Horatio

Horatio
[Photo by Jacquelyn Griffin)

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Phineas at Bay: Further Reviews

You know, I like to post reviews, but I'm surprised that I forgot to check out my British listings, where I in fact not one, but two.

First, from Mr. Michael Baxter:
I had Iong been scouring Amazon and elsewhere for any sequel to the Palliser novels so I was delighted when my efforts were finally rewarded. I read this book quickly and enjoyed it very much. Phineas Finn and his wife are especially well captured. I liked the guest appearances of characters from other novels by Trollope and I also appreciated the mention of a certain Mr Polteed from another author's famous trilogy. The only aspect of the story I couldn't quite accept involved Plantagenet Palliser - hadn't a certain person been too touched by scandal in the past for him to contemplate such a connection? He was always very conscious of the family name, after all!
Hmmm…an interesting point that last--and nice to see poor old Polteed get spotted. For the defense, I can only point out that Plantagenet did have his own minor scandal to live down, and that, of course, many years had passed.

Second, from David R. Gilbert:
A fascinating (and plausible) follow-up for Trollope addicts. It is well written despite a few anachronistic idioms. I am only sorry that in references to nineteenth century authors there was no reference to Anthony's estimable mother Frances Trollope. The only plot incongruity which rankled was the saga of Vavasor from Can You Forgive her with the tenacious American lady from The Way We Live Now. I think the author perhaps allowed more than their deserts both to Emilius and Finn, but I am very happy for Palliser!
Both readers most kindly awarded the book 4 out of 5 stars.

As ever, I am most grateful to readers who care enough to review.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Nero Wolfe as I First Encountered Him



Well, there he is.

Nero Wolfe, as adapted for television in 1981 (funny, I remember it feeling earlier than that.) But I had never heard of Wolfe or Archie before this series, which I watched with my beloved grandfather. So it was funny to stumble on it again, 34 years later.

It's not a patch on the brilliant A & E adaptation, but it still has charm for me--no doubt because I met the inhabitants of the brownstone through this flawed but loving version (seriously, nice job on the brownstone's sets.) And that led me to reading the whole Rex Stout corpus.

And if William Conrad's Wolfe lack's Maury Chaikin's subtle humanity, and if Lee Horsley's Archie lacks Timothy Hutton's brash charm--well, I owe them a debt anyway.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

"Dogs and Cats Living Together": Same Sex Marriage and the End of Hegemony



Well, it's been an odd week of blog reading for me. I've been dropping in over at Rod Dreher's page and reading his increasingly paranoid posts, and the comments thereto. (Before I go on, let me point out this somewhat less paranoid post, influenced as it is by Dreher's very real affection for his interlocutor, Andrew Sullivan.)

Why, you may ask, am I spending time this way?

Well, I've been trying to get a handle on the angst on the Christian right--the fear that the application of anti-discrimination law to GLBT citizens plus the likely though not guaranteed striking down of anti-same sex marriage laws will strip Christian traditionalists of protections against doing business involving same sex marriage ("SSM"). The lack of exemptions to the generally applicable anti-discrimination laws and ordinances gives that some salience, but the panic in Dreher's apocalyptic tone, and that of his commenters, was puzzling to me, and I wanted to try to understand it.

I mean, under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, a ministerial exception of considerable breadth exists for avowedly religious bodies. So we're talking for-profit businesses--wedding cake bakers, caterers, photographers, that sort of thing. Provision of secular services to GLBT people by those who serve the general public. Dreher's page these last two weeks evokes McCarthyism and the invocation of the Holocaust. The emotional heft behind this is hard to fathom, and I confess I'm not really there.

Still, I have a few thoughts.

The irony in this situation--so bitter that I haven't seen any acknowledgment of it on the right--is that there was a body of cases from the Warren and Burger Courts, in which the liberal justices pioneered--joined by the moderate and even some conservative justices--that found room for some exemptions based on religious scruples to generally applicable statutes. A good late example is Wisconsin v. Yoder (1971), in which all of the justices agreed that the Old Order Amish should be allowed to homeschool their children in accordance with their faith. (Douglas dissented but only on the limited ground that the lower courts should have ascertained the student's views and considered their interests as well as the parents'; Justice Stewart based his concurrence on the fact that "that this record simply does not present the interesting and important issue discussed in Part II of the dissenting opinion of MR. JUSTICE DOUGLAS."). The Yoder opinions give a pretty good rundown on the history of the exemption cases.

Then, in 1992, the Court reversed itself, in Employment Division v Smith, in which Justice Scalia wrote that "if prohibiting the exercise of religion (or burdening the activity of printing) is not the object of the tax, but merely the incidental effect of a generally applicable and otherwise valid provision, the First Amendment has not been offended."

In other words, no exemptions from generally applicable laws are constitutionally required by the First Amendment. Te case involved Native Americans who use peyote in religious rituals, who had been fired by a private drug rehabilitation organization because they ingested peyote, a hallucinogenic drug, for sacramental purposes at a ceremony of their Native American Church, and denied unemployment by the state of Oregon. The majority--Scalia, Rehnquist, White, Kennedy, and Stevens--and O'Connor, who concurred--are all, except Stevens, who was a maverick, but more often trended liberal than conservative--were conservatives. The dissenters--Brennan, Marshall, and Blackmun--were the liberal wing of the Court at that time. They (and O'Connor, who joined the majority for different reasons) deplored the resurrection of Reynolds v. United States (1878), which upheld the federal criminal anti-bigamy statute against a free exercise claim by limiting free exercise to belief, not action. The Court in Smith left the question of exemptions to protect religious minorities to the political process.

Fast forward 23 years, and Scalia's seeming assumption that his brand of conservative Christianity would always retain the safety of majoritarian hegemony is wearing thin. Polling data shows that more churches are welcoming to gays and lesbians, as are young Catholics, and even young evangelicals. Indeed, as Rachel Held Evans wrote in 2012:
WWhen asked by The Barna Group what words or phrases best describe Christianity, the top response among Americans ages 16-29 was “antihomosexual.” For a staggering 91 percent of non-Christians, this was the first word that came to their mind when asked about the Christian faith. The same was true for 80 percent of young churchgoers.
And the "Nones"--those unaffiliated with organized religion at all--are on the rise.

This may explain the increasing stridency of Scalia's dissents--Smith was issued a mere six years after Bowers v Hardwick (1986), which upheld the criminalization of "homosexual sodomy" (to use the majority's charming term). It was, it has turned out, the high-water mark for Scalia's view.

Ten years after Bowers, four years after Smith, the Court indicated that there was some constitutional limit to majoritarian legal persecution of gays and lesbians, in Romer v Evans (1996), which held that a state constitutional amendment which precluded all legislative, executive, or judicial action at any level of state or local government designed to protect the status of persons based on their "homosexual, lesbian or bisexual orientation, conduct, practices or relationships" violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment by uniquely limiting the rights of gays and lesbians of access to the political process. Even that was controversial--Scalia opened his opinion, joined by Rehnquist and Thomas, with the infamous line "The Court has mistaken a Kulturkampf for a fit of spite." The Kulturkampf, Scalia makes clear, is being waged by gays and lesbians, themselves historically the victims of a real Kulturkampf. But in Scalia's fevered, Dreher-like imagination:
The Court has mistaken a Kulturkampf for a fit of spite. The constitutional amendment before us here is not the manifestation of a "`bare . . . desire to harm'" homosexuals, ante, at 13, but is rather a modest attempt by seemingly tolerant Coloradans to preserve traditional sexual mores against the efforts of a politically powerful minority to revise those mores through use of the laws. That objective, and the means chosen to achieve it, are not only unimpeachable under any constitutional doctrine hitherto pronounced (hence the opinion's heavy reliance upon principles of righteousness rather than judicial holdings); they have been specifically approved by the Congress of the United States and by this Court.

In holding that homosexuality cannot be singled out for disfavorable treatment, the Court contradicts a decision, unchallenged here, pronounced only 10 years ago, see Bowers v. Hardwick, 478 U.S. 186 (1986), and places the prestige of this institution behind the proposition that opposition to homosexuality is as reprehensible as racial or religious bias. Whether it is or not is precisely the cultural debate that gave rise to the Colorado constitutional amendment (and to the preferential laws against which the amendment was directed). Since the Constitution of the United States says nothing about this subject, it is left to be resolved by normal democratic means, including the democratic adoption of provisions in state constitutions. This Court has no business imposing upon all Americans the resolution favored by the elite class from which the Members of this institution are selected, pronouncing that "animosity" toward homosexuality, ante, at 13, is evil. I vigorously dissent.
Of course, the Amendment prevented gays and lesbians alone, of all citizens, from resort to the political process, which Scalia elides.

When the Court likewise overturned Bowers in Lawrence v Texas (2003), Scalia again sounded the Cloister Bell. And again in United States v. Windsor and Hollingsworth v Perry. (Both in 2013.)

Ironically, the Court's most famous conservative Catholic in Smith put minority faiths at the mercy of majorities in terms of freedom to act on their faith. The nuanced effort to balance the legitimate interests of the state and federal government to enact laws of general applicability against the rights of conscience pioneered by the New Deal Court, and honed by the Warren and Burger Courts was discarded.

Now, the so-called "Trads" are hoist on their own petard. They trusted in the power of numbers, and in using secular law as a club. Having lost the former, they now fear that they will be treated to the second as they treated others. (No, really.)

Of course, they should not be.

Oh, their ideas should be rebutted in the public square, and, ultimately, rejected, but politely, firmly. Remember what Churchill gave as the moral of his The Second World War: "In War: Resolution, In Defeat: Defiance, In Victory: Magnanimity, In Peace: Goodwill." If victory is indeed on the horizon, magnanimity can help secure it.

As to unscrambling the eggs Scalia broke, at a minimum, I'd have to say, my off-the-cuff solution to the problem would be:

1. No Exemption or accommodation for corporate entities. (Leaving asides of course, religious corporations in states that allow for them. Business corporations, I mean.)

2. Likewise for public accommodations. Open to the general public catering halls, too bad; K of C facilities available to members of the Roman Catholic community, that's different. But no exclusions just for gays--if you're serving the general public, you take all comers.

Example: Mary's Christian Cakes--unincorporated private business, bakery as ministry? Accommodate.

Costco's Wedding Cakes Department? Make the cake.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Trollope Two Hundred Years Later



In England right now it is already April 24, 2015--the bicentennial of the birth of Anthony Trollope.

I can hear a lot of people saying, so what?

Ah, but I can't be one of them.

That giant orange-ish head looming over the caricatures of Susan Hampshire and Philip Latham? That's him. The Giant Trollope-head, la Caterina and I called that rather odd design choice in the opening credits of The Pallisers, the 1975 BBC adaptation of Trollope's masterful novel cycle. And yet, aesthetics aside, there is a truth to the omnipresence of that bewhiskered face, hovering over his characters. They were real to him, you see, and that is why, as he wrote in his Autobiography:
When my work has been quicker done,--and it has sometimes been done very quickly--the rapidity has been achieved by hot pressure, not in the conception, but in the telling of the story. Instead of writing eight pages a day, I have written sixteen; instead of working five days a week, I have worked seven. I have trebled my usual average, and have done so in circumstances which have enabled me to give up all my thoughts for the time to the book I have been writing. This has generally been done at some quiet spot among the mountains,--where there has been no society, no hunting, no whist, no ordinary household duties. And I am sure that the work so done has had in it the best truth and the highest spirit that I have been able to produce. At such times I have been able to imbue myself thoroughly with the characters I have had in hand. I have wandered alone among the rocks and woods, crying at their grief, laughing at their absurdities, and thoroughly enjoying their joy. I have been impregnated with my own creations till it has been my only excitement to sit with the pen in my hand, and drive my team before me at as quick a pace as I could make them travel.
And they become real for us, his readers.

I was a voracious, if uncritical, reader when I was a boy--I read Agatha Christie by the yard, as eagerly as I read Mark Twain. Rex Stout alongside Dumas with the occasional sci fi relic and a deep soak in Bernard Shaw's plays and prefaces.

But it was reading Trollope--The Warden and Barchester Towers, specifically--that crystallized my own literary taste forever. Oh, I'd read some Dickens, some Poe (a lot of Poe. Did you know he wrote comedy too? It's terrible, but he tried.) Hawthorne shed a light into who I would become as a reader--I read The Scarlet Letter, and thirsted with curiosity to understand the workings of Hester's husband, Roger Chillingworth. (Still do; I may be driven one day to re-tell that tale from the Doctor's perspective if only to get him the hell out of my head.) Because he was real to me in a way very few characters in fiction were. Conflicted, a mix of impulses, cruel and kind. The ruins of a man once great, at least in potential. Hurt, and hurting others.

Then I met Septimus Harding, the eponymous Warden. A devout, good an of God who has, without even noticing it, become enmeshed in a genteel, kindly administered, corruption. A loving soul, generously administering a charitable institution, most of the funds of which support--er, him. His critic, John Bold, is right. On paper, at least. And yet, without Mr Harding, Hiram's Hospital declines into desuetude, and when Rev. Harding dies, his creator writes of him: "And so they buried Mr. Septimus Harding, formerly Warden of Hiram's Hospital in the city of Barchester, of whom the chronicler may say that that city never knew a sweeter gentleman or a better Christian." He has become the moral touchstone of the Barsetshire novels, this compromised, well-meaning, vacillating man.

People are complicated.

In the decades since I have read Trollope, my admiration for his has only grown. I have often enough pointed out that Phineas Redux, in which members of two despised minorities--an Irish Catholic and a Viennese Jewish widow--are the hero and heroine, and Trollope makes the readers cher their happy union--readers who would despise Phineas Finn and Madame Max Goesler were they to meet on the street, mind you. And that's a sign of something. Trollope is not safe. A blog post from Oxford University Press pointed this out recently, though confining its analysis to sexual innuendo in Barchester Towers. But yes; as life in unsafe, so too Trollope isn't safe.

Lady Glencora, the charismatic, charming coquette who matures into a great lady without losing her wit and her vivacity (and incidentally provided Susan Hampshire with the best role of her career), dies in the opening pages of The Duke's Children, leaving us with the stolid, good, dutiful Plantagenet Palliser, now the Duke of Omnium. You know, the much less interesting one. Except--without her, he becomes less fair (he's downright cruel to Marie Finn, who has on multiple occasions been his and Glencora's benefactor), he is brusque with the children he inarticulately but deeply loves. Without the raffish, mercurial Glencora, sober Plantagenet cannot be who he is. He's lost for much of the novel.

People are complicated.

Life isn't safe.

And I'm just dealing with the two novel sequences that are Trollope's best known, nostalgically remembered books, let alone his less well known works. Take his descent into madness in He Knew He Was Right, sympathetic bigamists in Dr. Wortle's School, or acidulous satire in The Way We Live Now. Seemingly blander than Dickens or even Thackeray, bluff, old, "safe" Anthony Trollope outdated them all, pushing boundaries they didn't dream of, and getting away with it, too, because he was "a safe pair of hands." It was an a brilliant con game. He didn't get caught out.

Trollope influenced my own view of human nature more than his more pyrotechnical peers, more than the writers of my own era, who all too often seemed to me to oversimplify, to not quite get it.From him I learned that we are none of us just our worst moments, and that we cannot live on the summit of our best moments, either.

My own novel, Phineas at Bay is, of course, a sequel to the two Phineas novels, and, indeed, to the whole Palliser series. But it is more than that, in intent: It's a thank you to the great psychologist who taught me about human nature, who gave me the understanding to endure the myriad small betrayals and wounds we experience from those who love us both before and after they hurt us--and to forgive them, and accept forgiveness for the hurts I have inflicted in my own turn.

And people surprise for good as well as for bad. Once, many years ago, I was at a social event where a newly engaged couple, both of them friends of mine, were present. One of the women there spitefully insulted the bride to be. Her first defender? A old enemy, eyes flashing with indignation, past dislike forgotten at the sight of the hurt in her old rival's eyes. A very Trollope moment.

People are complicated.

Life isn't safe.

We cannot be reduced to our worst moments. Or our best.

I learned these truths from a man I have never met in the flesh, and yet was among my greatest teachers.

In Phineas at Bay, I tried to evoke Trollope's characters, but also his realistic generosity and tolerance. His insistence that nothing God has created is without worth. In sum, to pass on what I learned from him.

Happy birthday, Anthony Trollope. May your novels be read, re-read and adapted for another two centuries.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

The Universe Bends a Little More Toward Justice: Bishop Finn "Resigns"

From The National Catholic Reporter:
Bishop Robert Finn, the Catholic prelate in the U.S. heartland who became a symbol internationally of the church's failures in addressing the sexual abuse crisis, has resigned. He was the first bishop criminally convicted of mishandling an abusive priest yet remained in office for another two and a half years.
The Vatican announced Finn's resignation as head of the diocese of St. Joseph-Kansas City, Mo., in a note in its daily news bulletin Tuesday.

While the note did not provide any reason for the move, it is rare for bishops in the Catholic church to resign without cause before they reach the traditional retirement age of 75.

Finn, who is 62 and had led the diocese since 2005, was neither assigned a new diocese nor as yet given a new leadership role in the church.

Other than for reasons of health, only one other bishop among the some 200 U.S. Catholic dioceses and eparchies has resigned his role in such a manner in at least the past decade.
The hell-busted old public defender who will ever be a part of my psyche takes no joy in the conviction of anyone, let alone a man who dedicated his life to serving God to the best of his ability.

But it had to be.

I do not feel schadenfreude that the bishop was given the sack--albeit the ermine lined, velvet sack, allowing him to resign.

But that too had to be.

In 2011, I published Command and Coercion: Clerical Immunity, Scandal, and the Sex Abuse Crisis in the Roman Catholic Church (the final paper, subscription required; working paper available here). In it, I argued, I think convincingly, that the key to understanding the massive international cover up by the Church hierarchy, from top to bottom, of sexual abuse of children by priests is the doctrine that the Church is not subject to the secular state, and that its clergy, broadly defined, are immune from secular punishment. This doctrine has its jurisprudential roots in St. Augustine's City of God, became binding on state as well as Church in the wake of the murder of Thomas Becket at Canterbury Cathedral, and survived for centuries as benefit of clergy, or, more formally, privilegium fori. While the immunity's recognition withered in secular law, it found its way into the 1917 Pio-Benedictine Code of Canon Law. In other words, the Church still taught that its clerics were immune from secular jurisdiction for crimes including raper and murder.

Since the publication of "Command and Coercion" a rather good book along similar lines has appeared--Potiphar's Wife: The Vatican's Secret and Child Sexual Abuse, by barrister and canonist Kieran Tapsell. Actually, I'm quite glad to see his book come out, for some of the reasons given by Fr. Tom Doyle in his perceptive review. Tapsell is lighter on the history than is my own work, but is, I think, a little more adroit with the impact of the 1983 Code of Canon Law. So, far from feeling displaced by his work, I think it complements my own, and does some of the work that I, as an amateur canonist, could not do as confidently. Tapsell brings an Australian perspective to the story, as well, and reminds us that this is not an exclusively American, or even Western story, but one that engulfed the Church around the world.

The hierarchy has, prior to Bishop Finn's forced resignation, been immune from consequences. That it took over 2 years from his criminal conviction for the Pope to act is to Francis's discredit--but act he did, at last.

The wall of clericalism has been breached. One must hope that the work of Fr. Tom Doyle, of all the good people at SNAP, and Bishop Accountability, and lawyers like Jeffrey Anderson, will continue. This is not the end, but it may be the end of the beginning.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Disengagement to Marry

According to Rod Dreher:
Father Patrick Reardon, pastor of All Saints Antiochian Orthodox Church in Chicago, has just released the following statement:

"Because the State of Illinois, through its legislature and governor’s office, have now re-defined marriage, marriage licenses issued by agencies of the State of Illinois will no longer be required (or signed) for weddings here at All Saints in Chicago.

Those seeking marriage in this parish will be counseled on the point.

Father Pat"

No longer be required or signed. No recognition of the state’s authority over marriage. One is reminded of Alasdair Macintyre’s famous remark about the decline of the Western Roman Empire:

"A crucial turning point in that earlier history occurred when men and women of good will turned aside from the task of shoring up the Roman imperium and ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with the maintenance of that imperium."

I could be wrong, but it sounds like the pastor of All Saints parish has concluded that the continuation of civility and moral community no longer has anything to do with shoring up the American civil order, and in fact depends on repudiating it in the matter of marriage.
Well, that's one approach, I suppose.

Look, it is the right of any religious sect to choose to get out of the secular marriage business. If this is the beginning of a trend, so be it. I confess that it seems a little petulant--particularly if Dreher is reading Father Reardon's motivation correctly--in that civil marriage has always diverged, in this country, from sacramental marriage. Indeed, in many Christian denominations, marriage isn't a sacrament. Period. Moreover, divorce has long been more readily available under secular law than under the rules of many traditionalist Christian sects, not to mention the rules of other faiths.

Oh, yes. Other faiths. Faiths that have very different definitions of marriage and its meaning.

But let's be charitable here, and assume that Fr, Reardon is not applying Macintyre's lines here. He just wants out, either to prevent a claim that his parish be required to conduct a wedding outside of the framework of its faith (which I an quite sure would not be upheld by the courts, even if tried), or to avoid complicity in the doings of the state.

Or even assume Dreher reads Fr. Reardon aright.

He should live and be well.

I think he's wildly wrong, mind you. I believe full civil marriage equality is coming sooner than I thought. And in my own Diocese, it's already here, for which I am glad. My marriage shouldn't, in my view, be privileged by La Caterina's and my gender. That said, I value religious freedom for others as well as for myself. That includes, in my opinion, the right to not exercise a religion,as either agnostic or atheist, and the right to exercise religions with which I have little or no common ground.

And that includes, of course, the right not to serve as an agent of the state in weddings.

So, it's not how I would react, but just as I respected the right of those clergy who decided not to perform weddings until equal marriage was the law of New York State, it's my duty to recognize the converse right of those who hold opposite views to disengage.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

A Third Thomas

I don't normally recycle my own posts, but here's one that I think is worth revisiting in view of today's Gospel reading, the story of Thomas the Doubter.

I write this just an hour before it is the Feast Day of St. Thomas the Apostle. St Thomas is, of course, commonly thought of as "Doubting Thomas" based on John 20:24-28.

But I'd like to point out a different aspect of Thomas tonight. In John 11:7-16, when Jesus is called back to Judea to Lazarus's death-bed, the following takes place:
Then after this he said to the disciples, ‘Let us go to Judea again.’ The disciples said to him, ‘Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?’ Jesus answered, ‘Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.’ After saying this, he told them, ‘Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.’ The disciples said to him, ‘Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.’ Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.’ Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow-disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’
Think about that, because to me it's the flip side of Thomas' doubt. Thomas believes that Jesus is going into danger--his death--and that this danger will engulf them all. He answers with a fatalistic courage that would do a Norse saga hero like Skarp-hedin proud, "Let us also go, that we may die with Him." Pretty good, that. St. Thomas may have been slow to accept the tale his friends told of the Risen Lord, but he had a clear-sighted vision of what was to come in the return to the environs of Jerusalem, and of what it might cost him.

And walked in with eyes open, and no expectation that he would walk out.

One More Thought About Dreher

I've already said my piece abut Rod Dreher's massive overreaction to the notion that pro-GLBT rights people will use their First Amendment rights to criticize individuals and businesses who express their own opposition to marriage equality.

On reflection, I have a few additional thoughts, which I am adding because it troubles me to see the usually thoughtful Dreher, like some others, become so obdurate and viscerally angry on a subject that is only incidentally about religion or theology.

Underlining his thinking in the pieces I linked Thursday are, I believe two errors that undermine his arguments quite substantially.

First, Tribalism. Dreher exults in a "win" for a Catholic school teacher disciplined for ant-gay Facebook posts (she began a post "See, this is the agenda" and stated "they want to reengineer Western civ into a slow extinction") and the money raised by sympathizers--some who support GLBT equality--for Memories pizza after Yelp commenters posted hostile comments due to an interview in which the proprietor said he would not cater a gay wedding. In both cases, Dreher is gleeful about expression on his side of the argument, while horrified by those who disagree.

In other words, only one side of the discussion has a moral right to be aired for Dreher. It's all about cultural hegemony for him.

This bespeaks the second error. An absolute failure of the moral imagination. In the post I quoted Thursday, Dreher even analogized the criticism of businesses and individuals who opposed SSM to the Holocaust--carefully not predicting a Holocaust, but claiming the anger came from the same root: "The Holocaust was an extraordinary event. Nobody knows the future, but let me say on the record that I don’t believe we face that. But just because social demonization of the Other only very rarely turns into something like the Holocaust does not mean that it does not exact a terrible cost on the weak."

Invoking the Holocaust against critics of those who support the right of legal equality for a minority group who were a major target of persecution in the actual Holocaust shows that Dreher has really lost the thread here. This is especially so where legal equality has required a long, bitter struggle, and has only recently come into sight. Until United States v. Windsor, federal law mandated unequal treatment of spouses married to members of the same gender in states which had enacted marriage equality. Likewise, until Hollingsworth v. Perry, a state constitutional right to equal marriage could be overturned by ballot initiative. For heaven's sake, until Lawrence v. Texas, gays could be ailed for the crime of consensual sex, while straights had autonomy rights to protect them. Proposition 8, by the way, involved in Hollingsworth, succeeded in part due to the Mormon Church's donations and advocacy, in league with that of the Roman Catholic Church. Along the way, traditionalists have damaged the reputation of Christianity itself.

Despite that, Dreher makes no effort whatsoever to take into account the lived experiences of those whose equality is up for debate, or even to view those with whom he disagrees from a Christian perspective. If he had made such an effort the incredible bad taste and inappropriateness of the analogy would be self-evident. Dreher has internalized, and thus treats as non-controversial, the very othering he complains of--as long as it is limited to gays.

I try to read writers from a different perspective than my own, whether politically or theologically, to see the flaws in my own thinking. I value good disagreement, and have learned from it--there are examples of readers of this blog who have materially enriched my perspective by disagreeing with me.

Dreher needs to hear the other side, and to trust in God, I think, a bit more. Not easy, I admit, when you are losing an argument you believe is critically important. I go to that place of spiky defensiveness, too, and from the other political pole. But Julian of Norwich has it right: "All will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of things will be well."

(Quotation corrected.)

Friday, April 10, 2015

A Tale of Two Thomases



The adaptation of Hilary Mantel's novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies has sparked much debate; in particular Roman Catholic Bishops Mark Davies and Mark O'Toole have been scathing:
But yesterday two bishops publicly attacked the drama for its depiction of St Thomas, a martyr who was canonised in 1935 and who was made patron saint of politicians by St John Paul II in 2000.

Bishop Mark Davies of Shrewsbury said: “We should remember Wolf Hall is a work of fiction. It is an extraordinary and perverse achievement of Hilary Mantel and BBC Drama to make of Thomas Cromwell a flawed hero and of St Thomas More, one of the greatest Englishmen, a scheming villain.

“It is not necessary to share Thomas More’s faith to recognise his heroism – a man of his own time who remains an example of integrity for all times. It would be sad if Thomas Cromwell, who is surely one of the most unscrupulous figures in England’s history, was to be held-up as a role model for future generations.”

Bishop Mark O’Toole of Plymouth said there was a “strong anti-Catholic thread” in the series, which stars Shakespearean actor Mark Rylance as Cromwell and Damien Lewis as Henry VIII.

“Those modern parallels need to be cautiously drawn,” said Bishop O’Toole. “Hilary Mantel does have this view that being a Catholic is destructive to your humanity. It is not historically accurate and it is not accurate in what the Catholic faith has to contribute to society and to the common good as a whole.

“There is an anti-Catholic thread there, there is no doubt about it. Wolf Hall is not neutral.”

Bishop O’Toole said: “The picture of More is dark. More was a man of his time and heresy was the big sin, really, it was the big wrong on both sides. It is hard for us in our modern mentality to see it as wrong. They looked on heretics as we look upon drug traffickers. But it is inaccurate to say that he (St Thomas) condemned people to death.

“The other side which I think is dark, which it doesn’t give, are the things Erasmus describes – his enlightened family life, the fact that he did educate his daughters.”
Now, Mantel's novels are, as works of fiction, extremely well written, and compelling. They take Cromwell as the viewpoint figure, and More is seen in a very different light than in Robert Bolt's A Man for all Seasons, an equally well wrought drama, one which has cemented the legend of More as an enlightened, humane man averse to the forcing of anyone's conscience.



In Bolt, Cromwell is depicted as a soulless thug, an enforcer of the King's will whose efforts to save More's life are pragmatic--he fears the King's conscience will lead him, ultimately, to avenge More. Mantel portrays Cromwell as genuinely reluctant for More to be executed. He is the King's faithful servant, but strives to act prudently, and with a minimum of violence.

It should be noted that Mantel's view is based on the writings of, among others, Geoffrey Elton, of whom Derek Wilson writes:
The last 50 years have seen great shifts in the reputation of this man about whom, despite his importance, we still know remarkably little. Indeed it is the enigma behind the public figure which provides such rich pickings for novelists. Elton’s presentation of Cromwell as an administrative genius who single-handedly transformed a ‘medieval’ system of household government into a ‘modern’ bureaucracy was vigorously (in some cases bitterly) challenged by his peers. This somewhat esoteric debate over the nature of institutional change was significant in that it served to highlight the importance of the 1530s. England on the day after Cromwell’s execution, we now realise, was a vastly different place from the England that had awoken to the news of Cardinal Wolsey’s death.

But who was responsible for this transformation? That was the next question exercising the minds of rival theorists. Were the royal supremacy, the extinguishing of monasticism, the stripping of the altars, the growing involvement of Parliament, the disposing of ecclesiastical lands to a rising ‘middle class’, the promulgation of vernacular Bibles, et al, all innovations springing from the creative mind of the Putney brewer’s son, or was the minister, at all times, carrying out the policies of his royal master? Can we even think in terms of ‘policy’. Once Henry had set in train his plans to divest himself of his first wife did all the other changes follow inevitably, like a line of collapsing dominoes?

No one was, rightly, prepared to accept the concept of the English Reformation as a haphazard series of events over which no one had effective control. Therefore there must have been a mind behind it. Either Henry VIII was working to a caesaropapistical schema or Cromwell had a vision for a new England which he tried, with considerable success, to manoeuvre his master into endorsing. But ‘vision’ implies religious conviction and there was always a school of thought that clung to the pre-Elton assertion that Cromwell was a ‘Machiavellian’, by which was meant that his actions were governed by realpolitik, with no regard for morality or human sentiment. Thus, for example, he only brought down the abbeys to enrich the king and he cunningly allied himself with the New Learning in order to give his policies an aura of intellectual respectability. Any attempt to defend Cromwell’s reputation was always hampered by the fact that he never declared a clear personal statement of his own convictions. Even so, there remain few historians who would now sign up to the Bismarckian stereotype. If Cromwell did not write his own apologia pro vita sua, there were friends and other contemporary chroniclers whose letters and books provide details of conversations and actions that reveal attractive facets of his character. Moreover Cromwell lived in an age when people did hold religious beliefs – often passionately. Were it otherwise there could have been no Reformation.
Elton's England Under the Tudors maintains that Henry, not Cromwell, wanted More dead, writing that
Cromwell seems to have had a real liking for More whose integrity, personal charm, gentle determination, and miserable fate make him the most attractive figure of the early sixteenth century (not a difficult achievement.). . . . In any case, Cromwell probably realized the folly of a policy which made martyrs of these well-known men.
(P. 139). More recent biographers like John Schofield and Tracy Borman build on Elton's research to excavate a much more attractive figure than the Cromwell written by Bolt and masterfully enacted by Leo McKern.

And, with all respect to the bishops, More certainly was responsible for the death of heretics. Six "heretics" were burned under More's administration, and he was personally engaged in the proceedings of at least three. As More admirer Steven Smith acknowledges:
More [wrote in a letter] that he is content to leave every man to his own conscience and that they should leave him to his. But in fact, in his various offices, and especially as Lord Chancellor, More actively persecuted and prosecuted Protestant dissenters and in some cases approved their execution. As [biographer] Peter Ackroyd explains, "his opponents were genuinely following their consciences," but More "truly believed that Lutherans to be 'daemonum satellites' ('agents of the demons'), who must, if necessary, be destroyed by burning."
***
More did not merely do what his office demanded; he pursued the heretics zealously, exceeding both the efforts of his predecessor Wolsey and the king's own wishes. On occasion, he attempted to apprehend a wayward preacher toward whom the king was well disposed, hoping to act quickly before the king's leniency might step in to save the hapless heretic.
Steven D. Smith, "Interrogating Thomas More: The Conundrums of Conscience,"1 Univ. St. Thomas L.J. 580, 596-597, 598 (2003).

And a reading of the rhetoric deployed by More in his debates with Martin Luther is rather shocking--his essays are studded with invective, both violent and scatological (At one point he calls Luther "a turd from the devil's anus," to give one example). He wasn't Paul Scofield any more than he was Anton Lesser.

My point isn't to choose Mantel over Bolt, Cromwell over More--nor to choose the other way, for that matter. These were two very complex men in a world that was substantially different from ours in some ways, substantially similar in others. Both played power politics, and, ultimately, lost. Cromwell gave us much of what is great in the Reformation, while bearing responsibility for some of its early excesses. More played a part in violent repression of the reformers for as long as he could. He also gave us a noble example of personal courage and grace under terrible circumstances, and a vision of justice that is worth study even now.

Neither was a plaster saint nor a melodrama's devil.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Panic Attack: Rod Dreher and Overreaction

In the week since Indiana amended its Religious Freedom Restoration Act "to clarify that this new judicial standard would not create a license to discriminate or to deny services to any individual as its critics have alleged," there has been a--how to put this charitably--a freakout on the part of Rod Dreher over at the American Conservative about the impending death of religious liberty. To take but one example:
Liberal values like tolerance and pluralism, to which gay rights campaigners have long appealed, were a ruse. Don’t you believe it when the other side appeals to them. They have the power now, and they’re using it to demonize all dissent. It’s here, and where it is not now, it will be soon. Handwriting, meet wall.

To me, the most chilling thing of all this is what the Irish psychiatrists have said. Why? It brought me back to the year 2000, when I was in Jerusalem, and visited the museum at Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial. There was an exhibit at the time tracing how the German media and medical establishment paved the way for the Holocaust in the early 20th century by taking advantage of the country’s mania for hygiene, and defining Jews as parasites on the body politic. The health of the German people meant ridding the body of Jews and other parasites.

The exhibit was stunning, because it showed how the mass persecutions didn’t come from nowhere. For twenty, thirty years, the German medical, political, and media establishments prepared the German people for it by training them to think that Germany needed to be turned into a “safe space” for das Volk, and to do that required expelling from public life the demons that threatened the health of innocent Germans. It was not about that at all, of course, but about rationalizing hatred of the Other — a hatred that eventually turned into an apocalypse.

Am I saying a new Holocaust is coming? No, I am not. The Holocaust was an extraordinary event. Nobody knows the future, but let me say on the record that I don’t believe we face that. But just because social demonization of the Other only very rarely turns into something like the Holocaust does not mean that it does not exact a terrible cost on the weak.

(Actually, the freakout has been evident elsewhere on the right, too, but I'm picking Dreher because when he isn't trumpeting the Apocalypse, he can write irenic and touching pieces about faith.)

Seriously, this is arrant nonsense. First and foremost, as Dreher's own commenters point out--with nary an acknowledgment from him--his facts are wildly wrong. He cites as examples of oppression medical professionals complaining that the research anti-SSM advocates are citing does not comport with the current state of scholarship. One Catholic school has ended playing against another over their different views on the topic. Aye, that's real Vlad the Impaler stuff.

Basically, Dreher's position is that traditionalist Christians should not face criticism, should note lose face, for their disparate treatment of GLBT people. Again, arrant nonsense. (I'm starting to sound a bit Jon Pertwee, here, but, c'mon.) Neither Free Speech nor Free Exercise insulates you from criticism or others rejecting your views, or even you along with them. Dreher's rights do not trump my right to think poorly of what is, to my mind, a grotesque distortion of Christian orthodoxy.

And I do. As I have written elsewhere, the selection of the so-called "clobber passages" on same sex attraction as the hallmark of Christian orthodoxy over, say, the prohibition agains usury--adverted to more than three times as often in the Bible than homosexuality, by any measure-makes the peripheral (at best) central, and marginalizes the core of Jesus's teaching. It's "interpretation in support of what is most comfortable to the interpreter." It's off-shoring the cost of discipleship, by defining morality as that which is congruent with the culture with which the interpreter is comfortable. In sum, Christianity on the cheap.

Dreher does not ever engage with the belief of orthodox and traditional Christians like me--I'm a Nineteenth Century Lux Mundi Anglo-Catholic who says the Creed without crossing his fingers at any point--who believe that recognizing the legitimacy of the lives, love and ministry of our GLBT sisters and brothers is part of the Gospel imperative. Nope. All evil liberal secularists, out to destroy faith, despite the fact that theologically we agree on quite a lot.

But the irony is this: the whole reason RFRAs became a thing is that in Employment Division v. Smith, the conservative wing of the Supreme Court--then comprising Scalia, Rehnquist, White, Stevens (Ok, he's a moderate-to-liberal), O'Connor, and Kennedy, in an opinion by Scalia, overturned a bunch of Warren Court precedents that allowed for some accommodation to avoid substantial burdens on free exercise of religion resulting from laws of general applicability. It was the liberals on the Court--Brennan, Marshall, and Blackmun--who voted for some degree of accommodation for religious practice.

So much for the evil liberal secularists.

Look, the point is quite simple: the Christian Right showed absolutely no desire to compromise when it thought it had the upper hand in the culture wars. With rare exceptions like Peter Ould, traditionalist Christians did not call out the abusive rhetoric on their side. Indeed, many re-aligning American Anglicans chose to affiliate with the Church of Nigeria, which supported jailing gays and those who advocated for their rights. And think of Proposition 8 in California, or the North Carolina same sex marriage amendment. All of these come at a cost. As Rachel Held Evans
pointed out:
When asked by The Barna Group what words or phrases best describe Christianity, the top response among Americans ages 16-29 was “antihomosexual.” For a staggering 91 percent of non-Christians, this was the first word that came to their mind when asked about the Christian faith. The same was true for 80 percent of young churchgoers. (The next most common negative images? : “judgmental,” “hypocritical,” and “too involved in politics.”)

***

In the book that documents these findings, titled unChristian, David Kinnaman writes:

“The gay issue has become the ‘big one, the negative image most likely to be intertwined with Christianity’s reputation. It is also the dimensions that most clearly demonstrates the unchristian faith to young people today, surfacing in a spate of negative perceptions: judgmental, bigoted, sheltered, right-wingers, hypocritical, insincere, and uncaring. Outsiders say [Christian] hostility toward gays...has become virtually synonymous with the Christian faith.”

Later research, documented in Kinnaman’s You Lost Me, reveals that one of the top reasons 59 percent of young adults with a Christian background have left the church is because they perceive the church to be too exclusive, particularly regarding their LGBT friends. Eight million twenty-somethings have left the church, and this is one reason why.
As the support for legal equality grew, conservatives turned to RFRAs, which ameliorate the conservative majoritarian reading of the First Amendment.

But exemptions that swallow anti-discrimination law are deeply problematic, and go beyond the liberal jurisprudence overruled by Scalia et al. A discussion of what exemptions should be allowed is a legitimate and important one. But it should be had with a little grace, and a little willingness to see the other side's perspective. Comparing having to live under the First Amendment regime prescribed by Scalia and his colleagues as the culmination of a left-wing plot, and dark hints at the Holocaust are discrediting to Dreher, not his interlocutors. Some of the Christian virtues of charity might be helpful here.

Or, as Sgt. Hulka might say:



Wednesday, April 8, 2015

The Agency Principle: A Sermon on John 13:1-17, 31b-35 Maundy Thursday, April 2, 2015

“Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them.”

And so we come to the last great hinge of the Gospels—from the ministry of Jesus to the story of the Passion and the Resurrection. That’s what Maundy Thursday is, isn’t it? Up until now, Jesus has been healing the sick, teaching the crowds and feeding the people. He’s fed those hungry for the good news of God’s love and those hungry in the more literal sense. All along, in the Fourth Gospel, he’s been debating the authorities. Those debates are important—they’re about what God wants from us, what are God’s commandments to us. The Pharisees and scribes, the lawyers like me, have pointed out chapter and verse of the law. Jesus has answered back by pointing to the spirit of the law.

A woman taken in adultery? The law prescribes death. Jesus answers: Whoever is without sin may enforce that law.

Chalk that round up to the Spirit.

Raymond Brown, perhaps the greatest scholar of John’s Gospel, calls this part of the Gospel, Jesus’s ministry to the People The Book of Signs. The rest—the Last Supper, the Passion, the Resurrection—Father Brown names The Book of Glory.

We’re at the hinge right here, in tonight’s reading. We’ve heard the debates, we’ve eaten of the loaves and fishes, we’ve maybe hefted a rock, about to throw it at a terrified, helpless victim—and we’ve dropped it, ashamed.

What now? How does Jesus use this last night of peace, the proverbial eye of the storm?

He realizes that we’re still too dense to take onboard what he’s saying, we need him to demonstrate his teachings in a way we can’t fail to get. Jesus redefines what authority is, what it means to be a teacher and what it means to be Lord. He looks over his friends—his scruffy, well-meaning friends, including the brothers who argue over who will sit at Jesus’s side when that Twelve are enthroned in heaven, and the one who will leave in a scant few hours to sell him out. No, still not getting it.

So he, their Lord, their teacher, the Man in whose eyes they see God, kneels to them, and washes the dirt off their feet.
That image is so powerful that it’s uncomfortable for many people. Including me. I’ve been to a service where my feet were washed exactly once. I felt self-conscious, unworthy to be served in that strangely intimate way.

Good.

That’s the point.

Maundy Thursday is not comfortable, because it’s where Jesus finally demonstrates what God wants of us in an image we can’t escape.

We serve.

The word “Maundy” is old French for “mandate”—command. That is what the night is named for. Not the Last Supper, not the institution of the Eucharist, but Jesus’s making explicit his command to all who would follow him, all who want to walk the Way with him: We serve.

Jesus says so, quite plainly: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
And that love is to take concrete form, as Jesus’s washing of his disciple’s feet was concrete and practical. “For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”

In other words, we serve. We don’t just think lovely thoughts, or say kind things. We tie a towel around our waist, we get our hands dirty, our love is to be in concrete, not theoretical, form.

We are messengers, servants, of Jesus, he reminds us tonight, and that means we aren’t more important than he is. Well. Not many people think they’re greater than Jesus—even John Lennon’s crack that the Beatles were “more popular than Jesus” was meant ironically. So if He can humble himself to serve the mundane needs of his friends—like Martha, serving the guests while her sister Mary listens and learns from Jesus—then that’s what we’re supposed to do, too.

Listening and learning have their place, but so does Martha’s practical activity. Mary may have chosen the better part at the moment Jesus was present and teaching, but Martha has something to teach us about how to implement Jesus’s last command to his disciples, and through them, to us. See a need we are especially equipped to meet, meet that need. Jesus has set us an example of what we are meant to do. We are, to use a legal term, his agents. That means we proceed under his directions, doing what he would have us do.

And so, we serve.

I’m not recommending an outbreak of spontaneous foot-washing in church every Sunday—and the Rector’s not the only one to be relieved, I’m pretty sure, to hear that. No, Jesus is telling us not to be too proud to serve in whatever capacity we can make a difference. If he can kneel to his students and perform the most humble tasks for them, then we can’t be led by ambition.
So we find the service that we are suited for. Not the service that makes us feel powerful, or important, but what we can be most useful at. But not in as if we’re worthless or useless either. Humility isn’t about self-hatred, or self-disparagement; it’s about being right-sized. Knowing our talents and weaknesses, and being clear-sighted about who we are. And then, in the light of that self-knowledge, finding out where we are called to be. And where is that? The theologian Frederick Buechner said that “[t]he place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

I believe that this is what Jesus is telling us to do. To get over ourselves, figure who we are at heart, and find a way to make our truest, best selves useful. So, it’s ok if you don’t want to literally wash feet or have your feet washed. Let’s just not be too proud to turn down the opportunity to use what we have to offer.

And so Maundy Thursday answers a question implied the collect for Monday in Holy Week: Mercifully grant, we asked, that we, walking in the way of the Cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace.

How can that be? We follow Jesus’s example, but God knows our limits, and asks us to do that which we are made for. To come home to our true selves. And then to love each other in a way that matters.

We serve.

In the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Friday, April 3, 2015

"It is Finished": The Beginning-- A Good Friday Meditation



(Photo by Millard Cook, 2014)

I again had the honor of preaching at the Liturgy of the Seven Last Words at my home parish,St Bartholomew's Church. The other preachers were exceptional this year, and the fact that it is Buddy Stalling's last Good Friday as Rector, added an emotional layer to the day.

You can actually hear my meditation here. The text follows:

***

It is Finished”

A Meditation on John 19:30
St. Bartholomew’s Church, Good Friday
April 3, 2015

John Wirenius


Many years ago, when I was a boy, the first book I read that wasn’t written specifically for children was T.H. White’s The Once and Future King. It retells the story of King Arthur, whose Round Table White sees as an effort to overcome the notion that Might makes Right. Might makes Right was seemingly triumphant in White’s own time—he wrote as the Second World War was getting under way.

The book ends, as every re-telling of the King Arthur story must, in tragedy: The Round Table is split, the best are killed and scattered, and nobody is quite sure what happened to Arthur, “that gentle heart and centre of it all,” lost in a futile battle he struggles to prevent. But he, and his friends, are remembered by White as having “tried, in their own small way, to still the ancient brutal dream of Attila the Hun.”

At the bottom of the last page, are two simple words: The Beginning.

Not “The End.”

I always remember that on Good Friday. The battle’s lost, Might triumphant, the forces of light scattered or simply dead. And White, off to join the war effort, ends the book with a simple request: “Pray for Thomas Malory, Knight,” who compiled the Arthur stories into a coherent tale, “and for his humble disciple”—that’s White—“who now voluntarily lays aside his books to fight for his kind.”

He didn’t expect to come back, you see. But as he lay aside his books, he wrote: “The Beginning,” anyway.

In John’s Gospel, Jesus says “It is finished” with his last breath. He says it from the Cross to which he was sentenced for opposing the exploitation of the poor pilgrims who came to Jerusalem, for helping people on the Sabbath, for preaching love to a world that was governed by hate, and by law.

The late, great historian Marcus Borg called the Roman order in Jerusalem where occupier and occupied united to crush the presumptuous prophet from Galilee an “imperial domination system.” Today we commemorate that system’s crushing, seemingly final, victory.

Jesus took on the powers and principalities of this world, and they put him to death in the most barbaric way the ancient world had designed—a slow death by suffocation, shameful, surrounded by mocking crowds. Those who hated Jesus are there to gloat. Almost worse, those who didn’t know him were just there for the show, as a public entertainment, like Victorians attending a public hanging, and betting on who lasts longest, while they picnic.

Jesus dies, the imperial domination system wins.

Every telling of the story of Jesus has to have that dark victory.
It’s part of the arc of the story. A great scholar of Jesus’s life, John Meier, says that the uncomfortable fact of that victory is part of how we can be sure he lived—nobody would make up a Messiah who sets the people alight with hope, only to have him die a shameful agonizing death, the end.

And Jesus says just that, doesn’t he. “It is finished.” “Finis.” "The End."

But what was finished?

Jesus’s ministry? His life? A ritual sacrifice, as the mid-twentieth century scholar C.H. Dodd suggests? Or is Raymond Brown, perhaps the greatest expert on the Fourth Gospel, right when he says that Jesus’s last words from the Cross are “a cry of victory,” a triumphant shout that he has defeated the powers and principalities by enacting his role as sacrifice to the very end?

That doesn’t feel right today, as we grieve in front of the black-draped, rough wood of the Cross, as we hear the choir ravage our souls with some of the most heartbreaking hymns and anthems composed in the nearly two thousand years since Jesus’s death—

And wait just a second, there.

Where is the power of the Caesars today? Who would have heard of Pontius Pilate other than a few obscure Latinists if he hadn’t made it into the Creed?

Here we stand in New York City, in 2015, in a building hallowed to that presumptuous prophet who gave his life not just to oppose an imperial domination system, not just to point a better way to live, but to point the way to wholeness of soul. Don’t take that from me; it’s in the opening chapter of John’s Gospel: “to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.” In the same chapter of the Gospel that first calls Jesus the Son of God, we are called to be Daughters and Sons of God.

And that Way—because that’s what the early Christians called it, not a creed but a way of life—has outlasted the Roman Empire in which it grew, and the rise and fall of a myriad of other empires. Domination systems—imperial or not—come and go. Through them all, pilgrims walk the Way.

So—a shout of victory? Not quite that, I think; the cost is too high—both on that day at Golgotha and in innocent blood since. No, not triumphant jubilation, exactly, but recognition that the world has changed forever.

Because what is finished is the notion that these domination systems will ever go unchallenged again. Jesus’s teachings are too subversive to sit well with exploitation, even when done in the name of God by self-professed Christians.

Jesus, in his words, and in the breaking of the bread and in the liturgy, keeps reminding us of who we are—and who we aren’t. In our hearts, we are not citizens of the Empire, whatever form it takes in our day. We just live in it.

In the moment of that terrible death, Jesus knew that one story was reaching a terrible and yet triumphant conclusion, ending in victory despite the tragic cost.

But he also knew that this story was not the end in itself. In the mysterious explosion we call Easter, Jesus on this day kindled the fire at which believers could, to paraphrase the Anglican martyr Hugh Latimer, light such a candle, by God’s grace, in all the world, as we trust shall never be put out.

And so the story ends.

It is finished.

The Beginning.