Category Archives: Power

Did I ever tell you about that one time I faced a group of angry protesters?

This would have been back during the fight over the Affordable Care Act/Obamacare, which my organization supported on policy grounds. It was summer, and we were, like the foolishly idealistic policy wonks that we were, trying to educate our members about what was and wasn’t in this significant piece of health care legislation, explain the impact on the 50+ population we represented, and answer any questions or concerns that they had.

This was when the Tea Party really took off.

I was not the primary front man for most of these excursions, something for which I still experience some guilt. But there was one that was set up by a volunteer leader of ours in Volusia County that I was going to lead. He had done a great job of lining up a meeting space and because it was limited in size (and we had heard by this point that these sorts of events were drawing a bit of a crowd), we limited to members who made a reservation, and we had a full house. Some were pro-ACA, some were anti-Obamacare, some just had questions. So I hear. I never got in there.

So as we were setting up for the event, one of the community center’s staff members said, Hey, I think you should know there are some protesters outside with signs yelling stuff.

Let me not oversell this. They were about 20 in number, and they were angry, but they weren’t threatening anybody or calling anyone names or anything like that. But they were standing in the driveway of our building with signs yelling at cars coming in, and I though, man, that seems like a bad first impression for our members and any press who might be covering this thing.

So I checked with the center to see if they had a separate room where I could hold a listening session with them, just like the full-house one with our members. They really didn’t have another meeting room, but they had a little computer lab that would fit about that many people. That’ll have to do, I thought.

I commissioned my volunteer, who is still going strong in his 80s and once ran a medical school, to lead the main session and just have someone take notes of any questions we needed to get back to people on, and I invited the group of protesters inside to do a listening session with me. I explained (as they had already heard) that the main session was full, but I said they’d have my full attention this way, and look, it’s summer in Volusia County, it’s hot. Wouldn’t you rather sit in air conditioning and stand outside while everyone else is inside a room where they can’t even see you?

Thank God for Florida’s humid heat.

So once the group got settled and I set up at the “front” of the room (the farthest from the door), I said, look, we can do this whatever way works best for you, but here’s my suggestion. I was going to talk through with that other group why our organization has the position we do on this thing and then take any questions or concerns they had and do my best to answer them while also taking note so I could let the folks in DC know what people were asking about and what they were worried about. Would something like that work? They clearly hadn’t scenario planned this, but they couldn’t figure out was unfair or sneak about it, so they said, sure, provided I guarantee I’d listen and that I’d report everything they said. I promised I would. Plus, they were between me and the door, so I wasn’t going anywhere.

Our session was longer than the other group’s session; I’d have to go back to my notes at the time. One thing I learned quick, which was the only really sneaky thing I did, was that I needed someone else to take notes on their questions or concerns so I could focus on listening to them and responding while knowing someone else would capture what they wanted to be sure I reported back. They understood that, and I pointed out that they thereby controlled the record for the event that I’d report back. So I deputized one of their unofficial leaders as the reporter, which she liked, they liked, and I liked too…because she was the one who kept interrupting me. Once she had to take notes, it didn’t quiet her down all the way, but it did slow her down enough that I could at least finish a thought. So I guess that was sneaky.

So I explained what we liked about the bill and what we thought it would do and what we didn’t think it would do and what we didn’t like about it. I explained why we thought the pros outweighed the cons. But mostly, I listened. I made sure I understood their concern, made sure they understood that I understood, made sure our reporter understood too, and I gave my best answer as someone who knew the bill pretty well.

I won’t say it was fun, per se. But it was kind of a game, as they would try to get themselves mad about some part or another only to defuse them with calmness, kindness, patience, and a willingness to listen. By the end, the group that had come in convinced I was the mouthpiece of an organization they hated as evil and corrupt had moved to a point where they thought we were…well, wrong, and maybe stupid and naive, and maybe still secretly corrupt a little, but generally nice people.

I’m not saying that would work today. But it could. And when I hear that there is a Fred Rogers movie out, and that people are angrily protesting someone leaving a screening of that movie, this story somehow popped back in my head. I think none of us who were there in the summer of the ACA would ever imagine that those would be anything but a low water mark of civility in American discourse. We were wrong.

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Pope Francis Blowback, Part 2: the George Will edition

This was a tough week. An idol of sorts got knocked off his pedestal, and really just about defenestrated.

When I was in seminary, I had to defend my honors thesis to a committee, which is nothing unusual. What was, in retrospect, funny, was that the highest compliment I got from the committee (other than that they passed me) was a statement from probably the most liberal member of the panel about my style: he said that I speak with a reasonableness, stability, a can’t-we-all-agree-that-this-is-common-sense-ness that he could only compare to conservative columnist George Will. It’s not that I set out to be like George Will, but I admired his style and his content a great deal, and I really appreciated the comparison.

Until this weekend, when the local paper printed the total hatchet job by Mr. Will on Pope Francis. 

It’s not at all disconcerting that Will disagreed with Francis. It’s that the George Will I remembered, the George Will I emulated, never resorted to cheap ad hominem attacks, because he could rationally lead you to his point of view. Not this time.

I will admit that I don’t read him as often now, so I can’t tell whether he has migrated toward this cheap and easy belittling of opponents along with the rest of the political pundit culture. But whether this was an off day or a slow decline, it hurts no less than watching Willie Mays in 1973 with the Mets. The Kid has lost more than a step when he resorts to name-calling. Sanctimonious? Shrill? Wooly? Vacuous? Will labels the pope with all four in the first two paragraphs alone. He tries to frame Francis for not footnoting the science behind his arguments (while coming from a position that belittles the consensus of the overwhelming majority of relevant scientists). He then takes potshots at the Catholic Church and equates the pope’s positions as a dying brand trying to adopt the latest fad to maintain relevance. I absolutely honor Will’s right to dissent, but it still seems like a cheap shot. More, it seems much less than I would expect.

The George Will I looked up to not only wrote voluminously on baseball but made cogent points about the positions he advocated. He would have invited Pope Francis to consider the power of free-market capitalism to lift billions out of absolute poverty (a pitch he waves at and fouls off.) He would have shown not only that we have fought back successfully against environmental degradation but that a free market is essential to spur the sort of innovation it will take to do so this time (again, he gives just a feeble swing, which in the process acknowledges human agency in climate change). He would have invited Francis to embrace the greater lights of the Catholic tradition by encouraging systems that capitalize on the divine spirit that lies within our agency. Instead he dismisses him as a neo-Peronist. Strike three.

Say it ain’t so, George.

A Catholic Congressman is Boycotting Pope Francis. Let me count the reasons this saddens me.

As Pope Francis prepares to make history by becoming the first pope to address a joint session of Congress, one Congressman has made news by declaring he will boycott the pope’s visit, because the Congressman believes the pope is going to focus on climate change (which is probably a fair bet) instead of other Catholic social teachings.  The Congressman goes on to outline all the Catholic doctrines he believes the pope is ignoring – like defense of religious liberty, advocacy for Christian refugees, defense of life – and states he cannot as a good Catholic and American leader allow the pope pass on this misguided agenda. I linked to his words, so you can read them for yourselves.

American liberals are loving this. After years of being labeled “cafeteria Catholics” for picking and choosing what elements of church doctrine they chose to embrace, they are reveling in the Schadenfreude of turned tables. They are hoping for a counter-push in which the new pope demands conservative Catholics embrace the more liberal elements of Church teaching or be turned away at the Communion line. (Digression: has The Onion done the story on the Midwest archbishop who warns Francis not to come to communion in his diocese for risk of being spurned?)

Not me. Here are five reasons why the Congressman’s decision brings me nothing but sadness:

  1. He ignores the pope’s records on the issues he cites. If there has been a more vocal defender of persecuted Christians (and other religious minorities), or care for refugees, I can’t think of who it would be. He has been consistent in defending the Catholic defense of life from conception to natural death, and I would be shocked if, during his discussion of the”throwaway culture” of the developed world he didn’t clearly reference the unborn and unwanted in multiple settings. To object on grounds that he hasn’t done enough on those issues requires a willful ignorance or a concerning lack of information.
  2. He ignores the continuity of Francis’ statements with Church teaching. If he read even just my blog, he would know that Francis’ encyclical actually plows very little new ground.
  3. He missed the real issue. I mean, I know climate change is the hot button, but Francis will say much more about inequality and the defense of the poor. Which, again, draws on doctrine central to Catholic teaching since at least 1891. If you’re going to boycott a pope, it seems like you ought to do it based on his primary disagreement with your policy, not a down-ballot issue. (More on this in the next post.)
  4. He made the most common choice that leads us astray. Look, for all the “Jesus, meek and mild” images, there is a disconcerting theme that runs through the Gospel about how Jesus and His message ultimately divides us from each other by forcing us to choose if we are with Him or with something else. Whether you are a liberal Christian or a conservative Christian or a (insert descriptor here) Christian, the sword of the Gospel will eventually cut through the word you put before “Christian” and make you choose. “Which is it?” And most of us, at least those of us who live in societies where Christianity is socially acceptable, will probably choose the adjective over the noun at the end of the day. This should be to our shame, but we usually wrap it around us as a prophet’s mantle of defending the true faith, because the alternative is to be exposed as selfish, idolatrous, wrong. It’s not an epic fail but a depressingly mundane one. Gloat only if you are blind to the ways it could happen to you. Feel the sadness Jesus feels when the rich young ruler fails to answer the bell.
  5. Boycotting shows how dysfunctional our political culture is. We knew this, of course. But when a member of Congress proudly proclaims that the way he treats people he disagrees with is to boycott them, to intentionally and publicly refuse to engage them in an encounter (to use a common Francis term), it acknowledges painfully and publicly how horribly off-course our non-discourse is. Disagree all you want (more on that in the next post), but really? Turn your back on people you disagree with, even if they lead the Church you attend? How effective can a legislative body, or a nation, be that embraces that as a tactic for dialogue?

Here’s what I hope Pope Francis does. I hope he gives the speech he planned to, and then, as quietly as a pope in DC in the social media world can do, I hope he seeks out this Congressman, embraces him, and tells him that, even if he is not ready to embrace the entirety of truth, he can join the rest of us imperfect sinners, Francis included, in a journey together.

Punk’d by Christendom

Two posts tonight. This one a follow up on Friday’s post about Syrian refugees.

I noticed in the local paper that a letter to the editor called Pope Francis to task for being “naive”, first for his guidance to European parishes to accept refugees (in light of the trend among Muslim immigrants to European countries to, you know, remain Muslim), which he said would undermine Christian values. Second, the writer said Francis was naive to champion socialism over capitalism. 

It’s statements like these that make me wish, just a little bit, that Constantine hadn’t converted to Christianity in the 4th Century, because wrapping the trappings of power around the Gospel has well-nigh strangled it at many points.

First, worth noting, while Francis (like many of his predecessors) has been unstinting in his critique of capitalism, for its consumerism, its lack of appreciation for the common good and the environment, and its anti-life bias for profits over people, I don’t know of an instance in which he has claimed socialism is a better system. That’s an assumption made by dualists – those who can only hold two supposed opposites as options. In the history of Catholic social thought, there are long traditions of critique for the excesses of both. More than that, there is the fundamental critique that both systems are guilty of – they see humans as primarily economic actors.whether you subscribe to the socialist notion that we are first and foremost workers and producers, or the capitalist idea that we are primarily consumers and owners, both systems sell humanity short by minimizing the primacy of our spiritual, social and communal nature. And as we create systems from either philosophy that reduce who we are to the economics of our existence, we ignore and neglect that which makes us fully human and can make us fully children of God. True love has no price tag, nor can it be managed by the State.

Is Francis naive about the refugee crisis? Should he be focused on protecting “Christian values” in Europe over welcoming those in dire need? I’m not sure how you can read the Gospels, but even more Paul’s letters, and even more than that John’s letters, without realizing that hospitality is the first Christian virtue. (To which I would add, if you read the Hebrew Bible, it’s pretty clear that we Christians inherited that from our Jewish forefathers.)

At the point at which you start arguing that “defending Christian values” required denying a key part of its Christianity’s core message, well, you might want to re-read the whole “deny yourself, pick up your cross, and follow me” part of the Gospels again. Because what you’re defending may be valuable, and it may be connected with Christendom, but it flies in the face of what Jesus taught his followers.

What to do about Syria, ISIS, Boko Haram…

When I got up yesterday morning, September 10th, I rewatched a video a friend had shared on Facebook that brought home for us Americans what the experience of a child in a place like Syria might be like.

Then I looked at the readings for the day, which included this:

Brothers and sisters:

Put on, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another, if one has a grievance against another; as the Lord has forgiven you, so must you also do.

And over all these put on love, that is, the bond of perfection.

And let the peace of Christ control your hearts, the peace into which you were also called in one Body.

And be thankful.

And this:

Jesus said to his disciples:

“To you who hear I say, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. To the person who strikes you on one cheek, offer the other one as well, and from the person who takes your cloak, do not withhold even your tunic.

And this:

love your enemies and do good to them

And this:

Stop judging and you will not be judged. Stop condemning and you will not be condemned. Forgive and you will be forgiven. Give and gifts will be given to you; a good measure, packed together, shaken down, and overflowing, will be poured into your lap. For the measure with which you measure will in return be measured out to you.

This, on the eve of 9/11.

We as a world seem to be stuck on whether to welcome refugees from places that are, literally, terrible places to live. Pope Francis has been consistent in urging the developed world to welcome refugees from Syria, Libya, and every other country whose situation is so unstable that residents feel their only hope is to flee. His exhortation this week for every Catholic parish in Europe to shelter at least one refugee made waves, mostly because Catholic Hungary and several other EU nations have been less than welcoming of would-be immigrants. But recall that his very first pastoral visit as pope was to the tiny island of Lampedusa, where he brought attention to the refugees and migrants who lost their lives there in a shipwreck trying to flee North African instability. While it took the image of a 3-year old Syrian to wake up America, Vatican Radio has been covering the refugee crisis from many angles since the beginning of Francis’ papacy. And while Americans may think the US immigration issue is completely different, I would not be in the least surprised if he argued otherwise in his upcoming visit to Congress.

So to those who would say it matters that the turmoil that drives some percentage of the migrants in Europe and most in the Americas isn’t physical violence but economic want, so what? (I suspect the pope will say something about economic inequality to Congress as well.) If what drives you into the hands of con-men and slave-traders and away from your family and community is poverty and starvation rather than bombs and thugs, what difference does it make? 

To those who balk because some, maybe most, of the immigrants are Muslims, so what? Recognize that the region racked by instability is predominantly Muslim, and the so-called Islamic State is not only not truly a state, but is every bit as barbaric toward the faithful followers of Islam who don’t hew to the perverse interpretations of the Koran that its leaders use to defend their barbarity. Of course they want out, too.

And to those who would claim that this is all a front, that the majority of those making the harrowing journey across back roads and wilderness into an undertaking future are actually jihadists seeking to infiltrate Europe and bring it down? Really?

What stumps me is not the refugee situation and our immediate response. What stumps me is how to stop it. Clearly, these regions need to be stabilized in a way that respects human rights and human development in ways that allow decent people to live and prosper in peace. How does that happen?

The Bible is of little help on this. Neither the Gospels nor Paul nor any other New Testament writer envisioned a scenario in which followers of Jesus would have political power.

History is of little help on this. While the world has defeated extremist ideologies in Europe through allied force, the military experience in the Middle East is different, and some of the sectional factions at odds have been fighting for millennia.

And what Jesus says in the Gospel of the day is the hardest message of all: You know those terrorists? The ones who profess death to America? He calls us to love them. 

What that looks like, and how we can love them while stopping the, from hurting others we love, I do not know. The only phrase that gives me a tangible place as an individual to go is this: pray for those who mistreat you. 

That we can do.

Peace and Unity

One of my favorite parts of Evangelii Gaudium is Francis’ study of peace and unity. As we celebrate Pope Saint John XXIII, whose best-known encyclical is Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth), and whose best-known anything was convening the Second Vatican Council, which paved the way for any number of steps toward Christian and interreligious signs of unity, the timing isn’t bad to look at this.

Peace and unity among Christians is an essential part of our witness, our evangelization. “I especially ask Christians in communities throughout the world to offer a radiant and attractive witness of fraternal communion. Let everyone admire how you care for one another, and how you encourage and accompany one another.” (99)

But it’s in one of his last sections, after most of us have nodded off or flipped on TV, that Francis outlines some really good thoughts on what peace is and isn’t. “Peace in society cannot be understood as pacification or the mere absence of violence resulting from the domination of one part of society over others. Nor does true peace act as a pretext for justifying a social structure which silences or appeases the poor.” (218) “Nor is peace ‘simply the absence of warfare, based on a precarious balance of power; it is fashioned by efforts directed day after day towards the establishment of the ordered universe willed by God, with a more perfect justice among men.'” (179) (quoting Paul VI’s Populum Progressio

So where does true peace come from? Francis offers four principles. 1) “Time is greater than space” (222-225), which means playing the long game, taking the long view, focusing on the process and not the immediate results. This only happens with Christian hope that God is in charge. It is here that Francis invokes the parable of the wheat and the weeds.

2) “Unity prevails over conflict” (226-230). Francis rightly assesses that when faced with conflict, we tend to choose from three options: ignore it, embrace it, or resolve it. That last option (the right answer, if you weren’t clear), requires perspective-taking in which parties seek to understand each other and work toward resolution. It approaches diversity not as discord but as a potential for greater harmony.

3) “Realities are more important than ideas” (231-233) (can you imagine Benedict XVI ever saying that?) Francis worries that too many leaders get so caught up in thoughts that are disconnected from real life that what is logical triumphs over what is practical. He does not use the phrase “keeping it real,” but he well could.

4) “The whole is greater than the part” (234-237) What’s most interesting here is that Francis isn’t elevating globalization over localization here (because that would promote ideas over realities). But he is calling for solutions that take everyone into account, not just those that society thinks count.

I can’t do justice to this section. It’s worth the read.

Who’s in Charge Here?

From my initial list of topics for Evangelii Gaudium, I’m down to one major theme, two minor themes, and some extra stuff that I probably won’t get to. I’ve got some travel coming, and I’m trying to learn Italian, and I’m betting Francis will have an encyclical on the environment out sooner than later, so I will leave it with these last three.

This is not a major theme, not an overt one, but given the whole “Four Popes Sunday” last weekend, I thought it was worth pointing out now that Francis’ writing, like other things he’s done, betrays a sometimes subtle but thoroughly radical devolution of power that I’m not sure any previous pope has displayed. (Though I’m sure a real Church historian could come up with some contenders.)

First of all, and you have to actually read the document to pick this up, because I didn’t make a complete list, Francis puts a lot of credibility in his fellow bishops. Most papal documents I’ve read cite preceding popes HEAVILY. Some draw on the catechism, or the Doctors of the Church, or a Vatican Council. Now, maybe an apostolic exhortation is a different beast than the encyclicals I read, but it was striking how many different times Francis cites pronouncements by bishops. And from everywhere! Canada, Mexico, Latin America, Brazil, Africa, Oceania, Philippines, France. I think he cites bishops in Haiti once, even. This is not a vicar-of-Christ approach to papal authority; this is a first-among-equals approach. That’s significant. When he famously said, “Who am I to judge?” I think he meant it.

And he says as much: “Nor do I believe that the papal magisterium should be expected to offer a definitive or complete word on every question that affects the Church and the world. It is not advisable for the Pope to take the place of local Bishops in the discernment of every issue which arises in their territory. In this sense, I am conscious of the need to promote a sound “decentralization.” (16)

This works its way down. In 31, Francis posits that bishops will look for ways to encourage participation “out of a desire to listen to everyone and not simply to those who would tell him what he would like to hear.” This applies to him, even: “It is my duty, as the Bishop of Rome, to be open to suggestions which can help make the exercise of my ministry more faithful to the meaning which Jesus Christ wished to give it and to the present needs of evangelization.” (32) In fact, 32 is one long confession that Vatican II hasn’t been effective in reforming the papacy by making it more collegial and less hierarchical.

In 51, Francis admits “It is not the task of the Pope to offer a detailed and complete analysis of contemporary reality”; it’s hard to imagine John Paul II, or Benedict XVI, or even Paul VI or John XXIII conceding that point.

In 104, as Francis rules out the ordination of women, he offers this important qualification: reserving priesthood for men “can prove especially divisive if sacramental power is too closely identified with power in general…The ministerial priesthood is one means employed by Jesus for the service of his people, yet our great dignity derives from baptism, which is accessible to all. The configuration of the priest to Christ the head…does not imply an exaltation which would set him above others.”

He later (106) identifies the need to better engage young people in leadership. Also the elderly (108).

Finally, this; “neither the Pope nor the Church have a monopoly on the interpretation of social realities or the proposal of solutions to contemporary problems.” (184)

If you’re looking for a Pope who has all the answers and all the powers, Francis isn’t your guy.

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(Pope Saint John Paul II didn’t really say this.) (But Francis never would.)