Make Cocoa, Not War

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Record low temperatures in the Midwest are making it feel more like January 14 than November 15. It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas? With snow and ice on the ground, my big red parka pressed into service, and recent forays into shopping malls, I am getting the Christmas spirit early this year. I may even have to start listening to the “Holiday Lite,” a local radio station playing festive tunes 24/7.

Of course, along with the peppermint mochas and the jingle bells come the inevitable complaints about the “war on Christmas.” Despite the fact that no one has ever been attacked for saying “Merry Christmas” or wearing an ugly Christmas sweater, many will have to carp publicly about the near death of an entrenched and ubiquitous holiday that shows no signs of dying out.

What these people are really upset about are efforts in the public sphere to be more inclusive of others who don’t share the tradition of celebrating Christmas. Thus the removal of creches from the county courthouse and religious hymns from the public school music program. A certain portion of our populace insists that America was founded as a Christian nation and that attempts to remove religious symbols and customs from public places is the first step toward Hell in a hand basket. Conveniently left out of this argument, of course, is that pesky First Amendment with its anti-establishment clause.

Also ignored is one of the principles that makes our democracy shine: protection of minorities. We are only free to the extent that we respect the rights of each and every American. Besides, being inclusive of people with different beliefs and customs makes life more interesting and fun.

I’ll never forget the year I volunteered to help with the winter holiday party in my son’s second grade class. In an effort to include different holiday traditions, we were having a Hanukkah station where kids learned to play the dreidel game. I was assigned to prepare and run the dreidel station, but I had no idea what to do. There was a single Jewish child in my son’s class, and the boys happened to be friends. So I called Jack’s mother and asked for her help with the dreidel game. She replied with a laugh, “I’d be happy to help. But I’m Muslim, so I don’t know anything about the game either!”

Life in the great melting pot of America is more colorful when we embrace each other’s language, foods, customs, and celebrations. That doesn’t in any way diminish our enjoyment of our own.

So by all means, wish anyone you’d like a “Merry Christmas.” I’m pretty sure that’s not an endangered expression. Meanwhile, baby, it’s cold outside!

 

Retire the Prosperity Gospel

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Sunday seems a good day on which to reflect upon matters of faith, especially when the local paper reports that Donald Trump has invited televangelist Paula White to become a member of his administration. White is a proponent of the so-called prosperity gospel, a disturbing interpretation of the Bible that insists God rewards true believers with material wealth and even good health. The prosperity gospel is especially popular in the televangelism arena because it helps the Joel Osteens of the world get rich on the backs of people desperate for hope and relief from their own difficulties.

Mainstream Christians reject the tenets of this belief system. It is absurdly in conflict with a suffering savior who died on the cross for our sins, who emptied himself and became a servant in order to save our souls.

Today’s gospel at Mass concerned the diminutive tax collector Zacchaeus. Inspired by Jesus singling him out on his visit to the town of Jericho, Zacchaeus declares, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” (Luke 19:8) In other words, salvation does not come to believers when they amass great wealth by exploiting others. It comes when they give freely of themselves, imitating the life and mission of Christ.

Evangelical leaders like Osteen and White cherry pick verses from the Bible to shore up their own grasping ambitions. And it’s not hard to see why the grasping, greedy Trump would find this “gospel” appealing. What bothers me is that there has been no objection on the part of the Christian Right to Trump’s embrace of what many view as heretical beliefs.

The prosperity gospel is insidious because it implies that if you are poor or a victim of cancer or other serious illness, it’s due to your own lack of faith. If you were more of a believer and gave more of your hard-earned cash to support Joel Osteen’s teeth whitening treatments, you’d surely be doing better.

I can’t really think of anything more reprehensible than twisting the divinely inspired words of God to one’s own ends. I wish more Christians would speak out against such fraud and let the true message of the gospel shine forth.

Making It Count

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At my nephew’s wedding last night, his brother made a remark during his toast that got a  laugh out of the mostly Catholic crowd. He commented that the wedding Mass was really nice but reminded us that it didn’t “count” for Sunday Mass obligation purposes.

The obligation to attend Mass each Sunday is both a burden and privilege for Catholics. I remember when I was young, my mom would sometimes say we should go to 5 pm Saturday Mass “to get it over with.” Now, my mom is one of the most faith-filled Catholics I know. But that idea of “getting it over with” is something many Catholics experience when it comes to Mass. I know I do.

Being Catholic is not an easy road. There are many such rules and strictures in our church to which we feel bound. Fasting before Holy Communion, making a good confession, abstaining from meat on Fridays during Lent. There is a host (pun intended) of obligatory behaviors that mark someone as a faithful Catholic.

But no obligation looms so largely, nor so regularly, as the necessity of attending Sunday Mass. This can have a dampening effect on our faith at times. Feeling obliged, we trudge into church on a Sunday morning, still half asleep and wishing we could have slept in on our rare day off. The prayers and rituals are so rote that we could practically recite them in our sleep. In fact, I have noticed parishioners occasionally nodding off during Mass. It’s easy to take for granted what the Mass means to us Catholics, especially the Eucharist, wherein we partake of the very person of Christ.

Yet I see the Sunday Mass obligation as more of a blessing than a curse. I’ve noticed that most of my Protestant friends rarely attend Sunday services or any religious events at all. Without the constraint of Sunday Mass attendance, most of us would naturally minimize our involvement with our faith. The discipline of going to church each Sunday keeps me tethered to my relationship with God in a meaningful way.

The key to preventing Sunday Mass attendance from becoming too routine is to see it as a privilege, not a burden. A communion with God is something to be sought, not just on Sunday, but regularly throughout our days. The readings, prayers, and sermons of Sunday Mass remind us of this communion. It’s up to us to be fully present each time we participate in the Mass, to see it as a new opportunity to get closer to God. That’s the way to make it really count.

Normalizing Hate

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Twitter has done at least one beneficial thing since its inception: given us a glimpse into the mind and heart of our current president. And it’s not a pretty picture. The president’s latest tweet attacked four women of color, all U.S. citizens, with the admonition to go back where they came from. The House of Representatives rightly voted to condemn this racist and xenophobic rant on the part of our country’s supposed leader.

The president has done everything in his power to attack and marginalize immigrants of color. Muslim travel bans, cruel treatment of Latin American migrants, labeling them criminals and rapists: This is classic scapegoating. It’s wrong, it’s dangerous, and it must not be normalized.

I know I’m not supposed to haul out Nazi Germany as a comparison, but the same tactics were used to victimize and ultimately exterminate millions of Jews during World War II. First they were attacked for being dishonest and mercenary. Cartoon depictions of Jews made them seem less than human. These tactics made it easier for ordinary citizens to stand by while Jewish people’s possessions were taken away and ultimately they themselves were rounded up.

I used to be opposed to going through the trauma of impeachment proceedings against our current president. It’s not that I don’t think there is ample cause for impeachment. I just felt that Democrats needed to focus their efforts on defeating the man in 2020. However, allowing this president to spew vitriol and hate for another year and half is unacceptable and runs the risk of normalizing such attitudes. The Congresswomen cited in the latest hateful tweets have been dealing with death threats. Let’s not wait for someone to make good on such a threat before we take action.

The American people must not allow hatred against certain religious or ethnic groups to take hold in our national psyche. It goes against everything our great nation stands for. Let’s not normalize hate but condemn it whenever and wherever we find it, even at the highest echelons of our government.

 

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.

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.