It’s an easy temptation, wherever the false doctrine of exceptionalism is rife, to treat national holidays as liturgical ones, especially when they happen to occur in proximity. So let us be reminded: today, the universal Church celebrates the feast of the body and blood of Christ. Not anything else.
The universality of the Church’s feasts, and of the Eucharist itself, is a necessary guard against the imperial tendency to think ourselves the center of the world, including the Church. Various countries may have their own particular days to memorialize those killed in war, but these stories are not the Church’s story. The Church’s story is the Christ-event, which continues in our Lord’s living presence to us at the Eucharistic table, celebrated today by millions of Catholics around the world.
The enduring attraction of war is this: Even with its destruction and carnage it can give us what we long for in life. It can give us purpose, meaning, a reason for living. Only when we are in the midst of conflict does the shallowness and vapidness of much of our lives become apparent. Trivia dominates our conversations and increasingly our airwaves. And war is an enticing elixir. It gives us resolve, a cause. It allows us to be noble. And those who have the least meaning in their lives, the impoverished refugees in Gaza, the disenfranchised North African immigrants in France, even the legions of young who live in the splendid indolence and safety of the industrialized world, are all susceptible to war’s appeal.
― Chris Hedges, Author of War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning
If you’re going to have a military, especially one that is sent to fight as many wars as ours is, you need to desensitize soldiers to the value of human life, so that they will kill without hesitation or reflection.
But in attempting to form young men and women in that way, the military must work against something very powerful, very deeply ingrained in the human psyche. There is a very strong, intrinsically human revulsion to killing our fellow humans. You can talk all day about “it’s ok because it’s war” and “it was you or them” or any of the other lies Mother Culture tells you about killing in the particular instance of war, but unless you are a sociopath, the reality of what war actually is — hellish, brutal, murderous, senseless and soul-destroying — always trumps that, somewhere inside.
If we really saw war, what war does to young minds and bodies, it would be impossible to embrace the myth of war. If we had to stand over the mangled corpses of schoolchildren killed in Afghanistan and listen to the wails of their parents, we would not be able to repeat clichés we use to justify war. This is why war is carefully sanitized. This is why we are given war’s perverse and dark thrill but are spared from seeing war’s consequences. The mythic visions of war keep it heroic and entertaining…
The wounded, the crippled, and the dead are, in this great charade, swiftly carted offstage. They are war’s refuse. We do not see them. We do not hear them. They are doomed, like wandering spirits, to float around the edges of our consciousness, ignored, even reviled. The message they tell is too painful for us to hear. We prefer to celebrate ourselves and our nation by imbibing the myths of glory, honor, patriotism, and heroism, words that in combat become empty and meaningless.
Sending young men to commit warfare is a heart-breakingly awful thing to do, when you peel away the rationalizations, legalisms and veneer of nationalist triumphalism. It may, very occasionally, be unavoidable – the Civil War and Second World War being two consensus examples – but no less evil for that. War ought always to be undertaken with a heavy sense of failure.
I vividly remember watching a report on MTV (of all places) during the opening weeks of the Iraq War, and the correspondent interviewed a group of infantrymen on a desolate stretch of Iraqi highway, leaning against a Bradley Fighting Vehicle during a pause in the action. One soldier, a young private who looked to still be in his teens, said the following to her: “When you first kill someone in battle, a piece of your soul dies with him. I don’t think you ever get that back.”
There was a saying half a century ago in the protests against Vietnam: “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” In other words, if you have the world’s most powerful military, then it will tend to be the card you reach for first: it seems your strongest suit.
I have a hard time with folks who try and wave off objections to war with some explanation like, “Well, what is one to do? In a fallen world, war will always be a fact of life.”
There is something to this – war is indeed a result of human brokenness – but I sometimes think that attitude lets us off way too easy.
What if war is there because we human beings in the world either support it, at least tacitly, or else we don’t do enough to stop it? What if it doesn’t have to be this way? Why can’t we Americans raise a generation who has no experience with losing friends in battle?
There is an important distinction between hope and optimism – hope being the belief that change for the better is possible, and optimism being the belief that change is inevitable. This Memorial Day weekend, as we ponder the 1.34 million American military men and women who have died in America’s wars through the centuries, maybe we can leaven our sadness with the hope that we can build a world where young men no longer have to experience a piece of their soul dying in battle. I think the men in battlefield cemeteries scattered across the globe would agree that this hope is a decent one to cherish.
A recent NPR story on pre-natal detection of the effects of the Zika virus caught my attention a couple of weeks ago. Although I was alerted by the foreboding reference to the mother’s loss in the teaser that appeared in my email inbox, the following two sentences still hit me in the gut:
The woman decided to terminate the pregnancy. And she allowed [OB-GYN] Driggers and her colleagues to study the baby.
I had to stop and read those two sentences over, slowly. I know too well the kind of double-talk heard in the stark difference in terminology between wanted and unwanted pregnancies, but rarely have I seen it employed in such immediate juxtaposition: literally from one sentence to the next, it went from a pregnancy to a baby.
The story uses such terms pretty much interchangeably, which is not necessarily problematic in itself, though it is subtly revealing. In the context of the initial and quite natural worry – “Was her baby going to be OK?” – it’s hard to imagine using any other word. Most (though not all!) other instances, discussing the diagnostic process, refer to “the fetus”, which technically is a perfectly correct reference to a particular stage of development. What is truly disturbing is that the fetal life is acknowledged as a life, but, aside from that initial expression of worry for his or her well-being, is valued only for the purpose of research.
I wrote in a previous post on the value of an autistic life, “We are rightly horrified when someone suggests that the life of a person with a disability is not worth living – but what about when the same thing is said of someone yet to be born? Can we sense the same sting in such a claim when it is made before that person has been given the chance to be known and loved?”
Yes, Pope Francis’ highly anticipated post-synodal exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, was released on Friday. As has become the norm, news outlets and social media have been buzzing with reactions, pre-reactions, reactions to the reactions, and on and on. All these are fed through the speaker’s preferred narrative and thus vary depending, to name the most sweeping divides, on whether we claim that this document changes nothing or that it changes everything, and on whether we view either of the above as a good thing or a bad thing.
Personally, I prefer to take what I think of as a more nuanced view, welcoming a new papal document as a development in continuity with the living Tradition. This forms a part of my own narrative that I read through, and I would be naïve to think it makes my reading perfectly unbiased. Lest I start to think I’m the only one keeping my head, I’ve noticed a few people taking the refreshing approach of lifting up certain gems that they find particularly meaningful, without ideology or accusation, taking a moment to let their beauty speak for itself – which in a way is just what Pope Francis has a gift for doing with the rich wisdom of our faith.
I recall someone saying after the release of Pope Francis’ first apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, that reading the document itself was like drinking liquid goodness and light, but as for all the chatter about the document … I don’t remember specifically how it was phrased, but the description was something less flattering. Amoris Laetitia, like any magisterial document, certainly demands a closer reading than the initial skim I’ve given it thus far, and I will need more time to say anything about it in depth. But my impression is that the same holds true as before: the document itself is the antidote to all the spins – including quite possibly my own.
Of course there will be analyses and discussions and disagreements, which is all in keeping with the Holy Father’s own intentions at the synod. But the least any of us can do to keep the discussions in a spirit of Christian charity is to lay down our arms and pause the breathless commentary long enough to read.
That name was chanted last Tuesday night in the Ohio governor’s home state. It’s a name that could stand to be heard more often in the present election-year cacophony. But his home victory was quickly drowned out in the news cycle by the attention being paid to the other, shall we say, showier candidates.
I’m sorry, but I really cannot resist posting this very Catholic joke today. “If scripture will not cast out the Devil, use laughter. For Satan cannot bear to be mocked.” (Martin Luther) A blessed Lent to everyone!
Then the scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery and made her stand in the middle. They said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” They said this to test him, so that they could have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and began to write on the ground with his finger. But when they continued asking him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again he bent down and wrote on the ground. But then a stone was thrown from the back of the crowd, striking the woman in the head. And Jesus cried out, “MOM! I was trying to make a point!”
It‘s amazing how seemingly chance events can shape us. This can happen at any age, but it is especially true when we are young. In 1995, at the age of 12, I saw a film that would change my life. Ironically, it wasn’t a very good movie. When I heard the premise – about a pig that learns to herd sheep – I thought it seemed much too childish for sophisticated, William-Blake reading, 12-year-old me. But when I saw Babe, I was forced to confront a reality I’d never known existed.
Up to that point I hadn’t given much thought to where my food came from. I ate the bacon and eggs my mother made for breakfast; I ate the liver or chicken breast or steak that my grandmother would prepare for our weekly family Sunday dinner; I relished my Thanksgiving turkey and Easter ham. My contact with farm animals came mostly on those occasional spring and summer Saturdays when my parents and I would leave our inner-ring suburb of Buffalo, NY to visit friends in the country. As we drove past the rolling hills and farmland, I loved watching the cows and horses that milled about in green pastures. Every so often, we would visit a local farm where visitors were allowed to pick whatever crop was in season – strawberries in June, tomatoes in July, corn in August.
Up until the age of twelve, I imagined that this was what farming was like: idyllic, pastoral, straight out of a Sesame Street episode until or nursery rhyme. But then, the movie Babe showed me a different vision: huge numbers of animals housed in ugly, factory-like buildings. Was this the way most farm animals spent their lives? The movie also made me realize that pigs are extremely intelligent animals – indeed, they are as smart as dogs. I shuddered at the thought of my wonderful border collie, Boots, being slaughtered for food. At that moment I made a decision: the pork and beef in my life would have to go. How could I possibly eat other mammals – animals which my middle school biology class revealed to be so closely related to me?
Fortunately, my parents got on board with my decision to cut pork and beef from my diet. They expressed a little concern, however, when after my first semester of college in 2001, I announced that I had become a full-fledged vegetarian. The initial jump was basically a caprice – during the first week of school, I ate the cafeteria’s attempt at Buffalo chicken wings (my hometown’s delicacy), and I decided that the tofu tasted better. And, I soon discovered that honestly it’s not the chicken that makes Buffalo wings so delectable. It’s the sauce.
While my first steps toward vegetarianism were propelled more by impulse than rationality, I found that good reasons came later. Discussions with my cousin – a hospital dietitian – revealed that meat consumption was not needed for healthy living. I took heart in the notion that I was not killing animals (alas, at this time I did not know about the brutalities of dairy farming). Finally, in 2005, I learned of the environmental argument. Animal agriculture is one of the biggest contributors to land use – indeed, 45% of the earth’s land is devoted to it – and a greater contributor to carbon emissions than all our fossil fuel use combined. It is also the cause of 91% of the destruction of the Amazon rain forest. For a few years I lived contentedly, confident in the belief that, by embracing vegetarianism, I was making the world a better place.
However, cognitive dissonance reared its ugly head again just two years ago when I saw another excellent film. Speciesism: The Movie, a thorough and surprisingly entertaining documentary by college-aged filmmaker Mark Devries, made me face an inconvenient truth. While giving up meat had been no real sacrifice (sorry Grandma, but I never really liked your liver and onions all that much anyway), I’d never seriously imagined renouncing cheese, or ice cream, or eggs. But, this film forced me to learn that on the whole, dairy cows live in much harsher conditions than beef cows, and most of them end up getting killed for meat eventually. And, even so-called free-range chickens live in crowded indoor conditions. Looking at this reality, it became clear that vegetarianism was not enough.
During the past two Lents, I have tried to embrace veganism as part of my spiritual practice. It is not easy – particularly since I’ve moved to the US heartland, where meat and dairy stand at the center of every meal. It’s also difficult because, as someone who generally finds cooking to be a chore more than an art, I don’t share the thrill some vegans experience at trying new recipes. But, as time goes by, my conscience is pushing me more and more in that direction – and I am urging others to follow the same path.
I know that this is not a message most of us want to hear. The consumption of meat and dairy forms the basis of our society; the cooking of meat is an art. Several friends have told me that they could never be vegetarian – the sacrifice would be too great. And, admittedly, I feel the same way about veganism. I love my Wisconsin cheese curds; I love my chocolate ice cream. I wear makeup. I am ashamed to admit that my car has leather seats.
And yet, the evidence suggests that some degree of sacrifice is necessary. In terms of animal cruelty, we might argue that there are other ways to avoid this without renouncing meat, like swearing to only eat animals that have been humanely raised, or working in other ways to resist the capitalist system that gives rise to these cruel practices in the first place. But unfortunately, there is no rebuttal for the environmental argument (unless you believe we can colonize space within the next forty years and that this possibility would justify the destruction of our ancestral home). The inconvenient truth that even Al Gore did not want to mention is that animal agriculture is the number one source of carbon emissions, Amazon destruction, species extinction, dead zones in the ocean, fresh water consumption, and indeed world hunger (were we all to become vegan, we could currently produce enough plant-based food to feed 10 billion people). These are facts that, as Kip Andersen and Keegan Kuhn’s recent documentary Cowspiracy disturbingly reveals, the mainstream environmental movement does not want us to know, as it receives some of its funding from big agriculture.
What are we to do? The current course most of us take – consuming meat and dairy products on a daily basis – is cruel, destructive and unsustainable. But, as I have said before on this blog, sacrifice does not need to be all or nothing. We do not need to make a binary choice between strict veganism and an omnivorous diet that places meat its the center. If all of us could become vegetarian for three days a week, the negative impact on animals, land, and water would be hugely reduced. This is an issue where I would urge us all not to let the perfect become the enemy of the good. Whatever our limitations may be, we must not let them become an excuse for doing nothing.