Thursday, April 26, 2012


Have you ever read a book or an article with the attitude of the Pharisee in the Temple? “God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of men…” The book may have a pointed moral, but you look away, consciously refusing to see that it applies to you. Or maybe you are so blind that you do not even realize that the book is aimed at you. You recognize the truth of what the book says, and you can even think of people who could stand to learn a lesson from it, but you do not include yourself among them.

I must admit, this happened to me recently as I read Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s Jedermann, his adaptation of the medieval English play Everyman. Hofmannsthal’s version follows the original fairly closely, but one key change he made was to insert two scenes emphasizing the role of money in Jedermann’s life. In the first half of the play, Jedermann, a wealthy man, is met on the street by a poor man as he is being taken away to prison for failure to repay a debt to Jedermann. The debtor’s wife pleads with Jedermann to release her husband, and then berates him when he refuses to do so. Jedermann responds that the man who invented money was “wise and great” and has made every man “equal to a little god.” Jedermann is clearly the master in his relationship with the debtor, and it is his money that makes him the master.

Later in the play, though, after Death has summoned him, Jedermann is trying to muster companions for his journey to death when he is visited by the figure of Mammon. Jedermann sees him and says: “You’re mine, my property, my thing,” but Mammon replies, “Your own? Ha, don’t make me laugh.” (Bist mein, mein Eigentum, mein Sach. / Dein eigen, ha, daß ich nit lach.) Mammon then proceeds to belittle Jedermann for thinking he can take him with after death. Indeed, according to Hofmannsthal’s stage directions, Mammon towers over his putative owner. Jedermann objects, though, that he had Mammon at his command during his life. But Mammon knows better: “Yet I ruled in your soul.”

The moral could not be any more pointed. But I do not generally think of myself as wealthy, and Jedermann is depicted as a rich man. How, then, could this apply to me? As an American I like to think that I am just a regular middle-class guy. The real consideration, though, is not whether I am wealthy--I certainly am when compared to the vast majority of men in history. Rather, the key question is: How concerned am I with money? Do I let money define me and shape my life?

All this should sound trite and obvious to any Christian, but it bears repeating in the American culture because money flatters us in two important ways. First, money flatters us by feeding our envy. As long as we can point to a neighbor who has more money than we do, we forgive ourselves for thinking too much about money. Here in America we like to think of ourselves as part of the middle class; we know we have money, but there is someone richer. Poll after poll shows that few Americans describe themselves as either rich or poor, and that is why campaign speeches focus on the economic plight of the middle class. We imagine ourselves as leading modest lives, but we also always come to the conclusion that we are entitled to at least as much money as the next guy. Because of our envy we define our social standing in monetary terms. Mammon, no matter what, finds a way to gain power over our souls.

Second, money flatters us by making us think we are free. Money can represent so many things to so many people, or even to the same person on any given day. As Hofmannsthal stated elsewhere, though, money becomes an end in itself, even though it is really just a means to an end. Money is supposed to give us freedom to do what we want; we think we are free because we have more money and so we can buy more things with our money. And of course, as Americans we want to be a beacon of freedom in the world. Yet, when we tell ourselves that our wealth makes us free, we discover what Jedermann learned: Mammon is the real master.

Friday, April 13, 2012

The Church's View of Islam

My wife recently received one of those email forwards which suggested that Muslims are in league with liberals to destroy Christian America.  While one can easily parody a certain brand of right-wing Christian populism, the question of how Christians ought to regard Islam is one of considerable debate.  Into that discussion, allow me to interject the following from the Council Fathers at Vatican II.  In Nostra aetate, the Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, they write the following:

The Church regards with esteem also the Muslims. They adore the one God, living and subsisting in Himself; merciful and all- powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth, who has spoken to men; they take pains to submit wholeheartedly to even His inscrutable decrees, just as Abraham, with whom the faith of Islam takes pleasure in linking itself, submitted to God. Though they do not acknowledge Jesus as God, they revere Him as a prophet. They also honor Mary, His virgin Mother; at times they even call on her with devotion. In addition, they await the day of judgment when God will render their deserts to all those who have been raised up from the dead. Finally, they value the moral life and worship God especially through prayer, almsgiving and fasting.

Since in the course of centuries not a few quarrels and hostilities have arisen between Christians and Muslims, this sacred synod urges all to forget the past and to work sincerely for mutual understanding and to preserve as well as to promote together for the benefit of all mankind social justice and moral welfare, as well as peace and freedom.
In the same document, the Council Fathers reference the following letter of Pope St. Gregory VII (1073-1085):
Gregory . . . to Anazir, king of the province of Mauretania Sitifensis in Africa.

Your Highness sent to us within a year a request that we would ordain the priest Servandus as bishop according to the Christian order. This we have taken pains to do, as your request seemed proper and of good promise. You also sent gifts to us, released some Christian captives out of regard for St. Peter, chief of the Apostles, and affection for us, and promised to release others. This good action was inspired in your heart by God, the creator of all things, without whom we can neither do nor think any good thing. He who lighteth every man that cometh into the world enlightened your mind in this purpose. For Almighty God, who desires that all men shall be saved and that none shall perish, approves nothing more highly in us than this: that a man love his fellow man next to his God and do nothing to him which he would not that others should do to himself.

This affection we and you owe to each other in a more peculiar way than to people of other races because we worship and confess the same God though in diverse forms and daily praise and adore him as the creator and ruler of this world. For, in the words of the Apostle, "He is our peace who hath made both one."

This grace granted to you by God is admired and praised by many of the Roman nobility who have learned from us of your benevolence and high qualities. Two of these, Alberic and Cencius, intimate friends of ours brought up with us from early youth at the Roman court, earnestly desiring to enjoy your friendship and to serve your interests here, are sending their messengers to you to let you know how highly they regard your prudence and high character and how greatly they desire and are able to be of service to you.

In recommending these messengers to Your Highness, we beg you to show them, out of regard for us and in return for the loyalty of the men aforesaid, the same respect which we desire always to show toward you and all who belong to you. For God knows our true regard for you to his glory and how truly we desire your prosperity and honor, both in this life and in the life to come, and how earnestly we pray both with our lips and with our heart that God himself, after the long journey of this life, may lead you into the bosom of the most holy patriarch Abraham.
Both documents leave considerable wiggle room, both in terms of theory and practice.  Still, they declare two very important things: that "we worship and confess the same God though in diverse forms" and we are called to work together for the good of the world.

Today's image of St. George's Maronite cathedral and the Mohammad al-Amin mosque in Beirut comes courtesy of Wikipedia.