Volume > Issue > Briefly: November 1992

November 1992

Unequal Justice?

By Robert Perske

Publisher: Abingdon

Pages: 122

Price: No price given

Review Author: Brett Webb-Mitchell

A tireless advocate for people with mental retardation, Robert Perske writes that his emphasis — in this book on disabled people caught in the criminal justice system — is “observation, pure and sim­ple.” Perske, a worried mes­senger, poignantly describes 21 cases of people with mental retardation enmeshed in the painfully obvious imperfections of our justice system. He hopes to awaken us to the travesty of a justice system that has allowed too many seeming­ly innocent people with mental retardation to be wrongly sen­tenced to die, in what amounts to a lethal lottery, and in fact to be “legally” executed.

What did Perske observe in these stories? In the 21 cases he reviews, the majority of those sentenced were poor African-American males who, with IQ scores around 70 or below, were also designated “mentally retarded.”

Why were so many people with mental retardation so easily given death sentences? On the one hand, many of them were willing and eager to please, and be accepted by, authority figures — e.g., the police. Some had little under­standing of the questions the police asked them, let alone of the Miranda rights, which they often freely waived in their desire to please. Moreover, pleasing authority figures often meant confessing to a crime they hadn’t committed. On the other hand, many officials in the legal system lack an under­standing of disabling mental retardation.

Perske makes it abun­dantly clear that a profound scandal exists, one that we have failed to address serious­ly. Yet what Perske needs to include to make his best case is a theological and philosophi­cal framework, to help us understand that this continuing scandal has profound moral implications. It cannot be dis­missed as merely a legal or “special education” issue.

The truest test of a peo­ple’s vision is how that people cares for the most vulnerable. Reading this book, we should be deeply concerned about our own society, one that quietly allows seemingly innocent people with retardation to be condemned to death.

Silent Lamp: The Thomas Merton Story

By William Shannon

Publisher: Crossroad

Pages: 304

Price: $22.95

Review Author: Thomas Del Prete

The Thomas Merton story has been told, recast, and re­told numerous times — some versions more informed and perceptive than others — since his tragic death in 1968. It is likely that the telling will con­tinue, particularly given the expected publication beginning in 1993 of journals restricted from public view until 25 years after his death.

Merton discovered a new way to live when he first vis­ited the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, a monastery in the Cistercian tradition, during Holy Week in 1941. Sheltered by their voluminous cowls and the silence of the Kentucky hills, the monks of Gethsemani represented for Merton a cen­ter of spiritual strength in stark contrast to the noisy and disso­lute world; they “tasted the marvelous joy of silence and solitude.” His subsequent entrance into the monastery meant for him enclosure “in the four walls of my new freedom.”

Merton’s life of silence re­sulted paradoxically in a more vocal presence in the world. Merton in a sense redefined the “walls” of his freedom and discovered a new and compas­sionate relationship with peo­ple in the wider world. Rela­tionship implied responsibility; Merton responded. By the mid-1960s he had brought his ever-deepening contemplative perspective to bear on war, violence, oppression, and racial injustice.

Merton was a rare spiritual “light” in a world that needs such illumination. William Shannon reflects much of that light in his new biography, Silent Lamp. The title is derived from the Chinese form of Mer­ton’s name, and was bestowed warmly on Merton by a Chi­nese philosopher. (There is some irony here, of course, considering that Merton was often far from silent; it is clear, however, that in some sense he spoke from silence; we can be glad he did.) As the general editor of Merton’s correspond­ence (three volumes have been published, five projected) and author of a previous book on Merton’s spirituality, Shannon brings a thoroughly informed perspective to his subject.

While he clearly admires Merton’s spiritual insight, Shannon does not ignore the complexity of his personality and life, nor the context of his times. Shannon’s overall in­tent, however, is to understand Merton in terms of what Mer­ton described as the most im­portant journey in life, “the in­terior journey.” Shannon describes his approach in accom­plishing this task as “reflective biography,” involving reflection on significant events and ex­periences in Merton’s life.

The result of Shannon’s effort is a sensitive, perceptive, and balanced portrait of Mer­ton. Shannon is particularly adept in tracking the broadening contemplative spiritual ex­perience — and the “dialectic between solitude and commu­nity” — which gave rise to Merton’s sense of responsibility and “mission” in the world outside the cloister, and which led to his fatal trip to Asia (he was electrocuted accidentally in Bangkok — on a rare “ex­ternal” journey — while at an intermonastic conference).

Shannon brings us to an understanding of the mature Merton as a profoundly and uncommonly free human be­ing. He doesn’t force the point or overdraw the portrait in this respect. He does not pretend to have definitive answers to all the questions about Merton’s life. Shannon’s reflective discourse may not sit well with everyone, though it is judi­ciously sparing, and for this reader lends an air of authen­ticity to the work; one gets the sense that Shannon, a priest, has traveled a good distance on the “interior journey” him­self. This aspect of the “per­sonality” of the book, together with the unique use of some as yet unpublished Merton writings, make Silent Lamp dis­tinctive among Merton biogra­phies to date.

After Christendom? How the Church Is to Behave If Free­dom, Justice, and a Christian Nation Are Bad Ideas

By Stan­ley Hauerwas

Publisher: Abingdon

Pages: 192

Price: $12.95

Review Author: Glenn N. Schram

Stanley Hauerwas, a Methodist moral theologian, thinks American Christians have sold out to society by adopting harmful notions about freedom of religion, justice, and the nature of the church.

Freedom of religion is not a bad thing in itself, Hauerwas says, but in America it has rendered Christians complacent about the surrounding society, resulting in a society increas­ingly empty at its core, both morally and spiritually. For freedom of religion we have paid the price of allowing our convictions to be relegated to the private sphere.

As for justice, Hauerwas thinks we have taken our con­cepts from the Enlightenment, rather than allowing them to be formed by our relationship to God. Besides, we are alto­gether too concerned with jus­tice; we ought to remember that “the first thing as Chris­tians we have to hold before any society is not justice but God.”

As for the church, Hauerwas complains that it has maintained its presence in society by being a community of care at the expense of being a community of discipline. He cites the inability of mainline Protestantism, and to some extent Catholicism, to maintain authority over important as­pects of church members’ be­havior, notably marriage and singleness.

As a result of all three problems, Hauerwas says, we are unable to “stand against” the forces of “the state” and “our social orders.”

Hauerwas’s criticisms are accurate enough as far as they go, but I wish he had been clearer about why and how we should challenge the powers that be. An entire civilization is winding down around us; but, despite the apocalyptic title of his book, Hauerwas tell us no more than that we should not try to prop up a tottering lib­eral order by embracing its ra­tionale, which is drawn from the Enlightenment and which he erroneously thinks to be the only justification possible.

He seems to be unaware that freedom of religion was espoused in the Anglo-Amer­ican world at a time of pro­found religious belief. Sectarian Protestants in 17th-century En­gland thought we should humbly tolerate one another’s beliefs because “another’s evi­dence is as dark to me as mine to him…till the Lord enlighten us both for discerning alike.”

Moreover, good arguments for liberal democracy have been made from a non-En­lightenment perspective by the neo-Thomist Catholics Jacques Maritain and Yves R. Simon and the neo-orthodox Protes­tant Reinhold Niebuhr. Could Hauerwas be unfamiliar with most of this literature?

Outside the church, Hau­erwas thinks, salvation is im­possible. This thesis is related to the fact that for him salva­tion has a large social dimen­sion. He is unclear about the precise nature of social salva­tion, although he plainly does not believe in the kind es­poused by gnostics in Eric Voegelin’s sense of the term. For, unlike modern gnostics, Hauerwas does not foresee a state of earthly bliss. Against liberation theology, he asserts: “The salvation promised in the good news is not a life free from suffering, free from servi­tude, but rather a life that freely suffers, that freely serves, because such suffering and service is the hallmark of the Kingdom established by Jesus.”

Wise though this statement is, I do not detect in Hauer­was’s discussion of salvation a sense that it includes going to heaven. My doubts about Hau­erwas are increased by what he says about the proper way to witness to the Christian faith. Worship and conducting oneself so as to embody the truth of the story of Jesus are permissible; trying to convert others is not. Attempts at con­version involve one in “ex­plicitly or implicitly underwrit­ing patterns of domination and violence antithetical to the Kingdom brought by Christ.” Here I think Hauerwas is overly influenced by the Span­ish conquistadors’ cruelty in trying to convert native Ameri­cans to Christianity — a matter on which he dwells at some length. If he took seriously Christ’s command, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mk. 16:15), Hauerwas would see that attempts at conversion may spring from a legitimate, even charitable, impulse. That the impulse may be perverted does not detract from its basic authenticity.

Finally, it must be said that this book is evidence of the much-discussed decline in the Protestant work ethic. It is plagued by many egregious grammatical errors and by the careless copying of quoted mat­ter; the author and publisher should have spent more time on editing.

The Difficult Saint: Bernard of Clairvaux and His Tradition

By Brian P. McGuire

Publisher: Cistercian Publications

Pages: 317

Price: $13.95

Review Author: Aaron W. Godfrey

Bernard of Clairvaux is a difficult saint, and it was the title that attracted me to this fine and readable work, which has changed my thinking. I must confess I had a rather deep prejudice against the saint because of his persecution of Abelard and his preaching of the Second Crusade, behav­ior which seemed inconsistent with current norms of sanctity.

The 900th anniversary of St. Bernard’s birth, celebrated in 1990, surely renewed inter­est in his life and work. Near Florence a large exhibit, “St. Bernard of Clairvaux in Italian Art,” showed about 50 works of art depicting the life and legends of the saint, including some of the subtopics covered by McGuire’s study. Scholars, too, have been focusing new attention on St. Bernard and have retranslated his works, making them more accessible to the general reader.

The Difficult Saint is not so much an organized biography as a series of studies on sev­eral facets of Bernard’s life and on ambiguous aspects of me­dieval monasticism. It is clear that Bernard was among the most dynamic and important people of his time. He was the real force behind the rapid growth of the Cistercian order, and made Clairvaux the most important European monastic foundation for at least two centuries. His theological works, hymns, and letters are a substantial body of work that have earned him the title of “Doctor of the Church.”

His influence was strong throughout Western Christen­dom, even in what Europeans considered the more remote areas, Ireland and Scandinavia. Before his death miraculous cures and appearances were widely reported, and after his death the folk legends grew to become part of the iconogra­phy that made Bernard one of the more venerated saints of the Middle Ages.

The Difficult Saint provides a historical context in which to judge Bernard’s actions and achievements. I learned most from the chapters on monastic friendship, which served as a corrective to the Freudian thinking of our age, with its assumption that all friendships have sexual overtones. Mc­Guire handles this topic well, exploring the monastic and Christian concepts of friend­ship which must be judged by classical and 12th-century stan­dards rather than those of our own time. By the former standards, friendship should make friends better and holier and bring them closer to God.

The Italian exhibition men­tioned earlier had paintings showing Bernard obtaining wisdom and nourishment from Mary’s milk and from the side of the crucified Jesus, concepts that seem strange by today’s iconographical standards. Mc­Guire explains this in terms of 12th-century lore and in terms that are understandable to 20th-century sensibilities.

The Difficult Saint begins to make St. Bernard understand­able and even attractive. Like “the fools who came to scoff,” I “remained to pray.”

Laughter and the Love of Friends: Reminiscences of the Distinguished English Priest and Philosopher Martin Cyril D'Arcy, S.J.

By William S. Abell

Publisher: Christian Classics

Pages: 203

Price: $15.95

Review Author:

Among his many dis­tinctions, Fr. Martin D’Arcy (1888-1976) was Master of Campion Hall, Oxford, and the (Roman) Catholic representa­tive for the BBC. William S. Abell, in his Foreword, lists many of D’Arcy’s books, and states that “the consensus ap­pears to be that he was…not at his best in his writings…. They demonstrated no compelling style, were not often simple and clear…. They did not carry the charisma of the man him­self…. His books failed to do him justice.”

Curiously, D’Arcy’s Com­munism and Christianity is not listed. While not compelling in style or exactly simple, it cer­tainly is clear. But, more importantly, the book, pub­lished over 35 years ago, stands the test of time while so much of the rubbish published under the rubric of “Marxist-Christian dialogue” has found its way into the trash can of history. D’Arcy’s book was written a good decade before that dialogue — specifically, its attempt to fuse Marxism and Christianity — really got going. He anticipated many of its central theses, and accurately and carefully (for his was no cheap anti-Communist tirade) shot them down.

Well, if D’Arcy’s books don’t do him justice, what of these tape-recorded conversa­tions? Clearly, the D’Arcy-­Abell friendship was one of those rare things, but it’s not clear that the charisma of the priest is captured even here. Yet there are plenty of in­sights, plus engaging glimpses of numerous luminaries in D’Arcy’s circle (such as Belloc, Chesterton, Auden, Tolkien, and Eric Gilb~

Of Oxford D’Arcy ob­serves: “There was an aston­ishingly fine set of thinkers [there]. And they were men of the highest rectitude. They wouldn’t let you get away with anything except what was absolutely right and accurate. There was a…mental spring-cleaning to be had from talking with them.” How many can honestly say the same of even the best universities in the U.S. today, so full are they of the cant of the politically cor­rect and the consultantships of the entrepreneurially correct?

D’Arcy captures the es­sence of theological modern­ism, which dovetailed with philosophical pragmatism. “William James and the rest in many parts of the world said: ‘The truth is simply that which works. There is no such thing as a…conceptual truth….’ Modernism roughly came to this, saying: ‘It doesn’t make much difference about…Christ’s rising from the dead, or whether Christ actually died for man on the Cross; but the value lies in…providing a rich experience for man.'”

D’Arcy quotes the pro-modernist von Hugel, whom he knew, as saying of Pope Pius X, who crushed modern­ism, “That peasant Pope, he doesn’t understand.” Modern­ism has been reborn, and now we have an intellectual Pope, so now we hear, “That Polish Pope, he doesn’t understand.” What motivates these facile put-downs?

There’s a wonderful nug­get regarding a public debate where D’Arcy found himself up against Bertrand Russell. As D’Arcy tells it: “He’d been passionately attacking white treatment of colored peoples…. So my point…was that I didn’t know why Bertrand Russell felt so strongly on this matter be­cause, on his own assump­tions, on his own philosophy, whatever happened to be his own private feelings,, he didn’t know whether anybody else had got private feelings; and if they did, those feelings were no concern of his; and therefore I couldn’t make out why he wanted to come and tell us what our private feelings should be, because it only amounted to what we privately felt. Of course, he had no answer to that.”

For anyone interested in the Oxford milieu and a gold­en era of English Catholicism, this book is a treat.

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