My Zaccheus Epiphany has three strands. Together I consider the Ignatian Family Teach-In (IFTJ), the story of Zaccheus, and my encounter with the monuments of the national capital. The argument boils down into a confrontation between the cosmopolitan approach to change with the Gospel witness of Zaccheus' transformation. When I met a quintessential student at Georgetown, I seriously feared that the IFTJ would make no impact, that it would confirm his yearnings to work within the system (and God help us, even the Department of Death!) Finally, I count on the power of first-hand testimony to overcome our nation's "short-stature".
[Strand 1] Of late, I have quietly belittled myself unawares, even discounting myself from the diminimous role availed to all in our parlimentary democracy. Then I came to Washington DC to attend the Ignatian Family Teach-in, ambivalent about the opportunity to advocate for the close of the SOA/WHINSEC in situ. Yesterday I balked at the prospect of visiting my legislators. Poor planning is not so much the issue as my choices to carry fewer possessions and my increasing distaste for the accoutrements of fashion. Then again, I don’t have a business suit!
[Strand 2] What is my pettish embarrassment in the eyes of God? In the Mass this morning we read from Revelations that God would prefer a heart that runs hot or cold to a luke-warm heart (Rv 3:1-6, 14-22). The Gospel reading offered us an example of such a passionate heart in the story of Zaccheus (Lk 19: 1-10). The heart of Zaccheus burns white hot! He was overjoyed to see the arriving company of Jesus: to overcome the crowd and the limitation of his short stature, he climbed a tree! Then, when Jesus called to him he apparently becomes so moved to the way of Jesus that he rescinded half of his wealth and pledged to repay, four-fold, anyone whom he may have exploited.
[Strand 3] This weekend’s convention prepared over 1000 students of Jesuit schools for an advocacy day in the halls of their representatives. To witness them spurred to action was to view Zaccheus scaling the branches over my head.
Kim Bobo, director of the Eighth Day Center in Chicago, IL aroused her audience at the Ignatian Family Teach-In with a refrain from the letter of St. Paul to Timothy: “For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, love and self-discipline.” I want that spirit but….
I doubted. Students seemed interested about the issues, and in some cases, they came with an earnest desire to tell a story. But how would they be received? A sinking feeling had set in after reading a few commentaries predicting the delay of decisions on the new START treaty, for example, until the new members of Congress are sworn in. Indeed, the desultory news about the interregnum beggars grief for all the unfinished work. Former Senate Majority leader Trent Lott summed up the cowardice and procrastination of his colleagues: “The attitude now is…nah, we’ll do it later.”. This from his 34 years and experience of eight so-called ‘lame duck’ sessions. Today members will hammer out the new organization of leadership, and practically have no more than three weeks legislating before the change. The risk-averse will want to punt their responsibility into 2011, but a few may heed the evangelic students. Hope for undocumented students remains tenable in the form of the DREAM Act. Perhaps, pressed by the audacious witness of many students, especially those who caught courage this weekend to declare their undocumented status, those members may choose to vote their consciences!
When it came to suiting up and storming the congressional offices I deserted and instead walked about the capital accruing a memory for some hallowed sayings. Taken together, they offer a glimpse into the courage evinced by Zaccheus to boldly transform his life. First was the celebrated Gettysburg address of President Lincoln: “It is for us the living to be here dedicated to the unfinished work which they so nobly advanced. It is for us here to be dedicated to the great task remaining to us. That from these honored dead we take increased devotion to the cause which they gave the last full measure of devotion. That these dead shall not have died in vain; that this nation under God shall have a new birth in freedom; that Government of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish.” The president’s manifesto mainly spoke to me of the memory of the massacred and martyred of the Americas, and principally, the testimony of the prisoners of conscience to “cross the line.” Again, I felt moved to take up the great task of exhuming the dead, and burying the SOA/WHINSEC…to rededicate my soulforce to the Catholic Church as a bulwark of the oppressed against imperial militarization.
Next, the hallmark declaration of Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. To secure these rights Governments were created by men…” Thank God he wrote “happiness” rather than …the pursuit of property. And more impressive was how the land owning signatories vowed to sacrifice their capital: “For the support of this declaration, with firm belief in the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.” Not only would they swagger with words but they swore themselves in body, spirit, and like Zaccheus, in monies.
At the Holocaust Museum General Dwight David Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe was cited April 15, 1945: “The things I saw beggar description…The visual evidence and verbal testimony of starvation, cruelty and bestiality were so overwhelming…I made the visit deliberately to be in a position to give first-hand evidence if ever, in the future, a tendency develops to charge these allegations to propaganda.” Estimable was his willingness to immerse himself among the evil. His knowledge of men’s proclivity for denial of all things uncomfortable would require a staunch testimony. Like Zaccheus, he put himself in a position…
President Reagan was cited: “For those of us who went another way, we owe them this: to ensure that we give the dead posthumous meaning, to make sure that from now until the end of days all mankind stares this evil in the face…and only then can we be sure it will never arise again.” The president confirms that the only defense against evil is a perpetual vigil. Like Zaccheus, we must eschew the horizon of the crowd and rise higher to witness truth.
President Bush was cited February, 1991: “Here we will learn that each of us bears responsibility for our actions and failure to act. Here we will learn that we must intervene when we see evil. Here we will learn about that moral compass by which we navigate our lives and by which countries will navigate the future.” The president emphasizes the place of the viewer in the Museum, suggesting the essential importance for peacemakers to always scrutinize history. His metaphor of sea travel differs from that of Zaccheus scramble up a tree, yet in terms of “the compass” every course of a country is set by the conscience of its individual citizens. Therefore, when we conform to the model of Jesus, as Zaccheus did, the compass of our nation must also conform. Just as our conscience helps us to review our day, so the country needs us to review and recalibrate its lawful direction.
President Jefferson had earlier addressed the need for review: “I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions, but laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As this becomes more developed, more enlightened, and manners and opinions change, with changing circumstances institutions must also advance. We may as well require man to wear still the coat he wore which fitted him when a boy, as civilized societies to remain under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.” Tight fashions aside, ill-fitting regimes today straight-jacket emerging economies and age-old stigmas of the mentally ill only exacerbate the gap between the rich and poor of society. We need the mobility of Zaccheus to free ourselves from our “short-stature”, to let go of inhibiting core beliefs. The same was said by Peter Maurin “Out of the shell of the old…” and therefore, brave alternatives must break-open the space for individuals to practice authentic community.
All of these speeches give a word that rouses the weary. We need such words today when the zeal of students has retreated back to their homes and legislators vie for centricity. And these words require fulfillment! “God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, love, and self-discipline.”
Finally, we become Zaccheus every time we resolve to change. A man entertained his friends over coffee this morning with the story of a self-loathing woman who was routinely going out, getting drunk, and gaining weight. Then she said, I’m getting it together…she moved to New York…started exercising regularly…and lost fifty pounds. Her blog, Losing Weight in the City, led to a publisher’s book proposal. She would take pictures of the food she was eating…and that’s how it started.” Each of us can reform our lives, and even transform!
The risk-averse legislators of today and the aspirants who staff their offices would do well to pledge their whole being to the defense of our inalienable human dignity. When they stare evil in the face, when they make enlightened resolve for self-discipline, then they no longer will obfuscate the kin-dom of God.
In part, even my doubt about the procedure of Congress has a silver lining. After all, thanks to that Georgetown student's previous internship, members of Kairos could address a higher ranked staffer. Sigh, at least we do have the right to visit our representative…(my Zaccheus epiphany) this recognizes that some testimonies deserve hearing face to face. For instance, reconsidering the students from the Teach-In, one shellacked me with a story about her brother. He returned from the Iraq war with his soul annihilated. Oddly, he never saw active duty. The young woman said the family knew something was wrong when he laughed about the reason. His superior officer accosted him for pointing his gun at everyone, every citizen, and he had refused to act otherwise. She lamented that the brother who had once tended to a fallen owl and nursed it until Animal control came now was aggressive to everyone. He was racist! Her brother could only attribute the change to his training at the SOA/WHINSEC. Another student told me that this training consists in biting off bats’ heads. From nascent orinthologist to blood thirsty predator, his story of devolution is one I pray is heard in Congress.
Did the IFTJ make its mark on Georgetown? When I arrived, students had not heard of it. "Conferences come all the time" one said. Even the friend of ours spent his Saturday evening partying. He was at first unapologetic about wanting to take class with former president of Colombia, now honored by GU as "distinguished professor" Uribe. Then he came to Mass, and afterwards held vigil with the Adios Uribe! coalition as we remembered dead who were systematically dressed in combatant clothing to cloak their innocence. Name after name, soul after soul, I prayed for peace to permeate our friend...or rather, I tried. Jesus' example of loving the tax collector notwithstanding, I would just assume my liberation does not depend on his. But it does...and, dear friend, if you're reading this now--I rely on your hospitality!