Year of Mercy

Column: Truly Accepting the Refugee

The controversy over placing refugees in the state reminded me of a story about a Sixth Century Egyptian monk.  The story goes like this:

Going to town one day to sell some small articles, Abba Agathon met a cripple on the roadside, paralysed in his legs, who asked him where he was going. Abba Agathon replied, “To town, to sell some things.”

The other said, “Do me the favor of carrying me there.” So he carried him to the town.

The cripple said to him, “Put me down where you sell your wares.” He did so.

When he had sold an article, the cripple asked, “What did you sell it for?” And he told him the price. The other said, “Buy me some bread,” and he bought it.

When Abba Agathon had sold a second article, the sick man asked, “How much did you sell it for?” And he told him the price of that also. Then the other said, “Buy me this,” and he bought it.

When Agathon, having sold all his wares, wanted to go, he said to him, “Are you going back?” and he replied, “Yes.” Then he said, “Do me the favor of carrying me back to the place where you found me.” Once more he picked him up and he carried him back to that place.

Then the cripple said, “Agathon, you are filled with divine blessings, in heaven and on earth.” Raising his eyes, Agathon saw no man, it was an angel of the Lord, come to try him.”

(The Sayings of the Desert Fathers, translated by Benedicta Ward.)

Abba Agathon’s attitude of acceptance and charity is one we should emulate, not just in our personal lives, but also in how we act as a society.  It is one modeled after Christ himself, who embraced and healed, rather than distanced himself from, the lepers.  (Please, readers, do not dismiss Jesus’ actions as unrealistic for us because, being the son of God, he could heal himself.  Jesus was also man and capable of catching disease.  Besides, he was surrounded by disciples who could also could also become infected.)

Not only did Abba Agatha not refuse to take the cripple to town, the monk didn’t even ask the man why he needed to go to town. Abba Agathon was probably selling items he had made in his desert cell for sustenance. But he did not refuse the request to use the money raised to buy the cripple what was asked. The story does not say what other items were bought.  They might not have even been needed in Abba Agathon’s mind.  The monk did not ask for an accounting.  He just gave as asked.

Jesus likewise did not choose who to heal.  We know that one of the lepers was a Samaritan, a foreigner.  He did not ask them to what they planned to do after they were made whole.  He did not go and check on them later to see if they were behaving.

This attitude of acceptance should be the starting point of our policy toward refugees.  This does not mean we should throw caution to the wind.  We have obligations to protect others in the community.  Nevertheless, we should start with and always shape our policies and community responses with the spirit of Abba Agathon.

Instead of a position that says, “Well, you can come in if you do this and this and you don’t do that,” our position should be, “Welcome, if there is a problem with this or this, we will help and we hope you don’t do that.”

If there are gaps in security screening, then we should fix them rather than shutting our doors.  If there are burdens to the local schools, we should help the schools, not turn our backs on children.  If there are impacts on the social service system, we should step up our support for the system and increase charitable responses in the community.

Refugees do not choose to come here.  They are not abandoning their homelands.  They come here because they have to.

Some people expect refugees and the agencies that help them to meet all the burdens with placing refugees in our communities.  They also act like accepting refugees and whatever burdens doing so may bring as an unnecessary inconvenience far removed from the core functions of government and society.

This attitude is wrong.  Because our nation is built upon a principle of extending a helping hand and because we as a society, especially Christians, believe in doing what is morally right for others, we should view it as our job to accept refugees, just as Abba Agathon must have viewed it as his job to do what the cripple asked.  Welcoming those forced to flee should be viewed as part and parcel of who we are, burdens and all. We, not the refugees, should be expected to make the needed adjustments to our lives and communities.

Abba Agathon, pray that we embrace refugees as you embraced the angel of the Lord.

Column: Mercy in Anxious Times

berlinwallchurch2These are anxious times.  We have witnessed orchestrated acts of terror so senseless it boggles the mind.  Nearly 65 million people are displaced worldwide and there seems to exist no will or agreement to resettle them.  Mass shootings driven by hatred, despair, or mental instability seem to have become more commonplace.  A U.S. Supreme Court driven by abortion ideology has thrown-out decades of legal precedent.  Never before have the presumptive nominees for president been so disliked by the American public.  Christians and other religious minorities continue to face persecution and martyrdom around the world. Ideologically zealous bureaucracies are forcing people to embrace “gender philosophies” contrary to their religious beliefs and common sense.  Some political candidates seek a return of the use of torture.  Others support the use of drone strikes on civilians.

It is enough to think that we are living in W.B. Yeats’ The Second Coming:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

But we’ve been here before.  And we will be here again.

Yeats wrote his poem immediately after World War I, a war so violent, deadly, senseless, and sudden that it shook the Western world to its core. A mere twenty years later we experienced another world war.

How do we, as Christians, respond when troubling and chaotic times? Do we withdraw from the world, judging it irredeemable?  Do we embrace the changes, gradually or quickly, “going with the flow” enough so we can still make a difference elsewhere?  Do we let our anxieties and passions overtake us and join a worldly movement fighting in reaction to the changes and chaos?  Do we let our resistance become hatred of this world?

St. Paul instructs us to “have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God.” (Phil. 4:6)  This does not mean, however, that we should withdraw from society and only pray.  We are social creatures created to serve God and others.  We serve others not only through individual acts of charity, but also through social and government institutions.

The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church has this to say about times of trouble:

“When human authority goes beyond the limits willed by God, it makes itself a deity and demands absolute submission; it becomes the Beast of the Apocalypse, an image of the power of the imperial persecutor “drunk with the blood of the saints and the blood of the martyrs of Jesus” (Rev 17:6). The Beast is served by the “false prophet” (Rev 19:20), who, with beguiling signs, induces people to adore it. This vision is a prophetic indication of the snares used by Satan to rule men, stealing his way into their spirit with lies. But Christ is the Victorious Lamb who, down the course of human history, overcomes every power that would make it absolute. Before such a power, Saint John suggests the resistance of the martyrs; in this way, believers bear witness that corrupt and satanic power is defeated, because it no longer has any authority over them.” (382)

Three points come to mind when reading this passage.  First, it relies heavily on the Book of Revelation, which was written during a time when persecuted Christians were tempted to lose hope.  Second, the Beast of the Apocalypse, is not necessarily a ruler or world government. It could be a human-made ideology, like many of the false ideologies from the left and the right popular today.  Third, the lesson is that, by the cross and resurrection, Christ is victorious and overcomes every contrary power.

The Compendium goes on to note that we humans must perceive these truths and seek to fulfill, in social life, “truth, justice, freedom and solidarity that bring peace.”  We cannot withdraw.  Nor can we succumb to false man-made “solutions.”  Finally, we cannot be overcome by anxiety or despair.  Mercy is not served by any of those reactions.

Ten years after Yeats’ Second Coming, T.S. Eliot wrote Ash Wednesday.  A passage of the poem expresses this Christian idea of being in the world, caring for the world, but not being of the world, all the while embracing St. Paul’s call to prayer.  He wrote:

Teach us to care and not to care

Teach us to sit still.

Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death

Pray for us now and at the hour of our death.

Catholic Bishops — Abortion Decline Due to State’s Commitment to Human Life

Screen Shot 2016-08-11 at 4.19.08 PMBismarck, North Dakota -Bishop John Thomas Folda of Fargo, speaking as President of the North Dakota Catholic Conference, issued the following statement about the record low abortion numbers in North Dakota:

Forum Communications is reporting that the number of abortions conducted in North Dakota in 2015 was a record low.

This is good news.  Abortion destroys human life while wounding women and society.  

Raw numbers alone, however, do not tell the whole story.  According to the numbers provided by the state Department of Health, 6.77% of pregnant women in North Dakota had an abortion in 2015.  This is the lowest percentage since 1998, the earliest year for which we have such information.

This percentage continues a downward trend that started fifteen years ago.  It is a testament to the hard and often difficult work of pregnancy centers, adoption agencies, maternity homes which have expanded and touched so many women and children during these years.  It is also a testament to the commitment of North Dakotans to the culture of life at every level. 

In this special Holy Year of Mercy, let us rededicate ourselves to continue to build a world where every human life is respected.

Year of Mercy: Care for Creation

“Mercy calls us to always include the common good and the environmental good, even if doing so is not required by the law and even if it means that others will have a competitive advantage in the marketplace.”IMGP0048

In my last column I suggested that a key to understanding mercy is the call to never abandon. Not abandoning also means to be in relationship, including a relationship with the created world.

The environment, however, is not a person. How can we be in relationship with something that is not a person?

The key to understanding this challenge is to recognize that God the Father blessed us with this world and that he wants us to live within it according to his will. In Laudato si, Pope Francis states that Genesis teaches that “human life is grounded in three fundamental and closely intertwined relationships: with God, with our neighbor and with the earth itself.” (No. 66.) Sin disrupted these relationships. To walk right with the Lord, to walk in mercy, means to walk again in relationship with all three.

The importance of including creation in this triad of relationships should be apparent. God made us with physical bodies in a physical world. At this very moment you are touching the physical world. Christ became incarnate and lived in this same physical world, breathed the same air, ate the same fruits of the same earth, and walked on the same ground. By his life we learn that our bodies and the material world in which they roam are not just valuable, but also that they are part of God’s will for us. We were made for this creation and it for us. He means for us to be in right relationship with the environment.

Care for creation, therefore, is not just care for creation itself. Care for the human person is central to our care for creation and flows from our acceptance of the Father’s plan. Pope Francis explains that because of this relationship “a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach; it must integrate questions of justice in debates on the environment, so as to hear both the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor.” (No. 49, emphasis is Pope Francis’.) It also means that the “human environment and the natural environment deteriorate together. . .” (No. 48.)

Contrary to portrayals in the news and social media, Pope Francis is not just talking about specific environmental problems, though he has done a little of that. Building upon what already is Christian teaching on creation, Laudato si consists mostly of a call to live with respect to the environment as a Christian. In other words, in right relationship with God.

The rupture which began in Genesis has become so great that it threatens the earth on a global scale and especially the poor of the world. Perhaps more damaging, however, is that it has become so engrained that we do not see the broken relationship in our daily lives, especially our public life.

Our relationships with God, others, and the environment should be an integral, not secondary, part of our economic and public life. Environmental concerns should not viewed as just limits on what we can do.

This is especially true with agriculture. John Cuddeback, a professor at Christendom College puts it this way: “Stewardship issues are not something that place an exterior limit on agriculture, as though we were to say: ‘Do your farming, but remember to be careful and don’t damage the earth too much.’ Rather, true farming is intrinsically environmental and stewardship minded.”

Nor would it be right to say: “I’ve followed all the laws and I’m just doing what I need to do to make a profit” or “we have to do it this way to compete.”

Here is where care for creation and relationship with others relates to mercy. Remember: mercy is about going beyond what required. Certainly, laws should protect people and the environment from practices harmful or detrimental to both natural resources and the common good. The political and legal system, however, often falls short. Mercy calls us to always include the common good and the environmental good, even if doing so is not required by the law and even if it means that others will have a competitive advantage in the marketplace.

In its testimony against legislation to weaken the state’s anti-corporate farming law — legislation being put to the voters in June — the North Dakota Catholic Conference noted that Pope Francis has called the relationship a farmer has with the land as like the relationship that exists with in a family.

The same principle applies to all economic and social activity. As human persons we are called to be in relationship with God, others, and creation in all that we do. As agents of mercy, we are called to go beyond what is required, just as we do for family.

Year of Mercy: The Dying and the Dead – New Column

If there is one theme that runs through all manifestations of mercy it is the call to never abandon.  Mercy calls us not to abandon those in prison, the hungry, the poor, the homeless, the women who have had abortions, the unborn, refugees, or those with disabilities.

True mercy also means not abandoning the dying or the dead.hands

Under the guise of “mercy” and “compassion” assisted suicide and euthanasia are becoming increasingly acceptable.  Five states – Washington, California, Oregon, Vermont, and Montana – allow assisted suicide and at least five states are considering legislation to legalize it.

Proponents portray assisted suicide as a merciful act necessary to relieve a terminally-ill person’s pain and suffering, despite the fact that most of the laws do not require a person to actually be in pain or truly be terminally ill.  They go to great lengths to avoid the fact that assisted suicide is assisted killing.

Like abortion, assisted suicide and euthanasia are not examples of society rising up to meet the needs of the suffering, but are instead examples of society giving up and abandoning those in need.

As one of the official documents for the Year of Mercy reminds us:

The word for mercy in Latin is misericordia. The etymology of the word derives from the Latin misere (misery, necessity) and cor/ cordis (heart) and is identified with having a heart full of solidarity with those in need. So in everyday language mercy is identified with compassion and forgiveness.

Mercy, therefore, is linked to compassion.  Compassion means to “suffer with.”  As Jason Adkins, my counterpart in Minnesota, puts it: “Sending someone home with a vial of pills to die, and perhaps even die alone, is not compassion, it’s not humane.”

Even in jurisdictions that stop short of legalizing assisted suicide, we can be tempted to abandon the frail and the dying.  North Dakotans needing long-term care, for example, are among those hardest hit by the recent state budget cuts.

The Basic Care Assistance Program funds services that provide care, service, and supervision to those unable to live alone. According to the North Dakota Long Term Care Association the recent cuts will result in a loss of 40% of service providers in the program.  Meanwhile, nursing facilities are taking a $25.1 million hit.

The lack of services can contribute to subtle pressures to relieve perceived — but not actual — burdens. Without realizing it, we can be tempted to make health care decisions, especially for those at the end of life, for reasons of convenience disguised as compassion.

God never abandons and nor should we.  True mercy, true compassion, does not mean aiding in killing or taking actions that intentionally and directly cause death by act or omission.  We must provide ordinary care, including artificial food and water, so long as it provides a benefit. We can provide pain relief and comfort care, even if the method or treatment indirectly and unintentionally shortens life.  The overarching principle is to “be with,” not abandon.

To help guide decisions, whether they are made by you or by someone speaking on your behalf, get the Catholic Healthcare Directive from the North Dakota Catholic Conference at: http://ndcatholic.org/chd/ or call 701-223-2519.

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Earthly death inevitably comes.

The traditional seven corporeal works of mercy are: feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, visit the sick, visit the imprisoned, and bury the dead.

Bury the dead stands out in this list for a few reasons. To begin with, it is the only work not mentioned in Matthew 25.  Its scriptural basis come from the Book of Tobit, specifically verses 1:17 and 12:12.  It was not until the 12th century that bury the dead was included with the six from Matthew 25.  Thomas Aquinas in the next century firmly established it as one of the seven corporeal works of mercy.

It also stands out because it does not address an immediate need of a living person.  One way of understanding its inclusion is to remember the call to not abandon.  Treating deceased bodies with disrespect and disposing them like trash is a form of abandonment, not only of the body, but also of person who was living.  Aquinas saw a connection between how we treat the dead body and how we treat the memory of the dead and Christ himself, who was also a body and was also buried precursor to the resurrection.

As with caring for the dying, there are sometimes public policy issues that affect our call to bury the dead with dignity.  Many laws affect cemeteries, cremation, and related services.  In addition, Catholic cemeteries are increasingly seeing threats to their ability to operate in accordance with Catholic beliefs.

Thus, with death, as with dying, we need to be vigilant and never abandon.

http://ndcatholic.org/editorials/column0316/index.html

Mercy: Incarceration Reform

1430832550293This Holy Year of Mercy provides an opportunity for Catholics to advocate for criminal justice reform at both the federal and state levels.

The United States imprisons more people than any other nation. As of 2011, close to 2.2 million people were incarcerated in federal, state or local prisons and jails. Although national incarceration rates have dropped in recent years, the federal incarceration rate has increased 500 percent during the past thirty years, with close to half of those serving sentences for drug offenses.

The situation in North Dakota is even worse. North Dakota’s incarceration rate saw a 175 percent increase from 1994 to 2014, which was the second highest increase in the country. Four years ago, the state inmate population was half what it is today and the inmate population is expected to double again in the next 10 years. The inmate population has gotten so high that the state has to send inmates to a for-profit prison in Colorado. Meanwhile, the cost of maintaining the state’s prison system has doubled during the last ten years.

Catholic tradition supports the community’s right to establish and enforce laws that protect people and advance the common good. But our faith also teaches us that both victims and offenders have a God-given dignity that calls for justice and restoration, not vengeance. Rigid sentencing policies for non-violent offenses have proven to be costly, ineffective, and often detrimental to the good of persons, families and communities. Prolonged incarceration contributes to family instability and poverty. Those who finally leave incarceration face significant challenges upon reentering society, such as finding housing and stable employment, high rates of substance abuse, and physical and mental health challenges.

Normally during a presidential election year Congress does not pass major legislation. Observers in both parties, however, have noted that criminal justice reform could be the exception this year. Both Republicans and Democrats have expressed a willingness to start addressing the nation’s incarceration problem. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has identified three pieces of legislation it supports. They are:

  • The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 (S. 2123). This is a bipartisan bill introduced in the U.S. Senate that would reduce several federal mandatory minimum drug and firearms related sentences and make those reductions retroactive. It gives judges more discretion and allows many federal prisoners to earn time credits for completing rehabilitative programs in prison. Contact Senator John Hoeven and Senator Heidi Heitkamp to express your support for this bill.
  • Sentencing Reform Act of 2015 (H.R. 3713) is a bipartisan bill introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives that would reduce several federal mandatory minimum drug and firearms sentences and make those reductions retroactive for some prisoners. It also gives judges more flexibility in sentencing. Contact Representative Kevin Cramer to express your support for this bill.
  • Second Chance Reauthorization Act (S. 1513, H.R. 3406). This bill authorizes funding for reentry programs that help people leaving prison reintegrate back into their communities in healthy and productive ways. These programs focus on education, literacy, job-placement, and substance abuse treatment. They are often administered by faith based groups. Contact Senator Hoeven, Senator Heitkamp, and Representative Cramer to express your support for these bills.

In North Dakota, the legislature has created an Incarceration Issues Committee to look at the issue. The committee consists of six legislators and ten representatives from the judiciary and law enforcement. They will eventually make recommendations to the legislature in 2017. In the meantime, the state’s incarceration rate will grow in an unprecedented rate.

Any success in addressing the state’s massive incarceration problem, however, may depend just as much on the recommendations of another interim committee. The Human Services Committee is conducting a comprehensive review of the state’s behavioral services. Perhaps not surprisingly, the state’s incarceration boom has corresponded with a falling behind in the state’s provision of mental health and addiction services. A study from the last interim concluded that the state’s behavioral services system was “in crisis.” Leann Bertsch, director of the North Dakota Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has stated that the lack of access to behavioral health services is a problem leading to incarceration and to the inability to reintegrate non-violent offenders back into society.

Investing in mental health care and addiction recovery costs money, but so do prisons. North Dakotans may have to decide whether they want to voluntarily pay for a better system of behavioral health services now or be forced to continue to fund an out-of-control system of incarceration. In this year of mercy, let’s choose the former.