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MUSINGS ON THE 4TH – WIESEL, LINCOLN, FRANCIS, JESUS

July 4, 2017

MUSINGS ON THE 4TH: WIESEL, FRANCIS, JESUS

Dear Friends:

“Human beings can be beautiful, or more beautiful,

They can be fat or skinny, they can be right or wrong,

But, illegal? How can a human being be illegal?

Elie Wiesel (1928-2016)

 

There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice,

But there can never be a time when we fail to protest”

Elie Wiesel (quoted from “Give Us this Day”)

 

“I wish a Church which is poor and for the poor . . . The poor have much to teach us.”

Pope Francis, “Evangelii Gaudium,” 198

 

For I was hungry . . . for I was thirsty . . . for I was an alien . . .

And you . . . ?  Matt. 25: 31-46

 

July 4th – This nation was born (like many others were) as a protest against injustice and oppression. After a period of tentative survival as a loose conglomeration of states which did not perceive themselves as a nation, after the failure of the Articles of Confederation to provide a sense of national identity, a group of visionaries produced one of the most remarkable documents of all times, truly an expression of a people willing to live as a “polis,” as social and political community, guided by their concern for the Common Good. On September 17, 1787, the Constitution of the United States was ratified.

But this original text, dense and plethoric with promises as it was when it appeared, was deemed insufficient. On December 15, 1791, the U.S. Congress ratified the first 10 Amendments, the Bill of Rights. Over time, from 1791 through 1992, other 17 Amendments were added.

Are the Amendments to be regarded, as many have done, as corrections to deficiencies in the 1787 original Constitutions? I would rather see them as a deeper exegesis of the implicit spirit and nature of that first, convulsive and subversive text. The Amendments attempt to flesh out the promise and the hopes of the Founding Fathers (or “Brothers,” as Joseph Ellis would have it).

But there always was the questions of the “illegals” – Elie Wiesel knew what it was like to be illegal. On September 15, 1935, when Hitler pushed through the Nuremberg Laws, all Jews in German-controlled territories became illegal. Stripped of their citizenship and of the opportunities to pursue mainline professions, they became pariahs, “illegal” waste, discards, in the land many of them had inhabited for generations. For Wiesel, that meant, eventually, a journey of death and unspeakable pain through three concentration camp: Auschwitz, where his mother and younger sister, Tzipora,  died, Buna, and Buchenwald, where his father was also murdered . . . and the cry many others raised to the heavens, that never ceased to torture this noble and inspired soul: “Can we believe in God after Auschwitz?” – “The death of my God and my soul,” as he would later define it.

For the newly-conceived nation across the Atlantic, the question of the “illegals” meant facing the following fact (I trust you do not have allergic reactions to numbers): In 1790, Congress ordered the first U.S. Census to be taken. The project yielded the following somber and sobering reality: of the 3, 893, 635 people dwelling in the newly-independent former colonies, 694, 280 were slaves. The nation was born with 17.2 % of its population living in bondage, with no social or political identity, and legally classified as chattel, as property, not as human beings.

There were anointed people who did not fail to protest. On May 29, 1856, at the foundation of the new Republican Party in Bloomington, Abraham Lincoln delivered his “lost speech” (no transcripts of the whole speech survive, but we have fragments preserved by local scribes). Lincoln claimed that “the Union must be preserved in the purity of its principles as well as the integrity of its territorial parts.” Lincoln would follow through, as President, with his demand when on January 1, 1863, he proclaimed the Emancipation Act.

From April 12, 1861 to April 9, 1865, all hell broke loose over the land – literally. It took a Civil War that claimed the lives of 620,000 people (conservative estimate) and many thousands more maimed or lost, to bring about the XIII Amendment, ratified on December 6, 1865, abolishing slavery forever.

The 4th of July, Wiesel, Abraham Lincoln, the Holocaust, slavery – how do they connect to one another, if indeed they do? How fitting are they as substance for reflection on Independence Day, if indeed they are?

History is not driven by blind, tragic fate, the “Ananke” of the ancient Greeks. For those whose hearts and souls are defined (in the midst of their imperfections) by the Jewish-Christian Scriptures and Tradition, there is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of Jesus Christ, who somehow, in and through the horrors of the Holocaust and slavery, remains the true Lord of history.

But God, the God who was “murdered” in the souls of so many victims of the brutalities of our age, is also a subversive God, a God who calls frail and finite people to clamor for justice, to protest, to raise their voice for the voiceless, to never let a nation (or a world) dismiss or turn a blind eye to the slaveries, the Holocausts, that still happen today, in a vaster and vaster scale.

I see, with undefinable pain and hurt, how so many (NOT ALL!!) Catholic parish communities here in South Florida ignore the cry of the victims, all around them – So many of those who fill their opulent churches, graced with marble altars, at the 10 AM Mass every Sunday, and then turn around and demand that “those filthy migrants” be sent to the hellhole they came from, who argue (as this “good Catholic” lady, regular communicant, fiercely and viciously told me) that those migrants are bringing diseases already eradicated (a false rumor, as the CDC in Atlanta later reported) – send them back to die of those diseases in the desert, she said (!!!!)

A close friend of hers, who coordinates a Bible study group (!!!!) wrote a letter expressing her glee at the U.S. apostasy from the Paris Agreement – the fact that, as pope Francis unceasingly affirms in Laudato Si (61 X), the poor are the front-line sufferers of ecological disaster does not matter at all to this Catholic Bible-thumper.

During his days at the concentration camp of Buna, Elie Wiesel and the other prisoners were forced to watch the hanging of three men, accused of sabotage. One of them was a very young, angelic-faced boy. After the hangings were seemingly over, Wiesel approached this sweet-faced boy – he was still alive! “And so he remained – Wiesel continues – for more than half an hour, lingering between life and death, writhing before our eyes. And we were forced to look at close range. He was still alive when I passed him. His tongue was still red, his eyes not yet extinguished.”

“Behind me, I heard the same man asking: ‘For God’s sake, where is God?’ And from within me, I heard a voice answer: ‘Where He is? – This is where –  hanging from this gallows . . .  That night, the soup tasted of corpses.”

As we celebrate the 4th  – and surely, there are good reasons to celebrate!! – as we smell the ever-inviting burgers or whatever food we consume today, as the Republic we celebrate is given over to the oracles of racism, xenophobia, unbridled greed and arrogance, and allowed to unravel at a record pace, perhaps Wiesel’s recollection would be a subversive reminder – as subversive as the document signed on this date, in 1776 (for the sake of being pedantic, it was actually signed two days earlier), and that other wonder of American foundational political genius, the Constitution – that, indeed, the corpses of the victims of hatred, racism and individualism are still hanging in their gallows, that the counter-witness so many parish Catholics give kindles that never-ending anguished clamor: “For God’s sake, where is God” – and the answer thunders ominously: “This is where – hanging here from the gallows.”

Not as an act of unwelcome masochism on such a festive day, but as a healthy protest, as a Fundamental Option for spiritual integrity, we should allow at least one of our burgers today to taste like corpses.

Oremus pro invicem

 

 

 

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