Analysis by Oswald Sobrino, J.D., M.A., who has published in New Blackfriars (U.K.), Homiletic & Pastoral Review, The Catholic Answer, New Oxford Review, CatholicExchange.com, and the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Quarterly. He is a lay graduate student at Sacred Heart Major Seminary, Detroit. © 2002-06 Oswald Sobrino.
"There is much in Christianity which can be subjected to exact analysis. But the ultimate things are shrouded in the silent mysteries of God." --Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-1988)
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Saturday, March 11, 2006Discerning the Stations of the Cross
When we gather to do the Friday Stations of the Cross (as I was privileged to be able to do last night), it is interesting to see how the same images from the same stations strike you differently. We pray that God will enlighten us with his Holy Spirit as we do the stations. So we pay attention to what we discern, both emotionally and rationally, as we pray the stations because we are confident that if we ask, we indeed shall receive.
One image that struck me is the screaming and abuse directed to Jesus by the Roman soldiers. Personally, I discern here a call to a new civility and gentleness that all of us, including me, need. In the pressures of daily life, it is easy to give peremptory orders, especially to children, although adults too frequently treat even other adults in the same peremptory fashion without even the formality of a "please." It is also easy to get "fed up" and protest loudly at certain behaviors. At those moments, we can remember that we do not want to be "Roman soldiers" like those Roman soldiers to anyone. We can pray that the Holy Spirit give us the gentleness, patience, and kindness that is promised to us (cf. Galatians 5:22-23).
There are other things that struck me while doing the stations. But this idea alone, the idea of renewing our civility in contrast to the behavior of the Roman soldiers, is more than enough for most of us to handle in a life full of pressure, frustrations, insecurities, and fears. Emulation is changing our behavior in response to good, admirable models of behavior. In the stations, we can also change our behavior for the better by viscerally rejecting the repellant and uncivilized behavior of those who abused our Savior.
Friday, March 10, 2006Arab Port Deal Collapses
Today's political headline is that the proposal to have a company owned by an Arab Muslim country (the United Arab Emirates) manage port terminals at six U.S. ports collapsed after House Republicans basically killed the deal. The denouement came as the foreign company saw the handwriting on the wall and announced that it was transferring the operations to an American company.
Now, let's be clear about a few things. Contrary to the error of the overpraised host of Meet the Press, the proposal did not involve the transfer of "ownership" of ports to a foreign company. And the Arab nation involved is ostensibly an ally in the fight against the Islamist terrorists. Having made those two points, I am delighted that the proposal collapsed and especially that it was the House Republicans who took the needed action. By taking decisive action, the House Republicans have dashed the hopes of the Party of Death to try to take more seats in the upcoming midterm elections in November. That is always good news.
But even more importantly, common sense was victorious. Port security is crucial. Terrorist sympathizers can infiltrate any port management company, but it clearly seems that it would be easier to do with a company from the Arab Muslim world. It's just common sense. Just as it is common sense, that police should especially scrutinize lone Middle Eastern males at the airport. It's not racism: it's self-defense. Why is it not racism? Prior to Sept. 11th, I believe the port deal would have gone through with no significant problem. But in the middle of a war, the deal was just unacceptable. Having an Arab company so deeply involved in the running of several American ports would be like putting the Jesuits in charge of priestly recruitment of, say, six diocesan seminaries. Yes, officially, the Jesuit order is an "ally," so to speak, and more than an "ally" of the Catholic Church. But, given the strong pro-gay sentiment in the order as a whole (with great individual exceptions, of course), no bishop in his right mind should let them manage vocations for his diocese.
Note again, as I have observed before on another occasion, that the debate has been fundamentally an intra-Republican debate, just as the Harriet Miers nomination was. We are having more of such debates, not because of any weakness in the Republican Party--contrary to the typically mistaken and politically biased analysis of the mainstream media. We are seeing more controversial issues being resolved by the clash of Republicans precisely because the Democratic Party is at sea. More and more, the Democratic Party is irrelevant. The Republicans have enough independent-minded members in Washington to tackle the tough issues that are matters for legitimate conflict.
Thursday, March 09, 2006Love Without Control
I have written before about Sister Ann Shields of Ann Arbor, who is an internationally known speaker and Catholic evangelist. When speaking about the virtue of love, she gives this prescription inspired by John Paul the Great: if you want to learn to love, sit in the very presence of love itself--the Eucharist. Sitting before the presence of the Eucharist is what John Paul the Great referred to as "radiation therapy."
In her talk, she made clear what all of us, maybe especially we Catholics, need to hear again and again: growing in the virtue of love, or any other virtue for that matter, is not something we can bring off successfully on our own. This impossibility is especially emphatic when it comes to love. It is quite difficult to love the irritating or obnoxious person in all his obtuseness and even vulgarity. But we must still seek the good of that person which is what love is all about--seeking the good of the other.
Her comments sparked some thoughts of my own. For some of us, that seeking the good of the other becomes a cover and an excuse to try to control others, to spy on whatever others are doing, or to pry into the personal and private lives of others and their relationships. That inquisitorial prying and control is not love, but rather a form of greed which seeks to possess the other in order to meet our own selfish needs, salve our own insecurities, and feed our vanity. Love seeks the good of the other-- which necessarily includes respecting the privacy of others and the freedom of others to respond to us as they see fit-- while recognizing the freedom of others even to say no to further contact with us. If control is lurking underneath what we call love, then it is not love at all at work but disguised pride seeking power and security in all the wrong places.
If we try to grow in the virtue of love without depending fully on God, we may very well and very likely end up with such a distortion: love disguised as obsessive control and tracking of others' lives. That is what C.S. Lewis comically referred to when he described the "hunted" look of the person so lucky to be "loved" by someone who had distorted love into possessiveness. In Sister Ann's talk, she emphasized that all our growth in love depends on God; we simply respond to his lavishly given Holy Spirit. God gives "without measure" (John 3:34); the only limits are our own capacity to receive that lavishness. As we open to God more and more and learn to depend totally on him and to be open completely to his will, our capacity to receive that lavish Spirit grows and grows.
We can then and only then love as God loves: without a hidden agenda of controlling or possessing, but of truly seeking the good of the other that must include the utmost respect for the other's freedom to respond as he or she sees fit. We offer ourselves, let God do the rest, and move on. I think that this insight is at least a part of what Jesus meant when he told us to lend without expecting anything in return (cf. Luke 6:32-36). We must love without insisting on or requiring anything in return: if we lose our life in this way, we will gain it (cp. Matthew 10:39). If we insist on "saving" our life by controlling the outcome, we lose everything. If, instead, we depend totally on God, we will be, as C.S. Lewis famously was, surprised by joy.
Wednesday, March 08, 2006School Vouchers Succeed!
Yesterday's N.Y. Times (article limited to paid subscribers) had an editorial column favoring school vouchers from one of its more conservative writers, John Tierney. The column focused on the success of the voucher program in Milwaukee. The column comes in the wake of other stories reporting that some local Democratic politicians--and even the local newspaper as noted in this column--are breaking ranks with the Democratic governor and the teachers' unions to embrace school vouchers. The issue was brought to a head because the popularity and success of school vouchers in Milwaukee have sparked an increased demand for the vouchers which means that the state legislature has to face the delicate political question of providing more money for more vouchers.
Even more interesting than the political and media realignment being precipitated by the success of vouchers is a study cited in the column showing that the old, tired argument that vouchers will somehow "hurt" public schools is baseless. The results of the Milwaukee study show that in fact the presence of vouchers forces-- as any free market economist, or common sense person for that matter, would have quickly told you--public schools to compete by providing better teachers and more personal attention to students. The column quotes the head of the local school board as admitting that before the competitive pressures of vouchers the public schools simply reshuffled terrible teachers from school to school. In a memorable phrase, the head of the school board called it "the dance of the lemons." Now, because of healthy competition, the public schools are not as tolerant of these bad teachers.
Teachers' unions, dominated by self-seeking, are interested in preserving monopoly power that is unchecked by competition. Truly professional individual teachers, on the other hand, are interested in what works for students. Again, unions are the source of the problem by stifling competition in an outdated guild system that penalizes the students. Here is a revolutionary thought: the primary purpose of a teachers' union should be to fight for the best outcome for each student, not to focus on securing unwithdrawable privileges for themselves. The Gospel says seek first the kingdom of God and all else will be given to you. I say to unionized teachers: seek first the best outcome for each of your students, and you will enthusiastically get all the appreciation and financial security you will ever need from extremely grateful parents, graduating students, and happy taxpayers. Your communities will also attract more investment to provide more job opportunities for your students and your own children or even for yourself if you are one of the "lemons." And I have not even touched on the fact that all of this costs much less money per student than the current public school system. Maybe, the liberals so ostensibly concerned with "social justice" might figure out that the money saved by vouchers can be invested in other ways to improve the community--such as more police to provide the public safety in which urban neighborhoods can thrive and flourish.
I have always thought that the two keys to a vibrant community are, in this order, public safety and good education. Vouchers will give us better education, especially in the dismal inner city public school systems, that will likely also reduce the crime rate. Only greed stands in the way. Since the web article is by subscription only, go to your local public library and get a copy of the March 7, 2006, edition of the N.Y. Times, go to the Op-Ed section and read about the "dance of the lemons" that has ended in Milwaukee because of vouchers. Make a copy, show it to others, and let them know that, when all is said and done, school vouchers are the real affirmative action.
Tuesday, March 07, 2006Why Pray?
Specifically, I am talking about prayers that ask God for something: healing or wisdom, mercy for or deliverance from some burden or problem. These are the quintessential prayers of petition that crop up all over the Gospels: people asking for or inquiring about wisdom and guidance (recall the rich young man asking what must he do to gain eternal life; recall Nicodemus) and the constant pleas for healing and exorcism. Prayer is also for praise and thanksgiving, for repentance and for commitment. But you can't downplay petitionary prayer as second rate. As helpless human beings, prayers of petition are as essential as oxygen.
And, in fact, Jesus orders us to ask the Father for what we need in the Lord's Prayer: "Give us this day our daily bread" (Matthew 6:11). But the skeptic will ask: does God really hear and respond, or is all of this just a form of self-comfort and self-stroking to calm us down and help us make it through troubled times? The question is worth answering. In Matthew 6:8, Jesus tells us not to be like the pagans: "Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him." The prayer of pagans is in fact the kind of compulsive, empty self-stroking that skeptics or pagans themselves are talking about in their questioning: the pagans "think that they will be heard for their many words" (Mt 6:7).
Christian prayer is very different and recognizes that the Father knows what we need before we ask. The Father is, as father, merciful, compassionate, and provident. He is concerned and deeply involved as the rest of Chapter 6 of Matthew tells us (Mt 6:25-34: "do not be anxious . . . ."). Then why do we Christians pray at all if the Father knows what we need and so strongly wants to give us what we need? We pray so that we can knowingly participate in God's plan for us. And, yes, we pray so we can live without anxiety and with trust in the Father. But most of all, we pray because love is a two-way street. By asking the Father and receiving from the Father, we consciously experience the Father's love. Love requires participation, requires freedom, requires consent. Our prayers of petition are freely made pleas for love from God who is love. That love relationship with the Father cannot exist without communication, without prayer. When we ask him for what we need, we are also saying, at the same time, that we go to the Father precisely because we know the Father loves us. In turn, we love him "because he first loved us" (1 John 4:19) by caring about our needs. If love is the key to human flourishing, then Christian prayer is the key to human flourishing. It's not about some sort of comforting self-hypnosis pointed inward. It's about fellowship with the God of love, not the gods of paganism for whom agape (self-sacrificial love) is an alien concept.
Monday, March 06, 2006South Dakota Outlaws Virtually All Abortions
Here is the CNN story on what South Dakota's governor just did. During one of the recent confirmation hearings, we heard a lot of pro-abortion Senators refer to Roe v. Wade as "settled law." In response, pro-life Republican Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas methodically pointed out strong disagreement by lawyers, both pro-life and pro-abortion, with the idea that Roe v. Wade is somehow settled or legally invulnerable. As he pointed out each item questioning the validity of Roe v. Wade, Sen. Brownback asked rhetorically: "Settled law? Not likely" (or words to that effect). So we can add today to Sen. Brownback's litany the brand new South Dakota legislation banning most abortions: "Settled law? Doesn't look settled in South Dakota!"
When Experts Shed No Light
My favorite commentator, Michael Barone, writes today about the obsession of Democrats and others with covering up the very possibility that Saddam Hussein was dealing with Al Qaeda before the Iraq invasion. Here is the link. For Democratic politicians, it's clear why they are obsessed: they need to destroy Bush by destroying any support for the Iraq war. But there is another group (also likely Democrat and liberal in politics) for whom there is another motive closer to their resume: so-called Middle East experts. As Barone puts it, the "subtleties" of their supposed expertise in the Middle East, honed with years of training and living as experts, just can't accept the possibility that the radical anti-American religious terrorists of Al Qaeda would have ever cooperated with the anti-American secularist terrorist regime of Saddam Hussein. It just seems to be an unquestioned axiom of Middle East experts.
Most of us have seen the dangers of pompous and overly self-assured experts before in many other areas of life. As Catholics, we know that many psychological experts advised bishops that sexual molesters could be returned to parishes. You can find experts who will tell you that sexual promiscuity is good, that sexual cohabitation before marriage is not harmful, that abortion can be good for the "health" of the mother even when there is no danger of death, and that homosexuality is not an objective disorder. You can also find experts in academia who will make absurd assertions with no backing whatsoever. In the field of biblical studies, you can find experts concocting out of thin air the genealogy of texts with aplomb and certainty. Even worse, you can find them concocting new biographies of Jesus based on their own imaginations and agendas. The Da Vinci Code is just the popular expression of what has gone on in certain sectors of biblical studies for years. In medicine and psychology, the history of misguided theories and diagnoses, often announced with an air of absolute certainty, is another dismal history of expert failure combined with arrogance and great human cost.
Expertise is good; but, given our fallen nature, our tendencies to see what we want to see, a lot of expert advice has to be taken with healthy skepticism and a grain of salt. Much of what passes as expertise is an expression more of arrogance than of reliable knowledge. So it is not shocking that in the field of Middle East studies--a quintessentially "soft" field where highly subjective impressions and hypotheses can be easily maintained unchecked by reality--that we have political agendas driving experts to assert things with an air of certainty and finality that does not fit the evidence. The old saying from Vergil's Aeneid was "Beware of [literally, "I fear"] Greeks even bearing gifts" (Timeo Danaos et dona ferentis). Beware of experts bearing gifts for the anti-Bush agenda and for the purpose of covering up the failure of their expertise to keep up with realities in the Middle East.