Saturday, May 31, 2014

Threading the Moral Needle


Sometimes the news is simply more than one can bear.
Often it turns me to prayer.

What follows is a brief comment of mine in response to the widening and accelerating moral issue of our time.  Interestingly, the fault lines, at times, seem to transcend US political divides:  Libertarians and Tea Party folk are divided on the Right.  And God knows what divides us on the Left.  The latest characters in this Morality Play are:  Edward Snowden; John Kerry; and Daniel Ellsberg.  The setting of my comment, along with a link to it, is here, with due credit to the NYTimes for choosing it among their editorial picks:
This is the most interesting ethical dilemma of our lifetime. And it has been taken up by a young man with extraordinary courage, who to my mind (I'm getting very close to 70) has elucidated - correctly - the thorny issues involved in his decision and his actions.

To act ethically is not necessarily to act legally. This is very difficult for many to understand. Indeed, a state operates on the presumption that citizens will never question the law and simply obey it.

To question, to doubt, to act according to one's conscience, irregardless of the potential legal penalties, in the midst of competing moral claims, requires great forethought and enormous courage. Gandhi defied the laws of South Africa and India. Bonhoeffer plotted the overthrow of Hitler via a plot to bring about his death. Jesus was accused, in effect, of trying to overthrow Roman rule and an entire religion. Many saints have been accused of heresy, who later were hailed as mystics.

Edward Snowden stands within a proud tradition of individuals willing to sacrifice their own well-being for the sake of others. There is no higher calling. No greater risk. And we who sit here, typing comments comfortably at home or work, cannot pass judgment on someone willing to act according to his conscience - for such high ideals, ideals very similar (though you may disagree) to those which motivated the Declaration of Independence.

Like Gandhi, Bonhoeffer, Jesus and others, he has my highest admiration and respect.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Beware the subsequent remorse of a killer

Whether or not Pistorius is ultimately found guilty (of manslaughter or murder), he has already admitted responsibility for a killing, which he terms an accident, the shooting of his girlfriend in the dark, claiming he imagined she was an intruder.

The defense is apparently wanting us to believe that since Pistorius was observed to be broken and remorseful following her death, that somehow this means he is therefore innocent of any crime.

Well, here's a link to a form of therapy begun by a Montreal psychiatrist named Habib Davenloo.  I myself have attended multi-day workshops (many years ago) in which Davenloo showed tapes of his patients, some vividly imagining carrying out their feelings of murderous rage toward people they also loved, along with their subsequent emotional breakdowns during the therapy hour.

Were you to see these tapes, as I did, you would be convinced that someone could carry out a murder, whether planned or unplanned - even a brutal murder (albeit vividly imagined under the watchful eye of a master therapist, who had written permission to tape the entire short-term therapy) followed by an emotional scene of personal grief and sorrow.

"Worked through" therapeutically, such conflictual emotions of both rage and sorrow resulted in dramatic change in the personalities of the individuals treated by Davenloo.

But when someone actually carries out a killing, and there is no doubt that Pistorius intended to kill someone, and when a killing is done via bullets of the type he used, in rapid fire, using far more than the number needed to subdue an "intruder" (if such were the person), psychologists would view the event as signifying a great deal of rage.  Rage.  And psychologists would not be surprised at all were such rage to be followed by an equal amount of grief, including symptoms in particular of digestive upset (we have more neurons in our gut than in our brain) - an indicator of unconscious (buried) emotional conflict, as shown by Davenloo's extensive taped work with patients.

Now, I have no pipeline into what happened that night.  I am even willing to accord the young man forgiveness on a spiritual level (which does not mean I believe he should escape responsibility).  But the claim of the defense that remorse and psychological brokenness proves his innocence stands on very shaky ground.

Indeed, someone with Pistorius' type of personality would break down in the face of such a deed.  Once it was inevitable that it would be discovered, even a sociopath might break down, as they sometimes do when captured and cornered.  For the collapse of narcissism, once reality sets in (the sight of a dead and bloody body- no prayer of revival or undoing of the deed - along with the certainty of all this coming to light), well...  it speaks for itself:  A distraught young man.  Unable to keep food down when faced with the consequences of his actions.  Unable to find peace.  Yet combative over the temerity of anyone seeking to bring this deed - or any of his misdeeds - to justice.

All this is a sad case study to my mind.  Of emotional conflict.  In the hands of someone lacking in self-restraint.  (May God have mercy on his soul.)

Friday, April 25, 2014

Ship of fools: If oligarchs designed a ferry

Here's an analogy that came to me as I read both Krugman and Brooks on Piketty in today's New York Times:  If our current economy were a ferry or an ocean liner, what would it look like?

Above deck - lavish quarters for the very rich.  More and more decks - massive enough to accommodate assets comprising a greater and greater % of total weight - all above the water line.  Resulting in more weight atop and less below.

Middle class likely at water level - fearful of falling into the huddled masses in steerage.  Down where most of the cargo should be.  If sanity ruled.  Instead:
 Below deck ballast ever decreasing...
More and more cargo space siphoned away for decks above.
The ship of state becoming ONE very top-heavy vessel. 
Lifeboats? Well, the deserving rich would, of course, equip and own them. And the poor, the middle class? Let them build and store their own lifeboats.

Like the ferry that recently sank off South Korea, we're at such a tipping point.  Any storm or high waves, a sharp turn:   A capsize all but certain.

Certainly the rich would immediately take to their life boats. Maybe the middle class might somehow get above decks and be allowed into one or two.  (If any were still abreast the sinking ship.)

But the huddled masses, below decks?  Like below-deck victims trapped on the Korean ferry, they would likely drown before any made it to safety. And which of the wealthy, in any case, would allow them "room" in their rich-person's life boat?  Like the crew that left the ferry, they'd already be on their way.  But on their way to where?

For who would be left to actually rescue the rich?  Once they topple the ship?  All the servants going down with it?  (Their needs - and the need for them - long forgotten.)

This is what happened to many societies where the wealthy forgot:
We're all in this together.
Sanity alone should dictate the architecture of a seagoing vessel.  And a sea-going vessel is one of the best images I can think of for demonstrating how lop-sided is our economic structure.

Some cartoonist should do me the favor of putting my words into one picture.  Till then, we'll have to make do with this historical precedent:
Vasa was built top-heavy and had insufficient ballast. Despite an obvious lack of stability in port, she was allowed to set sail and foundered only a few minutes after she first encountered a wind stronger than a breeze.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

"Give Me your feet"

If there's one Gospel story that anyone can envision being part of, it's the Foot Washing scene from the thirteenth chapter of John.

Like so much else in John's Gospel, the foot-washing is an enigmatic story.  I've been pondering it for years. 

So let me set the scene.  The disciples are all gathered in an upper room.  Around the time of Passover - the saving event in the life of Israel - celebrated at a festive dinner with one's friends and relatives.

Now in three of the gospels, Jesus is recalled as initiating a sacred action during the meal, where he identifies himself with the sharing of bread and wine - a gift to be remembered and repeated for all time. 

But in John's Gospel, a different gift is offered.  As remembrance of divine action and presence.   

The Foot Washing.

As I said initially, anyone can imagine being part of it:

So here we are, having supper with a revered teacher.  Someone whose words and deeds set our hearts aflame (like the burning bush).  Someone who so completely identifies himself with Holy Mystery - that if we see him, he tells us, we also see his Father. 

And now our host at the banquet takes off his good clothes, wraps a towel around him (something only a slave or a servant would wear), fills a bowl with water, and slowly approaches each of us.  To wash our feet.

The command is implicit:  Remain seated.  Take off your shoes.  (We are suddenly on holy ground, before the Burning Bush.) 

"Give me your feet," the ritual asks of us.  Give me your vulnerability.  Entrust yourself completely to my care.   One cannot stand on one's feet and allow them to be washed - at the same time.  So we must give ourselves over.  One and all.  Even Judas.  And who among us can say we have never been a betrayer?  

"If you want to be part of the Mystery, you must permit this," Jesus tells Peter.  This complete reversal of societal expectations, of religious rituals.  To become as vulnerable as a child - being bathed, or fed, by its mother.  The center of divine attention.

But pride and self-sufficiency are hard to part with.  It was for Peter.  That, it seems to me, is what we are ultimately asked to give up.  And in so doing, to place ourselves in the hands of Ultimate Mystery. 

In the face of an unknown future, the mystery invites us to let go of our self-importance.  In blind trust, it would seem.  For a time of trial is upon us.  (And when in life is there never a trial upon us?)

I am reminded of words spoken by God to Joshua after the death of Moses.   In moment of great tension, suddenly left to lead a people (hard to govern) in a momentous task (to cross the Jordon - into an unknown future), Joshua is told not to fear.  To be strong and courageous, for "Every place that the sole of your foot will tread upon I have given to you...  As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will not fail you or forsake you."  

In the Holy Ground of our lives, we are not alone.  One thing is asked of us, as of Joshua:  To remember the Teachings - the gift already given.  To meditate on them day and night.  (Which links up nicely with Psalm 1, a wisdom psalm - where the Just One - likened to a tree planted by streams of water- drinks with "delight ... the law of the Lord, / and on his law ... meditates day and night.")

Sunday, March 16, 2014

This and That

I used to have trouble reading Matthew's Gospel, just like I used to have trouble with Paul.  I see now that my experience was always a true encounter - with Holy Presence, the Word, speaking directly to me.  And, like Adam and Eve after the Fall, I wanted to hide in the bushes, when Holy Mystery came calling.

But I'm coming to appreciate Matthew, more and more.  Coming to see the love and compassion behind what I formerly took as impossible standards laid out, particularly in the Sermon on the Mount.

I've been reading an interesting book of Sister Wendy's spiritual letters. Very enlightening.  From her (advice to others) I've learned to view my former problem with Matthew as true encounter - with a God who is both awesomely terrible and passionately seeking each of us.   Not that Sister Wendy knows anything about my specific problem, but she's helped me to see how problems are always a blessing.  How even as we look back and assess our lives, we must do so with great gratitude - putting everything into perspective in terms of a plan - mysterious and awesome - whose footprints are perhaps more visible in retrospect.  And an invitation to see this in everything now.  

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

So. Much. Love!

Here at the retirement community, it truly is a community.  No pressure really - to make community.  But a very open system.  A place of welcome.  Lots of smiles and cheerful greetings; you can't pass a person without one or the other or both.  Lots of small opportunities for friendly conversation.  Lots of humor.  And LOVE.  So much love!

I've come to the conclusion that two things are necessary in old age.  Love and a sense of humor.  They are here in abundance.

I can't speak for all retirement communities.  But here we've pretty quickly come to know a lot of people.  Quite a number in their 90's.  People who've led interesting lives.  Who read a lot.  Stay in touch with what's going on in the world.  Respect privacy:  Honestly nobody comes to your door or in any way disturbs your privacy when you're at home.  But outside the door...  totally different!

It is an understatement to say "we are happy here."  Joy!  Lots of joy.  It's been a good move.  A blessing!  Far more than we ever expected.

I read recently that Joy is an infallible sign of God's Presence. 

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Marx backs up Pope Francis

In a wonderful article, Beyond Capitalism, which I highly recommend, Reinhard Cardinal Marx, dives deeply into troubled waters, which have arisen in the wake of Pope Francis' recent apostolic exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel, which deserves even more careful reading, rereading, and reflection.

Cardinal Marx is one of the eight advisers, chosen by Francis, to assist him in charting course through what promise to be "interesting times" in the RCC (and beyond).  And what a grasp of the pitfalls of modern finance as an ideology embracing praise of greed!  What a  a tour de force attack on the idolatry of finance, where workers are viewed as mere instruments to capitalism, when capitalism (politics, etc.) should instead be subservient to a philosophy entailing the dignity of human persons.

What's most interesting to me about this article by Cardinal Marx is the window this affords into the way the Pope's apostolic exhortation is organized and the scope of his insistence that a new evangelism is needed.  It reminds me of John's Gospel, where after calling some disciples and changing water into wine, Jesus immediately proceeds to cleanse the Temple.  Francis, likewise, has called his committee of 8; and in substance and style he continues to give the world new wine, better wine, in place of no wine, moldy wine.  And now it's clear that Francis is not just aiming to cleanse the Temple of the Vatican and the Curia, to rid it of clerical opulence, greed, and bullying, but that he intends an evangelism that confronts society at large, castigating in particular oppressive social institutions and ideologies, such as the worldwide imperialism of economics - greed as an end in itself - via preaching the Good News in order to once again elevate the needs and worth of human persons, the obligation to care about your neighbor as a Temple and Image of your God.

I love this Pope!