Sunday, October 22, 2017

Repaying Caesar

46 years ago, in October 1971, the Shah of Iran celebrated the 2500th anniversary of the founding of the Persian empire with a visit to the tomb of King Cyrus near Persepolis - the same Cyrus to whom the prophet refers, in today’s 1st reading [Isaiah 45:1, 4-6], as the Lord’s anointed, whose right hand the Lord grasps. In the ancient world, one way a god conferred royal authority on a king was by grasping his hand. Thus, Cyrus was seen as receiving royal legitimacy from the God of Israel, just like David, the preeminent model of an anointed king in Israel’s history. What’s so striking about this, of course is that Cyrus was a Persian – a pagan – and yet reigned apparently as God’s anointed. Some 5½ centuries later, pagan rule was again a reality in Israel. Hence the question posed to Jesus by the Pharisees and the Herodians: “Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?”

My high school math teacher used to cite this story [Matthew 22:15-21] to illustrate an attempt at what he called a “perfect dichotomy,” where there are two (and only two) mutually exclusive solutions. The motivation behind the question is evident. The Gospel tells us they were trying to entrap Jesus in speech – trying to make him come down on one side or the other and get himself in trouble, whichever way he answered.

Like our political candidates today, who are experts in how not to answer the question they are being asked and instead answer the one they want to answer – what is sometimes called “pivoting” - Jesus cleverly circumvented the either/or of this supposedly perfect dichotomy.

Indeed, as a witty way out of a trap, Jesus’ response was superb. But what does it tell us today? If we consider the question itself as an honest dilemma deserving an honest answer, then what do we make of Jesus’ clever retort, “repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God”?

Unlike ancient and traditional societies, which start from the community as their point of reference, modern western liberal democratic thinking tends to take the individual as its starting point. The issue then becomes the basis and the extent of one’s obligations to society. (The challenge of justifying paying taxes to support the common good, for example, or compulsory military service, to take another obvious example, the idea that such activities are somehow infringements upon one’s individual rights, reflects this strange, modern, individualistic way of thinking.) Such a way of thinking would, of course, have been completely alien to Jesus and his contemporaries. Reconciling individual freedom with social and political obligations was not the issue in this encounter, nor would it have made much sense as a way of framing the issue to most people in most societies. Rather, the underlying issue raised by the question - and explicitly referred to in Jesus’ answer - was the relationship between two comprehensive (and potentially competing) loyalties – loyalties to two comprehensive (and potentially competing) communities.

Whatever ambivalence the Pharisees may have felt about the Roman Empire, the early Christians by and large appreciated the benefits of Roman rule. More than once, the New Testament instructed them to obey the law, pay their taxes, and honor the Emperor, insisting that one’s religious obligations to God, while absolute in themselves, do not cancel out one’s membership in civil society and one’s consequent obligations to its defender, the State.
Within the Church, Christians were, of course, expected to resolve conflicts peacefully among themselves, not taking their disputes to secular courts, for example. But that didn’t mean that the State should not use its courts, its police, its army - as needed to provide peace, security, and some measure of justice for society as a whole.

Of course, everything got much more complicated when all of a sudden (and rather unexpectedly) the Emperor became a Christian and Christians began to exercise serious political power at all levels of society.  Whether as public officials or as ordinary citizens, who vote, pay taxes, and affect public policy in any number of ways, we enjoy the peace, security, and justice that civil society makes possible, from which derive corresponding obligations. It’s interesting in this regard that the Catechism [2239] says that “the love and service of one’s country follow from the duty of gratitude.” Civilization doesn’t come free. Nor does our faith allow us any excuse to act as if it did.

As for “what belongs to God,” the long list of the Church’s martyrs testifies to God’s uncompromisingly absolute claim on our consciences – in the face of any and all competing secular claims. There exists a transcendent moral order outside the self, built into the fabric of the universe. No society, whether ancient or modern, whether dictatorial or democratic, whether rigidly united or wildly pluralistic, no society can make something right which is intrinsically wrong.

Within what legitimately “belongs to Caesar,” however, within civil society’s legitimate sphere of action and responsibility, it is more often than not a matter of trying to approximate what will work best in specific circumstances. The ordinary dynamics of politics and economics have not been repealed by the Gospel, which does not tell us which policies will produce a more prosperous and equitable economy or a more stable and secure international balance of power. The Gospel gives us a distinctive perspective, from which certain specific principles do follow. When it comes to practical questions of policy, however, we often have to figure these things out, as best we can as citizens or as statesmen, using the best knowledge we have, processed through discussion and debate – not just anger and outrage, which we tend nowadays to substitute both for knowledge and for discussion and debate. Instead, we need knowledge from history, from observation, from professional experts in the field, and from our own experience – always aware that, because our human wisdom is limited, we may make mistakes, and also that, when it comes to making such practical policy judgments, reasonable, morally sincere people, applying the same set of principles, may come to different but comparably compelling conclusions.

Jesus first asked his questioners to show him the coin. Then, taking into account all that the coin signified, Jesus challenged his hearers – challenges us - to live as loyal and committed citizens in the world and simultaneously as faithful citizens in the kingdom of God, our dual citizenship shaped by the interconnected demands of a faith that is inevitably public and never something purely private, that is always less about ourselves and more about our connections with others both in the kingdom of God and in our interconnected and overlapping earthly communities.

Homily for the 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, October 22, 2017.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Here Come the Tax-Cuts!

On TV tonight, David Brooks labelled "an outbreak of normalcy" the proposed legislation in the Senate salvaging the Affordable Care Act's “cost-sharing reductions” (CSRs), which are federal subsidies to insurers to offset insurance costs for lower-income Americans. What was once the normal business of Congress - legislating according to procedures and making bipartisan compromises - is now so abnormal as to be a story in itself. The bill seems to have a reasonable chance of making it through the Senate, although the House, of course, is an alternative universe. Time will tell.

The Senate meanwhile has passed a budget resolution, which paves the way for proposed tax cuts to be considered under "reconciliation," thus obviating the threat of a filibuster. The only "normalcy" breaking out there is the majority party's perennial obsession with tax cuts for the wealthy.

Such tax cuts can be best described as a kind of theft from the public in order to enrich already overly wealthy private individuals and their corporate allies. Unsurprisingly, that is what the majority is maneuvering to do and so salvage its standing with its ultra-rich donor class.

Besides the specific public policy damage that tax cuts would have on important public expenditures on which citizens depend, there is also the deeper, symbolic harm which would be further inflicted upon our divided society - further confirming that the few rich and the rest of the nation have really nothing in common, no shared common values or sense of social purpose, that our common citizenship has been yet further evacuated of any semblance of its historic meaning. 

I suspect that is a "normalcy" we would do better without!

Monday, October 16, 2017


This past week, I read journalist Katy Tur's new book about the 2016 campaign, Unbelievable: My Front-Row Seat to the Craziest Campaign in American History (Harper Collins, 2017). A correspondent for NBC News, Tur was the network's reporter who covered Donald Trump's campaign virtually from beginning to end, and was also sometimes the frighteningly specific target singled out by name when Trump criticized the press at his rallies. 

For those who can't get enough about what happened and why, this is yet another book worth reading. It is not an overly long book, but it does require a certain degree of patience - partly because of the way it is written (going back and forth between the campaign and Election Day) and partly because of the author's persistent preoccupation with sharing so much of her own personal life with her readers. 

On the one hand, her account exudes a certain elitist, globalist lifestyle - for example, in her preoccupation with finding time for yoga and exercise and wishing for something other than bread, dairy, and sugar to eat at the airport, not to mention her sense of loss at missing waking up in London and getting "a flat white at the hipster coffee shop around the corner." On the other hand, her account proves her to be an excellent reporter, who saw exactly what was happening (for example, "drawing unheard-of crowds a year before the election") and really seemed to understand it.

Thus she recognizes the way many Trump voters see their lives: "Your twenty-something can't find work. Your town is boarded up. Patriotism gets called racism. Your food is full of chemicals. Your body is full of pills, You call tech support and reach someone in India. Bills are spiking but your paycheck is not. And you can't send your kid to school with peanut butter. On top of it all, no one seems to care. You feel like you're screaming at the top of your lungs in a room full of people wearing earplugs."

In some ways, those sentences alone almost tell the story not just of this book but of this incredible campaign.

At the same time, she also calls attention to the difference between the people who showed up at Trump rallies and those at a Trump watch party at Ma-a-Lago: "These are the people slashing budgets and enhancing their own bottom line while the bottom line falls out of everyone else's lives."

As for the candidate himself, she also captures the forever self-hyping character of the candidate, long familiar to New Yorkers, and she quotes the famous New York reporter Jimmy Breslin on how Trump "uses the reporters to create a razzle dazzle." One result is that "People seem drawn to Trump's rallies in the same way that they are drawn to a professional wrestling match, and as with a professional wrestling match, they seem divided between people who believe all they see and hear, and those who know it's partially a performance. the scariest thing about being at a Trump rally is that you don't know who believes it and who doesn't."

She reminds us too of his outright, direct invitation to Russia to interfere in the election and of his strange attraction to Vladimir Putin.

She shows how surprised even Trumpers were on election night - how, for example, earlier that day, Kellyanne Conway was already starting the post-election recriminations, complaining how "she didn't have the full support of the Republican Party."

But. most usefully, she captures the relationship between Trump and those who tried to tell the story. She notes, "We can tell the truth all day, but it's pointless if no one believes us." And she has interesting things to say about the different impacts of network and all-day cable news. 

Distrust and dislike of the media are not new, and she sources some of its origin in the fact that journalism "tells us things about the world that we'd rather not know; it reveals aspects of people that aren't always flattering. But rather than deal with journalism, we despise journalism."

Covering the campaign, Tur experienced first-hand an extreme version of that despising of journalism - and journalists. Most of what her book tells us about what happened is, after all, not really new at this point. But it is powerful to read her personal accounts of what this campaign was actually like on the inside, and how appallingly it empowered people to behave. "Trump is crude, and in his halo of crudeness other people get to be crude as well."  I wonder whether this may be one of the most lasting legacies of that incredible campaign!

Tur's account illustrates how a lot of Trump-supporters were otherwise ordinary citizens - "your coworkers and your neighbors," who would not typically engage in disreputable behavior. "But inside a Trump rally ... they can drop their everyday niceties. They can yell and scream and say the things they'd never say out loud on the outside." 

But I wonder whether now and in the future more and more people will behave that way "on the outside" as well, as the passions unleashed by this campaign, unbounded by traditional restraints of shared citizenship in a common society with at least certain common values, and no longer restrained by religion or old-fashioned manners. 

Sunday, October 15, 2017

No Excuses

Jesus in today’s Gospel [Matthew 22:1-14] gives us yet another parable about evangelization and its ultimate goal, the kingdom of heaven, which, Jesus tells us is like a king who gave a wedding feast for his son. In a world where resources were scarce and food supplies limited, what better image for the kingdom of heaven than the abundance suggested by a royal wedding!

As with so many of Jesus’ parables, it is a kind of allegory. The king, of course, represents God; the son is Jesus; the servants, sent to summon the invited guests, are the Old Testament prophets; and the servants sent out again to invite to the feast whomever they find are the apostles - and their successors in the Church. Presumably, the invited guests who refused to come represent those who resisted or opposed Jesus, while all those gathered from the streets, both bad and good alike, would be all those others – including, by the time Matthew’s Gospel was written, many Gentiles, which presumably also includes us, – who have responded positively to Jesus and, over time, to his Church. And, finally, the king’s coming into the hall to meet the guests represents the judgment.

Clearly, the parable illustrates God’s great desire that as many as possible be included in the abundant life he has planned in his kingdom. So, why, we wonder, did those originally invited guests refuse to come to the feast?

It is hard to imagine anyone ever refusing such an invitation.  On the contrary, people go to great lengths to get themselves invited to all sorts of high profile events, and they are usually more than willing to rearrange their schedules if needed. In the parable, however, some ignored the invitation and went away, while others (even more oddly) aggressively rejected the invitation.

The fact is that throughout history there have always been people who have aggressively resisted God’s kingdom. (That’s why we’ve had so many martyrs in the Church’s history.) Even so, I suspect, many more people probably fall into the less aggressive category of those that just ignored the invitation and went away, one to his farm, another to his business. Their behavior is really very easy to understand. It really is very easy to become so completely preoccupied with the ordinary stuff of life, with one’s own daily affairs – whether one is constantly climbing up some social or economic ladder or whether one is just getting by and making do. If this parable illustrates God’s great desire to have us all in his kingdom, it also illustrates just how easily the ordinary business of life can, if we let it, confuse our priorities and get in the way of what God has in mind for us.

Now, obviously, as members of the Church, we want to identify ourselves with the second group – those gathered in from all over the place, both bad and good alike. It is not that they were any better or more deserving than those who turned down the initial invitation, but they did at least recognize the value of the invitation and were willing to give God a try.  And, for those who follow through, that readiness to respond makes all the difference! Certainly, it has to be quite consoling for us to hear that God’s kingdom is not some kind of private club, that there’s plenty of room for even the likes of us!

In Jesus’ world, in any traditional society, even a last-minute addition to the guest list for a formal occasion would presumably know enough to dress for the event - unlike in our society where many seem to have completely forgotten (or maybe never learned) how to dress appropriately anytime for any event. In any case, when the king came in to meet the guests, he saw a man there not dressed in a wedding garment.

That’s what happens, some skeptics might say, when you just open the door and let anyone and everyone in. The story says both bad and good alike, so the king can’t say he wasn’t warned! But, just because the door has now been opened to all, it does not follow that the king has therefore abandoned all his expectations about how his guests are supposed to behave. Being inclusive doesn’t mean anything goes. Responding to the invitation represented an initial option for the kingdom. But, as we all know, people don’t all always follow through on their commitments. Sadly, even of those that do in fact show up, not all will follow up!

When challenged by the king, the casually dressed guest was reduced to silence. In other words, he had no excuse. If there is one thing we human beings are usually very good at, it is finding and making excuses for ourselves! But, in God’s kingdom, on Judgment Day the time for excuses will be over.

Again, the kingdom of heaven is not a private club. It extends a wide-open invitation to all, and that (as the parable illustrates) includes both bad and good alike. Having accepted that invitation, however, we are intended to take in all its awesome seriousness the challenge of full and meaningful membership in God’s kingdom - from the initial invitation to the final judgment -  lest we too risk finding ourselves with no excuse, reduced to silence forever.

Homily for the 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, October 15. 2017.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Praying for Rain

In the Jewish calendar, today, the 22nd day of the 7th month (Tishri) is the festival of Shemini Atzeret. It closes the week-long festival of Sukkot (one of the three biblical pilgrimage festivals and the one which is widely thought to have been the biggest in Jesus’ time). The celebration of Sukkot is prescribed in Levitius 23:33-36. That final verse also prescribes a “solemn assembly” or “holy convocation” on the eight day, Shemini Atzeret. So Shemini Atzeret is simultaneously the eighth day of Sukkot but also a separate festival with its own identity. On this day, the prayer for rain is recited – for the first time since Passover. It is recited daily during the Israeli rainy season. As a Jewish friend explained to me years ago, it doesn’t rain in Israel in the summer, so there is no point praying for rain then. But, during the autumn-winter rainy season (from Sukkot to Pesach), it is important that there be enough rain. Hence the liturgical prayer for rain, then – and only then.

I have been thinking about this devout custom of praying for a successful rainy season while watching the horrifying scenes of the wildfires in California. In the 1990s, whenever I would visit my family in California for New Year's or for President's Day weekend, it would rain - a lot. That was what it was supposed to do, of course, during the rainy season. In recent years, however, thanks to climate change, California has suffered from drought and has experienced much less winter rain. The winter rains - and especially the snowfall in the mountains - are essential to California's summer water supply, no less than the winter rains were in ancient Israel. And a wet, rainy fall would be a help to those fighting the late-season wildfires.

In the Roman liturgy, we no longer celebrate Rogation processions and recite orationes imperatae. There still is a Votive Mass "For Rain," although I have to wonder how often it is actually celebrated. Perhaps as part of rediscovering our dependence on the natural world, we need to retrieve time-honored religious traditions, like praying for rain (and snow) in winter. What devout Jews still faithfully do might well serve as an admirable model for the rest of us.