The Trump Chronicles, Volume 130: You Should Read This Book

I just finished Daniel Okrent’s book The Guarded Gate. Here’s what I’ve learned:

This was not an easy book to read, particularly to those of us who follow the news. In 1859 Charles Darwin published his book On the Origin of Species that found that plants and animals change and develop to adapt to a changing world. In the decades that followed, many people asked the question as to whether humans do the same.

It’s a decent question and we’ve found that skin color has changed incrementally over millennia based on our distance from the equator and sunlight. We all began in Africa with dark skin because of the sun: we needed dark skin to block skin cancer. But as a species we migrated to areas where the sun was not as intense, areas that we now know as Northern Europe and Scandinavia. Those migrants needed lighter skin because they needed the Vitamin D that the sun provided. And over thousands of years they developed exactly that. The different skin colors between Africans and Scandinavians had everything to do with the sun and nothing to do with anything else.

But in the decades after Darwin this debate took a horrifying turn: a number of Americans took Darwin’s theory to argue that people from certain countries were “good” and some were “bad” based on skin color and where they were born.

From the late 16th Century much of what we now call America saw a huge influx Western Europeans. In 1776 we declared ourselves independent from Europe (England) and opened our shores to all who wanted to come, not thinking much about skin color (except for the slaves we brought here in chains but that’s grist for another post). This lasted until 1882 when we decided that we didn’t want to include people from China.

Shortly after this descendants of Western European immigrants feared they would lose their wealth and their identity because of current Eastern and Southern European immigrants. With calls of “Keep America for the Americans” they decided that some immigrants were good and should be welcomed and some were bad and should be banned. They claimed science on their side and named their belief “eugenics.”

Daniel’s book documents this belief that Europeans could be divided into three groups: Nordics, Alpines, and Mediterraneans.” With no evidence they claimed a hierarchy: Nordics were good, Alpines were suspicious, and Mediterraneans were inferior. In no small part they recognized that Nordics had fair skin and fair hair while Mediterraneans had olive skin and dark hair.

In 1924 Congress passed (and President Coolidge signed) a law that placed horrific quotas on immigration from different nations of Europe. I encourage you to read the book but basically they wrote this law that set up immigration quotas from each nation. Those from Northern Europe and Scandinavians enjoyed generous quotas (including, by the way, President Trump’s mother who came from Scotland in 1930) while those from Italy, Austria, and the Balkans were essentially shut out.

The horror of this law wasn’t realized until the 1930s when Jews from Europe frantically attempted to flee Nazi Germany and were turned away from our shores because of their misfortune to come after their quota had already been met. Thousands were turned back where they perished in concentration camps. If you don’t think this has real consequences, read about the St. Louis.

Today, day after day, we see that men, women and children come to our borders. They are desperate to flee because of the same fear that Jews faced in the 1930s. They don’t face antisemitism but instead face death threats. Their fathers, brothers, sons, and grandsons face threats from local gangs who demand that these young men join their gang or face death.

They don’t want to join gangs and they began a long and dangerous journey in the hope of a place of safety: the United States. They want what our ancestors wanted. But when they arrive at our border they are seen as “invaders” who want to “take our stuff.”

In 2019 we cannot condemn xenophobia in the 1920s and defend xenophobia today.

The Trump Chronicles, Volume 129: Thoughts on Gun Violence and Mental Illness

News reports about mass shootings have become part of our lives ever since Columbine in 1999.

And the reaction to these shootings has divided our nation. Many of us look to gun control. We believe that military weapons were designed to kill a maximum number of people in a minimum amount of time, and don’t they belong in the hands of civilians. Others claim that these weapons of max destruction aren’t the problem. Instead they suggest that these massacres are the result of bad people or bad circumstances, or…whatever. In the last several years they have settled on a scapegoat: people who struggle with mental illness.

One some level I understand their choice: while we’ve found success in treatments for our kidneys, hearts, and pancreases we had a much harder time with brain disease. Gun control opponents have seized on this opportunity to claim that we should continue to allow military grade rifles for all those except who are mentally ill. After the shootings the President said this: “[W]e must reform our mental health laws to better identify mentally disturbed individuals who may commit acts of violence, and make sure those people not only get treatment, but when necessary, involuntary confinement. Mental illness and hatred pulls the trigger, not the gun.”

So here’s the problem: nobody knows what level of mental illness should block someone from buying or owning a gun. Simply put, opponents of gun control point to a problem with no solution and celebrate the appearance of concern.

If we’re not good at treating mental illness, we’re even worse at diagnosing it. The idea that we can predict the next mass shooters while treating those who suffer but aren’t a threat is, frankly put, a myth. People who live with (among others) depression, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia normally do more damage to themselves or their immediate circle of family and friends than they do to large numbers of strangers.

Recent massacres in Gilroy, California, El Pao, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio have made my point. None of these shooters would have been classified as mentally ill.

And even if you don’t buy my argument that we can’t predict these mass shootings, I’ll also argue that this will make it harder to provide treatment to those who suffer from mental illness.

How do we classify mental illness? We already have a “cannot purchase” list, but these are primarily those who have felony convictions, are on terrorist watch lists, or have been convicted of domestic violence.

But the term “mental illness” is much more fluid. Do we include only those who have been involuntarily institutionalized? What about those who have been voluntarily institutionalized? What about those currently in the care of a psychiatrist? Or those formerly in the care of a psychiatrist? What about those currently in the care of a psychologist? Or those formerly in the care of a psychologist?

Do we include those who participated in a depression support group? How about those who participated in a grief support group?

Many who suffer refuse to ask for help because of a well founded belief that they will be unfairly labeled as weak or crazy and will put themselves at risk of discrimination. Now imagine a troubled teenager who comes from a family who hunts. He knows that if he asks for help he may well be put on a database that prevents him from purchasing a gun.

We already have reasons for people to fear mental health treatment, we don’t need to create another.

The Cult of Martyrs and Schools in the 21st Century

Christians all over the world, in all of our history, have revered martyrs. People of faith, they gave their lives in defense of their faith, or for a greater cause. In John’s Gospel (John 15:12) Jesus tells his disciples that “[n]o one has greater love than this to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”

Once again, we woke up today to learn about another school shooting, and again in Colorado. I won’t bore you with the details but we’ve learned a great deal since the 1995 shootings at Columbine High School. Virtually every school (from kindergarten to 12th grade) now does active shooter drills and virtually all students, teachers, and other school staff think about what they would do when confronted by an active shooter.

Kendrick Castillo, an 18 year old student (along with several other students) faced that reality and ran toward the shooter. Kendrick was shot and killed. By all accounts he and the others stopped the shooter and prevented more carnage.

Last week, when murder visited the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, Riley Howell also took a bullet to protect others.

Kendrick and Riley gave their lives to save their classmates and we should honor their courage and pray for those whose lives they saved.

But we should also express anger that they needed to do what they did. Columbine High School, Sandy Hook, and countess other schools should be sanctuaries, places of safety. Chabad of Poway and other places of worship should be sanctuaries. We shouldn’t have to teach our children how to respond to active shooters and we shouldn’t have to hire armed security to make our places of prayer and fellowship safe.

If you think I need to be lectured on the 2nd Amendment please don’t waste your breath or my time. Our neighbors and our children shouldn’t be thought of as acceptable collateral damage and your desire to shoot assault weapons shouldn’t be an acceptable alternative when Viagra no longer works.

I pray for Kendrick Castillo and Riley Howell and their families. But I also pray for a place where they could have grown up, married, and raised families who would have benefited from their bravery and integrity.

The Justice Chronicles, Volume 32: We Mourn For those in the Chabad Center in Poway

For decades now we’ve learned about terrorism directed at places of worship. For those of us who live in the world of faith it’s been hard. We’ve looked at places of worship as sanctuaries, as places where we can feel safe. In the Middle Ages churches were seen as places of refuge: places where, no matter what you did or who was after you, you could find safety.

In the past few years we’ve witnessed acts of terrorism in Christian churches, Muslim mosques, Jewish synagogues, and other places of worship. This past weekend it came a little close for me. I live in San Diego, about 15 miles from Poway; it’s in my territory for hospice. On the last day of Passover a gunman who had posted antisemitic remarks walked in with an assault rifle. He killed one person and wounded three before being captured.

Any type of religious hatred or bigotry is unacceptable, but antisemitism appears in a league of its own. Jews have been persecuted, going all the way back to Pharaoh, and even today they find their homeland under siege.

I recently heard something that has stayed with me: antisemitism isn’t a disease. It’s not something that comes and goes. Instead it’s like a virus. It’s always there but sometimes it’s dormant. We’re never free from it, and between flareups we can fool ourselves into thinking it gone. But flare up it will, as it did last Saturday.

Our latest example happened, as I said, in nearby Poway. It was the Chabad center. Members of a Chabad center are Orthodox Jews who encourage other Jews to be more observant. They honor the sabbath (sunset Friday to sunset Saturday) by refraining from work of any kind. Their members walk to services and they take their faith seriously.

And they are kind. The Chabad members I’ve known have moved me with their generosity and inclusion. They take life seriously, and in case you haven’t heard this, the one fatality was a 60 year old woman named Lori Gilbert-Kaye who took a bullet that was aimed at her rabbi. She gave her life to save another.

Let us pray that the virus of antisemitism remains dormant for long enough that we can truly eradicate this virus.

The Trump Chronicles, Volume 123: All Americans Should Read James Comey’s Book

This morning my wife Nancy and I finished reading James Comey’s book A Higher Loyalty.

It’s an excellent book and I recommend it to everyone. In it Mr. Comey describes the highs and lows of his life and his commitment to serve our nation. By any measure Mr. Comey’s patriotism reminds us all of what we should all aspire to as Americans and pass that along to our children.

President Trump’s election came three years after Mr. Comey was appointed by President Obama for a ten year term. And while the FBI director normally serves for ten years, he serves at the pleasure of the President. He can be fired by the President for any reason, or for no reason.

And Director Comey was indeed fired by President Trump on May 9, 2017. There’s much to this and I encourage everyone to purchase Mr. Comey’s book to get the whole story. It’s seriously a good read.

But I want to zero in on a paragraph toward the end of Mr. Comey’s book. He and his wife Patrice were blessed with daughters and a son (Collin) who died as an infant in 1995. Collin’s death made Mr. Comey a more compassionate and caring man. He recognized that their pain, and the pain of their surviving children, called them to greater empathy to the suffering of others. Collin’s death not only made Mr. Comey a better husband and father, it made him a better law enforcement officer. It further emboldened him to do justice better.

In his book Mr. Comey wrote about his experience against the reality he saw with President Trump. He wrote this, and I want all Americans to read this:

I see no evidence that a lie ever caused Trump pain, or that he ever recoiled from causing another person pain, which is sad and frightening. Without all those things – without kindness to leaven toughness, without a balance of confidence and humility, without empathy, and without respect for truth – there is little chance President Trump can attract and keep the kind of people around him that every president needs to make wise decisions. That makes me sad for him, but it makes me worry for our country.

We all deserve better leadership. We all deserve a President that leads all of us, that values our values, and lives the values that we embody in the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these the homeless tempest-tost to me I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Adieu Scully

Seven and a half years ago our neighbors Craig and Alison rang our doorbell with a generous gift. They were walking their dog when they heard a kitten meowing. He was on pitcher’s mound at a little league field on the edge of a canyon at dusk. They recognized that if they didn’t scoop up and save this kitten he would have been eaten by a coyote within minutes. They couldn’t take him home as they have a dog.

They rang our doorbell asking us to keep this kitten overnight and in the morning they could take him to see if he had a microchip that would identify his owner. The next morning Alison drove him to the San Diego Humane Society. Unfortunately they couldn’t check for a microchip and they took him across the street to the San Diego Pound. The pound immediately took control of this kitten for a week, waiting for the owner to claim him. I wrote about this at the time. It was an ordeal but we adopted him and named him Scully after the long time Los Angeles Dodgers announcer Vin Scully.

Our cat Scully was a good cat. We loved our time with him and both of us appreciated the fact that he liked to sleep on our laps. Last Tuesday Tom woke up and brought in the newspaper. But when he tried to pet Scully on the loveseat he recognized that Scully died during the night. Tom took him to an emergency veterinary clinic where they confirmed that Scully died from a massive stroke.

He died in a sleeping position and that makes us think he didn’t suffer. We miss him terribly but are comforted by the fact that he didn’t suffer or die in pain.

Adieu Scully.

A Hundred Years Ago We Thought We Had Seen the End of War

On the morning of November 11, 1918 (11/11/18) at 11AM something happened that was supposed to change world history: Germany surrendered and World War I ended. Ever since, we’ve celebrated this day, first as Armistice Day, and now as Veteran’s Day.

Libraries have been written about the events of this war and I have no desire to rewrite a library. But I think it’s good to look at the events that led to its outbreak and what happened after.

And frankly, it all began with an event few people paid attention to. On June 28, 1914 Archduke Franz Ferdinand (1863-1914) and his wife Sophie (1868-1914) were shot to death by Gavrilo Princip (1894-1918) in Sarajevo. The Archduke was the nephew of the Emperor of Austria-Hungary Franz Joseph I (1830-1916).

Unfortunately several nations had secret treaties with each other and favors were called in. Austria-Hungary rightly believed that Princip belonged to a a terrorist network called The Black Hand who was based in one of their territories, Serbia. Serbia wanted independence from the Austro-Hungarian empire. Austria-Hungary, clearly on the decline, declared war on Serbia. Serbia then demanded their ally, Russia, join them and declare war on Austria-Hungary.

They did. But Austria-Hungary had a treaty with Germany and Germany declared war on Russia. France and England had a treaty with Russia and they declared war on Germany. In 1917 the United States declared war on Germany.

By the time the war ended in 1918 four empires laid in ruins: Austria-Hungary, Germany, Russia, and the Ottoman Empire. We can’t be sure, but we estimate that 16 million people (military and civilian) died.

The carnage from World War I led many to hope that it would make war so horrible that nobody would dare take up arms again. Alas, it didn’t. Twenty one years after the end of World War I Germany invaded Poland and began World War II.

The history of the 20th Century cannot be told without talking about World War I.

Someday there will be a war that ends wars.

I’m Catholic. Now What Do I Do?

It’s been 16 years since the Boston Globe wrote about pedophilia in the Catholic Church. I think many of us Catholics hoped this event, painful as it was, would force us to confront this horrible reality and allow us to move forward. Unfortunately even today we continue to uncover this terrible cancer and recognize that we haven’t fully exposed the extent of the sin and the pain of the victims.

I’m Catholic and call it survivor’s guilt but the priests I knew as a child were good priests. I was an altar boy and that allowed me a “peek behind the curtain” to learn about the lives of these celibate men. Most Catholics looked at priests and nuns with a reverence that elevated them above the rest of us, and much of this rested on the belief that priests, brothers, and nuns were celibate. The idea that this group chose celibacy over marriage made them more pure and gave us the belief that they were “above sexuality.” Virtually all Catholics mistakenly believed that priests and nuns didn’t have sexual feelings.

As a former seminarian and a former priest I can tell you that how this belief isn’t true. I’m an ex priest who left active ministry to get married.

When the Boston Globe and other outlets began to publish the now famous Spotlight articles I wasn’t surprised but I was deeply saddened. Much has been written about pedophile priests and the bishops who protected them and I have no need to rehash all of it here. Suffice it to say that on those occasions when someone reported a priest to the bishop, they were mostly ignored. When confronted the bishops would claim ignorance of the problem.

So what went wrong? Well, almost everything went wrong, but I’m going to write about these specific things:

  • Bishops Saw Pedophilia As a Sin, Not a Crime: When confronted by a priest who was abusing children they saw these as problems to be solved, not crimes to be reported. I knew of one priest who, after several parish transfers, was finally sent for treatment. When he told the psychologist about the abuse, the psychologist told him he was required to report this to the police. Baffled, the priest said that he came seeking help, not arrest. But the psychologist told him that he broke the law and someone had to protect the children he abused.
  • Pedophile Priests Saw Themselves As Above the Law: When asked why they didn’t come forward, many of the abused children told authorities the pedophile priest warned them against speaking out and even threatened them. These children were told that nobody would believe them and some were even told that speaking out would be a sin. Those priests who were confronted claimed to be offended and outraged. Partly they denied the charges, but there was also an undercurrent of “how dare you accuse me. Don’t you know who I am?”
  • The Church Dramatically Underestimated the Long Term Damage the Priests Caused to Children: I remember hearing that the way forward was to pay off the families and keep this secret “for the protection of the child.” They refused to believe that the abuse led directly to years of depression, substance abuse, and even suicide. While the Church was able to pretend this didn’t happen, the children didn’t.
  • The Process Where Priests Were Selected and Trained Was Flawed: When a man contacts a diocese or religious order to inquire about becoming a priest, it’s a long process. Until the 1970s it was not uncommon for a boy to enter the seminary in high school. Many of those who sought the priesthood were good men, but some never appeared to socialize well with their peer group. They were often aloof, quiet, and detached. Today many of us would see them as creepy but at the time they were thought to be pious. Once ordained, they often gravitated toward activities that allowed them access to children. Time and again we’ve heard stories of a priest who showered attention on a boy whose father was absent. Today we look to men who are mature, transparent, and serious about the work of ministry.

So where do we go from here? Because of the bravery of journalists and (more importantly) the bravery of those who were abused by priests, we have reason to hope. Important changes have been made.

We no longer allow priests unfettered access to our children. We would never imagine allowing a child to spend time alone in the home of a bachelor neighbor but in generations past we thought nothing of a child being alone with a priest. In large part this results from what we’ve learned.

The formation of priests has changed dramatically. When someone applies to seminary he undergoes a battery of psychological tests and I hope these tests can weed out potential pedophiles. In addition to that, those who were previously thought to be “pious” because of their inability to relate to other adults are now seen as red flags. I had a conversation with a vocation director who refused to recommend someone who wanted to be a priest. This candidate felt he was called by God to be a priest but showed virtually no proof of this. He had no spiritual director, the priests in his church didn’t know him, he participated in no ministries (e.g. he wasn’t a lector or a CCD teacher; he wasn’t a Eucharistic Minister or belonged to any organization in the church. In other words, nobody could vouch for him). His only response was that he felt God called him to be a priest. I think this vocation director served us well by not allowing him to apply to seminary. I’m not claiming this man was a pedophile but we can all agree that he would not have made a good priest.

I began this essay by talking about being Catholic and asking the question, “Now what do I do?” Let’s face it: it’s not easy being Catholic. And it’s even harder when we learn about institutional evil. But at the end of the day the Catholic Church that gave us pedophile priests also gave us St. Paul, St. Francis, St. Teresa of Calcutta, and my grandparents.

We are living in a dark chapter in the Church’s history, but not its last. At the end of the day I’m still Catholic because, despite all that’s happened, we are stronger than pedophile priests and the bishops who covered for them. I’m still Catholic because I believe that God’s love and God’s willingness to forgive dwarfs our ability to sin.

Farewell Senator McCain, and Thank You

Five days ago we received the news we knew was coming but didn’t want to hear: Senator John S. McCain III died of brain cancer. By any account Senator McCain stood for the best of what our nation stood for.

He was born in the Panama Canal Zone in 1936 because his father, John S. McCain Jr, served there in his career in the Navy.

Because both is father and grandfather graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland it was assumed he would attend there also. He graduated in 1958, placing nearly at the bottom of his class.

Nobody would expect Lt. McCain to have much of a military career but he did. In 1967 he flew a mission during the War in Vietnam and was shot down and taken prisoner. His captors soon learned he was the son of a 4 Star Naval General and offered to send him home as a tactic to appear humane. Lt. McCain, in a phenomenal act of courage, refused their offer unless all the POW’s were released. In the 5 1/2 years between that offer and the end of the war he was tortured beyond what most of us can imagine. Because of this torture he spent the rest of his life not being able to raise his arms above his shoulders. He couldn’t even comb his hair.

He came home in 1973. After all he had been through we all could have understood if he had spent the rest of his life seeing this torture as an excuse for avoiding responsibility and blaming others.

But John McCain chose a different path. He didn’t blame his government for sending him to Vietnam, he didn’t blame his captors for their torture, he didn’t blame his country for the horrible treatment Vietnam veterans endured when they returned.

Instead he ran for Congress. In 1982 the good people of the 1st District of Arizona sent him to the House of Representatives and in 1986 the state of Arizona chose him to replace Senator Barry Goldwater as a Senator. He ran for President in 2000 and 2008, losing to George W. Bush and Barach Obama.

Senator McCain was a Republican and held different views on many issues. But those of us who found a different path to American greatness nevertheless respected him even if we didn’t agree with him. Patriotism does not depend on agreement as it much as it depends on love for our nation.

Fair winds and following seas.

The Justice Chronicles, Volume 31: Fifty Years Ago A Shot Rang Out In The Memphis Sky

I suspect we all sometimes think about the first national event we remember. For me it was the assissination of Martin Luther King (1929-1968).

At the time I was living in Woodbridge, Virginia, about 20 miles south of Washington D.C. I remember April 4, 1968 because of the riots that burned parts of the city. It was a scary time.

Dr. King spent his short life battling against discrimination. He was in Memphis that day to support sanitation workers who were treated horribly. They were virtually all African Americans and they struck against the city of Memphis after the deaths of Echol Cole and Robert Walker. On February 1, 1968 they sat on the back of a sanitation truck to find shelter from the rain. The truck malfunctioned and they were crushed to death. Their coworkers decided that they’d had enough and went on strike. Dr. King traveled there to support them.

Meanwhile, James Earl Ray (1928-1998) saw an opportunity to become a hero in the White community. He learned that Dr. King was staying at the Lorraine Motel and rented a room that gave him a clear shot at Dr. King. At 6:01 PM Mr. Ray aimed a rifle at Dr. King and killed him.

I lived briefly in Memphis and walked to the Lorraine Motel several times. It’s now a museum that educates future generations on discrimination.

We may never eliminate discrimination in our nation but let us all take a moment to honor Dr. King.