Tonight at sunset, the three-day Celtic New Year begins with the festival of Samhain, an old harvest ritual marking the end of summer. When you give out candy on Halloween to the children who come to your door, or take kids disguised as superheroes and fictional protagonists out to hit up the neighbors for candy, you are participating in a ritual that is more than a thousand years old. Trick or Treating in disguise is only a modern version of mumming and guising, where alms were distributed to those who came knocking at harvest time and yuletide. The result of the rare occurrence of plentiful food and alcohol marking the end of the reaping and gathering season, Samhain was a magical time where people shared food and visited each other to celebrate the cycles of fertility and death foretold by the coming of winter.
Halloween may owe some of its dual nature–a mix of fascination with the supernatural with charity towards others and a reverence for the dead–to Catholicism. In an attempt to replace Samhain with Christian holidays similarly focused on the care of souls, Pope Gregory III in the eighth century moved the feast of the martyrs to the beginning of November as All Saints Day; two hundred years later, All Souls’ Day was added as the day after All Saints’ Day. Lisa Morton notes in Trick or Treat: A History of Halloween that by 1493, partying on Halloween was an established custom in Britain, though both Henry VIII and Elizabeth I tried in vain to stop the practice of ringing church bells all night long on Allhallow Day for souls in purgatory. While the Church may have once hoped to transform Samhain into a Christian holiday, the convergence of “Halowen Daye,” All Saints Day, and All Souls Day had the opposite result, lodging Samhain securely within the religious calendar, and with it, preserving the old Irish and Scottish celebrations marked by feasting and drunken revelry.
Halloween also owes something to Guy Fawkes Day and the Catholic Gunpowder Plot to blow up Parliament. Bonfires celebrating the failure of the conspirators to kindle their 36 barrels of explosives beneath the House of Lords have been lit regularly in England since November 5, 1605. Morton tells us that even when the Puritans banned all holidays in 1647, they preserved Guy Fawkes Day, and Halloween in Britain merged with that holiday, which remains its most popular autumn celebration. Elsewhere, in Scotland, Ireland, and the Isle of Man, Halloween survived, and was brought to the New World by immigrants in the nineteenth century.
Día de los Muertos, the Day(s) of the Dead, is another holiday with similarly ancient roots celebrated in Mexico and many parts of the U.S. (and elsewhere) on November 1 and 2. It is thought that the Spanish who invaded Mexico encountered Aztec and Mayan autumn rituals honoring the dead and the cycle of life and rebirth and attempted to replace them with the Christian holidays of All Saints’ Day and All Souls Day. The result has been a Christian holiday that–like Halloween–retains many older practices of feasting and honoring the dead. Large Mexican American populations in the U.S. have spread the customs and popularity of Día de los Muertos, and some Americans have come to see it as another layer of Halloween. While some blending of the two holidays is probably inevitable, particular stress on the unique nature of the Day of the Dead has emerged this year in the media, emphasizing the specificity of this holiday to Mexican culture as a reverential celebration where relatives and neighbors who have died are remembered with altars of flowers and lit candles, and those who survive them also give thanks for their own blessed lives upon the earth.
Both Samhain and Día de los Muertos —and to a certain extent, old All Hallow’s Eve– recognize these festival days as a time when the barriers between the living and the dead are more fluid. This gives the holiday a supernatural air of mystery and magic. Old fortunetelling customs such as scrying, or looking into a mirror to see one’s future spouse, were practiced on Halloween even into the 20th century, and contemporary games such as bobbing for apples have their roots in older practices of divination associated with the holiday. The act of dressing up in costumes recognizes this old sense of fluid identity and even incorporation, as celebrants invite spirits from the other world to visit, communicate, and join in the festivities.
Today Halloween is mostly celebrated by children dressing in costumes and Trick or Treating for candy, but even this act of knocking on doors hearkens back to old communal customs. At this time of year, when night comes early, the fields are bare, and the wind blows cold, asking for alms, sharing food, and opening up one’s house to strangers are all ways of recognizing the deep bonds between rich and poor, prosperous and needy, fortunate and unlucky that link communities together. Pundits and politicians often like to talk about the need to share the giving spirit of Christmas during other months, but we might do even better adopting the virtues of old Halloween and Día de los Muertos–reverence for the dead, gratitude for one’s health and good fortune, and generosity towards others—all the year through.
Jaime Hovey is Associate Program Director for Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.
In 2013, Chicago artist Susan Aurinko visited a 12th century chateau in France’s Loire Valley that was once the temporary home of Joan of Arc. Aurinko returned again and again to photograph the actual places where Joan of Arc once lived or visited, using these layered images to explore Joan’s passion, from her inspired childhood to her military victories, brief political triumph, capture, suffering, and martyrdom. The photographic exhibit of Aurinko’s work at the Loyola Museum of Art in Chicago, “Searching for Jehanne: The Joan of Arc Project,” suggests the ways Joan lives on as a cultural and religious icon, preserved in sculpture, film, and popular memory. Many of the photographs in the exhibit are images of statues of Joan praying or striding triumphantly with her banner, superimposed on dark, churchlike interiors. Other photographs show wistful little girls with faraway eyes standing in the woods or next to rural outbuildings. Some images show teenaged young women in chainmail looking devout and vulnerable. These images float towards viewers with varying levels of immediacy, yet because all are housed in thick, dark, ornate frames, we are reminded of Joan’s distance and separation from us by time and constructed memory. Joan’s words, taken from her trial transcripts, accompany each photograph as a kind of narration or inner monologue.
These various photographic images of Joan—some as hard and remote as a marble statue, some as immediate and moving as a little child peering out through her own windblown hair—remind us that Joan is made and remade for us by religion, the state, and the media, but that we also make Joan what we need her to be. Here Joan is emotional, vulnerable, naïve, and devout, swept up inexorably by forces beyond her control that she cannot fully understand. Joan is also unswerving, courageous, and inspired, a person of frankness, conviction, and great integrity who survived not only the medieval battlefield but months of imprisonment, including physical hardship and deprivation, psychological torture, and probable sexual assault at the hands of military captors and religious tormentors.
Looking at these images inspired by Joan, their subject suspended so near, yet fixed at a distance by dark frames of culture and history, I am reminded of Vita Sackville-West’s Saint Joan of Arc, a biography written in the 1930s by one of England’s most prominent women writers, an admirer and self-confessed nonbeliever who eventually admits to new-found respect for miracles and the supernatural as a result of her research into Joan’s life. Like Aurinko’s photographs bringing us close to Joan yet insisting on our inability to really know her, Sackville-West’s biography alternates between feminizing Joan and marveling at the alien nature of her saintly masculinity. Sackville-West attributes Joan’s shrewdness to “feminine intuition,” and downplays the physical vigor that allowed Joan to spend nearly a week in armor without taking it off even to sleep. She dwells on Joan’s frequent tears: “She was, in fact, emotional, and wept copiously at every possible opportunity—as queer a mixture of feminine and masculine attributes as ever relentlessly assaulted the enemy and then must cry on seeing him hurt.” She notes that witnesses described Joan’s impatience as that of “a woman great with child,” and in her biography she sometimes calls Joan “a girl dressed up.” Such strategies are perhaps designed to bring Joan nearer to people who want their saints to be more “normal,” more intelligible as properly-gendered, tender-hearted beings.
At the same time, Sackville-West acknowledges the things about Joan that distance her from the ways many people still think young girls should feel and act. She finds it to be incontrovertible that Joan possessed the gift of prophecy; she also marvels, with nearly religious wonder, that Joan leapt 60 or 70 feet from a tower trying to escape her captors, yet emerged unharmed. She guesses that the Dauphin Charles must have found Joan an “alarming savior,” and imagines that because Joan “was not really a soldier at all; she was not even a man,” she must have had an “astonishing effect” on the troops.
Sackville-West is most impressed by Joan’s courage in leaving her childhood and her village to move beyond the familiar, and seems pleased that unlike many saints, Joan never used expressions like “my heavenly Spouse,” or “my Betrothed.” Sackville-West writes:
She is the least sentimental of saints, and the most practical . . . She is too heroic and bracing to appeal intimately to the average mind. She makes the mistake of being always something over life-size; something which, however much she may command admiration and respect, can never be loved in quite the same personal way as the more human saints.
I laughed when I first read this passage, in part because it is funny, but also because this sentiment about Joan is a common one. Joan remains a strange saint for many people. Despite the extraordinary record we possess of her actual words at her trial, she can seem oddly unknowable. Is this because she leaves her girlhood behind? Is her tender girlhood the thing we cling to as familiar and knowable, because her warrior’s ruthlessness seems too harsh? Sackville-West’s characterization of Joan’s heroically virtuous nature as a “mistake” is a humorous jab at conventional notions that it is more important for a woman to be loved than it is for her to do great things. As these words suggest, it is this ability to be loved that is so reassuring; a woman who does great things without being especially lovable is terrifying. When Sackville-West finally allows herself to imagine Joan as a warrior, she calls her “The Maid,” the title given her by the common people signifying Joan’s status as the figure of myth destined to deliver France from English occupation: “no soft saintly girl, but a stern and angry young captain with very definite ideas of her own,” and “that inexplicable character, the girl-boy captain—La Pucelle.”
Contemplating Joan’s martyrdom allows tenderness and pity to soften Sackville-West’s sense of Joan’s strangeness. Deeply moved by Joan’s death, Sackville-West notes that “many wept,” and notes the care for others Joan demonstrated in warning the priest holding a crucifix for her to get down off her burning pyre. As her biography nears its close, Sackville-West recounts the miracles surrounding Joan’s death without a trace of skepticism—the name of Jesus writ large in the flames, the English soldier who saw a white dove fly out of the fire and wing its way towards France, the executioner traumatically frightened by the refusal of Joan’s heart to burn.
Similarly, Susan Aurinko’s pictures at LUMA also suggest a figure we never quite know, yet who fascinates and moves us. The mystery of Joan’s nature, of virtuous courage at the intersection of human and divine, is the essence of Joan’s appeal, and this sense of mystery pervades these photographs and this installation.
The show runs through October 21, 2017 at the Loyola University Museum of Art, 820 North Michigan Avenue. Admission is free through November 11, 2017.
“I feel very fortunate to have listened to and engaged with such gifted people from so many places…”
“I’m having a great fascinating time and I’ve heard attendees from all perspectives/traditions express how appreciative they are of getting this opportunity to have a respectful interdisciplinary discussion on these topics.”
We feel the same, and grateful for the comments already coming our way from our fabulous participants.
Today’s sessions are Jennifer Frey on Happiness and Candace Vogler on Happiness and Social Life; follow along with our live-tweeting from @UChiVirtue.
Below is a sampling from yesterday’s sessions with Fr Stephen Brock on Aquinas and the Law and Dan McAdams on Generativity.
Wyatt Mason discusses how Leonard Cohen, Beck, Kendrick Lamar, and Tom Waits view creativity as connecting to something larger than the individual self. Mason recalls a striking moment in an interview with Cohen before his death, when a Japanese reporter asked Cohen about the line “Hineni, hineni, I’m ready my Lord,” from his recent release “You Want It Darker.” “I don’t really know the genesis, the origin,” Cohen began. “That ‘hineni,’ that declaration of readiness no matter what the outcome, that’s a part of everyone’s soul. We all are motivated by deep impulses and deep appetites to serve, even though we may not be able to locate that which we are willing to serve. So, this is just a part of my nature, and I think everybody else’s nature, to offer oneself at the critical moment when the emergency becomes articulate. It’s only when the emergency becomes articulate that we can locate that willingness to serve.”
Mason writes: “Hineni — הנני : ‘Here I am’ — is said by Moses, Abraham, and Isaiah when God appears to ask something of each of them. It’s a declaration not of location but of disposition, of willingness.” He views Cohen’s explanation as a beautiful tribute to the creative power of self-transcendence: “At critical moments, from our depths, out of an impulse not for glory, not for wealth, not for fame, not for power, but out of an appetite to serve — serve something larger than ourselves, however one might define it — the emergency inside us finally speaks.”
The article appears in the Style Magazine section, and Mason’s subjects are artfully photographed wearing Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren, Ermenegildo Zegna, Vince, AG, Joseph, Falke, Novesta, Sandro, Lanvin, Tod, Saint Laurent, Sunspel. Tom Waits wore his own clothes. Singer Kendrick Lamar speaks to Mason about feeling his audience connecting with music about being trapped by gang culture, and how one man explained to him: “‘I connect through your music not because I know about the gang culture; it’s the sense of wanting to be set free.’ Simple as that. He said, ‘That’s the message that you get across in this album. You’re dealing with that, but I’m dealing with drug abuse; you’re talking about the gang culture and you want to escape that and I want to escape my own self-afflictions and addictions. That’s where the connection comes from.’”
Mason quotes Beck speaking about a similar sense that songs can reveal transcendent connections that exist and have long existed between all of us: “I’ve wondered sometimes — since there isn’t really much record of music past the last few thousand years — if there is some deep memory of music, melodies in there that maybe somehow re-emerge or relate to something that we know already. There must be forgotten melodies.”
Tom Waits talks to Mason about the expression “We went out to the meadow,” as a way of illustrating the feeling musicians have when they have a self-transcendent experience making music. “‘It’s for those evenings that can only be described in that way: There were no walls, there were no music stands, there weren’t even any instruments. There was no ceiling, there was no floor, we all went out to the meadow. It describes a feeling. Usually someone will say it, but they’re probably reluctant to say it — you might be afraid that only you went out to the meadow last night. But it’s one of those things where you go as a group. It’s not like: ‘Last night was a really great show for me and it sucked for you.’ No. We all went out to the meadow. There’s something magical about it. And you can never plan on it.’”
Mason concludes with a meditation on his own sense of music connecting us through self-transcendence: “Although the expression wasn’t known to me, of course the feeling was, at least as a listener: that elemental feeling, a door swinging open in the self.”
This post was written after a visit to ArtAIDSAmerica Chicago, at the Alphawood Gallery, 2014 North Halsted Street, Chicago. The show runs through April 2, 2017.
It is hard to enter the space of the ArtAIDSAmerica Chicago exhibit without experiencing outrage. The massive human tragedy caused by years of governmental and mainstream social indifference toward a disease that wiped out an entire generation of young men here and abroad, as well as women and children, and that still rages on today, draws comparison to the callous use of soldiers as machine gun fodder by the decrepit British generals of the First World War, or the stubborn insistence by the Johnson and Nixon administrations that teenaged boys by the truckload be shipped off to die in Vietnam. In 1980, 31 people had died of what would later come to be known as Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. Ten years later, the death toll in the U.S. alone was 18,447, and continued to rise throughout the 1990s. People living with and dying of AIDS included all sorts of people–gay men, male and female IV needle users, straight and gay women, hemophiliacs, and children born to HIV-positive mothers. Still, the disease was perceived as particular to gay men, and as a result of the stigma associated with them, the U.S. government failed to respond quickly to the crisis.
Artists responded to the crisis by making overtly activist and political art. Many works in this show foreground issues of exclusion, stigma, and injustice. Entering the exhibit, one is immediately confronted by Nayland Black’s 1991 “Every 12 Minutes,” a clock on the wall with STOP IT! written in the middle, its face divided into 5 equal sections by the words “ONE AIDS DEATH.” The clock exhorts us to stop these deaths, but it also commands us to stop all the other behaviors contributing to the crisis, from spreading misinformation to having unsafe sex to stigmatizing people with the disease.
Turning from the clock, visitors can see a shimmering bluish beaded curtain by Felix Gonzalez-Torres, “Untitled” (Water), 1995, that stretches across a wide entryway, separating the entryway from the room beyond. Yet through the clear and bluish beads this next room is also gauzily visible, glowing and beckoning from beyond a veil.
In a small, adjacent room Native American symbols speak to both stigma and loss. David Wojnarowicz’s gelatin silver print “Untitled” (Buffalo), 1988-89 is a photograph of a diorama of the Native American hunting practice of herding buffalo off a cliff, suggesting the intentional killing of people with AIDS not only through indifference, but through active hostility and homophobia. Ronald Lockett’s “Facing Extinction,” 1994, made of chalk, metal, and wood, shows a ghostly buffalo, a recurring symbol for Lockett of hunted creatures. It stands on a too-solid three-dimensional cliff, gazing into our space as its body begins to disappear into the background. “More Time Expected,” 2002, by Sicangu Lakota artist Thomas Haukaas, shows figures riding singly and in pairs surrounding a riderless horse, symbolizing those felled by the disease.
“More Time Expected,” 2002. Thomas Haukaas. Photo by Jaime Hovey.
Part Gonzalez-Torres’s beaded glass curtain and enter a large open space with soaring ceilings. On one wall, a recreation of ACT-UP NY/Gran Fury’s 1987 video and neon installation “Let the Record Show” shines like a dark window, dominating the room. At the top a neon pink triangle glows steadily over white letters spelling out the famous ACT-UP logo, “Silence = Death.” The projection of an arched crescent and decorative columns around the outside of the logo gives it an architectural quality, like a temple or a church nave, beneath which long panels stretch down like stained-glass. Here photographs of six people from the Reagan era are superimposed on an old photograph of the Nuremburg Trials depicting Nazi war criminals seated in a courtroom guarded by Allied soldiers. An electronic panel with running titles in red shows AIDS statistics and epidemic facts. The superimposed photographs light up and go dark, alternately revealing the faces of Senator Jessie Helms, columnist William F. Buckley Jr., Cory Servaas of the Presidential AIDS Commission, an anonymous surgeon, and President Ronald Reagan. These are the war criminals of the AIDS crisis. Underneath each face is an offensive quote made by each one about disease victims, such as Buckley’s infamous assertion that people with AIDS should be “tattooed on the upper forearm, to protect common-needle users, and on the buttocks, to prevent the victimization of other homosexuals,” or the surgeon’s quip that AIDS provided a better reason to “hate faggots.” To underscore the work’s declaration that silence equals death, there is no quote from Reagan, who famously said nothing even as the worst health epidemic in centuries raged around him.
Other mixed-media and video works include a bank of screens with headphones and seating for projects such as T. Kim Trang Tran’s “kore,” 1994, which swoops in and away from grainy black and white moving images of Asian men relaxing at the beach or walking through cities, zooming out every so often to show these figures, distanced from us by time, being watched by other men and boys on hand-held screens and scrolls. The gaze created here suggests that cruising after AIDS cannot be dispassionate; the look of curiosity, appreciation, and desire for Asian men created in and by these images is now tinged with melancholy, memory, and loss.
Still from “kore,” 1994. T. Kim Trang Tran. Photo by Jaime Hovey
In what is thought to be the first AIDS painting, Izhar Patkin creates in his “Unveiling of a Modern Chastity” a surface of erupting skin lesions fashioned out of rubber paste, latex, and ink. Moved by the symptoms he saw in patients at his dermatology office, he documented their wounds a year before there was any public announcement about the disease or its victims. Here the sores break open the skin of the painting to ooze and glisten in the light, pushing through from underneath as if something monstrous is housed inside. The painting is shocking, but it also forces the viewer to confront the disease at the level of skin, pain, and the body.
The cumulative effect of these works is to move viewers from outrage at homophobic and indifferent responses to the epidemic to admiration at the courage and resilience of AIDS artists, activists, allies, and survivors. In these works we see creative, political, and deeply moral reactions to the absence of justice, to the withholding of compassion, and to the celebration of love in America at a time when huge numbers of people were suffering and dying.
Religious imagery shapes many of the works, speaking to the gulf between the moral response of the queer community–which involved projects such as public safe sex education and meals on wheels for the homebound–and the judgmental condemnation and indifference of government officials and mainstream religious groups, which shuttered bathhouses and gay clubs in a misguided effort to stop gay sex from happening. In “AIDS—JUDGMENT HAS COME, Slidell, Louisiana,” Ann P. Meredith documents a set of billboards she saw in Louisiana as she traveled to photograph women living with AIDS. Her print shows the harsh messages of the billboards as undercut by a graffiti tagger who writes “Love” and “Peace,” and slyly quotes from Romans 3:10, “There is none righteous, no, not one,” a verse that when it appears in the Bible is followed by the words, “There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God.”
Keith Haring’s gleaming silver “Altar Piece,” the last work he completed before he died, shows a weeping Mary with a shining heart and multiple arms holding the infant Jesus under a cross in the center panel of a triptych. Here the Trinity is reimagined to include her, and below her crowds raise their hands in anger and supplication as angels fly and fall.
Echoing the theme of Icarian angels, Daniel Goldstein’s “Icarian I Incline,” fashions a Shroud of Turin from the leather cover of a weight bench that once belonged to the Castro gym Muscle System, nicknamed Muscle Sisters by patrons. Stained with the sweat of a thousand gay men, many of whom have since died, the cover bears the ghostly image of their bodies, framed here as a relic memorializing the exuberant communities that flew too close to the sun, flourished before AIDS, and came together to support each other during and after the crisis.
Martin Wong’s 1988 “I.C.U.” shows an eye in a triangle floating over a brick building. Echoing the pink triangle in the nearby “Let the Record Show,” the eye above the building here resembles the eye on a dollar bill, but appears amidst constellations, like the eye of God. A pun on “I see you,” the letters are also the common abbreviation for Intensive Care Unit, the place in hospitals where so many gay men lay dying during the epidemic. In this work, most of the brick building is dark, and only the wing with fire escapes is lit and accessible. The eye of providence seems not to know or care about what is inside; in any case, here God is only potentially available upon exit.
This is not to suggest that the show is tragic; indeed, the entire exhibit is a triumph of creativity, defiance, and love. Artists pay tribute to the fallen in painting, video, textiles, and sculpture, remember those who were there, and call out those who refused to be present. Charles LeDrey’s teddy bear in a box from 1991 suggests both mourning and the end of innocence. In Rosalind Solomon’s gelatin silver print “Silence Equals Death, Washington, DC,” 1987-90, a young man covered in Kaposi’s sarcoma lesions confronts the camera wearing full protest regalia, including ACT-UP buttons, a straw hat, and a paper Star of David. Frank Moore’s “Patient,” 1997-1998, shows an empty hospital bed painted with leaves and snowflakes, where environmental devastation and AIDS are emergencies that require equally urgent care.
Kia LaBeija’s glossy technicolor photographs, such as “Eleven, October 2015,” and “Kia and Mommy” (below) document her dignity living with hospitals and doctor visits, and celebrate fashion and makeup as creative gestures that make everyday life beautiful.
The pieces gathered here span three-and-a-half decades and include work by people still living, as well as cataloging the talent of too many who died too soon. Their project is a deeply moral one: to remind viewers that sick people are human, that no one deserves to suffer, that death comes for all of us, and that the proper response to tragedy is always—must be—art, compassion, and action.
Jaime Hovey is Associate Program Director for Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.
This post marks the first of a new occasional series, “Last Week in Virtue.”
“But what is scandal? Scandal is saying one thing and doing another; it is a double life, a double life. A totally double life: ‘I am very Catholic, I always go to Mass, I belong to this association and that one; but my life is not Christian, I don’t pay my workers a just wage, I exploit people, I am dirty in my business, I launder money…’ A double life. And so many Christians are like this, and these people scandalize others. How many times have we heard – all of us, around the neighbourhood and elsewhere – ‘but to be a Catholic like that, it’s better to be an atheist.’ It is that, scandal. You destroy. You beat down. And this happens every day, it’s enough to see the news on TV, or to read the papers. In the papers there are so many scandals, and there is also the great publicity of the scandals. And with the scandals there is destruction.” –Pope Francis homily, February 23, 2017 (Link)
On February 23 Pope Francis gave a homily that received widespread media attention, not so much for its message—a fairly traditional one about the sin of hypocrisy—but because the media seized on the Pope’s assertion that even an atheist was better than an observant Catholic leading a “double,” or hypocritical, life. Daniel Burke’s headline, at CNN, promptly declared, “Pope suggests it’s better to be an atheist than a bad Christian.” Burke discussed the Pope’s idea of scandal, noting that scandal is a particularly sensitive word for the Catholic Church. But the headline to his article shows the Pope’s notion of scandal eclipsed here by what the news media saw as a shout out to virtuous atheists.
In emphasizing the atheism story, the media in many ways replicated the very sense of scandal that the Pope decried in his homily, with headlines repeating over and over that the Pope would rather have a world full of good atheists than vicious Catholics. Looking closely at the Pope’s words shows that his concern in this case is as much on the shame of the public spectacle of Catholic hypocrisy as it is on celebrating virtuous nonbelievers: “How many times have we heard—all of us, around the neighborhood and elsewhere—‘but to be a Catholic like that, it’s better to be an atheist.’”
The news clearly liked the second part of his sentence better than the first part, but the emphasis in his speech is not on the virtue of atheism, but the terrible destructiveness of the scandal of hypocrisy, and how this kind of publicity, this kind of circulation of these images of Christians as vile hypocrites, destroys trust and faith. “You destroy. You beat down.”
We all know whenever one of these stories about Christian hypocrisy circulates, he says, that everybody looks at it and says, Better to be an atheist than one of “those” hypocritical Christians. We all understand, he is saying, that hypocrisy is a terrible sin, and we all would agree that an atheist without hypocrisy is better than a so-called believer who claims to believe in Christian charity while acting in a way that harms and exploits vulnerable people. The stress here is on the harm caused by the hypocrite, and on the news stories that emphasize that these kinds of so-called Christians—powerful Catholics who pretend to have generosity while actually treating others with great cruelty– are everywhere.
In one sense, then, the Pope wants to remind the hypocrite to return to a virtuous life by pointing out that their salvation is anything but assured. He wants to confront the sinner squarely with the sin—the fault of scandal lies with the hypocrite, not the news. He expands on the dishonesty of hypocrisy to show that it also includes the destructiveness of bad example and public scandal. At the same time, he uses the example of the atheist to remind listeners that good actions matter more than identity. A virtuous life might make a good person—even an earnest atheist—more fit for salvation than a person who goes to church regularly but steals wages from their employees.
Why is this notion of the virtuous atheist so attractive?
The virtuous atheist here seems a lot like the old trope of the virtuous pagan, whose fate preoccupied medieval scholars concerned with the salvation of those outside the Church, especially the ancient Greek, Roman, and Jewish writers they admired. Traditionally virtuous pagans fell roughly into two categories: those who had been offered Christian salvation and turned it down, and those who never had the opportunity to convert because of factors like chronology or geography.  To medieval scholars, it seemed patently unfair that the eminent philosophers, poets, and Old Testament scholars and patriarchs they studied should be automatically damned. They dreamed up various solutions, such as Christ descending to hell to baptize good people who had somehow ended up there, Limbos that resembled Paradise where good pagans might be housed until the Last Judgment, and the idea, championed by Thomas Aquinas and others, that following a virtuous life might lead a good person—even an atheist—to faith and salvation.
It may be that some journalists mistakenly believed that the Pope was acknowledging that a good life and afterlife could be had completely and forever outside the Church, which he wasn’t. The virtuous pagan doesn’t get to remain outside the Church forever, but at some point is expected to be led by virtue to Catholic conversion. This belief was seen last week in Vatican news sources that stressed this aspect of the Pope’s homily, such as Vatican Radio’s “Pope: Don’t put off conversion, give up a double life.”
However, it is not a stretch to say the Pope remains more concerned with doing good in the world than he is with the particulars of Church affiliation. According to Catholic Online, Francis explained himself, “The Lord created us in His image and likeness, and we are the image of the Lord, and He does good and all of us have this commandment at heart, do good and do not do evil. All of us. ‘But, Father, this is not Catholic! He cannot do good.’ Yes, he can… “The Lord has redeemed all of us, all of us, with the Blood of Christ, all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘Father, the atheists?’ Even the atheists. Everyone!” We must meet one another doing good. ‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: we will meet one another there.”
In this diverse and secular age, there is something particularly appealing about the idea that it is the virtuous life that matters most, that it reveals its own truth regardless of religious faith. The Pope’s example of the virtuous atheist as better than the sinful Catholic appealed to the media last week because it emphasized that cultivating virtue is more important than membership, association, or influence. Not all of us can be powerful, rich, or politically well-connected, but each of us can try to be good. The stamp of religious membership might indicate that a good person stands before you, but it also might be true that the person who sets themselves up as a Christian paragon is a liar. By suggesting that virtuous action matters more than religious affiliation, wealth, or political power, the Pope appealed to a public weary of moral posturing and hungry for more discussion of how we all might cultivate genuine character, real compassion, and true moral direction by striving to be good in the world.
 Cindy L. Vitto, The Virtuous Pagan In Middle English Literature, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 79, No. 5 (1989), pp. 1-100; Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1006545
Jaime Hovey is Associate Program Director for Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.
At least, that was the impression given by the 45th President of the United States when he praised Douglass at a recent Black History Month event, saying: “Frederick Douglass is an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is getting recognized more and more, I notice.” TheAtlantic, Feb 1 2017.
Douglass, one of the most important figures in the anti-slavery movement and one of the greatest orators America has ever produced, died February 20, 1895, and the widespread public amusement at Donald Trump’s remarks about him came from a sense that the President had almost no idea who Douglass was. However, if Mr. Trump read one of Douglass’s Reconstruction-era speeches on virtue and political change, he might almost be forgiven for believing that the greatest Black American leader of the 19th century still walks among us.
April 16, 1885 was the 23rd anniversary of the emancipation of slaves in the District of Columbia. President Grover Cleveland reviewed a parade of over 5,000 people marching near the White House, and that evening, Frederick Douglass gave a speech, “We are Confronted by a New Administration,” at the Lincoln Memorial Congregational Church.
The occasion of Douglass’s speech was ominous. The Republican party had lost power after 25 years of running a post-Civil War government the emancipated slaves had come to rely on. Faced with the prospect of diminished freedoms and the great work of Reconstruction left undone, Douglass spoke of the election as a bitter defeat: “We do not stand where we stood one year ago. We are confronted by a new administration. The term of steady, unbroken successful Republican rule, is ended. The great Republican party that carried the country safely through the late war against the rebellion, emancipated the slave, saved the Union, reconstructed the government of the southern states, enfranchised the freedmen, raised the national credit, improved the currency, decreased the national debt, and did more for the honor, prosperity and glory of the American people, than was ever done before in the same length of time by any party in any country, under similar circumstances, has been defeated, humiliated, and driven from place and power.”
For Douglass, this election is not just the defeat of a good cause, but the triumph of those opposed to justice: “For the first time since the chains fell from the limbs of the slaves of the District of Columbia; for the first time since slaves were raised from chattels to men; for the first time since they were clothed with the dignity of American citizenship, they find themselves under the rule of a political party which steadily opposed their every step from bondage to freedom; and this may well give a peculiar coloring to the thoughts and feelings with which this anniversary of emancipation is celebrated.”
He acknowledges that slavery and racial oppression do not exist apart from the social structures that justify and maintain them, “Like any other embodiment of social and material interest peculiar to a given community, slavery generated its own sentiments, its own morals, manners, and religion, and begot a character in all around it in favor of its own existence.”
Such attitudes are not those of a morally strong and healthy nation; Douglass praises the wisdom in the rejection of a two-nation system, one slave and one free, “hostile civilizations side by side, with a chafing bloody border between them,” in favor of “one country, one citizenship, and one liberty for all the people.”
Insisting that the divisions that led to the Civil War were moral, he suggests the solution to the unfinished business of Reconstruction lies in the cultivation of virtue: “There never was any physical reason for the dissolution of the Union. The geographical and topographical conditions of the country all serve to unite rather than to divide the two sections. It was moral, not physical dynamite that blew the two sections asunder.”
Douglass explains that: “Twelve hundred more colored votes in the state of New York would have saved that party from defeat,” and suspects these votes were lost because the campaign did not address moral issues: “Little was said, thought, or felt, about national integrity, the importance of maintaining good faith with the freedman or the Indian, or the protection of the Constitutional rights of American citizens, except where such rights were in no danger . . . No nation, no party, no man, can live long and flourish, on falsehood, deceit, injustice, and broken pledges.”
“On the other hand,” he notes, “where good faith is maintained, where justice is upheld, where truth and right prevail, the government will be like the wise man’s house, in scripture: the winds may blow, the rains may descend, the flood may come and beat upon it, but it will stand, because it is founded upon the solid rock of principle. I speak this, not only for the Republican party, but for all parties.”
Attempting to find common ground with Democrats, he appeals to democratic ideals of citizenship, “We boast of our riches, power, and glory, as a nation, and we have reason to do so. But what is prosperity, what is power, what is national glory, when national honor, national good faith, and national protection to the rights of our citizens are denied?”
Warning that the social unrest of the European under classes could just as easily happen in American, Douglass urges politicians not to abandon oppressed peoples, writing: “Who could blame the negro if, when he is driven from the ballot box, the jury box, and from the school house, denied equal rights on railroads and steamboats, called out of his bed at midnight and whipped by regulators, compelled to live in rags and wretchedness, and his wages kept back by fraud, he shall imitate the example of other oppressed classes, and invoke some terrible explosive power as a means of bringing his oppressors to their senses, and making them respect the claims of justice.” To this typed passage Douglass has added, in script, “denied a fair trial when accused of crime,” and, “This would be madness, but oppression will make even wise men mad.” Although he hastens to assure his audience that he does not hope for or approve violent means, his edits suggest he believes that repeated injustices inevitably produce violent outcomes.
Yet Douglass seems to sense that he is standing on the eve of a terrible era. One of the speech’s most chilling passages concerns the “recent” Supreme Court decision that Douglass says “came upon the country like a clap of thunder from a clear sky . . . a surprise to enemies, and a bitter disappointment to friends.” Douglass is referring to the Supreme Court’s ruling in The Civil Rights cases of 1883, a decision that would usher in 80 years of Jim Crow racial segregation and pave the way for the infamous “separate but equal” ruling of Plessy v. Fergusen (1896), as well as widespread lynching and other forms of racist terrorism. TheCivil Rights cases of 1883 laid the groundwork for Plessy by ruling that public accommodations were not reached by the Fourteenth Amendment, and that Congress and the courts could not stop hotels, clubs, and restaurants from discriminating on the basis of race. Justice John M. Harlan was the sole dissenting voice, and Douglass praises him for being a “grand representative of American Justice standing alone.” Harlan’s famous dissent in the Civil Rights cases would someday serve as the basis for civil rights jurisprudence—but not until after World War II.
Despite his sense that the lives of Black Americans were about to get much worse, Douglass speaks to the “soul of the nation” and its virtues, the “spiritual side of Humanity” that cannot be burnt or drowned so long as it holds fast to its moral ideals, declaring: “The life of the nation is secure only while the nation is honest, truthful, and virtuous, for upon these conditions depends the life [o]f its life.” He talks about the great Chicago fire as one that left the city in ashes, yet could not eradicate the ideals of its inhabitants because they were possessed of civic virtue: “[T]here remained the invisible soul of a great people, full of energy, enterprise, and faith, and hence, out of the ashes and hollow desolation, a grander Chicago than the one destroyed, arose as if by magic.”
Douglass’s speech concludes with an appeal to civic virtue and civic involvement as crucial to surviving political change, not just as because civic virtue cultivates the self, but because it helps form a democratic community of brave and just citizens. As we celebrate Black History Month, we might take to heart his sense that a morally virtuous citizenry is the bedrock of a flourishing democracy. Quoting a poem by Sir William Jones that asks, “What constitutes a state?” Douglass answers with lines emphasizing courage and justice as virtues that carry the nation even in its most turbulent eras: “Men who their duties know,/ But know their rights, and, knowing, dare maintain.”
For the full text of Douglass’ speech, visit “Speech on the 23rd Anniversary of Emancipation in the District of Columbia,” also known as “We are Confronted by a New Administration” here.
Jaime Hovey is Associate Program Director for Virtue, Happiness, & the Meaning of Life.