Sunday, November 20, 2016

When Art Speaks for the People: A Response to the Aftermath of the "Hamilton" Statement

Art is a unique and often underrated treasure in any society.  For most, we don't visit museums to learn about the economic and political structures of societies past (although some do, don't get me wrong).  We visit museums to see the art that was left behind.  We pay for overpriced tickets to see the Mona Lisa, Michelangelo's David, the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and Starry Night.  Throughout history, people have risked their lives to protect art from destruction, from burying Celtic crosses in Ireland during the Reformation, to forming special forces groups (The Monuments Men) in World War II to retrieve and hide artwork from the Nazis.  One of the first things to be criticized, banished, boycotted, or rejected in any society where the government is trying to assert absolute control over its people is art.  Artists are arrested and tortured, books are burned, murals and paintings destroyed, and theater productions shut down or censored because they dare to challenge the status quo.  Why?  Because art, in all its forms - music, painting, sculpture, writing, theater, etc. - is meant to challenge us and make us think.  It's meant to stir a person's deepest emotions, tell a story in a new and striking way, and express the greatest thoughts and concerns of its creator.  Sometimes, art does much more than this.  Sometimes, art is used to raise up the voices of the voiceless, publicly criticize injustice, oppression, and violence, and inspire bravery in those who wish to see the world change for the better.

That is what Hamilton: An American Musical is all about.

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From it's conception, Hamilton was always meant to tell the story of America by Americans.  That's why it's creator, Lin-Manuel Miranda, was so intentional about having a diverse cast, and about having diverse forms of music, most prominently rap, which he called "the music of the revolution."  Hamilton's story is one about standing up against oppressive forces that try to control us, and overcoming nearly impossible odds to "take our shot" and "rise up" in order to change the world.  It's an amazing piece of art that has been recognized worldwide as being inventive, challenging, and for telling a story that is just as relevant today as it was in 1776.  It's the story about an immigrant who came to the United States, fought for everything he had, was opposed at nearly ever step along the way, but never quit advancing and doing what he believed was right.  Alexander Hamilton himself was a flawed, hot-headed individual who is not without his critics today, but his story of revolution and the building of a nation for all Americans is one that continues to be lived out in our modern world.

When Hamilton's Broadway cast spoke after their November 18th show to Vice-President elect Mike Pence, they weren't only following the path of artists and artwork before them that spoke the concerns of the people.  They were also living up to the tradition of their namesake, Alexander Hamilton, and the rest of the Founding Fathers.  This is a nation built on protest and revolution, on opposing forces that threaten the well-being of all of its citizens.  So, it was not out-of-line for the cast of Hamilton to raise those concerns to Vice-President elect Pence.  What was out-of-line was for President-elect Trump to demand an apology.  What is out-of-line is all those now calling for a boycott of the show.  What was out-of-line was the individual who interrupted a performance of the Chicago show by shouting profanities and saying "we won, you lost, get over it."

Never mind that the statement by the New York cast was actually quite polite and respectful while at the same time remaining raw and honest about people's concerns.  Never mind that Vice-President elect Mike Pence has said he "wasn't offended" and actually really enjoyed the show.  It's actually not even a fundamentally wrong thing for people to want to boycott the show as a result, because it's their right to do so.  What is most concerning about this whole ordeal is that people do not believe the theater is an appropriate place for that kind of statement.  Trump himself tweeted that "The Theater must always be a safe and special place."  And it should be, but for those at greatest risk in society at large.  The theater, especially a show like Hamilton, is where the loudest critiques of government and society should come from for the very reason it should always be a safe and special place.

Art has always worked to hold those in power accountable for their actions.  We see this displayed in works of graffiti on city walls, in songs protesting acts of war and violence, in stories and poems written to express the fear and pain of the oppressed and subjugated.  When our nation's leaders start criticizing art and try to "keep it in it's place", try to dictate what is appropriate for it to depict, speak to, or act out, we need to be very concerned.  Being a good leader means accepting the criticism of your opposition, hearing the voices of your people most scared, and allowing dialogue to take place whether you like what is said or not.  We are a nation that claims to value freedom of speech, that allows for art to flourish and expand our collective understanding of the world we live in.  When we start trying to silence the art world, however, it's not just the artists that suffer.  We all do, because we are no longer challenged, we are no longer made to think about the world beyond ourselves.  It is the art of our society that will tell our story to future generations, and it is up to us to determine whether it will be a story about people who turned their backs on the injustice and fear surrounding them, or stood up and held those in power accountable, making them answer for their beliefs and actions.  There is a lot of work that must be done in this country, there are a lot of voices, beliefs, and opinions that must be taken into account, but it is through art that those voices, beliefs, and opinions are more widely heard and known.  So, even if you didn't agree with the cast of Hamilton's statement, you need to be ready to protect their right to make it, because someday you might need them to speak on your behalf as well.

Until next time,

The statement of the Hamilton cast, compliments of Twitter.

Friday, November 18, 2016

You Are My Neighbor - I Love You

I love you.

You are my neighbor, and I love you.

You are my brother, my sister, and I love you.

You are my friend, and I love you.

You are my enemy, and I love you.

I might not know you, but I love you.

I might not always agree with you, but I love you.

I might sometimes hate you, but I love you.

If you're Muslim, I love you.

If you're black, I love you.

If you're LGBTQ, I love you.

If you're an immigrant, I love you.

If you're poor, I love you.

If you're rich, I love you.

If you were born in my country, I love you.

If you're straight, I love you.

If you're white, I love you.

If you're Christian, I love you.

No matter your faith, your race, your orientation, your nationality, your economic status, I love you.

You are my neighbor, and I love you.

I will fight for you.  I will stand with you.  I won't let fear keep me from responding to the pain you face.  I will be your voice when your own is stolen from you.  I will stand up to those who would dismiss your fear and pain.  I will not stop when others tell me it's not my fight, or that it will all be okay.  I will recognize my own privilege, and how I benefit from your suffering, and I will spend my life working to pay you back and make it right, even if I never really can.

I love you.  I acknowledge you.  I see your suffering, and I won't turn away from it.

I will fight with you, if I have to.  I will stand opposite of you if it means protecting others from you.  I won't let fear of losing you keep me from holding you accountable for your beliefs and actions.  I will raise my voice against yours if your words are stealing the dignity and voices others.  I will stand up to you when you try to dismiss their fear and pain.  I will not stop when you tell me it's not my fight, that you're just speaking your mind, and it's not really hurting anybody anyway.  I will recognize my own privilege, and how I benefit from a wide view of the world bolstered by education and experience, and I will spend my life working to help you see the humanity in all of the people you encounter, or don't encounter, throughout this world.

I love you.  I acknowledge you.  I see your fear and suspicions, and I won't let them consume you.

I love you.  I will do whatever I can to make the world better for you.

I love you.  I will do whatever I can to make you better for the world.

You are my neighbor.

You are my friend.

You are my brother.  My sister.  My mother.  My father.

You are my enemy.

I might not know you.

I might not always agree with you.

I might even hate you.

But I will always love you. 

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Politicizing Faith: The Real Threat to Our Freedom of Religion

Image result for constitutionIt's no secret that politics and religion tend to be two hot topics that seem to always be intimately entwined with one another in the public eye.  This is especially true here in the United States, where the First Amendment of our Constitution states that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..."  Most people are familiar with this Amendment, and have very strong opinions about it one way or another.  Some use it to argue for the exclusion of all religious expression from any government-associated organization, and others, in all honesty, use it as a way of defending their own attempts to force their religious beliefs on others.

Catholics are no strangers to the almost constant tension between religion and politics.  On the surface-level, the United States Catholic Church seems to try and keep a neutral tone when dealing with politics.  Priests aren't supposed to endorse political candidates or try to sway their congregations one way or another when voting (though some do).  Both the Democratic and Republican party claim to value issues that Catholics themselves are supposed to be concerned for (however, social justice issues seem to always take a backseat to pro-life rhetoric), so technically speaking, a Catholic shouldn't hold allegiance to one party at all times, and should be open to exploring which candidate addresses the issues best that Catholics hold as important.  All very neutral and reasonable theory.  In practice, the United States Catholic Church is far from neutral, and much of that has to do with the Bishops, their hard-line outspokenness on certain issues, and their insistence that our religious liberty is under attack.

Many Bishops are loud voices in the political arena, whether they admit it or not.  Here's why they're wrong to be.

Recently, a colleague of mine drew my attention to a blog-post that focused on the ten presidential/vice-presidential candidates for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (the winners have been selected, by the way, with Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Houston-Galveston being elected president and Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles elected vice president).  The post was looking at how each of the ten Bishops have approached LGBTQ issues in the past, and, unsurprisingly, most of them didn't have very positive responses in their history (a few, surprisingly, did).  Many Bishops in the United States have been criticized for not embracing Pope Francis' more pastoral vision of the Church, which includes acknowledging the human dignity for people who identify as LGBTQ and ministering to them with love and compassion, even if the Church's stance on same-sex relationships has not changed.  The U.S. Bishops as a whole (I know there are individual exceptions) seem much more concerned with upholding dogma and keeping believers in line than encouraging dialogue and compassion towards not only LGBTQ issues, but also women's reproductive issues, and interfaith engagement.  Sound a little harsh?  Maybe, but that's the reality of the situation.

As I was reading about the Bishops, some of the actions several of them took in opposing LGBTQ rights was not only disappointing, but infuriating and appalling.  On Bishop barred LGBTQ people from public ministry, banned children of same-sex couples from Catholic schools, and voiced the desire to push anyone who isn't one hundred percent in line with Catholic teaching out of the Church so that it could be a smaller, more orthodox community.  Another Bishop opposed the teaching of LGBTQ history in public schools, and signed a letter opposing the re-authorization of an act that would protect women against violence because it included sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes.  Another Bishop attempted to ban Catholics who supported same-sex marriage, simply supported it, from receiving communion, and another told Church workers they would lose their jobs if they supported same-sex marriage, and shut down ministry services to gay and lesbian communities.  These actions aren't just examples of poor leadership or a galling lack of compassion for people of faith, whether LGBTQ identified or not, these are dangerous mindsets that very influential people in the Church possess and act upon, despite the overwhelming majority of Catholic laity opposing such beliefs and actions.  Given the nation's current tumultuous political climate, coupled with the hate crimes that have taken place since the election, the discriminatory actions of these leaders needs to be seriously looked at and they need to be held accountable for their part in spreading hate and mistrust among American Catholics.

This isn't the only thing that the Church needs to be called out on, however.  In general, the United States Bishops' rhetoric that religious liberty in this country is under attack needs to be examined.  While reading the same blog-post, I stumbled upon a campaign the Bishops launched back before same-sex marriage was the law of the land called "Fortnight for Freedom", which was essentially a two-week campaign filled with prayer vigils, rallies, and other politically charged activities.  The message that the Bishops were pushing was that religious freedom is under attack in the United States.  Among the issues the Bishops cited to back up this claim was the idea that expanding LGBTQ equality, specifically same-sex marriage, as well as government-mandated birth control coverage for most employers were direct attacks on people's right to religious freedom.

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Whether or not you think he's a good president,
you have to admit, the man has a way with words
Here's the deal, religious freedom in this country means that everyone has a right to practice and express their own belief or faith, or non-faith, without fear of persecution or censure (unless your religious practices somehow harm others or impeded upon their own civil liberties).  It also means that we cannot force our religious beliefs onto other people, especially through legislation.  President Obama summed up this issue quite bluntly when he said "No, you can't deny women their basic rights and pretend it's about your 'religious freedom'.  If you don't like birth control, don't use it.  Religious freedom doesn't mean you can force others to live by your own beliefs."

Now, I'm not naive enough to believe that religion has no affect on politics and legislation whatsoever.  We are each formed by our faith and beliefs.  Our morals and values are shaped by our faith and beliefs, and they will be reflected in how we vote and who we vote for.  However, to claim that our religious freedom is somehow under attack because the rights and freedom of another group are upheld is ludicrous.  Christianity has been the dominant religion in this country for much of its history, so our politics and legislation up until now have obviously reflected the beliefs and values of that specific faith.  As our country becomes increasingly diverse and more religions and systems of belief come into the mainstream, a more balanced, neutral approach to people's rights is going to be necessary.  If Christian denominations don't support same-sex marriage, that's fine.  Churches are within their rights to say they will not perform or recognize those marriages.  Churches do not have the right to say the government has to refuse to recognize and perform those marriages, however, because the government is supposed to uphold and protect the rights of all people, not just a select few.  Churches can preach against the use of birth control, and push for abstinence-only education in private schools all they want, but they do not have the right to dictate on a national scale who has the right to birth control, or what kind of education public schools should be presenting.  Freedom of religion doesn't simply protect religions from government control, it also protects the people from religious control.

I'll probably get a lot of push back for this post, but the reality is that Christianity is not under attack in this country.  There is no war on religion (unless you're Muslim, let's be honest here), and no one is trouncing on your religious rights because they want to buy a cake for their same-sex wedding.  People are free to worship how they want, believe what they want, and that is the beautiful thing about this country.  Whether you think someone is right or wrong is totally your prerogative, but to force them to live how you think people should live and take away their freedom to choose their own path and their own life because your beliefs are different then theirs is about as un-American as you can get.

So, with all due respect to the Bishops, I think it's time they put more focus on ministering to the faithful, helping those in need, and supporting social efforts to create a better society on the whole, and spend a lot less time trying to control how people live their lives.  We're all just trying to figure out how to live in this world, how to be in relationship with each other, but we need to be able to choose for ourselves how we live.  As Catholics, we believe God gave us free will so that we could choose to be in relationship with each other and with God, but what good is that free will, how meaningful is that choice, when our religious leaders try to force the decision onto us by influencing our politics and legislation?  Our government is supposed to faciliate our right to choose, and our faith is supposed to help us make those choices...not take those choices from us.  

Until next time,

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Working with the Fear: Responding to the Election

Today is a very emotional day in this country.  Some are feeling validated and joyous, but many others are overwhelmed by fear, confusion, and sadness.  I know there are reasons that the election happened the way it did.  I know that people voted for Trump because of strong beliefs and ideas that they didn't want to compromise on.  And while I can't agree with the decision, it was within those individual's rights to make the choice they did.  I'm not going to attack those people.  I'm not going to add fuel to a fire I already see blazing around me.  What I am going to do is try to explain the fear.  I want people to understand why, for many in this country, this election has left such terror in its wake.  I don't think there can be any kind of healing in this nation until this fear is fully addressed...and validated.

Last night, as I watched the results of the election begin to solidify Trump's position in the world, I was overcome by one terrifying thought.  I needed to make sure my brother was safe.  For anyone reading this who doesn't know me personally, I have a younger brother and sister, and we are all adopted.  My siblings are both African-American.  I feared for their safety last night, especially my brother's.  I still fear for his safety.  I texted him to tell him to be careful, that most likely nothing would happen right away, but that there was still a chance something could.  This fear is something that has been simmering inside of me for a very long time now.  I'm scared for him to be away from home because I can't guarantee he'll be safe, or that he won't encounter people that will look at him differently or treat him differently because of the color of his skin.  I can't guarantee he won't be the next innocent person shot in the streets.  I know my experience with this only scratches the surface of what it's like to be a member of a minority group in this country, because I myself am white and don't come face-to-face with this reality every day of my life.  The fear, though, the uncertainty, the sheer dread that people feel is something I can at least relate to, even in a small way, because there are people I love very much who I'm not sure are safe anymore.

People have been saying that "it's not that big of a deal", "they're just being sore losers", or "don't be so dramatic, it won't be as bad as you pretend it will be."  Maybe things won't be as terrible as I imagine they'll be.  Maybe it will have all been blown out of proportion in the long run, and it's not the downfall of the United States as so many predict it is.  That doesn't make the fear people are feeling today any less real or any less valid.  When an individual who has openly targeted immigrants, women, minorities, and his opponents is given the kind of power in the nation that Trump was elected to last night, that normalizes all those terrible things he said and did.  It makes it seem okay for everyone else to say and do those same terrible things, so those groups are of course going to be afraid.  I'm living in the reality of this fear on a college campus, where minority students don't feel safe, where immigrant students are fearful of losing their families to deportation, and where female students are fearful of how they'll be treated by their male counterparts.

I'm afraid.  I don't know what's going to happen, and the uncertainty is killing me.  I'm afraid for my brother and sister, I'm afraid for my Muslim friends, my Hispanic friends, my female friends, my LGBTQ friends.  I'm afraid of how they will be treated from this point on.  I'm afraid not only of physical violence and discriminatory legislation, but of how they will be spoken to, how they will be viewed.  I'm afraid that the Walmart greeter who smiled at all the white people but glared at my brother will be vindicated in her racism.  I'm afraid the men who think they can tell a woman how to act, dress, and speak will be vindicated in their sexism.  I'm afraid the people who mutter under their breath that "All Muslim's are terrorists" will no longer bother to keep their voices down.  I'm afraid that businesses that refuse to service LGBTQ people will be vindicated in their discrimination.  I'm afraid, not only because I think we're in danger of moving backwards politically or because the Supreme Court appointment might not be the moderate I was hoping for, but because by electing this man to the highest office in the land, we have also sent out the message that certain people are not welcome in this country, certain people are not valued in this country, and certain people are not equal in this country...and we don't ever want them to be.  Is it fair to say that all Trump supporters had this thought in mind yesterday when they cast their votes?  No, it's not.  But that is the message that comes with Trump, whether you like it or not.  That is the message he himself promoted throughout his candidacy.  It's a message of fear, and it's one that many of us are reading loud and clear today.

So, in the end, what's done is done.  No matter how this election turned out, it ultimately highlighted that this country is more divided than ever, and lives in more fear than ever.  So no matter which side you voted for, no matter your reasons for doing so, please remember that the feelings these groups have today are very real.  They are not being overly dramatic, they are not simply sore losers.  They are men, women, and children all afraid of the uncertainty of the future because they have already been targeted during this election in some form or another.  We need, more now than ever before, to show compassion to each other, to comfort each other, to reach out a hand to try and understand each other.  Recognize the fear, understand the fear, validate the reasons for the fear, and then we can try to work together to make sure fear never rules us ever again.

Until next time,

Because Colbert is right - "You cannot laugh and be afraid at the same time"   

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

This Is My House Too: The Catholic Church and Female Ordination

This post has been a long time coming.  I've really debated how to approach the subject, how to enter into conversation about this without risking myself or my position in anyway, but I can't just sit back and stay silent about it anymore.  So let's do this thing!  Let's talk about women and the Roman Catholic priesthood.

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Let's be real, I love this man.  That doesn't mean I think he's right.
Female ordination is a hot topic in the Catholic Church, and it has been for a while.  The magistrate has been very firm in its stance that women cannot be ordained priests, so it really came as no surprise when Pope Francis, in speaking to reporters, reinforced St. John Paul II's declaration that "Wherefore, in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church's divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren, I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church's faithful."  Pope Francis not only reinforced this notion, but went so far as to imply that women will be banned from the priesthood forever and ever.

So what? you're probably thinking.  This is nothing new.

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According to legend, St. Brigid of Kildare was ordained a Bishop.
And you're right.  This is nothing new.  It's really just more of the same.  It didn't shock me that Pope Francis said this or maintains this stance.  It doesn't shock me that a Pope who, for many, is seen as progressive because of his emphasis on service to the poor and social justice issues (even though this isn't really anything new in the Church and he's just brought it out into the spotlight), would hold onto the traditional ruling that the magistrate has maintained throughout the Church's history.  No, what surprised me this time around was just how much his words hurt.  I thought I'd steeled myself against this kind of stuff a long time ago, but apparently I'm not as numb to it on the inside as I had hoped.  Maybe it's because I'm tired and stressed, and so just a little more vulnerable right now than usual, but that doesn't really matter.  What matters is the pain I feel, and what countless other Catholic women around the world feel when we're told this same thing over and over again.  This isn't just being barred from a job.  This isn't just being told "you're not fit for this role."  What continuing to bar women from ordination is telling us is "it doesn't matter what you feel called to, it doesn't matter how much faith you have, or how much you sacrifice and give of yourself to this Church, at the end of the day you are visitors to a house that will never truly be yours participating in a feast that you can never host yourself."

Do you know how many amazing, intelligent, talented women I've met, who have been filled with the Holy Spirit, have felt a call to preach and lead and bring grace to their Church?  Do you know how many amazing, intelligent, talented women I've met who've felt betrayed, disenfranchised, and frustrated when they're told their call to that vocation is somehow wrong?  That their way to living out the life they feel God is pointing them towards is blocked simply because they were born female?  Some continue on in silent frustration, hoping and praying that things will change for the better one day.  Some raise their voices in protest and, sometimes, either leave the Church willingly...or are forced out.

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Mary Magdalene was way more loyal than any of the twelve.
We're given lame excuses to persuade us we're wrong like "Jesus intentionally chose twelve men as his Apostles" or "there are equal roles for women, and role models...look at the Virgin Mary!"  The Catholic Church doesn't take the Bible as literal history, except for, apparently, that very specific instance of twelve men being named by Jesus.  If that's the case, then we should only have twelve bishops in the Church, and they should all be Jewish.  And yes, everyone loves Mary, but what woman wouldn't crack under the pressure of living up to the example of an eternal Virgin, who's also the Mother of God?  I'd personally rather follow Mary Magdalene's example.  A loyal, flawed, passionate woman who was so beloved of Christ he appeared to her first after his resurrection.

This is the pain and frustration I, and countless others, live with day in and day out.  So many times in my relatively short life already I've thought "It'd just be so much easier to join a denomination that truly appreciates my gifts and talents, doesn't hold it against me that I'm a woman, and doesn't talk down to me or treat me like a child."  I've had friends, family, professors, and colleagues all ask me why I stay, why I put up with all of the crap my Church continues to pile on me.  At the end of the day, the answer is really simple.  I see what the Catholic Church could be, what it should be, and it's a vision so beautiful I can't help but strive for it.  I see a family, a community of equals, where no one is seen as inferior to anyone else, where no was is told their voice, their calling don't matter or is somehow wrong.  I see a place of welcome and thanksgiving, of true brother and sisterhood.  And so I stay, and I work, and I fight in any way I can to see that vision become reality.  So, with all due respect to Pope Francis and St. Pope John Paul II, no, women will not be banned from ordination forever.  Someday, those who hold the power to change everything will realize that the Church can only reach its full, glorious potential if all of us own a part of the house, if all of us have a chance to host the feast, and if all of us are told "God has called you to this, and we welcome you."  I pray I get to see all of this happen in my lifetime, but if not, that at the very least I've had a small role in getting us there.

Until next time,
(And don't worry...I'm far from done with this topic)