Sunday, September 30, 2018


The comic strip called "Francis" which is about the Roman Catholic Pope of that name, on Sept 13 reads thus:  

Leo:  The abuse crisis is serious, isn't it, Father?

Pope:  Indeed it is, Brother Leo.  More suffering.  A blow to the mission.  Loss of credibility.  Resources for good works.  Bankruptcy.

Leo: So some good news.

Pope:  How so?

Leo:  An answer to your prayer for a church that is poor.

If you've been following this iteration of the ideas of Brother Leo, you already know that by being simple and taking speech literally, the "little" Leo gets a better hold on morality than does the overburdened and accommodating Pope who is the institution's leader.

A shorter version of the idea is that morality and institutions, even theoretically moral ones like the churches, are always uncomfortable together and sometimes in outright opposition.  Not just the Supreme Court or athletics (taking a knee) or treatment of people in trouble (lock 'em up) or management of resources -- but also specifically religious institutions.  INSTITUTIONS.  Which is the way most people think of religion -- by the name of the institution, which may be a denomination (nominating is naming) or the remnant of an empire (Roman Catholic) or an organization we once thought of as secular but now demonstrates deep morality, like Medicins Sans Frontieres.  At one time professional organizations (lawyers and professors) were defined as defenders of morality, intense enough to qualify as "religious."  Now it merely means a high-pay job.

These ideas were formed at a time when ethics/morality were fairly uniform in the realm where each institution developed and existed, but now that even national boundaries are breached every which way, those ideas seem too simple to be useful and anyway contradict between cultures all over the world.  But most people do not have the kind of education or other access to ideas that would expose the true basics of morality which are rooted in human survival.  Or maybe they forget.

Likewise we have not been able to lay bare the contradictions between the morality and survival of an individual, over against the morality and survival of the group, particularly when the "group" is all of humanity.  What's the point of sacrifice if it only saves a small group?  Or is the example persuasive for everyone?  How does one define one's group except by willingness to sacrifice for it?

Courts become necessary when the conflict of loyalties brings everything to a standstill, but the effectiveness of courts is based on morality in the broadest and purest sense or their decisions will not be seen as justice and therefore will convince people that winning is a matter of war, which is what we saw in these hearings.  The senators may not have realized that it was not just Kavanaugh who was exposed to scrutiny, but also those angry old men.  Cory Booker, naive and even clownish as he may have seemed to cynics, was closer to the ideal.  These are the same people who have the idea that Francis, the Pope, is powerless because he invokes primitive Christian morality, as explained by Jesus.

The United States, despite the American Bar Association, which strives to be both a professional and moral institution, does not have a unified governmental legal system.  There are basic principles, the Constitution, which we assume are universal and valid, though we occasionally amend them as the culture moves away from British Protestant Christianity of decades ago.  Our strengths and our weaknesses depend upon the state where you live.  

"Indian" reservations have their own set of laws, like states. (Sovereignty.) These are written.  Enforcement is different.  Compliance is different.  Different social levels respond differently, but even the mafia has a system of rules -- maybe not written down.  Then there are the Jesuits.  Who knew they were listening?

We depend upon our highest institution to have near-religious morality. -- so we say,  We call it "truth" even as we question whether there is such a thing.  I mean, is there anything eternal about a horndog hound getting on a high court?  Did the country collapse last time?  500 years from now, who will care?  But institutions, even institutions inside other institutions the way the Supreme Court is enfolded in the United States, is most easily brought down by morality.  Ask Martin Luther.  

What do we do with conventional morality in unprecedented times?  Ask Sydney Carton, I guess,  "It is a far, far better thing I do . . ."  But he was a principled man, even standing in a tumbril waiting for his head to be cut off.  His principle was love.  Everyone stand and applaud.

It's not enough.  Reinhold Niebuhr once quipped, "Instead of being gentle as doves and clever as snakes, we've got it backwards:  clever as doves and gentle as snakes."  (I suspect some snakes are gentle but I don't think doves are ever clever.)  Neither one rages like these old senators did, more in the interest of domination than superiority.  

Langdon Gilkey's idea of the hurricane seems more useful, esp. since Kavanaugh himself used the image.  Gilkey's understanding came out of the Japanese concentration camps of WWII (Shanghai Compound),  The movie called "Empire of the Sun" ought to give you easy access to the situation.  It is highly relevant given that we are putting immigrants into concentration camps.  We seem to be working back through WWII.

In whirlwind times when morality is confused, it is the secular institutions of the state and military that seize control and force everything into compounds behind barbed wire.  But morality can come out of even compounds and it was the bearded and individual Trappists who were the bravest -- they were smuggling eggs and their captors demanded that the culprits step forward for punishment.  EVERYONE stepped forward. It was those who guarded their small spaces for their families and no one else who sold out.  They thought in terms of commodities, not morality.

Psychology and the therapeutic nature of today's religion have given us many tools for understanding what was going on in the recent hearing, both the nun-like obedience of Professor Ford and the Frat Boy raging of Kavanaugh.  But it is seeking the highest morality we can think of -- is it truth? -- that will save our democracy.

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