Children Deserve the Best


In the waning days of summer in 2015, a three-year-old boarded a boat with his father to make the journey from the resort town of Bodrum to the Greek island of Kos. Clad, as any three-year-old might be, in blue shorts and a red t-shirt, he was just another among the nameless, faceless migrants fleeing Syria, until an image surfaced of his fragile body washed up on a Turkish beach. Images of Aylan (Alan) Kurdi lying face down in the shore quickly spread around the world. The ferry he was on had capsized, and he, his mother, and his five-year-old brother Galip drowned in the Mediterranean in the early morning hours on September 2, 2015. This image of a lifeless child challenged the world.

In his Christmas Eve homily this past year, Pope Francis urged all Christians to “allow ourselves to be challenged by the children of today’s world, who are not lying in a cot caressed with the affection of a mother and father, but rather suffer in the squalid ‘mangers that devour dignity’: hiding underground to escape bombardment, on the pavements of a large city, at the bottom of a boat overladen with immigrants. Let us allow ourselves to be challenged by the children who are not allowed to be born, by those who cry because no one satiates their hunger, by those who have not toys in their hands, but rather weapons.”

Children deserve the best—the loving caresses of parents; the care and protection of the community; a safe, clean place to sleep; the stability of a home filled with affection; nourishing food to eat; clear, clean water to drink; the joy of playing with siblings and friends; a dignifying education; and participation in the life of the family and society. Children do deserve the best of our time, energy, and affection. Yet children are made to bear the brunt of society’s failures. They are in the precarious position of being useless, redundant, of being non-producers. Children endure the weight of modernity’s failures, its violence, and its sin. We enslave their fragile bones and vulnerable bodies, and on flesh imprinted with all the freshness of dignity, we inscribe hunger, violence, and death.

Children deserve to be at the center of families, communities, and societies, yet too often they are condemned to the peripheries of society. Children may deserve the best, but according to the scandalous calculations of modernity, a child’s right to stay around is precariously dependent on her geopolitical location, her gender, her parent’s economic stability, and, yes, even her race. She may end up sold into slavery or crushed at the bottom of a raft, or she may never be allowed the rarefied privilege of taking a first breath. She may be expunged from the human family, her body relegated to the waste yard, because she fails to meet the rigorous expectations she knows nothing about.

Children deserve the best, yet they are often what the late Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman called “‘collateral casualties’ of progress,” excluded from protection under the law, non-persons. Children are our first casualties. They are among the first to be un-humaned, to be declared unwanted. The child that drowns in dark waters of the sea; the child who stares in blank silence, bloodied by barrel bombs dropped on his school; the child who has taken up arms; the child who tries to draw back as a syringe of saline searches her out in the darkness of her mother’s womb—these are the little ones who had the audacity to be poor, to be exiled, to be at school, to be alive.

Children are the most vulnerable among us. As Christians, we forfeit the right to determine a child’s worth. When we die in the waters of baptism, we forfeit the right to decide someone else’s usefulness, value, or right to exist. We forfeit the right to choose to love some but not others. To be Christian is to take up the duty to love without discrimination. This love compels us to lay aside the weapons of the battlefield, the weapons that are used to kill children while they attend school. This love compels us to lay aside the weapons of the boardroom, where decisions are made in the interest of profit margins that mean certain death for the most vulnerable. This love compels us to put down the weapons of the medical field that are used to eliminate human life in the womb.

Christian love forms us into a new vision, a dignifying vision that stands in solidarity with women and with their preborn children, a vision that sees value where the world sees uselessness—in the preborn child with Down syndrome; in the indigent elderly man who can’t consume the small, white communion wafer; the refugee, the women and children fleeing persecution searching for signs of hospitality; yes, even in the unrepentant death row inmate. To be Christian is to be formed in the love of Christ, who loves us while still sinners. This means to forfeit the right to decide who is worthy of love. It means we forfeit the right to decide which children will be allowed to take their first breath or which mothers will receive adequate prenatal care. This love is not a uniform love, but it is unifying love. It is a vision that sees that a society that fails to defend its most vulnerable members will soon find that it is unable to defend the principles of integral human ecology and that what is considered a “right” will be determined by the whims of the powerful.

This vision sees that the realities of abortion, war, migration, economic exploitation, of human trafficking and sexual slavery, disproportionately affect the most vulnerable among us, namely children, but also that all offenses against human life, in different ways and at different levels of gravity, participate in a logic of violence, in a logic that produces a throwaway culture. To be Christian means that we participate in a form of love that is whole, healthy, and fresh—that doesn’t choose its own way, but is led by the love of Christ, who loves people, not systems. To love like this is to love against the grain, to love into the darkness, to love with that burning heart that only Christ writes in us.

Jessica Keating is the director of the Office of Human Dignity and Life Initiatives in the McGrath Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame.


Millions Marching: From Loneliness to Communion

A few years ago I found myself in an airport terminal with time to spare before boarding my flight. Ambling among the gates, I stopped to peruse a shelf of paperbacks until The Opposite of Loneliness by Marina Keegan caught my eye. Keegan delivered an address by the same name at her graduation from Yale in 2012; she died tragically five days later in a car crash. I stood there in Hudson News and read something from Keegan’s title essay that has remained with me: “We don’t have a word for the opposite of loneliness, but if we did, I could say that’s what I want in life… It’s not quite love and it’s not quite community; it’s just this feeling that there are people, an abundance of people, who are in this together. Who are on your team.” Tears welled up in my eyes as I flipped through the collection of essays, moved for this young woman, her insight, her honesty, her death. I returned the book to the shelf of paperbacks and headed to my gate.  I was traveling alone, but I felt less lonely for having encountered Marina Keegan.

On Saturday, millions of people around the globe joined in the Women’s March in Washington D.C. and its sister marches. The march of more than 60,000 that I attended in Atlanta was among the most joyful events I can recall. From the packed train cars on the way to the march to the packed train cars home, a spirit of gentleness, strength, and fierce beauty abounded. Women and men high-fived and hugged police officers, who high-fived and hugged back. Wheelchairs and baby carriages were pushed with care and deference, marchers laughed and smiled easily between unwavering calls for justice and equality across our society.

Without question, the inauguration of Donald Trump as president was the catalyst for these marches. The marches, though, surpassed opposition to a leader, or a policy, or a political party. These marches may have started with people standing together against something, but they became about standing together. Period. Millions of us experienced the opposite of loneliness last Saturday. It was communion – a sudden awareness of living in a web of relationships of solidarity and care – and it gave birth to hope. Whenever we feel the opposite of loneliness, we are given the chance to hope.

Everyone needs this communion. Its alternative is isolation, and in isolation there is only despair. We isolate ourselves in many ways: through the wrongs that we commit and the wrongs that we don’t speak out against. Through belief that we have been abandoned by God and by those around us. By failing to see that we are capable of relationships, that the world needs us, our gifts, and our participation in the whole web of things. Perhaps especially, we isolate ourselves through our own uncompromising rigidity.

As a person unreasonably privileged by our society, I can almost always opt into things or stand back in judgment of them without fear of personal consequence. Sadly, I exercise the option of judgment all the time. Unless I know that the march will turn out a certain way, I won’t attend. Unless I agree with everything it’s about, I conscientiously object. If I don’t totally understand or control my surroundings, I take my proverbial toys and go home. I’ve done it countless times.

And yet the invitation remains – even for the privileged like me – not to be alone. To choose hope. To move boldly from the dry sand of isolation into the waters of communion. On Saturday I found out, as millions of others did, that the water is fine. In fact, rather than losing ourselves in this ocean of communion, we found ourselves in hope.

Marina Keegan put her finger on the thing that each of us needs, wise well beyond her 22 years. The opposite of loneliness is communion and it’s what I want in life, too. I don’t just want it for myself; when I taste this communion, I want to invite other people in. I don’t want to harbor hate, or prejudice, or judgment anymore. I don’t want to hold unreasonable power at the expense of those who welcomed me to march alongside them on Saturday, and those who have been marching for generations. And so I will continue to act, and I will invite others to do the same.

I had my deepest hope confirmed this weekend. None of us has to be alone. Women all around the globe, throngs of beautifully diverse people of every race, gender, sexual orientation, and religion – richly human people – were saying the same thing to one another, including the people to whom society gives power, like me: let go of judgment, hate, exclusion, isolation and despair. Grab a sign and jump in. It’s not just the right thing to do – it’s the only thing there is. Believe me: the water’s fine.

This article by Steve Nicholson, SJ originally appeared at The Jesuit Post.

 

 


After the Women’s March, Let’s Build a New Coalition for the Vulnerable

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My two young daughters, my husband, and I were among the 125,000 people who gathered on Boston Common on Saturday morning to march (or to try to march, anyway – to the surprise of no one, Boston’s comically skinny and winding streets were no match for the masses). We brought a double stroller, tiny outerwear for every conceivable weather condition, and enough Cheerios and raisins to feed a small army. Seemingly the only thing we didn’t bring with us was that critical activist must-have: the sign. I had contemplated making one the day prior, but I kept coming up blank. Maybe something about hearing the phrase “American carnage” undulating from my car radio zapped my creativity and wit. But on another level, there was part of me that wasn’t quite sure how to name what I was bringing with me to the march.

To be honest, participating felt fraught. I was irritated at the exclusion of pro-life organizations from official partnership in the national march. On the most basic, most practical level, it struck me as a monumental missed opportunity for coalition building among groups of women long alienated from one another. What a chance it could have been to finally see one another as more than single-issue voters, to celebrate the complexity of our political and religious identities. Isn’t it sort of the point of feminism to get behind the idea that there are as many ways to be a woman as there are women? Besides, what could have been a stronger statement against the vacuous pro-life rhetoric of the Trump administration than the open inclusion of pro-life organizations in the protest?

But, imperfect as it was, standing in solidarity with those sure to bear the brunt of the new president’s chilling contempt for society’s most vulnerable was too important to me to stay home. So I came, Cheerio-laden and signless.

Toward the end of the day, I spotted another mother holding her infant daughter in a carrier and a large sign in her hands. It read: “We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors. We borrow it from our children.” Below was a picture of her bright-eyed daughter. On the other side was a list of ways the Affordable Care Act had been critical for her pregnancy, birth, nursing, motherhood, and the life and health of her daughter.

Hers was the sign I would have made. In many ways, her story was my story. My oldest was born after three consecutive miscarriages. Without the tens of thousands of dollars worth of complicated testing that helped my doctors finally get to the bottom of what was preventing my body from carrying my babies to term – tests covered by my insurance that my husband and I would never have been able to pay for on our own – it’s unlikely that my daughters would be here. That mother’s sign spoke in a powerful, practical way to the interconnectedness of all life and all creation, and to the truth that society’s concern for its least powerful is a litmus test of its goodness. Our strength comes in recognizing the unbrokenness of that proverbial garment of life. That, to me, is the work yet to be done.

A few years ago I participated in an anti-racism workshop that concluded with the mantra, “The work is not the workshop.” The workshop itself was powerful and challenging – so much so that it would have been easy to fool ourselves into believing that participating in it was the same as doing the work of justice it demanded. But it wasn’t. It was only after the workshop ended, after we all went back to our workplaces and schools and churches, that the real work needed to begin.

In the same way, the Women’s March was not the work. That’s not to dismiss it. Just the opposite: if its purpose was to direct our eyes toward the work yet to be done, to propel us outward to take up what theologian M. Shawn Copeland calls the wrenching task of solidarity, then mission accomplished. I am grateful for the opportunity to participate in a movement in which I felt not quite comfortable and not perfectly at home. Dissonance can be fruitful, if we allow it to be. Instead of coming away feeling complacent, I rode home on a crowded bus more convinced than ever of the need for authentic solidarity among women and more energized than ever to work for it.

I research religious ritual in contexts characterized by pluralism. The beauty and genius of public rituals – like a women’s march, for example – is that they create space for ambiguity. In the act of walking-with, standing-with, being-with, they can become sites of embodied encounters and unexpected relationships. They allow for the emergence of the unanticipated, the unexpected, the almost-impossible. So here’s my best hope for the Women’s March: that the coalition building can happen after the fact, recognizing in retrospect that for a short time we all stood and walked together for similar and different things but ultimately for a vision of the common good that begins with the smallest, the weakest, the most vulnerable.

Susan Reynolds is a PhD Candidate in Theology and Education at Boston College.


Faithful Discipleship: Beyond Resistance to President Trump

A few weeks ago, a CNN poll showed that 85% of Americans reported the country is more divided now than in recent years.  More than half said they are dissatisfied with the way democracy is working in our country.  January 20, 2017 will be a microcosm of our divided nation: millions of Americans will be celebrating today’s Inauguration of Donald Trump, cheering on his promise to “drain the swamp” in Washington, DC (which has been undermined by his Cabinet appointments) and vow to “make American great again” (whatever that means, given the fact that war, economic uncertainty, and rising social inequalities marked most of the 20th century).  Alternatively—and especially given his record low approval rating to start his presidency—millions more Americans will be lamenting today’s transfer of power.  After all, this is a man who has a habit of making outrageous, offensive, inflammatory, and patently false statements.  (His Politifact scorecard rates his claims as true only 4% of the time.)  He has insulted patriots and heroes including, most recently, Congressman John Lewis, a key leader in the Civil Rights movement. He has bragged about sexually assaulting women and being unfaithful to his marital vows.  He has disparaged countless individuals and groups, and in particular, people of color, immigrants, and Muslims, among others.  His tweets and offhand remarks have destabilized companies’ stock, raised questions about his willingness to deploy nuclear weapons, and threatened foreign relations and global security.  He has endorsed violence against protestors at his political rallies, earned the support of the KKK, and in the wake of his election, there have been more than 1,000 acts of hate or intimidation targeting minority groups.  His cabinet picks are not only controversial and extraordinarily wealthy, they are among the most inexperienced nominees in recent history.  His ties to Russia and the possibility of Russian interference in the election raise serious concerns.  He is not the successful businessman he claims to be and his philanthropy falls well short of what he boasts.  Although he professes to be a devout Christian and says the Bible is his favorite book, he had difficulty naming his favorite verse.  Even more troublingly (at least from a Christian standpoint), he’s never asked God for forgiveness—not even before he receives “my little wine” and “my little cracker” at communion.  There are pressing ethical questions about how he will divide his business interests from his political responsibilities, and Americans will be footing the sizable bill to protect his interests and security, including his properties around the globe. He has shown himself to be unpredictable if not unstable, possessing very thin skin and a penchant for bullying.  There is a litany of reasons why parents should be uncomfortable thinking of President Trump as a role model for their children and to feel dread about how to talk about his antics with their kids. It’s one thing to address the “divided states of America” in terms of political polarization; it’s another to confront the staggering anger, terror, and widespread despair so many Americans feel at the prospect of a Trump presidency.

We cannot accept any of the above to become the new “normal” for our country.

Some have suggested Trump won’t last long.  Others—including President Obama—insist that we should give Trump a chance.  A few have sagely noted that it is counterproductive if not dangerous to denounce Trump and scapegoat his supporters.  It is worth reflecting further on how Trump won the Catholic vote (despite his racist, misogynist, nativist, and Islamophobic record) and why Catholics should not expect Trump to deliver on his pro-life promises.  More to the point, it is imperative to identify what “faithful discipleship” should look like during a Trump presidency.

Faithful citizenship,” as the US Catholic Bishops write, is about informing consciences to defend the dignity of life and take responsibility for the common good as civically-engaged people of faith.  I use the phrase “faithful discipleship” as a reminder that Christians are called to be faithful to the Gospel (and to the person of Jesus Christ) before any other allegiance, including nationality or party affiliation.

In this regard, it may be helpful to remember that Jesus wrestled with an unjust social order and condemned abuses of power.  As John Pavlovitz writes, Jesus was a peacemaker with an activist heart.  He was a shepherd for the marginalized and oppressed, the nonpersons of his day.  But to the “wolves” who preyed on the socially insignificant of his day, Jesus “was the holy fury of an outraged God who refused to tolerate the mistreatment of those made in God’s image.”

This is the same outrage we hear in the prophets like Amos, Jeremiah, and Isaiah who warned:

“Woe to those who turn justice into wormwood and cast righteousness to the ground, they hate those who reprove at the gate and abhor those who speak with integrity; therefore, because you tax the destitute and exact from them levies of grain, though you have built houses of hewn stone, you shall not live in them; though you have planted choice vineyards, you shall not drink their wine.  Yes, I know how many are your crimes, how grievous your sins: oppressing the just, accepting bribes, turning away the needy at the gate …” (Amos 5:7-12).

God reveals God’s character and purpose throughout Scripture as taking the side of the poor, vulnerable, and oppressed.  As Bible scholar Fr. John Donahue, S.J., writes, “This concern for the defenseless in society is not a command designed simply to promote social harmony, but is rooted in the nature of Yahweh himself who is defender of the oppressed.”  (See, for example, Deuteronomy 10:18 and Psalm 103:6.)  This means “the knowing of Yahweh is taking the cause of the poor and the needy.  Here there is no division,” Donahue explains, “between faith and the doing of justice.  Justice is concrete.  It combines non-exploitation of the poor and taking their cause.  The doing of justice is not the application of religious faith, but its substance; without it, God remains unknown.”

In other words, Christians cannot be spectators in the political arena.  Neither can they leave those in Washington to do the work of politics.  It is the responsibility of every disciple—as individuals and as members of faith communities called by the Gospel and empowered by the Holy Spirit—to live a faith that does justice.  Otherwise we risk being complicit in an unjust social order that betrays who God is and what God wants.

The biblical vision of justice is one that overcomes self-interest to prioritize the needs of the most vulnerable members of society (this is the principle of the “preferential option for the poor” in Catholic social teaching).  The poor and needy are the very people Trump calls “losers” (among other insults, now numbered at least 289 times on Twitter).  Faithful discipleship requires resisting the kinds of political rhetoric and exercise of power that demonize, denigrate, and divide.  It demands that Christians cultivate the prayer life, prophetic imagination, courageous advocacy, inclusive dialogue and relationship-building, as well as community-organizing and collective action that delivers justice for the neediest members of our society.

I agree with Stephen Pope, who argues that this is “not the time for reconciliation.”  Pope writes:

“Jesus was clear that those who follow him should expect strife. When they stand in tension, fidelity is prior to reconciliation—and even its necessary condition. Forgiveness, reconciliation, and healing are central to the Gospel, but they are corrupted when not coordinated with fidelity, justice, and truth. All of us must be willing to support reasonable compromises that advance useful public policies, but only within the bounds of what is consistent with universal human dignity. We must try to understand everyone, but not turn a blind eye to bigotry. We must will the good to offenders, but not reconcile with unrepentant racists. Instead, we must struggle against injustice and those who promote or countenance it. As John Paul II insisted, wrongdoing “must be acknowledged and as far as possible corrected … [because an] essential requirement for forgiveness and reconciliation is justice.” We are light years away from justice.”

What does a commitment to justice look like with Trump as president?  I have alluded above to a five-point-plan that goes beyond resistance.  While I agree with Rev. Jim Wallis (founder of Sojourners) that resistance is patriotic and Christian, it may also exacerbate social divisions and political gridlock.  Prophetic leadership is most effective when it combines denunciation (of what should not be) with annunciation (of what should be).  Toward this end, our objective should be more than resisting Trump, the demagogue; we should be working to build the just social order that celebrates human dignity and fosters the common good.  (Mother Teresa might remind us, “God does not require that we be successful, only faithful.”)

I propose the following five steps for practicing fidelity to Jesus who is, as Donahue asserts, “the sacrament of God’s justice in the world.”

1. Cultivating prayer for shalom. Shalom, a word usually translated as “peace” is better understood as the wholeness and fullness of life in right, loving, and just relationship between God, humanity, and all creation.  This is God’s hope and it should be the end to which we order our deepest desires and heartfelt prayers.  The problem is, too often prayer is conceived as time spent bringing our problems to God in order to ask for God’s help to fix them.  Sometimes, we just want God to fix our problems for us.  (Notice how the prayer of the faithful are written at your parish; when we pray for the hungry, sick, poor, and those subject to violence, war, and ecological degradation, are we suggesting that these are God’s problems to solve or ours?)  The point of prayer is to commune with God and to be transformed in God’s love.  We pray not for God to change the world, but so we can be changed, as Fr. Richard Rohr describes.  The first step in faithful discipleship is to commit to a life of prayer, to grow in becoming “contemplatives in action” as St. Ignatius of Loyola saw it.  According to Jesuit priest Walter Burghardt, this process begins by taking “a long loving look at the real.”  By trying to see the world (including ourselves and others) as God does, we can see the good in us and around us as well as the divisions and wounds that need to be healed.  We pray so that we might act in fidelity to God’s hope for creation, to realize the “reign of God” at the core of Jesus’ teaching and healing ministry (which is shalom).

Dorothy Day is an exemplar of this commitment to being a “contemplative in action.”  Lauded by Pope Francis in his address to Congress in September 2015, Dorothy Day’s discipleship was dedicated to prayer and piety as much as a commitment to justice for the poor and nonviolence in our world.  Her life is a testament to the power of prayer and the personal responsibilities of a faith that does justice.  I imagine Dorothy with a rosary in one hand and a protest sign in the other.  In December 1948 she reflected, “I really only love God as much as I love the person I love the least.”  Dorothy Day prayed continuously to grow in love—love for God and love for those in need, and those hardest for her to love—knowing that love would give her the energy to humbly yet tirelessly commit to the work of justice in the world.  (She also relied on the sacramental life of her Catholic faith; she wrote “Without the sacraments of the church, I certainly do not think that I could go on.)  With Peter Maurin, she co-founded The Catholic Worker newspaper and dedicated her life to practicing the social mission of the church.  She was a staunch advocate for the poor, hungry, and homeless; the houses of hospitality she started in the 1930s now number over one hundred across the globe.  She opposed war and promoted nonviolence and called for a revolution of the heart to a greater love open to all—even enemies.  “If I have achieved anything in my life,” she once said, “it is because I have not been embarrassed to talk about God.” Dorothy reminds us what it means to be a “contemplative in action,” especially one shaped so deeply by love and justice.

2. Practicing prophetic imagination. It is easy to look at the state of the world, our political system, our cities and schools, and lose hope.  But hope—trust that God makes good on God’s promises—is what leads us into the future.  Hope fights the twin temptations of presumption (that God will take care of everything for us) and despair (that all is lost).  Hope is closely linked to the imagination: it expands what we imagine to be possible and refuses to domesticate or “fence in” the work of the Holy Spirit.  Hope generates creativity and advances freedom.  It helps us to better recognize and partner with God who is present and at work in the world.  Hope reminds us that we do not have to accept the world as it is; we can and should practice a prophetic imagination that explores what it would take to bring about the shalom God desires for all creation.

Walter Brueggemann is a theologian who specializes in the prophets of the Hebrew Bible.  He understands the prophetic tradition in terms of a “prophetic imagination,” which he envisions as closely related to poetry, the artful use of language meant to convey wisdom and impart courage.  The prophetic imagination creates conflict: from a critical distance, it critiques an unjust status quo and confronts those responsible for it.  But as mentioned above, this extends beyond denunciation to annunciation: the goal is not to carve out a contrary position as much as it is to effect change in social perspectives and policies.  Practicing a prophetic imagination constructs a visionary awareness of what is real and what more is possible.  It critiques the exercise of power that subdues, marginalizes, and causes suffering—that is, the structural evil the Catholic tradition calls “social sin.”  It provokes and interrogates, seeking to root out fear, complacency, and blind obedience.  As Brueggemann describes, the prophetic imagination is profoundly countercultural because it “dismantles the politics of oppression and exploitation by countering it with a politics of justice and compassion.”  It does more than resist or denounce the darkness in the world; it releases the energy of God who stands with those at the underside of empire in order to liberate those who are deprived freedom and equality.  The prophetic imagination calls forth wonder, awe, and appreciation in people to, as Brueggemann sees it, “engage the promise of newness that is at work in our history with God.”  In short, the prophetic imagination combats complacency and despair by reminding us to look for ways to practice hope, courage, and boundless creativity to nourish and sustain work to make new life and new forms of community possible.

3. Growing in advocacy. The sociologist Alan Wolfe has found that most Americans prefer what he calls “modest virtues.”  Basically that boils down to tolerance and non-judgmentalism.  (In fact, Wolfe opines that if Americans were to vote on adding an 11th Commandment, it would be “Thou Shalt Not Judge.”)  But the problem with tolerance is that merely tolerating the existence of others falls short of what is required to solve complex social problems (like sexism, racism, or poverty, for example).  A prophetic imagination generates hope, courage, and creativity and it needs to urge people beyond tolerance to take shape through social responsibility.  The way to do this is by growing in advocacy: developing the courage to show up and speak out against the structural evil and personal suffering caused by injustice.  It keeps us from saying, “Who am I to say or do anything about this?”  Our silence will not save others and it will not save ourselves (as Martin Niemöller famously alluded).

Martin Luther King, Jr. is one of the best examples we have of a Christian disciple who took his citizenship seriously enough to become an advocate for the dignity and rights of his fellow citizens.  Indeed, it is difficult to imagine another non-president who has effected the same measure of change to our American democracy.  Even though King had his fair share of moral shortcomings, his example reminds us that moral heroes need not be flawless individuals (which, of course, would be impossible, given the reality of sin).  It is also easy to romanticize King and forget the struggles he faced.  In 1966, 72% of Americans had an unfavorable view of King (which changed dramatically by 1987, when 76% reported a favorable view).  Even though opposition to King was related to his stance against the Vietnam War, King wasn’t always the popular figure we imagine today.  In fact, some claim that only 13% of black churches supported King during his work for the Poor People’s Campaign.  This is worth mentioning not to discredit King, but to pay tribute to his courage and resilience in the face of such little support.

To grow in advocacy like King requires that people who are comfortable risk becoming uncomfortable for the sake of love and justice.  In his “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” he laments the laxity of the church.  He explains, “Yes, I see the church as the body of Christ.  But, oh!  How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists” and continues, “So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound.  So often it is an archdefender of the status quo.  Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent—and often even vocal—sanction of things as they are.”

As true as this might have been in 1963, this critique is eerily prescient for today. 40% of Americans say churches contribute “not much” or “nothing” to solving important social problems.  The US Catholic Church has been mostly quiet about Trump’s shameful behavior; Archbishop Kurtz congratulated Trump for his victory and said the USCCB looks forward to working with him as president.  In the face of increasing inequality in our country, growing racial tension, police shootings of unarmed black men and women, and other troubling trends, US bishops have been largely silent. (The USCCB’s last statement on racism was in 1979.)

King urged Christians to shirk the label of “moderate” to be “extremists for love” just as Jesus was (Luke 6:35).  He called on disciples to be “creatively maladjusted” to a country marked by sinful social structures that exclude and oppress.  To be an advocate is to use one’s voice to disrupt an unjust status quo, combat complacency and despair, and encourage folks to continue to be resilient in the pursuit of shalom.  He insisted that we are measured by where we stand not in moments of comfort or convenience, but challenge and controversy.  He reminded us “silence is betrayal” (and also: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter”).  We all have a voice; the question is whether and how we use it to promote love and justice for all.

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4. Initiating inclusive dialogue and relationships. Much has been made of fake news and the ideological echo chambers created by social media.  We may have a preference to associate and interact with people who look like us, think like us, and act like us, but this fails to reflect the complexity and diversity of reality.  No one possesses the fullness of truth; no one is free from blind spots or biases (which need to be filled in and corrected).  It is impossible to cultivate empathy, understanding, or a shared commitment to the common good if we don’t first grow into the “culture of encounter” Pope Francis has been championing throughout his papacy.  A “culture of encounter” requires that we step outside of our comfort zone, welcome the “other” and listen to what that other has to teach us.

A prime exemplar of this practice is Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk also highlighted in Pope Francis’ address to Congress in September 2015.  Merton was deeply committed to peace and interfaith understanding and echoed many of the concerns raised by Martin Luther King, Jr.  Merton wrote “Letters to a White Liberal” in response to King’s “Letter from Birmingham City Jail” in 1963, in which he called for white atonement to acknowledge the unmerited privilege white people enjoy in American society as well as commitment to reform the systems and structures that create such unjust inequalities across the color line.  In addition to his commitment to racial reconciliation, Merton also prioritized interreligious dialogue.  In particular, he fostered a close relationship with the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh (even though they met only once, in 1966), whom he called “my brother.”  It is remarkable that Pope Francis lifted up Merton as an example during his visit to the US, given that Merton was often dismissed by his contemporaries as “too radical.”

Perhaps the pope lifted up Merton’s example of inclusive welcome, free and open inquiry, and engagement with pluralism and diversity because it remains a much-needed standard for Christian discipleship today.  In a socio-cultural context marked by ideological differences and divides based on class, race, and creed, Merton’s reverence for the natural world, the uniqueness of each individual, and an incarnational spirituality that fosters global solidarity challenges us to be ever more inclusive with our conversation partners and collaborators.  There is so much to learn and appreciate; faithful discipleship implies a willingness to go to the frontiers (as Pope Francis described his own aspirations) and to go beyond what is already familiar, comfortable, and similar.  This means expanding our social circles, making friendships across boundaries that divide, and listening to voices that speak from perspectives different from our own.  Put simply, it means being better about listening to others (especially those we might consider to be “other”), casting a wider net in whom we follow (and what we share) online, and forging partnerships and coalitions that defend human dignity and promote the common good.

5. Participating in community organizing and collective action. In the face of so many people who feel helpless and powerless, faithful discipleship requires that we exercise agency in meaningful and effective ways.  In Catholic social teaching, the principle of subsidiarity instructs that we take action at the lowest effective level.  This means exercising our rights and responsibilities and not waiting for our elected officials to effect the change we hope to see (even though one-third of Congress is Catholic and this would seem a peak opportunity to bring Catholic social teaching to bear on our national policies).  Faithful discipleship is, at bottom, about right, loving, and just relationships; this relational anthropology reminds us that not only do we belong to each other, but we are accountable to each other.  Community organizing and collective action can provide “structures of grace” that confront, resist, and transform the structural evils waged by personal and social sin.  Faithful discipleship implies having some “skin in the game” and not just being a bystander who observes, judges, or resists what many believe to be a broken political system.  If the system is indeed not just flawed but broken, it will be necessary for more Christians (and others of good will with similar aims to advance human dignity and the common good) to go from spectators to participants in the political system, just as President Obama urged in his farewell speech in Chicago.  President Obama insisted:

“For all our outward differences, we, in fact, all share the same proud title, the most important office in a democracy: Citizen … that’s what our democracy demands.  It needs you.  Not just when there’s an election, not just when your own narrow interest is at stake, but over the full span of a lifetime … If something needs fixing, then lace up your shoes and do some organizing.  If you’re disappointed by your elected officials, grab a clipboard, get some signatures, and run for office yourself.  Show up.  Dive in.  Stay at it.”

An exemplar for this practice of faithful discipleship is Cesar Chavez.  Chavez is perhaps best known for his organizing work with Mexican Americans, Filipino Americans, and later the United Farm Workers, the first successful farm worker union in US history.  Chavez was inspired—both in faith and organizing—by Fr. Donald McDonnell, who encouraged his work to defend human rights and the dignity of labor.  Also motivated by the examples of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Chavez embraced nonviolence, leveraged the power of strikes and boycotts, and delivered protections for farm workers who previously had no real power in the produce industry.  Chavez brings to life a form of liberating theology that has its roots in Pope Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical Rerum Novarum, which reads, “Everyone’s first duty is to protect the workers from the greed of speculators who use human beings as instruments to provide themselves with money.”  In explaining the strikes and boycotts he organized, Chavez observed, “The fight is never about grapes or lettuce. It is always about people.”

Chavez was committed to grassroots organizing as a form of cultivating a sense of belonging, of fellowship, and solidarity.  He also recognized it as necessary to effect social change.  Social change is a process that follows collective movement by creating momentum; Chavez contends, “Once social change begins, it cannot be reversed.  You cannot uneducate a person who has learned to read.  You cannot humiliate the person who feels pride.  You cannot oppress the people who are not afraid anymore.  We have seen the future, and the future is ours.”

Community organizing is the rent we pay for this future.  Collective action is the down payment we owe to have some “skin in the game.”  We are stronger together, which means that whatever the cause that is close to our hearts—whether combating racism, mass incarceration, immigration, human trafficking, child abuse and neglect, mental illness, sexual assault, domestic violence, hunger, homelessness, violence and war, capital punishment, environmental degradation, the dignity of life in all forms, or poverty in all its intersecting issues, in the US and globally among so many other issues—there are countless responsible and effective organizations that will help you get involved.   There’s even a “shy person’s guide to advocacy” to equip and empower the most timid among us.  As Chavez would often chant: “Si se puede!” Together, we can.

St. Augustine wrote, “Hope has two beautiful daughters; their names are Anger and Courage.  Anger at the way things are, and Courage to see that they do not remain as they are.”  Anger is often directed at a perceived injustice.  There are faith leaders marshaling that anger and leading resistance (see, for example, the “100 Days of Justice” organized by Faith in Public Life).  But as anger might fade or give way to weariness, I would argue that what we need now more than ever is courage.  The virtue of courage eschews the twin extremes of cowardice and brazen foolishness; with prudence it seeks to do what is good, right, true, and just even when it is risky.  Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer would remind us that there is no “cheap grace” in faithful discipleship, only the costly grace that delivers us through suffering to joy when we share life in Christ.  Faithful discipleship always implies some risk and this is certainly no time to run from it.

These five practices—cultivating prayer for shalom, practicing prophetic imagination, growing in advocacy, initiating inclusive dialogue and relationships, and participating in community organizing and collective action—are concrete avenues to be faithful to the demands of discipleship.  As we enter the era of President Trump, the world needs our witness to these shared beliefs, values, habits, relationships, practices, responsibility and accountability.  God is calling and empowering us to share in and spread the shalom that reflects who God is and what God wants for all creation.  It is up to us to be faithful to this call by doing what we can wherever we are—as disciples, as churches, as citizens, as a country.  If the country is divided, if our leaders are bigoted, dishonest, or corrupt, if apathy and anger have taken control, then we must roll up our sleeves and get to work.

We are the ones we have been waiting for.


Millennial of the Year 2016: Nadia Murad


For her commitment to justice for the victims of genocide, mass atrocities, sexual violence, and human trafficking, along with her calls for action to protect the innocent from ISIS, our 2016 Millennial of the Year is Nadia Murad.

A Yazidi, living in Iraq at the time, Nadia was kidnapped and enslaved by ISIS in 2014. Her mother and six brothers were killed. Nadia managed to escape. Since that time, she has become a champion of the Yazidi people and human rights. Nadia has been named Goodwill Ambassador for the Dignity of Survivors of Human Trafficking by the UN and started an organization to help “women and children victimized by genocide, mass atrocities, and human trafficking heal and re-build their lives and communities.”

This is her message:

Being a survivor of genocide comes with great responsibility –for I am the lucky one. Having lost my brothers, mother and many more family members and friends it is a responsibility I embrace fully and take very seriously.  My role as an activist is not just about my suffering—it is about a collective suffering. Telling my story and reliving the horrors I encountered is no easy task, but the world must know. The world must feel a moral responsibility to act and if my story can influence world leaders to act then it must be told.

After the Holocaust, the world decried, “never again” but yet Genocide occurs with haunting frequency.  What’s puzzling to me is that it occurs in full view of the world community.  When ISIS trapped the Yazidi community on Sinjar Mountains, the world watched and world leaders chose not to act.  In fact, we still find ourselves begging the United Nations to act – to stop ISIS – to hold ISIS accountable for all the horrific crimes committed. A fundamental goal for me is to fight impunity for crimes committed against all margined communities devastated by global terrorism.

I am committed to leading a campaign to prompt peace through de-radicalization. I will focus my power to deliver a message to the Muslim world to condemn extremism, particularly against children and women, carried out in the name of Islam.  We must work together to counter terrorism and deter the youth  from joining or supporting radical groups and united to teach all youth the importance of tolerance towards the beliefs of others.

Recent terrorism brought sufferings beyond our any understanding, and women and children have become the population mostly affected, notable, human trafficking and mass  enslavement have become a tool used by terrorists to humiliate societies and humanity at large, I am committed to fight human trafficking and mass enslavement.

We cannot depend solely on the actions of the United Nations and world leaders.  Individuals can contribute to the fight as well.  If we all do our small part, in every corner of the world, I believe we can end genocide and mass atrocities against women and children.  If we have the courage to stand up and fight for those we don’t know – who live thousands of miles away – we can make a difference.   The world is one community and we need to act as such.

I ask you as a survivor and a friend, to join my Initiative and help all victims in the conflict zones, especially those targeted for their identify.  ISIS must be stopped.  Please contribute to this important cause, for we all humans that deserve to live peacefully.

In defending the Responsibility to Protect, universal human rights, religious freedom, and the rights and dignity of women and children, Nadia has championed principles that are critical to progressing toward the global common good. Her honesty and courage are a testament to her character. For these reasons, we are proud to announce that she is our 2016 Millennial of the Year.


A Humble, Transformative Life Remembered

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This past week I buried my father-in-law. It was a hard week but also beautiful, and it reaffirmed my conviction about what I had written a few days before.

In a Christmas Day post, I recollected how throughout history God has used seemingly insignificant people and events to bring about the most wondrous transformations–liberation from powerful oppressors, smashing social barriers, redeeming a lost humanity. I suggested that this should give us hope and encourage us to work for the transformation of our society, even in a time when a vitriolic political climate and boiling racial tensions make things seem hopeless.

The life and legacy my father-in-law has left behind stands as proof that such hope is not pie-in-sky, that meaningful change is really possible in the modern world. Denis Bouffard was not a major political player. He did not have a fortune to throw at global problems like malaria or water scarcity as might a Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg. He did not even have an especially big personality. His demeanor, like his stature, was humble. And yet, to quote the words spoken by his son in his eulogy, “Who knew a size 8½ could leave such a big footprint?”

From almost the moment his wake began, the line was out the door. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 900 people waited an hour in line–including a time outside in the freezing cold–to pay their last respects. Former students, fellow volunteers, and droves of friends and family all filed through. People drove for hours and flew in from around the country. Messages and prayers poured in from places as distant as Ireland, Ukraine, and Australia. Why all this for a former high school religion teacher and part-time wedding photographer?

The reasons for the large showing became apparent as people approached the family to offer their condolences. Many former students spoke of the love and respect Mr. Bouffard showed them, even when they were not at their best. A family who had struggled to find housing spoke of his (and his wife’s) compassion and hospitality in opening their home to them. His children spoke of his persistence in hope in the face of tragedy, sickness, and death, with which his family was unfortunately well-acquainted. None of these virtues is the stuff of headlines or viral sensations. Yet it was abundantly clear to anyone in (or outside) the funeral home that night that this man had, little by little, transformed a community.

The next day when everyone gathered for the funeral service in St. Gregory the Great Church where Denis had worn the kneelers down over years of faithful prayer, the presider, a friend of more than 40 years, shed light on the secret of this humble man’s surprisingly transformative life. Denis Bouffard, through a lifetime of modest gestures, was able to make an inestimable impact upon countless lives because he always sought first and foremost to serve God. If he was remarkable in any sense, it is that he seemed so utterly unconcerned with promoting himself or tending his own ego. In that respect, he was much like Saint André Bessette, a modern saint to whom Denis had a special devotion. Saint André was a brother of the Congregation of Holy Cross who, because of his lack of education and professional skills, worked as a porter for 40 years. Yet in spite of his humble origins and position, he became known as the “miracle man of Montreal” for the many healings he worked through the invocation of St. Joseph for those who came to him. Shortly after Denis’s death, another Holy Cross priest-friend remarked that Saint André would surely be there to open the door when his devotee approached the pearly gates.

Denis’s death, like most of his life, was not glamorous. (He fell down the stairs while removing the baby gate he had put up to safeguard his grandchildren during their holiday visits.) But there is something fitting about his time on earth ending in this way, for he devoted so much of his life to caring for and opening the door to others. This is true in both a literal and spiritual sense. Through innumerable acts and kindnesses that most would consider hardly worth mentioning, he opened to the door to God for countless people.

Few people would look at the details of Denis’s life and think this is the stuff that heroes are made of. But he is a hero to me, and I would argue that he is exactly the kind of hero this world needs. I work in a profession where I am constantly tempted and even encouraged to promote myself and amass awards and recognition. It seems to me that this is largely true of our culture as a whole, which tends to reward efficient and ostentatious performance over efforts for deep, meaningful change. However, when we look back at the history of God’s dealings with humanity, we see that salvation does not come at the hands of the proud and the strong. God prefers to work not through people who would make themselves great but rather through those who humbly serve God and neighbor. We Christians call these people saints, and Denis Bouffard is surely one of them.


How Should We Respond to the Age of Fake News?

The means of communication are the builders of a society. In and of themselves, they are made to build, to interchange, to fraternize, to make us think, to educate.Pope Francis

I don’t know if you heard, but prior to the 2016 presidential election, Pope Francis endorsed Donald Trump. Citing the FBI’s refusal to prosecute Hillary Clinton, the statement from Pope Francis concludes with: “For this primary reason I ask, not as the Holy Father, but as a concerned citizen of the world that Americans vote for Donald Trump for President of the United States.”

This endorsement was certainly a surprise, as Pope Francis and Donald Trump infamously clashed over immigration prior to the election.

Of course, the thing is, the above endorsement is actually fake. But that didn’t stop it from spreading like wildfire across social media. In fact, just one website’s post on this fake story (and there were numerous copycats) received nearly a million engagements on Facebook. If one searched the story on Twitter, one would quickly see how countless Trump supporters, some of whom have tens thousands of followers, shared the fake endorsement with followers.

We will likely never know if the hundreds of thousands of people who shared this fake endorsement on Facebook, Twitter, and other social media outlets willingly knew the story was fake or if they purposely spread this fake story to incite confusion among Catholics and generate more votes for their favored candidate.

Truth be told, the common impulse to exclusively blame Russia and other creators of fake news is an easy out. The real danger our Republic faces doesn’t just come from the outside but from within.

In January, when Pope Francis met with Apple CEO Tim Cook, Pope Francis correctly stated, “It is not technology which determines whether or not communication is authentic, but rather the human heart and our capacity to use wisely the means at our disposal.”

People tend to forget the internet is simply a tool. Our minds, on the other hand, require the proper use of this tool, if we are going to develop our prudence and understanding of complex social and political issues. The pursuit of truth requires a willingness to put in the effort to discern what information is legitimate and useful versus that which is dishonest and distorted.

In a recent interview, Pope Francis said the media has a great responsibility to not spread disinformation. The problem is that traditional media outlets are now competing with both legitimate and irresponsible media sites that are products of the internet age. More than half of those between the ages of 18 and 49 get their news primarily through the internet. And it is increasingly clear that many are struggling to differentiate legitimate and illegitimate sources, either due to ignorance or indifference. When fake news is increasingly dominating the internet and outpacing traditional news outlets in engagement, the problems with this new reality are obvious.

But it is not just a technology problem. Fake news and the confusion it spreads are symptoms of a far more severe problem. America’s basic understanding of how our government works and the political realities we are facing as a country are eroding.

A poll conducted by the Civics Renewal Network in 2014 found that fewer than a third of the respondents could name all three branches of the US government and only a quarter knew it takes two-thirds of both houses of Congress to override a presidential veto.

Not knowing or understanding the structure or mechanics of government is one thing, but when it relates to policy issues, the level of misunderstanding is perhaps even more worrisome. This is especially true when uniformed citizens cast a vote based on serious policy issues without any factual understanding of the issues whatsoever.

This is true of both domestic and foreign policy issues. To name just one example, in 2013 a poll conducted by Public Policy Polling found that while 41% of Republicans felt Benghazi was the biggest political scandal in American history, 39% of couldn’t find it on a map. If you don’t know in which country the supposed biggest scandal in American history took place, perhaps some level of humility would be in order. But bravado and reckless claims are far more common. Can the Republic remain healthy with so many acting this way?

Perhaps the most effective long-term way to combat fake news and the disinformation it spreads is to heavily invest in civic education. Schools are already teaching K-12 students how to use the computer and internet. Now may be the time to update educational standards on civics as well, along with the intersection of civics and technology. Instead of trying to memorize names and dates year after year, as if historical and political events were equations or theories, the youth of America should be openly debating each other in the classroom and taking time to gather credible sources of information to back up such debates.

If nothing is done, our Republic may fatally succumb to the ignorance and irresponsibility promoted in the darkest corners of the internet. Let’s commit to being more careful consumers of internet content. Let’s encourage the people we know to do the same and helpfully correct them when they stumble. And let’s prepare a new generation of American citizens with the skills to be responsible citizens in the age of fake news.

Stephen Seufert is the state director of Keystone Catholics, an online social justice organization dedicated to promoting the common good.