Thursday, March 15, 2012

And So it Goes

As Rod Blagojevich rides off into the sunset as self assured and cocky as ever, it's worth highlighting a funny thing that happens every time the Chicago media covers local corruption. I'm talking about the choir of convicted and formerly imprisoned Illinois politicians who resurface to talk about what it's like to transition from political power to the penitentiary.

Scott Fawell joined WGN's anchors yesterday for the entire one hour broadcast of Blagojevich's farewell speech. Fawell was chief of staff to George Ryan, Illinois' (other) imprisoned former governor and served many years in federal prison for his role in a scheme that traded bribes for illegal commercial drivers licenses. A recipient of one of those licenses crashed into a minivan and killed six children. Scott Fawell was more than happy to talk about the daily routine of prison and its dreary mental effects, but he dodged every question about whether he came to grips with his wrongdoing  while in prison. You can watch Fawell yuck it up on WGN here or read a more detailed account of his trial in Chicago Magazine.

WGN also featured an interview with 89 year old Dan Walker, another governor who served time in prison (though not for any crimes related to his time in public office). I can't find video of the interview, but Walker spoke at length about the indignities of his incarceration. Walker once wrote to his congressman, but had the letter intercepted by the warden. The warden teased Walker about his once powerful position and ripped the letter to pieces in front of Walker to illustrate just how far he had fallen. The warden also reassigned the former governor from a desk job to picking up cigarette butts for the duration of his sentence simply because the two men went to rival colleges.

Today, former Cicero town president Betty Loren-Maltese who famously robbed Cicero to the tune of $12 million called into WFLD to give her input on what Blagojevich faces in prison:
“He’s going to have to change his attitude because if he doesn’t, another inmate will,” Loren-Maltese said. “For sure, the officers will let him know he’s nothing but a number and he’s the property of prisons. ...I think still think he comes off as arrogant,” she said. “Yesterday, I watched all the media coverage, and he had me for awhile, but then it turned political and almost into a campaign speech."

Finally, the Sun-Times quoted Jim Laski, former city clerk of Chicago and convicted felon in its write up of today's events:

“He’s going to be doing a lot of, ‘yes sir’ and ‘no sir,’...It’s a humbling, humiliating experience. But you have to take it.”

In any other state, a corruption conviction would be enough to banish someone from the public sphere entirely. It's a bitter twist of irony that the steady stream of indictments gives previously convicted officials the opportunity to return to the public eye as commentators. Illinois' endless corruption gives the formerly corrupt an opportunity to stay relevant.

The trend shows no signs of ending. Just this week State Rep Derrick Smith was in court on charges that he accepted bribe money. Cook County Commissioner Bill Beavers will also face his own corruption trial soon. One can only wonder who will be staring down an indictment 14 years from now. Whoever that person is, he or she will be the launching pad for Rod Blagojevich's triumphant return to the public stage.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Christian Pop Culture

I've observed Christian pop culture for the last seven years. I say "observed" because I don't participate in or consume anything that could be considered Christian media. I just don't identify with the mindset behind it. One of the most alienating traits is the tendency to recreate the conversion experience.

The moment of accepting Jesus Christ as one's personal Lord and Savior is the backbone of evangelical Christianity. Once saved, the convert has reached a critical threshold from which it is impossible to slip. While attending services at an evangelical mega church, I noticed that the messaging operated on a dual track. The unsaved were told how much better their lives would become once they accept Christ, and the saved were reminded of just how empty their lives were before salvation.

It wouldn't be fair to say the church instilled complacency in its congregants because the parishioners were more active than at any other church I've seen. Nevertheless, I couldn't shake the feeling that the primary goal they worked towards (converting others) fostered a sense of spiritual complacency. If accepting Christ as your personal savior is the pinnacle of your spiritual life, where do you go from there? Rather than looking forward towards continued growth, evangelicals are called to look backwards and remember that indelible moment of grace in order to help others experience it. There's definitely kindness in wanting/helping others to experience the same joy you have, but I think it comes at a cost. Many of the evangelicals I encountered were so focused thinking about who they were that they didn't have time to think about who they wanted to become.

This mindset is a common theme in Christian pop culture. Take this Kirk Cameron movie for instance:

At work, inside burning buildings, Capt. Caleb Holt lives by the old firefighter's adage: Never leave your partner behind. At home, in the cooling embers of his marriage, he lives by his own rules.

As the couple prepares to enter divorce proceedings, Caleb's father challenges his son to commit to a 40-day experiment: "The Love Dare." Wondering if it's even worth the effort, Caleb agrees-for his father's sake more than for his marriage. When Caleb discovers the book's daily challenges are tied into his parents' newfound faith, his already limited interest is further dampened.

While trying to stay true to his promise, Caleb becomes frustrated time and again. He finally asks his father, "How am I supposed to show love to somebody who constantly rejects me?

When his father explains that this is the love Christ shows to us, Caleb makes a life-changing commitment to love God. And with God's help he begins to understand what it means to truly love his wife.

This movie presents no challenge to the already saved. The character who is called upon to change is the one who has not yet found God. The film's usefulness as a tool for evangelizing is clear: Have a troubled marriage? Accept Christ as your personal savior and all will end well. But the film also operates on the same dual tracks I saw at the mega church. The message it directs towards believers doesn't inspire them to behave any differently. It simply reaffirms a choice they have already made.

Scott Nehring complained of this dynamic in a 2010 piece called Why Are Christian Movies So Bad:

Rather than developing organically, the average Christian film is more pushy and sanctimonious than the global-warming agenda movies... By movie’s end, everyone is converted with no residual issues. Life is reduced to an after-school special with prayer thrown in for good measure. For me, this is where the dry heaving begins.

From a Catholic (and more specifically Jesuit) background, I have a difficult time identifying with a tradition that places so much emphasis on a single fixed point in time. Faith is a journey and it changes as we change. As a Catholic, I find an immeasurable degree of comfort in the repetitious nature of the Sacraments. The pinnacle event of Catholicism isn't something that happens once. The Eucharist takes place every week (technically daily or even hourly, I suppose). It follows you throughout your life and its meaning deepens and grows with you as you change. Similarly, the Jesuit tradition is one of constant reflection with an eye towards who we should become based on who we are at any given moment.

I don't mean any ill will towards people who enjoy Christian pop culture, it's just something I can never really feel comfortable with because of its over emphasis on an event I have never experienced and its lack of a challenging message for believers. I still find Christian media endlessly fascinating and happily remain an observer.

"Men's Rights"

It's been a tough few weeks for women. The kick off happened when a group of men got so enraged that impoverished women were receiving breast cancer screenings that they tried to cut off the program's funding.

Not to be outdone, another group of even angrier, whiter, and older men tried to block women from getting birth control.

This led directly to the angriest man of all calling a woman a slut on a nationally syndicated radio show and demanding that she send him a sex tape.

Today is International Women's Day. A lot of angry, hateful men have been grumbling, "why don't we get a day?"  Seems to me they've had free reign the last few weeks. The victim complex of the "men's rights" movement is a funny thing. They grab hold of any perceived inequality and use it as an excuse to whine about how hard men have it in today's society. When you cut through it, you realize they're really complaining because they can't freely express their misogyny without being called shitty, hateful people.

So in honor of International Women's day, I'll do my part to kick patriarchy in the collective nuts by linking to a list published today by the Southern Poverty Law Center that calls out some angry, hateful "Men's Rights" websites.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Time to Excommunicate Them

Santorum lost the Catholic vote in Ohio to Romney 44-31. Santorum also lost the Catholic vote to Romney in Michigan by a 44-37 margin. Had members of his own religion voted for Santorum in greater numbers, he would have won both states.

Santorum is uniquely loathsome because he 1) presents himself as The One True Catholic in the race while 2) advocating positions repugnant to Church teachings and 3) de-legitimizing the right of anyone who disagrees with him to identify as Catholic.

It might surprise many to find out that Santorum does not walk in lock step with the Catholic Church on every issue. Juan Cole highlighted ten areas where Santorum unambiguously breaks with official Church doctrine. The biggest break is Santorum's vigorous support for the Iraq war, which John Paul II and Benedict XVI emphatically opposed.

Andrew Sullivan also called out Santorum for his defense of torture:

In that very defense - in Santorum's own description of what he is defending - he is defending the "breaking" of a human person, made in the image of God. He is defending a core, absolute evil. Let us concede for the sake of argument that these are "enhanced interrogation techniques" and not "torture", as Santorum insists. There is no meaningful difference between the two whatsoever from a Catholic perspective, and Santorum's public positioning as an avowedly Catholic politician, while defending and promoting an absolute evil, is a true and immense moral scandal - in the Church's sense of the word. No one should be giving the impression that the Catholic church defends "enhanced interrogation techniques". This is from the Catechism:
"Torture which uses physical or moral violence to extract confessions, punish the guilty, frighten opponents, or satisfy hatred is contrary to respect for the person and for human dignity...
Non-combatants, wounded soldiers, and prisoners must be respected and treated humanely. Actions deliberately contrary to the law of nations and to its universal principles are crimes, as are the orders that command such actions"
Notice there is a bar even on "moral violence" on or "frightening" prisoners. Santorum's own moral distinction between "breaking" human beings by EITs and "torture" does not exist in international law or Catholic doctrine.

These are fundamental issues where Santorum disagrees with the Church. There is nothing inherently wrong with forming an opinion in opposition to Church teachings. My conscience dictates that I disagree on a number of issues, but I am honest and upfront about it.

By presenting himself as a "Real Catholic," Santorum implies we must agree with all of his positions in order to rightfully call ourselves Catholic. As he infamously said, people who disagree with his vision of a theocratic America make him vomit.

It's no surprise Santorum carried the evangelical vote in Ohio and Michigan. His absolutist tone and conflation of GOP orthodoxy with religious values is far more typical of evangelicalism than it is of Catholicism.

What worries me is that as Church hardliners like Santorum and many bishops focus on sexual morality at the expense of everything else, the wall between reactionary evangelicalism and Catholicism is being eroded. With it comes the implicit dictate: the only way to be TRULY religious is to be a Republican. Even when being a Republican contradicts your religion.

"Conservative" and "liberal" are divisions we make here on earth. They are imperfect ways of categorizing the world and both fail to capture the totality of God's will and commandments. One does not need to be a Republican to be a Catholic. One also does not need to support Rick Santorum to be a Catholic. Luckily, Catholic voters seem to have this figured out.