What Happens In Vegas
In 2003, in a brainstorming meeting of the Las Vegas tourism department the ad agency R&R Partners pitched an idea for a new campaign. They explained in their case study that “the emotional bond between Las Vegas and its customers was freedom—freedom on two levels: the freedom to do things, see things, eat things, wear things, feel things—in short, the freedom to be someone we couldn’t be at home; and the freedom from whatever we wanted to leave behind in our daily lives. Just thinking about Vegas made the bad stuff go away. At that point the strategy became clear. Speak to that need. Make an indelible connection between Las Vegas and the freedom we all crave.” And so was born “What happens in Vegas, stays here.” (Samantha Shankman. http://theweek.com/articles/459434/brief-history-what-happens-vegas-stays-vegas)
Brilliant idea, catchy slogan. It can give some people permission to shed their inhibitions, try new things, misbehave, experience new adventures, and be outrageous, without fearing judgment or blame. For the most part, it can be a lot of innocent fun. But in some particular cases, the whole clever enterprise invites the otherwise mature, intelligent, upright, and law-abiding citizen into a world of darkness, deceit, disrespect, irresponsibility, lawlessness, error and sin, namely activities involving immoral, illegal, and criminal behavior, and all their shameful and sordid consequences. You let your imagination run wild, then multiply by a hundred. The ad campaign has found a home in American popular culture, and spawned hit songs, novels, TV shows and movies, even copy-cats. You may even have heard or said some version of it yourself: “What happens in (insert name of place), stays here.” For most of the civilized world, there are no significant laws or rules—whether civil, religious, or moral—that only apply in some places and not anywhere else. And clearly, the Las Vegas tourism slogan is neither law nor rule, just a fun, care-free, and immature excuse to amuse your friends, shock your co-workers, and horrify your parents. Ask Prince Harry.
Instead, our scripture readings draw our attention to those behaviors that cause us and others to wonder what God would think. Now everything Israel understood of what God wanted of them is popularly enshrined in the Law of Moses. And Israel’s religious leaders taught that strict obedience to the Law gave a person a high degree of assurance they were doing what God wants. Such a simple and sensible thought process. No ifs, ands, or buts. Or as Nike would say, “Just do it.” But human beings can be a little thickheaded. Okay, a lot. Experience has shown that countless what-ifs have potential to generate doubt about certain ways of being and doing that we previously thought settled and unchanging. What if I didn’t know at the time, or I had a sick child, or I didn’t get the email attachment, or I was traveling through West Virginia, or I was on really strong medication, or my parents did a poor job of raising me, or I was only acting in self-defense? Are we just looking to wash our hands of responsibility and pin blame on someone else? Sometimes, the murkiness is legitimate. If it were easy, we wouldn’t be talking about it, Jesus wouldn’t have to address it, and bishops and priests would have nothing to do all day but pray the breviary and play golf.
So what exactly does the Catholic church teach? When people ask me that question, I first have to figure out whether they sincerely want to know so they can act accordingly, or they want to confirm what they already think of the church—that it is without compassion, unreasonable, outdated, out of touch, irrelevant, irresponsible, manipulative, oppressive, unfair. As in any other time in human history, many issues people struggle with today involve their sense of self and their God-given freedoms, the people they love, common decency, common sense, belonging, and fairness. I’m sure I left out a few things. But these concerns demand attention, or they leave many of us feeling hurt, confused, fearful, disgusted, and frustrated—gun violence, mental illness, racial tension, distrust of authority, clergy sexual abuse, religious intolerance, gender identification, the changing make-up of the family. It would be so much easier if we returned to a time when we knew nothing of these issues. But our longing for the past does not make it so. We are in the present, and we must face the challenges of the present. Ignoring, dismissing, or ridiculing the thorny issue or the people who are affected by it does not address it. Instead, we end up ignoring, dismissing, and ridiculing people just like ourselves, who want to live in freedom and dignity, love whoever they choose, raise their families, and contribute to the good of society.
“Be doers of the word and not hearers only, deluding yourselves,” we read from the Letter of St. James. And what exactly is this “word” we must act on instead of just hearing it? “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to care for orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” Clearly, religion that is pure and undefiled does not hinge on how intellectually and emotionally convincing an argument is about right and wrong, or who goes to heaven and who goes to hell. Instead, acting upon that word means we care for orphans and widows in their affliction. And we can extend this instruction to include the poor, the disabled, the elderly, children, exiles, aliens, and those on the fringes of society. And secondly, we should keep ourselves unstained by the world. What he means by the “world” seems to refer to things contrary to the Gospel. So keeping ourselves unstained by the world means not giving in to attitudes or behaviors that are opposed to the Gospel, that same Gospel that proclaims Jesus’ command that we love one another, that we love our enemies and pray for our persecutors, that we forgive our brothers and sisters from the heart, that we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and those in prison. But that was a different time and place, some people might argue. It’s not his fault that Jesus didn’t know about ISIS, illegal immigration, Russian aggression, Roe v. Wade, the 2nd amendment, climate change, HIV, the global economy, the liberal media, Miley Cyrus, campaign finance, common core, and the Affordable Care Act.
“Hear me, all of you, and understand. Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person; but the things that come out from within are what defile. From within people, from their hearts, come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly. All these evils come from within and they defile.” “You don’t know what you’re talking about, Fr. Rolo. It’s nobody’s business but mine.” What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. But lest we forget, God does see what happens in Vegas. And for us long as we think God will not hold us accountable for our actions, we are only deluding ourselves.
Rolo B Castillo © 2015