All posts by seattleustm

The Crisis of Our Knee-Jerk #MoralOutrage

January 31, 2019

A comparison of the two realities drips with irony. On the one hand, America celebrated the legacy of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., an ordained minister in the American Baptist church, a bridge-builder across human difference and division, a person of prayer, measured response and careful discernment. A man who committed his life to the indominable power of love to both channel and temper the energy of righteous anger so that one’s personal outrage diffuses, rather than incites, prejudice, hate and their inevitable offspring: violence. On the other hand, the nation’s social media exploded with a viral video from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, a worldwide symbol of the courage needed and the cost that might be paid for trying to create a more just and humane world. Two different protest marches, a favorite Civil Rights strategy for awakening the conscience of Americans, collided with a third public demonstration and set in motion an example of the very racial, ethnic, religious and political prejudice and hate that Dr. King spent his life fighting.

The original one-minute viral video clip starting the controversy showed a tense encounter at the 46th Annual Right to Life event in Washington, DC, between several black men, a Native American gentleman beating a ceremonial drum, and a group of white high school students, many wearing Make America Great Again (MAGA) swag. The video had millions of views in a matter of hours on Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube and seemed to show an obvious situation. The students, from Covington Catholic High School, a Kentucky suburb just south of Cincinnati, confronted the Native American gentleman, who was participating in the Indigenous Peoples March, a simultaneous event occurring in Washington DC for the first time. One Covington student, Nick Sandmann, stood (with the kind of smirk that only an adolescent can muster) squarely in front of Nathan Phillips, a 64-year-old Indian activist, while other students did school chants, some seeming to mimic Phillips or Native Americans. Meanwhile, several men, identified as members of the controversial Black Hebrew Israelites movement, who believe themselves, descendants of the Israelites, hurled verbal taunts and threats into the maelstrom of noise, angry and flippant facial expressions, controversial hand and arm gestures and body posturing.

Who are the Black Israelites at the center of the viral standoff at the Lincoln Memorial?

The video sparked a flood of immediate social media condemnations from the right and the left – some obscene and hateful. Actor Ron Perelman called Sandmann “a little b**ch.” GQ’s Nathaniel Friedman tweeted, “doxx ‘em all,” a term used for giving personal information, like home addresses and phone numbers, to the public. (Sandmann has received death threats and Covington actually had to close the school, opening a few days later with beefed up security.) New York Times columnist Kara Swisher said: “I’m thinking of finding every one of these sh***y kids and giving them a very large piece of my mind.” Republican consultant Ana Navarro called the teenagers racist, a behavior they learned from parents, teachers, society and leaders, singling out Donald Trump’s “constant dog whistles” as a contributing cause. Referring to Sandmann, popular religion writer Reza Aslan tweeted: “Have you ever seen a more punchable face than this kid’s?” Michael Green, a filmmaker, had this to say: “A face like that never changes. This image will define his life. No one need ever forgive him.”

Most of the posts had three things in common. Based on 60-seconds of viewing a complex situation, each writer knew exactly what was happening, each seemed to know the motivation of those participating in the drama, and each knew how to articulate a moral high ground.

But, even as people scrambled to share their #MoralOutrage, more video and testimonials from the incident got released, and the simple narrative of belligerent, racist adolescents became murkier. Many tweeters – some liberal, like actress Jamie Lee Curtis and pundit Frank Bruni; and some conservative, like Meghan McCain, Sen. John McCain’s daughter; and journalist Robby Soave – apologized for their rush to judgment. Popular Jesuit author, James Martin, SJ, issued a retraction: “This Teachable Moment can offer us if we are both open and humble, important lessons about racism and marginalization, about dialogue and encounter, and about truth and reconciliation.” And, David Brooks re-interpreted the actions of the students, and argued for putting it in its broader context, only to become a target of condemnation, too.

How We Destroy Lives Today
Will the Covington Catholic High School fiasco change social media?

The Covington affair became, and remains, a hot mess. Regardless of how you think about the situation, it brings into broad relief a growing habit of making snap-judgments and hashtagging our moral outrage. Our technology, coupled with our diminishing ability to regulate emotion and our naïve confidence in our skills for reading the motivation of others with little data, is destroying our capacity, and perhaps even our appreciation, for the importance of learning to channel and temper our anger with thoughtfulness and love, one of the secret ingredients in King’s social action (not to mention many of the most lauded social reformers of the 20th century).

Of course, some of the forces driving for our #MoralOutrage era are different than Dr. King’s period of social reform. Many of those firing out their moral outrage are “rewarded for fierce conviction, for utter certainty, for emphatically taking sides and staying unconditionally faithful to what we’ve pushed for and against in the past,” columnist Frank Bruni confessed in his reflection on this controversy. “We each have our brand, and the narrower and more unyielding it is, the more currency it has and the more loyal our consumers. Instead of bucking the political tribalism in America, we ride it.”

Unfortunately, riding our tribalism is hardening the nation into the polarized hives that make it impossible to solve even our nation’s simplest problems. King’s point of departure came from a different place. He wasn’t trying to expand the base of his readership, listenership or viewership. (When he died, in fact, 75% of the nation disapproved of him.)  King wanted the United States to live up to the values stated in the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution. He wanted opposing camps, warriors for different causes in the same room, to learn to appreciate each other and to debate with each other’s ideas. He wanted the nation to take a quantum leap of growth into the values and virtues of an ancient biblical notion of social justice, a way of being together as a Beloved Community that included all races, creeds and colors, socio-economic groups and education levels. He wanted to help the nation learn how to defuse the human tendency to rush to judgment about the motivations of others, to learn to listen more carefully, to dialogue more effectively with those who are different, and especially to develop a deeper sense of empathy for the suffering of all humans. Ultimately, he believed we could become deeper in our thinking and feeling, more accepting and understanding, and more resolute in addressing the issues causing human suffering. King believed in crockpot social activism – a strategy for the long haul that allowed our differences to simmer together into a vision and commitment to building a better world. We live in a time of microwave activism and knee-jerk #MoralOutrage and it is killing us as a nation.

Frederick Douglass once said: “At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed.” Perhaps the irony of the celebration of Dr. King’s legacy and the controversy in Washington DC on the same weekend will result in more of us pausing and reflecting on our moral outrage, how we express it, and what we hope to achieve in that expression.

Comments or Questions?
stmmarcom@seattleu.edu

Wanna Survive the Storm? Brush Up Your Jesuit

December 3, 2018

On December 1, 2018, the Christian liturgical calendar entered the season of Advent, a four-week period of preparation for the celebration of Christmas. The Advent season is filled with readings, music, and images centering on themes of justice, peace, and the possibility of a new kind of world. It provides an opportunity for an annual renewal of the Christian community’s capacity to live comfortably and actively in the liminal, incomplete place of hope, anticipation, and longing. From a liturgical standpoint, the first Sunday of Advent, not the first day of January, is the beginning of the Christian year. Christians get to start over once a year and to renew their commitment to co-create a new world with the Creator that they believe set the process of creation in motion. It is a time to replenishing many things, perhaps imagination most of all.

People of the Christian faith have always had a desperate need for this season. Over the centuries, they learned (usually the hard way) that the most difficult part of re-making the world is that it doesn’t seem to want to get re-made. Christians have also learned that the biggest obstacle to creating a more just and humane world is often other Christians. As generation after generation has tackled this seemingly insurmountable hill, some of our wisest ancestors realized that a new earth will not come about primarily through changing public policies and institutions, but re-fashioning the human heart and mind from the “inside out.” If you want to change the environment around you, you have to begin by changing your own heart and mind. The process of inner renewal is never completed. It needs constant replenishment of hope to overcome the disappointments, discouragements, defeats and the incompleteness of every effort to improve the world.

A perfect example is the mid-term election. American politics is finding a new power equilibrium with a Democratic-held House. Although political forces are realigning, it is questionable whether the United States will have a substantive change in the magnitude of our nation’s rancorous polarization. Rather, history would suggest that we are more likely to experience an increase in levels of division, distrust, anger, and hatred across the political divide and between people who think and live differently from one another. If you track closely the news and trending social media posts on the web, you can already see the clouds forming on the horizon.

When the human race gets caught in this kind of storm of negativity, history suggests, the pathway out of the storm is usually violence, civil or regional wars, and twice in the past century escalating into global hostilities, resulting in the death of 15-19 million in World War I and 50-80 million in World War II. Perhaps the saddest lesson of our history is the human habit of exhausting our distrust, anger, and hatred for each other through destruction, and when this destruction becomes horrifying in its cumulative effect, only then can we reset our emotional and social thermometers for a period of limited peace. It is actually no coincidence that the religious resources of Advent – the texts, music, images, and symbols – grew out of the swirls of such violence and destruction that people of faith witnessed through the centuries. Advent has endured as a liturgical season because once a year Christian people have the opportunity to imagine a different scenario for the inherent conflicts of the human condition. They can believe again in hope; they can dare to hunger again for a different kind of world.

At this time of Advent, my hope is that more of us will tire of division, distrust, anger, and hatred and will try another path. Perhaps one inspiration for finding new paths is Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus, or as they are more commonly known – the Jesuits.

Ignatius, a privileged kid of the late 15th century, is an unlikely candidate to offer the world an exit lane on its self-destructive patterns. In his early years, he was more interested in good times and glory on the battlefield than inner renewal. But, during a six-month recovery from a war wound, he had a spiritual experience so profound that it reshaped the direction of his life. While recuperating, he read two books, one about the life of Christ and the other a compilation of the stories of the lives of the saints. His reflection on the books precipitated a spiritual experience that eventually sent him back to school as an older man, motivated him to find new friends (or companions as he liked to call them), and drove him into a period of intense personal reflection. This reflection produced the Spiritual Exercises, one of the most sophisticated integrations of spirituality and “psychology” (although that field of study would not get invented formally until the late 19th century).

The Exercises provided strategies for awakening the imagination with the intent of guiding a retreatant to personal liberation and transformation through a growing sensitivity to inner attractions (consolations) and negative reactions (desolations). One of the goals of the Spiritual Exercises, unlike many contemporary programs for inner growth, is not self-serving. It is to empower the individual to become an agent of transformation in the world, awakening the desire and commitment to authentically put one’s personality and gifts in service to refashion the world.

In recent years, there has been a lot of people who have talked about the unhealthy attitudes that are born of dogmatic religious belief systems. While owning much of the assumptive religious world of his time, Ignatius also broke free. He believed in the power of the human soul to change the environment around it. He believed in the potential to break old patterns of relating, and in the power of forgiveness and reconciliation, and the potential to grow in wisdom, and replenish the hope and anticipation for the future that is the essence of the Advent season.

As a child of the Italian Renaissance, Ignatius considered religious education important to the reshaping and remolding of the inner person for a life of service, but he also believed in the importance of all kinds of other forms of education, especially the humanities and the arts. He believed God wanted us to cultivate wildly curious minds because such minds unleashed the secret weapon for changing the world – the human imagination. In this process of inquiry and experimentation in doing good with all the gifts at one’s disposal and one’s community, Ignatius believed a woman or man could demonstrate the true “glory of God” by evolving into a human “fully alive” (using the famous words of St. Irenaeus, a second century bishop).

The Jesuits now operate more than 600 educational institutions worldwide, including more than 200 colleges and universities. Many consider their educational network the largest private system in the world. Ironically, Ignatius and his companions did not start out with a commitment to education – they “discerned” their way into it. A Jesuit friend of mine, Gerald Fagin, SJ, and an Ignatian scholar, once wrote an article he originally entitled “Plan B.” Jerry’s thesis was a bit surprising for some. He contended that Ignatius is the Rhodes Scholar of discernment in the Catholic Church, the Yoda of spiritually-informed decision-making who devised one of the world’s most complicated and intricate (and at the same time simple) processes for making choices in life. Yet, often after all of his careful discernment, virtually every one of the original plans of Ignatius did not work out. He always had to resort to “Plan B.” The discernment process itself led Ignatius not only to the formulation of this second plan but also to the flexibility to live in life’s messiness, heartache and disillusionment with hope, longing and anticipating good things to come – a world of less suffering, more joy and peace, and more freedom to be who God originally intended, as individuals and as communities.

Ignatius had an indomitable spirit, and these are the kinds that change the world. His legacy has taken lots of twists and turns, and those touched deeply by the Ignatian spiritual tradition share some of this hearty sense of hopeful rebounding no matter what we experience. In 2002, Peter McDonough and Eugene Bianchi tried to capture the mystery of this spiritual orientation in their book, Passionate Uncertainty: Inside the American Jesuits. They interviewed 430 Jesuits and former Jesuits, in search of distinctive, shared qualities. They found many: they are blunt; in a world of absolutes, they are nuanced; they manage to live in the tensions between the prophetic and the pragmatic, the intellectually demanding and the emotionally stirring; they also have a commitment to the larger Catholic institutional structures, while finding its thinking exasperating due to a deep identification and solidarity with those with whom they minister and share life. And, they keep producing – books, articles, projects, homilies, social justice initiatives, the launching and restructuring of institutions. The Jesuits are Advent people, as are most of the people who work in their institutions, approaching life, mission and a desire for a more just and humane world with passion, even when there are a blinding array of uncertainties swirling around them.

Ignatius and the Jesuits are not the only people schooled deeply in an Advent spirituality. Elaine Pagels describes her own journey to hope in the midst of forces seeking to squelch every ounce of it, in Why Religion?: A Personal Story. Pagels is one of the most recognized religious historians in the world, known especially for her groundbreaking research in the so-called “gnostic” texts discovered in 1945 at Nag Hammadi, a region of upper Egypt. Pagels books have reshaped modern scholarship about biblical texts, particularly her 1979 best-selling text, The Gnostic Gospels, and her popular 2004 book, Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas. Pagels has been accused of New Age thinking, destroying the foundation of Christianity by allowing so-called gnostic writing to raise questions about the Christian biblical canon, undermining religious traditions with her strong feminist agenda, and much more. In her memoir, however, she describes a serious seeker, with enormous curiosity and emotional attentiveness on a complex and convoluted journey of faith that keeps resurrecting in hope from the challenges and crushing disappointments of life. It all sounds terribly “Jesuitity.”

Pagels book documents her religiously neutral, if not hostile, a family of origin, her dramatic evangelical conversion at a Billy Graham Crusade as a 15-year-old girl, the loss of her first boyfriend, Paul, in a tragic automobile accident, and her eventual rejection of simplistic evangelical responses to pain and tragedy. She shares her experiences of sexual assault and gender bias as a graduate student, falling in love with her husband, Heinz, and their devastating loss of their first born child at six years of age to a congenital heart condition followed a year later by the death of Heinz in a climbing accident. Throughout the experiences, she uses her scholarship, openness to religious experience, and reflection on those experiences as vehicles for climbing slowly back to joy, meaning, and purpose. As a good Jesuit, she keeps producing, keeps trying to change the world, one step at a time, passionate, even in her uncertainties.

Toward the end of her book, Pagels provides a poem from an anonymous writer that was found in the Nag Hammadi text. It provides, she says “a feminine voice to the primordial, life-giving energy that brings forth all things.” The Nag Hammadi poet imagines:

   I am the thought that lives in the light.

   I live in everyone and I delve into them all …

   I move in every creature …

   I am the invisible one in all beings …

   I am a voice speaking softly …

   I am the real voice … the voice from the invisible thought …

   It is a mystery .. I cry out in everyone …

   I hid myself in everyone, and revealed myself within them,

   and every mind seeking me longs for me …

   I am she who gradually brought forth everything …

   I am the image of the invisible spirit …

   The mother, the light … the virgin .. the womb, and the voice …

   I put breath within all beings.

The poem resonates with the commitment to the resurrection of hope that it at the heart of the Advent season, the belief that there is something in all of us that can stir us to co-creating a different kind of world. Its’ feminine imagery is also significant. The season’s primary focus is the pregnant teenage girl, Mary, the mother of Jesus, and many of the symbols are often feminine. Advent believes that we can birth hope in the world, despite the appearance of things. It celebrates our unquenchable thirst for a better world, our refusal to believe that it will be forever denied, and our willingness to overcome all hurdles that get in the way of its realization.

The world needs an Advent as much as Christians do. Wanna survive the storm? You might want to brush up your Jesuit.

Breaking Free of Our Angry Land of Make-Believe: A 2019 Resolution

January 2, 2019

Welcome to 2019 and the promise and peril awaiting us over the next year. There is a tradition of making New Year Resolutions, a practice dating back 4,000 years to the Babylonians, that has evolved into an opportunity to make the most of the promise in a new year by trying to create new habits of thought and action, or to break old ones. This year, maybe one of the most helpful resolutions we can make is to spend time reflecting on the deeper forces that have driven our nation to its current dysfunctionality and pledge to resist those forces.

A good starting point for such a reflecting on those forces is Charles Duhigg’s article in the 2019 issue of The Atlantic, “Why Are We So Angry?: The Untold Story of How We All Got So Mad at One Another.” His article is built on the pioneering 1977 research of James Averill, a psychologist who took an interest in the positive attributes of anger, at a time in which most psychologists believed anger was a primitive emotion from our evolutionary past with no real benefits.

Averill found that anger is more gift than curse. It makes us feel powerful over our challenges, helps us solve problems, opens space for more honest conversation with people who have shut us out or not taken us seriously, and makes us more willing to accommodate others. Anger changes how we relate to one another. Averill set in motion a fascination with the emotion of anger, and a mere fifteen years later scholars published 25,000 studies on the subject in a single year. Even neuroscientists have gotten into the exploration, finding our brains on anger look a lot like our brains on happiness. It seems many of us get a buzz off our anger.

But, Duhigg’s article also reflects on the limitation of anger. Ordinary anger, Averill’s original research interest, can shift under the right circumstances into another mode of “moral indignation,” which can become a “powerful force for good.” The 20th century had iconic figures representing this form of righteous anger. Many of the most influential mixed their rage with a little religious belief, practice, and the connections and social networks of faith communities. Although Duhigg could have used Harriet Tubman, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Jr., or host of others as a case study, he references the moral outrage of Cesar Chavez, who founded the National Farm Workers Association in 1962 as an organizing structure to win rights for the overlooked farm workers in California. Chavez was unconventional in his approach to workers’ rights, and the AFL-CIO farm worker organizers even considered his protest strategies distasteful, often looking too much like “religious crusades,” particularly his 300-mile protest march in 1966, which arrived at the state capitol in Sacramento on Easter Sunday with a crowd of more than 10,000 in attendance.

Chavez and his comrades channeled their anger for positive social and political change, in part by grounding the emotion in the people’s (and their own) religious symbols, concepts, and sentiments. But, if moral indignation persists and people with righteous rage do not believe their anger is facilitating changes in heart and structures, Duhigg contends, the emotion can turn into a rancid, third mode “a desire for revenge against our enemies that privileges inflicting punishment overreaching accord.” The Atlantic writer believes much of American culture is now far down this pathway, aided and abetted by what he calls “the new anger merchants,” who are more interested in manipulating the emotion for profit than using it to foster change. Television, radio shows, print outlets, and many Internet platforms are masters in merchandising anger, but there are also many other traders in the industry. Everything from bill collectors to social media designers have figured out ways to make money off of our rage, and they are making lots of it!

Since the United States and much of the world is stalled in the third mode of anger, Duhigg’s article reminds us of the importance of reflecting regularly on the causes and expressions of anger, not just in others and our culture, but in us, too. And, it is a hopeful sign that this is happening. The linguistics research tool, Google Books N-Gram, which is a database of millions of digitally copied in libraries, shows that publications using the word “anger” between 1960 and 2008 have increased dramatically and reached an all-time high.

Google Books Ngram Viewer: Search=anger between 1960 and 2008 

Yet, for all the research and discussions about the dynamics of anger over the past half century, how it grows, mutates, and comes to control, it appears something is driving this emotion from fruitful resource to destructive cancer.

There are lots of theories concerning why this is happening, but I think one of the most overlooked influences is the growing gap between what we hope from life and what we actually experience. For too many educated, hard-working people, who delayed gratification on their dreams and played by the rules, life has not delivered what they expected. This is one of the unexpected takeaways from Kurt Andersen’s, Fantasyland, How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History. Andersen’s primary motivation for the book is to understand how we got to this era of fake news, alternate facts, and post-truth; however, if you approach the text from a certain perspective, his research has a lot to say about our national problem with anger.

Andersen tracks the enterprising American efforts over five centuries to create amusements, miracle products and services, half-baked ideas that seemed fully cooked, and an assortment of “fantasies” for the American public. Beginning in the mid-19th century, new technologies that seemed to the general public to work like magic, helped to create an environment of almost unlimited possibility. This made it easier for highly skilled sales personalities to pedal fantastical devices, creatures, experiences, or miracle products, and establish the foundation for an “unstoppable fantasy-industrial complex,” an entire series of industries devoted to presenting make-believe as reality.

In just one area, home health remedies, for instance, Americans in the mid-19th century may have had any of the following on their holiday gift list: Hamlin’s Wizard Oil, Dr. Dix’s Tonic Tablets, Dr. Worden’s Female Pills for Weak Women, or a miraculous cure for asthma, diabetes, epilepsy, and cancer promised to buyers who wore the magical, Electro-Chemical Ring. At the same time, the U.S. was launching new industries like advertising and mass communication, which provided a new opportunity to present make-believe increasingly as reality, and on a national scale. Transportation breakthroughs, like the railroad, for instance, made unrealistic dreams of becoming rich and famous not only more plausible but also potentially a culture movement. The most famous example is the California Gold Rush, which brought 300,000 Americans west between 1849-1850. They came in search of an easy fortune that required nothing more than pluck, luck and a tin pan to sift rocks in a riverbed. Andersen provides a host of contemporary examples of fantasyland, such as sports fantasy teams, video games, fantasy camps, theme parks and make-believe narratives that in addition to the many entertainment industries, indirectly propose a meaning-making map for people’s lives – allowing them to live more happily and with more fulfillment – even if it isn’t entirely in the real world.

Over the centuries, Andersen posits, American culture has become addicted to living larger and larger amounts of our waking hours in fantasy distractions. Entertainment became a centerpiece of most American lives more than 40 years ago, becoming so pervasive that Neil Postman wrote a 1985 book with a disturbing title: Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. But, perhaps the most toxic element of our penchant for fantasy has been our vulnerability to conspiracy theories of all shapes and sizes that connect dots that aren’t really connected. The most destructive conspiracies are those that create make other people into “monsters” to blame and kill. Whether the monsters are northerners or southerners, Catholics, Jews, blacks, immigrants, or anyone who looked or acted a little different, the strategy is the same: dehumanize the person with a fantasy narrative. Over half a millennium, Andersen contends, we have been marinating in make-believe. If Duhigg wants to warn us about the effect the merchants of rage are having on us, Andersen is interested in signaling the same about the merchants of make-believe.

Andersen’s book has challenges. Growing up in a secular household, he does not understand the complexity of religion, yet portrays religions, particularly the “individualistic” emphasis in American Protestantism, as the industry trade leader in make-believe and the fantasy producer that laid the template for all of Fantasyland. But, he does see clearly the fundamental role of make-believe in American lives and posits a troubling thought that we have gradually lost our ability to discern between what is real and what is not.

“In Fantasyland, it’s hard for people to know where and when to draw lines or impost limits,” Andersen says. We know some of the goods, services, experiences, and visions of life coming from Fantasyland sources are make-believe, while others are partially mixed with real-world elements. But, we often “lose track, get immersed, become confused,” and the “large zone of fictions (in between fact and fantasy) that we probably know are make-believe” can sometimes feel more real than reality.

And, here is where we get insight into our situation today. If Andersen is correct and our culture’s obsession with fantasy has corroded all of our abilities to discern fact from fiction, his research begs an important question: 

What do most Americans do with dissonance that occurs when our Realland has too much friction with our Fantasyland? 

Well, for one thing, many of us get angry. Life is not what it should be (although that expectation has been so subtly formed in us by the culture of fantasies, as Andersen notes, that we don’t recall where real and make-believe begins and ends). In our anger, we become more vulnerable to Duhigg’s manipulative anger merchants, who are always ready to suggest who is to blame. And, we become more susceptible to other merchants of make-believe, who offer us that something more the real world seems to deny us.

As Duhigg discovered, anger can have a positive impact on people’s lives, and fantasy can awaken our imaginations and provide us new insights into ourselves and new psychic energy to impact our world for good. But, the merchants of anger or rage and the merchants of make-believe have figured out over 500 years of sharpening their trade how to turn both of these important human dimensions of our life against us.

I would like to propose a new year’s resolution: determine how much we are influenced by this rage-fantasy cultural merry-go-round, and minimize that influence as much as possible. This would require some reflective processes, perhaps as following: 

  1. Make a list of the things that make you the most angry, and the merchants of rage that support your indignation.
  2. Reflect on the Fantasylands that have impacted you.
  3. Write a reflective journal entry on the relationship in your inner world between your anger, and your “go to” make-believe gas stations. Do you see any correlations?
  4. Make a personal resolution that anger and fantasy will work for you in 2019, you will not work for them.

The United States might be the national champion of Angry Make-Believe. But, that doesn’t mean I can’t resolve to weaken the influence merchants of rage and merchants of make-believe have on me by 2020.

Can the Catholic Church Overcome Its Sex Abuse Scandals?

September 1, 2018

American Catholics, and anyone else taking seriously the role of religion and faith in American society, are now processing an intense level of disillusionment, frustration and anger. Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro’s 884-page grand jury report on the sexual abuse of more than 1,000 youth by as many as 300 Catholic clergy is so troubling that it is difficult to find appropriate words to describe it. The document does not have new material for those who have followed the clergy abuse situation in the Catholic Church since it first emerged in Louisiana in 1985. But, the Shapiro report strings together decades of lurid details on how priests identified, “groomed” and marked the most vulnerable youth; and it provides a stream of nauseating descriptions of sexual abuse over more than 70-years. What is more difficult is the revelation of a “playbook for concealing the truth” used by some Catholic leaders to hide abusive clerical behaviors from the public, as well as strategies for recirculating the perpetrators into other congregations, institutions, or regions of the nation. Collectively, the report offers a narrative that is overwhelmingly dark in its inclusiveness.

Sadly, the situation in Pennsylvania is even worse. The grand jury’s findings include only six of the eight dioceses (or Catholic geographical regions) in the state, a fact missed by most news reports. The Archdiocese of Philadelphia and Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, which are home to 1,598,000 of the state’s 3.2 million Catholics, are not included in this latest chapter in the scandal. Those two dioceses issued their own reports in 2011 and 2016, and their investigations raise the total number of youth impacted considerably, while bringing the number of sexual predators (more than 37 in Philadelphia, and at least 50 in Altoona-Johnstown) to nearly 400! It is worthy of note that only two of the 300-plus priests identified by the grand jury in Pennsylvania have been engaged in reprehensible behaviors over the past ten years. Most of this report is old news.

But, as if the Catholic Church could not look worse, in late July reports started circulating about a history of serial abuse of young seminarians by former Archbishop Theodore McCarrick, who led the Archdiocese of Washington DC from 2001-2006. Although it appears that some prominently placed church leaders knew about these behaviors, Pope St. John Paul II still made McCarrick a Cardinal in 2001, giving him, among other things, voting rights for future popes. Amidst this revelation, a former high-ranking Vatican diplomat, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, someone who does not like the current pontiff of the Catholic Church, accused Pope Francis in a blistering 7,000-word letter of knowing about this abusive behavior and ignoring it. And, while this occurred, other stories started circulating from scandals in Chile and Honduras. 

The Man Who Took On Pope Francis: The Story Behind the Viganò Letter


Good Lord! What is the proper response to something so horrendous that it seems like a cross between Mafia corruption case and a reality television show? What is a Catholic to think and do? A Christian? A person of any faith? Any person of good will? Is there a way for a leader in the Catholic community or anywhere else to meaningfully respond to three decades of abuse and cover up and promises of action that have proven woefully inadequate?

Some Catholic bishops are writing private or public letters to their clergy and congregants, mostly expressing shame and guilt, the church’s need for repentance and renewed vigilance in protecting the safety of youth and all people who are vulnerable. These letters remind readers that the church has instituted safeguards for children, but needs to follow them more rigorously. The Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People is an aggressive series of policies instituted by the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops (USCCB) in 2002 and revised in 2005, 2011, and 2018. Meanwhile, Pope Francis released the first papal letter on clerical sexual abuse that is addressed to the entire global Catholic community, rather than just one nation or region struggling with the issue. He, too, admits the failures of the church to protect its most vulnerable members in graphic terms and invites “the entire … People of God to a penitential exercise of prayer and fasting … (a practice designed to) “awaken our conscience and arouse our solidarity and commitment to a culture of care that says ‘never again’ to every form of abuse.” (The Pope references Mark 9:29, a biblical verse in which Jesus tells his disciples that some evil is so entrenched that only prayer can drive it out.) Other leaders with more traditional Catholic orientations have tried to tie the issues of abuse, harassment and cover-ups to their own personal theological agendas, trying for instance, to tie the sexual abuse of young people and episcopal cover-ups to other issues like homosexuality, or alleging a lax theological orientation toward sin in the church that began after Vatican II.

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ of the Diocese of Madison

Quite a few of the people responding to the Pennsylvania report remind readers that there are collateral casualties in the abuse scandal: the tarnished reputations of the majority of good, hard-working priests. This is certainly true. A 2004 Catholic Church-commissioned study of the sex abuse crisis through the John Jay College of Criminal Justice found that 4,127 priests between 1960 and 2002 had been accused of conducting sexual abuse allegations. This constitutes 4.3% of the 94,607 priests serving in ministry over that time period (although the number can vacillate between 4% and 6% based on the region).

I have heard several priests express their agony about the recurring revelations of abuse, particularly their feelings of powerlessness in becoming active agents of institutional change. As one priest friend told me: “I know I should do something, but I don’t know what. My position doesn’t allow me to oversee large organizational changes. I can preach about the situation, but when stories keep coming out, how do I assure my community that somebody in the church is making permanent changes? Sometimes I think I feel as helpless and angry as everyone else.”

My friend’s conflicted feelings are common. But, priests are not the only employees of the Catholic Church who are struggling with a sense of their own powerlessness to effect change. Many people working for Catholic institutions have these reactions, and we are talking about a lot of people. According to the Center on Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University, there are 17,722 lay ministers working in the American Catholic church, mostly in congregations and diocesan offices, and an estimated 153,289 professional faculty and staff, almost 75% women, employed in Catholic schools. Tens of thousands more are employed in the 260 Catholic institutions of higher learning, and more than 500,000 full-time and 250,000 part-time employees work in the nation’s 600 Catholic hospitals and 1,600 long-term care and health facilities. Another tens of thousands are employed in Catholic social service organizations, an estimated 60,000 alone in Catholic Charities, the largest private social service agency in the nation.

The majority of these employees have made personal sacrifices to work in Catholic institutions. They have received lower pay and fewer benefits, and have labored longer hours with less job security than other lines of work. Many embraced this sacrifice for themselves and their families because they had been touched by the Catholic Church’s Gospel values, the church’s sacramental worldview, the power of its ritual and spiritual practices, and the role modeling of Catholic women and men throughout history (many of them priests and nuns) who have worked to create a more just and humane world through unbelievable trials and tribulations. To an even greater degree than priests, nearly all of these employees lack the opportunity, the information, or the authority to effect meaningful change in Catholic Church policy and practice. So, they often feel swallowed in disgust, discouragement and anger, a part of the impact of the sexual scandal that is never explored.

In some respects, there is such a dismal picture of the church and its leadership right now that some wonder if the Pennsylvania report is turning a page on the American Catholic Church. Many lifelong Catholics are asking themselves: “Is it time to leave this church?” I know priests who ask this question rhetorically from the pulpit. They hope to name the elephant in the room for many people disillusioned by constant abuse stories.

Surprisingly, after more than 30 years of the Catholic Church wrestling with sex abuse scandals, the size and scale of the Catholic Church’s activities remains unexpectedly large. Why? Because most Catholics have experienced the church as something much more than clergy sex abuse. It is estimated that 68.5 million Catholics are registered in congregations. There are also 2.5 million children in Catholic elementary and middle schools, 603,384 youth in secondary schools, and 764,448 women and men enrolled in Catholic colleges and universities. There are 2.483 million children and 1.2 million adolescents enrolled in parish religious education programs, and Catholic-affiliated hospitals served 90.6 million patients in 2016. Another 8.4 million Americans received some form of assistance from Catholic Charities, with an estimated worth of $3.124 billion in services.

The Shapiro report will not destroy the Catholic Church. But, it just might catalyze a Reformation-level event, one resulting in the kinds of changes in Catholic self-understanding and practice that occurred after the Protestant Reformation. Several Catholic thought leaders are calling for this sea change in thinking and action, and many of them see Catholic laity as the lead agent. Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, the archbishop of Galveston-Houston and the president of the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops (USCCB), believes the scandal represents “grave moral failures of judgment on the part of church leaders,” and proposes that the laity assume a substantial role in analyzing the weaknesses in current practices and helping to create a system characterized by more vigilance. James Martin, SJ, a Jesuit priest and probably the most popular Catholic writer in the U.S., wrote a New York Times Op-Ed entitled, “Virtues of Catholic Anger,” and expressed hope that enough people in the pews will channel their outrage at this disturbing report and demand substantive institutional and structural change in leadership and leadership practices. 

The Virtues of Catholic Anger

“Speak to your pastor,” said Martin, “write to your bishop, express your anger to the Vatican’s nuncio in this country. Most of all, work in any way that you can for real change, even at the cost of being seen as a troublemaker.” Sister Simone Campbell, SSS, the executive director of Network, a social action lobby organization founded by Catholic religious women to promote the values of Catholic social justice in American public policy, has spoken about the need for new organizational models of leadership that include the laity, and especially women.

Sister Simone Campbell: Catholic Sex Abuse Stems from “Monarchy” & Exclusion of Women from Power


Other Catholics have moved already to action. More than 5,000 people, including many theologians and religious leaders, signed their names to a petition calling for all US Catholic bishops to prayerfully consider handing in their resignation to Pope Francis as a collective “public act of repentance and lamentation before God and God’s People.” Rita Ferrone suggests that the causes of sex abuse cover-ups are well known. “It arises,” she says, “from a confluence of factors: the insularity of clerical culture, the willingness of clerics to lie to protect one another, and the corrosion of moral integrity when motives of faith and mission give way to concerns about advancement, power, privilege, and maintaining insider status.” What is needed in the Catholic Church is an operational plan for dismantling these dynamics, she says, and creating oversight structures with authority. This will require, in her mind, the renewal of a “humble, Christ-like sense of mission,” a central feature of the Pope’s letter on the abuse crisis.

How to Respond to the McCarrick Scandal

I think these are all important responses, especially if the vast number of employees in Catholic and Catholic-affiliated institutions can become involved. The suggestions are informed by the theory and practice of organizational development and change, grassroots organizing, and evidenced-based strategies for shifting power dynamics. But, after decades of wrestling with this sordid saga, these strategies alone will not force the church to get its house in order. Catholic leaders need to think about these issues differently.

One of the more interesting theories in this regard comes from Mark Silk, who noticed that a common thread in the Pennsylvania report is the frequency with which church leaders decide to leave children at risk in the name of “trying to avoid scandal.” Silk notes that a desire to avoid publicity does not come primarily from a marketing motivation, an attempt to protect the Catholic “brand” from damage. Rather, the incentive originates from a theological orientation that is rooted in the thought of Thomas Aquinas on the spiritual dangers of scandal to the “faithful.” In Silk’s book, Unsecular Media: Making News of Religion in America, he quotes the Thomistic definition of scandal as “an unrighteous word or deed that occasions the ruin of another. The idea is that sinful activity, if known to others, begets more sin. Part of the work of the devil, the author of sin, is to make it (the sin) known, to scandalize.” This is a theological argument that finds scriptural support in Matthew 18:6, “but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.”

Silk believes that the Catholic Church will never solve the sexual abuse and harassment problem until the church can develop a new “doctrine of scandal,” It is more accurate to speak of the need for a deeper “theology of scandal,” a reflective way of thinking about and articulating the values that guide a Catholic leader’s response to something potentially scandalous. But, I don’t think a new theology of scandal is sufficient. Inadequate theologies have perpetuated this chronic sex abuse situation. The church needs new theologies of gender, sexuality, ordination, authority, ecclesiology (the nature of what a church is and does), and a half dozen other issues. Catholic theologians have been working on the development of such theologies, but they have largely pursued their research agendas without the participation of Catholic clergy, particularly bishops. Like family members who disagree, they have all avoided each other.

If the Catholic Church is ever going to find an exit ramp to the revolving door of sex abuse and harassment scandals, it is going to need an honest, fully engaged conversation that has bishops, theologians and laity, especially the large number of laity working in the church’s many ministries and institutions. If the church can arrange such a conversation, it will have the added challenge that most of the people at the table are going to come angry. But, that’s okay if they can follow Aristotle’s five-fold advice for effective channeling of anger, in his classic work, The Art of Rhetoric. Make sure you are angry with the right people; you are angry in the right degree, and at the right time; and you express the anger in the right way. Catholics can already fulfill the Greek philosopher’s fifth criteria: make sure you are angry for the right purpose.

Why I’m a Person of Faith Despite … Well … People of Faith

July 31, 2018

Periodically, someone asks me what I do for a living. When I tell them I’m the dean of a School of Theology and Ministry, more than a few take a reflex step backward as if they are standing too close to an infectious organism. A smaller number respond with the smirk of encountering a quaint novelty in an antique shop, wondering perhaps how such anachronistic things could still interest anyone. Perhaps most people, however, change the subject, pretend I didn’t answer their question or they didn’t ask it, or nod awkwardly and walk away. As a former journalist who learned to peer deeply and honestly into the dark side of life, I understand their reactions.

For several decades, foes of religion, like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett (the so-called “Four Horsemen of Atheism”), or comedians like Bill Maher, have made a cottage industry out of pointing out the inconsistencies of religious believers and their organizations. They would make you think that all people of faith (or at least the vast majority) are self-righteous, narrow-minded, hard-hearted, uninformed, and science denying, with a propensity toward shunning – or even acting violently – against those who think differently than they do.

Of course, it is no great insight that people of faith have acted badly. Over the centuries, religious believers and their organizations have been complicit in some of the worst behaviors of human history: masterminding the Crusades and Inquisition, supporting slavery and oppression, creating terrorist organizations (of which ISIS is just the most recent example), or turning a blind eye to the vile behaviors of their members. It is undeniable that people of faith, and the institutions they create, can act as poorly as anyone else. Throughout history and into the present, some of the “faithful” have demonstrated self-serving, unethical and blatantly hypocritical behaviors; they have displayed obscene levels of bigotry and hatefulness; they have ignored human suffering, and supported leaders and policies that exacerbated the pain of others. People of faith have twisted the truth, manipulated facts to their benefit or the advantage of their institutions; they have engaged in convoluted reasoning to demonstrate that religious belief and spiritual principles support actions and positions that are diametrically opposed to the fundamental principles of their faith tradition.

At the same time, modern culture has made an art form out of scrambling religious ideas and images of faith with zero-sum political and cultural agendas. For instance, cultural warrior Sean Hannity, who regularly divides Americans into sheep and goats as part of his schtick, closes his show with the words, “let your heart not be troubled,” a reference to the Christian scripture passage in which Jesus promises his disciples that he will prepare mansions for them in heaven (John 14:1). Meanwhile, an equally divisive pundit, Laura Ingraham, proudly identifies herself as Catholic and wears a prominently displayed gold crucifix as a necklace, an iconographic religious subtext to her positions and remarks (although she often holds positions that are opposed to official Catholic teachings on faith and morals).

As surveys have shown larger segments of the U.S. population distancing themselves from religion, or at least religious institutions, I have found myself reflecting more seriously about the factors that allowed me to remain a person of faith, a Christian, and a Catholic, despite the things people have done and continue to do under the guise of faith.

Such reflection has made me more aware that one of the factors is the witness of the Communion of Saints, a kind of spiritual All-Star list of women and men who appropriated aspects of the religious heritage so thoroughly that they became a beacon for what faith is and why it matters. In the Catholic tradition, we “beautify” and/or “canonize” some of these All-Stars, elevating their status to “saint” with a capital, “S.” They are held up as role models of living one or more aspects of our faith tradition.

The most powerful members of the Communion of Saints, however, are usually found in the people living alongside us, who may never become big “S” saints. These ordinary people quietly model the best behaviors and attitudes of our faith traditions, challenging us to become better people, to seek to develop our “being” in the world as much as our “doing,” to recognize that life is a deadly serious affair that we should never squander. One such saint for me, and one of the reasons I am still a person of faith, a Christian and a Catholic, just passed away at the age of 96 – Raymond Hunthausen, the leader of the Archdiocese of Seattle from 1975 to 1991.

During his tenure in Seattle, Archbishop Hunthausen became known for his outspoken support of the church’s mission to care and empower the poor and marginalized, the importance of preparing lay women and men for ministry, treating women with equality, defending the rights of the LGBTQ community, and building bridges across various forms of difference, particularly between Christians. Hunthausen also became an international lightning rod for protesting nuclear weapons and the arms race during the Reagan Administration and became a controversial person with many at the Vatican, eventually having his leadership here challenged. Several obituaries and tributes have been already written by people who knew him well. Two of the most thorough are found in the obituary by the National Catholic Reporter, and a tribute by Father Michael Ryan, a co-worker with the archbishop during the most controversial years of his leadership of the Archdiocese of Seattle.

Archbishop Hunthausen was a man of prayer, a man of God

Archbishop Hunthausen left a long shadow on my school. Most noticeably, we are located in Hunthausen Hall, a perfect name for a school founded as “intentionally ecumenical” in 1997. Our curriculum also carries his passions for faith-motivated social justice, living faith authentically, and balancing the ideal of a religious tradition with the messy incompleteness of real life.

I met Archbishop Hunthausen once, ironically during an installation ceremony for my current position. While living in the Midwest in the 1980s, I had heard many people talk about him, some loving his outspoken prophetic edge, others thinking he had discredited and shamed Catholicism by aligning it too closely to left-wing politics. I didn’t realize how much those discussions had influenced my perception of Raymond Hunthausen, the person until I sat down next to him at a lunch. Several minutes into my discussion with him I realized I expected a fiery Che Guevara, someone burning with the compulsion to convince others of a particular political agenda. Instead, I had a pleasant conversation with a kind and gentle man with an amazing ability to connect deeply with other humans at the fundamental level of their shared humanity. I met someone who radiated goodness, patience and a non-reactive confidence and centeredness that had no need of becoming the center of attention or proving anything to anyone, but rather lived fully in the moment and completely with those in his presence. I met a person who demonstrated joyfulness, peacefulness, and love for others, in what he said, and particularly in how he said it.

During the meal, I asked him when he planned on publishing his memoir and he told me that he had no intention of telling his side of the story, although many influential Catholics in the United States urged him to do so. His reason: “The church received enough of a black eye from those years. A book would stir it up again and even make the church look worse.” This man had too much self-control to feel the need to defend himself, and he didn’t want the church he loved distracted from its obligation to focus on its real work – striving to contribute to building a more just and humane world.

The characteristics Raymond Hunthausen embodied are often called the fruits of the Spirit, as articulated in Galatians 5:22-23. This fellow did faith right. He was the kind of individual giving religion a good name; the person of faith that rises from the ashes of the religiously complicit dysfunction of every generation and models the positive and powerful impact that religious faith, properly understood and authentically engaged, can have in shaping and forming the human mind and heart. The mature sort of person who can bring life from death, hope from despair, understanding, and healing from painful wounds. The archbishop is the person of faith imagined in Psalm 84 – someone who allows his heart to become a highway to the Divine, offering a human bridge to an encounter with God. Carrying in their personhood the capacity to walk through valleys of weeping, destruction, and desolation and turn these canyons into places of springs and refreshment.

So why would anyone want to identify with a religious tradition, to remain a person of faith, given the hideous things done in the name of religion? Because the bad stuff is only part of the story and the least interesting parts. People of faith like Raymond Hunthausen reflect the best behaviors and ideals of the human soul. Over the centuries they broke ground on the first universities; pioneered the wondrous mystery of creation with the scientific method; provided protection for those with developmental and physical limitations; created helping professions like social work, nursing, education, and counseling; advocated for the mandatory education of children; and challenged societal mistreatment of immigrants and refugees. They took the lead in abolition movements, the creation of child labor laws, and anti-trust legislation. They challenged the use of violence to solve problems, and opened lines of communication between enemies in pursuit of forgiveness and reconciliation. And, they did so, like Hunthausen while also debating and arguing with other people in their faith communities, refusing to break communion because they knew that the world only solves its most intractable problems when we tackle them as one people, as a community united in our diversity.

One of the reasons I’m still a person of faith, a Christian and a Catholic is because of the remarkable saints I have known throughout my life. People like Raymond Hunthausen. People of faith who laid down their lives for others everyday, fought the good fight over short and long lives, and never wavered in their desire to draw the best from themselves and those around them. Women and men of faith who most of all never needed anyone to take notice of their sacrifices, their faithfulness or their contributions.

Thankfully, some of us did. And, that’s one of the reasons we are people of faith.

The “Bubbles” Giving Us “Fake News”

June 30, 2018

Most of us in the United States live in a bubble of comfortable ideas, concepts, and familiar faces and experiences. In and of itself, this is no great insight. Sociologists refer to people’s pattern of seeking out similarities in mates, friends, peer groups, professions, and neighborhoods, as “homophily,” the tendency to cluster around beliefs, values, attitudes, political preferences or socio-economic status. This tendency is particularly true in the United States. As Derek Thompson describes the social networks of our nation’s 326 million people: “America is bubbles, all the way down.”

Gravitating to people who are like us is not necessarily bad. But, the membranes of our bubbles are becoming thicker and coarser and a nastiness, rampant demonization and intolerance of others is starting to seep from our comfy bubbles of sameness. From cursing at White House staff and kicking them out of restaurants, to U.S. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein getting attacked by Republican Congressional leaders at hearings on the Russian probe to the Attorney General Jeff Sessions ridiculing of people who are appalled at the idea of separating children and parents on the border, America is re-entering a phase of political and social mean-spiritedness that some are comparing to the pre-Civil War era. There are lots of causes for this behavior in today’s world. But, it seems the root motivation for much of the invective is the overly confident understanding of the world that comes from bubble living. In that smug view of the world, people in other bubbles are: a. uniformed; b. misguided; c. invincibly ignorant; d. evil; or e. all of the above. Alas, nothing is that easy.

“To know” what to do about issues related to our common good is a complex process. To know with complete certainty is even more demanding. Any thoughtful person with knowledge of how social, economic and political change actually occurs in the world is aware of this deep, frustrating, and unsatisfying human limitation. But, in the comfort of our own bubble, we can convince ourselves that we know a lot more than we do. That should bother us all. It certainly concerned Hans Rosling, a global health expert who tried to explain the reality of the world to some of the world’s smartest people, and almost always failed. In Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World – and Why Things are Better Than You Think, Rosling, a big data expert, says: “Everyone seems to get the world devastatingly wrong … Every group of people I ask thinks the world is more frightening, more violent, and more hopeless – in short, more dramatic – than it really is.”

Rosling has a hopeful message for our unsettling times. But, he identifies a human dynamic that is part of our problem right now. He found that even among the smartest people, “facts” have a difficult time penetrating, impacting, and changing our worldviews. In other words, data is increasingly less likely to convince us of anything we don’t already believe. There is a troubling by-product of these fact-free zones – the line between fact and fiction is getting so blurred that we can believe easily the absolute worst about people living in other bubbles. This provides the ideal environment for our new era of “Fake News,” which began as an entertainment industry that concocted information and wild interpretations of data and events, and has morphed into an alternative news source and “proof” of the evil motivations driving the behavior of others.

The first use of the term Fake News occurred in 2016 when Craig Silverman at BuzzFeed noticed a constant stream of fabricated stories coming from the Balkans. Silverman found a cluster of news websites from Veles, Macedonia, and tracked the news “producers” to tech-savvy Macedonian teenagers seeking to make quick money by placing outrageous storylines on social media platforms. Silverman identified at least 140 fake websites, many drawing almost a million engagements.

The term, “Fake News,” is now omnipresent, drawing almost 7.5 million sites in a Google search. It is a force of distortion even in the developing world, especially in regards to issues dealing with health, religion, and society, and has become a serious topic of academic research. In early 2018, Princeton, Dartmouth, and the University of Exeter released the first fake news study and found that 25% of Americans visited a fake news website in a six-week timeframe during the 2016 fall election.

Selective Exposure to Misinformation: Evidence from the consumption of fake news during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign

There are now many studies of techniques of misinformation, including one examining the manipulation of Youtube videos with machine learning and facial recognition technology, which makes it possible to create the illusion that someone said something they did not. No one is immune from this manipulation of current events. Researchers have found that Fake News is just as alluring to liberals as it is conservatives. We are all learning to assume the worst about the other.

Fake News, of course, is not the disease; it is a symptom. In a recent commencement speech at Rice University, Michael Bloomberg suggested the greatest threat to democracy is our current “epidemic of dishonesty.” But, as the BBC News has noted, “misinformation, spin, lies and deceit” have always existed in journalism and politics. What is new is the “unique marriage between social media algorithms, advertising systems, (and) people prepared to make stuff up to earn some easy cash.”

The (almost) complete history of ‘fake news’

The real disease beneath the Fake News is that the mixture of the dark side of human nature with technology is precipitating a rapid loss in our ability to identify a common truth about the important things in our shared life.

Our need to find truths that offer a common set of values and virtues is just as natural as our bubbles. All religions, political and economic systems, as well as all societies and cultures, believe in knowable truths through which diverse people can build a common life. The second sentence of the Declaration of Independence begins with a simple assertion, “we hold these truths,” and goes on to articulate three “unalienable” rights: all humans have the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. When these three seeds are planted in good cultural soil and allowed to grow, the Founders believed, they would give birth to a better kind of world, as long as every generation committed itself to operationalizing the rights in the context of their period of history. Although the signers of the Declaration disagreed fiercely about many things, they found common ground in these rights, which they considered obvious, unquestionable, undeniable, or as they put it, “self-evident.” The disease of our time is that we are finding it increasingly impossible to find such self-evident truths.

It seems there is no longer a truth, but merely my truth. The Oxford Dictionary recognized this ethical shift in declaring “post-truth” the 2016 word of the year, defining it as: the state of affairs when “objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion that appeals to emotion and personal belief.” The “facts” in our bubbles are driven by our feelings, increasingly undisturbed by the messiness of data that might question our conclusions. It seems more and more of us think that my truth should be obvious to everyone and should hold no tensions.

But, truth has always known better. It holds tensions that are uncomfortable. As the Brazilian author, Paulo Coelho observed: “Jesus lived a life that was full of joy and contradictions and fights, you know? If they were to paint a picture of Jesus without contradictions, the gospels would be fake, but the contradictions are a sign of authenticity.” Coelho captures a truth about truth – it is not captured in simple formulas and bumper sticker philosophy, theology or public policy. In her own pithy way, Ann Lamott, captures the same thought in a TED talk entitled, “12 Things I Know for Sure.” Says Lamott: “Life is a precious unfathomably beautiful gift … filled with heartbreaking sweetness and beauty, floods and babies and acne and Mozart, all swirled together.”

12 things I know for sure: Anne Lamott speaks at TED2017

Truth in the real world is found in a blender, not a neatly organized sock drawer. Universities are built on an ancient tradition of keeping the tensions of truth in constant dialogue and debate, but even they are becoming less and less tolerant of the competing worldviews represented in our bubbles, as you can see by reading any edition of the Chronicles of Higher Education.

Social media did not create the truth-destroying Fake News; it only enabled it. Our desire to have truth without tension is the real cause. If we want to build a common bond for a common good, we will need to find formational and educational experiences that shape us to live in the tensions of truth-seeking. Good theological and ministry education excels in this area, lowering our tribal boundaries, and helping us to appreciate and seek out uncomfortable truths. Such an education “thickens our skin” to differences and allows us to become masters of our emotional reactions to otherness. Placing faith and spirituality at the center of the educational experiences allow us to “thicken our skin” without diluting our empathy, softening our moral sensibilities, or dulling our capacity to recognize the dark side of our own interiority and personality.

Fake News feeds on the illusion that the world will get better by displaying the corrupt motives, sloppy thinking and misguided values of others. It assumes that human growth, development, and evolution will begin first by enlightening or silencing the folks in other bubbles. But, finding the truth is much harder. It is found first within ourselves by breaking through the bubbles that create comfy places of affirmation for our worldview and pushing through emotional buffers that prevent us from understanding the worldviews in other bubbles. When we understand why certain stories, images, and reasoning processes speak to others, even though they do the opposite to us, true dialogue and debate become possible. In a democracy, these are the real change agents in troubled historical periods. So, even as the membranes in the bubbles around us thicken, let’s hope and pray enough bubble poppers and bubble crossers arise in our midst to help us re-discover a common truth that seeks a truly common good.

Rocking the Royals With the Power of Love

May 31, 2018

The Royal Wedding between Prince Henry and American actress, Meghan Markle, is over. The pageantry is completed; the ladies’ hats returned to their boxes, and the horses from the drawn carriages secure in their stables. Thankfully, U.S. announcers have silenced their kitschy attempts at British sayings, like “a spot of tea,” “cheerio,” or “tally-ho,” with fake British accents. Unexpectedly, it appears the deepest post-wedding memory for the globe is less the afterglow of a happy couple holding hands and more the sermon of an African-American minister who took many by surprise with a barn-storming message about the power of love. 

Watch Rev. Michael Curry from North Carolina give a powerful sermon at the wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle

Bishop Michael Curry became the 27th bishop and primate of the Episcopal Church in 2015, and the first African-American to hold the position. Much of the world did not know Curry. But, they do now. NBC called his message at the Royal Wedding the “sermon heard around the world;” ABC labeled it “soul-stirring;” and, CNN predicted it would become “star-making.” Entertainment Tonight said it “stole the show,” while Today decreed it the “most tweeted moment of the wedding.” Even the magazine Teen Vogue weighed in, posting a series of reader gifs, including one entitled “Bishop Curry Leaving the Building,” which shows an energetic African American preacher, with Bible in hand, running across a sanctuary, morphing into a fighter jet and flying into the sky.

Bishop Michael Curry leaving the building!

The reactions internationally are just as praiseworthy. Diana Evans, of The Guardian, said she believes the sermon at the wedding will become a historic landmark for preaching.

For any of us hoping for a more just and humane world, it is instructional to watch the world’s reaction to Bishop Michael Curry’s 14-minute sermon. Although most of the preaching at weddings are reflections on romantic love, Curry brought slavery, world hunger, poverty, critiques of capitalism, and war into an upbeat presentation of the power of love to refashion our “tired old” world. His message and delivery is not all that unique, and occurs in many places of worship every week, although the reaction to it might make us think otherwise. So, why this outsized reaction? Clearly, Curry addressed something many of us needed to hear.

For those familiar with the American preaching tradition of the black church, the bishop struck familiar chords from the black church experience and black liberation theology, masterfully blending metaphor, story, image, humor, and keen insight on the emotional reactions to common human experiences. He delivered the message with a distinctive rhythmic and rhetorical cadence and a heartfelt connection to the congregation that collectively Rev. Otis Moss III has called “blue note preaching.” Perhaps this appealed to so many because we need such preaching.

In his book, Blue Note Preaching in a Post-Soul World: Finding Hope in an Age of Despair, Moss defines this distinctive form of communication a combination of the “moan” of the blues with the “shout of the gospel.” Moss explains such preaching grew from the black experience of gazing through the window of the American project of democracy, yearning and weeping “on the other side of the windowpane” for “gifts” like “freedom,” “free agency,” “autonomy,” and “humanity.” Blue Note preaching renames an “existential darkness; it is a way of seeing, a strategy of knowing, and a technique to empower.”

Moss names such preaching after a famous music production label and jazz club in New York City, and describes it as a distinct way of celebrating an easily overlooked reality: many of the ashes in our world were once a beautiful bouquet, and there is a kind of beauty even in the ashes themselves, just as blues music is designed to speak of the struggles and heartaches of life with such an energizing rhythm and beat that those listening want to tap their feet even though they are listening to lyrics of pain, suffering, defeat, and discouragement. Blue Note preaching leads us to an experience of empowerment and joy without asking us to deny anything about the difficulties we are facing. Counterintuitively, a deeper embrace of the harshness of our existential experience can help us discover a new strength within us to not only endure but to rise above the toughest challenges in life.

Blue Note preaching believes that ultimately right will beat might; good will vanquish evil; truth will win out over lies, and the meek shall inherit the earth. But, it also recognizes this is an interminably slow process, often leading to crushing setbacks that can test our faith. Tim Hansel, an athlete and motivational speaker who had a climbing accident at a young age and lived every day in excruciating, chronic pain, captured the mystery of this gritty, eyes wide open, reality-based yet infinitely hopeful long-term view of life in the title of his 1985 book, You Gotta Keep Dancin’. His book describes how he lived meaningfully, joyfully and hopefully not only despite the pain but sometimes because of it.

The tradition of Blue Note preaching helped the African-American population endure the pain of 258 years of slavery (1619-1877), 87 years of Jim Crow laws (1877-1964), and 54 years of the rocky and incomplete implementation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which has culminated in the frustration bubbling out in the Black Lives Matter movement. Maybe one of the reason’s Bishop Curry’s sermon captured the attention of so many people is because our world has descended into such turmoil we need some old-fashioned Blue Note Preaching. But, this sermon may have touched so many because of the context and audience of the address, both drenched in historic symbolism.

The wedding occurred in St. George’s Chapel, a part of Windsor Castle, which is a crossroad of idealism and some of the worst examples of human cruelty and privilege. According to an old Celtic legend, King Arthur, the leader of the idyllic and fantastic land of Camelot, once lived at the location. Windsor is also the site of the conferences that led to King John’s signing of the Magna Carta in 1215. This document declares for the first time that everyone lives under the rule of law, even a monarch, and states that all individuals have rights, including the pursuit of justice and the right to a fair trial. It is a founding document of modern democracy, and when King John signed the Magna Carta in the meadow of Runnymede, the towers of Windsor framed the horizon. On the other hand, King Henry VIII completed the roof of St. George’s Chapel, while he using Windsor castle as a prison for a large number of religious and political leaders resisting him, and in 1563, Queen Elizabeth I hid at the castle during the Black Death epidemic, hanging anyone coming to the castle for refugee from the rampant death occurring across the British Isles.

Bishop Curry did his Blue Note preaching on a profoundly meaningful piece of real estate. But, the symbolism is much deeper. Curry is the descendant of slaves and sharecroppers, as is the bride’s mother, Doria Ragland, which means a woman whose ancestors were embondaged, is marrying into Britain’s Royal Family. The same family that once not only supported the slave trade but in many ways defined it. Windsor Castle is a mere 200 miles southeast of Liverpool, England, the city that once made its wealth by building slave ships. It is estimated that 1 ½ million slaves were transported across the Atlantic on 5,000 voyages made with Liverpool ships.

An 18th and 19th-century member of the English aristocracy who would have appreciated the rich symbolism dripping from this wedding is William Wilberforce (1759-1833), a wealthy party boy with little ambition who had a spiritual awakening after he entered Parliament and became the leading voice for the abolishment of slavery. Wilberforce, who received spiritual guidance from John Newton, a former slave trader turned preacher and the author of the song, Amazing Grace, knew the patience, tenacity, and strength of spirit required to make any meaningful change in the world. Wilberforce introduced bills in Parliament to abolish slavery that failed in 1791, 1792, 1793, 1797, 1798, 1799, 1804, and 1805. After years of struggle, the Slave Abolition Act passed in 1833, 28 years before the start of the American Civil War, and a month after Wilberforce died, although he heard it was assured of passing three days before his last breath.

A descendant of slaves preaching at the wedding of a descendant of slaves marrying a prince who is the descendant of a family and political system that profited from slavery makes a great storybook ending. But, of course, Blue Note preaching reminds us that our work at creating a better world is never finished. According to the Global Slavery Index’s 2016 research findings, there are still 45.8 million humans living in slavery across 167 nations. About 58% of those people are found in just five nations: India, China, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Uzbekistan. In addition, Alliance 8.7 estimates that 151.6 million children in the world, ages 5-17, are involved in child labor, with a little less than half working in hazardous jobs, mostly in agriculture. 

Finding the energy and hope to respond to such human suffering is overwhelming, which is one of the reasons we need the wisdom of Blue Note preaching. Otis Moss had a late night encounter with his six-year-old daughter that helped him understand the mystery of this tradition of communication coming from those who once lived in slavery.

During a very challenging and fearful time in his life, when the news media camped out in front of the church and his congregation received more than 100 death threats a week, Moss awoke at 3 a.m. to a strange sound in the house. After looking through different rooms, he found his daughter, Makayla, spinning around in circles in a darkened room. He scolded her and told her to go to bed, but she insisted: “No, look at me, Daddy. Look at me.” Just as he felt a surge of anger at her disobedience, Moss felt as if God was speaking to him through his little girl:

“Look at your daughter!” he imagined God saying to him. “The darkness is around her but not in her. She’s dancing in the dark.”

Moss learned from Makayla what generations of slaves learned through Blue Note preaching; William Wilburforce discovered in a lifelong struggle to change slavery laws, and Tim Hansel found in his struggle with chronic pain: you gotta keep dancin’.

The world does change for those who can internalize the message of Blue Note Preaching and keep dancing in their efforts to create a better world. Despite the millions of children caught in child labor, for instance, the research of Alliance 8.7 estimates the total number has dropped 94 million since 2000! Suffering and chaos are all around us, but so is hope and faith and action.

Perhaps Bishop Michael Curry’s sermon at Windsor Castle attracted so much attention because we all need to remember that no matter how dark it seems, there is a constant in history: the power of love not only can change the world, it still does.

St George’s Chapel / Windsor photo by Cristian Bortes