What’s In Between the Roses?

I had an absolutely wonderful day yesterday at the Seattle University Search for Meaning Book Festival. The two keynotes – one by journalist Katherine Boo, author of Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, and the second by Isabel Wilkerson, author of The Warmth of Other Suns, were tremendously powerful; my own talk on Growing in Love and Wisdom played to a full room, went very well and, as usual, provoked some great questions; the other sessions I attended were great; and I got to spend time (and have a great Thai dinner) with my friend and former colleague Chato, who drove up from Vancouver, Washington to spend the day with me here at the festival. I also got to see my friend Joshua, who lives here in Seattle, as well as to meet a number of other authors with whom I share interests.

There is much I could write about the day, but there is one line that haunted and that continues to haunt me, and it came early in the day, during the morning keynote by Katherine Boo. Boo’s book tells the stories of people living in Annawadi, a poor, makeshift settlement in the shadows of luxury hotels near the Mumbai airport. At one point, the brother of a Muslim teenager who is falsely accused of a crime describes himself and the other residents of the settlement in this way: “Everything around is roses and we are the shit in between.”

“We are the shit in between.” He wasn’t being sarcastic. He wasn’t trying to shock. He was simply expressing the truth as he saw it. This is how he viewed himself. This is how a beloved child of God thinks of himself!

The entirety of the social doctrine of the Catholic Church begins with the recognition of the inviolable dignity of the human person, a dignity that stems from our creation in the image of God. That all humans are created in the image and likeness of God makes them equally sacred and precious and invests them with a dignity which they cannot lose. In his recent Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis wrote that “no one can strip us of the dignity bestowed upon us by [God’s] boundless and unfailing love.”

No one can strip another of the dignity bestowed upon him or her, but what does it mean for some people to believe they have no dignity?

What does it do to someone’s ability to flourish to believe that they are the shit between the roses?

And what does it say about how seriously we take our obligation to our brothers and sisters that we allow to exist the conditions that cause a young man view himself as so lacking in human dignity?

Update: My Facebook friend John Donaghy, who works among the poor in Honduras, wrote this comment in response to my post, which I re-post here for those who may not look at the comments:

Thanks for a post that touches the reality of the poor.

In places like Mumbai and Honduras, the poor do see themselves as “the shit between the roses.” This has been engrained in them by the society around them.

In many ways I see that the role of the missionary and the church in general is to help the people see that they are not the shit in between the roses but that they are the rich fertile soil that makes possible roses and much more.

Upholding the dignity of people is part of our mission, our way of accompanying the poor.


Sins of Our Past

Dave and I spent Saturday morning hiking in Fort Snelling State Park and then visited the fort itself. Despite the fact that we’ve now lived here five years and that we pass Fort Snelling every time we drive to the airport, we had never visited it before. It was well worth the visit.

In addition to some nice hiking on a beautiful day, we spend almost three hours at the Fort, listening to various historical interpreters tell their story. (I live historical interpreters!)

More sobering, we visited a display having to do with the 1862 war between the United States and the Dakota Indians (which appears to have been the result of bad faith treatment of the Dakota by the US), and the aftermath of that war. 1600 Dakota Indians – mostly women, children and the elderly – were forcibly interned at an camp at Fort Snelling during 1862-63. Between 130 and 300 died within the camp, due mostly to malnutrition and disease resulting from the poor conditions inside the camp, and the remaining were taken by steamboats to western reservations in May 1863.

The exhibit included several pictures of Indian women and their children, below which was this caption, which I found quite arresting:

These old photographs have an eerie quality….[T]hey show us the birth of an institution, the beginning of a whole new social practice of concentrating innocent civilians into an area and imprisoning them for protracted periods without charging them for any crime. The British used the same types of camps to intern Boer women and children during their war in South Africa. By the middle of the twentient century, the concentration camp had spread virtually around the world. The French used them in Algiers, the Germans constructed them in Europe and the Russians built them in Siberia. (Jack Weatherford, Native Roots.)

There are many things we can be proud of having created or popularized. This is not one of them.

We look at what the Germans did during World War II and we react (quite correctly) with horror. But we need to realize our own participation in such acts….our own guilt for the sins of our past.

Faith in the Human Spirit

The other day we had a powerful debate at the Law School on the subject of sentencing juveniles to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. My colleague, Mark Osler, who is a former prosecutor, takes the position that such a sentence is never justified. His “opponent” in the debate, Jeanne Bishop, a public defender in Chicago, believes that under some circumstances, the sentence is justified.

There is emotional appeal to Jeanne’s claim. She approaches the issue as someone who, 20 years ago, suffered the loss of her sister (then pregnant with her first child) and her husband. The two (three counting the unborn child) were killed – executed is a better description – by a sixteen year old who had broken into their house and sat waiting for them to come home (from a birthday dinner for the sisters’ father) so he could kill them. Jeanne’s description of the killing was chilling. And, none of the things that sometimes minimize the horror of such crimes were present – the killer was an intelligent, well-educated, well-to-do young man…who happened to be a sociopath. If there is a case for life without parole, notwithstanding the killer’s age, this was is.

Nonetheless, I find myself unable to come to that conclusion. I think my friend Mark is right in saying that consigning a juvenile to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole requires a cynical loss of faith in the human spirit, a loss of faith in one’s ability to get past one’s worst moment. Like the death penalty, life imprisonment without parole abandons the possibility of love transforming a person.

It may be that some people are beyond transformation, although I confess I resist that conclusion even when talking about adults. (Christ, after all, did not think Paul beyond redemption when he struck him blind on the road to Damascus.)

But when we are talking about children, juveniles, the conclusion is even more difficult. We know that a person’s intellectual and moral development is not complete until they are in their twenties. It is for that reason that we treat children different from adults in all sorts of situations (not letting them drink, for example).

Leaving aside the particulars of the debate between Mark and Jeanne, what I’m left with is the feeling that as Christians, we can’t give up on the possibility of transformation through love. That, no matter what the situation, we can’t lose faith in the human spirit, and the ability of love to triumph over evil.


One of the last things we did on vacation before returning to the Twin Cities was to visit the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts. The museum was featuring an exhibit titled Pissarro’s People, celebrating the work of Camille Pissarro, sometimes called the “dean of Impressionism.” Although Pissarro is better known as a landscape painter, he has a signficant body of work featuring human subjects.

One of the sets of pieces in the exhibit came from Pissarro’s Turpitudes sociales, which literally translates as “social disgraces.” The work is a collection of twenty-eight drawings depicting Pissarro’s perception of the horrors of modern capitalism – starvation, poverty, exploitation of various types, etc. It is one of the most explicit expression of his political beliefs of all of his work.

The one that arrested my attention was the drawing titled Suicide of an Abandoned Woman. What was striking to me was not so much the image of the woman jumping off of the bridge to her death – as sad as any suicide is. Rather, it was the title of the piece, juxtaposed with the fact that it depicted a crowd of people standing on the bridge in immediate proximity to the woman’s fall. Does anyone see her? Why doesn’t anyone try to stop her? Why are they just standing there?

“Abandonment” conjures up an image of a solitary person wandering alone, removed from human community. But the picture reminds us that there are many ways to abandon people that have nothing to do with creating a physical distance between us and them. We abandon people when we ignore their suffering. They can be right in our field of vision, and yet be nonexistent to us. Dying in front of our very faces, so to speak.

Whatever one’s political proclivities, Pissarro’s images are disturbing and make good subjects for meditation.

Note: You can view the entire series of Turpitudes sociales here.)

Labor Day

Today we celebrate Labor Day in the United States, a day on which we recognize the achievements of American workers. The Department of Labor calls it a day to “pay tribute… to the creator of so much of the nation’s strength, freedom, and leadership — the American worker.” In Catholic terms, we more accurately pay tribute to workers as “co-creators” with God.

A central theme in Catholic thought is work as participation in the creative action of God – in the work of creation itself, and therefore as a means of sanctification. From a Catholic perspective, work serves to facilitate and encourage human person in becoming “fully human” and therefore receptive to the divine, playing a tremendously important part in bringing workers to the realization of the fullness of their existence and potential as a human person.

This sense of work as participation in the act of creation, as a means for realizing our full potential as humans comes from our creation in the image of God and the dignity of the human person. The purpose of work is to create, and the purpose of creation is to actualize our potential as beings created in the image of God. Our divine nature is displayed in work.

It is good to remind ourselves that work as participation in the act of creation is not dependent on how a particular type of work is regarded from a secular standpoint. Some work is more glamorous or seems more important than other work. Some work looks to us like mere drudgery. But it is not the nature of the particular job that gives work its dignity. Brother Lawrence, in the classic Christian text, The Practice of the Presence of God, observes that God is as present in the kitchen as in the cathedral.

P.S. The Labor Day statement of the American Catholic bishops is here.

Examining Our Attitude Towards the “Other”

I gave a mid-day reflection for students at our law school this past Wednesday on the theme: Examining Our Attitude Toward the “Other.” The title refers to our tendancy to form judgments about other persons based on their gender, race, ethnicity, religion or sexually orientation, judgments that often involve a determination that one of a different race, religion, sexual orientation, etc., is, at some fundamental level, “not us” or “not me.” This “othering” is enormously destructive of community, because it allows us to decide that some people (and their needs) are less important than others. The reflection invited participants to consider ways in which we decide that certain people are “not us” and to start to think about how we might relinquish the attitudes that prevent our full loving encounter with Christ disguised as an “other.”

You can find a podcast of the talk I gave here . (The podcast runs for 19:55). The handout I gave for their prayerful reflection during the time we were together, which I reference toward the end of the talk (the podcast ends at the point in our session where the participants spent some time in quiet reflection), along with another handout I distributed for their own subsequent individual prayer, can be found here.

The Incarnation: God Becomes Human

Merry Christmas! Today we celebrate the Incarnation of our Lord. “For unto us, a child is born.”

In the midst of the gift opening, the big Christmas morning breakfast, and the celebration of the day, take time to marvel at what exactly is is that we celebrate today. In the words of the theologian Michael Himes:

The great mystery hidden from all generations and revealed in the Incarnation is God’s secret ambition. From all eternity God has wanted to be exactly like you and me. This is the ultimate statement of the goodness of being human, the rightness of humanity. The immense dignity of the human person is at the heart of the Christian tradition because it flows directly from the doctrine of the Incarnation itself. Indeed, the Incarnation is the highest compliment ever paid to being human.

God becomes human. What an amazing reality!

Merry Christmas