Do the Right Thing

Yesterday was the 30th anniversary of the assassination of Oscar Romero, the Archbishop of San Salvador.  The newly appointed Archbishop called for the investigation of the murders and human rights violations going on in his country; he called attention to the huge disparity of wealth, with the landed gentry profiting from the hard labor of the peasants.  For these efforts, Rome called him to task.  From the Church’s perspective, poverty was caused by individual failings, not by systemic sin, such as a repressive regime. 

On March 23, 1980, Romero gave a sermon in which he begged those carrying out the nefarious commands of the government to cease and desist–to heed God’s commandments of love and brotherhood, instead.  The following day Romero was assassinated, shot dead, by a paid killer during Mass as he was preparing to serve Communion.  His funeral service was attended by more than a quarter of a million people from all over the world, and many poor people who had been apolitical in the past became activists.  A civil war caused the deaths of 75,000 people, and in 1992, peace accords between the Salvadoran government and the rebels were signed in Mexico–in the presence of the Catholic Church.  The cease fire, which began in February of 1992, has never been broken.  Elections were to be monitored by an outside observing system. 

And now I move to a more current event.  The day before last Sunday’s historic health care vote, President Obama spoke, unrehearsed, to the House Democrats.  Near the end of Obama’s speech, he said the following: “Every once in a while a moment comes when you have a chance to vindicate all those best hopes that you had about yourself, about this country, where you have a chance to make good on those promises that you made . . . .  And this is the time to make true on that promise.  We are not bound to win, but we are bound to be true.  We are not bound to succeed, but we are bound to let whatever light we have shine.” (quoted by Paul Krugman, NY Times, 3/22) 

There are moments in time when it is as clear as glass–we have a choice, and we know what is right.  We also know that there may be a cost, and the cost may be great, in fact.  But what is the alternative?  To take the easy way, to give in to the wrong, may give ease and protection in the moment–but it’s never a good choice in the long haul.  Because the right always emerges in the end, and the wrong always shows itself for what it is.  There really is no alternative.  Even if we “lose” for the moment, we never lose when we do the right thing.  It’s only ever a matter of time.


Vatican Claims Pope “Not Reponsible” in Abuse Case

A priest in the German Archdiocese of Munich and Freising who was accused of molesting boys was sent to therapy in 1980, and later allowed to return to his pastoral duties, when he again abused children and was finally prosecuted (NY Times, 3/13/p. 1).  This is not an unusual story–except that in this case the priest was actually prosecuted, and in most cases, the priest in question is never brought to justice.  What is significant about this particular story, however, is that Pope Benedict headed the Archdiocese at the time this “serious mistake”  (words of a senior church official) occurred and in fact approved the priest’s transfer.  A subordinate has taken “full responsibility,” according to a statement by the archdiocese.  This is only the tip of the proverbial abuse iceberg, in that hundreds more abuse victims have recently come forward in Germany.

Now let me get this right.  I’m the boss, and I approve an order–so I must know what I’m approving–but I have no responsibility for the consequences of that decision?  This is an old, old story–it’s called “passing the buck,” and it goes back as far as the Biblical account of Adam and Eve.  God told Adam and Eve that they could have every good thing in the Garden of Eden, but they were to leave that one apple tree alone–the tree of the knowledge of goodness and evil.  Well, you know the story.  They just had to have an apple.  They tried to hide from God (the one thing you can’t hide from), and when confronted with what they had done, what did they say?  Adam says, “Hey, it isn’t my fault–Eve gave me the apple!  And Eve?  What was her rationale?  Eve says, “It was the snake’s fault–he tempted me!” 

Christianity is firmly grounded in the theology of forgiveness–in fact, if a person truly takes responsibility for an act and repents, that person can be forgiven any sin.  For the Pope to use a PR tactic to avoid responsibility for his own deeds effectively undermines his moral authority.  And of course, that’s the only power he has.  Benedict’s central goal as Pope is the “re-Christianization” of Europe.  When will the Catholic hierarchy learn that evasiveness and lies serve only to discredit its message.  And where else should the truth start but with the Pope. 


First Woman Wins Oscar for Best Film

The Oregonian reported today that 6 Oregonians are among 200 female World War II pilots who are to receive the Congressional Gold Medal for their service to the country–only about 60 years late.  These undaunted fliers had to pay their own way to flight school.  If they failed to make it, they had to repay the government for their room and board and travel back home.  If a woman pilot was killed in training, her family had to pay for shipping their loved one’s body back home–and no flag was allowed on the casket.

Eighteen years ago, I was in search for a church.  I interviewed, or pre-candidated, at 10 churches before choosing and being chosen by Portland’s First Unitarian.  And what was one of the questions most commonly asked of me by search committees?  “Do you think you, as a woman, could minister to men?”  (Can you imagine the reverse being asked of a man: “Do you think you, as a man, could minister to women?”)  Portland did not ask this question. 

No doubt about it, women are making gains in all professional fields.  But it is tight at the top.  When I became the Senior Minister of a large church, only one other woman in our denomination had done so, without being married to a male co-minister, at the time.  And let’s look at the top echelons in business today: in 2009 there were15 women CEO’s in Fortune 500 companies, down from 20 in 2006; and there were 28 women in Fortune 1000 companies.

In the film business, no woman has ever won an oscar for best picture–until this year, when Kathryn Bigelow won for “Hurt Locker.”  She was up against her former husband (and friend) James Cameron, who had directed “Avatar,” the best-selling film ever, with over $2.5 billion in tickets worldwide.  “Hurt Locker” was independently financed and sold about $14.7 million in tickets in N. America and and $6.7 overseas. 

The NY Times reported that the filmmakers were so insecure about their film’s financial draw that when the film opened in NY, “the screenwriter, Mark Boal, stood on street corners with his teenage nephew handing out free tickets to passersby with the idea that if they could stack the house, perhaps the theater owners would book it for another week.”  The filmmakers had made the best film they could, proceeding with integrity, not really thinking they could hope for much money or public attention.  Turns out they were wrong.

Between the triumph of Kathryn Bigelow and the African American filmmakers and actors who made the startling good “Precious,” I felt anew the truth that Monique voiced that evening as she accepted her well-deserved award for best supporting actress: “Sometimes you do the right thing, and it’s recognized.”   


An Overwhelming Gift of Love

Yesterday’s Oregonian featured on the front page a story entitled “An Overwhelming Gift of Love.”  The story recounted the fundraising efforts of Molalla and Mulino students for the “Share the Love” program.  The students pick needy recipients, and in past years have raised over $37,0000.  They have given $1,750 for a middle schooler’s kidney transplant; $3,200 for a former Molalla High student’s cancer treatments; $12,000 for grandparents in retirement raising their grandchildren.

Joe Zenisek, a science teacher who started Share the Love, says “people are communal creatures hard-wired to feel empathy for one another.”  He believes that Share the Love has proven him right.

I’m not so sure.  I recently saw the documentary “Reporter” about the work of journalist Nicholas Kristof, who travels the world, calling readers’ attention to injustice and desperate human need.  In the film he explains that when he writes a story, he has to find one person, a person, who is a symbol for the generalization he wishes to make in his story–because readers just don’t respond compassionately to statistics. 

So in the film, Kristof goes to the Congo and searches for his one victim, and finally finds her, one among the hundreds of thousands of people murdered by warring factions in the Congo.  The camera shows a young woman, all skin and bones, with a large bleeding sore that has become infected.  She was once doing fine–had some land and a few animals–but soldiers raped her, and so no man would marry her, and no one was left to care for her, so she had been deserted in the jungle and was dying.  Kristof writes about her. 

He explains to the camera: studies reveal that if you show people a picture of one starving child, they are empathetic; if you show them two starving children, the level of empathy goes way down.  And the amount of empathy continues to go down in relation to the number of victims affected.  He is saddened that readers will not respond if he gives them horrendous statistics–say 50,000 women have been raped–but he recognizes that he must get the big picture to people through the specifics.  Kristof is not chiefly about empathy–he is about policy change.

So what are these high schoolers learning?  They are surely learning that they can make a difference in someone else’s life when they work together on a project.  They are learning that it feels good to give.  And that’s OK.  But I’m hoping that somewhere along the way in their growing up, they begin to ask hard questions like, “Why don’t these children have medical care?” and “Why do elderly grandparents have to depend on high school fundraisers in order to feed their grandchildren?”  I hope they are learning that empathy and love are not just sweet words that can be simply translated into Thanksgiving baskets and Christmas Toys for Tots. 

As one of my activist friends wrote, “Justice is love in action.”  And action for a grown-up means looking at the big picture and becoming politically active and trying to change the policies that cause and support human suffering.  No, we’re not hard-wired to care about statistics.  But as we mature in our spiritual and civic lives, we will go beyond where our heart strings pull us, and head off suffering and injustice at the pass.