Latest from the Jesuit Post
Imagine you and I are debating the best way to slice bread. It shouldn’t be that controversial. Slicing bread is not difficult, and, even if we do disagree on how to do it, our difference should not engender moral judgments against each other. But somehow we find ourselves in a heated dispute over bread-slicing, a dispute that quickly becomes personal and contentious.
Halfway through the conversation, however, you realize that I mean something different then you do by the word “bread.” What I call bread you call income tax, and suddenly it makes sense why I keep insisting that bread requires extensive dialogue and careful analysis before we can really talk about how to cut it, and why I have become upset that you don’t see cutting bread as a crucially moral issue.
This is a silly scenario, but nothing is quite as common in our politics as the situation I am trying to illustrate. Everyday we have arguments about justice, freedom, rights, and equality, only we don’t mean the same thing by those words. Indeed, some of the words most fundamental to public discourse – like nature, politics, even the human person – just don’t connote the same meanings for us.
Perhaps one of the greatest examples of this dissonance is the word “freedom.” The word can mean virtually anything, from the freedom to do absolutely anything that doesn’t harm others, to the freedom to pursue one’s ends and purposes according to what is good for one. In such a welter of meanings, one person’s freedom can look like slavery to another.
And so it’s notable that the US bishops are kicking off their annual “Fortnight for Freedom” for religious liberty this week. Begun in 2012 to underline threats to religious freedom in the U.S and abroad, this year’s Fortnight is a bit different, as it features a renewed emphasis on the connection between religious liberty and immigration. The two issues are closely linked, the bishops argue:
National and local Catholic charitable agencies around the country have long provided services to people in need, regardless of immigration status. However, several states have passed laws that forbid what state legislatures consider “harboring” of undocumented immigrants—and what the Church considers Christian charity and pastoral care to those immigrants.
This linkage is clever. Just as religious liberty has been cast as a conservative issue, care for the immigrant and refugee has sadly been presented as a boutique concern of the Left. But the bishops’ move pushes back against such ideological boundaries. Many have argued that the bishops pay more attention to religious liberty than to immigration, and implicitly that they are in the conservatives’ pocket. But the linkage between the two issues ought to show that the bishops are not just conservatives, and that they intend to challenge both the Left and the Right. In short, linking immigration to religious liberty promises to expand our vision of religious liberty beyond conventional partisan boundaries.
But will it?
One reason to think that it will not is past experience: the US bishops have linked immigration to religious liberty before, but to little effect. Perhaps those Catholics already persuaded of the need to bolster religious liberty support that message and ignore the immigration dimension, whereas those turned off by that push won’t be drawn in by the immigration angle.
After all, American Catholics are good at cherry-picking policy statements they like from the bishops, and criticizing the bishops for those they don’t like. So politically conservative Catholics quote the bishops on a series of policies called “pro-life” issues, but then dismiss them on the economy and immigration. Politically liberal Catholics similarly endorse the bishops’ stance on a menu of topics usually called “social justice” issues, while decrying their pro-life politics. For many Catholics, in other words, it must be rather confusing, if not distressing, to see the bishops agree with them on other policy issues, but not on others.
Here we need to sit with a difficult truth: the bishops are complicated political actors. Like most intelligent people, the bishops’ political views transgress partisan divisions. And unlike most people, even intelligent ones, the bishops seek to put their faith ahead of their politics. And whereas most Americans feel completely justified in speaking on any political matter they wish, no matter their level of competence (or lack thereof) on the matter, the bishops must constantly justify their statements, explaining to often suspicious audiences why in general they teach on political and social topics, and in particular why they are addressing this or that issue at hand.
All of these factors play out in the bishops’ appeal to freedom. And this is where freedom looks a lot like our bread example.
For many on the Right, religious liberty is an essential check on government authority. But if the “freedom” of religious liberty is a freedom from government, what is it a freedom for? As the GOP has become increasingly influenced by economic libertarianism, it has in general become less preoccupied with what freedom is for: the personal character and virtues that build up families, churches and communities, and have traditionally been the concern of conservatism. It then becomes difficult to explain how the freedom from governmental authority ought to be connected to a freedom to help and serve others, notably in this case immigrants. And so for many on the Right, they applaud the bishops’ emphasis on liberty, but ask that they not be told how to make use of that liberty. The bishops’ challenge thus has to show the connection between liberty and virtue.
On the Left, freedom is profoundly moral, but in a way that is deeply ambivalent about authority and truth.1 As Robert Kraynak argues, the Left often “defends dignity with doubt”: it protects personal freedom by denying that anyone can have access to the kind of truth needed to make claims about how communities should be organized.
Because of the Left’s ambivalence toward authority, it tends to worry that public interventions of organizations like the bishops’ conference are plays for power disguised as disinterested statements of truth. For the Left, then, freedom is not normally used to bolster public bodies like the Church, but to limit them. And so for many on the Left, the bishops’ language of “freedom” will not seem to be a call for authentic liberty, but cover for a power grab. And so the bishops’ challenge is to proclaim the truth in a way that moves past such skepticism about truth and suspicion of power.
This is what the bishops are up against in so provocatively linking immigration to religious liberty. The bishops are trying to address what can at times feel like two different churches, Left and Right, in the midst of a much broader culture of secularism. Can the bishops craft a message that transcends such divisions and draws Catholics and US citizens toward common ground? And can American Catholics – and all Americans of good will – respond generously to such efforts toward finding common ground?
Image courtesy Catholic News Service.
After an exhausting 15 hour flight, all I wanted was a cold beer.
I was looking at a nine hour layover in the Middle East, and in hopes of passing the time, I sought to make friends in one of the airport’s lounges. Approaching a smiling attendant, I inquired if she had a drink list, to which she replied, “I am so sorry, sir, but it is Ramadan.”
With no explanation, she moved along, leaving me somewhat curious and with several questions. I had a limited understanding of this month for Muslims. I knew fasting was an important part of the tradition, and I knew that its observation was significant for the Muslim community. What I did not understand was why I could not order a beer.
I struck up a few conversations with some fellow patrons, asking for more clarity. One person explained that, since many consider drinking alcohol in public during the holiest month of the year highly offensive and disrespectful, alcohol is not served. In this Muslim-dominant country, most passengers in transit are faithful followers of Islam, and certain policies were adopted out of respect for those observing Ramadan.
I felt a tension… I had just gotten off this plane, dazed and disoriented from the time zone changes. But I thought the cosmopolitan, international environment of the airport would offer familiar comforts, however far I was from home.
On one hand, I had what I believed was a reasonable expectation for a weary traveller; on the other hand, I had a desire to respond respectfully to the cultural expectations of the place I was present. Responding out of sensitivity to certain cultural expectations seemed to offer a chance to break out of my bubble and recognize the realities of our multicultural world. Was drinking alcohol in public worth the display of disrespect? After conversing with my new friends and learning a little more about the policy, the invitation toward respect felt like the most natural and loving response.
Surprisingly, this mundane exchange about ordering a drink gave me an opportunity to learn more about this Abrahamic religion and its traditions. Most Muslims take the expectations of Ramadan very seriously. It is a time of fasting, prayer, community, and charity. As a traveler in transit through an international airport, growing in understanding of this religious tradition was unexpected, and it is one for which I am grateful.
As most Muslims around the world conclude Ramadan over the next few days, I hope that peace and understanding might continue to underlie our cultural encounters. And by the way, the lemon mint water was a much more refreshing option, anyway.
Image courtesy FlickrCC user Omar Chatriwala.
Four years ago while studying in Québec, I managed to celebrate my birthday without a single Bonne fête or cake. None of my classmates, instructors, or housemates knew — that is, until the next day, June 6th, when one of my classmates (whose Facebook friendship I forgot I ratified) blew my cover. Some friend. “Why didn’t you tell us it was your birthday?!” they all asked in rapid-fire French. I shrugged my shoulders, I didn’t know enough French yet to say why.
This year, I pencilled June 5th into my calendar as travel day. It had to be. It was sandwiched between the celebration of my Jesuit brothers’ June 3rd ordinations, my blood brother’s June 4th high school graduation in Wisconsin, and the June 6th-10th summer camp back in South Dakota. A birthday-travel day was the price I had to pay.
11:40pm, Sunday, June 4th: Standing in line, with a bag at my feet and a bag on my back, I watch a woman take an elegant and swooping Snapchat video of herself posing with a screen-printed shirt reading, IT’S MY BIRTHDAY, BITCH.
“Today or tomorrow?” I ask.
“Well, enjoy your last twenty minutes! Mine’s tomorrow!”
I stop in shock. I just told someone it was my birthday. What’s gotten into me?
“Honey, I celebrate my birthday all month,” she said, reaching over Greyhound’s retractable queue lines to give me a hug, “Happy birthday to you.”
I just told someone it was my birthday. What’s gotten into me?
2:40am, Monday, June 5th: I wake to the sound of air brakes, flicked lights, the voice of the driver saying, “Tomah, Wisconsin: Thirty minutes here, there’s a Burger King and a gas station, make sure you’re back on the bus at 3:10.” Blinking off the quick wake-up, my first emotion is pure and unbridled joy: I slept the whole 150 minutes. I’m not always so lucky.
2:50am, Monday, June 5th: I got a small fry, played harmonica by my favorite red maple, talked to the smokers, then slept till Eau Claire.
4:45am, Monday, June 5th: Woke up in Eau Claire. Went back to sleep just as soon as I woke up.
6:00am, Monday, June 5th: Woke somewhere between the Mississippi River and Minneapolis, rubbing my eyes to cornfields and wooded hills, standing rocks and every warm shade of red, orange and yellow in the tray. Blinking to free eyelids from eyes, mind from short dreams to this glorious sunrise and my upcoming bus transfer in Minneapolis, I checked my phone. We’re on time.
We’re on time. This is notable only for its brutal alternative: if you’re not on time, you’ll miss the connection. I exhale in relief.
6:05am, Monday, June 5th: 5 miles down the road, I check my phone after sliding my earplugs and eye cover into my backpack’s side pocket. Rivaling the before-my-alarm waking surprise to the perfect sunrise, I catch messages from Indonesia west through the Middle East, Eastern Africa and into France. I take a long scroll down my homescreen, birthday notifications chasing the sun east to west through lunch breaks on the other side of the world.
All this love and nowhere to hide. I had the next 12 hours on a bus across the expansive Great Plains: just me, my companions, and all these birthday wishes against a blank canvas.The grace poured in slowly.
6:45am, Monday, June 5th: The two curly-haired Amish children wake up, climbing the chairs in front of me, peeking and smiling as they eat their packed snacks and sing songs with their parents.
I read for most of the next two (three? four?) hours until Albert Lea, Minnesota.
The children always seemed to be smiling at me when I looked up between pages.
12:10pm, Monday, June 5th: Arrive in Sioux Falls. Depart 30 minutes later after doing absolutely nothing.
12:40pm, Monday, June 5th. After 12 hours, everyone starts to talk to each other. I trade two Kazakh college students some South Dakota indigenous-colonial history for central Asian geography lessons.
…In between reading, smiling, geography, silence, and cornfields I take texts, messages and phone calls, enjoying one of the happiest birthdays I’ve ever had. Every message and call lands with the time needed to savor it. With no other distractions, I couldn’t hide from thirty years’ worth of blessings from friends and family.
6:15pm, Monday, June 5th: Clare, Maka, and Sarah find me barefooted at the park in Rapid City. I even let them take me out to dinner before catching a ride back home to Pine Ridge, another 90 minutes away.
16 of the 24 hours of my 30th birthday on a routine Greyhound bus from Milwaukee, Wisconsin to Rapid City, South Dakota. In the days leading up to this trip, however, I spent at least this much time answering “Why the bus?”
Greyhound does not typically have a high reputation among travelers. Reviews online range from “not particularly pleasant” to “dreadful and “horrible,” employing words and phrases such as “cringe” “fee-ridden and unfriendly” “worst experience of my life” and “I hate it.” Most USA Jesuits only know Greyhound from their pilgrimage experience, which many would cite as the the most uncomfortable portion of their Jesuit formation and/or life. But with at least seven years and counting of practice in Greyhound apologetics, though, I’ve got my answer down pat.
Simply put, I like the person I become on the bus. I talk to strangers. More than just small talk. I lend money. I ask questions. I read books. I look out the window. I think long and hard. I do nothing. I go with the flow. I say yes. I get there when I get there. I tell people it’s my birthday. I let myself be loved a bit. But until this year, I’ve never gone so far as to celebrating a birthday on a Greyhound bus. And I’m glad I did. Sixteen hours lets in a lot of love.
Maybe next year, I’ll pencil June 5th in again as a travel day. But, maybe I don’t need to- maybe Greyhound really is changing me for good.
Image courtesy FlickrCC user SounderBruce.
Twenty-nine men (from the U.S., Canada and Haiti) were newly ordained to the Jesuit priesthood. Some of the U.S. Jesuits were caught on video taking a moment the day of their ordination to thank their fathers for making them the men they are today. This is “Father 2 Father.”
Happy Father’s Day 2017!
The Jesuit Post
Plus, make sure to read Br. Ken Homan, SJ’s piece “You’re Just Like Your Dad.”
And if you’re interested in the stories of the 29 courageous men who were just ordained to the Jesuit priesthood this summer, check out: http://jesuits.org/story?TN=PROJECT-20170530114732
Special Thanks to the Interviewees (in order of appearance):
Fr. Ryan Rallanka, SJ
Fr. Phillip Sutherland, SJ
Fr. Marcus Fryer, SJ
Fr. Stephen Pitts, SJ
Video Collaboratively Recorded By:
Perry Petrich, SJ
Tucker Redding, SJ
Michael Tedone, SJ
Edited by: Michael Martinez, SJ
Music Credit: Hit the Floor (2016) by Bob Bradley (PRS) / Matt Parker (PRS) / Steve Dymond (PRS); Licensed by Audio Network Limited
I knelt in the front pew, watching the rest of the congregation pass by to receive Communion. I had spent a majority of the Mass quietly crying off-and-on. As my dad walked by, he smiled and warmly patted me on the cheek, tears running down his own face. I felt as if the love would explode out of me. That moment at the Mass of my first vows as a Jesuit brother, with the touch of my dad’s hand against my face, felt like my own version of The Creation of Adam from the Sistine Chapel.
Dad and I have always been incredibly close, and I resemble him in many ways. We have the exact same laugh, tell awful jokes, and feel great pride in our handiwork. But of all the things Dad has taught me, his best lessons have been on love and a healthy masculinity.
I have a great deal of vivid memories of Dad. When I was younger and folks asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I always answered “a dad.” That’s because he did such a great job of teaching me how to be a man. He taught me how to pick out dress clothes, appreciate a good craft beer, and choose flowers for a date.
Most importantly, however, Dad taught me that masculinity is not defined by characteristics like clothing, dining, or dating. Masculinity cannot be reduced to a machismo attitude: “be a man!” Too often, masculinity is rooted in a dangerous male ego, fragility, and dominance. This type of masculinity acts as a reflection of community and social structures.
But Dad taught me a different kind of masculinity: one that must always be rooted in a selfless and generous love. This same love must be willing to break down the power and oppression so regularly found in masculinity. All of the characteristics and actions – wearing a suit, drinking a craft beer, picking out flowers – were simply venues for Dad to instruct me in respect, creativity, and thoughtfulness. He took what are often tools of oppression and transformed them into opportunities for change and goodness. He continues to do so.
As I reflect on Father’s Day and the importance of Dad in my life, I am struck by the immense amount of love he has poured into the world. Whether it was telling me a corny joke or showing me how to cut a straight line with a circular saw, Dad has taught me by example how to live a masculinity rooted in loving generosity.
And Dad has taught me that this love comes with a responsibility. My responsibility as a man, in honor of my own dad, is to promote a healthy masculinity rooted in love while challenging a false masculinity of oppression and domination. I reflect on this responsibility daily in my job as a teacher and coach at an all-male school and in my vocation as a member of an all-male religious order. My dad’s example calls me to form young men in a healthy masculinity and work against systems of domination and oppression. I want to set an example of others in the way that my dad set an example for me.
To the dad who used power tools, puns, and tears of joy to teach me about love and masculinity, Happy Father’s Day.
Picture courtesy of author.
You probably have not heard of Tim Farron. To be honest, I’d never heard of him either, until this week when he resigned as head of the UK’s Liberal Democrats after his party received only 12% of the vote and 12 seats in the recent general election. For any party leader, that’s not good enough and most would quit after a result that miserable.
That’s not why he resigned, though. Farron decided to quit because he felt he could not continue in his present job and still live as a faithful Christian. He realized that his faith and his job were simply incompatible.
Farron, who is Evangelical, said that, “From the very first day of my leadership, I have faced questions about my Christian faith. I’ve tried to answer with grace and patience… At the start of this election, I found myself under scrutiny again – asked about matters to do with my faith. I felt guilty that this focus was distracting attention from our campaign, obscuring our message.” In the end, Farron decided to resign, concluding that “to be a political leader – especially of a progressive, liberal party in 2017 – and to live as a committed Christian, to hold faithfully to the Bible’s teaching, has felt impossible for me.”
A politician blaming the media for his troubles is not striking an original note. At the same time, the Lib Dems’ campaign was hampered by consistent media questioning of Farron’s personal beliefs, rather than of his party’s proposals. Specifically, Farron was asked repeatedly if he considered abortion and same sex marriage sinful, even though he and his party affirmed the current laws allowing both and that he personally regarded neither as sinful. Rather than talking about Brexit, the economy, or the NHS, Farron was expected to be a moral theologian and was held up to scrutiny for his private beliefs rather than his policy proposals. It is worth noting that neither Theresa May, who is a practicing Anglican, nor Jeremy Corbyn, who is agnostic, were asked such questions, let alone with any kind of frequency.
While he admitted that “a better, wiser person than me may have been able to deal with this more successfully, Farron expressed frustration that, despite a long period in public life and a long record to stand by, there seemed to be a presumption against him due to his religious affiliation that prevented him from making his voice heard and from balancing his duties as a believing Christian and as a political leader.
Farron is speaking not just of electoral difficulties but personal difficulties: how could he go on as a leader of his party and advocate for their policies when people’s opinion of his faith, which by his own admission is central to his life, prevents him from doing that task effectively? His belief – that in a liberal society, people could disagree about their personal beliefs so long as the rights and liberties of persons were affirmed and preserved – did not seem to hold with many. In the end, he found no other solution and so resigned.
It may be hard to see what this has to do with any of us. Most of us are not, nor ever will be, leaders of political parties and I suspect many of us will never have to face the sort of public scrutiny that Farron experienced over his beliefs. Yet Farron’s dilemma is different from us only in degree and not in kind. We do, after all have to live within a diverse society that compels us to live together with a certain degree of tolerance, even amidst the complications of life in our social and political moment. Every one of us is called to be a part of our particular platoon of society. In a diverse and pluralistic society, that puts us in contact every day with people who may find our beliefs on any number of subjects annoying, distasteful, and even downright abhorrent. Those people may be those closest to us.
If people cannot accept Farron’s argument that so long as we respects the basic rights of others our personal beliefs are just that, then the challenge of living in community with people who may find our simplest and sincerest beliefs genuinely uncomfortable and even threatening may be too much to bear. Family, friends, and acquaintances may be confused by what we say and what we may think about public issues. They may wonder why we believe this or that about a certain news item. They may gasp at the candidates for whom we vote. They may be indignant or even hurt at our take upon the major social questions of our time. We can be judged and found wanting, as Farron seemed to be, based on a presumption. Many of us, I think, struggle with that tension and can be convinced that it is better to play things closer to the vest and reveal as little as possible. I struggle with this temptation every week.
Confronting the awkward possibility of disagreeing with or even offending those around us for our sincere beliefs, we may feel the simple pull to disengage and to withdraw into our own bubbles. We can leave the questions of society to those who can more comfortably inhabit that tension or those who do not experience it all. We may feel safest in keeping to ourselves and hope that nobody expects much out of us.
Or, we might choose to be confrontational, demanding that what we believe must be accepted by everyone around us simply because we believe them. The legitimate opinions and feelings of others must take second place to the assertion of our own truth. We may say that true diversity will never work, so it will be better to carve up territory for our particular tribe.
And yet, there can’t be genuine encounter when these are our responses. They may be perfectly reasonable response, but those are not the lives to which Christians are called and is no path to peace in a diverse society for anyone, Christian or not. So, rather than shrink away from tension or rush towards it, we may have to admit that the Holy Spirit is calling us to live within that discomforting tension, admitting we may not have all the answers but remaining sincere in our convictions all the same. For Tim Farron, resigning as leader of his political party freed him from an unnecessary and unhelpful tensions that impacted how he could be a better disciple of Christ and a decent public servant and I admire him for doing so.
But what does that mean for the rest of us? We cannot resign from the responsibility to listen to others, to be faithful, to be hopeful, and to be loving.
Perhaps the solution is for us to admit to each other that we are flawed people, trying as best we can to make sense of our world, and that we are never bearers of perfectly integrated, perfectly rational, and perfectly acceptable systems of understanding the world, as much as we would like to think we do or as much as other people expect us to. That admission might free us to take ourselves a bit less seriously and to love others much more completely.
That won’t make the tension dissipate. It might not solve all our problems, either. But it might keep us lovingly engaged when we want to run away or draw our swords.
Image courtesy FlickrCC user Liberal Democrats.
He’s standing at the corner of 50th and Main waiting for the Rodriguez brothers, tight friends from his hood. As he watches cars pass by he tugs at the cuffs of his black leather coat and smiles – definitely a better choice than the gold coat he usually wears. He swipes the tip of his black leather boots, admiring their shine. And his Sansabelt pants are pressed with creases so sharp they’d cut glass.
With a comb in one hand and a slick move from the other, he smooths back his thick black hair, accentuating a clean-shaven bronze face. He dons a blue Italian knit shirt opened to his chest. And the sweet smell of Aramis underscores it all. He knows, he’s looo-king goooood!
It’s 1974. This 25-year-old man will join his gang at the nightclub they frequent. They call themselves the Midnighters. Their name alone gives the impression that they’d mix in a West Side Story dance battle against the Jets. But with their record of violence, court appearances, and prison sentences, the Midnighters are anything but choreographed dancers. They are intimidating and loud Mexican-Americans from Kansas City’s west side. And the presence of the Midnighters at this nightclub, located in a predominantly white area of town, is alarming.
Though the night has yet to begin, this man knows how it could end: in a fight, arrested, or with a lady on his arm. Little does he know, tonight on his lone walk home he’ll notice an abandoned book on the ground. He will recover the book and read the cover as if he’d never read words before, “The Good. News. Bible.”
This man’s name is Manuel. And he is my father.
I’m talking to my dad at the dining room table of his one bedroom apartment. He’s drinking his usual ice tea in a green cup, wrapped in a paper towel to catch the condensation.
“I still have that Bible I found all those years ago. And I never replaced it. Why replace it when it reads the same now as it did then?” My dad laughs at his little joke. “No, but really, that was the beginning of my life with the Lord. It took me some time to catch on. The Lord isn’t always attractive next to hanging out on the corner with your buddies. But I read that Bible from cover to cover regardless. And you know what? It was interesting! I thought to myself, hey, these Bible people are like me, always making mistakes. It took me a little bit, but I’m glad I read the Bible because it got me thinking differently. Life is worth more with God in it. And you know, some of the guys I ran around with are still banging. In their 60’s! Back in my day there were OG’s who taught you how to live the life. We looked up to them, we wanted to be like them. Some of my old buddies are OG’s now. The others, if they’re still alive, look old! They lived hard lives and you can see it in their face. But, as for me, I tell you, when the Lord wants to come into your life he doesn’t want anything else but you, and he doesn’t let go.”
If God was Kool Aid, then my dad was drinking it in gallons. His conversion moved him from street to pew. And in the 1980’s he became deeply involved with his faith through eucharistic ministry, prayer groups, and the charismatic renewal of the Catholic Church in Kansas City.
Last week I was back in Kansas City. My dad and I were killing time before a movie. Knowing my dad likes to read the Bible, I pulled out my phone and read aloud the first scripture reading for the day. Instantly my dad said, “Okay, what is God saying to us?” And with that simple question I discovered how my dad prays. My dad – the epitome of machismo at 25, the guy who could get any woman he wanted, the guy who wasn’t afraid to punch his way out of anything. The guy who, for some unknown reason, picked up a Bible and changed his life. The guy now, at 68, who continues to mourn the loss of his beloved wife. Who took a plane for the first time last month to see his son graduate with a Master’s degree, who always wants to give me money, even when he doesn’t have it.
Though the expression of my dad’s faith has changed over the years, he remains faithful to his nightly prayers. He goes up to his room, rests himself on his bed, opens the very same Good News Bible he found all those years ago, and prays. And then he thanks God for the opportunity to sit with him. It’s a simple prayer, but it’s the prayer of my father.
The new Broadway musical, Dear Evan Hanson, deservedly snatched up six Tony Awards on Sunday night, including best new musical, best score, best actor and best featured actress. Evan, the show’s lead character, is a socially awkward high school student who doesn’t fit in anywhere. Following the suicide of a schoolmate who bullies him, he get tangles in web of lies which spreads beyond his control over social media over a letter that he wrote, which was never never meant to be seen. How is it that a story about a liar wins over the hearts of audiences and critics for such a sweeping victory? We rarely have sympathy for deceivers, as Stephen Colbert pointed out during the award ceremony, about the “production” happening in Washington D.C., with its unbelievable character who has bad hair and makeup.
Evan has no friends and his hardworking, single mother struggles to be present with to him. He hates social interactions, he tells his mom that he doesn’t even like ordering pizza because he has to have a face to face encounter with the delivery person. Evan is brought to life by Ben Platt, and through his marvelous performance, Evan’s fears, insecurities and anxiety are completely palpable. There are moments in the musical where you should look away from him–what’s going on is too painful to behold–but because his performance is so gripping you simply can’t.
Right from the beginning, we know Evan is a misfit and he is in therapy. He’s not happy with the state of his life. He knows that he goes unnoticed, and he feels invisible to the world around him. Believing that he lives in complete isolation he sings a heart wrenching:
On the outside, always looking in
Will I ever be more than I’ve alway been?
‘Cause I’m tap, tap, tapping on the glass
I’m waving through a window
As an exercise to boost his self confidence, Evan’s therapist asked him to write a letter to himself that begins:
“Dear Evan Hansen,
Today is going to be a great day and here’s why…”
Evan reluctantly completes this task which mentions a girl he’s smitten over. A bully, Connor Murphy, is another teenager who has no friends. He intercepts the letter in the school’s computer lab and is angered because the girl Evan writes about is Connor’s sister. Later that night Connor commits suicide and his parent’s discover the “Dear Evan Hansen” letter on his person. His parent think that it’s suicide letter written by Connor to Evan. Evan sees how devastated Connor’s family is, and they are especially grievous because they believe their son died friendless. Evan doesn’t have the heart to tell Connor’s parents that Connor was no friend to him at all, he allows them to believe that they were friends makes up details about their friendship out of compassion and goodwill.
Because of these lies, Connor’s family takes a liking to Evan and he’s welcomed into to the family as the good son they never had. Being a part of a good family helps him get over his social anxiety and we learn that he no longer needs his prescription medication. One lie leads to another, and another, and another until the truth comes out, yet we never feel a scrap of disdain for this well-intentioned liar. With his lies, he’s managed to comfort a grieving family. And we totally understand why he does he does it and we don’t judge him for it. This song of lament, “Words Fail” is an eruption of everything that our dear Evan Hansen had pent up in him all along.
While it might seem that this show may disregard the immorality of lying and maybe even promote it, it is in his lying that he ultimately finds who he truly is, gets over his awkwardness and completely accepts himself as enough. It is true that we grow from our brokenness and we learn from our mistakes. These are good things that come out of the bad things on life. Still, the show in no way presents lies as a long-term solution. They cannot be sustained forever, and we watch Evan carry the burden of lies as it eats away at him. His lies drew him closer to people, but it also began to alienate the people he got close to as he continually lied.
People lie out of desperation, and Evan is a character who, frankly, is desperate. He wanted to be found and he wanted to matter so much, that he lied to get what he wanted and it only made matters worse. Dear Evan Hansen, doesn’t promote lying. In demonstrating lies and their consequences in the extreme, what it actually shows is how desperation can drive us to do some crazy things. And seeing what lengths a person–in this case a particularly likable one– will go to comfort others and themselves, we can’t but feel compassion and mercy for the desperate people around us. More importantly, it points to our need to be included and hopefully, it makes us less blind to search out those who need to be found as the song “You Will Be Found” suggests.
It’s the skirt and costume that get me.
See, I want to believe… I desperately want to believe that Wonder Woman (WW) empowers women. I want to believe that she inspires women, showing that they are truly powerful, independent, and heroes. I want to believe that Wonder Woman is not simply a female superhero, but a character who communicates womanhood with all of its complexity, challenges, and possibility.
She certainly has the qualifications. She is as strong as Superman, nearly as fast as the Flash, and as smart as Batman. Wonder Woman is royalty, possessing the poise and power to command. She holds weapons of a different sort, including lasso which wields truth itself. She comes from a world separate; instead of being tied to a nationalist movement, she offers insights into humanity. She moves beyond the values of “truth, justice, and the American Way,” often encapsulating a sort of utopian hope in a perfect world—a world in which people are inherently good and capable of more than even they can image. Wonder Woman, at her core, is a better hero than any of her male counterparts. And, let’s be honest here, she was the only thing saving the Batman VS. Superman movie…
But then, I see the skirt and the costume. At which point, my eyebrow lifts and inevitably think something like, “Yeah… Pro-woman? Right. Sure…” Wonder Woman holds the potential to be pro-woman, but so often seems tied down with the tropes of her male counterparts, or subverted with anti-woman imagery and characterization. If only she were set free to be fully (Wonder) woman.
I’m torn, but that tension is exactly the tension in which Wonder Woman exists and was born.
An Origin Stranger Than a Long-Lost Amazonian Island:
Wonder Woman’s comic book origin begins from somewhere strange—an island far removed and alien—but her actual origin is nearly as fantastic. On the surface, she was born in response to the negative attention and critiques of comic books like Batman and Superman. But deeper, she was born from the first wave of feminism and from an author with his own agenda.
Comic books may have appeared before WWII, but they gained wide popularity in the immediate context of the war. Superman, Batman, Captain America all appear during this time. With their rise though, critics quickly began to express their concern over: the ‘super’ nature of these characters, the vigilante justice, the violence, the overt masculinity and sexism, and even the horrors of the villains. As strange as it sounds today, there were groups and associations founded to “protect the youth” from these dangerous things. And then, Wonder Woman came to save the day! Sort of.
William Moulton Marston created the character of Wonder Woman as a response to the negative criticism, but also to promote his own quasi-feminist agenda. Marston’s background was bizarre; he earned a law degree and a PhD in psychology from Harvard. He worked his way through school writing screenplays for silent movies, but failed to later hold a job in Hollywood. He also considered himself a psychological researcher, and he possibly has a claim to creating one of the earliest “lie detector” tests—which maybe was the inspiration for Wonder Woman’s Lasso of Truth.1 He worked for army intelligence during WWI, and he taught at various universities though promoting his research and theories always came first. Marston’s experiences weave into the character of WW, making her likely the only superhero born from scholarship and academia.
But even more interesting than his background, Marston was an avid feminist, sort of. He was immersed in the front lines of the women’s suffrage movement. His mistress was the niece of Margaret Sanger. He even advocated for a “free love” type of existence long before the second wave began in the 1960s. In fact, Jill Lepore’s biography, The Secret History of Wonder Woman, argues that Wonder Woman could be a bridge between first and second wave feminism. WW presents a continuity moving from the suffrage & rights of the first to the power & independence of the second. Marston himself claims that Wonder Woman was meant as a vision for the future of women:
Frankly, Wonder Woman is psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who should, I believe, rule the world. –William Moulton Marston, March 1943.2
All of this is to say that Marston wrote WW intentionally to promote his vision of empowered women.
This history might lead me to believe that Wonder Woman was in fact pro-woman, but I’m still torn—Marston and Wonder Woman are much more complicated. Marston’s personal history, particularly his love life, is strange. He lived in a semi-polyamorous relationship with two wives who may or may not have had a romantic relationship with one another. One wife had a career, and the other raised the four children. Additionally, his experiments—which were based on theories he attempted to promote within the Wonder Woman comics—were highly sensual in nature and, quite frankly, often just odd and weird. His theories of submission creep into Wonder Woman depicting WW often chained or being subjugated, for which he and the early comics received quite a bit of criticism.
But again, the costume? Well, here again my head tilts, and I simply can’t say that it’s pro-woman. Marston designed WW’s costume specifically after the “Vargas girls”3 which appeared in Esquire. It objectifies the female body more than empower the woman, and it seems that the artwork was more for male viewership than for female empowerment or liberation.
But, Marston did create a different sort of superhero with Wonder Woman. She is much more compassionate and caring as a hero. She often finds her agenda or mission in assisting women, children, and the vulnerable. WW was less violent than her contemporary male counterparts, and she is much more optimistic and hopeful concerning humanity. Also, many of her plots take place on a college campus—often promoting women’s higher education. She is simply better than her counterpart superheros—that is of course, when she is left to be Wonder Woman rather bottled for male consumption. What Marston did right was to construct her differently than her male counterparts—she much more than just a female superhero. What he did wrong, at times, was to tailor her and her feminism too much for men, undercutting her power as a woman. Marston wasn’t alone in this failing.
Marston died only a few years after creating Wonder Woman. While his wife volunteered to continue the WW comics—rightly claiming that she understood the woman and character—Wonder Women was handed over to the control of men. Marston’s legacy, his version of Wonder Woman as a better hero, quickly faded away. She simply became a female version of Superman: just as violent, less compassionate, less unique. There was even a bit of time during the “Diana Prince years” where Wonder Woman lost all her powers and became a secretary and a wife. Her role in those comics: to promote a domestic ideal of a woman.
Wonder Woman’s history struggles with the tension between being Pro- or Anti- woman. At her best, she empowers; at her worst, she undercuts. But, where does the newest incarnation of Wonder Woman fall in the Pro- vs. Anti- debate?
Wonder Woman: A Different, Better Hero:
I’m no stranger to superheroes and superhero movies, and, frankly, Wonder Woman is my favorite movie and hero. Gal Godot’s WW is an empowered woman, whom I admire much more than Superman or Batman. She not only represents a better superhero, but she represents a different sort of character than what we usually see in superheroes.
The movie opens with Wonder Woman walking into the Louvre in Paris. Gal Godot’s WW is elegant in nearly every way, but further she’s obviously brilliant. Seeing her in the Louvre, the viewer must assume that she is at the top of her field—and the ornamentation of her office confirms it. Our first view of WW is of a woman, radiant, graceful, and academic.
Wonder Woman’s costume still reveals, but does so differently. As opposed to the Vargas Girls or pin-ups, this costume mirrors the uniforms of ancient Greek warriors. In a scene wherein Wonder Woman must choose a “plain clothes” costume in order to blend into the world, she obviously favors some combination of beauty and practicality. She tears a dress, asking “how do you fight in this?” What she eventually chooses not only highlights Godot’s beauty, but it allows for her movement and even allows her the ability to hide her weapons and WW costume below. What’s notable about the scene is that the choice of uniform rests completely with WW. What does she does with that choice? She chooses her own balance of elegance and power, rather than allowing someone to dictate it for her.
Gadot’s character possesses a sort of naivety and innocence. Instead of this being off putting, it demonstrates a conviction simply better than other heroes. Wonder Woman in the movie believes that all people are naturally good. Her view of humanity even drives the plot where she believes that if she simply defeats Ares all will be well—humans will return to a utopian world of love. Naïve? No—magnificent. Her interactions with Steve Trevor (her love interest played by Chris Pine) reveal her idealized love; she holds a hope which heroes and even humans have lost. She believes in humans. She, in fact, rejoices in them and celebrates them. Further, of all the superheroes, she seems genuinely to love them.
We see this love in two powerful scenes in the movie. In one, as she and Steve make travel arrangements, they meet wounded soldiers from the front of WWI. Wonder Woman is noticeably disturbed by the suffering and the pain. Unlike other (male) superheroes who turn this into a sort rage and revenge motivation, she openly reflects at the horror of it all. Godot’s performance communicates compassion and care in ways we do not see in Batman or Superman. It’s not a “feminine” moment though—as in, this isn’t simply a stereotyped emotional response—but her response is “better” than her peer heroes. Unlike the others who hold themselves separate, she encounters the pain, suffering, and reality of people.
That genuine encounter drives Wonder Woman with an ideological certitude: she knows and feels what’s right. She chastises the commanders of the British in WWI claiming they have no courage or understanding. When she meets a refugee in a trench, she immediately crosses the no-man’s land to save the woman’s village. Where jaded Batman would subvert the system and work in the shadows to fix the problem….where alien Superman would be the messiah offering a model for humans to immolate… Wonder Woman instead encounters and empowers the people to see the truth and to love.
Gadot’s Wonder Woman represents the best of us, not simply the best of women or the best of superheroes. She loves, she hopes, and she acts with those traits as her motivation.
Which leads me to the question: Is Wonder Woman Pro- or Anti- Woman?
Certainly, Wonder Woman has a complicated origin. She was written to be a different sort of hero, but has often existed in a tension. While she could empower women and humanity, many of her incarnations either undercut women’s empowerment or lack any distinction from their male counterparts. Thankfully, Wonder Woman succeeds where her predecessors have failed. The women behind the Wonder Woman movie deserve recognition: Director Patty Jenkins’s for her leadership and insight, and Gal Gadot for her depiction of interwoven grace, beauty, power, and compassion.
Maybe, finally, Wonder Woman has been freed to be Wonder Woman. At last she’s free to be more than simply a female hero. At last she’s free to show us a better hero. At last, WW is free to show the power of woman—representing the best not just of women but of all humanity.
Is devotion to the Virgin Mary an unsafe path?
If your answer to that question is yes, don’t worry: so is mine. I know this from experience.
It all started when I was 21 years old and doing a year of full-time retreat youth ministry. It was a year that changed everything for me because I was surrounded by peers who were authentic and fully alive. We shared daily contact with God in prayer, which sparked in me a curiosity about Jesus and what it would be like to have an intimate relationship with him. I wouldn’t have been able to describe it this way back then, but I wanted to follow Jesus. A path was opening before me like a shady trail that leads around a bend: you can see just enough to make you curious about where it leads, but not enough to predict where the trail will lead you. I was looking down the path and, like Jesus’ first disciples, hearing him say “come and see,” (John 1:39). I sensed that around the bend there was something mysterious and special waiting for me. In short, I was beginning to believe that following Jesus was the way to address the desires for love and wholeness that were being stirred up in me.
Despite this blossoming curiosity, I was also intimidated by the potential difficulties that I feared were around the bend. Because of my distorted image of God and sense of inadequacy, I was afraid that I would be exposed as a fraud if Jesus demanded too much of me. I was also afraid that I would come to a fork in the road, one leading toward happiness and the other toward Jesus. I think part of my intuition was correct: following Jesus is not easy or safe. This is something Mary knows a little bit about.
If you are like me, then you often forget what Mary hazarded by agreeing to bear Jesus. She risked alienating her fiancée, being stoned death, and lifelong stigma for apparently being pregnant out of wedlock. She endured an arduous trip in the late stages of pregnancy and gave birth in the unsanitary conditions of a stable; not to mention a king was hell-bent on murdering her infant son, forcing her and Joseph into exile. And let’s not forget about her having to witness the horrific torture and execution of Jesus as an adult. Mary is no stranger to the difficulties of following Jesus.
Toward the end of that year, several of my peers were introduced to Marian devotion and they were eager to share it with the rest of us. This approach to Marian devotion emphasizes entrustment. This means that we entrust ourselves to Mary the same way that God the Father entrusted Jesus to Mary. Jesus, as son, depended on Mary for everything, that’s why we follow his example when we depend on Mary as her spiritual children. Devotion to Mary is like devotion to your own mother or mother figure who mentors and nurtures you: you can entrust yourself to her similarly to the way you trust and entrust yourself to the maternal figure in your life.
A trusting relationship was exactly what I needed. In fact, I don’t think I would have been able to give myself over to following Jesus without Mary as my “in”. Despite the apparent dangers, I trusted that she, as my mother, would protect me and be understanding of my weakness and fear; after all, she, more than most, knows the challenges of following Jesus. I was more confident with her as my companion on the path because, out of the abundance of her own experience, I trusted she would help guide me. Also, I came to believe that by entrusting myself to her I was just following Jesus’ example.
It was my trust in Mary’s motherly care that gave me the courage to start on the path. But my intuition was correct, it’s not been a safe journey. I haven’t had to face physical danger or social exclusion like her, but I am facing my sense of inadequacy, particularly in my Jesuit vocation. I fear that I don’t have what it takes to follow Jesus as a Jesuit. Despite how calm and capable I may appear on the outside, I fear that sooner or later people will see the real me, the disappointment. I’m being formed to be a public leader in the Church, yet, on the inside, I’m crumbling from insecurity.
Often to my surprise, my insecurities have assisted me in my vocation to walk the path with people who feel like their life is falling apart, like the man in the ER suffering from a panic attack. Through tears and trembling voice, he lamented being reduced to this state after feeling “invincible” in his youth. There was no room in me to judge him. I could easily see myself on that table, feeling like everything that held my world together was disintegrating before me. I felt a deep empathy for him that I don’t think would have been possible without my personal struggle. Like that man, my absolute emotional vulnerability has cracked me open. This openness has allowed me to see Jesus’ desires for me.
On the path I’m discovering that Jesus actually wants me to be happy. He knows me inside and out, including my insecurities. And he doesn’t find me a disappointment, even in my weakness. In fact, his heart is bursting with life for me in the areas that I’m weak – because it’s especially there that I need his love.
Indeed, devotion to Mary is not safe. She wants us to follow Christ, whose path is the way of suffering and death of the cross. But the cross is also a path, mysteriously leading to a life where Christ gives us the fullness of his joy (John 15:11). With Mary as your spiritual mother, I invite you to “come and see” what Jesus has in store for you on the path that follows after him.
Image courtesy FlickrCC user Emil Manolov.
The slow, gentle back and forth creaking of the rocking chair is the only thing to break the silence. While the air is hot, humid, thick and unmoving, I cannot help but feel at home. The chair and I sit on a second-floor balcony of the retreat house. There, the giant oak branches seem to embrace the balcony, the chair, and me.
The oak trees in Grand Coteau are reason enough to visit the small, quiet town. There isn’t much else there: an old parish, a few shops, a few houses… The town’s two biggest fixtures are the Jesuit college—long-ago converted into a retreat center—and the Academy of the Sacred Heart. Both are old, nearly as old as the giant oaks which decorate the landscape.
As I sit in the chair rocking back and forth, I think about how much I’ve missed this place. I’ve missed the people, the oaks, and even the unhurried rhythm.
A slight breeze gentle rattles the leaves of the oaks—it sounds not unlike the waves of the ocean. Looking at the oak branches settling back into stillness, I smile. I had forgotten how often I come back here.
Late in the summer of 2012, I had been hired to teach at the Academy of the Sacred Heart. Less than a month till classes began, and I had to write my course plan for the entire year.
I was starting from scratch. Instead of the former teacher’s records, I had a wall of wooden cabinets nearly six feet in height and fifteen feel long; they were stuffed, packed, and crammed with papers and books. While I had a beautiful, multi-colored diagram of my proposed curriculum filling the entirety of my whiteboard—which made it seem like I had it all under control—I had absolutely no idea what I was doing.
One afternoon before the start of the semester, I was attempting to make my way through the cabinets. It was a slow-moving process, so I was happy to get a call from a friend. As we wrapped up the conversation, he paused for a moment:
“Wait… Colt, so you’re going to be teaching at the Academy of the Sacred Heart.”
“The uh, the all-girls school? In Grand Coteau?”
“Yep. Is there another?”
“All-girls. Colt… They are going to kill you. You won’t stand a chance…”
I cut him off, “Listen, I’m sure it’ll be just fine. Relax.”
But then, I stopped.
At that moment, I had opened an old wooden cabinet which had been stuck. With a grinding scrape the door swung open. I was staring eye-level with a jar. It had to have held two or three gallons of clear liquid. Written on the side of the jar, “HOLY WATER,” and then underlined several times, “Just in Case.”
My mind started racing: Why would anyone need that much Holy Water? Sheesh, that’s enough for an exorcism or something. Wait, am I going to need this? Oh my God. I’m going to die… I promptly shut the cabinet door and went home for the day.
My classroom was on the third floor of the old building, beautiful in its grandeur and age. I had access to a balcony which overlooked a courtyard and long row of ancient oaks, a row which connects the Academy of the Sacred Heart to the old Jesuit college just out of sight.
Most mornings I would arrive early. I would trudge to the second-floor teacher’s lounge, clean out the pot of coffee, and start a new batch. While the coffee brewed, I would walk upstairs to my classroom, set down my bag, arrange handouts for that day, and update the homework board. I’d then grab a cup of coffee and return to the balcony.
Often leaning on the wrought iron railing, I’d sip my coffee and savor the joy of being there. A joy unexpected and overwhelming.
Before me, no matter the chaos of the day—or the grading, which at one point I measured in inches of stacked paper—before me would stand the beautiful sweeping arms of the old oak trees. In the early morning midst, they seemed solid and immovable—always there for me.
It turns out that I didn’t die at the Academy. They didn’t kill me. And despite how nervous I was, that year with the girls was simply wonderful. I often go back to that jar and laugh: maybe things which seem scary at first can in fact be absolutely beautiful.
As for the oak trees, they still remain. It’s been a few years since I taught at the Sacred Heart, and there’s not often reason for me to visit sleepy Grand Coteau. This past week though, under the outstretched branches of the oaks which create a natural arch, dressed all in white, the girls—my girls—graduated.
The heat, the threat of rain, and the long drive couldn’t keep me from coming back to Grand Coteau to see them. Truth be told, I don’t visit often—I only taught at the Sacred Heart for a single year.
Yet, as I sit in the rocking chair gently listening to the stillness of the trees, I realize how often I come back to the memories and treasures that occurred amid these oaks.
The cover image is a photo taken by the author.
On Sunday 50,000 people left the security of their homes to gather in Manchester, United Kingdom. They mourned the deaths of their recently massacred friends, weeping and singing in the streets of the very city where the horror had taken place days before. There were threats of more attacks. People came nonetheless. Leaders took turns offering spoken messages of consolation, and everyone looked on in amazement. Participants testified that the event brought healing and new life. The crowd was diverse. There were travelers from numerous nations. They may not have shared a common language, but they witnessed to a single message loud and clear: love always wins.
The June 4 Ariana Grande Benefit Concert bears many of the marks of the birth of the early church. Both are stories of people who witness brutal deaths but soon find the courage to proclaim the victory of life and love over fear and death. Both are stories of people who gather from different nations to hear a transformative message of hope in the wake of tragedy. More to the point, like the early apostles, the performers and attendees of the Manchester concert claim two basic beliefs: (1) death is not the end and, therefore, (2) we should have the courage to stand for mercy and peace even when it puts us in great danger.
Concertgoers took comfort in the reality that the victims were now “angels” in heaven, as numerous signs attested. The powers and principalities of terrorism brought about the death of their bodies, but their souls remain unscathed. From above, the victims can hear the cries of love ascending to them from the crowds. They can see every gesture of solidarity. Justin Bieber preached movingly, “God is good in the midst of the evil… He loves you, and he is here for you. I just want to take this moment to honor the people that were taken. We love you so much… Put both hands up to honor those people right now.” Tens of thousands of hands darted into the air, and voices shouted in unison, “We love you.”
These words were not the product of empty optimism but rather the fruit of steadfast hope. This hope brought them out into the open where enemies could strike again. This hope cut through the probability of more danger to come–another attack did take place within 24 hours of the concert. This hope resembles the hope of the early Christians, who risked everything to honor Christ, a victim of terror whose life did not end in death.
It was the Spirit who gave the apostles the courage to proclaim the victory of mercy, and I believe this same Spirit was moving in the hearts of those who gathered in Manchester. Ariana Grande’s personal Twitter message is prophetically Christ-like: “Our response to this violence must be…to love more, to sing louder and to live more kindly and generously than we did before.” The singer feels deep, lasting pain for which she cannot find words, but she maintains that the only way to proceed is radical mercy and generosity.
She does so in contrast to some who see the attack as an opportunity to act out of fear. President Trump tweeted in response to the recent attacks, “We need to be smart, vigilant and tough. We need the courts to give us back our rights. We need the Travel Ban as an extra level of safety!” In choosing fear over courage, he’s acting out of desperation rather than hope. He turns away from the Pentecostal gifts of faith, hope and love. Ariana Grande and her benefit concert send a message that contradicts this ideology of fear. Instead, she echoes Christ and the early Christians, who would rather convert the terror-inspiring Roman Empire through love and martyrdom than through weapons of war or the safety of isolationism.
Ariana, Justin, and all the concertgoers–you are brave. You haven’t let fear of violence stand in the way of your call to holiness. You haven’t cowered behind the artifice of “national security.” You’ve turned the other cheek when you might have lashed out in anger. You’ve told us it’s time to be like Christ and his disciples. It’s time to let the power of the Holy Spirit into the world once more.
James’s life has been difficult, to say the least. In and out of foster care, he entered the prison system at a young age. Now in his forties, he has kidney failure and lives at the hospital nursing home – a subpar facility that somehow makes prison seem charming. As a consequence, he’s developed a life motto, of which he repeats often: I just go with the program.
Going with the program for him means taking life as it comes, including the lack of autonomy and personal choice that accompanies various forms of incarceration.
But for James, to go with the program means to live a guarded life, one that lacks meaningful relationships of all types. As if to protect himself from the cruel institutions he inhabits, he’s eschewed friendships and instead says he only has associates. He’s able to get necessary benefits from these associates – benefits that enable his survival in whatever program he’s in. I’ve come to learn the difference: associates are the people who surround us. To have a friend is to allow oneself to be vulnerable life to trust another. This vulnerability is exactly what James has tried to avoid.
Making friends is the opposite of going with the program. In James’s understanding, an associate is more akin to someone who fulfils a function. To have an associate is to have someone in your life who is obligated to do something for you. It’s like a contract-based relationship.
But by making friends, we choose who to share our time, our desires, and our deep life struggles. An article from The Atlantic suggests that paradoxically, as we journey through adulthood, we experience a tension between our own autonomy and these very friends. For example, it is often our closest friend who encourages us to move far away when we are given a special career opportunity. The more we move, the more friends we make and lose.
In the last decade, I’ve lived in seven different cities. Each departure has come with a painful grief that later becomes gratitude for the friendship. To trust anew in each city means to open myself to new vulnerable relationships. This Brene Brown suggests is the only way we truly thrive as humans. But as I grow older, the moves are harder and more vulnerable – perhaps because ambiguities in life means I must courageously trust more of my life story to new friends. When it’s time to say goodbye, I’m forced to make new friends in a new place. But I’m also forced to admit to the friends I’m leaving that while our friendship won’t necessarily end, it will necessarily change.
I look at my watch. It’s time to finally say goodbye to James, knowing that I most likely will not see ever him again. I finally get the courage to say I must leave for the last time, and that I will miss him.
James looks at me intently. His eyes communicate simultaneous surprise and disappointment that this is our last conversation. He slowly forms words and says to me, “Well certainly I will miss you, too. But I just go with the program.”
Did he just go with the program in accepting conversation with me three years ago? He certainly could have said no, like some others have. But for whatever reason, his yes to my invitation blurred his own understanding of simply going along with the program with associates. It’s true – I wasn’t vulnerable with him in the way I am with the other people I’m saying goodbye to in New York. I guess I wasn’t a friend to him, but I think I was something more than an associate. In our interactions, he’s had the courage to be vulnerable about his deep life insecurities, his past mistakes, and his fears for the future.
Saying goodbye to James reveals my own blurred notion of friends and associates. Whether I’d like to admit it or not, we both entered the relationship like associates. Perhaps because he let himself trust me, he blurred that clear-cut line he established so that he could simply survive the programs he’s been in. And for me, he’s not the definition of friend – if by that I mean someone who I share intimate details about my life with and trust my moments of deep vulnerability. Yet, in the space we carved out together each week, we both took a risk and shared something about ourselves.
It is obvious to miss best friends when it’s time to say goodbye but we don’t expect to miss associates. In meeting with James these last three years, I’ve learned to suspend my own categories and let myself form a relationship that isn’t quite associate or friendship.That’s what makes goodbye vulnerabile in a unique way. Whereas I expect to see a good friend again, I won’t see him. This is it. We must simply treasure the time we had together. I can only hope I’ve left an imprint on his heart that way he has on mine. And perhaps he’s reflecting on our relationship in ways similar to me.
Image courtesy FlickrCC user woodleywonderworks.
There’s a Spotify playlist out there called ‘Have a Great Day!’ There are plenty of Spotify lists that miss the mark – ‘Weird Music,’ ‘Horror Movie Themes,’ and ‘Ambient Lounge’ don’t really do it for me. But when I walk into the office and get ‘Have a Great Day’ rolling, the songs of Stevie, Aretha, Marvin, Hall and Oates all but guarantee that I will have a great day.
Inevitably, the playlist offers The Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back” within the first ten tracks. The bright hollow body guitar and classic Motown bass line joined by little Michael’s impressive lead vocal bring instant joy.
But on a recent morning, a great day seemed impossible. Not even the playlist could cure my abysmal mood. I wasn’t willing to allow the joy of “I Want You Back” into my heart. Instead, I heard the lyrics: Give me one more chance to show you that I love you. Little Michael is asking for forgiveness. I needed to ask for some forgiveness, too.
I get into these ruts sometimes.
A friend emailed months ago to say that he’d be in my current home – Chicago – over Memorial Day. And I didn’t respond. Not entirely uncommon for me. He texted closer to the date, and again I offered no response. I had plans to visit my parents the same weekend, but I didn’t tell him that.Then reasonably, if not frustratedly, he sent a second text, the content of which was a single punctuation mark: ?
And still I made no response.
Three messages from him, three moments of silence from me. He wanted to have dinner with his friend. He wanted to see me enough not to give up on getting my answer. But for some reason, I couldn’t offer one.
Eventually, these things move from the simple act of managing my affairs into a category that I am truly terrified of – unfinished business.
This unfinished business lingers and lasts. It starts with a momentary feeling of inadequacy and becomes another box to check off on a long list of things to do. Plan class for Tuesday: check. Follow up with coworker about financial aid question: check. Set agenda for supervision: check.
But emailing or texting a friend back? It moves from list to list, unchecked and unacknowledged but never fully disappearing. Like a puddle close to evaporating, but not quite. The rain comes again and the puddle refills.
I finally called my friend on Saturday morning, the day after he arrived in Chicago. I wasn’t even in the city. My bare feet brushed through the green grass in my parent’s backyard hundreds of miles away, and I stared into the deep woods of my childhood. I was tired. I apologized. And, as a good friend does, he moved past his own desire to understand why it all happened the way it did in the first place. He simply offered forgiveness, pure and unmerited gift.
There’s another song out right now that I’ve been listening to on repeat. By no coincidence, it’s called “Want You Back.” In it, the lead singer names a deep and painful truth: I had a fear of forgiveness.
I’m not afraid to forgive. I practice offering it daily. I’m also not afraid to be forgiven. When my friend and I finally talked, I felt deep relief and a sense of confirmation that our love for each other can survive my little ruts. Our love can survive my irrational ability to make a ten-second email or text response into a seemingly unbridgeable chasm between what I desire and what I actually do with that desire.
What I’m afraid of is asking for forgiveness. It means that I must acknowledge the inexcusable, inexplicable thing I’ve done. Maybe I don’t feel like I deserve it. Maybe if I penned a pop song to send along, it would be easier.
There’s an email I’ve saved for over two years. It’s from someone I once knew very well. In it, they describe a (no-longer) recent hardship they faced, and they asked me for my prayers. An email like that deserves a response. If this person knew the number of times I’ve actually offered my prayers, or the number of times I’ve thought of their email, or the number of times I’ve considered responding, they’d never doubt my love. But, for two years, the person who reached out hasn’t known my side of the story, and now, all that’s left is for me to respond with a few simple words.
Those words – please forgive me – could be the catalyst for a great day. A day when we together engage in the mystery that is forgiving. A day when that which has left me – a feeling of adequacy and worth and belovedness – will return. A day when all that is good between us comes back.
In a recent column I wrote about the difficulties of being a religious voter on the American Left. As many readers reminded me, however, the GOP has also not always lived up to its promises to such voters. That does not excuse the Democratic party, to be sure. But it’s worth asking: how did we get to a place where we’re questioning the Republican party’s seriousness about religion? The simplest answer is that the Republican party is no longer conservative.
In Yuval Levin’s book The Great Debate, he describes the conservatism of Edmund Burke as deeply rooted in the reality of social life: family, church and nation. That vision of reality, Levin argues, rests in a gratitude for the goodness of what has been passed down to the present, and a sense of responsibility for passing down that goodness to future generations. Conservatives like Burke, Levin argues, have a fundamentally Christian sense of human fallibility, but also a Christian hope that what is best in human community can be developed and preserved over time. This is not to say that liberals cannot be good Christians, of course, but only that Christianity lies at the heart of classical conservatism.
Where is this godly conservatism today? The answer to that question is best summed up in one of the saddest tweets of 2017:
The problem with conservatism is this: Ask 1,000 conservatives who Yuval Levin is. <20 have heard of him. But now they all know who Milo is.
— Jacob Lupfer (@jlupf) February 20, 2017
When one recalls the GOP of the Bush years, one imagines libertarians and neoconservatives: Ayn Rand and Henry Kissinger.1 When one thinks of the GOP of the current U.S. president, who has been a conservative for about as long as Bernie Sanders has been a Democrat, one sees economic protectionists and populists: Pat Buchanan and Huey Long. Still worse, one thinks of the “conservative” celebrity culture of Milo Yiannopoulos or Ann Coulter.
What you do not think of, however, are religiously-serious conservatives in the manner of Levin’s Burke. For all the talk of the “Religious Right,” religious conservatives have never been more than one element of the Republican party, and, for that matter, conservatives in general are increasingly a minority within their own party. This means that religious conservatives have often been held hostage by the GOP, delivering votes in exchange for unfulfilled promises. This dynamic was particularly on display in evangelical infighting over Donald Trump’s presidential bid.
But what is the GOP without religious conservatism? For one thing, too focused on economic issues, and often in hyper-individualistic terms. Levin notes that American conservatives tend to be individualistic in economic matters and more communitarian in social ones. It could be argued, as it was ably by the late Michael Novak, that under the right conditions the individualism of capitalism can in fact reinforce the critical social institutions that conservatives support, above all church and family. But it turns out that those “right conditions” include religion: without the religious conservatives’ impulse to value the common good, the GOP risks becoming as individualistic and hedonistic as it often criticizes the left for being, leaving beyond the Gospel of Christ for the Gospel of Ayn Rand.
Additionally, a GOP without religious conservatism is prey to tribalism. This was nowhere on better display than in the recent debates on religious liberty. The travel ban on immigrants, for instance, was clearly anti-Muslim, and it was roundly condemned as such by numerous Christian leaders. And yet the Trump administration was shocked at the negative reaction to the ban: wasn’t America glad that Christians were not included in the ban? But what we all knew, and the Trump administration apparently did not, is that Christianity is not just an ethnic identity or a part of our national culture: it is a call to love that transcends all such particularities. We don’t win when the “other side” loses. There is no other side.
This tribalism, by the way, is characteristic of much of the GOP’s recent forays into the culture wars. On difficult and delicate issues – from abortion to gay marriage to transgender issues – the GOP has claimed to take up the mantle of religious truth, but it has too often advocated a truth without charity. The GOP has thus enabled Democrats to dismiss lazily as “bigotry” or “intolerance” any criticism of their social or cultural platform. The predictable result is that the national conversation on such issues continues to be vapid and fruitless, pitting a loveless, joyless “truth” against a “love” somehow beyond all truth.
Beyond these policy issues, however, a Republican party without God is darkly pessimistic, with no hope for the future. As Patrick Deneen notes, U.S. conservatism has generally been optimistic. Indeed, the very name “Moral Majority,” love it or hate it, at the very least asserted a basic optimism in the US, that America is fundamentally a “decent, faith-filled nation” whose “true nature” could “reassert itself” if only “the ejection of a corrupt leadership class” could be accomplished. But now, Deneen argues, “the mood has changed.”
Trump’s campaign capitalized on anger, frustration and even revenge. Trump did not create those passions, and many people are to blame for them. But Trump did choose to fuel and channel those negative emotions, in a complete rejection of the basic optimism of conservatism. Rather than following Reagan’s footsteps in proclaiming “It’s morning again in America,” Trump opted for something more like “Ask not for whom the bell tolls.”
Ironically, such pessimism would be perfectly at home in the radical leftist politics of the 1960s and ‘70s. But it has until now had no place in American conservatism. And it has no place in Christianity. A GOP that thought all would be lost if the wrong person were elected president in 2016 is not a party that can take the long view and be grateful for and confident in all the gifts of history’s God. And the voter taken in by that alarmism has forgotten the Christian faith in the God beyond history.
The GOP needs to become more Christian, and Christians need to become less Republican.
The latter may be the easier part. Christians should ultimately not be beholden to any political party, of course, a point that Rod Dreher made excellently in his recent book The Benedict Option. As Dreher insisted to me, if Christians are not just “the Republican party at prayer, they are also not “the Democratic party at prayer,” either. “We often don’t have the choice of voting for the perfect candidate, and so you vote for the lesser of two evils,” Dreher told me. “But that doesn’t mean we have to be satisfied with those choices.”
And if the GOP wants to advance its economic, social and cultural agenda, it needs to rediscover in its conservative and Christian roots new ways of reaching out to people who feel excluded by its vision of reality. But the party would then run the happy risk of actually expanding that vision. That is something everyone should desire.
In less than a week, I will be ordained a Catholic priest.
For the love of God, a priest.
You may be wondering what sort of superhuman strength priests possess that other mortals do not. I’d like to know the same. For the life of me, I have not yet found it – whatever it is – and I do not have much hope of discovering it in the next few days. To be clear: I trust in the graces of the sacrament of Holy Orders — that God will strengthen us to live joyfully the life to which God has called us. But priests are not superhuman. They have human aspirations and desires! Here, I’d like to list three rather human hopes I have for life as a priest.
1. Credibility. Can I offer a piercing glimpse of the obvious? Like any person, priests can get tired and worn down. They can be cranky and petty; brusque and backbiting. But at their best, priests can be even-keeled and magnanimous; kind and utterly uninterested in others’ peccadillos. Priests are human, and they deserve the same scrutiny – and patience – as anyone who gives their life in the service of others. Like members of any professional group, priests inherit both the benefits – and the sins – associated with their guild.
So much of our opinion of professional, clerical classes – doctors, lawyers, priests – is colored by our personal experiences and unconscious typecasting. A thought experiment: If I say lawyer, what is your first thought? You may think of a sleazy ambulance chaser…or of the woman who helped your mom fight asbestos companies, as dad lay dying of mesothelioma.
When I say police you may think of racial profiling…or of the high-school-athlete-turn-officer, who tries to keep up with teens on the basketball court in the park.
If I say priest, you may think of an aloof bachelor…or maybe you remember your well-seasoned pastor, who has been there for all your family’s baptisms, weddings, and funerals. Every profession – priests included – has in its ranks those who improve, or tarnish, the image of the collective. Those who add credibility to the clergy, and those who drag it down.
Among things devoutly to be wished: that all the priests ordained this summer be good ones, who add credibility to the Catholic Church in the 21st century. How to do this? With the help of…
* * *
2. Life-Long Friendships. Our superior in Boston, Fr. Jim Gartland, is a joyful, generous priest. He laughs easily and loves broadly. He is quick with a kind word or an encouraging pat on the back. He speaks easily of his relationship with Jesus, and his life testifies to that relationship. Fr. Jim reminds us 75 young Jesuits in his charge of the importance of regular prayer and transparency; of good friendships and closeness with the poor. He is a model priest and Jesuit. Fr. Jim gives and receives affection and love — appropriate to his vocation — as well as any married person I know.
Like any healthy adult, priests rely on good friendships inside their profession and without; they know men and women who love them even on their worst days, and who respect and nourish a priest’s life commitments. Looking back over eleven years of Jesuit formation, I think of several close friends who know me well — and they have stuck around anyway. I have friends from college who predicted I’d join the Jesuits, long before I would admit it to myself. I have brother Jesuits who can loving point out my inconsistencies, and who challenge my hasty conclusions or querulous presumptions. Good friends are like seasoned doctors: they recognize the ailments that afflict our soul, through different seasons of life. They know when to offer a word of challenge, and when to apply a soothing balm. When we’re crazy, and when we are on to something. These friends help us put words to budding desires, and they know how to rein in our prideful ambitionings. Good friends — in religious life or not – do not just accompany us; they help reveal us to ourselves, and give us the room to grow over time.
Among things devoutly to be wished in priesthood: life-long friendships. But how to achieve life-long friendships? Through…
* * *
3. Honesty and Candor. Chekhov writes, “If you are afraid of loneliness, don’t marry.” To this I would add, “If you are afraid of people, don’t become a priest.” Some priests are introverted; some are extroverts. There is a book to be written about how each camp eyes the other with suspicion. Introverts, it is said, are energized by solitude. As an extrovert, I have had a hard time understanding how people interested in priesthood find other people exhausting. In turn, my introverted brothers wonder how one can have any spiritual depth, when your pool of friends is a mile wide. From years of religious life in community, we learn from one another’s best practices: introverts cultivate a small, tight circle of trustworthy friends; recovering extroverts learn to encounter God in silence, and to ignore the yammering FOMO Monster1 that keeps us from enjoying our own company.
To introvert and extrovert alike, Fr. Jim would ask, Who knows you well? Who can you be totally honest with? Who can you turn to when you’re frustrated, angry, worn down, lonesome, or in desolation? These are good questions for everyone: whether you’re aiming for priesthood, marriage, or single life. If we all need a reliable friend or three in life, Who could you call, right now, knowing they would happily listen to you? And who could call you, in return?
Among things devoutly to be wished: honesty and candor in life-long friendships.
* * *
I will be ordained in less than a week. And by the grace of God, I am not alone – thirteen Jesuits are getting ordained in the Midwest this June. Gesu Church in Milwaukee will be packed to the rafters. We’ll be surrounded by family, friends, fellow Jesuits, mentors, and former students who travel near and far to be present. And we will have others who will be there in spirit. I marvel at the kind, encouraging notes that people have sent these past few months.
But a sly voice within whispers, “If they knew all your foibles and limitations, they would not spend one minute with you!” Who of us doesn’t feel unworthy of our friendships? Unworthy of those good people who support us, in spite of ourselves? We want to shoo them away – no really, go find better friends! But like Lassie, they return, faithfully by our side even when we have done nothing to earn their love. I take it as a good sign when both parties in a friendship feel like they’re getting the better deal. Wow, to be blessed with terrific friends.
It takes nothing away from the grace of Holy Orders to say that terrific friends are a welcome support. Whether to marriage or priesthood, med school or the marines, life’s liminal moments touch on our fears and uncertainties: No really, we protest, go find a better candidate! And that sly voice of discouragement again whispers, “who do you think you are, coming forward for the priesthood? If only they knew all your foibles and limitations…” Who of us doesn’t feel a little…unworthy of what we feel called by God to do? Especially when many thoughtful, prayerful people feel drawn to ordained ministry, but cannot be? People of good will — who are not remotely interested in tearing apart the Church they love — find an all-male, celibate priesthood a curiosity? A vestige from a different time? A source of pain? To hear their curiosity or anguish, and to let it unsettle us, is to stand where the tectonic plates of ancient faith and contemporary culture grind against each other. To labor as credible priests in our world today carries the added responsibility of exercising the priesthood worthily, humbly, and well — attentive to where our culture and Church chafe.
Priests are not superhuman; nor are doctors or religious sisters, policemen or parents. But any group committed to serving others are challenged to heroic living. As a person of faith – an unabashed, peccable, Catholic — I count on the graces of the sacrament to make me and my brother Jesuits good priests. I also rely on the sustaining friendships that have brought us thus far — friendships that God has planted along the way, to make our vocational commitments possible and life-giving.
For the love of God, these qualities — credibility, friendship, honesty — are devoutly to be wished. Good things for priests, yes; and good for anyone trying to live out God’s call in life. Godspeed, friends.
And if you can spare a minute, say a little prayer for good priests.
“Meditate on the law of God. Believe what you read, teach what you believe, and put into practice what you teach.”
– From the old Rite of Ordination of Priests
Featured Image, “Ordination” from Flickr user Saint Joseph, is available online here.
Just barely over a year into my Jesuit life, I began my “cannonball experiment.” St. Ignatius Loyola’s conversion took place over long months of recovery after a cannonball shattered his leg. Unlike St. Ignatius, my shattered leg was the result of a full-speed collision with a wall during an overly-competitive racquetball game. My kneecap split cleanly in two, and each half rippled with fractures. “An impressive break,” as one of the doctors put it.
My shattered knee threw off all kinds of plans and schemes I had for that year. An immobilized leg forced me to be more sedentary for months, and I’m not great at sitting still.
A few years after recovery, I find myself forced into a similar sedentary state, although no bones were broken this time. Goodbyes are cannonballs too, and my heart is under attack.
As I walk onto a Manhattan-bound 4 train, my eyes feast on rarely-open seats. I want to fist bump someone in celebration of my good luck, but then I realize why these seats are open. In front of me is a man in his 30s dressed in stain-covered denim and stirring from a rough night. His bloodshot eyes peek out under half-closed eyelids. He rubs them with palms that are black with grime. The back of one hand is inked with an eye floating above a pyramid. I quickly recognize it as the image on the back of the one-dollar bill.
The train gets progressively more full with each stop and seats become too precious to leave vacant. The young man attempts to strike up a conversation with the lady sitting next to him. He asks her how much a hairdo like hers costs. She clearly doesn’t want to engage him, but he just keeps on talking.
“I got this ticket to Newark! Should I go to Newark? The dope-game is ridiculous! Bag’s at least three times cheaper there.”
She reaches into the backpack on her lap and shuts him out with earbuds. Though she can’t hear him, he apologizes. Then, he glances up and catches my eye.
“You probably think I’m crazy too, huh?”
“Nah, man. Just reading my book.”
“Sorry for the disturbance.”
“No need to apologize.”
I keep my eyes on him. He correctly interprets this as a sign that I’m open to conversation, and he takes me up on my silent offer. It’s mostly a monologue, and he mingles Newark with other topics. I’m only a few stops from my destination at this point so I interrupt him and ask about the tattoo on his hand. He pulls out a dollar bill from his jacket pocket.
“I thought I recognized it,” I say. “It reminded me of this phrase.” I point to In God We Trust on the bill and our hands briefly touch. His eyes fill with tenderness. No verbal response, just a few seconds of silence.
“Don’t go.” My boldness surprises me. “To Newark. Don’t go. I mean…you know exactly what’ll happen if you go. No judgment from me if you do. But what good will it do for you in the long run?”
He looks down at his feet for a few seconds. When he looks up, there is a different gravity to his glance. “I haven’t thought about the long run in a long time.” I’m looking at a broken man. Shattered, dare I say.
The train slows as we approach my stop. I stand up. He looks up at me and offers his knuckles for a fist bump. I open my extended hand and ask his name.
Where did that boldness come from? As I make my way above ground, a possible answer surfaces. The cumulative goodbyes I’ve been making as I depart New York and begin a new chapter have left my heart especially tender.
“Don’t go” is a repeated refrain I hear from the people I’ve grown to love in New York. It’s a plea, not a command. And, for the most part, it’s said in half-jest. But it still makes an impact. I came to New York with the long run in mind. The expiration date was set from the start. My time here is temporary. Temporary things come to an end, and I just don’t want this to.
I take a seat on a park bench. It’s one of the first warm days of spring, which allows me to finally wear shorts. I glance down at my knee. The scar reminds me of the lengthy recovery that followed the impressive break. Will my heart take as long to recover?
As I recall the interaction with Sam, In God We Trust echoes deep within. It doesn’t take away the heaviness or uncertainty of transition, but it evokes the same tenderness I saw in his eyes. And, like Sam, I remain silent in this moment of mystery.
Images from the author. His knee is healed.
You’ve probably never heard of C.J. Pine. This is a shame, because he is a remarkable young man.
Raised in Tianjin, China, Pine has an impressive resume. He’s taught English in a Palestinian refugee camp. He spent most of his college years researching and advocating for refugees and promoting interreligious dialogue. He founded a nonprofit, Road to Mafraq, that increases educational access for children impacted by violence in the Middle East. And he has done all this while maintaining a 3.92 grade point average. (He has also succeeded in making the rest of us realize we are watching too much Netflix.)
The only reason I’ve heard of C.J. Pine is because he was selected as the University of Notre Dame’s valedictorian for the Class of 2017. Yesterday was Notre Dame’s graduation, and apparently Pine gave a valedictory address. I say “apparently” because – try as I might – I can’t find it. Several attempts at Googling“Notre Dame Commencement 2017” yielded only coverage about nearly a hundred students who walked out as Pence began to speak:
Notre Dame is a place that holds tradition dear. One such tradition is to extend an invitation to newly elected presidents to speak at their commencement. I remember the buzz when we welcomed President Obama in 2009. Other graduates have been addressed by Presidents Eisenhower, Carter, Reagan, Bush the Elder, and Bush the Younger.
These invitations were originally intended to honor the country’s new president. But in recent years, this old Notre Dame tradition has started to be read as a referendum on Catholic identity.
I remember vividly what it was like when President Obama came to speak in 2009. I remember a plane flying low over campus with a shocking image of an aborted fetus. I remember several graduates taping yellow crosses and images of baby feet to their mortarboards. I remember hearing people in the crowd yelling out “baby killer,” “abortion is murder,” and “you have blood on your hands” during Obama’s speech.
Most of all, I remember feeling sorry for the graduates. In several conversations with my classmates (I was a junior), all of us seemed to be grateful that that this wasn’t our commencement year. This weekend is supposed to be about celebrating them, we agreed.
Eight years later, the same story is playing itself out at Notre Dame, albeit from the opposite side of the ideological spectrum. University president Father John Jenkins, C.S.C. debated whether Notre Dame should extend an invite to President Trump. As he told the Observer, Notre Dame’s student newspaper,
“I do think the elected leader of the nation should be listened to. And it would be good to have that person on the campus — whoever they are, whatever their views. At the same time, the 2009 Commencement was a bit of a political circus, and I think I’m conscious that that day is for graduates and their parents — and I don’t want to make the focus something else.”
Jenkins invited Vice President Pence as a compromise. It was his effort to navigate the tension between respect for the White House and keeping the focus on graduates. You can tell by my google-search results whether his efforts were met with success.
Watching the video of the walkout on Sunday brought with it a familiar feeling of frustration. It felt like 2009 all over again. Rather than focusing on the accomplishments of the graduates, we were settling into the familiar space of ideological squabbles.
Initially my frustration was directed at the protesters. Their action seemed to me to be selfish. How are they so willing to make this event about their own opinions rather than the good of the whole community? I have plenty of problems with Pence’s policies too, but I don’t think this the time or the place.
But those were just my initial reactions. And as these feelings subsided I began to wonder about these reactions. Maybe I was wrong, maybe they were doing this not for themselves, but for the community. And then it dawned on me: had anyone bothered to ask them why they walked out?
I hopped back on Google to investigate, looking for in depth interviews with the protesters – anything more than a one-line pull quote. Nothing. There were dozens of reports hailing the spectacle: 100 students walk out on Pence! they read. But nothing from the actors themselves. I was disappointed that these reports were all about “the optics” of the walkout, with nothing done to investigate the spirits that motivated it.
In my frustration, I made an assumption: that the protesters were trying to make a statement. I interpreted their walking out as the equivalent of “I don’t like Pence,” or “I don’t agree with some of Pence’s ideas.” Under this interpretation, I reasoned, my frustration with the protesters would be valid. We live in a sinful, broken world. Consensus about truth in our contemporary pluralistic context is not possible. Walking out on Pence due to a personal disagreement about values or beliefs is incoherent.
But what if the protesters walked out for a different reason- out of a deep sense of solidarity with the poor and vulnerable? With our LGBTQIA brothers and sisters who have suffered from suggestions by Pence and others that they need “conversion therapy?” With immigrants and refugees whose current livelihood is in peril due to policies advanced by the current administration? What if walking out was less about the protesters turning their back on the Pence the man (or his ideas), and more about sending a message to people on the margins of our society: we’re with you. We won’t accept anything or anyone that treats you as less than the divinely-created, beautiful human beings that you are.
Unfortunately, I have no idea what the protesters intended to mean by their walkout on Sunday, because no one seems to have bothered to ask them.
My biggest problem with what happened at Notre Dame on Sunday is not that protesters decided to walk out during Pence’s speech. It’s that we quickly resorted to ideological camps to laud or criticize the protesters, without taking the time to ask them what they meant by walking out. In so doing, we nearly missed an opportunity to encounter and understand those with whom we disagree.
Thankfully, there was another person on Sunday’s stage who modeled exactly what I hoped to see, and he did it by showing us of the power of kinship and encounter: Father Greg Boyle, SJ. Boyle was at the commencement to receive the Laetare Medal, widely considered to be the highest honor that can be bestowed upon an American Catholic. Like Pine, Boyle’s honor was accompanied by the expectation of a speech.
In his speech, Boyle did not directly address the actions of the protesters. What he did do is pay attention to a particular person: his friend, former gang member Jose. He recounted, with tears, Jose’s painful history of being orphaned at an age nine by a mother who did not want him. How he wore three shirts to school to hide the blood and wounds inflicted on him by adult abusers.
We are not able to tell these kinds of stories from Sunday’s commencement- about Pence or the protesters. Reporters settled for a facile narrative about the drama of the walkout, and we bought it. We would do well to accept Boyle’s call to a much deeper encounter. A great place to begin is by watching Boyle talk about his friend Jose:
Are you ready to give up the wheel?
Self-driving cars are coming. In fact, they are already here. A self-driving truck transported beer in Colorado. In California, they are logging literally thousands of miles. Car manufactures and major tech companies like Google, Uber, Tesla, and, most recently, Apple are competing to stay on the cutting edge of this technology.
It’s no longer a matter of “if,” but rather “when” the streets and highways of our world become populated by self-driving machines with people and cargo as their idle passengers.1
Technological change usually comes upon us whether we like it or not. But even a feeling of inevitability shouldn’t excuse a lack of reflexion. Technological progress isn’t an inherent good. It brings with it much more than that.
Let’s take a look at self-driving cars, and THE GOOD, THE BAD, and THE UGLY.
Self-Driving Cars: THE GOOD
Over 37,000 Americans and 1.3 million people globally die every year in automobile accidents. Those are staggering numbers. It’s the ninth leading cause of death globally (just ahead of HIV/AIDS), and it’s the only non-disease entry on the top ten list.
Have you ever thought about the power that’s in your hands when you drive a car? It’s actually quite remarkable that we entrust millions of people across the world (you and me included) to navigate two-ton metal machines speeding at 60 mph between buildings, pedestrians, and other vehicles. We’re not even that good at it.
While human driving error is not the sole cause of all 1.3 million deaths, some estimates put the number of accidents committed through human error as high as 94%. Self-driving cars might not be able to eliminate all driving fatalities, but couldn’t they lower the number?
It seems pretty safe to assume that self-driving cars would at least outperform a drunk driver or a texting teen, which would go a long way to saving lives on our roads.
Almost a third of fatal traffic accidents in the U.S. are caused by drunk drivers (around 10,000). Additionally, cell phone use and texting have led to a spike in accidents related to distracted driving. According to the Center for Disease Control, distracted driving kills more than eight people and injuries more than a thousand people each day in the U.S. alone. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that 80% of traffic accidents and 16% of traffic fatalities are related to distracted driving.
And so we arrive at THE GOOD. While further arguments could me made for efficiency gains,2 financial benefits,3 and even the prospect of creating transportation independence for the blind or disabled, let’s just stick with the biggest argument in favor.
THE GOOD: Self-driving cars can save lives!
Self-Driving Cars: THE BAD
Think about your most recent drive: did you pass any delivery trucks? A local bus? Maybe a taxi or two? All those vehicles are piloted by paid employees. And lots of people make a living by driving- millions of people, in fact.
Roughly 3.5 million people in the U.S. make their living from driving vehicles around.
NPR made noise a couple of years ago when they published a map showing the most common job in every state, and truck drivers dominated by leading the way in 29 of the 50 states. While these statistics don’t paint the clearest picture, the fact is that roughly 2.8 million Americans make a living by driving trucks.
On top of that, there are taxi drivers. New York City alone has over 13,000 medallion-licensed taxi drivers, not to mention all the Uber and Lyft employees (errr…contractors?). Across the country, the total number of U.S. licensed taxi drivers and chauffeurs is around 190,000, while Uber claims the engagement of around 160,000 drivers. Throw in half a million school bus drivers and around 170,000 transit bus drivers, and you get the picture. Lots of jobs.
So we arrive at THE BAD. Let’s skip over the periphery jobs that could also be lost,4 and excuse the fact that the job statistics are U.S.-focused.5 An argument could also be made for the negative health effects of safer driving that would worsen the shortage of organ donors.6 But there is one argument against self-driving cars that is the most prominent.
THE BAD: Self-driving cars will eliminate jobs!
Self-Driving Cars: THE UGLY
What about accidents that do occur? What about accidents that are unavoidable?
Results have shown that human error has played a primary role in almost every reported accident with a self-driving vehicle, but the increased use of self-driving vehicles will inevitably involve more accidents, including fatal ones.
In May of last year, the fatal crash of a self-driving Tesla in Florida applied the strongest brakes to the self-driving car movement and tempered enthusiasm. In the incident, a tractor trailer made an ill-advised left turn into oncoming traffic, and the white side of the trailer against a brightly lit sky wasn’t picked up by the vehicle (nor the driver who was still behind the wheel). The self-driving car did not “see” the tractor trailer. So who is responsible for this accident? The rider? The manufacturer?
This was the first case of a fatality from an automation error. But a bigger ethical question looms. How will we program self-driving vehicles to confront situations where an accident is inevitable? What if the outcome varies based on different maneuvers?
Let me illustrate by example:
Car A and Car B are two self-driving cars that are side-by-side on a highway. An inattentive child darts in front of the car on the left (Car A). The car’s computer notices the child, and calculates the following options:
1- Swerve left to avoid both the child and the other car, and head into the median where Car A’s rider has a 60% chance of survival.
2- Swerve right to avoid the child, but collide with Car B from the passenger side, where Car A’s rider has a 80% chance of survival but Car B’s driver has just a 30% chance of survival.
3- Apply the brakes swiftly but maintain a straight course. The child has a 1% chance of survival, Car A’s rider now has a 99% chance of survive, and Car B won’t be impacted.
A human driver who has to confront such a situation wouldn’t have time to calculate the odds, and would have to react instinctively. Given the frightening outcomes, we would be quite sympathetic regardless of how the driver responds.
But with a self-driving car that can run calculations and make decisions in fractions of a second…how would we want it to respond?? That is to say: how would we program it?
Should it swerve left to assume the lowest odds at killing someone, although the highest risk would fall on the car’s rider/owner? Should it swerve right to protect a young child, even if it risks adult riders? Should it stay the course to protect the safety of its owner above all others?
An ethical dilemma like this should give us pause. The more that we allow technology to interact with us in the world, the more we force technology to confront ethical dilemmas. In the case of self-driving cars, we are literally placing a potential killing machine (a 2-ton vehicle) in the control of a computer.
THE UGLY: the ethical puzzle of self-driving cars is complex and controversial.
Have we given sufficient thought to these factors? Have we weighed THE GOOD, THE BAD and the UGLY?
I’m afraid not.
That is to say, I am literally afraid that we have not considered all of these factors, especially not THE UGLY.
Why? Because there is one “GOOD” that I did not address: the earning potential for manufacturers of self-driving cars.
In the U.S., we are in a seven-year streak of growing sales in the auto industry, with 17.6 million cars sold in 2016. As for the global level, hold your breath. In 2010, we passed the one billion mark for the number of cars on the roads. Projections suggest that the total could reach 2.5 billion cars by the year 2050 (!!!). That’s a LOT of cars; that’s a LOT of cars to be sold. And if the wave of the future is self-driving cars, that includes a lot of cars to be replaced.7 In other words: $$$.
Here’s the bottom line: the financial incentives for automakers and tech companies is enormous. Literally billions of dollars in profits are at stake.
Let this give us pause to reflect.
- THE GOOD of reducing traffic fatalities and accidents in general is valuable and a tremendous human good.
- THE BAD of lost jobs is frightening, as we continue to confront the loss of millions of lower-skilled jobs to new technology (in which we basically always favor the technological gains to the preservation of the jobs).
- But THE UGLY, especially in this case, is something that deserves even more thought and reflection. A self-driving car is not on an equal level as all other forms of technology, especially when it comes to life and death ethical choices.
While your iPhone might be a real time-suck, it’s not going to make a decision that could take someone’s life. Drones have the power to kill, but we still haven’t granted them the ability to choose their own targets (and for good reason). With self-driving cars, there is no avoiding it. A two-ton vehicle speeding among other cars and people will inevitably make contact. Ethical choices will have to be embedded in their programming.
We cannot allow the inevitability of technological advance to impede us from reflecting on the risks at stake. We cannot allow profit-driven corporations to play up the benefits of new technology while diverting attention from the unavoidable ethical dilemmas contained within. What values guide our policies on the programming and development of self-driving cars? Ethics? Or financial gains?
We have to give more careful consideration to all aspects: THE GOOD, THE BAD, and THE UGLY. Only then can we make informed decisions about how to create and control the technology that will become a part of our future.
The time to reflect is now, while the wheel is still under our control.
It’s a classic “he said/she said” scenario: John Doe and Jane Roe were a brief college couple at the University of California, San Diego, and had engaged in sexual activity one Friday night after drinking at a party. But after breaking up, she says that it was rape, while he claims that it was consensual.1
The undisputed details of their story are not as much disturbing as they are commonplace in the mainstream culture of college campuses. They planned to attend his fraternity party on Friday night (the night they had sex) and her sorority formal on Saturday. She dropped an overnight bag in his room before going out on Friday. On Saturday, the two spent the night together in her room after attending her formal. Their sexual relationship ended that night. Three months later, she reported to the university’s sexual assault resource center that he had assaulted her on that Saturday morning.
According to a Justice Department report, one in five female college students have been
victims of sexual assault. Although this statistic has been subject of dispute, it would not surprise me if one in five undergraduate women had been in Jane Roe’s situation. Many of such cases undoubtedly go unreported. Regardless of what the actual statistics are, this level of sexual assault is unacceptable.
The atmosphere on college campuses, particularly elite and wealthy campuses, is often called a “hook-up culture.”2 The term “hook-up” varies in meaning, and the hook-up culture is difficult to define. I see the hook-up culture as referring not just to casual uncommitted encounters but to a larger culture of expectation even within committed relationships: the expectation that everyone will have sex in some form so long as they can find a consenting partner.
It is in the context of this culture that the story of Jane and John played out. Jane, a Mormon raised in a religious household, who had never drank or had sex before college, decided to experiment in college. This is not necessarily a bad thing, nor do I think that this means Jane is in any way responsible for what happened to her against her will. But sex and alcohol have large roles in what is portrayed in media and popular culture as the “ideal college experience.” This culture puts pressure on new college students to seek out opportunities for sex and, when there is a mutual desire, to push the envelope as far as possible.
The current campus hook-up culture idealizes casual sex in a way that makes it seem far more simple than it actually is. The fallout after regrettable sexual encounters or the psychological suffering of sexual assault victims are rarely present in college movies or in the consciousness of first-year students. In reality, sex is more than simply an a pleasurable activity that parties agree to participate in. That is why rape and sexual assault are such heinous crimes. Sex involves deep emotions and psychological factors, not to mention biology and spirituality. In order to foster a healthier culture of sexuality on campus, we need to find an ideal of sexuality that takes these factors into account and does not just accept consent as the only qualification.
A recent book by sociologist Lisa Wade describes a darker side to the mainstream culture, identifying “a persistent malaise: a deep, indefinable disappointment” in which one third of those who hook up say that their intimate relationships in the last year have been “traumatic” or “very difficult to handle.” Her research concludes that a third of students do not hook up at all, but also that only 15% of students actually enjoy hooking up.
John Doe and Jane Roe could have been my friends in college. I think that is why the story struck me as hard as it did. A healthier culture might have prevented that whole situation, by removing the pressures on both parties to have sex. As someone vowed to chastity, I can attest to the freedom and joy of reconciling a holistic view of sexuality to my own life. I hope that college campuses can become places where young men and women integrate their sexualities in ways that lead to genuine human flourishing.
Image courtesy of FlickrCC user Yu-Chan Chen.