Tuesday, April 3, 2012


April 5, 2012

Jesus is back on Broadway. In the revival of the hopelessly dated Godspell, he appears as the Profound Clown (not to be confused with the Holy Fool); in the revival of the more durable Jesus Christ Superstar, he appears as the victim of mass hysteria, glorified and vilified by the media, then literally crucified by the politicians (thus its durability).

A few miles uptown in the South Bronx, where "revival" has a different meaning, Jesus made an appearance too. Every year, on Palm Sunday, he takes to the streets as his followers ritually reenact his 15 minutes of worldly fame — the day he rode into Jerusalem as the contrarian king, "meek and riding on an ass," while his momentary enthusiasts strewed palm branches in his path.

Last Sunday, at the corner of Webster Avenue and 168th Street, several hundred Spanish-speaking parishioners of St. Augustine-Our Lady of Victory Catholic Church gathered in chilly and threatening weather to hail their King once more. Living in the bottom 25 of the 99%, they authentically represented the participants in the original, primordial event — the powerless, the illegal, the hungry, the homeless, the very ones that a certain politician recently declared he's "not concerned about" because "they have a safety net." These folks knew that already. They know all about the concern of politicians and about that fraying net. Here, with their church, they've found true concern, and a safety net that will never break.

There was some verisimilitude in the march. The people clutched palm fronds (imported from Florida; a few more years of climate change and New York may be growing its own). And yes, there was a donkey heading up the parade, and a native Bronx donkey at that, rented for the occasion from the Equestrian Center in Pelham Bay Park. The church's pastor, Rev. Thomas Fenlon, books one every year. Most of them have been big enough for a middle-school kid to sit on; this time they sent over a beast the size of an Irish wolfhound. But no matter — he was adorably cute and well-behaved, and ablly supported a fearless and frolicking little girl.

Father Fenlon told his congregation this was a "bilingual donkey," qualified to march both in the Spanish procession and in the English one that preceded it. His light-hearted words evoked the Biblical story of Balaam's ass, the talking donkey, recorded in chapter 22 of the Book of Numbers. The donkey rebukes his master for mercilessly beating him: "What have I done to you?" he pleads. "Am I not your own beast?"

Perhaps the donkey and the child had a conversation too. "If Jesus was a king, why didn't he ride a powerful white horse instead of a pack-animal like me?" "I don't know, donkey." "Nobody got it then, dear, and nobody gets it now."

As the procession made its way the half-mile up Webster Avenue to the church, the marchers shook their fronds and sang lustily: "¡Hosanna!" "¡Alabaré!" "¡Viva Jesús el Rey!" Cars pulled up to the priest, unmistakable in his red robes; he gave the drivers a palm and a prayer. High above the street, in the towering public-housing projects, tenants leaned out their windows and waved. Curious customers poured out of the bodegas and the liquor stores, some of them joining the crowd for a block or two with their bags of soda and chips or a pint of E&J brandy ("Easy Jesus," they call it here) in their pockets.


After the people had entered the church, their mood abruptly changed. In the Catholic liturgy of Palm Sunday, the procession is followed by the Gospel account of Jesus' trial and execution. The reading is done in oratorio fashion, with a narrator, the priest or deacon as Jesus, various individual speaking parts, and the congregation as the chorus.

When the trial of Jesus reached its climax and the befuddled Roman governor Pilate asked what the crowd wanted him to do with this guiltless man, the entire church roared out, "Crucify him! Crucify him!" — as lustily as they'd sung "Hosanna!" just minutes before.

"Liturgy" in Greek means "the work of the people." It's not performance, it's participation. It's not the Great White Way, it's just the Way.

On Palm Sunday, it's real-time immersion in the unchanging fickleness of human nature, and no million-dollar musical can match it.


March 22, 2012

As details emerged about the identity of the soldier who allegedly murdered 16 Afghani civilians, mostly women and children, on March 11, I called up a college classmate of mine, a physician who for several years had worked part-time in the family-practice clinic at the man's home base, Lewis-McChord, near Tacoma, Wash. I wanted his opinion about what the U.S. Armed Forces' own newspaper, Stars and Stripes, in 2010 called "the most troubled base in the military."

I was not ready for what he said first.

"I had him as a patient a couple years ago," he told me. "When I saw his picture in the paper, I recognized him. I don't remember what I treated him for, but I recall his face. He seemed like a good guy to me — nothing unusual about him. This thing was a real shocker."

The profile of Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, now being pieced together by the media, reveals the same sentiment of disbelief among his family, childhood friends, and fellow soldiers: The person who did this is not the person we knew.

As unusual things go, it is not all that unusual. You see stories more often than you'd like about mild-mannered men who randomly gun down passers-by on the street, and loving moms who drown their kids. What makes this case more unusual than most is its context.

"I don't know if it's the most troubled base," my friend said, returning to my question. "It may be because it's just so big, and it's primarily for the infantry. They're the ones who do the whites-of-their-eyes fighting, and for some of them it's bound to seep out in other ways, both over there and when they get home."

I asked if he had any ideas about Bales' motives.

"Who knows what made him do it?" he mused. "Maybe he thought that committing some unspeakably horrible deed would finally bring the troops home — the Afghanis would demand that the Americans leave, and the American public would demand it too. Maybe he thought he was sacrificing himself for a greater good.

"Or," he continued, "he could have snapped from the paranoia that all the troops feel over there, where they can't ever tell who the enemy is and isn't. The very same people you meet at those friendly town meetings — even women and children — may be just the ones who are triggering roadside bombs. It's not war with uniformed targets and defined battles followed by periods of calm. The soldiers live in constant fear and suspicion. It's no wonder that most of them have some degree of PTSD. The trauma and stress are not so much from battle as from the constant anxiety and uncertainty."

"Plus," I mentioned, "the paranoia for this guy was endless. He went to Iraq in 2003 and returned twice more after that. The papers say that after his third tour he'd trained to be a recruiter but they sent him to Afghanistan instead — even though he'd injured his head and foot his second time around."

"This is a huge problem," my friend remarked. "Back and forth, back and forth. Even when you're home, there's no closure because as long as we're over there, there's no close."

"Then there's the nation-building business, the hearts-and- minds thing," I added. "Trained to kill and trained to heal at the same time — and on the ground there, both are jumbled up together. It isn't like those World War II newsreels of the troops handing out Hershey bars to a crush of happy kids while their parents cheer their liberators. When you pour your energies into trying to do good while you know all along that many of the people there resent your presence and want you gone, that's a frustration that could easily turn to rage. I'd bet most of the soldiers feel it but somehow they sublimate it. This guy didn't."

"War for almost ten years," my friend reflected. "It sickens me. The brunt of it all has been borne by a very small number of people. The all-volunteer military shifts the responsibility for war away from the public at large. If more people had their own sons and daughters drafted into service, they'd have not been so complacent about these wars."

Who knows why Sgt. Bales did it? Even a trial, by its nature, may reveal little of the truth. But there's one thing for certain: In the midst of the war without, he was fighting a war within.


March 15, 2012

PEACE, n. In international affairs, a period of cheating between two periods of fighting.

So wrote that intractable cynic Ambrose Bierce in The Devil's Dictionary, published in 1906. His definition still rings true after over a century, even when peace, in international affairs, is a decidedly relative term.

I'll give you my own definition, aways subject to change: Peace is a short episode of amnesia leading to the unwitting reenactment of past wars.

Having already forgotten Iraq, the war based on rumor, and Afghanistan, the war based on revenge, and most recently Libya, the war that was never called war, Republicans in Congress and on the presidential stump are already turning their bellicose eyes to Syria.

Actually, Libya wasn't forgotten, it was mythologized. It's now seen by most Americans, military and civilian alike, as the truly Lovely War, orchestrated but not executed by the United States, approved in a vague way by the United Nations, expending all that pent-up European firepower so long aching for blessed relief, and with no loss of Allied life to boot. What could be better? It was a test-case and model for the New Warfare: state- of -the-art, conducted from above, noble in purpose, limited in scope, started and ended in seven months.

But even Lovely Wars have unlovely consequences. While the NATO forces may have helped the Libyan rebels trap and skin that old fox Qaddafi, they left a leaderless land, with a nominal government unable to rein in the numerous factions still flush with armaments plundered from the dictator's vast stores. The place is a literal panoply of powder-kegs, just waiting for a spark.

Senator John McCain — and remember, he could have been President — is leading the fight to fight in Syria, calling for a Libya-like strategic bombing campaign to cauterize the ruthless forces of Bashar al-Assad's regime and establish "safe havens" to serve "as platforms for the delivery of humanitarian and military assistance" and provide space for the opposition to "organize and plan their political and military activities against Assad."

This must be done, he said in a speech on the Senate floor on March 5, without authorization by the United Nations, and not by coalition forces but by the United States alone, "the only one nation that can alter this dynamic" of Assad's brutality.

"Providing military assistance to the Free Syrian Army and other opposition groups is necessary," McCain asserted, "but at this late hour, that alone will not be sufficient to stop the slaughter and save innocent lives. The only realistic way to do so is with foreign airpower."

Old war-hawks never die, they just lose their eyesight.

In response to this speech, a spokesman for Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said, "This is an extremely complex crisis. Intervention at this time could very well exacerbate problems inside the country."

No kidding. If McCain thinks action against Assad would be another Lovely War, he should consult his World Almanac:

Libya: Total area, 680,000 square miles; population, 6 million; population density, 8 persons per square mile.

Syria: Total area, 16,000 square miles; population, 19 million; population density, 265 persons per square mile.

Any child can see that air strikes in Syria, no matter how precise, will inevitably result in a "slaughter" of non- combatants exponentially greater than occurred in Libya (the number of which, by the way, NATO has refused to investigate or disclose).

Though he may not know his demographics, McCain surely knows his geography, which makes his stance crazier still. Libya is bounded by Egypt, Chad, Niger, Algeria, Tunisia, and the Mediterranean Sea. Syria is bounded by Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, Israel, and Lebanon — almost every one of those countries a hot- spot in itself. Any interested teenager can see that bombing Syria could blow the Middle East apart.

And then there's that military-aid component. Even without the air strikes, shoveling armaments to the opposition forces is a recipe for internal disaster. It's doing for Syria from the outside what Qaddafi did from the inside, providing the opportunity for the "Free Syrian Army" — whatever that is — and "other opposition groups" — whoever and however many they are — to annihilate not only Assad but each other.

Such actions would further defile — and in a far greater way than those against Libya did — the spirit of the Arab Spring, a movement that has toppled dictators and democratized governments by the disciplined practice of nonviolent resistance. Indeed, there are many in the Syrian opposition — perhaps a majority — who continue to reject force of arms as an instrument of regime change. Unilateral intervention by the U.S. would in fact "alter this dynamic," as McCain put it, but in perverse ways he seems unable to conceive.

As Gene Sharp, the political theorist whose booklet, From Dictatorship to Democracy, formed the blueprint for the Arab Spring movement, wrote: "The historical record indicates that while casualties in dead and wounded must be expected in political defiance, they will be far fewer than the casualties in military warfare. Furthermore, this type of struggle does not contribute to the endless cycle of killing and brutality."

The stories of repression and murder that are smuggled out of Syria daily are truly appalling, and McCain and his sympathizers, like almost everyone else in the world, want to put an end to it.

But his alternative would be so much worse.


March 8, 2012

BOOK REVIEW:  Broken and Shared, by Jeff Dietrich
Los Angeles: Marymount Institute Press, 2011
418 pp., illustrated. $29.95

Jeff Dietrich is Horatio Alger in reverse. He's the self- unmade man. While his peers were making money, he was making soup. The Social Security Administration calculates his total lifetime income to be $2,553.82.

He's the Man Who Came to Dinner. Over forty years ago, he dropped in at the Catholic Worker soup kitchen on L.A.'s Skid Row and never left.

Fortunately for the world, the leaders of the Catholic Worker community saw talent in the lad and immediately made him the editor of their bimonthly eight-page tabloid, the Catholic Agitator. Now, from hundreds of articles written for the paper over the years, he has culled almost 80 of them for his new book, Broken and Shared: Food, Dignity, and the Poor on Los Angeles' Skid Row.

Brilliantly written, combining pathos, outrage, and scholarly analysis with bracingly ironic humor, Dietrich's essays reflect and amplify the vision of the founders of the Catholic Worker movement, Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, two radicals who during the Great Depression rejected Marx's social analysis for Jesus', and Lenin's monolithic Communism for simple solidarity with the poor.

In 1970, while hitchhiking across the country, he chanced on a meeting of the Milwaukee Catholic Worker, some of whose members were headed for prison for burning draft files. "This is what Jesus would be doing if he were around today," he recalls thinking. "He'd be feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and burning draft files!"

It was his satori, that Zen flash of insight when all reality falls perfectly into place. Suddenly, the Catholicism of his childhood, dogmatic and institutional, was distilled to its essence: "We were not supposed to worship Jesus," he writes, "we were supposed to practice Jesus."

Taken as a whole, these essays confirm that experience. From the earliest ones to the latest, his basic beliefs remain unchanged; they do not evolve, they deepen. Out of modesty he says he is not a scholar, but his writings reveal a breadth of knowledge greater than many academic professionals'. Interwoven with citations by a wide array of thinkers and theorists, his analyses of social problems and the institutional structures he believes cause them make for compelling, contrarian reading.

Most impressive is his informed and eye-opening exegesis of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. Not surprisingly, his focus is on food and why some grow fat while others go hungry. The Hebrew Scriptures, he argues in many articles over many years, consistently point to "big agriculture" and its ensuing commerce and militarization as the root cause, from Cain the farmer (scorned by the Hebrew God for Abel, the hunter-gatherer) to today's global agribusiness: Those who grow the food hold power over those who don't. The mission of Jesus, especially as depicted in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, was to liberate the hungry from the institutions that keep them that way. He shows that it's not by chance that Matthew juxtaposes King Herod's banquet, where the main course is John the Baptist's head on a platter ("not a typical dinner party arranged by, say, Martha Stewart") with his feeding of the 5,000 from their own resources. Thus the "power lunches" of Washington, where "decisions are made that consign the poor, the immigrant, and the homeless to death" stand opposed to the soup kitchen at the Catholic Worker: "When food and hospitality are shared outside the money economy, the kingdom of God has come near."

Many other assaults against conventional wisdom await you, such as why Jesus is hardly the exemplar of Christian Family Values.

This book will either drive you crazy or drive you sane.

Read it.