Wednesday, July 25, 2007

A Millionaire's Vow of Poverty

Last week I wrote about Tom Monaghan, founder and former owner of Domino’s Pizza, whose devout Catholicism led him to develop a town in Florida called Ave Maria for the purpose of establishing a spiritually robust stronghold of family values and religious observance. I suggested that these kinds of religious enclaves seldom “perform” as anticipated (due to human sinfulness) and, moreover, they are not a faithful response to Jesus’ example of going into the world to love and redeem it.

But I also said there were some admirable elements of this story. First is the transformation in Monaghan’s life that led him to this vision. Recall the Domino’s phenomenon. Founded in 1960, it grew into the country’s second largest pizza chain. Monaghan became fabulously wealthy (net worth of about $1 billion) and proceeded to collect antique cars, buy a yacht, and purchase a professional sports franchise (the Detroit Tigers). Ho hum. We’ve heard this story before. Self-made rich guy buys toys.

But in the early 1990’s, while reading C.S. Lewis’ classic book, Mere Christianity, Monaghan reached the chapter titled “The Great Sin,” dedicated to the perils of pride. “That chapter hit me right between the eyes,” Monaghan recalls. “I thought, ‘If pride is the greatest sin of all, I’ve got to be the greatest sinner of all.’” He did not sleep that night. The next morning he took what he calls a “millionaire’s vow of poverty.” He halted construction of a new mansion, sold his extravagant collection of luxury cars, stopped flying first class, and began looking for ways to put his wealth to good use. Since then, he has parted with almost half of his billion dollar fortune, mostly through religious philanthropy. You may quibble with his choice of projects, but I find this to be an inspiring example of the gospel bearing dramatic fruit in someone’s life.

The second thing I find commendable is Monaghan’s motivation, or part of it at least, to establish the town of Ave Maria. He is disturbed by what he regards as the failure of western civilization to resist Islamic fundamentalism. Nicholas Healy, of like mind to Monaghan, and president of Ave Maria University, the town’s centerpiece, describes the “virtual collapse of Europe” as “one of the most profound and unsettling developments of our century.” Monaghan wants to help the United States overcome its morally corroded secularism and become a people of vibrant faith whose moral strength and clarity helps to rebuild a “religiously dynamic West” that recognizes the dangers Islamic fundamentalism poses. This, too, I find commendable. To be a “religiously dynamic” country is not to be a theocracy, but to be a people whose spiritual vitality and commitment lends itself to a moral vision which recognizes the great struggles of our time and gives serious attention to them.

Europe, it seems to me, gives us a view of what a less religious and more secular minded America would look like. Monaghan does not find that to be a promising picture. Neither do I. Which is why I commend a millionaire who stops collecting toys and starts trying to make a difference.

Friday, July 20, 2007


En-clave (‘en-“klAv): a distinct territorial, cultural or social unit enclosed within or as if within foreign territory.

Tom Monaghan spent much of his life in foster homes and a Catholic orphanage. He had a strong religious impulse that led him to enter seminary in 9th grade, but he was kicked out for being unruly. After a stint in the Marine Corps he started a pizza delivery business, which later became Domino’s.

I will tell more of Monaghan’s story next week, much of which is inspiring and notable, but let’s fast forward to 2007, when development on the town of Ave Maria ninety miles northwest of Miami is proceeding apace. Monaghan, a devout Catholic, dreamed of starting a town populated by religiously devout (or at least observant) Catholics, centered on a Catholic university, fostering family values, and eschewing the cultural vices which plague American society in general. The university he founded in Michigan, Ave Maria, relocated to Florida to be the town’s centerpiece, and as of this writing people are buying up houses and leasing retail and business space.

Monaghan has backed off a bit from his original vision, in which he and his partners would own all commercial real estate, and thus, as he put it in 2004, “be able to control what goes on there. You won’t be able to buy a Playboy or a Hustler magazine in Ave Maria town. We’re going to control the cable television that comes in the area…” Now Monaghan and his partner-developer simply say that while the town will try to reflect traditional family values and retailers will be asked to refrain from practices opposed to Catholic teaching, there will be no restrictions on what retailers sell.

The desire, noble in many respects, to create religious enclaves is a strong and prevalent one in history, from the Essene Jews in Jesus’ time to the Puritans’ efforts in early America. It is borne of a serious and devout intention to live more purely before God and to “keep oneself unstained by the world” (James 1:27). The problem is twofold. First, it doesn’t work! Sin, though usually of the less “visible” kind, inevitably emanates from peoples’ hearts because “human beings are born to trouble, as surely as sparks fly upward” (Job 5:6). There may not be prostitution or gambling, but there will certainly be greed, lust, envy, meanness, pride, etc. Second, it doesn’t faithfully follow Jesus’ life or the life to which he has called his followers. Other than these two factors, it’s a fine idea.

Monaghan’s vision is bolder and more dramatic than most, but all Christian communities choose between degrees of faithful engagement with the world versus unfaithful disengagement from the world. The challenge is that what is actually faithful can look unfaithful, and vice-versa. Jesus tells us to go into the world to serve, redeem and save it, not invite people into our enclave and abandon it. And that’s something to rejoice over, challenging as it is.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

I'd Even Call it Godliness

The world is a complex place. Despair and hope, punishment and grace, brutality and goodness can all be bedfellows.

On June 28, 2005 a four-man Navy Special Operations team was fast-roped out of a Chinook helicopter in Afghanistan as part of Operation Redwing to capture or kill a senior Al Queda operative meeting in the vicinity. The four Seals zigzagged all night and through the morning, when suddenly two Afghan men and a boy appeared. The Seals had to make a decision: kill the Afghans, or release them and risk being exposed. They chose mercy and released them. An hour later they were surrounded by Taliban troops. In a two-hour fire fight, three of the four Seals were killed. Moreover, the Taliban shot down a rescue helicopter coming to the Seals’ aid, killing sixteen more troops. The lone survivor of the Seal team, Marcus Luttrell, lay bleeding and filthy at the bottom of a gulch.

Luttrell had been the one who cast the tie-breaking vote among the Seal team to spare the lives of the Afghan three-some. “They just seemed like – people. I’m not a murderer,” he recollected. That decision haunted him as he lay alone in the gulch and haunts him still.

Repeated rescue attempts failed to locate him. After crawling through the night, Luttrell saw another Afghan man. He reached for his rifle. “You Taliban?” he shouted. “No Taliban!” came the reply. The villager’s friends arrived, carrying AK-47’s. As they spoke Arabic to one another, Luttrell wondered if they were arguing his fate the way the Seals had argued the other Afghans’ fate. But they carried him to the 14-hut village of Sabray, where Mohammed Gulab, 33, father of six, fed Luttrell warm goat’s milk, washed his wounds, and clothed him.

Hours after his arrival, Taliban fighters appeared and demanded that the villagers surrender the American. They first threatened Gulab, then tried to bribe him. But the people of Sabray were following tribal law – having carried the invalid Seal into their village, they were committed to defending him. The Taliban fighters retreated to the nearby hills and waited. Eventually their threats intensified, so Gulab walked five miles to a U.S. Marine outpost to ask for help. A massive rescue effort ensued and Luttrell was snatched from the village, with Gulab sitting next to him on the helicopter, refusing Luttrell’s offer of money and a watch. Luttrell put his arm around Gulab’s neck and said into his ear over the propeller roar, “I love you, brother.” They were separated after landing, and have not seen one another since.

Luttrell, whose book “Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of Seal Team 10” recently came out, remains tormented by the deaths of his friends, and changed. “I went to Afghanistan as payback time for the World Trade Center, to kill every S.O.B. I could find. I didn’t go over there with any respect for the Afghan people,” he says. But Mohammed Gulab and the Sabray villagers taught him something. “In the middle of everything evil, in an evil place, you can find goodness. Goodness. I’d even call it godliness. They brought their cousins brandishing firearms, and their uncles, to make sure no Taliban would kill me. They protected me like a child. They treated me like I was their eldest son.”

Sometimes a story becomes sacramental.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Go Away?

I am always surprised, but should not be, by the cruelty people can inflict on one another. This cruelty is especially troubling and intractable when it is encased in, and justified by, societal norms and institutional customs. A recent article (“Shunned from society, widows flock to city to die,” Arwa Damon,,) details the plight of the estimated 40 million widows living in India. Most of them are shunned from society when their husbands die, not for religious reasons but because of tradition -- they are seen as a drain on their families.

Some of them flock to the holy city of Vrindavan, where they wait to die, living on side streets, shuffling along with walking canes. They are forbidden to remarry and must shave their heads. They typically wear white, and others consider even their shadows bad luck. They go to Vrindavan because of the widespread belief that dying there will free them from the cycle of life and death, particularly the plight of being condemned to a widow’s life again.

Seventy-year-old Rada Biswas was married for 50 years. When her husband died she was instantly ostracized by her loves ones, including her son, who told her “You have grown old. Who is going to feed you? Go away.” She now begs for food in front of one of Vrindavan’s temples.

Eighty-five-year-old Promita Das married at 12 and was widowed at 15. The child to whom she gave birth at age 14 died within a year. She spent the rest of her life as an outcast, cleaning houses for a living. “Nobody looked after me, nobody loved me. I survived on my own.”

The Indian government recognizes the problem and change is starting to take place slowly, very slowly. What caught my eye about this news item was the term “widow.” If there is any category of people in the Bible for whom, over and over, believers are commanded to care for, it is widows (and orphans). “Seek justice, encourage the oppressed, defend the cause of the fatherless, defend the widow,” exhorts the prophet Isaiah (1:17). “The Lord tears down the proud man’s house, but he keeps the widow’s boundaries intact,” teaches Proverbs (15:25). True religion is “to look after widows and orphans in their distress,” James reminds us (1:27). In the early church there was a special ministry to widows, who were also expected to be active in ministry themselves (I Timothy 5).

All of this reminds me how powerful a witness the gospel of Jesus is to the world when we take Jesus seriously and truly live in his name. Granted, the plight of widows in India is extraordinary; many societies practice the cultural value of caring for aging family members. But consider the contrast between the value of expediency (“you are a drain on the family and on society”) and the value of mercy (“you are a child of God created in his image, no matter your plight”). Expediency says abort your handicapped child. Mercy says treasure him or her. Expediency says euthanize your aging parents (medically or socially). Mercy says care for them. This is radical stuff, folks. It is not what we would arrive at in our normal human faculties without the thundering and disrupting and passionately righteous love of God asserting his claim on our lives and calling us to his kingdom work. As G.K. Chesterton famously noted, There’s a reason Christians staff most of the leprosariums in the world.

Listen for the thunder.