Witness and Prophet

Let’s hope that on the Feast of Mary Magdalene July 22, we all did our part to correct the misperception of her as prostitute. That error, a conflation of three Biblical texts, was given authority by Pope Gregory the Great in the seventh century, and not corrected for 1400 years, until revisions to the Roman calendar of 1969.

Luke’s gospel names her as one of several financially independent women who supported Jesus’ ministry. But her role is more important than financier. Dan Brown’s best-selling Da Vinci Code gave her a romantic role, but again, her centrality in the early Christian community was more than simply a private relationship. All four Gospels agree she was one of the first witnesses to the resurrection. When Jesus calls her name in the garden, it is a pivotal point of human history. Her name is the hinge to a new order. She was the first to realize that God could vanquish even death, and to tell the other disciples. She convinced them and skeptics throughout history that “love is stronger than death.” To silence her voice and discount her authority does her a great disservice.

Excerpt from Women of Mercy by Kathy Coffey (Orbis Books).

A Long Journey of Small Steps

Hooray for the California legislature, passing stricter gun control, and for Gov. Brown signing 6 of the measures! In 50 years, these may seem so obvious that we’ll wonder why such common sense was ever debated. Limiting magazines of more than 10 rounds? Background checks on ammunition? Yet these steps make CA more restrictive than many states. Maybe sensible gun control is a long journey that begins with small steps.

After the Orlando killings, some said that the hatred once projected onto the GLBT community was simply shifted onto Muslims. But as Ramadan ended this week (with a courteous reminder from the mosque president about increased traffic in the neighborhood), I remembered that same celebration several years ago, in Omaha.

Some of us, summer graduate students at Creighton University, had prepared carefully for our visit to the local mosque.  We’d gotten scarves and managed to fashion them into awkward hijabs, wanting to be dressed appropriately for the prayer that evening.

Our leader was a Franciscan following directly in the footsteps of St. Francis, who urged Crusaders to stop battling, and engaged in dialogue with the Sultan of Egypt. Some of the same issues he faced in 1219 continue today, but at that time popes promised eternal life to those who would kill the “enemy.” Instead, St. Francis entered the world of “the other,” and apparently established rapport with the Sultan, who after their three week visit, sent him away with protection and a horn which summoned to prayer.

We weren’t prepared for the warm hospitality we met at the Omaha mosque. Our guide, a Creighton graduate, would always refer reverently to Jesus, repeating, “Blessed be his name.” (People are often startled to hear that Mary, Jesus’ mother is mentioned 34 times in the Koran.)

Muslims who had fasted since dawn had prepared a large and delicious meal for us. (Unknowingly, we’d already had dinner in the cafeteria.) They spoke of how local police had gotten used to hate calls targeting them. (One day, a young boy, bored with long services, had played with a paper airplane outdoors, tossing it against the wall. Neighbors had phoned in with dire warnings of terrorism. An innocent barbeque grill, purchased for outdoor meals, was immediately branded a mysterious weapon.)

Yes, some Moslems are violent. So are some Christians, Jews, and Hindus—in short, humans. But what kind of projection is going on when we foist off our own evils, our untended wounds and shadow selves on convenient scapegoats? Didn’t Jesus try to put an end to scapegoating, once and for all?

When Sitting Down Is Standing Up

My 3 previous posts about gun control as a life issue were written before the Orlando shooting. Events since then, such as the Senate’s tragic refusal to enact the most basic restrictions on guns, have led to further development. As on any issue, I feel strongly about this, but I may be wrong…

“Where is the heart of this body? Where is its soul?” John Lewis challenged members of the House of Representatives who have failed to act despite countless tragedies involving guns. Coming from the man who worked with Martin Luther King Jr. and marched on Selma, the questions rang with authority.  On Wednesday, he then led a sit-in on the House floor. That nonviolent protest proved effective in the Civil Rights movement, and hopes are high it can work again.

It was accompanied by the powerful rhetorical device of the unanswered question: “What is the tipping point? Are we blind? Can we see? How many more mothers and fathers must shed tears of grief before we do something?”

Republican Representative Ted Poe responded, “The chair would ask members to leave the well so the House may proceed with business and decorum.”

So where was the decorum at Columbine? Or at an Aurora movie theater where a 7-year old girl lay bleeding to death on the floor? “Business” was sadly interrupted at Sandy Hook, when in a contemporary version of the Pieta, teachers tried desperately and sometimes ineffectively to shield 6-year olds from bullets.

There seem to be arguments again every bit of legislation that’s proposed, but this catastrophe has dragged on far too long, while gun manufacturers make millions. So why not try? Why not follow the lead of every other nation that solved this problem long ago?


Our Moment, Our Challenge

The ancient Latin word “adsum” means “Here I am: for this particular time, this special challenge in history.” Perhaps this is our moment, to challenge the gun control lobby which defies the will of the American people. Currently, only two nations (U.S. and Yemen) consider gun possession a citizen’s basic right rather than a privilege. Some states are moving cautiously to change that.

In proposed gun control legislation, no provision impacts hunters. Indeed, Tom Teves whose 24-year old son was killed in Aurora says, “If you can’t shoot a deer with one bullet and kill it, then you’re not a sportsman.” No hunter uses the kinds of weapons nor large magazines that have caused such devastation.

Spielberg’s film “Lincoln” shows how public opinion gradually changed, and the time became ripe for outlawing slavery. The 13th amendment was not passed without intense controversy, but the churches played a role then as they did during the civil rights movement. Each time the national conscience is shaken, Catholic communities could provide effective leadership in a gun control movement. Could we offer anything less to the grieving families of Aurora, Newtown, San Bernardino and too many other tragic sites?

If we still have any doubts, let’s listen directly to their voices:

When the bullets began to fly at an Aurora movie theater, Alex Teves, who had just received his master’s degree in counseling wrapped his arms around his girlfriend, Amanda Lindgren. He died but saved her life; she writes him daily in her journal. Caren Teves, his mother, listened to Obama urging parents to hold their children tighter the night of the Sandy Hook shooting. “My child is not here to hug,” she said.

“We can’t go back to school,” one little boy told Gene Rosen who found six children on his Newtown driveway. “Our teacher is dead. Mrs. Soto; we don’t have a teacher.”

“You go to a movie theater in Aurora and all of a sudden your life is taken,” Columbine principal Frank DeAngelis said. “You’re at a shopping mall in Portland, Ore., and your life is taken… It has to stop, these senseless deaths.”

Why Can’t We Learn from Other Nations?

The recent shooting in Orlando makes this column even more relevant. How can anyone get an assault weapon that fires more than 50 rounds into an innocent, unarmed crowd? What will it take to generate action? Where is the voice of the Christian community on this issue? 

The popular slogan puts it pungently: “teachers stand up to gunmen but Congress won’t stand up to the N.R.A.” Why, with elections looming in Nov., can’t the Christian clamor for arms control be so deafening no Congress can keep ignoring it? According to a 2012 Public Religion Research Institute poll, among U.S. religious groups, Catholics are the most likely to support gun control. More than 6 in 10 of Catholics — 62 percent — favor stricter firearms laws.

According to John Gehring at Faith in Public Life, “Pro-life Christians who are a major political force in this country should be leading this movement. If the sanctity of human life in the womb galvanizes evangelical Christians and Catholics to march on Washington, create sophisticated lobbying campaigns and hold members of Congress accountable, there is no excuse for pro-life timidity on this issue.”

The genius of the mystical body is to admit that no one part has all the answers, and look to those who have solved similar problems creatively. For instance, a killer in Scotland murdered 16 children and their teacher in 1995. Within two years, legislation created a total ban on the private ownership of handguns in the United Kingdom. In short, no one can own a handgun or a semiautomatic weapon. This law, a sane response to shame and grief, has more backbone than simply offering condolences and prayer.

Similarly, France prohibits semi-automatic weapons and handguns except for a few narrow exceptions. There, less than ten per cent of all homicides come from firearms, compared to sixty per cent in the United States.

According to the Coalition for Gun Control, the U.S. death rate by firearms, including homicides, suicides and accidents was 10.2 per 100,000 people in 2009. Compare that to Canada: 2.5 per 100,000 people, France, 1.1 per 100,000 or the U.K: 0.25 per 100,000. U.S. residents aren’t inherently more violent; they simply have an unrestricted access to deadly weapons that astonishes citizens of other countries.

To be continued…

Why Isn’t THIS a Pro-life Issue?

It’s happened again: a professor at UCLA, father of two small children, killed in his classroom. It makes me want to scream: where is the Catholic-Christian pro-life voice when we need it most? Why do we allow our highest values to be smothered by the wealthy, powerful, iron-fisted NRA?

Naming all the children who died at Newtown, CT President Obama said, “They had their entire lives ahead of them — birthdays, graduations, wedding, kids of their own:

Charlotte, Daniel, Olivia, Josephine, Ana, Dillon, Madeleine, Catherine, Chase, Jesse, James, Grace, Emilie, Jack, Noah, Caroline, Jessica, Benjamin, Avielle, Allison.”

Those fragile lives, ended in seconds deserve protection as much as the unborn. The Catholic pro-life stance which has always been staunch must extend to safeguarding from deadly weapons the sanctity of every human life. Moral theology has taught that the most basic evil is the taking of innocent life. In each beats the divine spark.

How can Christians be hesitant and fearful when the first and second commandments are laws of love engraved on our deepest nature? Many people live now with an ill-defined anxiety: is it safe to pursue their usual routines? Can they and their children go to school? to the mall? to a movie? Fear taints the awesome freedom to which God’s children are called. Jesus repeatedly said, “do not be afraid.” Christ’s death overcame the world; his resurrection is the ultimate answer to fear. To avoid this issue or stall any longer repudiates his call to the fullness of life.

To be continued…

Book Review: An Antidote to Poisonous Politics

I’ve long been intrigued by the work of William Lynch, SJ (especially Images of Hope), but a convergence of circumstances has led me to him again. The election year coincides with the publication of Building the Human City by John Kane (Pickwick Publications, www.wipfandstock.com) Full disclosure: John and I have been friends and colleagues for many years. I wrote an endorsement for the back cover, but had a diabolically brief word count and an imminent deadline for that. Now, I’m re-reading with more delight, at a more leisurely, reflective pace. This web posting will be the first; several others may follow.

The book opens with the wonderful quote of Pope Francis to the US Congress 9/24/15 about the temptation to see “only good or evil; or, if you will, the righteous and sinners.” How often this year we hear one group inveigh against another, demonizing the Other, canonizing the Self. Because Lynch warned repeatedly against the human tendency to leap to simplistic, magical, comforting polarizations, we need his voice especially today.

Since he grew up near the East River in New York City, it became a symbol for human passage through this world. The river is muddy and full of trash, but it moves steadily into a wider world: a port and then an ocean. Through the complexity and messiness of the human city, Lynch moved into an appreciation of the rich diversity which cannot be walled nor confined. “Everything I have ever written asks for the concrete movement of faith and the imagination through experience, through time, through the definite, through the human, through the actual life of Christ.” For him, the church isn’t a bastion of correctness condemning the world. Instead, it offers images of life and death to feed the spiritual hunger for a more authentic sense of self and a deeper sense of the divine.

This is just the beginning; complex material is best digested in small chunks.