Thursday, June 26, 2014

Monday is D-Day at SCOTUS - What I'm Watching For

I'm not a lawyer. I'm not a legal expert.

I'm a blogger and a sometime court watcher. And I'm someone who has followed with interest and engaged in activism regarding the Department of Health & Human Services' so-called "contraceptive mandate," a regulation enacted as part of the implementation of "Obamacare."

Surely my reader will be aware by now of the case pressed by Hobby Lobby stores and the owning family, the Greens, against this law. The case was heard, along with another similar case of a for-profit private industry, in March of this year. Now, everyone expects that this coming Monday - June 30th - will be "d-day" - decision day.

Those who follow my Facebook page, Standing with Hobby Lobby, will notice that I have gone more or less silent about this matter since the hearings in March. It is time that I explain myself on that score, which will deal with some of my expectations and apprehensions as Monday approaches and as we anticipate the decision of the Court.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

An Open Letter to Judge Jones

21 May 2014

Your Honor:

You do not know me. As likely as it might have been that our paths should have crossed at some point over the years (both of us residents of the same anthracite-rich region), in fact we never did have such opportunity to become acquainted.

Thus it is that today I write to you as a stranger, just one more proud and concerned citizen of the great Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. I am proud because of our state's legacy and history; I am concerned because I see it slipping away. Pennsylvania produces good stock in its citizens, and of course this something in itself of which to be proud. But it is the legacy of those not born here, but rather those who came just about three hundred and thirty years ago to settle, in which we find our greatest honor as sons and daughters of this land. Perhaps more than any of the other colonies that would one day become the United States, this land governed first under William Penn's Charter of Liberties prized and protected the value of religious freedom. Anyone who has been stuck behind a horse and buggy in Lancaster County knows that that spirit and commitment is as alive today. Or, well, I should say, was alive... until yesterday. Yesterday, a new document was laid atop Penn's great Charter as a new law over our land - a much less noble document (and much less prettily written, I might add) - a document bearing your signature.

You see, Your Highness - er, rather, Your Honor ... or, well, which do you prefer? A careful reading of your recent decision leaves me in doubt - I am one of those who believes that the institution of marriage is fundamental to the health of society, and that the family founded upon the union of husband and wife is the sine qua non of a healthy public order. I also believe that the "first of the firsts" of our rights as citizens - the right to free exercise of religion - is most threatened today by attacks upon this institution. Yet you, in your decision issued yesterday, wrote that laws defending this institution should be "discard[ed]... into the ash heap of history."

That was, by the way, a fabulous turn of phrase. Did you write it, or a clerk? I hope no overtime was spent on it, but I do know how evasive le mot juste can be and how easy to rationalize can be one's attempts in tracking it down. I note especially your careful avoidance of the more standard idiom - pardon me, but I can't help observing the fact, having a Masters in English myself - that you chose not to reference the "dust bin" but the "ash heap." Of course, to non-British readers, perhaps "the ash heap" registers more readily. Or perhaps did you intend something more? There have been, after all, those in history who have suggested that laws attested in Holy Writ be ultimately relegated to "the ash heap" - and perhaps you meant purposefully to ascend to their ranks?

Yet your suggestion is far less modest than the quaint Bible-burners of old. No, you would also toss out the teachings of Aristotle and Plato, of every major world religion, of every respectable political philosophy prior to the 20th century. In my minds eye, I can barely conjure the size of the pyre you would build to discard the notion of marriage to the ash heap of history - every copy of the most re-printed book in history, the Bible, and so many other tomes besides - climbing higher and higher to heaven, reminiscent of the mythical Tower of Babel (another great image for your project that I'd commend to your use, if you haven't considered it already). Once gathered altogether, would you, yourself, like to provide the ignition by lighting the match? I only ask because you have already seemed to keen to provide the wind necessary for the combustion to ensue... I hope, at any rate, that you will carefully scour your own domicile for any remnants of this age-old mythos and contribute it personally to the bonfire to produce your hoped-for ash heap. Perhaps you have a family Bible you'd like to lay near the logs at the base of the fire? I doubt you're using it, anyway.

You write further in your decision that '[w]e as a people are better than what these laws represent" - with "these laws" referring to enactments such as Pennsylvania's Defense of Marriage Act, passed in 1996. Here, I'm afraid, I must beg to disagree. Saint Paul tells us that marriage between a man and a woman is a type of the relation which Christ has to His Church. Whether you agree with me that that Man was divine, you must certainly admit that there's a certain beauty to Saint Paul's assertion in this regard. Yet, as I look around the world today, I don't see that beauty reflected in marriage. Men and women don't seem to bear the same manner of commitment in approaching marriage as Christ bore on his way to the Golgotha. They don't seem to be willing to commit 'til death do them part, or to the sacrificial and self-giving love exemplified in Christ's outpouring on the Cross. They seem much more apt to prefer their own advancement, their own good, than the good of the other - to say nothing of the good of the only-as-yet-imagined others that might spring from their sexual union, their children. Sex is for their benefit first, and not ordered toward the good of others. And so when it results unexpectedly in a new life, it seems to be the case that often one or the other - and I'm ashamed to say, it is most usually the man - will run from the obligation implied in the act of depositing his or her seminal biological potential into an equation outside of his or her complete management. Thus, we have "dead-beat dads" and so many other social ills.

In the face of such problems, I am inclined to think that we need, if anything, to bolster the notion that sexual congress demands commitment, that responsibility to the consequences of one's sexual actions are demanded by the choice to engage in those actions. I am also inclined to think that we grow stronger as a society to the extent that men and women accept such responsibility and do not look at the first opportunity to pass it on to the broader population. And I am finally inclined to think that there is no better way of maintaining and communicating such expectations than promoting the institution of marriage.

In short, I think that - far from we as a people being better than "what these laws represent" - we are worse, and studiously worse, than what these laws represent. We, none of us, "deserve" marriage. We are called to it. It represents a shining ideal to which we must battle against the world and flesh to conform. It is not something that serves us, but that we serve. And in return, when we serve it faithfully, and as one, it repays us a hundred fold, packed together and overflowing.

But you seem to look at the situation upside down. You seem to see marriage as our slave, rather than us as its servants; and accordingly you have sought to subdue and conquer it. (That it shall rise up in vengeance, I have no doubt.) Nevertheless, for the time being, your judicial decree shall be the law that governs my home state, and marriage as reconstructed above your signature will no longer draw any of us upward from our individual and wonton desires, but will instead be cheapened and mocked by being reconfigured to our own base inclinations.

In your decision, you (at least implicitly) place a high premium upon the judgment. But even if we allow that history will be our judge, is it better to be judged by history not yet written, or by our own history? After all, we shape the stories of those that come after us by our decisions; it is only those that come before whose place is firm and fixed, against which we may compare ourselves.

In the long run, thought, the judgment of both will be the same. For my part, I first avow Tradition, that Chesterton called "the democracy of the dead." I look first to the past in order to decide what the future may bring. And looking into the deep annals of the past and the treasury of Tradition, I find a figure whom you may want to contemplate as you (no doubt proudly) re-read the conclusion to your fateful decision to yourself tonight. It is the figure of Solomon, the Wise Judge. He stands, stony and serene across the ages, standing poised with his sword above the disputed infant between the two women claiming to be its mother. The infant a fact, writhing and wailing for want of its own mother's love, Solomon knew that one or the other of the women must be judged true, and the other false. Both could not justly claim the child, or the child would die. Well, Your Honor, yesterday you stole the sword from Solomon's hands, and severed the infant in half in order to appease both of those who claimed to be its mother. And the judgment of truth will find out the truth of the matter, and name its figures accordingly: the false claimant, the sorrowful parent, the injured progeny, and an unjust judge.

Respectfully Yours, etc.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Make Room

Today, Tuesday of Holy Week, while surfing around on Facebook, this irreverent and flippant (and funny) meme popped up:

And, well... it got me to thinkin'. Scripture is neat that way: often even a sidelong and casual glance at it will burns a reflection into the mind. Is not my word like fire? (Jer. 23:29).

You see, it is Holy Week, and someone thought this was an appropriate post for the occasion. And that is because, in all of the synoptic accounts of the events of Christ's final entry into Jerusalem and His passion and death, this event - the "Cleansing of the Temple" - is placed in the very days leading up to the climax of the story.

But what is interesting is that, in John, the incident is placed quite early - in chapter two, in fact.

So, what gives?

Well, of course, details in the narratives, and particularly timing - and especially in John, who includes weighted little descriptors like "and it was night" - can be theologically significant. Anyhow, though, we won't digress into debates of the synoptic problem and all that. After all, it is as likely as not - in the present case - that the placement of the synoptic accounts of this particular event corresponds to the historical fact: indeed, the ruckus caused in this scene not only provide motive for those who would petition Christ's death, but also a rationale for the Roman government to quell a known rabble-rouser.

What's interesting to me, though, is that this scene comes in the narrative of this week - and what it might mean for each of us.

Of course, it's always worthwhile in these matters to consult The Fathers.

Jerome reminds us why this exchange trade was going on in the Temple in the first place [emphasis added]:
It should be known that in obedience to the Law, in the Temple of the Lord venerated throughout the whole world, and resorted to by Jews out of every quarter, innumerable victims were sacrificed, especially on festival days, bulls, rams, goats; the poor offering young pigeons and turtle-doves, that they might not omit all sacrifice. But it would happen that those who came from a distance would have no victim.
 The Priests therefore contrived a plan for making a gain out of the people, selling to such as had no victim the animals which they had need of for sacrifice, and themselves receiving them back again as soon as sold. But this fraudulent practice was often defeated by the poverty of the visitors, who lacking means had neither victims, nor whence to purchase them. They therefore appointed bankers who might lend to them under a bond.
Now, Jerome's interpretation of this passage, as with most Patristic commentators, seems basically to be that it contains a moral for priests and bishops and others who minister in God's sanctuary.

But, if I may, I find something fascinating in the background Saint Jerome chooses to give here - how potentially packed with meaning it is! Think about it: people too poor to provide a victim to satisfy... and laid upon them, by those supposed to help them gain atonement, a kind of double-debt on top of the first debt of the Law.

This is all of us: for humanity, on its own, is so impoverished, and also so doubly-in-debt: we need both a true Victim and a true Priesthood. And in the events of the same week in the Gospel, Christ presents Himself as both, and initiates in the same Last Supper the two sacraments that shall re-present Him as Victim and Priest to all the baptized until the end of time: the Eucharist and Holy Orders.

On top of this, Origen saw in this passage even more meaning still, applying it equally to us all and not just to our ministers:
Mystically; The Temple of God is the Church of Christ, wherein are many, who live not, as they ought, spiritually, but after the flesh; and that house of prayer which is built of living stones they make by their actions to be a den of thieves.
Yes, other reflections on this wonderful scene have been offered, and will continue to be. Of course, it has also to do with issues of avarice and greed, and the relative blessedness of the poor - after all, immediately after we see iniquity chased from the Temple, we see the lame and the crippled invited in to be healed. But I offer that we shouldn't press any social justice reading of this too far: after all, of all the Gospel accounts, the tersest and in some ways least interested comes from Luke, who is usually identified as the Evangelist most concerned with the plight of the poor.

Instead, I offer that the central motif here is one of MAKING ROOM: making a space ready for a new thing to be ushered in. Therefore, it is somewhat incidental to us whether this historical event happened in that first historical Holy Week or earlier in Christ's ministry - (or, as Augustine and others suggest, it happened twice). For us, in any case, there is a great spiritual merit to making it part of our Holy Week now.

We are the Temple of God. Indeed, beyond what Origen here observes, we should also be reminded that each of us is  "A Temple of the Holy Ghost". (I might also commend to your reading this week, along with this passage, Flannery O'Connor's brilliant story by that title.)

In order to "make room," as it were, for His Victimhood, His Priesthood, and His Rites of Atonement, Christ first had to clear out what only foreshadowed these, and imperfectly. Furthermore, He made it clear clear that the New Covenant demanded a break from all worldly thought: no hedging bets and conniving would have any place. Christ's rebuke to Peter - "You are thinking as man does, but not as God" - comes back to us here this same aspect of meaning as Christ's demonstration in the Temple. This was a merciful act, and an act of love: these things had to be cleared out, for they were passing away: the animal sacrifices and the dealings and the calculations were all to fade away under the shadow of The Cross. That Cross was the one and only payment that could be made, and we must bind ourselves over to it and to no other debt.

Holy Week provides us a last and urgent opportunity to "make room," even if all of our Lent has been squandered. It gives us a chance to clear out the old ways from our life, to abandon our compromises and our bets, and to cancel all our debts to falsehood.

We are the Temple of God. And we might find ourselves sometimes very much a den of thieves. But the True Victim and the True Priest, He Whose Temple it is... well, this is what He does. He rebuilds and restores the Temple. He cleansed the Temple once (or twice) upon a time. He restored the Temple (of His body) after three days following its destruction. And He rebuilds us, however broken from sin we may be, each and every time we fall - indeed, each and every day, with His Grace. We just need to make room for Him to do what He does.