Obama and Jesus on Fairness

Obama always snags me.  I try my best to avoid being sucked into his beautiful rhetoric, but he got me on Tuesday during the State of the Union. What captured me was his strong language about fairness.  Over and over again he talked about fair practices in trade, fair taxes, and creating a world where “everyone gets a fair shot, and does their fair share.”

What is this gut reaction that “fairness” stirs in me?  Philosopher John Rawls calls it rationally and self-interest in his system titled, “justice as fairness.”  He believes if we all existed in a pretend state before we were born and didn’t know where we would end up, we would all create a world that was fair because we would fear being on the bottom.  We would identify with the other and know that she could be us.

Another philosopher, Martha Nussbaum, names this feeling of fairness as our understanding that we are all humans who deserve better.  She thinks we innately see the dignity in other humans and want them to have the basic necessities and the capacities to create a life that the person deems worth of living.

Are these philosophers’ ideas of mutuality, fear, and dignity what moves me when I hear Obama speak?   Yes, I think that is part of it, but I think it also points to something much deeper.  Obama touches upon my desire for salvation.

Talking of salvation, I turn to Jesus.  He talked about fairness just as both of these philosophers do.  He used the parable of the rich man and Lazarus to strike fear in us and point to how we are our “brother’s keeper.”   Jesus also respected the dignity of everyone as children of God and worked to meet those bodily needs through feeding and healing.

But Jesus also called the poor, the downtrodden, those who mourn “blessed.”  It wasn’t just about a “fair shake” or doing your “fair share.”  They are not simply deserving, but blessed in a spiritual sense.   God chooses an economic location for grace.   Our longing for truth, love, and wholeness –that is, salvation–is mysteriously and indistinguishably tied to being with and working for those on the bottom.

Being with the outcast and creating a world of fairness and justice is not simply to fulfill a divine command then.  It is an effort to labor with Jesus for the salvation of ourselves and the world.  It is through being converted, embracing solidarity with the least, laboring for healing and justice, and painfully dying to self to find new life that we become Christ and begin to discover our true selves and meet our deepest desires.

Obama was preaching an American gospel of hard work and fairness for all Tuesday night.  While as Christians, we must distinguish this gospel from the Good News of Jesus, we can be stirred when it echoes the Spirit.  We do need to create a fairer world and structure government in that fashion, but not because we or others earn it.  We work for this because all is a gift from God and in creating such a world, we find grace and the gift of salvation.

“What if it’s too hard?!”

My students are brilliant.  They endure so much and remain hopeful and faithful.  Prayers of gratitude pour out of them easier than on-time assignments.  Every day I hear praise that God gave them another day.  It’s amazing to me.  But, it shouldn’t be. They’re teenagers and they know they have a life of greatness ahead of them.

In this part of the world there is abundant chaos, confusion and distraction from what is true and right.  Gang warfare, poverty and drug addictions are thick.  We know people who are in jail and people who have been shot.  I shudder at the violence, racism and sexism I have been exposed to around this city.  It seems to me that the common culture tries to convince the youth of today that consumerism, sex, drugs, violence and selfish living are the meaning of life.  The teens are beginning to believe lies:  success is about fame and money and freedom means you aren’t locked up.  It’s an awful, tough world indeed.

Yet, the young come.  No matter that they’re required because they’re in a Catholic school, they still come and are very good.  My students arrive in religion class and argue about whose turn it is to lead prayer because many of them want to do it.  They love to meditate together and have no problem being silent and peaceful.  They listen and work hard.  They ask me tough questions.  Their silliness and playfulness helps me laugh and lighten up.  Their reverence is deep: a hush falls over us as we gaze into the sacred, living words in the Bible.  They want to believe and understand.

In my classroom I preach a lot. I preach that God is good and God is with us.  My students seem to be convinced that they have dignity and they are children of God.  The struggles begin when I start to talk about action.  I preach a lot about how we are called to treat all people in a way that honors their dignity, so they also know they are children of God.  Because we are Christian, I say, we must be different. We must act differently. We must live and love differently.  We really can’t fit into the popular ways of the world, because the world’s ways don’t fit with God’s ways.  We need to act like we believe that Love is the most powerful force in the world.

This week I’ve been teaching about forgiveness. I explained that because we are children of God, we are supposed to forgive like our loving Parent does.  I said that when we wonder how to forgive we can look at Jesus on the cross and see that it takes great sacrifice. I asked them that if we believe it, then what are we supposed to do?  In a world where pride, grudges and even violent retribution is as normal as nonsense, how can we act like children of God?

"cluttered stations" Art by Julia Walsh, FSPA

We read God Has A Dream by Desmond Tutu last semester and we remember that it’s up to us to help God’s dreams come true. Tutu has a lot to say of smart things to say about forgiveness:

I keep challenging my students (and therefore, myself!) Their exam essay question asked “what attitudes and actions could you take to help create a society that values forgiveness more than retribution?”

One student raised his hand and said “Sister, what am I supposed to say if I really don’t think it’s possible?”  I said that just this one time, I’ll give a hint about what he could write about.  The first step might be to try to have faith.

Faith isn’t easy in this messy world.  I understand that the world is not sending the same message of God’s goodness and might plus there’s a lot of evidence pointing to other ideas.  I understand that Jesus is asking a lot of his followers.  So, when I preach about the real, un-cozy and uncomfortable challenges of living the Gospel the reactions I hear make a lot sense:

“What if I don’t agree with the Ways of Jesus?”

“How am I supposed to believe this?”

“How can I possibly do this?!”

“Sister, what if it’s just too hard?!”

In my witty way, I tell them that they can take it up with Jesus. I gesture at the cross and tell them that I blame God that it’s so tough.  We can complain but we don’t need to give up.  Jesus made it simple, but not easy, so let’s take it up with him.  “Sit down with Jesus,”  I say, “and have a little chat.  Ask him for some help and grace and understanding.  Let him know how you really feel about it all.  If you really want to believe and be a follower I’m pretty sure God will help you.  You might be surprised.”

I sure hope I am right. I hope they’ll be surprised by the graces God gives and how they’ll be able to do great things with God’s help.   I hope that as my students mature they’ll discover that Jesus’ Way is the best there is.  I hope that it can be the only Way we’ll know.

in a body, God glorified

Last weekend I went to a retreat with other Catholic sisters younger than 40.  I met a sister who ministers as a hospital chaplain in St. Petersburg, Florida.  In addition to providing presence to all the suffering and miracles in the hospital, she listens to the prostitutes who come in for care.  Apparently, pimps buy McDonald’s value meals for poor women as a way to lure them into prostitution.  When the women work for the men the name of their pimp is tattooed near their private area.  I had tears in my eyes as I listened to the other young sister dream about a ministry of tattoo removal and spiritual and mental healing for the women who desire to leave prostitution.

The two things that I despise most about our human sinfulness are the sins of the sex and military industries.  Violence and destruction destroy experiences of holiness and dignity.  We take the gift of our God-given creative power and misuse it in attempts to prove ourselves.  We misuse our bodies while we live lies.

Really, though, we can give God great glory with our bodies and our lives.  Alternatives are abundant.  Although we are small and powerless, we can unite with Christ to do great things in Love.  In chastity and service humanity is healed.

Brothers and sisters:
The body is not for immorality, but for the Lord,
and the Lord is for the body;
God raised the Lord and will also raise us by his power.
Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ?
But whoever is joined to the Lord becomes one Spirit with him.
Avoid immorality.
Every other sin a person commits is outside the body,
but the immoral person sins against his own body.
Do you not know that your body
is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you,
whom you have from God, and that you are not your own?
For you have been purchased at a price.
Therefore glorify God in your body.  1 Cor. 6:13-15, 17-20

When I was a kid I was just as confused as everyone seems to be about what is right and wrong.  I was persuaded by our dualistic society and its messages.  Older Christians showed me that the New Testament taught me that we should live according to the spirit and not the sinful flesh.  Did that mean my body was not good?

Soon, my students and I will study sexual ethics.  I’ll emphasize that our bodies are really good and sex is very holy.  We’ll  examine how sexual desires can become destructive and dangerous when they’re not controlled: when we fail to use our bodies to glorify God.  Rooted in Pope John Paul II’s theology of the body and I’ll use this book and this website.  The holy power of our sexuality is alive in everyone’s bodies.  As we seek union, we are capable of creating new life.  As we love chastely, we can truly give God glory through our bodies.

Our bodies are holy and alive with the spirit of God’s goodness, which is why they are built for the morality of the reign of God.  We are children of God. We are free.  As we give God our powerlessness,  God converts us into temples of blessing.  When we say “yes” to God’s love our bodies are made powerful for humble service.  As we serve, we build God’s reign of healing and justice now.  God is glorified.

The problem is that not everyone gets this.  Sins explode and people are seriously misused because of our desire to be powerful and great.  Martin Luther King, Jr. calls this the drum major’s instinct:

And the other thing is that it causes one to engage ultimately in activities that are merely used to get attention. Criminologists tell us that some people are driven to crime because of this drum major instinct. They don’t feel that they are getting enough attention through the normal channels of social behavior, and so they turn to anti-social behavior in order to get attention, in order to feel important. And so they get that gun, and before they know it they robbed a bank in a quest for recognition, in a quest for importance. . .  Everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. . . You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love.  And you can be that servant.  -The Drum Major’s Instinct By Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

We can be the servants, who with Christ, show the world alternative ways to live. As we serve, God heals, loves, redeems.  As we place our powerlessness in the hands of God’s we are set free to be temples of God’s goodness.  In our bodies God is glorified.  We unite together in great love and become God’s colorful, healing, chaste body of Christ- the true living God.

"Christ" painting by Julia Walsh, FSPA

a mucky way of peace

As I continue to try to be a faithful disciple of Jesus I continually confront the messy, cluttered commotion along the Way.  I feel like I keep switching from being stunned by the beauty and caught in my human confusion.

The words I pray every morning stir my questions:

“Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel,
for he has visited and brought redemption to his people.
He has raised up a horn for our salvation
within the house of David his servant,
even as he promised through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old:
salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us,
to show mercy to our ancestors
and to be mindful of his holy covenant
and of the oath he swore to Abraham our father,
and to grant us that,
rescued from the hand of enemies,
without fear we might worship him
in holiness and righteousness
before him all our days.
And you, child, will be called prophet of the Most High,
for you will go before the Lord* to prepare his ways,
to give his people knowledge of salvation
through the forgiveness of their sins,
because of the tender mercy of our God
by which the daybreak from on high* will visit us
to shine on those who sit in darkness and death’s shadow,
to guide our feet into the path of peace.” Luke 1: 68-79

Good and simple and the Light on the path is mighty. The Light that shines on the path of peace glows into shadows.  There’s dusty despair floating around in the Light creating a strange beauty.  A calm collects and settles, yet the stains of sin feel like stones in shoes.  We talk about the beauty of God’s mysterious ways while a bad taste of discontentment lingers on our lips.  We remember that although we can revel in the goodness of God, we can’t forget the injustices and suffering that still are in need of great redemption.

Paths leading to trees

I’ve been on a blogging break for the past couple weeks as I finished up a semester of teaching, took a Christmas vacation and went on a silent retreat.  (Thanks to Sister Sarah and Steven for writing while I was away!)

The Christmas season is ending and I am renewed.  The blessings of the incarnation have re-rooted me in the core of who I am: a child of God.  As God’s child, I am on the path of peace.  A theme of my retreat was God’s Way of Love and I considered the power of the Prince of Peace being alive and home in the broken darkness of our messed up world.  Jesus’ way of blessing the brokenness of humanity permits us to have hope and trust.  God is enfleshed and alive in the fullness of humanity.  Back in my classroom I’m marveling with my students about how Jesus is a material man. He’s word, light, love, energy, feelings, image, sound, alive and fleshy. God is really awesome!

Still, my rejoicing feels mucky.   Many of my companions on the journey carry a lot of truth.  In the faces of many I see tears, hunger, fear and sorrow and I know that oppression is not over.   There’s more work to do.   My friends who are peacemakers remind me that we can’t sit down and give up.  Jesus loves us (yes he does!) and love is a powerful, world-changing force.

Love is messy, as written on a crumpled sheet of paper

We can’t slow in our work for peace and there’s an urgency in the good news. We keep creating the new ways of God- no matter how mucky they seem in coming. The muck can be depressing.  It’s unpleasant, but if we’re with Jesus it’s where we belong.

Nowadays, the horrors of state sanctioned torture and indefinite detention are especially disturbing me.  Guantanamo prison has been open for almost 10 years despite its human rights and international law violations.  Some of my activist friends are hard at work in Washington D.C. and here in Chicago with incredible fasting, protesting, educating and praying. Like they did last year (and Luke wrote about) they’re fasting and creatively, non-violently asking our government to end the injustices of torture and detention.  I join them as I am able: in solidarity as I fast too (from television), in action to increase awareness, in advocacy for justice and in prayer and contemplation.

I’m remembering how before Christmas we heard the news that all the troops were coming home from Iraq.  I was still in an advent waiting space in my spirit, but my mind told me I ought to rejoice and celebrate a victory for justice.  A shadowy waiting space and an enlightened celebration: I wasn’t able to unite the two.  Instead, I felt my joy fall flat.  I was opposed to the war before it began and my young activism was formative for me.  The ending of the occupation felt so long overdue that it felt more frustrating than favorable.  Peacemaking is mucky.

I am grateful that Jesus was born into the broken, confused places within our spirits and within our world.  As we suffer and struggle we find that we must remain open and empty to experience the fullness of God.  We must allow continual conversion.  After all, we can accept that on the path of peace there’s joy of the incarnation: we are forgiven, free and blessing the brokenness in the world.  The darkness cannot overcome the light, light shines through the darkness! Thanks be to God!

Road toward a light sky

Resolute acceptance

Guest blogger: Steven Cottam 

Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and restlessness… it strikes us when year after year, the longed for perfection of life does not appear, when the old compulsions reign within us as they have for decades, when despair destroys all joy and courage. Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: “You are accepted. You are accepted, accepted by that which is greater than you, and the name of which you do not know. Do not ask for the name now; perhaps you will find it later. Do not try to do anything now, perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted. If that happens to us, we experience grace. After such an experience we may not be better than before, and we may not believe more than before. But everything is transformed.

 –Paul Tillich, “You are Accepted.”

 

January is usually a very frustrating month for me. The reason is that I always make New Year’s Resolutions… and I almost always fail to keep them. December always ends in a flurry of nearly crazed exclamations: This is the year I will get organized! This is the year I will exercise more! This is the year I will drink less; and I will pray a rosary every day; and I will learn Spanish! Truly, this is the year I shall become a veritable superhero, doing everything right and nothing wrong, forever and ever, amen!

As you can guess, by January 7 most of my resolutions have already begun to fade, and before long I’m pretty much back right where I started. The truth is, these things are things I have wanted to change all year—things that I have struggled with all year—yet somehow I always imagine that the moment when Earth’s odometer rolls over has enough magic in it to banish all my demons in one fell swoop.

2012 Calendar
This ultimately makes me feel pretty crummy, since January ends up serving as a big neon highlighter, pointing out to me all the things I wish were different about myself.

It is for that reason that Paul Tillich’s words resonate with me so strongly, and why I try and read them at this time of year. It is startling to think, as I sit among my pile of shattered resolutions, feeling grubby and small, that God accepts me. God loves me. God will not merely love me tomorrow; God will not love the me who has learned Spanish and files his taxes early. God loves me today just as I am.

To really believe this is, I think, far harder than it appears. We pay this idea a lot of lip service, but I think we fail to truly internalize it; I know that I do. We have this inkling that God likes us, maybe, but we believe that he would like us just a little bit more if we were a little bit better. It’s tempting to allow that idea to propel us to greater sanctity, but behind it lurks something of a poison. If we cannot allow God to accept us as we are, if we cannot allow infinite love to embrace us, it is nigh impossible to accept people as they are. If we demand constant improvement from ourselves, if we must earn God’s love, we end up demanding the same from others.

So, in the midst of whatever resolutions you might have made, try and sit for a few seconds and really contemplate this fact: You Are Accepted. Don’t do anything with it. Instead of trying so hard to do something, to make another resolution, to add another item to your to-do list, take a second and just be accepted. Invite a moment of grace. And then see not what you can do with that grace, but what that grace can do with you.