Archive for The New Yorker

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

Franciscans, Social Justice, and the Risk of Martyrdom in Mexico

Posted in Franciscan Spirituality, Social Justice with tags , , , , , on April 8, 2013 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

stillman-mexico-cartelsA few days ago The New Yorker‘s Sarah Stillman wrote a blog post titled: “What We Want is the Head of the Friar.” It is a piece about a Franciscan friar named Tomás González Castillo, a man who has been running “a sanctuary for U.S.-bound migrants near the Guatemalan border, providing cots, meals, and a few days of safe haven to hundreds of young Central Americans venturing to the U.S. each week.” The journey for these mostly young women and men is often incredibly dangerous, as Stillman explains:

Mostly, these young men and women ride north atop commercial freight trains, facing robberies, rapes, and extortion as they go. Friar Tomás has begun demanding an end to such routinized crimes, calling out the criminal gangs—and, often, the Mexican police—who perpetrate them. The Seventy-Two takes its name from the body count of a massacre that occurred near the U.S. border several years ago; seventy-two migrants were kidnapped by the Zetas, squeezed for ransoms, and allegedly assassinated when they failed to follow orders.

Last week Brother Tomás and his colleagues at the shelter lodged formal complaints against the local gang members and this drew immediate and negative responses from those against whom the complaints had been placed. This has become a source of extortion and ransom for the cartels in Mexico, complicating an already dire situation in which poor women and men in Central America risk their lives to find jobs in the North.

The cartels’ targeting of migrants has become commonplace along the entire route through Mexico, with an estimated twenty thousand migrant kidnappings each year. Most of the time, the victims’ relatives in the U.S. are called upon to cough up ransoms. While the Mexican government has done little to address this crisis, and U.S. immigration policy has arguably fuelled it (by empowering rogue coyotes as a migrant’s best chance of traversing the militarized border), a fearless wing of the Catholic Church has established an underground railroad of sorts to offer migrants protection on their journey.

In an age when many people think that martyrdom is a relic of ancient Christianity, Brother Tomás reflects the conviction of Gospel values and faith in the face of the imminent risk to his very life. Along with colleagues that help run his social justice efforts and care for the marginalized migrants, Brother Tomás goes above and beyond for the sake of others. Stillman explains:

Friar Tomás is among the most vocal leaders of this movement. Day after day, he led the mothers into morgues, prisons, drug-rehabilitation centers, hospitals, and cemeteries. He stood beside them as they looked through photographs of the corpses of migrants in Saltillo, a dangerous Zeta stronghold, and as they ventured into the Zócalo in Mexico City to beg for help from a non-committal government. Most days, the friar wore a thin straw hat and a long brown robe. On the scorching-hot afternoons when I was sweating and tired and could barely keep up, broadsided by the magnitude of the violence and loss, Father Tomás barely paused for water—hiking alongside railroad tracks, knocking on the doors of shantytowns where suspected traffickers lived, showing photos to passersby and asking, “Have you seen her? Does she look familiar? She’s gone missing.”

Stillman ends her post with a striking narrative about how Brother Tomás celebrated Good Friday and what dangers inevitably lie ahead for him as he continues to do the work he feels God has called him to do.

This past Friday, I’m told, Friar Tomás and Rubén walked further into the fire. With hundreds of townspeople, they staged an enactment of the Stations of the Cross, with a migrant-crusaders’ twist. To play Jesus, they enlisted a sixteen-year-old Guatemalan boy named Kevin Barrientos, who had arrived at the shelter with empty pockets on his journey north, trying to make it alive to the U.S. with no parents but two friends. Costumed in a long white robe and turquoise sandals, the boy enacted the crucifixion on the train tracks. Friar Tomás told the Mexican press, “To assist the undocumented is not a crime, it is a grace.” Meanwhile, men believed to be spies for the cartels watched from afar, taking photographs from motorcycles.

Photo: via The New Yorker

Francis of Assisi (Still) in the Spotlight

Posted in Franciscan Spirituality with tags , , , , , , , on January 8, 2013 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

Francis of Assisi FireThis article originally appeared in the online edition of America magazine with the introduction by Fr. James Martin, SJ, that read: “We asked Daniel P. Horan, OFM, a Franciscan author, to respond to Joan Acocella’s long and substantive article in this week’s New Yorker on St. Francis of Assisi.  Ms. Acocella, a superb writer, looked at several books on Il Poverello and offered a reflection on his life.  Father Horan’s own meditation follows…”

You know that you’re not just a saint but a “big deal” when, in addition to being frequently lauded as the most-popular saint in all of Christian history (after Mary, of course), you are featured in a six-page article in the most recent issue of The New Yorker. Such is the case with Francesco di Bernardone, or “St. Francis of Assisi” as he is known to most of the world.

In what initially appears to be a review of two recent biographies of Francis — Francis of Assisi: The Life and Afterlife of a Medieval Saint (Yale 2012) by the French historian André Vauchez and Francis of Assisi: A New Biography (Cornell 2011) by the Dominican Priest Augustine Thompson — Joan Acocella’s essay, “Rich Man, Poor Man: The Radical Visions of St. Francis,” turns out to be a profile on someone who died almost 800 years ago in the Umbrian region of Italy and whose life, writings, and the religious orders that bear his name continue to influence the world.

What is it about Francis that continues to capture the attention of so many? Why would such a prestigious, if admittedly “secular,” magazine dedicate such a large amount of space to this medieval saint? The answer to these questions comes in the form of Acocella’s depiction of the Poverello, the “little poor man” from Assisi.

This is not the first time that Acocella, a dance and book critic, has dabbled in portraying saints in popular writing. Her 2007 book, Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints, a collection of essays, features Mary Magdalene and Joan of Arc. But there is something about this survey of the life of Francis — occasioned by two excellent (if predictably imperfect) new scholarly biographies of the saint — that draws the reader into a world that is both familiar and oddly intriguing.

The story that Acocella tells is, by and large, accurate according to the best in current Franciscan historical scholarship. Sure, there are the minor mix-ups, like when she refers to the “Portiuncula” as “a district” in Assisi (“Portiuncula,” which means “little portion,” was the nickname for the chapel that she later correctly identifies as Santa Maria degli Angeli and not some geographic region) or when she characterizes the deaths of several friars in Morocco as “murder” without the qualification that they provoking hostility by preaching against Islam (something Francis did not condone). However, like the occasional faux pas or stylistic difficulty she notes in the respective works of Vauchez and Thompson, such slight errors in fact can be forgiven easily. Mistakes are easy to make. Presenting the life of Francis in six pages is not easy to do.

Just as the editors of America are sure to get nervous when hearing a non-Jesuit or some non-professional talk about Ignatius Loyola, we Franciscans are likely to feel our blood pressures rise when a piece like Acocella’s hits the newsstands. Yet, what Acocella does here is admirable for its succinctness, while still paying attention to detail. Early into the essay, knowledgeable readers are able to relax a little.

Francis is presented as a unique historical figure, but not one of antiquated value or passé curiosity, like an artifact in the museum of saints to be viewed and admired from afar. Acocella’s Francis, shaped by her reading of Vauchez, Thompson, Thomas of Celano, St. Bonaventure, Octavian Schmucki, Paul Sabatier, and Francis’s own writings, largely withstands the test that Acocella credits to Sabatier for establishing in the late nineteenth century. Those who wish to talk about Francis, let alone present him in biography, must take seriously the scholarly developments of history, paleography (the study of manuscripts), and hagiography (the study of saints’ lives).

One of the highlights of this essay is the way in which Acocella presents Francis as a complex figure who unsettled (and continues to unsettle) both those who wished to make him out to be the champion of their respective agendas including certain iterations of “leftist causes” (Acocella’s term) and those in positions — then and now — of ecclesiastical authority who wish to “neutralize” or tame the “dangerous radicalism of the new Gospel-based theology” introduced by Francis’s life, writings, and religious orders. Francis is both a radical “leftist” and a loyal son of the church. He is also neither of these things.

This is the paradoxical reality of Francis that few have been able to capture adequately in the past. Which seems to explain, in part, his universal appeal and why this medieval mendicant continues to be attractive to religious “conservatives” and “liberals” alike. Who else can claim such a status, especially today?

Acocella is keen to note several of the characteristics about Francis and his way of life that remain universally appealing. One of these is the explicit emphasis his vision of living the Gospel places on universal holiness and the laity. Centuries before the Second Vatican Council will rightly recover and emphasize the “universal call to holiness,” Francis, a layperson (he was never ordained a priest and, contrary to a passing claim in Thompson’s book, contemporary scholarship has cast serious doubt on the legend that said he was ever a deacon), recognized that what it meant to be a Christian was the responsibility of all people.

Another thing that is appealing about Francis is the simultaneous respect he had for the church as an institution and its leaders, while also loyally dissenting and challenging some of the standard teachings and practices of the time. Perhaps the greatest example of this is Francis’s decision to meet with Sultan Malek al-Kamil in Damietta, Egypt, during the height of the Fifth Crusade. Acocella only briefly mentions this historic event, but what most who recall this interreligious moment usually fail to recognize is that Francis disobeyed both Pope Innocent III’s command in calling for all of Christendom’s support of the crusade as well as a cardinal’s order forbidding the would-be saint from crossing the enemy line at the crusader’s camp in Egypt. In an act analogous to civil disobedience — perhaps, “ecclesiastical disobedience” is the right term — Francis’s actions didn’t always reflect what some, like Pope Benedict XVI, would have us believe about this beloved Italian saint (I have written about Benedict XVI’s interpretation and use of Francis in my recent book, Francis of Assisi and the Future of Faith). Acocella seems to get intuitively that Francis was neither an unquestionably loyal son of the church nor a renegade friar.

Still, I think one of the most attractive aspects of Francis’s life and personality is something Acocella presents well in her essay. Francis was a gregarious man that, although ascetic and at-times extreme in his religious practices, could be incredibly generous, forgiving, and patient, even if that patience was occasionally tried. His renunciation of all property, and his insistence that those who wished to follow his way of life do the same, was emblematic of his desire to rid himself of the barriers that interfered with and prevented the building of authentic relationships: one’s relationship to self, one’s relationship to others, and one’s relationship to God. In a keynote address at Siena College some years ago Franciscan theologian Kenneth Himes summarized Francis’s attraction this way: “It was the fact that no one ever had to fear Francis.  Francis never sought to dominate, manipulate, or coerce anyone.  No person ever looked into the eyes of Francis and saw a lust for power or control.”

Francis’s life provides a model for all Christians, but his own words challenge the sentiments of historian Ernest Renan cited at the end of Acocella’s essay that Francis is proof of what authentic Christianity looks like. Near the end of his life Francis is remembered to have said, “The Lord has shown me what was mine to do, may he show you yours.” While the church collectively and each Christian individually can learn from Francis, the answer is not that true Christianity is achieved only when we all look like little Francis clones. On the contrary, true Christianity is achieved when, in following in the footprints of Jesus Christ, each Christian lives authentically his or her true self as created by God.

Acocella’s New Yorker piece nicely introduces an audience that might otherwise not give much thought to Francis of Assisi to a perennially relevant model of Christian living. Her treatment of his life and legacy will surely disabuse the skeptical nonbeliever as well as the pious churchgoer of the mistaken caricature of Francis that is so popularly reinscribed in the imaginations of those who think first of stone birdbaths, tamed wolves, and other such romantic images when they hear his name.

Photo: File

On Demand: Limiting Our Worldviews One Show at a Time

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , on January 12, 2012 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

So I don’t generally watch a lot of TV “live,” that is when the television programs I do enjoy are broadcast at their regularly scheduled times. Instead, like so many people in the digital age, I often watch TV shows on demand through websites like Hulu.com or the networks’ own streaming options. It is just an easier way to watch what I want, quite literally when I want. In general this seems like a really neat opportunity, something that most people who have access to the Internet would embrace and there is much evidence to support claims that it is a well-received technological advance. But an article by The New Yorker staff writer John Seabrook in the latest issue has got me thinking that perhaps this technological innovation that ostensibly bolsters my personal freedom might have some unintended and overlooked downsides.

This is not the point of the article. Rather, Seabrook highlights the rise of websites like YouTube.com and the marketshare of entertainment that is being siphoned by this relatively new source for video programming, amateur and professional alike. Quoting a YouTube.com executive, Robert Kyncl, Seabrook relays:

“People went from broad to narrow,” he [Kyncl] said, “and we think they will continue to go that way — spend more and more time in the niches — because now the distribution landscape allows for more narrowness.”

…People prefer niches because “the experience is more immersive,” Kyncl went on. “For example, there’s no horseback-riding channel on cable. Plenty of people love horseback riding, and there’s plenty of advertisers who would like to market to them, but there’s no channel for it, because of the costs. You have to program a 24/7 loop, and you need a transponder to get your signal up on the satellite. With the Internet, everything is on demand, so you don’t have to program 24/7 — a few hours is all you need.”

These comments, true and intuitive as they are in retrospect, got me thinking. Is this necessarily a good thing? Granted, there is a freedom that comes with the ability for the rich and poor, the powerless and powerful, the manifold masses to express themselves alike in creative formats online. That is something I do not wish to abandon, but rather encourage. What gets me thinking in a cautious way is the trend toward increasingly insular and niche-like forms of information-gathering and even entertainment.

I don’t think that a hegemonic arbiter of what should and should not be broadcast (as was the case with the networks and has been the case with cable channels), largely influenced by advertising revenues beyond any other factor, is the better option. But should we be careful about boxing ourselves into our own self-righteous and pre-determined world? By appropriating complete control of our “news sources” and entertainment, have we simply created a condition that repeats and justifies our pre-conceived notions and world views?

There is something to be said about being exposed, at least periodically, to information, ways of thinking, opinions and entertainment that we didn’t preselect. There are cultures, philosophies, ways of thinking and forms of entertainment (creative expression) that we will miss the more we predetermine what it is we are willing to watch or that to which we are choosing to listen.

In ecclesial matters, this is reflected in which cable television programs (such as EWTN) or websites (any variety of sites) people view or read. One who only watches EWTN will begin to think and be affirmed in such thinking that the views expressed on that channel reflect authentic Catholicity, when in fact that particular network does not have a monopoly on Catholic thought or outlook. The same is true in the websites we select to read or follow. I am often guilty of this, as I imagine most of us are, because it is much more difficult for me to intentionally look at sites that express views with which I am not fully in support rather than reaffirming my preconceived notions in some other venue.

I believe that the more we become an “on demand” culture, the more difficult it will be to expand our intellectual, cultural and ecclesial horizons. We will need to make a more concerted effort to expose ourselves to other ways of thinking — which does not mean you have to appropriate everything you read, hear or see. Otherwise, I am convinced things will only become more polarized in the civil and ecclesiastical political realm, in our own self-righteous views of how things should be and in our interpersonal relationships.

Think about ways you might expand rather than limit your worldview, and then indulge your desire to be entertained or informed in the way you most prefer.

Photo: Stock

Vatican II: Too Early to Tell?

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , on October 13, 2011 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

I’ve read a couple of things recently that have got me thinking a lot about the state of the Roman Catholic church in light of its most recent ecumenical council: Vatican II. The first comes from Hendrik Hertzberg’s The Talk of the Town piece in the current issue of The New Yorker about the “Occupy Wall Street” events in Manhattan and around the country. In an effort to illustrate the as-of-yet unknown impact and future of these ostensibly grass-roots happenings, Hertzberg recollection of what Zhou Enlai supposedly said in response to then-president Richard Nixon when the president “asked him to assess the impact of the French Revolution: it’s too early to tell.”

The second comes from the renowned systematic theologian and Franciscan friar, Kenan Osborne, who, in his book Priesthood: A History of Ordained Ministry in the Roman Catholic Church (Wipf & Stock), wrote: “The Second Vatican Council presented the Roman Catholic Church with a theological understanding of ministry which [sic] will continue to exert an influence for decades, perhaps even centuries to come.”

Both of these remarks got me thinking about the Church and the way in which people continue to respond to the theological and pragmatic shifts brought about by the Council. We recently observed the 49th anniversary of Bl. Pope John XXIII’s calling of a new ecumenical council, a perfect time to pause and look at where we’ve come and where we are going, especially as major half-century milestones of the event approach.

There have been some trends in the Church of late that rightly give pause to those concerned about seeing the prophetic and practical dimensions of the Council implemented and lived within the life of the Body of Christ. Recently, I was thinking about the understanding of the threefold understanding of the priesthood as it is presented in the Council’s theology of ministry (particularly in the texts Lumen Gentium and Presbyterorum Ordines). The notion that the members of the Body of Christ, which is the Church, share in Christ’s ministry of teacher, sanctifier and leader is not limited to those in holy orders (deacons, priests, bishops), but also includes, in very explicit terms (Lumen Gentium art. 34-38), the fact the laity too share this mission and responsibility.

It should come as no surprise given the recent discussions on DatingGod.org and elsewhere about the policy changes in Phoenix and Madison that the role — liturgically and ecclesiastically — of the laity and the role of the ordained would be a matter of timely concern. There are indeed ways in which the Second Vatican Council seems to be curbed by such behaviors, if not in the letter of the documents (although one might argue that is indeed true), then in the spirit of the texts.

I am increasingly convinced that few people, including those whose responsibilities are to shepherd local churches, have a competent grasp of these Church documents from Vatican II, which are still very new at under fifty-years old each. It doesn’t take long, having read only the primary constitutions and decrees from the Council to realize that the vision of Church and the heuristic model laid out by the Council Fathers continues to be treated only in the most superficial ways, if not ignored in some places entirely.

I used to think — and still do to some extent — that this was largely do to a willed ignorance of the texts and a disregard for the change that necessarily comes with a substantial effort to return to a more authentically Christian way of living as Church. But I also wonder, in light of Hertzberg and Osborne’s remarks, if part of the problem isn’t just the small amount of time that has passed since the closing of the Council. How long does it take for the vision of an ecumenical council to take hold? How long should it?

This is not to suggest that certain liturgical and ecclesiastical shifts haven’t already taken hold and for the better, but read Lumen Gentium, Gaudium et Spes and Sacrosanctum Concilium — if only those three constitutions — and tell me that we’re living that understanding of Church today! I don’t think you could, whether you like it or not. I am concerned that we are not more consciously imbuing ourselves with the texts of the Council, saturating our thinking and vision with this liturgical and ecclesiastical worldview. Instead, we hear of the silly-to-absurd actions of certain local churches (prohibiting girl altar servers, restricting communion under both kinds, limiting the involvement of the faithful in the ecclesiastical and liturgical life of the community in several ways, and so on). I’m not sure what is behind these sorts of things, but I know that nowhere in the Council documents does one find justification for such behavior. Sure, there may be juridical authority to do these things, but that doesn’t make it right.

So, I’m left to continue thinking about Vatican II and whether or not it might indeed be too early to tell if things will change and work out for the best. To return to Hendrik Hertzberg’s article again, I think the closing line of his piece rings true here too: “It’s too early to tell, but not too late to hope.” Amen.

Photo: CNS

The Death Penalty is Not an Ethical Matter

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , on October 2, 2011 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

This reflection is now available in Daniel P. Horan, OFM’s book Franciscan Spirituality for the 21st Century: Selected Reflections from the Dating God Blog and Other Essays, Volume One (Koinonia Press, 2013).

The Wisdom of Warren Buffett: A Christian Reflection

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , on August 16, 2011 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

One of the frequent criticisms that I, and perhaps others like me, have received in recent years concerning my position on obscenely large accumulation of personal wealth is that I (and so very few of the critics) are in that camp of financial barons known as the super wealthy. Therefore, I was unable to speak from fairly from my position of challenge, because it was easy for someone who professes a vow of sine proprio to say what I do, not having to be concerned about protecting, growing or managing my own personal wealth. Yet, it seems, thanks to a recent New York Times op-ed piece by the multi-billionaire Warren Buffett, at least some of the super wealthy have spoken, and they share my outlook.

One thing that is often overlooked in discussions about tax rates and personal wealth is who the mouthpieces are for a given position. Disturbingly, the ground swell of support for freezing, if not lowering, taxes in this country come from self-monikered “tea partiers,” most of whom are working and middle-class Americans. One doesn’t find the New York Park-Avenue super-wealthy dressed up in eighteenth-century colonial attire on the National Mall protesting anything. Why? Because, truthfully, as Buffett bravely notes with honesty in his piece, whether his tax rate was 10% or 50% he would still make millions and billions of dollars. The super wealthy have no need to be concerned.

The working and middle-class, it seems, has been led to work against their own personal interest for just a few of the super wealthy and, perhaps more tellingly, the corporations that seek to raise profits. This is not coincidental or accidental, by which I mean to say that the tea-party narrative did not arise among the lower classes of this country independently of the corporate interests of those who seek to raise the revenue of the super wealthy without concern for the pedestrian laborers who fight for that cause. Such invidious conniving has been uncovered by serious investigative reporting such as was seen in Jane Mayer’s excellent article in The New Yorker last Fall, titled, “Covert Operations: The Billionaire Brothers Who are Waging War Against Obama.

Think the tea party is the organic voice of the people? Think again.

One of the ways that such populist fervor is invigorated among self-identified tea partiers, and others, by folks like the Koch brothers is through the instrumental ignorance of the audience about how income is acquired and taxed. There is an empathetic impulse into which the Koch brothers and others with similarly vested interests tap when it comes to the working and middle classes. Those who have every only earned their livelihood by “working a job” (versus money management, which is how many of the super wealthy have accumulated their money) do not instinctively understand that a super wealthy person’s source of revenue is not something so discreetly identified such that it would appear on an IRS W-2 form. Therefore, the “idea” of “raising taxes” appears to many working and middle-class people as something akin to their pay-stub reflecting a higher cut of their net income. The truth is, the super wealthy have a functionally lower tax rate because so much of their actual wealth is acquired, not from salary (IRS “income”), but through other more complicated means. Buffett explains:

If you make money with money, as some of my super-rich friends do, your percentage may be a bit lower than mine. But if you earn money from a job, your percentage will surely exceed mine — most likely by a lot.

To understand why, you need to examine the sources of government revenue. Last year about 80 percent of these revenues came from personal income taxes and payroll taxes. The mega-rich pay income taxes at a rate of 15 percent on most of their earnings but pay practically nothing in payroll taxes. It’s a different story for the middle class: typically, they fall into the 15 percent and 25 percent income tax brackets, and then are hit with heavy payroll taxes to boot.

Fear is something that is also used or is at least something capitalized by those with their own super-wealth interests in mind. Those who acquire millions or billions of dollars annually have nothing to fear, they will weather most financial and economic storms. It is the working population that has so much to fear because, as Buffett keenly observes, this population is so dependent on their “jobs,” from which they earn the whole of their income. So a false narrative that is often used to enlist the support of the working and middle-class populations is that if taxes were raised on the wealthy and corporations, then they would be less inclined to spend more, invest, hire and the like, thereby stagnating the economy and risking the job security (weak as it is for so many) on which the non-wealthy depend. Buffett, in clear and direct language, explains the absurdity of that claim:

Back in the 1980s and 1990s, tax rates for the rich were far higher, and my percentage rate was in the middle of the pack. According to a theory I sometimes hear, I should have thrown a fit and refused to invest because of the elevated tax rates on capital gains and dividends.

I didn’t refuse, nor did others. I have worked with investors for 60 years and I have yet to see anyone — not even when capital gains rates were 39.9 percent in 1976-77 — shy away from a sensible investment because of the tax rate on the potential gain. People invest to make money, and potential taxes have never scared them off. And to those who argue that higher rates hurt job creation, I would note that a net of nearly 40 million jobs were added between 1980 and 2000. You know what’s happened since then: lower tax rates and far lower job creation.

Since 1992, the I.R.S. has compiled data from the returns of the 400 Americans reporting the largest income. In 1992, the top 400 had aggregate taxable income of $16.9 billion and paid federal taxes of 29.2 percent on that sum. In 2008, the aggregate income of the highest 400 had soared to $90.9 billion — a staggering $227.4 million on average — but the rate paid had fallen to 21.5 percent.

The taxes I refer to here include only federal income tax, but you can be sure that any payroll tax for the 400 was inconsequential compared to income. In fact, 88 of the 400 in 2008 reported no wages at all, though every one of them reported capital gains. Some of my brethren may shun work but they all like to invest. (I can relate to that.)

There is a Christian commentary that I believe accompanies this op-ed, although Buffett has not proffered such reflection (nor is he at all obligated to do so). I have written here and elsewhere that excessive personal (and corporate, lest we not forget that in the US — thanks to the Supreme Court Decision two years ago — corporations are considered juridic persons) wealth, when there are such disparities in society and so many are left to struggle and suffer, is simply wrong, sinful.

In order not to be mistaken, let me say plainly that I do not believe that all Christians have to live like women and men in professed religious life. I recognize and honor the commitments that women and men have to each other and their families as it concerns financial security and providing the necessities required for full human flourishing. But where does one draw the line between necessity and gratuity, between security and selfishness, between honesty and greed?

I do not believe anyone can justify so-called “super wealth” from within the Scriptural or Theological Christian tradition. Those who try to fit that square peg into a round hole are left to their own to rationalize such a maneuver. While I believe it to be obscene and unjust that people, even good people like Warren Buffett, are permitted in our world to have so much while others have nothing (something I believe should be outlawed), in the meantime I support Buffett’s call for real shared-sacrifice in supporting all people in society.

Photo: IStockPhoto

The Osama bin Laden Assassination Revisited

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , on August 5, 2011 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

This reflection is now available in Daniel P. Horan, OFM’s book Franciscan Spirituality for the 21st Century: Selected Reflections from the Dating God Blog and Other Essays, Volume One (Koinonia Press, 2013).

Bachmann and Palin: New ‘Feminists’ or Not?

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , on July 29, 2011 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

The Washington Post has a very interesting article titled, “Evangelical Women Rise as New ‘Feminists,‘” which suggests, in part, that the new face of feminism is that of the socially conservative political figures most notably represented by Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin. The article, written by Lisa Miller, begins with a “traditional definition” of feminism, which describes one who favors “abortion on demand, government-funded abortion, redistribution of wealth, same-sex marriage and is antiwar, anti-defense.” This definition was suggested by Penny Nance, the CEO of Concerned Women for America, the pro-life group.

The article continues:

Now, in a reversal, some conservative Christian women are tentatively claiming the feminist label for themselves. In the reframing, feminism has nothing to do with a woman’s right to choose an abortion or with government programs for the poor.

Instead, a “feminist” is a fiscally conservative, pro-life butt-kicker in public, a cooperative helpmate at home, and a Christian wife and mother, above all. Rep. Michele Bachmann is Exhibit A. With her relentless attacks on big government and a widely circulated 2006 video in which she credits her professional success to the submission of her will to Jesus and her husband, Bachmann represents “a new definition of feminism,” says Stephen Bannon, director of “Fire From the Heartland,” a 2010 movie about the female leaders of the Tea Party.

Last year, Sarah Palin connected herself with feminists in a speech — not the kind who loaf about “in the faculty lounge at some East Coast women’s college,” as she put it, but a gun-toting, self-reliant, pro-life Christian woman who credits her gender as the source of her power. Bachmann hasn’t gone so far, but in “Fire from the Heartland,” she talks about why women should engage in the political process. “Women feel it in our gut and in our heart — and that sense is coming over us that something is terribly wrong,” she says.

The article goes on to explain that a religion historian at Washington University in St. Louis, MO, Marie Griffith, believes that, while these women are not representative of traditional feminist categories, they are capturing the attention of women today. “Two generations ago, a conservative Christian woman would have been encouraged to have babies and keep house; work would have been seen as an economic necessity, not a higher calling.”

The argument, Griffith makes, is that women like Bachmann and Palin offer some form of hope for self-described conservative women who wish to “make a difference in the world.”

“Now,” says Griffith, director of the new John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University in St. Louis, “I really see evangelicals taking hold of that view that women can speak about righteous godly things, just as men can. They can make an impact on the world. Not only that, they should make an impact on the world.”

While I cannot speak from the position of a woman, I can speak from the position of one who has been studying the work of several scholars engaged in contextual theology who would have serious concerns about the way the term “feminism” is being appropriated (or misappropriated) today.

One of the most pressing issues is that of the categorical use of “motherhood” as a (if not “the”) signifier of womanhood. This, as contemporary scholarship has shown, can be especially problematic in that it limits the horizon of “authentic” gendered identity to those capable, those who have chosen or those who have repeatedly given birth to children. That motherhood itself, as a category, is so narrowly defined by these commentators and politicians as one who conceives and bears a child is also limiting and in need of some further consideration.

Another pressing issue is the ostensible absence of any effort to advance opportunities for women beyond previously conceived categories of gender identity and social roles. If what most qualifies Bachmann and Palin as symbols of the “woman universal” are their advocation of careers, perspectives and social positions that do not develop beyond that of the typically androcentric categories of social positioning, then I would be very concerned about selecting these figures as representatives or icons for more-than half of the national (and global) population.

What does someone like Michele Bachmann have to offer, for example, to a lesbian-identified woman, perhaps even a mother herself, who does not see herself appropriating the strictures of social and cultural identity because such models do not offer her the opportunities to be successful according to those same norms? What does someone like Sarah Palin have to offer, for example, to a young woman of my generation who might or might not settle down into a long-term relationship or have children at such a young age — if ever? Does her identity as a woman therefore depend on these or similarly limited models of gendered identity? What exactly do folks like Bachmann and Palin provide by way of advancement for a population that continues to suffer professional, social and cultural disadvantage in a variety of contexts?

Something about this sort of article suggesting that public figures like Bachmann and Palin (as opposed to someone like the renowned French feminist writer Elisabeth Badinter, see this recent excellent New Yorker profile on her for some background) does not sit well with me. I’d be interested to see what some of the authors over at Women in Theology and others have to say about this type of assertion found in The Washington Post.

Photo: Washington Post

St. Francis of Assisi Makes the ‘New Yorker’

Posted in Franciscan Spirituality, Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on July 19, 2011 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

One of the things being away from home for more than a month means is that I have to sort through the stack of mail that has piled up in my absence. In addition to the variety of correspondence, bills, packages, other mail that has arrived, I have a month’s worth of periodicals and academic journals. Among these things is the July 11 & 18 issue of The New Yorker. After looking through the latest issue of Commonweal, The Atlantic, and a few other things, I picked this issue and was surprised to see a brief “Critic’s Notebook” entry titled, “Art Into Life,” by The New Yorker Art Critic Peter Schjeldahl. His remarks about the painting are really touching, if a bit random (aside from the new show centered around it). He describes the painting as “the most perfect of pictures.” The entry is very brief and worth quoting here at length.

While you’re looking at Giovanni Bellini’s big oil on wood “St. Francis in the Desert” (circa 1475-78), at the Frick Collection, it seems to satisfy every personal use you’ve ever had for art. Wanting any other work would betray gluttony. Now the museum has organized a little show around research into this most perfect of pictures. There’s not much to discover. X-rays of the scene, in which the saint stands transfixed in a multitudinous landscape, find a completely worked-out drawing, across which Bellini applied the skin of paint as deftly as if he were pulling a blind. The jewel-like style rivals that of contemporaneous Flemish oils but is suffused with Italian tenderness. The painting stuns with its conception of physical and spiritual vision as one and the same. We are seduced by naturalistic and poetic details — that personable donkey, unforgettably — while being set back on our heels by the polished execution. Like the humility of St. Francis, the work’s sublimity makes you want to be worthy of it. Change your life!

The only thing missing here is a more substantial theological explanation of the image’s context. He is standing in ecstasy, not simply in prayer, but on Mount La Verna receiving the Stigmata. It was really neat to see one of the most famous Franciscan paintings (perhaps one of the most famous paintings in general) appear in a secular publication like The New Yorker. Francis appeals to all — his legacy transcends so many boundaries!

Photo: The New Yorker; Frick Collection
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