Saturday, November 30, 2013

"Works of Mercy"

Fritz Eichenberg is a man worth knowing about, so let me tell you a bit about him in case you are not familiar with him. Born in Cologne, Germany, in 1901, Eichenberg became an outstanding illustrator who worked mostly in wood engraving. He died 13 years ago today, on Nov. 30, 1990, in Rhode Island.
Eichenberg’s best-known works are concerned with religion, social justice and nonviolence. Some of those are collected in a nicely-done volume published by Orbis Books in 1992 under the title “Works of Mercy” (WM).
That impressive book includes meditations by Gandhi, Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton and others. Eichenberg’s comments focus on the meaning of Christ’s life—especially his message of peace and his compassion for the poor and downtrodden.
Many of the inspiring wood engravings reproduced in the book appeared at one time in “The Catholic Worker” (about which I wrote here back in May). Eichenberg met Dorothy Day at a Quaker conference in 1949 and was her friend and supporter from that time until her death in 1980.
A public critic of the Nazis after the rise of Adolf Hitler, Eichenberg emigrated to the U.S. in 1933. Following the unexpected death of his wife in 1937, he turned briefly to the practice of Zen Buddhism and then became a Quaker in 1940—and he remained a Quaker until his death 50 years later.
During his long and prolific career as a book illustrator, he especially drew for books with elements of great spiritual and emotional conflict or social satire. He is known especially for his illustrations of works by Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, and the Brontë sisters.
I recently purchased a used copy of the 1943 edition of “Jane Eyre” by Charlotte Brontë. There are numerous, and compelling, wood cut illustrations by Eichenberg in it, and I am looking forward to reading it before long, partly to enjoy Eichenberg’s pictures along the way.
But it is his religious illustrations that I appreciate most. His “Lord’s Supper” (1953; p. 85 in WM) is one of my favorites. I have seen it on the wall at the Catholic Worker house in Kansas City, and I have read that it hangs on the wall of almost every Catholic Worker house.

Another of my favorites is “Peaceable Kingdom” (1950; p. 99 of WM), based on Isaiah 11:6-8.

With the beginning of Advent begins tomorrow, let us join in praying that the vision of the prophet, captured so appealingly by Eichenberg, might become more and more a reality through the Prince of Peace, whose birth we celebrate in less than a month from now.
If, as is often said, a picture is worth a thousand words, Fritz Eichenberg spoke much, and elegantly, through his lifetime of outstanding works of art. I highly recommend “Works of Mercy” for your consideration.
(Eichenberg’s book, available at, might make a good Christmas present for someone you know. If you have a large budget, you can purchase original signed Fritz Eichenberg wood engravings at this site.)

Monday, November 25, 2013

What are Republicans Thinking?

This article is not about Republicans in general. Rather it is particularly about the Republicans in the U.S. Congress.
The record of these Republican Congresspersons over the last three years has been quite consistent: they have almost unanimously opposed nearly everything the President has proposed.
There has always been political division in the country, but perhaps there has never been as much polarity as there is now.
In the Senate, the Democrats became so frustrated last week that they even used the “nuclear option” and changed the rules for approving nominations for executive and judicial positions.
That was not necessarily a good thing. But neither is the ceaseless obstructionism that led to that extreme, and possibly unwise, decision.
In particular, I am raising the question about what are Republican lawmakers thinking in their ongoing, obdurate opposition to positions that the large majority of U.S. citizens, including Republicans, are for.
Consider four such issues: (1) legislation to outlaw hiring/firing discrimination against gays/lesbians, (2) immigration reform, (3) background checks for those who want to purchase guns, and (4) raising the minimum wage.
(1) On Nov. 7, the Senate passed the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) by a vote of 64-32. (One of the negative votes was by Republican Senator Blunt of Mo.) But at this point, Rep. Boehner has refused to bring the bill up for a vote in the Republican dominated House.
A recent Gallup poll found that nationwide ENDA is supported by 63% of the citizens nationwide, with only 31% opposing it. Even among Republicans, there were 58% in favor and only 36% in opposition.

(2) Back in June, the Senate passed an immigration bill by a 68-32. (The negative votes were all by Republicans, including Senator Blunt.)
But it has yet to be approved by the House, even though earlier this year a CNN poll showed that 84% of the public (78% of the Republicans) backs a program that would allow undocumented workers to stay in the United States and apply for citizenship if they have been in the country for several years, have a job, and pay back taxes.
(3) The tragic school shootings at Sandy Hook were nearly a year ago. There were outcries across the nation for more stringent gun control. In April the Senate bill to extend background checks received 54 votes—but was killed by a Republican filibuster.
A subsequent Gallup poll then indicated that 65% of Americans thought that Senate bill should have passed; only 29% thought it shouldn’t have.
(4) Back in March, Senator Harkin (D-IA) proposed the Fair Minimum Wage Act of 2013, calling for an increase from the current $7.25 to $10.10. This month after passing ENDA, the Senate began to consider Sen. Harkin’s bill along with other possibilities.
This month, a Gallup poll indicated that U.S. citizens favor raising the minimum wage to at least $9.00 by a margin of 76% to 22% (and 58% to 39% among Republicans). But the Senate has yet to come up with anything that they think will be able to clear an expected Republican filibuster.
So here are four hot issues with overwhelming public support for change but which are opposed by Republicans in Congress—which leads again to my question: What can they be thinking?
And how can they claim to be representing the citizens of the country when they keep opposing what a large majority of the citizens are for?
Of course another pertinent question is this: Why do people keep electing lawmakers who do not vote according to the desires of the majority of the American people?

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

"Between Heaven and Hell"

Few Americans fail to remember that November 22, 1963, was the date of the assassination of President Kennedy. And the public media has already widely publicized the upcoming 50th anniversary of that tragic event.
Some Christians will remember that Nov. 22, 1963, was also the day on which C.S. Lewis, the noted British author, passed away. And the cover story of this month’s “Christianity Today” magazine is about Lewis.
Fewer will remember that on that very same day, another noted writer died. That was Aldous Huxley, an Englishman best known as the author of the novel “Brave New World” (1932).
At the time of their deaths, Huxley was 69, Lewis a week shy of his 65th birthday, and Kennedy only 46.
Peter Kreeft has been a professor of philosophy at Boston College since 1965. He is the author of nearly 70 books, one of them being “Between Heaven and Hell: A Dialogue Somewhere beyond Death with John F. Kennedy, C.S. Lewis & Aldous Huxley” (1982; 2nd ed., 2008).
Kreeft (b. 1937) claims that the three most basic worldviews are what he calls Christian theism, Eastern pantheism, and modern Western humanism or secularism. And those three viewpoints were well represented, he thinks, by Lewis, Huxley, and Kennedy. So his book is about the confrontation of ideas springing from those three competing worldviews.
Since Kreeft is a Catholic, who interestingly enough became a convert to Catholicism when he was a student at Calvin College, he pictures the three men who died on 11/22/63 meeting for a lengthy discussion in Purgatory.
(It is a bit puzzling, though, to speak of Purgatory as “between Heaven and Hell,” for according to Catholic doctrine that is a place of purification for those bound for Heaven, not a way station for people headed to Hell.)
In reality, Kreeft may have “fudged” a little: I am not at all sure Kennedy’s Catholic faith was as shallow, nor Huxley’s pantheism as developed, as Kreeft implies. Huxley was probably more of an agnostic, a term coined by his grandfather Thomas Huxley in 1869.
Since he is a (rather conservative) Christian apologist, in his book Kreeft mainly presents “a defense of the central, unique claim of Christianity (that Jesus Christ is God incarnate) against both modern Western secular objections and ancient Eastern religious objections” (p. 139).
In fact, Kreeft’s book primarily uses ideas similar to Lewis’s to rebut the ideas of pantheism attributed to Huxley and the ideas of humanism/secularism attributed to Kennedy. As such, it is a good, and fitting, tribute to Lewis, well worth reading.
C. S. Lewis (11/29/1898 - 11/22/1963)
At the time of this 50th anniversary of Lewis’s death, you might also like to take time to listen to some of the only extant recording of his radio addresses in the early 1940s, which became part of his most famous book, “Mere Christianity.” (Here is the link.)
Or, perhaps some of you would like to take two minutes to watch to the video Celebrating 50 Years of C.S. Lewis’s Enduring Legacy.
So now the lingering memories of these three remain: Huxley, Kennedy, and Lewis, but the greatest of these is Lewis, for his influence had, and still has, eternal and not just temporal ramifications.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Words that Remade America

November 19, 1863. That was the date of the Gettysburg Address, the speech delivered by President Lincoln during the Civil War.
That remarkable speech was given at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, several months after the Union armies defeated those of the Confederacy at the bloody Battle of Gettysburg on July 1-3, 1863.

There were nearly 8,000 battle deaths during those three days of fighting in southern Pennsylvania, about 60% of them being Confederate soldiers led by General Robert E. Lee.
More than 27,000 combatants were wounded, with more than half being Union soldiers, commanded by General George G. Meade. What a horrible time in the history of this country!
At the end of the battle, those 8,000 human bodies were strewn across the ground around Gettysburg, a town of only 2,500 inhabitants. Because of the stinking decay of those bodies, most were just covered over with a thin cover of dirt—many to partly resurface later.
Something had to be done. That was the reason for making the National Cemetery and dedicating it on that Nov. 19 afternoon 150 years ago next Monday.
President Lincoln’s speech, which was fewer than 280 words long (less than half the length of this article), has been called “the words that remade America” in the subtitle of Garry Wills’s 1992 book “Lincoln at Gettysburg.”
As has often been pointed out, Lincoln’s main motive in the Civil War was not the freeing of the slaves, although he later embraced that purpose also. His main desire was to preserve the Union, forming a true union of all the people of all 35 states that existed at that time, including the 11 that seceded in 1861.
According to Wills, until the Civil war, “the United States” was invariably a plural noun, as in “the United States are a free government.” After Gettysburg, it became singular, as in “the United States is a free government” (p. 145).
Because of Lincoln’s address at Gettysburg, people in this country came to understand both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution in a new way. That is why Wills avers that the Lincoln’s short speech “remade America.”
What significance does the Gettysburg Address have for us in the U.S. today? For starters, the country needs to recognize anew the importance of the union and of all the people within the country.
Now, as in 1861 when the Civil War began, there are great economic tensions and polarity within the country. Just last year more than 125,000 Texans signed a petition saying they wanted to secede from the Union!
Historian Arthur Herman has written about the possibility of a second civil war in this country, beginning perhaps in 2014. In July 2012, Herman (b. 1956) wrote an article about this coming civil war between “the Makers” and “the Takers.” In other words, it would be class (economic) warfare.
Then, in January of this year, published a second article by Herman titled, “We’re now one step closer to America’s coming civil war.”
Let’s hope Herman is wrong and join together in the resolve to protect the basic human rights, dignity and equality of all people in this nation. Let us do so in order that, in Lincoln’s words, “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
To remake America now, we all need to heed Lincoln’s appeal at the close of his Second Inaugural Address as he called on the nation to act “with malice toward none, with charity toward all.”