Do you stand for the flag, or what the flag stands for?

When Facism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross.”

We need to be careful here.

The above quote, attributed to writer Sinclair Lewis, came to my mind when I saw this T-shirt for sale while recently on vacation.  The shirt brings together three images which, combined in this way, suggest that one’s love of country- the measure of whether or not one is a “true American” – can be measured by one’s reverence towards three things: the flag, the cross and men with guns.

To be fair, though it’s hard to see the image clearly through the reflection of the store window, it appears to be a soldier holding the gun, kneeling at the grave of a fallen comrade. Yet the subliminal message remains the same:  To be a true American, you have to reverence the flag, reverence the cross and unquestioningly support our military – and, I assume by extension, the right of any and all Americans to carry a gun.  And anyone who questions this iron clad definition of Patriotism (say, such as a blogger troubled by a T-shirt in a store window) immediately comes under suspicion.

There are a multitude of problems with this  overly simplistic definition of Patriotism.  Starting with the most obivious, it  suggests that any non-Christian Americans – Jews, Moslems, Buddhists, Atheists, really anyone who would not be inclinded to reverence a cross, are less than true Americans.  Anyone who raises legitimate questions about our military missions or the way in which the American military presence is used in the world today?  Let’s watch them, too.  How about pacifists, those who call for greater gun control in America, those who protest government policies that discriminate against the poor, those who protest the actions of law enforcement officials who receive their authority from local, state and federal government?  Watch out if you get seen at a Black Lives Matter protest, or if you kneel during the Star Spangled Banner, or if you find yourself at the border defending the basic human rights of those immigrants who are being held in detention camps. If you feel a certain ambivalence about America’s less than consistent committment to ensuring the rights and freedoms of all?  Best keep that to yourself. Your Patriotism may be questioned.

And while where at it – ladies in the #Me Too Movement – wouldn’t it be a greater Patriotic service to your husbands and boyfriends and brothers and fathers if you didn’t so fervently insist on accountabilty?  Boys will be boys, right?

You see where I’m going with this?  I mean no disrespect to the flag – I am grateful to be an American, or the cross – I am a Roman Catholic, or the brave women and men in the military who are actively protecting my ass as I sit here surrounded by peace and tranquility and write this blog.  I have no respect, however, for individuals who , recognizing the powerful emotions these three symbols evoke, use them to consolidate their own power or as wedges to cause divisions among us to advance their own self-centered ends or as an implicit proclamation of white male supremacy (because, when you rule out all of the folks in the “suspicious” groups mentioned above, who’s left?).

I recently read an article, reflecting on the origins of the Constitution, in which the writer said that the ties that bind Americans together have nothing to do with any particular culture or any particular way of expressing Patriotism.  The common bond we share is an Idea – a belief that all human beings are truly created equal and that all share equally the right to “life,liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”  As Americans, we need to always keep in our hearts and minds the imperative passed from one generation to the next to do whatever we can to see those rights enfranchised by more and more of our citizens and, to the extent we are able, to champion those rights around the world.

Let us be mindful of Lewis’ warning and not wave the flag and the cross around too cavalierly.  And let us be mindful of a common truth behind both.  Displaying them means nothing.  Recognizing the fundamental dignity of every human being to which both symbols point,  and livng that belief out in our daily lives, means everything.

(To find more of my writing, visit my Amazon author’s page: https://www.amazon.com/James-Philipps/e/B001K8CO6Y/ref=ntt_dp_epwbk_0)

 

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Life in the Blank Page

Around the time he declared his candidacy for President, Mayor Pete Buttigieg described this particular time in American history as the blank page between two chapters in a book. This image really appealed to me, because it captures that sense of unease and anxiety we all feel as we see certain traditional ways of doing and seeing things collapsing (in some cases, good riddance, but not in all) and the ways of doing and seeing that will replace them not at all clear. Yet unlike President Trump’s “American carnage” narrative, which reeks of cynicism, self-centeredness, faithlessness and rage, Mayor Pete’s image is infused by a subtle but palpable Faith. While we may not know where the author of the book is going to take us in the next chapter, we read on expectantly knowing that whatever happens it will advance the overall story. In the case of America, our core story is the attempt to ensure the rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for more and more of our citizens and, in whatever ways we are able, the citizens of the world.

I think that Mayor Pete’s image applies to more than just the United States of America, however. It’s not a bad way of understanding where we are as a Church in the very early years of the third millennium. The narrative of the first thousand years of Christian history was the story of the steady expansion of the Institutional church until it became the most powerful secular force in the world. The narrative of the second thousand years of Christian history was the story of the Body of Christ struggling mightily to divest itself of this secular scaffolding so that we might become free to be a spiritual light and guide for the world in the way that Jesus intended.

And, one thousand years from now, what will be the narrative of the third millennium of Church history? That there will be a narrative, and that it will have meaning, I have no doubt. Jesus promised us that the gates of Hell would never prevail against us. (Though he never promised we wouldn’t have much heartbreak along the way.) At the moment, it’s not possible to answer that question. That’s what living in the blank page is all about.

If you’re looking for hopeful signs, however, here’s a couple:
1)At the conclusion of the Vatican II Council, expressing his delight and hope concerning all that had been accomplished, Cardinal Suenens commented that he felt, within a hundred years, the Church would be very young. Perhaps that’s one way of understanding the rot and collapse all around us as the Institutional church is faced with a stark choice that can no longer be avoided: Radical reform or Irrelevancy. You have to take out the dead trees before the new ones have the light and nutrients they need to grow.
2) There was an article in the New York Times recently about the “nuns” and the “nones”. Briefly stated, there is a movement afoot in which sisters who are members of religious orders that are dying out are forming relationships with members of the Millennials (a generation whose members increasingly are identifying themselves in surveys that ask for religious affiliation as “none of the above”) who are seeking to express their deeply felt spiritual experiences in ways that are more communal and which incorporate in some way sacramental ritual. I have no idea how far this lovely partnership will go, but I catch a whiff of the future in it.

From the point of view of this Baby Boomer, who came of age and who came alive in the Church in the years immediately following the Council, I feel like I imagine St. Paul must have felt as he began to realize that the belief in a crucified Messiah was never going to find a home in the mainstream of his Jewish faith. It’s hard not to give in to a sense of disappointment over the refusal of the Institutional church -and more discouragingly, so many of the laity-to hear the call of the Spirit.

What I will not do, with the help and grace of the Holy Spirit, is give in to the dark and desperate narrative of “Ecclesial carnage”- the fear based proclamation which states that the Church is dying because (according to Conservatives) the modern world has no place in the Church or (according to Progressives) the Church has no place in the modern world. I will pray for the grace to live fully in the blank page, to trust that the Author of the Book is advancing the story, and to do all that I can to witness to the presence of the risen Christ amidst the ambiguity of our times to help prepare the way for the glorious and wondrous day when our children and our grandchildren and our great grandchildren enter into the promised land of the Next Chapter.

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Graduation Day

Dear JL and SC,

When Theodor Geisel’s (a.k.a. “Dr. Suess”) daughter graduated from college he wrote a book entitled, “Oh, the Places You’ll Go!” offering her some life advice and encouragement as she went off into the world.  Inspired by his effort (though without the pithy rhymes), I thought I might give it a try.

First, even though you  know this, I just have to say one more time how proud mom and I are of both of you.  Your grades and your achievements outside of the classroom are many and varied, but most of all you should be proud of the people you have become.    You are  both compassionate and wise, always open to new experiences and adventures. (I am so happy this is true, even if that openness is a bit terrifying for mom and me at times.)  You each want to become the person you were meant to be and will refuse to fit into any mold that others might want you to fill (even if that “others” is us!).

There is a poem I have in my classroom which I place right by the door so my students can see it when they come in and go out.  The poet e.e. cummings wrote it: “To be nobody/but/yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else, means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.” You are both holding your own quite well so far in that struggle.

Though, as you know, I have a pathological compulsion to give advice, I will try and control myself.   Except for one little piece – Always be open to Love.   It takes many forms, sometimes comes disguised, pops up in the most unexpected places, is the life force that courses through ever fiber of our beings.   Everyone is capable of giving and receiving it, everyone is loved beyond his/her ability to imagine, most people just need half a chance to show it.   When you come across someone who seems cruel, or cold, or heartless, or mean, know that this person too is capable of love.  Your kindness and patience just might have the power to unclog the conduits through which love flows that pain and heartbreak and disappointment have blocked.

Which is not to say, of course, that you should take anyone’s shit.  There is a way to be true to yourself yet still -as mom often says – hold space for that person who is difficult.

Finally (really!) know that the world is a bit like Sunny.   Full of mischief, sometimes a pain in the ass, but really, really good at heart.  Don’t be afraid of the growl.

And REALLY finally – know that I speak for  mom and myself when I say it has been our honor, our privilege and our joy to watch you both grow up and to journey with you through your lives thus far. We love you and will always be here for you wherever and whenever you need us.

Time to jump in the pool.  Don’t be afraid.  The water’s really nice once you get in it and you both are really good swimmers.

Love,

Dad

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“Which way are you going?”

The title of this blog is a line from a Jim Croce song written during the Vietnam War. The song was a challenge to Americans to think deeply about our involvement in the war and all that it implied. Did we really believe that American democracy was a force for peace in the world, that if we lived up to our ideals the rest of the world would follow our example and the threat of tyranny would fall by the wayside? Or did we in our hearts believe that our best interests and self-preservation could only be served at the point of a gun?

In the wake of the awful developments in Charlottesville and the mind-numbing and morally reprehensible response of President Trump to the devastation, we are faced once again quite clearly and unambiguously with a different but equally stark moral question. Now that it is so devastatingly clear whose interests the President has at heart (spoiler alert – it is not the common good) what will we do?

The night that Donald Trump was elected President, I couldn’t sleep. The next night was even worse. I relived a childhood trauma at the very thought that the country would be in the hands of this crazy man for the next four years. What I most feared was that his slogan of “Make America Great Again” contained the implicit additional prepositional phrase -“by restoring white men to their rightful place.” By the light of day on the Thursday after the election, however,I thought that perhaps my own fears had gotten the best of me. So I wrote a letter which I sent to everyone in my email address book, calling upon all of my friends, but especially my Republican friends, to help me understand why Donald Trump won. Much of what they wrote back made sense to me. Even if I didn’t necessarily agree, I could understand how a person of good will might see things that way. Perhaps what was most reassuring was that not one person threatened to stick a knife into my bleeding liberal heart!

What troubled me a bit, however, was that none of my friends addressed the possibility that a subtle (many, I know, would say not so subtle) racism and sexism was operating just below the surface in this election. Still, I am an American before I am a member of the Democratic party (heck, my loyalty to the New York Mets is stronger than it is to the Democratic party) and so I hoped the subtext I was hearing might be lodged in my own guilty conscience. And I also hoped – and prayed – that I was wrong about the President, that his much touted business acumen (much touted certainly by himself, but not only by himself) would help us get a handle on the ever burgeoning national debt and, perhaps, find a bipartisan home in the rebuilding of our country’s infrastructure.

And then came Charlottesville. Can any reasonable person doubt now that Donald Trump has emboldened the hate-fueled racists in America? (An important point of clarification here – while anyone of any race and ethnic group can be prejudiced- because prejudice is a function of ignorance – in America, only white people can be racist. Racism includes not just prejudice, but the ability to impose one’s prejudices on others.) Is there anyone who is not sickened at the realization that not only is white supremacy ideology alive and well, but that it is actually attracting a new generation of white young men? Given the President’s unbelievable comment that there were “good people” among the Nazis and other white supremacy groups which made up this sad parade of humanity in Charlottesville, can anyone now doubt that somewhere in his blackening heart the President has at least some sympathy for hate speech? Doesn’t it seem now that “Make America Great Again By Restoring White Men To Their Rightful Place” was EXACTLY what Donald Trump meant?

There is another line in Jim Croce’s song that’s worth reflecting upon. In reference to America’s supposedly overwhelming Christian faith, Croce writes: “You say you love the baby, but you crucify the man.”

Please don’t crucify the man. Recognize hate speech and actions for what they are. Don’t confuse the spontaneous actions of a very few of those repulsed by white supremacy who unfortunately allowed their anger get the best of them with the actions of those who are committed to an ideology of hate -and to spreading it by whatever means they can.

To all Americans, but especially for those who voted for Donald Trump truly believing this was the best decision for the country.

Now that you have seen….

Which way are you going?

Jim Philipps (3rd millennial pilgrim)

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Who’s your Daddy?

I just read in the news the other day that a majority of Catholics voted for Donald Trump in November. As the shudders run up and down my spine, in the interest of Christian charity I am trying to put the best spin on this disturbing fact (for me, at least) that I can. Perhaps my Catholic sisters and brothers who voted for Donald Trump did so because they believed that was what the Pro-Life teaching of the Church demanded. (My own bishop wrote a jaw-dropping letter that was read at all of the Masses the Sunday before the election that basically said this.) Perhaps they honestly felt that Trump’s business background would enable him to address the very real and very painful economic dislocation that has resulted in so many losing their jobs as multinational corporations salivate after every last dollar and close up shop in America in pursuit of the cheapest labor force they can find. Maybe they could not see that the race-baiting which was woven into Trump’s campaign titilated that lingering racism which exists just below the conscious level for most white Americans.

Whatever the reasons, with the publication of Trump’s proposed budget for the next fiscal year and the passage of the new health plan through the House of Representatives, you are now faced with a challenge. Are you followers of Jesus first, or of Donald Trump? If you honestly did think that Donald Trump was the candidate whose policies were more consistent with Christian values, especially Christian social justice principles, then what are you going to do now that we have seen clear evidence that President Trump is supportive of removing the health care from 24 million Americans and, it would seem, using the money that will be saved to finance tax cuts, the majority of which will benefit the very rich?

What will you do now that it is clear the Trump administration has declared war on our efforts to acknowledge and combat climate change, despite the very clear teaching of Pope Francis that such behavior not only violates the Catholic principle of Stewardship (Care for the Environment) but also the principle of the Preferential option for the poor (because as temperatures and sea levels rise, as the detritus of our throwaway society continues to accumulate, it is the poor who will suffer first.)?

To quote Pope Francis, are you more comfortable with those who build walls or those, like Jesus, who seek to build bridges?

3rdMP

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“There was no one left to protest”

This is an update and paraphrase of a well known lament dating back to the time of the Nazis:

When they came for the undocumented workers, I did not protest

Because I was not an undocumented worker.

When they came for the Syrian refugees, I did not protest

Because I was not a Syrian refugee.

When they came for the members of the LBGQT community, I did not protest

Because I was not a member of the LBGQT community.

When they came for the Muslims, I did not protest

Because I was not a Muslim.

When they came for the African Americans and the Latinos, I did not protest

Because I was neither African American nor Latino.

Lastly, they came for me.

And there was no one left to protest.

 

 

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“White Men Without Feathers”

 

Recently I went to the Museum of Natural History to view the exhibit on the evolutionary links between birds and dinosaurs.  I enjoyed the exhibit very much.  The fossil bones are so exquisitely preserved that in some cases you can see faint traces of the feathers that were once associated with the living creature. Yet while my visit certainly fed my long-held interest in fossils in general and dinosaurs in particular, it also provided me with a disturbing fact.

It is very possible, if not likely, that Tyrannosaurs Rex had feathers.

Yes, you heard that correctly. T.Rex, perhaps the most famous dinosaur and certainly the most notorious predator in earth’s history was a Theropod, the group out of which birds evolved. Recent fossil discoveries have revealed that a number of these dinosaurs had feathers, and while no fossils of T.Rex (which are extremely rare ) have shown such traces, some paleontologists think that is the way to bet.

Let that sink in for a minute and you will understand the cause of my angst.  Remember that scene in the first Jurassic Park movie, when the fearsome Tyranosaurus is about to close in on the jeep? That moment when the scene shifts to the view from the driver’s side mirror upon which are written the words: “Caution objects in the mirror may appear closer than they really are”?

Now imagine  that dinosaur dressed  up like a Thanksgiving Day turkey.    It is hard for me to accept that this ancient animal which, from my first visit to the museum in grade school, sparked my sense of wonder about the natural world as well as haunted a nightmare or two had feathers and not scales. Ugh!

Of course, no one is saying that T.Rex could fly.  If in fact the dinosaur was covered in feathers (which would have resembled something closer to porcupine quills than the feathers of modern birds) they must have served some other purpose.  Perhaps they helped in the dissipation of body heat, or the preservation of warmth. Modern birds use the color of their feathers to attratk mates; perhaps dinosaurs did also.   No matter how I spin this, however, it will be hard for me to ever look at the Tyrannosaurus Rex in the same way again.    “The truth will set you free”, Garfield the cat once famously said, “but first, it will make you miserable.”

As I reflected upon all of this on my way home on the train towards my white suburban neighborhood,  I wondered if there might be a greater insight here.  It is of little importance whether I, a materially comfortable white man, can accept that T.Rex had feathers.  It is of enormous importance, however, that I can accept I don’t.

The ”feathers” that I am speaking of here are, of course, metaphorical ones.  They symbolize the aura  that has enveloped me and millions like me since birth, a covering so fine and so subtle that we (almost) didn’t notice it at all.  And so we came to accept our “feathers” as the way nature –and God (take a good look at the images of God in your house of worship next time you visit)- intended things to be.

Peggy McIntosh provides a name for these feathers: White Privilege.    In her essay “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack”, she defines it as “an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious. White privilege is like an invisible, weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools, and blank checks.”

Ms. McIntosh goes on to specifically describe 50 different experiences of White Privilege – think of each as an individual feather in the overall covering.  Here are a couple:  “ I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed” and “ If a traffic cop pulls me over or if the IRS audits my tax return, I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my race”.   Speaking as a white male baby boomer who was born, has lived and will (I most sincerely hope) die among the economically advantaged I would add this to Ms. McIntosh’s definition: White Privilege includes an almost complete obliviousness to the fact that I have been born into a generation that has known more per capita prosperity than perhaps any other in the history of the world.  Yes, I have worked hard and I take pride in the success I have achieved.  But how much of that success have I really achieved?  And how much has come to me because the playing field is tilted in my direction?

The reasons for the rise of Donald Trump as a political force in American politics are complex.  Yet we would be naïve – or worse – to think that White Privilege isn’t among them.  In his subtle and not so subtle disparagement of immigrants, women, and others, buried deep within his promise to”Make America Great Again” (at least as he seems to define this phrase) is an implicit message:  White men do indeed have feathers. And we are entitled to them.

Why is it so hard for me to picture T.Rex with feathers?   Because when I do so, I feel I have diminished the creature, reducing it from something fearsome to something almost pedestrian.  Yet when I look at this situation objectively, I come to see this is not true at all.  T.Rex was what it was, feathers or not.  And either way,it was a magnificent creature. My imaginings and illusions don’t change that.  Accepting truth never diminishes us but can only enhance us.

Can I imagine myself without feathers?  Can others like me who have benefited from the “feathers” of White Privilege find the courage and the compassion needed to see in the movements towards fuller participation in American society sought by disenfranchised groups not an angry mob come to pull off our feathers but an invitation from the source of all Justice  to recognize we were never meant to have them in the first place?

Spending time learning about extinct creatures can be time well spent.  But embracing extinct ideas is downright dangerous.  In this case, it is only when one loses his feathers that he is able to fly.

 

Peggy McIntosh is associate director of the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women. This essay is excerpted from Working Paper 189. “White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming To See Correspondences through Work in Women’s Studies” (1988), by Peggy McIntosh

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