Monday, February 21, 2005

Cussing in church

So yesterday I used a four letter word in church. During the sermon, that is. See, I was given the opportunity to preach yesterday. I've never done anything like that before, and I'm still trying to figure out how I feel about it.

The context: I was preaching on the Gospel of the Pharisee and the Publican. I wanted to make the point that the opposite of mercy, according to this text, is not cruelty, but contempt, a failure of optimism, a belief that people do not change.

"What does it mean to be like the Pharisee? It means believing that people never change, that enemies must always be enemies, that betrayers must always remain betrayers. We become like the Pharisee when we are so damn cocksure that we know the ending of other people's stories, when we have no more capacity for surprise."

I went on to say that, according to the Gospel, this is the most damning and damnable aspect of our personalities: contempt for other people.

I suppose at some level I'm afraid of being criticized for what I said, which is why I'm still thinking about it, even writing about it. But as I was walking to church yesterday morning, sorting out what I wanted to say, this just came to me as the most powerful way of communicating a point I wanted to make.

I remember a story about an old monk addressing a churchful of seminarians about monasticism. He kind of glared around at the students, then opened by saying, "Some of you think you know about monks. Most of what you think you know is a lot of bullshit."

I've always aspired to this kind of boldness. Now I'm trying to figure out if what I said was bold, or just stupid, if it strengthened the point I was trying to make, or detracted from it.

I'm interested in others' thoughts on this.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Sister Dorothy Stang: 1931-2005

"They stopped her car, and she got out and they were pointing guns at her. So she took out her Bible and said, 'This is my weapon,' and started reading to them."

The world has lost a great advocate for justice. Sister Dorothy Stang, who spent forty years fighting for the rights of peasants in Brazil who were being forced off their land by cattle and timber barons, was ambushed Saturday by masked gunmen who shot her at least six times at close range.

Dorothy Stang stood in solidarity with the poor in the rich tradition of liberation theology. Liberation theology, for those who are not familiar with the term, is basically patristic theology, the teachings of Sts. Basil, Gregory, and Chrysostom on wealth and poverty, within a South American context. It is a theology that rejects the Manichean separation between "spiritual" matters and the bodies of the poor, insisting that the proclamation of the Gospel in an oppressive and death-dealing environment cannot merely offer a comforting hope for the future, but must proclaim liberation in the here and now. "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’" (Luke 4:18-19).

"She had a soft voice that belied her will of steel. She was an extremely strong woman who wouldn't be silenced, ever, about anything. They finally silenced her for good because they couldn't silence her in life."

What Dorothy Stang's killers failed to understand is that her voice cannot be silenced with bullets. Like Archbishop Oscar Romero and other martyrs of South America, she will continue to give inspiration to legions of others. Her struggle for the rights of the oppressed will go on. The blood of the martyrs is still the seed of the Church.

Way down south where the Maya reign
Zapata readin' poetry in his grave
They say we're stealin' from the best to feed the poor
Well they need more.

--Amy Ray, The Indigo Girls

Please consider sending a letter to the governor of the state of Para, Simão Jatene, asking him to bring those responsible for Sr. Dorothy's death to justice. Go to the governor's website to write a letter by email. Hints for Portuguese: "Nome do remetente" is your name. When asked "Local de Residência," select the third option, "Outro País," and scroll down to find your country of residence. "Area de interesse" is "outros," the last option on the list (other, since they do not offer a justice subject). In the "assunto" line (subject), write "assassinato de Ir. Dorothy Stang, 12 de feveiro." "Mensagem" is your message, which can written in English. (Contact information courtesy of

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

A Harvest from the Desert

One of the ugliest facets of poverty is the way in which the insecure position of the disadvantaged is exploited for financial gain. There are few grocery stores in poor neighborhoods, but there are plenty of "convenience" stores that sell non-nutritious foods at vastly inflated prices, and specialize in the more addictive forms of alcohol. There are almost no banks, but there are plenty of "payroll loan" operations that cash checks and offer "advances" at huge rates of interest, sometimes as much as 25% or more. Then there is the steady stream of "O% interest balance transfer" credit card offers through the mail, targeted specifically at low-income families who are juggling credit cards in a desperate struggle to make ends meet, with interest tiers and repayment terms deliberately designed to make them nearly impossible to pay off. And all the while, the current administration is tightening bankruptcy laws so that lending institutions can take even more of the money of those who fall prey to their tactics, a vicious cycle of "double-victimization." Perhaps, with all the current talk about the "politics of morality," it is worth remembering that the sin most consistently condemned in the Scripture is the lending of money at interest.

These "poverty surcharges," the hidden costs of being poor, have been documented of late in great books like Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickle and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, and David Shipler's The Working Poor: Invisible in America. And yet predatory lending practices are, of course, nothing new. St. Basil the Great, one of the most powerful voices for social and economic justice in the early Church, railed against those who seek a "harvest from the desert" and "make the hardships of the miserable an opportunity for profit." His words are well worth considering as we strive to envision and enact a more just and humane social order, as we "seek the Kingdom of God and God's justice."

Tell me, do you really seek riches and financial gain from the destitute? If this person had the resources to make you even wealthier, why did he come begging to your door? He came seeking an ally, but found an enemy. He came seeking medicine, and stumbled onto poison. Though you have an obligation to remedy the poverty of someone like this, instead you increase the need, seeking a harvest from the desert. It is as if a doctor were to go to the diseased, and instead of restoring them to health, were rather to rob them of the last remnant of their strength. Thus, you make the hardships of the miserable an opportunity for profit. And just as farmers hope for rain so as to multiply their crops, so you eagerly seek out deprivation and want, so that your money might produce a better yield. Do you not know that you are taking in an even greater return of sins than the increase of wealth you hope to receive through interest?

The one who seeks the loan is trapped in a terrifying helplessness. When he looks to his poverty, he despairs of ever making repayment, but when he looks to his present condition of need, he makes bold to take out the loan. In the end, the borrower is defeated, bowed into to submission by want, while the lender departs only after having bound him fast with contracts and pledges.

--St. Basil the Great - "Against those who Lend at Interest"

How could you do nothing
And then say "I'm doing my best"?
How could you take almost everything
And then come back for the rest?

--Ani DiFranco

Saturday, February 12, 2005

Blessed is the one who comes...

So tonight, we had our homeless friends, Mark and Sheri, over for supper. It wasn't a good night. They'd been fighting, and were tense when they arrived. Mark was just diagnosed with a serious heart problem: he's apparently had a couple of mild heart attacks recently, and his blood pressure is through the roof. Heroin use, I am learning, has a lot of residual health effects, one of which is infections in the heart as a result of cotton fibers in the "cut."

After dinner, Sheri went out to smoke a cigarette. She's been off alcohol for about three weeks now, but she's been struggling lately. Mark can be a pretty controlling person, and she said she really feels the need to get away for awhile, like she needs some space. She finished her cigarette, then told me she was going to take a walk. She didn't come back for dessert.

Mark was furious. He ranted and raved for a little while, then stormed out of the house with a threat to "bury the bitch." We were really worried. I went out later to try to find Sheri, but she was nowhere to be found. The guy at the liquor store told me that she'd been in to buy vodka about twenty minutes ago. He said, "I thought she quit." I told him to remind her of that the next time he saw her.

I went down to their tent. Mark was there; Sheri still hadn't returned. Mark started up with the threats again, and I said, "Mark, you are my friend, and I know you are upset right now, but if you keep talking like this, I am going to have to start taking you seriously, and then I am going to have to take steps to protect Sheri from you." I told him that if she comes back tonight and he's mad and she can't stay there, he should tell her to come to our place. He said he would.

Mark had a violent father. He hated his dad, and yet at a certain level I think he still believes the lies he learned as a child: that violence is the only way to get through to people sometimes. And Sheri had an abusive step-father, who conditioned her to the patterns of living with an abuser. The most difficult thing about trying to live in community with people like this is the recognition of how difficult it is for them to get back on their feet. You try to address one need, and it's like picking at a loose thread in a sweater: it just goes on and on forever. They need so much more than food and shelter, the basics; they need to learn a whole new way of living. They need models of the kinds of healthy relationships that they never experienced. You could spend your whole life working with just one person. And in the end, it might not be enough.

Jesus said, "You will not see me until you say, 'Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.'" In this passage, seeing is tied to the act of welcoming. We will not see Christ, cannot perceive His presence in others, until we can acknowledge their presence as blessing, and not as burden, or inconvenience, or disturbance of our full calenders and carefully planned out schedules.

So maybe Sheri will show up late tonight, drunk and needing a place to stay. We'll be glad to see her if she does. Glad to know she's OK.

Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

The Woodsman

It's after midnight, but my mind is whirling and I can't sleep. I just watched what was perhaps the most disturbing and powerful film I have ever seen: "The Woodsman" with Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick. "The Woodsman" is a movie about a man who molests children, serves twelve years in prison, and then reemerges and tries to resume his life. It is a film that asks us the question, "What do we see in others, how deeply are we prepared to look?" And the answer is that we can see into others only so far as we are willing to look into ourselves.

At some level, the film is about how seriously we believe in the possibility of redemption. The title of the film is taken from the story of "Little Red Riding Hood," with the woodsman being, of course, the one who cuts open the big bad wolf at the end of the story and lets Little Red Riding Hood out, alive and unharmed. What underlies this is the question of whether redemption is a possiblity only in fairy tales. As a cynical cop puts it with eloquent bluntness, "They ain't no fuckin' woodsman in this world." Ivan Karamazov couldn't have said it better.

I think this film is disturbing at much the same level of "Dead Man Walking," in that it somehow allows us to feel a human connection to a person who has committed terrible acts, without minimizing or excusing their crimes. These are films that help us to recognize, as Sister Helen Prejean once said, that "no person can be reduced to the worst act of their lives."

Maybe I'll try to write more about this later, when I can collect my thoughts. But I highly recommend this film. See it, if its still showing in your neighborhood.

Saturday, February 05, 2005

Modesty and power

After my previous post The Ruin of Joseph, I have been ruminating on the subject of "obscenity" and "modesty," and how these terms relate to the excercise of power within our society. Here are a few preliminary thoughts...

Our definition of "modesty" is by no means fully correspondent with ancient views. The reality is that the Greco-Roman world in which Christianity emerges was far more relaxed in its views about the body than we are, as was the world of ancient Judaism before it. Most people know that in the early Olympic Games the athletes competed in the nude (though only men competed and attended). What is less well known is that the Spartan games had both male and female contestants competing in the nude. Women in Crete went bare-breasted in the summer during the Minoan times. The prophet Isaiah preached naked in the streets of Jerusalem. In the early Church, Christians were baptized in the nude. Jesus Himself is depicted being baptized naked by John in the Jordan (some of the older, bolder icons dispense with the loincloth), and we have no indication that these public baptisms were segregated by gender. St. Peter was fishing naked within shouting distance of the shore (interestingly, E. once saw an Egyptian fisherman fishing in the nude on the Nile in Egypt, a country not known for its liberal tendencies in terms of dress). Simply put, though they may have covered up a little more, people in the ancient world were not nearly as uncomfortable with the sight of the human body unclothed as we are today. Can any one of you imagine working out in the gym naked (that is, after all, what the world "gymnasium" means: a place to "exercise naked")? Or working naked (gives a whole new meaning to the term "casual Friday")?

Sometimes, Americans comment on the "topless beaches" in Europe as a sign of the decadence of European culture. But in reality, every beach is a topless beach; I have no idea why, when we say "topless beach," we mean a beach where women take off their tops, but don't make any reference to men. The fact is that this kind of thinking only reinforces the notion that the female breast exists primarily as an object of male sexual fascination. The female breast is for feeding babies. Our well-intentioned attempts to reinforce "modesty" in this regard lead to women beimg cited in some places for indecency when breast-feeding in public. The female breast is not indecent. It is not immodest.

I think one of the most powerful moments in Frank Schaeffer's novel Portofino is when the narrator, a young teen, sees a young woman on a train in Italy, breastfeeding her baby with her entire breast exposed. The boy stares; he has never seen a woman's breast before. The woman notices him, says something in Italian to her husband, who turns, smiles at the boy, and offers him a piece of sausage. I remember this scene because it is part of a powerful awakening on the boy's part, a recognition that there is a whole world outside of the closed circle of shame that has been his only way of relating to the world up until then.

So a final thought, one that has been percolating in my mind for a long time, and is still mostly unfinished. I think that when religion loses its prophetic quality and its bearings in justice, when it becomes instead an agent of preservation of the status quo, it tends to gravitate towards issues related to sexuality and modesty as primary virtues and vices. To put this in even stronger terms, I think that talking about sex and modesty is really another way of talking about power. In the Gospels, we find the Pharisees trying again and again to engage Jesus in a discussion of sexual morality (the woman taken in adultery, the "lowborn" woman in the house of Simon who washes his feet). The Pharisees derive power and establish their position in society by setting themselves up as the arbiters of sexual morality. But Jesus steadfastly refuses to be drawn into the discussion, insisting instead that there are far worse sins: hypocrisy, abuse of power, exploitation of the weak.

Sometimes "modesty" may simply be a synonym for "discretion," in the Victorian sense of the "discreet affair." The wealthy can afford to be discreet in their vices, to take measures to ensure that their trysts do not have unwanted consequences, while the poor wind up pregnant out of wedlock, "trailer trash" with babies on their hip, and become the target of politicians from wealthy constituencies who attack them as immoral "welfare queens." In this sense, generic talk about "morality," that seems at first to apply to everyone, is really talk directed primarily at the poor (when was the last time you saw a billboard about teen pregnancy in an upper-class neighborhood, as I used to often see in poor Hispanic neighborhoods?). Sexual vices are regarded as the vices of the "lowborn," and are strongly condemned, while the vices of the "highborn" (greed, gluttony, injustice) receive only passing reference. The rich don't need to flaunt their bodies, they can flaunt their cars and their houses, their Rolex watches and their Gucci shoes. And these too are issues of modesty.

Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Abu Ghraibs of the Soul

Q: What makes possible an Abu Ghraib?

A: A culture of secrecy.

A secret is a powerful thing. Secrets bind us to each other, give us power over others. Abu Ghraib was once a terrible secret shared between those who perpetrated these acts, and those who witnessed them or otherwise knew about them. The photographs that were taken that night were intended as evidence, but not of the crimes of the few; they were evidence that nobody intervened to stop them. The pictures were a sign of the the bond of secrecy that was forged between perpetrators and accomplices, a reminder of the fact that no one who was there or who knew could claim to be innocent.

A culture of secrets is a necessary aspect of every rigid authoritarian structure. Keeping things covered up preserves the hierarchy, the ascending pyramid of dominance, by preventing investigation or accountability at the higher levels. Within such a structure, knowledge becomes a valuable and powerful commodity which, like financial capital, is supposed to remain safely in the hands of the few. And disclosure thus becomes a dangerous act, a kind of "intellectual socialism," threatening the very existence of the system.

No one would ever have known about Abu Ghraib had not a few photographs leaked out into the public view. And now, what steps are being taking to ensure that this never happens again? Security is being tightened, so that no digital camera makes it into that facility, or any other like it, ever again. Cut your losses, punish the low-level offenders, but preserve the system intact at all costs.

Q: What makes possible a clergy sex abuse scandal?

A: You guessed it...

Let us be honest for just a moment and acknowledge that the Church has its own Abu Ghraibs, both historically speaking and to the present day. There are those in our midst who have forced people into degrading postures of subservience and sexual humiliation.

Let's call it what it is: torture.

What makes these acts particularly devastating is not only their horrific nature, but also the bond of secrecy that is created between perpetrator, victim, and accomplices. Nobody speaks up, because nobody wants to be implicated. And this silence becomes a form of recurrent abuse, an ongoing process of victimization.

How will we make sure this never happens again? Will we too punish the low-level offenders, cut our losses, and preserve the system intact at all costs?

Once upon a time, openness and transparency were the only culture the Church knew, the air that it breathed. Confession was performed publicly, in front of the the entire congregation, as were penances for crimes against the community. But somewhere along the line, perhaps at some point during the Byzantine experiment, perhaps even earlier, a few in the Church learned that there was power to be gained over others through secrecy.

Jesus said, "Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing is secret that will not be made known." It is only very recently that the eschatological force of this passage has come home to me. The Kingdom of God comes overturning all the power structures of this world. And a culture of secrets is nothing if not a power structure, an ascending pyramid of dominance.

In the wake of the scandal, some have suggested that Abu Ghraib should be torn down, that perhaps it is haunted by the ghosts of an earlier generation of tortured and torturers. But razing Abu Ghraib, even if we were to dislodge every stone so that "not one stone is left standing upon another," will not do us a bit of good if we do not succeed in dismantling these interior structures of dominance.

When the Kingdom of God appears, everything becomes transparent, so that no one will ever again be able to use secrets to gain power over another. And that Kingdom is present in our midst here and now to the extent that we invest ourselves in openness and disclosure, to the extent that we succeed in demolishing these inner prisons, these Abu Ghraibs of the soul.