Radical Love in the Face of Evil

Perhaps no recent event has highlighted the contemporary rise of a radical “us vs. them” mentality quite like the 2016 US presidential election. This polarizing animosity extended beyond the basic “right vs. left” dichotomy, pitting group against group against group. Citizens vs. immigrants. Whites vs. blacks. Christians vs. secular culture. Women vs. men. Straights vs. the LGBT community. Everyone was required to choose a side, to the absolute and sometimes vengeful exclusion of the other. Those who refused to pick became enemies to all.

The thing about such an “us vs. them” mentality is that it provides ready-made and impersonal scapegoats for many of the world’s ills. A terrorist bombs a train station, we can blame radical Islam. A black man loses his life to a hate crime, we can blame white supremacists. We can try (and fail) to take action against nebulous collectives, in order to avoid facing the terrible truth that it is people, not groups, who do evil things.

But sometimes something happens that defies categorization. Sometimes one man, acting alone and without apparent motive, does something so unspeakably horrible that we are forced to examine evil stripped of every false allegiance, standing naked before our very eyes.

The man who opened fire on the Strip in Las Vegas on the night of October 1 was a white man shooting at a crowd filled with many white people. We cannot blame racism. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack, but the FBI says there is no evidence of that, so we cannot blame Islam. The shooter did not, like the gunman in Orlando last summer, attack the LGBT community, so we cannot blame homophobia or transphobia. He was just a human being, killing other human beings. There was no reason, no allegiance to any collective, and that is frightening. It forces us to acknowledge that sometimes people do evil things, not motivated by any group or ideology. And if we allow ourselves to grapple with that reality, we eventually must acknowledge that evil is always carried out by people, not by groups, and that if we are to combat evil, we must face it in people. In others, and in ourselves.

Without the facade of the collective, however, hatred ceases to be an option, for without the group as a scapegoat, the only thing left to hate is the people themselves. Thus, this radical understanding of evil as a result of free, human action calls for a more radical kind of love. If we do not want to hate people, and if we do not want to be indifferent, all that is left to us is love. We must love each and every person, regardless of the evil they have done or might do.

Whatever we perceive or know to be wrong or hurtful in the other we must acknowledge, then meet with love. Citizens must love immigrants, even illegal ones. Christians must love non-Christians, even the anti-Christian ones. Women must love men, even the sexist ones. People must love people, even the violent, hateful ones. For we are all God’s children, and that is the only group to which every single one of us belongs. It is that group alone which gives us our dignity, that group alone by which we ought to identify ourselves. For when we love each other in that way, in God, “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (Galatians 3:28)

. . .

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 rain to fall on the just and the unjust. (Matthew 5:44-45)

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Why I don’t need anybody at my wedding (but I want them there anyway)

I’m getting married in five months.

In one way, I’m used to that idea, but every so often it hits me anew, and I sit and gape in the face of the enormous, wonderful thing that is about to happen to me. Usually it fills me with a unique and abundant joy that makes me smile irrepressibly; sometimes it downright terrifies me. Since I will never stop being a philosopher, however, it almost always provokes me to at least a fleeting meditation on marriage and what it means: in general, and for me personally.

Today my meditation came in the shower, where so many great meditations come and go unwritten. This one, however, I felt compelled to write down because it struck me as one I would like to remember and share with those who will witness my fiancé and me as we celebrate the sacrament.

We do not need guests at our wedding.

I remember how I felt when I first learned that the couple, not the priest, were the ministers of the sacrament of matrimony. Initial confusion gave way to a great feeling of satisfaction; it made perfect sense. For a young woman trying to figure out the role of sexuality in life, it answered a question I didn’t know I had been asking about what consummation really meant, and why it mattered so much. If marriage was something performed and imposed upon a couple by an outside entity, then sex was just something you couldn’t do until someone told you and everyone else that it was okay now. But when I learned that the man and the woman themselves are the ministers of the sacrament, I began to understand that sex was not just an activity performed within the confines of marriage, but it was, truly, “the marital act”; that a permanent bond is not just placed around two people from without, but is constantly lived and renewed from within by a repeated and incarnate act.

At our marriage preparation retreat, my fiancé and I were deeply stirred by the words of the priest who said Mass at the end of the day on Sunday. Speaking as he was to a church full of engaged couples, he spoke of the marriage of Christ and the church: how, just as Christ’s love for his bride was consummated by a total, physical giving of Himself, so to is the love between a man and a woman consummated. In the Mass, God gives Himself to us first in Word, and then in Flesh. So too are a man and woman married.

At our wedding Mass, my fiancé and I will be married in word; a little while longer and we will be married in flesh. Yet between those two events we will host a celebration for our friends and family: held not in obedience to the dictates of modern consumerism, but rather in recognition of marriage’s inherent orientation toward community.

In marriage, a man and woman are oriented first toward God. They are to serve and praise God by their union, and they are to lead one another to heaven.

They are oriented second toward each other, for “The two shall become one flesh; so they are no longer two, but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate” (Mark 10:8-9).

Thirdly, however, they are oriented toward a community beyond themselves. This is seen first and foremost in the bearing of children, which are the primary fruit of their love. But the sacrament bears other fruits in the witness the couple provides to a Christ-like love which is total self-giving. This love cannot–and ought not–be contained, but overflows in an abundance of graces to be shared with all they meet. That sharing begins at the wedding Mass, and it erupts in hugs and kisses and speeches and tears and laughter and dancing at the reception. Every moment of a couple’s marriage is an opportunity to make manifest the grace of God by their love; there is no better reason to open wide the doors and welcome those who will celebrate with them.

“This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory. And his disciples believed in him.” (John 2:11)

On Caring: “Not Like That!”

Well I suppose it’s been long enough since I posted, and I want to get back in the habit. Also I’m riled up enough about something that I decided it deserved an outlet, so here it goes.

In this, my senior year (the busiest year I have ever had), I decided it would be a good idea to be an editor for the university newspaper. In theory, as I have said on more than one occasion, I love it. In actuality, it is a living hell from which I cannot wake.

Eleventh-hour editing. People who don’t get back to you for interviews. The constant risk of offending somebody just because it’s your job to be honest.

And that’s as the sports editor.

Now, sports on the national level are huge and influential. Sports on the division III liberal arts college level are practically invisible. The statistics reports for my section on the newspaper website are chronically depressing. If you’re the kind of person who just wants to coast along, that’s fine. Sports journalism here can be almost as low-pressure as you want it to be, because, quite frankly, nobody really cares.

But that’s not my personality. I came into this year determined to make a difference.

I may have gotten more than I bargained for.

Remember what I said about sports at my university being invisible? Turns out it becomes much less invisible when athletes start to get involved in something other than sports.

I’m sure by now you’ve all heard of Colin Kaepernick, a backup quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers who decided he was going to do something besides play football.

His protest against police brutality (kneeling during the national anthem) has spread throughout the NFL. And now it has come to my university. Two African-American basketball players are electing to imitate Kaepernick and kneel, rather than stand, through the national anthem in the coming season.

Pretty newsworthy, right?

The article ran on the front page this week, and the response, much like the response to Kaepernick, has already been overwhelmingly negative.

Another piece ran in the newspaper this week, totally unrelated to the newest “liberal scandal” rocking our university. It was about care, and it posed the question “Do we at the university care enough?”

Do we participate in charity events because they’re fun, or because we care?

Do we volunteer because it will look good on our resume, or because we care?

Oddly enough, it turns out that only 20% of students at my university volunteer at all.

Participation in our annual Charity Week, however, is sky high. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that, if we pay enough money to charity on Friday, we can get out of having class.

Do we care? Maybe.

Do we care enough? In the right manner? Probably not.

The author of the column, therefore, urged students to care, more abundantly and in a sincere way. And I think, for the most part, people agreed with him.

Yet people (and I do not in any way mean to implicate the columnist in question here) will look at these two young men–these outstanding athletes, these dedicated students–and condemn them for their care.

“You should care!

“But not like that!”

To deny that there is something terrible going on in our nation is blind. To deny that it is a racial issue, at least in part, is foolish.

Even if the African-Americans in our country need not fear the police (and I don’t believe that is the case) perhaps they should fear those who will sit by and do nothing because they refuse to accept that their fear just might be legitimate.

You cannot tell people to care, and then tell them what they are allowed to care about.

People are suffering. People are afraid. And until we accept that, until we care, we will not be able to fix the problem.

It is true that loving, that caring about people, does not mean supporting or agreeing with everything they do and say. But it does mean listening. And meeting them where they are. And pausing to entertain the notion that maybe, just maybe, their cares are legitimate too.

In Memoriam

Good Catholics everywhere cringe visibly when they hear somebody mention “Lord of the Dance.” Some, of course, enjoy the hymn. For myself, I first heard it when I was too young to have strict tastes in liturgical music. Five year-old me liked it just fine. The attitudes of my peers have, however, rubbed off on me slightly, and I doubt I could hear it sung in church now without a vague feeling of secondhand embarrassment.

And yet today–today of all days–it’s the only song I can think of.

I danced on a Friday when the sky turned black.
It’s hard to dance with the devil on your back.

Even when I was young, that was the verse I was never quite comfortable with. I mean, first of all, the music was just much too upbeat for the subject matter, no matter the dynamic acrobatics executed by the director. And second of all, the lyrics seemed too flippant, too cavalier, too understated for the enormity of it all. Of course I didn’t know those words at the time, but I could feel them.

And yet today, they’re the only words that come to mind as I try to frame my thoughts into some context, something to grasp and try, once more, to make sense of the world I live in because of today.

Of course, it wasn’t a Friday that day when the skies above Manhattan turned black. It was a Tuesday, which somehow makes it seem so much worse. Tuesdays are the most ordinary of days. Maybe nothing exciting ever happens, but nothing bad should ever happen either, on a Tuesday. And for five year-old me, it wasn’t much more than an ordinary day.

My mother wouldn’t let us turn on the tv. I think I remember going downstairs to the tv room where she was watching the news–she never watched the news–but she turned it off and told me to go upstairs. Somehow, I found out basically what had happened. I wrote in my diary, “Today some planes crashed into some buildings in New York.” I didn’t know what terrorism was. Maybe I knew, technically, that people had died, but what does that mean to a five year-old, really? And I certainly didn’t know that the whole world had changed, forever.

And sometimes I wonder how much I know it, even today. Barely remembering a world before 9/11, do I really know how much my world has been shaped by that day? The war in Afghanistan, the war in Iraq–things that I have been praying for their end since before I really understood what they meant–they have simply been the backdrop of my life. And I don’t pretend to understand what they mean even now. I try.

But today it seems, there is nothing to understand. There are only the pictures, the numbers, the tears. And all those people. And wondering how you can possibly keep dancing when the sky turns black and the devil is standing in front of you reminding you exactly how much havoc he can wreak on the world.

Why am I not dancing? Because I don’t think I can. Not today. And I don’t know if I should.

And I don’t have an answer. I know I’ve always written these posts where I write about overcoming the sadness and remembering to dance. But today, I don’t think there is a word in the English language that could convince us to dance.

Last semester, my literature class read the book of Job. And when all was said and done, my professor looked up from his Bible and said, “If you’re a Christian, and this doesn’t bother you, then I’ve got problems with you.”

Evil should bother us. Evil happening to the innocent, the helpless, the unaware should definitely bother us. Because there is no logic to it. There is no human word, no human understanding that can make evil make sense. And for a creature that all the philosophers tell us is characterized by its ability to reason, that should be troubling.

So if you can dance today, under the black sky, remember that you are not dancing because the evil makes sense. You are not dancing because this was all part of the plan. You do not have to praise God for the work of the devil. If you dance, you dance despite the evil, for the sake of the good that conquers.

And if you can’t, remember that Jesus said “Blessed are they who mourn: for they shall be comforted.” And remember that even when He died for you, He danced for you too.

Eternal rest grant unto them O Lord, and may the perpetual light shine upon them. May their souls and all the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.

The Power to Dance

A few weeks ago, I had the privilege of volunteering for my parish’s Vacation Bible School. The first year my mom roped me into working as a crew leader, I was a rising junior in high school who deeply resented the fact that I had to spend the week watching small children and singing dumb songs. By the end of that week however, I had to admit–grudgingly perhaps–that I had had a pretty good time. A friend of my mom’s said I was an excellent crew leader, which was good for my adolescent ego, and despite all appearances, I really did enjoy my time with the kids. I even found myself singing and dancing along with the catchy praise and worship songs they played almost constantly for three hours. If anyone asked, I might have told them I was doing it ironically, but the truth was I really did enjoy it.

The next year, there was no VBS at my parish, and the year after that I was working and getting ready to start college, so last year I–and my mom, I think–were surprised to hear me volunteer willingly, almost enthusiastically, to join the Vacation Bible School crew again. Part of it might have been boredom; I couldn’t find a job last summer, and had done basically nothing except run three miles every day to stay in shape for soccer. But more importantly, I found myself looking back fondly on the songs and activities that I had sneered at in my affected teenage elitism.

I played a fairly big role in the program last year. In addition to leading a crew, I helped with set-up the week before and played the lead character–a bumbling zoologist named Dr Paws–in the introductory skit every morning. While fifteen year-old me wouldn’t have been caught dead in a weird khaki vest and safari hat, spilling things, falling over and making a general idiot of myself, eighteen year-old me had a blast. And any embarrassment I suffered was completely worth it when a little girl came up to me at the end of the day to say hi because she wanted to “meet Doctor Paws.”

This year, Vacation Bible School fell in the midst of the two busiest weeks of the summer. Brother #1 was taking driver’s ed. Sister #1 was working as the choreographer for a kids’ drama camp, and I was working as a part-time nanny for my aunt. So every morning I would wake up and take Sisters #3 and #4, Brother #2 and Cousin #1 to VBS, where I worked as a crew leader, drove the kiddies home, and had about an hour and a half of downtime before I had to go pick up my sister from drama camp. It was hectic, not to mention exhausting.

Which is why it seemed fitting that the theme of VBS this year was “Power Lab.” Every day, the kids learned about something that Jesus gives them the power to do: be thankful, be brave, help others, live forever, tell others about Him. For my part, I was just praying Jesus would give me the power to wake up on time.

I did wake up on time every day. And every day I got to the church, wondering how I’d manage to sing and dance and engage in discussions with the children without looking and sounding like a zombie. Yet I did that too.

On the last day, during arts and crafts, the children were supposed to decorate a magnet. There were plenty of extras, so I got one too. The magnets were coaster-shaped and make of a chalkboard material, so we were supposed to add stickers and then write in chalk something to tell others and remind ourselves about Jesus. I added some stickers around the edges then sat, wondering what to write.

It was simple, really, once I thought about it. That quote. That quote that shapes my philosophy, my blog, my life.

Are you in the presence of God? Is God beautiful?
So why aren’t you dancing?

There wasn’t enough room on the magnet for all that, so I wrote as best I could: “Why aren’t you dancing?”

Our pastor stopped to look at it at the end of the day. I explained the full quote to him, and he smiled at me and asked, “Well? Why aren’t you dancing?”

It’s easy, really, to think of reasons not to dance. There are so many bad things in the world, so many sadnesses. On the previous day, our pastor did a skit for the children. They played a slow, quiet song: “Come to Jesus,” it sang. And as the music played, different people walked across the floor to Father. A little boy. An old woman. A girl with a broken arm. One came crying, another came limping and coughing and barely able to stand. And every single one, Father wrapped them in an embrace and led them to the cross. I’m not sure how much the kids got out of it, but many of the adults were crying, and I wept as well. Because I have carried heavy burdens, things that left me unable to dance. And time and time again, no matter how far I wandered, they have led me back to the cross.

The song ended, we dried our tears, and it was time to move on. Another song, full of life, and the children began to dance again. And I danced with them. Because after the tears had come an inexplicable joy that demanded I lift my voice and my hands.

All this is what I thought when my pastor asked me why I wasn’t dancing.

The unreasonably catchy kids’ praise songs were still playing in the background as the children began to leave with their parents. Some, however, were still dancing along with the motions they’d so studiously learned over the course of the week. Motions I’d learned too, even enjoyed as I bopped along in the back with my assistant crew leader. Motions I’d been so sure I couldn’t manage another day because I was just so tired and they were just so goofy. But every day, I danced. And I began to dance almost subconsciously as I laughed and bade farewell to my pastor.

Because I am in the presence of Jesus. And Jesus is beautiful. And Jesus gives me the power to dance.

A _ of One’s Own

Summer vacation is often simultaneously the best and the most trying time in a college student’s life. The best because there’s no homework, more sleep, better food, and time spent with friends and family back home. The most trying because, quite honestly, being at close quarters with your family after almost 9 months of independence can drive you crazy.

I spent two semesters in a virtually silent dorm room. I had my own bedroom and a roommate who was quite possibly more quiet than a mouse. Coming home to 7 younger siblings is like being hit by the sensory overload equivalent of an 18-wheeler. All I want is to be able to watch the Women’s World Cup in relative peace, but I guess the universe has other plans.

My second little brother is addicted to sports. Tennis is his favorite, but if there’s a sport, and it’s on tv, he will watch it. So naturally, he watches soccer. He keeps track of the scores and the rankings. He’s the one turning on the tv at game time and updating those of us who can’t sit and watch at the moment. So I’m a proud older sister, right?

Wrong.

He gets to the tv before I do, or comes into the kitchen to tell me the score, and I become suddenly, inexplicably and overwhelmingly irritated. Even though I wanted to turn on the tv and watch the match. Even though I was just wondering what the score was. And something inside of me is telling me I shouldn’t be angry, that I have no reason to be angry, so of course now I’m angry at myself for being angry, and so it goes until he’s stomping away in tears and I’m standing in stubborn silence, embarrassed to admit I shouldn’t have snapped at him.

What is it about human nature that makes us want to keep things for ourselves? Why do we sometimes resent other people for loving what we love? Why do we often hide the things that we should want the most to share with others?

I can’t speak for everybody, but I think I’ve found my answer.

I’ve always told myself that I dislike other people’s enthusiasm for things I love because “they don’t understand,” or “they won’t love it as much as I do.” Which, I’ve begun to understand, is a prideful front for a completely different kind of pride. A fearful one. A jealous one. Because I don’t really think that I love it the best. I’m afraid that they’ll love it better.

I am not effusive by nature. I am talkative by nature. I am intelligent, insightful, and articulate. But I am not often exuberant. I rarely gush. People who do make me feel uncomfortable and not a little inferior. People who do, my jealousies present to me as threats, as rivals.

For what, though? There is no prize for being the biggest fan of soccer, or loving this or that more than anybody else. And neither the value of the beloved nor the love of the lover is diminished by another’s appreciation. Why does it sometimes feel that way?

It pains me to say that I don’t know that answer. It’s hard to admit that a feeling is ridiculous, and yet have no idea how to stop it. It is ridiculous, though. How does it make sense to try to insure that you love something best by trying to insure that nobody else loves it at all?  Love is individual. Love is personal. But when it is true, it is never exclusive. True love overflows. True love cries out to be shared with the world. If you truly love something, it is because of its goodness, and if it is good, it ought to be shared.

Nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lamp stand, and it gives light to all who are in the house

Matthew 5:15

Modern ideas of “fairness” and “justice” might say that the light doesn’t belong to anybody. I contend that the light belongs to everybody, not in equal divided parts, but in its fullness as it stands to be received. For the light shines on the mother working on her quilt, on the father reading the news, on the daughter writing her blog post. The mother does not have some part of the light that, as a consequence, her daughter cannot have. It may be brighter for the mother because she sits closer to it, but she has not taken that light away from anybody. Conversely, the light is not any less hers just because it shines on others.

There is, then, deep truth in that tired platitude, “if you love something, let it go.” For the mother does not gain more light by holding the lamp and blocking its light from her daughter and husband. In fact, she is less able to enjoy and use the light by selfishly guarding it. So the light stands on the end table, shining its light as far as its wattage and physical surroundings will allow, belonging fully to each individual who steps within its glow.

As it is with light, so it is with love. The beloved is not a pie to be partitioned among its lovers. Love is not a contest that measures whether you loved more. All that matters is whether you loved well. And the one who loves well realizes that one’s own love cannot be diminished by another’s love for the same thing. The beloved belongs completely, personally, uniquely, to each person who loves it. The true lover roots themself totally in love by sharing it with the world. In doing so, they are neither threatened nor supplanted, but secured. The idea of something “of one’s own” remains. For what is yours is not necessarily any less so just because it is someone else’s too.

. . .

These are the words I tell myself as I wonder why I can’t bring myself to happily share soccer with my younger brother. In a burst of frustration, I told my mother that I wanted something that was mine, that I didn’t have to share with my little siblings. She told me that was selfish. She was right (she usually is). Which did not, of course, make me like it any better.

So I asked myself why it was selfish. I’m a philosopher and the daughter of a scientist. I like to know why. And the above is the answer I arrived at. It is selfish because it is needless; I gain nothing by keeping what I love from others because sharing it with them is no loss to me. Soccer is still mine. I have understood it, I have played it, I have loved it. Nothing can take that away from me. And to share that with my brother ought to be the greatest joy for me.

I say “ought to be” because I’m probably not quite there yet. Habits, as they say, die hard. But one always has to start somewhere.

Hello (Again)

This blog is about a month old now; I figure it’s time to write something. I am, as those of you who know me probably have noticed by now, very bad at writing on a schedule, so I’m not starting out with any promises about posting regularly, et cetera, et cetera, and so forth. But I enjoy writing, and I enjoy the things I write. So what I write, I write from my heart, with the hope that you will read it and come away with something valuable. So without further ado:

Shall we dance?