The Prodigal Candidate

This past weekend Donald Trump addressed the African-American community first in Philadelphia then in Detroit. Listening to him speak was like watching someone conjure up one of Jesus’s most beloved parables, that of the prodigal son. It is a story of challenge and inspiration that yields deeper insight with each plumbing. Yet for all its popularity it remains one of the least understood or properly appreciated of Jesus’s parables. To begin with, as many scripture scholars have suggested, it is misnamed. It should more accurately be called “The Parable of the Forgiving Father.”

The misnomer of the common title has allowed generations of people to miss both the point and the challenge. The younger son is not the focus of the story. The father is. The younger son serves as a catalyst, his actions giving movement to the story. But Jesus does not present him as a model. In truth, when reading the parable we are probably all able to find ourselves at least partially reflected in both of the sons. In their own ways they are each self-centered. Greed and immaturity cause the younger son to demand an inheritance he is not yet entitled to; self-righteousness and jealousy flare in the older son who whines about never having been given his own party.

But the father. He is the one Jesus suggests we emulate. He is the character who is defined by love—a love that is displayed in forgiving his younger son and expressing tender compassion for his older son. So what? You may ask. The idea of forgiveness still comes through irrespective the name we give to the parable.

I suggest that the problem with the common title actually enhances the mistakes we make in our own lives, and should serve as warning when we examine the actions of others. As I noted, we probably all see ourselves occasionally reflected in the younger son. Who among us does not pursue self-centered goals and desires? Who among us, given the opportunity, would not use seed money from our parents to feed our debauchery? Those are mere human, adolescent foibles acted out in various scenarios simply indicating that we are not perfect. And when we come to our senses we ask pardon and promise to right ourselves.

If that were all, I might agree. But since most humans are not sociopaths or pathologically ill in multiple arenas of our psyches, we know when we have done wrong and we seek amends—or at least forgiveness. For many people that is what the prodigal son did.

No. He did not.

There is not one word in Luke’s telling of the parable that suggests the son expressed any sorrow or remorse for his actions. He returned to his father’s house the same self-centered little brat he was when he left. He returned because he wanted something. And it was not forgiveness. He had bankrupted himself through carousing and revelry. With no food and no money—and no one to give him anything—he returned to his father after carefully concocting a speech containing not a single suggestion of contrition. He was hungry. He was not sorry.

Oh, it’s true that the father did forgive him. But once we understand who the son really was—what he was really like—perhaps we will not so naïvely want to see ourselves in him. More importantly, we will be able to recognize when someone else is merely playing the game of the younger son. Enter the prodigal candidate.

Donald Trump went to Philadelphia and Detroit after having first traversed the continent denigrating, degrading, and demeaning the African-American community as a whole. Like the son in the parable there was no hint of contrition for anything that he said or did, no sorrow for fanning the flames of racial hatred and prejudice. Well, that should come as no surprise.

Last week Donald Trump went to Mexico after having launched his candidacy and spending the last year and a half belittling, berating and besmirching Mexican-Americans all around the country. He stood on a platform with the Mexican president and spoke not a word of contrition. He flat out lied.

Having spent months in a vituperate intemperance Donald Trump now comes before the Mexican-American and African-American communities playing the perfect prodigal son. Should we forgive him? Absolutely. After all, the father is our model in Jesus’s parable. At the same time, there is nothing in the story to suggest that the father was stupid. It is doubtful that he ever entrusted his son with another dime. So we should forgive Donald Trump—even if he is not remorseful—but we should not give him a vote and should never allow him to become president.

Nelson Mandela

Nelson Mandela is dead. Indeed he was an icon. An icon for everything that the modern world holds dear and yearns for—freedom, equality, justice, reconciliation and peace. He towered above other men. But as the testimonies and accolades pour into South Africa from around the world it is easy to miss the deeper realities.

Neither a god nor a saint, he was just a man. He was imperfect—as we all are. He was sometimes authoritarian—as some of us are. He was forgiving—as few of us are.

Twenty-seven years a political prisoner, he was cut off from the world, most of those years unable even to touch family. Only through coded messages could he communicate with others and learn of the continuing struggles for freedom in South Africa. But he persevered and emerged from prison not only a free man, but staunchly principled and resolute.

Like many prisoners, he was forced into hard labor—the useless task of breaking boulders with a hammer. Contrary to the desires of his captors, it did not break his spirit. He drew nourishment not from food, but from the truth. He grew strong through the power of justice and the inevitability of freedom.

In his solitude he managed to escape the lure of bitterness, discovering, instead, that the enemy was as weak and human as he was. He learned to love his oppressors. From that love he learned to forgive. From that forgiveness he was able to forge a path toward reconciliation, equality and justice. He rose to become the father of a new nation in an ancient land.

While it was encouraging to watch him walk through the gates of Victor Verster Prison and greet the welcoming crowds of Cape Town, it was stunning to hear him speak not of retribution, but of peace, never wavering in his quest. Giving no inch to either hatred or prejudice, he called on everyone to embrace the needs of the other, especially the disenfranchised. He was a man for all people, a man for all seasons.

Despite his greatness it is slightly less than cynical to suggest that we will not see his like again. That is a sentiment we have heard before, because he have seen men like him before. Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., to name just two. To suggest that no others await the world stage is to guarantee that what they stood for will never be fully realized. The truth is that left to our own devices, without the inspiration of men like these, we choose to close our eyes to the needs of others. We choose to create and recreate worlds that are defined as us v. them. We choose to imprison ourselves in a world of our own concerns and desires. We almost always choose violence over peace.

Today we must do more than pray for Madiba’s passage. We must do more than give thanks for his life. We must commit ourselves to his work. Look at India post Gandhi. Look at the United States post King. Nelson Mandela’s life and accomplishments must not dissolve into discord, inequality and injustice. We must continue the cry of the poor, the cry of people the who are oppressed and denied their rights and freedoms: Amandla! (Power!).

Thank you, Madiba for an inspiration. May we do more than treasure your memory. "Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika" ("God Bless Africa")

Death Penalty--Who Cares?

What is it that actually interests and moves people in our society? At 9:21 AM yesterday, September 24th, a once proud newspaper, the Los Angeles Times, sent out a breaking alert that Lindsay Lohan was being sent back to jail. Nine hours later, at 6:17 PM, the same paper sent out a second alert that another judge overturned the jail sentence setting a $300,000 bail. Please forgive me, but who really gives a damn? What is it that makes American society so shallow that we obsess over the adolescent, one might even say infantile, behavior of celebrities? Maybe it is commonplace in other countries, as well. Certainly British society long ago surrendered itself to sensational tabloids, nearly forsaking anything close to journalism.

But back to the Los Angeles Times. Between the two inane Lohan stories, the paper also issued another alert that a federal judge denied a stay of execution for Albert Greenwood Brown, thereby enabling the state of California to execute a convicted criminal for the first time in almost five years. Of course, once one clicked on the newspaper's website, there were numerous lead stories about Lohan. It took a bit of searching to find the stories about the upcoming execution of Albert Greenwood Brown, and the paper did little justice to his impending death.

I suppose in the same way that I suggest no one should care about the penal fate of Lindsay Lohan, others might say that we should not care about the penal fate of Mr. Brown. He is, after all, a convicted criminal. However, both of the these stories approach an American problem from opposite ends of the same spectrum. In truth, there are very few serious issues that Americans are actually willing to commit their intellects to. I presume, of course, that I am not being overly generous in the use of the word intellect. Even when it comes to government, the general population is more interested in themselves, in their own pocketbooks and in the sex lives of politicians than in any principles they may stand for. And since, on virtually every issue we are inundated with sound bites instead of in-depth analysis, the seriousness of crime and punishment and the moral questions surrounding capital punishment are left to those who win the sound bite wars. Is it any wonder then that the moral character of America is in a deadly decline?

There may be no more appropriate issue to begin the process of moral ascent than capital punishment, for it touches the deepest elements of pain, sorrow and revenge. It also reaches into the deepest recesses of the human heart and helps us to define what it means to be both human and God-like. In my last blog about Iran and its practice of stoning, I suggested that an accurate interpretation of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights should outlaw capital punishment in every nation. But the UN does not have that kind of power, and the arrogance of the U.S. implies that we are above anyone else's judgments or principles, in spite of the fact that we also signed onto the UN declaration.

Both the U.S. Declaration of Independence and the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, state that all people possess a right to life. The U.S. Declaration of Independence even claims that the right to life is bestowed by God. And yet, when it comes to capital punishment, we seem to have little problem setting aside, indeed stripping from others, a God-given right and over which God alone should have control. It has been noted before that capital punishment also causes us to slide into the grossest and most debased of double standards: We claim life is so valuable and precious, that if you take a life, we will take yours in return. That does not even make for good common sense.

Still, it is not the double standard of capital punishment that sinks the aspirations and diminishes the moral integrity of a great people. It is the seeming inability and, worse, the complete lack of desire to rise above our animal instincts of revenge and reach for the highest levels of human idealism and existence; to actually attempt to achieve a common good. Such idealism is initially rooted in the fundamental reality of being human. For this reason, humanists, atheists and agnostics are among the strongest supporters of moral values. For believers, this same idealism is rooted in our call to become more God-like, which makes it more than just a little embarrassing that believers lag so far behind in this pursuit. Perhaps part of the problem is that there are so many different and competing understandings of God in our society. Let me then, as a Catholic priest, speak to the Christian God.

The four Gospels that begin the New Testament are remarkable not just for the various ways they present the person of Jesus, but also for the equally various ways that Jesus gives us insight into God and what it means to be human. There exist many similarities among the Gospels, particularly the three that scholars refer to as "synoptic" precisely because of their similarities: Matthew, Mark and Luke. Yet all four Gospels retain their own unique character.

Mark's Gospel is the earliest, and is filled with short, quick sentences, that are designed to get people moving and ready for Jesus' return. Many of those sentences involve Jesus scandalizing people by forgiving sins and eating with sinners and outcasts (the kind of people we dismiss to death row and forget about until we can kill them). Jesus responds that he has the power to forgive sins. As to his dining with the outcasts, he points out the obvious: "Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do. I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners". Even more to the point, Jesus states explicitly that even the commands of God must be understood in the context of human life and well-being. One of the Ten Commandments is keeping holy the Lord's day, which, in Jesus' time at least, included avoiding any kind of work, even the preparation of food. But when the disciples are caught doing just that, Jesus responds: "The sabbath was make for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath."

Matthew is more direct and challenging in his Gospel. For he has Jesus telling us: "Do not judge, and you will not be judged; because the judgments you give are the judgments you will get, and the standard you use will be the standard used for you." Even more stunning are these words: "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes his rain to fall on the just and the unjust....So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect."

John's Gospel is arguably the most inspiring for the way that Jesus identifies himself with God, and then goes on to identify us with him, thereby making us one with God. At the last supper he says: "I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit, because without me you can do nothing". He goes on to pray for his disciples in these words: "I consecrate myself for them, so that they also may be consecrated in truth. I pray not only for them, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they also may be in us, that the world may believe that you sent me. And I have given them the glory you gave me, so that they may be one, as we are one".

Luke presents us with a truly compassionate Gospel. It is here that we find the most popular and beloved of Jesus' parables, that of "The Prodigal Son". Since the central figure in the story is the father, a more appropriate title might be "The Forgiving Father". Be that as it may, the central action in the story is forgiveness. Note that when the younger son, who had turned his back on his father returns, he does so without any contrition in his heart and never asks forgiveness. He returns only because he is hungry. Nonetheless, the father rushes out to meet him, embraces and kisses him, and restores him to his place in the family. The older son, as self-centered as the younger, and clearly more self-righteous, refuses to join the celebration. So the father addresses this recalcitrant older son in these words: " we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found."

This may all sound theoretical and others interpret differently than I and choose to disagree. That is the foundation of dialogue and the building of consensus. So let me conclude with these two brief links that are anything but theoretical. The first is from a woman whose husband was killed in Minnesota. The second is from the parents of a daughter who was killed in California.

I remain deeply saddened that so-called Christians seem unable or unwilling to embrace the truth and challenge of the Gospel. But my passion pales in comparison to the personal and compelling statements of these two families. One thing remains clear. It is time for us to abandon the death penalty once and for all. For reasons of humanity and for reasons of faith.

9/11--A Day of Remembrance and Forgiveness

The 20th Century has often been cited as the most violent in human history. The two world wars, coupled with seemingly unending civil conflicts; military coups and repressive dictatorships; genocide in all regions of the globe; the rising specter of street violence and escalating terrorist activities; all these succeeded in nearly numbing the world to the horrors of violence. It is almost surprising, then, that the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 should have so stunned the sensitivities of the world, that for a brief moment there arose a renewed sense of humanity and common purpose.

More than stunned, the world found itself in a state of shock. Partly because nearly 3,000 people lost their lives in a matter of minutes, partly because more than 70 countries lost citizens in the attacks, and partly because this all happened on U.S. soil--a land often thought to be immune from such foreign violence. For almost everyone, the attacks shattered the routine of a tranquil September morning. As we look back on the past nine years, we find so much to commemorate on this anniversary, the most treasured being the lost lives--not only of innocent workers and travelers, but also of the heroic emergency personnel who risked everything to bring others to safety.

Few, if any, experiences in life are as emotionally draining as the death of a loved one. When that death is caused by unprovoked violence or terrorism, the bonds of love only grow stronger. In the process, the human heart is stirred to canonize the memory, and the will is driven to avenge the lives of those so unjustly reduced to an untimely death. In reality, however, that stirring of the heart and driving of the will are polar opposites that cannot coexist in any kind of peace or harmony. The bonds of love that are sealed in the heart end up shattered by the pursuit of vengeance. The memories of loved ones lost are betrayed in a relentless desire for retaliation. Such is this tragic polarity that the same pain that tears us apart ends up being inflicted on other people, who also lose innocent loved ones, thus creating a spiraling cycle of violence from which we can rarely extract ourselves.

Memorial celebrations, museums and monuments are a necessary part of collective therapy. War is not. Retelling stories of life, and remembering heroic acts inspire admiration. War does not. Embracing and supporting one another strengthens the spirit and initiates healing. War cannot. War is simply the most powerful, organized and hypnotic example of a violence unleashed in response to a violence perpetrated.

Let me be clear. People who execute the kind of violence we witness in acts of terrorism must be held accountable and brought to answer for their actions. But our responses are often out of proportion and far beyond reason. It is no accident that the decision to go to war in Afghanistan was made with haste in the midst of the confusion that followed 9/11. And given that the entire country was in the grip of fear, it is no wonder that few sane and thoughtful voices were to be found opposing the war. Even religious leaders from a variety of traditions capitulated to the seduction of violence. It is also a little ironic that our political leaders would ignore a guiding principle of counseling, namely, not to make any major decisions while in the throws of emotion. Such is the power and effect of this kind of violence. It is called terrorism for a reason: It strikes fear and terror deep into the psyche of even the most thoughtful and peaceful people.

So if war is not the best response, what is? I recently had a conversation with a friend of mine in which we were discussing forgiveness. During our exchange he told me that he could never forgive the terrorists who organized and carried out the 9/11 attacks. I believe that to be a common, perhaps near universal feeling. It also is quite understandable. It is far easier to give into the desire for retaliation, as happened nine years ago. Learning to forgive takes repeated effort in a myriad of situations. In any given circumstance it also takes time.

Immediately following 9/11 I did not feel like forgiving any more than others did. But consider what resulted from an unwillingness even to try to forgive. The United States has spent nearly a decade waging war in Afghanistan. In the process, the goals advanced to justify the war have not been met. We have failed to capture Osama Bin Laden, and countless innocents have lost their lives in this conflict. We have even managed to use video games (drones) far from the battle field to kill innocent Afghanis while protecting American soldiers.

Add to this the corrupting influence of vengeance and its unquenchable thirst for violence. This corruption distorted our thinking to the point that we launched a second, illegal and immoral war--one not even connected to the terrorist attacks. That war cost many more billions of dollars, more than 4,000 American lives, hundreds of allied casualties and another countless number of innocent Iraqi deaths. On balance alone, these two wars cost more than the 9/11 attacks both in terms of money and lives. The second war also squandered the goodwill of a world community that was willing to seek the common good. Instead it reduced the United States to the same level as the terrorists themselves.

This was the fear that gripped me immediately after 9/11. The attacks took place on a Tuesday morning. In my preaching the following Sunday, I took direct aim at the words and actions of our political leaders. In my homily I challenged the United States as a nation, and my congregation as believers, to step back from the violence and seek a truer, more peaceable path.

As a Christian I look to Jesus for inspiration and strength of purpose. But I also hope this blog will reach people who are not Christian. So, while Jesus places before us the awesome challenge to love our enemies and pray for those who do us harm, I would like to suggest that for the non-Christian or the non-believer, forgiveness is not just some spiritual exercise. To rise above the destructive forces that tend to overwhelm us; to seek a good in people that they themselves have cloaked in darkness; to forgive the most grievous offenses committed against us; these enable us to tap into what poets call our better nature. That is where we discover the truth of who we are. That is where we learn to call out the best in ourselves and in others. That is where we develop the skills to work together to build a world of justice, of equality, of peace.

Today we remember, we weep and we celebrate those many loved ones who died on 9/11. Perhaps the greatest way to recall the joy they brought into our lives is to forgive those who took those lives away. War and violence will neither give us an internal calm nor bring the world a lasting peace. But if the love that causes us to remember also enables us to forgive, it can overcome violence and establish that elusive, lasting peace that we all claim to desire.