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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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.

 

 

FOMO Foments Prejudice

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Social Media GraphicsMy kids use a lot of texting abbreviations that it has taken me a while to figure out. One of them is FOMO: fear of missing out. In the social life of young people, fear of missing out is what keeps them tied to their smartphones, scrolling through Instagram to see what their peers are doing at any given moment.

But FOMO is also a dangerous human tendency. In times of economic insecurity, people worry that they won’t get their share of resources. Often they project their lack on others they perceive as taking what is rightfully theirs.

Donald Trump has exploited this insecurity by pitting Americans against Hispanic immigrants coming across the border “to get our jobs.” He has increasingly favored protectionist trade policies because he perceives other countries – particularly Mexico, Canada, and China – as having taken unfair advantage of America. And these policies have effects. Yesterday the Dow plummeted in the face of China’s retaliatory trade tariffs.

Throughout the history of the United States, particular racial, ethnic, or religious groups were used as scapegoats for citizens’ insecurities and fears about not having enough. Many of us have ancestors of Italian, Irish, German, or Polish descent who recounted stories of discrimination and hatred when they began arriving on the shores of America. Japanese and Chinese immigrants faced even worse persecution, as did blacks whose ancestors were slaves and those who immigrated more recently from the African continent and the Caribbean.

Sadly, the human condition has not changed much over the centuries. Nowadays, people of Middle Eastern descent, especially Muslims, are targets of hatred and fear for many Americans. Jews are still being targeted for hate crimes and stereotyped as money hungry connivers who are trying to take over all aspects of American commerce. Even “model minorities” from East Asia, such as Koreans, Chinese, and Indians, are being met more and more with resistance on the part of Americans who feel they are making too many inroads into our prosperous society.

A case in point is the story of a bus company in Champaign, Illinois, called Suburban Express. Suburban Express conveyed students to and from the University of Illinois campus for years. However, in recent years, the company came under fire for discriminatory advertising and business practices. For instance, the company sent out an email ad that promised, “Passengers like you. You won’t feel like you’re in China when you’re on our buses.” Furthermore, according to the Champaign News Gazette,

Suburban Express allegedly denied credit cards from ZIP codes with high Jewish populations, instructed employees to avoid handing out coupons to certain students who appeared not to speak English well and recorded a YouTube video in a UI dorm while complaining about the lack of English speakers and mocking Asian accents by saying “No Engrish.” (“Suburban Express Shuts Down,” News Gazette, May 7, 2019)

Suburban Express ceased operations after it was sued by the Illinois Attorney General, and a consent decree cost the company $100,000. The unrepentant owner declared he was shutting down because running the business wasn’t fun any more. I guess it’s no fun if you can’t publicly mock minorities.

As the mother of a Chinese American daughter, this attitude sickens me. Even before the blatantly racist actions of the bus company came to light, I would sometimes hear complaints from friends and acquaintances about the large numbers of Chinese nationals attending the University of Illinois. They seemed to feel that the Chinese students were making it harder for their own children to gain access to the state’s premier public university.

I don’t think it’s racist to argue about how many out of state students should be allowed to attend a university partly subsidized by the taxpayers of that state. In fact, about a decade ago, Illinois residents decried a dramatic increase in out of state acceptances, and the university backed down, keeping the numbers of Illinois residents attending U of I at a large majority.

However, I can’t help feeling that this animosity toward Asian-born students in particular is tinged with racism. I doubt there would be much hue and cry if German or Swedish nationals started descending on the Illinois university system in large numbers. Because Asians are so readily identifiable and less likely to speak mellifluous English, they are unfairly singled out for scorn and discrimination.

Our society is stronger when we welcome and accept people of all different persuasions. Instead of looking for scapegoats for our societal ills, we should be addressing issues such as underemployment and unequal education head on. Let’s not use our FOMO as an excuse to deny the humanity and dignity of others.

In Your Easter Bonnet

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Yesterday at Easter Sunday Mass, I saw something I hadn’t seen in a long time: Easter bonnets! As a female growing up Catholic in the 60s, I was well aware of the requirement that all girls and women cover their heads when entering the church. We girls wore small circlets of lace called chapel veils while some women wore long, flowing mantillas, a Spanish veil. In a pinch, my sisters were known to bobby pin a piece of Kleenex to the tops of their heads!

But at Easter, we got a brand new hat to wear with the pastel Easter dress my mother had sewn each of us girls. I loved my “Easter bonnets” and, remembering them from my own childhood, bought them for my own daughters when they were little. But over the years, wearing hats to Mass has become uncommon. The Catholic stricture for women to cover their heads was removed in 1983. No doubt the chapel veil and mantilla manufacturers cried.

So I was delighted yesterday to see several young girls sporting wide-brimmed white straw hats to complement their Easter dresses. But the piece de resistance was the mother of two bonneted girls, who walked into church sporting a large pink confection that would be perfect for Ascot or the Kentucky Derby. They sat in a pew next to us, and I dubbed them the best dressed family at Easter Sunday Mass.

I realize that hat wearing is still common at some other Christian churches. And Orthodox Jewish women wear hats to synagogue. But for the most part, decorative, fanciful hats for women are a thing of the past. I can’t say I’m all that sorry. I don’t look good in hats and wear them primarily for warmth in winter – or occasionally to shield my face on a hot summer day.

But I do kind of miss the grandeur of the annual Easter bonnet. After all, it inspired a song by the great Irving Berlin. Maybe the bonneted ladies at Mass are starting a trend. Maybe next year I’ll brave it and wear a fanciful hat myself.

Notre Dame, Notre Coeur, Notre Ame

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556629-istock-852755038_primaryThe sight of the venerable Parisian cathedral Notre Dame on fire filled onlookers around the world with horror and sorrow. Unlike most of the disasters that make news worldwide, this one thankfully involved no loss of life. And yet the dismay so many of us felt on Monday as centuries-old treasures of art, architecture, and religion threatened to go up in flames was only too real.

Across the Seine, the crowd broke into spontaneous prayer and hymns as they watched smoke billow up from the spire of the medieval cathedral. To imagine a Paris without the iconic edifice complete with gargoyles and flying buttresses was, well, unthinkable. Notre Dame is one of the most visited landmarks in the world. Hundreds of people have been posting photos and memories of their own visits to Notre Dame since its very existence became imperiled Monday. The wealth of art and the breathtaking feat of engineering that has held up the 12th Century structure for so long are irresistible for art lovers, historians, and even casual tourists.

But Notre Dame is first and foremost a monument to the Catholic faith and the devotion of its followers who risked life and limb to build such a beautiful and imposing structure.  Catholics hold a special place in our hearts for Mary, “Our Lady.” No doubt many Catholics fervently begged Our Lady to intercede with Christ to save her namesake church.

I have nothing but admiration for the tireless efforts of firefighters to contain the blaze and limit the damage to Notre Dame. Much in the same way as the builders of Notre Dame in the Middle Ages, these courageous Parisians risked their lives to save a building. Luckily only one firefighter was injured while working to put out the flames. Still, I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of divine intervention in saving the venerable cathedral.

The fire at Notre Dame has brought public awareness to three other fires that occurred in the past two weeks at historically black churches in Louisiana. The fires were no accidents, however. They were incidents of arson, and a white man has been charged with hate crimes in connection with the destruction of the three historic places of worship. A Go Fund Me campaign has since raised $1 million for reconstruction.

All of this has occurred in the midst of the Lenten season and Holy Week, the preparatory 6 days before Easter, the Christian celebration of resurrection and new life. In the past few weeks the flames of hatred and destruction have raged. On Saturday night, the flame of the Easter Candle will be lit at churches all around the world to symbolize the return of the Light of the World, Jesus Christ.

The response to the fires in Louisiana and Paris, whether religious or secular, has shown that the human spirit will always rise up to champion goodness, beauty, and hope. A fitting message for the Easter season and the arrival (finally!) of spring.

 

Church and State

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In recent months, two high-profile Trump Administration officials have suggested that Trump’s presidency was ordained by God. In interviews with the Christian Broadcasting Network, both White House press secretary Sarah Sanders and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo suggested that God wanted Donald Trump to be president to further the faith-based causes in which Christians believe.

These kinds of statements are a disturbing intrusion of religion upon government in the U.S. While Sanders and Pompeo are entitled to their religious beliefs, the fact that they are at high levels of the U.S. government makes their comments inappropriate and indicates a willingness on the part of the Trump Administration to defy the Constitutional separation between church and state.

At the very beginning of his presidency, Donald Trump moved to ban people from Muslim countries from entering the United States. It was a transparent bone tossed to his base of white, anti-immigrant Americans. It was also a nod to the religious right that helped elect him despite his less than savory moral character.

Over the past few years he has named an unapologetically religious Secretary of Education who is determined to see private (read, “parochial”) schools get the benefit of U.S. tax dollars. He has praised statewide efforts to have the Bible be used in public schools.

The rhetoric of the Trump Administration has been heavy on condemnation for the persecution of Christians by ISIS in the Middle East. I agree that such persecution should be called out and even acted against wherever possible. But there has been no such outcry in this administration about the mass killings of Muslim Rohingya in Myanmar. I think it’s obvious why Trump has chosen to champion the rights of the former over the latter.

Members of the Christian right keep crying about their religious freedoms being trampled upon. If anything, the Trump Administration is working overtime to assure the ascendancy of Christianity over any other religion in the United States. This is the antithesis of what the First Amendment states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”

Many countries in the world are theocracies. There is one established religion, and if one practices any others, he or she risks prosecution, imprisonment, or even death. One of the reasons that religion thrives in America is that our right to practice our religion free from government interference has been enshrined in our Constitution. The separation between church and state is a fundamental principle that is being flagrantly ignored by this administration.

It’s time people of all faiths – or no faith at all – stand up and demand that our leaders adhere to this basic freedom that makes our country great.

 

Self-Centered

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file-20171123-6020-aa3n9nThis week I have had dozens (if not hundreds) of negative and mean-spirited thoughts. I have had to stop myself from posting nasty comments on Facebook and sending scathing emails that might make myself feel better but also might hurt someone else. The only thing standing between me and this vitriol is a little book of reflections I’ve been reading each day of Lent.

Today’s reflection by Mary DeTurris Poust, a Catholic writer and employee in the Diocese of Albany, New York, was about “looking out for #1.” I think what’s at the heart of most negativity is an elevation of the self over others. We may not be technically selfish. That is, we may give generously to charity, take care of our families, and help friends in need. But at the heart of our lives, most human beings are self-centered. We simply have a hard time seeing things beyond how they relate to ourselves.

It’s not without good reason that a common sarcastic remark people make is, “It’s all about you.” It’s an effective chastisement to remind us that the world does not revolve around us. And it’s necessary because our human nature leans toward the self-involved. I guess part of this is an instinct for self-preservation. We find fault with things and people we feel might harm us or, at the very least, not do us good. We grasp at material things for ourselves for fear that we will be left without. Even our good deeds are sometimes an effort to bring honor or renown to ourselves.

Poust reflects, “What would it take to flip that, to soften our hearts and open our minds to the stunning fact that everyone – from our most beloved family member to our most despised enemy – is grappling with some deep-seated insecurities, issues, heartaches, and suffering?”

We can start where we are: in our own families and communities. Instead of lambasting our child for being irresponsible, we can find out what he/she needs to be better organized and prepared. Instead of diatribes on Facebook or Twitter, we can refrain from our need to have the last word. We can try to be happy instead of envious of friends whose fortunes seem to be greater than our own. We can treat cranky neighbors or even strangers with compassion, realizing that they might be in some physical or psychic pain.

I’m not going to lie. It’s not easy stepping outside of oneself and thinking of others first. We need guides and inspiration. For me, prayer and reflections by spiritual mentors are great reminders of how I should be living my daily life. And in the public domain (even on Facebook!), there are heartwarming stories of ordinary people making a difference in someone else’s life.

The greatest calling we have is to die to ourselves and spend our lives in service to others. That is the path toward true happiness in this life. That is the way to center ourselves rather than being self-centered.