Palestine/Israel – A Change in Attitude and a Short Book Review

Almost two years ago, I wrote on this site what I thought would be my final post about the conflict in the not-so-holy land.  I had said what I’d wanted to say about this conflict, over and over again.  Thus I summarized as succinctly as I could the major arguments for my long-held criticisms of Israel as THE rogue state in the region and as the oppressive Goliath now strangling a Palestinian David.  And I gave my sources for this criticism which I am absolutely sure is not anti-Semitic, but very much anti-Israel or at least against the brutal reigning political consensus in Israel.

Nothing has changed those convictions, though today I’d add the Saudi tyranny as THE other rogue state in the region. Of course, Trump’s support for Israel has only made the situation worse, and I fear that Biden will not do much better since he has been typical of US politicians supporting Israel, just less outrageous than Trump.  Indeed, the news as I write tells of Netanyahu authorizing even more expansion of “settlements” on Palestinian land.  Thus more land robbery, resulting in more Israeli violence, and further expansion of its apartheid regime.  And little response from US pols who are presently preoccupied elsewhere, though they’d probably not condemn this expansion of apartheid in any case.

Yet several things have led me to again try to articulate my sense of the tragedies and modest hopes for that land.  To articulate a change in attitude and feeling.

Some time back, as I was reading morning Psalms, something finally clicked, even though I’d read and prayed these words so many times.  A constant refrain throughout the Psalms is praise for Jerusalem as the city of God’s peace, one of the most physical incarnations of God’s covenantal love for human beings.  And a similar refrain involving prayer for Jerusalem.  Prophets calling Jerusalem to repentance and rebirth.  Psalmists imploring God for mercy on Jerusalem.     

I had so long been angered at that city and nation, what one historian has accurately called a “nest of vipers” from ancient times to the present, that I had forgotten, probably never appreciated, this biblical sense shared by Jews and Christians (and I think by Muslims in their way), that Israel, Judah, Zion, Jerusalem…whatever the many names…was a precious place, meant to be a place of peace and praise, and also of the weeping and wailing which so often is the only way to peace.

So I started, with my morning Psalms, to pray for Jerusalem’s peace.  For the present Jerusalem, the present Israel, that it may re-find itself as a place for peace radiating around the globe. 

I don’t believe there are actually “holy” cities, or perhaps I think all cities and villages and towns can be “holy” simply by being wonderfully ordinary and human – made in the image of God, warts and wounds and all.   In other words, when I now pray for “peace upon Jerusalem,” for a restoration of what the Psalms and the Prophets hoped, I do mean the actual Jerusalem/Israel, but I pray for that blessing on all other cities as well.  I pray for every little “place” where the lion actually does or might lie down with the lamb, that such places will not be destroyed but will gradually spread their light through the world.

So that’s the first “thing” that happened to jolt me out of an angry fixation on the bad guys and gals in Israel and in Palestine who remain trapped by an illusory yet violent nationalism.

Next has been my growing conviction, articulated often in these pages, that the only way forward for all of us human beings is through difficult dialogue.  That conviction goes back to Martin Buber but has grown during my study of Pope Francis’ writings.  Indeed, I mention in a recent post on dialogue that one place where dialogue is much needed today is in the Middle East, especially in Palestine/Israel. 

Then, thirdly, I’m reading a new book by the Irish author, Colum McCann, several of whose previous novels I’d much appreciated.  The book is Apeirogon, A Novel (Random, 2020).  It is mainly about dialogue, growing out of a story of the lived dialog between two fathers who’d had innocent and very young daughters murdered by opposing terrorists. One is an Israeli, the other a Palestinian. Both are mature and intelligent men who have fought for their side of the conflict and then suffered this terrible loss.  It is about their meeting and and their gradually becoming missionaries of dialogue among similarly aggrieved parents throughout Israel and Palestine.  And beyond.

It is by far the most compelling book I’ve ever read (and I’ve read a good number) about the terrible reality of the Israeli “occupation” of Palestine.  About the fundamental necessity of ending that occupation (through a two-state solution or in some other way).  And most fundamentally about dialogue between Palestinians and Israelis and Christians as the only way forward to peace.

It is a long and strangely organized book, but it also has helped to move me away from my prior angers (though not from prior criticisms) and has opened for me at least some hope. I urge you to take the time to read this magnificent book and hopefully be moved as I was.

OK, that’s it. 

Unless you want some comments about the book’s almost magical style and range and integrity.  If so, read on.

I have not read many reviews, but this is the third of McCann’s book’s I’ve read.  The others were Let The Great World Spin (2009) and TransAtlantic (2013). I suspect some might call them post-modern novels.  They are novels because much is fictional or, better,  fictionalized versions of interviews and other printed records and video recordings.  Yet they represent a break from the traditional form of the novel.  They not only use the now common technique of flashback or jumping back and forward in the story’s time sequence. Sometimes jumping centuries back and forth.  But McCann’s novels, especially this new one, also jump back and forth from contemporary people and events to historical reports — about biological evolution, about man’s constant violence to other men and to nature, about the Holocaust, the Crusades, and Middle Eastern history – and to texts from the Quran and the Bible, from Sufi wisdom sayings and poetry and philosophical asides.

Such “jazzy” writing could be dismissed as mere intellectual sensationalism, but for McCann it isn’t that.  Rather, through such “jumping” the story gradually develops – there are no chapters, just numbered paragraphs, some just a line or two, some running for several pages, one or two simply left empty – adding up to exactly 1000 numbered paragraphs on 457 pages. His title, Apeirogon, he finally tells us after 80 pages and 180 paragraphs, means a shape with a countably infinite number of sides.  The word countably, he then insists, is utterly central to the meaning of the shape of an apeirogon (think “octagon” infinitely extended yet countable).  Go figure.  I’m guessin’ it means that the shape of the story is very, very complex and many sided.

Yet it is an ordered or integrated whole.  Each of the many different parts, the historical and religious and scientific “notes,” contribute to the more central and usually longer passages which focus on these two men’s lives and thoughts.  They contribute by enlarging the perspectives or lenses through which we see and begin to understand more deeply the contemporary reality of the lives of these men and their call for dialogue between enemies. 

My mentor Lynch has written an important book about the nature of any good, honest work of drama or fiction – and about the many ways that contemporary writing (and cinema and TV) regularly fail to live up to the standards for such good writing.  That still-in-print book is Christ and Apollo (1960).  It was preceded by a shorter and simpler work about The Image Industries (1959) which presents similar criticisms about popular cinema and television.

The relevant point here is that a good work of drama (again, literary or popular) grows “analogously”.  That’s one of those terribly academic words, but its quite right.  It means that a good work of dramatic art (or storytelling) is not built around a constant repetition of the same ideas and feelings in each scene or episode.  Rather each element of the composition stands on its own – is different from the other scenes and episodes – yet simultaneously contributes to the larger effect of the whole. 

And so it is with McCann’s writing, again especially in this new book.  All the elements – the historical and scientific and religious passages (even seemingly irrelevant sections on the migratory patterns of birds across the Middle East) – all provide background and an enlargement of meaning for the central story of these two fathers.

‘Nuff.  If you want more about Lynch’s ideas on literature read Chapter 4, “Apollo – The Dramatic Imagination,” of my book about Lynch.

Better still, read McCann’s new book.

And let us all pray (or hope in some way if you do not pray) and also work for “peace on Jerusalem.”

Isn’t It Ironic? An Advent Reflection

Posted on the fourth Sunday of Advent, 2020.

No, this short and seemingly academic writing is not about all the damnable ironies of contemporary politics, embodied for me above all in the hypocritical obstructionism of today’s republicans.  Ironic, for instance, that the very folks who now profess deep concerns about deficit spending not long ago exploded deficit spending by their huge tax breaks for the rich.

No, this writing is about irony as central to faith – especially what my mentor Lynch even dares to call “the irony of Christ.”

For years I just skimmed the word “irony” while reading since I really didn’t have a clue about what irony meant.  Lynch challenged me to change all that with his last book Images of Faith, subtitled “An Exploration of the Ironic Imagination.” (Very academic wording, but spot on.)

We imagine and experience faith – both civic faith or trust in each other and religious faith – in many ways.  As joy, as consolation, as strength, as seeing through a glass darkly….  Yet these days we probably find the idea that faith must also be ironic to be almost incomprehensible, even scandalous.   Why?  Especially since some of our most important thinkers – from Socrates to Kierkegaard – have praised the central role of irony in living a good (and for SK, a good Christian) life.

I know, all this probably still seems very academic and not-understandable.  But bear with.

Lynch is among many who see ours as a terribly ironic age.  A culture filled with irony at every turn, from our comedians to our writers of both popular and serious literature, our talk shows and political commentary.  An ironic attitude seems to almost be the hallmark of sophisticated intelligence.  And, to the point, such modern cultural irony is essentially contemptuous.  The smart guys looking down their noses at all the fools.  Skepticism and contempt about piety and idealism and the intelligence of ordinary folks.  Etc.

Yet the predominance of such “ironies of contempt” in our days has blinded us to a much larger meaning contained in the earlier philosophical and literary and religious embrace of irony. 

What’s the meaning of that older understanding of irony?  Both the word and the attitude are hard to define.  So some examples. 

Cervantes’ Don Quixote was and remains a classic example of one writer “ironizing” a whole romantic tradition of “chivalry” by mocking it in his story of the Don.  The king has no clothes is a similar example.  Ironic observation pricks the bubble of pseudo-glorious pretension.  It throws the mighty from their thrones, to cite another magnificently ironic text from Luke.  Yet it does more than just puncture false magnificence.  As Mary also says, it raises the lowly.  At the start of the Don’s story, his servant Sancho Panza is a lowly figure trailing behind the glorious knight. By the end of the story of the Don’s disillusionments, Sancho has grown to be his one reliable companion, a man of good sense and real love.

In the classical Western tradition, irony is not about contempt but about healing and reconciliation, albeit in ironic ways.

So back to the irony of Christ which for Lynch is the very being of Jesus as the Messiah, the glorious and long-awaited savior.  For it’s terribly ironic that our truly glorious God (Blessed be God’s name, as Muslims pray), that this Godhead “chose” to save us, to lead us from death to life, to spread his kingdom among us, by having a poor woman of Nazareth conceive a son, soon fleeing for refuge, then becoming a lowly carpenter, and finally a wandering preacher, who ends up as a donkey-riding “king” soon executed as a political criminal.

And irony, of course, was not only central to the life of that unsuccessful savior, but to his teachings.  Blessed are the poor.  Really?  C’mon, get real.  Blessed those who suffer, who hunger and thirst, etc. etc.  And perhaps above all, the crazy idea that only through real and terrible death did that Jesus guy enter into a new and resurrected life as Christ, Lord and Savior.  True for us as well, for it is by and large only through suffering and being misunderstood and misunderstanding, and eventually of course by dying that we come to fullness of life.  Really dying. As we do through the many little deaths suffered during life and through that final death. It is for most of us only through such loss that we gradually come to understanding the real good of our lives, and finally (I believe) come to the great understanding given in the Beatific Vision.

More examples.

It’s a lived irony, for most of us, that the great sexual and romantic dreams that lead us to marry or bond in some wonderful or at least hopeful way, that these dreams are only realized – understood and actually embodied in our lives – by a long journey which involves loss, disagreement, disappointment, deaths great or small.  What little we come to know and experience as real love only happens over time and usually through much suffering.  Not a pleasant thought.  But true.

As also with career plans and paths.  With hopes for a good city and good politics.  We mostly experience shifts and reversals, some chosen paths revealed as folly, others becoming real only through suffering and disillusionment.  In such ways we as individuals and at times we as people move via ironic experiences to a more realistic common sense and sanity and yes trust in life and in others, and at least implicitly faith in God.

For real faith must embody (along with much else) a truly ironic sensibility.

A final example, or at least a hope.  We as families, as cities and nations around the globe…. we human beings are experiencing these days terrible, unexpected, unwanted suffering.  Yes, the pandemic, with its life and death chess game, and economic disaster for so many while the rich sit on their thrones.  And all of course against the backdrop of climate change, mass migrations, inevitable war and violence.

Let me stick with the pandemic. It’s not an ironic curse from God (as some scripture might suggest).  No it’s an ironic consequence of the processes of evolution.  Viruses, I’m told, are a central component in the evolution of life.  They live by living off biological life, or something like that.  And in this way, they prod biological life into adaptations for health and development.  They prod evolution, so to speak.  And always accompany it.  As we know from human history and again these days.

Yet it is just possible – this is my hope – that the pandemic’s destruction, at least for a significant time, of so many of our dreams and plans… its destruction of so much life through disease and poverty, might awaken us to see through many of those dreams, to come to see what’s really important.  To raise the lowly through attention to front line workers of all sorts – and through increased awareness of our elders’ frailty – and through attention to the needs of our kids so they might grow into the intelligent and sensible human beings this planet is going to need for dealing with our other forms of threat and suffering. 

And the rich and powerful, at least some of them, I hope, will be emptied of false pretensions (sent away empty) and take their rightful place amongst us as civic and business, religious and political leaders now working above all with and for the lowly.

Wouldn’t that be ironic? 

Might the Churches Also Enable Dialogue? “Let’s Dare to Dream.”

One of the constant and challenging words in the writings and speeches of Pope  Francis is “dialogue.”

He means real and challenging dialogue – face to face with those whose views we oppose.  Not only some official group of leaders, though I was for several years involved in a quasi-official Jewish-Christian dialogue in Denver. (It was a wonderful experience even as our differences regularly led to polarization about Palestine/Israel.)  Such official groups are good forms of dialogue, but far more needed these days are dialogue among the folks, those in the pews who are, as the recent election showed, deeply polarized between “red” and “blue” or Trump supporters and Biden supporters.

I hasten to add that by “the Churches” I also mean Synagogues and Mosques, Buddhist Sanghas, Hindu Temples, and other institutionalized forms of religion or spirituality.  My call and hope in this writing is that such religious groups might increasingly become places locally for dialogue across our not very peaceful polarizations.  For while there are other institutional settings where dialogue must continue to happen (in schools and universities, in some business and civic groups) I believe that “the churches” can be places where real dialogue is possible and might be especially fruitful.

I am sad to say that I am unable to add our media (print and screen) to that list of important places for dialogue.  There are occasional noble efforts to enable dialogue through the media, but by and large the more general (and more profitable) media focus has been on highlighting violent polarizations, often thereby exacerbating them.

Back to “the churches.”

I note that real dialogue can perhaps best begin by a focus on deep divisions within “the churches” – between, for instance, conservative and more liberal members of a congregation or between congregations within the same denomination which tilt more conservative and those tilting more liberal. Between, for instance, so-called called orthodox Catholics and so-called progressive Catholics.  Or between orthodox and other Jewish groups, and with the many secular Jews in this country.

An initial focus on such inner-church polarizations would not at all mean losing focus on the larger social need for Red/Blue dialogue since church polarizations largely embody those larger social polarizations.

I know of one Catholic church in Dayton, Ohio, which has begun such a dialogue process by first inviting (on Zoom, I believe) a group of Trump supporters to talk together about their ideas and passions; then inviting a similar group of Dems to meet; and finally on a third week to invite both groups to meet “face-to-face”.  The hope is that the process will grow if such initial groups continue to meet, and if other groups beginning a similar process.

Back to Francis. 

As I said the call to challenging dialogue pervades his papacy.  It’s fundamental both to his latest encyclical, Fratelli Tutti, available online and in booklet form, and to his latest book Let Us Dream: The Path to a Better Future (at present only in hardback). In the encyclical, Francis uses dialogue between Christians and Muslims as the primary example of his broader call.  Such dialogue is much needed throughout the Middle East — between Muslims and Jews and Christians in Palestine/Israel, for instance, or between Muslim and Coptic Christians in Egypt.  But the Pope’s focus seems especially on Europe with its refugee/immigrant crisis and too often violent polarizations.  This too is something that’s been building for decades as white Europeans have found the slow but large influx of African and Middle Eastern Muslims a formidable and polarizing presence.  In the book, I’m told by the reviews (I’ve not yet read it), that one clear but unnamed target of his call for dialogue is the US with its roiling political, cultural, and religious polarizations.

At the end of Fratelli Tutti’s short introductory section Francis says: “How important it is to dream together… By ourselves, we risk seeing mirages, things that are not there. Dreams, on the other hand, are built together. Let us dream, then, as a single human family, as fellow travelers sharing the same flesh, as children of the same earth which is our common home, each of us bringing the richness of his or her beliefs and convictions, each of us with his or her own voice, brothers and sisters all.”  The book’s title obviously reiterates that call.  And later in the encyclical he warns that unless we really believe that such a transformation from polarization to “Fraternity and Social Friendship” (the letter’s subtitle) is a realizable dream, then everything he’s saying about dialogue and social trust will be no more than an escapist fantasy in our “real world.”

In my previous posting on this site I argued that “it would be a real step towards social friendship if, after the election mess settles back into ‘ordinary’ cultural warfare, the major church leaders here – senior pastors and bishops, senior rabbis and imams, along with representatives from other faiths, might kneel or stand together outside Union station in Lower Downtown Denver to beg our people to open their hearts to migrants as well as to refugees.”  For polarized passions about immigration run deep in Colorado and throughout the country, and will not ease soon.  And I repeat that such leadership collaboration will only be effective if it extends to “the folks in the pews”. 

Toward the end of that same posting I added: “I again mount my rhetorical pulpit and ask Denver church/religious folk to find ways to work for post-election peace. To take up the long road ahead to enable the divided sides of our people to listen more and excommunicate less.”

Real dialogue does not mean pretending to give up on our most fundamental convictions, but listening to the passions and convictions of the other – in an effort to find some common ground or at very least in order to put a real human face on such views and thereby move beyond the stereotypes of “them and us” which seem to dominate both our own imaginations and the rhetoric of so much of our media.

In an earlier posting this year on “Polarization and Our Better Angels” I reported on a face-to-face meeting (just before the pandemic ended them) sponsored by the Interfaith Alliance of Colorado. The meeting brought together national and local folks concerned to work against polarization by strategizing about how “we” (especially religious folk) might nourish a broad public sense that we really are all “together in this” and that we can and must work together for the common good — even with continuing and often very deep differences.

The afternoon break-out at that meeting, which I luckily, 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. 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.”  That group’s efforts, which continue today, are another very good examples of the kind of dialogue Francis urges upon us.

And Better Angels provides models of formats with which our churches might begin their dialogues.

Let me conclude – lest the whole idea of dialogue and my particular hope for the churches to take a lead in dialogue seem just idle fantasy – by noting some important groups encouraging dialogue in Denver.  I’ve already mentioned “The Interfaith Alliance.”  Now I add “The Institute For the Common Good” at my beloved Regis University, which for years hosted private dialogues between leadership opponents on issues about education and health care, race and gun control.  And “The Conflict Center” which also for years has worked with schools to educate teachers and students in the arts for peaceful settling of conflicts.  And then there’s “The Flobots,” a local group of hip-hop musicians who also work with students and other groups to overcome enmity.  Their most recent album and educational effort is called “No Enemies.” 

I’m sure that there are many other local dialogue-promoting groups that I’ve failed to mention and don’t know about.   

Many such groups have significant church and religious support and work on occasion in church settings.  That connection might also encourage the larger role of “the churches” in promoting dialogue which I’ve been dreaming about in this writing.


[An additional note on 1/27/21: Because of continuing divisions with Trump’s down to the wire protests that he was elected by a landslide, and then the storming of the Capitol, and finally Biden’s inauguration — because of such continuing and polarizing events, I keep finding other calls for dialog and examples of such. Here’s a noteworthy one from the British/International Catholic journal The Tablet: “Truth and reconciliation – what the Catholic Church needs after Trump” .]

Fratelli Tutti in Denver (5)– Religion and Peace

This is the final section in a five-part series of commentaries about the significance of Pope Francis’ new encyclical for our human city (or town or neighborhood). As inevitable with a final chapter, it is way too long since I am trying to get everything in before ending. Apologies.

I also want to note that the encyclical is now available at bookstores in $12+ paperback editions as well as free online.

Finally, while I pause once or twice to raise critical questions about what the pope is saying, what I have written in all five of these posts is essentially laudatory and supportive of the Francis’ ideas. Yet he himself, with his continual emphasis on dialogue as a crucial form of social friendship, invites us into a critical discussion about those ideas.


Following his challenging second-chapter meditation on the Good Samaritan (see previous post below), Francis develops his letter with a series of chapters on major dimensions of our present world. He talks politics and economics, immigration and borders, dialogue and diplomacy, but these standard categories of analysis are woven into chapters united by Francis’ own social imagination and writing style.

Take, for example, the 15 well developed paragraphs on “War and the Death Penalty” at the end of the seventh chapter. They have so far received the most media attention discussion because they involve relatively recent changes in Catholic Social Teaching. Yet the preceding 30 hefty paragraphs in the chapter titled “Paths to Renewed Encounter” provide a larger framework discussing the inevitability of conflict, the architecture of peace, the need for both memory and forgiveness… before getting to final sections on war and the death penalty.

However well and persuasively argue Francis’ discussion of war and the death penalty, they are enriched immensely by the preceding parts of the chapter.

So, yes, you gotta’ read the whole damn thing, as I regularly told students who’d much rather be enjoying one of Denver’s watering holes.

And when you finally get to Francis’ strong reaffirmation of the Catholic Church’s clear and recent rejection of the death penalty – and his equally strong questioning of the whole idea of a just or morally justified war – you will run across challenging “zingers” like the following:

“Every war leaves our world worse than it was before. War is a failure of politics and of humanity, a shameful capitulation, a stinging defeat before the forces of evil.” (par. 261)

All Christians and people of good will are today called to work not only for the abolition of the death penalty, leg al or illegal, in all its forms, but also to work for the improvement of prison conditions, out of respect for the human dignity of persons deprived of their freedom.” (par. 268)


This rejection of moral justifications of violence the leads directly to the Pope’s final chapter on religion with its forceful critique of all religious justifications for jihad or crusade or retribution. Yet the broader focus of the chapter is less on the topic of religion and violence than on the immense resources religion does and could have in healing our world by sowing seeds of social friendship.

In the end, the discussion of this final chapter leads to a magnificent inter-faith appeal and then to a prayer to be shared by all monotheists (Jews, Muslims, and Christians) and finally to a concluding ecumenical prayer to be shared by all Christians

Before moving to the important discussion about religion and violence and to that concluding interfaith appeal, let me focus on the Pope’s evocation of the beauty of our interreligious world rather than its fragmentation.

I note the special emphasis both on migration and on Islam which has been present in this writing since the beginning and comes again to the fore in its final chapter. It also occurs to me that, while this dual focus on migration and religion is directed to the entire world, the Pope’s tone and framing of things still seems (to me) primarily European, Middle Eastern, and African. It calls for “Christian” Europe to be open to cultural and economic enrichment from Arab and African Muslim immigrants, and calls Muslims to live up to their faith in God and peacemaking – Salaam Alaikum — as they increasingly live with Christians in Europe and with Christians as minorities in their homelands.

I’ve already suggested that there are not that many Muslim Americans in Denver, though their numbers increase and their younger generation is making its impact felt. Indeed, a young Muslim woman whom I have met at interfaith gatherings was just elected to the Colorado House of Representatives. So too in many other parts of the US. Thus what Francis has to say about relations with Muslims is quite relevant to our North American reality.

Even more, his broader focus on migration and minorities is immensely relevant to Denver.

A good friend with some Spanish goes regularly to the Immigration jail here and develops a relationship with just one guy until that man’s status is decided. Just trying to be a friend to someone in the ditch, to help him on his way.

My Presbyterian wife is involved in a dual effort — both to get more churches in the Presbytery of Denver involved in work to help and advocate for immigrants – and to reach out to other church and religious groups to form a broader coalition of help and advocacy for immigrants.

It would be a real step towards social friendship if, after the election mess settles back to “ordinary” culture warfare, the major visible church leaders here – bishops and senior pastors, senior rabbis and senior imams, along with representatives from other faiths, might kneel or stand together (in LoDo outside Union station, for instance) to beg our people to open their hearts to migrants as well as to refugees. That would indeed manifest the beauty and the power of religious pluralism in Denver.

In this final chapter, the pope again tells us that he was accompanied in spirit as he wrote this letter by one of the world’s major Muslim leaders, Grand Imam Ahmad Al-Tayyeb, whom he had met in Abu Dhabi and with whom he signed a joint declaration calling all to religious and social peace. Francis shares the appeal for peace in that text by citing the it at the end of his letter (as I will do at the end of this post).

At the end of his letter, Francis also notes notes other religious sources of inspiration for his writing. St. Francis is, of course, the most significant among them. But the pope also notes inspiration provided by “brothers and sisters who are not Catholics.” He mentions “Martin Luther King, Desmond Tutu, Mahatma Gandhi and many more.” All more evidence of the beauty of religious pluralism and interfaith cooperation which is the chapter’s basic theme.

Yet lest I glorify this pope too much. For he does have his limits. I note with others that he fails to mention any of the great women leaders and saints, from different faiths, who have so beautifully and greatly contributed to social peace and who continue to do so. And yes, I am bothered by his failure to name any of those he refers to as “sisters.” His failure, for instance, to note and quote the likes of Dorothy Day or Sojourner Truth, Simone Weil or Etty Hillesum, as major religious voices for peace


The entire chapter can be read as a extended discussion of the relationship of religion and violence – a topic on the mind and in the imaginations of so many these days. Yet it is by stressing the real and very important role of religion in overcoming violence and working for a renewal of trust – by stressing the many goods which religion brings to public life – that this chapter frames its discussion of violence.

What, for Francis, are some of those religious goods? Here are several drawn from the larger picture of religion presented in this final chapter.

First, he argues that without a shared human belief in God or other “supreme and transcendental principles” – beliefs maintained or embodied in the world’s great religions – violence grows and rules. Without such an “ultimate foundation,” war and violence are the inevitable outcome.

He thus turns the secularist argument on its head – the argument that finds the source of violence and warfare in religious absolutism and dogmatism – by arguing that it is the absence of any shared human sense of ultimacy that opens the gateway to violence.

“It is wrong [Francis argues] when the only voices to be heard in public debate are those of the powerful and ‘experts’. Room needs to be made for reflections born of religious traditions that are the repository of centuries of experience and wisdom. For ‘religious classics can prove meaningful in every age; they have an enduring power [to open new horizons, to stimulate thought, to expand the mind and the heart]’.”

Secondly, Francis emphasizes that central to Christian identity are both religious freedom and openness to other faiths. For it is the strength of our roots in the Gospel which leads us to join with the other in service to those swept to the waysides of our world. And it is the freedom we seek in other lands to practice our faith which must lead us to accept and honor the religious freedom of those come recently into our homelands. And to work with them for peace.

Finally, Francis directly addresses the violence perpetrated by terrorists in the name of God. Clearly they are wrong, blasphemous, criminal. Yet once again, rather than focus on condemnation, Francis makes a long, thoughtful appeal to terrorist groups and individuals – appealing to them to see that, whatever the legitimacy of their grievances, the authentic beauty of their faith rejects what they are doing in its name.

So I again mount my rhetorical pulpit and ask Denver church/religious folk to find ways within their understandings and practices to work for post-election peace. To take up the long road ahead to enable the divided sides of our people to listen more and excommunicate less.

And I further note that, as part of that long road, we religious folk also need to listen better to each other.

For, at least as I see my city, Catholics and Jews remain cautiously friendly — each divided within its membership and leadership about interfaith interests and collaboration, and more fundamentally divided around controversial issues like immigration and economic justice, Middle East Peace and women’s liberation.

And it’s much the same between Catholics and other Christians. Catholics are deeply divided between so called “conservatives” and “liberals” as much as Protestants are divided between “mainstream” and “evangelical” or “fundamentalist.”

I don’t have much sense of group elations between Muslims or Hindus and Christians and Jews – the former being so far only small actors on the local scene.

Yet there seems to be a kind of “underground” relationship between Christians and Buddhists, at least liberal Christians, that is focused around contemplative practice and its contribution to social justice and peace.

As noted, Francis concludes his discussion of religion and social peace by ending with a long citation of the appeal he co-wrote with the Grand Imam Ahmad Al-Tayyeb.

I also place it here, at the end of my text, with the hope that you might imagine your city or neighborhood as you read. Like the rest of the encyclical, this appeal is quite repetitious and best read slowly, even repeatedly.

“In the name of God, who has created all human beings equal in rights, duties and dignity, and who has called them to live together as brothers and sisters, to fill the earth and make known the values of goodness, love and peace;

“In the name of innocent human life that God has forbidden to kill, affirming that whoever kills a person is like one who kills the whole of humanity, and that whoever saves a person is like one who saves the whole of humanity;

“In the name of the poor, the destitute, the marginalized and those most in need, whom God has commanded us to help as a duty required of all persons, especially the wealthy and those of means;

“In the name of orphans, widows, refugees and those exiled from their homes and their countries; in the name of all victims of wars, persecution and injustice; in the name of the weak, those who live in fear, prisoners of war and those tortured in any part of the world, without distinction;

“In the name of peoples who have lost their security, peace and the possibility of living together, becoming victims of destruction, calamity and war;

“In the name of human fraternity, that embraces all human beings, unites them and renders them equal;

“In the name of this fraternity torn apart by policies of extremism and division, by systems of unrestrained profit or by hateful ideological tendencies that manipulate the actions and the future of men and women;

“In the name of freedom, that God has given to all human beings, creating them free and setting them apart by this gift;

“In the name of justice and mercy, the foundations of prosperity and the cornerstone of faith;

“In the name of all persons of goodwill present in every part of the world;

“In the name of God and of everything stated thus far, [we] declare the adoption of a culture of dialogue as the path; mutual cooperation as the code of conduct; reciprocal understanding as the method and standard”.

And let the people say “Amen.”

Fratelli Tutti in Denver (4) — A Very Hard Saying

This is the fourth and penultimate segment of my extended discussion of Pope Francis’ new encyclical letter. It’s the first to address the economic critique of neo-liberal capitalism which runs through this new letter and has been a constant element in virtually all of his previous writings and speeches. Think “Throw-away economy” and “option for the poor.”

As I’ve said several times, the Pope’s letter is a complicated persuasive argument urging us to participate in its reflections about our world. It’s a moral argument made to all people, not a theological essay just for believers.

Yet the center of that persuasive argument is an extended meditation (the entire 2nd Chapter) on the meaning of Jesus’ parable about “The Good Samaritan.” Francis offers this parable to all of us, whatever our religion or ethics. He challenges everyone to shared reflection on the parable’s central question about who is my neighbor, and on the very human roles most of us play regularly in this iconic drama – the Samaritan who stops to help, the Priest and Levite who walk on by, the victim left on a roadside, and even the robbers who left him there.

I was especially struck by Francis’ discussion of the robbers. The pope enlarges the meaning beyond street thugs to the many ways in which the world’s economic and political systems rob people, especially the poor, especially those forced into migration – and so often thrown to the wayside by various new forms of so-called “nationalisms” and by the so-called “laws” of manufacture and trade and finance.

The Pope’s critique of political and economic ideologies is not simplistic, but probing and at times startling. Who, after all, regularly imagines bankers as “robbers” – the sophisticated equivalent of street thugs or, better, pickpockets and con artists. We may feel that way about bankers when there is news of some new fraud by any number of big banks. Yet when we deposit checks or withdraw money or receive a good mortgage from our local bank, we are less likely to think of robbery than of our shared need for reliable banks.

Yet Francis challenges us also to think of these systems from which so many of us benefit and in which we all inescapably participate as networks of organized crime. Or if that seems to harsh, to begin to see them as unwitting and at times unwilling collaborators in massive global forms of robbery.

To see the way that we, for all our efforts to be fair, for all our good intentions and good work as members of the white collar and managerial classes – or as members of blue collar working and service classes – to see that we all nonetheless participate in the robbery and casting to the wayside of so many of our poorer neighbors – at home and throughout the world.

This is, from compassionate and pastoral Francis, a very hard saying.

The dog walks me around the huge, full-square-block construction that’s only a half-block away, between us and Coors Field (baseball!). I’ve come to think of this interconnected set of towers as a beautiful monster. It is a hotel-office-condo-and-shopping complex being built by the Colorado Rockies et. al.: think big banks, a major construction corporation with extensive chains of suppliers and machinery and a very large labor force just for this site – and think as well, of course, government support (tax breaks?) and oversight.

Thanks to the dog, I’ve watched what’s named “McGregor Square” grow from a huge, 4-story deep excavation where once there was a baseball parking lot (with lots of good puppy-pee-places) to its present tri-tower structure.

I marvel every day at the immense collaborative effort involved – from the managers to the supply purchasers to the hole diggers with their immense machines to the endless truck drivers delivering construction materials to the guys and gals who’ve built the walls up and now are building wired internal walls for office and residential rooms…. (That’s a deliberately run-on yet still incomplete sentence.)

It could not be happening at this and at least five or six similar construction projects within walking distance…. It could not be happening without a network of trust and solidarity, agreements and contracts, between labor and management, between different forms of expertise and craft. Even as such an umbrella network of solidarity nonetheless involves major inequalities as well as the inevitable tensions and prejudices which fester along class and racial and ethnic and gender lines.

This beautiful monster will win awards. It will, as the planners and pundits keep saying, contribute immensely to the ongoing development of LoDo and of Denver as a whole. It will probably raise the value of my apartment just down the block. It will, as politicians and planners all agree, make our city more vibrant… (and perhaps eventually more confident in welcoming the halt and lame, the outcast and the immigrant, though this is my fervent wish, one not stressed much by the project’s cheerleaders.)

Yet Francis challenged me to realize that, for all such social goods, the project and its parallels all over the world also still play the robber’s role in the parable. That being the point of this long LoDo digression.

How does it rob? It adds to Denver’s widespread gentrification that is sweeping significant numbers of poorer folk out of the way of progress, casting them onto the wayside.

I remember once getting onto a bus heading back downtown. I sat in the front seats reserved for elders and eventually joined a conversation between two African American elders. Both were lamenting the fact that gentrification in Denver had forced them to move to Aurora, Denver’s sprawling and in parts heavily minority suburb. And now forces them to take a bus downtown where once they could walk.

Even more fundamentally, McGregor Square will be an economic success for Denver precisely because it is one small part of the global machinery of economic “progress” which we call by many names: democratic capitalism, neoliberal capitalism, post-colonial capitalism, even socialist and communist capitalism. This system, for all the many goods it has brought to humanity, nonetheless is based on what Francis at one point “the invisible dictatorship of money.”

I’m part of that system, as is Francis himself.

And with him, I and most of my readers also need to be able to see how our “system” involves an ongoing robbery which, for all the benefits in medicine and food aid, in education and communications, which it gives, nonetheless continues to disenfranchise and impoverish billions of our sisters and brothers around the world. To sweep them to the wayside. And thereby it makes robbers of us all.

Such active “seeing” of the bigger picture just might, with Francis’ insistent prodding, awaken us to the many economic and political changes needed if we are truly to become the neighbors raised by the parable.

As I said, this is a very hard saying – challenging, troubling.

Here’s one of the many ways Francis expresses this hard saying:

“Only when our economic and social system no longer produces even a single victim, a single person cast aside, will we be able to celebrate the feast of universal fraternity” (par . 110).

Yet, as I’ve already said, Francis’ discussion of our economy is not simplistic. He praises the vocation of business people even as he challenges them. He celebrates authentic forms of economic development even as he challenges other forms. He celebrates, to coin a phrase, the diverse wealth of nations – each with its cultural and natural resources — even as he urges the global system to benefit from such resources without robbing the peoples and nations who possess them.

Read and see the complexity of this economic critique, and be blessed with the wit and grace to understand its complex but still very hard challenges.

Fratelli Tutti in Denver (3)– Diplomacy, Diversity, and Racism

In this third discussion of Pope Francis’ new encyclical on global social fraternity, I want to evoke briefly his emphasis on social friendship across ethnic, racial, and religious boundaries. And, of course, his awareness of fear and even violence across those same boundaries.

I note that Francis, while clearly concerned about all racial and ethnic differences, writes from a European perspective where “the other” in European countries are immigrants from Africa and the Middle East, mostly Muslims with Arab or Black African ethnicity and race. Yet our major “other” remains African Americans.

I will briefly discuss the relevance of Francis’ writing to our racial divide, but briefly since there has been so much good writing and thinking (and acting) of late about our “American” racisms many forms.

The Pope’s letter begins by recalling how St. Francis, one very tough Medieval Italian, crossed active battle lines to visit the Sultan in Egypt and seek peace during one of the Crusades. Then he notes a modern parallel in his own 2019 visit with the Grand Imam Ahmad Al-Tayyeb in Abu Dhabi. Their serious discussions led to a joint Muslim-Christian declaration on “Human Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together.”

Francis is a real and hopefully, at least in the long term, very effective diplomat reaching to the world to preach the vision for peace he writes about in this letter. (I’ve previously noted his many diplomatic travels and talks.)

His letter is a major addition to the series of encyclical letters and the like from recent Popes and Councils – typically referred to in their entirety as “Catholic Social Teaching.” (A friend is writing a book which focuses on “the dynamite” for social reform contained in this tradition of social teachings were it only known and lived.)

Yet it is different in style and tone from so many of those prior documents. It draws on many sources, but one hears the unique voice of this pope behind every line. It is not content with a scholastic style (in the negative sense of the word) but takes up its focus on the reform needed for a recovery and nurturing of “social friendship,” not as some abstraction but as embodied on the streets of our cities, in workplaces and throughout our economic lives, in our political and cultural lives, and in our churches. In other words, in all of the corporate and civic structures which constitute the framework for daily civic life.

While Francis cites many sources, even a line from a Brazillian samba, to give flesh to his ideas, I suspect most readers need to stop often and to think about or imagine (as I’ve been trying to do with my LoDo vignettes) the meaning of what he’s saying.

So, whether you walk a dog or not, the basic question we all need to ask continually is how we each experience our own city or town? How might you think, as you read this or take a walk after reading, of your neighborhood? Imagining the many forms of social friendship which really are evidence of our living together, and also the forms of fragmentation and separation which are evident, though often hidden.

Racial and ethic divisions have (I suspect) always characterized human societies. Such boundaries are one of the major ways we maintain our identities and our special cohesion with those of our race and ethnicity. At best they are porous boundaries which enable us to learn from and cooperate in friendship with other cultures.

I’ve already mentioned the many Hispanic construction workers in LoDo. Yet the station’s traffic gives evidence of Asians aplenty and Blacks in increasing numbers — some Africans, some Muslims, most residents of our relatively decent but still mostly segregated Black neighborhoods.

I really don’t have significant and regular contact with many African Americans. Yet there are occasional and seemingly accidental meetings.

Some years back, waiting for a tire to be repaired in Aurora (Denver’s sprawling eastern suburb) and needing a haircut, I entered a shop across the street which immediately revealed itself as not only the local Black men’s barbershop/hangout, but as a Black Muslim place. I was politely invited to sit and await the next open chair. Then my barber confirmed that he was Muslim so I was able to say the standard greeting “Salaam alaikum,” to which he gracefully responded. 25 minutes later, and $ 25 bucks shorter, I returned to the tire place a much happier man than I’d been when miffed at how long the tire would take. Shows to go you.

And we too in Denver were blessed with several weekends of Black Lives Matter protests – which, despite some violence from mainly (???) white “antifas,” were both remarkably non-violent and very interracial.

Yet we know too well that relations across racial and ethnic lines are frequently fragile and often deeply discriminatory and violent.

Again, because there has been so much good writing about racism in our country, historically and still today, I will refrain from further comment.

Other than to say that the kind of careful and even prayerful reading of the Pope’s letter will illuminate our country’s racial and ethnic divisions and open paths to healing, just as it will open paths for European and African, Asian and Australian and South American readers.

And to again recommend my good friend and Regis colleague Chris Pramuk’s increasingly important book Hope Sings, So Beautiful: Graced Encounters Across the Color Line (2013) as well as it’s with its accompanying and regularly updated blog of the same name.

Fratelli Tutti in Denver (2+)

This short posting interrupts my series of discussions about the Pope’s new encyclical. It provides a pause to ask what may be the reader’s basic question: Will this encyclical make any difference in the real world? For what it’s worth, here is my response to that question.

My Presbyterian wife asked a good question: “What’s an encyclical from the Pope supposed to do?”

Well, I answered, it’s supposed to be read and discussed by all kinds of folks, writers and pastors and teachers, reading groups and political analysts, and so on…. Hopefully they will help spread its word about social love – even if only by short references and quotations or by discussion of this or that particular topic.

Hopefully, then, the spread interest in what the pope is calling us to will join with many other spiritual voices and cultural movements seeking greater human solidarity at all levels of our lives. Hopefully, too, such movements, empowered by the breath of the Holy Spirit, will continue to “transform the face of the earth.”

In ways akin to the way Francis’ encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si’, has made a major contribution to work for environmental restoration.

Of course it will encounter resistance from many directions. Mainly it will be ignored or just assigned to the category of “pious idealism” and thereby dismissed from serious concern. It will be resisted by many Catholics who already oppose Francis, especially (as I see it) many wealthy Catholics (as so many others) who are deeply invested in “our economic system.” They will once again confine papal teaching to the nearest trash-bin.

So will it do any good? Yes, but it depends where you look. I hear Francis asking us first to look at the little and ordinary as a place to begin to transform social relations. Look to the poor and the lame, those struggling for justice and working for peace. Look to all the good of solidarity already at work nearby. Look at the little steps you may take.

Francis also calls us regularly to focus on trends rather than the present distribution of power. Slavery exists today, and in some ways is growing still, but it can no longer claim legitimacy and is being fought on many fronts. Anti-slavery remains a major social trend or force for justice So too with the equality and empowerment of women. It’s a trend, suffering fits and starts, but another example of the slow and so often checked work of the Spirit for the liberation .of our species. So too, as already noted, with the gradual development of active concern about our environment.

Perhaps Fratelli Tutti comes to our earth at the right time as another source of leaven raising the bread of life for all during a period of such hunger.

Or perhaps I’m just another dreamy idealist.

Fratelli Tutti in Denver (2)

This posting continues my previous post (just scroll down) about Pope Francis’ latest encyclical on social friendship and my attempt to relate it to my experience of living in “LoDo” or lower downtown Denver.

Early headlines saw the encyclical as a response to the pandemic, a call for renewal of the social world as we move through the crisis and suffering and begin to rebuild the fabric of social live at all levels. 

Indeed, Francis tells us in his prefatory paragraphs that the pandemic erupted while he was in the midst of writing.  The pandemic is not the cause of the encyclical, but it tragically exemplifies the fragmentation of social life which is central to Francis’ concern.  Fragmentations and divisions at home and globally which have made the pandemic far worse than it might have been. 

Yet the pandemic also has brought to light all the many ways that social solidarity has arisen to deal with the virus.  Yes, the courage and love embodied in first responders of every kind – including store clerks and truck drivers who maintain the social good of our food chains.  And now the teachers and parents and zoom technicians working with such dedication to continue the education of our children. 

The pandemic emerges at various points in the letter as evidence both of our fragmented social relations and of our continuing forms of solidarity.

Denver’s on partial lockdown or whatever they call it.  Restaurants in LoDo, of which there are many, are bracing for weather that will drive fewer diners inside.  Most folks on the street wear masks.  Especially true of the hundreds of construction workers who seem on strict orders to mask up.

The letter’s opening chapter, “Dark Clouds over a Closed World,” is a lengthy discussion of the fragmentation and loss of “social friendship” which prevails around the globe.  Like all of the letter, the chapter is both informed analysis and moral argument.  It is informed by good social science and philosophy and religious knowledge, and also by Francis’ own personal engagement with the events and trends, the tragedies and the goodness of our world.  And it is written in a style which, as he says in the beginning, enables him to bring together many ideas and themes about our world and our great need for social solidarity.

One example of Francis’ scope and detail is his discussion (in par. 47) of the fragmentation and isolation caused by social media. They involve, he says, a real “risk of addiction, isolation and a gradual loss of contact with concrete reality, blocking the development [especially for the young] of authentic interpersonal relationships.”

Then he continues, with a marvelous sense of our human need to touch and taste, these media “lack the physical gestures, facial expressions, moments of silence, body language and even the smells, the trembling of hands, the blushes and perspiration that speak to us and are a part of human communication. Digital relationships, which do not demand the slow and gradual cultivation of friendships, stable interaction or the building of a consensus that matures over time, have the appearance of sociability. Yet they do not really build community; instead, they tend to disguise and expand the very individualism that finds expression in xenophobia and in contempt for the vulnerable. Digital connectivity is not enough to build bridges. It is not capable of uniting humanity.”

This detailed and discursive form of writing can bother any reader who wants to get quickly to the bottom line.  Like students asking for short answers. 

It’s the writing of a master teacher who leads students slowly towards real and not merely notional understanding.  Only slow, even meditative reading will lead to real and transformational understanding.

LoDo almost anytime.  Rushing hither and yon.  Always connected by some kind of gadget.  Quick lunch. Quick dash for the train or the free Mall-bus.  Working while walking.  Even couples walking in quick each connected to her/his own phone doing whatever folks do these days during their walking and riding times.

I know this risks stereotype, but the many Hispanic guys in construction here seem to be the only ones who just sit and shoot the breeze during their lunch and other breaks.

Maybe I see all this constant “busy-ness” because I’m so busy most of the time.  At least in my head.  What the Buddhists call “monkey mind.”

I’m pretty sure most of us have some sense of the “Dark Clouds over a Closed World” which Francis is talking about.  We typically sum it up in terms of the election, covid, climate change, and the resulting mess of poverty, dislocation, migrations, wars. 

Yet Francis, while addressing each of these topics in his opening chapter, is not content with a quick formulation of our ills.  He challenges us in this long chapter to journey with him through present darkness and isolation, always reminding us of alternative goods and developments which are also present.  Never allowing things to be reduced to the simplistic pictures of class or racial divisions which seem to polarize so many of us. 

This pope is one smart guy.  Way better than most of our pundits, even the good ones.

He travels to all parts of our world, often by jet, even more by speeches and letters to audiences around the globe.  A brief glance at the endnotes shows him speaking to people at key locations folks in both Israel and Palestine, in Nagasaki and Mozambique…. And also to youth groups, professional organizations, and activist meetings in Europe, Asia, Latin America, and the US.  

So he knows a bit about the fragmenting social realities of our world, the conflicts and crises.  And about the good work of so many to renew social solidarity.

Fratelli Tutti in Denver

I started this writing once I had occasion to read the Pope’s encyclical. Nothing to do with the election. Yet the writing has been shadowed continually by election hopes and fears and lies. Now I’m finishing this writing as we still await the election’s outcome. What we already know, very clearly, is that we will remain a deeply divided people who nonetheless depend on each other. For these reasons – our divisions and our inter-dependence, we very much need to hear Francis’ words, and to heed them. They are addressed to all people, not just to Catholics or other religious folk. He’s writing to all of us, now, in our fragmented and fear-filled time, urging us to think together about and find ways or recovering many forms of social friendship.

And as I wrote an simultaneously re-read Francis’ words, my own writing grew like topsey. Perhaps because of my effort to related the Pope’s ideas to realities I experience daily in Denver. So I will be posting what I’ve written in short, hopefully readable parts over the next several days.

And I ask the reader’s indulgence for the spacing and numbering in what follows. I am learning a new format from Word Press which hosts this blog.

I write to recommend Pope Francis’ latest encyclical “letter” Fratelli Tutti in the highest possible terms. In fact, “recommend” is too restrained a word. I urge folks, all folks and not just Catholics, to read the new encyclical and to get family and friends to do likewise.
Here I can do little more than recommend by highlighting this or that idea from and about the text of this beautifully written but still quite lengthy and detailed document.
I’m also going to try something different. To make the meaning of the letter more concrete (at least for myself), I will be describing local scenes which make present for me that meaning.

Such as the fact that I have the privilege of walking my dog daily around downtown Denver and witnessing the breadth of human solidarity or “social friendship” as the Pope calls it. And also some of the fragmentation and loss of solidarity he laments.

If you enjoy languages as I do, the role and repetition in the Italian title is beautiful. I can hear Francis saying it as he begins some talk – both St. Francis and our present Pontiff. A the single best review I’ve so of the Pope’s document focuses far more deeply than I have just suggested on Francis’ language – evoking its rhetorical depth by comparison with a protest song, “Sólo Le Pido A Dios,” originally from the terrible war in Argentina and now widespread in Latin lands, something like our “Blowin’ in the Wind.”

For sound and rhythm open our hearts to truth in ways that written words alone do not. And it’s not just the Pope’s musical Italian title. His mix of analysis and moral persuasion moves with its own rhythm when read with an open heart. And the letter is loaded with rhetorical zingers worthy of memorization and repetition.

I live in “LoDo,” the poetic way we refer to Denver’s lower downtown. Centered on our main train station. So I hear the trains when the come and go – the big twice-daily Amtrack, the many local light rail trains, and the constant movement of long freight trains. There’s also street noise – cars and trucks, the too frequent roaring of motorcycles and low riders down the tunnel streets created by old warehouses turned into lofts and new condo/office towers. And often, even during this pandemic, the sounds of children coming off trains or brought to the station by parents or teachers. Now and again one hears the sound of sirens – mostly ambulances coming for someone who’s faltered or fallen, but also the not infrequent police cars coming (hopefully) to restore social peace.

People occasionally ask me whether I’m bothered by the “noise” of living downtown. In fact, I find that the many forms of street noise provide regular symphonic evidence of social cooperation.

Of course I need not romanticize. One also hears the angry noise of car horns, the cursed shouts at uber driver blocking streets, and the mad ranting or dance-singing of another mental ill and typically homeless pedestrian.

You may have read that there was some reaction to that masculine title – “brothers” – when the encyclical was first announced.  But the actual text released by the Vatican (just released in book editions) puts those concerns to rest with its first sentence’s address to “brothers and sisters.”  The content of the letter, as it unfolds, is clearly much and deeply concerned about the condition of women in our fragmented world.  Though he might have stressed more (unless I missed it) the role of women at all levels in nurturing and maintaining the reality of social trust and friendship. And, as some critics were quick to not, it doesn’t look like Francis reads or hears enough from women.

A mix of workers still “come downtown” each day – office and construction workers, restaurant and delivery and transportation workers.  Many more office workers stay at home.

The street traffic here suggests what research indicates – at least as many women are in the workplace as men, more in white collar and service than in construction and suits, and probably paid less than men.  I note especially the immigrant women with vacuums on their backs cleaning the office spaces at night here in LoDo.

I continue to believe that the women of Denver do more in more ways to maintain the city’s social fabric than we men do with our scribbling and designing and ordering. Perhaps I’m romanticizing again.

Political and Cultural Polarizations — Lynch Once Again

I am trying to write an academic article and just re-read a paper I’d given more than ten years ago. It struck me that it might make a good, though perhaps difficult, posting on this blog. So, for interested readers, here’s an updated and much abbreviated version of that paper. It’s title was “Politics, the Body of Faith, and the Vocation of Intellectuals In the Thought of William F. Lynch, S.J.” In what follows it I use the term “political” to mean both politics (in our modern sense of that word) and economics, as well as culture and society. I use it to mean the “City” (the “Polis”) as our classical writers understood that term.

I began my 2009 paper by evoking several “political moments” from that time of economic crisis and electoral frenzy as a way of providing some concrete context for Lynch’s ideas. Here I begin with just one of those past moments.

During the 2008 presidential campaign, Obama and McCain were interview at Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church, a still very large and influential evangelical church   Asked about evil (whether it exists and how we should respond to it), both candidates acknowledged the reality of evil in our world.  Obama’s stressed that we had to confront evil, but that removing evil is finally God’s work and that a lot of evil has been done, and can be done, in the name of fighting evil.  That complex answer was met with respectful silence from the audience.  McCain, by contrast, jumped in at the very end of the question with a ringing “Defeat it!” which received loud.   He then went on to proclaim that he’d get Bin Laden “if I have to go to the gates of hell” and that radical Islamic extremists present “the transcendent challenge of the 21st Century” – all again to resounding applause.

That was then.

Now, with the Trump administration, we’ve seen a period of far worse polarization (between political parties and between other religious and cultural groups) where the stoking of such polarization has increasingly become a deliberate tactic. Think of Trump’s tweets and speeches. And of similar rhetoric from obsequious Republicans as well as by too many on the other side of the aisle.

In 2009, I asked whether Obama would be able to use the economic crisis of that time to lead us towards a fundamentally different form of cultural and electoral politics?  Or would that crisis, with all its accompanying fears, simply provide more fuel for the polarizations of our political and cultural wars, perhaps even leading again (God forbid!) toward the terrible violence which characterized so much of the 20th Century. Today I ask the same question about Biden and (hopefully) a new Democratic majority.

In 1973 Lynch published his last book, Images of Faith. There he most fully developed the idea that faith (not religious faith, but basic human trust and hope – to which, of course, religious faith may and thankfully often does contribute) – that such faith is fundamental to the very possibility of politics. Lynch asks us to imagine (that is, to really see) that such basic human faith and trust has “a body.” It is not some vague idea or “spirit.” Rather it actually exists (or fails to exist) as embodied in human relationships, embodied in the actual city — in its economics and politics, its institutions and folkways, its technical expertise and artistic expressions. For the city (or any smaller community, is the most concrete expression or body of human trust and hope. Of course, any human community, without foundational trust, becomes a “body of unfaith” which comes to expression in both political polarization and actual violence. More typically and perhaps more hopefully, the actual human city is at once an embodiment both of faith and of unfaith – of both trust and contempt, both cooperation and warfare.

Earlier, in his 1965 Images of Hope, Lynch gave a classic statement to his concern about foundational faith. “We are always faced,” he wrote, “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.”  This, he added, “will always require an act of imagination which will extend the idea of the human.”  It will and must be founded in basic human trust and hope. Or we can decide “to build various absolute and walled cities from which various pockets of our humanity will always be excluded.”  “They will pose as ideal cities [but] will exclude the imagination, the Negro, the sick, the different.”  He then warned that “these totalistic, 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.”  Whatever their form, they are embodiments of contempt, not faith, and thus they will be “self-enclosed” and their citizens will “spend their time reassuring each other and hating everyone else.” 

Are those words not a compelling description of present reality?

Lynch’s writings continually call us to work for that first alternative – “to build a human city in which all have citizenship,” a city which embodies a fundamental sense of faith, trust, and hope.  Much earlier (1950), his inaugural editorial for Fordham University’s scholarly journal Thought was titled (in a Latin quite acceptable then in the world of Catholic scholarship) “Ingredere in Civitatem” (Enter into the City). It was a call for Catholic and other writers and intellectuals (readers of Thought) to reject the temptation to withdraw into sectarian enclaves of secure specialization, and to bring their talents to the post-war task of building a truly inclusive, human and humane city.  That call articulated not only Lynch’s editorial agenda, but the purpose of all of his later writing. 

In these writings, Lynch discusses the many manifestations of contempt and polarization, of the withdrawal into sectarian enclaves or walled cities. Think but of the role of religion, then and today, in too readily legitimating, energizing, and even leading the development of such contempt and hatred, such destruction of the body of human faith. 

Yet rather than focus on such analyses, let me briefly give some indication of Lynch’s ideas about the therapy needed if we are to move from polarized politics towards a rebuilding of our body of civic and human faith. 

 There clearly is, he knew, no quick fix, no one way forward.  We face on all fronts many important concerns and and important conflicts – and we will increasingly face such concerns and conflicts in an environment of growing inequality and increasing fears, resentments, and anger.  Today’s pandemic has simply (!) made such fears and anger more manifest. Deep concerns must be addressed and real conflicts negotiated, even fought out.  Yet for Lynch quite literally everything depends upon the spirit involved in such cultural and political conflict – whether it expresses a sense of fundamental human trust or becomes increasingly captive to the fear and anger and resentment. 

What we as a people need, to put the matter in Ignatian terms, is a sustained discernment of the fundamental spirits at work in our political and cultural life.  Put differently, there is need for a major transformation of the fundamental spirit and the basic sensibility which operates in our body politic – and this especially at the level of leadership elites.  We need a gradual recovery of faith, a re-building and development of basic trust. 

Here again, Lynch’s writings involve much discussion of such much needed therapy for the transformation of “our” sensibilities and spiritualities.  He draws, for example,  on Socrates, especially on Socratic irony, with its ability to break through various absolutes and pretensions And on Christ (two of his books are entitled Christ and Apollo and Christ and Prometheus). In Images of Faith he calls Christians and others to embody and live through “the irony of Christ” – the great irony that the messiah would be a poor man and crucified failure whose words and life subvert the various “magnificences” of the powers of the world.  (This topic of irony needs much more discussion. I mention it here not only because it is so central to Lynch’s thought, but because today we only know of a very different kind of irony — what he calls an “irony of contempt” which pervades and builds our walled cities.)

And, of course, for us today, as for Lynch’s readers back then, the challenge is to understand such ironic subversion of the contempt which is so prevalent. To imagine it, and then to make it a way of living which will help rebuild our human city.

It may seem very strange to speak of faith as irony, and of faithful living as the practice of irony. Yet a friend just wrote me that the best way to dethrone dictators of all sorts is to laugh at them, and in so doing not only to expose their pompous (and dangerous) silliness, but to shed light on our more basic human traits of trust and solidarity. If we can also laugh at ourselves, acknowledge the poverty of our own efforts and the limitations of our ideas and causes — then perhaps we can also learn how to laugh pompous contempt from the stage of our politics and culture — and even of our churches.