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Thursday, September 12, 2013

What Putin Got (Exceptionally) Right

I am no fan of Vladimir Putin and I have real questions about what is motivating his recent actions, but I have to say that these words from his major essay in today's New York Times are to me deeply true and resonate with what I felt when I heard Obama say his piece about American exceptionalism in his Tuesday night speech. (Kudos to Mark Silk for making me aware of Putin's words.)

 "I would rather disagree with a case he made on American exceptionalism, stating that the United States’ policy is 'what makes America different. It’s what makes us exceptional.' It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation. There are big countries and small countries, rich and poor, those with long democratic traditions and those still finding their way to democracy. Their policies differ, too. We are all different, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God created us equal."

A New Way to Fight AIDS in Africa

The staggering numbers surrounding AIDS in Africa can leave us numb and paralyzed to act, but a new program under development by my good friend Todd Thomas offers a clear way for us to get involved and make a positive difference. Todd, building on his years of service in Africa, has begun a new nonprofit called Change Crowd. As he describes it, "Change Crowd will be a nonprofit that purchases and delivers antiretrovirals to HIV infected people across the world, beginning on the African continent, by creating a donor base (crowd) of people giving only $10 a month!"

More details on this important new work are available at the indiegogo website that Change Crowd has developed to raise the initial seed money for the project. I hope you will check it out!

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Russia’s—and U.S.A.’s—Dirty Hands on Chemical Weapons

News of Russia’s proposal to help eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons naturally brings out American suspicions about how genuine Russia’s efforts are. After all, the argument goes, hasn’t Russia been a supplier ofweapons to Syria for years? How can we trust their intentions?

The problem with that argument is that it assumes that a country must have a pure heart and clean hands in order to contribute to a diplomatic effort. If that were so, then the United States would hardly be in a good position to be lecturing Syria and Russia about their attitudes towards chemical weapons. After all, as recently released records, the United States played a significant role in enabling the last great user of chemical weapons in the Middle East, Saddam Hussein and Iraq. Check out the complete report, but here is a portion of a story in the WashingtonPost:

Foreign Policy published a disturbing article over the weekend about U.S. complicity in Iraq’s use of chemical weapons against Iran in the 1980s. Recently declassified CIA documents uncovered by the magazine and interviews with experts reveal that not only did the U.S. government know that Iraq was using chemical weapons in the conflict earlier than disclosed, it gave satellite intelligence to Iraqi forces that helped them plan future chemical weapon offenses:

In 1988, during the waning days of Iraq’s war with Iran, the United States learned through satellite imagery that Iran was about to gain a major strategic advantage by exploiting a hole in Iraqi defenses. U.S. intelligence officials conveyed the location of the Iranian troops to Iraq, fully aware that [Saddam] Hussein’s military would attack with chemical weapons, including sarin, a lethal nerve agent.
The intelligence included imagery and maps about Iranian troop movements, as well as the locations of Iranian logistics facilities and details about Iranian air defenses. The Iraqis used mustard gas and sarin prior to four major offensives in early 1988 that relied on U.S. satellite imagery, maps, and other intelligence.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Saudis Announce Support For US Strikes: What Does THAT Mean?

The front page of the Washington Post announced the news: “Kerry: Saudis Support a Strike”, which elicited an instinctual response from me of “Is this good news?” I suppose that for a Secretary of State stumbling to find any international support for the course of action he has led the president towards, any kind of Arab support will qualify as a victory. But having the support of Saudi Arabia raises far more questions than it answers. While President Obama has gone to lengths to describes his military plans as being unintended to draw America into Syria’s civil war, Saudi Arabia has been an active supplier of arms and has been a key part of a plan that has CIA operatives actively training and supplying Syrian rebels. While Kerry sees Saudi support as a good sign, I see it as a sign that this proposed attack is about much more than just chemical weapons and that it is very much tied to an increasingly active intervention by the United States into the heart of the Syrian civil war. This perspective has been more fully developed by Adam Entous of The Wall Street Journal. Entous was interviewed this past Friday on Democracy Now! Here is an excerpt from that eye-opening discussion.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, your article provides enormous detail—for instance, the role of Jordan and the training, not only by the CIA, but by Saudi forces. Could you talk about Jordan’s role now in the training of the rebels?
ADAM ENTOUS: Right. So, what happened was, is, initially, the Saudis, Qatar, Turkey and, to a certain extent, the CIA in more of an observatory capacity, had set up their operations for arming the rebels out of Turkey. And about a year ago, a little over a year ago, you know, the Saudis were watching as these arms were flowing in, and were concerned that they were going to what the Saudis and what the Americans would consider to be the wrong rebels, and this would include Islamist groups, Muslim Brotherhood-connected groups. And so they decided to pull out of Turkey and move to Jordan.
They convinced the king of Jordan, who was a little—a little bit reticent initially to accept this being done in their territory, because they were worried about reprisals, where, for example, there are large refugee camps for Palestinians just north of the Jordan-Syria border, inside Syria, and the fear for the Jordanians was that the Syrians would literally push those refugees into Jordan and further destabilize the kingdom. What we found in our reporting is, is that Bandar spent many hours with the king and with his military chiefs, reassuring them that the Saudis would support the Jordanians through this. And then CIA Director David Petraeus was involved, as well, in helping assure the Jordanians that the U.S. would have Jordan’s back.
And last summer they created this operation center. And what would happen—what is happening now is you have actually more CIA officers now there at that base than there are Saudi personnel. They fly weapons in. The Saudis are the ones who are doing the bulk of this. They buy the weapons in—largely in places like Eastern Europe, to a certain extent Libya, and they bring them to this base, which has a landing strip and storehouses for the weapons to be stored. The Saudis and the Jordanians draw on defectors, largely, from the Syrian military, which already have a good degree of military training. And they’re brought to this base, where different intel agencies train them. And the Americans are there. The Brits are there. The French are there. The Saudis, UAE is there. And they train them, and then they send them into the fight. And this—but very, very slowly, this process has been built up over the last couple months.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And you report, as well, again in a replay of Afghanistan, that the CIA is not only training some of these rebels, but actually has put key figures of the Free Syrian Army on the payroll.
ADAM ENTOUS: Right. It’s a very interesting development, which we learned of as part of the reporting, which is, you know, we are—you know, the United States is not at war with Syria, so this is obviously being done covertly with the CIA. The Saudis were instrumental in getting the CIA to agree to pay these salaries. And the idea is, if these—if these FSA commanders receive American money, the U.S. is building loyalty and building relationships that would last into the future. And that’s the main rationale with these payments that are being made.
And it’s part of, generally, an effort by the Saudis to gradually increase the extent of the U.S. investment in the war in Syria. And it’s been slow-going, as far as the Saudis are concerned, because the CIA is—remains, you know, divided and skeptical about whether or not this is—this has a chance of succeeding. And that’s why you see, for example, the number of CIA-trained rebels entering Syria is incredibly small, given the number of months that this has been going on. For example, Congressman—excuse me, Senators McCain and Graham were told on Monday by Obama that an initial group of 50 rebels trained by the CIA were getting ready to enter, and this is after months of work at this base in Jordan, and the number is incredibly small.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about Saudi Arabia, Prince Bandar and the chemical weapons story?
ADAM ENTOUS: Right. So, you know, as you know, the U.S. right now is poised for military action in response to a very large alleged case of chemical weapons use on August 21st. You know, over the course of the last year, there have been these scattered reports of chemical weapons being used in much smaller quantities. Generally speaking, the U.S. intelligence community has been skeptical initially of those. The Saudis played an early and important role in trying to bring evidence of chemical weapon use to the West for analysis. And we were told, as part of the research for the story, that the Saudis had a—were brought by members of the Free Syrian Army, which is the Western-backed rebel group, a Syrian who had been exposed to an agent, a chemical agent. The Saudis arranged for that Syrian to be flown to Britain for treatment and to be tested. What the British found when they did the testing was that this Syrian was exposed to sarin gas, which the U.S. and British and French intelligence believe is only in the possession of the Syrian regime. That was sort of the first case that was—offered credible evidence that chemical weapons had been used.
And what you saw in the months that followed was, first, Saudi intelligence, so Bandar’s intelligence agency, concluded that chemical weapons were being used on a small scale by the regime. Followed by that, the Brits and the French were convinced of the same conclusion. It took U.S. intelligence agencies really until—until June to reach that conclusion. And that’s what led the Obama administration, at least publicly—it was cited by the Obama administration as the trigger for Obama’s decision to instruct the CIA and authorize the CIA to start arming the rebels at this Jordan base.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Now, you write not only about the role of Prince Bandar, but also the current Saudi ambassador to the United States and his close connections to Senators McCain and Lindsey Graham and also to the Obama administration. Could you elaborate?
ADAM ENTOUS: Sure. So, Ambassador Adel al-Jubeir replaced Bandar as the ambassador here, and he is—you know, has the kind of access to the circles of power in Washington that few, if any, ambassadors have. He gets meetings with the president. He meets constantly with the top White House advisers, as well as members of Congress. And he sort of used the Saudi playbook from the 1980s in Afghanistan…Well, in the case of Syria, the Saudis identified the core group as being Senators McCain, Senator Graham and former—former Senator Lieberman. That was the core group. And then Adel al-Jubeir, the ambassador—
AMY GOODMAN: We have about five seconds, Adam.
ADAM ENTOUS: —worked to expand—sure—worked to expand that out to bring more people in, and in the end built a great deal more support within Congress for arming the rebels.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Pope's Challenge: "Conquer Your Deadly Reasoning"

"We have perfected our weapons, our conscience has fallen asleep, and we have sharpened our ideas to justify ourselves. As if it were normal, we continue to sow destruction, pain, death! Violence and war lead only to death, they speak of death! Violence and war are the language of death!"
Pope Francis, September 7.

In an extraordinary message delivered today at the Vatican’s 4-hour vigil for peace Pope Francis issued a ringing call, deeply rooted in biblical humanism, for an interfaith peace movement that will move humanity away from weapons and the logic of war. It is a brilliant meditation, sure to last as one of the most timely papal statements on war and peace in modern times. Here are some of the most striking passages to me:

God’s world is a world where everyone feels responsible for the other, for the good of the other. This evening, in reflection, fasting and prayer, each of us deep down should ask ourselves: Is this really the world that I desire? Is this really the world that we all carry in our hearts? Is the world that we want really a world of harmony and peace, in ourselves, in our relations with others, in families, in cities, in and between nations? And does not true freedom mean choosing ways in this world that lead to the good of all and are guided by love?...

I would like for each one of us, from the least to the greatest, including those called to govern nations, to respond: Yes, we want it! My Christian faith urges me to look to the Cross. How I wish that all men and women of good will would look to the Cross if only for a moment! There, we can see God’s reply: violence is not answered with violence, death is not answered with the language of death. In the silence of the Cross, the uproar of weapons ceases and the language of reconciliation, forgiveness, dialogue, and peace is spoken…

Let everyone be moved to look into the depths of his or her conscience and listen to that word which says: Leave behind the self-interest that hardens your heart, overcome the indifference that makes your heart insensitive towards others, conquer your deadly reasoning, and open yourself to dialogue and reconciliation. Look upon your brother’s sorrow and do not add to it, stay your hand, rebuild the harmony that has been shattered; and all this achieved not by conflict but by encounter!

The Bacevich Moment

The book I had the opportunity to serve as research assistant for.
When I studied under Andrew Bacevich 15 years ago his was a voice in the wilderness. Now, sadly he would say given all of the suffering that has happened in the years since, his voice is the most credible representative of the vast majority of the American people. Where the clear majority of the people in this country country is now—disgusted by failed interventions, tired of continued fear-mongering and ready to reject an imperial president’s wishes—is where Bacevich has been for two decades. His interview with Phil Dononhue for the PBS show Moyers & Company is the clearest, most historically grounded and morally insightful expression I have heard in this debate. Be sure to see it. This is a moment when perhaps the American people will begin to dig deeper into how we have arrived at this moment. Here is a summary of his appearance:

With the probability of American intervention, Syria is everywhere in the news.  Phil Donahue, filling in for Bill Moyers, speaks with historian and Vietnam veteran Andrew Bacevich about America’s role in the world and the possible repercussions of our actions in the Middle East.  Given what we know about what’s going on in Syria, is a U.S. response justified? And if we take action, where and when does it stop? Is a military response justified and if we take action, where does it stop?
“If you think back to 1980,” Bacevich tells Donahue, “and just sort of tick off the number of military enterprises that we have been engaged in that part of the world, large and small, you know, Beirut, Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia — and on and on, and ask yourself, ‘What have we got done? What have we achieved? Is the region becoming more stable? Is it becoming more Democratic? Are we enhancing America’s standing in the eyes of the people of the Islamic world?’ ‘The answers are, ‘No, no, and no.’ So why, Mr. President, do you think that initiating yet another war in this protracted enterprise is going to produce a different outcome?”

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Dowd on Obama

Maureen Dowd can be rude and crude, but she can also be right on target as she is in her latest column. She concludes with this:

"Back in 2007, Obama said he would not want to run an administration that was 'Bush-Cheney lite.' He doesn’t have to worry. With prisoners denied due process at Gitmo starving themselves, with the C.I.A. not always aware who it’s killing with drones, with an overzealous approach to leaks, and with the government’s secret domestic spy business swelling, there’s nothing lite about it."

Thursday, June 6, 2013

The Deeper Issue with Spying on Verizon Callers

The explosive story, broke by The Guardian, detailing for the first time for the public the details of a seven year long court order forcing  Verizon to turn over information on tens of millions of American customers phone calls reveals the extreme disconnect between what our government elites know about America's national security policy and what us commoners know about it. This disconnect was seen clearly today when Senators Feinstein and Chambliss reacted in shock to the commotion that The Guardian story has caused. To them, this is very old news and therefore very unsurprising. As Chambliss put it, “This is nothing particularly new.... Every member of the United States Senate has been advised of this.” Of course, all this calls to mind the efforts of Senators who grasp the significance of this policy and believe it should not have been kept secret from the American  people. As the Washington Post puts it:

In a letter to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. last year, Wyden and Udall said, “We believe most Americans would be stunned to learn the details of . . . these secret court opinions. As we see it, there is now a significant gap between what most Americans think the law allows and what the government secretly claim the law allows."

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Medgar Evers and “Christian America”

I did an earlier post about my fresh concerns with the whole concept of “Christian America”, we approach the 50th anniversary of his assassination on June 12.  I really do wonder if white Christians who speak so passionately and certainly about how America’s Christian character is being threatened by culture war events of the last thirty years really have any conception of how deeply violent and profoundly anti-Christian America’s racial history was in the hundreds of years prior to the cultural upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s. Evers’ assassination is particularly powerful reminder of that history because it happened so very recently and was such a poignant example of that terrorist mindset that so captivated vast sectors of White Christian America for decades, even centuries.
particularly as understood by my fellow Christians who are deeply convinced that America has been forced from its Christian roots over the last forty years. While my last post focused on how America’s nuclear program, and its particularly idolatrous name “Trinity”, should give pause to Christians convinced that America’s fall from Christianity is a recent phenomena; now I want to ask how the assassination of Medgar Evers in 1963 fits with the conception of a supposed Christian America. It is an appropriate time to consider this as

The realities of White Christian America’s racial violence is spelled out powerfully in Amy Louise Wood’s Lynching and Spectacle: Witnessing Racial Violence in America, 1890-1940. Particularly relevant is Wood’s chapter “A Hell of Fire on Earth: Religion” where she spells out in vivid detail the ways that Christians “defended…lynching…in spiritual terms” but also “infused the performance” of racial violence “with Christian tropes and rituals.” (page 47) This was Christian America at work in the decades before the sexual revolution and Roe v. Wade and Barack Obama. Simplistic appeals to the virtues of that era should not go unchallenged and the historical amnesia that such appeals rely on should not be listened to.

A Nuclear Bomb Named Trinity

You learn something new everyday, and sometimes you learn something deeply symbolic. Such was the case for me yesterday when I was reading the Washington Post and a story they had about the first nuclear bomb test. How many of us know that the code name for this test was “Trinity”? How unsettling is that? How deeply revolting that should be to any Christian. How idolatrous that the Name we take as God’s deepest revelation of His character should have been used as the name for a weapon of such enormous power to destroy.

I can’t leave this subject without drawing out a further point. Often times in discussions with conservative Christian friends I feel such a profound disconnect because of their sense that the Christian character of America is under some sort of new, profound threat. Some might place that threat as coming from the cultural upheavals of the 1960s, others might point to the Roe v. Wade decision in 1972, still others will see the current Obama Administration as taking America on a decidedly post-Christian path. When I engage in these conversations, as I have often over the last thirty years, I feel such frustration at the historical amnesia reflected in these concerns. And so I ask “What kind of a ‘Christian America’ produces a mindset in which a nuclear bomb could be named Trinity? What kind of a Christian America is worth defending that could so willingly coexist with idolatry of that level? At what point do Christians in America ever face the reality that we live in a nation as rooted in sin and alienation from God as any other nation and that our call is not to prop up the Christian identity of any nation, but rather to live as salt and light in whatever nation it is that we live in?”

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Isikoff on AP Leak Story: National Security or Press Intimidation?

In the Brave New post-9/11 World “national security” has become a mantra uttered to justify and sanctify countless Executive Branch actions. Today, President Obama made official his willingness to use national security as justification for even the most draconian of measures—the unprecedented seizure of Associated Press records. Anyone who had hoped that yesterday’s announprecedented secret seizure of Associated Press recorduncement of Administration support for a federal “shield law” designed to protect press freedoms was the precursor for an Obama apology for the Justice Department’s actions was quickly disappointed by Obama’s announcement today. Here is how the Washington Post is reporting Obama’s response to questions about the scandal:

President Obama on Thursday strongly defended the Justice Department leaks investigation that secretly gathered private phone records of Associated Press journalists, suggesting that protecting U.S. personnel overseas outweighs press privileges in this case.

“Leaks related to national security can put people at risk. They can put men and women in uniform that I’ve sent into the battlefield at risk,” Obama said during a news conference with visiting Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. “And so I make no apologies, and I don’t think the American people would expect me, as commander in chief, not to be concerned about information that might compromise their missions or might get them killed.”

What is really going on here? Was the Obama administration really going after the Associated Press’s records in order to identify the leaker or is the scope of their actions against the AP indicative of an effort to punish the news organization for its handling of the story? The story is still developing, but the brilliant investigative reporter Michael Isikoff has a story now up that is filling in the pieces:

Justice Department and Associated Press officials clashed Tuesday over leaked classified information that led the government to seize AP phone records, with Attorney General Eric Holder saying it “put the American people at risk” and the news organization’s chief executive insisting it delayed publishing its story until it was assured “national security concerns had passed.”… Holder’s comments and a letter from Deputy Attorney General James Cole defending the seizure of the AP records – without notifying the news organization until last week --  drew a stern response from AP President and CEO Gary Pruitt. He  blasted the action as "overbroad under the law," saying  that "more than 100 journalists work in the locations served by those telephones."
"Rather than talk to us in advance, they seized these phone records in secret, saying that notifying us would compromise their investigation," Pruitt said in a statement late Tuesday. “They offer no explanation of this, however.
"Instead they captured the telephone numbers between scores of AP journalists and the many people they talk to in the normal business of gathering news."
Pruitt also defended the AP's decision to publish the story that apparently sparked the leak investigation…
Pruitt on Tuesday denied the article posed a threat to national security.
"We held that story until the government assured us that the national security concerns had passed," he said. "Indeed, the White House was preparing to publicly announce that the bomb plot had been foiled.
"The White House had said there was no credible threat to the American people in May of 2012. The AP story suggested otherwise, and we felt that was important information and the public deserved to know it."
Pruitt's statement  came after he received a letter from Cole, the deputy attorney general, which said  "there was a basis to believe" the phone numbers subpoenaed "were associated with AP personnel involved in the reporting of classified information." He said the subpoenas were "limited to a reasonable period of time" and were only taken after all "alternative investigative steps had been taken …  including conducting over 550 interviews and reviewing tens of thousands of documents." 

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Obama's Worst Scandal--the Seizure of Associated Press Records

“An astonishing assault on core values of our society”
Steven Aftergood, a government secrecy expert at the Federation of American Scientists, on the Obama Administrations seizure of AP records.

In what would seem to be the worst two weeks of his entire time in office, President Obama is under scrutiny with regards to three major issues: the IRS’s intentional focus on conservative groups, the Benghazi tragedy and the seizing of massive amounts of Associated Press (AP) records ostensibly to investigate a government leak concerning an al-Quaeda plot. It is this final scandal, what the President of the AP has called a “massive and unprecedented intrusion” into the affairs of news organization by the federal government, that I find most alarming. I say this not because I think the other two scandals are merely political witch-hunts by Republicans, but because the AP story reflects actions clearly and undeniably taken by people at the highest levels of the Executive Branch in continuation of a policy of aggressive pursuing leaks. In other words, the scandal of the AP story is not something that can be passed off on to the actions of lower level officials (the defense so far for the IRS scandal) or heat-of-the-moment responses to a security crisis (the Benghazi story), but rather is an outgrowth of a major Obama Administration effort that reaches to the highest levels of his Cabinet. This excerpt from a Washington Post editorial explains the story well:

In a sweeping and unusual move, the Justice Department secretly obtained two months’ worth of telephone records of journalists working for the Associated Press as part of a year-long investigation into the disclosure of classified information about a failed al-Qaeda plot last year. The records listed outgoing calls from more than 20 work and personal phone lines in April and May 2012, the news agency said. It said the number of journalists who used those lines during that period is unknown but that more than 100 journalists work in the targeted offices.
Federal authorities obtained cellular, office and home telephone records of individual reporters and an editor, as well as records from AP general office numbers in Washington, New York and Hartford, Conn., and the main number for AP reporters covering Congress, AP President and Chief Executive Officer Gary B. Pruitt said Monday. He called the Justice Department’s actions a “massive and unprecedented intrusion” into newsgathering activities.
The aggressive investigation into the possible disclosure of classified information to the AP is part of a pattern in which the Obama administration has pursued current and former government officials suspected of releasing secret material. Six officials have been prosecuted, more than under all previous administrations combined….In the AP case, the news organization and its reporters and editors are not the likely targets of the investigation. Rather, the inquiry is probably aimed at current or former government officials who divulged classified information.
But experts said the scope of the records secretly seized from the AP and its reporters goes beyond the known scale of previous leak probes.
“This investigation is broader and less focused on an individual source or reporter than any of the others we’ve seen,” said Steven Aftergood, a government secrecy expert at the Federation of American Scientists. “They have swept up an entire collection of press communications. It’s an astonishing assault on core values of our society.”

Monday, May 13, 2013

Feminists for Life on Gosnell's Murder Conviction

The landmark case against Doctor Kermit Gosnell has ended in a powerful verdict by the jury finding Gosnell guilty of murder. The reverberations of this case will be felt for years to come, both in terms of the legal significance and the media coverage. I received these comments in an email from Serrin Foster, the President of Feminists for Life:

Feminists for Life first alerted you to the horrors at the Gosnell West Philadelphia clinic in 2009 after two women and untold numbers of babies died. 

Today a jury of his peers found Kermit Gosnell guilty on one count of involuntary manslaughter in the overdose death of a woman undergoing an abortion at his clinic, three counts of first-degree murder of premature infants forced into this world, as well as several counts of performing abortions beyond the 24-week gestation limit under Pennsylvania law. There were also other charges and convictions based on the squalid conditions of his West Philadelphia clinic.

Thanks to pro-lifers and a few courageous reporters and columnists, these atrocities have been brought to the attention of many more people who now have an inkling of the desperation faced by women who seek abortions and the cruel truth behind abortion and infanticide.

New technologies in fetal killing do nothing to serve women or save their children.

May the surviving victims find healing, knowing that they are welcome in Feminists for Life and at post-abortion groups such as Rachel's Vineyard and Project Rachel. 

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Spiritual Ecumenism: Fiber or Fluff?

A major focus of my life over the last couple months has been the effort to build relationships among Christians in the Washington, DC area in advance of this Saturday’s Unity Factor Forum with John Armstrong (it is still not too late to register!!). One of the dividends of that work has been getting to know Fr. Tom Ryan and the work of the Paulist Office for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations. Fr. Tom is the head of the American office, located on the campus of St. Paul’s College in Washington, DC. The Unity Factor Forum will be held at this site and Fr. Tom will be our host that day.  

In preparation for the Forum, and as an outgrowth of my growing friendship with Fr. Tom, I have been reading articles by him. He is a gifted writer whose insights grow out of decades of work as a Paulist priest focused in the area of Christian unity. Here is a taste of his work from an article entitled “Spiritual Ecumenism: Fiber of Fluff”:

Prayer is and will always hold the first place in unity efforts because it is prayer that most changes our hearts, and it is our hearts that most need to be changed.
The conversion implied begins with ourselves, our ways of stereotyping others (“Orthodox always…”; “Anglicans do …”; “Evangelicals say…;”), our smug sense of superiority, our lack of interest in the changing understandings taking place between our church and another through the dialogues….
Spiritual ecumenism is also an exchange of spiritual gifts—contemplative and charismatic ways of praying, lectio divina, devotional practices, the theology of icons, the tradition of spiritual direction, effective approaches to youth and young adults, the practice of annual retreats and monthly desert days, methods of singing, preaching, and sharing the faith….
Spiritual ecumenism must seek out and serve life. It must be concerned with everyday human experiences as well as with the great questions of justice and peace and the preservation of creation. Through the prayer and the sharing, our hearts are turned more fully toward Christ, and the closer we come to him, the more we discover ourselves in unity. And in the exchange of gifts, what is lacking in each of our traditions finds its needed complement. The ecumenical endeavor thus becomes a pilgrimage to the fullness of catholicity which Jesus Christ intends for his Church.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Francis: "How Do We Overcome the Evil One?"

Pope Francis, whose regular emphasis on the devil is striking, has given another homily in which spiritual warfare plays a prominent part. But unlike so much other Christian comment on this topic, Francis emphasizes that spiritual victory comes through humility and meekness. Here is a portion of his homily as reported at Vatican Radio.

‘Father, what is the weapon to defend against these seductions, from these blandishments, these enticements that the prince of this world offers?’. The weapon is the same weapon of Jesus, the Word of God…and then humility and meekness. We think of Jesus, when they give that slap: what humility! What meekness! He could have insulted him, no? One question, meek and humble. We think of Jesus in His Passion. His Prophet says: ‘As a sheep going to the slaughter.’ He does not cry out, not at all: humility. Humility and meekness. These are the weapons that the prince and spirit of this world does not tolerate, for his proposals are proposals for worldly power, proposals of vanity, proposals for ill-gotten riches.”

Monday, April 22, 2013

John Armstrong in DC on May 11

It’s getting close! May 11 is now just a matter of weeks days away and I am so looking forward to it. On that day John Armstrong will be in Washington, DC to lead a Unity Factor Forum. I have been one of those working to plan this event and I am so glad that the time is drawing near. As regular readers of this blog know, John has had a great influence on me and I am a great supporter of the ACT 3 Network he leads. I am also an avid reader of his blog and his other types of writing. He is a gift to the whole Church and I look forward to this special day with great anticipation for what God might do to deepen friendship and shared mission among Christians from a variety of backgrounds in the DC area. I hope you will consider coming yourself if you live in the area--you can register here--or publicizing the event to others who you know that are in the area. I think it will be a wonderful day of prayer, worship and thoughtful discussion. 

Friday, March 22, 2013

Francis on Jonah, Japan and the Missional Church

I have begun a series of posts digging into an amazing interview that Bergoglio gave in 2007 to the international magazine 30 Days. In my first post I drew on an excerpt that spoke to his understanding of change in order to suggest that there are substantive reasons to believe that he will indeed be a pope who brings not only reform of the Curial bureaucracy but reform doctrinally as well. This is not to say that he will be some sort of anti-Benedict, but that he will be dramatically different.

In this respect I would point to another section of the 30 Days interview where Bergoglio draws on two stories, one from the biblical Jonah and another from the experience of the church in Japan, to pointedly question the clericalist direction of both the laity and the hierarchy. His reasoning suggests a missional pope completely willing to upend the status quo if it is coming between the mercy of God and the needs of the world. (The words in bold are the interviewers)

I have told my priests…:«If you can, rent a garage and, if you find some willing layman, let him go there! Let him be with those people a bit, do a little catechesis and even give communion if they ask him». A parish priest said to me: «But Father, if we do this the people then won’t come to church». «But why?» I asked him: «Do they come to mass now?» «No», he answered. And so! Coming out of oneself is also coming out from the fenced garden of one’s own convictions, considered irremovable, if they risk becoming an obstacle, if they close the horizon that is also of God.
This is valid also for lay people…
BERGOGLIO: Their clericalization is a problem. The priests clericalize the laity and the laity beg us to be clericalized… It really is sinful abetment. And to think that baptism alone could suffice. I’m thinking of those Christian communities in Japan that remained without priests for more than two hundred years. When the missionaries returned they found them all baptized, all validly married for the Church and all their dead had had a Catholic funeral. The faith had remained intact through the gifts of grace that had gladdened the life of a laity who had received only baptism and had also lived their apostolic mission in virtue of baptism alone. One must not be afraid of depending only on His tenderness… Do you know the biblical episode of the prophet Jonah?
I don’t remember it. Tell us.
BERGOGLIO: Jonah had everything clear. He had clear ideas about God, very clear ideas about good and evil. On what God does and on what He wants, on who was faithful to the Covenant and who instead was outside the Covenant. He had the recipe for being a good prophet. God broke into his life like a torrent. He sent him to Nineveh. Nineveh was the symbol of all the separated, the lost, of all the peripheries of humanity. Of all those who are outside, forlorn. Jonah saw that the task set on him was only to tell all those people that the arms of God were still open, that the patience of God was there and waiting, to heal them with His forgiveness and nourish them with His tenderness. Only for that had God sent him. He sent him to Nineveh, but he instead ran off in the opposite direction, toward Tarsis.
 Running away from a difficult mission…
BERGOGLIO: No. What he was fleeing was not so much Nineveh as the boundless love of God for those people. It was that that didn’t come into his plans. God had come once… “and I’ll see to the rest”: that’s what Jonah told himself. He wanted to do things his way, he wanted to steer it all. His stubbornness shut him in his own structures of evaluation, in his pre-ordained methods, in his righteous opinions. He had fenced his soul off with the barbed wire of those certainties that instead of giving freedom with God and opening horizons of greater service to others had finished by deafening his heart. How the isolated conscience hardens the heart! Jonah no longer knew that God leads His people with the heart of a Father.
A great many of us can identify with Jonah.
BERGOGLIO: Our certainties can become a wall, a jail that imprisons the Holy Spirit. Those who isolate their conscience from the path of the people of God don’t know the joy of the Holy Spirit that sustains hope. That is the risk run by the isolated conscience. Of those who from the closed world of their Tarsis complain about everything or, feeling their identity threatened, launch themselves into battles only in the end to be still more self-concerned and self-referential.
What should one do?
BERGOGLIO: Look at our people not for what it should be but for what it is and see what is necessary. Without preconceptions and recipes but with generous openness. For the wounds and the frailty God spoke. Allowing the Lord to speak… In a world that we can’t manage to interest with the words we say, only His presence that loves us, saves us, can be of interest. The apostolic fervor renews itself in order to testify to Him who has loved us from the beginning.  

Francis and the Mystery of Reform

After Benedict's resignation and before Francis’ election I did a post that I must admit at the time felt very much against the tide. In that post I suggested that there is a deep mystery to the process of reform and I dared to hope that a reformist pope could be elected from a conclave of cardinals who had all been named by John Paul or Benedict. I don’t often write much worth remembering, but I think these quotes are worth recall:

Those who are certain of the theological direction of the next pope would do well to remember that even a cursory look at the life of Ratzinger/Benedict (RB) shows the difficulty in predicting the future choices and attitudes of leaders of the Church. Surprise and irony abound…All of which is to say that Catholic people and institutions change and develop and reverse course in ways that are hard to predict. Reformers can become consolidators, and the men who they appoint can become reformers. It is the cycle of Church History that those consumed with the present can sometimes forget, thereby closing themselves off to the possibility of surprise and reform.

We are of course only just into the papacy of Francis and too much can be read into what everyone seems to agree was an extraordinary opening week of ministry, but when it comes to Francis and reform there is way more than just a week that can be pointed to as signs of deep change coming. There are decades of service in Latin America that give much reason to believe that what we have seen in the opening week of his papacy is NOT stylistic but reflective of substantive change to come.

There are many incidents that could be pointed to from the ministry of Cardinal Bergoglio, but for now I want to draw attention to a 2007 interview that has received inadequate attention. I would suggest that this interview displays a Cardinal bursting with reform rooted in his Latin American context and grounded in his deep love for Christ. I will do a series of posts from this interview and I hope that these words will receive a wider hearing and will be considered by those like John Allen who seem to want to tap down expectations of change.

Here, then, is Bergoglio on what I would call the mystery of true of reform:

Precisely if one remains in the Lord one goes out of oneself. Paradoxically precisely because one remains, precisely if one is faithful one changes. One does not remain faithful, like the traditionalists or the fundamentalists, to the letter. Fidelity is always a change, a blossoming, a growth. The Lord brings about a change in those who are faithful to Him. That is Catholic doctrine. Saint Vincent of Lerins makes the comparison between the biologic development of the person, between the person who grows, and the Tradition which, in handing on the depositum fidei from one age to another, grows and consolidates with the passage of time…
The early theologians said: the soul is a kind of sailing boat, the Holy Spirit is the wind that blows in the sail, to send it on its way, the impulses and the force of the wind are the gifts of the Spirit. Without His drive, without His grace, we don’t go ahead. The Holy Spirit lets us enter the mystery of God and saves us from the danger of a gnostic Church and from the danger of a self-referential Church, leading us to the mission.