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“A Warning For Republicans In 2014”: Francis Proves Fighting Yesterday’s Culture War Is Folly

What a difference a year makes. And what a difference a pope makes. At Christmas services this year, the priest at our local church told the families gathered for the children’s pageant that Jesus loves and is represented in everyone, including gays and lesbians. Our local church isn’t Jesuit, nor particularly liberal, but before Pope Francis stepped up with a new message of inclusivity, none of us had ever expected to hear anything like that at church, let alone at Christmas Eve mass. The congregation cheered.

The priest also pressed his core Christmas theme that the greatest joy we will experience is the joy we feel when serving others. Serving the poor is another significant shift in focus that Francis has brought to reinvigorate the church. Surely, there is no message more central to Jesus’ teaching and the Christian tradition than serving others and loving humanity, and, yet, prior to Francis’ ascent, it was a message eclipsed by a Catholic Church bent on fighting culture wars and chastising those who stray from its teachings. All too often, serving the poor had taken a backseat to the Church’s war on abortion and gay marriage.

Francis called an end to those culture wars, urging bishops to spend more time healing their flock and less time fighting political battles. He started a revolution by answering a reporter’s question about gay priests with the question, “who am I to judge?” and then later, elaborating, urged bishops to drop their “obsession” with gays, abortion and contraception and to create a welcoming church that is a “home for all.” Recently, Pope Francis removed a conservative American cardinal from a key Vatican committee after the cardinal said, “One gets the impression … that [the Pope] thinks we’re talking too much about abortion [and gay marriage.] But we can never talk enough about that.”

Instead of focusing on political fights, Francis is urging a renewed focus on serving the poor, pushing his cardinals to abandon their “psychology of princes” and get out of the lavish Vatican. He, himself, has rejected the posh apartment, cars and wardrobe of previous popes to live, travel and dress simply and humbly. He celebrated his recent birthday with homeless men, and has drawn attention for kissing and embracing a severely disfigured man and washing the feet of girls in a juvenile jail. Surely, there is no Catholic leader this Christmas who is closer in his own practices to the teachings and life of Jesus. In retrospect, his selection of his papal name seems perfectly apt: Francis of Assisi, the 13th-century patron saint of the poor.

Where the previous Catholic Church hierarchy had denied communion to elected officials who voted to give poor women the right to terminate unwanted pregnancies, the current pope exhorts that communion is open to all and not to be treated as “a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.”

What a difference a year makes. Actually, it’s been a mere nine months.

There are some lessons here for Washington. And for the Republican party in particular.

The first lesson is how quickly things can change. Republicans starting 2014 giddy about the coming elections for Congress may not want to count their chickens before they’ve hatched. Much of their giddiness rides on the poorly handled roll-out of Obamacare and resulting negative public opinion about both health care reform and the president. But the federal website – healthcare.gov – is rapidly improving. Although only about 30,000 people were able to enroll in the launch month of October, the same number was able to enroll in the first two days of December, alone, with nearly 1 million people enrolling in December overall.

Americans are starting to find out for themselves what affordable, high-quality health care looks like without pre-existing conditions, lifetime limits and caps on coverage, now that insurance companies no longer call the shots. And they like it. Over this year, word will spread around America about people too young for Medicare – but too old and sick to find a new job or to buy individual insurance – who finally have insurance, or kids with cancer who finally get care, or women who don’t lose their insurance simply because they become pregnant or get breast cancer. And, as that word spreads, minds will change. Republicans who gloat today over projected victories in November based on their presumption of public distaste for Obamacare are vulnerable to a quickly changing future.

The second lesson to take to heart is that culture wars may not be as popular as those waging them think. No doubt many American bishops leading the war against gay marriage and contraception believed the majority of their flock, as well as their fellow Catholic leadership, was behind them. Today, they are shocked to hear words of chastisement from the Vatican and surprised at how Francis’ message of inclusivity and economic justice is garnering sky high public approval ratings – from 88 percent of American Catholics and three-quarters of non-Catholic Americans, in a CNN poll shortly before Christmas – and landing him on the cover of Time and other magazines as person of the year.

Just like their political allies among conservative American bishops, Republican obsessed with social issues are somewhat out of touch with the general public, yet they remain unaware of this critical fact. And this is their Achilles heel. They were surprised on election night this year to find their extremism rejected at the polls in Virginia, Alabama and elsewhere, and they continued to believe they lost because they had not pushed their extremist agenda harder – out of touch with the polling that showed American voters rejected extremism and favored leaders willing to work across the aisle to forge compromise and get results.

Republican leaders obsessed with so-called family values while simultaneously breaking up undocumented families, slashing food stamps and cutting off unemployment insurance will be as disappointed in November as conservative American bishops were this fall when they discovered they were out on a limb in their culture wars without sufficient backing among either their flock or their colleagues in Rome.

 

By: Carrie Wofford, U. S. News and World Report, December 30, 2013

December 31, 2013 Posted by | Pope Francis, Republicans | , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“Santa Sure Is A Colorful Guy”: Pondering The Wisdom Of An Unexpressed Thought

Many of us who grew up believing in Santa Claus can recall that moment when we started having our doubts.

If we were lucky, we had a special someone in our lives willing to quash the ugly rumors for a little bit longer.

That was my mother. She had her reasons. She was only 8 when her parents divorced and handed her off to grandparents, who raised her. She faced hard realities at a young age. After she became a mother, she saw it as her maternal mission to wring out every bit of life’s magic for her four children.

My mother had a gift for the alternative narrative. This came in handy when, at age 7, it dawned on me that Santa was a little too ubiquitous in Ashtabula, Ohio.

How could Santa be at Hills Department Store, J.C. Penney and Kmart on the same day? That was what I wanted to know.

My mother laid out the facts with the expertise of someone who’d just had that very conversation with Santa’s missus.

I was right, she said, to suspect that Santa could not be everywhere. The brilliant Mrs. Claus — in Mom’s stories, the wife was the genius in every marriage — came up with the idea to hire some of the elves to fill in for him. They had photographic memories, Mom further explained, so they were able to pass along to Santa the wishes of every single child who sat on their laps.

Whew. She was good.

I met my first black Santa at our fourth-grade Christmas party, in 1966. He looked suspiciously like my classmate’s father, which I duly noted to the clueless child, in front of my mother. The little girl burst into tears, and I was grounded for a week, which gave me plenty of time to ponder the wisdom of an unexpressed thought.

In the spirit of Christmas, I want to thank Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly for stirring up that memory after she insisted last week on her show that Santa is white, and so was Jesus.

Well, let’s talk about Jesus. He was a Jew who lived 2,000 years ago in the Middle East. The odds that he was white are about as good as my chance of waking up as a natural blonde tomorrow.

Some have defended her, saying this was the version of Jesus she knew as a child. I get that, but we’re living in the grownup world now. The portrait in our living room made Jesus look like a blue-eyed white guy with an enviable tan, but I don’t recall ever thinking about his race. I was far more obsessed with his demeanor.

Why, I asked my mother, did Jesus never smile?

She had no patience for this line of questioning.

“He has a lot on his mind,” she’d snap. She wasn’t big on glum Jesus, either; I just knew it. Her Jesus was a happy warrior for justice.

Back to Santa. Kelly’s glib assertion that Santa is white — not coincidentally, white just like Kelly — triggered the usual round of derision and ridicule, mostly from liberals. I winced as some of them insisted on national television during the day and at dinnertime that Santa Claus does not exist.

“Little ears, little ears!” I yelled to nobody who was listening. Why must we liberals be more factual than necessary?

Kelly deserved criticism. She is a highly educated white woman who exhibited an astonishing lack of awareness for how children of color yearn to see themselves in their heroes, fabled or otherwise.

That is why she reminded me of my far less educated mother. Mom grew up in a rural patch of white America and then spent her entire adult life in a small but diverse town full of people she might never have met had she stayed on the farm.

These encounters chipped away at her youthful biases. By the time I had blown it with Santa’s daughter at that fourth-grade Christmas party, my mother saw the world as far more complex than she had been raised to believe.

Little girls imprisoned in their own homes for bad behavior have plenty of time for reflection. Still stinging from my mother’s reprimand, I asked whether she thought Santa could be black.

I don’t remember her exact words, but I still recall her message: Santa is magical, and so he can be whoever we want him to be.

I am grateful for a mother who didn’t care which Santa we saw landing on rooftops. She just wanted her children to feel the magic for as long as we could.

I still believe in Santa Claus.

For my grandsons, you bet I do.

 

By: Connie Schultz, The National Memo, December 19, 2013

December 24, 2013 Posted by | Christmas, Race and Ethnicity | , , , , | Leave a comment

“The Default Religious Setting”: Christian Identity Politics On Fox

I try, with only partial success, to avoid spending too much time on the “A conservative said something offensive!” patrol. First, there are plenty of other people doing it, so it isn’t as if the world won’t hear about it if I don’t remark on the outrage du jour. But second—and more important—most of the time there isn’t much interesting to say about Rush Limbaugh’s latest bit of race-baiting or Bill O’Reilly’s latest spittle-flecked rant or Louie Gohmert’s latest expectoration of numskullery.

But let’s make an exception for this interview Reza Aslan did on Friday with Fox News to promote his new book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. You’ve no doubt seen Aslan on television multiple times in the last decade, and maybe even read something he’s written. In the post-9/11 period, he became a go-to guest on shows from Meet the Press to The Daily Show as someone who could explain Islam to American audiences. Young, good-looking, and smart, Aslan could be counted on to put events like the sectarian civil war in Iraq into historical and religious context in ways viewers could understand.

This interview is something to behold, because the Fox anchor, one Lauren Green, obviously not only didn’t read Aslan’s book (not a great sin, given that she probably has to interview a few people a day) but instead of asking him about it, decided to spend nearly ten minutes challenging whether Aslan has any right to write a book about Jesus, since he’s a Muslim. Seriously.

The first question she asks him is “You’re a Muslim, so why did you write a book about the founder of Christianity?” Aslan answers defensively by citing his ample qualifications as a scholar of religion; he could have said he wrote the book because Jesus is one of history’s most important and interesting figures, but before he can get to that, Green interrupts with, “It still begs the question, why would you be interested in the founder of Christianity?” He manages to squeeze in a little bit about his book, talking about the political context in which Jesus emerged, but Green quickly returns to question his right to write about Jesus. “But Reza, you’re not just writing about a religion from a point of view of an observer,” she says. “I believe you’ve been on several programs and never disclosed that you’re a Muslim.” That’s just false, not to mention idiotic, and Aslan immediately corrects her by noting that he not only mentions his faith on the second page of the book they’re discussing, but it’s mentioned in practically every interview he’s ever done.

Now maybe we shouldn’t be too hard on Lauren Green—for all I know, her producer could have handed her these questions and told her how to conduct the interview. She obviously knew nothing about Aslan or his book. But I wonder about what kinds of conversation at Fox preceded the interview. “This guy calls Jesus a zealot!” somebody says. “And he’s a Muslim! Let’s nail him.”

I haven’t read Aslan’s book, so I have no idea what if anything it adds to the hundreds of books that have already been written about Jesus. But Green came pretty close to saying that as a Muslim, Aslan must by definition be hostile to Christianity in general and Jesus in particular and therefore incapable of writing a measured piece of history. This gets back to something I wrote about last week on the privilege associated with being the default racial setting, although here it’s the default religious setting. If you’re in the majority, it’s your privilege to be whatever you want and speak to whatever you want, and you can be treated as an authority on anything. But those in the minority are much more likely, when they come into this kind of realm, to be allowed only to speak to the experience and history of their particular demographic group. So Fox has no trouble treating Reza Aslan as an authority on Islam, but if he claims to also be an authority on Christianity, those Christians react with incredulity.

I’m not saying that similar assumptions never travel in the other direction. People in minority groups have sometimes told those in the majority that their identity as part of the majority renders them unable to speak to certain experiences; you can call that the “It’s a [insert my group] thing; you wouldn’t understand” effect. But what we’re talking about here isn’t testimony, where someone says, “Let me tell you how life is for us,” demanding to be the reporter and interpreter of their own experience. It’s history, and ancient history at that. If someone came on Fox to promote a biography of Aristotle (I know, I know), it wouldn’t be too likely the interviewer would demand to know who they thought they were writing such a book since they aren’t even Greek.

But at Fox and in many other places, Christianity and Islam aren’t just different tribes, they’re different tribes that are in a state of virtual war. The war flares brighter at some times than others—for instance, if you didn’t watch Fox during the “Ground Zero Mosque” brouhaha, you were spared an unbelievable orgy of anti-Muslim hate-mongering, as they gave shocking amounts of time to despicable bigots like Pamela Geller—but it’s always there. For all the talk from more establishment figures that America isn’t at war against Islam (and by the way, that was something George W. Bush was very good about repeating), down where conservatives get their news, it’s a very different world.

 

By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect, July 29, 2013

July 31, 2013 Posted by | Muslims, Religion | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Christmas Inspirations”: Peace On Earth And Goowill Toward Men Is A Moral Demand

There is much dispute and dialogue among scholars over what to make of the Christmas narratives in the scriptures and the connection between what was written and what we can know about what happened. As the Rev. Daniel J. Harrington has noted: “The New Testament contains two Christmas stories, not one. They appear in Matthew: 1–2 and Luke: 1–2. They have some points in common. But there are many differences in their characters, plot, messages, and tone.”

Those of us who celebrate Christmas do not tend to think as scholars or (God forbid!) journalists, but as people of hope. We tend at Christmastime to rely most on Luke, whose telling of Jesus’s birth is, as the Rev. Harrington says, is “upbeat, celebratory, and even romantic.” We find in Jesus, all at once, inspiration, comfort, challenge and, in one of Pope John Paul II’s favorite phrases, “a sign of contradiction.” And the contradiction is right there in the two Christmas accounts: Matthew emphasizes Jesus’s noble lineage, while Luke tells the story of a savior born in a manger. There is a special moral significance, I think, in Luke’s account: a faith rooted in the Jewish prophetic tradition traces its origins not to a palace but to a stable; not to an aristocratic household but to a family led by a carpenter. It was a powerful way to send one of Christianity’s most important messages: that every single human being is endowed with dignity by God and worthy of respect.

Pope John XXIII offered a take on this idea that quietly reminds us of how the materialism that seems to run rampant at Christmastime is antithetical to the Christmas story. The church, he argued in his 1959 Christmas message, “has always fixed her gaze on the human person and has taught that things and institutions — goods, the economy, the state — are primarily for man; not man for them.” He added: “The disturbances which unsettle the internal peace of nations trace their origins chiefly to this source: that man has been treated almost exclusively as a machine, a piece of merchandise, a worthless cog in some great machine or a mere productive unit. It is only when the dignity of the person comes to be taken as the standard of value for man and his activities that the means will exist to settle civil discord . . . .” In this telling. “Peace on Earth, Good Will Toward Men” is not a greeting card sentiment but a moral demand.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. also took “peace on earth” as a personal and social imperative. On Christmas Eve 1967, the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. aired King’s “A Christmas Sermon on Peace” as part of the Massey Lecture series. (I draw this from “A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King Jr.,” published by Harper Collins.) King argued that “if we are to have peace on earth, our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional,” and he added: “Now the judgment of God is upon us, and we must either learn to live together as brothers or we are all going to perish together as fools.”

Like so many of Rev. King’s sermons that included stern warnings and tough lessons, this one ended in hope.

“I still have a dream,” he said, four years after his most celebrated speech at the March on Washington, “that with this faith, we will be able to adjourn the councils of despair and bring new light into the dark chambers of pessimism. With this faith, we will be able to speed up the day when there shall be peace on earth and good will toward men. It will be a glorious day when the morning stars will sing together, and the sons of god will shout for joy.”

Go tell it on the mountain.

 

By: E. J. Dionne, Jr., Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, December 24, 2012

December 25, 2012 Posted by | Christmas, Religion | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Five Myths About Christmas: Challenging Everything You Think You Know

No matter your religious beliefs — whether you’re devout, doubtful or downright atheist — you’re probably familiar with the Christmas story. From carols streaming through shopper-clogged malls to families trimming their trees to pundits debating whether there’s a “war on Christmas,” the holiday is ever-present at this time of year. But its history, significance and traditions are sometimes misunderstood. Let’s clarify what the yuletide is all about.

1. Christmas is the most important Christian holiday.

For all the cards sent and trees decorated — to say nothing of all the Nativity scenes displayed — Christmas is not the most important date on the Christian calendar. Easter, the day on which Christians believe Christ rose from the dead, has more religious significance than does Dec. 25. Christ’s resurrection means not just that one man conquered death, nor was it simply proof of Jesus’s divinity to his followers; it holds out the promise of eternal life for all who believe in him. If Christmas is the season opener, Easter is the Super Bowl.

The two holidays’ relative importance is even reflected in the church’s liturgical calendar. The Christmas season lasts 12 days, as all carolers know, ending with Epiphany, a feast day in early January commemorating the Wise Men’s visit to the infant Jesus. The Easter season, on the other hand, lasts 50 days. On Sundays during Eastertide, Christians hear dramatic stories of the post-resurrection appearances of Christ to his astonished followers.

The overriding importance of Easter is simple: Anyone can be born, but not everyone can rise from the dead.

2. There is biblical consensus on the story of Jesus’s birth.

Even knowledgeable Christians may expect to find the familiar story of Christmas in each of the four Gospels: the journey of Mary on a donkey accompanied by Saint Joseph, the child’s birth in a manger surrounded by animals, shepherds and angels, with the Wise Men appearing shortly afterward.

But two of the Gospels say nothing about Jesus’s birth. The Gospel of Mark — the earliest of the Gospels, written roughly 30 years after Jesus’s crucifixion — does not have a word about the Nativity. Instead it begins with the story of John the Baptist, who announces the impending arrival of the adult Jesus of Nazareth. The Gospel of John is similarly silent about Jesus’s birth.

The two Gospels that do mention what theologians call the “infancy narratives” differ on some significant details. Matthew seems to describe Mary and Joseph as living in Bethlehem, fleeing to Egypt and then moving to Nazareth. The Gospel of Luke, on the other hand, has the two originally living in Nazareth, traveling to Bethlehem in time for the birth and then returning home. Both Gospels, though, place Jesus’s birthplace in Bethlehem.

3. Jesus was an only child.

Catholics, myself included, believe that Mary’s pregnancy came about miraculously — what we call the “virgin birth.” (Frankly, this has always been easy for me to accept: If God can create the universe from nothing, then a virgin birth seems relatively simple by comparison.) Catholics also believe that Mary remained a virgin her entire life, though many Protestants do not.

So when Catholics stumble upon Gospel passages that speak of Jesus’s brothers and sisters, they are often confused. In the Gospel of Luke, someone tells Jesus: “Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to see you.” In Mark’s Gospel, people from Nazareth exclaim: “Is not this the carpenter’s son? . . . Are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And are not all his sisters with us?” Even Saint Paul called James “the Lord’s brother.”

Such passages are sometimes explained away by saying that these are Jesus’s friends, relatives, half-brothers or, most often, cousins. But there is a perfectly good word for “cousins” in Greek, which Mark and Luke could have used instead of “adelphoi,” meaning “brothers.” Many Catholic scholars maintain that Jesus indeed had brothers and sisters — perhaps through an earlier marriage of Joseph. So a virgin birth, but (step-) brothers and sisters.

4. The secularization of Christmas is a recent phenomenon.

Whenever I see a Macy’s ad imploring shoppers to “believe,” I want to stab someone with a candy cane. What does Macy’s want us to believe in, anyway? I doubt it’s the incarnation.

However, worries about diluting Christmas’s meaning go much further back than recent memory. Gift-giving, for example, was seen as problematic as early as the Middle Ages, when the church frowned on the practice for its supposed pagan origins.

More recently, some religious leaders in the 1950s fretted about the use of the term “Xmas” (which, depending on whom you believe, either substitutes a tacky “X” for Christ or uses the Greek letter chi, an ancient abbreviation for the word). The first few Christmas stamps issued by the U.S. Postal Service in the early 1960s featured not the familiar Madonna and Child, but a bland wreath, an anodyne Christmas tree and sprigs of greenery.

And some of the most beloved “Christmas” TV shows from the 1960s — “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” — have little to do with the birth of Christ and are more about vague holiday celebrations and, mostly, gifts.

Linus’s famous recitation from Luke’s Gospel in “A Charlie Brown Christmas” is the exception in pop culture, not the rule. The overt religiosity of that scene, which flowed from the faith of Charles Schulz, drew criticism even at its first airing in 1965, as David Michaelis detailed in his 2008 biography of the cartoonist, “Schulz and Peanuts.”

5. Midnight Mass is at midnight.

One of the hoariest Catholic jokes — “What time is midnight Mass?” — is no longer so funny. Midnight Mass, traditionally the first celebration of the Christmas liturgy, is also when Saint Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus is read aloud. Recently, however, many churches have moved up their celebrations — first to 10 p.m., then to 8 p.m., and now as early as 4 p.m.

Why? For one thing, churches are packed on Christmas Day. Second, the elderly and families with children may find it easier to attend services on the 24th, so as not to conflict with the following day’s festivities. As a result, some parishes are cutting back on Masses on Christmas Day.

One parent recently told me: “We like to get Mass out of the way so that we can focus on the gifts.” (So, by moving Masses further from Dec. 25, churches may be contributing to the secularization of Christmas.) This trend prompted a pastor in New Jersey to send a missive this year noting that Christmas Eve Masses would be at 4 p.m., 6 p.m. and midnight — “as in the real midnight.”

 

By: James Martin, Jesuit Priest and Culture Editor of America Magazine, Published in The Washington Post, December 16, 2011

December 25, 2011 Posted by | Christmas | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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