The Normalization of Violence: Week One in the Trump Era

It has been a week, only a week, since President Donald Trump took office. As I look back at the previous week, I cannot believe it has only been one week. Constant tweeting and talk about crowd sizes is dangerous misdirection – the overwhelming theme of the week, in my opinion, was violence.

The World Health Association defines violence as “the intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community, which either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment, or deprivation.” This is what we are seeing.

Last Friday, I sat and watched the inauguration online during my office hours. I did not vote for Donald Trump, but he is now my president. As someone who takes the idea of Faithful Citizenship very seriously, I felt a responsibility to watch. And so I listened to a nationalist speech laying out a vision I cannot support. Using the phrase “American carnage,” he reiterated racially charged stereotypes about inner cities and maligned all of public education.  But the most violent part of the speech was the claim that the United States is somehow a global victim.   “America will start winning again and winning like never before.” What does that even mean? There is no interpretation of that line which leads to greater peace and justice. Read More

The US Church’s Failure to Stand Against Sexual Assault

A month before the election, a 2005 video of Donald Trump bragging about sexually assaulting women on an Access Hollywood taping surfaced. As I listened to Donald Trump joke about how his celebrity allowed him to assault women without consequence, I felt sick to my stomach.  Here we had a presidential candidate actively boasting about sexually assaulting women, dismissing it simply as “regrettable locker room talk,” and clearly demonstrating that he did not take violence against women seriously.

Violence against women and sexual assault are largely invisible and ignored in the public political discourse from the USCCB and most American church leaders. There was no public outrage from the US Catholic Church over Donald Trump’s recorded joking about sexual assault. No actual acknowledgement that the behavior described is in fact sexual assault. A few bishops lamented that Trump has “disrespected women” but never anything stronger.  In a statement titled, “The Gospel Serves the Common Good, Not Political Agendas,” Conference President Archbishop Kurtz began with a condemnation of the Podesta emails stolen by Wikileaks, which appeared to be the purpose of the statement, and ended by simply asserting, “Too much of our current political discourse has demeaned women and marginalized people of faith.” The strongest statement simply acknowledged that political discourse had demeaned women without any further comment.

These statements miss the crucial element – in the video, Trump was describing assaulting women.  The Department of Justice definition of sexual assault explicitly describes it as “any type of sexual contact or behavior that occurs without the explicit consent of the recipient,” including fondling.

After the Access Hollywood tape leaked, a dozen women came forward to accuse and detail different incidents of sexual harassment and assault by Trump. And still, there was no added concern from the public voice of the American Catholic Church. Speaking to the Boston Globe, theologian James Bretzke, SJ called the silence “deafening.” Many bishops and priests continued to privately and publicly advocate voting for Trump.  In America Magazine, Michael O’Loughlin details just a few cases where parishes were told that Clinton “hates Catholics.” In my own diocese, the Bishop released a letter that came very close to outright calling Donald Trump the “prolife, pro-family, pro-truth” candidate. Read More

Unity in Trump’s America Must Begin with Protecting Vulnerable Communities

Catholic high school girls in Queens, NY harassing African-Americans on a NYC bus, suggesting they move to the back of the bus now that Trump is president.

The Muslim center at New York University being vandalized.

Multiple stories from across the nation of young Muslim women having their hijabs pulled off and ethnic slurs thrown at them.

Parents telling their children not to speak Spanish in public because it is not safe.

A classroom of middle school children asking their teacher if they’re going to be deported because they are Muslim or because they are Indian and “look Muslim.” Even though they are citizens, they are afraid of being kicked out because of religion.

Gay, lesbian, and transgender students afraid to leave their dorm room on college campuses.

Human walls being created at schools to block the entrance of Latino and Latina children.

It is morning in Trump’s America.

I have no words. I spent the morning rereading stories friends posted and looking through @ShaunKing’s important twitter collection of stories from across the country.  I can’t manage to write this post without being overwhelmed to the point of paralysis and tears.

In Florida, “colored” and “whites only” signs were posted on school water fountains. At Canisius College in Buffalo, the lynching of a black doll was staged on campus.

Yet on the news and on social media, I see growing calls for unity, being open-minded, and building bridges.  We need to move forward. We need a plan to work together over the next four years. Abstractly, I understand the sentiment – Donald Trump is the President-elect.  This is the political reality. But this is not and cannot be politics as usual. Read More

5 Things to Look for in Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love)

Pope Francis has released his much anticipated apostolic exhortation on the family and it’s 263 pages!! Before you give up and just turn to Chapter 8 for the “juicy stuff,” like divorced and remarried Catholics or treatment of LGBT persons, let me offer 5 points to note and urge you to stick with the 269 pages.

1. Biblical Reflection on Marriage, Family, and Humanity

“The Bible is full of families, births, love stories and family crises. This is true from its very first page, with the appearance of Adam and Eve’s family with all its burden of violence but also its enduring strength (cf. Gen 4) to its very last page, where we behold the wedding feast of the Bride and the Lamb (Rev 21:2, 9)” (8).

It is no surprise that Francis begins with the Bible and weaves biblical reflection throughout the 263 pages. He literally begins with Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel. And it is significant that he includes Cain and Abel, because the Bible is not a fairy tale or romantic comedy.  Pain, suffering, even violence are woven into the biblical narrative and human life.  Highlighting biblical truth and the revealed word of God, highlighting the Good News requires two things: facing the reality of the text in all its complexity and facing human existence in all its messiness. Francis does this artfully when parsing out the influence of patriarchal cultures in St. Paul while lifting out the revealed truths contained within the text.  A full evaluation of the biblical exegesis requires a biblical scholar, and I am a mere moral theologian…but his pastoral use of the bible is something to pay attention to.

2. 1 Corinthians 13: Rethinking the worlds most popular wedding reading

OK, so we all know the text: Love is Patient, Love is Kind….we’ve all heard it read at almost every Catholic wedding we’ve attended.  1 Corinthians is a beautiful text. Yet, it often feels played out or trendy – everyone uses it and so we stop really listening to it.  Refocusing our attention, Francis chooses this passage as a major section of Amoris Laetitia.  Weaving Greek and biblical exegesis, Francis lays out a vision of love beginning with marriage but expanding to love within the human community.

Love is not jealous includes “Love inspires a sincere esteem for every human being and the recognition of his or her own right to happiness. I love this person, and I see him or her with the eyes of God, who gives us everything “for our enjoyment” (1 Tim 6:17). As a result, I feel a deep sense of happiness and peace. This same deeply rooted love also leads me to reject the injustice whereby some possess too much and others too little. It moves me to find ways of helping society’s outcasts to find a modicum of joy. That is not envy, but the desire for equality” (96).

3. Who is my family? Towards the One Human Family

Catholic “family” conversations often drive me crazy. Too often our discussions of family are driven by contemporary American society and its obsession with the nuclear family (marriage and parent/child). My friend and fellow theologian Kathryn Getek has highlighted this as a cause for the seeming disconnect internalized by many between teachings on the family and Catholic social teaching, which begins with the image of the one human family as equal brothers and sisters in Christ.  Looking at Life within the Wider Family, Francis examines the importance not only of parents and children but also siblings and grandparents.

I was blessed to know my grandparents and they were a profound influence on the person I became. I appreciate Francis’ call to care for the elderly but also to recognize the importance of grandparents within the family. He cautions, “A family that fails to respect and cherish its grandparents, who are its living memory, is already in decline, whereas a family that remembers has a future” (193).

Similarly, he attends to the importance of siblings and the role of siblings in teaching us how to live in a community. Finally, we are all part of a wider family – the one human family which includes our neighbors and in-laws and is an ever-expanding community.

4. Discernment and Conscience: A Reminder Our Pope Is a Jesuit

This document is an important reminder for the Church and moral theology to realign its priorities. Early on he states, “We have long thought that simply by stressing doctrinal, bioethical and moral issues, without encouraging openness to grace, we were providing sufficient support to families, strengthening the marriage bond and giving meaning to marital life . . .  We also find it hard to make room for the consciences of the faithful, who very often respond as best they can to the Gospel amid their limitations, and are capable of carrying out their own discernment in complex situations. We have been called to form consciences, not to replace them.” (37). The call not only to form consciences but to respect and trust the consciences of married couples is an important aspect of this document. This does not change Church teaching, but Francis clearly asserts it is not enough to just state that those not conforming or living up to the rules are just in a state of mortal sin. (check out 42, 222, 298-301…to name a few).

Discernment is the crucial tool when discussing conscience and it may be where Francis is at his most Ignatian.  Throughout the long section dealing with pastoral concerns and “irregular situations,” Francis spends the most time on discernment—recognizing the individual persons and complexities of each context—and turns to Thomas Aquinas. He writes, “It is reductive simply to consider whether or not an individual’s actions correspond to a general law or rule, because that is not enough to discern and ensure full fidelity to God in the concrete life of a human being” (304).  He does not change specific doctrinal rules, but failure to live up to that rule in itself does not signify moral culpability, does not negate the persons conscience, discernment process, or that one is a member of the Body of Christ. For this same reason, he clarifies, “At the same time, it must be said that, precisely for that reason, what is part of a practical discernment in particular circumstances cannot be elevated to the level of a rule.” (304). The entire Chapter 8 (which is most of the “hot button questions”) is treated through this attention to the call of discernment.

5. Don’t Put the Mercy of God in a Box

Finally—in what is clearly the overarching message of the Jubilee of Mercy—we don’t get to put God’s Mercy in a box.  He explains:

“At times we find it hard to make room for God’s unconditional love in our pastoral activity. We put so many conditions on mercy that we empty it of its concrete meaning and real significance. That is the worst way of watering down the Gospel. It is true, for example, that mercy does not exclude justice and truth, but first and foremost we have to say that mercy is the fullness of justice and the most radiant manifestation of God’s truth. For this reason, we should always consider “inadequate any theological conception which in the end puts in doubt the omnipotence of God and, especially, his mercy”(311).

This is the logic of pastoral mercy as the section is titled.  If you’ve been watching and listening to Pope Francis on mercy for the last year…a very clear, integrated vision has emerged. When reading the final section of the exhortation, I could not help but envision the culminating scene to Dirty Dancing. If there is one overarching message Pope Francis is hammering home, it is that no one puts God’s mercy in a corner.


Remembering the Oppression of the Irish and Rejecting Injustice Today

There is something deeply appropriate to me about celebrating St Patrick’s Day in the midst of Lent. Celebrating the resilience of my ancestors’ faith and spirit in the face of colonialism, imposed starvation, and forced migration seems fitting during this season. May this make today’s Irish-Americans pause and remember that today is not about green beer or bagels but a long and painful history of oppression and community. May it remind us to reject the injustice and oppression present in the world today (at a time when few Syrian refugees are free to enter this country to escape repression) and stand for the dignity of all.

The Poisoning of Flint: How It Happened

There is a massive and ongoing injustice occurring in Flint, Michigan. As I sat down to write this blog post, I honestly didn’t know where to begin. The men, women, and children of Flint have been poisoned. Their water continues to poison. And those charged with protecting the public are morally culpable—at best morally complicit and at worst criminally responsible.

What we know:

At the end of 2011, Flint, Michigan was taken into receivership by the state. Removing control from the elected mayor and city council, Governor Snyder appointed an emergency manager. From this point onward, the people of Flint did not have democratic representation in decisions as the emergency manager could override in the name of “fiscal responsibility.”

Fast forward to 2014 and the beginning of the Flint water crisis (and you can read more here), following Mother Jones’ reported timeline:

April 25: To save money, Flint changes its municipal water source to the Flint River rather than the Detroit water system. The switch is overseen by state emergency manager Darnell Earley, who, like other emergency managers around the state, is able to override local policies in the name of “fiscal responsibility.”

Summer: Residents begin complaining to local leaders about tainted, foul-smelling tap water—and health symptoms such as rashes and hair loss from drinking and bathing in it.

August/September: E. coli and coliform bacteria are found in the Flint water supply. The city instructs residents to boil tap water before drinking.

October 1: General Motors says it will stop using Flint River water in its plants after workers notice that the water corrodes engine parts.

It is important to note that the complaints of General Motors were answered, and the Governor “quietly spent $440,000 to hook GM back up to the Lake Huron water, while keeping the rest of Flint on the Flint River water.” It is also important to point out that previously, the emergency manager had rejected switching the water source to the Flint River because of its corrosive nature, and when the decision was made to use the Flint River, many of the issues could’ve been avoided with a treatment costing $100/day for 3 months.

January of 2015 began with an admission that something was not right, but they still insisted the water was basically safe:

January 2: Flint issues an advisory warning that its water contains high levels of trihalomethanes, byproducts of water-disinfectant chemicals. Over time, these byproducts can cause kidney, liver, and nervous system damage. Sick and elderly people may be at risk, the advisory notes, but the water is otherwise safe to consume.

Within a week, state buildings started bringing in clean bottled water for themselves and the emergency manager rejected an offer from Detroit to hook Flint up to water from Lake Huron, treated in Detroit. By the end of January, the residents of Flint were publicly complaining about serious health problems and expressing concerns about the water. Starting in February 2015, one mother, Leanne Walters, noticed her children were breaking out in rashes during baths, losing hair, and experiencing other disturbing reactions. She began complaining, demanding that her water be tested, and organizing. When her water was finally tested for lead, it tested at 400 parts per billion (there is no SAFE amount of lead, but EPA regulations list 15 parts per billion as toxic). All of her children’s tests showed lead exposure, with one child testing positive for lead poisoning.

The more you dig into this situation, the more you see horrifying, ongoing deceit by public officials—from continuing to “pre-flush,” despite EPA warnings that this temporarily lowers test results, giving residents a false sense of the real lead amounts in the tap water, to a new emergency manager overriding a city council vote to switch back to Detroit water system. (At this point we’re only at March 2015!) As Mother Jones reports:

April 28: Marc Edwards, a professor at Virginia Tech and an expert on lead corrosion, conducts new tests on the Walters’ home without flushing the taps first and finds lead levels as high as 13,200 ppb—more than twice the level the EPA classifies as hazardous waste. . . .

September 15: Edwards determines that Flint River water is 19 times as corrosive as Detroit tap water and estimates that one in six Flint homes have elevated lead levels. A MDEQ spokesman disputes the findings.

When we look through this timeline, a few things are clear. Leaked emails show that the people of Flint were being ignored and blown off by the highest levels of State Government and abstract decisions about fiscal responsibility trumped any consideration of public health. In September, they were pushed to finally issue a lead warning but it was full of misinformation, and, in October, Governor Snyder’s office was still lying to the people of Flint, claiming that the water complied with federal safety standards. The same week Snyder’s office issued this press release, water fountains in Flint schools were found to have high levels of lead. Finally, the government announced they would go back to Detroit water. Yet after more than a year of unsafe, corrosive water flowing through the pipes, significant damage was done. Lead is still present in tap water in Flint, Michigan. The most recent water tests—conducted at the end of December, after the switch and after starting anti-corrosion treatment—remain well above what the water filters can filter out (150 parts per billion.) Clean water is now being pumped into the Flint system; however, the pipes are so damaged by the last year of corrosion that lead is still contaminating the tap water. Water and filters are being distributed by the Red Cross and National Guard; however, there has been controversy as to whether the most vulnerable (the poor and the undocumented) have sufficient access to this. On January 27, a lawsuit was filed asking the federal court to step in to provide safe, clean drinking water. Protests are also ongoing to stop residents from Flint from continuing to receive water bills for unsafe drinking water. Today it remains unsafe to use tap water in Flint, Michigan.

Key Points:

  1. The poisoning of the population of Flint, Michigan did not just happen – it was caused.
  2. Democratic processes were overridden in the name of “fiscal responsibility.”
  3. Those in positions of power (General Motors and State officials) were provided with safe, clean water quickly once the problem was noticed. While the residents of Flint, the majority of whom are African-American and 40% live below the federal poverty line were repeatedly lied to and blown off.
  4. Lead poisoning leads to significant brain damage and other irreversible health damage to children. Every child in Flint Michigan under the age of 6 has been exposed to toxic levels of lead. This is known and indisputable. The effects of lead poisoning often take years to show up and properly evaluate. From child development to impulse control, the long term effects for the community in Flint will not be known for some time.
  5. Lead is not the only poison being found in the water.
  6. Flint is not the only city in America where corrosion and disintegration of lead pipes is a concern; it is only the beginning.