Sunday, January 31, 2010

A Ten-Minute Cab Ride

From my journal archives:

August 23, 2009 - I’ve found it a great irony of life that some of the most profound realizations and learning experiences occur during brief encounters with complete strangers. Such an encounter happened last Monday during a brief ten-minute cab ride from the train station back to base. The cab driver, noticing my oversized suitcase, politely inquired where I was returning from. I told him that I was returning from my brother’s wedding in the States and immediately, without hesitation, he asked with keen interest about what had been going on the other side of the Atlantic, particularly the two matters that have dominated the news: the economy and health care. Not really being one to discuss politics with complete strangers, I attempted to deflect his questions and return to the more mundane topic of the summer heat wave passing through Western Europe. Still, I could not help but notice that he had what seemed to be a genuine interest in the socio-economic upheaval that we find ourselves in. I deflected again onto another topic—the stark chasm in driving skills between American and German drivers (more on that in a separate post)—and as we pulled up to the front gate our brief conversation, with the cab ride, came to an abrupt end.

Thinking back on our short discussion and the driver’s interest, I realized something that I had not before: The world is watching us. More than that, they have been watching us for 233 years. Two centuries ago they watched from across oceans as we fought for our independence; now they watch through instantaneous news feeds, all the while observing with a keen eye (sometimes more keen than even our own) this great experiment in representative democracy that we call “America.” Some, no doubt, are watching and wishing us ill, but most look to us as a beacon of freedom and opportunity. Both watch with interest for the same reason: because, from our very foundation, our nation was created to break the status quo. We were founded upon the idea that our rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” do not originate from any king or appointed government, but are inherently granted, along with our existence, by the God who created us. We are a nation of laws and of equal opportunity, where no person should be hindered from either working hard to make a decent living for themselves and their family or from making their own choices in life insofar as they do not violate the inherent rights of others. Certainly we have our flaws—as any institution created and operated by fallible human beings does—but there is a reason we are looked to as the greatest nation on earth. It is not because of our wealth or military strength; many empires that possessed both have risen and fallen. It is because of the source of that wealth and strength, namely that we are the first who, from our foundation, have valued the protection of the rights of the person above all else, and as a result have reaped the collective prosperity that inevitably flows from the opportunity for unhindered individual success.

Our Republic represents a great hope of freedom and the chance for prosperity for many around the world who suffer without one or both. Let’s not let them down by sacrificing either.

Values In A Time of Upheaval by Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI) - Review

Values in a Time of UpheavalI must admit that I have always had a hard time reading the Holy Father's works. Just as soon as I start them, I find myself overwhelmed by the spiritual depth and intellectual richness that he has been blessed with and conveys in his writing. But, I keep going, confident that one day I will be able to open one and read it cover-to-cover without having to take a month (or three or six) break to let my brain recover from the stretching. This past month that finally happened.

As so often happens, I stumbled upon a book while visiting friends over Christmas. While browsing their collection, Values In A Time of Upheaval instantly caught my eye. As soon as I noticed the author--Joseph Ratzinger--I couldn't resist the urge to pick it up and begin reading it right there. I had never heard of the book before, but my friend was gracious enough to let me borrow it to read.

Although he is a genius of a theologian, I never would have considered the Holy Father to be a political philosopher in the tradition of Sts Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. My view is changed now. His book, which is actually a compilation of essays and commentaries, draws together in the clearest possible manner the relationship between the state and the Church, and the responsibilities held by each to mankind. He begins by examining the moral foundations of the free state, and goes on to explore the necessary and significant role that religions--especially Christianity--play in maintaining a free, functioning society. "Freedom preserves its dignity only as long as it retains the relationship to its ethical foundations and to its ethical task. A freedom that consisted solely in the possibility of satisfying one's needs would not be human freedom, since it would remain in the animal realm." At the risk of oversimplifying his message, in order for a society to be truly free, it must first acknowledge the humanity of each individual member, and after that protect that humanity by "bow[ing] down before a reality that is defenseless and incapable of exercising any coercion: morality."

The Holy Father later explore the nature of truth, namely that it is something that cannot be recreated or redefined by the will of men or society, but rather has existed from the beginning of time and was passed down first in the form of the Natural Law and more fully revealed and developed within the Judeo-Christian faith tradition. Maintaining this truth, he argues, depends on keeping a healthy sense of reason balanced and informed by faith. A lack of one or the other leads ultimately to either a totalitarian state, where the state subsumes total moral authority, or a fundamentalist state, where man begins to use religion in pursuit of unbridled power.

Finally, he explores the duty of the Church and we, its citizens:

"The fact that Christians are journeying toward the other city does not alienate them. In reality, it is this that allows us to be healthy and our states to be healthy. For if men have nothing more to expect than what this world offers them, and if they may and must demand all this from the state, they destroy both their own selves and every human society. If we do not want to get entangled anew in the tenticles of totalitarianism, we must look beyond the state, which is only one part, not the totality. There is no antithesis between hope for heaven and loyality to the earth, since this hope is also hope for the earth. While we hope for something greater and definitive, we Christians may and must bring hope into that which is transitory, into the world of our states."

Although he composed his essays primarily from the perspective of a reflection upon the history of the European continent, the truths he conveys apply to all of humanity. We ignore them at our own peril.

If you enjoy exploring political and moral philosophy, or if you are a Christian looking for a renewed sense of clarity about the relationship between Church and state during these times when they seem to be increasingly at odds, Values In A Time of Upheaval is a book that you will not be able to put down and will quickly find its way into your library.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Why the Manhattan Declaration is Significant - Letter to the Editor

The Manhattan Declaration

The little-publicized Manhattan Declaration, released on November 20, 2009 by a coalition of Orthodox, Catholic, and Evangelical leadership, will prove to be more significant than its lack of media attention would suggest. For the first time since the civil rights movement, Christian leaders have spoken with one voice, stating that “no power on earth, be it cultural or political, will intimidate us into silence or acquiescence.” They have effectively drawn a line in the sand against the anti-life, anti-marriage agenda being pushed through our culture. What the leaders have reiterated is not that Christian morality—although it is the basis of our legal system and the foundation of our moral fiber—should be forced upon anyone, but that the opposite should also not be true. In keeping with the First Amendment, that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech…”, public policy cannot compel any free people or the religious institutions to which they give their membership to speak, act, or live contrary to their faith. Where it does, we are obligated to resist.

Honoring Dr. King

I thought it would be appropriate to start this blog with a few thoughts on the great American whose birthday and memory we celebrated this past week. Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. would have been 81 years old this year. Every third Monday in January we take a day off to honor his memory and the momentous advances that he spearheaded as the leader of the Civil Rights movement. Yet somehow, even as we celebrate his life and accomplishments, I cannot help but think that in the years and decades since his untimely death, we may have lost some perspective of the enormity of his dream and the courageous purpose for which he lived.

In his 1963 Letter from a Birmingham Jail, King addressed his fellow clergymen in hopes that he could stir them out of their “sit-and-wait” approach to dealing with the injustice of segregation. As he said in the opening paragraphs of his letter, “this ‘wait’ has almost always meant ‘never’,” and “justice too long delayed is justice denied.” It later becomes evident in his monumental letter—as in his speeches and other works—that his concept of justice expanded far beyond the civil rights movement (although he saw it as his particular battle in the greater war for true justice and peace). He realized that there was a larger fight, a fight that continues with earnest into our day and time, and that each of us, if we are to truly keep his memory alive, has a responsibility to pick and carry on. It is a fight to keep the natural law, justice, and a God-centered understanding of humanity in its rightful place.

Dr. King frequently referenced theologians and philosophers like St. Thomas Aquinas in reflecting on the nature of the relationship between God’s law and human law: “A just law is a human law that is rooted in eternal law. Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust. All segregation statutes are unjust because segregation distorts the soul and damages the personality.” (Note: by personality here, Dr. King referred to what we today would understand as personhood or humanity) He went on to quote the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, that segregation “substitutes an ‘I it’ relationship for an ‘I thou’ relationship and ends up relegating persons to the status of things.” With the segregation chapter of American history behind us, how much more today do we see the same reduction of our fellow human beings to the status of things, from the holocaust of abortion to the simple manner and respect with which we treat those around us?

Dr King went on to make a comment that exposed the depth of his commitment to justice everywhere, and that should strike us to our very core today:

We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was ‘legal’ and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did was ‘illegal.’ It was ‘illegal’ to aid and comfort a Jew in Hitler’s Germany. Even so, I am sure that, had I lived in Germany at that time, I would have aided and comforted my Jewish brothers. If today I lived in a Communist country where certain principles dear to my Christian faith are suppressed, I would openly advocate disobeying that country’s antireligious laws.

As we see so many efforts in our culture today to marginalize—and even criminalize—the practice and profession of the traditions of our Judeo-Christian faith tradition and the system of just laws that were founded upon it, we cannot afford to lose the perspective of Dr. King. If we allow his memory and what he stood for to be hijacked or watered down by carelessly lobbing empty and dehumanizing accusations, or if we merely pay selfish lip service to the courageous commitment to justice that he was murdered for, then we ultimately fail both in honoring him and in carrying out the same task that is now entrusted to us.