Moving Through These Hard Times

After I first posted this blog yesterday, I began to feel some guilt about how “middle class” my reflections are.  They focus on those of us who have many resources for moving through these hard times.  Yet so many of the unemployed and poor do not have such resources and have found other ways, perhaps better ways, of moving through these times.  I feel guilty for not addressing their ways, but the sad reality is that I do not know what and how they are doing this.  So I write about what I know — middle class folks — and acknowledge what is missing from this post. 

1. Because of the pandemic, I’ve been in isolation for four months, with many more to come. I get discouraged by the isolation. Discouraged too by other crises we face in addition to the again spiking pandemic.  Economic injustice, racism, immigration, unemployment and a failing economy, Trump’s dangerous stupidity and campaign viciousness at all levels….   All within the dark horizon of global warming and mass population movements.

I hear similar discouragement voiced by friends.

And I just read about Michelle Obama’s recent podcast where she confesses the low-grade depression she lives with because of the pandemic and the constant news about racism.  She speaks of the “dispiriting” effect such hard realities have on her.

So I write here about how we might make it through these hard times, even if only to encourage myself.

My notes and suggestions make no pretense of completeness or of ordered sequence.

I also know that most of us have found ways of dealing with hard times and discouragement.  For there are many ways for moving through these times.  Many heads and hearts are needed to remind us of shared sanity and to imagine the endurance and encouragement and hope we need.  So I again ask for your thoughts in response.

2. In his last book, Images of Faith (1973), my mentor Lynch wrote:

Everything I have ever written asks for the concrete movement of faith and imagination through experience, through time, through the definite, through the human, through the actual life of Christ. (p. 81)

As I said in beginning my book about Lynch, the full meaning of that sentence takes a long time to unpack.  Yet one begins to feel its meaning by Lynch’s rhythmic repetition of the word “through”: through experience, through time, through the definite, through the human, through the actual life of Christ.  And by his emphasis on “the concrete movement” of both faith and imaginationthrough these realities.

So that shall be the theme of my notes – that we need to find good, sane ways to “move through” the challenges of our hard times.  Said simply, the only way to go is to go through.  NOT trying to escape hard realities by a retreat “within” or some sort of transcending “above it all.”

(A brief note about the perhaps puzzling final phrase of Lynch’s sentence – his call for the movement of faith and imagination “through the actual life of Christ”.  This is precisely what Ignatius Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises call for:  moving slowly with our imaginations through the gospel stories about Jesus’ life.  This spiritual “exercise” or practice need not be limited to Christians.  It can be fruitful for those of other faiths and for secular humanists. More below.)

3. I begin negatively by stressing that we are regularly tempted NOT to move through hard realities, but to escape them by seeking refuge, as I’ve said, in some transcendence “above” or some separate peace “within.”  Of course, we do need escapes, at least I do.  Into superficial entertainment and fantasies, what I fondly call “junk” food for the soul.  Or the actual junk foods of sweets and drink.  These can all be legitimate ways to distract ourselves from present crises and provide momentary release from discouragement.

Yet such escapes can become habitual, even addictive, perhaps especially in hard times.  Then we risk becoming, as T. S. Elliot wrote, “distracted from distraction by distraction.”

This can also be true for religion and spiritual practice.  Marx was not wrong to claim that “religion [too often, I add] is the opium of the people.”  Fundamentalist faith about “God’s Will” or retreat into prayer and meditation – these can easily become spiritual opium.  Though, of course, religious belief and spiritual practice can also be very important ways for moving through these times.

It’s equally true that political passion and ideological beliefs are just as often an opium, as we’ve seen in both the historical legacy of Marxism and the capitalist legacy of Adam Smith.  These days it seems that consumerism is the primary opium for many more people than either religion or politics.  As also the particularly “American” temptation to throw ourselves into doing, doing, and more doing.  “Just do it. ”  (Really?)

4. Of course, religion and politics, good food and drink, working and celebration, good books and films, even buying new things can be and often are crucial positive or realistic ways of moving through these hard times.

I repeat for emphasis (because these are good ways of moving through our times):

Religious celebration and meditation.  Good books and movies.   Good work of all sorts.  Drinks and food with friends.  Good conversation on zooms.  Gardening and walks in the woods.

These can provide soul food to nourish sanity, provide encouragement, and sustain hope in these times.

5. Lynch especially stressed the importance of stories – in drama and fiction and cinema — as sources for such soul food.  He first acclaimed books were The Image Industries (1959), about cinema and TV, and Christ and Apollo (1960), about more serious literature.  In each book he first analyzed the many ways that our “arts and entertainments,” even our most serious arts, too often serve as escapes from reality into fantasy.  Yet the dramatic or narrative imagination (in literature or film) more fundamentally can serve as an invitation not to escape but to enter into a story as it moves through the difficulties and challenges as well as the joys and hopes of its characters.

Nor need we think only of “great” novels and films.  For the narrative imagination – the sense of moving through a story – is also nourished by folk tales, by children’s books and programs, and by a good number of popular TV series.  I’ve always loved and been helped by writers like Dickens and Dostoievski, but I’ve also found fun and consolation in stories read with my grandchildren.

Nor, of course, is the narrative imagination nourished only by fiction.  Most of us, to give but one recent example, have found courage and hope by following the media celebration of John Lewis’ life.  And my wife’s book club just read about Churchill and the Brits suffering through the London Blitzkrieg.

6. Of course suffering is itself one of the most central ways whereby we move through difficulty.

Suffering tempts us to escape.  Yet a clear recognition of and submission to suffering – even the final suffering of death – is crucial to sanity and hope.

Lamentation expresses such recognition, but it’s not something we hear much about these days. We Americans (at least those of us in the U.S.) prefer to “go boldly” and typically see lament as weakness.  Yet lamenting – in person or communally, at national tragedies as much as personal loss – is a crucial form of facing up to hard realities.  Just surf YouTube and listen to some of the great Black Spirituals like “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” or “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” and, above all, Billie Holiday’s wrenching rendition of “Strange Fruit.”  You will hear the power of lamentation from a people who have so suffered.

7.  Mention of suffering and lamentation evokes another essential spiritual practice for moving through hard times – the practice of silence.

Yes, Paul Simon’s magnificent “Sounds of Silence” is still a very relevant lament for the cancer of silence and separation in our consumer culture. Yet I here mean the practice of silence as a way of opening the soul both to difficulty or tragedy and to wonder and hope.

I’m someone who finds silence difficult.  What the Buddhists call my “monkey mind” keeps chattering its nonsense even when I try to be silent – try to wait with joyful hope.

Yet silence, to put it quickly, is perhaps the primary way to awareness of the great mysteries which are beyond words: the great fundamental mysteries of unity (the one), and meaning (the true), and purpose (the good), and joy (the beautiful.  For these are the mysteries which, even when we remain unaware, do sustain and encourage us as we move through time.

8.  Finally, let me return to the Gospel stories about Jesus of Nazareth and the call from Ignatius Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises that we move imaginatively through those stories.

My previous note about silence somehow led me back to that magnificent gospel lament “I Wonder As I Wander.”  Silent wonder under the sky, wondering why Jesus came but to die, for poor folks like you and like I.

Yet it is not just the story of Jesus’ death, but the stories of his life as he moves from birth to death – through the hard times that led to that murderous death.

For the Christian, these stories embody the reality that the Divine Mystery entered fully into human time – became incarnate as a fully human being, a man of his times.  From birth through coming of age to prophetic mission and challenges to his last days. Those  realities – perhaps especially when entered into by imaginative spiritual practice or more simply by Sunday Gospel readings and the movement of the liturgical year through Advent/Christmas to Lent/Easter – is for Christians the ground for meaning and courage as we move through the births and sufferings and deaths of our times.

Yet this is true in a different way for persons of other faiths, whether religious or humanist.  At least it seems true in Western cultures and also in some African and some Asian cultures.  For the stories of Jesus are iconic in these cultures.  They provide a cultural pattern for movement through time and suffering even for the non-Christian — which is perhaps why that pattern is found in so much of our secular literature and film — the pattern of beginnings and coming of age, of challenge and suffering, and of some sense of an ending, whether tragic or comic. Thus the imaginative exercise of moving consciously and attentively through these gospel stories has, in these days of interfaith collaboration, proven very helpful for many who do not share Christian belief.  Or so I’ve read and been told.

8.  Et tu?  What are your ways of moving through these times with courage and hope?

Media Bias Against Catholicism?

I originally wrote what follows at the invitation of the Denver Post.  I had sent a letter critical of the front page article noted below.  They then asked me to expand my letter into an OpEd piece.  Unfortunately they never printed it, so I now post it here. 

At times I’m almost sinfully delighted that some Catholic ox was gored by our media.  Especially when it involves Catholics I disagree with about this or that – including a good number of few bishops.  At other times I am immensely grateful for media exposure of Catholic crimes, as in the damming reports about sexual abuse and cover-ups.

Yet sometimes I am quite offended by bias against things Catholic in our media.  Even, for example, in the case of important reporting about sexual abuse.  I’ve questioned the seemingly exclusive focus on Catholic institutions – especially early on.  Did  such important reporting nonetheless involve some anti-Catholic bias?

And then the recent front page AP article in the Denver Post — “Catholic Church lobbied for taxpayer funds, got $1.4B.”   It really got my goat.  Let me count some of the ways.

Start with its title that the “Catholic Church lobbied” and the subsequent claim that “The church’s haul may [actually] have reached…$3.5 billion.”  Why that accusatory “haul”?  Why the Catholic Church when the article later and very briefly notes that church “affiliates” are receiving these payroll protection loans?  Why not report, in both headline and content, that many independent and affiliated Catholic organizations have benefited from loans to help employees make it through these times?  And, by the way, what’s wrong with lobbying?  Every organization does it — even the Denver Post!  Lobbying becomes an evil when its purposes are unjust.

Yet given Congress’ special exemption, at this time of economic crisis, allowing government loans to religious groups, why shouldn’t catholic dioceses and parishes, schools and charities, seek loans to help employees make it through these days?  Loans to help front line nurses and teachers, secretaries and office managers, grounds and building maintenance workers.  On the importance of such loans, check out the much more accurate RNS article “Yes, Catholic Church got billions in federal coronavirus aid — and thank goodness.” 

Reducing all these different employers and workers to “the” Catholic church is like saying that “American Jews” and “American Protestants” also made big “hauls,” when of course it’s a variety of Jewish and Protestant and other religious employees who will benefit from such loans.

Why, then, the article’s exclusive focus on Catholics?  Why did AP and the Post not also report on loans to Jewish and Mainline Protestant and other religious groups?

Finally, there’s the article’s gratuitous linking of these paycheck protection loans story to the separate story about Catholic sexual abuse crimes?  In its first sentence we’re told that “many millions” of the billion-dollar Catholic haul went “to dioceses that have paid huge settlements or sought bankruptcy protection because of clergy sexual abuse cover-ups.”  Factually true, but what’s the connection of these two stories?

I’m one of many Catholics happy that sexual predators have been imprisoned and that Catholic institutions have paid huge settlements.  Again, credit the secular press for this just result.

But why should workers in Catholic institutions be disqualified from payroll protection because of malfeasance by some of their employers?    If we are, indeed, all in this present emergency “together,” why shouldn’t the nurses and teachers, cooks and cleaners, at Catholic institutions be as eligible as workers in bars and barbershops, banks and other businesses?  Congress saw fit to allow this.  So why the reporters’ continual tone of outrage?

The reporters seem to justify their linkage of the loan and sexual abuse stories by implying that the church needed its big “haul” because coffers had been drained by sexual abuse settlements.  Yet they make this insinuation without one shred of evidence.

If indeed loans do not go to payrolls but to refill church treasuries, then the leaders involved must face criminal prosecution – as should any employer pocketing taxpayer funds intended for workers.

Thus I await good (and not biased) reporting about loans to Protestant and Jewish and other religious employers.  And I especially await good reporting about any criminal misuse of such loans.

A wee apology for so oversimplifying Catholic realities might also be nice.  But I’m not holding my breath.

Nor do I hesitate to disclose a personal interest (bias?) in writing. For, though I’m now retired,  I’ve been a proud employee in Catholic education during my entire working life.

 

A Wee Bit More on Pentecost and BLM

This is a short follow-up to my previous posting connecting the Spirit of Divine Love to the protests, speeches, dances, songs and celebrations in the streets of our cities of late.

Commonweal (tied in my voting with America for best, and quite different, US Catholic periodicals) just published a spirited essay by M. Shawn Copland, one of the major voices in US theology, titled “Breath and Fire — The Spirit Moves Us Toward Racial Justice.”

I can’t recommend it highly enough.  It is rich with scriptural reference and explanation.  It’s also rich with the rhythms of black preaching.  And since it’s a bit long, I recommend reading slowly, listening to each paragraph for the black preacher’s (in this case a black woman’s) biblical sense and repeated challenging calls.  For not only is this fine writing and  very good theology, but it is constant in its gospel challenge.  Something I’m not always very good in responding to.

The Fire of Divine Love — Pentecost and Black Lives Matter

At some point during the Black Lives Matter protests, it struck me as more than just coincidence that the protests broke out during our Christian celebration of Pentecost. So if you’re up for another read about racism (and I know you may well have your plate filled with other good reads and deeds), I invite you to join me in reflecting on the presence of the Holy Spirit within our current crises.  I say reflecting, since that’s my purpose, but my writing is also part remembrance, part stories, part my typical sermonizing, and as always too long.

1. “Come Holy Ghost and fill the hearts of Thy faithful.” That’s the way I remember the opening line of a prayer we Catholics said quite often back when I was a child.

These days Her name is officially “The Holy Spirit” and there’s been of late much good theological and spiritual writing about this too-often “forgotten Person of the Trinity.” Yet strangely, of so it seems to me, while the leadership is paying more attention, so-called “ordinary Catholics” pray less often and less poignantly to the Holy Spirit than they did in the good old days. Perhaps I’m wrong about that.

The prayer continues: “Enkindle in [the hearts of Thy faithful] the fire of Thy divine love. Send forth Thy Spirit and they shall be created. And Thou shalt renew the face of the earth.”

Memory also calls up the hymn “Come Holy Ghost,” sung full-throated by the whole congregation, creating an upswell of sound like a gust of the Spirit’s breath on the congregation. It was sung, if memory serves, at the end of Mass or some other ceremony. Here (courtesy of Google) are its words:

Come, Holy Ghost, Creator blest, And in our hearts take up Thy rest;
Come with thy grace and heav’nly aid to fill our hearts which thou hast made,
To fill our hearts which Thou has made.

O Comforter, to thee we cry, Thou heav’nly gift of God most high;
Thou fount of life, and fire of love, And sweet anointing from above, and sweet anointing from above.

I was going to highlight some of the phrases in these texts, but it would be better, if you’re interested, to re-read the texts and find words and phrases you’d highlight and take in.

2. I’m far from the only one who has seen a co-incidence, some actual spiritual or spirit filled connection, between what we celebrate in Pentecost and what we’re experiencing on the streets and more generally in our public life.

Here’s the way I see that co-incidence. The Holy Spirit has indeed burst forth again in our streets and sermons, in public debate and private reflection. She has filled many hearts with the fire of her divine love, given sweet anointing to many for a holy work, called all to renew the face of the earth. This I believe.

Of course, the Holy Spirit is always with us, always filling hearts with divine love, often with consolation, often with challenge. Yet from our human perspective, it is at special times or moments that the Holy Spirit is most obviously filling human hearts with the fire of Divine love. Pentecost itself was such a moment in the life of the earliest church. Theologians speak of these as kairos moments in contrast to the day-by-day passage of chronos or ordinary time. I’m suggesting that we are living within such a Spirit-shaken and spirit-shaking moment.

Many talk about these days as a turning point – a definitive or at least major turning point in the life of our country. I believe and hope that this is true. Yet even more I hope that within this turning point in our history, most have been radically opened to the movement of God’s Spirit (however unreflective or unconscious that openness) as it seeks to  lead all towards active and even angry love of neighbor. This would make any turning point a true metanoia – a deep conversion of spirit for God’s people.

3. Examples are everywhere.

Perhaps most obviously in the new and growing public ritual of kneeling. “Taking a knee” probably means many things to many of the kneelers.  Perhaps for some, its sports meaning stands out:  taking a rest, stepping back to the sidelines, away from the struggle. Yet its religious roots are inescapable, especially when we are kneeling seriously before unjust death. So I do belief that the Holy Spirit has been moving through this new ritual, especially through the many who kneel before the mystery of life and death, good and evil, and allow, in effect if not intentionally, the Spirit of God to move within them.

I wish I knew what music is being sung in the streets and will grow into popularity through this moment. Whether it might create beautiful and challenging rhythms for the Holy Spirit’s movement in our hearts and minds.

I remember that the music accompanying and growing around the civil rights and anti-war movements of “the 60’s” often expressed spiritual hopes.  Often even with explicitly religious words.  This was especially in the civil rights movement.  Indeed, I think that the Black Church in its many forms remains today, as it did then, one of the major sources of openness to and expression of God’s Spirit in this country, for the good of all of us.

As a different kind of example of the movement of the Holy Spirit during the present moment, I note the many ways that something has moved so many to “speak out” again — perhaps not in diverse tongues, but in new ways with friends and neighbors, and within that community of public conversation which our media, at their best, can be.

I note specifically a recent and seemingly orchestrated campaign of messages to the US from Francis and the Vatican in response to this moment of brutal murder and COVID-19 death rates among black Americans .  Francis’ communication affirms Christian belief that the Holy Spirit speaks especially through the Church, and Catholic belief that the Holy Spirit speaks especially through the Pope. Yet I also believe that the Holy Spirit is speaking and moving today through many in different churches and synagogues and mosques.

The particular point of Francis’ media blitz seems to be to use the current moment to remind all Americans, but especially American Catholics, that the defense of life must be broad – not limited to the defense of the unborn, but including the defense of black lives and immigrant lives, the defense of lives limited by poverty and unjust working conditions. His speaking is explicitly directed to those “conservative” Catholics in the US – especially among the rich with their media connections, among many well-connected US Bishops, and among many “ordinary” Catholics – who have waged a campaign to discredit Francis’ papacy since it’s first day.  And who, not at all coincidentally, have funded and voted for Trump and are doing so again. Francis especially challenges bishops like New York’s Cardinal Dolan, now national chairperson of Catholics For Trump.  Dolan  supports Trump, as he has explicitly said, since nothing else matters but stopping abortion. Yet the Pope’s words directly contradict and seek to correct that narrow, one isssue war cry of the US Catholic right.

The Pope’s messaging is one among many examples of the fire of Divine Love informing our public conversation.

4. As a final reflection, I recall the Ignatian or Jesuit emphasis on “the discernment of spirits.” For if I believe that the Holy Spirit is present and active at this special moment, I also know that many other spirits, some downright evil, are at work among us.

Racism and a wider spirit of intolerance and exclusion, as well as the deep joy of hatred and our culture’s love of violence – these are but a few of the spirits at work in us and in the body politic. Greed is always there too, as also power-lust, arrogance, narrowness, narcissism, willed ignorance, escapism. Such spirits are always active in human life, at every level and location – from the President to the prison guard to the guy next door, and probably among protesters as much as among police.

Thus we need, individually and collectively, to be involved in discerning among the spirits that move us – in asking which are truly of the Spirit and which not.

That’s, of course, what I believe Francis and the Vatican are trying to help American Catholicism think about. It’s what the best public discourse and the best zooms with friends are in-effect helping us with.

It’s what we need lest this moment  lose direction and then momentum. We need to discern the spirits and struggle to follow the voice of the Holy Spirit.

As a concluding twist to the story, I further note that Holy Spirit Herself nourishes in us the gifts we need to discern and follow Her today.

5. Here, then, as a conclusion, I list the traditional Seven Gifts of the Spirit (which I had to look up) with my own brief “explanation” of each:

1) The gift of Wisdom can be stern like Solomon’s or playful and joyful like Sophia. It’s needed in both both streets and senates.

2) Understanding is like a Spirit-grounded liberal education, with breadth, openness, critical ability, and reasoned response.

3) Counsel is needed when standing before the mirror, talking with sons and daughters, listening to friends….

4) Fortitude is the courage to acknowledge the past and sustain the long road ahead.

5) Knowledge means getting the facts right, even with confusing media and the fog of a war like this.

6) Piety no longer means pious obedience but deep loyalty — to family and friends, to fellow citizens, to the best of our nation. Piety should inform the kinds of patriotism which are expressed in daily civic life, not in mostly superficial song.

7) Fear of the Lord is the most needed gift, and the most misunderstood.  The Hebrew Bible constantly urges “fear of the Lord,” yet a Greek source has led me to substitute the word “reverence” for the misunderstood “fear.”  It suggests that “Reverence is the matrix of nobility.” A fundamental attitude of reverence — for the good, for creation, ultimately for the gods and God — is the the sustaining ground of those other gifts of courage and wisdom and knowledge.  Without reverence — which does involve fear but also an equally fundamental love, of beauty and goodness — without reverence,  an openness to the Spirit cannot be sustained.

PS. I hope my reflections may help. As always, I’d love to hear your disagreements, agreements, additions….

The “Eternal Question”: Reading Dostoyevsky in a Time of Pandemic

I have not written for this blog lately. Yet I have recently immersed myself again in Dostoyevsky, especially in his greatest work The Brothers Karamazov. Many of his ideas seem pertinent for our present crisis. Here I attempt to note several of them.

1. I first read “The Bros K” at the suggestion of a high school mentor. Most of it was far beyond my ken, but I nonetheless really felt the book’s great passions. And that first experience led me back to a number of re-readings along with some study – almost always with a fresh sense of those deep human passions which move us towards both evil and good.

2. What most attracted me from the first was the figure of Aloysha, youngest of the brothers, whom Dostoyevsky on his first page tells us is the hero of his tale. We meet him as a young novice in the local monastery, obedient to the holy elder Zosima, who before dying commands Aloysha to leave the monastery and seek holiness in the world. In the crazy world of greed, lust, and so many unruly passions. In a world of crime and punishment. Yet also a world of so much good, so many passions for good, perhaps especially in “ordinary worldly heroes” like Aloysha.

I still remember the surge of emotion I felt on first reading the great scene when Aloysha – in terrible grief at the death of his elder — stands alone under the star-filled sky and throws himself down to kiss the earth — thereby embracing his calling to work with the town’s youth.

Re-reading Dostoyevsky during this time of pandemic, I think of the many, many “Aloysha like” heroes we increasingly take notice of – front line workers, to be sure, but also those maintaining the food chain, those continuing to educate the young at home and online, mail and sanitation workers…. Perhaps try to imagine those you’ve most noticed and appreciated.

3. I once tried to use “The Bros K” with college students in an “Intro to Religious Studies” course. They were mostly good students (with the inevitable mix of tired and bored). But it didn’t work. Because of the book’s length, the complexity of its characters, the density of its prose and imagery, and the challenge of its conflicting ideas and themes. I never tried it again. Yet who knows? Seeds may have been planted, even in the bored.

I did not challenge them to read the entire book. Since it was a religious studies course, I focused above all on those chapters focused explicitly on the “eternal question” (Dostoyevsky’s term) about evil and God – how can one possibly believe in a good God or the goodness of God’s creation when the world is so filled with evils.

The question arises for all of us – or perhaps is already settled for many – because real evils are so inescapable in our lives and our world. Indeed, this pandemic is clearly an experience of evil, both the “physical evil” of a natural disaster, and the “moral or culpable evils” involved in its spread. I think, for instance, of the ways human hope is crushed through unemployment and poverty, through greed and intolerance (now so clearly visible), and through the violence which will inevitably ensue.

4. As many know, it is the middle brother, Ivan (the intellectual) who provides one the greatest articulations of the problem of evil and one of the most powerful accusations against God (Christ) for silence in the face of that problem. Yet Ivan is not simply a “rebel” against traditional belief. Despite his immensely powerful argument for nihilism — that there is no good or evil; nothing is immoral — he too suffers great internal torment about this question, to the point of succumbing for a time to deep depression and despair.

5. And then there is Dimitri, the oldest brother – a military man of action and often violent passion, convicted in the end of the crime of killing his depraved and wealthy father Fyodor Karamazov. It’s a crime he did not commit, though he openly admits to many other crimes of passion, blaming the curse of the “Karamazov lust for life.”

I recommend the 1958 English language film version of “the Bros K”  which gives a very good depiction of Dimitri, played with great skill by Yul Brenner. Unfortunately the film displaces the centrality of Aloysha and Ivan, thus giving very little sense of the political-theological concerns which were so central for Dostoyevsky.  The other brothers are simply supporting actors in Dimitri’s story. Yet the film does give a good sense the depth of human passion for both good and evil. (I just saw it again and was surprised to see that a young William Shatner had played Aloysha.)

5. So why write about this “during a time of pandemic”?

In part because, as I’ve already suggested, the pandemic itself and the political and economic effects we are already experiencing pose for all of us (at least at some intuitive or implicit level) the deeply troubling problem of evil.

But perhaps more, because, as a believer, I want agree with the dying elder, Fr. Zosima. After Ivan’s intellectual “rebellion,” subsequent chapters  give Dostoyevsky’s account of the elder’s life and teachings. They too, like Ivan’s words, are compelling and not easily summarized. Suffice here to say that Zosima’s wrestling with good and evil is grounded in his understanding of the Christian Gospel – his focus on God’s mercy and forgiveness, on love of neighbor as the essence of human life, and on the fact that love in reality, not just in words and dreams, is so often “a harsh and dreadful thing” whose exemplar is the suffering Jesus.

Many think that Zosima’s teachings are Dostoyevsky’s attempt to refute Ivan and the atheism which he represents. Yet I think it is far more accurate to suggest that, as a novelist, Dostoyevsky writes less to provide answers than to challenge his readers to face “the eternal question” for themselves.

And as I’ve suggested, this pandemic – this plague – may have raised that challenge again, at least for many of us.

6. So let me end on a perhaps provocative note.

As I see it, we are today witnessing a great (if mostly implicit) affirmation of Zosima’s gospel proclamation about real and costly love of neighbor. By “front-line” women and men, but also right on the street where we live, in the places where we shop, in the many good people whose stories are now carried in our media. Also in what seems a growing awareness of the needy, the ill and unemployed and homeless among us. I clearly know that these many folks are a mix of humanists and believers, of Jews and Muslims and others as much as Christians. Yet I firmly believe that they have, by their active love of neighbor, joined Zossima against Ivan.

Just as I fear that Ivan’s side of the story will continue to play itself out in the actions of those among us who are fundamentally motivated (whatever their pious professions) by rapacious greed and power lust. Our many second-rate nihilists.

In the end, like all of Dostoyevsky’s major characters, like most of our heroes and neighbors and perhaps even some of our nihilists, we too live between good and evil — in the tension of opposing passions. And the challenge (for a time of pandemic isolation) may be that of discerning their movements in our lives (and our world) and then seeking to shift in ourselves (and in our world) the “balance” between them.

____

Ps. I regret I have not commented on the complex passions for good and evil found in the book’s two central women, Katya and Grushenka.

Soul Talk in a Time of Pandemic (Lynch # 6)

This writing simply suggests that, in addition to good medical information and advice about the pandemic, there is another, a spiritual or soul dimension to our response that also needs attention.

Put too simply, most of the commentary I’ve seen does not yet address the spiritual resources and practices we need as we move through this health crisis, words and ideas to help us endure its sufferings and experiences its opportunities.

As my contribution to that latter effort, I will below share just one of my mentor William Lynch’s teachings which I think might be helpful for us in the present. And then will add some wisdom from Dorothy Day.

But the main point of this writing is not Lynch’s or Day’s ideas, helpful though I hope they may be, but the need we all have to find spiritual resources or soul talk for living through these times. I suspect we can find such resource in many writers and saints who draw on the taproots of spiritual wisdom. I think of folks like Thomas Merton, of Therese of Lisieux whom Day wrote a book about, of Joan Chittister and Richard Rohr, of Thich Nhat Hanh and Gandhi. And of Francis, both of them, and of the many other folks (living or deceased, famous or familial) who are for each of us icons of spiritual sanity.

A teaching from Lynch about vulnerability and solidarity, suffering and seeing

Let me begin with a magnificent passage from Lynch’s book Images of Hope (1965)

As I see it we are always faced with programmatic alternatives:

We can decide to build a human city in which all have citizenship, Greek, Jew, and Gentile, the black and the white, the maimed, the halt, and the blind, the mentally and physically well and all the ill…. The idea of the city of man will have to remain eternally open and flexible, ready to adjust itself to the new, to new races and above all to new illnesses. How many [of us] are up to building this kind of city remains to be seen.

Or we will decide to build various walled cities, from which pockets of humanity will always be excluded. They will pose as ideal cities, but will always exclude the Negro, the sick, the different.

Then Lynch adds a realistically ominous note:

These non-human cities offer an extraordinary fascination for the souls of fearful men and we are fools if we underestimate how strong and seductive they can be.

Images of Hope is a book about “mental illness and hope,” and as Lynch notes wryly but accurately, “we are all at least a little bit ill.” And perhaps more than a little worried at this moment.

Here’s the gist of Lynch’s ideas about hope: it is a not what is often imagined as hope — some great leap to transcend the bad news or a hopeless situation. Such fantasy ideas about hope do little to really help us, often making things worse. Rather real hope is nurtured by help experienced in daily living. It is a matter of small steps, reaching out to the actual world (and not to some fantasy). And it is being helped out of our fears and helping others in the same way. About the many small ways in which we daily find help – from friends, or just from a breath of air; from a smile or helping hand (received or given); from the many daily goods which persist amidst clouds of gloom.

This sense of help is itself grounded in a recognition of human vulnerability and suffering. Our own suffering and need calls out to others. Seeing (and not avoiding) the others’ suffering calls out to us. This is how the inclusive and hopeful human city actually grows; how hope is brought forward by little and by little, but realistically and not in some fantasy.

Of course, we can and do respond to need and suffering by turning away, retreating into some fantasy of walled separation. And as Lynch says, we would be fools to underestimate the fascination of escape mechanisms for the fearful folks we all are (and in important senses must be).

Thus, in good Ignatian fashion, Lynch urges us to careful discernment about the spirits or passions aroused by the suffering we see and the fears we have – discerning between those which lead towards flight and further hopelessness, and those which open hearts and minds to real help and hope.

Let me put this another way. Lynch at one point says that he especially admires the East River in New York City, just several blocks from where he grew as a child. Why? Because the river flows ever into a greater world – slowly, with the rhythm of tides, but continually, “a symbol of a passage of human beings into a wider and wider world, into the making of a port and then an ocean.” Then he adds quite dramatically, “We need such a world. Of all things we need, we need a world.”

Elsewhere he adds a remarkable aphorism about that need for a world. Comparing them to the Gospel’s pearls of great price, he says we need both “a good taste of self and a good taste of the world.” And he stresses that these good tastes are inseparable or mutually reinforcing. You can’t have one without the other.

And from Saint Dorothy

As a reminder that this essay is not primarily about Lynch, but about other saints and sages who might help us with the spiritual, I end with a simple listing of some Dorothy Day’s teachings which strike me as important for this moment.

The greatest challenge of the day is: how to bring about a revolution of the heart, a revolution which has to start with each one of us?

Food for the body is not enough. There must be food for the soul.

We have all known the long loneliness, and we have found that the answer is community.

The Gospel takes away our right forever, to discriminate between the deserving and the undeserving poor.

I firmly believe that our salvation depends on the poor.

Love casts out fear, but we have to get over the fear in order to get close enough to love them.

People say, ‘What is the sense of our small effort?’ They cannot see that we must lay one brick at a time, take one step at a time.

My strength returns to me with my cup of coffee and the reading of the psalms.

Everything a baptized person does every day should be directly or indirectly related to the Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy.

Please consider sharing your sources of spiritual wisdom with others, here on this site or among friends and colleagues where it may be of great help.

Why not Bernie? Why not Bloomberg? Why not…?

We seem to be entering the final stage of this season of discontents.

The noise of news and candidate debates grows apace, often furiously.

I just got my mail-in ballot for the Denver Dem. presidential primary, due back soon.

Several days ago, I had a surprising discussion with two old friends about the Democratic race.  Surprising because all of us were at least willing to consider the possibility of Bloomberg’s candidacy.  It was a good discussion that I hope here to share with more friends.

And I really hope that some of you will join this conversation by posting comments below.

Most of my friends and family support Sanders or Warren.  Indeed, just before sitting to write this post I received a very strong anti-Bloomberg posting from Rob Prince, a good lefty friend here in Denver.

The over-riding concern among my friends is that we must beat Trump.  Find the candidate who can beat Trump, one whose policies we like or at least can live with.

I agree, that’s a crucial goal, but only one of two.  The second crucial goal must be to work against the polarizations which grow increasingly worse and stymie efforts for much needed change.

Here’s my take on that second goal:

  • If Bernie is the candidate there will be a huge (and for many a frightening) up-swell of often very angry groups on the left. If he then loses to Trump, that up-swell from  will be confronted by an again empowered angry and fear-filled up-swell on the right.  And much the same if Bernie beats Trump.  In either case, our very dangerous polarizations will be exacerbated, deepened, worsened. Or so I fear.
  • Now play the same guessing game with other candidates, asking the same set of questions about how they might either worsen or begin to heal deep divisions. Might Bloomberg, for instance, actually satisfy the hope many of us have for pragmatic solutions and social stability?  Or will he so enrage Trumpers and radicals of all kinds, right as much as left, that “this rich Jew from New York” will only foment deeper hatreds among us.
  • And so on with Buttigieg, Warren, Biden, Klobuchar… Which can beat Trump with the least polarizing uproar from angry and fear filled groups, with some hope of beginning to heal deep divisions and thus some hope of actually bringing important policies to fruition?

My point is pretty simple.  Not only must we defeat Trump and his congressional minions, but we have to think hard about who can then better address all of our people in at least some movement against polarized fear.

David Brooks recently posted an opinion piece much related to my point.   He argues that both Trump and Sanders have been successful because they sell simplistic myths about the way forward – simplistic and deeply polarizing.  He then contrasts such polarizing myths with a serious alternative – what he calls “the gathering myth.” His remarks on that alternative are worth quoting at length:

Everywhere I go I see systems that are struggling — school systems, housing systems, family structures, neighborhoods trying to bridge diversity. These problems aren’t caused by some group of intentionally evil people. They exist because living through a time of economic, technological, demographic and cultural transition is hard. Creating social trust across diversity is hard.

Everywhere I go I see a process that is the opposite of group vs. group war. It is gathering. It is people becoming extra active on the local level to repair the systems in their lives. I see a great yearning for solidarity, an eagerness to come together and make practical change.

These gathering efforts are hampered by rippers at the national level who stoke rage and fear and tell friend/enemy stories. These efforts are hampered by men like Sanders and Trump who have never worked within a party or subordinated themselves to a team — men who are one trick ponies. All they do is stand on a podium and bellow.

In the gathering myth, the heroes have traits Trump and Sanders lack: open-mindedness, flexibility, listening skills, team-building skills and basic human warmth. In this saga, leaders are measured by their ability to expand relationships, not wall them off.

The gathering myth is an alternative myth — one that has the advantage of being true.

I don’t agree with his simplistic description of Sanders whom I will in the end probably support.  But there is an important truth in that description.

Far more important is his call for attention to “the gathering myth,” though I fear he exaggerates its pervasiveness.  What he has to say about that myth is very much in line with what I wrote in my preceding post about “our better angels.” 

AND MOST IMPORTANT HERE IS THE QUESTION TO YOU:  WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS ABOUT BEATING TRUMP AND HEALING POLARIZATIONS?  PLEASE JOIN THE DISCUSSION BY COMMENTING BELOW

 

 

 

 

Polarization and Our Better Angels (Lynch # 5)*

I’ve not “blogged much of late, but a recent conference has changed that. The purpose and spirit of that conference is captured by these introductory citations from speeches before the US Congress:

We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.
– Abraham Lincoln, First Inaugural Address, 1861

But there is another temptation we must especially guard against: The simplistic reductionism which sees only good or evil; or, if you will, the righteous and sinners. The contemporary world, with its open wounds which affect so many of our brothers and sisters, demands that we confront every form of polarization which would divide into these two camps.
– Pope Francis to Congress, Sept 24, 2015

During these days increasingly bitter days of Trump’s presidency and endless electioneering, with slogan shouting across so many divides, many are concerned not just about political and cultural polarization, but about the ways that a polarizing spirit has become the new normal, making it extremely difficult (if not almost impossible) for people to work together across real differences for resolutions to the challenges we all face.

A Denver-based group, the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado, recently hosted a “Together in This” convocation — co-sponsored, I’m happy to say, by Regis University and a number of other academic and religious groups. It brought together national and local folks concerned to work against polarization by strategizing how “we” (especially religious folk) might nourish a broad public sense that we are all “together in this” and that all of us can and must work together for the common good — even with continuing and often very deep differences.

I have long admired this group from a distance since it had been my experience — as an invited panelist for one of their programs — that their very good work on immensely important common issues (“religious liberty, racial justice, and economic justice”) was nonetheless too controlled by a left-liberal ideology (think ACLU as well as most mainline Protestant and Jewish groups ) with whose orthodoxy (on abortion for instance) I at times respectfully disagreed.

Still, when they announced a local conference on working against polarizing orthodoxies and ideologies, I was very interested.

For the poisonous effects of a polarizing spirit was, already in “the 60s”, the constant concern of my mentor William Lynch, SJ. He continually worked for the development among us of an alternative integrating spirit – for a both-and rather than an either-or sensibility in both personal and public life. Thus I was immediately interested in this conference billed to take up precisely the challenge which occupied him – imagining realistic ways of nurturing collaboration across important divisions.

I admit to being far more than pleasantly surprised by the conference itself; indeed immensely grateful. Surprised because I went fearing more liberal orthodoxy. Grateful because the conference was, for me and many, a Kairos moment.

I hope that I might, in what follows, give a sense of the conference without being gracelessly long-winded.

The conference focused on the polarizations which characterize both our faith communities and our national situation. It was, as I’d expected, a gathering of the liberal/left choir. But “they” were deeply concerned with a coming together across our polarizations, reaching out from “our side” to “the others.” Put differently, this was a group of “liberals” concerned about how, with continuing commitment to “their” important causes, they might also work with the “others” to re-awaken a fundamental sense of civility or civic trust – what Lynch imagined as a “body of faith” and Lincoln called “our bonds of affection…sustained by mystic chords of memory.”

The opening evening panel was composed of local religious leaders – Jewish, Muslim, Catholic, and Protestant. It began with a recognition of shared lament – recognition of the widespread sadness, anger, fatigue, and depression so many feel about polarization in families and communities, the wider culture and politics at every level.

The president of Denver Seminary (Evangelical) lamented the way in which his Evangelical tradition, historically strong (since anti-slavery times) in work for justice, has gradually been seduced and reduced by a narrow “conservative” ideology. The president of Iliff Seminary (mainline Protestant) lamented the recent split in his Methodist Church over sexual and gender issues. A Rabbi and a Catholic Sister each in turn lamented widespread polarization within their communities.

I was especially struck by this religious emphasis on lamentation, a rarely heard but very good term for what so many of us feel. Yet the panel then moved from lament to hope. Some even expressed the hope that increasingly bitter polarization might actually galvanize counter movements. Tthat was the topic of the next day’s workshop.

The day’s opening plenary described, with for me shocking statistical graphs, the increasing rates of polarization across so many dimensions of our society. Yet the speaker’s goal, given that big picture, was to argue that religious communities — despite the widespread cliché that religion is the cause of polarization — might again nourish a renewed “American Consensus” or “body of civic faith.” The speaker was Allen Hilton whose ideas are developed in his book A House United: How The Church Can Save The World (Fortress Press, 2018).

After his talk, Hilton led us into small group discussion about divisions in our religious communities and stories about healing those divisions. Indeed, for me the heart of the day’s program was successive break-out and small group sessions among the participants who were mainline Protestants, Jews, some Muslims, and at least one Sikh. (I was, I believe, the only Catholic.) They were clergy and church workers, seminary and grad students, many elders and (typically) far more women than men.

The morning break-out I attended was led by Doug Pagitt, executive director of Vote Common Good, a national movement trying to get religious voters to oppose Trump’s deliberately polarizing spirit. Pagitt was in Denver for a rally later that day as part of a national bus tour. I urge you to check out their excellent website.

The afternoon plenary involved wonderful motivational talks by two leaders of the Interfaith Alliance . Rev. Amanda Henderson is the Alliance’s founder and executive director. Her colleague, Iman Jodeh, is a first generation Palestinian American, spokesperson for the Colorado Muslim Society (a rare Muslim woman elected for such a position), and is currently running for the Colorado State Senate (where she hopefully will be the first Muslim to serve). Both told compelling personal stories about their reasons for being “together in this.”

The afternoon break-out I happily chose was led by a local volunteer for Better Angels, a national movement started after the 2016 election to bring together Trump and Clinton supporters. Again, I urge you to explore their great website. For they have developed  a variety of meeting formats which carefully bring together an equal number of “red” and “blue” participants (in churches, neighborhoods, and civic organizations) to meet as human beings and fellow citizens in response to what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.” For me their effort, which will continue well past the current election cycle, was a magnificent end to a great day.

* I recently append to my blogposts (this is the fifth such) notes about William Lynch’s writings which are relevant to the post’s topic.

In the preface to his 1965 book Images of Hope, Lynch wrote (here in an edited version): “As I see it we are always faced with programmatic alternatives: We can decide to build a human city in which all have citizenship, Greek, Jew, and Gentile, the black and the white, the maimed, the halt, and the blind, the mentally well and the mentally ill, [the red and the blue, women equally with men]…. Or we will decide to build various walled cities, from which pockets of humanity [the many  “others”] will be excluded.” He then added, realistically but ominously: “how many will be up to building this [inclusive] city remains to be seen” since walled-off enclaves “offer an extraordinary fascination for the souls of fearful people and we are fools if we underestimate how strong and seductive they can be.”

Lynch’s final book, Images of Faith (1973), argues that any truly human and inclusive city is best understood or imagined as “a body of faith.” Put differently, a good city (whether a village or a neighborhood or a major metropolis) is actually constituted by many interwoven relationships of trust and collaboration. Such a city, in other words, is not just made of streets and structures, traffic and business, legal rules and economic processes. For such structures and institutions will work only when they actually embody a fundamental sense of trust and faith in each other. The alternative is all the patterns of distrust, fear, opposition, and withdrawal into walled enclaves which we today so often experience.

Of course the actual city where each of us lives is a messy mix of both faith and fear, trust and distrust. And the real question remains: how many of us will be up to working to build such trust by overcoming fear and distrust?

A final personal pique. At one point early in the workshop John Lennon’s famous song “Imagine” was played while its words flashed on a screen. I love that song’s melody, but hate its lyrics. As if we actually should try to imagine no differences, no conflicts, all happy together in some la la land. These lyrics are romantic BS. The real task, as Lynch continually urges, is to develop a realistic imagination (not romantic-fantastic) which could guide us in work for the inclusion of differences amidst real conflicts. Just imagine that!  Despite the Lennon song, that’s what the conference actually (and for me successfully) tried to do.

All the News… (Lynch # 4)

This reflection grows from a recent discussion with friends for whom I am very grateful.

It seems these days that all the news fit to print or broadcast is pretty depressing.

Impeachment revelations about lies and lying liars. The making of fake news. The broad absence of decent leadership across the globe. Riots and police repression. All while the planet burns – from wars and terrorism, and above all from climate change. While the fossil fuel business grasps for the last bit of profit even as it assures us that it’s working for the future of our planet. Even while the prophets are silenced or ignored. Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.

(Pause a moment to conjure your list of depressing news.)

I have suffered from depression most of my life – manic public energy and mild private depression. Runs in my family and throughout my Irish ancestry. Yet depression isn’t limited to the Irish, and seems especially prevalent among men of a certain age.

I can’t imagine how depression affects those who work with mental illness since they know, more than most of us, how the cancer spreads throughout the people, and the terrible consequences to which it can lead.

William Lynch, SJ’s most widely read book, Images of Hope (1965 and still in print), is about “mental illness and hope.” And, as he notes, we are all somewhat ill, somewhat wanting in hope.

He writes to fight a prevalent fantasy about hope – that it is a great leap to escape the bad news, the wasteland. Real hope, he argues, is a much smaller and more ordinary reality.  It’s above all about help. About the many small ways in which we daily find help – from friends, or just from a breath of air; from the floor under our feet as we get out of bed or rise from a chair; from a smile or helping hand (received or given); from the many daily goods which persist amidst the clouds of gloom.

That was a major part of Tolkein’s message — the little guys and friendships amidst the great war.

A friend who counsels addicts tells them to get out of bed with the alarm, wash your face, make the bed, pour a cup of coffee….

Lynch repeats the story told by a Holocaust survivor: One inmate asked another why he bothered to wash his hands and face each day, amidst the dirt and degradation and certainty of imminent death. The answer? Because such small actions maintain our sense of human dignity within the larger hopelessness.

So it is with so much news that goes unreported. At ground level, daily. Acts of kindness and courage, intentional and random, mostly small. While walking the dog. Opening a door. Washing dishes.  Or the many movements for small service, for linking hands in solidarity against evil, for collecting donations, joining in prayer….

I venture to suggest that at ground level our lives are filled with good news – if we but have eyes to see and ears to hear. Yes, that’s true for THE good news preached by Jesus. But it’s also true for the daily good news the media does not print – in part because there’s more profit in bad news; but also (!!) because there’s far too much of it to cover.

So walk the dog and notice – all the beauty that remains in nature, and in the folks next door, the barista, those shopping in the grocery….

NOT to escape the bad news. NOT to avoid the prophets. NOT to cease to struggle against lying liars and climate destroyers, against violence and racism and terrorism of all kinds. But to nourish hope in the midst of such struggle.

For finally the Kingdom is God’s. We must work for it, in ways large and small. It is SHE who will provide. In ways for me both imaginable and unimaginable.

Meanwhile, consider the lilies, smell the flowers. Share a smile, even if it be but a comforting grimace. Accept even the depression as a small sign that we’re still alive and aware of the evil.

And may the people say “Amen” while waiting in joyful hope. For it’s always Advent.

Immigration and the Vietnamese Contribution to American Life (Lynch # 3)

This essay takes up our conflict about immigration, the polarizing nature of that conflict, and the ways it further erodes public or civic trust – the trust William Lynch, SJ, imagined as the basic “body of faith” which makes civic life possible. My question is whether immigration itself endangers our shared body of faith, or whether that body of faith is eroded primarily by political interests spreading fears, economic blaming, and false news about immigrants. My “case study” is not the present crisis at the southern border, but the post war immigration of Vietnamese refugees. I will begin with the Vietnamese in Denver and then turn to comments about immigration and our body of civic faith..

1. Bridging Hope and Denver’s Vietnamese American Community

For more than a decade, folks from metro-Denver gather each Fall for the non-profit Bridging Hope’s annual fundraiser. It’s a dinner appropriately described as an “art and Vietnamese cultural event.” This year– as always with much Vietnamese music and dance and artworks for auction — it was held in the spacious parish hall of Denver’s thriving Queen of Vietnamese Martyrs Catholic Church. With roughly 400 in attendance – an almost equal mix of Vietnamese and other Americans – along with the young Vietnamese providing entertainment and the servers and auction managers who volunteer annually from University of Colorado’s Vietnamese Student Association. And with special guests like several Catholic Sisters from Viet Nam.

Many of the Vietnamese women wore the traditional Ao Dai, others elegant western evening attire. The men mostly wore suit and tie, though some dressed Denver casual. The non-Vietnamese Americans, both women and men, dressed in the full range of Western casual.

Now if this is beginning to read like a typical “women’s section” socialite fundraiser report, that’s deliberate. For this annual event is clearly a celebration of recent immigrant success. It both on the beauties of Vietnamese culture and the present needs of poor women and children in Viet Nam. Everyone came prepared with checkbooks and credit cards ready for auction and donation.

A bit more description. The dances featured both young women in traditional peasant dances and young men in a noisy and winding dragon dance. (My grandchildren and many Vietnamese children were entranced by the latter.) Music was provided by a superb pianist accompanying the parish youth choir. And later by a specially invited San Francisco women’s quintet (piano and strings) named Phuong Cam. They played and sang both Vietnamese and modern (Western) favorites, the latter often with audience participation.

The silent auction during drinks involved both classical (embroidered) and modern works by Vietnamese artists, as well as wine baskets and the like. The live auction ended with a minor bidding war for signed Denver Broncos’ footballs (the Vietnamese share our city’s love for our Broncos) and then a more significant bidding war for a beautiful wood-carved Vietnamese (Koto) zither-harp.

I here insert photos of two examples of the classical Vietnamese embroidery done by artists at XQ Hand Embroidery in Vietnam. The large originals (framed, 3’ x 5’) look, from a distance, like beautiful paintings. Only close-up can one see the silk threadwork of the eagle’s feathers and the old man’s hands.

I’ve chosen these two artworks since for me the old man represents Vietnamese tradition and the soaring eagle the spirit of the Vietnamese people here and in Viet Nam.

2. Now some commentary:

Judged by their broad participation in Denver’s business and professional ranks, and by their great achievements at some of our best universities (Regis University, of course, but also the Colorado School of Mines and the University of Colorado in Boulder)…by their amazing fluency in English even as they preserve (in family life and religious community) their own language and traditions…and by their support for families “back home in Viet Nam” and for charities like Bridging Hope… By all such standards, the Vietnamese American immigrants are a remarkable immigration success story.

More than that, in these and many other ways they have made an equally remarkable contribution to civic life in cities like Denver and San Francisco and New Orleans. They have, in other words, contributed to the shared body of trust or civility which makes life in these cities workable and often very enjoyable.

Yet ‘twas not always so. Indeed, though I’d lived through those years I had forgotten the initial reluctance of many to re-settling these refugees onto our shores. And I had to be reminded that it was then President Gerald Ford who broke through that reluctance by opening our doors to the war refugees initially held in camps in places like the Philippines.

And I had to be told that to this day, despite their overall success, Vietnamese Americans in places like Denver still are regularly subjected to various forms of bigotry and discrimination.

Of course, none of this is new.  For despite the fact that all of us (with the obvious exception of the only truly “native” Americans) have immigrant ancestors, wave after wave of immigrants have been met with fear, distrust, and bigotry by our own forms of nativism or populism.

It didn’t start with Trump, though he now “capitalizes” on it (as he tries to capitalize on everything). His rhetoric of distrust for the stranger, the foreigner, the alien, whether African Americans or Muslims or the refugees imprisoned on our Southern Border, feeds on long-standing fears and prejudices.

Hispanic immigrants to this country have had, for longer and far more widely, the same kind of success story as I’ve described for Vietnamese immigrants. Indeed, here in Colorado (and in New Mexico and Texas and California) it is incorrect to speak about immigrants, since many Hispanics lived continuously here in the West well before we Anglos moved in with waves of conquest. I was recently reminded that Santa Fe (New Mexico) is the oldest continuous capital city in all of North America. Its full name remains the same as when founded in 1610: La Villa Real de la Santa Fe de San Francisco de Asís (“The Royal Town of the Holy Faith of St Francis of Assisi”).

Yet, again, we still hear and way too many accept all the propaganda about rapists and murderers and unfair economic competition.

3. The Civic Body of Faith

What my mentor William Lynch called “the body of faith” without which civic life is impossible is not a body of shared religious faith, though religion has (in virtually every culture and nationality we know of) contributed significantly to that more fundamental faith.

Nor was Lynch in any way romantic about such civic faith and trust. For our national (or local) body of faith has always been and will always be shadowed and threatened by fear and distrust. Fears based on real differences and on serious conflicts, and too often on real instances of violence and counter-violence.

Nor do I wish to be romantic about immigrants and other “others” – whether African Americans or Vietnamese Americans or Hispanic Americans. There are thugs and gangs on all sides of our immigration debates, as we are reminded daily in news reports. (Though I honestly don’t know of such among the Vietnamese in Denver.)

Lynch loved (as do I) Leonard Bernstein’s magnificent West Side Story. About gang tribalism between Puerto Rican and Anglos on the west side of New York in the 1950s. And about the power of love and tragedy to finally overcome the tribalism and fear. Written and composed by a major New York Jewish artist who himself exemplified the great success of American Jewish immigration. Along with so many other Jewish American artists, merchants, and politicians, Bernstein in West Side Story and in other ways made a major contribution to the civic body of faith in New York and throughout our country. (I urge readers who’ve never seen the film version, or haven’t seen it recently, to find it on Netflix or elsewhere.)

Enough. Probably too much. But I hope the point is clear enough. We live with our body of faith torn and threatened on so many sides. Perhaps most notably these days by perceived and propagandized fears about immigrants and refugees. And, give the realities of global warming, we are only at the beginning of the greatest global migration in human history. We can continue to allow this reality to polarize us, to diminish our civic trust and increase the fear on our streets – or with Bernstein, with Lynch, with the folks at Bridging Hope, we can again and again take up the task of building the trust that makes the human city possible.