Good Samaritan

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700446167Yesterday’s gospel reading at Mass was about the Good Samaritan. Most people know the story of the man lying by the side of the road, beaten and robbed, while the religious leaders of the day passed by without helping him. The Samaritan, a kind of outcast, was the only one who took pity on the victim and hastened to his aid.

There are many lessons to take away from this parable, but the one the priest focused on in his sermon was this: There is a difference between knowing the right answer and doing what is right – a difference between following the letter of the law and practicing compassion. The pastor’s sermon had special poignancy at a time when President Trump is stepping up deportations of illegal immigrants, detaining large numbers of migrants at the southern border, and failing to unite separated children from their families.

It’s true that there are millions of undocumented immigrants in the United States. Many Americans believe that accommodating these millions has become far too heavy a burden and that border enforcement needs to be increased. Donald Trump’s call for a wall separating the U.S. from Mexico became a rallying cry for these frustrations.

Border enforcement is one thing. Separating children from their parents and keeping unaccompanied children in inhumane detention centers is just wrong. Many border officers have voiced disquiet at the conditions these migrant children are living under and their role in enforcing President Trump’s policies. Like the Good Samaritan, they see that the fact something is legal does not necessarily make it right.

The priest and the Levite in Jesus’ parable are following the law as well. Ancient Jewish law prohibited them from exposing themselves to human blood. So in the strictest sense, they were following the rules. The Samaritan, whose mixed ancestry and religious practices made him anathema to the Jewish people, depended less on rules and regulations and more on his heart. There are times when compassion and love trump the law.

Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan in response to a lawyer’s question: “Who is my neighbor?” Like many lawyers, this man was trying to get Jesus to misspeak, to contradict the law of Moses and thus bring condemnation on himself. How often have human beings insisted upon following the letter of the law to the detriment of others?

I believe that if someone were to ask Jesus that question today, he would respond with a similar story that might involve our treatment of minorities, would-be immigrants, and other marginalized people.

Who is my neighbor? The one who needs my help, my compassion, and my love.

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More Than One Thing

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lastblackman1.0The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a quiet movie that is playing at only a handful of select theaters. Most critical reviews are focused on its treatment of San Francisco and the woes of long-time residents displaced by gentrification. But I took something else away from the film.

In a scene towards the end of the movie, the main character Jimmie Fails gets up to speak at a showing of his best friend’s improvisational play that has turned into a de facto memorial service for a neighbor recently shot dead. In describing his complicated relationship with the man, Kofi, Jimmie says, “Everybody is not just one thing.” That line stayed with me long after the movie ended.

Everybody is not just one thing. We tend to categorize people and judge them by superficial characteristics: looks, clothing, manner, speech. In Last Black Man, a group of young men in the neighborhood stand around swearing and insulting each other, pushing each other around, acting the tough guy. But when Kofi dies, the most belligerent of the group collapses into the arms of the very same man (Jimmie’s best friend) whom he has relentlessly mocked in the past.

In our increasingly polarized society, we need to remember that people are complex. Take Donald Trump, for instance. I myself have had very little good to say about our current president. And I don’t feel like he’s a good man. But I do not know Donald Trump personally. He may be a loving husband and father. He may be a good friend. His public persona is not the whole of Mr. Trump or of any of us. So it would behoove us to think carefully about labeling and name calling and ascribing hateful titles to people, something that, ironically, Mr. Trump does on a regular basis.

We should also hesitate to paint all members of a group with the same broad brush, whether they be Wall Street bankers or migrants at our border.

All of us are afflicted with the same infuriating, confusing, and glorious infirmity: the human condition. The Last Black Man in San Francisco portrays this reality beautifully. There are no clear villains or heroes in the movie. Instead, we get an up close portrait of a friendship and of the life of two young men navigating the new realities of their beloved city and trying to find their own place in it.

Let’s remember that we are all many things and afford each other the respect deserved by all human beings.

Leaning Toward the Center

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Hell has officially frozen over. I agree with Tucker Carlson on something! On a recent show, Carlson read a quote detailing the idea that government action can and should make capitalism work for the American people. The source of the quote was not a fellow conservative, but presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren. Carlson went on to suggest that the current polarization in politics has made a sensible platform such as Warren’s untenable to either side.

I’ve written before about the virtues of moderation, and I truly believe the way out of our existing political stalemate is to elect officials from the center of the spectrum. A look at some contentious issues currently roiling the American electorate reveals just how centrism could help us find balance and promote real progress in American society.

The first of these is gun reform. Polls consistently show that the majority of Americans support background checks and closing loopholes to make sure guns are not in the hands of criminals and unstable individuals. Yet when running for office, politicians look to their rating with the NRA rather than consider what the people in their own districts actually want.

Another extremely divisive issue is abortion. While many object to legalizing any abortions on religious grounds, the majority of Americans support women’s right to choose while also insisting on some limits to that right, such as parental notification and curbs on late term abortions. Recent legislation in both red and blue states, however, has taken the issue to its ultimate extremes.

Immigration has become another hot button issue, mostly thanks to our current president and his ability to tap into people’s worst fears. That doesn’t mean our legislators can’t find common ground on humane and sensible ways to reform our immigration system, protecting our border while also helping our neighbors to the south who are grappling with poverty and extreme violence.

Compromise is not sexy. And it’s not always possible. There are issues of fundamental human rights that cannot really be compromised. But for most political issues, we can come together by leaning in toward the center and finding common ground. Let’s elect more centrist Democrats and Republicans to our local and nationwide offices and see how much can be accomplished in America.

Christian Wrong

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billboardThe other day driving in Michigan, I saw a billboard I’d seen many times before. Its message normally was, “Real Christians Obey Jesus’ Teachings.” But someone had covered up part of the sign with a white cloth and penned their own new message: “Real Christians Obey President Trump.”

First of all, let’s agree that our role as Americans is not to “obey” the President of the United States. In fact, he’s our employee. We’ve chosen him (God help us) to do the will of the people. But some Christians on the far right are trying to convince the rest of us that Donald Trump was chosen by God to do His will. That’s more than a little frightening.

There was a recent controversy about another billboard that appeared outside St. Louis. It showed Trump gesturing with his arms outstretched and featured the Biblical reference, “The Word Made Flesh,” along with the tagline “Make the Gospel Great Again.” The implication of the message was nothing short of blasphemy if you are a Christian. It implied that Trump was akin to Jesus, the Son of God.  After something of an uproar, the sign was removed. Good to know that in some instances cooler, more sane heads do prevail.

All of this is but part of a disturbing trend among Christian believers who are willing to suspend all rational thought, not to mention their own deeply cherished beliefs, to follow a man who has no history of devout Christianity and whose many actions could be viewed as the reverse of Christian values. I could just as easily cite Scripture to suggest Trump is the Anti-Christ, who, according to the Bible, is a false leader who will sway many to his side at the end times.

Christians everywhere, whether they support President Trump or not, should decry these attempts to portray the man as a God-ordained leader of the people. Interestingly, I have been studying the figure of King David in my local Bible study group. When the Israelites tell the high priest Samuel that they want to be like all the other nations and have a king, Samuel warns them what that will mean:

He will take your sons and assign them to his chariots and horses … He will make them do his plowing and harvesting and produce his weapons of war … He will use your daughters as perfumers, cooks, and bakers …He will take your best fields, vineyards, and olive groves … you will become his slaves. ((1 Samuel 8:11-18)

Samuel’s message is, be careful what you wish for.

America is a great democracy. We do not need a king to rule over us, and we should absolutely feel free to question anything and everything our political leaders do. Real Christians don’t sell their souls to further an agenda.

 

 

Our Own Worst Enemies

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There has been a recent cry for Facebook to be broken up. The social media giant has too much power, argue critics. Robert Mueller’s report about Russian influence on the 2016 presidential election shows how massive amounts of disinformation were spread to the millions of people who use Facebook.

I’m all for regulating companies whose business practices are predatory and monopolistic, and I can certainly see how the success of such Silicon Valley behemoths as Facebook, Google, and Amazon can pose a threat to free commerce. But one of the reasons Facebook users were so easily swayed by bogus and slanted stories during the election is that they wanted to believe those stories. Many of us live in the echo chambers of our own belief systems. Whether it be from Facebook, TV news, or newspapers, we seek out information that conforms to our worldview and disregard or hold with intense skepticism those stories that contradict our beliefs.

In short, we are our own worst enemies when it comes to digesting information.

I certainly think our national security apparatus should deal more vigorously with avoiding a repeat of Russian or any foreign interference into our next presidential election. That won’t happen, of course, because Russian interference benefited Donald Trump, and he sees no reason it won’t help him again. I think we are past the point where anyone really believes Trump’s motivations are anything but self-serving.

What we can do as Americans is learn to take in information and opinions in a more critical and thoughtful way. Trump’s and Republicans’ complaints notwithstanding, there are still reputable news organizations and journalists working tirelessly to publish factual information about politics, the economy, foreign policy etc. When we hear or read things that sound hard to believe, we need to question those stories. “Pizzagate” comes to mind. There are also numerous nonpartisan fact-checking organizations that can confirm or refute what we are hearing from our leaders.

As a teacher, I used to work on critical thinking skills with my students. They learned about fallacies of logic, how statistics can be manipulated, and how language can affect the message. We need to do a better job in our children’s schooling to raise thoughtful individuals who are willing to question their own assumptions and test the arguments they encounter in the public sphere.

Facebook may indeed have too much power. Fox News might in fact be little more than a mouthpiece for conservative viewpoints. But it is up to us, the American people, to take the time and effort to discern what is true and what we should view with skepticism. Only with thoughtful and informed citizens will our democracy be sustained.

 

 

Thoughts and Prayers (Part 2)

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54432764_10218769922861934_369198906342375424_n“What if we’ve been thinking and praying about mass shootings for decades and Jesus sent us an army of determined Moms in red shirts”
– @BobbyHoward63 on Twitter

The quote above refers to an activist group of intrepid women who form the organization Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. In recent years, the Moms in their bright red t-shirts have been seen all across the country in statehouses trying to get common sense gun legislation passed.

The mission of Moms is simple: Restrict gun ownership to law-abiding citizens by strengthening background checks and eliminating loopholes in gun laws. Demand the safe use and storage of guns so that children and other innocent people aren’t victims of accidental shootings. Create laws that get illegal guns off the the streets.

As part of a larger advocacy group called Everytown for Gun Safety, Moms Demand Action was a response to the tragic Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting that scarred the nation perhaps more than any other mass shooting in the past few decades. The thought that first graders can’t even be safe in the confines of their school got these moms on the march.

Over the past five years, this stalwart group of women has had many successes in the realm of gun safety. Everything from getting background check legislation passed to getting candidates favoring gun safety elected has been part of a slowly winning agenda. While there is still much work to be done, there is hope that America can gain control over the terrible scourge of gun violence in our country.

The Twitter quote above reminds me of a story about faith and action. A man’s home was being flooded, so he climbed to the roof and prayed for God to rescue him. After some time, a boat came by and offered to ferry the man out of danger. “No, God will save me,” he assured the would-be rescuer. A while later, a police helicopter hovered overhead and dropped a lifeline down for the man. “No, God will save me,” he said as he declined the rope. Eventually the floodwaters covered and drowned the man. When he got to Heaven, he demanded of God, “I prayed for you to rescue me. Why didn’t you?” God’s reply? “I sent you a boat and a helicopter! What more did you want?”

Sometimes we fall back on thoughts and prayers because we feel helpless and scared. We think meaningful change is out of our hands. The women of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America beg to disagree.

Don’t mess with the Moms!

Come Together

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(photo from Chicago Tribune)

On Tuesday night, there was cause for jubilation in my hometown. Voters finally approved a major referendum to fix and modernize our old, crumbling high schools. It was the third attempt in three years to raise funds for the purpose of bringing our highly ranked high schools into the 21st Century.

What made the difference on Tuesday was the sustained, enthusiastic, and concerted effort of hundreds of citizens in our school district. My next door neighbor spearheaded the “Yes” campaign, so I had a front row seat to all her organizing and mobilizing the troops: both to win hearts and minds to the cause and to motivate people to get out and vote in a spring election, when turnout has been historically low.

The campaign was a heartening lesson in community strength and power. At campaign events I attended, there was a spirit of fun and camaraderie. Through our success, we learned that we are strongest when we work together towards a common goal. And the glow of victory remains on the faces of people I see in town every day. It’s not just the satisfaction of winning; it’s the feeling of connectedness. Without a struggle to pass the referendum, I’m not sure we would have that sense of oneness today.

Elsewhere in Chicagoland and across the country, history was being made by people who have historically been at the margins of society. Chicago elected its first black female mayor, one who also happens to be openly gay. And she was not the only gay candidate to win an election that day. Since the election of Donald Trump in 2016, there has been a groundswell of activism that has resulted in the election of more women, gays, Muslims, and other minority candidates than ever before at the local, state, and federal levels. This may not seem like a big deal to the younger generation, but I remember when John F. Kennedy was considered a questionable candidate because he was Catholic!

The power of individuals coming together cannot be overestimated. Not only can people further the causes about which they feel passionate, but they can develop a sense of togetherness, a feeling that we can depend on each other and bring out the best in each other. That has certainly happened in my own small community. It gives me hope for the future.