God’s Preferential Option for the Poor

23 May

The more attention I give to Scripture and to the life and message of Jesus, the more I am drawn to the realities of poor people and poverty.

Throughout the Psalms, like a recurring drumbeat, we hear the theme: the poor suffer, often at the hands of the affluent, and God always takes up the cause of the poor. Psalm 12 is an example: “Then the Lord speaks out: ‘I will act now, for the poor are broken and the needy groan. When they call out, I will protect them.’ “  The Magnificat says it clearly: “God has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the humble. God fills the starving and lets the rich go hungry.” 

Jesus lived among the poor, he identified with them, and he preached a message that comforted them and lifted them up.

But the more I reflect on the poor, the more questions arise. Christians—and members of other religions, as well—are commanded to care for the poor, and they have a strong record of establishing institutions that minister to the poor. God’s concern is beyond question. The phrase “preferential option for the poor” was used in 1968 in a letter from their Superior General to the Jesuits of Latin America. It has since been affirmed by popes and is a basic Catholic social teaching. Pope Francis has written that “without the preferential option for the poor, the proclamation of the Gospel risks being misunderstood or submerged.”

Lately, I have run across many images that reinforce the cries of the oppressed poor. In his 2016 book, Making Sense of the Hebrew Bible, Robert Butterfield throws the light of scholarship on the economic inequality in ancient Israel: poor farmers oppressed by the landowners. We should not be surprised that in this context, the great prophets of Israel, like Micah, and the psalms condemn this oppression.

Gerd Theissen depicts the poor in Jesus’ time in his  novel about Jesus, The Shadow of the Galilean, which I re-read every Lenten season. Theissen is a  German New Testament scholar, who has given attention to the dynamics of social class in Jesus’s time. The Zealots, the Essenes, and also Jesus—all appealed to those who were driven off their small farms by the exploiting policies of the landowners.

Pier Paolo Pasolini—in his great film, “The Gospel According to Saint Matthew”—offers the most vivid portrayal I know of Jesus’ compassion for the miserable poverty-stricken Galilean peasants of his time. Those of us who grew up on Sallman’s paintings of Christ find a totally different world in Pasolini’s presentation.

But the biblical drama of poverty and oppression covers many centuries, despite God’s will to the contrary and Jesus’ ministry. This same drama continues into our own times, bearing out Jesus’ own words, “the poor you will always have with you.”

Why does poverty continue—despite God’s concern and the monumental efforts of the world’s religion to eradicate it? Nancy Isenberg, charts the 400-year history of poverty in America under the title White Trash (2016). Her revisionist history of Britain’s deliberate shipping of its “undesirable” people to the colonies in America gives a radically different picture of our history from what I learned in high school and college. This was the beginning of social class discrimination in our country, regardless of our words about “one nation under God.”

Today’s talk about economic inequality and poverty has a long history. What is the significance of such talk and the conditions it describes? How are we to respond?

I would like to hear what you, the readers of this blog, have to say, so I will break off my reflections. Let me know your thoughts, so that I can pass them on and respond myself—if I am able.

(c) Phil Hefner, May 22, 2019

Grace does not charm

9 Apr

Flowers and birds

woods and furry beasts 

inhabit my world 

at second hand—

in zoos and public gardens.

My world has been 

the city

houses next to each other

you can reach

from wall to wall.

Towers so tall

they pierce the clouds

and obscure 

the night time’s 

stars.

Whitman’s people—

progeny of cobalt black 

slave China girl mestizo 

pale white men like me

blue blood and low brow. 

Without the mix my world 

does not exist.

I never knew the road less traveled 

but streetcar tracks

trolley buses 

twenty-four hour streets.

I seldom tramped

through fern and bush—

milked a cow and 

gathered eggs

only as a tourist 

on my uncle’s farm.

My tropes come 

from different corners 

of the world—

without the charm

no cuddling lure.

But grace 

is no stranger 

in my city—

on skid row 

in a panhandler’s face 

a screeching ambulance 

an anxious ER waiting room

even an

alfresco cafe.

Grace does not charm.

It does not cuddle.

Gritty like the city

it liberates.

(c) Phil Hefner   4/9/2019

Hyde Park: City of Imagination

2 Apr

You haven’t really lived until you’ve gone to Jimmy’s, ordered a Swiss burger with double cheese and onions, a pitcher of beer, and spent a couple of hours exploring big questions.

Jimmy’s was an essential part of my life for most of the sixty years that I’ve lived in Hyde Park Chicago—since it is not wheelchair accessible, it is out of bounds for me today. I relaxed there, and I also conducted seminars in the side room. I could play a game with the house chess set and consult the Encyclopedia Britannica that was always handy. Plumbers and electricians had their daily beer there; David Grene, translator of Greek Classics, talked with students over his daily martini.

Fortunately, this hallowed place still exists. You can order a Swiss burger today or even chat with a former Jimmy’s bartender who resides at Montgomery Place, the retirement home where I live.

But many of the places that I count as meaningful from these sixty years are no longer to be found. Bartlett gym and field house, with its two indoor running tracks, adjoining Stagg Field, where the University of Chicago football team played in the Big Ten, where Jay Berwanger won the first Heisman trophy in 1935, and where Enrico Fermi and his colleagues worked in a secret lab to produce the first sustained nuclear reaction—these places have been supplanted by a college dining hall and  Regenstein Library. 

The Swift Hall library reading room, with its magnificent vaulted ceiling, replete with painted faces of angels, as well as the study carrel tucked away in the stacks below, not air-conditioned (not even ventilated)—I spent many sweaty hours there, wrestling with the mysteries of 19th century German philosophy and theology for my dissertation—doesn’t even exist today. That library was eliminated altogether in a merger with the central university library.

There were two other pubs that were essential to my life, where I met for pleasure and also serious conversation with my profs, my colleagues, and my students. One has been displaced by a noisy pizza parlor, the other by a computer business. 

I could go on and on. The point is that these places were Hyde Park for me, and today they do not even exist.

What does it mean that these places are not to be found today? It means I have to locate them in a different dimension—they will never go away, because they are alive in my memory. For me, they are a city of memory and imagination.

In one sense, these places are factually real. I can take you to them and describe them in detail. But in another sense they are real only in memory. There are many Hyde Parks, perhaps as many as there are people who remember.

It also means there is a new Hyde Park emerging before my very eyes, just as the Hyde Park I remember emerged from the pre-World War II village. And the new people coming and going through Hyde Park engage new intimate places that I will never know. Like the Hyde Park of the future, the Hyde Park that came before me can only be imagined. My Hyde Park, too, will be a city of the imagination for those who are coming after me.

(c) Phil Hefner   April 2, 2019

A Capital of Memory

28 Mar

-Andre Aciman grew up in Alexandria, Egypt. A Jew, he left Egypt with his family when the Jews began to suffer persecution. He settled finally in New York, becoming a teacher at Bard College. When he returned thirty-five years later to Alexandria, he recognized the landmarks and many of the buildings, including the apartment house of his childhood, but so much had changed that he felt like “a B. C. person in an A. D. world.”

This feeling intensified when Aciman searched for his grandfather’s grave. He made inquiries, but the people he talked to knew nothing about the existence of a Jewish cemetery. Finally, he located the cemetery and his grandfather’s headstone, covered with soil and vines.   Aciman tried to fantasize what his life would have been, had he never left for America. Overwhelmed by this exercise, he concludes that for him Alexandria will always be “the capital of memory.”

As I read Aciman, I recalled my own visit to Denver in 1990—the hometown that I had left in the 50s, not to return for thirty-five years. There was not a single skyscraper in the city when I left. I retraced the pathways of childhood. My old grade school is now redone for condos. The church on the corner, where I was a janitor, was torn down to give way to a movie theater. I couldn’t believe the sight of the house I called home: the big front porch was gone and the red brick house was painted a garish green. That was enough for me—I was definitely a B.C. person in my own hometown.

But this failed attempt to connect with present-day Denver strengthened my bond with Denver of the 30s and 40s—in the days before my home was colored green, when that school building teemed with kids. Denver became in that moment the capital of memory for me. Aciman tried to imagine what his life would be like if he had stayed in Alexandria—where there are more skullcaps stored in the narthex of the synagogue than there are Jews in all of Egypt and where people do not even remember the Jewish cemetery. He would have a different wife and children. Trying to reconstruct what would have been was too much for him.

I, too, attempted such a reconstruction, but it soon hit a dead end, because I felt no connection at all to the Denver of today. My memory was certain—I know I was a Denver boy, and I know how it shaped me; I am forever a “Westerner.” But memory is my only tie. The older we become and the farther our youthful haunts recede into the past, the more important the memory becomes. Some, like Aciman, leave home under duress, fearing for their lives. Others, like me, are beckoned by educational chances or jobs. Still others found their homes stilted and stifling. Memory transcends all of this—and won’t go away. Memory is witness to how the places of home have forever molded us.

Thomas Wolfe said, “You can’t go home again.” He was right, and this underscores how precious a place the capital of our memory is. We can go there as often as we wish.

(c) Phil Hefner. 3-29-2019

Ashes to Ashes

22 Feb

Neva and I devoted two hours yesterday afternoon making arrangements for our cremation. I spent the rest of the day reflecting on the fate of our physical bodies when we die. I’m surprised at the richness that derives from thinking about my body after death. Although some readers will find this gruesome and read no further, I encourage you all to think along with me, and go even further. 

The religious traditions provide rich reflections. The Hindus go through extensive rituals to burn the bodies in the sacred river Ganges. An Indian Christian who recently died in my retirement home was cremated, and his relatives will make a trip to India, to deposit his ashes in the Ganges.

Jews believe the body should be intact for burial; they also remember that in the Holocaust, Nazis cremated Jews in the death camps. Some Jewish mystical traditions hold that the soul separates only slowly from the body; burial in the ground provides the time and space for this separation

For medieval Christians, there was a widespread belief that the body should be without blemish if it were to be acceptable to God. Presumably, handicapped bodies or those with artificial joints would not make the grade. In the Creed, we express belief in the resurrection of the body, while remembering that St. Paul confessed that he had no idea what that body would be like. He wrote in Romans 14:8, “For whether we live or whether we  die, we are the Lord’s.” These words grace the wall of our local congregation’s churchyard, where ashes are buried or scattered. The theologian, Joseph Sittler, chose this motto,  and his ashes are there. Ours will be there, too.

My mother dreaded the thought that her body lying in the cold, cold ground would provide a feast for worms and other critters. She insisted on cremation.

My father’s body is a special case. He died in our third-floor walkup apartment, and since neither a doctor nor a hospice worker was present, we had to call the police take his body. Two officers responded,  and they were clearly uneasy about taking my dad. They wrapped him in a body bag, and as they took him down the stairs, they dropped him. I empathized with their confusion and embarrassment. The friend who was with me, a clinical  psychologist, remarked afterwards that those cops would need counseling when they got back to the station.

Although my close friend, Ralph Burhoe, assigned his body for medical research, his ashes reside in the impressive mausoleum in his church, the Unitarian Church in Hyde Park, Chicago. His marker is flanked on either side by his two wives, Frances and Calla, who preceded him in death.

My own belief is that decomposition, whether  by burial in the ground or cremation, is essentially the same process. Cremation is simply much faster. 

The Japanese film, “Departures,” deals with death and cremation in a society that has no belief in God. The body is carefully washed and prepared. The man who cremates the body sends the dead person off with a fond farewell on a journey that we know little about.

I affirm the universal religious belief that the body of the dead must be treated with respect. In whatever form, the body remains in God’s hands. While I appreciate the widespread practice today of celebrating the lives of those who die, I also think it is important to consider the body. Our bodies do not just disappear; they undergo a process, even after death—whether slowly or quickly. They do not simply die. They truly pass away. Our bodies originated in the stardust of the Big Bang, and they end up, finally, as stardust. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. . . .

(c) Phil Hefner 2/22/2019

My Natural History

12 Jul

I look out at Jackson Park.

Where elms and oaks, locusts and maples 

now stand arching over grassy spaces,

guarding beds of daffodils and pansies and petunias,

coleus and daisies.

This was water not so long ago.

When Lincoln’s funeral train traveled on the tracks

a few yards to the west, 

—on its way to Chicago, where he lay in state—

it traversed a bridge over the water.

We have photographs to prove it.

Landfill, we call it.

I’m looking through the window 

of a grand hotel, built in the 1890s

to greet the hordes that came to a World’s Fair.

The Fair was reason enough 

To transport soil from Lake Michigan’s bottom

to form the park 

and erect the buildings where I live today

and house the cafe where I sit now to reflect,

with the dogs and squirrels and grasshoppers,

who play beneath the trees.

My park, my companions,

my natural history.

(c) Phil Hefner      11 July 2018 

A Little Child Shall Lead Them

13 Jun

When film maker Steven Spielberg was a teen-ager, he was badly shaken by his parents’ divorce. In the process he created an imaginary alien friend, “a friend who could be the brother I never had and a father that I didn’t feel I had anymore.” This imaginary alien turned out to be E. T., the central figure in Spielberg’s 1982 movie, E. T. The Extra-Terrestrial, which I recently saw here at Montgomery Place, where I live.

Several themes underlie this film’s story. The main one is that aliens are not enemies, but friends. E. T. has been inadvertently left behind on earth by a team of alien botanists, who were conducting a study of plant life on earth. E. T. desperately wants to return to his home base. Most of the adults he meets on earth want to kill him.

Ten year-old Elliott, finds ET and conspires with his older brother and younger sister to hide him from their mother (the father is absent throughout the entire movie). Elliott and the alien establish an uncanny instant relationship. When, for example, ET comes across a cache of beer and overindulges, Elliott shows signs of drunkenness, too. The two think and feel as one person.

ET puts together a Rube Goldberg communication device that enables him to communicate with his home planet and express his wish to come home. The film comes to a climax that is both fantasy and suspense as ET, Elliott and his siblings, on bicycles, evade pursuing police and other adults. ET works his magic to enable the bike riders to ascend into the sky and make their way to a waiting space ship.

ET pleads with Elliott to come with him, while the boy urges the alien to remain on earth. Before they part, ET lays his finger on the boy’s forehead and says, “I will always be with you”—in your head.

We are left with a powerful message: the alien can be friend, not enemy. Thirty-five years after its release, the message has, if anything, gained in force. Of course, aliens today are not thought of only as extra-terrestrials—they are even more men, women, and children from other cultures, non-citizens.

Spielberg suggests very strongly that children, not adults, have the better grasp of this message. Before we dismiss this suggestion as “cute” or simply “family entertainment,” we might want to ask ourselves: Do children in fact have an insight into life that blasé adults overlook or dismiss? I entitle this article with a quotation from the prophet Isaiah in the Hebrew Bible. It refers to a vision that may be more real than we admit—that enemies need not be hostile opposites: “The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, The leopard shall lie down with the young goat, The calf and the young lion together. And a little child shall lead them.”

Children figure large in several of Spielberg’s films, particularly children who are on a quest—facing adults who espouse opposing values. A. I. Artificial Intelligence (2001) is one of my favorites: the boy is a human-like robot, who seeks to learn how to love, so that he can become genuinely human.

War Horse (2011) follows the life of a horse and an English boy who witnesses the horse’s birth. Both the boy and the horse end up in the British army during World War I. When the horse is captured by the Germans, the boy, now a young man, goes to heroic lengths to save the animal’s life and return him to England.

How many of us adults believe that the alien, “the Other,” is our friend, not our foe? Or that the essential human nature is love? Or that other animals are worth protecting, even at our own risk? Spielberg poses such questions to us—they are worth considering.

(c) Phil Hefner 6/12/2018