Sunday, December 25, 2011

St Anthony and the Man of Importance

a short story by Edd Doerr

Don Nepomuceno climbed from the back seat of his Mercedes, smoothed his silk suit, adjusted his white Panama hat, and instructed his driver to wait. The street was deserted, but for a mangy mutt examining orange peels in the middle of the dusty thoroughfare. It was not yet noon, but the heat was already intense. All the windows to the street were closed, though faint sounds of children could be heard.

Don Nepomuceno looked up and down the street and then strode into the dark cavernous church, dimly lit by candles at the various side altars, down the center aisle to the communion rail, made a sharp left turn, stopped, and knelt before the statue of St Anthony.

"Dear San Antonio," he mumbled, elbows on the rail, looking up at the statue, "I know that I am not very regular in my mass attendance, but I assure you that that is because I am a man of many responsibilities, which keep me far more occupied than most of the riff-raff in this town.
But you know all about me, how this town would go to rack and ruin without the leadership which I exercise through the mayor and the chief of police.

"Today I wish to appeal to you for help, you who are the patron saint of those who are looking for things, deserving people, of course. It's like this, you see. Coffee and banana export prices are down and my costs are going up. My wife is in Miami spending my money. My son at the university is pestering me to buy him a new car to replace the BMW he smashed up. My daughter's clothes are costing me more than I pay the servants. My Mercedes is beginning to look almost as shabby as the one that viejo pendejo Galindez drives. And as if that were not enough, my girlfriend's period is late again.

"So you can surely see, San Antonio, that I need your help. It should be a simple matter for you to help me find oil on one of my haciendas, or maybe emeralds on my property in the mountains, or maybe the nomination for the Chamber of Deputies from this district. Anything at all. And if you help me this time, I promise that I will donate five percent of all new income to the church, even though Padre Fernando is a lazy bastard hijodeputa who has tried to sleep with my girlfriend. . . . "

At that moment, Don Nepomuceno became aware that someone else had entered the church. He looked around. It seems that a beggar, a vile-smelling peasant, had crept into the church and was kneeling in the shadows, hands clasped together, eyes downcast. He was a skinny devil, dressed in filthy rags, shoeless, unshaven, hair unkempt.

Don Nepomuceno heard the creature whisper. "San Antonio, I know that you must be busy with many very important matters, with people vastly more important than I. I am an undeserving wretch, unfit even to lift my eyes to look upon your statue. I hate to ask you for anything, but, you see, I have had nothing to eat for three days, nothing whatever. I have no money, not even one centavo. I have tried to find work doing anything, cleaning toilets or shovelling manure, but there simply is no work.

"I do not ask for much, perhaps only to help me find some scraps of food the dogs and pigs do not want, maybe a piece of moldy discarded bread, anything. Maybe even a few centavos so I can by some old hard bread. I know that I am completely undeserving, and I will pray to the Virgin to assist you with your work even if you do not help me. But please . . . ."

Don Nepomuceno had heard quite enough. He pulled a wad of bills from his pocket and threw them in the direction of the beggar. "Here," he called out, "take this and get the hell out of here. Can't you see that you are distracting the saint from dealing with more important matters?"


Explicit Atheist said...

Who plays the role of Don Nepocumeno? The Republican party? The Democratic party? Or people like Mr. And Mrs. Schempp who challenged school prayer at a time when there were more important issues such as the Vietnam war and racial segregation?

Edd.Doerr said...

EA: Hey, it's just a joke. But Nepomuceno, now that you mention it, does sound like the GOP.

As for the Schempps, let's note that the Schempp case in 1963 came a year after the Engel v Vitale ruling, which set the precedent and was brought by an assortment of plaintiffs representing various religious points of view.

And let me recall that the Engel and Schempp rulings unleashed a backlash of fundy fury. For years we had to fight off school prayer amendments in Congress. Happily, the religious mainstream was on our side against the fundies and Madalyn O'Hair stayed out of Washington. Also, the major prayer amendment was defeated in the House in 1971 largely because Rep Robert Drinan (D-MA), a Catholic priest, rallied Catholic representatives to join with Unitarians and Jews to defeat the measure.

The Engel case was an appropriate and strategically sound suit.

Explicit Atheist said...

Sidney Schempp was a member of FFRF. His son, who as a high school student was the plaintiff, is a lifetime member of the FFRF. Yet the FFRF files lawsuits against government sponsored religious holiday displays, and Newdow is an honorary FFRF board member. So, although I partially share some of your concerns/fears, I do not get the impression that the Schemp's share your views about what actions are counter-productive so I don't think they first counted votes in Congress before hiring a lawyer.

Explicit Atheist said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Edd.Doerr said...

EA: Please note that I did not criticize the Schempp case. In any event we can all be happy that our combined religious and nonreligious forces were able to block adverse congressional action.

As for Newdow's "under God" efforts, they were/are suicide missions. Newdow and I were on an ACLU panel at the U of Md to discuss the case shortly before he argued it before the SCOTUS. I made the point that if he won we would face an unstoppable constitutional amendment that would probably wreck the First Amendment. And if he lost the result could well preclude a better a more timely challenge later. Fortunately the justices found a way to dump the case without ruling.

The bull in a china shop approach to dealing with church-state issues
is suicidal, a loser's game. That is the view of Humanist of the Year Leo Pfeffer, probably the leading expert on such matters. Mere zeal is no substitute for brains.

Explicit Atheist said...

Prolonging, preserving, perpetuating the status quo, is not a good strategy when the status quo is one of exposure and vulnerability and danger of bad outcomes. There is the Scalia answer of declaring that atheists are not fully protected by the 1st amendment. There is the Thomas answer of declaring that the 1st amendment is partially not enforceable against the states. There is the Gingrich answer that the Congress has the final word on which 1st amendment rights are respected. There is a super wealthy right wing answer that the middle class be eviscerated so that the niceties of civil lawsuits by literate people who can pay for, or be, their own lawyers is no longer a problem. There is the answer that people's standing to file lawsuits for some 1st amendment violation claims is taken away. You seem to favor that result, I find it as chilling as the other answers.

All I hear from you as the answer, other than denying people the standing to challenge violations, is akin to throwing a shroud over the problem and declaring that it is dead. But again, I don't see hoe that could possible work, it sort of resembles global warming denialism in that it pretends the problem doesn't exist by wishing it away.

To me, there is only one practical, realistic, approach to dealing with situations like this: work towards really killing the problem by eliminating the problem. And that means that a strategy of refusing to inform the world that yes, we seek full first amendment protections for ourselves, is counter-productive, because that just perpetuates and prolongs the problem by refusing to pursue the only remedy that kills the problem without a bad outcome, which is to defeat the problem, contra the answers of Scalia, thomas, Gingrich, koch brothers, etc.

lucette said...

The only way to kill the problem is to adopt the French attitude about churches: They don't exist. Complete secularism. The wall separating church and state requires a definition of what is a church. And who is defining? The state, i.e. the Supreme Court in the US. An example of this mess is the Supreme Court decision that the "Ethical Culture" is a religion, i.e. can get all the advantages of churches in the US including privileged tax status.
Even if the first amendment was perfectly enforced, the battle will have to continue, forever.

Edd.Doerr said...

EA: Scalia, Thomas, Gingrich et al are clearly scoundrels. But beyond that, you (and many "atheism first and foremost" folks) completely miss the point. It is not that church-state separation violations should not be faced up to, but that they should be fought intelligently, strategically in a prioritized way with as many allies as possible.

Right now and for the coming year the hottest church-state problems facing the US are the Republican/conservative drives to undermine religiously neutral public education, to get tax support through vouchers or tax credits for religious and other private schools, and to weaken or wipe out reproductive choice. If we lose those battles it will not matter how many religious symbols are on court house lawns or whether our money contains religious mottoes.

Sure, anyone can file a lawsuit, but should they? Let me illustrate with military analogies. In WW II the Russians wanted the US, UK, etc to invade western Europe earky in 1943. Eisenhower et al realized that a premature D-Day would be a disaster, so we waited until June 1944 and even then it was risky. But premature invasion would likely have failed.

And in the Pacific war our strategy of island hopping did little to shorten the conflict, but did cost the lives of a great many Americans. What won the war against Japan was the US Navy, slowly sinking Japanese ships and starving Japan.

These analogies are apt for church-state issues. The great strategist was Leo Pfeffer, from whom I learned so much.

I am suggesting that just charging into battle like "The Charge of the Light Brigade" in the Crimean War is both stupid and counterproductive. We need to win, not commit suicide. Scalia and Thomas would really love your shortsighted approach.