Mind Your Narratives!

Here’s an article with a fascinating finding on ancient European social patterns that also showcases a modern western social pattern.  What DNA and isotope sampling from ancient German cemeteries has found is that it was customary, four thousand years ago, for adult sons to remain with their family of origin, but for adult daughters to leave home and marry into family groups elsewhere — groups that were far away in distance and distinctive in culture.

This is a pretty interesting discovery, because: Who does that?  Right?  Neat.  Lots of fodder for thoughts on what that ancient society might have been like.

Sooooo . . . where should our imaginations head?  We could take it any direction we want, and in so doing we’d learn more about our imaginations than we would about ancient societies.

Notice how the otherwise objective and informative article subtly adopts the narrative of poor, oppressed, rejected adult daughters.  We see the illustration of that sad, lonely girl looking back in misery as she’s pushed out of her home and forced to march towards an unknown fate.  The text tells us that the girls are “sent away” and that “you have to give away all your daughters.”

Well, that might have been true.

Or: Maybe girls looked forward to the adventure that awaited them?  At seventeen I was pretty happy to hit the road and see the world.

Maybe women were considered more capable of the emotional and social task of cementing extended networks of relationships across distant tribes?

Maybe wealthy young women (the social class that traveled, per this set of findings) appreciated not being stuck in the expectations of their family of origin, who would always remember their childhood foibles, and were privileged to be able to forge for themselves an adult identity uniquely their own, among a people who expected the new daughter-in-law to bring with her distinctive customs and perspectives, and who valued the combination of innovation and energy that an older teen brought to the community?

Maybe, because she was likely joining a society that was not completely unfamiliar, as there would have been older women in her own community who came from the culture she was traveling to, it could have been best-of-both-worlds?

Or maybe not.  Maybe it sucked being a teenage girl in early bronze-age Europe.  Maybe you got buried with all your arts and crafts from your native tribe because your nasty father-in-law didn’t want too look at your ugly foreign figurines one minute longer, and you were counting the days until you were dead and buried because your mother-in-law resented you for being part of this vast cultural norm that caused her to lose her beloved daughter and get you instead, and also you overcooked the cabbage every. single. time.

We don’t know.

In the study of history, we have to be careful not to foist our own narratives on the blanks in our limited trove of evidence.

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Photo courtesy of Wikimedia, Public Domain.

Pricing People Out of Parish Life

Over at the blorg I put up a quick note about something that caught my eye: Best Practices in Evangelization = Unintended Lesson in Homelessness.  The trouble with things you dash off, as a friend so tactfully put it in a comment, “I need to be awake to really see what she is saying clearly.” Ha.  What I say is:

  1. Hey look! The Archdiocese of Baltimore is doing something awesome.
  2. Notice what their missionaries need to live on?  What does that tell us about living wages for families?
  3. And that reminds me of a fresh new rant I’ve cultivated lately . . .

Allow me to tell you about #3.  Recently someone posed the question: What do you think of holding abc parish ministry at xyz commercial venue?  The primary concern was that the venue might be suitably excellent for the ministry, or maybe the nature of the location was potentially problematic for some participants.  Charitable discussion ensued.  The one small thing I had to add:  Is it possible for people to attend without having to pay for the privilege?

I find with surprising consistency that among American Catholic parishes there’s an expectation that people who love Jesus will cough up money for dinner or drinks or babysitting so that they can participate in parish life.  There’s an assumption that if your child desires a sacrament, you will be able to get free from work and find transportation on a day and hour of the week chosen for you without consulting you — nearly always an hour when service workers are expected to be on the job, and when special-needs kids are melting down after a long day of pretending to be normal.  My rant reaches its peak when friends tell me about their parishes where mandatory sacramental prep costs the equivalent of a month’s rent on affordable housing.

The assumption is that most participants will have the money, and if you really cared you would reorganize to find the money and clear your calendar; in the unlikely event poor persons should want to do the parish thing, then the poor persons can beg the proper authorities so that a patron steps forward to pay their way.

Now let me be clear: I am not against Theology on Tap.  I am not against Ladies’ Night Out at the local restaurant.  I totally get that someone’s got to buy the books and craft paper and the new boxes of markers for religious ed.

But let me also be clear: When we make the decision to center parish life on pay-to-pray events, we are making the decision to exclude the people who don’t have money for that.

What with it being Mother Theresa’s feast day yesterday, and what with the Gospel reading this past Sunday, it is more and more on my mind how much our default mode of operating in the American Church is to center parish life on the needs and abilities of an affluent, able-bodied, main audience.  People who can’t keep up with that lifestyle are often an afterthought and an exception.

The article I cited caught my eye because in the midst of explaining a ministry that is exactly the opposite of all this — true evangelization of the poorest of the poor — there was a sobering reminder that yes, the cost of living is high.  Take a look at some income charts from the Census Bureau.  A very rough statistic is that about 1/3 of American households earn the same or less than what it costs to sponsor a healthy, single young adult with no children living as a missionary in church-provided housing.  Here’s a short discussion of the prevalance of credit card debt among Americans (Money tip: If you can’t pay off your credit card bills, you can’t afford to go out to dinner at the restaurant).

I think we should change this.  I think I am as bad as anyone about building my life around my comfortable little middle-class bubble.  But the Gospel says what it does, and to paraphrase my pastor yesterday, “Things go better when you do what God tells you to do.”  So I’m thinking the US Church in general needs to reorganize parish life so that people who are resource-thin are the center, not the periphery, of our faith community.

 

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Artwork courtesy of Wikimedia, Public Domain.

When Did We Flip? A Plea for Love & Reason When LGBT+ is a Catholic Family’s Reality

Editor’s Note: This essay is an anonymous contribution from a faithfully Catholic parent struggling with the giant black hole in the Pride Month Social Wars that gapes where sanity ought to reside.  The author asked to be completely anonymous, but this person is a friend I respect immensely, whose long and complex experience is worthy of your consideration. -JF

I can’t wait for this month to be over.

When did we flip? When did Pride month become something other than a just reaction to deadly harassment that led to the Stonewall riots, that defiant protest that all people have human dignity? When did Pride parades become a subculture’s visible face that allowed and even lifted up a public, campy hypersexual acting out? Where, at least sometimes, children were widely applauded for dressing in drag? (Mind you, this in a wider culture where only 10 years ago, we were outraged that little girls were forced to dress provocatively by big box retail selections.) When did these new Pride parades become a local event where people everywhere said “c’mon, and bring the kids!”?

When did we flip? When did we move from people saying rightly “he’s my son and I may not understand or agree, but I love him,” an honest and loving response that honors the dignity of all involved and the bonds of family….when did that change to a deluge of older folks having their own “coming out” this month, saying “my adult children are gay, or lesbian, or bi, or transgender, and anyone who disagrees can shut up and go to hell”? (I saw this three times in one week.) Yes, I hold the Catholic position that acting on same sex attractions sexually is wrong, although I wouldn’t dream of holding forth on that with everyone I know. I may share that if invited to, or possibly with others with whom I am in a close relationship. But this “flip” I’ve found this month is as vocally hostile and vicious, even much more so, than anything I have seen from the other side. I know LGBT+ folks have died as victims of prejudice, and suffered every form of harassment leading up to that. But I spent two decades of my life in an extremely LGBT+ friendly environment in a deeply fundamentalist Christian part of the country, with many friends who identified as LGBT+, and I rarely saw anything as widely or openly hostile as this.

When did we flip? When did love and friendship demand interpersonal agreement on this issue? When did human rights demand an ideological assent? When did friends begin worrying that teaching the Catholic position on sexuality in a Catholic educational institution as kindly and gently as possible would get one reported to a human rights board? When did sexual ethics move from the realm of revelation, natural law, prayer, and conscience to simple mob rule?

When did we flip? When did a majority of the people of the Catholic Church, hierarchy and laity, decide to give up on this issue? Because very few are saying anything akin to a nuanced distinction between inherently good human dignity, a neutral stance toward sexual orientation, and right and wrong sexual activity defined by intent and purpose. We’re losing most of a generation (or two) because they do not agree with the Catholic position on sexual activity reserved for marriage between a man and a woman, Instead, they see all things LGBT+ as a new civil rights movement. And of course, there is a partial truth here–we are called to defend all basic human rights (life, food, shelter, decent work, education). When people who identify as LGBT+ lose those human rights, we must fight that loss.

But something has happened here that goes beyond the real need for defending human rights. Many are buying the line—indeed, the hook, the line, and the sinker–that a life without sexual intimacy is not a life worth living. That human dignity can be won or lost, gained or dismissed, through sexual performance or lack of it. Some of what we’ve seen the past five years goes beyond Kinsey’s wildest and twisted imagination.

Seriously, when did we flip? Was it at Obergefell? Was it when we had a rainbow projected on the White House? Was it when Will and Grace made everyone laugh? When courts began closing religiously affiliated adoption centers? Was it when we had a sexual abuse crisis in our own Church and tiptoed around the homosexual abuse? Maybe, drip by drip by drip by drip, combined with friends who are gay, family who are lesbian, and more…we just wanted the ongoing struggle to define sexuality rightly to end by folding our cards and saying, “I can’t do this anymore”?

For a movement that argues it is all about love, there sure seems to be a whole lot of hate going on this month. Yes, on both sides–historians in the future will not look on this decade kindly as any model of civility. But all over the place this month I have increasingly seen a movement whose motto is “love is love.” And too many turn that phrase as, of all things, a rallying cry to shut out and shut down those who ask “but what is love anyway?”

As I said, I basically lived the ally life for two decades, from the beginning of the AIDS crisis until around 2005. Most of my friends for many years were LGBT+, and people I both loved and love. I went to a graduate school that was a bit of a hotbed of LGBT+ activism. I was thrilled I would have LGBT+ friends who would be like uncles and aunts to my own kids, when I had them. I read Judith Butler. I read John O’Neill. I went with gay friends to their bars. And I thought the Catholic Church would eventually come around to seeing that there was nothing wrong with homosexual unions. So many things were changing, like the use of contraception–surely this would as well?

But then a number of things happened. I read Theology of the Body and thought, to my surprise, hmm…that’s actually quite beautiful. I read Humanae Vitae and thought, to my surprise, hmm…that makes logical sense. I married and had a baby—and realizing that our love actually could result in a new human being had a bigger material and spiritual impact on our marriage than I expected. The first ultrasound of my firstborn still counts as one of the most unexpectedly profound spiritual moments of my life.

Later, I practiced contraception for about a year—and for something that was “no big deal” according to everyone else, I was quite unhappy. Then, simultaneously, the experiences of my LGBT+ friends from graduate school began to show signs of wear. I had a friendship with a gay man where he betrayed my friendship badly, which caused me to step back from being so involved in the ally life. Another friend who suddenly identified as bi realized, after coming out of a major depression, she was happier with her ex-husband (and rejoined him). All my other LGBT+ friends broke up with their long term partners. (Did some of my straight friends do the same? Sure. Did ALL of them? No. I realize this is anecdotal, but I am simply sharing my experience here.) Finally, I met a priest who I got to know quite well, who dealt with same sex attraction, but was chaste, and found a way to affirm church teaching as a wellspring of truth that led his challenges into a call to holiness.

It dawned on me that choosing chastity–regardless of sexual orientation–and being genuinely joyful was possible. It also dawned on me that given what I had seen, the people conforming with Church teaching (or at least trying to) were in general much happier and content people. So while I got to this place in a backwards manner–I have come to hold the fullness of the Lord’s teaching, communicated through the Church, on matters of sexual identity and expression. Perhaps I should have gotten there through obedience, a generous listening to the teaching of the Church. But by God’s grace, I did get there. God got me there.

So I look at every pro-Pride advertising campaign, every Facebook post, every virtue-signal tweet, every rainbow flag on my street, every “Love your neighbor—no exceptions” yard sign with a mixture of emotions. The most positive reactions are askance—because I see in a lot of people where I was years ago, wanting to support friends and family with or without reservations. And some of the civil rights issues are real. The persecution of LGBT+ people in many regions of the world is undeniable and sometimes brutal and deadly. This must be denounced and fought on human dignity grounds in the most full-throated manner possible.

But my most negative reaction is horror, because one of my children, a child I love so much I would die for him or her, says he/she is bisexual. And while he/she is Catholic, and seriously so, this child also sees no one—literally almost no one—encouraging him/her to lead a chaste life, showing him/her it can be possible, fruitful, holy, even…happy. At one level, he/she wants to hear this. He/she needs a mentor. But he/she cannot even claim the LGBT+ label without a flood of people demanding him/her to come out and join a movement that, at least in some corners, foments increasing bloodlust for anyone daring to step in and ask “but…what is love?” A movement that flipped somewhere to badly misunderstanding what human dignity is, and where it comes from.

So help me, I have found myself in a place where I can argue that this sexual activity is intrinsically disordered, and even if he/she simply does not understand that it is wrong, it has a real and negative impact on a person’s spiritual life: a living “out of order” that may be well-intentioned, but which acts as a barrier to full communication with God. I don’t question anyone’s good intentions. I question whether the act matches their intentions, and if the act doesn’t hurt a person more than they may realize. After all, this isn’t me saying this. It is God, through his scriptures and through natural law theory. And salvation may not be a fashionable word these days, but it is the heart of what Christianity is about. I worry that our silence as a Church refuses people the narrow (but walkable) path that leads to salvation.

It seems that no one in the Catholic Church in America knows the pain of watching a teenaged child stepping on stones through a whirling river moral lava. No one seems to know of my child’s struggle to chart a path that leads to true freedom this month. Or, much more damnably, doesn’t care.

Once this month ends, could we step back from the mob roar and actually talk about what it means to live out what is right and what is wrong? How to love through disagreement? How guaranteeing human rights doesn’t include forcing a state-regulated ideology? Could we stop brandishing rainbow colored social media swords and admit this is a bit more complicated than “whose side are you on?” Or if we have to choose a side, let’s call it the side for human dignity that is rooted first and foremost in being sons and daughters of the Father?

I can’t wait for this month to be over. But I suspect the reckoning is for more than 30 days.
–anonymous

ps. I prefer to own what I write by signing it. But this essay is anonymous for the sake of my child, and giving him/her space to make decisions based on faith and experience. I have an advanced degree in theology, so if your first thought is “if he/she only knew the right biblical interpretation of x,y,z etc., or truly understand natural law”–trust me, I’ve read it all, thanks.

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Rainbow photo by Wing-Chi Poon, courtesy of Wikimedia CC 2.5

Need Your Help: Stories of Equal Access

I need your help with getting a door unlocked.

I’m a parishioner (and at last check parish council member) at a large and historically-significant parish.   Thanks to renovations over the years, there are three wheelchair-accessible entrances feeding the parish church.  Unfortunately, since November of 2017 all three of those doors have been locked.  The only way to get into the building during Sunday Mass or Saturday Confession is to either walk up a short flight of stairs (seven if I counted correctly) or wait around on the sidewalk hoping to flag someone down who will go unlock an accessible door for you.

Unfortunately, the pastor of the parish doesn’t seem to understand that it isn’t okay for someone with a disability to have to make advanced arrangements in order to be able to get inside the building for Mass or Confessions.  He’s otherwise a fairly stand-up guy, but he seems genuinely shocked that I would be angry about this issue.

I’m not above launching a massive public shame-storm, but that’s a weapon of last resort.  What I’d like your help with is attempting to show Father (and I tell you again: he is otherwise a pretty sane guy) that equal access matters.

Here is a form where you can share your story.  Can you share with him an example (or multiple if you’ve got them — fill out as many entries as you’d like) of how equal access, or lack of it, has affected your life?

My plan is to pass on to him your stories so he can see, person by person, just how painful it is to be the one stuck out on the sidewalk wondering how you’ll get in.  I’ll also put in a Mass intention for the collective intentions of those who share their stories (so Father L. gets to pray for you, cause that’s his job), and of course I’ll pray for you individually and I think he will too.

I’m not looking for angry.  He’s gotten plenty of angry from me, and believe me, I’m not as nice in regular life as I am on the internet.  I’m looking for your personal story of how being able to participate in parish or community life made a positive difference for you or someone you love, or how being excluded by needless barriers did the opposite.

The reality is that barriers keep people out.  After a year and a half of locked doors (in a previously accessible parish), the only regulars with disabilities are the few who are okay with the new status quo as second-class citizens.  Everyone else has disappeared.  If you showed up as a tourist (the parish receives many out-of-town visitors at weekend Masses), you’d follow the signs to a locked door and maybe succeed in waving someone down, or maybe just give up and move on.  As a result, Father L. no longer sees the people who are most affected by his decision: You’re all gone.

I need you to make yourself visible to him again.

Thank you so much.

I’ll post updates as I get them.  Also: If you choose to let me share your story (and only in that case — opt in or your story remains completely private), I’ll pick a few to post here and elsewhere, so that your voice gets heard far and wide.  Thank you!

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Image: No Accessibility Icon, courtesy of Wikimedia, Public Domain

Manliness and a Perfect Funeral

Hathaway’s funeral was perfect.  Chanted Extraordinary Form Requiem Mass at the old but not old-old St. Mary’s church in Aiken, then procession to the graveside for a Melkite burial.  Nothing says “four last things” like a Dies Irae in the hands of a good cantor.

As our line of cars, lights on, hazards flashing, police escort, ambled down US 1 towards the cemetery, traffic of course made way.  But this is a land where funerals are still taken seriously, and even on the four-lane highway where there was no practical need to do so, most vehicles coming the other direction pulled to the side, stopped, and put on their lights, paying their respects.  You have no idea of it, I thought as I passed driver after driver putting life on hold for two minutes of stillness in honor of a complete stranger, but you are witness to the funeral of one of the world’s great men.

***

John’s daughter asked (shortly after his death) if I could speak at the funeral meal.  After the perfection of the funeral homily and the solemnity of the mass and burial, what I had prepared seemed woefully inadequate.  It also was not very gentle, but fortunately there was a line-up of nice friendly people to follow, including a dear friend with the gift for coming across as a big, chummy teddy bear while he reminded the audience of the value of redemptive suffering and the need for masses and holy hours of reparation.

I’m sure most people did not like what I had to say, but the one person it was written for thanked me for saying it.  Below is the text, with most of the typos removed.

***

When we try to explain the difference between men and women, we tend to resort to stereotypes.  We know that men possess, on average, more physical strength than women, so we use examples of large, muscular men performing heavy manual labor.  We know that men have an inborn, undeniable vocation as providers and protectors, so we reach for clear examples of those.  When we think of providers, we might give the example of a successful business owner, or an accomplished professional; or we might think of an ordinary workman or farmer putting in long hours at physically grueling labor in order to provide a simple but decent living for even a very large family.  We know that men are created to be protectors of the family and community, and thus we look to the sacrificial life of men who have careers in the military or as law enforcement officers.  These are not bad examples.  But they don’t get to the heart of what it means to be a man.

John Hathaway had the rare and excruciating vocation of showing the world what it means to be a man.

You could not look at John and think “typical big strong muscular man.”  (Though at times he astonished me at how strong he was.)  But what is a man’s strength for?  It is for serving God and serving his family.  John Hathaway used every ounce of his physical strength in fulfilling his vocation as husband, father, and Christian.  I remember him telling me the story of literally crawling to Holy Communion one time, so determined he was to receive Our Lord despite whatever parish he was visiting not noticing he needed the sacrament brought to him in the pew.  John was a wealth of medical knowledge – if I had a difficult medical question, he was on the short list of people I’d go to with such questions – because he was utterly focused on husbanding his strength, as the expression goes, so that he would be as strong as he possibly could be in order to serve his wife, his children, and God.

As a provider, John fell in the terrible predicament of those who are extremely talented but not in financially lucrative ways.  He was an English professor in a nation where adjunct professors sometimes literally live out of their cars because they cannot afford rent.   Many men find themselves in this position, willing to do whatever it takes to provide for their families, but thrust into overwhelming circumstances beyond their control.  The despair this can cause men is at times deadly.

John Hathaway deployed extraordinary determination and perseverance and ingenuity in figuring out, day after day, year after year, how to provide for his family.  And he did provide.  He absolutely embodied what it means for a husband and father to be a provider.

As a protector I want to talk about John’s role in defending his children’s very lives.

We live in a time when it is legally and politically and socially acceptable to say that John and Allie and Gianna and Josef and Clara should simply be killed.  They should never have been allowed to be conceived, for fear they not measure up to some ideal standard of human health.   Allie, the same Allie who has been a pillar of strength and a fount of practical help to Mary over this past harrowing week; the same Allie who is delightfully talented and devoted to sharing her talents with the community . . . is someone that even Christians will sometimes say, “it would have been better if she’d never been born.”

I would say John’s life work was one steady, undying protest against that evil.  He tirelessly spoke and wrote and worked to persuade the world that his children deserve to live.

This vocation of his was painful.  It was physically and spiritually exhausting. He deployed every spiritual and physical weapon at his disposal against the constant and at times overpowering despair and darkness that descended on his life.

I can recall at times literally thanking John for still being alive.  I thanked him for the depths of the agony he endured by dint of continuing to pursue medical care in order that he might, for as long as possible, be present in this life to his family.  I thanked him selfishly: I knew that death would be easier and more pleasant for him, and I knew that when that time came I would feel his absence profoundly.  John was a delightful person to know and to talk to and to be with.

In closing I want to commend Mary for her choice of a husband.  She has faithfully withstood no end of criticism for marrying a man who lacked the superficial traits that are idolized by our society.  But she has known what others don’t see: That she married a man who truly embodied manliness to its fullness.  He cherished her, he sacrificed daily for her and the children, and gave his life and every ounce of his strength to providing for and protecting his family.  He made his own and by extension their relationship with Jesus Christ his number one priority.  He was everything any man could ever aspire to be.

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The pale and fleeting beauty of the Shadowlands, as seen in the Jesuit church in Quito, Ecuador. Photo by Diego Delso, delso.photo, License CC-BY-SA.

Ableism Entrenched

Up at the Register: Are People with Disabilities Welcome at Your Parish?

Ableism is the counterpart to “racism” or “ageism,” the often-insidious discrimination against people with disabilities.  Ableism is happening when a parish that has three wheelchair-accessible entrances decides to lock all doors except the one with the stairs.  No malice, just complete indifference.

When you park in the handicap spot even though you don’t need it, that’s ableism.  It’s also ableism when you assume the person with the tag must be faking just because you can’t identify an obvious disability.

Here’s an example of how pervasive ableism is:

We’re at the “atrium” of the children’s hospital today, a big sunny play space where kids can do fun stuff.

Children's Atrium, MUSC Children's Hospital

L. is in the teen corner doing arts and crafts, and it gets to be a few minutes before closing.  The other family there is a patient with her dad and a sister.  The dad calls clean-up time, and I get up and go help with putting away all the craft supplies.  I’m not really paying attention to who is doing what, other than that I start with putting away the things we personally got out (because I know where they came from) and also I tell L. to go sit in her wheelchair and hold all our junk for the trip up.

Here’s the entrenched-ableism mindset: In my brain I compose an explanation for why my kid is not helping clean up.

My child has a broken sternum from open-heart surgery less than 3-days earlier, and I am feeling the need to be ready to explain why she can’t walk around putting things away.  In a children’s hospital.  Where everyone else is there with a kid (or is the kid) who also can’t do all the things.

Mind you, not a person batted an eye.  But you know you are used to living in an abelist world when you just automatically prepare to fend off stupid accusations against a kid with an invisible (and thankfully temporary) disability.

Which is why we have parishes that lock people out of Mass if they can’t climb stairs.  And that’s a problem.

The Disconnect After You Realize Abuse is Happening

There are two extra torments after you realize you’ve been party to an abusive relationship:

  • You wonder why it took you so long to realize what was happening.
  • You wonder why other people can’t see what is now so obvious to you.

When you realize that you’d been duped for so long, you can end up blaming yourself.  Surely you should have seen the warning signs. Surely you should have been smarter than to get pulled along with all this.

When you experience the frustration of seeing so clearly what others are still denying, all sorts of other, complicated dynamics ensue.

You might second guess yourself: Are you the crazy one?  Are you blowing this out of proportion?  You’ll no doubt hear from others that yes, you’re just “being dramatic” or “making a mountain out of a molehill.”

You might feel betrayed by friends or family members who should be supporting you, but instead are loyal to the abuser and are denying anything significantly wrong has happened.

Unless your friends on the other side of the divide are truly magnanimous, you will probably lose friendships.  Even if you are still civil to each other, it won’t be the same as before.

It is quite likely that you who have called out the abuse, or who have merely refused to cooperate with it, are suddenly under attack.

***

All these things are the fallout of the nature of abusive relationships.

By definition, the abuser has sought to normalize his or her behavior.  The only way abuse gets perpetrated in the first place is by the abuser somehow convincing people the behavior is acceptable.  One of the reasons we don’t recognize abuse when it happens is that the abuser has done his or her best to make sure we don’t recognize it.

Another reason is that abusive behavior falls on a continuum.  Just how far over the line someone has strayed is not always easy to discern.  It can be hard to judge where on the continuum you’re sitting.  We all sin. We all have our weaknesses.  We have to live with one another, and it’s normal to show mercy and give the benefit of the doubt.

And finally, false accusations do happen.  We who are honest rightly want to avoid jumping to conclusions and criminalizing imperfect but not predatory behavior.  Those who are dishonest will in turn exploit every weak spot to cultivate doubt about the seriousness of the abusive behavior, and to cast the critics in the worst possible light.

Oh and then there’s the fact that those who have recognized the abusive behavior are themselves flawed persons who don’t necessarily know the best way to handle the situation.

***

So all this stuff happens.

It is horrible.

But it’s not something you can blame yourself for.  It’s just part of wrestling with the beast.

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Artwork via Wikimedia, Public Domain

One Weird Trick for Understanding Homeless People

Over Thanksgiving the topic of services for the homeless came up at dinner, and last night the subject again resurfaced.  In my experience, there is no such thing as a “typical” homeless person, because people are complex and their stories are unique.  You can speak of common factors among this or that sub-group (mental illness, lack of a personal social net, etc.) but the intricacies don’t satisfy.  People want to “understand homelessness” as if it were a tricky lock in need of the right key and combination.

Finally I told my husband that if he wanted to understand why someone would be persistently homeless, despite the many social services available in our area (which help!), here’s what you do:

Think about something that you, personally, absolutely stink at.  The part of your life where you just can’t seem to get your act together.  Other people manage to do this thing just fine, but you don’t.

[In my husband’s case: Keeping the garage clean.  We could say the same about my desk and my inbox and let’s not even talk about the state of my refrigerator.  Other people might struggle with family relationships, or road rage, or over-eating, anorexia, compulsive shopping . . . whatever.]

You persistently, year after year, struggle with this thing that ought to be simple.  Sometimes you make progress, and other times you fall back into the pit.

Other people who have this problem are sympathetic; those who don’t have this problem wonder why you can’t get your act together in this area.  You’ve got so much else going for you — what’s the big deal?

Think about that problem.  Think about all the things that contribute to that problem.

Some of things might be outside your control: Your health, your work schedule, your family dynamics.  Some of the things that contribute to your problem are just your own personal collection of weaknesses and foibles.  Many things are a combination — your circumstances work against you, and you work against you, too.

Be really honest about acknowledging your problem and all the many things that make it so persistent.

***

And that’s it.   Now you know.

 

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Artwork via Wikimedia, public domain.

The Problem of Evil Revisited

I always carry a knife sharpener, this one, when I travel, because I abhor dull knives.  In the US when I travel I either bring my own chef’s knife and cutting board, or anticipate buying one at my destination if necessary. I didn’t need any of that in France, I discovered happily and without too much surprise.  The French are civilized and value good meals.

In Chamonix on the Epic Vacation, while the boy trekked away at summer camp, two girls and I invested in lift passes for the valley and spent the week riding up mountains.  At the Aigulle de Midi lift, they check your bags before they let you into the cable car

The amount of profiling going on at the security checkpoint was blatant.  A group of climbers were waved through at a glance.  I opened my backpack and the security guy noted the heavily bagged, unidentifiable object within.  “What is this?” he asked.

“Picnic,” I said.  Cutting board, a good sharp knife, sausage, bread, cheese, and so forth.  I was concerned that after a long wait we’d be sent home because of the knife. I prepared to open the inner bag and see if I couldn’t talk the guy into holding the knife for us to pick up when we came down at the end of the day.

But the guy never even saw the knife.  I said picnic and he didn’t bother to look further.  Middle aged lady with a couple little girls in tow.  If I say it’s my picnic, it’s probably a picnic.  He assumed, rightly, that neither I nor the climbers, though they too of course were equipped with sturdy knives, had any intention of stabbing our fellows during the long ride up the mountain.

An Armed Society . . .

Security in France is pretty good these days.

This is a photo of the TGV station at Charles de Gaulle airport:

In the foreground you see a seating area and reputable coffee machines (I’m not sure how good they are).  Look deep in the center of the photo.  That’s one of a group of four heavily armed soldiers who were doing the rounds outside the secure area of the airport.  They are, in this photo, all standing guard looking down towards the platform while the TGV from Marseille arrives and unloads.  Once the train emptied without incident, they continued their patrol.

There are groups of soldiers like this throughout the country at key spots (the Strasbourg cathedral had its share), and armed police stationed elsewhere. When we visited the shrine of St. Odile, an officer (with back-up on the grounds) was stationed at the monastery entrance all day.

Officers like these are the reason that the stabbing in Marseille earlier this week was limited to just two victims, instead of becoming a mass-casualty rampage.  This is one of the reasons we preferred to vacation in France.  The torpor with which the UK has begun to rearm its police officers did not inspire confidence.

What It Takes to Feel Safe

The reason I feel safer when a group of French soldiers is patrolling the train station is the same reason the security guy at the ski lift let me pass without looking too closely at my bag.  I have no reason to suspect the French military or police are going to harm me.  I could not say that about every group of soldiers around the world.  These officers — four strong men, heavily armed — are capable of unspeakable evil, but they don’t commit it.  Those climbers and I, working as a group, would have been capable of holding a cabin of tourists hostage and murdering them all, but we didn’t.  We had no desire or intention to do so.

Security works when you manage to make the good guys stronger than the bad guys.

France attempts this via security profiling and a strong police presence, combined with fairly strict gun laws.  The success of this strategy is variable.  You can see a summary of French terror attacks here.   Note that since the 2015 attacks in Paris, off-duty police officers are now allowed to carry firearms — the reasoning behind that is self-evident.

The laws themselves, though, are not what makes security work (when it does).  We can think of nations where the local citizens need to arm themselves specifically against the police and military.  What makes security work is when the law is ordered towards giving the upper hand to the people who can be trusted with it.  The French police generally do not go around terrorizing the populace.

Are Americans Safe People?

Last week I had the chance to listen to Representative Cezar McKnight tell a story from his childhood.  I’ll blog more about the context of the story another day.  But here’s what he remembers:

His parents, a black couple who by McKnight’s telling were sometimes mistaken for a mixed-race couple, owned a nightclub-liquor store in rural South Carolina.  One day his mother, alone with the children, was in the store when men in KKK garb gathered outside.  They had no idea what these men wanted or what their plans might be, but there was plenty of reason to be afraid.  His mother took the shotgun they kept behind the counter and prepared to defend her children and herself if necessary.

She had sound reason to trust neither her fellow citizens not to harm her nor the authorities to come to her aid.

By and large Americans share this sentiment today.  The impulse to arm or disarm America is rooted in the essential equation: How do we make the good guys relatively stronger and the bad guys relatively weaker?

This is a practical question that should not be entirely put off.  Attacks such as the recent massacre in Las Vegas, the Boston Marathon bombing, or the 9/11 attacks are particularly vexing because they pose, in their time, new problems that the (then-) current modes of security have not anticipated.    How shall we anticipate such problems in the future, preventing them when possible and curtailing them when not?  How do you give the good guys the upper hand?

This is not, however, the only way to study the equation.

On the Art of Being Good

What is necessary to make any law work is for people to be good.

It’s paradoxical, since of course if people were actually good, you wouldn’t need the law.

“Just make people good,” furthermore, sounds even more far-fetched than “disarm the bad guys” or whatever other security plans people are devising.   And yet, weirdly, it is the one thing that actually works.

There are police officers who do not shoot innocent civilians. There are soldiers who protect their citizen rather than terrorizing them. There are ordinary people who, though capable, refrain from evil and sometimes even rise to heroic virtue.  Unremitting goodness is the reason you can go buy groceries without being raped and murdered.   Where that decency is lacking, death reigns.

This is hopeful, because we can see that even though nobody is perfect, we can also see that there are places where the people are generally good enough for the purposes of peace and safety.  This is discouraging, however, because evil cannot be fixed with a law or an executive order.

What must be understood in the face of a horrifying crime is that the relationship between good laws and good people is inextricable.  A good law is designed to protect good people and ward against evil people.  The law cannot depend on human goodness alone for its strength, though — it must anticipate abuse of the law, because people will try to abuse it.  But the law itself is not sufficient.

The bulk of the work in creating a safe, civilized society is not in the work of the law, but in the work of helping each other become people who do not do evil things.  Our mission is nothing short of overturning the present culture of narcissism and death.

That is a long road — an unending road. But it is also something that we as ordinary people can work to accomplish.

Who Owns “Social Justice”?

One of the news sources I flip through occasionally is Al Jazeera It’s not the only place I’d turn for information (goodness gracious!), but for coverage of Middle Eastern politics it’s a bit more thorough than the average American paper, go figure.  Al Jazeera also has good human rights coverage sometimes, such as this investigation into Britian’s modern-day slave trade.  Catholics are big into human rights.

The most painful fallacy I see among Catholics is the false dichotomy between “social justice” and “life issues.”  It’s moldering baggage from the Church’s political divisions over the last fifty years or so: We know that a branch of dissenting Catholics labeled themselves “social justice” warriors, and so our alarm bells go off whenever we hear someone talking in vague terms about peace and justice and not much clear doctrine.

We have to cut this out.

Catholics who believe the entirety of the Catholic faith are not obliged to hand over a portion of our faith to agnostics-in-Catholic-clothing.  We get to own the whole package: the Trinity, the Church, the Sacraments, Scripture, and the entire Christian moral life.  We don’t have to settle for our slice of the “pelvic issue” pie and doggedly shun any topic we fear might have somehow, somewhere, been enjoyed by a Democrat.  We certainly don’t have to swallow the line that justice with regards to immigrants, the environment, workers, prisoners, or any other category popular on the Left can thereby only be solved by the Left.

The Church proposes a beautiful, sensible, logical, theologically-sound way of looking at social issues, and it’s ours to love and cherish.  Enjoy it.  Own it.  Don’t let anyone deny you your right to the entirety of the Catholic faith.

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Photo courtesy of Wikimedia [Public Domain]