Can’t We All Just Coexist?

So, there it was again, in front of me, slipped in between “My Other Car is a TARDIS,” and the “Vulcan Science Academy Alumni” stickers.  Now, I’m not averse to either of those.  I, too wish I had a TARDIS (for the uninitiated, this is a blue police box, bigger inside than out, which travels in time and space and is piloted by a Time Lord, who calls himself “The Doctor”) and, back in the days when I had a car of my own, I seem to recall a Starfleet Academy sticker somewhere.  So, I’m not opposed to bumper stickers in general, but there is one that particularly sticks in my craw.  You’ve probably seen it.  It’s the one that says, “COEXIST,” but in the place of the letters are symbols of various world religions.  They can vary a bit, but one is likely to see a star and crescent, a star of David, a peace symbol, a ying-yang symbol, a cross, etc.  You get the idea.  At this point, many might wonder: Unless you are a religious militant or bigot, why would you object to that?

Well, I don’t consider myself either of those things.  You could call me a Christian evangelist, and I wouldn’t object to the term.  I am even ready to admit that I would love to have you become a Christian or a Catholic if you are not already one (and some, I suppose, even if you are!).  However, I admire anyone who is faithful and devoted to his or her religious tradition (or lack thereof), so long as they are not out to harm me, or worse kill me, because of mine, or because I don’t share theirs.  They can even try to convince me to convert if they’d like, though I doubt they’d be successful (chalk it up to an opportunity to learn more about them and what they value).  Given all that, sounds like I should be slapping one of those babies on my car too, right?  WRONG.

While I’ve no doubt that most people who sport such stickers have good intentions, I’m not sure they fully realize that they too are participating in their own form of bigotry.  As a Christian, when I read this “peaceful” reminder of my duty to live peacefully with my fellow human beings, I read condescension.  I read the presumption that my faith and the faith of others are naturally prone to violence and are, as some believe, at the root of all wars and conflict.  The implication is not simply that people of different faiths should coexist (because, in truth, we already do), but that if we really want to bring peace to the world we should all abandon our faiths and become secular humanists.  Yet, as Star Trek has shown us, even a federation founded upon a form of secular humanism, still has to fight battles with Klingons, Romulans, and various other peoples, races and factions that are different from them.  We cannot, nor should we, erase difference.

And truly, that is what is at the root of conflict and war.  Not religion, but difference.  Granted, some wars have been fought over religious differences, but many have not.  Thus, the “COEXIST” bumper sticker could just as easily feature the flags of various different countries.  It could include an elephant, a donkey, a teacup(?), and the symbols of various other political movements or parties.  It could include, as some do, the symbols for men, women, and the various LGBT communities.  Or, a combination of all of these things.  There is even one that suggests that aficionados of various sci-fi shows—Whovians, Trekkies, and the like—might also need to find ways to COEXIST.

To bring this way of thinking to its most absurd conclusion, then what we really need to do away with is coexistence.  If all religious peoples, video gamers, or sci-fi fans are by nature violent and intolerant of each other, then what we really have to do is give everybody in each community or category there own little peace of the earth.  That’ll solve things, right?  I’m still not convinced.  Jesus once said, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am among them.”  He could just as easily have said, “Where two or three are gathered in my name—or anyone else’s, for that matter—there is difference.”  Thus, all of us, whether we adhere to a religious faith or not, whether we like it or not, are forced to coexist.  But, that’s obvious.  We don’t need anyone to tell us that.

Advertisements

SyFy Sacramentals: Warehouse 13

At first it seemed like a weird premise and, I thought, this show’s going nowhere.  How are they going to maintain interest in a show in which covert Secret Service agents wander the country in search for powerful artifacts wreaking havoc in the real world, instead of being safely locked up in a warehouse in the middle of South Dakota?  You know the place.  It’s kind of like that warehouse in which the supposed ark of the covenant is shelved at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark, or the infamous “Area 51” where the government hides all evidence of alien visitations and technology on earth.

But what do I know?  The show in question—Warehouse 13—has not only been successful, but now carries the distinction of being the Syfy channel’s most popular show ever.  I would argue that there have been better shows on Syfy—the recent reboot of Battlestar Galactica, for example—but for some reason Warehouse 13 seems to have a broader appeal.

Sitting waiting for penitents to come for confession recently (no, I do not have holy and pious thoughts every moment, even then), it occurred to meet that as a Catholic I should have realized sooner the appeal of the show.  The idea behind the show is not unlike the Catholic belief in “sacramentals.”  Sacramentals are material objects which, because of their special connection to someone or something sacred or holy, thus possess special qualities or are able to mediate God’s power or blessings in some way.  Thus, we invest religious medals, sacred art or relics connected with a particular saint with greater power or significance than just any other ordinary object.  They possess this power or significance not in and of themselves, but because of their connection to a significant or powerful person or moment in time.  Some see Catholics’ devotion and enthusiasm for such objects as strange and even superstitious.

But we Catholics, though we might appreciate it more, don’t have the corner on the sacramental market.  Just attend the latest Comic-con, or go to the Apple store, and you’ll see that the tendency to endow certain material things with special qualities because of their connection to something extraordinary—in this case, superheroes, a favorite TV show or the church of Apple—reveals itself as not something particularly Catholic, but peculiarly human.  One of the main differences is that “secular sacramentals,” the autograph of a famous person, for example, are often sold at a high price.  People profit monetarily from them.  Catholic sacramentals, on the other hand, are not meant to be sold for profit (though, still, they sometimes are).  People are meant to profit spiritually from them.  Sacramentals are meant to be used for good, not evil.

This is the mission of the Warehouse 13 agents.  They are on the front lines, trying to ensure that the errant “artifacts,” material objects often associated with a famous historical person or event (Lizzie Borden’s axe, for example) are not misused for the power they possess.  And, because the temptation to do so is so great, better that they be kept at the warehouse rather than become an occasion of sin.  Sometimes this means that the agents have to police each other.  Some in the past have gone rogue.  And, in the most recent episode, one agent draws his weapon on one the warehouse superiors, because she is using an artifact as a means of torture.  It will be interesting to see how the consequences of that decision are treated in future episodes.  The woman in charge of the warehouse now stands guilty of the very type of crime that the warehouse agents are out to stop.

The show is successful I think because most of us believe (or want to believe) that many material objects, like our own bodies, are more than just ordinary matter, floating in the soup of life.  Whether it be symbolically or even more substantially, certain special items hold a power which many people recognize.  There are a number of ways in which we memorialize significant historical persons, places or things.  And some hold power that only a given community or family might acknowledge.  In any case, we imagine that they all should be treated with respect, and that their power should not be used to harm others.  They are meant to fascinate and inspire, not to oppress or injure.  The good guys and gals at Warehouse 13 try to maintain that balance while taking care of each other, and having some fun in the process.  That’s why we like them so much, because they take seriously their duty to safeguard those things that we hold dear, without getting too uptight.

Thanks for “Buddies”

My friend Mike Hayes has written a nice response to my “Friends and Contacts” post, and in doing so named me a recipient of one of his Lenten “50-Day Giveaway” gifts.  THANKS, MIKE!!!

The gift will certainly find pride of place on my desk, and is rather appropriate to the course I’m teaching this semester on Catholicism and Popular Culture in America.  The gift is a “buddy Christ,” which you might remember from the movie Dogma.  This week in class we’ll be discussing the movie The Exorcist, but we will finish out the semester discussing Dogma.  So, I’ll definitely bring my gift along with me to class that day!

Mike is a good friend, and a great disciple to young adults across the nation!  He’s way up there in Buffalo these days, so I don’t see enough of him.  Still, I thank God for the gift of his friendship.  And, yes, he is among the privileged few who appear in my text-messaging inbox!

He blogs at “Googling God,” which you’ll find a link to in my Blogroll, and a feed from down below that.

THIS ALSO SERVES AS A CHANCE FOR ME TO WISH A BLESSED EASTER TO ALL MY ‘BUDDIES’!

Giving God What He Needs?

I’ve been meaning to post this, from my homily on last week’s readings.  So, I thought I’d get to it, before I preach this week’s homily!

I am fascinated by the movie genre you might call the “apocalyptic thriller.”  Movies about prophecies & the end times, often involving angels or babies that will save the world, or destroy it.  I like to watch them partly because, more often than not, they are interestingly bad.  But I am also always curious about what they have to say about God.

My latest foray into this genre was just this week, when I sat down to watch last year’s contribution to the genre, Legion.  It’s really more supernatural action movie than apocalyptic thriller, with Michael the Archangel two-fisting machine guns, and even shouldering a missile launcher, all to defend the human race against, not demons, but all the other angels.  Michael has gone rogue because God has decided, as he did once before, that humankind has become so corrupt they must be destroyed.  So, Michael, and a small band of humans take on God’s legions from a truck stop in the middle of the Nevada desert.

The movie never contends, however, with the one fatal flaw in its theology.  If you remember the story of Noah and the flood, you’ll remember that after it was all over, God made a promise.  God promised that he would never destroy the human race again.  Thus, the God we see in Legion is not the God we see in today’s readings.  Today’s readings, rather, seek to remind us that our God is a God who keeps his promises.  Our God is a God who never forgets us, who never abandons us, and cares for us like he does all creation.  Unlike the God that Legion’s Michael rightly rebels against, our God is a God who is trustworthy, who keeps his promises.

In Legion, Michael becomes a surrogate for the real God, and his main goal is to find a way to remind God of who God is, the one who loves and cares for human beings, not the one who destroys them.  As Michael explains, when his brother angel Gabriel tries to stop him from disobeying God, “you’re going to give God what he asks for, I’m going to give God what he needs. “ And, again, we see Michael playing surrogate for the real God, our God who doesn’t always give us what we ask for, but who does provide for our needs.

In the second reading, Saint Paul reminds us that we too are meant to be like God, but not to remind God who he is, but to remind ourselves who we are.  We are reflections of God.  We are the servants of Christ and the stewards of God’s mysteries.  And how will people know this?  Because they will see that we are like God in being trustworthy.  Because we keep our promises.

We all have made, and do make promises to God.  If you were baptized, received first communion and were confirmed, you made a promise to be part of this community.  When you came here today, you made a promise to worship God.  When you recite the Creed after this homily, you will have made a promise to believe.

I don’t think it is simply a coincidence that we describe people who seem well-suited for something as “promising,” or of someone who has talent in some area as showing great “promise.”  The implication is that the very fact that you have certain gifts or talents means that you are meant to use them.  Indeed, I think that Saint Paul stresses the importance of trustworthiness so much because he saw that Jesus, and he himself, and all of us are meant to be partners with God in keeping God’s promises.  It’s hard to believe that God will take care of everyone’s needs unless we know that there are people we can trust to help us.  And it’s much easier for us to believe that God wants to take care of us and others, when we see the unique gifts and talents, as well as the gifts of compassion and mercy, which God gives to each of us, so that we can fulfill our promise, and God’s promises.

If we are meant to be the stewards of God’s mysteries, then it seems obvious that we are called to be agents of God’s care and compassion in the world.  In doing so, we overcome the darker angels, and show people not the end of the world, but a world more like God intends it—a world free of fear and anxiety, and filled with hope and promise.

Spiderman, Barack Obama & Me

A friend pointed out something to me the other day that is quite funny. If you search my name on Amazon.com, you get four results: my two books, my author page and an issue of the Spiderman comic featuring Spiderman and Barack Obama on the cover. I have no connection with this particular comic book (or any comic book, for that matter), but I do find it funny that this should come up. Though the explanation seems little more than that there are two people involved with the comic, one named “Mark” and the other named “Mossa,” it still seems in some ways apropos. Though I was never avid comic book reader or collector, I have always been fascinated with superheroes. Certainly it must go along with my interest in sci-fi and fantasy (which is about all I read when I was a kid), but I’ve always been fascinated by stories of people with special powers, or those who make the most of what they have. When I was just beginning to read, I loved also to read stories about strange phenomena like the Bermuda triangle or Easter island. It was about that same time when my best friend and I would play “Batman & Robin,” plotting strategies against our evil enemy–his older sister.

Thus, all my life I have believed that we are capable of doing more than we think we can, even what some insist might be “impossible.” That is why, as a Christian, though I often let fear get in the way, I have always taken Jesus at his word when he said that we can do greater things than we think ourselves capable of, even greater things than he! I have found this to be true, not necessarily in dramatic “superhero” type ways, but often in simple ways. For me, this is apparent in moments in ministry when I find myself doing things that I thought I’d never do, overcoming anxiety to enter into someone else’s pain to the extent that in some way I can feel it too, or saying or doing just the right thing, and later wondering and being amazed knowing that “just right” thing came from somewhere beyond me. I could not have come up with that on my own. I could not have done that, without God.

As far as Barack Obama, I don’t really have much to say. And, unfortunately these days, you can’t mention a political figure without sparking a firestorm of contempt or even hate in some people. But one can hardly deny that simply by being elected president, he accomplished something many thought to be impossible. To get there, he too had to get to a moment when he thought the “impossible” possible. This was a key moment for me in my discernment to become a priest. Some priests, perhaps, knew they could do it long before they actually did. For me, it took a while before I got to a point where I thought, “you know, I just might be able to do this,” and it wasn’t until I got there that I was able to apply to the Jesuits, and get started in the process. That was about 15 years ago, and I celebrated two years as a priest, just this week. Not only has it proven to be possible, but it seems like I’ve been doing it much longer than that!

It doesn’t take the bite of a genetically altered super-spider for us to do amazing things. Jesus said with just a little faith, we can do the impossible. What impossible things have you done lately? Or what might you be being called to do?