True Fasting

PopeFrancis-mercy“Is this the manner of fasting I wish, of keeping a day of penance: That a man bow his head like a reed and lie in sackcloth and ashes?…

This, rather, is the fasting that I wish: releasing those bound unjustly, untying the thongs of the yoke; setting free the oppressed, breaking every yoke; sharing your bread with the hungry, sheltering the oppressed and the homeless; clothing the naked when you see them, and not turning your back on your own.

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your wound shall quickly be healed; your vindication shall go before you, and the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the LORD will answer, you shall cry for help, and he will say: Here I am!”

from today’s 1st Reading for Mass, Isaiah 58

“His brother’s keeper” – Benedict XVI and Prison

There’s no doubt that the Catholic Church these days isn’t very high on many people’s lists of respected institutions. There are many valid reasons for this, and there’s no need to restate them here. One of the great and sad side-effects of this largely self-generated reality is that the Church’s moral voice on so many important matters is not able to be heard.

On Thursday, Nov. 22 (Thanksgiving Day in the US), Pope Benedict XVI spoke to European Directors of Prison Administration. His words are rooted in a Catholic Christian Weltanschauung of great depth and richness. As such, I wonder how much, if at all, they would resonate in contemporary American society and politics, especially among those in the public eye who wear their Catholicism or Christianity proudly, but whose politics reflect little of Catholic Christianity’s gospel-rooted values.

In speaking to those who run prisons and are responsible for the care and well-being of convicts, Benedict spoke about justice, about the need for rehabilitation (and not mere punishment), and about the need for their work to focus on the dignity of prisoners. How many American government executives (governors, etc) would say this to prison wardens and administrators in their state:

“Everyone is called to become his brother’s keeper, transcending the homicidal indifference of Cain. You in particular are asked to take custody of people who, in prison conditions, are at greater risk of losing their sense of life’s meaning and the value of personal dignity, yielding instead to discouragement and despair. Profound respect for persons, commitment to the rehabilitation of prisoners, fostering a genuinely educational community: these things are all the more urgent, in view of the growing number of ‘foreign prisoners’, whose circumstances are often difficult and precarious”.

In 2010 about 7.1 million adults were under the supervision of adult correctional authorities in the U.S. Over 3,000 of these were under a sentence of death (US Dept. of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics).

While the “Black” in today’s moniker of “Black Friday” might refer to the color of the ink on retailers’ profit statements, for prisons it no doubt has a different meaning. The disproportionate number of US prisoners who are African-American is startling (3.1% of the black male population, compared with 0.5% of the white male population) and the bleakness of prison life no doubt burdensome.

The pope ended his remarks on a somewhat poetic, hopeful note:

“Particularly important in this regard is the promotion of forms of evangelisation and spiritual care, capable of drawing out the most noble and profound side of the prisoner, awakening his enthusiasm for life and his desire for beauty, so characteristic of people who discover anew that they bear within them the indelible image of God.”

“First stop slamming doors…”

We don’t teach meditation to the young monks. They are not ready for it until they stop slamming doors.
~ Thich Nhat Hanh to Thomas Merton in 1966

“Charlotte Pastor Mark Harris and Cindy Marrelli of Raleigh celebrate the passage of the N.C. marriage amendment during an election night party at the North Raleigh Hilton.”

I began my morning by reading the daily meditation from Richard Rohr, which begins with the above. I then saw several pictures online and in print picturing so-called “pastors” jubilantly celebrating the passage of Amendment 1 in North Carolina, and it struck me that these are exactly the kind of people that Fr. Rohr is talking about when he comments:

First stop slamming doors, and then you can begin in the kindergarten of spirituality. Too many priests, bishops, and ministers are still slamming doors.

No one who supports the right of God’s LGBT children to live their lives honestly, openly, freely and without fear is surprised to hear that much (most?) of the bigotry that opposes such honesty and freedom is rooted in religion. Nonetheless, it never ceases to shock me in one way or another when the strong-arm of this bigotry exercises its might as it did yesterday in North Carolina.

The picture of a “pastor” raising his clenched-fist, smiling and expressing support for the fact that a majority of his fellow citizens have slammed the door on the faces of so many tens of thousands of their brothers and sisters — well, this just doesn’t seem very “pastoral,” now does it? This man — and too many other religious administrators (I won’t call them “leaders”) — would probably not yet be ready to begin to take the baby-steps that truly faithful people people take when they seek to know the path to God in humility and compassion.

Some may say this sounds judgmental, even a bit harsh. To that I plead guilty. But I think a little anger is justified when those whose actions seeking to deny the fundamental rights of others are temporarily successful. Thankfully, there’s that thing called the arc of history … and towards a better world characterized by Justice and Peace I hope and pray it will continue to bend!

The Big Business of Prisons

The Caging of America is a thoughtful and very disturbing look at the American prison system.  As Americans we tend to think of ourselves as civilized and even quite religious. Christianity itself embraces not only justice, but justice tempered by mercy and forgiveness.  Yet one has to wonder if mercy and forgiveness have any role in the big business of the American “correctional” system?  One has to wonder what is wrong with a society that seems not only to mete out harsh punishments such as long sentences disproportionate to the crime and the isolation of solitary confinement, but also to do so in such numbers and with such frequency.

Of the many, many troubling issues Adam Gopnik’s commentary addresses, what jumped out at me most is the link between private, for-profit enterprise and US prisons. I’d always thought of prisons as a necessary function of government, something undertaken for the common good and safety of society, whose purpose was not only to punish but also to rehabilitate. I’d thought of prisons as something we would willingly do without if the lesser nature of humanity were diminished in the ongoing creation of a more just, peaceful, and humane society.  Oh, how naive I am! This quotation form the article says it all:

No more chilling document exists in recent American life than the 2005 annual report of the biggest of these firms, the Corrections Corporation of America. Here the company (which spends millions lobbying legislators) is obliged to caution its investors about the risk that somehow, somewhere, someone might turn off the spigot of convicted men:

‘Our growth is generally dependent upon our ability to obtain new contracts to develop and manage new correctional and detention facilities. . . . The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by the relaxation of enforcement efforts, leniency in conviction and sentencing practices or through the decriminalization of certain activities that are currently proscribed by our criminal laws. For instance, any changes with respect to drugs and controlled substances or illegal immigration could affect the number of persons arrested, convicted, and sentenced, thereby potentially reducing demand for correctional facilities to house them.’

Brecht could hardly have imagined such a document: a capitalist enterprise that feeds on the misery of man trying as hard as it can to be sure that nothing is done to decrease that misery.

Could there be any greater affront to Justice itself than a business whose success is linked to crime and a system that seeks to keep as many people locked up for as long as possible, as cheaply as possible??

Calif. Prop 8: Don’t Let Religious Bigotry Win!

California Proposition 8 doesn’t just want to relegate gay and lesbian people to the back of the bus — it wants to throw them under it and leave them behind!

Sadly, the forces that most strongly oppose the recognition of these basic rights of gay and lesbian people attempt to root their positions in their own religious view (for example, see Mormon Church steps into the prop 8 battle or Catholic Bishops Support Proposition 8). While I can’t critique the Mormon’s theological position, I think there’s no doubt that the Catholic bishops of California base their stance on a flawed understanding of human history and of Christianity.

Apparently equality in California is losing by 5 points, according to the latest poll numbers. People of good faith throughout the world know that a religion that does not speak the truth is empty. Please join me in fighting the lies that anti-gay groups have been spreading everywhere.

Join me in the fight by donating today to the Human Rights Campaign California Marriage PAC – and your gift will be DOUBLED.
Just click here.