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Memories of Autumn

September 23, 2016

Can it be autumn already?

The Autumnal equinox happened this Wednesday the 21st, and I am once again reflecting on why I love this season so much.

If Spring is the season of young men’s fancies, autumn is the season of older men’s bittersweet memories.

Decades ago, I first fell in love in this season. She was blond and troubled with a dark past, but sometimes the heart has a mind of its own, and I fell for her – hard.

I remember walking with her on a crisp afternoon on an elm-lined road somewhere up in Napa county, with an arch of quivering gold and crimson leaves over us, she in jeans faded almost white, her blond hair spilling haphazard down her white sweater, and I in a bomber-style leather jacket. I stopped and kissed her and she smiled in a way that reached a corner of my soul that I usually hide from everyone, even myself.

Autumn was the season that I first saw the glory of New England in peak color, a nearly psychedelic experience of seeing colors that don’t occur in nature – occurring in nature all around me. I spent 2 weeks driving around Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine, and it was like living in a Robert Frost poem. I saw an ancient barn weathered to the point where the raw wood of its walls looked almost like pewter, sitting across a glassy mill pond that reflected the brilliant maples and crimson oaks surrounding it. I saw ancient rock walls delineating long-overgrown fields that disappeared into the woods almost as soon as their owners decamped for richer soil in the Midwest a century or more ago. I walked on old dirt roads through the woods, the trees such a riot of colors that it was like walking in a stained-glass window.

Autumn is walking the streets one bone-chilling afternoon in Portsmouth, New Hampshire (on the Atlantic coast) and ducking into a little crab shack near the harbor that had waitresses who were curt but warm in a very New England way, who served me a steaming bowl of the most perfect clam chowder on earth – creamy, rich and warm enough to banish the chill from my bones.

Autumn is looking out one moonlit night across the prairie vastness of a demographically emptying eastern Colorado, and seeing a single solitary light in a forlorn window, like a distant lighthouse in an ocean of frosty grass, and imagining an old farmer – perhaps the last holdout on that unforgiving land – whose family had fled that desolation, going slowly mad from loneliness and isolation.

It was in autumn –the season of death – that I walked the somber shore in Normandy, France, with the weathered wreckage of long-ago war all around me, and pondered those days in 1944 when young men fell in their thousands on shell-wracked bloody sands, on their way to freeing a continent of the most brutal tyranny that has ever existed.

But it was also in autumn that I stood and wept before the tomb of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., a martyr for the opposite of war, a man committed completely to the commandment of Christ to love your enemies. His words are perhaps the only true antidote to this politically troubled autumn in our country:

Love is a weapon that cuts without wounding, and ennobles the one who wields it. It is a sword that heals.

And I believe that it is this kind of love that can take us through this period of transition and we can come to that brighter day. This is what we’ve tried to do. In the midst of our struggle we haven’t always succeeded, but somehow in some of the dark moments we have been able to stand up before our violent oppressors and say:

We will match your capacity to inflict suffering with our capacity to endure suffering. We will meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will and we will still love you. We cannot in all good conscience obey your unjust laws because non-cooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good. And so throw us in jail and we will still love you. Burn our homes and threaten our children and, as difficult as it is, we will still love you. Yes, send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our communities at the midnight hours and drag us out on some wayside road and beat us and leave us half dead, and as difficult as it is, we will still love you. But be assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer and one day we will win our freedom. We will not only win freedom for ourselves, we will so appeal to your heart and your conscience that we will win you in the process – and our victory will be a double victory.

Catastrophe and community; Reflections on the 1991 Oakland Hills Firestorm

September 16, 2016

Almost exactly 25 years ago, in October of 1991, I was living in a small apartment in the Rockridge district of Oakland, right at the base of the East Bay Hills. I had just started a new job, and had rented an apartment on the third floor of a building that was about a 25 minute walk from my workplace.
On the 20th of October, I awoke to a smell that is familiar to any Californian who has lived through a summer in this state: the sweet, pungent smell of a grassfire. I walked into my living room, which had a big picture window facing Alcatraz Avenue, and looked out onto the street below, and saw a couple of neighbors watching the hills. I made a mental note to check on the situation later, and then went and took a shower.
About half an hour later, I was done with my shower and dressed. I looked out my window again, and saw that my neighbors had been joined by a crowd of people in the street, looking east toward the hills. The midday sun seemed dimmer than it ought to be, and I knew immediately that I needed to go downstairs and see what was going on.
When I reached the street, I looked east and froze for a moment, struggling to process what I was seeing. It was as if I was staring straight into the heart of Hell itself. Brushfire smoke is usually whitish or light gray; the smoke I saw was inky black and roiling violently. At the base of the wall of smoke, no more than a mile from where I was standing, I could see houses, cars and trees burning as if they had been soaked in gasoline and set alight. The separate fires joined into a solid wall of flame and rolled down the hills, looking almost like flowing lava.

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How to Respond to a Conspiracy Theory

September 15, 2016

This is post I thought about a few months ago, but am finally find the will (“ganas” in Spanish) to write.  Last May, the Catholic paper of the Diocese of Birmingham, One Voice, published a guest column by Alice von Hildebrand, entitled “Recalling a Hero.”  The column was distributed nationwide by the Catholic News Agency.  It is a rather old-school piece about the dangers of communism:  it quite similar to the anti-communist propaganda of the 1950s.   For instance, she writes

The honeymoon with Communist Russia which was prevalent in 1945 had opened the door to the illusion that the future of the world was “rosy”:  guaranteeing peace, and prosperity.

Very few were those who dared face the truth refusing to see that animated by a most clever communist propaganda in schools in the news media and in Hollywood, communism had made deep inroads in the United States. Stalin was  its “great friend” and an ally of the USA. Truman declared publicly “I like old Joe” – should one laugh or weep?

Besides dramatically over-stating the “communist inroads” in the United States, she seems to ignore the fact that the Soviet Union had just played a critical role in the Allied victory in Europe, one in which the Soviets suffered roughly 26 million military and civilian casualties.  (This is not an attempt to excuse Soviet atrocities, just an attempt to provide context for why in 1945 Truman, for instance, would say nice things about Stalin.) Read more…

Why I Am No Longer a Single-Issue Voter for the Pro-Life Cause

September 13, 2016

Vox Nova is pleased to welcome a guest post by James McGehee.

I grew up Catholic and Republican. I am now Catholic and politically independent. In my first three presidential elections, I voted for George W. Bush, John McCain, and Mitt Romney. This November will be different. I will not cast my vote for the Republican nominee and only pro-life candidate for the presidency. While the prospect of a President Donald J. Trump frightens me, I can’t, as many do, dismiss the voters who secured his nomination as ignoramuses and bigots. Trump received the rebel vote, the vote fed up with the status quo, one vote to make up for dozens wasted on your standard, well-mannered Republican. I get it, because I will be casting my own rebel vote, the vote that ends my days as a single-issue voter for the pro-life cause.
You can’t blame the single-issue abortion voter. Catholic doctrine teaches that human life begins at conception, and if you believe this you must conclude that the Democratic Party, whose platform endorses liberal abortion rights, is complicit in mass murder. Moreover, the Church hierarchy places abortion front and center in every election. That emphasis itself could lend the impression that Catholics have an obligation to vote for pro-life candidates over pro-choice ones, and many Church leaders are outspoken in encouraging Catholics to vote as a pro-life bloc. For the last time a Catholic clergyman advocated for pro-life candidates before a congregation I was sitting in, I only have to turn back one Sunday, to the homily. The deacon imagined a young man who has announced his intention to vote for a pro-choice candidate this November. The father tries to convince his son not to make this grave mistake, because the father knows that by voting for a pro-choice candidate his son will formally cooperate with evil and flirt with damnation. There was nothing ambiguous about the deacon’s words: to vote for a pro-choice candidate when there is a pro-life alternative is not only poor citizenship, it’s sinful.

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Must we love all equally?

September 5, 2016

This past Sunday I heard what is for me one of the most challenging Gospel passages of all:

Great crowds accompanied him on his way and he turned and spoke to them. “Anyone who comes to me without hating father, mother, wife, children, brothers, sisters, yes, and his own life too, cannot be my disciple. No one who does not carry his cross and come after me can be my disciple. And indeed, which of you here, intending to build a tower, would not first sit down and work out the cost to see if he had enough to complete it? Otherwise, if he laid the foundation and then found himself unable to finish the work, anyone who saw it would start making fun of him and saying, ‘Here is someone who started to build and was unable to finish.’ Or again, what king marching to war against another king would not first sit down and consider whether with ten thousand men he could stand up to the other who was advancing against him with twenty thousand? If not, then while the other king was still a long way off, he would send envoys to sue for peace. So in the same way, none of you can be my disciple without giving up all that he owns” (Luke 15: 25-33).

At those words my skin bristled. What are we as Christians to make of such a stark commandment? To be followers of Jesus are we really called to give up everything, to renounce all attachment to friends and family, to follow Jesus so devotedly that nothing else matters?

For many Christians the answer to this question appears to be a sheepish “no.” Indeed, the European Protestants who lay the foundation for modern-day capitalism – in which corporations are legally considered people, maximizing profits is a legal obligation, and debt is the foundation of the financial system – clearly did not take this Gospel passage literally. I cannot imagine that the American Christians who have thrown their support behind Donald Trump do either.

Often, when this Gospel passage is read, priests dance around it or avoid discussing it altogether (my parish priest devoted his entire homily this week to a reflection on the second reading from Paul’s letter to Philemon, which is also challenging but not to the same degree). Some of my Christian friends also evade this calling, invoking the idea of a plurality of vocations (“There are many gifts, but the same spirit,” Corinthians 12:4) and suggesting that this summons to asceticism was not directed toward all. Still others suggest that this and other aphorisms of Jesus (“You must be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect,” Matthew 5:48) are deliberately meant to be difficult, if not impossible, to put into practice. Christianity demands so much of us that we are sure to fall short; we are bound to experience ourselves as sinners, completely dependent on God’s unearned grace to save us.

And yet, throughout two thousand years of Christian history there have been people who have put this call to renunciation into practice. Eager to follow Christ with utmost devotion, monks and nuns have renounced filial attachments as well as earthly pleasures in obedience to this command. St. Francis of Assisi is one of the greatest examples of this commitment; in more recent times, Dorothy Day, Archbishop Oscar Romero and Mother Teresa come to mind. In my own hometown of Buffalo, NY, two individuals – a cancer researcher named Norm Paolini and a restaurant owner named Amy Betros – became locally famous after they sold all of their possessions to establish St. Luke’s Mission of Mercy, a refuge where the city’s poorest could receive food, clothing, shelter, and spiritual guidance. Is this degree of renunciation, this extreme self-denial what we are ultimately called to if we truly are to follow Jesus?

About five years ago I unexpectedly met this charge. As an educator, I see myself as part of a helping profession. I pursued this vocation convinced that in teaching I would have the power to change lives, and I still believe this. However, unexpectedly a close friend challenged me. “If you weren’t teaching, someone else would be doing it in your place, and probably just as well as you. The only way you can say you are making a difference is if you can prove that you are better at teaching than all the others who do it.”

My friend had recently discovered 80,000 Hours, a nonprofit organization that gives career advice to people who want to make the highest possible impact. This organization – and a plethora of others like it – have startled people with such sayings as, “If you want to make a difference, don’t become a doctor or aid worker. Get a job on Wall Street.” The idea is that, in becoming an investment banker and earning a high salary – but willfully living more like a monk – one might support a dozen charity workers or aid workers. One’s impact would not feel direct, but it would be exponentially higher.

80,000 Hours and the other organizations like it form part of a growing movement that goes by the name of Effective Altruism (EA). Largely inspired by Australian philosopher Peter Singer, this movement brings Enlightenment-era utilitarianism and nineteenth-century positivism into the present day. Though it is a “big tent movement” and does include some self-identified religious people among its ranks, its default premises are quite secular. It aims to do the greatest good for the greatest number, with good being mostly defined in corporal terms  rather than spiritual ones– eradicating disease, prolonging life, protecting future generations from existential risks (like climate change, nuclear war or dangerous artificial intelligence).

When I encountered this movement five years ago, my first reaction was one of distaste, and admittedly,  that attitude has remained with me ever since. I am critical of EA’s focus on money as the best way to do good and its assumption that in order to have an impact we must work purely within the capitalist system (rather than striving to resist or change that system). I am wary of EA’s utilitarian tendency to see the people it is helping primarily as individuals rather than as embedded members of communities and its seeming indifference to art and culture (while saving human lives from premature death is a noble and worthy goal, what about saving the things that make life worth living?) I am skeptical of its belief that we might eliminate all human suffering (and if we could, would that even be a good thing?) Finally, I am suspicious of some EAs’ unwillingness to get their hands dirty, to become vulnerable enough to meet directly the people they aim to help. From the comfort of their Oxford classrooms or San Francisco offices it is easy to devise elegant mathematical systems that reveal their impact…But unless they go and visit the malaria-stricken African villages they claim to be helping, can they really be certain that they are doing good?

That said, there is much to admire in EA. They are one of the few movements that truly aims to treat all humans as equally deserving of care and support. While some EAs seek out marriage and family – and nearly all seek out friendship – they refuse to treat those close to them as more important than those far away. They are also one of the few movements to embrace animal rights as important and to see the alleviation of animal suffering as an important goal. They are calculating, but as Jesus urges us today, in a certain sense we need to be calculating. They are like the builder who is determined to finish the tower.

The irony is that, while most do not profess to be Christian, in terms of following the teaching of Jesus in today’s Gospel they are more Christian than many who claim that title. We may critique them, avoid them, dislike them, but, just as Jesus has done, they offer a challenge that cannot be ignored.

Going Home, Going Into Exile

September 4, 2016

A great pleasure of moving to Tuscaloosa has been the discovery of a small but thriving Mexican-American community.  Latinos (primarily Mexican-Americans but also some Guatemalans and El Salvadorans) make up about 4% of the population of Alabama.  They work in agriculture, lawn care and similar jobs, and have also opened a large number of small shops and restaurants (including some of the now infamous “taco trucks” that have been referenced in the presidential campaign recently).   The community, however, is relatively invisible:  the stores and restaurants are tucked into low end shopping malls and I do not recall having met any Mexican-Americans in public places like the mall.

The great exception is at church.  My parish, Holy Spirit, is home to the Spanish language ministry for the area.  We have a Sunday mass in Spanish, and there is some overlap:  if you hang around to talk after mass, you are likely to run into Mexican-American families arriving early.   The local Council of the Knights of Columbus council has a Spanish speaking “roundtable”.  Spanish language events are advertised in the English bulletin and more than a few Anglo parishioners showed up for the annual Latino Fest a couple weeks ago.  Last December, the main English mass was pre-empted, and the parish held a bilingual celebration of the Feast of the Guadalupe followed by a fiesta including homemade mole and tamales.  Read more…

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