Learning Lessons from Political Saints?

With the Election just days away I find myself asking the question, “Why does it seem like everyone expects politicians to be saints?”  I mean, they are not running for Pope or Dalai Lama, so why do people act surprised when scandalous skeletons are exposed in the media (Especially the same old skeletons, just in a different suit, and so close to election day.)?  And do we really think the candidates that we support are perfect? More to the point, are we so saintly that we think we don’t have a few skeletons in our own closets?
At the Conspire 2016 conference I’m told that Christena Cleveland said that “even people we don’t like have something of value to teach us; even Donald Trump.”  I wasn’t there, but I wish I could have heard it in context.  Nonetheless, this idea has stuck in my mind ever since.  Even Donald Trump?  Even Hillary Clinton?  Even that bigot I work with?  Even that racist, hot-head that lives down the street?

Although….  I think there is something deeper to be learned from disagreeable people such as Donald Trump.  In a blog post from March of this year, Christena says:

Social psychologists who study this type of existential terror have found that prejudice serves as a buffer and a way to manage the terror. When humans are feeling vulnerable (particularly about our own invincibility and mortality), we respond with prejudice towards those who are different.  This makes us feel better.***

Enter Donald Trump. His screeching, taunting, immature words reveal the tantrums of a desperate man who is trying to manage the existential terror of white men. 

Trump’s xenophobic and racist political platform provides the “prejudice buffer” that many white men need in order to find relief from the pain of vulnerability. Given the changing racial dynamics in the U.S., it is no surprise that so many white men have gravitated toward Trump. His hateful rhetoric, with which he blames people of color for America’s problems, affirms white male identities and relieves their existential anxiety by assuring that he will restore order to white male supremacy.   

So, maybe the thing to be valued here is not some random redeeming quality like “they love their family,” or “they give to the poor.”  Perhaps the lesson to be learned is simply a lesson that teaches us about our own fears, failings, and prejudices.  Hopefully some of us will consider Christena’s words, and find a way through our pride to the humble shores where everything & everyone belongs, and no one is excluded.  I know I’m struggling to get there.

I’ve thought about Christena’s words and this election a lot and have concluded that for all the distasteful comments, actions, and skeletons, I do admire both candidates for having the courage and conviction to enter this race. It takes courage and a thick skin to throw your hat into the ring of this crazy USA system of elections.  Not only does the political machine grind each candidate and their family into sausage, but the news media, and social media are merciless in their tireless efforts to belittle the opposition while making a case for sainthood for their favorite candidate.

With All Saints Day just this past week, I know we are all called to be saints, but let’s get real.  Neither Hillary or Donald are saints, but then again, neither are we (YET!).  We’re all just trying to do our best with what we have.  That’s a big enough job.

Wrestling With a Violent Faith

Now that summer is here I am enjoying my favorite summer routine:  my morning swim with the Masters at the college, the drive to church for Liturgy of the Hours followed by morning mass, then home for breakfast in my backyard.  It’s a great way to start the day!  I enjoy reflecting on scripture while sitting in the midst of my garden, but the readings lately (mostly about mercy, forgiveness, & being perfect; Mt 5:38-42; Mt 5:43-48) have me pondering the more violent nature of the Bible & the role of God in some of the more gruesome stories.  If we are all children of God, and we are all loved and treasured, then how can “God” be on one side against another in so many violent conflicts?  I’m not a theology major, but my gut instinct says, “I don’t buy it.”  I feel a bit like Jacob wrestling with the Angel of the Lord (Gn 32:23-33), but I firmly believe that a strong faith in anything becomes stronger by wrestling with the tough questions; even if that means wrestling with God herself!

Pax Christi’s blog posts very good articles on a variety of topics, and lately there seem to be a growing number of posts about drones.  In a recent post by Bishop Richard Pates I was struck by the idea that we (people in general, but especially people who like to bury their heads in the sand) like our conflicts to be neat, clean, & tidy. We choose not to think about the ugly, dirty horrors associated with war. Instead we want to feel justified in our part in it so that we can continue to enjoy our lifestyle & still sleep at night.  In his article, Drones Aren’t the Murky Moral Subject We Pretend, Bishop Pates raises an important question that Western Society never seems to consider, and that is, “What if Pakistan, Yemen or Somalia used drones for targeted killings here in the US?”  According to one Mother Jones report there are 11 countries with armed drones and about 76 countries with drone technology.

So, here we go again.  Just yesterday we learned that yet another drone strike has killed 17 people in Pakistan.  So many thoughts racing through my head right now, but the bottom line for me is this:  Violence begets violence, and, no matter where you stand on the issue of drone use or the so-called “war on terror”, there are 17 dead & there are now 17 families that have good reason to hate Americans.  And don’t even get me started on the number of innocent lives lost because men, women & children just happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time, or because the “intelligence” was wrong!  This is not part of a foreign policy that will ever produce peace; it will only ever produce greater violence here on American soil & throughout the world.  Maybe that sounds a little melo-dramatic, but my mind races to see the big picture in the immediate future & way down the road.  Sorry.  It’s a character flaw.

If “wrestling with God” on tough issues strengthens my faith, then wrestling with tough questions in the political arena should strengthen my political opinions (if it doesn’t just push me right over the deep end!).  Reconciling faith & politics is always a challenge.  I’ve never been the kind of Catholic that “follows blindly” everything that comes out of the Vatican or the USCCB, especially when it drips of exclusionary, or overtly warmongering-patriotic language.  Forming political opinions, likewise, shouldn’t just be regurgitated partisan rhetoric.  When I compare the many different world religions I am always drawn to the simple fact that all of them have at their core a call to “love your neighbor as yourself”, and a call to peaceful coexistence.  So why can’t we just practice that?  Why do people & governments continue to perpetuate mistrust, violence, and hatred?  I know I’m being naive here, but it should really be this simple.

Certainly I do not have any answers or solutions (I’m still busy wrestling), but I think that the starting point must be simply seeing the other person/nation as human, flawed, and deserving of respect, if not love.  I agree with something Col. Potter once said in “M*A*S*H*” (my favorite TV series), “I think there should be a rule of war saying you have to see someone up close and get to know ’em before it’s ok to shoot ’em.”  Maybe then we’d have a better chance for real & lasting peace in the world.

Drones, War, Peace, & American Democracy

I’ve just spent some time reading & reflecting on the endless supply of information, facts, fiction, opinions, & reality about the increased use of US drone missile attacks under the Obama Administration.  I am inspired by Pax Christi’s recent postings, especially the two articles by Shelley Douglass and Nick Mele in the Inter-community Peace & Justice quarterly edition of AMOS (A Matter of Spirit publication).  I am inspired, and yet I am still left with a feeling of hopelessness.  The more we make technological advances, the more our privacy & freedoms are placed on the chopping block.  We proclaim that we live in a free & democratic society (US), but clearly we do not.  Not by a long shot!  Not when our elected officials are making back-room-deals with lobbyists, corporations, or the highest bidder. Not when the president & congress change the rules or re-interpret the Constitution to suit their interests & then casually explain it away in the name of “national security” when their misdeeds are exposed.  I’m not paranoid, Verizon, Google, NSA, &/or POTUS.  I’m not!  BUT!  When you read this, please understand that I’m just an ordinary person who wants the same Human Rights that everyone else does.  Everyone means EVERYONE in the whole world, not just a hand-picked few!

I have heard horror stories on the radio, read about them on the internet and in magazines…. People who question their governments and the  “status quo”, people who work for peace & justice, and then suddenly find themselves threatened, out of a job, imprisoned, abducted, tortured, exiled, or simply silenced because they dare to speak truth to power.  But who really has the power?  The government? Homeland Security?  The CIA or the FBI?  We fool ourselves on both sides; those in government & we the people. You remember them, don’t you?  We…. The people?

While watching re-runs of old sit-coms the other night I was struck with an “Ah-ha!” moment.  The topics haven’t changed in 40 or 60 years (yes, I’m that old!).  Today’s sit-coms, soap-operas, & TV-dramas still tackle the same ol’ issues of politics, sex, religion, racism, & relationships.  The real difference is technology & the transparency of the issues.  Think about it.  40-60 years ago it took a whole lot of grassroots action & many brave ordinary citizens to stand up to the government to get Civil Rights passed into law.  It took a lot of angry mothers to stand up to government to win justice for families suffering from the effects of deadly contaminants at Love Canal.   Many of these movements remained active for many years before they saw the change that needed to happen.  Today all you need is YouTube, FaceBook, Twitter, Move-On.org, & the “morning/late-night TV circuit” appearances for anything to go “viral.”  Then all you have to do is put down your Latte & click “sign the petition”!  No, the issues haven’t changed, just our means of communication & our “monkey-sphere” (funny perspective, but I have more faith in humanity than that).

I think social media is an important tool in addressing social justice issues, but it still needs to be linked to actions.  Most of us have become “arm-chair-activist” who spend time pointing & clicking & forwarding petitions & links, which is good & totally necessary, but we need to do more, and I believe most of us have the capacity to care about more than just 150 other people (or monkeys).  So, “We the people” ultimately have the power, we just forget about that every so often.  We forget that democracy was built on the belief in certain unalienable rights, and when we forget, we relinquish our freedoms, our rights, our security, and our power.  We forget that our elected officials derive “their just powers from the consent of the governed.”  In other words, they work for us!

We give consent without thinking about it in today’s technology saturated environment, and then we’re outraged by what our government is doing when someone leaks something to the press about an infringement of our rights, freedoms, or privacy.  In today’s instant world of media & technology, nothing much is private anymore, but that doesn’t mean we should relinquish our freedoms and our privacy.  We just maybe have to rethink & reevaluate what  our expectations are & determine if they are realistic or not.

A Good Influence?

 

I’m not sure if it is a character flaw or a strange gift, but I tend to contemplate on things that I experience on a small, seemingly insignificant level, and then transpose them into a larger context as it may relate to world events.  Sometimes I love the way my mind races, and other times I think I’m just really weird!   Example:  In one of my 5th grade classes I have three of my best-behaved, well-adjusted young girls sitting with a young boy who is very undisciplined & rather disruptive.  (Well, of course my hope is to have some of the “good influence” rub-off!  I’m a positive person and an American with a self-appointed-saviour-complex!)  After a while though, whether you are a child of 10 or a country with good intentions, you might just snap and throw a pencil at the “bad boy” who just doesn’t know how to “play nice”!  (She felt terrible, by the way, and he looked justified when I corrected her behavior.  Not unlike some leaders and their nations in the news of late.) This is probably first year psych-major stuff, but what do I know? I was an art history major!

So, how is it that educated men & women of privilege in positions of political power (i.e. DC lawmakers) don’t see their own flawed ideology when it comes to drone strikes & US foreign policy? We can’t have it both ways. We can’t be outraged at gun violence in our country & the tragic deaths of innocent children while condoning the use of drones in places like Pakistan and Yemen. As we argue for tighter gun control, how many is too many innocent lives lost? What’s the “magic number” that will get us to act? 5? 6? 8? 10? 26? 556? 1,000? At what number do we say “enough is enough” and take action to make some change? Are American lives more valuable than Pakistani lives? Is the tragic death of an American Child worthy of more of our tears than a Syrian or Afghani child? An American citizen, a Pakistani, and a terrorist all have mothers & fathers, spouses, siblings, sons & daughters who will all mourn their loss. Innocent children are being killed by drone attacks, disturbed gunmen, and by the misfortune of being born in a war-torn or impoverished country. They are waiting for those of us with good intentions to act. How much longer will they have to wait? How many more innocent lives will be lost & how many more will mourn the loss of their loved ones before we do act?

Whether we act as individuals, as groups, politicians or nations, we must act. Too often we do nothing because we feel overwhelmed by the scope of everything, but that’s the very point when action has its most powerful effect! We can be the “good influence”, but only if we act compassionately & unconditionally. Below are some sites I found that advocate for gun-control, non-violence, and other paths to peace & justice, especially peace & justice for children trapped in war zones.

As for my 5th graders: I’ll continue to pursue peace talks & other creative means for peaceful co-existence. I think they know that I love them all & only want the best for them, & that’s a start.

American for Responsible Solutions
Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence
Coalition to Stop Gun Violence
Drones Watch
War Child Charity
SOS Children Charity
Save the Children-Syria