Redressing America’s Systemic Desregard for Human Rights


“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” -The Declaration of Independence

Acknowledging that the “American dream” is a profoundly distorted myth is a harsh reality to contemplate. The fundamental ideals that have characterized the United States since its inception are steeped in hypocrisy and deceit. Liberty, justice, and equality may be the conventionally heralded foundations of American democracy, but history, along with persistently visible demographic trends, illustrate that this perceived “dream” has remained exactly that for most people of color. The eradication of legal barriers of discrimination against African-Americans, in the wake of the visionary witness and dynamic leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the Civil Rights Movement, has lead to a prevailing assumption that obstacles and injustices against people of color have largely vanished. This narrative is passively accepted and taught throughout most schools in the nation: the Civil War was fought and slavery was ended through the valiant efforts of President Abraham Lincoln and abolitionists, a century later Martin Luther King Jr. initiated the Civil Rights Movement to advocate for further civic, economic and social equality for peoples of color, numerous persons gave their lives for the cause through boycotts, sit-ins, marches and a wide variety of other manifestations of civil disobedience, Dr. King was tragically assassinated as a result of the bold evolution of consciousness he proclaimed for the whole United States; subsequently, the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts were codified into law – outlawing all forms of segregation and racial discrimination. Currently, American society has progressed to a point of profound social equanimity and opportunity for peoples of color. Colin Powell, Oprah Winfrey, Loretta Lynch, Beyoncé, Condoleezza Rice, and President Barack Obama are all shining, contemporary examples of how the obstructions and barriers posed by the institutions of slavery and Jim Crow segregation are null and void – no longer hindering African-Americans from pursuing the fullest extents of their potential as citizens.

This feel-good parable characterizes the perception many Americans hold in terms of how far the country has progressed on the issue of racial justice. In order to comprehend and accept another, dismal, and dramatically less-encouraging view of reality, a comprehensive analysis of history, politics, and sociology must be embraced. Such a paradigm acknowledges that in the United States, racism is not merely a contemptuous attitude that has given rise to horrific violations of human dignity throughout its history, but is also a powerful, pervasive, system – a corrosive institution that has influenced the development of all facets of American life; down to the present day.

The insidious cycle began with the advent of the African slave trade in the early sixteenth century. European nations such as Britain, Portugal, Spain, France, and the Netherlands increasingly relied on the labor and volume of enslaved Africans to construct and maintain the infrastructures of their various colonies in the Americas and the Caribbean. In 1619, a Dutch ship brought twenty African individuals to the British colony of Virginia. A noteworthy aspect of this first recorded reference to persons of African descent being present in the thirteen colonies is that none of the passengers of the ship were considered slaves. They were indentured servants who ultimately would be guaranteed freedom under the law.  However, as plantation farming became the economic norm in the South, the demand for labor and land escalated. (The New Jim Crow, 23) The period of servitude for African indentured servants was gradually prolonged, and would develop into the horrific atrocity of slavery. The practice was legalized in Virginia in 1662 and would expand to all North American British colonies by 1700. Twelve, and a half million African souls would be shipped to the Americas. A little over ten-and-a-half million people garnered the resolve to survive the arduously inhumane voyage known as “the Middle Passage” across the Atlantic Ocean, where captured individuals were forcibly chained in obscenely cramped, narrow, quarters within the hull of a ship during the duration of the journey. It was a miraculous feat to emerge alive at the end of this hellish passage of woe and despair; where little to no food was offered to African captives, and, all aboard were resigned to carry out their bodily functions exactly where they found themselves shackled.

As the institution of slavery morphed into a firmly established facet of life in the British colonies, the sociological and psychological lenses adopted for perceiving human beings of color grew starker, and more viscous. Native Americans had already been derided as “savages” when explorers first ventured into the North American continent in the late fifteenth century. Racial attitudes of superiority justified the systematic genocide of the original inhabitants of the Americas at the whims of barbaric invaders. A host of dignified, brilliantly intelligent, spiritually-conscious nations; possessing a rich, vibrant history, who cherished North and South America as their temporal sanctuary and home for a millennia were merely wiped out, for the sake of extending imperial boundaries and exerting institutionalized oppression in the “New World”. More than nine-million Native Americans would perish as a result of rampant violence and disease wrought by the cataclysmic wave of European colonization over the course of five centuries.

The sinister notion that human beings of a darker epidermic pigment are inferior to those of lighter complexions has deplorably misguided biblical origins. In a Genesis narrative, the heroic figure Noah is portrayed in an embarrassing light. Following the conclusion of the great flood, the patriarch is viewed reclining naked, in a drunken stupor by one of his sons, Ham. Noah curses Ham, but in a bizarrely indirect fashion – he directs the curse toward his grandson, Canaan.

‘Cursed be Canaan; lowest of slaves shall he be to his brothers.’ He also said, ‘Blessed by the Lord my God be Shem; and let Canaan be his slave. May God make space for Japheth, and let him live in the tends of Shem; and let Canaan be his slave.’ -Genesis 9:25-27 (NRSV-CE)

It was a traditional belief of medieval Christianity that Noah’s grandson Canaan settled in Africa. Thus, the darker hue of Africans’ skin was deemed a visible manifestation of the “curse of Ham” issued by Noah. Canaan’s descendants were therefore destined to the fate of slavery, and eternally consigned to a subservient position in the human paradigm. This Euro-centric distortion of the Genesis passage is vastly ignorant of biblical history, geography, as well as the demographic composition of the region described. The historical Canaan, was the location that the ancient Hebrews eventually identified as the “promised” land divinely bestowed to them through providential favor. It is now considered to encompass the boundaries of the modern-day states of Israel, Syria, the Palestinian Authority, Jordan, and Lebanon. (Canaanites, 13) The inhabitants of Canaan clearly resided in the Middle East, where the appearance of the general population is often characterized by thick, curly hair, and a spectrum of swarthy skin-tones. The spiritual experiences, yearnings, and aspirations of Middle Eastern women and men shaped the collective texts that are now revered the world over as the Bible – all medium to darkly complected peoples. The assertion that the external color of human beings residing in Africa was due to a primordial curse is monumentally disingenuous; particularly when none of the Bible’s authors or central figures was of European origin.

Despite the incoherence of this warped ideology, it served as the bedrock mentality that formed the prevailing social consciousness of the era. The humanity of peoples of color the world over, particularly those of African descent, was demonized and blatantly obliterated. When an entire race of peoples is dehumanized, it becomes that much easier to view their collective dignity, joys, hopes, and equality as being of no account. Depicting African men and women as subhuman beasts of burden formed the political, religious, and economic status quo that condoned the grotesque institution of slavery. Christianity would reliably turn to scriptural foundations to morally justify the enslavement of African human beings. First-century New Testament references to slavery in the ancient world were invoked to divinely sanction the practice:

Slaves, obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as you obey Christ; not only while being watched, and in order to please them, but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart. -Ephesians 6:5-6 (NRSV-CE)

In the aftermath of the Revolutionary War, cotton farming was introduced to the United States. During the late nineteenth century, Eli Whitney invented a machine that would forever transform the process of farming the crop – the cotton gin. This invention created an even greater demand for cotton, enabling it to be processed more efficiently and on a wider scale. Chattel slavery of African human beings was the vehicle utilized to meet the ever-increasing demand for the commodity. Slavery grew to be a steadfast nucleus of the Southern economy, simultaneously, developing into a quintessentially American cultural institution. (New Standard Encyclopedia: Volume B – “Black Americans”, 264)

From its conceptualization, the United States was founded as a state favoring white citizens of privilege; with the intent of preserving a racially delineated caste system – one for the slave, the other for free, white Americans. Many of the men America now reveres as Founding Fathers were themselves slave-owners. The first president, George Washington, along with other celebrated patriots such as Benjamin Franklin, Charles Carroll, Thomas Jefferson, John Hancock, and James Madison all held slaves at some point in their lives. In drafting the U.S. Constitution, Madison blatantly declared whose interests were intended to be favored. In his words, the nation’s seminal document was composed, “to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority.” During the 1787 Constitutional Convention that crafted the parameters of America’s democracy, Southern colonies that held slaves only agreed to join the Union if the federal government agreed not to infringe upon their right to conduct slavery. (The New Jim Crow, 25) To acquiesce to the Southerners’ demands, a peculiar clause was added to the Constitution:

Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of Free Persons, including those bound to Service for a term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other persons. -Article I, § 2, Paragraph 3, U.S. Constitution (Repealed by adoption of Thirteenth Amendment in 1865 & Fourteenth Amendment in 1868)

This infamous concession would be consigned to posterity as the Three-Fifths Compromise. The clause obliquely cemented popular racist sentiments into the U.S. Constitution, without directly stating so. African peoples were considered by most Europeans as not being full human beings. This devious postulate maintained civic and domestic tranquility in the South, while shaping the scope of many of our nation’s core democratic instruments; including the electoral college determining the victor of presidential elections, as well as influencing the standards that would govern proportional representation for members of Congress (The New Jim Crow, 26). Therefore, Southern states became increasingly used to being taxed based not on their total populations, but rather, the counted populations of “full” citizens – white, male owners of property who exercised the right to vote. (New Standard Encyclopedia: Volume V – “Voting”, 149) Although a direct linear progression cannot be made, the concerns of many in the country today who vehemently defend “state’s rights” and low proportional systems of taxation may indirectly originate from prevailing social attitudes created by the long-term implications of the Three-Fifths Compromise.

Although the Three-Fifths Compromise, denying persons of African descent the full recognition of humanity, was inserted into the U.S. Constitution covertly, this prejudiced sentiment would become indelibly stamped upon the American legal system for generations; granting bigoted concepts of racial superiority the force of law. In 1856, the U.S. Supreme Court rendered one of its most infamously outrageous decisions. The case of Dred Scott v. Sandord, 60 U.S. 393 (1857) presents the account of Dred Scott, a former Missouri slave who then resided in the Wisconsin Territory where slavery had been outlawed by the Missouri Compromise of 1820 (New Standard Encyclopedia: Volume DE – “Dred Scott Decision”, 267b) Abolitionists convinced Scott to sue for his freedom on the grounds that he now dwelt in a free state and this reality would thereby guarantee his personal freedom. He did so, and his cause reached the nation’s highest court. However, the Court held that Scott was still considered a slave under Missouri law despite the fact that he had migrated to residence where slavery was prohibited. Moreover, the Court held that Dred Scott could not be considered a citizen and therefore had no substantiation to initiate a suit in federal court. The obscene language of Chief Justice Roger B. Taney’s opinion, dripping with obstinate indifference, would subsequently assume legal precedence:

Can a negro whose ancestors were imported into this country and sold as slaves become a members of the political community formed and brought into existence by the Constitution of the United States and as such become entitled to all the rings, and privileges, and immunities, guaranteed by that instrument to the citizen, one of which rights is the privilege of suing in a court of the United States in the cases specified in the Constitution? Id. at 403

We think they are not, and that they are not included, and were not intended to be included, under the words ‘citizens’ in the Constitution, and can therefore claim none of the rights and privileges which that instrument provides for and secures to citizens of the United States. On the contrary, they were at that time considered as a subordinate and inferior class of beings, who had been subjugated by the dominant race, and whether emancipated or not, yet remained subject to their authority, and had no rights or privileges but such as those who held the power and the Government might chose to grant them. Id. at 404 – 405

Chief Justice Taney would go on to describe persons of African as belonging to an, “unfortunate race,” declaring:

They had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations; and so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit. He was bought and sold, and treated as an ordinary article of merchandise and traffic, whenever a profit could be made by it. Id. at 407

When referring to the Declaration of Independence’s famous proclamation, “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among them is life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these rights, Governments are instituted, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” the Chief Justice opines:

The general words above quoted would seem to embrace the whole human family, and if they were used in a similar instrument at this day would be so understood. But it is too clear for dispute, that the enslaved African race were not intended to be included, and formed no part of the people who framed and adopted this declaration; for if the language, as understood in that day, would embrace them, the conduct of the distinguished men who framed the Declaration of Independence would have been utterly and flagrantly inconsistent with the principles they asserted; and instead of the sympathy of mankind, to which they so confidently appealed, they would have deserved and received universal rebuke and reprobation. Id. at 410

Even as Chief Justice Taney acknowledges the hypocrisy of the Founding Fathers clinging to the ideals of freedom and liberty while blatantly owning slaves, he does not denounce or note this contradiction – rather, he excuses it, and explains away America’s fundamental indiscretion by claiming that Africans never possessed the right to be designated as human beings, stating:

The unhappy black race were separated from the white by indelible marks, and laws long before established, and were never thought of or spoken of except as property, and when the claims of the owner or the profit of the trader were supposed to need protection. Id.

Concerning slavery, Chief Justice Taney states:

…the status of slavery embraces every condition, from that in which the slave is known to the law simply as a chattel, with no civil rights, to that in which he is recognized as a person for all purposes, save the compulsory power of directing and receiving the fruits of his labor. Which of these conditions shall attend the status of slavery, must depend on the municipal law which creates and upholds it. Id. at 624-625

Throughout his opinion, the Chief Justice cites a derisive litany of colonial and state statutes repudiating and condemning equal treatment of persons of African descent, pontificating:

The legislation of the States therefore shows, in a manner not to be mistaken, the inferior and subject condition of that race at the time the Constitution was adopted, and long afterwards, throughout the thirteen States by which that instrument was framed; and it is hardly consistent with the respect due to these States, to suppose that they regarded at that time, as fellow-citizens and members of the sovereignty, a class of beings whom they had thus stigmatized; whom, as we are bound, out of respect to the State sovereignties, to assume they had deemed it just and necessary thus to stigmatize, and upon whom they had impressed such deep and enduring marks of inferiority and degradation; or, that when they met in convention to form the Constitution, they looked upon them as a portion of their constituents, or designed to include them in the provisions so carefully inserted for the security and protection of the liberties and rights of their citizens. It cannot be supposed that they intended to secure to them rights, and privileges, and rank, in the new political body throughout the Union, which every one of them denied within the limits of its own dominion. Id. at 416

He finds even the proposition of people of color perceived as being citizens under the law absurd: cannot be believed that the large slaveholding States regarded them as included in the word citizens, or would have consented to a Constitution which might compel them to receive them in that character from another State. For if they were so received, and entitled to the privileges and immunities of citizens, it would exempt them from the operation of the special laws and from the police regulations which they considered to be necessary for their own safety. It would give to persons of the negro race, who were recognized as citizens in any one State of the Union, the right to enter every other State whenever they pleased, singly or in companies, without pass or passport, and without obstruction, to sojourn there as long as they pleased, to go where they pleased at every hour of the day or night without molestation, unless they committed some violation of law for which a white man would be punished; and it would give them the full liberty of speech in public and in private upon all subjects upon which its own citizens might speak; to hold public meetings upon political affairs, and to keep and carry arms wherever they went. And all of this would be done in the face of the subject race of the same color, both free and slaves, and inevitably producing discontent and insubordination among them, and endangering the peace and safety of the State. Id. at 416 – 417

The Chief Justice concludes:

Dred Scott was not a citizen of Missouri within the meaning of the Constitution of the United States, and not entitled as such to sue in its courts; and, consequently, that the Circuit Court had no jurisdiction of the case, and that the judgment on the plea in abatement is erroneous. Id. at 427

With the stroke of a pen, Dred Scott, and all persons of African descent in the nation, free or enslaved, were categorically excluded from the scope of citizenship defined by the Founding Fathers. The outcome of this case vividly painted the archetype of white privilege upon America’s legal, social, and economic landscape. In its wake, the systematic degradation of peoples of color became firmly institutionalized; thereby justified as the sociological calling card of the United States.

The egregious Dred Scott decision was one of the pivotal catalysts leading to the Civil War of 1861-1865, which attempted to rectify the blot of slavery on America’s warped conscience. President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, declaring all enslaved persons, “thenceforward, and forever free,” promising that the federal government of the United States would, “recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons,” and, “do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.” This joyous proclamation ignited an unprecedented accession of African-American representatives being elected to Congress, men and women of color owning and creating thriving businesses, and a general sense of acclamation to a society which had ignored and vilified their existence for two-hundred years. On December 6, 1865, the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, outlawing slavery, was ratified; henceforth, designating slavery an illegal practice to be prohibited throughout the nation.

However, this brief period of comprehensive emancipation would not last. Members of the white elite, who had previously relied on slavery as their source of both labor and livelihood, contrived new techniques of maintaining a racially based caste society. Many feared reprisal for the decades of subjugation and misery endured by formerly enslaved persons. As a result, “black codes” were devised in Southern states; laws that, essentially, preserved the inferior status of black men and women that was structurally embedded within America’s social landscape through the phenomenon of slavery. These statutes strategically ensured free African-Americans remained on the margins of economic prosperity and meaningful social liberation – cloaked in opaque semantics, devoid of any reference to “slavery,” or “bondage.”  Vagrancy laws were enacted throughout the South which codified unemployment as a criminal offense for ex-slaves. A person guilty of such an offense could be arrested, fined, and consigned to an indefinite period of labor if the fine was unable to be satisfied immediately. Other laws were created banning interracial marriage, denying African-Americans the right to own certain types of property, the privilege of testifying in a court of law (except in cases involving persons of color), or the ability to bear firearms.

Financially meager white and free African-Americans began to cooperate in the late nineteenth century, viewing their economic prospects and aspirations as being mutually shared. They gained significant political power, threatening to undermine the sway that privileged, white, elite powers held in Southern society, along with the region’s ancient racial boundaries. Laws were introduced into legislatures, by conservative politicians, that would formally codify the institutionalized separation of the black and white races. Throughout the South, statutes were enacted that created racially designated hospitals, schools, water fountains, churches, restaurants, jobs, restrooms, hotels, funeral homes, prisons, and even cemeteries. These legal precepts came to be known as “Jim Crow” – originating from the name of a minstrel character. (The New Jim Crow, 33-35)

True to form, the U.S. Supreme Court would bestow its legal imprimatur to American apartheid. In Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537,163 U.S. 53 (1896), ruling in the case of a Louisiana man, Homer Plessy, of Creole descent (so fair-complected that “the mixture of colored blood was not discernible in him”), who consciously decided to sit in a section of a rail car reserved for only white patrons, the Court held:

A statute which implies merely a legal distinction between the white and colored races-a distinction which is founded in the color of the two races, and which must always exist so long as white men are distinguished from the other race by color-has no tendency to destroy the legal equality of the two races, or re-establish a state of involuntary servitude. Id at 536.

The object of the amendment [The Fourteenth Amendment] was undoubtedly to enforce the absolute equality of the two races before the law, but, in the nature of things, it could not have been intended to abolish distinctions based upon color, or to enforce social, as distinguished from political, equality, or a commingling of the two races upon terms unsatisfactory to either. Laws permitting, and even requiring, their separation, in places where they are liable to be brought into contact, do not necessarily imply the inferiority of either race to the other, and have been generally, if not universally, recognized as within the competency of the state legislatures in the exercise of their police power. Id at 537.

Thus, the premise of “separate but equal” was endorsed as constitutional, and would characterize American life until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s. As gratifying as the landmark legal reforms of the Civil Rights Movement were (extending the right to vote and prohibiting segregation against African-Americans), they did not comprehensively rectify the centuries of economic, psychological, and social devastation which had been perpetrated against persons of color.

Civil rights attorney Michelle Alexander, author of the highly acclaimed The New Jim Crow, writes in the beginning of her sociological exposition:

Since the nation’s founding, African Americans repeatedly have been controlled through institutions such as slavery and Jim Crow, which appear to die, but then are reborn in new form, tailored to the needs and constraints of the time…Following the collapse of each system of control, there has been a period of confusion – transition – in which those who are most committed to racial hierarchy search for new means to achieve their goals within the rules of the game as currently defined. It is during this period of uncertainty that the backlash intensifies and a new form of racialized social control begins to take hold. The adoption of the new system of control is never inevitable, but to date it has never been avoided. (The New Jim Crow, 21-22)

The Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution contains a curiously overlooked clause as it seems to swiftly prohibit the conduction of involuntary servitude for all American citizens:

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.U.S. Const. amend. XIII, § 1.

This constitutional provision, while outlawing slavery, enabled the rise of the most unprecedentedly sinister, yet subtlety noted, human rights crisis in American history; wreaking inordinate havoc upon millions of lives throughout the nation: the systematic control, degradation, social marginalization and civic disenfranchisement of men and woman of color under the auspices of the criminal justice system. The New Jim Crow of the twenty-first century.

There are currently more incarcerated African-American men in the United States than there were confined by the shackles of slavery in 1850. Census records document 872,924 male slaves of African descent over the age of 15 dwelling in the nation at the time. The U.S Bureau of Criminal Statistics reveals 1.68 million African-American males are now under state and federal criminal justice supervision. This figure exceeds the 1850 Census calculation of enslaved men by 807,076. Even though the United States of America comprises only 5% of the world’s population, it incarcerates 25% of the globe’s prisoners. The state of Maryland’s incarceration rate (621 of every 100,000 people) dwarfs that of the People’s Republic of China (121 of every 100,000 people) – the world’s most populous nation of 1,369,920,000. Over 60% of current inmates are black or brown people.

How did the United States arrive at such a troubling and unconscionable precipice?

President Richard Nixon defined illegal drug use as “public enemy number one” to the American public in 1971. Following this announcement, federal and state law enforcement priorities were shifted by enacting harsh mandatory and minimum sentencing laws regarding the use and sale of drugs (Born Suspect: Stop-and-Frisk Abuses & the Continued Fight to End Racial Profiling in America, 6). However, for decades, statistics showed that there was no epidemic of drug use, at least not among people of color – to whom drug enforcement policies would be consistently applied. The level of illicit drug utilization by African-Americans (42.9%) is essentially on par with that of illegal drug use among white Americans (49%) – ironically, it is somewhat lower than that of the general population.

President Ronald Reagan officially declared the “War on Drugs” in October of 1982 (The New Jim Crow, 49). In the thirty-years since its inception, the failed war has done nothing to reduce the rates of illegal drug use among Americans. Instead, the War on Drugs has decimated entire communities; erecting trajectories of despair and ruin for untold residents of inner-city neighborhoods. Since, 1980, the rate of persons incarcerated for drug has skyrocketed from 41,000 to 500,000 today – an escalation of 1,100%. Most of these convictions are not due to serious drugs, such as cocaine or heroine, but rather for the possession of marijuana – accounting for 80% of drug arrests in the 1990s (The New Jim Crow, 60).

The criminal justice system is the largest mechanism by which the concerted marginalization, and economic oppression of non-white citizens is conducted today. For scores of former inmates, it is still the arbiter of a very real manifestation of sociological bondage. Upon returning to wider society, newly-released prisoners are faced with tremendous obstacles in the search for adequate housing, food, and employment, as a consequence of the permanent stamp of a felony conviction. The most sacrosanct privilege of a democracy, the right to vote, is denied to ex-felons. A staggering 2.6 million individuals, who have completed their prison sentences, are denied the right to vote throughout the United States. A citizen deprived of a vote in the democratic process is effectively stripped of his, or, her voice – rendered mute to the existential forces that construe one’s reality.

Law enforcement tactics composed for targeting alleged criminal suspects are disproportionately constructed to impact people of color. While the objective basis for such policies may be to stem the rise of crime, black and brown persons usually end up as the objects of this heightened scrutiny. Take for example the fact that African-American juveniles form 16% of the American juvenile population but collectively accrue: 28% of juvenile arrests, 30% of referrals to juvenile court, 37% of the incarcerated population, and 30% of adjudicated youth.

Cognitive perception plays a key role in the implementation of these institutional norms. Predictably, the U.S. Supreme Court has provided legal cover for law enforcement practices infected with racial bias. In Illinois v. Wardlow, 528 U.S. 119 (2000) the Court held that the act of a suspect fleeing a police officer, in a “high-crime area,” gives the officer reasonable suspicion to believe that the suspect is somehow involved in criminal activity.

Freddie Gray, 25, of Baltimore, Maryland, was the latest fatality in an increasingly visible trend of police brutality, conducted against people of color throughout the nation, with impunity. In the early morning of April 12, 2015, Gray was spotted on the street by three bike-patrol law enforcement officers in the West Baltimore City neighborhood of Sandtown-Winchester. Gray reportedly made eye-contact with the officers, and subsequently fled the scene. Police then pursued Gray through a maze of streets and housing complexes, before apprehending him. What followed has prompted national outrage. A cell phone video, filmed by a local eyewitness, captures the officers apprehending Gray, taking him into police custody. Gray’s physical condition in the clip has justifiably alarmed and outraged many. Police can be observed haphazardly dragging Gray into the police van as he screams in pain. His right leg dangles limply from his body.  Several gathered horrified onlookers noted that Gray’s leg appeared conspicuously broken. Despite Freddie Gray’s cries of agony, officers handcuffed his hands and feet, and he was hoisted head-first, with haste, into the back of a waiting police van. He was not placed in a seat-belt within the van (violating Baltimore Police Department policy) and requested an inhaler (Gray suffered from asthma), along with immediate medical attention, on at least five occasions en route to the Western District police station. Gray’s pleas went unheeded. Over the course of the 45 minute trip, the van made four stops, during which another suspect was separately apprehended; and joined Gray inside. Upon arrival at the police station, Gray was removed from the van, and found to be unresponsive. He was then reported to be in “serious medical distress” and taken to the hospital. Freddie Gray entered into a coma and never recovered from his injuries. He died the following week. Following his death, it was revealed Gray’s spine had been fractured in three places; in addition to his voice box being crushed.

Freddie Gray did possess a prior arrest and criminal record, composed of mostly drug charges – spending two years in prison for the most severe convictions. However, on the day he was arrested, he was not a suspect in an ongoing investigation. An attorney, speaking on behalf of the Baltimore Police Union, alleged that Gray’s presence in a “high-crime” neighborhood, coupled with his initial flight from law enforcement officers, justified the assertion that police had reasonable suspicion to surmise he was involved in illegal enterprises; creating probable cause for arrest. The lawyer alluded to the ruling in Illinois v. Wardlow, where a community’s crime rate is utilized as legal cause to subjectively profile all of its residents. “Billy” Murphy Jr., representing the Gray family, responded by starkly stating the only crime Freddie Gray had committed was, “running while black.”

Objectively, the Supreme Court’s reasoning seems logical. If a suspect in an area, with a documented history of violence and prolific crime, flees the police, is it not rational to conclude they are somehow involved in legally prohibited activities? While common sense would affirmatively agree with this opinion, the underlying reality is much more complex. Communities of color have a notoriously dismal relationship with the police. This could largely be due to the racially tinged origins of law enforcement agencies in the United States. Colonial “slave patrols,” intended to keep slaves in order and compliance, would gradually develop into modern-day police departments. Although slavery has been illegal for more than a century, the driving, racially-biased, intent utilized in formulating law-enforcement policies has remained consistent; albeit hidden. The stereotypical imagery of fearful mystique employed in targeting slaves; perceiving black men uniformly as aggressive and prone to violence, continues to subconsciously mold numerous law enforcement procedures – most notably “stop-and-frisk.” Today, any African-American man clad in a sweatshirt, with hood-donned, and baggy pants is automatically registered as public enemy number one.

Moreover, the fates of Trayvon Martin, Renisha McBride, Sean Bell, Eric Garner, Rodney King, Oscar Grant, Miriarm Carey, Tamir Rice, Yvette Smith, Shantel Davis, and Walter Scott, and scores of other known and unknown casualties present a disturbing trajectory. All of these men and women, who have now been consigned to posterity as unarmed, slain victims of brutality, do not reside in a third-world dictatorship, but were citizens of the United States of America – purportedly the “Land of the Free” and “Home of the Brave.” Yet, when regularly encountered by law enforcement, the lives of black and brown women and men are deemed expendable. For many Americans, the external threat of terrorism is immaterial when a nation regards its own citizens as enemy combatants. Excessive uses of deadly force by law enforcement officers against people of color must be acknowledged for what they are: the lynchings of the twenty-first century. These atrocities are perpetuated with daily frequency, nonchalantly forgotten, and resigned as merely being unfortunate consequences of a modern-day existence.

If these distressing statistics are not extraordinary, but, tragically, constitute an ordinary way of life for minorities in the United States, is it any wonder that individuals flee if they are approached by the police? From this perspective, law enforcement officers are not esteemed as valiant heroes, who protect and serve their communities, but, rather, as agents of unmitigated hostility, torture, and death. For many African-American, Hispanic, or even Middle-Eastern persons, the imminent fear of murder trumps engaging officers; never discerning the opportunity to inquire about what their interpretation of probable cause might be.

Last week, the United Nations felt compelled to address the gravity of this phenomenon in light of recent incidents in Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore, Maryland. In a session of the global body’s Human Rights Council, during a periodic review that is conducted for all respective member-states, the United States of America was sternly rebuked for its human rights record regarding the abysmal treatment of citizens of color by delegates from 117 countries. Various states, through an extensive litany of recommendations, urged the United States, to:

Strengthen human rights education programs and training for all civil servants, particularly for law enforcement and immigration officers, and combat impunity concerning abuses against defenceless persons. (Costa Rica)

Adopt a national action plan to address structural racial discrimination. (Chile)

Undertake measures to combat racial discrimination, including adoption of a National Action Plan to Combat Racial Discrimination as recommended by the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. (South Africa)

Adopt and implement a national plan…for the benefit especially of disadvantaged
minorities, which are Afro-Americans and indigenous peoples. (Cape Verde)
Invest further efforts in addressing the root causes of recent racial
incidents and expand its capacity in reducing poverty in neighbourhoods
experiencing sub/par public services, including access to adequate housing and
public safety. (Serbia)
Collaborate closely with marginalized communities to fix the
problems in the justice system that continues to discriminate against them
despite recent waves of protest over racial profiling and police killings of
unarmed black men. (Namibia)
Ensure a sustained human rights training for law enforcement
officers in order to curb killings, brutality and the excessive use of force
targeting racial and ethnic minorities, particularly African-Americans. (Democratic Republic of the Congo)
Punish perpetrators of abuse and police brutality, which are increasingly alarming and constitute irrefutable acts of increasing racism and
racial discrimination, particularly against African-Americans, Latinos and women. (Cuba)
Respect indigenous peoples and ethnic minorities’ rights and
interests; fully consult with them on their land, autonomy, environment,
language and other issues; correct the historical injustice and offer
compensation. (China)
As devastating as it is to mentally process the disgraceful truth that, even in 2015, black and brown people are treated as second-class citizens, this should not be received as a complete surprise. From its colonial genesis as a British province, to its political birth as a subversion of imperial hubris; the United States of America was crafted as a binary society. One paradigm of prosperity was intended for the privileged, exalted, white, elite; another for persons of color, destined for lives of servitude and impoverished anonymity. Even as slavery was abolished, and eventual legal equanimity was realized for citizens of all colors, the psychological rules of bigotry were preserved. By and large, the humanity of African-Americans, Latinos, Native-Americans, Asian-Americans continues to be disregarded in the United States.
Malcolm X, one of America’s most radical, and historically ignored, human rights activists, expressed a difference between the realms of civil and human rights. According to El-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz, “…Our problem is one not one of civil rights but a violation of human rights. Not only are we denied the right to be a citizen in the United States, we are denied the right to be a human being.” Malcolm X’s point is essentially this: The victories of gaining the right to vote and eliminating legal segregation for African-Americans have not entirely eliminated the social and economic barriers that drastically prevent black and brown people from exercising their fundamental rights as treasured human citizens of our planet. Civil rights, as paramount as they are to a genuinely democratic society, form a single strand in the universal tapestry of justice. Ensuring peace, joy, security, and prosperity are options, not privileges, for all sentient beings is the daunting work of human rights.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948, provides a comprehensive framework to guide countries in the obligation of safeguarding the naturally endowed rights of all their respective citizens. The beginning Articles of the Declaration offer the United States a prudent mirror by which to examine itself; and its resolve to defend the innate rights of all Americans – regardless of color, race, or ethnicity.
All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood. Universal Declaration of Human Rights – Article 1
Although the themes of freedom and liberty are contained within the U.S. Constitution, its soaring implications have yet to be realized by many black and brown Americans. The recognition of the equal dignity of all citizens in the United States of American remains and unrealized dream. Today, white privilege is not merely manifested in legal parameters. It is preserved through economic structures, and the prevailing facades of social norms.

When Senator Barack Obama of Illinois was elected the forty-forth president of the United States in 2008, an unparalleled level of contempt and disrespect was directed towards the nation’s first African-American Commander in Chief. Numerous politicians of the president’s opposing party vehemently refused to cooperate with President Obama on any policy initiatives he sought to pursue, including those legislators on the right side of the political spectrum had previously supported. The president was relentlessly maligned for his father’s Kenyan heritage during his first term in office – with hate-filled critics demanding he produce his “real” birth certificate; proving his American citizenship. After enduring a humiliating and venomous campaign, never before suffered by a previous occupant of the Oval Office, President Obama released the document for the entire American public to witness. Still, subjecting the President of the United States to the depths of political vulnerability was not enough to silence the most extreme voices of right-wing ignorance and bigotry. Many continued to deny the veracity of President Obama’s birth certificate; calling for him to be impeached with high treason in office, and “sent back to Kenya.” No American president has born the brunt of such ugly rhetorical attacks before. Can Barack Obama’s identity as a person of color ever be separated from the fact that, many Americans – no matter how charming, eloquent, intelligent, or captivating the president may be – will never sincerely respect, trust, or value his role as our nation’s head of state, simply because of the color of his skin?

Popular culture can also serve as a meaningful reference point for analyzing the racial disparities that prevail in the minds of numerous Americans.
Abercrombie & Fitch, a globally renowned American clothing retailer – known for its trendy, highly expensive merchandise – has long occupied a prestigious position for shoppers of the millennial generation. The standard of beauty embodied by the brand is widely recognized as the contemporary, American epitome of physical perfection. Abercrombie models that advertise the brand are known for their strikingly flawless features. One of the singular hallmarks of entering an Abercombie & Fitch store is being greeted by the handsome, muscular, often shirtless, chiseled male models. However, the color scheme of Abercrombie models is noticeably pale. Models, aside from the Caucasian variety, are few and far between. The celebrated Abercrombie ideal is a purely white, unrealistically athletic, version of glamor. A female, African-American employee of the store described the internal environment as, “toxic,” and, “superficial.” The employee recounted how on one occasion, most of the black models were told to leave early, before the expected visit of the company’s CEO. The CEO’s opinion of who was worthy enough to be adorned in Abercrombie’s attire was as follows:
“Good-looking people attract other good-looking people, and we want to market to cool, good-looking people… a lot of people don’t belong (in our clothes), and they can’t belong.”
Apparently, African-Americans didn’t measure up to his attractiveness litmus test. Failing to measure up to America’s Anglicized barometer of beauty is nothing new. Consider for a moment, how many winners of the acclaimed romantic programs, The Bachelor and The Bachlorette, have been people of color? Not one. In the twenty-eight year history of the franchise, only once, has People magazine ever named an African-American as their annual, “Sexiest Man Alive.” Denzel Washington was awarded the title in 1996, and over the years, the other twenty-seven winners have, exclusively, been white men.
Moreover, covertly bigoted outbursts, revealing the hidden sentiments of celebrities such as Paul Deen, or the former owner of the Los Angeles Clippers basketball team, Donald Sterling, underscores the reality that racism is alive and well in the United States. Although more extreme expressions of ethnic bias may be rarely observed, the cognitive attitudes and perceptions behind these beliefs shape the daily expressions and social interactions of those who hold them.
Sadly, black and brown citizens of the United States are very often not approached in, “a spirit of brotherhood,” or treated as if they are “endowed with reason.” African-American, Asian-American, Hispanic, and Middle Eastern men and women are still, by and large, distrusted, reviled, and mocked, even if in a subliminal sense, as not being fully American.
Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status. Universal Declaration of Human Rights – Article 2
Even if the legal guarantees of civil rights have been enumerated for all citizens, regardless of color, in the United States of America, it remains a disturbing reality that one’s race and origin of birth profoundly define the trajectory and quality of their life’s duration.
In 2012, the tabulated rate for white Americans living in poverty was 9.7%, representing about 62.8% of the nation’s total population, and 40.7% of total citizens living in poverty. The rate of African-Americans living in poverty was 27.2% (the highest of any ethnicity); representing 10.9 million people. The poverty rate for Hispanics was 25.6%, representing 13.6 million people. For Asian-Americans, the poverty rate was 11.7%, numbering 1.9 million people.
For most, living in these impoverished conditions is not at a conscious choice. Many Americans cling to the concept of “personal responsibility” when confronted with the question of: “Why is poverty so pervasive, especially among communities of color, in the wealthiest nation on the face of the earth?” Yet, it is severely insulting, and short-sighted, to assume that many honest, industrious citizens do not enjoy the luxuries of the wealthy and privileged, as a direct consequence of making unwise choices, or failing to work hard enough. Life is not that simple. Systemic issues, for people of color, have been at play for decades, if not centuries, in the United States.
In one of the first legal victories of the early Civil Rights Movement, the Supreme Court prohibited segregation in public schools throughout the nation in Brown v. Board of Education (1950). However, startling examples of persistent examples of segregation in public education are visible testaments to the reality that legal remedies, alone, cannot eradicate the root causes of historic social disparities.
According to a join report by Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union, chronicling human rights violations in the United States, most African-American children remain in schools that are overwhelmingly segregated on a racial basis, and “decidedly unequal.” Two-thirds of all children of color are enrolled in schools that are predominantly minority. More than 17% of African-American children attend classes that are composed of 99% minority students. The twenty-five largest central city school districts in 1986 enrolled 27.5% of the nation’s African-American students, but only 3.3% of white students.
The report continues by adding:
The isolation of segregated school systems, which resists full integration and prevents adequate funding of all school districts, leads to many impoverished children of color to be deprived of training in basic areas.
Children attending school in racially-isolated poorer districts routinely endure classes that are badly overcrowded. In these classes, both student and teacher are forced into an environment where keeping order in the classroom takes precedence over interactive learning that takes place in wealthier school districts. Given such conditions, it is not surprising that minority children are twice as likely to drop out of school as white children. Moreover, disproportionate numbers of minority children continue to leave school functionally illiterate and unemployable. -Human Rights Violations in the United States: A Report on U.S. Compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 12-13 (1993)
If the quality of education for most students of color is significantly lower, due to continued manifestations of racial segregation, this would explain why the future economic prospects are more dim, and uncompromising for black and brown children, teenagers, adolescents, and young adults. Education is inextricably linked to occupational viability. When schools in communities of color, are poorly founded, and deprived of resources, the subsequent effect is limiting a child’s inherent grasp of their own ability and potential. Children that are not affirmed of their own unique worth, materially or intellectually, through our nation’s education system, have great difficulty thinking in a manner, or initiating choices later in life, based on positive reinforcement they never received in a classroom.
This scandalous dynamic contributes to an even more exacerbating crisis. Currently, the national unemployment rate is 5.4%, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Yet, for African-Americans, the unemployment rate is an unfathomable 9.6%, nearly double the national average.
Disparities in education, in turn, contribute to a gaping lack of opportunities for stable employment. A dearth of opportunity among many young people of color creates a profound sense of despair, hopelessness, and frustration. Presently, the United States does not guarantee satisfactory access to education, or economic advancement for a large portion of its citizens. What ought not to be be predeterminative factors in life –  race, color, social origin, and the environment of one’s birth – continue to define the measure of aspirations and success that can be materialized by many American citizens.
No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms. Universal Declaration of Human Rights – Article 4
As mentioned before, the institution of chattel slavery has been constitutionally abolished. Demographic trends would suggest otherwise. One in every three African-American males born today, and one in every six Latino males can expect to be incarcerated at some point in their lifetime. Has slavery actually ended, or have the plantations of the Southern days of old morphed into the more than 5,000 penitentiaries and correctional facilities that dot America’s varied landscape?
No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Universal Declaration of Human Rights – Article 5
Frequent episodes of police brutality against people of color are a national catastrophe, and a gross violation of human rights. However, thousands of other individuals await a gradually protracted, solitary demise. Capital punishment remains the law of the land in thirty-two states of the Union. While believe that the death penalty is a just consequence in response to the harshest and most aggravated crimes, statistics have shown that it is not a deterrent to future crimes. Moreover, capital punishment has been consistently applied on a racially disproportionate basis throughout the nation. 3,251 people await the final implementation of their sentences on death row in the United States. According to the Equal Justice Initiative, the United States has executed 1,277 people since 1976. The majority of executions occur in Southern states, with more than half of the occupants of death row being persons of color. One hundred-and-forty people have been exonerated from crimes they never committed, after evidence was introduced substantiating their innocence.

#BlackLivesMatter is more than a hollow slogan, it is the burgeoning anthem of a new humanitarian credo.  National, and international protests seeking justice and accountability for victims of police brutality, along with the wider symptoms of institutionalized racism, are the courageous avatars of a reinvigorated human rights movement – the twenty-first century successor to the Civil Rights Movement of the previous century. The #BlackLivesMatter movement strives to elevate America’s collective psyche, enabling it to evolve from a nation of cultural colorblindness, to one of color-consciousness. The truth that black lives do matter is a clarion call the United States of America must heed immediately, if it wishes to retain its globally respected – albeit, highly unmerited – role as the “exceptional” beacon of democratic promise. Black lives are not disposable. Black lives are not inferior to others’ lives. Black lives do not threaten the existence or well-being of other Americans. Black lives are beautiful. Black lives are filled with unencumbered hope and aspirations. Black lives brim with infinite human potential. Black lives are sacred, resounding through the ages as the undying heartbeat of planet Earth.

Science has definitively proven that humanity’s origins lie within the African continent. Lamentably, throughout the ages, color has been scorned too often as a curse, rather than an original blessing. Each one of us possesses the ability to either, repeat the mistakes and ignorance of the past, or, courageously turn the pages of history – embarking on new frontiers in the evolution of the human species. The fertile seeds of honesty and transformation will eventually cultivate the fruition of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s hallowed Dream, ensuring no soul is, “judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”


Pope Francis and the Gay Elephant in the Room

Pope Francis and President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner of Argentina

Pope Francis and President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner of Argentina

Pope Francis made sensational news aboard his return flight to Rome following a rousing celebration of World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil – his first foreign voyage as Bishop of Rome. In a press conference held during the trip, Francis spoke candidly on a variety of hot-button issues facing the worldwide Catholic Church. However, one question posed, and the response offered by the pope, would remain cemented in the minds and hearts of numerous intrigued observers across the globe.

A reporter questioned the pontiff about the veracity of a rumored “gay lobby” of prelates that supposedly wields considerable influence within the walls of the Vatican. Much noise has been about this assertion throughout the news media and a variety of other credible, informed sources.

Pope Francis responded candidly by stating, “There’s a lot of talk about the gay lobby. But I’ve never seen it on the Vatican ID card. When I meet a gay person, I have to distinguish between their being gay and being part of a lobby. If they accept the Lord and have goodwill, who am I to judge them? They shouldn’t be marginalized. The tendency to homosexuality is not the problem. They are our brothers.”

The profound implications of this statement must be analyzed realistically. No pope, at least while serving as Bishop of Rome, has ever issued a statement that even acknowledges the existence of lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgendered persons — apart from their role as being opaquely depicted as the malevolent enemies of “marriage” and “the family”. Whenever members of the institutional hierarchy refer to LGBT persons they address them not as fellow human beings, but as being “disordered” or afflicted with “same-sex attraction”, hopelessly lost and mired in their conscious sinful behaviors.

In a mere statement, Pope Francis essentially cast aside decades of negatively configured paradigms of fear regarding LGBT persons that have masqueraded as having a legitimate theological basis. By utilizing a word that most gay and lesbian persons in the twenty-first century have embraced as one that satisfactorily defines their sexual identity, the pope has chosen to wade into the debate over homosexuality from a positive, diplomatic point of reference rather than one of presumed judgment or condemnation.

In the midst of the rapturous reception to Francis’ historic declaration, many commentators rightly observed that nothing the pope had said, in any meaningful way, changed existing theological interpretations by the institutional church regarding gay and lesbian persons. In her latest NCR column, Jamie Manson underlines this fact, highlighting that Francis was responding to the reporter’s question about gay clergy in the Vatican. She further emphasizes that this is the only context in which the pope’s surprisingly tolerant remarks towards gay persons can be understood – when applied to celibate, gay clergy, following the Catechism’s directives concerning their orientation. She concludes her reflections by pondering whether Catholics anxious for reform and renewal can ever expect concrete actions to arise on the part of Pope Francis, and whether his overtly positive language has merely been pastoral window-dressing, devoid of any concerted efforts taken in the direction of meaningful reform.

Such an extremely cautious approach to Francis’ new papacy is understandable. In fact, it is a view firmly rooted in reality, not only of the circumstances occurring within the institutional church today, but of what has consistently transpired for the past three decades. However, the span of time during which Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio lead the Archdiocese of Buenos Aires offers a perplexing ingredient that has never before been present in the life of one who has ascended to such a high position in the institutional church.

The proposition of expanding the legally sanctioned designation of marriage to include same-sex couples was deliberated in the pope’s native Argentina in 2010. President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner fervently supported the legislative initiative. Cardinal Bergoglio, as the preeminent prelate in the nation and leader of the Argentine bishops’ conference, vociferously denounced the civic effort as “destructive pretension against the plan of God.” 

Despite his fiery rhetoric surrounding the issue in public, the cardinal’s behaviors conducted privately painted a very different picture of how his own character prompted him to approach this volatile topic in personal terms – as a human being relating to fellow human beings. In a meeting with the entire gathered assembly of the Argentine bishops conference, as it became increasingly clear that passage of the bill legalizing marriage equality was a matter of inevitability rather than probability, Cardinal Bergoglio suggested that the bishops endorse civil unions for committed gay and lesbian couples.

This legal notion has been categorically dismissed in the political realm as being a “cop-out” measure. However, a prelate who advocated for this solution, as a member of an ancient institution that is universally derided as one of the world’s remaining bastions of unbridled homophobia, could transmit a poignant message to wider society.

The Vatican’s theological stance on who merits “the institution of marriage” and its interpretations of human sexuality have been cemented in an archaic, “natural law” approach for centuries. The perception that romantic relationships, and all sexual relations, are ultimately oriented toward procreation has been the driving catalyst in the Catholic hierarchy’s intransigent position on this matter. In 2003, as an increasing number of countries were creating legal accommodations for same-sex unions, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, under the leadership of then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI) released a document that opposed even the proposal of civil unions as a compromise tactic to prevent the legalization of same-sex marriage, stating,

“Those who would move from tolerance to the legitimization of specific rights for cohabiting homosexual persons need to be reminded that the approval or legalization of evil is something far different from the toleration of evil. In those situations where homosexual unions have been legally recognized or have been given the legal status and rights belonging to marriage, clear and emphatic opposition is a duty. One must refrain from any kind of formal cooperation in the enactment or application of such gravely unjust laws and, as far as possible, from material cooperation on the level of their application. In this area, everyone can exercise the right to conscientious objection.”

Thus, Cardinal Bergoglio’s modulated stance on the subject of gay rights represents a significant departure from the Vatican’s absolute denunciation of any efforts to extend legal protection to same-sex couples in committed relationships. Even if he was required to publicly oppose legislative initiatives to enact marriage equality in Argentina as the leading member of the Catholic Church in the nation, the Jesuit cardinal’s pastoral sensitivity enabled him to comprehend that this strife not only dealt with abstract legal guarantees, but also the fate of, and the personal dynamics that colored the realities of intensely dedicated relationships between human beings.

Throughout this tense period, Cardinal Bergoglio maintained a behind-the-scenes atmosphere of dialogue and tolerance. Marcelo Márquez, a gay rights activist and theologian, detailed how he wrote Argentina’s senior cleric a heartfelt letter about his own personal views on the legalization of same-sex marriage and how the pending legislation impacted his life directly. Shortly thereafter, Márquez remembers receiving a phone call and was shocked to hear the cardinal Archbishop of Buenos Aires on the other end of the line. Márquez described a cordial conversation that he enjoyed with the cardinal, in which Bergoglio affirmed the need for gay and lesbian couples to be able to have defined, legal rights in the civic sphere, but refused supporting marriage in a court of law.

While this reasoning may appear pathetically flawed and condescending to many, it is a tangibly dramatic shift in the Catholic hierarchy’s treatment of LGBT persons. During all of these secluded communications carried out by Cardinal Bergoglio, the emphasis was not placed on denigrating an individual’s sexual orientation as being “disordered”, or classifying their relationships as “living in sin.” This pragmatic, empirical approach reflects a desire, on the part of Bergoglio, to bridge the gap between official theological precepts and the lives of real people, who feel, who love, and seek happiness together. Even if theological demands constrained the cardinal, precluding him from supporting marriage equality for LGBT couples, Jorge Bergoglio’s actions reveal his deep sense of pastoral compassion, and his wish to ensure that gay and lesbian persons were treated humanely. Essentially, a prelate who advocates for civil unions implies that LGBT relationships are not worthless occasions of sin, but rather, meaningful covenants of love filled with devotion; deserving of legal protection and respect. Interacting with gay and lesbian persons in this manner ensures that human dignity, and not one’s orientation, becomes the lens through which all ensuing conversations are conducted.

Ultimately, Bergoglio’s pitch of moderation was rejected by his fellow clerics. An overwhelming majority of the Argentine bishops conference voted against the proposal regarding the church’s theoretical support of civil unions. Still, the nation would move forward to legalize marriage equality, the first in Latin America to do so. Currently, as Bishop of Rome, Pope Francis possesses the unique status of being the first pope ever elected from a country that has legalized same-sex marriage.

Such a distinction has most certainly not been forgotten within the recesses of Pope Francis’ heart. If he has sincerely brought a renewed sense of pastoral awareness to Rome regarding gay rights, it would bode well for the pope to continue to employ a characteristic he has displayed since the world first learned of his election — namely, that actions speak louder than words.

It would be very heartening to witness the pope meet publicly with a group of LGBT Catholics, or an internationally renowned LGBT advocacy organization. Such a gathering, held in a human rights context, would not necessarily need to signal an immediate overhaul in doctrinal interpretation. Yet, the visible, symbolic image of the Bishop of Rome, physically meeting with LGBT persons, not condemning them, but relating to them as fellow creations of God, would convey a powerful message of hope to the world. Affirming the equal, human dignity of those who comprise the LGBT community would not require Pope Francis to endorse marriage equality. Given his spontaneously charismatic personality, it isn’t hard to imagine the pope visiting a Pride event, not to preach, but to listen, to commune, and to enter into solidarity with those who have been so marginalized and wounded by the hierarchy’s vertically judgmental pronouncements on homosexuality.

A further, more convincing gesture, would be for Francis to use his global pulpit as pope to condemn nations that have harshly criminalized homosexuality as a penal offense. In some cases, these draconian measures have stipulated capital punishment as the most severe sentence used in combating the perceived “abnormality” of one’s sexual orientation. Uganda has infamously set in motion its unique version of an Anti-Homosexuality Bill, more commonly referenced as the “Kill the Gays Bill.” Initiated in 2009, with the fervent support of American Evangelical Christian allies, the bill would have made being gay or lesbian an offense punishable by death. After international pressure, this heinous provision has since been removed, but the pending legislation still contains a section that contains a category for “aggravated homosexuality” – this distinction is defined as engaging in homosexual sex more than three times, or doing so while HIV-positive. These acts, if discovered, could garner lifetime imprisonment. Moreover, one could potentially be incarcerated for up to three years if they had knowledge that a person was gay or lesbian but refused to submit this information to law enforcement authorities. The nations of Malawi, Cameroon, Liberia, and Nigeria have all crafted or passed similar pieces of legislation. In comparison to so many regions throughout the world where the tide in the gay rights movement seems to be turning significantly for the better, on the African continent, attitudes have become defensively entrenched and obstinate. Russia’s parliament has also passed an onerously anti-gay piece of legislation, which makes it a crime to spread any information deemed as “propaganda” that promotes homosexuality. In this latter instance, the bill’s passage was ensured in large part due to the pervasive cultural influence of the Russian Orthodox Church.

If Pope Francis took the opportunity to address any of these deplorable human rights situations, and highlighted the fact that all of these cases violate a whole host of Articles contained in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the world would take note of the pope’s words. In this instance, the pope would be reiterating church teaching, the Catechism itself states LGBT persons, “…must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided.” Francis would not have to wade into the controversial topic of the morality of same-sex unions, but simply denounce the atrocity of unjust laws that punish individuals simply for who they are. Perhaps then, with the admonition of the pope, countries that have ignored global pressure to reconsider such blatantly oppressive statutes might be influenced to re-evaluate or, eventually, repeal them. The knowledge that certain nations are nonchalant, recidivistic perpetrators of human rights abuses carries with it a powerful effect.

A final area – perhaps the most meaningful venue – in which Pope Francis could address homosexuality would be within the Catholic Church. A highly lamentable phenomenon in the United States has been the unwarranted termination of employees of Catholic institutions once their sexual orientation is discovered. Regrettably, this trend has only escalated in frequency since Francis’ election. Ken Bencomo, an English teacher at St. Lucy’s Priory High School in Los Angeles, California, was abruptly terminated from his position at the school after an article was found in a local newspaper detailing his recent marriage to his husband. Bencomo had been a member of the faculty at St. Lucy’s for seventeen years. He was extremely beloved by the student body. Protests by students, parents, and other faculty members have erupted in the wake of the unpopular decision. Bencomo was certainly not the first casualty of this cycle, but is only its most recent victim. As an increasing number of states have legalized marriage equality, the institutional church has reacted with bitterness and spite, seizing any method it can to deny acknowledging gays and lesbians as equal members of society. Citing the fact that openly gay teachers (in civil marriages, partnerships, or relationships) are intentionally disobeying church teaching is a convenient ploy utilized to justify these discriminatory actions. The cases of heterosexual teachers who have been fired because they are divorced and remarried, or living in long-term unmarried relationships have rarely, if ever, been documented. Obviously, a palpable ecclesial double standard is at work. If Pope Francis actively directed his bishops to ensure that such homophobic practices ceased in dioceses throughout the world, much of the Catholic Church’s credibility that has been damaged in recent years could be gradually restored.

During World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro, an empowered coalition of six pilgrims joined the throngs of other fervent, young, Catholics. Megan Graves, Lauren Carpenter, Delfin Bautista, Sara Kelley, Ellen Euclide, and Jennifer Guterman journeyed to Brazil as representatives of a spectrum of progressive Catholic organizations known as Equally Blessed. These resolute emissaries courageously made their way to World Youth Day to serve as living witnesses of justice, compassion, and dignity within the church. The radical cosmic powers of focused intention, conscious presence, and prayerful solidarity should not be underestimated. Who knows, if these six heralds of the Gospel had not been in attendance at this World Youth Day celebration whether Pope Francis would have felt compelled to confront the subject of gay persons during his press conference aboard the papal plane? Their prophetic convictions should inspire all of us. Each one of us, wherever we are, can be catalysts advocating for a renewed vision of Catholicism. As evidenced by the Equally Blessed World Youth Day coalition, enlightenment and dialogue is most effective and cathartic when carried out on a grassroots level.

Substantive doctrinal change within the Catholic Church will not occur over night. Nor can such reforms be expected to be championed by members of its institutional hierarchy. However, if Pope Francis sincerely changed the tone of the church, through public declarations and concerted actions, perhaps more Catholics would feel motivated to be agents of change and renewal. The apostle Paul described the universal Church as a Body containing many parts. Each part is different, and each organ has been blessed with a unique role and calling. If Pope Francis stays consistently resolved to changing existing attitudes within the institutional church regarding LGBT persons he could come to be known as the first-ever pope who embraced the truth that gay rights are human rights. But the required energy and advocacy to ensure that this truth is reflected in Catholic doctrinal expressions can only come to fruition through our own, unique, individual efforts. If Francis has initiated the pastoral blueprint, we must complete and erect the lasting spiritual edifice.

A Renewed Opportunity of Hope and Reconciliation

File photo of Pope Benedict XVI leaving at the end of his weekly audience in Saint Peter's Square at the VaticanIn times of disappointment or frustration, my mother has always supplied a poignant saying that has helped me to make sense of challenging situations, “If you continue using the same method, expect the same outcome. If you want to see a different result, try something new.” Keeping this in mind, I can begin taking the necessary steps to move forward from whatever the given quandary may be.

The news of Pope Benedict XVI’s (now referred to as the “Pope Emeritus”) resignation has left the church, as well as unaffiliated observers around the world, reeling in shock and confusion. For the first time in 600 years, a pope has renounced the Petrine ministry. The prospects of an uncertain ecclesiastical future have now given cause for many to hold their breath, in anticipation of what could be expected from the next Bishop of Rome.

Undeniably, anyone, regardless of their beliefs, or lack thereof, can acknowledge that today the Catholic Church is enduring a systemic crisis of epic proportions. In the West, particularly throughout Europe, the volume of individuals who identify themselves as practicing Catholics decreases year after year. Any sense of credibility or spiritual integrity that the prelates of the church possessed in the past has been eroded in the wake of the worldwide sexual-abuse scandal. The lack of a definitive response to this moral pandemic has convinced many that the members of the hierarchy are not serious about solving this pervasive affliction. The fact that numerous men in positions of ecclesial prestige have merely offered empty apologies, and the window-dressing of vague guidelines aimed at preventing abuse, cements this sentiment among the general public. How can a dilemma of this magnitude ever truly be repaired if justice and accountability have not been the guiding catalysts in confronting this crisis?

Conventional wisdom has sought to designate the southern hemisphere as being the future of global Catholicism. There, an intense, vibrant expression of the faith is said to be a guaranteed key in winning further adherents to the church. Yet, a mistake is made when rigidly applying this analysis. It is commonly assumed that the scourge of pedophilic abuse is not an issue in countries of the global south. A prominent cardinal of the Roman Curia, hailing from Ghana, recently declared as much to the media, stating that this phenomenon is so rampant in the Western world because of cultural variations between the northern and southern hemispheres. He further implied that this sociological barrier existed as a result of the tolerance of homosexuality throughout most of the northern hemisphere, compared to its condemnation in countries of the southern hemisphere. Although it is not as pronounced or notable, cases of minors being sexually abused by clerics have, indeed, been documented in this region of the world.

In fact, in many countries, there is a sexual crisis of another sort. In this occasion the problem is not necessarily one of abuse. Throughout the African continent, where the numbers of entrees to seminaries constantly abounds, the vow of celibacy taken by those entering the priesthood is not always observed to the letter of the law. The custom of consciously disregarding this oath has been established by countless priests. It is not unusual for mistresses, and in numerous cases, even entire families (including multiple female partners and children) to clandestinely live with the pastor of a parish. Failing to give open acknowledgement to such arrangements does not erase their existence from the minds of most parishioners, many of whom privately condone the practice.  In the context of the African church, the notion of priestly celibacy is regarded as an irritating European aberration. In the prevailing culture, a man is expected to fall in love with a woman, to marry, and to have children — not doing so is viewed as abnormal. These conditions have become the norm throughout large portions of Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

Thus, on all geographical frontiers, questions of sexuality threaten to deteriorate the binding tapestry of faith and tradition that has composed the Catholic Church for centuries.

It seems that the former pontiff may have realized the implications all of these realities held for the church in the twenty-first century. Noticing subliminal hints of this line of reasoning in Benedict’s statement of resignation could prove helpful in establishing the criteria by which the future pope will be elected. Upon renouncing the papacy, the pope stated, “My strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry…in today’s world, subject to so many rapid changes and shaken by questions of deep relevance for the life of faith, in order to govern the barque of Saint Peter and proclaim the Gospel, both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me.”

This was seen as an expression on the part of the Pope Emeritus that not only were the effects of his age physically impacting his daily routine, but also, that his escalating frailty prevented him from responding comprehensively, and genuinely, to the pressing questions of the times we now live in. Longtime observers of Joseph Ratzinger’s theological temperament could very well have predicted this outcome from the first day of his election as pope. Although in his youth he did attend the Second Vatican Council, and was fairly progressive-minded in its wake, Ratzinger would eventually succumb to a crippling attitude of fear. As innovations following the historic assembly were implemented on a fairly rapid scale, Ratzinger began to view these changes as being rash and excessive. Criticizing new trends of liturgical practice and theological nuance, he began to complain that the Council’s message had been interpreted far too liberally. Soon, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger would become the institutional church’s chief proponent for nostalgically looking to a bygone era of the past. In this world, the notions of hierarchy, doctrine, and obedience formed the basis of the Catholic faith, instead of the values of episcopal collegiality, primacy of the individual conscience, and theological objectivity that Vatican II would espouse.

Still, a question begs to be asked: How can the problems of the 21st Century be solved with 18th Century solutions?

In a candid conversation with my parish priest, I once asked him his thoughts on what he felt Jesus of Nazareth would have to say if He were living and breathing in the flesh, in today’s world. His reply was to quote one of Jesus’ most comforting and repeated exhortations in the Gospels, “Be not afraid!” (Matthew 14:27) This summons to courage was utilized so often by the late, Blessed John Paul II that it is often described as the unofficial motto of his pontificate.

This same hopeful premise was also the underlying theme in most of the documents of the Second Vatican Council. When it was finally completed, the entire trajectory and driving purpose of this monumental gathering was intended to impel the Catholic Church to have a greater, more intense dialogue with the modern world. Rather than seeing the church as diametrically opposed to all of the implications that modernity had to offer, Vatican II painted the church as an entity that was in the world, and not removed from it. In the words of Blessed John XXIII, who convened the Council, but would not live to see its completion, “We feel we must disagree with those prophets of gloom, who are always forecasting disaster, as though the end of the world were at hand. In the present order of things, Divine Providence is leading us to a new order of human relations which, by men’s own efforts and even beyond their very expectations, are directed toward the fulfillment of God’s superior and inscrutable designs. And everything, even human differences, leads to the greater good of the Church.”

Undoubtedly, the failure on the part of the hierarchy to confront the global, human questions that the “signs of the times” have engendered is the biggest mistake the institutional church has made in the fifty years that have passed since the conclusion of Vatican II.

Earlier today, the College of Cardinals entered, and were subsequently locked within, the Sistine Chapel to elect Benedict XVI’s successor. This year, the events leading up to, and taking place during the Conclave have all occurred under the auspices of the liturgical season of Lent — traditionally observed as a time of conversion and repentance. Conventionally, repentance is usually understood as being contrite and remorseful for one’s sins. However, the biblical calls , to “repent” or “convert”, as Jesus of Nazareth and John the Baptist urged their followers to do, mean not to simply be sorry for one’s failings, but also, to turn towards God, and to adopt a new mode of being. This should make it all the more clear to the cardinals gathered in Rome that the Conclave of 2013 should not be business as usual.

My mother’s always-appropriate expression happens to paraphrase a similar message that can be found echoing from the mouth of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel, “Neither is new wine, put into old wineskins, otherwise, the skins burst, and the wine is spilled, and the skins are destroyed; but new wine is put into fresh wineskins, and so both are preserved.” (Matthew 9:17) In today’s paradigm, the wine described can symbolically be identified with the Catholic faith. The enlightening truth of the Gospel, (namely, God’s self-communication of love to us in the person of Christ) and the enduring traditions of the church must always be maintained. But new approaches (new “wineskins”) and insights must be used in transmitting the faith, allowing it to stay fresh and relevant for coming generations.

May we all pray that the College of Cardinals elects a pope who does not simply preserve the theological and bureaucratic status quo, that has been the norm in the Vatican for centuries, but instead realizes that whoever the next pope will be, he will have as his mission the task of emulating and personifying the Christ of the Gospels — engaging all members of the human family in a spirit of love, justice, and peace.

Now, more than ever, the Spirit of God must prevail, instead of the finite whims of fallible men. The credibility of the Roman Catholic Church has been universally placed under scrutiny. The church’s future hangs in the balance. Will it continue to remain a viable spiritual path, or is it destined to gradually be reduced to a reactionary cult?

Veni Creator Spiritus!

Embarking on a New Journey of Consciousness

Mayan CalendarAs the year 2012 concluded, much noise and media attention was paid to a curiosity found within the Mayan calendar.

The ancient Maya were a Mesoamerican civilization in which all aspects of conventional society revolved around the study of astrology. Their calendar was based entirely on predictions and insights that could be gained by studying the stars and planetary movements that take place in our galaxy. This system was so meticulously accurate that modern-day scientists have been able to chart and identify astronomical events that have occurred in coordination with projections detailed in the calendar.

A sudden panic took hold of many, across the globe, when a discovery was made. The calendar, which chronicled time from hundreds of thousands of years ago to our own present day in age, seemed to inexplicably end on December 21, 2012. Given the calendar’s weighty reputation for being precise in its astronomical forecasts, many around the world began to fear that this date would bring about the end of our planet.

Although such a response may have seemed rational, something else must be taken into consideration.

In the Mayan paradigm, time was viewed not as being simply a linear progression, but rather, cyclical in nature. Their calendar was arranged by various “ages” or periods, in which the gods had attempted to enact harmony and order within the human race and throughout the world.

The most recent age on the calendar which we had been living out was initiated in 3114 BCE. The beginning of this age marked a movement of humanity out of the Neolithic period (where a sparse existence of hunter-gathering had been the norm for our homo sapien ancestors) towards the advent of civilization — when an era was inaugurated in which our species pursued advanced techniques of agricultural development, the establishment of cities and metropolitan complexes, and where a greater sense of collaboration and discovery was sought amongst the entire human race.

The end of this temporal cycle on December 21, 2012 was to commemorate a dual reality. First, it would mark a rare celestial event that only occurs once every 26,000 years. Driven by the gravitational pull of the earth’s axis, the sun crossed a point in the Milky Way galaxy which is known as the galactic equator (For a much more thorough and accurate explanation of this phenomenon than I could ever hope to give here please consider consulting a respected astronomical/scientific source for pertinent information). Secondly, to the Maya, this cosmic rarity marked the end of the current mode of consciousness. In short, the end of the calendar on this date proclaims not an end of our world, but a new beginning, a renewed opportunity of transformation, joy, and light for all humanity.

When all of the successes and triumphs of the past centuries are analyzed in this spirit, it could be legitimately argued that the human race is progressing towards a point of definitive enlightenment on its evolutionary journey.

Although they have not been eradicated by any means, racial disparities that once divided societies are gradually crumbling in the face of a heightened sense of exposure and empirical awareness.

Even though gender inequality is still a very real problem worldwide (the infamous case of a woman’s recent gang-rape in India underscores this), women have burst through the glass ceilings of nearly all of societies highest echelons — a woman leads the most prosperous economic power in Europe, one of America’s most beloved television personalities and entrepreneurs has attained a position as one of the world’s most successful and recognizable faces, and there are rampant rumors that Secretary of State Hilary Clinton will take one more chance at breaking the ultimate glass ceiling of being the first female occupant of the White House.

My own state, along with others throughout the nation, as well as an increasing number of countries throughout the world, continues to affirm that legally, nothing distinguishes the love and commitment that two persons of the same-sex share with one another from couples who are of the opposite gender. In recent years, the United Nations has passed resolutions declaring LGBT persons as a discernible minority within society who are deserving of certain rights that guarantee their protection in light of this reality; in addition to guarding these individuals from extrajudicial executions seeking to target them outside of the scope of the law because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

A final heartening observation is that human beings throughout the world are now more connected than ever before. In a matter of seconds, information can be disseminated or exchanges conducted through a plethora of technological and social media tools — the Internet, Facebook, Twitter, email, and smart phones are all instruments that facilitate today’s highly charged atmosphere of interaction.

Despite these monumental breakthroughs in human achievement, a moral deficit remains in terms of how far we as a species must progress in order to eradicate numerous conditions and circumstances that unfortunately exist in all areas of the world.

For example, our church is a spiritual entity that offers a tremendous amount of good to global society. Countless emissaries of the Catholic Church — whether they be members of religious orders, clergy, social workers, or lay faithful — work to live out the promises of the Gospel in the lives of the least among us. Charities, immigration centers, and hospitals are just a few of the indispensable humanitarian services that people of within the church have courageously provided for centuries.  Yet, as an institution centered around the all-male hierarchy of bishops, headed by the pope, Catholicism has failed to read the signs of the times that so desperately need to be addressed in the twenty-first century. The inherent equal dignity of women is denied when the Vatican refuses to entertain the possibility of ordaining women, hiding behind archaic arguments that attempt to present the gender of Jesus of Nazareth as a defense for theological chauvinism. The humanity of LGBT persons is scorned when the Roman Magisterium classifies their orientation as a “disorder” and financially supports efforts to keep in place measures that condone legally sanctioned discrimination in the areas of marriage and adoption by same-sex couples. As recently as last month, Pope Benedict XVI responded to the latest initiatives to recognize civil marriages between gay couples by stating that, “…policies which undermine the family threaten human dignity and the future of humanity itself.” If various agents within the Catholic Church consciously endorse sentiments that marginalize and subjugate women and LGBT persons within their own spiritual frame of reference, doesn’t this mean that they are in league — albeit indirectly — with forces throughout the world that are constantly acting to suppress these groups?

Poverty, income inequality, widespread famine and disease continue to plague our world. In a gross display of irony, these afflictions often are more pronounced in countries that are wealthy and economically developed. Nations such as our own, China, and especially India would be found in this category. While they possess the resources and the means to reduce this phenomenon, lip-service is all that is ever paid to this problem. An emphasis on the goodwill of charities and churches to reduce the effects of poverty is usually highlighted, while no meaningful solutions are compiled to confront the systemic and social causes that perpetuate its grip on humanity.

The benefits of technological innovations to human society were mentioned above. However, these advances have become so hi-tech and personalized that they ultimately might be having a more detrimental effect on us than we could ever realize. iPhones and the social networking tools that go along with them are wonderfully convenient. Yet, one can become so tethered to the comfort and ease of speaking to a person behind a screen that this type of interaction with another becomes normal. Focusing all visual and mental stimulations solely on a virtual plane, as opposed to a physical one, could desensitize many of us to the wonder and vibrancy of making a human connection. In a sense, it seems that our culture has moved in this direction. To say hello to a stranger on the street is viewed as abnormal. Stepping out of our own comfort zones in hope of empathizing with another’s life experience is a lost art form. This radical form of individualism on steroids is having a highly corrosive effect on our society as a whole. The truth may be that today’s world is the most interconnected network of persons that has ever existed on our planet, but it could also be a fact that on a personal basis, human being-to-human being, our species has reached the most isolated point in its evolutionary journey of self-discovery.

Recent days have shown us that a pervasive disregard for human life is now the status quo of everyday life. What else motivated the heinous shootings in Aurora, Colorado, Newtown, Connecticut, Oak Creek, Wisconsin, or Tuscon, Arizona? The list of locations, dates, and names of the individuals who lost their lives in such horrific tragedies extends back years into America’s psyche. The ‘powers-that-be’ in Washington who have allowed inertia to prevail in the wake of these senseless acts are just as responsible for them as those who initiated them. These same powers are also complicit in multiple conflicts throughout the world in which no just resolution is in sight. President Barack Obama has made vast improvement upon many of the issues with which the United States was confronted when he took office. However, he continues to exercise enormous harm in one alarming area. Barack Obama has continued the Bush administration’s practice of drone strikes to eliminate individuals the United States government views as “threats to national security.” Such suspects are targeted without the parameters of due process and international law. How can the leader of the free world hope to achieve success on the avenues of peace in the Middle East, or elsewhere, when he can simply sign off on the termination of an unquestioned subject’s life with the stroke of a pen?

Such instances are a collective failure of humanity to live up to the fullest extent of its, divinely intended, potential. However, there is no need for these statistics to continue. Each one of us has the capacity to put a stop to these stains on the universal human conscience. We can foster a new mode of being, simply by using our thoughts, words, or actions on behalf of the virtues of positivity, inclusion, and temperance.

The ancient Mayans felt that the attitude with which humanity confronted each new cosmic era would determine its fate for the near future. If we choose to enter this new era of positive consciousness, accepting the profound reality it embodies, we may expect peace and tranquility to be ours to enjoy in the future. Yet, if we ignore the inner shift in consciousness that the end of the calendar signals, cataclysmic events of negativity and discord will continue to be the new normal that the world awakens to each day.

Will we remain static, in the very depths of our human capabilities, lodged in the state of the “old self,” as the apostle Paul would characterize it. Or will we realize our divine calling, and rise to the fullness of our inherent potential? Jesus of Nazareth, whom Christians would later depict as the “New Adam” through the eyes of faith, saw as His mission the task of bringing glad tidings to the poor, proclaiming release to those in bondage, recovering sight for the blind, and liberating those who are oppressed in any way (Luke 4:18). Each, and every member of the human race has been anointed for this same path of reconciliation and transformation. The choice is ours for the taking.

What weight will America’s exceptionalism carry for future generations?

Today, the Catholic Church throughout the world is engaged in a fierce struggle to define what its long-term identity will be for outside observers. Here in the United States, this ecclesial tension has reached a tumultuous boiling point. Women religious, who were the main players in erecting the American church’s primary contributions to society at large (education, healthcare, charities), now face a predicament that embodies this ideological strife in very real and personal terms.

In the decades following the Second Vatican Council, few took the Council’s exhortation to read the “signs of the times” and to be the People of God more seriously than religious sisters did. Emerging from the cloisters of convents, casting off the obscuring garb of a bygone era, American women religious embarked on their mission to live the Gospel sincerely and radically – as the charisms of their respective orders intended. When accepting and confronting “the signs of the times” meant questioning long-established theological norms and doctrines these courageous women did not waver in their commitment to following Christ. Even as they critiqued and pondered the relevance of various pronouncements and regulations, they did so in the same spirit of justice, mercy, and peace that animated the whole duration of Jesus of Nazareth’s public ministry.

As U.S. women religious throughout the nation face the prospect of being “reformed,” (or rather, put in line with Vatican-thinking) many American Catholics consider the values that have impelled these sisters for centuries to be much more central to their faith than those espoused by members of the episcopacy and the bureaucratic apparatus of the Vatican. Nevertheless, the institutional church of Rome continues to do all in its power to create a Catholic Church that stresses unquestioning adherence to doctrine, a static uniformity of theological opinion, and, in our uniquely American context, a firm alliance with the political and cultural right – for the sake of pursuing its own agenda.

With the country approaching yet another presidential election, it becomes apparent that not only are domestic issues at stake, but rather, our fundamental identity as the Land of the Free is the equation voters will be given to evaluate as they cast their ballots in November.

The United States has always been a nation of immigrants. As the annals of history are examined, numerous circumstances can be found to attest to how our country would not exist without the phenomenon of immigration. Think of how our very founding was made possible, at the hands of British colonists who sought to live unencumbered lives characterized by liberty and freedom of expression. Or, on a more somber note, consider how many countless souls, mired in cloaks of uncertainty and robbed of their inherent, human dignity, were brought to these shores against their will. In a general sense, call to mind all those who have fled their native countries, seeking in America a beacon of hope, promise, and opportunity. These individuals comprise the foundation of what we know as the possibility of the American dream. In June of this year, the U.S. Supreme Court rendered a verdict in a case involving the state of Arizona’s law (S.B. 1070) that had been created to deal with the issue of undocumented immigrants crossing over its shared border with Mexico in great numbers. The Court ultimately invalidated most of the components of S.B. 1070 (which would have made it a criminal offense to hire, house, shelter, or transport undocumented persons). However, the most alarming provision in this legislation was curiously preserved by the Court. The “papers please” clause allows law enforcement officers to stop anybody who they reasonably suspect to be in the country illegally, demanding that they show documentation proving their citizenship. In almost all circumstances, such an action would be warranted solely based on the external, physical characteristics of the individual in question.

The right to vote is one of America’s most precious treasures. Yet, in many states nationwide, extremely onerous steps have been taken to curtail the ability of, or make it highly difficult, for certain segments of the population to exercise their most fundamental civic duty – undoubtedly, for purely political reasons. Since 2011, forty-four separate state legislatures have introduced some form of restrictive law that could potentially disenfranchise major swaths of the electorate as next month’s presidential contest approaches. In eight of these states (Texas, South Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, New Hampshire), possessing a current form of photo-identification has been written into law as a mandatory condition for exercising one’s right to vote. Such a provision may seem to be legitimately aimed at preventing abuses or fraud from taking place at the polls. However, a realistic portrait of those who would be negatively impacted by such infringements must be taken into account when analyzing the long-term durability of these collective pieces of legislation. By and large, those who are hit directly by these repercussions are usually persons living in situations of poverty, people of color, or the elderly and disabled. For these individuals, actually getting to a local department of motor vehicles service office may be no small feat. Some may not have their own means of transportation. Especially when these offices are situated in rural or remote locations it would be nearly impossible to travel there to obtain a valid ID. The troubling aspect to this scenario is that most of these mentioned individuals would traditionally be expected to cast their ballots for Democratic candidates. All of the states that have chosen to pass these types of laws contain legislatures that are controlled by the Republican Party.

With such a plethora of threats to the very core of who we are as a democracy, it’s hard to comprehend that there could be anything else that could spell further trouble for the ideals that distinguish us, uniquely, from other countries. Yet, another recent Supreme Court decision could potentially, irreparably, alter the very ethical and civic playing field that has been faithfully maintained in our country for nearly three-centuries. In a closely-watched 2010 ruling, in the case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the Court held that any monetary donation by an individual to a political campaign ought to be considered an exercise of “free speech” guaranteed under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Therefore, the Court reasoned that under this interpretation, it was unconstitutional to ban organizations or corporate entities from giving unlimited amounts of funds to various campaigns of their choosing. The consequence is that it has now become legally sanctioned for corporations, and a slew of newly crafted autonomous political entities, (“Super PACs” – Political Action Committees) to unleash as much money as they humanely can towards the candidates of their choice. In this circumstance, one’s vote theoretically no longer carries any value. No matter how many people might vote according to their heartfelt convictions, the outcome of an election could ultimately be determined by who was able to spend the most money on behalf of their candidate. Even former Republican presidential candidate, Senator John McCain, characterized this as the high Court’s “worst decision ever.”

As frustrated Catholics, whose voices have been noticeably ignored, and utterly silenced, by the powers at be amongst the institutional hierarchy of the church, perhaps a very clear path lies before us in these uncertain and disheartening times? All of these above-mentioned initiatives that hang in the balance as America contemplates another election offer a pressing array of questions to all of us as Catholics and citizens of this nation. Who are we as a nation? What sort of values and sense of ethics do we cherish? For what purpose do we exist as the global superpower we are today?

Affirmatively answering these questions is the task that has been entrusted to each one of us as Catholics who are concerned for the fate of our church, along with that of our country. Now, we may be called upon to exercise an unforeseen role in the immediate future. Partnering with Americans of all political allegiances, who are anxious about the civic direction in which our nation will move, it will be up to us to stimulate dialogue, and work through any means possible to instill social and conscious enlightenment. Let us not shirk from this new responsibility! Only if we truly believe, and work ardently for it, will we be able to keep alive the definition of America that has withstood the test of time for nearly three centuries, and offered hope to so many beleaguered souls, the world over.

How We Must Respond to the Inquisition of the Twenty-First Century

Although many have anticipated it, I could not fathom such a setback taking place. My Piscean hope and optimism impelled me to believe that the Vatican would never take such a bold, pointed step, displaying that it was intent on stifling any sort of objective or progressive way of thinking that was taking place within the church. Yet, last week, the institutional church of Rome announced that the Leadership Conference of Women Religious – the nation’s largest coalition of professed nuns –  would be undergoing a “reform”to ensure that its statutes and mission were in greater conformity with official Catholic teaching. Many sisters openly support a more nuanced, thoughtful approach when it comes to an array of issues dealing with the realm of human sexuality. This greatly troubled the pope and the bureaucratic apparatus of the Holy See.

Because of their consistent and zealous dedication to contemplate issues such as the morality of abortion, homosexuality, contraception, and women’s ordination the sisters have had the integrity of their faith, as well as their religious apostolate, placed under scrutiny. Archbishop Peter Sartain, the leader of the Archdiocese of Seattle, and a vocal foe of civic efforts to legalize marriage equality, has been tasked with overseeing the implementation of this “reform.”

In light of these revelations, it must be stated that such efforts in no way constitute the conditions that the word “reform” demands. This is nothing less than a modern-day Inquisition. It isn’t coincidence that the Vatican committee from which this indictment stemmed (the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, whose former head, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was elected Bishop of Rome in 2005) has previously been known as the “Holy Office of the Inquisition.” During the European Renaissance of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and in the days of the Enlightenment that would follow it, this entity bore the sole responsibility for the suppression, and attempted eradication, of any instance of provocative questioning that challenged the conventional wisdom that had been established by the institutional hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church. Joan of Arc, Galileo Galilei, Nicolaus Copernicus, and Frs. Hans Küng and Charles Curran are just a few notable subjects who have borne the brunt of this assembly’s assault on the cognitive process throughout history.

As I digested these realizations, I asked myself, out of despair and pragmatic concern, “Can I remain a credible member of an institution that stands for such blatant manifestations of homophobia and misogyny?” For some time, I seriously pondered the notion that so many have suggested before to myself, and other progressively-inclined Catholics – to join the Episcopal Church. For me personally, such a move would be coming full circle in spiritual terms. I am a former member of the Anglican Communion. In my later teenage years I felt compelled to enter into full communion with the Roman Catholic Church, and in 2007, was confirmed and received during the Easter Vigil. However, since that time, my thoughts and attitudes about a variety of theological and political topics have changed completely.

The foremost of these ideological evolutions was my own spiritual and emotional journey of discovery regarding my own sexuality. After coming to terms with, and accepting the fact that I was a gay man, created in the image of God, just as any other human being is, no longer could I view any segment of Scripture through a rigidly literal lens. Although I now accept my orientation as holy, and God-given, the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church does not. In stark contrast, at least in the United States, the Episcopal Church openly affirms and welcomes LGBT persons completely for who they are. They are not required to live celibately, in order to satisfy the dictates of interpretations and theological regulations that have been concocted by fallible men. Instead, they are allowed to fully express themselves as the persons they were created to be – regardless of who they are attracted to, or who they happen to fall in love with.

If the hierarchy of the Catholic Church is punishing religious sisters for exploring and celebrating such a mindset, will there come a time in the future when the doors of all Catholic parishes will be slammed shut, as far as LGBT persons are concerned? Statistically, the climate within the church only seems as if it will trend in an increasingly more conservative direction. The men that Pope Benedict has been appointing as bishops have proven to be consistently conservative and reactionary on all matters theological and political. In an even more discouraging assessment, most younger men who are currently in seminary, or who have been ordained to the priesthood within the past two decades, are overwhelmingly more rigid in their approach to most doctrinal and pastoral questions compared to their counterparts who may have been ordained immediately before or shortly after the Second Vatican Council, which took place in the 1960′s. This was made evident recently when a very orthodox priest denied Holy Communion to a woman who happened to be a lesbian, living openly in a relationship with another woman, at her own mother’s funeral. Although this priest was later reprimanded, and subsequently suspended from the Archdiocese of Washington, such an incident, drenched in vertical judgment and lack of compassion, serves as a frightening portal into what the future of Catholicism could be.

I’m very blessed to have been directed by the Holy Spirit to an extremely welcoming, vibrant, and diverse parish here in Baltimore. The pastor is a wonderfully accepting and courageous man, formed in the innovative consciousness of the Second Vatican Council that was inspiring to so many. But what happens in the future whenever a new, younger priest might be assigned? I could very clearly envision what my fate would be then, especially if I happened to openly be in a committed relationship with another man.

These questions and potential scenarios were what drove my heart to deep despair, dismay, and dejection as I mulled over what  the implications of last week’s news meant for my life intimately, and the Catholic Church in the United States as a whole. With the purposeful direction that the pope and the hierarchy are taking, it seems that Catholicism, despite the efforts of many, will become nothing more than a cult as time passes. Gone will be the sacramental vision that reveres and celebrates the Sacred present in every man, woman, child, life experience; extending to all aspects of creation. The only recognized mediators of holiness will now be the pope, the bishops, and the all-male priesthood, who are the exclusive vehicles through which Divine revelation is interpreted.

If this is indeed the future of the Catholic Church, why remain? Such a vision is the exact opposite of the dynamic, inclusive Reign of God which Jesus of Nazareth proclaimed as the cause of His being, and would ultimately forfeit His life for. Perhaps, being a Catholic is no longer in keeping with my conscience?

As I wrestled internally with these questions, my mind was suddenly swept back to Call to Action’s national Conference of 2010. It was there that I had the life-altering opportunity to be in the presence of Joan Chittister, a Benedictine sister and global advocate on a variety of issues, most notably, those of justice, peace, and women’s rights. She had long been a spiritual hero for me. It was her prolific writing that helped me begin to approach my faith in a new manner, not merely accepting “divinely revealed truths”, but insisting on asking questions. In this way, I would come to realize, our faith was actually deepened and confirmed. At the Conference, Sister Joan was conducting a book signing. I eagerly brought a book of hers I had been reading on the trip to Milwaukee with me to the event. As the time came for me to approach her I was overcome with joy, and I have to admit, was somewhat starstruck. To ease the high intensity of that moment, I remarked that several months before I had written her a letter thanking her for the profound inspiration that her own works had meant for my spiritual life. I had also recounted my own struggle of coming to terms with my sexual orientation, as well as some daunting financial straits myself and my mother were undergoing. It was a very difficult period of my life in which I had trouble envisioning with certainty what the future would look like. I never expected Sister Joan to remember these facets of my personal life, but she surprised me by saying, “I remember your letter.” She continued, “Know that just you’re being here means something. Even in the valleys and the deserts of your life know that you are not alone. We are with you, all of us are with you!” These powerful words of encouragement will remain cemented upon my heart forever.

As I was leaving the Conference I had another chance encounter that would leave my life indelibly changed. On the return flight to Baltimore, by coincidence, I happened to be seated next to Sister Jeannine Grammick. Sister Jeannine has been a champion for years of the moral legitimacy and equal dignity bestowed by God to persons who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. For three decades, she has operated New Ways Ministry, a Catholic organization dedicated to affirming and welcoming LGBT individuals in the life of the church. As we chatted, I conveyed to her my gratitude for the wonderful and profoundly meaningful work she has done on behalf of gay Catholics. As our plane continued along its course, Sister Jeannine inquired about what parish I attended in Baltimore. At the time, I was attending the cathedral parish where I had been received into the Catholic Church. I mentioned that the solemn, choral liturgy was my main reason for worshiping there, rather than any sense of real belonging that made me feel as if I was an indispensable part of the community. Sister Jeannine proposed to me that I investigate other parishes that actively welcomed and supported individuals regardless of their background or sexual orientation. The parish I attend today was one of those she recommended to me.

Even as I went through the process of formally entering the Catholic Church a very dedicated School Sister of Notre Dame had helped facilitate and make the whole endeavor one of warmth, joy, and ease.

I must admit that my contact with religious sisters has been infrequent, compared to most Catholics who may have been raised in their presence, constantly being enriched by their guidance as teachers, catechists, or parish coordinators. But the aforementioned experiences I’ve been blessed to enjoy have greatly impacted my own personal growth, both spiritually and psychologically.

For numerous American Catholics, the sisters have remained the legitimate moral leaders of the church. In contrast, the institutional hierarchy has become ever more concerned with the legal precision of the expression of various doctrines, and the maintenance of the medieval vestiges of ecclesiastical power – all to the detriment of those who occupy the furthest margins of society. When an epidemic wave of bullying drove numerous LGBT individuals to see taking their lives as the only way they could be delivered from such relentless torture, what words of encouragement did our nation’s bishops offer to ease the pain of this tragic phenomenon?

Absolutely nothing.

It was the National Coalition of American Nuns that condemned the outbreak of suicides amongst many of America’s LGBT youths. This was done primarily out of a heartfelt obligation to do something, given that the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops had been notably silent on this pressing and deeply disturbing occurrence.

As I ponder these facts, and many other ways in which America’s religious sisters have helped sustain and edify the faith of the Catholic Church in the United States, I am greatly saddened, as a discouraging paradigm seems to be taking hold of the church so many of us love and regard as our spiritual mainstay.

Although many may legitimately no longer be able to find their spiritual nourishment within the confines of the Roman Catholic Church I do not see it as my task to leave at this point. First of all, this is not the attitude and the character that formed the mission and the life of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus never backed down from anything. His very life was animated with unbridled passion for pursuing justice, mercy, and peace. Impelled by the Spirit, these virtues sustained His cause even through the onslaught of suffering, and finally, as He emitted His last breath, in His final act of love upon the wood and shame of the cross. Even though the religious and political authorities of His day sought to extinguish Jesus’ impact on society because they saw Him as a subversive threat to all that they held dear, this never deterred Him from living out His mission of communicating the Divine to an unsuspecting world.

In the same spirit, I see myself called to remain in solidarity with the sisters who have offered to the world another, more maternal, image of God than those exemplified by their counterparts in the echelons of power. I am called to stand with Joan Chittister, Jeannine Grammick, Catherine of Sienna, Hildegard of Bingen, Teresa of Avila, Mary MacKillop and all religious women of conscience throughout the centuries who have remained within the walls of the Catholic Church and stood firm for their convictions, instead of letting the status quo of unchecked patriarchy hold sway.

As Sister Joan emphasized to me that all those who were dedicated to the cause that Call to Action stands for I could rely on for spiritual and emotional solidarity, so I must remain in unity, and unwavering support of these courageous women who are responsible for building and vivifying the Catholic Church in the United States as we know it today.

Two Scriptural passages seem to grant hope to all who may be experiencing feelings of uncertainty and despair with these most recent developments.

In the Acts of the Apostles, the early Christian community is presented as experiencing persecution from both the secular authorities of Rome as well as the religious leaders of Judaism. As Peter and other apostles are being interrogated in front of a panel of Jewish religious authorities, a respected Pharisee interrupts the proceedings, and says, “In the present case, I tell you, keep away from these men and let them alone; because if this plan or this undertaking is of human origin, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them – in that case you may even be found fighting against God!” -Acts 5:38-39

If the cause of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious is truly Spirit-driven there is nothing that the powers of men will be able to do to extinguish it, even if it is necessary for it to be transformed into an entirely new manifestation.

In the Gospel reading for the Fourth Sunday of Easter, the author of John depicts Jesus as stating, “I am the Good Shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away – and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the Good Shepherd. I know My own and My own know Me, just as the Father knows Me and I know the Father. And I lay down My life for the sheep…For this reason the Father loves Me, because I lay down My life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again.” -John 10:11-15,17-18

Just as God has blessed us with genuine, attentive, pastoral shepherds in the ministries and examples of so many religious women here in the United States, so we must remind these valiant sisters that even in these dark days of despair and uncertainty hope is not lost. The Good Shepherd has gone before us, and continues to lead us in love, generously caring for all those entrusted to His fold. Even as the ‘hired hands’ of an institution have continued to flee from the implications that the signs of this age may be offering, Christ the Good Shepherd continues to lead His Church through unpredictable pastures. We shall fear no evil, for He remains always with us.

Why Madonna’s Super Bowl Performance Could Initiate a Much-Needed Conversation

Feelings are pointless, don’t ever let anyone see you cry, and make sure to master the art of sports to the best of your ability. This sums up the standard American definition of what constitutes a man. For my whole life, I’ve been aware that nearly all of the facets of my personality ran counter to such a manifesto. These noticeable differences have always made me conspicuously unique, compared to the other men whose company I’ve shared at different junctures of my life thus far. Until a few years ago, this reality was not seen as positive but rather something negative and derogatory that was viewed with scorn, sincere confusion, and outright contempt from some. Currently, my life is worlds away from such a precarious and cloudy atmosphere. But this does not erase the living nightmare that so many lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender teenagers – and even some adults – endure on a daily basis just for being themselves, not being conscious of the possibility that things can and will get better.

A significant degree of the problem is most likely cultural. The question must be asked: why is there only one mold that is exalted in America as the legitimate way of being a man?

When Madonna was announced as the scheduled performer for the halftime show at this year’s Super Bowl the response from most male football fans was one of annoyance and, in some cases, sheer outrage at the selection. What would warrant a reaction like this? In recent years Janet Jackson, Shania Twain, and Britney Spears have all debuted at the year’s most awaited sports arena. None of these other female artists were met with such hostility or indifference when it was made public that they would be the entertainment for the Super Bowl of each respective year.

From personal experience, it is obvious that most men appeared to think that Madonna was too old or not sexually appealing enough to garner a sufficient volume of excitement to make the performance one to remember. To some, this may be a legitimate grievance about this year’s halftime show. But another dynamic is at play. The fact is, even though former artists may indeed fall into this category, it’s harder to find any other artist that screams gay icon more than Madonna – except maybe Lady Gaga… Where Mother Monster probably would have had more relevance because of her youth, comprehensive popularity, and global appeal, Madonna may be viewed by the average, male, football fan as simply being a gay, old, pastime that has no pertinence to his life whatsoever. Why should any straight man be forced to subsist in such an overwhelmingly uncomfortable environment?

If being gay and being a real man weren’t considered mutually exclusive would this even be a problem?

The organizers of this year’s Super Bowl have made it apparent that the theme of homosexuality will subliminally pervade the course of the game. A commercial will be broadcast to specifically combat the bullying of LGBT persons in an athletic context. Heterosexual men may not consider this topic one that would impact their lives directly. But this is precisely part of the dilemma that exists within our culture as Americans. Walls have been erected where they need not exist. The seismic gap between the heterosexual and the homosexual realms of experience can and must be bridged.

From my own vantage point, I have to admit that during high school, I vividly remember zoning out completely whenever the time arrived to participate in my daily gym classes. Unless it was to ogle a guy who I found attractive, I really never paid attention or cared much about the logistical strategies of the games that were being played. I even feel a bit guilty about it in hindsight. Nearly every day, I nonchalantly flaunted the fact that these activities held no importance for me. Daily, I could predictably be found strolling along the field as my classmates actively took part in whatever game was being played, or, if forced to participate, I would do the bare minimum that was required for me to be considered a player. The apathy I had was undoubtedly formed by the fact that I did not grow up in an athletic household. Because of this, I never had the desire to pursue any meaningful directions in the realm of sports. Thus, any potential athletic ability I could have possessed had never been developed, and when forced to participate in sports activities, I simply viewed the endeavor as a chore that had to be carried out laboriously.

Because my personality never really contained the brawn that is required to be successful in sports, I simply saw the whole enterprise of athletics as something that I could never relate to. Viewing the world through different eyes, it has become clear that such an approach is profoundly simplistic. Being raised in a certain environment does not give one cause to belittle or dismiss the experiences that others may find meaningful and endearing in life. If anything, stepping outside of one’s comfort zones and learning to view the world as others do will only serve to enrich one’s own personal psyche and sense of being. All humans profit immensely by expanding our horizons beyond the limits of our own backyards.

Adopting such a perspective means that someday I should really sit down, and take the time to learn, analyze, and take part in the athletic pursuits that most men around the world find genuinely entertaining and gain true fulfillment from. Perhaps all gay men who’ve never been naturally athletic could derive something from understanding the mental calculations and determination that goes into strategically organizing the course of a given game?

It should be a given that as the legislative and social push for gay equality necessitates that those who are prejudiced or bigoted leave their immediate spheres of influence to become acquainted with new perspectives, so should LGBT persons not simply demand to be civilly accommodated, but truly explore and investigate how they can take part in and learn from the world in which they have been born.

By the same token, many heterosexual men, particularly those involved in the athletic arena, could do a lot more to better understand the emotions and activities that give meaning to the lives of gay men. Cultural barriers must be eradicated so that certain activities, settings, or even people aren’t just viewed as “gay”, but rather as unique, offering something special to society that is not encountered routinely. A wonderful way for such an enlightenment to take hold across all of American society would be if athletes who happened to be gay were given the freedom by the media and their fans to be open and unashamed about their fundamental identities. How is it that professional athletes are allowed to physically jostle, tackle, and even grab certain parts of each other’s bodies to express their enthusiasm for the game, but if it was discovered that they were attracted to persons of the same-sex and in a committed relationship with such a partner, this would completely obliterate the sense of irreproachable masculinity that is accorded to them by their fans?

Dialogue always ensues by way of a two-way street. Even though it may be awkward for many, choosing none other than the Queen of Pop to perform at this year’s Super Bowl could be the perfect way to begin the process of having such a meaningful discussion throughout the nation.

Applying the Principle of Conversion to the Universal Church

“Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.'” -Mark 1:14-15

Earlier this week, as Christians throughout the world concluded the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity it is highly coincidental that last Sunday’s Gospel would highlight the themes of conversion and repentance. If anything else in the world should serve as evidence of the reality of sin, it would be hard to find a better example than the divisions and hostilities that have severed, and visibly divided, the mystical Body of Christ – which is the Church.

Pure arrogance coupled with a temporal desire for power and domination, drove fallible men to inflict these wounds upon the universal Church. The overreaching prerogatives that the Roman papacy adopted for itself gradually created a wedge between the Christian communities of the East and West which would eventually lead to the Great Schism – thereby creating the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church as they exist today.

A distinct church would be destined to spring up that would carry on forever the spirit of the sixteenth century reformer Martin Luther, whose ultimate desire was not to sever his own ties with the Catholic Church, but rather to influence its leaders to put an end to unbiblical practices; such as the selling of indulgences that promised those who purchased them eternal salvation or reprieved sentences in Purgatory.

The Anglican Communion has its roots in King Henry VIII’s dissatisfaction with the amount of power and sway the Bishop of Rome was allowed to have over his personal life. This would eventually drive him to eradicate ecclesiastical ties with Rome and establish the Church of England, which over the centuries has proven to be an inestimable contribution to the global People of God through its theology, collegiality, and even artistically, considering the many beautiful choral works of music that have been composed within the Anglican tradition. Although the events which led to its creation may seem political and trivial, the Church of England serves as a perpetual testament to the premise that our lives as humans are our own, and that no matter how much we may respect the spiritual authority of the prelates of our respective denominations, all of us must follow the dictates of our own consciences and refuse to allow popes, bishops, or pastors to carry out the faculty of cognitive rationalization on our behalf.

Since the Reformation, countless other Protestant denominations, each with legitimate grievances against the status quo or their own unique theological perspective, have been formed to serve as living testimonies and communities dedicated to the service of the Risen Christ. Unfortunately, Christendom today seems to be more divided now than ever before. A common celebration of the Eucharist is not even possible amongst numerous churches because the theological/ideological chasms are seen as being too great. Even more deplorable are the internal occasions of corruption and abuse (most notably the rampant phenomenon of the sexual violation of children within Catholicism) that continue to threaten Christianity’s credibility for the world at large.

How can Christians overcome such obstacles – internal and external – so that a more poignant and effective manifestation of Christ’s Body might be projected to the world?

The prescription of conversion and repentance given in Mark’s Gospel appears to be an apt remedy. However, applying such a formula is deeper than simply asking certain people to convert and plead for forgiveness of their transgressions. In his book The Heart of Christianity, renowned biblical scholar Marcus Borg examines how these themes were authentically understood in the Jewish culture of the time which shaped and cultivated the public ministry of Jesus of Nazareth.

When Jesus uses the word “repent” in the Gospels, most Christians immediately are filled with illusions of personal guilt and think of seeking forgiveness for one’s sins. While this is a correct interpretation of the word it does not embody the fullness that it originally possessed in the Hebrew Scriptures. In the Jewish context, to repent means to return from a state of spiritual exile and ambiguity to a focused, committed relationship with God. In the New Testament, where the Gospels were written in Greek, a further depth of linguistic meaning is conveyed when this word is employed. To “go beyond the mind that you have acquired” is an additional flavor that is detected in the Greek composition of the word.  Therefore, a truly biblical understanding of the word “repent” means not just seeking God’s forgiveness but heartfully returning to God and adopting a new way of seeing to bring lasting and genuine fulfillment to one’s life.

If such an effort was done on a collective level by members of the Body of Christ throughout the world, particularly those in positions of ecclesiastical leadership, imagine the results that could be reaped. Within Catholicism, instead of simply window dressing a response to the clerical abuse crisis, why not craft standards that would have “real teeth” (as the Pope is fond of saying about other matters) in terms of preventing further outbreaks of such heinous acts – committed by those to whom the world’s most vulnerable members have been entrusted in confidence. Enacting a zero tolerance policy worldwide for any member of the clergy who is confronted with allegations of misconduct would prove to the world that the institutional church in Rome is truly committed to the welfare of innocent children rather than the upkeep of its colloquial facade in public opinion. Moreover, a powerful message could be conveyed by making it mandatory for bishops to relinquish their offices who were discovered to have either turned a blind eye to instances of abuse in their dioceses, or who shuttled perpetrators of such vile acts from parish to parish. Doing so would not preserve the status quo, but would instead definitively chart a sincere path into the future.

It goes without saying that such an approach would also engender re-evaluating the question of clerical celibacy (which has always been acknowledged to be a human creation) to allow members of the priesthood to marry as well as broaching the necessity of including the voices and input of women among the church’s leadership positions.

The same principle could be applied to the Anglican Communion as it continues to be divided geographically by the subject of homosexuality. Essentially, when the prospect of Christian unity is examined, nothing can ever conceivably be accomplished before various Christian bodies look within themselves and see what wrinkles, stains, or wounds are preventing them from moving toward full communion with other churches. Even if all Christian churches throughout the world fully tackled the issues which were inhibiting their communities from being credible witnesses to the Gospel of Christ, external, theological divisions would undoubtedly remain.

Even if this is the case, hope remains. During a service which took place to observe the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity at my parish here in Baltimore, a Methodist pastor shared some thoughts of John Wesley’s that would prove enlightening and encouraging when attempting to make a greater cohesion of all Christians a reality instead of a longed-for hope:

“But even though a difference in opinions or modes of worship may prevent an entire external union, yet need it prevent our union in affection? Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike? May we not be of one heart, though we are not of one opinion? Without doubt, we may. In this all the children of God may unite, even though they retain these smaller differences. These remaining as they are, they may help one another increase in love and in good works.”

Perhaps no one else’s words would prove more inspiring on this matter than those of Jesus of Nazareth, the humble Galilean peasant Whose passion for living and for spreading the Reign of God would give rise to countless bodies and institutions that would forever bear His name:

“If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. And if Satan has risen against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.” -Mark 3: 25-27

Time will only tell how much longer those who call themselves followers of Jesus continue to consent to allow themselves to be spiritually tied, gagged, and held captive by the corruption and arrogance that continues to divide rather than unite the flock of Christ in a spirit of love, peace, and justice.

Hodie Christus Natus Est: Heralding the Dawn of a New Beginning

“By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” -Luke 1:78-79

The most wonderful time of the year is upon us. As the universal Church ponders the mystery of the Incarnation it is highly appropriate to reflect about what this central focal point of our faith really means. During the past year, my own theological views have undergone considerable revision. Thanks to the writings of Bishop John Shelby Spong, Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan, and the renowned Fr. Hans Küng I have been exposed to a new understanding of God and a radically new approach to the Christian life.

The richest kernel of wisdom that has been received from these theologians is being able to understand that not all accounts in the Bible can be taken as being historically or scientifically infallible – even those that have been perceived as being foundational to Christianity. To the early Church, the birth of Jesus of Nazareth ushered in a new and definitive beginning for the human race – as God was communicated in a unique way, for all, in the person of Christ. Conveying this sentiment was accomplished, as most religions of the time did, through mythical tales that employed certain symbols to establish and underline the truth that was being emphasized.

For most Christians, to consider the accounts contained in the Gospels that detail the birth of Jesus as fictional is indeed a revolutionary concept. In the opinions of many it is tantamount to heresy. However, as Scripture is analyzed, it is plain to see that the fantastic birth narratives chronicled in Matthew and Luke’s Gospels never formed the core of the Christian tradition. The first reference to the birth of Christ in the New Testament comes from one of the apostle Paul’s epistles, written around the middle of the first century C.E. In the Letter to the Galatians, Paul details of how, “When the fullness of time had come, God sent His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.” (Galatians 4:4-5).

Writing at a time before any of the canonical Gospels had been composed, one of the greatest pillars of the early Church appears to be ignorant of any knowledge of angelic throngs, wise men from the East, mobile stars, or miraculous conceptions that accompanied the birth of Jesus. Paul describes it matter-of-factly, simply stating that He was “born of a woman.” No supernatural phenomena characterized the event. If they had, wouldn’t they have proven worthy of mention?

The oldest of the four Gospels (that of Mark – written twenty years after Paul’s epistles) never mentions the birth of Jesus but begins immediately with Jesus being baptized by John the Baptist. Matthew and Luke’s Gospels (which were largely based on the material found in Mark) were written at least five to fifteen years after the composition of Mark. The annunciation and birth narratives of Jesus that Christians have become so accustomed to are unique to these two Gospels. Even John’s Gospel, which highlights and emphasizes the divinity of Christ more than any other, fails to mention any incident of a miraculous birth – only stating, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…And the Word became flesh and lived among us” -John 1:1,14

If the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke can be considered an independent development within the early Christian tradition, and not a foundational one, how did they come about and what do they mean for the life of the Church today?

First, it must be understood that the concept of a virgin birth need not be as fundamental as it has been for the past two millenia of Christian history. The origins of this belief are usually based on a passage from the Old Testament book of Isaiah, where God promises that “a virgin will conceive and bear a son, and shall call him Immanuel.” (Isaiah 7:14). For centuries, this verse was seen as substantiating the idea that the exact manner and circumstances of the coming of the Messiah had been foretold long ago in Sacred Scripture. However, when the question of translation is examined another picture is painted. The version of Isaiah that the author of Matthew’s Gospel used was a Greek rendering of the original Hebrew text. In Greek, the word “parthenos” does indeed describe a virgin in the sexual sense. But in Hebrew, the word used concerning the woman is ”almah” which does not mean a virgin, but rather a “young woman”, married or unmarried. Thus, the assertion that the virgin birth of Jesus was foreshadowed in the Old Testament is completely unfounded.

This tradition probably arose to emphasize God as being the source of the unique and irrevocable call that impelled all that Jesus of Nazareth said and did throughout His life. Portraying Jesus as not being born as the result of human conception placed His very existence not within the fallible limits of frail human beings, but rather among the infinite possibilities of the Divine. As the Gospel of Luke phrased it, a new “Dawn from on high” had broken upon the horizon of human history, that would leave it forever and irreparably changed.

As the early Christian community reflected on this mystery, more and more attention would come to be focused on the biological state of Mary’s virginity rather than what that virginity ultimately represented theologically. Analogies were constructed between the Old and New Testaments that compared Eve’s role in humanity’s fall from grace with Mary’s chosen status as the spotless vessel to bear the One to redeem mankind. From that point on, Mary, the mother of Jesus would ever be attached to the word Virgin. This quality, more than any other, would be what distinguished Mary in Christian theology. Not her courage or the maternal dedication of her faith, but the fact alone that she never took part in sexual intercourse with a man. Seeing sexual expression as a necessary evil that was inaugurated after the dreaded Fall in the Garden of Eden , early Christian theologians frowned upon viewing anything positive about the topic. The virginity of Mary was the perfect way to depict the unrealistic ideal towards which all faithful Christians should aspire – celibacy. Such actions would continue to erect a tradition of theologically denigrating human sexuality. Even worse, such a trend would deny women any positive role models to emulate, aside from those who had chosen the path of clerically endorsed celibacy. If Mary was never a virgin, how enriching or useful is such a doctrine for the women of the twenty-first century?

Another staple of the traditional Christmas story is that, spurred on by a census issued by Caesar Augustus, the pregnant Mary and her husband Joseph travelled over one-hundred miles from Nazareth to Joseph’s ancestral town of Bethlehem. The little town of Bethlehem is the subject of countless sentimental carols, but has anyone ever given any thought to whether it was actually the real birthplace of Jesus?

In terms of historical accuracy, there are no records of any such census being taken in Judea by the Roman Empire that would have forced families to travel back to the towns of their ancestors in order to be accounted for. The Romans kept meticulous records of such undertakings, and an event as unique as this would surely have been found in the annals of some chronological ledger that kept track of the activities of the Empire in its various provinces. Josephus, nor any other contemporary historian ever makes mention of the account. Logistically speaking, such a census would be a civic nightmare! Why order the population of a given region to scatter to numerous different sites to be counted when they all could gather at one central location?

Bethlehem was the legendary King David’s hometown. Making a connection between such a renowned figure in Israel’s history would remove beyond all doubt the legitimacy of Jesus as the Messiah that had been promised generations ago. And what would conveniently place the Holy Family within the City of David? A census. Thus, it must be admitted that the arduous journey of Mary and Joseph, that has characterized part of the charm and timeless appeal of the Christmas story to countless generations of Christians, is most likely not history, but rather, poetic license taken to substantiate the early Christian community’s view that Jesus of Nazareth was indeed the Messiah. This promised Anointed One had to possess some connection to the legacy of Israel’s most illustrious hero, therefore the fictional census of Luke’s Gospel serves to establish this bond.

If one wishes to consult the guidance of history, it is safe to say that Nazareth was probably the birthplace of Jesus.

In the same way, there can be no historical reference found that documents the slaughter of the innocents under the order of King Herod that is found in the Gospel of Matthew. Just as the author of Luke’s Gospel had a subliminal method behind the creation of his narrative of the birth of Jesus so did the composer of Matthew’s Gospel. The author of Matthew was writing to a largely Jewish audience, so it was imperative to enumerate connections between Old Testament themes and the life of Jesus in his Gospel. Throughout Matthew, Jesus is portrayed as the new and definitive fulfillment of Moses – one of the Torah’s most prominent figures. So think, where else in Scripture does a tyrannical king order the slaughter of a small cluster of innocent children? In the beginning of the book of Exodus, the story is told of how the Pharaoh of Egypt orders the annihilation of all male Hebrew children under the age of two for fear of an uprising that would topple his reign. The mother of Moses places him in a basket and sets him afloat upon the Nile River. The boy finds his way to the palace of the Pharaoh where he is taken and raised by the king’s daughter. When one puts the two stories side by side, it is obvious that they are almost identical in scope – particularly considering how Jesus avoids detection by the forces of Herod.

If none of these accounts can be taken as factually accurate what does this say about the Christmas story we have all learned as children?

The real question to consider is: what do the traditional Christmas accounts we have all been taught tell us about God?

Christianity has always held that God descended the heights of heaven, and took on flesh, to save mankind from its sinfulness. God was an external being that was completely Other, reigning from another far-off realm of consciousness, Who needed to be placated by humanity’s compliance and subservience.

But what if God is not a being, but rather a Reality, a Force, a Presence that is at the heart of all that pervades the earth and the universe?

If so, then God never had to come down from heaven. The reality of God was never detached from this plane of existence. Realizing this precious truth, we can see what the birth of Jesus really signals – hope is never far away because God can be discovered in the deepest expression of our own humanity. During Midnight Mass, when we kneel to honor the consummation of the Incarnation during the recitation of the Creed, we should do so not in austere humility – taken aghast at the prospect of God deeming humans worthy of enjoying His presence – but rather in sheer joy, adoration, and gratitude at the thought that God can be discovered so intimately within each one of us, and through our actions. This is what the Incarnation is fundamentally about: that the very essence and nature of the Divine was communicated to the world in the life of a human person, Jesus of Nazareth. This same Reality, can be discovered within every human person, and in all living things, if we only become aware and appreciative of the grace of the presence of God.

Even if the Christmas stories that mythologically tried to convey this sentiment are not factually true, this does not deprive them of their meaning. Through these intricate and stimulating parables we see that the reality of God is not only destined for the learned or the opulent, but can be cherished and found among the most meager of circumstances – in the company of shepherds or the stark simplicity of a manger. Even if Mary was not a virgin, how much more profound an insight would it be that the Divine can be communicated in all of life’s endeavors, especially during sexual intercourse between two people who are genuinely in love.

All of these points are what the authors of Matthew and Luke’s Gospels tried to emphasize, that the Divine can be located within the human sphere of reference, and that Hope is discovered not outside, but within the recesses of our humanity. This new beginning for the world that was offered in the person of Jesus of Nazareth is sorely needed amidst the challanges, sadness, and uncertanties of today’s world. Whether it be the bleak state of the globe’s economic affairs, war and violence that continue to plague numerous lands, or poverty and injustice that are made manifest even in our own nation, the planet Earth is much in need of a cosmic reboot to revitalize its fortunes. Yet, for anyone who has committed themselves to the cause of Christ, it is possible to bring such hope alive for countless souls. Doing so means not by assenting to doctrinal or dogmatic rubrics, but rather by living out and making evident the message of the One who Christians acclaim as the “Light of the World.”

I extend wishes for a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all who happen upon this posting! As food for reflection, it seemed appropriate to leave the words of Bishop John Shelby Spong, whose writings have been dominantly instrumental in reshaping my views of Scripture and its meaning for our lives:

“God is not a heavenly judge. God is a life force expanding inside humanity until that humanity becomes barrier-free. This was the God revealed in the fullness of Jesus’ humanity. It was a new God definition that shifted our old view of an external force into something found at the center of life. The being of this God calls us to be; the life of this God calls us to live; the love of this God calls us to love. Jesus lived the life of God. That is why we proclaim that in His life the Source of life was seen. In His love the Source of love was seen. In His courage, which enabled Him to be fully human, the Ground of All Being was seen. That is the experience that the word ‘Incarnation’ was created to communicate. It is not a doctrine to be believed so much as it is a presence to be experienced.”