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.
The daily White House updates on the coronavirus pandemic bring to mind the Medieval folklore of Faust’s bargain with Mephistopheles (the devil). Faust surrenders his soul for the diabolical blessings of wealth, power, and fame.
Dr. Fauci, Dr. Trump, and Dr. Birx
We see and hear POTUS Donald Trump; then we see and hear Dr. Fauci, and Dr. Birx. Two of three have M.D. degrees required to diagnose and dispense medication. The other has no degree and no license to practice medicine but repeatedly ignores and contradicts Dr. Birx and Dr. Fauci.
Yesterday’s White House update (April 23) offers the latest conflict between knowledge and what seems like insanity. The president referred to “emerging” research showing that the increased sunlight and higher humidity of spring and summer kill the virus. Past studies have not found good evidence to support the theory. But that’s not the worst of it.
Noting unidentified research into the effects of disinfectants on killing the virus, the president went further off the rails by wondering aloud whether a disinfectant could be injected into people because the virus “does a tremendous number on the lungs, so it would be interesting to check that.” Where is Sigmund Freud when we need him?
Sigmund Freud’s Case Study in Demonic Neurosis
We are children of the Enlightenment. Few of us believe in real life Faustian bargains with the Devil. But Sigmund Freud became intrigued by Johann Christoph Haizmann (1651-1700), a Bavarian-born Austrian painter, after reading Haizmann’s newly recovered narrative description (L) and triptych painting (below) of his Faustian bargain.
Haizmann’s personal description of his experience became the occasion for Sigmund Freud’s and Gaston Vandendriessche’s research on “the Haizmann case” became a part of the study of psychology and psychiatry.
The Burgher and the Deal with the Devil
Of interest to us here is Haizmann’s depiction of the Devil as “a fine burgher” in the left panel of Haizmann’s triptych. ‘Burgher’ was a title of the medieval a privileged social class. Public officials were drawn from among the burgher class of medieval towns and cities. Haizmann’s choice of a burgher as the Devil in disguise is its own repudiation of wealth, privilege, and power. Only the Virgin Mary could free him from the pact with the Devil.
Freud de-mythologized the religious language and metaphors by which Haizmann had understood himself and his world. In 2020 only a quack would speak of demonic possession! Yet the biblical pictures of demonic possession still have a way of reaching parts of us we cannot explain or escape. Every one of us is a little insane at night, or locked in during the coronavirus pandemic. Few of us keep our twitter feeds on the pillow to push away the darkness. Few of us belong go the burgher class, yet there is something about Donald Trump that was with us before is election and will remain with us after he is gone: the age-old demonic dreams of wealth, privilege, and power.
We speak of neuroses and psychoses instead of demons or the devil the way Haizmann did. But still, there is the haunting memory of King Saul dropping into the abyss of insanity, throwing his spear at David, and the man who had been possessed by the Legion of demons before Jesus asked his name and sent them into the herd of swine. What is happening to us in America defies rational explanation. How does it happen that we allow a soul-less burgher who imagines injecting Lysol into our veins to take the world stage with Dr. Birx and Dr. Fauci?
The Art of the Deal and the Deal with the Devil
The Art of the Deal put Donald Trump on the world stage. Art of the Deal is an autobiography. But it’s not. According to the publisher and the book’s ghost writer, Tony Schwartz, Mr. Trump never wrote a line, but continues to say he was he author. Now that the coronavirus has shut down the economy he tricks himself into being a doctor who always knows best.
By way of contrast, Johan Christoph Haizmann, relieved from the frantic need for the burghers’ recognition. He joined the Brothers Hospitallers of Saint John of God, aka, the Brothers of Mercy to spend the rest of his life serving the poor, and the sick of body and mind.
Blood, as all men know, than water’s thicker But water’s wider, thank the Lord, than blood.
Aldous Huxley, Ninth Philosopher’s Song, 1920
When Aldous Huxley turned the adage “blood is thicker than water” on its head there was no Earth Day. No COVID-19. No economy stuck in idle at the brink of the cliff. No orders or guidelines to stay home and wash your hands. But he had been the flu pandemic of 1918.
Blood Brothers — Teddy Bonsall and I
“Blood is thicker than water” is about family ties, or becoming ‘blood-brothers’ the way Teddy Bonsall and I did when we drew blood with our pen-knives, and put our cut fingers together to mix our five year old blood. Maybe something in our little minds knew that ‘blood’ described the bond between soldiers in battle. Blood-brothers — soldiers who risked their lives, as our fathers had in World War II — were closer than brothers and sisters born of the same womb. The world was a war zone. Teddy and I would go down together, whatever new war might come along. We were blood brothers.
A virus doesn’t know about ‘blood-brothers’
The day after Earth Day 2020 tests the way we frame who and what we humans are and will, or will not, be on a planet on its way to boiling both blood and water. We are not blood brothers or blood sisters. We can no longer frame ourselves as warriors in wars between our nation and their nation(s) without committing species suicide. No more blaming the Spanish for the 1918 flu pandemic or China for the new coronavirus. There will be no great America without a green planet. Everyone is a child of water — the amniotic fluid of every mother’s womb, and the water that is wider than blood (the oceans, rivers, and water tables) that keep the ‘pale blue dot’ blue and green.
The Daily Briefings
Most afternoons I tune in to the president’s coronavirus pandemic team’s daily updates, but I can’t do it anymore. I’ve run out of Maalox, and I refuse to fill a glass or two from the liquor cabinet. This is no time to self-medicate. I’ve watched the climate-change-denying president and his ‘oleaginous’ vice president and administration re-frame COVID-19 as a foreign invasion — the ‘Chinese’ flu — to be ‘defeated’ by an army of American blood brothers. The updates are not COVID-19 updates. They are 2020 presidential campaign rallies with Dr. Fauci and Dr. Birx thrown in to provide cover for the medical disinformation no doctor or scientist can support. Day by day, the conflict between the president and the medical professionals becomes increasingly apparent in the faces of Dr. Fauci and Dr. Birx barely able to conceal their professional and moral in the face of a kind of medical malpractice they once could not imagine.
While the members of the coronavirus team stand shoulder to shoulder without masks, members of the White House press corps practice the social distancing guidelines the people with the microphone do not. Spaced six feet apart, the correspondents ask the questions that publicly trap the president in his own lies and contradictions. The medical professionals become more outspoken, less likely to say what the president expects them to say.
The White House press corps occasionally rises to the expectations of the First Amendment, offering slivers of hope that Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity will go away before the Earth is left to the viruses.
The Voice that cannot be silenced
I imagine Aldous Huxley in the last row of the White House correspondents section. He’s the only one in the room who brings wisdom from the “Spanish Flu” pandemic a hundred years ago.
He’s had his hand up for 20 minutes. No one will call on him.
Finally, in exasperation, he whispers in hopes someone watching might remember the greater threat to Earth itself:
“Blood, as all men know, than water’s thicker But water’s wider, thank the Lord, than blood!”
Home-schooled in misery — Oh, for the wisdom of Aeschylus
“I, schooled in misery, know many purifying rites, and I know where speech is proper and where silence.”
Aeschylus, Greek playwright known as the Father of Tragedy (c. 525/524 – c. 456/455 BCE)
In the school of misery, we know to wash our hands. Knowing when and where to speak one’s minds or hold one’s tongue is harder. In Aeschylus’ time, it required the wisdom of the gods or the wisdom of Solomon.
The Intelligence Test
“COVID-9 is not just a disease. It’s an intelligence test,” wrote sportswriter Jim Souhan in response to Major League Baseball’s idea of bringing all 32 MLB teams to Phoenix where they could play out the 2020 season. The teams would be quarantined at night in area hotels; the stadium seats would be empty to keep the players safe. “COVID-19 is not just a disease. It’s an intelligence test.”
Easy speech is not only pointless in 2020. It is dangerous. But so is silence. In the school of misery more than one kind of intelligence is required. Maintaining emotional balance in a time of plague is a test of courage and compassion. Albert Camus’s The Plague, whose heroic character is not the priest, but the doctor serving among the sick and the dying, comes quickly to mind. So does the crucified-resurrected Jesus’s strange encounter with Thomas.
The Courage of Compassion Test
Caravaggio paints what readers unschooled in misery are not likely to see in the text –the continuing presence and voice of the crucified-risen Christ in the Gospel of John 20:27: “Thereafter he is saying to Thomas . . . .”
Known for his gritty realism, Caravaggio has Jesus grasping the hand of the apostle Thomas and thrusting it deep within the wound at his side, powerfully aligning Jesus’ and St. Thomas’ hands to form a lance. St. Thomas’ face expresses profound surprise as his finger thrusts deep into Jesus’ wound. Perhaps, the surprise has to do with his unbelief. It could also be surprise at the realization that he, too, is pierced. Indeed, St. Thomas appears to clutch his side as if he becomes aware of a wound at his side as well. And we who wince at this gritty depiction feel a wound at our side as well.” — Edwin David Aponte, Handbook of Latina/o Theologies, Chalice Press, 2007.
“I will meet you there — wherever the wounds are.” “My Lord, and my God!”
Gordon C. Stewart, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017, Wipf and Stock), Chaska, MN, April 21, 2020.
This is not your usual Views from the Edge commentary. I’ve found myself unable to write anything that might be worth passing on to others. But inspiration arrives from the most unlikely sources, like last Sunday’s painful visit to the Emergency Room. The CT scan revealed the kidney stone that became the inspiration for this quirkier-than-usual Views from the Edge piece. The doctor assured me the stone was small. It would pass with time. The nurse gave me a little bottle to save the stone when it passes.
Who cares if you pass a kidney stone?
Let’s say you’re a writer. Okay, a blogger. You’ve struggled for weeks to write a piece on the daily assault of propaganda coming into our living rooms every weekday afternoon, but it hasn’t come. It just sits there, like a kidney stone that doesn’t pass. You’re sure it will never get out, and that, even if it does, no one will care. Why should they? What you want to say is not unique. A kidney stone’s a kidney stone. You’re also bored.
You don’t believe in horoscopes, but they’re a way to pass the time. You’re a Leo.
It’s like you’re trying to move a couch into a room with a small door. Once inside, everything will work out nicely. But getting through this tight squeeze will take some doing. What needs to be released in order to move forward?
Horoscope by Holiday Mathis, StarTribune, April 17, 2020.
You’re excited! Permission has to write has been granted. What needs to be released is your fear. Squeeze your ego through that small door! Just take it outside. Forget who cares. Just do it! Put it out there! You sit down to write. Returning to the newspaper for the exact quote, you realize you had read the wrong horoscope, the one for a Libra. Your reading disability has tricked you again. You saw the ‘L’ and assumed it was for you. It wasn’t. it was for a Libra.
You go back to the paper to read the right horoscope — the one for you, the Leo.
“There was a time when you didn’t believe you could actually change your circumstances by merely observing them differently. Now you believe it, and you do it on a daily basis. Today brings proof.”
You wonder whether the people who write this stuff know something you don’t. Don’t they know that not even a Leo can change some circumstances by observing them differently?
When you pass a kidney stone, you put it in a little bottle and take it to your doctor who sends it to the lab. You never see your kidney stone again. But there are exceptions. Some folks keep their kidney stones next to the computer keyboard. What’s the use of passing a kidney stone if you can’t be proud of passing it or experience the joy of sharing it virtually?
You’re curious what else is in the Horoscope section. If you’re a Taurus, “you are mysterious, and all the more attractive for your secrets.” You like that. But by the end, you wonder whether you’re really a Pisces.
Just because something goes unspoken doesn’t mean it’s unspeakable . . . .
Who knows? The piece you can’t pass today may pass tomorrow. If it turns out to be unspeakable, put it in the bottle, send it to the lab, or throw it away. If what has gone unspoken seems speakable, ask yourself, “Who else cares if you pass a kidney stone?”
The painter’s brush, the poet’s pen, and the musician’s composing take the heart and mind into the space of wonder and joy that is Easter.
Easter Morning verse
EASTER MORNINGa double acrosticEither Jesus really did rise or
All his followers made up the worst
Series of lies in history... Poor
Thomas certainly was right to doubt
Even after hearing tales: what four
Reached the tomb (or five?) Who saw him first
Matthew says two women; Mark says three
Or was it just one, as said by John?
Reports of what eye-witnesses can see
Or was it just one, as said by John?
Never can be trusted. Luke said one
In the road joined two who could not see --
Not until he broke the bread...No one
Got the story straight! Conspiracy?
Even grade school kids could do as well.
And Luke throws in Peter saw him too --
Somewhere unreported... Who could tell
That this jumble of accounts could do
Enough to give faith and hope to all.
Resurrection? Who could think it true?
Maybe just the simple: those whose eyes
Open to the light through grief, through tears…
Reminded of love, of truth, of grace…
Needing to be fed, hands out for bread ...
Inspired by the scriptures, in whose head
Grow visions: life can come from the dead.
- Steve Shoemaker, Urbana, IL, 2012
Text set to music by Palestrina (1591)
“The strife is o’er, the battle won; the victory of life is won . . . . The powers of death have done their worst, but Christ their legions hath dispersed: let loud shouts of holy joy outburst.
[“The Strife is o’er” is often sung to the tune Victory, adapted from a 1591 setting of the Gloria Patri by Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina from a Magnificat tertii toni. An additional Alleluya refrain was set to music by William Henry Monk.”
Grace and Peace to you this Easter in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. “Life can come from the dead!”
Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, April 11, 2020, Easter morning.
Black Saturday isn’t part of everyone’s experience; even many Christians don’t know it by that name. They know it as Holy Saturday, the day of dreadful silence that follows Good Friday. Jesus is dead. “It is finished.” It’s dark. There is not yet a resurrection. Jesus’s words of horror hurt our ears. Not the consoling words: “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing.” Nor his reply to the penitent hanging to his right, “Today, you will be with me in paradise.” Nor his care for his mother: “Woman, behold your son.” and to the un-named apostle, “Behold your mother.”
On Black Saturday we remember what we easily forget on other days: Jesus’s wrenching cry of god-forsakenness. Eloi, Eloi! Lema sebachtani? “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”; the thrust of the centurion’s spear opening a gash his side. “It is finished.”
Black Saturday and Shouts of Blackmail
Black Saturday feels darker this year by the ascendancy of the scapegoat mechanism at work in the trial and execution of Jesus, i.e. the consolidation of power by creating the scapegoat which must be sacrificed/killed to save the nation. But as the Alleluias will remind us tomorrow, you cannot kill love. You cannot kill goodness. You cannot kill the truth. Today’s White House “Resolute Reads” repeats the scapegoating with this quote from The New York Post:
“These left-leaning outlets don’t even care that their covering for Dems is so blatant. The Times took heat just this month for changing a headline, “Democrats Block Action” on the $2.2 trillion rescue plan, to “Partisan Divide Threatens Deal.” Yet that didn’t stop Thursday’s changeroo.
“No wonder Dems are so willing to resort to blackmail: They can count on their puppets in the press to never report it that way.”
New York Post April 9 editorial quoted in the White House daily update.
Black Saturday and Easter Sunday — Ego cannot defeat Soul
Into this Black Saturday reflection a stranger’s post arrives with a positive note that strikes a chord with me. Perhaps it will with you.
Andrew Cuomo’s Faith for All
Andrew Cuomo today is a phenomenon. He speaks every day about the coronavirus and his press conferences have become must-see tv. Why? Many reasons, but at heart he speaks to spiritual yearning in all people, a yearning that focuses not on religion and/or God, but on the truth and depth of our common humanity.
The Governor of New York State has become the voice of leadership and compassion during the coronavirus pandemic. His daily talks have become a time to hear the facts, face the reality, and listen to a calm voice of reason, hope and challenge. Beyond the arena of New York politics, about which most Americans know nothing, he has been received by the nation as a man to whom we can relate. He helps us transcend political divisiveness and helps us realize that we are all human beings.
He is a Roman Catholic, but one that many in his church would choose to excommunicate. Under his guidance, New York recognizes gay marriage and has the most humane abortion law to be found in America. It is clear from his presence that he is a man of deep faith, but also one whose faith is not determined by institutional religious authority. One might argue that his ability to speak to everyone is a result of decades of honing his political acumen, but that would be a shallow understanding. At least in these press conferences, Cuomo strikes a deep spiritual chord that resonates with most people.
To begin with, he respects everyone, whatever their religion or lack thereof, whether they celebrate Passover, Easter, Christmas, Ramadan or Kwanza, and you cannot help but feel that his respect is genuine. For public safety, however, public gatherings are prohibited. There is no exception for religious services, weddings or funerals. The kind of flagrant violation of stay-at-home policy exhibited by arrogant ministers in other states is strictly forbidden by Cuomo in NY.
Along with his acceptance of respectful others is a self-confidence that enables honest straight talk, incorporating a stature that can empathize with those who are hurting, both emotionally and physically. Essential to this data-driven attitude is a refusal to speculate, whether about the future of the pandemic or indeed about anything that might be called mysterious or mystical. His boldest statement about mystery asserted that although we are socially distanced we are spiritually connected, but he didn’t know how.
The only use of the word “God” is in the context of describing someone who risks their life for others. “God bless them”. God is also intimated in the phrase “keeping them in our thoughts and prayers”. But in both instances, the phrase seems to be more a term of popular culture than an actual assertion of faith. The closest Cuomo gets to a confession of faith is in his assertion that love wins. Love wins out over fear and anger. It also wins out over economic considerations. And to the calls by right wing voices to let the old and infirm die because they contribute nothing to society anyway, Cuomo responds with scorn and utter disbelief. No one is expendable. Loving and caring for one another is the essence of our humanity. Life is not reducible to numbers. This holds true not only for the elderly and infirm, but also for the outcast of society, the poor and the weak, those who labor for naught and strive in vain. If there is any refrain in his speaking, it is Cuomo’s prophetic insistence that no one will be left behind, that love reaches out to all and compels us to create a just society.
This is a moment, he says, for the world, for our country and state, for us as individuals. “Moment” is a word that he uses often, referring to a time in our lives when great change becomes possible. Stripped of diversions and escapes, we are free to explore our inner angels, to learn, to read, to listen in silence to the silence. The great danger, Cuomo believes, is giving in to the fear of the unknown that awaits us vis a vis both the virus as well as our own future. Too easily reason succumbs to fear and is overtaken by irrationality and panic. It is at this point that he says that this not the NY way, by which he means that this is not the human way, the way of strength, smartness, unity, and…love.
This is a message that reverberates across the country and probably around the world. It does not say, hey look at me and my needs. It says we are all in this together. And it does not say: learn how to do yoga, or meditate, or pray, or become a mystic. It simply says, appreciate the moment, accept the pain, do good, look ahead and celebrate the time when you can be together again with friends and loved ones, and, most importantly, share your love with all.
Many Americans, it seems, hear and understand.
If you’d welcome a live-streamed Easter celebration, click HERE for the 10:30 a.m. CT service of Westminster Presbyterian Church in downtown Minneapolis, or HERE for The House of Hope Presbyterian Church in Saint Paul, MN.
Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Black Saturday, April 11, 7:30 p.m. CST.
The sounds from the cross are too hard to hear. They still echo down the years to this moment when COVID-19 has locked us in our homes . . . if we have a home. Poetry not only echoes the sounds we do not wish to hear; it helps us to hear a Deeper Voice, the divine whisper beneath the clamor. What follows are the Stations of the Cross, courtesy of poet Malcolm Guite.
!I. Jesus is condemned to death
The very air that Pilate breathes, the voice
With which he speaks in judgment, all his powers
Of perception and discrimination, choice,
Decision, all his years, his days and hours,
His consciousness of self, his every sense,
Are given by this prisoner, freely given.
The man who stands there making no defence,
Is God. His hands are tied, His heart is open.
And he bears Pilate’s heart in his and feels
That crushing weight of wasted life. He lifts
It up in silent love. He lifts and heals.
He gives himself again with all his gifts
Into our hands. As Pilate turns away
A door swings open. This is judgment day.
II. Jesus is given his cross
He gives himself again with all his gifts
And now we give him something in return.
He gave the earth that bears, the air that lifts,
Water to cleanse and cool, fire to burn,
And from these elements he forged the iron,
From strands of life he wove the growing wood,
He made the stones that pave the roads of Zion
He saw it all and saw that it is good.
We took his iron to edge an axe's blade,
We took the axe and laid it to the tree,
We made a cross of all that he has made,
And laid it on the one who made us free.
Now he receives again and lifts on high
The gifts he gave and we have turned awry.
Click HERE for the rest of Malcolm Guite’s Stations of the Cross, or HERE for Malcolm’s book Sounding the Seasons.
Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, April 10, 2020 — Good Friday.
“They tell us,” said the pilot, “there’s a good bit of weather between here and Akron-Canton and the air traffic control people don’t want us to go until the weather moves out of the area. So it may be a while before we take off. Loosen your seat belts, have a drink and relax. It may be a while.”
Forty years later, we’re all strapped in at home, waiting for COVID-19 to move out. The Center for Disease Control says it’ll be a while.
Sermon at McGaw Chapel, The College of Wooster — original manuscript
Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, April 9, 2020, Maundy Thursday
Heather Cox Richardson’s Letters from an American: the History Behind the Politics is waiting for me every morning. It brings me up-to-date on news-worthy events that often fly under the radar — like today’s report about the late-night firing of the Intelligence Community Inspector General — another end-run around Congress and further violation of law.
Letters from an American latest newsletter
April 3, 2020Heather Cox Richardson
Quite the Friday night news dump today. At about ten o’clock tonight, Trump notified Congress he has fired the Intelligence Community Inspector General Michael Atkinson.
In September 2019, Atkinson made sure Congress knew that then-acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire was illegally withholding from the congressional intelligence committees a whistleblower complaint. Atkinson had examined the complaint, as required by law, and had determined it was “credible” and “urgent” and so sent it on to the acting DNI, who was supposed to send it to Congress. Instead, Maguire took it to the Department of Justice, where Attorney General Barr stopped the transmission by arguing that since it was a complaint about the president, and since the president was not a member of the intelligence community, the complaint shouldn’t go forward. And we know where it went from there.
Now Trump has fired Atkinson....
Click Letters from an American to read the rest of the story and to subscribe to Letters from an American. Ignore the video at the top of the screen to reading her column. Heather Cox Richardson is Professor of History at Boston College.
Tony Schwartz knows Donald Trump in a way no one else does. Ten (10) days before the 2016 election, he shared his experience at an Oxford University public forum preserved on YouTube.
Click HERE to listen in on what you knew and didn’t know before listening to the ghost writer of The Art of the Deal, the book that put a 38 year-old real estate developer on the NYT Best Sellers list and onto the world stage.
“Wouldn’t it be great to have all of the churches full [on Easter]? You know the churches aren’t allowed, essentially, to have much of a congregation there,” said President Trump in a Fox News interview. “You’ll have packed churches all over our country. I think it would be a beautiful time.”
It won’t happen. Except, maybe, at the Tampa Bay megachurch, whose pastor’s arrest made headlines. But if it should happen that the churches are packed this Eastern, they would be filled with six-packs of “Christianity Lite” — the religion of “The Life of Brian” (Monty Python) and “Happy Feet” (Steve Martin).
The book cover for Steve Martin’s book Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life draws laughs because comedy routines like “Happy Feet” are wonderfully outrageous critiques of real life rip-offs that masquerade as Easter joy -“the power of positive thinking” and “the prosperity gospel” — that replace the real joy that comes out of horror.
Out of sorrow and death
Easter is not about the Easter Bunny and Happy Feet. It’s the Church’s celebration of the resurrection of the Jesus who was “crucified, dead, and buried” (Apostles Creed). It’s not “happy”; it’s thoughtfully joyful.
Easter comes after Holy Week’s contemplation on the Passion, focusing the mind and heart on Jesus moving steadily toward his own state execution while his closest companions betray him, deny knowing him, fail to stay awake with him, abandon him in the moment he feels utterly abandoned — Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani(“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”) — and return home in that dead silence when nothing but death seems certain.
Reaping what we sow
Ralph Drollinger of Capitol Ministries is a White House “faith advisor” who leads a weekly Bible study attended by White House staff, members of the House and Senate, their staff, and other federal workers. He and Paula White, the other “faith advisor” in the White House, have the President’s ear. That’s deeply troubling.
As COVID-19 circles the globe ignoring national boundaries and borders, Mr. Drollinger attributes the coronavirus pandemic to “the consequential wrath of God.” We are reaping the consequences of what we have sown: radical “environmentalism” that goes against our Creator”; “the suppression of truth” by atheists and those who don’t believe the Bible is the inerrant, literal word of God; and the acceptance of what he calls “a sensation toward homosexuality.”
The Parable of the Sower in the Gospel of Matthew
And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!” -- Matthew 13:3-9 NRSV
The focus of the parable is not “the consequential wrath of God” and, perhaps, we are not the sowers but the soil into which God sows the seed. The Parable of the Sower offers an invitation to live now as the good soil that produces a joyful harvest in the Sower’s field.
In the time of American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson, prudence (wisdom) was still held in high regard. People were no less foolish in Emerson’s time than we are in ours and folks lied back then, but truth was the measure against which speech and opinion were tested. Emerson’s essay on “Prudence” speaks of truth and the damage to the self and society when truth is violated.
Every violation of truth is not only
a sort of suicide in the liar,
but is a stab at the health of society.
— Ralph Waldo Emerson
ESSAYS: FIRST EDITION (1841)
Emerson’s essay on Prudence put to paper what Titian (1490-1576) had painted on canvas in his “Allegory of Time Governed by Prudence” four centuries before.
The old man on the left (Titian himself) is turned toward the past. The boldest figure at the center (Titian’s oldest son, Orazio) represents the present. His cousin, Marco Vecellio, at the right is facing the future. The triple-headed beast — wolf, lion, and dog — represent the cardinal virtue Prudence.
In classical western philosophy dating to Plato’s Republic, Prudence (Wisdom) has been regarded as the thoughtful supervisor or manager of the other three moral virtues (Temperance, Fortitude, and Justice). Prudence (Wisdom) brings the insight to distinguish between the semblance of reality and reality itself, and the considered intelligence to act accordingly.
Titian’s painting, like Emerson’s essay, offers guidance during the coronavirus pandemic of 2020. Why? There is a parallel. Titian and his heir both died in the same year during the Plague.
Reality and the semblance of reality; truth and the distortion of truth
We in our time face a threat of two simultaneous plagues: the COVID-19 pandemic, and the violation of truth that “stabs a society” and commits “a sort of suicide in the liar.” Little attention is paid to the past or the future. A society without the Wisdom to discern the difference between truth and falsehood, reality and the semblance of reality, temperance and impulse, fortitude and facades, justice and privilege, and between a democratic republic and autocracy is a society in trouble. How we manage our way through the COVID-19 pandemic will determine the American character and the nation’s future.
In the last two weeks, every home received the post card guiding the American public through the coronavirus pandemic. In a normal year, one might expect the guidelines to arrive from an authoritative source — the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, perhaps in conjunction with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service.
But 2020 is not a normal year. It’s and election year. The President who called the coronavirus threat a hoax, played to the myth of national exceptionalism with references to “the Chinese virus,” assaults the patriotism of the Speaker of the House, members of the opposition party, and the Fourth Estate (the free press of the First Amendment), substitutes his personal feelings for the knowledge of the medical science professional, and puts himself at the microphone and television cameras of the daily coronavirus updates — this is the President who sends a post card presuming to provide guidance by post card to every American household at taxpayer expense.
Emerson knew that truth-telling was an essential virtue that protected the American republic from homicide and its citizens from killing their own souls. Prudence and imprudence in government were not strangers to Emerson or those whose genius crafted the balance of powers the became the U.S. Constitution.
How does a wounded country heal?
How and why it happened requires a look at American history. How we move forward leaves many of us scratching our heads. But one thing is certain. If we allow our disparate passions and partisan allegiances to replace Wisdom, we will have chosen personal suicide and societal homicide.
Emerson’s essay and Titian’s “Allegory of Time Governed by Prudence” found a friend in Anglican priest and poet Geoffrey Anketell Studdert Kennedy (June 27, 1883 – March 8, 1929), the WWI British Chaplain nicknamed ‘Woodbine Willie’ for the Woodbine cigarettes he gave injured and dying soldiers.
After World War I Studdert Kennedy became a pacifist and a socialist whose books and sermons were on the front line of the political-economic debate over the country’s future. He stood for his convictions, but saw himself as a member of a commonwealth who, like all other citizens, was called to search for wisdom “outside the prejudices and passions that arise in party strife.”
There is, and there must be, a plane upon which we can think and reason together upon questions arising out of our wider human relations, social questions, that is, apart from and above party prejudice and sectional interest. If that is not so, and there is no such plane, and we can not think of these big questions outside the prejudices and passions that arise in party strife, then it is safe to assert that there will never be a solution of the problem whatsoever. The idea that politics in the true sense — that is, the art of managing our human relationships on a large scale — must remain a separate department of life, distinct from morals and religion, is ultimately irrational and absurd.
One of the great public and religious dangers of the day is the use of the words socialism and capitalism without any real attempt to define their meaning.
– G.A. Studdert-Kennedy, “The Church in Politics” sermon preached at the 1926 annual meeting of the Industrian Christian Fellowship at St. Martin-in-the-Fields, London.
This April Fools Day, may God grant courage to all us fools to let Prudence lead us to find Truth again and save us for each other and our better selves.
I was five years old the morning I screamed from the top of the new chain-link barbed-wire fence that separated my next door buddy, Buddy Singleton, and me. Moments before, we had been speaking through the fence Buddy’s father had just put up to protect his property. We were friends. We wanted to play.What to do? One of us had to scale the chain-like fence. Clinging to the chain links, I climbed to the top where the barbed wire was. I lost my footing and screamed, hanging by one hand from the barbed wire that had spiked my hand. I hung there until my mother heard the screams and rushed to take me down. I never climbed a chain-link barb-wire fence again. The scar on my left hand reminds me every day.
Making Mistakes and the Consequences
Making mistakes is part of life. It’s just human. Sometimes our mistakes hurt ourselves, sometimes they hurt others. Sometimes they hurt both. But mistakes also teach us to look closely before trying to climb over a fence, no matter how lofty our intentions.
Today the fence I’d like to get over is harder to scale. “C’mon over,” says Buddy. “I can’t!” I say. “Sure you can. Just climb over the fence!” I’ve learned not to listen to a dangerous invitation. Having made that mistake, I now look up to the top, see the barbed wire, and decide to stay safe in my yard on my side of the fence. I don’t understand the Singletons, the Singletons don’t understand me, but each of us is sure we do.
Fences and neighbors
Today the invitations to “c’mon over” are hard to find. It’s not so much that we’re cowards; it’s that we don’t want each other in our yards. The Shadow’s question “What evil lurks in the hearts of men?” is no longer a question about all of us; it has become specific: “What evil lurks in the hearts of the Singletons?” “What evil lurks in the hearts of the Stewarts?” We no longer talk through the chain links. We call each other names, sure that, whatever evil is, its place is the other side of the fence. We get our news from different sources. We tell stories about the fence that separates good and evil, and the people on the other side of it. We don’t just see things differently. We see different things. We buy the stories about the fence and the people on the other side of it. The Stewarts watch MSNBC and listen to NPR; the Singletons tune into FOXNews and Rush Limbaugh. We’re worlds apart. Or so it seems, but . . .
“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall [a chain-link barb-wire fence] (Robert Frost in “Mending Wall”) bubbles up from a deeper memory in the year a virus locks us in our homes on both sides of the fence. COVID-19 knows nothing about fences and walls, good and evil, or state and national borders. Sometimes it takes a poet to take us to our deeper selves.
Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
- Robert Frost, "Mending Wall"
Gordon C. Stewart, at home in Chaska, MN, March 31, 2020.
Sharing comes naturally to Elijah. In this scene recorded by Gramma, Elijah surprises Grampa (Wumpa) with a piece of his pizza. Elijah has no knowledge of hoarding. He demonstrates the generosity of the widow of Zarephath who shared her last provisions with Elijah.
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
-Isaiah 58:6a-7 NRSV
Gordon C. Stewart (“Wumpa”) with Elijah and Gramma in Chaska, MN, March 26, 2020 in this period of social distancing.
Feel-good stories are becoming fewer during this period of self-isolation. There’s a virus out there that has kept us alone at home for 10 days, but we still talk with the two year-old grandchildren on Skype — or drop in on Elijah at daycare. Remotely, of course.
Elijah at daycare on St. Patrick’s Day
Elijah loves his daycare. What’s not to like? He has close friends. There are only four other playmates. They all adore Lidia, their daycare provider. Lidia only speaks Spanish — of the Cuban variety. Elijah and his friends speak only Spanish in Lidia’s home. But on St. Patrick’s Day Lidia make green smoothies. She called them “immunity drinks”. If it weren’t for the language and the ages, you’d think they were in a pub with a pint. Take a look.
A Brief Conversation — Elijah and Grampa (Bumpa)
Elijah, it makes me happy to see you like daycare so much.
No me gusta la guardería, abuelo.
I’m sorry, Grampa only speaks English. What did you say?
I said, “I don’t like daycare.”
Sure you do.
No! Amo la guardería. Oops, I’m sorry, I forgot. I said “No! I don’t. I LOVE daycare!”
I can see that. I used the wrong word.
It’s okay Grampa, you and Gramma never had daycare, right? You never learned Spanish, right?
So you didn’t have a girlfriend til you were really old, huh?
Do you have a girlfriend, Elijah? You’re only two.
I’m almost three! My girlfriend’s older. I LOVE Nora and Nora loves me.
A feel-good story for the homebound, brought to you by Elijah’s abuerlo, Chaska, MN, March 24, 2020.
No, not THAT Tea Party –the one that turned Boston Harbor into a sea of tea; and not THAT Tea Party — the 20th Century movement to strip government to its bare bones. THIS one is from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
The Daily Briefings
Watching the White House daily briefings on the coronavirus, I feel like Alice at the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party. “Wouldn’t it be nice,” I mutter to myself, “if something made sense for a change?”
The Mad Hatter, who recently cut the pandemic disease office of the National Security Council as fat and who has no medical education or expertise, presumes to know better than Dr. Anthony Fauci and the other health professionals standing behind him. I talk to the president through the television broadcast to explain what I see and hear.
“When you’re at the microphone facing the cameras, you can’t see what I see on the faces of the doctors standing behind you. You don’t see the stares or feel the energy it takes to hide their disdain. They cringe when you give assurances that everything is under control, declare with authority that the risks are minimal to none, and make announce remedies that don’t exist or are dangerous to our health.”
I shout at the television, “‘If you don’t think . . . , you shouldn’t talk.’ You haven’t made sense since you called the coronavirus a hoax. We’re all guests at your Tea Party, doing our best to be respectful while kicking each other under the table, winking, and passing notes with the scones and tea cozy.
“Those who know their history have read the book(s) your co-author Tony Schwartz and first wife, Ivana, claim to have seen in your bedroom. We know that history repeats itself for those who ignore their history. Our grandparents and great-grandparents risked their lives and died to save us from the day when those books might become America’s Bible. We hear in your manner of speaking, repetition of phrases, framing the free press as America’s great enemy, and see in your facial expressions and body posture, the projection of the Strong Man. What you say and how you say it has a ring to it.”
The Strong Man’s Script
“As the last factor I must in all modesty describe my own person: Irreplaceable. Neither a military man nor a civilian could replace me. Attempts at assassination may be repeated. I am convinced of my powers of intellect and of decision. Wars are always ended only by the annihilation of the opponent. Anyone who believes differently is irresponsible. Time is working for our adversaries. Now there is a relationship of forces which can never be more propitious for us. No compromises. Hardness toward ourselves. I shall strike and not capitulate. The fate of the Nation depends only on me. No one has ever achieved what I have achieved. My life is of no importance in all this. I have led [the nation] to a great height, even if the world does hate us now.”
“I believe today that my conduct is in accordance with the will of the Almighty.”
“The Strong Man is mightiest alone.”
“Strength lies not in defense, but attack.”
“Do not compare yourself to others. If you do so, you are insulting yourself.”
“The leader of genius must have the ability to make different opponents appear as if they belonged to one category.”
“The victor will never be asked if he told the truth. ”
“If you tell a big enough lie and tell it frequently enough, it will be believed.”
“But the most brilliant propaganda technique will yield no success unless one fundamental principle is borne in mind constantly and with unflagging attention. It must confine itself to a few points and repeat them over and over. Here, as so often in this world, persistence is the first and most important requirement for success.”
“I know that fewer people are won over by the written word than by the spoken word and that every great movement on this earth owes its growth to great speakers and not to great writers.”
“Through clever and constant application of propaganda, people can be made to see paradise as hell, and also the other way round, to consider the most wretched sort of life as paradise.”
“The receptivity of the masses is very limited, their intelligence is small, but their power of forgetting is enormous. In consequence of these facts, all effective propaganda must be limited to a very few points and must harp on these in slogans until the last member of the public understands what you want him to understand by your slogan.”
“I use emotion for the many and reserve reason for the few.”
“Humanitarianism is the expression of stupidity and cowardice.”
“Life doesn’t forgive weakness.”
“Strength lies not in defense but attack.”
“It is the press, above all, which wages a positively fanatical and slanderous struggle, tearing down everything which can be regarded as a support of national independence, cultural elevation, and the economic independence of the nation.”
“My feeling as a Christian points me to my Lord and Savior as a fighter. It points me to the man who once in loneliness, surrounded only by a few followers, recognized these Jews for what they were and summoned men to fight against them and who, God’s truth! was greatest not as a sufferer but as a fighter. In boundless love as a Christian and as a man I read through the passage which tells us how the Lord at last rose in His might and seized the scourge to drive out of the Temple the brood of vipers and adders. How terrific was his fight against the Jewish poison. Today, after two thousand years, with deepest emotion I recognize more profoundly than ever before the fact that it was for this that He had to shed his blood upon the Cross.”
“To truly ‘learn’ history means to open your eyes and discover the forces that cause historical events to happen. The art of reading and of learning means remembering the important parts and forgetting the unimportant.”
All the above are quotations from Mein Kampf or speeches of Hitler
There Will Be No Throne Here
The original Tea Party threw the tea into Boston Harbor to protest a colonial power’s taxation of the colonists without representation. They were telling the King of England to go home. There would be no palace or gilded throne in the new American Republic.
Little could the colonists at the original Tea Party have imagined a king rising from American soil — a free electorate allowing a would-be king to shred its own Constitution.
Neither could they have imagined another democratic republic which de-throned Kaiser Wilhelm II turn back the clock for the Strong Man promised to make Germany great again and re-paint the Jewish Jesus as an Aryan-race anti-Jewish fighter who gave his blessing to the nationalist purge and purification we now call the Holocaust.
The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party of 2020 is not in Germany, and pundits have been well-advised to refrain from any comparisons, especially when the need to unite is so apparent. But we cannot pretend not to see what we see and hear what we hear.
“That’s very important,” the King said, turning to the jury. They were just beginning to write this down on their slates, when the White Rabbit interrupted: “Unimportant, your Majesty means, of course,” he said in a very respectful tone, but frowning and making faces at him as he spoke.
“Unimportant, of course, I meant,” the King hastily said, and went on to himself in an undertone, “important—unimportant–unimportant–important–” as if he were trying which word sounded best.
Some of the jury wrote it down “important,” and some “unimportant.” Alice could see this, as she was near enough to look over their slates; “but it doesn’t matter a bit,” she thought to herself.
Members of the Jury: “important . . . unimportant . . . important”?
The danger to an America locked down to safeguard public health is greater than the coronavirus. It is the threat that we will come to see the Boston Tea Party and the U.S. Constitution as partisan mistakes, and plug our ears lest we hear even the faintest hint of the shredding of the Constitution and see no similarity to the Strong Man’s Script.
Gordon C. Stewart, Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness, available in paperback and kindle through Wipf and Stock and Amazon.
There’s no need to hang about waiting for the Last Judgement — it takes place every day.
Albert Camus, The Fall (1956)
The Influenza Pandemic of 1918-19
The COVID-19 pandemic was not the first and will not be the last. Historical contexts, memory, and what we believe make a difference to how we live/die in the 2020 pandemic.The influenza pandemic of 1918-1919 killed between 20 and 40 million people, more than all the deaths in World War I. “It has been cited as the most devastating epidemic in recorded world history. More people died of influenza in a single year than in four-years of the Black Death Bubonic Plague from 1347 to 1351” – Stanford Encyclopedia.
In the United States, 195,000 Americans lost their lives in the month of October, 1918 alone. The influenza of 1918-19 became known as “the Spanish Flu” after it took the life of the King of Spain, but it was no more Spanish than COVID-19 is Chinese. A virus is a virus. It pays no attention to nations or the propensity of nations and peoples to target a scapegoat — another nation unlike one’s own — as though a virus knows the difference.
The Parable of the Last Judgment (Matthew 13:31-46)
First appearances can be deceptive, few more so than the teachings of Jesus. The Parable of the Last Judgment is not what it seems –it is not about future end of time. It’s a parable inviting the listeners to get their heads out of the clouds and put their feet on the ground. Its message? Pay attention to people in front of you, or nearby, living under the interstate bridge in the dead of winter. Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the sick, visit the prisoners — put yourself squarely in the midst of human suffering.
We might say, the measure of life is compassion in the midst of a world that makes no good sense. What happens at the end is not yours to know. Pay attention to today. Every day is the Last Judgment.
But there’s something else that goes unnoticed in individualistic cultures. Jesus’s parable it is not about the individual. The parable is not about you. It’s not about me. It’s a story that calls the nations to account for their behavior. In that sense, the parable is political. It’s about the polis and its values. There are no privileged nations. All are measured by one standard. The last judgment– the judgment of compassion, kindness, and humility — takes place every day.
The Opportunity of Trouble
Like the Influenza pandemic of 2018-19, the coronavirus pandemic of 2020 is a crisis in the Chinese sense of the word — danger and opportunity. The danger seems obvious, but perhaps the opportunity is greater. We are at war with each other across the U.S.A., shouting across a deep chasm that the other is a goat. We are in very deep trouble, but we’re in it together because of a deadly virus. In hopes we will come to the deeper knowledge of who we are.
“The human mind and the human heart move to truth through trouble,” said Irish Anglican priest G.A. Studdert Kennedy. “It does not really matter what sort of truth you seek. Bunyan faced with the problem of the soul, and Newton faced with the problem of the stars, are both alike in this: they are troubled spirits. They brood over a mass of apparently unconnected, unrelated, and meaningless facts. Bunyan mutters, ‘There is no health in me’; and Newton mutters, ‘There is no sense in them.’ For both it is dark, and they do not know the way. Both walk at times into the dungeon of despair. The pilgrim’s progress of the scientist and of the saint is made along much the same road, and it begins with a troubled brooding, and a heavy heavy burden at the back of the mind and heart. We must all start there. Life begins in Lent. But there comes to both a supreme and splendid moment, the moment when they cry, ‘I see! I see!’ Bunyan sees a Cross and a Man who hangs in agony upon it. Newton sees an apple falling to the ground. But into the minds of both there comes a blaze of light.” — G.A. Studdert Kennedy (“Woodbine Willie”) sermon “The Word with God.”
Perhaps a blaze of light will flood this moment of trouble, we will rediscover each other, find our better selves, and cry out with fresh joy, “I see! I see!”
This is Elijah. I want to be your friend, but grampa says I can’t be. Maybe if we can’t be friends we can talk like this on our iPads on my way to daycare.
I hope you’re staying safe like gramma and grampa. They won’t go out of the house anymore because the germs are outside. They’re old, like you. We haven’t seen each other for a week because of the torona biris. Mommy says I won’t get it cause I’m just two, but I might carry the biris into gramma and grampa’s house and make them sick and die. How do you carry something you can’t see?
Grampa says he hopes you get the biris. I told him that’s not nice! But he says you’re the one who’s not nice. A lot of people listen to you on TB. They believe you, and sometimes you confuse them. Like when you said the torona biris was a hokes grampa made up, but then changed your mind and said it was real, that it used to be a hokes, but now it’s not. Did you lie? Did you really believe grampa was bad?
You owe grampa and Nancy an apology. So does Mr. Limball. Grampa says Mr. Limball is a lot like you. He throws a lot of stuff against the wall to see what sticks and it gets all over people who believe him on the radio. But Mr. Limball has cancer. We’re supposed to pray for him. Grampa prays for you and Mr. Limball all the time. He says you’re both cancers and we should pray for those who prosecute us. He prays you will just shut up. But his prayers are never answered. Do you believe in prayer?
Have you told everybody you were wrong about grampa and Nancy and the torona biris? Grampa says you should confess. You changed your mind about the biris. So did the president. That’s good. But you still owe grampa and Nancy an apology. Grampa says it’s easy. Just tell them you’re sorry, stop prosecuting them, ask for their forgibnis, and then tell the truth, and tell Mr. Limball to do it too.
Anyway, I hope you listen to grampa. Stay in your house, and don’t say a thing to anybody except Mrs. Hannity about anything until the torona biris is gone. That will make life more peaceful for grampa, and what’s good for grampa and gramma is good for me.
“Love your enemies and pray for those who prosecute you.”
In Illinois after the diagnosis of scarlet fever and other hemolytic streptococcal infections of the upper respiratory tract is made, "Isolation is required for a minimum period of 14 days after onset and thereafter until the nose, throat, glands, and ears are normal on inspection or until the physician reports complete clinical recovery."1
Other states have essentially the same regulation except that the minimum quarantine period is 21 days instead of 14.
SILENCE IN THE HALF-FORGOTTEN HOUSE
The house on Church Lane was in Pennsylvania, not in Illinois, but the Scarlet Fever and the quarantines were the same. No baseball. No backyard games of hide-and-seek or tag. No evenings with the fireflies. No school. Not everything felt like a curse.
To prevent blindness, the room was dark. Other than Mom delivering meals, checking the fever, and reminding me not to scratch, the room was empty and quiet with one exception: the purring of Buddy, the cross-eyed cat with the crooked tail. Even a cat needs company sometimes. I like silence. A lot! But not that much. We’re not meant to be alone. Everyone needs a friend like Buddy.
FINDING OURSELVES IN SOLITUDE
Old memories return in times that awaken them. Live & Learn’s gift of a “Blessing for a Writer” came at just the right time. I fancy myself a writer, but words worth writing have been hiding during the spread of the latest pandemic when the fever and isolation are everywhere..
Might the solitude lead us to find each other?
“Only in solitude do we find ourselves; and in finding ourselves, we find in ourselves all our [neighbors] in solitude.”
— Miguel de Unamuno, “Solitude,” Essays and Soliloquies (1924), tr. J.E. Crawford Finch.
Narcissus of the Greek myth slowly wastes away. Refusing to look away from his reflection in the pond, he dies of thirst and starvation.
The myth assumes that the pond is placid. There are no ripples. But what if a storm troubles the waters, rippling the pond –something like a virus that does not notice Narcissus’s need to see his own reflection in the pond.
Narcissus mutters to himself until, at last, his voice falls silent, except for Echo, repeating his words, forgetful of what she had surrendered to his power: the confidence and beauty that come only from within.
Teach me, like you, to drink creation wholeAnd, casting out myself, become a soul.
- Richard Wilbur, “The Aspen and the Stream,”
Advice to a Prophet (1961)
Legitimate fears, on the one hand, and the false assurances, on the other, expose a truth we rarely face. The coronavirus (COVID-19) pays no attention to political parties, economic status, or national borders. Viruses do not discriminate. One human being is the same as the next. Viruses like this are familiar with homo sapiens stupidity that ignores our mortal frailty. They know better than we that there is only one economy — one house, one planet — in which what happens in one room (one class, one race, one culture, one nation) affects everyone in every room of the house.
A Time for Solitude
The closing of schools, businesses, sports venues, cancellations of political rallies, social gatherings et.al. will separate us until the current siege passes. But is it too much to hope that the threat of a virus would bring our species to its senses and rouse us to action in the face of the bigger pandemic threat, the health and habitability of the planet itself? The viruses will be fine; we may become the latest Woolly Mammoths to die of thirst.
The experience of separation will be either lonely or solitary. Loneliness is its own kind of despair; solitude offers opportunity to step away to reflect. How much we reflect deeply depends in part on learning from previous generations the kind of wisdom that does not shrink or shrivel when there are real reasons to fear. One of those sources of wisdom is G.A. Studdert Kennedy (1883-1929), the Irish Anglican priest, poet, author, and World War I British Army chaplain affectionately known as ‘Woodbine Willie’.
‘Studdert Kennedy became ‘Woodbine Willie’ after insisting on serving in the trenches, moving among the injured and dying, distributing “Willis’s Woodbine’ cigarettes as part of his pastoral care. “Our first job,” he advised a newly commissioned chaplain, “is to go beyond the men in self-sacrifice and devotion. . . . There is very little spiritual work — it is all muddled and mixed — but it is all spiritual. Take a box of [cigarettes] in your haversack, and a great deal of love in your heart, and go to them, live with them. You can pray with them sometimes, but pray for them always.”
The modern cult of cheeriness: deadly fear of sadness
G. A. Studdert Kennedy left behind a word for our troubles in 2020. He called called people to think and feel. He demands that we get real. “Thinking, he said, “begins with trouble in the mind.
“Thinking begins with trouble in the mind. There is no thought without tears. ‘Blessed are they that mourn.’ The modern cult of cheeriness is largely due to the fact that we are deadly afraid of being sad. We want Easter without Lent. But we cannot have it. The human mind and the human heart — you cannot separate one from the other — God has joined them together and no one can put them asunder.”
There’s no such thing as thought which does not feel,
If it be real thought, and not thought’s ghost
All pale and sicklied o’er with dead conventions,
Abstract truth, which is a lie upon this
Living, loving, suffering Truth which pleads
And pulses in my very veins. The blue
Blood of all beauty and the breath of life itself.
--G.A. Studdert Kennedy sermon, The Word with God, 1926.
Coming Next: more wisdom from ‘Woodbine Willie’
In days to come, Views from the Edge will feature more of G. A. Struddert Kennedy as it applies to this moment for thoughtful solitude to reflect on who we are and who we choose to become. Coming next:
“There is, and must be, a plane upon which we can think and reason together upon the questions. . . apart from . . . the prejudices and passions that arise in party strife.”
Dear President Trump, I’m sorry to bother you again. I know you must be very busy on Super Market Tuesday. I meant to send this picture of me but I forgot, like Bumpa. Mommy gave me this Medal of Freedom after seeing you give one to Rush Limmba. She gave me mine last week after I put it in the potty. I bet you have one too.
Gordon C. Stewart (Bumpa), Chaska, MN, Super Tuesday, March 3, 2020
My Gamma and Bumpa helped me with this letter. I love Gamma and Bumpa! Please don’t tell them that I changed it a little. I don’t want to hurt their feelings. When I showed it to the kids at daycare in show and tell, they said it was too nice. They hurt my feelings. I told them we’re Minnesotans. We’re nice here in Minnesota. We don’t say mean things. They say our generation needs to be more honest and pretend we’re not Minnesotans.
Anyway, Bumpa and Gamma don’t like you. They say you need to see the doctor and lie on the couch. I don’t know why. I’ve been to the doctor and she doesn’t have a couch. Maybe you need sleep? Sometimes I do. Like last night. I couldn’t sleep, so I climbed out of my bed and woke up Mommy. Mommy said it’s important to get a good night’s sleep. Then we cuddled in her bed. I wish you could sleep better. Do you get to cuddle?
You have a lot on your mind. Like all the germs from China and the Bidens. That’s a lot! I’m glad I’m not president. I think the germs are coming from Russia. Whatever! You said on tv not to worry. It’s just a bad cold. But then, yesterday, Mr. Pence said you’ve put all hands on deck. I asked Mommy what that means. She just shook her head and told me to go back to sleep.
Today is Super Market Tuesday here in Minnesota. Amy quit yesterday, so you don’t need to worry about Amy anymore. She didn’t want to come in second or third behind Bernie and Joe, and Elizabeth in her own state. That wouldn’t be very nice. So she quit and flew to Texas to help Joe and stop Bernie. That’s kinda weird, don’t ya think? But maybe not. Bumpa thinks she’s sucking up to Joe so Joe will pick her for his wife.
Anyway, the kids at day care are mad at you and Mr. Pence. You say climate change is a hoax. We like the Green New Deal! It’s not a hoax. You said not to worry about the germs from China and blamed the Democrats and television ’cause it’s just another way to make you look bad. You’re not saying that anymore. You lied. I’m just 2, but I know that.
The doctors say the crownaviris germs will go after old people. Yesterday Bumpa and Gramma got masks. They’re going to wear them to vote today. They won’t tell me whether it’s Joe, Bernie, or Elizabeth they’re voting for, but definitely not you. They say you’re not very nice.
I don’t like you, but we’re Christians. We will pray for you to get a good night’s sleep, or sleep on the doctor’s couch if you have a tummy ache, or cuddle with your mommy at home.
Some stories never happened but are always happening. Like the Matthew and Luke stories of the 40 day temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. If everything in Christian scripture should become lost, except for the narratives of the wilderness temptation, we would still have the story to glean what it means, and does not mean, to be human.
The narratives of Jesus in the wilderness are a kind of Cliff Notes on the ways mortal life gets twisted. They condense the challenges of the Christ and of all of us. The Devil is a Trickster, the Liar, twisting the good out of shape.
Is it about power? Or is it about splendor?
As many times as I have read and preached about them, the word ‘splendor’ has seemed incidental to the temptation of power. Or so I thought until this morning.
Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if . . . .”
Gospel according to Matthew 4:8-9 NRSV
The genius of scripture is that it brings fresh things to light that speak to new socio-reliigious-political circumstances. Perhaps it is the dark and darkening sky of 2020 that drew my eye to the ‘splendor’ of the kingdoms (nations) as more than incidental. The Greek word is ‘doxa’ (glory, splendor). Perhaps power is not an end in itself, but a means to the end of self-glorification. There could be no greater splendor than owning/controlling all the nations of this world. Yet the Gospel writers knew what we easily forget, until the illusion of power vanishes into nothing. “Glory is like a circle in the water/ which never ceaseth to enlarge itself/ till by broad spreading it disperse to naught.” — William Shakespeare, Henry VI.
The Lure of Splendor
The effort to be splendid or glorious arises from the human condition, but isn’t it a fair guess that the search for splendor by means of power is not the temptation of migrants in detention camps, or starving children and parents, or patients suffering a pandemic? They find within and among themselves whatever shreds of hope and self-regard remain. The third wilderness temptation visits the abundant who are tempted to get to the very high mountaintop of personal power and splendor.
It is no accident that ‘splendor’ caught my attention the First Sunday of Lent following the news of the coronavirus, the threat if a global pandemic, the president’s attempts at minimization or denial, the plunge of the stock market, and the apparent preoccupation of the world’s most powerful man with his own splendor. No person or kingdom is divine, no matter how hard we imagine. Deep down, something in us knows.
“All these [kingdoms] I will give you, if you will bow down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.'”
Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him
Gospel of Matthew 4:9-11 NRSV
Prayer for Public Officials
Walter Rauschenbusch’s “Prayer for Public Officials” is preserved by Prayers of the Social Awakening, published in 1909.
We give the thanks that by the free institutions our country the tyrannous instincts of the strong may be curbed to the patient service to the commonwealth.
Strengthen the sense of duty in our political life. Grant that the servants of the state will feel ever more deeply that any diversion of their public powers for private ends is a betrayal of their country. Purge our cities and states and nation of the deep causes of corruption which have so often made sin profitable and uprightness hard. Bring to an end the stale days of party cunning.”
Walter Rauschenbusch, “For Public Officers,” Prayers of the Social Awakening, 1909.
Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, Minnesota, First Sunday of Lent, March 1, 2020.
Leonard Bernstein’s “Simple Song” is a rendering of Psalm 121. It also calls to mind “Blessed are the pure of heart” — the Beatitude from Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount. It’s music that calms my whirling soul among the clanging cymbals.
One can’t help but wonder why a president with no medical knowledge would contradict the doctors and research scientists standing next to him at a news conference meant to address the coronavirus. Aaron James’s “Letter to an Asshole” reminds the reader of Homer’s wise counsel:
“You should be open to wise counsel — if not from me, then maybe from Horace. ‘All swollen up with love of glory, are you?’ Horace offers ironic reassurance:
“No one’s so far gone in savagery —
A slave of envy, wrath, lust, drunkenness, sloth —
That he can’t be civilized, if he’ll only listen
Patiently to the doctor’s good advice.”
- Aaron James, Assholes: A Theory (Anchor Books, 2014)
My Annual Physical
I’m accustomed to ignoring the doctor’s advice. “You’re overweight. I’d like you to lose 10 pounds by our next annual visit. You need to eat smaller portions and walk a mile every day,” advises my doctor. I thank her, hop in the car, and drive one block to the ice cream parlor for a banana split. Refusing to listen is common to us all, but few of us are surrounded by the props of glory that allow us to deny our savagery.
Chicken Little’s Annual Physical
Chicken Little goes for his annual physical. “Well,” says the doctor who has been the family doctor for years, “before we begin, is there anything you’d to discuss?” Chicken Little tells the doctor the same story he tells every year. “I’m depressed, doctor. “I need an anti-depressant. Nobody listens to me anymore.” “Let’s hold that thought for discussion after the physical exam,” says the doctor. “Remember . . . I don’t do that glove thing,” says Chicken Little. After the physical exam, the doctor addresses Chicken Little’s concern. “Chicken Little, we’ve known each other for years. We know each other pretty well. Today I want to do what a good friend does. I want to tell you the truth no one else will tell you. If you want people to listen, you need to stop yelling ‘The sky is falling! The sky is falling’. It drives people crazy and no one listens to you because the know science. They know the sky can’t fall.” The doctor gives him a postcard to keep with him at all times. Chicken Little ignores the postcard; an hour later, he’s yelling about the sky falling. He can’t help himself.
Chicken Little’s Cousin’s Annual Physical
Chicken Little’s cousin visits the same doctor. He, too, makes up reality. But there is a difference. While Chicken Little proclaims gloom and doom, even on the best of days, Chicken Little’s cousin never sees a cloud, even on the darkest days. His annual physical ends with the doctor’s good counsel. “You and Chicken Little think you’re opposites, but you’re just alike. Chicken Little lies every day: ‘Fire! Fire! The sky is falling! The sky is falling!’ and no one listens. You, on the other hand, tell people what they want to hear, no matter how real the danger. ‘Everything is fine. Nothing can go wrong!’ If and when something goes wrong, you’ll be as responsible as Chicken Little. Neither of you has been open to good advice.’”
As he had done with Chicken Little, he hands the cousin the postcard to keep him in touch with reality, but unlike Chicken Little, he reads it.
Let us settle ourselves, and work and
wedge our feet downward through the
mud and slush of opinion and prejudice
. . . till we come to a hard bottom and
rocks in place, which we can call reality.
-- Henry David Thoreau, Walden, 1854
The Coronavirus News Conference
The sky is not falling, but neither is it cloudless. The coronavirus has made people anxious. The general public needs reassurance, someone to settle them by cutting through the mud and slush of opinion and prejudice. They want a leader who will tell them the truth, someone who stands on the hard bottom of reality.
The President of the United States, accompanied by the nation’s leading medical experts, steps behind the White House podium to address an anxious nation. He blames the press for exaggerating the danger and driving down the stock market. This is the same president who calls climate change a hoax, regardless of international scientific consensus; eliminated the National Security Council’s pandemic disease team’s leading specialist; and proposes slashing the funding of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. He reassures the people that the threat to this country is very low — “very, very low” — not much more than the common cold, and that it will be gone in a couple of months, and that a vaccine is weeks away.
He offers the microphone to the public health experts and steps behind and to the side of the podium. His body posture says he’s ill-at-ease. His eyes are squinting as though he cannot see something from afar but they are blank. One after another, the medical ‘experts’ express deep concern and uncertainty. They correct the disinformation about the timing of developing a vaccine for coronavirus. Vaccines are not developed quickly. The question is not whether the virus will spread; it’s a question of when it will spread.
The President returns to the podium, thanks the staff, and repeats Chicken Little’s cousin’s insistence that Chicken Little is wrong. The sky is not falling. But, just in case it does, he is appointing Mike Pence to coordinate the different teams addressing it. ”[Mike] is really very expert at the field,” he says. ”Mike will be working with the professionals and doctors and everybody else that’s working. The team is brilliant.”
Letter to Chicken Magnus
You face grave risks. If I may say so, as you are, it is as though you sit, squatting, defiant, and starving, in a dark cave of your own making. You prefer to be feared, if not respected. In that way you strive for a pale copy of true moral recognition. … You would not like the epitaph I would write for you…. Or maybe you aren’t bothred. Either way, please accept my honest concern for your health and safety. One could easily pity your condition, and so I hope you change it.
Aaron James,”Letter to an Asshole,”Assholes: a Theory
Today, Ash Wednesday, is a solemn day that calls for distraction from frivolous distractions, you might say.
Entertainment cultures shun solemnity. Ash Wednesday interrupts our flight from the knowledge of our mortality: “You are dust and to dust you shall return.”
Steve Shoemaker, seen here welcoming President Clinton to Champaign-Urbana, shared a poem that leads me a decision Ash Wednesday: plagiarize or leave the page (Views from the Edge) blank?
I HAVE NOTHING
I have nothing…
no thoughts, no ideas
Worse, only clichés
crowd my mind:
or remembered words
wielded by real writers.
Feeling only frustration,
tempted by alliteration,
or worse, rhyme…
Is it worse to plagiarize
than to leave a blank page?
— Steve Shoemaker, Feb. 6, 2013
In memory and thanksgiving for Steve’s faithful solemnity and smile,
Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Ash Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020