By John Rieping | All rights reserved | Previously published 7/21/12 in The Madera Tribune
“A person’s a person, no matter how small!” So wrote children’s writer Theodor Geisel (1904-1991), better known as Dr. Seuss. That sentence has swelled beyond its illustrated frame and become a celebrated cliche… er… quote.
But what is a person?
The question seems simple enough. After all, we are persons ourselves, and we can hear echoes of that personhood in those we meet. As U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart and fictional spy James Bond both famously said in 1964, “I know it when I see it.”
Admittedly, those two were talking about obscenity and gold.
I asked my dictionary to define a person and it replied: a single human being.
Surely we can do better than that. After all, would anyone argue that the television character Spock of “Star Trek” wasn’t a person because he was a half-alien Vulcan instead of fully human? If angels exist, are they not persons? Jinn? Hobbits? Our fantasies, mythologies, and religions abound in non-human persons.
History, in turn, shows us many alleged human non-persons. In the United States alone, some humans have been considered only a partial person at best in the eyes of the law because of their race or physical characteristics. Others have been stereotyped as beastly merely because of ethnicity.
So apparently those are a few ways to define a person… badly.
Video games, sports, schools, fashion, etc. may also sum up a person by statistics. Height? Weight? Runs batted in? Grade point average? Awards? Who you are is what you’ve done and how you measure up.
We ourselves imply this standard even to those we love. How many times do we ask children “what would you like to be when you grow up?” As if the job one does later in life is what we become as a person.
In fairness, we do this to ourselves too. Ask me what I do and I may say “I am a writer.” Yet writing is an action I do. Take away my computer, and amputate my hands and tongue. I don’t cease to be a person.
“Ah,” you might say. “But even crippled and silenced your mind can still string together words into eloquent forms.”
Yes, but batter my frail brain enough and it may become wordless too. If my intellect is what makes me a person, I can be easily robbed of it.
So how do we define ourselves apart from what we can do?
There is ample evidence we should. If we did, perhaps unemployment might not have so harsh a reach beyond mere finances. According to the American Psychological Association, unemployment doubles the odds of depression, psychosomatic ills, poor self-esteem, and more. The hurt ripples out to families and communities as well.
So what else is there to define us? There’s certainly one way our culture often decides who is worth our attention that doesn’t necessarily depend on what we do: beauty or sex appeal.
I once knew a young woman devoted to the singer Jeremy Camp. As she gushed about how wonderful he was, she mentioned that when he first began his Christian music career he looked scrawny and unimpressive, but he exercised regularly while touring and eventually became impressively muscular.
What was his music like back then, I asked.
The same, she said, but I didn’t really listen to him then.
Same voice. Different body.
Is that what defines our worth? Or is there a deeper definition?
Much to the chagrin of ardent skeptics and monotheists of other religions, Christians believe in a mystery they call the Trinity. We believe in one God yet three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Rather than quibble about what all that means directly, which is something even Christians consider sublime beyond human reason, let’s look at what it means for a Christian’s understanding of personhood.
How is personhood defined in the Trinity? By relationship. Christians believe the Spirit comes from the Father. Naturally the Son is son by his relationship to the Father, and the Father is father by relationship with the Son. And so on.
If that is so for Christianity’s God, than a Christian should define his personhood by relationships (child of God and parents, sibling, uncle, aunt, spouse, mother, and more). Regardless of divorce or estrangements, true bonds remain.
But what can this say about what kind of person we are? For that, see what we make of our relationships.
Ultimately, for Christians, a person is defined by love.
By John Rieping | All rights reserved | Previously published 7/14/12 in The Madera Tribune
I’m usually not a frequent letter writer or recipient, even as a newspaper columnist. But below are excerpts of an online conversation I had in January about religion. It has been rewritten for brevity, clarity, and to protect brain cells.
LP: “There may be a god. There may not. No one can be 100 percent certain either way. Live and let live I say!”
There’s a difference between being 100 percent certain and being convinced. Hint: the requirements are lower for being convinced.
LP: “Brainwashed from birth.”
I prefer a brain that has been washed to a dirty mind.
LP: “Ha ha. Good comeback! … But how do you know a lot about God? Does he speak to you? Or are you going on the word of an old book?”
Christianity, Judaism, and Islam believe humanity can know God because God chose to self-disclose. This self-disclosure to humanity is referred to as “public revelation” and is expressed, in part, in the books of the Bible. Admittedly Judaism doesn’t accept all of what Christians term the Bible, and Islam distrusts its reliability — depending instead on the Quran.
LP: “But God never spoke to me! I have never read the Bible!”
President Obama has never spoken to me personally either, but if I wish I can find out what he has said.
LP: “What about people who… have never been discovered by civilization? Are they going to hell because they don’t have access to the Bible?”
Opinions differ on that. My church, Catholicism, believes those who truly had no opportunity to learn about public revelation would not necessarily be damned. Some of the other Christian religions would disagree.
LP: “What kind of god would send someone to suffer for eternity in hell just for not worshiping him?”
To answer the question of why God would allow someone to go to hell for eternity, one must first grasp the concept of hell itself.
Hell is more than a place. It is also a state, and that state of being can be experienced even in one’s lifetime… Hell is a place and state of rejecting God and all that directly reflects God.
This rejection has many consequences, because God is a being with the fullness of the qualities of existence: all-beautiful, all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving, etc. To reject God is to, ultimately, embrace ugliness, weakness, ignorance, hate, and more. That is worse than any fire or torture.
Moreover when one turns away from the gift-giver, one also spurns the gifts.
LP: “My parents gave me life, but they don’t demand worship! I will go through life being nice to people but others can rape and murder as long as they repent to God afterwards. So I’m going to hell and they’re going to heaven. Where’s the justice there?”
Each human has the choice to accept God into one’s life because God has offered that option to us. We don’t deserve it. The happiness from appreciating God’s presence transcends what any human could “earn” in any way. Even in life, it is a great gift. Everyone sees God’s reflected presence in every experience of true beauty, love, and goodness. We all usually take it for granted. Its loss is hellish.
We can lament we have a choice to embrace or refuse God, but that would be like grieving that a stunningly attractive, intelligent, and good-hearted woman asked you out for a date. If one turns down that offer, who is to blame for having to return to a cold, empty, and solitary apartment afterwards?
LP: “What do I have to do to accept God into my life then? It all feels so one-sided when I pray.”
It comes down to daily choices. Despite what some may believe, it isn’t just a one-time decision. Every day of our life, one has to welcome God into one’s life.
How? The most basic way is prayer, which is a misunderstood term for communication (the word originally meant “to ask earnestly”). As with any relationship, communication is key, and yes, it should be two-way. We can listen to God by hearing what God self-revealed, especially in the person and words of Jesus.
Like in any relationship, we should try not to offend. It also helps to have friends who want God in their lives too, because they won’t be annoyed when you bring God with you.
Ultimately you need more guidance than I can give from afar, so seek humble teachers.
By John Rieping | All rights reserved | Previously published 7/07/12 in The Madera Tribune
“Who’s praying for me?” she asked us. When none of her fellow choristers responded, she persisted, “Who’s praying for me?”
Indeed, I had been, because I had a crush on her. Though we both attended the same high school, I never saw here there — only at church choir. I had decided that the least I could do for someone I thought I loved would be to pray for her.
No one answered her interrogation that Sunday afternoon but I. Proud yet confused, I responded evasively: “How do you know anyone is praying for you?”
“Because everything is going wrong,” she said angrily. “All of my plans keep messing up. Nothing is going right. I know someone is praying for me!”
A little bit of understanding entered my brain, but not too much. I was, after all, an infatuated teenage boy. The more beautiful a woman seems in my presence the less intelligent I become. So I admitted I had been explicitly praying for her each day of the past week.
“Stop it!” she ordered, repeating her lament and pressing me to surrender.
I meekly agreed, and felt happy that I had been noticed at all. I may have been “in love” with her, but my actions showed that — underneath my emotion — I didn’t really love her. I cared more for her momentary approval than her eternal soul.
Monica of North Africa (A.D. 332-387) had a far truer heart than mine.
In her childhood, she had been an alcoholic, secretly sneaking wine every chance she had in her well-to-do Christian family’s home in Tagaste, Numidia (modern-day Algeria). A rebuke by a slave awakened her to her problem and spurred her to change.
Her parents arranged her marriage to a hot-tempered pagan, Patricius, who was verbally abusive, committed adultery, and attacked Christianity. They had three children: Navigius, Augustine, and Perpetua. While Navigius and Perpetua imitated their mother’s virtue, the brightest child — Augustine — strayed far. His seduction by a waitress ultimately set him on a path devoted to sexual pleasure.
Patricius converted to Christianity when Augustine was 17, and died a year later. By then, Augustine studied in Carthage, hung out with playboys he called the “wreckers,” and had fathered a baby boy, Adeodatus. He abandoned Christianity for Manicheanism, which taught that all material things were evil and thus sin was unavoidable for most.
Monica prayed and wept.
Becoming a teacher of rhetoric, Augustine went to Rome and then Milan in search of wealth and recognition. Monica followed.
Augustine would not return to God until a year before her death. She had never stopped praying.
A week ago, Pope Benedict XVI officially lauded the “heroic virtues” of the first televangelist. Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen (1895-1979) won an Emmy award (“Most Outstanding Television Personality”) in 1952 for his prime time series “Life is Worth Living” (1952-1957). It would be watched by as many as 30 million viewers weekly. He had a similar TV show from 1961-1968 and a weekly radio show from 1928-1952.
Comedian Milton Berle explained his TV rival’s success, “He’s got better writers — Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John!”
Sheen also wrote 66 books on Christianity and two syndicated columns. He edited several magazines.
He was credited with bringing many to God, including U.S. Communist writer and Soviet espionage agent Louis Francis Budenz (1891-1972). According to Time magazine, 95 percent of those Sheen privately taught Christianity to were baptized. He provided such instruction to any who came.
A Long Island priest once told of his humbling visit with Sheen. Newly ordained, the priest asked the hospitalized archbishop, “I want to be a convert-making priest like you. I’ve already won 15 people to the faith. What is your advice?”
Sheen lifted himself up from his deathbed to look the priest in the eye: “The first thing to do is to stop counting.”
Throughout his years of priestly ministry, Sheen would spend a “Holy Hour” — 60 minutes of meditative worship of God — before preparing for and celebrating daily Mass. Only after Mass would he eat breakfast.
One might say God was Sheen’s most important meal of the day.
"Prayer opens possibilities,” Sheen said. “House plants cannot live without water; the flowers will give us their blossoms only if we give them water. Windows will let in light, if we clean them. Our hearts will let in God, if we purify them. Blessings come to those who put themselves in an environment of love.”
By John Rieping | All rights reserved | Previously published 6/30/12 in The Madera Tribune
You know you’re a Catholic when you’re tempted to genuflect when you cross the center aisle of a courtroom.
Several months ago I experienced the parallel world known as jury selection. The process tends to bore participants I think, and yet aspects of it can be fascinating. For several days, locals were gathered out of diverse routines of work to sit about, learn about the U.S. legal system, and present themselves for inspection.
Add video cameras and you’d have captured a surreal situation suitable for reality television — so long as you threw away most of the footage.
A hint of that could be seen in the Supreme Court’s decision Thursday morning upholding the constitutionality of two key parts from President Barack Obama’s health care law. That ruling, led by Chief Justice John Roberts Jr., resembled ancient King Solomon’s judgment when faced with two women who claimed to be mothers of the same baby: if you can’t share, slice it in two.
Solomon’s decision forced the real mother to abandon her claims to the baby rather than see her beloved child die. The impostor only gloated. Ultimately the child lived — returned to to its true mother. Similarly, the compromise hammered out by Roberts saved the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act but exposed it, both as a tax and to more challenges in the future.
In short, this baby belongs to who truly wants it more.
The case could have been resolved much differently. If a partisan Supreme Court had called the health law unconstitutional, a showdown between the Supreme Court and the other two branches of government, the lawmakers and the presidency, may have ultimately weakened the court’s authority in the future. Such a political power play would have hurt our nation’s attempt to divide and balance power between the three branches of government.
The more power is centralized and unrestricted, the more tempting and possible it is to abuse.
Some may insist the United States has already somewhat moved down that road by placing more and more power in the presidency in the past century and a half. But there may still be wisdom in Roberts’ approach, which actually limited the power of congress and the presidency.
In the court’s majority opinion, Roberts wrote: “People, for reasons of their own, often fail to do things that would be good for them or good for society. Those failures… can readily have a substantial effect on interstate commerce. Under the Government’s logic, that authorizes Congress to use its commerce power to compel citizens to act as the Government would have them act. That is not the country the Framers of our Constitution envisioned… The Framers gave Congress the power to regulate commerce, not compel it.”
Expects to see other governmental actions, not just the Affordable Care Act, challenged in future lawsuits. The fun is just beginning.
So what of the controversial exemptionless mandate that requires employers to cover sterilization, contraception, and devices and drugs such as Plan B and Ulipristal (“Ella”) that can be used to induce abortion? That issue wasn’t the focus of the Supreme Court’s decision Thursday, and the door remains open for a First Amendment challenge.
“Even if the taxing power enables Congress to impose a tax on not obtaining health insurance, any tax must still comply with other requirements in the Constitution,” wrote Roberts in the majority opinion.
The 23 separate lawsuits against the Affordable Care Act by 56 different plaintiffs, an unprecedented number against a single law, will continue to move forward in the courts, and it is only a matter of time before the issue returns to the Supreme Court again.
Meanwhile, those concerned about the threat to religion and conscience have time to pray and work.
U.S. Catholics across the nation have been doing so since June 21, and will continue to July 4. The “Fortnight for Freedom” involves prayer, study, religious teaching, and public actions on religious liberty.
The campaign began the day before the memorial day of Thomas More (1477-1535), a close friend of King Henry VIII, a judge, and lord chancellor of England. When he steadfastly refused to place the desires of his king above his conscience and his duties to God, he was imprisoned in the Tower of London and later beheaded for treason.
Shortly before his death, he comforted his daughter: “Nothing can come but that that God wills. And I make me very sure that whatsoever that be, seem it never so bad in sight, it shall indeed be the best.”