Words do not come easily to old preachers in the aftermath of the 2020 election. When we are dumbfounded, some of us have the blessing, or curse, of finding our voice in recorded sermons.
This video begins with the reading from the Gospel of Luke (printed below) and a brief story. To go straight to the substance of the sermon, move the cursor to the six minute mark.
“Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; they will be divided:
father against son
and son against father,
mother against daughter
and daughter against mother,
mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law,
and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.”
He also said to the crowds, “When you see a cloud rising in the west, you immediately say, ‘It is going to rain; and so it happens. And when you see the south wind blowing, you say, ‘There will be scorching heat’; and it happens. You hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky, but why do you not know how to interpret the present time?
“And why do you not judge for yourselves what is right? Thus, when you go with your accuser before a magistrate, on the way make an effort to settle the case, or you may be dragged before the judge, and the judge hand you over to the officer, and the officer throw you in prison. I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the very last penny.”
--Gospel according to Luke 12:51- 59 NRSV
In the last seconds of the eighth round of his championship fight with “Sugar” Ray Leonard, Roberto Durán turned his back to Leonard, and quit. The referee quoted Durán. “No más” (No more)! It’s time for you to do the same for the sake of the American people and the foundations of democracy, as well as for your legacy.
“No más. No más!”
No more tweets. No more denials of reality. No more claims that you won. No more frivolous law suits. No more rallies. No more “Stole the Election” demonstrations on the streets. No more congregating your fans with no masks or social distancing. No more emails like the ones you’ve been broadcasting three or four times a day since your defeat. No more assumptions that I am your best friend. No more emails like the ones your campaign, National Republican Committee, and Conservative Direct, like this one with the subject line about telling the truth.
HERE"S THE TRUTH
You've always been one of my strongest supporters, which is why I'm coming to you now with an urgent request.
I've activated the Official Election Defense Fund and I need EVERY PATRIOT, including YOU, to step up and make sure we have enough resources to PROTECT THE INTEGRITY OF OUR ELECTION.
(Insert request for money)
I need YOUR HELP to STOP the Left-wing MOB from undermining our Election.
I'm counting on you right now, Friend.
Only YOU can save America from the Radical Left. Don't let your Country down.
Donald J. Trump
President of the United States
I feel obliged to tell you the truth about my response to your emails. 1) The subject line — “HERE’S THE TRUTH” — is propaganda. 2) I have never been “one of [your] strongest supporters.” 3) You confuse patriotic duty with support for you. I see patriotism differently. The U.S.A. is bigger than any occupant of the Oval Office. 4) Patriotism is love of country. I love America. I love the Constitution. I love democracy. I love the constitutionally protected right and duty to engage in an on-going a lover’s quarrel. 5) I wince when any of us confuses America with what serves one’s own self-interests. 6) I turn red when a president makes groundless claims that undermine public trust in the electoral process. I respect losers who do what parents teach our children to do: accept defeat gracefully as part of life.
Grateful for the Mistake
Finally, I am grateful for the mistake. Had I not seen your pleas to “STOP the Left-wing MOB from undermining our election” and “to save America from the Radical Left,” I would be less privy to how you speak to your base and deceive your supporters to see people like me as the great threat to America.
Roberto Durán was tenacious. He was a World Champion. He also knew when it was time to admit defeat. He knew when to walk away. There’s wisdom there. For the sake of the country and a smooth transition to a new administration, I hope and pray you will do the same. Tell the Proud Boys, Boogaloo Bois, and Wolverine Watchmen to go home and put away their rifles. Tell them this is America.
No más. Please, no more.
Gordon C. Stewart
Gordon C. Stewart, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), Chaska, MN, November 16, 2020.
The 2020 American Election weighs in the balance. Whether the American seesaw continues to teeter or falls more heavily to one end or the other, the seesaw is where we are and will continue to be for the foreseeable future. No is ever the winner on the seesaw. Maybe that’s where the healing is.
SOCRATES ON PUBLIC AND PERSONAL HAPPINESS
Until philosophers rule as kings or those who are now called kings and leading men genuinely and adequately philosophize, that is, until political power and philosophy entirely coincide…cities will have no rest from evils…there can be no happiness, either public or private, in any other city.
Attributed to Socrates in Plato’s The Republic
Some of Socrates’ ideas brought ridicule from the men of Athens. There should be philosopher-queens, he argued, as well as philosopher-kings who govern in civil society. But the common consensus allowed no such thing. There were only kings — not philosopher kings and certainly not philosopher queens. Philosophers were like today’s monks — because they were people least likely to wish for power, they were best qualified; only philosophers could can be trusted to govern.
THOMAS MERTON: DETACHED OBSERVATION
“Where there is no critical perspective, no detached observation, no time to ask the pertinent questions, how can one avoid being deluded and confused?” — Thomas Merton (OSCO) (1915 – 1968)
STAYING ON THE PLAYGROUND: ASKING THE PERTINENT QUESTIONS
It’s not easy to detach from deeply held perspectives and commitments, but no one said life would be easy? The playmates at both sides of the seesaw need to get off our respective ends of the seesaw — FOXNews, MSNBC, CBS, ABC; twitter silos; and hate radio — in order to play the game more wisely. No less than in the Athens of Socrates and Plato, we bloody-nosed Americans could use some detached observation of the “pertinent questions” at the fulcrum of the seesaw.
MICHAEL LERNER ASKING THE PERTINENT QUESTIONS OF THE SEESAW
One of the people who sits on my end of the seesaw is Rabbi Michael Lerner of Tikkun, a progressive Jewish interfaith journal, and philosopher of “the politics of meaning.”
ClickTHIS LINK to hear the Westminster Town Hall Forum with Rabbi Lerner.
The topic was “Transcending Racism and Hate.” The date was March, 1997. Some things don’t change much. The voices of sanity and compassion still call us to our better selves.
Words don’t come easily this morning. Some 2020 election results seem firm. Others are yet to be determined. Whatever happens will leave America more black-and-blue than red and blue. There will be no “winners” when all the votes are counted.
If we are to escape a future of delusion and confusion, we need more distance, some space and time outside the ropes of the wrestling ring to ask the deeper questions about what is happening to us. In hope of contributing to that reflection, we offer this earlier Views from the Edge commentary.
What’s Happening to us: Postman, Orwell, Huxley and Us
Funny how things come together, crisscross, intersect, lead us down roads no one has ever walked before. Neil Postman offers insight into what’s happening. I read it one morning last week at the cabin, away from everything that entertains and distracts me from that little plot of land on the edge of the wetland in Central Minnesota.
Contrary to popular belief. . . Huxley [Brave New World] and Orwell  did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacity to think.
What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley fears was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much those that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centripetal bumblepuppy . . . . In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us. This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.
Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death
The wetland pond, the flyway, and return home
At the cabin, the water in the wetland is unusually high this year because of record-breaking rainfall. The flocks of Buffleheads and other non-diving ducks have by-passed their familiar stop on the flyway; the water is too deep to for them to reach the food sources below. Only the long-necked Trumpeter Swans, Sandhill Cranes, and Canadian Geese, and the diving Loons and Mergansers that can reach the bottom have stopped by this year.
Leaving the cabin and the wetland lead home to the world Huxley feared where the truth is drowned in a sea of irrelevance. We settle back into the lounge chairs in front of the television and flip through Netflix, YouTube, and other means of entertainment in what Postman later called the Technopolis in which our capacity for critical thought is numbed.
The new normal
We turn on the evening news and see two very different versions of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi speaking to the press. One is real. The other is altered by technology that deceives viewers into believing the Speaker is drunk, on drugs, or mentally impaired by slowing and altering the pace of her speech. The culture of amusing ourselves to death in the Technopolis distorts truth into propaganda, the first wave of what will become the new normal.
We’re not in make-believe Mayberry anymore. What we love — entertainment — is drowning us. In the world foreseen by Huxley, Orwell, and Postman, truth is hard to find. “Where there is no critical perspective, no detached observation, no time to ask the pertinent questions, how can one avoid being deluded and confused?” wrote Thomas Merton in Faith and Violence: Christian Teaching and Christian Practice.
Only the long-necked Trumpeter Swans, Sandhill Cranes, and Canadian Geese, and the smaller, deep-diving Loons and Mergansers can reach or swim to the bottom to see what’s real and what’s not in the Technopolis. William Britton’s Wisdom from the Margins with Neil Postman, Aldous Huxley, George Orwell, and Thomas Merton took me there this morning.
— Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, November 4, 2020 (originally published May 26, 2019)
The new normal in America is variously called the Post-Truth Era, the Post-Fact Era, the Post-Reality Era. We are left with our opinions unloosed from any objective measure.
“Half our sweet illusions are conscious illusions,” wrote George Eliot, “like effects of colour that we know to be made up of tinsel, broken glass and rags.” In order to be published in a man’s world, Mary Ann Evans (1819-1880) consciously created the public illusion that she was a George.
Between Rainbows and Tinsel, Reality and Holograms
The line between substance and illusion is as thin as the line between reality and appearance. The history of humankind is a tale of an idiot, humankind’s conscious preference for the “sweet illusions” that glimmer from tinsel, broken glass, and oily rags for the colors of a rainbow.
“It seems to be the contention of the Trump campaign that nothing is really true,” wrote Jack Holmes in the September 26, 2016 issue of Esquire; “it only matters what enough people believe, and whether you can dangle enough shiny objects in front of them until the clock runs out on November 8.”
Today is four years later, November 3, 2020, in the Post-Reality Era where we choose between the holograms that glitter from tinsel, broken glass, and oily rags, and the search for what is good, true, and beautiful.
Gordon C. Stewart, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), Chaska, MN, Election Day, Nov. 3, 2020.
Three year-old grandson Elijah’s a joy. He’s joyful! He’s loving. He’s funny. He makes me smile with his summersaults, singing and dancing. He makes me proud of him every morning when he helps fill Barclay’s bowl with his prescription dog food. Like Barclay, Elijah sees no evil, hears no evil, and speaks no evil, but he recoils at the sound of meanness.
Elijah isn’t mean. He loves Nora; Nora loves him. Elijah doesn’t know he’s Black; Nora doesn’t know she’s White. No one is superior at daycare.
Elijah doesn’t know what a country is, let alone that there’s something wrong with it, or how to make it great. He hasn’t learned to fear people like those who lynched 14 year-old Emmett Till in 1955, or their White nationalist offspring: the Boogaloo Bois, the Wolverine Watchmen, and the Proud Boys “staying back and standing by” with their pistols and rifles loaded if things don’t go their way in the 2020 election.
My grandson is too young to know the names of Medgar Evers, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, James Baldwin, W.E.B. Dubois, Paul Robison, Congressmen John Lewis and Elijah Cummings, President Barack Obama . . . or Trevon Martin, Freddie Gray, Philando Castille, Botham Jean, Breonna Taylor, Atatiana Jefferson, George Floyd, and countless other unarmed people like him who were killed by the police.
Elijah is three years-old. He didn’t see President Obama award the Presidential Medal of Honor to Civil Rights Movement hero Congressman John Lewis, or President Trump bestow the same honor on Rush Limbaugh whose daily radio broadcasts are seances with Joe McCarthy.
When I came home from voting with the bright red sticker I VOTED, Elijah recognized the letters. He knows his ABC’s. Someday I’ll tell him I voted for him and for all his friends and enemies.
“LIBERATE MICHIGAN” and “LIBERATE VIRGINIA” and campaign rally chants to “LOCK HER (i.e., the Governor of Michigan) UP!” would be disturbing under any circumstances. But the mantras that stir up domestic terrorists like the Proud Boys and the Wolverine Watchmen don’t come from two guys in a bar or members of a school PTAs in Michigan or Virginia. They come straight from the mouth of the President of the United States of America (POTUS) fighting to stay in the Oval Office where he will remain immune from criminal prosecution..
“I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
President’s Oath of Office
“TO THE BEST OF MY ABILITY”
When the oath-taker who swears to execute the duties of office “to the best of my abilities” has little or no ability to execute them, there is a problem. If a next-door neighbor’s sister and niece were to risk warning the neighbor that their brother and uncle is a skillful con-artist who cheated his own family out of their inheritance — a man with no moral standards, no respect for reality or truth, no conscience for establishing a fake university and fleecing the students who trusted him with their money — ordinary people would pay close attention. The neighbor might not be surprised when, several years later, well-armed militias swarm the neighborhood on orders of the “law-and-order” president of the homeowners’ association. But, even then, they might stay silent to protect themselves.
When the oath-taker who swears to execute the duties of office “to the best of my abilities” has little or no ability to execute them, there is a problem.
If a next-door neighbor’s sister and niece were to risk warning the neighbor that their brother and uncle is a skillful con-artist who cheated his own family out of their inheritance — a man with no moral standards, no respect for reality or truth, no conscience for establishing a fake university and fleecing the students who trusted him with their money — ordinary people would pay close attention.
The neighbor might not be surprised when, several years later, well-armed militias swarm the neighborhood on orders of the “law-and-order” president of the homeowners’ association. But, even then, they might stay silent to protect themselves.
The president of the association who walked out of the 60-Minutes interview with Leslie Stahl is railing now that tonight’s debate moderator and debate commission are biased and unfair in their decision to shut down his microphone during the two minute periods when his opponent is speaking. He will participate according to the rules to the best of his (limited) ability.
At tonight’s debate, Mr. Trump’s sister and niece will not be surprised when their brother and crazy uncle throws a fit and stomps off the stage in a rant.
As the president often says, when he knows something will happen, “We’ll see what happens.” When it happens, remember to tell your friends you first heard it on Views from the Edge. -:)
UPDATE: THE DAY AFTER THE DEBATE (OCT. 23)
Oops! Our prediction didn’t happen. We stand by the rest of the commentary as free-lance effort to highlight the American dilemma now and as far as the eye can see.
Gordon C. Stewart, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), Chaska, MN, October 22, 2020.
Like Shakespeare’s Hamlet, many a son is driven mad by a father’s ghost. Although most of our fathers were not murdered, as was Hamlet’s, our fathers whisper through the air long after they have ceased to be. We hear a voice that defies us to be as big as they or to exceed their stature, or to fill the void of emptiness and their sense of shame and shortcomings they took to the grave, or to find the love they withheld from us as children. A father’s ghost sometimes drives a son mad.
We are our father’s sons. Appearances to the contrary, madness is never far away.
“That he is mad, ’tis true; ’tis true ’tis pity;
And pity ’tis ’tis true —a foolish figure….”
— Plutonius to Queen Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother.
(William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2.)
The healthier sons among us still see our father’s ghost without being stuck in a room where his is the only voice that keeps us captive. We write a wider narrative that puts the father’s ghost where it belongs within the expanding narrative to which experience over time leads us to write. The less fortunate walk through life in “the hollow inner space where the story should be, but never was.” (Dan P. McAdams, The Strange Case of Donald J. Trump.)
The hollow inner space where the story should be
People without a redemptive narrative of the self — a life-story written in one’s own blood: the defeats no less than the successes, the release from the father’s ghost, the changes that unmute the helpless child’s cry for love and integrate the conscious changes that awake us from sleep-walking — deserve our pity and prayers.
A truly authentic fake
“Trump is always acting, always on stage,” writes McAdam, “— but that is who he really is, and that is all he really is. He is not introspective, retrospective or prospective. He does not go deep into his mind; he does not travel back to the past; he does not project far into the future. He is always on the surface, always right now.
“In his own mind, he is more like a persona than a person, more like a primal force or superhero, rather than a fully realized human being.”
Glitter and compassion
Long before the chairs and drapes in the Oval Office were glittered with yellow-gold, Edgar Alan Poe wrote in his Philosophy of Furniture, “Glitter — and in that one word how much of all that is detestable do we express.”
Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a tragedy too detestable to express: a trail of tears created by a son’s inability to write a narrative that integrates and moves beyond obsession with his father’s ghost.
The hollow inner spaces of others bring a tear to God’s eye, and call us to compassion in hopes that a new narrative of redemption. Truly authentic fakes who hide their emptiness with glitter deserve our pity and our prayers. They do not deserve applause or votes.
Any responsible citizen keeps track of the news. No American can honestly claim ignorance about matters of utmost national importance, like a white supremacist domestic terrorist plot to kidnap the governor of Michigan, or the invitation to a domestic terrorist group to “stand back, and stand by” . . . or the lifetime appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Anyone who can’t — or won’t — answer the question whether it is legal to interfere with and intimidate citizens’ Constitutional right to vote; anyone who can’t, or won’t, say unequivocally that the Constitution does not grant a president the authority or power to prevent the peaceful transfer of power; anyone who claims not to know President Trump’s frequently declared three-fold litmus test for filling the vacant seat of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg brings to mind the wisdom of Albert Einstein, Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes, and St. Augustine.
The lie was raised to the dignity of a political instrument.
Sin has many tools, but a lie is the handle that fits them all.
It’s not easy to love one’s enemies and to pray for those who persecute you in 2020. It’s hard not to cheer when the president who has shown no grief for the 214,000 American dead or compassion for the sick and mourning succumbs to the virus he once called a hoax. But this is not a time for cheering. No amount of cheering will fix what ails us.
“For everything there is a season, and time for every matter under heaven,“ wrote the ancient Hebrew sage (Ecclesiastes 3:1) centuries before a young Donald Trump found direction in Norman Vincent Peal’s gospel of the Power of Positive Thinking that vaccinates a person or nation against self-defeating thoughts that block success. No longer is there a season or time for weeping. No time for mourning. No time for Ecclesiastes’ sullen declaration that “all is vanity” or the depths of despair in the Psalms, Proverbs, Jeremiah, Lamentations, or the “Woes” of Amos and Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Evil is shrunk to the size of a thimble — the temptation of thinking negatively about success. Slowly but surely, the prosperity gospel without a cross replaces the ethic of the Golden Rule — “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” — and the Sermon on the Mount’s “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
“[T]he struggle against evil can make us evil,” wrote biblical scholar Walter Wink in Engaging the Powers, “and no amount of good intentions automatically prevents its happening.”
Good intentions have been hard to find, and, when we think we’ve found them, they sometimes become evil in disguise. The “vanity” of Ecclesiastes is never far away. The Hebrew word “hehbel” is a breath of air, or of the mouth — evanescent, empty, puffed up, wicked, false, and often idolatrous.
Evil as a Parasite
Like other parasites, evil does not breathe on its own. It requires a host. It exists only because of goodness. Rarely candid or self-identifying before its work is done, evil is pernicious. It slowly sucks the oxygen out of goodness. It wears the masks of saviors whose agendas are destruction. Evil is an arsonist masquerading as the fire department that will rescue us, while it strikes the matches that turn forests and homes into cinders and ashes. It assures us that the scent we smell is not real. It presents itself as what is the straight-forward talk that warps what is straight into something crooked.
The Scent of Smoke
Sometimes the scent and sight of smoke rise from a constitution in flames. A crook with Covid-19 lights a match in the name of law-and-order while encouraging the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by” and saying not a mumbling word after the federal and state agents uncover a white supremacist plot to kidnap the Governor of Michigan and spark civil war.
Though the parasite of evil starts slowly, its threat to our health cannot remain hidden forever. Eventually the power of positive thinking has to face the greater power it denies. The longing for goodness, truth and beauty may yet lead vanity to the operating room where a real doctor removes the parasite from the body politic.
This is a season to straighten what is crooked, to resist evil, while always reminding ourselves that the struggle against evil can make us evil.
If you applauded the president’s message to the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by” when the 2020 election doesn’t go his way, don’t read this tongue-in-cheek letter. If you find it chilling and need a good laugh, this epistle may bring a smile and a chuckle.
Views from the Edge: To See More Clearly, by the wetland, MN, October 1, 2020.
It ends before a paragraph is written. Anything I might say seems so obvious. Trite. I feel like Chicken Little! How many times can I warn that “the sky is falling!”? Why bother?
Once a preacher always a preacher? The people I most want to reach are professing Christians who leave me gasping for air: the part of the American electorate that seems so out of touch with their spiritual-moral core that they cannot see clearly the gaping chasm between their faith and their politics.
Can we find common ground?
Christians of all sorts read the same Bible. We read different translations, and we read it differently, but we read it. We cherry pick parts of the Bible that support our viewpoint and black out what we prefer to ignore. A search for a small patch of solid ground that could become the common ground for respectful conversation about faith and politics landed on Paul’s good counsel to the Philippians.
“Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, If there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” – Letter of Paul to the Philippians 4:8
Letter to the Philippians 4:8
We all need more of goodness. Less ugliness. Greater attention to the things that are excellent and worthy of praise; less attention to things that are worthy of scorn; more love, less hate. These qualities of character are a succinct guide in all areas of life. But no sooner do we agree with Paul’s wisdom than the divisions re-create themselves.
Christians, nones, dones, agnostics, and atheists
Yet no sooner do we shake hands in agreement with Paul’s advice, than we retun to the fight that brought us to this moment. In 2020, what do we deem truthful, honorable, just, pure, lovely, and commendable/worthy of praise, and how do the these qualities of character guide professing Christians as we make decisions in public life?
It troubles me that the nones, dones, agnostic and atheist friends practice what Paul advised more than the growing number who have read Paul’s letter. How does a professing disciple of Jesus become deaf to the shrillness, the ugliness, the smirk, the self-serving manipulation of the sacred, the drip-by-drip erosion of trust, the disappearance of what we once regarded as admirable?
White House Press Conference 09/23/2020
WH Correspondent: “Will you commit to a peaceful transition of power if you lose the election?” The President: “Well, we’re going to have to see what happens. You know that.”
WH Correspondent: “Will you commit to making sure there is a peaceful transfer of power?” The President: “We want to have — get rid of the ballots and you’ll have a very peaceful, there won’t be a transfer, frankly. There’ll be a continuation.”
Campaign mailing to homes in Minnesota
“To serve, protect, and defend the Constitution”
It’s hard to turn attention to whatever is excellent and worthy of praise when I see the American ancestors of the Philippian church applauding the desecration of what Paul taught, to say nothing of ignoring the violation of the President’s oath of office “to protect, serve, and defend the Constitution of the United States of America.”
The 2020 American electoral campaign reminds me of the day my two-year-old brother swallowed Drano before being rushed to the hospital emergency room where they pumped his stomach before the poison could kill him.
Who will pump our stomach before the Drano burns away the things that are commendable — and American constitutional republic — from inside out?
Gordon C. Stewart, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness, September 24.
We’ve had chipmunks and mice join us in the cabin next to the wetland, but never a woodpecker. Until last night.
The A-frame cabin is a quiet place. On an autumn day, we open all the doors and windows to let the breezes in, and to hear the sounds of trumpeter swans, ducks, geese . . . and various sorts of woodpeckers, like the Pileated Woodpecker that left a stump where an old oak tree stood three years ago.
This time of year there is a different sound: the pinging of acorns falling against the metal siding. It has no beat, rhythm, or staccato, like the rat-a-tat-tat of a woodpecker. Last night the pecking was coming from near the apex of the rough-cut pine walls inside the A-frame.
How does a woodpecker get inside a cabin? We concluded it had come through the screen door we had mistakenly left open. The woodpecker spent the night and next day with us until it came down from the rafters and flew back outside.
Early this morning, living with a woodpecker felt like a metaphor America before, and perhaps after, the November election.
Woodpeckers don’t belong inside the people’s house. If, by our neglect or a fluke of nature, a woodpecker should fly in through the screen door (the Electoral College) and is destroying the house peck by peck, the owners must usher him out before he does further damage. If they refuse to remove him, or he refuses to leave, the woodpecker will turn the rough-cut pine interior walls of a constitutional republic into sawdust. The metal siding may continue to stand, but the structure will be an empty shell occupied by a woodpecker.
Woodpeckers use their beaks to communicate as much as they do to find food. In a code all its own, a pecker’s Morse Code may signal personal distress or warn others of the same ilk against the cabin-dwellers conspiracy to take away their freedom and their Second Amendment right to defend themselves.
How the story unfolds is in our hands. If you’re a person of faith who has not decided how to cast your ballot, here’s some pointed guidance: Vote the Golden Rule rather than the Rule of Gold. You cannot serve two masters.
God help us all!
Gordon C. Stewart, by the wetland, September 22, 2020.
Can you hear the tablets breaking? Does it matter anymore?
As soon as [Moses] came near the camp and saw the [Golden] calf and the dancing, Moses’ anger burned hot, and he threw the tablets from his hands and broke them at the foot of the mountain. — Book of Exodus 32:19 NRSV
The artist’s in the portrait below seems to be wondering how we will answer in this election: Can you still hear the shattering of common decency? Is it making you sick?
You shall not take the Name of the Lord your God in vain ( Exodus 20:7) explained
According to Hebrew Bible scholar W. Gunther Plaut, the commandment against using the divine Name for vain purposes “forbids man [sic] in every respect to use God’s name wrongly or in vain. [M]urder, adultery and theft are circumscribed by opportunity and fear, but misuse of God’s name, once it becomes a habit will proliferate ‘and in the end one’s every assertion will be preceded by using the Name’. The result is a devaluation of awe and respect, and in time the holiness of God has no further meaning.
“On the whole… Jewish tradition treated the prohibition with utmost regard. It frowned on a all secular or self-serving use of the Name.” — The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Union of American Hebrew Congregations, NY, 1981.
And hast thou sworn on every slight pretense, Till perjuries are common like bad pence, While thousands, careless of the damning sin, Kiss the books outside, who never look’d within. – W. Cowper (1731-1800 CE) cited by The Torah: A Modern Commentary
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor (Ninth Commandment)
According to a report in Politico, Caputo, along with scientific adviser Paul Alexander, pressured officials to alter the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports, a long-running weekly journal that features the latest science-based research and data on infectious diseases. Known as MMWR, the report has long been a sacred government information resource for doctors, scientists and researchers tracking outbreaks. Caputo has often publicly pushed back on CDC statements about the coronavirus and said falsely in a Facebook video on Sunday that the CDC has a “resistance unit” against Trump, according to The New York Times. His Facebook page has since been made private. The officials pressured CDC to change the reports, at times retroactively, to better align them with Trump’s often rosier public statements about the coronavirus, Politico reported. — Excerpts from article by Andrew O’Reilly, Fox News
Yesterday Mr. Caputo apologized to CDC staff for his accusations and disrespect for CDC scientists.
Attorney General Bill Barr
In Barr’s eyes . . . it’s the Democrats who are actually doing what Barr’s critics allege of him.
“You know [how] liberals project,” Barr told Kass. “All this bullshit about how the president is going to stay in office and seize power? I’ve never heard of any of that crap. I mean, I’m the attorney general. I would think I would have heard about it. They are projecting. They are creating an incendiary situation where there will be loss of confidence in the vote.” In a moment of supreme irony, Barr then immediately hypothesized a fanciful scenario where unnamed figures rigged the vote in a battleground state. —Matt Ford, The New Republic, “Bill Barr’s Titanic Lack of Self-Awareness, The New Republic, Sept. 17, 2020.
Human Nature and the Normalization of Wickedness: Wisdom from Hannah Arendt
Arendt considers one particularly pernicious breed of liars — “public-relations managers in government who learned their trade from the inventiveness of Madison Avenue.” In a sentiment arguably itself defeated by reality — a reality in which someone like Donald Trump sells enough of the public on enough falsehoods to get gobsmackingly close to the presidency — she writes:
“The only limitation to what the public-relations man does comes when he discovers that the same people who perhaps can be ‘manipulated to buy a certain kind of soap cannot be manipulated — though, of course, they can be forced by terror — to ‘buy’ opinions and political views. Therefore the psychological premise of human manipulability has become one of the chief wares that are sold on the market of common and learned opinion…
“The self-deceived deceiver loses all contact with not only his audience, but also the real world, which still will catch up with him, because he can remove his mind from it but not his body.”
Election 2020: Who are we? What shall become of us? Who is “us”?
November 3, 2020 is about who we have become and who we choose to be.
The sound of Moses’ tablets breaking was heard again within minutes of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death. Justice Ginsburg’s dying wish was that her seat on the Court remain empty until after January 2021 — after the inauguration of 46th President.
Before prayers could be offered for the dead, we could see a vulture swooping to prey on a fresh corpse before the family had time to offer prayers for the dead and for themselves. Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell broke the respectful silence most Americans observe following a death, no matter your differences. You show respect for the dead and for the grieving.
McConnell immediately announced his disagreement with a dying wish that her seat on the Court remain empty until after inauguration of the 46th President in January 2021. Justice Ginsburg’s request had precedent. The Majority Leader had prevented President Obama from appointing a successor to Justice Scalia on the grounds that no SCOTUS vacancy should be filled during the last year of a president’s term. In the waning days of President Trump’s term of office, McConnell announced he would welcome an appointment and put it on the Senate floor for a vote.
There are no principles. Not even a trace of common decency, not a moment of silence that normal follows death –in this case, a momentary suspension of the politics of deceit and the worship of power.
With a crassness that breaks the common observance of respectful silence following a death in the community, practice Senator Mitch McConnell Senate and President Trump immediately declared his disagreement with Justice Ginsburg’s last wish. Her desire has precedent. The Senate will welcome a nomination during the remainder of President Trump’s term of office — an “about face” from his refusal to honor the nomination of President Barack Obama 11 months before the next President would take office.
There are no principles. Not even a trace of common decency that shows compassion for those who grieve and that respect for the deceased — a momentary suspension of the politics of deceit and the worship of power.
“@GOP We were put in this position of power and importance to make decisions for the people who so proudly elected us, the most important of which has long been considered to be the selection of United States Supreme Court Justices. We have this obligation, without delay!”
– DJP tweet
VOTE on or before November 3. It matters. Our character and this experiment in democracy are on the ballot as never before.
Climate change just jumped from the back of the stove to the front burner of our national conversation, where it belongs. Without weighing in on this bizarre campaign seasons, we bring re-post this commentary of October 10, 2018.
CLIMATE CHANGE AND THE GOLDEN HOUSE — October 10, 2018
Have you sometimes felt you’d be better off not knowing? But you can’t help knowing what you know, or think you know?
This is a time like that. It doesn’t just feel like that. It is a time like that. I know, for instance, that the over-riding challenge of our time is climate change. I also know that the ruling party in my country denies that climate change is real, and that neither major party sees climate change action as Priority #1. I know from articles like the one in yesterday’s Phys.org (“Carbon tax gets renewed attention but still faces resistance“) and the U.N. report that the clock is ticking. We’re fiddling while the Earth burns.
The story of Nero burning down Rome appears to be apocryphal. I know that now. But before I knew that, I wondered what the Roman Senate was doing. Did the members of the Senate follow Nero’s lead? Did they light their own matches? Did they applaud? Did any of them head for the well for the water buckets to douse the fire?
The real Nero Claudius was much different, but also, it turns out, much the same as the one I thought I knew. Britannica speaks as “infamous for his personal debaucheries and extravagances.” Its biography of Nero offers the following on the burning of Rome and the aftermath.
The great fire that ravaged Rome in 64 illustrates how low Nero’s reputation had sunk by this time. Taking advantage of the fire’s destruction, Nero had the city reconstructed in the Greek style and began building a prodigious palace—the Golden House—which, had it been finished, would have covered a third of Rome. During the fire, Nero was at his villa at Antium 35 miles (56 km) from Rome and therefore cannot be held responsible for the burning of the city. But the Roman populace mistakenly believed that he himself had started the fire in Rome in order to indulge his aesthetic tastes in the city’s subsequent reconstruction. — “Nero: Biography and Accomplishments,” Britannica.com.
Trump Hotel with gold-infused glass, Las Vegas, NV
Today, Nero and the U.S. Senate mock what I know: climate change is real and action on climate change should be priority #1 for every political political party and nation. Knowing Jesus’ parable about the foolish man who built his house upon the sand, and the wise one who built his house upon the rock, I keep hammering on the door of the Golden House that’s built on sand. “Our prayers are hammer-strokes against the princes of darkness,” said Jacob Christoph Blumhardt long ago. “They must oft be repeated. Not a single stroke is wasted.”
I add my little hammer-strokes to those of Governor Jerry Brown, Bill McKibben, 350.org, the Sierra Club for the rescue of the rain forests, the oceans, and all things green from the Golden House that threaten to entomb us. I can only live by what I know: the cry and hope that the hammer-strokes are not too late.
At least two things stay the same: 1) The wisdom of the elders, whose walks over the hot coals of turmoil have brought them to a deeper serenity, and 2) history repeating itself when memory of a previous era is almost gone. We begin with a moment my elders in a Care Center.
Serenity in the Care Center
Click Conversation in the Care Center to read and hear the All Things Considered (Minnesota Public Radio, 91.1FM) ) commentary written during an earlier campaign season not that different from today’s. The MPR page includes an audio link.
Is history repeating itself?
American historian David McCullough answered “Yes” when asked at a Westminster Town Hall Forum whether history repeats itself. Things do come ’round again. They go away until they’re nearly forgotten. 2020 marks the hundredth anniversary of the birth of the political party that turned a floundering democracy into a totalitarian state built on a fictional master race.
Do two things at once. Stay calm and resist evil with goodness. In the words often heard by congregations as they leave Presbyterian worship to exercise their faith in public life,
“Go out into the world in peace. Have courage. Hold onto what is good. Return no one evil for evil. Strengthen the faint-hearted . . . .”
Reading Psalm 87 recently was one of those “Aha” moments when eyebrows raise at the sound of music you did not expect to hear. This psalm of Zion struck a different chord.
On the holy mount stands the city he founded;
the Lord loves the gates of Zion
more than all the dwellings of Jacob.
Glorious things are spoken of you,
O city of God.
A Memory of Willie
Willie got the willies when the congregation sang “Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken” in McGaw Chapel at The College of Wooster. The professor of German language and literature, a naturalized American citizen, was flashing back to “the Fatherland” where he’d been born, momentarily paralyzed by the memories that haunted him. The Third Reich of Willie’s childhood had usurped Josef Haydn‘s musical setting of Psalm 87 for its own grandiose purposes. Deutschland had become the new Zion, the city of God, of which glorious things are spoken.
A Rebuke of nationalist exceptionalism
Psalm 87 is the poetry of a different theology and politics that startles those looking for religious and national exceptionalism. No nation, especially those that hide their sin behind the lofty goals of “unity, justice, and freedom,” is the Holy City Uber Alles.
Among those who know me I mention Rahab and Babylon;
Philistia too, and Tyre, with Ethiopia —
‘This one was born there,’ they say.
And of Zion it shall be said,
‘This one and that one were born in it’;
for the Most High himself will establish it.
Psalm 87 is striking for what it is and for what it is not
This Hebrew psalm looks above and beyond the pretensions of nation, ethnicity, and religion. Not everyone in the glorious city if God is Hebrew. Not everyone is a Moses, Aaron, or Joshua. Sure, it names Rahab — the Canaanite prostitute who provided cover for the Hebrew spies as they prepared to conquer Canaan. But Rehab in Psalm 87, say the biblical scholars, represents Egypt, the nation of Hebrew enslavement prior to the exodus. And there are Babylon, the land of exile, and Philistia, whose better armed giant Goliath fell with a thud from the shot from little David’s slingshot? What are the Philistines doing in this Hebrew song? And Tyre and Ethiopia?
The Most High will build the city into which, looking back from the future, all nations will see and know they were born there.
The Lord records, as he registers the peoples,
‘This one was born there.’
Singers and dancers alike say,
‘All my springs are in you.’
No nation is ‘Uber Alles.” No nation is accountable only to itself. The One whose Name is too Other, too Holy, to be spoken aloud — the eternal Presence, “I Am Who I Am” — registers the disparate peoples as citizens of Zion, the birthplace of the world.
The likes of Willie will no longer despair of a sacred hymn turned into a national anthem that idolizes a nation as the city of God, deluding its citizens to believe that “this one or that one” from elsewhere was not born there. Is it too much to imagine a day when all the peoples will sing and dance alike and say of Zion, “All my springs are in You”?
American historian Heather Cox Richardson summarizes the latest political developments. Each morning she draws from multiple news sources, but she speaks only for herself. She has no need to shout. No need to draw attention to herself. Like a neurosurgeon in an operating room, she speaks softly while opening the patient’s skull in hopes of healing. What she finds in America today is life-threatening. She also offers hope. We re-post her reflections from last Monday. Click the link below to read it online.
Letters from an American
September 6, 2020
Heather Cox Richardson
Earlier this week, New York Times columnist Farhad Manjoo warned that American democracy is ending. He pointed to political violence on the streets, the pandemic, unemployment, racial polarization, and natural disasters, all of which are destabilizing the country, and noted that Republicans appear to have abandoned democracy in favor of a cult-like support for Donald Trump. They are wedded to a narrative based in lies, as the president dismantles our non-partisan civil service and replaces it with a gang of cronies loyal only to him.
He is right to be worried.
Just the past few days have demonstrated that key aspects of democracy are under attack.
Democracy depends on the rule of law. Today, we learned that Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, who rose to become a Cabinet official thanks to his prolific fundraising for the Republican Party, apparently managed to raise as much money as he did because he pressured employees at his business, New Breed Logistics, to make campaign contributions that he later reimbursed through bonuses. Such a scheme is illegal. A spokesman said that Dejoy “believes that he has always followed campaign fundraising laws and regulations,” but records show that many of DeJoy’s employees only contributed money to political campaigns when they worked for him.
Democracy depends on equality before the law. But Black and brown people seem to receive summary justice at the hands of certain law enforcement officers, rather than being accorded the right to a trial before a jury of their peers. In a democracy, voters elect representatives who make laws that express the will of the community. “Law enforcement officers” stop people who are breaking those laws, and deliver them to our court system, where they can tell their side of the story and either be convicted of breaking the law, or acquitted. When police can kill people without that process, justice becomes arbitrary, depending on who holds power.
Democracy depends on reality-based policy. Increasingly it is clear that the Trump administration is more concerned about creating a narrative to hold power than it is in facts. Today, Trump tweeted that “Our Economy and Jobs are doing really well,” when we are in a recession (defined as two quarters of negative growth) and unemployment remains at 8.4%.
This weekend, the drive to create a narrative led to a new low as the government launched an attempt to control how we understand our history. On Friday, the administration instructed federal agencies to end training on “critical race theory,” which is a scary-sounding term for the idea that, over time, our laws have discriminated against Black and brown people, and that we should work to get rid of that discriminatory pattern.
Today, Trump tweeted that the U.S. Department of Education will investigate whether California schools are using curriculum based on the 1619 Project from the New York Times, which argues that American history should center on the date of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans to Chesapeake shores. Anyone using such curriculum, he said, would lose funding. Government interference in teaching our history echoes the techniques of dictatorships. It is unprecedented in America.
Democracy depends on free and fair suffrage. The White House is trying to undermine our trust in the electoral system by claiming that mail-in ballots can be manipulated and will usher in fraud. While Trump has been arguing this for a while, last week Attorney General William Barr, a Trump loyalist, also chimed in, offering a false story that the Justice Department had indicted a Texas man for filling out 1700 absentee ballots. In fact, in 2017, one man was convicted of forging one woman’s signature on a mail-in ballot in a Dallas City Council race. Because mail-in ballots have security barcodes and require signatures to be matched to a registration form, the rate of ballot fraud is vanishingly small: there have been 491 prosecutions in all U.S. nationwide elections from 2000 to 2012, when billions of ballots were cast.
Interestingly, an intelligence briefing from the Department of Homeland Security released Friday says that Russia is spreading false statements identical to those Trump and Barr are spreading. The bulletin says that Russian actors “are likely to promote allegations of corruption, system failure, and foreign malign interference to sow distrust in Democratic institutions and election outcomes.” They are spreading these claims through state-controlled media, fake websites, and social media trolls.
At the same time, we know that the Republicans are launching attempts to suppress Democratic votes. Last Wednesday, we learned that Georgia has likely removed 200,000 voters from the rolls for no reason. In December 2019, the Georgia Secretary of State said officials had removed 313,243 names from the rolls in an act of routine maintenance because they were inactive and the voters had moved, but nonpartisan experts found that 63.3% of those voters had not, in fact, moved. They were purged from the rolls in error.
And, in what was perhaps an accident, in South Carolina, voters’ sample ballots did not include Democratic candidates Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, although they did include the candidates for the Green, Alliance, and Libertarian parties. When The Post and Courier newspaper called their attention to the oversight, the State Election Commission, which is a Republican-majority body appointed by a staunch Trump supporter, updated the ballots.
Democracy depends on the legitimacy of (at least) two political parties. Opposition parties enable voters unhappy with whichever group of leaders is in power to articulate their positions without undermining the government itself. They also watch leaders carefully, forcing them to combat corruption within their ranks.
This administration has sought to delegitimize Democrats as “socialists” and “radicals” who are not legitimate political players. Just today, Trump tweeted: “The Democrats, together with the corrupt Fake News Media, have launched a massive Disinformation Campaign the likes of which has never been seen before.”
For its part, the Republican Party has essentially become the Trump Party, not only in ideology and loyalty but in finances. Yesterday we learned that Trump and the Republican National Committee have spent close to $60 million from campaign contributors on Trump’s legal bills. Matthew Sanderson, a campaign finance lawyer for Republican presidential candidates, told the New York Times, “Vindicating President Trump’s personal interests is now so intertwined with the interests of the Republican Party they are one and the same — and that includes the legal fights the party is paying for now.”
The administration has refused to answer to Democrats in Congress, ignoring subpoenas with the argument that Congress has no power to investigate the executive branch, despite precedent for such oversight going all the way back to George Washington’s administration. Just last week, a federal appeals court said that Congress has no power to enforce a subpoena because there is no law that gives it the authority to do so. This essentially voids a subpoena the House issued last year to former White House counsel Don McGahn, demanding he testify about his dealings with Trump over the investigation into the ties of the Trump campaign to Russia. (The decision will likely be challenged.)
On September 4, U.S. Postal Service police officers refused Florida Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) entry to one USPS facility in Opa-Locka, Florida and another in Miami. Although she followed the procedures she had followed in the past, this time the local officials told her that the national USPS leadership had told them to bar her entry. “Ensuring only authorized parties enter nonpublic areas of USPS facilities is part of a Postal Police officer’s normal duties, said Postal Inspector Eric Manuel. Wasserman Schultz is a member of the House Oversight and Reform Committee.
And finally, democracy depends on the peaceful transition of power. Trump has repeatedly suggested that he will not leave office because the Democrats are going to cheat.
So we should definitely worry.
But should we despair? Absolutely not.
Convincing people the game is over is one of the key ways dictators take power. Scholars warn never to consent in advance to what you anticipate an autocrat will demand. If democracy were already gone, there would be no need for Trump and his people to lie and cheat and try to steal this election.
And I would certainly not be writing this letter.
Americans are coming together from all different political positions to fight this attack on our democracy, and we have been in similar positions before. In 1858, Abraham Lincoln spoke under similar circumstances, and noted that Americans who disagreed on almost everything else could still agree to defend their country, just as we are now. Ordinary Americans “rose each fighting, grasping whatever he could first reach---a scythe---a pitchfork-- a chopping axe, or a butcher's cleaver,” he said. And “when the storm shall be past,” the world “shall find us still Americans; no less devoted to the continued Union and prosperity of the country than heretofore.”
Click HERE and scroll down to review the sources for this issue or to SUBSCRIBE to Letters from an American.
Some might call it treason and mistreason to do and to ignore what they cannot help but know: the strategic sabotage of a constitutional democratic republic some “losers and suckers” (DJT) still serve and some of us still pray and sing.
With thanks to Heather Cox Richarrdson,
Gordon C. Stewart, Views from the Edge, Chaska, MN, September 9, 2020.
After posting “The Incendiary President” yesterday, someone with better memory than I remembered the guest commentary aired by Minnesota Public Radio’s All Things Considered 10 years ago. Some things don’t change. The audio has vanished, but MPR’s archives preserves the text. In 2020, we are reaping the harvest of what we’ve sown.
Our nation is being poisoned by inflammatory rhetoric. How else does one explain the sending of a used condom to a Minnesota congresswoman, or the phone message left on Rep. Keith Ellison’s answering machine: “Timothy McVeigh said dead government workers are good government workers. Goodbye, Sambo”?
And that’s just here in Minnesota.
The success of a democratic republic depends upon the civility of its citizens and their respect for the offices of public servants, regardless of who occupies the office. Unless we clean up the language of our civil discourse, we are inviting unimaginable tragedy.
According to a Harris Interactive Poll taken this month, “more than 20 percent believe [President Obama] was not born in the United States, that he is ‘the domestic enemy’ of whom the U.S. Constitution speaks, that he is racist and aynti-American, and that he ‘wants to use an economic collapse or terrorist attack as an excuse to take dictatorial powers.’ Fully 20 percent think he is ‘doing many of the things that Hitler did,’ while 14 percent believe ‘he may be the anti-Christ’ and 13 percent think ‘he wants the terrorists to win.'”
Though I distrust the percentages of any poll, whatever the real percentages of such views, this cocktail is lethal. But it is not new. The acrid taste is familiar to my generation We grew up in another time when the civil discourse was being poisoned.
Sen. Joseph McCarthy was dumping poison — instigating a national witch hunt for communists and communist sympathizers in government, the entertainment industry, and labor unions. In the spring of 1954, McCarthy’s crusade of insinuation, innuendo and guilt by association was brought to an end by journalist Edward R. Murrow and Joseph Welsh, attorney for the U.S. Army.
Sharpening his teeth to devour his adversary by character assassination, McCarthy snarled and reminded Welch that one of Welch’s colleagues had belonged to an organization suspected of communist sympathies. Welch replied with words we all need to hear again: “Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”
Welch’s words took our breath away back then. They still do. A sense of decency is the only thing that will strengthen us to escape the politics of assassination and allow us to seek solutions in a difficult time. In Murrow’s words, “We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven into an age of unreason, if we dig deep in our history and doctrine, and remember that we are not descended from the fearful.”
Painting the president of the United States or members of Congress with McCarthy’s sloppy brush as domestic enemies — let alone as the Antichrist — gives deranged minds a license to send used condoms or hateful voicemails. Or even to plot an assassination.
I am a pastor. The use of Christian scripture to stoke the fires of fear and hate are the hardest to take. The Christian life takes evil seriously, but there may be no greater evil than ill-informed, loud spirituality. All the great religions hold some version of the essential tenet expressed in the First Letter of John, which, incidentally, is the only place in all of Christian Scripture that the idea of the Antichrist appears. “He who says he is in the light and hates his brother is in the darkness still.”
Where are the likes of Edward R. Murrow and Joseph Welsh now? We need them again.
Gordon C. Stewart, Minnesota Public Radio (91.1 FM), March 29, 2010. Re-posted September 4, 2020.
Good cartoons pack a wallop. They go to the heart of the matter. They squeeze book into a small picture frame. Steve Sack’s “GOT A LIGHT?” in Saturday’s Star Tribune does that. As we enter the home-stretch toward Election Day 2020, “Got a light?” cuts through the smoke and mirrors to issue a warning: “Don’t be stupid!”
Don’t strike the match that fuels the Trump campaign. Don’t be stupid!
White Supremacy dressed in Black: “Umbrella Man”
The backdrop for “Got a Light?” is the moment alleged to have turned a lawful citizen protest following George Floyd’s murder into a lawless scene of window-breaking, looting, and torching of the Third Precinct headquarters of the Minneapolis Police Department. A cell phone video preserved the provocative behavior of an unidentified white man dressed in black, wearing a gas mask, and holding an open umbrella on a sunny day. The video went viral.
The StarTribune reported that, before he smashed the store windows on Lake Street with a 4-pound sledge-hammer, “Umbrella Man” had spray-painted “free [expletive] for everyone” on the doors of AutoZone. Who was the white provocateur who lit the match that turned a peaceful protest into a riot? Why was he there so conspicuously?
"Investigators finally caught a break when a tipster e-mailed the MPD identifying him as a member of the Hells Angels biker gang who 'wanted to sow discord and racial unrest by breaking out the windows and writing what he did on the double doors.'
“Subsequent Investigation claims his association with the Aryan Cowboys Brotherhood, ‘a small white supremacist prison and street gang based primarily in Minneapolis and Kentucky.'”
Whether or not those claims are true, one thing is certain. The white man dressed in black holding an open umbrella on a sunny day appeared suddenly, shattered windows, and casually slipped away. He came from somewhere. He returned to somewhere. Umbrella Man was not a demonstrator. He did not come to protest the killing of George Floyd. He was a provocateur.
Both “agent provocateur” and the shortened “provocateur” can refer to someone (such as an undercover police officer or a political operative) whose job is to incite people to break the law so that they can be arrested, but only “provocateur” is used in English with the more general sense of “one who provokes.”
American White Alt-Right nationalist provocateurs like Umbrella Man may seem strange, but they are not new. The difference is they longer wear white hoods, carry torches, or burn crosses on the lawns of Black houses. They have no need to work under cover of darkness. The occupant of the White House permits encourages them to light matches in broad daylight to provoke the civil unrest that will rally an electorate to heed his call to establish law and order.
During the press conference the eve before his visit Kenosha, a President of the United States of America again refused to denounce the lawless abuse of power that killed Jacob Blake. Today, defying the expressed request of the grieving family, the mayor, the Governor and other Wisconsin elected officials, the president made his appearance, praising the police and adding further insult by answering a journalist’s question directed to the grieving parents of Jake Blake. The president again stoked the fires of white supremacist lawlessness, encouraging white men holding umbrellas on a bright sunny day to create the civil turmoil that will get him re-elected. “I am your law-and-order President!” “Russia, if you’re listening . . .
Provocateurs and the Rise to Power
The Nazi Party and Adolf Hitler rode to power on the civil unrest created by the Sturmabteilung (SA), the Nazi Party’s paramilitary, whose acts of violence they blamed on Leftists, anarchists, traitors, and non-Aryans created a climate that would welcome the Strong Man.
Once in office, Hitler no longer needed the SA or their commander, Ernst Röhm, whose loyalty he had come to doubt. When Herman Göring and Heinrich Himmler alleged that Röhm was organizing a coup, Hitler authorized and led the covert operation that became known as the Night of the Long Knives, the murder of SA leaders, including Röhm, whom Hitler had ordered to gather at a hotel in Bad Wiessee, a small town far from public notice. Eighty-five SA officers were murdered on the spot, or, like Röhm, taken to Berlin to be executed.
Cruelty Does Not Stay Masked Forever
Some things cannot be kept quiet. When the press began to learn of the purge, Reich “Minister Without Portfolio” Joseph Göring ordered newspapers not to publish the names of the dead, and ordered police stations to burn “all documents concerning the action of the past two days.” Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda Hermann Goebbels went on the radio to announce to the nation that Hitler had prevented traitors from overthrowing the government and throwing the country into turmoil. Eleven days later (July 13, 1934) Hitler gave the nationally broadcast speech to the Reichstag (the German equivalent of the U.S. Congress) in which he conflated the nation and himself. The strong man who has promises to make Germany great again proclaimed himself “the Supreme Judge of the German people” and called those who opposed him traitors.
If anyone reproaches me and asks why I did not resort to the regular courts of justice, then all I can say is this. In this hour I was responsible for the fate of the German people, and thereby I became the supreme judge of the German people. I gave the order to shoot the ringleaders in this treason, and I further gave the order to cauterise down to the raw flesh the ulcers of this poisoning of the wells in our domestic life. Let the nation know that its existence—which depends on its internal order and security—cannot be threatened with impunity by anyone! And let it be known for all time to come that if anyone raises his hand to strike the State, then certain death is his lot.
Adolf Hitler, broadcast speech to the Reichstag, July 13, 1934.
Concerned with the potential resistance of the Reichstag and the courts, Hitler’s cabinet pasted a veneer of legality over the purge: “The measures taken on June 30, July 1 and 2 to suppress treasonous assaults are legal as acts of self-defense by the State.”
Germany Then and America Now
There is no official equivalent of the SA in the USA. But neither the president nor his storm troopers need a command structure to carry out the mission they share. Provocateurs like Umbrella Man need the the Commander-in-Chief to stay silent and shift the blame to the non-Aryans among us.
Is it unreasonable to suppose a president with no moral compass, fearful of losing his bid for re-election, at risk of losing his fight to keep his tax returns from public scrutiny, and facing multiple felony indictments after leaving office would use the provocateur’s playbooks his first ex-wife and the co-author allege to have been only books in his bedroom, Mein Kampf and The Speeches of Hitler?
Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church in Chaska preserved some of the sermons from our seven years together. This sermon on Pharaoh’s midwives’ rescue of Moses from the bullrushes in defiance of the pharaoh’s order to kill Hebrew babies was preached in 2014. The biblical story speaks for itself in every time and place. In 2020 it again calls compassionate people to resist the policies of cruelty in the name of a compassionate God.
Footnote: the story of Katherine (Katie) refers my late stepdaughter, Katherine Slaikeu (RIP).
This re-blogged post featuring Bill Moyers’ interview with American poet W.S. Merwin (1927–2019) caught my attention while preparing a Views from the Edge reflection (yet to be published) that will draw from Albert Camus’ statement about war living inside ourselves.
The YouTube featured by this blogger was an unexpected gift. Ponder and enjoy!
[.. BILL MOYERS: When we confirmed this meeting, you suggested that I read a poem in here called “Rain Light.” Why did you suggest that one?
W.S. MERWIN: I don’t know, I just — that seems to be a very close poem to me.
BILL MOYERS: Here it is.
“All day the stars watch from long ago
my mother said I am going now
when you are alone you will be all right
whether or not you know you will know
look at the old house in the dawn rain
all the flowers are forms of water
the sun reminds them through a white cloud touches…
During 3+ years in the Oval Office, Donald Trump has succeeded in doing what no president before him had accomplished. He’s told more lies than the cumulative lies of all his predecessors, an accomplishment that history will remember as his singular achievement.
The stories we tell about ourselves shape our reality. Facts may or may not matter. Objective reality may or may not matter. The trustworthiness of the story-teller may or may not matter. It’s the narrative that matters. Even the best convictions are vulnerable to burglary.
Burglars rob houses that belong to other people. They don’t claim to own the houses they’ve burgled. They don’t occupy the houses they burgle. They don’t break tradition by making nationally televised speeches on the lawn of the house they’ve burgled.
The 2020 Campaign Speech — a Burglar’s Narrative on the People’s Lawn
Last night some owners of the burgled house on Pennsylvania Avenue heard the “law-and-order” candidate for re-election sound the alarms against “violent anarchists, agitators, and criminals” who threaten to occupy the house he thinks he owns.*
*There were no chairs on the South Lawn for former National Security Advisors Michael Flynn, H.R. McMaster, and John Bolton, Defense Secretary “Mad Dog” Maddox, long-time attorney-fixer Michael Cohen, old friends Jeffery Epstein (RIP) and Ghislaine Maxwell, family members Mary Trump (niece) and older sister Maryanne, grieving relatives of police shootings and of the 175,000 Covid-19 dead, or Dr. Anthony Fauci.
Let the earth rejoice;
Let the multitude of the isles be glad.
- Psalm 97, Book of Common Prayer
There is no multitude of isles here. I see instead a multitude of cattails, and lily pads waiting to splash bursts of yellow on this off the map wetland pond, this place like no other among the multitude of wetlands, marshes, and fens. It calls no attention to itself. Perhaps that’s why I like it so.
Eared Grebe caution and curiosity
This morning an Eared Grebe teenager is playing hide-n-seek, surveilling the stranger on the dirt road. I see only one. It darts behind the cattails and shows itself again, paddling among the lily pads with eyes trained on the stranger, its head turning left, to right, and straight ahead again before diving out of sight and rising here and there, looking and hiding until, suddenly, three siblings who’d slept in late turn the caution and curiosity of one into the daily familiarity of four — life without strangers.
Eared Grebes and the fine arts
I wonder whether Eared Grebes hear and see what only children, painters, musicians, and poets of my kind know, stopping to see and listen and rejoice with the isles themselves: “The LORD is King; let the earth rejoice; let the multitude of the isles be glad!” (Psalm 97:1).
Troubles and the gladness of another day
Do Eared Grebes know of kings and queens, of gods and goddesses? Do they shudder and call for momma, huddling in their nest when thunder rolls and lightening flashes to light the starless sky? Do they smell the far-off smoke or hear the crackling fires from the Outback? Do they rue the death of ‘Roos? Do they despair of fires, earthquakes, winds, rising seas, floods, and dried up ponds? Do they imagine the mountains melting like wax? Do they have phonies who plunge them into despair or the ‘truehearted’ who raise their spirits to the gladness of awakening to another sunrise over the wetland?
The wonder of cattails and lily pads
Are Eared Grebes more attuned than the stranger to the wonder of this isle of cattails and lily pads, this isle with no distractions, where LIFE Itself— beginning, middle, and ending — is “Lord and King”?
The LORD is King; let the earth rejoice;let the multitude of isles be glad!
Gordon C. Stewart, by the wetland isle, August 12, 2020.
So runs my dream, but what am I?
An infant crying in the night
An infant crying for the light
And with no language but a cry.
-- Alfred Tennyson,"In Memoriam"
Some things change; some things stay the same
George Floyd died face-down under a police officer’s knee, his hands in handcuffs behind his back, crying for help. Without the video taken by a distraught citizen, neither George Floyd’s cries nor the Minneapolis police officers’ behavior would have come to the world’s attention. The cries from pavements, walking paths, and apartments in Minneapolis, Atlanta, Louisville, Aurora and elsewhere in the U.S.A. are nothing new. What’s different now is that we have mobile phones with cameras.
What has not changed is Jesus’s rebuke of his disciples. Children raised in a Christian tradition, no matter how different their doctrines and practices, hear the story early in life. The story of Jesus’s love of children and rebuke of his disciples is a source of comfort. The story stayed with me through 40 years of ministry in higher education and prominent Presbyterian churches until life took a turn that led from the pulpit to the streets.
The Crosshairs of Race and Class
Legal Rights Center is the storied institution founded in 1970 by the American Indian Movement (AIM) and African American civil rights activists with the go-to street lawyer for Black and urban Indian communities of Hennepin County, Doug Hall. Legal Rights Center was one of a kind — an independent law office that belongs to communities of color for the purposes of social advocacy for and quality legal representation of low-income people of color that challenged the explicit and implicit white racism embedded in the court system. Seven years as Legal Rights Center’s executive director put me in the cross-hairs of systemic racism and the Minneapolis Police Department.
The Swastika on a Black man’s back
A young Black man comes to the Legal Rights Center to tell his story. All LRC attorneys and community advocates are in court. “Would you like to speak with the executive director?” asks the receptionist.
In the privacy of my office, he pulls up his shirt to show the swastika a police officer etched into his back.
The swastika, he says, was etched into his flesh after he had witnessed two MPD Fourth Precinct officers’ necessary use force during an arrest. No police officer wants a witness; no cop wants a complaint to be filed. The officers threw him, the witness, to the street and held him face-down. One of the officers took out his keys and scratched something into his back.
You should take this to the FBI
After the young man and I have reviewed his options, he chooses to do the unthinkable: tell his case directly to the Commander of the MPD Fourth Precinct. At Fourth Precinct headquarters, the commander leads us back to his office and asks what brought us there. I introduce myself as LRC’s new executive director and tell him why we’re there. The commander rarely looks up, takes phone calls, and shuffles papers on his desk. Just another Black kid who hates cops; just another clueless white do-gooder. Until the young man stands, turns his back to the commander’s desk, pulls up his shirt and shows him.
The swastika gets his full attention. He asks for information. Did he get the badge numbers or the squad car number? Did he hear any names? “Are you sure you can’t remember? Did one of the names begins with a ‘B’?”
“This goes way beyond Internal Affairs,” he says. “You should take this to the FBI.” The young man trusts the FBI no more than the Minneapolis Police Department. End of story.
Urination on an Ojibwe back
Residents of Little Earth of United Tribes housing report an incident involving an off duty Minneapolis Police Department officer working a second job as a Little Earth nightshift security officer. The outside temperature was below zero when the officer drove into the back parking lot and turned out the lights. Through their apartment window they watch him throw an inebriated man and woman onto the snow-covered pavement. The woman manages to run to an abandoned car. The man is lying on his back. The officer stands over the man, unzips his fly, and relieves himself. The witnesses do not recognize the man or the woman as Little Earth residents.
The Little Earth housing director reported the incident to Clyde Bellecourt (pictured here on the left), Vice President of the Legal Rights Center Board. Two days later Clyde learns the man’s identity and brings him to a small gathering to tell his story.
He’s not sure the blue denim jacket he’s wearing is the one on which the officer relieved himself at Little Earth. It could be someone else’s jacket. There are lots of blue denim jackets at detox. They try to give you the right one when you leave, but it’s not a clothing store. There’s no guarantee. All he can say is it looks like his. Even so, in hopes the jacket is the same, snd that it may provide DNA evidence matching the officer’s, the jacket is placed in our hands for safe-keeping. We put the jacket in an air-tight sealable bag, take it to a secure place no one will suspect (the trunk of my old Toyota) and proceed to arrange a meeting with the MPD Chief of Police.
The meeting is more than we expected. Eight senior officers, including the Deputy responsible for Internal Affairs. This is not normal. Somebody smells a rat. The police union has the MPD and the city administration in a strangle hold. The Chief agrees to get a urine sample from the officer in question and consents, with no protest, to our proposal that the DNA be done out of state at the MPD’s expense. During the two-hour meeting, we have the distinct feeling that the Chief has reasons to seek evidence of this officer’s alleged behavior. The urine sample and the jacket are sent to an independent lab in Maryland for DNA testing.
The report from the lab seems to disappoint the Chief as much as it does us. The jacket has been compromised by multiple layers of vomit and other materials accumulated over a number of years. The lab cannot establish evidence of a match. We return to the initial question whether the jacket given him when he left detox belonged to someone else. The detox center coatrack is filled with frayed blue denim jackets from Goodwill or Catholic Charities. A cashmere overcoat from Nordstrom’s never hangs on the detox rack.
Until broken systems cease to be
Unlike the more recent scene from Aurora, neither George Floyd, nor the man whose back now carries a swastika, nor the man and woman dumped in the dimly-lit parking lot at Little Earth was a child, but they were all met with the same condescension that Jesus rebuked. People with ears to hear recognize the echo and those with trained eyes see the distant light from another time and place. The rebuked disciples of Jesus know what Tennyson knew and live toward day this winter turns to spring when no child of God is hindered, “…for the kingdom of heaven belongs to these.” (Matthew 19:14b)
Our little systems have their day;
They have their day and cease to be:
They are but broken lights of thee,
And thou, O Lord, art more than they.
-- Alfred Tennyson, "In Memoriam" (Prelude)
Gordon C. Stewart, author, Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), Chaska, Minnesota, August 9, 2020.
Smiling East-West spirit, You move with sun and Son, Shining Peace on us.
Like a child piling blocks Your words construct new dreams, Towering poet.
Gentle and strong, as trees Bend gracefully in wind, You stand – and I bow.
— In memory of Kosuke Koyama, Peggy Shriver, NY, NY
Meeting Kosuke Koyama
One of the great pleasures in life has been the unexpected friendship with Japanese theologian Kosuke Koyama.
Ko, as his friends called him with great affection, and his wife Lois, a native Minnesotan, came to Minneapolis following retirement from a distinguished teaching position at Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York. I knew him only by reputation: John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Professor of World Christianity Emeritus; cutting edge Asian liberation theologian and leader in Thailand, Singapore, New Zealand, and the United States; author of Water Buffalo Theology, No Handle on the Cross, Three Mile an Hour God, Mt. Fuji and Mt. Sinai, among others; pioneer in Buddhist-Christian intersection and inter-religious dialogue; spell-binding keynote speaker at the Fifth Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Nairobi, Kenya.
The Firebombing of Tokyo
The friendship that developed, if friendship can be defined to include mentors and those they mentor, great minds and ordinary ones, people of stature and those who look up to them, the wise and the less wise, was particularly impactful because my father had been an Army Air Force Chaplain in the South Pacific in World War II.
During the March, 1945 firebombing of Tokyo, the planes came from my father’s air base. Though my father rarely spoke about the war, a sullenness came over him when I would ask him for stories. All these years later I was learning from Ko what the war had meant to him, the 15-year-old Japanese boy being baptized in Tokyo while the bombs dropped all around his church.
Neighbor-Love — “Even the Americans”
The pastor who baptized him took Ko’s face in his hands to instruct him: “Kosuke, you are a disciple of Jesus Christ. You must love your enemies…even the Americans.”
For the rest of his life Ko pursued the daunting question of what neighbor love means. Who is the enemy? Who is the neighbor? Are they one and the same? Late in his life, before he and Lois moved from Minneapolis to live with their son in Massachusetts, he had come to the conclusion that there is only one sin: exceptionalism. At first it struck me as strange. Can one really reduce the meaning and scope of sin to exceptionalism? What is exceptionalism, and why is it sinful?
The Sin of American Exceptionalism
At the time of our discussion, the phrase “American exceptionalism” – the claim that the United States is exceptional among the nations – was making the news. It was this view that led to the invasions and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq – the unexamined belief that the Afghanis and the Iraqis would welcome us with open arms as liberators – that captured in a phrase the previously largely unspoken popular conviction that America is exceptional.
In this American belligerence Ko heard the latest form of an old claim that had brought such devastation on his people and the people of the world. The voices from the White House, the State Department, and the Department of Defense, though they spoke English, sounded all too familiar, impervious to criticism and restraint on the nation’s military and economic adventures.
Hiroshima Day in Minneapolis 2006
Fourteen years ago today, on Hiroshima Day, 2006 he spoke to a small crowd at the Peace Garden in Minneapolis at the exact hour the bomb incinerated Hiroshima. His voice rang with a quiet authority that only comes from the depths of experience. Here’s an excerpt from that speech:
“During the war (1941-45) the Japanese people were bombarded by the official propaganda that Japan is the divine nation, for the emperor is divine. The word ‘Divine’ was profusely used.This was Japanese wartime ‘dishonest religion’, or shall we call it ‘mendacious theology’? This ‘god-talk’ presented an immature god who spoke only Japanese and was undereducated about other cultures and international relations. Trusting in this parochial god, Japan destroyed itself.
“Then, dear friends,”” he said to make his point to his American listeners, “do not trust a god who speaks only English, and has no understanding of Arabic or islamic culture and history. If you follow such a small town god you may be infected with the poison of exceptionalism: ‘I am ok. You are not ok.’ For the last 5,000 years the self-righteous passion of ‘I am ok. You are not ok’ has perpetuated war and destruction. War ’has never been and it will never be’ able to solve international conflicts, says Pope John Paul II.”
Two paragraphs later, Koyama spoke in terms that speak to the policy of drones and other advanced military technology:
“In spite of the remarkable advances humanity has made in science/technological [sic], our moral and spiritual growth has been stunted. Humankind seems addicted to destruction even with nuclear weapons and biological weapons. Today there are 639 million small arms actively present in the world (National Catholic Reporter, June 30, 2006). Fear propaganda always kills Hope. Violence is called sacrifice. Children killed in war are cruelly called a part of the ‘collateral damage’.”
This Hiroshima Day I wish I could break bread with Ko and my father to discuss the meaning of it all and share with Dad the haiku poems published in The New York Times following Ko’s death, written in his honor by his colleague at Union, Peggy Shriver, testaments to hope in belligerent times.
John Lewis and Rush Limbaugh were miles apart, but they shared the distinction of having been awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, a recognition as close to sacred as the American republic gets.
Today in America: Selma and Palm Beach
Six months after First Lady Melania Trump draped the medal around Mr. Limbaugh’s neck, the Freedom Rider beaten by the law-and-order enforcers at the Edmund Pettus Bridge (see photo below) made his last trip from Selma to Montgomery. The other Medal of Freedom honoree is holed up in a Palm Beach mansion, pontificating about “the Leftists” conspiring to take away your guns and strike your Second Amendment rights from the Constitution.
Whether John Lewis and Rush Limbaugh ever occupied the same space before or after the 2020 State of the Union Address, I imagine Mr. Lewis greeting Mr. Limbaugh with the courtesy and kindness that shows due regard toward a precious, wounded, soul hidden somewhere behind the blabbering vitriol. There is a part of us — a divine spark within — that cannot be erased, no matter how hidden from our eyes.
Tears are flowing among those who have lived long enough to see the terrifying difference between the two presidents, two awards, and two men who symbolize such different bridges: one from Selma to Montgomery, and the newer one that leads a democratic republic to fascism. From some of us a prayer is offered that when our time comes to cross over, our crossing may be worthy of renaming some bridge where we made our sacrifices for humankind.
Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Monday, July 26, 2020, in honor of Congressman John Lewis (RIP) and the way of love.
What is happening in Portland and American cities where Black Lives Matter continues to oppose the violence and lawlessness of those sworn to protect and serve. A search through previous Views from the Edge posts led back to August 22, 2014.
Click THIS LINK to read “Homeland Militarization — tanks in Ferguson, Blackhawks in Minneapolis — must be stopped” published by MinnPost.com. The conversation — 38 comments — was more telling than the piece. In 2017 the MinnPost commentary became the 30th of the 48 brief social commentaries of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness(2017, Wipf and Stock).
Today’s NYT sounds an alarm with a picture from the June 6, 2020 cover of Der Spiegel (6.6.20) depicting Donald Trump with a match. What German readers see feels chillingly familiar. They still smell the smoke from 1933.
Thanks for coming by. Be careful out there. Wear a mask to stay safe, and tonight –while mourners pay their respects to John Lewis in sanctuary of the African-American Episcopal Church of Selma and prepare for his last trip across the Edmund Pettus Bridge — make some good trouble, the only kind that heals a broken world.
Pardon, please, the posting of an old sermon. It’s the best I can do this morning.
With “thanks, thanks, and ever thanks” to the gentle people of Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church in Chaska, MN — Gordon C. Stewart, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), a collection of 49 brief reflections written from inside the furnace of the refiner’s fire; Chaska, MN, July 25, 2020.
John Lewis never knew and had no reason to care that we held some things in common. We shared a point of view that comes from reading the Psalms (“The earth is the LORDS’s and the fullness thereof…”[Ps. 24:1]), and the Book of Micah (“What does the LORD require of you but to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God?” [Micah 6:8]), singing the same hymns in our Baptist and Presbyterian hymnals, and finishing theological educations at Fisk and McCormick.
John Lewis knew what a cracked head was
Yesterday’s Views from the Edge’s post pointed to what might be considered the centerpiece of John Lewis’s life — the conviction that “we all live in the same house.” John Lewis lived that conviction before and after the batons cracked his skull at Edmund Pettus Bridge.
John Lewis knew what a cracked skull was, and he knew that the Crackers’ skulls were cracked worse than his.
John Lewis and Kosuke Koyama
There is no evidence that John Lewis met Japanese theologian Kosuke Koyamaor read any of Koyama’s books on the anguished heart of God. But focusing on the Congressman’s witness in word and action brought the two of them together in my cracked head. I’m even more confident that John Lewis never knew of or read “The Economy: Only One House,” “Only One Sin: Exceptionalism” or “The World in an Oyster” in Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness, the collection of essays dedicated to Koyama. (Note: Click the above link to Amazon, click “Look Inside,” open the Table of Contents, and click the titles to glimpse the essays, or read “Just One Country” published May 2, 2012 by Views from the Edge.
A Poet’s bow to gentleness and strength — Peggy Shriver’s Haiku to Koyama
The haiku tribute to Koyama by his friend and faculty colleague at Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York featured on Be Still!‘s dedication page, expressed how I felt after Ko’s death in 2009. Today the last stanza of Peggy’s haiku puts words to what I feel about John Lewis.
Gentle and strong, as trees Bend gacefully in wind, You stand — and I bow.
So much can and should be said following the death of Congressman John Lewis, but every attempt to pay tribute to him here on Views from the Edge fails to reach the high bar of tribute and thanksgiving to which he is entitled. Into this wordless void came a message sharing Eric Whitacre’s virtual global choir singing “Sing Gently” – the sound of hope and gentleness that sings what words cannot say.
The Congressman’s words after watching video of George Floyd’s death reach are as deep and wide as Eric Whitacre’s musical testimony (scroll down).
“We’re one people,” he said, “we’re one family. We all live in the same house, not just the American house but the world house.”
They cracked his skull at the Pettus Bridge; his character remained unbroken
John Lewis’s skull was cracked by officers enforcing the law-and-order of white supremacy and white nationalism, but his faith and Christ-like character could not be broken. He was as gentle as he was strong.
Sing boldly. Sing gently. If John Lewis found the strength and courage to sing his way through all the troubled waters his world was making, who am I to keep from singing?
Gordon C. Stewart, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock) available on the publisher’s website and on Amazon, Chaska, MN, July 20, 2020.
As a child you may have scanned the shoreline for just the right flat rock to skip. When you were lucky, the stone you picked skimmed the the water, skipping five, six, seven or —if you had thrown it side-arm like the ageless Satchel Paige — eleven or twelve times, or more. Some day you might make it to the Bigs!
You lost all sense of time. It was you, the water, and the latest stone you had freed from among the millions of unremarkable rocks and pebbles on the shoreline. The stone couldn’t be too big or too small. It couldn’t be too heavy or too light. It couldn’t be round, rough, or jagged.. It had to be flat to skim across the water, or it would sink like a stone and disappear. Or cause a loud splash that only losers make.
Last Friday, in the darkness, a little boy picked a jaggest stone, hoping against reason, that, if he commuted its sentence as worthy of skipping its sentence, it would draw little attention. The boy leaped for joy until the splash was heard around the shoreline. The Stone did not skip or sink. It floats like styrofoam. The boy insists the Stone was flat and worth the skip. The ripples from the splash grow wider by the hour.
Three days later: Washington, D.C.
A federal judge on Monday demanded more information about the boy’s selection of the stone for special treatment.
Later in the day, the boy told reporters that he was getting “rave reviews” for picking Stone and restated his position that the Russia investigation “should have never taken place.”
Who we shall become is as cloudy as who we have been. Whatever pasts and futures we Americans imagine differently, we know we are in the midst of a national and global crisis. Whether or not we wear a mask, social distance, or march on the streets, we sense it in our bones. Anxiety is everywhere. We cover our eyes and wait to see who and what shall become of us.
Crisis as terrible, wonderful, and . . . .
Crisis – that is, the serious encounter of a man (sic) with exactly that which now threatens his own life, with that which represents, signifies, and warns of his own death – is always terrible, wonderful, eventually inescapable, saving and holy. ― William Stringfellow, A Private and Public Faith.
Re-imagining America begins with facing reality as we experience it, and asking why. No two people experience America the same way, yet all of us experience the same America. How it looks from the shores of Palm Beach and La Jolla or the banks of the Potomac is different from East Harlem where “street lawyer” William Stringfellow worked and bore witness in “Jesus the Criminal” in Christianity and Crisis in 1970:
We who are Americans witness in this hour the exhaustion of the American revolutionary ethic. Wherever we turn, that is what is to be seen: in the ironic public policy of internal colonialism symbolized by the victimization of the welfare population, in the usurpation of the Federal budget—and, thus, the sacrifice of the nation’s material and moral necessities—by an autonomous military-scientificintelligence principality, by the police aggressions against black citizens, by political prosecutions of dissenters, by official schemes to intimidate the media and vitiate the First Amendment, by cynical designs to demean and neutralize the courts.
Yet the corruption of the American revolutionary ethic is not a recent or sudden problem. It has been inherent and was, in truth, portended in the very circumstances in which the Declaration of Independence was executed. To symbolize that, some 30 white men who subscribed to that cause at the same time countenanced the institutionalization in the new nation of chattel slavery, and they were themselves owners of slaves. That incomprehensible hypocrisy in America’s revolutionary origins foretells the contemporary decadence of the revolutionary tradition in the USA. — “Jesus the Criminal,” Christianity and Crisis, June 8, 1970.
Some things remain the same
Some things remain. Some things never go away. Some things that look different are the same. Jesus of Nazareth and Jesus Barabbas shared more than a name. Both were criminals in Roman custody. One was convicted and executed; the other was released. Both are with us still.
A numbing detachment from others
In 2020, it is no longer only the descendants of slaves in East Harlem who cope with the horrifying sense of meaninglessness, hopelessness, and lovelessness Cornel West described in Race Matters.
THE PROPER STARTING POINT for the crucial debate about the prospects for black America is an examination of the nihilism that increasingly pervades black communities. Nihilism is to be understood here not as a philosophic doctrine that there are no rational grounds for legitimate standards of authority; it is, far more, the lived experience of coping with a life of horrifying meaninslessness, hopelessness, and (most important) lovelessness.
The frightening result is a numbing detachment from others and a self-destructive disposition toward the world. Life without meaning, hope, and love breeds a cold-hearted, mean-spirited outlook that destroys the individual and others. — Cornel West, Race Matters (1994).
Two revolutionary Jesuses are with us still. The prisoner who was released re-builds the haunted house on sand. The other builds a house on rock. We can rebuild the house on shifting sands that wash away our loftiest intentions, or we can build a house on the rock of meaning, hope, and love.
While visiting the Westminster Town Hall Forum in Minneapolis years ago, Cornel West inscribed Race Matters with a gracious personal charge and benediction.
All these years later, I still don’t know how to fulfill the charge or honor his blessing. I have not stayed strong, I am not, and never have been, prophetic. But the instruction and the blessing are with me still.
The Fourth of July in 2020 is different. You could see it and hear it at Mount Rushmore. The crowd was as colorless as the ones I remember in my childhood. But before they took their seats to sing the national anthem, salute the flag, and look up at the Blue Angels’ aerial display of military power, some of them had heard the chant “Land back!” and seen the fireworks between the police and National Guard and demonstrators whose skin was darker the their’s. On the road to Mount Rushmore they may not have known — or knew but didn’t care — that they were trespassing on stolen property; but they could not remain unaware that some people were not happy. The Lakota had regarded the Black Hills as sacred ground and still does. No one “owned” land before the Nation that celebrated its independence from the British crown saw it as property and stole it by breaking a treaty.
A White Nationalist Revisionist History
Inside the red-white-and-blue bannered stadium, the president targeted the protestors. “If we tear down our history we will not be able to understand ourselves or America’s destiny,” he declared, with no apparent consciousness of longer American history of the Black Hills. “The left wing mob and those practicing ‘cancel culture’ are engaged in totalitarian behavior that is completely alien to American life — and we must not accept it.” Did anyone inside the make-shift stadium catch the irony? Did anyone know that the original proposal for what became Mount Rushmore featured different faces — heroes of the American West, such as Sacagawea and Lewis and Clark, Oglala Lakota chief Red Cloud, Buffalo Bill Cody, and Oglala Lakota chief Crazy Horse? Did anyone in the white Fourth of July crowd shout “Land back!”?
According to Tony Schwartz, the real writer of Donald Trump’s autobiography, Art of the Deal, the president knows a thing or two about desecration and deception. He is a master at tarnishing those who will not bow to him with a brush dripping paint from the can of his own empty soul.
If Mr. Trump had known American history, he would have flown to the Black Hills with Desmond Tutu to announce formation of an American Truth and Reconciliation Commission to lead the nation through the healing process of confession, repentance, and reparation instead of a white nationalist campaign rally that trespassed on another nation’s sacred ground.
The Nation of Sheep
Donald Trump may be ignorant of America’s unvarnished history, but he’s not stupid. Those cheering him at Mount Rushmore most likely never read, or had forgotten, William J. Lederer’s 1961 Best Seller, A Nation of Sheep. “We are acting like a nation of sheep — not a vigorous community of bold, well-informed Americans,” Lederer wrote. We are “uneasy, but too apathetic and uninformed to know why — endorsing any solutions which appear cheap and easy and which come from a source better informed than themselves.” Perhaps the president had read Lederer’s book and decided a nation of sheep was ripe for a shepherd.
The Sheep and the Shepherds
It seems less likely he has read the Parable of the Good Shepherd in the book he hasn’t read –the one he displayed in front of Saint John’s after clearing the demonstrators from Lafayette Square. “Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep” (Gospel of John 10:1-2, NRSV).
The Fourth of July entertainer at Mount Rushmore knows about thievery and sheep. He senses we are uneasy. He is well-schooled in the skill of shearing sheep too apathetic and too uninformed to know why they are uneasy. He knows how prone hungry sheep are to feed on quick and how easily we fall for the illusion that ours is the only sheepfold and that we are exceptional to all other sheep. One need not believe The Art of the Deal‘s ghost writer Tony Schwartz’s claim that Mein Kampf was the only book in Donald Trump’s bedroom to recognize in his bellicose language and behavior the political philosophy of the Strong Man who climbed into a sheepfold by blaming the nation’s problems on black sheep, the unpatriotic “left wing” non-Aryans whose color and history threatened the ideology of racial superiority and national manifest destiny.
Nations which no longer find any heroic solution for such distress can be designated as impotent, while we see the vitality of a people, and the predestination for life guaranteed by this vitality, most strikingly demonstrated when, for a people’s liberation from a great oppression, or for the elimination of a bitter distress, or for the satisfaction of its soul, restless because it has grown insecure – Fate some day bestows upon it the man endowed for this purpose, who finally brings the long yearned-for fulfillment.
Adolf Hitler, “The Strong Man,” Mein Kampf, an autobiographical political manifesto, 1925.
Last night — the Eve of July Fourth 2020 — I thought I saw in the Black Hills a flock of sheep, restless because it had grown insecure, and I heard the distant sound of clippers fleecing an earlier flock.
I couldn’t take it anymore. I closed the Bible, grabbed my COVID-19 mask, and ran out for a Fifth for the Fourth –a fifth named Redemption.
The Fourth of July feels a bit different this year. When the sculptors chiseled the 60-foot faces of Presidents George Washington (1732–1799), Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826), Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919), and Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865), they could not have imagined a pyrotechnic desecration of national monument, although they knew their defacing of the granite desecrated the land once enjoyed by America’s vanquished First People. They could not imagine that in 2020 the four celebrated presidents’ statues would be toppled on public squares for having owned other human beings while their successor ignores a pandemic to shine the light on himself.
“Too much faith in ‘just one man'”
Weeks ago I learned that FoxNews host Tucker Carlson had asked my question. I have to check it out. Finding a YouTube of that particular Tucker Carlson Tonight episode, I can’t believe my ears or eyes.
“Many of our leaders believe his every word is tantamount to law, and in effect it has been,” says Tucker. “Just how wise is the man making these laws? Has America put too much faith in just one man?”
Who is the man?
Answer? Dr. Fauci. “Is he really a man of science?” We’re living in parallel universes. While the president who doesn’t drink was taking — or alleged to be taking — a cocktail of hydroxychloroquine against the medical counsel of Dr. Fauci and Dr. Birx. Replying to a White House corrrespondent’s question about the drug he claims is a “game changer,” Mr. Trump responded, “Yeah, I’m taking it. I’ve been taking it for two weeks,” adding that he follows up the antimalarial drug with an antibiotic.
Misplaced Faith and Displaced Science
Two weeks later, Lancet, the weekly peer-reviewed medical journal that began in 1823, published a study of the risks and benefits of treating COVID-19 with antimalarial drugs, based on the medical records of 96,000 hospitalized COVID-19 patients on six continents. “Nearly 15,000 of the 96,000 COVID patients in the analysis were treated with hydroxychloroquine or chloroquine alone or in combination with a type of antibiotic … within 48 hours,” as reported by the Washington Post (May 23, 2020).
The death rate of the patients treated with antimalarial drugs increased by 45%. Risk of serious heart arrhythmias increased by 411%. They found no benefits.
“If there was ever hope for this drug,” said Cardiologist Eric Topol of the Scripps Research Transatlantic Institute, “this is the end of it.”
Not the End of It
But it’s not the end of it. A president who has claimed to know more about the military than the generals and the Pentagon; more about Afghanistan, North Korea and China than career professionals at the State Department and the intelligence community; more about medicine than the CDC, Dr. Fauci, Dr. Birx, and the public health professionals licensed to practice medicine; the man who shifts the global spotlight from the coronavirus pandemic to his own sorry self; the law-and-order president who fires inspectors-general who do their jobs of protecting the rule of law from political influence — this is the president who will continue shamelessly shamming and scamming the American public on the road to re-election.
The Man Who Does Not Bow
President Donald Trump bows to no one but himself. The Fourth of July firework display at Mount Rushmore will be hosted by a man who believes there will be a fifth face chiseled in the granite with the former presidents who were not as great as he. Assuming Mr. Trump’s cocktail doesn’t take him before the November election, he can count on Fox to bow to continue the propaganda campaign to “Keep America Great.”
Nothing makes sense. Or maybe it does. And that’s what worries me.
My brain is a bowl of congealed spaghetti. Too many strands — so many memories and convictions — to pull them apart and know where to begin.
I take heart that the video of the lynching of George Floyd under a white cop’s knee has led to greater public consciousness of white privilege and proposals for dismantling the structural racism in which we are trapped.
Wise as Serpents
Experience also tells me that our good intentions sometimes produce unintended consequences. The momentary warmth of good intentions can fool us into thinking the campfire rids the world of ice. Sometimes those who gather around the campfire with the best of hopes get blamed by those who set the forest on fire. Those who intend the good must also be as wise as serpents, which brings me to Robert Reich’s video “Trump’s 2020 Election Strategy in 25 Steps.”
A Narcissistic Arsonist?
What do we do when a narcissist in the Oval Office is an arsonist? It’s happened before. It’s happening again. Watch and listen to Professor Robert Reich.
Scene: Calm on the streets the Night Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was Shot
“Dr. King’s been shot!” came the shout to the large gathering of youth and adult advisors in the church recreation room fifty years ago on April 4, 1968.
Several hundred teenagers from Decatur’s public housing (“the projects”) were doing their normal thing after Teen Town when Melvin’s shout from the stairwell changed everything. “Dr. King’s been shot! Dr. King’s been shot!”
Teen Town was an outreach program of First Presbyterian in downtown Decatur, Illinois and the Decatur Office of Economic Opportunity (OEO). Charles Young of OE., a former Chicago gang member, and I, the 26 year old Assistant Pastor of First Presbyterian, oversaw the program with a cadre of adult volunteers.
The room was hot. What do do?
We quickly rounded up tape recorders, organized the kids into small groups, and gave each group a tape recorder to speak their hearts and minds to anyone who might listen. There was anger –“I told you the m—-fs would kill him! Malcom’s next!” (“Malcolm” was Malcolm X.) There was shock. There were tears. There was shouting. But there was no violence in Decatur that night. A young reporter for the Decatur Herald paid credit to Teen Town’s importance to the larger community. We shared the tapes with the city authorities, the Superintendent of Schools and teachers, and the Decatur Chief of Police as a way of deepening the majority white population’s education in blackness.
Scene: The Police Riot on the Church Parking Lot and the Kerner Commission Report
Not long after the night one might have expected an “urban disturbance,” the same site became a different scene. Two kids came to fist-a-cuffs just after Teen Town’s 10:00 p.m. closing time. Again a voice yelled news to the lower-level recreation room: “There’s a fight outside!” We sent Melvin upstairs to stop the fight. Moments later we saw the racially-inspired police violence reported by the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (Kerner Commission) erupting on the church parking lot: Melvin in a choke-hold behind the paddy wagon, billy clubs flying, white cops spraying mace into the crowd, Teen Town teenagers whose only crime was that they were black running for their lives.
Forty store windows were broken out that night. The church and chief of police went toe-to-toe on the front page of the Decatur Herald. Facing loud cries to shut down the program, the church board voted unanimously to stand behind Teen Town and our partnership with the Office of Economic Opportunity.
First Presbyterian Church was itself a kind of death and resurrection. Before 1953 it was known as “Power’s Towers” referencing Jack Powers, the CEO of the Staley corporation. I was a place of white privilege and power whose members worship Sunday morning and went out to rule the city for another week. By the early ’50s its membership had shrunk to less than an unsustainable membership of less than a hundred. Then something happened that transformed a dying church into a beacon of racial justice and peacemaking.
In 1953 First Church’s new minister, Rev. Jay Logan, and an African American foundry worker walked the short distance from the church to the YWCA across the street to sit-in at the YWCA segregated lunch counter. By the time I arrived in 1967, First Presbyterian had become a vibrant 1200 member multi-racial congregation. It grew because two disciples of Jesus put their feet and rumps where their mouths were, followed by a great cloud of witnesses who dared to do the same.
In this tumultuous time of wrestling with white privilege and choke holds, the Kerner Commission conclusion that “our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white – separate and unequal,” and the commission’s call for “programs on a scale equal to the dimension of the problems” seem prophetic.
Today I’m remembering Jay Logan, and Ruling Elders Jim Smith, Art Tate, Ken Varney, Larry Baer, and Ralph Johnson who quickly gathered the tape recorders five decades ago, and weeks later bore witness to their faith in the midst of a police riot… without flinching.
Views from the Edge has been unusually silent after the video of George Floyd’s murder under a white Minneapolis Police Department cop’s knee went viral. The silence has its reasons. Sometimes I rub my eyes to be sure the movement of protest is real. Other times I feel I’ve seen it all before, over and over, but most especially during eight years in the cross-hairs of the police and the community as executive director of the Legal Rights Center, founded by black civil rights leaders and the American Indian Movement.
You can’t write or speak without words, or when the knot in your stomach will only let you moan or groan or scream a primal cry of helplessness, or when your head becomes an atom smasher with too many memories. When words come together to form sentences, paragraphs, and pages that speak more clearly, Views from the Edge will break the silence.
Thank you for your moral support and encouragement. Take good care of others and yourself.
Grace and peace,
Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, Minnesota, June 21, 2002.le
The sight of a white police officer pressing his knee on George Floyd’s neck is horrific, and because it is so egregious, it is a teachable moment of why and how different people see things differently. Things like law enforcement. . . or the Bible . . . or the news. Black churches in America are likely to rejoice in biblical texts that white Christians avoid as too harsh, too “us v. them,” too black and white, so to speak.
This morning I’m hearing Psalm 70 as the voice George Floyd’s brother Philonise bearing testimony before a committee of the United Sates Congress 401 years after Jamestown.
Be pleased, O God, to deliver me; *
O LORD, make haste to help me.
Let those who seek my life be ashamed
and altogether dismayed; *
let those who take pleasure in my misfortune
draw back and be disgraced.
Let those who say to me "Aha!" and gloat over me turn back, *
because they are ashamed.
Let all who seek you rejoice and be glad in you; *
let those who love your salvation say for ever,
"Great is the LORD!"
But as for me, I am poor and needy; *
come to me speedily, O God.
You are my helper and my deliverer; *
O LORD, do not tarry.
-- Psalm 70, Book of Common Prayer Daily Office Lectionary, p.970.
Seeing America from on Top or from Below the Knee
“My concern is to understand America biblically,” wrote street lawyer theologian William Stringfellow, “– not the other way around, not (to put it in an appropriately awkward way) to understand the Bible Americanly.” — William Stringfellow, An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land (Reprint, Wipf and Stock, 2004).
Be pleased, O God, to deliver me. I, a child of privilege, need help. Let me not be ashamed. O Lord, do not tarry.
Gordon C. Stewart, by the wetland, Minnesota, June 14, 2020.
THE TRUMPETER SWANS
The pen sits and waits
Upon her nest among
The reeds where no
Man’s greed can steal
Or break the eggs
Beneath her breast
She blares no trumpet
To call attention to
Herself and the unborn
Cygnets she soon will
Carry on her back to
Keep them safe
She waits patiently in
Silence among the
Cat-tails where red-wing
Black birds soon will
Soar and swoop around
Her nest to feed their kind
She sees no red, no
Black, no white, and
Hears no honking from
The noisy swamp where
Black birds die beneath
A rogue cob’s knee.
- Gordon C. Stewart, with the trumpeter swans by the wetland, June 3, 2020
The Anguished Heart of God
“Now the whole earth was corrupt in God’s sight and was filled with violence.” “The Lord was grieved that he had made man upon the earth, and his heart was filled with pain.”
Genesis, chapter 6, verses 11 and 6.
— Gordon C. Stewart with the trumpeter swans by the Minnesota wetland, June 4, 2020.on’t
At Indian Town Gap National Cemetery, where my mother and father are buried, “Taps” from a single bugle will ring over the silence of the fallen. That is as it should be. No band. No orchestra. No choir. No parades. No “bombs bursting in air.” Just a single bugler breaking the silence “in the dawn’s early light.”
Other tears will fall today for those who did not die or serve in war — 98,035 and still climbing here in the U.S.A. ( ); 345,000+ and climbing worldwide. They were sent to their graves by a deadly virus that knows nothing about wars and borders between nations. You can’t shoot or bomb a virus. Calling the new coronavirus an ‘enemy’ may strike up the band to rally the troops for a crusade, but it’s easily misused to divide the living and the dead. This is a time for Taps, not “”Reveille.”
You will find me where the wounds are
The lock-down to protect ourselves from exposure to COVID-19 led me to the strange encounter between the Crucified-Risen Christ and Thomas — and for all who come to faith in future time: “Blessed are those who have not seen but believe.” The following interpretation is original and speaks for no one else.
Faith: throwing ourselves into the wounds
Caravaggio’s painting of Thomas putting his finger in the wound in the Risen Christ’s side is exquisite, but no painting can capture the strangeness of the invitation to Thomas in The Gospel of John (Jn. 20:26-29).
Translating New Testament Greek texts into English often involves a translator’s decision as to the meaning of a word. The story of Thomas is one such text. Most often βάλε in English becomes ‘place’ or ‘put — a rendering that paints a beautiful word picture of a unique moment of tenderness with Thomas. But “put your hand in my side” avoids the jarring sense of the Greek text — “Bring your hand and βάλε (thrust/throw [it] into) my side.”
The Wounds, the Marks, and the Type
“See the τυπος (marks) in my hands.” τυπος can mean ‘wound’ or ‘mark’ but it has another meaning – ‘type’. A τυπος originally meant a mark created by a blow or impression. Eventually it came to mean a mold or form into which something is shaped. Those who are being molded into the life of the Crucified-Risen Christ are called to behold the marks and throw themselves into the enduring gaping wound in Christ’s side.
The Jesus of Locked Doors
John tells the story found in no other Gospel. He tells it in the present tense, drawing the reader into the scene as it is happening. It is not an event happening only then. It is happening now. “Jesus έρχεται (is coming). Th syntax raises the question of how to render the placement of the word κεκλισμενων (‘locked’). Does the text describe the physical circumstances of an unrepeatable moment? Or does ‘locked’ modify Jesus? “Jesus of locked doors/gates έρχεταιs (is-coming) into the midst of them.” and us?
Becoming Faithful: Encountering God in the Wounds
“Do not γίνου (be becoming) faithless (ἄπιστος) but πιστός (faithful),” Jesus is saying to Thomas, and to all who will never see the historical Jesus directly, that faith and faithfulness are more than mental constructs and belief systems. To follow Christ is to throw ourselves into the gaping wound in Christ’s side all around us. He will meet us there.
The story of Thomas is the final word in the original of the most metaphorical Gospel. It is as though John is leaving us with another way of telling the Parable of the Last Judgment, turning our lives from distant observation and hiding ourselves from the wounds to throw ourselves into the place where we come to faith and faithfulness. “I was hungry and you gave me food. I was thirsty and you gave me drink. I was in prison and you visited me. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you clothed me. I was sick and you looked after me. I was in prison and you came to visit me”. (Gospel according to Matthew 25:25-26)
The Life of Compassion
Dietrich Bonhoeffer described the Christian life as an ongoing conformation into the pattern of Christ, “the Man for Others.” Writing from prison cell #6 of Tegel Prison where he awaiting state execution two days before the defeat of the German Third Reich, Bonhoeffer wrote the poem that addressed the question of where Christ is today. The three stanzas move from crying out from distress (“when we are sore bested”) to “standing with God in God’s hour of grieving” to God “hanging dead for Christians, pagans alike . . . and both alike forgiving.”
Men go to God when they are sore bestead, Pray to him for succour, for his peace, for bread, For mercy for them sick, sinning, or dead; All men do so, Christian and unbelieving.
Men go to God when he is sore bestead, Find him poor and scorned, without shelter or bread, Whelmed under weight of the wicked, the weak, the dead; Christians stand by God in his hour of grieving.
God goes to every man when sore bestead, Feeds body and spirit with his bread; For Christians, pagan alike he hangs dead, And both alike forgiving.
There is no life inside locked doors, and if we lock them out of fear or for protection, the Jesus of the Locked Doors will find us and break us free.
Years before the coronavirus pandemic put us in lock down, Tennessee Williams observed that each of us is condemned to solitary confinement for life, and, long before Tennessee Williams the Gospel of Luke spoke of the surprising presence of the risen Christ at the breaking of the bread.
Grace and Peace,
Gordon (May 24, 2020)
Rev. Gordon C. Stewart is a public theologian, author, Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017, Wipf and Stock), former Pastor of Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church in Chaska; guest commentator on “All Things Considered” (MPR), MinnPost, Presbyterian Outlook, Star Tribune, Sojourners’ “Blogging with Jim Wallace and Friend” and Day1.org.
Working all week to complete a Views from the Edge autobiographical reflection on faith as I understand it, I laid it aside. This 2014 sermon on faith and patriotism is the best I can do during the the coronavirus pandemic and getting back to Americans’ favorite activity: shopping.
Thanks for dropping by Views from the Edge: To See More Clearly. Grace and peace to you, Gordon C. Stewart, Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017, Wipf and Stock), writing from home in Chaska, Minnesota.
Watching the White House coronavirus daily briefings, I have felt like Alice at the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party. I scratch my head, thinking, “Wouldn’t it be nice if something made sense for a change?” The Mad Hatter, who knows nothing about medicine, presumes to know better than his team of health professionals. As Dr. Fauci and others are removed from center stage amid the president’s self-contradictory statements about the future of the White House coronavirus task force, I hear from the offstage whirring of a shredder, shredding the Constitution’s separation of powers. I watch the president fly into rage, shouting down or mocking the White House press corp journalist for violating the table manners by asking a ”nasty question.”
Anxious to find wisdom from a less subjective source, I turned to the Book of Proverbs, the collection of ancient biblical wisdom sayings, and come to a proverb that strikes home.
The person whose name is ‘Mocker’ is condescending (proud) and disdainful of social inferiors (arrogant), and behaves with rude and disrespectful (insolent) wild or violent anger (fury). Scroll down to the Addendum for a list of Presidential actions over the last two days.
Pride, Arrogant, and Insolent Fury
The search for a video that would illustrate the president’s mocking of the White House press corps led to something else equally, if not more, troubling: an ad for The Epoch Times on YouTube.
The President Looking for a New News Outlet
President Trump’s trust in FoxNews to do his bidding has waned. “We have to start looking for a new News Outlet. Fox isn’t working for us anymore!” (DJT tweet, August 8, 2019). “Watch,” he tweeted more recently, “this will be the beginning of the end for Fox, just like the other two which are dying in the ratings.” FoxNews can no longer be trusted as the president’s department of propaganda.
The Epoch Times
Enter the The Epoch Times media blitz. “Are you tired of the media spinning the truth and pushing false narratives upon you?” Every day Mr. Trump sounds like The Epoch Times, or The Epoch Times sounds like him. Who funds The Epoch Times? Who or what holds them accountable for what they publish? Where do its ads appear?
Late last summer, YouTube users began noticing a surge of ads for an obscure news outlet called The Epoch Times. One ad touted an exposé of “Spygate,” a baseless conspiracy theory alleging that President Barack Obama and his allies placed a spy inside President Trump’s 2016 campaign. Another praised Mr. Trump’s interest in buying Greenland as a shrewd strategic move. A third claimed that the opioid epidemic in the United States was the result of a chemical warfare plot by the Chinese Communist Party.
Those who don’t know history are bound to repeat it. It’s a hackneyed aphorism, but it’s over-used because it’s true. The first Mrs. Trump (Ivana) remembers Mein Kamp in her husband’s bedroom. She thought it was strange. I think it’s telling. It’s its own kind of playbook, filled with successful strategies that managed to dismantle the post-WWI German constitutional democratic republic. Hitler tells us about the importance of the press as a propaganda machine that “combats the parliamentary (congressional) madness” and replaces it with the victorious “strong man.”
Excerpts from the Book in the Bedroom on “the Strong Man”
“Nations which no longer find any heroic solution for such distress can be designated as impotent, while we see the vitality of a people, and the predestination for life guaranteed by this vitality, most strikingly demonstrated when, for a people’s liberation from a great oppression, or for the elimination of a bitter distress, or for the satisfaction of its soul, restless because it has grown insecure – Fate some day bestows upon it the man endowed for this purpose, who finally brings the long yearned-for fulfillment. . . . .
“A movement that wants to combat the parliamentary madness must itself be free of it. Only on such a basis can it win the strength for its struggle.
“A movement which in a time of majority rule orients itself in all things on the principle of the leader idea and the responsibility conditioned by it will some day with mathematical certainty overcome the existing state of affairs and emerge victorious.
“In December, 1920, we acquired the Völkischer Beobachter. This paper, which, as its name indicates, stood on the whole for folkish interests even then, was now to be transformed into the organ of the NSDAP. At first it appeared twice a week, at the beginning of 1923 became a daily, and at the end of August, 1923, it received its large format which later became well known.
“As a total novice in the field of journalism, I sometimes had to pay dearly for my experience in those days.
“The mere fact that in comparison with the enormous Jewish press there was hardly a single really significant folkish paper gave food for thought…”
– Adolf Hitler, Chapter 8: “The Strong Man Is Mightier Alone,” Mein Kampf
‘Mocker’ is his name
The one who has knowledge uses words with restraint, and whoever has understanding is even-tempered. (17:27)
It is to one’s honor to avoid strife, but every fool is quick to quarrel. (20:3)
‘MOCKER’ IS HIS NAME
Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017, Wipf and Stock), Chaska. MN, April 8, 2020.
Addendum: Administration Actions in the Last 48 Hours
– Shredded the Center for Disease Control public health guidelines CDC scientists prepared to protect the American public while the economy “opens up” against their advice about social distancing. – The Department of Justice suddenly moved to drop charges against former Trump Administration national security advisor Michael Flynn despite Flynn’s court pleas of guilty. “The unraveling of Flynn’s guilty plea for lying to the FBI came after senior political appointees in the Justice Department determined lower-level prosecutors and agents erred egregiously in the course of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election,” says the Washington Post. Those who defended the DOJ action claimed Flynn’s ‘guilty’ plea came as a result of FBI investigators’ pressure to do so. Michael Flynn is not a flincher! He’s a retired General. – Commenting on the DOJ move to dismiss charges against Michael Flynn, the president accused the Obama administration of treason. The White House transcript of the conversation quotes the President verbatim: “What they did — what the Obama administration did is unprecedented. It’s never happened. Never happened. A thing like this has never happened before, in the history of our country. And I hope a lot of people are going to pay a big price because they’re dishonest, crooked people. They’re scum. And I say it a lot: They’re scum. They’re human scum. This should never have happened in this country. A duly elected President….The Obama administration Justice Department was a disgrace. And they got caught. They got caught. Very dishonest people. But much more than dishonest; it’s treason. It’s treason.“ – A Presidential valet who had ignored “President Trump’s Guidelines” for all Americans tested positive for the coronavirus. Like President Trump and VP Pence, the President’s valet had not worn a mask. – The President appointed a partisan loyalist to lead the U.S. Postal Service which he has threatened to shutter it. Say good-bye to consideration of election by mail. – Another inspector general has been removed for doing his job of upholding the Rule of Law –the foundation on which a democratic republic is built and protected from kings, oligarchs, and despots, i.e. the strong man. – Former director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority Dr. Rick Bright filed a public whistleblower complaint alleging he was reassigned to a lesser role as retaliation for speaking the truth about the administration’s late response to intelligence alerts about coronavirus and for resisting Trump administration pressure to allow widespread use of the non-FDA approved malarial drug hydroxychloroquine against the consensus of medical science.
There is a deadlier virus than the coronavirus, and a deadlier disease than COVID-19. Donald Trump is its most visible symptom, just the cover of the book we have yet to read. The virus without a name has been eating the soul of the American people for a long time. Two Georges — George Will and George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans’s pseudonym) — take us to the heart of the matter.
Don’t judge a book by its cover
The George who wasn’t a George put the words “don’t judge a book by its cover” on the lips of Mr. Tolliver, the character in her ground-breaking psychological novel The Mill on the Floss, referring to Daniel Defoe’s The Political History of the Devil, observing how beautifully Defoe’s book is bound.
“Don’t judge a book by its cover.” Why? The cover may be beautiful. What’s inside may be ugly.
Which takes us to the later George’s description of what lies inside the book with a photo of Donald Trump and Mike Pence on the cover.
Donald Trump and Mike Pence
George Will, the classical conservative who bolted from the Republican Party because it had abandoned any semblance of philosophical or moral principle, spoke of the problem in his Washington Post column. “Trump is what he is, a floundering, inarticulate jumble of gnawing insecurities and not-at-all compensating vanities, which is pathetic. Pence is what he has chosen to be, which is horrifying. . . . Pence is the authentic voice of today’s lickspittle Republican Party, he clarifies this year’s elections: Vote Republican to ratify groveling as governing.” (If you’re wondering what lickspittle means, click lickspittle.)
Trump did not invent it
Irish columnist Fintan O’Toole put it this way in The Irish Times:
How else does one make sense of the irreconcilable contradiction of “I have total authority” and “I don’t take responsibility at all”?
An Insidious, Deadly Virus
“It is one thing to be powerless in the face of a natural disaster,” says Mr. O’Toole,”quite another to watch vast power being squandered in real time — willfully, malevolently, vindictively. It is one thing for governments to fail (as in one degree or another, most governments did), quite another to watch a ruler and his supporters actively spread a deadly virus. Trump, his party and Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News became vectors for this pestilence.”
TheSpiritual Virus at the Mayo Clinic
“Pence calls on Mayo, but spurns mask” reads the StarTribune front page story about Vice President Pence’s visit to the Mayo Clinic yesterday, ignoring the clinic’s request that all visitors wear face masks. Wearing a face mask to prevent the spread of COVID-19 is also part of the guidelines developed by the Coronavirus Response Teams which the Vice President leads. Call him hypocritical. Call his refusal arrogant, stupid, disrespectful, or, like George Will, call him ‘oleaginous’. “His [Pense],” wrote Will, “is the authentic voice of today’s lickspittle Republican Party, he clarifies this year’s elections: Vote Republican to ratify groveling as governing.”
But it goes much deeper than that. It’s not a partisan matter. It’s a soul matter. Slowly, but surely, a virus eats away all things soulful. Whatever our differences in America, there was, or we thought there was, widespread agreement that integrity, honesty, respect, compassion and humility sprang up from a sacred ground water that gives life meaning and defines who we are, or who we aspire to be. The virus infects and twists the human spirit until deceit replaces integrity, cunning replaces honesty, disrespect ridicules respect, the Rule of Gold replaces the Golden Rule, and self-importance stands where a social compact once stood.
Donald Trump, Mike Pence, Rupert Murdock and the ascendance of Fox News are visible symptoms and willing transmitters of this more lethal threat to public life. Future cultural anthropologists may look back to a time before this deadlier virus took hold and suggest that, with all our religious diversity, Micah 6:8 expressed the deepest qualities that make and keep life human. “What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God?”
Not everyone believes in God, and those who do call the Ineffable different names, but doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly were essential threads of our common life. Some treasures — soul-sized things that neither moth nor rust consume — cannot be bought by wealth, privilege, or power. What profit is there if a nation gains the world but loses its soul?”
Gordon C. Stewart, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017, Wipf and Stock), available in kindle and paperback from Wipf and Stock and from Amazon, Chaska, MN, April 29, 2020.
During this strange time, I’d been engaged with Psalm 31. Before posting the reflection on Psalm 31, I checked to see what Walter Brueggemann might have written about it. This sermon from the pulpit of Duke University Chapel fits our experience in 2020 as much as it did in 2009. Here are the opening words:
The young woman who sits across from me at Church is there every Sunday. She sits in a wheelchair close to the pulpit. She cannot control the movement of her legs, and mostly not her arms either. She groans and occasionally shrieks. My priest tells me she is fed only with a feeding tube. One of her parents must sleep on the floor of her room every night. She takes a fragment of the Eucharist every Sunday. Her mother said, reported my priest, “Do you think I am bad person if sometimes I wish this were all over?” The priest answered, “You would be a pitiful person if you did not think that sometimes.”
I do not know what the young woman is thinking when she communes. But I have thought, perhaps, that she is reciting Psalm 31 . . . ,a complaint to God about the experience of unbearable suffering and a sense of social isolation . . . .
Walter Brueggemann, Sermon "Continuing through the Disruptive Conjunctive" - Duke University Chapel, Palm/Passion Sunday, 2009.
About Walter Brueggemann & most recently published Books
The Rev. Dr. Walter Brueggemann is William Marcellus McPheeters Professor of Old Testament Emeritus at Columbia Theological Seminary. Click HERE for more information on the official website of Walter Brueggemann, or click the following titles titles for his latest publications.