Friday, January 23, 2009
Wednesday, January 21, 2009
And, last, delicious fragrance of the East!
With cups of steaming Mocha close the feast;
But taste the amber with a lingering lip
No hasty draught! t'was made for gods to sip!
Now if you diet thus, why, I'll engage,
You've found the secret of a green old age.
Monday, January 19, 2009
Language and Liberty
This country recently commemorated two events: Martin Luther King, Jr. Day and the ... anniversary of Roe v. Wade. They are related by similar concerns: freedom and equality for all. Recalling the former sheds some light on the latter.
The fundamental source of King’s message is “the moral law or the law of God.” This law binds all humans in granting liberty and demanding justice. As history has shown, unfortunately, man-made law does not always conform to this greater and higher law. When a law, as Rev. King put it, is “out of harmony” with the universal law, it is an “unjust law” and thus no law at all. During the American experience, there have been many unjust laws. In fact, this country was founded in response to unjust laws.
Rooting himself in a tradition that incorporates America’s Founding Fathers, King suggested a response: disobedience. However, the disobedience of King is not a license to do anything. It is a morally-superior response to grave injustice. He writes, “One who breaks an unjust law must do it openly, lovingly, and with a willingness to accept the penalty. I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and willingly accepts the penalty by staying in jail to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the very highest respect for law.”
This disobedience of King is his extremism. It is a truly morally-uplifting extremism. For King, the question “is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremist will we be.” This sense of action rooted in justice harkens back to the abolitionists of the mid-1800s. “I will be as harsh as truth,” David Walker wrote in 1831, “and as uncompromising as justice.” Faced with the great deprivation of rights in the battle against slavery, Walker continued to voice his commitment to endure and persevere against any and all injustice, “On this subject [of slavery] I do not wish to think, or speak, or write with moderation....I am in earnest—I will not equivocate –I will not excuse—I will not retreat a single inch—and I will be heard.” I am sure King felt the same sentiment and passion for his cause of true justice and liberty for all.
The Declaration of Independence asserts that “all men are created equal” with the same “unalienable rights” of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Slavery and many laws of the early and mid-1900s were not in harmony with this truth of the Declaration and this is what King and Walker attested to.
They were arguing against a system at odds with itself. The black American was considered a “subordinate and inferior class of being,” “an article of property,” and even “not a person.” This abuse of language was the legal foundation upon which racist attitudes could translate into discrimination and acts of evil. What happened to “all men are created equal”?
The abuse of language is part of what happened. “When words lose their meaning,” Confucius once said, “peoples lose their liberty.” This is probably one of the greatest evils of man: Deny the full personhood or humanity of those we do not like and then we have the legal justification to discriminate, segregate, enslave, and even murder in mass numbers (e.g., the Holocaust).
Before being elected President, Abraham Lincoln joined in the debate over the evil of slavery: “‘A house divided against itself cannot stand.’ I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free.” He went on to later voice his concern over the abuse of language and the relative manner by which men selectively acknowledged humanity in others: “I should like to know if taking this old Declaration of Independence, which declares that all men are equal upon principle, and making exceptions to it, where will it stop. If one man says it does not mean a Negro, why not another say it does not mean some other man?”
Some other man? Yes. Today, society has found another, but this time, this “other” is a baby. The unborn baby! The humanity of the child in the womb is unquestionably affirmed by science. The zygote “results from fertilization of an oocyte by a sperm and is the beginning of a human being.” (The Developing Human: Clinically Oriented Embryology, 1) Besides, what else could the entity be? If the natural and physical source is human (the mother and father), then the result (the new life) will be human. Basic common sense. Thus, the entity in the womb who is often torn apart in an abortion is none other than a little defenseless child, the most vulnerable of all human life. What do these issues all have to do with each other, one might ask?
The answer is simple. The attempt to redefine a human person, whether it is with regard to black Americans, Jews, or even the child in the womb, is nothing but “semantic gymnastics,” as one critic (William Brennan) put it. Again, the words of Confucius reveal great wisdom, “When words lose their meaning, peoples lose their liberty.” And, I might add, their lives!
One should never forget where our rights and privileges come from. The rights to property, free speech, religion, liberty, etc. are great, but what roots them? It is the right to life. It is my right to keep and maintain my life which no one on earth has sovereignty over. Sincere and unbiased seekers of justice and liberty must acknowledge that at conception, a new human being is present. Since this new being is human, all rights predicated to a human as basic must be predicated to all humans, whether they be Black, Jewish, disabled, elderly, or even a young human in the womb. This young human being is a person with rights that must be protected. What good are all the other rights if we forego the right to life? It is the right upon which all others are rooted. Without it, the others are worthless.
Rev. King had a dream where “all men...would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” It is a dream where the nation’s people would “not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Today, we still face the test of our character. We made it through the evils of slavery and racist laws. Now, we face the test with abortion. How we treat the defenseless is a true mark of our character. With slavery and the Holocaust, this country was involved in bloody wars. The same need not happen to save the unborn child. However, true seekers of justice for all will not back down. The question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremist we will be. We do not wish to think, or speak, or write with moderation. We are in earnest. We will not equivocate. We will not excuse. We will not retreat a single inch. And we will be heard: Direct abortions are the unjust killing of innocent human beings, of little children! Life is not negotiable and neither are the passions and principles of those who truly seek liberty and justice for all, as we will be as harsh as truth and as uncompromising as justice!
Thursday, January 08, 2009
We are born to die. Not that death is the purpose of our being born, but we are born toward death, and in each of our lives the work of dying is already underway. The work of dying well is, in largest part, the work of living well. Most of us are at ease in discussing what makes for a good life, but we typically become tongue-tied and nervous when the discussion turns to a good death. As children of a culture radically, even religiously, devoted to youth and health, many find it incomprehensible, indeed offensive, that the word “good” should in any way be associated with death. Death, it is thought, is an unmitigated evil, the very antithesis of all that is good.
Death is to be warded off by exercise, by healthy habits, by medical advances. What cannot be halted can be delayed, and what cannot forever be delayed can be denied. But all our progress and all our protest notwithstanding, the mortality rate holds steady at 100 percent.
Death is the most everyday of everyday things. It is not simply that thousands of people die every day, that thousands will die this day, although that too is true. Death is the warp and woof of existence in the ordinary, the quotidian, the way things are. It is the horizon against which we get up in the morning and go to bed at night, and the next morning we awake to find the horizon has drawn closer. From the twelfth-century Enchiridion Leonis comes the nighttime prayer of children of all ages: “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray thee Lord my soul to keep; if I should die before I wake, I pray thee Lord my soul to take.” Every going to sleep is a little death, a rehearsal for the real thing.
Here is a video interview with Fr. Neuhaus on his book As I Lay Dying: Meditations upon Returning. Well worth watching or listening to.