.
As I wrapped up the degree, it was time for the next stage of Jesuit formation, called regency, when a Jesuit spends a few years working in apostolic ministry. Most Jesuits spend these years in one of our many educational institutions, typically as teachers. In my case, with the IPED degree, I was sent to live and work in Managua, Nicaragua, for the Roncalli Association-John XXIII, a Jesuit-sponsored development organization.
On the one hand, I was thrilled. I loved my international experience in South Africa, which had helped guide me to religious life in the first place. And the website of the Roncalli Association was enough to show me that it was exactly the type of organization I wanted to work for: It was staffed by local Nicaraguans; they had projects in housing, health, environment and micro-finance; and it was Jesuit-sponsored with a clear focus on working with the most marginalized.
On the other hand, there was one glaring problem: I didn’t speak Spanish.
Not even the rigors of grad school can compare with full-time language studies. I started at a language school in Guatemala with five hours of one-on-one classes every weekday. I had arrived with a vocab of about 500 Spanish words (thanks to high school studies) and a familiarity with the present tense. My weekly vocab lists stretched into the hundreds, and the grammar lessons and verb tenses seemed endless.
This was not my dream scenario.
I continued with another month of conversation classes in Managua and then started work at the Roncalli Association. I also moved into a Jesuit community with a diverse collection of Jesuits, all of whom were native Spanish speakers. It was total immersion.
Transitions to new jobs and new cities always take time. My first semester at Fordham had been rocky, as I adjusted to living in New York and getting to know Fordham and its students. Fast forward two and a half years, and I found myself telling my Jesuit superior how comfortable I had come to feel there. I couldn’t walk around campus without running into someone I knew!
Contrasting that with my initial challenges of when I first arrived at Fordham, my sage superior commented that it is, in fact, unremarkable that we feel unsettled and disconnected when we transition to somewhere new. That is perfectly natural. What is remarkable is that somehow, after just a couple of years, we can come to feel so integrated and connected to a place.
These words sunk in deeply, and I came to depend on them as I entered into my experience in Nicaragua. It was perfectly unremarkable that I was struggling there. Along with all the typical challenges of transition, I was also learning a new language. How could I expect myself to feel connected and integrated when I was still communicating like a seven-year old?
The deep dive of cross-cultural immersion commonly evokes “culture shock.” (Wait, the rest of the world doesn’t function exactly like it does where I’m from?!?) But the layers of cultural difference go much deeper than the surface-level, and culture shock is nothing to dismiss. I have heard it described like an iceberg: 90 percent of the differences are hidden below the surface.
The obvious differences between the U.S. and Nicaragua (as with other countries) are things like language, food, folk music and dancing. Even a tourist on a weeklong trip can identify these differences. But the longer you spend somewhere, the more you become aware of the deeper differences. While language was my principal challenge in adjusting to Nicaragua, several other cultural differences emerged over time.
For example, Nicaraguans are more communally-oriented and less individualistic. To avoid overgeneralizing, let me offer a concrete experience of how this difference manifested itself to me.
One day at work, I was heading out of the office with a few co-workers. We were headed to the remote rural community of San Dionisio, about a two and a half hour trip from Managua. We were going to be leaving early in the morning and returning late. As a good Eagle Scout, I came prepared: I woke early enough to eat a good breakfast, I filled my water bottle, and I packed an energy bar in case I got hungry.
About an hour into our ride, one co-worker opened her bag and pulled out a bunch of breakfast cakes. She passed them around for everyone to share. My two other co-workers followed suit: they had each brought some food to share with the group. As they handed me a pile of food, I looked at my meager energy bar. How was I going to divide this four ways?
My focus was individualistic: “I’ll take care of me; you take care of you.” Meanwhile my co-workers were instinctively thinking communally: “We’re all going to be in that truck all day, so I better bring some food for us to share.”
My tendency in cross-cultural immersion is to think of my particular cultural experience in the United States as more enlightened than the local culture. In some cases, this disposition is not entirely misplaced. When a Nicaraguan uses a slang term for “gay” to make fun of another person, or a group of guys in a truck make cat calls at a young woman on the street, I can’t dismiss these things as “cultural misunderstandings.” They are simply offensive, whether they occur in the U.S., Nicaragua or elsewhere.
Butting into these cultural incongruities is draining and often disheartening. I was dismissed by a group of friends when I was explaining how calling someone “gay” in a derogatory way was offensive. “When it’s between friends,” they protested, “it’s funny.” They thought I just didn’t get their sense of humor. But this sort of humor shouldn’t be accepted in any context.
In other cases, my sense of American cultural exceptionalism is steeped in arrogance. Nicaraguan culture is much more formal. As someone more accustomed to calling priests and professors by their first name, I tend to dismiss such formalities as outdated. This is shortsighted.
Nicaraguans show a great deal of respect and deference to the elderly and the educated. My co-workers sign their names in email signatures with their college degree: “Lic. Name” for those with a bachelor’s degree, “Msc. Name” for those with a master’s, “Ing. Name” for engineers. A Nicaraguan would never use the informal second person (tu or vos) with a boss or someone a generation older. They would always use the more formal “usted.”
Who am I to dismiss this? This is not a less-enlightened vestige of past generations. This is a cultural reality that corresponds with underlying values. It deserves my sensitivity and attention.
Over time, I was discovering that there was a lot more to learn in Nicaragua than just Spanish.
A deep dive is not easy. In my first months in Nicaragua, I found it isolating. I couldn’t keep up with group conversations. I couldn’t chime in spontaneously. My jokes never hit. I didn’t feel like myself.
I started wondering what my community members thought of me. Was I a shy and quiet guy who didn’t have much to contribute and never joked around? Such a description would never come from a long-term friend of mine, but it pretty accurately describes my first months in my Managua community.
Suddenly I was terrible at things I had prided myself at being good at, like public speaking, chatting up strangers and spontaneous prayer. It was as if I was developing a second personality: Brian, the quiet and timid Spanish-speaker, who seemed quite unlike Brian, the charismatic English-speaker.
I remember sitting at a crowded table at a social event one night and feeling awkward about the silence. Normally, I would jump in with a question to the group or a comment to elicit conversation. In this case, I thought silently to myself, “Improving this situation is NOT my responsibility.” We continued to eat in silence.
At work, I was learning the ropes while collaborating with a very capable team of co-workers. I was not inherently good at my job. My master’s degree was a pretty piece of paper that paled in comparison to the knowledge gained from years of work experience, not to mention the cultural acumen inherent to local Nicaraguans working in their own country.
I was asked on one of my first days of work to make invitations for a forum on the environment. I returned to my desk, stared at my computer and asked what that even means in a country that doesn’t have street addresses or a postal service. Do I order them? Or make them and print them? Any Nicaraguan would know exactly what to do. I had to retreat right back into my boss’s office and ask, “So…how exactly do I make invitations?”
Amid the challenges and frustrations, I looked for ways to cope and survive. On an almost nightly basis, I called friends and family members back in the U.S. to have conversations in English. I watched a lot of American TV on Netflix. I sought out English-speaking friends.
This wasn’t the vision I had when I first arrived in Nicaragua. I had seen myself spending nights watching soap operas, soccer games and local news programs with the Central American Jesuits in my community. I was going to find a fun Nicaraguan peer group to socialize with on weekends.
But amid the daily struggle of adjusting to a new language and culture, what I needed most was familiarity and comfort. If I was going to be a good community member and productive contributor at work, I needed things that would fill my tank and not just drain me of energy.
Over time, I started to find ways to integrate and connect with local friends. I had my co-worker Gladis make me a playlist of some of her favorite Spanish-language pop songs. It became a workday routine for me to play Julieta Venegas’s “Me Voy” (“I’m going”) when 5:00 p.m. came around.
I joined a workplace basketball team. We made jerseys and entered a local league. While I still found myself yelling frustrations and cursing on the court in English, it was a great way to connect with peers while also releasing built-up tension through exercise and sport.
These were little things, but they went a long way to making me feel more comfortable and more connected. The little things never mattered so much.
I also prayed. A lot. My most fervent prayer was that time would move quicker. I knew that learning a language and culture is a slow and gradual process, but improvement and comfort increase over time. “If I could just skip ahead a few months, things will get easier!” I would pray.
I was drawn to a well-known prayer by the Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin called Patient Trust.
“We are quite naturally impatient in everything
To reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.”
Yes! Let’s skip over these intermediate stages of language acquisition and cultural adaptation.
“And yet it is the law of all progress
That it is made by passing through
Some stages of instability—
And that it may take a very long time.”
And it did feel like it took a long time. Although I prayed for time to speed up, it felt like it slowed down. My first year in Nicaragua felt like the longest year of my life. It crawled.
“Above all, trust in the slow work of God….
Give Our Lord the benefit of believing
That his hand is leading you,
And accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
In suspense and incomplete.”
God was indeed at work. The reality is that if you want to grow you have to step outside of your comfort zone and challenge yourself. The deep dive of cross-cultural immersion is a big step into the territory of personal growth.
As a pious young Jesuit, I often prayed to grow in humility. But be warned: When you pray to God for a grace, God doesn’t just wave a magic wand and grant you what you asked for. God offers you an opportunity to grow into that grace. God didn’t just (POOF!) grant me humility. God sent me to Nicaragua to grow in it.
C.S. Lewis wrote that a truly humble person “will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all.” My immersion experience had turned much of my attention inward. I spent A LOT of time thinking about myself: my struggles, my weaknesses, my language, my culture. Me. Me. Me.
The people of Nicaragua have helped break that habit. I encountered people on a daily basis who were facing tremendous challenges in life and who were struggling through every effort to overcome them.
I met Blanca, who recovered from cancer to become a leader of her cooperative. She helped pioneer a partnership with the Jesuit university for her cooperative to run a food stand on campus three days a week to sell lunch and refreshments to students.
I met Juan José, an uneducated campesino farmer, who diversified his crops and adopted new techniques to avoid plagues and multiply his crop yield.
I met Sara, who has spent the last seven years working with a housing cooperative to get access to land and funds to build homes for themselves. They still haven’t found funding, so they continue to rent or live with family. But this year she joined our environmental and business development projects, and now she has a blossoming vegetable garden and a small business run out of her aunt’s house where she currently lives.
It doesn’t matter if I mix up verb tenses when I am talking with them, or slip into informal pronouns when a formal one would be more appropriate. These language and cultural differences do not carry as much weight when you develop personal relationships. People are people, and love and generosity come before judgement and condescension.
We are at our best when we let go of expectations and embrace who we can be. When I have prayed with the frustration of not feeling like myself in Spanish, I have realized that I need to let go of some things, like public speaking, where I excel in English but not in Spanish. Instead, I need to turn my attention to things that I can do in any language or cultural context.
I can laugh. Including at myself. Who cares if I dressed wrong for reforestation day? Why get frustrated and embarrassed? What good does that do? Why not just laugh it off?
I can pray. To grow in the graces I seek and to turn my focus to those in need. In prayer, I can spend more time with Blanca, Juan José and Sara, lifting up their needs and intentions and placing them before the Lord. I can accept my own limitations and let the Lord work through me.
I can love. I can support those in need and offer encouragement. I can be present, even when my contribution is understated or in the background. A smile or a hug can often convey more than words can.
“The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.”
It is a great privilege to take the deep dive of cross-cultural immersion. It is a powerful way to broaden your horizons and step outside of your comfort zone. It is too challenging for some to undertake, and inaccessible for many others. I recognize with humility the great privilege I have of spending these years in Nicaragua.
That, of course, does not mean it is easy. The deep dive can be isolating and lonely. It can stretch and pull you in ways you never knew you could be stretched and pulled. You can feel far from home, and sometimes even far from yourself.
But it is worth it — Oh, is it worth it! — for we do not go alone. God’s hand is guiding us. God’s face is revealed to us in those whom we encounter. God is there, working in us and through us.
Above all, we must trust in the slow work of God.
By Marina McCoy
Jesus’ instruction to pray to God, “thy will be done” is an essential part of Christian practice. Many saints, like Ignatius, have asked God to assist them in letting go of their own wills in favor of God’s will, as we find in the Suscipe: “Take, Lord, and receive, my memory, my understanding, my entire will.” This is both a difficult and worthwhile enterprise. Giving up one’s own will requires deep trust that in all [...]
IgnatianSpirituality.com ® is a service of Loyola Press, a Jesuit ministry.
Perhaps it’s the swamp water, bayou blood running through my veins, but whenever I see a mountain I immediately think two things: God, that’s big… I’ve got to climb it.
Only, I see them all the time: great masses of granite, heights, and slopes, often appearing from little hills and the gentle incline of the streets. They aren’t real mountains or real challenges, but something within me screams against all logic that I have something to prove.
Maybe it’s because I was raised at sea-level, but often I see more mountains to climb than there really are.
The top of the trail holds a beautiful lake, a final stop surrounded on three sides by mountains. I had finished the hike I had planned, yet my eyes naturally float to the peak of Mt. Evans dusted with snow and gleaming in the sunlight. It dares me, dares me to climb the rest of it. I am so close.
A small trail slithers left from the lake edge. I cannot see where it goes, but I can see the ant-sized specks moving along the ridge high above, winding their way to the summit.
I follow the trail through a mess of bushes until it disappears in a gravel scree, a slide of rocks leading straight up the cliff face. I pause looking intently at the stones, crags, and boulders before me: If this is the path, it is certainly steep.
Ten feet up the rubble—the incline shifts. The gentle but challenging 45-degree angle becomes a stifling +60-degree angle. My hands naturally move forward.
At first, I steady myself upon the slippery stones beneath my feet. Almost unnoticeably, my hands begin to bear a little more weight. But, I’m not turning back now.
Half an hour in, feeling sore and tight, I straighten my back. A strong pull grips my shoulders, ripping me backwards. The reality strikes me quickly, and I panic. For a split-second, I dangle…
I throw myself face-first onto the mountain, grasping and flailing for anything to stabilize me. The quartz glimmers in the grey and brown stones—mere inches from my face.
I take a deep breath and exhale slowly. I didn’t fall. I didn’t fall. I didn’t fall… No matter how many times I repeat it, it doesn’t stop my heart from racing. But, I’ve got to keep going.
In no way am I hiking now. No… Now I’m climbing. I keep my chest as close to the mountain as possible; my weight is distributed between my fingers, hands, and feet. I feel like a spider creeping along the side of a building. Any time I lean back—even slightly—I nearly peel off into the great distance below.
I do the mental math—the tense pro-con decision-making which occurs when I suspect I’ve made a mistake, but correcting it seems so much more complicated than moving forward. I am ⅔ up the side of this mountain, and I am pretty sure that this is not an actual trail. I might be closer to the crest than the valley—yet, I have no idea how that is supposed to help me. But how can I turn back now?
A deep breath. My slow, calculated, careful movements continue.
Until, they don’t.
Behind me, open air. In front, a wall of granite stood perpendicular to the ground. Impenetrable and unclimbable. To my left and right: similar, impossible stone walls… I’ve climbed myself into a dead-end.
Halfway up this incline, I had realized that I was not where I needed to be. I was nearly certain—no matter how much I tried to convince myself otherwise—that I had taken a wrong turn and was no longer on the trail. Yet, here I am. I had persisted to the point of no further options: Just me, the long drop, and the wall of stone.
Carefully holding a boulder, I turn. I look down… and way down… and, Oh hell. I’m really, really high up here.
A couple hundred feet below me a small winding path crosses the gravel incline I had just traversed. The trail, far below, gently wound up the side of the mountain. Switchbacks slowly, incrementally moving to the peak’s ridge. It practically looked easy.
I knew it as I climbed; I knew it in my bones. But, admitting I was wrong? Admitting I had taken a wrong turn? Never.
As my back rested precariously against the mountain, I said a silent prayer. Something about safety. Something about the beauty of creation. And then—more honestly—something about my own stupid stubbornness.
I could have walked up the mountain. I could have taken time to enjoy the scenery, perhaps taken breaks and breathed in the rushing mountain wind. I could have, but I didn’t.
Instead, I took on a mountain—despite the lack of safety precautions. I grit my teeth and stubbornly fought, scraped, and climbed up a path—despite the fact that I knew I had taken a wrong turn. I struggled up the gravel and boulders, trapping myself in an impossible dead-end situation—despite the fact that there was a better, easier path I could have taken.
In the end I had to climb, carefully, slowly, and dangerously down from my dead-end to the actual trail. I’m not sure what I proved in taking the hard way up the mountain, but the mountain seemed easier to conquer than the stubbornness which brought me there.
Perhaps it’s because I was raised at sea-level—or maybe it’s just because I’m more stubborn than I’d care to admit—but, I probably make most of the mountains that I climb.
During my junior year of high school, I participated in a university course away from home. One day during that year, I received news that I must call my mother immediately. I picked up the phone and dialed my parents number. My mother answered, telling me she had something important to talk with me about.
And then I heard words I will never forget – someone has painted a racial slur against you on our family fence: Lucas is a sand nigger.
I still cannot fully articulate the complex mixture of feelings that followed. Confusion – how is this even possible? Dumbfounded – racist people lived elsewhere, not in my community. Fear – will something worse happen?
And most profoundly – Is something wrong with me? Am I not welcome here? Do people in my own community prefer I didn’t exist?
There must have been a pause while I was on the phone with my mother, but I don’t remember to be honest. Too many things were happening inside me and between us. Maybe she told me how much she cared about me. Maybe I told her it’s okay. Maybe we were just quiet together, in that safe space. But I don’t remember. All I remember is that flammable cocktail of feelings. And the silence. And the image of those words in my mind. And not knowing how to react.
Racist words, protests, and directed violence ought to make us angry. The recent protests in Charlottesville are no exception. We should be angry that some leaders – both civil and religious – suggested that multiple perspectives are worth respecting. This is legitimately infuriating.
But however righteous our anger, this fury has a way of blinding us from what victims of race-based hate acts experience and feel. Like me, many of these victims are usually not angry. They are terrified. They are confused about how the safety of home has suddenly become abrasive. As the New Yorker’s Vinson Cunningham writes, they are afraid that going home means they might become a victim of domestic race-based terrorism.
We are right to condemn violence – both word and deed – that lead to fear, terror, and death. We should want true justice and right relationships in our communities again, especially for victims of identity-based hatred. That being said, condemnation is not enough.
Knowing that most of us are not victims of violence based on our skin color or other aspects of who we are, can we challenge ourselves to understand the feelings of those who are? Can we use our hearts to imagine what it would be like to suddenly be unwelcome and hated? Can we imagine what it might feel like to know that millions of people in our country would rather we didn’t exist?
This shift in imagination can change our political community. Without that shift, another white supremacist protest, like the one in Charlottesville, will inevitably occur. Next time, maybe it will be in our own city or town. And maybe someone we know and love will called by their mother to let them know of a racial slur painted on their fence, or the object of angry people carrying torches.
But with imagination, perhaps we can imagine a new way to live together. There, perhaps then we’d become more empathetic. Perhaps we’d see the terror and lament of our minority sisters and brothers as our own. Perhaps we’d fight against “harmless” racial jokes and see how legitimizing them contributes to a culture of hatred and exclusion. And perhaps we’d give ourselves to the project of racial reconciliation – so that no one feels excluded, unwanted, and unwelcome.
It is unlikely that we’ll actually achieve this. But what we can do is commit ourselves to the struggle, the struggle for faith, and the struggle for racial justice which it includes.
Dear White Politicians, do not go to black churches today & tell us how much you hate racism. Go to white churches and tell them.
— Leah D. Daughtry (@LeahDaughtry) August 13, 2017
Dear white people, I write this to you.
In the hours following the Charlottesville terrorist attack, many Twitter users began using #ThisIsNotUs, proclaiming themselves against all violence. Others were attempting to distance themselves, saying while they voted for Trump, they absolutely did not condone driving a car into a crowd.
Physical violence has a way of drawing a line, of bringing out sentiments of “this is too far.” However, it can just as easily spur cries of “But the other side uses violence!” It was not long before #ThisIsNotUs was simultaneously condemning anti-fascists and Black Lives Matter. Violent attacks can leave us uncomfortable, needing affirmation that we are not the attackers. #ThisIsNotUs gives us just that distance, that ability to deny the possibility that we did contribute to this or other violence.
Two responses particularly stood out to me:
At this point #thisisnotus is still more about the white supremacists than the targeted, than the casualties WHY IS IT ABOUT YOU AGAIN?
— Sydette (@Blackamazon) August 13, 2017
— C.E. Little (@ItsMrLittle) August 13, 2017
But what if #ThisIsUs? I did not engage in the attacks. I don’t tweet anything racist. Heck, I don’t even tell jokes about race. I am, however, part of a system of racism. I may not do anything to outwardly express racism, but my whiteness benefits me by degrading others. I may not holler racial slurs, but I maintain power via economic and social structures. Unless I am actively trying to break down those structures, then I am culpable for maintaining racial violence.
#ThisIsNotUs changes the conversation from the horrendous effects of racism to worry about being called racist. It is more about protecting feelings than about fighting oppression. And frankly, through #ThisIsNotUs, white people created and actively maintain racial violence. As Pax Christi points out, “silence is insidious. It speaks racism softly, deceptively, and effectively.” The outright violence of terrorism hides subtle violence like purposefully disenfranchising voters of color, demanding closed borders, or even refusing to call the events of Charlottesville a terrorist attack. It covers up the ongoing effects of discriminatory housing policies, targeting by police, and gentrification.
Perhaps Fr. Bryan Massingale states it best in Racial Justice and the Catholic Church: “As a nation, we are still plagued with wary coexistence, latent suspicions, subtle exclusions, covert tensions, and barely concealed resentments – all rooted in an often unacknowledged but entrenched network of racial privilege and dominance.”
When it comes to racism, there is only one side: to stand against it. https://t.co/YXv3VtRr7H
— Cardinal Cupich (@CardinalBCupich) August 13, 2017
As Cardinal Cupich says, there is only one side to stand on. Catholics, Jesuits, and their institutions must decide which they will be on. This choice will take a great deal of reconciliation, which may very well be painful and difficult. As Lucas Sharma points out in his piece, it will take listening, empathy, and understanding of those who may experience racism differently than we do. We cannot wallow in the shallows of our racism, but must row to the deep, to the peripheries, where we can be companions in a mission of reconciliation and justice.
Whenever we say #ThisIsNotUs, we free ourselves from responsibility, from engagement, and from further action. I say these things because #ThisIsUs. Unless we as largely white communities acknowledge the oppression that benefits us, Charlottesville will continue happening. Even if further terrorist attacks do not happen, the violence of poverty and oppression will continue to flourish. We must be willing to examine our structures, our institutions, and our hearts, readily admitting when #ThisIsUs. We must be willing to apologize, to ask forgiveness, to pray and to walk alongside in liberation. As the US Bishops stated, “Let us especially remember those who lost their lives in Charlottesville and join them in standing against every form of oppression.”
Let us especially remember those who lost their lives in Charlottesville and join them in standing against every form of oppression. pic.twitter.com/bE2jWcwjxR
— US Catholic Bishops (@USCCB) August 13, 2017
Sometimes we fail to see that an entire created world can lead us to prayer. We don’t need to look far for it, because often it’s in our own home or yard. This week, let’s pray with creation. When you tend a plant, you are fulfilling one of your purposes as a human being on this earth. The Book of Genesis tells the story of God creating the world; Adam and Eve represent humanity, and [...]
IgnatianSpirituality.com ® is a service of Loyola Press, a Jesuit ministry.
On June 17, I anxiously watched Trump denounce Obama’s shifts in American policy towards Cuba and roll some of the changes back, at least partially. Four days later I was supposed to leave on a flight to Havana to begin a trip I had been planning for three months. It was to attend a gathering of Jesuits in formation, see Cuba as it is today, and visit the home my family left over 50 years ago.
Change is slow in American politics. But things have been changing quickly of late: what if our Cuba policy was about to change abruptly? I decided I would call the people that should have the best information: Cuba Travel Services. If you click the link and read the banner, you’ll see reassuring text that did not yet exist post-Trump’s speech. When I called them, they told me I won’t have anything to worry about until an official statement is released by OFAC on Friday. Well, Friday is several days after I leave, so I’m definitely getting there… It occurred to me that this wouldn’t guarantee a flight back from Cuba, without which I could not leave. It’s not that I was afraid of being stranded (very unlikely), but I figured that I needed to do my due diligence in the event something did go wrong – right?
I picked up the phone again, and this time called Southwest Airlines International. After a frustrating 40 minutes on hold, I finally got someone on the line who told me that I don’t have to worry about any of the flights from Cuba changing – most likely. Great! That’ll do. At least at this point, if something goes wrong, I can say that I tried. To be honest, if I got stranded in Cuba, I’m sure I would enjoy ministry there tremendously.
After the commotion, the calls, and covering my butt in the event of complications, the flight departed on time. It was a fascinating three weeks in Cuba.
There’s so much to be said about that trip that might come at another time. For now, I want to share one point about US democracy that only a combination of a Trump-style leader and an outside perspective could make so clear.
Our democracy is functional. It works. It provides real representation and the different branches of government actually have the power to to check each other. The Cubans in the United States come from a country of 11.5 million inhabitants, but are politically influential enough in a country of 320 million citizens that the president makes policy changes they desire, or at least some members of their community desire.
And if things do oftentimes move slowly in this great nation, exasperatingly slowly at times, it is because of that vitally important power of checks and balances. Just look at Trump’s agenda. Trump has had 2 executive orders on immigration from ‘terror-prone’ regions blocked by the judicial branch, the legislation proposed to repeal and replace Obamacare died in the Senate, and the proposal for a 20% income tax on goods from Mexico to pay for a wall was dropped from tax reform plans that are being proposed.
Indeed, all Latin Americans I met were surprised that Trump, a political strongman, has not been able to simply do everything he promised. That is something we should not take for granted. No one else is doing so.
“How in God’s name did I get here?” I blurt out to the silent, grey statue of Christ Crucified. He is covered in bird droppings; hanging between oak trees on a warm, sunny, June afternoon. He doesn’t offer much by way of reply.
I am on the 8-day silent retreat we Jesuits make each year as I say this, and my question sums up, perhaps less than poetically, one of the reasons we Jesuits make these retreats. Where did I come from?, we ask. Where was God this year? Where I am being led? Where am I being called to again reaffirm my vows? How can I learn again to “see Him more clearly, love Him more dearly, and follow Him more nearly?”
But even though it sums up the broader message, I meant this question in the particular. How did I end up talking to a statue? How did I end up here — trying my best to be poor, chaste and obedient. How did I — a, gregarious knucklehead with the vocabulary of a sailor on furlough — end up in the world’s largest religious order? How did I end up a social worker on the Latino-side of a rust belt city? Or in migrant shelters in Mexico? Or working with men and women with HIV in St. Louis? Just how, Jesus, did I end up here?
The silence in reply to my query is thick. Then a single word pops into my head: “Grandmother.” I smile. Of course, I think, Grandmother is to blame for all this.
It has been said that Catholicism is maternal, a gift passed down from mother to child. That is true, but I would go one step further: a religious vocation is a gift from God passed down from our grandmothers. Grandmothers — whose strength and steadfastness made them sentinels of the faith, guardians of a bygone time when God was still the center of people’s lives. Grandmothers — whose piety, humility and selflessness show us how the faith is lived in deeds more than in words. Grandmothers — whose prayers were the water that softened the soil our hearts so that the Sower could plant something, anything, there.
Mercedes Josephine Galway McCarthy, my own Grandmother, was a force to be reckoned with. A force of class and of poise. Covered in lace and pearls, she did not suffer fools lightly. As long as I knew her she was called “Grandmother,” never Grandma, or Nana, or any other diminutive take on her title. Mer, as she was known to her friends, was a transplant to America’s capital from Newfoundland, and she carried with her that unique Irish-Newfoundlander brogue — as well as the dignity of seeing herself as one of the Queen’s subjects, a citizen of her Empire.
She imposed order on the world as she moved through it. Tablecloths were straightened, shirts tucked in, as she passed. When I had friends over to the house I would whisper a set of instructions to them before we entered the house, “Grandmother is here,” I would say. “Before greeting my parents you must go to Grandmother first. And, I know this is weird, but everyone calls her Grandmother, not Mrs. McCarthy. Lastly, she is going to kiss you, full on the lips. Do not resist.” I would pause, then, gauging their reaction, before finishing my admonition: “Consider yourself warned.”
My friends who were regulars knew the drill, and Grandmother took to them like they were part of the family. The new ones, although a little shocked by the kissing bit, caught on quickly, mostly because Grandmother was a magnet for laughter and conversation. She was the kind of woman who, with words as sharp and crisp as her starched tablecloths, could describe how Ross Douthat’s latest editorial was perfectly wrong, and in the next moment, and with equal eloquence, describe how Anna Wintour’s vision for her spring line was just right. Her erudition came, partially, from her morning reading, which religiously covered three things: Vogue, The New York Times, and her daily Missal.
In the evenings I would find her sitting in her high-backed chair drinking Johnnie Walker in a martini glass with a single ice cube. Seated upon her throne, there was never a doubt who was the matriarch of the McCarthy clan.
“Jaysus, Mary and Holy Saint Joseph! Glory be to God!” Grandmother exclaims. There are tears in her eyes. I have just told her that I think I am going to become a Jesuit.
I am crying too, mostly because she is so thrilled by the news. She is so thrilled, in fact, that she has thrown her frail body into my arms. Despite being a foot taller and 60 years younger than her, in that moment, I was certain she was the one holding me. She is the person I was most excited to tell, but she was also the one I was most nervous about telling because, somehow, I felt that telling Grandmother about my desire to be a Jesuit made it more real, more dangerous; more confining. It was her blessing that I was seeking as I started walking this terrifying path.
In true Grandmother style, she hadn’t even finished embracing me — or wiping the tears from her eyes — before the reproach came. “But Matthew-darling,” she said, “the damn Jesuits? Why the damned Jesuits? Why not the holy Christian Brothers or the God-fearing Franciscans?” (It should be noted that Grandmother sent all of her sons and nearly all of her scores of grandsons, myself included, to Jesuit schools for both high school and college). I can only laugh — fully and joyfully. And she laughs then, too, and I ease her back onto her throne.
It’s then, between sips from her martini glass, that she tells me, “You know that your mother has been telling me stories of your behavior… come to think of it, those Jesuits might be the only group equipped to handle the likes of you!” Then she laughed again. Her smile straightened before she said, “It is nice to see that my prayers have paid off. After all these years, finally a religious in the family! You’re welcome!”
There it was, the full arc of Grandmother. There she was, all her glory on display in a matter of moments: pride, reproach, faith, laughter, authority, prayers, and mostly, mainly, irreplaceably: love.
Most of my childhood memories of Grandmother involve “going to church”. This was due, in part, to being a member of a colossal and fertile Irish Catholic family, going to church was part of every holiday: religious and secular. As a child I never knew the difference between the two, because every holiday, baptism, or anniversary of my Grandfather’s death involved putting on a tie, going to Church, and having a feast at an aunt’s house afterwards where I could take off my tie and play with my hordes of cousins in the basement. Looking back, I see the role of grandmothers in the larger tapestry of our faith. Grandmother colored the way I see the world so deeply, the way I see myself within it. All grandmothers color the way we see the world and see ourselves in it. They call forth from us our very best. As children, that may have meant proper manners and saying our prayers. As adults, that means living authentically, with humility, knowing your life is meant to be of service to something larger than ourselves, for others. Grandmothers, and women of faith in general, are living witnesses to the resurrection through endless acts of mercy. Grandmother evangelized me, unbeknownst to me, through her joy, her service and her prayers.
Grandmother went home to the God who loved her into being the same week I bound myself to God by taking vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. Two paths that both lead closer to the Jesus that she loved so dearly. She did not make it make it to my vow mass. Words fail to describe how much I miss her.
The last time I spoke with Grandmother on the phone, in her last days on earth, she was mostly incoherent. I carried on, talking of the vow mass, of who was coming, of what I had done that summer — trying to again play my part in our repartee so that she might remember how to play hers. But she couldn’t. Couldn’t at least, that is, until the end of our conversation, when she bid me farewell the same way she always had, “I’ll pray for you, Matthew, darling.” It was enough.
I think of all this on a stone bench in front of a stone statue of the Crucified One, the One who does — sometimes, in some ways — answer our questions. “How did I end up here?” By the love of God and the love of my Grandmother.
And then come the tears, just as they had while holding Grandmother five years before.
I watched the five-year-old children in swimsuits step gingerly up to the font. Climbing the two stairs up seemed pretty easy, but every one of them waited before taking two steps down. What was their hesitation? Every eye in the packed church was focused on the font as the four children waited their turns. Excitement was building among the assembly, as if each of us was willing the children to step forward. We held a [...]
IgnatianSpirituality.com ® is a service of Loyola Press, a Jesuit ministry.
We all know the feeling. The stillness and heat of the summer settle upon you: you see the calendar, realize the move-in date, or a friend asks what your schedule for next semester looks like… And then it hits you: summer is nearly gone.
Thankfully, our pop culture contributors at The Jesuit Post—master procrastinators at heart—have composed a list of last-minute solutions designed to help stretch your summer. Our list of things to enjoy, to play, to binge, and to do… All are aimed at encouraging you to soak in the last vestiges of sunshine and freedom before the 2017-2018 school year begins.
“Don’t Stop Believing in Late Summer Concert Tours” — by Emanuel Werner, SJ
Here’s a thought: Why not hit up a couple great summer concerts to unwind and listen to music that moves your heart and soul?
Music is deeply spiritual and has a way of igniting the human spirit. Music invites us to share in the inspirations of the Spirit who moves us towards goodness, beauty, and love. Go get some! And enjoy the show! Here are my top three recommendations for must-see summer concerts to make summer last:
Lady Gaga is off to a very hot start on her world tour. I saw her perform about seven years ago, and she was excellent. Dynamic. Ferocious. Powerful. Thoughtful. Provocative. And yes, Faith-Filled. A must-see performer.
Ed Sheeran is also on a massive tour across globe. His music is inventive and getting a ton of air time these days. His rhythmic guitar, charming voice, and stellar storytelling connects his listeners to the tender moments of their own lives. His gifts are the hallmark of a great singer-songwriter who is a pleasure to witness at work. Check him out!
Last but certainly not least, my favorite guitarist of all time, Mr. John Mayer, is still holding it down on a world tour that started in late March. He keeps adding tour dates because he loves his craft, and people come out in droves to share in such love. I can’t wait to see him for the second time this summer in late August after seeing his amazing debut in Albany, New York. I just can’t get enough of his jazzy-blues-electric manifestations of guitar bliss! A true master!
“The Fastest Game Alive” — by Sean Barry, SJ
If video games are your thing, Sonic Mania comes out on August 15th. Since I grew up playing the classic Sonic the Hedgehog games on the Sega Genesis, I got excited when the game was first announced. From all that I’ve seen, this game is poised to continue in the vein of those 16-bit games, complete with some of the zones from the first four games.
Made by Headcannon and Pagoda West Games, Sonic Mania comes from people who have a tremendous love for the franchise. After all, they were the ones who produced the iOS ports of the original two Sonic games. For them, this is a labor of love, and I’m eager to see what they’re going to do with it.
If you grew up playing classic Sonic games, then here is your chance to revisit the retro feel of the early 90s or to pass along the fandom to a new generation. If this is your first foray into the world of Sonic, then let this be a chance for you to see just why a whole generation of gamers fell in love with the Blue Blur. Make sure you have seven Chaos Emeralds handy, because this game is going to go Super Sonic.
“A Superhero Escape from the Semester” — by Colten Biro, SJ
As the semester begins, do you need an escape from reality? Need a bit of super-powered, empowerment? Do you need a little last-minute summer binge?
If so, Netflix offers a range of binge-worthy superhero escapes. For those of you interested in the Marvel Universe, I highly recommend Marvel’s Agents of Shield. The series takes you from the Avengers (2012) movie through the current movie releases. Agents of Shield rests upon allusions to the Marvel movies, but more importantly it provides the background and connections which build into an all-encompassing universe. It offers the perfect supplement to the films and demonstrates Marvel’s complicated, interconnected, and well-written universe. Agents of Shield is exceptional in terms of acting and storylines, and it is visually spectacular—certainly demonstrating special effects worthy of the big screen.
Netflix Originals also offers a range of Marvel miniseries: Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and The Iron Fist. Each one provides both a pleasant escape and deeper exploration into larger social themes: rule of law, consent, race, duty, and identity. They are also binge-worthy and rightfully deserve an honorable mention as you seek ways to escape the impending doom of the semester.
“Roll Your Windows Down and Groove ” — by David Inczauskis, SJ
If you have a car, go out for a joy ride and listen to Luis Fonsi’s “Despacito” on repeat full blast. If you don’t have a car, pretend that you’re buying one and test out the bass with Charlie Puth’s “Attention.” (MGMT says there’s always time to pretend, and that’s the perfect oldie to add to your 2017 late summer playlist).
Music marks spaces of time and turns them into memories. A Jesuit classmate and I hear a slightly dated pop song on the radio, and we identify it by our year in high school or college. It sparks some lovely conversations about the past—mostly, we share embarrassing stories and then audibly wonder, “What were we thinking?”
Make new memories. Find a car, pick up your friends, and head to the nearest beach or mountain. Roll the windows down and begin to sing/scream the lyrics to your favs.
There’s no way I’m returning to the school year without some such ecstatic experience, and you shouldn’t either.
So to all of you looking with longing at the calendar, hoping for a moment or two more of freedom, or simply trying to find a way to soak up a little more joy before the semester… We in the Pop Culture Section wish you good luck!
The cover photo is courtesy of Pexel.
In 1910, the largest fire in American history ripped through Montana, Idaho, and Washington. It torched over 3 million acres (4,700 sq mi) swallowing Western boom towns, mines, and communities. While the country had recently begun protecting national parks, this massive fire led to greater appreciation and protection of national forests.1
For many, the Smokey Bear fire danger signs often present the most visible image of what threatens our federal lands. News of fires dancing up and down the West burn across our television and tablet screens. While the fires are certainly dangerous, the question remains: what’s most threatening to federal public lands?
In Part I, we explored what makes our public lands so great. Now in Part II, let’s take a look at what’s endangering them. The greatest threats to public lands can be broken into three categories: direct human impact, indirect human impact, and neglect.
Direct human impact
Some of the most visible signs of human impact on public lands come from visitors/users themselves. The continuing increase of visitors to public lands has put a massive strain on natural resources. While visitors create necessary revenue for federal lands, the incredible number has begun degrading natural resources and detracting from visitor experiences. One might think of simple things like littering (which has an incredibly negative impact), but other issues arise from use. For example, hiking off-trail in sensitive areas destroys fragile vegetation and creates massive erosion through the destruction of specimen like cryptobiotic crusts.
Even staying on trails has an impact. Cars, bikers, hikers, and horseback riders alike typically stay on trails in order to reduce damage, but they still degrade lands by creating noise, moving invasive species, and dramatically impacting the behavior and lives of animals. Trails typically go through beautiful areas for our enjoyment, but they also dislocate animals that inhabit that area. Animals that do stay often become too comfortable with human presence, putting them in danger. Every year, hundreds of large mammals are euthanized or killed because of car collisions, interactions with humans at campgrounds, or crazy stories like people thinking a baby bison is cold and trying to put it in their car.
Perhaps the greatest direct threat to public lands is encroaching development. This typically comes in the form of semi-urban areas near rural public lands. However, it also includes farming, ranching, mining, and logging. There are over 11,600 inholdings in national parks, or property that was owned prior to the establishment or expansion of the park and is now located inside the current park boundaries. Many of these landowners have begun developing this property.
Other developments have been spreading just outside the parks. Towns like Jackson Hole, WY and Pigeon Forge, TN have gone from quaint tourist stops to booming urban centers, frequently accommodating guests who spend their days on neighboring public lands. In Colorado, once-sleepy mining towns like Aspen have exploded into ski resort meccas, increasing their population over 600% since 1950. While much of this development is for commercial use, a great deal is also used for oil & gas drilling, logging, and mining for mineral resources.
Encroaching development threatens public lands because public lands are not free-standing ecosystems. These ecosystems rely on their surrounding areas. The massive growth of nearby communities and resource extraction projects interrupts everything from water use, to mating seasons, to wildlife corridors for broad-range animals like wolves, mountain lions, or elk.
The damaging effects of human impact are wide-ranging, both individual and systematic. They are the most visible impacts on public lands, threatening the life that calls them home. The direct impacts, however, are just the beginning.
Indirect human impact
Indirect human impact includes broad and widespread human activity that ultimately impacts public lands. The far-and-away greatest indirect impact is climate change, itself bringing on a myriad of other challenges and dangers. The high visibility of direct impact like trail damage or littering more easily garners public reaction and engagement. However, indirect issues can be far more insidious because they take longer to show their damage or have no direct fault. For example, who is responsible for the disappearing glaciers at Glacier National Park?
Climate change presents one of the greatest challenges to our world today. It impacts every person and ecosystem. Public lands – often the home of sensitive species – face massive challenges responding to climate change. What will erratic weather do to sensitive areas like Yosemite, Everglades, or Denali? Climate change’s impact on public lands could be truly catastrophic, damaging ecosystems, visitor experiences, and the lives of animals. Large, typically resilient mammals like bison are even experiencing physical changes in response to blazing summers and warm winters.
Regarding forest fires, as stated in both parts of this series, they are absolutely vital for healthy forests. Trees like the giant sequoia cannot exist without fire. In 1988, fires sprinted across Yellowstone, spurred by drought, high amounts of tinder, strong winds, and a hot summer. Close to 800,000 acres (about 36% of the park) caught fire. While these blazes were infamous for their destruction, they also brought new life and hope.
While some forest fires are caused by neglect or recklessness (e.g. cigarettes or illicit campfires), others come from decades of poor management and fire suppression. And now things are getting worse. Climate change has been initiating more devastating fires through an increase in droughts, excessive temperatures, and dry climates. Each of these contributes to the perfect conditions for uncontrollable fires. When fires grow too large or viciously hot, they can annihilate chances of regeneration. Rather than offering the typical advantages of a forest fire (like opening the cones of lodgepole pines or getting rid of built-up plant debris), extreme forest fires reduce everything in their path to ash, leading to other negative secondary impacts like flooding and erosion.
Wandering off the trail directly damages lands, but at least this problem is easily spotted and has clear remedies. The large-scale, indirect impacts from climate change are all the more insidious because they are less visible, easily attributed to somebody else, and too readily dismissed.
While many of the dangers to public lands stem from direct and indirect human impact, one of the greatest threats facing public lands is our neglect. Federal land agencies face a massive backlog of deferred maintenance, largely due to lack of funding. Highly visited areas like Yosemite, Yellowstone, or the Great Smoky Mountains can generate revenue to tackle some of their maintenance needs. But what about less-visited parks that nonetheless protect vital ecosystems, like Colorado’s Black Canyon of the Gunnison? They’re part of an almost $12b maintenance backlog.
One result of this funding shortage is that it forces federal-to-state or federal-to-private land sales. These sales are promoted in the name of small government, but primarily emerge out of a desire to open areas to ranching, drilling, and mining. Both large and small-scale landowners are hoping to open more federal lands to resource extraction.
Perhaps you remember the Bundy standoffs in both Oregon and Nevada. These standoffs came from a general distrust of federal government, a demand for self-determination, and an effort to privatize public lands, especially by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Although the Bundy’s played a role, the standoffs in part came about due to neglect and underfunding for the BLM. For branches like the BLM, resource extraction is part of their mandate. However, privatizing these lands removes them from the accountability and responsibility of the American public. Even turning federal lands over to the state drastically reduces oversight, management, and access for public enjoyment.
Whether it be deferred maintenance or privatization for resource extraction, neglect threatens the spirit of democracy and responsibility encapsulated by public lands.
The biggest threats to America’s public lands fall into three main categories: direct human impact, indirect human impact, and neglect. Each of these bears its own unique dangers. The direct impact is easily seen, thus often the most acted upon. Indirect impacts are more easily overlooked, as the blame gets spread around and no action is taken. The neglect of federal lands threatens to push them into state or private hands, drastically cutting recreational access and leading to greater environmental damage. Each of these dangerous categories threatens our federal public lands and carries its challenges.
Let us know in the comments what you think are the biggest threats, and what we need to do to protect these lands. Be sure to check back for Part III on how you can get involved!
St. Ignatius referred to himself as a pilgrim, and many followers of the Ignatian way have used special times of pilgrimage to encounter God more deeply. Today we highlight three examples. Fr. Michael Sparough, SJ, made a pilgrimage to the famous shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico and encountered great generosity and hospitality, as he explains in this five-minute video. Fr. Casey Beaumier, SJ, also did a pilgrimage during his early formation as [...]
IgnatianSpirituality.com ® is a service of Loyola Press, a Jesuit ministry.
I was sitting in my dorm room in Taiwan on a warm autumn day in 2009 when I found out that President Barack Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize. Little did I know that, a year later, someone living just 80 miles away would receive that very same honor.
Liu Xiaobo (Xiaobo is his first name) is just one of many Chinese, both in China and abroad, who has worked tirelessly to create a freer China. The Chinese people are aware that, while economic progress has skyrocketed for many, social progress has only inched forward for most. Therefore, on the U.N.’s Human Rights Day in 2008, hundreds of activists (which quickly grew into the thousands) signed Charter ’08, a declaration advocating for social and political reforms.
These activists call for reforms that you and I in the U.S. assume to be a given, one of which is freedom of religion. In China, any person of faith – whether Buddhist, Muslim, or Christian – faces constant harassment from both local authorities and those in Beijing. These range from being followed by plainclothes police officers and being passed over for a job promotion to being prohibited from fasting during Ramadan and having your home church torn down overnight. In extreme cases, authorities can arrest anyone they deem to be a “threat to national security”: and being religious in an atheistic society is reason enough.
Something as harmless as signing a petition that the government was never going to take seriously was enough of a reason for the Chinese Communist Party to arrest Xiaobo.
In a dark twist of irony, the authorities sentenced Xiaobo to 11 years in prison on Christmas Day 2009. On that day, I was back in California already, enjoying the warmth of a fireplace and a feast on the table surrounded by loved ones. Meanwhile, half a world away, Xiaobo was torn from his wife – who has been under house arrest ever since – to spend more than a decade in a cold, isolated prison cell, likely subject to much torture.
The world seemed to have forgotten about him until three weeks ago, when the authorities released him from prison due to cancer. However, they would not let him leave the country to seek medical care. As a result, Xiaobo died soon thereafter.
I am taking just a moment today to pray for Xiaobo and his wife. And even though the authorities in Beijing have chosen to be more like Kim Jong-un than Abraham Lincoln, I am praying for them as well, because “China’s dream should not be a show of military might; China’s dream should incorporate Mr. Liu Xiaobo’s dream — implementation of democracy, allowing every Chinese person to enjoy freedom and dignity and making China a country everyone can be proud of,” as the President of Taiwan said in her statement on Xiaobo’s death.
At a prayer service a couple days ago, Joseph Cardinal Zen, the ever-provocative former bishop of Hong Kong, compared Xiaobo to the Prophet Jeremiah. Cardinal Zen said, “You are like the sheep waiting to be killed. We have begged God’s justice for you. But your wisdom reminded us the mission of a prophet naturally includes suffering. We dedicate you and your wife to God for the renewal of our country.”
Xiaobo is truly a person who has offered his life (oblatio vitae) in the struggle to improve the lives of the average person in China. Though not a Christian, his life shares a similarity with the life and mission of Jesus: his life demonstrates what it means to be a suffering servant, engaging in a seemingly quixotic quest ending his life with little tangible results. And for those of us who are Christians, we have the hope of the Resurrection that one day, the 12 million Catholics in China will be able to live out our faith as freely as Jesus calls us to live.
Sometimes we try too hard at prayer. We make it complicated. We load it down with expectations. If I pray really well, then I will come away inspired, or I’ll have a question answered, or I’ll feel happy, or I’ll have learned something. Let’s use the not-quite-so-intense season of summer to lighten up a bit on prayer. “If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.” [...]
IgnatianSpirituality.com ® is a service of Loyola Press, a Jesuit ministry.
Be sure to check out Danny Gustafson’s counterpoint to this essay!
While the reaction to the recent Civiltà Cattolica article by Fr. Antonio Spadaro, S.J. and Rev. Marvelo Figueroa has been incredibly diverse, analysts as diverse as First Things (especially Altieri, and Weigel) and Commonweal (Annett, and Faggioli) have treated the article at depth and many agree that it is a “must read.”
I agree that this article is a “must read” for people interested in the dialogue concerning Catholic participation in American political life, but I disagree about why. First, this article should be read because it is a curious example of exactly what is wrong with contemporary discourse. Although the authors might have intended to prompt a healthy conversation, and I think they have some great points in mind, the article misses its mark and falls into many of the pitfalls that prevent cooperation toward the common good and undermine authentic dialogue.
Second, the article should be read because the subject matter it was attempting to discuss needs to be wrestled into rational analysis if Catholics are going to be able to cooperate in leading the country towards a greater commitment to the common good. Still confused by the last presidential election, the American people need patient voices to guide us to a better understanding of our political reality and a more effective expression and realization of our deepest values. These authors, in this article, do not provide those voices. In fact, I predict that if those on the same side of the political spectrum continue with the potentially alienating language found in the article by Spadaro-Figueroa then they could very well end up facing a second Trumpian term, further Brexitesque surprises, and a continued rightward shift in American and European politics.
As a Catholic ethicist who considers himself a moderate conservative, and who voted with great difficulty in the presidential election, I am sympathetic to many of the points made in the article and to the general suspicion of the Catholic-Republican (and Catholic-Democrat) uncivil unions. So let me explain three reasons why I think this article falls so short of its task. First, it ironically demonstrates the conflictual mode that it supposedly condemns. Secondly, and most crucially, it fails to define who exactly it is talking about and is, therefore, a precariously ambiguous ad hominem attack. And finally, it is an almost perfect manifestation of the conflictual mode of discourse that seeks to land punches instead of persuade. I do not know what the authors were trying to accomplish, but walking through my reactions to the article as they developed while I was reading it will shine light on how each of these three issues can be seen to be at play therein.
I received a link to the article from a conservative friend who prefaced it with, “We finally see what Pope Francis thinks of US conservatives.” Suspicious of such a pretext, I opened the article with initial excitement because we are certainly in need of a careful and fair analysis of the uncomfortable marriages between Catholics and the dominant political parties in the US. I was hoping for a Tocquevillian analysis of the matrix of the American political reality from a foreign point of view. The American situation is a fascinating matrix composed of varying interpretations of various Constitutional elements, especially the First Amendment and the Constitutional limiting of the role of the federal government in effecting the common good. This matrix is particularly American and most of the differences between political “conservatives” and “liberals” of the same basic world-view presuppositions (like Catholics considered as a bloc) extend from the legitimate diverse interpretations within this matrix. Informed analyses from Italian and Argentinian perspectives (which operate within a very different matrix) could be rather helpful. As many a scholar tends to do when reading a journal of this repute, I flipped to the notes to see what other authors we would be treating. My heart fell when I saw the three paltry little notes of perplexing provenance. Were Spadaro and Figueroa really using a platform of this stature to engage the decidedly fringe but curiously influential views of an American blog? No inclusion of articles from America Magazine, First Things, nor mention of John Courtney Murray, H. Richard Neibuhr, or his brother Reinhold?
Although the article does not approach the American situation from the context of the matrix I believe is most pertinent, I continued to push forward, willing to follow the authors in their hastily constructed history of a fascinating phenomenon in evangelical Christianity. Having previously been an Evangelical Christian myself, I could recognize the contours of the eschatological vision they were drafting, even if they chose odd sources, imposed an exogenous interpretive structure, and operated with opaque presuppositions. I remembered reading Hal Lindsey, Left Behind, and This Present Darkness when I was a kid, so I could recognize some of my own Evangelical experience in their hasty sketch.
But my willingness to follow turned quickly to confusion when the authors deployed the word “Manichaean”. The popular application of the term “Manichaean” to a simple ideological dualism might be acceptable when, for example, Zbigniew Brzezinski used the phrase “Manichaean paranoia” in reference to George W. Bush’s foreign policy a 2007 episode of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. But one would expect greater precision from a man with the theological training of Spadaro. There can be no confusion that one can side definitively in an ideological battle, or even a literal war, without even a hint of Manichaeism. True Manichaeism insists that goodness and evil inhere in things and not in ideas: it is a radical rejection of God as omnipotent, providential, and the unique creator. I’m pretty sure Augustine would frown at this figurative use of this ancient religion. And I’m certain that both of Pope Francis’s immediate predecessors would furrow their brows at the insinuation that taking a definitive stand ideologically is inherently dangerous or antithetical to the gospel. The article might have hit its intended mark had it used the categories established by H. Richard Niebuhr in Christ and Culture instead of making the odd, and Augustine-in-the-grave-turning, misdiagnosis of Manichaeism. The subsequent wondering about who these people are who practice such a radical ontological dualism leads us to the greatest confusion of the whole article and the reason why I believe its good points are obscured by its potential divisiveness.
As I continued to read I started wondering in earnest, “Who are the authors talking about?” More personally, I was curious about how I was to engage the article. Was I part of the intended audience, the intended ad hominem target, or a mere spectator in an ironic campaign fear mongering? (Personal note: of the mongerings, fear is my least favorite, since it almost always extends from a total lack of interest in the underlying values and principles of the “other side”.)
When the authors finally turn their attention to la civiltà cattolica proper, in the section that begins with “Fundamentalist ecumenism,” my heart sank. Drawing exclusively from the evidence of the article, alas, it seems I can consider myself as part of the intended ad hominem target. Let me explain why, because here is where the conflictual mode of the article comes into clear relief. As I read I felt like the authors were attempting a three-punch-combo to annoy/defeat their foe and entertain/delight their sympathizers.
The first is more of an “eye-poke” than a punch. It is executed via the association of the Catholic conservatives—whom they call “Integralists” without sufficient definition—with the previously defined “Manichaeism.” Augustine flirted with Manichaeism before his conversion to Christianity. He subsequently, and vehemently, fought against the religious movement and its leadership. I don’t know if Spadaro and Figueroa were intentionally connecting Catholic conservatives with Augustine’s later nemesis, but it’s a connection that is potentially provocative and annoying to a group that often self-identify as Augustinians.
After the eye poke, the first “jab” comes the insinuation that the mode of action of this group of “Integralists” (a term the authors have left quite mysterious) is one of a bastardized “ecumenism”. The authors admit that there is an irony to this punch, since they insist that the Integralists “condemn traditional ecumenism.” But it is in the definition of this “well-defined world of ecumenical convergence” that the true irony is found. Instead of anything that bears any resemblance to true ecumenism (either the formal ecumenism that has followed Vatican II or the practical ecumenism I take part in every day as a Navy chaplain) according to the article the ecumenism of which the Integralists are accused is nothing more than a mere Venn overlap of social concerns. What are the elements that are found within the “well-defined” Venn overlap presented by Spadaro/Figueroa? The article says that they are “abortion, same-sex marriage, religious education in schools and other matters considered moral or tied to values.” This Venn overlap is what defines these nasty Catholic Integralists. I assume that neither Spadaro nor Figueroa would agree with this assertion….but it’s what the article actually says. This is where the train comes off the tracks and deep confusion follows.
The final “knockout punch” comes in the assignment of a motivation to the Catholic Integralists (part of which I now seem to be associated through the Venn characteristics). The authors state explicitly that the motive of these Catholics is hate…manifested in wall-loving, culturally purifying actions and satiated best at the wells shared with terrorists and jihadists. The bogeyman has fully arrived, and his mode and motive have been established (no matter how foreign both may be to any actual practitioner of whatever Catholic Integralism is). This is a purely conflictual mode. But the specifically embarrassing problem is that any novice practitioner of spiritual direction, counseling, or pastoral care should know that the exogenous assignment of motivations violates one of the few inviolable principles of the field, i.e., it is impossible to know the motives of other people unless they willingly share those motives. In fact, the only answer to the question posed in the title of this article is: only Spadaro and Figueroa know what they intended. Nevertheless, those authors assign a fully articulated mode and motive to these insidious Integralists. This hijacking of the interiority of other people is a subtle form of emotional violence that is all too common in contemporary discourse and inevitably causes resistance and division in those with opposing views. It is a form of ad hominem demonization. Instead of refuting the ideas as expressed it simply states that those ideas can be dismissed because they extend from essentially evil motives, using only ideological pressure instead of persuasion. Therefore, at this point, the camps necessarily divide. Those on the conservative end of things, who share some if not all of the elements in the deplorable Venn overlap, become defensive, and those on the liberal end of the spectrum gather behind the authors insisting that this is a long-delayed and much-needed critique. (Little more than saying, “Yeah! What they said!”) I have no idea what the authors intended to accomplish, but this reaction is completely understandable in today’s climate of ideological hostility.
My final emotion in reading the article was one of bewilderment. The fact that an article that warns against the evils of one group’s aligning their theological and political ideation in the public realm ends with a strong appeal to the geopolitical theory of the world’s most authoritative religious figure is a delicious, although indigestion producing, irony. After the insidious opponent’s mode and motive have been identified by the authors, while their own presuppositions and motives remain mostly obscured, the official geopolitical position of the current Pontiff is thrust forward as the solution to the problem. I am deeply sympathetic to Francis’s vision; however, since the Pontiff’s approach to this topic is so different than his immediate predecessors, neither of whom hesitated to make judgments about the relative value of various ideological systems, it is a surprising appeal to authority and it left me bewildered. From the article it seems that for Spadaro and Figueroa it’s ok to make direct appeals to religious authorities and employ ideological presuppositions when engaged in public life—as long as they are authorities and presuppositions with which they agree. I sat back and thought, “Well, this is going to go badly. Conservatives will feel offended and liberals will titter with glee at having their own presuppositions echoed back at them.” And over the next several days it happened exactly that way.
My brothers and sisters of fides quaerens intellectum (faith seeking understanding), please don’t let this most recent setback to productive dialogue obscure the path forward or diminish our commitment to ending the conflictual model. When engaged in dialogue with someone of a differing view don’t be afraid of conflict, shy away from disagreement, or be afraid of making judgments with respect to ideas. But, in order to avoid falling into the conflictual model, follow these simple steps: 1) make clear and manifest your own presuppositions and motivations (even though this renders you more vulnerable); 2) attempt to understand the position of the other party in terms of their hierarchy of values; 3) express your opinions in terms of your hierarchy of values; and 4) do not assign exogenous presuppositions or motivations to the other party but allow them to establish these for you. We can move forward, but we have to stop the adolescent conflictual mode of discourse. It might not produce much click-bait, enjoy the high-fives of those in our own echo chamber, or help the web stats of our blogs…but it will help us advance as one unified Body of Christ.
See here for Brian Reedy’s counterpoint to this essay.
At some point I heard it isn’t polite to discuss religion or politics at dinner. If that’s true – and boy do I hope it’s not true, because these are my two favorite topics – then you should absolutely not bring up this recent article by Antonio Spadaro, SJ and Marcelo Figueroa.
I myself found Spadaro and Figueroa’s thoughts to be insightful and thought-provoking – as the wide variety of responses their article has generated indicates – even if not the final word on the interreligious dynamics of “values voters” presently at play.
In the article, Spadaro and Figueroa posit an “ecumenism of hate” (all quotations are drawn from the article), which they say has brought together extreme wings of both the Catholic Church and Evangelical fundamentalists. The portion of the Church included in this ecumenism is called “Catholic integralism,” which is essentially the view that the state should be subordinate to the Church and, historically, opposed ideas such as popular sovereignty and separation of church and state. Although Spadaro and Figueroa fail to clearly define their terms (a big no-no when I was working on my philosophy degree!), by “Evangelical fundamentalists” they are presumably referring to Protestants, often non-denominational, who subscribe to a literal interpretation of the Bible.
This union between two seemingly disparate groups, Spadaro and Figueroa argue, has become particularly potent in U.S. politics. They point to a variety of people and events in U.S. history that have been shaped and guided by this worldview. As it stands now, this “ecumenism of hate” is marked by a few key ideas: the United States is blessed by God and is therefore good; any number of bad outside forces are attempting to corrupt this goodness; and the world is approaching a final, apocalyptic conflict between good and evil. The authors also point to some of the key political issues uniting these two groups: abortion, same-sex marriage, religious liberty, and lack of concern about climate change. As the piece continues, Spadaro and Figueroa point to several significant ways in which this union influences America’s theo-political culture.
Political-religious validation vs. political-religious motivation
This piece could be read to say that politics and religion have no business influencing each other. However, such a reading would be inaccurate, to say nothing of uncharitable. My reading of the article is that Spadaro and Figueroa argue that politics and religion have no business validating each other. As I understand Spadaro and Figueroa’s point, politics, whether individual politicians or overarching political movements, should not co-opt religious language or imagery to justify its agenda, most especially when said agenda is ultimately incompatible with that religion’s beliefs. Following the same vein of thought, religions should not turn to the political sphere to increase their power in society. Such a process of using one type of power or influence to validate the other ultimately cheapens each of them.
However, I am absolutely not about to say that religion and politics ought not influence each other. Quite the opposite. One need only look at the Civil Rights Movement, the USCCB’s calls for comprehensive immigration reform, or Jacques Maritain’s involvement of the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to see prime examples of religion providing both motivation and vocabulary to engage a political issue. The difference between these causes and the approach Spadaro and Figueroa warn against is that, while they acknowledge opposition and seek to change it, they do not strive to acquire power in order to forcibly impose their agendas. Conversely, neither do they simply engage controversial topics for the sake of supporting political forces they may see as “allies.”
Critically looking for coherence between one’s political and religious beliefs is of the utmost importance. Subordinating one to the other for the sake of gaining more power does a disservice to both.
The Absolutizing Instinct
One of the most intriguing points I find in this piece is its insight into the theological underpinnings of so-called “values voters.” Spadaro and Figueroa push these underpinnings to their natural conclusions and expose the underlying vision behind them.
As the article explains, the worldview uniting these particular wings of the Catholic Church and Evangelical fundamentalists can be described as “neo-Manichaean.” A person engaging this worldview would see everything in black and white. Any given cause, person, event, or idea is either absolutely good or absolutely evil.
Unfortunately for neo-Manichaeans, the world is not so simple.
Part of the human condition, at least in many people I have met, is an innate desire to reduce all situations to black and white, good or bad, right or wrong. William Lynch, a 20th-century Jesuit author, refers to this drive as “the absolutizing instinct.” This tendency to ignore or erase the nuances of situations, people and ideas is essentially what neo-Manichaeans do, either consciously or subconsciously.
Beyond merely being wrong, the absolutizing instinct ultimately leads those who follow it to miss out on so many of the creative tensions of our world.. Rather than taking the time to find common ground or build bridges, they declare anyone with whom they disagree, even partially, to be an enemy. Instead of recognizing the possibility of improvement in a challenging situation, they declare it irredeemable. Instead of being able to work within shades of grey, they see only themselves as “white” and everything else as “black.”
When one reduces everything to absolutely good or absolutely bad, one misses the opportunity to critically engage with the world as it actually exists. The real tragedy of this worldview is that it discourages hope and ignores the fact that we are called to cooperate with the grace God pours out on the world.
Shortcomings and Objections
Important as these insights are, this article is not a complete or exhaustive analysis of these groups’ roles in American culture and society. A few significant critiques immediately stand out to me.
Spadaro and Figueroa might be giving practitioners of the “ecumenism of hate” too much intellectual credit. I can’t help but wonder if the members of these groups have thought through, or even care about, their theological and philosophical underpinnings. Instead, perhaps they simply identify more deeply as members of their particular political party, movement, or social group than they do as members of a religion. In this case, they would be evaluating situations in light of their political commitments and then seeking to validate these political conclusions in light of their religious connections. This same critique could be made of religious people on both sides of the political spectrum. To what degree do I, do we, simply use religion to try to validate my preferred political positions? Conversely, how open am I to the challenge the Gospel offers to my political beliefs?
I understand that neither Spadaro nor Figueroa is from the U.S., but a cursory look at the recent history of religion and politics in the U.S. might offer a simpler explanation for the Catholic-Evangelical alliance than the one they offer. I can’t help but wonder if the Catholics integralists and Evangelical fundamentalists haven’t grown closer together simply because they have found themselves sharing the same political camp for several decades now. A simpler explanation of why these two groups’ worldviews have come to look increasingly similar would be that religious leaders seeking increased political influence during the initial rise of the “Moral Majority” and similar groups found a warmer welcome in the Republican Party than in the Democratic Party. Because the GOP was more willing to listen to these religious people’s concerns, the religious leaders of these movements found themselves able to exert the influence they had been seeking. As a result, any leaders from these different religious groups could find themselves sounding and acting increasingly similar after several decades of sharing political space. While this may not invalidate Spadaro and Figueroa’s points, taking the time to understand the historical origins of this alliance may lead better insight about how and why it functions in the present.
Do Spadaro and Figueroa themselves actually fall into a neo-Manichaean absolutizing instinct? In this response, Charles Camosy, a professor at Fordham University, raises the possibility that this is exactly the case. To substantiate his point, Camosy points to the “caricatures” of George W. Bush, Steve Bannon and Donald Trump included in the piece, as well as his own experience in interacting with more progressive Catholics on topics such as skepticism regarding climate change, focusing primarily on abortion in the context of other life issues, and people who voted for Trump. In each of these instances, Camosy has observed a hateful absolutizing instinct at play in attempts to criticize those who Spadaro and Figueroa would include in the “ecumenism of hate.”
I don’t think Camosy’s critique lands, at least in the context of the article he’s responding to. The only references to Bush are his own words and the observation that Osama bin Laden referred to him as a “great Crusader.” Bannon only comes up because he has incorporated some of the world views of some of the figures mentioned in the article. The references to Trump come from an observation of his diction on Twitter, a note that another of the figures discussed in the article officiated at Trump’s first wedding, and then a discussion of how an ultra-conservative Catholic blog covered his election. All of these references strike me as not so much caricatures invented by Spadaro and Figueroa but as direct quotations by the people themselves or about them by obviously extreme sources (bin Laden and Church Militant). Finally, I’m not sure how the lack of civility between liberal and conservative Catholics detracts from Spadaro and Figueroa’s observations.
However, Camosy’s objection raises a critically important question that Spadaro and Figueroa would have done well to address: how do we talk about and with those whose worldviews we find lacking or troubling? If they, or I, were to adamantly label practitioners of the ecumenism of hate as evil, stupid, or intransigent, we would be falling into the same sort of absolutism under critique in this article, to say nothing of denying the possibility of redemption lying at the heart of our faith as Christians. However, pretending that differences in worldviews are inconsequential and thus there isn’t any conflict to be had would be both dishonest and simplistic. It seems to me that the real source of dialogue, and eventual bridge building, comes not from permanently affixing labels on one another, but rather from taking the time to learn more about the other and ask why they hold the beliefs they do. This approach requires an appreciation of nuance, openness to finding points of common ground, and the ability to acknowledge differences.
Rejection of Fear
Even given these objections and shortcomings, Spadaro and Figueroa have pointed out some troubling realities of the current state of religion and politics in the United States, the most pressing of which is offered in their conclusion. This piece ends on a note that is both hopeful and challenging. Much of the ecumenism of hate seems to be driven by instilling fear in its audience. The presentation goes something like this, “X is cause disorder. Disorder is scary. Therefore X is bad. We are the opposite of X. Therefore we are good, we will combat and triumph over X, and you won’t be afraid anymore.”
In the final lines of their article Spadaro and Figueroa juxtapose the image of a border fence crowned by barbed wire with the crown of thorns atop the crucified Christ on Good Friday. Poignant those it is, much like the rest of their article, this image, again like the rest of the article, needs to be deepened and extended to fully reflect our identities as Christians. The pain, suffering, and chaos caused by both our contemporary theopolitical situation and the crucifixion can and must give way to the fear and uncertainty of Holy Saturday and the messiness of constructively engaging those with whom we disagree. Only after entering into the tomb and burying our own absolutizing instincts can we emerge into the hope and unity of Easter Sunday.