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While We Still Have Time

In spite of the grimness of the times in which we live, there is still hope. If you feel, like I do, that the usual discourse about matters of critical concern tends to be superficial, misguided, and false, then you might find some solace and inspiration here. I will try to offer insight and a holistic perspective on events and issues, and hopefully serve as a catalyst for raising the level of dialogue on this planet.

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Location: Madison, Wisconsin, United States

I was born in 1945, shortly before atom bombs were dropped on Japan. I served in the U.S. Army from 1968 to 1971. I earned master's degrees in Economics and Educational Psychology, and certificates in Web Page Design and as a Teacher of English as a Second Language. I followed an Indian guru for eight years, which immersed me in meditative practices and an attitude of reaching a higher level of being. A blog post listing the meditative practices I have pursued can be seen here.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Serendipity

Archbishop Desmond Tutu with the Dalai LamaLife is often serendipitous, where seemingly magical things happen to us as if from some otherworldly place. A good example was on October 4, when I read Juan Cole's Informed Comment. He wrote about the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul cancelling the appearance of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Archbishop Tutu was accused of comparing "Israel" to the Nazis, and this supposedly was the reason for the cancellation.

I read with surprise and the familar déjà vu, because St. Thomas is my Alma Mater, the place where I earned a Bachelor of Arts in Economics. I wasted no time in posting a comment to the story, sharing a bit of history of free speech at St. Thomas:

Comment
At 8:47 PM, John Hamilton said...

I graduated from the University of St. Thomas when it was the College of St. Thomas. In the spring of 1964 about 200 students got sick from the dormitory food, and a food riot erupted. Four students were expelled for posing in front of the stone school name monument with a sign that said "We've been poisoned." A picture of the students appeared on the front page of the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

St. Thomas, being a Catholic institution, has its own filtered version of free speech. The school's hierarchy, though they would not admit it, almost certainly views Archbishop Tutu as a heretic. Though Vatican II loosened the Church's view of other religion, there is still a pining for the old days of the "Holy Roman Empire." The current pope is a throwback to those days, rekindling the view that the only way to get to "Heaven" is through the Catholic Church.

St. Thomas has experienced exponential growth in the past few decades, and has caught itself in a bind. By adding curricula and expanding its enrollment beyond the strictly male Catholic population, the school has invited the inevitable conflict between open dialog and Church authoritarianism.

As this latest embarrassment plays out, I can't help looking back fondly at the hanging-in-effigy of the food service director in 1964. It was dissent unheard of at St. Thomas, and likely at any other Catholic institution of higher education. I was one of the poisoned students, and was sought out to lead the food riot, because I had vomited outside the dining hall. I declined, not believing the violent expelling of tainted food to be a qualification for leadership. I did attend the riot, and it was a riot to see priests in long dress-like black outfits running around trying to catch students. A great time was had by all - a bonfire, effigy burning, a makeshift folk group, lots of noise, and the truly classic chasing scene. Monty Python couldn't have done it better. It was the birth of free speech at St. Thomas. Now it is time for a rebirth.
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For those unfamiliar with Catholicism, Archbishop Tutu would be considered a heretic because he is an Episcopalian. This is the "Church of England," also known as the Anglican Communion. It is a breakaway church from Catholicism, and also can be referred to as a schism.

It turns out I had the year of the food riot wrong. It was 1965. My mistake became clear when I thought about another bishop, the former president of St. Thomas, James P. Shannon. He led the school for my first year and a half there, a kindly presence on campus, and was an inspiration wherever he went. He marched in Selma with Martin Luther King, was part of Vatican II, opposed the "Vietnam" "war," and supported birth control. By the time of the food riot he was gone from St. Thomas, busy with his new duties as a bishop.

Bishop Shannon was literally the fair-haired boy of "American" Catholicism. He had red hair, good looks, charisma, a PhD from Yale, and was an eloquent speaker. Talk flourished about him becoming the first "American" pope.

Reluctant Dissenter, the autobiography of Bishop James P. ShannonHe even was featured on the cover of Time magazine, on February 23, 1970, but it was not for rising in the Church hierarchy. Bishop Shannon resigned from his position because of his differences with the pope over birth control and his isolation from the other bishops because of his progressive views. He was banished to teach at a college in New Mexico. Not long after his banishment he stunned the hierarchy further by getting married. For this he was "excommunicated." He wrote a book about his journey of faith, Reluctant Dissenter, and founded the James P. Shannon Leadership Institute.

What is truly serendipitous about the current situation is the compare and contrast of Bishop Shannon, Archbishop Tutu, and the current president of St. Thomas, the Reverend Dennis Dease. On the one hand, a former president of St. Thomas marched with Martin Luther King and resigned over principle, a world renowned scheduled speaker is disinvited, and the current president is now famous, or infamous, for being the disinviter.

Pope Benedict XVIHow could he be so dumb, one might ask. I think the answer is easy. We've come a long way from the heady days of the civil rights movement and "liberalization" of the Catholic Church. A former member of Hitler Youth is now the pope. Departing drastically from the ecumenicism of Vatican II, he recently declared that Roman Catholicism is the only true religion.

Another sign of the retreat from expanded consciousness in Catholicism is the growing influence of an organization within the Church called Opus Dei. As groups within groups tend to be, Opus Dei takes Catholicism a step farther, advocating extreme practices and observances. It also has delved into the world of politics, supporting the likes of Generalissimo Francisco Franco, Benito Mussolini, and Augusto Pinochet. The organization's founder, Josemaría Escrivá, spoke fondly of Adolf Hitler. I suspect he wasn't the only member of Opus Dei who admired Hitler. They likely have some new heroes, such as a certain brain-damaged, drug and alcohol addicted, military deserting, war mongering sociopath who claims "God" tells him what to do.

Thanks to the Desmond Tutu fiasco my Alma Mater is becoming known to the world. Notorious might be a better term. Archbishop Tutu will still be speaking in St. Paul, just not at St. Thomas. It will be amusing to watch how things develop between now and then. I am hopeful. As is happening nationwide, the actions of "conservatives" among the various "Christian" leaders are coming under scrutiny. In the ebb and flow of life - the waxing and waning, high tide and low tide, yin and yang - change is on the way.

Writing this qualifies me as a heretic, I suppose. I don't consider "Catholicism" an organization that one needs to be a "member" of, or not a "member" of, so "excommunication" is in the mind of the beholder. I freely enter "Catholic" churches for weddings and funerals, and if blessings are offered, I accept them. One of the things I've always felt is so lame is that if one doesn't take "Communion," that means one is in a state of "mortal sin." Thusly one invites the disapproval of the community, and the stares of condemnation. "Look at the sinner! I wonder what he (or she) did!" Not wanting to look like a sinner, all one has to do is get in line.

I now feel a kinship with Galileo, Giordano Bruno, and the thousands of others who have run afoul of Church orthodoxy. To them I have one thing to say: I want to thank you for lettin' me be myself, again. Thanks go especially to the Great Spirit, the Supreme Being, Allah, Krishna, Shiva, the Buddha, Kwan Yin, and The Tao, that I was born in the Twentieth Century.
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Update: Reverend Dennis Dease, the president of St. Thomas, has reinvited Archbishop Tutu to speak at St. Thomas. Read about it here. This is a good result for everyone involved, not the least of whom is Dennis Dease. (In fairness to Father Dease, I must add that he denounced the appearance of "right wing" hatist Ann Coulter at St. Thomas in 2005.) Most of all, it is good for the University of St. Thomas, long a force for good in the state of Minnesota, nationally, and internationally. Eugene McCarthy was on the faculty before he became a senator. Many current and former legislators, judges, government officials, doctors, lawyers, coaches, and citizens of high esteem nationwide are graduates of St. Thomas. In my own graduating class a few names are worthy of mention: Tom Sheran, John Hottinger, Ed Ross, Jerry Steffen, Nick Lapentti, Richard Volinkaty, Rich Kallok, and Jim Dunn.
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Get down!

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