Wednesday, June 07, 2017

Filemón Escobar, prophetic leader of the Bolivian left, dies at 82.

Politics are messy these days in Bolivia. It's easy to forget the shining ideals, the spirit of hope, solidarity, and struggle that inspired generations of workers, campesinos, and other excluded and oppressed Bolivians to fight for a better future. But today, one living monument to that history has passed on, and I've been reflecting on his legacy and an incredible life.

Filemón Escobar was a towering figure in modern Bolivian history. It seems safe to say that there would be no President Evo Morales, no Plurinational State of Bolivia, little of the current movement toward socialism without him. But he was a fiercely independent thinker and also one of the most vocal critics of the current government on the Bolivian left.

Filemón was an instrumental leader of the mining unions - the most important Bolivian social movement of the 20th century. After years in hiding - teaching under a pseudonym in a Jesuit high school for mining families, pursued by right-wing military governments - he led the historic March For Life in 1986, in which miners protested the displacement of their communities as a result of neoliberal economic policies. The march, in the first year after Bolivia's return to democracy, paved the way for the kinds of protest movements that would change the course of history in the following decades. He was one of the first syndicalist leaders to see the need to include indigenous leaders and cosmovision in Bolivian revolutionary movements, and a founder of the Movement Toward Socialism - the party currently led by Evo Morales, whom Filemón once mentored. But Filimón was also one of the first former allies to break with the Morales government. He called on Evo to return to true indigenous values, and create an economy and a politics rooted in reciprocity, traditional leadership structures, and harmony with nature, rather than the pursuit of power and the power of money.

Filipo, as he was affectionately called, was a rabble-rouser in the best sense. He could be surly. As a senator in the early 2000s, he punched a fellow senator who had voted to allow a US military presence in Bolivia. He even tried to fight the current vice president just a few years ago, while in his late 70s. He swore like a sailor and smoked like a chimney. And he never stopped working for a better future, especially for the poor and the excluded, the workers and campesinos, and for the environment in his beloved patria.

He also happened to be a neighbor, and the father of a friend. I last saw Filipo a few months ago at a children's birthday party. As formidable a political figure as he was, and for all the prophetic role he played on the national stage throughout his life, he was also a simple man, funny, a loving father and husband. I didn't know him personally, but I always enjoyed seeing him around, always with his Greek fisherman's hat and a determined gait. His smile was sincere, but you knew there was fire behind it. He visited Rocío's dad, who is bed-ridden, recently, and sought to cheer him with kind, very touching words. When I heard the news today of his death (which was yesterday), I thought of his life's work, but also of that visit, and of him at that birthday party, watching a toddler throwing a tantrum, and commenting to us with a smile, "Look at that kid: he's a regular Filemón Escobar."

Rest in peace, Filipo, and may Bolivia continue to be inspired by your life and your spirit of hopeful rebellion. ¡Jallalla!

Monday, November 10, 2014

Religion and Politics: Why Mission Makes For Offensive Dinner Guests

The New York Times has an excellent article and video report on the violent death of four U.S. churchwomen in El Salvador in 1980. It's well worth watching in its entirety. It's an important story for U.S. Americans, in particular, to know and understand. But also, it explains well the direct connection between mission and politics. I don't know who finds this connection more bothersome: those politicians and religious leaders who would like to keep the two separate, or those friends of missioners who'd rather not hear about either.

I know I have friends and family who roll their eyes when I start talking about religion and politics. And boy do I. Talk about them, that is. Often. I know these are the two topics we're all supposed to keep quiet about in polite company. Never at the dinner table. Well, at least I try not to do it with my mouth full. And my poor Facebook friends: I often wonder how many have simply blocked me from their feeds to stem the tide.

But there's certain things that, once we know them, tend to trump politeness.

Sister Madeline Dorsey, MM, a Maryknoll Sister who was close to Jean, Dorothy, Ita, and Maura, the four martyrs, was a high school classmate and close friend of my grandmother's. They remained close until my Grandma's death a few years ago. It was stories about Maddie (my grandmother still called her Dorothy - her name before entering religious life) that first led me to consider becoming a missioner abroad with Maryknoll. Maddie had been at a meeting in Nicaragua with the other women, and would have been with them the night they died had they all been able to return home to El Salvador on the same flight. As it turned out, she is the middle woman of the three seen kneeling in prayer at the site where the four bodies were recovered, in this iconic photo.

The Times piece does a good job at explaining several of the ways the women's work with the poor became hugely political. Maddie has been a part of the ongoing efforts for justice. I've marched with her at the annual vigil and protest to close the U.S. Army's School of the Americas after most of her and my grandmother's high school friends had died of old age. If she wasn't an activist in the way Jeane Kirkpatrick described in an effort to justify the women's murder, she is definitely an activist now.

In 1995, when I arrived in Ossining, New York, Maryknoll's headquarters, and met Sr. Maddie for the first time, she was already a saint in my mind. But she was a very down-to-earth saint. She certainly didn't come across as someone with an agenda. She was a sweet, grandmotherly friend of the family, with the familiar accent and no-nonsense wit of her Brooklyn roots. She still calls me her "Maryknoll grandson," and on the day of my sending ceremony (like graduation from the Lay Missioner's formation program), she sent me photos she'd cut out of her high school yearbook, of her and my grandmother together in a school play.

But as we talked, she also told me about her experiences in El Salvador. She told me that she and the other sisters were not doing political work, per se. They were not there to be radicals or revolutionaries. But they were there to work with the poor, and that was, in itself, a political act. Their decision to stand with the poor was seen as a threat to the government and the military. It made them de facto revolutionaries, regardless of their motivations. And they knew full well the risk that this implied. They accepted that risk, not out of political fanaticism or a death wish (no martyr - not even Jesus - actually wants to die). They did it because they had fallen in love with the people with whom they lived and worked. They had found Christ in the Salvadoran people, and they were faithful both in the religious sense, and in the sense of any good friend.

These were inspiring stories to hear, but they were scary ones, too. I realized this meant that I, too, might be in for more than I'd bargained for. What kind of heartbreak, what kind of political danger, might I face? I'd started my journey to mission with good but simple motives: I wanted to "serve." I wanted to "give back." I wanted to "make a difference." But also, I found God an overly abstract concept, and my claims to "love" God often felt hollow. I decided the only way to really know and love God was to find God in God's people. I was never great at bible quotes, but I knew one: "I was hungry, and you fed me. I was in prison, and you visited me... whenever you did so to the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you did so to me." Or something like that. Jesus was not to be found hiding out in church. Jesus was in the world - and especially in the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized.

Now, all this quest-for-God stuff was largely something I kept private. I'd been raised Catholic. I went to church. I considered myself a Christian. I didn't hide that. But I wasn't one to flout it, either. I liked a good, heady conversation, and when the topic came up, I'd engage it. But I wasn't generally comfortable with "God talk," especially in mixed company, and I definitely was not one to try to slip my religious beliefs into casual conversation. I'm still not, really. But I've made a career out of my religious faith, so sometimes I feel obligated to explain that - or over-explain it. That's where my religion talk comes from. For me, it tends not to take the form of "Allelujah!" or "Believe!" or "Repent!" I save my more confessional stuff for small groups of people with a shared faith who've gathered for that common purpose - reflection meetings with other missioners, for example. My public religion talk is more, "Here's why I don't like what this one bishop just did," or "Here's why I'm excited about Pope Francis, should that be something you care to know."

Where I do get a little preachy, though, is when it comes to politics.

I understand the general aversion to the topic of politics, and more still when the politics are shaped by religion. When friends post right-wing memes and FoxNews talking points on Facebook, I roll my eyes, too. And I resent mightily religiously motivated attempts to write science out of school curricula or deny equal rights to LGBTQ citizens. But religion also leads a lot of us to work (alongside secular allies) for a better world. And like it or not, that means politics.

The thing is, most people - even those most skeptical of religion - would probably laud the desire to serve the poor and do good works as the most acceptable, least offensive manifestation of religion. But it's that seemingly-innocuous desire that can lead directly to a missioner getting political. Sister Maddie and the four martyred churchwomen are striking proof of how inextricable religion, service, and politics really can be. And when you've heard stories like Maddie's and seen the images of this gentle grandmotherly nun pulling her friend's mangled corpses from the ground; or when you've walked - and laughed and cried and eaten and danced - with the poor; when you've witnessed the murder and torture of those who stand up for their most basic human rights; when you've seen your own country's government and corporations driving that violence; and then, when you've returned home to a country where it all gets reduced to a soundbite at best, where we shrug off wars and throw up our hands at poverty and embrace and celebrate a two-party system in which both parties are beholden to the exact same Wall Street oligarchs and war profiteers... when the simple desire to help and to know God better has led you to that, well, sometimes it's hard to shut up about it.

Please pass the potatoes.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

A letter to Eastside Catholic School administrators and Seattle Archbishop Sartain RE: the dismissal of Mark Zmuda

 Catholic kids in Seattle are standing up, sitting in, and refusing to quietly accept the termination of yet another Catholic school educator this week. I figured the least this Catholic (no longer a kid) from Seattle could do from Bolivia is write a letter to the people responsible.

I feel like I've written way too many letters like this. Perhaps that's my problem, but I think it's the Church's problem. I really believe we need to engage one another, and speak truth to power. I also have hope that people can hear. I understand Seattle Archbishop Peter Sartain is a very kind, pastoral person and a great listener. I also sensed some pain the statements from Eastside administrators. I am hopeful that they will read my letter as it was intended: as a sincere expression of hurt and outrage, from a loving brother. Millions of people's hearts have changed on these issues. Laws have changed. Other churches have changed. I hold on to hope. The protests of the students make that hope even stronger. They are an inspiration.

To:       Archbishop Peter Sartain, Archdiocese of Seattle
                        c/o Ms. Angela Kison, Executive Assistant to the Archbishop
            Sr. Mary Tracy, President & CEO, Eastside Catholic School
            Ms. Polly Skinner, Principal, Eastside Catholic School

Cochabamba, Bolivia
20 December 2013
Dear Archbishop Sartain, Sister Tracy, and Principal Skinner,
Advent blessings from Bolivia. I am a Catholic missioner here, from the Archdiocese of Seattle. I am writing you because I’ve been reading in the news about the dismissal of Vice Principal Mark Zmuda from Eastside Catholic School. I am hurt, angered, and, as someone who represents the Catholic Church in a visible way, ashamed at your decision.
I admit I have long struggled with Church teachings on homosexuality. A close reading of those teachings, careful study of the bible, much prayer, and consideration of my own experiences with GLBT people – family members, friends, colleagues, priests and nuns, and others – have all played a role in forming my conscience, and I must say I disagree with the official position of our church.  I’ve often omitted this in writing about the issue, choosing instead to discuss the options available to the church within the bounds of its teachings. But I think it’s worth mentioning here that I dissent, because clearly a good man like Mark Zmuda does not enjoy the privilege of keeping his own dissent a secret.
Also, like many – some say most – Catholics, I dissent on some other issues, too. I dare guess that a few other employees at Eastside Catholic and elsewhere in the archdiocese do as well. And here is where I believe your decision violates the anti-discrimination clause listed on the Eastside website as part of its hiring policy (“Eastside Catholic School does not discriminate on the basis of an employee’s or applicant’s… marital status, sexual orientation or any other status or condition protected by local, state or federal law. Discrimination or harassment on the basis of any status or condition protected by local, state or federal law is strictly prohibited and will not be tolerated at Eastside Catholic School”), as well as the Catholic teaching against anti-gay discrimination.
I think Church teaching about homosexuality and the way you’ve chosen to interpret and enforce it imply a Catholic Church that must, sadly, reconsider whether it honestly intends to adhere to the kind of anti-discrimination policy Eastside claims. Your lawyers may or may not be able to prove that you have remained within the letter of the clause. But can you honestly say you’ve upheld the spirit of it?  
As you know, Church teaching does maintain that 1) being gay is not a sin, 2) acting on one’s homosexuality (including entering into a same-sex union) is a sin, but 3) Catholics are not to discriminate against GLBT people. Here’s why I think that, while what you’ve done may be one way of upholding #2, it is also a violation of #3 (as well as the non-discrimination clause): I mentioned that I and many other Catholics – including, I’d venture to guess, some still-employed former colleagues of Mr. Zmuda at Eastside Catholic – dissent on certain official Church teachings regarding complicated, intimate, rather private choices in our own lives. There are a lot of employees in a lot of Catholic institutions – some of whom have no doubt signed agreements to uphold Church teachings – who are divorced, or cohabiting with opposite-sex partners, or use artificial contraception. Why is it I never hear about these people being fired from their jobs? Could it possibly be because we tend to turn a blind eye in these cases, and perhaps even fear the kind of church we’d become if we started informing on one another and purging our institutions of any who would violate these oft-violated teachings? Imagine a parent sent you an email telling you they’d seen a married, heterosexual teacher picking up contraceptives at the local pharmacy. Would school administrators meet with the chancery and then fire the teacher? Has it ever happened? Or could it be you are enforcing the part of your contract requiring employees to uphold Church teachings in a way that discriminates against gay employees?
That’s an issue I’m sure lawyers will be examining. But I am writing to you simply as a fellow Catholic struggling, as you are, to be a faithful disciple of Jesus in a world in which these issues are increasingly challenging. Your decision pains me. I am upset for Mr. Zmuda. I am upset for the gay students at Eastside and around the country who’ve read about this and received the message, once again, that they are unwanted and unsafe. And I am sickened by again feeling the need to apologize for the Church I love and to which I’ve committed my life’s work, the Church in which I’ve encountered Christ throughout my life. In particular, I feel the need to apologize to the gay family and friends in whom I’ve also so often encountered Christ. I’ve encountered Christ in their suffering and persecution. But I’ve also encountered Christ in their ability to love. Millions who make up our church have experienced the same. As we prepare these days for the birth of Christ in the world, I pray the day comes soon when the shaping and enforcement of Church policy might be informed by similar experiences.

Dan Moriarty

UPDATE: An Eastside student, Catrina Crittenden, and her father saw this post and wrote me to say Catrina would be interviewing Mr. Zmuda, and asked if I had questions for him. I submitted some, and she asked them. Her interview is very good, and it's up now here:

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Follow-up letter to Megyn Kelly regarding "white Santa" kerfuffle.

The other day I wrote an open letter to Fox News' Megyn Kelly regarding her on-air assertions that both Santa and Jesus are white guys. A lot of other people took issue wither her statements, too, and now she has responded to her critics. Below, another open letter - I guess it's my response to Megyn Kelly's response to a whole bunch of people's response to her response to Aisha Harris' response to Santa always being white. I'm kind of betting there won't be another response. But if Megyn Kelly should suddenly send me a Christmas card (please, white Santa, please) or revisit the topic on her show, I'll follow-up here on the blog.

Dear Ms. Kelly,

I wrote you earlier regarding your statements about Santa and Jesus being white. I wanted to let you know I posted my letter as an open letter on my blog here: http:/
/ I'll add this - and any response you might deign to send - as updates. 
I saw your comments on the critical response to the segment on your show. You chalked the criticism up to a lack of humor on the part of your critics - whom you also accused of "race-baiting." What we have here, arguably, is a case of the pot calling the kettle black. (Get it? Race humor.)

Webster's: Race-baiting: the unfair use of statements about race to try to influence the actions or attitudes of a particular group of people.
I can understand the original segment on your show being described as race-baiting. I can even imagine a white person feeling that Ms. Harris' original column constituted race-baiting (although "just because it makes you uncomfortable, doesn't mean it has to change"). But the response? It seems rather unfair to use your "powerful Fox News Channel" platform to say something provocative about race - in the interest of "humor," apparently - and then accuse the people who call that inappropriate of unfairly using race in their response.
I have three further responses to your reaction to the critics:
First, you only further highlight your own insensitivity to the complex issue of race when you suggest that your segment was meant as humor, and those who would criticize it are humorless. I guess I kind of get the "humor," such as it was, in putting on concern for the kids in the audience. But do you really think it's funny for a white person (with an entirely white panel of guests) to mock, dismiss, and characterize as "ridiculous" a black writer's reflections on feeling racially excluded at the holidays? And was it really news to you, a major network news anchor, that "race is still (get over it already, right?) an incredibly volatile issue in this country?" That might be part of the problem right there.
Next, you claim you simply "acknowledged, as Harris did, that the most commonly depicted image of Santa, does, in fact, have white skin.” Now, that's not exactly accurate, is it? Your point was to state categorically that Santa "just is white" and ridicule any suggestion that he might be portrayed otherwise. Again, in "jest."
Finally, I realize you probably never actually read my first letter, that it was one among thousands you must have received, and that you weren't referring to me personally when you referred to your critics as humorless, knee-jerk race-baiters. I made a point of explaining I wasn't accusing you of racism. And I appreciate that you admitted (perhaps tongue-in-cheek again?) having learned in the past few days that the color of Jesus' skin is also "far from settled." But it honestly saddens me that you, as a journalist with such a powerful platform and as a fellow-Catholic, would be so dismissive of your critics here, rather than taking this as an opportunity to delve deeper into a fascinating and important topic.

There would be no real need for a mea culpa. You could simply say, "In a light-hearted segment last week, we discussed a Slate column suggesting that Santa should no longer be portrayed as a white man. My comments in that segment angered a lot of people, but also brought up an important conversation about the broader implications of race in our holiday traditions, which we'd like to discuss today." Perhaps the historical, missionary roots of traditional images of Jesus and Santa as white - which I addressed in my previous letter - could serve as a jumping-off point.
Think about it. At worst, you end up saying something else your humorless critics find offensive - digging the hole deeper, but pushing ratings higher! At best, you present your audience with valuable insights into both race relations and Christmas traditions. Just imagine the laughs.
Yours under the mistletoe,
Dan Moriarty
Cochabamba, Bolivia

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Jesus, Santa, and Inculturation: An Open Letter to Fox News' Megyn Kelly

I wrote the following letter to Fox News' Megyn Kelly after an exchange on her show last night in which she, in response to a Slate column by Aisha Harris suggesting a non-race-specific Santa Claus, asserted that "Santa just is white," and added, too, that "Jesus was a white man."  Share it if you'd like - her remarks get at some deep, important issues and I'd love to see them explored more publicly, be it on Fox News or elsewhere.
Dear Ms. Kelly,

Greetings from Cochabamba, where I am a Catholic missioner.

I saw a clip online of your show in which you asserted that both Santa Claus and Jesus are/were white men. I know it's gone viral and I'm sure you are receiving a lot of mail accusing you of racism. I'm not writing to do that. But I do think you likely lack some important understanding of the issue you were attempting to address.
First, let me say that it was clear to me that part of your intention was not to confuse any kids in the audience who might be watching and wondering, "If Santa is a real person, how can someone suggest changing him into something else?" I understand that concern. But perhaps it was unwise to try to address such a sensitive, complex topic as the intersection of race and myth if you felt the need to do so in a way that would not risk confusing the six-year-olds in your audience.

Also, you may give kids too little credit. In my experience, children have a remarkable capacity for accommodating the magical in the context of the real. It would appear, too, that you were mainly concerned about any white kids who might be watching, since lots of kids of different ethnic backgrounds are quite accustomed to a Santa who looks like them, and might have been a lot more confused by your assertion that "Santa just is white" than they were by your mentioning the thesis of Aisha Harris' column. And not only brown kids stood to be confused: I'm Irish-American and I visited a black Santa at a shopping center when I was little, and it didn't bother or confuse me at all. Kids know that there are other kids of all colors and backgrounds. If they can accept elves, omniscience, flying reindeer visiting millions of houses in one night, and a fat man slipping down tiny chimneys, then they can surely accept the idea that, in the inclusive spirit of Christmas and Jesus coming to save everybody, Santa appears to different people in different ways.
Furthermore, I question your assertions about both Santa and Jesus. Historically, it is unlikely that either was "black," as we understand the term. But neither were they "white." Jesus was a Palestinian Jew, St. Nicholas was Turkish, and they were both most likely brown-skinned, like most Middle-Easterners.
We came to imagine both of them as "white" precisely because the church's missionary endeavors have always involved a process of inculturation: as Christianity was spread to different peoples, the traditions and cultures of those people shaped the way the new faith was received, and in turn, shaped Christian tradition itself. Again, because a central point of Christmas and of Christianity is that God came into the world as a person among people, the gospel message was made more powerful by portraying Jesus as looking like the local people wherever the church was growing. (Inculturation is a lot more complex than painting Jesus with local clothes and facial characteristics - which some would argue is more accurately called acculturation - but the images we use are important to the broader process.) Many great works of art not only portray Jesus, Mary, and the apostles as European in appearance, but surround them with medieval and renaissance clothing and architecture. As the number of great and inspiring saints grew, their iconography followed a similar path, as artists re-imagined them according to the ethnicities, styles, and customs of various times and places.

By the time St. Nicholas morphed into Father Christmas, Papa Noel, Sinterklaas, and Santa Claus, he was thoroughly transformed from the historical saint who inspired him. He was adapted to reflect traits and ideas of the people shaping his myth. It seems to me Ms. Harris was simply suggesting a continuation of this process, to reflect the increasing diversity of the society in which we live. We may disagree with the specifics of how to change - I'm not personally a big fan of the penguin idea - but to simply assert that Santa is white is not only factually debatable, but ignores the long and important history of how he came to be.
European Christians (and North America Christians descended from them) have often ignored this history. The very process of inculturation that had helped them to identify so enthusiastically with Christianity was frozen in place and time. Once they painted blue eyes and chestnut hair onto Jesus, the tendency was to carry that image to other lands - Asia, Africa, and the Americas - and present it as exclusively and historically accurate. It's not hard to imagine the ways this image of a white Jesus and saints fed into a larger socio-political assertion of white power and white supremacy.

As a missioner in a country of diverse indigenous and mixed-heritage peoples, I am painfully aware of how important inculturation is, and how alienating the assertion that "Jesus was a white man" can be. Years ago I can remember being told by an old Aymara gentleman in my parish in La Paz during Holy Week that I (not only white and head-and-shoulders taller than any of my neighbors, but sporting longish hair and a beard at the time) should carry the cross through the neighborhood for our Good Friday procession. For years, the neighbors had taken turns, hoisting the cross and walking the way of Jesus' passion, visiting neighbors' homes who had set up small altars of the Stations of the Cross along the route. It is a powerful tradition that has helped Christians around the world for centuries to identify more closely with Christ. Now, here I was, a missionary trying to join the people in their faith journey, and because of my appearance, they wanted me to take their place, relegating them to the role of simple observers. "You have to do it. You look like Jesus," the elder explained. "Actually," I told him, "Jesus probably looked a lot more like you: shorter than me, brown skin - and we don't know what kind of haircut he had." He shook his head. "No, he definitely looked like you. I've seen pictures."
We compromised. I carried the cross one section of the way, but women, men, boys, and girls from the neighborhood carried it to the other 13 stations. It was beautiful. But the words of the elder - and the violent colonial legacy behind them - broke my heart.
I felt those wounds re-opened today when I heard your statements about Santa Claus and Jesus. I hope you can understand that there is a lot more than political correctness or even historical accuracy at play here. I wonder if you might reconsider what you said, and revisit the topic on your show.
Thank you for your attention.

Advent blessings,

Dan Moriarty
Cochabamba, Bolivia

You, too, can write to Megyn Kelly at