My turn on the rotation at bLOGOS for the Third Sunday of Advent:

Isaiah 35:1-10 (vv. 1-6a, 10 in Lectionary for Mass)waxing-gibbous-hickory-moon-827pm-5468
Psalm 146:5-10 (vv. 6-10 in LM)
James 5:7-10
Matthew 11:2-11

“They’re lining up the prisoners and the guards are taking aim.”

Leonard Cohen

A confession: I do not know how to write about these Advent texts as if the events of the last month (and the many months prior) were politics as usual in the United States of America. You know—a couple of slick, scripted candidates square off, make promises they won’t keep; one emerges the victor, half the nation sighs and shrugs, and then we all get back to the business of our busy lives. Good God, no.

In fact, I think the events of the last month and what they portend for the future put into sharp relief the piercing critique that the texts of Advent bring to bear on the politics of fear and intimidation, on authoritarian rule and its contempt for truth, on stunningly ill-prepared leaders and their fragile egos.

The prophets of Israel saw both the farce and pressing danger of corrupt imperial power. And they were relentless in their attempts to rouse an anaesthetized populace who, as Walter Brueggemann notes, had “for so long lived in a protective, fake world that their perceptual field was skewed and with their best looking they could not see what was there to see.”

To read the rest click here.

Almost never do we change a person’s politics with verbal arguments—with reasoned discourse, dispassionate evidence, or passionate speech. It’s disheartening, really, blog-post-picespecially for people who care deeply about language and its power to compel, convince, convert.

But, God in heaven, do we try. With such earnestness, such determination. Why can’t you see I’m right? How can you not be persuaded by this or that article I just posted on Facebook?

With social media—no surprise here—I’m emboldened to say things I wouldn’t communicate in a face-to-face encounter with family, friends, or strangers. And for all that is “social” about it, Facebook and other media platforms are in fact hyper-individualized modes of consumption and dissemination, both through the user’s own choices and tendencies and Facebook’s algorithm logic, inscrutable as the latter may sometimes be.

But here’s the thing. Or at least one thing. A good argument—about anything—and how we make it well is less like a carefully-crafted press release and more like a performance piece, an embodied act intelligible within a set of other actions, convictions, stories, and dispositions.

When a lawyer makes a closing argument, it’s her body language as much as the written text—her physical comportment, her eye contact with each juror, that catch in her voice—that does the necessary work (or doesn’t). We don’t phone these things in—presence and embodiment are everything.

And when it comes to politics—by which I mean how human life is ordered for the good of all and how we routinely fail at this—the arguments we make about this or that “issue” are rooted in a wider set of concerns and convictions about what counts as the good life.

We have honest disagreements about this. And any hope we might have to compel, convince, or convert another to our vision of things is in how well—how beautifully, I would suggest—we perform, embody, live out, bear witness to our particular vision in a deeply social way, a truly social way. No pixels necessary. Real bodies in real time in real places.

From Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement to indigenous North Dakotans and their allies at Standing Rock we do this together. We do it as (if I can quote theologian Kathryn Tanner slightly out of context) “a genuine community of argument, one marked by mutual hearing and criticism among those who disagree, by a common commitment to mutual correction and uplift.”

So we might make something “public” on Facebook and we might talk about our “public discourse” and there is such a thing as “public policy” but the truth is we are members of communities, not members of the public. As Wendell Berry has said, a community is “a group of people who belong to one another and to their place. We would say, ‘we belong to our community,’ but never ‘We belong to our public.’”

May we inhabit our communities and engage other communities with the kind of compelling witness, beautiful belonging, that makes people say, “I want some of that; I could belong there.” And thus may we argue well.

But you were also the red song
in the night,
stumbling through the house
to the child’s bed,
to the damp rose of her body, 
leaving your bitter taste.

From “Rage” by Mary Oliver
in Dream Work, 1986

My sabbatical project includes giving some sustained attention to the prose and poetry of Mary Oliver, whose latest book, Upstream, was released last week.

Oliver is beloved by many. Only Rumi gives her a run for her money in terms of poetry sales in the American market. Yet there is a dearth of critical studies restore-my-heartof her work; accessibility in poetry seems to disincline serious scholarly engagement. It is true that her substantial output is mixed, a hazard for anyone in any field whose published work spans more than half a century. It’s also true, I think, that her best poems are not her most popular poems.

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In the last three weeks a cultural conversation about sexual assault has revealed anew and painfully what is a given: that the violation of bodies–and of minds and spirits–takes many forms. This “conversation”–a descriptor that may be too charitable for the actual exchange of words taking place–has reminded many people (mostly women, maybe, but not just women) of the first time they were “grabbed.” (One of those words that is as ugly as what it names). It has brought to the surface the ways that many of us have internalized, naturalized our fears–how hypervigilance has been our way in the world, how one man’s breathtaking crudeness and moral bankruptcy can leave us shaken for days. (Last week Michelle Obama shook with truth and power and eloquence. Watch the whole speech).

This conversation (okay, this talk-past-each-other shouting match) has made evident that the toxic masculinity which continues to harm boys and poison relationships of all kinds is tolerated with a shrug and a smirk, endorsed with a playful wink. It has shown us how damaging and disgraceful things said about Muslims, African-Americans, Latinos, and others–over and over and over–barely register in our public consciousness but, hey, just say something about white women and we are all over it. 

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The theme that pervades the work of Mary Oliver is that of a continual call to attentiveness. Readers of her poetry usually take this, rightly, as a summons to tend to the natural world that she writes about so compellingly–to see it, know it, name it, cherish it. But such a discipline surely extends to the whole of life, to what it means to be a fully alive, fully present human being in the world. In this Oliver is a kindred spirit with Simone Weil who wrote that “attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.”

This comes through in Oliver’s poems about people, places, causes she cares about–poems not as numerous, maybe, as the ones about ponds and swans and bears–but significant in her work nonetheless. And the call to attentiveness is present in less overt ways in her poems about the physical and emotional abuse she suffered from her father. These poems are instructive for how she (and we) might think about attentiveness not just as a necessary art for loving the world but as a skill for survival and ultimately for thriving as a human being. Her poem “The Journey” is written in the second person but is about her own life. (She has acknowledged this). In the closing lines Oliver says

. . . you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do–
determined to save
the only life you could save.

One can practice this kind of determination–even if falteringly, in fits and starts, full of self-doubt–only if one has tried to be attentive to everything that has made the very daring of determination necessary, and has attended to one’s own wounds as an act of generosity to oneself.

And I think about how some familiar lines of Oliver’s take on new meaning when read through the lens of this current cultural moment. I would like to think they can be taken as an invitation to try and set aside our fears (but not our outrage), and as a summons not only to attentiveness but to courage. They are words born of the knowledge that to be a fully alive, fully present human being in this world–and to care about that kind of flourishing for all persons–is to speak, even when you’re shaken and shaking, and to tell all that needs to be told.

Instructions for living a life:
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.

From “Sometime” in Red Bird, 2008

“The most beautiful thing in the world is, of course, the world itself.”

Wallace Stevens

I have retreated from the world a bit to write about words and the world and the connections between them. I am mindful of the privilege of it–to be given time and space and money to do this kind of work. It also has its challenges–how, for instance, to thrive in one’s aloneness rather than succumb to loneliness.

I am also thinking and reading and writing about beauty, a word so vast, so large and deep, and at the same time so evacuated of meaning in a culture like ours. We mistake glamour for beauty and either chase it or deride it, without fully reckoning with how enslaved we are–whether we’re sentimentalists or cynics–to a soulless commodity culture that sets the terms of debates and conversations we can’t think or speak or act outside of.

And what of beautiful words? More than fifty years ago, novelist Walker Percy warned how, in a culture of cliches and jargon, words lose their ability to signify precisely, to name reality truthfully.

I think we’re starving for beautiful words in this age of cliches and jargon and of dis-graced speech–the graceless ways of our political rhetoric, the coarse and crass ways we talk to each other, especially on social media, a forum for human interaction that only emboldens these terrible tendencies. This linguistic crudeness falsifies our desires–makes us want to possess, own, control, manipulate. We don’t seek the well-being of the other with whom we speak (or to whom we respond on social media at 2 am); we aim to one-up.

And yet at this late stage in this political economy, what could possibly chastise us? Are we no longer capable of embarrassment or regret? Have we made our peace with our own reckless promiscuity with words?

By beautiful words, beautiful speech, I don’t mean flowery phraseology. I mean the kind of skilled care with words that moves, stirs, compels the hearer or reader with not only its loveliness but its beholdenness to goodness and truth. Beautiful speech is both playful and precise, serious and generous, honest and imbued with humility. Its rarity in our lives, both private and public, is grievous.

And what of this beautiful world? To listen to our current political discourse (and corporate media’s coverage of it), is to encounter not only feverish dishonesty–no gesturing at all toward the beautiful, the good, the true–but it is to surmise that the well-being of the earth and all its inhabitants is of no material concern–unless that concern can be commodified, quantified in terms of economic benefit.

Given the All-Trump-and-All-Clinton-All-the-Time commitment of the major news outlets, one might be hard pressed to know about suffering people and threatened ecosystems around the world. Like a pipeline rupture in Alabama; like the massive protest of the Dakota Access Pipeline; like the terrifying trends related to climate change; like the years-long catastrophe that is Syria and its beautiful people. And so many more.

Where are the words we need so that we might be moved to love the world back to health and wholeness? Who will speak them and how will we hear them?

For me, for now, with a heavy sense of my own privilege, it is back to books, back to poems–the beautiful words of lovers of language and lovers of the world–and down to the river for a run in the late afternoon sunlight. All of which gives me some hope. At least for today.

“Writers who see by the light of their Christian faith will have, in these times, the sharpest eye for the grotesque, for the perverse, and for the unacceptable.”

Flannery O’Connor, “The Fiction Writer and His Country”

 

It’s been duly noted that there was much fear and loathing in Cleveland last week at the Republican National Convention. And it’s been widely observed that at their gathering this week in Philadelphia, the Democrats sought to counter the dread and despair with sunny optimism and heart-felt sing-alongs. Fear one week, no fear the next.

I wonder.

(Full disclosure: my upbringing and my instincts put me squarely in the camp of the Democrats. These people are familiar to me. I may not like all of them but I understand them. Republicans–for all the nice ones I know—can seem like exotic creatures: you know they exist but you can’t really explain them to yourself).

For all the carefully scripted idealism on display in Philadelphia, fear lurked in the corners, and sometimes showed itself outright on the prime time stage. The DNC leadership seemed fearful that Americans might take the Democrats for weaklings on national defense, wimps when it comes to taking on ISIS. They seemed fearful that they might lose women if they dared to nuance the abortion debate. They seemed to fear that disaffected Bernie supporters might expose that we live in, um, a democracy. Can’t have them shouting “no more war” when former CIA Director and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is touting Secretary Clinton’s military savvy.

Fear gets you a lot of things in politics, and in these contentious times it’s going to be exploited, as it always has been, by Republicans and Democrats alike.

And then there was the news of Fr. Jacques Hamel in Normandy, France, whose throat was slashed by a teenager claiming allegiance to the Islamic State while he said mass on an ordinary Tuesday morning. Corporate media outlets seemed to fear that if they gave the story any serious, sustained attention during convention coverage they would lose audience share and thus advertising revenue. It was an instructive moment in how “news” is always more manufactured than reported.

Even if CNN or CBS or any other cable or broadcast network had taken up the story of Hamel’s death, they too, I suspect, would have made fear their default hermeneutic. If elderly priests in quiet country towns aren’t safe, none of us is. And the whole “bring your concealed weapon to church” argument would have been given air time. All heat. No light.

The New York Times did run an opinion piece by a visiting professor of public ethics at the University of Chester in England. I’m not sure what “public ethics” is exactly but the professor, Paul Vallely, argues—with fear running through every line of his prose—that we must not call Fr. Jacques Hamel a martyr since that will only result in more deaths at the hands of terrorists—a kind of tit-for-tat jihadism: “our martyr for yours.”

Nor can we compare Fr. Jacques, says Vallely, to other priests like Thomas Becket or Oscar Romero, also murdered at the altar, since the latter two “knew the dangers they were facing, taking a stand against the civil powers of their day.”

Maybe Vallely thinks such things because he’s a “public ethicist.” But it’s astonishing and utterly wrong-headed to assume that because Fr. Jacques was simply “going about his lifelong business . . . as an everyday exemplar of quiet holiness, kindness, and love,” he didn’t or couldn’t have known the dangers he was facing.

To preside at the altar, to offer the sacrifice of the cross in the mass is to enact the non-violent absorption of human violence. It is, at its heart, a stand against the civil powers of the day.

Fr. Jacques, in these fear-filled times, whom I feel sure did not live in fear, pray for us.

 

“The violence [America] fears is the violence it engenders.”

Judith Butler, Precarious Life

“National self-righteousness, like personal self-righteousness, is a mistake. It is misleading. It is a sign of weakness. Any war that we may make now against terrorism will come as a new installment in a history of war in which we have fully participated. We are not innocent of making war against civilian populations. The modern doctrine of such warfare was set forth and enacted by General William Tecumseh Sherman, who held that a civilian population could be declared guilty and rightly subjected to military punishment. We have never repudiated that doctrine.”

Wendell Berry, “Thoughts in the Presence of Fear”

Is there something to be gained from grieving, from tarrying with grief, from remaining exposed to its unbearability and not endeavoring to seek a resolution for grief through violence? Is there something to be gained in the political domain by maintaining grief as part of the framework within which we think our international ties? If we stay with the sense of loss, are we left feeling only passive and powerless, as some might fear? Or are we, rather, returned to a sense of human vulnerability, to our collective responsibility for the physical lives of one another?

Judith Butler, Precarious Life

“We want peace; but most of us do not want to pay the price of peace. We still dream of a peace that has no cost attached. We want peace, but we live content with poverty and injustice and racism, with the murder of prisoners and students, the despair of the poor to whom justice is endlessly denied. We long for peace, but we wish also to keep undisturbed a social fabric of privilege and power that controls the economic misery of two thirds of the world’s people.”

Daniel Berrigan, SJ, Lights on in the House of the Dead

“Perfect love casts out fear (phobos).”

1 John 4:18

“What is my work?

Messenger,  Mary Oliver

“The error of economism [is] that of considering human labor solely 
according to its economic purpose.”

Laborem ExercensPope St. John Paul II
                                                                                                             

In a basic course on Buddhism, my students and I spend some time reflecting on “right livelihood,” one of the steps on the Noble Eight-Fold Path. They’re intrigued that a religious tradition would set parameters on what counts as legitimate work for human beings to do. I note in our conversation that there might also be such a thing as a Christian theology of work but in their eyes Buddhism is exotic (and thus de facto profound) and Christianity familiar (so they think) and, besides, Christianity is for many of them a dubious proposition altogether so they’ll just go with the Buddhist view, thank you. It’s a course on Buddhism after all so we go with it.

Our conversation is a reminder to me and an eye-opener to the students that for all the talk of “jobs” in our culture we almost never talk about work in the sense of work as elemental to our humanness. Work as the capacity to make something from something else (a kitchen table from a pile of lumber; a a book about modern art from a lifetime of study) for a good greater than oneself while sometimes, but not always, not necessarily, being remunerated for one’s efforts. Work in this sense is not equivalent to “gainful employment.”

Work is a part of our dignity as human beings. According to the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions it is an outflow of our participation in the creative work of an ever-creating God.

Even in regard to work-for-pay, most religious traditions (and humanist ones, too) recognize the intrinsic worth of the worker—her right to fair treatment and to a just, living wage. Most economists, by contrast, don’t hold these assumptions as central; rather, the value of a worker is in his productivity, his usefulness in helping to ensure profit in a competitive market.

Within such a view, work is only about jobs, and to be concerned that everyone has a job is less about promoting “right livelihood” and more about increasing consumer spending. If people have jobs, they’ll buy more things, the economy will grow, all will be well.

Likewise, when politicians talk about jobs they’re not talking about work. They’re speaking, we know, to our collective anxiety about things we’ve been told to worry about: “lackluster employment numbers,” “stagnant wages,” “the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs.”

I don’t mean to diminish the real, material difficulties of those struggling to find work-for-pay—the chronically unemployed, especially. But it seems worth asking what our jobs have to do with human flourishing, with the well-being of all creation, with our own creatureliness. Buddhism, Christianity, and other wisdom traditions invite us—urge us—to wrestle with such questions.

Donald Trump’s recent empty and irresponsible promise to West Virginians that he’ll “bring back coal jobs” highlights the complexity and urgency of these matters. He (like all politicians, liberal or conservative, left or right) assumes as a matter of course “economism”—the belief that factors and indicators like supply and demand, profit margins, gross domestic product, and access to markets—provide the overarching framework, the foundational paradigm for evaluating societal health and well-being. In such a system, as Pope St. John Paul II observed, human labor is considered solely for its economic value.

Moreover, in such a system, coal miners and other workers in similar relationships with corporations and outside interests, collude with their own oppression. This is exacerbated in Appalachia by an enculturated self-effacement: no group is more ridiculed and pitied than we are so we might as well ridicule and pity ourselves. This self-effacement (which may also be a twisted form of self-loathing) morphs into a kind of stoic pride. This pride may seem admirable, but in reality it undermines the interests and long-term well-being of people who do things like mine coal for a living.

I’m mindful of how offensive this can sound so let me be clear: I don’t wish to denigrate the risky work that coal miners historically have done and continue to do, nor the sense of accomplishment they feel in their vocation, and the benefits all of us receive from their labor.

But here’s the thing: I worry, at least a little, when generations of West Virginians—whether they are connected to coal mining or not—absorb this narrative that they are beleaguered and put-upon, the most-derided regional group in America, and then turn that woundedness into a kind of guarded bravado that refuses to reckon with hard, uncomfortable truths. And then cheers wildly as Donald Trump raises false hopes and exploits worst fears and resentments.

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What is our work?

It sounds a little hackneyed to suggest that, at least in part, work, including remunerative work, is less about making a living and more about making a life.

But isn’t it?

And the work one does that contributes to the making of a life can include bread-baking and neurosurgery, building a fence and mapping the human genome. We have wrongly internalized a kind of hierarchy of work that ascribes the most worth to those prestigious occupations assumed to be at the top. (There was a not-so-subtle paternalism in Trump’s speech in southern West Virginia last week). We drill into our children, for example, from an early age, that they need to go to college so they don’t end up “flipping burgers.” But what about the people who make our food or clean our offices when we go home at night? Are their lives worth less? Does our work matter more than theirs?

In his book, Shop Class as Soul Craft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work, Matthew Crawford tracks the educational apartheid that has given rise to these divisions, this hierarchy, and argues for the cognitive richness and moral significance of manual work. He also insists that “if thinking is bound up with action, then the task of getting an adequate grasp on the world, intellectually, depends on our doing stuff in it.”

No matter one’s vocation (a word that deserves its own post), a rich theology of work assumes that, along with the dignity of the worker, there are goods intrinsic to work worth doing well. Economism instrumentalizes work—treats it as a means to some other end. It may be this in part, but the work we do in the world—for pay, for the sheer pleasure of it, because we must—is, when it and we are at our best, its own deep joy and satisfaction.

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(Part of this post is taken from some reflections I wrote in 2010 after the explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine in WV in which twenty-nine miners were killed).