Friday, September 14, 2018

The Catholic Abuse Crisis: An Ecumenical Solution?

Pope Francis, 500 leaders from other faith traditions and 25 refugees
meet to discuss the situation of refugees. Source
Perhaps a similar model with ecumenical leaders and abuse survivors can happen?

The abuse crisis in the Catholic Church can seem overwhelming. But what if, like in so many other crises, this one has created a crack in the surface through which the healing light of the Holy Spirit can break in? What if in the midst of all this tragedy and institutional and personal failing there is an opportunity for a greater Christian witness?

What if this were a moment for ecumenism?

As Catholics, we trust that the Holy Spirit always guides the Church--we also know this Church is comprised of very fallible human beings who are capable of just about any sin that human beings are capable of committing. History has reminded us of this all too well and often. The abuse scandal in the Catholic Church reveals many failings, but I would argue that the primary failing is the inability of leaders of the institution to hold themselves accountable.

In all fairness to them, no institution is fully capable of holding itself accountable. No person can effectively police him or herself. 3rd party accountability is the norm almost everywhere else in society. That's why we have independent regularly agencies to provide oversight and correction if an organization, business or government entity develops abuses of power.  

The framers of the U.S. Constitution were well aware of this problem. This is why they established a system of checks and balances. There are three branches of government as well as a balance between federal and state power. The system is not flawless, but it has more opportunity for correction than a rigid monarchy, which requires the good fortune of having a benevolent ruler for this level of accountability, and that may be asking too much of any one person.

Maybe other Church denominations could provide the necessary oversight and checks and balances, almost like a board of directors? Catholics already do that internally in varying degrees, where different religious orders may have a role in holding members of other orders accountable in some matters, for example. There are limits to how far this can go because ultimately all Catholic organizations fall under the same bishops and pope. So why not include other denominations? 

At the local level, pastors confide in other pastors from different denominations. They may often form friendships and hold each other accountable. People may be surprised to know how well their pastors get along with pastors from different denominations. The reason is simple: There are few others who understand their work and their struggles as well as other pastors.

At the global level, the Catholic Church has had "observers" and "consultants" from other denominations from a theological standpoint. We celebrated the role of these observers at Vatican II, for example. But we've never formalized those relationships in the sense of giving these people power within the system. Those are primarily friendly relationships.

The Proposal

What if a group of perhaps Lutherans, Baptists and Orthodox were responsible for receiving abuse allegations of Catholics? What if they were the ones who kept the records and made judgments about conducting investigations or involving secular authorities? Would they be willing if we asked them?

This would follow in the spirit of the early Church. It could be like the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15, but instead of solving theological disputes it could also settle institutional ones. This could be a true ecumenical council for the modern era. It may be what Christ intended for us all along.

This group would have to have real power and not just be a symbolic presence. Also, this would have to be done in such a way that if we ever were to offer the same service to them that we wouldn't mutually cover for each other. We certainly don't need a multi-denominational cover-up!

This would be a moment of incredible humility and trust in our fellow Christians. It may require some meaningful reflection on ecclesiology. But as Catholics, we already recognize people baptized in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit to be incorporated into the same Body of Christ, even if we don't recognize them to be in full communion to account for our differences. There is already talk of having panels of lay Catholics and secular authorities having a role in bishop accountability, so why not include leaders of other Christian denominations?

This would really show that the Catholic Church is serious about full disclosure and full accountability. It would be a moment of gospel humility to hand over this power to our fellow Christian pilgrims from different church communities. After all, if we are not willing to give up this power to control information about allegations, then it begs the question: Why not? If we want to hold onto this power, is that because we are not willing to have full disclosure? Full disclosure is, well, full disclosure.

People may worry that other denominations may try to scandalize or sabotage the Catholic Church through a mechanism like this, but honestly, folks: Can we as Catholics do any worse than what we have been doing?

To my Protestant, Evangelical, Pentecostal, Orthodox and Coptic friends--and to every other denomination under the sun--not only could this be a great Christian witness, but let's face it:  Sisters and brothers in Christ, we need you.

CLARIFICATION: It is important to add that some of these other denominations may also have a history of abuse and cover-up, as well. This post does not suggest that they are guilt free in that regard. It is only suggesting that since these denominations are outside of the power structure of the Catholic hierarchical system, they may have a far easier time being fair and making sure all charges are followed through on and leaders held accountable.

ADDED:  If you go to a party and you ended up drinking too much, you give your car keys to someone else. If you've been drinking too much over the course of your life, you join an AA program and get accountability partner(s). These are supreme acts of responsibility. it means you are taking responsibility for your actions and you are serious about being held accountable for your actions. You say, "I have a problem and I want to do better." The Catholic Church needs to do something like this. It needs to hand the car keys over to someone else, not as a statement of failure but as a supreme act of responsibility.

And also, this endeavor would be in addition to, and not instead of, other regulatory oversight such as from secular authorities, the Catholic laity, etc.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Terrorism: Playing with Numbers

On this day known in infamy as 9/11, it is fitting that we talk about numbers.

I was in a debate recently with some friends about the NFL protests over police brutality. Some folks were saying there are no structural injustices in the police force. Rather, they argued there are some isolated "bad apples" who do bad things. The incidents may be bad, but the number of them is not statistically large when you look at a nation of 300 million (I'm paraphrasing a bit here).

Numbers can be funny. You can get them to say all sorts of things.

Today is the anniversary of 9/11. The attacks of 9/11 "only" directly caused the deaths of less than 3,000 people. But yet we all know how traumatic that day was to the whole nation. Laws were changed as a result. Wars have been waged. The whole attitude of our nation changed and to my eye still hasn't recovered. We've become a darker, more fearful and more hostile place since then.

In recent reports, there were 98,000 public schools in the U.S and 33,000 private  The Parkland school shooting was the 208th school shooting since Columbine 19 years ago. 208 school shootings seems like a large number until you compare it with 131,000. There is “only” a 1 in 629 chance that your school will be one of them--more likely than winning the lottery by far but still a slim chance.

4,400 people were lynched in the Jim Crow years, most of them African Americans. As horrific as that is, you could argue that is "only" 55 per year--nearly 5 per month if you average it out. "Only." Another way of looking at it: That is 5 people per month--every month--for over 80 years. Can you imagine what that does to the psychology of a population living with that (literally) looming over their heads?

Not only is the number of lynchings bad enough as it is, but for every person lynched there have been no doubt dozens more who have been beaten, robbed, raped and threatened. Lynching was used (and is still used) as a weapon of terrorism against a whole population of people. Step out of line, express yourself too much, ask for too much, and even worse, demand too much, and the threat of lynching was always there. There were people who no doubt spent their whole lives looking over their shoulder, monitoring every word they said and behavior they made in order to avoid a situation that could escalate to lynching. They hid their God-given light so as not to attract too much attention or anger. That’s how terrorism works.

And THAT is the situation many African Americans find themselves in today when it comes to their relationship with the police force. We know there are good cops. I assume--and hope--that the majority of them are good. I have friends and family members who are cops. I haven’t seen any of them on their beat, but as far as I know all of them are good. I trust in that. But there is a significant percentage of cops who are not so good--some reports say the number of bad cops is as high as 15%. If so, that's huge. But perhaps worse, there is a system that covers for them--a system of loyalty, secrecy and power.

For every killing, there are no doubt dozens of instances of racial profiling, harassment, beatings,  rapes, wrongful arrests, wrongful convictions and disproportionately long prison sentences compared to whites. And for every one of those, there are millions of our fellow citizens waking up today wondering, ”Is it going to be me today?”

The situation is not unlike the problem with abuse in the Catholic Church. Many of us are hesitant to speak up because we know many good priests. We don’t want to disparage all of them in one swoop.  But the small percentage of bad priests has caused a huge problem. And even worse, the system has been willing to cover for them. That’s the problem with see today with the police. The system seems unable to hold police officers accountable.

Perhaps you have heard the litany of names of wrongful deaths alleged and remembered by groups like Black Lives Matter--Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Mike Brown, etc. To my friends who say that list of atrocities--however horrible it may be--is not statistically significant in a population of over 300 million, I hope this post has shown that not to be the case.

This is why NFL players are taking a knee.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Our Greatest Sin: Quick to Judge, Exclude and Comdemn

Good people can rightly disagree on a number of issues. We often forget that. Our culture is heavily polarized. We've grown accustomed to the culture wars. Our political parties have drawn hard lines between each other to where working across the aisle can be considered scandalous instead of wise and prudent. Both the professional media and social media have a role to play in these divisions, as well.

What bothers me the most is not that people disagree on important issues. Disagreement will happen. It's that we can be so quick to judge, exclude and condemn.

For example, anyone who has looked at the hard issues around war, peace and violence knows that there are rarely easy answers. This is specially true with nations with long and complicated histories. I've been in academically tedious debates over the nuances of Just War Theory. Folks may argue from a Christian perspective either for or against war. I can appreciate the points on all sides. But what I can't understand is that some folks are just so eager to go to war. At the drop of a hat, it's All Systems Go.

It's the eagerness to go to war that keeps me up at night.

My own Catholic Church has a long history of theological debate over this issue. But even if war is somehow deemed to be "necessary," it should always be a last resort. It should always come with great sadness. It should always be seen as a sin that all else has failed to prevent it, including our own individual efforts. But when we go to war, I just don't see much regret or sadness. I see triumphalism. I see blood lust. I see dehumanizing of the opponent and cheers over bombings.

I see this playing out around other issues:

Anyone who has looked at the issues around immigration knows that there are no easy answers. There are desperate, hungry people at the border. At least some of their desperation (if not all) is the result of our own policies. But there are points to be made about maintaining borders and knowing who comes and goes. Good people can rightly disagree. But what bothers me is that some of my fellow Americans are just so eager to shut the door to our neighbors before hearing their concerns. They find some technicality in the laws as an excuse to shut their hearts and minds, but let's be honest: The law isn't the real reason for their push to exclude.

Take the death penalty. Sometimes a person on death row has another story to tell. His legal team may be screaming, "Wait! Don't execute! We found new evidence!" I'm shocked by how often they have great difficulty even getting the testimony heard. Before even seeing the new evidence, others say, "Sorry, too late, the case is closed!" They don't even want to hear the evidence. I've worked with groups petitioning the state governor just hours before an execution trying to halt the process so it can be re-evaluated. What's the rush? A life is at stake!

Abortion. Anyone who is a parent knows the great responsibility that comes with parenting. It's an enormous life vocation that challenges every fiber of your being--and that's even if you have a supportive family, access to medical care, gainful employment and are in a socially-acceptable relationship. You don't have to convince me how difficult the life circumstances of some folks may be. But what bothers me the most is how quick many are to devalue the life in the womb and find a reason to abort. Maybe we'll never agree on when life truly begins, but there are many medical indicators that it's very early, and many faiths teach that it's conception. Why the rush to devalue that life?

Take the current NFL protests against police brutality started by Colin Kaepernick. Virtually all the opposition is focused on the method of protest while all but ignoring the stated reasons for the protest. We should all be saying, "Gosh, something extremely important must be going on to compel these players to make such a bold and dramatic statement, even to the point of risking their entire careers over it." It should make us stop in our tracks and listen to their concerns. The whole nation should proverbially sit down and talk this out. Instead, many are quick to shout them down before hearing their concerns. These athletes are practically shaking us, trying to tell us that something big is going on that we aren't paying enough attention to. But we're still avoiding it, so quick to deny before hearing what they have to say.

My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.
- James 1:19-20

By contrast to these examples above, God is slow to anger (Psalms 103:8 and 145:8). God is eager to love (John 3:16), eager to forgive (Matthew 18:21-22) and eager to include (Mark 2:13-17). Jesus was constantly including people that society wanted to exclude, marginalize or offer only a secondary status. Dozens of verses directly attest to this. This is not just a description of God's behavior, but rather we are called to follow their example (James 1:19-20).

People often cite the example of Jesus overturning tables in the table as an example of biblically-justifiable anger.  Yes, but we forget that Jesus was also slow to anger. This does not mean we rush in angrily as a general way of life. Jesus' one example of anger does not mean that all of our anger is justifiable. It means that righteous anger has a role, but that role is not open-ended. The same is true with teachings about war and violence. Perhaps they are justified in some rare instances, but we should be very slow to choose them and always do it with sadness and much regret.

Probably no other instance in the Bible speaks to this more than the trial and crucifixion of Jesus himself. It was a sham trial, a mockery of justice. There was no case against Jesus, Pilate even said so. The crowd shouted "crucify him!" When Pilate tried to reason with them, the crowd only shouted louder. Mob mentality ruled. Nothing puts the masses into a rage more than challenging the social hierarchy. Jesus was constantly putting the last first and including where society wanted to exclude. How different is that from us today who want to exclude the immigrants, condemn the prisoners, dehumanize the unborn or the people in other nations, and shout down those kneeling for justice?

In every one of the examples above, I see a reenactment of the same sham trial. It's the same mockery of justice and mob fervor. The same mob fervor that put Jesus on the cross is the same impulse that puts immigrants in detention centers and separates their families. It's the same impulse that rushes a person to the execution chamber despite compelling evidence of innocence. It is the same sham trial that finds the flimsiest of excuses in the law (or in Church Teaching) to rationalize evil and rush to war, rush to abortion and rush to exclude, condemn and dehumanize. Those who work with the poor, the suffering and the marginalized know that the crucifixion is an ongoing reality in their lives.

"Black lives matter."
"Crucify them!"
"This prisoner may be innocent."
"Crucify him!"
"This fetus is a child."
"These immigrants are our brothers and sisters in need."
"These Islamic nations are our neighbors too!"

Good people can disagree. Even though I have pretty strong opinions about all of these issues, I can at least respect the points from people who differ. But what I can never be comfortable with is the resistance to even hearing the points on the other side. It's the eagerness to exclude, condemn and judge before hearing what others have to say that is so hard to reckon with. Those are signs there is something more going on than mere disagreement. It means that people are resisting the message and resisting the messenger. Where is the resistance coming from? Where is the real discomfort coming from?

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

Ecumenism: The Narrow Path that Avoids Cheap Grace

The narrow path (stock photo):
On one side, a steep drop off.
On the other, a difficult climb.

In working toward better relationships--and ultimately unity--among followers of Christ, I often find people who hold two extremes views. Both of them can be guilty of fostering a kind of cheap grace.

The first are those who are satisfied with division. In the name of doctrinal or moral purity, they are quick to draw hard lines between their group and others. They sometimes even celebrate divisions along these lines, including denominational splits and reformations. These tend to be conservatives.

The other group sees unity everywhere. They simply see unity as self-evident and can't be bothered to dig any deeper. They aren't invested in the work of building unity by addressing the points of division head on, which can often seem too tedious to them. They often act as if unity is already present and they don't have time to sweat over the details. These tend to be liberals.

Both sides are guilty of giving up too easily.

To the first group, yes, there may be times when some formal split may be necessary. But it's not so simple. Scripture calls us in many places to promote the reconciliation of all back to Christ. And even if some demarcation may be regrettably necessary, we should always, well, regret it--we should never celebrate it. On top of that, no group is all good or all bad. God has clearly showered gifts to all people, even to those outside your chosen group. We can maintain hard lines, but those hard lines do not seem to match God's actions nor God's call to us.

And to the other side, if the rules don't matter, then why have them? It is one thing to have a vision for unity. Perhaps from the standpoint of Christ himself, all Christians are already united in him in some mystical way that we cannot fathom. Still, that does not spare us from the hard work of making that unity visible in our lives right now. We can simply say that 'all Christians are one', but our Christian denominations have rules and doctrines on the books which directly contradict that. There have been mutual condemnations and other exclusionary practices. We worship separately, we do charity separately and we often marry separately. Those divisions between denominations have left a long history of real human suffering in their wake, and many of those wounds still need a healing touch. If unity were so self-evident, we should work with our churches to make sure the rules, rubrics, doctrines and practices match what we believe in our hearts.

This is why I always respect those who work hard to thread the ecumenical needles. If Christ calls us together, we should find a way to say that out loud in a way that is consistent with what our respective denominations say. Our rules and practices should reflect that. The work can be incredibly tedious when it comes to hairsplitting differences over doctrines, but again, if those doctrines don't matter, why do we have them?

I appreciate that some folks don't have the patience for this. They may simply say they need to live their lives today and not wait for the churches to come around. People marry across denominational lines and take part in worship celebrations across the board whether they are members or not. There is some merit in this. In some ways, these are the pioneers who help us envision a more unified future. But if we acknowledge this, we have to--by the same logic--respect the folks who want to stay within their divisions for the same reasons.

This is why I want to hold up the ecumenical workers who try to untangle this mess--so that those who feel there is a need for division can be satisfied that that need no longer exists, and that those who believe unity is the ultimate reality can be satisfied that we are able to say that out loud and be consistent in all our statements and practices.

In a time when both sides have difficulty getting excited about the work of Christian unity, I hold that this is work worth doing. But it is a narrow path that takes great trepidation to walk. But it is also a path of love--love for the churches as they are and love for the vision of the unified Kingdom that Christ calls us to. With two outstretched arms, ecumenical workers try to hold both together and become the bridge between them. This is good work.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Guest Blog: Fact-Checking Fascism 2018

Thank you to the folks at Fig Tree Revolution for having me on as a guest blogger and publishing this post:

Check it out!

Find out:

Who wins at a game of Scrabble--the Editor of Webster's Unabridged Dictionary or a used car salesman? My money is on the salesman, and in this article I'll tell you why this scenario explains so much about the current U.S. political climate.

Also included: How to break boards using martial art skills.

The real deal: Our role is to prophetically denounce unjust systems and behavior, no doubt. But that alone is not enough. We have to be heralds of the Good News of the Kingdom of God. We have to invite people into a bold vision. We have to have a plan.

Case in point: Endless political debate and editorializing is not budging the political stalemate in the U.S. In fact, it only seems to be increasing polarization. By all accounts, fascism is getting further entrenched. My screen is filled every day with the latest lies, scandals and atrocities but that is not melting hearts or building bridges. The prophetic resistance can only claim very few victories at this point. It needs more than "we're not them." It needs a bold vision forward.

In short, we can't fact-check our way out of fascism.

Read on here!

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Pope Francis, the Death Penalty, the 2nd Amendment and Fundamentalism

It reads like a headline from the Babylon Bee: 

Catholics Upset Because Pope Francis Doesn't Want Them To Kill People Anymore.

The truth is often stranger than fiction, as the saying goes.

Pope Francis has recently updated Catholic Church teaching by declaring that the death penalty is "inadmissible."

Controversy has erupted. Some argue over whether Church teaching can truly "change" at all. Others take issues with the updated teaching itself.

I wonder why so many people seem to want the death penalty. I can understand (though not necessarily agree with) the argument that the death penalty may at some times be regrettably necessary. But even so, it should always be a last resort and something very sad. It means all other options have failed (and that those other options have been tried and tried again), and that's nothing to celebrate. I wish I saw as much passion from people working hard for envision alternatives to the death penalty as I do from those who want to keep it.

Still, I've been struggling with trying to figure out what actually happened with Francis' pronouncement. I wholeheartedly support the Church moving more clearly in the direction of love, life and nonviolence, but when I try to "work out the theological math" so to speak, I have been left skeptical. My issues have nothing do with whether or not doctrine can develop (as some argue), because I'm convinced it can and has (see below under the section "Fundamentalism"). My questions are about the theological implications of the pronouncement itself.

Here's why:

If the death penalty is "inadmissible" in every single case and condition--including cases of absolute self-defense--then the Catholic Church has taken a step toward a paradigm of nonviolence and pacifism. That would be huge.

If not, then what has happened is that Francis has simply clarified the teaching that was already there and changed the wording to prevent misunderstandings. The real leap forward came with Pope John Paul II.

As I explained in a previous article, the death penalty has already been de facto inadmissible in the previous version of the Catholic Catechism. That Catechism contains this line: "the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty." However, what follows is a very strict conditional clause: "if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor." It even goes on to spell out that such cases where the death penalty could be admissible in modern society "are very rare, if not practically nonexistent." If that weren't enough, the Catholic Church even put this section about the death penalty under the category of "Legitimate Defense" just to make sure there would be no confusion. 

In short: The Church is not supporting the right of nations to dole out God's punishments, but it does not deny the right to legitimate defense, even if such instances are only hypothetical in the modern world.

For reasons that I have a hard time understanding, many people took that to mean the death penalty was still up for debate. It's not. Simple reading comprehension will tell you that. And this was long before Francis.

The U.S. 2nd Amendment and Other Matters of Interpretation

Church teaching is one thing; how that teaching is interpreted is wholly another.

Catholic blogger Jack Quirk penned a blog entry that gets to the heart of the matter. He mentions how Francis' update to the Catechism negates "prudential judgment" interpretations. This is key. Many take some parts of Catholic Church teaching more literally than other parts. To that latter category, they apply "prudential judgment," which is a fancy way of saying they take the teaching prayerfully and seriously but not authoritatively or literally. Francis is saying that you cannot apply prudential judgment to this teaching--it speaks from a higher level of authority.

In addition, a lot of people were reading the Catechism on the death penalty the way many American conservatives currently read the 2nd amendment: They read the first part divorced from the second part in a manner reminiscent of Justice Scalia. In the 2nd amendment, the opening clauses states that the people have to right to bear arms, but that right is nestled within the necessary condition of a well-regulated militia. Most Constitutional scholars have read it that way since the passing of the Bill of Rights. However, the more recent Scalia style of interpretation separates the first part from the latter context. In other words, the "right to bear arms" now stands alone, largely divorced from its context, namely, the condition of a "well-regulated militia."

Many apply that same interpretative style to the Catholic Catechism on the death penalty. As stated above, the first part says that yes, the Church cannot totally rule out the use of the death penalty. But then there is the conditional clause: There must be no other way to save lives and/or protect the common good. With current resources for incarceration and sociological studies overwhelmingly denouncing the death penalty as a deterrent, it is almost impossible to claim the death penalty is "necessary" for protection. However, many Catholics just read the first part saying the Church cannot rule out the use of the death penalty and stood it on its own. They regarded the prevalence of executions through history as the backing of tradition and they just ignored or downplayed the second part about necessary defense. The door was open just a tiny crack but they attempted to drive a truck through it. That's the problem Francis was trying to address, I think.

If we read carefully the previous Catechism, the death penalty is not actually supported--only self-defense is a legitimate use of force, not the death penalty. However, the previous Catechism seems timid about saying that outright, even though that's really the only logical conclusion to take from the text itself. So I see Francis as saying 'let's quit beating around the bush and just tell it like it is.' I don't think Francis is taking away the option for "legitimate defense" and moving the Church towards pacifism, even though he may personally want to do that and I would be sympathetic to that, as well, but that would be a rather significant can of worms to open. 

Maybe I'm wrong and Francis has indeed introduced pacifism. Case in point: Moral theologians will say that through "double effect" reasoning, an execution--which is "inadmissible"--could still happen, but the primary motive would be to protect the common good and the death of the prisoner would be a regrettable secondary outcome. Others (like Stephen Schloeder) argue that Francis has put the death penalty into a category that makes double effect reasoning null and void, as "inadmissible" sounds a lot like "intrinsically evil." This is fodder for moral theologians to hash out in the coming years.

I believe all that Francis did was try to put an end to opportunistic readings of the Catechism in regards to the death penalty. The Church is against it and this is authoritatively said--no more prudential judgment readings nor separating out isolated statements out of their context.


Most of the controversy about this move by Francis is over whether doctrine can truly "change" at all. Some claim that everything that appears to be a change in Church teaching is only an adaptation to the signs of the times and not actual doctrinal evolution. Others--especially Church historians--cite instances of legitimate change in Church teaching over its 2,000+ year pilgrim journey.

The whole controversy over doctrinal development is really just the Catholic Church wrestling with its own form of fundamentalism.  In Protestant Fundamentalism, the defining issue is the literal interpretation of the Bible. In Catholic fundamentalism, the claim of fundamentalists is that the teaching authority of the Church (the Magisterium) can never be wrong on matters of faith and morals. Both camps deny history, deny the written word and bend over backwards to try to make all the pieces fit, instead of just admitting that an absolute, unchanging, literal interpretation of either Scripture of Magisterial pronouncements is the actual error.

Just War Theory

Many have noted the similarities between the theologies of the death penalty and Just War Theory. A change in one could bring about a change in the other. Stay tuned . . .

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

"We're a Nation of Laws..."

I often hear the retort "we're a nation of laws." Usually, it is given by someone justifying the exclusion of immigrants and a lack of compassion for their very difficult, often mind-numbingly horrific circumstances.

But what these folks probably don't realize is that they are saying more about who they are than about immigrants. When you say "we're a nation of laws," you are setting a standard for yourself--and a good one. It's a standard you should be proud of, but you need to know what it means:

When you say, "we're a nation of laws," you are saying that you believe in an ordered, civilized, peaceful society--even when others are not that way to you.

You are saying that you believe in being calm and compassionate--even when others are not.

You are saying that law and order are the driving principles of society--not brutality, vigilantism or nastiness.

You are saying that you believe that violent, aggressive individuals can be treated with dignity and decency, once apprehended--even if they are not that way to you.

Why can all of this be said?  It's because we're a nation of laws. We have high standards.  We believe in those standards. Others cannot make us change--we are in control of what we do, not anyone else. Their behavior does not change our behavior.

We believe in living out our principles rather than resorting to our base fears and impulses. We are driven by laws, not mob mentality. We are driven by principles, not impulses.

When you say "we're a nation of laws," that does not mean that the letter of the law can be used to justify any kind of horrific treatment of someone who falls outside of those laws. In fact, it means the opposite, as due process for all--citizen and non-citizen--is an integral part of those laws. People are to be treated well while society processes their case humanely, calmly, fairly and in a timely fashion.

We believe that civilized, peaceful order will ultimately win the day, so we trust in that.

It's not a bad thing to say "we're a nation of laws," but please know what it means when you say it. You are saying that you are the kind of person who believes in order and has standards of conduct. And that you'll abide by those standards, even when emotions are high and when it is difficult to do so.

It means more than just upholding the letter of the law. After all, some laws are terrible and need to be changed pronto. It means you believe in a principled, orderly system.

When things are out of order, such as our immigration situation--we ought to take the time to get our laws right and figure out why the system is not working. We ought to reform the system so that it works for everyone. It does not give us license to be barbaric and cruel and force people to abide by laws that clearly violate human dignity. We need to hear from all those involved and find the best, most compassionate solution, all the while respecting the dignity of every person, maintaining order and staying true to our principles.

From a Christian perspective, we take it a step further: Behind those laws are principles, such as respect, ethics, honesty, integrity and compassion. This is where Jesus focused his attention. The law can be a clumsy way to try to live out those principles. So when the law runs roughshod over human dignity (which can certainly happen), we look to the underlying principles behind those laws for true guidance. This is why Jesus can say he "did not come to abolish the Law" but rather to "fulfill it" (Matthew 5:17).

This is what it means to be a "nation of laws."

In closing, if we sat down and talked with immigrants about why many of them are breaking some immigration laws, we may find that they are decent, principled people, as well. Many are caught in an impossible situation and are doing the best they can to provide for their families. We should not use the law to punish them, because doing so would violate our very principles upon which that law is founded!"

Saturday, July 21, 2018

The Beatitudes or the 10 Commandments?

I was made to memorize the 10 Commandments when I was a child going through religious education at my church. Very little mention was made of the Beatitudes or even the Greatest Commandment!

Many Christians pay significant attention to the 10 Commandments. They want them installed at court houses and hanging prominently in their homes. Those commandments were given to the Israelites through Moses in the exodus from Egypt, hundreds of years before Jesus walked the earth.

Let's pause for a moment. Isn't that more than just a little strange?

I have nothing against the Ten Commandments. They are a fine standard. With enough prayer and study, you can swim deeply into them and find your way to the teachings of Jesus. They are not lightweight by any means. But if you believe Jesus is God—and if you believe the Bible is God's Word—then how can it be that the majority of Christians virtually ignore the commandments Jesus actually gave?

Can most Christians even name the Beatitudes?

Here is a guy who walked this earth that most Christians are convinced is God himself come in the flesh. But they somehow can't be bothered to take what he says seriously? It's not like he's being unclear or speaking in code. He's saying: "I'm God. These are my commands for you. These two especially are the biggest on which everything else depends."

So Christians:  What's up with that?

Becoming a Beatitudes People

So what should Christians focus on?

The Greatest Commandment is, well, the greatest. Why? Because Jesus said so.

After that, most would put the Sermon on the Mount at or near the top of the list. It is Jesus's tour de force. It's begins with the Beatitudes and continues a litany of his greatest teachings. Even 2,000 years later, I can feel the freshness, vitality and urgency of these words. It is quite a masterpiece. Hang on and go for a windswept ride!

The Beatitudes are the closest thing the New Testament has to the 10 Commandments. But they're not quite the same in content or in form--this is important!

A lot of people may like the 10 Commandments because they seem clear and concrete. Admittedly, the Beatitudes can be harder to understand, and that's exactly why we should be spending so much time with them. Jesus is calling us into a new way of thinking, and that takes lots of prayer, study, action and contemplation to attempt to understand. Those have to be at the center and not something we just tack onto our faith lives at a later time in our lives. They require a daily commitment.

The 10 commandments read like a list of "thou shalt not" do specific behaviors. They are not that simple, but at face value that's their approach. Rather, the Beatitudes call us to far more transformation. Instead of saying, "don't do these specific behaviors," they are saying, "be this kind of person." You can't check them off a list and then go back to whatever else you were doing. No, they require your "all in."

We can never say our Beatitudes work is done. For example, the 10 Commandments tell us not to steal. At first glance, it's pretty clear when we've lived up to that and when we haven't. By contrast, the Beatitudes announce that "blessed are the merciful." Being merciful is more like a fire inside of yourself that you stoke and nurture. You may have to struggle daily to keep yourself from building walls inside of yourself and with your neighbors to keep the channels of mercy openly flowing. Being merciful is a practice you cultivate--and a whole approach to life--rather than a task you do.

That being said, the 10 Commandments will lead you to the Beatitudes if you contemplate them deeply enough. If you are not to steal, then that begs the question: What is ownership? What truly belongs to your neighbor, what belongs to God and what belongs to you? That food in your refrigerator may legally belong to you, but if your neighbors are hungry, then is the food in your fridge yours or is it stolen from the poor? This is where the Beatitudes come in:  Blessed are the merciful, because the merciful will know how to answer this question. As you can see, the 10 Commandments will ultimately lead you to the same place, but the Beatitudes make it much harder to avoid.

The Beatitudes are a celebration of certain people, such as the poor and those who are persecuted. The Beatitudes urge us out of cynicism, fear and hopelessness to be passionate in both our mourning and hunger for justice. The Beatitudes call us to be meek, to be peacemakers and to be merciful. They invite us to rejoice and be pure of heart. This is too vague for a lot of people. I can hear them saying, "So what should we actually do?"

It's almost as if Jesus is not overly concerned with the letter of the law. His "law" as expressed in the Beatitudes is not legalistic. It is more of a posture. It demands our "all in." It heightens our awareness and our sensitivity. No, Jesus doesn't give a list of "thou shalt not's." The Beatitudes read more like an invitation and a celebration. Given that they come from Jesus himself, we should take them abundantly seriously--as seriously as a command. Jesus is telling us which values to affirm. He's offering us where to direct our attention.

The Beatitudes as well as the whole Sermon on the Mount, and in particular the Greatest Commandment, should be among the teachings we place at the center. Those should be hanging at courthouses and in our homes. We should consult them first and foremost when faced with struggles in our lives and in our society. Instead, we often find obscure Scripture passages and torture the meanings out them that we want. We should start with the Greatest Commandment and the Sermon on the Mount. Then and only then, once properly established, we can then pepper in other viewpoints and commands that will only make sense once we are rooted in God's love first.

The Beatitudes are the words of Jesus himself. We should know them, reflect on them, pray over them and pray about them until it can be said we are a "Beatitudes people." A people with a positive vision for how to live rather than people with a task list.

The fact that we are still so hung up on the 10 Commandments comes across just as a way of avoiding the actual teachings of Jesus himself. I'm not in any way denigrating the 10 Commandments or the Jewish faith or faith of the Ancient Israelites, but if someone is a follower of Jesus it stands to reason that the teachings of Jesus would be first and foremost. And if they are not, it begs the question why?

Without further Ado: The Beatitudes

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.

“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
Matthew 5:1-12

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Would the real pro-life candidate raise your hand?

I present the following moral dilemma. Which is the true pro-life (read: anti-abortion) candidate?

Candidate A: 

He says he is pro-life on abortion.  However, he wants to reduce abortions solely through the mechanism of making abortion illegal. It is questionable how many opportunities this person will have once in office to address this issue. However, there may be some small legislative battles that can be fought.

However, he does not support legislative measures to improve rights and standards for workers and he is against any notion of a social safety net. He fears these would reduce "incentive to work" and interfere with the workings of the "free market." He believe people are poor and struggling principally by their own choice rather than through a lack of opportunity or systemic pressures of any kind.

Candidate B: 

He says he is pro-choice on abortion. He wants to "keep abortion legal" as part of his political platform. If the opportunity were to come up, he would support legislation further cementing abortion as part of our legal structure.

However, he supports policies addressing poverty and social alienation, such as higher wages and abundant social services. He wants to keep families together rather than see them split through mass incarceration or immigration enforcement. His policies promote strong workers rights, robust maternity/paternity leave and healthcare for all.

Which of these deserves the "pro-life" vote?

As the above illustrates, the issue is not so simple. Both candidates can claim that they are pro-life on abortion.

Candidate A wants to make abortion illegal but his other economic and social policies only serve to intensify the reasons people choose abortion in the first place. In other words, while working to make abortion illegal, he may create an environment where more abortion happens in the meantime.

The reverse is true for Candidate B. He clearly wants abortion to be legal, but his other policies directly alleviate the stressors that drive people to consider abortion. Fewer abortions may actually happen as a result of his policies.

If you vote pro-life, is your goal to reduce the number of abortions or is it to make abortion illegal? Those are not the same thing. Ideally perhaps you would want to do both, but those are not usually available options in the current partisan U.S. political climate.

It also highly questionable whether making abortion illegal would actually stop actual abortions from happening--probably some but not all. People could travel or find an underground provider.

The above illustrates a rough snapshot of the two primary political parties in the U.S. Usually, it has been assumed that the "pro-life" candidate is the one who wants to make abortion illegal. But if that person also promotes policies that may actually increase abortions, then that changes everything--especially when you consider that making abortion illegal may be an unrealistic goal at this time in history.

As a Roman Catholic, we are taught that the intentional taking of innocent human life is always wrong and should never be supported. So how do we apply that teaching to the two candidates above? Having legal abortion does not require anyone to have an abortion, but it does make it easier. In a very likewise, parallel manner, having good economic and social safety net policies does not force anyone to carry their pregnancy to term, but they make it much easier to do so. It has often been assumed that the person who merits the pro-life vote is the candidate who strives to make abortion illegal, but I hope the above illustrates that this should not be taken for granted. This becomes even more complex as there are many other ways that life is threatened besides abortion--the death penalty, euthanasia, war, immigration, poverty, etc.

Putting too much energy into legislative battles while supporting policies that drive people to consider abortion in the meantime is profoundly short sighted, to say the least. This is what gives the pro-life movement a bad name. This is what causes people to point out its hypocrisies. By having a single-minded obsession with making abortion illegal, they turn their backs on very effective ways of saving lives right here today. They support politicians and policies that may actually increase abortions. 

Some have told me this isn't a fair critique of the pro-life movement. They say it IS invested in pregnancy centers, prenatal support and so forth. While I know this to be true, I also know that the phenomenon of the "one-issue voter" tells us where the real priorities lie when the rubber meets the road--it's about legislative action.

Some Concluding Thoughts

I am not suggesting that the pro-life movement should simply give up the struggle for legislative support for pro-life positions. However, I do think it is counter-productive to attempt that when grassroots support for this legislation has not reached a high enough mark. There are many who resign themselves to thinking we should "keep abortion legal" and just try to reduce as many as possible. No, I am absolutely not saying that, but I also don't believe that legislative victories will yield the results the pro-life movement expects. But I am saying that as a strategy I think pro-life voters could prioritize reducing the numbers of actual abortions by alleviating the stressors, promoting a culture of life in the minds and heart of people and put legislative goals on the back burner. This is very feasible. Even though poverty is a huge, complex problem, we know from history that big improvements can be made in the short term with immediate results. We know what those stressors are and we know there are effective ways of addressing them.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

What If Roe v. Wade Were Overturned? 4 Recommendations for the Pro-Life Movement

Justice Anthony Kennedy is stepping down from the U.S. Supreme Court. President Donald Trump is poised to appoint Justice Brett Kavanaugh who could tip the scales and possibly overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that legalized abortion.

The pro-life crowd is excited about the possibilities--not only of overturning Roe v. Wade but an even more ambitious dream of a Constitutional amendment in their favor.

However, the single-minded determination of the pro-life movement to abolish legal abortion has blinded many to the complexities of the situation as well as other avenues of being pro-life. It is unlikely that overturning Roe v. Wade would deliver the results they anticipate.

I write as someone committed to protecting life from conception to natural death but standing outside the formal pro-life movement. Let's think through some likely scenarios:

What would happen if abortion were illegal? 

First, abortion would not automatically become illegal nationally just with a Supreme Court ruling. That decision would go to each and every state. The issue would continue to be complex at both the federal and state levels, as this link details. A simple outcome is not realistic.

In states that criminalize abortion, women of means who want an abortion will simply travel to another state or country to have to procedure done. That would be fairly easy to do. It isn't the 1950s anymore--even global travel is relatively simple and inexpensive.

In addition, there will no doubt be an underground market of abortion providers for those of lesser means.

Despite that, making abortion illegal will almost certainly stop some abortions and save some lives--but only in the short run, in my opinion. I have doubts about whether that would be true in the long run.

A culture with illegal abortion would be a lot like the prohibition of alcohol in the 1930s. An illegal market would thrive and it would also come with other secondary negative consequences. When alcohol was illegal it created an environment that allowed mobsters like Al Capone to proliferate. It wasn't just the prohibition of alcohol itself but rather the whole underground culture that went along with it that was the problem. Something similar would probably happen if abortion were to be illegal again. The whole effort will so thoroughly hated by so many people that a Constitutional amendment will indeed come, but I predict it will be on the pro-choice side. In other words, legal abortion will return with a vengeance and it will be legally cemented more than ever before. The pro-life movement will be set back decades, if not permanently.

How do I know this?  It's easy:

I've done a lot of grassroots organizing. You always have to build a base before you attempt to pass a law. That's just Grassroots Organizing 101. Otherwise, the law won't be accepted by the people and passing it will just erode the credibility of our institutions (government, law enforcement, etc). Forcing a law upon people who clearly do not want that law will end in disaster.

A law will not stand unless the hearts and minds of the people have been opened to support it. After all, a law is only an attempt to codify the will of the people, especially in a representative democracy. Perhaps some obscure laws can be pushed through by a small group of determined activists unbeknownst to the rest of the population. But the issues around abortion impact so many people in such a visceral way that any laws around it must have the support of the people. That is simply not the case right now.

We know that over two-thirds of Americans favor some access to legal abortion. The pro-life movement need not despair, because those same polls also show that similar numbers want some limits on abortion. There is a lot of room for growth here, but the culture is not ready for a dramatic law reversal, yet. However, there are many life-saving things that can be done in the meantime.

Trying to force people to change their behavior by imposing a law on them is short-sighted and would only have limited success. You have to win the battle for the hearts and minds of the people.

Recommendations for the Pro-Life Movement:

In light of the above, here is a strategy I would recommend for the pro-life movement. None of this requires anyone to change their beliefs about abortion. It is simply a prescription for a different method of approaching the issue. This is not a "watered down" approach. In fact, I believe this may very well be more successful than current methods.

1. Work to reduce the number of actual abortions by addressing the drivers. We know what the drivers are. There are social factors--such as social stigma, shame, isolation and social pressure. There are also economic factors, such as access to health care, job security, ample pay, reliability of child support, maternity/paternity leave, etc. We know we can reduce abortions by directly impacting these factors. Let's do that. I even think both pro-choice and pro-life supporters could join together on this.

One example of a social factor: Much of Christianity may be staunchly anti-abortion, but it is also staunchly shame-based when it comes to a pregnancy that occurs outside of certain parameters (marriage, etc). It may preach an anti-abortion message from the pulpit and have some success convincing people. However, the fear of facing scorn and shame from family and community members may drive others to consider abortion, thereby neutralizing the pro-life preaching.

Economic factors: We know that there are legislative solutions that increase rights for parents in the workplace and a safety net for people who fall on hard times. Many women say they would not have chosen abortion if they didn't fear losing their ability to care for themselves and their families. They simply don't see a way forward. Can we help them?

2. Build a grassroots support for a culture of life. The current pro-life movement is never going to do that. Admittedly, it has done the impossible: It has engineered a cultural stalemate. That's amazing given that many assumed the pro-life movement would have disappeared by now. However, it will never really "win" as it is now. But a holistic, consistent ethic of life approach can build the credibility the movement needs.

I know that sounds counter-intuitive, as it seems few Americans hold a truly consistent ethic of life, but it is the only position with sound theology--the individual wins when the community wins, and visa versa. Current ideological debates have the mother pitted against the unborn child in a zero-sum scenario. America is individualism on steroids, but one individual's freedom often impacts another individual's freedom. We have to be realistic about the limits of individualism and instead embrace a communitarian vision that seeks the common good. A new paradigm is needed, or perhaps an old one. 

3. Limit legal interventions for now. The movement can spend some energy on legislative outcomes but should limit its focus on extreme cases for now, such as late term abortions. You could argue that Roe v. Wade as it stands now allows for more abortions than most Americans would support, and that is a fair point. I'm not a big believer that we can address abortion legislatively, but if folks want to go that route, the key here is to only advocate for legislation when grassroots support has reached a critical mass.

4. Reconsider legislative approaches for the future. Once that grassroots culture of life from #2 above has been nurtured and grown, there may come a time in the future to introduce legislation around abortion once again. However, if the culture of life were really strong, a law might not even be needed.

Hypothetical question: Does it really mater if abortion is legal or not if no one has one? I get it that the laws on the books say something about who we are as a people and what we value, and some would argue that if something is legal there are people who will utilize that option. But there is no law preventing anyone from supporting and safeguarding life right here and right now.


Many in the pro-life movement have been so focused on trying to make abortion illegal that they have become blinded to these other realities. I am convinced that a law at this time would be mostly unsuccessful and certainly unsustainable in the long run. I am also doubtful that this is an issue that can be addressed primarily legislatively.

The focus on making abortion illegal while ignoring the drivers just gives credence to the notion that the movement is more about shaming women than saving lives. This is especially true when the politicians who want to make abortion illegal are the same ones who are likely to increase the factors the drive people to consider abortion in the first place--withdrawing economic safety nets and chipping away at workers rights, for example. This puts people into impossible situations while others sit back and judge if they make the "ethical" choice or not. It feels like watching gladiators in the Roman coliseum. Let's not play games with lives! Instead, let's "create a society where it is easier to be good" (Peter Maurin).

Further, the focus on making abortion illegal is a way, I believe, for the pro-life movement not to get its hands dirty. To create a culture of life would require ALL of us to change, not just "those people over there." Most of us find it easier to point fingers than do the interior work on ourselves. If the pro-life movement wants to be successful, the only path forward is to embrace a consistent ethic of life. It will require everyone's "all in."