Race, Religion, and Empathy

Donald Trump at his June 20 rally in Tulsa, Oklahoma

The National Catholic Reporter reports that Trump support declines among white and Hispanic Catholics. From my perspective, that’s a good thing. This indicates that the president’s support among Catholics is trending in the right direction. But … and there’s always a “but” … that story’s sub-heading is not so positive: But poll finds he would still win the white Catholic vote. Based on a recent poll from the Pew Research Center, it seems that 57% of White Catholics still say they would “vote for/lean toward voting for” Trump. Though different conclusions may be drawn from the same data, these data continue to paint a picture that says this: White Catholics tend to value their “Whiteness” more than their “Catholicity.”

As a White Catholic who is also gay and of Irish heritage (today would be the 108th birthday of my Dublin-born maternal grandmother!), this is what I find so troubling: I and those who came before me know what it feels like to be “othered,” to be excluded, to be on the outside looking in. Thankfully, great progress has been made for Irish-Americans, though there was a period not too long ago when there was significant anti-Irish sentiment in America, and “NINA” (No Irish Need Apply”) signs often accompanied employers’ Help Wanted advertisements. Even more recently, the increased acceptance in American society of LGBTQ people has been a beacon of hope for those who, less than a generation ago, were often compelled to remain closeted about a fundamental aspect of who they/we are. The great promise of America is that there is no such thing as the “other.” Our national motto — E Pluribus Unum (Out of Many, One) — enshrines the more folksy sentiment that in this country, every stranger is simply “a friend I haven’t yet met.” Americans’ greatness becomes real when we practice what we preach, when we welcome with open arms the world’s tired, poor, and huddled masses “yearning to breathe free.”

And yet … when we look at our current president, and especially at our fellow citizens who so vocally support him at his rallies and online, we hear nothing but “othering” language which tries to build walls between the false dichotomy of “us and them.” Trump’s entire presidency (some might say his entire life) has been marked by using race, religion, sex, gender and ethnicity to “other” any and all who might challenge him, disagree with him, or see things differently than he. As humans, the experience of having been “excluded” is an experience that should increase our empathy, not propagate discord, disdain, and division. Empathy is the ability to stand in someone else’s shoes, to see the world through their eyes, and recognize that their experience is valid and valuable. Empathy opens my mind and my heart, and leads me to embrace more deeply the truth that we are much more alike than we are different. Empathy — and my faith — tell me that, deep down, there really is no “us and them,” there’s only US.

The Morality of a Vote

Does my vote mean anything? Does it really make a difference if I check the name of Candidate A or Candidate B? Does it matter whether his/her name has an “R” or a “D” next to it?  If you think your vote has little impact, think again.

Just as surely as every elected official is responsible for his/her policies pursued and official actions taken, so too does your vote, my vote, have a moral impact.  If you voted for Donald Trump and you don’t see the link between that vote, Trump’s election, and the murder of George Floyd, then your blindness is either willful or ignorant. Either way, you bear responsibility.

In his opinion piece today, George Will lays it out pretty clearly.  In part, he writes:

“The person voters hired in 2016 to ‘take care that the laws be faithfully executed’ stood on July 28, 2017, in front of uniformed police and urged them ‘please don’t be too nice’ when handling suspected offenders. His hope was fulfilled for 8 minutes and 46 seconds on Minneapolis pavement.”

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Trump’s Angry Tirade

Screen Shot 2020-04-14 at 5.42.32 AM“That’s just the left-wing media,” or “You need to stop watching that fake news.” Such are the baseless comments from Trump supporters whenever I’ve tried to engage them in thoughtful conversations about the current president.  When I try to explain that no, I’m not just parroting back what I’ve read in the Washington Post or the New York Times or seen on CNN; that what I’m sharing has come directly from Trump himself, I’m dismissed either with disbelief or an assertion that I’m exaggerating or taking him out of context.  Well, my Republican friends, what do you say when there’s no interpretation, no spin … just the words of Mr. Trump himself to provide full context and no exaggeration?

Yesterday’s White House briefing, ostensibly another update from the federal Coronavirus Task Force, was a sight to behold.  The paper-thin-skinned resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue apparently couldn’t take it anymore.  Apparently the aptly-titled and well-documented article from the NY Times, He Could Have Seen What Was Coming: Behind Trump’s Failure on the Virus was more than that thin skin could bear when the president was asked about it.  So, instead of spending the news conference providing reporters and the American people with much needed information about the virus’s impact on us all, the complainer-in-chief spent most of the time trying to defend himself against that article’s assertions — doing so, I might add, using a campaign-like piece of propaganda prepared by Federal workers on the our dime. The video, by the way, was instructive not so much for what it included, but what it excluded.

While this story from the Washington Post is correctly categorized as “analysis,” it accurately recounts what the “news briefing” was all about.

Here’s the whole briefing:

 

Trump, too, has blood on his hands

For millennia, faith-based principles have attempted to guide the forces of war and peace between powers and nations. I challenge any Catholic or other Christian – or any person of good will, for that matter – to educate yourself on some of these philosophical and theological principles. We do not subscribe to any version of “might makes right” or “my country, right or wrong.” We must hold our leaders and military to strict standards that reflect our deepest values.

https://www.ncronline.org/news/justice/catholic-ethicists-question-us-assassination-iranian-general

“A very acceptable time” (2 Cor. 6:1)

What we have been given is not to be kept and hoarded for ourselves, but to be passed on freely and shared, so that it may bring life to others. In my work as a therapist, it is usually the questions I ask, rather than the statements, suggestions, or “advice” I offer that are the most helpful means of effecting this sharing and the new life that rises from it.

Today is Ash Wednesday (as well as Valentine’s Day!). It marks the beginning of the Season of Lent, a “very acceptable time.” This year I choose not to “give up” some “goodie” or “treat,” but rather to make my Lenten practice one of asking questions — not of others, but of myself.

  • How am I open to the Presence of God today?
    • in myself?
    • in others?
    • in nature and all Creation?
  • What lesson is God asking me to learn from the people God brings into my life?
  • In what ways might I be “missing the mark” (which is really the Hebrew definition of ‘sin’) in my love and care for others?
  • Where are kindness, compassion, understanding, and self-sacrifice in my life today?
  • Am I truly listening to God, speaking to me in the depths of my heart — in the midst of trouble and distress, as well as in silence and calm?

The second reading (2 Cor. 5:20-6:1) from today’s Liturgy reminds us:

“Working together, then,
we appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain.
For he says:
In an acceptable time I heard you,
and on the day of salvation I helped you.

Behold, now is a very acceptable time;
behold, now is the day of salvation.”

“Introduction: Image and Likeness”

Richard Rohr, OFM

When one of my favorite authors titles a blog post with the same title of these pages, how could I not share it? In part, Franciscan Fr. Richard Rohr notes a fact of history and human experience that reinforces a fundamental and false belief underlying all dualistic, all-or-nothing perspectives:

“Christianity has far too easily called individual, private behaviors sins while usually ignoring or even supporting structural and systemic evils such as war, colonization, corporate greed, slavery, and abuse of the Earth. All of the seven capital sins were admired at the corporate level and shamed at the individual level.”

Here’s his full post: How can everything be sacred? 

The Present is all we have – and why we must forgive

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Myakka River State Park, Florida

If you’ve ever been in a Catholic church, you’ve surely noticed the tabernacle. It’s a small box-like structure on an altar, and usually there’s a candle nearby, burning 24/7. Inside the tabernacle is reserved some of the bread that was blessed and consecrated at Mass, the liturgical celebration of what we call Eucharist.  Because we believe that Jesus is somehow present in the elements of bread and wine blessed in his name, Catholics refer to this reserved Eucharist as the Real Presence.  I like that term a lot. Whether you hold to Catholicism’s sacramental beliefs or not, there’s something very powerful and meaningful about Presence.  The Present, really, is all we ever have. What, then, am I doing with it? How am I using the gift of this present moment right here, right now? Fr. Rohr offers some thoughts:

Only the false self easily takes offense. The false self can’t live a self-generated life of immediate contact with God. It defines itself by the past, which is to live in un-forgiveness. Forgiveness is the only way to free ourselves from the entrapment of the past. We’re in need not only of individual forgiveness; we need it on a national, global, and cosmic scale. Old hurts linger long in our memories and are hard to let go. We must each learn how to define ourselves by the present moment—which is all we really have. I will not define myself by what went wrong yesterday when I can draw upon Life and Love right now. Life and Love are what’s real. This Infinite Love is both in us and yet it is more than us.

From Daily Meditation for Aug. 1, 2017

Faithfully Extending Faith: Will the Church ever recognize same-sex unions?

Monarch Butterfly

In a recent Daily Meditation (July 17, 2017) from Richard Rohr, OFM guest writer Brian McLaren makes this statement: “Jesus and Paul were not denying their religion . . . ; they were faithfully extending it [emphasis added], letting it grow and flow forward.” McLaren’s point is that Christians in every age must overcome the tendency to let their faith be just another ossified institution of rules, power structures, and laws that fail to fully meet the needs of the contemporary world. To do this, Christians must always look to Jesus. There, McLaren asserts, is where we see the overarching teaching of Jesus on the supremacy of love. “The new commandment of love meant neither beliefs nor words, neither taboos, systems, structures nor the labels that enshrined them mattered most. Love decentered [and] relativized everything else; love took priority over everything else.”

I remember first pondering the supposed conflict between my own sense of self as a gay person and the “long-held teaching of the Church” that homosexuality was sinful. How could this be?, I wondered. How could the Church’s teaching on the purpose and place of human sexual expression be so very different from my own growing understanding of myself as created “in the image and likeness” of God, of someone who is flawed, yes, but who is fundamentally good? I fed my reflections not only with my own lived experience, but with a knowledge base of philosophy and theology expanded throughout my college and seminary years.

The word that eventually came to mind to describe this tension was incomplete. As far as the Church’s main and positive notions about human sexuality were concerned, this made sense to me. The basic relational values of mutual respect, faithfulness, commitment, and openness to new life seemed spot on. But the other notions — those that are negative or proscriptive and which have the effect of being more burdensome than liberating  — these did not seem to fit with the radical message of Jesus to “love one another as I have loved you.”

Knowing that the Church holds to a belief in the Development of Doctrine — that the richness of the Gospel can yield new insights and greater understanding in every generation — could it be that our understanding of human sexuality was also growing, deepening, and extending as we became more aware of the natural (i.e. God-given) diversity in this dimension of human experience?

Take, for example, whether a committed same-sex relationship could be licit, valid, even sacramental. Church teaching holds that the two “ends” of marriage are its unitive and procreative ends — a loving union between two persons who are open to new life. However, the Church recognizes and accepts as fully sacramental those heterosexual unions where there is absolutely no possibility of “new life” in the form of biological children. Think of those with significant health conditions or couples who marry in advanced age. Here, a more generous theology is called for. A theology which sees “procreative” as more than just the begetting of biological children. This more generous theology recognizes how such unions can be procreative by the ways such couples extend themselves, give of themselves, and share their life with family, friends, community. Why could the same generous theology not also recognize the validity and sacramentality of similarly-committed same-sex couples?

Clearly the institutional Church is a long, long way from recognizing not only the sacramentality of same-sex unions, but even their civil legitimacy. All that notwithstanding, is it possible for us, in love, to be like Paul and countless others who have gone before us in faith? Can we lovingly, not fearfully, “read the signs of the times” and — with open ears, eyes, minds and heart —  be willing to see the ways in which the Spirit might be challenging us to extend our faith, so that the joy of the Gospel might be known to all peoples and in every generation?