When or Because?

JMJ

Did you ever notice that we called these things stoplights even when they’re green? Did you ever wonder about that? We tend to see these things as a hindrance rather than a conveyance, or help. When I was at NYU my Religion Professor, Dr. James Carse asked us one night if we went when the light turned green or because the light turned green. 35 years later I still wonder about that. We call it a stoplight, even though it is green as often as it is red – and you can also go when it is yellow. The device actually says go a lot more than it says stop. Do you go when the light turns green or because the light turns green?

I think most Americans go when the light turns green. We wait until it says we can go safely without getting a ticket. Late at night, when there’s no one around, on a backcountry road we might go anyway, getting angry at who in tarnation but a stoplight way the heck out here. If we’re in a strange place we might not realize that intersection is considered the most dangerous in the county, 5 deaths last year alone, until a petition got a light there. So we wait, maybe, until the light changes or we zip through not realizing we are risking our lives or someone else’s life, coming the other direction.

I won’t create a strawman in this argument by projecting that in XYZ location they go because the light gives them permission. However, I admit I want to imagine that somewhere there is such a place. I imagine it’s this way most other places, to be honest, with the possible exception of Australia. I say that based on 25 years of customer service (including retail): I know that in America if I forget to charge you sales tax, you’ll be happy and walk away. But for 25 years, customers from almost all other places have all been some version of, “Wait, you’re supposed to charge me a tax on this purchase. I need to pay for roads and schools, healthcare and more with that tax. It’s my obligation to my community. Charge me that tax!” Americans don’t feel that way at all, even though we tend to pay only pennies on the dollar for each item (some countries charge upwards from 20% in sales tax). I want to imagine that these folks who demand the right to pay their sales tax also wait to go because the light has turned green.

You, dear reader, may have already begun to discern the difference. If a driver goes because the light has turned green, then he – the driver – is waiting for the state’s permission to go. The light says “go now” and the driver goes. The driver who goes when the light turns green was probably revving her engine as she saw the light from the other direction turn yellow. Must get away from these other cars. Come on light! Green! Throw it in gear and GO!

So, less a strawman than a projection, nevertheless, a projection I want to use for this post. I am sure that there are folks in both sorts of cultures who fit both of these profiles – who want to pay taxes and who don’t. I know they exist. And I think America has more of the when the light turns green sort of folks. It would make sense to be so as we are very individualistic here. The only question dividing the two American parties is really, “Which of my individual rights will the state let me force on you?” Their answers are not very different. Even our more liberal or lefty sorts tend to be focused on individual liberty rather than community rights. Laws, to these people, are a hindrance rather than a help. At best, the government does something that usually gets in the way. At worst the government stops something that an individual wants to do. There is a reason we call it a stoplight.

What does this mean for us in light of covid-19? I think it explains a lot. Although the Italian people were in the streets partying until about 2 and 1/2 weeks ago once they were put under lockdown they went willingly. They sing opera to each other from their balconies. They make YouTube videos of jets flying overhead blasting Pavarotti. They are in this together not as a bunch of individuals who happen to be together but rather as a culture and a community. When the government does something in Italy – if not in all of Europe – it is perceived as doing something to help. Perhaps it is too little, too late… but generally… let’s try this and see. Looking on YouTube for videos from Italy, what you hear on Twitter, and what you read on Facebook it’s a bunch of people grumbly but aware of their safety and the health of their society. They understand that while this is really annoying. It’s better than everyone dying. It is possible that even in highly secular Europe, this is a result of their Catholic upbringing.

There are other places where this is not the case. America is one of these places. Here when the government is doing something it’s getting in my way. Although from person to person the attitude may change slightly, generally the assumption is if the government’s trying to do something it’s probably wrong. I say this can change slightly from person to person because often times it’s a matter of well, if I happen to agree with it… And those shades of if I agree with it do, in fact, differ from person to person in America. So, for some voters anything the previous president did was right – or most anything – but anything the current president is wrong. For other voters, that’s exactly reversed. This is all a matter of personal opinion, of individual Choice: that’s the American way. This is our Protestant, “Jesus and Me, to hell with thee” roots.

For Catholic, ethics is about the common good: the individual participates society. The individual cannot be considered as a building block of society, but rather as a participant in society. There is no human-alone. Communion is what makes us who we are. The individual is not saved alone, and the individual has an obligation to the community around him. That obligation is not only for the community’s spiritual well-being which is their salvation. It is also for the community’s physical, secular well being as well. It is wrong for the individual to be greedy: but why? My greed is wrong because it robs from you. I have an obligation to see that you have your needs met. In Christian culture, everyone has an obligation to see that everyone’s needs are met. That includes salvation, don’t get me wrong. But it also includes housing, food, and health care. In other words, Christian Society relies upon – and assumes – Christian government. As we are a part of a society our collective action should be to force the government to do its job. That job is to secure the common good: both salvation and well-being. When the government fails to do its job individuals step in.

Yes, all Christians have the personal moral obligation to feed the poor and to clothe the naked. And to defend the health and safety of each other. The government – which is instituted by God – has these same obligations. God gives us our status as the divine image, the right to life, and the pursuit of happiness which means happiness in this world and in the next. This is not about material success, but real happiness. The state is established by God not to “give” us rights, but rather to defend and enforce those rights. These only exist in communion. I have no rights that trump you, as a person. My right to a job, to shopping, to free movement cannot trump your right to life.

I have described this as an American problem. We were not always that way: our American foundation documents, in fact, back me up. Just as the Catholic Church teaches that I owe you all because you are created in the image of God, our Declaration of Independence says that all are created equal and are endowed by their creator with specific rights. Our Constitution assures us that the duty of government is to provide for the common defense and to promote the general welfare’s advance. It’s only as we became modern that we forgot the meaning of endowed by their creator and promote the general welfare.

There are differing political and economic theories about how to accomplish the right way of right governing and economic justice. They come from both the left and the right. I have met Catholics who, individually, hold any one of these points on a spectrum. I am not aware that any one or the other actually is the Catholic position. I do know that the Catholic Church requires we promote the common good and that we weigh the common good above our individual liberties. We are obligated to live and enact justice as individuals. Equally, we are morally obligated to work towards a society and a government that does the same. We cannot, as Catholics, work for amoral governance that does not enforce God’s laws either in terms of actions or economics on the argument that I will be moral anyway. The government’s job is to enforce morality.

In the era of covid-19 this forbids me (and the. government) from acting in the name of “muh freedomz” when those freedoms can endanger others. I raise this because so many of us are treating these enclosures, shelter-in-place orders, and even lockdowns as “stoplights” rather than “traffic lights”. We are posting warnings about “martial law” and “communism” when what we should see is actions in defense of the individuals “endowed by their creator” with the first right listed being “life”. And since, properly, no gov’t can grant a right not granted prior by God (else it is only license, not liberty) then no gov’t can give us the right to endanger the lives of others. To the contrary, a Christian is obligated to support a Gov’t that seeks to take action to prevent us from doing so. No gov’t can use your income as an excuse to let other’s die and call itself Christian. No Christian gov’t can let economics hinder it from doing all things it can to protect its people.

Additionally, when all those actions have occurred, when my mobility is hindered, and when other right actions have resulted in the health of the populace, it is also the government’s responsibility to take economic steps to ensure the continuance of prosperity.

Regardless of what political form or economic theory you name this, it is Christian charity. It is acting because the government says we can, it is waiting until the government says we can go. It is giving up our freedom for the Salvation of those around us. In this we followed Jesus.

In short, covid-19 is bringing us a chance to institute, both from the gov’t and from us as individuals, charity. Don’t struggle with that grace-filled moment claiming “personal freedom”. That’s just the language of Eden’s serpent recapitulated.

When you have to remember the Preamble to the Constitution

NYC 1985. The Doomed.

JMJ

Last week when I told you about NYC in 1983, I titled the post Underground and discussed the active sense of denial that many engaged in. I compared AIDS in NYC, c. 1983, to where we were a week ago in this current crisis. Time is telescoping fast. The next stage in NYC in the 80s took about 2 years, more or less. We’ve gotten there in just about a week.

St Marks Baths closed in December of 1985. The city closed all the sex clubs. The medical establishment had finally convinced everyone in authority that AIDS was a sexually transmitted disease. As I mentioned last week there were still some who denied this. But most of us got the message: That was the end of the party. I was still in college. Our on-campus world was not well-connected with the larger community around NYU, as is common in all “college towns”. We had our own events on campus even though some of us ventured out beyond Washington Square. But politically, we experienced this.

There were arguments in meetings about the justification for closing places. Didn’t we have the freedom to do whatever we wanted? Didn’t public health trump personal freedom? Didn’t the Federal Gov’t need to step up support for AIDS patients? Didn’t we need to do something to stop this from killing everyone? Do I have it? Do you? Did that last experience kill us both? Was it my fault? Was it yours?

The frantic arguments, the frenetic do-literally-anything-NOW-DAMNIT attitude covered a deeper experience:

When the party was over… that was a huge downer, even for those of us who had never been to the party. Our elders and teachers… our friends… our guides started to die. The City began to change. People who used to go out all the time discovered other forms of community. We didn’t know what to do or who would be next. In fright, literally, I gave up. I turned to my fraternity brothers at NYU and built a close-knit and safe “family of choice”. I drank a lot, to be honest. Gin and tonic, rum and coke, pints of beer, brandy alexanders, Irish coffees. And I smoked heavily: a pack a day and then some. Only later did I realize I was killing myself on purpose behind everyone’s back (mine too).

Politically the gay community was powerless at this point. Making bars “legal” meant that they couldn’t be run by crime syndicates any more. Rather they needed corporate bank accounts and board members. They didn’t have to pay protection money to NYC Finest, so they didn’t get protected anymore. These syndicates had to find other ways to make income. Folks in the city were just getting used to seeing things like pride parades and same-sex couples who actually identified as couples. But they were “over there” not “here, with me”. They were rarely seen. The conversation still included lots of code words to identify one’s “friend” as someone of importance and often one took an opposite-sex friend to the company party.

Then AIDS became the conversation even out in the “regular” world. What might cause it? What might I do to avoid it? During this time I was involved in something called, I think, “The Columbia Study.” A pair of interviewers came to my home each year and asked me, anonymously, what I did, and who I did it with. Did I have a support network? Did I ever do drugs? They tracked me all over the place. Keeping track of me to see if AIDS had any effect on me as a person. What they found was I stayed home a lot.

During this time I first heard the phrase, “A virus does not have a conscience”. The idea was to counter people who were. saying “AIDS is God’s punishment”. You don’t get sick just because you “did a sin”. That’s not how a virus works. It can’t see you or judge you. That was the argument. It is, as far as we know, true: a virus does not have a conscience. Only 40 years later do I see the lie: the sentence leaves God out of the equation completely. But ok… let’s lay aside theology for a moment.

A virus does not make choices about who to infect based on their actions. That is true. But we learned (mostly by being forced to learn) that a virus can be passed on to others by our actions. Then we discovered we did not have consciences because we still wanted the sex clubs and the discos and the 25¢ theatres and the adult book stores all to stay open. What we began to do was a sort of two-faced dance. “A virus does not have a conscience” means both,”you cannot judge me” and “I can do whatever I want – if I’m gonna die, I’m gonna die.” Don’t close our party down!

I can go to spring break, to the Lunar New Year Parade, to the St Parick’s Day dance if I want. I demand we get our Public Masses back NOW!

I begin to feel like AIDS in the 1980s was like Prep School for COVID and none of us graduated.

Things were about to change, though. And things are about to change for us too. Not in a good way, I fear.

NYC 1983. Underground.

NYC Subway, 1983 or so

JMJ

My coworker asked if I had ever been through anything “like this” before. The answer was instant. Yes: AIDS in 1983. I spoke with a friend after Mass tonight and he agreed. AIDS in the early 80s was exactly like this.

In the early 80s (nearly until the end of the 80s, actually) we didn’t know what was causing it. HIV was a theory (a good one… and the right one it turns out) put forward in 1984 but even as late as 87 or 88, I remember a sizable portion of the gay community being quite vocal about multiple causes. One newspaper editor was quite convinced that the syndrome itself was caused by a combined one-two punch of Swine Flu complicated by rampant drug use. I remember a headline in his paper where a certain country had recently admitted to having AIDS patients. The secondary headline was “You know what else they have there? A lot of sick pigs.” We didn’t know – or didn’t want to admit – that this was your basic STD; albeit deadly.

A close friend was first diagnosed with AIDS in the spring of 1983 and was in St Vincent’s Hospital in Manhattan, they used to seal the doors with plastic sheets and make you wear masks, gloves, and gowns to visit AIDS patients. A wise mutual friend took me to see Mills in the hospital. We put on all the things and sidled through the plastic sheeting and then the nurse who was helping us ran back to the safety of her desk. We took off our plastic protections and kissed Mills on the forehead hello. In those days the journey from diagnosis to death was 1-2 years. Mills Omaly died in 1984.

Here’s a good sentence about 1981: By the end of the year, 121 of the individuals with the disease (of 270 reported cases) had died. It was 100% fatal in those days. For diagnosis, we had to rely on 3 marker diseases: Kaposi’s Sarcoma (a type of skin cancer), Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia (PCP), or a type of Lymphoma (another cancer). If you had one of these three things and you were a gay man, then you had AIDS. The issue is by the time you got to one of these three diseases, your AIDS was already quite advanced, and you’re about to die. We didn’t know this until later. So in 1983… someone would see the “wine-dark kiss of death” on their skin (Angels in America) and folks would run away. People would avoid them on the street. Families would disown them. Preachers would call it God’s Wrath. And since it was “only” gays, people treated them as a part of the populace that could be sacrificed. And then they would die, alone and isolated.

Even after the CDC ruled out casual contact as a possible vector of transmission a straight roomie once worried that he could get AIDS by sharing a smoke with me. But that was not just an issue of prejudice. This thing was so alien, even gays just didn’t know. People who thought that “gay” was a genetic thing suddenly wondered if AIDS was related to the “gay gene.” what if this was all programmed to collapse?

And even when we started talking about Safe Sex – which is to say use condoms, etc – I was in meetings where grown, intelligent people were like “Codswallop! I don’t need a condom, it’s not like anyone getting a baby here.” We didn’t want to admit it was your basic STD, albeit deadly, because that meant there was really only one way to stop it. That required everyone to play along, everyone needs to stop doing whatever they want. Bathhouses closed. Sex clubs closed. Back rooms in bars closed. And still, people were screaming about their personal freedom.

It was so freaking scary. I’m crying now. For friends I lost. For panic I felt. For questions I had that no one could answer. I was constantly checking lymph nodes, odd blotches, and using this breath thing where you made a ball float in a tube marked with calibrations. I don’t know what it was, anymore: it had something to do with lung capacity and pneumonia. Had I ever had sex with someone who had had sex with someone who had had sex with someone who had AIDS? Thinking these things then is probably why I’m alive now: but it took a whole lot out of me.

That’s where we are now, at least in my book, except the time is telescoped now. Instead of two years, we can be dead in two weeks. People are screaming about freedom, still, but casual contact can be – actually – deadly. A few weeks ago, we did not know what we know now. Italy hadn’t happened a few weeks ago.

People are in denial: talking about Population Density in China like they’re still in Grade School trying to imagine “One Billion People.” Early on in the current crisis I heard about virus spread as an issue of Population Density in China, and how can we keep “them” from coming here. We’ll be safe in the US. Then I realized that population density in SF, NYC, etc. is higher than in China. In fact, in NYC, the only Borough with a similar density to central Wuhan is Staten Island. The others have a per-mile density several times greater than central Wuhan. SF is 15K more populous per square mile than central Wuhan. DC is higher. LA is higher. Rome and Napoli are way less dense than those US cities… so… brace yourselves.

And some people still think a portion of the population is purely sacrificial. It’s only the elderly (which I’ve heard too damn much). It’s only Chinese. It’s only travelers. It’s only the poor.

Yes, I’ve been here before.

Love in the Time of Covid-19

JMJ

Dear Fathers in Christ –

Some diocese are canceling public services. Some are not. No matter where you fall on the spectrum between APOCALYPSE and TOO MUCH HYPE there is something you can do to help us all: especially the folks in the places with no Masses.

Put your Mass live on Facebook. Put your Mass live on YouTube. Do the same with your daily offices and any other devotions you offer. You can do this today, now, if you have a Facebook Page for your parish and a laptop with a camera built in. Follow these steps (I’ve marked the suggestions in italics the other steps have to be done.)

  1. Set up for Mass. (If you’re in “isolation mode” you’re probably going to want at least a server/lector with you – even a brother priest. Cantoring optional.)
  2. The Laptop needs to be somewhere the camera can “see” all the action at Mass. To be honest, you don’t need the full shebang for this. Put the laptop on your clean desk, spread a corporal and you’re off. But you can do this at a full altar as long as the camera can see everything. You don’t want to be moving the camera during Mass.
  3. Open the laptop and log in to FB. You’re going to want to have the laptop plugged in because you don’t want it to die during Mass.
  4. Make sure you and the reader (if any) are able to easily get into the line of sight. You’ll be preaching & reading from the same place.
  5. Go to your parish’s page (If you don’t have a page you should really fix that…). I would suggest adding links to the readings of the day and – if you feel like it – to any hymn texts you may want everyone to use. Keep it simple though!
  6. Click on live like in the image at the top of this post. Then you’ll go to a new page.
  7. When FB asks you to approve the use of your camera and audio say yes or there will be all kinds of problems! You’ll see your camera image appear.
  1. Make sure everything looks ok.
  2. Pick where this post will appear: it should be on your Parish’s Facebook page.
  3. Say something – here’s where to put the links for your readings, today’s Mass intentions, etc.
  4. Skip everything in this box unless you know what’s going on. It should be set correctly.
  5. A title: Mass, Vespers, etc.
  6. Click this when you’re ready!

I will help you if you’re having trouble. DM me on FB, or ping me on Twitter. Leave a comment here with a way I can get back to you online first (not via phone call until we’re both on board). With 25 years of customer and tech support, I can walk you through this! I will happily be tech support for getting your Mass online in this simple way. (There are more complex ways to do this, networked cameras, blue tooth mics… I’m not able to help with those: you’ll need someone with other skills.)

YouTube works really well, too, but accounts have to be approved to do livestreaming on YouTube: if you’re not approved this may not be the right time to go through that. If you are already approved then you know all about this. Never the less, I’ll do another post about that option later. Facebook is literally click-and-go for this.

This could work for Mass, the Daily Office, in fact for any possible set of devotions. I would advise having pictures for the Stations or Rosary. Your mileage may vary.

Although this may or may not work well for your parish (you know your people) once it’s on the internet, you’re available to anyone who has access to the internet and Facebook or YouTube. People who are panicking or stressed out because of the world situation can find your Mass and be comforted.

I would love it if there were masses everywhere all day on Facebook, and if the Daily Office were being offered all over the place.

If the Daily Office is a thing: you may want to consider setting up a Zoom account. I’ll do a post about that as well. The advantage of a Zoom (instead of FB or YT) is that your Zoom can be interactive: other folks can pray along and all participants would be able to hear and interact.

Your faithful son in Christ Jesus,

Huw (Stanley Robert), OP