Saints, cynics, and striving souls in apocalyptic times

The world is in turmoil, the grip of darkness, and it seems things are spiraling out of control. What can we do?

Some people turn away, it’s all too much. We can’t turn away. This is an extraordinary, historically pivotal time. ‘A Necessary Look at Reality‘ is in order when the world is in such disorder, writes my friend Elizabeth Scalia, and she points to a New York Times’ piece ‘The Great Unraveling’ as the necessary reckoning with it.

This morning (September 15), the New York Times published an exquisitely-written dose of reality via Roger Cohen. If “only Nixon could go to China” then perhaps only a NYT columnist could spell this out and thus permit us to credibly acknowledge that things are as grim as we have all known, in our guts:

“It was the time of unraveling. Long afterward, in the ruins, people asked: How could it happen?

“It was a time of beheadings. With a left-handed sawing motion, against a desert backdrop, in bright sunlight, a Muslim with a British accent cut off the heads of two American journalists and a British aid worker. The jihadi seemed comfortable in his work, unhurried. His victims were broken. Terror is theater. Burning skyscrapers, severed heads: The terrorist takes movie images of unbearable lightness and gives them weight enough to embed themselves in the psyche.

“It was a time of aggression. The leader of the largest nation on earth pronounced his country encircled, even humiliated. He annexed part of a neighboring country, the first such act in Europe since 1945, and stirred up a war on further land he coveted. His surrogates shot down a civilian passenger plane. The victims, many of them Europeans, were left to rot in the sun for days. He denied any part in the violence, like a puppeteer denying that his puppets’ movements have any connection to his. He invoked the law the better to trample on it. He invoked history the better to turn it into farce. He reminded humankind that the idiom fascism knows best is untruth so grotesque it begets unreason.”

The Cohen piece, Scalia notes, is a must-read, loaded with observations and provocations, and “it beats at us like a drum. Or, really, like a gavel, calling us to order:”

It was a time of breakup. . .It was a time of weakness. . .It was a time of hatred. . .It was a time of fever…”

It is, finally, perhaps a time of dawning realization that the centers are not holding; old orders are in extremis; new orders are in capricious adolescence.

The troubles briefly enumerated in this sobering op-ed are only the most obvious issues. They are the pebble tossed into the pond, rippling outward in ever-widening circles — expanding to include a unique “time” of global crisis: governments failing at every level, everywhere; churches are divided, their freedoms challenged; citizens are distracted, dissatisfied and distrustful, their election mechanisms in doubt; schools are losing sight of the primary mission of education; families are deconstructed and the whole concept ripe for dissolution; respect for human dignity is doled out in qualified measures; there is a lack of privacy; a lack of time to think, to process and to incarnate; a lack of silence.

“It sounds terribly, terribly depressing, yes. Who wants to read that? Who wants to think about that?

Sadly, this is essential reading; this is essential thinking…

With this column, Mr. Cohen has done us the remarkable service of showing us the ugly landscape all around us; the one we have not wanted to pretend was neither so vast nor so damaged and fragile. Without taking it in, we cannot possibly begin to address the least-precarious bit of it.

Here’s Roger Cohen’s op-ed in full.

Then there’s the assortment of things I came across over the past week or so of news coverage, things I took note of for one reason or another, because there is indeed a great unraveling happening at a faster pace now, we got shocked as never before in ‘the civilized world’ and we’re confronting genocidal ferocity and barbarism ‘over there’ and accelerating social breakdown right here and people are getting very fearful and depressed.

Tod Worner, another respected friend, brings two things together at this point in one post that I believe is also a must-read.  Always facing the true, good and bad, I’m also always looking for the good and the beautiful. He put that together here. In covering a wide swath of news, commentary, social and political and theological analyses, and more, he finally came to say ‘Enough.’

The point is that I could become and did become rather fluent in the events of the day. Only it made me a bit cynical and depressed. Nowadays, everyone is a muckraker, everywhere there is injustice, and everyday requires the long climb up the hill to fight another fight. Now let me be clear, I am not arguing that there is no evil, hardship and injustice in the world. Sadly, there is plenty. Even further, I would not jettison all writing/reporting that informs and spurs us to improve the lot of humanity. But this is not all that humanity is. We were not designed to constantly look in the mirror…to rend our garments and spit at it. We are called to receive the theological virtues of faith, hope and love. We are designed to cultivate the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, temperance and courage. The devil is constantly reminding us, “You are a lousy, unworthy creation.” Whereas God is, instead, calling us, “Though imperfect, you are redeemable and called to achieve great things in my name.” Neither of these voices neglects our shortcomings, but one sees us through to greater ends. The other tempts us to wallow in the inky blackness of our sin.

I’ll come back to that remark about the devil.

Read Worner’s post, because it’s all so good, and he starts to point out some of the bad news we’ve been hearing so much about in recent weeks but adding the good news in related topics that never got attention. I love this quote he cites from newsman Bob Schieffer, a “moment of clarity” on “the virtue of courage.”

As I watched the documentary on PBS this week about Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt and their cousin Teddy, I couldn’t help but think about what set them apart from today’s politicians. Yes, they were very smart but there are still a lot of smart people in Washington. Yes, they saw wrongs that needed to be corrected. But we still have those with good hearts, and yes they were good politicians but we still have a few good politicians around here. What set them apart to my mind was their courage. When they saw wrong, they not only tried to make it right, but they did so with no guarantee of success. What a glaring contrast to the Washington of today which spends most of its time doing nothing and the rest of its time devising schemes to avoid responsibility for anything. The latest example: when congress approved arming the Syrian rebels, they stuck the legislation in a bill that also provided money to keep the government from shutting down. That way, if arming the rebels turns out to be a debacle, members can say, ‘I was never for arming the rebels, I just voted to prevent a government shutdown.’ The Roosevelt documentary was 14 hours long spread over seven nights. A story about the courage of today’s Washington would take about 30 minutes-at most.”

And then the account of a friend’s father who passed on this month, and left a legacy evident in some of the comments left in his online obituary, respect and appreciation for his witness to a life well lived, and for others.

You see, these stories, these lives, are not the common currency of all the subscriptions I had (with the exception of the theological ones). And yet, these are the ones that matter. These are the stories that edify, that embolden, that grapple with suffering and loss, yet encourage me to keep going. Sure, at times they make me wistful and sad, but by the grace of God, they also make me smile. And keep moving forward. I have cancelled most of my subscriptions and watch less TV. Oh, mind you I still pay attention, shake my head and occasionally my fist. I will never stop caring. But I won’t be cynical. I won’t believe that we are irretrievable failures. I can’t believe we are beyond redemption.

That has become a theme that, thankfully, kept repeating all this past week in different ways and places, in articles and columns, radio show roundtable discussions and messages in church, both local and universal.

This article by my friend Kathryn Jean Lopez candidly and unapologetically says that ‘amid arguments, it can be easy to forget that God is love.’ Citing a documentary made by the group Courage, she writes:

“Look at the face of the other. . . . Discover that he has a soul, a history, and a life, that he is a person, and that God loves this person,” the film begins. It’s a quote, as it happens, from Pope Benedict.

Kathryn came from the East Coast (I never know if she’s in DC or NY) to Chicago to hold our regular roundtable with Word On Fire’s Fr. Steve Grunow in person, around an actual table, live in the Chicago studio. We did two shows, and in those two hours of in depth conversation, and extra time before and after, we tackled the issues of the day, the moment, and what we must do not just to be in the public square, but make a difference there.

We talked about the terminology of ‘battle’ in so much news and discourse, and Kathryn made a good point that while we hear about all these so-called ‘wars’ going on like the ‘culture war’ and the ‘war on women’, there are real wars happening out there with great humanitarian consequences. And Pope Francis has called on the Church to be the “field hospital” for the wounded. Fr. Grunow said “the real battle is spiritual, where dark powers inflict wounds on people” and we all noted how frequently Francis has brought that up, talking about the devil and evil in the world. “That didn’t get press attention,” Kathryn noted.

“The pope’s insights are very Ignatian,” Fr. Grunow explained, since he’s a Jesuit, “and part of that is asking ‘whose banner do you follow? Christ’s, or the devil’s? You have to make a decision.’ And Francis challenges people to see that choice clearly.”

They don’t. Kathryn shared the “odd situation” she found herself in several months ago “in a mall with a shooter, a poor kid who felt no one could reach him,” which she only found out by having a few moments to talk with him after he shot himself. “We’re having policy debates in this country all the time on all sorts of issues, and that’s important, but there’s a prior step,” she continued. “People are facing dire circumstances. They need to be addressed in their needs.”

I asked Fr. Grunow if an existential crisis is one of the most urgent problems the Church faces today, and he pointed out that the top crisis globally is of course the persecuted Church in danger of extinction in some areas of the birthplace of Christianity. But “the existential crisis is the perennial work of the Church to address in every age,” he added. “Everyone has a relationship with God, whether they realize it or not.” How to help doubters, skeptics, atheists and those who have lost hope realize that is a mission more than a task.

Pope Francis repeatedly calls Catholics, Christians and all people of goodwill to ‘go out to the existential peripheries’, to ‘create a culture of encounter’, and meet people where they are. That means noticing someone across the globe, the street, the room or dinner table or office space from you. Which circles back to the question at top, what can we do?

Michael Cook pointed to one outstanding witness, Bishop Alvaro del Portillo. Who knew how to serve whoever he met by doing whatever he could, and well, to be the presence of faith, hope, charity, and joy.

“He knew how to be very human when treating people, in the work that he did, knowing that his work was also a springboard, an aid to approach God and to be with God,” Bishop Javier Echevarria Rodriguez, prelate of Opus Dei, told CNA in Rome Sept. 26.

“He helped us, he understood and encouraged us and at the same time he was greatly interested in all things that affected us. He didn’t feel distant from us or indifferent.”

Bishop Echevarria said del Portillo was “totally at the disposal of others.”

“He was a person who knew how to love, who knew how to serve and who knew how to be at hand.”

It’s what I learned years ago from a young priest as ‘the ministry of presence’, being in the moment. Which, providentially, came up in the homily on Sunday of a local parish pastor reflecting on the two sons in the parable of the Gospel, one who said he wouldn’t go work but wound up going, the other who said he would, but didn’t show up. He talked about decisions, regret, anxiety, love, forgiveness and the importance of the moment.

He quoted Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen on this profound awareness of something we tend to miss altogether.

“All unhappiness (when there is no immediate cause for sorrow) comes from excessive concentration on the past or from extreme preoccupation with the future. The major problems of psychiatry revolve around an analysis of the despair, pessimism, melancholy, and complexes that are the inheritances of what has been, or with the fears, anxieties, worries which are the imaginings of what will be…But God in His Mercy has given us two remedies for such an unhappiness: One is the sacrament of Penance…Nothing in human experience is as efficacious in curing the memory and imagination as confession…

“The second remedy for the ills that come to us from thinking about time is what might be called the sanctification of the moment – or the Now….The present moment includes some things over which we have control, but it also carries with it difficulties we cannot avoid..

We don’t or can’t always know why suffering happens, he continued, but God can draw good out of evil, and “the human mind must develop acceptance of the Now, no matter how hard it may be or us to understand its freight of pain.” To accept pain and suffering, with belief that God is in control, “is to have taken the most important step in the reformation of the world…the reformation of the self.”

G.K. Chesterton nailed it in his book ‘What’s Wrong With the World”, by concluding that his best response was “I am.” Our human nature recoils from the pain and misery and evil happening around us by crying out ‘Someone ought to do something!” True and understandable reaction.

But we should also ask ourselves ‘what am I doing?’

What the Muslim outrage is really about

Power. Not a ‘dopey’ short video, which few rioters likely even saw.

That’s the sentiment of a few bold analysts I’ve heard who were willing to step outside the press corral. And the paraphrase of thoughts buried somewhere deep in this analysis piece by Andrew McCarthy at NRO.

“The Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims.” So declared the Obama State Department in a statement issued on the website of its Egyptian embassy. At the time, it was clear that another episode of Muslim mayhem was imminent.

The statement is a disgrace, just as Mitt Romney said it was. It elevated over the U.S. Constitution (you know, the thing Obama took an oath to “preserve, protect, and defend”) the claimed right of sharia supremacists (you know, “Religion of Peace” adherents) to riot over nonsense. Further, it dignified the ludicrous pretext that an obscure, moronic 14-minute video was the actual reason for the oncoming jihad.

Here is the important part, however, the part not to be missed, no matter how determined the president’s media shysters are to cover it up: The disgraceful embassy statement was a completely accurate articulation of longstanding Obama policy.

As Obama struggled to put daylight between himself and his record, the press was duly pathetic. The president, Politico was quick to cavil, had nothing to do with “the statement by Embassy Cairo.” An administration official declaimed that it “was not cleared by Washington and does not reflect the views of the United States government.” You are to believe the Obama White House exists in a galaxy separate from the Obama State Department, which itself inhabits a frontier distant and detached from the U.S. embassy in Cairo — except, one supposes, for the $38,000 in taxpayer funds the embassy spent on Obama autobiographies, apparently thought to be craved by Egyptians, at least when they’re not ever-so-moderately chanting “Obama, Obama, there are still a billion Osamas.”

In point of fact, the embassy’s statement perfectly reflects the views of the United States government under Obama’s stewardship. It is anathema to most Americans, but it has been Obama’s position from the start.

I’ve saved a handful of good news items on this violent outburst, but McCarthy lays it out best here and the points he makes need attention. In its detail. Which is little known.

In 2009, the Obama State Department ceremoniously joined with Muslim governments to propose a United Nations resolution that, as legal commentator Stuart Taylor observed, was “all-too-friendly to censoring speech that some religions and races find offensive.” Titled “Freedom of Opinion and Expression” — a name only an Alinskyite or a Muslim Brotherhood tactician could love — the resolution was the latest salvo in a years-long campaign by the 57-government Organization of the Islamic Conference (now renamed the “Organization of Islamic Cooperation”). The OIC’s explicit goal is to coerce the West into adopting sharia, particularly its “defamation” standards.

Sharia severely penalizes any insult to Islam or its prophet, no matter how slight. Death is a common punishment. And although navel-gazing apologists blubber about how “moderate Islamist” governments will surely ameliorate enforcement of this monstrous law, the world well knows that the “Muslim street” usually takes matters into its own hands — with encouragement from their influential sheikhs and imams.

In its obsession with propitiating Islamic supremacists, the Obama administration has endorsed this license to mutilate. In the United States, the First Amendment prohibits sharia restrictions on speech about religion. As any Catholic or Jew can tell you, everyone’s belief system is subject to critical discussion. One would think that would apply doubly to Islam. After all, many Muslims accurately cite scripture as a justification for violence; and classical Islam recognizes no separation between spiritual and secular life — its ambition, through sharia, is to control matters (economic, political, military, social, hygienic, etc.) that go far beyond what is understood and insulated as “religious belief” in the West. If it is now “blasphemy” to assert that it is obscene to impose capital punishment on homosexuals and apostates, to take just two of the many examples of sharia oppression, then we might as well hang an “Out of Business” sign on our Constitution.

The Obama administration, however, did not leave it at the 2009 resolution. It has continued to work with the OIC on subordinating the First Amendment to sharia’s defamation standards — even hosting last year’s annual conference, a “High Level Meeting on Combatting Religious Intolerance.” That paragon of speech sensitivity, Secretary of State Hillary “We Came, We Saw, He Died” Clinton, hailed as a breakthrough a purported compromise that would have criminalized only speech that incited violence based on religious hostility. But it was a smokescreen: Speech that intentionally solicits violence, regardless of the speaker’s motivation, is already criminal and has always been exempted from First Amendment protection. There is no need for more law about that.

Important lesson here. Tough for some skewed cultural sensibilities, but it remains the reality.

The First Amendment permits us to criticize in a way that may provoke hostility — it would be unconstitutional to suppress that regardless of whether the law purporting to do so was civil, as opposed to criminal.

But let’s put the legal hair-splitting aside. Knowing her legal position was unsound, and that traditional forms of law could not constitutionally be used to suppress critical examination of religion, Secretary Clinton further explained the administration’s commitment “to use some old-fashioned techniques of peer pressure and shaming, so that people don’t feel that they have the support to do what we abhor.” The government is our servant, not our master — besides enforcing valid laws, it has no business using its coercive power to play social engineer. More to the present point, however, the administration was effectively saying it is perfectly appropriate to employ extra-legal forms of intimidation to suppress speech that “we abhor.”

That is precisely what the Egyptian mob was about to do when the U.S. embassy issued its statement. The Obama administration’s position? The president endorses extortionate “peer pressure” and “shaming,” but condemns constitutionally protected speech. That’s exactly the message the embassy’s statement conveyed.

Mind you, what is playing out in Egypt — as well as Libya, Yemen, and Tunisia — is a charade. It has nothing to do with the dopey movie. There is as much or more agitation to release the Blind Sheikh — which the Obama administration has also encouraged by its embrace of Islamists, including the Blind Sheikh’s terrorist organization. The latest round of marauding is about power.

In spite of news outlet after news outlet, White House press conference one after another, political surrogates and strategists all over ‘mainstream media’ to the contrary, here’s how it shakes down:

In a situation that called for a president who would actually defend the Constitution, Mitt Romney rose to the occasion. The administration’s performance was, as he asserted, “disgraceful.” Further, Romney admonished,

“America will not tolerate attacks against our citizens and against our embassies. We’ll defend also our constitutional rights of speech, and assembly, and religion. We have confidence in our cause in America. We respect our Constitution. We stand for the principles our constitution protects. We encourage other nations to understand and respect the principles of our constitution, because we recognize that these principles are the ultimate source of freedom for individuals around the world.”

Can you imagine the current incumbent, the guy sworn to defend the Constitution, ever saying such a thing — or, better, saying it and actually meaning it? Me neither. It will be remembered as the moment the race for president finally became about the real job of a president.