Although there were two mass shootings over the weekend, the tragedy in El Paso is different from Dayton. It is also different from the shooting scourge that continues to plague the United States. The El Paso massacre made perfect sense.
Texas Governor Greg Abbott suggested that the shooter was sick and that better mental health was the solution to such crimes. But this particular shooter is not mentally ill. The killing made perfect sense.
There were immediate, and all-too-familiar outcries from all around the country: a need for gun control countered by tepid concern for better mental health screening. There were understandable condemnations from politicians, but some of those seemed a little too self-serving. There were promises of swift justice from law enforcement that also seemed a little too self-serving. Still, it is in the realm of justice that we need to focus our attention because the shooting in El Paso made perfect sense.
Justice in this case cannot be defined by revenge nor can it be restricted to punishment. It includes seeking and eliminating the causes and opportunities for such violence. But seeking justice is also a question of determining responsibility. And El Paso challenges our society on an entirely deeper level. Because this shooting made perfect sense.
Blaming the shooter is easy. It is also simplistic. It does not address the underlying cause that would lead someone to commit mass murder. Several editorials and opinion pieces were careful to suggest that President Trump cannot be blamed for the actions of a mass murderer. Perhaps that was the savvy thing to do. But it is dishonest. For if no one else knows the truth, Donald Trump does. This killing made perfect sense.
If someone shouts fire in a crowded theatre, and people are trampled to death in the ensuing stampede, we blame the person who shouted fire. Italy recently did just that when four men were convicted of causing the deaths of two women after they used pepper spray to start a panic in a public square where people had gathered to watch a soccer game. The men had hoped to steal wallets and cell phones as people ran for cover. The Italian justice system held them accountable for the deaths. That also made perfect sense.
Now to America. Let us put the blame for the El Paso massacre where it belongs—squarely at the feet of Donald Trump. On a daily basis he spews hatred, sows division and stokes fear. He derides, demeans and dehumanizes people of color and people whose religion is not Christian. Far from being Christian himself, he turns his back on people in need—at least people of color, in need. Only a person with no moral compass could suggest that asylum seekers are invaders.
Refugees escaping death in their own countries are not an invading army. They carry no weapons and have no desire to take over this country. They seek safety and help. Almost all are Christian, but that is of no benefit, because they are people of color and do not fit Trump’s vision (or whatever you call it) of America.
Like the criminals in Italy, Trump needs to be held accountable. Some will object that the examples are not analogous. The men in Rome intended to cause a riot. Trump did not intend to cause murder. But Trump did intend to cause fear and fuel hatred. Emboldened by presidential tweets and rallies, the shooter in El Paso used the exact same language that Trump does, referring to the refugees as invaders.
Further proof of Trump’s intention can be drawn by contrasting his formal statement about the two massacres with his daily venom. When he speaks at a rally or off the cuff to reporters he is animated and vitriolic. By contrast his formal statement was a robotic recitation of words on a teleprompter. It was about as interesting as reading the label on a can of tomato sauce and it was less than convincing. There was no feeling for the statement did not come from the heart.
Donald Trump, the very stable genius, knows what many others apparently do not. The mass shooting in El Paso was not senseless. What would be senseless would be giving Trump another four years to make a great country bad.
Take a look. Whatever one’s political affiliation, the senatorial leadership of both parties is anything but inspiring. And voices that might eloquently defend the Constitution, that might risk their own reputations for the good of the country, appear to be few. And diminishing. While it is depressing enough to lament the absence of Daniel Webster from the current United States Senate, it is in folklore that we discover how urgently we need a statesman of his stature.
In 1936 Stephen Benét published a short story entitled, “The Devil and Daniel Webster.” It was a reinvention of the Faustian legend, with a distinctly American audience in mind. In the story Jabez Stone is a poor farmer from New Hampshire. Overcome with desperation, he sells his soul to the devil in exchange for successful crops and subsequent wealth. When the debt comes due, the devil, traveling under the name of “Scratch,” returns to claim his prize. The prospect of actually surrendering his soul to the devil makes the farmer even more desperate, so he enlists the assistance of Daniel Webster who challenges Scratch in a court of law. Although the judge and jury are stacked against him—all conjured from the world of the damned—Webster’s oratory carries the night.
As a child I was fascinated by that story. I attended a Catholic school and in truth, some of the allure of Benét’s fable might have rested in the suggestion by the sisters that I was a bit like the devil, himself. But what I really wanted was to be like Daniel Webster and I imagined myself equally able to outwit the master of lies.
Even as a child I realized that legends such as this are not literal. They are parables—powerful myths that draw us into a world where we can be shaped by truth. But as an adult I have seen how easily that truth escapes us. For there’s a little Faust in everyone. Who among us has not wished for something so deeply that we say, “I’d sell my soul to the devil.” Of course, that’s only an expression. Until it isn’t. Until it becomes a reality. In America today, one is left to wonder.
Woven through a large segment of our society is a complete disregard for both fact and truth. We have become a people victimized and defeated by deceit. Perhaps victim is too generous a description. After all, we accepted deceit when we elected Donald Trump as president. The “Make America Great Again” cry was not just a campaign slogan. It was the rallying lie. For America was already great. But everything based on a lie eventually crumbles. And since Trump’s election America’s greatness has only dwindled on the world stage. Our allies watch in wonder as our president is played by one adversary after another—Russia, China, North Korea. We are learning with some regret that narcissism and buffoonery do not make America great. And fraying our long standing alliances makes the whole world weak. Where is Daniel Webster when we really need him?
Perhaps for the nation the bill has not yet come due. In the meantime, the effects of selling America’s soul continue unabated, as hypocrisy, fraud and treachery emanate from the highest political offices, turning Washington D.C. into a city of prevarication. Explanations for alleged illegalities, such as the infamous Trump Tower meeting, change so rapidly they do not even come full circle. Rather, they descend in an unending downward spiral. On a daily basis we listen to President Trump lie, then double down on those lies and then lie about lying.
His press secretary, Sarah Sanders, forsakes the customary political spin in order to blatantly compound the president’s dishonesty. When asked at a cabinet meeting in July whether Russia is still targeting the U.S., we were able to see and hear Trump answer, “No.” Yet Sanders informed us that what we had seen with our own eyes and heard with our own ears never really happened. Had she been capable of intellectual integrity, her statement would have been grievously offensive. As it is, it was merely absurd—and the take away distressing. Apparently it is not just the news that’s fake. Even our experiences are. In less than two years we have moved way beyond the fiction of the “largest inauguration crowd in history,”—another claim we were able to disprove with our own eyes. As it turns out, the inauguration fiction was merely a preamble of things to come.
Examples can be cited indicting nearly every cabinet officer and presidential appointee, both those who have departed their positions as well as their replacements. The Trump Administration, from cabinet officers to closest advisors to attorneys, all share something in common. And it is not fealty to their boss. Trump has surrounded himself with an avaricious crowd who place their own good above that of the country. Whether their greed is for money, or power, or influence, or merely to cement an ideology, they each have their reasons for selling their souls. Nor are those who left the Administration modern day versions of Jabez Stone. He regretted the deal he made with Scratch. I doubt that many former administration officials regret having joined team Trump in the first place.
Of course, all is not lost. The economy continues to improve as it did through most of President Obama’s time in office. And for Trump personally, although he remains one of the most unpopular presidents in American history, his ratings are strong among what is called his “base”—irrationally so, given his amorality, constant lies and astounding incompetence. And, of course, his most fundamental promise of draining the swamp was, arguably, his most disingenuous. Maybe it’s too soon to cry out for Daniel Webster. After all, we still have Congress.
Then again, the Republicans in Congress have completely abdicated their constitutional obligation to serve as a check and balance to the Trump administration. Enfolding his arms around Vladimir Putin, Trump placed the good of Russia (and most likely himself) above the good of America. By embracing the enemy of the state, Trump, himself, became the enemy. Still Congress does nothing. What other explanation exists than to acknowledge that they, too, have sold their souls to the devil? And what did they get in return? Paul Ryan got a tax cut, while Mitch McConnell got two Supreme Court nominees (although one might be tempted to wonder why he did not hold out for a little charisma).
Speaking of the Supreme Court, much has been made of Brett Kavanaugh’s lying before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Perhaps no single lie stands out more brazenly than his response to the question about the sex game known as the Devil’s Triangle. Unflinchingly, Kavanaugh engaged the classic telltale mark of a liar. He paused and darted his eyes up to the right. One could almost see his mind whirling for a plausible answer. In that attempt he failed, instead proffering the absurd response that it was a drinking game.
It is difficult to ascertain what others, such as Devin Nunes and Trey Gowdy received. And it is truly baffling to ponder what Lindsay Graham got in return for his soul. Maybe it was just the thrill of dealing with the devil—akin to the excitement of winning the lottery. Whatever the explanation, Scratch is now present and active in all three branches of government, and a cry is beginning to rise throughout the land, “Where is Daniel Webster now that we really need him?”
When Benét reinvented the Faustian legend he sought to accomplish two laudable goals. On the positive side his story intended to stir a patriotic sense of truth and justice; to suggest that politics was still a noble calling; to believe that a senator who is committed to placing the good of the country above personal or partisan power, might also be able to deal a decisive defeat to evil.
The second goal was a diabolical warning: The pact is sealed and the devil will have his due. Even if this Administration does not answer to Congress, eventually it will have to answer to Scratch. Without much difficulty one can already hear the voices of Donald Trump, Sarah Sanders, Scott Pruitt, Betsy Devos, John Bolton as well as countless elected officials wailing loudly, “Where is Daniel Webster when we really need him?” But they will discover that reaching into myth and legend is of no avail.
Trump sold his soul to become president. Some might argue it was a fair trade. After all the Presidency of the United States is the most powerful office in the world. Others might argue that the devil got the short end of that deal. Still others might suggest this whole discussion is an exercise in silly superstition, for many people no longer believe in the devil. But one thing emerges with absolute clarity: The patriotism and oratory of Daniel Webster has been silenced and is unlikely to return and reanimate a moribund Republican party.
On closer analysis there is yet another, less encouraging conclusion. It is something that even Benét did not anticipate. What if Scratch is the one occupying the Oval Office? That would explain a lot, not the least of which being the quotidian and ubiquitous falsehoods. After all, one of Satan’s nicknames is “Father of lies.” Clearly Satan is real. And just as clearly he has taken up residence in Washington—whatever his specific address. His hand is detected behind nearly every White House tweet. How ironic that the devil is the one who has truly mastered the art of the deal! Fable has morphed into reality, and this time no one will defeat Scratch. For I’m afraid that not even an entire senate full of Daniel Websters would be sufficient. We should not be asking “Where is Daniel Webster?” The real question is—was it worth the soul of America?
“God bless America” has become the norm for ending presidential speeches and even most campaign speeches. In and of itself it is innocuous. But it is also a blatant attempt to manipulate the listeners, at least those who believe in God. President Nixon first used the expression to deflect attention from his criminal activities surrounding the Watergate scandal. President Reagan used it to inflame the passions of patriotism. And now, in spite of the fact that it has become commonplace, it serves to suggest that every word in the speech that preceded it must be true because the speaker believes in “God and Country.” But there is a problem. Maybe the expression is not so innocuous after all, for it creates and then plays into a myopic vision of the world.
If there is one word that encapsulates this past election it is xenophobia—in its broadest sense. Not just fear of foreigners, but fear of anyone and anything that is different. Fear of people who are different whether because of their place of origin, the language they speak, the color of their skin, their sex or sexual orientation, their faith, their political beliefs. This broad definition of xenophobia also encompasses fear of international trade, of political and cultural exchange, even of scientific knowledge. In this kind of fear and uncertainty it is much more difficult to determine who are we as a people. Everything seems to have become unfamiliar and threatening. So we define ourselves by our past.
I am not convinced that the values of the right and the left are all that different. What I am convinced of is that we fear each other. But there is a solution. Getting to know an individual or group of people who are different from us; placing them and ourselves on the same plane; accepting them as equals; this is how we eliminate fear. By way of example, the reason that same sex marriage is so acceptable to most younger Americans is that they have grown up with friends who are gay, lesbian, bi and, more recently, transgendered. But when we ghettoize our existence, when we wall each other out—or in—we feed fear. And in that world of fear, who we are as a people becomes less attractive.
It is not surprising that the overarching xenophobia that drove the recent election centered around immigration. Immigrants are the ultimate other. They look, speak and worship differently than we do. And they come here to share (some would say take) our prosperity, our way of life. But this is the great conundrum for the Christian, and by extension for all other Americans.
Prior to WWII, most political and religious groups accepted that nations had an inherent right to limit immigration. After witnessing the devastation of the Nazis, and the Fascists and the threat posed by Communism, the Catholic Church made a profound move away from that right. This was partially influenced by the Church’s universality, and by its own immigrant experience, especially here in the United States. More importantly, though, the Catholic Church was evolving a body of social teaching that began in 1891 with Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical letter “Rerum Novarum.” In 1963 John XXIII declared in “Pacem in Terris” an absolute right to emigrate, and by 1967 Pope Paul VI made clear in “Populorum Progressio” that an individual’s right to emigrate supersedes a nation’s right to close its borders. Over the last fifty years, the Church has only reinforced its defense of the rights of immigrants to move where they will.
Although not popular with politicians or nativists, the Church’s teaching should surprise neither a believer nor a student of humanity. What country we are born into is purely an accident of birth. The land does not belong to us. We are its stewards, not its owners. For the believer all the earth belongs to God. For the non-believer it belongs to the whole of humanity. Immigration, along with globalization, must be seen as part of God’s plan for a universal humanity, one in which everyone partakes of and shares the world’s resources and where the few do not prosper at the expense of the many—not only within one country, but around the globe.
The Cold War that emerged at the end of WWII brought with it terms such as “Super Power” and “Leader of the free world”—words and ideas that became part of our daily lexicon. Whatever positive imagery arises from them, they also carry an unmistakable downside—dividing the world into us vs. them, and further deepening suspicion and fear. But we need not be restricted to the concepts that rise from those terms. Our imaginations remain unlimited and we possess the creativity to conceive the world any way we choose. The founding of the United Nations with its Declaration on Human Rights proves this. We have the ability. We seem to have lost the will.
I am glad to have been born in the United States and I appreciate my life here. But I do not believe in America first. America is a land of great opportunity, but it is not inherently better than other countries. We profoundly proclaimed our right to freedom and self-determination with words that have inspired people the world over: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The rights articulated here belong to ALL people, not just Americans.
Our Declaration of Independence and our Constitution have long been beacons to the world, enshrining the concepts of liberty and justice. But when we surrender to the grasp of xenophobia they are reduced to the status of dusty documents, illuminating neither us nor the world. We should not accept America first. We should only accept America together. To borrow the language of fictional Camelot, all countries should be seated at a round table where all are equal.
TRUMP TO PRIEST: “I Will Kill Myself!”
October 20, 2016
When my phone rang at 6:00 AM this morning, I had just stepped out of the shower. The screen indicated an unknown New York telephone number. I was about to push the reject button when curiosity won the day. And what a day!
“Good morning, Rev. Messenger. I hope I did not wake you. My name is Kellyanne Conway. Mr Trump would like to speak to you.”
It was way too early for a practical joke. Besides, I’m not a Trump supporter. Suspecting this was the work of one of my friends, I decided to play along.
“And why would he want to speak with me?”
“You’ll have to ask him,” she replied. That was my first indication that twisted truth was on the line. She answered media questions about Trump in just the same way.
“Very well,” I said. “I’ll speak with him.”
“Hello, Rev. Messenger, this is Donald Trump.”
“Good morning, Mr. Trump. What can I do for you?”
“I need someone to talk to,” he replied.
“Because you’re a priest and a good counselor.”
“Why would you say that? You don’t even know me.”
“As you know, I’m very well liked. And I have friends, many, many friends in Los Angeles. They tell me good things about you.”
“I have to be honest with you, Mr. Trump…” He interrupted.
“Call me Donald.”
I continued, “I’m a Hillary supporter.”
“That doesn’t matter. You’re a priest and I have a problem. Will you at least listen?”
This was a man I did not respect and I was tempted to decline. But he was right about the priest part. Listening to a soul in distress comes with the job. The voice I heard was desolate and full of anxiety. And I was intrigued. This did not sound like the Donald Trump I had seen at campaign rallies or read about in the papers. The Trump of the campaign trail would never admit to having problems.
“Go ahead,” I said.
“Look. I never wanted to be president. I started this as a way to help Hillary. I’ve known her a long time. She’s a good person. Hillary and Bill were even at my third wedding. They both said very nice things about me.”
“You haven’t been saying very good things about her lately,” I prodded.
“That’s because she’s started saying mean things about me. At first I liked her. I started my campaign to force the other Republicans out, because I’m a winner. That’s what I do. I win. I thought low energy JEB would survive and then I could find an escape. But that fool quit and I couldn’t stop winning. All those other guys, and I include Carly Fiorina in that, they all turned out to be losers. Now I’m stuck.”
“You might not win, Mr. Trump. Hillary is way up in the polls. And that Access Hollywood tape only made matters worse.”
“I have a secret. I leaked that tape.”
I did not know where this conversation was going, but I did not believe him. I asked, “Why?”
“I was looking for a way out. I couldn’t quit. I’ve never done that in my life. That’s why I didn’t respond to the tape until my family forced me to. I thought maybe the useless Republican leadership would get rid of me. I could live with that. But they proved what I’ve been saying about them all along, especially Paul Ryan. He is disloyal and incompetent. They never wanted me.”
After years as a priest, I bought into the “nothing new under the sun” idea. This conversation changed that. What Trump told me on the phone was as bizarre as his candidacy itself. I tired to be reasonable.
“Mr. Trump, there’s no shame in dropping out of the race. Tell people you changed your mind. Tell them it’s not what you thought. Being president is not what you really want after all. They’ll accept that. I’m sure some people will be disappointed. But those who see you as real, who know you speak your mind, they won’t have a problem.”
“Listen, Reverend. I need you to understand. I can’t quit. I have to think of my fans. I have many of them. Millions all over the country. No Republican ever won as many votes in the primaries as I did. They want me to stay in the race. But I also can’t lose.”
“I’m not an expert in politics, Mr. Trump, but if you stay in you will lose.”
“And if I do, I will kill myself.”
I wasn’t sure if he was serious, but then I was one of those people who did not take his candidacy seriously, either. So I cautiously asked, “What will you accomplish by suicide?”
“I’ll go out hugely. Just like I’ve lived. I’ve never lost before—at anything. I always found a way to win, even when I cheated on my previous wives. This will be my way out.”
“Why are you telling me this?”
“My life’s a mess right now. My daughter Tiffany thinks I’m a pig, Ivanka is tired of defending me and Melania is not even talking to me. Did you see her at the debate last night? She said if I lose the race she’ll leave me. Only my sons understand me. I raised them right. They’re just like me.”
“About that debate.”
“I know what you’re going to ask. You want to know why I won’t accept the results when Hillary wins. Because I won’t have to. I won’t be around to give a concession speech. That’s what I meant about keeping people in suspense.”
“But Mr. Trump…”
“Look, Reverend. I know I can’t win. Then, for the rest of my life I’d be known as a loser. That’s not who Donald Trump is. I built a great business with just a small loan from my father. It was all me. And I have properties all over world. Beautiful, massive properties worth billions of dollars. I won’t become a loser. I’ll kill myself if that happens.”
“I still don’t understand why you’re telling me this.”
“I already told you it’s because you are a priest. After I shoot myself you’ll know the reason and you can explain it to everyone. You can help people understand me. If I kill myself that is the only thing people will remember. They’ll forget about the weak Republican leadership, the rigged election. Maybe they’ll blame the media. But they’ll only say one thing about me—Donald Trump was huge. He even chose his own way out.”
I suddenly realized that I was dripping wet from my shower. I was standing with the towel in my hands and no telephone. Had I just been speaking with Donald Trump? Either my imagination had gone wild, or I was the victim of a cruel science fiction time warp.
If only the country could warp back to June 6, 2015. Maybe we could start over. Maybe Trump would not run. Maybe Donald Trump would not commit suicide on November 8, 2016. Maybe.
The misnomer of the common title has allowed generations of people to miss both the point and the challenge. The younger son is not the focus of the story. The father is. The younger son serves as a catalyst, his actions giving movement to the story. But Jesus does not present him as a model. In truth, when reading the parable we are probably all able to find ourselves at least partially reflected in both of the sons. In their own ways they are each self-centered. Greed and immaturity cause the younger son to demand an inheritance he is not yet entitled to; self-righteousness and jealousy flare in the older son who whines about never having been given his own party.
But the father. He is the one Jesus suggests we emulate. He is the character who is defined by love—a love that is displayed in forgiving his younger son and expressing tender compassion for his older son. So what? You may ask. The idea of forgiveness still comes through irrespective the name we give to the parable.
I suggest that the problem with the common title actually enhances the mistakes we make in our own lives, and should serve as warning when we examine the actions of others. As I noted, we probably all see ourselves occasionally reflected in the younger son. Who among us does not pursue self-centered goals and desires? Who among us, given the opportunity, would not use seed money from our parents to feed our debauchery? Those are mere human, adolescent foibles acted out in various scenarios simply indicating that we are not perfect. And when we come to our senses we ask pardon and promise to right ourselves.
If that were all, I might agree. But since most humans are not sociopaths or pathologically ill in multiple arenas of our psyches, we know when we have done wrong and we seek amends—or at least forgiveness. For many people that is what the prodigal son did.
No. He did not.
There is not one word in Luke’s telling of the parable that suggests the son expressed any sorrow or remorse for his actions. He returned to his father’s house the same self-centered little brat he was when he left. He returned because he wanted something. And it was not forgiveness. He had bankrupted himself through carousing and revelry. With no food and no money—and no one to give him anything—he returned to his father after carefully concocting a speech containing not a single suggestion of contrition. He was hungry. He was not sorry.
Oh, it’s true that the father did forgive him. But once we understand who the son really was—what he was really like—perhaps we will not so naïvely want to see ourselves in him. More importantly, we will be able to recognize when someone else is merely playing the game of the younger son. Enter the prodigal candidate.
Donald Trump went to Philadelphia and Detroit after having first traversed the continent denigrating, degrading, and demeaning the African-American community as a whole. Like the son in the parable there was no hint of contrition for anything that he said or did, no sorrow for fanning the flames of racial hatred and prejudice. Well, that should come as no surprise.
Last week Donald Trump went to Mexico after having launched his candidacy and spending the last year and a half belittling, berating and besmirching Mexican-Americans all around the country. He stood on a platform with the Mexican president and spoke not a word of contrition. He flat out lied.
Having spent months in a vituperate intemperance Donald Trump now comes before the Mexican-American and African-American communities playing the perfect prodigal son. Should we forgive him? Absolutely. After all, the father is our model in Jesus’s parable. At the same time, there is nothing in the story to suggest that the father was stupid. It is doubtful that he ever entrusted his son with another dime. So we should forgive Donald Trump—even if he is not remorseful—but we should not give him a vote and should never allow him to become president.