Two images of American exceptionalism to mull over today. The first shows how exceptional the U.S. is with its military spending:
Of course, U.S. military spending is projected to rise in FY 2023 to $840 billion or so. Note how most of the countries that spend significant sums on their military are U.S. allies, such as Germany, the U.K., Japan, and South Korea. Russia is weakening due to its war with Ukraine, yet U.S. military spending continues to soar because of alleged threats from Russia and China.
The second image is a spoof sent by a friend, but it wouldn’t entirely surprise me if it did become the official seal of the Department of Education:
Jesus riding a dinosaur: Why not? We have serious museums for creationists in the U.S., where dinosaurs wear saddles and Adam and Eve are depicted as cavorting with creatures dating to the Jurassic and Cretaceous eras. I’m not sure how they all fit on Noah’s ark, but the Lord does work in mysterious ways.
Given the emphasis on gun rights, babies, and Jesus in America, perhaps the bald eagle isn’t our best national symbol. Perhaps it should be the Baby Jesus holding an assault rifle. It certainly would give new meaning to “love God” and “love thy neighbor.”
Despite the possibility that what a deranged Vladimir Putin planned as a small war against Ukraine could morph into a nuclear catastrophe capable of engulfing us all, the United States is still the most warlike nation on earth.
Wars don’t come cheap these days, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the only truly non-partisan issue in Congress is the Pentagon budget. Democrats and Republicans alike, neither of whom expect to get shot at, vie with one another to show how resolute they are in keeping America strong no matter what the cost, even in human lives, though preferably those of foreigners.
The Pentagon budget, now creeping toward $800 billion, is more than three times that of China, our closest rival, a country that had the effrontery to build an aircraft carrier of its very own to challenge our eleven. The generosity of Congress enriches people who in the 1930s were stigmatized as “merchants of death,” but the latter have since learned the value of public relations. America’s military-industrial complex, as might be expected, led the way in recruiting the very best PR talent. The war to liberate Kuwait (Desert Storm) came to us thanks in part to the creativity of Hill & Knowlton (known in the trade as the Torture Lobby). Wars have persisted even as critical domestic problems continue to go unaddressed, such as American school children suffering brain damage due to lead-contaminated drinking water.
There is something immoral about all this. To be fair, the Catholic Church in the United States, for which morality is presumed to be a major concern despite some very public failings, does take notice of war now and then. Or rather it used to. It hasn’t done so lately.
The United States Council of Catholic Bishops meets twice a year, which you’d think would give a troubled bishop the opportunity to call into question the morality of much of what our armed forces have been up to. But you’d think wrong. Successive cliques of ill-educated, narrow-focused reactionaries—Burke, Gomez, Lori, Cordileone, Kurtz, and Dolan the most prominent among the current crop—have succeeded in keeping the topic of war off the agenda for more than thirty years. Nor have they seemed to have had much trouble doing so.
Recently, however, two bishops have spoken up in their own dioceses. Bishop Stowe of Lexington and Archbishop Wester of Santa Fe have pleasantly surprised Catholics like me by issuing pastoral letters calling for the abolition of nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, my pleasure is diminished by the realization that such efforts, however welcome, will do little to stave off a nuclear Armageddon after which, in the words of Nikita Khrushchev, the living will envy the dead.
The Vatican—even during the imperious reign of John Paul II, whose attention was fixed upon restoring freedom to his native land (which is now on the road to dictatorship)—has been forever calling for nuclear disarmament. But how has it called? In what tone of voice? That’s the key question.
Forty years ago, and far too long after the nuclear massacres of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—atrocities that the Catholic Church in America, like its government, has yet to condemn—the bishops of the United States, prodded, I’m sure, by Ronald Reagan’s missile-rattling rhetoric, surprised everybody by announcing that they were going to prepare a pastoral letter on war.
The deliberations of the committee, headed by Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago, got off on the wrong foot when Bernardin was forced to announce at the first meeting that they were by no means to condemn the possession of nuclear weapons, an edict from Rome that slammed the door in the face of the Holy Spirit, whose guidance they presumably would be imploring.
But the bishops labored on and brought forth “The Challenge of Peace.” It was a good but compromised document. Not compromised enough, however, for John Paul II and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. After the first draft was scrutinized in Rome, Bernardin and Archbishop John Roach, chairman of the U.S. Council of Bishops, were called on the carpet in Rome to defend it to the “NATO bishops” (a Vatican dicastery previously unknown to me), who were more concerned about a Soviet armor thrust through the Fulda Gap than anything that Jesus might have said.
Bernardin and Roach duly met with their critics, and the NATO bishops came away content. The concessions were major. One, for example, was purging a declaration of “no first use” of nuclear weapons in response to an attack with conventional weapons. The first draft had not done anything quite so bold. It merely proposed that any circumstances in which a first use would be morally acceptable would be difficult to imagine. Well: Ratzinger and the NATO bishops had no problem imagining one.
When the final version of The Challenge of Peace came out in May of 1983, the Pentagon, which had been a bit worried, and hawks everywhere—especially devout Catholic hawks like William F. Buckley Jr—breathed a sigh of relief. It was obvious to all who cared to read it that the bishops had waffled. With all due modesty—well, some anyway—the title of a subsequent article of mine in Commonweal, “Sidestepping The Challenge of Peace,” summed it up. (Commonweal disagreed with me, and still does, but that’s another story.)
Whatever the case, the Peace Pastoral is gone and forgotten, a failure that casts a pall to this day over subsequent (and toothless) Vatican statements on how nice peace is and how bad war is.
What do I want the Church to do? Let me quote somebody else, somebody who answered that question far better than I ever could.
In 1948 the Dominicans of Paris invited Albert Camus to address them about what he and other non-believers wanted to hear from the Catholic Church in the wake of the horrors of World War II, their hope being that they could unite to confront the horrors that yet impended.
Camus, who described himself and others like him as “isolated individuals,” was quite willing to challenge the Church. He did not share the beliefs of the Dominicans, he said, but neither did he dismiss them. He recounted how during the war he, even as a non-believer, had looked to Rome. He wanted to hear a “great voice” raised to condemn the monstrous evil of the war, but he failed to hear it. There were those who said that they had heard it, but what little the world heard from Rome was the Church speaking in what he dismissed, not without cause, as its “encyclical voice,” a form of speech that was prolix, abstract, and devoid of inspiration for all those not attuned to it. (The word “Jew,” incidentally, did not make the cut.)
The Dominicans wanted to know what the world expects of Christians. He gave them his answer:
What the world expects of Christians is that Christians should speak out loud and clear and proclaim their condemnation in such a way that never a doubt, never the slightest doubt, could rise in the heart of the simplest man. Christians must get away from abstraction and confront the bloodstained face that history has taken on today.
And what happens, Camus went on to ask, if Christianity doesn’t rise to the challenge? And here Camus shows a prescience that eludes the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops. For it was a question quite pertinent to our own era, marked as it is by empty churches and tepid bishops.
If Christianity does turn away from the challenge, Camus told the Dominicans,
Christianity will lose once and for all the virtue of revolt and indignation that belonged to it long ago. In that case self-proclaimed Christians may still be among us, but Christianity itself will die, and world will suffer greatly for its loss.
In the spirit of Camus, here’s my recommendations. However reluctant our bishops might be to confront the blood-stained face of history, they could make a start by talking to people who know more than they do and have experienced more than they have.
In his book The Doomsday Machine, Daniel Ellsberg, working for RAND, tells how he was shocked to see an unguarded fighter plane on the tarmac armed with a nuclear bomb. (This was more than 60 years ago, but even today nuclear surety remains less than sure.). A drunken pilot could jump into the cockpit and be off to Beijing to set off World War III just like that. In any case, Ellsberg took the opportunity to place his hand on the bomb and feel the heat of radiation. I’m sure he would be happy to share his feelings at the next USCCB conference if invited.
Then there’s Bishop Botean, who leads the Romanian eastern rite Church in the United States. He’s the only Catholic bishop who issued a letter condemning the Iraq invasion, calling it an unjust war in which Catholics may in nowise participate. If the USCCB was willing to hear what he had to say, it would give some of the disgruntled brethren an opportunity to ask what prompted him to be such a spoilsport.
There’s also Andrew Bacevich, a retired colonel and veteran of the Vietnam war, who is the head of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. He’s a conservative Catholic who is a severe critic of American foreign policy, especially in the Middle East.
Finally, Archbishop Wester had the grace to praise the late Sr. Megan Rice who appeared on the front page of the New York Times after, at age 82, invading the Holy of Holies of nuclear weaponry in Oakridge, Tennessee. The USCCB could follow up on the incredible feat that she and her two companions carried off by recognizing and commending the Plowshares Movement, founded by the Berrigans, a group of heroic men and women who have borne witness against nuclear weapons and suffered greatly for it. They have heeded Jesus’ command to shout what he taught them from the rooftops, instead of keeping their mouths shut about anything that might disturb major donors. (Those big churches and episcopal palaces aren’t going to maintain themselves!)
The bishops have much to learn from talking to people like the ones I’ve listed here. They might even learn to denounce the abomination of genocidal nuclear weapons—and especially any idea that a “first use” policy of the same is in any way morally defensible.
Michael Gallagher served as a paratrooper during the Korean War. His book on Catholic activists, Laws of Heaven, won the National Jesuit Book Award in theology, and his translation of Yukio Mishima’s Spring Snow was a finalist for a National Book Award.
As Christmas approaches, peace is on my mind. Christ, after all, was known as the Prince of Peace. I say “was” because we hear so infrequently of peace in the United States today. In fact, peace in the U.S. seems to be contingent on enormous military budgets dedicated to weapons and warfare. It reminds me of Strategic Air Command (SAC) in the Air Force, which was prepared utterly to destroy the Soviet Union and China in the 1960s but whose motto was “peace is our profession.” Paraphrasing Tacitus, one might say that SAC was prepared to make the world an irradiated hellscape and call it “peace.”
If Christmas is to have any religious meaning, one would think it would be centered on the arrival of the Prince of Peace in the world. As a Catholic, I can’t count the number of times I recited the prayer that begins, Glory to God in the highest/and peace to His people on earth, the Gloria in adoration of Christ as a bringer of peace. By way of contrast, Easter is about the fulfillment of Christ’s mission; His death and resurrection “takes away the sins of the world,” even as we continue to implore Him to “grant us peace.”
Now that I reflect upon it, the Christian mass must be one of the few places in American culture today where we routinely hear about peace, where the idea is not mocked as fallacious or faulty or insane.
To be honest, I’m not in close contact with Christian culture today. What little I know of it confuses me and disappoints me. I can’t square the so-called Prosperity Gospel with Christ’s teachings against the corruption of earthly riches. I can’t square the evangelical emphasis on personal salvation by being born again with Christ’s command to focus on helping others in place of celebrating oneself. (OK, you’re saved; now get over yourself.) It’s so terribly easy to lose sight of the great commandments of Christianity, which boil down to loving God and loving thy neighbor.
So many Americans seem to believe they live in an exceptional nation, literally holier than other nations because of shared Judeo-Christian traditions as well as God’s special favor allegedly showered upon this “city on a hill.”
Is it OK if I say that current events (and past ones too) suggest otherwise? Garrisons across the globe bristling with weapons are not the same as a shining city on a hill. There is nothing angelic about a Predator or Reaper drone, nor is salvation to be found at any end of a Hellfire missile.
What part of “love thy neighbor” is reflected in a gargantuan war and weapons budget that officially sits just under $800 billion, and which in its total cost routinely exceeds a trillion dollars annually? Not to be presumptuous, but something tells me the Prince of Peace isn’t too happy about this.
Yes, I am stunned that there isn’t more Christian opposition to America’s war machine. I am stunned that America’s churches and ministers have made their peace, so to speak, with nuclear weapons that can destroy all of God’s creation. I am stunned that on Christmas Day, when Christians are supposed to adore Christ and to recall the miracle of His birth, that we collectively give so little thought to making peace happen, to dedicating ourselves to it in His name.
Still, I must say this about my Catholic Church and my memories of it: At least we reached out to each other to offer a sign of peace. We reached across the pews to shake hands, to share smiles, to make human contact.
Let us offer each other the sign of peace: Should this not be our gift to each other, not just this Christmas but on each and every day? What better way to adore the Prince of Peace than to spread peace?
I truly believe that if men got pregnant, abortion would be free, legal, and readily available across the United States.
But men don’t get pregnant, so the idea of carrying an unwanted baby to term is mainly theoretical for them. How easy it is, then, to outlaw abortion while claiming to be pro-life.
Having been raised Catholic, I was taught abortion is murder. It’s that blunt. As the Church was teaching me that, it was allowing predatory priests to molest children. There was even a predatory priest assigned to my parish when I was young. So I’m not too keen on the moral authority and teachings of the Church here. Again, if priests got pregnant, I truly believe abortion would be accepted within the Church. Perhaps it would be justified by arguing that priests, first and foremost, have to serve God and the Church and therefore shouldn’t be encumbered by children.
The U.S. Supreme Court seems ready to overturn Roe v Wade by next summer, which is not surprising. So much for respecting judicial precedent. Even as it does so, we’ll hear arguments about how the Court isn’t partisan or political or influenced by religious beliefs, which is absurd. So-called pro-life Republicans have won the battle of placing partisan justices on the Court, and soon they’ll reap their reward.
Establishment Democrats are not as unhappy as you might think. I’ve already received urgent requests to donate money in the cause of abortion rights. Abortion is a “hot-button” issue and a real money-maker for partisans on both sides. Sorry, Democrats, this is your mess too, and you won’t see a penny from me.
Why do I claim Democrats are responsible too? President Obama could have appointed a justice to the Supreme Court when Mitch McConnell refused to do his job. It may have touched off a Constitutional crisis, but it was a fight worth having. But Obama figured Hillary Clinton couldn’t lose to Trump, so he did nothing. Meanwhile, Hillary ran a horrible campaign and lost to a failed casino owner and C-list celebrity apprentice. Because of that, we got three new justices who were all picked in large part because of their opposition to Roe v Wade. (That, and the fact they’re all pro-business.)
We will soon take a giant step backwards in America. Roughly half of American states will outlaw abortion; the other half will likely allow it under various conditions. Of course, as Ruth Bader Ginsburg noted, rich women, no matter where they live, will be able to get abortions. Women of lesser means will struggle and suffer. The pro-life movement will applaud that there are fewer abortions even as they cut benefits to the mothers who are forced to have these babies. They will do this with no pangs of conscience and in the name of loving the unborn — until they’re born to the “wrong” kind of mother.
And so it goes in America.
A Coda (12/5/21)
I welcome all comments on this difficult issue.
Instead of Cui bono, or who benefits, I think of who suffers if Roe v Wade is overturned. Not men. Not women of means, who will find a way to secure a safe abortion irrespective of the law in their particular state. It will be poor and desperate women who suffer, especially those who’ve been raped or who’ve been the victims of incest. Imagine being raped and then being forced to carry the fetus to term — it’s unimaginable to me.
I should note as well the burden placed on women — always women. What about the man who got her pregnant? Why may a woman be forced to give birth to an unwanted child while the father walks away freely in virtually all cases? People often discuss abortion as if women got pregnant by immaculate conception. As if men hold no responsibility whatsoever. Believe me, if men got pregnant too, abortion would be freely available.
So it’s likely that next summer, five men and one very conservative woman aligned with a fringe group in the Catholic Church will rule to compromise the bodily autonomy of women across the country; they’ll be opposed by two women and one man who seek to uphold a less-than-perfect precedent but one that has served to reduce state and patriarchal domination in the US of A for half a century.
Meanwhile, the Supreme Court will obviously be revealed for what it is: a partisan hack shop in which the law is for sale or otherwise open to manipulation by the well-connected for unsavory purposes.
Tell me how this is a good thing.
Coda 2 (12/6/21)
As a (lapsed) Catholic, I realize people have religious reasons why they oppose abortion.
To these people I say: If you’re opposed to abortion, don’t have one. But don’t seek to impose your religious beliefs on everyone else.
A decision on abortion should be between a woman and her doctor. It’s a private decision. You have no say. Your religious beliefs don’t matter.
Against abortion? Don’t have one — simple as that. And MYOB.
The other day, retired General Michael Flynn called for “one religion under God” in the United States.
Ah, General Flynn, we already have one religion of militant nationalism and imperialism, and we already have one god, the Pentagod, which is the subject of my latest article for TomDispatch.com.
First, one religion. This weekend I watched the New England Patriots play the Cleveland Brown during which a Pentagon recruiting commercial broke out. The coaches wore camouflage jackets and caps, the game started with military flyovers of combat jets, and there even was a mass military swearing-in ceremony hosted by a four-star general and admiral. That same general claimed during an on-field interview during the game that the military is what keeps America free, which might just be the best definition of militarism that I’ve heard.
(Aside: In a true democracy, the military is seen as a necessary evil, because all militaries are essentially undemocratic. The goal of a true democracy is to spend as little as possible on the military while still providing for a robust defense.)
Here’s an illustration, sent by a friend, of America’s one religion:
So, according to the NFL and the mainstream media, “all of us” need to honor “our” military and indeed anyone who’s ever worn a uniform, no questions asked, apparently. I wore a military uniform for 24 years: four years as a cadet, twenty as a military officer, and I’m telling you this is nonsense — dangerous nonsense. Don’t “salute” authority. Question it. Challenge it. Hold it accountable and responsible. At the very least, be informed about it. And don’t mix sports, which is both business and entertainment, with military service and the machinery of war.
OK, so now let’s talk about America’s god. As I argue below, it certainly isn’t the Jesus Christ I learned about by reading the New Testament and studying the Gospels in CCD. America has never worshipped that god. Clearly the god we worship — at least as measured by money and societal influence — is the Pentagod, which leads me to my latest article at TomDispatch. Enjoy!
The Pentagon As Pentagod
Who is America’s god? The Christian god of the beatitudes, the one who healed the sick, helped the poor, and preached love of neighbor? Not in these (dis)United States. In the Pledge of Allegiance, we speak proudly of One Nation under God, but in the aggregate, this country doesn’t serve or worship Jesus Christ, or Allah, or any other god of justice and mercy. In truth, the deity America believes in is the five-sided one headquartered in Arlington, Virginia.
In God We Trust is on all our coins. But, again, which god? The one of “turn the other cheek”? The one who found his disciples among society’s outcasts? The one who wanted nothing to do with moneychangers or swords? As Joe Biden might say, give me a break.
America’s true god is a deity of wrath, whose keenest followers profit mightily from war and see such gains as virtuous, while its most militant disciples, a crew of losing generals and failed Washington officials, routinely employ murderous violence across the globe. It contains multitudes, its name is legion, but if this deity must have one name, citing a need for some restraint, let it be known as the Pentagod.
Yes, the Pentagon is America’s true god. Consider that the Biden administration requested a whopping $753 billion for military spending in fiscal year 2022 even as the Afghan War was cratering. Consider that the House Armed Services Committee then boosted that blockbuster budget to $778 billion in September. Twenty-five billion dollars extra for “defense,” hardly debated, easily passed, with strong bipartisan support in Congress. How else, if not religious belief, to explain this, despite the Pentagod’s prodigal $8 trillion wars over the last two decades that ended so disastrously? How else to account for future budget projections showing that all-American deity getting another $8 trillion or so over the next decade, even as the political parties fight like rabid dogs over roughly 15% of that figure for much-needed domestic improvements?
Paraphrasing Joe Biden, show me your budget and I’ll tell you what you worship. In that context, there can’t be the slightest doubt: America worships its Pentagod and the weapons and wars that feed it.
Prefabricated War, Made in the U.S.A.
I confess that I’m floored by this simple fact: for two decades in which “forever war” has served as an apt descriptor of America’s true state of the union, the Pentagod has failed to deliver on any of its promises. Iraq and Afghanistan? Just the most obvious of a series of war-on-terror quagmires and failures galore.
That ultimate deity can’t even pass a simple financial audit to account for what it does with those endless funds shoved its way, yet our representatives in Washington keep doing so by the trillions. Spectacular failure after spectacular failure and yet that all-American god just rolls on, seemingly unstoppable, unquenchable, rarely questioned, never penalized, always on top.
Talk about blind faith!
To read the rest of my article, please go to TomDispatch here. Here’s my conclusion:
Yet, before I bled Air Force blue, before I was stationed in a cathedral of military power under who knows how many tons of solid granite, I was raised a Roman Catholic. Recently, I caught the words of Pope Francis, God’s representative on earth for Catholic believers. Among other entreaties, he asked “in the name of God” for “arms manufacturers and dealers to completely stop their activity, because it foments violence and war, it contributes to those awful geopolitical games which cost millions of lives displaced and millions dead.”
Which country has the most arms manufacturers? Which routinely and proudly leads the world in weapons exports? And which spends more on wars and weaponry than any other, with hardly a challenge from Congress or a demurral from the mainstream media?
And as I stared into the abyss created by those questions, who stared back at me but, of course, the Pentagod.
My dad was a skeptic. He taught me the saying, never believe anything you read, and only half of what you see. Sound advice in this heavily propagandized world of ours.
Despite my dad’s skepticism, I eventually earned a doctorate in history and wrote books in which I pretended to know what was going on in the past. Or, that’s the way my dad would have put it. To my claims he would sometimes say, “Were you there, Charlie?” In other words, if you weren’t a direct witness to the event in question, how can you say what really happened? In fact, even if you did witness it, are you sure of what you saw or heard or sensed? Our senses can be unreliable for all sorts of reasons, such as fatigue, bias, distractions, and so on.
How do we know what we know? Can we ascertain truth? “Truth — what is truth?” Pontius Pilate asked Christ. Small wonder that so many people seek truth through religion when there’s so little of it available in non-religious realms. (Of course, religion operates on faith, not on truth per se, though those who believe see faith as a way to truth, perhaps as a form of truth.)
I think the most “true” thing in my life, the thing I doubt least of all, is the love of my closest friends and family. Once again, my dad had something to say here. He believed that you’d be lucky to have a handful of friends in your life who truly cared about you, who’d be there for you no matter what, who’d take a bullet for you, as my dad put it. And, let’s face it: not many Facebook “friends” fit my dad’s definition here!
So, I suppose my dad taught me to question received “truths” and also to ponder what real friendship is all about. The latter shouldn’t be easy; it’s not a trivial matter of clicking “friend” on a social media site. Friends are there for you, my dad explained, they are sympathetic, they are sacrificial, because in some sense they love you.
Which leads me back to Christ, friend of humanity, who was sympathetic to our human plight in all its zaniness and sordidness and who nevertheless sacrificed himself for us. How many of us think of Christ as the Ultimate Friend? For that’s what he was and is, if you believe in him.
I was raised Catholic by my dad (my mom didn’t go to church, but that’s another story). My dad, the radical skeptic, had faith in the Church and in Christ. I have no faith in the Church, sadly, but I do have faith in Christ and his teachings, which to me show us a path toward the truth in the form of a better life, a more compassionate and generous one.
Today, we find ourselves immersed in a matrix of lies, or “alternative truths” if you prefer. My dad had, I think, the way out. He taught me not to believe too easily, not to be glib, even as he showed me through his own example what living a life of value was about.
Be radically skeptical, yes. But believe in what is right; seek truth and recognize its demands on you. (Truth is rarely easy, especially truth about oneself.) And then manifest it as best you can.
It’s a tall order, dad, and I still have a long way to go. We all do, for it’s really all about the quest, not the destination. Seek and ye shall find are words that comfort me. Surely I heard them first standing next to my dad in church, listening to the gospel, the good news, the teachings of Christ.
But no man, no church, no entity has a monopoly on truth. It can be found in other religions and outside of religion. It can be found within and without. All I know — or think I know — is that it won’t be easy. But what of value is?
What would America be like if men got pregnant instead of women? It seems a silly question, but I’d argue it isn’t. My guess is that abortion would not only be legal under all conditions but that it would be readily available to all (men). The same for contraception: cheap and readily available. I was raised Catholic; consider if the Catholic clergy, all male of course, got pregnant, had to carry babies to term, and then had to care for them. Somehow I think that church teachings on abortion and contraception would be different.
But men don’t get pregnant. And men have full control over their bodies. It’s far different for women in America (and across most of the globe). Women are not only victims of sexual violence: they are increasingly being told they have no other option than to carry a baby to term, even if they were victims of rape or incest. The legislatures making these decisions (no surprise) are predominantly male, and they love to pose as pro-life.
In her memoir, Meredith Keller reminds us of the high price women have paid in America when laws are made by men for men, where women are often an afterthought, if that, and when so-called religious teachings are elevated above empathy and compassion and understanding. W.J. Astore
Before #MeToo – The Price of Silence
Now in retirement, I am anticipating a quiet afternoon in my art studio when I check mail in my rural box. Roosters are crowing. I hear clanking sounds of tractors discing and smell the musty soil being turned. I sort through the junk mail when my eye lands on a hand addressed letter. I tear it open to find the shocking words:
I think you might be my grandmother.
My body goes rigid as the thought of reliving a shattering period of my past sends waves of shock reverberating through my body. All those feelings of shame long buried were about to boil up again. If I answered the letter, all would be revealed.
Would I dare? Did I want to go down that path and relive the scenes of a rape and resulting pregnancy, opening the scars of a long buried episode that began on a college campus in 1962? Would this young writer, my granddaughter, be able to comprehend how the moral arbiters of society held us in their grip?
Sexual harassment, rape and intimidation have shadowed and haunted women through the ages. Where were their stories? Buried, like mine, in shame, layered under decades of angst. In my day single women with unintended pregnancies were forced into hiding. From the end of WWII until the passage of Roe v. Wade in 1973, unmarried pregnant women and their families faced shame and insufferable choices.
The alternatives were dismal. One solution was to visit abortionists, in many cases unqualified, who, to protect their own identities, blindfolded women during the procedure. In 1962, sixteen hundred women, forced into illegal terminations, were admitted to Harlem Hospital Center in New York City due to botched or incomplete abortions. Society had women, especially poor women, in a vise.
Others had no choice but to carry a child to term. They quietly disappeared, spirited away while the stigma of “illegitimacy” hung over them. Shrouded in secrecy, with their identities erased, they were groomed to hand over their babies for adoption and return to society as though nothing had happened. It was known as the Baby Scoop Era when the dominant view was that unmarried women were unfit mothers and needed to acknowledge their guilt and shame and give up their babies for adoption. From 1945 to 1973 it is estimated that four million parents in the United States had children placed for adoption. Four million sad stories like mine went undocumented.
The Unraveling – The Price of Silence, my memoir, puts a spotlight on what it was like to have to weather the paralyzing trauma of rape and then go through the devastating severance of handing a child over to adoption. No one can imagine the gravity and deep sadness of that moment you give away your own child. It caused a quake deep in my soul. Is this what our legislators wish to return to when they not only write restrictive abortion laws, but also deny women health coverage for contraception under the guise of “freedom of religion”?
Feel what it was like to struggle through those times before Roe as I dredge up shattering memories that haunted me for 52 years. I fiercely fought for the dignity that was swiftly erased one night on a college campus. I had to jump hurdles to re-define myself, bury the past and muster the grit to have a successful career beginning as Food Editor of a leading restaurant magazine at age 23.
The scars from my early life remained and memories lingered until that letter arrived in my mailbox. What would I respond? How could I adequately explain an era long forgotten? That granddaughter had not lived through those restrictive times of shame and humiliation. I unraveled my story for her and all young women so they can feel what it was like when women’s reproductive rights were emphatically denied. It is a struggle we are facing yet again. And yet, there was one champion in our corner, a little known lawyer at the time, and she had this to say:
The decision whether or not to bear a child is central to a woman’s life, to her well-being and dignity. When the government controls that decision for her, she is being treated as less than a fully adult human responsible for her own choices.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg
Keller’s memoir, The Unraveling, is available in paperback, hardback, and electronically from popular outlets such as Amazon and Powell’s. The book’s cover art, reproduced above, is her original work.
A quick Google search reveals that, “According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, it would cost $20 billion to end homelessness in the United States.” That’s roughly the cost of a few dozen ICBM interceptor missiles (estimated cost: $18 billion) that are unlikely to work and which may encourage potential adversaries to build more nuclear missiles to overcome them (assuming they do work, but hitting a bullet with a bullet is truly a long shot). Another cost comparison: ending homelessness in America could be done for the cost of roughly 150 F-35 jet fighters. Another: ending homelessness in America could be done for less than half the yearly cost of America’s Afghan War. Yet we’d rather build interceptors, fighter jets, and continue wars than house the homeless.
I’m seeing predictions by America’s generals that Afghan national forces will likely collapse if U.S. combat troops are withdrawn by 9/11. Yet the U.S. military has been training those same Afghan forces for nearly twenty years, all the while making “progress” according to those same generals. What gives? If after two decades Afghan forces don’t have the wherewithal to defend themselves despite untold billions in U.S. assistance and aid, isn’t it logical to assume they will never have the wherewithal?
Of course, it’s an effective strategy for U.S. generals to warn of an impending collapse after Biden’s troop withdrawal. For when it comes, they can say “we told you so” and shift the blame for the loss to Biden and the politicians. Sorry, folks, Afghanistan was never ours to win to begin with. It wasn’t even ours to lose, because we never “had” it. Never mind that: Whenever the U.S. military loses anywhere (including Vietnam), there is always someone else to blame.
The NFL draft concluded this past weekend, and once again I was astonished by the media coverage: the sheer amount of resources dedicated to it. Just go to ESPN, for example, which has “draft cards” on every player with all their vitals, including video highlights. If only the media devoted a tenth of the resources to covering America’s various wars across the globe! With verifiable metrics and video highlights (or lowlights). It’s good to know that sports are much more important to our nation than the military’s global presence and actions.
And now to return to the beginning: Why not act to end homelessness? WWJD: What would Jesus do? I always remember from Catholic mass how Jesus healed the sick, fed the hungry, and helped the poor. Where’s that Jesus nowadays? He seems to have been replaced, at least in America, by Prosperity Gospel Jesus, who shares good news and money only with the richest and most fortunate of Americans.
Can I please have “old” Jesus back? The one who helped lame people to walk and blind people to see?
My dad liked to save things, so today I came across an old pamphlet from 1940 or so that contained the Pledge of Allegiance as it was then. Here it is:
I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible with liberty and justice for all.
It’s a good pledge, I think, though it’s wordy and focused on a piece of cloth. How about something like this instead?
I pledge allegiance to our republic, our unity, and our love of liberty and justice for all.
I think that captures the meaning of the Pledge, assuming we feel the need to have one.
You’ll note, of course, what’s missing: the idea our nation is “under God.” That sentiment was added only in the 1950s in response to McCarthyism and fears of communism. If you’re committed to God’s commands, especially His call to love thy neighbor, you really don’t need to brag about it in the Pledge. Of course, many Americans believe in gods, or no god at all, so an inclusive pledge of unity shouldn’t mention god at all.
My father’s generation endured the Great Depression and helped to win World War II, arguably the last war America truly won, without constantly pledging they were “under God.” We should follow their example.
Addendum: When I last wrote a column on the Pledge, a savvy reader made this comment: I remember from grade school when Under God was added. It was shortly after Under Your Desks.
Perhaps my favorite biblical verse comes from the New Testament in Luke 17:21 when Christ says to the Pharisees, “The kingdom of God is within you.” You could spend a lifetime thinking about that.
Recently, I googled it and discovered the Catholic church has tried to demystify it, retranslating it as “the Kingdom of God is in the midst of you” and suggesting Christ here is trying to awaken the Pharisees to his presence and to recruit more apostles. So much for looking within at this most profound of Christ’s teachings.
I have many gripes with “modern” translations of the Bible, which largely diminish, even despoil, the poetry of older translations like the KJV (King James Version) or the even earlier translation by William Tyndale.
So I broke out my Catholic Bible from 1962; it renders the passage as “For behold, the kingdom of God is within you.” My NIV Bible from 1984 is the same, except there’s a footnote that says “within” could be translated as “among.” Is nothing sacred, all you wannabe translators and all you organized church tools?
Christ’s teaching that the kingdom of God is within you is a mystery. What does it mean? This is what it means to me. In trying to understand God, I think we humans are really trying to understand ourselves. The vast power of our own minds and imaginations. It’s not God that’s limitless: it’s our conceptions of what god (or gods) can be. But even as we humans imagine and conceive of god, we become jealous of our mental creations and then start lording them over others. We conceive of god(s) as jealous and vindictive and violent because we are.
Some will immediately say that I blaspheme; that I’m saying that humans are really god in the sense we create god. Of course, the Bible teaches the opposite: that God created us.
It is of course a matter of faith but think about this. We’re told we’re made in God’s image (even though we’ve been so busy creating him in our image). Surely this doesn’t refer to our bodies, which age and decay. Surely this refers to our minds, our dreams, our imaginations, which viewed in the aggregate across humanity continue to grow, to discover new things, to conceive of new ideas. To create. As humans, we create. And when we create, we ignite the divine spark within us.
Yet we are obviously not god. For I was taught God is good. God is love. And we humans are definitely not consistently good or loving. Quite the opposite. But of course we can displace our sins onto a fallen angel who corrupts us: Lucifer. It’s not our fault, or not entirely ours, right? The devil made me do it.
I prefer to think of god as the absolute best of us, the most mysterious part of us, our ability to create, to conceive of new things, to dream, to imagine. That human ability seems god-like in the sense it’s truly unlimited. And if it’s not unlimited, how would we know it wasn’t?
It’s not time to worship ourselves in place of god. Rather, as Abraham Lincoln said in a different context, it’s time to start looking to the better angels of our nature. It’s time to tap the kingdom of God within us. And to share it without jealousy or rancor or exclusivity.
And not only within us; the kingdom of God is also all around us. Humans are an incredibly destructive lot. We must not think much of God when we’re so busy despoiling and destroying her creation.
The sacred is within and without. And if we start thinking that way, and have a proper reverence for the sacred, we can focus on being constructive rather than destructive. We can honor the god within us by cherishing and saving the god without us. That means putting life first, all forms of life, including our own, as manifestations of the divine spark.
Postscript 1: I hope God forgives my random capitalization of her/his name.
Postscript 2: A friend notes how much ink’s been spilled throughout history contemplating God’s nature, the lives of saints, and so on. Theology used to be “the queen of the sciences.” I sent this back to him:
One thing about studying theology with such fervor — you probably won’t invent weapons to blow the world into a literal Armageddon from above. No — you’ll just imagine Armageddon coming from above. That said, it’s also true that religion can be used so powerfully to condone the murderous mistreatment of others. Knowledge is power, after all, even (especially?) knowledge of god [whatever “knowledge of god” means]. God is good, but humanity? Not so much.
In Christianity, God sent a Gospel or “good news.” He told us to love one another. How has such a simple message of goodness and giving become so badly twisted and so often ignored?