Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice...

I just got back from a public lecture at Syracuse U. by Dr. Muhammad Yunus (, a Bangladeshi economist and Nobel Peace Prize winner for his work with microloans – loaning small amounts of money to poor people without collateral. He started with 42 people who were borrowing money from loan sharks, looking to borrow a total of $27 (!); knowing that being in debt to those loan sharks could well control their lives for a very long time, he took $27 from his pocket, and from there, he was off. Today the bank he founded lends $100 million per month, entirely in rural areas and almost entirely to women, and close to 100% of their lenders repay their loans. He gave a great presentation, very animated and funny, and I suspect that more than a few people in the packed auditorium were inspired to start thinking about how they could get in on something like this – I know I was. It also so happens that I’m currently reading an edited collection of the writings of Jesuit Fr. Daniel Berrigan, who is well-known for his activism for peace over the past fifty years. Between the lecture and the book, it is refreshing to be reminded of what all the work I am doing for this degree is actually about – trying to learn better how to be an agent of justice in a world that could really use it.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

21 February 2010

I don’t know about you, but I kinda hate February: the weather is cold, grey, and slushy (especially here in Syracuse), it’s still too early in the semester to see the light at the end of the tunnel, and it’s still a month until spring break. On top of that, then the Church has to throw Lent in, so that just in case you weren’t already depressed enough, now you have six weeks of self-denial to look forward to. We usually think of Lent leading up to Easter, but given today’s readings it also seems to make sense to connect the forty days of Lent with the forty days Jesus spent in the desert immediately after his baptism. Remember what he hears at his baptism? “You are my beloved son; with you I am well pleased.” You ever wonder what Jesus thought about when he heard that? Whatever he thought about his relationship with God, I suspect he wouldn’t talk about it like a theology professor; I can’t really imagine him saying, “I am the incarnation of the Second Person of the Trinity, the hypostatic union of divine and human natures in one divine person.” I mean, I’m sure Jesus got an A in ancient philosophy when he was in college, but that just doesn’t really seem like his style. We think we know what Jesus being called “Son of God” means, because we have a whole history of doctrines to point to, but what would Jesus think about hearing those words applied to himself? If anything, I think that where we have typically read the forty days in the desert as a series of tests to pass, perhaps we could read them more fruitfully as unpacking what it means to be the Son of God. Did you notice that in two of the three tests Jesus faces, the devil begins, “IF you are the Son of God,” as if the suggestion he gives follows naturally from an obvious image of what it means to be the Son of God? If you are the Son of God, you shouldn’t be hungry. If you are the Son of God, don’t worry about throwing yourself off the parapet of the Temple, because nothing bad will happen to you. The ready equation is that God is the king, so Jesus is the prince and should enjoy the freedom from worry and discomfort that one would expect for a prince, but Jesus dismisses that kind of sonship. I’ve said with you before that rather than Jesus being just as human as us, but more divine, I think he is more human – he does not run away from any of the reality of being human, which involves hunger, danger, failure, rejection, humiliation, all the things a lot of us don’t deal with terribly well. He doesn’t make avoidance of hunger his top priority, or gaining power by any means necessary, or attracting crowds by doing magic tricks – sonship has to mean something more than that.

Maybe I’ve been reading too much Thoreau lately, or maybe February is just working its magic on me, but sometimes I feel totally unfree, like my life is being hemmed in by forces way beyond my control, and I think about just disappearing into the desert somewhere. Like the old saying goes, “The problem with running the rat race is that even if you win, you’re still a rat.” In the Biblical tradition the desert was the place where demons lived but also where God was to be encountered – danger and opportunity, the risk of life without safety nets and the possibility of seeing life from outside of the confines of public opinion. When I was teaching theology in St. Louis, we read Jon Krakauer’s book Into the Wild in my intro class. I don’t know if any of you read the book or saw the movie, but to read a book about a smart, talented young guy with a big future just cutting off from society to find something big hit home with a lot of my students because they were the same kinds of people, just the students here at SU are: intelligent, talented, going places. We talked about Chris McCandless’s [the protagonist of Into the Wild] passionate need to not get fed through what I called “the meat grinder” - the script that we more or less are expected to fall into: go to a good high school so you can go to a good college so you can get a good job so you can take vacations far from your job and still put away enough money to retire comfortably. Anyone else ever feel like that, like someone else has written the script for your life and you are being moved along, usually imperceptibly? I hope not. The culmination of that project was an assignment to turn off the cell phone, get off campus, just walk somewhere they had never been, be completely unplugged for an hour or so and then write about it. I figured it wouldn’t be that big of a deal, a tiny dose of the weeks and months that Chris McCandless went without seeing another living soul. Some of the students reported what a shock it was to not be able to call anyone, how uncomfortable it was to go so long without text messaging or calling anyone or twittering (tweetering?  tweeting?). A number of them said they thought it couldn’t be good for a person to be isolated for so long, but almost none of them said that solitude, silence, unplugging, feeling some fear or uncertainty might actually be worthwhile. We are so constantly bombarded with data that tuning out can feel pretty defenseless, but only in distance from the security of the mass mind can the Christian take the risk of becoming more fully human. Paradoxical, that the mass mind can be so individualistic in selling people on more and more needs and desires, while distance from the herd can open the door to solidarity by seeing the illusions that we mostly take for granted. I’ve said before that if you are waiting for a sign, this is it: we don’t typically expect a voice from the heavens, like at Jesus’ baptism, but here it is: you are beloved son, beloved daughter – how will you confront the false meanings of that reality and come to inhabit the deep truth it offers?

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Ash Wednesday

As usual, it's been a while since I have been around's hallways.  This time, it's been a bit more deliberate: I've been hibernating for a while, trying to get my head on straight, so thanks to those of you who have asked if everything is ok - I think it is.

I'm giving a little reflection at the Ash Wednesday services at the Catholic Center, so I figured I could post it - there are some recycled lines from older posts, but hopefully they aren't too stale.  I used to hate Ash Wednesday when I was younger, but in the past few years I've found some real treasures in it.  Hope the same is true for you.  My best wishes and my prayers for all of you this season, and in particular for the people of Haiti and those who are working on so many fronts to ameliorate their suffering...

I don’t know if any of you ever do this, but every Ash Wednesday, at some point during the day, I forget that I have ashes on my head and touch my forehead, and I get that gritty feeling of ash on my fingers. I hate that feeling – it’s like fingernails on a chalkboard – but it brings back to mind one of the formulas for the distribution of the ashes: "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return." We’ve heard it so often that we skip right by it, but that’s a dangerous memory, one we would rather not think about for too long. Ash Wednesday is a reminder that the end of my world is never terribly far away. I’m not talking about the end of life on earth, but the end of all our little worlds, the world of business as usual, the world which is all about managing our own fates. Everything is passing away: not only our lives, not only MY life, but everything – no nation lasts forever, no social system or economy or political party or national leader or public opinion lasts forever: nothing lasts forever.

Ash Wednesday is a weird day, I think: putting ashes on one another’s heads and telling each other that we are going to die sounds a little too morbid, a little too "scary Catholic." In a way, it’s a scandal, and it should be – in Greek the word scandal means “stumbling block,” or for my purposes, "speed bump,"  something that disrupts the easy flow of getting where we want to get. Ash Wednesday has the potential to be a sort of stumbling block, a speed bump, if you will: it urges us to resist, even if only for a moment, the dominant story of what life is SUPPOSED to look like – well-fed, perpetually young and beautiful and successful and happy and comfortable. It reminds us that the gospel we profess is no safe, harmless gesture we do for a day here and there: we are wearing on our bodies a sign of death and mourning, the impending end of our worlds. If we don’t just let this day pass by, rub the ashes off as soon as we leave, treat it like one of those Catholic duties we are supposed to get through as quickly as possible with a minimum of interference on your real life, this day can be a sacrament of the brokenness and the suffering of our world. That’s what all the ascetic practices of Lent are about at their core – not about being spiritual heroes, but bringing all this spiritual stuff back to bodies, getting us to FEEL something of the tears of the world in our own bodies and not just think about it for a few minutes and then move on. Maybe you have been thinking about what you are going to "give up" for Lent, and if you are doing something like that, good for you, but remember that it's not really about "giving something up," as if what God is really looking for is for you to quit drinking beer or watching Desperate Housewives or whatever else for six weeks. Take today’s fast, for example. Ask yourself, "When was the last time I felt truly hungry? How often do I eat when I’m not really even hungry?" The point is not how much of a rock star you are when it comes to skipping food: it’s about letting prayer get out of your head and into your empty stomach – actually FEELING hunger in your body. That’s what Jesus means with the expression "hunger and thirst for justice": something we can’t turn off any more than we can turn off feeling hungry. I’ll close with a prayer that some friends of mine have in their house: "Lord, to those who hunger, give bread, and to those who have bread, give the hunger for justice." Amen...