Donald Trump’s Inaugural Address

As I watched the inaugural address on TV, there were several points where I thought he was wrong or hyperbolic and some where I thought he was ungracious; but for the most part, I thought he was proposing good objectives. Before I turned of the TV, I listened for a few minutes to the commentators on CNN, and they said that the populism expressed made it the “most radical” inaugural address ever. On reflection, I had the thought that much of it could have been said by Bernie Sanders. Now I have a transcript on another window, and I’ll review it a little more closely, without giving a line-by-line analysis.

I liked the part early on about returning power to the people, away from the establishment and the promise that the forgotten men and women would be forgotten no longer. I hope that the corporate CEO’s and politicians he’s appointing to his cabinet will follow through on this promise. Of course, the people can’t exercise their power over the federal government directly except on election day, so it will be up to our politicians and administration officials to put the promise into effect.

While some may quibble with the seriousness or extent of the “carnage” he spoke of, I think that job loss, ineffective education, and urban violence are all real problems. As one who believes strongly in federalism, I don’t think that the federal government should be considered responsible for solving every community’s crime problems or improving their schools. These are areas which call for the people to exercise their power locally. As for the problems of the “rust belt,” I don’t know how much of them can be cured by better international trade policies, but it’s worth a try.

I agree with him that every country’s primary obligation is to its own people. So it makes sense for our needs to be the focus of decision making. Still, I don’t want to see us prosper by impoverishing other people, which is why I’m particularly hopeful that the infrastructure program will be effective. I also hope the global economy can grow along with ours.

I was very pleased to hear him say, “We will reinforce old alliances,” since his attitude toward NATO has been worrisome.

Given the support he had from the alt-right, I thought it was very important that he said clearly, “[T]hrough our loyalty to our country, we will rediscover our loyalty to each other. When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice,” and, returning to the theme later, “A new national pride will stir ourselves, lift our sights, and heal our divisions. It’s time to remember that old wisdom our soldiers will never forget, that whether we are black or brown or white, we all bleed the same red blood of patriots. We all enjoy the same glorious freedoms. And we all salute the same great American flag.”

Certainly, there is more he could have said — about curbing the size of the federal government and protecting freedom of conscience, for example — but I’ll take what we got and hope for the best.

Sunday Scriptures — OT A 02, Jan. 15, 2017

With this Sunday, we have plunged back into Ordinary Time. Actually, the plunge took place last Tuesday, since the liturgical celebration of Christmastide ends with the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. This year, that feast was celebrated on Monday, January 9, and the remainder of the week constituted the First week in Ordinary Time. Nevertheless, there are resonances with the Christmas season, just as Ordinary Time merged into Advent, as we focused at first on the return of Jesus in glory at the end of time. Now, as we begin to look at the ministry of Jesus, we start with the testimony of John the Baptist to Jesus, which was also part of what we heard in Advent and on the Feast of the Baptism. In addition, we hear again from Isaiah prophecies about the calling of the Messiah.

 

The first reading — Isaiah 49: 3: 5-6 — is one of the four passages which are called the Servant Songs. They are read during Holy Week. Although the passage seemingly begins as an address to Israel as the Lord’s servant, in the preceding and following verses, it refers to an individual. The servant’s mission is one which God intended for him from before his birth. He is to bring the nation of Israel back to the Lord. Beyond that, he is to be a light to the nations, to bring salvation to all the world.

The responsorial psalm — verses of Psalm 40, with a refrain based on verses 8 and 9 — we make our own the Messiah’s response the the Father’s call. He, and we, will do God’s will.

The second reading — 1 Corinthians: 1:1-3 — is in the customary form of of the beginning of letters at the time of Paul. The writer identifies himself: Paul. He adds identifying information and associates Sosthenes with himself. Next the addressee is named: the church in Corinth. Again, Paul expands the format by referring to their salvation in Christ, and noting that their call is one which goes to believers everywhere — just as the servant in the first reading is to bring salvation to the whole world. Finally there is a greeting: he wishes them grace and peace from God. Over the next six weeks, until Lent begins, we will hear further passages from the first four chapters of this letter.

The gospel — John 1:29-34 — is remarkable in the first place because Year A is the year in which Matthew’s gospel is read on most Sundays. John the Baptist uses the phrase “Lamb of God” to identify Jesus. This reminds his hearers of the events of Passover, when the Israelites sacrificed a lamb, whose blood protected them from the tenth plague of Egypt, the killing of every firstborn. Jesus, Mary’s firstborn and the Father’s only-begotten Son, will save us from destruction through his Passover sacrifice of himself. We don’t use the phrase often, but in Mass we address Jesus as Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world in the Gloria on festive occasions and before Communion at every Mass. Then, holding up the host, the priest says, “Behold the Lamb of God. Behold him who takes away the sins of the world. Blessed are those who are called to the supper of the Lamb.” This recalls the Israelites’ eating of the paschal lamb, whose blood protected them. The image of the Lamb is also frequently used in the Book of Revelation to refer to Jesus as the redeemer, slain on earth and triumphant in heaven.

Next, John refers to his earlier promise of one greater than himself who was to follow him. Jesus is the one he expected, and he knows this through revelation: at Jesus’ baptism, the sign God had promised happened. It is a sign which means that Jesus has been empowered by the Holy Spirit and will in turn confer that Spirit on others. making them sharers in his mission to bring salvation to the world — a call to which we responded in the responsorial psalm.

Could Trump Become a Fascist Dictator?

From time to time the suggestion is made that the answer to my title for this post is, “Yes.” I’ll admit that at times during the presidential election campaign I was alarmed at some of Donald Trump’s rhetoric and the things said and done at his events. Clearly his rhetoric attracted neo-Nazis and white supremacists. There was a certain cult of personality in which he seemed to see himself as the one who could solve all the country’s problems, that he needed to be unfettered in doing things his way; and his supporters seemed to agree. There seemed to be tactics of intimidation employed by his supporters without any disapproval on his part. In short, it seemed that he was leading a movement with clear similarities to those of Mussolini and Hitler.

But as time has passed, especially since the election, the resemblances have faded, and my fears have abated. There have been signs that Trump has come to realize that he doesn’t have all the answers and can’t, and shouldn’t try to, rule by decree. He seems to be getting some degree of understanding and acceptance of what it means to be President rather than ruler. His Cabinet choices have not simply been people who have been “movement” loyalists from the outset, and in the first couple of days of confirmation hearings they have demonstrated disagreement with some of his campaign rhetoric.

At this point, therefore, I would answer my question with a definite, “No.” No doubt he will take actions and adopt policies with which I disagree, perhaps very strongly, and I’m sure there will be other people who oppose even more of what he does. But I see no likelihood at all that a subservient Congress will pass an enabling act that would grant him absolute power. He may very well chafe at the necessity for obtaining legislation to pursue many of his proposals, but he will learn that that’s how it is. Like Reagan, he may well be able to appeal to the people and develop enough support to get some of his proposals enacted, but that isn’t dictatorship. Dictatorship is a government which does as it pleases regardless of public support or opposition.

But as I was mulling over the question of whether Trump could be our Hitler, I came to another question: if there really is any danger of a neo-Fascist regime in the U.S., whose fault is it? When I was in school I was taught that our system of government contained a threefold bulwark against tyranny expressed in the principles of 1.) limited government, 2.) federalism, and 3.) separation of powers, all three of which were enshrined in our Constitution. Because the President was the head of only one branch of a federal government with limited powers, it was impossible for him to become a tyrant.

Why, then, do people now seriously fear a dictatorship? It is because all three principles underlying our Constitution have been lost sight of. Americans in general look primarily to government to solve whatever problems we face, and they see no problem which is outside the purview of the federal government to solve. In other words, the federal government is regarded as omnicompetent. If there is no area in which the federal government cannot take action, then there is nothing to prevent tyranny except the separation of powers. Unfortunately, we live in an era of hyperpartisanship, and there is a widespread acceptance of the idea that the President runs things, and resistance to what he wants is obstructionism. It is this state of affairs which makes it even slightly plausible for people to imagine an American dictator.

I come again to the question: “Whose fault is it that we’ve reached this point?” Since at least my college days, going back more than 55 years, I’ve been a conservative. I’ve said that matters such as public education, relief of poverty, prosecution of crimes such as murder and robbery, construction of housing, medical practice, drug policy, consumer protection, and marriage laws are not the responsibility of the federal government. When conservatives complain about any federal action as being outside the constitutionally limited powers of the federal government, the usual liberal response is that the matter in question is just too important to leave to the States or that we need uniformity. But most people seem to accept without question that the federal government can do whatever it decides to do (apart from taking away their guns).

How did we get from 1787 to here? The Civil War discredited the idea of States’ Rights, which, properly understood, is merely a corollary of federalism. The sense of being a citizen, and not merely a resident, of Massachusetts, or Pennsylvania, or Ohio as a significant part of one’s identity faded away. It may be a matter of cultural pride and awareness, but not of real political significance. (This is why people can glibly call for the abolition of the electoral college.) Then came the Great Depression which brought acceptance of the idea that if a problem was big enough, the federal government was responsible for solving it. And recently, it seems that most people accept unthinkingly that there is almost no zone of personal freedom which the government cannot intrude on “for our own good.” We may not smoke in public buildings, even in public housing units which we occupy, nor — in various jurisdictions — in outdoor public spaces. We may not purchase various foodstuffs. We may not use various recreational drugs. We must fasten our seatbelts. We must wear helmets when riding motorcycles and bicycles.

There is more that could be said to flesh out my theses and to nuance my broad assertions, but I think it’s fair to say, as a generalization, that if there is any real danger of dictatorship in the United States, it’s the fault of the liberals who are normally untroubled by thoughts of federalism and limited government, and to whom separation of powers matters only when a Republican is President.

Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord, January 8, 2017

I posted last year about this feast day, and since the Mass is the same every year, I’ll let that post suffice.

 

As I noted then, there are three events to the Epiphany: the adoration of the Magi, which is emphasized in today’s Mass; the Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan, which gets its own feast day, this year on January 9; and Jesus’ changing of water into wine at the wedding feast of Cana, which was the gospel passage read on January 7.

 

Since this is my first post of 2017, I also want to wish a Happy New Year to all!

Sunday Scriptures — Advent A 4, Dec. 18, 2016

As we come to the last Sunday before Christmas, the main focus of the readings turns from the return of Christ at the end of time (fully establishing the Messianic Age, the peaceable kingdom) to the birth of the Messiah in time.
The first reading — Isaiah 7:10-14 — is the familiar passage which foretells the birth of the one whose birth means God is with us. In context, Isaiah was reassuring King Ahaz that the attack on Jerusalem by the Arameans and the breakaway kingdom of Israel would not succeed. the predicted birth would probably have been that of Hezekiah — since the birth of Jesus something over 700 years later would not have served as a sign to Ahaz. Still, this prophecy is part of a section of the book which promises the Messiah (in ch. 9). And while the Hebrew speaks of a “young woman” as the mother of Emmanuel in v. 14, in the Septuagint (the Jewish Greek translation) the word for “virgin” is used. Thus for Jews of Jesus’ time (and some centuries before) this text was seen as having a meaning beyond the immediate one for Ahaz. We see the virgin birth of Jesus as the fulfillment of the prophecy.
The responsorial psalm — Ps. 24:1-6, with refrain from verses 7 and 10 — has us reflect on God as creator and the holiness required of one who would enter the temple. We think of Jesus as the king of glory who enters.
In the second reading — Romans 1:1-7 — Paul elaborates the customary salutation of a letter with a reference to Jesus as a descendant of David (hence capable of fulfilling the prophecies of the Messiah), followed by a statement of his saving work and of Paul’s apostolic mission.
The gospel — Matthew 1:18-24 — tells of the annunciation to Joseph that Mary’s unborn child was conceived by the Holy Spirit and that he would be the Savior. Matthew explicitly quotes the Emmanuel prophecy of the first reading and says the birth of Jesus fulfills the prophecy.
As we look forward to Christmas, these readings invite us to see the importance of the birth of Jesus, both for the world and for ourselves as individuals. God is with us now and always.

Sunday Scriptures — Advent A 3, Dec. 11, 2016

This is extremely late, for a number of reasons, including that when I tried to post last week, I was unable to enter any text. Although it may seem superfluous now, I want, if possible, to get a complete set of comments on the Sunday readings posted to this blog. Perhaps even at this stage, it could be useful as part of Advent preparations for Christmas and the return of the Lord. Still, this is fairly brief: the reader will have to do more work than usual.
As was the case on the Second Sunday, the readings present the figure of John the Baptist as the greatest prophet, who prepared the people for Jesus, while offering some thoughts about the Messianic Age.
In the first reading —Isaiah 35:1-6a, 10 — we are told of four aspects of the Messianic Age: deserts will bloom; God will bring about justice; the disabled will be healed; and the exiles will return. In the light of these promises, the people should be strong and fearless.
The responsorial psalm — Psalm 146: 6-10, with a refrain based on Isaiah 35:4 — some of the themes of the first reading are reprised, with emphasis on God”s power to save.
In the gospel — Matthew 11:2-11 — John sends disciples to ask if Jesus is really the Messiah, as he had thought. (Perhaps this was for the disciples’ benefit, rather than reflective of any doubt on his own part.) Jesus’ response is to point to healings such as those promised by Isaiah and more as indications that he was indeed inaugurating the Messianic Age. But the promises will not be completely fulfilled in the present life. This life is not heaven. We must await Jesus’ return at the end of time.
The second reading — James 5:7-10 exhorts us to be patient while we wait. Farmers can’t force the rains to come, and we can’t force Jesus to return. But the farmer prepares for the rain, and we prepare for Jesus’ return be being uncomplaining toward one another.
It is our faith that enables us to be patient. We see all the evil in the world — wars, violence, illnesses and premature deaths, all sorts of natural disasters — and we long for an end to them. Impatience could take various forms. One is to abandon faith and decide that there cannot be a God if these things can happen. But when we hold on to faith we realize that all these evils are merely temporary, and we have confidence that the world to come will not have such things and will more than make up for them. We may not understand why the fullness of the Messianic Age can’t be with us already, but we don’t despair of its arrival.

Sunday Scriptures — Advent A 2, Dec. 4, 2016

This Sunday introduces John the Baptist as part of a set of readings which can be linked by the theme of the Messianic Age. There is still no focus on the birth of Christ yet.
The first reading — Isaiah 11:1-10 — has three parts. We begin with a description of the Messiah. He will be a descendant of King David. (Jesse was David’s father.) The Spirit of God will enable him to bring true justice, upholding the poor and afflicted and overcoming the wicked. Then there is an image of harmony among all creatures, often depicted with the title “The Peaceable Kingdom,” in which predators cease preying and live in peace with animals they now attack. There are videos which show instances of this sort of behavior, usually among members of different species who were raised together. As a priest I know says, they show us how it was supposed to be. The prophet says that is how it will be. The final section of the reading adds that the Messiah will draw all the nations to himself.
The responsorial psalm — verses of Psalm 72 — has us reflect on the Messiah as the one who brings everlasting justice and peace to all the people of the world.
In the second reading — Romans 15:4-9 — after reminding his hearers of the ongoing value of the scriptures of Israel, Paul exhorts them (us) “to think in harmony with one another.” The community is to be welcoming, both in general and particular toward the Gentiles (who are attracted, as Isaiah prophesied), just as Jesus welcomed them (us) into his community. There must not be classes of people whom we consider unwelcome. If, in answer to the call of God, they wish to join us, they must be welcomed.
The gospel — Matthew 3:1-12 — introduces John the Baptist. He prepares the people to receive the Lord, in fulfillment of Isaiah 40:3. He calls people to repent of their sins, and being baptized signifies that repentance. But his strong words to the Pharisees and Pharisees make it clear that true repentance involves not just words, but actions: a changed life. He uses agricultural metaphors — good fruit, trees, wheat, and chaff — to illustrate the point about good deeds and evil ones, about doers of good and evildoers. He makes the further point that descent from Abraham — being part of the Jewishness — is not enough. The metaphor of God raising descendants of Abraham from the stones recalls the call of the Gentiles referred to in the first two readings and the psalm. We should apply it also to ourselves: membership in the Church doesn’t make us part of the Messianic community. There is a life to be lived, and if we don’t live it perfectly, we need to be repentant for our failures.
Although we believe that the Messiah has come in the person of Jesus, and elements of the Messianic Age have come when he healed the blind, the deaf, and the lame, as well as the spread of the gospel among the Gentiles. Clearly the complete fulfillment of the promises is yet to come, with his return in glory. Meanwhile, we live as members of his kingdom, behaving in a way that extends is justice and peace in the ways we can in our particular circumstances and opportunities.