Sunday, December 11, 2011

Tell me what they sing and I will tell you their theology...

In a recent Christian Century, I read about a wise Pastor who gave some advice to a young seminarian looking for clues which might reveal the inner theological identity of a religious community.

Today as we served lunch to about 200 souls in the government plaza, I wondered if I was just becoming more childish. As the acolytes of local government passed by, scowling, I "turned up the volume."

For fifteen years we Catholic Workers have been "singing the alphabet" while we arrange and then distribute the US mail along with our soup. Knowing how utterly dependent homeless people are for the mail to contain the documents, or even the funds they need for "redemption," I years ago became inured to their repeated requests that I "check again" or "keep a lookout" for their salvific correspondence.

To allay their fears that we might miss something, we began pulling an entire sheaf of incoming envelopes, gathered by the first letter of the last name, and crying out, "Doing the "M's," or "Doing the R's!" Then we would proceed to sing out the surnames so everyone in our soup-line could hear their "call."

Over the years I became culturally more sensitive. I pride myself on begin able to pronounce Spanish and Vietnamese surnames. In a lower voice I can almost guess how the mortified parents from Detroit and Mississippi would have their kid's names properly pronounced all these years later in this God-forsaken place so far from home.

By saying aloud every surname beginning with a given letter of the alphabet for every single communicant, we have arrived at a process that largely allays the fears of those for whom no check ever comes.

This process, a hymn of sorts, is the way we sing the names of the children whose ship won't be coming in; for those whose only ship is deportation; and for those whose forebears "already got their trip" on a slave ship many years ago. We sing the names of those who will not be rescued this time around.

We sing out these names, a tiny balm over anxious and troubled waters, and we sit with the empty-handed until, on rare occasions and after many, many years, they raise their own voices in song.

It is then, thanks to your Pastors' message to a young seminarian, that I now recognize the hymnal of our theology: I now hear the loud, clear voice of those who have turned, undistracted by wealth or power or even sustenance, utterly toward the Cross.

It is the song of those reconciled to the singular sufficiency of the Redemption Himself; of those for whom no lesser counterfeit will suffice.

Thank you for your much needed and salvific interpretation.

Tomorrow I pray that I might listen anew to the sound of my friends, silently singing of the Love that will at last their terrible suffering relieve.

Thank you for showing me how to follow this sweet, sweet sound.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Quintessential Dilemma of Aggrieved Anarchists

Dear 99%,

Upon the occasion of reading emails (lots) about how the City of Santa Ana doesn't respect the Constitution and how [we're] going to bankrupt the City treasury, I dragged the following good advice from my thin store of anecdotage...

As an anarchist who has successfully sued the City, please let me offer the following two-part dose of experience, strength and hope:

The first part is an outgrowth of the difference in our structures - CW membership is communitarian, our leadership nominative by unanimous selection. This allowed us to select one person to be the plaintiff, and then later offer a defined group of plaintiffs. Courts and lawyers won't deal with an undefined plaintiff. Without a plaintiff(s), there's not going to be a suit! (This also implies being able to say additionally and definitively, who is not a plaintiff, even if they disagree!)

The second part was the hardest for me: Learning to pick a lawyer and then foregoing the right to talk, completely, except to answer questions. If any of you have experience with criminal law where the DA really wants to get you, you know even criminal law is arcane, intelligent, demanding; so much so that we have the saying about having a fool for a defendant. Civil law is harder still, and I believe the intersection between the Constitution and City Councils represents some of the most difficult legal practice out there. Witness how many truly great lawyers have toiled in that garden. Those are the decisions that occupy Supreme Courts.

While I am thrilled at the exuberance of the local Occupy Movement, I can tell you why it "Has no legal department."

If you don't undertake the difficult changes I've alluded to, you will persist in confusing email with briefs and hyperbole with useful theories. The only thing those will do is give the City something interesting to cite when it's time to negotiate a settlement offer!

When we finished our lawsuit in 2003, we were owed an estimated $650,000, and we declined to take it: The City, not the Council, is the 99% - how could we steal from our neighbors and their old-age pensions? BTW, that award was for legal fees, not damages. Our cause managed to attract and we managed to obey 20 law firms at once, or we would have been "stalled out." The City can easily defeat one honest, intelligent lawyer - the jails are filled with their clients.

It's time to decide whether OccupyOC is willing to make the kinds of necessary, inevitable compromises that come with civilization: representation, agency and stare decesis.

At this point I don't know how, meaning by what process, you're all going to decide.

I only know what will happen if you don't.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Shelter vs. Hospitality

Last weekend Leia and I attended the Catholic Worker Gathering in Las Vegas, Nevada.
In preparation for working with Robert Schuller III to start a seminary built along the lines of the Rule of St. Benedict, I opted for the Benedictine Spirituality workshop. I got my head handed to me, so I’m reaching out to you for consolation.
After joining into “silent prayer” with the others I asked about a Benedictine Monastery that “never turned anyone away” I desperately needed to know how this miracle was being worked. Were it true, I would count it among Medjugore and Fatima as a miracle for our millennia.
“Are they above the Arctic Circle?” I asked. Not quite, but it did develop that they were in an outpost so remote that no one had ever heard of the nearby town.
“How do they exit guests?” I asked, and my heart sank in my chest as it was apparent that the bearer of these glad tidings was unclear about that reality as well.
I said that, rather than boasting of some distant mirage, it would be a lot more instructive to examine how the Rule of St. Benedict might help us to discern who to exit when our shelter was full: Did we honor the ongoing claim of the longest-staying guest, or exit them in favor of a newcomer. Or did we do what most government shelters do, and simply post a sign saying “Full” and turn away everyone, regardless of their circumstances?
I proposed that the “Preferential Option for the Poor” and the Parable of the 99th Sheep argued for at least something more interactive than a “Full” sign. I’m afraid I went on a tad too long about our travails here in Orange County, so much so that I exasperated my counterpart from the Midwest, who cried out, “I think some of us don’t know the difference between shelter and hospitality.”
I stand convicted, and I find myself in complete agreement. After 20 years of helping my wife run the largest CW in the country, I must admit that I know very little about "doing" hospitality. I am haunted by the idea that the definition of “neighbor” in our exegesis for the Greatest Commandment might include people who don’t actually sleep under the same roof, and that the poor wretch standing on the porch dismayed at our “Full” sign might actually be much poorer than someone who is too proud to accept their parents’ (or children’s) insistent and repeated offer of lodging.
As the lawyer in the Parable of the Good Samaritan “plea bargains” for our souls, the economist in me recalls that reality dictates that we can do less (per person) the wider our definition of neighbor becomes. But less is not worse, because no part of reality is bad.
Bad is when we decide that holiness happens more readily when we close the door to our houses, and then our hearts, so that we can appreciate and control what happens, as if we were doing hospitality, instead of God.
We offer shelter, and, like our guests, we pray God will reward us with hospitality – in this world and the next. What startles me is how easy it is to see how my "spirituality" could result in an increase in the suffering of some wretch I would turn away. The man questioning my holiness had dropped his census from 40 each night down to 5, and recommended we do the same.
This isn't the first time truly holy and soulful people have told us that merely sheltering so many folks was a recipe for disaster - so I must concede the possibility that our adoption of the Kirwan legacy is mere ego, and that God might be better served if we were to examine the possibility of shrinking our numbers.
I'm throwing open the door of our hearts, and I'm fully prepared to accept a lack of comments on your part as a roaring commendation: No news is good news, indeed!
The more of you who don't write comments asking us to throw folks out, the better. So please, instead pray for us, and for all Catholic Workers, and encourage us to stay alive to the cries we cannot hear: for the people on our porch who have never seen a "full" sign, and for the donors and volunteers who sustain us by remaining a silent majority.
Those are the people from whom we shall learn the difference between shelter and hospitality.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Haynes Fund Speech

My name is Dwight Smith, and I’m with Isaiah House Catholic Worker. We’ve been a project of the Haynes Fund for about ten years, and we’re very grateful. Leia couldn’t be here tonight because she’s helping her sister begin another round of chemotherapy in Chico. My partners, Melissa and Nancy, and Leia and I, run one of the two emergency homeless shelters in Orange County, not counting the Cold-Weather Armory. The smaller of those two shelters is the Salvation Army. Two shelters for 21,000 homeless people.

I’m old enough to remember when there were no homeless people. Hoboes, maybe, but no homeless people. My parents, of course, had a different experience. So what happened? I think in my time, it’s not so much that there was a homeless problem as there was a “We should pay less for mental hospitals” program. And yet I also remember talk at that time about reserving welfare checks for those “who truly needed it.”

Because a few poorly paid and overworked Psychiatrists and a lot of highly-skilled nurses were getting the all the money the State was paying too much of, it was easy to get the American Psychiatric Association to agree to a regimen of discharging the patients to the community, where all of California’s psychiatrists could bill for treating them, but without all the expensive nurses. Thus began the emptying of the State Mental Hospitals in the 70’s.

When, within a few short weeks, these patients proved to be more problematic than anticipated, especially without the nurses, they were simply abandoned. Without attentive doctors and committed nurses, the patients first missed appointments, and then quit taking their medicine, and finally exited the group homes where they’d been placed, to become homeless. Since no one had tried the group home program before implementing it statewide, there was nothing to fall back on. We just watched as these truly deserving welfare recipients did without. Without mental health care, without medical care, without shelter, without food.

After about twenty years of hand wringing, the Federal government came up with the “Continuum of Care” where three levels of shelter would replace the State Mental Hospital. The first seven days was, obviously, the emergency shelter level. During that first week the guest sought work, while the shelter provided "two hot meals (hots) and a cot" and very little else. Guests were allowed to re-enter the emergency level every thirty days if they couldn't graduate to the transitional level by finding a job. The big difference between the shelters and the State Mental Hospitals was now, everyone was told to look for work, so over the next 20 years, what few shelter beds there were used mostly for the merely unemployed, and, as a result, the mentally-ill people ended up in our prisons and jails. The difference was in the definition of “grave disability.” When I worked at County Mental Health in San Diego in 1977, grave disability meant that people were unable to rent an apartment and prepare their own meals, because of mental illness. Now it means they’re incapable of foraging from a dumpster, or accepting an offered sandwich.

Now, there’s another group of people that really didn’t figure into the decision to eliminate mental hospitals, even though they’re incapable, then and now, of even foraging in a dumpster for their dinner, although not on account of mental illness. It’s on account of their age. I’m talking here about homeless children, and I’d like to expose the two faces of Orange County’s supposed attempts to assist them. From December first through April Fool’s, the OC does a pretty OK job. Now that the Illumination Foundation is providing emergency shelter to the families that present at the Cold Weather Armory, the medical model they use insures that all relevant variables in a child’s life are addressed, and for as long as needed. Through no fault of the Foundation, their saving oversight is permitted on an emergency basis only when the existence of the Cold Weather Armory program results in a fair probability of the press getting involved. Since about 200 families are assisted during the four months the Armory program is running, it stands to reason that about 400 are being mistreated the other eight months of the year.

When the press isn’t watching, from April Fool’s through December First, the County lies to the public, and worse, to the parents, and, only if pressed, do their Social Workers offer them a 14-day “once-in-a-lifetime” voucher for a cheap motel like the Buena Park Rodeway Inn. The last family we assisted was unaware that the County voucher plan they were on didn’t include the Continental Breakfast everyone else was enjoying. The dad was actually sobbing as he described how the manager, Mr. Patel, actually scooped up his kids half-eaten cereal bowls as he hounded them out of the dining area, screaming in Hindi. Later that day, an agent for Mercy House brought the family two cans of chili. Two cans of chili for five people for two weeks. Now you might not think that’s a lot, but it’s more actual food than the County gave to anyone else last year. You see, most families get EBT cards.

There may be no better way of destroying families with wasted tax dollars than the EBT program. Unlike food, there is no surplus of tax dollars for the input, and there’s no such thing as “having enough” on the output. While those of us in the real food business concern ourselves with the needs of the homeless and are constantly conscious of “serving concrete” by offering too much of the wrong thing, the EBT program might as well have been set up to insure that every spare dollar, and even some needed ones, go right for the “wrong thing,” and here I’m not just talking about dietary preferences.

In 2008 I told the County Director of Homelessness that I would not be able to continue sheltering children if they could not halt the exchange of EBT funds for between two and three ounces of methedrine, which was being imported into our ministry every month, to be sold on credit. Between the madness of parents stealing away on week-long speed runs and the use of physical violence to collect on drug debts, the collective proximity of so many children and so much insanity led me to conclude that nothing the County did could be worse. So we gave them back. We allowed the children we had temporarily placed in the Armory while we repaired the restrooms to again become the County’s problem. It’s a decision I’ll regret for the rest of my life.

I was wrong: the County was much worse. By fraudulently declaring one child from each family so “seriously mentally-ill” that the entire family qualified for room and board, the County was able to place all these people into a housing project and provide family therapy, while simultaneously overlooking the fact that what they were that they were dealing with the perfectly normal children of drug addicts. How reminiscent of the 70’s.

You see, like it or not, we had established a program that minimized the number of hours these children interacted with their toxic parents. By encouraging them instead to spend their time at school, at the Boys and Girls Club of Santa Ana, and with volunteers, we limited their interactions to just a few hours on Sunday afternoon. Children were encouraged monetarily to do enough homework so that, at the time they were declared disabled, not one child was working below their grade level in school. Now they all are.

Under our care for six years the total cost to the taxpayers was nothing. After four years under the care of the County, courtesy of the Renew Program of Providence Healthcare, we have already spent over four million dollars for the nearly complete destruction of the majority of the children that were housed here. This is the moral quality of the decisions made by managers currently in charge of executing the O. C. Board of Director’s summer program for homeless children. I would encourage each of you to examine the truth of my allegations through your contacts in the press, in County government, and in JustFaith groups at your parish. You can obtain a copy of these remarks on the blog attached to our website at

Whenever things this evil happen there is always a remnant, a group of people who holds for the old ways;

people who invoke Christ;

people who try to do the right thing even though it costs.

People who know that the Golden rule is about using gold to save our neighbors instead of using up our neighbors to save on gold.

People like the Haynes Fund, and the programs they support, like Illumination Foundation,

and like our own Isaiah House.

I’m here tonight to thank you. Because of your support Isaiah House has managed to expand it’s operation to the extent that we no longer experience census problems – we can always accommodate a homeless woman, or a woman and her small children.

In part because of your support Illumination has secured a permanent location for a third emergency shelter for families and singles in the City of Stanton.

So I suppose it’s at this point that we should congratulate your Board and thank each of you for being that remnant, that group of people who do the right thing, even though it costs.

But before we lose ourselves in a symphony of well-deserved self congratulation, the food before us tonight reminds us of another unmet need, a need even Paul Leon, the much lauded director of the Illumination Foundation has suggested I remind you of tonight: dinner

Obviously even with three emergency shelters in the County of Orange, we’re still not going to be able to help all 21,000 homeless people. There will still be thousands sleeping rough.

Believe it or not, the County has decided to do almost nothing for them. No portable restrooms or showers, and most important, no food. That job falls to us and the other soup kitchens in Orange County.

In keeping with the incredible job your Board has done, I wish to suggest their selection of Isaiah House as uniquely worthy of your consideration. As the only all-volunteer soup kitchen and food pantry, not only does 100% of your donation go to providing food to the homeless, we’re also able to enlist the support of the governments’ FEMA and EFAP programs, bringing at least another $1000 dollars worth of food to Orange County’s poor each week at no cost to our donors.

Isaiah House provides about 2100 hot meals to the poor of Santa Ana each week, and about half that many again through food pantries that benefit the Lighthouse in Costa Mesa, FoodForLife in Santa Ana, and through Christian Volunteers at various motels throughout the County, including the Rodeway Inn of Buena Park.

We’re proud to have been chosen for consideration by the Haynes Fund, and we’re overjoyed to join the list of charities they support – charities we believe are truly making a difference for the poor in Orange County.

Thank you very much.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Monkey with the Truth

      A long time ago in a University far away a Doctor tried to quantify the nature of Love. He submitted a design for an experiment and defended it against many challengers. Finally victorious, he began his life’s work. He extracted two groups of baby monkeys from their mothers’ cages, and placed them into new cages with two statues the size of dolls. In the first group, a terrycloth doll provided no food, while a plain wire doll had a nipple fixed to a baby bottle containing milk. In the control group, the terrycloth doll gave milk, and the wire doll did not.
It was found that the young monkeys clung to the terrycloth monkey dolls whether or not they provided them with food, and that the young monkeys approached the wire doll only when necessary to obtain milk. With this result the Doctor concluded that monkeys could be fooled about Love, but not about milk.
We are reminded of a similarly heartless process wherein the County Homeless Agency informed all the police and emergency room workers that the actual count of emergency shelter beds, one measure of our collective love for the poor and previously given as 1512, was actually 889, and now about 500.
As result of these clarifications, the police continued their cities’ policies of arresting the homeless for “camping.” The staff at the county’s emergency rooms kept placing the homeless in taxis and shipping them to the corner of Third and Garfield near the Salvation Army in Santa Ana.
Even the voters seemed satisfied with the County’s fuzzy math: It made it a good deal easier to retain heartless Supervisors who “preserved” the tax dollars previous administrations had wasted on people who just “didn’t want to work.” That satisfaction peaked last year, even though by then it had become Official that half of the homeless couldn’t work, not because they lacked documents, but because they weren’t old enough.
After some measurements of our own we became concerned that the truth counted for so little a part of that particular love the County shows to the poor. We became so concerned that we refused to help the County help the poor unless they told us the truth. We insisted that the poor be given a letter stating why the County government would not assist them, and then we further insisted on meeting the poor children and parents the County would not help in the Board’s waiting area.
One week after we began to refuse, the County agreed to tell the Police and the ER staff the truth: The only beds available right away, which is what most of us think of as an emergency bed, are those few the Salvation Army offers at 2:30PM each day, perhaps eight total. Eight beds for 30,000 homeless people.
There are no such beds at all for families with more than two children, or with boys over the age of ten, or for the families of single fathers, ever. A while back, two of the people the County refused to help were a pregnant woman sent here from the jail. Her baby was too far along to enroll her in any of the pregnancy programs, and her pregnancy was too risky to keep her in jail, so they sent her to us. We got her into a hospital where an ultrasound suggested that the time was right for a Caesarian, even though the mother insisted her time had not yet come. When the baby was taken from her prematurely, it was rushed to a nearby hospital where they had a neonatal care unit. The mother was given a breast-pump and instructions not to walk or take the bus because of her stitches. She was also told that the milk for the baby was her problem.
As a Catholic convert who grew up during the superheated 70’s, I was glad I embraced the Church’s teaching about chastity after I was safely and happily married. But in a pamphlet from 1942 called “Chastity and Youth” I read a statement which could provide a role for all of us in this dilemma. A Jesuit priest talked bravely about how, were one spiritually healthy enough, one might obtain strengths and graces from marrying a sick person – provided one’s love was strong enough. You cannot now how that affirmation reached across those years to comfort me. My Church was the one where the sick were, if not healed, at least loved. We are the people who have been charged with the care of the 99th sheep, the poor, the lame and the hungry.
As fellow possessors of the fullness of faith, we Catholics know that the milk is our problem. Not the governments, not the non-profits, not even the Police or the emergency room’s problem. We are the ones who know what Love is, and no lying monkey from the County can make us believe otherwise.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Forgiving the Jews - Part Two: Words of Jesus sorted by recipient.

As a chaplain in Orange County’s jails for ten years, I become very familiar with the concept of “unchurched.” As a catholic, it’s a common experience to talk about Jesus with faithful adults who nevertheless have never read the bible. Instead, they’ve heard it. They’ve heard the entire New Testament every three years, and almost all of the Torah, and a lot of the Old Testament likewise, but they almost never sit down and read, chapter and verse, page after page.
In jail, however, I had to do “bible study” with people who had never heard or talked about Jesus, much less the Patriarchs, in their lives. Asking them to begin according to the Roman Catholic lectionary, with some random gospel passage often did more harm than good.
One good answer to this dilemma is Protestant: Generally speaking, Protestants gather bible passages for study by theme, like forgiveness, or marriage or some notable part of Christ’s journey. In this way, the text is sort of self-organizing, and because the chosen passages, in spite of the gaps between them, make more sense than simply starting somewhere in the middle without any context save Rome.
Besides the gaps, however, there is another problem with this method. To be fair, it is likewise a problem with the Catholic system: If the Protestant system is like a chart of accounts, where all the “bills” for a given part of the bible are read together, like rent or utilities, the Catholic system is like the journal used to insure against gaps, just like the journal in double-entry accounting: Here, the passages are read in canonical order; which is slightly different than either the order they were written or the order in which the events transcribed are thought to have taken place. For example, even though carbon dating of fragment from Qumran Cave Number Seven indicate that Mark was the first gospel to have been written, the Roman church has always given first place to the Gospel of Matthew. Even though Mark himself cautions the reader that his account is out of order, canonical order indicates the system of priority assigned by the Church. As a way of settling disputes, it is without parallel, because unlike voting or arguing, at least it works. in that it allows us to solve the problem not addressed by priority: the problem of meaning determined not by “when” something was said, but by “to whom’ it was said.
Clearly, sorting out those things Jesus said to “the Jews” as opposed to the things he said to the apostles, who were also Jews, or the things he said to the poor, many of whom were Jews as well, has a great deal of impact upon any putative condemnation we might wish to read into our interpretation of any given New Testament passage. Given that Jesus was almost always talking to Jews, except on the rare occasion he was talking to Romans, it’s hard to insist his remarks are intended to endure as they have.
As a chaplain, I found it very useful to have my students sort the words of Christ (hopefully printed in red, so you don’t miss any) into three columns: One for the scribes, Pharisees – the powerful; one for the apostles and one for the poor. We discovered that a genuine fourth column was needed: one shared by Mary and the supernatural beings, like God, angels and demons, and a possible fifth: One actually reserved for the official “Jews,” the members of the Sanhedrin, and, to be fair, a corresponding column for “official” Romans, like Pontius Pilate or the centurions.
When you sort the words of Jesus in this way, a definitive picture emerges: Nowhere is Jesus angry with Jews because they’re Jewish. Nor does he appear to be angry with the Romans because they’re not. This was truly remarkable; Jesus may have been the only rabbi of his time demonstrating such equanimity toward, not just Romans, but gentiles of all stripes, like the Samaritan, and even women!
After you sort the words of Christ according to this hierarchy, it is much clearer that Jesus divided the world into classes by function, as was necessary: disciples vs. non-students, angels vs. demons, and by approbation: good or bad.
This is where we’d expect any anti-Semitism to show up. Like modern anti-Semites, or even Zionists for that matter, we’d expect Christ to display a preference or an antipathy for Jews regardless of their station. Like the Nazis, he’d distrust poor Jews as well as the rich powerful ones. Or like Israel, he’d welcome all Jews, rich and poor alike.
Jesus does no such thing. He inveighs against the rich, although not nearly so much as against those who have power over others. He forgives the poor, or more properly the powerless, even though they make no offering to atone for their sin as was proper for a Jew at that time.
Given that until recently, books, and certainly printing presses were the exclusive property of the rich, it’s a wonder his message wasn’t further distorted. I’m surprised that this little method of discovering the unaltered method of finding meaning within scripture hasn’t been more widely disseminated; perhaps it’s rarity has preserved some of it’s value. In any case, when one sorts the words of Christ according to the recipient, a pattern emerges which is far less sensible as anti-Semitic, and far more sensible as anarchistic.
Given the fact that the Jews were, at least at that time, sharing power with their Roman overlords, and given moreover that it was those Romans who determined both the canonical order of the modern gospel, and even their content, it is clear how a anti-power viewpoint could be subject to later misinterpretation as an anti-Semitic viewpoint.
The key to resolving this issue: power vs. Semitism, would depend upon what Jesus really said and felt toward non-Jews in power. If we assume that the Romans who later printed, translated and published the gospel attenuated Christ’s disapproval of their forebears, then Christ’s anarchist viewpoint could be reduced to anti-Semitism, since all the anti-Roman remarks were neutralized. Indeed, the very quixotic nature of Jesus’ remarks to and about all thing Roman stand out after this homespun reclassification as the most difficult to place into this new context.
This alone make this exercise a valuable addition to the argument against anti-Semitism in the New Testament: no new facts are needed, just a more accurate analysis of existing passages, yielding a highly probable suspicion about a corresponding lack of “rebuke” for Romans who were far worse, while yet far more removed from the favored poor, than the Jews in power.
Sorting Christ’s word by recipient subsumes any biblical argument ostensibly leveled against Jews beneath one against those leveled against those in power, regardless of origin. Any supposedly biblical argument, indeed, any Christian argument against the Jews suffers from this fatal weakness: in reality, any argument against the Jew is really an argument against the State, unfairly pruned of it's fuller meaning by later Roman redaction.
How like we Romans to stand idly by, fiddling while Jews burn, and in so doing deny Christ our faithful testimony to the sufficiency of his holocaust. Since our idleness is our blasphemy, we are called to come out of this posture, to actively atone once we believe. If you have any prayers or suggestions, please leave a comment.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Forgiving the Jews, Part One - Jesus' Baptism

We might assume since John baptized Jesus in the Jordan that John somehow initiated Jesus into something. This is normal, since that’s exactly what an ordinary, Christian baptism does. There is generally a gulf between the initiate and the one doing the initiating.
But if you ask a Priest about his first baptism ever, assuming he doesn’t remember his own, a different thread appears. The first time one initiates another is also an initiation, an initiation onto the fraternity of those who initiate. And into solidarity, perhaps, with those who also initiate others.
Likewise, a person who has an over-arching agenda could well decide to demonstrate solidarity with the others so initiated, even though they themselves were already initiates.
And think for a moment about the first time a thing is ever done, like being the first one to eat at a lunch counter or attend a university or become President. Here the sense of initiation is overshadowed by the feeling that a new era is beginning, that the prospect for new beginnings somehow includes all of us; that we are all initiates now because of our new prospects.
I think that each of these things were occurring at Christ’s baptism, and I think that each could properly overshadow our mistaken conception that the event in which John and ‘Jesus participated was in any way similar to our sacrament.
When Jesus chose to be baptized by John in the Jordan, a number of things were happening that are quite unlike what will or did happen when we Christians get baptized. Like almost everything else in the Gospels, it is a pre-Christ event, and not a Christian event. The baptism of John was a Jewish baptism, offered as a radical and perhaps schismatic alternative to the blood sacrifice of animals performed in the temple by the Priests of the Sanhedrin.
This was more a rejection of the monopoly held by the temple over reconciliation than initiation into a new faith tradition. Indeed, John’s baptism was for the forgiveness of sins. Circumcision was the initiatory sacrament of the Jews, and not Baptism; Since Jesus was already circumcised, he could hardly have been initiated into Judaism by his baptism.
Indeed, when we take into account that Jesus was also free of sin, it then becomes apparent that the only conceivable reason for Jesus to be baptized by John in the Jordan would have been to express solidarity, perhaps primarily with John and his radical new egalitarianism, and secondarily with the poor, who had long labored under the accreted heretical excesses of the temple priests, especially inasmuch their accommodations to Rome were unanticipated by Torah.
Later, when Jesus cleanses the temple, His real reason becomes apparent: Lest His actions at the temple deny the poor the reconciliation they seek, He, in concert with John, initiated an alternative liturgy of reconciliation independent of the temple.
In a sense, it was not Jesus being baptized that day, but all of humanity, as He and John began the long and still incomplete process of ending external sacrifice and scapegoating for all time, and establishing reconciliation as a internal process central to the integration of the soul’s yearnings and the body’s actions.
In a very real sense Christ that day unbound the human soul, freeing it from the blood of beasts and setting in motion the events that would spill His blood to forever bind us to the will of God. It was in the Jordan with John that Jesus began the process of baptizing all of us with the Holy Spirit.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Legion: Working on telling you about my Family of Demons

I'm going to have to do this backwards. I actually prayed first, and often, before typing the initial sentences; perhaps that's the only reason you should even entertain serious engagement with what I'm about to say:

I think I know what's wrong with Democracy, or at least American Democracy: Demons.

OK, the 80% of you who didn't just click off are the ones I need, because the argument that follows is entirely Christian. It will take years to translate the ethics to humanism, and I don't have that kind of time.

I started with a thought experiment while talking with Abbey Grace, who had called in to arrange a volunteer experience for six of her bible study compatriots at UCI.

I was trying to explain normal American preoccupation versus demonic "possession" and I had begun to focus upon the energy involved, about the inhuman quality of it's intensity.

When I was slightly older than Abbey, I had styled myself the King of Sandpaper. Not surprisingly, others had as well, including the 3M Company, which makes just over half the sandpaper in the world. When I was 31, I was selling more sandpaper for a higher margin than anyone else at 3M. Even now I find it hard to get over myself.

And therein we find the problem with Demons.

A multi-billion dollar organization was lauding me for moving their most profitable product - paper with dirt glued on it! Even now I cannot help but spin the story to allude to my greatness. Knowing I'll die here wrestling with this beast - I must digress:

Starting over after revealing myself to be all too human...

I need to find some lynchpins of sanity. Something to explain why Jesus installed the legion of demons into a herd of swine and drove them into the sea.

The incarnation provides the most important guideline, and our first clue. Demons are not human, but they pretend to be. This is the blasphemy at the core of both our existence and Satan's greatest advantage in dealing with us: Familiarity breeds contempt, and there is nothing more familiar than humans. Even the name bears inspection.

Recently the S.C. Johnson Corporation has been going to great lengths to insist that it is a "family" company. Fiske Johnson tells us he's "working" on telling us what's in his bottles and boxes, while all the while hoping we don't notice the present perfect tense. "Working" on telling someone sounds like the protestations of a guilty child, or an addict. Obviously production knows exactly what's in those containers - that's how they fill them. Since Fiske Johnson is going to spend about one million times more energy telling us about how he's working on telling us than it would take to merely release the ingredient list in a press release, we now have some modern day definitions of the word used by Christ to name the demons: Legion.

In this case they represent the supernumerary quantity and quality of Fiske Johnson's obvious mis-directions; the numerous ways he strays from the straightahead truth. How like a family, Fiske. Only it's the kind of dysfunctional, meretricious family we Irish Catholic Alcoholics are all too used to.

Again, this isn't God's family, like the real Johnson's, born of flesh and blood. This is the unholy creation of Fiske Johnson, and his staff of professional liars and spinners, his risk-averse brood of corporate lawyers and risk managers, his murder of management crows all screeching about secret formulas and long-term health risks.

We've seen this play before, for much higher stakes, and the outcome, although attenuated, is predictable as hell, because there are no real human souls involved, only the shadows they cast upon the walls of our cave. Like the cigarette companies preceding him, Fiske is "working" at hiding the evidence. He might have a staff far more articulate than the poor author of the foul screed before you, but then, I'm not "working" on anything. I'm just saying that the list of what the production people put in the bottles last shift is evidence, and Fiske Johnson is hiding it.

And I can know the plain truth because I know Fiske Johnson. Now it is true that I cannot know, really know another human being, but the Fiske Johnson before us is merely a shadow. That which was born of woman and raised by our American village has been reduced to a risk averse pitchman who wishes to reveal almost nothing of himself, and certainly nothing that could help us critically assess our need for his lies. They're not going into the bottle, are they Fiske? Of course not. Having reached the far-flung edges of everything NASA science and the quest for the human genome could bring to window cleaning, Fiske's family has run out of ways to make ammonia somehow more special than it was 100 years ago. He's reduced to implying that Windex and Glade will have children that, unlike real children, will always tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth, just like PaterFiske and his brood, captured in disingenuous snapshots, warts and all, alongside an splay of product shots arrayed like just another family, just another commodity.

Two Demon rules thus far uncovered: They're not human, and they lie, even when they're telling the truth, because they're "working" on telling the truth. Like a broken clock, they are associated with a factually accurate display of the time twice each day, but that is far from the truth. Fiske is right in saying the truth is something we need to "work" on, but quite unlike the broken clock, waiting for the precise instant to take the snapshot we'll use to hock the wreck on Ebay is a far piece from telling the truth.

So another rule about Demons: since no other inhuman thing is more ubiquitous, it could be said that nothing could teach us more about God and humans than the actions of demons.

They have been hidden among us for a longtime, and they only reveal themselves infrequently, perhaps only twice a day, and then only for an infinitesimal Zeno's paradoxical fraction of a second. It is only when they are cast out that their span is revealed, and God shows us their broad reach, their legion.

The one they were "working" on telling us about.

How like a family.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Santa Ana, runoff, the Homeless, and you.

Years ago, Congress passed the Federal Clean Water Act, and it cleverly states "the discharge of any pollutant by any person shall be unlawful" without a permit. Then Congress further instructed the States, including Georgia, to issue such permits. Generally speaking, Georgia declined, and a fellow there was charged with pollution because rainwater coursed off his property, along with the dirt it picked up along the way, becoming runoff, and then entered a Federal waterway, becoming pollution. He fought back, saying it was impossible to get the permit, and reminded the Court that, "the law cannot depend upon the performance of an impossibility."
In response, the Supreme Court said something which used to be oxymoronic: "Congress is presumed not to have intended absurd (impossible) results."
Lacking the integrity and education of even our poor Congress, Santa's Ana City Council lies to us about the poorest among us - with tricks and sleight of hand unbecoming a circus geek.
My contention today is the opposite:
That the City Council of Santa Ana did, in law and in fact, intend absurd and impossible results. They passed a law that mimics a well-defended Federal law, which reasonably intends to ration prized spots at popular parks like Yellowstone and Yosemite. At those destinations, permits are both needed and issued - people cannot be allowed to drive halfway across the country on their children's landmark vacation, only to be turned away at the last minute by the local homeless, or ill-prepared scofflaws who would steal another's moment in the Sun.
Our foul Mayor Pulido and the City, however, intended precisely the impossible.
Knowing it is unconstitutional to make homelessness illegal, he and the Council adopted the subterfuge, and please remember here that 30% of the homeless are veterans, while another third are children, of insisting that the homeless apply for a permit, which Santa Ana has never sold, issued or even printed, rendering possession impossible. Making homelessness illegal is unconstitutional, but making a needed permit unavailable almost does the trick; the only thing left to enact this selfish sin is to prohibit a specific act to complete the vicious fiction upon which local justice is done, or rather done-for. The City requires that a person intending to camp unfurl a blanket, or untie their shoes, and these innocent acts then trigger the banal legality of Santa Ana's horrific fiction. Far fewer than one third of the council-members ever defended anything with their lives; perhaps that is why they have the temerity to tell veterans not to spoil their view. But then, it has ever been thus...
In our case, the scofflaws are Mayor Pulido and the 1993 City Council, and others of their ilk who steal from a growing part of the public their ancient right to repose upon the commons.
Better circumstances built by honest governments temporarily forged a century in which public land could be left largely for public ceremony - the groomed lawns of courthouses and council chambers lent themselves to silent (the best kind) testimony that the local burghers had the situation well in hand, that everyone was at least doing well enough under their leadership to have a hovel. Well, those times are gone for good, the 10 year plan to eliminate the homeless notwithstanding.
Our bleak future has arrived early in Santa Ana. Most of the children graduating from our public schools will never achieve a level of employment commensurate with local rents, largely because 10 years of low-income housing funds were squandered on the Jail. Emigrants, they must join the march of other failed nation-states in a quest for greener pastures. Since we can no longer hold onto our own children, why should we permit the local Council their falsehood: their crowing grassland of civic pride. There is no reason to be proud of total failure.
Once local government has failed, there is only the solace of charity. As fails man, so succeeds God. As the hubris of local despots is swept away, perhaps our murdered saviour can again become rampant over the green crowing of City crows, feeding upon the corpse of an undeserved past. Perhaps the poor can again bed down upon that which God, in his mercy, has provided for them, and which the City first squandered, and then cut, and then forbade, in a blasphemous effort to be like God.
Like all governments intended to feather the nests of a few carrion birds, they have failed.
Perhaps it is time that the homeless of Santa Ana are treated better than runoff in Georgia.
Either issue camping permits or stop ticketing the homeless for not having them.

Sunday, May 22, 2011


21,000 is a special, but not quite magical number this month.

Dan Akroyd lost 21,000 bottles of vodka. He released a statement to TMZ -- claiming, he is both "distressed and elated" after hearing that several hundred thousand dollars worth of his vodka was hijacked within the last few days. The statement continues, "My partners and I are sorry to lose this much vodka to theft and do not condone criminal activity in any fashion, but we are happy that some consumers will be afforded the opportunity of tasting Crystal Skull at significantly lower than retail price."

The Keystone tar sands pipeline spilled approximately 21,000 gallons of crude in North Dakota. This is its eleventh and most significant spill. Considering that Keystone has been in operation for less than a year and it was predicted to spill no more than once every seven years, this is yet another troubling indicator that U.S. safety regulations intended for pipelines moving conventional oil may not be sufficient for pipelines moving diluted bitumen.

A minor in England invited 21,000 guests to her 15th birthday. The girl, a pupil at Sir John Lawes School, had meant to invite only 15 friends to her 15th birthday party, but within hours of appearing online the event escalated out of control as her mistake was subjected to online ridicule. At one stage, 21,000 Facebook users had clicked the RSVP button signaling they would attend the party, including fake celebrity accounts in the name of Justin Bieber, Professor Stephen Hawking, Stevie Wonder, Susan Boyle and Rick Astley.

This month also marks the beginning of the OC Partnership’s machinations to convince the voters, the Funder’s Roundtable, and assorted 2020 Plan dignitaries that 21,000, the current number of homeless, is somehow a magical number, exempt from the laws of physics, to wit:

21,000 times $100 still equals $2,100,000

21,000 times $1000 still equals $21,000,000

21,000 times $2156 still equals $45,276,000

21,000 times $12,000 still equals $252,000,000

Clearly there is some secret dividing going on; the OC Partnership cannot really believe, that we believe they are going to treat each of the OC’s 21,000 homeless people with equanimity. And they won’t. As always, the real plan is not to end homelessness, which would, of course, require dealing with every last person. No, the real plan is precisely the same as their current plan. Neither Larry Haynes nor Jim Palmer is clever enough or honest enough to have attracted their current million dollar bundles of voter and donor support without a plan. Their current plan is to help a few folks, talk about it every chance they get, and to try not to explain that neither one of them has ever, in any given year, helped anywhere near even 1000 people become less homeless, so that leaves 19,000, or pretty much everyone, homeless, and completely un-helped.

Now when I bail a swamp, my first inclination is to choose someone who has a plan for the alligators, so I have absolutely nothing but respect for the 2020 Plan committee in choosing the OC Partnership, which I’ll take the candid liberty of calling the Jim and Larry Plan. Now, Jim and Larry are both old hands at choosing which alligators can be made into purses. Given that both are still both deserving of and nearly free from nasty bites, what else could you do? This time, however, the Federal Government has committed to draining the swamp, and these two purse-snatchers know little or nothing about that.

Eliminating homelessness is going to involve considerably more than lining up new donors who are again willing to completely ignore the bottom line: Neither Jim nor Larry has any expertise at caring for homeless people for anything nearly as economical as $1000 per month. Jim has a $30,000,000 palace that houses 150 people, graduating a little over one a week, and Mercy house has a $12,000,000 palace that houses a mere 25 people, some of whom will likely die before they ever “graduate.” Taking them at their word, we’ll need just over a quarter billion dollars to get the job done the first year alone! So any talk of ending homelessness might have to be put to rest, at least with these two spenders.

I think it’s time we invite both of them to get their hands out of our purse, and admit that never once in their lives have they ever held the honest end of a shovel. Bailing the swamp will require an entirely new way of doing business.

The best first step is to fire the guys that were in charge of the old way.

After all, its how we got here.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Easter 2011

After fifteen years as a penniless Catholic Worker, I have it on good authority that we Catholics are very confused about the Nature of Easter – with me more than most. Clearly we are called to celebrate Resurrection. But are we not also called to recreate it? Let me explain, if not the answer, at least the source of my confusion.

For fifteen years I have been explaining the Catholic Worker. At first, we explained it in reference to what it was not: We’re not a shelter, not a government salve, we’re not do-gooders or bleeding-heart liberals by any measure. We don’t believe in government, and not because of any Johnny come lately tools who dislike taxes but love Corporations. No, we’re the old-fashioned kind of anti-Government people – the kind hanged by the Pinkerton’s after the Haymarket Riots. The kind they called Bolsheviks. We too have that terrible air of superiority that comes from seeing ourselves as “principled.”

So, this Easter, I thought it might be helpful, given that I’m already regarded as hopelessly arrogant, to illuminate just what the holiday meant before we festooned it with Rabbits and Easter Egg Hunts. I’d like to engage in a little bit of Resurrection by telling you what Easter means, before it’s too late.

In order to do this, I’m going to return to an exercise I invented in front of a classroom full of Catholic computer nerds: “If you were going to write a program to do Christianity,” I asked, “how would it start?” You’d have to define your terms, of course, just like you need to specify what daily means, on top of what bread means, but after all the definitions were loaded, and all the Psalms and Proverbs and the entire contents of both the Old and New Testaments were safely locked into Read Only Memory, what would the first instruction be? After a silent and conflicted pause that says volumes about the state of Catholic education, I said:

How about starting with the Greatest Commandment?

And then it occurred to me. How about it; how about starting that way in reality? These young nerds were Confirmed, and therefore fully mature Catholics. They were scarcely older than the BVM Herself when she decided to improve humanity, so why cut them, or you, any slack?

This Easter, how about starting with the Greatest Commandment?

Take some time, this year, after finally declining meat every Friday for Lent, and after doing your Easter Duty, to discover what occupied virtually every Theologian for the first 300 years of our Church: The Greatest Commandment. Discover for yourself whether it’s a suggestion, or an aside, or just maybe, a Commandment from the Lord Christ Himself. Then discover what it means. Read or better, listen to the Parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke, Chapter 10. And then, like the computer program imagined, define Biblically the terms used therein, especially Mercy.

Maybe even discover the Catholic definition of Mercy. It’s neither pity, nor forbearance, nor empathy, nor any emotion. It’s work. Work done on behalf of neighbors who need Mercy.

And, with Forgiveness, it is the thread that will knit the World together and Resurrect us, tearing us from the maw of Death and delivering us into the Arms of Christ. It’s Resurrection.

Let’s all start to practice it this Easter.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Wake up and Smell the Coffee, and more...

In December I got in a discussion regarding the public health aspects of serving the homeless with Ms. Carolyn McInerney, Special Projects Manager for the County CEO. As we together sought ways to better utilize the homeless serving location (moving it to Eddie West field!) in the Civic Center a primary constraint surprised us both.

It would appear the a number of simple safeguards like those explained in the food-handler class Bishop Soto made me take have been blocked by deputies of the OC Sheriff. In two public buildings they decide, on the fly and without due process, which members of the public can use the toilets therein.

I suggested that were the deputies to cease preventing the homeless from washing their hands after defecating, would could all celebrate both public health and civil rights victories!

It is not clear to me as a former SNCC volunteer, what law and guidelines currently exist to inform these deputies' instant selection of those persons worthy of the use of the public restrooms in the Supervisor's building. Perhaps some old-school Civil Rights lawyer could ask them?

I have never seen a computer queried to check for warrants or security risks, or even an enumeration of the risk individual homeless persons might present to office equipment.

While the ex-Treasurer adopted the expedient of both blocking a needed fire-exit and forcing all persons to pass muster with a deputy before using that building's non-public restrooms, the Supervisor's Building process is far more suspect. The lobby guards there apparently decide, on a case by case basis reminiscent of the segregated facilities of the 50's, which people are fit to use the restrooms therein, and which are sentenced to the lone "homeless-ready" restroom near the fighter jet.

In spite of the fact that most of the volunteer groups serve the homeless at 7:00PM, the only public restroom nearby closes at 8:00PM. When we Catholic Workers serve our 500 hot brunches each week, the Supervisor and Treasurer building bathrooms are still available, but only to those who meet the approval of the deputies stationed therein. Late nights are off the schedule completely.

Needless to say, when people who cannot wash their hands after defecating in the bush get coffee in the morning, they're still as Green as you or I! They dutifully replace two of the three hot drink lids that always come off the stack when you pry for just one with a filthy HepC feces contaminated fingernail. Same with those pesky stirrers.

We'll still be paying those deputies' pensions for their fine service long after you and I are denied coverage for the HepC we contracted from ingesting human waste with our morning java. The Sheriff will perhaps tell our relatives, by way of a cursory "serve and protect" eulogy, that HepC is always "drug related."

In the OC, it's apparently also deputy related!

Dwight Smith,
OC Catholic Worker