Sermon on the Marathon

Two years ago I declared that Deacon Mike Rogers was a better person than I am. Last year I admitted that I still hadn’t forgiven Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the recently convicted Boston Marathon bomber. Now that the last athlete has crossed the finish line of the 119th running, I confess that I still hold an angry grudge against that coward Tsarnaev and his older brother Tamerlan. And, as if the list wasn’t long enough already, we can add Bill and Denise Richard to the list of people who are better than me.

The Richards lost their son after Dzhokhar stood behind him for four minutes on Boylston Street and then placed a bomb at his 8-year-old feet. Little Martin lost his life, his sister Jane lost her leg, and their family, and our city, has never been the same since. Somehow these remarkable people have found it within themselves to forgo vengeance and have called upon the United States government to take the death penalty off the table.

The 5th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel is one of my favorites in all of scripture, but that may be because I have such a tough time with it. In His Sermon on the Mount, the Lord teaches us that “whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment.” That sums me up pretty accurately. Shortly thereafter He says that “when someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other one to him as well.” Two years later, I’m still the one who wants to do the striking.

Jesus finishes by imploring us to “love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.” While I pray for a conversion of his heart, I don’t know that I will ever love any of the Tsarnaevs. I am certain that I don’t want to love them, and recognize the hardness of my own heart in that sentiment.

I have always opposed the death penalty, but here my reluctance to seek an eye for an eye is not because I see the face of God in this 21-year-old terrorist. Instead, it is because if he lives another 60 years, he will likely spend 57.5 of them in a solitary cell. With little to do but think, I hope most of those 23 hours a day are spent contemplating the families he destroyed in the city that accepted and aided his family when they arrived on our shores as refugees.

I will never be fast enough to qualify for the Boston Marathon, an event where people train for years to shave seconds off times that are measured in hours. Like everyone who has ever come close, however, I can’t tell you the number of times in the last two years I have thought about how I could have run five minutes faster, placing my family directly across the street from little Martin Richard. I continue to thank God I was so slow.

April 15, 2013 was one of the best, and then worst, days of my life. After running 25.5 miles, the brothers Tsarnaev pressed me into service for another mile, and eventually I want to say that I have gone the second mile with them. That finish line, painted in forgiveness, has proven to be even more difficult to cross. For now, I am still one who mourns. I pray that someday I may be merciful.

America Runs on Race

I understand why people don’t want to talk to their barista, of all people, about race. I can also understand why they don’t want to talk about race at all before, well, before they’ve had their coffee in the morning. Still, it is a conversation we need to have, and I applaud Starbucks for at least attempting to do something about it.

From Ferguson to New York and everywhere in between, there has been a great deal of evidence recently that at least when it comes to race, we are not one nation, united. Whether or not you side with the officers or the protesters or both or neither, it is clear that there is a great deal of anger in many communities.

Last week I had an academic curiosity in understanding whence all that anger came. This week, I very much want to know, and if it takes talking to the girl behind the counter (Dunkin Donuts doesn’t have baristas) to gain some clarity, I’m willing to do it. What changed from last week to this? I was called a racist. Not only that, but it was so early in the morning that I hadn’t even put pants on yet, much less had a cup of coffee.

I am a landlord, and one of my apartments will soon be empty. I went out of my way to accommodate a prospective tenant because I know he is in a tough position, and having been down on my luck before, I wanted to help if I could. I had very kind and generous landlords as a renter, and I have enough on my soul without acting like the unforgiving servant.

In the end, I decided that he wouldn’t be a good fit, and told him via text that it wasn’t going to work out but wished him luck in finding a place. When I woke up the next day he had responded by saying that he was going to “chalk it up as not having the right complexion.”

To say I was flabbergasted would be an understatement. I have been accused of many things before, and many of them have been true, but this was a first for me. I started to respond by saying that I knew he was black from his website before he even showed up at the door, but decided I didn’t even want to have that conversation with him. I usually keep a pretty even keel, but the day after St. Paddy’s Day, he really got my Irish up. It stayed with me all day, and still bothers me.

It would be better if we could #RaceTogether. But why don’t we already? I really, really want to know why this guy would immediately assume that the reason I decided not to rent to him had anything at all to do with the color of his skin. In fact, the woman to whom I eventually rented has skin several shades darker than mine, and I’m very much looking forward to being neighbors with her for a long time to come. So why was that his first response? What made him draw that conclusion?

One of my favorite people of all time is Bobby Kennedy, and in the past few days I’ve been going back to the words he spoke the night Martin Luther King was shot:

We can move in that direction as a country, in greater polarization — black people amongst blacks, and white amongst whites, filled with hatred toward one another. Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand, and to comprehend, and replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand, compassion, and love.

How little we have progressed since Bobby Kennedy spoke those words on April 4, 1968. Two short months later he would himself be taken down by the bullet of an assassin with similar hateful motives. In his eulogy, Ted Kennedy prayed that “that what he was to us and what he wished for others will someday come to pass for all the world.” Amen to that.

I grew up in one of the most Irish towns in the most Irish state in the Union. I went to college in a majority black city, but spent the vast majority of my time on my lily-white campus.   The only time I’ve ever been in the minority was when I lived in a place with no racial majority, and in any case it was the most racially harmonious place I’ve ever seen.

The people mocking Starbucks may not “have time to explain 400 years of oppression to you & still make my train,” and I get that. I would be happy to buy your grande double mocha latte if you would explain it to me, however. I’ll make the effort my hero asked me to make decades before I was born. I’ll even buy your next 400 coffees if that’s what it takes.

In the meantime, like Bobby Kennedy, I hope you will join me in saying a prayer for our country and for our people. We clearly need it.

Mahalo, Pope Francis. Ho’omaika’i ‘ana, New Cardinals

During my glorious year living in Hawai’i, my Sunday routine was pretty set. In the morning I would walk to Waikiki Beach, rent a surfboard, and pretend like I knew what I was doing. Then, on my way home, I would stop at St. Augustine’s Church for the 5:00 Mass. I always cut an interesting figure sitting in the last pew in board shorts and a pair of flip flops (or rubber slippers, as the locals say).

Everyone else was either a well-dressed tourist or a member of the Tongan community in their traditional clothes. The Mass was designed for the latter, and while everything spoken was in English (except the final blessing, which was in Hawaiian), everything sung by the choir was in the Tongan language.

I came to love the music and the mass just as much as I did the surfing, although I must confess I wasn’t any better at it. I also came to develop an affinity for the Kingdom of Tonga, as I did for all things Polynesian. So, when I read the list of new cardinals made at last weekend’s consistory, I was pleased to see the name of Soane Patita Paini Mafi, bishop of Tonga.

What I wasn’t expecting to see is just how small that diocese is. Of the 100,000 people who live on the 176 islands that make up Tonga, only 15,000 of them are Catholic. This is not, to say the least, a traditional Catholic powerhouse where you would typically expect to see a red hat. It also shows in a concrete way what Pope Francis means when he says that the church should go to the peripheries.

After Pope Benedict stepped down, I questioned why “25% of the votes [in the College of Cardinals] go to the small country of Italy and less than 10% go to the entire continent of Africa, especially when the Church in Italy is in decline and in Africa it is growing by the day.” Pope Francis seems to be asking the same sorts of questions. Of the 20 Cardinals he elevated last weekend, only five are Europeans. I still think there is quite a way to go to reform the College of Cardinals, but once again I am pleased with the track this pontiff has placed us on, and where his priorities lie.

Africa now has 12% of the votes in the College, an all-time high, but it still doesn’t bring it even close to proportional representation. In the 20th century, the Church in Africa grew 6,708%, from 1.9 million to more than 130 million. Cardinal-electors from the developing world now make up 41% of the College, up from 35% when Pope Francis was elected, but two-thirds of Catholics live outside the West.

There is perhaps little a pope can do that will have a greater impact on the long term trajectory of the Church than his appointments to the College of Cardinals. Cardinal Mafi is now, at 53 years old, its youngest member. How many times will he travel to the Sistine Chapel (taking 4 planes to cover the 11,000 miles) to elect a successor to St. Peter? How many times will he be called upon for his advice, and bring the perspective of someone who grew up on an isolated island with 1/10th the population of my hometown of Boston?

As a leader, Pope Francis has shaken up the staid office of the papacy and breathed new life into the Church. Here in the United States, John F. Kennedy did the same thing with the presidency. We still have a long way to go before the College of Cardinals reflects the true experience and diversity of the global church but, as our only Catholic president said in his inaugural address: “All this will not be finished in the first 100 days. Nor will it be finished in the first 1,000 days, nor in the life of this Administration, nor even perhaps in our lifetime on this planet. But let us begin.”

Pope Francis has begun. He may be 78 years old, but at least culturally it is clear that the torch has been passed to a new generation in the Church. Let us follow his lead.

Here’s a Tip: Pay a Just Wage

“I’ll tip if somebody really deserves a tip,” Mr. Pink explained in Reservoir Dogs, Quentin Tarantino’s classic film. “If they put forth the effort, I’ll give them something extra. But I mean, this tipping automatically, it’s for the birds. As far as I’m concerned they’re just doing their job.”

I have to admit, Mr. Pink makes a compelling argument. However, I part ways with him when he says that “I don’t tip because society says I have to.” As much as I don’t like tipping, I do it. For one thing, I know what Mr. White knows, that “waitressing is the number one occupation for female non-college graduates in this country. It’s the one job basically any woman can get and make a living on. The reason is because of their tips.” (If you are interested, YouTube has the entire profanity-laced discussion, but I recommend the whole film.)

More importantly, I tip because of the social compact. In this country, we have decided that we are going to pay our waitresses (and waiters) very small wages, but that customers will make up for it with tips. Until that paradigm is changed, I am going to leave a healthy gratuity on the table every time I go out.

I believe, however, the time has come for that model to change. Catholic Social Teaching is clear on the imperative to provide a just wage to employees. I’m not sure an employer who expects their employees to depend on the generosity of customers is providing one, especially since it is only after a server has provided the service that the customer decides how much to pay for it.

When LeSean McCoy left a 20-cent tip on a $61.56 bill, he made an argument similar to Mr. Pink’s: “A 20-cent tip is kind of a statement,” McCoy said. “You can’t disrespect somebody and expect them to tip you. I don’t care who the person is.” That certainly is a statement, but I think it says more about the man who has a base salary of $7.6 million than the one who makes $2.83 an hour.

For the sake of argument, let’s say that the running back’s server was terrible. McCoy still could have left a tip that respected the waiter as a person and laborer while still indicating his displeasure with the subpar service. For what it’s worth, it probably also would have saved him some negative press as well.

Tipping doesn’t apply only in restaurants. The Marriot hotel chain has implemented a program, probably well-intentioned, known as “The Envelope Please.” From now on, in each hotel room an envelope will be left to remind guests to tip the housekeeping staff. A much better system would be to have an additional few dollars automatically added to the bill at checkout, with that money given to the people who pick up our dirty socks and scrub our toilets.

I don’t know how much a Marriot housekeeper makes, but I imagine it can’t be much. By making an employee’s take-home pay dependent upon the whims of the guest, however, Marriot is passing the buck that rightfully lies with them. Restaurant and hotel owners, like all business leaders, “are responsible to society… to consider the good of persons and not only the increase of profits” when making all business decisions, including how much to pay their employees.

The great pastoral constitution Gaudium et Spes reminds us that “remuneration for labor is to be such that man may be furnished the means to cultivate worthily his own material, social, cultural, and spiritual life and that of his dependents.” All too many of these housekeepers, waitresses, and others in low-wage, tip-dependent positions are being taken advantage of, much like the immigrant in Cardinal Sean’s story. They certainly are not earning enough to raise a family in accordance with the minimum standards set down by the Council fathers.

I have to believe they are also exactly the type of people of whom the Lord spoke when He commanded us to “not exploit a poor and needy hired servant” and to “pay the servant’s wages before the sun goes down, since the servant is poor and is counting on them. Otherwise the servant will cry to the LORD against you, and you will be held guilty.”

Mr. Pink is right. A waitress is just doing her job when she fills my coffee cup. In return for that job, she should be paid a just wage and the tips should be reserved for truly exceptional service. After all, not every waiter can expect Charlie Sheen to continue the chain of love when they get stiffed on a tip.

After an honest day’s work, everyone should receive an honest day’s pay. It should not matter if Mr. Pink or Mr. White or Mr. McCoy walks through the door.

Lies, Damned Lies, and OMG!

My mother had two rules for my sisters and me as we were growing up: never lie, and never make anyone feel bad on purpose.  As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that most of the lies I tell my mom are designed to keep her from worrying quite so much about me (i.e. to keep her from feeling bad), but that’s a post for another time.  Despite my breaking at least one of them on the regular, I still think these are two pretty good rules to govern your life.

On the surface, knowing what is a lie and what isn’t seems to be pretty cut and dry.  The first time I ever gave any real thought to the nuances of it, though, was in college, when we considered whether President Clinton’s now-famous claim that “I did not have sexual relations with that woman” was actually a lie or not.  Clinton eventually admitted to engaging in oral sex with Monica Lewinsky, but that wasn’t my professor’s point.  He argued that in order for it to be a lie, not only must the statement be untrue, but the hearer must also have the right to the truth.  Clinton made the remark at a press conference where he was addressing the American public.  Did anyone there, or anyone aside from his wife really, have the right to know about such a private affair?

Putting that question aside, the Catechism teaches exactly what my professor did: “To lie is to speak or act against the truth in order to lead into error someone who has the right to know the truth.”  The Catechism continues on to say, though,  that the “gravity of a lie is measured against the nature of the truth it deforms, the circumstances, the intentions of the one who lies, and the harm suffered by its victims.”  So at least I can take some comfort in believing that my heart is in the right place even if, as so often happens, my actions are not.

Since I can’t morally defend the lies I tell to my mother (though I wish she would stop asking questions to which she would not want to hear an honest answer), I would never advise anyone to do likewise.  Unfortunately, Lisa Miller, the OMG! advice columnist at the Boston Globe‘s new Catholic publication Crux (the launch of which featured our very own Robert Christian), has done just that.  A reader wrote in to ask if she should lie to her afflicted brother if it would bring him some comfort.

Miller’s advice was to lie to the brother.  “In this case,” she writes, “the good of the lie outweighs the bad: you are acting generously and empathetically, qualities that will help your brother whether he can see it right now or not.”  Now if this was the Globe‘s advice columnist, I would disagree with the advice, but I wouldn’t take exception to it.  Seeing as this is a Catholic publication and that Miller identifies herself as an ethicist, however, I do.  The Catechism actually uses lying itself as an example of how the ends cannot justify the means: “A good intention (for example, that of helping one’s neighbor) does not make behavior that is intrinsically disordered, such as lying and calumny, good or just.”

This was not the first time in Miller’s eight column career—some of which is very good—that I think she has given some poor advice from a Catholic perspective.  A different reader asked if she could still call herself a Catholic if she didn’t hold all of the Church’s teachings.  This is a difficult question, to be sure, but again I think her advice missed the mark. Miller’s advice boiled down to this: “Hold onto your Catholicism – as well as your conscience – and perhaps your leaders will follow you there.”

I know I’m going to lie to my mother again the next time she asks me if I’ve been out on a motorcycle, or have done one of the many other things I do that she doesn’t like. In so doing, I know I’m breaking the 4th and 8th Commandments.  What if, however, I genuinely believed the Church’s teachings on those subjects to be wrong?  Should I expect the Church to change thousands of years of teaching simply because I thought they were outdated?  Unlike Miller, I don’t think I should, I don’t think the Church will, and I hope it doesn’t.

I would never presume to tell this reader that she wasn’t a Catholic, and would certainly never encourage her to find a different denomination.  I expect a Catholic advice columnist, however, to be a little more faithful to Church teaching the next time she offers up her opinion under the guise of providing Catholic guidance.

One year and thousands of miles later

On Palm Sunday I got out a little bit earlier than I normally would, especially after a decidedly non-Lenten Saturday night. I wanted to see the Passion play put on by the Life Teen group at my parish, and they don’t perform it at the mass I usually attend. As it turns out, while the Gospel was as moving as ever, it was the first reading that affected me the most.

Several months ago, during a rare moment of introspection, I realized that I haven’t really forgiven Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the surviving alleged Boston Marathon bomber. It’s not something I am proud of, but every time I think of little Martin Richard, the 8 year old boy who died, or the hundreds of other victims, I can’t help but get upset. When I consider that my family should have been standing directly across the street from the second bomb, I—still, a year later—get very angry. I didn’t set the bomb, but they would have died waiting to see me. It still weighs heavy on my conscious just thinking about it.

With the anniversary last week, and the 118th running today, the Marathon has been all over the news and the topic of conversation everywhere. It should be no surprise then that it was on my mind last Sunday when we heard Isaiah say:

I gave my back to those who beat me,
my cheeks to those who plucked my beard;
my face I did not shield
from buffets and spitting.

Sitting in Mass, hearing the words of the prophet and then watching Jesus in the Passion play willingly submit to undeserved scorn and abuse, I could not help but contrast their reactions to mine. While the passage of time has helped to heal some of the wounds, I would not give my back to the Tsarnaev brothers. There’s also a very real chance that if you put me in a room with Dzhokhar, his face would need shielding.

I was not physically harmed by the blasts, and neither was anyone I know, thanks be to God. The bombings had an effect on the whole city, however, as well as on runners all over the world. So after Mass last week I donned The Burger once again and took part in the last leg of the One Run for Boston. The One Run was a coast-to-coast relay, beginning in Los Angeles and continuing, 24-hours a day, across the country towards Boston, all to raise money for the victims of the bombings. I ran a relatively short leg of 6 miles, and I had the benefit of doing it with hundreds of others, on a beautiful sunny afternoon, and with crowds out to cheer us on at the end.

Others ran near-marathon length stretches through the desert in the heat of the day, and then through the desolate nothingness of a prairie night. They ran in the rain, they ran after traveling great distances from their homes, and they ran sometimes until it hurt.

These are people, mind you, who have no connection to Boston. They have no family or friends here, and they didn’t know anyone hurt in the bombings. They ran, though, to show the world, and especially the people of the great city I call home, that terror will never have the final word. I couldn’t be more thankful for them.

People often say that running a marathon shows the triumph of the human spirit, and having run one I can tell you that in those last few miles there was little but willpower driving me forward towards the finish line. What does 26 miles compare to 3,328 miles, though? Running across a continent to support—financially, emotionally, and spiritually—people you’ve never met but feel compelled to help is the triumph of human solidarity.

The Passion play is heartrending, but it’s not the end of the story. Yesterday the tomb was opened, and the greatest victory of all was achieved out of the greatest calamity. I still have miles to go before I can say I am completely over the events of last April, and the real victims have even longer roads to travel for healing and peace. It helps to remember, though, that Easter follows every Good Friday, and that out of this heartbreaking tragedy has come so much good.

Is Porn the Biggest Threat to American Families?

In my kitchen I have about half a dozen frying pans, and at least that many spatulas.  It’s not that I have any special affinity for them; it’s simply that I make scrambled eggs far more often than I do dishes. I didn’t know you are supposed to periodically clean out the bacon grease (I rarely cook anything that doesn’t include bacon) from the oven until it caught on fire a few weeks ago.  In my refrigerator you will usually find little more than beer and pickles.  I don’t own a vacuum, only do laundry when I am out of clean clothes, and always leave the toilet seat up.  I am, in other words, a bachelor.

Perhaps then I am not the best person to comment on what constitutes the most pressing issues facing American marriages and family life.  On the other hand, I am a son, a brother, and a brother-in-law, and so I’d like to think I have a pretty good grasp of at least what is at the top of the list.  I wouldn’t place pornography on that list, and I imagine most other people wouldn’t either.  The US bishops, on the other hand, seem to think it is a plague on all our houses urgently calling out for a response.  How else should we interpret their plans to issue a pastoral statement that “will emphasize the effects of pornography on marriages and families?”

There are plenty of things wrong with pornography.  We could start with the victimization of many of those who take part, the decreasing ages at which young people are exposed to it, its creep into pop culture, the objectification of women, and then continue on for pages.  Bishop Richard Malone of Buffalo, who is leading the charge for the statement, cited statistics in his proposal that pornography is a factor in 60% of divorces.  This is troubling, to be sure, but I’m willing to bet it is more a symptom than a disease.

Looking at what those root causes are and addressing them would be far more productive.  For example, while talking to my mother recently I asked how my father was.  “Dad who?” was her response.  After a prolonged period of recession-caused unemployment, my father, the hardest working man I’ve ever known, took on a series of jobs outside of his field.  When his union finally called with a job working as an electrician, he naturally took it.

After a few weeks on the job they upped his hours.  Normally this would be a good thing, except that they increased it to six 10-hour days and one 8-hour day a week.  They expect my dad to work 68 hours a week, during the second shift, with no days off, outdoors through a New England winter, for six months or more, and to be happy to do it.  Even the Israelites (to say nothing of God himself) had one day in seven to rest.

Even if my mother hardly sees him, I’m certain my father feels lucky to be working while too many others in his union, our community, and nation are not.  Or they are working two or three part-time jobs, and still struggling to make ends meet.  I suggest that this economic instability is far more threatening to American family life than a laptop in a darkened room.

Don’t get me wrong: this isn’t a defense of porn.  While I’d vigorously defend any consenting adult’s legal right to make or view it, on the whole I’d prefer if it wasn’t a part of our society, and certainly not such a pervasive part.  I’m also not opposed to a statement about pornography, per se.

My complaint lies in the fact that there are plenty of bigger issues facing families that the Bishops’ Committee on Laity, Marriage, Family Life, and Youth will not be addressing until this statement is finished in 2015.  While they are busy drafting a statement that almost certainly will not break any new ground (is anyone really confused about what the Church thinks about porn?), they will be missing opportunities to bear witness to important issues that really affect American families.  I wouldn’t go as far as to call that obscene, but at the very least it is disappointing.