A Sober Look at America’s Moral and Spiritual Progress

Today in the United States we observe Martin Luther King Day, a day on which we celebrate the life and legacy of this great leader of the civil rights movement of the 1960s. We remember King for his commitment to work for the end of racial segregation and other forms of racial discrimination through nonviolent means.

King was a powerful speaker and, on any number of occasions I have quoted from one speech of his or another, and I always encourage my students to watch or listen to his speeches rather than read them.

One speech of King’s is particularly salient to us today. I refer to his 1956 imaginary letter from St. Paul to American Christians. Here is an excerpt of what King imagines St. Paul might have to say to us today:

…America, as I look at you from afar, I wonder whether your moral and spiritual progress has been commensurate with your scientific progress. It seems to me that your moral progress lags behind your scientific progress. Your poet Thoreau used to talk about “improved means to an unimproved end.” How often this is true. You have allowed the material means by which you live to outdistance the spiritual ends for which you live. You have allowed your mentality to outrun your morality. You have allowed your civilization to outdistance your culture. Through your scientific genius you have made of the world a neighborhood, but through your moral and spiritual genius you have failed to make of it a brotherhood. So America, I would urge you to keep your moral advances abreast with your scientific advances.

I am impelled to write you concerning the responsibilities laid upon you to live as Christians in the midst of an unChristian world. That is what I had to do. That is what every Christian has to do. But I understand that there are many Christians in America who give their ultimate allegiance to man-made systems and customs. They are afraid to be different. Their great concern is to be accepted socially. …

But American Christians, I must say to you as I said to the Roman Christians years ago, “Be not conformed to this world, but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Or, as I said to the Phillipian Christians, “Ye are a colony of heaven.” This means that although you live in the colony of time, your ultimate allegiance is to the empire of eternity. You have a dual citizenry. You live both in time and eternity; both in heaven and earth. Therefore, your ultimate allegiance is not to the government, not to the state, not to nation, not to any man-made institution. The Christian owes his ultimate allegiance to God, and if any earthly institution conflicts with God’s will it is your Christian duty to take a stand against it. You must never allow the transitory evanescent demands of man-made institutions to take precedence over the eternal demands of the Almighty God. …

It is worth spending some time reflecting on whether the indictment in these words are true. If so (and I do think it is), some examination and reformation of our behavior is in order. We all need to ask ourselves: what is my particular responsibility as a Christian in the environment in which I find myself? Are there places I am called to take a stand? And what graces do I need from God to be able to fulfill that responsibility?

Three Blocks to Growth and Connection With Reality

One of my Christmas gifts from my husband was Pope Francis’ newest book, Let us Dream: The path to a Better Future.  I just started reading it, and since I started teaching two J-term courses this week, I haven’t gotten very far. Nonetheless, here’s a tidbit.

Early on in the book, Francis identifies what he terms “three disastrous ways of escaping reality that block growth and the connection with reality, and especially the action of the Holy Spirit.”  The three are narcissism, discouragement and pessimism, each of which is paralyzing.

Narcissism “takes you to the mirror to look at yourself, to center everything on you so that’s all you see.”  Everything is judged with reference to the self.  People are seen as objectively good if they are good to you; situations or events are bad if they don’t benefit you personally.  Rather than God being at the center, the self is.  It is not hard to see examples of painful narcissism in the public figures we read about every day, be they politicians, athletes or celebrities.  And perhaps we can see examples in those around us, or even occasionally in ourselves.

Discouragement “leads you to lament and complain about everything so that you no longer see what is around you nor what others offer you, only what you think you’ve lost.”  We certainly see that in people’s reaction to COVID and other hardships.  But when we only see what we’ve lost, we are blinded to all the gifts that are around us – even during the pandemic.

Pessimism “is like a door you shut on the future and the new things it can hold.”  Like discouragement, it focuses only on the negative and keeps us from hope.

Francis suggests that each of the three is “in the end about preferring the illusions that mask reality rather than discovering all we might be able to achieve.  They are siren voices that make you a stranger to yourself.”

How do we fight against such tendencies when they arise? – because, let’s face it, each of us is susceptible to the pull or one or another of them.  Francis says simply that “to act against them, you have to commit to the small, concrete, positive actions you can take, whether you’re sowing hope or working for justice.”

Let us do precisely that, asking ourselves what small, concrete, positive actions we can take in the name of hope and promoting justice.

They Did Not Understand – But We Do

In today’s Gospel from St. Mark, Jesus’ disciples (having just witnessed Jesus feeding the multitudes) are in a boat “far out on the sea” when a windstorm comes upon them. They then notice Jesus walking on the water toward them, causing them to cry out “terrified,” fearing he was a ghost. Jesus tells them, “Take courage, it is I, do not be afraid!”

How often those words are repeated by Jesus in the Gospels: Do not be afraid. Take courage. I am with you. Do not be afraid.

The disciples, we are told, were astounded, when he got into the boat with them and the wind died down because “[t]hey had not understood the incident of the loaves.”

Standing on this side of Christ’s resurrection, however, we do understand. We understand the body of Christ feeding the multitudes. We understand the body and blood of Christ poured out for us. And, more importantly, we understand that by His death, resurrection and ascension, Christ is always present with us.

We forget that sometimes. Fear arises, like the wind on the sea and our anxieties can sometimes overwhelm us, blinding us to the reality of Christ’s presence. The key is to open our eyes and our ears. To let ourselves hear Jesus say to us, I’m here…Do not be afraid. To be strengthened by Christ’s presence through everything we face in our lives.

The promise was never that things would be easy. The promise was that Christ would always be with us. We face nothing alone.

What Difference Does Trust in God Make?

Vinita Hampton Wright recently wrote a piece on the Ignatian Spirituality website that addresses this question. Actually, she suggests that answering the question of how trust in God affects our behavior depends on the answer to another question: What do I trust God to do or be?

If I trust that God will give me exactly everything I ask for or that God will beat up all my enemies, that will affect my behavior in one way – and not a particularly good one. She goes on to write

However, if I trust God to love me, forgive me, heal me, guide me, and be with me through everything, then I will act like a person who can enjoy life as a gift and who does not have to fight and grab for what she wants, because she is free to be content as circumstances shift and change. If I trust God to be God and remain with me and use a variety of situations to strengthen and teach me, then I don’t need to create enemies out of people who seem opposed to me. I can relax and accept any person as someone loved by God—and I can trust God to work in that person, starting with where he or she is now.

That trust removes fear and deepens our relationship with God and with others.

Wright ends her post with the hope her reader will have the “courage soon to ask yourself what you trust God to do and who you trust God to be.” A good question to sit with.

The Color of Compromise

I just finished reading The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism, written by Jemar Tisby.  As its name suggests, the book provides a historical survey of the many ways in which the American church has been, at times actively supportive and at other times, complicit in racism over the last several centuries.

The book is a sobering read.  It is also a necessary one; in the words the author quotes of Martin Luther King, Jr., “[l]ike a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.”

Tisby explores facts we are not accustomed to facing head on, such as:

  • The extent to which Christian churches in the eighteenth century did not oppose the enslavement of blacks, preferring instead to focus on evangelization of the slaves and some efforts to ameliorate the harshest punishment of slaves. 
  • At the onset of the Civil War, Christian denominations, especially in the South, aggressively defended slavery based on the Bible.  Many found slavery not only morally acceptable but praiseworthy as a way to introduce Africans to Christianity.
  • During the era of Jim Crow, white churches failed to unequivocally condemn lynchings and other acts of terror against freed blacks.  “[T]he majority stance of the American Church was avoidance, turning a blind eye to the practice.  It’s not that members of every white church participated in lynching, but the practice could not have endured without the relative silence, if not outright support, of one of the most significant institutions in America – the Christian church.”
  • In the post-World War II era, the American church cooperated with residential segregation of blacks, actively participating in the relocation of whites from cities, themselves relocating to the suburbs along with whites.  They also started segregated private schools to keep white children separate from black ones.  (Indeed, while many associate the rise of the “religious right” with abortion, racial integration in schools was a much more central impetus.)

The book continues its survey through the current day, including the elections of both Obama and Trump and the rise of Black Lives Matter.  It also discusses how certain cultural aspects of, particularly Evangelical, Christianity – including accountable individualism – perpetuate racial problems.

As with any survey, there is a certain amount of selectivity in what events, persons and stories an author chooses to include, but that does not diminish the value of reading the book and facing the history of Christian churches.

The book ends with a chapter of ways to both individually and communally try to address our country’s racism.  As with most difficult problems, they are both simple and difficult.  I highly recommend the book, including a consideration of what each of our individual roles is in addressing the racism that still plagues our country.

The One Who is Coming After Me

It is interesting that no Gospel begins the story of Jesus’ public ministry without telling the reader of John the Baptist.  Raymond Brown suggests that the Baptist’s preceding Jesus was “so irradicably fixed that in two of the three Gospels that begin their story before the public ministry with Jesus’ first appearance on earth, the Baptist is brought back to precede that appearance as well.”

In today’s Gospel reading from John, the priests and Levites ask John “Who are you.” John, after saying he was not the Christ or Elijah or the Prophet, tells them he is “the voice of one crying out in the desert, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord'”, and further that “there is one among you whom you do not recognize, the one who is coming after me, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to untie.” 

And in those last words is what I find so compelling about John: John never thought it was about him; he always put the focus on Jesus and never thought he, John, should be the one taking center stage. John had a role – he was sent by God (in the words of the Evangelist John) to testify to the light – and he accepted and embraced that role.  He never sought to make himself more important than he was. 

When we are tempted to put the focus on ourselves, John should be our reminder that we too are messengers.  We point the way to others by our words and our deeds, and we need to ask ourselves: do we point the way to Jesus as did John?

We might also remind ourselves John’s message was very counter-cultural (as is so much of Christianity).  When John spoke of repentance and making straight the way of the Lord, he meant not simply remorse for sinfulness, regret for bad behavior.  What made his message so difficult was a call to a more active or affirmative sense of repentance in his admonition to prepare for the coming of the Lord.  Don’t just be sorry, change your ways, was John’s message.  “Repent and believe in the Gospel,” as the priest says when we receive ashes on Ash Wednesday.  And believe in the Gospel means live it.

A Look Back, and a Look Forward

We’re all familiar with the ritual of New Year’s Resolutions. We vow that we will go on that diet and lose weight. Or we will quit smoking…or get more exercise…or [fill in the blank]. Then the days of the new year start to go by and it is not long before the resolution is forgotten.

Our failure to meet our usually-not-very-well-thought-out New Year’s Resolutions does not mean there is not value in using this transition to take stock. The end of the year is a good time to reflect a bit on where we’ve been and where we are going.

Someone once shared with me some questions for reflection that had been prepared for Elul, the time in the Jewish calendar that is a time of preparation for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. I share some of those questions because they seem to me to provide a valuable tool for reflection as we prepare to usher in the new year.

What have been the happiest and most gratifying parts of this past year? In what areas have I acted as my best self? Which of my current habits or behaviors to I want to bring with me into the coming year?

What have been the most painful or difficult moments of the past year? When have been the times that I have not acted as I would have hoped? Which of my current habits or behaviors would I like to modify or leave behind in the years to come?

What are the relationships in my life of which I am most proud? The ones that feel most painful? What would it take to create change in these relationships in the coming year? Who are the people that I most need to ask for forgiveness?

You can think of many other questions to add. Unlike tossing off a New Year’s resolution, the idea here is to seriously spend time reflecting on particular things that did or did not go as well with respect to my relationship with others, with God and with myself. And maybe out of this reflection will come one or two concrete directions for change that we might seek God’s help in effectuating during the coming year.

A Happy Birth, Followed by a Reminder

I always find it a bit jarring to wake up the morning after Christmas, open my Magnificat and remember that today is the feast of St. Stephen. Still full of Christmas cheer, we celebrate the the first of the Christian martyrs.

Although it may be a bit jarring, it is also fitting that we follow Christmas by remembering Stephen. In so doing, we remind ourselves that the Incarnation is part of a larger story. The opening act is birth, but the story doesn’t end with the angels singing “Glory to God in the Highest,” or the wise men bringing their gifts. Instead, birth is followed inexorably by a horrible death and by resurrection, such that Christmas never stands alone, but is always joined inextricably with Good Friday and Easter Sunday. As Thomas Merton once wrote, “Christmas, then, is not just a sweet regression to breast-feeding and infancy. It is a serious and sometimes difficult feast. Difficult especially if, for psychological reasons, we fail to grasp the indestructible kernel of hope that is in it. If we are just looking for a little consolation-we may be disappointed.”

Celebrating Stephen reminds us the the narrative of birth, death and resurrection is not just that of Jesus, but of all of us. In the first reading for Mass today from the Acts of the Apostles, Stephen’s last words before dying recall the words of Christ on the cross: “Lord, Jesus, receive my spirit.” And in the Gospel from St. Matthew, Jesus promises that those who are persecuted in his name and endure will be saved.

Stephen patterned his life on that of Christ. We are invited to do the same so that we, too, may share in full story of Christ, which ends in resurrection.

The Incarnation

A blessed and merry Christmas to you all! We celebrate today the incredibly audacious reality that God became human out of love for us.

The Second Week of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius begins with a beautiful contemplation of the Incarnation. St. Ignatius invites us imagine the Holy Trinity looking out over the world. The Holy Trinity knows the whole world of humankind and sees all of the various ways human beings are suffering and bringing suffering on each other. Ignatius says “they look down upon the whole surface of the earth and behold all nations in great blindness, going down to death and descending into hell.”

Ignatius invites us to enter into the heart of God as God looks at the world. What goes on in the heart of the Trinity as they look at the darkness of the world? Ignatius invites us to feel the Trinity’s love for humanity and their pain at out suffering. And he invites us to see and hear the Trinity’s response to that pain: how out of that incredible love for humanity, out of God’s infinite and eternal love, God thinks, “Let us save all these people.” And Jesus says, “I’ll go.” And so the Father decides to send the Son down to enter into the world, to become human for the sake of our salvation.

A wonderful little book called Hearts on Fire: Praying with Jesuit, includes a reflection coming out of this prayer exercise by Michael Moynahan, S.J. The reflection, written as a message by the Trinity to us, starts by talking about how little we understood the ways in which God sought to convey God’s love to us, how notwithstanding all God tried to do, we grew distant, deaf and blind to God. It then expresses God’s next move in a simple, homey way:

And so we did
what families do
when confronted with calamity.
We drew straws.
Shorty lost.
He came to share
your plight,
your fight,
your night,
and point you
toward tomorrow.

Christ comes to share everything with us…and to point us toward tomorrow.

The Magnificant: A Message of Hope

In today’s Gospel from St. Luke, Mary proclaims the words we refer to as the Magnificat, a joyful message that sings of a future of justice and peace brought about through the mercy of God.  Mary expresses in this hymn her confidence that God is at work in the midst of a world of struggle and pain.

Speaking of the Magnificat, former Vincentian Superior General Robert Maloney, C.M., once wrote, “The historical Mary experienced poverty, oppression, violence and execution of her son. Her faith is deeply rooted in that context. Before the omnipotent God, she recognizes her own ‘lowly estate.’ She is not among the world’s powerful. She is simply God’s ‘maidservant.’ But she believes that nothing is impossible for God. In the Magnificat she sings confidently that God rescues life from death, joy from sorrow, light from darkness.”

In a similar vein, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a theologian-martyr executed by the Nazis, spoke these words in a sermon during Advent 1933: “The song of Mary is the oldest Advent hymn. It is at once the most passionate, the wildest, one might even say the most revolutionary Advent hymn ever sung. This is not the gentle, tender, dreamy Mary whom we sometimes see in paintings; this is the passionate, surrendered, proud, enthusiastic Mary who speaks out here. This song has none of the sweet, nostalgic, or even playful tones of some of our Christmas carols. It is instead a hard, strong, inexorable song about collapsing thrones and humbled lords of this world, about the power of God and the powerlessness of humankind.”

Mary’s Magnificat offerse a message of hope. It is a message we need to hear in our world today: the message that God is still at work, even in the midst of poverty, war, suffering and heartache. The Magnificat is a revolutionary song of salvation; a song that promises that changes can and will happen through the grace of God.