Category Archives: suffering

A Case of Mistaken Identity

costnerJeanne and I are great lovers of movies. As I have described in this blog on several occasions, my all-time favorite movie is “Dead Poet’s Society;” Jeanne’s is “Chariots of Fire.” But a different movie that appears on both of our “top ten” lists—a movie that I am thinking of frequently these days as politicians seek to attract the attention and support of the good citizens of the heartland—is “Field of Dreams.” The story is familiar to most everyone—pure magic with Kevin Costner, James Earl Jones, Burt Lancaster and Ray Liotta in an Iowa corn field. Toward the end of the movie, as Ray Kinsella begins throwing a baseball with his father who died years earlier and who Ray had rejected long before that, John Kinsella asks “Is this heaven?” “No,” Ray replies—“It’s Iowa.” its iowaEvery four years, Iowa is a place where the dreams of Presidential hopefuls come either to die or to live until the next primary, but the Iowa of “Field of Dreams” is a place where, at least for a time, the dividing line between this world and what lies beyond is blurred.

Joan Chittister tells the story of another case of mistaken identity. On a busy Manhattan street, hundreds of people per minute rush by a young woman’s fruit and vegetable stand; vegetable standher daily business depends on her produce being attractive enough as a quick lunch or snack to draw people away from their focused and determined travels to their next destination. Suddenly, everyone heard the crash. The produce stand teetered for a moment, then the baskets containing apples, oranges, pears, tomatoes and peppers fell off the stand onto the sidewalk. They rolled in every direction, under the feet of pedestrians and toward the sewer grates along the street. The girl behind the stand burst into tears, fell to her knees, and began to sweep her hands as far as she could reach in an attempt to gather in her produce. “What am I going to do?” she wailed. “It’s all ruined! I won’t be able to sell any of this!”

One man, rushing by with a few colleagues on his way to a meeting a few blocks down the avenue, upon seeing her distress stopped and came back. “Go on—I’ll catch up with you!” he shouted to his companions. He got down with the young woman on the sidewalk and started retrieving what produce he could. overturned fruitIt was only then, as he watched her sweep her hands across the sidewalk in every direction with her face pointed upward, that he realized the young woman was blind. “What am I going to do?” she kept crying.

After returning her cart to an upright position and putting the items he had been able to collect back in their baskets, the man took forty dollars out of his wallet and pressed it into her hand. “Here is forty dollars to pay for the damage,” he said as he prepared to go. The girl stood up and reached in the direction of where she had heard his voice. “Mister,” she called out after him—“Mister, wait!” He turned around, returned to where she was standing, and looked into her blind eyes. “Mister,” she asked, “are you Jesus?”Where's jesus

Chittister doesn’t reveal the man’s answer to the question, but I know what mine would have been. Assuming, of course, that I had been good enough to stop and help the woman while hurrying from one place to another. I’d like to think that I would have helped, but the truth is that Jeanne is far more likely to have immediately gotten on her hands and knees to help and would have dragged me down to do so as well. My answer to the “are you Jesus?” question would have been first to laugh, then say something like “no, that’s well above my pay grade!” The blind woman’s question is understandable—this is the sort of thing that one can imagine Jesus doing, regardless of whether one is a Christian—above my pay gradebut we forget that all we have of what Jesus was like are vignettes, bits and pieces of the sorts of things the guy and his entourage were up to for three years as they wandered the countryside and towns.

It is very possible, though, that the gospels are a “greatest hits” sort of account; stories of the undoubtedly many times Jesus walked by someone in need or failed to recognize a person in distress aren’t likely to sell very well or generate many followers over the generations. But even in the gospels we occasionally catch glimpses of Jesus in a hurry, Jesus worn out by the crowds, and Jesus having a bad day. The young woman’s “Are you Jesus?” question is not inspired by a miracle performed or an eloquent sermon delivered—she asks because the man who helps is doing the sort of thing that human beings do when they are at their best rather than in a rush, self-absorbed, or unaware of what is right in front of them. In her mind “Jesus” is the name for the best that a human being can be. That is definitely not above my pay grade.

Within the context of my Christian faith, helping those in need is not only within my pay grade, it is according to the gospels a requirement of my faith. According to the texts, the one guaranteed way to piss God off is to fail to pay attention to the poor, widows, homeless, orphans, and all those who have fallen through the cracks. To be a follower of Jesus is, by definition, to be a person who is on the front lines of aid and protection for the less fortunate. Thelp someonehis is more than a moral directive—it is the direct outcome of the Christian story of Incarnation. God in human form, the divine clothed in mortal flesh—this is the heart and soul of the Christian faith and it how God continues to be present and work in the world. God made flesh is not just a moment in time that we celebrate two millennia later. As Chittister points out, the created world in which we live can only be completed when we take ownership of the divine within us and act accordingly.

Chittister Impersonating Catholic copyGod did not finish creation; God started it. Its ongoing development God leaves to us. What we do in life makes us the hands of God in living flesh and blood. Having made the world, having given it everything it needs to continue, having brought it to the point of abundance and possibility and dynamism, God left it for us to finish. God left it to us to be the mercy and the justice, the charity and the care, the righteousness and the commitment, all that it will take for people to bring the goodness of God to outweigh the rest.

Sister Joan closes the story of the blind young lady with the shocking, but empowering truth;

Are you Jesus? people ask us silently every day. And the answer formed in us if we live it with constancy, with regularity, with fidelity, is surely, yes.

We Are Not Alone

Jesuit priest and author James Martin recently said in an interview that we as a culture have sanitized the Christmas story. This is worth paying close attention to during this current Christmas season which seems more dissonant than most, with violence across the globe,, dealing with a controversial Presidential election, and the usual jostling for air space with department store muzak and familiar stories from the pulpit. During a conversation with a number of friends the other day I was reminded that the juxtaposition of promise and death, of expectation and suffering, is nothing new. The Coventry CarolThis dissonance is built into the fabric of the stories that we tend to tell selectively and sanitize for public consumption at this time of year. The text of one of my favorite carols, the Coventry Carol, is a case in point. Its text is focused on yesterday’s gospel from Matthew, a story that you will definitely not see represented in anyone’s creche or on anyone’s front lawn.

The Coventry Carol is written in a minor key, appropriate for the shocking event that is its central concern. In Matthew’s gospel the early focus is not on the birth of Jesus (Luke’s more familiar story takes care of that), but on events occurring soon after. “Wise men from the East” have arrived in Jerusalem following a star that they believe portends the birth of a new king. After they refuse to take the current king Herod’s bait and choose to return home after visiting the Holy Family’s house (they’ve apparently moved out of the stable some time earlier) without revealing to massacre of the innocentsHerod where the infant threat to his throne is living in Bethlehem, Herod orders the murder of all the male children under two years of age in Bethlehem. This is the theme of the Coventry Carol, so named because it is part of a cycle of 16th century songs that were performed in that city as a pageant dramatization of the birth narrative in Matthew.

Herod the king, in his raging,
Charged he hath this day.
His men of might, in his own sight,
All young children to slay.

Mary, Joseph, and Jesus escape the massacre because Joseph is tipped off by an angel of the danger. They escape to Egypt where the family stays until Herod dies. The Coventry Carol reminds us that even the Incarnation, the divine taking on human form, does not guarantee a respite from darkness, evil, and death. Indeed, this particularly horrible event—the massacre of innocent children—would not have even happened had it not been for the miraculous event of Jesus’ birth. coventryAgain and again we learn that goodness and evil abide together in a complex tangle that belies our hopes and dreams of a world in which all is goodness and light. Whatever is promised by the narrative of the Incarnation, it is not that.

The city of Coventry after which the carol is named was the location of yet another extraordinary mixture of hope and darkness during World War II. An industrial city in the West Midlands of England, Coventry was the target of numerous Luftwaffe bombing raids. The worst of these occurred on November 14, 1940; the devastation included the almost total destruction of Coventry’s gothic Saint Michael’s Cathedral that was built during the late 14th and early 15th centuries. ruinsVarious researchers revealed some decades later the likelihood that because the German secret “Enigma” code had just been broken by cryptographers at Bletchley Circle, British war authorities knew that Coventry had been targeted for a Luftwaffe fire-bombing raid some days before the raid occurred. These authorities chose not to alert the citizens of Coventry ahead of time because doing so would have revealed to the Germans that their supposedly unbreakable code had been cracked. Sir William Stephenson, the chief of all Allied intelligence during WWII, wrote that both Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill were aware that Coventry was going to be bombed; cathedral old and newChurchill reportedly told Stephenson after the war that letting Coventry burn aged him twenty years.

Others have challenged Stephenson’s story, but situations of overall good requiring destruction and death are disturbingly commonplace. A new Coventry Cathedral was built next to the ruins of the one destroyed in 1940, incorporating into its modern architecture the remains of the previous edifice as a testament to both hope and despair, triumph and sacrifice. The theme of the dedication, and the continuing ministry of St. Michael’s Cathedral to this day, is reconciliation. Its art work, commissioned from all over the world, makes use of remnants of the old cathedral as well as materials not usually incorporated in religious art—the wreckage of automobiles, refuse from landfills—thehigh altar cross last places we normally look for intimations of the sacred.

Paying attention to the Christmas narrative reveals that the planners and parishioners of the cathedral in Coventry are on to something. When the divine enters the world, we may often look in vain for immediate evidence. Violence and suffering still occur, human beings continue to perpetuate atrocities on each other and on the world in which we live. The difference before God enters human reality and after is so subtle as to often be unnoticeable. But as a wise person once told me, this is not a God who intervenes. AudenThis is a God who indwells. In his lengthy Christmas poem “For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio,” W. H. Auden expresses this sentiment through Simeon, the old man who gets to see the infant Jesus just before he dies.

And because of His visitation, we may no longer desire God as if He were lacking: our redemption is no longer a question of pursuit but of surrender to Him who is always and everywhere present. Therefore, at every moment we pray that, following Him, we may depart from our anxiety into His peace.

Anxiety and fear are natural human responses to evil and suffering. But we do well to remember one of the promised names of the infant to come—Immanuel—means “God is with us.” massacre 2We will look far and wide for reminders of Herod’s massacre of the Innocents in nativity sets in houses and front yards this Christmas season, but maybe such reminders should be there. They are just as much a part of the story as angels singing to shepherds. In the darkest depths of despair, the promise is that God is with us, choosing to become part of the mess and transform it from within rather than impose solutions from the outside. As I heard someone say this morning, “we need to stop listening to fear and calling it wisdom.” At the heart of the beautiful and transformative story is, as Winston Churchill might have described it, “a mystery wrapped in an enigma.” The baby in a manger, as well as the dead babies in the streets of Bethlehem, call us to embrace hope when things are darkest. We are not alone.

I Will Bring You Home

imagesCACMK60OBaptist preacher’s kids get to do some very odd things. I memorized large portions of the Bible under duress, including–as a dutiful five-year-old–the names of the books of the Old Testament minor prophets to an obnoxious sing-songy tune. I could run through all of them in one breath—Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi. These obscure texts were written in a distant time for a distant people in contexts and for reasons known only to the most narrowlnot-alone[1]y focused academics.  Yet there are memorable promises buried in these forgotten pages; in a recent Sunday lectionary reading, I was reminded of Zephaniah’s : I will bring you home.

Vermont, New Mexico, Rhode Island, Florida, Wyoming, New Mexico again, Wisconsin, Tennessee, Rhode Island, Minnesota, Rhode Island. These are the states in which I have lived, in chronological order. A few footnotes: I lived in Rhode Island the first time for only one month, triumphantly returning sixteen years later for a period of time that has now lasted for more than two decades. I’ve now lived in Rhode Island for a longer unbroken number of years than any other state, including Vermont, the state in which I grew up.Thumbs-up-icon[1] Some of these states I’ve loved living in Thumbs-down-icon[1](New Mexico, Wisconsin, Rhode Island), some I’ve hated (Florida, Tennessee)—these judgments are comments about me rather than about the states, all of which I’m sure are lovely and eminently livable.

A friend of mine who knows Jeanne and I well said in an email to me a few years ago that “you and Jeanne are home for each other.” And it’s a good thing. When her mother died in late 2002, the last of our four parents to pass away, Jeanne said to me “now we’re orphans.” Indeed we were officially orphans, but we had felt as if we were orphans for most of the almost fifteen years at that time that we had been together. When Jeanne and I, along with my two sons (ages 8 and 5), set up housekeeping together for the firStress-ZebraStripes-240x300[1]st time in Milwaukee in August 1988, my parents were living over 1000 miles to the west in Wyoming and Jeanne’s parents were more than 1000 miles to the east in Brooklyn. These distances deprived our new step-family of badly needed support and wisdom, a situation made even worse when my mother died of cancer within two months of our arrival in Wisconsin, followed unexpectedly by my father-in-law’s passing just two weeks later. Jeanne read an article once listing a number of the top stress creators that a human being might go through in their lifetime, including changing jobs, moving, divorce, marriage, and the death of loved ones. We experienced all of them within the first tumultuous months of our relationship.

Although it would be another fourteen years before my father and mother-in-law died within a few months of each other in 2002, Dad of heart failure and Rose after several years of descent into the hell of Alzheimer’s, the distances between the two of us and our remaining parents never decreased. I learned immediately after my mother died the truth of what I had suspected all along—she was the one connecting thread that bound me tightly to my father, my brother, and other members of my extended family. Although Jeanne’s mother and four siblings remained and would have helped if they could have, they were still over 1000 miles away. For the day to day struggles of making our new family work, we were alone, often making it up as we went along.

Which often seems to be the human condition—making it up as we go along. As I read Psalm 22 at midday prayer several years ago with a few dozen Benedictine monks and visitors, the poignancy ripped into me. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This cry from the cross is perhaps the most convincing evidence in the gospels, in case I needed any, that Jesus was fully human, a man just as I am. This anguish-filled cry expresses a primal human fear—aloneness and abandonment. Jesus knew it was coming, as one by one his closest friends left him first in spirit (“Could you not pray with me even one hour?”) and then in body. Jesus’ cry in Gethsemane—“Let this cup pass from me”—was not about avoiding the pain and suffering to come. It came from the depths of Jesus’ humanity, a gut-wrenching terror of being hung out to dry with no one and nothing left to fall back on, of dying alone and abandoned. And on the cross the fear became a reality. Ellul.MoneyAndPower.83000Every human being’s worst nightmare come true. Alone. Abandoned. Lost.

My father’s favorite theologian, Jacques Ellul, once wrote a book entitled Hope in Time of Abandonment. Which is what Advent is all about. The heart of this hope is expressed in a line from one of my favorite hymns—“Alleluia! Not as orphans are we left in sorrow now.”0351=351[1] The promise and reality of redemption, that we are not alone, is throughout scripture. But so often it sounds like a platitude—“I am with you always,” “I will not leave you comfortless,” “I will never leave you or forsake you.” Looks good on a plaque on the wall or on a bumper sticker, but when real life happens, the truth is in line with what a friend said to me once in the middle of a difficult time—“We come into the world alone and we leave the world alone.” Hard words, but true.

I was often challenged as a youngster to make a home for Jesus in my heart. For a five-year-old with a typically literal imagination, that didn’t make a lot of sense. I also heard a lot about God preparing a home for those who love God, a place in heaven after death. That didn’t interest me very much. But if we truly are not strangers in a strange land, if there truly is a home for each of us somewhere in this world of separation and alienation, that’s great news. A manger in a barn is not much of a home, but it has served as the centering touchstone for countless persons because a home is far more than a location or a physical structure. St Athanasius the Great[1]At the heart of Advent is the outrageous promise that we humans and the divine belong together. The fourth-century  church father Athanasius said “God became man so that man might become God.” There’s more in that claim than might be unpacked in a lifetime, but that’s the mystery that Advent prepares us for—a cosmic homecoming.

The Weight of this Sad Time

It’s not often that I’m at a loss for words, but I am this morning. This post from several months ago sort of captures my mood at the moment; as Wittgenstein wrote, “of that which we cannot speak, we must remain silent.”

Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say. Shakespeare, King Lear

Last week I spent a couple of mornings and part of an afternoon participating in a faculty end-of-the-year workshop held annually for the honors faculty. It is always held the week after Commencement; with sabbatical just around the corner, I considered not attending this year. Cost of DiscipleshipBut the two morning seminars were on King Lear and Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship, two worthy texts that should be on everyone’s top whatever list. That, along with a reasonable stipend, was enough for me to sign up.

The King Lear seminar, led by a Shakespeare scholar from the English department, was a welcome return to a text that I find both strikingly dark and strangely compelling every time I read it. I love Shakespeare and find his plays more insightful about human nature and the human condition than any other author (certainly more insightful than any philosopher I have read), but had not read this particular tragedy for a couple of years. tumblr_ma8azfhZEg1rgpruxo3_r3_1280[1]As it always does, the play blew me away, disturbed me, and left me wondering whether my colleagues might find some glimmers of hope and redemption that have always escaped me.

King Lear pushes to the limit a hypothesis that has a long and complicated pedigree: We live in a universe that is malign, at the very least indifferent, and human life within this universe is brutal, wretched, and meaningless. Furthermore, Shakespeare sets the play in an early England that as yet has not been “Christianized”—typical and familiar moralizing and redemptive language is as out of place here as it would have been in Ancient Greece or Rome. As various nasty and morally awful characters—including Lear’s two older daughters—apparently prosper from their rejection of their father, those characters with even a shred of dignity, honor, or love—including Lear’s youngest daughter—are rejected and ultimately destroyed. By the end of the play, the stage is littered with the bodies of both the good and the bad, while a handful of dazed survivors are left to pick up the pieces. Naked in a driving storm in the middle of a Scottish heath, Lear rages that human beings are nothing but “poor, bare forked animals,” living on a “great stage of fools.”imagesCAOCS0RP Lear demands an answer to the question “Is man no more than this?” The blinded Gloucester despairingly directs his accusations heavenward:

As flies to wanton boys are we to th’gods;

They kill us for their sport.

Lear 2008My colleagues and I ended two morning hours of seminar and another afternoon hour by viewing the final act of the play on screen with the 2008 version starring Ian MacKellan as Lear. It is a stark production with Beckett-like sparse staging toward the end. As character after character dies—Lear’s three daughters, the evil Edmund, and ultimately Lear himself—and the stage is littered with corpses, the play ends with Edgar’s final lines:

The weight of this sad time we must obey,

Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.

Fade to black. The seminar leader asked us for our feelings, our impressions of what we had just viewed, and for the first time in thirty years in academia I heard something I’ve never before heard when in the presence of twenty scholars: total silence. In obedience to Edward’s directive, no one felt obligated to say anything that “should” be said; at least for a minute or two, we were not professors ready to discuss the next topic to death, Auschwitzbut human beings stunned into silence by Shakespeare’s brilliant and disabling portrayal of a meaningless and hopeless world.

I was reminded of one of the final classes in my “Grace, Truth, and Freedom in the Nazi Era” colloquium this past semester. My colleague Ray was up front andeyeglasses ended the two-hour session with footage from the liberation of Auschwitz. The students were exposed to a variety of tough material, both in writing and on the screen, throughout the semester, but this particular footage was especially difficult to watch. There was no narration, no voice over, just hundreds of emaciated dead bodies stacked like so much wood, rooms filled to the ceiling with eyeglasses, hair, or shoes. Bulldozers pushing piles of bodies into a pit for burial just as they would push garbage into a pit at a landfill. suvivorsAnd perhaps most horrific of all were the close-ups on the faces of the just-liberated prisoners who were still barely alive. The haunting and empty gazes still float through my memory and probably will never leave. At the end of the several minute montage there was dead silence in the room. Ray wisely made no comment and simply turned off the computer and AV system, then began gathering his books and notes. This was the cue for the rest of us to do the same, and we left the room in silence.

This would have probably been the appropriate conclusion to the King Lear seminar the other day as well. But after what seemed like a very long silence, someone made a comment, then someone else followed up, and pretty soon we were doing what academics do in every context and setting—talking. Several people referenced the silence that preceded the talking and began to analyze what it was about both the play and the film adaptation that caused us not to say anything. speak what we feelBut with Edgar’s final lines in mind, our first reaction was most in keeping with “Speak what we feel”—except that our feelings were, at least for a few moments, deeper than words could express. Once we started putting what we felt into words, it was very easy to shift into “what we ought to say,” and the powerful moment was lost.Greenberg

Sometimes the best thing to say is nothing. And, as Irving Greenberg writes in Cloud of Smoke, Pillar of Fire, if we feel that something must be said, we need to be very careful about what it is.

The Holocaust challenges the claims of all the standards that compete for modern man’s loyalties.  Nor does it give simple, clear answers or definitive solutions.  To claim that it does is not to take the burning children seriously…Giotto lamentationLet us offer, then, as a working principle the following: No statement, theological, or otherwise, should be made that would not be credible in the presence of the burning children.

A Lonely Pawn

Have you never felt like one of those pawns forgotten in a corner of the board, with the sounds of battle fading behind them? They try to stand straight but wonder if they still have a king to serve. Arturo Pérez-Reverteperez reverte

As is my usual custom, I am trying to read as many non-academic, non-work-related books this month as I can before I return to the classroom in three weeks. My current author is Arturo Pérez-Reverte, an internationally acclaimed Spanish author of mysteries and thrillers notable for their intricate and labyrinthine plots. He’s good—not at the top of my list of mystery authors with Elizabeth George, Louise Penny, or P. D. James, but no more than one rung lower on the ladder of excellence. I just finished The Flanders Panel, a complicated and multi-layered story with a sixteenth-century painting by a Flemish master at the center. flanders panelThe painting depicts two men playing a game of chess, with an aristocratic woman reading a book by the window in the background—a game within a game within a game, as it turns out. I’m glad I know a little bit about chess, because its intricacies and strategies take center stage as various characters seek to decipher hidden clues in the painting that promise to reveal the story of a murder that inspired the work of art, as well as to shed light on more recent suspicious deaths.

Let me be clear—I am a horrible chess player. I learned the rules of the game and the movements of each piece from my Dad (also a horrible player), but I know nothing about strategy. The chess matches I have participated in over the years have been bloodbaths, similar to the Battle of the Bastards toward the end of the most recent season of “Game of Thrones.” battle of the bastardsI recall many games where the losing side had only a naked and solitary king left when things finally ended. You don’t need to know anything about chess to realize that when one piece is being chased around sixty-four squares by several hostile enemy pieces, checkmate will soon occur. I taught my youngest son Justin the basics of chess as my father had taught me—my older son Caleb lacked the patience. Justin took the game far more seriously than I ever have, joining the chess club in high school and practicing at home when he could get me to play. “I’ll play you until you beat me,” I said—and I was true to my word. He beat me for the first time during his freshman or sophomore year, and I never played him again. My willingness to be humiliated is limited.

The Flanders Panel is good, but the Pérez-Reverte quotation at the beginning of this essay is from a different mystery—The Seville Communion. Because it involves ideas and issues that I am perpetually fascinated by, this story is my favorite of the four Pérez-Reverte mysteries I have read so far. seville communionThe main character in The Seville Communion is Lorenzo Quart, a Jesuit priest sent from the Vatican to Seville charged with sorting out a complicated and tangled situation involving Our Lady of Tears, a historic but crumbling Catholic church built on land for which various constituencies have plans that do not include a church in which only a few dozen people worship per week. Father Quart considers himself to be a soldier in the Roman Catholic army rather than a priest; he is intelligent, effective, agnostic, and cynical. But he meets his match in Father Priamo Ferro, the aging priest in charge of the church in question. Quart expects Ferro to be an embodiment of everything Quart hates—old-style Catholicism with Latin masses for the benefit of a handful of elderly female parishioners. What he finds instead generates conversations reminiscent of another famous literary conversation set in Seville—Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor tale from The Brothers Karamazov.

Dostoevsky’s Inquisitor converses with Jesus, who has unexpectedly and inexplicably shown up in sixteenth-century Seville. grand inquisitorTheir wide-ranging conversation focuses on the impossibility of Jesus’ message of individual freedom, choice, and responsibility—the Inquisitor points out that the Catholic church has spent centuries repackaging Christianity into something that human beings want and can handle. The freedom proclaimed by Jesus is too demanding and makes people unhappy. Human beings prefer security and consolation to an unendurable freedom. All that human beings want is to be saved from the great anxiety and terrible agony they endure at present in making free decisions for themselves. In The Seville Communion, the conversations between Fathers Quart and Ferro focus on precisely why human beings need consolation and security in the first place.

Quart is surprised to find that Ferro, who appears to be an embodiment of traditional, faithful Catholicism, has not believed in the existence of God for some time; Ferro is convinced that not even the Pope believes in God any more. But this doesn’t matter. As Ferro tells Quart, the purpose of faith is

To reassure man confronted with the horror of his own solitude, death, and the void . . . Faith doesn’t even need the existence of God. It’s a blind leap into a pair of welcoming arms. It’s solace in the face of senseless fear and suffering. The child’s trust in the hand that leads out of darkness.lifes a bitch

The greatest human fear? That nothing means anything. That life’s a bitch and then we die. As the Grand Inquisitor tells Jesus, the purpose of faith is to convince ourselves, in the face of contrary evidence, that somewhere, somehow, there is a purpose to it all. The church’s role is to facilitate this illusion. As Ferro explains, the challenge is

How to preserve, then, the message of life in a world that bears the seal of death? Man dies, he knows he will die, and also knows that, unlike kings, popes, and generals, he’ll leave no trace. He tells himself there must be something more. Otherwise, the universe is simply a joke in very poor taste; senseless chaos. So faith becomes a kind of hope, a solace.

In the great game of life, most of us are lonely pawns. Pawns are the most plentiful and least powerful pieces on a chessboard. pawnPawns can move only one square at a time, and only forward. It must often be tempting for a pawn to imagine that there is no point to the game, that other pieces with more options are the only ones that can make a difference, that perhaps the king who the pawn is assigned to defend does not even exist. And yet the pawn endures—until it is taken and removed from the board. No wonder we embrace stories that tell us otherwise, stories intended to convince us that there is something bigger going on in which each of us, often unwittingly and in ignorance, plays a part.

The Grand Inquisitor and Father Ferro have a point—there’s a lot to be said for exchanging the challenge of freedom and responsibility for the security of what Dostoevsky calls “miracle, mystery, and authority.” But to exchange freedom and responsibility for security and comfort, no matter how seductive, is to sacrifice both what makes us human and the heart of true faith. As Simon Critchley, in an essay focusing on the Grand Inquisitor story, writes:

It is the freedom of faith. It is the acceptance—submission to, even—a demand that both places a perhaps intolerable burden on the self, but which also energizes a movement of subjective conversion, to begin again . . . Faith hopes for grace . . . Such an experience of faith is not certainty . . . On this view, doubt is not the enemy of faith. On the contrary, it is certainty. If faith becomes certainty, then we have become seduced by the temptations of miracle, mystery, and authority . . . meanking of life[Faith] is defined by an essential insecurity, tempered by doubt and defined by a radical experience of freedom.

In the midst of uncertainty and lack of information, each lonely pawn has a continual choice to make. Does my life mean anything? Can I make a difference? When considering these questions, it is worth remembering that even the lowly pawn, once in a while, gets to move one space diagonally and perhaps change the whole landscape of the game. True faith is a leap, but not into the security of collective conformity. Rather, it is a continuing commitment to and embrace of both freedom and responsibility–the choice to pursue that most elusive of goals: the meaning of my life.

Naming Our Demons

sheep on its backMy youngest son was a vet tech for a number of years and had many informed opinions about different types of animals. The stupidest animals he ever dealt with were sheep—I always knew that it is not a compliment when human beings are regularly likened to sheep in the Bible. For instance, Justin tells me that all one has to do to get a sheep to behave is to put it on its back. Once feet up, a sheep apparently believes that she or he has been conquered and will not struggle, no matter what is done to it. Just watch the movie “Babe” and you’ll find out how dumb sheep are.babe

“Babe” also lets us know which animal occupies the other end of the intelligence spectrum from sheep. Despite a lot of bad press of various sorts, pigs are incredibly intelligent; Justin says that the some of the pigs he dealt with were smarter than a lot of the humans he knows. Pigs get a bad rap—they have the reputation of being lazy, they are fat, they are dirty, and there is no situation in which being called a “pig” is a good thing. Pigs are animals-non-grata in the Bible—on the unclean and “don’t eat” list along with a number of other beasts.smart pig And pigs were major players in the gospel reading a couple of Sundays ago, one of the strangest episodes to emerge from the stories of Jesus.

In Luke 8 Jesus and his entourage are in the land of the Gerasenes, in what would be modern-day Jordan. There he encounters a man “who had demons,” a man who has been living naked “among the tombs” for many years. The man (or the demons) knows Jesus on sight and begs for mercy. After a brief exchange, Jesus casts the demons out of the man and, agreeing to  their request sends them into a herd of swine minding their own business close by. The pigs rush down a hill into a nearby lake and drown. The swineherds run to town reporting what just happened (and undoubtedly also to file a legal claim against Jesus for ruining their livelihood). into the pigsAlthough somewhat unusual, on one level the story is just another tale of Jesus’ compassion and healing powers; hidden in the narrative, however, are at least a couple of details worth considering.

The man knows Jesus’ name, but Jesus does not know his, nor apparently does he know the identity of the entities possessing the man. Jesus asks “What is your name?” to which the man answers “‘Legion;’ for many demons had entered him.” Contemporary scholars often stress that ailments identified as possession by evil spirits in the ancient world were almost certainly diseases such as epilepsy, psychological disorders, or any medical problem manifesting itself in unusual behavior or appearance. But we need not delve into a discussion of whether Satan and demons are real in order to find value in Jesus’ question to the man. In her Sunday sermon on this text, my good friend Marsue, who is an Episcopal priest, advised her congregation to “Name your demon.” “Have you ever felt that something just isn’t right, that something inside is out of whack but you don’t know what?” Marsue asked. As the saying tells us, your giant goes with you wherever you go. And so do your demons. ThoreauThoreau once wrote that most of us live lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave never grappling with the sources of that desperation.

This applies not only on an individual but on a collective level. It is much easier to project our fears and concerns onto the “Other,” whether defined by religious commitment, racial identity, countries of origin, or sexual orientation, than it is to realize that our fears and concerns always are rooted much more closely to home than we choose to accept. Iris Murdoch once suggested that one of the best questions one can ask oneself regularly is “What are you afraid of?” If our consistent answer is “those who are most unlike us,” it is time to consider the possibility that we are turning others into what we are most uncomfortable with and fear about ourselves. The first steps toward naming my demons begin with identifying those persons and situations I am most uncomfortable with and asking “afraid ofwhat am I so afraid of? What is its name?” Just like vampires, our demons cannot survive when we shine light on them.

In the story from Luke, after Jesus casts the demons into the pigs, the news spreads quickly and the community comes to see the healed man “clothed and in his right mind.” Jesus is a rock star because he has made a man who everyone avoided like the plague whole again and the townspeople invite Jesus and the man into their town for a big celebration. Well . . . not so much. Instead, “all the people of the surrounding country of the Gerasenes asked Jesus to leave them; for they were seized with great fear.” There’s that “f” word again—what were these people afraid of? Their disturbing reaction to the healing of a tormented and troubled neighbor raises another important question. Not only does each of us need to ask “what am I afraid of?” but each of us also needs to ask “do I want to be free of that fear?” For years, the residents of Gerasa were very clear about who this demon-possessed man was and how to handle him. “Stay away from him.” “Don’t let the kids go near the cemetery where he lurks unaccompanied.” “He’s dangerous.” “There’s no hope for him—best to ignore him as much as possible.” healedBut now, all of a sudden, everything has changed.

Dealing with demons is a risky business. Risky because I might be so used to and comfortable with my demons that I cannot imagine life without them. As Jesus asked the man at the pool of Bethsaida, “do you want to be made whole?” Although we might deny it, the immediate answer for many of us is undoubtedly “I’m not so sure.” I can’t imagine myself without my prejudices, my preconceptions, my weaknesses—many of which I did not choose but which have defined me for longer than I can remember. This is also risky for those around me, because now all of their preconceptions are brought to light as well. All of the categories that defined the previously demon-possessed man—someone to be avoided, a dangerous person, insane, and so on—now have to be rethought. the otherMore generally, they have discovered that the “Other” is exactly the same as they are.

Retooling our preconceptions and discovering what is common among us rather than what divides us is very difficult work, work that directly challenges our comfortable categorizations. Do we really want to know that those whom we regularly keep at arm’s length are, regardless of religious commitment, race, or sexual orientation exactly the same as we are in every respect that matters? The citizens of Gerasa knew that what had just happened to the demon-possessed man was a total game changer—and they were not ready or willing to play the new game. We are not told how they responded to the newly healed man over time, but we do know that they asked the man responsible for the healing to leave. Naming our demons requires also taking responsibility for what comes afterward—a radical retooling and rethinking of everything we think, say, and do. That’s a lot of work—it’s a lot easier just to hang on to our demons. Unless we actually want to be made well.

What Do You Want?

Anyone who reads this blog regularly or even occasionally knows that I love movies. Solidly in my top ten, maybe even in the top five, is the 1989 film “Field of Dreams.” About half way through the story, Ray and TerryRay Kinsella (played by Kevin Costner) and Terrence Mann (played by James Earl Jones) are in the bowels of my beloved Fenway Park. Ray has brought Terry there in an attempt to involve him in a ludicrous scheme that Mann is trying to resist getting sucked into. Mann was a major player in the 60s civil rights and anti-Viet Nam protests who now, twenty years later, is tired of being everyone’s unofficial guru and voice of the flower power generation. He just wants to be left alone. “So what do you want?” Ray asks Terry.

Terry: I want them to stop looking to me for answers, begging me to speak again, write again, be a leader. I want them to start thinking for themselves. I want my privacy.

Ray: (gesturing to the concession stand they are in front of) No, I mean, what do you WANT?

Terry: Oh. Dog and a beer.what do you want

Sometimes, “What do you want?” is just a question about one’s lunch or dinner preferences. At other times, the question raises far more important issues. In John’s gospel we find a classic “What do you want?” situation where a man’s health and happiness hang in the balance. It’s an odd story, relatively straightforward on the surface but with many layers of complexity underneath. While in Jerusalem early in his ministry, Jesus and the disciples come to the Pool of Bethesda, rumored to have healing powers, but only under special circumstances. “An angel went down at a certain time into the pool and stirred up the water; then whoever stepped in first, after the stirring of the water, was made well of whatever disease he had.” A strange phenomenon, for sure, but hey, this took place before modern science told us that this sort of thing is impossible. Not surprisingly, the perimeter of the pool is crowded with “a great multitude of sick people, blind, lame, paralyzed, waiting for the moving of the water.”bethesda

Among this multitude is a man who has been afflicted with an unspecified infirmity for thirty-eight years. When I first heard this story in Sunday School as a kid, I thought that this guy had been at the pool for thirty-eight years, which would definitely suck. But in truth, we are not told how long he has been there, nor why Jesus chooses him at random out of the dozens, perhaps hundreds, of people seeking healing to strike up a conversation with. Jesus asks the man a strange, seemingly stupid question: “Do you want to be made well?” All sorts of possible responses come to mind:

  • No, moron, I just like hanging out with sick people.
  • I thought I did, but now that you ask I realize that I sort of enjoy being incapacitated.
  • Yes, but the copay on my health insurance is so large that I have to wait for my next disability check to come in.

Ask a stupid question, you usually get a stupid answer. But Jesus’ question reminds me of a character from Louise Penny’s Still Life, who I wrote about a month or so ago.still life

Myrna, proprietor of a small bookstore in Three Pines, Quebec, and Inspector Gamache, Penny’s talented murder-solving hero, are having a conversation about the inevitability of change and the various ways in which human beings deal with it. For twenty-five years Myrna was a psychologist in Montreal, one hour’s drive to the north, before chucking it all, moving to rural Three Pines, and rebooting her life entirely. Why did she do it?

I lost sympathy with many of my patients. After twenty-five years of listening to their complaints I finally snapped. I woke up one morning bent out of shape about this client who was forty-three but acting sixteen. Every week he’d come with the same complaints, “Someone hurt me. Life is unfair. It’s not my fault.” For three years I’d been making suggestions, and for three years he’d done nothing. Then, listening to him this one day, I suddenly understood. He wasn’t changing because he didn’t want to. He had no intention of changing. For the next twenty years we would go through this charade. And I realized in that same instant that most of my clients were exactly like him.

So maybe “Do you want to be made well?” isn’t a stupid question after all. It’s interesting that the man at the Bethesda pool doesn’t simply answer “yes” or “no.” Instead, he provides an excuse and defensive explanation for why he hasn’t been healed already. “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.” Roughly paraphrased: “It’s not my fault that I’m in this position—I have no friends or family to help me out, everyone hates me, there’s a vast conspiracy to keep me from the pool, it’s unfair that only the first person in gets healed, yadda, yadda, yadda.” take up your bedMaybe he realizes, for the first time, what the cost of being healed might be. Is he ready to live without the limitations with which he has lived so long, which have in a strange way become his friends and enablers? Who will he be when he is no longer defined by his infirmity? Sure enough, Jesus heals him, he rolls up his mat and walks, and gets into trouble with the Pharisee Sabbath police because Jesus chose to heal him on the one day that it is illegal to do any work (including carrying your mat). Be careful what you ask for.

“What do you want?” It’s a question each of us would do well to consider carefully. As well as “What changes are you willing to undergo in order to get there?” We need to be sure that we wouldn’t prefer to keep things as they are.

Under My Skin, Part Two: Yes, It Hurts!

Bright and early on Wednesday morning, it began. Actually, it began around 10:30 on Wednesday morning—that’s bright and early for my son, who often works late into the evening. He had tattooed until midnight on Tuesday night. After Photoshopping two pictures of my dachshund Frieda into one, tracing the picture onto what looked all the world like carbon paper (familiar to those old enough to remember typewriters), then transferring the tracing onto my left arm, we were ready.

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“Looks like you’ll be doing paint by number,” I said to Caleb. “Thanks for reducing my profession to a kid’s activity, Dad,” he replied.

With a small light strapped on his forehead, Caleb looked like a miner. My sister-in-law LaVona had been asking me for a couple of days if I was nervous. I wasn’t, but even if I had been, I had announced to my corner of the world that this was happening, so I would be a great disappointment to all and a total pussy if I backed out now. cleatsI wasn’t sure what a tattoo needle biting into my skin would feel like, but it really wasn’t that bad (stay tuned). I told those present (Caleb, my brother, and me) that “It feels like a centipede is walking on my arm with tiny cleats on.” That was kind of a cool visual, one that worked for at least a while.

Caleb’s job was to do the tattoo, my brother’s job was to document the event with his camera and my tablet, and my job was to stay as still as possible as I reclined in the tattoo version of a dentist’s chair. All three of us are Tolkien fans, so we talked about our various favorite parts of the books and movies, then moved to “Breaking Bad,” “Rome,” “Sons of Anarchy,” “Game of Thrones,” and every other movie and television show we could think of.WIN_20160413_12_51_08_ProWIN_20160413_12_06_29_Pro

 

 

 

 

This took up the first ninety minutes or so of the event, as Caleb tattooed from the bottom of Frieda’s outline (her coat) up through the right side of her face. I learned that different tattoo needles cause different uncomfortable and annoying sensations—the shading needle is not as intense as the outlining needle, for instance. But I was doing great—no cold sweats or familiar light-headedness that precedes fainting, and no fighting off the desire to scream or cry. I was the man, impressive to all present—especially me.WIN_20160413_12_51_16_Pro

The female contingent of my entourage—Jeanne, LaVona, and my daughter-in-law Alisha—Caleb’s partner in life and business as well as a tattoo artist in her own right—arrived around 1:00, fully expecting to hear screams, I think. They also were impressed with my Stoic determination. Jeanne tried to feed me an orange until Alisha reported that food is not allowed in the tattooing area. Apparently the Florida health inspector would not approve. Jeanne sat next to me on the opposite side from Caleb, LaVona watched Caleb’s activities with the same interest that people probably showed in Michaelangelo’s work on the Sistine ceiling, and Alisha—who sees and does this sort of thing every day—headed to the other room with Stephanie, the office manager, to do some paperwork and pay some bills. After a while, Jeanne and LaVona headed out to experience the wonders of downtown Fort Myers. They invited my brother to join them, but he knew better than to abandon his assigned photography tasks.WIN_20160413_14_07_55_ProWIN_20160413_13_51_37_Pro

 

 

 

 

About two hours in, we took a brief ten-minute break—I got to eat my orange (plus another), take a bathroom break, and was ready to finish this thing up. Caleb noted that it might feel a bit more painful when he started up again. That was an understatement. “FUCK!!!” my internal child yelled as we recommenced. “You’re right, that does hurt a bit more,” my outward philosopher commented. As it turns out, Caleb began to explain, first-time tattoo subjects tend to go through a version of Kubler-Ross’s stages of grief while under the needle—I had spent the first two hours in Denial. But my best manly-man efforts kept me on top of sensations that were beginning to cross the line from annoying to “that fucking hurts.” And Caleb continued to fill Frieda in from the bottom up with his fancy tattoo-by-number instruments as I observed the process upside-down.WIN_20160413_14_26_29_Pro

At about the three-hour mark, Caleb got to Frieda’s left ear—the closest portion of the tattoo to my armpit. Apparently that’s a sensitive area. “HOLY SHIT!!!” my internal child screamed. “Are you using the outlining needle?” my external Stoic calmly asked—he was. Then he revealed that it was likely to get worse. Before long he would be returning to the bottom, coat area of the tattoo to add some shading (apparently the light colors have to be saved for last to avoid discoloration). “Whatever,” I thought—it can’t be any worse than it already is. About this time Jeanne and LaVona returned; after a few minutes of sitting next to me and observing that I was fidgeting more than when she had been there earlier, she helpfully suggested that I should sit still. “I’m doing the best I can!” I replied in a not-so-pleasant tone—Caleb observed that I had now moved from Denial to Anger. Helpfully, Tom Petty started singing “You Don’t Know How It Feels” right about then on the Pandora station Caleb had queued up, so I didn’t have to say any more.WIN_20160413_14_43_19_Pro

As he moved to the shading portion, Caleb reminded me of his warning that “this is not going to feel amazing.” It didn’t. For the first time I started practicing the deep breathing through my nose and my mantra from Psalm 133: “Surely I have set my soul in silence and in peace.” “You can scream, you know,” Jeanne reminded me. “That’s not how I roll,” I thought as I rummaged around for my silence and peace spot.WIN_20160413_15_14_51_Pro

I never fully found it, but got close enough to sort of stay on top of something that had passed from an annoying sting to at least the first circle of descent into pain. “How much longer do we have?” I asked Caleb as I moved from the Anger stage into Bargaining. “Not that much longer,” he replied, helping me skip from Bargaining over Depression into Acceptance.

I interpreted “not that much longer” to mean about five or ten minutes—by the time Caleb finished the shading and added some white highlights, it was about forty-five. In addition to the pain level increasing slowly but steadily, I also got a major left-cheek ass cramp that wouldn’t go away. Pandora gifted us with “Stairway to Heaven,” the greatest rock song ever, and shortly after, it ended.WIN_20160413_15_34_58_Pro

I rolled out of the chair, Caleb wiped the fruits of his labor down with alcohol, and I got to see the finished product in a full-length mirror for the first time. And there was Friedalina, with her “I am superior to you in every way” attitude, looking back at me from my upper left arm. It was worth it—I now have a tattoo immortalizing a dog, who also happens to have been the subject of my very first blog post almost four years ago and of my first short essay attempt at a writer’s conference eight or nine years ago.

Hail Frieda, Full of Grace

From essay to tattoo—there’s something appropriate about that.WIN_20160413_16_04_14_Pro

Under My Skin

I hate being a disappointment to my son, but I know that I am. Caleb is a tattoo artist; as I reported on Thursday, caleb tattooJeanne and I have been witnesses of Caleb’s transformation from a tattooing rookie working on a friend in our dining room several years ago to an international rock star tattoo artist who owns two tattoo shops, a tattoo school, and takes several trips annually with our daughter-in-law Alisha to conventions and guest artistships in Germany, Italy, France, England, and all over North America. He’s a success in his field by all measures; we are inordinately proud and direct people to his Facebook sites to be astounded by his artistry as often as we can. But I know that deep down he considers himself to be a failure. Why? Because even though he has been perfecting his craft and growing his business for almost a decade, he has yet to achieve his greatest professional goal—tattooing his father and stepmother.

This is not for lack of trying. Caleb and I have had regular conversations about this:

  • Come on, Dad, you’ve got to get a tattoo.
  • Not happening.
  • Why not? You like them, you talk about them all the time. Come on! You’re a liberal! What could you possibly have against tattoos?
  • I have absolutely NOTHING against tattoos! It’s PAIN that I’m not in favor of!

And so it goes. Once a couple of years ago,Nietzsche I mentioned to Caleb that if I ever got a tattoo, it would probably be the iconic silhouette of Nietzsche with his trademark eyebrows and mustache. Unfortunately, Caleb interpreted my hypothetical situation as evidence of incremental movement toward actually getting one. He was mistaken. As he should have known simply from being my son, philosophers love to delve into hypotheticals.

  • If you lived in 1940s Nazi-occupied Belgium and were hiding a Jewish family in your attic, would you lie to the Nazi officer at your front door to keep him from finding out?
  • If you were on a life raft with a half dozen other people in the middle of the ocean, would you be willing to kill one of our fellow raft inhabitants so the rest of you could stay alive by eating him?
  • Would you be willing to murder someone for the good of mankind?
  • Kirk and PicardIf Captain Kirk and Captain Picard got into a fight, who would win?

Stuff like that. My hypothetical about tattooing was nothing more than the “if . . . then . . .” puzzles that are the bread and butter of all philosophy professors.

It’s not as if Caleb has ever hidden the fact that getting a tattoo hurts. A lot. He has a full back tattoo involving dinosaurs in a prehistoric landscape that his friend and tattooing mentor Lisa did over several sessions and many hours a few years ago; Caleb made it clear that the process was painful. Actually he said “It hurt like a motherf**ker.” yes it hurtsOn the wall of his original Connecticut tattoo shop facing the door hangs a large sign that says YES IT HURTS. I know that my pain tolerance is very low, so excuse me if I don’t willingly subject myself to something like that, no matter how beautiful and special the result might be.

I turned sixty exactly a month ago. Knowing that we were headed for a week with Caleb and Alisha, as well as my younger son Justin, my brother, and my sister-in-law, I chose to delay the spectacular celebration of my six decades on earth until we got to Florida. What exactly is the appropriate way to mark such an auspicious event?

Sixty Years On

Chances are we’ll be going to Sanibel and Captiva Islands, maybe to one of the billions of tourist attractions in the Orlando area, perhaps even back to Key West (although if we do, this time we’re taking the ferry rather than driving—the traffic jam going and coming last time was abominable). But none of those are sufficiently unique for this once in a lifetime occurrence. Knowing that deciding and planning would take several weeks of rumination and decision making, I started thinking about it last fall. And before long, it became clear what my sixtieth birthday present to myself would be.

Caleb and Alisha visited over last Thanksgiving week. As Caleb sat on the couch poking away at his phone as is his custom, I rocked his world.

  • Caleb, I know what I want for my sixtieth birthday.
  • What?
  • I want a tattoo when we’re in Florida in April.
  • Wait a minute. You want a tattoo? Are you shitting me?? You’re not having a senior moment???
  • No, I’m serious. I want a tattoo.
  • What do you want, that Nietzsche thing?
  • (I show him a picture on my laptop) Can you do this?IMG_9677
  • You want a FRIEDA tattoo? (uproarious laughter) Why am I not surprised? Yes, I can do that.
  • Then that’s what I want for my sixtieth birthday.
  • You’re not going to fucking back out of this, are you? You’re not going to change your mind?
  • No, Caleb, I want a Frieda tattoo.

Why a tattoo of my dachshund? What guy wouldn’t want a permanent reminder of the second most important female in his life?miracles happen

Sometime in the next seven days I will be getting a tattoo. If you hear screaming from the direction of wherever Florida is related to you, it’s me. I’m quite sure that an account of the experience will make it into a blog post soon! A good friend of mine once defined a miracle as “something that everyone says will never, ever, ever, ever happen—and it happens anyways.” If so, there’s a miracle on the horizon. I’m getting a tattoo.

The Hungry Person’s Bread

311878_web_vo.Capitalist-Christian_colI have been known to make extreme statements for effect in the classroom. One of them would be judged by many to be so extreme as to be ludicrous, but I actually believe it is absolutely true: It is not possible to be a good capitalist and a good Christian at the same time. Outside of class, I share this truth only with people who I am virtually sure are of like mind. I was pleased to find out as I prepared for seminar a few weeks ago that the big guy agrees with me.

I have written about my love/hate relationship with Thomas Aquinas on this blog before—despite my best efforts to avoid his looming presence on campus, he is undoubtedly the most important theologian/philosopher of the medieval world.

The Big Guy and Me

St-Thomas-Aquinas1In addition, I frequently teach in an interdisciplinary course that addresses material from Charlemagne to the seventeenth century, two of the disciplines to be addressed in this course are philosophy and theology; guess what, dude—you’re doing Aquinas! The last time I taught this course we did roughly two weeks on Aquinas, the first on his thought concerning the relationship of faith and reason, the second on the nature of law. My theology colleague chose the appropriate texts from the Summa Theologicasumma-theologica for seminar, and I got to spend a couple of hours of seminar time—twice!—working on the big guy’s work with eighteen second-semester freshmen who were less than thrilled to spend yet another precious 100 minutes of their lives with a dead white guy, especially one who is both a philosopher and a theologian, for God’s sake.

But the “Aquinas on Law” seminar turned out to be one of the liveliest I have had all semester, indeed one of the liveliest in recent memory. That’s because wedged into the middle of several articles on various law-related topics, Aquinas asks a very practical and contemporary-sounding question: “Whether it is lawful to steal through stress of need?” His answer caused my young students, most at least marginally Catholic and more-than-marginal budding capitalists, to learn something they should have learned from watching Not like the otherSesame Street—some things just don’t go together.

Summa Theologica 2.2, Question 66, Article 7 is framed within the parameters of Aquinas’ understanding of eternal law, natural law, and human law. “Eternal law” is the Divine rational governance of the universe as a cosmic community, while “Human law” is our human version of the same activity, the project of applying rational governance to our activities as individuals and communities. “Natural law” serves as a bridge between eternal and human law; it is the imprint of the eternal Law in the nature of things. natural lawIn the big guy’s own words, “the light of natural reason, whereby we discern what is good and what is evil, which is the function of the natural law, is nothing else than an imprint on us of the Divine light. It is therefore evident that the natural law is nothing else than the rational creature’s participation in the eternal law.” At its best, human law is an objective, enforceable expression of what we know from the natural law em-bedded in our natures to be right and wrong. But, of course, things are never that simple.

Which brings us to “Whether it is lawful to steal through stress of need?” If he had been writing several centuries later, Aquinas would have illustrated his discussion with Victor Hugo’s story of Jean Valjean and Javert from Les Miserables.javert and valjean Valjean steals food to feed his starving niece and nephew, is arrested for theft and sentenced to twenty years in prison according to the applicable law. He escapes from prison and, through years of complications is pursued by an obsessively dedicated policeman, Javert. Using Aquinas’ categories of law, the conflict between Javert and Valjean reflects the tension that can arise between human law and natural law. Which one of them has “right” on his side? Valjean or Javert? After listing some preliminary objections, Aquinas is very clear about “Whether it is lawful to steal through stress of need.” “In cases of need,” he writes, “all things are common property, so there would seem to be no sin in taking another’s property, for need has made it common.” Valjean’s taking of food owned by another to save his family members trumps property rights. Javert’s insistence that the letter of the law against theft be inexorably applied is misdirected energy.

This in itself made my students uncomfortable; the big guy’s explanation of his position made some of them downright pissed. “Whatever certain persons have in superabundance is due, by natural law, to the purpose of succoring the poor.” ambroseIf you have more than you need, that extra literally does not belong to you. And in case you missed that, Aquinas quotes Ambrose:

It is the hungry man’s bread that you withhold, the naked man’s cloak that you store away, the money that you bury in the earth is the price of the poor man’s ransom and freedom.

“That sounds like communism!” several of my students complained believing, as many in our capitalist world believe, that such an accusation signifies the effective and immediate end of the conversation. “Not really,” I responded, “but you know who it does remind me of? The early Christian communities in the Book of Acts.” Acts-4.34-37These communities were so dedicated to the principle of common ownership of goods and distribution of those goods according to need that people were reportedly struck dead for claiming to be dedicated to the principle and lying about it. If the big guy had been in attendance at my seminar, the ensuing conversation might have gone something like this:

Student 1: My property belongs to me! I worked for it and no one has a right to it other than me!

The Big Guy: I agree—to a point. “Each one is entrusted with the stewardship of his own things, so that out of them he may come to the aid of those who are in need.” The purpose of property ownership is to facilitate your responsibility to ensure that those in need are taken care of.

Student 2: But I worked hard for what I own! No one has the right to tell me what to do with it!

BG: You’re assuming that you are more important than others, that the purpose of labor is your own enrichment and benefit rather than the community’s.

Student 3: I’m more than happy to consider giving of my surplus to those in need—I’m not heartless, and I usually get a tax deduction when I do. But I’m not obligated to do it.

imagesBG: According to the natural law, you are.

Student 4: But what if the person in need is lazy? Or a drug addict? Or just a loser? What if she doesn’t deserve my help?

BG: None of that matters. Why the person is in need is irrelevant. She is in need. You have the capacity to help her. End of story.

Student 4: This is ridiculous! It’s naive, unrealistic, idealistic, and will never work. Where did you ever get such a dumb idea?

indexBG: I know of a guy who gave an important talk once that’s all about this. It’s called the Sermon on the Mount. Check it out.

In one very brief article, the big guy challenges our most basic capitalist assumptions—that my property belongs to me, that I may give of my surplus to those in need if I choose but am not obligated to do so, that before I help a person in need I want to know why that person is in need, and so on. But of course Aquinas isn’t making a case for capitalism. He’s making a case for living out the directives of the gospel, directives given so often and so clearly that they can’t be missed. there but for the grace6Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, befriend the friendless, house the homeless—when you do this to the least of these, you have done it to me. I am the last person to claim that I effectively live this out—but I’ve at least become convinced that the way to deal with incompatible beliefs is not to pretend that they fit together.