The Tourniquet Psalm: A Gothic Lamentation by Evanescence

Contemporary spirituality or prayer life does not seem to offer much space for the idea of complaining to God or demanding some form of divine accountability for injustices that we witness or suffer ourselves. We may reverently ask God for our petitions and of course offer prayers of thanksgiving. I certainly encounter the phrase “God is good” sometimes followed by the response “all of the time.” But the human condition is not all about experiencing the good. Everyone experiences suffering; we all know that injustice is part of our social and personal experience, yet somehow it is considered taboo to or spiritually audacious to bring this to the attention of God. I will admit that there has been times when I have been tempted to respond to the “God is good” phrase with my own scandalous response, “not today.”

51gZP9K9I5L._SY320_And yet our scripture offers a number of prayers to God that offer complaints and at times demanding divine accountability. We find many of these in the psalms and lamentations. The book of Job is a complaint to God by one who has experienced a horrible injustice. Jesus himself takes part of this tradition when in the midst of being crucified he cries out the beginning of Psalm 22, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” Psalm 22 is a  cry of deep anguish and desolation, “I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted within my breast;” (psalm 22: 14). While towards the end of this psalm there is a recognition that God will vindicate the suffering servant, others like Psalm 88 are not so optimistic. The psalmist here cries out his anguish to God and wonders if God is indeed present. Daniel Harrington, SJ writes:

Psalm 88 is often called a dialogue with an absent God. The psalmist calls out to a God who appears to have abandoned him and to be hiding from him. Yet the absent God is still somehow present – present enough to be addressed in prayer, to be criticized, and to be angry at.[1]        

Whereas our contemporary spirituality may not offer us a place to offer today’s lamentations nevertheless this continues to be part of the human condition and we can see this being expressed in areas of popular culture. The Gothic genre of punk music seems to be a place where one can find expression for this traditional prayer. The band Evanescence offers a powerful lamentation rich with the symbolism and expressions of the Biblical psalms in many of their song. One in particular is their song “tourniquet” which can be found in the album, “Fallen.”

Like Psalm 88 this song is offered by one who is on the verge of facing death. In this case the suffering victim has attempted to take her own life out of desperation. In the process of dying however she recognizes her mistake and is seeking salvation in two ways. Can God, functioning for her in this desperate moment as both a spiritual and actual tourniquet, save her both physically and spiritually? Is God present and can He bring salvation to her in this most desperate hour? Consider the lament in Psalm 22:14 above and this lamentation from what I now am calling the “tourniquet psalm.”

I lay dying; And I’m pouring crimson regret and betrayal
I’m dying, praying, bleeding and screaming
Am I too lost to be saved? Am I too lost?

My God my tourniquet; Return to me salvation

imagesLike the Psalmist in psalm 88 the question of God’s presence is asked. In her moment of need will God be there for her:

Do you remember me? Lost for so long
Will you be on the other side; Or will you forget me?

As the song is ending it seems that she has lost her physical battle, now she wonders if Christ, her tourniquet, will be there to offer her salvation in the next life. This Gothic song is a powerful contemporary lamentation. For me the “tourniquet psalm” and other lamentations that come out of the Gothic punk genre allow us to continue to express this traditional form of prayer, at least until our own religious communities and Christian spirituality can move beyond their more sanitized version of “God talk.”

Below I offer a youtube video of this song being sung in a concert in Lisbon.

[1] Daniel Harrington, SJ “Why do we suffer: A scriptural approach to the human condition,” (Sheed & Ward, Lanham, MD, 2000) pp. 10

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Catholic Social Advocacy 2013

DSCN1712Catholic service agencies attended the Catholic Social Ministry Gathering on February 10-13 of 2013. In my last post I shared the multicultural liturgy that kicked off this event. On Monday the Catholic Social Ministry Gathering had some amazing presentations, panels and workshops for us as we prepared to advocate on these issues with our legislators the following day. We heard from Dr. Charles Clark, Professor of Economics from St. John’s University, and Eric Mitchell, Director of Government Relations for Bread for the World. Both of these distinguished gentleman offered the moral and economic arguments for protecting poverty reducing programs. While we were informed about our Catholic teaching on economic justice I was particularly inspired by the following quote that Dr. Clark offered:

No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable. It is but equity, besides, that they who feed, cloath and lodge the whole body of the people, should have such a share of the produce of their own labour as to be themselves tolerably well fed, cloathed and lodged. – Adam Smith

These lectures were followed by a panel from Catholic Relief Service that discussed their concern regarding international aid and Poverty Focused Development Assistance. We also heard from Kevin Appleby, the policy director for the USCCB’s Migrant and Refugee Services department. He discussed the current immigration situation and the points that the US Bishops would like to see adopted within a Comprehensive immigration Reform package.

DSCN1733On Tuesday a number of New York Catholic social service providers, including myself, went down to the Capitol to advocate on these Catholic positions. In Long Island we were able to meet with the Chief of Staff, or minimally the Legislative Directors, for Rep. Peter King (3rd District), Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (4th District), Rep. Steve Israel (2nd District), and Rep. Tim Bishop (1st District). Our Archdiocesan and upstate colleagues met with their legislative representatives as well. These meetings were very productive as we explained our concern for these poverty protecting programs and the relationships that agencies like Catholic Charities had with the people who relied on these programs because of the difficult  economic situation they faced.  In the afternoon we all met with Senator Gillibrand’s office where we had the opportunity to discuss our concern with her senior advisor.

DSCN1734In the afternoon I had a chance to meet with Representative Chris Gibson of the 19th district and his legislative director Matt Sheehey. This district is between Poughkeepsie and Albany (where I once lived.) While all my meetings were positive and productive I was especially encouraged by this legislator. Rep. Gibson recognizes the value of our service agencies having volunteered with agencies like the Peace Corps and Catholic Charities. He was very supportive of the domestic poverty programs that we work. He recognized and shared the concern for the immigration community. As a former Peace Corp volunteer he was very supportive of the issues for international aid and the work that Catholic Relief Service does.

DSCN1737Tuesday night ended with a reception that included a supportive word from Senator Bob Casey. The Senator was introduced by William O’Keefe, Vice President for Government Relations and Advocacy for Catholic Relief Services. Senator Casey, a Catholic and a pro-life Democrat, reminded us of the moral cause from our faith that brings us out to do what we did that day. As he concluded his talk he cited the famous hymn from the Prophet Micah 6:8.

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?

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“Empathic Fusion” – Advocacy through accompaniment

0750343I would like to share a significant contribution that Roberto Goizueta offers in his book “Caminamos Con Jesus.” In developing a theology of accompaniment Goizueta adapts the concept of “empathic fusion” which he borrows from the Mexican philosopher Jose Vasconcelos. Vasconcelos critiques the modernist approach to social structures and relationships based on a rational (and often times impersonal) approach. Instead he argues for an aesthetic approach whereby social and cultural transformation occurs through an intense relational solidarity with the other. This aesthetic praxis (social transformation based on the beauty and truth that can be found when one is open to relating with the other) is captured in the phrase “empathic fusion” where the law of love supersedes the law of reason and we experience this when “we can ‘fuse’ with each other… through empathy.”[1] Goizueta offers “empathic fusion” as an ethical formula from which we can offer a socio-cultural critique. Through Vasconcelos’ aesthetic model of praxis human political or economic action is understood not in conceptual frameworks that can be used over and against others (i.e. the imposition of neo-liberal economic policies on developing countries) but in a highly relational process where community development occurs in dialogue and consultation with all affected stakeholders.

Theologically, this intensely relational ethic challenges the limitations of modernity and post-modernity by suggesting that particulars mediate the universal. That is to say the the universal truths are found and recognized not by cold rational arguments but by sharing in particulars that others have experienced. Citing the experience of Our Lady of Guadalupe Goizueta demonstrates how people respond to the insights derived from the experience of another.[2] The particular experienced by Juan Diego on the mountain of Tepeyac is not an isolated truth relevant only to him; the truth that was revealed by the Lady of Guadalupe is a universal truth that resonates with others who did not share in Juan Diego’s experience. Likewise God is universally revealed to us in the particular that is Jesus of Nazareth. Our faith does not express its universal truth through concepts or ideals but in the mystery of the incarnation, the “scandal of particularity”[3] The cross and resurrection does not just reveal the dignity of Jesus; it reveals “the true dignity of all persons.”[4]

“Truth is grounded in praxis, in the interrelationship of others.”[5] The socio-cultural critique that we have through the incarnation is that truth is not authentic if it is imposed from one to the other, as isolated objects rather than related subjects. Truth is experienced through the dynamic of an authentic relationship, an “empathic fusion.” Legislative advocacy is done with this principle very much in mind. When we organize legislative visits to DC or Albany one of the items that we encourage is the use of experiential stories. Certainly we offer facts and data related to the issue and we often leave those behind for the legislator to go over as well, but the legislator is often looking for stories from their constituents on how the issue is actually impacting them. This is what the legislator will share to his colleagues in order to move them on an issue. Certainly people do not share the same story, but aspects of their story will resonate with their own experience and this will move people in a way that data and numbers never will. We can hear about the numbers of people killed by drones in Central Asia and shrug our shoulders as we get on with the rest of our day, but if we were to see an image of a child killed by a drone and hear the grief stricken parents we might take a moment to pause to morally reflect on this issue.

[1] Roberto Goizueta, Caminamos Con Jesus: Toward a Hispanic/Latino Theology of Accompaniment, (Orbis Book, Maryknoll, NY 1995) pp. 92

[2] Ibid., 151

[3] Ibid., 152

[4] Ibid., 184

[5] Ibid., 156

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Earned Income and Child Tax Credits: Tax programs for the common good

No doubt many of us are concerned about the national budget and deficit spending that our nation has been struggling with. Any of us who are responsible for the fiscal solvency of our own homes know how difficult it is to make decisions where we have to reprioritize our own spending. Similarly our nation must also take this time to reprioritize its fiscal spending during these difficult economic times. We must find creative ways to reduce spending while prioritizing the needs of the most vulnerable members of our society.

Our Catholic social tradition suggests that these times of economic constraints do not call us to carelessly eliminate taxation and public spending. Instead we must take this opportunity to address the needs of the community and to invest smartly for the common good. The Catholic Church offers these specific guidelines with respect to the proper use taxes and public spending.

Public spending is directed to the common good when certain fundamental principles are observed: the payment of taxes as part of the duty of solidarity; a reasonable and fair application of taxes; precision and integrity in administering and distributing public resources. In the redistribution of resources, public spending must observe the principles of solidarity, equality and making use of talents. It must also pay greater attention to families, designating an adequate amount of resources for this purpose.  – Compendium,  #355

While on the one hand our Catholic teaching raises the social value of redistributing wealth and resources one ought not fail to appreciate the principles that qualify such a distribution. By applying solidarity, equality and use of talents we are advocating for economic policies that can assist the working community whose income is simply not enough to support the needs of their family.

eitc_bagFor the past number of years the Catholic Bishops of the United States have advocated for two tax programs that they feel adhere to these principles. Urging Congress to “maintain and strengthen the bi-partisan commitment to assist those working families who struggle the most in these difficult economic times” the U.S. Catholic Bishops have advocated for the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and the Child Tax Credit (CTC). These specific tax credits go to working families whose income is below the poverty line. In 2012 workers raising children who made less than $47,000 were eligible for this tax credit where they could receive up to $5,891. Single or married people who worked full or part time at some point in 2012 can qualify for the EICC, depending on their income.

This tax credit is specifically given to workers who file a tax return; this is the only way that one can claim these credits. Filing a tax return may be quite daunting or costly if you have it prepared by a commercial agency. Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) is an IRS sponsored program that works with community organizations to provide this service to the low-income community free of charge. Please click on the following resource for a listing of VITA sites in:TaxCredit_full_600

Please pass along the information and resources to folks that you think may benefit from these tax credit programs.

“The tax system should be continually evaluated in terms of its impact on the poor.” – U.S. Bishops, “Economic Justice for All” 1986.

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“Reading the Bible in Spanish”

In his book Mañana Latino theologian and historian Justo Gonzalez suggest that the Hispanic community can offer a significant contribution to American religiosity by “reading the bible in Spanish.” In using this phrase he does not literally suggest that we can contribute by literally reading the sacred text in the Spanish language. What Justo is suggesting is we need to consider the message of the Gospel and the story of Israel from our own social perspective as Hispanic Americans.

MananaTo “read the Bible in Spanish” suggest that we apply a new lens for interpreting scripture. Justo would call this a non-innocent reading of scripture. Instead of applying an idealized, pure and heroic image (an innocent reading) of scripture a non-innocent reading would allow us to recognize the social complexities and struggles depicted throughout scripture. An innocent reading will suggest that the crucifixion was a sacrifice that was divinely ordained and focuses its attention on the image of a Resurrection Christ who grants victory and prosperity to his followers. A non-innocent reading will see the social struggle between Jesus and political and religious authority of his day. It will recognize the struggles of the disciples who betrayed, denied and abandoned Jesus and who experience a transcendental moment that allows them to take on the mission of the Gospel.

An innocent reading has the effect of revising the stories within scripture with an idealized social agenda that can be used to defend programs of social dominance (ie. Manifest Destiny). A minority community that struggles with a variety of social issues may not be able to relate with the innocent reading offered by the dominant community. Instead they will find a non-innocent reading more appealing because it allows us to recognize the personal and social struggles (good and bad) within the sacred text and it forces us to be attentive to the complexities of our own social reality.

Therefore part of our responsibility as Hispanics… is constantly to remind that group of their immigrant beginnings, of the Indian massacres, of the rape of the land, of the war with Mexico, of riches drawn from slave labor, of neocolonial exploitation, and of any other guilty items that one may be inclined to forget in an innocent reading of history.[1]

In another book Justo uses the metaphor of mountains and valleys to describe this lens. If we read history from the dominant text we are narrowly only looking at the mountaintop of history. From that perspective all that you can see are other peaks.[2] Instead Justo suggest that we need to approach history through the broader perspective that would include voices in the valleys, voices that have been marginalized and oppressed, voices that can offer a different insight from the voices on the peaks. I apply this approach in my own Church History course. Instead of simply attributing the shift in relationship between Christianity and the Roman Empire to a supernatural event that Constantine experienced (the traditional historical account) we must also consider the socio-political conditions that contributed to this major shift?

To “read the Bible in Spanish” is to recognize a socio-political struggle within the Biblical stories. In this way struggling ethnic communities can identify their struggle within the liberative process of the Biblical narrative. The purpose of reading scripture in this way “is not to understand the Bible better. It is rather to understand ourselves better.”[3]

[1] Justo L. Gonzalez, Manana: Christian Theology from a Hispanic Perspective (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1990)  pp.79-80

[2] Justo L. Gonzalez, The Changing Shape of Church History (St. Louis, Chalice Press, 2002) pp. 21

[3] Justo L. Gonzalez, Manana: Christian Theology from a Hispanic Perspective (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1990)  pp.86

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Hell: Fire and Brimstone… or not

Most of my theological reflection tend to consider moral and social issues but when I offer a retreat or teach a theology class one of the topics that tend to enliven the conversation is the concept of Hell and the idea of God’s eternal justice. Having found this piece by Fr. Barron I wanted to share it since he addresses this topic very thoroughly. Fr. Barron sides with von Balthasar and I agree with him. As my own professor of Christian eschatology Fr. Zachary Hayes once told me, “We believe in Heaven, we assume Hell.” Our own Catholic creed acknowledges the “communion of saints,” but notice that we make no statement regarding the communion of sinners. Check out this video from Fr. Barron.

Fr. Barron’s last point is crucial. God is not the one who places us in Hell, rather it is us who  individually make that decision. We make that decision when we distance ourselves from the human community and from God’s creation. We make that decision when we are guided by our own self-interest rather than the common good. We make that decision when in our arrogance we refuse the Will the of God to serve and love one another and instead strive to compete and dominate over against each other.

The Story of Jonah describes this struggle well. Jonah finds it easier to accept a wrathful God of fire and brimstone. There is no doubt in the story that Jonah very much wants God to inflict destruction on a people that he despises, the Ninevites. Instead God bestows mercy and compassion to these people who heed His word; Jonah finds this intolerable. The story of Jonah is the story of one who struggles against God’s will and distances himself from a God who does not share Jonah’s own sense of wrathful justice. In the end Jonah cannot seem to reconcile himself with the God of mercy and compassion. He is instead angry with God, “angry enough to die.” (Jonah 4: 9b)

I would be curious to hear what people think about this subject.

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Transforming a Parish Community affected by Natural Disasters

I am offering this presentation as a program Church leaders who wish to engage with their parishioners affected by natural disasters. The purpose is to promote a communal reflection and analysis on issues related to what they experienced as a community. In this case I have applied an ecological concern, but the point is to raise issues that confront a community in light of their experience. The hope is to develop a pastoral plan for the Parish in addressing these ongoing needs. Please feel free to borrow this or to contact me if you have any questions of if you would like to have this presented to your own parish community.

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The Catholic Pro-Life Position.

When I go out and offer talks on Catholic social issues and public policy I often have to remind my listeners that the Catholic Church is indeed a Pro-Life Church; but I always qualify this term. The Church’s pro-life position ought not to be confused with the American political “pro-life” position, the latter being far more narrow than the former. The Church develops its position based on the Catholic social principle of human dignity.

Promoting human dignity implies above all affirming the inviolability of the right to life, from conception to natural death, the first among all rights and the condition for all other rights of the person. (Compendium #553)

Consistent Ethic of LifeThe Catholic Church does indeed take a strong position on pro-life issues and abortion is a priority concern for the Church’s prophetic ministry. However, the Church proclaims its respect for life position in confronting all issues that in any way violate the principles of human dignity. Pope John Paul II could thus defend unemployment benefits for workers and their families as a “right to life and subsistence” (Laborum Exercens #18). More recently Pope Benedict XVI tied the Catholic right to life position as a fundamental principle that can and ought to influence economic and environmental policies.

The acceptance of life strengthens moral fibre and makes people capable of mutual help. By cultivating openness to life, wealthy peoples can better understand the needs of poor ones, they can avoid employing huge economic and intellectual resources to satisfy the selfish desires of their own citizens, and instead, they can promote virtuous action within the perspective of production that is morally sound and marked by solidarity, respecting the fundamental right to life of every people and every individual. (Caritas in Veritate #28)

I have at times critiqued some aspects of the American political “pro-life” movement for not embracing a more holistic definition that would allow them to adopt a consistent position on other national issues that violate this fundamental right for all people. I must also recognize however that the American “social justice” movement also suffers from the inconsistent way that it defends the social, civil, and economic needs of the American community in that it does not address this most crucial right of all rights. If we are able to defend the dignity of those who suffer from poverty and racism how can we not defend those who suffer from this most fundamental violation, their right to life.

The New York State Catholic Conference is currently addressing this concern with Governor Andrew Cuomo’s declared intention to push a “Reproductive Health Act.” In a very cordial letter to the Governor sent on January 9th Cardinal Dolan reminds the Governor that while the progressive community had in past adopted the position of making abortion “safe, legal, and rare” this act would be “specifically designed to expand access to abortion, and therefore to increase the abortion rate.” Please visit the New York State Catholic Conference to take action in addressing this fundamental issue of the Catholic right to life position.

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