Helpless

Lent hit before the pandemic did, remember? It seems like so long ago, but I do remember how Ash Wednesday brought about the traditional pious squabbles about how best to observe it — or, more accurately, about how poorly everyone else was observing it. Traditionalists sneered at the soft and feeble neo-Caths whining over the few penances modern Catholics are still obligated to perform; and left-leaners rolled their eyes at the performative masochism inherent in extravagant fasts and self-deprivations. Remember when that what we wrestled with? 

Also according to tradition, I struck a healthy spiritual balance by being annoyed with everyone.

I have scant patience for people who loudly and self-righteously announce they are exempting themselves from fasting because it makes them feel tired, and therefore it must not be healthy, and their God is a God of love who isn’t into that kind of thing, and anyway their Fitbit doesn’t have a way to track “dying to self.”

I also have zero sympathy for Catholics who are passionately in love with their faith as long as it’s gory and dramatic and self-aggrandizing (but when it has to do with loving their fellow man, not so much). Scratch a Twitter Catholic who’s really enthusiastic about old school penance, and you’re pretty likely to find an old school fetishist. (On second thought, don’t scratch him, unless you want him to think you’re asking for some amateur photography in your DM’s.)

So anyway, yeah, I recall heading into Ash Wednesday Mass with a heart full of dust. I don’t know what to tell you. It’s almost like I need a savior. 

One of the conversations around these topics did yield something fruitful, something I somehow never understood before. It is this: Fasting isn’t just an exercise in self-control, and it isn’t just something we do in solidarity with the poor, who have fasting imposed on them.

Fasting is also, maybe even primarily, a way of revealing to ourselves just how helpless we are.

It’s a way of reminding us something about ourselves which is always true, but gets masked by a razor thin veneer of strength, an illusion of control. We fast not to work our way up to crushing sin with our new spiritual muscles, but because we forget so easily how close we always are to being just plain dead. We fast because we need to be reminded that we are helpless.

Well, just in case you didn’t catch that lesson when Ash Wednesday came around, the virus followed up. And now every single one of us has had a penance, a fast, imposed on us from the outside. Want some food? There isn’t any. Think you’re in charge? Here’s an invisible enemy that can attack you through your mouth, your nose, your eyes. Forgot about death? Here are the bodybags. And there’s not a damn thing you can do about it. 

It’s up to us whether or not we learn from these privations and revelations of the pandemic. We do have free will, and even when our exterior circumstances are out of our control, we still have interior options. 

The same is true with fasting. It’s entirely possible to follow the Church’s guidelines on fasting — to voluntarily undertake this discipline —  but to still do it the wrong way. We can fill ourselves full of beef broth and milk and carbonated beverages and feel as full as possible without actually eating, and thereby miss the full experience of emptiness and want. And we can masochistically revel in the perverse pleasure of our meal-deprived agonies, and end up feeling proud and accomplished at our strength the end of the day. We can waste the opportunity the Church offers us, and make it useless or even harmful. We can miss the point, which is that we are helpless, in need of a savior. 

And the same is true with the privations imposed on us by this pandemic, including the temporary loss of the sacraments.

The last few weeks have been a study in how to get through a pandemic wrong. We can trample each other, steal, hoard, and lie. We can be imprudent and reckless and cruel. We can call each other either communists or fascists based on whether we’re more comfortable with risking the lives of the vulnerable or risking the livelihoods of the poor. We can use our suffering as a chance to tell other Catholics that they, too, would disobey their bishops if they just wanted Jesus badly enough. 

But the only real answer is the same as it was on Ash Wednesday, when the statues were covered, the alleluias were taken away, and the angel descended to tell us we are dust. The answer is: We are helpless. We need a savior. We cannot save ourselves. 

There is no system that will bring about only good things for all people. Someone always gets broken. Someone always gets infected. What we are, what we always have been is helpless, helpless. In need of a savior. 

So now we’re rounding the corner toward Holy Week, and I still have a heart full of dust. I have stuck to my penances, more or less. I have fasted. I have prayed. I have bleated out my confession to a priest six feet away. I have done my best to be prudent. And I have still been infected with rage and disdain for my fellow man, still allowed fear to colonize my heart. I have still scrambled to mask myself with a thin veneer of control as I watch everyone I know wrestle with this angel, and watched them receive what I know will be a permanent limp.

It says in the Torah: Accustom your tongue to say: I do not know, lest you become entangled in a web of deceit.

I do not know how to do this right, any of it. The sanitizing, the fasting, the sacraments, the seclusion, the shopping, any of it. I do not know. Because I am helpless. It’s almost as if I need a savior. 

***

 

Image: Detail of Jacob Wrestling With an Angel from The Ridpath Library of Universal Literature via wikipedia

Precious Blood in the time of Coronavirus

With COVID-19 spreading, more parishes are cautiously telling the congregation to skip or modify the sign of peace, and announcing that the Eucharist will only be distributed under the species of bread, not wine. 

This has happened in other years, when other sicknesses were circulating, and every year, there are complaints. Some Catholics claim we can’t get sick from drinking the Precious Blood, because . . . well, it’s Jesus! Jesus doesn’t make you sick. Only those approaching the altar with a poor and feeble faith would be afraid to drink from the cup. How can we profess our trust that Christ is life, and then immediately turn fearfully away from receiving the gift of His blood?

The answer is that faith might trump science, but it’s presumptuous to assume that it will. So let’s be clear: If I say that I know I’ll be preserved from transmission of disease because it’s Jesus, I’m saying that I know I’ll receive a miracle. 

But let’s set aside this faith-based argument for a moment and address a the second argument I often hear, which is that there’s also no scientific reason to skip the Precious Blood, because the alcohol in the wine would kill any germs anyway. I was surprised to learn that there is a fairly low risk of actually contracting an illness from sharing the chalice, because metal doesn’t harbor microbes well, and because the rim is wiped regularly. Still, low risk is some risk, and some diseases carry more of a threat than others. I decided several years ago that if I have good reason to worry about my family’s health, then we have good reason to reverently bypass drinking from the cup.

Let’s talk about what is actually in that cup. We know that it is actually the Precious Blood. Its substance is the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Christ Himself. But we also know it still has all the accidents, or physical properties, of wine: grapes, ethanol, etc. It sloshes like wine; it’s purple like wine; it has a little wobbly reflection of the fluorescent overhead lights in it, like wine; if you drink enough of it, you’ll get drunk, just like with wine.

And if it has other people’s germs in it, you might get sick from putting it in your mouth. Just like wine.

Harumph, you may say. I’m no fool. We most certainly can get sick from drinking from the cup – but that sickness is a small price to pay in exchange for receiving the Eucharist. After all, if Jesus walked through our front door during flu season, would we chase Him off because we might catch something?

But this is pride disguised as piety. Unlike the unprecedented house call described above, the Eucharist is offered frequently, every day or at least every week; and it’s offered under both kinds. One reason for this is that, if you need to be prudent and forego this sacrament completely one day (by staying home sick), or forego one kind (by only receiving the more hygienic Host), then the Church, as always, is accommodating.

If we’re going to call the integrity of our fellow Catholics into question, then here’s a better question: How can we say we love and cherish the Church while sneering at the accommodations she offers us? You can come again another day, and our patient Lord – who made the world, germs and all – will be there, happy to see that you’re feeling better now, and happy to know that you take the health and safety of your brethren seriously. 

Because there’s the more pressing concern. If we do get sick, we risk passing along our sickness to others, to the elderly, to people with compromised immune systems, to babies. When we make willing sacrifices, we must be sure that we’re the ones who will suffer, not other people. Deliberately exposing oneself to potentially fatal disease, and possibly spreading it . . . you know, maybe just put a pea in your shoe, instead, or say the rosary on your knees.

So maybe you’re convinced that, for practical and ethical reasons, it does make more sense to avoid drinking from a communal cup. But something about it still feels off. It’s very hard to shake the feeling that, even as we acknowledge it’s possible to transmit germs through the Eucharist, surely it’s still somehow more spiritually elevated to dwell only on the pure, holy, and edifying aspects of the sacrament.

But it’s really not. Here is why:

If the Eucharist were only spiritual and edifying, then Christ would be a fool. Why would He bother to become incarnate, if He expected us to pretend He wasn’t? Why would he bother taking on a human flesh, if He wanted us to flutter our eyes politely and pretend His body isn’t a real body?

Being a Catholic is all about the body. It’s all about manning up and admitting that this hunk of meat that is us – whether it’s athletic, soft, withered, paunchy, or bouncing brand-new – is really us. Jesus’ body was really Jesus. Jesus, like us, saw with His googly eyeballs, all stuffed with jellylike vitreous humor; He moved His limbs with the aid of diarthrotic joints and synovial fluid. He had boogers. Remember? “Like us in all things but sin.”

I have always felt uneasy around the caroling of certain overly lovely traditions: that the baby Jesus, at His birth, filtered through Mary’s hymen like a sunbeam through a window pane; that “Little Lord Jesus, no crying He makes.” Why shouldn’t He cry? I cry.

When I remember that He is really, truly a human, I remember that he really truly understands the burden of being a human. He doesn’t whisk our troubles away, or dazzle us with His divinity to distract us from the real world.  He sees our burden. He stands alongside us and helps us lift it, because He knows that it is real. Because He is real.

Isn’t our faith strange? It would be weird enough if we taught that the Blood of our Savior gave us mystical immunity from the flu. But the truth is even weirder.

What’s weirder still is that what looks all sloshy and purple, and what smells and tastes like something on sale at the Quik-E-Mart, is what will save our souls.

Weirdest of all: Christ is our Brother. His body had germs. His transubstantiated Blood can have germs. If we don’t understand this, we’re in danger of making the Eucharist into something a little bit silly – something removed from us, something utterly beyond our grasp, something nebulous and magical, a magic trick.

But the Eucharist is not magic, it’s better: It’s a miracle. The Eucharist is not removed from the world; it transforms the world.

Maybe God really will protect those trusting parishioners who hope in His mercy, and maybe He will reward their trust with good health. Miracles like this are possible. Saints have survived for years with no physical nourishment other than the Eucharist. St. Claire once frightened off an attacking horde of Saracens by holding up a consecrated Host.

But I don’t think I’m missing anything by taking germs seriously. Thinking of God’s body, of His brotherhood with us, and thinking most of all of His suffering, and of His sympathy, helps me remember something it’s easy to forget, when I’m worn out, disgusted, flattened, fed up, and exhausted by this world and its disease: Jesus is here with us, right now. He is one of us.

 

***
Image: Detail of photo by Josh Applegate on Unsplash

A version of this essay originally ran at Inside Catholic in 2009.

The Seed Who Was Afraid To Be Planted: A terrifying and potentially dangerous book for kids

A new children’s book, The Seed Who Was Afraid To Be Planted (Sophia Institute Press, 2019), is getting rave reviews from moms, Catholic media, and conservative celebrities.

On the surface, it’s a simple, inspiring story about courage and change; but for many kids — and for many adults who have suffered abuse — the pictures, text, and message will be terrifying and even dangerous. At best, this children’s book delegitimizes normal emotions. At worst, it could facilitate abuse.

The rhymed verses by Anthony DeStefano, lavishly illustrated by Erwin Madrid, tell the story of a little seed who’s plucked from his familiar drawer

and planted in the earth. He’s frightened and confused, but soon realizes that change means growth, and as he’s transformed into a beautiful, fruitful tree, he becomes thankful to the farmer who planted him, is grateful and happy, and forgets his fears forever.

While religion isn’t explicitly mentioned until after the page that says “the end,” the influence of scripture is obvious (the seed packets are labelled things like “mustard,” “sycamore,” “olive,” “grape,” and “fig,” and it makes references to “mansions” and “vineyards”). The seed is everyman (or everychild), and the farmer is God the Father, and/or authority figures like parents and teachers.  

It sounds helpful and wholesome, but let’s take a closer look.

Margaret Realy, author, artist, and speaker (The Catholic Gardener) reviewed the book, anticipating a pleasant read, but was alarmed and disturbed. She wrote a review on Amazon that pinpoints the specifics. Realy said:

This story places childhood abuse and neglect in the center of its theme. A small defenseless being is repeatedly traumatized by seeing loved ones ‘disappeared’ “…and no one would see that seed anymore.” Then the following stanzas speak of anticipatory trauma that he too will be taken away.

The fearful day comes, he can’t escape, and the man’s hand clasped around him. No matter how the seed cried and yelled, he was taken from a secure and loving environment to one of “horror”, “pain”, and “agony.”

The man that took him away was silent and unresponsive to the pleading seed, buried him alive, and left him abandoned.

That’s a lot for a young child to process, and nearly impossible for one—of any age—that is abused.

The pictures are dramatic and gripping, and the dark subject matter contrasts weirdly with the cartoonish faces and font:

Here is the seed, weeping after being abruptly buried alive:

The seed does, of course, come out well in the end, and it becomes a home for birds and animals; children play around it, and it bears much (confusingly diverse) fruit while overlooking a prosperous paradisal landscape with “millions of mansions.”

But this happy ending doesn’t do the job it imagines it does. Realy points out that, while the story attempts to show that the seed’s fears were unfounded and it would be better if he had trusted the farmer, it doesn’t show any of that in progress. Realy said:

Unfortunately I find the story’s transitioning through fear of the unknown into transformation by Grace, weak. The ‘seed’ began to change without any indication of the Creator’s hand, and his terrified soul was not comforted or encouraged by human or Holy.

Instead, it simply shows him transforming “all at once, in the blink of an eye”

This might have been a good place to point out that a seed grows when it’s nourished by a farmer, and to illustrate what appropriate care and concern  actually look like. The Old and New Testament are absolutely loaded with references to God’s tenderness, kindness, mercy, love, care, pity, and even affection; but this book includes none of that, and instead skips seamlessly from terror and abandonment to prosperous new life.

It explicitly portrays God (or his nearest representative in a child’s life) as huge, terrifying, silent, and insensible and unresponsive to terror and agony — and also inexplicably worthy of unquestioning trust.

Realy points out: 

Research indicates that up to 25% of children in the United States are abused, and of that 80% of those children are five and under (Childhelp: Child Abuse Statistics Facts. Accessed December 2019). This is based on only reported cases.

That’s a lot of kids.

Imagine a child who has been taken from a place of comfort, happiness, and companionship and is thrust into darkness and isolation by a looming, all-powerful figure who silently ignores their terror and buries them alive.

Now imagine what this book tells that child to think about himself, and what it tells him to think about God. Imagine how useful this book would be to someone who wants to continue to abuse, and who wants his victim to believe that what is happening to him is normal and healthy and will bear fruit. 

It is ghastly.

But what about kids who aren’t being abused? The statistics, while horrifying, do show that most children aren’t being abused. Can’t we have books designed for these typical children? 

It is true that some kids are inappropriately afraid of change and growth, and need to be reminded that the unknown isn’t always bad. Imagery is useful for kids (and for adults), and I can imagine an anxious child who’s afraid of going to second grade being comforted with a reminder: Remember the little seed? He was scared, too, but the new things turned out to be good and fun!

But even for these children who aren’t experiencing massive trauma or abuse, and who truly are being cared for by people who want good for them, the narrative minimizes and delegitimizes normal childhood emotions. It’s clear that the seed is wrong to be afraid, even though his situation is objectively terrifying. Teaching kids to ignore and minimize their powerful emotions does not facilitate growth or maturity; it encourages emotional maladaptations that bear bad fruit in adult life. Ask me how I know. 

The flaws in the book are especially egregious when they make the message explicitly spiritual. The final page says “From the Bible” and quotes four passages from scripture. Two are unobjectionable, but two are breathtakingly inappropriate for kids: One quotes John’s passage about a grain of wheat falling to the ground and dying; and one describes Jesus falling to the ground at Gethsemane and praying that the Father might take the cup away, but saying “Yet not as I will, but as you will.”

These are not verses for children! They are certainly not for children of an age to appreciate the colorful, cartoonish illustrations and simplistic rhyming stanzas in the book. These are verses for adults to grapple with, and goodness knows adults have a hard enough time accepting and living them. 

Including them in a book for young kids reminds me chillingly of the approach the notorious Ezzos, who, in Preparation for Parenting, urges parents to ignore the cries of their infants, saying, “Praise God that the Father did not intervene when his Son cried out on the cross.” I also recall (but can’t find) reading how the Ezzos or a similar couple tell parents to stick a draconian feeding schedule for very young babies, comparing a baby’s hungry cries to Jesus on the cross saying, “I thirst.”    

On a less urgent note, it’s also sloppy and careless with basic botany. Realy, an avid garner, points out its “backwards horticulture” which has the tree growing “nuts and fruits that hang down,” but then later “the tree sprouted flowers/and blossoms and blooms.” It also shows a single tree producing berries, fruits, nuts, and grapes, refers to how “woodpeckers pecked/at his bark full of sap.” Woodpeckers do not eat sap, and sap is not in the bark of a tree. Realy and I both also abhor the lazy half-rhymes that turn up, pairing “afraid” with “day” and “saw” and “shore.” 

But worse than these errors is the final page, which shows a beaming, full-grown tree, along with a textbook minimization of trauma:

“The tree understood
that he had been freed.
He barely remembered
when he was a seed.

He barely remembered
his life in the drawer.
his fears disappeared
and returned . . . nevermore.”

Again, if we’re talking about a kid who was nervous about moving to a new classroom, then yes, the fears might turn out to be easily forgotten. But that’s not what the book describes. When the seed is being carried away from its familiar home, it says, “I’m in so much pain and such agony!” and “He felt so abandoned, forsaken, alone” as he’s buried alive by a giant, faceless man who offers no explanation, comfort, or even warning. In short, it describes true trauma, and trauma doesn’t just “disappear and return nevermore.” It’s cruel to teach kids or even adults to expect the effects of trauma to vanish without a trace.

As Realy said: “PTSD never goes away, even with God. We learn to carry the cross well.” 

Let’s be clear: Children don’t need everything to be fluffy and cheery and bright. Some kids, even very young kids, relish dark and gruesome stories, and I’m not arguing for shielding children from anything that might possibly trouble or challenge their imaginations. We recently read Robert Nye’s Beowulf, for instance. We read mythology; we read scripture.

But when we set out to explicitly teach a lesson — especially a lesson that purports to speak on behalf of God! — it’s vital to get the context exactly right. This book is so very sloppy and careless with children’s tender hearts, that even if there isn’t some dark intention behind it, it’s very easy to imagine a predatory abuser using it as a tool.

 A Catholic publisher like Sophia Institute Press ought to know better.

Terror sealed in

My kids were three, two, and almost one, and I was newly pregnant on September 11, 2001. My husband was a software trainer, and he spent three days out of most weeks traveling. I spent as much time as I could out of the house in those days, because I was so afraid of feeling trapped. We had a double stroller and a back carrier, and we walked and walked and walked. 

It was a bright, windy day, still warm for September. I had made up some errand to the library on the morning of the 11th. We were still about a mile away from home when a familiar homeless man approached us. He was “the clapping guy,” the one who stalked back and forth all day long, clapping and shouting, warning and declaiming. He stopped, blocking my path, and said several times in weirdly chastened tones something like, “May your family be safe during all the [gesturing wildly] happenings that are going on in these days.” I had enough nonsense in my own life and didn’t need any of his, so I growled, “Yeah, thanks,” stepped around him, and kept walking.

I got home and got on with my day, holding the storm door open with my body as I hoisted the stroller up the steps and onto the porch. Unload the baby, unload the library books, change diapers, say “yes” to ice pops, start some water boiling for macaroni. Do the things you need to do.

I have to look up the timeline for 9/11 to piece together the rest. I remember standing at the white kitchen sink, rinsing out bottles and half-listening to public radio as I always did, gradually realizing they were repeating themselves a lot. That meant something strange was happening. I thought, like so many others, that the first plane crash was an accident, and I only slowly came to understand with a suffocating feeling that it was something else. 

What happened the rest of the day? I don’t remember. My husband was away and I wanted him home so desperately. All planes were grounded, so it took him something like four days to get back by bus. All I remember from that time is breathing shallowly, and seeing nothing but chaos when I closed my eyes. 

We did have a TV, but I don’t remember watching coverage. One child had a fear of owls, and two of them had night terrors, so I zealously shielded them from anything that could be remotely frightening. Or at least I tried. I followed the news by radio, so I don’t have those images of smoke and fire burned into my memory like so many Americans do; but that just meant the terror and confusion was formless. 

What I remember more vividly is trying to work out how to survive an anthrax attack, because that was what came next. We were so poor, I made some brutal budgeting decisions and bought a big roll of duct tape and three dust masks, thinking the five of us could take turns holding our breath if someone decided to wage a chemical attack against quiet little Norton Street. I kept a blanket rolled up in case I needed to seal up the threshold against invisible spoors, and lay awake at night fretting over how to make the tape stick to the hinges. It sounds so foolish now, but nobody knew. Nobody knew what was happening or what might happen next or how to act. We breathed shallowly and believed we would need to seal ourselves up tightly if we wanted our children to survive. 

Everyone talks about 9/12, how united we all were. I don’t remember that, possibly because I was so isolated. I didn’t know what else to do, other than draw my family in and try to seal us off. I do remember the first time the airplanes went into the air again. I was crossing the parking lot at Walmart, pushing a cart full of groceries and kids, because you do what you have to do. Two planes went overhead, one rather low and loud, and everyone stopped. Everyone looked up. Everyone held their breath to see how it would play out.

I remember thinking, in the darkest, innermost room of my heart, that it would be right and just to pack off any captured terrorists to countries who had practice with this kind of thing, so their torturers could get the goods. Just seal it off, do it behind closed doors, and do what you have to do.

We all breathed shallowly at that time; we all saw chaos when we closed our eyes. We had to protect our families, and seal them in.

But eighteen years have passed; enough time to turn into an adult. I was so young and so afraid in 2001. In the eighteen years since then, I’ve learned even more about the things that threaten my family, and I’ve learned even more about how helpless we really are. But the most terrible of all is to see the threats that come from the inside; to see clearly how vulnerable our hearts are, how easily they are deranged with fear.

I don’t have any grand opinions about national security or public policy. It feels strange and unpleasant to talk about myself and my family, our stroller, our apartment, our bedroom door on a momentous anniversary for the country, when other people remember explosions, death, and going off to war. But the small and personal is all I have. Really, the small and personal is all any of us has. All of us, every one of us must guard very closely what happens in our hearts, what we allow to happen to our hearts. When you seal up your hearts, that doesn’t keep terror out. It seals it in. 

The wind will take it

A dead leaf threw itself under the windshield wiper blade and was dragged back and forth three times before it was released by the wind. “Take the exit,” my phone barked, but I was in the wrong lane to exit.

The sky grew darker, and then I was lost. I lost my nerve, I fell apart, became unravelled, was utterly helpless in the teeth of terror as I drove. It was a formless kind of multi-terror, with no particular name and no discernible end, and it shook me like helpless prey.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

Image by laterjay via Pixabay (Creative Commons)

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

We can’t just decide to stop being afraid, but we can manage it

Most of us realise we’re not supposed to live in a state of constant fear. It isn’t any fun, for one thing; and we can see it leads us to make bad decisions. Jesus came right out and told us, “Be not afraid!”

How, though? Much as we’d like to, we can’t just decide to stop being afraid.

Read the rest of my latest for The Catholic Weekly.

Irrational fear doesn’t make our kids safer (even in Ikea)

No, really. You probably don’t have to bring bodyguards, tape your kids to your legs, or spray them with anti-trafficking spray before venturing out of your house.

I feel the need to say this because that “we almost got sex trafficked in Ikea” story is foolish and dangerous — and still making the rounds.

Here’s the backstory, if you missed it:

Diandra Toyos, a mom from Southern CA, was at an Ikea store with her three young kids. She noticed that a couple of guys weren’t shopping and didn’t appear to be with anyone who was shopping, but seemed to be following her family around. She eventually talked to security and then left.

She reports to social media:

Something was off. We knew it in our gut. I am almost sure that we were the targets of human trafficking. This is happening all over. Including the United States. It’s in our backyards. I’m reading more and more about these experiences and it’s terrifying. If not that, something else shady was obviously going on. Either way, as parents, we NEED to be aware.

The story got tens of thousands of shares, and moms across the country trembled with fear.

Let’s start with the good information in her account.

1. It’s a good idea to listen to your gut (unless your gut constantly cries wolf). There is nothing wrong with looking for help if you feel like something is “off,” even if you’re not sure exactly what it is that’s wrong.

2. It’s a good idea to keep track of your young kids. Pay attention, because kids can get into all kinds of trouble in a short time.

Now let’s talk about what’s insane and dangerous in this mom’s message.

First, whatever happened at Ikea, if anything, it almost certainly wasn’t a close call with human trafficking. People who are actual experts in the field say this simply isn’t how human trafficking works.

“There are zero indicators of human trafficking in Toyos’ story. Zero,” says Lara Powers in the L.A. Times. Powers, “a professional in the anti-trafficking field,” insists the same thing as every other expert I’ve encountered:

I have never seen, read or heard about a real sex-trafficking situation in which a child was abducted by traffickers in broad daylight at a busy store under a mother’s watchful eye. It’s just not the way it works.

How does it work, then?

Victims are recruited, manipulated, made dependent. The psychological and emotional ties they establish are highly effective. Trafficked children are unlikely to attempt escape.They often won’t snitch on their traffickers even if law enforcement approaches them.

Among common patterns of sex-trafficking recruitment and control: Parents or foster care parents selling their children. Or runaway, homeless youth, many of whom identify as LGBTQ, picked up at bus stops by traffickers who exploit their hunger and need for shelter. Or a young girl who falls in love with a man who says he loves her too, then pimps her out.

And while child sex trafficking can happen to anyone, children of color, children with a past history of sex abuse, children who come from broken or unstable homes, children who face poverty, and children with disabilities are especially vulnerable.

 

Here is a more typical story of human trafficking: An impoverished teenager named “Blessing” flees Nigeria in hopes of finding work. Once she has been moved across several borders, her handlers try to push her into prostitution. She’s ransomed; she’s shuttled around some more, imprisoned, put out to sea, rescued, and then released in Italy.

This is a horribly typical, very common story of a child caught up in human trafficking. She is alone; she is poor; she is black; she has few connections; her home government is a shambles; her parents don’t know where she is; she has no help. She is very obviously vulnerable in several different ways.

In other words, she is most likely nothing like your child. Your child is almost certainly safe from trafficking. It’s not a matter of holding your child’s hand especially tight when you’re shopping for futons; it’s a matter of having a family, being a member of a community, speaking the native language, having some resources. These are the facts, as described by the latest report on human trafficking from the U.S. government.

 

Worse: Focusing on unlikely dangers can make us careless about actual risk, either to our own kids or to others’. As the op-ed piece in the LA Times says the Ikea story

so misrepresents the dangers, warning signs and risks associated with sex trafficking that its readers and likers may now try to protect kids by watching for the wrong things in the wrong places. They may miss real sex trafficking as it happens; they may miss the opportunity to extend a lifeline to child who needs their help. What people don’t understand about sex trafficking can prove lethal to kids.

There’s another risk, too. Irrational fear is bad for us, directly, immediately. I know what irrational fear can do. At the height of the anthrax scare, when my husband travelled a lot and I was alone in our apartment with three very young children, I barely dared to venture into the fenced back yard. Shopping for groceries, going to the library, or stopping at McDonald’s for fries were all perilous nightmares.

I was so caught up in avoiding and outwitting irrational, unlikely dangers that I had no emotional energy left to tend to the actual, present needs of early childhood: the need for calm, the need for peace, the need for a little freedom, and the need to feel safe and secure, rather than embattled and in flight.

Fear distorts our reason. It leads us to make bad decisions, and it leads us to teach poor decision-making to the kids who see us constantly fearful and anxious. The day after the “We almost got sex trafficked in Ikea” story came out, a young mother of one confided to a group that she was rethinking having any more children. The world just seemed so dangerous to her, she couldn’t see how it was possible to keep a second child safe. It seemed that merely leaving the home all but guaranteed that something awful would happen. After all, it happened in Ikea! Or almost happened! Or, well, something almost happened . . .

Bad things do happen. Kids sometimes get kidnapped. Tree limbs fall on people’s heads. Sinkholes open up in the playground. Stray bullets make their way into the skulls of innocent people. Bad things do happen, even to the children of vigilant parents.

But when Jesus said, “Be not afraid,” it wasn’t because He simply wasn’t up to speed on all the dangers that the modern world can possibly present. It was because He knew that fear drives out reason, makes it harder to think, makes it harder to love. Fear makes it harder to live the lives we are given, driving us instead to scurry around in a shadowy world of horrible possibilities. Fear is a thief.

Sometimes, fear makes us cruel, leading us to blame others for their misfortunes because we believe that we, ourselves, are so wise, prudent, responsible (and preemptively fearful) that we are different, we will be safe, we can be in control.

But we are not in control. More fear will not make us more in control.

It is very hard. We are obligated to be careful and prudent with our children, to routinely reassess how we are caring for them, and to take legitimate threats seriously, because we love them and must care for them. And they are, by definition, vulnerable. That is just how it is. The responsibility can be terrifying, overwhelming, if we let fear take over.

But more fear is not the same as more love. Love illuminates; fear butts our reason. Love gives us courage to act when something is wrong; fear tells us that the world is full of nothing but wrongness. It doesn’t make us safer to be more fearful. It’s not harmless to pass along hysterical warnings “just in case.” It’s not harmless to endlessly ruminate over what might possibly happen if we’re not perfectly vigilant at all times. Irrational fear makes us less safe, not more. It makes us live less, not more.

***
Image: By Thomas.ZAPATA (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

“Pro-life” Trump is engineering an American Kristallnacht

Here’s a ridiculous scenario: Imagine you drive a red car. One day, the mayor of your town says that, every week, he’s going to head over to the post office and pin up a list of people who have done bad things with red cars.

The list includes people who have bought red cars, people who have borrowed them, and people who have stolen red cars; and it includes everything from driving with a broken tail light to deliberately plowing through line of kindergarteners. The list doesn’t specify: It just has names of people driving red cars, and it says they’ve all done something bad.

This goes on week after week, and even though you’ve never so much as failed to use a turn signal, you start to notice that you’re getting dirty looks when you step out of your red car. You find yourself parking around the corner, just so no one realizes that you’re one of those “red car people.” Your neighbor sees you washing your car in the driveway and she makes a disgusted sound and loudly tells her kids, “Let’s go find some other friends to play with.” One morning, you wake up and discover that someone has slashed your tires and beat in your windshield, and “NO RED CARS HERE” is spray painted on your driveway.

You haven’t done anything. But you do drive a red car.

Stupid, right? That is a silly story. Let’s talk about something that hits a little closer to home with some of my readers:

At the peak of the Catholic sex abuse scandal, a priest friend — a holy, kind, exemplary man — told me that when he passed a woman and child on the sidewalk, the woman instinctively shoved herself between her child and him. She made a physical barrier to protect her kid, as if, just because he had a Roman collar on, he was going to lunge over and start groping her child.

How unfair! How grievously unfair, to behave as if every priest is probably a sexual predator, when in fact priests are no more likely than any other man to abuse children.

But at the same time, my priest friend couldn’t blame the woman. When it does happen, molestation of children is an unspeakable crime. And every day, week after week after week, the papers and the TV news carried stories of priests who did abuse children, or who were accused of abusing children, or who didn’t do enough to stop the abuse of children.

Or, maybe they actually did everything they possibly could to stop the abuse of the children, but still, ugh, they’re one of those priests . . . 

We all know what priests are like. We know, because we read it in the news.

Imagine being a priest in this climate. I heard priests debating with each other whether it was safe to go out wearing clerical garb. Why put a target on your back? Everyone you meet has been trained to look at you and think, “Sex crime! Sex crime!”

This is the power of the selectively chosen printed word. This is what can be achieved when you take a story that is true (some people in red cars do commit crimes; some priests do molest children) and play it over and over and over and over again, chanting in the ear of the reader: DANGER. DANGER. WARNING. WARNING. NO TIME TO THINK. ALERT. ALERT. PROTECT YOURSELF.

Protect yourself against what? Why, against people like that: people who commit crimes, people you can easily pick out on the street, because they’re illegal immigrant criminals. Well, they’re illegal immigrants. Well, they’re immigrants. Well, they have brown skin and an accent, and you know what people like that do.

We know, because we read it in the news. We read the weekly lists that the president of the United States says he is going to publish — lists of “crimes” (he doesn’t specify if we’re talking about rape or murder or driving over to Kroger’s without a license) committed by “aliens” (he doesn’t specify legal or illegal).  The important thing is, we have to have constant reminders that there are people coming into our country and doing bad things! Never forget!  Immigrant and crime! They go together.

Never mind that immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than people born in the United States. Doesn’t matter. What matters is the constant reminder of facts without context to create an emotional response. It’s not rational. It doesn’t have to be. In fact it works better when it’s not rational (especially when you’ve been training the populace to believe that there is no such thing as objective truth, just facts and alternative facts).

There are already laws on the books about deporting illegal immigrants. There are already laws on the books about arresting and prosecuting criminals. There are already numerous public records of crimes committed in this country. We don’t have a secret court system. Just about every arrest is public record. There are already numerous aggregators of statistics to tell us who commits what kind of crime. Most Americans already agree that crime is bad, illegal activity is wrong, and criminals should be punished by the law.

These lists do not give us more information. They do not “better inform the public,” despite what Trump’s statement claims. All of the information in them is already public information.

There is only one reason to publish a list like this, and that is to whip up fear, suspicion, and outrage. To make people feel unsafe and angry. To constantly remind them (as Trump did in his inauguration speech) that we are drowning in crime, awash in violence, crumbling into ruin, teetering on the brink, losing ourselves in the darkness.

Things are terrible, terrible, terrible. And whose fault is it? Well, I happen to have a list. And I’ll be updating it every week, so you’ll know who to blame.

Now imagine that you are the one with dark skin and an accent. Imagine your kids have dark skin and accents. Maybe you’re legally here and maybe you’re not, but it’s very clear that you’re some kind of immigrant.

Remember: immigrant crime immigrant crime immigrant crime. That’s the important thing to remember. Your neighbors have been hearing it for months.

Imagine that you live in a country where, every single week, your president has been telling everyone that people with dark skins and accents are criminals. Imagine getting your kids ready to walk to school, and knowing that half their classmates have been reading these lists every week. Imagine leaving work at night and finding that a couple of guys have had a couple of beers and they’ve decided they’ve had enough of these fucking immigrants fucking up their country, and if the police won’t do anything about it, then they will.

Think it won’t happen? Why? Because fearful, angry people never lash out at the innocent?

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Because we’d never let things go that far?

Why not? If we’re not going to say “halt” now, then when?

This is classic scapegoating. It’s what fascists do to gain control. They tell the people, over and over and over again, “You’re not safe. You’re not safe. It’s the fault of THESE PEOPLE. I will protect you from THESE PEOPLE, and then you can be safe.” And then, while you’re thrilled to get his help and protection, you barely notice the other stuff he’s doing, stuff that directly contradicts the things you said you cared about ten minutes ago. Stuff like small government, religious freedom, freedom of the press, respect for the disabled, protection for the innocent and vulnerable.

My friends, I have always thought that Trump would be a bad and dangerous president, a vulgar and ridiculous man, but I thought the accusations of fascism were overblown. I thought it was hyperbole.

I don’t think so anymore. This is textbook behavior. This is how it always starts. This is how totalitarians persuade the population to give him everything he wants: By whipping up fear and anger, by pointing to a scapegoat, and then by offering to take care of that scapegoat for you.

Up until now, I’ve been angry at Trump. Last night, he broke my heart. I wept when I heard of his plans, and I wept harder when I saw some of my friends defending them. Not because I want to protect criminals, but because I want to protect my country. I love my country. This is not what I want for my country.

Today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day. A good day to remember that everything Hitler did was with the consent of the people, whom he had primed to fear and hate certain groups of people. He started by posting lists of Jews who were accused of committing crimes. He started by reminding Germans of what a shambles their country was in, and then he told them, over and over and over again, whose fault it was.

And then they let him do whatever he wanted.

We have seen this before. We have seen this before. There is no Mexico City Policy, no phone call to the March for Life, no promise of new jobs that can justify the American Kristallnacht that our president is openly trying to engineer.

Resist. Even if you need a job. Even if you are pro-life. Even if your city is full of people who don’t speak English. Even if you think Hillary belongs in jail. Even if you voted for Trump. Resist this path we are on. Remember who you are, and resist.

***
EDIT Friday around 5:00 eastern: Thanks to a reader, I realized that I misread and mischaracterized Trump’s statement. It was an honest error, not a malicious one, but that’s no excuse. I have edited the post to make it more accurate.

The original passage, as far as I can reconstruct it, read:
We know, because we read it in the news. We read the weekly lists that the president of the United States says he is going to publish –‘lists of “aliens” (he doesn’t specify legal or illegal) who have committed “crimes” (he doesn’t specify if we’re talking about rape or murder or driving over to Kroger’s without a license).

The corrected passage now reads:
We know, because we read it in the news. We read the weekly lists that the president of the United States says he is going to publish — lists of “crimes” (he doesn’t specify if we’re talking about rape or murder or driving over to Kroger’s without a license) committed by “aliens” (he doesn’t specify legal or illegal).

I apologize for the error. It does not change my argument in the slightest.
Kristallnacht image: Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1970-083-42 / CC-BY-SA 3.0 [CC BY-SA 3.0 de (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons

Can we endure the light?

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There was a man who could read people’s souls, and he would sometimes deliver messages from God.

It sounds fishy, but if you saw his face, especially his eyes, you’d believe it. For some reason, he visited my house when I was a teenager. When I came in the room, his dark eyes pooled with pity, and he asked, “Is there anything you would like to ask?” There wasn’t. I was on an ugly, dire path, and I knew it, but I wasn’t ready to turn around yet. So I walked out of the room. Fled, really. I could see that he was very close to God, and I couldn’t stand being that close to him.

It is not enough, you see, to recognize the presence of God. You can identify holiness, but it won’t do you any good if you’ve been living in a way that doesn’t prepare you to endure it.

Herod, for instance, recognized the Christ. Or at least he was well-versed enough in scripture to know that something big was coming, something that could change the world. But when he found Him, his whole thought was to extinguish that light, because it was a threat. Not to be endured.

Herod was a brilliant, powerful, and exceptionally brutal tyrant, who protected his throne by killing everyone who might someday threaten it, including his wife, two of his sons, his wife’s grandfather, her brother, and her mother. You cannot live that way and then suddenly rejoice when your savior comes. You don’t want a savior, when you live that way. It’s not that you don’t recognize salvation; it’s that you hate it.

The magi, on the other hand, also found and identified the Child Jesus, and had (what an understatement!) a different response. Before they ever appeared in the Gospel, they had spent years studying scripture and anticipating the arrival of the Savior. But their studies clearly brought them beyond some academic knowledge of the coming king. Isaiah spoke of glory and brilliance, a “Hero God” — and yet when the magi found Him in Bethlehem, just another poor baby Jew, they still knew who He was — and they rejoiced, and adored, and gloried in His light.

It’s not enough to identify God when you find Him. It won’t do you any good unless you’ve been living in a way that makes you ready to want salvation.

Several years ago, I had a little glimpse of Jesus. He was in the form of another man, someone who served God with every moment of his life. When I walked into the room, he was on his knees on the floor, binding the ankle of a boy who had hurt his foot. The boy was not grateful, not at all. He sulked and pitied himself, but the man radiated love. His posture was a living expression of love. The room shone.

This time, when I saw holiness, I didn’t run away. I stayed and watched, because the light of charity that shone in that room had something to say to me: “Be like this.”

In the first reading at the Mass of the Epiphany, Isaiah says:

Rise up in splendor, Jerusalem! Your light has come,
the glory of the Lord shines upon you.

Nations shall walk by your light,
and kings by your shining radiance.

This is a light that may reveal all kinds of things. It’s not enough for those “nations” (and we are the nations) to recognize and identify God. It’s not enough to be able to realize what holiness is when we see it.

How are we preparing, before that light appears? The magi knew it was coming, and they prepared themselves to welcome and adore it. Herod knew it was coming, and he made plans to extinguish it. Herod acted like exactly like Herod when His savior appeared, and so will we act exactly like ourselves when we meet God.

Just being in His light will not be enough. If we live like Herod, we will respond to Him like Herod, with fear, with loathing. We will see the light, and we will want to put it out.

When the glory of the Lord comes to shine upon you, what will that light reveal?

***

Image: “Epiphany” by Gallardoblend via Deviantart
This essay was originally published on Aleteia in January of 2016.