Sunday, February 18, 2018

In the Wake of Parkland

Here’s a post from my friend Mike:
Curious question, with no comment desired other than indicating your response. Debate is not welcome on this thread. What do you think is the primary reason for mass shootings in the US?   
A. Gun availability and proliferation 
B. Violence in entertainment 
C. The breakdown of the family 
D. Lack of mental health resources 
E. Other (please specify)
Mike got scores of answers, if not hundreds (I stopped counting after a while), and they ranged all over the place, including many who wrote in some version of “All the above.” So did I – here it is:
Abortion, euthanasia, mercy killing, capital punishment, targeted killing, drone warfare. We're immersed in the culture of death, and we've all grown accustomed to solving problems by killing people. So, yes, all of the above (A, C, and D especially), but also a zeitgeist that implicitly condones destroying human life as an acceptable means to reach a variety of ends.
That was on Friday. On Saturday morning, I snagged my Wall Street Journal from the curb and located Peggy Noonan’s column: “The Parkland Massacre and the Air We Breathe.” In it, Noonan articulated and expanded on the same point I was trying to make in response to Mike’s question – a point the column’s sub-title succinctly summarizes: “What’s gone wrong with our culture that produces such atrocities? It’s a very long list.”

Noonan answers her own question with another question: “What has happened the past 40 years or so to produce a society so ill at ease with itself, so prone to violence?” Her list overlaps my own, and she adds some more: “The family blew up—divorce, unwed childbearing. Fatherless sons. Fatherless daughters, too. Poor children with no one to love them. The internet flourished. Porn proliferated. Drugs, legal and illegal.” Noonan speculates that all this cultural upheaval is responsible for a pervasive moral illness in our body politic. “A nation has an atmosphere. It has air it breathes in each day,” she writes. “America’s air looks clean but there are toxins in it, and they’re making the least defended and protected of us sick.”

What caught my attention, however, was the 40 year figure – why forty? A quick scout around the internet finds other retrospectives since Ash Wednesday’s horrific events in Florida utilizing a similar reckoning, more or less. Some go back to just 1999; others go back to the mid-1980s; few go back further than 1978 – that 40 year mark mentioned by Noonan. In fact, according to CNN, only two of the worst mass shootings in U.S. history occurred before then: Austin in 1966 and Camden in 1949.

Why? What happened around 1978?

Consider: Abortion on demand was legalized in this country following the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision in 1973. Since then, abortion on demand has become part of the fabric of our cultural consensus – that is, a medicalized form of killing has become a normalized means of addressing challenging human dilemmas.

And it's not just an American phenomenon. A friend recently gave me an essay by actress Patricia Heaton about Iceland’s “success” in eliminating Down syndrome. Heaton astutely observes that Iceland “was not, in fact, eliminating Down syndrome. They were just killing everyone who has it.”

So, without excluding questions of easy access to guns, lack of mental health resources, and the breakdown of traditional mores, here’s my own curious and honest inquiry: Could it be that we’ve just gotten used to killing as a way of life, especially since Roe v. Wade? Could it be that we’re raising one generation after another with that mindset?

And, if that's the case, what can we do about it? What ought we to do?

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Unintentional Irony: NPR, Abortion, and Maternal Devotion

I listen to National Public Radio all the time (as my kids can attest) because it’s informative, well produced, and convenient – radio is a terrific medium for those on the go and, what’s more, it’s free!

However, like most mainstream media outlets, NPR leans pretty far to the left, especially when it comes to social issues, and particularly concerning abortion. Probably they’d deny such editorial leanings, and they’d point to the numbers – like, maybe, the balanced amount of airtime they grant representatives from both the pro-life and pro-choice camps. But you can’t listen to NPR long without picking up on a subtle emphasis in tone and language that betrays their pro-choice bias. What's more, pro-choice adherents and their positions are rarely criticized, while pro-life spokeswomen are frequently patronized by their on-air NPR hosts.

This despite the fact that pro-lifers are speaking up for a marginalized and persecuted class of humanity that can’t speak up for itself – the very kind of sub-group that NPR likes to draw attention to and defend. Even so, sometimes the NPR editors make programming decisions that buttress the pro-life cause, despite what seems to be their intention otherwise.

Case in point: Two unrelated stories that appeared on two different shows on the same day a couple weeks back. In the afternoon, there was a story on All Things Considered about pro-choice pioneers in Chicago that provided illicit abortions prior to the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision in 1973. The underground group went by the name “Jane,” and they developed an elaborate, clandestine system to evade the law, connect with women who sought abortion, and then perform the procedur themselves – despite a lack of medical training. The ATC segment featured early Jane enthusiasts, including Martha Scott:
Scott says she performed hundreds of abortions. It's a relatively simple procedure, but she acknowledges that there were risks to what they were doing. Some clients ended up in the emergency room; some had to undergo hysterectomies. “You're messing around inside somebody else's body. It’s not necessarily given that you won’t do harm,” Scott says. “It wasn't perfect, by any means. But we were dealing with women who really didn't have other options.”
By itself, it’s a typical NPR abortion puff piece, and it paints the pro-choice scofflaws in the best possible light. The members of Jane are what NPR’s largely progressive listening audience would call abortion heroines, after all, who risked jail time, unemployment, and social ostracism in order to facilitate the termination of unwanted children. Yet, in all the years (decades) that I’ve been listening to Public Radio, I can’t recall a single comparable story lionizing the peaceful pro-life activists who risked all the same things in order to bring pregnant women alternative, life-affirming choices.

Even so, NPR itself highlighted that alternative perspective earlier in the same day that the Jane story appeared. It was a Story Corps segment during NPR's Morning Edition that featured a conversation between April Gibson and her teenage son, Gregory. When Gibson got pregnant as an unmarried teen, she apparently didn’t consider abortion an option – or else she couldn’t. “I just took care of you,” she tells Gregory in the Story Corps segment. “I did what I was supposed to do.” Maybe she didn’t really have other options; maybe she didn’t have folks like Scott and her ilk proffering cheap termination services.

From an NPR point of view, that sounds like an injustice: Gibson shouldn’t have been compelled to any baby-related “supposed to do.” I’m guessing All Things Considered might’ve preferred to relate Gibson’s story as an cautionary tale: “See what happens when women don’t have choice? They have to take care of a baby.”

But Gibson tells her own story with confidence and joy, and she makes it plain that she has no regrets. “I couldn't believe what people told me about myself or about ‘those people’ like me,” she tells her son – and us. “This is my baby, and I love him, and I can feel something. It’s not a fairy tale, it's not a failure. It's just a process, and now we're here, 16 years later.”

It was a moving testimony, and I couldn't help thinking about Gibson and Gregory later in the day as I listened to the story about Jane. All those hundreds of abortions that Martha Scott and her friends performed, and the hundreds of Gregorys who perished as a result. Their moms might’ve been convinced that they were justified in resorting to a dangerous permanent solution in order to address whatever crises they were in at the time, but there’s no doubt that they also missed out on what Gibson calls “a process” – that is, the mysterious unfolding of lived life with all its tragedies and sorrows, its hopes and possibilities.

Gibson doesn’t mention abortion in her conversation with Gregory – she might even be pro-choice, for all I know – but it’s very clear that she’s glad he’s in the world. No doubt, all those many women who took advantage of Jane's abortion services were facing excruciating circumstances, or else they wouldn't chosen such an extreme solution. But how many of them had a chance to talk with somebody like April Gibson, who could've assured them that there was still hope? The hardships she endured as a single mom, the doubts and sense of failure – no fairy tale, as she says – were clearly well worth it. It’s an outcome she could’ve never predicted at the time of her pregnancy, but that makes her decision to “just take care” of her baby – to do what she was “supposed to do” – all the more valiant.

Happily, it's a valiancy that Gregory himself both recognizes and cherishes. As he told his mom at the end of their conversation, “You’re just the greatest person that I ever know. And I just want to be like you.”

Me, too. Thanks for your heroism, April, and for sharing your story – and your son – with the world.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

The Smell That Tips Off the Neighbors

Like the reek of a forgotten school
Lunch kicked under the back seat: It
Overwhelms all else – no
Escaping it. 
Moldy meat in sandwich, banana
Bruised and bent, Tupperware contents
Unidentified and dead. 
The windows, for God’s sake, the
Windows – get them open! At least we can
Quaff gulps of fresh air as we drive. 
Later there will be time to make a thorough
Search. Hands and knees – clear out the
Trash, open bags, and sniff. Sniff.
Head jerks up, eyes blink – whoa. So
There it is. As the bag crumples shut
Before its disposal, wry wonder curls
Mouth corners: How could we have
Left it there so long?

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Public Comment: RU-486

The St. Joseph County Council met on Tuesday evening, December 5. During the public comment period at the close of the meeting, about 30 healthcare workers and concerned citizens spoke out against the possibility that a new facility would open in South Bend offering chemical abortion (RU-486). My contribution was a brief review of maternal physiological risks associated with this heinous practice.

All medical interventions are accompanied by risk, and we accept those risks when they’re outweighed by the potential benefits. Even a simple Band-Aid can present the risk of injury for those with very fragile skin, or even an allergic reaction, but we don’t think about it too much because the risk is so small.

The same rule applies to medications – like a simple dose of Tylenol, that we take without much thought because the risks are so minimal. But we can be allergic to Tylenol and other drugs, or we can experience a variety of adverse reactions if those drugs interact with our bodies in unexpected ways.

Most drugs have been used and/or studied so long that their side effects and risks are well known. Such is the case with mifepristone and misoprostol, the two drugs that together make up RU-486, the chemical (or medical) abortion procedure under consideration tonight.

Among the side effects that women who take these drugs may experience are these:
  • Nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea
  • Significant cramping and pelvic pain
  • Insomnia, anxiety, and dizziness
  • Headaches, along with back and leg pain

More serious complications, while uncommon, include the possibility of:
  • Heavy bleeding, lasting day, weeks, and even months, and sometimes requiring blood transfusions
  • Large uterine blood clots or even incomplete expulsion of fetal remains from the uterus
  • Infection, including the possibility of sepsis (or whole body infection), which can be deadly
  • Additional complications associated with an undetected ectopic (or tubal) pregnancy, which would be a medical emergency 

Proponents of medical abortion argue that these risks,
even the serious ones, can be handled if and when they arise, but keep in mind that women only receive the first dose of the two-dose regimen in a clinical setting. She’ll return home after that – or, if she’s from out of town, to a motel room – to take that second drug, and then face any complications or problems on her own.

Consider, too, that these possible side effects and risks are grave enough that women must be warned about them and sign an informed consent before receiving the abortion drugs. Like I said, all medical interventions have risks, and we have to weigh risks against benefits.

But the risks associated with medical abortion are high, too high, even if you want to argue that abortion is a “benefit.” RU-486 is a dangerous regimen, and it has no place in our community.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Of Casablanca, Cinema, and Coming of Age

But now we have a new art, luminous, vivid, simple, stirring,
persuasive, direct, universal, illimitable – the animated picture.

The fact is I am quite happy in a movie, even a bad movie.

In college I thought I’d reached the height of cinematic sophistication when I went to see My Dinner with Andre (1981). My brother and I drove over to an art house in Seattle’s bohemian quarter and sat through the bewildering dialogue along with all the other aesthetes. It felt very grown up and intellectual to leave the theater in a quandary: What just happened? What was that all about? It was exciting and new – a hint of soul-searching maturation that went beyond mere textbooks and Bible studies. The film sparked questions that I didn’t know what to do with, and it seemed like a watershed moment – a revelation of sorts, an interior marker. We followed up the revelation with a visit to the art house’s coffee shop. We discussed big thoughts. We sipped our espressos.

But I was wrong about the watershed stuff and the sophistication. The raw urgency I associate with watching My Dinner with Andre was fleeting, and probably more a reflection of my desire to be cool (like the bohemians) than anything authentic in my own interior flourishing. It certainly wasn't the film's fault; I simply wasn't ready for it. I returned to my dorm, and life went on as before. Andre didn’t inspire any grand gestures – no extravagant flights of fancy followed, nothing radical or outlandish. Just back to the books and ticking off more courses for my GPA and bachelor’s degree.

Then I graduated, moved down to Eugene, and commenced becoming an adult. I lived in a converted sorority with other adult wannabes, worked at a bookstore, and bummed around on my days and evenings off – often ending up in more bookstores. I had no TV, no electronics to distract me from my post-undergraduate melancholy. Instead, I read widely and wandered, both literally and intellectually. I fed my angst. I drank more coffee.

One night, I decided to go see Casablanca (1942) at the University of Oregon. I’d seen the flyer in the student center where I often read and hung out. I think admission was listed as 75 cents, and I made up my mind to go. It was a movie I’d always heard about, but somehow missed growing up.

It was early in the fall I’m pretty sure – maybe the screening was associated with freshman orientation – so it was warm, shirtsleeve weather. I strolled down to the student center, took my seat with the students in the stuffy auditorium, and settled in for the ride. I even bought popcorn.
There were no revelations in Casablanca, no new questions, nothing viscerally challenging. It was all romance and adventure mixed together in a confusing melodramatic narrative. I got the jilted lover bit, and I pretty much followed the suspense surrounding those transit papers signed by De Gaulle – a quasi-McGuffin of sorts – and the heroic Victor Laszlo's quest for freedom.

Plus, I enjoyed the snappy repartee between Bogart’s Rick and everyone else, especially Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman), and I recognized the classic lines that now pepper our common parlance – “Play it (again), Sam” and “Here’s looking at you, kid” and the rest.

I watched and munched.

After the closing credits, the lights came up and we all filed out. It was cooler out and quiet, and I walked home slowly along University Street, I wasn’t plagued by existential questions or pseudo-philosophical agonies. Instead, there was a prickly sensation of pleasure. It was the movie equivalent of reading Dostoevsky or Don Quixote because you feel like you should, and then actually enjoying it. I might’ve been motivated by a desire to fill a gap in my cultural formation, but I ended up reveling in it – a bonus!

Today I have a DVD copy of Casablanca at home, and not too long ago, Katharine, my 11-year-old, requested it on a family movie night – which meant that she’d already seen it at least once and she was choosing it over Princess Diaries and High School Musical II. With all the hubbub associated with the film’s 75th anniversary today, I was inspired to seek out Kath with a question: “What do you like about Casablanca?”

“I don’t know,” she replied. “I just like it.”

Me, too. It’s all of a piece, and it’s hard to tease out anything in particular that makes it so appealing. Casablanca is a story well told – no big thoughts, no propositional posturing. Like a painting or a poem, it inspires by means of images; like a good painting or poem, it bears revisiting over and over.

“Let’s watch it again,” I suggested to Kath in a Sam kinda’ way.

She didn’t hesitate. “Sure!”

Dinners with Andre may come in time – let 'em. For now, I'm glad to see my young daughter soaking up this superb celluloid yarn just because she likes it. As Rick might say, it appears to be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Of Pericopes, Susanna, and the Long Form of Our Lives

Today’s Gospel is punchy and short – a mere seven verses. It’s Matthew’s version of the Pharisees’ attempt to “entrap Jesus in speech” with a set-up question about the census tax. There’s a beginning, a middle, and a memorable gotcha at the end: “Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” The brief passage is neat and tidy, and it lends itself well to exegetical musings. It’s a made-to-order liturgical “pericope” – a fancy word for any chunk of text that is considered in isolation from a larger work.

Compare that to last week’s Gospel pericope from Matthew which was twice as long, but only if you “include the bracketed text for the long form.” You’ll recall that it featured Jesus comparing the kingdom of heaven to a king’s wedding feast. The invited guests begged off, so the king sent out his servants to round up the rabble to fill his table. The optional ending was about one of those substitute guests, inappropriately attired, who was booted out. The last line was cryptic: “Many are invited, but few are chosen.”

Lots of meaty sermon material in both the long and curtailed forms of that Gospel, but why are there two versions to begin with? We’re talking about a difference of a mere seven verses, so it’s not really a time-saver to cut the reading short. Is it mainly a matter of homiletic preference?

It seems so. According to the General Instruction on the Roman Missal, “a pastoral criterion should be kept in mind” when given a choice of reading length. The GIRM continues: “On such an occasion, attention should be paid to the capacity of the faithful to listen with fruit to a reading of greater or lesser length, and to their capacity to hear a more complete text, which is then explained in the Homily” (§360).

That makes sense, I suppose, but I can’t help thinking about so many other, much lengthier lectionary entries that don’t offer truncated alternatives. There must be some reason that they aren’t subjected to liturgical dismemberment whereas others were.

And then there’s the mother of all liturgical readings which comes around every Lent: The story of Susanna and the Elders. Susanna, a pious Hebrew resident in Babylon, goes to bathe in her garden. Two lecherous elders, united in their lust for the woman, break in on Susanna’s solitude and demand that she lay with them. When she refuses and calls out for help, the two men accuse her of impure acts with a stranger of their invention. The elders’ lofty status gives their claim credibility over Susanna’s denial, and the innocent girl is condemned to death. Eventually, the young prophet Daniel comes to her defense, interrogates the “witnesses,” and the truth comes out. Susanna’s virtue is vindicated, and the two lying lechers are executed instead.

The full version of this tale weighs in at 51 (!) verses, and even the shortened form is on the longish side, at least for a weekday Mass. True, it’s not a Gospel, so we get to sit for it, but either version represents a marathon – especially for the reader.

And why? Couldn’t the Church have chosen to break it up into smaller pericopes over a couple days – maybe even three? No, and I’m guessing it’s because there’s no way to further trim down the narrative without destroying its edifying impact. In order to appreciate the moral of the story – that “faithfulness triumphs over adversity,” in the words of Toni Craven – we have to have to know the setting, the characters, both good and bad, and the drama of Daniel’s detective work. In other words, we need to have the big picture. We need the beginning, middle, and end.

The same holds true for our own lives and the lives of all those we encounter. The pericopes of our personal histories – individual acts and choices, particular events and seasons in the course of a lifetime – can never sum up who we are. Instead, we’re each a complicated mess of virtue and vice, aspiration and despair, and it’s impossible to fully understand ourselves from the inside out, let alone our neighbors.

But God knows our big pictures. He knows the grand sweep of our ups and down, and sees us all as works in progress, saints in the making, heirs to the promise of salvation no matter how many times we turn aside and seek after something less. And we do well to adopt that divine vision as much as possible – both of ourselves and those around us. “We can’t hope to know others as we should like to,” writes Hubert van Zeller, “but we should make it our business to know them as well as we can.”

Which is why I always hope to hear the long form of Susanna’s story every Lent. It’s a fine reminder of how God discerns our own complicated stories, and an implicit exhortation to seek the big picture of those around us – bracketed text included.

A version of this reflection appeared on Catholic Exchange.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Dear #Pro-Choice

Dear pro-choice friend,

I got to my office this morning and discovered your message on my white board. I’m assuming you took the time to read the various postings on my door and drew the conclusion that I’m passionately pro-life – and you were right about that. It would’ve been hard to conclude otherwise, especially given the prominent “#DefundPlannedParenthood” sign right above the message board. So, for what it’s worth, I’m grateful that you did me the honor of standing there, scanning my signage, and giving it all some thought. That’s the beginning of dialogue. That’s what leads to increased mutual understanding and respect.

Unfortunately, your consideration of my evident pro-life position led you to opt for a less than respectful response. You could’ve left me a note asking for more information on why I’m against abortion. You could’ve come back during my posted office hours to introduce yourself and share with me your reasons for supporting abortion rights.

Instead, you snagged my dry-erase marker and wrote “#ProChoice” in big letters. Why? What were you hoping to accomplish? In a sense, what you did amounts to vandalism. Yes, it’s true that I invite folks to leave messages on my door by hanging the white board and marker there, but clearly your intent here was aggressive and so unwelcome. If I came across your door plastered with pro-abortion messages, how would you feel if I left a “#Pro-Life” scrawl there? Wouldn’t it make you mad? Wouldn’t you interpret it as a form of assault?

My initial reaction wasn’t anger, however, but mirth. I saw your message and laughed out loud – how ironic! You were declaring yourself (anonymously) to be on the side of choice, but you totally overrode my choice with regards to the kinds of messages I want to appear on my door.

But my mirth quickly turned into sadness. Here we are, you and me, at an institution of higher learning, and we totally missed an opportunity to expand our minds by learning from someone with whom we disagree. Frankly, I feel ripped off rather than offended. I’m bummed that you deprived us both of the chance to grow as human beings. I doubt I could’ve persuaded you to change your point of view, and I’m absolutely certain that you wouldn’t have changed mine, but I would’ve welcomed the occasion to meet and chat with you. Believe it or not, I would’ve listened, really listened. And, of course, I would’ve expected you to listen to me. Then we could’ve parted in peace – maybe not as friends, but at least as friendly acquaintances. Who knows? We might’ve even agreed to talk some more another time.

Anyway, consider this an invitation. I’m leaving your “#Pro-Choice” message on my door in hopes that you’ll see it, that you’ll be surprised it's still there, and that you’ll approach to discover this letter to you. Won’t you please come talk to me? Like I said, I’ll listen, but I’ll want you to listen to me in return.