Orbiting Dicta

Monthly Archives: June 2019

Calling it treason

“Treason doth neuer prosper? What’s the Reason?
for if it prosper none dare call it treason.”

The saying goes back to the epigrams of Sir John Harington in the late 16th century, who had an awkward relationship with the English monarch of the day, James I.  With the term being bandied about loosely in recent times, not least by the President in regard to his critics and people he doesn’t like, a favor often and generously repaid by politicians, columnists, and late-night TV comedians, perhaps it needs another look. It’s a serious claim, but a murky topic.

Commonly speaking, treason amounts to something like “betrayal of trust, treachery.” But a look at how treason is viewed in the U.S. Constitution and the U.S. Legal Code may help clarify the issue for anyone who cares.  And they should.

According to Article III, Section 3, “Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying war against them, or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort. No person shall be convicted of treason unless on the testimony of two witnesses to the same overt act, or on confession in open court.”

The article goes on to point out, “The Congress shall have power to declare the punishment of treason, but no attainder of treason shall work corruption of blood, or forfeiture except during the life of the person attainted.”

This provision is amplified in the U.S. Code: “Whoever, owing allegiance to the United States, levies war against them or adheres to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort within the United States or elsewhere, is guilty of treason and shall suffer death, or shall be imprisoned not less than five years and fined under this title but not less than $10,000; and shall be incapable of holding any office under the United States.” (U.S. Code § 2381. Treason. June 25, 1948, ch. 645, 62 Stat. 807; Pub. L. 103–322, title XXXIII, § 330016(2)(J), Sept. 13, 1994, 108 Stat. 2148.” [https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/18/2381]

While most serous during time of war, and technically limited to it, that first Constitutional “or” is a powerful little conjunction. What follows it is important.  Clearly, neither criticizing the President nor bringing articles of impeachment against the President or other government officials is in any way included.  The latter is, in fact, a prerogative of the U.S. Congress. But what does it mean to give “aid and comfort” to the enemy?

In the United States, treason may be an offense either against the federal government or against respective states. Oddly enough, only one individual was ever executed for treason against the federal government.  In 1862 during the Civil War, the hapless William Mumford was convicted and hanged for it after a military trial for tearing down a United States flag in New Orleans. It is not clear whether New Orleans was in fact occupied by federal forces at the time. [See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Treason_laws_in_the_United_States.  Also see https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/five-myths-about-treason/2017/02/17/8b9eb3a8-f460-11e6-a9b0-ecee7ce475fc_story.html?utm_term=.f4f6cb053a0b]

John Brown was hanged for treason against the State of Virginia, insurrection, and murder in 1859 as was his associate Aaron Dwight Stevens the following year. Those convicted of treason against the U.S., including giving “aid and comfort to the enemy,” but not executed, include Robert Henry Best, sentenced to life imprisonment in 1948; Martin Monti, sentenced to 25 years in prison in 1949; Mildred Gillars (Axis Sally), sentenced from ten to thirty years in prison in 1949; and Iva Toguri D’Aquino (Tokyo Rose), sentenced to ten years in 1949, pardoned in 1977 by President Ford. Because the United States was not at war with anyone in 1953, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed for espionage, not treason.

It is worth noting that in contrast to the Constitution and the U.S. Legal Code, a standard dictionary definition (in this instance Merriam-Webster) defines treason as “the offense of attempting by overt acts to overthrow the government of the state to which the offender owes allegiance or to kill or personally injure the sovereign or the sovereign’s family.”

It might reasonably be asked whether the assassination or attempted assassination of a President, member of Congress, or Supreme Court justice, has ever been prosecuted as an act of treason. Were Squeaky Fromm, Sara Jane Moore, or John Hinckley, prosecuted for treason? In fact the charge is usually that of murder or attempted murder. Consider:

Charles J. Guiteau, executed in 1882 for the murder of James Garfield in 1881.
Leon Czolgosz, executed October 29, 1901, for murdering William McKinley that year.
John Schrank, found not guilty by reason of insanity for the attempted murder of Theodore Roosevelt in 1912 and committed to a hospital for the criminally insane in 1914.
Giuseppe Zangara, executed in 1933 for the assassination of Anton Cermak, Mayor of Chicago, but who failed to kill President Franklin Roosevelt.
Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, convicted of the attempted assassination of Gerald Ford in 1975.
Sara Jane Moore, convicted of the attempted assassination of Gerald Ford in 1975.
John Hinckley Jr., found not guilty by reason of insanity of the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan in 1981.
Shannon Richardson convicted and sentenced to eighteen years in prison for the attempted murder of President Barack Obama in 2013.

Other Offenses against the State

“High crimes and misdemeanors” is a phrase from Section 4 of Article Two of the United States Constitution: “The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.” But what constitutes high crimes and misdemeanors?

According to the authoritative source usually cited by my undergraduate students, “The charge of high crimes and misdemeanors covers allegations of misconduct by officials, such as perjury of oath, abuse of authority, bribery, intimidation, misuse of assets, failure to supervise, dereliction of duty, unbecoming conduct, refusal to obey a lawful order, chronic intoxication, and tax evasion.” [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/High_crimes_and_misdemeanors#United_States. But also see Jon Roland, “Meaning of High Crimes and Misdemeanors,” Constitution Society (January 19, 1999), and “High Crimes and Misdemeanors,” Constitutional Rights Foundation. Crf-usa.org.]

Back in the day, as noted by the New York Times in 1861, James Madison wisely wrote in No. 43 of The Federalist,

“As treason may be committed against the United States the authority of the United States ought to be enabled to punish it: but as new tangled and artificial treasons have been the great engines by which violent factions, the natural offspring of free governments, have usually wreaked their alternate malignity on each other, the Convention has with great judgment opposed a barrier to this peculiar danger by inserting a Constitutional definition of the crime.” [https://www.nytimes.com/1861/01/25/archives/treason-against-the-united-states.html]

Those Founding Fathers knew a thing or two about factions and about treason.  So did Sir John Harington.

Déjà vu all over again?

We have been here before… an accelerating crescendo of drumbeats for war emanating from the current Administration while facts remain murky, evidence is lacking, denials and doubts abound, and motives are anything but transparent. Americans may be excused, if not forgiven, for forgetting how the United States annexed Puerto Rico, the Philippine archipelago, Guam, the Spanish islands of the West Indies, and treacherously assumed control of Cuba following the 1898 Spanish-American War. Part of that drumbeat was reaction to the sinking of the U.S.S. Maine in Havana Harbor in February of that year killing 260 sailors. But despite claims that a Spanish mine had exploded near the powder magazine, subsequent investigations concluded that the explosion was accidental.

In 1964, a doctored account of the “Gulf of Tonkin Incident” released by the White House of Lyndon Johnson, provided a case for an aggressive act by a North Vietnamese gunboat, when in fact, the gunboat had been fired on first by the U.S.S. Maddox. The “Gulf of Tonkin Resolution” passed in  August, 1964, repeated the lie, including a wholly fictitious “second attack,” paving the way for the Vietnam War. The resolution was repealed in 1971, despite White House pressure, when it was far too late.  But the Adoption of the War Powers Resolution in 1973, over Nixon’s veto, requires the President to consult with Congress in regard to decisions involving U.S. forces in hostilities or imminent hostilities, a limitation which is still in effect.

This did not prevent the gross manipulation of fact and outright “misinformation” on the part of the second Bush administration in 2002 leading up to the “Iraq Resolution” passed by Congress in October of that year.  There followed the bombardment and invasion of a country that had no role, as had been alleged before the U.N. and the American public, in the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center, had no connection with Al Qaeda, no nuclear arms program, and had decommissioned its “weapons of mass destruction” years earlier.

Hundreds of thousands of deaths later, including over 3,800 U.S. military personnel, more than a trillion dollars of lost “treasure,” and after unimaginable suffering by civilian populations, the turmoil in Iraq is far from over.  The involvement of Iran, its neighbor, in efforts to influence reconstruction of a nation that had waged an 8-year war against it two decades earlier (with American support of Saddam Hussein’s forces), was inevitable and has led to increased chaos and the threat of another war in the Middle East.

Have we learned anything from such misadventures? From the sound of the drums, not much. But the answer to that question is probably blowing in the wind.  Yes, we have been here before.


Pentecost 2019: Feast of Wind and Fire

Gustav Mahler got it right. For me, the opening chorus of his 8th Symphony, the Symphony of a Thousand, is in all its Teutonic majesty a nearly perfect tribute to the eruption of the Holy Spirit into the lives of the Disciples (and the world).  The text of the hymn Veni Creator Spiritus is most likely by Stephen Langton, the Archbishop of Canterbury who led the resistance against King John in the 13th century, but the stunning music is pure Mahler.

Acts 2:1-11
1 Cor 12:3b-7,12-13
John 20:19-23

“Descent” is too tame a word for the coming of the Holy Spirit.  Neither words nor music can contain the power and beauty of God’s spiritual presence in the world (though music may come closer).  From the beginning, the interruption of the Spirit caused upheaval and even confusion, as Luke relates in the Acts of the Apostles. And yet the Spirit remains largely unknown to many Christians, a nebulous “third” to the Father and the Son, and for whom wind and flame seem somehow to be the most apt metaphors.

About 20 years ago, when I was teaching at Loyola University, I got it into my head to offer a course on the Holy Spirit.  It seems that no one had done that before, which is a little odd, since most Christians accept that the Holy Spirit is one of the three divine persons of the Trinity.  A special study booklet had even been published from Rome as the culminating volume in a series leading to the Great Jubilee Year 2000.  Two years later, when I was invited to be the Aquinas Lecturer at Emory University in Atlanta, I was asked by the director of Candler, the Methodist Divinity School, to offer a course there too.  The reason was that no one had done so before.  As it happened, a visiting professor from Korea offered one about the same time, and we both had packed classrooms.  I still occasionally offer the course at Dominican University, but undergraduate interest today seems much more muted.

The situation remains remarkably different among Korean Christians. There, however, the emphasis is more active and dynamic than theoretical, where theologians (many of them women) represent the Trinity as a great round-dance, building on the literal meaning of the ancient Christian notion of perichoresis.  The reason for the neglect in western theology seems to lie in the difficulty of imagining who or what the Holy Spirit is, despite the many references in the New Testament and among the sermons and writings of early Christians from the fourth century to the time of Stephen Langton and Thomas Aquinas.

We are so used to seeing the Holy Spirit portrayed by the symbol of a dove because of the descriptions of the baptism of Jesus that we automatically insert one in our images of what happened on that strange and wonderful morning.  But Luke says nothing about a dove.  He speaks of wind and fire, tongues of flame that appeared over the disciples’ heads.  Nor should we think of “tongues” here too physically, for in the very next sentence, Luke tells how the disciples began speaking in “other” tongues — different or foreign languages.  And a few sentences later, he describes how the many linguistically different people gathered outside heard them speaking in their native tongues — languages that ranged from Persia to Egypt, Turkey, and faraway Rome.

Pentecost is about God’s wild and creative energy, about life and unexpected renewal.  And it is especially about tongues — languages, and especially the language of prophecy.  For the Holy Spirit is above all the Spirit of Prophecy, the Spirit of Jesus himself, sent from God to lead, guide, and guard his followers as they spread the gospel to every corner of the world.  The Holy Spirit is the name we give to our personal experience of God in the real and daily events of our lives.  It is the name we place on the ways God acts through us to renew the face of the earth.

In today’s world, it is well to remember that Creation itself is attributed to the Spirit – Veni CREATOR Spiritus!  For that reason I am convinced that the Holy Spirit is animating the prophetic movement today to protect, revive, and sustain that Creation. More than ever before, environmental protection is a work of the Spirit! Here a very effective guide is the encyclical of Pope Francis, Laudato sí, which would greatly repay another careful reading.

Come Holy Spirit, help us renew the face of the Earth!

Feast of the Ascension (first posted 2017)

Today, Christians in many parts of the world celebrate the Feast of the Ascension of Jesus, otherwise known and celebrated as Ascension Thursday.  And there is something to ponder in that affirmation we make so often, “I believe… that he ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father, and will come again to judge the living and the dead.”

Apart from the disappearance of Jesus from the visible stage of history, the recurrent evangelical frenzy about his imminent return is easy to ridicule after the disappointment of yet another failed prophecy.  But even eccentric, late nineteenth-century Christian fantasies testified to the enduring belief in the Ascension itself, however exaggerated and distorted that belief sometimes became.  And still does at times of crisis and fear.

Acts 1:1-11
Eph 1:17-23
Lk 24:46-53

According to St. Luke, the Ascension occurred between the Resurrection and the Feast of Pentecost, which for Christians now celebrates the coming, the parousia of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ, into the Church – into the hearts and minds of the early disciples and of all disciples.  But that lies ahead.  Here, like the disciples on the hillside, we are left wondering about Jesus’ “ascent into heaven.” Did he go up into the sky?  Is he someplace up above the clouds, somewhere over the rainbow, perhaps?  Or are we still looking in the wrong place, or at least the wrong way, as the angel said.

Centuries ago, perhaps even decades ago, the idea of an ascent up among the stars would not have seemed absurd.  It framed the epilogue of many filmed “Lives of Christ” popular in the mid-twentieth century (which seemed to be shown annually in my grade school).  Today, exploring a bewilderingly vast universe is as real in fact as it was once in the movies.  Distant parts of the cosmos are as familiar to us as our old neighborhood thanks to the Hubble space telescope and its successors. So it’s far more important to understand clearly what that belief means.

To begin with, the account in the Acts of the Apostles does not claim that Jesus went into orbit like some ancient astronaut, but that a cloud hid him from sight.  The Ascension was never a crude, physical doctrine that asserted that Jesus was hanging around in the air, or “up” on some other planet, much less out in space somewhere.  Belief in the Ascension affirms the Cosmic Lordship, or we might say today, the Leadership, of Christ spiritually, but also sacramentally.  It means that Jesus Christ, raised from the dead and exalted by God, has fully entered into the fundamental reality of Creation itself.  Christ’s presence, St. Paul tells us, is now co-extensive with the universe.  God,  he says, “has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” [Eph. 1:22-23]. There is no “where” that Jesus Christ is not present.

This is the famous pleroma passage, which one translation has as “the fullness of him who fills the universe in all its parts.”  However we interpret it, clearly St Paul portrays Christ as universal Lord, majestic in triumph over every cosmic force and principle, over the angels and every spiritual power.  To celebrate the Ascension is to affirm that Jesus has become Lord of the Cosmos.

But the Ascension is also the Feast of Christ as Lord of Time, that is of history as lived time, not only past, but present and future: “Christ yesterday, today, and tomorrow” [Heb. 13:8].

There is more – and this is even more important.  Paul writes to his Christian disciples at Ephesus that it is this same Christ Jesus who is the head of the Church, which is filled with his Spirit. And through that Spirit we are all members of the one body of Christ, the people of God.  Christ is present to the world especially in the lives and works of those guided by and filled with his Spirit.

The meaning of the Ascension is the completion of the paschal mystery, the return of Jesus to the heart of God, the triumph of innocence over the guilt of the world, the final victory of life over death, of grace over sin.  It is the culminating moment of the passage of Christ to the Father, but also of salvation history itself.  Yet the Ascension is also preparation and prelude, the necessary movement prior to the “descent” of the Spirit, the beginning of the transformation of the world’s history and its very structure, a spiritual transformation leading to universal jubilation.  That’s what the Church ultimately is.

“I tell you the truth,” Jesus said, “ it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you” [John 16:7].  And, the text goes on, “When the Spirit of truth comes, it will guide you into all the truth…. Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice; you will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy.  …I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.”

Jesus has not gone away anywhere.  He is present anywhere and everywhere, hidden from our sight only by clouds of inattention.  For we too often look in the wrong places or we simply look wrongly.  When we see with the eyes of faith, or, as St. Paul had it, “having the eyes of our hearts enlightened,” we see him in manifold ways.  As the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote in “As Kingfishers Catch Fire,”

the just man justices;

Kéeps gráce: thát keeps all his goings graces;

Acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is–

Chríst–for Christ plays in ten thousand places,

Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his

To the Father through the features of men’s faces.

So having celebrated the Ascension of Jesus, let us return with the disciples to that upper room to prepare for the advent of the Spirit of Christ, the Spirit who will enlighten our minds and warm our hearts and lead us into all truth and all joy.  Because we still have a lot of work ahead of us before Jesus returns in glory.