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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.

The italicized lines come from Book III of Milton's Paradise Lost, where we hear that God "Amidst the glorious brightness where thou sit'st [is] / Thron'd inaccessible, but when thou shad'st / The full blaze of thy beams, and through a cloud / Drawn round about thee like a radiant Shrine, / Dark with excessive bright thy skirts apeer."  

Like Milton, Klug sees the world and its author as both terrifying and beautiful--in fact, terrifying in its beauty and beautiful in its terror. The poem shifts between figures in the hopes of capturing the thunderhead's sublimity, first describing it with natural imagery ("flowered"), then with the language of human emotion ("stewed"), then with a striking simile ("flipped / like a flash card"), before borrowing from Milton, all in the hopes of deciphering and then rendering what this natural image has revealed. 

Klug's first book, Rude Woods, was an adapatation of Virgil's Eclogues, and his poems pay wonderful attention to the natural world. Here is "Dare," a short lyric that describes a vision of a goshawk admist the dirtiness of New Haven:

Not, this time, to infer
but to wait you out
between regret and parking lot
somewhere in the day
like a dare

Salt grime and the foodcarts’
rising steam, at Prospect St. a goshawk
huge and aloof, picking at something,
nested in twigs and police tape
for a while we all
held our phones up

It is relentless, the suddenness
of every other
song, creature, neighbor
as though this life
would prove you
only by turning into itself

Finally, here is "Conjugation," an appropriate poem for a cold, early spring day and a reminder of the world's ridiculous, enchanting particularity:

This early the garden’s bare
but people pay to walk it,

at plots of budless brush
stop, as if remembering,

and stoop to mouth the names—
araucaria

araucana, monkey
puzzle tree, something

Japanese—each particular
ridiculous to be.

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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Ignatian LGBTQ & Ally conference turns two

Tonight at Georgetown University the second annual IgnatianQ conference kicks off a weekend of lectures, breakout sessions, dialogues and keynotes that uniquely focus on LGBTQ issues and Jesuit values, aiming to create a community of people active in their faith, community and campus, who continue conversations. The first IgnatianQ (after ivyQ) was hosted by Fordham last year—created, planned and organized entirely by students. It grew from one conversation between two people on a roof to a three-day dialogue of 96 participants traveling from six different Jesuit schools to attend. And now it's in it's second year.

Bolstered by the University’s mission statement and the powers vested in academic freedom, the group of organizers approached the Theology department first with a 12 page proposal they’d carefully put together through months of weekly meetings, unsure and anxious about how well it’d go over. They not only received “overwhelming support” of the idea for IgnatianQ but also a keynote speaker, $300, and a room to hold meetings on campus—legitimacy. Soon enough many other departments signed on and they had enough money and backing to let real preparations for the conference begin. Anthony, one of the originators, remembers with slight disbelief meeting with the University vice president, who’d need to talk with the president (both priests) who’d need to approve the conference. “I told him ‘I pray that the politics of man do not interfere with the work of the holy spirit in organizing this conference’” Plainly, “Don’t let your reservations about the word queer get in the way of what these students need right now.” And they didn’t.

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Kumbaya nervous breakdown (cont.)

In Wednesday's post I asked: what next for U.S.-Israeli ties? 

Among the comments, J.P. Farry posted this grim but perhaps realistic analysis: "The reaction of so many Israelis to Obama's response to Bibi's election eve statement reflects their long-standing expectation that US Presidents are supposed to cut Israeli prime ministers "a lot of slack" given the tumultuous character of Israeli politics.

"We now know that almost every President since 1948 has experienced periods of frlustration with Israeli prime ministers  But past presidents, by either their silence or direct statements, have never questioned the "good intentions" of Israeli leaders in pursuing a 2-state solution. Obama has just said he ls not going to provide this "cover"--even when Bibi offered him a second chance to indirectly and discretely testify to Bibi's "peace credentials."  (At the same time, Obama's Chief of Staff, in addressing the J-Street Convention, referred to the need to end "50 years of occupation."  -- The "O" word is not supposed to spoken in DC.--)

"Israeli leaders since the Oslo Agreement  20 years ago have been realists.  Accepting a 2-state agreement poses security and political risks that maintaining "the occupation"--particularly as it now exists--would not seem to involve. Bibi, in his slip of the tongue on the eve of the election--admitted what no Israeli leader has previously dared to admit--the "status quo" (the "occupation") is the best of all probable world that the Israelis can hope for.

"Why not!  The US has reconstructed the PA security forces so they are more effective in maintaining order on the West Bank; settlements can be incrementally expanded with limited and passing objections; Israeli intelligence agents have effectively infilltrated Palestinian society; and  "international donors" (the US, EU and Arab League) provide over a billion dollars a year to alliviate the harshest economic consequences of the "occupation."

 "At the moment, the Palestinians seem to have only one bargaining chip: the threat of another "Infitada." (It would seem inevitable that such an uprising would be treated as the projection of Islamic State violence and quickly and harshly suppressed by both the Israelis and Americans.)

"If Obama had remained silent--(or if he now agrees to publically sing "kumbaya" with Bibi)--we might be able to retain the tatered "hope" that a     2-state solution is within reach as soon as there is a Palestinian partner who shares Bibi's willingness to negotiate. Bibi's comments (and Obama's response) make it impossible for us to continue with this self-deception.

"Bibi's (and Obama's) candor present the Palestinians (as well as the Europeans and the other financial supporters of the Palestinians) with a changed diplomatic context.  However it is not at all clear that the sudden interjection of candor into this implacable conflict will open up new avenues for the non-violent dismantling of Israeli's "best probable solution"-- the occupation.

"While candor is toxic for self-deception, it may only trigger the creation of new self-deceptions."

And if you're up for more, check out the Forward on what American-Israeli lobbying groups should be doing.... a bit of bury your head in the sand, maybe this will go away.

"Listen & Other Stories" by Liam Callanan

Fiction fans, you may remember Liam Callanan's short story "Exhibit A," which we had the good fortune -- and good taste -- to publish in Commonweal last summer. (If not, go ahead and read it now.) I'm pleased to inform you that our good taste has been validated by the Council for Wisconsin Writers, which has recognized "Exhibit A" with honorable mention for its Zona Gale Award for Short Fiction. Update: here's an exclusive quote from the judges' citation, guaranteed to make you want to read or reread: "Liam Callanan's 'Exhibit A' is an unlikely love story set among an animatronic Marie Curie and Tesla's coil. By turns bizarre and intimate, Callanan's story is a gem worthy of its own display in the Hall of Wonders."

If you liked "Exhibit A" (not to mention Liam Callanan's other writing for Commonweal), you'll be glad to know that it's included in Listen & Other Stories, Callanan's new collection of short fiction from Four Way Books. Milwaukee-area readers can celebrate its launch tomorrow night, March 27, at Boswell Book Company. If you should make it to that or any of the stops on the Listen tour --New Yorkers have two chances, April 19 and May 7 -- be sure to tell the author that Commonweal sent you.

Let's hear it for Fanny Howe's nomination

This week, the Man Booker International Prize announced their shortlist for the £60,000 award, and the only American who made the cut was the poet, novelist and essayist Fanny Howe. Howe was nominated for her sixteenth book of poetry, Second Childhood, released by Graywolf press. As if we needed another reason to be curious about it, it also made Anthony Domestico's list of the Best Books of 2014,

Howe is a Catholic writer. She encountered the faith through her second husband's mother, and converted after they had divorced. Adding any adjective before "writer" can be dangerous, as though it classifies the work in a pre-determined way, but be assured Howe's poems, essays and fiction don't tip the scales into annoying piety, and it is the opposite of didactic. Suggesting that she's a writer who happens to be Catholic would ignore how faith shapes her work's subject and its form. Liberation theology presses on her imagination (in one of her novels especially, appropriately titled Saving History). In her poetry, her sense of time is especially distinctive. In her essay, "Footsteps Over Ground," she writes:

The calendar year for daily working life is the same for all of us, but there is a second calendar: the church calendar that refers to the birth, murder, and resurrection of Jesus, which is an absolutely archetypal story, a poetic rendition of any human life. The Mass, with its readings from the Gospel stories, and the the Eucharistic rite, repeated for centuries, is an account of the cooperation of transcendence with the ordinary. If it is an opiate, all the better.

In the liturgy's repetition, Howe finds a place to return to outside chronological time. Time is not a straight line or a circle, as we often hear, but a spiral. She writes what she calls spiral or series poems that return to the same place from another direction, as though the reader and the speaker were disoriented in a forest. In her essay "Bewilderment" she explains that these poems come from "my experience of non-sequential, but intensely connected, time-periods and the way they impact on each other, but lead nowhere."

Her poem "A Hymn" is an example, beginning with an epigraph by Dostoevsky that sets the tone for the bewilderment Howe is interested in. 

When I fall into the abyss, I go straight into it, head down and heels up, and I'm even pleased that I'm falling in just such a humiliating position, and for me I find it beautiful. And so in that very shame I suddenly begin a hymn.
          —Fyodor Dostoevsky

I traveled to the page where scripture meets fiction.
The paper slept but the night in me woke up.

Black letters were now alive
and collectible in a material crawl.

I could not decipher their intentions anymore.
To what end did their shapes come forth?

Read the rest of the poem at The Poetry Foundation.  It will be worth your (strange, out of sequence) time.

Compare and Contrast: A Spanish Recruitment Video for the Priesthood

The immensely learned Rita Ferrone has called attention to a recruitment video (in Spanish with English subtitles) that is very different in tone than that of Father Barron. I think a compare and contrast is in order.

What struck me most was the invitational quality of this video. The candidates are being invited into a mystery, not a clearly defined web of doctrinal propositions or a certain command and control structure. It inivtes to a kind of camaraderie of service,  I think. 

No kumbaya for the nervous breakdown

Read the editors' sane, balanced and forthright editorial on Netanyahu's election and the fall-out. Then read the comments virtually charging CWL with anti-S. Talk about swarming! [NB: I am not an editor! Didn't write it!]

Then look at Jodi Rudoren in Wednesday's Times about Israelis having a nervous breakdown over the Obama Administration's straight talking about the state of the two-state solution. The nerve of President Cool. "The president’s harsh words have been deemed by some to be patronizing and disrespectful not only to Mr. Netanyahu but also to the voters who rewarded his uncompromising stances with a resounding mandate for a fourth term."  "Patronizing!" "Disrespectful!" Wow. Pots and Kettles!

Then here's a little something "Washington Sits Shiva for the 2-State Solution" from Mondoweiss (somethimes charged with being a self-hating J, akin to anti-S). "Israeli PM Netanyahu’s dismissal of the two-state solution in the last days of the election campaign in Israel is having a huge and beneficial effect on the discussion of the conflict inside the United States. Yesterday President Obama leaped on the PM’s comments at a press conference, stating severely that the two-state solution is not going to happen in the next “several” years, and we have to deal with that reality, and no one’s going to get anywhere by singing “kumbaya.”

What next? Your policy proposals.

5 ways to apologize for your homeless-irrigation system.

Like most people who think it’s a bad idea to spray homeless people with water in order to move them along, I found myself rather surprised by last week’s news that the cathedral of the Archdiocese of San Francisco had been doing just that for the past two years. The archdiocese’s response was swift. The day the story broke it hired a crisis communications consultant, began dismantling the homeless irrigation system, and issued a statement that included an apology. Obviously when a Catholic church is discovered to have been regularly dousing the poor with water—for whatever reason—it has a major PR problem. Facing such a crisis, a church’s best bet is to admit the mistake, explain how it happened, and offer sincere apologies to the offended. In other words, stop digging. But that’s not exactly what the Archdiocese of San Francisco did, and that’s why it’s hard to accept the words it arranged in the form of an apology. How might it have been more convincing? Let’s count the ways.

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What's on the website

Featured right now on the website: Robert Mickens's latest Letter from Rome, in which he reports on preparations for Holy Week at the Vatican (Francis will "wash the feet of inmates at the Rebibbia Detention Centre on the outskirts of Rome. And, as in the past, some of them will be women"), as well as on new comments from Cardinal Kasper on mercy, expectations for the October synod, and Francis's feelings about clericalism ("he hates it!"). Read the whole Letter from Rome here.

Also, our editors on the electoral victory of Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the "ugliness of democratic politics":

As happens all too often in democracies, Netanyahu’s scorched-earth politics won the day. ... However, building bridges to his domestic political rivals may be easier than repairing his relationship with the Obama administration.

Predictably enough, Netanyahu has already retreated from his pre-election rejection of a two-state solution and apologized for his remarks about Arab Israelis. How sincere his recantations are remains to be seen; the White House appears skeptical. Netanyahu’s credibility could hardly be lower. His cynical and expedient rejection of a Palestinian state made a mockery of the Obama administration’s efforts to restart the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Allying himself with congressional Republicans to sabotage negotiations with Iran put traditional bipartisan support for Israel at risk. Should the administration and its international partners succeed in striking a deal with Iran, Netanyahu’s opposition is now a foregone conclusion. In other words, although the U.S. commitment to Israel’s military defense is not in jeopardy, it seems clear that the interests of the two nations are beginning to diverge in important ways.

Read all of "An Ugly Business" here.

Lee Kuan Yew: Pragmatism for Whom?

In the recent commentary marking the death of Singapore’s founder Lee Kuan Yew, one characteristic of the late statesman has received much attention: his pragmatism.

The March 23 edition of the New York Times features a piece by Roger Cohen grandiloquently proclaiming that “the 20th century produced few greater statesmen and perhaps no greater pragmatist” and an op-ed by Ali Wyne, who writes that “in leading Singapore, [Lee] was, above all, a pragmatist.” The Economist’s obituary of Lee (featured in yesterday's Monday Morning Links) is slightly more descriptive, “for [Lee] ideology always took second place to a pragmatic appreciation of how power works.” Even an article critical of Lee’s authoritarianism acknowledges his “trademark pragmatism.”

In attempting to define Lee’s pragmatism, Roger Cohen writes that “Lee had one basic yardstick for policy: Does it work?” Unfortunately (but not surprisingly) Cohen does not ask the important follow-up question: “For whom?” British economist Nigel Harris, writing in 1978, sheds some light on this question:

Singapore’s economy relies heavily on an Untouchable caste of immigrant workers (possibly 120,000 in all, with an unknown number of “illegal” immigrants), most of them from neighbouring Malaysia, but with others from Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines. Immigration is divided between low and high paid labour. The first enters on three year work permits (six month work permits for jobs in construction). Work permit holders have no right of permanent settlement, may not change their jobs for three years (if they lose their job, they are liable to deportation), are not eligible for public housing or welfare and medical services; many, six to a room, housed in makeshift shacks near their worksite, work seven days a week, ten to twelve hours a day, for a pittance. They are forbidden to hold trade union office, and militancy can also evoke deportation. Work permit holders are forbidden to marry without special permission from the labour commissioner; permission may only be granted to those who have worked five years in Singapore with a “clean” record and who sign a bond accepting that both partners to the marriage agree to be sterilized after a second child is born. Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew justified the policy on straight 1930s “eugenics” grounds that “The better educated and more rational” are not replacing themselves because of their low birth rate; whereas “a multiple replacement rate at the bottom [leads to] a gradual lowering of the general quality of the population.”

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Romero Vive

On this anniversary of Romero's death, I want to share one of my favorite pictures of him. In many ways it is the same image whether or not the priest in black figures in the center of the photo. Romero is famously quoted saying "If they kill me, I shall rise again in the Salvadoran people" weeks before he was shot while saying mass. Pass through any poor neighborhood in El Salvador (which is about 90% of the country) and you see evidence of this in hundreds of colorful murals painted in his honor. Behind these Romero-painted walls are often community centers, schools, clinics. Inside certain walls tens (in some places hundreds) of photos of the local dead hang to be remembered. 

One such community center, or comunidad de base, in the San Ramon neighborhood of the capital San Salvador is named Pueblo de Dios en camino (the "people of God walking" or "on the path"). The reason Pueblo exists is to meet the needs of the community. I do not know the full scope of the programs they provide but I know they are essential. My role when I visited weekly during my semester abroad was to accompany and learn from a "delegate of the word" named Hector. We carried sacks of rice, sugar, sometimes beans, sometimes nothing two miles up the steep side of the San Salvador volcano to an isolated community of Evangelical Christians who'd remained on the land they once came to as hired coffee harvesters. The farm has since moved to more profitable soil, and the people of Las Nubes ("the clouds") remain in tin-roof huts with no running water, electricity, or right to the land that would enable them to demand these things. Hector spent the day sitting in plastic chairs in the cleanly swept dirt-floor living rooms of these families and listened to their needs. Listening was essential before deciding on the right action; Romero practiced and preached this. Pueblo began organizing a system to pipe water from a tank at the base of the volcano up to Las Nubes in 2010. They completed it last year. It is one of many similar projects.

On Sundays they have Mass (or "Celebration of the Word"), with or without a priest. For a while it was two Belgian priests who came to visit, I was told on my first day there by the woman in charge--but no one here had seen them for a while. "It's not important, because we have the body of Christ here," she said. The readings follow the liturgical calendar. Each week a different member of the community is selected to share how the gospel reading "was lived" that week for him or her (Romero was quoted often, often more than the gospel). At the appropriate time, a large amount of bread was distributed to each of the families, and we drank SalvaCola out of Styrofoam cups. 

Six months in El Salvador, the country where Archbishop Oscar Romero was killed for practicing his faith, taught me the true meaning of church. Romero's upcoming beatification means, for many people, a just truth finally becoming officially true. His prediction was correct. 

Barron: Basketball, Heroism, and Holiness

I have no doubt Father Robert Barron is having a tough time with the change in papacy, as well as the change in the Archbishop of Chicago. His sensibilities seem far more attuned to the JPII and Benedict eras than the poor church of the poor called for by Francis.  That's fine- we all don't need the same sensibilities. 

Still, a friend called my attention to this video about the priesthood and it left me, well, flummoxed -  and a little uncomfortable, to tell the truth. The values seem, well, really off.  I think basketball is a fine sport-- but a model for heroic priesthood? There are priests dying for the faith in the Middle East. And it is all JPII -- just a brief shot of Francis, which is visually jarring since the shot only emphasizes the vast differences in liturgical sensibilities between Barron, who seems to follow Ratzinger's style, and the current papacy.

As a recruitment tool, the video seems to be in the middle of a time warp. JPII has been dead for a decade now and the last ten years of his life were not the model of vigor and physical strength that probably brought men of Father Barron's age to the priesthood.  Francis is the pope now- -and by all accounts, pretty popular. Why not use him as the centerpiece of a recruiting video?

update: I watched the video a second time: there are no women--the candidates are interacting only with men. The emphasis is on the celebration of the Eucharist-- no baptism, no anointing of the sick, no penance, no sacraments of marriage.  There is virtually no Church. The priest is a lone romantic figure, standing beside a lake. There are no corporal or spiritual works of mercy portrayed. There is no one old, no one messy, no one uncoordinated. And no one too short to play basketball. It looks like a recruiting tool for the Legion of Christ-- maybe that's the source of my discomfort.

Can any one help me make sense of this? Is this code to say: "come to Mundelein and you won't have to pay any attention to Francis's pesky rejection of clerical privilege?" Or does it reflect the view that Francis's popularity doesn't translate into vocations?

And really: why basketball?

Ted Cruz: Ability, will, but maybe no way

Whether Ted Cruz can be president is a different question than whether he will be. The answer to the first is a definitive yes, at least on eligibility. Though Cruz was born in Canada, his mother was born in the United States, which makes him an American citizen. Cruz in this way is like John McCain (birthplace: Panama Canal Zone) and George Romney (birthplace: Mexico): children of U.S.-born parents, and thus able to run for U.S. president.  And like this guy (birthplace: Hawaii).

The answer to the second question is almost as definitive: Cruz, who Monday became the first candidate to officially enter the race with a midnight Tweet and a midmorning address at evangelical Liberty University, will almost certainly not be president. The fact that he announced so early in some ways speaks to this: With money already heading to such likely candidates as Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, and Rand Paul, Cruz couldn’t afford to wait much longer. Additionally, the GOP’s distaste for its own still-first-term senator, over stunts like the non-filibuster over the Affordable Care Act and his role in shutting down the government in 2013, is well known. Cruz did place in third in last month’s CPAC straw poll (after Walker and Paul), suggesting to some he might have early primary promise, but by many accounts he remains “the most hated man in the senate” and not very much liked in general

Cruz made his announcement at Liberty’s weekly convocation, student attendance at which is mandatory. The ovations he received, however, seemed spontaneous, with applause greeting his calls to abolish the IRS, abolish Obamacare, abolish same-sex marriage…. “It’s time for truth, for liberty … a time to reclaim the constitution of the United States,” he said. “Reclaim the promise of America. Reclaim the mandate, the hope and opportunity … we stand together for liberty…. The answer will not come from Washington but from people of faith and lovers of liberty….” The Aaron Tippin song “Where the Stars and Stripes and Eagles Fly” played when Cruz finished speaking. (Lyric snip: “I was born by God’s dear grace/in an extraordinary place/where the stars and stripes and eagles fly” – something Canadian citizens might be surprised to learn about their country.)

Liberty the university was established by Jerry Falwell, and the school called Cruz’s decision to announce his candidacy there “fitting, as [he] has joked that ‘I’m Cuban, Irish and Italian, and yet somehow I ended up Southern Baptist.’” The university nonetheless noted it is by law prohibited from endorsing candidates, and indeed more from the GOP are likely to stop by in the course of the campaign, just as others have in previous ones. Cruz’s fondness for overheated rhetoric (“your world’s on fire,” he insisted at a New Hampshire speech last week) prompts David Ludwig at The Atlantic to call him characteristic of what Richard Hofstadter identified as the paranoid style of American politics. But that seems to assign more to Cruz than he should be called on to bear. He doesn’t appear to believe in his paranoid claims in the way, say, of Ron Paul, and maybe not even of Rand, whose relatively formidable presence was visible at Monday’s Liberty event: a row of attendees in bright-red “I Stand with Rand” t-shirts, ruining what otherwise might have made fine campaign footage of Cruz and his smiling, waving family (video here, at about the 35:50 mark).