To the Weak I Became Weak – As Seen in a Powerful Commercial

blog10-16-2015The video at the bottom of this post is a heartwarming one with a surprise ending. I see in it an illustration of something St. Paul wrote of the essentially sacrificial nature of evangelization:

Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings (1 Cor 9:19-23).

To be clear, what St. Paul says here must be understood as solidarity and brotherhood, not compromise with sin or evil. At every level, St. Paul is willing to set aside anything in the moment that hinders the preaching of the truth of the Gospel. Every pretense, every honor, every distinction, every preference that interferes with the message of the Gospel message is forsaken where necessary. There is described here a great willingness for kenosis (emptying oneself).

And of course St. Paul is imitating Jesus, who,

though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross (Philippians 2:6-8).

Yes, it is remarkable that Jesus, though sinless, was not ashamed to be identified with sinners. And thus He took baptism at the Jordan. He associated with sinners and ate with them. He underwent the most humiliating punishment meted out to the worst of sinners. Yes, He was crucified, and between two thieves! Everyone walking by that Friday would have said, “Look at that sinner!” (which He was not). To us sinners, Jesus was willing to be seen as a sinner (though He was not), in order to save sinners. And He was assigned a grave with the wicked (Is 53:9).

There is an old saying that Jesus didn’t come only to get us out of trouble; He got into trouble with us. Yes, He endured every blow this world and Hell itself could give. Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen. Nobody but Jesus.

Surely he endured our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all (Isaiah 53:4-6).

Yes, He got into trouble with us and joined us in order to save us:

In bringing many sons and daughters to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through what he suffered. 11Both the one who makes people holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers He says, “I will declare your name to my brethren…” (Heb 2:9-11)

All these Scriptures ran through my mind as I watched this commercial. To be clear, there is no sin in paralysis. But here let it be a metaphor for our weakness, which the Lord took up, and for our sin, that though sinless, the Lord was willing to be identified with. And what of us? Can we be like St. Paul and imitate Christ in this matter?

Prophets Aren’t Perfect. They’re Prophets. A response to Critics of an American Prophet and a Defense of a Brother Blogger

012113Help me and another brother out here. I am getting concerned again. One of the best Catholic Bloggers, and a great promoter of Catholic presence on the Web, Brandon Vogt, is being lectured to by his “disappointed” his readers since he spoke of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as a “hero and prophet.”(His post is here: Martin Luther King – Hero and Prophet)

Wowza, his combox really lit up with lecturers and various levels of excoriators who hastened to remind him of King’s foibles, and of his political leanings that were not comfortable enough to them.

Truth be told, no true prophet really fits in, whether it be Dr. King or Brandon. Yes, we are dealing with stuff that is actually pretty much the norm for prophets. I am particularly mindful of Jeremiah, who was cast into prison for being “unpatriotic” (cf Jer 37-38), for he had prophesied that the Babylonians would conquer, if Israel did not repent.

Prophets just don’t fit in. They break through political distinctions, and tend to offend just about everyone, even as they also affirm across political boundaries.

Jesus was crucified “outside the gate” to symbolize that he fit nowhere in Israel’s little systems and categories. He was hated by all the political parties of his day: The Herodians, the Sadducees, the Pharisees, and the Zealots. They agreed on nothing, except this one thing: “Jesus has to go.” The Book of Hebrews admonishes, Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore (Heb 13:13). Here is a true disciple, a true Catholic, a true follower of Jesus, one who does not fit into the little parties of his day but thinks and acts beyond such restrictions.

I am not sure if Dr. King were alive today if he would be Republican or Democrat. I am not even sure if he would be pro-life.  I think he would, and perhaps he could have saved the Democratic Party from signing on to its, pro-death platform. His niece Alfreda seems to think he would have been prolife. I don’t personally know. But you know, it is a sad truth that we did not afford him the possibility to speak for himself.

Yes, we like our ancestors, tend to kill prophets, especially those who do not fit in to our little categories. Jesus had little patience for our categories, parties, factions and other little nicities:

Woe to you, because you build tombs for the prophets, and it was your forefathers who killed them. So you testify that you approve of what your forefathers did; they killed the prophets, and you build their tombs. Because of this, God in his wisdom said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and others they will persecute.’ Therefore this generation will be held responsible for the blood of all the prophets that has been shed since the beginning of the world, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who was killed between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, this generation will be held responsible for it all. (Luke 11:48-52).

Yes, we abort our babies and kill the prophets, and while we like to make nice little distinctions, in the end, dead still means dead. And Dr. King is no less dead in his imperfection than our babies are in their innocence.

We kill many who God sends to us. And instead of chirping about whether they belonged to the right party or were 100% virtuous, we ought to repent for what we have done as a nation. God’s martyrs don’t fall so nicely into our little worldly categories.

And as for those who will bring forth the “womanizer/adulterer charges against Dr. King, let us further reflect that prophets are not perfect. Moses was a murderer, so was David, and an adulterer besides. Isaiah went about preaching naked, Jonah was reluctant and an ultra-nationalist, St Paul had a bad temper, Jacob was a shyster, Peter was inconsistent and a denier, the Samaritan woman was adulteress, Mary Madelene had demons, seven of them, St Augustine was a fornicator, Jerome had an anger management issue. etc.

St. Paul, (did I mention that he had conspired to murder Christians, and had a bad temper?) spoke of us as carrying our treasure “in earthen vessels” (2 Cor 4:7).

If you have read this blog for any length of time, you know that I do not make light of sin. But if we are going to start insisting that priests and prophets be sinless and without struggles, then every blog must go dark, every pulpit go silent, every ministry and apostolate go inactive.

I do not know Dr. King’s sins. I have heard the rumors. But that is what they are, rumors. You will tell me you read it on the Internet and that the FBI “has a file.” Great, show me proof in writing, and make sure it is not fabricated. Until then, beware that gossip and the ruination of reputations is a very serious matter, and we need to be certain before to spread rumors.

And to the degree that Dr. King may have sinned and sinned seriously, what of the others listed above. But they repented you say. Yes I pray they did. But are you sure Dr. King did not? Are you certain that as he lay dying he did not call on God’s mercy?

We need to be very careful. For the measure that we measure to others will be measured back to us (Mat 7:2). Only the merciful will obtain mercy (Mat 5:7), and if we have not forgiven others neither will we be forgiven by the Father (James 2:13, Matt 6).

In the end no one can deny that Dr. Martin Luther King helped bring forth greater justice in this land. And he did so in a way that was profoundly in keeping with Jesus’ way, the way of love and non-violence. If God used an imperfect man to do this, that is God’s business not mine.

And as for Brandon Vogt, he is a fine Catholic and superb blogger who deserved better than to be treated as he was by many in his combox. I have noted many times before, (and paid dearly for it) that far too many Catholics are political before they are Catholic or biblical . Catholicism and Biblical Christianity do not fit into anyone nice little worldly category or political philosophy. Good prophets love God’s people and are just as likely to afflict the comfortable as comfort the afflicted. (We are all in both categories). True Catholicism does not fit perfectly into any political party. Catholic needs to trump party at every turn. Sadly it does not always do so.

If Dr. King doesn’t fit into our Catholic world perfectly, that should not wholly exclude him, We cannot, and should not canonize him, to do so would be patronizing. But in the end he did something important for this country and paid dearly for it. The Lord Jesus himself gives us a critical norm to follow in assessing others:

Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them. (Mat 7:17-20)

Maybe that is the best we can do with Dr. King, honor what God was able to accomplish through him, whatever his personal struggles, or hidden faults. The fruits of what he did were necessary even if “our party” or “our Church” was not the main way God chose to work it. It is horrifying and embarrassing to think that we tolerated as a country “Whites Only” signs, and “Colored” areas.

I pray one day we will be just as horrified that we ever tolerated and called a “right” the killing of the unborn. But killing prophets and narrow-casting Catholicism is no way to get there. Until we can demonstrate that we stand above narrow little political distinctions, our credibility and prophetic bona fides are easily assailed by a cynical world. We are not the Democratic Party at prayer, neither are we the Republican Party at prayer. We are Catholics and the Body of Christ at prayer.

Help me out here. I must once again lament the “death by a thousand cuts that we Catholic so easily visit on one another. Are there not enough secular opponents and critics that we must do this to one another? Come on Church, are you prayin’ with me?

Also here is a recent prayer of a Protestant minister and old friend of mine, Rev. Rob Schenck (His Brother Paul is a Catholic priest). Both are pro-life warriors and speak prophetically, praising what can be praised, and laying out what must be repented of.

On the Poverty of the First Christmas and the Gift to Love the Poor

One of the great gifts to be sought at Christmas is to experience an increase in our love the poor. Poverty, it is true, remains a complicated and vexing problem, especially in modern market based economies. Linked to poverty are complicated social issues such as addiction, single motherhood and the unintended though real consequences of welfare programs, as currently structured.

But none of these complexities can exempt us of our summons to care for the poor and to grow in love for them, yes to actually love them, not only serve them. How we will ultimately and best serve the poor or solve all the complex issues related to poverty may not always be clear to us. But to love them is to receive the God-given gift that will energize our zeal and serve as the true foundation for the persistent and consistent action that is so essential to lasting solutions.

This Christmas why not ask the gift to love the poor more deeply, with an abiding and deep affection?

For poverty and neediness are an intrinsic aspect of the Infancy narratives. The first Christmas was anything but charming or sentimental. It is charged with homelessness, hardship, a lack of decent resources, disregard for human life (by Herod), and the flight of the Holy Family as refugees and aliens in a foreign land.

Joseph and Mary, with Jesus were not destitute. They were among what we might call the working the poor. But one thing about be among the working poor, you’re always on the edge of an abyss. Most the benefits that the working middle and upper classes in our culture have, were unknown to Joseph and Mary.  And such benefits are also unknown to many of the working poor today, who, because of their part-time status, lack the benefits that cushion us from life’s vicissitudes. There was not security net for Joseph and Mary. There was no sick leave, vacation with pay, medical benefits and the like. If you were sick you missed work,  and didn’t get paid.  If there were a family crisis, you still had to work, or if you missed work, and again, so much for the pay.

Destitution for the working poor was always one or two paychecks away. Life was fragile and very dependent on the right combination of work and extended family ties. Any disturbance to this delicate balance could bring on real crisis. And in the Christmas story we see an ensuing crisis

Thus we see Joseph and Mary swept up in power move among the governing authorities to take a census. This was about power and taxes, and armies, it was about control. Scripture says, The poor man is devoured by the pride of the wicked: he is caught in the schemes that others have made (Ps 10:2. Grail).

Yes,  Joseph and Mary are swept away from their resources, their family, extended family, and Joseph from his livelihood. They are swept downstream some 70 miles to the town of Bethlehem at a critical time for their family, the 9th month of Mary’s pregnancy. Could you walk 70 miles? And what if you were pregnant? Artists depict Mary on a donkey. I have my doubts. Donkeys were expensive and it is unlikely that the working poor would have such an expensive animal. It may be that Joseph himself pushed Mary in a cart. We are left to wonder. But this was no pleasure cruise. It was a grave hardship and a major social dislocation. Life is fragile for the poor. This young family is torn from its supports and resources and made to travel 70 miles on foot to a distant town, and just hope arrangements could be found. The poor are caught in schemes others have made.

Homelessness awaited them. We may be content to think that that lodging was scarce in that city, swelled by an unexpected census. But the reality was likely more complicated. Lodging could likely have been found for the right price. But when you’re among the working poor, such certainties that money can supply are usually lacking. Should it matter that Joseph’s wife is nine months pregnant and due any moment? Apparently not. Human sympathy is a wonderful thing, but it is not a dependable thing when you don’t have the money or resources to inspire it in others. The poor can seek sympathy, but they may or may not get it.

Off to the stinking stable, the dank cave. Poverty does stink, and leads to deep and dank places. We may sentimentalize the birth of Jesus among animals, but there was nothing cute about it. The Church speaks reverently of the mystery of this moment: O magnum mysterium et admirabile sacramentum, ut animalia viderunt Dominum natum jacentem in praesepio! (O great mystery and wondrous sacrament, that animals would see the newborn Lord lying in a feedbox).

Yes, the wondrous mystery is that God so esteems poverty. But the disgrace of this remains at our door. It is a foreshadowing of the mystery of the cross. Yes, Christ saves us through it, but shame, shame on us. Shame that our Messiah had to endure this birth in a smelly cave, shame that we would later scorn and crucify him who said “Blessed are the poor” (Lk 6:20).

So poverty is an overarching theme in the infancy narrative. But ultimately the deepest poverty is upon us who so neglect the poor. For in neglecting them, we neglect the Lord and bring judgment on ourselves (cf Matt 25:41ff). And in this moment of the nativity story,  we neglect the Lord personally and historically as well well as mystically.

It is not long before we add the holy family to the list of refugees and resident aliens. For the fear of the powerful, in this case Herod, is such a powerful fear, that he fears even the poor.

The life of the Lord Jesus is despised and disrespected because his existence is inconvenient, threatening to Herod’s plans and his life as he knows it. Jesus must go. Somehow Herod is able to justify his infanticide. To him and those who support him, human life is not sacred, it is disposable, if it gets in the way of “more important goals” like power, plans, and personal advancement. Yes, Jesus must go, he is in the way.

In their flight from this infanticidal King they flee to Egypt. A terrible journey, made in haste without supplies. Perhaps they begged for food and shelter along the way? The stretch of desert from Gaza to Alexandria is a hellacious journey. Some friends recently road the bus from Bethlehem to Mt Sinai. Along the way the A/C on the bus broke. “It was terrible!” they said. Yes it was, but not so terrible as it was for Jesus, Mary and Joseph.

Refugees and Immigrants – Coming into this foreign land, perhaps they settled among fellow Jews, perhaps not. We do not Know. Was Joseph reduced to being a day laborer? How did he find work? What resources did the Holy family have? Were the Jews despised there? How stable were the conditions there, especially for the poor? The Scriptures are quiet.

But this much we know, they were strangers, aliens, immigrants, in a foreign land. They did not speak the king’s Egyptian, and likely lived from day to day. Herod died in 4 BC. If it is true that Jesus was born about 3 BC we can assume that they spent the better part of a year or two in Egypt, vulnerable and dislocated, refugees and immigrants, aliens, to use the legal term.

Do you Love Jesus, Mary and Joseph? Let me ask it another way: Do you love the poor, the homeless, the vulnerable, the despised, the refugee, the immigrant? Don’t turn Jesus, Mary or Joseph into an abstraction, for this is what they were in human terms at this crucial moment of their lives. Perhaps they knocked on doors and sought lodging or resources. Perhaps Joseph longed for, and sought work, perhaps Jesus needed clothes. Jesus’ life was threatened by infanticide just as today, poor infants, needy infants, physically deformed infants, are threatened with abortion.

Do you love the poor? Here is a gift to be sought at Christmas, that we can more deeply love the poor and be moved with compassion and zeal for their care.

Personal story – I am fifty years old, and for the last 27 of those fifty years I have attended Mass every day, read Scripture and prayed every day. And I must say, that as my communion with the Lord has deepened, so has my communion with all God’s people. I have seen love in me increase, not by my effort, but as the pure gift of God. I have seen an increase in compassion, my ability to for give, to be more generous, and to speak the truth in love.

And no one can go to Mass and read Scripture attentively every day for almost 30 years and not come away with an understanding that God loves the poor and is passionate about how we care for them.  As important as our ritual duties to God are, and we should keep them, God goes so far as to say:

  1. Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for a man to humble himself? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying on sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD? “This the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke. To share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter–when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? (Isaiah 58:6).
  2. Learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow. (Is 1:17)
  3. Rescue those being led away to death; hold back those staggering toward slaughter (Prov 24:11).
  4. And if you spend yourselves in behalf of the hungry and satisfy the needs of the oppressed, then your light will rise in the darkness, and your night will become like the noonday. (Is. 58:10)
  5. He who does not oppress anyone, but returns what he took in pledge for a loan. He does not commit robbery but gives his food to the hungry and provides clothing for the naked. He does not lend at usury or take excessive interest. He withholds his hand from doing wrong and judges fairly between man and man. He follows my decrees and faithfully keeps my laws. That man is righteous; he will surely live, declares the Sovereign Lord (Ezekiel 18:7-9)
  6. Rescue the weak and needy; deliver them! (Ps 82:4)
  7. This is what the LORD says: Do what is just and right. Rescue from the hand of his oppressor the one who has been robbed. Do no wrong or violence to the alien, the fatherless or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place. (Jer 22:3)
  8. Therefore, O king, be pleased to accept my advice: Renounce your sins by doing what is right, and your wickedness by being kind to the oppressed. It may be that then your prosperity will continue.” (Daniel 4:27)

And there are literally a hundred other similar verses that speak of God’s passionate concern for the poor and how we treat them. I have read these verses over and over in the Liturgy and I must say, I have not come away from them unchanged.

It is very clear to me that it is not enough for me to go to church, say my prayers, live chastely and be nice to my friends. God is also passionate about how I treat the poor and the needy. And I have also personally come to discover that merely doing good to them or writing a check is not enough. The gift that God has given me is to love the poor, more and more.

There are many debates about how best to care for the poor. Is is the government’s duty? Is it the private sector’s duty? Is is families and churches? It is all of these.

But even more, it is your responsibility and mine. Otherwise the “charming” Christmas story of no room in the Inn comes “home” to roost in our own living room, and the injustice of that moment is ours, not some rude and insensitive inn keeper of 2,000 years ago.

God is passionate about the poor and how we care for them. There is simply no other possible conclusion in the face of overwhelming Scriptural evidence.

But how do it? How will we ever make the right choices and get the balance right? How will we ever address the complicated social conditions that give rise to poverty? How do we decide who is most deserving in the face of limited resources? A thousand questions come to mind. But it begins simply here: Love them. Ask for a deep affection and an abiding love for the poor. And not a pitying love, but a respectful love that understands the special esteem God has for them and the close self-identification Jesus makes with them (cf Matt 25:41ff). A love that understand that, though they may need us now, we will need them in the age to come at the judgment.

A final story. When I came to my current assignment, the parish finances were in some distress. And, thanks be to God, through Biblical tithing, we have once again attained financial stability. But together with the Parish Council and Financial Council we have also attained a consensus that we but do better for the poor. In a parish with a budget of 1.2 million dollars, only $10,000 had been set aside for the poor. We have been changing that over the last few years and are now close to $100,000. It became unthinkable to us that that we were spending almost a million dollars a year on ourselves, on altar cloths, and  sanctuaries (important), etc.,  and yet many poor in our area were not properly clothed and were loosing the sanctuaries of their homes.

Once having set our social concerns budget at 10% of the whole budget we have only just begun, for additionally we must care for the poor and needy through second collections and the Lenten appeal. I do not say any of this as a boast, just as a testimony of what God put in our hearts and in our capacity to do.

Do you love the poor? Ask for this gift this Christmas. God could not be more pleased with such a gift request.

Some Statistics About Poverty in the US

Painting above: The Flight to Egypt by Henry Tanner.

Remembering the Hidden Costs of Our Affluence

Though we are in tough economic times we Americans live very well. Even the poorest among us live like royalty compared to the poor in many other parts of the world. And we do well, especially in Lent, to recall that our standard of living is partially possible because others work for pennies to produce our many consumer products.

A Worm in the Apple? In today’s Washington Post there was an article that draws me to consider anew my need to remember the poor. The article gives a look behind the scenes of how our relatively inexpensive electronic products are made. The article is entitled “Mike Daisey Discovers the Worm in Apple.” Daisey is a storyteller and has a show at a local theater entitled “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs.” In it, he recalls a trip he made last year to China where, he was given tours of the factories where Apple Hardware is assembled. Here let me quote some excerpts from the article written by Jane Horwitz:

Daisey traveled last spring to Shenzhen, China, where Apple’s and other companies’ hardware is made by subcontractors such as Foxconn. He posed as a businessman to gain access to many factories and used an interpreter to talk with workers.

Daisey was appalled by the working conditions — factory floors packed with 25,000 and more workers, some children, doing 12- and 18-hour shifts or longer, living in cramped quarters and shadowed by factory security people.

“I expected it to be bad. I expected it to be harsh. I was not actually prepared for how dehumanizing it was. I wasn’t actually prepared for the scale of it. .That was what shocked me,” Daisey says

Learning how his beloved iPhone, iPad and other gadgets were made broke his heart, he says. “I miss the pleasure of browsing technology in a world where the consequences didn’t cost people’s lives. I miss a sort of unfettered world where the big questions were what [a device’s] specifications were ….. a sort of techno-libertarian landscape that I didn’t even fully know that I inhabited…..”

Daisey portrays Apple co-founder Jobs not as a villain, but as a tough visionary who has yet to be enlightened about the China issue.

The full article is here: Worm in the Apple

A few thoughts on this

  1. Our modern economy is almost a miracle: Relatively inexpensive goods, plentiful variety, year round produce, quick delivery, and few shortages. I said it is almost a miracle. For the truth is our abundant and relatively inexpensive products are often made possible for us because many in the world work for pennies to produce them. As Daisey notes they often have terrible working conditions and long hours as well. It seems almost impossible to me that I can buy a decent shirt for under $20, especially when I consider the cost of the materials, shipping and overhead. It has to be the cheap labor that makes it possible. The same is true for our marvelous electronics. They are often astonishingly inexpensive considering what we get. Here too, considering all the parts, research and development costs, shipping, overhead and all. Again, it has to be the labor costs that are low. Daisey’s portrait here confirms that.
  2. I realize that economies are complicated things. I am not an economist and cannot easily envision a different way. It is possible that in trying to fix this problem of inequity, we may make things worse for the poor. It often seems the most dangerous thing the poor can hear is: Hi, we’re from the government and we’re here to help you.
  3. But noting that there IS a problem may be the first stage of justice. We human beings like to stay sleepy. We don’t like to ask too many questions like, “Where did this product come from and how can it possibly be so cheap?” Questions like these are uncomfortable, because deep down, most of us know the answer isn’t pretty. So we don’t ask, we don’t even wonder. But honestly we should ask, we should wonder, and we should face the truth, that a lot of our comfort and prosperity, a lot of our cheap products, are made possible because others, who supply us, live with far less and are paid little.
  4. The Pope on sleepiness – Regarding our sleepiness, our wish to remain drowsy and dreamily unaware of injustice, the Pope has a remarkable mediation in his new book, Jesus of Nazareth, Vol II. He is meditating here on the summons that Jesus gave the disciples in the Garden to “stay awake and watch, lest they give way to temptation” (Mk 14). The Pope writes: Across the centuries it is the drowsiness of the disciples that opens up possibilities for the power of the evil one. Such drowsiness deadens the soul, so that it remains undisturbed by the power of the evil one at work in the world, and by all the injustice and suffering ravaging the earth. In its state of numbness, the soul prefers not to see all this; it is easily persuaded that things cannot be so bad, so as to continue in the self-satisfaction of its own comfortable existence. Yet this deadening of souls, this lack of vigilance….is what gives the evil one power in the world. On beholding the drowsy disciples, so disinclined to rouse themselves, the Lord says, “My soul is very sorrowful , even to death.”
  5. It is easy to feel overwhelmed in the face of so complex an issue, an issue involving a world-wide economy with 100,000 moving parts, not mention many governments, some of them corrupt, and a complicated interplay between money, materials and manpower. What is the best solution? Is it a boycott? Is it protests? Daisey suggests in the article that maybe we ought to stop upgrading our stuff for a while to send a message. But would that really help the poor, or would it possibly cause them greater harm? Here a scripture comes to mind: The poor are caught in schemes that others have made (Ps 10:2).
  6. Personal Reform? This is not an economic blog, and not a political one. Hence I do not propose immediate solutions along those lines, if they even exist. What I do propose is a more personal reform. I propose that we ask questions of ourselves and others, that we ponder justice. That we develop a greater love and solidarity for the poor, many of whom are integral to our “miracle” economy (troubled though it currently is). Perhaps we can consider being personally more generous to the needy and the poor when we are given opportunities to do so. Gratitude to the God is essential for all we have, but part of this gratitude should also include deep prayer to God for the world’s poor, many of whom supply our economy by their blood, sweat and tears. And as our love of the poor deepens, our desire of justice for them also grows.
  7. Personal practice – The next time I pick up that tomato at the store, perhaps I can consider that some one far less affluent that I may have picked or processed it. The next time I gleefully open the box with the brand new computer, filled with excitement as on Christmas morning, I ought to remember the Chinese peasant who may have had a hand in assembling it and who could never dream of owning one that nice for himself.
  8. Ask God for a deeper love for the poor, the many unknown souls who are the hidden foundation and the hidden cost in our inexpensive products. Demanding draconian solutions may not be what is best, but love and gratitude for the poor will surely lay a foundation for greater justice and a desire to find creative solutions.
  9. One Day God came to Cain and asked, Where is your brother? As if also to say, How is your brother? Account for me as to his welfare. Cain shrugged, Am I my brother’s keeper? (cf Gen 4:9). Well you know the answer. We ARE the keeper, we ought to have care for the welfare of others. In Lent we ought to pray for a deepening care for the welfare of others.

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The Hell There Is – A Meditation on the Gospel for the 26th Sunday of the Year

In the Gospel for today about the rich man and Lazarus the Lord gives us some important teachings on judgment and on hell. Now it is a fact that we live in times where many consider the teaching on Hell to be untenable. Many struggle to understand how a God described as loving, merciful and forgiving can assign certain souls to Hell forever. No matter that the Doctrine of Hell is taught extensively in Scripture and quite a lot by Jesus himself, the doctrine does not comport well with many modern notions and emphases of God, and, hence many think  it has to go.

But this reading goes a long way to address some of the modern concerns about Hell and so we ought to look at it. Prior to doing that however it might be important to state why Hell has to exist. I have done that more extensively on this blog here:   However I summarize that lengthier article in the nest paragraph

Hell has to exist essentially for one reason: “Respect.” God has made us free and respects our freedom to chose his Kingdom or not. Now the Kingdom of God is not a mere abstraction. It has some very specific values and these values are realized and experienced perfectly in heaven. The values of the Kingdom of God include: Love, kindness, forgiveness, justice to the poor, generosity, humility, mercy, chastity, love of Scripture, love of the truth, worship of God, God at the center and so forth. Now the fact is that there are many people in our world who do not want a thing to do with chastity, or forgiveness, or being generous and so forth. And God will not force them to adopt and live these values.  While it is true that everyone may want to go to heaven, heaven is not merely what we want, it is what it is, as God has set it forth. Heaven is the Kingdom of God and the values thereof in all their fullness. Hence there are some (many?) who live in such a way that they consistently demonstrate that they are not interested in heaven, since they are not interested in one or many of the Kingdom values. Hell “has to be” since God respects their freedom to live in this way. Since they demonstrate they do not wnat heaven, God respects their freedom to choose “other arrangements.”

Now this  leads to today’s Gospel which we can see in three stages.

1. The Ruin of the Rich Man As the Gospel opens we see described a rich man (some call him Dives, which simply means “rich”). There was a rich man who dressed in purple garments and fine linen and dined sumptuously each day. Now it is clear he lives very well as has the capacity to help the poor man, Lazarus,  outside his gate. But he simply does not. His sin is not so much one of hate, but of indifference. He is living in open rejection of one of the most significant Kingdom values, that of the love of the poor. His insensitivity is a “damnable sin” in the literal sense since it lands him in Hell. So the ruin of this rich man is his insensitivity to the poor.

Now the care of the poor may be a complicated matter and there may be different ways of accomplishing it, but in no way can we ever consider ourselves exempt from caring for the poor if it is in our means to help them. We simply cannot avoid judgement for our greed and insensitivity. As God said in last week’s reading from Amos regarding those who are insensitive to the poor: The LORD has sworn by the pride of Jacob: Never will I forget a thing they have done! (Amos 8:7)  God may well “forget” many of our sins (cf Is 43:23; Heb 8:12) but apparently, trampling the poor and disregarding their needs isn’t one of them.

Hence this rich man has willfully and repeatedly rejected the Kingdom and is ruined by his greed and insensitivity. He lands in Hell since he doesn’t want heaven where in the poor are exulted (cf Luke 1:52) Abraham explains the great reversal to him: ‘My child, remember that you received what was good during your lifetime while Lazarus likewise received what was bad; but now he is comforted here, whereas you are tormented.

2. The Rigidity of the Rich Man– Now you might expect the rich man to be finally repentant and to have a change a heart but he does not. Looking up into heaven he seems Lazarus next to Abraham. Rather than finally seeing Lazarus’ dignity and seeking his forgiveness, the rich tells Abraham to send him to Hell with a pail of water in order that the rich man might be refreshed. He still sees Lazarus as beneath him (even though he has to look up to see him). He sees Lazarus as a “step and fetch errand boy” and wants him to come to Hell. Notice too, the rich man does NOT ask to be admitted to heaven!  He is unhappy with where he is but still does not seem to desire heaven and the Kingdom of God with all its values. So he has not really changed. He is regretful of his currently tormented condition but does not see or desire heaven as a solution to that. Neither does he want to appreciate Lazarus’ exalted state. He wants to draw him back to the lower place he once occupied.

Now this helps explain why Hell is eternal. It would seem that there is a mystery of the human person which we must come to accept. Namely,  that we come to a point in our life where our character is forever fixed, where we no longer change. When exactly this occurs is not clear. Perhaps it is death that effects this fixed quality. The Fathers of the Church often thought of the human person as clay on a potter’s wheel. As long as it is on the wheel and moist it can be molded, changed and fashioned. But there comes a moment when the clay is taken off the wheel and placed in the fiery kiln (judgment day (cf1 Cor 3:15)) and it’s shape is forever fixed and cannot be changed. The rich man manifests this fixed quality. He has not changed one bit. He is unhappy with his torments and even wants to warn his brothers. But he apparently does not intend to change or somehow experiences his incapacity to change. Hence,  Hell is eternal since we will not change there. Our decision against the Kingdom of God and its values (a decision which God respects) is forever fixed.

3. The Reproof of the Rest of Us – As already noted, the rich man, though he cannot or will not change, would like to warn his brothers. Perhaps if Lazarus would rise from the dead and warn his brothers they would repent! Now let’s be clear, we are the rich man’s brethren. And we are hereby warned. The rich man wants exotic measures but Abraham says no, ‘They have Moses and the prophets. Let them listen to them.’ The rich man replied, ‘Oh no, father Abraham, but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’ Then Abraham said, ‘If they will not listen to Moses and the prophets,  neither will they be persuaded if someone should rise from the dead.'”  Of course, this reply is dripping with irony given Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. That aside, the fact is we should not need exotic signs to bring us conversion. The phrase “they have Moses and the Prophets” is a Jewish way of saying, they have Scripture.

And the scriptures are clear to lay out the way before us. They give us the road map to heaven and we have but to follow it. We ought not need an angel or a ghost, or some extraordinary sign. The Scriptures and the teachings of the Church are sufficient. Their instructions are clear enough: Daily prayer, daily scripture, weekly Eucharist, frequent confession all lead to a change of heart wherein we begin to love the Kingdom of God and its values. We are more merciful, kind, generous, loving toward the poor and needy, patient, chaste, devout, self controlled and so forth.

In the end we have to be clear: Hell exists. It has to exist for we have a free choice to make and God will respect that choice even if he does not prefer our choice. You and I are free to choose the Kingdom of God,  or not. This Gospel also makes it clear that our choices lead ultimately to final and permanent choice wherein our decision is forever fixed. The modern world needs to sober up. There is a Hell and its existence is both reasonable and in conformity with a God who both loves us and respects our freedom.

This Homily can be heard here:

On Recovering a Wider Sense of Justice

There has been a tendency in the Church in recent decades to divide out the teachings of the Church into separate and often “competing”  realms. On the one hand there are said to be the basic moral teachings that include our duty to worship God, tell the truth, obey biblical sexual norms and the like. On the other hand there are said to be “social justice” teachings that include care for the poor, justice to the worker, the accused, the rightful distribution of resources, respect for racial equity and so forth. That social justice should have separated out into a category is problematic for at least two reasons.

  1.  All sin involves injustice for by it we fail to render to God, ourselves and/or others what is due. I will develop this in a moment.
  2.  The separation leads to entrenchment and isolation within the Church. Some who are more traditionally minded will tend to speak of those who emphasize the social doctrine of the Church as the “Peace and Justice Crowd” and are offended at their apparent “neglect” of pro-life issues or “fuzziness” on other doctrinal matters. Likewise, the recipients of that title can tend to see themselves as the last bastion of true prophecy and see traditional Catholics as selective in their faith.  So both sides have grievances and perceptions that also get mixed in with political viewpoints. The result is entrenched camps, rather  than the union which Christ seeks.

I want, then, to take a moment and address the first point particularly. At some level we have to see that all sin is injustice. For example, failing to care for the poor and fornication are both sins and both offend against justice. My ultimate hope is to chip away at the artificial wall separating so-called “justice” matters from other moral realms.

What is Justice?  Perhaps the most straight-forward definition of justice is to give to another what is due.  The Catechism elaborates this just a bit: Justice is the moral virtue that consists in the constant and firm will to give their due to God and neighbor. Justice toward God is called the “virtue of religion.” Justice toward men disposes one to respect the rights of each and to establish in human relationships the harmony that promotes equity with regard to persons and to the common good. The just man, often mentioned in the Sacred Scriptures, is distinguished by habitual right thinking and the uprightness of his conduct toward his neighbor. (CCC # 1807)

Hence it can be seen how every sin in some way offends against justice. To have idols, to use God’s name in vain or to swear falsely by it, to neglect to pray and worship God, especially on Sunday, is to fail to give God what is due. To refuse to give honor and respect to elders is to fail to give what is due. To refuse to obey lawful authority not only fails to give what is due to them but also offends against others, for it offends against good order. To kill or endanger the life of another is to fail to reverence their life as sacred, a debt which is due to everyone. To bear false witness or to lie is to fail in giving the truth which others are due and on which they depend. To steal is offend against justice by usurping for oneself what is NOT due and to fail to respect the lawful recognition of another’s rightful property. Many other sins and injustices stem from neglecting this command which are too numerous to detail here but on which I have written more here: The Forgotten Principle of Social Justice .  To covet or show forth greed is to hoard more than we rightfully need. To the poor and needy is due a care from our excess and to deprive them of this help so that we can hoard is to fail to give what is due.

Now, as a way of going into greater depth I would like to take the sixth commandment and sexual morality and look at how it relates to justice. I do this because I think, of all the sins, sexual morality is the most divorced from notions of justice when it is discussed. I want to explore for a moment how sexual immorality is a violation of justice as much, if not more, than any other sin.

Let’s take the fornicator for example. I am going to define fornicator here as one who willfully engages in pre-marital heterosexual activity. As we have discussed before “fornication” can mean other things but, for the sake of discussion, let’s limit it as I have suggested. How does the fornicator sin against justice?

  1. They sin against their own body which does not in fact belong to them. Hence a double injustice occurs. Scripture says, Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a man commits are outside his body, but he who sins sexually sins against his own body (1 Cor 6:18). The Same passage also says of our bodies Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body (1 Cor 6:18). Hence the fornicator fails to give due reverence to their own body, and also fail to give due reverence to God whose temple the body is. Further to use something in a way that does not correspond to the wishes of the owner is a failure of justice. God has “purchased” our body and as owner is offended by fornication, to fail to respect his wishes is to fail to give him what is his due as the true owner of our body.
  2. The Fornicator is unjust to the married, and to all who depend on marriage by harming marriage. Sexual intercourse is a joy, a pleasure and a right given to married. In sharing a common pleasure accessible only by means of marriage the married couple is strengthened in mutual affection  and drawn to deeper unity. But when the unmarried start usurping the rights of the marriage bed they undermine an important motivator and unifying factor for marriage. Since this pleasure, meant to be restricted to the married state, is now commonly appropriated by the unmarried we see that marriage is in decline. High divorce rates are combined with declining marriage rates. When promiscuity is rampant marriage is harmed. Any study of current statistics on marriage will see how seriously marriage and family have been impacted by, among other things,  rampant promiscuity. Scripture speaks of promiscuity as a sin against justice due the institution of marriage: Marriage is to be held in honor among all, and the marriage bed is to be undefiled; for God will judge fornicators and adulterers (Heb 13:4). Hence reverence is due to marriage and to fail to give due reverence is a sin against justice and against the married and all who depend on its strength as an institution.
  3. Fornicators are unjust to those with whom they fornicate. They do this by tempting another to sin and by thus taking advantage of the weakness of another. We have a duty to protect one another from unnecessary and avoidable temptation. Others have a right to expect us to act in uprightness and truth toward them. To lust after another and exploit their weakness is an injustice toward them no matter how consenting they may seem. There is also the difficult to measure pain caused by broken hearts: those who have been used as sexual objects then discarded, those who have been betrayed, those who have paid a heavy price for their own transgressions. Scripture says: It is God’s will that you should be sanctified: that you should avoid sexual immorality; that each of you should learn to control his own body in a way that is holy and honorable, not in passionate lust like the heathen, who do not know God; and that in this matter no one should wrong another or take advantage. The Lord will punish men for all such sins, as we have already told you and warned you(1 Thess 4:1-6). Hence notice that the passage says we should not wrong another person by taking advantage of them in this matter.
  4.  The Fornicator sins against the wider community by helping set loose many social factors that tax the community or nation. Promiscuity brings venereal diseases, AIDS, teenage pregnancy, abortion, unwed mothers left to raise their children alone. To contribute to these negative social factors is unjust to others who must pay for the fornicator’s irresponsibility.
  5. The fornicator is unjust to Children.  The biggest losers in the explosion of promiscuity is children. Fornicators first  put children potentially at greater risk of abortion. Most fornicators claim that such is not the case since they use contraceptives (a sin in itself). But contraceptives routinely fail and it is demonstrable that higher rates of promiscuity have corresponded to higher rates of abortion. Hence fornication endangers the life of children. We have a duty to respect their lives and not endanger them. Secondly the fornicator sins against children by potentially and likely subjecting them to an irregular family situation: absent and/or irresponsible fathers, children unjustly deprived of a complete family, mothers raising children alone, strange visitation rules, etc. It is reported that the leading cause of poverty in this nation is single motherhood. We have already seen above how fornication and promiscuity have affected the divorce rate and this too harms children. Children are due something better than the poisonous climate which most of them have to inherit today. It is an injustice that we subject them to this. It is interesting that right after teaching against divorce in Mark 10, Jesus taught the disciples to let the little children come unto him and not hinder them. (cf  Mk 10:1-16)

Well, other things could be mentioned, but allow these to demonstrate how sexual morality is in fact a matter of justice. It is linked to questions of giving what is due, to matters of poverty and distribution of resources, to care of children, education and so forth.

It is important for us to reconnect matters than have often been divided out. This will assist both sides of this artificial division to speak a common language again.

That said, it is a true fact that some matters of sin and injustice are clearer than others. Whether or not to fornicate or have an abortion are pretty cut and dry. Either you do it or not and it is clearly identified as wrong. But how to best care for the poor is a matter over which reasonable people differ. Likewise, determining exactly what is due to the poor or exactly what is most just is not always certain. But that we should care for the poor is a matter of justice, the same justice that demands we reverence God, honor elders and those authority, not kill or endanger others lives, refrain from illicit sexual union, speak the truth, and not succumb to greed.

To be just is to give to God and others what is due. This is so across the board and is not a truth of only some of the commandments. The Church speaks a common language of justice that does not simply appeal to one side of the political debate or exist in one sector of the Church. God’s law is the expression of his justice and we are called to that justice in every aspect of life: Justice enhanced by charity and mercy.

This video series looks interesting and that Fr. Corapi may be trying break  down the artificial barriers too. Looks like a big crowd at the event!

Justice for the One And for the Many

 Perhaps you’ve read that something horrible happened in Washington State early Sunday Morning. Here is a brief press release:
PARKLAND, WA (KPLU)A gunman killed four police officers at a Parkland area coffee shop Sunday morning. A massive manhunt is underway in Pierce County to find the shooter. The shooting happened at 8:15 a.m. at Forza Coffee on Steele Street South, near McChord Air Force Base. The four officers were with the Lakewood Police Department. They have been identified as Sergeant Mark Renninger and Officers Ronald Owens, Tina Griswold, and Greg Richards. The four were in full uniform, wearing bullet-proof vests. They were working on their laptops, beginning their day shifts, when the gunman entered the coffee shop and shot them at close range.
Police are seeking Maurice Clemmons, age 37, in connection with this case. Though there is little doubt that he is the killer, even if he is not it is still stunning that a man like this is walking our streets. Here is a brief summary of his criminal record:
  1. Sentenced to 5 years for robbery in Pulaski County, Aug. 3, 1989.
  2. Sentenced to 8 years for burglary, theft and probation revocation in Pulaski County, Sept. 9, 1989
  3. Sentenced to an indeterminate amount for aggravated robbery and theft in Pulaski County, Nov. 15, 1989
  4. Sentenced to 20 years each for burglary and theft of property in Pulaski County, Feb. 23, 1990.
  5. Sentenced to 6 years for firearm possession in Pulaski County, Nov. 19, 1990.
  6. Some sentences were concurrent and some consecutive. But the total effect of all these sentences was a sentence of 108 years.
  7. On May 3, 2000, Gov. Mike Huckabee commuted Clemmons’ sentence to 47 years, 5 months and 19 days, which made him eligible for parole that day. The Parole Board granted his parole July 13, 2000. He was released Aug. 1, 2000.
  8. Clemmons then returned to prison for a July 13, 2001 conviction for robbery in Ouachita County, for which he received a 10-year sentence. He was paroled March 18, 2004.
  9. In May of 2009 Clemmons punched a sheriff’s deputy in the face, according to court records. The Officer was responding to a domestic violence call. As part of that incident, he was charged with seven counts of assault and malicious mischief.
  10. Most recently Clemmons had been in jail in Pierce County for the past several months on a pending charge of second-degree rape of a child. He was released from custody just six days ago, even though he was facing  at seven additional felony charges in Washington state. Clemmons posted $15,000 Bond for release.

So there you have it, 13 felony convictions, including aggravated robbery and theft, third-degree assault, and second-degree rape of a child.

Even should he be found not connected with this horrible murder, there are many questions. What is Maurice Clemmons doing walking the streets? How could Governor Huckabee have paroled him? How did he obtain release from prison so shortly after offending again in 2001? Yet again he evaded serious assault charges and, most grievous of all, he was released from custody after raping a child! Can it really be true that $15,000 is all it takes to walk free after raping a child? Should Maurice Clemmons be walking our streets? Surely not.

So, What does this have to do with a Catholic blog? Simply this. I want to raise with you a consideration of  justice  and well ordered love. In considering questions of justice it has been most common in the past 40 years to have the emphasis fall on the rights and needs of the individual. There is clearly a place for such considerations. Justice cannot always be merely what the majority thinks. But neither can the common good be wholly set aside. This is especially true in matters of public safety. The record above shows that a very dangerous man is currently walking our streets. This is neither just nor is it sensible.  We may all want to show some leniency from time to time. Severe justice for first time offenders may not always be warranted. But there comes a time when greater charity and justice has to be shown to the public and the common good must outweigh any personal charity we may wish to extend.

The current record of our Criminal Justice System is that we simply do not seem to have the will to keep even very dangerous criminals locked up. They walk away from lengthy sentences after very short times. They usually offend again and we still let them go early from subsequent sentences. In the popular mind social justice is usually equated with the rights of prisoners. But true social justice cannot forget the common good and must weigh it in the balance with prisoner rights.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church has this to say:

Legitimate defense can be not only a right but a grave duty for one who is responsible for the lives of others. The defense of the common good requires that an unjust aggressor be rendered unable to cause harm. ….The efforts of the state to curb the spread of behavior harmful to people’s rights and to the basic rules of civil society correspond to the requirement of safeguarding the common good. Legitimate public authority has the right and duty to inflict punishment proportionate to the gravity of the offense. Punishment has the primary aim of redressing the disorder introduced by the offense. When it is willingly accepted by the guilty party, it assumes the value of expiation. Punishment then, in addition to defending public order and protecting people’s safety, has a medicinal purpose: as far as possible, it must contribute to the correction of the guilty party. (CCC # 2265-2266)

It is therefore clear that we do not detain and/or punish to exact revenge. Rather we do so for a twofold purpose: to protect the common good by ending the disorder caused by wrongdoers. And, secondly for the medicinal purpose of correcting the guilty party insofar as possible.

Somewhere it seems we have lost balance. Too often the common good is neglected, even wholly set aside in decisions related to criminal justice. Public authority must discover anew its grave duty to the common good and particularly to the lives of others. Good intentions are not enough. Real people get harmed and killed when we get the balance wrong. Ask the families of the four police officers killed. Ask the many people who were held up at gun point by Mr. Clemmons. Ask the child who was raped by him.

From 2000-2007 I was pastor in a very rough part of town here in DC. We just called it the “hood.” Every week there were shootings. At least once a month a murder took place on our streets. Two of the murders took place right on Church grounds, one during the school day when our school was in session. In every case, the perpetrators of these murders had rap sheets a mile long: armed robbery, car theft, selling and possession, attempted murder, actual murder. But they walked our streets. Arrested on very serious charges they were out in days. When trial finally came, sometimes years later,  they had already offended in other ways. When sentence was passed they served only tiny portions of their sentence and were back out. Nothing, it seemed, would cause a re-evaluation of this revolving door “justice.” And in the hood we lived with fear we should have had. We experienced crime we shouldn’t have.

The common good is not some abstraction. It is about real people. We cannot simply toss the rights of prisoners and accused to the winds. But neither can we simply disregard the common good.  The murder of these fine police officers is just as much a matter of justice as poor prison conditions or overly severe sentencing guidelines. True justice is about balance. Individual rights? Yes. The Common Good? Yes again.

Pray for these brave officers and their families: Sergeant Mark Renninger and Officers Ronald Owens, Tina Griswold, and Greg Richards. Requiescant in Pace.