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Baseball: The Thinking Dog's Chew Toy

The boys of summer are back in Boston, although it still looks and feels like winter. However, Ziva, my new puppy, is hopeful about the new season, although she is quite mystified about the disappearance of all the white stuff she has known as ground cover ince her birth.

She already knows she needs to root for the Red Sox.

 

For and Against UPDATE MORE

The Iranian Nuclear Agreement may be the most significant diplomatic event since the collapse of the USSR. Here is a run down on where things stand as forces line up, pro and con.

The Iran political establishment supports the nuclear agreement.

The U.S. political establishment, Obama: Yes; Republicans and some Democrats: Probably Not.

The 51st state:  Bad deal.    "Improvements" to help destroy the agreement.

The 51st state and U.S. Congressional Republicans: Kill it.

MORE 4/10/15: Senate Democrats who are Jewish and/or who have large Jewish constituencies have a complex set of issues to work through. The NYTimes focuses on Senator Charles Schumer (D.-NY) who has never held back from support for Israel: "Schumer is Squeezed on Various Sides Over Iran Deal."  Will he support Obama? Stay tuned.  The Forward has a parallel story with more comment from inside the Jewish community: "Will Chuck Schumer Side with Republicans over President Obama."

Fifty bipartisan diplomatic, military, security officials: Trust and verify.

Madeleine Albright,  Graham Allisonm,  Michael Armacost,  Samuel R. Berger,  Zbigniew Brzezinski,Nicholas Burns,   James Cartwright,   Gen Stephen Cheney, BrigGen  Joseph Cirincione, Chester A. Crocker,  Ryan C. Crocker,  Suzanne DiMaggio,  James Dobbins,  Robert Einhorn,  William J. Fallon,  Michèle Flournoy,  Leslie H. Gelb, William Harrop,  Stephen B. Heintz,  Carla A. Hills James Hoge, Nancy L. Kassebaum,  Frank Kearney,  Daniel C. Kurtzer,  Carl Levin,  Winston Lord,  William Luers,  Richard Lugar,  Jessica T. Mathews,  William G. Miller,  Richard Murphy,  Vali Nasr, Joseph Nye,  Eric Olson,  George Perkovich, Thomas R. Pickering,  Paul R. Pillar, Nicholas Platt, Joe R. Reeder,  William A. Reinsch,  J. Stapelton Roy,  Barnett Rubin,  Gary Samore, Brent Scowcroft, Joe Sestak,  Gary Sick,  Jim Slattery,  Anne-Marie Slaughter,  James Stavridis,  Adm James Walsh, Lawrence B. Wilkerson, Timothy E. Wirth,  Frank G. Wisner,  Anthony C. Zinni.

UPDATE: Iran's "Supreme" leader enters the fray:  does the bad cop/good cop routine? undercuts the neogtiations? works with Netanyahu to scotch any agreement? Which is it? Or is it something else?

James Wood, Religion, and the Novel

This Sunday, the Guardian published a fascinating profile of the New Yorker's James Wood. In it, we learn that:

  • Wood has a new book, The Nearest Thing to Life, coming out later this month. In it, he worries over the God-like omniscience that novelists claim to have over their characters.
  • He believes that many--most?--great works of literature can't really be appreciated by younger readers: “It’s very difficult explaining The Portrait of a Lady to 20-year-olds, because it’s about choices and consequences, about the realisation that the world is smaller than it seems. Understanding novels requires wisdom, which it takes decades of living to acquire."
  • Wood's two children have become "totally American" and don't appear to love reading as much as he did at their age.

Of most interest to readers of this blog, though, might be Wood's comments on the difficulty, perhaps the impossibility, of writing a great Christian novel:

I can only think of bad Christian novels, like Graham Greene’s. There are mystical novels – To the Lighthouse, Mrs Dalloway – and in The Brothers Karamazov you have something like the iconostasis in a Russian Orthodox cathedral: certain panels, like those about Father Zossima or the parable of the grand inquisitor, uphold the faith that Dostoevsky undermines elsewhere. Maybe Moby-Dick qualifies too, though at the cost of being undramatic or essayistic or poetic. Perhaps narrative is inherently secular. It corrugates things, bends them too much to stay religious, as Dostoevsky wisely feared. Among contemporaries, Marilynne Robinson comes closest in Gilead, which is about a Congregationalist pastor in Iowa who’s dying – though she has to sacrifice a lot of the novel’s innate comedy and dynamism on the altar of high thought. The novel is a comic form, because it’s about our absurdities and failings. We’re told that Jesus wept, but never that he laughed.

I'd be interested to hear what other readers of Robinson think of Wood's characterization here. I, for one, think Gilead is a deeply if quietly funny novel. Think of the scene with the horse in the ditch, for instance, or the baptism of the kittens (which is, of course, also very serious). If you've ever had the pleasure of hearing Robinson read/speak in person, you know that she has a great, great chuckle, and her novels elicit that same quiet, forgiving kind of laughter.  

The death of Walter Scott

With a murder charge filed against a South Carolina police officer who fatally shot an unarmed black man in the back as he fled--according to a now widely circulated video--I wondered what account police initially gave of the shooting before the video surfaced. A story that the Charlleston Post and Courier carried on Saturday, the day of the shooting, provides the answer. Police in North Charleston, S.C., maintained that  the officer fired to protect himself after Walter Scott, 50, grappled with him for his Taser and took control of it. As the paper reported, with careful use of attribution:

Police allege that during the struggle the man gained control of the Taser and attempted to use it against the officer. The officer then resorted to his service weapon and shot him, police alleged.

The video discloses much more. It does appear to show a struggle over some object that falls to the ground. Then it shows Scott turning his back on the offer and running away.The officer, Michael Slager, aims his gun and shoots eight times, until Scott falls. Slager then handcuffs Scott, who is face down on the ground. Then he goes back to pick up the object that had fallen to the ground, and appears to return to drop it beside Scott's body, according to The New York Times.

As the mayor of North Charleston told the Charleston Post and Courier, without the video, the events that followed would have gone much differently.  

 

 

 

 

Death Penalty: Pope Francis vs. Fr. John McCloskey

As with so many other issues of justice, Pope Francis doesn’t mince words when it comes to the death penalty. Noting that Church teaching allows using force to stop an aggressor, and that such force might sometimes be lethal, he nonetheless stresses that this argument cannot be invoked to defend the death penalty. The reason is simple: with the death penalty, people are being killed not for current acts of aggression, but for something that happened in the past and has already been neutralized.

For this reason, Francis argues that:

“Today capital punishment is unacceptable, however serious the condemned’s crime may have been”. Why? Because “it is an offense to the inviolability of life and to the dignity of the human person which contradicts God’s plan for man and for society and his merciful justice, and it fails to conform to any just purpose of punishment. It does not render justice to the victims, but rather foments revenge”.

The pope goes on to argue the death penalty “loses all legitimacy due to the defective selectivity of the criminal justice system and in the face of the possibility of judicial error”. This rings especially true in the United States, with its horrendous record of racial injustice. Moreover, the evil is compounded by the fact that the suspended period between sentence and execution is tantamount to a form of torture. Again, this rings true with the death row experience in the United States.

In all of this, Pope Francis is walking a path cleared by Saint John Paul II, although he is certainly doing some further clearing himself. He is strengthening the moral case laid down the John Paul, who concluded that cases where the death penalty is licit in the modern world are “very rare, if not practically non-existent”.

Thankfully, we can see some evidence of a turning tide in the United States on the death penalty, at last among Catholics. This issue is finally starting to transcend the partisan divide – as evidenced by a joint op-ed by the editors of four leading Catholic publications, from both the right and left.  

But there are still some noisy Catholic death penalty dead-enders out there. Fr. C. John McCloskey is certainly among the worst of them.

McCloskey crowns his pro-death penalty argument with the following stunning statement:

“Indeed, for any son or daughter of God, it is a great grace to know the time of one’s death, as it gives us the opportunity to get right with the Lord who will judge us at our death. Perhaps many people have been saved in this way by the death penalty. Who knows what would have happened if they had been allowed to linger in this life, one day possibly killing other people?”

This is shocking in its depravity. Taken to its logical conclusion, this argument could be deployed to justify all kinds of barbarous behavior. It’s not that different from Arnaud Amalric’s reputed call to “kill them all for the Lord knows his own” during the Albigensian crusade. Why not just wipe out people in crime-ridden neighborhoods, or in countries with a beef against the United States - after giving them enough warning to prepare for a good death, of course? Even better, why not promote euthanasia after a good confession as a virtuous practice to be encouraged? Or just kill people before they have a chance to commit sins in the first place – making abortion a virtuous practice too?

Yes, these examples are horrific caricatures, but I submit that McCloskey’s position is not far from them. The best response comes, once again, from Pope Francis:

“Life, human life above all, belongs to God alone. Not even a murderer loses his personal dignity, and God himself pledges to guarantee this. As St. Ambrose taught, God did not want to punish Cain with homicide, for He wants the sinner to repent more than to die”.

To repent and live, not to repent and die. 

Jon Sobrino and the Resurrection

An editorial project that has been on my desk for more than a year now, and was finally published on Holy Thursday, is the spring issue of The Yale ISM Review, centering on the theme of the Passion.

The last piece in the issue offers an unusual (and, I think, stimulating) discussion of the Resurrection that I'd like to share with you. It’s a short film featuring liberation theologian Jon Sobrino, SJ, filmed at the University of Central America in El Salvador.

He speaks of “the last mystery of reality: God” revealed in Exodus—a mystery we are invited to participate in—and the conversation ends with his comments on the hope introduced into history by the Resurrection of Jesus. "Not every life is a source of hope," he says, "but there are sources of hope, and I see that." (In the uncut version, he mentions Archbishop Romero, but the audio was unclear and we had to omit it).

I value the film not only as a window onto Jon Sobrino's ideas but also as a glimpse of his personal qualities. If you watch the film, you'll see what I mean.

The film is seven minutes long. It’s a conversation, not a treatise, so please don’t expect it to say everything about everything. I think what he does say, however, is worth hearing and considering.

You can see it here.

The Second Day

Lent, like Advent, is a season of preparation and expectation. Officially, it ends on Holy Thursday, but Holy Saturday—the day between Jesus' public defeat and his quiet triumph—is the greatest day of expectation in the Christian calendar. For the church, this expectation is full of gladness: we know how the story ends. For Christ's first followers, though, the day brought more despair than hope. If he was truly dead, they had been fools. Had they been taken in, or had they simply misunderstood what he was up to? Either way, they were now at loose ends. Could they just go back to their old lives, seeing what they had seen, hoping for what they had hoped for? That may have seemed to some of them like the best they could do, and it wasn't much. The greater the hope, the greater the disappointment: their old lives would now seem terribly empty, hollowed out by an extraordinary but finally meaningless interlude.

The empty tomb saved them from that emptiness, but on this one day it is worth considering their brief predicament. Most of us have known, at least once, the kind of loss or disappointment that stuns a person into silence. After the silence comes a question: What now? Not the exasperated  "What now?" that means, "I thought I'd seen it all," but the desolate "What now?" that means, "What could possibly happen now, or ever, that would make sense of what has already happened?"

Meanwhile, Jesus is not lying in his death shroud waiting to be reanimated. He's busy. There are many great paintings of the Harrowing of Hell, but only a few great poems. One of them is by Denise Levertov. For copyright reasons, I won't include the whole thing here, but it's easy to find and well worth reading. The poem first describes the moment of rescue:

the merciful dead, the prophets,
the innocents just His own age and those
unnumbered others waiting here
unaware, in an endless void He is ending
now, stooping to tug at their hands,
to pull them from their sarcophagi,
dazzled, almost unwilling.

Then the poem turns toward the...what should we call it? Not the Ascent—that word is already taken for Christ's final return to the Father. Nevertheless, before he could ascend into heaven, he had to climb back to earth, and meet again with his disappointed friends, and show them that they had hoped too little, not too much. To do this, he had "to break / through earth and stone of the faithless world":

back to the cold sepulchre, tearstained
stifling shroud; to break from them
back into breath and heartbeat, and walk
the world again, closed into days and weeks again,
wounds of His anguish open, and Spirit
streaming through every cell of flesh
so that if mortal sight could bear
to perceive it, it would be seen
His mortal flesh was lit from within, now,
and aching for home.

You can read all of "Ikon: The Harrowing of Hell" here.

National Poetry Month: Claudia Rankine and Michael Robbins

My next column for the magazine features a review of Claudia Rankine's Citizen: An American Lyric, so I'll keep my proselytizing short here. Rankine has written several strong collections before, but Citizen (2014) is of an entirely different dimension, especially in terms of formal originality. The book blends poetry, prose, and visual art, all in an attempt to show how race continues to shape and deform the American experiment.

Citizen makes for hard reading in two senses. First, it is difficult like The Waste Land or any other work of experimental literature is difficult. That is to say, our normal ways of reading aren't quite adequate here. And even when you finally feel like you're getting the hang of things, when you have gotten used to one mode of writing (say, Rankine's impressionistic prose poems), Citizen switches things up with fragments of lyric poetry written in free verse or snippets of overheard dialogue.

The book's second kind of difficulty: it shows us things that we'd rather not see or think about, how we as a society talk and imagine "the other"--in this case, brown and black bodies--and how this talking/imagining poisons not just the souls of "the other" but our own souls as well.  Here is a short excerpt from the book:

Some years there exists a wanting to escape—

you, floating above your certain ache—  

still the ache coexists.

Call that the immanent you—

 

You are you even before you

grow into understanding you

are not anyone, worthless,

not worth you.

 

Even as your own weight insists
you are here, fighting off
the weight of nonexistence.

 

And still this life parts your lids, you see
you seeing your extending hand

as a falling wave—

My second suggested poet, Michael Robbins, appears very different from Rankine on the surface. Where her work often seems to abjure poetic form, maybe even poetry itself, Robbins is committed to the formal constraints of verse. He writes most regularly in tight quatrains or quintets, regularly rhymes in surprising and inventive ways (you can hear the echoes of hip hop in many of his poems), and isn't above writing a sonnet or two. In a recent essay, Robbins, an occasional Commonweal contributor, has described the shifty term "form" as "those features that make a given verbal act shareable." His own work continually shows how poetic language might become shareable through the use of rhyme and meter--techniques that cause the community of readers to read with the same breath and cadence, to experience the same incantatory power of language.

Above all else, Robbins's work is comic: there are many, many lines in both of his collections, Alien Vs. Predator and The Second Sex, that caused me to laugh out loud, and that's a rare feat for a collection of poetry. In "Use Your Illusion," for instance, Robbins urges us to "Put the Christ back in Xbox," a line that I remember every time a war against Christmas is solemnly proclaimed on television and then is followed immediately by ads for Toys R Us. In "The Second Sex," Robbins writes, 

I say the wrong thing. I have OCD.
My obsessive compulsions are disorderly.
I say the wrong thing, did I already say?
I drive my dominatrix away.

The one thing that most clearly connects Rankine and Robbins? Their ability to make us see everyday language in a new light. For Rankine, this most often is the language we use in our encounters with the other; for Robbins, it is the language of American capitalism and patriotism: "Ask not what the Dew can do for you. / Ask about our special rates / for armed services personnel"; "Mistakes were made at Plymouth Rock." In a somewhat paradoxical manner, both poets, to quote Eliot, "purify the language of the tribe": they use the resources of poetry to distill and clarify the impurities of our society's language. 

What do we love in Christ?

"And we have seen him, and he had no beauty nor comeliness" (Is 53:2). Was our bridegroom ugly, then? Of course not! ... It was to those persecuting him that he appeared ugly. If they had not thought him ugly, they would not have attacked him, they would not have beaten him with whips, they would not have crowned him with thorns, they would not have dishonored him with spit. They did all these things because he appeared ugly to them. They did not have eyes to see why he is beautiful.

To what eyes does Christ appear beautiful? The kind of eyes Christ himself sought when he said to Philip: "Have I been with you so long, and you still do not see me" (Jn 14:9)? They are eyes that need to be cleansed to be able to see that light, eyes that when even slightly touched by his splendor, are inflamed with love and desire to be healed and enlightened. That you may learn that Christ is beautiful, the prophet says of him: "More beautiful than all the sons of men" (Ps 44:3). ...

What do we love in Christ? His crucified limbs? His pierced side? Or his love? When we hear that he suffered for us, what do we love? We love his love. He loved us so that we would love him in return, and so that we might love him in return, he has come to us with his Spirit. (Augustine, Enar. in Ps 127, 8)

Bob Menendez: a look back

Back in 2006, I wrote an article in Commonweal that criticized some over-the-top attacks Republicans made on Bob Menendez during his campaign for U.S. Senate in New Jersey.

As a young man, Menendez had aided  prosecutors by testifying before a federal grand jury and then at the corruption trial of his mentor, Bill Musto, the mayor of Union City, N.J. and New Jersey’s senior state legislator. The GOP claimed that for Menendez to have testified, he must have been in cahoots with the mayor, who was convicted in 1982 of racketeering for a scheme to take hundreds of thousands of dollars in payoffs from a construction company that was not-so-secretly controlled by organized crime.

The GOP accusation against Menendez was false, as I knew from having covered the investigation from its genesis while a cub reporter at the local paper, The Hudson Dispatch.

Menendez was among a group of young, up-and-coming politicos who looked up to Musto as a mentor. Musto was  an old-school boss who helped the disadvantaged—the people who lined up outside his office everyday—in very concrete ways (in return for their loyalty).

Musto betrayed  Menendez. He put his 24-year-old protégé in charge of the local school board’s finances, and then Musto and some of his long-time supporters proceeded to milk the school system by taking payoffs from a contractor hired to build additions on local high schools. The contractor found the money for bribes by putting in for phony cost overruns on the school job—some three-quarters of a million dollars worth.

The true nature of Musto’s dealings with the contractor took some time to emerge, but well before that happened, Menendez suspected something was wrong and began to cooperate with FBI agents who came calling. His conduct was exemplary, according to federal prosecutors at that time. It was emotionally difficult for him to turn on his mentor, and dangerous to testify against a construction company that was controlled by organized crime.

When I reported on Menendez in 2006, I focused only on the young man, not the U.S. senator. But I wrote in Commonweal that “Some of his dealings as a public official have since been questioned--and voters should consider if he has lived up to his youthful ideals.”

It’s hard to predict what will come of the charges announced against Menendez on Wednesday. The Justice Department accused him  of accepting nearly $1 million in gifts and campaign contributions in exchange for doing various favors for a Florida eye doctor, including help with Medicare billing disputes and securing visas.  I’m not sure if prosecutors will be able to persuade the jury that Menendez’s actions are significantly worse than other common unethical behavior on Capitol Hill. 

But even in the light most favorable to Menendez—accepting his assertion that the gifts he took are legal because he and the eye doctor are close friends—his actions are unacceptable, especially for someone who started out his career in public life by standing up to corruption. It’s a great disappointment.

Wolf Hall: The Modernity of Thomas Cromwell

Flickering candle flames in chiaroscuro-drenched rooms. Sunbeams that stream through castle windows, casting clear patterns on the floor. Innumerable shots in the engrossing six-hour miniseries Wolf Hall seem to scrupulously define—even call attention to—to the sources of natural light that the tale’s 16th-century characters depend on. Of course, resonant visuals and careful historic touches are what you’d expect from pedigreed programming like Wolf Hall, an adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize–winning novels that airs April 5-May 10, as part of PBS’s Masterpiece programming.

But the meticulous lighting here amounts to more than just pretty cinematography and check-the-boxes historical verisimilitude: It contributes to one of the salient themes of the miniseries, which chronicles the rise of Thomas Cromwell, a blacksmith’s son who becomes the chief fixer for King Henry VIII. Amidst the power struggles and religious turmoil of Tudor England, Cromwell (Mark Rylance) is a lawyer whose level head and supreme competence become essential to Henry (Damian Lewis), especially when the monarch decides to get rid of Wife # 2, Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy). In the larger scheme of things, Cromwell is essentially a forerunner of the modern era. He is a capitalist—a player in an information economy—living amidst the dying embers of feudalism. He is a self-made man, surrounded by people accustomed to a rigid social order.

The luminous candle flames and daylight-channeling windows in the televised Wolf Hall, directed by Peter Kosminsky, underscore the contrast between Cromwell and his environment. Surrounded as we are by bulbs and glowing screens, it is hard to imagine functioning in the years before electricity. For Cromwell, such a dispensation was normal—and yet, in this telling, he is able to analyze financial and legal realities as efficiently as any accountant-turned-lawyer  living in calculator-and-legal-database times. 

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In Chile decision, Pope Francis risks reputation as reformer.

CNS photo/Carlos Gutierrez, Reuters

Episcopal installation Masses don’t usually involve teeming protesters, shouting matches, and popping balloons. But Juan de la Cruz Barros Madrid’s did. Last Saturday, Barros was installed as bishop of Osorno, Chile, following allegations that he covered up for a sexually abusive priest who had been his mentor. “Barros, get out of the city!” chanted the demonstrators, waving black balloons. The bishop’s supporters tried to drown them out, brandishing white balloons. Some demonstrators attempted to climb the cathedral altar. The service was cut short, and Barros was escorted by police through a side door. Chile’s cardinals, along with most of its bishops, were not in attendance. Familiar with recent history, they knew it was going to be an ugly scene.

Four years ago, the Holy See found Fr. Fernando Karadima guilty of molesting minors, and ordered him to a life of “prayer and penance.” The Karadima case has been called the worst scandal ever to befall the Chilean Catholic Church. Karadima, now eighty-four, was once one of Chile’s most influential clerics. He ministered to the wealthy, and had strong ties to Chile’s elite. He developed a devoted following, molding the church’s future leaders. Four of his protégées, including Barros, later became bishops. Now, several of Karadima’s victims—once his devotees—say that Barros not only knew about the decades-old accusations and did nothing, but that he witnessed the abuse himself. Barros denies all of it, and refuses to resign.

After Barros’s appointment was announced in January, about thirteen hundred Chilean laypeople, including dozens of lawmakers, signed a petition seeking Barros’s removal. More than thirty clerics signed a letter asking the pope to reconsider his decision. Two Chilean bishops reportedly met with Francis to brief him on how difficult this has been for the local church. “The pope told me he had analyzed the situation in detail and found no reason” to remove Barros, the archbishop of Concepción, Fernando Chomalí, told the New York Times. Just before Barros’s installation service, the papal envoy to Chile announced that the bishop had his “confidence and support.”

Some had hoped that pressure brought by members of the pope’s new sexual-abuse commission—several of whom recently expressed grave reservations about the appointment—might persuade Francis to act, or Barros to resign. After all, just last month the pope said that “everything possible must be done to rid the church of the scourge of the sexual abuse of minors and to open pathways of reconciliation and healing for those who were abused.” He even seemed to chide bishops who had used the excuse of not giving scandal to avoid addressing the issue. But yesterday the Holy See released a terse, curiously worded statement responding to the growing controversy: “Prior to the recent appointment of His Excellency Msgr. Juan de la Cruz Barros Madrid as bishop of Osorno, Chile, the Congregation for Bishops carefully examined the prelate’s candidature and did not find objective reasons to preclude the appointment.” If this is Rome’s last word on Barros, then Francis should know that his decision has imperiled not only the Diocese of Osorno, but also his own reputation as a reformer.

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National Poetry Month: Nate Klug

In honor of National Poetry Month, I'm going to be offering weekly recommendations of contemporary poets worth reading. Today, I'll start things off with Nate Klug, a young poet whose new collection, Anyone, has just been published by the University of Chicago Press.

In his Adagia, Wallace Stevens writes that "the poet feels abundantly the poetry of everything." To the poetic imagination, the world isn't described through poetry; it is poetry, at least when the world is seen most clearly and truthfully. Klug's work offers exactly this kind of reorienting of perspective, showing us the world in all of its particularity and with all of its resonances.

Klug, who has a Masters from Yale Divinity School and is a Congregationalist minister, has said that he only believes in God when he is writing, and his poems continually examine the relation between vision and writing, sensory perception and divine revelation. Take, for example, his poem entitled "Milton's God." (This and all subsequent poems can be found on the Poetry Foundation's website):

Where i-95 meets the Pike,
a ponderous thunderhead flowered;

stewed a minute, then flipped
like a flash card, tattered
edges crinkling in, linings so dark
with excessive bright

that, standing, waiting, at the overpass edge,
the onlooker couldn’t decide

until the end, or even then,
what was revealed and what had been hidden.

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Any liberals for religious freedom?

Are there still liberals willing to speak up for religious freedom?  I don’t know whether the religious freedom bill passed and signed in Indiana last week—and now reportedly up for revision—is a good measure.  I do know that, however one precisely balances out the pros and cons of the bill, it does involve religious freedom. 

That was not the perspective of the front-page story in Saturday’s New York Times, which framed the bill as one more tactic for discriminating against gay couples.  Conservatives opposed to same-sex marriage were “invoking ‘religious freedom’ as their last line of defense.”

No doubt some conservatives would invoke anything short of global warning as a last-line defense against same-sex marriage.  But is it really beyond imagining that many conservatives and non-conservatives, too, might be genuinely agitated about religious freedom for its own sake?   Certainly beyond imagining by Hillary Clinton, who was quick to tweet, “Sad this new Indiana law can happen in America today.”  Beyond imagining by all the technology, business, and sports and entertainment eminences now bullying Indiana with boycotts, not that these folks ever cared much (or knew much) about religious freedom in the first place.

The Times news story devoted almost two thirds of its coverage to these critics, far more than to any supporters or to Indiana’s governor. It did spare two paragraphs for a quote from Douglas Laycock, one of the nation’s foremost church-state scholars. “The hysteria over this law is so unjustified,” he said, rejecting the anti-gay sentiments being attributed to it.

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The Weal's Spiritual Writing Workshop

There’s never a dull moment at the Weal’s monthly events.

This past Saturday, we hosted a workshop on spiritual writing. The discussion was scheduled to take place at a bar in Brooklyn, but an unusually large crowd for an afternoon at a dive intervened. The Palm Sunday pre-gamers were apparently out in full force. Fortunately, our short journey to find another spot turned out to be great chance to catch up or get to know each other.

The workshop was expertly led by Commonweal’s Editorial Assistant Maria Bowler. We discussed over sundry craft beers the forms of spiritual writing, problems to avoid when writing, and practical advice on publishing. We read excerpts from Richard Rodriguez, Annie Dillard, and Christian Wiman. We learned that good spiritual writing can have a gritty side, and that metaphors and similes are often inferior to descriptive accounts. And we figured out (with the help of selections from Rowan Williams) that avoiding the cardinal sin of spiritual writing—speaking from the “armchair”—means including yourself among the condemned.  

Maria began with a definition of spiritual writing that set the tone not only for her workshop but for the gathering itself: “Spiritual writing tracks the soul in relationship to something outside of itself.” All of us participated with each other—relating our selves those around us.

We hope that you'll join us at our next event. We’ll even buy you a drink.

New issue, now live

The April 10 issue is now live on the website. The full table of contents is here, and these are some of the highlights.

Andrew Koppelman on keeping the “religion” in religious freedom:

[The American legal tradition of according religion special treatment] has become intensely controversial of late, reflecting a growing scholarly consensus that special treatment of religion cannot be justified. While some scholars would rule out all legal accommodation, the more common view would allow it in certain cases, but under another description. It is morally arbitrary to single out “religion,” the argument goes, and so a different legal category, such as “conscience,” should be used. A second and related objection is that the bounds of “religion” are so indeterminate that the term is meaningless—a term that European colonizers, for instance, used willy-nilly to describe whatever local practices somehow reminded them of Christianity.

The singling out of religion for special legal treatment, I will argue here in response, is appropriate, and precisely because religion doesn’t correspond to any narrow category of morally salient thought or conduct; as such it is a concept flexible enough to be accommodated legally while keeping the state neutral about theological questions. Other, more specific categories are either too sectarian to be politically usable, too underinclusive, or too vague to be administrable.

Read all of “Nonexistent & Irreplaceable” here

Susan Wood reviews essays on ecumenism by the late Margaret O’Gara:

Although the church may not turn back in its commitment to ecumenism, O’Gara reminds us, echoing Pope John Paul II, that “no pilgrim knows in advance all the steps along the path.” Nor will that path be easy for pilgrims bent on the spiritual transformation that flows from collaboration: “they spend their time and talents on lengthy studies of positions they only gradually come to understand,” O’Gara writes with sympathy; “they endure the embarrassment and frustration that flow from the sins of their own church communion and from those of their dialogue partner’s church communion as well; and frequently their efforts are feared or suspected by members of their own church.”

Read all of “No Turning Back” here.

Also in the April 10 issue: William Pfaff writes on signs of dissent from America’s European allies, Richard Alleva reviews the film Leviathan, and Peter Quinn reflects on Baby Boomers “in the nightfall of old age.”

The Story Behind 'Nostra Aetate'

John Connelly, professor of history at the University of California, Berkeley, and a frequent Commonweal contributor, gave the annual Catholic-Jewish Engagement lecture at Fairfield University last week. Connelly is the author of From Enemy to Brother: the Revolution in Catholic Teaching on the Jews 1933-1965, and his lecture touched on many of the personalities and themes from his award-winning book. Commonweal subscribers might remember his 2012 article, “Nazi Racism & the Church,” adapted from that book. What Connelly’s extensive research uncovered was the little known but pivotal role played by Jewish and Protestant converts to Catholicism in the Second Vatican Council’s abandonment of the traditional Catholic teaching of contempt for Jews. It was John XXIII who insisted the council take up the question, and in the council document Nostra Aetate (“The Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions”) the bishops denounced anti-Semitism and proclaimed that “God holds the Jews most dear for the sake of their Fathers; He does not repent of the gifts He makes or of the calls He issues—such is the witness of the Apostle. In company with the Prophets and the same Apostle, the Church awaits that day, known to God alone, on which all peoples will address the Lord in a single voice and ‘serve him shoulder to shoulder.’”

Whether God’s faithfulness to his covenant with the Jewish people should also mean an end to the church’s missionary outreach to the Jews and a rejection of traditional supersessionist teaching is a notoriously thorny and complicated theological issue. That question has frequently been debated in our pages (see “What Christians Owe Jews,” February 9, 2015; “Getting Past Supersessionism," February 10, 2014). Doubtless the theological argument will go on. As a matter of history, however, the story Connelly tells is as fascinating as it is surprising. For the lecture, he focused on the life of Msgr. John M. Oesterreicher and the role he played in the drafting of Nostra Aetate.

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Monday Morning Links: March 30

Tuesday's deadline in talks over Iran's nuclear program is fast approaching. Whether or not Iran will ship its stockpile of fuel is becoming a key element in the negotiations. A brief rundown from BBC news. Confused about which countries are friends or enemies with other countries in the Middle East? This graph at The Atlantic will make it all clear.

As the Senate takes their two-week spring recess, Loretta Lynch's nomination as Attorney General is further delayed. But the Republicans are in a bind. From the New York Times: "Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, now finds himself in the conundrum that has bedeviled his counterpart in the House, Speaker John A. Boehner of Ohio: Members of his party will vote no on Ms. Lynch but hope “yes” — that she will squeak through." 

The Daily Show has a new host. He is 31-year old Trevor Noah, and CNN has a clip of his appearance on the show.

At the science magazine Nautilus, neuroscience can help us understand how music warps our sense of time. There are clips of music to boot.

Mark Noll reviews Matthew Sutton's book American Apocalypse: A History of Modern Evangelicalism at Books and Culture. Noll sets Sutton's characterization of how evangelicals treat the end times against Grant Wacker's take on Billy Graham.

 

Seymour Hersh visits My Lai

While preparing a lesson about libel for my journalism students, I recently leafed through articles I had written on Gen. William C. Westmoreland’s libel suit against CBS News in 1984. CBS had accused the general of deliberately underestimating the enemy’s troop strength during the Vietnam war, thus giving a false impression that the war was winnable. Westmoreland, charging that his honor had been impugned by slanted reportage, file a defamation suit.

My recollection is that both sides fared poorly in the courtroom battle. The evidence demonstrated some shoddy journalism on CBS’s part, with outtakes showing that interviews were quoted very selectively. But the testimony from Westmoreland’s chief of intelligence also showed that he had delayed reporting a higher enemy troop strength to Washington out of fear it would be a “political bombshell.” Rather than submit the case to the jury, Westmoreland settled the suit without collecting any damages. One press room colleague said, that CBS "framed him for something he did."

Seymour Hersh’s article in the March 30 New Yorker, “The Scene of the Crime: a reporter’s journey to My Lai and the secrets of the past,” revisits the question of how important truths about the war were covered up. It’s a chilling piece in which Hersh recounts how he reported on the massacre at My Lai on March 16, 1968, when U.S. troops rounded up and executed women, children and elderly people. Returning to the scene of the crime, he visited a Vietnamese museum dedicated to the massacre and reports:

The museum’s count, no longer in dispute, is five hundred and four victims, from two hundred and forty-seven families. Twenty-four families were obliterated—–three generations murdered, with no survivors. Among the dead were a hundred and eighty-two women, seventeen of them pregnant. A hundred and seventy-three children were executed, including fifty-six infants. Sixty older men died.

 

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Selling the Bible in Cinéma Vérité

Flannery O'Connor said of her short story "Good Country People" that Hulga, the "lady Ph.D." whose wooden leg is stolen by a Bible salesman, is forced to face not just the physical affliction the object represents but also a spiritual one, namely "her own belief in nothing." Albert Maysles, who died earlier this month and who with his brother David made seminal and semi-notorious documentaries like Grey Gardens and Gimme Shelter, depicts no loss of limb, literal or symbolic, in 1969's cinéma vérité landmark, Salesman. But the door-to-door peddler of Bibles who emerges as the central figure of the film confronts no less significant a crisis of the spirit.

Paul Brennan and the other salesmen of Salesman seem not to have grabbed viewers the way Big Edie and Little Edie Beale or Mick Jagger and the Stones at Altamont have over the years. But since Maysles's death Salesman has received a fair amount of mention and was even recently aired by Turner Classic Movies (it's also part of the Criterion Collection and can be streamed on Hulu). Pay no attention to synopses that make throwaway allusions to Willy Loman; consider Salesman an early prototype for David Mamet's Glengarry Glen Ross. There's a similar adrenaline-and-anxiety-fueled mood, with manufactured optimism verging on self-delusion as the salesmen alternately hail and curse a system under which they're free to make money using nothing but their wits.

Of course, the big difference is that Salesman, shot with handheld cameras in black-and-white and ambient sound, isn't scripted drama. That the products being sold are the Bible, the Catholic Encyclopedia, the New Missal, and other Catholic publications adds a whole other component: The quartet documented by the Maysles seem obligated to place special faith in what they're peddling -- after all, these aren't vacuum cleaners.

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