Thursday, October 25, 2007

I was deeply disturbed and distressed recently by an email I received. Many times people forward emails with jokes or prayers. The forwarded email I received was an attempt to foster hatred and prejudice. The email protested a stamp reissued (it was first issued in 2001) by the US Postal Service that honors the Islamic holidays of Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha. The USPS created this stamp as part of their holiday series, which also includes stamps for Christmas, Hannukah, and Kwanza. In the press release, the USPS states that "On these days, Muslims wish each other 'eid mubarak', the phrase featured in calligraphy on the stamp, which translates as 'blessed festival' or 'may your religious holiday be blessed'."

Eid al-Fitr is the celebration at the end of Ramadan, the holy month of fasting to commemorate the revelation of the Qu'ran to Mohammad. During this month, from dawn to dusk each day Muslims fast from food, drink, medicine, smoking, and sensual pleasure. They "break their fast" in the evening after sundown, often with family and friends. More than just external observances, the month is meant to be a time of reflection and a time when the differences of wealth and status between people are minimized. Eid al-Fitr, or the feast of fast breaking, is the close of Ramadan and is a joyful time when people travel to be with families and send cards to one another. The celebration begins with a special prayer service.

Eid al-Adha, or the Great Feast, commemorates Abraham's obedience and his willingness to sacrifice his son to God (note that in the Islamic tradition, it is Ishmael that Abraham is going to sacrifice rather than Isaac as in our own tradition). This feast is celebrated each year during the hajj or pilgrimage to Mecca that most Muslims are expected to make at least once in their lifetime, but all Muslims, even those not on pilgrimage in Mecca, celebrate this feast. Families purchase an animal, such as a goat to be sacrificed and butchered in a ritual manner (similar to the way in which the Jewish people butcher meat in a kosher manner). The meat is then divided up and a portion is given to the needy, a portion is shared with one's neighbors, and a portion is kept for the family's feast.

Both of the feasts are remarkable celebrations, and all of us (including/especially those of us who are Christians) would do well to learn from the discipline and the charity of the Muslim people. To protest the fact that the post office issued a stamp commemorating these Islamic holidays (which in the email is incorrectly listed as a Christmas stamp) is petty and ignorant. It also ignores the fact that according to the US State Department there are 1209 mosques in the US and 2 million Muslims who are associated with mosques. The Second Vatican Council stated that

The Church has also a high regard for the Muslims. They worship God, who is one, living and subsistent, merciful and almighty, the Creator of heaven and earth, who has also spoken to men. They strive to submit themselves without reserve to the hidden decrees of God, just as Abraham submitted himself to God's plan, to whose faith Muslims eagerly link their own. Although not acknowledging him as God, they venerate Jesus as a prophet, his virgin Mother they also honor, and even at times devoutly invoke. Further, they await the day of judgment and the reward of God following the resurrection of the dead. For this reason they highly esteem an upright life and worship God, especially by way of prayer, alms-deeds and fasting. - Nostra Aetate 3

What made the email even worse was that it listed a litany of offenses the "Muslims" have supposedly committed, including various bombings culminating with Sept. 11th. The Muslims did not commit any of those bombings; terrorists did. That the terrorists claim to be Muslim is similar to the way in which the Ku Klux Klan claims to be Christian and justifies their acts of terror and violence with quotes from the Bible. Any religion can be corrupted to be used for violent purposes; that does not make the religion itself responsible for those violent acts. Muslims are not terrorists. The fact that there are terrorists who are Muslim is no different than the fact that there have been people who claim to be "Christian" and "pro-life" and have then bombed abortion clinics. The actions of the terrorists are not condoned or supported by mainstream US Muslims, and to suggest that all Muslims are responsible for those atrocious acts is prejudice and the antithesis of what it means to be Christian.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

This Sunday's second reading from 2 Timothy tells us:
All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for refutation, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that one who belongs to God may be competent, equipped for every good work. (3:16-17)
The Catholic Church teaches that Scripture is the Word of God. The many words in Scripture are seen to be a revelation of the one Word of God who was fully revealed in Jesus Christ. For that reason, “the Church has always venerated the Scriptures as she venerates the Lord’s Body. She never ceases to present to the faithful the bread of life, taken from the one table of God’s Word and Christ’s Body (CCC, 103).” In liturgy we understand Christ to be present in four ways: in the Eucharist, in the assembly gathered, in the person of the priest, and in the Word of God proclaimed.

Without in anyway detracting from the prominence of Scripture and its status as the inspired Word of God, the Catholic Church also acknowledges that Scripture was written by human beings. Scripture is inspired, but not in the sense that God dictated the exact words to the human author. Rather God worked through the human authors, using their own experiences, their imaginations and the literary forms common in their time. When we wrestle with Scripture, it is important to know something about the author and the time period within which that piece of Scripture was written. An understanding of the author’s perspective helps us discern what is revealed Truth in the Scriptures, e.g. God created the world, and what is historically conditioned, e.g., women must cover their heads in the assembly.

It is also important to understand the way Scripture developed over time, from an oral tradition to a collection of writings to a conscious choice about what was to be included and excluded in what we call the canon of Scripture. People often do not realize that the Old Testament in the Bible used by the Catholic and Orthodox Churches includes 46 books and the one used by Protestants and the Jewish people has 39 books. The reason for the difference is that the early Christian church chose to use the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures which is called the Septuagint. When the Jewish people determined their canon (the list of official books in their Scripture), they limited their list to those books that were originally written in Hebrew and excluded the books that were originally written in Greek. After the Reformation, the Protestant churches chose to use the same canon as the Jewish people for their Old Testament. The books that are in the Orthodox and Catholic Bible, but not in the others are: 1 & 2 Maccabees, Baruch, Judith, Tobit, The Wisdom of Solomon, and Ecclesiasticus, as well as additions to the books Esther and Daniel. As Catholics we believe that the Holy Spirit has guided the development of Scripture so that God is revealed in the stories initially told, in what was recorded and in what was selected to be in the canon to make up what we call the Bible.

The final thought I want to share on Scripture is that as Catholics we understand Scripture to have many layers and levels of meaning. It has such depth because it is the inspired Word of God. Thus, one may read the same passage from Scripture at two different points in one’s life and get two different meanings out of it. Scripture has the ability to speak to all people in all ages. It is good to have a practice of reading a little bit out of Scripture on a regular basis. One can explore the readings we hear at church more deeply or one can explore some of the treasures within Scripture that are not included in the lectionary, and thus less well known. Pick something that interests you initially (I don’t recommend that you start with Leviticus!). If you find yourself getting lost or losing interest, try another part of the Bible or seek help with the section you are trying to understand, but don’t give up on reading the Bible altogether. There is, in fact, a world of wisdom to be found within God’s Word.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

I wrote on immigration for the bulletin this Sunday, but I decided to write on the subject for my blog too, because I just read one of the best articles yet on the subject. The article is by Tim Padgett, the bureau chief for Time magazine, but appears in America (the Catholic news magazine published by the Jesuits. The article is "Rethinking Immigration Reform: It Starts in Mexico" (unfortunately, if you don't subscribe to America, this link will only give you access to the first paragraph of the article!). Padgett was in Mexico on assignment and got into a conversation with some Mexican journalists who, in an unusual turnabout, stated that the US should build a wall because it would force the Mexican government to address the issue of immigration and the huge gap between the very few very wealthy and the multitudes of poor in Mexico. While I do not agree with building the wall (and suspect the Mexican reporters were somewhat speaking tongue in cheek), the U.S. government should be taking some action to pressure the government of Mexico to address the needs of their own people that cause them to seek better lives in the U.S. Padgett points out that while home to the telecom billionaire who is the world's richest man, almost half of the country's 106 million people live in poverty with a quarter of those living on about $1 a day. In one of my favorite lines in the article, Padgett states:
My Mexican colleagues were simply acknowledging what most Americans still fail to grasp: immigration reform is not domestic policy; it's foreign policy.
Padgett points out that we will have a problem with illegal immigration as long as so many people in Mexico live in desperate situations. He then says:
But if we could work with countries like Mexico to steer more of their wealth and ours to the impoverished by means of better jobs, education and entrepreneurial opportunities--if we were to steer billions to those efforts instead of fences--we might not need fences.
One of the issues that cripples Mexico's economy, according to Padgett, is their banking system, a system that has "exorbitant interest rates and maddening red tape," making it all but impossible for small enterprises and those living in rural areas to get loans. Padgett then states:
Many of those immigrants have now decided to do what Mexico's banks won't. Mexicans in the United States send home as much as $25 billion in remittances each year; and while much of it used to be wasted on flashy pickup trucks, wide-screen televisions and (apologies to my fellow Catholics) ostentatious churches, more is now being used to start local microcredit banks. The hope, of course, is that fostering new, job-creating businesses at home will eventually keep Mexican workers at home.
Padgett visited a city where it is working, Santa Cruz Mixtepec. He says that 2/3 of the 3000 residents of this town lived undocumented in the U.S., but after several of the wives started a microcredit bank a few years ago, some have returned home from the States to start businesses and others are deciding not to leave. So far 95% of the loans have been paid on time. The woman Padgett interviewed, who is one of the bank's founders, said that this is because
locals want to make this program work "in order to bring our families back together."
All of this gels with my experience of visiting Mexico and meeting families whose sons or husbands were living in the U.S. sending money home. They would have loved to have these types of opportunities enabling them to keep their families together. Padgett, however, notes that the residents of Santa Cruz Mixtepec realize that microcredit will not solve all of their problems though because of the deplorable state of education in Mexico. In addition to recommending that the U.S. invest its money in these types of venture, Padgett ends his article recommending our government push the government of Mexico on what he calls "the most urgent reform" needed in Mexico:

dismantling the power of its ravenous monopolies and oligopolies, which control everything from television to cement to sliced bread. They are the main reason that credit and capital get choked off from Mexican society, but Mexico can get away with it simply by exporting its desperate workers to the United States.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Today is the feast day of St. Francis of Assisi, one of my personal heros. While many people associate St. Francis with bird baths and the blessing of animals, his actual life deeply exemplifies what it means to be Christian. Francis came from a wealthy family, and his father had many hopes and expectations that Francis would follow in his footsteps in taking up the family business. Instead, after experiences of war, imprisonment, and illness, Francis decided to follow in the footsteps of Christ, much to his father's dismay. The story tells us that when his father dragged him before the bishop, irate at the way Francis was living and by the fact that Francis kept giving money away to the poor, Francis stripped off all of his clothes and laid them at his father's feet. The bishop then embraced Francis and covered him with his own robe. Thus began Francis' life of total poverty, literally living according to the gospel mandate to the disciples to possess neither silver nor gold, neither shoes, nor staff, nor extra coat. Francis lived his life serving the poor and working amid the lepers. He also connected the idea of poverty to non-violence, claiming that those who own nothing have no need for a sword.

We also recently celebrated the feast of St. Michael and the Archangels (Sept. 29) and the memorial of the Guardian Angels. These celebrations made me think about angels and the fact that many people speak of those who have died as "becoming angels." An angel is a completely separate type of being, understood as a being that is pure spirit, unlike humans that are spirit and matter or inspirited matter/bodies. Humans don't become angels when they die; they are saints. So the next time we think of our loved ones who have died, think of them as part of the communion of saints, worshipping God with all of the angels. And that is your Catholic trivia for the day!!