This is who we are

It was the Saturday before Pentecost. The evening vigil Mass had just let out, and I hung around the back of church. Sellers of fair-trade Latin American goods, mostly crosses and woven religious art, had set up tables. I scanned prices and listened to people talking around me.

One parishioner, conversing with a table staffer, related: “So then she said, all you people are cannibals.” My ears pricked up.

Apparently, the parishioner had been traveling in Latin America when he encountered a Protestant fundamentalist, whether convert or missionary I wasn’t sure. A heated discussion ensued. “Cannibalism” was the fundamentalist’s term for the Catholic Eucharist.

I smiled. My family and I had been here before.

My mom grew up on a street where one side was a solid Polish enclave. That was her side. The other side, and the rest of the neighborhood, consisted of what my grandparents somewhat dismissively called the Americanski, the Americans.

In Mom’s retelling, the Americanski kids simply did not get the Polski kids. The Americanski asked her why she wasn’t Christian. She asked why they thought that. Well, the Americanski responded, you Catholics don’t pray to God: you pray to statues. Mom had that argument enough times to still be smarting over it decades later.

I had that argument once, too. Almost. I was on a field trip in eighth grade. Two kids in the next school bus seat abruptly turned around and confronted me. “Are you Catholic,” one of them loudly demanded to know, “or are you Christian?”

I punted. “Catholics are Christian.”

One kid turned to the other: “See, didn’t I tell you?” They began arguing about whether it could be true. Happily ignored, I stared out the window.

More recently, just a few months ago, I noticed that whenever I got on or off my train in the Chicago Loop, there were typically several people outside the station, promoting a rack of free books and chatting with commuters. The tracts were entitled “What Does the Bible Really Teach?” I waited until one time when nobody was around before snatching my copy.

According to the tract, one of the important things the Bible really taught was the signs of the End Times. There were drawings of specific trials and tribulations we would endure in the last days. I recall: one showed a man shouting at his wife. One showed a soldier at war. And one showed a smug-looking pope standing on a balcony.

I threw the book in the trash.

To my Protestant relatives and friends: I very much understand that in the year 2013, such encounters are outliers, brushes with the fringe. Also, I am actually thankful for experiences of religious friction. You learn who you really are. You speak your own name. Once you start doing that, nobody takes it away.

Nobody takes it away. Even when, in a somewhat eye-popping about-face, the main people telling me who I am not are overwhelmingly Catholics themselves.

When I read online articles about Catholic issues, I regularly find people in the comment sections hissing that we progressives should just go become Episcopalians, a word spat out as though it were an obvious corollary of gambling, drinking, and debauchery. We are ordered to leave the holy, easily-irritated remnant in peace.

Some bishops openly agree, though their phrasing is more subdued. Bishop Thomas J. Paprocki of Springfield, Illinois, recently joined LGBT advocate Sr. Jeannine Gramick, SL, in Phoenix to speak about gay marriage. According to an NCR article by Michael Clancy, Paprocki darn near personally suggested to a young woman that if she disagreed with him, it was time to go:

One of the youngest people in the room said she was a devout Catholic, but when her aunt and sister told her they were gay, she was put on the spot. She asked Paprocki if she could remain a good Catholic and still support her family members in their desires to form lifelong relationships.

“It is a struggle to be a good Catholic while supporting gay marriage,” the bishop said. “It strains your relationship with the church.”

He said those who oppose the church on the issue should become Protestants. “They do a lot of good things too,” he said.

But such noises, while initially jarring, soon sound about as sensible to me as “cannibalism” did. I’ve already been there, heard all that. So have we all. We’re grown-ups now, and the commands and definitions offered by the fundamentalist fringe, whether street-corner preachers or Catholic bishops, don’t faze us anymore. We know in our bones that, as Pope Benedict XV (r. 1914-22) put it, Christian is our first name and Catholic our surname. This is who we are. We claim it. We’re not leaving.

Complaining is holy

Sarah Kendzior, writer, anthropologist, social critic, recently published a piece at Al Jazeera English entitled “In defence of complaining.” In it, she critiques the inviolable American orthodoxy of positive thinking:

When the bubbles popped, and the jobs disappeared, and the debt soared, and the desperation hit, Americans were told to stay positive. Stop complaining – things will not be like this forever. Stop complaining – this is the way things have always been. Complainers suffer the cruel imperatives of optimism: lighten up, suck it up, chin up, buck up. In other words: shut up.

What really struck me was her introduction. It was a snapshot of one clergyman who happily galloped toward the new order:

In 2006, the Reverend Will Bowen launched a movement called A Complaint Free World. The goal of the movement was to get people to stop expressing “pain, grief, or discontent”.

The best way to stop expressing pain, grief or discontent was to buy purple bracelets from Bowen’s website. The bracelets serve as a sartorial censor for those compelled to discuss their problems. Every time you complain, you must switch the bracelet to the other wrist. If you go 21 consecutive days without complaining or switching the bracelets, you are rewarded with a Certificate of Happiness.

“Our words indicate our thoughts,” the certificate says. “Our thoughts create our world.”

Kendzior isn’t the first to call B.S. Acid-tongued author Barbara Ehrenreich, of Nickel and Dimed fame, exposed Bowen’s bracelet bonanza in her 2009 book Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America:

Within a few months [since mid-2006], his church had given out 4.5 million purple bracelets to people in over eighty countries. He envisions a complaint-free world and boasts that his bracelets have been distributed within schools, prisons, and homeless shelters. There is no word yet on how successful they have been in the latter two settings.

If Bowen’s method is extreme, his general idea is not. From what I’ve seen, avoiding “bitterness” and staying “tempered in one’s speech” is a powerful American Christian motif. It’s more Protestant than Catholic, more megachurch than mainline, and more suburban than urban or rural, but still bizarrely unavoidable.

To all this, I say: no. Complaint is sacred, holy, Christian. Complaint is the moral core of our tradition.

The enslaved Israelites in Egypt “groaned and cried out” to God. Because of this, God “was mindful of his covenant” and “saw the Israelites and knew” (Exodus 2:23-25). The prophets were full-blooded complainers, whom kings and subjects alike mocked for their “negativity.” In Jeremiah, “terror on every side!” (20:10) was a dismissive nickname, like “Mr. Doomsday” or “Chicken Little.” But ruthless truth-tellers like Jeremiah and Amos survive in our canon, not their mealymouthed counterparts from the royal court.

Jesus was a razor-tongued critic, comparing hypocritical leaders to whitewashed tombs full of rot. The psalmists did not “stay positive”: they wondered why God had abandoned them, why God made them a reproach in the eyes of their friends. Job, the inexplicably-afflicted just one, lamented until God had to answer, even if God’s answer was enigmatic and lofty.

Complaint is truth, calling suffering and oppression by name. As Kendzior points out, complaint is not the opposite of action: it is the indispensable beginning of action, because you cannot change what has no name, and people ashamed of their burdens don’t name them. Complaint is a way for otherwise unnoticed persons, who have never claimed their dignity, to do so for the first time. Complaint exposes the lies that cast down the lowly, while establishing the powerful in their thrones. Complaint acknowledges that even in this life, people deserve to be somehow concretely united with Jesus’ Resurrection. Complaint courageously affirms a reality we try hard to evade, namely that God is not a wizard, prayer is not magic, and faith does not mean hitting the easy button. To remix a saying I’ve seen variously ascribed to Augustine and Desmond Tutu: without God, we can’t. But without us, without our confronting wrong as wrong, God won’t.

So complain. Do not stop naming injustice just because everyone–and at times it seems like everyone–decides you are too negative, too shrill, too depressed, too touchy, too jealous, too sensitive, too weird, too naive, too impatient, et cetera. If you annoy people today, annoy more people tomorrow. You have an unimpeachable heritage: Israelites, psalmists, Amos and Jeremiah, Job, Jesus Christ.

We don’t need your positive thinking. It is escapist, void, useless. We need your truth. We do not sing about a God who treasures the silence of the poor, a God who affirms the positive thinking of the poor. We sing: The Lord hears the cry of the poor; blessed be the Lord. Get up. Make noise. In this place. Today.