Raging Against the Night…or Not?

The word is out. Americans are angry. It appears large numbers of the populace ride a roller coaster of rage throughout their day, with a whopping 68% of the population at least once a day reading or hearing something that makes them angry. A recent Esquire-NBC research study, entitled American Rage, studied the many manifestations of anger rippling across our culture, and the study paints a picture of a peevish population. From the outraged crowds attracted to Donald Trump’s stump speeches, to the prickly supporters of Bernie Sanders’ campaign, to the irked activists in the Black Lives Matter movement and the annoyed armed men occupying Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, it seems we are increasingly a nation of angry people.

The study found a spectrum of triggers for the nation’s anger, revealing a fragmented population that is annoyed about a lot of different things. Some Americans are angry about the inactivity of Congress, others the encroachment of government into the marketplace and industries like health care. Another segment of the population directs their ire on corruption on Wall Street, and still others on the role of money in manipulating the political process, while more than half of the nation (52%) is angry that the “American dream” is no longer attainable.

AngryHand.jpgAccording to the study, the magnitude and focus of our anger rises and falls along fault lines of ethnic, racial and gender differences – 73% of whites are angry at least once a day, but only 56% of blacks, and 66% of Latinos. Women are angrier than men—not only by the way they are treated but by the way others are treated just as much. Middle-aged white men are the most angry of all, seeing life “through a veil of disappointment,” and a “perceived disenfranchisement,” a bitter sense that the dream of their life did not pan out because of external factors.

Curiously, there are a few issues that we rally around with a common irritation. One of the larger percentages of Americans (78%) are aggravated by their perception that elected officials enact policies that favor only the wealthy, and an even larger percentage (more than 90%) are outraged that shootings are happening in our schools. As the researchers summarized the study: “We the people are pissed.”

Cone.jpgOver the years, anger has motivated humans to mobilize politically around their dissatisfaction with the conditions of life or those in power. James Cone’s, The God of the Oppressed, explored this righteous anger in relation to centuries of American enslavement and oppression and the African-American community’s struggle for human rights. In The Artistry of Anger: Black and White Women’s Literature in America, 1820-1860, Linda Grasso travels similar ground on women’s issues. She sees anger as an “arsenal” against personal and institutional oppression and believes that anger can elicit courage, growth, and common cause, becoming a profound source of energy that can direct progress and change.

Cone and Grasso are undeniably right. Throughout history angry people have changed societies and cultures by channeling the energy of their rage into constructive engagement with unjust or ineffective social, political and economic systems. In the musical, Les Miserables, composer Claude-Michel Schönberg captured the motivational potential of this affective reaction to injustice. The revolutionary character Enjolras channels the passion of centuries of revolutionaries refusing to yield under the boot of oppression in the song: Do You Hear the People Sing?

Do you hear the people sing?
Singing a song of angry men?
It is the music of a people
Who will not be slaves again!
When the beating of your heart
Echoes the beating of the drums
There is a life about to start
When tomorrow comes!

Because rage has been a part of the human condition from the beginning, the human race has learned a lot over the course of history about emotion, what it can do to us, and how to work with its energy in constructive ways. In a frequently cited psychological study comparing 47 non Indo-Europeans, Hupka, Lenton, and Hutchison found that in most cultures anger is the first emotion humans identify with a label (guilt runs a close second). Whatever else is going on in our inner world, we’ve always been able to recognize anger at work. And, whether you look at the animal and human sacrifices to appease the gods in preliterate societies; Poseidon’s jealous anger at his brother, Zeus; the Roman Furies and their retributive anger toward human arrogance; or the unleashing of God’s wrath on the antichrist in Revelation 16, many of our ancestors have assumed God is just as angry as we are, and about the same things. You still see this assumption operative in contemporary religious circles. After Hurricane Katrina damaged or destroyed hundreds of thousands of homes in New Orleans in 2005, some Christian leaders attributed the devastation to God’s judgment on a sinful nation. Similarly, when an earthquake killed more than 90,000 people in Pakistan the same year, the Pakistani news media blamed the tragedy on Allah’s anger and punishment of sinful behaviors.

But, some people with deep spiritualties have always seen the dark side of this powerful emotion. They recognized that anger is not just a tool of transformative change, and it doesn’t always promote “insight, artistry, and action,” as Grasso documents in regards to the fight for women’s rights. Anger is an emotional labyrinth that can swallow us whole and become corrosive and toxic before we’re aware of it. Throughout history, many humans have expressed their anger with no regulation or consideration of the emotion’s role and power to shape our world. In doing so, they have created the most brutal and hideous chapters of our past. One of the great threats to our age is that unlike the past, in which angry people had a difficult time finding each other, thanks to the Internet, telecommunications and travel technology, those awash in irritation can find each other fairly easy.

BrokenMirror.jpgConsider the chronically angry people around us, and their shared behaviors. Because they can’t regulate the emotion of anger they have a hard time listening, struggle to make important distinctions about complicated realities, and suffer from a deficit in empathy, which inhibits their ability to think in other people’s categories or “feel” the validity of the underlying concerns supporting other people’s opinions. The chronically angry are incarcerated in their thinking and feeling, some serving life sentences. This is one of the reasons such people return to the same talking points over and over again, and their narrow set of issues become superimposed over every situation and conversation. Those with unchecked anger may see a truth in the chaos and disappointment of reality, but they are almost always wrong in their overall diagnosis and prescription for the treatment of problems.

Perhaps the reason so many of us seem content to wallow in our rage is the influence popular culture has had on our values. In the past 50 or 60 years, our culture has often made the angry rebel, even if it is a rebel without a cause, into a kind of folk hero. Anger has become idolized–an end in itself, a last cry of resistance to the “rigged systems” that confine our life. Shouting at the darkness and the rain is not only acceptable, it is the superior response to a meaningless world. Dylan Thomas’s poem becomes a mantra taken out of context: “Do not go gentle into that good night. 
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

Network.jpgThe pervasive role of anger in the Esquire-NBC study is reminiscent of an iconic scene in the film, Network, a post-Nixon era critique of television news.  The aging TV anchorman, Howard Beale, has a nervous breakdown while reporting the evening news, and his brief moment of despair and honesty turns him into the superstar “mad prophet of the airwaves.”   In a famous scene, Beale tells his viewers:

“I don’t want you to protest. I don’t want you to riot. I don’t want you to write to your Congressman, because I wouldn’t know what to tell you to write … all I know is that first, you’ve got to get mad… I want you to get up right now and go to the window, open it, and stick your head out and yell, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!!”

The scene ends with images of people sticking their heads out of their windows all over the country and yelling into the night: “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.”

Sadly, we don’t have the luxury of “not taking it anymore.” Even if we are mad as hell, the world is going to continue to change at the rapid disorienting rate (which is one of the reasons we are so angry). If we’re going to make all of this anger really work for us, we need to reconnect with the kind of wisdom of the ancient power of redemptive anger that has driven all of the most effective social reformers in human history.

These saints, seers, philosophers and gurus caught onto the dark side of anger early. In the first few centuries of the Christian era, for instance, the desert mystics, fighting their inner demons in solitude, came to see the full force of the destructive potential of rage or wrath. By the fourth century anger took a prominent place in the list of the seven deadly sins, and by the time of Dante’s Inferno, anger was a sin that booked passage to the lower levels of hell.

The ancients came to realize by the 5th century that there are contrary virtues that can temper the cardinal sins. In the epic poem, “Battle for the Soul,” Prudentius may have been the first to suggest that patience is the antidote to anger. Patience allows us to not demonize others or their opinions. If gives us the strength to take issues into the messy commons of our shared world to fight out viable solutions to our problems, without allowing anger to suck us into its vortex. Patience helps us cultivate a long view on our life and human history. It assists us in building a suite of other virtues that are essential to world changing behavior: compassion and understanding, but also persistence and long-suffering. The angry people who will shape a new world must learn to channel their psychic energy not only to complain, but to resist withdrawing into a hive of rage with like-minded people. They need to build alliances across meanings systems in order to reform institutions. The angry people who have changed the world for the better were those motivated to change the world in incremental steps.

These angry women and men have moved nations and cultures toward all kinds of good things, and it is little wonder this emotion plays an outsized role in human efforts to understand our inner life and the things that motivate us to change the world around us. But, it remains to be seen if the sea of rage measured in the Esquire-NBC research will lead in the direction of positive social change. The results of the survey poses a troubling question for our moment in American history: Will our national expression of pervasive anger lead us to positive advancements in our common life, or will it drive us to each other’s throats with the cast of angry characters residing in Dante’s fifth level of hell? The cynics would say the latter, and the Esquire study might support them. But, I’m betting on the power of the human spirit to reconnect with the strength and insight of ancient wisdom and the virtue of patience. We’ve risen out of the ashes of our irritation more than once in the past, can we do it again?

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Standing Hopeful in the Tragic Gap

Once more the news is filled with stories of mass murders at the hands of terrorists. In the past few weeks, ISIS claimed responsibility for downing Russian Metrojet flight 9268 in Egypt, the two suicide bombers in Beirut, and six terrorist attacks in Paris.  At least 400 were killed and 352 injured.  Unfortunately, these murders are just the first round of the death and destruction when violence begets violence.  A coalition of nations is already looking to kill the killers–those in ISIS associated with the small group of men initiating the carnage across three countries.  Since any strong military response employing the dropping of bombs is an inexact science, many more innocent people will die in Syria and other targets in the Middle East, though the western press will not report on these figures.  Nor will the media attempt to share the human-interest side of the innocent deceased occurring in a foreign land that is hosting a terrorist organization, as they do so movingly when Americans and Europeans are killed.

As the body count rises, I find myself thinking not about the lives lost in Egypt, France and Lebanon, or the mystery of the making of the terrorist mind, which is necessary to prepare someone to consider acts of unspeakable cruelty.  Rather, I have been asking questions about the collateral damage of these terrorist attacks.  When unintended victims are accidentally killed or injured in military responses, it is customary to refer to them as “collateral damage,” a euphemism that allows people doing a dirty job to feel better about the mistake of killing or wounding the wrong person.  But the full extent of collateral damage is never reported in the media, in part because you cannot really measure it, but also because we don’t like to think about the unintended suffering we create when we allow ourselves to devolve into an “eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth” moral philosophy.

terrorism.jpgThe research on the psychological effects of terrorism on survivors is still in its infancy, but some findings suggest it produces a unique form of Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD).  The malicious and unpredictable nature of terrorism creates a different dynamic for survivors than do other traumatic events.  Low morale and diminished social cohesion can become long-term community effects after an attack, and the effects can linger longer than in other types of trauma. Terrorism also has a unique ability to open up the racial, economic and religious cracks occurring in a society, and can create a perception that specific ethnic, racial or religious groups are the real cause of the terrorism. The FBI, for instance, found that anti-Muslim hate crimes jumped from 28 in 2,000 to 481 in 2001.  Most of these crimes occurred between September 11, 2001 and December 31, 2001, direct results of the attack on the World Trade Center in Manhattan and the Pentagon in Washington DC.  Such xenophobic thinking is already manifesting itself in public policy, more than 30 governors declaring their states will not take Syrian refugees, and the U.S. House of Representatives voting overwhelmingly to close off U.S. borders to people fleeing the chaos of that region of the world. Terrorism also creates long-term adjustment difficulties.

A study in 2002 found that two months after the attack on the World Trade Center 17% of the nation still had symptoms of PTSD.  We don’t really know the true effect of terrorist attacks on survivors and loved ones, but the sad reality is this: every lost life, whether in the Sinai desert, the city of Beirut, the 10th arrondissement of Paris, or an isolated village in Syria near an ISIS encampment, initiates a chain of suffering that reverberates along the connective tissue of extensive networks of humans.  Husbands and wives lose the rich companionship and increased economic stability of a shared life; moms and dads are robbed of the life-altering experience of parenting sons and daughters; children and grandchildren grow up without the unconditional love and identity formation provided by parents or grandparents; sisters, brothers and cousins are denied growing up and growing old with siblings who may annoy them at times, but also provide emotional anchors for an entire life span; and friends and coworkers lose the companions and special confidants that keep life in balance and bring unexpected joy and comfort to the many challenges of daily living in our times.

vigilTo capture the full cost of terrorist attacks and national responses, you need to tally the broken hearts and wounded souls left in the wake of the violence, not just the lifeless corpses.   The survivors of these tragic events can spend much of their remaining life crippled by the memories of their ordeal.  Problems with anger, feelings of insecurity and distrust, survivor guilt and even prejudicial thoughts and feelings about others can magnify.  For those unwilling or unable to seek out professional counseling and psychiatric interventions, it is not hard to imagine that they are likely to seek escape in various forms of addiction, or to live a small life, withdrawing from family and community to live an under-stimulated life that doesn’t stir up the hyper-vigilance that is part and parcel of post-traumatic stress.

Thinking about PTSD feels familiar to me.  In an earlier period of my life, when I worked with youth in a neighborhood with a high crime rate, I experienced a series of traumatic events that gives me empathy for the survivors of terrorist attacks. In a one-year period I was the victim of multiple armed robberies, burglaries, and threats. My background, joined with my youthfulness, made me one of those young adults who thought he was immortal.  But, several months after I stopped living in the neighborhood I started developing PTSD symptoms.  Ironically, the person who made the diagnosis was not my doctor, but a good friend who had served in Special Forces and suffered himself from post-traumatic stress.  When I described the symptoms I was having, he identified them immediately.

Walking through PTSD is a painful and complicated process. Encountering or witnessing a vicious and violent act can rip at the very fabric of our human capacities to build a secure, common life.  Trust, safety, hope in a tomorrow, belief in the inherent goodness of others and the possibility of a shared humanity, despite our differences, are all challenged before the altar of a terrorist-level trauma.  Most of all, such experiences can rob a person of the ability to forgive, rendering their life a hellish ordeal of resentment; an unending personal narrative focused on experiences of unjust loss and real and imagined wounds.  In the process a person’s pain and shattered dreams can become the central feature of a family system or community legacy, making it that much harder for ancestors to learn to surrender to the vulnerability that is necessary for true love and true community.

fenceIn Unfashionable Observations, Friedrich Nietzsche notes that a child plays “between the fences of the past and the future,” and one of the great gifts of childhood is the ability to live in the present, unencumbered by the past, and without worry of the future.  But, the soul wounded by terrorist level wrong has no fence blocking the memories of the past, and it can cloud and overwhelm the present and render the future and its dreams unattainable.  In such cases, humans become a prisoner of the past, and the only way to find liberation is walking down the difficult path of memory.

Elie Wiesel gave a speech in Germany in 1987 on the 50th anniversary of Kristallnacht, the infamous night Germans flooded into the streets to destroy the property of Jews.  The event marked a key turning point in Third Reich’s movement toward implementing the Holocaust.  “We remember Auschwitz,” Weisel said, “and all that it symbolizes because we believe that, in spite of the past and its horrors, the world is worthy of salvation; and salvation, like redemption, can be found only in memory.”

desertWeisel is speaking out of the heart of the Hebrew Scriptures, where memory is a fundamental human ability that God is constantly asking people to exercise.  “Remember that you were a slave in Egypt,” Hebrews are told in the book of Deuteronomy (5:15; 15:15; 16:2, 24:18),” in one of the more curious commandments associated with memory.  Why would it be so important to remember the horrible experience of slavery?  Is it to reconnect with the experience of liberation from slavery?  Or, is its importance to remember the pain of our past and learn from it?  Parker Palmer, a man who found a way to translate a Quaker Christian worldview for a secular audience, would say the latter.

Palmer writes eloquently of “the tragic gap” in human experience.  He defines this gap as the chasm “between the reality of a given situation and an alternative reality we know to be possible because we have experienced it.”  Standing only in the imperfection of reality can lead to a “corrosive cynicism” and chronic anger at the world’s dysfunction; standing only in the possible can lead to a form of “irrelevant idealism,” building castles in the sky that ultimately does nothing to alleviate the pain in the world.  When we cling to our ideals loosely enough to engage reality, it will break our heart.  But, it is standing in that brokenness, in the tragic gap, that actually allows us to grow as human beings.   We can cling to our memories of the mentors we have had, the books, music, films and experiences that have shaped our thinking and feeling that have inspired us and raised our vision and expectation of ourselves and the potential for the world.  This breaks open our hearts, and while it can feel like it will kill us, remaining in the tension allows the God within us to lead us not only to an inner quietude, but also creative paths that will allow us to realize some of our ideals in the world.

It is in the crucible, or as Palmer would say, the cruciform way of living, that we can trust that the tragic gap will break our hearts but not shatter them, and in the process will bring transcendence and transformation to the crosses in our life, with a recurring resurrection of hope and possibility.  Our memories, a carrier of trauma and grace, can build for us a habit of heart and mind that makes us more resilient in the face of the imperfection of the human condition where saints and terrorist cohabitate.

9-11memorialNew York City has a memorial to Palmer’s theory about the cruciform way of life.  The 9/11 Memorial Museum is a poignant reminder of the direct and collateral damage involved in the violent killing of 2,726 people on September 11, 2001.  One section of the museum is a series of high-walled hallways with floor to ceiling pictures of every person killed.  As you walk the halls, soft, recorded voices recite the name of each person with a picture on the wall.  In many cases, a family member or friend of the deceased provided the painful voice on the recording.  Small exhibits show artifacts from the rubble that were found next to the dead bodies, with many hinting at the damage caused to the love network of one solitary death remembered: the dust-covered cell phone of an ambitious young man recently married who lived with the phone to his ear.  He worked hard, made the right kinds of decisions for a comfortable lifestyle, and planned his life so that he could retire early and lavish his children with attention; a singed red wallet of a woman whose picture showed a joyful, vibrant smile in life, was found across the street from the Twin Towers on the roof of a hotel; a $2 bill and another wallet, this one belonging to a man who carried the bill as a reminder that he and his wife had a second chance at happiness after both experienced painful, failed first marriages.  The 9/11 Museum is designed to break our hearts.  But, the museum does something else.  It tells the story of everyday heroism, women and men who risked and lost their own lives to help others, and it tells the story of human dignity in the worst of situations.

lightbulbIn PTSD, you block out certain memories, or at least try to block them out.  But, for healing you have to remember those traumatic memories you would rather forget. You don’t just remember THE trauma, but many of the other traumas that occurred that you did not take the time to remember, understand and release.  The 9/11 Museum attempts to capture memories of both the horror and the grace under fire of that fateful day on Sept. 11.  Perhaps the memories recorded in the museum can serve the model of memory reintegration proposed by the theologian, Miroslav Volf.

Volf has an interesting image of what we can do with our memories of trauma.  Volf is the son of a Pentecostal minister, studied theology in the U.S. and married an American woman who is also a theologian and the child of a minister.  After finishing his degree, Volf returned to his native Yugoslavia, which was under communist rule, and was drafted to a mandatory year of military service.  He immediately informed his commanders that he was happy to perform his civil duty of service, but would not kill someone due to his religious convictions.  For one entire year, his commanding officer repeatedly interrogated him, accusing him of spying for the Americans and betraying his country.  Volf never confessed to anything and was never arrested, but he lived for more than a year in humiliation and fear.  His book, The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World, is an attempt to come to terms with the trauma of that year, and his particular animus toward his commanding officer, who is known only as Captain G.  Volf wants freedom from this past wound, and makes a Christian case for not only forgiving his tormenter, but ultimately getting to a point where he could reconcile with Capitan G, even if only in his imagination.

Volf sees the personal narrative of our life as a patchwork quilt that we stitch together from a growing group of memories that is always expanding.  Like all good quilters, we are constantly trying to know what to remember and what to discard and our narrative can become very different depending upon how we stitch the memories together.  “We are not just shaped by memories; we ourselves shape the memories that shape us,” says Volf.

We are personally healed, he believes, not just by remembering traumatic events, and retrieving memories and the feelings associated with them, but by interpreting those memories rightly.  What he means by this is that our own imperfections, the soul wounds of the perpetrator of evil, the contexts that give birth to moments of grace and violence are all part of the story that leads to horrendous actions.  This is not to excuse anyone, but to see rightly that the human condition is a fractured one where perfection and pure motivation does not exist.  In this broader tapestry, Volf believes, we have the power of making our memories, even those in which we have suffered wrongly, part of a “larger pattern of meaning,” making a new “patchwork quilt of one’s identity.”

dandelionJust in the past few weeks, many thousands of people across the globe have had the torment of violent and hate-filled memories introduced into their lives.  Those memories will haunt and fracture and overwhelm.  But, let us hope and pray those affected by these terrorist attacks in Paris, Beirut, Moscow, the Sinai Desert, and the village and regions in Syria undergoing saturation bombings will have people close to them that can help survivors patch quilt their memories into Volf’s larger pattern of meaning.  One that makes more room for love and grace, and mercy and forgiveness than is now occupied by only terror and destruction.  If this happens, the victims of collateral damage in this situation will have the power to stand in the tragic gap and help us all to rise above this dark moment in human history.

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Building Hospitality as a Way of Life

Despite immense tragedy and dissonance occurring in our world, we live in a uniquely opportune time. Over the past 50 years, we have had the opportunity to encounter people of other faith traditions more often than ever before. In past eras of human history, we rarely got very close to one other—particularly geographically. Now, we are literally living on top of each another and are intimately impacted by individuals and communities different from ourselves and our families of origin. We have the chance to understand each other in new ways—to learn about faith beliefs and practices, to participate in each other’s cultural rituals, to become friends, and at times even to have people of other faith traditions become part of our family or extended family. However, this new proximity demands new forms of hospitality and presents us with unprecedented opportunities for creating a more just and humane world.

When it comes to religion, I think more and more of us are experiencing what Amy Hollingsworth has called: “holy curiosity.” We are curious about our world, and we are curious about how the Sacred is impacting it. More and more of us are curious about how we can cooperate with this Divine activity that exists both in our communities but also clearly outside of them. More of us want to do what we can to co-create a new kind of world.

BuildI recently spoke at an Interfaith Iftar dinner hosted by the Pacific Institute. Iftar, which means “break-fast,” is the meal at the end of each day during Ramadan that signifies the breaking of the day’s fast. The theme of the evening was “building hospitality as a way of life.” One of the great blessings of intercultural conversation is that it invites us back to the deep roots of our words. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “building” like this: “forming, by ordering and uniting materials, by gradual means, into a composite whole.” To build you must order and unite materials in an incremental way so that your “composite whole” is made up of previously existing parts, but what is built turns into something quite different. This is the process for building, whether you are making a table, remodeling a closet or erecting a skyscraper. Because of my background in carpentry, building is significant to me. My father was a commercial contractor and I worked with him for many years first as an AFL-CIO carpenter, and then as a manager in the family business. With this kind of background, the word “building” elicits many memories. Building, as a concept, is deep in my bones—I’m always building something new at home. In some ways, I even see my job at the School of Theology and Ministry as one of “building” as well—building a new kind of school dealing with the issues of religion, spirituality and ethics.

The other significant word in this phrase, hospitality, is defined as “the act or service of welcoming, receiving, hosting, or entertaining guests.” “Hospitality” comes from the Latin word for “guest-house, or inn.” The Greek word usually translated as “hospitality,” philoxenia (fil-on-ex-ee’-ah), means “love of strangers.” The Greek word for love—“philo”—found in this translation of hospitality, is reserved for a family or brotherly type of love. Therefore, it is important to note that this is not merely a tolerance of strangers, or a friendliness toward strangers, but rather a love of strangers. You might also recognize that hospitality comes from the same root as hospital, the place we go to heal illness. Similarly, the act of hospitality “heals” the divisions in the human race. In opens up possibilities for peace and justice to kiss, and it allows us to become more fully who God created us to become – people who try to shape the world according to God’s true design, rather than our own. Hospitality makes us well as an individual and as a people.

So, we might describe the act of building hospitality as: ordering and uniting humans so that through learning to love strangers we (and they) may become healed and together create a new kind of humanity.

The founding story of our school, Seattle University’s School of Theology and Ministry, was rooted in this idea. A Jesuit priest, Bill Sullivan, and Raymond Hunthausen, the former archbishop of Seattle, wanted to create a university learning commons grounded in religious hospitality. Together they invited Protestant leaders to come and create a new kind of school, one grounded in our common identity as Christians that took our differences seriously, but took our similarities even more seriously. As you may know our Christian ecumenism has broadened to a place of interreligious hospitality. We now have an Interfaith council and we have people of many different religious traditions pursuing degrees. In fact, we had our first Muslim graduate walk across the stage at commencement in mid-June!

This way of doing hospitality can help us explore our holy curiosity in a way that honors those who are different from us, but it also requires a deep sense of trust—trusting that I will not lose my way in opening myself to your way. I must trust in myself, and in what I know; and I must trust in God to guide and protect me in this endeavor. Hospitality requires me to go deep into my interiority, to become more self-aware, to become more reflective, more attentive to what occurs behind my eyes and what occurs in front of my eyes.

KoranThe longer I am involved in interfaith encounter and dialogue, the more I am convinced of the great wisdom of the Prophet Mohammed’s recognition of the commonalities of the People of the Book. In fact, Islam, Judaism and Christianity have consistent messages about the critical role this virtue should play in our lives of faith. The Holy Koran values hospitality as a manifestation of righteousness, so much in fact, that it carefully lists the strangers and wayfarers we meet in the same category as parents, kinfolk and neighbors. In discussing the purpose of our existence, we are also told in the holy book: “Humans, we have created you from male and female and have divided you into nations and tribes that you come to know one another” (Surah 49:13). It almost sounds as if Allah separated us so that we would have to find our way back to mutual respect and knowledge of one another. Perhaps in our journey back to a greater appreciation for each other we will learn things that we could not learn otherwise.

The Jewish tradition also reveals an important message of hospitality. God tells the Hebrew people in Leviticus: “When an alien lives with you in your land, do not mistreat him. The alien living with you must be treated as one of your native-born. Love him as yourself, for you were aliens in Egypt” (19:33-34). Similarly, the Christian tradition has often used the Parable of the Good Samaritan as a model of true hospitality. If you have not heard this story from the Gospel of Luke, it goes like this: a man traveling between Jerusalem and Jericho is attacked by robbers, stripped, beat and left for dead on the side of the road. Two holy Jewish people passed him on the road, a priest and a Levite, but none stopped to help. Finally, a Samaritan traveling on the road saw the wounded man, and moved with pity, he bandaged his wounds, took him to an inn, and told the innkeeper that he (the Samaritan) would pay for all the expenses needed to nurse the wounded person back to health. The Samaritan, Jesus told the crowd, was the good neighbor and the righteous person.

opendoorThe Good Samaritan story is usually interpreted as the story of a person of exemplary compassion. In the time of Jesus, this story would have offended many of his listeners because many Jews did not treat Samaritans with high regard. Martin Luther King, Jr., however, thought it was a story more about hospitality, and particularly the courage it takes to reach out to people different from ourselves. It could have been dangerous for the Samaritan to stop and help the man, yet the Samaritan courageously reaches out to him. If we are paying attention, we see this same courageous hospitality in the news all the time. Perhaps the most dramatic example of it the past few weeks has occurred at Emanuel African Methodist Church in Charleston, South Carolina. This famous African-American church offered a Wednesday night Bible study open to the public. One Wednesday evening a few weeks ago, a troubled young man named Dylann Storm Roof came to the group and enjoyed almost an hour of the congregation’s hospitality. Roof then killed nine people for no other reason than they were black. I do not think anyone would have blamed this community if they closed the doors of their church to outsiders after this brutal, senseless attack. However, when the community resumed its Bible study a little more than week later, the congregation made it clear the Bible study would remain a model of hospitality and would welcome anyone who wanted to come.

InterconnectedThere is a common message behind our traditions’ commandments to practice radical hospitality in our lives of faith. We are “interconnected” to one another in profound ways. I love the metaphor that Muhammed Fethullah Gulen, an esteemed Turkish preacher and author, uses when describing this reality: we are “all teeth in one comb.” However, the religions of the book teach us that hospitality is not just about connecting with the stranger—it is about connecting with ourselves as well. The hospitality that brings people of different worldviews together forces each of us to look deeper into our own religious tradition, to understand, at a more sophisticated level, why our tradition teaches and operates as it does. Trudy Conway, a Christian philosopher who married a Turkish Muslim man, says a fruit of the conversation coming from hospitality is that it purifies “the dialect of the tribe.” When we are hospitable to those who are different from ourselves, it helps us to see and motivates us to eliminate the shortsightedness within our own interpretations of our faith tradition. Situations of hospitality make us more aware of our own beliefs and assumptions. It pushes us to articulate, to voice, the religious tradition that lives in us and gives our days meaning, and motivates us to want to be better people.

Hospitality2Hospitality is one of the most difficult virtues to master in part because it is so central—so many other virtues radiate out from this fundamental practice. The spirit of hospitality is the grounding feature in other virtues, such as humility, courtesy, loving-kindness, patience, mercy and restorative justice, and hope. Hospitality does not come to us magically or easily. We can’t decide to become hospitable with an act of will—it is a difficult habit of the heart and the mind, and an “advanced” virtue. Hospitality requires me to make room in my own inner life because it invites those different from me into the inner sanctum of my thoughts and feelings about the things that are most important to me. This takes an enormous amount of courage, because if I allow you to draw close and for you to share you experience and the wisdom you have found in life that helps you make sense of your existence, and I do the same with you, I may need to modify some of my beliefs. I can fear that the firm ground upon which I stand in my inner world could begin to give way to new realities I have not considered. I can fear that some of my confidence in what I “know” and “believe” and even who I am may shift.

However, through the long process of regular prayer, meditating on our sacred texts and songs, participation in ritual and the life of faith shared by an entire community, our interiority is gradually changed—step-by-step, inch-by-inch. The fasting, prayer and efforts at enhancing personal holiness during the rituals of our traditions are ways to BUILD room in our inner world for the changes hospitality brings to our sense of self and sense of identity. Gradually, we are shaped into a new “composite whole,” people with new values or deeper values, people who have a broader horizon for understanding the world, and the people who inhabit it. Hospitality can stretch our capacity to change the world around us in new ways and we are stronger together than we are alone.

In this practice of hospitality, we are people of faith encountering other people of faith. Because of this, we are challenged to broaden our image of God. A Jesuit friend of mine from India, Paul Coutinho, wrote a very popular book entitled, “How Big Is Your God?” Paul grew up alongside Hindus in Goa, India. Because he experienced in the faith of Hindu people the same Spirit of God he had come to know in his years of prayer and study to become a Catholic priest, he credits them with challenging him to allow his idea about God to enlarge. He did not become less Christian or Catholic in this process. In fact, he came to understand his Christian and Catholic faith at a much deeper level. More importantly, he came to see truth and goodness and beauty against the broader canvas of our diverse world. In the process, his God got bigger. Similarly, Timothy Radcliffe, a famous Dominican priest looks at it through the images of the Hebrew Bible’s book of Isaiah:
“We need to learn other languages of faith,” Radcliff says, “extend our vocabularies: ‘Enlarge the place of your tent,” he quotes from Isiaah, “and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out; hold not back, lengthen your cords” (54:2).

Hospitality3It is a real challenge to practice true hospitality, but it is something that God calls us to do. I think the mystical traditions in our religious heritages have caught on to the spiritual benefits of this practice better than anyone. Consider the wise words of Rumi, in his poem, “The Guest House:”
This being human is a guest house. Every morning is a new arrival…of an unexpected visitor…Welcome and entertain them all. Treat each guest honorably…meet them at the door laughing, and invite them in. Be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from above.

This is tough work, but good work. With the problems we see in the world right now, I also cannot think of more important work.

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Staying in the Struggle

15730026991_aace20b7eeThe latest film in the Star Wars franchise, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” is scheduled for release on December 18th, and soon our culture will become awash in Star Wars imagery. It seems we take fantasy stories very seriously! So much so that on Monday, October 19, when a movie trailer for the film aired on the Internet it resulted in such a rush for advanced ticket purchases that a popular on-line ticket site, Fandango, crashed.

Although some critics question the social relevance of fantasy stories like Star Wars, The Chronicles of Narnia, the Star Trek franchise, Harry Potter, or The Lord of the Rings, these forms of literature and film are deceptively potent forces in cultures. Underneath their texts, scripts and computer-generated action scenes, there throbs the heartbeat of ancient themes and characters that serve as strong “soul forming” vehicles. The history of every society is dotted with examples of “make-believe” stories that have shaped values like courage, self-sacrifice, acceptance of the neighbor and stranger when others do not, perseverance under fierce trials, defense of the innocent or defenseless even if it requires risking one’s life, or standing against formidable odds to promote justice As St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, saw so clearly in the 16th century, it is through our imaginations that we often grow into something more than we already are. This is why early Jesuit schools gave a special place in the curriculum to great literature.

15705065090_b040945883_zToday, most Americans know something about Harper Lee’s famous first novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. The book was a runaway bestseller when it was released in July of 1960. Lee won the 1961 Pulitzer Prize and many other prizes for the book, and served as a consultant in writing the script for the movie, which opened in theaters on Christmas Day, 1962. Like the book, the movie is considered by many one of the best ever made—winning three Academy Awards. It still sells a million copies per year, and over 30 million since it was first published. It is regularly ranked in surveys as the most influential book in Americans’ lives, outside of the Bible.

On the surface, Mockingbird is a coming of age story, told through the reflections of a young woman looking back on her life as a pre-adolescent girl in a poor town in Alabama. But, both the book and the film are a tale layered with messages about living well and living poorly. Mockingbird explores the evil of racism, a child’s gradual loss of innocence and awakening to good and evil, the cruelty that exists among small-minded people, the human capacity to fight for justice despite an unjust and imperfect world, the idea that true heroism can exist within the day-to-day acts of a good person, and the courage and determination required to change a society. The story inspired many young people to become lawyers or go into public service, and many more to become involved in the Civil Rights movement, which was reaching a fevered pitch at the time the book and film were released—sometimes the right story appears when the human race needs it the most, and Harper Lee’s book was the right book at the right time.

Mockingbird has continued to inspire generations of people, and it was such a runaway success that Harper Lee never published again. That is, until this summer when she released her second novel, Go Set a Watchman. This new novel has many of the same characters as her first, but it tells a very different kind of story. Several sections in Watchman have racially offensive language, and while Atticus remains a somewhat principled individual who believes in the law as a humanizing force in society, he also has an almost irrational distrust of the federal government, a conspiracy theory about the NAACP, and believes that 1950s African-Americans in the South are not ready to assume full citizenship alongside the white descendants of the Confederacy. At the beginning of Watchman Atticus is still Scout’s ethical north-star, but she’s an adult now, has been living in the progressive environment of New York City, and the hero worship of her father unravels when she witnesses him attend a Ku Klux Klan meeting. The climax of the book deals with Scout’s struggle to make sense of the inconsistencies in her father’s attitudes about race and his character—she struggles to stand up to him without walking away from the relationship altogether.

19069224923_6008f49d3a_bWatchman is a bitter disappointment if you are expecting a sequel to Mockingbird. The beloved Atticus of the first book is a mere specter of the character he exhibited in the second. But, Watchman is not meant to be a sequel—it is actually Lee’s first draft of Mockingbird. When she submitted it to a publisher, the company saw the promise in both the writer and her story, but did not see a value in printing her submission. Consequently, Lee engaged in a grueling re-write process that gave birth to a far more attractive story. Harper Lee’s second book offers an insider’s view of the process of writing the great American novel. In this first draft, we see a story dripping with an existential grayness. Given Lee’s own story as a bright girl growing up Alabama, you can get a glimpse of her own struggle with navigating relationships with family and friends she left behind in the South who held reprehensible racial attitudes. For all of its limitations, Watchman highlights one of the biggest challenges faced by those who have been awakened to the ingrained injustices in a society: the tension that comes with facing family and friends whose contradictory beliefs allow them to hold high-minded morals in some areas yet narrow-minded bigotry in others.

Although a lot of people don’t like Watchman, I think the two books together showcase an important study in the dynamics of changing the world. We need the Atticus of Mockingbird to fuel our own idealism—someone who is clear in vision, courageous, noble, and uncompromising in values of compassion and justice. Our mythologies and literature are filled with this kind of Atticus. Such characters operating in our inner worlds help us to reach beyond our limitations, first in our imagination, and later in incremental steps in our real lives. The importance of these mythic characters to our interior development is the reason stories like Star Wars and To Kill a Mockingbird still attract us. If we are to change the world, we need to see our fictional heroes do it first. We need to believe that we can fight a lost cause without wavering, and we can endure the bone-crushing experience of defeat and disappointment without having the flame of hope extinguished.

But, Watchman reminds us of our broken and fallen world and the real people who exist within it—helping us see the need to understand the kind of world God wants us to try to build together. For, sadly, it seems our world is filled with too many of the Atticus character in Watchman, and too few of the Atticus character in Mockingbird. There are many people who are decent and loving in some situations, but can become abominable in their thought and actions in others. These people typify the complex mystery of contradictions that exists in the human heart and the mind. In Watchman, Scout is so repulsed by the darkness she sees in her Atticus and her town that her first impulse is to leave him and it and never come back. Like many of us, she doesn’t want to remain in relationship with such toxic humans. However, her Uncle Jack, Atticus’s brother, tries to convince Scout that the best course is to not flee to New York, but rather the opposite—to set up roots in her home town of Maycomb with the intent of changing people’s minds about issues of race: “The time your friends need you is when they’re wrong, Jean Louise (Scout). They don’t need you when they’re right.” At the end of the book the reader is left with the impression that Scout does decide to return to Maycomb, to become an active participant in community life and act as a moral irritant to her fellow citizens.

Uncle Jack’s advice to Scout reminded me of one of the most powerful women I have ever known – an African-American Catholic woman named Pauline Humphrey. Pauline was a third grade elementary teacher in a poor African-American neighborhood in north St. Louis, and a dedicated and unbelievably effective community activist. I worked and lived in her community for about four years as a young Catholic seminarian, and was involved in many projects with Pauline: campaigning to tear down abandoned buildings because they were becoming drug houses and several children had been sexually abused behind their boarded up windows and doors, creating community gardens in abandoned lots, fighting the city’s intention of placing a methadone clinic in the already distressed community, getting the children of the community into afternoon and summer programs. Pauline was kind, forgiving, compassionate, usually gentle in demeanor and one of the most nonjudgmental human beings I have ever met. But, she was also unrelenting and tough as nails when it came to goading the community to projects that protected the kids of the neighborhood. Although she may not have known it, Pauline became one of my heroes, and one of the most impactful mentors I’ve ever had.

Pauline moved into the neighborhood in the late 1950s. She was one of the first black professionals to move into the north St. Louis community and almost as soon as her family settled into their home, white families began selling their houses at such an alarming rate that property values plummeted. Eventually more than 1,500 houses flipped over a two-year period. While some of the original black families also left, Pauline and her family decided to stay. One day I was going door-to-door with her asking people to come to community organizing activity later in the evening and she told me story after story of the ignorant and hateful things that were said to her during those years of white flight, most of it said by the white Catholics in her parish. After hearing a dozen or more outrageous stories, I finally had to ask her a question: “Pauline, why are you still Catholic after encountering such atrocious behaviors?”

She paused before responding with a thoughtful tone in her voice: “We’re all sinners, weak and stupid in certain ways,” Pauline said, “some of us are weaker and dumber than others, for sure. But, if I believe that we are all made in the image of God, as I do, how would my fellow Catholics and their children ever grow up to think differently if I left to go somewhere else? God put them in my path and me in theirs, after all. Whatever I’m called to do with my life, part of it has to do with remaining faithfully present and engaged with those in my path.” She admitted that it was often difficult, but Pauline was made to do difficult things and her very presence in the world challenged others.

ThornsThe racism in the United States that was the context of Harper Lee’s book when it was released in 1961 is still very much a part of the nation. While there have been undeniable advancements, racial attitudes have continued to fester, and racial oppression has just taken on new forms (Michelle Alexander has documented the mass incarceration of black men with painstaking precision in her book, The New Jim Crow). Despite all of the Mockingbird Atticus wannabes, the blatant ignorance of discrimination has continued to flourish in family systems, congregations, places of businesses and other places of community. It has been passed on from generation to generation like a virus that will not respond to medical intervention.

After reading Watchman I was left wondering if the viscous potency of this legacy is the result of flight—fleeing the discomfort of having to relate and argue with family and friends who just don’t seem to get it. In this second half of the 20th century we just don’t seem to have enough Pauline Humphreys—people who are willing to remain faithfully present and engaged with those in their path, even when it’s painful.

Inspired by these heroes—fictitious or real—can we stick around when it feels uncomfortable? Can we persevere through challenging relationships to get closer to God’s vision for us? Can we stay in the struggle without fleeing? Maybe in this next generation we’ll get the best of both worlds – the Atticus in Mockingbird and the Scout in Watchman and be graced with more people like Pauline Humpreys.

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A Moral Awakening Inspired by a Child

Human beings have an inspiring moral fiber marbled into the sinews of our consciousness, yet very rarely do we put it on display. Recently, the tragic picture of a fallen young Syrian boy lying face down in the sand on a Turkish beach challenged this shared moral fiber and brought humans together to an awakening about right and wrong. The photograph of Aylan (Alan) Kurdi’s tiny body in the sand, and then in the arms of a somber Turkish officer walking across the beach set off a firestorm of soul-searching by many Europeans in late August. By chance, I happened to be traveling through Italy, France, England, and Ireland when it happened, and it was something to behold. As a note: if you google key words corresponding with these events, you can find several powerful photos. Interestingly, I found the American view of Google search results makes the images much harder to find than when I was searching while in Europe. The Wall Street Journal actually has an image of the front pages of many newspapers using pictures of Aylan….

RefugeeBoatThree-year old Aylan (Alan) Kurdi’s body washed up on the shore of a resort area after he drowned in his family’s failed effort to seek asylum on the Greek island of Lesbos. Aylan’s 5-year old brother, Galip, and their mother, Rehan, also drowned, along with at least 12 of the 23 people riding in two shoddy inflatable boats provided by four Syrian human traffickers. The Kurdi family paid the smugglers about $4,400 for 2.5-mile sea crossing. With more enlightened immigration policies and practices in nations around the world, the same amount of money could have purchased airline tickets for the whole family to Vancouver, Canada, which had been their ultimate destination. But, our planet’s understanding and response to immigration is anything but enlightened.

The massive numbers of people trying to emigrate from war torn or impoverished nations like Syria and Iraq, along with those looking for a life with more opportunity, have precipitated the biggest immigration challenge faced by European nations since World War II. But, Aylan’s death served as a catalyst for a dramatic international conversation about immigration issues as a matter of morality, not just politics and economics. Aylan’s small dead body, in its red t-shirt and blue shorts, put a face on a largely invisible problem for most of us in the western world. As the prophet Isaiah noted in the Old Testament, “a little child will lead them (11:6)” and it seems that Aylan Kurdi is that child.

RefugeeWelcome1When it comes to the competing values involved in a messy topic like immigration, whether through legal or undocumented means, most of us tend to have “universal principles” buried deep in our unconscious that form our position long before we have all the facts. Some of us are positively disposed to the issue of immigration, making room in our common life for those in search of safer lives and better opportunities for themselves or their children. Others jump naturally and immediately to a sense of threat at the possibility of “others” crossing the moats of our lives and nations because they might unravel our national identity and disrupt our cultural practices. Both are grounded in a strong sense of obligation to community, but the latter has a more narrow understanding of community as primarily me and mine . Both orientations are also committed to a common good-it’s just that the definition of the commons is very different in each, one expansive and diffuse, the other limited and focused.

In Joshua Green’s best-selling book, Moral Tribes, he explores our default positions for moral issues dealing with the commons based on decades of interdisciplinary cognitive science studies. Green contends we all have the same hardware in our brains for discerning right from wrong, but because of centuries of cultural conditioning we use the hardware to come to different conclusions. The conditioning predisposes us toward certain decisions when it comes to moral issues about our common life, says Green, and only then do we work backward in our thinking to find justifications for what we have already unconsciously decided is the right path. Some researchers might say we “feel” what is the right conclusion, and after the fact marshal intellectual arguments to prove the rightness of that feeling, much as a lawyer goes about trying to convince a jury. This process is buried deep within us and it has taken humans a long time to draw attention to this act of moral rationalization.

You can see this subtle process at work in Donald Trump’s simplistic comments about the so-called murderers, drug dealers and rapists crossing the Rio Grande from Mexico, and his later justification of these careless comments with an immigration policy position that reeks of biased appropriation of support (See here: http://www.theguardian.com). A similar self-justifying process is seen more directly in Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban’s repeated statements that he does not want to make room for the immigrants flooding his nation, because too many Muslims might change Hungary’s comfortable “Christian” ethos. Orban goes further by insisting: “Our Christian obligation is not to create illusions, hopes in people who will risk their lives in the hope of something that we know is not real.”

RefugeeFence2To suggest, as he does, that the Christian tradition values forcing other people to embrace their desperate and hopeless conditions as their true lot in life is theologically absurd. Christianity stands for telling the truth of things, but it also holds out a radical hope for salvation and liberation in this life, as well as the next. Over the past century, Christian denominations have been retrieving this ancient belief that God desires to relieve human suffering in the here and now as well as the hereafter, and it is now central to the belief systems of most Christian believers. After all, Jesus, the founder of the religion, and his parents, were immigrants fleeing from Herod’s persecution to Egypt. A similar process is happening in many other religious traditions that are connecting to their roots, and this common re-discovery is a part of the most exciting advancements in interreligious dialogue. But, Green might argue, Orban is just doing what we all do with our moral instincts about things in our common life-we try to find arguments that prove our instincts are right. In Orban’s case, and those of many others, you can’t find a better justification than by convincing yourself that your faith tradition, and by extension, God, also wants you to reject humans in extreme need in order to help them embrace the full desperation and hopelessness of their existence.

The people who are the most simplistic about border restrictions have a justifying narrative of the average immigrant that is more fiction than fact. Their internal moral intuition seeks justification so bogus generalizations like Trump’s seem reasonable to them. But, most migrants are not seeking to live off of social welfare systems in the West. Most worked in their country of origin, and dream of doing so in a new home. More than a few had professional positions as store owners, architects, lawyers, police officers or healthcare professionals. And, contrary to what some people are led to believe, those who emigrate are not doing so out of greedy motivations-immigrants, legal or otherwise, are a generous lot. The amount of money migrants sent back to their country of origin to help their families and friends last year is estimated at $167 billion. This is more than all international aid combined.

Trump and Orban are not alone in marshaling arguments for their moral decision making process. An exaggerated instinctual drive in the opposite direction on the immigration issue is equally problematic. Those calling for open borders with no consideration of cost are operating out of a culturally conditioned instinct for how to manage our shared commons, rather than a factually based decision-making process. There is a legitimate argument that allowing a large number of immigrants into a nation will create profound and perhaps unmanageable pressure on certain local and national resources, such as health care, security, educational and social services. This is particularly relevant when many nations have cut their budgets as a fiscal response to real or perceived economic limitations. It is also fair to assert that large populations of displaced people can attract a criminal element seeking to prey on the vulnerabilities of a moment of crisis.

However, Aylan’s photographs certainly shifted the perception of a large number of Europeans (and many others in the world) concerning the nature of most of the people fleeing dangerous regions of the world like Syria, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Sudan. More men and women from privileged nations have intuited that the majority of the world’s immigrants are more like the Kurdi family than the shadowy Islamic State terrorist or the drug dealers, murderers and rapists portrayed by Trump. Green, a supporter of a form of utilitarianism he calls “deep pragmatism,” would suggest that humanity’s pathway to a moral sensibility with a wider angle lens on who constitutes our tribe will come through greater use of our higher cognitive powers, rather than a potent image. From my position on the ground in Europe, he looked more like an emotional reaction than a carefully weighed assessment of doing good for the most number of people (a basic premise of utilitarianism).

RefugeeFence1Either way, the facts suggest a more positive intuitions of immigrants are correct. Most of those fleeing their nations of origin have stories similar to Aylan’s parents. Rather than stay within reach of ISIS insurgents, the Kurdis wanted to escape a war torn city of Kobane, Syria, to build a better and safer future for their two young boys. Like many of those crowded into refugee camps around the world, the family’s original plan was more safe and logical, but it was thwarted by deficient immigration policies. They attempted to seek asylum in Vancouver, Canada, where Abdullah has had a sister living for the past 20 years, and had the funds for the passage. But, the Canadian government rejected the application. It was desperation that forced Abdullah and Rehan to chance the dangerous ocean crossing to Greece. Human traffickers, charging exorbitant fees for passage, were eager to accommodate.

The image of Aylan Kurdi’s dead body seemed to help a lot of Europeans make a leap from their narrow tribal orientation to something bigger-a harbinger, perhaps, of Green’s final hypothesis of a gradually emerging new tribalism that is global in nature. Like those who rebuilt Europe after the devastation of World War II, a significant number of Europeans decided that the moral imperative of taking care of other humans overrode the societal costs. Perhaps we are beginning, and just beginning, to think of our tribe as everyone (and perhaps everything) on the blue planet we share.

The tragedy of the Kurdi family has proven to be a test of Joshua Green’s thesis that we are developing a moral instinct with a bigger, more expansive tribe and has spotlighted a massive global crisis that has been going on for a long time. The number of international migrants moving from developing nations to developed nations had already reached 191 million in 2005. Although most people moved for economic reasons to escape poverty, many immigrants flee their nations to avoid torture, the threat of injury or death from wars, and multiple layers of oppression.

Aylan’s death set in motion a cascading series of events that are resulting in an international shift in immigration policies. The photos of Aylan inspired many citizens to launch social protests against their government’s treatment of people fleeing from life-threatening circumstances. Some citizens set about gathering thousands of signatures on petitions that called for basic reform on immigration policy and practices in their country. In Ireland a number of the parents of young families actually went on television news programs to offer to share their own home with a refugee family. Germany announced they will take 500,000 immigrants per year for an undisclosed number of years, and have begun to speak of these immigrants as new blood for the greying traditional German population. This will result in a profound cultural transition for a nation that has prized its heritage, and will set in motion significant changes in the descriptors for national identity.

Meanwhile, leaders in the European Union have become emboldened by the humanitarian sentiment arising in the citizenry of less generous nations to immigrants, and have proposed a dramatic policy that would actually set immigration quotas for every nation in the Union. Those countries refusing to accept their goals would be fined, sending money to the other nations fulfilling their moral responsibility to the humans in need. Under pressure within the United States, the Obama Administration also raised its Syrian immigration number to 10,000 in the next year, which constitutes nearly six times the total number of Syrian allowed entry into nation in the previous year.

However, the seeming ignorance some of us in the U.S. have of our own national demographics is vexing. In 2013 it is estimated that there were about 41.3 million immigrants living in the US, an all-time high. By 2015, the number reached 42.1 million. We now are home to about 20% of the world’s immigrants, and one quarter of the U.S. population is a first or second-generation immigrant (migrationpolicy.org). And, we should not feel as if we are unique with this challenge; virtually all nations with more economic or political stability than their neighbors have immigration challenges on their borders. There are camps of 3,000 to 5,000 immigrants near Calais, France, with all of them trying to sneak onto trucks or pay truck drivers to give them entry through the Channel Tunnel into the United Kingdom. While more than 1.6 million Afghans have taken up residence in Pakistan, Spain is inundated with migrants from Morocco and North African countries (See, http://www.globalissues.org). Massive numbers of humans are on the move within their own countries as well. Nearly 3.1 million Iraqis, for instance, have been internally displaced within their home nation due to violence and the collapse of social infrastructure. This is our new world. Humans long to breathe the air of freedom and self-determination in an environment of peace. Most of all, they burn with the desire to live as human beings.

RefugeeWelcome2It is heartening that Europeans are taking the immigration issue seriously, and increasing numbers are coming down on the side of compassion, mercy, and generosity to the stranger. Personally, I hope Green’s thesis is proven correct and our tribes are getting bigger. But, it is more likely that this will not last long-large-scale displays of corporate moral clarity rarely do. In the United States, we saw such collective moral awareness after 9/11, after Hurricane Katrina, after the Sandy Hook massacre of young children. But, alas the outpouring of moral clarity fades quickly and we move on to other concerns.

The women and men who transform cultures know that moral sensitivity to complex and systemic issues has a short shelf life, and they get busy when they see the opportunity for moral awakening, an expanding sense of who is in the tribe. Therefore, ever since the pictures of Aylan went viral organizations serving refugees and immigrants have been hammering on governments to respond to the millions of people herded in inhumane conditions. Let’s hope the moral sensitivity that this little boy’s body awakened in Europe sustains long enough for developed nations to create permanent humanitarian policies for those who seek to flee to their shores for protection.

“Something new is growing under the sun,” Green summarizes optimistically at the end of his book, “a global tribe that looks out for its members, not to gain advantage over others, but simply because it’s good.” It is ironic that a little boy set all of this in motion. Or, perhaps it isn’t at all. The full passage of Isaiah 11:6 hints that the evolution of our moral sensibilities will come from an unlikely source: “The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together, and a little child will lead them.” Is it possible Alyan’s death is helping to move the human race toward this broader understanding of who is a member of our tribe?

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Global Street Paper Summit Comes to Seattle University

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On June 24-26, Seattle University hosted the Global Street Paper Summit. This annual conference put on by the International Network of Street Papers brings together hundreds of representatives from street papers all over the world to engage in networking, discussion, and education. Street papers are publications that serve two purposes: to spread awareness about poverty-related issues as well as provide employment for people experiencing homelessness. The conference serves as a way for people engaged in this important work to meet, share, and learn from one another. This was the first time the conference has ever been held in the US. The School of Theology and Ministry welcomed participants and facilitated workshops throughout the week. The workshops covered everything from programs developed to serve Seattle’s homeless population to low cost marketing strategies to utilizing social media.

Here are some remarks I shared with the attendees during the conference:

Screen Shot 2015-06-09 at 2.01.41 PMIt is a great honor to have you with us this week on the campus of Seattle University, for the first-ever INSP summit in the United States. I hope you are getting a chance to walk around our beautiful campus, spend a little time outside in the sun, and maybe explore the city or take a ride on a ferry. You may have heard that we get a little rain in Seattle sometimes. While that is a bit of a caricature, it doesn’t always look like this in Seattle at this time of the year, and when the sun comes out like this, Seattleites emerge from their homes and buildings like moles leaving their holes, squinting at the bright light in the sky.

In case you haven’t felt it, yet, you are meeting on the campus of a Jesuit university that is a kindred spirit with the visions and missions of your newspapers. Within Roman Catholicism, the Jesuit tradition has two distinctive qualities – a commitment to the intellectual life, and a dedication and passion for educating future leaders to work for peace and justice, whether the motivation of that work is from a faith-based perspective or not. From the university’s engagement with poorer neighborhoods around the university through the Seattle University Youth Initiative, to our equally creative engagement with coffee growers in Nicaragua and the Jesuit university located in Managua, to the countless student internships and immersion experiences that are occurring throughout the city, the state, the nation, and many countries in the world: we are a university that tries every day to live up to our mission to focus our intellectual resources on the promotion of activities that will lead to a more just and humane world.  

In the past few years we have had an exciting and dramatic university effort to respond to the realities of homelessness, especially family homelessness in the Pacific Northwest. In the true Jesuit tradition of the Italian Renaissance, which promoted the fine art of rhetoric and persuasion: we want to persuade everyone we can that it is unacceptable to have fellow humans beings living lives of quiet desperation, particularly in a city with the educational and industrial achievements and unprecedented levels of wealth as this one.  As you heard this morning from Dean David Powers, our communications department in the College of Arts and Sciences has engaged the journalism profession directly on the issue of family homelessness. 

My own School of Theology and Ministry began a faith and family homelessness initiative four years ago, due to the generosity of the Gates Foundation. In the past few years we’ve had a team of people from the school logging hundreds of hours as they have worked across the region to assist religious congregations and organizations in the deepening of their faith communities’ commitment to alleviating homelessness. Our primary effort began by working intimately with 14 Jewish, Muslim and Christian congregations, assisting their more than 18,000 congregants to organize their own community efforts to reduce the number of families living in shelters or on the streets.  In the process, we’ve also created a near educational cottage industry with a “poverty immersion workshop.” After getting featured in an Op-Ed in the Seattle Times, this workshop, which allows people to have a life-like experiential encounter with the frustrations and burdens of poverty and homelessness in the United States, became our school’s most popular extra-curricular activity, with hundreds participating across the region. We’ve had some remarkable results in this effort, and have in some ways had an opportunity to change the conversation about the potential of faith communities to move society’s needle on this complicated social problem. If you are interested in this effort to “breathe” the importance of working to end family homelessness into the Seattle area’s religiously plural population, you can talk to Lisa Gustaveson, the program manager for our school’s efforts.

halfwyLastly, let me applaud you for the way you are spending your life as journalists of street newspapers. As a former journalist, with a degree from the University of Missouri-Columbia School of Journalism, I think street papers are one of the most important evolutions in news reporting. When you look at journalism as a field, most people miss that the industry is not a dispassionate organization in search of the truth. It is a business, and often a complex one, requiring a substantial cash flow that requires all kinds of compromises between corporate and journalistic values. The larger media outlets have to dance to the tune of many pipers, and this can mute, if not extinguish, the deepest nobility in the profession of the Fourth Estate. Your newspapers stand squarely in the tradition of the power of the pen to give voice to those who are not allowed a place setting at the world’s table. 

I love the title of your conference: INSPired together. This is, indeed, the only way humanity will make a substantive change in the world’s plight of homelessness. We have to do it together. But, I’m sure most of you also know that etymologically “inspire” comes from a Latin root (inspirare) meaning to “breathe or blow into.” Originally, the word referred to the blow of a divine or supernatural being into someone, in the sense of “imparting a truth or idea.”  

By nature of your missions, you stand with the populations in your cities and nations that have no discernable voice in the fast-paced, competitive and chaotic world of the third decade of the 21st century. In doing so, you breathe into you societies a truth about an issue many contemporary people do not want to explore, let alone understand, let alone change.  You go beyond good journalistic ethics to pursue the truth: you live, and move and have your being in the unsavory truths of modern societies, where poverty and homeless and marginalization exist in the shadows of unprecedented human wealth and privilege. Many of you represent the best in the tradition of the Progressive Era’s muckrakers, and the best of the tradition of a Charles Dickens, who gave voice and image and feeling to the lives of the poor of their era, or Rachel Carson, who convinced her generation to ban the pesticide DDT and create the Environmental Protection Agency, which made her one of the first people to capture the imagination of westerners around the issue of the environment. Carson gave voice and image and feeling to nature, to our Mother Earth. You, too, are giving voice and image and feeling to the lives of the poor and homeless.

Keep up the good work. We are delighted to have you here and I hope and pray you find new ways to collaborate with each other on your “inspir-ed” mission and vocation.

Read more about the summit on the school’s website, here.

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What I’ve Been Reading, Watching, and Listening to

In a world with an avalanche of information and the potential for experiences coming at us at any given moment, it is important to learn to create filters and discernment processes for the kinds of things we are going in ingest into our souls. Throughout history, the printed word has served as a ferry for all kinds of conversion – intellectual, emotional, spiritual. All of the arts can have this effect as well, and this is an important dimension of all of our spiritualities.

When it comes to discerning what to read, watch or listen to in the precious time we have, it is always helpful to have the suggestions of people who read and experience new information as part of their living. Most of us have a stack of books at our bedside, while some of us have stacks near our reading chair, our cocktail table and any other horizontal surface capable of supporting weight. Most of us also have long lists of films we want to see or music groups we hope to experience. Below are some films, books, talks, and music that I’ve enjoyed over the past few months–I hope it serves as a good starting point as you decide what to read on your journey, especially as we move closer to the months of summer.


Because I often travel quite a bit, I sometimes make use of airplane time to catch up on films I had heard about, but never had time to view. Here are some films I’ve seen recently:

  • Raggamuffin is a 2014 movie about Rich Millins, the popular Christian contemporary musician in the 1980s and 1990s. The movie provides a penetrating exploration of an enormously gifted musician, who lived a tortured life with the scars of his childhood and adolescence, yet continued to write songs that touched the hearts of millions. Mullins became one of the most successful Christian pop stars and had his songs sung by the biggest Christian pop stars, such as Amy Grant and Michael W Smith.
    Despite internal turmoil, deep loneliness, and struggles with addictions and strained relationships, Mullins remained a strongly committed Christian who often spoke boldly and prophetically about the wrong-headedness of the “prosperity” and feel good Gospel message that was so rampant in Evangelical circles in the 80s and 90s. Mullins made millions, and yet, only accepted an annual salary that was determined to be the average salary of an American worker. The rest of the money went to charities and churches. After becoming hugely successful, he went back to school for a music education degree and worked as a music educator with children on a Native American reservation.
    The movie references Mullins relationship with Brennan Manning, a contemplative-activist who had his own life long struggle with alcoholism, which led to his writing of the Raggamuffin Gospel, a book published in 1990 that had the simple message that God’s grace is not dependent upon performance. The book brought God’s mercy to a central location in the Christian message, something that scandalized many people at the time, but proved a source of liberation to many others.
    Mullins was so inspired by Manning that he formed a new band – The Raggamuffin Band – that provided revival-type concerts centered on music dealing with the real interface between everyday human struggles and religion. Mullins’ constant message of religious authenticity, God’s mercy and unconditional love and forgiveness, and the Christian obligation to serve the poor, was an early example of the return of a “social gospel stream” in the evangelical movement that has emerged in the past two decades in modern Evangelicals, particularly the young.
  • Noëlle, is a 2007 movie that was released for the Christmas season. It explores in a fascinating way the role guilt manifests itself in human lives, and the challenge a person has in finding a path to redemption. In the film, a hard-hearted priest, Jonathan Keene arrives in a small fishing village in Cape Cod. His task is to decide whether the small church in the community should be closed due to its dwindling and aging attendance, and the young pastor who has a drinking problem that is on full view to the community. As Keane becomes involved in the lives of the people in the village, his guilt for a decision he made as a young man surfaces in an uncontrollable way. The guilt manifests itself in his recurring vision of a young girl, who appears to him with a look of sadness and longing. The movie moves slowly, but is a unique look at the role guilt plays in redemptive actions and choices, a topic rarely explored in modern film.
  • The 100-Foot Journey is a modern-day fable invites viewers into a meditation on the longest journey any of us ever take – crossing from our world into the world of others. Produced by Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey, there is a feel-good quality to the film that can overshadow the very complex issues underlying the narrative. The movie is based on the international best-selling fictional book by Richard Morais, which is based on the middle-aged reflections of an Indian immigrant cook who rose to the top of French haut cuisine, becoming one of the most celebrated chefs in France. The movie follows the book fairly closely: a noisy and close Indian family, running a popular restaurant in Mumbai, is driven from their home because of civil unrest and searches Europe for a place to settle and begin their lives anew. Based more on the father’s intuition (if not superstition) they buy an empty building in a rural area of France that just happens to be located across the street from a highly decorated French restaurant that is run by a haughty and somewhat bigoted Frenchwomen, Madame Mallory, played exquisitely by Helen Mirren. As the Indian family launches their own restaurant 100 feet from Madame Mallory’s famous restaurant, competition, misunderstanding, humor and personal transformation all occur in the collision of cultures, personalities, cuisines, ethnicities and values. The 100-foot journey is a metaphor for the ways in which globalization is forcing the human race to learn how to reach across the divisions that separate us – from the food we like to the way we envision the world.
  • Transcendence is a mind-bending film about the possible outcome of an artificial intelligence (AI) achieving human-like consciousness. Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp), a brilliant AI researcher on the verge of death, has his “mind” uploaded into a program and supercomputer by his loving wife (Rebecca Hall) and friend (Paul Bettany), resulting in the apparent creation of a human consciousness operating within a virtual world. Caster, (or is it just something resembling Caster?), has an unlimited ability to assimilate information and reason about it, and sets in motion the building of a new kind of society and world. The film surfaces a host of theological and philosophical issues, and is an excellent meditation on the issues associated with the interface of technology and transcendence. What constitutes the unique capacities that make us human? Could such capacities go digital, and if so, what would happen to our ability to make ethical decisions? Can a computer transcend its hardware and software and have a “soul,” as we have traditionally defined this unique dimension of the human person? Would such a computer supported “soul” exist in reality, which might support the thesis that our humanity is nothing more than electrical impulses and chemical reactions, or would such a computerized soul only create the illusion of its human counterpart? If a computerized soul did exist in reality, however, would this “soul” differ qualitatively from the primary descriptors of the core of our own humanness? Lastly, can love and idealism survive in such a digital environment, and if so, how might it manifest itself? If you give yourself over to the theological and philosophical implications of the narrative, this movie is a mind-bender.
  • St. Vincent is an unpredictable story of a crude, self-absorbed, gambling, boozy, and politically incorrect neighbor (Bill Murray) who agrees to babysit the son of a next-door neighbor (Melissa McCarthy) who is going through a nasty divorce from her two-timing husband. McCarthy’s son is a precocious and almost annoyingly polite child, who is adjusting to a new home and a new school, and a growing awareness that his young life is not in neatly folded corners. Murray’s character, Vincent, is a decorated war hero with an institutionalized wife. He has an intimate relationship with an equally crude Russian stripper, prostitute girlfriend (Naomi Watts). Yet, he finds himself a role model for an impressionable young boy going through a difficult life transition. To a young boy in a religious elementary school, who has been given an assignment to tell the story of a modern day saint, the hideously flawed Vincent seems like something more than a slovenly, burn-out, degenerate. The story explores in very subtle ways the nature of love and caring, and the influences that shape a child’s understanding of a messy, imperfect world. A major message of the film is that human goodness and kindness, and the virtue of fidelity are sometimes found in the most unlikely people and places.
  • The Good Lie. I saw this movie on a long plane ride, a tale of four Sudanese refugee siblings trying to adjust to American culture after a hideously traumatic childhood and adolescence, which included the genocidal murder of their parents and a decade in a refugee camp. Great cross-cultural humor mixed with profound demonstrations of the way character and spiritual grounding can empower the human spirit to rise above virtually any challenge.

Here are some books I’ve read or re-read for both work and pleasure:

  • M. Douglas Meeks, God the Economist: The Doctrine of God and Political Economy
  • Richard A. Horsley, Jesus and Empire: The Kingdom of God and the New World Disorder
  • Marilynne Robinson, Gilead
  • JRR Tolkien, The Hobbit (My son-in-law is a Tolkien fanatic and a quarter of the time I miss or barely catch the meaning of his allusions in conversation. This is the first time I’ve read The Hobbit since I was in high school and I forgot what a captivating and multi-layered work it is.)
  • Stephen Nachmanovitch, Free Play: Improvisation in Life and Art (This is one of the most popular required texts in jazz schools throughout the U.S. Nachmanovitch integrates many spiritual traditions into the neuroscience of play and practice and the spiritual traditions of east and west. A great text for anyone who would like to understand why jazz musicians–and other artists–often like to explain what they do as an exercise in “spirituality”)
  • Heather Hendershot, Shaking the World for Jesus: Media and Conservative Evangelical Culture (The conservative evangelical movement has had a remarkable sophistication with the use of technology, which is ironic since the movement often has been highly resistant to modernity and post-modernity. Hendershot gives a good, non-judgmental evaluation of the meaning systems this part of Christianity has created through its engagement of culture)
  • Gerald R. McDermott, One Holy and Happy Society: The Public Theology of Jonathan Edwards (One of the most famous and arguably impactful public theologians in the United States is Edwards. Despite the common error in reducing this important thinker to his most famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” this text is a good companion to a much more detailed analysis of Edwards and his very nuanced thought found in George Marsden’s, Jonathan Edwards: A Life)

What I’ve been Listening to:

  • Pharoah Sanders, “Journey to the One.” These are some classic tracks from one of the most famous saxophone players in the world. Sanders mixes very mellow soft improvisation with grittier bebop sounds. While part of a theological education research consultation with Auburn Seminary, our group had the great opportunity to see 74-year-old Sanders perform at Dizzy’s Club at the Lincoln Jazz Center in New York City, one of the most famous jazz clubs in the U.S.
  • Jesse Cook: “The Blue Guitar Sessions.” A famous Canadian jazz/rock/pop guitarist with Latin influences. The album was a Christmas gift from my daughter and son-in-law, along with a print of Pablo Picasso’s famous painting, The Old Guitarist, one of my favorite paintings. I also received an original copy of Wallace Stevens’, The Man with the Blue Guitar.
  • Two talks I found interesting on the most significant popes impacting the shape of 21st century Catholicism are Francis of Rome and Francis of Assisi: A New Springtime for the Church by Leonardo Boff, and The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II — The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy by George Weigel.
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