All posts by Dena Hunt

A Lovely Afternoon

These past six months I have lived in isolation. No Mass, no shopping, no volunteer work, no social life. I am old, I have a serious respiratory illness for which I take a daily medication that suppresses the immune system. According to medical advice, I shouldn’t go anywhere public unless really necessary. A neighbor shops for me, my beloved Sophie (a Yorkie) keeps me company, and I look forward to the weekly workday of my yardman. I haven’t been to Mass. I tried once, but the mask made it impossible for me to breathe and I had to leave.

There was one really lovely day. I called a couple who are dear friends about a month ago. “Please visit”, I whimpered. “We’d have to sit on the porch, but maybe we could manage”. They arrived with a floor fan (anyone who knows what August is like in South Georgia can imagine), a cooler, and wearing masks. When we reached the porch, they removed their masks and withdrew from the cooler a lovely bottle of Shiraz, and plates wrapped in plastic and laden with cheeses and crackers, and the floor fan was plugged in. Afterwards, we had wonderful Meyer lemon cookies straight from the bakery. My friend wore gloves to distribute our plates and disposable wine glasses. No gourmet banquet at the Ritz-Carlton could have competed.

I’m not so very unusual. Older people who live alone and are usually active now are not. They may not want to ask for some kind of improvised visit. I might mention here that only one or two people have phoned during this time. I am lucky in having a kind neighbor shop for me. And I am blessed in having such good friends. Not everyone can say that, however. If readers know someone who might appreciate an improvised visit or even a phone call, it might be good to remember, “I was in prison, and you visited me.”   

Secret Ballot

The news is horrifying. I would never have thought the United States could be in such disarray, such violent disarray. I lived through the sixties, but it wasn’t like this. Protests were actually protests and not riots, no real violence, no arson, no killing. And most important, no willful disobedience on the part of elected city and state officials of their own laws. But the sixties protested the VietNam War, not the country itself.

This looks more like Kristallnacht, more like the racial hatred of Nazism—not least in the practice of “cancel culture”, the refusal to allow expression of any view but the one of condemnation or hate. And like that nightmarish period of history, appeasement justifies the violence and fans the flames. Self-defense is disallowed and even punished. A man in Seattle, I think it was, hid his children in the basement and sat with a shotgun across his knees all night.

But most distressing of all: I saw a newsclip of a vested priest behind the altar leading his congregation in new vows in place of old: I will do whatever I can to dismantle white supremacy, etc. The congregation was obliged to respond as to Baptismal promises. Clutching the snake to their bosom, so many German churches leapt on the political wave during the rise of Hitler.

We have a duty as citizens to participate in our democracy. That duty is to obey the law and to vote. That’s it. Politically minded folk carry the notion of citizens’ duty much further, but that’s all we’re really obligated to do. This steady rise in partisanship to the cracking point is the inevitable result of centralization of power. Everyone knows the latest bit of conflict news from Washington; no one knows the name of their local councilman.

Christ did not involve himself in politics, much to the dismay of many. He was steadfast about that, most notably in the story of the image on the coin. But modern churchmen, using his concern for the poor and outcast as an excuse to justify their political partisanship, tend to involve themselves deeply and attempt to carry their flocks with them. But the fact is that he wasn’t into politics, just people. If his care for the poor inspires anything, it should inspire our personal conduct as Christians. Every time the Church engages in politics in history, it pays a dear price—not in sacrifice, but in culpability. Despite the modern regard of politics as religion, it has no place in the Church because it has no place in Christ’s teaching. Our democratic system allows Christian faith and charity to flourish—if it will. There is an alternative for Christians to all this screaming, violence, and hate. There is Christ.  

It’s worth remembering—because nobody ever mentions it—that the vote is via secret ballot. I don’t respond to polls; I don’t talk politics. When the time comes, I will vote my conscience and I will tell no one how I voted. No one is in that booth except the Truth and me.           

Small Towns

I used to teach at a high school in a small, isolated rural town in Georgia. I arrived there already in my forties and already formed as an adult, not really subject to the formative process that I would have undergone if I’d been a new young teacher.

People who visited there said it was like going through a time warp. The school was racially integrated and black students excelled as much as white students. Extra-curricular activities included white and black students, but there was no inter-racial dating, and there were no mixed marriages. In school, among faculty, and in the town, black and white citizens were friendly toward each other, but the churches were distinctly segregated, as well as the neighborhoods. Wealth was pretty much evenly distributed. Well-dressed black and white students attended school together, participated in activities together, but there it ended. Everyone seemed content with this arrangement.

Even with that peculiarity, it seemed an idyllic place to live. I decided not to live there, however. For one thing, I’m a Catholic, and while there were many Baptist, Pentecostal, and even a Methodist church or two, there was no Catholic church. I decided to live in a small city about 45 miles distant, where there is a Catholic church, and make the commute to work every day.

There was another reason, however, one less obvious, or less easily explained. The people of this town had lived there for generations. Everyone was identified, defined, placed, by their relations. “Joe Thompson’s boy,” or “Mary Alice’s brother,” or “one of the Conners.” This was particularly true of women: To live there, a woman had to be someone’s daughter, wife, sister, or mother. If none of these identities applied, she was no one—and she was also expendable, disposable, a useful target in feuds, someone who had no relations to hide behind–or hide within. An unrelated person is defenseless; they can safely be scapegoated with no fear of backlash or set up as a despised figure around whom others can unite. (I hadn’t yet read Rene Girard.) In any case, I sensed a profound danger almost from the day I arrived.

So I commuted. I knew they thought I believed I was “better” than they were. I didn’t, of course, but I had no choice but to let that belief stand. And over the years I taught there, my instinct for the danger I had sensed was proven accurate many times. I saw my students graduate and get trapped there. Too often they went away to college only to return after one semester, saying they were homesick. But it wasn’t their families they missed—they missed themselves. Hundreds of miles away from the relations which had given them their identity, they didn’t know who they were. One or two told me on returning that they were frightened, even terrified. Coming back home, they felt “safe” again. One of my brighter students gained a full scholarship to Yale, only to return in less than three months, weeping, and saying that she “missed home.” It wasn’t home she missed, but herself. She didn’t know who she was up there.

This, I think, is what “tribalism” really means, very much like the social structure of animals who live in packs. Every child is given a place, a slot, in the overall tribe. This place belongs to him or her. But more importantly, the child belongs to it, so that the child and the place become one thing and can’t be separated. It isn’t a matter of class or race; it’s a matter of belonging. That is why the races lived so peacefully side-by-side there and also why racial integration remained superficial. It wasn’t a “white” thing or a “black” thing.  Everyone knows who they are, and where they belong. One man came from the North with his family, intending to live this seemingly idyllic life. He attended a black church and was asked by the pastor, in rather strong terms, to leave.

I taught there for eight years but never stayed after school for any kind of social function or any school-related activity that did not require my attendance. The commute was very difficult sometimes, but, although I was fond of my students and had a great deal of respect for many of my colleagues, I didn’t live there. There were times when sentiment or complacency caught me, and I’d have to do something to extricate myself—take a day off and stay home, or even say or do something to garner disapproval and initiate exclusion. If I’d chosen to live there, I would have given up my faith, I would have had to marry in order to build a social defense wall to protect myself, I would have had to allow the town to define me by assigning me a place and an identity.

That was many years ago, but I still reflect on what I learned about social cohesion and its cost. 

Standard English is White Supremacist?

 A recent issue of The College Fix reported an article from the Conference of College Composition and Communication in which five professors called for “black linguistic justice” and an end to the “white supremacy of standard English.” The article reported was titled: “This Ain’t Another Statement! This is a DEMAND for Black Linguistic Justice!” The writers wanted to “decolonize students’ minds” to have them “unlearn white supremacy.”

 Well, first, this isn’t new. There was this kind of talk way back when I first started teaching, which was about a decade after the Civil Rights Movement. Revolutionary fervor is addictive and very hard to give up, even long after the revolution is over. Self-righteousness is intoxicating, and there are those, perhaps genetically predisposed, who become hopelessly addicted. It was about this time we were forced to give up generic “man” and the abstract “he” for a revision to “humanity” and the abomination of he/she, but at least that was more accurate, logical, and distasteful as it was, we were able to swallow it.

 That accomplished, the addicts began to insist on the standardization of so-called “black English.” No. No, because the reason for such a sweeping change was not, and is not, accurate or logical. There are, if I remember correctly, 14 identified dialects in Georgia alone. There are hundreds of dialects in the U.S. An African-American from Waycross, Georgia, has as much difficulty understanding a New York African-American as a white person from Waycross experiences. “Black” English is as diffuse as “white” English—if there were such a thing, which there isn’t. There is, however, such a thing as standard English, which is the mother of all the dialects.

Europeans are bilingual; the second language of most is English, standard English, in fact. Any American can understand European English, but Europeans might not understand English-speakers from the deep South, or perhaps inner-city New Yorkers because these are dialects. I used to teach my students that, unlike Europeans, who have to go only a few miles to be in a foreign country, we have huge oceans on either side of the huge English-speaking country where we live. We don’t really have to be bilingual. However, because we have such an incredibly diverse population, we do have to be bi-dialectal (a term I coined for the occasion). We have to be fluent in our own dialect and in standard English. To add another dialect is not to deprive one of the dialect with which one is familiar any more than the addition of another language causes one to forget one’s native tongue. To learn a second is not a put-down of the first. My purpose was not to “correct” their English, but to teach another dialect—standard English.

 If fluency in a second language or dialect is seen as a condemnation of a first language or dialect, it is impossible to teach or learn. I believe the English learned that lesson from the Welsh. On the other hand, I doubt that one could find anyone in Wales who does not speak English, even if Welsh is used at home, in town, and elsewhere.

 What was interesting—and fun, for both my students and me—was an experiment in teaching standard English in ghetto. I couldn’t keep it up for more than five minutes at a time, but it was fun and effective in what I wanted them to learn: language is a huge part of our identity; learning another language is recognizing another’s identity. 

Addendum

Ms. Ann E.’s response to my post against capital punishment poses a theological argument to my own point of view. If this were a debate, she might be accused of “cherry-picking” sources, but it isn’t. In any case, a personal moral position must always yield to a theological one, and so I yield.

But on July 10 of this year, Angiolino Bonetta, a 14-year-old Italian boy who died in 1948 after suffering from cancer for three years, was declared “Venerable.” Until the last, he offered up his suffering for the sake of “poor sinners,” as commanded by Our Lady of Fatima, to whom he was devoted. It’s easy for me to imagine that the “poor sinners” for whom Angiolino prayed are grateful that he chose to suffer for them rather than to execute them.

It has never been hard to justify cruelty. What has always been difficult is imitating Christ. 

Against Capital Punishment 2

 Among those who read my post Against Capital Punishment, reactions were varied, but only in their disagreement. No one agreed with me. Some pointed to the most heinous crimes imaginable and asserted vigorously that such crimes deserved death, pointing out that the unbearable outrage is only mitigated by a death sentence. Others were against capital punishment, but not against punishment itself, pointing out that the Church teaches that punishment must be administered with mercy. No one agreed with me that punishment itself is an error.

 The most interesting was an objection to my suggestion that criminals (of whatever degree) should be isolated but not punished. “But that’s terrible! You’re saying that even a non-violent burglar should be placed in solitary!” Well, yes, actually I am. I’ve always thought that if I were in prison, I’d want to be in solitary.

 Do we not punish children for misbehavior by giving them “time out”? Isn’t that solitary? And small children have not yet formed an ego; they’re not yet capable of the reflection and self-confrontation that solitary confinement would induce. Separation from their peers might really be much more cruel for them than for adults. Yet their loving parents do it, believing that because it isn’t corporal punishment, it’s okay.

 One thinks of the “casting out” in Old Testament law. One thinks of lepers who were outcasts in the New Testament, those who were cleansed of their leprosy by Christ. Leprosy is a contagious disease, but so is evil. Demons expelled don’t cease to be; they find another dwelling place. They will not cease to be until the end of time.

 My father was a career criminal, imprisoned multiple times. How did he get that way? I don’t know very much about him, but my mother said that when they married, he was kind and good and sober. Then the war came and he served in the infantry in Belgium. When he returned, he would get drunk and go into violent rages. They didn’t know about alcoholism in rural Georgia in the 1940s, and the term PTSD had not yet been invented. He was cast out. His whole life became self-punishment, alleviated only by alcohol, which led to more self-hatred.  

 Society has a right to be protected from anti-social persons, but punishment is condemnation. I don’t know that anyone has a right to do such a thing to another human being, or even an animal. I do believe that evil is a contagious disease, and I’ve never had a problem understanding Christ’s admonition to love our enemies.

 Is this “unrealistic”? Yes, but I think we could get a lot closer to what our Lord commanded than we do. Only the One without sin has a right to punish. That isn’t me. It isn’t anybody I know.

Against Capital Punishment

I’m opposed to capital punishment.

First, obviously, thou shalt not kill. Then, there’s the parable of the wheat and the weeds. (Leave the weeds; otherwise, you’ll hurt the wheat.) Put differently, if you destroy the bad, you destroy the good along with it. (Thank you, Nathaniel Hawthorne.)

But there’s another reason, broader and deeper. I’ve noticed that whenever a commandment is broken—for whatever reason—the consequences are disastrous. I’ve never known a marriage based on adultery to succeed, no matter how much the adulterous partners love each other. If you divorce your wife to marry another woman, the marriage will fail. The problem with sin is that it simply doesn’t work.

He said vengeance belongs to him. And that’s the problem with the entire concept of “punishment.” Punishment is vengeance. A penal system is a system for punishment by definition. As long as we retain a punishment system, we usurp the role of the Father.

A father trains up a child in the way he should go for the sake of the child and for the sake of the community. Fatherless children are not trained in the way they should go. That’s the single most serious problem in our society, resulting in hostility toward the father in the person of authority, any authority—law, law enforcement, even teachers and mothers. Society tries, via social workers and a myriad of government and civil programs, to substitute for the missing father, but there is no substitute.

The penal system is a last resort. But if an offender is placed in a society of other offenders, hostility is not extinguished but nurtured. Society must be protected from that hostility, but changing a good society for a bad one only worsens the problem. Instead, the offender should be alone, not as punishment, but simply because he is anti-social and a danger to others. Alone, he will encounter himself as one who is both confined and free. Confinement forces self-confrontation; freedom forces choice. He will choose either God the Father and submit to his will, or he will encounter another father and succumb to his will. In either case, he is not punished; he is separated from others for their sake and for his own.

There is no circumstance under which he should be killed. Destroying the weeds destroys the wheat. Society is injured by the willful murder of any one of its members, even those who would harm it. Allowing a mass murderer to live gives him–and us—a chance for salvation. Killing him deprives him—and us—of that chance. Sin doesn’t work, including, and especially, the sin of usurping that which belongs to God. And the consequences are disastrous.

Parking Lot Conversations

Many years ago, there was a young man who started attending daily Mass while I was on summer break and able to go to Mass every day. Because he was a stranger, I started to watch him during the liturgy. It was clear that he was a new convert—very devout, reverent, and he often sat in the chapel afterwards to pray.

I introduced myself in the parking lot and asked if he was a new convert. Yes, he was, and very happy to be welcomed to the flock. Afterwards, we chatted a minute or two after Mass every day.  He was euphoric, and I so enjoyed the way his experience was reminding me of my own long ago. I wasn’t surprised one day when his demeanor became troubled, almost fearful.

“You think it’s going, don’t you?” I asked him.

“He’s leaving me,” he answered, looking on the verge of tears.

“No, he’s not,” I said. “He’ll never do that.”

“Does that mean I’m leaving him?” He seemed almost terrified.

“Not unless you choose to do that,” I said. “The question is, do you love him, or do you just love the way he loved you? He’s always loved you that way. It’s just that you only recently discovered it. And now he’s giving you the chance to love him back.”

Tears came, very much against his will. “I didn’t know….”

“Now you know.”

I didn’t see him for a day or two afterward. Then he returned to Mass and spoke to me afterward. He thanked me for my comments. “You were inspired,” he said.

Well, maybe. If that’s audacious, I ask forgiveness; if it’s not, I give thanks.

Classes started again and I had to go back to work. I asked someone if he’d continued going to daily Mass, but they didn’t know him. I fretted about him for a long time, and I still haven’t forgotten him and our brief conversations. I still wonder what decision he made. If he only loved the euphoria that the Holy Spirit showered on him during that summer, then he would have dismissed his experience, deciding that it was simply some kind of intense emotional catharsis. But if he didn’t, if he decided that it was real, if he decided that God did indeed love him, then he would have learned what he should do next: love him back.

Love is dynamic. It’s not some kind of static thing that just sits there. It’s back-and-forth; it’s like a dance. And in fact, it’s in that very movement we learn that it’s permanent, it’s forever, it’s not a temporary “condition” we sometimes find ourselves in, something that’s transitory. Periods of seeming dormancy can go on for years, then a shower of gold suddenly bursts forth when we least expect it (and most need it). And sometimes we’re just incapable, helpless. We’re empty, desolate. We can do nothing—then suddenly we find ourselves inspiring someone in a parking lot, saying things we didn’t know we knew.

I want to think the young man is still dancing. I may be wrong, but I kind of think he might be.

At Last!

We have finally arrived, after two thousand years, at a truly sinless generation, one that is authorized by its own purity and perfection to throw as many stones as we like, at whatever object we like. Statues of saints, heroes, and even Christ himself, are toppled, broken, destroyed. No more need for churches—they can brought down as well by de-facing them in order to cancel any moral authority they might have had in the wicked past. We have no further need of them. People who object are subject to defacement or destruction as well, for disagreement carries the taint of the past, those generations that have gone before and committed such vile and immoral acts. We are above the law, above history, the sole legitimate moral authority. For we are the sinless generation the world has been waiting for.

On Not Being Good Enough

Not too long ago, a friend made a remark to me, the implication of which I knew to be judgmental. Unlike me, my friend is very active in volunteering. He admires others who are also active and does not admire those who are not. That’s his standard. It’s a standard he applies to himself, but it’s also one he applies, consciously or not, to others.

Okay. I know people who are active volunteers and who have all the lovingkindness of a scorpion. They are fond of quoting St. James. But I remember the Lord’s comment on this sort of thing: Lord, didn’t we do all these good things in your name, feed the hungry, house the homeless, visit the prisoner, and everything? And he replied, “Depart from me. I know you not.”

Now why is that? I know the Lord loves these people, but I don’t think he loves them because they volunteer all the time. Doing good feels good, and I think that’s their real reward. And if you do good things, you don’t have to know him. And by extension, you don’t have to love him—or anyone else, for that matter.

I used to have an aunt who was a “clean freak.” She had to have everything always immaculately clean. She made a remark once about heaven, and I heard my uncle mutter, “Heaven’ll have to be very dirty to suit Jean. Otherwise, it’ll be hell for her.” There’s a connection between my aunt and my friend. Heaven for my aunt will be dirty; for my friend, it will be full of poor people, sick, hungry, or homeless.

You have to accept people like my friend as they are, even though they don’t accept you. They demand that you be like them; if you’re not, you’re unacceptable. My mother knew the Lord better than many. Once, when she’d fallen on hard times, she exclaimed, “Lord, deliver me from good people!” And I get that. I loved my Aunt Jean, but I didn’t like to go to her house; I was always afraid I’d get something dirty. I still love my friend (and admire him), but I don’t spend much time with him anymore. I always seem to come away feeling bad.