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Grieving at Pentecost

On Tuesday morning my best friend Lúcás Chan, S.J., died at the age of 46 of a heart attack.  He was the epitome of healthy living and his death is, well, overwhelming for all his friends and family.

I can’t get over that our grieving over Lúcás is going on on the eve of Pentecost.  It has made me understand Pentecost in a whole different way these days because I’m preaching on Sunday evening and I’m wondering, how can I preach tomorrow without mentioning that my best friend died? 

What I am learning these days is that grief is best when it’s with others.  That grief alone is a painful grief.  Jesus’ followers knew that too, and when the 12 are gathered in the upper room with Mary, they’re gathered there because they’re consoling one another. 

They’re not going there because they’re waiting for the Holy Spirit.  They’re going there because they are really sharing their grief.  But their grief is not that they’re consoling one another by saying: Are you OK?  Mary, how are you doing?  Peter, are you OK?  I don’t think that was their grief. 

I think they just talked about all the love that they experienced from Jesus and also  they wanted to hear from one another how Jesus was loved.  And so they wanted to hear how Peter loved Jesus, how Mary loved Jesus, how Andrew and John and the others loved Jesus.  And it’s in the hearing of these narratives that I think that they were consoled.  And it was in that space that the Spirit found its place to enter into the upper room.

The Pentecost is not simply a sign of the Spirit’s descent or the birth of the Church as we’ve always said.  It was a moment of people grieving, people consoling one another about the fact that they loved Jesus, who loved them and died for them.  In that expression of how they loved, they recognized their salvation and found a way to move forward by the Spirit. 

I think that’s why I gathered with his friends on Thursday at a memorial for Lúcás.  We gathered because each of us, in very different ways, knew and loved him.  For me, I am consoled when his friends, students, colleagues, brother Jesuits, parishioners from the Cantonese parishes, and others tell me stories about how much they love Lúcás and how much and how particularly, he loved them.

When we gather in this type of love we know that our main concern in consoling one another is not asking how we’re doing, but what did he mean to us?  In that expression, what did he mean to us, we encounter the consolation of the resurrection and then can be led by the Spirit.

Reading the Same-Sex Marriage Polls in Ireland

Ireland is holding a referendum on legalization of same-sex marriage on Friday, historic not just because of the matter at hand but also that it would be decided directly by national popular vote – not (as in the case of seventeen nations that have legalized it) by courts or legislators.

Polling suggests the Yes vote (that is, in favor of legalization) will win handily, but not everyone is so sure. One reason for the uncertainty is the inaccuracy of the polling preceding recent elections in Britain, which predicted a close finish that turned out anything but. Another is the possible role of the well-known social desirability bias – the tendency of a survey respondent not to state true preferences out of fear it might open them to criticism of their motivations. In the United States it’s become mostly associated (if not synonymous) with the Bradley effect, named for 1982 gubernatorial candidate Tom Bradley, an African American who was leading comfortably in pre-election and even exit polling but lost to his (white) opponent George Deukmejian. White voters who told pollsters they’d vote for Bradley did the opposite. Some reports say “a ‘shy’ No vote” is seen as a real possibility in Irish political circles, given

the social pressure to at least appear to be sympathetic to the Yes vote … being felt across the country following endorsements not just from all major political parties but state bodies too. Even Ireland’s police association, the Garda Representative Association, has come out for Yes, the first time it has taken a partisan position on a referendum. 

Some recent polling says more than 75 percent of Irish voters favor altering the constitution to allow same-sex marriage, with most business and unions and even some Catholic priests publicly voicing support (the nation’s bishops are encouraging a No vote). The No side is saying that the social desirability bias is definitely at play. Dublin and other urban centers seem a definite Yes, but rural, western Ireland is trending No. Younger voters are in favor of legalization; middle-aged and older ones, less so.

An NPR report this week used the construction “conservative, Catholic Ireland” and also identified the country “one of the most socially conservative in Western Europe.” Other reports use similar language, noting the more or less familiar details that it wasn’t until 1985 that Ireland legalized the sale of contraceptives, or until 1993 that it decriminalized homosexuality, or that abortion remains illegal. Would a Yes victory amount to “a heavyweight punch to the body of the church” in a country that is more than 80 percent Catholic? Or, as Jesuit priest Oliver Rafferty, a visiting professor at Boston College, suggests in this New York Times piece, might a Yes victory actually offer a new opportunity for the church in Ireland? 

If it can no longer epitomize the broader culture in Ireland, Irish Catholicism can perhaps emerge as a more caring less overtly dogmatic and oppressive feature of the Irish landscape. Its focus might be more concentrated on ministering to peoples’ actual needs than on wielding power in Irish society.

Student debt comes home

The latest numbers from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York show student loan debt has reached $1.2 trillion, four times the amount it was in 2004. For the Millennial generation who stepped into the job market mid-recession, these sobering numbers probably aren't surprising.

Last year, a branch of Occupy Wall Street called Strike Debt, bought and forgave almost four million in student loans held by students from Corinthian Colleges, one of the biggest for-profit college chains, which recently closed its doors without warning and filed for bankruptcy. The company was under scrutiny for over-charging students for poor-quality classes and misrepresenting its job placement rate, and by shutting down, it left many students without degrees but deeper in dept. Now that Corinthian’s unethical practices have been laid bare, Tuesday’s petition asking the Department of Education to cancel debt owed to colleges violating state law is one good step, but the legal case is complicated.

Proposals for addressing the crisis of student debt range from the relatively modest (easing the requirements for debt forgiveness in cases of fraud found in Obama’s proposed Student Aid Bill of Rights), to the sweeping, as Bernie Sanders’s proposal to address the root cause of student debt by making college tuition-free. Regardless, some kind of action is needed.

The more burdensome a college graduate’s debt obligation, the more difficult it is to establish a path toward economic security – building savings, for example, or buying a house – and to enter stabilizing relationships or start a family. Student debt also affects the well-being of the previous generation, as parents rally to help their children, sometimes by tapping into their home’s equity or retirement savings. And, when the time comes, who are they supposed to sell their homes to when an entire generation of graduates is too constrained by debt to buy? There are also new numbers on how rising tuition and student debt disproportionately hurts minorities. Hollis Phelps in Commonweal last year addressed this very topic: “In a cruel twist, the very means undertaken by my students to get themselves out of poverty threaten to continue that poverty through the debt that they now owe.” What might have once seemed like a young-person’s problem (and perhaps a privileged young-person’s problem) is now more widely felt.

We should understand the student debt crisis alongside the seriously weakened prospects for job growth that early Millennials faced upon graduation. As the first Millennial wave graduated, job definitions were changing as industries shifted and automation spread, and thanks to the recession, even the jobs that were supposed to be there as entrees to the middle-class were gone, or greatly diminished. Companies relied increasingly on contract labor to defray costs, including adjunct positions at universities (which didn’t help the students who went to graduate school hoping to ride out the economic downturn). All this meant that the “foot in the door” college was expected to provide meant something very different than it used to. If you could get an entry-level position, advancement in the same workplace over a long period of time was no longer a solid prospect. And as many discovered, an unpaid internship began to increasingly qualify you for… a different internship—a point that has even made its way into Hillary Clinton’s speeches (though apparently her foundation's policies don't necessarily reflect that concern).

Despite the occasional accusation of generational flightiness, which ignores these economic factors, Millennials say they want to make the same things happen as their parents did: a home, a stable partnership, and enough stability to raise kids. Policy changes will have to span the sprawling and slow-moving institutions of federal government, banks, and universities. But changes are slowly coming. In some states, companies that relied on unpaid internships to fill staff roles face greater restrictions. The complaints from Occupy Wall Street’s corridors about debt once sounded less urgent and pressing to the mainstream. Millennials faced a lack of institutional support to build a solid foundation, and now the problem is coming home.

The End of 'Mad Men'

In the lingering aftermath (or afterglow, depending on your degree of fandom) of the Mad Men finale, it’s worth recalling The Paris Review interview of show-runner Matthew Weiner a couple of years ago. In it he explains his method of plotting and the influence of certain films (Apocalypse Now, North by Northwest, Days of Heaven) that resisted or flouted narrative convention.

People [like] to talk about “act breaks” and “rising action” leading to a climax, but what about Apocalypse Now? Someone’s on a journey, and sure, we’re heading toward a climax, but there are so many digressions. To me, those digressions are the story. People would say to me, What’s holding this together? Or, How is this moment related to the opening scene, or the problem you set up on page 15? I don’t know. That’s where the character went. That’s the story. So many movies in the seventies are told this way, episodically, and they feel more like real life because you don’t see the story clicking.

Celia Wren, writing in our current issue, raises valid points about the occasionally frustrating aspects of Mad Men’s seven-season unspooling. While the creator of a work should not be let off the hook for its shortcomings, I think some should be seen in the context of the general challenges of television production – actors leave, schedules are delayed, budgets and salaries change, as do perceived business needs – and to the particular production of Mad Men: ninety-two period-piece episodes engaging to lesser or greater degree the cultural, political, and historical issues of a decade, filmed over eight years about a half-century after the time depicted.

A time that many can remember first-hand, and that many more have relived or experienced second-hand, and vividly, through innumerable and infinitely replayed documentaries and TV programs. The audience thus viewed it through their own filtered stores of memory and recall – as well as with the expectations cultivated by deeply internalized notions of television convention. Unhappiness with the show was inevitable, and there were suggestions of it in how energetically the final-season prediction mill churned. Would Don Draper commit suicide? (Based on what – an opening-credit sequence that showed a suited man falling? Then what about his safe landing on an office couch in iconic draped-arm pose, cigarette dangling from fingertips?). Would he prove to be seventies myth-folk figure D.B. Cooper? (Why? This would be completely outside the dramatic universe Weiner so carefully constructed). Would Peggy find love, would Joan and Roger get together, would Sally become a Patty Hearst-like figure? There was an observable method to Weiner’s Mad Men, and it was not to go out with a shocker, address a nostalgic yearning, or tidy up storylines. Though some of that was delivered after all, which proved too much for fans like The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum: “There was nothing wrong with those other, often very pleasurable stories, in aggregate, although for a person like myself, who tends to like her finales like her men, without too much closure or wish fulfillment, the fan-service element made me twitch a few times.” You can’t please everyone, not even those who like you.

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Abusing immigrants, something for everyone

We had a go around last week about nail salons (and I have been chided for treating it as another NYTimes hand-wringer). Okay. Sorry to scandalize the sensitive!

I pointed out in a comment on that post that our Immigration Law Imbroglio has a lot to do with the nail scandal as well as many other ongoing industrial/commercial abuses, such as restaurants, gas stations, street repairs, etc. Thanks to Republicans our laws have not been updated; thanks to Obama the laws, such as we have, are not being enforced; thanks to the economy of low-wage jobs, ever more immigrants will come by hook or crook and be abused, many of them by their own countrymen/women and by our failure to enforce the laws that should protect them as well as our very own low-wage workers.

Jim Dwyer (no hand-wringer) has a short piece not only about workers beings abused everywhere in NYC, but about the general failure of city and state to enforce the laws that should be protecting these workers, legal or not.

New issue is live

We’ve just posted our June 1 issue to the website. Among the highlights:

Amanda Erickson describes the struggle of a Catholic parish community in Freddie Gray's Baltimore neighborhood to respond adequately, in the wake of the riots, to the root causes of hopelessness there:

The life expectancy of those born in Sandtown-Winchester is thirteen years shorter than the national average. Those are problems that can’t be fixed by one man, or in one morning. So instead, Rev. Bomberger grabbed a broom and headed across the street.

Andrew Bacevich reviews Andrew Cockburn’s “imperfect but exceedingly useful book,Kill Chain: The Rise of the High-Tech Assassins, about the motives behind and justifications for targeted assassinations and drone warfare—now common practices in U.S. foreign policy. 

Cockburn quotes one U.S. Air Force general bragging, “We can now hit any target anywhere in the world, any time, any weather, day or night.” Yet why bother with bombing bridges, power plants, or communications facilities, when taking out Mr. Big himself provides the definitive shortcut to victory? Here was the ultimate critical node: Decapitate the regime. As an approach to waging war, what could be more humane, not to mention efficient?

Plus: New poetry from Marie Ponsot, Celia Wren explains why the once-promising plotlines of Mad Men hit a dead end, Paul Johnston reviews the latest from Reading Lolita in Tehran author Azar Nafisi, Molly Farneth reviews the latest, uncomprehensive but newly non-Eurocentric Norton Anthology of World Religionsand Charles Morris reveals the dirty little secret of major-league banking bankers don't want to believe. 

See the full table of contents here.

Monday Morning Links: May 18

During this weekend's mass, Pope Francis canonized four women religious, two of whom were from the historical territory of Palestine.

Not long after the Vatican’s announcement that it would sign a treaty recognizing the state of Palestine, some outlets are reporting the Pope’s words to Mahmoud Abbas were “You are a man of peace,” though the Vatican Insider quotes him as saying “May you be a man of peace.”

 

What’s happened to cosmology? Aeon has an essay on how the field may be stalled (those readers may want to quibble with the author’s treatment of Christian history).
 

Today, President Obama will announce a ban and tighter restrictions on federal funding of military-style police equipment like armored Humvees and explosives. 
Back in 2011, The Atlantic looked at the history of how the police began to be armed this way after 9/11. 

Whether or not you’re interested in the sport of boxing, Kelefa Sanneh’s story on Floyd Mayweather is fascinating. “What should we do with athletes like Mayweather, who commit particularly disturbing crimes?” 

Video: Peter Steinfels with a Proposal for the Next Synod

Now on the homepage we're featuring “Contraception & Honesty: A Proposal for the Next Synod,” by Peter Steinfels. In this video interview, Peter explains what prompted him to write “Contraception & Honesty” and talks more about the issues he raises in it. There was a “glaring gap” in the work of last year’s synod, Peter says: "[T]he lack of attention to the question of contraception. Why did the synod appear to treat so perfunctorily the issue that was, and is, the starting point for the unraveling of Catholic confidence in the church’s sexual ethics and even its credibility about marriage?" From his story:

A synod that grabs headlines about remarried or cohabiting or same-sex Catholic couples but says nothing fresh about the spectacularly obvious rift between official teaching and actual behavior in Catholic married life is an invitation to cynicism. It could prove to be a crucial test of Pope Francis’s papacy.

But even if the real issue is acknowledged, “what can the upcoming synod do about it? How can the synod fathers, in a two-week session, realistically address a problem that has been festering since 1968?” First, talk candidly about “the pain and division that have wracked the church for decades now over contraception.” Then, “urge a renewed study renewed study of church teaching on marriage and sexuality” with 2018 as a target date. That would be the fiftieth anniversary of Humanae vitae.

You can read all of “Contraception & Honesty” here.

New stories on the website

We've posted two new stories to the website.

First is Robert Mickens's latest Letter from Rome, in which he tracks the angry reactions of traditionalist-leaning Catholics to certain words from an archbishop (one of Francis’s most trusted theologians) interviewed by an Italian newspaper. He also examines the continuing threats of schism from these Catholics "should Pope Francis and the Synod of Bishops allow for changes in church teaching on marriage" and gives an interesting look into how Opus Dei has taken advantage of the saint-making process, which was streamlined by St. John Paul II in 1983.

Read the whole thing here.

Next, the editors weigh in on the European Union’s welcome, if belated, announcement to take an active role saving refugees and expediting asylum requests for the hundreds of thousands fleeing war, poverty, and religious and ethnic persecution in Africa:

…certainly the nations that are blessed with relative economic strength—and whose military and political missteps have helped bring about the crisis in [Africa]—owe it to the afflicted to stop the loss of lives at sea.

Could the Obama administration’s response to the migration crisis in Central America be a useful model for European nations dealing with their own migration crisis?

Read the whole editorial here.

Welcome and Unexpected News

The Vatican has completed a treaty in which it will recognize the State of Palestine; details to come.

The Vatican statement:  very brief.  If Francis does nothing else, this should be celebrated in helping to bring an end to the Israeli Occupation.

Will it encourage other nations to do the same? Probably not our own:

On "May 8 Obama told several of his interlocutors that he had decided, despite it all, to cast a veto on the French proposal regarding the Middle East conflict (for a UN resolution on Palestinian statehood), if and when it comes to a discussion and vote in the UN Security Council. This is despite recent assessments that the Americans had decided not to cast such a veto."  Al Monitor  (This report by an Israeli journalist is quite good on the dysfuntional U.S.-Israeli relationship.)

Could Obama use Francis for cover? Or will the U.S. become the outlier nation as others recognize Palestine?

Putnam and Poverty, Part 1

It’s not often a 74-year-old professor gets a standing ovation from a public audience for an hour-long lecture with many graphs. But Robert Putnam gave a barnburner of a speech last night at Georgetown University’s Strategic Summit of Catholics and Evangelicals on Poverty. John Carr, the Initiative’s director, called Putnam “an Old Testament prophet with charts,” and he certainly had the fervor, but appealingly, the lecture was more earnest exhortation than prophetic denunciation. In an age where prophetic denunciation gets more headlines, Putnam is trying to tell a story about poverty – and specifically kids in poverty – that can unite us as a society. Anger is not front and center; rather earnestness and clear vision are his hallmarks. And he can still get a standing ovation.

Putnam’s talk kicked off two days of meetings, which will today include the President, on how Catholics and Evangelicals together can address the “purple problem” of kids in poverty. As Michael Gerson on the panel after Putnam’s talk put it, Putnam “has given us an ideologically inclusive account of the problem.” Many of the panelists wrestled with precisely this conundrum: how much of this problem has to do with individual bad behavior, and how much of it has to do with structural problems (of many sorts).

The summit promises to move this conversation forward via the both/and on this question, which is frankly a really exciting prospect. In fact, Carr formulated an image of contemporary society as a table held up by four legs: individuals and families, civil society groups, market actors (businesses), and government actors. The problem, Carr says, is “in DC, everyone falls in love with one leg of the table.” Carr, and his Evangelical counterpart in organizing the Summit, Leith Anderson, want the churches to help break this impasse.

Putnam is helping in two key ways. First, his entire presentation (and book) frames the issue of inequality in a particular way. Americans, he says, are by and large comfortable with some significant degree of inequality of outcome, but that our comfort with this is based on the idea that everyone gets an equal shot. That is to say, we are much more committed to equality of opportunity – and our acceptance of inequality of outcome is based on this. An example? Nothing will get many of my male students more up in arms than sports stars who are “cheaters” – students almost uniformly think that baseball players like Barry Bonds have done something very wrong. Add to this the recent “Deflategate.” The problem in both cases is the same: the cheating meant that not everyone started in the same place. Some people got a head start. And we generally do not like that.

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Catch E.J. Dionne and Barack Obama

Online at the Georgetown Catholic-Evangelical Conference on Poverty....

There's a tab at the upper left of the screen to watch the whole discussion, which begins at about five minutes. Catch it.

Goodbye, Christians.

The percentage of Americans who call themselves Christian has dropped significantly since 2007, according to a new survey by the Pew Research Center. Mainline Protestants and Catholics have experienced the largest losses (-3.4 percent and -3.1 percent, respectively), Evangelicals the smallest (-.9 percent, just over the margin of error). While the dip in Christian affiliation has occurred across all age cohorts, the younger you are, the more likely you are not to identify with any religious tradition. While non-Christian faiths saw modest bumps in affiliation (+.5 percent for Muslims, +.3 for Hindus), no group grew more than the "nones," who make up nearly 23 percent of the population--a gain of 6.7 percent since 2007. There are now more nones than Catholics.

Mainline Protestants have suffered the largest losses in absolute numbers--there are 5 million fewer today than there were in 2007. Like the Mainlines, Catholics are decreasing as a percentage of the population and in terms of raw numbers. Pew Research notes that Catholic losses may total no more than 1 million, accounting for margins of error. A number of studies over the past twenty-five years have come up with differing estimates of the size of the U.S. Catholic population over time. Some have found steadier numbers than Pew Research (until about 2010-2012). But one of those surveys did not interview as many young people as Pew did, and interviewed more Hispanics. The losses found by this Pew Research study--based on a sample size of 35,000--track closesly with the organization's monthly polls.

The decline among Christians comes at a time when they are becoming more ethnically diverse. Since 2007, Catholics, Mainline Protestants, and Evangelicals all saw their ethnic and racial minority populations grow by about 5-6 percent. Today 41 percent of Catholic Americans are members of racial and ethnic minorities.

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Biting your nails UPDATE

You will laugh at me: I read the NYTimes everyday, at least as far as Paul Krugman on the op-ed page. I've noticed I am getting through faster and faster because either I have read a story on-line where it appeared several days before...or I am just not interested (into my Cyprus File).

Last week, I skipped the nail polish and manicure story, both Part I and Part II. Sunday, Part I appeared in-print on the front page, and today, Part II in-print. Governor Cuomo, he of the slow-motion reaction, immediately issued emergency measures to protect women who work in nail polishing establishments (it's on-line right now). Still haven't read any of them, though I have looked at the thousands of comments, a veritable study in chaos thinking.

There is a simple solution to the dangers to nail salon workers and we can all contribute. Instead of a manicure and polish with pale puke (the color de jour), bite your nails.

Part I.   Part II.  Cuomo Acts!

UPDATE: Why hasn’t the price of a manicure budged in the past two decades?  James Surowiecki of the New Yorker tells us:  The Economics of New York’s Nail-Salon Prices

Monday Morning Links: May 11

At The Baltimore Sun, an investigation on the many suspects who did not receive medical care before police attempted to book them. “From June 2012 through April 2015, correctional officers at the Baltimore City Detention Center have refused to admit nearly 2,600 detainees who were in police custody, according to state records obtained through a Maryland Public Information Act request.”

Yesterday, New York Governor Cuomo announced emergency measures to protect nail salon employees after an investigation from the New York Times revealed pervasive abuses in the industry ranging from poisonous health hazards, to blatant wage theft. The two part story (thus far) shows how vulnerable immigrants can be within this kind of exploitation.

Cuban President Raul Castro was very impressed with his meeting with Pope Francis: "I will resume praying and turn to the Church again if the Pope continues in this vein."

The Boston Globe has beautiful photographs from the Venice Biennale, which opened this weekend. 

The American Scholar has an essay by Christian Wiman on snakes. (Of course, it's not really about snakes). “Kill the creature. That’s practically the law where I grew up. Love has its sterner permutations…” 

Virtual Pilgrims

Last month, Jim Martin, S.J., went with a group of pilgrims to the Holy Land and invited others to be virtual pilgrims with him on the journey. Seeing Martin's virtual pilgrimage brought to mind the very invention of the Stations of the Cross.

As a devotional practice, the Stations began as a pilgrimage in Jerusalem, going from site to site, marking the way of the cross. Rather quickly, however, there was an instinct to offer Christians the opportunity to be virtual pilgrims of the way. For instance, Bologna’s fifth century Saint Stefano’s linked together a series of chapels, beginning with the courtyard of Pilate and ending at the Holy Sepulcher.

In the fifteenth century Christians, unable to travel to the Holy Land, were offered opportunities of a visual though “constructed” experience of following in the footsteps of Jesus as he went to his death. For instance, Dominicans at a friary in Cordova built a series of chapels, each painted with a principal scene of the passion and death of Jesus.  Entering the first chapel, pilgrims entered Pilate’s House; entering the last one, they stood before the tomb.

The Poor Clares did the same in Messina. Others built them in Görlitz and at Nuremberg. In the early sixteenth century, these were reproduced elsewhere, notably at Louvain, Bamberg, Fribourg, and Rhodes.  Moreover, since Jerusalem had fallen under the Ottoman Empire, these practices of walking the way of the cross commonly occurred not in Jerusalem, but in Europe. There, Christians developed accompanying prayers and meditations for the devotional procession of the Stations of the Cross.

By the end of the eighteenth century, this devotional practice became a mainstay in parish life. First, in 1686, the Franciscans, long time governors of the Christian sites in Jerusalem, received from the pope the right to erect the Stations in all their churches throughout the world. He also granted to the Franciscans who walked the Stations in whatever place the same indulgences as those who walked the Way of the Cross in Jerusalem. In 1726, the indulgences were granted to all Christians who did the devotional exercise and in 1742 all priests were exhorted to establish the Stations in their churches.

This practice of bringing Jerusalem to the pilgrim instead of the pilgrim to Jerusalem should not be missed. To his credit, Jim Martin follows in significant footsteps, capturing a long-standing practice and making it all the more real for the 21st century.

Cameron's Luck

Why did British Prime Minister David Cameron's Conservative Party do so well in last night's election, despite his government's failed austerity program and despite his having come very close to presiding over the dissolution of the United Kingdom? Simon Wren-Lewis's answer is as good as any.

According to Wren-Lewis, an economist at Oxford University, Cameron has been incredibly lucky. His luck began with the fact that his party was not in power when the financial crisis hit Britain in 2008. (In this country, it was our conservative party that held the White House when the housing bubble finally burst: bad luck for the Republicans—but bad luck they deserved, since they had been the first and most enthusiastic proponents of the kind of deregulation that caused the crisis.) After Cameron became prime minister in 2010, his coalition government quickly implemented procyclical fiscal policies that kept the British economy from recovering, but he got away with blaming the lingering recession on the previous government: he said he was only making the hard choices the Labour Party had put off. As Wren-Lewis explains:

I’ve not come across a single non-City, non-partisan economist who does not concur with the view that the performance of the coalition has been pretty poor (or simply terrible), yet polls repeatedly show that people believe managing the economy is the Conservatives’ strength. This trick has been accomplished by equating the government’s budget with the household, and elevating reducing the deficit as the be all and end all of economic policy.

This allowed Cameron to pass off the impact of bad macro management in delaying the recovery as inevitable pain because they had to ‘clear up the mess’ left by their predecessor. In a recent poll a third of people blamed Labour for austerity. Yet for that story to work well, the economy had to improve towards the end of the coalition’s term in office. The coalition understood this, which was why austerity was put on hold, and everything was thrown at the economy to get a recovery, including pumping up the housing market. In the end the recovery was pretty minimal (no more than average growth), and far from secure (as the 2015Q1 growth figures showed), but it was enough for mediamacro to pretend that earlier austerity had been vindicated.

"Mediamacro" is Wren-Lewis's term for the intuitive but demonstrably false idea that government budgets work like household budgets. It ought to be the media's job to help dispel this misconception, but in the United Kingdom even more than in the United States journalists have mainly failed in this task. They have lazily, and sometimes dishonestly, reached for the macroeconomic theory that is simplest to explain rather than the slightly more difficult one that most economists accept.

Then there's Scotland. If Scottish voters had chosen independence last September—and they almost did—Cameron might have looked like one of the weakest prime ministers in modern history. Wren-Lewis writes:

The Scottish independence referendum in September last year was close. 45% of Scots voted in September to leave the UK. One of the major push factors was the Conservative led government. If Scotland had voted for independence in 2014, it would have been a disaster for Cameron: after all, the full title of his party is the Conservative and Unionist Party. That was his first piece of Scottish fortune. The second was that the referendum dealt a huge blow to Labour in Scotland. Labour are far from blameless here, and their support had been gradually declining, but there can be no doubt that the aftermath of the referendum lost them many Scottish seats, and therefore reduced their seat total in the UK.

So there you are: Cameron's a lucky man. He should savor his luck while he can, though, for there are reasons for him to worry his luck may soon change.

Ed Chambers, RIP

Since word emerged from the west of Ireland about Ed Chambers' death on April 26, the small, generally taciturn, online world of professional community organizers has been buzzing with reminiscences, tributes, and most of all, stories about the bluff, hard-edged and (though he often kept it well-hidden) big-hearted man who was one of the unsung heroes of public life in the United States over the past 50 years.

As Samuel Freedman, who came to know Chambers and the work of the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) intimately when working on his terrific 1994 book, Upon This Rock: The Miracles of a Black Church, wrote earlier this week, "If Alinsky was the Jesus of community organizing, the galvanizing standard-bearer, Chambers was its St. Paul, transforming radical theology into organized religion. He did not invent community organizing as we know it in America—that was Alinsky’s achievement—but he made it professional and permanent, a purposeful career rather than a sacrificial calling."

Saul Alinsky's role in community organizing can get overstated and it's easy to see why.  Alinsky was a colorful character with a keen intellect and a great way with words.  Perhaps most importantly he wrote books---Reveille for Radicals (1946) and Rules for Radicals (1971)---in which he defined his work as "community organizing".  But as scholars like Theda Skopcol have documented, "community organizing" has been part of the American cultural and political DNA since before the birth of the republic.  Alinsky's genius was to take what he'd learned from CIO organizers around Chicago in the 1930s, apply it to the daily lives and experience of working-class city dwellers in mid-20th century urban America, and create a common vocabulary for the work.

But Alinsky had no interest in or talent for building long-lasting community organizations.  He also had little interest in nurturing and developing the next generation of professional organizers. 

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Gustavo Gutiérrez awarded President's Medal at Fordham

Last night at Fordham University, Fr. Gustavo Gutierrez was awarded the President’s medal—an award given about thirty times in the university’s history. The award came as a surprise, at the conclusion of a conversation he had with Fordham theologian Michael Lee. Gutierrez, widely regarded as the father of liberation theology, spoke softly in a thick Peruvian accent. He was very expressive with his hands, and hit the table often, drumming a rhythm to his words. He repeated words, and simple phrases. By academic standards, the conversation didn’t “say anything new” but it said the important stuff Jesus had to remind his disciples of all the time, over and over again: that God loves everyone, especially the poor.

The auditorium was packed with theology students, professors, priests, journalists, a significant number of bright-suited nuns and Commonweal editors (including Grant Gallicho who live-tweeted and took some video), readers, and writers. Gutierrez’s fame meant the event was oversubscribed. So when he first spoke, I felt a slight, guilty, let down. I expected an orator, someone who would rouse in me the kind of inspiration “liberation theology” ought to inspire. This happened, but quietly.

The talk came a week before Gutierrez will travel to Rome to meet with the pope and speak at the annual gathering for Caritas Internationalis. Pope Francis has chosen him to be one of the lead figures in the upcoming Holy Year of Mercy.

Lee began by asking about Gutierrez’s relationship with Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, current prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). Last year, when Gutierrez was a surprise guest speaker at the cardinal’s book launch, the irony wasn’t lost on many who remembered when the liberation theologian was investigated by the CDF under Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. He’s been friends with Mueller since “1988, the last century,” and said the cardinal is “one of the best” when it comes to understanding the perspective of liberation theology. He also praised Mueller for spending his summers teaching theology in parts of Peru where even some Peruvians won’t go. “I have never seen one liberation theologian take his vacations on the beach.”

Other subjects avid readers of the Catholic blogosphere might find most interesting, he found less interesting. When asked whether, as some have recently claimed, his 1971 book A Theology of Liberation, was authored by the KGB, he swatted the air and twirled a finger around his temple: “I have to laugh.” When asked about the last time he spoke with Archbishop Oscar Romero, he made sure to qualify the story afterward: “But my personal relations with Romero aren’t important.” What’s more important is the meaning of “the poor, the painful riches of the church, the Latin American martyr…there are hundreds of thousands.” When asked what advice he would give to future theologians: “I don’t care about the future of liberation theology. All I care about is my country and my people.” He told the story of the time a U.S. Evangelical theologian asked him what liberation theology had to say about the conflict in Israel and Palestine—he responded, “Do you think liberation theology is a political party and I’m its general secretary?”

No, what he kept returning to was the preferential option for the poor. He spoke at some length about the meaning of the preferential option: Jesus saves all of humanity, but he is very close to the poor; the church is a church of everyone, especially a church of the poor. “The preferential option for the poor is 90 percent of liberation theology; it comes from the Bible…. When we take the question of the poor it is not an obsession, it is to underline the central point of Christianity.” But, he points out, “preference does not conflict [or] contradict with universality. Are they in tension?” He shakes both fists “Yes!” “Even the poor must make the option for the poor,” he continued. “It’s one universal question; the poor are also first for the Christian poor…the option for the poor is a theocentric option…. We believe in the God of justice who is the source of this. We have human resources, but there is pride. It’s a problem…. I have great respect for non-Christian believers doing the option for the poor.” 

With this core principle established, Gutierrez spoke about what liberation theology actually is: “Maybe we don’t need the name 'liberation,' because it means salvation. The theology of liberation is the theology of salvation, which is to say communion with God, between us.” He reminded the audience that his theology of liberation originated “not in theological institutions,” but in the concrete experience of poor people. Other theologies of liberation: Black theologies, feminist theologies, mujerista theologies, these also come from the experience of being poor, of being “a person who does not even have the right to have rights,” as he paraphrased Hannah Arendt.

Gustavo Gutierrez did not propose a theory of implementation of, raise an argument for, or give a defense of Liberation Theology in the context of the modern world. But he made a clear point.

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