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“When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” 1Lewis Carrol and Alice Gerstenberg, Alice in Wonderland: A Dramatization of Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking Glass”, (Project Gutenberg,, 27.

Thus spoke Humpty Dumpty to Alice in the dramatization of Lewis Carrol’s Alice in Wonderland.” The dramatization, published in 1915, gives us a historical perspective on the problem of language and human communication. We make a hopeful but often forlorn attempt to capture and imprison the meaning of a word in, say, a dictionary. But the diversity of human passions grants pardon and parole, or sometimes just opens the cell and lets the convict escape, to wander the earth creating mischief with its imprecision. So the word “woke.”

I first encountered the word in the course of the 2016 contest for the Presidency of the United States while following with great interest the campaign of Bernie Sanders. There was something hopeful about his message. I had previously been a lifelong Republican, a great admirer of Ronald Reagan. But the politics of the 90s and 00s, Christian Nationalists and the Tea Party, had turned me away not just from the Republican Party but from politics altogether. There were (and are) elements in both major political parties that offended either my sense of the higher ideals of the American Republic or notions of justice, morality, and decency. Likewise, some of what Bernie advocated I couldn’t support, and I found it difficult to associate myself with some of his followers, but of all the candidates he was the one who made me hope that the promise of American democracy could affect positive change. My hope turned out to be chimeric. Bernie Sanders was defeated by establishment politicians (i.e., pharisees) whose professed politics (if not their actions) most closely resembled his own.

For me, at that time, the word “woke” meant a kind of progressive hopefulness. Dream big. Demand equal justice for all. Crush racism, economic inequality, bigotry, and nativism. Bernie Sanders would have been on board with Robert Kennedy in 1968 when he quoted George Bernard Shaw, “Some people see things as they are and say why?  I dream things that never were and say, why not?”

One of the real deficiencies in American politics is that we are a nation of hundreds of millions of people all with our own needs, wants, dreams, and visions, yet we are all expected to choose one of two positions. The dilemma is that choosing either will undoubtedly put you in league with people you vehemently disagree with and opposite some whose views are close to your own. In response for a time I followed the advice of Henry David Thoreau, who had written in Civil Disobedience that it is immoral to support an immoral position, and if there is no moral choice in an election you should abstain. Unfortunately, abstention from politics doesn’t positively affect the common good, and as citizens, we are all responsible for advocating what we believe to be the common good.

I found an answer to this dilemma in a document published by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops titled “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship.” Unlike what most expect from and ecclesiastical document, especially from a source as conservative as the Conference of Catholic Bishops, the document doesn’t specify who or what to vote for or against. Instead, it builds the case for approaching politics within the framework of Christian doctrine. It acknowledges the pitfalls of party politics and warns against single issue voting. The Bishops apparently expect that those whose consciences have been positively formed will make their choice based not on personality or hot-button issues but what is best for the common good. That may even mean voting for a candidate whose platform promotes issues we cannot support, as long as we are clear that we do not support them. This document is my go-to political platform. I am not bound to either “left” or “right” in American politics.

Have I gone far astray from the concept of “woke?” No. Because to me woke means that I try to recognize the world through the eyes of Jesus. Study the gospels carefully, my friends, and you will see what I mean. If Jesus lived today in the United States he would be neither a Republican nor a Democrat, but one whose will is to seek and save the lost. It should not be difficult for us to realize that whatever our station or outlook, we are included among the lost.

This morning I heard in Bishop Barron’s Sunday Sermon what summed up the word “woke” for me perfectly.

I will leave you with the definition and a link to the sermon. The speaker is talking about how Jesus healed the man born blind, and the reactions of the people who witnessed the healing.

But how did they react? Now enter the scribes and Pharisees who just cannot deal with this. They harass him, they question his legitimacy. They start to accuse Jesus of doing things he shouldn’t be doing. You want to say, “there’s a miracle just happened you guys – right in front of you, and you’re fussing about.“ Well, here’s the truth. There are a lot of people in our world deeply invested in blindness. Let me just say that again. There are a lot of people in this sinful world who are deeply invested in blindness. That means their whole life, their whole business, their whole way of making money through their whole political order, whatever it is, is predicated upon the fact that most people are not spiritually awake, that most people are spiritually blind, and so they don’t want someone who’s been liberated. They don’t want that. They don’t want someone that sees. He’s gonna cause them no end of trouble. I say to every one of you listening to me. If you’re commencing the spiritual journey, you’ve found vision in life, in Christ. Great, great. You could say “ego eimi” (ἐγώ εἰμι, “I am”). It’s no longer I who live, but Christ living in me. Terrific. But then. Stay wide awake. Be careful. Know that the devil is prowling like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. You will be opposed, trust me. Trust me. And the more Christ-like you are, the more you will be opposed because of all those people who are invested in blindness. So don’t be naive. That’s why Jesus says, you know, be as innocent as doves and as clever as serpents. Because you will be opposed as you walk the spiritual path, so just be aware of that.2Bishop Barron’s Sunday Sermon, March 19, 2023, I Was Blind and Now I See – Bishop Barron’s Sunday Sermon – YouTube. March 19, 2023

One thing is certain. Whatever “woke” means, the word and the concept are much more than a catch-all pejorative against everything I disagree with.