On disenfranchisement and community

The question of felony disenfranchisement is in the news again. Depending on what state you’re in, if you commit a certain class of crime, you may be prohibited from voting even after you serve your time, sometimes for the rest of your life.

I won’t go into the particulars of the specific question in the news, because, as is so often the case, the really interesting part is how the law plays out in the life of actual people.

If you had asked me in the past, I’d probably have said that it only seems fair. I would have said that if you don’t want to play by the rules, then you shouldn’t get to be involved in any part of the process of making the rules; and that’s what voting is, I would have said: Getting to choose who makes the rules. That’s what it means to live in a democracy.

I think differently now, about a lot of things. Specifically about felony disenfranchisement, I began to change my mind when I heard a man tell his personal story. He said that when he emerged from prison after a long sentence for a felonious crime, he was a different man.

What he had done in the heat and foolishness of youth, he regretted every day of his life since then. It was right and just that he be punished; he accepted this. But when he emerged from prison in an election year, everyone around him was busily making plans and arguing and getting involved . . . and he was out.

It wasn’t just that this was unpleasant. It struck him to the heart. He felt that he was being placed outside the realm of human activity, and it changed how he thought of himself as a human. He was being told that no one expected him to act like a regular citizen. And so he didn’t. He began to fall back into petty crime, mugging and robbing and fighting.

A complex story, to be sure. No one thing is ever to blame for the actions of a human being with free will. But I was struck in a brand new way by how wounded was his sense of self by being excluded from this right, and how directly his sense of self affected his sense of self as part of the community. If you’re not part of a group, why should you act as if you are? You’d look like a fool.

There was a law that said he didn’t have a stake who represented him, and he took that to heart, and began once again to treat his fellow man as if they were not connected — and everyone suffered. He took it personally, and he acted out personally.

And in a way, it was reasonable to do so, because living in a community is a personal thing, which means that being made to feel like you’re not part of the community is also a personal thing.

These past few months, the daily news has been an absolute firehose of larger-than-life events. Topics of life and death importance; issues that strike at the very heart of what it means to be a citizen, a Christian, a human.

When I sit down to write, I am overwhelmed with helplessness at what one can possibly say, when everything that’s going on is so huge. And at the same time, the misunderstandings and dishonest discourse about these issues have also been huge, and hugely alienating.

People do not wish to understand each other; they only wish to rule over each other. And as someone who doesn’t wish to triumph or be triumphed over, I feel like I have nothing to say.

I have been feeling alienated from my own country, from my own democratic process, in a way that feels disastrous, like something I can’t recover from. I feel like huge machines are whirling away at their processes entirely without me. I feel like I don’t recognize the place anymore. I’m not literally disenfranchised; I can vote. But I’m having a hard time feeling like I should.

I don’t even feel like I can talk to anybody about important things, because the vast, violent processes of American politics are excluding me so definitively.

But there was one night when I didn’t feel that way…Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

Committees are no substitute for true community

We used to belong to a parish that was a true community. It was genuinely diverse, with rich and poor people, old and young, able-bodied and impaired, and racially and culturally varied; but there was a sense of unity that I rarely experienced elsewhere, in any group of people of any kind, Catholic or otherwise.

When we got on the parish mailing list, we started to get regular emails: So-and-so needs a ride to the doctor on Thursday; So-and-so needs help changing the oil in his car. I didn’t happen to give birth while we attended that church, but I can easily imagine the landslide of casseroles and hand-crocheted booties that would have come my way if I had.

There was a very clear spirit of love present, and it was concrete and immediate, not abstract. They did have programs and official groups, but there was also a constant exchange of help and concern between individuals, one to one.

It’s tragic that this parish stands out in my head, rather than being the norm. Part of the magic was, of course, that it was small.  Of course little parishes aren’t automatically kind and generous and warm and giving, but they can be. But more and more in the 21st century, they don’t have the chance, because smaller churches are shuttered and de-consecrated, to be transformed into condos or pubs, or just bulldozed; and their former congregations are shunted into high capacity consolidated churches that can serve a wide community.

This is partly because of poor attendance. You can’t pay for lights and heat and insurance if hardly anyone is turning up. But it’s also because astronomically huge gobs of money are going to pay off sex abuse lawsuits, and there’s none left to pay for things like, well, keeping lots of little churches open.

Don’t get me wrong: Victims should be paid. Pressure on parishes is not their fault. But this slow-moving avalanche of the sex abuse scandal is largely crushing other innocent people, and because of the sins of some perverts in pointy hats, people who depended on the Church for help can no longer get it.

And so it goes. Each time a little church closes due to financial strain, there’s one less opportunity for a little gem of a parish to become a warm, busy little hub of charity in the name of Christ.

In big parishes, of course, it’s still possible for the church to care for needy people, whether what they need is food or clothing or help with their electric bills or help finding a job. But what often happens, if the money is there at all, is that there’s a program for everything: A program to feed the homeless, a program for divorcees, a program for widows, a program for youths.

It’s a good thing for needs to be served. Sometimes it’s a matter of life and death. But there are grievous drawbacks to the “there’s a program for that” model. . .

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly

How can we get beyond the battle of the sexes?

Why don’t we take a moment to catch our breath on this frantic sprint to dehumanize half the human race? This is not some lame attempt at both siderism. I’m simply asking everyone who’s angry to ask sincerely, “How likely is it that I’ll win this war using the tactics I’m using?”

Read the rest of my latest for America Magazine.

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

Five pieces of advice for pastors (and a thank-you)

Last week, a priest responded to the article “Five Rules for a Royal Bride” with a humble request: “I wish Catholics in the pews would write us new pastors and new ordained priests advices like these! Y’all help us to be men of God, men for others, and men that have joy in their lives! Send me your five advices before I become pastor . . .”

Can do.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

Image by photographer Matthew Lomanno, part of his visual essay North Country Priest. Used with permission.