Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Concluding hostage comment

In the first three installments of my analysis (trans. a rant) I outlined first the reports of hostage taking by US troops in Iraq. What followed was looks at the definition of hostage taking, and its legal status. This post concerns the moral, as opposed to legal status of hostage taking. Or in other words, why such actions are not just illegal, they are profoundly wrong.

In summary:

  • There are a number of similar reports of detention of Iraqi civilians, with the apparent intent of inducing a relative, usually a spouse or parent, to surrender to occupation authorities. This includes the implied threat of continued detention if the real target does not respond.
  • If these reports are true, the actions described meet the international definition of hostage taking.
  • Such hostage taking is defined as a grave breach of international law, and as a war crime in international, US criminal, and US military law.
Three issues are what I would call utilitarian, or in more Catholic language, prudential issues. They are problems because when you balance the apparent good done against the problems caused, it is better not to choose these actions. First off, I think that our soldiers deserve clarity about what is expected from them -- combat is chaotic enough without adding chaotic enforcement of complex rules. We have already seen the result of a loose approach to the treatment of prisoners. Next, if this kind of activity is going on, it will further degrade the effectiveness of our efforts in Iraq. Taking hostages was one of Sadddam's tactics and we will find it difficult to persuade that we and our Iraqi allies are any different if we do the same.

Finally, we are now operating in a global postmodern predicament. There is a deep and growing distrust of existing institutions because there is a growing distrust of the fundamental framework of ideas they are based on. Also, there is no such thing as a local news story any more. Here's an example: I was shocked yesterday to find out that what appears to be an Italian web site (I'm not entirely sure) concentrating on Iraq (with a definitely anti-American slant) has posted my previous three posts in this series in their entirety. It's not illegal, as they followed the terms of my Creative Commons license for this site. I only caught it by checking my referrers yesterday. The tremendous and almost universal influence enjoyed by the United States over the past century or so has not come chiefly from military or economic power, although those play their role. It is that there has been an idea, an American story, that almost everyone in the world wanted to be a part of. But it is just that kind of story that many distrust now. We are going to have enough trouble maintaining influence without giving the world more reason to distrust us.

In those three cases, the long term damage done, in my opinion, far outweighs the short term benefit, if any, of the alleged hostage taking. But the problems with these acts, if these reports are true, are more fundamental. From the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
2297 Kidnapping and hostage taking bring on a reign of terror; by means of threats they subject their victims to intolerable pressures. They are morally wrong. Terrorism threatens, wounds, and kills indiscriminately; it is gravely against justice and charity. Torture which uses physical or moral violence to extract confessions, punish the guilty, frighten opponents, or satisfy hatred is contrary to respect for the person and for human dignity.
Hostage taking violates fundamental standards of respect for human dignity and social solidarity. Human beings have value that transcends any material object, These acts reduce a human being to the level of a object whose value is determined by what it will bring, in this case influence over another person or organization. This violation is independent of what the "other side" is doing.

Postscript: I'm not really sorry to have made these posts, but they probably will not be repeated soon. There are other things to cover, and I'm still not sure what they have contributed. I guess we will see what happens.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

A Prophet Like You

We pause now for our regular programming . . .

The lessons for the fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time:

  • Deuteronomy 18:15-20
  • Psalm 95:1-2, 6-7a, 7b-9
  • First Corinthians 7:32-35
  • Mark 1:21-28
I'm getting to that stage in my life where I am getting to attend more farewell parties. I've been the guest of honor at only a few, but the numbers are adding up, including (gulp) the retirement parties of friends. Saying goodbye is part of the passage of our lives.

We get to hear part of such a goodbye today. The book of Deuteronomy is a retelling of the teachings that Moses gave to the people of Israel at the end of the Exodus, when they were about to enter the promised land. Moses, as the servant and messenger from God, has led his people from slavery into freedom. Because of his faithfulness the people have come to trust Moses, and fear having to deal with the living God directly without the intercession and guidance of their leader and prophet. In today's lesson, God responds by promising his people, through Moses, that
I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their kin, and will put my words into his mouth; he shall tell them all that I command him.
The prophets that followed Moses were part of God's fulfillment of this promise, which includes the warning that God will hold any prophet accountable for presenting only the words he gives them But the people of God came to understand this is also a promise of a true "prophet like you [Moses] from among their kin," a leader and lawgiver, the anointed one of God, or Messiah. Moses is leaving them, but he is not leaving them alone.

In the Gospel lesson, Jesus is not at the end, but at the beginning of his ministry. He has just arrived at Capernaum, a center of commerce on the shore of the Sea of Gallilee, and is facing a challenge. At this time, the word "synagogue" does not mean so much a building, as a meeting of Jews seeking God through study and worship together. These meetings are usually open to all male Jews, and one of the members of the community, or a visiting religious teacher, offers some teaching. But those at the service have a problem with Jesus and his teaching. He is facing the challenge of establishing his authority to preach.

Jesus is not preaching like the scribes, the local religious scholars and teachers. They present the results of their own studies in God's law, along with what other scholars have said, with the emphasis on what they have received of the teachings of Moses himself, the Torah. The community understands that their authority comes from the accurate and thoughtful transmission of what someone else has said about God. As we can see in the Gospel stories, Jesus is doing something else. He is speaking directly about God and how we must respond to Him, out of his own knowledge.

The problem is that according to the community's standards, Jesus is a nobody, just the son of some hick village carpenter who has just hit town. This kind of traditional community relies first on inherited status or honor, and then on reputation, for judging who to trust. Jesus, in their eyes, has no established status or reputation, and therefore is a problem.

Then the man possessed by an unclean spirit pipes up:
. . . he cried out, "What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are--the Holy One of God!" Jesus rebuked him and said, "Quiet! Come out of him!" The unclean spirit convulsed him and with a loud cry came out of him. All were amazed and asked one another, "What is this? A new teaching with authority. He commands even the unclean spirits and they obey him." His fame spread everywhere throughout the whole region of Galilee.
The onlookers have no problem understanding the possessed man -- they see the world as being filled with spirits that intervene in human life, for better or worse. These spirits can control humans, but are subject to the almighty power of God. The unclean spirit has acknowledged Jesus by name, and by a title of supreme status and honor, the Holy One of God. By ejecting the unclean spirit with a simple command, it is seen as the work of God, not magic, again by Jesus' own authority. This act establishes his legitimacy in the community as a religious leader, the basis for his teaching on his own authority, and his fame and honor spreads. He is "a prophet like Moses".

These lessons give us some leverage on the challenge of proclaiming the Good News to the world we are now in. To begin with, we must understand that we will be held accountable for what we teach or preach; that we proclaim not our word, but God's. Our message must be rooted in the great story of the redemption of God's own people, as recorded and transmitted in Scripture and the teachings of the Church. We must ground ourselves in the truth.

But in this world, Instead of relying on status or authority, we distrust anyone claiming to have ultimate truth. Once again we have a problem establishing our legitimacy to teach or preach, and I am not talking about a degree from a seminary. In this postmodern, simultaneously fragmenting and globalizing pot of cultures, we have lost much of our trust in institutions, and have, for good reason, a hard time taking what they do or teach at face value. These institutions have lost their ability to confer authority. Our starting point is suspicion, and we have learned to test everything, if we are smart.

Moses and Jesus show us the way here. They teach the truth, because they personally know the Father, who is truth itself. Intellectual understanding is not enough. Also, their teachings are effective; the people in bondage are freed, the possessed man is restored to the community and God's friendship. It is not enough to be correct, we must also be good, by the grace of God, and do as he commands us to feed the hungry, teach the ignorant, visit those sick or imprisoned, clothe the naked, and protect the poor and powerless. We have to, with God's help and guidance, become a way for God to perform all the little, average, ordinary miracles of change and redemption. Only when the world sees that, will we be able, once again, "to teach with authority, and not as the scribes".

What is a hostage, anyway?

In the previous two posts on this topic, I reviewed current reports of US troops taking hostages in Iraq, and that international, US civil and US military law prohibit the taking of hostages. The question that comes up is, what is a hostage, anyway?

The basic definition is "a prisoner who is held by one party to insure that another party will meet specified terms." (Princeton WordNet) Simple enough, but for many of us, we tend to add some enhancements to this, thinking a hostage has to be under some kind of mortal threat, a gun to the head, for example. But this is not necessary.

In 1979, the International Convention Against the Taking of Hostages was agreed to, with the US as a signatory. It isn't very long, with the section relevant for us right at the start:

  1. Any person who seizes or detains and threatens to kill, to injure or to continue to detain another person (hereinafter referred to as the "hostage") in order to compel a third party, namely, a State, an international intergovernmental organization, a natural or juridical person, or a group of persons, to do or abstain from doing any act as an explicit or implicit condition for the release of the hostage commits the offence of taking of hostages ("hostage-taking") within the meaning of this Convention.
  2. Any person who:
    1. attempts to commit an act of hostage-taking, or
    2. participates as an accomplice of anyone who commits or attempts to commit an act of hostage-taking likewise commits an offence for the purposes of this Convention.
(again, emphasis mine)
This definition is applicable under US law -- it is specifically recognized in a variety of US statues, and in court cases such as the 2003 case Simpson vs. Lybia as the standard applicable in military and international cases.

Consider a few things about this definition.
  • It is only necessary to detain, and threaten to continue to detain someone. A threat of injury or death, to the hostage or someone else, is not necessary.
  • It is necessary that the intent of the detention is to influence a third party. It is not necessary for it to be the only intent.
  • The threat can either be explicit or implicit.
So, let's take another look at the cases from Iraq. In none of the cases is there any kind of threat of physical harm, but the extent or duration of detention is specifically kept uncertain -- these persons can be held until some condition is satisfied. In more than one case, the connection between the detention of the hostage, and the need to apprehend the hostage's relative has been explicit and specific. In one case, where we have emails released under court order, that connection was clearly present before the hostage was detained.

Is this proof? Well, we are working from press reports and should always remember that. These reports by themselves would not be enough to convict anyone. But, in my opinion, they are more than enough to provide cause for a serious investigation. There is no evidence of such an investigation, but there is the stong appearance of what may be a pattern of continuing behavior. That would indicate something more serious than just some junior officer exceeding his authority.

Well, besides irritating international lawyers and some bloggers, what is wrong, what is immoral about this? That's the topic of the next post.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

So, what's the problem?

In the previous post, I wrote about news reports over the past couple of years that indicate a pattern of US forces in Iraq detaining relatives of key suspects in order to induce them to turn themselves in. So, what is wrong with that?

It's against the law, that's what. No, I am not a international lawyer, nor do I play one in a video game, but I became interested in the field both through grad school and by growing up a military kid, with some time overseas. And the nice part is that the documents on international humanitarian law are all on the web, and are fairly straightforward.

Conventional Wisdom

After the carnage of the Second World War, the nations of the world tried to find some way to prevent it's recurrence. Along with the creation of the United Nations, there was a recognition of the need for strengthening international law concerning the waging of war. Since 1864, there had been a succession of agreements known as the Geneva and Hague conventions, which laid out standards of treatment for the wounded, prisoners, and noncombatants. The reversal of the Swiss flag was adopted as a distinctive symbol indicating medical noncombatants -- the Red Cross. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) was formed to to monitor the implementation of these agreements.

In 1949, all of these agreements, along with other measures, were combined into the four Geneva Conventions, which provide the foundation for international humanitarian law. The four conventions:
  • Convention I: For the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded and Sick in Armed Forces in the Field
  • Convention II:For the Amelioration of the Condition of Wounded, Sick and Shipwrecked Members of Armed Forces at Sea
  • Convention III: Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War
  • Convention IV:Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War
Now, these conventions cover quite a bit of territory, and include many requirements and proscription. In particular, each convention defines what are known as "grave breaches" -- the most serious offenses. Of interest in our current case are grave breaches of Convention IV on civilian persons:
Art. 147.
Grave breaches to which the preceding Article relates shall be those involving any of the following acts, if committed against persons or property protected by the present Convention: willful killing, torture or inhuman treatment, including biological experiments, willfully causing great suffering or serious injury to body or health, unlawful deportation or transfer or unlawful confinement of a protected person, compelling a protected person to serve in the forces of a hostile Power, or willfully depriving a protected person of the rights of fair and regular trial prescribed in the present Convention, taking of hostages and extensive destruction and appropriation of property, not justified by military necessity and carried out unlawfully and wantonly.(emphasis mine)
Ah, there we go. A couple of technical notes before we go farther. This convention does appear to apply here as:
  • both the US and Iraq are "high contracting parties" -- we are both signatories to the conventions
  • there was an armed conflict on the territory of one of the parties
  • the US was acting as an occupying power, unquestionably up to the departure of Paul Bremer, and arguably up to the present hour
  • the persons involved were noncombatant civilians -- they were taking no active part in hostilities, unless you count knowing a suspected combatant as taking an active part, in which case there might not be any civilians at all.
So, the convention applies, and hostage taking is a grave breach of the convention. What's the penalty for this, a strongly worded telegram from Geneva?

War Crimes

Well, how does up to life in a federal prison sound to you? Under Title 18 of the United States Code, chapter 118, section 2441, a grave breach of the convention is defined a war crime, with fines and jail time up to a life sentence attached. If somebody dies as a result, the death penalty is available.

And the US military takes this seriously, as well. (Or at least it used to.) A primary tool for training military personnel in this subject is US Army Field Manual 27-10, The Law of Land Warfare. What does it have to say?
273. Hostages
The taking of hostages is prohibited.
500. Conspiracy, Incitement, Attempts, and Complicity
Conspiracy, direct incitement, and attempts to commit, as well as complicity in the commission of, crimes against peace, crimes against humanity, and war crimes are punishable.

501. Responsibility for Acts of Subordinates
In some cases, military commanders may be responsible for war crimes committed by subordinate members of the armed forces, or other persons subject to their control. Thus, for instance, when troops commit massacres and atrocities against the civilian population of occupied territory or against prisoners of war, the responsibility may rest not only with the actual perpetrators but also with the commander. Such a responsibility arises directly when the acts in question have been committed in pursuance of an order of the commander concerned. The commander is also responsible if he has actual knowledge, or should have knowledge, through reports received by him or through other means, that troops or other persons subject to his control are about to commit or have committed a war crime and he fails to take the necessary and reasonable steps to insure compliance with the law of war or to punish violators thereof.
506. Suppression of War Crimes
(c)Grave Breaches. "Grave breaches" of the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and other war crimes which are committed by enemy personnel or persons associated with the enemy are tried and punished by United States tribunals as violations of international law.

If committed by persons subject to United States military law, these "grave breaches" constitute acts punishable under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Moreover, most of the acts designated as "grave breaches" are, if committed within the United States, violations of domestic law over which the civil courts can exercise jurisdiction.
So let's review:
  • as an occupying power, the US is subject to Geneva Convention IV;
  • that convention defines holding civilians hostage as a grave breach;
  • US civil and military law defines such grave breaches as war crimes, punishable by up to life in prison -- military law extends responsibility to commanders.
The question for the next installment is, what is a hostage?

Friday, January 27, 2006

On the taking of hostages

I do not usually post on current politics and such, as I seldom am in the position to comment in a timely manner. By the time I work out a detailed expression of how I feel, the discussion has moved on.

This time I simply do not care. I am simply too angry about this right now. What follows is a more detailed discussion of just why I am angry, and what I am angry about.

The Story

The reports began in 2004. The Christian Science Monitor's Annia Ciezadlo wrote about Texas-born US citizen Jeanan Moayad's experience when US troops wanted to question her 66 year old geologist father:
They told me it was because he was a Baathist," she says. "They told me my father didn't do anything, but they just wanted to know information about another person."

When the troops learned her father was out of the country, says Moayad, they arrested her husband. As Moayad's mother began to cry, they promised to bring him back the next day, saying they just wanted to ask him a few questions.

For the next 18 days, Ibrahim was held at a Baghdad detention facility. On Feb. 17, says Moayad, three soldiers came to her house and gave her a letter in her husband's handwriting. After greeting her and the children with "peace and kisses," the letter says he will be sent to Abu Ghraib "until the arrival of my father-in-law."

"I'm going to be there in his place until he surrenders himself," reads the letter. "Please tell him that I am in his place and that I'll be released when he arrives here, since I am not the wanted person, as you know from all who spoke to you about my case. Please inform my father-in-law to surrender himself of his own free will, and that will make things much easier for him. They don't mistreat someone who surrenders of his own free will, but just the opposite - they only want to ask him questions."
Note, a person detained not for what they have done, but to influence the actions of someone else. There were other reports of wives of leading suspects being held to encourage their husbands to surrender.

Well those reports turn out to be true. Today it was reported that Department of Defense documents disclose that women were held in order to induce cooperation from their husbands:
In a memo written in June 2004 and released Friday, an officer with the Defense Intelligence Agency, whose name was redacted, described the arrest of a 28-year-old woman from Tamiya, northwest of Baghdad. She had three young children, including one who was nursing.
U.S. forces raided her in-laws' home, calling her husband the "primary target." Before the raid, soldiers had decided that if the woman were at the in-laws' home, they'd detain her "in order to leverage the primary target's surrender," the memo's author wrote.

"During my initial screening of the occupants at the target house, I determined that the wife could provide no actionable intelligence leading to the arrest of her husband," the author of the memo wrote. "Despite my protest, the raid team leader detained her anyway."

The woman was released two days later, the memo said.

In the 2004 e-mail exchange, what appear to be American soldiers based in northern Iraq discuss the detention of Kurdish female prisoners. The names were redacted.
In an e-mail dated June 17, 2004, a U.S. soldier wrote: "What are you guys doing to try to get the husband - have you tacked a note on the door and challenged him to come get his wife?"

A soldier wrote two days later that he was getting more information from "these gals" that could "result in getting husband."

The e-mails and the memo were among hundreds of documents that the Pentagon released under a federal court order to meet an American Civil Liberties Union request for information on detention practices.
Once again the same pattern -- one person is not available, so a relative is detained in hopes that the real target will turn themselves in.

Update: I finally found the other case I remember, the one that started this as an issue, from Saddam Aide's Family Arrested:
The detention of the relatives of Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri (search), a lifelong Saddam associate who is No. 6 on the list of most-wanted Iraqis, was an apparent attempt to pressure his surrender or gather intelligence that might lead to him. U.S. officials last week offered a $10 million reward for information leading to al-Douri's capture.
Troops of the U.S. 4th Infantry Division in Samarra, 70 miles north of Baghdad, detained the women in a raid that also netted another al-Douri associate, spokesman Lt. Col. William MacDonald said at the division's headquarters in Tikrit.
MacDonald gave no details on why the wife and daughter were seized, but American forces have frequently arrested relatives of fugitives to interrogate them on their family member's whereabouts and as a way of putting pressure on the wanted men to surrender.
Same pattern as the others.

So the question is, what's wrong with this? That will be addressed in the next post.

Quote: Meister Eckhart

Some people want to see God with their eyes as they see a cow and to love him as they love their cow - they love their cow for the milk and cheese and profit it makes them. This is how it is with people who love God for the sake of outward wealth or inward comfort. They do not rightly love God when they love him for their own advantage. Indeed, I tell you the truth, any object you have on your mind, however good, will be a barrier between you and the inmost truth.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

While we were fighting among ourselves

Jordon Cooper posted a link to the Eight Stages of Genocide, a framework created Gregory H. Stanton when he was working at the State Department in 1996. From the Genocide Watch web site:

Genocide is a process that develops in eight stages that are predictable but not inexorable. At each stage, preventive measures can stop it. The later stages must be preceded by the earlier stages, though earlier stages continue to operate throughout the process.

The eight stages are:
  • Classification

  • Symbolization

  • Dehumanization

  • Organization

  • Polarization

  • Preparation

  • Extermination

  • Denial
Of particular interest, is this from the definition of classification:
All cultures have categories to distinguish people into "us and them" by ethnicity, race, religion, or nationality: German and Jew, Hutu and Tutsi. Bipolar societies that lack mixed categories, such as Rwanda and Burundi, are the most likely to have genocide.

The main preventive measure at this early stage is to develop universalistic institutions that transcend ethnic or racial divisions, that actively promote tolerance and understanding, and that promote classifications that transcend the divisions. The Catholic church could have played this role in Rwanda, had it not been riven by the same ethnic cleavages as Rwandan society. Promotion of a common language in countries like Tanzania or Cote d'Ivoire has also promoted transcendent national identity. This search for common ground is vital to early prevention of genocide. (emphasis mine)
Oh what a damning sentence: The Catholic Church could have played this role . . .

If the Church is to live up to its own story, we must find a unity that is not based on agreeing on externals, but on commitment to the real core of the faith. Too much from those at the various extremes of Catholic opinion are just baptized versions of some recognizable secular positions. We will have no traction in a postmodern world, if we are fighting old battles that nobody else cares about, not even God. This is not just a matter of wasting our own time or effort. There are lives at stake here.

What a start

I'm still working my way through the new encyclical, which is more a measure of how busy I am at work right now (big project over the next couple of months) than of the clarity of the work. The encyclicals of John Paul II were never so much hard to read, as needing slow and careful reading -- there was so much there. Pope Benedict's writing is, as it has been, a model of clarity. As someone else has pointed out, it scans. The reports over the past couple of weeks was that this encyclical was delayed in order to get a better translation (something JP2 had a problem with -- we're still waiting for a really decent English translation of Love and Responsibility). Well he got it.

As usual Rocco has some of the best initial comments (on Beliefnet), and points out one application close to home:

But this encyclical's call to love, even when it is inconvenient or uneasy, should give pause to the church's lay activists at the extremes. Particularly in the United States, the fringes of the Catholic community have viewed those who disagree with them as virtually excommunicated.

Writing about sacramental communion, when Catholics receive what the church teaches is Jesus’ flesh and blood, Benedict rejects the notion of the church as an ideological battlefield: "Union with Christ is also union with all those to whom he gives himself," the Pope writes.

Speaking in the first person but stressing the collective, he continues that "I cannot possess Christ just for myself; I can belong to him only in union with all those who have become, or who will become, his own. ...Love of God and love of neighbor are now truly united."
This cuts to the heart of my own reflections on the Church in this postmodern world. Lots more to read here, and some great comments going up. Everybody seems to like this, but we will have to keep an eye out for the classic problem of different people seeing with different eyes, and in a sense reading different encyclicals.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Thanks, y'all

I'm rather remiss in not noting and publicly thanking some colleagues for linking to here. Both Alan Phipps of Ad Altare Dei and Todd of Catholic Sensibility have updated their blogrolls to switch to Semina Verbi. Very much appreciated, guys. (And you need to post more often, Alan. It's always good stuff, including the movie reviews . . . )

More surprising is that Amy Welborn of Open Book, otherwise known as She Whose Blog Must Be Read has a link here. I never noticed a link to the old blog (although Oblivious could be my middle name), and I have no idea what I've done to get a link, but again, many thanks, Amy -- and I still want to see you at Anaheim next year.

Quote: Benedict XVI

In a world where the name of God is sometimes associated with vengeance or even a duty of hatred and violence, this message is both timely and significant. For this reason, I wish in my first Encyclical to speak of the love which God lavishes upon us and which we in turn must share with others. That, in essence, is what the two main parts of this Letter are about, and they are profoundly interconnected. The first part is more speculative, since I wanted here—at the beginning of my Pontificate—to clarify some essential facts concerning the love which God mysteriously and gratuitously offers to man, together with the intrinsic link between that Love and the reality of human love. The second part is more concrete, since it treats the ecclesial exercise of the commandment of love of neighbour. The argument has vast implications, but a lengthy treatment would go beyond the scope of the present Encyclical. I wish to emphasize some basic elements, so as to call forth in the world renewed energy and commitment in the human response to God's love.
Pope Benedict XVI, from the introduction to Deus Caritas Est

I'm too busy at the moment to sit back and read this in detail, but it looks like a feast here.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Late congratulations

I should have brought this up before, but I was in a hurry to get to the retreat last week. Last Friday, Father Raniero Hoffman was elected to another six year term as Prior of New Camaldoli Hermitage. Congratulations Father Prior!

Quote: Kallistos Ware

God does not condemn us to Hell; God wishes all humans to be saved. He will love us to all eternity, but there will exist the possibility that we do not accept the love and do not respond to it. And the refusal to accept love, the refusal to respond to it, that precisely is the meaning of Hell. Hell is not a place where God puts us; it’s a place where we put ourselves. The doors of Hell, insofar as they have locks, have locks on the inside.
Bishop Kallistos Ware

Monday, January 23, 2006

Right on time

I was working on this during the retreat over the weekend, but I have not had a chance to post on this until now.

The lessons for the third Sunday in Ordinary time:

  • Jonah 3:1-5, 10
  • Psalm 25:4-5, 6-7, 8-9
  • First Corinthians 7:29-31
  • Mark 1:14-20
I'm not a fan of alarm clocks. As a fairly regular sleeper, I can generally rely on waking up when I need to on my own, and will feel better all day if I get up naturally, and am not shocked awake. But there is one alarm clock that I did love. Growing up, the alarm clocks in cartoons were brassy and round, with 2 big bells on the top struck by a mechanical clapper. I thought that these clocks were mythical - the only alarm clock I knew was the square white plastic Westclox on my father's nightstand. When we moved to Germany in 1968, I was entranced by the big round wind-up alarm clock we bought. The tick could be heard in the next building, and the alarm would wake the dead. I ended up with it when I moved to college and used it for years -- even if I can't figure out where it is now.

An alarm clock is a great example of how differently we see time from how it is used in this Gospel lesson, and time is just what this lesson is about. Two weeks ago we heard about the revelation that changes how we see everything else, including ourselves. Last week we learned about how we are to respond to that change, to God's call to us. This week we learn that this revelation and this call have arrived because now is the right time.

The story this week is the same as from last week -- Jesus calls the first disciples. But in Matthew's version, the emphasis is on time:
After John had been arrested,
Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the gospel of God:
"This is the time of fulfillment.
The kingdom of God is at hand.
Repent, and believe in the gospel."
The whole history of God's creation, and his relationship with Israel is now coming to a climax, a fulfillment that requires a response from us.

Today, we think of time as something to measure, the stuff of calendars and schedules and clocks. We treat is as a kind of personal possession, talking about my time or your time as if we could buy it in a store and give it as a present. The ancient Greeks called this kind of time chronos (from which we get words like chronological and chronograph) and often depicted is as an old man, who has seen a lot of time go by. But there was another word for time, kairos. This is the time of completion, the moment of opportunity, usually pictured by the Greeks as a young man, at the peak of vitality. You measure chronos with an alarm clock, which doles out the minutes you can sleep. Jesus is not telling Simon, Andrew, James and John that the coming of the Kingdom of God was right on schedule. He proclaims that the moment of opportunity for them is now here.

It is time for them to follow Jesus. I think we sometimes misread the story of the call of the disciples. The Gospels are not detailed narratives or history in the way we are used to, and details that we would expect are not included. Some see, in this passage, these first disciples suddenly (and dramatically) dropping everything to follow someone they barely know. That is not very likely. Galilee is not a big place at all, and even in the First century there is quite a bit of trade between towns. Consider that Jesus and his followers ended up walking all over this area themselves. There is no reason to believe that they couldn't know of Jesus already, quite possibly through his cousin, John the Baptist. I believe that when Jesus comes by, they are responding to someone that they know, that they have already learned to trust. Jesus is now telling them that things have changed, that the waiting is over. The four are ready, and respond.

It is sometimes easy to confuse these ideas of time in our own lives. Our society sets out a schedule for us. There is a specific age when we are to go to school, then find a job and mate. We expect to know by 20, or at the latest, 25, just what we are going to do with our lives. As time, chronos, passes, we may enjoy success or failure. If things do not seem to go well from the beginning, if we screw up significantly, we can feel that time has passed us by, that we have wasted our time and our life. But we misunderstand God, kairos, and the real arc of our lives.

If we choose to know Jesus, to build a relationship of trust, one day we will hear: "it is time". It may be a call when we are young to dedicate ourselves to service as religious or priest. It may be the call to married life, to build in a family the pattern for all human society. Or it may come later in an otherwise unexpected call to ministry, even when we think it is too late, that our failures disqualify us. While we are concentrating on the time we can measure, the time on a clock, God is bringing us to that moment when we can, in complete freedom choose to be just that person we were created to be, to do our unique job in bringing the reign of God to this sorry world. All in the fullness of God's time.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Off to the hills

Well, now off to a retreat up in the Sierra -- back on Sunday with some reflections.

Being Revolutionary

Kevin Miller at Christianity Today has a reaction to George Barna's upcoming book REVOLUTION: Finding Vibrant Faith Beyond the Walls of the Sanctuary and it's not a positive one:

Do you want to become a Revolutionary? First, trade your copy of Revolution for Life Together, the manifesto written by Dietrich Bonhoeffer during the dark days of Nazi Germany. Then, if you want to do heroic and revolutionary exploits, go back to your local church. That's something so spiritually challenging that several million people no longer want to do it.
Nope, I don't think he likes it at all. And I find myself agreeing with him.

One of my central interests these days is the interaction of the postmodern situation and Christian life and ministry. Some of the best ideas about this are coming from what has become known as the emerging church movement, and I find these ideas challenging in the best way. But this movement has roots mainly in the Evangelical churches, and that my main difference with this movement is ecclesiological -- for I am a Roman Catholic. I have a rather different relationship to the Church, and a different idea of what it is, than most Evangelicals. One of my favorite writers in this movement is Brian McLaren, who, in his excellent book The Church on the Other Side says: "If you have a new world, you need a new church. You have a new world." If you see the institutional church from the Evangelical perspective, the church we see is a provisional human organization with the true Church being that invisible body of all true Christians, known fully only to God. When things change, we should restructure our organizations as radically as required. But to a Catholic, the organization we see on Earth really is the Body of Christ in a mysterious way that we cannot always understand, and whose boundaries are sometimes difficult to determine. You may have a new world, but you don't start from scratch with a new Church.

Barna is describing a movement that goes farther. According to him millions of American Christians have dropped out of the recognizable local church organization in favor of smaller and more informal structures be they home churches, or just not going to any kind of formal church at all. I feel that there are just bunches of problems with this, and Miller points out a number of real issues, including methodological issues -- he thinks that Barna's numbers don't add up, which is a real problem coming from a professional market researcher and pollster.

The question of just what effect postmodernity will or will not have on the RC Church is a central issue for me these days, especially the effects on such foundational units such as the parish. The article is a good one, but there is more to work out in this area, and I am just getting started.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Quote: Dorothy Day

We cannot love God unless we love each other. We know him in the breaking of bread, and we know each other in the breaking of bread, and we are not alone anymore. Heaven is a banquet, and life is a banquet too - even with a crust - where there is companionship. We have all known loneliness, and we have learned that the only solution is love, and that love comes with community.
Dorothy Day, The Long Loneliness

A flash in the morning

Just a quick note -- it was a beautiful morning coming in to work today. I travel both by freeway and then through miles of orchards and fields. It was foggy on the freeway, but when I got off the fog was clearing and I had a wonderful view of the coastal hills to the west by the light of the sunrise. As I came up to a turn, two coyotes crossed the road in front of me, well clear of traffic, in a rather businesslike manner. I couldn't help smiling the rest of the way into work.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Quote: Rich Cook

Programming today is a race between software engineers striving to build bigger and better idiot-proof programs, and the Universe trying to produce bigger and better idiots. So far, the Universe is winning.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

A light touch works better

Pensylvania youth pastor Mike Lamson commented recently about Turf wars in the church..., something I've seen a lot of over the years, and something that looks the same no matter where you go. One of the key quiestions is all ministry is how these things get going, and how to keep them from starting. Mike points out that one important part is how we treat the people with minister with:

It's so easy to say that God loves us, but many times for people it seems hard to believe because they don't see it in action in real life. What am I doing to change this perception? What am I doing to contribute to the division?
We end up treating almost everything we work with in ministry as important, except for the people we are ministering with, our fellow workers in the vineyard, especially when they have problems or fall short. Mike feels the humility is the better road:
I'll give you a great example. Last fall we had a breakfast for our missions conference involving our youth. I had asked one of my adult leaders (who usually cooks for most of my events) if he would cook breakfast for the conference. He said he would love to. I call to remind him the day before and he is ready to go the next day.

But the next morning, he is nowhere to be found. What do I do? Do I get upset that he's not there? What should my response be? I am reminded of Eph. 4:2-3, "Be humble and gentle. Be patient with each other, making allowance for each other's faults because of your love. Always keep yourselves united in the Holy Spirit, and bind yourselves together with peace."
So I start cooking the breakfast, and in the midst I'm calling him to make sure he's ok. I am not the greatest at cooking it, but I get by.

I wonder how many would call my friend and immediately say, "Where are you!? You were supposed to be here 30 minutes ago!" What kind of posture is that promoting? I mean, how many times have you made a commitment, and then something happens unexpectedly that just conflicts with your commitment? What if they got in a car accident? What if they got the news that someone close to them died or is in the hospital? We just don't know do we.

So maybe when an apparent conflict arises, instead of calling them and asking, "Where are you," we should ask, "Are you ok? How are you doing?" Regardless, what can you really do about it now? If it was something that was their fault, talk it out to make sure it doesn't happen again, but don't beat them over the head with it. I mean what does that really accomplish? We could avoid so much division if we a little more humble our postures in these moments, with a focus on the bigger, that of God's mission. In this instance, my friend let me down. I told him it made things a little more hairy, but it's done and let's do better next time. I'll call him earlier that morning to make sure he's awake, and at the same time realize that I don't need to get upset over it.
This is enourmous. I have seen wedges driven deep into teams by what people said when they felt someone let them down. It's a time when everybody is a bit sensitive, and also selectively deaf. Also, as Mike points out, sometimes there is a bigger issue, a more urgent probem, than just what that person did not do for you.

Let's turn it around for a moment. Remember the last time you really screwed up and let down someone you care for and respect. Think of what it was like when you approached them, so sorry for what you had done, and asking for forgiveness. It is like one's emotional skin has been sandpapered -- one feels the slightest touch as a blow. You feel like you are made out of glass, and the other person has a hammer.

Now remember when that person forgave you, reached out to you and restored your relationship. Very few things feel better than that, right? We're not throwing out accountability, that is needed too, with love and justice. But we must make sure that we don't throw out the person that Jesus died for either. Matthew (12:20) declared that Jesus fulfilled the prophecy that "a bruised reed he will not break, a smoldering wick he will not quench." It is in this moment, in humility, that we can build stronger relationships with our fellow workers in the vineyard, instead of destroying them.

Technical Progress

Well, it has been a couple of weeks since the last technical post, so it's time to review to to-do list

  • Clean up CSS for the right hand column, especially the bloglines section - largely done;
  • Add the proper doctype, style, and script type attributes so that the W3C validator utilities have a chance to figure out what's wrong - done;
  • Bring up to validated HTML 4.0 Transitional at the minimum - validated XHTML would be better - still working on the blogger meta tags and their effect on this;
  • Bring up to validated CSS - not there yet;
  • Add Google search - ditto;
  • Rethink the various sections to provide a better Archives display page - ditto again (I'm thinking of making it a single column, more printer friendly page);
  • Consider adding one of the calendar or category display hacks that are floating around - categories are in, driven by del.icio.us -- still shopping on calendar hack
I also have some of the old links back there on the right, but I'm still working out the formatting.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Quote: Henri Nouwen

Aren’t you, like me, hoping that some person, thing, or event will come along to give you that final feeling of inner well-being you desire? Don’t you often hope: “May this book, idea, course, trip, job, country, or relationship fulfill my deepest desire.” But as long as you are waiting for that mysterious moment you will go on running helter-skelter, always anxious and restless, always lustful and angry, never fully satisfied. You know that this is the compulsiveness that keeps us going and busy, but at the same time makes us wonder whether we are getting anywhere in the long run. This is the way to spiritual exhaustion and burn-out. This is the way to spiritual death. Well, you and I don’t have to kill ourselves. We are the Beloved. We are intimately loved long before our parents, teachers, spouses, children, and friends loved or wounded us. That’s the truth of our lives. That’s the truth I want to you to claim for yourself. That’s the truth spoken by the voice that says, "You are my Beloved."
Henri Nouwen, Life of the Beloved

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Ears Open to Obedience You Gave Me

The readings for the second Sunday in Ordinary time are:

  • 1 Samuel 3:3b-10, 19
  • Psalm 40:2+4, 7-8a, 8b-9, 10
  • 1 Corinthians 6:13c-15a, 17-20
  • John 1:35-42

One effect of cell phones is that we tend to get calls in strange places -- most of us have our favorite story of where we took a call. As a corporate systems programmer, I spend a certain amount of time "on call". I have been called or paged on a plane waiting for takeoff, in the middle of the night at home, in the bathroom, and, of course, in church. (And yes, I do set my phone on silent before Mass starts.) We associate "call" as something you get on the phone, not something that comes from God. This other kind of call is what we hear about in today's readings.

Last week we celebrated the Epiphany of the Lord, the transforming revelation of just who Jesus is, a revelation that changes how we see ourselves and the world around us. This week we hear about how we must respond to that revelation, that call. There is the familiar story of the call of Samuel to be a prophet, and the call of Andrew and Peter to follow Jesus. There are certain common factors in all these stories that teaches us about how we can recognize and respond to the call from God.

Samuel hears God calling him by name in the silence of the night, but cannot understand it without Eli's help. And in the Gospel lesson, we hear of some of the first to follow Jesus:
John was standing with two of his disciples,and as he watched Jesus walk by, he said,"Behold, the Lamb of God." The two disciples heard what he said and followed Jesus.Jesus turned and saw them following him and said to them,"What are you looking for?"They said to him, "Rabbi" - which translated means Teacher -,"where are you staying?"He said to them, "Come, and you will see."So they went and saw where Jesus was staying,and they stayed with him that day.

It was about four in the afternoon. Andrew, the brother of Simon Peter,was one of the two who heard John and followed Jesus.He first found his own brother Simon and told him,"We have found the Messiah" - which is translated Christ - Then he brought him to Jesus.Jesus looked at him and said, "You are Simon the son of John;you will be called Cephas" - which is translated Peter.
From this we can see that first, a call often comes through another person, or can only be understood with another's help. This kind of call requires response - are called to do something to get closer to God. And response to the call of God transforms us, makes us new people, with new names.

You can spend your whole life waiting for that still small voice that Samuel heard. Some people never make a decision, never answer that call. Others, eager to hear something, end up hearing only the reflection of their own desires. In my own life, God has ususally called to me through people I trust. This has included teachers, pastors, friends, and most importantly, my wife, Marilee. My willingness to move forward on the diaconate comes chiefly from the encouragement of one good friend, and my wife's support. When you think such a call comes to you, share it with someone, and you may find out much more than you expect.

God calls us into encounter with Himself. In both of the stories in today's Gospel, Andrew, then Simon, are called to see and talk directly with Jesus, and to journey on with Him. God calls us expecting a direct response.

Those who make that response, who answer that call, will never be the same again. Samuel became a prophet: "the LORD was with him, not permitting any word of his to be without effect." Andrew's allegiance changed from John the Baptist to Jesus, and this change was so profound that he had to go get his brother Simon, and bring him to Jesus. The sign of transformation for Simon was Jesus renaming him Cephas, or Peter. As we learned last week, knowlege of who Jesus really is changes everything.

Each of us as Christians have been, in Baptism, called by God. But it does not stop there. We who have ears to perceive will percieve, with the help of others, that God continues to call us to Himself, to change us into the persons we were created to be, to give us back our own real names.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Reflecting on Preaching

Over the past couple of years in detention ministry, I have found it useful to work up a brief reflection on the Sunday lessons, to "have in my pocket" when I go inside. Flexibility is everything inside and I can end up teaching a class, assisting in a Legion of Mary session, or holding a communion service with little notice. Having thought through the lessons, and come up with some brief and direct reflection, I am better prepared to handle whatever comes up.

And it makes such a difference in how I experience the Mass myself.

Recently, Texas Dominican Fr. Philip Powell, O.P. has presented a couple of excellent posts on practical homiletics on his blog, Domine, da mihi hanc aquam. The Art of the Homily and Mechanics of a homily..., along with the comments, are excellent reading, even if all you want is to understand better what your pastor is doing all week to prepare for Sunday. I like Fr. Philip's definition of a homily:

so, what IS a homily?
  • a liturgical device of Speaking the Word, giving the Word of God voice for today
  • authentic, authoritative instruction in the living faith of the Church
  • an exhortation to communal and personal holiness, encouragement in the face of despair
  • an "unpacking" of the readings in a way that addresses real problems of faith
  • a liturgical device for raising questions, suggesting answers, stirring up trouble, getting into fights
Of course, Fr. Philip is a member of the Order of Preachers, so one expects him to be pretty good at this, and the homilies that he posts support that. He's not the only Dominican on the web that I have learned from. Fr. Jude Siciliano produces First Impressions, which has been an important resource for me.

Preaching is becoming a more important topic for me as time goes by, and it is one of the reasons why I have considered the diaconate. It's not a matter of having something to say myself -- that's what a blog is for, after all. It is that from time to time, God seems to have something to say, and to my frank shock, seems to want to say it through me for reasons I cannot understand. I would not be my first choice.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Quote: St. Theresa Benedicta of the Cross (Edith Stein)

The duties and cares of the day crowd about us when we awake each day - if they have not already dispelled our night's rest. How can everything be accommodated in one day? When will I do this, when that? How will it all be accomplished? Thus agitated, we are tempted to run and rush. And so we must take the reins in hand and remind ourselves, "Let go of your plans. The first hour of your morning belongs to God. Tackle the day's work that he charges you with, and he will give you the power to accomplish it."
Source: Edith Stein, Essential Writings

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Hmmm . . . Time to buy

For some reason yesterday, I flipped by the site for The Atlantic magazine and found that the top article was "The Year of Two Popes" by Paul Elie (of The Life You Save May Be Your Own). Of course, most of the test was behind the pay wall, and I noted that this might be worth a trip to B&N Saturday (I still have a gift card from Christmas burning a hole in my wallet).

Rocco at Whispers in the Loggia thinks that would be a good idea:

Run out of your house, find the closest high-brow newsstand or B&N, and buy it. It's worth the five bucks. Don't walk -- RUN.

I was forwarded the text earlier and have gotten numerable e.mails about it since. And it just shines, it sings -- Allen smokes, the Romans spin and even the Amato Papa Roberto Mickens gets a word in edgewise. Elie's dead-on with his analysis, mostly as he's saying a lot of things I've been saying for months. (After all, who compared CDF and Stato to the Red Sox and the Yankees last 29 June? You're welcome. And I did it for free.)

Yep, Rocco is definitely an acquired taste, but I have acquired it. Looks like a copy of The Atlantic is in my immediate future.

Update: Stopped by the B&N on the way to an appointment -- the December issue is still on sale. Sigh. Maybe Saturday . . .

Thanks, compadre

Many thanks to Bill Cork of Tischreden for giving this new blog it's first link -- which is not surprising as Bill was one of the first to link to One Pilgrim's Walk.

Quote: Anne Lamott

..for some of us, books are as important as almost anything else on earth. What a miracle it is that out of these small, flat, rigid pieces of paper unfolds world after world, worlds that sing to you, comfort and quiet you or excite you. Books help us understand who we are and how we are to behave. They show us what community and friendship mean; they show us how to live and die. They are full of the things that you don't get in real life--wonderful, lyrical language, for instance. And quality of attention: we may notice amazing details during the course of a day but we rarely let ourselves stop and really pay attention. An author makes you notice, makes you pay attention, and this is a great gift. My gratitude for good writing is unboundec; I'm grateful for it the way I'm grateful for the ocean.
Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Quote: Thomas Merton

A contemplative is not one who takes his prayer seriously, but one who takes God seriously, who is famished for truth, who seeks to live in generous simplicity, in the spirit. An ardent and sincere humility is the best protection for his life of prayer.
Thomas Merton, Spiritual Direction and Meditation

Monday, January 09, 2006

Its not about us, so let's get over it

It seems to happen every few years. Some network tries to come up with either an "edgy" or funny (or both) series featuring either clergy or religious. This time NBC is trying with The Book of Daniel, featuring an Episcopal priest, his rather challenged family, and a rather vapid Jesus, by all reports. I don't think I will find the time for this one.

But forgive me if I pass on all the outrage bouncing around the Blogosphere these days. Too many are claiming that this stupid show is a deliberate insult to Christians. To quote an old phrase, never ascribe to malice what can be adquately explained as stupidity. Diane Winston of USC wrote in the Sunday LA times that if not stupidity, the problem may be a special kind of incompetence:

This misses the point. "The Book of Daniel" doesn't disparage Bible-believing Christians. Instead, it demonstrates the difficulty of turning serious religion into entertainment. Religion can be played as sentimental, spooky or satire, but doing it straight — think "ER" repotted in a synagogue — is hard to pull off.

In large part, this is because we treat religion as a special case. Whether we're atheists, agnostics, secularists or believers, we all hold religious leaders to higher standards. Doctors, lawyers and politicians can be noble and flawed — isn't that why we love Jack Bauer ("24"), Gregory House ("House") and the late, great Leo McGarry ("The West Wing")? But imagine any of these characters with a collar or a kippa, and tell me it doesn't make you squirm.

Maybe because we see priests, rabbis and imams as stand-ins for the divine, we expect more of them.

I would not go that far. People of faith, at least, are very familiar with their leaders being both noble and flawed at the same time. The problem I think is with writers, actors, and directors (even well meaning ones) getting beyond easy structures and tricks. The limitations of the network program form are extreme. You have a precise number of minutes to get a story going before you have to break for the first commercial, and you have to give your viewers some reason to come back after the break. If you watch enough sitcoms, you start to notice some similarities of pattern and method, patterns and techniques that have been tested over time and work within the limits of the form. Certain kinds of characters and relationships are easier to work with. The issue is not chiefly artistic or religious as commercial. You have to come up with a program that will sucessfully keep commercials from colliding with each other. Gordon Atkinson (also known as Real Live Preacher) writes in points this out in Salon (subscription or watching a commercial required):
Yo, brothers and sisters in Christ. They weren't making fun of you. It's much worse than that. The folks at NBC don't care about you enough to make fun of you. They don't even know you exist. You are not a part of their world. They want to make money, that's all. This is no great mystery or secret. They're not hypocrites; they're capitalists.
Which is something we better get used to. As I pointed out a few days ago, we no longer have a priviledged postion, we have to duke it out in the secular media with everyone else. But, according to Atkinson, we should not be depending on the media:
But I think all the uproar from Christians is symptomatic of a more disturbing trend. More and more Christians seem to think that affirmation from our culture is where they will find their power. Since when do religions need affirmation from television stations? That's a little shallow, don't you think? What we should be doing is practicing our devotion and letting our changed lives speak for themselves.

And I've got news for you, Christian. If your faith isn't changing your life enough to make a difference in the world, you've got bigger problems than NBC.

Oh, there is something a little ironic that I want to mention. The first six chapters of the actual book of Daniel -- the one in the Bible -- are about a young man named Daniel and some of his friends who are trying to live out their faith in a very hostile foreign land. Trust me, the Babylonians were much worse than NBC. Daniel's solution was to doggedly worship God in their own way, and let their lives be a quiet and steady witness of their faith.

Their devotion produced a living and real goodness that even won the heart of the King in the end. And all of this happened because they were not foolish enough to try to change Babylon, but rather changed themselves.

In a postmodern world, media savvy and resulting cynicism is common. We will have to re-establish ourselves one person at a time by how we really live, and how we genuinely communicate the Good News that we are living out. No shortcuts.

Quote: Flannery O'Connor

The experience of losing your faith, or of having lost it, is an experience that in the long run belongs to faith; or at least it can belong to faith if faith is still valuable to you, and it must be or you would not have written me about this. I don’t know how the kind of faith required of a Christian living in the 20th century can be at all if it is not grounded on this experience that you are having right now of unbelief. “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief” is the most natural and most human and most agonizing prayer in the gospels, and I think it is the foundation prayer of faith.
Flannery O'Connor, from a letter to Alfred Corn, 1962

Sunday, January 08, 2006

From the river to the ends of the earth

The lessons for the feast of the Epiphany are:

  • Isaiah 60:1-6
  • Psalm 72:1-2, 7-8, 10-11, 12-13
  • Ephesians 3:2-3a, 5-6
  • Matthew 2:1-12

We all like stories. The stories we tell about our lives and our faith reveal more than almost any amount of theological discussion. Scripture is largely a collection of stories, told by many different people in many different ways, that are all part of one great story, the story of God, how he loves his people, and how far he will go to save his people. The story today in the Gospel lesson is one of the very best, the story of the journey of the Magi to present gifts to the infant Jesus.

Now, one of the most popular kind of stories is a mystery story. The starting point is an event that is unexplained or secret in some important way, along with a person who really needs to find that explanation or discover that secret. We are hunters, problem solvers. We keenly follow the hero or heroine on their the hunt, as they face challenges and overcome obstacles. In taking us along on that journey, the best mystery stories reveal not only the secret, but something important about the characters and ourselves.

We, as people of faith, use the word mystery a lot. For example, it is one of the most used words in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. I like this (from a chapter end summary): "God has revealed himself to man by gradually communicating his own mystery in deeds and in words." This kind of mystery story consists of the deeds and words where God reveals Himself to us in a way beyond our own natural reason. Unlike a detective story, this kind of mystery is not a secret that we can discover without help, or a puzzle that we can figure out on our own. It is God showing some part of His own self to us, explaining our own secret parts to us.

God revealing himself to us transforms how we see the world and ourselves. We call this kind of revealing that transfers how we see everything an epiphany.

In today's second lesson, St. Paul tells of such an epiphany, one that transformed how the People of God must view those previously seen as being completely outside of the community of God:

Brothers and sisters:
You have heard of the stewardship of God's grace that was given to me for your benefit,
namely, that the mystery was made known to me by revelation.
It was not made known to people in other generations as it has now been revealed
to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit:
that the Gentiles are coheirs, members of the same body,
and copartners in the promise in Christ Jesus through the
This is the feast of the Epiphany of the Lord, the transforming revelation of the secret of who Christ is, that changes how everyone sees the world. The Gospel story that we read today is one of the most familiar and beloved: the journey of the three Magi seeking the infant Jesus. Herod provides suspense and intrigue -- the travelers from the distant East provide the color and taste of the exotic. It has been a part of countless pieces of art, movies, and even an opera. And what creche would be complete without the figures of the Three Wise Men, their gifts, and of course the camels they rode in on. A great story -- but what is revealed here?

Well, just what Paul was talking about. When we tell the story of the Magi, we are reminding ourselves that even while Jesus was the infant child of poor refugees he was recognized as king, high priest, and redeemer. And this recognition did not come from the religious leaders of the day, for they were nowhere to be found in the stable in Bethlehem. Herod, the political leader, wanted to protect his position by hunting down and killing this baby. Recognition came from the poor and outcast, and from representatives of the non-Jewish world, the gentiles. This revlelation, this epiphany, transforms our view of Jesus as the one promised to lead Israel alone to political freedom, to the one who will die redeem the entire earth, and rise again. We are no longer on the outside listening in, but part of the main story itself.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Robust competition, whether we like it or not

Another notable answer to The Edge's featured question, "What is your most dangerous idea?" This is from Daniel Gilbert, Professor of Psychology at Harvard University:

Dangerous does not mean exciting or bold. It means likely to cause great harm. The most dangerous idea is the only dangerous idea: The idea that ideas can be dangerous.

We live in a world in which people are beheaded, imprisoned, demoted, and censured simply because they have opened their mouths, flapped their lips, and vibrated some air. Yes, those vibrations can make us feel sad or stupid or alienated. Tough shit. That's the price of admission to the marketplace of ideas. Hateful, blasphemous, prejudiced, vulgar, rude, or ignorant remarks are the music of a free society, and the relentless patter of idiots is how we know we're in one. When all the words in our public conversation are fair, good, and true, it's time to make a run for the fence.

This is a reality that some Christians have a hard time handling, particularly when trying to reach out to a postmodern culture. It's not nice out there, and we better get used to it. In the fullness of the Kingdom all the words in public conversation will be "fair, good, and true", just as ours must be right now. But that freedom to be offensive, ignorant or rude is the same freedom we have to present the Good News to the world. If we spend too much of our time and effort trying to shut someone else up, others may have little regard to what we have to say. It's time to realize that, as Christians, we no longer have a privileged position in this society to speak from. Many people will not stop and pay attention to us just because we say we represent Jesus, or the Church. The challenge now is not nominalism, but secularism. Our message is going to have to compete head on with all the other ones floating about, just as it did quite successfully in the Roman world.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Quote: Abraham Joshua Heschel

The greatest task of our time is to help our fellow human beings out of the pit. God will return to us when we are willing to let Him in—into our banks and factories, into our Congress and clubs, into our homes and theaters. For God is everywhere or nowhere, the father of all people or of none, concerned about everything or nothing. Only in His presence shall we learn that the glory of humankind is not in its will to power but in its power of compassion. We will reflect either the image of God's presence or that of a beast. There can be no neutrality.
Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Mark of Cain

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Dangerously Alone

There's a fascinating statment at Edge.org's feature asking a variety of outstanding scientists and technologists what their dangerous idea is. Leon Chalupa's (neurobiologist from UC Davis — go Aggies) is silence:

Our brains are constantly subjected to the demands of multi-tasking and a seemingly endless cacophony of information from diverse sources. Cell phones, emails, computers, and cable television are omnipresent, not to mention such archaic venues as books, newspapers and magazines.

This induces an unrelenting barrage of neuronal activity that in turn produces long-lasting structural modification in virtually all compartments of the nervous system. A fledging industry touts the virtues of exercising your brain for self-improvement. Programs are offered for how to make virtually any region of your neocortex a more efficient processor. Parents are urged to begin such regimes in preschool children and adults are told to take advantage of their brain's plastic properties for professional advancement. The evidence documenting the veracity for such claims is still outstanding, but one thing is clear. Even if brain exercise does work, the subsequent waves of neuronal activities stemming from simply living a modern lifestyle are likely to eradicate the presumed hard-earned benefits of brain exercise.

My dangerous idea is that what's needed to attain optimal brain performance — with or without prior brain exercise — is a 24-hour period of absolute solitude. By absolute solitude I mean no verbal interactions of any kind (written or spoken, live or recorded) with another human being. I would venture that a significantly higher proportion of people reading these words have tried skydiving than experienced one day of absolute solitude.

Well, I'm one of them, at least to a limited extent. I am an oblate of New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur. This is a community of Camaldolese Benedictine hermits, and is perhaps the quietest place I know, 1,800 feet above the Pacific Ocean with a 20 mile view down the coast. Every year, I spend at least a few days on retreat there, alone. There are nine rooms in a retreat house, and several small trailers just below the main community, for those who want even more solitude. You can join the monks for the liturgies during the day, or meet with a priest for confession or spiritual direction. Or you can just be by yourself, alone with the silence.

The first time I went there, I was given one of the trailers. And for the first day I climbed the walls -- I had never been so alone, even with something to read (which violates Dr. Chalupa's rules). But I started to handle it the second day, but I didn't really go cold turkey. In addition to books, I would walk up to the bookstore when it got too much. Each time I have gone to the Hermitage, I have found it a little easier to drop into solitude, and to just be alone with God a little longer.

Dr. Chalupa himself notes that one of the few places where you would encounter this is at a monastery (the other being solitary, today generally referred to as Ad Seg). If you want to assess the kind of changes that are going through our society, consider that religion, beyond being something to debunk, is no longer a taboo subject for all scientists. The scientific world view is different from the religious, and each is useful for different things. One of the signs of the postmodern world is the tolerance of different, and at least apparently conflicting, ideas and world views. The recognition is that all world views have their limits, and fields where they apply well -- humility is required.

I guess it's back to believing seven impossible things before breakfast.

(Thanks to Xeni Jardin and Boing Boing for the link.)

Quote: Dorothy Day

It is not love in the abstract that counts. Men have loved a cause as they have loved a woman. They have loved the brotherhood, the workers, the poor, the oppressed - but they have not loved man; they have not loved the least of these. They have not loved “personally.” It is hard to love. It is the hardest thing in the world, naturally speaking. Have you ever read Tolstoy’s Resurrection? He tells of political prisoners in a long prison train, enduring chains and persecution for the love of their brothers, ignoring those same brothers on the long trek to Siberia. It is never the brothers right next to us, but the brothers in the abstract that are easy to love.
from Dorothy Day, Meditations

Sunday, January 01, 2006

-ern, -ernism, -ernity, whatever

There it is, right on the top line of this blog, that "p" word:

. . . seeking the seeds of the word in a postmodern world.
Not everyone likes that word, too many people use that word, and most people do not understand that word. But there is an important idea tied up with it that I find useful. I need, though, to sort out a couple of different uses of the word here at the start.

  • Modern - this means more than just "new" or "up to date". In talking about the Modern age, we generally refer to the roughly two centuries or so dominated by the ideas of the Enlightenment and the socioeconomics of the Industrial Revolution. This means a rational, empirical, and individualistic world-view and a society built around the ideas of progress, rational management, and mass organization.

  • Postmodern - well, on its face, it means "after modern," of course. For more than a century some have seen the signs of the passing or transformation of the modern world view. When something is called postmodern, it means something that is not simply pre-modern, un-modern, or anti-modern, but something fully influenced by "modern" ideas, but having a new relationship to them.

  • Postmodernism - this is a highly varied and often controversial group of social, political and aesthetic theories that try to account for a world not driven by Enlightenment ideas. Postmodern literary and social theory is largely the product of a group of largely French post-60's writers such as Lyotard, Derrida, Foucalt and Jameson. In my opinion, these and other writers have some useful insights, but you don't have to be a "postmodernist" to think that the basic idea has merit.

  • Postmodernity - or as I often think of it, the postmodern predicament. There has been a loss of confidence in the enlightenment ideas, a recognition of the failures of modern political and social structures as well as deep doubts about the reality of progress, one of the foundations of the modern world. Much of our culture and many of our institutions, including religious institutions, have been deeply influenced by modern ideas. Those who have grown up in this postmodern predicament often feel alienated from these institutions, even if they agree with much of what these institutions were originally intended to teach and do. It is certainly up to you whether you agree with any one persons response to this situation, but you cannot ignore that the situation exists. In the words of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, "Everyone is entitled to their own opinions. But not their own facts."

That's a start. I want to revisit some of this in the coming weeks, looking at how Christianity, especially from the Catholic perspective, needs to respond to this postmodern predicament.

Point Taken

A good start for the new year would be to stop using some of the hackneyed phrases that have been floating around, like these:

  • Surreal
  • Hunker down
  • Person of interest
  • Community of learners
  • Up-or-down vote
  • Breaking news
  • Designer breed
  • FEMA
  • First-time caller
  • Pass the savings on to you!
  • 97 percent fat-free
  • An accident that didn't have to happen
  • Junk science
  • Git-r-done
  • Dawg
  • Talking points
  • Holiday tree

Some of these seem useful, but most are ready to dissapear. My first New Year's resolution . . .