Thursday, October 28, 2010

Ransom the Captives

This image of Our Lady of Good Remedy portrays Mary, the God-bearer, holding the infant Christ on her lap while handing a bag of money to St. John de Mattha, founder of the Order of the Most Holy Trinity (Trinitarians).  The money is to be used to ransom prisoners in keeping with Jesus' announcement of his mission:  
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor. (Luke 4:18-19; cf. Is 58:6, 61:1-2)
Recalling Jesus' proclamation, the Trinitarians' motto is "Glory to you O Trinity and release to the captives."  God is glorified when the oppressed are liberated.  Originally, the Trinitarians ransomed slaves and Christians captured during the Crusades.  Today, the Trinitarians focus on victims of human rights abuses.  In the United States, their ministry is primarily one of welcoming immigrants from Latin America.

I was reminded of the importance of their witness by a report on NPR's Morning Edition program.  It turns out that Arizona's recent anti-immigrant legislation was the product of the for-profit, private prison industry.  Anticipating immigrant detention as their next big market, the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) essentially wrote and named the Arizona law that would allow police to lock-up people they stop who cannot prove that they are in this country legally.  

Through a secretive group called the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a consortium of conservative state legislators, organizations and corporations such as Exxon-Mobil, tobacco giant Reynolds American Inc., and the National Rifle Association, CCA drafted Arizona Senate Bill 1070, the Orwellian named "Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act."  Some 200 companies pay thousands of dollars to meet with legislators like Tea-partier Russell Pearce, who sponsored the bill in the Arizona State Senate.

In fact, 24 members of the Arizona State Senate are member of ALEC.  And 30 of the bills 36 co-sponsors received campaign contributions from CCA and other prison companies and lobbyists.  Creating prisons is big money and prisoners have now become investment opportunities.  The privatization of the prison system has created a huge incentive to criminalize large sections of the population.  With so many black men already imprisoned in numbers far exceeding their percentage of the population, I guess brown men, women, and children are the new hot prison commodity.

Anti-immigration sentiment is thinly disguised racism manipulated to make a few people rich at the expense of a lot of poor people of color.  This isn't about justice or the rule of law.  This is about greed. 

The Courts need to uphold the decision that this law is unconstitutional, and the Congress needs to pass humane, comprehensive immigration reform legislation.  And we need to get private companies out of the prison system so that the public good rather than profit can once again determine policy making. 

Otherwise, we are going to need a whole lot more Trinitarians.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Fearless Faith

It seems that the first words out the mouth of any angel is "Don't be afraid."  What separates us most from God and from each other is our fear.  Moving past our fear is a prerequisite for attaining to the love of God that is our heart's deepest desire.  Mature faith is fear-less.

Not that there aren't plenty of reasons to be afraid: politicians and preachers are quick to bring them to our attention and use them to their own advantage. Economic insecurity in this time of recession, terrorist threats both real and imagined, the frightening reality of global climate change, the reactionary imperialism that desperately seeks to deny and delay the decline of the Pax Americana; all these and more create a climate of fear that is difficult to resist. 

Our own age puts me in mind of the end of the Roman empire.  The 5th. Century, too, was a time of globalization, multiculturalism, and ecological devastation.  Both the external threat of "barbarian" invasion and the internal threat of social disintegration loomed large.  It, too, was a time of religious diversity and upheaval.

It is not coincidental that the spirituality of the desert monks of Egypt and Syria came to full flower at this time. In an age of fear and uncertainty, the need for wise spiritual guidance gave rise to the teaching of the abbas and ammas, beautifully captured in John Cassian's Conferences.  Among their most salient contributions to our own time is the reminder that, while we must begin with the acknowledgment of our fear, we can not stop there. Blessed Chaeremon said:

Three things keep men from giving themselves over to sin.  There is the fear either of hell or of earthly laws.  There is the hope and the desire for the kingdom of heaven.  Or there is the attraction of good itself and the love of virtue . . . All three seem to tend toward the one end.  They summon us to abstain from everything unlawful.  But they differ from one another in their degree of excellence . . . The third is particularly characteristic of God and those who have really taken the image and likeness of God unto themselves.  For only God does good, not out of fear nor in hopes of reward but simply out of love of goodness. (Conference X.6)

Faith may begin with fear - the desire to avoid punishment or secure a reward.  But this is an infantile spiritual stage.  Chaeremon, citing the parable of the prodigal son, sees this stage as appropriate to a slave mentality, but not for those who have realized their identity as children of God whom the Father welcomes with open arms.  So fear has its place; we must acknowledge its reality.  But we are invited to move beyond it.

Then we can move on to the stage of love for 'there is no fearfulness in love.  Indeed perfect love expels fear, because to fear is to expect punishment and anyone who is afraid is still not perfect in love.  So we are to love because God first loved us' (I Jn 4:18-19).  Therefore in no other way can we rise up to true perfection.  God loved us first and this was for no other reason than that we should be saved and so we ought to love Him solely for His love of us. For this reason we should strive to rise from fear to hope and from hope to love of God and of virtue. (Conference X.7)

There is, finally, just being in love for love's sake.  When we embrace our identity as God's beloved, there is no longer anything to fear, nothing to defend, no one to appease or impress.  Punishment and reward are transcended.

If with God's help and without a presumptuous reliance on his own efforts someone comes to win this condition, he will pass over to the status of an adopted son.  He will leave behind servility with its fear.  He will leave aside the mercenary hope of reward, a hope which seeks a reward and not the goodness of the giver. There will be no more fear, no more desiring.  Instead, there will be forever the love which never fails.(Conference X.9)

Fear is real.  It is inescapable.  It provides us with valuable information about the reality of the world and of our interior state.  But we don't need to cling to it or be defined by it.  And we certainly shouldn't use fear as a club to dominate and manipulate others.  Rather, our fear can move us to seek that love that liberates us so that we can live with awareness, freedom, and compassion.

In whatever small, hidden, humble ways we can, we are called to invite people to give themselves to the slow work of God within them, such that they can become agents of God’s liberating love in the world.  Fearless faith is not an escape from the responsibility to ameliorate suffering.  In the words of Blessed Moses:
As for those works of piety and charity of which you speak, these are necessary in this present life for as long as inequality prevails.  Their workings here would not be necessary were it not for the superabundant numbers of the poor, the needy, and the sick.  These are there because of the iniquity of men who have held for their own private use what the common Creator has made available to all.  As long as this inequity rages in the world, these good works will be necessary and valuable to anyone practicing them and they shall yield the reward of an everlasting inheritance to the man of good heart and concerned will. (Conference I.10)

Monday, October 11, 2010

Hamlet on Alcatraz

Hamlet:  Denmark's a prison.

Rosencrantz:  Then is the world one.

Hamlet:  A goodly one, in which there are many confines, wards, and dungeons, Denmark being one o' th' worst.

Rosencrantz:  We think not so, my lord.

Hamlet:  Why then 'tis none to you; for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.  To me it is a prison.

(Hamlet, Act II, Scene ii)

Last night Denmark was a prison - or at least a former prison - during the We Players performance of Hamlet on Alcatraz Island.  In collaboration with the National Park Service, producers Lauren Dietrich Chavez and Ava Roy have staged a haunting and provocative production of Shakespeare's great tragedy.  What is unique about this production is its site-specific nature, with each scene enacted on a different part of the island - many previously restricted from public access.  What better place to witness descent into madness?  The gifted ensemble makes the most of this powerful setting to underscore the play's themes of ambition, rivalry, violence, vengeance, and forgiveness. 

What was most striking was the way in which the cycle of violence depicted in the play led inevitably to various forms of bondage, including resentment, suspicion, delusion, and death.  The world can become our prison when trapped in the vicious circle of rivalry, violence, and retribution.  Can we break this cycle?  Are we doomed to perpetuate its prison-making dynamic?  Or is there a way out?  Perhaps - if we learn to practice justice and reconciliation before it is too late.

If you are in the Bay Area, be sure to experience Hamlet as you have never seen it before.