Tuesday, February 28, 2023

The Terrible Struggle For Ukraine: A “World War”?

It has been a year since the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. It was meant to be a quick and easy conquest of a place that—according to Vladimir Putin and his clique—doesn’t have a right to exist as an independent nation. It was carried out in flagrant disregard of international law and in violation of Ukrainian border guarantees that Russia itself had agreed to in prior treaties. Not that this was really new, since Russia had already violated Ukraine's sovereignty in 2014 by seizing Crimea and was embedded with supposed "independence fighters" in the Donbas region since that time.

Russia expected that what they called their "special military operation" would overthrow the government in Kyiv within a few days. What the Russians did not expect (and, indeed, it surprised the whole world) was that the people of Ukraine were implacably determined to defend themselves and their country. Their opposition soon exposed the flaws and lack of discipline in Russia's armed forces, and established Ukraine as a credible opponent that might be able to hold its ground and even drive the Russians back. Western nations continue to give billions of dollars in military aid to Ukraine in a war that is ongoing, with Russia bogged down trying to hold territorial gains in Eastern Ukraine.

The Kremlin strategy, above all, is founded upon utter contempt for Ukraine's existence as a nation and the Ukrainian claim to be a distinctive people. The Russian armed forces have not hesitated to rain down destruction upon the whole of Ukraine, using drones to bomb civil infrastructure, destroy electric and water supplies, and kill indiscriminately Ukrainian civilians in their homes, schools, and hospitals. The war has caused the greatest European refugee crisis in generations. Eight million Ukrainians have fled the country (that's one-fifth of their entire population) and are refugees in other European nations. Many more have been internally displaced.

Ukraine's armed forces continue—with fierce determination and overwhelming popular support—to defend their country and seek to restore their borders. The rich Western countries continue to cheer for Ukraine with an uncanny unanimity and limitless “pop-culture enthusiasm.” The West has also used its most powerful asset—money—to send Ukraine weapons of various kinds, deliberating and delaying on different systems and details for various reasons.

The war is being reported and analyzed by news media in great detail. What is impossible, however, is to predict the trajectory of its escalation, who may yet become involved, and how (and when) it might finally come to an end. There remains in the West something like a desperate hope that this terrible war can be "contained" as a "local conflict," fought and won by Ukraine using Western “help”—which means spending tons of money to provide Ukrainians with state-of-the-art weapons, training, and whatever other kinds of assistance money can buy and high-profile political visits can generate. According to the “rules of war” none of this “help” makes Western nations co-belligerents in Ukraine’s war against Russia’s barbaric and criminal aggression. It is hoped that preserving this non-belligerent status will prevent the war from escalating beyond a certain point that is geopolitically manageable.

Some may argue that the “rules of war” have become more awkward to apply in the 21st century, when unimaginably advanced technologies play such a huge role in the actual fighting. The Kremlin accuses the West of fighting a “proxy-war” against Russia in Ukraine (while still refusing to say—indeed making it a crime for Russians to say—that they are even “fighting a war;” their military with all its savagery in Ukraine is merely carrying out a “special military operation”). 

Nevertheless, as far as Vladimir Vladimirovitch Putin is concerned, this is already a “world war.” On this (and only this) point, there is some intelligence to his position. The Ukrainians are undoubtedly courageous, but they need the West’s advanced military hardware to defend themselves against the Russian military’s hardware that is being used to attack them. For Western nations to openly send military personnel to march (“boots-on-the-ground”) along with the Ukrainian army would be regarded as an act of war. Yet, somehow, giving Ukraine mobile surface-to-air missile launchers, teaching them how to use them against Russian targets, and supplying ammunition is not an “act of war.” Hmm, that’s how it works? Even though these kind of weapons appear to help the Ukrainians much more than sending troops? One can be excused for finding this distinction a bit beguiling. But for the moment, at least, it is given an all-around de-facto recognition, as it serves all the players in this dangerous game. 

For Ukrainians this is a real life-or-death struggle for their country. They also know it is a struggle that has global consequences. If Russia can invade their country—contrary to international guarantees that Russia itself agreed to respect—and seize territory on the basis of flimsy pretexts that lack coherent evidence and have never been subjected to international arbitration, what is to stop other nations from doing the same when they want to grab territory?

Instead of making his case in a manner that could be discussed…somewhere…like the Security Council (which would be better than nothing), Putin sets forth a mixture of selectively skewed Russo-centric history, obtuse pan-Slavic mysticism, and the most obviously chaotic elements of Western society in its present crisis, and declares Russia the last hope of civilization which is under siege from the evil and manipulative West. Russia is the real victim. Russia also has a right to annex Eastern Ukrainian territory and a duty to subjugate all of Ukraine under the umbrella of Greater Russia—to save it from the corruption of Europe and the West. Or the talk switches to geopolitical spheres of influence, multipolarity, excessive Western expansion via NATO, etc. etc. etc. 

Putin pulls on various levers, depending on his audience, in order to rationalize Russia’s aggression by claiming that Russia is really defending itself. “Flipping” the conflict in this way allows him to present to his own people (as propaganda)—as well as the non-Western world, which looks at all this with its own concerns and/or opportunism—an alternative narrative claiming that the West and “its Ukrainian lackeys” are the ones who are the aggressors, threatening to destroy Russia and rule the world. Here Putin draws once again on the remarkably resilient KGB propaganda playbook, using this “threat to Russia’s existence” as a pretext to make dire warnings about the possible use of nuclear weapons. 

The West, and indeed the whole world, cannot ignore these warnings. Still the Ukrainian people need to defend themselves, and the West wants to “help” but doesn’t want a “world war,” so it continues to “play the game” of using the power of money to blockade Russia’s economy and to send technological devices to make its contribution to the shooting fight. The strategy is to oppose Russia’s aggression with as little risk as possible. But it may be too late to avoid risks. The world may already be at the mercy of unfolding events.

Other nations besides Ukraine are uncomfortably physically close to these events. NATO seems to have a new sense of common purpose, though it’s hard to predict how long it will last, and whether the next election cycles will change the postures of its core member states. But the most zealous members of NATO today are the relatively recent members from Eastern Europe—especially Poland and the Baltic States—who have eight centuries of experience in dealing with Moscow and who share a border with Russia. They have no illusions about the ex-KGB agent who currently occupies the bizarre throne of the New Muscovite-Russian-wannabe-Empire. And they are smart enough to realize that there is no "instant democracy" waiting to spring into existence in Russia if (when?) Tsar Vladimir is overthrown. If Putin has viable rivals, they are rivals to the throne. They will not change the trajectory of current Russian ambitions, and they may be even more ideological and more reckless.

Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia already feel the heat from the breath of a monstrous emerging “world war.” They are not the only ones.

Nobody sees where it all might end. It would be cynical to claim that the military-industrial complex—always a reliable engine for economic stimulus in a country like the United States—might not mind a long and aimless war that enables them to manufacture weapons and make gobs of money from a government that always seems to have plenty on hand for such “necessities.” Where the government gets that money is a question that probably has answers too obtuse for it to explain to “us [we] the people.” Meanwhile, Russia might also be planning to outlast its opponents in a long stalemate… while continuing to say that they want to negotiate peace on their terms. We have already noted that their terms are less than ideal, but in reality the issues are much deeper than they are willing to admit.

Russia claims that it wants to be a regional power in a multipolar world; it wants to be “the center” of a wider realm that it envisions as its historic patrimony and responsibility (never mind that Russia’s “special military operation” to “liberate” Ukraine, or parts of Ukraine, has been carried out in an outrageously irresponsible manner). Neither history nor the present international situation, however, support Russia’s ambitions. Whatever may be the sins and machinations and schemes of powerful forces from the West, they do not warrant Russia indulging in a fresh grasp for power, particularly in the very places that have suffered under the iron grip of a prior Kremlin government until a little more than 30 years ago—a government that has never been held accountable for heinous crimes against the peoples it now wants to rule again.

Russia has a very particular problem. Moscow has a problem. The Kremlin has a problem. In the days when he was still facing down the monolithic Soviet Union, the great Alexander Solzhenitsyn saw the problem clearly (when he returned to post-Soviet Russia in the 1990s, he became somewhat confused [they were exceptionally confusing times for Russia]—but it was as a dissident, against the Soviet Union and then in his critique of the decadent West, that Solzhenitsyn attained his historic stature). In 1973, Solzhenitsyn declared that the Russia he loved—which was then the heart of a decrepit-but-still-grasping Soviet Communist MegaState—needed to renounce power. Russia needed to be healed before it returned to the global stage. It needed, as a nation, to pass through a period of "repentance and self-limitation," a looking-inward to discover and foster its constructive identity.

Repentance. Has anybody noticed that there has been no repentance for the crimes of the Soviet Union in the twentieth century? There are many reasons why the current world order is skewed, but it's worth noting that our international institutions are still based on the outcome of the Second World War. Our current agreements about international law, human rights, treaty-obligations, disaster relief, and a host of other cooperative efforts were born directly from the Grand Alliance of 1941-1945 that defeated Nazi totalitarianism and Imperial Japanese militarism, and then put on trial people who were perpetrators and collaborators in the immense violence carried out by these regimes. The intention was that people were going to be held accountable for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Even during the war, this alliance took to calling itself "The United Nations," and the institution that bears the same name today is an extension of what was born at that time.

One of these allies, however, was Stalin’s Soviet Union. Stalin was guilty of crimes against humanity on a scale approaching the level of Hitler. In 1932, he presided over an attempted genocide-by-forced-famine against the very people of Ukraine who today must once again fight for their right to exist. Stalin’s predecessors and successors perpetrated vast crimes as well, running a regime that ideologically subordinated the dignity of the human person and the real aspirations of communities and peoples to the pretenses of a totalitarian state. Russia was at the center of this state. We all now know the abhorrent truth about the Soviet Union. Yet Putin and his collaborators—having exchanged Soviet uniforms for Russian uniforms— play on their own people’s nostalgia for hegemonic power.

I don’t want Russia to be destroyed. I love Russia. Russia has its own deep human and Christian experience to share with the whole world. Russia has a mission in history. But the road ahead for the Russian people passes through penance and self-limitation, simplicity, love for the expansive lands already entrusted to them, and a humility in which they will find their real strength. Included in this is harmony and respect for their brother Slavic nations and the rest of the world. In these ways Russia will endure, even as the present world powers spend their energies on things that pass away.

But Russia will face catastrophe if its people choose to imitate the inhumanity of Stalin, thinking it might save them from the nihilism that surrounds them or the anxiety that feeds on their fears of irrelevance. If the present war becomes an extended global conflict or even a new “Cold War,” Russia will not be one of the powers that leads it. If Russia does not embrace a humble path, it will find itself humiliated by its new “limitless partner” to the south. If China props up Russia, it will do so on its own terms, as a mine for resources, a superhighway for its trade ambitions, and a passage to the new open ocean in the Arctic north.

The future can’t be predicted in detail, but in general it must grapple with the tensions and the unraveling of problems set in place by the past. I will have more reflections on this point and its relation to current-day events in another post coming soon. Stay tuned for that.

Saturday, February 25, 2023

The “Fasting” That God Wants From Us

It is important to fast—to make sacrifices regarding the food we eat—especially for us rich Western people who are healthy and take food for granted. Lent provides us with opportunities for fasting, although in the Latin rite the only obligatory fast days are Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. The whole season of Lent is “penitential,” however, and we often make various kinds of sacrifices of food or practice other acts of self-denial.

These practices help us to cooperate with God’s grace. We “make space within our freedom” for the Holy Spirit to heal us and enable us to grow in love in union with Jesus our Savior.

The point of it all is conformity to the will of God. For Christians, it is a particular challenge in our times to allow our religious observances to be integral to our desire to recognize Christ, adhere to Him, serve Him in love—love for God our Father and for our “neighbors,” our brothers and sisters in Christ, the real human persons who have been given to us each day in our lives, our work, our communities, and (especially) our churches. Then there are others that we are called to seek out and care for in their suffering, accompanying them with solidarity and compassion.

How easy it is to forget the centrality of Jesus and His purpose in shaping our lives, and subtly replace it with a self- (or group- ) affirmation of a partisan identity that we think makes us “right and good” and demeans others as unworthy (of our concern). We imagine that we are pleasing God by performing certain works—not really for the love of God but more and more like badges that we “wear” in order to declare ourselves the “Party of God”—and we don’t even notice that we are fostering dissensions, fighting, and slandering our neighbors. Then we oppress others (the poor of body and/or mind) by profiting off them—if not directly or materially, then in the inflation of our egos at the expense of their indigence. Instead of helping them we neglect them, we ignore them, or perhaps we become so full of our self-righteousness that we are unaware of their existence. We are deaf to the cries of their poverty, to Jesus Crucified in their wounds.

What value, then, is there to our fasting?

The liturgical reading from the book of Isaiah shows that there is nothing new about this problem. Also, as inspired Sacred Scripture, these words have a perennial value. The Holy Spirit speaks to us through these words today. Listening to the Spirit, with an open and humble heart, will bear important fruit that will sustain us in our Lenten journey and in difficult times to come:

[God’s People cry out to the Lord:]

“Why do we fast, and you do not see it? 

afflict ourselves, and you take no note of it?”

[The Lord answers them:]

“Lo, on your fast day you carry out your own pursuits, 

and drive all your laborers. 

Yes, your fast ends in quarreling and fighting,

striking with wicked claw.

Would that today you might fast

so as to make your voice heard on high!

Is this the manner of fasting I wish,

of keeping a day of penance:

That a man bow his head like a reed

and lie in sackcloth and ashes?

Do you call this a fast,

a day acceptable to the Lord?

This, rather, is the fasting that I wish:

releasing those bound unjustly,

untying the thongs of the yoke;

Setting free the oppressed,

breaking every yoke;

Sharing your bread with the hungry,

sheltering the oppressed and the homeless;

Clothing the naked when you see them,

and not turning your back on your own.

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,

and your wound shall quickly be healed;

Your vindication shall go before you,

and the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.

Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer,

you shall cry for help, and he will say: ‘Here I am!’”

~Isaiah 58:1-9

Friday, February 24, 2023

"February 24, 2022" - One Year Later.

This day marks the first anniversary of what is still an ongoing atrocity: Russia's attempt (yet again) to erase Ukraine's existence as a nation and a people. The Ukrainians continue to defend themselves with profound national awareness. They also continue to suffer from what appears to be Russia's almost nihilistic aggression that cares nothing for human persons, whether they be Ukrainian children, the sick, elders, or their own young conscripts, great numbers of whom they send charging recklessly at Ukrainian defense positions (reminiscent of the suicidal trench warfare in Europe a hundred years ago). The fatal casualty rate of these poor teenagers is enormous.

What will bring this nightmare to an end? God have mercy on them, and on all of us.

Today is February 24, 2023. "February 24..." A date sure to appear in future history books, as "the beginning of... what?" At least the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but what will this all turn into before it ends? No one can say at this moment in time. But kids in the future will have to memorize this date for history tests... if we still have schools in the future, and if we still care about the facts of history... (okay, overdramatic rhetoric perhaps; hyperbole, but not without reason - lots of Ukrainian kids don't have schools because they have been blown up).

Certain dates become marked permanently by horrible events that they commemorate. There have been more than a few in my lifetime. Some come to my mind right away: November 22, 1963 (assassination of JFK); May 13, 1981 (assassination attempt on John Paul II); June 4, 1989 (Tiananmen Square Massacre); and, of course, September 11, 2001 (you all remember that one). There have been others, no doubt, in the past 60 years.

Two additional dates are permanently marked in my own mind, and in many others who were personally proximate in some manner to these particular catastrophes: One of them is April 16, 2007, that awful day for my colleagues and their students at Virginia Tech University, when a deranged gunman killed 32 people—students and a few teachers—in their classrooms. The second date—for me and for tens of thousands of people on every continent in this world (most of them very young people)—needs no explanation for anyone who reads this blog or pays any attention to my social media: June 10, 2016.

What do these dates all have in common? Innocent people died on these days. Acts of shocking violence were perpetrated against them. Their humanity and their personal dignity were violated. The human community was violated. God made us to be brothers and sisters. It should be obvious why God commanded us, "do not kill" ... do not murder your brother, your sister.

Pray for our poor world. And remember February 24, 2022.

Wednesday, February 22, 2023

Lent 2023

“Let us not neglect the grace of this holy season, responding generously to the powerful promptings of Lent. At the end of the journey, we will encounter with greater joy the Lord of life, who alone can raise us up from our ashes” (Pope Francis, February 22, 2023).

Friday, February 17, 2023

Fashioned By His Grace

This week’s Collect Prayer: “O God, who teach us that you abide in hearts that are just and true, grant that we may be so fashioned by your grace as to become a dwelling pleasing to you. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God, for ever and ever.”

The Lord fashions us by His grace—God is infinite goodness, and He loves each one of us. In the most painful, most incomprehensible moments of our lives, He is with us. His love is a mystery, but our anguish can be a prayer if we trust in Him. 

God is our Father, He gives us our existence in every moment. He loves us, and His love is stronger than all the agony we face in life. He “fashions” us in the joys and sorrows of this life into the persons He has created us to become, for an eternal life more beautiful than anything we can imagine. 

God is good. No matter what happens, never stop trusting in Him.

Wednesday, February 15, 2023

Hong Kong: The Show (Trial) Must Go On

“Bravery is not about never being afraid, but about feeling fear and still choosing to do the right thing” (Joshua Wong).

On February 6 —two years after their arrest on the charge of “conspiring to subvert state power”—the trial of the “Hong Kong 47” finally began. The Hong Kong 47 group includes former members of the Hong Kong Legislative Council and other leaders of Hong Kong’s long-standing and intense human rights protest campaign (from 2014 to 2019). Among them are Benny Tai, law professor and organizer of the famous nonviolent “Umbrella Movement” of 2014 —and Joshua Wong, onetime leader of the students of 2014 who later became a political activist and has already served two short prison sentences. Most of these alleged “criminals” were denied bail, and have been forced to remain in jail since 2021. There are some other high profile trials for allegedly seditious activity—distinct from the charges against “the 47”—that have yet to begin, the most well-known being the upcoming trial of Jimmy Lai, the septuagenarian former publisher of the most prominent opposition newspaper, “Apple Daily.”

I used to post more frequently about Hong Kong, especially during the long Summer and Autumn of 2019. So much has happened since the overwhelming victory of the Pro-Democracy supporters in the November 2019 “district council” elections. It is important to recall some details of this stunning event: In Hong Kong’s system, “District Council” officers have only local administrative duties and no political power, which was why they were the only officials chosen by free and fair elections throughout the territory. But in 2019. the democracy movement ran its own candidates in most of the districts, turning an otherwise politically insignificant election into a de-facto referendum on recent events. The people were given a chance through an unrigged ballot box to present—even if only symbolically—their position regarding Beijing’s incremental usurpation of Hong Kong’s guaranteed domestic political and institutional autonomy. After months of social crisis and protests in the streets, Hong Kongers voted in unprecedented numbers throughout the territory, knowing full well what their votes would express to Beijing and to the wider world that was watching. Seldom had an East Asian election so gripped the attention of peoples outside the region. All things considered, the resulting massive paradigm shift in favor of pro-democracy candidates in the election demonstrated that the people repudiated Beijing’s agenda by a wide margin (see HERE for my report at the time).
The rulers of China, no doubt, realized that the democracy movement had to be stopped. With their obsession for political and social control, who knows what desperate measures the CCP might have taken, were it not for other circumstances that arose suddenly to change the entire focus of global news. Thus, while the whole world was struggling with the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and 2021, mainland China’s “PartyState” saw the chance to effectively (and quietly) dismantle the distinctive Hong Kong system that it had previously agreed to preserve until at least 2047.

The Chinese Communist Party and the State organs it controls imposed a “National Security Law” on Hong Kong in June 2020, bypassing what remained of the territorial legislative process (and—need it even be said?—without consulting or even informing in advance the seven million people who live there). Since then, Beijing has installed a new set of political and law enforcement personnel to carry out a Stalinesque purge of all democratic sympathy in Hong Kong. Thousands of arrests have been made, with activists denied bail and left behind bars waiting for long-delayed trials. Many of these trials end with convictions, in spite of the fact that Hong Kong’s judiciary is perhaps the last branch of the island’s “System” (remember “One Country, Two Systems”?) that retains some shred of independence according to its continuing usage of English “common law” traditions and recognition of human rights. (The judges still wear the antiquated “white wigs” in the courtroom.)

Sadly, common law precedents and classical civil liberties don’t have much chance of holding up against the New Chinese Empire. The CCP claims that the nation they control observes the “rule of law.” Unfortunately, it appears that what this means in practice is that, if they want to persecute you, they find a law (or invent a new one) and use it as a pretext to harass you, accuse you of violating the law, arrest you, roll you around in the Bureaucracy until you are exhausted, and finally—even if they can’t make a case against you in court—they have dissipated your influence, destroyed your business, bankrupted you, and have made you “lose face” as much as possible.

This process is referred to by its critics as “Lawfare.” As a technique for social control, it’s more efficient than old fashioned Maoist “re-education through labor” (unless you’re a Uighur, in which case you are being “re-educated”…indefinitely, and if it’s deemed necessary, to death).

But what are the specific “subversion charges” raised against the Hong Kong 47? As far as I can tell, their “conspiracy” involved collaborative political tactics that any other democratic country in the world would recognize as entirely legitimate, and well within their rights as citizens running for (or working with) candidates for an elected legislature. The Hong Kong Legislative Council, however,  was rigged from the start to ensure a large majority of pro-Beijing legislators chosen not to represent the people, but rather specific business and social sectors who depend on Beijing. Only 40% of the LegCo was chosen by popular vote, which (not surprisingly) has consistently returned a sizable block of democratic legislators who opposed Beijing encroachment within Hong Kong. Though they were unable to win on controversial votes within the LegCo, they remained a public voice of transparency and protest against pro-Beijing schemes, capable of sounding alarms to the people about proposals for imminent change. The Hong Kong people would then take to the streets and protest until the offensive proposals were withdrawn. As we may remember, this was what began the “Revolution of 2019”—the enormous popular protest marches against a proposal for extradition of alleged criminals wanted in mainland China.

What happened early in 2020 was that minority partisans made an effort toward the strategic organization of their forces. They organized an informal “primary election” that would allow their constituents to unite behind a slate of candidates who might be able to work together and exercise some real power in the LegCo: for example, by holding up the passage of the (Beijing appointed) Chief Executive’s annual budget proposal. The primary was apparently “illegal” even then, perhaps since Hong Kong had always forbidden formal political parties. In any case, no one considered it to be anything like treasonous or subversive at the time. It took place unhindered and hundreds of thousands of voters openly participated.

But the rest of the world turned its eyes away from Hong Kong as the year progressed and nations began struggling with their own COVID emergencies. Beijing saw the opportunity to wage Lawfare, and they did not hesitate to act. On June 1, 2020 they announced the new National Security Law, that effectively criminalized—in terms that savored of treason—all acts of opposition to the government. At first they assured people that the law was not retroactive, but that distinction soon crumbled into irrelevance, and those who stand trial today are being charged with “subversion” under a law that didn’t even exist when they committed their alleged “crime.”

Interestingly, however, 31 of the 47 defendants pleaded guilty to the charges (including Joshua Wong and Benny Tai). One reason for this may be that—knowing that the court proceedings are essentially a Show Trial and that their convictions are inevitable—they pleaded guilty in the hopes of receiving a lesser sentence. Another reason may be that they wanted to acknowledge that “subverting [Beijing’s] state power” was ultimately what they aimed to accomplish by organizing an opposition primary. They were determined to do everything they could to “subvert” the neocolonial foreign power—the Chinese Communist PartyState—that was relentlessly crushing their particular local identity and their corresponding human right to self-determination. One defendant commented in words to the effect that “I am guilty of trying to subvert the power of a totalitarian state.”

These guilty pleas, however, do not procure exemption from the show trial. All of the 47 are required to stand in court through what promises to be a three month ordeal. They will not be sentenced until after those who are convicted in spite of their attempt to defend their innocence (conviction may lead to life imprisonment). Moreover, the court itself has been constituted—by government demand—in a most unusual way. The classic common law right to a “trial by jury” has been decreed to be inadequate for the gravity of this case. Instead, a panel of three judges has been appointed to decide the matter. Can anyone imagine any acquittals emerging from such a tribunal?

This is how Beijing and its running dogs wage “Lawfare.”

Lawfare has invaded Hong Kong to expedite the process of absorption that Hong Kongers have resisted since the British handed them off to the overlordship of mainland China’s Communist PartyState in 1997. It is too facile to reduce Hong Kong’s distinctiveness to the consequences of 19th century Western Imperialism. British aggression and the deplorable opium trade did draw its borders, but—amidst the imposition of many burdens and contradictions—the British also contributed the ideal of freedom and the governing processes of a Western-style civil society, while Cantonese migrants built and inhabited an entirely new city on what had up to that time been a sparsely populated rocky coast. They built a unique Asian city with its own history separate from the mainland for the past 170+ years. After 1949 Hong Kong grew enormously, serving as a refuge for many Chinese who were fleeing the Communist revolution and the political and social catastrophes of the Maoist era that followed.

This helps explain something of the special character and resilience of Hong Kong people. But there is more that distinguishes them. Over the past decade, the culture of Hong Kong has been powerfully impacted by the question of the meaning of freedom. What kind of freedom is worthy of human dignity? The CCP State is in many ways unaware of its own brutality. It believes that the future it is planning for Hong Kong is full of opportunities for advancement in prosperity, industriousness, technical creativity, and material comfort. Hong Kongers know that the gross incompetence and austerity of the Mao era are over. They know the new “New China” that lies across the border in Guangdong, the glitter of the multi-city metropolis surrounding the Pearl River Delta on the South China Sea, bursting with unimaginable economic growth, and inviting Hong Kong to join—perhaps even to lead—this region as it becomes the center of global commerce in the future. This is a vital aspect of the Chinese Dream that promises to lead the world of tomorrow.

Is this not “freedom” enough?

It is certainly a temptation, and not a stupid one either. If all we hope for is limited to the boundaries of this present life, what value does personal freedom really have? It it not a small sacrifice to make in exchange for the glories of material wealth, the mastery of power over the things of this world, the opportunity to collaborate in the building of a harmonious society?

It would be hard to answer this question if all we meant by “personal freedom” was the license to define ourselves and our values in whatever way we choose, without any responsibility to anyone but ourselves, without the recognition of a reality greater than our own measure, or the possibility of an unconditional commitment to any “other”. Is human personal freedom nothing more than the “right to choose” as an end in itself, rather than as the means to seek and follow the meaning of reality and the vocation of our lives, to adhere to what is good, to give and receive love? Of course everyone admits that these goals are the object of freedom, but for many the overarching goal of human freedom is to have power over reality and to be able to reduce goodness and love to our own measure. No one wants to admit that this kind of “autonomy” is an enervating illusion. No one would fight for the right to be absolute sovereign of a narcissistic dreamworld that numbs them to the actual world, wherein they are in fact slaves to the powers-that-be?

The Hong Kong 47 —along with all their compatriots—must keep searching for true human freedom. How does the search and struggle for freedom endure in prison? Among the pro-Democracy contingent in Hong Kong, there are some prominent Christians who are deeply motivated by their faith in Christ. He alone gives true freedom, and he calls out to everyone from within their own need for freedom. All those who hunger for freedom and dignity are in some way responding to him and following him, even if they don’t (yet) know him. Those who do know him and are faithful to him will generate spaces of life and community no matter where they are.

Please do not forget to pray for Hong Kong.

Law professor Benny Tai posted some reflections shortly after his arrest two years ago. This was one of his final posts before the internet was taken beyond his reach two years ago. A quotation from it can serve as a brief conclusion to these observations.

Love is Patience (Benny Tai)

There have been a few moments in the past few years 
where I feel the limits of patience.
But the Lord Jesus always makes me feel His love again 
in my weakest moments.
He loves me, loves Hong Kong, loves the world, 
including those who reject Him.
For love He is constantly patient, waiting for them to turn and change.
When I understand why love is patient and willing to love like the Lord, 
patience is born again.

Sunday, February 12, 2023

Ten Years Later

Ten years ago today… well, I guess, it’s ten years ago yesterday at this point, but still … how strange it was on Monday morning, February 11, 2013, to go on Twitter and see THIS NEWS!

A decade later, supposedly legitimate news outlets themselves rely on social media sources, and world leaders and other important people use them to issue statements. It didn’t used to be that way, but those days seem so long ago…. 

Saturday, February 11, 2023

Christina Grimmie on “Healed Wounds”

Remembering Christina Grimmie after 6 years and 8 months, with love and gratitude.💚🎶

Friday, February 10, 2023

“Confidence in God’s Strength…”

“Human weakness must not trouble us if God calls…”

Ten years ago today was a Sunday, and I posted on my social media this quotation from the late Pope Benedict XVI’s Angelus Message for that day. He reminded us that God’s “strength…acts precisely in our poverty.” 

The very next day—Monday, February 11, 2013—Benedict shocked the world by announcing that God was calling him to resign the Papacy. In the decade that followed, he never wavered from his conviction that he had set aside the papal office in obedience to God’s will. 

Throughout his long life, Josef Ratzinger/Benedict XVI was a witness to the truth of human life as responsiveness to the call of God, free adherence to “the divine proposal, radical receptivity to the Gift that grounds all we are and all we do—the Gift that “transforms and renews” us, and is therefore worthy of our complete trust.

Thursday, February 9, 2023

World Day of the Sick, 2023

February 11, the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, is also marked in the Church as the annual “World Day of the Sick,” and for both these reasons I have long found particular consolation on this day. My illness hinders me, but all things considered it has not proven to be too difficult to live with. I have endured enough, however, over the years to know how vulnerable and lonely sickness can make a person. Indeed, there is so much suffering in this world, and it cannot be resolved by our efforts to evade or ignore it. In illness, as in everything, Christ is our hope.

In my graphic image, I used an excerpt from some notes of Saint Bernadette, the humble visionary of Lourdes (which accompany the feast day in this month’s Magnificat). They are from her later years, after she learned to read and write and joined the Sisters of Charity. Her own health was frail, and she died of tuberculosis at the age of 35. She was a sufferer who offered her suffering to the Heart of Jesus, in union with His suffering, and for the suffering of others.

In this text she prays: “O most compassionate heart of Jesus, accept all my tears, every cry of pain as an entreaty for those who suffer, for those who weep; for those who forget you. O Mary, Mother of sorrows, at the foot of the cross you received the title of ‘Our Mother.’ I am the child of your sorrow, the child of Calvary. My Jesus, I suffer and I love you. All my cries of anguish rise to you, my Comforter. In your adorable heart I weep. To your heart I confide my sighs, my anguish, my grief to your grief. My Jesus, sanctify my sufferings by this holy union. Grant that by increasing my love for you, my grief may become lighter and easier to bear” (Saint Bernadette).

Pope Francis also has some words in his message forfor this day the recall for us the need to walk together on the path of suffering:
“Brothers and sisters, we are rarely prepared for illness. Oftentimes, we fail even to admit that we are getting older. Our vulnerability frightens us and the pervasive culture of efficiency pushes us to sweep it under the carpet, leaving no room for our human frailty. In this way, when evil bursts onto the scene and wounds us, we are left stunned. Moreover, others might abandon us at such times. Or, in our own moments of weakness, we may feel that we should abandon others in order to avoid becoming a burden. This is how loneliness sets in, and we can become poisoned by a bitter sense of injustice, as if God himself had abandoned us. Indeed, we may find it hard to remain at peace with the Lord when our relationship with others and with ourselves is damaged. It is crucial, then, even in the midst of illness, that the whole Church measure herself against the Gospel example of the Good Samaritan, in order that she may become a true ‘field hospital,’ for her mission is manifested in acts of care, particularly in the historical circumstances of our time. We are all fragile and vulnerable, and need that compassion which knows how to pause, approach, heal, and raise up. Thus, the plight of the sick is a call that cuts through indifference and slows the pace of those who go on their way as if they had no sisters and brothers….

“Experiences of bewilderment, sickness, and weakness are part of the human journey. Far from excluding us from God’s people, they bring us to the centre of the Lord’s attention, for he is our Father and does not want to lose even one of his children along the way. Let us learn from him, then, how to be a community that truly walks together, capable of resisting the throwaway culture.”

~Pope Francis, Message for the 31st Annual World Day of the Sick

Wednesday, February 8, 2023

Saint Josephine Bakhita Finds Freedom in Christ

In honor of the feast of Saint Josephine Bakhita, I present here the article on her conversion that first appeared in my monthly column in Magnificat in September 2014.

     The Conversion Story of Saint Josephine Bakhita

Sunday, February 5, 2023

Too Many “Wasted Words”!

Sometimes I am frightened by all the words that fill our days with physical and mental noise. We have more words today than ever before in history, and more ways of saying them. So many of our words boil down to people saying things to people about other people. We call it conversation or even dress it up as  "concern" for one another, or—depending on our media platform—opinion, journalism, scholarship, analysis, information, exchange of views, etc., etc., etc. Not to mention hostile comments on social media, Twitter mobs, and all the new ways the internet keeps devising for us to throw virtual mud at one another.

What so much of it really is, in the end, is one form or another of self-affirmation, gossip, unnecessary curiosity, detraction, calumny, or cynicism. We use words to assert ourselves, or to make war on one another. And our words express what is inside our hearts. We have hearts full of violence.

I am perhaps more cautious in my choice of terms, but I am no less self-deceptive than anyone else when it comes to mudslinging or just plain talking too much. I have to ask myself, "How often, when I speak or write, am I truly seeking to point to reality, to build up life, to affirm what is good? How often are my words aimed at distraction, or at drawing attention to myself?" 

How many wasted words! And yet I have a desire to speak the truth. I have the desire and the prayer that my words might be works of mercy and instruments of peace. Yet I am always running into my narrow, petty self.

I think perhaps we speak foolishly because we are insecure. We seek attention with our words, even at the expense of others. Why? Because we are afraid that we are not loved. Or, rather, we have forgotten that we are loved. We are not nourished by a vital connection with the One who loves us.

We need prayer. And not just more words of prayer. We need silence.

We need to let Him love us.

Thursday, February 2, 2023

Forty Days After Christmas

"My eyes have seen your salvation, which you prepared in the sight of all the peoples" (Luke 2:30-31).

It's Forty Days after Christmas. Happy Feast of the Presentation of the Lord!

Wednesday, February 1, 2023

My Mom’s Search For Truth

I decided to elaborate more on a recent post I made for the feast of Saint Thomas Aquinas. There was a childhood memory of my mother that I wanted to place in a larger context. It pertains to this text:

I remember being four or five years old and my mother was folding the laundry and talking about the reading she was doing that was opening up her mind (and my mother had a huge, ardent, precise, and magnanimous mind). I have images in my memory from that conversation (and perhaps others): there were the two Popes (John XXIII and Paul VI) and the Council and somebody who had influenced her deeply but whose writings were confusing (that would have been the remarkable Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin) but then a French Peasant who was a philosopher “corrected” her from going in the direction of the wild ideas that were brewing in 1960s “Teilhardism”… and, she was just learning so much. She radiated her still-youthful enthusiasm for truth and understanding.

And the four-year-old JJ was just imaging a French farmer-philosopher and whatever else and feeling that being Catholic and following the Church was not a narrow thing but an immense adventure of human reason and faith that embraced everything. Later I started noticing that wise old face of Jacques Maritain staring at me from the bookshelf on the spine of “The Peasant of the Garonne.” It was the radical beginning of my own intellectual vocation, and for many years (from childhood to age 58) it was an ongoing work that I shared with my brilliant mother. How grateful I am, and how much I miss her.

During those long-ago days, Mom was hardly confined to the laundry room of our apartment in Riverdale (northwest Bronx, NY). She had studied Chemistry in university and had an enduring fascination for the empirical sciences that served her well as a New York City public school Science teacher. She scaled back to being an “on-call” substitute teacher when my brother Walter and I came on the scene, but she continued her search for truth—especially in the area of the relationship between science and faith. 

A voracious and intelligent reader, Mom first turned to Teilhard de Chardin (as did so many in those days) and was drawn to his arduous but confused efforts to articulate a Christ-centered scientific evolutionary cosmology. During his lifetime, this passionate scientist and devout Jesuit priest struggled to find words adequate for expressing his vast unprecedented vision for the synthesis of faith and scientific reason, but also humbly obeyed his Jesuit superiors who refused him permission to publish any of his speculative efforts in this area. Teilhard continued to grapple with his ingenious, powerful, perplexing, sometimes extreme intuitions until his death in 1955, accepting the continual rejections of his superiors as the will of Christ, as a suffering he was called to embrace. He also worked privately on his conjectural but (he was convinced) important thinking and writing projects, even in the face of the prospect that he might never be able to publish them.

Teilhard’s explorations have drawn attention to important problems, and may point toward a richer development of our understanding of the mystery of the Incarnation. They deserve (and have received, somewhat, over the years) careful and critical study by expert theologians who also have competence and training in the empirical sciences. Whatever Teilhard was up to at the time of his death, it was pretty clear that it required more work and some significant corrections. Time was needed for this work to be done in a sober manner, without excessive and premature enthusiasm.

But “the times they were a’changin…”🎶

After Teilhard de Chardin’s death, his many friends and colleagues published everything: Teilhard’s ideas—sometimes expressed in sweeping neologisms—hit the bookstores with all their raw poetic ardor for the progress of an evolutionary convergence of all things in the Cosmic Christ. But the actual face of Jesus of Nazareth and his redeeming death for our sins seemed to get a little lost in all the new terminology, much of which was ambiguous, incomplete, and—let’s be frank—just plain mistaken theologically (not to mention unverifiable scientifically). It goes without saying, of course, that these posthumous publications became wildly popular. 

The “Teilhard de Chardin Fad” was launched onto the magical mystery tour of the psychedelic 1960s. But Mom never even got on that bus. Instead, she brought her fascination, her thoughts about faith and reason, her questions and her immense curiosity to the chaplain of the Newman Center at Hunter College. He listened to her patiently, and was able to discern the intellectual “meat” that my mother needed, and that she was ready for in her late 20s. He also realized that he only needed to recommend a few books, and Mom would construct her own “self-study.” He trusted that she would grow in her genuine intent to advance her intellectual life while remaining faithful to the Church’s magisterium (there were no graduate theology programs for lay students—much less lay women—in those days, but Mom would eventually earn her Master’s degree in theological studies in 1991). Without neglecting the other great thinkers of the era, this wise priest made sure that Mom would discover Saint Thomas under the direction of his most dynamic 20th century exponents. Mom read these books and acquired more of them. And she shared her great learning adventure—her growth in the knowledge of the truth—with me.

I will always be grateful to Msgr. Herman Heidi (and my mother) for the fact that GIANTS occupied the bookshelves of my childhood home. Romano Guardini. Henri de Lubac. Jean Danielou. Others too. And, of course, the old peasant Jacques Maritain—lots of Maritain, but always in my memory the face of the (then) octogenarian hermit who went to live on the Garonne river with the Little Brothers of Jesus after his beloved wife Raissa died.