Wednesday, August 31, 2005

The psychology of looting

Imagine you are standing on a sidewalk looking into a store. A natural disaster has befallen your town. At your home, you are dangerously low on supplies: you are out of clean water, and nearly out of food. On the other side of that quarter-inch thick glass pane is clean water, food, medicine, and other supplies.

Do you break the glass?

My hunch is that the vast majority of people would say yes. Some would qualify their answer by saying that they would leave money or go back later to pay for what they took plus damages. But I think that just about everyone would agree that in a time of crisis, there are more important things than private property.

Now, let me ask another question. Let's say you have lived your entire life on one side of a line. People who live on your side of the line do not have new clothes, or good food, or decent housing, or jobs. People on the other side have plenty of all those things, and more. All your life, you have tried to cross this line, tried to better yourself through education in substandard schools or by searching for jobs where there are none. And then suddenly, one day, that line, a thin blue line marked out with police and laws and guns, is taken out of the way. Suddenly, everything you and your children have been denied is available to you. It's right there, just on the other side of that glass, and if you leave it, chances are it's going to be destroyed anyway by the swiftly rising waters.

Do you cross the line?

The primary reason for the existence of laws and police is the preservation of a certain disparity within society. Think about that statement for a second. Society contains some people who possess a great deal, and others who possess very little. The laws of our country, the majority of which deal with questions of money and property, serve to maintain this imbalance by creating categories of "rightful" ownership. Laws are like dams and levies that allow a state of non-equilibrium to exist, a situation in which there can be vast amounts of resources on one side, and very little on the other.

Looting is a breach in the cultural levy, a sudden and spontaneous rush towards equilibrium.

There are many people who will look at the pictures of looters in the morning papers and shake their heads and cluck their tongues. Most of these people, the vast majority, have never had to ask themselves whether they would cross that line if given the opportunity, because they were born on the other side of the line, the one defined by access to resources. Some who were born on the side of the line defined by poverty and deprivation will make the decision not to cross the line, and for them, I have nothing but the utmost respect.

For most of these people, Hurricane Katrina is not the real catastrophe. They have very little to lose. The real crisis is Hurricane Poverty, a storm they have been weathering their entire lives.

"In a time of crisis, there are things more important than private property." Perhaps that statement does not sit with us quite so comfortably as it did at the beginning of this conversation.

Looting is an uncomfortable reminder that there is a sizable percentage of our population that does not accept the cultural myth that those who have, have because they are better or smarter or work harder. And that should make those of us who live on this side of the thin blue levy very uncomfortable indeed.

St. Basil the Great on disparities of wealth:

Once wealth has been forcibly contained until it becomes a flood, it washes away all its embankments; it destroys the storehouses of the rich man and tears down his treasuries, charging like some kind of enemy warrior.

--from Homily Seven "I Will Tear Down My Barns"

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Orthodoxy and Cremation

Since I made reference to Mark being cremated below, I'd like to post a quick comment about my feelings on cremation. The Orthodox Church forbids cremation under most circumstances (though it is permitted in certain special cases such as epidemics). The reasons usually given are that cremation is disrespectful to the body, which is holy, and represents a denial of the Resurrection at some level.


Do you know what is involved in the process of embalming? I personally cannot think of a more disrespectful, invasive, and unnatural process. I won't disturb you with undue details (draining, mincing of internal organs, etc.), but you can read about them if you want at
this site. Embalming dishonors the body by fillling it with toxic chemicals, and it dishonors the earth by poisoning the land and the groundwater. Moreover, I fear that the Orthodox Church has unwittingly allowed itself to become complicit in the death-denying zeitgeist of our culture by permitting embalming, the primary purpose of which is to make a person look like something other than what they are: dead.

In addition to the above, burial of the dead has become exorbitantly expensive, since the entire process of preparation and burial has come to be controlled by a vast industry. Poor people can't afford burial in many cases, and therefore many of the poor end up being cremated, thus losing their opportunity for an Orthodox funeral and subsequent commemoration in the Church.

In the ancient Church, one of the primary works of mercy was burial of the dead, including the poor non-Christian dead. This ministry was known as the xenotaphion (lit. "burial of the stranger"). But the Orthodox Church has for the most part forgotten this tradition, and does not involve itself in the burial of non-Orthodox, nor does it have many ministries for giving dignified burial to poor Orthodox Christians.


We in the Orthodox Church should either stop permitting embalming, or start allowing cremation, or possibly both. Requiring burial of the dead, which has become prohibitively expensive in our culture, while doing nothing to assist the poor with the costs involved and prohibiting less expensive options such as cremation, is discrimination against the poor. To use the words of Jesus, it is hypocrisy.

"They (the Pharisees) tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them."

Matt. 23:4

Monday, August 29, 2005

Mark Castle: 1954-2005 (Part Three of Three)

Being poor is a series of indignities, and death is the final indignity.

When I spoke to the coroner about the disposition of Mark’s body, he prefaced what he was about to say by telling me that he doesn’t make the policy, and he doesn’t have to like it. If Mark is found to be indigent and his family cannot pay for a funeral, the city will cremate his remains and scatter the ashes at sea. The family will not be able to have his ashes, they will not be allowed to be present when his ashes are scattered, and they will not receive a death certificate. They would have no opportunity to say goodbye.

I went over to Mark’s daughter’s place that night to bring the awful news. I brought a picture album with me, something Mark had given me to hold for him the last time he came over, a few days before he died. When I told her his body was at the morgue and explained their policy, she looked at me with tear filled eyes and said, “So, that’s it? He can’t even have a funeral?” And in that moment I blurted out a promise: Mark would have a funeral. Somehow, we would find a way to bring some dignity to what had been a terribly undignified end.

Making good on that promise has brought me closer to Mark than I ever thought I would feel. As I have spoken to funeral home and cemetary directors, I have found myself in the same position he was in countless times: trying to get what I need with nothing but my words, spinning out the story that will overcome all resistance and reach the goal. Mark was the master, and I have apparently learned a thing or two from him in my yearlong apprenticeship.

A wake for Mark will be held tomorrow night. Afterwards, he’ll be cremated, and his ashes interred in a small plot at a local cemetary, where his younger daughter can bring his grandchildren when they get older.

I went over to Sheri’s place to break the news to her. She is living in a cooperative housing program in a beautiful apartment. We sat in her kitchen and she made us hot chocolate, and I told her what had happened. I sat in her kitchen and thought about all the times we sat together on the curb while she sucked poison into her body out of a vodka bottle. All the times we had offered her hospitality in our home. Now she was offering hospitality to me.

It was a good feeling.

A few nights before Mark died, he came over to out place and we had dinner together. He actually crossed himself before dinner, something I had never seen him do before. He read me something he wrote for me in prison about growing up in a dysfunctional family where violence and addiction were the norm (I will try to post this at some point). He told me he wanted to pursue his writing, that he was going to try to enroll in a college writing class if he could get some loans. He also wanted to learn how to use a computer. We set up an email account for him that night, so he could start using email.

We talked about the letters he sent while he was in prison. He apologized for sending them, and I apologized for not writing, for not being able to listen through the anger to hear his cries for help, his need for understanding. I later described the time just before his death as a “space of reconciliation.”

Before he left, we embraced, and he walked out into the darkness, like he did that very first night he and Sheri came over:

When it was all over, we said goodnight and showed them to the door, knowing that they were not going to get into the car and drive home like ordinary guests, but catch the tram back to their little park where they will try to live out another night without getting mugged or killed, lying huddled together in the darkness.
(Mark and Sheri, September 10, 2004)

We spent a year with Mark, and in the end, he died just about the time it looked like he might get traction, just about the time it looked like his life might turn around and start to move forward.

What did it all mean?

I've been struggling with this question, and the best answer I’ve come up with so far was written in Mark’s own handwriting, a letter he wrote in response to something Johanna posted on the blog, about a man she knew who drank himself to death:

“Reading your story let me see that we can only do so much to save the people we love and care about. Only God has the answers as to why people choose to drink themselves to death or drug themselves. So please don’t be feeling remorse that you didn’t do more. You did what you could by caring and loving him.”

And I’ve thought a lot about this post since his death.

I'm still on your side, brother. Still holding out for that winning season. Praying that it finally comes.

I still believe in you.

Goodbye brother, and Godspeed.

May you find the home you’ve been looking for.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Mark Castle: 1954-2005 (Part Two of Three)

It was about 10:00 PM when we found the card from the coroner’s office in our door.

We called the number on the back of the card and paged the investigator, knowing that this was unlikely to be good news. But it was worse than we could have imagined. Mark’s body had been dumped out of a car late at night almost a week earlier, with no ID. He had fresh needle marks in his arm, but no signs of foul play. The coroner ruled it an overdose. It took them a few days to identify him from his fingerprints, and then they didn’t know who to call. I still don’t know how they found us.

He was discarded like trash in the streets, left behind like an old couch somebody didn’t want to bother having hauled away, so they just abandoned it on the sidewalk.

The thing we loved about Mark right away when we first met him was his writing, his ability to tell a story, his skill in the perilous business of transforming experience into meaning. That first night he and Sheri came to our place, he read a long firsthand account of the 1960's and the “Summer of Love” he had written, entitled “Peace, Pot, and Microdot.” It was a story about freedom and the aftermath of freedom, about how plenty of drugs and free love and optimism had not, in the end, been enough to change the world. It could have been the basis for a documentary. Mark had talent, although his writing was rough and needed some grammatical work. But for someone who had only finished eighth grade, he was amazing.

Here’s a sample from a piece he guest published on the blog, “Vietnam Revisited:”

Our government would lead us to believe that the US wins all the way around (in the Iraq war). But what of all the American lives we are losing? Who is really going to benefit in the long run? Why do we let our government, at the cost of American lives and in the name of freedom, use us as pawns in their own personal board game, one that seems to be a combination of Risk and Monopoly?

On the whole, we Americans have become far too complacent in managing our country’s affairs. But the government is only part of the problem; we are the other side of the equation. We are so wrapped up in our lifestyles—our cars, clothes, toys—that we are reluctant to rock the boat, for fear of losing what we have.

It was only later, when his endless talk began to wear on us, that we started to see another side to Mark’s storytelling. Mark talked in order to stay in control of the situation. I honestly believe that he felt, deep down, that if he ever stopped talking, if words ever failed him, his life would spin completely out of control into that void of silence. He was always one word ahead of disaster. He was talking himself down off the edge, day after day.

I think that people whose lives are spinning out of control feel a deep need to tell their story. Putting the events of their lives in the form of a narrative is a way of trying to regain some measure of control over their destiny. Telling their life in the form of a story gives the sense that there is meaning and purpose and direction, and not just random tragedy after random tragedy.
(The Poor Talk too Much, September 24, 2004)

Sheri’s relationship with Mark started falling apart about the time things started to turn around for her, about the time she hit bottom and started to rise. Mark was angry when she left him to go into the rehab program. I wrote this about the two of them during this time:

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.
(Blessed is the One who Comes, February 12, 2005)

From the time we first met Mark, he was a parole violator, though we didn’t know this until much later. He had served prison time for possession of a fairly significant quantity of heroin. He had violated his parole early on by failing to report, because he was "dirty:" he had lapsed and started using heroin again. But in November, he enrolled himself and Sheri in an outpatient methadone treatment program, and things started to turn around for them both (methadone is a heroin substitute that comes in liquid form). Some of the desperation that had characterized their life on the street faded, as they shed the burden of a fifteen-dollar-a-day habit. Before methadone, if they had a good night panhandling, they would buy both heroin and food. If they had a bad night, they only bought heroin. Heroin was the one constant in their lives, the speed of light in their personal universe. Sheri’s success in the detox program the second time around was probably partly due to the fact that she had already dealt with her heroin habit, and was now fighting just one addiction, alcohol, instead of two.

After Sheri went into the detox program, Mark did some stupid things that made him conspicuous in the neighborhood, a bad idea if you’re a parole violator. Eventually, he got picked up by the police, and was sent back to prison for a few months for his parole violation. While he was there, he wrote some very hurtful letters to us that were hard to read. He blamed us for breaking him and Sheri up, and even made some veiled threats. I didn’t write to him while he was in prison until the very end, because I didn’t know what to say, because I was hurt and angry and a little bit afraid of what would happen when he got out.

Mark was released from prison on July 31, and immediately tried to go into a supportive housing program where he could get drug rehab therapy and anger management classes, but there were no beds available. Instead, they put him in a roach-infested, crime ridden hotel where drug use was rampant. He stayed there for over two weeks, trying to stay clean, waiting for a space in the rehab center to open.

And then, apparently, he wavered.

(To be continued...)

Monday, August 22, 2005

Mark Castle: 1954-2005 (Part One of Three)

I never imagined it would end like this.

My relationship with Mark started out almost a year ago, with this post on September 10, 2004, just a few days after we arrived in the city:

The other night, we had our new friends Mark and Sheri over for a few hours to our new apartment. We met Sheri on the street corner last week, holding a little sign, "homeless, please help." We talked for awhile. The next evening, my wife sent the kids down to her with a plate of her very special chile relleno. Later, she introduced me to her husband Mark (he works the opposite corner); Sheri wanted me to meet him so I could beat a little God talk into him, but I told them I'm not really all that pushy about the whole God thing. I invited them to come over to our place and get washed up sometime. So they came over, took a shower, washed their clothes (it had been two months), had some tea, and we talked.

It ended with a card shoved into the doorjamb, waiting for us when we got back from a conference last Sunday night, a card left by an investigator of the Medical Examiner’s (i.e., coroner’s) Office: “Please Call RE. Mark Castle.”

Over the past year, we have met a lot of people on our corner. We have adopted this corner, made it an aspect of our commitment to living in community with the poor. If you stand out on our corner looking like you have noplace to go or run a sign there, we will share our food with you and listen to your stories, and sometimes we will share our money or open our home. It is our personal preferential option for the poor. In this way, we have brought drug addicts and alcoholics and people with psychological problems into our lives, and we have found our lives enriched by their presence. Over the past year, we met Michelle and Milton and Larry and Mike and Donald and those two kids whose names I don’t remember, who were too young to be on the damn street, and a few others.

But first of all came Mark and Sheri.

So much has happened between then and now. The changes really began when Sheri made the decision to go into a detoxification program to get clean and sober. She and Mark stayed over at our place that night for the first time, and the next morning, I went down with her to help her through the process. The day ended something like this:

As we sat together waiting for the van to come and take her to the treatment facility, a beautiful African-American woman, one of the social workers, came into the room, radiant and smiling at Sheri. She said, "You're going to be OK honey. Everything's gonna be all right. You're doing a really good thing." In a day that was measured in the incremental advances of bureaucratic negotiation, this was grace wholesale and unexpected. In that moment, her voice sounded more like the voice of Christ than anything I had ever heard.

I noticed that Sheri was still nursing the cup of coffee I had bought her that morning at the hospital, and mentioned it to her. She nodded, and said, "Yeah, I poured my vodka into it." She nodded to herself a couple more times, then peered meditatively into the cup and said, "It's my last one."

I walked across the parking lot after they picked her up, and unexpected tears flowed. It was a release of tension, of all the things that could have gone wrong, all the things that had gone wrong for Sheri in this terrible fucked up world. But today, one little thing went right.

She was three sheets to the wind when the van picked her up. But "the wind bloweth where it listeth," and the Spirit also moves in mysterious ways. Maybe today I bought Sheri her last drink.

You're going to be OK, honey. Everything's going to be all right.
(Three Sheets to the Wind, October 6, 2004)

Unfortunately, at the time I was naïve and overly optimistic. Sheri only lasted about seventy-two hours in the detox program, then walked out and went missing for almost two days. When we found her, she was gray and as near to death as any living person I have ever seen. She sat in our apartment eating cereal and nodding off between every bite. I was afraid she might die in our home.

But the second time around, a few months later, she went back into detox and stayed in.

(To be continued…)

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Of Mexico and M-16's

"Wow, Mike, this is pretty heavy duty stuff."

We were bouncing down a rural dirt road in Mexico that was getting worse by the mile. I was sitting in the back of a VW van belonging to Mike, a friend of mine from college. Bored, I had picked up a pamphlet lying in the back and started flipping through it. It was about how to survive gas warfare, with lots of handy diagrams as to how to get your chemical protection suit on right and your mask sealed so as to avoid a very messy death. Mike was a Marine reservist, and the pamphlet was apparently part of his training.

"If you think that's heavy duty, then don't look in the cabinet." Mike said.


"Why, what's in the cabinet?"

"I checked out an M-16 for target practice at the base range yesterday, and forgot to check it back in."

I froze, or at least sat as still as you can while bouncing down a dirt road that didn't seem to have been graded since dirt was invented.

"Mike! You have an M-16 in the cabinet?"


"Mike, you know that if the Federales catch us with an M-16, we'll be in Mexican prison for the rest of our foreseeable lives?"

"Yeah," said Mike unconcernedly, not taking his eyes off the road.

We were in Mexico to do relief work. Every couple of weekends, a group of us would get together, put well-drilling equipment on top of the van, flip a boat over the equipment, and then smuggle it down to a remote barrio. In this little village, people had to walk half a mile to get water from a shallow well that was polluted. We had a little hand well-drilling rig that used eight-foot lengths of pipe to drill, so every eight feet you had to stop the rig and install a new piece. We had been working for a couple of months, and had succeeded in getting down almost a hundred feet, but hadn't found water yet. The local authorities knew about our little public works project, but they hadn’t tried to interfere, because they were taking credit for it in the local newspaper.

Mike and I were both students at a Christian college a little north of the border. Despite my annoyance with him at that moment, I had a lot of admiration for Mike. At the college, we did a lot of talking about Christianity, a lot of reading, a lot of writing. But his was a strong, muscular version of Christianity that involved long dirt roads and hard, dusty work. His was a Christ of the barrios. I badly wanted that kind of faith for myself.

Mike lived a couple doors down from me in the dormitory. He had done missionary work in Africa. This was the guy who used to yell "Clear!" just before using an African blowgun to shoot poison-tipped darts down the length of the hallway into plastic milk jugs he set up at the far end. He was cheerfully insane. So the whole M-16 incident wasn't really much of a surprise.

I have so many memories of that time. I remember drinking cold Mexican Cokes in bottles to wash down the dust. I also remember drinking the water once or twice, despite all the “don’t drink the water” stories. And yes, I did catch something from it that stayed with me for months. I remember children, lots of children, who didn’t have any toys but could entertain themselves for hours with a piece of rope. Of course, when we were there, the primary entertainment was us, the gueros. El Oso was what they called Mike: “the bear.” Their favorite game was to sneak up behind him and tackle him and try to throw him into the ten-foot deep pit that was next to the well-drilling rig, where the people of the town had started digging for water by hand. Eventually he would topple over the edge, laughing, with seven or eight kids clinging to him.

I remember eating menudo, intestine soup, for the first and last time, which may have had something to do with my eventually becoming a vegetarian. I also remember handmade tortillas and the best fried chicken I ever had, eaten in the home of one of the local families. Sitting in the dim, smoky lantern light around a guitar, singing an impromptu Spanish translation of “Wild Thing” (Loca Cosa) that had us all in tears of laughter. Sleeping in an abandoned house with unexplained bullet holes in it, kept company by a little dog we named “Taco.”

I remember shaking the hand of a leper, looking down at the gnarled, twisted fingers, thinking I’d expected leprosy to look different, more dramatic somehow. Seeing shacks made of cardboard and scrap and old tires, leaning crazily to one side, with four, five children peeking out through the gaps. People living in whatever they could find to make some semblance of shelter. Children picking through the dump, looking for food.

If you’ve seen it, you don’t need me to tell you. If you haven’t, no words can ever be enough.

I remember standing for an hour in a hot shower in the dormitory afterwards, never understanding how something could feel so good and burn like shame at the same time.

We never did find water.

Somehow, all of this strikes me as a kind of parable, or maybe as a question. The question is, “Is it worth trying to accomplish something, trying to help someone else, even if you never succeed, even if the effort is doomed from the start?” Was it worth all the work that we and the people of the barrio put into the project, only to reach that last length of pipe, and still no water?

I don’t know what the people would say; they were the ones who continued to walk half a mile to get water that developed a rainbow-colored film on the top if you let it sit for awhile. Their lives were no different afterwards. But my life was. Something was growing in me during those trips, something I couldn’t name yet: a vast, swelling outrage. This should not be. No one should live like this. I should not be standing for an hour in a hot shower while they can’t even get clean water. There should not be a line that divides me from them, the rich from the poor, a line I can just saunter past, while they cannot.

I would never look at the world the same again.

Mike taught me that the greatest revolution of all can happen while the M-16 stays put in the cabinet.

Mike made me a guerilla.

To learn more about how to get involved in projects to assist the Mexican people, visit the website of Project Mexico.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Carmen's Story

Last week I got embroiled in a discussion on Fr. Johannes' Orthodoxy Today blog. Fr. Johannes had gone to a migrant worker center in Florida to help paint a school, and reported some things on his blog that the director of the center had told him. The discussion was about illegal immigration: why illegal immigrants come to America, how much money they send back to their countries of origin, and whether (or not) most of them return to retire in luxury. I participated for awhile, then got tired of it and dropped out. Fr. Hans remarked that I seemed to tire easily; I thought to myself that I am apparently not taking the "argumentational Viagra" of which some others seem to be partaking. My last word on the discussion was to ask Fr. Hans if he had taken time to listen to the people whom he had gone to serve, to hear their stories about how and why they came to the United States.

There is a Latina woman who comes to clean once a week at the office where I work; her name is Carmen. Carmen works quietly and doesn't say much; half the time I don't even know she's there until I go upstairs to get something and find her scrubbing the floors. So today, remembering my conversation with Fr. Hans, I decided to ask her about her story. I just happened to have a big lunch, a delicious homemade pizza made by the she-guerilla, with whole-wheat crust and heirloom tomatoes. So I invited her to share my lunch, and we talked.

I asked Carmen about where she was from: El Salvador, the Land of the Savior. Recently, I watched the movie
"Romero," about Archbishop Oscar Romero, the Catholic Archbishop of El Salvador, the great pastor de salvadoreños, who took a strong and radical stand against the government and the military on behalf of the poor of his nation, and was subsequently assassinated while serving the Mass on March 24, 1980. So I asked her if she knew about him. She did. She was eighteen years old when Archbishop Romero was assassinated. She remembered him as a "good man." She also told me "a lot of people in the Church got killed" during the civil war that pitted the Salvadorean aristocracy, backed by the military, against the poor people. She remembered waking up one morning and looking outside: "there were people with hoses, and they were washing the, sangre, how do you call it?" she asked.

"Blood," I told her.

"Si, the blood out of the church. Many people got killed there the night before."

Esta es mi sangre del nuevo testamento, que por muchos es derramada...

She also told me about the day her brother was shot. She told me that during the guerra, you never stayed out after 6 PM. But one night, her brother had to go out, and he was shot in the left shoulder, just above the heart. He came staggering through the door, blood pouring out between his fingers, and collapsed on the floor of their home. He almost died.

That was the day she and her sisters decided they had to leave El Salvador.

Her oldest sister left first for El Norte. She worked here for two years in order to send home enough money so that her two other sisters and brother could come to the US. I asked her if they came illegally. "Si, like everyone else." They were ineligible to apply for asylum as political refugees, because the US backed the Salvadorean government, funded its war against its own people, and denied that any atrocities were being committed. It didn't matter that they shot Monseñor Romero in broad daylight. It didn't matter that her brother almost died as well. It didn't matter that they were washing blood out of churches.

Now Carmen has her legal permanent residency in the US. I asked her if she ever thinks about going back. She went back to visit, one time, but she says she will stay in the US. The guerra is over, but she has moved on; her family is here, and she has only one aunt in El Salvador. She won't be going back and buying a big house and retiring in luxury.

We finished lunch, and she asked me to say gracias to my esposa for the pizza.

Up until now, I barely noticed Carmen, and when I did, I saw only a cleaning woman with a big smile that looked a little tired around the edges. But now, I see so much more: courage, nobility, strength, beauty. I see a woman who survived a war, who nursed her brother back from death's door with her own hands, who fled for refuge to this country, because it is a great country, and because despite the fact that we have a penchant for being on the wrong side of history, for supporting corrupt dictatorships and giving guns to military juntas to use against unarmed peasants, we also have opportunity here, even if that opportunity is often two-tiered and racist.

She deserves better than scrubbing my floors. I should be scrubbing hers.

I told Fr. Hans that I hope he will go back one day and ask those people about their stories. Not because I want to be proved right (although I do), but because you see people in different ways if you listen to their stories than if you just come and serve and leave, and all you ever hear is them humbly saying gracias.

We have so much more to learn from them.

"Si me matan, resucitare en el pueblo salvadoreño"

"If they kill me, I will rise again in the Salvadorean people."

--Monseñor Oscar Romero

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Tabor and Hiroshima

On August 6, the Orthodox Church celebrates the Feast of Transfiguration, when Jesus ascended Mount Tabor, and his disciples saw his true glory: "His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as the light." The Church Fathers say that this was a vision of the uncreated light, a light that transforms Jesus' human body without altering or destroying it, like the burning bush that Moses saw.

But on August 6, we also remember another kind of light, a light that shone over Hiroshima in 1945 with the brightness of a thousand suns. 75,000 people saw this light for the briefest instant before the blast of heat that followed incinerated their bodies, leaving their shadows etched into the walls as the only record they ever existed. Tens of thousands of others were burned by this scorching light, poisoned by radiation, or buried under falling rubble. Nearly all of those killed that day were noncombatants--women, children, and the elderly. Hiroshima was a civilian target, not a military one, chosen for its high concentration of people so as to maximize the effectiveness of the bomb.

It was the greatest single atrocity ever committed in wartime.

We now know that, contrary the way they have been portrayed, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were wholly unnecessary from a military perspective. Japan had been offering through Russia to surrender to the US, with the only condition being that they be permitted to keep their emperor. America refused, demanding "unconditional surrender," but also eager to try out its new "doomsday weapon" that would make America the world's first superpower. After dropping the two bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and when Japan still refused to budge, America accepted a surrender on September 2, 1945, under terms that allowed Japan to keep its emperor, a surrender that could have been negotiated under essentially identical terms on August 5.

A light that transfigures, a light that consumes: rarely has the choice been put in as stark of terms as it is on August 6. "Behold, I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Therefore choose life, so that you and your descendants may live" (Deut 30:19).

In my meditation this morning, I was reflecting on the subject of blessings and curses. Psalm 129 repeats the refrain "Often have they assailed me since my youth." a memory of past injuries that has become a defining storyline, an identifying narrative. The question is, when we have been assailed, attacked and wounded, what does it do to us? How does it change us, harden us? What do we wish for our assailants?

The psalmist's answer is that they should become like wheat-grass that grows on the rooftop, withering, producing no harvest, nothing for the reaper or the binder of sheaves; that their lives should prove fruitless, of no benefit to anyone, that the Lord's blessing should be withheld from them. I think of all those who bullied me when I was a child, who teased or physically assaulted me, as well as those who have attacked me in adulthood: when their faces swim up out of memory, my most consistent response is the secret hope that they have failed in life, that one day I will meet them again and be vindicated, proven superior. And I wonder, is this really our best hope, that the lives of those who injure us should come to nothing?

This curse, this withheld blessing, is my personal Hiroshima.

It occurs to me that in the history of the nation Israel, Israel's primary enemies, the Ishmaelites and the Edomites, are the legacy of two withheld blessings: Abraham's preference of Isaac and his refusal to acknowledge Ishmael, and Isaac's blessing given to Jacob and not to Esau. These two withheld blessings created generations of enmity, warfare, and death.

What kind of world are our withheld blessings creating?

Often have they assailed me since my youth,
This is my refrain,
Often have they assailed me since my youth,
But they have not made me like themselves.
The plowmen plowed my back
They made their furrows long:
Let a harvest of peace spring forth.

As for my assailants, let them flourish like a well-watered field
So that the reaper rejoices
And the arms of the binder of sheaves overflow.
Let them produce something of value,
Something of enduring benefit to the world,
For if they do not, it is to everyone's loss, including my own.

Let the blessing of the Lord be on them and us,
That they and we may flourish together
And that the power of the curse may be broken.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005


Psalm 24
Journal entry dated March 17, 2005

"The earth is the Lord's, and all that it holds."

What does it mean that the earth belongs to the Lord? At some level, this is a radical challenge to our notions of private property. It means that nothing truly belongs to us. It has been given to us for our use. The idea of ownership, the conception that this thing or place (or person) is exclusively mine and no one else's, is at the heart of all kinds of conflict between human beings.

That little word "mine" touched off our first infant squabbles, and has sent God knows how many millions to their deaths in wars and conflicts the cause of which no one remembers, other than to say that they were about possession.

"Not mine" - a spiritual discipline

The Selah Project

Monday, August 01, 2005

A world without desperation

Psalm 23
Journal entry dated March 16, 2005

"In the house of the Lord will I dwell for the rest of my days."

What does it mean to be a guest in the house of the Lord? The house of the Lord is the place where there is no lack, where a generous table is spread and there is food enough for all. The house of the Lord is the place where there is no fear, where the enemy does not come in to kill and to destroy.

This psalm is well-beloved by the comfortable and the complacent, by the Hallmark and Precious Moments spirituality crowd, by lovers of Thomas Kinkaid® everywhere. Part of me feels the need to rage against this psalm, or at least against this kind of self-satisfied appropriation of it. Wake up! The world is not like this for the vast majority of its inhabitants. Their cup does not run over. They know lack, and they know fear.

To be a guest in the house of the Lord is to inhabit that space where there is no fear or lack of anything. This is God's hospitality towards us, which we are called to imitate. It would be easier to do good in a world where there was no fear and no lack. Perhaps some would still steal, but no one would steal because he or his family was hungry. Perhaps some would still use violence, but no one would use violence out of fear of others. Or maybe a world without fear or lack would mean a world in which theft and violence have disappeared altogether. A world without desperation. What would a world without desperation look like?

The Selah Project