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Unwrapping Lazarus

In the biblical story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, the deceased receives a shock when he is unexpectedly ripped from the other world and returned to ours. So certain was Lazarus’s death—pronounced four days earlier—that the narrator of the story cannot even bring himself to call the revived man “Lazarus,” referring to him instead as “the dead one.” Apparently, no one else present at the miracle is quick to recognize Lazarus either, for Jesus has to command those attending the funeral to “release Lazarus from his grave clothes and let him go.” Wrapped fast in reeking bandages, Lazarus remains immobile in his tomb, like a mummy awaiting total reanimation.

Only recently have I begun to understand something of Lazarus’s situation in that pregnant moment at the tomb. I have cystic fibrosis (CF), a genetic disease affecting my entire body, but most seriously my lungs. For most CF patients, this condition makes a cruel companion in life, as it complicates and interrupts daily tasks with time-consuming treatment regimens, derails life plans with frequent and unpredictable hospitalizations, and, most ominously, threatens premature death. In 1980, life expectancy for people living with CF was less than twenty years; before then, few made it past childhood.

But a new light has appeared on the horizon. Indeed, it would not be too much to call the past five years—and especially the past few months—the critical juncture in the history of cystic fibrosis. Over the past thirty years, treatments for the symptoms of CF have steadily improved the quality of life and increased the life expectancy for people with the illness. But today, for the first time in our history, medicine is available that doesn’t just treat the symptoms of CF but addresses its root causes. These new drugs are classified as “Cystic Fibrosis Transmembrane Conductance Regulators” (CFTR) modulators, and their basic function is to enable the CFTR proteins to operate within the cell. When these proteins function inefficiently or not at all, thick mucus overruns the body, leading to organ malfunction, increased infection, and the clogging of airways. The ultimate result is death.

The first generation of CFTR modulators appeared in 2012 under the name of Kalydeco, but that drug could treat only 4 to 5 percent of the 70,000 people who suffer from CF worldwide. That changed in 2015, when the modulator underlying Kalydeco was combined with another to produce a drug known as Orkambi. With this new combination more than 40 percent of CF patients could benefit from the medication. That number included me. Then, this past October, the FDA approved Trikafta, the first triple-combination modulator. Now 90 percent of CF patients can receive this life-altering treatment. These medicines have been greeted with something like a messianic fervor, and rightly so: for the CF community, this is our Lazarus moment.

Trikafta has been nothing less than a revolution for those suffering severely from this disease. Over the past months I have read hundreds of testimonials from fellow CFers who are living a new, resurrected life. Their lung function has skyrocketed by 20, 30, even 40 percent, allowing many of them to be removed from lung-transplant lists; mothers with CF now expect to live long enough to see their children grow into adulthood; students have resumed their college studies after being forced to drop out because of CF; newfound breathing capacity allows patients to run miles. One story that particularly struck me: a man shared that for the first time in years he was able to put fitted sheets on his bed without collapsing in exhaustion. Life—in all its texture, joy, and possibility—is being returned to those born with this disease.

Life—in all its texture, joy, and possibility—is being returned to those born with this disease.

I began taking Orkambi in 2015. I remember how, when I first swallowed those two pink pills, I crossed myself and said a prayer. In 2018 I switched to another, more powerful version of the same drug, Symdeko. And with its release in November, I began Trikafta, which I am certain will be remembered decades from now as the quantum leap forward in CF care. I have already tasted the fruit of these miracle pills—my lungs clear more easily than before; antibiotics now function with greater efficacy; hospitalizations occur less frequently than in years past. Most importantly, my lung function—which was on a trajectory of decline starting in my twenties—has reversed, reaching 100 percent as of last week. In most ways, my breathing today is as healthy as that of someone without my illness.

Like so many others with this disease, I have stood at the door of Lazarus’s tomb. These days, I imagine a different future ahead of me. I picture a life with less disappointment due to sickness and more opportunity flowing from health, a life more free to tackle other problems, such as alleviating the suffering of others. In short, I see a life beyond the constant awareness of death’s approach.

Yet, like Lazarus, I’m still waiting to be unwrapped to new life. After living so many years in decline and foreboding, it has proven difficult for me, as for many others with CF, to adjust to the new day’s light. For those of us who have lived with the severe anxiety and depression stemming from our disease, it takes effort to know and feel ourselves as more than “the dead ones.” Hope is a muscle we must learn—and be taught—to use once again. Complicating our hope is the reality that our own improved health has not caused our CF to disappear; challenges persist because these drugs affect patients in different ways, and because side effects from Trikafta can cause significant strain. While the prospects of those born with CF today are better than even the most optimistic could have imagined not so long ago, those of us who have already endured the illness for decades will continue to struggle with its lasting damage. Some will find tremendous healing; others, only minor improvement. In short, our “grave clothes” will not come off so easily, and we require the help of physicians, nurses, social workers, therapists, friends, and family to orient us to our life after death.

Moreover, in this time of hope we remember the friends, siblings, children, and even parents with CF who died before the advent of these treatments. When I think of them I recall the words with which Martha, Lazarus’s sister, greets Jesus when he arrives at her brother’s funeral: “If you had been here sooner, my brother would not have died.” Those who have found healing during this Lazarus moment should take care not to forget the pain of those still grieving the loss of a loved one to this terrible disease. Neither can we lose sight of the 10 percent of people with CF for whom even Trikafta is ineffective—their plight must remain at the forefront of new research.

Finally, many around the globe are incapable of reaping the benefits of these new drugs because of their astronomical cost. Vertex Pharmaceuticals, the company that developed these drugs—with the financial backing of the donor-funded nonprofit Cystic Fibrosis Foundation—is to be praised for its monumental achievement. But the drugs remain too expensive, and patients all over the world have suffered and died while their governments attempt to broker prices suitable to both parties. Many patients in the United States, where the drugs can cost as much as $311,503 a year, fear that their health insurer will one day deny them the coverage they need (though Vertex’s admirable patient financial-support services should not be overlooked). Anxieties run high precisely because the promise is so great. Work remains to be done on multiple fronts to alleviate these fears, and to ensure that all who suffer from this dreadful illness can experience the miracle that, just a few decades ago, we could only dream of.

The coronavirus pandemic poses a special danger to people with CF who already suffer from compromised immune systems and damaged lungs. How the CF community will be impacted by this new threat remains to be seen, although after a lifetime’s worth of mask-wearing and social distancing, many with CF feel oddly prepared for COVID-19. Nonetheless, for those only now savoring renewed strength and health, the timing of this pandemic seems like a cruel cosmic joke. It helps in this moment to remember that the Lord’s miracle was never a guarantee that Lazarus would not die once more. The gift of health is precious and precarious, a truth people with CF live more intimately than most; ultimately, it is not given to us to know the future. Still, now is also a time to celebrate, for Lazarus “was dead and has come to life.”

“We See Light”: Reconciliation Must Cost Us Something

I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now that I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun. —Thomas Merton Merton’s Fourth and Walnut Epiphany—a moment when he gazed upon his fellow human beings and saw within them the divine connection—is especially poignant in light of Jesus’ discourse on how we are to treat each other, and not just today, but all the time: “You have heard that it was said to your ancestors, You shall not kill; and whoever kills will…

The Habit of Sacrifice

We hear a lot about sacrifice these days. The doctors and nurses who risk their lives to care for COVID-19 patients. The bus drivers, grocery-store clerks, and meatpackers who work at low pay in dangerous conditions so the rest of us can have transportation, milk, and hamburgers. Business failures and lost jobs, graduation ceremonies and wedding plans: everyone has sacrificed something to this lethal virus.

Relative to others’ sacrifices, mine have been small. I’m a Baby Boomer, born into post-war prosperity and fortunate to have been well educated and stably employed. Despite the pandemic, the retirement checks keep coming. Our home is paid for; my family is caring and close at hand. The sacrifices I make—washing hands, wearing a mask, canceling a vacation, staying home—are modest, especially considering that such precautions are taken in part to protect elders like me. 

 In an anodyne culture, our instinct is to avoid or buffer pain. But the pain of the virus will not be easily soothed. Epidemiologists expect it to return in waves over the next two years. Embracing sacrifice—not just outward relinquishment, but its accompanying inner transformation—may help us through this uneasy time.

At its root, sacrifice combines two Latin verbs: sacer (to set apart from the secular for use by supernatural powers) and facere (to make). In ancient pagan cultures, it involved killing animals, and occasionally humans, to appease angry gods or appeal to capricious ones. Sacrifice was fragrant with the smell of smoke and flesh, immolated over temple fires.

 In Jewish worship in the Old Testament, animals and grain were sacrificed not to mollify God but to reset one’s relationship with the Creator. As theologian Elizabeth A. Johnson writes: “Sacrifices were offered to give thanks for a particular blessing, to mark life-cycle events, to repent from sin, to be purified from defilement, and to celebrate festivals.” Proclaiming Christ as the Paschal sacrifice connected him with the joyful celebration of Passover and deliverance from bondage in Egypt. The Catholic Mass too is a sacrifice, connecting us with Christ’s death, Resurrection, and everlasting communion with us.

For most of my life, I’ve felt guilty that my generation got off so easily. Our parents faced privation during the Great Depression, rationing and military service during World War II. Most Baby Boomers didn’t serve in Vietnam. Few of us needed big loans to pay for college. We’ve sat by as carbon emissions and income inequality worsen. Now we’re running up the costs of Social Security and Medicare. OK Boomer.  

At its deepest, spiritual level, sacrifice is not about guilt or politics. It is about giving ourselves in love.

And yet, we live our lives not as generations but as individuals. At its deepest, spiritual level, sacrifice is not about guilt or politics. It is about giving ourselves in love. Ilia Delia, a Franciscan sister and theologian, wrote recently: “Only care for another humanizes us, which is why the death of the isolated self for the sake of greater life requires faith in the power of being loved, in the power of God. For where there is God there is love and where there is love there is no fear, because the one who lives in love, lives freely and celebrates life as belonging to another.”

When everyone is missing something, we think harder about what we can share. The roll of toilet paper left at my mother’s door on May Day, or the homemade chocolate-chip cookies my son delivers to friends, become acts of celebration and solidarity. We also use up objects saved or forgotten. In the past two months, I’ve read books I owned but never opened and shared muffins made from rhubarb and blueberries frozen in summers past. Scraps from quilting projects became face masks and a curtain for a granddaughter’s puppet theater. Sheltering at home makes us use what we have instead of buying more.

If such habits stick, the shift could be wrenching for an economy that relies on personal consumption for 70 percent of its growth. But the pause in purchasing gives us a chance to think more about what we truly need and how our communities would be different if we spent less on cars, cruises, and football games and more on social goods like alternative energy, affordable housing, public health, and education.

The pandemic has also made me more aware of my connections to others. When I turned seventy in early May, my husband surprised me with five Zoom gatherings and a socially distant serenade by neighbors on the front lawn. The day was a joyous series of reunions—with high school chums, siblings, past coworkers, writer friends, and couples whose children grew up with mine. Each gathering reminded me of some part of who I am, the gifts I’ve given and received from others, the gifts I still have to share.

We’ve grown weary of this isolation. The economy is reopening in every state, beaches, restaurants, and beauty parlors. My prayer is that we hold onto the lessons we’ve learned: keener awareness of inequities and interdependence, the joy that comes from sharing, the recognition that we all have more to give. How romantic that sounds, and how arduous. Do I want more sacrifice? No. Right now, I want to swim in a pool, see an orchestra, take my grandkids to Disney World, book a flight to Hawaii. My desire, and my privilege, persist.

If I seek their counsel, Scripture and the saints will remind me: sacrifice—like love—is not meant to be a sometime thing. It needs to be developed as a habit, as regular as grace before meals, not for God’s benefit but for my own. “You delight not in burnt offerings,” says Psalm 51. “Sacrifice to God is a broken heart, a heart contrite and humble you never scorn.” St. Augustine reminds us, “God has no need, not only of cattle, or any other earthly and material thing, but even of man’s righteousness…whatever right worship is paid to God profits not Him, but man.”

Early this spring my husband and I burned a small plot of land near our cabin to clear away weeds and plant prairie seeds. The fire spread quickly, turning last year’s thatch to ashes. Beneath the ash we found rusted barbed wire and old cow bones, which we carried off to make way for the tiny seeds. In the weeks since, daylilies planted long ago have emerged and the field grass has returned. The prairie plants—bluestem and butterfly weeds, coneflower and rose mallow—take more time and periodic burning to thrive. But time is one thing the pandemic has given us.

Facing Down the Wolf

I have been asked to reflect on what it means to be an openly gay priest. To give my testimony, as it were—especially in this parish, which offers so much space for the discernment of what is appropriate, and even urgent, in the life of the church.

It is hard for me to spell this out, but I would bear false witness if I didn’t say that the background to my whole life in this area has been one of lies—and the shape of my adulthood a more or less desperate search to winnow out the truth from the lies. As a child I was taught by my parents the absolute importance of Jesus and of love; and by the politically conservative, Evangelical Protestant world in which I was brought up, that “homosexuality” was diametrically opposed to that. When, in 1969, aged nine, I learned what a “queer” was, and knew that I was one, I found myself thrilled that there was a word for people like me, awful though it was, and at the same time lost and abandoned in a world in which I would never be accepted. I couldn’t imagine knowing the guidance and accompanying compassion of the adults in my life—only their rigidity and probable rejection.

Only decades later did I learn the family context of the world into which that nine-year-old was feeling his way: that Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, one of the involuntary protagonists and heroes of the campaign to legalize homosexuality in England, had been a lifelong friend of my father’s, their having been at schools together throughout their childhoods (this fact was confirmed when Montagu introduced himself to me deliberately and with great warmth at my father’s funeral); that my beloved aunt had once been the lover of Roy Jenkins, the Home Secretary who had pushed through the legalization of homosexuality in 1967 against her brother’s (my father’s) own vote in Parliament; and that maybe some part of the rigidity of my father’s Evangelical ideology was a result of his having been abused by his housemaster while at Eton in the early 1940s—a memory he recounted casually, the first time that any of us had learned of it, a few weeks before his death.

However, the child I was in the 1960s knew nothing of this other than that my siblings and I were enlisted in my parents’ campaign against the dangerous, anti-Christian agenda of the 1960s—and that, all unwittingly, I was the enemy within. From that time on I knew that I had to hide this reality about myself so as not to damage others with the evil of my desires. I also worked out that the very best thing I could do, knowing that I would forever be deprived of reward or approval, was to be as good, in all ways possible, as the person I could never be, while aware that I would have to become this person as from nothing, with no support or company. In a nutshell: that I should be in every outward respect as good a follower of Jesus as possible, despite Jesus not wanting me. And this I became, over the following ten years: the perfect Pharisee! With uncanny speed I learned to imitate the “normal” responses of those who had real feelings and real lives, while also being aware that I had no right to anything, and could hold on to nothing as my own, there being no “me” there. Thus, although my achievement would in the end, I knew, be a fake, an artificial construct, I would at least have limited the damage that the love of such an evil person might cause to those around them. I also sensed, already at that age, that I would never grow up to be able to hold down a steady job—unworthiness and instability feeding on each other to produce that radical lack of self-confidence that lurks not infrequently behind a boarding schoolboy’s mask. This has unquestionably marked my priesthood.

As I sensed my “self” dissolve and sink into an endless whirlpool of dissociation, the phrase to which I clung was “I will serve.”

At university, ten years later, I underwent (without any accompaniment, medical or otherwise) what would now be called a psychotic break. And so began my tumbling out of the whole structure of life that had formed me thus far: university, contemporaries, family, and country. It was the closest I’ve come to suicide. As I sensed my “self” dissolve and sink into an endless whirlpool of dissociation, the phrase to which I clung was “I will serve.” I don’t know where the phrase came from, since non serviam had been no part of either my Protestant or classical education.

Meanwhile, and without my understanding it, mercy had been coming upon me slowly. Because, when I was a boy, I had fallen in love with a nine-year-old contemporary at school, without of course having any of the words to describe something so wonderful or so terrifying, I knew that love was something other than the banalities of my religious education. Because this happened so long before puberty, I was always protected from those who later attempted to talk about homosexuality as something primarily to do with sexual acts, rather than with love. I knew it was about love long before I knew that there were such things as sexual acts. That self-same mercy, bubbling quietly through another friendship, was invisible until I was eighteen, when it manifested itself as an urgent need to be received into the Catholic Church. And it has been with me throughout the intervening forty years, trying to persuade a loved “me” into existence.

 

Back in the 1960s however, the word I had absorbed from the world as it was then, concerning such huge, abyssal love and the dream of sharing it with another boy forever, was: “impossible.” And it is dealing with this terrible double bind—love and its impossibility, with that impossibility apparently sanctioned by God—that has formed so much of what I have found myself attempting to do and teach, as a man and as a priest, ever since. I have come to understand that when Jesus said “nothing is impossible for God” he was not pointing out that God can do superlatively difficult things (as though “difficult” were a useful term relating to God), but that for God, our double binds, impossibilities-in-desire, are nothing. That the very reverse of impossibility is a definitional aspect of who God is.

Why share with you as testimony these shards of bygone years? First, because I don’t think they are unique. Nor, secondly, do I think we will advance much in enfleshed imagining of families and their different future forms without working through the lived experience of just such unwanted believers. This experience has been until recently in the Western world, as it still is in many other parts of the world, that of having found ourselves pre-cast as the unwitting enemy of everything that we were taught was good and true by parents, teachers, church, and wider society. We have been lied to by those representing God to us. Lied to about ourselves and lied to about God. And we have ourselves become those liars. So much so that there has been no way to reconcile love with the Gospel except through the extraordinarily delicate work of learning to separate out where we are ourselves liars, like all humans; where we are being lied to; and where Another is trying to breathe truth and life into us. 

Furthermore, the language, feelings, and experiences associated with living through this reality have been, and are still for many people, of quite remarkable violence. Terror, panic, hell, demonization, abomination, perdition, inability to trust feelings, inability to tell the truth or to trust adults with the truth. An astounding range of the sensed resonances of these words has often been lived through without help by the time a young person is of voting age. And the consequences of having lived through them, if the young person does indeed live through them, may well be with that person long after they have accepted the perfectly banal truth that their sexual orientation is a non-pathological minority variant in the human condition, and that everything they went through was the terrifying remnant of an archaic, expulsion-fueled idea of the sacred that is not of God.

So, lies and violence in the heart of family and church life. That’s where my testimony begins. For whatever reason of God’s own, I have received the formal commission to live this reality as a priest. As far as I can tell, this has meant allowing the terrified façade of a person that I was so skillfully building to be dismantled by love and mercy as these have come into my life, almost invariably through apparently inappropriate means. And in this way to live out in my own person the redemption of that world of lies, of violence, and desire so as to become in some way a sign that Jesus’ priesthood is still very much alive and well.

I have also learned that failure is one of grace’s preferred building sites.

I have of course failed to become that sign in so many ways as to make the claim laughable. But I have also learned that failure is one of grace’s preferred building sites. When I read Jesus’ words about the Good Shepherd, I know that in the task for which I have been commissioned, the wolf from which, as a hireling, I am most tempted to run away is the mortal violence and hatred that fleck from the teeth of the vehemently righteous in any culture—a violence unleashed whenever there is a suggestion that maybe after all LGBT people are loved just as we are, and that our flourishing takes the path of learning to humanize our love starting from where we are. Of course, one of the places where this hatred and this violence have a favored embassy on earth is the Catholic clerical closet.

So, for me, learning to “feed my sheep” involves not running away from the wolf. Running the risk of being killed by it, losing legitimacy, good standing, employability at its claws, yes; but also sidestepping its too-obvious charges, never baiting it to grab too cheap a shot of rebel righteousness. Rather, gradually facing it down so that it loses transcendence, its wiles and deceptions ever better understood, and in that way, finding myself brought to life as a genuine shepherd, a son of God. Not the hireling I feared it was my lot to be.

I hope that in this way I am learning enough to be able to share some of the immeasurable privilege of my thirty years or so of priesthood with my sisters and brothers. We who are creating what Armistead Maupin terms our logical, rather than our biological, families. Sometimes there is overlap between the two, and sometimes not. But now, as the world of “impossibility” wanes, even we are empowered to recognize one like us and cry “here at last is flesh of my flesh, and bone of my bone!” It is better to be dead than to pretend otherwise. The cross-strewn nature of the route has made it possible for us to know that it is the Spirit of truth crying out in us when we make that cry, that resilient love has been fine-tested, and improbable families are already giving glory to God, for whom to create is to dare true being.

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“The Chosen”: How a Fictionalized Nicodemus Informed and Challenged My Faith

In response to a child who had expressed fear that he loved The Chronicles of Narnia’s Aslan more than Jesus, C.S. Lewis wrote: “The things he loves Aslan for doing or saying are simply the things Jesus really did and said. So that when Laurence thinks he is loving Aslan, he is really loving Jesus: and perhaps loving Him more than he ever did before.” The same is true with the depiction of Jesus in the app-streamed series The Chosen. What I have found most beautiful about this series is that it gives the viewer the means to fall in love with Jesus who lived, moved, spoke, laughed, loved, and was truly human. It’s valuable because of the Aslan principle: it allows us to run our fingers through the hair of that strange and powerful lion that is both irresistible goodness and ultimate power, who is in love with us…

Working for Justice Means Taking Sides

On June 3, on his satellite radio show Conversation with Cardinal Dolan, the archbishop of New York addressed the Black Lives Matter protests that followed the May 26 death of George Floyd. He said the violence that had broken out in some cities left him at a loss. “It just seems mindless and destructive,” he told his co-host, Fr. Dave Dwyer, CSP. “But there are certain things we can say. First of all, the action against Mr. Floyd in Minneapolis was vicious. It needs to be condemned. It needs to be investigated. It needs to be tagged for what it is: a miscarriage of justice. Secondly, we need to say that our police officers are tremendous people.” Dolan heaped praise on police officers for their commitment to defending human life and dignity, insisting, “They cannot be caricatured because of the action of one member.”

Dolan went on to characterize protestors in similarly glowing terms, even reporting that New York City police officers have told him, “Most of the demonstrators are thoughtful, they love this country, they’re calling us back to everything that is good and decent and just and honorable.” The cardinal was plainly trying not to take sides, or to portray what was happening as a conflict that required taking sides. Minimizing tension and emphasizing common ground is a decent impulse, and often an effective path to compromise. But it falls far short of promoting justice.

It’s easy to see why bishops and pastors would focus on the hurt feelings of police officers. Cops are a highly visible part of the Catholic population, especially in places like New York City and its suburbs. Dolan undoubtedly knows many police he considers worthy of respect. But as a spiritual leader, he owes more to cops than comforting words. “Don’t let it get you down” is not what they most need to hear. Meanwhile, black people and their allies are taking to the streets to protest police brutality and lack of accountability for abusing the rights of people of color. It is accurate to say that George Floyd’s murder is a “miscarriage of justice,” but justice cannot be served by pretending that what happened to Floyd was due only to the personal depravity of the man who killed him. That man was a law enforcement officer in good standing despite a string of complaints against him, actively training younger officers when the killing took place. He acted out of well-founded confidence that he was entitled to use as much force as he pleased to subdue a black man, regardless of the consequences for that man. The injustice laid bare in that footage of an officer crushing the life out of George Floyd while his colleagues stand by is not resolved simply by punishing that one officer. And when people are rising up to demand greater accountability, mounting a defense of the good guys—hashtag-not-all-cops—is just changing the subject.

When people are rising up to demand greater accountability, mounting a defense of the good guys—hashtag-not-all-cops—is just changing the subject.

An incident on June 4 in Buffalo, NY, illustrates well what is at stake. Cops in riot gear who were clearing protestors out of a public space advanced on a white-haired man, held up their batons, and knocked him to the ground. The man’s head hit the pavement and he began to bleed from his ear. The Buffalo Police Department released a statement saying that the man “tripped & fell,” but cellphone footage of the police shoving him had already blown up on social media. Caught in the lie, the department suspended two cops—provoking an outcry from their police union, who called the suspensions “a politically motivated witchhunt” targeting officers “who were simply executing orders.”

This story complicates the most-cops-are-heroes defense. The conflict between the video footage and the official police department statement, and the show of defiance from the police union, demonstrates that the idea of a few “bad cops” tarnishing the image of the noble majority is itself a caricature. And yet it isn’t hard to understand those officers’ consternation. Their orders—by their own account—told them to go to that plaza and clear it, not to make sure no demonstrators got hurt. Now two officers have been punished for following through on those orders. What is a good cop supposed to do?

A good cop, or rather a good person who happened to be a cop, could look at that contradiction and recognize that the orders are the problem. He or she might consider that carrying out the state’s use of force against civilians, and then lying to the public about the consequences, is in conflict with the ideals of public service as well as belief in the dignity of all human life. That good person might turn around and join the protestors, perhaps holding a sign that says, “Police Should Protect, Not Oppress.” But doing so would require humility and a great deal of courage. Religious leaders are in a position to encourage that kind of moral heroism, if they so choose. But the work of justice cannot depend on waiting around for them to succeed.

Real justice for George Floyd and everyone like him requires rethinking what police do, and how we—all people, but especially white people—empower them to do it. It requires creating a system of oversight that doesn’t rely entirely on the decency of individual cops. Insisting on such far-reaching changes is sure to offend police officers, including Catholic ones. We still have to do it. The alternative is to carry on ignoring the much greater pain of the vulnerable, disenfranchised, oppressed populations that both law enforcement and church are supposed to serve. Every Catholic bishop should be willing to take a side, to say without qualification, “Black lives matter,” not just because it’s true, but because that’s what needs to be said now.

Necessary Bluntness

Washington Archbishop Wilton Gregory could have played it safe. He could have hewed to the unwritten rules requiring church officials to defer to influential donors and powerbrokers. Instead, the archbishop set down an important marker for the church’s integrity last week. When President Trump visited the Saint John Paul II National Shrine—which is managed by the influential Knights of Columbus—Gregory, a soft-spoken leader known for his pastoral instincts, issued a notably blunt statement. “I find it baffling and reprehensible that any Catholic facility would allow itself to be so egregiously misused and manipulated in a fashion that violates our religious principles.” And, commenting on the treatment of peaceful protestors preceding the president’s appearance at Saint John’s Episcopal Church the day before, the archbishop added a clear rebuke to Trump, saying that John Paul II would “certainly not condone the use of tear gas and other deterrents to silence, scatter, or intimidate for a photo opportunity in front of a place of worship.”

The Knights of Columbus, founded in 1882 by an Irish immigrant out of a church basement in New Haven, Connecticut, had an original mission of helping poor and working-class women and children through an insurance program. Today it is a financial juggernaut with $2 billion dollars in revenue, raised mostly from selling health insurance to its approximately two million members. The Knights do laudable charitable work in the United States and globally; their commitment to persecuted religious minorities in the Middle East and elsewhere is tireless and commendable. Over the past two decades, under the leadership of Supreme Knight Carl Anderson—a former staffer of segregationist Senator Jesse Helms who held various posts in the Reagan administration—the Knights also became a powerful political force inside and outside the church, helping to bankroll campaigns against same-sex marriage and for the bishops’ religious liberty initiatives, which often took on partisan overtones during the presidency of Barack Obama. The “strong right-arm of the church,” as John Paul II once called the Knights, in 2010 compared the violent persecution of Christians in Mexico under the 1920s-era strongman Plutarco Calles with Catholic claims of persecution under contraception-coverage provisions in the Affordable Care Act. The Tablet, a London-based international Catholic newspaper, has described Anderson, who earned a salary of $1.2 million in 2015 and once served at the Vatican Bank, as “one of the most influential Catholics in the world.” The organization showers dioceses across the country with millions of dollars. The Knights also pumped hundreds of millions of dollars into renovation projects to refurbish Saint Peter’s Basilica. In criticizing the Shrine’s decision to host Trump, Gregory knew he was taking on well-connected Catholics who write big checks and have friends in high places.

In criticizing the Shrine’s decision to host Trump, Gregory knew he was taking on well-connected Catholics who write big checks and have friends in high places.

“For more than a decade and a half, under the leadership of a former political operative, the Knights of Columbus has increasingly used its enormous wealth to influence the direction of the church, underwriting think tanks and news outlets while gaining entrée to some of the highest levels of decision-making in the church,” Tom Roberts wrote in a detailed analysis of the Knight’s influence in a 2017 National Catholic Reporter article. “Its capacity for funding has given the Knights of Columbus an inordinately loud voice, potentially drowning out that of others, and no other lay group can match the Knights’ ability to leave its mark on the church.”

The backlash against Gregory from well-funded Catholics on the right was swift and revealing. Brian Burch, president of CatholicVote—which is leading a major organizing effort to re-elect Trump—called the archbishop’s statement “a partisan attack on the president.” “Archbishop Gregory is a Catholic priest and, supposedly, a spiritual leader. Not a politician,” reads a petition on LifeSiteNews that encourages readers to ask the archbishop to “apologize for, and withdraw, these churlish, hurtful and unspiritual remarks.” Edward Peters, a canon lawyer and professor at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in the Archdiocese of Detroit, tweeted that Archbishop Gregory’s condemnation was “devoid of any sense of Christian sentiment.” Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, the former apostolic nuncio to the United States and a leading critic of Pope Francis, wrote in a June 3 letter to priests and laity of the Archdiocese of Washington: “Unfortunately, the Catholic Church is led by many false pastors.” A few days later, Viganò followed up with a letter to President Trump that described the president’s opponents as “the children of darkness—whom we may easily identify with the deep state which you wisely oppose and which is fiercely waging war against you in these days.”

At an online event later in the week, hosted by the Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University, Archbishop Gregory did not back down. A “holy place” should “have never been used as a place for a political statement,” the archbishop said, and he commended those who “take to the streets to protest injustice.” Watching the video of a Minneapolis police officer kneel on the neck of George Floyd, the first black archbishop of Washington recalled a memory from his childhood, when he was taken to the viewing of Emmett Till, a fourteen-year-old from Chicago who was lynched in 1955 after allegedly whistling at a white woman in her family’s Mississippi grocery store.

In addressing his critics, the archbishop compared claims that he was being partisan to the backlash Catholic priests and sisters who marched and spoke out during the civil rights era also faced. “The Church lives in society,” he said. “It does not live behind the four walls in which we worship.” Black Catholics in Washington have expressed appreciation for the archbishop’s stance. In a sign of how out-of-step the Knights of Columbus national leadership can be with some of its own members, a local chapter of the Knights at St. Augustine Catholic Church in Washington D.C., a historically black church, also criticized the decision to host Trump at the shrine. “If your purpose is to see yourself as a sign instituted by Christ, then it’s baffling to see the president of the United States use their institution as a political backdrop,” St. Augustine pastor Father Pat Smith told the National Catholic Reporter. “It’s reprehensible and simply inexcusable. As a black Catholic priest for almost thirty years, there is no better way to communicate to me that I don’t matter—and the calls and consent of the people, in light of what’s going on, don’t matter.”

An online petition started by grassroots Catholics is asking Baltimore Archbishop William Lori, who serves as the Supreme Chaplain of the Knights, to issue an apology that the invitation to Trump was not rescinded and “to acknowledge that the Knights’ decision on June 2 is part of their long history of complicity with prejudice and institutional racism.” The petition notes that no person of color currently serves as a supreme officer of the organization. “The Catholic Church always has an obligation to atone and make amends for its participation in institutional racism, and this is especially true now,” the petition reads. “To this end, we urge the Knights of Columbus to commit to engaging in an internal process of healing and reconciliation with its racist legacy.” Other Catholic institutions have led the way on this, the petition notes, including Georgetown University and the Sisters of the Sacred Heart. In the wake of widespread criticism, the Knights’ national leadership quickly pulled together a novena for this week focused on ending racism. “The Knights join Pope Francis in urging all to express their anger and cries for justice in nonviolent ways to end the sin of racism,” it announced.

Black people and communities of color deserve more than after-the-fact public relations campaigns. White Catholics with money and status in the church and politics, along with so many in our country, have refused to acknowledge how such influence has been used to prop up white supremacy. Archbishop Gregory has unsettled the guardians of the status quo in our church by speaking out against the use of a sacred space as a backdrop for a president who fans the flames of white resentment for political gain. There is an opening now for a more honest, and difficult, conversation about race and power in the Catholic Church. Do we have the courage to have it?

A Soft Spot for Atheism

Atheism is too serious a business to be left to the unbelievers. They are too much into it—when not just too superficially militant about it—to see the thing clearly. Just as the word itself relies on its opposite to make any sense (negative words have an annoying tendency to do that), the reality that it signifies needs the trained theological eye to reveal its richness and complexity. The relationship between belief and unbelief is one of those things that, if we pay enough attention, can teach us how irremediably complicated human beings can be. One term can turn imperceptibly into the other, and devour it insidiously, one doubt at a time. You can still believe in the morning and be overwhelmed by unbelief by early afternoon. If you don’t believe me, you can read what Alec Ryrie has to say on the subject in his new book, Unbelievers: An Emotional History of Doubt.

If unbelief needs the believer’s reflecting gaze to better understand itself, then in Ryrie atheism may have found its ideal expositor. A scholar of religion and a Christian theologian (indeed, “a licensed lay minister in the Church of England,” for full disclosure), Ryrie is, in his own description, “a believer with a soft spot for atheism.” He thinks he is in a good position to understand atheism because he went through it himself, and so he knows it inside out. While he abandoned his “youthful atheism,” Ryrie still respects it. Indeed, he writes, “I find an honest atheism much more honorable and powerful than the religion of many of my fellow believers.” This sympathetic positioning allows Ryrie to understand atheism like few others do. Ryrie is an impressive stylist and a compelling narrator of ideas. The evocative exempla, the apt metaphor, the powerful language and memorable phrase: none of it is here by accident. But his book is a joy to read not just because it is beautifully written and smartly conceived, but also because of the exercise in intellectual generosity to which it invites the reader.

We are all familiar with the story of how God got killed. Nietzsche may not have given us all the gruesome details, but eager commentators have since filled in the blanks. It was the doing of scientists, philosophers, and intellectuals, the story goes. A cold and dark, purely rational (and rationalist) affair; some three centuries’ worth of murderous effort. Ryrie recounts it for us. First, in the seventeenth century, Spinoza managed to show that “a world without God could be philosophically coherent.” Then, in the eighteenth, authors like Voltaire and Thomas Paine attacked the church on moral grounds, while Hume, Kant, and Rousseau came up with intellectual models of the world that, “whether or not we classify them as strictly atheist, left Christianity far behind.” As a result, God became pretty much redundant. When firebrand atheists like Ludwig Feuerbach and Arthur Schopenhauer arrived on the scene in the nineteenth century, God was pretty much a goner; and the bad news of his inexistence, which they were burning to impart, was already old news. In 1859, as Ryrie notices, Charles Darwin could come up with “an explanation for the origins of life without reference to God.” Finita la commedia.

Ryrie has some problems with this “death-by-philosophy narrative,” neatly cut as it may be. “The timescale, the suspects and the nature of the murder are all wrong,” he writes. He thinks it is important to correct the story not just for the sake of the historical record, but for our own sake; a revised narrative might help us make better sense of ourselves and of our historical predicament. “Telling the story a different way not only changes our sense of history; it casts our current moment of pell-mell secularization in a different light.” Unbelievers is as much about the past as it is about the present—and perhaps about the future, too.

Chronologically, unbelief existed in practice long before it existed in theory. You don’t need the word “atheism” (a relatively late invention) in order not to believe in God or at least to entertain serious doubts about his existence. Ryrie gives the example of the medical art. Inherited from the Greco-Roman pagans, saturated with Arabic and Jewish intellectual influences, and shaped by a healthy dose of professional skepticism, medicine in Christian Europe was a breeding ground for contestation. Atheism was almost an occupational hazard for the medieval doctor. The medical world, observes Ryrie, was “one of those reservoirs in which unbelief lay dormant throughout the Middle Ages.”

What is a “soft spot,” if not feeling and intuition turned into method?

Important as it may be, chronology is the least serious problem here. The bigger issue is that the “death-by-philosophy narrative” relies upon a drastically simplified, almost caricatured picture of what we are. It assumes that, in whatever we do—when we choose to believe or disbelieve, for example—we always act as purely rational agents, “calculating machines,” our emotions, passions, or feelings having no say in the process. Which is a strong intellectualist assumption. Worse, it’s a form of solipsism to which those of us in the business of thinking and writing are particularly prone. “Intellectuals and philosophers may think they make the weather,” observes Ryrie, “but they are more often driven by it. People who read and write books, like you and me, have a persistent tendency to overestimate the power of ideas.”

According to this line of thought, then, philosophers, intellectuals, and scientists started to attack religion, and then—as a result—people stopped believing in God. Blinded as we usually are to our own biases and proclivities, we easily take the part for the whole. Ryrie, though, looks at the issue from the other end and wonders: “But what if people stopped believing and then found they needed arguments to justify their unbelief?” The approach he proposes is more holistic because perhaps it is more commonsensical. There is significantly more to being human than sheer rationality. We are a complicated mix of reason and unreason, soul and body, thought and emotion. As such, when it comes to our most important choices, we make them “intuitively, with our whole selves, embedded as we are in our social and historical contexts, usually unable to articulate why we have done it, often not even aware we have done it.”

That’s how we choose to believe, and also how we choose not to believe. What comes after such a choice, thus made, is just rationalization. Our deeper self, based on motives our mind may not be fully aware of, takes a vital decision, and then the poor mind—weak and ancillary by nature—goes on a fishing expedition to find reasons for it. In a certain sense, then, it’s not we who choose not to believe, but rather unbelief that chooses us. That, Ryrie believes, doesn’t make atheism irrational, it makes us irrational. That’s why Ryrie thinks that, instead of an intellectual history of atheism, it would be more pertinent and profitable to pursue an emotional one. He uses “emotion” in an enlarged sense, to mean not just “spontaneous or involuntary passions,” but also “the conscious intellect.” In that sense, we are shaped and defined by our emotions; we become who we are in the process of dealing with them. “We may not be able to govern our emotions fully, but we curate and manage them, and we learn them from the culture around us as well as discovering them within ourselves,” he writes.

Ryrie’s “emotional history” of atheism is clustered around two emotions that, he finds, affect our belief and unbelief in a particularly strong manner: anger (under which he places the various “grudges nurtured against an all-embracing Christian society, against the Church in particular and often also against the God who oversaw it all”) and anxiety (“the unsettling, reluctant inability to keep a firm grip on doctrines that people were convinced, with their conscious minds, were true”). There are times when “the unbelief of anger” is dominant, and times when “the unbelief of anxiety” will prevail, just as it is possible for the two “emotional streams” to converge and coexist in some form or another. The book covers quite a bit of historical ground, but it doesn’t claim exhaustivity. Once Ryrie has formulated his main argument, he focuses on a few Protestant places, with most of the case studies coming from England, even though he dedicates many insightful pages to important continental figures such as Montaigne, Pascal, and Spinoza.

One of this book’s finest accomplishments is the subtle phenomenology of faith that Ryrie undertakes here. Faith is never simple or easy. It is, in itself, a momentous event (“It’s a Great Matter to Believe there is a God,” exclaims one of his characters), and, as an experience, it claims us holistically. Faith is a tyrannical and whimsical master. It can throw us not just off the horse on the Damascus road, but off any sense of balance. In no time, it can become its opposite—unless, that is, faith and doubt are meant to coexist, in various degrees of uneasiness, within the confines of the same self. William Perkins, the major theologian of Elizabethan England with whom Ryrie repeatedly engages in his book, shows how “these two thoughts, There is a God, and there is no God, may be, and are both in one and the same heart.” Indeed, a “man cannot always discern what be the thoughts of his own heart,” concludes Perkins, some centuries before Freud.

As we read Ryrie’s book, we come to realize something at once startling and refreshing: he is practicing precisely what he is preaches in this book. He comes across here as a distinctly intuitive scholar. While clearly structured and carefully developed, the book is built on intuitions. Some of them are fully explored, others only briefly (I, for one, very much hope that the few insightful pages on Hitler’s role in our religious imaginary, dropped almost by accident at the end of the book, will one day be developed into a book-length argument). As you become engrossed in the reading, you sense—sometimes clearly, sometimes more obscurely—that the argumentative prose is meant to “rationalize” things the author must have first felt intuitively. Which is, I guess, something to be expected from a “believer with a soft spot for atheism.” For what is a “soft spot,” if not feeling and intuition turned into method?

If we add to that Ryrie’s rhetorical mastery, we have the complete picture of a writer who feels his way through a difficult topic. Our emotions are not only what Ryrie is talking about in his book. They are also what he is brilliantly acting upon.

Unbelievers: An Emotional History of Doubt
Alec Ryrie
Harvard University Press, $27.95, 272 pp.

Issue: 

Martin Buber’s Believing Humanism

“I am unfortunately a complicated and difficult subject.” With these words of Martin Buber, Paul Mendes-Flohr lays down the challenge for his meticulous biography of the distinguished Jewish scholar, humanist, and author of I and Thou. “Complicated,” to be sure, and “difficult,” certainly; that goes with the territory of Buber’s at times maze-like philosophical explorations and heavily Germanic articulation. And one may add to these challenges the fact that—to quote this biographer—Buber was a “contested figure who evoked passionate, conflicting opinions about his person and his thought.” Yet these obstacles are by no means insurmountable, thanks to Mendes-Flohr’s philosophical acumen and gift for succinct expression. Indeed, in his capable hands Buber’s life makes for an engrossing, instructive tale, and an exemplary contribution to Yale’s “Jewish Lives Series.”

Mendes-Flohr, professor emeritus at the University of Chicago Divinity School and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, has long been a scholar of German Jewry and of Martin Buber, serving as editor-in-chief of the twenty-two-volume German critical edition of Buber’s collected works. His previous publications include the English translations of Buber’s 1909 treatise on mysticism, Ecstatic Confessions (Harper & Row, 1985), and collected writings on Jews and Arabs, A Land of Two Peoples (Oxford University Press, 1983). While Mendes-Flohr never met Buber (as did such previous biographers as Grete Schaeder and Maurice Friedman), he was a longtime confidant of Buber’s late son, Rafael, and the beneficiary of significant manuscripts and correspondence not previously available to biographers. These allow him to present Buber’s serious thought in depth as he builds a textured, comprehensive portrait of the man and his life.

Buber was born in 1878 to a wealthy Polish Jewish family in Vienna. His father, Carl, was an agronomist and entrepreneur; while not particularly religious, he was, in Buber’s words, “an elemental storyteller.” Buber’s mother, Elise, was an actress with “astoundingly beautiful eyes,” as Buber himself later attested; she abandoned the family for a Russian officer when Buber was three, and the separation had a seismic effect on Buber’s life, including his subsequent philosophy, religious sense, and social understanding. The boy was sent for ten years to live with his paternal grandparents in Lemberg, Poland (now Lviv, Ukraine). His grandfather, Solomon Buber, was a legendary midrash scholar and philanthropist; his grandmother, Adele, was steeped in a love for German literature, a love she passed on to her precocious grandson.

Buber’s early education took place largely at home, in a household where Hebrew, Yiddish, German, French, and English were all understood and encouraged. At ten he was sent to gymnasium, where he devised dialogues between a German and a Frenchman, a Hebrew and an ancient Roman, foundational exercises for his later philosophy of dialogue. When questioned about one of Sophocles’s choruses during a final exam, he recited the entire chorus by heart—in Greek. It was at the age of thirteen that he coined the German word Vergegnung, or “mismeeting,” a word that would spring spontaneously to mind when he was reintroduced decades later to his mother. The term would come to play a key role in his description and analysis of “the life of dialogue.”

Carl Buber eventually remarried, and at fourteen Martin Buber went to live with his reconfigured family. His father would occasionally take him to an outlying village of Hasidim, where Buber was introduced to Hasidism’s vibrant mystical worship, lore, and community. The experience would echo in his subsequent understanding of Judaism and his written works on Hasidism. Yet soon after his bar mitzvah, Buber put away the tefillin of an observant Jew. Having already started reading Nietzsche, he was embarking on a new course, exploring what it meant to be a free, self-actualizing human being.

At eighteen, Buber entered the University of Vienna. He was interested in art, literature, music, and drama, and his reading of Nietzsche reinforced his quest for greater experience. He became a proponent of the fledgling Zionist movement, and caught the attention of Theodor Herzl, the movement’s founder, who appointed him editor of its journal, Die Welt. Buber’s studies took him onward to Leipzig, Zurich, and finally Berlin. Along the way, he met Paula Winkler, a Catholic from Munich and a budding novelist who had briefly been a member of a syncretistic ashram in Tyrol. The two fell passionately in love, and within two years, though unmarried, had two children. (They would only marry—and inform Buber’s family of the children—in 1907, following the death of Solomon Buber.) Paula became Martin Buber’s lifelong “Thou.” According to Mendes-Flohr, her “unbending integrity and insight...made her Buber’s most trusted critic and intellectual collaborator.”

In Berlin, Buber studied under Wilhelm Dilthey and Georg Simmel; through the latter, he met Max Weber, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Edmund Husserl. During this period, underwritten by his family’s largesse, he traveled to Florence to study medieval art and spirituality. Back in Germany, he turned his focus to Judaism and Hasidism. By 1903, he had broken with Herzl over the direction and purpose of the Zionist movement. Would it be largely a political, statist enterprise, as Herzl envisioned; or would it seek to renew Judaism and the Jewish people—as Buber desired—through a rediscovery of Judaism’s historic communal and spiritual core? Buber’s first book on the Hasidim was published in 1906 (and dedicated to his ailing grandfather). In evoking the folklore of the early Hasidic masters, Buber experienced a calling and a lifelong work. In Mendes-Flohr’s words, Buber’s early work on Hasidism furnished him “with a spiritual home” that grounded all his later thinking. Though his take on the Hasidim was subsequently criticized by Jewish scholars and others, his friend and theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel observed that “if you want to know Hasidism as it was, begin with Buber.”

Buber’s early work on Hasidism furnished him “with a spiritual home” that grounded all his later thinking

Mendes-Flohr expends a great deal of effort explicating the controversies over Buber’s presentation of Hasidism, and does so with commendable evenhandedness. He relates a wonderful story, told to him by Buber’s son Rafael, about one of Buber’s severest critics, Gershom Scholem. When Rafael was nineteen, he heard someone shouting at his father from behind closed doors in the family study. The door opened, and out walked Scholem, then a young man and not yet the renowned scholar he would later become. Wondering why his father had let Scholem excoriate him so, Buber presciently replied, “My son, some day that young man will attain intellectual renown.”

In the first decade or so of the new century, Buber eschewed academic positions in favor of writing, publishing, and speaking to Jewish audiences throughout Central Europe. Keenly aware of anti-Semitism, he encouraged his young listeners to embrace the suffering masses of Jews, and to deepen their own response “to the whole of Jewish existence.” Then came the First World War. It set loose a profound confluence of personal experiences that changed the tenor of Buber’s thought and life, reversing his previous Nietzschean romanticism and personal attachment to mystical experience. While never a German nationalist, when the war broke out he initially supported it as a means of deepening German solidarity. He would soon change course. In his remembrances, Meetings (English translation, 1973), Buber told of a young man who had come to him for advice. Buber recalled being less than fully attentive to the young man’s “unasked question”: whether he should enlist. When the young man did enlist and was killed at the front, Buber took his death as a thunderous judgment. Henceforth, human communication—both listening and responding—were to become hallmarks both of Buber’s personal dealings and of his philosophy.

A second crucial event during the war was a confrontation with his good friend, the socialist Gustav Landauer. When Landauer, with a scathingly witty play on Buber’s name, criticized him in 1916 as the Kriegsbuber (the “War Boy” or “War Scoundrel”), Buber was taken aback; a subsequent meeting and lengthy discussion with Landauer helped speed the transformation of Buber’s views on the war and German nationalism, and further deepened his misgivings about Nietzschean romanticism. Together, these events helped pave the way for his subsequent philosophy of dialogue, expressed in his 1923 classic I and Thou. Concerning Landauer’s murder in Munich in 1919 at the hands of a rabid nationalist mob, Buber later told Grete Schaeder he experienced Landauer’s assassination as “his own death.”

Throughout the war and until 1923, Buber edited the highly regarded German monthly Der Jude. It was during this period that his friendship and collaboration with Franz Rosenzweig developed. Author of The Star of Redemption (1921) and nine years Buber’s junior, Rosenzweig was the more orthodox of the two, both as a thinker and believer. He liked to refer to Buber—not without humor—as “a reverential apikoros” (Yiddish for heretic). Mendes-Flohr has a moving chapter on their friendship, culminating in Rosenzweig’s premature decline and death from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis in 1929. Rosenzweig was in awe of Buber—he remarked to a friend that Buber seemed almost superhuman in the “genuineness of his person.” For Buber’s part, the great lesson he received from his younger friend and his health travails “was the merging of faith and humor in such a test.” It would seem hard to exaggerate the importance of this friendship. In 1925—at the invitation of a Catholic publicist—Buber and Rosenzweig had begun a translation of the Hebrew Bible into modern German, the first such major translation since Luther’s. It was a monumental undertaking, one Buber carried on after Rosenzweig’s death and would not complete until 1961. At the ailing Rosenzweig’s request, Buber assumed his professorship at the University of Frankfurt (he would be ousted by the Nazis in 1933), as well as his leadership in adult Jewish education at the Frankfurt Lehrhaus, which Buber carried on until its suppression.

The capstone of Buber’s writing and philosophy is I and Thou, published in 1923 but drafted over many years. The singularity of this book—and the form Buber chose for his conclusion that “all real living is meeting”—was perhaps best described by Jorge Luis Borges in his 1967 Charles Eliot Norton Lecture, in which he recalled his initial impression of the book as a collection of “wonderful poems,” and his subsequent “astonishment,” some time later, to realize “that Martin Buber was a philosopher and that all his philosophy lay in the books I read as poetry.” Borges went on to observe that “I accepted these books because they came to me through poetry, through suggestion, through the music of poetry, and not as arguments.”

 

Buber’s life can be divided into three periods: his youthful Nietzschean-mystical period; his second, “dialogical” period (which produced I and Thou, along with his 1929 Dialogue and other works), including his public leadership of German Jews up to his 1938 emigration to Palestine; and his final period, one of wide educational instruction, prolific writing, speaking, and traveling, and support of Jewish-Arab reconciliation. Mendes-Flohr treats each period with admirable thoroughness and objectivity. He might have said more about Buber’s Paths in Utopia, published in Hebrew in 1946, or written more about A. D. Gordon (1856–1922), whom Buber admired (with the possible exception of Rosenzweig) more than anyone, according to his longtime colleague Ernst Simon. Gordon was one of the early Jewish settlers who returned to cultivate the land in Palestine. In Buber’s words, he was “better able than anyone else in the modern Jewish national movement to renew the insight into the unique relationship between the people and the land.” Mendes-Flohr lists Gordon’s name once, but only in passing.

Buber’s middle age was interrupted by an avalanche of ugly history. In 1933, his and Paula’s home in Heppenheim, halfway between Frankfurt and Heidelberg—a home where Albert Einstein had been a frequent visitor—was targeted by National Socialist brownshirts; two of the Bubers’ grandchildren, living at the time with Martin and Paula, were ostracized at school. Despite Hitler’s rise, Buber continued to address and encourage public audiences; as Hannah Arendt wrote in 1935, “In our day, Martin Buber is German Jewry’s incontestable guide.” But following a February 1935 address to a crowd of two thousand at the Berlin Philharmonic, Buber was forbidden from further lecturing. Looking to the future, he and Paula visited Palestine in 1935 and again in 1937, shipping fifteen thousand books to Jerusalem for safekeeping. The Bubers finally emigrated in 1938, shortly before Kristallnacht, at which point their home was ransacked and the remaining three thousand books destroyed. (Today the house serves as headquarters for the International Council of Christians and Jews.)

In Jerusalem, where his arrival coincided with his sixtieth birthday, Buber said the air revitalized him. Reestablishing himself professionally proved challenging; not religious enough for some, not scholarly enough for others, in the end he was grudgingly given a chair—not in religion or philosophy, but in sociology—at the Hebrew University, where his first challenge was to master spoken Hebrew. When Buber delivered a series of lectures in Poland in 1939—lectures given, one listener reported, in “elegant Polish”—he and Paula were disturbed by the “war psychosis” they encountered in the German border regions, and disheartened at “the extent of Jewish poverty and the elemental hatred of Jews.” Back in Jerusalem, they watched in horror as war exploded across Europe.

Buber called for a “believing humanism,” one that would permeate all aspects of life, including human culture, the economy, and the state

In Jerusalem, the Bubers lived initially in a Palestinian neighborhood. There Buber put in fourteen-hour workdays; he no longer felt the need for sleep, he said. Books poured out: on Scripture, Hasidism, Zionism, communal socialism, even a novel, For the Sake of Heaven (Gog u-Magog in Hebrew). As a Jewish thinker and writer, Buber was something of a paradox: loved by his Arab neighbors and the champion of a binational state for Palestinians and Jews (anathema to some Zionists), he was criticized by the Orthodox for his apparent lack of belief and religious practice. With the war of 1948 and the establishment of the state of Israel, the Bubers relocated to a Jewish neighborhood in partitioned Jerusalem. Buber gave up his quest for a binational state, but continued to argue for a Near Eastern Federation of states, both Arab and Jewish. Until the end of his life, he supported efforts at Palestinian-Jewish rapprochement.

In 1952, the German Catholic theologian Romano Guardini sent Buber a paper, “Responsibility: Thoughts on the Jewish Question,” pointedly addressing German culpability for the Holocaust. Guardini’s candor allowed Buber to consider, for the first time, returning to speak in Germany. He did so later that year, first to accept the Goethe Prize, then to receive the peace prize of the German Book Trade. Telling his German audiences that he could never “presume to ‘forgive’” what had taken place in Germany, he nonetheless took the opportunity to commend those Germans who had resisted the Nazis.

Mendes-Flohr writes at length about Buber’s meeting with Martin Heidegger in 1954—what Buber later described as a mismeeting or Vergegnung—and about his later criticism of Heidegger, offered while accepting the Erasmus Prize in Amsterdam in 1963. There, Buber argued that Heidegger had betrayed classical German humanism, and faulted him for separating everyday life and experience from any sense of faith. In contrast, Buber called for a “believing humanism,” one that would permeate all aspects of life, including human culture, the economy, and the state. This humanism steered him toward principled commitments. In 1928, he had spoken against the death penalty in Germany. Still, it surprised many in Israel when he argued in 1961, first, that Adolf Eichmann should be tried in an international court, not in Israel; and, second, that Eichmann’s death sentence should be commuted to life at hard labor, preferably tilling the soil of Israel on a kibbutz. Greeting Buber officially in 1963 on the occasion of Buber’s eighty-fifth birthday, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion commented, “I honor and oppose you.”

Buber’s last years were lived in the shadow of a devastating personal loss. Paula Buber died suddenly in Venice in 1958 as the two were returning to Israel from an extended stay in the United States. Buber himself would never feel whole without her. Still, he continued to work indefatigably until shortly before his death in June 1965. He died at home, amidst his children and grandchildren. At his death, Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol eulogized him as “one of the spiritual giants” of the century, a teacher whose thought and achievements “revealed the soul of Judaism with a new philosophical daring.” Buber’s body, wrapped in the traditional tallith, was interred at the Hebrew University.

With Martin Buber: A Life of Faith and Dissent, Mendes-Flohr has added to the man’s legacy. Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of Buber’s lifelong friends and colleagues, remarked that “There was magic in his personality, richness in his soul,” adding that “his sheer presence was a joy.” Heschel recalled that Buber “loved to listen and to talk, and our conversations sometimes lasted twelve to thirteen hours.” Something of that bounty is generously conveyed in Mendes-Flohr’s superb biography.

 

Martin Buber: A Life of Faith and Dissent
Paul Mendes-Flohr
Yale University Press
$26 | 440 pp.

Issue: 

‘Worship of a False God’

Fr. Bryan Massingale is a professor of theology at Fordham University, and the author of Racial Justice and the Catholic Church. Assistant editor Regina Munch recently spoke with Fr. Massingale about the racist policies and structures in the country and the Church for the Commonweal Podcast. Drawing on his training in theology and his personal experiences of racism, Fr. Massingale highlights the necessity of moving from anger to action in order to dismantle racism wherever it's experienced. You can listen to the full episode here. A transcript of the interview follows.

Regina Munch: Fr. Bryan, we’re talking now as activists and protesters nationwide are demanding justice for George Floyd and seeking an end to systemic white supremacy. You wrote an article for National Catholic Reporter in which you say that Amy Cooper holds the key to understanding racism in the United States. What did you mean by this?

Fr. Bryan Massingale: Great question. Thank you. Let me tell you a bit about how that essay came to be. It was Pentecost weekend, and even though people call me a progressive Catholic, I’m still old school enough in my spirituality to believe in novenas. I was in the midst of the nine days of praying before Pentecost. That Monday before Pentecost was when the incident happened in Central Park when Amy Cooper, a white woman, basically called the police on an African-American man, Christian Cooper—no relation—who asked her to comply with the posted park regulations and leash her dog. She did indeed do so, saying that there was an African-American man who was threatening her. That same day was when the murder of George Floyd took place in Minneapolis, and the nation’s attention fixated on that horrific outrage. And so that week as I was praying, I found I just could not pray. I just couldn’t, and as I was trying, tears were falling. I knew people wanted me to say something. I wanted to say something, but I didn’t know what to say.

And then it occurred to me: Amy Cooper held the key to help us understand what happened in Central Park. It tells us a great deal about what we mean by white privilege, white supremacy, and why these more blatant outrages occur. We see a white woman who exemplified all of the unspoken assumptions of whiteness. She assumed that she would be presumed innocent. She assumed that the black man would be presumed guilty. She assumed that the police would back her up. She assumed that as a white woman, her lies would hold more credibility than his truth. She assumed that she would have the presumption of innocence. She assumed that he, the black man, would have a presumption of guilt. She assumed that the police would back her up. She assumed that his race would be a burden, and that she had the upper hand in the situation. She assumed that she could exploit deeply ingrained white fears of black men, and she assumed that she could use these deeply ingrained white fears to keep a black man in his place.

It occurred to me that she knew exactly what she was doing, but also that we all know what she was doing. Every one of us could look at that situation and understand exactly what was going on, and that’s the problem. Whether we want to admit it or not, we all know how race functions in America; it functions in a way that benefits white people and burdens people of color, and especially black people. That systemic advantage, that awareness that most white Americans have even if they don’t want to admit it, means that they would never want to be black in America. We need to be honest about the centuries-old accumulations of the benefits of whiteness that make it easier to be white than it is to be a person of color. Until we have the courage to face that reality and to name it explicitly, then we’re always going to have these explosions and eruptions of protest, but we will never have the courage and the honesty to get to the core of the issue and to deal with the systemic ways in which inequality works in America.

RM: You’ve compared the way that racism functions to a liturgy. How does that work?

BM: I got that insight from a sociologist named Joe Feagin, and he says that just as in a liturgy you have an officiant or presider, you have acolytes, and you have a congregation, so too does racism. You have officiants, the people who are the obvious perpetrators of racial injustice. They’re the people who are telling awful jokes, the people who pass policies that would disadvantage persons of color—for example, policies that create an unequal distribution of educational resources. Then you have the acolytes, who are, in a sense, the enablers. The enablers are those who carry out those policies, who give approval to the heinous actions that are going on. But then you have the congregation. The congregation are the bystanders—the people who see what’s going on, know what’s going on, but who take no action to intervene.

When I talk about the bystanders, I ask people to think about going to their family meal at Christmas or Thanksgiving. You have the family member who tells a racist joke or who says a racist thing. What bystanders or the congregation will often do during that situation is to say things like, “Well, your grandfather comes from a different generation,” or, “That’s just the way your aunt was raised,” or, “It’s a terrible thing that he said, but deep down he’s a really good person.”

Bystanders teach onlookers a very important message: doing racist things is okay because white people will let you get away with it. We create safe spaces for racism to fester and to brew, and it’s out of that toxic atmosphere in our country that more heinous actions take place—the murder of George Floyd or the brutal killing of Ahmaud Arbery simply because he was jogging in a neighborhood. We create the atmosphere that says when white people do terrible things, other white people have your back. Other white people won’t call you out.

Feagan talks about how white people act one way in public, but when they’re backstage, as it were, in the company of whites, there’s a whole different set of behaviors that come into play. Even if you don’t do anything negative, if you are not actively anti-racist, if you’re not actively challenging people when they say and do terrible things, then you’re creating the permissive atmosphere that allows these blatant things to happen.

RM: Let’s talk about racism within the Catholic Church. In 2018 the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops published the pastoral document Open Wide Our Hearts, which was meant to address racism in the United States after the events of Charlottesville and a rise in white nationalism. You’ve called the document a missed opportunity. What did it say and what didn’t it say?

BM: I’m going to be very honest because I think that we’ve reached a time in America where if we don’t say uncomfortable truths, then we will never make any progress when we deal with racism. Yes, in my public talks before, I’ve said that the document was a missed opportunity. But I now have to say that the document then and now is so inadequate as to be virtually useless.

That’s a very strong statement, so let me document that. The 2018 statement came, as you said, in response to the events of Charlottesville, when we saw white nationalism resurgent in this country in a way that we’ve not experienced in decades, since the darkest days of the civil-rights movement. We have open white supremacists marching in the streets of an American city with torches saying, “You will not replace us. Jews will not replace us.” The document unfortunately fell far short in that it never named white nationalism as a social crisis in America. The phrase “white privilege” does not appear in the document. The phrase “black lives matter” doesn’t appear in the document, despite the fact that this has been a major social movement in the United States since the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the killing of Trayvon Martin.

There is a normative whiteness present in the church, but I would also say that it’s a form of idolatry. It’s the worship of a false god.

The other thing that the document does is that when it speaks of racism, it speaks of it in the passive voice. African Americans were excluded from opportunities, but it never says who did the excluding or why. In other words, the document was written by white people for the comfort of white people. And in doing so, it illustrates a basic tenet of Catholic engagement with racism: when the Catholic Church historically has engaged this issue, it’s always done so in a way that’s calculated to not disturb white people or not to make white people uncomfortable. Even when the document talks about police violence, it does so in a very, to me, bizarre way. It says that we must admit that people of color their encounters with police officers to be fearful. But then it goes on to say it condemns violent language directed at police. They never condemn police abuse of power or police misconduct—despite the fact that at that time, the Department of Justice had investigated over twenty-four police departments in the United States and entered into consent decrees with them over blatant police abuse of power. But that’s never reflected in the document.

So, I think that the document really is woefully inadequate to the challenge of the time. And I think there are a couple of reasons for it. One is that they never use the Catholic Church’s leading scholars on racism and racial injustice in composing the letter. I think the other major factor is, again, the Catholic Church wants to deal with these issues in ways that won’t disturb the comfort of whites.

I think this is a very critical point. Whenever I give workshops on racism, sooner or later someone will ask a question that goes something like this: “Father, how can we talk about this in my parish, in my classroom, at my university, and not make white people uncomfortable?” I challenge them to think about that question. Why is it that the only group in America that is never allowed to feel uncomfortable about race is white people? Doesn’t that discount the real discomfort, the real fear, the real terror that people of color have to live with and endure because of racism? And if white comfort sets the limits of conversation, then that means we will never face the difficult truth: the only reason for the persistence of racism is because white people benefit from it.

I challenge them to think of this: if it were up to people of color, racism would have been over and done, resolved a long time ago. The only reason that racism continues to persist is because white people benefit from it. If we’re always going to have conversations that are predicated upon preserving white comfort, then we will never get beyond the terrible impasse that we’re in, and we will always doom ourselves to superficial words and to ineffective half-measures. That difficult truth is something that the Catholic Church in America has never summoned the courage or the will to directly address.

RM: Part of the reason for such accommodation for white people’s comfort, you’ve said, is that the church sees itself as white, for white people. Can you say more about that?

BM: In my book Racial Justice and the Catholic Church there’s one sentence that goes something like this: what makes the Church white and racist is the pervasive belief that European aesthetics, European music, European theology, and European persons, and only these, are standard, normative, universal, and truly Catholic. In other words, when we talk about what makes something Catholic, the default is always to the products that reflect a white cultural aesthetic. Everything else is seen as Catholic by exception, or Catholic by toleration.

We see it in a number of ways, so let me just sketch out a few. One instance I could point to is when I went to celebrate a Mass at a suburban parish in Milwaukee. A priest friend of mine had suddenly taken sick and he asked me to say Mass for him. I showed up at church and I asked the usher to direct me to the sacristy. He looked at me and he wanted to know why I wanted to know. So I explained the situation, thinking that the Roman collar that I was wearing would make it kind of obvious why I would like to know where the sacristy was. And he said, “You’re a priest? Who sent you?” I explained the situation again. Then he said, “Well, next time, I hope he sends us a real priest.”

Now, we can get very upset with him and his individual insensitivity, his bigotry. But he’s reflecting something that’s very ingrained in the Church, and that is that we expect the person who’s going to be the priest to be white.

Another example came during Pope Benedict’s pastoral visit in 2008, when he celebrated Mass at the stadium in Washington D.C. The theme of the liturgy was to celebrate the cultural diversity that’s present here in the United States. The readings were done in a number of languages. The first reading was the classic account of Pentecost where the Spirit descended and enabled the peoples of the world to hear the Gospel proclaimed in the world’s languages. The prayers of the faithful were offered in a variety of languages. The gifts were presented to the accompaniment of vigorous Gospel and Spanish singing. After which the commentator on EWTN opined—and I remember these words because they’re emblazoned in my mind—“We’ve just been subjected to an overpreening display of multicultural chatter, and now the Holy Father will begin the sacred part of the Mass.”

I note the disjunction between “multicultural chatter” and “sacred.” “Sacred” had nothing to do with “multicultural”. Being “sacred” means speaking in a white idiom, praying in a white idiom, using European hymns. It’s this normative whiteness that’s ubiquitous in the Catholic Church—which is its greatest hindrance to dealing effectively with issues of race.

People always ask me, well, how many African-American priests are there? Currently there are less than a hundred of us on active duty in the United States, out of tens of thousands. And it’s always been that way. African-American priests in the United States constitute less than one half of 1 percent of the total Catholic clergy. That’s not by accident. It’s a reflection, a manifestation of this normative whiteness that, to be blunt, is a form of idolatry—that God can be imaged and God can only manifest God’s self through Europeans and European cultural products. Yeah, there is a normative whiteness present in the Church, but I would also say that it’s a form of idolatry. It’s the worship of a false god.

RM: You’ve talked about courage as a sort of neglected virtue. Why do Christians need courage? What happens when we don’t have it?

BM: Courage, I discovered, is perhaps the least studied of the virtues. For example, we learn in the Catechism that the cardinal virtues are prudence, temperance, fortitude (or what we call courage), and justice; the theological virtues are faith, hope, and charity. We say a lot about every virtue except courage.

But Thomas Aquinas taught us that courage is the precondition of all virtue. Without courage, we’re not able to be prudent. We’re not able to be just, because courage is that virtue that allows us to surmount the fear that comes with the following of the Gospel. If we’re going to do anything that is difficult, there is going to be hesitation; there are going obstacles and opposition, and the fear that those obstacles engender in us. Courage is that virtue that enables us to not be afraid. We still feel afraid, but it’s a virtue that enables us to not let fear keep us from doing the right, actualizing the good.

Another way of putting it is that moral courage is what translates conviction into action. To put this into the conversation we’re having today: there are a lot of good white people who know what the right thing to do is. But they don’t do it because they’re afraid of the disapproval of their friends or family, or they’re afraid of the consequences of speaking up and speaking out, being in solidarity and being an ally. Courage is what enables conviction to be translated into action. It isn’t that people don’t have the conviction, but they don’t have the courage to act on those convictions. So this is the reason why we need courage, especially in the pursuit of racial justice.

What St. Thomas of Aquinas says is beautiful: anger is the passion that moves the will to justice

There’s always going to be a cost to speaking out. Whenever I do an interview like this, my email will fill up with people telling me everything that was wrong about what I said. I can guarantee you that—it just happens. Whenever you speak for the cause of justice, whenever we follow Jesus, to be honest, there are going to be consequences. It’s not that we don’t know what the right thing is. We are people of conviction, but if we don’t have courage, you won’t translate that conviction into action.

RM: What does anger have to do with courage? How does anger play a role in, as you said, moving from conviction to action?

BM: That’s a great question, because anger has gotten a pretty nasty reputation in Catholic catechesis. I think most of us of a certain age learned that anger was one of the seven deadly sins, that we were supposed to avoid it.

But again, let’s go back to Thomas Aquinas. (I keep talking about Thomas Aquinas because, as a Catholic, you don’t get into trouble when you quote St. Thomas. You’re on safe ground!) Let’s go back into our tradition. St. Thomas Aquinas says that we can incur the sin of anger in three ways. The first is by excess. That’s when anger becomes wrathful, when it becomes rage, when it becomes out of control. He says the second way we can sin anger is by inappropriate object, or a misdirected anger. A trivial example would be that, say, I’m angry at my spouse or significant other and I take it out of my students at school or my employees at work. That’s a misdirected anger. But then he says the third way we sin against anger is by deficiency. And he’s very clear here: we sin by deficiency when we’re not angry when we ought to be, as in, he says, in the presence of injustice. What he says is beautiful: anger is the passion that moves the will to justice.

This is a great insight because it means that all too often injustice festers in our world because people aren’t angry enough to do something about it. To use an example: when I see a woman being abused by a man, I should be angry, because when I angry, then I’m going to do something about it. I’m angry, so I’m going to call the police. I’m angry, so I’m going to intervene. I’m angry, so I’m going to tell someone to stop it.

What allows racism to exist in our society, quite frankly, is that we don’t have a critical mass of people who are angry. To put it more directly, we don’t have a critical mass of white Americans who are angry about the situation. Anger is a passion that moves the will to justice. Thomas understood that unless we are angry in the presence, at the reality, of injustice, then the status quo will all too often continue.

There’s a lot of concern, especially among some circles, about the violence that is a part of some of the protests. I want to be very careful here, because I think that we have a tendency to overstate the reality and the presence of violence. Burning buildings and broken windows make for more compelling video and images than people who are peacefully protesting. And so I don’t want us to get the understanding that violence is what characterizes all of the protests that we were seeing. Yes, violence can be an instance of misdirected anger. It can be this kind of out-of-control rage that Thomas speaks about.

But that’s too easy. People always say that there are better, more effective, more ethical ways of people making their point. I hear that, but I want to press them on that. If there are better, more effective, more ethical ways of people making their point, I wish they would tell me what they are. Because people of color, black Americans, have marched. We have demonstrated. We have organized. We have protested. We have voted. We have studied. We have taught. We have begged. We have pleaded. We have cried out. We have wept—for years, for decades, even centuries. And still we are being killed while jogging. Or poor Tamir Rice, a twelve-year-old kid killed for just sitting in a park. If there are better and more effective ways to do this, then don’t just homilize about that. Tell me what they are.

That’s a way of avoiding a very difficult truth. The reason why these measures haven’t proved effective up till now is because white Americans, or not enough white Americans, don’t want substantial change. When people despair of a political solution to their legitimate grievances, then we cannot be surprised when at times violence appears as an attractive option.

Martin Luther King Jr. said that most white Americans are neither unrepentant racists, nor are they forthright racial-justice advocates. The majority of white Americans, he says, are suspended between two extremes: they are uneasy with injustice, but they are also unwilling to pay a price to eradicate it.

So for those who would condemn the violence—and I think we all agree that nonviolence is the preferred way of making our grievances known—I challenge them to say, we’ve done that and we’re still here. It’s time now to not simply decry the violence, but to start looking at the legitimate grievances, and to summon the will in this country to do it.

RM: Fr. Bryan, thank you very much for talking with us.

BM: You’re more than welcome.