Collect for the Fourth Sunday after Trinity

O God, the protector of all that trust in thee, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy: increase and multiply upon us thy mercy; that, thou being our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal, that we finally lose not the things eternal; grant this, O heavenly Father, for the sake of Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Suffer Little Children

We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed, by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of happiness. —That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed, that whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these Ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or abolish it, and to institute new Government … The History of the present King of Great Britain is a History of repeated Injuries and Usurpations, all having in direct Object the Establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid World. 
He has refused his Assent to Laws, most wholesome and necessary for the public Good. … He has endeavored to prevent the Population of these States; for that Purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their Migrations hither … He has obstructed the Administration of Justice …

—Thomas Jefferson, Declaration of Independence of the United States
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The Trump administration is separating the children of illegal immigrants from their parents and keeping said children in detention centers. Some of these children are less than two years old.

This is a gross abuse of human and familial rightsI don't care what your general perspective on politics is. Two things, and two things only, justify ripping a child away from its parents: abuse or neglect that endanger the child's life or health, and incapacity (financial or otherwise) to care for the child. 'Being an immigrant,' documented or not, isn't either of those things.

Also, let's be a little more clear what we mean when we talk about 'detention centers.' They're fucking cages. Like animals. As President Trump said they were. This is no civilized enforcement of federal law, this is ethnic goddamned cleansing.

Oh, but it's not really an ethnic cleansing because it's only of people who came here illegally? Sure. And Hitler protected his old friend and chauffeur Emil Maurice from Himmler, even though Maurice was an eighth Jewish. Racists, it turns out, are not always very consistent. And sure, maybe, maybe, Trump isn't a racist, even though he referred to Latino nations as shitholes and Latino people as animals and neo-Nazis as having good people among them. In all seriousness, a person could do those things and not believe that other races are inferior to theirs—though they would still be doing and saying horrible things. Meanwhile, tearing families apart is still fucking monstrous.

Also, let's park for a moment on the whole concept of legality and illegality. The point of having laws is to enforce justice. Strictly speaking, and following St Augustine and many other doctors of the Church, an unjust law has no force. So it is quite pertinent to ask whether the immigration policies of the United States are in fact just.

They sure don't make sense in the context of the Founding Fathers' writings on the subject, as cited above. Inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (i.e. well-being, both physical and otherwise) don't support the idea of a closed border on the face of it—I mean, insofar as a closed border is literally a bar to liberty and, for the overwhelming majority of the immigrants in question here, also a bar to the pursuit of happiness. The fact that immigrating legally can easily take a few years, several thousand dollars, and a flawless attention to Kafkaesque details is just icing; though this is one of those storebought cakes where the icing is about eight feet thick. And, much like those storebought cakes, a lot of the people who need and want to immigrate the most, due to violence and destitution and a lot of other things, can't afford to spend two years and five thousand dollars on doing so. Which, in practice, makes American immigration law not a ban on immigrants, but a ban on poor ones.

It might be argued that our health care system is overburdened and we can't afford these new people, and so on. I am not convinced of that. To begin with, as of 2017, the IMF rated the United States as one of the twenty wealthiest countries, per capita, in the world. We're ranked with places like Saudi Arabia, Brunei, Hong Kong, and the UAE (home of the cartoonishly affluent Dubai). I can easily believe that we as a people aren't willing to allocate enough of our money to the public good to support an influx of new people; or, more briefly, I can believe that we'd refuse to afford these new people. But I do not believe we can't. And I don't see why our selfishness should be their problem.

Further, there's the fact that our birthrate in the US has declined. In the long run, fewer babies means an aging population; and an aging population does mean a serious strain in our health care system—one that only new workers, both as producers of goods and services, and as sources of tax revenue, could relieve. But neither the prudential nor the legal aspects of this ghastly situation are, to me, primary.

Pilgrim praying in front of icon of Saint Mary, photo by Petar Milosevic

Are you a family values conservative? Keeping kids with their parents is pretty central to family values, and the Trump administration has betrayed that ideal. They are trying to manipulate you. Don't fall for it.

Do you reverence Scripture? Leviticus 19 says, If a stranger sojourn with thee in your land, ye shall not vex him. But the strangeth that dwelleth with you shall be unto you as one born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God; and in the same style, Deuteronomy 10 says, The LORD your God is God of gods, and Lord of lords, which regardeth not persons, nor taketh reward: he doth execute the judgment of the fatherless and the widow, and loveth the stranger, in giving him food and raiment. Love ye therefore the stranger. The apostles repeat the same principle in the New Testament: the author of Hebrews commands us, Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares; and our Lord himself relates the following, in a frightening parable:
When the Son of Man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory: and before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats. Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you; for I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me. Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me. Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, unto everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels: for I was an hungred, and ye gave me no meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked, and ye clothed me not: sick, and in prison, and ye visited me not. Inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of these, ye did it not to me. —Matt. 25
Christ's teaching was directed to individuals, not to societies? The Torah wasn't. The Torah was delivered only to Israel? Christ's teaching wasn't. And Christ's teaching both presupposed and at times expressly stated the validity of the Torah; and the Torah was made more toweringly perfect and unfathomably pure, not less so, by Christ's own teaching.

Christian, you must oppose this barbaric treatment of immigrants. It's not optional. It's not the difference between being a Christian and not being one; that difference is defined by the creeds. But it is the difference between honoring the Lord whose name you bear by putting his word before everything, and taking that name in vain to protect a President who doesn't deserve even your respect, let alone your worship.

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Saturday, May 19, 2018

Whitsunday Eve

Whitsunday Eve: spirits, awake;
The hells beneath their masters shake;
For unmade Love-in-Light descends
On those their Maker called his friends,
To laurel them with stranger fire
Than priest or Levite could ensire.
From Babylon by riven tongue
Across the earth all men were flung
By the one Word, to curb their pride:
Now Zion meets a changing tide,
A living water-wave of speech,
Of strangers singing, each to each,
In words that only angels knew
Until these minds, uplifted, flew
On silver Dove-wings. Lips of gold
(As Hebrew prophets darkly told,
Before they knew or heard the laud
Goyim would offer to their God)
Proclaim the holy, trinal Breath,
He who woke Lazarus from death
At the Word of the Father: now
He makes the whole creation bow,
Entering in a lovelier light
Than yet had graced man's ghostly sight.
The rushing fire-wind-water sound
Makes all the infant Church resound;
Who once on Sinai fell with fear
Rains down in power and glory here --
Our Lord the Spirit, sacrament
Of God's own being. Heaven is rent
With cries of pure seraphic joy
That hell has no power to destroy;
For lo, the Church receives her birth
And call, to be upon the earth
Her Savior's Body, he her soul,
That his life may suffuse the whole
Creation by her agency;
For this was his great mystery,
His being we should share by grace
For that he shared our fleshly race;
His Spirit this great secret plumbs
And triumphs that his kingdom comes.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Men and Monsters, Part II

Anybody can enact that murder shall not be punishable by death; nobody can enact that the swallowing of a tumblerful of prussic acid shall not be punishable by death. In the former case, the connection between the two events is legal—that is, arbitrary; in the latter, it is a true causal relationship … When the laws regulating human society are so formed as to come into collision with the nature of things, and in particular with the fundamental realities of human nature, they will end by producing an impossible situation which, unless the laws are altered, will issue in such catastrophes as war, pestilence, and famine. Catastrophes thus caused are the execution of universal law upon arbitrary enactments which contravene the facts; they are thus properly called by theologians, judgments of God. …  

At the back of the Christian moral code we find a number of pronouncements about the moral law, which are not regulations at all, but which purport to be statements of fact about man and the universe, and upon which the whole moral code depends for its authority and its validity in practice. … If they are true, man runs counter to them at his own peril. He may, of course, defy them, as he may defy the law of gravitation by jumping off the Eiffel Tower, but he cannot abolish them by edict. Nor yet can God abolish them, except by breaking up the structure of the universe, so that in this sense they are not arbitrary laws. We may of course argue that the making of this kind of universe, or indeed of any kind of universe, is an arbitrary act; but, given the universe as it stands, the rules that govern it are not freaks of momentary caprice. 

—Dorothy L. Sayers, The Mind of the Maker

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At first I’d been thinking of beginning with the sociological side of my first post; however, my language of divine judgment provoked more reaction than I’d expected, and anyway, on reflection it makes far more sense to begin with the spiritual. That spiritual side of things is the suggestion I made, or the suspicion I harbor, that the United States is a nation under judgment, due very largely to the war crimes of which we are historically guilty—but that notion needs a lot of unpacking.

To begin with, let’s consider what is meant by judgment. Usually, the image this summons to the imagination is one of God-as-cranky-old-man hitting people with bolts of smite because they’ve annoyed him in some way. This image actually does have a good use, to which we shall return later, but for the most part it’s stupid and terrible, and most of what it says to our minds and emotions should be discarded without hesitation.

A proper understanding of judgment is, rather, grounded in God’s character as the Creator, and the corresponding integrity of creation. In making the universe, God made an ordered reality, a universe in which cause and effect relate to one another in regular harmony. Why he did this is a question I can’t answer with certainty, and I have a hunch that it’s secretly nonsensical, like asking what the shape of yellow is, or whether eleven is solid, liquid, or gas; if God the Son is the Logos, then order is grounded not just in the choices, but in the being of God. At any rate he did make an ordered universe, and creatures like ourselves that not only rely on order to exist, but can’t even really imagine a world without it. The closest we can get is by mixing known elements of our world at random, but even this depends on our understanding of the order and defined things that we know.

This orderly creation in which we live is, also, the prerequisite for free will, which is itself a sine qua non of love. A world of pure chaos would be incomprehensible by definition, and no self-awareness or meaningful choice (which are the things we mean theologically by free will) would be possible. Accordingly, love, which is the most divine choice, would not be possible either.

But if the universe is ordered and governed by cause and effect, and if there are free agents in it, then suffering and evil become real possibilities. Through ignorance or inattention, any free being could run up against the order of the universe in a painful or damaging way; and through deliberate malice, any free being could attempt to violate, break, or circumvent that order. But freelance modifications of creation would require the same power (in the double sense of authority and ability) that the God who made it possesses; and we don’t have that. Accordingly, the effect of such attempts will naturally be as painful and damaging as mistakes made through ignorance, if not more so. And the more a creature perseveres in its error, the worse the consequences will be, until that creature is either destroyed or corrected.

Thus, judgment is not an arbitrary act of God, intruded into creation as a punishment for behavior he doesn’t like. Rather, it is a name for what happens when a creature defies the inner logic of creation, and is met by the self-consistency of that logic, experienced as hostile because of the creature’s own hostility. Judgment may, in that case, sound like a strange choice of name; which leads into the one great advantage of the ‘cranky old man’ depiction of God. By representing the Creator as a Person, this image can remind us that forgiveness, patience, restraint, and mercy are possible, too. C. S. Lewis, in his epistolary on prayer, Letters to Malcolm, wrote:

You suggest that what is traditionally regarded as our experience of God’s anger would be more helpfully regarded as what inevitably happens to us if we behave inappropriately towards a reality of immense power. As you say, ‘The live wire doesn’t feel angry with us, but if we blunder against it we get a shock.’ My dear Malcolm, what do you suppose you have gained by substituting the image of a live wire for that of angered majesty? … The angry can forgive, and electricity can’t. 
And you give as your reason that ‘even by analogy the sort of pardon that arises because a fit of temper is spent cannot worthily be attributed to God nor gratefully accepted by man.’ But the belittling words ‘fit of temper’ are your own choice. Think of the fullest reconciliation between mortals. … Anger—no peevish fit of temper, but just, generous, scalding indignation—passes (not necessarily at once) into embracing, exultant, re-welcoming love. That is how friends and lovers are truly reconciled. Hot wrath, hot love. Such anger is the fluid that love bleeds when you cut it. … Wrath and pardon are both, as applied to God, analogies; but they belong together to the same circle of analogy—the circle of life, and love, and deeply personal relationships.

Fine, fine. But what has all this got to do with describing America as a nation under judgment?

Our nation has, from its inception, been soaked in blood. With the exception of Rhode Island and parts of Pennsylvania, every square mile of US territory was either taken from its indigenous inhabitants by compulsion, or purchased from European powers that had done the same thing—England, Spain, France, Russia. The insultingly named ‘Indian reservations’ (as though they were parks maintained for endangered animals!), whose rights we regularly violate despite their technical status as independent nations, are an embarrassing continuation of colonialism. Our history in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and early twentieth centuries was imperfect even in relating to other Western powers; but we’ve really taken to war crimes since World War II. Interfering with other countries’ internal affairs, [1] killing foreign soldiers with no declaration of war, killing foreign civilian men, women, and children en masse, torturing prisoners of war … And all this is only about how the US deals with other countries, let alone immigrants and internal injustices like slavery, capitalist oppression, racism, and abortion.

John Gast, Spirit of the Frontier, 1872

I believe that, by this history of atrocities and by our general acquiescence to them (if not in many cases outright, vocal approval), we have invoked judgment upon ourselves. This violence indicates contempt for human life as such, and the nature of judgment is to work backwards, so that contempt of human life falls upon us. It certainly has: in the schools where we’ve taught children that destroying First Nation civilizations and killing or deporting them by the thousands was a historical footnote; at the military bases from which we’ve sent our brave boys to bomb Japanese or Vietnamese or Iraqi civilians with nuclear and chemical weapons, whose long-term effects we could never hope to control; in the office towers where the goods of clientele and employees alike are ruthlessly subordinated to profit.

Does this mean the individuals upon whom these judgments have fallen were the most guilty? No. It doesn’t mean they were guilty at all. Societies are vast webs of coïnherence, and as many people suffer for others’ sins as thrive on others’ virtues. This should be no new idea for the Christian: for as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive. The Last Judgment, the final settling of individual accounts, is yet to come, and while it tarries we still have an opportunity to invoke mercy, both for ourselves and for our society.

What does this invocation of mercy involve? First of all, individual repentance, because nothing can be done until and unless individual people—that is, you and I—own our thoughts, words, and behavior. To the extent that we’ve involved ourselves in social sins, whether by active approval or passive indulgence, we must repent: i.e., say that we’ve done wrong and that we’re sorry, ask for forgiveness from anyone we’ve wronged (God or neighbor), and resolve to do better.
And then, as far as possible, we must participate in societal repentance. Now, maybe our own influence on society is a very small thing. Maybe all we can do is swallow our pride by letting someone win a Facebook argument and switch to fair-trade coffee. But, in truth, those things aren’t nothing. Small decisions to foster peace are where the power to make biggers decisions for peace comes from; it’s like lifting: you don’t start with benching 350 pounds. Then again, maybe our influence on society is a bigger thing than we think. Maybe we can sponsor the education of a child in a war-torn country, or write music that celebrates kindness and honesty, or help organize an anti-war campaign, or all sorts of things. But it’s always those little things coming from us individual people that multiply and grow and finally start moving whole cultures. Bartolomé de las Casas, William Wilberforce, Susan B. Anthony, Cardinal Manning, Eugene Debs, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr made things happen because they did not wait for others to act. They went and did something. It was that which inspired others to do something too.

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[1] I’m not saying that this is never justifiable. I am saying that we are way too ready to dictate to other states what they may and may not do.