Sunday, September 11, 2011

Sep. 11, 2011

     The closing song at Mass today was "America the Beautiful" and I couldn't sing it.  I just couldn't.  Every time I tried to join in the tear ducts filled instantly, and the music died in my throat.  It wasn't just, or even mainly, the horror of the day ten years ago.  It was what has happened since then.  The blessings called for in the song just aren't happening.  It's not a lack of grace, I believe.  It's a lack of response to grace.  The country I love is rapidly disintegrating.  No one is thinking or working for the good of their country; it's all me-me-me. 
     Crown thy good with brotherhood?  Only if they look and think exactly like me. 
     Confirm thy soul in self-control/Thy liberty in law?  Nope.  Self-control is for others, and I'll decide what laws I'll obey. 
     May God thy gold refine?  The gold has become the god. 
     Till selfish gain no longer stain/The banner of the free?  Not even close.  Selfish gain is not only tolerated, it is glorified. 

     The alabaster cities are no longer in sight.  This human's tears have dimmed them completely. 

Saturday, September 3, 2011

A Word of the Lord?

     The Mass readings for a recent Sunday included the passage in Jeremiah 20:7-9 in which the prophet complains that speaking the word of God has brought him nothing but trouble, but he has to keep doing it. I’ve felt that way a lot lately. I feel like I am in the middle of a sinking, decaying country where people who think that they follow Jesus have been tricked into advocating a radical selfishness totally at odds with the plain sense of the Scriptures. The people who are advocating the preferential option for the poor show no respect for the life of the unborn, and scant regard for the elderly near death. But it is to the Christians of the so-called Religious Right that I am beginning to feel called to prophesy.

     Yes, prophesy. I have a feeling growing within me that this is the word of God for America: to paraphrase the prophet Jonah, “Forty years more, and America will be destroyed.” Actually I think the number will be more like twenty-something. The full prophecy is this:

Unless my people abandon the culture of selfishness that they have built up, that selfishness will completely destroy their country with all the freedoms they have professed to love.

I have been saying that this country is in dire trouble for some time now, in this blog and in conversation. I get little respect from anyone. Younger people roll their eyes, politely implying that “you old f**ts always predict doom and gloom.” The elders, especially the Religious Right folks, roll their eyes because they are serenely confident that America is God’s chosen country. Even more than the Pope, the USA is infallible, preserved from any serious error. So Jeremiah’s words this morning sounded familiar. Yeah, pal, been there.

     As a charismatic Catholic, I know a little about prophecy. It is not, most emphatically, about predicting the future. It is speaking a word of the Lord to His people. I’ve had the experience before, in a much more limited context. Is this a risky gift to exercise? Is there a major danger that this is merely egomania running free? You bet your sweet patootie it is. But here I am, predicting the future and risking scorn and derision. Maybe the Lord is in it, or maybe I’m making a jackass out of myself.

     So what are my reasons for thinking that God, Lord of the Universe, has chosen me as His prophet? Nothing that other people will find irrefutable. There’s the test of Moses, from Deuteronomy 18:18-22. If the USA is still a truly democratic, stable and just country in 2051, then I was full of you-know-what and will no doubt be receiving what I deserve. (Unless Jesus accepts my groveling apology. But this won’t be all that high on my list of sins.) There’s also the Jeremiah test, from the passage above. I keep speaking it, even when it gains me nothing but differing degrees of scorn. Finally, and least convincing, I am just dead certain that this country is headed for a disaster and the people who should be sounding the loudest alarms are instead speeding up the process.

     And that is what I feel must be said. People who should know that the love of money is the root of all evil (I Timothy 6:10) are instead cheerfully supporting policies that permit, or even encourage, unrestricted greed and selfishness, as somehow magically good for our country. This despite plenty of historical evidence that St. Paul was right. That is rather frustrating; for the people I want to get through to, an appeal to historical evidence should not be necessary. Aren’t you God’s people? Then why do you ignore His Word?

     A prophecy, especially a public prophecy, is an exhortation to do right. And so I plead with my fellow Christians: Heed the word of the Lord which I have spoken to you this day. I am not threatening or predicting Divine intervention, with plagues and lightning and such. No, even now the sin is making its own punishment.

Friday, August 26, 2011

A Family Revelation

     Man, I had a real revelation a while back. On Facebook, one of my cousins posted the origin of his Dad’s nickname. [Background, if you don’t know my family: My Dad had one sibling, a slightly older brother, who married Mom’s younger sister. Mom and Aunt Peg were the last two of 10, 8 surviving.] My sibs and I had always called him Uncle Skid, and I never knew why. It was just his name, or nickname. He had a severe stutter. Bill (my cousin) had seen a television show on stuttering, no doubt because of the new movie “The King’s Speech”, and posted how he had been moved by it. It was good to know that it was now better understood, and can often be effectively treated. He mentioned a few ways that it had been a problem in his Dad’s life, mostly because he was rejected by the armed forces in World War II.

     He also mentioned the nick name and its origin. When they were boys, my Dad thought that the stutter sounded like the words were skidding. He started calling him Skid, and the nickname stuck. This would have been in the 1920’s, or at most early 30’s. American culture was rougher then; sensitivity was considered a little effeminate. And Dad could be rough. He was a teaser, like me, and not particularly sensitive about it. He believed that making fun of misfortune was a good way to help someone deal with it. But of course it isn’t always. He was sometimes hurt or embarrassed when one of his attempts at humor was not well received. He really was trying to help.

     While they were two different men in many ways, their brotherly love was unmistakable. One time I made some remark to my Dad about being the brains of the family, and he said "Hell, Skid was just as smart as I was. But because of his handicap, everyone babied him." I was shocked; it was the only time I ever heard him being seriously critical of his parents, or Catholic schools. But he was bitter; there was a definite vibe of "they screwed up my brother!" After our family moved up north, they still kept in touch, even though the visits sometimes were limited to a couple of times a year. They just liked being together. Dad’s jobs kept him away more and more as time went on; that hurt all of us, including him and his brother. But the bond was never broken, or even weakened. I pray that my sons can also keep their bond unbroken throughout their lives.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Productivity and Society

When I was young, in the fifties and sixties give or take, science fiction sometimes ran stories speculating about how to have a society in which it is not necessary for everyone to work. If I knew a scifi writer who was looking for an idea, I’d suggest reviving that theme. It seems like America, at least, if not all of the first world, is rapidly approaching the point when all the stuff we need, and a large chunk of what we want, can be produced by a portion of the population. Things I have read recently seem to indicate that this trend may continue, and even accelerate.

First, why didn’t it happen sooner? Writers of that era, both fiction and academic, observed that technology was making output per worker grow much faster than before. Sometime, probably pretty soon, technology would reach the point that having everyone work was unnecessary. It didn’t happen, because while the new tech increased productivity, it also made new things possible, and those new things needed new workers to produce them, and thus more new jobs were created. While assembly line cars needed fewer workers per car, those cars were cheap enough that new demand turned into demand for more workers. Mainframe computers required both programmers and operators, since they made new applications possible, or cheap enough to be practical.

But that’s not happening with the new, www-based inventions. Things like Google and Facebook make their originators billionaires, but generate mere thousands of new jobs, instead of the millions of the last technology generation. So again, we face the prospect of a system which supports more people than it needs.

Actually, this is not a new situation in human history. Most societies have a leisure class. But until industrialization, it has only been possible by having a slave class to make the leisure class possible. The advanced societies of antiquity, both eastern and western, had a leisure class supported by hordes of slaves. The leisure class was nearly always the highest social class, and was usually a tiny percentage of the population. The late Roman Republic was a bit of an anomaly, in having a grain dole and public entertainment that effectively made the lowest social class a leisure class. Of course this was made possible by vast hordes of foreign slaves, mainly in Egypt. It developed from the standard democratic practice of politicians buying votes.

The welfare system of the “Great Society” of the sixties could have been the beginning of a return to the Roman Republic system, only with machines instead of human slaves. It was later pretty much scrapped, for two main reasons. The first was the moral argument: Why should the most useless people get a free ride? Shouldn’t everyone have to earn their way? The other reason was the growing trend toward a radical selfishness: My money is MINE! I don’t want to share any of it with anyone! Taxes are always evil, and taxes which support bums are the greatest evil. These arguments will need to be addressed.

Actually, the selfish argument is more easily addressed, at least in theory. A greater population, especially a population with money to spend, is good for all of the working people. More money being circulated for more goods is prosperity, by definition. Such a system could work. It would have to have a sharp divide between working and non-working, with both social and economic advantage to the working class. It would also need two-way class mobility. This theory may be too abstract to be effective as a short-term political stance, even if it convinces the more educated.

The moral argument is more difficult. The moral teaching that everyone should earn their way in the world has been, up till now, a practical necessity. The result of most people’s natural tendency to do no more than necessary has been the downfall of socialist systems. Some people are full of energy and work helps them feel worthwhile; they will be workers in any system. Others are bums; they will never work harder than they absolutely must to stay alive and are willing to lie, cheat and steal to avoid working. Most, of course, are along a spectrum in the middle. Many, if not most, people will work more if they can receive more for their work. Some will work more even if they only might receive more for the work. So, even with much greater productivity this moral teaching is practical and advisable.

I think that the most likely solution will involve reduced working hours for workers, and generation of make-work, likely by the government. The latter was part of the New Deal attempt to get out of the Great Depression. These projects did many good things of marginal economic value. As a result they were condemned and mocked by passionate believers in capitalism and the work ethic. But they did ease the pain of the Depression, while they lasted.

Sigh, that’s the best I can come up with. Another imperfect solution for this imperfect world. Sometimes I feel really ready for the Kingdom of Heaven.

Friday, March 25, 2011

So where is the center, anyway?

A recent exchange on the Kent State library school listserv helped me realize something about myself and the current political situation.  I have long thought of myself as a centrist, a firm believer in moderation, compromise and the middle way.  I've been pretty proud of it, actually.  It feels like I'm in solidarity with one of my heroes, St. Thomas Aquinas.  And it's bothered me a lot lately that on many subjects, I seem to be liberal, left-wing, not center.  Am I betraying my hero?  Am I being sucked into the extremist, left-wing, socialist Dark Side?  Quelle idee!  God forbid! 

It helped considerably when a responder to one of my listserv posts said that the center changes over time.  He pointed out that while the right-wing is still advocating the same extreme libertarianism, this country has no left advocating, for example, government ownership of anything.  (Well, there are a few, but they have no real influence on anything.)  The positions which, thirty years ago or so, were centrist are now supported by liberals.  So I am not turning liberal, liberals are becoming centrists.  I had been deceived by the fright-wing propaganda calling anything that they don't like "socialism".  I've tried to tell my ditto-head friends that they have no idea what socialism is, but they don't seem to care. 

Not that I'll ever call myself "liberal".  The biggest problem with centrism is that on a few subjects, there is no center.  The most important such subject is abortion: the unborn are people, or else they are not.  No middle ground there.  I've often said, though perhaps not in this blog, that the worst thing to happen to the unborn was not Roe v. Wade, but the co-opting of the issue by the right wing.  As a result, few people actually think about the problem.  Everyone is either "I'm conservative, I'm against it" or else "I'm liberal, I'm for it."  And the slaughter goes on. 

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Abortion and Society

I ran across an absolutely fascinating article in the Huffington Post, by David P. Gushee, an evangelical Christian academic (yes, there is such an animal!) on abortion, law and morality. Here is the link: though I don’t know if it will be still there when you access it. Here is the author’s HuffPo bio page and blog list: since the article may be available there later. This one is near the top of the “I wish I’d said that” file.

Dr Gushee makes the case that three trends in Western culture make the legal battle over abortion, while not irrelevant, unlikely to solve the basic problem in Western cultures. The trends are:

1) “The collapse of any cultural assumption that sex is to be reserved for marriage and that marriage is the best context in which to conceive and raise children.”

2) “The devolution of male-female relationships from a striving for a mutual lifetime covenant to short-term use of one another for individual sexual and emotional needs.”

3) “The overall transition from a focus on doing what is right to an emphasis on my rights.”

I hate to have to say it, but this article deepened even further my fear and hopelessness for American society. I can see what he points out, especially since in my misguided youth I helped the growth of these trends. Sigh, more guilt. Having seen and lived a better way since then, I greatly regret my early embrace of ideas 1 and 2. But 3 is arguably the most critical, and as Dr. Gushee points out, has been growing for much longer.

The idea of liberty, that everyone should be free to live a life of their own choosing, goes back to at least the eighteenth century Enlightenment movement. It’s pretty hard to argue with, especially considering the thought prevailing before then: that everyone was either free or slave. A lot of Western thought, at least, taught or implied that one’s estate was divinely ordained. You don’t like being a slave? Hard cheese, property. Think you know better than God? Dr. Gushee expressed it this way:

"My claim here is that the western intellectual heritage -- I speak especially of historic Christianity and Judaism -- trained people for a very long time to orient their lives around living rightly, as right living was prescribed by their faith. There was a given moral framework to the universe and our responsibility was to fit our lives to that framework, which, of course, these faith traditions believed came from God. "

When the Enlightenment intellectuals began to question this attitude towards life, Liberty became the prime value: if God is not defining my life, then I should be. At least, I want to be. But this makes a real problem: how do people live together? What do we do when my freedom conflicts with yours? And conflict it will.

This, I think, inescapably results in a system of radical selfishness. Whether the “enlightened self-interest” of the secular humanist or a naked sociopathic “me-first”, anyone else’s interest must be secondary to mine. After all, it’s my “right!” I’m only seeking justice! This strikes me as a terrible, ultimately suicidal way to run a society. Dr. Gushee describes it thus: “Society becomes a chaotic collision of rights-claims, with everything ending up in court.” This cannot be a stable situation; as the famous Mr. Dooley said “the supreme court follows the election returns.” I know judges greatly respect precedent, but they’re only human. They make mistakes, which either higher judges or subsequent judges must correct. And they have personality conflicts, like any group of people. Mr. Dooley again: “An appeal is asking one court to show its contempt for another court.”

The only solution, I believe as a Christian, is love. God was exactly correct in commanding that we love our neighbor as we love ourselves. In love, the other’s happiness is what makes our own happiness possible. When I act in love, I ignore my rights. My concern is for the rights of the ones I love. No one needs a court; we strive to make our lovers happy. And if this works against our own interests, so be it. It’s worth it to make them happy. But even among Christians who believe in an afterlife, in heaven, this requires trust. It requires trust that the ones we love also love us, and have the same care for our happiness that we have for theirs. And trust is a very fragile commodity.

In this world of Original Sin (as we Catholics call it), where we cannot count on love, we have no clear and obvious way to run a stable society. Probably the best human-only system is something like capitalism, where competing selfishnesses balance against each other. But capitalism is not ultimately stable; it is a balance which can be lost if one actor becomes too strong. The current economic times demonstrate that pretty clearly.

And on the original topic, abortion, who would be the Lorax for the unborn? If justice, and even existence, can only be secured by screaming for “My Rights!”, how can the voiceless survive?

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Peel some Spuds

“I just think it’s important to be fair – “ the man began. 
“Yeah, Reg. I understand. But there’s a time and a place, you know? Maybe the best way to build a bright new world is to peel some spuds in this one?”
                                            Terry Pratchett, Night Watch

I was happy to read this little part of the novel. Night Watch is one of the darker, less going-for-laughs Discworld novels. Copyrighted 2002, I suspect that, like most Westerners, Pratchett was in a somber mood, wondering what would become of our world. Dave Barry's first column after 9/11/2001 began "No humor here today. I can't write it, and you couldn't read it." I've heard depressingly few "good news" things since then. Like Vietnam, Afghanistan has become an unwinnable quagmire. Also like Vietnam, changing the political party in control didn't really change anything.

So often I wish that I could take control of this screwed-up world and straighten out all the dysfunctions, confusions and cross-purposes. But as the poet (Friedrich Schiller) said, "against stupidity the gods themselves contend in vain." And I'm a good Catholic boy; I understand about Original Sin and its consequences. Still, I feel like one of the characters in Jack London's The Sea Wolf who says "...God is noddin' and not doin' His duty, though it's me as shouldn't be sayin' it." Why do we have to sort things out ourselves? We’re no good at it.

But this bit of Sam Vimes' wisdom helps calm me down. Like Reg Shoe (the “man” in the quote, later the first zombie constable in the City Watch,) I want to save the whole world. Also like Reg, I can't save very much. I have joined movements that I hoped would improve life, maybe perfect it. As a hippie I tried to revolutionize our culture so that everyone would be happy. Later I wanted the Charismatic Renewal to revolutionize the Church and through it the world. The second failure hurt worse; I really thought we were God's agents in our world. I withdrew a little too far after that. It was good to concentrate on raising my kids and supporting my wife, but I felt too hopeless even to try anything much bigger.

I’m still hopeless, as you can probably tell from this blog. But I need to light the proverbial one candle. It won’t illuminate the whole world, but maybe somebody won’t stumble.

(“Peeling spuds” is a bit ironic, though. I’m one of those folks that think tater skins are good for you.)