Sunday, December 15, 2013

Don't Mess with Mr. In-between

One e-mail message line on my inbox screamed this:
Obama's illegal alien uncle to appear at new immigration hearing.
And another:
Oklahoma City will not cancel pornographic play mocking the Bible.

From a site devoted to the leanings of the other side comes this:
Libertarian Writings that Read like Comic Books. 
And this: 
Truth, No Strings Attached. 
And again: 
Some Filthy Facts About the Rich.

I've been on the mailing lists of these and similar web sites for some time now. If strangers were to casually glance at my inbox, they would draw the conclusion that my political views are schizophrenic to say the least. Other than their wildly divergent points of view however, there is very little difference between the sites. I never asked to subscribe to them, the organizations responsible for the publications are spamming me, they got my address from other sites that I do subscribe to. I could simply unsubscribe but frankly I'm entertained by headlines such as these, much like those of the tabloids at the checkout line. The difference between these messages and the ones at the supermarket is that the e-mail headlines are lead-ins to articles that are meant to be taken seriously.

I also don't unsubscribe to these sites because unlike most Americans it seems, I'm interested in what people who don't necessarily share my point of view have to say. Good heavens, I might even learn something.

More than anything, what these web sites have in common is the tone of their discourse. There is seldom an attempt to lend any credence to the other side of the argument as if to say people who don't believe as they do are simply a bunch of irritating, misguided fools. On both sides of the ideological divide, the websites, periodicals, and TV networks devoted exclusively to one point of view or another are essentially saying this: "We're right, and everybody else is wrong."

Small wonder why our current government is so dysfunctional, the rhetoric of these internet articles, and the comments that follow them, seem to be a beacon for our politicians as well.

There is a war going on in this country and the weapon of choice by the combatants is hyperbole.

I distinctly remember a time during the late sixties and early seventies when this country was bitterly divided over the war in Vietnam. While we have our own serious problems today, I can't see an issue in our time, no not even Obamacare, that comes close to the divisiveness that Vietnam produced. Yet today I'd say we as a nation are as divided if not more so, than during that difficult time.

What accounts for the lack of tolerance, subtlety, and common sense in our current political discourse is anybody's guess. Perhaps it's because we don't have a common enemy bringing us together as we did during the Great Depression, World War II and the days after September 11, 2001. Maybe it's the proliferation of cable TV outlets, the internet, and social media which provides a platform for every political ideology no matter how extreme or goofy, and promotes the segregation of those with like minds. Or maybe its just the old ennui, I have no idea.

What worries me is that the voices that scream the loudest on both sides are the ones that get the attention, leaving the subtle, unbiased, and measured views behind.

No ideological group holds the monopoly on overblown rhetoric and hyperbole; both sides spew it as freely as a drunken sailor spends money on a twelve hour shore leave. But if I had to crown a king of bluster, a crown prince of bombast, and a champion of the art of summing up all the world's problems into one sentence, usually wrapped around an infantile temper tantrum, that title would have to go to Rush Limbaugh.

Limbaugh's political views are well documented, as they say he's a little to the right of Attila the Hun. That alone for me is not a problem, far from it. In fact sometimes, rarely, but sometimes I agree with him. It's not his message I find objectionable, but the way he delivers it. Limbaugh is as subtle as a twenty pound sledge hammer, blasting his targets, that is to say anyone who doesn't subscribe to his world view, with insults and diatribes that would not be out of place in a professional wrestling ring. He seems to reserve the bulk of his wrath for women supporting women's issues. Recently Limbaugh labeled a women who publicly supported medical insurance paying for birth control pills a "slut." Of course it's all an act, no one in their right mind should take Limbaugh any more seriously than the circus known as the Jerry Springer Show.

But unfortunately, many people do.

Limbaugh's latest target has been none other than the Pope. When Cardinal Bergoglio of Buenos Aires stepped into the shoes of St. Peter in the Vatican this past March becoming Pope Francis, it quickly became clear that he would be a quite different pontiff than his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI. Benedict, now officially Pope Emeritus, is a brilliant theologian who was instrumental in the creation and implementation of the reforms of Vatican II which brought radical change to the Catholic Church. But the former Cardinal Ratzinger would later change some of his views on the sweeping changes that took place since the Second Vatican Council met in the early sixties and became very well known, even before his pontificate, as a strong voice for conservatism in the church.

Unlike Benedict, Francis, the first pope from Latin America, has rejected many of the trappings of the royal Vatican lifestyle, going out of his way to show that his pontificate will be devoted to the basics, that is to say, ministering to the poor and the helpless, and concentrating on the most fundamental tenets of Christianity, namely the gospel of love and forgiveness.

In recent months Pope Francis has made strong statements about some of the failings of capitalism, specifically the culture of greed that unrestricted capitalism left unchecked, can create.

This is where old Rush, huffing and puffing as usual, comes in. Though not a Catholic himself, he tells us he very much admires the institution. Specifically, Rush strongly approves of the Church's stand against abortion and gay marriage. He brags about being wined and dined aboard a yacht by the former Cardinal O'Connor of New York during a "Pro-Life" cruise. He claims to have visited the Vatican on numerous occasions and correctly points out there would not be a Vatican, and all its treasures, were it not for the vast amount of money that capitalism provides. And he writes admiringly about Pope John Paul II's strong opposition to communism and the late pope's claim that Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan (two of Limbaugh's personal heroes) were important figures in the downfall of Communism in central and eastern Europe. Rush is right about that too.

But in the Gospel according to Rush:
...juxtaposed against the actions of Pope John Paul II this pope (Francis) and the things that he released yesterday or recently are really striking. 
There has been a long-standing tension between the Catholic Church and communism. It's been around for quite a while. That's what makes this, to me, really remarkable...
...I'm not Catholic, but I know enough to know that this would have been unthinkable for a pope to believe or say just a few years ago. But this passage, "The culture of prosperity deadens us. We are thrilled if the market offers us something new to buy. In the meantime, all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle." I have to tell you, folks, I am totally bewildered by this. 
Here Rush shows that he's way out of his league. Fair enough, the non-Catholic Limbaugh couldn't possibly (or could he?) know that both Popes Benedict XVI and John Paul II, while being harsh critics of communism, also had stern warnings about "unfettered capitalism." According to Rush's great hero J.P.II in 1987:
The tension between East and West is an opposition... between two concepts of the development of individuals and peoples, both concepts being imperfect and in need of radical correction... This is one of the reasons why the Church’s social doctrine adopts a critical attitude towards both liberal (unfettered) capitalism and Marxist collectivism.
Then in 1991 after the fall of communism in Europe, in the encyclical letter Centesimus Annus, John Paul II wrote this:
...can it perhaps be said that, after the failure of Communism, capitalism is the victorious social system and that capitalism should be the goal of the countries now making efforts to rebuild their economy and society? Is this the model which ought to be proposed to the countries of the Third World which are searching for the path to true economic and civil progress?
The answer is obviously complex. If by ‘capitalism’ is meant an economic system which recognizes the fundamental and positive role of business, the market, private property and the resulting responsibility for the means of production, as well as free human creativity in the economic sector, then the answer is certainly in the affirmative... But if by "capitalism" is meant a system in which freedom in the economic sector is not circumscribed within a strong juridical framework which places it at the service of human freedom in its totality (in other words, unfettered capitalism), and which sees it as a particular aspect of that freedom, the core of which is ethical and religious, then the reply is certainly negative. (Emphasis and comments are mine)
Pope Benedict XVI would later go on to write much the same on the subject. In that vein, Pope Francis
has added little or nothing to the Church's doctrine on capitalism. What he has done, which has come as a breath of fresh air to many, and a thorn in the side to folks like Limbaugh, is place less emphasis on hot button topics, social issues such as abortion and gay marriage, in favor of living and preaching the Gospel. In other words, the focus of his ministry as stated above, is directed toward the hungry, the poor, the dispossessed, the sinners, (groups Limbaugh doesn't have much time for), as well as the so called righteous. As a result, Pope Francis has brought the Vatican in step with what goes on daily in the lives of Catholic parishes around the world. Contrary to the general (non-Catholic) public's perception, as any practicing Catholic can tell you, the Church's heart resides within the hearts and souls of its people, not within the mysterious halls of the Vatican.

Judging from his words, Rush Limbaugh clearly knows little about Catholicism or the Catholic Church. What he knows or understands about Christianity is also somewhat suspect. If Limbaugh were looking for some truly radical theology he could chomp is pointy incisors into, he should read this:
For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
That said, it is important to point out that despite Pope Francis's ingratiating words for those on the Left to believers and non-believers alike, the Church's doctrine regarding the controversial issues of our time is not about to change. Don't expect to see the Pope coming out in favor of abortion, or gay weddings inside St. Peter's any time soon. This is as it should be I believe. It's one thing for individuals, government and statutory law to be swayed by changing times, public opinion, and ideology, but I believe that the Church is the one institution in our lives that must remain steadfastly true to its mission, namely the Gospel.

Popes come and go, some of them such as Francis and John XXIII are claimed by the Left, while others like John Paul II and Benedict XVI are claimed by the Right. However I suspect that none of those pontiffs would have appreciated being labeled as a poster child for any particular ideology.

The nutty political discourse we're now experiencing maybe OK for the secular, temporal world in which we live. However when all is said and done, we will all be judged (by a greater power if you believe in such things, and most certainly by those who survive us), by the way we treated others. The fundamental message of Christianity and other religions is so simple and profound that we lose sight of it among the all the busy details of our lives. That message is this:

Love and forgive one another.

That's all.

In the words of the great Rabbi Hillel, spoken 2000 years ago:
 the rest (of scripture) is commentary.
We may claim the Almighty for ourselves but God is neither liberal nor conservative, Democrat nor Republican. He is neither a Communist nor a Capitalist. His message doesn't belong exclusively to the Right or to the Left, to the Jew or the Gentile, or to you or me. It belongs to all of us.

In the end, that message is the only one that matters.

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