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A Syrian Rashomon

Akira Kurosawa’s classic film, “Rashomon,” pioneered a style of cinematic narrative in which the viewer learns the story from the point of view of several participants. It would take an artist of Mr. Kurosawa’s skill to tell the many-sided story of Syrian Christians in their country’s civil war. There are so many actors that one expert, after listing six hierarchs from five Eastern churches and the Latin-rite bishop—all in Aleppo alone—asked, “So, who’s speaking for the Christians in Aleppo?”

George Sabra, a spokesman for the opposition Syrian National Council and a Christian, claims there are Christians, who comprise 10 percent of Syria’s population, at every level of the resistance to Bashar al-Assad’s regime. In contrast, Sister Agnes Mariam of the Cross, a spokeswoman for the media center of the Melkite Archdiocese of Homs, claims the resistance “is not fighting for freedom,” but for “fundamentalist” (that is, Muslim) values. She also accused opposition fighters of targeting religious minorities and Sunni moderates. The outspoken Italian Jesuit Paolo Dall’Oglio, exiled from Syria in June after more than 30 years there, accused the sister of taking the government’s side. The Melkite patriarch, Gregory III Laham, while affirming the freedom the church has enjoyed from the Baathist regime, has protested accusations that the hierarchy has colluded with the Assad regime.


A significant number of Christian leaders are advocating musalaha, a strategy that embraces nonviolence, reconciliation and peace. On the ground, this has led to Christians and Muslims providing mutual aid to one another and protection from assaults by both sides. This strategy may prove a costly form of Gospel witness, but it may also prepare the ground for post-conflict peacemaking on the model of Blessed John Paul II’s maxim, “No peace without justice, no justice without forgiveness.”

The Greatest

Since the tabloid culture trivialized public virtue by the indiscriminate use of the term hero, it is refreshing when a publication gives an overused term like greatest a sharper definition. Nation Books has published The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame, by Peter Dreier, a distinguished professor of politics at Occidental College. Greatness, for Mr. Dreier, describes those who make the United States “a more just, equal and democratic society.” His choices are activists, intellectuals, artists and politicians. For this reason Mr. Dreier leaves out famous personalities like Ernest Hemingway, Babe Ruth and Charles Lindbergh and names no philanthropists.

The only presidents included are Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson; Albert Einstein is one of the few scientists; and the only philosopher is John Dewey. Members of the clergy include Abraham Heschel, Martin Luther King Jr. and James Lawson, who applied Gandhi’s tactics to the civil rights movement. Catholics, by baptism and heritage, include William J. Brennan, Cesar Chavez, Tom Hayden, Michael Harrington and Dorothy Day.

Theodore Roosevelt makes it in spite of his imperialism; Lyndon Johnson in spite of Vietnam. No one listed, says Mr. Dreier, is a saint. However the Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain thought otherwise, once suggesting that the tough Chicago community organizer Saul Alinsky, who is included, was one.

Political Thrill-Seeking

Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York deftly dodged political controversy by finessing an invitation to both party conventions this year, joining a distinguished list of U.S. Catholic leaders who had historic, if sometimes regrettable, occasion to comingle with U.S. partisan politics. The entry of church figures into that sometimes unsavory world comes with tremendous risks. That is particularly true at this time, when cultural polarization threatens to widen cultural and spiritual gulfs within the church itself.

While Cardinal Dolan’s office stated that he “was coming solely as a pastor, only to pray, not to endorse any party, platform, or candidate,” both parties will no doubt scramble to spin his visitations to their advantage. Likewise, Simone Campbell, S.S.S., of Network, runs the risk of politicizing Catholic teaching through her appearance at the Democratic convention. It is not unreasonable to caution any church figure against appearing too closely aligned with a particular political party, but is it desirable for the church to remain angelically above the fray as the nation confronts an inevitable mixture of social, political and moral challenges? No. The church is not a sect in retreat from the world but a force of hope and change in optimistic and loving encounter with the world. It cannot retreat from any stage, certainly not the political, where its message of mercy and justice could do some good. All the same, church leaders must remain alert to the dangers that accompany a too-close association with the messages and messengers of the times.

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Vincent Gaitley
6 years 4 months ago
Justice William J. Brennan voted in favor of abortion in Roe v Wade; Michael Harrington admitted to treason in his memoir;Tom Haydon leached off his wife, and like Bill Ayers, was part of a violent group; Lyndon Johnson was corrupt and callous.  Nothing is recognizable as Catholic among those who were baptized.  And the whole thing smacks of left wing adulation and idol making.  But this is what the left admires.
C Walter Mattingly
6 years 4 months ago
It's hard to understand our editors' characterization of Cardinal Dolan's acceptance of the invitation to say the prayer at the Republican convention. Was he supposed to say no? Was it wrong of him to reciprocate by offering to say a prayer at the Democratic convention as well, even though President Obama and many democrats probably were not pleased by the offer of even-handedness? 

What our editors should be concerned about is not the separation of church and state, but the current administration's attempt to wall off the church from the life of the state by denying it free religious expression. Most recently this growing exclusion was seen by a national audience in the party's elimination of any reference to God in the democratic platform. It took an act of voter fraud perpetrated upon the democratic party's own members to see to it that that did not happen.
(One wonders, was this done by democrats of conscience who like Jefferson and Washington before them referenced God in founding documents and didn't want God excluded from the life of the state, or was it that they feared losing votes?)

Clearly, Cardinal Dolan, as a leader of the largest Christian denomination in the country, is a thorn in the side of the large and growing liberal anti-God wing of the democratic party. To acquiesce to the desires of many liberal democrats to remove God and silence the expression of religious voices in the country would not have been an act to avoid political thrill seeking by Cardinal Dolan.
It would have been an act of religious cowardice on Dolan's part.
And for that, all Catholics, as well as liberal democrats, will agree: Cardinal Dolan is not their man. 
James Palermo
6 years 4 months ago

In these days, I often think of Noah and the Ark: How nice it would be if all the dysfunction, greed and corruption of the present era could be washed away, in order that we could start anew. I see religion as the only “Ark” capable of enabling us to weather the storm.   It was with that in mind that I wrote this article:

No “Thanks,” But “Much Obliged”

By Jim Palermo         

            It is with some embarrassment that I recall my often futile attempts to coax one of my children to express appreciation for a gift, compliment or favor. “Say thank you to grandma, Jim.” “Did you thank your teacher for the extra help, Julie?”  “John, did you thank Mrs. Smith for the ride home?”

            We seem to be obsessed with the need to say “thank you.”  We expect to hear it from the cashier at the grocery store (Although in this area we too often get “There you go,” which really annoys me.)  When I moved to New England from Buffalo, NY I was taken aback by the locals who when asked by a food server whether they would like a coffee refill would reply “Sure.” What ever happened to “yes, please” and “no, thank you”?

            Certainly, in everyday parlance saying that one is thankful is an acceptable shorthand way of acknowledging that one feels fortunate about good health, financial security or the well-being of one’s family.

             But, is it appropriate for Christians to give thanks to God for what they have? In a spiritual context, to say that one is “thankful” or “blessed” or “grateful” might suggest that one believes he or she has been singled out by God for special status, or preferential treatment.  That from among all the prayers and petitions offered to God, some how God chose mine to answer affirmatively.

            There are Christians who believe that certain individuals are preordained by God for salvation and that an outward manifestation of having been saved is to live in comfort and to enjoy abundant blessings.  I do not share that perspective.  I believe that God loves each of us to the same extent. Perhaps that is why God’s greatest commandment is to love God and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. (Matt. 22:37-39) 

            I acknowledge that everything flows from God, the Creator.  It is God who gave me life – a life that has a beginning and an end, which is the great equalizer. It is what I do between the beginning and the end of my life that is important: and what I am called to do is to acknowledge that I am “obliged” to God for everything.  So rather than saying “I am “thankful because I got mine,” I believe I should be saying I am obliged to God – that I owe God. I am obliged to use what God has given me – all my talents and energy – to secure equality for every one of my brothers and sisters, who are also loved by God.

            From this perspective, it makes no sense to govern a country based primarily on what is best for business. It makes no sense to run a business based on what will maximize profits for stockholders at the expense of economic justice for workers.  It makes no sense for politicians to do favors for rich contributors at the expense of the people who elected them to office.  It makes no sense for a worker to engage in excessive competition with co-workers. The only thing that makes sense in a Christian context is to do what is best for people, such as ensuring their security and well-being, which includes being able to work for a living wage, having adequate food, being able to live in a healthy environment and being able to enjoy the fruits of the corporal works of mercy that Christians are called to perform. (Matt: 25:34-40 and Isa 58:6-12)

            In business dealings, one who is obliged to God will deal honestly with employees and customers.  In day-to-day living, one is obliged to God to be generous, helpful and supportive rather than possessive, competitive, or aggressive.

            Jesus loved everyone, even those whose deeds he did not condone, from the woman at the well (Jn 4) to His assassins whom he forgave from the cross –“Father forgive them for they know not what they are doing.” (Lk: 23:34) So, in imitation of Jesus, Christians – as the saying goes – must “hate the sin, but love the sinner.”  And I hate the sin of the world, knowing full well that I am a sinner who is nonetheless loved by God.  From that perspective, I am greatly saddened by the horrible injustices perpetrated by many people of faith, who give thanks for their great “success.” (“What should it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” Mark 8:36).

            Lord God creator, I am obliged to you for my very life; for the sky, the sea and the earth and for everything that dwells in them (Acts 4:24); for the people I love and for the people I have never met. I am obliged to you, My Great Teacher, to share my food with the hungry; to share my drink with the thirsty; to clothe the naked and those who are exposed to exploitation; to seek justice for people in every form of captivity; to seek economic justice so that all will be safe from tyranny; to ensure that all people have access to healthcare and healthy environments, and to recognize that death is the great equalizer. Lord, I am obliged to live the Beatitudes. (Mt 5:3-12 and Lk 6:20-49) so that your will can be done on earth as it is in Heaven.










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