Archive for the Social Justice Category

Pope Francis, Christianity, and Marxism

Posted in Pope Francis, Social Justice, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , on June 26, 2014 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

77cb7cd5eWell, it’s been a rather long break on my end, but I’m back after a month off. It hasn’t really been a true break given that, rather than enjoying a vacation as such, I’ve been on the road a lot for academic conferences, Provincial Chapter, board meetings, and speaking engagements, which was the primary reason for the radio silence from the DatingGod.org blog. Thanks to all who have patiently waited and thanks to those who have expressed their support and desire for the return of posting — your wish has come true today.

Ever since Pope Francis was elected Bishop of Rome in the Spring of 2013 his actions and words have captured the attention of millions. Most seem to be struck by the genuine humanity of this man whose primary concern seems to be rooted in the Gospel call to care for those women and men most at the margins: the poor, the disenfranchised, the ill, the disabled, the sexual minorities, and so on.

Yet, in the spirit of Dorothy Day’s prophetic insight — “when I feed the hungry, they call me a saint; when I ask why people are hungry, they call me a communist” — Pope Francis has been labeled a communist by various self-styled “right-wing” commentators. The role call of accusers is pretty familiar, including the usual suspects Limbaugh and Beck. However, this week a new voice has entered the mix, a voice that has a far-more-respected reputation: The Economist magazine.

The blogger over at The Economist takes this misguided discourse to a new level, suggesting that: “By positing a link between capitalism and war, he seems to be taking an ultra-radical line: one that consciously or unconsciously follows Vladimir Lenin in his diagnosis of capitalism and imperialism as the main reason why world war broke out a century ago.”

Pope Francis is certainly not the first to make this connection. In fact, I was thinking about former US President and 5-Star General Dwight Eisenhower’s famous admonition to the United States and world about the “military-industrial complex,” which itself presupposes the intrinsic link between military action (war) and industrial/market interests (capitalism). I think many would be hard pressed to caricature Eisenhower as a communist or “one that consciously or unconsciously follows Vladimir Lenin.”  But that is a digression.

My real interest here is in part to disabuse those who think that “Marxism,” a term thrown around without much actual study or background by most parties already named, is somehow a bad thing. Those who think it is an actual reality are first and foremost disillusioned.  It is fair to talk about the historical reality of communist governments, the USSR, for example. However, Marxism is a political philosophy that bears the name of Karl Marx and is likewise tied to a number of other thinkers too.

Some have suggested that “Marxism” (I am using the scare quotes deliberately to suggest the accusatory styling of the term as opposed to the un-quoted, which references the political philosophy) is an evil that is antithetical to Christianity. This is not exactly true. While it is correct that certain strains of Marxist philosophy are represented by self-professed atheists, the principles are what is important to appreciate. Many of these principles, concern for the oppressed, the social structures of sin, the increasing gap between rich and poor, the condition of labor, and so forth, are all deeply Christian at their core.

Pope Francis is neither “Marxist” nor Marxist. He is not a political philosopher nor an economist nor an anarchist. He is, true and true, a Christian and to be a Christian, to take seriously the Gospel, means to hold the views that he expresses and demonstrates. Period.

I am not at all surprised about the backlash Pope Francis has received. The Bishop of Rome is, after all, following in the footprints of Jesus Christ who also received a backlash for pointing out injustices and announcing the Reign of God that sought a different reality for the poor and oppressed — that backlash ended with a crucifixion. Anyone who bears the name “Christ” as a Christian, anyone who is baptized should likewise find herself or himself in Pope Francis’s position. Imagine that, imagine if we all took our baptismal vocations seriously and had to face the criticism of those who either benefit or seek to benefit from the unjust structures of wealth and power.

I suppose that is, in part, what Jesus meant when he told us that we need to pick up our crosses daily and follow him. There are a lot of people standing around with crosses still lying on the ground.

It’s powerful and refreshing to see that at least the Pope has picked up his.

UPDATE: Correction: the quote attributed to Dorothy Day above should be attributed to the late prelate, Dom Helder Camara.

Photo: The Atlantic

Craven Politicians and the NRA

Posted in Social Justice, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 26, 2014 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

Shooting rampage in Isla Vista, CaliforniaI’m sitting in the Louisville airport with not much time before catching my flight to write a full post on the subject of the mass murder in Santa Barbara this weekend. I have been at the Abbey of Gethsemani with a group of Merton scholars on retreat and without regular internet access, so my ability to follow the news was incredibly limited. I have spent some time now trying to piece together what happened and, like The New Yorker‘s Adam Gopnik, I have been moved and haunted by Richard Martinez’s brief press conference following the murder of his son, Chris.

Martinez is 100% correct. In addition to the particular circumstances that led that individual to kill six people, his misogyny has been identified among other factors, there are general circumstances and responsible parties that make possible the condition for the possibility of mass murder. The LA Times reported that the shooter purchased his semi-automatic handguns legally.

Personally, I am against all firearms. As a Franciscan friar and a Catholic Priest, I cannot maintain (nor would I) any other position. As someone who believes in the truth of the Gospel, I likewise find it impossible to hold an alternative view. Yet, I am also not entirely without a pragmatic side, recognizing the legitimacy of hunting rifles for food and safety in remote parts of this country and the world.

However, there is no legitimate alternative purpose for handguns other than to kill other human beings. Therefore, there is no legitimate right that anyone has to own them. Period.

Martinez’s comment about the responsibility of “craven politicians” and the “NRA” is absolutely correct. I have written elsewhere about the insane tragedy that played out in the wake of the Newtown shootings when the congress could not muster the fortitude to pass overwhelmingly popular legislation on firearm background checks — legislation that did not go far enough, but was something that any rational person could support.

I encourage everybody to read Gopnik’s reflections here: “Christopher Michael-Martinez’s Father Gets It Right About Guns.” He includes links to stories and data about how other, respectable, nations have responded to mass murder tragedies such as what we experience regularly in the US. Stricter laws have made for safer communities.

To handgun and semi-automatic weapon advocating Catholics: take note of Gopnik’s correct statement about the incompatibility of being “pro-life” and “pro-gun.” These days I can conceive of no greater hypocrisy on this subject and in the wake of these tragedies than women and men marching in Washington on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, or other comparable “pro-life” events, with an NRA membership card in their wallets and purses.

Photo: European Press Agency

‘It Is Finished’ — An excerpt from ‘The Last Words of Jesus’

Posted in Lent, Social Justice, The Last Words of Jesus, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on April 18, 2014 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

It-Is-Finished_wide_t_nv1The following reflection offered on this Good Friday is taken from chapter six of my new book, The Last Words of Jesus: A Meditation on Love and Suffering (2013).

When Jesus had received the wine, he said, “It is finished.” Then he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. (John 19:30)

There is a fine line between beginnings and endings. With one the other inevitably follows. There’s a reason that college graduations are called commencements: what at the same time marks the completion of several years of study also marks a new beginning, a new chapter in the life of the graduate. Central to the Christian message of the cross – the very reason that followers of Jesus hang these signs of death penalty and torture on walls and places of worship over the centuries – is that in earthly death one doesn’t find just an end, but one finds also a beginning. It is, as the Franciscan tradition refers to the anniversary of the death of St. Francis of Assisi, a Transitus – from the Latin word indicating a passing over from this life into the next.

What has, in a sense, finished has also just begun.

Curiously, the meaning of the Greek word used in the Gospels that captures what Jesus cried out from the Cross is not as clear-cut as we might at first think. Which, I’m sure, is no accident. Reflecting this fine line between beginnings and endings, what is generally translated into English as “it is finished,” might better be translated as “it is fulfilled.” The word “finished” has such a terminal sound to it. While some scripture scholars believe that tetelestai, the Greek word the author of John’s Gospel uses, is more triumphant than it is evocative of surrender. Francis Moloney explains: “Climaxing these [earlier scriptural] indications of fulfillment, Jesus cries out ‘tetelestai’ (v. 30a), an exclamation of achievement, almost of triumph. The task given to him by the Father (cf. [John] 4:34; 5:36; 17:4) has not been consummately brought to a conclusion.” The exclamation isn’t something from which one needs to shy as much as it is an embrace of all that has come before, yet points toward the future where we are now to go. It is a climactic exclamation – it is fulfilled! – just like college graduation, but it is also the announcement of what is also beginning.

No one understood this better than St. Francis. His biographer, Thomas of Celano, tells us that while Francis was very sick and near the end of his life, he spoke to his fellow brothers about how they were to look at this point in the Saint’s life and in their lives.

He used to say: “Let us begin, brothers, to serve the Lord God, for up until now we have done little or nothing.” He did not consider that he had already attained his goal, but tireless in pursuit of holy newness, he constantly hoped to begin again.

He wanted to return to serving lepers and to be held in contempt, just as he used to be. He intended to flee human company and go off to the most remote places, so that, letting go of every care and putting aside anxiety about others, for the time being only the wall of the flesh would stand between him and God.

As Francis came to the end of this earthly journey, he echoes the words “It is finished” proclaimed by Christ on the cross. His words are not helpless, regretful, or empty in their recognition of one chapter in the pilgrimage of life. Instead, he expresses – perhaps in a way more fully than Jesus’s simple “It is finished” – that, while the other friars and sisters were crying about the imminent loss of their leader in religious life, Francis wanted to remind them of what it means to announce a commencement, a completion, a fulfillment, and a beginning: It is not a time of sorrow or loss, but a time to refresh and renew one’s commitment to the Gospel, to live as one in the Kingdom, and to continue to serve the Lord with redoubled intent.

In this way, Francis’s mirrored expression of those from the cross – “let us begin, brothers, to serve the Lord God, for up until now we have done little or nothing” – is an invitation to make Christ’s words – “It is finished” – our own over and over again in life. There is a sense in which the call to serve the Lord found in Francis’s deathbed announcement is a commentary or explanation of what Jesus might have meant in his own cry from the Cross, for to proclaim that “it is fulfilled” in a Christian context is to necessarily assert, “thy will be done.” Is it no wonder then that Francis, as he lay dying, asked that the reading from the Gospel of John at the Last Supper be read to him?

At his own Transitus from this life to the next, Francis sought to recall what it was that he committed himself to so many years earlier. “To live according the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.” That life was one of service in solidarity. That service in solidarity is demonstrated on the eve of the Lord’s own death, while at table with those he loved. The reading Francis begged to hear is this:

Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and me head!” Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.” For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean.” After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord – and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example that you also should do as I have done to you.“ (John 13:1-15)

After the reading was completed, Francis “told them to cover him with sackcloth and to sprinkle him with ashes, as he was soon to become dust and ashes.” The last words Francis heard came to form a summary of the saint’s entire life: service and solidarity. Francis wasn’t just one who served others, but lived with and for them in a way that reflected the relationship Jesus demonstrated with all people. This is how Francis understood the Vita Evangelica, the life of the Gospel, and this is how he wished those who were to come after him would live. Francis lived his life as if every day was a proclamation of “It is finished, it is fulfilled.” He strove to obey the words of Jesus as after the Lord washed the feet of his followers and said, “For I have set you an example that you also should do as I have done to you.” Francis then left those who were following him to do likewise.

It can be difficult to tell the difference between beginnings and endings. Perhaps one of the strongest lessons in Jesus’s words from the Cross, those words lived in the life of St. Francis, is that we must not be as concerned about our time as we are about God’s time. In God’s time beginnings and endings are one in the same, because God’s time is not so much a matter of minutes, hours, and days as it is about a way of living in the world. The way we mark the passage of our life is not the same way that God marks our time. It is when washing the feet of others, the giving of ourselves for the sake of our brothers and sisters, that we live according to God’s time.

The time of the world is a time that sees the crucifixion of an accused criminal on a Roman Cross as an end. The time of the world is a time that sees a blind, poor man dying naked in medieval Italy as an end. Yet, the time of God is a time that sees in all things the potential for a new beginning, a reminder that life is more than an economy of checks and minuses, of winning and losing. God’s time is a time of fulfillment that makes little sense to the world, for what is logical is replaced by what is Kingdom-oriented and, as St. Paul reminds us, this way of thinking appears as foolishness and remains a stumbling block to the worldly (1 Corinthians 1:18-31).

People like Jesus of Nazareth and Francis of Assisi were fools for God, abiding in time that was not limited by the priorities of popular culture and society. To be a disciple today, to live up to the claim that you or I are willfully following the one who cried “It is finished” from the Cross, means to risk being foolish in the eyes of the world to be wise, loving, and renewed in the eyes of God. It means living in a time that prioritizes relationship and second chances, of starting over again to serve the least among us, of valuing what it is that God values.

But do you have the time?

PRAYER

God of all time, You call us out of the ordinariness of our everyday lives to see the world anew in your time. Help us to respond to your call to see in all things: both a completion and a new beginning; both an end and a renewed start; both sadness and joy. While our time marks your death on a cross as an end, Your time marks the Transitus from one life to the next. Enflame in our hearts a desire to see in life and death the Transitus and transformation your life, death and resurrection has brought forth in the world. Your time is a time of fulfillment that makes little sense to the world, for what is logical is replaced by what is Kingdom-oriented, and this way of thinking appears as foolishness to the worldly. Help us to live as your fools, willing to announce your Kingdom. Give us the strength to keep your time, where relationships take priority and we start over again and again to serve the least among us. AMEN.

For more reflections on the last words of Christ on the Cross, consider reading: The Last Words of Jesus: A Meditation on Love and Suffering (2013), from which this excerpt was taken.

Photo: Stock

 

God or the god of Riches?

Posted in Homilies, Scripture, Social Justice with tags , , , , , , on March 2, 2014 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

money_and_godI once heard about a community of women religious that have a practice of doing something every year that seems incredibly foolish.

At the end of each fiscal year, after they pay whatever bills still remain, they give away every dollar that they have left in their accounts and give it to the poor.

I remember when I first heard about this practice and, despite being a Franciscan friar who knows well that this sort of practice is what St. Francis and St. Clare of Assisi had in mind with their communities, responded: “Why would they do that?”

My feeling was, like so many who might come across this and similar stories, that this practice is so foolish — what if the next day there was a flood or a fire or there was a medical need in the community or whatever? And the sisters’ response to this sort of question seemed so illogical: God will provide through the interdependence of the whole community.

Foolish and illogical alright, but foolish and illogical according to whom?

For the last three weeks we have been hearing St. Paul talk to us, by way of his Letter to the Corinthians, about wisdom and foolishness. There are two spheres, the worldly, human wisdom and the wisdom of God. Each appears as foolishness to the other, but we are challenged to consider according to which we decide to live.

This is why, in so many ways, my initial reaction to hearing about this religious community’s practice was perfectly normal. There is a sort of wisdom, a “common sense” guide by which we have been formed and according to which we — especially those who are affluent in the United States — live our lives. We are encouraged by friends, family, and society to plan for the future, to be on guard about finances, to make sure all is accounted for…just in case.

Yet, in today’s Gospel we have Jesus telling us something very different. There is a sense in which Jesus appear to be speaking against prudence, common sense, planning.

Maybe, but maybe not.

Jesus is definitely uncovering a tension that human beings face in today’s Gospel (Matthew 6:24-34). It’s a temptation that even he faced while in the desert. It is the struggle to face what we will serve, what will be our true divinity: will it be God or will it be ourselves. 

Jesus puts it famously in terms of serving two masters, serving God or “mammon,” which might best be rendered “riches” here because it means more than just money as it is sometimes suggested. Ultimately, I believe, the issue is between God and us, between serving the will of God or serving our own will. It is between putting our desires and interests first and putting first the Kingdom of God.

Jesus’s point, and St. Paul’s after him, is to get us thinking about what should govern or direct our lives and what actually governs or directs our lives. 

This is not to suggest that we should be reckless or irresponsible. Remember, the women’s religious community did pay all their bills before aiding those who needed the remaining money more than they did. It is a question about what ultimately guides us in how we go about this world.

St. Augustine puts this rather starkly in his writings when he makes the distinction between that which is for our use (uti) and that which is to be enjoyed or loved in itself (frui). In the end, it is only God who should be loved for God’s self, everything else should be loved or utilized proportionally and with an eye toward the ultimate goal of each person and all of creation.

But so many of us get those things reversed. We confuse what we want to love with what should be loved. For some it is money, but the riches come in various shades: property, power, prestige, wealth, attention, control, and so on. These things all pass away, they are not ends in themselves and when they become an end, they morph into our god, which precludes us — as Jesus says — from serving the true God.

At the center of this is our desire to break away from who we really are, which goes all the way back to the story of the Garden of Eden in Genesis. It’s not about apples and snakes, it’s about us wanting to be our own gods. It’s about loving ourselves first and God and others second. It’s about being completely independent and without having to rely on anybody else (which is, of course, “the American way,” right?).

What that community of sisters realized is that which St. Francis, St. Paul, St. Clare, and so many others we admire for their Christian lives also realized: to be Christian, to be fully human, is to recognize and accept our inherent interdependence and to live into that rather than avoiding it. This interdependence is another way of talking about the striving first for the Kingdom of God that Jesus speaks about in the Gospel. It is the caring for one another, it is to realize that we depend on others and that others depend on us.

With this Sunday goes the end of the Liturgical Season of Ordinary Time for a while. Wednesday is Ash Wednesday and Lent officially begins. This seems to me to be a good time for us to pause and reflect over the next forty days on the questions: What motivates us? What is our starting point? Do we seek to build up our sense of independence rather than embrace our interdependence? Do we let the wisdom of the world guide our behaviors or do we let the wisdom of God show the way? Do we put our trust in God or do we only trust ourselves?

Photo: Stock

Parish Mission in Indiana

Posted in Social Justice, The Last Words of Jesus, Uncategorized with tags , , , on February 15, 2014 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

This past week I had the wonderful blessing to give a series of talks at St. Louis de Montfort Parish in Fishers, Indiana just north of Indianapolis, for the 2014 Parish Mission. My time with the St. Louis community began over the weekend as I preached at all the Masses and presided at a few of them. The staff and community was incredibly welcoming and it was a gift to be with them.

The theme of the mission was “The Last Words of Jesus,” and although the subject matter seems like it should belong to Lent or Good Friday alone, those who were able to come to the talks quickly learned that what Jesus says from the Cross should inform and shape our whole Christian experience.

During my time at St. Louis, I was fortunate to experience a variety of events and participate in the life of the parish. On Sunday, after the last Mass (the 5:00pm, which was Mass number 5 of the weekend), I was privileged to join the parish staff for a dinner over which we got to know each other better and share a nice conversation. I celebrated the morning Mass with those who gathered daily and shared the talk of the day with those who could stay after the liturgy. On Wednesday morning I presided over and preached at the school Mass, which included students from Pre-K through 8th grade, along with some parents, teachers, and other parishioners. On the last evening, after the final talk, we had a lovely reception where I was able to chat with a number of folks at length, including my mother’s cousin who happens to be a parishioner there (small world!). Each evening the parish also had a book signing, another wonderful chance to connect with so many great people.

Despite the freezing temperatures, unusually cold I was told, the warmth of my welcome made the outside weather seem negligible! I have to thank Sandy Stanton especially, she and the other staff at St. Louis de Montfort arranged things so well that even with the occasional surprise or change of plans, the whole experience felt flawless.

The whole community at St. Louis remains in my thoughts and prayers!

Photos: Louise Firsich

Francis, Franciscans, and The New Yorker

Posted in America Magazine, Franciscan Spirituality, Pope Francis, Social Justice with tags , , , , on January 21, 2014 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

friars-in-habits-giving-out-bread-in-front-of-sfa-nyc1There was a certain amount of understandable pride that I experienced when I saw a well-known ministry of my Franciscan province featured in the eminent pages of the most-recent issue of The New Yorker (January 20, 2014). The brief profile of the ministry and its director appeared in the front “Talk of the Town” section, titled: “Dept. of Kindness: Breadline.” But what struck me more than the gratitude that a renowned publication, and one not always intuitively hospitable to religious subjects, might report on the good work the Franciscan friars have done and are doing in midtown Manhattan was an almost passing reference to the “Francis Effect” that appears buried within the descriptive narrative Ian Frazier offers of the morning breadline routine.

After noting such details as the longstanding presence of the St. Francis of Assisi Church’s breadline ministry – “The breadline has existed since September, 1930, and is the oldest continuously operated breadline in the United States” – and the colorful presentation of the breadline’s current director, Fr. Paul Lostritto, OFM (literally colorful: “Some friars prefer leather sandals, but Father Paul’s were orange Crocs”), Frazier points to a recent addition to the cadre of breadline volunteers:

“As the line continued past the coffee urns, it was met by Sikhs who were giving out bags of fresh fruit.  The Sikhs, from Long Island, had read about Pope Francis in the news, admired him, and looked up information about the saint whose name he had taken. ‘We like very much what we learn about St. Francis,’ Baldev Srichawla, one of the Sikhs, told a bystander. ‘He was not a lavish person. He lived humbly and cared for the poor, and we Sikhs believe in helping the needy. When we found out about this church named after him, we wished to participate in this food line, too.’”

This little paragraph is what has stayed with me the most about this short New Yorker report. Those who still doubt the so-called “Francis Effect” might have a difficult time explaining away the first-person narrative of a small community of Long Island Sikhs that have been so inspired by Pope Francis and his medieval namesake.

One thing that Frazier doesn’t mention, and understandably so given the limited focus and scope of a “Talk of the Town” piece, is that St. Francis of Assisi was also instrumental in reshaping Christian interreligious dialogue in his time, such that it has continued to impact the way women and men of all faith traditions (or of none at all) have come together, collaborated on projects of good will, and sought to genuinely understand one another.

Francis of Assisi, after returning from the now-famous peaceful encounter with Sultan Malek al-Kamil in Damietta, Egypt, around 1219 during the Fifth Crusade, instructed his brother friars when going among Muslims or other non-Christians to live “spiritually among them” and “not to engage in arguments or disputes but to be subject to every human creature for God’s sake” (Regula non bullata, Ch. XVI). It is for this reason that Pope John Paul II called a multitude of religious leaders from all around the world to Assisi in October 1986 for an interreligious prayer service for peace.

Pope Francis continues to live up to his name, inspiring the peaceful coming together of people of all traditions. Not only are the poor, the marginalized, the overlooked, the disenfranchised, and the forgotten now on the social radar and consciences of more people – Christians and non-Christians alike – but in the spirit of the Saint from Assisi, this Bishop of Rome seems to be truly inspiring interreligious community and cooperation.

Daniel P. Horan, OFM is a Franciscan friar of Holy Name Province, a columnist at America magazine, and the author of several books including the new The Last Words of Jesus: A Meditation on Love and Suffering (2013).

This post also appeared on America magazine’s website.

Photo: HNP

Slavery and Dangerous Memory

Posted in America Magazine, Social Justice with tags , , , , , on November 22, 2013 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

TWELVE YEARS A SLAVEThis column appears in the December 2, 2013 issue of America magazine.

Sitting in a Cambridge, Mass., movie theater with a friend, I forced myself not to look or shy away from the violent scenes in Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave.” Unlike the gratuitous violence of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” or Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained,” there was nothing over-the-top, nothing selfish about what was painfully depicted on screen in McQueen’s adaptation of the story of Solomon Northup. That is what made it so difficult to watch and why I wanted to look away so badly. The presentation seemed so real.

As the Yale historian David Blight, an expert on American slavery, said in an NPR interview, “We love being the country that freed the slaves, [but] we’re not so fond of being the country that had the biggest slave system on the planet.” Whereas Gibson’s depiction of the Passion was an idiosyncratic reflection of his own personal piety and Tarantino’s slave film was fictive, “12 Years a Slave” offers an indicting narrative that forces its viewers—particularly its white American viewers—to confront a dangerous memory that we would collectively like to forget.

Blight said that the history of American slavery is “a problem in our culture because, to be quite blunt about it, most Americans want their history to be essentially progressive and triumphal, they want it to be a pleasing story. And if you go back to this story, it’s not always going to please you, but it’s a story you have to work through to find your way to something more redemptive.”

The way Blight talked about the importance of McQueen’s film reminded me of the work of the German theology professor Johann Baptist Metz. In his book Faith in History and Society, Father Metz describes two types of memories. The first is the sterilized form of memory, “in which we just do not take the past seriously enough” and recall everything in a soft, glowing light. This type of memory is usually evolutionary or progressive, reflecting a trajectory of history moving toward an increasingly better world. The other type is what Metz calls “dangerous memories, memories that make demands on us.” The latter are what he sees constituting the Christian narrative when we take seriously the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Metz explains that these dangerous memories “illuminate for a few moments and with a harsh steady light the questionable nature of things we have apparently come to terms with, and show up the banality of our supposed ‘realism.’”

Far too often the history of slavery in the United States is reduced to the sterile, clichéd and comforting former type of memory. The stark reality of slavery and our collective complicity in its perpetuation are reduced to a caricature. Alternatively, we tell a story about the triumphant work of the “liberator-martyr” Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War, which overshadows the complexity of a past marred by the indescribable suffering of generations of persons who have been dehumanized, sold, owned, raped, murdered and destroyed. Many who have the luxury to look away and forget do so. This selective memory silences the oppressed, the victims and the dead. This is a kind of memory that allows the sins of American racism and white privilege to continue today, an unquestioned status quo shielded by our willful ignorance and desire for historical “progress.”

But slavery in this nation is a memory of the latter kind, a dangerous memory. Like the resurrection of Christ, which can never be separated from his life and death, there is something redeeming about calling to mind the suffering caused by American slavery and its continuing effects.

What is redemptive is not the belief that “all is O.K. now.” Rather, the way toward redemption is directed by an awareness that things are far from O.K. What makes the memory of American slavery so dangerous is that in calling to mind the suffering of history’s victims, we begin to see that the suffering continues. Hope is found in the interruption that films like “12 Years a Slave” make in our everyday lives and presumptions. This interruption should shock us into hearing the muted cries of history’s victims (Psalm 34) and recalling that, although we are many parts, we are one body in Christ (1 Cor 12:12).

The body of Christ continues to suffer. The dangerous memory of slavery calls us to take seriously the question: What are you and I going to do about it?

Daniel P. Horan, O.F.M., is the author of several books, including The Last Words of Jesus: A Meditation on Love and Suffering (2013).

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