Friday, October 4, 2013

An open letter to Kuma's

Dear Mr. Luke Tobias, Director of Operations, Kuma's

I have been to your restaurant once.  It was fantastic.  I believe I ate about 2 ¼ of your burgers that night, not to mention an ungodly amount of French fries on the side.  I confess that I am, in fact, a glutton.  This is what happens when the girl to guy ratio in your social circle hovers somewhere around 3:1 and leftovers abound.   In all truth, I have long been raving about Kuma’s to any friends who have consulted me in their quest for the perfect Chicago burger.

Unfortunately, however, I cannot ignore the elephant that you have this week introduced into the room: your new “Ghost” burger, which, in a gauche and grasping attempt at humor, prominently features an “unconsecrated communion wafer and a red wine reduction” as toppings.  As you put it on your own Facebook page: "In the spirit of our undying reverence for the lord and all things holy, we give you the Ghost which we think is a fitting tribute to the supreme blasphemous activities carried out by the band itself."

I get it.  The brand of your restaurant is predicated upon capturing the rebellious charisma of modern rock and roll.  And in order to sustain the Kuma's brand, you must constantly be pushing the envelope, poking and prodding “the man” in much the same way that the anti-establishment giants of rock did in the post-British Invasion years.  And, quite understandably, most of your customers are of the cultural persuasion not to mind a delicious burger garnished with a heavy drizzle of iconoclasm. 

But, as a Catholic – and one who does happen to have something of a sense of humor, despite your defensive assumption to the contrary – I feel it my responsibility to let you know that Kuma's has stepped over the line.  I’ll admit: when I first encountered the headline announcing “Chicago burger garnished with communion wafer,” I gave a rye, annoyed smile, rolled my eyes, and nearly moved on -- that is, until I read your truly unfortunate reaction to this whole flare-up: “There are people who are offended by it,” you observed, “but we're delighted to see that generally people seem to have a sense of humor.”  The insinuation, of course, being that those who might be offended do not have a sense of humor, and that we represent the sort of old, no-fun, fuddy-duddies that are definitely not the target audience of the Kuma's brand.

Here’s the thing, though: in a world in which not much of anything is held sacred anymore, we Catholics are dogged in insisting that the Eucharist truly is the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ, he who is the second hypostasis of the immortal, immutable, and ineffably sublime Trinity.  He is the Alpha and Omega, Creator and Judge, the one at whose name every knee should bend.  The Eucharist is not simply a sacred object, but the most sacred object in the Catholic cosmos, an object in defense of which saints have literally shed their blood, and before which even popes bow down in self-abnegating obedience (see here, here, and here). 

I understand that belief in such doctrines may seem at best inscrutable and at worst, downright absurd.  And I certainly am not attempting to convert you – God would be much better at that than I would.  But I do believe it my duty and responsibility to let you know that you have crossed a line, and that most Catholics with any sort of substantial piety would likely agree with me.

Further, I understand that anyone – especially someone who approaches a situation like this from such a massively different perspective as yours – can quite easily fall into an ordinary lapse in judgment.  Until I read the news article about this story, I assumed that this was basically what you had done.  But to accuse those who disagree with you as being hyper-pious stick-in-the-muds who quite obviously don’t understand that the existence of the sacred is really only an opportunity for capitalistically-motivated desecration – this is unbearable.  What you are basically saying, is: “I know I have offended many Catholics, and this is their fault, not mine.”

I know that free market capitalism theoretically sets no ethical rules on how a company can brand itself or market its products and services.  At the same time, most entrepreneurs are aware that there are certain social taboos that one doesn’t touch.  It wouldn’t be right for a restaurant to conceive, let alone market, “Jim Crow burgers” in the American south, for example.  It’s not good business.  And it’s social suicide.  At least it should be.

Then why is it okay to hit Catholics where it hurts most?  It has been said that “Anti-Catholicism is the last acceptable prejudice” in America.  To quote Arthur Schlesinger, this bigotry is the “most deeply held prejudice in the history of the American people.”  We would blush at a similarly systematic, intentional, and public insult to the deepest sensibilities of blacks, Arabs, Muslims, Asians, Jews, gays, lesbians, and the mentally ill.  It goes without saying that this reticence is a very good thing, because it is a sign of the hard won public civility that these groups now command.  But it is apparent that Catholics historically have not, and still do not, command this sort of respect in the public square.  This is a serious problem which needs to be remedied, and it will not happen unless Catholics speak up.

So yes, this does happen to be one of those “You no longer have a customer in me” letters.  And this will remain true so long as you continue to blame those you have offended for their “lack of humor.”  Here’s hoping that the “Ghost” burger will “vanish” from Kuma’s menu and that you can find creative and humorous ways to further your brand without violating that which any group considers to be sacred.


-          Justin Bartkus, Chicago Resident

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Culture Warfare

The culture war is, in my perception, a psychological fact in American Catholic consciousness.  The distinctive sensitivity we have to such an apprehension of our Church is perhaps made most obvious in such situations as Notre Dame's invitation to President Obama as the keynote speaker for its 2009 commencement exercises.  In that episode, many U.S. bishops publicly voiced their opposition (or endorsement) of Obama's visit to the campus, and the collective consciousness of the American Church was swept into side-taking on this particular battlefield within the interminable war between rightist and leftist Catholic cultures.  Many rightists begged for the Vatican to make a public statement denouncing the invitation, while the Vatican's own Osservatore Romano acclaimed the invitation as an opening to dialogue.  The papal household itself responded with silence, which I took to be more an expression of their wise indifference regarding the politicized nature of American Church affairs than a concession to the left wing.  Or, to take another example: the supposed "novelty" introduced by Benedict XVI in including concerns over "life issues" in a "social encyclical."  In what alien parody of a Christian community do we live when the logical connectedness between the spiritual battles fought in protecting the issue of a mother's womb and those waged to stave off hunger and cruel neglect of the poor is considered something courageous and unprecedented? (I am here thinking of NYT columnist Ross Douthat's commendable op-ed on Caritas in veritate.)

In terms of ecclesiology, any self-styled "culture war" can be considered nothing other than a grievous sin and a tragedy.  Never mind trying to advocate a middle position based on "dialogue" or to rally the Church around a pilgrimage back to basic "orthodoxy" - both of these terms, essential to the Church's own self-understanding as Christ's single body composed of plural parts - have been territorialized by one or another faction of the culture war, such that the use of these terms raises a flag in the consciousness of most semi-knowledgable ecclesial observers.  The same goes for other such terms as "tolerance," "compassion," "devotion," "adoration," "tradition," "dogma," "women in the Church," "life," "catechism," etc.  As soon as one of these words or phrases is used, we brace for battle, knowing just what our foes mean by them.

This is what happens in war.  Language is co-opted.  Messages are distorted.  The resulting suspicion is not only the moral failing of individuals, but the distinctive quality of the entire thought worlds into which people are bred.  Warfare quietly, but totally, consumes the entire imagination of those who choose to engage in it - not to mention those who are so constituted as to belligerently, credulously and unthinkingly join in the fight.  Given the power of "culture war" in the American consciousness, it is difficult to find intellectual and spiritual spaces where these categories do not reign.  Where once was unity now reigns little but territorial claims over language, embedded hostility, and the lack of common reference.  When language is militarized, the religious imagination suffers, for it is only a contemplative environment, not a militarized one, that offers human beings the ability to wield the aesthetic and contemplative weapons that build up our species rather than debase it.   Perhaps the most irksome outcome of these conflicts is the the wearisome predictability in the discourse between these two factions.  Any new arguments proffered in the culture wars are simply re-processed instantiations of the party arguments, and we all know that nothing sucks the life and dignity out of human creativity more than partisan propaganda.