Identity is slippery

1 Oct

Identity is slippery

I heard an interview a few days ago that keeps buzzing in my head. The central figure is a second-generation Turkish German, whose parents migrated to Germany in a program for guest-workers. He is a writer, living in Berlin. One exchange is especially vivid in my memory:

“Do you identify as a German?”


“Do you identify as a Turk?”

“No, definitely not!”

“How do you identify?”

“As me–a person who has learned to cope and a person of worth and capabilities.”

“You have a daughter–do you wish for her to identify as German?”

“No. I wish for her to identify as I have–with her intrinsic worth and capabilities.”

“Do you wish for her to live a life of hope?”

“No. Living in hope means that you don’t appreciate your own intrinsic worth, you’re living always in the expectation that something will come to you from the outside, to make your life better. I want my daughter to take satisfaction in what she is now and the capabilities she has already has that enable her to cope with change.”

The writer’s statements are not fully coherent–for example, I would say that emphasis on one’s capabilities entails some hope for the future. Nevertheless, the man’s confession is a clear and stunning perspective on personal identity.

His position is extraordinarily individualistic. But look at the man’s situation. Biologically and culturally he came into this world Turkish, but he has no desire to live in that world now or allow it to define him. He has grown up acculturated in a German world that has historically not been very welcoming to immigrants. There are many restrictions on persons of non-German lineage becoming full-fledged citizens. After all, comparable with many nations around the world, Germany belongs to the descendants of the peoples that have lived on German territory for millennia. Only in the 1990s, culminating with a new law in 2000, could the writer–as a German-born child of Turkish parents who lived in Germany for at least eight years–become a German citizen.

Many people identify themselves through their nationality. The public discussions of who is American (meaning a citizen of the United States) are as tortured as those in Germany. We do not say that the U. S. belongs to the historic settlers and their descendants, to be sure. The truth is that four hundred years ago, the European immigrants began a long struggle to seize the land from the historic settlers–the Native American Indians through military force that continued until the late 19th century, the Hispanics through the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, as well as through the Spanish-American War and the Mexican-American War, both in the 1840s. Our national consciousness is largely ignorant of this history–that vast areas of the Midwest have belonged to the U. S. for only 212 years and that California, Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado for only 175 years. “The greatest nation that God ever created” has a checkered history, and not all of that history is easily related to God.

If a person’s identity is bound up with America, just what is that identity? Every political speech ends with the words,”God bless America”–but just what is being attributed to God? It is not surprising that many people choose to find their identity in other ways. Pico Iyer was born in England of Indian parents, lived in the U.S. for several years, and now resides in Japan. His identity, he says, is formed not by place or ethnicity, but by certain values and by interacting with other people who share those values.

Some find their identity in their ethnicity. Or should we say that our society defines them by their ethnicity–or by the color of their skin. African-Americans hold tenaciously that their claim to be American is more deeply rooted than most whites, since blacks have been here 400 years, far longer than most others. Women may identify with their gender–again pressured by the societal forces them into gender stereotypes. Jews are in a different situation–their ethnicity is also religious, whether or not they practice it. And again their societal context defines them as Jews. We may choose an identity, but our social context bestows an identity on is, too. Which is our “true” identity? Or is identity forged in the interplay between our self-chosen and our socially bestowed identities?

During the Vietnam war protests, I was impressed by the Roman Catholic protesters–exemplified by the Berrigan brothers, both priests–who testified to a religious identity that transcends nation and ethnicity, and in many cases, gender, as well.

Whatever forms the center of identity must be reformed and purified. As a Christian who wishes to identify with the Christ-community and its traditions, it is crucial that my community be open to all, because Christ is infinitely open to the creation and its people. But I feel similarly about my national identity. I do not want to be identified with a racist America or an America that forgets and pushes aside the poor, the weak, and the handicapped. I do not want to identify with an America whose goal is to become a military colossus astride the globe.

I do want to reform and purify all the sources of my identity. I gladly endorse the Jewish tenet, Tikkun Olam–reform or heal the world. Of course, this means that I am a creature of hope and my God is the source of hope.

When I reflect on the issues of identity, I empathize with the Turkish-German writer. Identifying fully with who I am now and my capabilities may not be an adequate identity, but it’s not a bad place to start. Whatever my identity, it must acknowledge this starting-point. The starting-point changes rapidly, however. When I retired, my internal sense of self did not change immediately, but others perceived me in quite different ways. This changed drastically when I entered the camp of the “elderly” and even more when I became confined to a wheelchair. Before, I was a classroom teacher, a preacher, a public lecturer, and a traveler. Now I am reader and a writer, and I try to be a positive factor in the lives of those around me. And I am much more dependent on the goodwill of others. There is a constant dialogue, even a conflict, between the identity I feel in myself and the identity bestowed on me by others, especially those outside my retirement community. I am playing catch-up much of the time–but so are those I meet.

Much more can be said, but I’ll leave this where I began: Identity is slippery.

(c) Phil Hefner 10/1/2015

Our ambivalent witness to moral urgency

8 Sep

Note: my last installment and this one are the most academic segments of my blog. I will continue to cast my light on themes that interest me–most of them will not be academically oriented. It all depends on what the theme requires. Thanks for bearing with me.

I consider J. Robert Oppenheimer a classic example of ambivalence towards science and technology. Oppenheimer, a brilliant physicist and director of the Los Alamo lab that produced the first atom bomb, is one of the most important scientists of the 20th century. He is also iconic in his ambivalence toward science. Clearly, he loved his scientific work–it was his very life, until the day he died in 1967–he said he needed it more than he needed friends. At the same time, the use of the bomb troubled him greatly. After the first atomic test, he said, “I’m not clear whether science is good for humanity or bad.” He also said “the physicists have known sin; and this is a knowledge which they cannot lose.” He was ostracized in both the scientific and political communities. President Harry Truman called him a crybaby, while Edward Teller, a fellow nuclear physicist, and Lewis Strauss, head of the Atomic a Energy Commission, called him a communist, and took away his security clearance.

What is ambivalence? We need to be clear that it refers to the fact that we sometimes hold two differing values at the same time–it’s the love/hate relationship. Oppenheimer loved physics more than life itself, and yet he was horrified by what physics had produced. It is important that we recognize Oppenheimer as a figure of ambivalence, because too often negativity towards science is dismissed as ignorance and stupidity. Scientists and scientific organizations are frequently in the lead dismissing ambivalence–it is often associated with Creationism. This is unfortunate on two counts: most of those people who are ambivalent about science and technology are equally averse to creationism; and ironically, more than a few creationists are working scientists.

Ambivalence toward science and technology is deeply rooted in our culture, both our high sophisticated culture and popular culture, carried across generations in stories and images. Johann Wolfgang Goethe (1749-1832), himself a distinguished scientist–especially for his theories of color and the evolution of plants and insects–certainly represents high culture. Two of his stories, however–Faust and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice–are based on centuries-old traditions and have entered the popular mind. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice goes back two thousand years and has been retold by Walt Disney in his two Fantasia films. Faust as mad scientist has been portrayed in many films, including Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 satire, Dr. Strangelove.

There are many other stories and images that convey the same ambivalence–for example, The Monkey’s Paw (whose point is the same as The Sorcerer’s Apprentice) and the Jewish tales of the Golem. The Golem is especially striking–defined in Jewish folklore as an artificial figure constructed to represent a human being and endowed with life. In some versions, the Golem is inscribed with the Hebrew word “truth” written on its forehead. It could be deactivated by removing the first letter of the word, changing it from “truth” to “death.” If you want the fascinating details, see My last blog piece suggested that in our culture, popular sci-fi movies frequently carry the stories and images of ambivalence.

These traditions are old, and they run very deep in our cultural psyche. In an important sense, they are the “people’s culture.” They will not allow themselves to be erased; they may go underground, only to pop up unexpectedly. Today we see them alive and well in the Western societies that are also the most sophisticated scientific and technological societies in history. We are excited about the future possibilities that science and technology can bring us, but at the same time, we fear them.

How should we respond? Some suggestions:

1–I take as given that today science and technology are essential for human well-being and survival. “Anti-science” and “anti-technology” positions are profoundly absurd. Nevertheless, we remain ambivalent, and our best strategy is to channel that ambivalence into the formulation of goals and holding ourselves accountable to them.

Toward what goals should our science and technology be directed? There is no more important issue facing us today, and both strategic and moral/ethical questions are involved in goal-setting. A laundry list of issues makes the point: medicine, manipulating life, extending life, manipulating the environment, plant and animal engineering, military applications, wider use of robots. Enough said–the scope is obvious.

There are vigorous discussions today among scientists about goals and ethical issues in their work. These efforts are important and salutary; they need to be intensified and, the public should be kept more aware of the issues and possibilities. The scientific discussions should also focus on large scale issues, not only on specific techniques and procedures. We need public consideration of proposals like that of Francis Fukuyama for establishing a governing agency for biogenetic sciences comparable to the Atomic Energy Commission in its field. See: Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002.

2–Religious communities should not let themselves be captured by negativity and condemnation of scientific advance, as they have frequently in the past. Nor should they seek some tepid “middle way”–for example, praising the science that saves lives and the technology that restores wetlands, while condemning out of hand various forms of genetic engineering, including genetically modified foods. Furthermore, it is salutary that seminaries are including the relevant scientific education in their curricula. At the same time, religionists should embrace ambivalence towards science and technology and never retreat from the public discussion of how science and technology can best serve human welfare. They should enter into free and open discussion of the most difficult areas scientific and technological impact on society.
The ambivalence toward science and technology that we find in popular culture is a gut level reminder that the moral agenda remains an urgent challenge for us. That agenda must be pursued–it won’t go away.
(c) Phil Hefner 9/8/2015

Loving and hating science in the Jurassic World

30 Aug

The final scene of the movie Jurassic World has received no attention in the reviews–in fact, it is not mentioned in the film’s synopses that I’ve read. For those who haven’t seen the film, or whose recollection is faded, let me set the scene: The dinosaur theme park, under the supervision of Dr. Henry Wu (of Jurassic Park fame) features genetically engineered super-dinos–“bigger, faster, crueler.” They are the next generation of dinosaur, developed from the T. Rex raptors in Jurassic Park that the good doctor cloned from prehistoric DNA that was preserved in Amber. Jurassic Park engaged in what is now called de-extinction; Jurassic World goes a step further to create a new breed of dinosaur. JPark’s dinos are “more natural,” and that’s the key to the final scene. The crueler and bigger “modern” reptiles have been vanquished by the T. Rex–that’s what the story line is all about. The movie’s final shot is of the victorious animal raising its head triumphantly above the trees.

Natural is better–that is a frequent theme in movies, even in sci-fi movies. Back in 1936, Charlie Chaplin’s classic, Modern Times, ended with Chaplin and Paulette Godard walking down the road, away from the world of technology and into a more natural future. More recently, Bladerunner (1992) portrays the conflict between natural humans and genetically engineered “replicants, who were designed to work in extraterrestrial environments that are unfriendly for humans. The replicants are superior in some respects; their grievance is that they have been engineered with a life span of only four years. The outcome of the conflict is ambiguous–two different versions of the film were released, each with a different ending.

In Gattaca (the letters are an anagram of the ACGT nucleotides of the DNA molecule), 1997, the plot focuses directly on the competition of two brothers, Vincent, a natural “love child” with a normal number of genetic defects, and Anton, who was screened at the embryo stage and found to be “perfect.” Through several contests, the natural brother surpasses his flawless sibling.

The message could not be clearer, Jurassic World being the latest installment. Dr. Wu might even be seen as a Faust figure, the mad scientist, who trades his soul for unlimited knowledge. The Faust story, which has its beginnings at least eight hundred years ago, has taken on many forms (for example, Wikipedia lists more than twenty-five films based on the Faust story. It has been intertwined with Frankenstein and the figure of the Mad Scientist, perhaps most vividly in recent decades as Dr. Strangelove, in the 1964 film. The very old story of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice (think of more recent portrayals in Disney’s Fantasia in 1940 and its 2000 sequel) focuses on the technological dimension of knowledge. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), who created highly influential versions of both Faust and the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, was himself an important scientist.

Jurassic World draws upon these deep roots of popular culture as it combines the mad scientist with the horrific hybrid dinosaurs and adds a scheming capitalist who owns the Dino park and controls Dr. Wu. The film ends with the mad scientist and his capitalist patron escaping to live another day, while the “most natural” dinosaur wins a temporary victory over the scientist’s evil creations. The dinos have already killed the security guard who planned to steal embryos, to breed dinos as weapons of war.

What interests me especially are the attitudes towards science and technology expressed in this film. Jurassic World is sci-fi, as are several of the films I’ve mentioned. Sci-fi in which there is embedded a deep ambivalence about science, a not-so-hidden critique of science. This is not unusual–although the common view of sci-if is that it glorifies science and technology, in fact it expresses ambivalence–awe, to be sure, but also uncertainty and deep doubt about science. The Faust stream adds the fear that awesome knowledge has come by suppressing an essential side of life, whose loss we grieve–ambivalence that was given classic expression in the 1933 sci-fi film, Invisible Man, where H.G. Wells’ mad scientist hero says on his death bed, “I have tampered with things man should never touch.”

What are are we to make of this sci-fi expression of doubt about science? Occurring in the most highly advanced science-based society in history? It is not of recent origin, it is an enduring thread in the tapestry of America’s soul. Sometimes critics seem to think that ambivalence about science is a matter of poor education, or they link it to conservative Christianity. I’ve heard the epithet, “stupid and ignorant” used–as if that explained anything. Nobel laureate physicist Steven Weinberg has argued that creationists are responsible for congress de-funding the supercollider. But it goes much deeper, and it crosses lines of religion, social class, and education. Well-educated upper middle-class parents are defying medical advice to inoculate their children against childhood diseases. Ivy League-educated members of congress are reluctant to acknowledge the scientific theory of evolution.

Several questions come to mind in connection with the popular culture of ambivalence about science and technology:

1–Is it possible to counteract deep-lying cultural dimensions, such as the ambivalence to science? Or will they endure forever, even below the threshold of our awareness, waiting to capture our public life at any moment?

2–Is this culture of ambivalence in any way responsible for the scientific illiteracy that bedevils our society?

3–How do religion and science figure in the culture of ambivalence. Although has been popular to speak of a “warfare” between science and religion, today historians mainly debunk the idea. On the one hand, many scientists are actively religious, while on the other hand, the culture of science itself harbors ambivalence. It was the Father of the Atom Bomb, J. Robert Oppenheimer, who questioned physics itself, saying after Hiroshima, “We have known Original Sin.” The filmmakers who gave us Bladerunner and the Jurassic Park franchise are not necessarily anti-science. But they do have their fingers on the pulse of popular culture. After all, the Faust and Mad Scientist traditions have lasted at least 800 years.

4–Is there a kernel of truth carried by popular culture–that unbridled scientific and technological advance can lead to destructive consequences, alongside the blessings they bring? A truth that calls for deeper reflection and nuance?

I’ll elaborate on these themes in my next blog.

Phil Hefner 8/29/2015

Wars are won by weapons, but peace is won by ideas

6 Jul

The title is Rabbi Lord Sacks’, who writes that “the battle against Al Qaeda, Al Shabaab, Boko Haram, Isis, and their myriad mutations, will be the defining conflict of the next generation.” His thesis is both simple and grand: The ideas that drive these groups are religious ideas, embodying a seventh century Islamic Apocalypticism; consequently, what is required are religious ideas that can engage and overwhelm the ideology of these groups. Rabbi Sacks has devoted his new book, Not In God’s Name, to this conversation of ideas.

As far as I can discern, Rabbi Sacks’ concern is totally absent from Christian churches today. Thinking and its by-product, coining ideas, are not high on the churches’ agenda.

We are geared up to condemn the jihadist groups, to label them as evil, to mobilize military forces against them, and to affirm “moderate” religious groupings. These responses are not constituted by any new ideas, nor by religious ideas. If ideas can be said to underly our responses, they fall into three forms: (1) we are good, our opponents are evil; (2) “moderate religion” is better than “extremism”; (3) if we don’t destroy them first, they will destroy us.

These ideas may be factually true, but they are not ideas likely to turn the tide of history in ways that we need today. The challenge posed by Sacks is formidable and also intriguing. More than gut-level responses, it calls forth serious theological and philosophical thinking. I have no high pretensions, but I have, after all, devoted my life to such thinking, and I feel some responsibility to take the Rabbi’s proposals to heart. In this installment, I shall focus on one such idea: Religions must grow beyond their present sect-like thinking and behaving.

Religion is not essentially sectarian, but rather universal, and while it takes innumerable distinctive forms, religion is a network or league of equally sacred individuals and communities. These communities are dedicated to discerning and obeying what they perceive as the deepest and truest in life. All religious people are kin in their commitment to foundational values. The burgeoning inter-faith movement is a witness to this new understanding.

Why do I say this is a new understanding? After all, over two hundred years ago–in the late 1700s–Gottfried Lessing wrote his play, Nathan the Wise, whose centerpiece is the Parable of the Three Rings. Briefly, the parable symbolizes the religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam as three identical gold rings, which are bequeathed by a father to his three sons. Since the rings are indistinguishable from one another, when the sons seek to determine which ring is the original, they are told that the quality of each ring is found in the life of the wearer, whether or not it is lived in ways that are pleasing to the father.

After two centuries, this idea has scarcely taken hold among the various religious communities. So far as I know, none of the world’s religions acknowledges equal status to other religions. Each of the major religions has constructed a narrative to explain the other religions, and each is accorded inferior status–only “our” religion is the truest and most revealed religion. My own Lutheran Church emphasizes ad nauseum the uniqueness of Lutheranism. We do not inculcate our children with knowledge of what they share with other Christians, let alone other religions, but rather with their distinctiveness from the others. Every Protestant church has a theory of how and when Catholicism ceased being the true church, and Catholics can reciprocate. Similarly, every religion has a theory that explains its superiority to others. No religion has a doctrine describing the equality of other religions–in other words, no parable of the three rings.

In proposing this idea of religion, I am focusing on an idea that, while it is held by many who do not identify themselves as religious, has hard going among the religious. Much hard work is required before the idea of the equality of religions takes hold among religious folk. But unless it does take hold, the witness of religion to the world is blurred.

In the present situation, each of the religions is in effect behaving as if it were a sect–even though they would vehemently deny the fact. A sect is a group that accentuates its identity–at times, even obsessively–and constructs clear and complex procedures for relating to other groups. Such a group considers itself to have a quality of truth that is higher than that of its peer groups, and it has a clear sense of how it has come to possess its truth–often rooted in a designated lineage that leads back to divine revelation. Sects not only believe that good fences make for good neighbors, they also insist that the fences be well-built.

The stakes are high for a sect, because it has a vision of truth and it strives to remain faithful to that truth. Religious communities are not essentially self-seeking or self-aggrandizing, even though some of their adherents may be just that. These communities are sincerely devoted to a truth that transcends their immediate existence–truth that is ultimately rooted in God or in what the group believes is the ultimate reality. Each community believes that relationships with other groups will alter their identity and, in some sense, dilute its truth.

The real challenge for a religious community is to define its truth in such a way that the truth is enhanced, not diluted, by relationships with other groups. Such re-definition is a serious and difficult matter; it requires intellectual, theological, and spiritual depth, together with the will to change.

To speak personally, I have never believed that the significance of Jesus in my life is anyway compromised by what other people believe about Jesus. I think of Jaroslav Pelikan’s book, Jesus through the Centuries, which describes many views of Jesus that have been held through the centuries–from Thomas Jefferson’s humanistic image to the high sacramental beliefs of Saints Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventure and Bernard of Clairvaux. Similarly, I do not believe that my devotion to the sacrament of Holy Communion is cheapened by the fact that others who stand around the altar with me have differing understandings. In the 1950s, my wife was a representative of our denomination to a large ecumenical assembly. When it came time to receive the sacrament during a worship service, our presiding bishop issued the communique that none of our delegation was permitted to go to the altar, because there were worshippers there who “don’t have a correct theology of the sacrament.”

Is my Christianity cheapened if I believe that God has spoken just as authentically through Muslim or Hindu traditions? Or if I believe that I have something to learn from Jews and Buddhists? I have often wondered how Christians can believe that their God of love would consign billions of people to error, simply because they had not heard about Jesus.

As long as the religions of the world act like sects, denying equality to other religions, the Muslim jihadist sects are confirmed in their belief that they are in competition with the other sects and that they are destined to win the competition.

What lies beyond the sect mentality? I wrote above that religion is dedicated to discerning and obeying what is deepest and truest in life. I propose that this working understanding of religion
begins, at least, to get at the task of framing the new ideas that Rabbi Sacks speaks of. The point here is not that the Jihadists are not truly Muslim or that they are opposed to Christianity or Judaism or any other specific religion. The point is that the Jihadists are a threat to the human consensus of what is deepest and truest–as witnessed by all the world’s religions in concert. Making this point forcefully and in concert is the challenge to all religious communities and individuals. Of course, each religion will state this consensus from its own body of wisdom or revelation. When this consensus is clearly and forcefully asserted, then the Jihadists are put in their place as they should be–they are anti-human. Not anti-capitalist or anti-western or against any specific religious community, but in opposition to the human understanding of deepest truth.

When such a statement is made, non-religious people who stand for true humanism can and will join with the religious consensus. As long as the religious communities speak and act as sects, the broad range of humanists have difficulty declaring solidarity.

What I have written here is but a rough draft and a personal attempt to comprehend a challenge that demands enormous intellectual and spiritual effort for its resolution. But it is high time for the religious communities of the world to give attention to ideas, and ideas that are helpful in meeting basic challenges that face the human community in general. Pope Francis has taken such a step in his recent encyclical. It may be that my feeble attempt here can also be of use in our facing the challenges of the environment, as well, since the environment is also a defining issue for our time. But that requires a different discussion.

see– u=2a91b54e856e0e4ee78b585d2&id=3fee45c1ad

Phil Hefner
(C) 2015

The Meaning of Dinner Plates–Julie, Judy, and Jesus

18 May

 The mind is a strange thing. I was sitting today in Sunday worship, receiving Communion bread from the silver plate that the pastor held–and suddenly Julie Green popped into my mind, overlapped a nanosecond later by Judy Chicago. I tried to put these dissonant images out of my mind, but it is now six in the evening, and I realize that I must write this blog installment.

Julie Green teaches art at Oregon State University–she has been in the news, getting attention for a project she entitles, “The Last Supper.” Beginning in 2000, she has painted 600 plates that depict the last meals of death row prisoners who have been executed. Green paints the details of these meals onto second-hand porcelain plates, using a cobalt blue that reminded her of traditional English and Japanese china. At this link, you can see a plate of a hearty breakfast requested by a prisoner in California in 1927.

Judy Chicago came to my attention through the exhibit (in Chicago) of her 1979 work, “The Dinner Party.” This work is an immense open table set with thirty-nine place settings, thirteen on a side, each commemorating a goddess, historical figure, or important woman.
See the photo at this link–

It was, without doubt, the silver plate of the Communion service (technically known as a paten, which means “plate”) that brought these images to my mind–even though it is the “divine food” on the plate that is significant: the bread/body of Jesus, on his own death row, shortly to be executed.

Meals have been symbol-laden throughout human history, but Judy Chicago and Julie Green focus on plates as symbols that point to very specific realities of our lives. In her own words, Green says, “I am inspired by contemporary society. I research, and then, I point. This is true of all my work.” Her plates point to the reality of capital punishment, in a very mundane manner. She sees her plates as a “quiet” protest. She doesn’t plan to stop making them until capital punishment is abolished in the United States. Green devotes six months each year to her plates, intending to produce fifty each year.

Judy Chicago “points” as well. Each plate points to a woman of importance who deserves to be remembered. The gigantic table with its thirty-nine plates points powerfully to the fact that these and all women have been relegated too often to second-class status. The tiles in the floor register the names of 999 additional women.

The sacraments of the church also point. The bread on the plate points to Jesus at the critical moment of his life–his violent death, executed. It points, as well, to the significance of his death. He died in the course of, and because of, a life that embodied commitment to what is most profoundly important in life–justice and caring deeply for his fellow humans. We can identify with death row prisoners, just as we (especially women) can identify with the women assembled for the Dinner Party. We identify with the executed Jesus, too. We recognize that death is crucial for our lives, as well. We hope against all odds that in our deaths we will share in resurrection and union with God, as Jesus did.

All three of these plate-symbols and the meals that accompany them are community meals, not solitary. These symbols remind us that we live and die in community–even if we sometimes feel that we are in solitary confinement, living lives of anonymity. Green and Chicago underscore–rather, their plates cry out–that we must care for one another and that there is a community of those who care for us, no matter how low our social standing. I see Jesus and his meal standing within the symbols of Green and Chicago. For me, these two artists provide clothes for the Jesus-symbol. The sacrament of Holy Communion accepts these two studies of contemporary society and points with them, as well.

Both Green and Chicago went to a lot of effort to learn how to paint on plates. Such painting has a long tradition, but it is a “common” tradition, belonging to women, that has not been respected. It is frequently spoken of scornfully as “arts and crafts.” The artists submitted themselves to the discipline of this plate painting, and they recognized that it is truly genuine art–fully as much as the work of those men who scorned it.

There is deep pointing here: the bread on the sacramental plate is common bread; the body of Jesus is a common body; our bodies, we who eat at these three symbolic meals, are common bodies–full of commonness. Our communities are common, mundane. These symbols point to our hope–that our commonness will be embraced by God and through death will never die.

Art cannot be exhaustively explained in words; nor can a sacrament. But there is meaning there, deep meaning.

Reflect on the strangeness and unlikely connection of these three: Julie Green’s Last Supper, Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party, and Jesus’s Meal of Holy Communion.

Phil Hefner, 5/18/2015


Come unto me, you tired ones–try our spikes

28 Apr

“Sorry, no room in the inn.” “Come unto me you who are weary and heavy-laden. These aphorisms came immediately to mind when I just recently–for the first time, I must admit–ran across the photos that appear below.  Both of these are from the New Testament, to which I add a third from the Letter of James: “What good is it to wish a person peace and well-being when that person stands in need of food or clothing or shelter?”

I’ve been aware of homeless persons ever since I worked in a church in Albuquerque and then moved to Chicago in the 1950s. My relationship to them was mainly to give them a few dollars or buy them a sandwich. The church had a discretionary fund (the “Good Shepherd Fund”), which allowed me to send them to a diner across the street. We had an agreement with the diner that anyone we sent would be served a meal, billed to the church. I officiated at two burials, arranged by a charitable mortuary, for homeless men who died with no known relatives. When I lived briefly, in the 1980s, in Berkeley, California, where good year-round weather attracts people who are down and out, I noted that the city set aside areas where those who lived in their cars could park unmolested for the nights. The sprawling university campus offered many secluded spots for sleeping. But I never probed more deeply into the issues of homelessness.

I know that homelessness is a problem for cities, but it never dawned on me that we would lay down beds of spikes to make open spaces unsleepable. A Google search reveals that cities around our country and in Europe are taking recourse to spikes–see the internet links at the end of this piece.

We know that homeless men and women want to live in decent lodgings, but for many reasons cannot–poverty being the main reason. We don’t provide housing (dormitory-like shelters don’t qualify as proper housing), but we want them out of sight. As one blogger writes, “we should not presume to think that sitting and sleeping is the only major front that People Who Surely Don’t Have Anything Against the Homeless But Would Rather Not Be Reminded Of Their Existence are waging.” ( In 2006, Orlando, Florida, passed an ordinance against feeding the homeless in public. Several charitable groups have been the object of legal measures taken by the city to halt their efforts to provide food for the homeless who had settled in a public park.

imageWhat’s the underlying issue here? We have come dangerously close to accepting the homeless situation as a problem that we just can’t solve. We don’t seem to have the will to solve it. Susan Sarandon gives us a clue: “If you walk down the street and see someone in a box, you have a choice. That person is either the other and you’re fearful of them, or that person is an extension of your family.” Homeless men and women are the Other, and since pre-historic times we have been unable to live satisfactorily with Others. We’ve frequently killed them, ostracized them, persecuted them, and otherwise gotten them away from ourselves. Some communities don’t want mosques in their midst, or half-way houses, or homeless shelters, or food pantries.

Jesus said and did a great deal about the Other. He spoke about the Neighbor and love for the Neighbor. When he was asked, “Who is my neighbor,” he pointed to every person we meet. Susan Sarandon had it right when she compared the Other to our family.

I recall an incident from the 1960s in Hyde Park, Chicago. Some readers may know that Hyde Park prides itself on being a liberal community. As a student, I was working for alderman Leon Despres in an effort to have public housing units included in the urban renewal project that was getting underway–the first of its kind in the nation. Architects drew up plans that placed a dozen units of public housing in the center of the project. A public hearing was scheduled, and I expected widespread approval of our efforts. However, to my surprise, there was opposition to the public housing by some people who complained, “I paid a lot of money for a townhouse in this area, and the public housing units look just like my house. People won’t be able to tell the difference.” The Other–we don’t want them to look like family. Homeless persons show that they understand this when they say, “We are unwanted persons.”

Today, the Others are getting closer and closer. In previous centuries, white Europeans went to the lands of the Others and dominated them in imperial fashion. Now the Other has come to Europe and the United States–and every nation involved is feeling threatened. Britain no longer accepts every resident from a Commonwealth country as a citizen. Germany restricts rights of the Turks (mostly Muslim), who came in the 1950s because Germany suffered from a labor shortage. France, Denmark, and others experience frequent protests against foreigners. The European Union wants North African countries to prevent refugees from sailing to Italy. Trends indicate that within forty years white Americans will be only a minority of the nation’s population. We recall that we welcomed Africans to our shores, beginning in the 1600s and continuing until the 1860s–as slave laborers. As I write, Baltimore is being devastated, as was Watts, Los Angeles, and the west side of Chicago in the mid-1960s. These are upheavals against the Other, far from viewing them as family.

You may not agree that the homeless are viewed by many of us as Other, not neighbor, not family. But I cite Dennis Kucinich: “We have weapons of mass destruction we have to address here at home. Poverty is a weapon of mass destruction. Homelessness is a weapon of mass destruction. Unemployment is a weapon of mass destruction.” I would add that lack of sensitivity for and defensive action against the Other are also weapons of mass destruction.

We have a deep spiritual issue–alongside the political and economic dimensions–and I am quite sure that spikes are not the answer.

Phil Hefner 4/28/2015

Some useful links:…0.0…1ac.1.DFYk8HFbTRo

Engaged Living–and Beyond

8 Apr

Engaged Living–and Beyond

I named this blog series Liftthescreen to indicate that my postings would be part of my attempt to get a clear view of things. I made that decision at age 78 (in early 2011) when I moved into a retirement facility. Some cultures, the Hindu, for example, have clear concepts of the stages of life, as well as the activities and values that belong to each stage. I am at a stage of life where a clear sense is particularly important. Not that I have that sense, but that I strive for it. What I did not know when I moved here is what a special vantage point is offered by a retirement community–what we used to call an “Old People’s Home.” Of course, that term, OPH, is decidedly politically incorrect today. People retire, they mature, and they age, but never ever do they grow old, it seems. I try to avoid euphemisms, since they are strategies for screen-lowering. I have no problem saying that I live in an OPH.

The term “clear sense” reminds me of a lecture I heard 60 years ago, almost to the day. The lecturer was one of the wisest of my seminary teachers, Grady Davis. He recounted a visit to a parishioner, in the hills of Tennessee, who was in pain on his death bed. The doctor asked if the man wished to be sedated, to which the dying man responded,”I will not be deprived of what may be the greatest experience of my life–dying.” We may not agree with the man, and none of us can predict the moments of our own dying, but the story grasps me now, at age 83, as it did when I first heard it at age 23. Many of us–for reasons beyond our control–will not die with a clear sense, but we can strive for clarity in the days remaining to us.

The residents here are all in the same stage of life; we have finished our active careers, we have given our lives for whatever it is that we were called to do–whether called by our ideals or by circumstances we couldn’t control. The residents here are coming to terms with the worthfulness of their active lives, knowing full well that they are in a different, carefully controlled environment now with people they mostly did not know before they moved here. They wear with varying degrees of public expression their pride, their disappointment and grief, and their aspirations for the remaining time of their lives. In terms of economic-social class, the wealthy live alongside those of more modest means. The condition of their physical health varies from person to person. Those who were at the top of the local pecking orders in their previous lives often try to attain same top spot here. People whose lives were particularly lonely and difficult before are mostly grateful and even cheerful to be here living in relative comfort.

Religiously, you will find skeptical atheists, Jewish Holocaust survivors, those who go to Mass every morning, active Unitarian-Universalists, and even Lutherans (two of whom are ordained clergy). The full-time chaplain is provided by the Episcopal church. I believe there are a few Republicans here, but they are overwhelmed by a sea of liberal Democrats.

One thing that everyone in our community shares is that we will die here or in one of the local hospitals. We watch each other’s lives unfold, and we watch everyone on our journey towards death. At this moment, four photographs are on display of residents who have died in the last few weeks and whose memorial services are pending. Some of these people I knew quite well, while others were hardly even acquaintances. An acquaintance since graduate school sixty-five years ago and one of the most popular residents is clearly in his last few weeks, or days, of life.

Perhaps this sounds sad, even morbid. However, our residential community is not at all sad or morbid. There are sad individuals, to be sure, but the general mood is vigorous and often upbeat. My granddaughters talk about it as a resort hotel, since it is only 200 yards from Lake Michigan, with its parks and beach. I hope that none of you readers consider this piece to be morbid or sad. I intend it simply to be clear-eyed and in its own way, honest.

The psalmist writes : “How great are your works! How deep are your designs!”

Gratitude first, and then the unfathomable–what is the design of God’s mystery? In a way that I had not expected, living here provides a rich context for reflecting on the design of it all. A retirement community is a veritable laboratory for developing pastoral insight. Every year, senior medical students, in their family medicine rotation, come to talk for a couple of hours about how I view death and dying. Inspirational stories are here–my long time friend Clara, when, at age 90, she received the diagnosis of terminal lung cancer, shunned all treatment and concluded that she had lived a blessed life; she lived peacefully for more than a year before she died. At the other end of the spectrum is the woman so frightened of dying that I steer my conversations with her accordingly.

Last year the Chaplain organized a series of discussions of dying. Most of the talk was about filling out End-of-Life forms; there were complaints that “My grandchildren won’t talk to me about death.” Very little testimony about our personal views of death. I should say that the Chaplain is developing more productive conversations. As I write, she is attending a week-long seminar for this purpose.

The Chaplain is going against the stream. The national association of continuing care communities recently eliminated the term “continuing care,” because prospective residents don’t like the implication that they need “care.” My own OPH is following the advice of their marketing consultant to change our logo slogan from “redefining retirement” to “engaged living.” And they do not mean engaging the final stage of life.

Please carry on the conversation–with me here, if you wish. Perhaps (no promises) I’ll write a later blog that includes your comments. This is my last word–for the moment. I have written about this theme in previous blogs–see September 2013, for example. In the meantime, some of these thoughts were in my mind when I wrote this poem few weeks ago, as I watched an ambulance pull up to our front entrance.

Wild Lights

frenetic frantic flashing lights
unsettling me nervous jumping lights
we’re in a hurry to move
krankenwagen lights

in the night
there’s a wildness
about those lights
a deer frozen in place
yet wanting to flee

in a sheltered spot
porte cochere softened
from the storm for you
as you enter
to be driven now with
piercing screams

i do not want you to go
this night
i am in the wagon
with you
into the wild

(C) Phil Hefner

7 April 2015


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 126 other followers