Monday, August 31, 2009

Dorothy Day: Simple Truths

I am finishing the 600-page diaries of Dorothy Day, which span 45 years, and I am struck by the consistency of Day's beliefs. Once she became a Roman Catholic--or by 1934 -- her beliefs never wavered. She reminds herself of them often in her journals, so much so that they become ingrained in the reader as well. Here are a few, in no particular order except as they occur to me:

1. We must build a society in which it is "easier to be good."

2. The world will be saved by beauty. Late in the diaries, she speaks of a group who would go into the slums, as she calls them, clean and paint and repair, then furnish the rooms with the utmost simplicity, hanging icons and crosses on the walls, which glowed with beauty.

3. Christ calls us to find his face in the "least:" the unreformed alcoholic, the poor, the mentally ill. We are to embrace them as brothers and sisters. It is not easy.

4. We are called to stand for peace. Christ was the Prince of Peace. Day never wavered in this conviction: not during the Spanish Civil War, when the Catholic church largely supported the fascists, not during World War II, not in the face of Hitler and the holocaust, not during the Cold War of the 1950s, not during Viet Nam.

5. "Christian" people who live well are not living the gospel. Day had a lifelong distaste for fat, comfortable priests and such like.

6. Silence is important. She is constantly reminding herself to talk less and listen more. She had great affinity for the Quakers.

7. Judge not. She lived with people it would be easy to judge: prostitutes, drug addicts, drunks, people she opened her room to who stole her things and left her lice in trade. Yet she constantly admonishes herself not to judge, not to speak harshly, to praise God for these people as the face of Christ in her life. She constantly sought to live humbly.

8. We can learn from great literature.

9. Manual labor is very important. It is part of the balanced life. It is where we meet God.

10. God and religion are both spiritual and material. People need spirit, but also need things. Poverty is an evil.

Day was a truly awesome person, and I use the word "awesome" in the sense of awe-inspiring. She lived her beliefs every day. What do you think of them? She would also read the biographies of saints for inspiration. I am inspired by her. Could you suggest books about people who inspire you?

Sunday, August 30, 2009

A Law Abiding Citizen

Yesterday, I went to the movie "Taking Woodstock." Before it came on, I saw a trailer for a movie called "A Law Abiding Citizen."

This is what I gathered the movie to be about: A man (the law-abiding citizen) loses his pretty elementary-aged daughter and his wife to a home invasion. Apparently, the two are clubbed to death, as the trailer shows one of the invaders swinging a thick wooden bat as soon as the front door is opened to him.

The murderers are caught and as best I could gather, due to a plea or a deal, one got the death penalty, but the other a lighter sentence. The law-abiding citizen was upset. The prosecutor told him this is how justice is served in the United States.

The trailer cuts to the electric chair on the day the condemned murderer is to die. When all the witnesses have assembled to watch the execution, they find the condemned man already strapped to the chair, already dead, his body contorted into a pose of agony, as though he had been tortured. Then we see what is presumably the other murderer strapped to a table, with the law-abiding citizen approaching him with a circular power saw whirring.

Then we cut to the law-abiding citizen back in the prosecutor's office, this time presumably arrested for murder. For a moment, it doesn't look good for the citizen but soon there's an explosion, and all the cars in the courthouse parking explode in a dramatic chain reaction, apparently orchestrated by the citizen. A law enforcement person asks, what was he, a spy? and someone else answers that he was more than a spy, he was the brains behind the spies. Someone also says, if he's in jail, that's because he wants to be. The citizen himself tells the prosecutor that he is going bring the system crashing down on his head.

This is not a movie I plan to go to see. It seemed to me, from the trailer, that it was channeling the frustrations of many, especially males, who might feel powerless and unsafe in a society that seemingly cannot protect their families or bring justice to criminals. I was disturbed that we seemed to be expected to identify with the ironically named law-abiding citizen as he orchestrates a spree of ultra-violence to enact the justice denied him. I was unsettled, but not surprised, that violence was the one and only avenue explored for confronting injustice or changing the system and that the "lone hero" was, once again, Rambo style, going to singlehandedly bring the system "down." Clearly, we already have enough people out there with guns and not afraid to use them. Do we need to encourage this behavior? And what kind of powerlessness do people feel when they indulge in these vicarious fantasies of almost supernatural power and violence?

Interestingly, when I read about the film on the Internet, apparently the law-abiding citizen, whom I was led to believe was the hero, is a dangerous sociopath who must be stopped. The real hero of the story is the prosecutor, who was apparently forced by his superior to make the deal with one murderer to get his testimony against the other. According to the Internet, he must match his wits to the citizen's to stop him, especially after his own family is targeted. However, the trailer depicts him as a cold tool of a corrupt system.

I imagine I should have identified the citizen as a sociopath when he went after the strapped-down murderer with a circular power saw. Certainly, I found that disturbing. But I am so used to being out of sync with the rest of the world on the subject at violence, that I thought, OK, it must be me. The rest of the world must be OK with the powersaw revenge scenario. I was glad to find that apparently this is not so, and that the actions of the citizen are not meant to be heroic.

I wonder why the trailer gave a distorted view of the movie, leading me, in any case, to assume the narrative was on "the side" of the citizen? I also wish, as I often do, that we could produce more movies which explore alternatives to violence and in which the showdown doesn't come down to who can better mastermind using the various weapons of destruction that happen to be at hand. Also, I wish so much we could move beyond the "home invasion" scenario, which, I understand, is rare in real life but seems to inspire all sorts of ideas about stockpiling arsenals of weapons.

I think we have all seen this movie before, in one guise or another. Why do you think this movie keeps getting made?

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Is profanity demonic?

I'm reading the diaries of Dorothy Day. Day converted to Roman Catholicism about the time her daughter was born in the late 1920s and then devoted the rest of her life to founding Catholic Worker, an organization which served the poor and published an influential newspaper. Day lived among the poor, worked passionately for peace and is now on the road to sainthood. She strove to build a society in which it was "easier to be good."

I hope to get back to the major themes of Dorothy Day and her life in other posts but she wrote something in a recent diary entry (February 18, 1970) in which she mentioned profanity, and, especially, the use of the F-word at peace marches and rallies:

"I have myself been at enough demonstrations, parades, marches of protest ... to know ... the shouting of four-letter words ... I myself cringe before such words, because of the hatred and contempt they express and involving the perversion of the act of creation. The love of God for man and man for God in the Song of Songs, in the book of Hosea is compared to love with involves both mind and soul and body, and implies a physical act which results in the miracle of creation. ... What I am trying to say is that the use of the [F-] word coarsely or humorously applied to the sexual act, is calculated to enrage. There can even be an element of the demonic to it."

I went to the peace demonstration in Washington DC before the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003 and was bothered by the element carrying "F ... Bush" placards, as I did not find that particular stance conducive to peace building.

Dorothy Day, ruminating on such cursing, used the term demonic. From context, I take it that she defines "demonic" as that intended purposely to enrage another and that which twists an act of creation into something sordid. Do you agree? If so, is the F-word (which I think is her main target) always demonic? Is there a difference between a person having a spontaneous outburst of profanity in response to, say, a frightening event, and a calculated plan to bring a placard with profanity to a demonstration?

I wonder about it, because that word has become so mainstream in our society.

The Story we Believe

Scot McKnight has been doing a series on David Bentley Hart's Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies.

Hart, a historian, argues that we tell a false story when we posit progress from the supposed darkness, violence, ignorance and superstition of the Middle Ages to an "enlightened" modern age. He argues that it simply shows a poor understanding of history to say we are "vastly more enlightened than those ... brutes who slouched through the swamps of medieval fanaticism ..." We've created a mythology of a "dark ages" of religious superstition which falsely bolsters our own claims to rational, intellectual and moral superiority. In this (false) story, getting rid of religious faith is a positive move that allows us to progress unhindered towards a juster, more humane society. This story, Hart says, buttresses the claims of the New Atheists that religion gets in the way of the good life. However, Hart maintains, the Middle Ages was more intellectually sophisticated, humane and non-violent than we give it credit for and the modern age more riddled with irrationality, inhumanity and violence than we like to admit.

Hart's challenge to the Story of Progress resonates with me for several reason. In brief, I was very much taught the Story of Progress in school. I was taught, for example, that poor Galileo was the victim of a backwards church that persecuted him on the basis of blind faith. The Church stood as an obstacle to enlightenment. Superstition once reigned and kept people poor and oppressed until science and reason triumphed, bringing us the good life. Science and faith were always locked in combat-- and thank goodness science and reason won. This message, one way or another, was repeated over and over again in my schooling. I believed it -- why wouldn't I?--until I awakened and started saying, hey, wait a minute .... Galileo was a sacrifice to politics, not a victim of a Church incapable of understanding the that Bible could be metaphoric. The Church was not ignorant --in fact, it was quite savvy. I began to actually read Medieval theologians and to realize that these people were as smart --or possibly smarter --than we are today.

McKnight writes: "Hart examines the connection of science and the demonic to show that they were both ways to deal with elements of life perceived to be powers. A rise in accusations about sorcery and the like is late Medieval or early Modern and not at all characteristic of the bulk of the Medieval age. Those most hostile to sorcery, Hart shows, were often not Christians and connected to state and power and politics -- Thomas Hobbes and Jean Bodin.

Hart's thesis is that this can't be explained simply as Christian power but of the corruption of power, in which Christianity was absorbed. Here's his very insightful and important thesis:

'The long history of Christendom is astonishingly plentiful in magnificent moral, intellectual, and cultural achievements... But it has also been the history of a constant struggle between the power of the gospel to alter and shape society and the power of the state to absorb every useful institution into itself.'

And: "we see that violence increased in proportion to the degree of sovereignty claimed by the state, and that whenever the medieval church surrendered moral authority to secular power, injustice and cruelty flourished" (86).

Medieval society was more peaceful, just and charitable than the imperial society before it and as well as more than the early modern nation state that followed it."

What do you think? Do you think we would view Christianity in a more positive light if we re-examined our narrative about progress? Is Christianity itself inherently a problem or is it a problem when Christianity gets cooped into supporting a nationalistic agenda?

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

School Days II

I took a batch of chocolate chip cookies my friend Jane baked for Sophie up to her yesterday at Muskingum. I needed to take Sophie to the orthodontist and return her learner's permit to her. (We're hoping Sophie will get her driver's license soon!) Sophie was upstairs chatting with her housemates and quickly brought the plate of cookies up to share. So Sophie is doing fine. Her year boarding at Olney has left her adept at dorm life. She also has a network of friends outside of the school to lean into. Plus, she is a savvy and resourceful person.

I appreciate Jane's friendship and her gesture in baking the cookies and sending up a pretty card and a small soapstone carving from Kenya. Sophie was delighted. Jane has also baked a peach pie for us, which we found in the frig after returning from a trip and turkey cacciatore which was awaiting us when he came back from the beach. All were wonderful and most welcome. It is the little things in life ...

As for the continuing saga of school days, I too have my own story, which is a faculty meeting this evening at Ohio University Eastern. We we all be back to school soon! Is anyone else gearing up for fall?

Sunday, August 23, 2009

School Days

Sorry for not blogging for so long and for being slow to respond to people who responded to the last blog.

I have times when I just can't bring myself to write anything. I think this is Quaker silence. Of course, I did work for a daily paper, so I am capable of churning out a lot of copy ... but it's nice to have a choice.

Recently much has been happening on the "back to school" front. First, the boys are getting ready to be sophomores at Olney and had the unexpected and welcome surprise of their good friend from home, Elvin Danos, joining them at the school. Way opened at the last minute and money flowed through that enabled Elvin's parents --our friends Johanna and Bill--to send Elvin to Olney. Our Quaker meeting back home was remarkably generous. For a long time, I had prayed that Elvin could come to the school, but also knew I had to let it go, which I did. And it happened. We know it's not through our power.

Second, Sophie went off to Muskingum University on Friday, so she is now officially a Muskie. Problem is, she's completely isolated. Her roommate, who seems nice enough, has friends at the college from high school, so she is gone most of the time. While there has been an ice breaker at a nearby dorm --Sophie is in a small, charming house with seven other girls and has lovely room with a French door -- and several large social events, such as a pool party, a carnival, and a movie, Sophie has not yet hooked up with anyone to pal around with. She is all by herself amongst 1,599 other students. This is not good. Sophie is a remarkable person , a trooper, social, friendly and kind , so we are trusting this unsettling situation will pass. I will be calling the school tomorrow to see what can be done. In the meantime, we are trusting that there is an ocean of light over the ocean of darkness in the world, and that as the story of Elvin attests, a way that God works things. I'm just hoping that if Sophie is in the wrong place and this is God's way of nudging her into the right place, it is not too painful a process. I am also praying that this if this is the right place, she will quickly find her way. In any case, prayers or holding her in the light would be helpful. Nobody wants to be all alone. Especially in a strange place.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Is Christianity more violent?

Some liberal Quakers attack institutional Christianity for its violence.

The Christian Church has a history of using violence: the Crusades, the Inquisition and the Thirty Year's War come to mind as just a few examples.

But is Christianity more violent than other religions?

After the attack of 9/11, the dalai lama was asked if Islam were inherently a violent religion. He responded that all religions are inherently violent.

I don't always --or often--agree with the dalai lama, but in this case I believe he was right. All religions are inherently violent. Why? Because people are inherently violent.

I have met elements in Quakerism who tell a story that goes somewhat as follows: Buddhists are pure and peace loving but Christians are blood thirsty and violent. Native American spirituality is pure and womanist and earth loving, while Christianity is full of rape and pillage.

As for Buddhism, we need to look no further than Sri Lanka to find prominent Buddhist monks mired in violence. In Japan, Buddhist monks have been discredited since World War II for getting into bed with a fanatical, pro-War government. People rightly questioned why a religion ostensibly dedicated to non-violence supported a reactionary political party that led the country into an extremely bloody war.

Muslims have perpetrated many acts of violence. Hindus hardly have a clean record either: For starters, Pakistan was created to give Muslims a safe haven from the Hindus who were slaughtering them. Native Americans also perpetrated their share of violence-- Woolman, for example, was not naive enough to think he was necessarily heading into a warm, womanist, eco-friendly embrace when he visited Indian territory. More on his mind were stories of Native Americans pulling out their enemies' intestines and using them to tie them to trees until they died. More up to the minute, a recent Salon article reviews a book about a Midwestern Indian civilization that practiced large scale human sacrifice. (Of course, I don't forget that all major religions have perpetrated great acts of compassion, love and mercy.)

So why do Christians get particularly villifiied for violence? Part of it is mindset: We live in a predominately Christian culture so we look more closely at its failings. Also, Christianity is still the largest world religion,even though it is losing ground to Islam. A glance at shows 33 percent of the world's population to be Christian, 21 percent Muslim, 16 percent no religion, 14 percent Hindu and six percent Buddhist. If Christians have, in fact, been more violent, could it be because there have been more of them? Is it possible that for all the deplorable acts, Christians have even been proportionally less violent? (For example, the very bloody 20th century was led in violence by non-Christian regimes such as Stalin's.) Or at least can we agree that Christians have been, proportionally, no more violent than any other group?

Thursday, August 6, 2009

New York and back

I returned Monday from a trip to New York. I had the thrill there of meeting Martin Levin, husband of the late Marcia Martin, author of the Donna Parker series, favorite books of my childhood. We have reached an agreement for me to do some light editing on a reissue of the series and to write an introduction to the reprinted books.

I stayed with my sister-in-law (good friend) and brother-in-law in Northern New Jersey.

I love New York. My sis-in-law and I went to see a play called "Levittown," dined out, shopped and went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I enjoyed seeing Rye, a suburb about 45 north of Manhattan (the actual setting of the fictional town of "Summerfield, NJ" in Donna Parker) and having the opportunity to spend a morning in Hoboken.

Afterwards, I spent a night with our friends the Danos in Ellicott City and drove back to Barnesville with their son Elvin, who is visiting Will and Nick.