Me, Myself and Christ: Immersion

I had not set foot in church in almost twenty years when I began looking for a community to provide a moral foundation for my sons. I was pointed at the local Unitarian Universalist congregation, and found myself caught up almost immediately in their vision to establish commonality among all the world’s religions.

I was among them for only a few short weeks when disaster befell us on 9/11/2001. The minister was visibly shaken during her sermon that week, and one critic bemoaned the poor judgment she had shown in reaching out to an Islamic Center in the San Fernando Valley.

These two factors – the hope of uniting people of good will and the terrible cost of failing to do so – prompted me to start visiting the religious communities of the Conejo Valley.

The Catholic Church was not the first Christian congregation that I visited during this exploration. In fact, the evolving pedophilia scandal dampened my expectations that I would obtain any value in cultivating the priesthood. However, recognizing the strength of the Catholic community, I eventually concluded that I needed to experience the faith of the people in the pews.

The site was St. Maximilian Kolbe’s in Oak Park. The church has an unusual layout. The side entries funnel into an alcove before a pool of holy water. The crowd around the pool distracted me. I was feeling some anxiety, recalling my childhood impressions of the angry God. I turned toward the altar, and was astonished by the cross, set off to one side and dominating the space with a larger-than-life figure of Jesus suspended in front of crossed branches. Rather than anger, a deep enduring grief and sorrow beset me. Confronted with this image and personality of human suffering, my right hand went immediately to my heart, and without thinking, I held it out to him and thought “Use this for healing.”

Thus began a relationship that is so palpable and near to me that I never partake of the elements. That was meant for remembrance, and I am absolutely convicted that the time for remembrance is past.

There are several contexts in which that nearness manifests most powerfully. Early on, the passing of the elements itself would cause me to be overcome by sorrow. Tears would roll uncontrollably down my cheeks, and eventually I realized that the sobbing I heard around me was not unrelated to my emotion – a realization confirmed in part by the irritation expressed by celebrants. When Revelation Song was popular in non-denominational congregations, with the opening words I would almost collapse in grief, my entire frame shaking, and the people around me would huddle together in small groups.

I also experienced a particularly deep relationship with the crucifix at the Los Angeles Cathedral. Flanked by roughly shaped limbs and supported by the bruised torso, the peace-filled face embodies perfectly the savior’s surrender and victory. After my first Christmas midnight celebration, I waited patiently to address the cross, looked up into that visage, and – gesturing to the broken body – admonished “It’s time to clean all this up.” Later, I would stretch up onto tip-toes, pressing my hands against the sternum, trying to push strength back through the centuries to sustain him in his suffering.

And then there are the children’s choirs. They sing with perfect and innocent faith, free of the regrets felt by adults. At St. Paschal Baylon’s in Thousand Oaks, when they led the congregation in the Agnes Dei I felt the weight of heaven pressing down on me from above, an experience that persisted in other settings until I decided to push back.

Along with these emotional experiences came visions that I find very difficult to avoid reconciling against the verses of Revelation. I will summarize some of those in the final post in this series. I will conclude today with the culmination of my immersion in Christ.

When my father was working in the nuclear weapons laboratory in Los Alamos, New Mexico, he and my mother liked to spend time in the mountains that in the last half of the twentieth century came to be known as “Sangre de Christo.” I was conceived there, and born in Los Alamos. For my forty-ninth birthday, I decided to take a trip out to Taos to connect with those roots. It was a remarkable experience in many ways, but the most important insight came as I drove down into the LA basin from the high desert. A palpable feeling of hostility mounted against me. I wasn’t wanted.

The next day, Monday, I was driving out to work from Agoura Hills to Camarillo, and could not shake his presence. The urgency and strain of his struggle on the cross came closer and closer. I was in tears as I descended the steep and winding Camarillo grade in freely flowing traffic, wracked by grief and trying to project that I was endangered. But he refused to let me go. He knew that he was dying, and refused to die until the work was done. We wrestled, back and forth, and finally the image of that first encounter in St. Max’s came to me, and our equanimity was restored as he pronounced:

Our heart is beating still.

Freedom from Immigration

During the motorcade through Washington, Pope Francis elevated the human reality of our immigration crisis by calling to him a beautiful Hispanic child. The circumstances of the little girl’s arrival upon the guarded road are suspicious – even the mildly cynical would surmise that she was put there by an adult. The appeal for relief from fear for her parents was also remarkably mature. Of course, that may reflect the constant working of her thoughts against the pressure of her fear. Children are sometimes forced into maturity.

The Pope’s response to her was spontaneous, specific and human, having her lifted up so that he could embrace her. That it was this child that caught his attention may reflect a deep internal resonance of her experience with his own experience as the child of Italian immigrants to Argentina.

Unfortunately, that personal identification is a weakness in his appeal for immigration reform in America. It seems to generate in him a confusion over two very different motivations for immigration: the search for opportunity, and the flight from desperation.

The two narratives – of opportunity and flight – are mingled in the American story. Many of the settlers were fleeing religious or political persecution, but chose America (rather than another European country) because it was a place of opportunity. That opportunity was secured by the huge imbalance in cultural and immunological sophistication of the settlers relative to the Native Americans. These two factors supported population densities that guaranteed that the European tide would eventually sweep aside the native way of life.

But as of 1950 or so, that process had been concluded. The West was settled, parceled and titled to its new owners. The appeal of America shifted: no longer the land of unfettered opporunity, we became the “land of the free.” The “Statue of Liberty” was installed with a plaque that called for the world to send “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses.” But the logistics of arranging a trip across the ocean created a filter that biased the arrivals more towards the clever, industrious and opportunistic. This is cemented in current American immigration policy, where heavy preference is given to those that come with exceptional skills. With its mantra of freedom, America now draws to it the most productive citizens from states that do not respect political rights.

What is faced by the refugee – one among the many waves fleeing fear – is an entirely different reality. It is a world of abusive employment practices, first brought to national attention by Caesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers, but reborn in the housekeeping business and meat packing plants. It is a culture dominated by aggressive men who establish diasporas enforced by intimidation and violence. Does this represent a shift in American immigration experience? No, for European immigrants, arriving in the densely populated East Coast, often did the same. What is different is that there is now no geographical outlet for those pressures.

So the Pope’s plea for unfettered resettlement of refugees is a little tone deaf. Where are the immigrants to go?

To those that cherish liberty, there is also a moral quandry. What about the tyranny, venality and incompetence that creates a refugee crisis? Would the advanced democratic societies, in guaranteeing the safety of refugees, become unwitting codependents and victims to oppression? In taking in the most productive and resourceful citizens of the affected nations, are we not simultaneously sapping them of the capacity to resist and recover from the side-effects of oppression?

The Catholic Church, as observed by the Canadian philosopher John Hall in Powers and Liberties, has some experience with this problem. As the curator of Europe’s shared culture heritage (including Latin, the libraries and universities, and religious expression), the Church facilitated the flourishing of the Renaissance by issuing letters of introduction for those fleeing feudal oppression. This meant that seizure of wealth actually facilitated the dissemination of ideas and technologies that drove the generation of wealth. However, it was only with the industrial age that the benefits of that dissemination reached down to the lower class, generating the era of relative wealth in the developed nations.

So do we ignore the Pope’s plea?

As a Christian, I cannot. I cannot ignore the misery of those fleeing societal collapse. But I would argue that we should be far more focused in ensuring that the wealth that is transfered from our societies to refugees is organized to ensure that pressure is brought to bear on the originators of their misery.

The uncoordinated dispersal of refugees should be prevented. Rather, I would recommend that they be admitted as a diaspora, seeking to maintain their cultural identification. Refugees should be integrated in the economy, contributing their energy and drive. But they should be encouraged to maintain a political involvement in the affairs of their home country, including participating in cultural exchanges (perhaps within the borders of a third country) that transfer knowledge and experience to those that remain behind. And I recommend that a portion of their earnings be allocated, under State Department oversight, to efforts to bring justice to their country. Their ultimate goal should be full citizenship through return to a reformed state.

The Pope should reflect that Jesus did not flee tyranny, but submitted to its ultimate injustice, and in doing so inspired others to shake off the chains of their fear. Obviously, those that can emulate him are few in number. But the founder of the Catholic Church would exhort it to not cater to cowardice, but rather to encourage others to “pick up their cross.” Of course, there is much that the Western democracies can do to facilitate that process, and in supporting the flowering of justice when chains are eventually cast off.

So I would exhort us not to seek to be free of immigration, nor allow unrestricted freedom of immigration, but rather to focus our policies to ensure that freedom is generated through immigration.