Love on Top: Beyoncé Instructs on The Mechanics of Evangelization

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Besides its iconic status in music and in the hearts of bar-goers, the lyrics of Beyoncé’s hit song “Love on Top” invite deeper reflection on the mechanics of sharing a spoken account of Love with another. To her listeners, Beyoncé narrates the feelings and experiences of loving and being loved through images such as the look of a lover that “tastes like a night of champagne,” or a bond that leaves her “smiling from ear to ear.” To the astute listener, Beyoncé’s hit can be heard as a witness and a proclamation. Consider for a moment Beyoncé as an evangelist and the message she is preaching to her listeners: her aim is to share the worth of pursuing love, the experiences it gives and the demands it makes, and how it shapes her relationship to the rest of the world. She recounts her personal experiences with Love in a convincing witness that leaves her listeners with their own choice to make: either to remain unaffected by this sharing, or to be drawn out of themselves and search for the mystery of Love within their own lives. Imagine for a moment that Beyoncé is also instructing us how to provide a convincing proclamation to our own listeners, so that they “by hearing may believe, believing may hope, and by hoping may love” (Instructing Beginners in Faith, 4,8). When heard with an ear willing to discern the deeper meaning of her lyrics, Beyoncé models the anatomy of an act of evangelization: an encounter with a Person, reflection upon that encounter, and the sharing of this encounter with others.

The confession that Beyoncé makes in “Love on Top” is a result of an encounter. The lyrics of “Love on Top” are comprised of words and descriptions about a real person; the entirety of Beyoncé’s message is built upon the experience of this beloved other. Fundamentally, an encounter must involve an interaction between at least two subjects, and in the case of “Love on Top,” this interaction is comprised of two lovers in relationship. When Beyoncé describes this encounter to the listener, her lyrics are not mere introspection about her own desires related to love but are rather directed to and about a Someone. Beyoncé’s lyrics also indicate her own, free response to this powerful and intense relationship; though she might have freely ignored the pursuit of her lover, she instead suggests that this encounter has led her to reciprocate the feelings and actions associated with love.

Beyoncé offers important instruction related to the building blocks of a Christian proclamation. What takes place in an encounter is not the discovery of an abstract principle or teaching; rather, an encounter is an openness to a Someone, and is the foundation of any act of evangelization. This encounter must involve freedom to accept or reject the advances of the Someone, or else it is not a true encounter. Who is encountered becomes the content of witness; having a personal encounter with Christ properly disposes one for the mission of evangelization. In providing a witness, the evangelist first and foremost confesses that this Person is at the heart of Christian identity and is the very reason for belief: “Being a Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction” (Deus Caritas Est, §1). Just as John Paul II says of catechesis, evangelization must also “reveal in the Person of Christ the whole of God’s eternal design reaching fulfillment in that Person” (Catechesi Tradendae, §5). In other words, Beyoncé calls attention to the foundation of evangelizing witness: encounter with a Person.

“Love on Top” also provides a powerful witness about the concrete realities of an encounter with another. The listener is introduced both to the singer’s tireless search for love , as well as the physical and emotional ways in which this love has been manifested: “Now everybody ask me why I’m smiling out from ear to ear (They say love hurts)/ But I know (it’s gonna take the real work)/ Nothing’s perfect but it’s worth it/ After fighting through my tears and finally you put me first.” These lyrics are not about an abstract idea of Love, but the real implications, feelings, and events of Love experienced.  Beyoncé models the next level of constructing a Christian witness and proclamation: reflecting on her own experience and sharing the fruits of her contemplation.

Human experience is where faith takes on flesh and blood; reflection upon this reality leads one to greater awareness of God’s love. In other words, experience is the “locus for the manifestation and realization of salvation, where God, consistently with the pedagogy of the Incarnation, reaches man with his grace and saves him” (General Directory for Catechesis, §152c). Human experience is where human beings can begin to grasp the love and care of God. Just as Beyoncé models the full exploration and savoring of the experience of being in love, Pope Francis calls the faithful to linger over the incarnational character of human experience, as this experience becomes a precious gift to be shared:

The best incentive for sharing the Gospel comes from contemplating it with love, lingering over its pages and reading it with the heart. If we approach it in this way, its beauty will amaze and constantly excite us…There is nothing more precious which we can give to others. (Evangelii Gaudium, §264)

Reflection upon God’s action within personal human experience allows the evangelist to include in their proclamation the explicit ways in which the Person of Christ acts, speaks, and communes with humankind in daily life. When contemplating their own human experience, the evangelist recognizes that the demand that an encounter makes upon them is to share it with others.

The composition of “Love on Top” shows that the artist and experiencer have beheld something worthy of being shared with others. It is simultaneously a proclamation of love and devotion and  a subtle narrative of suffering, longing, and finding. Beyoncé affirms that this story and these feelings are not only valuable to reflect upon, but are also lyrical gifts to be given to others.

Beyoncé identifies what experiencing and reflecting upon encounter ask of us next: to share our own, personal witness. “Love on Top” illustrates that this encounter with a Person calls us to the responsibilities of encounter: “The primary reason for evangelizing is the love of Jesus which we have received, the experience of salvation which urges us to ever greater love of him. What kind of love would not feel the need to speak of the beloved, to point him out, to make him known? (EG, §264)” In the recognition of encounter, the evangelist is moved to share the Person who is the Beloved. This love experienced through an encounter with Christ seduces one to engage in sharing it. In the complete openness to being swayed by an encounter with Love Himself and sharing this Love, the experiencer becomes even more human:

Thanks solely to this encounter – or renewed encounter – with God’s love, which blossoms into an enriching friendship, we are liberated from our narrowness and self-absorption… Here we find the source and inspiration of all our efforts at evangelization. For if we have received the love which restores meaning to our lives, how can we fail to share that love with others? (EG, §8)

In the sharing of her own testimony of the powerful nature of love, Beyoncé affirms that the fulfillment of the gift of encounter is its sharing with others. This sharing is not in general, impersonal terms, but is rather the very handing on of a personal account the action of God within a particular person’s human situation. This personal witness that Beyoncé models to love, unfolding within her particular experience, plays a unique, irreplaceable role in the entire mission of evangelization. Like the personal nature of Beyoncé’s lyrics, the personal witness of the evangelist is a privileged form of evangelization:

In the long run, is there any other way of handing on the Gospel than by transmitting to another person one’s personal experience of faith? It must not happen that the pressing need to proclaim the Good News to the multitudes should cause us to forget this form of proclamation whereby an individual’s personal conscience is reached and touched by an entirely unique word that he receives from someone else. (Evangelii Nuntiandi, 46)

The gift of personal proclamation is the sharing of one’s life with God with another. The result of a powerful witness that confesses the love of Christ invites listeners to make their own response, to be themselves “witnesses of these things” (Luke 24:48).

Looking to Beyonce’s Love on Top as a guide, we as Christians can identify the key components of Christian witness and proclamation: a personal encounter with Christ, reflection upon this encounter and its significance within human experience, and the sharing of this encounter with others. This structure affirms the very meaning of evangelization, to bear witness to the love of a Person, and the implications of that love for all humankind:

…to evangelize is first of all to bear witness, in a simple and direct way, to God revealed by Jesus Christ, in the Holy Spirit, to bear witness that in His Son God has loved the world – that in His Incarnate Word He has given being to all things and has called men to eternal life…the fact that for man the Creator is not an anonymous and remote power; He is the Father: ‘…that we should be called children of God; and so we are.’ (EN, §26)

Besides being a staple of campus dive bars, for wedding DJs, and in the line-ups of overzealous karaoke enthusiasts, “Love on Top’ invites one to consider the method in which Beyoncé chooses to make her own confession of a relationship with the beloved. To the evangelist, Beyoncé models through her own proclamation a formation in the how-tos of evangelization. We have seen the “simple and direct way” in which Beyoncé proclaims a witness to Love. She urges us to center our focus on the Beloved we encounter as the center of our message, acknowledge the way that the Beloved interacts with us in this encounter and our entire lives, and to make a gift of ourselves to others through our witness to this encounter. Consider for a moment that Beyoncé is instructing us to have our own “Emmaus moment” as evangelists, recognizing our own encounter with Christ, asking ourselves “Were not our hearts burning within us?” (Luke 24:32) as we consider our experiences, and set out to return again to the task of evangelizing with a new sense of mission and fervor to proclaim of Christ:

Baby it’s you

You’re the one I love

You’re the one I need

You’re the only thing I see

Come on baby it’s you

Colleen Campbell holds a BA in Pastoral Ministry from the University of Dallas, an MA in Theology from the University of Notre Dame, and is currently a PhD student studying Catechetics at the Catholic University of America.


Why Young Men Kill

It’s time we started talking about our young men, about why they become mass shooters, serial bombers, and homegrown terrorists. If any other demographic had demonstrated such a dangerous capacity for violence, we certainly would have probed deeper by now.

98% of mass shooters are men—and most are disaffected young men, whether American, Syrian, French, or Belgian—and they belong to and support a variety of religions and creeds. And yet, we are mostly silent about the demographics surrounding this particularly male phenomenon.

What makes this demographic so volatile?  Some studies suggest increased testosterone or the relative immaturity of young men as compared to young women combined with violence prevalent within entertainment culture and easy access to weapons, may create the potentially lethal combination that explains why young men are more likely to commit mass murder.

Many of the murderers also seem to share a common biography across racial, religious, and geographic boundaries: they were young men who were unable to come to grips with a complex world that did not live up to their own cultural, political, and social expectations. After this, they latch onto some ideology, extremist interpretations of their religion, and/or misogyny to justify their violence.

This awareness of a disconnect between our expectations and reality happens to almost all of us. Life doesn’t work out the way you planned, so you adjust.  Many people, unfortunately, tend to externalize frustration and often quickly turn to reasons “out there” for why things haven’t worked out. So if you can’t find a date, it’s feminism’s fault. If you can’t find a job, it must be the immigrants.

But what leads men, particularly young men, to act out their frustration through violence?

One thing missing from modern American culture is the initiation rite for young men. In almost all cultures, it was understood that boys did not just “become” men; rather, there was an intentional process that they had to undergo and that had to be acknowledged by the elders of the community. Without it, they’d become self-absorbed and violent.

Across cultures, the rites involved some form of separation from family, a humiliation of the ego, a time to grieve, an intentional or sacred wounding, and a time to be silent within nature. It was an intentional, liminal, vulnerable space, where life lessons could be learned through experience. It wasn’t about head knowledge, it was through body knowing.

Our culture initially used war as an initiation process, and when we weren’t at war, we used violent sports such as football or boxing to initiate. While imperfect, these substitutes could be helpful in teaching the young man about community, teamwork, and sacrifice.

According to writer and Catholic priest Fr. Richard Rohr, the intention of any initiation process is to communicate five hard truths:

  1. Life is hard.
  2. You are not that important.
  3. Your life is not about you.
  4. You are not in control.
  5. You are going to die.

The sacred experience of these truths would help the young boy transition into adulthood by desacralizing the self-absorbed ego, reintegrating him back into the community. If not initiated, the young man could become violent and narcissistic. Combine that with access to military grade weapons and extremist rhetoric, and you get a lethal combination.

In Britain an organization called a Band of Brothers has begun a process of initiation rites for formerly imprisoned young men at risk of recidivism. This joins a larger trend of male initiation rites for men throughout the western world.

After turning 25, I decided to attend a version of the male initiation rite. While the retreat was a simulation set within a Catholic Christian space, it helped me connect psychologically, communally, and cosmologically. Suddenly I saw things through a much broader vision than my own ego and the social expectations placed upon me. Suddenly I was unburdened of a lot of cultural baggage. I felt smaller, more humble, and yet also more free to live a good life, to live my life.

I’m aware that there is no one size fits all policy when it comes to any of this. But an anthropological reality remains, that our culture is missing something that many cultures believe is necessary for young men. And our culture is suffering from an epidemic of disaffected young men with access to deadly weapons.

Solutions abound for how to address this issue. Most are politically impossible given the current situation. But perhaps we could agree to some compromises in the meantime. We could raise the age that one could buy a weapon capable of committing a mass shooting. We could create some form of national service for young men and women. We, as people of faith, could draw on our rich history of initiation rites and network of Catholic high schools to reimagine how we form our young men in ways that don’t leave them radicalized by extreme ideologies.

We can and should talk about how these ideologies, combined with easy access to weapons, social isolation, and a lack of mental healthcare contribute to this issue. But we should also talk about the young men who commit the crimes: who they are, why they choose violence, and what we can do as a society to form them better.

Michael J. Sanem is the Director of Faith Formation at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Kansas City, Missouri and studied history, philosophy, and theology at Loyola University Chicago and as a Bernardin Scholar at Catholic Theological Union.


Mercy for the Outcast: The Story God Wants Told

Mere moments on Twitter are enough to alert us that our culture is plagued with demons.  We live in a culture that responds to polarized politics and social values with contempt and hateful accusations that serve only to drive us further from one another, rather than seeking common ground.  Even voices claiming to speak for our good God are raised in accusation and derision.  Amongst so many voices and so much anger, through all the noise, how do we hear a God who whispers?  Why doesn’t God speak more loudly, to be heard above the hate, or better still – to silence it forever?

There is divine precedent for keeping things hidden.  In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus repeatedly instructs his followers, those whom he heals, and even the demons he exorcizes to conceal his identity.  Commentators call this motif the “Messianic Secret,” positing many theories about why Jesus wants to stay hidden.  It may be to prevent people from following Jesus for the wrong reasons or to subvert existing Messianic expectations.  In the midst of a Gospel full of Jesus’s commands to keep quiet, there is one man whom Jesus commissions to preach.  It isn’t Peter or another one of the Apostles.  He isn’t even a Jew.  The man Jesus enlists to tell his story is a foreigner known as the Gerasene demoniac.

In Mark 5, we meet Jesus and the disciples just after he has calmed the storm.  Across the sea, they find themselves in the region of the Gerasenes.  There, Jesus speaks with a tormented man, a man filled with demons.  He has no one and is utterly forgotten, living among the tombs. Following their conversation, Jesus casts the demons out of the man into a herd of pigs.  Driven mad by this legion of demons, the pigs throw themselves into the sea.  Seeing the demoniac healed at the cost of 2,000 pigs, the Gerasenes beg Jesus to leave the region.  Whatever healing Jesus might offer them, it is not worth the cost of their livelihood.

Now free, the man intends to follow Jesus back across the sea.  Instead, Jesus asks him to stay, giving him the incredible command: “Go home to your own people and tell them what the Lord, in his mercy, has done for you,” (Mk 5:19).  In a Gospel known for Jesus’ requests to hide his identity, Jesus commissions this man to preach.  Among so many stories of healing, we have to ask ourselves: why is this the story God wants told?

The other stories in this chapter are stories in which faith heals.  The bleeding woman reaches out to touch Jesus and is healed.  “Your faith has saved you,” Jesus tells her (Mark 5:34).  He continues on his way to heal Jairus’ daughter, telling the crowd, “Do not be afraid; just have faith,” (Mark 5:36).  When the little girl rises, Jesus gives strict orders that no one should know.  The healing of the Gerasene demoniac is unlike these stories. The demoniac is not healed by faith, but by God’s mercy.  The Greek is eleison, the same mercy we ask of Jesus in the Mass. The outcast lives as one among the dead, with no one to speak for him or bring him to Jesus.  He is trapped inside of himself, across the sea, the outcast of the foreigners.

This is the story God wants told.  Not the story of the great faith of his followers, but the story of his mercy, of mercy so great that it crosses the sea to rescue us from ourselves.  God’s heart is one moved by the outcast, the one who lives among the dead.  As we pray in the Liturgy of the Hours, “You will not leave my soul among the dead, not let your beloved know decay,” (Psalm 16:10).  God’s heart is with the outcast of the foreigners, and this is what moves Jesus to be with him.

Mark vividly describes the violence this man committed against himself and the ways in which he resisted the attempts of the community to help him.  They, in turn, abandon him for dead.  Even once he is made whole again, his community does not see him as worth the cost; the pigs are worth more than his life restored.  When we count the cost of love, we are the Gerasenes, lamenting the loss of their herd – no doubt a devastating economic blow.  They push Jesus away for fear of what it will cost them.  They cling so tightly to security that they cannot receive Jesus’ healing and mercy.

And yet, this is the community to whom Jesus sends this man.  He wants to leave them behind, but Jesus asks him to stay, as if to say, These people that reject you, they are your community.  It is to them you must speak about the great mercy of God.  This man’s healing is not for him alone, but for his community, the ones who have cast him out.

We are not to regard our faith primarily as a path towards our own edification or liberation.  This liberation is offered in service of a greater call.  We cannot turn our backs on the outcast, nor on those who cast them out.  When we do either, we demonize where there are no demons, only ones like us—ones in need of healing.  Our pain is not only ours to harbor; we must offer it to Jesus who asks us not to sit in it or lash out in anger, but to channel it into love.  We are to tell others what God in his mercy has done for us, to share it even with those who have turned their backs on us and thought us unworthy.

If we hope to imitate Jesus, we need to listen to the story he wants told.  Mercy crosses oceans to rescue the outcast of the foreigners.  Mercy asks the outcast to evangelize the hateful.  There is no one so “other” that we are not called to love them.

God, in his mercy, saves. He rescues. He crosses the sea and braves the storm. This is where God’s heart is—with the foreigners. This is who God chooses as custodian of his message.  This is why we are invited to the margins—because this is where God’s heart is.  And this is who God asks to speak to us, because the face of mercy is the face of those whom we have demonized.  Mercy is for the wounded and for those who wound.  Each of them is in each of us.  Mercy lifts the veil to show us the truth: in God there can be no other.  There is only us.

How do we hear God in the midst of all the anger and noise of our culture?  The only way we can, as St. Teresa of Avila tells us: “Christ has no body now on earth but yours.”  God has spoken, and his voice is mercy.  He asks us to speak it, too.

Samantha Stephenson is a wife and mother, lover of books and coffee, and editor of spiritualityoftheordinary.com


When Opposing the President Isn’t Political, But About Survival

President Trump will visit El Paso today.

Following the recent shooting in El Paso, Americans and the media are rightly focused on the overdue reform of gun laws. But while the attack in El Paso was surely enabled by the failure of politicians to enact even a modicum of reform, it is categorically different. For El Pasoans, this killer’s bullets were aimed at a whole community, a way of life, and our values.

Since the beginning of the Trump administration, Latinos and communities like El Paso have experienced life under an ever-present pall of low-grade fear.

As a border community, El Paso has lived in a unique way at the intersection of the President’s politics of xenophobia and policies which dehumanize migrants at the border. Race baiting, zero tolerance, threats of deportation, and an increasingly militarized border are the stuff of everyday life. After the El Paso shooting, ICE and Border Patrol announced a suspension of enforcement activities around the mall, hospitals, and family reunification centers, a temporary reprieve to fear and the exception that proves the rule.

In this midst of all this, El Paso has shown the country that another way is possible in addressing the so-called crisis at the border: with compassion, generosity, and humanity. Even as the President builds walls and separates families, thousands have migrants have found shelter, relief, warm meals, and open doors in El Paso after the traumatizing experience of immigrant detention. In a vigil the day following the shooting, thousands of El Pasoans came together both to mourn the dead and to celebrate this community’s resilience.

President Trump reflexively trades in racism, nationalism, and sardonic put-downs. Now his poisonous rhetoric and kid gloves approach to white supremacy have inspired a manifesto of murder and terror. President Trump supplied the ideological ammunition to an assassin who violated our community and our values and killed our family members and neighbors.

This past weekend, hate came to the Cielo Vista Mall and El Paso. Latino blood was spilt in sacrifice to the ancient demons of political and racial terrorism. Now before brazenly trampling the scene of the crime, the President must atone for his misdeeds.

Until then, the President is not welcome here.

Dylan Corbett is the founding director of the Hope Border Institute in El Paso, Texas and has worked in global development in Central America and South Asia, as well as on domestic poverty programs with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.


4 Suggestions for Restoring Adventure to Your Daily Life

From the first time we step into our kindergarten classroom, inspirational messages abound from our parents, teachers, and mentors: You can be anything you want to be.  You’re going to change the world.  God has great plans for you.

Similarly, at my Jesuit undergraduate institution, St. Ignatius of Loyola’s quote formed the basis of our instruction: Ite inflammate omnia, or Go forth and set the world on fire.  Now, as a recent graduate with a Bachelor of Arts in Classical Languages, I have the swirling thoughts of many who are about to enter the “real” world: Is this it?

Fire combusts in a matter of seconds.  To change the world requires the patience of months, years, lifetimes.  The truth is, few of us will achieve work similar to St. Ignatius that dares to incite a new global change.  This reality can drain the fervor of youthful ambition.  In a society that idolizes young success as the ultimate dream, approaching this blank unknown can seem daunting.

How can recent graduates carry the passion of intellect and social change into a world that demands compliance and normalcy?  How can I do what St. Ignatius instructs when my spark may never manifest itself into a flame?

It is the very thing which strives to dim our dreams – coming to terms with reality – that we must use to propel us forward. Graduate school and the eventual job search may be my impending reality, but I can still embark on a spiritual and invigorating journey within this context.  Many go through life with a realistic mindset left wondering if there is something more beyond bills, television, and obligations.  Why can’t reality itself be more?  We must find adventure in the mundane and embrace the marvel of our own realities.  The bleakness of a lifetime of normalcy will no longer intimidate because it is the reality we wish to live – it is unique.

With this mindset, the flames of change become a part of our realities in ways that our kindergarten minds could not comprehend.  Engaging regularly with spirituality, social justice issues, and personal passions become routine but not repetitive.  We cannot use our education for its true purpose without exciting ourselves about the beautiful life God has provided.

Tangible practices must fortify an altered mindset.  Below are my suggestions for restoring adventure to your lived reality:

1) Pray.  Try a new prayer practice.  Imaginative prayer, journaling, walking outside, and listening to music can all be forms of meaningful prayer.

2) Create.  Art, cooking, music, writing, and other creative pursuits remind us of the universe enveloped within each of us.

3) Engage.  Having intentional conversations with others allows us to experience the unique personhood of ourselves and others.

4) Learn.  Keeping up with current events, visiting a new place, and reading about your passions will serve to expand our vision.

Grace Spiewak has a B.A. in Classical Languages from Creighton University and plans to pursue an M.S. in Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.


How to Really Understand the Parable of the Good Samaritan

This Sunday’s Gospel (Luke 10:25-37) might be Jesus’ best-known story. How many times have you heard the phrase, “Good Samaritan”? Even non-Christians know the term suggests someone who is kind, generous, or brave. But few of us fully understand – much less live up to – the demands of Jesus’ teaching. Here are 10 things we too often miss in this story:

  • This is no ordinary story: A lawyer asks Jesus, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” There is no question more important for a Jewish person to ask. This story is not just one among others; it stands with Matthew 25:31-46 as essential for salvation. As Jesus makes clear in this story, when it comes to eternal life, what matters isn’t what one knows or believes, but what one does or fails to do.
  • Love God by loving your neighbor: The lawyer answers his own question: the way to eternal life is loving God and our neighbors (Luke 10:27). Or, another way of saying this is: we love God by loving our neighbors. Dorothy Day puts a finer point on this: “You love God as much as the one you love the least.” Jesus responds to the lawyer, “Do this and you will live” (Lk 10:28). It’s not enough to know this; you have to do it.
  • Who is my neighbor? is the wrong question: The lawyer pushes further. He asks, “Who is my neighbor?” a question that we might take for granted. But this is a limit-seeking question. It aims to identify the non-neighbor, the one beyond my moral obligation. In other words, the lawyer wants to know: who are the ones I’m not expected to love like I love God? Jesus takes this question and turns it on its head. He does this in two ways: first, by using a Samaritan in the story (see #6) and second, by changing the question around: “Who was neighbor to the robbers’ victim?” (Lk 10:36). The lawyer views neighbor as an object, the recipient of duty. Jesus views neighbor as a proactively loving subject. Who is my neighbor? is the wrong question to ask. Instead, we should ask: What kind of neighbor am I? or To whom am I a neighbor?
  • Move from judgment to compassion: Jesus tells the story of a man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho, the only parable with a specific geographic location. Why? Because the road to Jericho was notoriously unsafe. It descended from the heights of Jerusalem via switchback curves, ideal for ambush. In other words, Jesus’ audience had no sympathy for the man who was beaten, stripped, robbed, and left for dead. He was a fool to travel the road alone; he got what was coming to him. Jesus tells the story banking on his audience’s contempt for the robbers’ victim, seeking to replace that judgment with compassion.
  • Confront the sin of indifference: Jesus says a priest and Levite see the robbers’ victim but “pass by on the opposite side” of the road. In other words, they create more distance between themselves and the man left for dead. These religious leaders were charged with loving their neighbor (Leviticus 19:18, which the lawyer cites in Luke 10:27) but fail. Maybe they were running late, thinking about their to-do list, or more concerned about remaining pure for their ritual tasks. Whatever the case, nothing should come before showing concern for someone left for dead. Pope Francis cites the priest and Levite as examples of the “globalization of indifference.” Whenever we think “that’s not my problem” or “they don’t belong to me,” we’re acting more like the priest and Levite than the Samaritan.
  • “Good Samaritan” makes no sense: We know this story so well that once we hear the word “Samaritan,” we know the hero arrives on the scene. But for Jesus’ audience, a Samaritan was the most despised outcast they could imagine. It’s hard to come up with a contemporary analogy, but a modern-day Samaritan would have to be the kind of person who would make your stomach turn and your skin crawl. This is the last person on earth you would imagine Jesus to endorse.
  • These kinds of actions matter: The Samaritan’s actions receive more detailed description than anyone else in the gospels, aside from Jesus. Why? Because Jesus is describing what it means to be a neighbor: to act with courage (going into the ditch, where the Samaritan could’ve been ambushed), compassion (this is what moves the Samaritan to offer assistance – a visceral reaction to another who is suffering), generosity (the oil and wine to heal his wounds and the payment for his recovery at the inn), and boundary-breaking solidarity (enlisting others in his care, showing that we’re in this together, even though the Samaritan would’ve been received with suspicion if not hostility at the inn).
  • Do what you can, where you are: The Samaritan wasn’t out looking for people to help. And he doesn’t quit his job or abandon his family in order to make the road to Jericho safe for other travelers. He saw someone in need, went out of his way and into the ditch to ease his suffering, and went on his way. This isn’t a story about a superhero; it’s a story about doing what you can – no more and no less. Everyone can and should be like the Samaritan.
  • Mercy is who God is and what God wants: When Jesus turns the question around, asking the lawyer, “Who was neighbor to the robber’s victim?” the lawyer is so embarrassed that he can’t bring himself to say “Samaritan.” So instead, the lawyer responds, “The one who treated him with mercy” (Luke 10:37). This reflects a central theme in Scripture: mercy is who God is (Exodus 34:6) and what God wants (Luke 6:36). Put differently: our piety or holiness is measured by our mercifulness.
  • Do likewise: Jesus ends the story by saying, “Go and do likewise.” He doesn’t say, “Go and do exactly the same thing” or “go and do this once in a while.” Too many people think that being a “Good Samaritan” means volunteering, doing random acts of kindness, or helping strangers in an emergency. This is not why Jesus tells this story (especially not a story framed by inheriting eternal life). Rather, Jesus teaches his followers to apply the Samaritan’s courage, compassion, generosity, and boundary-breaking solidarity in their everyday life. What would the world be like if we thought the state of our soul were determined by our consistent emulation of the Samaritan?

With this story, Jesus issues a radical challenge to his followers: there are no non-neighbors. There is no one you can write off as “other” or “outsider” or “outcast.” We have to shatter the illusion that keeps us from seeing that we belong to each other. As Fr. Greg Boyle, SJ reminds us, “There is no ‘us’ and ‘them’ – only ‘us.’”

This is a tall order. Especially in a time of hyperpartisanship where winning is seen as more important than a shared commitment to the common good. Political polarization reinforces an “us versus them” tribalism that has nine in ten Americans saying the nation is more divided now than at any point in their lifetime. In a 2018 poll, roughly half of Democrats described Republicans as ignorant (54%) and spiteful (44%) while a similar proportion of Republicans described Democrats as ignorant (49%) and spiteful (54%). 61% of Democrats labeled Republicans racist, sexist, or bigoted while 31% of Republicans applied these terms to Democrats. Perhaps most concerning of all, more than twenty percent of Republicans (23%) and Democrats (21%) called members of the other party “evil.” Only four percent of both parties think the other side is fair and even fewer describe them as thoughtful or kind. We have normalized the demonization of people on the other side of the party aisle, making it harder to recognize that we belong to each other, rely on each other, and will ultimately be judged by how we treat each other.

Social fragmentation and fragility continues: by sex, gender, and sexual orientation; by class and creed; by ethnicity and race; by nationality and legal status; by age and ability, etc. A few examples: Christians are more than twice as likely as non-Christians to blame the poor for their financial struggles, a judgment that creates distance from them. Half of Catholics say the U.S. does not have a responsibility to welcome refugees (despite Pope Francis’ global “Share the Journey” campaign). Only 31% of Republicans say that migrants from Central America should be able to seek asylum in the U.S. (which is a legal right) and 62% of Republicans approve the way that migrants are being treated at the border, even though conditions are so gruesome that 24 people have died in the custody of immigration officials. Manufactured fear ascribes disease, crime, and violence to migrants without basis in fact. It is used to justify cruelty in separating families, indefinitely detaining children in cages, and threatening deportation raids that inflict terror and trauma on countless people seeking the same things we want: peace and security.

Dehumanizing rhetoric and shrinking understandings of what we owe each other contribute to what Pope Francis calls a “throwaway culture.” We disregard those we see as different, as other, as not belonging to us. But the example of the Samaritan resists throwaway culture; instead of discarding others in need, he draws near them. The Samaritan replaces judgment with compassion, fear with courage, self-interest with generosity, and separation with solidarity.

What keeps us from going out of our way and into the ditch, to care for those who have been beaten, stripped, robbed, and left for dead? What keeps us from speaking up for the poor and marginalized, being their advocate and ally? What keeps us from drawing near those we consider “other” or outside our network of belonging?

If we call ourselves Christians, then we have to evaluate the depth of our commitment to “Go and do likewise” (Luke 10:37). Not just once in a while or in an emergency, but wherever we are, however we can – no more and no less. Because how we treat others (including those we might dislike or even despise) is how we treat God.


Promoting the Common Good and Option for the Poor in the Trump Era: An Interview with Stephen Schneck

Dr. Stephen Schneck is one of the country’s premier Catholic intellectuals—an advocate for Catholic social teaching in public life, lecturer, writer, and activist. He recently retired as the Director of the Institute for Policy Research & Catholic Studies (IPR) at the Catholic University of America, where he was also an award-winning professor in the politics department. In 2015, President Obama appointed Schneck to the White House Advisory Council for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Millennial editor Robert Christian, who was a graduate fellow under Schneck at IPR, recently interviewed him about his experiences as a pro-life Democrat, politics in the Trump Era, their shared work, and other subjects related to Catholicism and politics.

As a pro-life Democrat who believes in the preferential option for the poor, how would you evaluate recent trends in American politics and within the Democratic Party?

The measure of civilization, to my mind, is how the poor, the marginalized, the oppressed, and the most vulnerable among us fare. This is the measure for justice that’s at the heart of the Christian social justice mission. It’s also the criterion for discerning the common good. And, who are the poor? Think about the homeless trans kid panhandling outside the Metro, the disabled single parent on the next block who depends on Medicaid and food stamps, a migrant mother and her child separated and locked up on our southern border, the opioid-addicted former truck driver in Appalachia, and, yes, by poor we must also mean unborn children at risk to be aborted. For Christians, every law, every policy, and every candidacy for public office should be assessed with the question: What does this mean for these poor? That’s putting Catholic teaching’s preference for the poor into practice.

Neither political party looks great from this vantage point. Both parties are currently dominated by elite activists motivated by what seem to me to be exclusionary, fractional interests – at the expense of the common good, and especially at the expense of the poor. Fortunately, there are some exceptions to this generalization on both sides of the aisle. But, the trends and larger picture are worrisome, with sharper and more militant fractional politics and an “us versus them” ethic more akin to Carl Schmitt’s than Christianity’s “all are welcome” worldview. Thank God for the few remaining compassionate conservatives and for pro-life progressives.

How would you assess Donald Trump’s presidency so far? And do you think his approach will define the future of conservatism in the US?

As I mentioned, both political parties are caught up in the divisive logic of an exaggerated “us versus them” identity politics. Trump’s is a particularly crude and odious appeal to Make America “White” Again. Before Trump, conservatism in America was about the rule of law, small government, higher morality, and deference to the time-hallowed norms and tradition, all of which were perceived to constrain or modulate arbitrary power by government and other sources of power in society. Trumpism disdains limits on their president’s power, so much so that the old conservative ideals are at best seen as quaint and more often than not seen as pointy-headed fluff to be ignored. What then does it mean to be conservative now? Frankly, it’s little more than white nationalism. To be sure, the race card was played by fringe elements of the conservative movement in the past. With Trump, though, white nationalism has become the defining heart of conservatism and it’s hard to see how that will change anytime soon.

We’ve both seen pro-life Democrats who abandoned their sincere pro-life commitments to advance their political careers and subsequently increased their influence. We’ve seen pro-life Democrats who switched parties and over time abandoned their commitment to social justice, in favor of faith in an unfettered free market—and some have gone on to become very prominent figures. Why do you remain a pro-life Democrat? What would you say to young people who are pro-life progressives but worried that their views will limit their ability to rise in politics or diminish their ability to make a concrete difference in people’s lives through politics or policy?

Ha! You’re catching me at a moment when I am questioning my place in the Democratic Party. I have long been an ardent supporter of the party because of its commitment to social justice and its suspicion of the undemocratic power of economic and cultural elites. I support it as well for its history of solidarity with the working class. As a Catholic, a mix of social justice, solidarity, and preference for those among us who are least empowered accords with what I understand to be the mission of Christianity in our world below. Being pro-life for me is about that mission. So, of course, I am a Democrat.

Many activist interest groups currently in control of the Democratic Party, however, seem more inclined toward libertarian individualism than toward social justice, solidarity, and a preference for the disempowered. Pro-abortion interest groups like NARAL are examples of that, and these groups have a de facto veto over which candidates are supported or who can rise within the party.  So, if a Democratic candidate opposes late-term abortions, then she can forget about support from the DNC, DSCC, DCCC, or even her state’s party organizations.

What’s a pro-life Democrat to do? First, I think today’s pro-life message must be presented as something much more encompassing and more integral than opposition to abortion. To be pro-life is to promote care for creation like the Green New Deal, comprehensive healthcare like Medicare for All, justice for immigrants, an economy for the 90%, ending the death penalty, a living wage, and so on. Second, I think being a pro-life Democrat requires directly challenging the libertarian ideology of groups like NARAL by reminding Democrats that their party historically is the party of solidarity, social justice, and a preference for the least empowered. Finally, it can only help to remind the party that alienating pro-life voters only narrows the range of Americans who would vote for its candidates – and, pro-life Democrats and independents are over-represented in states and districts that saw voters switch from Obama to Trump in 2016.

You have a background in the study of personalism. How has it shaped Catholic social teaching? What is its relevance for today?

What I like about a personalist theology is that it presents faith as seeing the face of God in real people as we encounter them in their real lives. Personalism rejects formalisms that present faith largely as rules for judgment or as principles to know. Indeed, I love the humility of personalism. The self is decentered and humbled in openness and hope for a glimpse of God’s face in our encounter with and service to others.

If you were to set up a reading list for those interested in Catholic social teaching and the philosophy behind it (for beginners, those at an intermediate level, and those who are more advanced), what would that reading list look like? Who are the essential authors to read to truly grasp the nature of the Catholic political worldview?

I’m not good at listing books, but off the top of my head… Jacques Maritain’s The Person and Common Good, Romano Guardini’s The End of the Modern World, encyclicals like Caritas in veritate, Sollicitudo rei socialis, Laudato si’, Emmanuel Mounier’s Personalism, Gabriel Marcel’s Man Against Mass Society. A deeper dive would include selected works by Paul Ricouer, Hans Georg Gadamer, Max Scheler, Charles Taylor, and the like. I’m sure I’m stupidly forgetting many obvious important works. Also don’t forget novels, like Albert Camus’ The Plague or Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory.

Pope Francis has emphasized taking on the throwaway culture, going to the margins, and being a poor church for the poor. How would you assess the impact of this agenda on the Church in the US and global Catholicism?

Pope Francis calls us to live our faith in the model of Jesus, by which I mean bringing good news to the poor, reaching out with open arms to those on the margins, and humbly looking to discern the face of God in genuine encounter with those who have been objectified or “thrown away” by the faceless processes and structural evils of our world. This profound call, were it broadly heard within the Church, would be transformative. The agenda that His Holiness has pursued, both in the world and institutionally within the Church, reflect his call to live such a faith – and I am personally inspired by his efforts.

The impact of his efforts is obvious and welcome. Yet, those efforts have also met passive and now frequently active resistance. Not too surprisingly, this opposition to Pope Francis aligns with interests that are privileged by the processes and structures of the status quo. Let’s be clear; Pope Francis is not changing the message of the Church. Pope St. John Paul II also called us to live our faith in the model of Jesus, for example, with a very similar theology of encounter with real personhood. Francis, however, is positioning that theology to address a broader range of structures in the world and within the Church itself.

You have been outspoken about the rise in extremism. We see it in the US, Europe, and even in the US Church with the rise of alt-Catholics. You have suggested that the pope should address this pestilence in his next encyclical. Why do you think this should be a top priority—and what would you hope to hear from the pope on the subject in an encyclical?

Rome has been slow to recognize that the ideology of the new ethnic nationalism movements is heretically corrosive to faith. These alt-movements, to one degree or another, are all about the myth of purity for a race or nation. It’s all-too-apparent how powerful the appeal has been for some Christian populations in Europe and the United States that feel beleaguered and alienated by accelerating social and cultural change. In Catholic circles now, some leaders of these groups even claim theological legitimacy by asserting that they are defending the faith. To make matters worse, the ideology can easily hijack elements of those theologies that advocate a defensive approach to the modern world.

It goes without saying that the ideology is diametrically opposed to the message of the Gospels. But, we’re past the time where it’s enough for His Holiness to point to the parable of the Good Samaritan or to contrast preference for the nation or race with the Church’s teaching of preference for the poor. This extremist ideology is winning converts among Catholics, even among the clergy. The Church needs a thoroughgoing examination of the ideology’s errors that can only be done in something like an encyclical, making it clear that no Catholic can subscribe to these dangerous ideas or endorse those who do.

At the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies, the Erroneous Autonomy event series on libertarianism seemed to me to be one of the Institute’s most vital efforts and accomplishments. Would you agree with that, and are there other events that stand out to you as particularly noteworthy and valuable?

Our critical examination of libertarianism within the context of Catholic teachings in the Erroneous Autonomy series changed minds. Hosting that series is the most important thing the Institute ever did. It’s our legacy, Robert.

Some on the Catholic left seem unwilling to consider the importance of subsidiarity. But you have taken the time to clarify the concept at a time when many intentionally distort it to weaken the federal social safety net or advance similar objectives. How should we understand subsidiarity? And at a time when democratic norms are collapsing, union membership is at low levels, and radical individualism remains ascendant, can the concept offer anything unique and helpful to those who care about the common good? 

Subsidiarity is about the prudential organization of solidarity for the common good. It cannot be conceived apart from its role within solidarity or its end in the common good. It’s just wrong to imagine it as federalism. Most appalling are those who portray it as a version of competitive individualism. Moreover, subsidiarity is not properly understood if it is only seen as a limit on the power of the state. Subsidiarity is an organizing of solidarity to disrupt hierarchical concentrations of power. A workers’ union is an example of subsidiarity that disrupts the hierarchical power of faceless economic forces. A Latino cultural club is an example of subsidiarity that disrupts the hierarchical power of mass society. Even within the Church, think about how subsidiarity challenges the hierarchical power of clericalism.

You mention individualism. We’re all aware how the economic market, modern technologies, and a prevalent morality and politics that radicalizes the value of individual choice all work to isolate each of us from a sense of belonging to something beyond the self. Far from empowering us as rugged individuals, that isolation leaves us alone against the overweening forces of the economy, technology, society, and the state. Subsidiarity is about the empowering of little communities around us that, on one hand, lend greater capacity to resist the many mass forces of modern life and, on the other hand, help us find our place and responsibilities in light of the common good of all.

Some anti-Vatican II “trads” in the US have endorsed a revival of integralism and declared that Catholiclism and liberal democracy are incompatible (while often showing a great affinity for 20th century dictators or kings from centuries ago). How would you respond to such claims? Is there a distinction that can be drawn between democracy, liberal democracy, and philosophical liberalism—or are they too intertwined? What would the authentic participation the Church has endorsed, particularly in recent papacies, look like in the 21st century in a country like the United States or Hungary?

Democracy is difficult to reconcile with our faith only in political forms that eschew solidarity and the common good. The “trads” are right to notice this, but they err by adopting a top-down integralism as a remedy. Our mission in this world, as Christians, must always begin with preference for the “bottom,” not the top. Political authority should begin with those Christ in Matthew 25 calls “the least” among us. For this reason, it’s clear to me that only democracy conforms with the spirit of the Gospels.

Liberalism, by which I mean a polity organized around individual liberty and rights, is a much more complex topic for consideration vis-à-vis Catholic moral and social teachings. The liberal understanding of individual rights and liberties is utterly integral with many of history’s greatest achievements for the human spirit. I admire and endorse the work of historians and philosophers who have labored to highlight the origin in and continuing dependency of liberal political philosophy on Christian theology. I am also inspired by the philosophers who are rethinking liberalism in regard to responsibilities beyond the self that is being done in light of common good concerns such as climate change and social justice. All that said, while Christianity must always recognize that rights and liberty are critical components of a just political order, I have not in my own mind resolved how flexible the term “liberalism” can be. Not sure about the best label…. As Christians we must humble our “self.”