Sunday, June 12, 2011

At least I didn't...

The scandal surrounding Rep. Anthony Weiner has been a great boon to late night talk show hosts. Conan, Leno, Letterman, et al. have generated countless laughs at Weiner's indiscretions and won't probably end any time soon. Now, I'm no fan of Anthony Weiner's, not his politics and certainly not his moral character. At the same time, I really couldn't care much less than I do now whether he remains in office or resigns. Politicians, by nature, are less than reputable creatures and if their existence doesn't show everyone else just how tolerant Americans really are, I don't know what will!

Weiner has not exactly had a chorus of defenders. He has had a number of people saying that he should resign, but have come short of actually condemning what he did. That is a non sequitur--if he did nothing wrong, then why resign? Doesn't resigning at least give an impression that what you did was wrong? Of course, everything in Washington is viewed through the myopic and opaque lens of political expediency.

Weiner has generated one supporter, fellow New York Congressman, Charles Rangel. Rangel himself hardly contributes any kind of moral fiber to bolster Weiner's defense as to why he should stay. Many would argue, rightly in my opinion, that Rangel should also have resigned after investigations uncovered that he was a tax cheat. Rangel was censured by Congress but not expelled and there few calls for him to resign by members of his own party. Rangel has now come to Weiner's defense with the resounding "At least he didn't do x" defense. Rangel himself used this defense when under fire to resign so now he's using it for his friend and colleague. Here is precisely what he said: "I know one thing: He wasn't going out with prostitutes, he wasn't going out with little boys, he wasn't going into men's rooms with broad stances."

This is what our society has degenerated to. Nothing we do is to be censured or blamed or deemed wrong and especially not considered sinful because at least we didn't do x. "I'm a good person because I don't murder or steal. All I do is have extramarital affairs but at least it's not murdering or stealing. So, we're cool right?" And this type of justification has entered into how we evaluate our Christian lives. "I'm a gossip and love to spread rumors at church, but at least I don't (insert excuse here)." I'm sure this has even permeated confessions to the priest. "Bless me father for though I did x, y, and z, at least I didn't do a, b and c. So, can I get my absolution and go now?"

The Christian life is not about "at least I didn't." Just recently we concluded the Paschal Season where we almost ad nauseam chanted the troparion: Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death and upon those in the tombs bestowing life." The life bestowed to the ones in the tombs refers to US! Yes, we are in tombs. Our sinfulness has created tombs with us for a very long time. In a sense, we are already dead. The wage of sin is death, so writes the Apostle, St. Paul. It is what we have earned. But, Christ in his munificence and compassion has done great things for us so that though we still will die, life awaits us as true human beings, made God like by Christ's Resurrection and bestowing of life. But if we persist with our sins and justify them by "at least I didn't" then Christ's victory is only symbolic and metaphoric. If Christ's Resurrection is merely a symbol, then there is no point in even believing in Him as the Way, the Road, the Bread of Life, the Resurrection and the Life, etc..

The sad thing is that many churches are actually enabling this track of thought of "at least I didn't." Too many churches, mainline Protestant churches in particular, have long ago abandoned any kind of teaching and preaching about sin and its consequences. There are sins, mainly intolerance and not being an environmental extremist, but the virtues are given mere lip service and any betrayal of those virtues is justified by "at least you didn't murder." Sins are now ranked according to degree, not just mortal or venial. Most sins are considered small trifles, if that. Virtue is a forbidden topic because that would be intolerance towards those who are not virtuous. On the other hand, in the more conservative Protestant/Evangelical denominations exists this phenomenon of "once saved, always saved" which is predestination, an heretical teaching. No matter what you do, your salvation is always assured. Yes, there is sin and yes it is condemned, but this track of thought excises repentance from the Christian life. There is no need to actually do anything about the sins since you are still saved. It makes the Christian into a passive observer. How does one live life, let alone the Christian life passively? Impossible. Let us not forget that the word "repentance", metanoia in Greek means a "change of mind." That requires action. It's not something that comes to you when you sleep. Let us also not forget that both St. John the Forerunner and Christ began their ministries with that same word: REPENT!

Whether Weiner's actions deem him to be expelled from Congress or for him to resign from Congress or even to invite legal action isn't up to me. His defenders coming to his rescue with the justification of "At least he didn't do x" is what really troubles me. Though the existence of such justification is present in the slimy sewer that is Washington D.C. is not surprising, it should be all the more appalling that it has become commonplace in the churches throughout the world.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Dogs as models for the Christian Life? In some respects, at least

My fiancee, Carla, and I had to make the very sad decision today of putting down our dog, Jasmine. For the last week, Jasmine wasn't herself. Her playfulness and energy had almost totally vanished, as did her appetite and her strength. After taking her to the vet last Friday, we found out she had kidney failure and apparently this condition just completely slipped any notice on our parts or the vet's for the past months and years. And Jazzy, tough as she was, just couldn't fight it any more. We decided to take her home for a day just to say our final good-byes. We couldn't bear to watch her not eating, not drinking, the toxins in her body slowly eating away at her so at 6:15 pm CDT, our Jazzy was put to rest.

Prior to my seeing Carla and, by extension, her dog, I was never a dog person. I liked cats. To me, dogs were too familiar with people, sniffing at them all the time, had bad manners, would go to the bathroom where they pleased and were dirty. I passed that hatred on to my brother's dog, especially since it bit me after I saved her life. But I probably didn't like Queeny to begin with simply because beagles are, in my opinion, loud and obnoxious dogs. But Jasmine was different.

Jasmine was a people dog. She loved other people. Other dogs, not so much. Whenever we would take Jasmine over to Carla's sister's house, where there are two dogs, Jazzy would ignore them and prefer to hang with the adults. Whenever Sheila wanted to play, Jazzy would go to her "home base" of the couch where she could be safe from Sheila's unwanted advances. On walks, Jazzy would ignore other neighborhood dogs who wanted to sniff her and be friends, but loved meeting new people, especially people. I can remember when my godfather's son, Dominic, was up for a visit and I brought Jazzy with me. Every time Dom petted Jazzy, he would laugh and you could tell Jasmine was happy, too.

At home, Jazzy would always show her affection. She knew your routine and would be in the room awaiting your return. How many times I saw her on my bed after I came out of the shower just waiting for me to pet her. Even when I sat at the computer typing, Jazzy would always put her head underneath my arm and try to lift it from the keyboard just so I would pet her, but those incidents were also annoying to me.

After all, sitting at the computer was so that I could do work or do other worthwhile things like check email, look at facebook or read lots of pointless blogs and post my own. No matter how many times I would tell Jazzy "no" or just try to ignore her, she would always come back until my heart melted for her and I would give up my little nothings on the computer to return her affections.

I've committed myself to a lot of thinking today about Jasmine, what good memories she brought to both me and Carla. And one of the things that came to mind was Jasmine's persistence. It didn't matter what you were doing or what you were engaged in while she was in the same room, she wanted to let you know of her affections and have you return them. This reminds me of the story of the Canannite woman from the Gospel according to St. Matthew (with slight variant in the Gospel according to St. Mark).

This woman, a foreigner, whether Cannanite or Greek, implores Christ, calling Him the Son of David, to have mercy on her daughter who was suffering from demon-possession. Her pleas for mercy fall on deaf ears. Christ refuses to listen to her and the disciples say to the Master that He should send her away because "she keeps crying after us." The verb in Greek, krazei, is in the present tense but there is the sense of constant persistent present action. )It is also worth noting that the verb is the same as we see in the psalms, especially Psalm 140 which is sung at Vespers, "Lord, I have cried unto Thee." The verb krazein is specifically used to call unto the Lord.). Her persistence pays off.

Though Christ ignores her at first, He eventually answers but insultingly so. He says that I have not come here for you but for the lost sheep of Israel saying it is not good to cast the bread of children (a reference to Himself as the Bread of Life) and cast it to the dogs. She cleverly responds that though such is the case, even the dogs will still dine on the crumbs that fall from the master's table. The Lord remarks that her faith is great and that her daughter would be healed. Her persistence paid off just as the dogs persistence to get the mere crumbs from the table of the Lord paid off, just as Jazzy's persistence for the attention of her masters.

There can be victory in the spiritual life without persistence. This Gospel is read on the Sunday before the Lenten Triodion begins. It is a Gospel to help prepare us for Lent. Action is required. True worship and praise of the Lord cannot be merely passive or receptive. It requires action, outside of Lent and during Lent, indeed for the whole Christian life.

The Sunday afterwards we read the Gospel of the Publican and the Pharisee which stresses the theme of humility. As much as Jazzy always wanted attention and even demanded it, she knew when it was time to back down and obey. She displayed humility and obedience. There is a prayer, attributed to St. Basil the Great, which reads:

O God, enlarge within us the sense of fellowship with all living things, our brothers the animals to whom Thou gavest the earth as their home in common with us. We remember with shame that in the past we have exercised the high dominion of man with ruthless cruelty so that the voice of the earth, which should have gone up to Thee in song has been a groan of travail. May we realize that they live not for us alone, but for themselves and for Thee and that they love the sweetness of life even as we, and serve Thee better in their place than we in ours.

The last line, in italics, is particularly striking to me. St. Basil says that the animals do show a great degree of humility before the Lord. Perhaps this is due to the animals having no soul (psyche) like us humans but however you parse it, St. Basil appears to write that animals have fulfilled their vocation to the Lord much better than we to whom Christ came in the flesh. Such a humbling perspective.

Though all creation groans (Romans 8:22) and all creation has fallen, both man and beast, the cosmos around us reflects for us what true worship of the Lord is and what it encompasses. From the air and to the sea and to the land and to the beasts and to the Lord Himself incarnate for our sake, examples abound as to what it is to live the Christian life. God himself did not hesitate to use animals in the economy of salvation such as Barlaam's ass or the Holy Spirit appearing in the form of a dove. The psalms abound with animal examples of holy living such as with the bee. So, listen to the animals.

I very much miss Jasmine and I will for a long time, but she has caused me to realize that I need to recapture the virtues of persistence and humility especially as we enter the season of Pentecost. Thank you Jasmine; we love you.

Recquiescat in pace canis nostra--May our dog rest in peace!