Friday, June 22, 2012

Sunday I found myself in New York City ...

Sunday I found myself in New York City, my home town. As I do from time to time, I went to the old neighborhood where I know no one any more. I even ambled over to the church where I was baptized. I walked in for a moment, to see the tiny church I once perceived as large as Canterbury.

The priest was finishing his sermon; they'd read Mark 4:26-34 and he was wrapping up. His New York accent assaulted me. I don't live there any more. So I have gone to search for the reading ( and see if I can formulate my own sermon.

The meaning of the opening simile parable that hits me in the face first off is the message that the reign of God is not in my hands.

So often I read the papers, which I can do at work as part of work (great job if you can get it), and become despondent. As a journalist I know that the one bias all reporters have is for the negative: someone died, so-and-so is corrupt, the world is falling apart. Yet I get caught up in it as I scour for the disasters to make sure I can find the news-of-the-day angle to my stories.

These days I am mindful of Yeats: "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold." I could recite all the headlines to you, but you don't need me to do that. You can go get depressed on your own.

So here comes Jesus saying that the reign of God, the state of being he is announcing to the world, is "as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how."

He does not know how.

There is nothing I need bother my little head about it, because even if I were the seed scatterer, I would still not know how it sprouts and grows. Yet it does by some process I don't know. The conclusion reminds me of Julian of Norwich: "All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well."

The reign of God is at hand, despite all the darkening clouds. Perhaps the clouds just bring rain. Then the seed will become a tree and birds will nest in its branches, as the remainder of the passage says.

I don't know for certain that this is "the message." I was spared living in first century Palestine as a poor devout Jew who followed a Galilean woodworker-preacher, so I was not told what Mark intimates is the secret of the gospel. At least, I was not told as the disciples were told.

But here's my guess.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Republican worship of job "creators" is idolatry

Lost in the truly stupid flap over a misunderstood remark by President Obama, which in its proper context (the labor market) was correct, is an even graver error: the Republican worship of job "creators."

As Sister Catherine Agnes taught me in second grade, to create is to make from nothing, as Christians believe God created everything ... from nothing.

Let's consider nothingness. A street vendor in Rome charges $20 for what an angry tourist sees through a peephole is a dark and empty box. The vendor responds offended: "That's the original nothingness from before God created the world!"

I have generated jobs in launching new publications.

These jobs didn't come from nothing. There was a need for the information we were gathering and there was a need for someone to gather, edit, lay out and distribute it: jobs, jobs, jobs.

But hey, I didn't invent the topic, the information niche. I didn't educate the reporters or the graphic designers. I didn't build our offices or invent electricity for our computers. Nor did I train the printers, truck drivers, nor mail carriers, all later replaced by Internet technicians. I certainly did not invent the Internet.

Sure, I put existing resources together that combined into new jobs. In physics we learn that the sum of vectors isn't exactly arithmetic, you get a new vector. A man and a woman can make a 3-person family, which is expressed as 1+1=3.

There's no creation there.

Elizabeth Warren, who I hope wins the Massachusetts race for the U.S. Senate, puts it better than I could:
There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own — nobody.

You built a factory out there? Good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police-forces and fire-forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory — and hire someone to protect against this — because of the work the rest of us did.

Now look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific, or a great idea. God bless — keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is, you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.
Anybody who says otherwise is making gods, or false idols, of entrepreneurs.

Friday, June 01, 2012

"The butler did it" and other Vatican follies

Anyone wondering why the pope's butler secretly leaked evidence of entirely unsurprising Renaissance-style corruption in the modern Vatican need only weigh the history of authoritarian power styles such as that of Joseph Ratzinger.

Think about it: the pope is the last absolute divine-right monarch. What caused the fall of so many of his royal peers, their dynasties gone? One lost his head quite literally, another was gunned down in a basement with his family. Lots more where that came from.

Just as surely as Freud was right that suppression of desires breeds sublimation and rebellion, a tyrannical demand of absolute loyalty from one's subordinates breeds intrigue, double dealing and ultimately the collapse of any respect for authority.

This isn't new.

Dictatorship was always short-lived. The original Roman dictators were given extraordinary powers to cope with emergencies, then unceremoniously dismissed by the Senate once danger was gone.

The authoritarian boss, mafioso, president, king or pope forces his (they're usually men) subjects to obey without question no matter what, setting off tensions between individual needs or desires and social duty.

Most people end up cheating a little or a lot, depending on their power and means. Eventually everyone is part of a wide circle of dishonesty and disobedience that wrecks the social fabric.

The elected parliamentary systems of governance by laws of Britain and North America have the longest continuous history since very ancient times precisely because they strive for compromise, a safety valve for dissenting minorities,  pluralities and the individual.

This is also why, like sex-starved teenagers, most people lie outrageously to themselves and others when their urges or needs are fiercely and unreasonably suppressed, persecuted or disregarded.

Yet this is exactly what Ratzinger set up the Vatican to do.

Thoroughly indoctrinated in top-down order as a Hitler Youth, he rose under the tutelage of the most authoritarian German bishops. When he finally went to Rome he was quickly dubbed "the Panzerkardinal" as he  steamrolled over anyone with whom he disagreed.

His entire papacy is a venture dedicated to reducing the  Catholic Church to the tight-knit, goose-stepping 10 percent of Catholics who obey every rule (or fake it well and self-righteously).

Even nuns aren't allowed to care about the poor, whom a Galilean woodworker of long ago called "blessed." They must fight abortion and s-e-x first!

It can't be done? Pretend. Oh, and make all the financial shenanigans behind the operation go away.

This authoritarian illogic is how, as even Cuba's Prensa Latina reported, Castro's comrades practiced "sociolismo" (partnership in misappropriation of state property or funds) rather than socialism.

This is also how conservative Newton Leroy Gingrich attempted to overthrow President Clinton for sexual escapades while Gingrich himself was cheating on his dying wife with a woman from a church choir.

What made the man I none-too-affectionately call Papa Nazinger think that his own wrongheaded fanatical agenda wouldn't become the refuge of scoundrels?

Maybe it was his butler's benign smile of submission.