The Limitations of Institutionalizing God’s Covenant with His People: A Reflection about Laws and Relationship

Mosaic of the Visit of Three Angels to Abraham,                                                   National Shrine of St. John Paul II, Washington D.C..

As a philosophy major, I realize that the practice of theologizing cannot be reduced simply to the rational condition of human kind. Obviously there has always been a spiritual search in rational man, however; this type of reduction limits our understanding of the historicity of man’s experiences that have led him to pursue this journey of faith. In other words, is it that man created this spiritual dimension of his community building (or civilization) or is there an experience that made him respond this way? I think this is a both/and situation, the rational mind (as also shown in new neurological discoveries) is designed for a spiritual dimension, however; it is developed and externalized through experience. I would like to focus on the Judeo-Christian experience of God and their response to this encounter.

Discovering in the foundations of this tradition as a personal and historical encounter of particular individuals with God orients our reflection on the current status of Catholicism and the struggles that our Jewish ancestors suffered to understand about this same covenant that was made to Abraham and fulfilled in the Christ event. In the story of Abraham, and the trans-historical moment of God’s encounter with him we learn about the covenant God makes with his people, a loving relationship with His people.

There is a series of laws proscribed to his people, these are articulations as presented in the Torah, that express God’s desire to safeguard the experience of communion with them and avoid the things that hinder this communion. In other words, laws, as understood here, are not metaphysical realities in themselves, rather; they are articulations of things that hinder the experience of communion with God—in order to safeguard the relationship.

For example, if I am in a loving relationship with my girlfriend, I can make laws in an effort to maintain our relationship: Don’t deceive me, Don’t dance with other men, Take time off for yourself, Don’t disrespect me etc. What I am saying with these “laws” is this: I want to safeguard my relationship with you, let’s establish some boundaries to protect it. I love you, I want you to love me too. I want you to be healthy and happy. I want to be in an exclusive relationship with you, and I wish that it would be mutual. Underlining this covenant, is love and freedom. (I won’t be tackling these two concepts here). Love on God’s part who gratuitously created the world and women and men out of love, and who desires a loving relationship with humankind. God respects man’s freedom so much that he waits for man to freely choose to respond to this love (which is by obeying the laws).

Returning to my example, my girlfriend should not have to wake up in the morning and look through the laws that I gave her and worry about not breaking them if she is focused on a loving relationship with me. If that is the focus, she will naturally follow the “laws,” the same applies to me, since the relationship is mutual. But the laws are just articulations of the relationship I want to safeguard, they aren’t actual rules in themselves, when I say don’t deceive me, I am thinking: in a loving relationship, there is honesty etc.

In the Christ event, Jesus enters a time where this original covenant has been institutionalized. Distortions and additions to the original relational covenant have been turned into religious practices and traditions intermingled with cultural ideologies. These additions aren’t problematic per se, the problem is the distorted focus; from faithfulness to the law out of love for God. It became a legal system with the goal of personal advantage. The trap of retributive justice provides selfish motivations to follow the law, with one’s own well-being as the focus. This is what Jesus comes to abolish and bring fulfillment to the original covenant God made with His people. It was a relational covenant between God and his people, it was a promise of everlasting love. Jesus is a continuation and fulfillment of this covenant and desire for relationship with us—just like the laws were, though in a limited manner. Jesus abolishes the additions and distortions of the Jewish tradition and re-centered the focus on the loving relationship with God, which is directly connected to our loving relationship with each other.

Fast-forwarding to the 21st Century, Vatican II was an inspiration from the Holy Spirit to re-focus our efforts on the relationship with God and others. The institutionalization of the sacraments, ritualization of our liturgies and formulations of doctrines are important in order to safeguard the relationship that Christ established with his disciples, and subsequently shared and passed down to us. However, the problem arises when we prioritize the institutionalized and formulated structures of our faith and lose sight of the living relationship we have with Christ. Christ’s testimony in the Gospel demonstrates that God’s covenant is a living journey with his people, it is not a stagnant moment in history that is frozen and reverently exhibited. God has demonstrated time and time again—God accompanies his people in history, in this sense God is trans-historical, he is not ahistorical.

I find that in the Church today, like our Jewish brothers and sisters in Jesus’ time, many have lost focus on the reason for our faith, the reason for our hope. It is not held in a written document, or found in a particular ritual or sign; it is a person: Jesus Christ. It is important to me to emphasize the personal and relational foundation of faith, otherwise it does become a stagnant and fossilized tradition that slowly but surely dies. I fear that many today, like our ancestors in faith long ago, hold to a similar retributive justice system inserting institutionalized sacraments, ritualized liturgies and practicing them for their own well-being. Instead of allowing the doctrine to illuminate our reason, liturgies to ignite our hearts and the sacraments to impel us in our love for God and others. The mistake occurs when we want hold onto the safety of human constructs and worry about our own well-being above our relationship with God.

I am not anti-institution, nor do I feel that the sacraments and Sacred Tradition hinder our relationship with God–no, that is not what this is about. This is about our tendency to lose focus and idolize these structures, prioritizing them to the authentic relationship, covenant, with God. Returning to the example of a dating relationship, if my girlfriend were to only worry about completing the guidelines I gave to her,  and she failed to worry about me as the reason for completing the guidelines, our relationship would die. Though she is making a tremendous effort to follow the guidelines–paradoxically established to safeguard our relationship. Rigidly following the law is sterile, dynamic faithfulness to God and upholding the boundaries of the laws is what keeps the relationship alive.

This is a concern for me because of the intense polarization that I encounter in many Catholic communities, many divisions are cultivated in many parishes. Many persons are rejected, slander is spread about members of the leadership of the Church–all in the name of “safeguarding” authentic faith. This seems to be mistaken, it does not seem to be the way to be faithful to God’s covenant. This is what I think Pope Francis has been inviting the Church during these years of his pontificate. He said recently:

“I fear those Christians who do not keep walking, but remain enclosed in their own little niche. It is better to go forward limping, and even at times to fall, while always trusting in the mercy of God than to be “museum Christians” who are afraid to change.” (6/23/17) Pope Francis-address to the 75th convention of Serra International

My purpose is to spark a conversation. What do you understand about the nature of laws? What are the laws that you bind yourself to in faith? What is the goal of following those laws? What is your priority, your salvation (the trap of retributive justice/ Eudemonism) or a meaningful relationship with God? What is the reason for your faith, for your hope?



Love of Neighbor: Immigrants, Refugees, and National Security


Photo Credit: The Newyoker

Being on summer vacation, and having being situated in Washington D.C. I have the opportunity to contemplate the reality that surrounds me and I reflect upon my resolve to make a congruent response to those who are placed on my path. I would like to reflect upon the current issues of immigration and national security in light of the executive orders of President Trump regarding refugees and immigration, and the current perspective of his administration regarding those that are most vulnerable in our society.

The recent actions and priorities that President Trump and his administration have made during these first few months of Presidency have been a sign of hope for many, however, I cannot help feeling troubled by the various decisions regarding our department of defense, and the insensitive and inhumane targeting of refugees and immigrants in this country.  I affirm President Trump’s efforts and faithfulness to the anti-abortion groups in the United States regarding federal defunding of abortion and abortion providing companies such as Planned Parenthood in the FY2018 Budget and his efforts with an executive order to prevent human trafficking.

These victories must be recognized, however, we cannot be indifferent to the needs of those who are neglected and rejected in our society, namely, the millions of immigrant families and the thousands of refugees that seek to escape their homelands for survival. Most reverend Joe S. Vásquez, Bishop of Austin and Chair of the USCCB committee on Migration issued a statement on March 6th which he stated,

Today, more than 65 million people around the world are forcibly displaced from their homes. Given this extraordinary level of suffering, the U.S. Catholic Bishops reaffirm their support for, and efforts to protect, all who flee persecution and violence, as just one part of the perennial and global work of the Church in defense of vulnerable persons.

As a Catholic, I cannot ignore the current events that are affecting our brothers and sisters in need. There are many people who continue repeating the phrase “Build the Wall” in support of President Trump’s policies. When I hear this expression, my mind is flooded with the faces of refugee children afraid and desperate, of the maimed man who crossed the border and now works 16 hours a day for his family, and the countless mothers who labor in the fields and factories to provide for their children. This slogan does not inspire patriotism in me, it inspires sadness for our fellow human family that struggles for survival and are stigmatized.

How did the image of a terrorist-immigrant fill the mind and hearts of so many Americans, so many Catholics? How is it that so many are unable to ground their political radicalism with the reality that 11 million immigrants and their families live and work peacefully side-by-side them every single day? Why are so many obsessed with protection from terrorists, that they are blinded by the injustices and violations against human dignity just south of our borders? This phrase doesn’t demand protection, it screams selfishness and indifference to those who suffer. It is like a moral thermometer that reveals where many American’s stand in solidarity with those who suffer outside and inside of our country. I cannot forget about those who are abandoned and rejected, such as refugees and immigrants.

According to a series of analyses completed by the American Immigration Council, the cumulative data continues to demonstrate that native-born citizens have a higher criminal rate and incarceration percentage than illegal immigrants living in the U.S. In addition to this, the research efforts of Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) indicate that immigration has been at its all-time low since the 70’s, and the most recent group of immigrants crossing the border are unaccompanied children seeking refuge, especially from Central America.

According to the 2016 National Drug Threat Summary issued by the U.S. Department of Justice and Drug Enforcement Administration, the majority of illegal drug smuggling occurs at legal ports of entry, not through barren deserts on the U.S.-Mexico border. Building a wall is a costly evasion dressed as a solution to the deeper humanitarian problem of migration. Many Americans are convinced that “building the wall” is going to fortify America’s national security, however, it seems that what Americans really desire is a “wall” that keeps them safe and comfortable from being exposed to the cruel reality that our neighbors endure just south of our borders. We should be shouting that we want to “Build hope!” or “Build Solidarity!” by creating a due process for immigrants and responding maturely to the humanitarian problem that is occurring in Latin America.

I understand why this phrase “Build the Wall” has gained so much popularity. It encourages an easy and comfortable resolution for a serious problem.  It is easy to generalize the profile “immigrant” and allow it to become the scapegoat for our fears and insecurities. However, it is time to stop hiding behind fears and obsession with National Security and embrace the facts that the immigrant is not the enemy, that we must reach out in solidarity to those who are in need with a helping hand.

In the winter of 2014 I had the opportunity of visiting Mexico City where I spoke with various members of an international organization called Dignidad y Solidaridad A.C. (Literally Dignity and Solidarity). There I learned truly horrifying stories about Central American immigrants’ journey to cross the southern Mexican border: women and children are raped and abused by authorities, they are separated from their loved ones, and unjustly incarcerated in many circumstances. These are the struggles before even approaching the US-Mexico border.

In the summer of 2015 I had the opportunity of working in the blueberry and blackberry fields of Northwestern Oregon. I visited a ca20151001_172748000_iOSmp where these workers live and I met a man from Puebla, Mexico. He lost his arm by a failed attempt to jump onto the infamous train known as la Bestia (the beast) and left four young children with his wife in Mexico. This man worked long and hard, alone, maimed, but with a driving passion to make money so that his children can have a better life than he did. It is this man’s face that I see flashed before my eyes when I hear the crowds chanting “Build the Wall.”

Testimonies like these help me to realize that “building the wall” is simply a superficial band-aid that attempts to cover an open wound in the mind and hearts of Americans. A wound caused by loss through terrorism, and pain by the struggles of our fellow neighbors who are desperately fighting to survive amid hostile environments and injustice. “Building the Wall” may cover the wound, but it will not heal it. “Building the wall” may appease our fear of terrorism, but it will not stop terrorism, nor will it solve the great efforts of those who leave everything to enter into the United States for refuge. At the end of the day we are still forced to face the gripping reality and respond; perhaps instead of building the wall we should place our efforts in addressing the root causes of the security problems we face.


Compassion and the FY2018 Budget

Photo Credit: Washington Examiner

On May 23rd, there was a Press Briefing for the Budget of the U.S. government for the new fiscal year. Director John Michael Mulvaney briefly articulated the various elements of the budget and answered questions about this new development from President Trump’s administration. Just like all of the past movements of this administration, there is plenty of noise in favor and against this budget plan with its major cuts for healthcare and education, especially toward programs that assist underprivileged citizens of the country, to the $52 billion increase for the Department of Defense.

During the briefing, Director Mick Mulvaney mentioned that he received questions about compassion on an off-camera briefing about the FY2018 budget the day before. This comment is very interesting because there is no mention of the word “compassion” in any of the questions posed to Director Mulvaney. However, there were many questions about the impact that the budget would have on many families in America regarding the healthcare, immigration, and education policy reforms. In the briefing on May 23rd, Director Mulvaney pre-emptively defended himself and the Trump administration and clarified that the budget plan is an act of compassion for tax-paying Americans. He stated:

I got a couple questions yesterday — I know I will today — about compassion.  Compassion needs to be on both sides of that equation.  Yes, you have to have compassion for folks who are receiving the federal funds, but also you have to have compassion for the folks who are paying it.  And that is one of the things that is new about this President’s budget.

Director Mulvaney reflected the perspective of the Trump administration in articulating the notion that there is a systemic hierarchy of who should receive financial support from the government. According to the contents of the FY2018 budget and the Press briefing, it is clear that the priority of support and aid is not placed on the need of those that are most vulnerable in the country under the rationale that these persons in the country are detrimental to the economic development of the country. Among those particularly targeted by the Trump administration are refugees and immigrants that are displaced from their homelands and seek new hope for their families in the United States. Those that are to receive support from the new budget are tax-paying citizens exclusively.

I don’t think there is a problem with a political agenda that seeks economic stability and creates a margin for tax dollar spending limiting it to those that pay taxes. My issue is with the introduction and use of the word “compassion” in this discussion. Compassion, as defined by our friends at Oxford, is “sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others.” Etymologically it literally means “to suffer with” (from the Latin: com “with/together,” and pati “to suffer”). If we are going to speak about compassion, it seems that the systemic hierarchy of where the governmental support is aimed must be to those who are the most vulnerable in the country, which in our current reality tends to be underprivileged families, refugees, and immigrant families. If compassion is going to be a criterion for the FY2018 budget, it is very difficult to justify the priority in the Department of Defense, and the cuts for vital education and healthcare policies.

Director Mulvaney later attempts to qualify his statement about compassion stating, “We’re no longer going to measure compassion by the number of programs or the number of people on those programs, but by the number of people we help get off of those programs.” This statement is closer to the meaning of compassion, however the documentation of the budget does not reflect this criterion as the goal of the budget reforms:

America’s immigration policy must serve our national interest. The Budget supports commonsense immigration standards that protect American workers, reduce burdens on taxpayers and public resources, and focus Federal funds on underserved and disadvantaged citizens. (15)

In this introduction to the Reform of the Immigration Policy in the FY2018 Budget document, the criterion is not compassion. The criterion is national interest, which can be debated on a purely political level. The problem is that the Trump Administration wants to introduce notions of compassion, as though the rationale behind this budget is concern for those who are in most need in the country. The United States Catholic Conference of Bishops issued a letter to Congress regarding the Federal Budget. They pointed out that:

Sharp increases in defense and immigration enforcement spending, coupled with simultaneous and severe reductions to non-defense discretionary spending, particularly to many domestic and international programs that assist the most vulnerable, would be profoundly troubling.  Such deep cuts would pose a threat to the security of our nation and world, and would harm people facing dire circumstances. When the impact of other potential legislative proposals, including health care and tax policies, are taken into account, the prospects for vulnerable people become even bleaker.

What is at stake is the long-term economic goals that the Trump administration envisions and is working at making the difficult decisions to safeguard the future of this country juxtaposed with the current needs of those suffering in our country that lack the basic needs to live with dignity. I think it is necessary to affirm the positive cuts to programs and reductions that may help in the long-term economic goals that the Trump administration has for the country, however, I believe it is also necessary to point out the flawed priorities that the Trump administration has revealed in the excessive spending for the DOD and the lack of compassion for those that are living in our country.