The Remarkable Conscience of Television

When the government seems to lack any moral grounding, it’s refreshing to find it anywhere, but especially in that surprising media, t.v. Not that I watch much, but as disclosed previously, I’m a rabid fan of “Madam Secretary,” http://www.cbs.com/shows/madam-secretary.

The episodes on 12/23/18 and 1/6/19, easily viewed at the website above, tackled the thorny problem of refugee children separated from their parents at the border. Although some would inflate the issue into hordes of criminals ransacking the country, the program shows the reality: a thin, desperate mother escaping a violent country with her 6-year old son to save his life. What ensues is painfully familiar: the child taken into “custody,” the bewildered, anxious mother treated as a criminal because she innocently asked for asylum. The viewer cringes as she promises him they’ll meet soon.

Then the joyous treat begins. When the White House hears that the governor of Arizona is behaving this despicably, President Dalton and his staff are outraged. They heap invectives about a “trumped up crisis” on the inhumane treatment, and stoutly maintain this is not who we are as a country. They immediately seek recourse in the courts and legislature. When these channels for change fail, the Secretary of State goes personally to visit the children’s detention center.

Elizabeth McCord is horrified by the scene of children, some crying, some curled in fetal positions, some numb, held in cages. She quickly dispels the myth that “it’s like summer camp” floated by Fox News, and rightly terms it a moral outrage. Indeed she acts on her convictions, is arrested by the sheriff, hand-cuffed and jailed. When the president offers to retrieve her, she refuses, since the refugees have no such quick out.

The show draws attention to the problem again, keeping firm focus on this egregious violation of human rights when we can be distracted. It raises intense concern about the numbers of children still in federal custody, a situation a Harvard child psychiatrist says creates irreparable harm. Federal agencies like Health and Human Services have such poor communication and miserable record-keeping that they can’t account for the children in their care. Nicholas Kristof in The New York Times www.nytimes.com/2019/01/12/opinion/sunday/trump-shutdown-border-wall.html?emc=edit_nk_20190112&nl=nickkristof&nlid=7376996320190112&te=1 cites a study  (www.propublica.org/article/border-patrol-families-still-being-separated-at-border-after-zero-tolerance-immigration-policy-reversed)  showing a four-year old boy ripped from his Salvadoran father and sent to New York, where Catholic Charities held him in foster care, unaware of his heartbroken dad.

Sure, “Madam Secretary” is fiction. But telling a story so close to truth should nudge the national conscience, remind us who we are, encourage protest and enact immediate change.

Dismantling the Decorations

 

Box it up, put it away:

Nativity Scene, 2018.

 

Infant in a cage,

Magi banned from travel.

Desperate parents fleeing

murderous thugs, saving

the child’s life. While

Herod-in-Chief names them

thieves and murderers, amasses

armies to defend rampant fear.

 

The moral unraveling not so

easily packaged and shelved:

we tolerated this atrocity.

Still on southern borders

a child sleeps beneath aluminum foil,

wakes to the glint of sun on fence.

 

Kathy Coffey will speak at St. Joan’s parish in San Ramon CA 1/25. Admission free, but pre-registration required: https://www.eventbrite.com/o/fr-ray-and-st-joan-of-arc-staff-7811088537

“For behold, the old order changeth, giving way to the new…”

I’ll readily admit, I don’t tune into many sessions of Congress. Nor have I ever before grown misty-eyed watching one. But this year’s was a first, perhaps for many of us.

The words, “Ms. Pelosi, I extend to you this gavel” carried enormous weight. In simple, ritual words, Republican Rep. Kevin McCarthy signaled a transition of power. No tanks filled the streets; no military presence controlled Washington DC. Yet all had shifted in the 116th Congress.

That august chamber, the House of Representatives was filled with children. Sometimes noisy, clearly excited, dressed up for the rare event, they gathered ‘round Grandmother Pelosi as she took the oath “on behalf of the children of the United States.” It represented tangibly our hope for the country to improve for the next generation, especially for the Dreamers, the refugees and the children separated from their parents at the border.

Some parents and grandparents, also sworn in as new members, represented the most racially, ethnically and gender-diverse body ever assembled. The visual was superb: a Palestinian thobe, a Muslim hijab, a Pueblo dress, mirroring, though not yet completely, the people the House represents.

Of course it’s not perfect.  Much work remains to restore the best this country can be and stop the abysmal abuse of civil rights and destruction of the environment. But hope is a gift and a grace from God, which like all gifts and graces, is mediated by human voices and hands. As Rev. Cynthia Bourgeault writes, “Mystical hope is not tied to a good outcome, to the future. …It has to do with… being met, held in communion, by something intimately at hand.” It’s not American optimism, that everything will turn out the way I want, but ultimately, the way God wants.

How appropriate that the dramatic opening of Congress occurred three days before the Christian feast of Epiphany with its reassurance that light will overcome even the darkest times. The radiant star and Herod’s slaughter of babies rub shoulders in the day’s readings.  So we continue the expectation that the Divine Mystery will be revealed in human things, a healthy humility mixed with a buoyant hope.

A Plea to the New Congress

 

Yes, you have much to do. You confront a massive agenda; many people are counting on you for reform. First on your list should be sane, national gun control.

The Parkland students rallied the country and changed some Florida laws—but too briefly, too little. Since then, we’ve had the Thousand Oaks and synagogue shootings. In what kind of country are kids afraid to go to school? “You go to a movie theater in Aurora and all of a sudden your life is taken,” Columbine High School principal Frank DeAngelis said. “You’re at a shopping mall in Portland, Oregon, and your life is taken. It has to stop, these senseless deaths.”

The U.S. must follow the lead of Canada, Australia, Japan, the UK, France and every other civilized nation, to abolish or severely restrict firearms. Other countries’ death rates by guns are miniscule compared to ours. U.S. residents aren’t inherently more violent; they simply have an unrestricted access to deadly weapons that astonishes residents of other countries.

The Second Amendment gave citizens the right to muskets–not military assault rifles. Although polls suggest most people favor stricter gun laws, the NRA contributed $31 million to Trump’s campaign, and countless more to other legislators. The popular slogan puts it pungently: “teachers stand up to gunmen but Congress won’t stand up to the N.R.A.”

Richard Blanco continued that theme in a poem read at the 2013 inauguration:

“the impossible vocabulary of sorrow that won’t explain

the empty desks of twenty children marked absent

today, and forever. “

Tom Teves, whose 24-year old son was killed in the Aurora CO shooting says, “If you can’t shoot a deer with one bullet and kill it, you’re not a sportsman.” No hunter uses the kinds of weapons nor large magazines that have caused such devastation. Yet, the Federal Assault Weapons Ban, which expired in 2004, has not been renewed.

You could change that. As you prioritize issues, ask the parents of a six-year old, murdered at Sandy Hook, what should come first.

Movie Review: “Green Book”

 

We interrupt the liturgical flow of this season for a bulletin about a film, so readers can catch it before it leaves their cities. One of the finest this year, it features a black classical pianist, Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), and his driver, Tony “Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen), an Italian-American bouncer who had been working in New York City’s Copacabana club.

Based on a true story, the two embark on a concert tour of the south in the sixties–when they need a guide book (the “Green”) to identify hotels and restaurants that will serve African-Americans. Most of those places are pretty dismal, and it’s painful to watch the highly educated, refined Shirley adapt to such scruffy quarters.

But the journey (as in most metaphors) becomes more than a series of scheduled performances. It’s poetic to watch the fastidious Don Shirley eat fried chicken with his hands for the first time—Vallelonga got a bucket of Kentucky Fried in Kentucky. Tony is so uneducated, he refers to a classical trio as “the band” and Chopin as “Joe Pan.” His letters to his wife begin at a third grade level, but Don coaxes him into a lyric romanticism. Their discoveries of each other are shot through with humor, and the random match brings together two who are brilliantly suited.

The duo encounter blatant, violent racism and the audience legitimately fears for their safety. Tony is shocked by the insults to the superb musician, but always defends him, so his “bruiser” skills come in handy. Deep down, Tony holds marvelous good, which Don comes to appreciate. With frequent starts and stops, they develop a friendship which continued until their deaths in 2013, within a few months of each other.

Those who have studied the True and False self can see how much energy Don pours into maintaining his tuxedoed façade—which may explain why he drinks so much. But in the final scenes, he heroically drives his exhausted driver through a blizzard so Tony can rejoin his family for Christmas Eve dinner. In Don’s climactic meeting with these loud Italians, they are at first shocked into silence. But then someone orders in best “mange bene” style, “get the man a plate!”

Some valid criticisms have surfaced in reviews of the film, and it’s probably not perfect. But it’s one of the best vehicles for the message of incarnation anyone is likely to see this holiday season. How much we mean to each other.

Fourth Sunday of Advent

At some point, even the most beautiful liturgy and symbol fail to communicate, because God is so much greater than all our efforts. God doesn’t need our feeble attempts in order to communicate God’s self with astonishing clarity. God is greater than Advent wreath and can burst the bonds of any catechism with startling power. But we start with simple, concrete things, because we need to remind ourselves we stand on holy ground. God is revealed in the material, so we look closely: the great unveiling is at hand.

Around the shortest day of the year, December 21, comes radiant illumination: God takes on human sinew and bone, a child’s voice, toenails and wispy hair. No longer is God remote and distant; God bears the human face of Jesus whom we can love. Furthermore, this incarnation makes us all God’s daughters and sons. It’s our birthday too: we are born again and again into a new identity as “temples of the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 6:19).

So our frail candles could also be birthday candles. Furthermore, they hint at larger light: the return of powerful sun, the crashing open of the gates of paradise, spilling wide with voluminous brilliance. “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” (Isaiah 9:1). God hasn’t forgotten or given up on us, even if everyone else has. Any debt or guilt we may imagine is erased. “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and cry to her/ that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid” (Isaiah 40:2). What a relief to see the jail door sprung, the prison gate open wide as a grin. And the light within us is even more dazzling.

If we believe that everything in Christ’s life occurs somehow in ours as well, what does God want to bring to birth in us now? If that sounds like a large order, we must remember that for us as for Mary, “the power of the Most High will overshadow you…” (Luke 1:35). God’s elegant initiative, God’s magnificent doing, the creative vitality of One who spun the planets into orbit more than compensates for our limitations.

To those who pooh-pooh Christmas and its attendant commercialism, saying Easter is the greater feast, Richard Rohr counters: “If incarnation is the big thing, then Christmas is bigger than Easter (which it actually is in most Western Christian countries). If God became a human being, then it’s good to be human and incarnation is already redemption. Resurrection is simply incarnation coming to its logical conclusion: we are returning to our original union with God. If God is already in everything, then everything is unto glory!”  (“Incarnation Is Already Redemption,” Friday, June 5, 2015, Center for Action and Contemplation, Cac.org.)

 

That all seems more than enough reason to light the Advent wreath.

Third Sunday of Advent: High Expectations

 

When John the Baptist appeared, “The people were filled with expectation” (Luke  3:15). How splendid if those words could still describe us: open to wonder, chins uplifted, eagerly responding to the words of the Mass, “sursum corda,” “hearts on high!”

This season seems permeated with impossibilities like the dead stump of Jesse budding. Even if we could wrap our minds around the idea of God becoming human, “pitching a tent in us,“ it’s an even longer leap to see ourselves as God’s children, heirs to the divine kingdom. Irish poet John O’Donohue writes of “being betrothed to the unknown.” Christmas means we are also married to the impossible, getting comfortable with the preposterous. It all began with Mary’s vote of confidence: “For nothing is impossible with God.”

It’s a good time to ask ourselves, do we let bitterness and cynicism poison our hearts? Ironically, WE are conscious of our own limitations. GOD keeps reminding us of our high calling, royal lineage and a mission so impeccably suited to our talents and abilities, no one else in the world can do it. Again, Mary is the perfect model. She might not understand half the titles given her son in the “Alleluia Chorus” of the “Messiah.” Mighty God? Prince of Peace? Such language is better suited to a royal citadel than a poor village named Nazareth.  While her questions are natural, she never wimps out with “I don’t deserve this honor.” Instead, she rises to the occasion.

What’s become of our great dreams? Have we adjusted wisely to reality, or buried ideals in a tide of cynicism? Mired in our own problems and anxieties, do we struggle more with good news than with bad? If these questions make us squirm, perhaps we need the prayer of Macrina Wiederkehr, OSB: “God help me believe the truth about myself, no matter how beautiful it is.”

Remember that the adult Jesus hung out with some unsavory characters: crooks and curmudgeons, loudmouths and lepers, shady ladies and detested tax guys. In his scheme of things, our virtue trips us up more than our sin. The ugly stain of self-righteousness blocks our path to God more than natural, human failures.  Limited as we know ourselves to be, we might ask ourselves the question raised by novelist Gail Godwin, “who of us can say we’re not in the process of being used right now, this Advent, to fulfill some purpose whose grace and goodness would boggle our imagination if we could even begin to get our minds around it?” (“Genealogy and Grace” in Watch for the Light. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2004, 167)

So the “Gaudete” or Joyful Sunday represented by the pink candle invites us to forget our lame excuses (Oh not me! I got C’s in high school, I can’t tweet or sing on key, I’ve always been shy, blah, blah, blah) and come to the feast, join in the dance. To put it in the simple terms of “Happy Talk,” a song from “South Pacific”: “If you don’t have a dream, how you gonna have a dream come true?”