Signs of the Times

First, let’s look at a few profiles of individuals in our “cloud of witnesses.”

¶ This coming Saturday, 31 January, is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Thomas Merton, OCSO (Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance), the Roman Catholic community to which he was admitted on 13 December 1941 as a postulant at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky. Few if any figures in Christian history have more effectively rewoven the torn fabric of faith segregating personal from public, salvation from liberation, prayer from politiks. It remains a supreme irony that a monk—especially one vowed to an order known for its discipline of silence—would become at mid-20th century in the US among the most articulate commentators on a host of social concerns, as well as an enduring spiritual guide to generations since, here and elsewhere, among a wildly diverse group of Christians and other people of faith.
       •My singular favorite biography of Merton is Jim Forest’s Living With Wisdom: A Life of Thomas Merton (revised 2008), especially for his three-dimensional depiction of Merton.
       •Merton’s Trappist superiors refused to allow publication of his extensive correspondence around the Cuba missile crisis and the ongoing threats of nuclear war. In 2006 Orbis Books published the edited collection, titled Cold War Letters (by Christine M. Bochen, foreword by James Douglas). The book is available online in pdf format.
       •For a brief summary of Merton’s influence, see James Martin, SJ, “7 Ways Thomas Merton Changed the World.”

Read Ken Sehested’s profile of Tom Fox, "Keep to Jesus." Fox was the Christian Peacemaker Teams staff member who was kidnapped and eventually executed by jihadists in Iraq in 2006. (While you’re at the ReadTheSpirit website, browse through Dan Buttry’s “Interfaith Peacemaker” collection of stories. These are great popular education tools for interfaith understanding.

Many forget that Christian Peacemaker Teams was “the first to publicly denounce the torture of the Iraqi people at the hands of US forces,” long before Seymour Hersh’s groundbreaking expose in 2004 of the torture at Iraq’s infamous Abu Ghraib prison. —Amy Goodman, “Democracy Now!” radio broadcast, March 2006

Speaking of Goodman, in her report of Tom Fox’s death, she described Christian Peacemaker Teams as “a non-missionary organization that has been documenting the abuse of Iraqi detainees,” clearly an indication of how warped the notion of Christian “mission” has become.

February is Black History Month in the US. “Unbought and Unbossed. That was the slogan of maverick politician Shirley Chisholm (D-NY), who shattered barriers, spoke her mind, stood up for the disadvantaged, and in 1968 became the first black woman ever elected to Congress. After her election to Congress, Chisholm scored another historic first in 1972 when she declared her candidacy for the Democratic nomination for President.” —US Postal Service, on the issuance of a commemorative stamp in Chisholm’s honor

Romero. On 7 January the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints ruled that former Archbishop Oscar Romero of San Salvador, El Salvador, is to be considered a martyr, murdered in odium fidei (Latin for “hatred of faith). This step pushes forward an 18-year process to have Romero named a saint. Romero was assassinated by right-wing death squads while celebrating Mass in March 1980, one day after his radio broadcast sermon calling for soldiers to lay down their guns and end the repressive government’s rule. The Plough Publishing House published The Violence of Love, a marvelous collection of Romero quotes. They also offer a free ebook download and audio book.

Quotable. “I was terrified. But I also knew that if I did not embrace this fear, it would one day own me.” —Lynda Blackmon Lowery, the youngest person on the 1965 Selma-Montgomery march, recently interviewed on National Public Radio about her book, On the Road to Freedom: My Story of the 1965 Selma Voting Rights March

The kind of progressivism which guts prophetic speech. “I’m a secular person. I’m not against religion. I think religion is good. But it has its place—inside the chapel.” —doctoral candidate at Duke University, founded by Methodists and Quakers in North Carolina in 1938, who was grateful the private school reversed its original decision allowing the Muslim call to prayer to be broadcast each Friday from the Duke Chapel’s tower

#UseMeInstead. Recently the North Miami Beach police department was exposed for using mug shots of black men at their target shooting range. After an Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) Facebook group took up a conversation about this news, a group of ELCA pastors began sending their own photos, in clerical garb, to the police department with the message “Use me instead.”

¶ “Blaming ‘religion’ for violence is like blaming ‘water’ for thunderstorms.” —Patton Dodd, “The Problem with Calling Terrorism ‘Religious,’”

The fun stuff. “Automakers cast off the shambling, apologetic approach to auto shows and hit the big Detroit exhibition with high-risk, go-fast, eye-popping, whimsical cars and trucks that recall the pre-recession heyday. . . . ‘Happy days are here again,’ says Michelle Krebs, senior analyst, ‘Performance cars, luxury cars, convertibles—the fun stuff.’” —James R. Healey, “Detroit puts pedal to metal,” USA Today, 13 January 2015

Multicultural bumper stickers (same car). On the left side: “God Is Still Speaking,” United Church of Christ publicity slogan; and on the right, “Carolina Roller Girls: All-Girl, Flat Track Roller Derby.”

Can you say flagitious? NBC announced 28 January it had sold all available ad spaces for Sunday’s Super Bowl broadcast. No surprise here: Cost for a 30-second ad reached a record $4.5 million. USAToday reports that niche rental companies offer luxury homes in easy driving distance to this year’s game venue in Arizona for $250,000 for the week (though chartered jet and limo transport, chefs and butlers could nearly double that tab). Tickets for this year's game have sold on StubHub for $937 to $11,500.
      Who am I rooting for? The the nuns at Our Lady of Guadalupe Benedictine Monastery in Phoenix, who are renting rooms to Super Bowl tourists for $300 per night and channeling the money directly into their community ministry budget. You go, girls!

¶ “The great novelist E.L. Doctorow once said that writing a novel is like driving at night with the headlights on. You can see only a little way in front of you, but you can make the whole journey this way. It is the truest of all things, the only way to write a book, raise a child, save the world.” —Anne Lamott, “A Call to Arms”

¶ “Call me foolish, but I'm guessing God would trade a little suffering piety in favor of more belly laughs." —Scott Pomfret, talking about his new book, "Since My Last Confession: A Gay Catholic Memoir,” National Catholic Reporter

GUNS, GOD, GRITS, and GRAVY. That’s the title of a new book by former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee who may again join the Republican presidential nominee parade. (The more common version of that traditional aphorism is “Guns, God, and Guts and sometimes Glory.”)

¶ In the two years since the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut (fatalities included 20 children, 6 adult school staff, 20-year-old shooter Adam Lanza’s mother beforehand, finally turning the gun on himself, ending a long, untreated battle with mental illness) there have been at least 95 school shootings in the US, including 23 in which at least one person was killed.

Every day in the US, on average:
      •32 are murdered with guns and 140 are treated for a gun assault in an emergency room.
      •51 people kill themselves with a firearm, and 45 people are shot or killed in an accident with a gun.
      The US firearm homicide rate is 20 times higher than the combined rates of 22 other industrialized countries.
      A gun in the home is 22 times more likely to be used to kill or injure in a domestic homicide, suicide, or unintentional shooting than to be used in self-defense. —

The US Constitution’s second amendment reads: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed." It takes little grammatical expertise to conclude that the second half is governed by the first. In other words, the right to bear arms is in service to “a well regulated militia” functioning as a state-supervised security force. We no longer have militias. The closest parallel is the National Guard. It wasn’t until 2012 that the Supreme Court ruled this right to individuals. This is the same Court that declared corporations—in “Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission”—to be “persons.”

At right: “Non-Violence (a.k.a. “The Knotted Gun”) sculpture at the United Nations. When the Swedish artist Carl Fredrik Reuterswärd learned his friend John Lennon had been murdered, he immediately began work on this sculpture, which was purchased by Luxembourg and donated in 1988 to the United Nations.

¶ In James Madison's initial proposal (8 June 1789) for a constitutional bill of rights, the wording related to the “keep and bear arms” provision was the following: “The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed; a well armed and well regulated militia being the best security of a free country but no person religiously scrupulous of bearing arms shall be compelled to render military service in person.”

¶ Founded by Union veterans shortly after the Civil War, the National Rifle Association (NRA) for most of its existence has catered to hunters and marksmanship competitions. That began to change in the racially-charged atmosphere of the ‘60s, and in 1977 the group began focusing on limiting Congressional oversight of gun control. Many consider the NRA the most powerful lobby in Washington, DC.

¶ “[I]f you are an American, you are statistically in less danger of dying from a terrorist attack in this country than from a toddler shooting you. And by the way, you’re 2,059 times more likely to die by your own hand with a weapon of your choosing than in a terrorist attack anywhere on Earth.” —Tom Engelhardt, “(Over)Bearing Arms in America"

Must-see TV. PBS’ recent “Frontline” program focused on the National Rifle Association’s super-sized influence on legislators at every level. Local congregations’ discipleship training should include watching and discussing this 54-minute program.

Hunters and shootists: You must be the vanguard of any movement to undermine the NRA’s chokehold on Congress, in order to get commonsensical firearm legislation.

Disheartment. Most in the West are just now hearing about the suicide of Zainab al-Mahdi, a well-known 23 year-old Egyptian activist, who hanged herself last November, sending shockwaves through the dissident community. Mahdi marched in Tahrir Square in 2011 against the dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak (whose government, at the time, received 25 percent of all US foreign aid). A member of the Muslim Brotherhood, she renounced the party’s corruption after its president, Mohamed Morsi, came to power in 2012 following the country’s first democratic election. Then, in July 2013, the Egyptian military overthrew Morsi. (Listen to Ahmad Amar’s haunting “Requiem for Zainab Mahdi”.)
      A friend, recalling Mahdi’s political frustration, quoted her as saying “there is no justice—we're lying to ourselves just to live.” Which is why our hearts need to hear the following pastoral word as a benediction in the face of our own frustrations. . . .

Benediction. “To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places—and there are so many—where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction.” —Howard Zinn, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train

©Ken Sehested, Language not otherwise indicated above is that of the editor.