Sacrificing Character So We Can Keep Fighting

May 1, 2018

It will take decades to understand the impact our 24/7 bingeing on polarized thinking and talking is having on us. In the past few weeks, however, we can see at least one outcome – our institutions are losing the ability to tolerate someone who tries to change the subject from our right-left, conservative-liberal, red-blue noxious conversation. This is particularly true for people possessing the kind of character that has been shaped by religious values, worldviews, and ideas.

Consider two examples from the month of April: former FBI Director James Comey, who is a strong United Methodist, and soon-to-become former chaplain to the U.S. House of Representatives, Patrick J. Conroy, SJ, a Catholic priest and Jesuit. Both men got slammed in April because they tried to talk outside the lanes of our narrow binary conversations.

In the first case, Comey is trying to jump-start a national conversation on leadership and values. But, his new book, A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies and Leadership, has unleashed instead an unprecedented torrent of criticism from nearly everyone, especially Democrats, Republicans and journalists. Of course, lots of people do not like Comey, and many claim he is driven by his own self-righteousness and self-interest. But, is that really true? Or, is this a person of character who is trying to change the subject of our relentless divisiveness?

On Sunday evening, April 22, a crowd of more than 700 people at Seattle University had the benefit of spending nearly an hour and a half with James Comey. Many of the people were expecting an angry man, filled with animus against Donald Trump. Instead, they encountered a warm, humorous, serious, and thoughtful person who was humble enough to question his own decisions and the motivations behind them.

Journalists (and many politicians) are misrepresenting, misinterpreting and misunderstanding Comey’s book because they are reading it through the lens of our polarization bingeing, and they are trying to force it into the wrong literary genre – the political memoir. The key to identifying the right genre for A Higher Loyalty is found in the first few pages, in which the author explains the experiences and role models that formed his understanding of a good leader and his reference to the famous Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. If you want to understand why Comey prosecuted Martha Stewart, released the Clinton emails, and made announcements so close to a presidential election – read Niebuhr who provided the former FBI director with a complicated, nuanced and infinitely realistic religious/philosophical orientation to leadership and life.

Reinhold Niebuhr was a German Evangelical minister who took his first pastorate in a Detroit parish comprised mostly of workers at the Ford Motor Co. At the time, the world lionized Henry Ford as an industrialist who built a profitable business, while simultaneously increasing the social and economic welfare of his workers. Niebuhr knew differently. His congregants often struggled financially and became pawns in a pretty elaborate public relations campaign for Ford automobiles. Getting involved in working to improve worker conditions, the young Detroit pastor began wrestling with the fundamental nature of evil and good. He later moved to Union Seminary in New York as a professor, and became a public intellectual for the nation and world, promoting a Christian social ethic (often called Christian Realism) that eliminates, as Charles Lemert puts it, the “pious swagger” normally associated with people of faith seeking to influence politics and society. Reinhold Niebuhr knew that a democracy had to balance rights and freedoms with social and economic justice, and he developed a rigorous intellectual position located between opposites. He also believed that pride was the most dangerous vice for an individual and constituted the most destructive social sin of an institution. In the political arena, the sin of pride leads to a nationalism that can easily become idolatry.

James Comey did his honors thesis in religion at the College of William and Mary comparing Niebuhr’s thought and another American public theologian, Jerry Falwell, founder of the so-called Evangelical social movement known as the Moral Majority. Comey concluded in his 1982 senior paper that Falwell’s religiously-motivated political action was susceptible to the very prideful national delusion about which Niebuhr warned. If you know Niebuhr’s thought, A Higher Loyalty looks very different than the way most people are discussing it.

Comey does have some less than generous observations about key political leaders. But, in good Niebuhr fashion, the former FBI chief’s harshest judgments are reserved for himself. He admits to cowardice, indecision, grandstanding, mixed motivations, and miscalculations about outcomes from his behavior. More significantly for a student of Niebuhr, Comey admits to a pridefulness that he has tried to keep under check his entire adult life, often times with the snarky help of his wife. An ethical leader for Comey is someone who is always self-aware and a master of balance – kindness and toughness, confidence and humility, seriousness and humor, political astuteness and a fierce commitment to apolitical decision-making. The book is ultimately about trying to learn how to keep opposites in balance in a political era in which everything is imbalanced.

A second person to pay a price for trying to change the subject in our polarization is the current chaplain for the U.S. House of Representatives, Rev. Patrick J. Conroy, SJ. House Speaker Paul Ryan forced Conroy, who has served in the role since 2011, to resign several months before the priest’s term expired. There have been suggestions that Ryan, a Catholic, sought the ouster of the priest, in part, because of a prayer the Jesuit gave during the tax reform bill debates in the fall of 2017. The prayer asked God to give Congressional leaders the wisdom needed to write a bill helping everyone, not just a few. The actual prayer, which was delivered in the capitol on November 6, 2017, included these words:

 “May their efforts these days guarantee that there are not winners and losers under new tax laws, but benefits balanced and shared by all Americans.”

Ryan later criticized Conroy, telling him the prayer was “too political.”

Paul Ryan Allegedly Ousted House Chaplain for Disrespecting His Tax Cuts 

It is too early to understand the full story around Fr. Pat Conroy’s resignation, but it is likely the news media and politicians will get his story wrong, too. The secret to making sense of Patrick Conroy requires an appreciation for the Catholic social justice tradition, the Second Vatican Council, and a change in missional direction within the Society of Jesus during the 1970s, when the Jesuits decided that religious faith must promote justice in society or it is null, void and inauthentic.

Conroy, like Comey, does not see the world in binaries. He believes that authentic faith must promote justice, and we need to learn how to make complex ethical decisions in a world more gray than black and white. Because of this, many would like Conroy silenced.

Because Comey and Conroy are people of character does not mean they are wiser than others, or that they never make wrong decisions. It also does not assure their action is free from the influence of ego or self-interest. It does mean, however, that they have the habitus of mind and heart to question and challenge the pack-mentality of our polarized times. It does mean that they try to follow the good, even when it is inconvenient, and are willing to risk their own reputations in the process.

Comey and Conroy are flawed humans like everyone else. But, they are also men of character and breadth of vision in a narrow time of cancerous polarization. They hold up a mirror to our behavior that we want to avoid at all cost. As long as we are not forced to look into the reflection of the higher values of the human condition, we can keep fighting without fear that someone will prick our conscience.

Update: May 3, 2018

In another example of the complexity of the relationship between religion and culture, faith and politics, the Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan, has decided to rethink his decision to enforce the resignation on Father Patrick Conroy, SJ.

Killing Our Children and Our Future

February 27, 2018

Can the Image of a Dead Child Change Society?

Parents are once again identifying the bullet-ridden bodies of their children, while the typical firestorm of debate on gun policies and finger pointing on who is to blame dominates our national discussion. In the backdrop of these recurring debates are the vignettes of the young people lost, the promise of their lives extinguished in a brutal heartbeat, and the brave teachers and school staff who tried to protect their students. This time, however, I find myself thinking more about the parents of the murdered children.

The mothers and fathers who lost sons and daughters at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., are experiencing the most difficult and unnatural thing we do as humans – walk our children to the grave. I have a special empathy with the Parkland parents. I have experienced the private agony of standing over a dead daughter’s body. I know the feelings of helplessness, the visceral sense of the unfairness of life, and the nagging doubt in the power of goodness, hope and ultimate purpose. I have experienced the anger you feel towards God, the universe, or however you understand the structure of reality, and the burning desire to take your anger out on someone or something that is responsible. I know the collateral damage of a child’s death: the multiple challenges occurring long after the funeral service and the way these test a parent’s ability to respond to these stresses and a sibling’s ability to cope. More importantly, I know that a “normal life” is something you watch as a bystander for a very long time, with a growing awareness that normal will no longer mean what it once did. To watch the dancing light of playfulness in my daughter’s eyes extinguished, and her infectious laugh silenced, is the most difficult thing I’ve ever endured in a very long list of challenges in my life. But, it could have been much worse.

Assault Rifles

The difference between my experience and the parents in Parkland is that the young dead body I looked over occurred after Sandi died of complications of a congenital heart condition. I find it unfathomable to imagine standing over her body on a hospital gurney, her young, tender flesh disfigured and mutilated by high-velocity bullets. Her once emotionally vibrant face frozen in an expression of terror. I cannot imagine how I would have made sense of her life or mine with the realization that her future had been stolen not so much by a mentally ill man. But, rather by a society that had been tone deaf for decades to its primary obligation to protect its children and to a parade of willfully negligent politicians. After a child’s death, you feel guilty about lots of things, but I think the most difficult thing for me to assimilate would have been my own tardiness in realizing that America’s approach to firearm ownership is a national health crisis and we can no longer protect our children without changes in our gun laws.

According to the Center for Disease Control, between 1999 and 2014, 497,632 citizens of the United States lost their lives at the barrel of a gun. This eclipses the number of deaths reported by the U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs for World War I (116,516) and World War II (405,399). Between 2012 and 2014, emergency rooms in the nation treated 5,790 children for a gun-related injury, with 1,297 dying. It is now estimated that 19 children a day are treated in ERs for gunshot wounds. We stand alone with these figures. Almost 91% of the young people killed by guns in the 23 highest-income countries in the world are from the U.S. We have the singular global distinction of allowing more of our children to die violently by guns than any comparable country. In a nation with a history of believing in American exceptionalism, this is a record that should elicit shame in all of us and elicit a social revolution. Yet, some of us, like Wayne LaPierre, the leader of the National Rifle Association, believe access to more guns and voting out of office anyone who questions that strategy are the real solution.

NRA chief accuses Democrats of pushing ‘socialist’ agenda in wake of Florida shooting

NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre

The issues surrounding guns and gun ownership are complicated, but suggesting that personal access to high-velocity, rapid-fire weapons made for war is not the immediate cause of catastrophic deaths in our children’s schools is way beyond absurd.

What will history say about this time in America’s life, a time in which an insufficient number of American parents and politicians felt motivated to demand a change in policy in order to protect our children? How can so many of us who are parents and voters attend candlelight services, read stories of the horrific details, and share comments of sadness and disgust at our water coolers and on our Facebook pages, but then settle back so quickly into the “normal” rhythm of our lives? Perhaps we need images to convince us, like radiologist Helen Sher’s metaphor of what she saw in doing a CT scan on one of the Parkland victims.

Wounds From Military-Style Rifles? ‘A Ghastly Thing to See’

The Atlantic recently issued an article by Sher, who works in a Florida trauma center and has treated thousands of patients wounded by handguns. Sher recounts her horror at looking at the CT scan of a vital organ in the body of one of the critically wounded Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students hit by a bullet from Nikolas Cruz’s military grade AR-15.  The radiologist said, the damaged organ “looked like an overripe melon smashed by a sledgehammer.” When a trauma surgeon opened a similarly wounded patient in an emergency surgery, Sher added, there was nothing left to repair – the major organ had disintegrated and the trauma team stood by helplessly as the teenager bled to death.

What I Saw Treating the Victims From Parkland Should Change the Debate on Guns

The gruesome metaphor of a smashed melon suggests the inconceivably horrendous image the Parkland parents probably saw in their identification of the bodies of their children. I am somewhat overcome with empathy.

EmmittTill

More than a few people are now calling for the publication of the gruesome images of gunshot victims to awaken public rage, much as Emmett Till’s mother decided to hold an open casket wake in Chicago for her son after he had been brutally beaten and murdered in 1955. Mamie Till, a hard-working single parent, grudgingly allowed her only child to go to visit relatives in Jim Crow Mississippi. The young 14-year-old Emmett was accused of making a pass at a white woman in Money, Mississippi, and was later kidnapped, beat, shot in the head and thrown in a river with a heavy object tied around his neck with barbed wire. Although the men killing Emmett were caught, they never served time, and the woman allegedly offended by the boy later recanted her charges that the youngster had done anything. Mamie Till wanted the world to see the ugliness of racism and the violence of Jim Crow, and so she somehow found the courage to display to the world Emmett’s bloated, distorted, and unrecognizable face. Publicized images of the boy laid out in his casket and his story are credited with helping to mobilize the Civil Rights movement. According to Louis Beauchamp, the director of the documentary, “The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till,” Martin Luther King, Jr., decided to take leadership of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, in part, because of Emmett Till.

The Death Of Emmett Till Had Profound Affect On MLK And Civil Rights Movement

I’m not sure gruesome photographs of young dead bodies will move our nation to action like it once did. We’ve had decades of video games and realistic cinematic images of violence to de-sensitize us, and we are so divided as a people in our assessment of fundamental issues that such a “shock strategy” may even harden positions on both sides, rather than open us up to a common cause. But, there are lots of other images in this debate that might shake the U.S. out of its moral slumber in relation to guns.

Parents losing children in Parkland are already giving interviews, speaking at town halls and joining thousands of other gun law activists in organizations created by people who have lost loved ones to gun violence, such as the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, Sandy Hook Promise, Giffords: Courage to Fight Gun Violence, and Everytown for Safety. The Parkland moms and dads are becoming some of the nation’s most impassioned advocates for gun control laws for lots of reasons. And, if the image of parents in grief arguing passionately for changes in gun laws despite a dull-hearted political system is not enough, the students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas are trying to launch a national movement reminiscent of the Birmingham Children’s March in 1963, a pivotal movement in civil rights when the news media captured images of children huddled against fire hoses and attacked by dogs set loose by law enforcement officers.

The Birmingham Children’s Crusade of 1963

Emma Gonzalez

The Parkland activists will conduct a national school walk out on March 14, one month after the Parkland shooting, and another one on April 20, the 19th anniversary of the Columbine murders. In the meantime, we have the images of articulate and resolute adolescents on common sense gun control, like Parkland students Emma Gonzalez, Delaney Tarr, and Cameron Kasky, or aspiring journalist David Hogg, debating intelligently and insistently about their right to a future and their refusal to allow the culture to move on to another crisis until gun laws change.

The sensible gun law movement has not had a major legislative win, yet. But, grassroots organizations like Mothers Against Drunk Drivers have demonstrated that it is possible to change the laws and culture, despite political inertia and powerful lobby groups capitalizing on the inability of citizens to mobilize around common sense change. Mamie Till, a deeply religious woman, reached beyond her inconsolable loss to see her son’s murder as an opportunity for change, not just a cause for grief. She lived to see Emmett’s death ignite a new kind of energy in the civil rights movement – parents, particularly mothers, galvanized to demand change in society until children no longer had to live in fear, and complacent politicians and voters moved to create a different kind of society. Such is the power of an image.

Let’s hope and pray we see such forces of change again. But, let’s remember we need to move beyond compassion and sorrow to solidarity with those demanding political action.

The Battle for America’s Soul

January 29, 2018

At times it seems we live on such a political and cultural emotional roller-coaster that we need to keep our seat belt securely fastened at all times. Maybe we should spend more time reflecting on the “ride” itself, rather than the proximate causes of our emotional stimulation. The past few months give us a good representative sample.

In mid-January, we had the heart-wrenching image of the deportation of an undocumented 39-year-old Latino man, Jorge Garcia, who has spent more than 30 years in the United States, paying taxes and working for many years to normalize his immigration status. Video crews took footage of Mr. Garcia hugging his tearful wife, 15-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son before the father boarded a plane to return to Mexico. The United States government sent him back to a nation he left at age ten because some Americans consider the landscaper a national security threat or they just want to score cheap political points. (Jorge Garcia And His Family Speak Out About His Deportation To Mexico | The View.) A few weeks earlier, Congress passed a tax bill, which according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office and the Joint Committee on Taxation, will seriously hurt the poorest working citizens of our nation, although you have to look pretty close to see the heartless elements contained in the legislation. The real pain to the more economically disadvantaged will kick into implementation between 2019 and 2027. Several weeks prior to the tax bill, the nation attended to the outcome of the Alabama election that put Doug Jones in the U.S. Senate. Jones beat the alleged serial child molester, Roy Moore, but only by 20,000 votes. And, of course, while all of this has been happening the #MeToMovement has provided a constant backdrop to every news cycle, the unending reports of powerful men systemically harassing, assaulting and/or degrading women (and also some men) in a variety of professions over decades.

If the airport video of the Garcia family, the details of the tax bill, the Senate race in Alabama, and the abuse of power that has belittled an entire gender doesn’t stir empathy, concern, and anger about the values that seem to now drive our society, we are all in need of a heart transplant. Or, maybe we need more esoteric surgery.

During the Alabama Senate race, many news outlets speculated about whether the election signaled the Republican Party’s loss of its metaphorical “soul.” It may seem a strange word for our more secular times. But, the United States did grow out of the soil of once almost universally embraced religious concepts, values, and principles, and the concept of soul belongs to that legacy. It is still part of our public lexicon, although people use it in different ways than the Founders would have used it. Originally, the notion of a “human soul,” relying on Greek philosophy and centuries of religious thinking, provided a densely meaningful concept that provided a kind of foundational background belief for the democratic principles and processes that set the U.S. in motion. The rights assigned to human dignity enshrined in the Preamble of the Declaration of Independence (and international human rights law, for that matter) come, in part, from this ancient conceptual framework. But, if soul sounds too religious for our contemporary ears, Merriam Webster offers a more sanitized definition. Soul is the “animating principle, or actuating cause,” and the “moral and emotional nature of human beings.”

Whether you use the Merriam-Webster definition, or something more sophisticated and historically dense, more and more of us are recognizing that we stand on the precipice of losing something critical in our culture. Maybe “soul” captures the nuances of exactly what we are in danger of losing.

For several decades, some observers have tried to sound an alarm that the US has declining indicators in important virtues and values that are essential to a democratic way of life, such as character, honesty, integrity, compassion, ethics and basic decency. While the Grand Old Party (GOP) may show the most troubling patterns of “losing its soul” right now — the entire nation is demonstrating serious signs of peril. There are scores of data points for this, but a simple exercise demonstrates it. In the final hours of the Jones-Moore vote count, USA Today ran an editorial entitled, “Will Trump’s Lows Ever Hit Bottom?” The newspaper wrote the op-ed as a response to the president’s degrading comments about some observations about gender issues made by New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand. The troubling nature of our times and the extent of our erosion in our trust in each other is that people are asking the same question of leaders in virtually all sectors of our society. At times, it appears we are having a difficult time as a nation reaching the cellar of our own potential for narrow-mindedness, self-absorption with our own issues, the worst of tribalism, selfishness, and the entertainment of the lower angels of our nature at the expense of our higher.

From demonstrations of sexual harassment and gender discrimination to racial and ethnic prejudice; from the countless signs of increasingly inappropriate behaviors to proposed or enacted legislation that directly or indirectly increases human suffering, from society’s incremental abandonment of its responsibility for citizens to childish antics and peevish behaviors by supposed professionals, we are losing something fundamental and foundational. We are losing the core of who we have been and who we say we are. We are in danger of losing the soul of our nation. Religion clearly carries some of the blame, but it also provides part of the solution.

Going into the Jones-Moore election, considerable attention was given to religion, but only one part of it: the white Christian evangelical vote. In the end, it is disturbing that eight in ten evangelicals voted for Moore. No one was more disillusioned that Mark Galli, the editor-in-chief of the flagship evangelical magazine, Christianity Today. Galli believes this level of Christian support will have a disastrous effect on the evangelical brand, and also on the reputation of American Christianity. “No one will believe a word we (Christians) say, perhaps for a generation,” Galli said. “Christianity’s integrity is severely tarnished.” (The Biggest Loser in the Alabama Election | Christianity Today) Much of our secular-oriented media would agree, but their perspective and even Galli’s observations are only half the story.

Alabama is a state awash in religious values and motivation, often conflicting ones. According to the 2017 Pew Religious Landscape Study, 90% of the Alabama population considers religion an important force in their life, 84% attend religious services and pray regularly, and 50% identify religion a primary source of guidance on right and wrong. Most news outlets identified the black vote as making the decisive difference in the Jones victory. Journalists pivoted from the looking at the situation as a religiously defined one to an election determined by racial demographics. What has been missed by almost everyone is the deep religious values and motivation driving many Alabaman African-American voters to the polls, especially the decisive black female vote, with 98% choosing Jones. Most of these women are the spiritual bedrock of faith communities all over the state, just as they had been in the 1920s through the 1940s when they were raising children and forming young adults to believe in a different kind of America and a different kind of God than was preached in many of the churches of their era. In the birthplace of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “dream” for a different kind of nation, which launched the civil rights movement, African-American Christians helped their state avoid a national train wreck by bringing soul to the polls. The mainstream media and Galli is correct. Christians almost put a fatally flawed candidate like Moore in the U.S. Senate. But, what has been missed is that people of faith also tipped the scale so he did not. This election was a battle of soul.

For most of its history, Americans have reenergized the moral and actuating fiber of their “souls” through the thoughtful reflections, shared life of community, and strategic social activism flowing from the wisdom of ancient religious traditions, most notably Christianity. In the 1970s traditional spiritual sources for rejuvenating the soul fragmented into what Charles Taylor has called the “nova effect,” legitimizing many other spiritual sources and voices. Although traditionally privileged religious traditions, once again particularly Christianity, are still reeling from losing their position of influence, this fragmentation is a good thing for a democracy — it brings into broader focus the diversity of our understanding of and encounter with the depths of human meaning, longing, motivation, and purpose that is contained in practical side of a concept like soul. We can now think about soul not only through the lens of one tradition, but in a way more reflective of the real world and the real people living in it. The School of Theology and Ministry at Seattle University has been aware of these cultural shifts for more than two decades, finding ways to help future religious and spiritual leaders remain distinctively grounded in their own historical tradition, while also contributing their imaginations to a nation attempting to find and understand its soul in the new context of many religious voices seeking to build a better common life. It is no easy task building an educational curriculum with this goal, although it clearly requires coursework and a student ethos that is ecumenical and interreligious, intergenerational and interdisciplinary, and oriented to action both within religious communities and the broader world.

The United States has undergone a Star Wars epic-like struggle to achieve and maintain its character and integrity in every generation. But, we will not ultimately eradicate the lower angels of our nature through decision-making in a voting booth, as the political parties would like us to believe, and especially not in rapidly decided legislation in Congress. It is going to take a re-engagement and embrace of “soul,” even though many of us aren’t exactly sure what that means anymore. As a society, we should heed the ancient warning of those who pursue wealth, fame and power, without thinking about the collateral costs: “What does it profit a person to gain the whole world and lose her or his soul?” (Mark 8:36)


From the Dean: Autobiographies That Save Our Soul

Humans have an obsessive need for story-telling. We tell stories because they help us see patterns in human behavior and the world around us, and the patterns make life seem less random and chaotic. Stories position us in our history; they make us aware of a higher order, an organization, and a meaning to our experiences, especially the disrupting ones, than those experiences often feel. The world can spin in dysfunction and chaos around me, but my go-to stories help me keep my center. Contrary to the preferences of some of us who like charts, graphs, and data tables, stories are the most powerful way to change someone’s mind.

This reality seems to run against the grain of our data-driven Information Age. But, as science writer Jeremy Hsu notes, 65% of our conversations still deal with stories and gossip. We not only want to tell stories; we need to tell stories, all kinds of them, and one of the more powerful forms is the autobiography. Throughout history, autobiographies have inspired the dreams of readers, fueled their public awareness of issues, and shaped their values, virtues, ideals and social, political and religious commitments. One of the most remarkable moral conversion resources in U.S. history has been the autobiography. Personal stories have saved our national soul (and personal souls) more than once.

Some of the influential autobiographies impacting the thinking of people over the last 50 years have been Anne Frank’s, The Diary of a Young Girl; Mahatma Gandhi’s, My Experiment with Truth; Maya Angelou’s, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings; Nelson Mandela’s, Long Walk to Freedom; Golda Meir’s, My Life; Malcolm X’s, The Autobiography of Malcolm X as Told by Alex Haley; Barack Obama’s, Dreams from My Father; and, Malala Yousafzai’s, I Am Malala. Because of these autobiographies, many of us think differently about adolescent development, social action in the world, the African-American experience in the U.S., the human cost involved in toppling an oppressive regime; and, the leadership challenges and opportunities faced by Jewish and Muslim women.

Last year, as part of its pilot of a new Search for Meaning Empowerment Series, the School of Theology and Ministry invited three people to talk about their autobiographies: former director of the FBI, James Comey; former Secretary of State John Kerry; and Khizr Khan, a Pakistani immigrant and Gold Star father who lost his son, Captain Humayun Khan, to a 2004 car bombing in Iraq, and challenged Donald Trump in a speech at the 2016 Democratic Convention to borrow his (Kahn’s) copy of the U.S. Constitution and read it.

Autobiographies allow the reader to see the world from an entirely different perspective, and to begin to think and feel from another person’s perspective. Social psychologists Melanie Green and Timothy Brock call this phenomenon “narrative transportation.” A reader’s belief system and judgments in the real world can change based on the “transport” experience of a story. The phenomenon works for fiction, too, but autobiographies offer a particular kind of influence. They are based on real stories and real people.

Many believe St. Augustine of Hippo’s, Confessions, published in 400 CE, was the first autobiography in Western culture. The text tells the story of the author’s self-indulgent and self-destructive search for happiness, ultimate meaning, and purpose in his youth, and his ultimate conversion to Christianity. As Augustine wrote in one of his book’s most quoted passages:

“O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved you! … You flashed, you shone, and you dispelled my blindness: You breathed your fragrance on me; I drew in a breath and now I pant for you. I have tasted you, now I hunger and thirst for more. You touched me, and I burned for your peace.”

O Beauty Ever Ancient by St. Louis Jesuits

There has been a lot of speculation as to why Augustine wrote his Confessions. Few scholars believe that he wrote it to convert others. But, his text has opened many readers through the centuries to a spiritual reality that they only accessed the first time through the narrative transportation they experienced in reading Confessions. In a similar way, the 1948 autobiography of the famous Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, The Seven Story Mountain, deeply impacted post-World War II readers, particularly those who had encountered the carnage of battle and technologically-enhanced destruction. They experienced the expansion of their search for meaning, purpose, and belief in something bigger than themselves by walking imaginatively through the experiences of Merton.

In a very real way, story-telling allows us to plant ideas and experiences into someone else’s brain through the empathetic connection the reader makes with the writer or characters in a story. A well-written autobiography puts us in someone else’s skin. It allows us to see the world from their perspective and can awaken us to the same kinds of intellectual, emotional and spiritual transformations described by the author.

Since we have just completed Black History Month, it is worth mentioning that one of the most influential autobiographies in U.S. history is The Narrative Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave. Douglass was born into slavery and escaped to the north at the age of 20. While attending an anti-slavery convention in Nantucket in August of 1841, he felt the compulsion to address a mostly white crowd, and the famous abolitionist, William Lloyd Garrison, heard the impromptu speech. Afterward, Garrison convinced Douglass to write an autobiography and to become a storied symbol of the evil of American slavery.

Douglass’s book provides graphic descriptions of torture, the emotional and physical mistreatment of fellow slaves, and his own first awakenings of a desire for true freedom. But, the power of Douglass’s narrative is that it is mostly about the simple things experienced by a man living under the horrid situation of slavery. He explains the smells, sights, tastes and sounds of a slave in the antebellum south, and the feelings these sensations created inside him of fear, sorrow, loss, and anger, as well as the emerging dreams of adequate food and warmth and clothing, and a sense of safety and security that birthed a burning desire for freedom. The Douglass autobiography created an empathy bridge for its more than 30,000 readers prior to the Civil War. It became a powerful source of motivation for American abolitionists, opening their eyes to the urgency of the nation’s need to end the evils of slavery.

As the United States continues to debate the issue of immigration, another autobiography is now attempting to awaken the American conscience the same way Douglass did in pre-Civil War America. Jose Antonio Vargas, a Filipino immigrant, wrote, Dear America: Notes of an Undocumented Citizen, in order to explain what it felt like to hide his undocumented status for 18 years while living in the United States, attending middle school, high school, college, and launching a journalism career. Vargas explains how he worked around educational and legal systems by relying on his own wits and the counsel of an assortment of mostly white Americans who cared for him and offered their assistance.

The author believes his book is not so much about the complexities of the American immigration system as it is about “homelessness” and the “unsettled, unmoored psychological state that undocumented immigrants like me find ourselves in.” The stories in the book are about the need for many undocumented immigrants to build an identity and life on lies, and the toll this takes on immigrants, their families, and those who care for the women and men caught in the purgatory between legal and undocumented status.

In 2011, Vargas decided to expose his immigration status through an autobiographical article for the New York Times Sunday Magazine.

My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant

This article later led to his autobiography, which he dedicated to the world’s 258 million migrants. Three years after the publication of the book, while attending a vigil for Central American migrants in a border town in Texas, Vargas was arrested for lack of proper documentation and was placed in detention. His incarceration became an international news story. In his cell, he realized a disturbing truth about the way the U.S. treats its migrants.

“Inside the cell, I concluded that none of this was an accident … waving a ‘Keep Out!’ flag at the Mexican border while holding up a Help Wanted sign a hundred yards in (to the nation’s border) – is deliberate. Spending billions building fences and walls, locking people up like livestock, deporting people to keep the people we don’t want out, tearing families apart, breaking spirits – all of that serves a purpose.”

The American immigration system is designed, wittingly or unwittingly, to create misery in the lives of millions of innocent human beings, so that they can serve the employment needs of several industries relying on cheap labor. “Dear America,” Vargas concludes the book in the best of the autobiographical tradition, “is this really whom we want to be?

As humans, we have a million ways to hide the truth of our complicity in evil. We are busy. We don’t really know the details. We are victims of the system. Some of our greatest moral issues are also papered over in state-sanctioned inaccurate information, if not downright lies. There is no greater example of this than the immigration issue.

Vargas has used his newfound fame to highlight the role of the immigrant. After moving from an invisible to a visible story-teller in American society on the issue of immigration, he used his resources to found: Define American, a multi-media story-telling organization that attempts to redefine the way Americans think about the people who come to the U.S. for all kinds of reasons, but without the proper documentation. We will see if Vargas changes America’s attitudes about immigration, the way Frederick Douglass did about slavery.

But, regardless of the conclusion of the Vargas effort, autobiographies will continue to wield power. The kind of power to save our souls.

The Cruelty of Winning and Losing

October 31, 2018

In just a few days, the United States will receive the results of a highly charged mid-term election that has been awash in accusations, vitriol, and the hateful spin-doctoring of every fact. The outcome of the election is still uncertain. It might end up a blue wave or blue ripple. Or, perhaps a red tide or serious red low tide. Either way, we will have victory laps and pity parties on November 6, and analysts will spend weeks explaining why it happened the way it did and what it means for the future. But, I’m not sure thinking about this election in terms of winning and losing is going to help any of us. A win-loss mythology has gripped both parties, mixed with elements of cruelty, and we will make no substantive move forward as a nation and culture unless we figure out how to break the spell of this obsession.

In a 2016 speech at the Democratic National Convention, Michelle Obama offered a noble sentiment: “When they go low, we go high.” Former Attorney General Eric Holder recently demonstrated the level of disintegration in our discourse at a Democratic rally in Georgia almost exactly two years later: “When they go low,” he corrected, “we kick them.” Holder, like many Democrats, learned in the past two years that politicians running on high-minded values, like civility and kindness, lose elections. Mainstream Republicans were taught the same lesson in the 2016 presidential election, when Donald Trump ignored the political tradition of balancing rhetoric with measured speech and thoughtfulness.

In the process, we became fixated on images and concepts related to winning. It is an inaccuracy to say that President Donald Trump only likes to win. It is one of his 20 most frequently used words:

  • “My whole life is about winning. I don’t lose often. I almost never lose.”
  • “Believe me. You’ll never get bored with winning. You’ll never get bored!”
  • “Work hard, be smart and always remember, winning takes care of everything!”

Winning doesn’t take care of everything and it does get boring, in large part because it is a complicated concept.

The desire to win and avoid loss is woven deeply into our psyche. Developmental psychologist Susan Harter found that small children, especially boys, have a “fantasied self” that grossly overestimates their talents, abilities, and virtues. They often brag to prop up a fragile ego, while they learn one of life’s most difficult lessons: how to process failure, shame, and envy. A great project of growing up is learning how to win with humility and to lose with grace, and not interiorize either one. Of course, some of us never develop the resilience to happily accept a second-place ribbon, or God forbid, no ribbon at all.

If you are a politician, professional athlete, gambler, salesperson or trial lawyer, winning and losing is a common experience. But, many of the people most deeply impacting the healthy, daily operation of our world do not regularly think about life in the binaries of winning and losing. People dedicating themselves to humble professions that bind up the wounds of a broken humanity, specialize in providing hope and security to others, and commit themselves to on-going reform of the institutions that employ health care workers, police officers, firefighters, social workers, community developers, teachers, journalists, counselors, and ministers think in terms of caring, flourishing and meaning rather than winning and losing. Unfortunately, the hottest theories about creating a better world over the past two decades have come from people who bit the win-loss apple, and ironically their influence has, in part, inadvertently created many of our political problems.

According to Anand Giridharadas, the great “winners” in the 21st-century economy – technology gurus, masters of the start-up and the mobile app, and the venture capitalists that support them, as well as a handful of charities, universities, media personalities, activists, entertainers, nonprofit executives and specially formed thinktanks – have created a global subculture that mixes the mythology of winning with an unquestioning trust in free market capitalism. And, the mixture created a new philosophy on doing good and trying to create a better world.

In Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, Giridharadas describes how wildly successful companies, such as Uber, Lyft, Even, Airbnb and many tech companies, have convinced a significant number of intelligent and influential humans that the secret to resolving issues like poverty, inadequate education, equal rights, and even malaria, is not found in the transformation of the governmental and private institutions that govern our common life and are charged to serve as agents of promoting and protecting social justice. Rather, the key to solving our biggest problems comes through the initiatives of socially responsible business. One of the appeals of this new creative force for finding solutions is its simplicity and grandiosity: solutions to humanity’s biggest problems will not occur one person or village at a time, but “to scale,” at a dramatic global level that will bend the arc of human history toward prosperity and peace.

“These (are) elites,” Giridharadas says, “(who) believe and promote the idea that social change should be pursued principally through the free market and voluntary action, not public life and the law and the reform of systems that people share in common.” And, the message is attractive to some of the nation’s brightest young people, who are aggressively recruited by some of these companies at America’s most prestigious universities.

Giridharadas summarizes what he calls the MarketWorld belief system as faith in the power of the individual to crusade for justice, get super-rich, save the lives of the poor and innocent, and become culturally and politically powerful, and then using this influence to make further positive contributions to the world, as well. A corollary to this position, sometimes mentioned, often just implied, is that there is no longer a need to devote one’s life to education, social work, criminal justice, unions or ministry to change the political, social or economic systems that create so much of the world’s suffering. Many in MarketWorld believe that those institutional structures are part of the swamp, beyond regeneration, and in need of draining. So, when Uber and Lyft talk about their corporate mission, they speak of providing new freedom and participation in the economy by drivers and giving riders cheaper services than offered by the taxi “cartels.” (Note: they speak of cartels instead of taxi unions, which developed to protect worker salaries and rights.) Ironically, these large successful companies often portray themselves as the underdog and outsider, the rebel overturning older institutions that stifle creativity in order to usher in an era of prosperity and peace.

The MarketWorlders re-evangelize themselves through an unending chain of “tent revivals around the world.” Some of these conferences are known as the Davos World Economic ForumSun ValleyTechCrunch DisruptBilderberg, and the Summit at Sea, a cruise ship that is booked as a floating retreat for entrepreneurs wanting to change the world. One of the most impactful revivals for this gospel has occurred during UN Week at gatherings of the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI), the charity Bill Clinton began with his wife after he left the White House. Questions about the CGI’s intersection of money, power, and influence created a major distraction in Hillary Clinton’s own bid for the presidency and contributed to her losing the election. If you hear people on conservative talk radio and television complaining about the globalists and out of touch elites, they are really talking about the true believers of MarketWorld.

Giridharadas suggests that the resurrection of the populism in the United States under Donald Trump is a reaction to these well-educated, uberwealthy, politically connected and technologically savvy “MarketWorlders” who have tried to change what it means to “do good in the world,” while “doing well for themselves.” It is more than a coincidence that Giridharadas’s book begins with an anecdote about an idealistic Georgetown student, Hilary Cohen, who wrestled with becoming a rabbi or buying into the promises of the MarketWorld “movement.” She decided not to go to seminary, but she remained haunted about whether she was actually changing the world in the right way, and whether MarketWorld faith could deliver on its promises.

We have had a massive abandonment of the very institutions that have knit our society together and the well-intentioned desire to improve and eliminate suffering in our world by the religion of MarketWorld helped to create the situation. To make it all more complicated, the push away from our institutional infrastructures has become mixed with the nation’s deep cultural strains of cruelty. During times of stress and change, Americans have always lowered their inhibitions for crass, boorish and even hateful behaviors, like most cultures. In the U.S., however, we have often celebrated such conduct, a product of our forces of racism and xenophobia. Umair Haque, one of the world’s most respected management thinkers, believes the U.S. has harbored these negative behaviors for so long that we have become a “uniquely cruel” society.

Why America is the World’s Most Uniquely Cruel Society 
Or, How Punching Down Became a Way of Life 

In our best times, we like to believe we are a welcoming nation, a haven for the poor, tired and huddled masses yearning to breathe free. But, in reality, Haque maintains, xenophobic dog whistles like the caravan of refugees walking through Mexico or fear-baiting about immigrants who want to steal or destroy our way of life, has been a staple in American culture. Life for immigrants in this nation has been so harsh, says Haque, that former immigrants learn quickly to suspect new immigrants. Each wave of immigration to reach the shores of the U.S. has had to struggle against the dominance of the previous wave of immigrants, who have learned to “punch down,” diminish and marginalize the new “other.” America has practiced its exclusionary ways for so long that it has become a subterranean national characteristic, surfacing with greater fury at times of anxiety, uncertainty, and societal changes.

What can we do about this moment in our history? We can encourage the young seeking to do good in the world to look seriously at the traditional professions that have knit together our common life, and to do so with not only a desire to serve but also an intent to reform those institutions. If they choose to do so, we also need to pledge our support to them. Institutions are mixed blessings. They do great, important work in the world, but they also disappoint us. They lean toward inertia and complicate their structures so that it becomes difficult to do the work they exist to provide. At their worst, they break our hearts. Every generation has to reform them and that takes the dedication of not several months or years, but a lifetime. People working in these institutions of service and government have to make enormous sacrifices, including making a much smaller salary, a clear violation of a central dogma of the faith of MarketWorld. If you want to do good in the world, you will personally do less well. Most of us cannot have our cake and eat it, too. That’s just part of the gig.

Dealing with our cruelty is both easier and more complicated. While I believe we can and must address it through education and political change, American cruelty lives in our own families and neighborhoods, and eradicating it is first a family affair. In a few weeks, many Americans will bring the destructive attitudes and behaviors of our nation’s cruelty to the Thanksgiving table. Don’t gloat if your values won in the mid-term elections, or sulk if they lost. Commit yourself to serve as an example of someone who does not look to winning and losing as a meaning system.

Instead, try to listen deeply enough to hear the fear and confusion that lies beneath the pernicious and destructive thoughts and comments made by an obsessive uncle or a borderline paranoid cousin. Don’t challenge their public policy preferences. Challenge their humanity through the stories and traditions of the exemplars of your own family system and history. Surface the nobility, courage, sacrifices, and compassion that motivated ancestors in their day and time. In other words, create cognitive dissonance for them by using story to force fear and confusion of the “other” into dialogue with the real human faces they know.

The United States will not get beyond this dysfunctional time easily or quickly. But we can rise above this cruel period of thinking in the categories of winning and losing. Only then can we re-discover the unum in our national motto: e pluribus unum.

Does Religion Have a Future? Flip a Coin!

September 28, 2018

I have friends and family who have been predicting the demise of religion for a long time. One of them recently asked me what kinds of students could possibly have an interest in studying about religion in any form, given all the bad publicity about religious organizations. In our spirited conversation, I realized that my friend, who was hurt several times in his youth by religious leaders, is only able to see one side of the religious “coin” because of his experiences. He sees the scandals, hypocrisies, ignorance, and mean-spiritedness that is too often associated with religious believers and their organizations; and he has a homing device for catching the inconsistencies between the stated and lived religious values of many people professing a religious faith.

My friend believes he has history and current events on his side. He is quick to point out Christianity’s long history of complicity with violence, oppression, and misogyny and he has followed closely two recent controversies: the Catholic sex abuse cover-up and the revelation that four out of five Evangelicals are now voting for U.S. politicians with proven records of immorality and even documented illegal behaviors. In addition, he knows that this unholy mix of religion, bad acting and politics is not just an American phenomenon. The Orthodox Church has been linked with Russian efforts to destabilize the Balkans, particularly those nations seeking to join the NATO alliance, like Montenegro and Macedonia, and Judaism is criticized regularly for fomenting the diminishment or even dehumanization of Palestinians and Arabs in and around the Jewish state of Israel. Islam, of course, is the religious bogeyman, condemned for having members that embrace terrorism, and even followers of the peace-centered religious traditions of Buddhism and Hinduism are lampooned for the violent extremists in their own ranks, particularly in nations like Sri Lanka and India.

There is undeniable truth to this description of one side of the religion “coin.” But, there is another side to the coin that holds an equal truth that eludes my friend. Religion has been like gum stuck on the sole of the human shoe, because people of every generation find meaning, purpose, motivation, and direction in and through the rituals, traditions, and teachings of religious traditions. More importantly, the other side of the religion coin opens doorways to sets of relationships that collectively create the possibility of re-imagining one’s interpretation of creation and the human condition. It offers an “imaginary,” in the words of philosopher Charles Taylor, that can become drenched in hope, kindness, solidarity, forgiveness, reconciliation, and the kind of love that makes room for the possibility of human connectivity that transcends all divisions.

For more than half a century, many professors teaching students about religion have been engaged in an on-going debate about the nature of religious belief and practice. The debate has criticized the so-called World Religions Paradigm, the most common way most educators have approached teaching religion. This paradigm believes that there are “great” historic religious traditions, such as Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, and the way to teach people about them is to explain each religion’s doctrines and dogmas, rituals, and practices. If a student knows these, they have some sense of what makes people tick who follow those religious traditions.

In the 1960s, William Cantwell Smith, a Canadian professor of comparative religion, argued that thinking about religion as information to share with people misses the whole point. Religion has all these things, and they have a certain level of importance, but ultimately religion is about relationships, he insisted. Religion is about helping people to understand how to relate to God, a Higher Power, or maybe just a Higher Purpose. This understanding of religion is about human relationships with each other, the way we engage and accept one another as companions on the human journey, despite our many differences. A religion of relationships also emphasizes relating to the environment, to the earth and dust from which we come and return, and all of the animate and inanimate beings sharing space in the universe. Lastly, this idea of religion, particularly in its mystical forms, is all about learning to relate with compassion, acceptance, and discipline to the fragmented pieces of our own human spirit, and to know experientially that our deepest connection to each other is through our shared brokenness.

This is the other side of the religious coin, the clarifying, sensitizing and liberating form of religion, and every fall Seattle University’ School of Theology and Ministry welcomes a motivated, bright and idealistic group of students who want to explore this side of the coin.

I marvel at the pathways many of these students have walked, the hurdles they have climbed, and the disappointments and disillusionments they have endured before crossing through the doorway of our school. Some have already overcome obstacles that would have crushed the spirit of others, and have quietly made contributions to human flourishing that would dwarf the efforts of those receiving laurels. They are testimonials to generosity, humility and the indomitable spirit of the human mind and heart to live more fully aware and more fully alive because it is right, not because anyone notices.

Our students are motivated to study with us for an assortment of more immediate reasons. Some are preparing to lead congregations; others to become leaders in faith-based organizations, particularly in the social service and social justice sectors, working on issues like homelessness, immigration, prison reform, or restorative justice; still others want to serve as counselors, with a special sensitivity to spirituality and faith as a resource for mental health; and some seek to become chaplains in hospitals, the military, prisons, police departments or industry. Every year, we also have students who come back to school because they have discerned this is a step they must take in their life journey, even though they are uncertain about the next step. There is also an emerging group seeking education to bring a “ministerial consciousness” or “spiritually awakened” sensitivity to leadership in institutions of education, government, and industry.

This mélange of educational goals among our students is complemented by other important forms of diversity. For several years, the school has had an increasing level of pluralism in religious or spiritual backgrounds. Our wildly different students join an educational environment that swims against the tide of the polarized politics, religion, and culture wars that has been releasing poison into the lives of our organizations and societies for three or four decades. We have students coming from every imaginable Christian tradition – from Roman Catholic, Episcopalian and Lutheran to United Church of Christ, Presbyterian, and Pentecostal – as well as women and men with backgrounds in Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism, not to mention spiritual seekers, and even agnostics and atheists. The students also come from many different cultural, ethnic and racial backgrounds, disparate educational backgrounds (from business and law to healthcare and liberal arts) and various socioeconomic backgrounds (from financially comfortable to living at or below the poverty line). Lastly, our students are an intergenerational group, with ages ranging from the early 20s to the mid-70s, bringing thousands of years of human experience into every academic year.

What could such different people with varying interests find in common? Although they might not readily recognize these common patterns in themselves, over the past few years I have noticed that our students share a hunger for something “more” in their life. They seem to intuit that exploring the ebb and flow of spirituality, faith-informed ethics, and the good side of the religious coin provides the gateway to a unique form of human wisdom: a wisdom designed to help people find something “bigger” than themselves. Our students seek a wisdom grounded in ideas, perspectives, and practices, but also the resources needed to develop the courage, strength, and skills to devote their lives to layers of relationships to which we must attend if we truly seek to leave a mark on our world. They want to heal the broken places in creation; they want to inspire others to live in an impregnable hope that can stand against even insurmountable odds; and, they are eager to set others on fire with a vision and passion for creating a more just and humane world.

Although they might talk about it differently, our students realize that they will come to this place of generous service and a more deeply rooted identity in the midst of a world of growing plurality precisely through their study of the other side of the religious “coin,” a process that will help them to not only understand the other side of the coin but to become it for others. They will learn the wisdom of a young, precocious teenage African-American poet, Frederick J.B. Moore II:  


To change the world 
your heart has to be into it 
you can’t half step what you do
or everything will fall apart …

to change the world 
you need a foundation behind you 
that will encourage you to keep pushing the world 
when you’re broken and exhausted 

to change the world 
your first step has to be yourself 
because you are the greatest catalyst for change 

This is the good side of the religious coin my friend just can’t see, but millions across the world hunger to encounter and always will, even when the forms of religious institutional structures change and come and go, even when a religious tradition gets swamped in a moral crisis that highlights the negative so much it renders the positive invisible. Ironically, an era of vast political ineptitude and disintegration makes the good side of the coin more attractive to people who are looking for something more enduring and transcendent.

Does religion have a future? Flip a coin. But, make sure you are looking at both sides.

Global Street Paper Summit Comes to Seattle University

NYX

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.