An Unexpectedly Good Read: Unbroken

While perusing books in a library book sale, I found a copy of Laura Hillenbrand's Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption. Having seen trailers for the film and heard good reviews, I appreciated the opportunity to read the book prior to an opportunity to see the film. While I expected the book to be good, it begins with certain challenges. As a work of history, a reader knows that the United States and its Allies will defeat the Japanese. Also, one can conclude, based on the the title alone, that our prisoner of war is going to survive the war. One might even imagine the former prisoner of war's challenges to readjust after the war. Nonetheless, in the end, the story told is unexpectedly good.

Unbroken recounts the experiences of Louis Zamperini and the people closest to him. A rough youth, Zamperini developed into a world-class runner through the encouragement of his brother Pete, his natural gifts, and extraordinary effort. Zamperini, after a remarkable high school career, runs for USC and, in the 1936 Olympics, for the U.S.

With the outbreak of World War II, Zamperini becomes a bombardier for the Army Air Corps on a B-24 in the Pacific Theater of Operations. Zamperini flew aboard a plane dubbed "Super Man" in a distinguished mission over the island of Nauru in April of 1943. "Super Man" barely made it home, struck so many times by enemy fire.
Louis Zamperini and "Super Man" after combat.
With the "Super Man" out of action, Zamperini and his crew flew a search and rescue mission aboard the rickety "Green Hornet," which crashed in the Pacific on May 27, 1943. Only three of the ten-man crew survived. After 47 days adrift, one has died, and the two remaining survivors are taken captive by the Japanese.

The next portion of the book recounts Zamperini's experiences as a prisoner of war. The war ends, and Zamperini is free with almost one hundred pages remaining. Hillebrand here recounts Zamperini's challenges in coming home and finding peace. I'd rather not divulge the nature of this portion of the book, but it is powerful.

Hillebrand clearly is a gifted storyteller. Her tales of Seabiscuit and Zamperini recount how wounded persons (and horse) overcome. Perhaps it is telling that Hillebrand herself was unable to complete her undergraduate studies at Kenyon College as she developed Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Her storytelling rises above the challenges that beset her, it seems, every bit as much as the protagonists of her work rise above the challenges that beset them.

Unbroken is a great read, born of Hillebrand's excellent historical work and lively storytelling, built upon the extraordinary story of Louie Zamperini. It will delight in unexpected ways.

Four Articles and a Poem

Weekly, I post four articles that I found significant and a poem accompanied by some comments about what we can learn from them. Our lives are enriched by seeing better. Each week, one article comes from the world of photography, a discipline that is about seeing. Another article comes from the world of technology, hence seeing something of the future. Another article takes up an aspect of our life together, seeing more clearly the other. Another article refers to faith, seeing the unseen. Finally, the weekly post concludes with a poem, because poetry is about seeing words whose arrangement allows us to see anew.

Today, the first two articles travel through Green Bay and pay indirect homage to the Packers of Titletown as they have their first home game of the NFL preseason. Next, we move to our life together, examining the decay of power. The fourth article looks at urban congestion and traffic. We'll close with poetry from a priest, Fr. John P. McNamee.
  1. 21st Century Mona Lisa. A Packer fan and a native of Appleton, WI, Gary Arndt is an American blogger and photographer. He is the author of the travel blog Everything Everywhere. His photos are an amazing array of places and things. Gary has seen much of our planet, and he shares it with fine photos. However, as this post may suggest, it is more than simply marking the place off of a list. Capturing an image of people before the Mona Lisa, he observes that many guests of the Louvre enter, visit the image, and depart. Amid such wonders of art, what a sad statement of how we tromp around the globe without appreciating what we encounter!
  2. Theodicy on the sports page: Did Glover Quin really say God took out Jordy Nelson? Continuing with the Packers, the Get Religion blog is a personal favorite. Basically, it is a place where experienced journalists examine coverage of religious topics and conclude that much of journalism doesn't "Get Religion." After Jordy Nelson was injured in a preseason game, an opposing player made a comment about "God's will." Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers entered the fray and re-tweeted a reply. While I do not look the NFL for the content of my theology, this blog examines the questions that the sportswriters missed. Think about it, most sports journalism misses the point when it comes to the faith of the players and the place of that faith in their lives. Read this post, and refer to GetReligion often!
  3. Video: Are we witnessing the decay of power? Moisés Naím, Distinguished Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and former Finance Minister for Venezuela, authored the engaging book, The End of Power. This short video lays out Naím's provocative thesis and is window into the content of his book.
  4. Rethinking urban traffic congestion to put people first.This post from the Brooking Institute reflects upon Texas A & M's Annual Urban Mobility Scorecard. This year, Brookings notes, A & M is urging not just more and better roads (and smarter), but greater coordination of housing and employment. The article reminds readers of Brookings' own work on the issue, including a tantalizing comparison of "the little apple" and "the Big Apple," Manhattan, KS and Manhattan, NY. For all of my Kansas State readers, spoiler alert: the Big Apple wins. The Brookings report notes, "it takes at least 37 percent longer to travel the same distance in Manhattan, NY, than Manhattan, KS. That said, one can reach many more destinations in the same amount of time in New York because of the high population and job density on the island. In a half-hour drive from an average point in metropolitan New York, one can reach 1.3 million jobs in Manhattan, and even more if one considers transit. From the center of Manhattan, KS, one could reach about 64,000 jobs in 30 minutes.As a result, Manhattan, NY, is more than 20 times as accessible as Manhattan, KS, despite speeds that are, at best, half as fast."
While I have never met him, Fr. John P. McNamee has inspired me in numerous ways. A priest of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, Fr. McNamee was the long-time pastor (now emeritus) of St. Malachy Parish. His work with the poor, especially immigrant and African-American community, through the parish and school has been exemplary. Committed to non-violence, Fr. McNamee has been a leader in Pax Christi. As well, he is an author and poet. Rocco Palmo gathered his biography here. His book, Diary of a City Priest was adapted into a film of the same name, starring David Morse. A favorite phrase from him: "One must be a contemplative to work in the inner-city." From his collection Clay Vessels and Other Poems (1995), I offer "A Day Away."

"A Day Away"
by Fr. John P. McNamee

Mid-August
and with the heat
the slow start on Monday.

Away finally.
Concrete and city open
into a wondrous summer day.

Sun    sky
green overgrowth wild enough
to repossess the road.

The beads beside me a kind of
flute   horn   string   anything
to join the flourish.

Monday:        Joyful Mysteries
Annunciation     Christmas
not confined   defined by some date.

The random grace of
an hour or day like this.

A Visitation
larger than the sweet sad tale
of unwelcome inn
makeshift manger and shed.

The full embrace for such descents
this skyscape   unbounded universie
unveiled now as only in summer.

An early Epiphany.

From a Father to his Son: Ta-Nehisi Coates' "Between the World and Me"


In my circles, an ardent buzz has been around Ta-Nahesi Coates' Between the World and Me. Jon Stewart, at the end of his run, interviewed him. President Obama is reading him on vacation. Friends have read him this summer and recommended him. Flying to Washington, D.C. recently, he came up in conversation with a stranger after discussing Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow, which the stranger was reading. The book has drawn its stream of praise (e.g., Michelle Alexander in The New York Times) and criticism (Rich Lowry in Politico.com). The book arrived some time ago, but I finally took Monday afternoon and devoured it.

Coates, inspired by rereading James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time, structures his book, written to his son, in three segments. Coates' description of the body, especially the Black body, and the violence done to it was striking. Coates' description and dismissal of the Dream and the Dreamer appeals to me as bearing a weighty truth. The book conveys a feeling of tremendous intimacy, written as father to son.
Ta-Nehisi Coates (Wikipedia)
In the interest of better understanding his selection of the book's title, I also paid attention to Coates' use of "the world" and any adjective modifiers attached to it. In addition the inscription at the beginning, another 21 pages take up "the world," and Coates explains:

I have spent much of my studies searching for the right question by which I might fully understand the breach between the world and me. I have not spent my time studying the problem of "race" -- "race" itself is just a restatement and retrenchment of the problem. (p. 115)

He continues:

The changes have awarded me a rapture that comes only when you can no longer be lied to, when you have rejected the Dream. But even more, the changes have taught me how to best exploit that singular gift of study, to question what I see, then to question what I see after that, because the questions matter as much, perhaps more than, the answers. (p. 116)

To be honest, I would draw a comparison in this writing to that of Rainier Maria Rilke and his more hopeful Letters to a Young Poet. Some may cringe at the comparison. There is a grittiness about Coates' writing, his experience, but Rilke too urges his young correspondent to:

Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.

Coates' work has a very different feel, undeniably, but, like Rilke, he seeks to share his experience with a younger person, in this instance, his son. The experience, at the end, is to love the questions.

Between the World and Me is a great book. In the way that it reminds me of Rilke, I believe that it may speak powerfully to younger persons. Neither Rilke nor Coates propose an answer so much as questions. For all of us, old and young, Coates raises important and troubling questions of race that have vexed us for a very long time in this land. Ignoring the Dream and seeking truth, Coates provides a prod to ask better questions.

Black Lives Matter and the Catholic Parish

Friends,

I am gathering information on how particular parishes and local communities are responding to Black Lives Matter. Your input and your sharing this with others would be very valuable to me. I'd like to get a picture of what is happening on the ground in the area of preaching and what the congregation desires in preaching. I'd be grateful if you would give me a few minutes of your time, and, then, please, ask your friends for some of their input, too.

Four Articles and a Poem


Weekly, I post four articles that I found significant and a poem accompanied by some comments about what we can learn from them. Our lives are enriched by seeing better. Each week, one article comes from the world of photography, a discipline that is about seeing. Another article comes from the world of technology, hence seeing something of the future. Another article takes up an aspect of our life together, seeing more clearly the other. Another article refers to faith, seeing the unseen. Finally, the weekly post concludes with a poem, because poetry is about seeing words whose arrangement allows us to see anew.

This week, Stephen Colbert's interview with GQ was amazing. That is our first link. Since I drove to Mom and Dad's home in Kansas this week, I will share the work of a photographer documenting a changing Midwestern town. Whether we live in a big or small city, we can make choices about our community, our friends. the third article offers some reflections on friendship in the big city. The last article might inspire some guilt about what you will eventually do with the device where you are reading this. The gates of Dante's Inferno had a sign: "Abandon hope all ye who enter here." Our poem will lead us to "The Gates of Hope."
  1. The Late, Great Stephen Colbert. GQ magazine did a remarkable interview of Stephen Colbert. With an incisive window into his work to create a new show, it is poignant as well. This was the best thing that I read all week. With no further ado, click the link now. The rest of this post will wait.
  2. A Changing Midwest. . . I first noticed Josh Bachman's work on the Xela Daily Photo blog from Guatemala. Currently working on his master's project, he is documenting changes in Milan, MO. Like many places across the Midwest, Milan has attracted a growing Latino community. Bachman's work is worth perusing. Take some time and enjoy his work.
  3. Get Rich With: Your Own Urban Tribe. Mr. Money Mustache is a website written by a thirtysomething who offer excellent, frugal financial advice. The blog often comments on the difference between wants and needs. This article consider how a work-life balance contributes to community life. The author's family lives day-to-day without use of their car, mostly walking within two miles of their home. The web of relationships with their neighbors, the depth of those relationships is appealing in a world where many of us live without knowing our neighbors by name. Mr. Money Mustache recognizes that his quality of life is determined more by his relationships than his toys. If you have not read him before, read the article.
  4. What should we do about electronic waste?The World Economic Forum shares this article written by Privahini Bradoo, Co-Founder and Chief Executive Officer of BlueOak, a start-up aimed at recycling high value metals from e-waste. Afterwards, next time you upgrade whatever device upon which you a reading this, please, recycle.
We conclude with a poem that ran recently in the Stanford Social Innovation Review. The poet, the Reverend Victoria Safford, is Lead Minister at White Bear Unitarian Universalist Church in Mahtomedi, MN.

The Gates of Hope
by Rev. Victoria Safford

Our mission is to plant ourselves at the gates of Hope—
Not the prudent gates of Optimism,
Which are somewhat narrower.
Not the stalwart, boring gates of Common Sense;
Nor the strident gates of Self-Righteousness,
Which creak on shrill and angry hinges
(People cannot hear us there; they cannot pass through)
Nor the cheerful, flimsy garden gate of
“Everything is gonna’ be all right.”
But a different, sometimes lonely place,
The place of truth-telling,
About your own soul first of all and its condition.
The place of resistance and defiance,
The piece of ground from which you see the world
Both as it is and as it could be
As it will be;
The place from which you glimpse not only struggle,
But the joy of the struggle.
And we stand there, beckoning and calling,
Telling people what we are seeing
Asking people what they see.

If you care about Laudato Si', work for it

A recent article from the Associated Press bears the headline: "Minority of US Catholics Know Pope's Climate Views." Frankly, I am disturbed by the articles contents. After the initial tide of articles and comments and news reports, I am alarmed that so many Catholics, especially American Catholics, remain uninformed, unmoved, and uncommitted. Also alarming is how only 23% of Catholics said that they heard about it at mass. In other words, many of our priests are neither preaching about it nor lifting it up in one way or another.

The Associated Press explains that the encyclical Laudato Si' "had a rollout unlike any other." Pope Francis has done the heavy lifting. The rollout was unprecedented. He speaks of the encyclical at home (at the Vatican) and abroad (his visit to Latin America and, no doubt, during his upcoming visit to the U.S.), but, so far, few hearts and minds have been changed.

We need to do our part. It is not enough to leave it in the very strong hands of Pope Francis; every Catholic is called to not only know this teaching, but to live it. If we do not, we will miss a vital opportunity. If we do not, our Earth and we ourselves will pay a heavy price.

In a previous post, I have written about 50 Ideas for Making Laudato Si' Part of Parish Life.



Genome: A Romp to Read in Science

DNA
Mature, public conversation about issues that matter is foundational for democratic society. I am delighted that Mark Zuckerberg's "A Year of Books" offers such an opportunity. To contribute to that dialog, I will offer commentary on each of the readings proposed by Zuckerberg.

Let me begin with a confession: in the Spring of 1989, I took "Introduction to Biotechnology" as a first-year student at the University of Notre Dame. I vaguely recalled that I may have taken the course, but only examination of my transcript confirmed it for me. I recall none of the readings. My transcript also alerts me to the fact that I did not put the necessary effort into the class. My only consolation may be to see how far human knowledge has advanced from 1989 via Matt Ridley's excellent 2000 book: Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters, although I would love to see how Ridley might update the book to reflect our learnings in the past 15 years.

Oxford educated, Ridley wrote for The Economist for nine years, then The Wall Street Journal, and now writes a column for The Times. Ridley also was elected in the House of Lords in 2013.
Matt Ridley (credit John Watson)
A graceful writer, Ridley composes Genome in 23 chapters corresponding to our 23 chromosomes, relating each chapter to a sequence on the appropriate chromosome when arranged in order of size. The book's structure fits as Ridley describes the genome as a book of 23 chapters, each chapter consisting of stories (genes), paragraphs (exons), advertisements (introns), and words (codons) written in letters (bases) (p. 7). Not simply a metaphor, the genome, Ridley contends, is literally a book, and our capacity to read the genome makes us the first creature in earth's history to know our own "recipe."

Ridley's gift, in my estimation, is to combine deep understanding of the science and broad, witty allusions to literature and culture to make readable, accessible content. Each chapter begins with an engaging quotation, often from classical literature. This appeals to my sensibilities formed in the Program of Liberal Studies, Notre Dame's Great Books program. While, as an undergraduate, I did not read enough in my biotechnology course, I did read Aristotle's De Anima, Darwin's Origin of Species, and Erwin Schrödinger's essay "What is life?" Each plays a part in Ridley's story. He also manages to include Homer, Virgil, and Shakespeare. Chapter One begins lifting a phrase from Genesis: "In the beginning was the word" (p. 11). He describes the terminology of genetic embryology "like dropping into a Tolkein novel" (p. 184). Ridley makes a pop reference to Suzanne Vega and her 1987 hit: "My Name is Luka," although Ridley uses the allusion to refer to LUCA (Last Universal Common Ancestor) (p. 19). Genome is a romp.

Amid the fun, Ridley conveys some important concerns and hopes. The book begins (p. 6) and ends (well, not quite, but close-- chapter 20) in "mystery." He addresses ethical and philosophical concerns. Ridley takes on some of the fears around genetic research and investigation. His intention is not to rebut directly the naysayers but to describe the terrain as he sees it. He does this well.

I found many chunks to chew on, but I will share two elements here. First, amid the context of the Black Lives Matter movement, Ridley offers intriguing remarks about discrimination. He writes:
Physical discrimination is so much less acceptable than psychological. yet psychological discrimination is just chemical discrimination. It is just as material as any other discrimination. (p. 167)
Elsewhere he writes: "Discriminating on the basis of APOE genes is like discriminating on the basis of skin color or gender (p. 269)." We must pay attention to the particularity of the experience of discrimination. The capacity to hear that "Black lives matter" is essential. Ridley, here, urges a reconsideration of the lives of those whose genome is different, like those who live with (or will live with) Down's Syndrome. Ridley here concludes that it is "an individual decision" (e.g., the parents'), rather than a coercive state (p. 298). Secondly, perhaps we may be more forgiving of the "defects" in others if we were to realize more fully that "We are all of us mutants" (p. 165). Our genome is not static, but changing from generation to generation, but even within us as we live. Some parts of the code misread, some parts discarded, some parts damaged and changed. Perhaps we all deserve a place at the school for the X-Men of Dr. Charles Francis Xavier.

With Ridley's embrace of genetic research, I should add that he rejects the concerns of global climate change. I find this curious. He wrote a column critical of Pope Francis and Laudato Si'. Naturally, I am inclined to see eye-to-eye with the Pope on this matter. Nonetheless, I am delighted that Mark Zuckerberg has introduced me to Ridley's work, and I look forward to reading more in the future.

While Zuckerberg reveals little about where his book selections are heading, and it is not even clear that he specifically knows what is next, the selections do not feel haphazard. Many of the writers have been in dialog with one another. Ridley's descriptions of the scientific debates in biology are better understood by Thomas Kuhn's paradigm theory. Steven Pinker makes repeated appearances in Genome. Ridley and Noah Yuval Harari cite some of the same evidence in their works, including Harry Harlow's experiments with nursing monkeys (p. 92). Ridley even cites Zuckerberg's next pick, William James' The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902). I have enjoyed the journey with Zuckerberg so far, and I look forward to seeing where we shall go in the next four months.

Four Articles and a Poem

Weekly, I post four articles that I found significant and a poem accompanied by some comments about what we can learn from them. Our lives are enriched by seeing better. Each week, one article comes from the world of photography, a discipline that is about seeing. Another article comes from the world of technology, hence seeing something of the future. Another article takes up an aspect of our life together, seeing more clearly the other. Another article refers to faith, seeing the unseen. Finally, the weekly post concludes with a poem, because poetry is about seeing words whose arrangement allows us to see anew.

This week, we will begin by looking at landscapes. We want to see the horizon. Then, with the faith story, I will share an unpreached funeral homily on the occasion of gun violence. Next, concerning how we live together, I share an article that names ways to reduce gun violence. The "technical" article compiles and interprets data around race and economic "success." Finally, I share a poem, a personal favorite, from Rainer Maria Rilke.
  1. Five Landscape Paintings to Study as a Landscape Photographer. Robert Rodriguez, Jr. is a wonderful, reflective landscape photographer living in the Hudson River Valley of New York. In this post from his blog, Rodriguez recommends that the study of landscape paintings can enhance one's practice of landscape photography. Personally, for my portraits, I have learned a lot from the Old Masters and their use of light.
  2. Words for Andre Green's funeral. My friend, Rev. Mike Mather, pastor of Broadway United Methodist Church in Indianapolis, is away from his church this month. Sadly, there was gun violence that took the life of a parishioner. While he was unable to preside or preach, Mike shared on his blog what he might have said.
  3. Three Necessary Reforms to Reduce Gun Violence in America. Just as Mike's homily makes personal the death of one young man, Christine Dickason reminds us: "Every day, 31 Americans are murdered with guns. In our society, we’re inundated with statistics — but these 31 Americans aren’t just an abstract number. They are our friends, family, neighbors, and coworkers. They are men, women, and children — people with dreams for the future." I believe that further steps are necessary, but these three may reduce some of the gun violence. The article also debunks some of the NRA's most frequent assertions.
  4. Following the success sequence? Success is more likely if you're white. Alex Gold, Edward Rodrigue, and Richard V. Reeves of the Brookings Institute respond to Rich Lowry of the National Review misusing their data in a review of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. A significant missing element in Dickason's piece is race and addressing issues around race. Elsewhere, it has been written: "If better policy is your destination, then better data is your map" (h/t Richard V. Reeves' twitter stream). We need new ways of seeing.
Finally, if you did not read Rainer Maria Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet as an undergraduate, I believe that you ought to demand a tuition refund from your college or university or you should return your diploma. The following poem captures some of Rilke's mystical faith in a very concrete expression of grief. This poem directed to God also conveys the author's deep reciprocal relationship with God.

"Pushing Through"
by Rainer Maria Rilke
(translated by Robert Bly)

It’s possible I am pushing through solid rock
in flintlike layers, as the ore lies, alone;
I am such a long way in I see no way through,
and no space: everything is close to my face,
and everything close to my face is stone.

I don’t have much knowledge yet in grief
so this massive darkness makes me small.
You be the master: make yourself fierce, break in:
then your great transforming will happen to me,
and my great grief cry will happen to you.

Four Articles and a Poem

Weekly, I post four articles that I found significant and a poem and some comments about what we can learn from them. Our lives are enriched by seeing better. Each week, one article comes from the world of photography, a discipline that is about seeing. Another article comes from the world of technology, hence seeing something of the future. Another article takes up an aspect of our life together, seeing more clearly the other. Another article refers to faith, seeing the unseen. Finally, the weekly post concludes with a poem, because poetry is about seeing words whose arrangement allows us to see anew.

Tomorrow, August 9, is the 72nd anniversary of the death of Franz Jägerstätter, and it is the 70th anniversary of the bomb on Nagasaki. It is also the anniversary of Michael Brown's death in Ferguson, MO. We would do well to pray for peace.

  1. U.S. Mayors Say Ferguson Could Happen To Us. According to Politico.com, nine out of ten mayors surveyed expressed concern about the state of race relations and police in their city, with almost a third of them "deeply concerned." It is a telling statistic, but it also suggests that we might need to question that 10% of mayors that do not seem particularly concerned. Our mayors are concerned; what are we going to do to improve race relations in the U.S.?
  2. Data Science for Social Good: Improving Services for Homeless Families. Today, it seems that everyone loves big data. In an article written by Fabliha Ibnat, Jason Portenoy, Chris Suberlak, Joan Wang, all scholars from the University of Washington, the writers ask the question: "But how does one use data to promote social good? How does one harness the lessons learned in analyzing data from the internet, or data from scientific measurements, to address a social problem as challenging and complex as family homelessness?" A grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has allowed them to tackle the question. To improve the quality of life for all, I am excited that researchers will apply everything in the tool box to find the best ways forward.
  3. On social justice, Francis isn’t rethinking so much as recycling. Here is another post from John L. Allen, Jr. that gives us a worthy reminder: Pope Francis is not innovating so much as recycling Catholic Social Teaching. For those who are aghast at what they hear from the Pontiff, some history may help, especially before he visits the U.S. in September.
  4. Photo: "Nothing But A Memory." Photographer Amy Heiden explores "lost and forgotten history." Her niche is photography of historical and abandoned sites. As she puts it:"To me, all these places have a story to tell. Years ago, the now empty asylums, factories, churches, resorts, ships and aircrafts were saturated with life. The people working, inhabiting and visiting these locations were experiencing many of the same emotions we feel today; hope, despair, love, sorrow, happiness and tragedy. As these locations vanish, their stories are being forgotten. I strive to fully document these sites in an attempt to preserve these memories before these historic relics are gone forever."

Here is a poem from the late Denise Levertov entitled "Making Peace" from her 1987 book Breathing from Water. This poem speaks to our common work in making peace, between nations, within cities, and within our hearts.

"Making Peace"
By Denise Levertov

A voice from the dark called out,
      ‘The poets must give us
imagination of peace, to oust the intense, familiar
imagination of disaster. Peace, not only
the absence of war.’
           But peace, like a poem,
is not there ahead of itself,
can’t be imagined before it is made,
can’t be known except
in the words of its making,
grammar of justice,
syntax of mutual aid.
                             A feeling towards it,
dimly sensing a rhythm, is all we have
until we begin to utter its metaphors,
learning them as we speak.
                                         A line of peace might appear
if we restructured the sentence our lives are making,
revoked its reaffirmation of profit and power,
questioned our needs, allowed
long pauses . . .
                   A cadence of peace might balance its weight
on that different fulcrum; peace, a presence,
an energy field more intense than war,
might pulse then,
stanza by stanza into the world,
each act of living
one of its words, each word
a vibration of light—facets
of the forming crystal.

Ten Worst SCOTUS Decisions Ever

A hallmark of a vital democracy is mature public conversation, often the antithesis to the coarseness of contemporary presidential campaigns. I offer the following list of worst Supreme Court decisions to introduce some context into the nearsightedness that often belies our judgment about our actual circumstance. We are nearsighted in that we often see recent events in a larger-than-life proportion compared to those further back.
 Since its inception with the in 1789, only 112 persons have served on the nation’s highest court. One-hundred ten (98.2 percent) of those unelected jurists have been white, only two African-American. All men (96.4 percent), except four women. All Christian (93.6 percent), except eight Jews. In more than 225 years, from the first Supreme Court, presided over by Chief Justice John Jay, to the current court of Chief Justice John Roberts, the jurisprudence has ranged from inspired to banal. I am neither a lawyer nor have I played one on television, but I think simply raising the question is important. I'd also really appreciate your participation. Below, I have prepared a list of a handful of Supreme Court decisions that rate in my mind as the "worst" decisions ever. I have added some "dishonorable mentions" as well. In the comments section below, I'd really like to hear your feedback. Do you agree? Are there other cases that you would add? Please, explain why you hold the position that you do. Please, treat other commentators with respect and courtesy, even if there is a difference of opinion.

To avoid "nearsightedness," I have not included any decisions from the past ten years. In other words, cases criticized by the left or the right, including Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (2010), National Federation of Independent Business v. Sebelius (2012), Obergefell v. Hodges (2015), King v. Burwell (2015), among others, are excluded as we do not have sufficient time to evaluate their impact one way or another.

So, herewith, I present a list, in no particular order, of worst Supreme Court decisions:
  • Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896). This case established the “separate but equal” doctrine that pervaded life in the American South for more than fifty years. In 1892, Homer Plessy, only 1/8 black (he had an African American great-grandmother),  “passed” as white, but Plessy was legally considered black in the State of Louisiana.  The Citizen’s Committee (a local political group) asked Plessy to help them challenge the newly enacted Separate Car Act, a Louisiana statute that separated blacks from whites in railroad cars. The penalty for sitting in the wrong car was either 20 days in jail or a $25 fine. Plessy agreed, and purchased a first-class ticket on the train to Covington, Louisiana. He took a seat in the “Whites Only” car and waited for the conductor. When the conductor arrived, Plessy informed him that he was 1/8 Black and that he was hereby refusing to move to the “colored” car. The conductor called the police and had Plessy arrested immediately; he spent the night in the local jail and was released the next morning on bond. The court set the precedent that "separate" facilities for blacks and whites were legal so long as they were "equal." The doctrine of "separate but equal" was a fiction, as facilities for blacks were always inferior to those for whites.
  • Dred Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. 393 (1857). Dred Scott, a slave in Missouri, resided in Illinois (a free state) from 1833 to 1843, where slavery was forbidden by the Missouri Compromise of 1820. After returning to Missouri, Scott, after an unsuccessful suit in Missouri courts seeking his freedom, then brought a suit in federal court. The court ruled that slaves were not citizens of the United States and, therefore, could not expect any protection from the Federal Government or the courts. The court also ruled that Congress had no authority to ban slavery from a Federal territory, moving the nation a step closer to Civil War.
  • Korematsu v. United States, 323 U.S. 214 (1944). This landmark case concerning the constitutionality of Executive Order 9066, which ordered Japanese Americans into internment camps during World War II. In a 6-3 decision, the Court sided with the government, ruling that the exclusion order was constitutional. In Korematsu, SCOTUS upheld a system that deprived American citizens of their life, liberty, and property solely on the basis of their ancestry.
  • Bowers v. Hardwick, 478 U.S. 186 (1986). Here, the Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution does not protect the right of gay adults to engage in private, consensual sodomy. This decision was overturned by Lawrence v. Texas (2003), which some have compared to Brown v. Board of Education for LGBT rights. Likely, it would not be too difficult to show that today's victories in LGBT rights are, to some part, a consequence of this decision.
  • The Slaughter-House Cases, 83 U.S. 36 (1873). In 1869, amid bribery, the Louisiana legislature created a 25-year monopoly for slaughtering livestock. The butchers who lost their livelihoods challenged the law as a violation of the 14th Amendment. In a 5-4 decision, then extremely rare, the Supreme Court upheld the monopoly. The decision held that "privileges or immunities" encompassed only those rights expressly recognized by the original Constitution, such as access to foreign commerce and navigable waters, habeus corpus, and freedom of movement from state to state, but it excluded the Bill of Rights and economic liberties. It rendered inconsequential, to this day, section one of the Fourteenth Amendment. Undoing this decision remains unfinished business. 
  • Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973). I am a Catholic, and I have a whole set of very important reasons to oppose this decision. However, from what I have read, no legal scholar believes that the Court got this one right. Even those who tend to agree with abortion in general offer criticism of the decision itself. For instance, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg has offered pointed criticism of the decision repeatedly. This decision prompts the largest annual protest in Washington related to a supreme Court decision. Support or opposition to the decision has become a litmus test for our two major political parties. I believe that it has poisoned the political process and weakened democracy in the U.S. for more than 40 years.
  • Bush v. Gore, 531 U.S. 98 (2000). Even if one supported Bush, it is worth stepping back from the politics briefly to observe this decision as a unique moment in American history: the only time in which the U.S. Supreme Court has played a direct role in deciding a presidential election. It seems to me that the Supreme Court ought not render "non precedential opinions" and ought not exercise its authority to declare an election victor.
  • Santa Clara County v. Southern Pacific Railroad Company, 118 US 394 (1886). It was this case where the Supreme Court ruled that the Fourteenth Amendment gave corporations the same, or very nearly the same, access to the Bill of Rights as human beings have. The claim about the nature of corporations was not in the decision but in a headnote to the decision written by a clerk, which the opinion does not explicitly state.
  • United States v. Cruikshank, 92 U.S. 542 (1875). The Court annulled the convictions of three men growing out of a massacre in Colfax, Louisiana, in which a white mob killed almost 300 African Americans who were defending a local courthouse, many after the freedmen had surrendered. Specifically, a contingent of whites led by William Cruikshank murdered most of the prisoners, probably between twenty-eight and thirty-eight. James Gray Pope authored a powerful examination of the decision.
  • McCleskey v. Kemp, 481 U.S. 279 (1987). Convicted of murdering a police officer in Georgia and sentenced to death, attorneys argued for Warren McCleskey, a black man, that a complex statistical study (the Baldus study) proved that the imposition of the death penalty in Georgia depended to a significant extent on the race of the victim and the accused. Unsurprisingly, the study found that black defendants who kill white victims are the most likely to receive death sentences in the state. The Court held that since McCleskey could not prove that purposeful discrimination which had a discriminatory effect on him existed in this particular trial, there was no constitutional violation. Lewis Powell would be among those expressing doubts. Just months after he wrote the majority opinion, Justice Lewis Powell retired from the Supreme Court, who later confided to his biographer that given the chance he would have changed his vote in McCleskey and, indeed, "in any capital case." His regrets came too late, because  the State of Georgia executed Warren McCleskey on September 25, 1991. Today, the decision effectively acts as a substantial barrier to the elimination of racial inequalities in the criminal justice system, perpetuating an unfair racial imbalance that has come to define criminal justice in America.
Dishonorable mentions: Lochner v. New York (1905), Adkins v. Children’s Hospital (1923), Schenck v. United States (1919), United States v. E.C. Knight Company (1895), Hammer v. Dagenhart (1918), Adair v. United States (1908), Pollock v. Farmers’ Loan & Trust Co. (1895).

Again, I'd appreciate hearing your commentary about Supreme Court decisions. Be mindful of my request for respect and courtesy.

Farewell, Jon Stewart, and thank you!

After 16 years of hosting The Daily Show, tomorrow is Jon Stewart's final episode. For more than half of that time, I have been a faithful viewer. For more than four years, I lived outside the U.S. and had to overcome some technological barriers to see his show. I watched the clips the next day, sometimes occasionally using some workarounds to see the programming as it may be blocked in one country or another.

Courtesy of JDH Rosewater on Flikr.
Humorously and, occasionally, poignantly, Stewart has named and expressed the sentiment, national and personal. Most recently, his expression after horrific incidents of gun violence, sadly, captured those moments for me. He always seemed to have the better hand in his interactions with the news media, calling them to exercise their profession, indeed their vocation, with greater diligence. It's not surprising that he became the most trusted news person on television.

Stewart is one of a handful of celebrities with whom I would love to have an extended conversation. I'd love just to watch him up close. I can only imagine that The Daily Show staff meetings occasionally were chaos with his quick humor.

Stewart also seems to be a remarkable mentor. He has brought immense talent to his team, and those talents have emerged even stronger over time. Stephen Colbert, John Oliver, and Larry Wilmore have gotten their own shows. A confession: I now have moved to watch John Oliver faithfully on YouTube.

Another confession: Stewart has influenced me. I cannot count the number of books that I have read because he interviewed the author. He has helped me laugh at frustrating elements about our life in these United States. He has introduced me to folks not likely to have come across my radar, were it not for him.

I wish Trevor Noah the best as Stewart's successor, and I will try not to compare, but I will miss Stewart. I do not imagine that Stewart is finished. He is too young, too energetic not to develop another project. I await with expectation what his next project will be.

So, Jon, thank you!

Time for "Just Mercy"



Alongside Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow: Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness and john a. powell's Racing to Justice: Transforming Our Conceptions of Self and Other to Build an Inclusive Society, another extraordinary book on race and the criminal justice system is Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson.

A public-interest lawyer who has dedicated his career to helping the poor and the incarcerated, especially the condemned, Bryan Stevenson is the founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, an Alabama-based group that has won major legal challenges eliminating excessive and unfair sentencing, exonerating innocent prisoners on death row, confronting abuse of the incarcerated and the mentally ill, and aiding children prosecuted as adults.

In an historic win for EJI, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Graham v. Florida, 2010, that mandatory life-without-parole sentences for all children 17 or younger are unconstitutional. Stevenson, a graduate of the Harvard Law School and the Harvard School of Government, has been awarded 14 honorary doctorate degrees. Fighting poverty and challenging racial discrimination in the criminal justice system, Stevenson has been awarded 16 honorary doctorate degrees as well as a MacArthur Genius Grant in 1995.

Stevenson writes smoothly, gracefully, recounting stories from his first meeting as a law student with a man condemned to death. In more than 30 years since that encounter, Stevenson has persevered and occasionally won, against the odds, justice for his clients. The writing, imbued with biblical terms, incorporates and echoes the old spirituals and hymns. Several chapters make direct allusion: "Higher Ground," "The Old Rugged Cross," "I'll Fly Away," and "Song of Sorrow."

That first encounter in 1983 with Henry, the condemned prisoner, began a change in Stevenson:
I had come into the prison with such anxiety and fear about his willingness to tolerate my inadequacy. I didn't expect him to be compassionate or generous. I had no right to expect anything from a condemned man on death row. Yet he gave me an astonishing measure of his humanity. In that moment, Henry altered something in my understanding of human potential, redemption, and hopefulness. (p. 12)
The experience also prompted an essential hermeneutic for Stevenson; his grandmother would tell him: "You can't understand most of the importance things from a distance, Bryan. You have to get close" (p. 14). Stevenson has spent his life getting close to those convicted of heinous crimes and has important understandings to share with us.

Anyone who has more than 30 years fighting for justice has a spirit of hope that I want to know more closely. In his public-speaking, Stevenson addresses not only the convicted and the courts, but also to churches and the community, the loved ones of the condemned. While he recounts how he has found hope in those others, I have no doubt that he is also a bearer of hope to those who need it. He mentions a fondness for quoting, on hope, Václav Havel, a Czech writer, philosopher, dissident, and first president of the Czech Republic. He describes that hope as "The kind of hope that creates a willingness to position oneself in a hopeless place and be a witness, that allows one to believe in a better future, even in the face of abusive power. That kind of hope makes one strong" (p. 219). Stevenson gives witness to a resilient, enduring hope that emerges from broken places.

In chapter fifteen, the penultimate chapter, Stevenson explores that brokenness more explicitly. Here, he cites his experience as well as Dr. Paul Farmer, a physician who has worked among some of the poorest on the planet, and Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk whose writings inspired so many. Stevenson concludes:
We have a choice. We can embrace our humanness, which means embracing our broken natures and the compassion that remains our best hope for healing. Or we can deny our brokenness, forswear compassion, and, as a result, deny our own humanity. (p. 289)
Here, my hard-fought experience suggests that he is right. As a wise priest once put it, we are called neither to be more than human nor less than human; our call, our vocation is to be fully human. Stevenson continues:
In fact, there is a strength, a power even, in understanding brokenness, because embracing our brokenness creates a need and desire for mercy, and perhaps a corresponding need to show mercy. (p. 290)
Again, I believe that Stevenson has it right here, both experientially and Biblically, we can be merciful precisely because we know our need for and have been shown mercy.

In the final chapter, Stevenson offers the image of a "stonecatcher." He derives the image from Jesus' encounter with the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11). Pharisees bring to Jesus a woman, caught in adultery. Under the law, she is condemned to death, and Jesus replies: "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone." Th accusers retreat. Jesus forgives her and urges her to sin no more. Today, even Christians hurl stones or, lacking that, simply watch it happen. He calls for us to act, to be "stonecatchers." The work is not easy. You got yo get close to catch them. It hurts, but it is the most hopeful, powerful, and transformative thing that we can do.

Stevenson's book is a beauty. Read it. Let it move you. Enter the brokenness of those in the book. Encounter your own brokenness. Then seek to show just mercy to others.

I would also encourage you, in addition to reading Just Mercy, to watch Bryan Stevenson's TED Talk:

Four Articles and a Poem

Weekly, I post four articles that I found significant and a poem. Our lives are enriched by seeing better. Each week, one article comes from the world of photography, a discipline that is about seeing. Another article comes from the world of technology, hence seeing something of the future. Another article takes up an aspect of our life together, seeing more clearly the other. Another article refers to faith, seeing the unseen. Finally, the weekly post concludes with a poem, because poetry is about seeing words whose arrangement allows us to see anew.

Here are four articles followed by a poem that I recommend for your weekend reading:
  1. Federal budget and data woes. This article, written by Jonathan Schwabish of the Urban Institute, explains in very calm tones something that has me very worried. We woefully under invest in the technological infrastructure for our federal government. We should be grateful that China has voluntarily "backed up" our data. Underneath the loss of I.R.S. emails and initial failures with healthcare.gov are long-standing results of misplaced budget priorities. Amid the push for evermore lean federal budgets, we will want to invest in technological infrastructure-- machines, software, and the humans who run them. This article speaks about non-nefarious data collection, statistics, but our weak investment in many areas is risky. The world is "flat" as Tom Friedman likes to say, so it is not surprising that the Middle East has one of the top ten supercomputers now. This is, frankly, an area where the government must make smart investments, not retreat.
  2. Tryin’ to Make a Dollar Out of 64 Cents. We know well but fail to act on the gender wage gap. For every dollar that a male makes, a woman with comparable qualifications makes 78 cents. The gap is even worse for African-American women who make 64 cents on the dollar, as reported by Marc Bayard and Kimberly Freeman on the site of the Institute for Policy Studies. Bayard, an associate fellow and director the Black Worker Initiative at the Institute for Policy Studies, and Freeman, the former Executive Director of American Rights at Work, co-authored the report And Still I Rise: Black Labor Women’s Voices, Power and Promise.
  3. Outraged over Cecil the lion? It may help you understand the rage over Planned Parenthood. I turn again to Charlie Camosy, a theologian from Fordham university, who suggests common ground on the rage from left and right regarding Cecil and Planned Parenthood in an opinion piece that the Los Angeles Times published.
  4. The Candid Frame. The Charlie Rose of photography interviewers is Ibarionex Perello. Weekly, he posts a podcast that is worth your listening. This week's interview is with Matt Sweeney who has a fascinating collection of street photography from Hollywood in the 1980s. Ibarionex concludes every interview with a request that the subject recommend another photographer who listeners should explore.
Let me conclude with a poem by the Australian-born poet John Kinsella.  Published in February 1996 in Commonweal, the poem, entitled “Imitamini Quod Tractatis” – Latin for “Imitate what you celebrate,” speaks not only to priests but to all of us. Last Sunday, this weekend, and the three following weekends we will hear from the Gospel of John, Chapter 6. This chapter is a profound reflection on the Eucharist.

Imitamini Quod Tractatis
by John Kinsella

The day you were called
to break bread for a living
was the day you were called
to be broken.
The days you spend
bending over bread
are spent
bent around a mystery of fraction.
If you are indeed broken,
you need to gather up
each other’s fragments gently,
and remember how,
again through you,
He feeds so many
with so little.


Revised to reflect information posted below in the comments.