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Downton Abbey Morality: Conservative, Progressive, or Something Else?

March 1, 2015

Around this time a year ago, my colleague Morning’s Minion happily proclaimed, “Yes, progressives can embrace Downton Abbey!”  The presumed novelty of this idea puzzled me.  As I commented at the time, I didn’t think that was ever in question, and had in fact been uneasily wondering whether my current television infatuation was becoming a thinly veiled vehicle for a kind of ideological progressivism.  At certain times the storyline has appeared to be going down a checklist of tolerance tests, an impression that seemed to be confirmed by one commentary last year in which a producer referred to the appearance of a black man as an opportunity to see how “forward-thinking” each of the characters would be.  This is just the sort of language that rankles me: racism is always wrong and has always been wrong, for reasons that have little or nothing to do with forward and backward and everything to do with human dignity – a truth as old as humanity itself.  But it often feels as if we’re being invited to judge Downton’s characters based on our own supposedly more enlightened time.

And yet, the show’s portrayal of the tumultuous (as perhaps all times are, really) early decades of the 20th century is not entirely unsympathetic toward those characters who struggle with change.  Read more…

Some words about Dr. King, Part 2: The Beloved Community

February 24, 2015

In Part 1, I said that Dr. Martin Luther King sought not to defeat his opponents, but to be reconciled with them. Dr King said, at the successful conclusion of the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1956: “(T)he end is reconciliation; the end is redemption; the end is the creation of the Beloved Community. It is this type of spirit and this type of love that can transform opponents into friends. It is this type of understanding goodwill that will transform the deep gloom of the old age into the exuberant gladness of the new age. It is this love which will bring about miracles in the hearts of men.”

There is something deeply radical about that approach to conflict. The website of The Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change describes the Beloved Community in more detail:

For Dr. King, the Beloved Community was not a lofty utopian goal to be confused with the rapturous image of the Peaceable Kingdom, in which lions and lambs coexist in idyllic harmony. Rather, the Beloved Community was for him a realistic, achievable goal that could be attained by a critical mass of people committed to and trained in the philosophy and methods of nonviolence.

Dr. King’s Beloved Community is a global vision, in which all people can share in the wealth of the Earth. In the Beloved Community, poverty, hunger and homelessness will not be tolerated because international standards of human decency will not allow it. Racism and all forms of discrimination, bigotry and prejudice will be replaced by an all-inclusive spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood. In the Beloved Community, international disputes will be resolved by peaceful conflict-resolution and reconciliation of adversaries, instead of military power. Love and trust will triumph over fear and hatred. Peace with justice will prevail over war and military conflict.

… All conflicts in the Beloved Community should end with reconciliation of adversaries cooperating together in a spirit of friendship and goodwill.

This was and is radical because it comprehensively challenges practically every aspect of the traditional American character. It seeks cooperation rather than competition, brother- and sisterhood rather than domination of one by another, nonviolence as opposed to the use of physical power. Dr. King again: Read more…

Reading Advent in Lent

February 22, 2015

It is a bit embarrassing to admit, but I am way behind in my daily readings.  As I have mentioned in the past, I get an email from Daily Gospel Online that contains the daily mass readings and a short reflection tied to them.  A number of times I have posted  these reflections here.  The problem, however, is that it is easy for me to get behind.   Previously, I have fallen a few days, a week, or even two weeks behind.  In those cases, by an act of will I was able to get caught up, as it were binging on the gospel.  Over the past 6-8 months, however, I managed to fall disastrously far behind:  about three months.  Periodically I would make an attempt to get caught up, but invariably would fall even further behind.  (One can almost read this as a parable about the futility of attempting to save ourselves by our own works.)

So this Lent I decided to take the double track of reading the daily readings as they come, and also go back and read one set from my backlog.  (Please pray that I will be able to maintain this simple discipline in the weeks ahead.)  And, by chance, things have lined up so that today, on the first Sunday of Lent, I am also going back and doing the readings from the first Sunday of Advent.  Both are penitential seasons, but with different emphases as they lead to two very different mysteries of our faith:  the Incarnation of God and the death and resurrection of Jesus.  But they are deeply intertwined:  the joy of Christmas leads inexorably to both the sorrow of Good Friday and the triumph of Easter.   So while this is not a spiritual exercise I would have thought of, providence has conspired to have me reflect on Advent and Lent at the same time. Read more…

It isn’t all or nothing: On dealing with Lenten (and other) dissonances

February 18, 2015

I became a vegetarian in September 2001. It was my first week of university, and when I saw that the cafeteria offered ample vegetarian options for every meal, I quickly made up my mind that eighteen years of meat-eating had been more than enough.

“It was because of the chicken wings,” I told my family when they alarmedly voiced their concerns for my iron and protein intake. “They served this flavourless pile of skin and bones and called them Buffalo chicken wings – what a joke!”

However, the absurdity of this explanation became apparent when, upon visiting my hometown of Buffalo, NY a few months later, I did not immediately run to the Anchor Bar (birthplace of this famous culinary delight) for a plate of genuine Buffalo wings, nor did I take a single bite of the Thanksgiving turkey my family placed on the table. My mind was made up. I was vegetarian. And, contrary to what I told my family, my reasons went deeper than a college caprice. I’d actually been planning for a vegetarian adulthood as early as 1995, when the movie Babe alerted me to the horrors of factory farming and the cruelty inherent in the food we eat. So, as time went on and my family’s questions persisted, I let the truth emerge: I was a vegetarian because I cared about animal welfare.

Nevertheless, I was worried about how people would respond to my stated reason. I was hardly a viable portrait of an animal rights activist. I owned a leather jacket. I wore leather shoes. I used make-up and moisturizer and plenty of other products whose making depended on animal cruelty. Feeling like I could not easily change these self-contradictory behaviours, I tried to keep my vegetarianism as concealed as possible. I didn’t want to have to have to justify this decision. I didn’t want to be a hypocrite. I told myself that the bad-Buffalo-wings explanation was as good as any.

Nevertheless, I was bothered. I did care about animals. And, as the years went on, I found more reasons to support my vegetarianism: land usage and climate change. But once again, I could hardly portray myself as any kind of environmentalist. I was a frequent air traveller. I didn’t always recycle. I was consumerist as any other American twenty-something.  Once again, I couldn’t claim a name for myself without running up against massive contradictions.

In today’s gospel (Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18), we hear a firm instruction from Jesus:

“Be careful not to parade your uprightness in public to attract attention; otherwise you will lose all reward from your Father in heaven. So when you give alms, do not have it trumpeted before you; this is what the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets to win human admiration. In truth I tell you, they have had their reward. But when you give alms, your left hand must not know what your right is doing; your almsgiving must be secret, and your Father who sees all that is done in secret will reward you. And when you pray, do not imitate the hypocrites: they love to say their prayers standing up in the synagogues and at the street corners for people to see them. In truth I tell you, they have had their reward. But when you pray, go to your private room, shut yourself in, and so pray to your Father who is in that secret place, and your Father who sees all that is done in secret will reward you.”

I couldn’t help but smile as I heard those words this morning. We were being told to pray in private, secretly – and yet, here we were in a big church, seeing and being seen by one another. And, immediately after this gospel’s conclusion, we were marked with the sign of the season. I knew from past experience that as soon as we left that church, the ashes would be transformed into a very public mark of identity. We may want to be identified as Christians by our love; today, however, we are known by our ashes. For me, this raises a serious concern. Can I live up to the image I project?

Looking at the gospel message, I do not believe that Jesus wants us to keep the signs of our faith a secret. After all, it is in the same gospel of Matthew – just one chapter earlier – where he declares, “No one lights a lamp to put it under a tub; they put it on the lamp-stand where it shines for everyone in the house. In the same way your light must shine in people’s sight, so that, seeing your good works, they may give praise to your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:15-16).

Jesus’ main preoccupation in Matthew 6 is with hypocrisy. Few people frustrated him more than the Pharisees and sanctimonious religious leaders, eager to display all the external trappings of devotion while devoid of genuine charity. For Jesus, humility and self-effacement are the best ways to avoid falling into this trap. By praying and meditating in private, we can cultivate the strength of perception that lets us know when we are straying into self-righteousness; by keeping our good deeds anonymous, we make sure that we are doing them out of genuine concern for others rather than the desire for accolades. As sound of a strategy as this is, though, it can backfire if our desire to avoid hypocrisy makes us abandon all attempts to do good.

Lent is the season in which we struggle to turn from sin and cultivate virtue, when we sacrifice certain pleasures so as to direct our attention toward growing in love for God and one another. And yet, I can’t tell you how many of my Lenten promises have gone the way of failed New Year’s Resolutions. I remember the year I resolved to attend Mass every day. I made it for four days, and then one case of sleeping through my alarm led me to abandon the whole plan. The same thing happened when I tried to give up chocolate, and don’t get me started on the year I committed myself to forty days without Facebook. Disheartened, I eventually stopped trying to observe Lent at all. I now know that this sort of discouragement is not in the spirit of the season.

During my senior year of university, I became friends with a young philosophy student who was (and still is) a serious animal rights activist. A committed vegan, he consumes no animal products; he wears no leather shoes. If anyone was in a position to chastise me for my partial commitment to animal rights, it would be this friend. As we munched on soy Buffalo wings (very well-flavoured, I must say) in a delicious vegan restaurant, I told him about my hypocritical vegetarianism, dreading his response. To my surprise, instead of a rebuke, he offered a gentle smile. “It doesn’t have to be all or nothing,” he said.

It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. As soon as I heard those words, a weight was lifted from my mind. The fact that I am a vegetarian rather than a vegan may not be ideal from an animal rights perspective, but it is a start, and there’s no reason why I shouldn’t tell others my true motives for sticking to this diet. The fact that I cannot get myself out of bed for morning Mass seven days a week during Lent does not mean that I shouldn’t strive to do so three days a week. The fact that I succumb to temptation and break my Facebook fast doesn’t mean that I should abandon any attempt to return to it. The game isn’t over while we’re still here to play it. We can always do better the next time around.

I’ve long held the belief that, to some degree or another, we are all bound to be hypocrites. We inevitably fall short of the standards we set for ourselves. The Lenten season reminds us quite beautifully that as Christians we are not paragons of moral perfection (like those Pharisees so eagerly claimed to be). Rather, we are as vulnerable and faltering as children, constantly in need of God’s healing, mercy and grace. The fact that we celebrate Lent annually suggests that we probably won’t ever reach a point where we’re doing everything right. But, this is no reason to stop trying. Through private prayer and contemplation, we can cultivate the ability to be honest about our limitations and to examine the true motives for our actions. But, there is also a time to step out into the street, to let people see the ashes on our foreheads, to share our faith with those around us – no matter how limited we may be.

Happy Lent, everyone!

Is It Really This Easy?

February 16, 2015

Thanks to the folks at Daily Gospel Online,  here is a meditation by Blessed Charles de Foucauld that seems particularly timely as we draw closer to Lent.  I found his turn of phrase “a little good will” evocative and reassuring:  he makes salvation seem easy to reach, and it makes the Ash Wednesday call to “turn away from sin and believe the Gospel” less daunting.

God has not made salvation depend on knowledge, intelligence, wealth, long experience, special gifts that not everyone has received : no ! He has made it depend on what lies within the hands of everyone, absolutely everyone, young and old, people of every age and class, all levels of intelligence and fortune. He has made it depend on what everyone, absolutely everyone, is able to give him; what every person, whoever he may be, can give him with a little good will. A little bit of good will! This is all it takes to win the heaven Jesus attaches to humility, to making oneself small, to taking the lowest place, to obeying, and that he attaches too, besides, to poverty of spirit, purity of heart, love of justice, the spirit of peace and so on (Mt 5,3f.). Let us have hope, since by God’s mercy salvation is so near to us, in our hands, and since a little good will is all it takes to obtain it.  

—Meditations on the passages of the holy Gospels relating to the fifteen virtues, no.69, Nazareth 1897-98

On Going to the Wrong Mass in Italy

February 15, 2015

For the past two weeks I have been in Europe on business.  The first weekend I was there I went to a Sunday night mass at a Jesuit parish in Granada:  the Church of the Sacred Heart.  It was unremarkable, and I refer you to a previous post where I discussed going to mass in Spain.

On the second weekend I was in Rome, and the choices of where to go to mass were overwhelming.  I ended up ruling out St. Peter’s because of the lines.  On Saturday I stood in line for two hours to get into the basilica, and there is no separate line for mass attendance.  Indeed, I was quite surprised to the extent which the major churches in Rome act simultaneously as liturgical centers and tourist attractions, with mass being said and at the same time tour groups being led through the church.   I guess this is inevitable, given the importance of tourism in Rome, but there is also an Italian cultural streak that is quite relaxed about the rules.  The signs all say that tourism is not allowed during services, but I have seen guards standing in front of these signs chatting amiably (but quietly) with tourists while mass is being said at the other end of the church.   To American sensibilities this seems very disrespectful, but somehow in Italy it works.  On the other hand, all the major churches seem to have chapels for the Blessed Sacrament and these are scrupulously maintained as places of quiet prayer.

Read more…

A Prayer Against Human Trafficking

February 8, 2015

Today is the feast of St. Josephine Bakhita and the first International Day of Prayer and Awareness against Human Trafficking, which Pope Francis observed following the traditional Sunday Angelus prayer.  We are all invited to join the observance with this moving prayer:

O God, when we hear of children and adults deceived and taken to unknown places for purposes of sexual exploitation, forced labor, and organ ‘harvesting’, our hearts are saddened and our spirits angry that their dignity and rights are ignored through threats, lies, and force.

We cry out against the evil practice of this modern slavery, and pray with St. Bakhita for it to end.

Give us wisdom and courage to reach out and stand with those whose bodies, hearts and spirits have been so wounded, so that together we may make real your promises to fill these sisters and brothers with a love that is tender and good.

Send the exploiters away empty-handed to be converted from this wickedness, and help us all to claim the freedom that is your gift to your children. Amen.

To this I only add:

St. Josephine Bakhita, pray for the freedom of your brothers and sisters still enslaved.  And pray for the freedom of their captors, and those who patronize their trade, from their own enslavement to false gods of profit, lust and consumption demanding human sacrifice.  Lord, free your people to live in the dignity for which they were created.  Amen.


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