Episode 2: My Meeting with Marianne Williamson

FYI, here’s my second episode of the podcast I’m starting on A Course in Miracles for social justice activists. I’m still struggling with the technology of it all. But the podcast site looks like this: https://acimforactivists.com/ Please check it out and maybe become a follower there. It’s going to get better, I promise.

Scroll down on the site and you’ll see the first episode too. I’m currently working on installment 3.

In Memoriam: Guy Patrick (1935-2021)

Guy (far left) posing with new homeowners in his capacity as director of Habitat for Humanity in Madison County, KY

I lost my best friend today. Guy Patrick died around 11:00 this morning, a couple of weeks after we celebrated his 85th birthday. For years, he had predicted his death “this Easter.” And then when it didn’t happen, he’d laugh and say, “I guess I’ve been given another year.”

I had known Guy for more than 40 years. Also former priest, he had a kindred monk’s spirit and was wonderful example of the deepest unshakable (though critical) faith. It let him settle for a date near Christmas rather than Easter.

I first met Guy (I forget exactly when) in the late 1970s. He was “in transition” as they say – exploring his exit from the priesthood and an anticipated move to Berea Kentucky. There, his future wife, Peggy Anibaldi (a former religious sister) had just secured employment as a head resident at Berea College where I ended up teaching all those years.

Earlier, Peggy had looked me up having got my name from the bulletin of CORPUS, a Catholic organization of ex-clergy and religious whose mission was to help members find employment and community.

I remember Guy’s Peggy visiting my Peggy and me in our home in Buffalo Holler 5 miles outside the Berea city limits. No sooner was Ms. Anibaldi inside our doors, it seemed, than my Peggy was on the phone to Ruth Butwell (the director of Berea’s residence halls) telling her of this wonderful woman who would make the perfect head resident. Ruth hired Peggy, it seemed, almost on the spot. (My Peggy is very persuasive!)  

In any case, when Guy finally joined his Peggy in Berea, we hit it off immediately. And there in my office on the 4th floor of the Draper Building, began a conversation that lasted through Guy’s final days. It was always the same: some about politics, yes, but mostly about God, philosophy, theology, church, life and death. Always the same. Always delightful. Usually over double Manhattans and popcorn. Sometimes quite animated. Never dull. I loved Guy.

And what was there not to love? He was a wise accomplished man. As he described it, his career path could be roughly divided into 10-year segments. It took him, he said:

  • From Catholic school and setting bowling pins as a kid in PA
  • To the seminary and ordination
  • To securing a degree in theology at DC’s Catholic University
  • To teaching in his diocesan seminary and later in an associated high school
  • To working as a youth minister (with Sister Anibaldi) at Mercyhurst College in Erie, PA
  • To serving as a Berea College head resident and later as a factotum at Emmaus House, an intergenerational home for the elderly which Guy’s Peggy directed as part of Fr. Ralph Beiting’s Christian Appalachian Project
  • To assuming his role as the truly legendary director of Habitat for Humanity in Madison County, Kentucky
  • To retiree status in which he continued to work for Habitat and (always with Peggy) to animate our local St. Clare’s Catholic Church until he (along with other progressive Catholics) surrendered in the face of restorationist pastors rejecting the spirit of the Second Vatican Council

Through it all, Guy retained a wonderful self-deprecatory sense of humor. A laugh or a joking remark was never far from his lips. Some of his more memorable sayings included:

  • “As my dad used to say in similar circumstances, ‘Meh. . .’”
  • “Well, we all have to be somewhere.”
  • “Organize? Hell, I couldn’t organize a two-car funeral.”
  • “They say I’m a pessimist, but I’m really an optimist. A pessimist says things couldn’t get worse. I always say, ‘Oh yes they could!’”
  • “In marrying Peggy, I was just following the advice of Martin Luther. He said ‘Every man should marry a nun.’ And that’s what I did. Never regretted it. Luther was right.”
  • “In fact, (again quoting my dad) here’s the way I’d summarize my life, ‘I loved every minute of it!'”
  • “For that reason, I like what Woody Allen had to say about death: ‘It’s not that I’m afraid of dying. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.’”

Woody Allen notwithstanding, Guy was indeed fully there when it happened. That became evident in meetings of “The Manhattan Club,” a men’s group in which 7 of us Berea types participated for years. At our meetings we each usually drank 2 Manhattans – as well as “cheating on our wives” (as guy put it) by eating non-vegetarian snacks. The conversations were always quite lively.

[And speaking of cheating on our wives. . . Guy and I loved to have our own men’s night out at Richmond’s “Golden Corral Steakhouse.” There we’d select steak, ribs, chops and roast beef from the buffet — not to mention mashed potatoes, gravy and rich dessert samples. Then we’d waddle across the street and bowl a few lines at the alley that always evoked stories about his boyhood days setting pins. (Guy was a good bowler and quite the competitor.) We’d finish at the bowling alley bar for a nightcap.]

But towards the end, our evening Manhattan Club gatherings switched to mornings with coffee. And week by week, we witnessed Guy’s health decline. Nevertheless, he always had reflections to share as well as gallows humor about his approaching end. To the very last he was reading Plato, Thomas Merton, and the postmodernist, Jacques Derrida. Guy went out puzzling over Derrida’s reflections on “the gift of death.”

And at our final Manhattan Club meeting with him, guess what Guy talked about? He was full of recollections of his 6 months spent in Americus GA with the great Millard Fuller, the founder of Habitat for Humanity. He expressed his intention to make one more appeal to his friends to contribute generously to the organization in his memory.

His final sentiments were characteristically prayerful. “After all of this,” he said, “my only prayer is ‘Oh God, be merciful to me, a sinner.’ Along with that, it’s just ‘Thank you.'”

That’s the kind of Guy he was.

A Blessing for Guy Patrick

Just before he left us, our men’s Manhattan Club met via Zoom to say a formal farewell to Guy. I was asked to give a final blessing. As we all extended our hands, this is what I prayed:

 I give this blessing
 In the spirit of the conversations
 All of us have shared
 Over the years
 When we debated questions of life, meaning
 God, and destiny.
 Those were intellectual,
 Head-centered conversations
 Full of laughter and joy.
 We absolutely loved them!
  
 At this important moment however,
 Let’s set all of that aside
 And enter the depths of our hearts.
 Let’s embrace the wisdom of sages
 Who throughout the millennia
 (Along with Guy)
 Have insisted
 That what awaits us all
 Beyond the threshold humans call “death”
 Is the fulfillment of everything
 That any of us can hope for or desire.
  
 Please enter that realm with me now.
 (Pause)
  
 Guy, we bless you
 At this transcendent moment.
 We send you with all our hopes
 On your way –
 Onto the path that all of us must trod.
 We send you into the realm
 Of all the wise people who have ever lived –
 Of angelic beings and light beings
 The realm of our Father-Mother God.
  
 Please know that
 You take with you
 Everything positive, holy,
 Constructive and good -- 
 Every holy thought, word and act
 That has ever crossed your mind,
 Your lips and your heart.
 (There are so many of them
 That you yourself
 Have blessed us with.)
  
 Go in joy, confidence, assurance
 And peace
 Knowing that we are with you in spirit.
 Ours is one of gratitude
 For the blessed life you have lived
 For the lives you have changed
 For the students you have inspired
 For the homes you have constructed
 For the love you have shared
 With Peggy, Gina, Anna, their babies
 With the rest of us
 And so many, many more.
  
 You have especially blessed this group of men
 Who now return the favor.
 You are our brother, our friend, our companion,
 And our inspiring conversation partner.
 You have been our priest, dear Guy
 You have always been that
 And will remain so
 Forever.
  
 (Dare I say it?)
 Yes, I will:
 Behold the Great Priest
 Who in his days pleased God!
 “Ecce sacerdos magnus 
 Qui in diebus suis placuit deo”.
  
 Thank you so much
 For all of that,
 For your wonderful life
 And for showing us
 So marvelously
 How to die.
  
 Go in peace, dear beloved brother.

Truth-Telling Is Not Anti-Semitism or Holocaust Denial: A Personal Reflection

This is a follow-up to and revision of my last posting about a Zoom call that recently caused a stir on OpEdNews

Rob Kall, the editor in chief of OpEdNews (OEN) recently published a provocative edition of a weekly Zoom call among editors and contributors to his website. It was provocative because the remarks of one of the participants about fascism and the Great Holocaust caused several Jewish attendees to take offense and vehemently accuse him of holocaust denial and anti-Semitism.

Basically, the offending remarks identified Germany’s wealthy Jewish 1% as providing Hitler’s fascism with pretext for his genocide of the other 99%.  (I’ve summarized what was actually said here.) The discussion that ensued led Rob to wisely recommend caution in approaching such sensitive topics.

Rob’s recommendation reminded me of a sobering experience I had years ago in Mexico. It put me in the position of the OEN provocateur. It also caused me to reflect on the role of self-criticism that is part and parcel of the Judeo-Christian tradition and of critical thinking in general.

My Report from Israel

The experience I’m referring to came when I was invited to give a “Report from Israel” after a three-week study tour of Israel, Jordan, and Egypt sponsored by Berea College, where I taught in the Philosophy and Religion Department for 40 years. The invitation came from the Unitarian Universalist (U.U.) congregation of San Miguel de Allende.

My report was heavily influenced not only by our time spent in the Palestinian community, but by a separate visit my wife, Peggy, and I made to the Sabeel Ecumenical Center for liberation theology in Jerusalem. Scholars there connected the Palestinians’ situation with colonialism. They pointed out that ever-expanding Jewish settlements stood in blatant contravention of UN Resolution 242. It was a continuation of the European colonial system that had supposedly been abolished following World War II. In Israel-Palestine, Jewish occupation represented the familiar European settler pattern repeated throughout the former colonies. It had (Zionist) settlers from Germany, Russia, Poland, Hungary, Rumania, and elsewhere arriving unexpectedly in lands belonging for millennia to poor unsuspecting Palestinian peasants, and then confiscating their homes, fields and resources.

With all of that fresh on my mind, the thesis of my U.U. presentation was clear and unambiguous. “The real terrorists in Israel,” I said, “are the Zionists who run the country.” I didn’t consider my basically historical argument particularly original or shocking. The Sabeel Center and Noam Chomsky had been making it for years.

What I didn’t realize was that almost everyone in my audience was Jewish. (I didn’t even know about San Miguel’s large Jewish population – mostly “snowbirds” from New York City.) Nonetheless, my remarks that Sunday stimulated an engrossing extended discussion. Everyone was respectful, and the enthusiastic conversation even spilled over beyond the allotted time.

The trouble started after the head of San Miguel’s Center for Global Justice (CGJ) where Peggy and I were working at the time invited me to publish my talk as an article in San Miguel’s weekly English newspaper, Atención.

I’ll never forget what followed; it was very similar to what occurred during Rob’s OEN Zoom call. All hell broke loose:

  • A barrage of angry letters flooded the Atención pages for the next two weeks and more.
  • As a result, Atención threatened to cancel the column space set aside for the CGJ each week.
  • San Miguel’s Bibliotheca (library) talked about ending the CGJ’s access to meeting rooms there.
  • My article was removed from Atención’s archives.
  • Someone from the AIPAC (American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee) phoned my provost at Berea College reporting me for my inflammatory article, asking whether I really taught there and if my credentials were genuine.
  • The CGJ’s leadership was forced to do some back-pedaling distancing itself from me and my remarks.
  • They lit candles of reconciliation at a subsequent U.U. meeting begging forgiveness from the community and absolution for that mad man from Berea.
  • The guiding assumption in all of this was that my argument was patently false.

In other words, an article that should have stimulated critical thinking and discussion (with CGJ activists leading the way as a voice for Palestine’s voiceless) was met instead with denial, dismissal, and apology.

Biblical Perspective

Of course, I know that criticizing Zionists for their treatment of Palestinians is quite different from the holocaust denial that some on the OEN call perceived a few weeks ago.

It is also probably futile for members of the goyim like me to comment on the topic. Frankly, I’m unqualified to do so, because:

  • My relatives and loved ones weren’t the ones slaughtered in Hitler’s crematoria and gas chambers.
  • They weren’t among the peasants, laborers, shopkeepers, mothers, fathers, grandparents and children whose lives were cruelly wasted and destroyed by the Third Reich.
  • Instead, as Elie Wiesel has pointed out again and again, my Christian religious cohorts were the very ones who incinerated Jews during the week, went to confession on Saturday, were given absolution, received Holy Communion on Sunday, and then returned to their gruesome work the following day.

Yet, it must be acknowledged that my religious tradition is also specifically Judeo-Christian. Its central figure is the Jewish prophet, Jesus of Nazareth, who was a reformer of Judaism and had no intention of founding a new religion. Jesus was not a Christian; from his birth to his death, he was a proud and faithful Jew.

In a sense, then, especially as a theologian in this tradition, I too am somehow a spiritual Semite. (Whether they realize it or not, all Christians are.) Additionally, what separates Zionists from other contemporary neo-colonizers is their claimed religious identity. So, to ignore the role of religion here overlooks the proverbial elephant in the room.  

Recognizing the elephant gives license to say that what really happened in the Zoom conversation and in reaction to my remarks in San Miguel mirrored exactly the traditional dynamic between Jewish prophets like Amos and Jesus and their contemporaries. Both Amos and Jesus (as typical Jewish prophets):

  • Denounced their nation’s elite in no uncertain terms
  • Predicted that their crimes would lead to destruction of the entire nation
  • Were vilified as unpatriotic, self-hating Jews
  • Were threatened with ostracism, imprisonment and death
  • And were often (as in the case of Jesus) assassinated for their prophetic words      

Put otherwise, the Jewish prophets were social critics – the kind of clear-eyed seers who weren’t afraid to blame the powerful in their own nation for crimes that brought harm, ruin, death and destruction to the entire nation. The prophets did not blame the widows, orphans, foreigners, peasants, unemployed, beggars, prostitutes, or the hobbled and ill. Instead, they unstintingly impugned the equivalents of Germany’s Jewish 1% while recognizing that the crimes of those few inevitably brought ruin, pain, exile and death even to the innocent among their own people. It’s simply the way the world works. The blameworthy crimes of the powerful cause suffering, death and massacre for the innocent majority. Pointing that out is simply telling the truth.

Conclusion

Despite what I said about being unqualified to comment on words that seem cruel and insensitive to victimized Jews, I do know something about being tarred with a broad brush. As a Roman Catholic and former priest, I could easily be accused of being part of a worldwide pedophilic ring represented by the priesthood and hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church. It would even be true to say that the ring has connections to a still wider movement of pedophiles among the world’s elite whose iceberg tip revealed (e.g. in the Epstein scandal) connections with the CIA, mi5, mi6, Mossad, and Mafias of various types throughout the world.

All of that would be true even though I never personally encountered any hint of pedophilia in all my more than 20 years preparing for and direct involvement in the Roman Catholic priesthood. It remains true despite the innumerable saints, martyrs, and holy men and women I’ve known personally and from the otherwise hallowed history of the Catholic Church.

The point here is that as an American, and much more as a former priest, I’ve been deeply associated with horrendous institutional delinquencies that I’d rather not discuss, because they hit too close to my spiritual and cultural identity. In other words, as both a Roman Catholic and a U.S. citizen, I find in my own community, uncomfortable truths that parallel the “accusations” against the Jewish 1% in Hitler’s Germany and against contemporary Zionists. I feel resentment at the very mention of such truths.

Nonetheless, and despite my hurt feelings, truth remains truth. And in the spirit of Amos and Jesus, I must face the facts and draw appropriate conclusions. Doing so draws me out of parochial consciousness and self-defensive denial. It creates room for the dialog and recognitions that might head off further community disaster.

As Paulo Freire puts it in The Politics of Education, all critical thinking begins with self-criticism.

80th Birthday Reflections Part 6: Political Order

Just in case readers might have forgotten: my project in this series of reflections on the occasion of my 80th birthday is to illustrate Richard Rohr’s observation about human growth in terms of the “three boxes” into which, he says, everyone’s personal growth trajectory more or less fits. According to Rohr, if we’re lucky, the first part of life is characterized by order, the second by disorder, and the third by reorder. In those terms, I’ve been very lucky.

I’ve tried to illustrate that luck in previous entries in this series. There I briefly described how I mostly benefitted from a highly ordered life starting in a very Catholic household with loving parents. Those years included nine years of education in St. Viator’s Catholic school on Chicago’s northwest side. Then, I shipped off at the age of 14 for a monk-like, highly regulated existence in a seminary preparing teenagers for a life of celibacy and service to God. In St. Columban’s minor seminary in Silver Creek, New York, we were already being shaped to convert what we understood as pagans in foreign missions like Korea, the Philippines, Burma, and Japan. 

So far, my story has taken me from my family home in Chicago and subsequently in Warrenville, Illinois to that seminary in Silver Creek. From there I attended a corresponding college seminary in Milton, Massachusetts. I then completed a novitiate-like “spiritual year” in Bristol, Rhode Island. That was followed by four years of “graduate” scripture and theological studies back in Milton. Then finally, following my ordination in 1966, I completed my formal education with five years of doctoral studies in Rome, Italy. By then, I was 32 years old.

When I left my story off, I was in the middle of telling about those halcyon years in Rome.

My hope is that sharing such reflections might help me better understand my own journey as I enter my ninth decade. In the process, it would be wonderful if readers would also be stimulated to similarly examine their own transitions from order to disorder and hopefully to the ongoing process of reorder.

In any case, I want this particular blog entry to help me (and anyone mildly interested) better understand my own political development. Recounting its story will stretch me far beyond Rome to most of western Europe. It will then take me to more than 40 years of teaching (and learning!) at Berea College in rural Appalachia. Sabbaticals and other travel opportunities sponsored by Berea ended up peppering my journey with subsequent long stopovers in Brazil, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Israel, Jordan, Egypt, India and Cuba. At each of those stops, I learned political lessons that have informed and shaped my life. I’ve been lucky indeed.

But let me begin at the beginning.

My parents were basically apolitical. As a truck driver, my father was a Teamster Union member, but he never betrayed any corresponding political consciousness. (I just remember that he didn’t like paying union dues.) My mother sometimes spoke of her preference to “vote for the man, not the party.” Together, both mom and dad claimed to be Independents rather than Democrats or Republicans. However, their leanings were clearly towards the GOP.

Apart from that, my first recollection of a significant political thought came when I was a freshman in the high school seminary (1954-’55). We were off at some sort of day of recollection at a nearby rival seminary. And older priest (I’ll bet he was about 50!) was onstage giving a keynote address. In its course, the old man remarked for some reason that the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki (a decade earlier) amounted to the most heinous crime in human history.

I was completely shocked. At the time the McCarthy hearings were in full swing. Anti-communism was in the air. I wondered, “Why would a priest say something so unamerican? Was he perhaps a communist? Surely no priest could be a communist.”

My question was framed like that because at the time, anti-communism was in the very air all Americans breathed. After every Mass, we all offered specially mandated extra prayers “for the conversion of Russia.”

The sentiment invaded our minor seminary with a vengeance. The Columban Fathers had just been expelled from China by the 1949 Communist revolution. So “Old China Hands” returning from “fields afar” addressed us frequently about their experiences with such evil incarnate. They told us that the communists hated the Virgin Mary and her rosary. That was enough for any of us. Nothing could be eviler than that.

I remember that during one study hall on May 2, 1957, one of my most admired teachers who was monitoring the session came by my desk and whispered, “A great man died today.” He was referring to Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy.

Politically speaking, that was the world I grew up in. I had no idea what communism was other than an anti-God, anti-Mary worldwide conspiracy by absolutely evil people.

Again, cut off as we were from the news and unexposed to any historical information other than that conveyed in standard (boring) history books, no wonder my political formation was so narrow. Everyone’s was.

It was also no wonder that when I cast my first ballot for U.S. president (1964), I voted for Barry Goldwater. I did so not only because of strict “American” indoctrination, but also because I greatly admired my mother’s brother, my uncle Ben. Of all my relatives, I thought he had the most respectable job. He worked in some capacity at Chicago’s First National Bank; he went to work in suit and tie each day. [Everyone on my father’s side of the family were laborers – brick layers, bartenders, plumbers and general construction workers. One of them was a bookie. (I remember him showing us one day his basement with a whole array of phones connected with his work.)]

So, in my desire to be more informed and sophisticated politically – more like Uncle Ben – I had long conversations with him about issues of the day. He steered me towards the Republicans and criticism of the Civil Rights Movement and Vietnam War resistance.

For instance, in 1967, when Martin Luther King voiced his searing criticism of U.S. aggression in southeast Asia, I thought, “It might be well and good for him to speak about civil rights for blacks, but now he’s gone too far. What does he know about foreign policy and Vietnam?”

That was the state of my political consciousness when I went off to Rome at the age of 27.

And that’s precisely when political disorder set in to complement the theological disorder I’ve already described.  

(Next time: the particulars of political disorder)

Guest Column: Where are we today?

(Here are some timely thoughts written by my life’s partner, Peggy Rivage-Seul. She is professor emerita of Women and Gender Studies at Berea College, where she taught for more than 30 years.)

The Zapatistas in Chiapas, Mexico warned us long ago that “another world is necessary.” To make this happen we must exit from the development paradigm of the neoliberal new world order and return to a future of non-violent relationships between ourselves and the planet we call home.  Another world has indeed arrived, and perhaps it will soon lead to the vision the Zapatistas have articulated over the past twenty-five years.  

Where are we exactly? We are in a globalized moment of social isolation. Unless we are living with our closest relatives, we have lost physical contact with those we love—our children, our grandchildren, our friends, our church, our colleagues, our neighbors. We can no longer break bread with our communities.  

How do we make sense of this new social isolation in the world? There are many explanations, undergirded by ideologies that shape the way we perceive our global circumstances. Perhaps most popular is the notion that a virus has either escaped a laboratory created for bio-weaponry against humanity or it has evolved on its own in response to our poor stewardship of our natural resources. Mother Earth has to do some house cleaning because the “developed countries” have not heeded the call to slow down its demands on the earth. The planet warned us through climate changes and catastrophes, but the wealthy among us have prevailed in their global denial of the need to change the way we live. 

 We are all vulnerable—some of us more than others.   Those of us who believe in Adam Smith’s idea that the environment and laborers are expendable  can accept that the earth is purging the global population of its poor and  elderly who no longer serve the capitalist enterprise.  And  the earth has been given a respite to re-gather her energies for even more domination and exploitation in the new world to come.  There are many sub-scenarios about the “deep state” trying to wrest control of the entire world population, and the “fake news” that there really is a virus at work in our bodies.  These are the tales that fill our days. 

But there is another story. Eight years ago began a  movement in the cosmos: our solar system  passed through a portal that leads to another dimension of living much closer to the Zapatista vision for world happiness. This passage is from the third dimension of the  material world of capitalist growth to the fourth and fifth dimensions where humans behave at much higher frequencies with strong spiritual values of love and cooperation.

Like the change from pony express mail to cell phone texting, our collective crossing over to these higher  dimensions  creates an exponential change in our thinking and actions. In the fifth dimension, we can  process information with much more efficiency. Working a higher vibrations,   both problems and solutions occur at much greater speed. In this new world, the  cultural values of the 20th century no longer serve us.  

Wars are passe and violence toward one another is not tolerated. Co-creation for the good of everyone replaces capitalism for the privileged few, oppression gives way to liberation, etc. Most importantly, the mindset of globalized industrialism no longer functions and those unable to make the leap in consciousness will wither on the vine in the third dimension, unable to meet the requirements for living on the new earth.  

Underlying this vision of a fifth dimension is a belief in the capacity of humans to claim their direct connection to a divine reality and to live the values of love and justice, cooperation and sharing, joy and sorrow. These values have  been alive (and ignored by the developed world) in the ancient traditions of indigenous communities the world over.

The transition from the astrological Piscean Age to the new Aquarian era is made easier as we go back to the future by reclaiming the lessons of Zapatismo.  There, we understand that as our consciousness changes and our frequencies rise,   we see each other as one family moving into a world where there is room for everyone. 

We are no longer individuals   competing for scarce resources to survive. We are in this together. “I” becomes “We” as we make instantaneous connection to the source of life that is Spirit. We belong to the earth as much as earth belongs to us. My community becomes the entire world population. We all have a place at the table of life.  

Which story will you choose? 

In Memoriam Rev. John Rausch (1945-2020)

Peggy and I were shocked Sunday night when we received the stunning news that Fr. John Rausch, a very dear friend of ours, had died suddenly earlier in the day. John was a Glenmary priest whom we had known for years. He was 75 years old.

At one point, John lived in a log cabin below our property in Berea, Kentucky. So, we often found ourselves having supper with him there or up at our place. John was a gourmet cook. And part of having meals with him always involved watching his kitchen wizardry while imbibing Manhattans and catching up on news – personal, local, national, and international. Everything was always interspersed with jokes and laughter.

That’s the kind of man John was. He was a citizen of the world, an economist, environmentalist, prolific author, raconteur, and social justice warrior. But above all, John was a great priest and an even better human being full of joy, love, hope, fun, and optimism.

Yes, it was as a priest that John excelled. Everyone who knew him, especially in the progressive wing of the Catholic Church, would agree to that. Ordained in 1972 [just seven years after the closure Vatican II (1962-’65)] John never wavered in his embrace of the Church’s change of direction represented by the Council’s reforms.

According to the spirit of Vatican II, the Church was to open its windows to the world, to adopt a servant’s position, and to recognize Jesus’ preferential option for the poor.  John loved that. He was especially fervent in endorsing Pope Francis’ extension of the option for the poor to include defense of the natural environment as explained in the pope’s eco-encyclical, Laudato Si’. (To get a sense of John’s concept of priesthood and care for the earth, watch this al-Jazeera interview that appeared on cable TV five years ago.)

His progressive theology delighted John’s audiences who accepted the fact that Vatican II remains the official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. So, as two successive reactionary popes (John Paul II and Benedict XVI) subtly attempted to reverse conciliar reforms, and as the restorationist priests and bishops they cultivated tried mightily to turn back the clock, John’s insistence on the new orthodoxy was entirely refreshing.

I remember greatly admiring the shape of John’s homilies that (in the spirit of Pope Francis’ Evangelii Gaudium) were always well-prepared and followed the same pattern:

  1. He’d begin with two or three seemingly unrelated vignettes involving ordinary people with names and usually living in impoverished Appalachian contexts.
  2. For the moment, he’d leave those word-pictures hanging in the air. (We were left wondering: “What does all that have to do with today’s readings?”)
  3. Then, on their own terms, John would explain the day’s liturgical readings inevitably related to the vignettes, since Jesus always addressed his teachings to the poor like those in John’s little stories.
  4. Finally, John would relieve his audience’s anxiety about connections by perfectly bringing the vignettes and the readings together – always ending with a pointed challenge to everyone present.

The result was invariably riveting, thought-provoking and inspiring. It was always a special day whenever Fr. John Rausch celebrated Mass in our church in Berea, Kentucky.

Nevertheless, John’s social justice orientation often did not resonate with those Catholics out-of-step with official church teaching. These often included the already mentioned restorationist priests and bishops who harkened back to the good old days before the 1960s. Restorationist parishioners sometimes reported Fr. Rausch to church authorities as “too political.”

But Fr. Rausch’s defense was impregnable. He was always able to appeal to what he called “the best-kept secret of the Catholic Church.” That was the way he described the radical social encyclicals of popes from Leo XIII’s Rerum Novarum (1891) through Pius XII’s Quadragesima Anno (1931), Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes (1965), and Pope Francis’ Laudato Si’ (2015).

John was fond of pointing out that all of those documents plus a host of others were consistently critical of capitalism. They favored the demands of working classes, including living wages, the right to form labor unions, and to go out on strike. Other documents were critical of arms races, nuclear weapons, and modern warfare in general. “You can’t get more political than that!” John would say with his broad smile.

All that perseverance on John’s part finally paid off when his local very conservative bishop was at length replaced by a Franciscan friar whom I’ve described elsewhere as “channeling Pope Francis.” I’m referring to John Stowe whose brown-robe heritage had evidently shielded him from the counter-reforms of the two reactionary popes previously mentioned.

When Bishop Stowe assumed office, he evidently recognized John as a kindred spirit. He respected his knowledge of Appalachia and his desire to connect Church social teachings with that context.  So, the new bishop asked John to take him on an introductory tour of the area. John was delighted to oblige. He gave Bishop Stowe the tour John himself had annually led for years. It included coal mines, the Red River Gorge, local businesses, co-ops, social service agencies, local churches, and much more. John became Bishop Stowe’s go-to man on issues involving those represented by the experience.

But none of that – not John’s firm grounding in church social teaching, not his success as a liturgist and homilist, not his acclaimed workshops on economics and social justice, not his long list of publications, nor his advisory position with Bishop Stowe – went to John’s head.

He never took himself that seriously. He was always quick with the self-deprecating joke or story.

In fact, he loved to tell the one about his short-lived movie career. (I’m not kidding.)  It included what he described as his “bedroom scene” with actress Ashley Judd. It occurred in the film, “Big Stone Gap.” I don’t remember how, but in some way, the film’s director needed a priest for a scene where Ms. Judd was so deathly ill that they needed to summon a member of the clergy. John was somehow handy. So, he fulfilled the cameo role playing himself at the bedside of Ashley Judd. (See for yourself here. You’ll find John credited as playing himself.) Right now, I find myself grinning as I recall John’s telling the tale. It always got a big laugh.

Other recollections of John Rausch include the facts that:

  • For a time, he directed the Catholic Committee on Appalachia.
  • He also worked with Appalachian Ministries Educational Resource Center (AMERC) introducing seminarians to the Appalachian context and its unique culture.
  • He published frequently in Catholic magazines and authored many editorials in the Lexington Herald-Leader. John’s regular syndicated columns reached more than a million people across the country. 
  • He had a strong hand in the authorship of the Appalachian bishops’ pastoral letter “At Home in the Web of Life.”
  • He led annual pilgrimages to what he called “the holy land” of Appalachia as well as similar experiences exploring the culture and history of the Cherokee Nation.
  • He was working on his autobiography when he died. (I was so looking forward to reading it!)

More Personally:

  • He graciously read, advised, and encouraged me on my own book about Pope Francis’ Laudato Si’.
  • I have fond memories of one Sunday afternoon when he invited me to a meeting in his living room with other local writers. We were to read a favorite selection from something each of us was working on.
  • John often came to my social justice related classes at Berea College to speak to students about Appalachia its problems, heroines and heroes. (Of course, to my mind, John ranked prominently among them.)
  • He gave a memorable presentation along those lines in the last class I taught in 2014. John was a splendid engaging teacher.

Peggy and I are still reeling from the unexpected news of this wonderful human being’s death. For the last day we’ve been sharing memories of John that are full of admiration, reverence, sadness – and smiles. It’s all a reminder of our own mortality and of the blessing of a quick, even sudden demise.

Along those lines, one strange thought that, for some reason, keeps recurring to me is that John’s passing (along with that of another dear friend last month) somehow gives me (and John’s other friends) permission to die.

I don’t know what to make of that. It might simply be that the two men in question (like Jesus himself) have gone before us and shown the way leading to a new fuller form of life. Somehow, that very fact makes the prospect of leaving easier. Don’t ask me to explain why or how.

Thank you, John.   

In Memoriam: John Capillo

Last week Peggy and I received the very sad news that our long-time friend, John Capillo, had died suddenly on New Year’s Eve. Mercifully, there was no long illness. Stomach pains brought him to the emergency room. He was diagnosed with pneumonia, suffered septic shock, and suddenly was gone. He was 76 years of age.

For us, it was John’s second death. Years ago, Peggy and I said goodbye to him as he lay in coma in a Lexington (KY) hospital. We laid hands on him as we left his bedside then and thanked him for all his gifts to us and the world. But afterwards the unexpected happened. He was given a reprieve; he came back from the dead to live among us for several more years. It seemed entirely miraculous.

In any case, this time it’s final. And our world won’t be the same without this extraordinary man. He was a priest, a prophet, a teacher, storyteller, and a social justice warrior of astonishing accomplishment.

I first met John Capillo 40 years ago, when he and Terri and their new baby, Maureen, moved to Berea, Kentucky. One Sunday, the three of them showed up for Mass at St. Clare’s Church, where Peggy and I had been parishioners since our own arrival in town 5 years earlier. By then, we had our own daughter, Maggie, who was just about Maureen’s age.

Immediately, I learned that, like me, John had been a priest – ordained in New York’s Brooklyn archdiocese. That did it: we soon became fast friends – as did Maggie and Maureen. Peggy and Terri also shared a deep friendship.

At the beginning, John’s day job was carpentry. He had learned the trade during his first priestly assignment in Puerto Rico (or was it Guatemala? I forget.) John had showed up there to help rebuild after a hurricane or something. However, (as he told me early on) when he declared his do-good intention, an old man took him aside and said, “Padre, we know how to build houses. We need you to be our priest.”

And so, John did just that with the enthusiasm, commitment and insight that characterized his entire life. However, his desire to make the gospel relevant moved him to take chances with liturgy and edgy homilies that rendered him suspect to his superiors. The resulting conflicts with authority eventually drove him from the priesthood and into family life.

Nevertheless, John never did give up carpentry or building. One Sunday shortly after arriving in Berea, he came to Sunday Mass with bandages on his left hand. The previous week, he had cut off a finger with his Skill Saw.

Undeterred, at one point, he built a solar addition onto our house in Buffalo Holler about 5 miles outside Berea’s city limits. The project was designed by Appalachian Science in the Public interest. It caught John’s imagination, because, like Peggy and me, he and Terri were going through a “back to nature” phase. He thrived on environmental harmony, innovation, recycling and simple living.

In fact, years later John built an even more innovative structure for himself. It was made entirely from strong woven-plastic bags filled with dirt. John had done a study on the process and technology. And soon he was filling the required bags and carefully laying out the building’s perimeter. Layer after layer created outside walls, interior divisions, and then a roof.

Everything was laid out carefully to take advantage of the sun, but also to orient the house towards sacred energies John perceived as housed in the east, north, west, and south. He wanted to steep himself deeply in such emanations, even while asleep. The whole project expressed John’s deep and never-abandoned desire for enlightenment and unity with God.

Yes, I saw John as a kind of saint. He was. I’ve met few people like him – always on point, never caught up in trivialities, deeply interested in meaning, and counter-cultural to a fault. That’s the way prophets are.

That’s the way John was. He cared little about externals. His diet was simple; he always ate what was set before him. He didn’t drink liquor. His beard was scruffy, his hair unkempt, his clothes always nondescript. But his soul was absolutely luminescent.  His laugh was raucous and full of joy. His loud Ha-Ha’s punctuated every story he ever told.

And he told many. In fact, he considered storytelling his calling and avocation. He studied its technique. And he always used that skill to talk about things that matter – as explained in the books he devoured as the voracious reader he was. John was an inveterate book clubber. He also read my blog, commented on it often, and frequently had us talking shop at Berea Coffee and Tea. Conversations always revolved around God, politics, philosophy and family.

But John was no armchair philosopher. He was a fierce activist on behalf of El Salvador during Central America’s troubled 1980s. As he put it, he “went to school” there – learning from the people during his frequent visits about the destructive role U.S. policy played not only in Salvador, but throughout the colonial world of Latin America, Africa, and South Asia.

John was a deeply, deeply critical thinker. At one point, he spent a month in El Salvador with Peggy and her class of Berea College students as they worked with local residents struggling to overcome the disastrous effects of U.S. policy.

John’s greatest activist accomplishments came after he joined our mutual friend, Craig Williams’ Kentucky Environmental Foundation (KEF). It was and remains a grassroots organization committed to environmental justice. KEF’s main focus became delivering Berea’s Madison County from arrogant U.S. Army plans to dispose of World War II chemical weapons containing mustard gas and other genocidal poisons. The Army had planned to simply burn it all in a thoughtless incinerator near our homes, schools and local businesses.

However, with John’s help, KEF stopped the planners in their tracks. KEF mobilized the entire county and state to prevent that particular disaster from happening. It actually defeated the U.S. Army! Eventually, KEF linked up with similarly victimized communities throughout the United States and the world to work for and celebrate analogous accomplishments.

It was all truly heroic. And John was a huge part of all that. For years, KEF was his final regular job. And in that capacity, he mentored numerous Berea College students including our own daughter, Maggie, who had the privilege of working closely with him and Craig as a student-volunteer.

Here’s a list of some other ways I experienced John as activist, prophet, teacher, and friend:

  • Any of us organizers and educators could always count on John to attend and participate in meetings of any kind, anywhere if they addressed issues of spirituality, activism, critical thinking and/or critical living.
  • He was an advocate and friend of Berea’s and Madison County’s large Hispanic community often working as a translator for its members in court and in social services offices.
  • He was a frequent guest in my own (and Peggy’s) Berea College classes where he edified and provoked students with his informative stories and explanations about our country’s Central American wars and about the environmental dangers of incineration. He was so effective with students.
  • For years, John was a faithful and active member of the Berea Interfaith Task Force for Peace, which during the ‘80s was organized around nuclear disarmament and opposition to our government’s tragic interventionism in Nicaragua and El Salvador.
  • One January, the two of us taught a month-long Berea College course on environmental justice. The course took place in Alabama, where another U.S. Army incinerator threatened the local mostly African American community. The offering was called “Taking on the Military Industrial Complex.” You can imagine the conversations John and I had in the process.
  • Years later, John joined Peggy and me in Oaxaca for a month-long course with Mexico’s Gustavo Esteva — himself an extraordinary critical thinker – who deeply influenced so many of us through his seminars, lectures, prophetic example and books like Grassroots Postmodernism. John loved Gustavo.
  • John was there for me when I tried to start a home church.
  • He visited me at our lake house in Michigan last summer. We spent the entire afternoon on our back porch talking of our usual things – family, politics, church, theology, books. John was extraordinarily proud of his four children and of his grandchildren. I treasure that memory.

As I said, John Capillo was a saint. He was one of my closest friends. Unfortunately, he won’t be coming back from the dead this time (physically, that is). Peggy, Maggie and I will miss him. The world is poorer for his absence.

Dives & Lazarus: a primer on liberation theology

Readings for the 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time: AM 6: 1A, 4-7; PS 146: 7-10; I TM 6: 11-16; LK 16: 19-31 

Today’s liturgy of the word provides us with a virtual catechism of liberation theology – Christianity’s most important theological development in the last 1500 years, and the West’s most important social movement of the last 150 years.

I have come to those conclusions over a period of more than forty years studying liberation theology. My interest began in Rome during my graduate studies there, 1967 through 1972. There I first heard Peru’s Gustavo Gutierrez speak. (Fr. Gutierrez is considered the father of liberation theology.)

Subsequently I read Gutierrez’s bookA Theology of Liberation (1971) and was completely taken by it. Reading the book gave me the feeling that I was hearing Jesus’ Gospel for the very first time.

You might ask, what is liberation theology? To answer that question fully, please look at my blog entries under the “liberation theology” button. I’ve written a series on the question. In my blogs, you’ll find that I always define it in a single sentence. Liberation theology is reflection on the following of Christ from the viewpoint of the world’s poor and oppressed. That’s the class of people to which Jesus himself belonged. They constituted the majority of his first followers.

When read from their viewpoint, accounts of Jesus’ words and deeds – the entire Bible for that matter – take on depths of meaning and relevance to our contemporary world that are otherwise inaccessible to people like us who live in the heart of the wealthy world. From the viewpoint of the poor, God passes from being a neutral observer of earth’s injustices to an active participant with the poor as they struggle for justice here on earth. Jesus becomes the personification of that divine commitment to the oppressed. After all, he was poor and oppressed himself. The Roman Empire and its Temple priest collaborators saw to that.

My interest in liberation theology deepened as my teaching career developed at Berea College in Kentucky from 1974 to 2010. There I was encouraged to continue my study of liberation theology. So, I spent extended periods in Brazil, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Honduras, Guatemala, Cuba, Mexico, Zimbabwe, South Africa, India and elsewhere studying under liberation theologians, dialoging and publishing with them. The poor in all of those countries were suffering from the aggression the United States directed against them.

Meanwhile at Berea, I found the conclusions of liberation theologians validated by the college’s very fine scripture scholars. They had almost no acquaintance with liberation theology, and yet what they were teaching perfectly harmonized with its central tenets. It’s just that they stopped short of drawing what seemed to me the obvious political conclusions from their work.

More specifically, Berea’s scholars identified the Exodus (Yahweh’s liberation of slaves from Egypt) as God’s original and paradigmatic revelation. The whole tradition began there, not in the Garden of Eden. Moreover, the Jewish prophetic tradition emphasized what we now call “social justice.” Even more, Jesus of Nazareth appeared in the prophetic tradition, not as a priest or king. Jesus directed his “ministry” to the poor and outcasts. The Gospel of Luke (4: 18-19) has Jesus describing his program in the following words:

“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, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

After his death, Jesus’ followers continued along those lines. They lived communally, having sold all their worldly possessions and distributed the proceeds to the poor.

All of that finds vivid expression in today’s liturgy of the word. As I said, it’s a kind of catechism of liberation theology. The reading from Amos the prophet describes the sin that most offends God – wealth disparity in the face of extreme poverty. Amos decries a “wanton revelry” on the part of the wealthy that sounds like the “American Way of Life” or the “Lives of the Rich and Famous” that we Americans find so fascinating.

The prophet describes a rich class that lives like King David himself – in luxurious houses, overeating, drinking wine by the bowlful, and generally ignoring “the collapse of Joseph,” i.e. the poverty of their country’s most destitute. For that, Amos says, the rich will ultimately suffer. All their wealth will be confiscated and they will be driven into shameful exile.

In railing against the rich and defending the poor, Amos was calling Judah back to the worship of Yahweh whose attributes are described in today’s responsorial psalm. There God is depicted as loving the just and thwarting the ways of the wicked. The psalm describes Yahweh as securing justice for the oppressed, giving food to the hungry, and setting captives free. He gives sight to the blind and protects resident aliens, single mothers and their children.

Then today’s excerpt from 1st Timothy outlines the characteristics of those who worship that God by following in Jesus’ footsteps. They keep the commandment which is to do unto others as we would have them do unto us.

According to St. Paul, that means pursuing justice and living with devotion, faith, love, patience, and gentleness.

Finally, the gospel selection from Luke chapter 16 dramatizes the sinful relationship between rich and poor and the destinies awaiting both. Luke tells the story of the rich man and “St. Lazarus” who is honored by the poor throughout Latin America.

It is significant that Lazarus is given a name in Jesus’ parable. Usually we know the names of the rich, while it is the poor that remain anonymous. Here matters are reversed. To remedy this anomaly, tradition has assigned the wealthy man a name. He’s called Dives, which is simply the Latin word for rich man.

For his part, Lazarus is quintessentially poor, hungry, and lacking medical care. His sores are open and the only attention they receive are from dogs that lick his wounds. Meanwhile, Dives seems completely unaware of Lazarus’ presence, though the beggar is standing at his very doorstep. Within the sight of Lazarus, the wealthy one stuffs himself with food to such a degree that the scraps falling from his table would be enough to nourish the poor beggar. But not even those crumbs are shared. How could Dives share? He doesn’t even know that Lazarus exists.

So, the two men die, and things are evened out. The rich man goes to hell. We’re not told why. Within the limits of the story, it seems simply for the crime of being rich and unconsciously blind to the presence of the poor. For his part, Lazarus goes to the “bosom of Abraham,” the original Hebrew patriarch.

Lazarus is rewarded. Again, we’re not told why. Within the story, it seems simply because he was poor and Yahweh is partial to the poor, just as he was to the slaves God intervened to save when they were starving in Egypt.

Seated with Abraham, Lazarus feasts and feasts at the eternal banquet hungry people imagine heaven to be. Dives however is consumed by flame in the afterlife. Fire, of course, is the traditional symbol of God’s presence, or purification, and of punishment. This seems to suggest that after death, both Dives and Lazarus find themselves in the presence of God. However what Lazarus experiences as joyful, Dives experiences as tormenting.

And why? Simply, it seems, because Dives was rich, and Lazarus was poor.

Does the parable tell us that what awaits us all after death is a reversal of the economic conditions in which we now find ourselves? The first will be last; the last first. The rich will be poor, and the poor will be rich. That in itself is highly thought-provoking.

In any case, Yahweh is presented as champion of the poor in this parable, just as in the reading from Amos, in today’s responsorial psalm, and in Paul’s letter to Timothy. And according to liberation theologians, that’s the central characteristic of God throughout the Judeo-Christian tradition. God is on the side of the poor and hates obscene wealth disparity.

You can well imagine how such insight inspired the poor and oppressed throughout the world when it emerged as “liberation theology” following the Second Vatican Council. Poor people everywhere (and especially in Latin America) took courage and were inspired to demand social justice from the rich who had been ignoring them in the New World since the arrival of Columbus 500 years earlier. In fact, Liberation theology motivated social movements more powerfully than any thought current since the publication of the Communist Manifesto in 1848.

And that’s why the reigning empire, the United States of America took action against liberation theology. It initiated what Noam Chomsky calls “the first religious war of the 21st century.” It was a war of the United States against the Catholic Church in Latin America – yes against the Catholic Church. The war killed hundreds of thousands of priests, nuns, lay catechists, social workers, union organizers, students, teachers, and journalists along with ordinary farmers and workers.

Today’s liturgy of the word reminds us not to let the United States have the final word. We are called to divest ourselves of our wealth and to take notice of St. Lazarus at our gates. God is on the side of the poor, not of the rich.

“In the Heights” Answers the Immigrant Question in Arts-Friendly Westport Connecticut

On Mothers’ Day, the immigrant invasion that Donald Trump has warned us about, finally reached my new hometown of Westport, Connecticut. It came in the form of Lin Manuel Miranda’s sparkling musical, “In the Heights.”  My daughter and son-in-law generously took us to see the play.

At first glance, a performance in Westport might seem literally out-of-place. After all, it’s is one of the most affluent cities in the country. By contrast, Miranda’s play is set in a poor barrio located in Manhattan’s Washington Heights. However, “In the Heights” succeeded in bringing two disparate communities together in a mutual appreciation that should characterize all interactions between “Americans” from the north and those from the south.

Let me explain.

Westport is the home of Wall Street investors, lawyers and insurance brokers.  But the town of 26,000 clearly has a social conscience. At least in part, that’s because in the 1930s it was an artist colony animated by the horizon-widening presence of its venerable “Country Playhouse.”

A converted barn right out of a Rooney and Garland movie, the Playhouse was later adopted by local residents, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, who inspired its renovation. Over the years, many famous authors, television personalities and actors from Hollywood and Broadway have been drawn to Westport by the playhouse and its theatrical sprites. The best-known personalities include F. Scott Fitzgerald, Bette Davis, Robert Redford, Ann Hathaway, Keith Richards, Martha Stewart, Jim Nantz, Phil Donahue, and Christopher Walken.

Miranda brought together Westporters proud of such lineage on the one hand and immigrants far from such pedigree on the other. And guess what: there was not even one of President Trump’s frightening rapists or gang members among the latter. Instead, they included a street graffiti artist, a snow-cone vender, a bodega proprietor, the owner of a small taxi service, his dispatcher, a sassy beautician and her staff of three, and a college student from Stanford University. Over a period of 90 minutes we came to know and care about each one of them.

The characters came from Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic. Yet all of them had lived in New York for years hardly even noticed as somehow out-of-place. Like many of their real-life counterparts, those the Trumpists call “invaders” were marvelous singers and dancers. Each had a story of family idiosyncrasy, love, economic struggle and high aspiration.

Countering Trump’s cheap clap-trap, “In the Heights” underlined the unmistakable gift-to-America brought by its Latinix citizens. They are hard workers with lofty aspirations, and rich cultures with enviable family values, joy, music, dance, colorful language, resourcefulness, patience and faith. They love their children and grandparents. They scrimp and scrape and help each other with their meager resources. With patience and faith, they endure blackouts (recalling months without power in post-Maria Puerto Rico) that render them powerless in more ways than one, without diminishing their indominable carnival spirits.

Capturing all of that, and following the triumph of “Hamilton,” this earlier musical by Lin Manuel Miranda once again displays the author’s unmistakable genius. (Its first draft was written when he was only 19 years of age.) Its main storyline belongs to Nina Rosario, the first in her family to attend college. Her whole barrio is proud of her and her scholarship to Stanford. However, she disappoints herself and her parents when she secretly drops out in March of her first year, because the work necessary just to pay for her books cut so deeply into her study time. (By the way, her bio reminded me of the students I taught over my 40 years of teaching in Appalachia’s Berea College in Kentucky. Its familiarity brought tears to my eyes.)  

Returning home for summer vacation, Nina causes a family crisis, when she finally informs her parents that she has lost her scholarship. Initial parental chagrin and anger soon turns into resolve to sell the family taxi cab business in order to finance their daughter’s college costs.

Meanwhile, Nina falls in love with Benny, an African-American who works for Nina’s father and the only one in the story who does not speak Spanish. Nina’s parents’ own prejudice doesn’t allow them to see Benny as worthy of their daughter. But Benny too has his own aspirations. He wants to learn Spanish. He wants to start his own business. He’s serious – and deeply in love with Nina. Their duet, “Sunrise,” makes that touching point.

But in the end, it’s elderly Claudia, the matriarch recognized as abuela by everyone in the barrio who saves the day.  Before her sudden passing, she wins the lottery and immediately shares it with her grandson, who in turn shares it with others. Her image and spirit rendered permanent by the barrio’s graffiti artist prevents the neighborhood from disintegrating. Her memory successfully overcomes the centrifugal force of poverty, crime, and economic hardship. The strength of such family ties, memories and tradition hung like a bright shadow over the entire performance.

Not surprisingly, and thanks, I’m guessing, to their art-friendly context, Westporters accepted all of that with open arms and a standing ovation. It was as if the audience recognized themselves in these on-stage first- and second-generation immigrants. And of course they did – precisely because that’s what all of our families are or have just recently been.

Too easily we forget that. We’re all immigrants, aren’t we? At the most basic level, our ancestors were absolutely no different in any way from those we Westporters watched on stage. We’re no different from those our “leaders” fear and cage.

Yesterday’s audience thankfully realized that those Mr. Trump calls “invaders” deserve welcome, appreciation, and standing ovations reserved for the local “celebrities” whose families themselves were once immigrants like those now living in Washington Heights.

Everyone deserves the honor now given to Lin Manuel Miranda. Everyone merits the response we all gave the Country Playhouse yesterday afternoon. That’s the lesson my new neighbors taught me on Mothers’ Day in their hallowed theater.      

The Canonization of George H.W. and the Elevation of the Bush Crime Family

Readings for the 2nd Sunday of Advent: BAR 5:1-9; PS 126: 1-6; PHIL 1:4-6, 8-11; LK 3:1-6

It all made me very sad. I’m referring to this week’s post-mortem celebration of George H.W. Bush. I was saddened not only because of a family’s loss, but because of what the event said about our country’s amnesia concerning Mr. Bush’s crimes.

Absent that forgetfulness, I saw the funeral as the transformation of a deplorable mass murderer into some kind of Christian saint. It demonstrated what’s wrong with our country and with its supporting Christian ideology.

I’m emboldened to make such irreverent observations because the readings for this Second Sunday of Advent. They reintroduce us to the great prophet, John the Baptist who got himself martyred because of his own irreverent criticism of the royal family of his day. And the Bushes, who occupied the very highest offices in our country for 20 years [8 as vice-president + 4 as president (Bush 41) + 8 as president (Bush 43)] come as close to royalty as our country will allow. So, consider these remarks as coming from John’s voice in the wilderness. They may get me in trouble too.

In any case, I watched H.W.’s celebratory funeral unfold, I couldn’t help thinking of the other side of the story that I and my students at Berea College had learned about the man back in 1990. That’s when participants in my Freshman Seminar section researched Bush’s Desert Shield and Desert Storm disasters as they developed. We produced a book on it all: Eye on the Storm: Berea College Students Examine the First Gulf War.

The book was finally published in 2002 as Mr. Bush’s disgraced son prepared for the even more disastrous Second Gulf War. Here’s how the book-jacket blurb described our work:

“This book shows how the Gulf War was motivated by greed for oil, how it violated elementary ethical principles, and even more elementary human rights. Additionally, this study indicates how such motivations and violations were papered over by a basically uncritical, cheerleading press.

But not all Americans joined in the cheers. There was significant opposition to the war throughout the United States. That opposition surfaced strongly at Berea College, in Berea, Kentucky. There, teach-ins and rallies were held regularly; many students traveled to Washington to join the national protest; General Studies courses focused on understanding the war. One student, whose essay appears in this volume, spent days encamped in front of Berea College’s administration building to make his dissenting voice heard.

That voice and the others appearing in this volume, deserve to be heard. So do dissenting voices today, at Berea and throughout the country. For the Bush war on our immediate horizon threatens not simply to repeat the history of twelve years ago, but to make its horror seem benign.”

Right now, all of that seems eerily prophetic – especially in the light of Bush 43’s indirect creation of ISIS, the absolute devastation of Iraq, and the more-than-one-million deaths caused by his war of aggression.

But before I get to what I and my students learned about W’s father, think of the contrasting story we heard and witnessed about the patriarch last week. 

“He was such a good and noble man,” all the mainstream commentators seemed to whisper in hushed and reverent chorale refrain. “A class act,” Ms. Clinton said. “I so admire his family – so dignified even in mourning,”others gushed. “He was so unlike the present occupant of the White House.” “There’ll never be another like him – such a statesman. “A wonderful father,” Mr. Bush’s son (the greatest war criminal of the 21st century) proclaimed from a pulpit of all places!

That’s what we heard. What we saw was even worse.

All the surviving war-criminal heads of American Empire had come together in Washington’s National Cathedral to normalize a mafia don and invoke God in doing so. There they were: Carter, Clinton, George W., Obama, and Donald Trump. As Chomsky has said, they’re all war lords and mass murderers, every one of them.  

But each had his church game-face on as if they themselves were followers rather than enemies of the non-violent Jesus who was ironically a victim of imperialists exactly like themselves. That’s right: Jesus was tortured and executed in an imperialized province – his own day’s equivalent of our oligarchs’ killing fields in Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America.

But there they all sat solemnly honoring one of their own – a rich patrician, a CIA spook, an inveterate racist, a bald-faced liar, and contemptible war criminal. So, we heard the prayers (I’m not sure addressed to whom); we witnessed the crime- boss’ canonization, and our hearts went out to the members of the Bush crime family.

And yes, we all listened in respectful silence. Instead, all of us should have been shouting “Shame! Shame!”

And that returns me to my students’ research. What we discovered was eye-opening. We found out that:

  • George H.W. Bush’s father, Prescott Bush, did business with the Nazis during World War II. In other words, President Bush came from a right-wing Nazi-sympathizer family. (Can you imagine the dinner-table-conversations young George overheard and participated in?)
  • Bush was a racist and misogynist. He pioneered dog-whistle campaign tactics to become POTUS through his infamous Willie Horton campaign ad. He opposed Anita Hill in her testimony against his SCOTUS appointee, Clarence Thomas. (We later learned that Mr. Bush was a serial groper as well.)
  • H.W. was the first ex-CIA Director (1976-’77) to become U.S. president – having served as Vice-President during Ronald Reagan’s genocidal war of terror in Central America which claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands in Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Honduras. In those official capacities, and contradicting the hypocritical “war on drugs,” Bush employed the drug cartel boss, Manuel Noriega, as a CIA asset. He looked the other way as Noriega dealt drugs that eventually ended up in the veins of U.S. citizens.
  • Then just before leaving office, Mr. Bush pardoned his Iran-Contra co-conspirators — the ones responsible for all those Central American deaths.   
  • After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Bush invaded Panama to arrest Noriega (1989) when the Panamanian leader got too independent for his own good. In the process Bush oversaw the killing of anywhere from 3000 to 10,000 impoverished and unarmed Panamanians in the country’s poorest neighborhood. He destroyed the Panamanian Army so that the U.S. would have reason to stay on after a recently-signed treaty turned over ownership of the Panama Canal to local authorities. 
  • According to a long-standing goal articulated in 1988 by Miles Ignotus, the real reason for Bush’s First Persian Gulf War (1990-’91) was to “Seize Arab Oil.”
  • To that end, Bush induced former CIA asset, Saddam Hussein to invade Kuwait by allowing his ambassador to Baghdad, April Glaspie, to mislead Saddam into believing that the Bush administration would not interfere with his invasion of Kuwait.
  • Bush also manipulated U.S. public opinion by using a 15-year-old “eye-witness” from Iraq to falsely allege that Iraqi soldiers tore infants from incubators and left them to die on hospital floors. Bush’s lies swung national opinion in favor of his war.  
  • In the first Gulf War, Bush oversaw the slaughter of retreating Iraqi soldiers, shooting untold (literally!) thousands of them in the back in what perpetrators described as a “turkey shoot.”
  • In a clear effort to dispel the “Vietnam Syndrome,” Mr. Bush elevated the concept of “fake news” to an entirely new level by strictly controlling reporters’ access to combat zones in Panama and Iraq.

That last point deserves special notice, because of my daughter Maggie’s contribution to my class’ study of the Persian Gulf War. At the time of our work, Maggie was in the 6th grade at our local Berea Community School (BCS). For her science project that year, we decided to study the war’s coverage by our local Lexington Herald-Leader.

Together, we collected and examined all editions of the paper from day-one to the war’s official end. We categorized its news accounts, editorials, and cartoons as pro-war, anti-war, or simply descriptive. We counted words and measured column inches.

As you might expect, Maggie found that Bush’s implementation of his “embedded journalist” strategy proved completely successful in his prescient creation of fake news and alternative facts. Words criticizing the war were few and far between. But Maggie’s project ended up achieving recognition beyond BCS. It got her into a regional competition for best science project. As a result, she was exposed to the concept of fake, state-controlled news long before Donald Trump. So were the judges who reviewed her work.

It was all so ironic, isn’t it — transforming a war criminal into a noble saint?  It’s a complete distortion of American history – not to mention of God, Jesus, and Christianity itself.

But what else can we expect in a nation whose entire people have been systematically taught to ignore what all our leaders have done without exception at least since World War II. None of them deserve our admiration.

Our “Christian” leaders are not much better. They’ve wedded themselves to blood-thirsty, deceptive regimes. They’ve sent the authentic story of Jesus of Nazareth down Orwell’s memory hole. In his place they would have us worship as our saviors the rich white patricians who rob us blind while terrorizing and exterminating poor red, yellow, brown and black people across the globe?

As John the Baptist might say, “Shame! Shame!”