Those who have had to say good-bye to the dog in the family understand. Others may wonder how a pet’s death can cause such deep sadness.
August 22, 2020
Yesterday morning it became clear that Barclay, our nine year-old Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, was laboring and less able to enjoy life. We knew he has the heart condition many Cavalier King Charles Spaniels develop and have seen signs Barclay is slowing down. He isn’t his playful self.
Barclay took his last ride in the car, wagged his tail going into the veterinary clinic, and sat on my lap while Kay and I faced the decision we did not want to make. As he did the first time I held him — he was (3.5 lbs.), he licked my face and nibbled my left ear, expressing that same love and trust with Kay before they gave him the first shot that tranquillized him.
Five days later, August 27
The feeling now is emptiness and the irrational sense of guilt for “putting him down,” as they say. Kay and I are teary and sad. I have a flood of tears behind the dam of denial. I miss his presence: the morning kiss and nibble on my ear; walking one step behind me going down the stairs, like a paramedic ready for a rescue; his delight chasing light and shadows, moths and butterflies; throwing his ball at our feet for a game of soccer (he was a goalie; you couldn’t get the ball past him); alerting us when it was time to watch Ari, have a cocktail, and play two or three minutes of soccer; his gentleness with grandson Elijah; practicing the training commands he liked — sit, down, heel, leave it — while regarding the rest as suggestions to consider; sitting patiently to lick the peanut butter from our fingers.
To call Barclay “precious” understates his sweetness and goodness.
Six days later, August 28
It’s been six days since Barclay died. I haven’t been able to shake the sorrow. The tears remain locked behind the dam in the reservoir of sorrow filled by the tears a lifetime. These feelings are particular to this moment in time, but the reservoir feels deeper and darker than the loss of Barclay. The picture of his last moment —lying on the veterinarian’s table with his paws hanging over the edge, trusting us with his life — still haunts me.
These feelings are what they always are: neither rational nor irrational. Reason can measure the width and depth of things, but it has no access to the depths of the non-rational, known only to the heart.
Twelve Days Later, September 3
It’s time for the evening news. Barclay is missing; Donald Trump is not. I’m struck by the contrast. Barclay never lied. There was no pretense in him. Lying and pretense were as far from Barclay’s character as honesty and humility are from the former president. During Barclay’s nine years with us, he never had an accident. Not once. Donald Trump made a mess of the White House, and continues to smear the media with his excreta every day. There is no good reason one would confuse the stench from a pigsty with the aroma wafting from a bakery. When everything is shaking, reason does not stop the quivering. Shaking and calmness are matters of the heart.
At my age, the reservoir has its share of grief and sadness. Much of the sorrow is of my own making, things I have done and left undone that hurt others and myself. Mixed with those tears are the gasps of a global lament: the mess we are leaving to our grandchildren; the horror of January 6 and the relentless disinformation that erodes the public trust on which the survival of democratic republic depends; the Big Lie swallowed and promoted by those who know it’s not true; the return of the hangman’s noose and the hanging tree, weapons of mass destruction, war, and guns concealed and carried freely in public; the insanity of the Strong Man pummeling Ukraine into submission, and the former American president who, like Putin, knows no other words than MINE; the fundamentalist churches’ exchange of the gospel of the crucified Jesus, the Loser, for the prosperity gospel for winners.
How much the reservoir is personal and how much is public is hard to tell, but I also know there are tears of joy and love in my deepest self. All that’s left at the end is love. If my DNA follows my parents’ lifespans, I have six or eight years left to release the sorrow, guilt, and shame, and re-fill the reservoir with tears of joyful thanksgiving for the gift of Barclay and of life itself. Love never ends.
Gordon C. Stewart, Brooklyn Park, MN, September 7, 2022
The House Select Committee hearings are studies of character. What we have seen seems courageous. It takes courage to bear witness to the truth when thugs are threatening your life over and over and over again, and when you can’t use your name any longer because it might bring harm to your mother, your grandmother, and yourself. But what we are looking at goes deeper than courage.
Integrity in high and low places
We have been looking at the integrity of those who did the right thing under pressure from the highest rung of American power. Integrity is the still point from which courage comes. Character that is true to itself was once expressed in the adage, “A man’s (sic) word is his (sic) bond.” Integrity is the alignment of word and deed, the plumb-line of conscience and responsibility. Almost two centuries ago, American writer Charles Caleb Colton wrote,
Straightforward and Simple Integrity
We have witnessed straightforward and simple integrity in high places — Secretaries of State Rusty Bowers (AZ) and Brad Raffensperger (GA); former Attorney General Bill Barr; the President’s daughter, Ivanka; leaders of the US Department of Justice, the White House Attorney — and in low places where most of us live and do our jobs without public recognition, people like Ms Shaye Moss and her mother, “Lady Ruby,” in Fulton County (GA).
Integrity and trustworthiness are the brick and mortar that keep a house from falling. Tricks and duplicity, like termites and carpenter ants, slowly destroy the foundations and eat away the framework of the house we take for granted. The infestation — Donald Trump’s Constitutional mischief; the once-upon-a-time Grand Old Party’s steadfast complicity in promoting of the Big Lie; three Supreme Court justices who were confirmed only after well-scripted assurances that they regarded Roe v Wade as settled precedent, and, as such, would not overturn Roe v Wade— is eating away the trust and respect without which a house creaks and crumbles.
Securing the House: “I will not play with laws I swore allegiance to”
Moments before Rep. Bennie Thomson gaveled the June 21 hearing to order, Republican Arizona House Speaker Rusty Bower received a letter from the 45th President of the United States of America “remind” Mr. Bower of something he never said. Speaker Bower testified under oath that he had never, ever, at any time, anywhere, under any circumstances said the election was rigged. The reminder was a lie.
Mr. Bower’s resistance to repeated pressure from the White House was an act of integrity. “It’s a central tenet of my faith,” he said.” Violating the Constitution is foreign to my very being. I will not do it.” In his diary he had written, “It is painful to have friends…turn on me with such rancor.” But “I do not want to be a winner by cheating. I will not play with laws I swore allegiance to.”
“I know sage, wormwood, and hyssop, but I can’t smell character unless it stinks.
edward dahlberg, “On Human Nature,” Reasons of the Heart, 1965.
The View from Above and the View from Below
Some people view the world from above. They see through eyes of power, possession and privilege. Most of us see life from the lower places of the dis-enfranchised, the dispossessed, the powerless, the forgotten, and those who feed their children, struggle to make the month’s rent, pay the utility bills, find a doctor or a warm blanket in a homeless shelter. They do not call attention to themselves.
Among those who see the world from below are Ms. Shaye Moss, an election worker for the past 10 years in Fulton County, Georgia, and her mother “Lady Ruby,” whose lives were turned upside down by a phone call from the President to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger.
When asked what had passed between them at the poling site, Shaye Moss, looking over her shoulder at Lady Ruby and smiled. She answered, “A ginger mint.”
Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), writing from Brooklyn Park, MN, June 22, 2022.
I had never heard of the Faith and Freedom (F&F) Coalition before hearing Donald Trump would be the keynote speaker for F&F’s “Road to Majority” conference in Nashville, TN.
Did the Faith and Freedom organizers remember the 2016 presidential candidate’s unintended exposure of biblical ignorance when he called Second Corinthians “Two Corinthians” at Liberty University? Liberty is the Bible-believing school founded by Jerry Falwell, Sr., as a Christian counter-weight to the godless universities that were eroding America’s foundations. And, if Faith and Freedom is about freedom, why invite the president who drove a lawful peaceful Black Lives Matter demonstration from Lafayette Park with tear gas — in order to pose in front of an historic Episcopal Church holding a borrowed Bible upside down?
Wisdom calls aloud in the street,
she raises her voice in the public squares;
at the head of the noisy streets she cries out,
in the gateways of the city she makes her speech:
“How long will you simple ones love
your simple ways?
How long will mockers delight in mockery
and fools hate knowledge?’” — Book of Proverbs 1:20-22.
What would Donald Trump say after the House Select Committee on January 6 had held its first three public hearings, providing irrefutable evidence of intense pressure on Vice President Pence? What would he say to the sworn testimony of former Attorney General Bill Barr and others that there was no evidence of fraud, that the election had not been stolen? What would he say about Ivanka’s sworn testimony that she believed the Attorney General because she trusted him. How would Mr. Trump respond to Barr’s sworn testimony that the president appeared to be “out of touch with reality”?
A clear and present danger
How would he rebut Conservative Republican retired federal Judge J. Michael Luttig’s live testimony? The judge testified that the January 6 attack on the Capitol was part of a “well-developed plan by the former president to overturn the 2020 election at any cost, so that he could cling to power that the American people has decided to confer upon his successor,” and that he considers Trump and his “Big Lie” legitimizers “a clear and present danger”?
The Speech for “Road to Majority”
From the podium of the Faith and Freedom convention, he practiced what Roy Cohn and Roger Stone had taught him. Always go on offense; never go to the defensive side of the line of scrimmage. “Mike Pence had a chance to be great,” he said. “He had a chance to be historic. Mike Pence did not have the courage to act!” He said nothing about his last phone call with the vice president on January 6 in which he called Pence a “wimp” and worse, according to the sworn testimony of his daughter Ivanka, the White House Attorney, and White House staff who were in the Oval Office. In his speech to the Faith and Freedom convention, Trump disparaged the vice president as a “human conveyor belt” for going forward with counting the votes that would certify results of the election. He had considered calling Pence a “robot.”
Historical Flashback by historian Heather Cox-Richardson
On August 9, 1974, Nixon became the first president in American history to resign.
[Barry} Goldwater, along with House Republican Leader John Jacob Rhodes and Senate Republican Leader Hugh Scott, entered the Oval Office around 5 p.m. The Arizona senator sat directly in front of Nixon’s desk, the others to the side. Goldwater told Nixon he had perhaps 16 to 18 Senate supporters left – too few to avoid ouster. Congressman Rhodes said House support was just as soft.
Rather than admit guilt, though, he told the American people he had to step down because he no longer had the support he needed in Congress to advance the national interest. He blamed the press, whose “leaks and accusations and innuendo” had been designed to destroy him. His disappointed supporters embraced the idea that there was a “liberal” conspiracy, spearheaded by the press, to bring down any Republican president.
When his replacement, Gerald Ford, issued a preemptive blanket pardon for any crimes the former president might have committed against the United States, he guaranteed that Nixon would never have to account for his illegal attempt to undermine his Democratic opponent, and that those who thought like Nixon could come to think they were above the law.
“What I admire about Nixon was his resilience,” one of Nixon’s 1972 operatives told a reporter decades later, ‘It’s attack, attack, attack!’ “
Leave no Stone unturned
Not every resilient thing is worthy of praise. Roger Stone is resilient. Nuclear waste is resilient. Attack, attack, attack is resilient. Never defend! “Repeat, repeat, repeat. Attack, attack, attack! Never show weakness. Only show strength!
Who will remove the Stone? What congressional delegation will do for America what John Jacob Rhodes, Hugh Scott, and Barry Goldwater did when they walked into the Oval Office to tell President Richard Nixon it was time to resign? Who will go to Mar-a-Largo to tell Donald Trump that his game is over, that he can no longer lie his way out of the sand trap, that they will not pull him out to put him back on the course? When and how will the Republican National Committee (RNC) re-gain enough respect for the U.S. Constitution to tell the world that the “Big Lie” was a lie? When will Faith and Freedom become faithful to the Lord it professes?
Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), Brooklyn Park, MN, June 21, 2022.
Recent talk of “Willful blindness” in reference to the House Select Committee on January 6 public hearings leaves the door ajar to re-publish “Two Universities: Paris and Liberty” from Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), p.101-2.
Two Universities: Paris and Liberty
“Let’s teach them (i.e., Muslims)
a lesson if they ever show up here,”
Falwell told thousands of students here
Dec. 4, with an unsubtle reference to
a pistol in his back pocket. Five days
later, he announced plans to let
qualified students store guns
in residence halls for the first time.
—Nick Anderson, “For Many at Liberty University”
When the president of “the largest Christian university in the world” in Lynchburg, Virginia urges every student to buy a gun and get a permit to carry a concealed weapon, for whatever reasons, it seems a little oxymoronic and moronic. It’s neither Christian nor smart. It’s not what people do in college. They buy books, not guns. It’s not consistent with the traditions and standards of higher learning. Scholars and presidents of real universities don’t talk like that.
In the thirteenth century CE, a young Thomas Aquinas enrolled as a student of Christian theology and philosophy at one of the world’s first universities, the University of Paris. His professors introduced him to the writings of Aristotle, Plato, and Maimonides in their original Greek and Latin languages, and to the Christian scriptures.
Lynchburg, Virginia in the twenty-first century is long way from Paris in the 13th Century, and that’s too bad for all of us in America where what Aquinas later called “willful ignorance” has become the order of the day.
Thomas Aquinas wrote,
It is clear that not every kind of ignorance is the cause of a sin, but that alone which removes the knowledge which would prevent the sinful act. …This may happen on the part of the ignorance itself, because, to wit, this ignorance is voluntary. … For such like negligence renders the ignorance itself voluntary and sinful, provided it be about matters one is *bound and able to know.
Thomas aquinas,Summa Theologica, I-II, q. 76, a. 1, a. 3.]
The sin that comprehends all others
Thomas Aquinas quoted St. Augustine, upon whose work his thinking drew, with a statement about willful ignorance. “Hoc et peccatum quo tenentur cuncta peccata” (This is the sin which comprehends all other sins).
Liberty University is not a thirteenth century Catholic university. It’s Protestant and fundamentalist. It prides itself on its knowledge of the Bible.
But don’t we have to suppose that somewhere in that auditorium in Lynchburg, there was a professor who cringed? Someone there who resonated with the old student at the University of Paris? Someone there who thought that telling young professing Christians to arm themselves was a deliberate act of willful ignorance, a sin against faith, the sin that comprehends all others? Someone who knew Matthew 26:52 by heart — Jesus’s words to Peter when Peter had cut off the high priest’s servant’s ear at Jesus’s arrest –“Put away your sword. Those who live by the sword will perish by the sword” — and wanted to scream out loud about willful ignorance?
Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), Brooklyn Park, MN, June 13, 2022.
The clock of climate catastrophe continues to tick closer to midnight. If anyone is still around on Earth Day 2122, they would likely ask how we could have been so foolish. “What were you thinking? What distracted your attention from the five-alarm fire that turned our Home to ashes?”
Earth Day 2022 Answer
“Well,” we might answer, “lots of things. Important things; really important things. Too many worries to number. Like Ukraine. Like bullies in Russia and America and Uvalde. Like weapons of war that slaughtered children learning their ABC’s and the teachers who were teaching them. Like the resurgence of nationalism that drove us deeper into caves we assumed to be secure. Like the assaults on truth, the sudden appearance of ‘alternative facts’ and ‘fake news.’ Like our unwillingness to discuss what is real.
“Most everywhere we turned, things were not good. Here at home, violence paraded through the streets of crowded neighborhoods. Guns and automatic weapons were killing civilians in shopping malls, schools, synagogues, mosques, churches, roadsides, and public squares. Misinformation and disinformation eroded public trust in the institutions essential to a democratic republic. A major television network promoted the former president’s certainty that the American election was stolen. Members of Congress advocated conspiracy theories that blaming our troubles on Satan operating in the Deep State. In Florida Mickey and Minnie, Donald Duck, and Goofy and Democrats were scorned as cannibals, sex traffickers, and pedophiles because they continued to say the word ‘gay’.
How could you be so foolish?
“All of that was important,” the 2122 Earth Day survivor might say. “But even the most worthy of those concerns was penultimate. They distracted your attention from the over-arching threat to everyone and everything, everywhere on the good Green Earth. Every day was Earth Day, You ignored it.
“You were not the first generation with a chronic inability to focus, but you are the last. There were no safe rooms in the one House. No nation, no race, no clan, no caste, creed, ideology, gender, politics, tradition survives when its inhabitants become arsonists who burn their own House to the ground. The temperature was rising, the sea levels were rising, the oceans heating, the manatees dying for lack of clean water, the skies over Ukraine were black and filled with smoke and toxins. How could you have been so stupid?”
What was wise did not suit our tastes
“We had little taste for reality. We mistook a smorgasbord of tastes for reality itself. We took the table for granted. Everything was reduced to personal preference. Freedom without guardrails was the god we served. Few of us had the good sense to step back from the feast to wonder, ponder, gasp, or ask what was real and what was not. What is truth? Is anything really real? Everything became subjective. Everything was a matter of opinion. Truth? Whose truth? Reality? According to whom?
“When the legs of the smorgasbord table began to crack, we continued to stuff ourselves. When the table legs began to creek, few of us noticed. Everything else might break, but not the smorgasbord table. Climate change? The end of Nature as we had known it? The Corona pandemic? Everything became fake news. We thought the table could not break.”
Masters of Illusion
The masses have never thirsted after truth. They turn aside from evidence that is not to their taste, preferring to deify error, if error seduce them. Whoever can supply the illusions is easily their master; whoever attempts to destroy their illusions is always their victim.
— Gustave Le Bon (1841-1931) French author and polymath, quoted by L.K. Hanson in “You Don’t Say” in April 18, 2022 Star Tribune.
“When it came to things that mattered most, we had become the seducers and the seduced who en masse mistook personal freedom for Ultimate Reality. The Smorgasbord Table would never end.”
Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), Brooklyn Park, MN, June 12, 2022.
Last night the House Select Committee investigating January 6, 2021 held its first public hearing. Responsible news outlets chose to air the hearing in prime time as a matter of national interest. Fox News did not. The Fox News audience did not hear the rooster crowing at daybreak.
Heather Cox-Richardson’s Letters from an American offers the following review of the hearing. The letter’s opening quotation of Committee Vice Chair Liz Cheney (R-Wy) has been highlighted by Views from the Edge.
Heather Cox Richardson, Letters from an American, Jun 10, 2022
So Representative Liz Cheney (R-WY), vice chair of the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol, damned her Republican colleagues at tonight’s first hearing on the January 6 insurrection.
And that was only a piece of what we heard tonight.
Calmly, carefully, convincingly, and in plain, easy to understand language, committee leaders Bennie Thompson (D-MS) and Cheney placed former president Donald Trump at the center of an attempt to overturn our democracy. They were very clear that what happened on January 6 was an attempted coup, an “attempt to undermine the will of the people.” All Americans should remember, they reminded us, that on the morning of January 6, Donald Trump intended to remain president, despite his loss in the 2020 election and his constitutional obligation to step down in favor of President-elect Joseph R. Biden, as every president before him had done.
The committee established that there was no fraud in the 2020 election that would have changed the results of the election, showing testimony from Trump’s attorney general Bill Barr that the argument that Trump had won was “bullsh*t.” The committee presented testimony from other administration figures, including Trump’s chief of staff Mark Meadows and his daughter Ivanka, that Trump had been told repeatedly that he had lost. And yet, even with his inner circle telling him he had lost, and even with more than 60 failed lawsuits over the election, Trump continued to lie that he had been cheated of victory.
It was Trump who “summoned the mob, assembled the mob, and lit the flame” for January 6, the committee says. Unable to accept his loss and determined to remain in power, Trump organized and deployed an attack on our democracy.
The committee established that the attack on the Capitol was not a random, spontaneous uprising. The rioters came at Trump’s invitation. While they had been muttering about the results since immediately after the election, it was Trump’s tweet of December 19, 2020, that lit the fuse. That night, the former president met with lawyers Sidney Powell and Rudy Giuliani, former national security advisor Michael Flynn, and others at the White House. Shortly after the meeting, Trump tweeted that it was “[s]tatistically impossible to have lost the 2020 election. Big protest in D.C. on January 6th. Be there, will be wild!”
Members of the extremist organizations the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers took Trump’s December 19th tweet as a call to arms. On December 20, they began to organize to go to Washington. These radical white supremacists had taken great pride in Trump’s shout-out in a presidential debate on September 29 that the Proud Boys should “stand back and stand by.” After that comment, membership in the Proud Boys had tripled.
Members of the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers testified that they went to Washington because Trump personally asked them to. “Trump has only asked me for two things,” one man testified: “my vote, and he asked me to come on January 6.”
The committee provided evidence that 250 to 300 Proud Boys arrived in Washington to stop the counting of the electoral votes. Nick Quested, a documentary filmmaker working to film the gang, testified that the riot was not spontaneous: the Proud Boys, who were allegedly in Washington to hear Trump speak, walked away from the rally at the Ellipse even before then-president Trump spoke, walking to the Capitol and checking out the police presence there. The Oath Keepers, too, were in Washington to stop the count and were expecting Trump to invoke the Insurrection Act, enabling them to fight for him to remain president.
The groups quite deliberately fought their way into the Capitol in a planned and coordinated attack. Meanwhile, Trump continued to stoke the crowd’s fury at then–vice president Mike Pence for refusing to overturn the election in his role as the person in charge of counting the certified electoral votes. The rioters stormed the Capitol and went in search of Pence and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), their calls for “Oh, Nancy,” echoing like the singsong chant from a horror movie. When he learned that the rioters were chanting “Hang Mike Pence,” the president said: “Maybe our supporters have the right idea.” He said that Pence “deserves it.”
Videos of the violence outside the Capitol further undercut the attempt of Republicans to downplay the rioters as “tourists.” Asked by Thompson if any one memory from January 6 stood out to her, Officer Caroline Edwards, who fought to protect the Capitol, said yes: the scene of “carnage” and “chaos.” It was like a war scene from the movies, she said, with officers bleeding on the ground, vomiting. She was slipping in people’s blood, catching people as they fell. “Never in my wildest dreams did I think… I would find myself in the middle of a battle,” she said. More than 100 police officers were wounded in the fighting, attacked with cudgels and bear spray, and at least nine people died then and immediately after.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) was only one of many people caught up in the violence to contact Trump and beg him to call off the rioters. Clearly, Republicans as well as Democrats knew the mob were his people and that they would respond to his instructions. And yet, he refused. He did nothing to call out the military or the National Guard to defend the Capitol.
Ultimately, those requests came from Vice President Pence, in what appears so far to be an unexplained breakdown in the usual chain of command. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley testified that Pence was very clear that the military needed to turn up and fast to “put down this situation.” In contrast, Meadows talked to Milley not about protecting the Capitol, but to say “we have to kill the narrative that the vice president is making all the decisions.” Milley said he saw this as “politics, politics, politics.”
After the attempt to overturn the election and keep Trump in power had failed, according to Cheney, Representative Scott Perry (R-PA) and “multiple other Republican congressmen” tried to get Trump to pardon them for their participation. While they are now insisting they did nothing wrong, the requests for a presidential pardon show that they were aware that they were in trouble.
After the hearing, CNN congressional correspondent Ryan Nobles talked to Representative Adam Schiff (D-CA), who is on the committee. “It’s actually a pretty simple story of a president who lost, who couldn’t stand losing, who cared nothing about the constitution and was determined to hold on to power and who incited a mob when everything else failed,” Schiff said.
The hearing provided some new information about the January 6 coup attempt that had not previously been publicly available. It also put what we already knew into a clear and compelling narrative using the words of Trump’s own advisors, including his daughter, and video previously unseen by the public. That story singled Trump out as the author of an attack on our democracy and isolated him even from those in his inner circle in a way that could weaken his influence in his party.
At the same time, the committee’s presentation was horrifying, reviving the pain of January 6 and clarifying it by bringing together the many different storylines that we have previously seen only in isolation. The timeline juxtaposed the mob violence with Trump’s own statements about how Pence was letting them down, for example. It showed Officer Edwards being knocked unconscious while Trump claimed the mob was made up of “peaceful people… great people,” and described “the love in the air, I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Pundits had speculated before tonight’s televised hearing that it would not make compelling television, but they could not have been more wrong. The Fox News Channel, some of whose personalities were involved in the events surrounding January 6, refused to air the proceedings. Nonetheless, that channel inadvertently proved just how powerful the hearing was when it ran Tucker Carlson’s show without commercial breaks, apparently afraid that if anyone began to channel surf they might be drawn in by the hearing on other channels.
Veteran reporter Bob Woodward called the evening “historic.” Looking back at the 1954 hearings that destroyed the career of Senator Joe McCarthy by revealing that he was lying to the American public, Woodward said that tonight’s event “was the equivalent of the Army-McCarthy hearings.”
Copied and republished on Views from the Edge by Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), writing from Brooklyn Park, MN, June 10, 2022.
Just another day. Another mass shooting. Funerals for young children who left home with homemade sandwiches in their backpacks on their way to school in Uvalde. Another day of partisan hide-’n-seek for who is to blame. Just one more day of jabbering and cross-fire when the NRA sheds tears and offers prayers for the kids and families of Uvalde, and then applaud the former president and Texas senator talking about the need for more good guys with guns to stop the bad guys with guns. Just another day in the land of the free, the home of the bullies.
Just another day 100+ days after mass graves began to be dug in Ukraine for children and parents as innocent as the children mowed down in Uvalde. Another day in far-away Ukraine and close-by in neighbors in Uvalde, Buffalo, Tulsa. Another day when Members of Congress ignore the oath to the Constitution they solemnly swore. Another day when patriotism falls prey to partisan propaganda insisting, though they know better, that “guns don’t kill; people do.” A day like any other when nothing happens to stop the power of the gun lobby, dark money, PACS, and the belief, without evidence, that the election was stolen.
Just another day when the monsters of lies and fear turn us against each other.
Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), Brooklyn Park, MN, June 5, 2022.
This podcast is the second in a series of autobiographical reflection on life as a theological pilgrimage.
Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), 49 brief (two to four page) essays on faith and life; host of Views from the Edge; Brooklyn Park, MN.
Moments ago Andrew Long gave Views from the Edge permission to re-publish his pastoral letter to the people of First Presbyterian Church of Watertown, NY. If you read nothing else, I call attention to the fourth and fifth paragraphs that offer a peek into the new world of his five year old son and his peers.
Dear Friends in Christ,
I had a hard time getting out of bed this morning. I didn’t sleep very well last night. The smallest sound in the cool evening air through our open bedroom widows roused me. And these words from Scripture kept circling my mind:
A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more.–Jeremiah 31:15
We wept last night watching the news from Uvalde, Texas. We wept at the sight of parents frantically searching for their children. We wept for the dead. We wept over the immediate shenanigans coming from the talking heads.
And we wept because we have an elementary-aged son who has told us about the shelter-in-place, active-shooter drills they routinely have at school.
I wish I was exaggerating. God, I wish I was exaggerating. It almost sounds comical. I had fire drills when I was in school and was told not to pick the paint off the radiator because it likely had lead in it. Our son has had to learn, before age five, how to hide and keep silent so that an active shooter in his school won’t find him.
Are you OK with that? I’m not.
Frankly, I don’t think God is OK with it either. I know Jesus isn’t. He nearly excommunicated one his disciples when that disciple tried to keep children from coming to him. And in a society where laws are made and/or reversed to ‘protect’ the unborn, but only ‘thoughts and prayers’ are given to the families of children who are gunned-down at school, we must look at ourselves deeply and question what we truly value in life. Right now, sadly, life for every one of God’s children does not seem to be at the top of the list.
Right now I’m thinking of the statue of Jesus that stands across the street from the Oklahoma City Bombing Memorial. Jesus has his head in his hands and his back turned to the site of the bombing. He stands on a pedestal made from the same number of polished marble stones as the number of children who were murdered in the bombing. Jesus weeps.
We should, too.
Feel deeply the intense sadness of this moment. As people of faith, we do not have the luxury of turning away. Our faith is founded on the truth that all people are created equally in the sacred image of God. When one of those beloved image-bearers is taken from this earth, all of us are diminished. It is no longer ‘out there’ or ‘somewhere else’; it is right here, right now. We must not turn away.
And in our weeping, maybe the Lord will fill us with just the right amount of righteous anger to truly work for a more just and peaceful world.
A world where children can learn their ABC’s before they learn about active shooters.
A world where thoughts and prayers are followed by action and policy.
A world where idolatry gives way to true, robust faith in God.
A world where every person can fully access the abundant life Jesus Christ came to give us all.
Come, Lord Jesus. Make it so! +andrew
P.S.–Secondary Traumatic Stress is a real concern in times such as these. STS happens when we witness the first-hand trauma of others. Please know that I stand ready to pray with you, visit with you, even sit with you in silence if you are struggling right now. Please reach out to me at (Phone numbers and emails deleted by Views from the Edge) if I can be of assistance.
Bumpa (Grandpa): Tomorrow’s your birthday, Elijah!
Elijah: Yeah, tomorrow I’m gonna to be five! I’m gonna be a BIG boy tomorrow!!!
I remember when you walked with your hands behind your back, like Grandpa. You don’t remember because you were little. I don’t think you’ve seen this video Grandma took.
You were only 15 months back then. You’re much bigger now, but you’ve always been big in my eyes. Tomorrow you’ll be another year older.
Yeah! I’ll be five! I won’t be four anymore. I’ll be big a big boy!
Elijah opens his eyes with great expectations, checks out his hands, his feet, his arms and legs, and bursts into tears. Hearing his sobbing, Mommy does what good mothers do. She comes to console him.
Mommy: What’s wrong, honey? It’s your birthday. Did you have a bad dream?
Does your tummy hurt this morning?
Does your throat hurt?
No. Don’t ya know? You know!!!
I don’t, honey. I won’t know unless you tell me.
Uh-uh!!! You know everything. Mommies always know.
Well, I don’t unless you tell me. Today’s a happy day. It’s your birthday. You’re not four anymore. Today you’re five! You’re a big boy now!
I’m not! Bumpa lied!!! I’m just the same. I’m not bigger! I’m still four!
Honey, Grandpa wouldn’t lie to you. Did he tell you your arms and legs would get bigger over night?
He did. He said I’d be bigger on my birthday. Bumpa lied!!!
Did he say you’d wake up bigger on did he say you’d wake up older today?
Whatever! Bumpa’s confused and confusing. I’m not walking like him anymore!
Gordon C. Stewart, Public Theologian, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), 49 two to four page social commentaries on faith and life. Writing from Brooklyn Park, MN, May 23, 2022.
This venture into podcasting is like the podcaster. It’s rough around the edges. It’s unpolished. It’s slow. Its pace and subject matter require patience. Thanks to Chuck Lieber for welcoming me to podcasting.
As the sun rose this [Easter] morning, a few of us warmed ourselves around a fire outside the church. Two charcoal fires were recalled, involving Peter, “the Rock” who crumbled like a piece of shale, and the risen Christ, who would re-create the scene to change the story from denial to welcome, forgiveness, and a commissioning to love.
Steve Shoemaker Verse, “The Charcoal Fire”
THE CHARCOAL FIRE
I do not know the man
I do not know the man
I do not know the man
Do you love me?
Do you love me?
Do you love me?
Feed my sheep
Feed my sheep
Feed my sheep
April 8, 2012
Gordon C. Stewart, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), April 23, 2022. This piece from 2012 is edited and republished in memory of Steve Shoemaker. Steve is sitting on a Bristlecone Pine stump above the tree line in Colorado during a gathering of seminary friends. Mutual friend Anna Strong and canine companion stand by him.
Easter was hard this year. I couldn’t bring myself to put my body in a pew. Imagining the shiny brass trumpets heralding Christ’s victory over sin and death had no more appeal than the silly silky banners waving up and down the aisle to make Easter more festive. Whether Easter felt like a fraud orI felt like the fraud didn’t matter yesterday.
A Ghost named Gus
If we’re honest about the resurrection, many, if not most, of us have some difficulty with one or another of the post-crucifixion stories of Jesus’ resurrection. Although my grandmother swore that our 120 year-old home was haunted by a friendly ghost named Gus, I’ve never gotten into ghostly apparitions.
Years ago an eccentric older congregant, long since deceased, claimed her deceased husband regularly visited her, standing at the foot of her bed. Even without this claim, there were multiple grounds for concluding that she would have been institutionalized in a previous generation. I never could get into her story, or the story about Gus’s footsteps creaking the steps of my childhood home. They were outside my experience. Like the Apostle Thomas, my faith is suspicious of such claims. “Unless I see for myself…” is second nature to me.
Unless I See
One person’s experience, however, is not the measure of all things, especially in matters that cannot be confirmed by objective verification. The world is full of experiences that are enigmas to my little piece of reality. My slice is not the whole pie, although, come to think of it, if my slice tastes like blueberries, chances are good the pie is blueberry. “To thine own self be true,” Shakespeare’s Polonius advises Laertes.
“And it must follow, as the night the day thou canst not then be false to any man . . . ” (Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 1, Scene III). Being true to oneself leads some honest people to leave the faith. Think Jean-Paul Sartre. Think Albert Camus. It leads others to stay and dig deeper. Though I was once almost one of the former, I am still one of the latter.
An Honest Conversation
Nowhere is the challenge of good faith greater than the resurrection. “Seeing for ourselves” like the Apostle Thomas is a hard way to live; it can be tricky. Sometimes we see things that aren’t there; other times we don’t see what stares us in the face. In a year like this, I rub my eyes in hopes of a clearer view of what is true. Honesty is slipping away in America. So is hope for the nation. The dark clouds of willful ignorance and unabashed dishonesty leave me looking for the light that faith tells me cannot be overcome.
Honesty, or the attempt at it, was what I had, but not much more. Although I could not say, with James Russell Lowell, “I do not fear to follow out the truth,” I know that the search for truth takes place “along the precipice’s edge.”
A Jarring Juxtaposition Between Two Fires
For the likes of those of us who stay, Easter is less accessible in the garden outside an empty tomb than in the encounters with the skeptical Thomas, and with Peter, who has gone back to his fishing nets after the crucifixion. Staying home on Easter for the first time reading the Gospels’ passion narratives, portrayals of Peter caused me to stop and ponder the jarring juxtaposition between two scenes around a fire.
The First Fire
The first fire is set in the courtyard of the High Priest’s residence where Peter “The Rock” crumbles like shale. Warming himself by the courtyard fire, two domestic workers identify Peter as Jesus’ disciple. His Galilean accent betrays him. Three times Peter denies it. “I do not know the man!” “I do not know the man!” “I do not know the man!” The rock crumbles.
The Second Fire
The second fire is lit on the shoreline to which Peter, the fisherman, returns after what would have been a bad night without the miracle shouted by the stranger on the shore. Peter has not become a fisher of fellow-humans; he is a fisher of fish again, not different from before Jesus had called him, except for the guilt he now carries from his denial before the fire in the courtyard. That I understand. That reversal I know by experience. I wasn’t Peter, but the dead, crucified, and buried Jesus whom the Creed claims “descended into hell” reached down into the hell of my own making to blow the remaining embers of the first fire into the charcoal fire of the second. The risen Christ is not an apparition. Christ comes as the stranger we forgot we knew, the host who serves us breakfast on the shoreline.
Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), writing from Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, April 20, 2022.
NOTE: “Between the Image and Reality” first appeared as a podcast by the same name. Here’s the printed text.
Letters from an American
The latest gift from the “best friend” I’ve never met greets me most mornings. Letters from anAmerican is Heather Cox Richardson’s daily news summary. Heather does what I cannot do. She collects the information on current events from a host of sources, swallows it, digests it, and brings it back to the nest to feed fledglings like me.
Heather Cox Richardson
Her succinct self-description resonates with me in this moment when marketing strategies and images continue to dig the mass graves of what little remains of reality:
I’m a history professor interested in the contrast between image and reality in American politics, I believe in American democracy, despite its frequent failures. — Heather Cox Richardson
Daniel J. Boorstin
In this era of American culture and politics we need the historians. Among them is Daniel Boorstin, the historian of the Library of Congress, whose controversial, ground-breaking book, The Image (1962), focused a laser beam on the emerging dominance of new image-making media and technology over American public life.
If you’re a fledgling waiting for the arrival of real food; if you take no pleasure in being deceived or seduced, if you are haunted by images we have put in the place of reality, Heather Cox Richardson may be the best friend you’ve never met. Click Letters from an American to welcome Heather to your nest. She’ll help you fly.
Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness, 49 two to four page social commentaries on faith and the news (2017 Wipf and Stock), writing from Brooklyn Park, Minnesota. April 16, 2022.
We wipe the tears from our cheeks watching the ruthless cruelty unleashed on Ukraine. This can’t be real! But it is. How can any nation do this to another? How could anyone do this?
The depth of the question
The question is not political. It’s not ideological. It’s deeper than that. So much deeper that few dare go there. The fortunate emerge from the darkness to see light again. They may or may not hold any scripture sacred, but they have sensed something of the psalmist’s view. “Even the darkness is not dark to You; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to You” Psalm 139:12). Darkness has no life of its own.
Others of us never find a way out. Like the joyful little girl who had taken such joy handing her latest drawing to her pastor on Sunday mornings, they find the world’s suffering too much to bear. Sadness and despair take the place where joy once lived. Empathic hearts are broken by the sufferings of others. They thrash in a sea of dark foreboding that douses the wicks of beauty, truth, and goodness. They take a final plunge sensing that “Hell is empty and all the demons are here.” (Shakespeare, The Tempest, (Act 1, Scene 2). With hearts broken by too much cruelty, they take a final step to get away from the demons here.
Quoting Scripture as cover for sin
My young friend did not stay among the demons long enough to hear Vladimir Putin quoting Jesus. “As the scriptures say,” said Putin to the crowd in the Moscow amphitheater, “‘Greater love has no man than this: that he give up his life for his friends.'” It was their children and extended families, not he, who were “laying down their lives for their friends” in Ukraine.
If Patriarch Kirill, Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia, other priests, and biblically literate lay people were listening in that amphitheater or on national television, they would recall the context of the line Mr. Putin was using from the Gospel According to John.
These things I have spoken to you, that My joy may remain in you, and that your joy may be full. This is My commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends. You are My friends if you do whatever I command you.
Gospel according to john 15:11-14
Joy and Love
The stadium in Moscow was not full of joy. If the old saw is true that the devil can quote scripture to serve the devil’s purposes, the high-jacked quotation ripped from its biblical context was evidence of it. It was they, not he, who were laying down their lives on orders of the Commander-in-Chief.
Mr. Putin’s presentation of himself as a Bible-quoting Christian may have impressed biblically illiterate members of the Russian Orthodox Church, American far-right evangelicals, and media propagandists Tucker Carlson and Steve Bannon, but biblically literate Christians of whatever stripe or nationality could feel their toes curl and their jaws clenching. People in the stadium that night were free to curl their toes so long as they didn’t clench their jaws. Curling toes are hidden by Shoes. Clenched jaws can’t hide.
How does it happen?
Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), Brooklyn Park, MN, March 24, 2022.
I write with great respect for your offices as President of the Russian Federation and as the Russian Orthodox Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia. My words to the two of you are confidential. Few people dare to speak candidly with you.
We haven’t met, but that’s not unusual; lots of people I’ve never met say I’m their closest friend. Many of them have made me up. They delete what they don’t like about me or my story, or do end-runs around my words. Take, for instance, my cry from the cross, “Abba, forgive them, for they do not know what they’re doing.” Forgiveness is real, but it’s not cheap. It’s not an excuse to sin.
Clean Monday was only three weeks ago. On Clean Monday you and Eastern Orthodox Christians on both sides of the Russian-Ukrainian border marked the beginning of “The Great Lent” with a service that features something a bit odd and humbling. Every worshiper bows down before another worshipper to ask for forgiveness with the intent of walking through the six weeks of the Great Lent with clean hearts and a clear conscience. I like that. I’ll return to the subject of bowing later.
Do you remember the parable of the Last Judgment? My parable isn’t about an End Time when the wicked will be punished and the good rewarded. It’s not about Then; it’s about the Now, the ever-recurring Now of daily life. The parable is about how to live your life now as a neighbor.
I told that parable not to scare people; I told it so the listeners would pause, reflect, and turn around when they are living like goats pleading innocence because they never see the suffering. The parable is the Beatitudes in story form. You may remember those: Blessed are the poor, the grieving, the meek, the merciful, the peace-makers, and those who yearn for righteousness. The Beatitudes and the parable of the sheep and the goats are meant to turn the popular winner-loser perception on its head. The sheep feed the hungry; the goats don’t see them. The sheep “see” the naked and clothe them; the goats don’t notice. It’s the same with the homeless, the sick, and the imprisoned. The goats would have “seen” if only they had known there was a reward at the end. The sheep have no knowledge of reward and punishment. It is the sheep that break the popular myth of reward and punishment.
The parable goes to the heart of my reason for writing. You have great authority and power. One of you is the latest “king” of the Russian Federation; the other is the latest “king” of Russia’s spiritual affairs, Patriarch Kirill, Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia. You are said to have a good relationship. But I tell you, if the sheep and goats were separated in real time at this moment, the two of you would be bleating billygoats leading the line of those who plead innocence.
It is not by accident that the parable is not about individuals. The sheep and goats gathered for judgment are not individuals. They are the nations, all of them. Russia is no exception. Ukraine is no exception. Poland is no exception. The United States is no exception. There is no exception.
Every nation is capable of great compassion and of astonishing cruelty. A nation can be peace-loving or war-mongering, merciful or cruel, loving or hateful, seeing or not seeing. Whenever a nation sees itself as exceptional or superior among the global community of neighbors, things always turn out badly, as is happening now in Ukraine. The sun shines and the rains fall without respect for borders.
As president of the Russian Federation you hold the power and authority of Russia’s head of state and commander-in-chief. You have exceeded all boundaries of moral restraint. The weight of the cruelty, suffering, devastation, and death unleashed on Ukrainian rests on your shoulders. Yet you do not see. You take no responsibility for the suffering imposed on Ukraine.
Patriarch Kirill, you also bear responsibility. The day after Clean Monday, your Ukrainian and Polish peers met in Kyiv. Aware of public criticism of your relationship with Mr. Putin, they appealed to you to meet with Putin to stop the war, and asked you to break your public silence about the war as the cause of suffering. Clean Monday was not clean this year. There can be no pleas of ignorance.
Finally, I leave you with another parable. This one was told by those who thought they saw divinity in my humanity. It was told of me, not by me. Whoever created the parable packed every challenge I faced during my life, which you also face now. Like the parable of the Last Judgment, It’s a work of imagination that puts everything in a nutshell, but its meaning is pretty simple really. It’s about bowing.
Then the devil took him to a very high mountain, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory; and [the devil] said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will bow down and worship me.”
The question of faith is about Now. The question is pointed. It draws no line between the political and the spiritual. It’s simple:
“To whom are you bowing now?”
— Jesus of Nazareth
Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness, Brooklyn Park, MN, March 18,2022.
Words to express what I feel and think in this moment of horror in Ukraine continue to escape me. In times when my head is spinning and stomach is swirling, I often turn to the other voices and facial expressions. The fruits of illusion — national exceptionalism and racial supremacy –smack us in the face. The greater our power, the lower we fall. We are living in Franz Kafka’s Parable “The Pit of Babel,” Franz Kafka: Parables and Paradoxes, first published in German in 1935 during the rise of the Third Reich.
The Pit of Babel
What are you building? — I want to dig
a subterranean passage. Some progress
must be made. My station up there is
much too high.
We are digging the pit of Babel
A House on Fire
Our One House Is on Fire
Our house is on fire. I am here to say, our house is on fire. […] Adults keep saying: “We owe it to the young people to give them hope.” But I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act. I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.
Greta Thunberg, 16 years old, to the World economic summit, August 19, 2020, the guardian
The recklessness of the Russian Invasion
One ominous sentence from the Russian leader threatened more than Ukraine. “Whoever tries to interfere with us,” he warned, “should know that Russia’s response will be immediate and will lead you to such consequences as you have never experienced in your history.” He said that Russia “is today one of the most powerful nuclear states.” Using combat power to try to take a nuclear power plant over — it just underscores the recklessness of this Russian invasion. — Robin Wright, “What Does Putin’s Sabre Rattling Mean?”– The New Yorker, March 1, 2022.
“Now, I am become death, the destroyer of worlds”
Text: We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried, most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita. Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and to impress him takes on his multi-armed form and says, “Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” I suppose we all thought that one way or another.
J. Robert Oppenheimer, one of the fathers of the atomic bomb
Prayer against War and the “Pride of Kings”
The language is from an earlier era. The prayer’s content, sense of reverence, and social responsibility commend the prayer for use in the midst of the madness of 2022.
O Lord, since first the blood of Abel cried to thee from the ground that drank it, this earth of thine has been defiled with the blood of humanity shed by the hands of sisters and brothers, and the centuries sob with the ceaseless horror of war. Ever the pride of kings and the covetousness of the strong has driven peaceful nations to slaughter. Ever the songs of the past and the pomp of armies have been used to inflame the passions of the people….
O thou strong God of all the nations, draw all thy great family together with an increasing sense of our common blood and destiny, that peace may come on earth at last, and thy sun may shed its light rejoicing on a holy unity of all people. Amen.
Walter Rauschenbusch, Prayers of the social awakening, 1910
Gordon C. Stewart, pubic theologian, host of Views from the Edge, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), endorsed by Bill McKibben, Walter Brueggemann, and MN Poet Laureate Joyce Sutphen; Brooklyn Park, MN, March 5, 2022.
The trumpeter swans
Know nothing of
White is what they are
Down under and
Above the down
Except for beaks
As black as ebony
Their voice is not
the honk of pride
Pens and cobs
Teach their young
Where Up is really
Down and Down is
Up without a down-
Ward sneer at
Loons or Redwing
Ebony and ivory
Nesting in a wetland
Marsh where no
Greens feed faux-
- GCS, May, 2021
Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."
-- Gospel According to Matthew 5:1-10 NIV
Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, March 3, 2022.
Imagine yourself listening in on a conversation between God and Vladimir Putin. Even if you don’t believe in God. Pretend you do for just a moment. -:)
“But I know your rising and your sitting,
your going out and coming in,
and your raging against me.
Because you have raged against me
and your arrogance has come to my ears,
I will put my hook in your nose
and my bit in your mouth;
I will turn you back on the way
by which you came.
-- 2 Kings 19:25-27
“Your arrogance has come to my ears.”
The rage and arrogance hurt my ears. If I had a hook, I’d put it in Vladimir Putin’s nose to rein in his urge to reign. If I had a bit to tame arrogance, I’d put it in the mouth of Putin’s best friend in Florida who applauds Putin’s “genius” in re-framing the invasion of Ukraine as a peace-keeping mission. Two best friends who have no other friends.
The “hook” in the nose and the “bit” in the mouth were tools for bringing an unruly camel under control. The raging camel was Sennacherib, the arrogant King of Assyria. The message is for him.
Isaiah put these words on the lips of the One who has no lips but whose anguish cries out in us and whose tears run down our cheeks whenever a feral camel wanders into someone else’s yard.
Whoever wrote Second Kings would be shocked to find that the story of the two kings — Sennacherib of Assyria and Hezekiah of Judah — would be read in 2022. But the story is ageless. Watching another strongman invade his next door neighbor, who can fail to imagine the divine rebuke of the unruly camel who sticks its nose under tents where it does not belong, and the other camel whose mouth never stops?
-- Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian, author of "Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness" (2017 Wipf and Stock, Eugene, OR), writing from Brooklyn Park, MN, February 25, 2022.
Rock a bye baby on the tree top, When the wind blows the cradle will rock, When the bough breaks the cradle will fall, And down will come baby, cradle and all.
Multiple drafts of a reflection on “Rock a reflection on the Baby” missed the mark. I was aiming at humor, but I’m no Andy Borowitz. None of them was funny. Some I ripped up. They’re on the floor of my office. The most embarrassing I stuffed in the toilet.
The drafts had been attempts to take “Rock a Bye Baby” as the template for a commentary on American public life in February, 2022. The Baby and cradle on the top of the tree is rocked by gale force winds. We hear the boughs of the old tree creaking. But if and when the bough breaks and Baby and cradle do fall, we can only hope the Baby-lovers with chain-saws don’t cut down the tree and turn it into sawdust.
The Origins of “Rock a Bye Baby”
The oldest copy of “Rock a Bye Baby” is found in “Mother Goose’s Melody” in London in 1765. One story of origins locates it in a London pub on the occasion of the birth of King George II’s son, the prince who would continue the royal line they detested. The first known copy of “Rock a Bye Baby” has a hand-written note:
"This may serve as a warning to the proud and ambitious, who climb so high that they generally fall at last."
Foreshadowing in The Image
Daniel Boorstin’s book, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-events in America (1662), was a ground-breaker. Historian and Librarian of the U.S. Congress. Here are a few excerpts from Daniel Boorstin’s The Image in 1962.
“We [Americans] suffer primarily not from our vices or our weaknesses, but from our illusions. We are haunted, not by reality, but by those images we have put in their place.”
“Celebrity-worship and hero-worship should not be confused. Yet we confuse them every day, and by doing so we come dangerously close to depriving ourselves of all real models. We lose sight of the men and women who do not simply seem great because they are famous but are famous because they are great. We come closer and closer to degrading all fame into notoriety.”
“A sign of a celebrity is often that his name is worth more than his services.“
“The image, more interesting than its original, has become the original. The shadow has become the substance.“
“The American citizen thus lives in a world where fantasy is more real than reality, where the image has more dignity than its original. We hardly dare face our bewilderment, because our ambiguous experience is so pleasantly iridescent, and the solace of belief in contrived reality is so thoroughly real. We have become eager accessories to the great hoaxes of the age. These are the hoaxes we play on ourselves.“
“By a diabolical irony the very facsimiles of the world which we make on purpose to bring it within our grasp, to make it less elusive, have transported us into a new world of blurs.“
Thanks for coming by,
Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), Brooklyn Park, MN, February 12, 2022.
WHEN ALL THAT'S LEFT IS LOVE
When I die
If you need to weep
Cry for someone
Walking the street beside you.
You can love me most by letting
Hands touch hands, and
Souls touch souls.
You can love me most by
Sharing your Simchas (goodness) and
Multiplying your Mitzvot (acts of kindness).
You can love me most by
Letting me live in your eyes
And not on your mind.
-- Rabbi Allen S. Maller
Rabbi’s Maller’s website — rabbimiller.com — is a treasure trove of Jewish tradition and biblical interpretation.
Gordon C. Stewart, Public Theologian and social commentator, host of Views from the Edge; author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017, Wipf and Stock), Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, Feb. 8, 2022.
Last night’s documentary of Congressman Jamie Raskin before and after the tragic loss of his beloved son, showed qualities of character in short supply: personal integrity, moral-spiritual courage, a playful spirit, and faithfulness to his oath of office to uphold the Constitution. Those qualities were evident before and after the tragic death of his son “Tommy” whose funeral was the day before the January 6 attempted coup at the U.S. Capitol.
Thomas (“Tommy”) was 25 when he took his life. Thomas fell within the 18 – 29 year-old age range of the Harvard-Kennedy Center Youth Poll taken in the autumn of 2021. The poll’s findings are staggering.
When one in four young adults between ages18 and 29 think of doing harm to themselves more than once in a two-week period (Oct. 26- Nov. 8, 2021) something is terribly wrong.
More than half (51%) of young Americans report having felt down, depressed, and hopeless — and 25% have had thoughts of self-harm — at least several times in the last two weeks.
The youngest participants in the poll were one year-olds when the Twin Towers fell in 9/11, 2001. Tommy was four. The oldest were eight years old, old enough to be terrorized and fearful of the world around them. Even the children at the lower end of the poll’s range would not have escaped sensing their parents’ emotions — shock, fear, panic, despair, anger, dread.
Thomas Raskin and His Peers
No stranger can know what broke in Tommy on New Years Eve. But we do know this. Whatever mixture of clinical depression and despair over a dark world he could not repair, we know from the Harvard-Kennedy Center Youth Poll that Tommy lived and died as one of a host of young adults struggling to make it through the day.
Tom Raskin’s generation has been served an omelet of violence, fear, distrust, and hatred for breakfast. Every day. They have never known a time of peace. Terror has broken into their homes and schools, synagogues, churches, mosques, malls, supermarkets, music concerts with a frequency and rapidity unknown to my generation.
The events of their lifetime blow the hinges off my generation’s prevailing sense of innocence. The America they experience is the scene of madness, splintered into camps of trust or distrust in one another and the institutions on which democracy depends. They encounter a world of cruel absurdity. Election to office is not public service. Partisanship is more about power and greed than about governing wisely. Driving Black or walking Black puts target on your back, and the man with the badge puts his knee on your neck until you can’t breathe. A president of the United States of America sweeps a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest off the plaza for a photo op, proudly holding up a Bible he doesn’t read. This generation knows that White’s not right. White privilege weighs on people like Tommy, as it always has on African Americans and America’s First People for whom Whiteness meant slave-ownership and genocide.
On top of all that, there is Donald Trump, and there is QAnon
Any pastor who visits congregants in psychiatric hospitals or hospitals for the criminally insane is not shocked when religion becomes the host of insanity. Often the patient suffered illusions of grandeur. Some think of themselves as Jesus Christ, or feel the burden of saving people from a cruel world. Some hear voices. Some live in a endless nightmare of conspiracy. I would like to say I’ve never seen anything close to QAnon, but I can’t say that.
Many of the patients I’ve visited know where they are; some know why there are there. But the years of my pastoral visits ended before Donald Trump and QAnon. I’ve met the likes of Donald several times in a hospital for the criminally insane, but I never met anyone who imagined a satanic conspiracy of a cabal of child-kidnapping, child-molesting, sex-trafficking cannibals intent on destroying a president.
Why would it surprise us that 51% of young adults in the poll feel “down, depressed, and hopeless” or that 25% of them have had “thoughts of self-harm — at least several times in the last two weeks?” Twenty-five year old Thomas Raskin was one them.
There is a Yearning for Meaning, Integrity, and Courage in the Storm
Thomas’s father writes in Unthinkable: Trauma, Truth, and the Trials of Democracy reflects on how January 6, 2021 would have affected Tommy. That “stomach-churning, violent insurrection; that desecration of American democracy would have wrecked Tommy Raskin.
While a criminally insane former president remains free, Tommy’s father and every prosecutor who can hold him to account have bull’s eyes on their backs. Perhaps, by the grace of God and the stand of a grieving father, the Constitution will continue and the Oath of Office be honored.
Gordon C. Stewart, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017, Wipf and Stock), Brooklyn Park, MN, Feb. 7, 2022
A crowd of students gathers on the university plaza at 11:00 p.m. for a parade to a bonfire. They walk by torch-light with drums drumming through the streets of the city, followed by a truck, on their way to the Opera House where a huge pile of wood is waiting. By the time they arrive, the crowd has grown to 30,000, eager for the match to be struck.
A voice thunders across the plaza:
The age of arrogant Jewish intellectualism is now at an end! . . . You are doing the right thing at this midnight hour — to consign to the flames the unclean spirit of the past. This is a great, powerful, and symbolic act. . . . Out of these ashes the phoenix will rise. . . . O Century! O Science! It is a joy to be alive!
The date was May 10 of 1933. The speaker was newly appointed Reich Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels. The event was part of “Action Against the un-German Spirit,” a program developed in April by the German Student Union’s Office of Press and Propaganda. At midnight of May 10, 1933, the sights, sounds, and scent of bonfires filled the air of every university town in Germany.
A member of the SA throws confiscated books into the bonfire during the public burning of “un-German” books on the Opernplatz in Berlin.” — United States Holocaust Museum.
The Twelve Theses
“Action against the un-German Spirit” was accompanied by another product of the Student Union leader gathering on April 8. “Twelve Theses,” 12 short statements designed to appeal to German Lutherans’ celebration of Martin Luther’s posting of 95 thesis on the Wittenburg Church door. The “Twelve Theses” were published and posted everywhere. In spirit and tone the “Twelve Theses” was the fitting companion of “Action Against the un-German Spirit.”
The students described their action as a “response to a worldwide Jewish smear campaign against Germany and an affirmation of traditional German values.” The following excerpts illustrate the tone.
"Language and literature have their roots in the people. It is the German people’s responsibility to assure that its language and literature are the pure and unadulterated expression of its Folk traditions.” “Purity of language is your responsibility!” “Our most dangerous enemy is the Jew and those who are his slaves…. "A Jew can only think Jewish. If he writes in German, he is lying. The German who writes in German, but thinks un-German, is a traitor!”
“We want to regard the Jew as alien… The unGerman spirit is to be eradicated from public libraries.” "At present there is a chasm between literature and German tradition. This situation is a disgrace." “We demand of German students the desire and capability to overcome Jewish intellectualism and the resulting liberal decay in the German spirit.”
On the List
The list of “unclean spirit”…”un-German”… or “anti-German” literature was long. Among the 4,000 books to be purged were the works of Albert Einstein and Thomas Mann, Hellen Keller, Jack London, H.G. Wells, Karl Marx, Erich Maria Remarque, Sigmund Freud, and Heinrich Heine.
Heinrich Heine was a widely-read 19th Century German poet, journalist and essayist whose prescient line in Almansor: A Tragedy, published a century before in 1823, hit too close for comfort in 1933.
“Where they have burned books, they will, in the end, burn people, too.”
–Poet Heinrich Heine, 1823
February 1, 2022, Brooklyn Park, Minnesota in the U.S.A.
At dawn I take the dog out and bring in the paper. “Campaign to ban books spreads across the U.S.” leaps from the front page, as had a report two days ago —“School Board in Tennessee Bans Teaching of Holocaust Novel ‘Maus’” NYT, Jan. 27.” The Tennessee school board had voted to remove the novel “Maus” by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Art Spiegelman because it contains swear words, according to the board minutes. The vote was unanimous.
When Art Spiegelman learned that “Maus” — his Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel about his family’s experience during the Holocaust — had been banned by a Tennessee school board, he told the Washington Post exactly what he thought of the antisemitic decision:
“It’s part of a continuum, and just a harbinger of things to come. This is a red alert.”
Art Spiegelman to Washington post re: censorship
Book burnings, censorship and purging have a history. Most often the books are judged as unclean, not pure, unpatriotic, unChristian, un-this and anti-that, un-American and anti-American, etc. Yesterday’s NYTimes article (Jan. 31, 2022) on book-banning cites a poignant quote by Lauri Halsi Anderson, contemporary author of young adult books.
"By attacking these books, by attacking these authors, by attacking the subject matter, what they are doing is removing the possibility for conversation. You are laying the groundwork for increasing bullying, disrespect, violence and attacks."
Letter to Benjamin Franklin, September 24, 1765
Correspondence between “Founding Fathers” Charles Thomson and Benjamin Franklin is preserved in the National Archives. Thomson’s letter to Franklin now feels as prescient in the U.S.A. as Heinrich Heine’s line was for Germany.
“The Sun of Liberty is indeed fast setting, if not down already, in the American colonies: But I much fear instead of the candles you mention being lighted, you will hear of the works of darkness.” — Charles Thomson: letter to Benjamin Franklin, September 24, 1765 .
At the time of Thompson’s letter, “the Sons of Liberty” were turning to violence and intimidation in response to the Stamp Act. Franklin was a principled Quaker committed to reason, civility and non-violence. Franklin would likely have chuckled at Thomson’s play on words, but not at the warning of the works of darkness.
Conroe, Texas, U.S.A – January 30, 2022
“If I run and if I win,” declares Donald Trump to a cheering crowd in Conroe Texas,”we will treat those people from January 6 fairly. And if it requires pardons, we will give them pardons because they are being treated so unfairly.”
He accuses Black prosecutors of racism. “These prosecutors are vicious, horrible people. They’re racists and they’re very sick, they’re mentally sick. They’re going after me without any protection of my rights from the Supreme Court or most other courts. In reality, they’re not after me, they’re after you…. If these radical, vicious, racist prosecutors do anything wrong or illegal, I hope we are going to have in this country the biggest protest we have ever had in Washington, D.C, in New York, in Atlanta and elsewhere.”
A little gray Maus who’d been shooed off the stage quivers and squeals to the audience, “This is a red alert!”
Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian, author of “Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness” (2017 Wipf and Stock), Brooklyn Park, MN, Feb. 3, 2022.
The book of flesh and
Blood hangs by a
Slender thread we cut
To shred the pages
We wish were not —
The days and nights of
sadness, fear and dread
Where death is realReality is now a holo-
Gram for us who live
In cyberspace and Sci-
Fi worlds that wipe
The Black board clean
And White again
As it was before the
Black birds came
The hollow holograms
Float on air they never
Breathe while we and
All that is or ever was
In flesh and blood shine
Light and bright andWhite again but miss
Clouds and rainbows
Between Substance and Illusion
“The line between substance and illusion is as thin as the line between reality and appearance. The history of humankind is a tale of an idiot, humankind’s conscious preference for the ‘sweet illusions’ that glimmer from tinsel, broken glass, and oily rags for the colors of a rainbow.
“It seems to be the contention of the Trump campaign that nothing is really true,” wrote Jack Holmes in the September 26, 2016 issue of Esquire; “it only matters what enough people believe, and whether you can dangle enough shiny objects in front of them until the clock runs out on November 8.” -- Jack Holmes, Esquire, September 26, 2016
Gordon C. Stewart, Brooklyn Park, MN, Feb. 1, 2022
The beginning of this commentary will sound familiar to those who have read “The Counterfeit Gospel” (Jan. 29, 2022). The beginning through “The Gospel of Jesus the Loser” is edited and amplified. Everything from the rubric “From Prosperity to QAnon” is original to this post.
A Question of Glory
Donald Trump and I each claim a footing in the Presbyterian Church and its Reformed theological tradition. It’s hard to remember much of what happened in Confirmation Class. But it’s hard to forget the first article of the Shorter Catechism. The way to a meaningful life is “to glorify God, and enjoy Him forever.” None of us understood it, of course. But one thing was clear: We are not to glorify ourselves.
The Workshop for Cranking Out Idols
The Reformed faith tradition focuses on the majesty of God and our propensity to bow before an infinite variety of substitutes for the Infinite. The issue for faith is not belief or unbelief. The issue is idolatry. Earth is the theatre of God’s glory. Yet human nature is a perpetual factory of idols. –Jean Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion,1556.
Author theologian William Stringfellow described idols as “imposters of God,” — the finite, manageable works we crank out that take the place of the Ineffable and Infinite.
There are gods and there is God. There is the finite and there is the Infinite. The gods are nearer-to-hand stand-ins, substitutes that promise what they cannot deliver. The world is beautiful and filled with goodness, yet the underlying goodness is twisted against itself. The idols are endless and varied. Nation, work, money, status, race, religion, political party, ideology take center stage in “the theater of God’s glory.”
The Gospel of Jesus the Loser
By the standards of the Prosperity Gospel, Jesus of Nazareth was a loser. Yet the loser will not go away. The loser executed on a Roman cross was raised as the archetype of authentic humanity. Unless the church gets that straight, everything it gains is loss. In spite of all attempts to circumvent, delete, or deny it, the cross remains the primary symbol for those who seek to follow Jesus. Whoever spends time looking at Gustav Doré’s painting of the crucifixion cannot dismiss the horror of it, the cruelty of it, the god-forsakenness of it.
From Prosperity to QAnon
It’s a short distance from the Prosperity Gospel to QAnon. Neither pays attention to Matthew or Luke’s vivid narratives of Jesus in the wilderness. Is Satan real? Yes and no. Satan is not someone’s name. It’s a title — the Shatan, the Diabolos — for the diabolical. It has no other home than our hearts and minds, the blacksmith shop that never ceases. The factory that cranks out idols. Satan is the Adversary of the Divine. QAnon says little about God but sees Satan everywhere. QAnon is the latest metastasis of a simplistic theology that divides the world between God and Satan, good and evil, saved and damned, elect and non-elect, heaven and hell, soldiers and cowards. If those characteristics sound familiar, it’s because they are.
“You people seem normal”
Thanksgiving is a day of mostly cheerful moments, but some Thanksgivings are also epiphanies. My younger son’s college friend opened a window to his experience of Christian faith and practice. During a light-hearted conversation around the Thanksgiving table, the student guest took what seems like a risk, but it landed on ears that understood how he felt. “I don’t know quite how to say this,” he said with eyebrows rising, “but you people seem normal.” The conversation the followed focused on his view of Christians as whackos. The whackos held the worldview described in the previous paragraph. Why did he think so? While changing channels he had stopped in on Jimmy and Tammie Baker, Jimmy Swaggert, and other televangelists who had not seemed normal. They were abnormal by almost any standards mental health, reason and sanity.
The Lure of Prosperity
The Prosperity Gospel preachers proclaim it can all be yours, if… If you accept Jesus Christ as your Savior, if you stop thinking negatively, it can all be yours. It can all be yours in a secure gated community. It can be yours if you climb to the top. It can all be yours if you just close your eyes to the homeless who disturb an otherwise beautiful day. It can all be yours, if you stop thinking of yourself as a school drop-out ditch digger and think of yourself as (fill in the blank).
Flights from Ambigiuity
What is missing in the Prosperity Gospel and QAnon are the biblical stories of Jesus in the wilderness with Satan. Any study of the Gospel of Matthew’s or Gospel of Luke’s narratives lead to a conclusion that life is more ambiguous than we would like it to be. It is good that our material needs are met. It’s not good when we turn needs into greed. In the same way, religion can go either way. It is good to praise God and practice a tradition’s wisdom, but religion can become, and often is, a form of idolatry that substitutes itself for the Eternal and Ineffable it claims to worship. But the third scene in the wilderness narratives that leaps from the page in America today, is the one about power and authority described below.
You may or may not hear much about Satan from Prosperity Gospel preachers or, for that matter, from the pulpits of traditional churches. It’s either because it’s not popular. It won’t attract new adherents. Or it’s an embarrassment. Or the biblical texts that speak of Satan or the Devil require an inordinately long explanation than a sermon allows. Not so for QAnon where the talk is all about Satan.
What has been lost is a literary and emotional understanding of the complex and confounding character of the biblical Satan. Satan is the personification of the diabolical. The Trickster, the Deceiver, the Twister, the Half-Truth Teller, the Liar. Beauty, truth, and goodness are given lip service, but beneath the talk of beauty lies ugliness, beneath the tributes to truth lies deceit, beneath the salute to goodness lies a tornado twisting goodness into its opposite.
The most poignant of the three wilderness scenes
William Blake paints the most poignant of the three episodes of Jesus’s 40 days with the Diabolos in the wilderness. The scene is a mountaintop where Satan and Jesus the Christ have in view all the nations and kingdoms of the word. Blake’s painting gives visual expression to the narcissistic lure of political power and authority. “Then the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. ‘All this I will give you,’ he says, ‘if you will bow down and worship me.’ Jesus says to him, ‘Begone, Satan, for it is written ‘you shall worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.'” (Matthew 4:10 NIV and NRSV combined)
Where was God?
Those who see the countenance of God in the face of Jesus the Loser face a challenge that won’t go away. Where was God when America’s First People were being stripped of their homeland, slaughtered, stripped of their religion and culture, and consigned to reservations and Christian boarding schools? Where was God when White hoods with torches burned their crosses and formed a congregation gathered around the lynching tree? Where was God at the whipping post? Where was God during the Holocaust, the “Final Solution”? Where was God at the gun massacres at Columbine, Sandy Hook, and Parkland? Where was God when Narcissus was dying of dehydration at the edge of the pond?
You will find God there
Jesus the Loser tells us where. God was among those who were robbed of their homeland. God was shuttled off to the reservations. God was hanging from the lynching tree. God was whipped at the whipping post. God was on the trains to Auschwitz; God was among the children, teachers, and parents at Sandy Hook. God was among the Losers — the tortured, the poor, the starving, the dying and the dead. God was in the pond inviting Narcissus to drink. We will find God there.
Letters and Papers from Prison preserves a poem from the cell of a pastor, theologian, professor, and resistor of the German Third Reich. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was hanged at Flossenburg Concentration Camp April 9, 1945 as the Nazi regime was collapsing.
CHRISTIANS AND UNBELIEVERS
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, July, 1944
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 goeth to every man when sore bestead, Feedeth body and spirit with his bread, For Christians, heathens alike he hangeth dead: And both alike forgiving.
I often have wondered whether Donald Trump would disturb me less if we did not both claim a footing in the Presbyterian Church and the Reformed theological tradition. I have asked what happened to Donald after Confirmation Class.
To glorify God — Not Ourselves
If we remembered nothing else from confirmation class, it was the first and most important question of the Shorter Catechism. “What is the chief end of man (human beings)? Answer: The chief end of man (human beings) is to glorify God and enjoy God forever.” Whatever questions remained, one thing was clear. We are called to glorify God, not ourselves.
In the Reformed tradition of faith and practice the issue in life is not belief or unbelief. The perennial daily issue is idolatry understood as the substitution of what is finite and manageable for the “I AM” the Name too holy to name. Valuing humility and modesty in spirit and lifestyle, the Reformed tradition shuns extravagance, arrogance, and ostentatious living as gates to a world swirling toward self-destruction.
The Gospel of the Winner
The Prosperity Gospel is the impostor gospel on whose shoulders America hoisted a hologram to the Office of President and continues to insist Mr. Trump could not have been defeated. While greed knows no time limits, the Prosperity Gospel is the latest spiritual product of consumer capitalism which divides humankind into the elect and the damned, the materially privileged and the “less fortunate” for whom alike, amassing a fortune is life’s purpose and goal. Donald Trump is not just Donald Trump. He is the embodiment of privilege in all its forms: prestige, power, tower, country clubs for the rich and famous, a beautiful wife or two or three, a winner free to put his hands wherever his urges lead him with no evidence of guilt or shame. Donald is the symbol of success. Donald is a winner who cannot lose.
Paula White’s prayer service for Donald Trump offers a good look at what this impostor for God looks and sounds like. Paul White became a spiritual advisor in the Trump White House. Listen carefully.
Those who observe the prayer service for the president’s re-election in the aftermath of the January 6, 2021 Capitol insurrection must not forget or ignore how fascists rose to power in the 1920s and ’30s by inciting violence against leftist protesters. The Nazis sent Brownshirts to left-wing gatherings to provoke street fights and wreak havoc which they blamed on leftists. When more than 100 people were injured at the Red Wedding rally in 1927, the Nazis claimed they, the Nazis, were the victims of leftist anarchists. Hitler may have been a victim, but Hitler would never be a loser.
The Gospel of Jesus the Loser
By the standards of the Prosperity Gospel, Jesus of Nazareth was a loser. He did not prosper. He did not accumulate. He didn’t win. Yet the loser whose cry Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachtani? — “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” — rang out from the executioner’s cross was, according to Christian faith, raised as the archetype of authentic humanity. Unless the church gets that straight, everything it may gain will be loss. Jesus was not and is not a winner.
In spite of all attempts to circumvent, delete, or deny it, the cross remains the primary symbol for those who seek to follow Jesus. Whoever spends time looking at Caravaggio’s painting of the crucifixion cannot dismiss the horror of it, the cruelty of it, the god-forsakenness of it, or the helping hand of Simon of Cyene.
Like every other religious institution and faith tradition, the church which Donald and I once held in common is a failure. Lord knows how often the Presbyterian Church (USA) has stood on the other side of the fence from Jesus, Moses, and the prophets. Even so, like the Friends (“Quakers”), the voice of conscience lies near the heart of who we seek to be. We are taught to listen for “the still small voice” (the whisper) that calls us “to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God” (Micah 6:8).
From the Counterfeit Gospel of Prosperity to QAnon and Fascism
It’s a short distance from the winner or loser, good vs. evil, us/them theology of the Prosperity Gospel to QAnon and fascism. All these years after Edward R. Murrow called Joseph McCarthy’s search for communist conspirators to a screeching halt, a nameless figure who goes by “Q” gathers a following by uncovering a Satanic cabal working in high places of “the Deep State.” The enemy in 2022 is still leftists, as it was with the Third Reich and Joe McCarthy, but far worse and ludicrous — an underground Leftist cabal of child kidnapping, molestation, sex trafficking, pederasty, and cannibalism conspiring to take away our freedom. QAnon followers still make invoke the old fear of communist, but the culprits now are called Democrats.
QAnon’s view of Satan is fueled by the biblical literalist mindset of far-right fundamentalist and conservative Christian theology that turns Satan into an independent, identifiable being. If only it were that simple. The biblical Satan is the personification of the diabolical dimension of human nature. In the Bible Satan stands for the Trickster who twists Earth’s essential goodness against itself and its Creator. Satan’s workshop is the human mind and heart that cranks out impostors of God.
Responsibility and Ambiguity
Charles Thomson, a quiet member of America’s Founders, the first and only Secretary of the Continental Congress, wrote his friend Benjamin Franklin of his concern about “the cursed schemes dragging us into civil war, and national ruin.” The American experiment was “teetering at the edge of the cliff.” That was 1774, two years before the Declaration of Independence was issued. The threat of yearning for a king is as real now as it was then. Are we mature enough to turn back from the road to ruin? Will we remember, forget, ignore, or oppose the question and answer Donald and I learned in confirmation class? You don’t need a Presbyterian confirmation class to conclude that self-glorification is glory misplaced. Whatever happens, we do well to remember Charles Thomson’s wisdom and look at the diabolical dimension within ourselves and find the factory that cranks out substitutes for God. The search for glory always ends badly.
“The character of human life,” observed Paul Tillich, “like the character of the human condition, like the character of all life, is ‘ambiguity’: the inescapable mixture of good and evil, the true and the false, the creative and the destructive forces –both individual and social” — Time, May 17, 1963.
After an extended period of dismay and bewilderment, Psalm 39 opened a vein to write again.
A Psalmic Meditation of a Hermit Crab
I said, “I will be careful how I act and will not sin by what I say.
I have been careful. A hermit crab at low tide, I sidle into a borrowed shell, not too big and not too small, to hide from birds of prey. I stuff myself inside. When the tide comes in, I may leave this shell. But not now. The sand is hot. The gulls are feeding.
I will be careful what I say around wicked people.”
It’s not just the birds of prey that keep me here. Whatever I say outside will make it hotter for crabs like me. I’m crabby and cranky. “Keep your words to yourself! The world doesn’t need more heat. We all need to cool down.”
So I kept very quiet. I didn’t even say anything good, but I became even more upset.
Despair is a horrible thing. “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say it. Stay in your room until you have something nice to say. You have to be positive.” I have nothing good to say. Nothing calm. Nothing of value. Nothing to cool the beach at noon. Nothing to lower the blistering heat rising in me.
I became very angry inside, and as I thought about it, my anger burned.
Glass shattering, Stop the Steal, Hang Mike Pence, Execute Nancy, Make America Great Again, sounds of threats and violence, cries for help, and the silence from the White House still hurt my ears.
Then I remember how Jeremiah wept. Truth, he said, was dark and deep, and bought a worthless plot of land where hope could live.
The prophet Jeremiah, Michelangelo fresco, Sistine Chapel
So I spoke:
“Lord, tell me when the end will come and how long I will live. Let me know how long I have.
You have given me only a short life; my lifetime is as nothing in your sight; Even those who stand erect arebut a puff of wind.
It’s hard alone outside the shell. The wind is stiff. The sky is dark. Light is White and right; Black is dark and wronged again. Truth sways by a noose from the lynching tree.
When will this end? When will it stop? How will it stop? I’m an old man; my time is short, this short puff of air, soon to disappear.
People are like shadows moving about. All their work is for nothing; they collect things but don’t know who will get them.
My kind and I are like ghosts sidling along the wall of shadows we faintly see in Plato’s cave. We find no respite from the heat and clamor into which we once could crawl — or thought we could. We leave behind a scorched gift to generations yet to come.
“So, Lord, what hope do I have? You are my hope.”
Sea levels have rise, the tides are higher, the forests burning, the rivers drying, fields once lush and green now parched and brown, the planet spinning out of control, like a top our hands have spun. These mortal selves, this factory of gods our hearts conceive, cannot hide from Thee, O Lord, the “I AM” without end, the Breath of Life that breathes a breath through me.
Gordon C. Stewart, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017, Wipf and Stock), host of Views from the Edge: To see More Clearly, Brooklyn Park, MN, January 23, 2023.
“Better to trip with the feet than with the tongue."
— Zeno of Citium (c. 300 BCE)
About stumbling and slipping
We all stumble occasionally. Who hasn’t slipped while trying to say what we mean? But some slips aren’t slips. Those slips reveal what we mean.
After last night’s Senate blocked the voting right bill from moving forward to debate, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s tongue slipped when trying to tamp down any concern about Black voter suppression.
The concerns are misplaced, he demurred. Why? Because “African American voters are voting in just as high a percentage as Americans.”
“We all stumble in many ways,” wrote the James of The Epistle of James. “Anyone who is never at fault in what they say is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check.” (James 3:2 NIV). There is no such person, he writes, for no human being can tame the tongue. The tongue’s small size is disproportionate to it power. It’s like the rudder of a ship. It guides the ship in whatever direction the pilot directs. In yet another metaphor, the tongue is a little member of the body, “and boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small spark!”
A restless evil
With the tongue we praise God and curse others created in God’s image; “it is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.”
“Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? Can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water….”
Wisdom and hypocrisy
“Let those who desire wisdom show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such ‘wisdom’ is not wisdom. It does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.”
A Life’s project on the tip of the tongue
Martin Luther King, Jr. is dead. John Lewis is dead. Their life project is not. It will sit on the tip of my tongue long after the slip that wasn’t a slip, however long it takes.
O, yet we trust that somehow good Will be the final goal of ill.
— Alfred, Lord Tennyson, In Memoriam A.H. H. (1850)
“To what shall I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the market places and calling to their playmates, ‘We piped to you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.'”
Gospel according to Matthew 11:16-17.
Having nothing new to say on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I scrolled back to this sermon on Faith and Patriotism which re-awakened my appreciation for Herbert Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man and his analysis of a culture of “administered consciousness”.
“Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel” — Eugene Debs/Thomas Paine?
Love of country is a good thing. Worshiping it is not. In the hands of a scoundrel, patriotism becomes an idol.
Gordon C. Stewart, Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, January 19, 2022
“Truth has stumbled in the streets, honesty cannot enter. Truth is nowhere to be found, and whoever shuns evil becomes a prey.” — Book of Isaiah 59: 14b-15a
The Press Conference
Moments ago House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy performed a Fred Astaire song-and- dance act, after which a “press corp” composed of theater critics, ballet dancers, singers, and actors from Broadway had time to asked embarrassing questions. The Minority Leader was frequently off-key. Every other step was a diversion. Some taps were an About-Face. It’s hard to tap dance in hip-boot waders.
Tap dancing in hip-boots
Mr. McCarthy offered no explanations for his well-documented changes of mind, reversals and U-Turns. If you were listening carefully, you might have heard an off-stage prompter’s cue from an unhappy puppeteer: “A b o u t Face!” But the tap dancer didn’t know which way to face. Without a moral compass it’s easy to get lost.
"No one calls for justice; no one pleads his case with integrity." -- Isaiah 59:4a
I watched it live on C-Span. No pundit told me what I was seeing and hearing, and no “Breaking News!” announcements made my heart race.
Truth is not an artifact
Truth-telling never was popular. Yet it was a founding virtue in American culture. “We hold these truths to be self-evident….” We didn’t, of course, but we said we did. Truth was the premise of all that followed in the Declaration of Independence. In 2022 truth is a relic, a dead virtue like Latin, rolling in the dust; nothing is self-evident. Or could it be that truth abides in America; you just have to hunt for it? Yet, even hunting for truth for the sake of goodness can be a u-turn toward evil, as it did seven decades ago until a truth-teller named Welsh and a truth-seeking reporter named Murrow confronted the demonic crusading behind the pretense of goodness.
"They rely on empty arguments and speak lies; they conceive trouble and give birth to evil." -- Isaiah 59:4
A sense of decency
When Senator Joseph McCarthy (R-WI) attacked a young attorney in Mr. Welsh’s law firm as a suspected communist or communist sympathizer, Welsh had had enough, and said so: “Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator. You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?“
“See It Now”
March 9, 1954 Murrow’s “Report on Sen. Joseph McCarthy” aired on his popular CBS program “See It Now” featuring excerpts in which the junior Senator from Wisconsin repeatedly contradicted himself. Joseph Welsh’s rebuke — “Let us not … Have you left no sense of decency”— swept across the country. Viewer letters to CBS ran 15-1 in favor of Murrow’s report.
Attack on the Press as “a Jackal Pack”
When Murrow offered the senator a full half-hour on “See It Now” to respond to the report in any way he might choose, McCarthy delayed his appearance until April 6. McCarthy did not appear in person. Instead, he provided CBS with a filmed response, accusing Murrow of being a communist-sympathizer, or worse. The transcript of McCarthy’s defense included an attack on the press as “jackal pack”:
Ordinarily, I would not take time out from the important work at hand to answer Murrow. However, in this case I feel justified in doing so because Murrow is a symbol, a leader, and the cleverest of the jackal pack which is always found at the throat of anyone who dares to expose individual Communists and traitors.
Excerpt, Sen. Joseph McCarthy rebuttal on “See It Now” (April 6, 1953)
"They hatch the eggs of vipers, and spin a spider's web." -- Isaiah 59:5a
Murrow later noted that McCarthy “made no reference to any statements of fact that we made” and addressed McCarthy’s accusations against himself. If the best defense is a good offense, McCarthy’s single-note smear strategy was no match for truth. Senator McCarthy was censured by the Senate, but his spirit and appeal to fear never left.
This sordid history is embedded in American culture. We’ve become a culture of distrust, suspicion, accusation, and division. There is no Edward R. Murrow, and if there is one or many, the multiplicity of news sources insures that the American public will no longer see or hear the same things across the political divide.
"So justice is far from us, and righteousness does not reach us. We look for light, but all is darkness; for brightness, but we walk in deep shadows. Like the blind we grope along the wall, feeling our way like those without eyes." -- Isaiah 59:10a
The descendants of Joseph McCarthy are feeding truth, decency, and the Constitution through the shredder. If you want to see reality with your own eyes and hear it with your own ears, tune in to C-Span and C-Span 2 to discern truth from falsehood, good from evil, transparency from obfuscation, a ballet from a tap dance in hip boots.
— Gordon C. Stewart, Brooklyn Park, MN, Jan. 12, 2022.
The day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, POTUS Franklin Delano Roosevelt addressed a joint session of Congress. “Yesterday, December 7, 1941—a date which will live in infamy…” he began. His oft-cited words could have been repeated the day after the attack on the U. S. Capitol January 6, 2020.
The POTUS defeated in the 2020 election called no special session of Congress on January 7, 2021. The day before (Jan. 6, 2021) the President stayed in the Oval Office dining room watching the rampage through the halls of Congress, and Capitol Police rushing Members of Congress, the Vice President and their staff members into hiding. He kept his eyes glued to the unfolding images as if watching contestants on Jeopardy.
When finally he spoke after 187 minutes of silence, he told those who had breached the Capitol “…So go home. We love you, you’re very special. We’ve seen what happens, you see the way others are treated that are so bad and so evil. I know how you feel. But go home, and go home in peace.” There was no special session of Congress, as on the day after Pearl Harbor. Congress impeached Mr. Trump for the second time over the objection of Jim Jordan (pictured below), Marjorie Taylor Greene, and others. Loyalist senators voted to acquit him. January 6, 2020 will be remembered as the day the Big Lie and Stop the Steal almost stole democracy.
Marjorie Taylor Greene 🇺🇸 @mtgreenee
We must remove Adam Schiff from Congress. It’s not enough to take him off committees. He has heinously abused power & LIED repeatedly to the American people to weaponize the government to attack his political enemies. He’s a Communists. All Communists must be expelled. 10:03 AM · Dec 15, 2021·Twitter for iPhone
Painting public figures as Communists has a history. In 1952 and following, the right wing of the Republican Party created a “blacklist” of Communists and Communist sympathizers.
10 PUBLIC FIGURES
Helen Keller Leonard Bernstein Burl Ives Pete Seeger Artie Shaw Zero Mostel Charlie Chaplin Langston Hughes Orson Welles Dolores del Rio
+Adam Schiff (added 12/15/22
The date of the 2021 Capitol insurrection coincided with the Feast of the Epiphany which my church celebrates every January 6th, no matter the current circumstances. On Epiphany the heart is lifted by the Gospel of Matthew’s story of the Magi (wisdom figures) who have come from afar, kneeling before a newborn as fragile as any newborn to offer their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
It was and is a question of kneeling
Prior to their arrival at Bethlehem, these sages from the East go to “Herod the king” asking for directions to the place where the new king has been born. A “troubled” King Herod summons his advisors to gather information. He then summons the “wise men” secretly to ascertain from them when the star had appeared. Herod gives them directions to Betlehem, and tells them to come back to him when they have found the child, “that I too may come and worship him.”
The Magi do not return to Herod. “And warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed for their own country by another way.” Herod is furious. Herod never disappears. Cunning and deceit never end. Darkness remains. But the Light –the star shining over an animal shelter — remains. Last year Epiphany there was darkness and there was light. A would-be king trembles and flies into a slaughter of innocents. For years to come, January 6 the memory of a violent insurrection and the Feast of the Epiphany will sit side-by-side. May we have the wisdom to follow the Light that cannot overcome the darkness.
The two competing images of the wise visitors to Bethlehem and of Herod’s cunning will through light on reality as it is. If Burl Ives and Pete Seeger were branded as Communists, I wonder about Dolly Parton. Dolly did appear with Big Bird on Sesame Street.
“What a Friend We Have in Jesus” is an old favorite of Protestant Christians. Pete Seeger (RIP) knew what happens when we look to Congress to save us.
Adam Fronczek’s “Star of Wonder” sermon at Knox Church – Cincinnati comes as healing balm after a year when truth and wonder have been hard to come by. I needed this. Perhaps you do, too. You are not alone. Thank you, Adam. Thank you Knox.
Scroll forward to 22:58 to listen.
Best wishes for a truthful, wonder-filled Christmas,
Gordon. C. Stewart, Brooklyn Park, MN, December 24, 2021.
Thanks to Janet Morrison of Harrisburg, NC for accepting our invitation to elaborate on her comment on Harry Strong’s Biases series. Janet is a writer, blogger, and published author. Information about Janet and her work is available on Janet’s Writing Blog or Janet Morrrison Books.com. Views from the Edge added the headings and graphics to the original text of “Have We Forgotten How to Listen?”
Have We Forgotten How to Listen?
by Janet Morrison
Throughout much of 2021 I participated in an online group discussion of LEAPFROG: How to Hold a Civil Conversation in an Uncivil Era, by Janet Givens, M.A. The recent “Blind Biases” series of posts by Harry L. Strong on Gordon C. Stewart’s “Views from the Edge” blog reminded me of Ms. Givens’ thought-provoking book.
How do we have that difficult conversation with someone with whom we disagree?
Our nation is more polarized now than in any other time in my life. The assassination of a U.S. President, the Civil Rights Movement, the racial desegregation of the public school I attended, the “Cold War,” the anti-Vietnam War demonstrations, the near-eradication of polio, the “space race” with the U.S.S.R., the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, the breaking up of the Soviet Union, the advent of the internet, 9/11, global warming, and an attempted coup at the U.S. Capitol have been the soundtrack of my life.
From verbal filters to open floodgates
Whereas, polite society used to dictate a level of restraint in public discourse, social media and a former U.S. President who demonstrated no such verbal filter, opened the floodgates for anyone and everyone to voice their opinions as often and as loudly as they desired.
The result of this shift is that the individuals with the most extreme views feel emboldened to not only voice their opinions but to launch vile personal attacks against anyone who dares to disagree. With all filters turned off, we have transitioned into a country in which everyone is expressing their opinions and no one is listening.
The “L” in Ms. Givens’ LEAPFROG book stands for listening. It made me think about the necessity of listening if we’re to have a productive conversation on any level.
In our compulsion to force our ideas down the throats of others, we’ve lost our ability to listen.
When’s the last time you listened to someone whose views on politics differed from yours? No. I mean, did you really listen? Or were you so wrapped up in your viewpoint and your desire to convert the other person to your way of thinking that you didn’t genuinely listen to the other party?
We’re all guilty. We’ve not only brought all our biases to the table; we’ve forgotten our table manners.
We’ve forgotten how to listen.
Alert and ready for the Unexpected
Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition, 2001 defines the word listen as follows: “(1) to pay attention to sound…; (2) to hear something with thoughtful attention: give consideration…; (3) to be alert to catch an expected sound.” If I may be so bold, I would add a fourth: to be alert to catch an unexpected sound, or word, or explanation.
Our modern lives are filled with noise. The TV is always on at home. The radio is always on in the car, often tuned into talk radio. Music or a cellphone conversation is always playing in our ears. We’re so attuned to hearing something 24/7 that we can’t go grocery shopping or jogging without having earbuds in our ears. Silence makes us uneasy. Without being aware of it, we’ve trained ourselves to listen to what we want to hear, and this training has conditioned us not to have to listen to anything we don’t want to hear.
Our modern lives are filled with noise. The TV is always on at home. The radio is always on in the car, often tuned into talk radio. Music or a cellphone conversation is always playing in our ears. We’re so attuned to hearing something 24/7 that we can’t go grocery shopping or jogging without having earbuds in our ears. Silence makes us uneasy. Without being aware of it, we’ve trained ourselves to listen to what we want to hear, and this training has conditioned us not to have to listen to anything we don’t want to hear.
Let that sink in. Has our desire to surround ourselves and our very ears only with those sounds we want to hear led us to become closed-minded to truly listening to “the other side” when it comes to the difficult issues of the day? Have we lost our ability to listen? Have we lost our curiosity?
I’m guilty. I don’t watch the cable news channels that I know espouse political views with which I disagree. When I hear someone whose viewpoints are in opposition to mine, my knee-jerk reaction is to get angry and make judgments. I admit that I don’t care why their world view is so different from mine. I can’t fathom why they think the way they do, and I’m guilty of not trying to see things from their perspective.
I grew up in a fairly homogeneous community. There weren’t any rich kids in my school. Most people went to church. Most people obeyed the law. As far as I knew, until a few years ago, everyone I grew up with saw the world pretty much the way I did. When I was growing up, I knew there were Republicans and Democrats, but people rarely advertised their political affiliation.
People of various political leanings could be friends. Those who made a point to reveal their political party registration didn’t demonize those of the other party. They could socialize and attend church together. They could even discuss politics and remain friends. They could display the American flag at their homes without being labeled as agreeing with a particular political party. They could get vaccinated against diseases without being ostracized.
One of the sad things for me in this era of polarization is learning that people I thought I knew well, I don’t really know. How can children who were raised like I was raised become adults with whom I have nothing in common?
The most frightening thing about this is that we each love our country; however, we love it in ways that mean we can’t have a civil conversation about it. We not only aren’t listening to each other, we have lost the patience, the energy, the tolerance, and the curiosity to listen to one another.
Until we listen
Until we learn to listen, family gatherings will escalate into shouting matches and hurt feelings. Congregations will divide into cliques and inflict wounds on our collective Body of Christ. Knowing another person’s political affiliation will influence all our dealings and interactions with them.
Until we recapture our ability to listen and want to know why the other person sees things the way they do, we’re spinning our wheels.
Until both parties to the conversation bring honesty, frankness, and a genuine curiosity to the discussion, our country is not going to move out of this predicament we find ourselves in.
Until we are willing to listen, we can’t call it a conversation.
Until we listen, we won’t discover what we have in common. 9/11 did that for us. I pray it doesn’t take such a tragedy to reunite us.
Tell us what you’re thinking. Let’s talk.
Gordon C. Stewart, host of Views from the Edge, author of Be Still: Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf & Stock), Brooklyn Park, MN, Dec. 20, 2021.
Photo: DK @ Daybreak. 6:35 a.m. Sunday, August 25, 2021. Cove Island Park, Stamford, CT.
Post Title & Inspiration: Aldous Huxley: “It’s dark because you are trying too hard. Lightly child, lightly. Learn to do everything lightly. Yes, feel lightly even though you’re feeling deeply. Just lightly let things happen and lightly cope with them.”
Thanks for dropping by Views From the Edge and Live & Learn — Gordon (Sitting by the window before dawn)
Reverence is an ennobling sentiment; it is felt to be degrading only by the vulgar mind, which would escape the sense of its own littleness by elevating itself into an antagonist of what is above it. He that has no pleasure in looking up is not fit so much as to look down.
Washington Allston (1779—1843)
Human Beings and Being Human
Not everyone believes in God, and those of us who do call the Ineffable different names. But doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly (Micah 6:8) expresses in a few words the shared moral foundation of healthy common life. Some treasures — soul-sized things that neither moth nor rust consume — cannot be bought or stolen by wealth, privilege, or power. An economy and culture that enshrine greed, ownership and domination bow before and dance around a Golden Calf.
Jesus’s question about treasures is front and center in 2021. “What profit is there if a person [or nation] gains the world but loses its soul?” What difference does it make if we’re standing in quicksand? “The rain fell dow, and the floods came up, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell–and great was its fall!”
It has taken a lifetime to see more clearly what I believe and why I believe it. Some stories are so deeply embedded in our psyches that we are barely conscious of them until experience brings them back into focus. The parable of the wise and foolish builders has been bedrock for me as far back as memory can reach. I heard it as a child. I sang it as a child. I moved my arms and hands to the rain pouring down and the flood coming up. Mrs. Thomas, our 90-year-old Vacation Bible School teacher laid out the choice between standing on the firm foundations of wisdom or sinking on the quicksands of foolishness.
A Larry David Teaching Moment
Jesus’ parable meant more to old Mrs. Thomas than it did to wide-eyed kindergartners with our whole lives ahead of us. Closer now to Mrs. Thomas’ age, experience has taught me that I am never far from foolishness.
But I didn’t quite “get it” until this year watching an old episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” in which a clueless Larry David insults a Korean shop owner with his bow. Bowing has a protocol of who bows lower.
A child bows lower to an adult; the younger of two adults bows lower to an elder. A student bows lower to a teacher as the outward sign of respect and honor. Larry had his purchases; what he didn’t have was his wallet. He couldn’t buy a thing.
The honorable Korean shop owner trusts Larry to take the goods and to return later to cover the cost. When Larry returns, the shop owner bows to Larry. Larry mirrors the shop owner’s bow. The two exchange bows repeatedly, but the shop owner grows angry with Larry’s persistent mirroring. Larry insulted the shop owner. Out of respect, Larry should have bowed lower.
My Clueless Insult of Kosuke Koyama
My own Larry David insult took place as Professor Emeritus theologian of World Christianity Kosuke Koyama and I moved to our places behind the communion table at Shepherd of the Hill Church in Chaska, Minnesota to celebrate the Sacrament of Holy Communion. I’m not used to bowing. I shake hands, but we Americans don’t bow. We bow to no one.
Professor Koyama’s greeting caught me by surprise. He honored me with a bow. The internationally respected Japanese liberation theologian twenty years my senior, author of 100+ books and scholarly articles, bowed low to his lesser colleague. I did what I thought was good and right. I returned the bow. But I did not bow lower! If my superior was offended, he never showed it. He never shamed me. Ten years after Ko’s death, Larry David’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” taught me what I had done. have been a to reflect on faith itself as bowing lower, to the Highest, the God of Mount Fiji and Mount Sinai, and Golgotha, the Hill of Skulls.
If Kosuke had taken offense, he never showed it. He never shamed me. Ten years after Ko’s death, Larry David’s “Curb Your Enthusiasm” taught me what I had done.
The years since have been a reflection on faith itself as bowing lower, to the Highest, the God of Mount Fiji and Mount Sinai, and Golgotha, the Hill of Skulls.
Bowing while Refusing to Bow
To be human is to bow. Before whom or what we are bowing — not whether we will bow —is a different rendering of Jesus’s challenging question. What is happening today in the United States and across the world — the storms that turn democratic republics into footstools for totalitarians hoisted to their thrones by myths of racial and national exceptionalism — widens the chasm between guarded white communities and the homeless shelters and detention camps at our southern border; and builds more prisons that house a disproportionally low percentage of people who look like me, the people of white privilege.
But most important is the ravaging of nature — unprecedented forest fires reducing natural habitats to ash heaps, homes and towns in Washington, Oregon, and California, New Orleans, and Texas; hurricanes, tornadoes and straight-line winds — puts the parable of the wise and foolish builders squarely before us We are the species that always bows to someone or something, but refuses to bow lower. “Evil is in antagonism with the entire creation,” wrote German-Swiss author and civil servant Heinrich Zschokke (1771-1848). What is humankind that you are mindful of us, asked the Hebrew psalmist.
Bowing with Jesus to the Origin and End of Life Itself
“The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” is the traditional shorthand for Christian faith. The Jewish Jesus bows before that which is greater than he: the Creator and Sustainer of life.
The “I AM” of the burning bush — YHWH, a Name/Reality so holy, so Other, so far beyond human comprehension that the children of Moses would not speak the Name aloud — is the Origin and End of life itself. It was I AM — the source and end of life itself — before whom Jesus of Nazareth bowed in prayer and daily decision-making. Jesus was a faithful member of the covenant community born at the burning bush that dropped Moses to his knees.
Bowing before the Ineffable
The Jesus of history and the Jesus of faith cannot be understood apart from this bowing. Jesus bows before his Lord and Father, the Holy One of the First Commandment and the Shema of his Jewish faith tradition. The Christian confession “Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior” is a one-line cliff note for “the Jesus who bowed low in reverence and humility before the Eternal and Ineffable” is the human one people like me seek to follow. The bowing Jesus is for Christians called Lord and Savior — because he bows lower to the Origin and End of life itself, the I Am of the bush that burns but is not consumed.
Let More of Reverence in Us Dwell
Let knowledge grow from more to more, But more of reverence in us dwell; That mind and soul, according well, May make one music as before.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson, In Memoriam Prologue, st. 7
Gordon C. Stewart, Public Theologian, Brooklyn Park, MN, Dec. 9, 2021
Third of the four-part series Blind Biases” by Harry L. Strong
“People can’t see what they can’t see.”
— Brian McLaren
Catching Up to Lean Forward
Today we turn to the final four (4) of thirteen (13) biases identified by author, activist, and public theologian, Brian D. McLaren, which, McLaren believes, contribute significantly to the hatred, hostility, and polarization that pervades so much of our nation and world today. Previously, we have noted nine (9) additional biases that McLaren suspects explain partially why we see things so differently from one another. These include Confirmation Bias; Complexity Bias; Community Bias; Complementarity Bias; Competency Bias; Consciousness Bias; Comfort or Complacency Bias; Conservative/Liberal Bias; and Confidence Bias. To glean a more thorough understanding of what these biases entail and how they create stumbling blocks to healthy communication and understanding among people with conflicting opinions, the reference appears below to Brian McLaren’s e-book, Why Don’t They Get It? Overcoming Bias in Others(and Yourself). So, what are four other biases that can dramatically impact our views of life and the world? McLaren cites these:
Catastrophe or Normalcy Bias: I remember dramatic catastrophes but don’t notice gradual decline (or improvement).
Contact Bias: When I don’t have intense and sustained personal contact with “the other,” my prejudices and false assumptions go unchallenged.
Ca$h Bia$: It’s hard for me to see something when my way of making a living requires me not to see it.
Conspiracy Bias: Under stress or shame, our brains are attracted to stories that relieve us, exonerate us, or portray us as innocent victims of malicious conspirators. 
A Window and a Mirror
Did any one of these prompt you to think to yourself: “Oops! ‘Never thought about that before, but that sounds like ME!” If you identified one (or more) of those biases in yourself, good for you! Give yourself a pat on the back for your openness and your vulnerability! That’s one of the reasons McLaren published his e-book in the first place – so readers like us (you and I) would see our reflection in a mirror and ask: “OK, so now what? Now that I’ve acknowledged this blind spot, how can I do something about it? What can I do to change my perspective?” The other reason McLaren believed his literary venture had some merit was so he could inspire folks like us to recognize biases in others who may not view the world the same way we do AND to motivate us to take the courageous step of looking out our window and reaching out to our sisters and brothers in pursuit of understanding and healing.
Contact Bias: Guilty as Charged
If you zeroed in on “Contact Bias” the way I did, perhaps that’s already occurred to you. When I was serving as a pastor in a university community like Ames, Iowa, or State College, Pennsylvania, or in an urban setting like Trenton, New Jersey, or Memphis, Tennessee, daily I found myself encountering people who were not like me in appearance, heritage, values, economic status, lifestyle, faith perspective, and a myriad other ways. Now, living in a golf course community in a town of 20,000 on the western slope of Colorado, hard as it is to hear: “When I don’t have intense and sustained personal contact with ‘the other,’ my prejudices and false assumptions go unchallenged.” Contact bias: guilty as charged.
So, if like me, you’ve identified Contact Bias as one likely impediment to your ability to understand and appreciate why other people may see things differently than you do, what can we (you and I) do about it? Fortunately, our instructor/mentor, Brian McLaren, can help. His e-book is not just an academic analysis of our polarization plight. Brian offers us some very practical bridge-building guidelines, at least one for each of the thirteen (13) biases he identifies. What does he suggest related to Contact Bias?
Beyond Myopia (Nearsightedness)
McLaren points us to Jesus and his intentional, unique way of reaching out to the other, including the other at the table, and putting the other in the spotlight by giving the other a voice.
We may protest: “But how does that help us when there are so few “others” in our geographical area?”
I think McLaren might say something like this: “Maybe you need to reassess your definition of “others.” The conflicts that plague our nation are not all related to racial ethnic, socio-economic, or religious differences. No matter how homogeneous you may think your community is, topics like vaccinations, masking, gun control, individual rights vs. the common good, states’ rights vs. federal mandates are just a few of the issues that are traumatizing and polarizing our nation these days. No matter how isolated and insulated you think you are where you live, what if you were to broaden your horizons a bit by exploring books, magazines, websites, blogs, news channels, and other venues that are outside your community?
Remember that Community Bias? “It’s almost impossible to see what our community doesn’t, can’t, or won’t see.” “Community” can refer to like-minded folks as well as to geography. Nobody said it was going to be easy, but, one-on-one or in small groups, you can humanize the other by giving people with diverse opinions a spotlight and a voice. Be intentional about trying to facilitate understanding and deeper relationships. Again, like Jesus, engage people in storytelling and active, conscious listening.”
Wouldn’t it be great if we could conclude our consideration of Blind Biases by identifying Five Ways We Can Help Others to See What They Can’t See? Guess what? Brian McLaren can make that happen! I look forward to getting together with you one more time for Blind Biases 4. Meanwhile, let’s reflect on these wise words from Stephen Covey (which McLaren quotes in his chapter on Contact Bias): “When you show deep empathy toward others, their defensive energy goes down, and positive energy replaces it. That’s when you can get more creative in solving problems.” Harry
) Brian McLaren, Why Don’t They Get It? Overcoming Bias in Others (and Yourself), Self-published: 2019), e-book.
Second in a four-part series on BLIND BIASES 2 by Harry L. Strong
If you joined me for “Biases 1,” welcome back!
If you didn’t, you may be wondering: “So then, why should I keep reading?
Not a Problem. Let me “catch you up” in a hurry.
“People can’t see what they can’t see.” Brian D. McLaren
Author, activist, and public theologian Brian D. McLaren has created a remarkably helpful way of assisting us in understanding what makes us see things so differently from one another. McLaren has identified thirteen (13) biases that contribute to the way people view life and the world and lead them to such polarizing conclusions from one another. For our convenience, he has managed to categorize them, each beginning with the letter “C.”
Previously, we took a quick look at how McLaren labels Biases 1 through 5: Confirmation Bias; Complexity Bias; Community Bias; Complementarity Bias; & Competency Bias. In a moment we’ll consider Biases 6-9. I’ll choose one and tell you what I learned about myself as I considered my own reflection in my “Bias Mirror.” Then, if you so choose, you may do the same. Chances are, we’ll be much more charitable and effective in inviting another into a conversation about why we view a topic so differently if we’ve tried to remove our own “blinders” first.
A Conversation with Larry
But before I share with you Brian’s second set of Biases, let me tell you about a brief conversation I had with a neighbor last week. While I was out walking my dog, I ran into Larry who asked me what I’d been up to lately. I told him I was writing a series of articles about “Biases.” Can you guess what he said next? “I’m not biased or prejudiced about anything. I have my opinions and my perspectives, but I try to be as objective as possible about everything!”
I don’t think Larry is alone. I’m guessing most folks become defensive if someone insinuates they are biased or prejudiced. The conversation prompted me to come home and “ask Mr. Webster” [1} how he would define all four of Larry’s words. Here’s what I learned:
Bias: “a mental leaning or inclination; partiality; bent.”
Prejudice: “a judgment or opinion formed before the facts are known (or in disregard of facts that contradict it); preconceived idea, favorable, or, more usually, unfavorable; unreasonable bias.”
Opinion: “a belief not based on absolute certainty or positive knowledge but on what seems true, valid, or probable to one’s own mind.”
Perspective: “a specific point of view in understanding or judging things or events, especially one that shows them in their true relations to one another.”
Fascinating! I couldn’t help but notice the phrase “unreasonable bias” in the definition of prejudice. That would seem to suggest that there IS such a thing as “reasonable bias.” Granted, most of us, as we ponder our conclusions about life and the world, are far more comfortable with the less judgmental and less inflammatory terms “opinion” and “perspective.”
McLaren’s Biases Six through Nine
I’ve likely devoted far too much time to this little grammar-aside. Let’s invite Brian McLaren back to the lectern to tell us about Biases 6 through 9 that he has identified.
Consciousness Bias: Some things simply can’t be seen from where I am right now. But if I keep growing, maturing, and developing, someday I will be able to see what is now inaccessible to me.
Comfort or Complacency Bias: I prefer not to have my comfort disturbed.
Conservative/Liberal Bias: I lean toward nurturing fairness and kindness, or towards strictly enforcing purity, loyalty, liberty, and authority, as an expression of my political identity.
Confidence Bias: I am attracted to confidence, even if it is false. I often prefer the bold lie to the hesitant truth. 
I’m choosing to confess what I perceive to be the most potentially controversial and explosive bias of the four: Conservative/Liberal Bias. I concede, without apology, that I bring a “Liberal Bias” to my keyboard. Having said that, I want to underscore McLaren’s phrase “lean toward.” (Remember, Mr. Webster used the same term.) To quote my neighbor, Larry, in trying to be “as objective as possible,” the Conservative/Liberal Bias definition may seem to imply that if I champion fairness and kindness, I discount, purity, loyalty, liberty, and authority OR that if I focus my attention on purity, loyalty, liberty, and authority, I’m unfair and unkind! Remember, McLaren is about building bridges, not walls! He clarifies this point in Chapter 24 on Conservative/Liberal Bias, when he discusses how Jesus might have wrestled with this issue: “Jesus neither absolutized nor ignored the four primarily conservative moral values, but instead, he included them and integrated them with the values of fairness and kindness, or justice and compassion … all in service of love.”
It’s BOTH/AND – not EITHER/OR! Again, it’s “lean toward.” It’s a matter of “where do you put the accent?”
My Conservative/Liberal Bias
I spend a lot more time viewing CNN and MSNBC than I do watching Fox News or the 700 Club. I subscribe to Christian Century and Sojourners. I do not subscribe to Christianity Today or Christian Living. I realize that puts me at odds with a number of my sisters and brothers in the evangelical Christian community as well as those in the Republican Party. It also means that many of them have access to “opinions” and “perspectives” that I do not. If, bravely and vulnerably, we risk entering into a conversation with one another to try to build a bridge of understanding, I won’t say neither of us is “playing with a full deck,” but we definitely are not “playing with the same deck.”
Invitation to Lean Forward
If you’re willing and able to spend the time, would you please take one more look at those above Biases (Consciousness; Comfort or Complacency; Conservative/Liberal; and Confidence Bias) and then ask yourself: “Does that sound like me?” The next step is even harder. In quest of peace and understanding, would you be willing to share what you learned with someone you know who may not view the world quite the same way that you do?
If not, maybe one of McLaren’s “final four” Biases might be easier to address. Could we make a date to sit down together again in Blind Biases 3? Harry
 Webster’s New World College Dictionary: Third Edition; Macmillan USA, 1997.
 Brian McLaren, Why Don’t They Get It? Overcoming Bias in Others (and Yourself) (Self-published: 2019), e-book.
Most of us are having a hard time talking with people on the other side of fence from us. A conversation with classmate, colleague, and friend Harry Strong led to this series on Blind Biases. Thanks to Harry for his willingness to do what I could not. — Gordon
Harry L. Strong is a retired Presbyterian Church USA pastor, originally from Chicago. Over the past 50 years, since his graduation from Blackburn College and McCormick Theological Seminary, he has served congregations in Iowa, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Tennessee, and Colorado. Harry and his wife, Anna, currently make their home in Montrose, Colorado.
BLIND BIASES #1
“People can’t see what they can’t see.” Brian D. McLaren
Former English teacher, pastor and current author, activist, and public theologian, Brian D. McLaren, has created a thoughtful and remarkably helpful way of assisting us in understanding what makes us see things so differently from one another. Given the intensity of hatred, hostility, and violence in our society today, rarely have such tools for bridge-building and healing been so desperately needed.
A Time-Machine Vexation
Perhaps if we had a time machine to take us back to the 1860s, we would be able to observe a similar, or even greater, degree of polarization among the citizens of our nation; however, since none of us was alive during the “Civil War” (or what the Confederacy called the “War of Northern Aggression”), our current divisions provide ample evidence of the need for increased understanding and reconciliation.
Come to think of it, those two different ways of labeling our mid-19th century national conflict (Civil War vs. War of Northern Aggression) provide an ideal opportunity for me to reintroduce Brian McLaren, because those “different ways of seeing” what happened in The United States of America between 1861 and 1865 illustrate our “biases.”
Inside the Walls of Bias
“People’s biases get in the way, surrounding them like a high wall, trapping them in ignorance, deception, and illusion. No amount of reasoning and argument will get through to them, unless we first learn how to break down the walls of bias.”
Brian McLaren, Why Don’t They Get It? Overcoming Bias in Others (and Yourself) (Self-published: 2019), e-book.
McLaren has identified thirteen (13) biases that contribute to the way people view life and the world. For our convenience, he has managed to categorize them, each beginning with the letter “C.”
A Window and a Mirror
Before I invite Brian to share these with us, I’d like to propose that we try to “look and listen” with a window in one hand and a mirror in the other.
In other words, as we ponder these various biases that (other) people bring to their perspective on life and the world, let us be open, honest, and vulnerable enough to recognize that we do the same thing.
At the conclusion of this post, I have provided the reference to Brian McLaren’s e-book, Why Don’t They Get It? Overcoming Bias in Others (and Yourself). I highly recommend Brian’s book if you’d like to explore this topic at more depth! Before he introduces the 13 biases, McLaren quotes these wise words from Francois Fenelon: “Nothing will make us so charitable and tender to the faults of others, as, by self-examination, thoroughly to know our own.”
As your host and guide for this blog and the three to follow, I pledge to try to remember that, and also to trust you with a few less-than-flattering discoveries that I have made about my own biases. In so doing, perhaps, I’ll expose a reflection in your mirror that you had not previously considered.
Thirteen (13) biases seem a bit overwhelming, don’t they? That’s why I’d like to distribute them over three separate posts, and then add a fourth and final piece to try to address what is probably the most important dimension of this subject: What issues do YOU care about? Where do you want to make a positive difference? Where do you want to help others “get it?” And what are your next steps in quest of understanding and reconciliation?
Sounds ambitious, doesn’t it? Indeed – but I hope it will be worth our time together. So – here are McLaren’s first five (5) biases. Then, I’ll close with a personal note.
Introducing McLaren’s bias framework
Confirmation Bias: We judge new ideas based on the ease with which they fit in with and confirm the only standard we have: old ideas, old information, and trusted authorities. As a result, our framing story, belief system, or paradigm excludes whatever doesn’t fit.
Complexity Bias: Our brains prefer a simple falsehood to a complex truth.
Community Bias: It’s almost impossible to see what our community doesn’t, can’t, or won’t see.
Complementarity Bias: If you are hostile to my ideas, I’ll be hostile to yours. If you are curious and respectful toward my ideas, I’ll respond in kind.
Competency Bias: We don’t know how much (or little) we know because we don’t know how much (or little) others know. In other words, incompetent people assume that most other people are about as incompetent as they are. As a result, they underestimate their [own] incompetence, and consider themselves at least of average competence. 
As promised, before we conclude our first “class” on Blind Biases, let me show you what I saw in MY Confirmation Bias mirror. Soon I’ll be entering my 9th decade on this planet. I’ve been an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church USA for over 5 of those decades, but I continue to read and learn and be challenged. Almost daily, I’m introduced to new perspectives by names like Bass and Borg, Bourgeault and Delio, Greenway, Rohr, and Wilber, and others. I confess the “new ideas” don’t always “fit in with and confirm” the ones I gleaned from many of my “trusted authorities,” professors, mentors, and role models. Yes, I get it. I can appreciate why my sisters and brothers frequently are confronted by new ideas that don’t confirm their “framing story” and that those ideas are jarring, troubling, offensive, and can evoke resistance and even hostility!
So, which form of “bias” do you choose to reflect on? CONFIRMATION, or one of the others? Remember, if you’d like a “sneak peek” at Biases 6-9, you can always access Brian’s e-book! I’ll “see you” in Blind Biases 2. — Harry
 Brian McLaren, Why Don’t They Get It? Overcoming Bias in Others (and Yourself) (Self-published: 2019), e-book.
Elijah was Spider-Man this Halloween. No one was fooled. Everyone knows Spider-Man isn’t a four years-old and that Spider-Man exists only in the comics. As It turned out, Elijah’s head was too big for the mask! Elijah’s not the only one whose head is too big for its mask. Facebook is trick-or-treating with a new mask, hoping we won’t see or remember what’s under it.
Re-branding has a history. Not every company is as lucky as Apple. Who doesn’t like apples? Facebook’s new name — Meta — doesn’t change what’s under the mask any more than Xe Services changed Blackwater U.S.A two years after Blackwater “security” guards killed 17 un-armed Iraqi civilians and injured 20 more in Baghdad in 2007. When Blackwater changed its name to Xe in 2009, Views from the Edge highlighted the danger of a privately-owned standing army for-hire on American soil. Click herefor the article re-published by Minnpost.com.
From Blackwater to Academi
Changing a name doesn’t change a thing. In 2011, Xe Services was rebranded “Academi”– a training center for military and police special operations. In 2014, Academi merged with Triple Canopy, a rival security company owned by the Constellis Group. But it was and still is a “private security company” of well-trained Army Special Operations personnel, Green Berets, Rangers, SEALs, MARSOC Critical Skills Operators, and other retired armed forces personnel, operating away from public scrutiny in the black waters of its 6,000-acre training ground in North Carolina.
From Facebook to Meta
The same is true of Facebook. Rebranded last week after a whistleblower exposed Facebook and the founder with an ego is too big to hide behind a mask, Facebook is still what it was before it re-presented itself as “Meta”. The rebranding doesn’t remove the spider or erase the algorithm spiderweb in which Facebook users are forever trapped. You can put a mask on a spider but it’s still a spider. In fact, it makes it worse. It “creates” a “metaverse” of “avatars,” and “afterparties” that bring users closer than we dared imagine. “Horrison” is the name of the new “Meta” platform.
Time will tell
If rebranding Blackwater as Academi and Facebook as Meta succeeds in fooling us, it will be because they know better than we how short the American memory is. The companies founded by Erik Prince and Mark Zuckerberg have placed their bets that the American public won’t remember what’s behind the masks. They believe we’re stupid. Only time will tell.
Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), November 2, 2020.
Everything is shaking. And it’s not because of the fence that now divides us. No matter how high the fence between Trump-ers and Never-Tump-ers, the earth shakes under the fence and on both sides of the fence. The ground itself is quivering, seizing, lurching, caving in on itself, like a sinkhole that stops traffic on a street we assumed to be secure. Everything is up-for-grabs.
Deeper and Wider than Politics
What haunts us across America is not primarily political. All politics rise from something deeper. Like oak trees and poison ivy, the shape and substance of what we see spring from depths we cannot see.
To ‘establish’ one’s existence is to ‘secure’ it, to keep it from blowing away. We become fanatical and aggressive because we are insecure. We grab for something solid. When we feel the ground shaking, anxiety grabs for something solid. Something that will stay still. Everything is soul-sized. Something in us gasps at the knowledge of human frailty, our mortality, the inevitability of death. The gasps turn into grasps for a secure foothold.
Fanatical Zeal from Hidden Anxieties and Insecurity
Professor Zuurdeeg proposes that we speak of “fanatical claims” rather than “fanatics.” Like most books published in 1958, An Analytical Philosophy of Religion‘s speaks in the gender specific male pronouns. We cite the following paragraphs from page 81:
We have to say: The 'fanatical claimer' sees his own group as more than just a group. It is a fanum. The word "fanatic" is derived from the Latin fanaticus, and this word is related to fanum, a temple, a sanctuary. Fanaticus meant: first, pertaining to a temple; second, inspired by a divinity, especially with the meaning of a frantic zeal for such a divinity. We can say that for the fanatical claimer his group is such a fanum, a sanctuary, a privileged domain which relieves him of his hidden anxieties and insecurity.
The fanatical Nazi is "the victorious German nation" (his fanum); the Orthodox Dutch Calvinist of the war against Spain (1568-1648) is the Chosen Nation, and is his God of Old Testament wrath. The fanatical claimer cannot permit his basic presuppositions to be questioned because such questioning would imply a doubting not only of these convictions but of the whole structure (his own person, his fanum, his God) cemented together by the process of identification.
-- An Analytical Philosophy of Religion, p.81
It is through the lens crafted in Zuurdeeg’s workshop that I have come to see the world. In the days following the 2020 election, stunned by the “alternative fact” alleging that the election was rigged and stolen, watching the mob storm the Capitol January 6, and hearing the deadly silence of the President of the United States of America betraying his oath of office to enjoy the show, I saw the frantic zeal of a fanum.
But there is more. Drawing from French existentialist philosopher-playwright Gabriel Marcel‘s Man Against Mass Society (1952), Zuurdeeg expanded his analysis:
“Marcel justly points out that there is still another element in the convictional situation of the fanatical claimer, the focus. Marcel suggests that such a focus is an individual; and that is sometimes the case, as with Hitler or Stalin.” (APR, p. 81-2)
Photo of Gabriel Marcel (c. 1951)
Everything is up-for grabs. The ground is shaking under our feet. We look for someplace solid, a sure foothold against the chaos. I see the world — or try to — in these terms. But the wise professor and the playwright-philosopher urge us to go deeper than what can be seen and managed, for we are “complex and ambiguous being(s)” who only know ourselves partially. “We are therefore not allowed to speak of a non-fanatical person.” (APR, 84). Although I think I know what Zuurdeeg and Marcel would say if they could see us now, they caution me that only a “fanatical claimer” is without doubt.
Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), 49 brief commentaries on faith and public life, Brooklyn Park, MN, October 20, 2021.
No fence divided the neighboring properties on Church Lane the day my family arrived in Broomall. The little girl next door and I quickly became playmates. We went back-and-forth with no thought of things like property lines. My yard was her yard; her yard was mine. Until the day the Singletons bought the property and she was gone.
Buddy Singleton was five years-old. So was I. Buddy and I soon became playmates. We played freely in each other’s yards. No one owns a tree. Buddy climbed our Red Maple, I climbed Buddy’s old Oak tree. Until the day the fence went up. Buddy could no longer get to me; I could not get to him. The gate locked Buddy in and kept me out.
Every day we talked through the chain link fence with the barbed wire at the top. “C’mon over,” said Buddy. The only way to “come over” was to climb the fence. So I did! Until my foot slipped near the top. The barbed wire punctured my left hand and left me hanging like a banana nor yet ripe for falling. My mother heard the screaming and lifted me from the fence. I still have the scar to prove it happened.
Then and Now
The fence that separates neighbors is higher now. Rarely do we we talk through the fence that separates us. We’ve learned to stay on our side of the fence. I no longer climb your Oak tree. You no longer climb my Red Maple. Neither of us invites the other to “c’mon over” and, if they do, we decline. Once you’ve hung from the barbed wire, you learn not to try it again. But the fence is not all barbed wire. It’s a chain-link fence. We can talk with each other through the fence without impaling ourselves,if we have the will to engage with the other. “The time for talking is past,” said an old friend. “I’m done! The time for thinking is over. You can’t talk to these people. It’s time for the barricades.”
I know the feeling. But the time for talking is never over. The time for thinking is never over. However strongly I disagree with or despise the neighbor on the other side of the fence, however deeply I agree with Eugene Robinson’s question — “How dumb can a nation get and still survive?”(Washington Post, October 7, 2021) — as much as I want to back away from the fence to the club house in my Maple tree, something nags me to remember the commandment I prefer to ignore: to love my neighbor as myself. If I dare to look, I will find the enemy I despise inside myself.
Talking through the Chain-Links of the Barbed-Wire Fence
The time for contemplation and self-criticism is always now. It’s always time for thinking. It’s still the time for talking through the fence and trying to understand how and why people on opposite sides of the fence think, feel, and act as we do. Barbed-wire fences do not make good neighbors! “Something there is that doesn’t love a [fence].”
Brian Maclaren offers a way to talk through the openings if the chain-links fence.
To be continued with a look at Brian McLaren’s 13 walls of bias that shape how and why we see ourselves, each other, and the world at the barbed-wire fence.
This reflection is dated, but it still speaks for me with one huge exception. The 2020 election was still to come. There had been no “Stop the Steal,” no refusal to concede, no attempt to stop the peaceful transfer of power, no January 6 attempted coup d’etat, no widespread threats and assaults against local school board members, etc.
TO SEE MORE CLEARLY
Seeing more clearly takes time. It takes experience. It demands patience — with myself and with others — and it takes courage. Courage to let go of ideas we took for granted: who we are, what we aspired to become, our place in the cosmos.
Paul Tillich knew about courage and patience. The first professor to be dismissed from his teaching position during the rise of the Third Reich, Tillich came to see faith as “the courage to be” — and “to be” means being in motion, growing, changing, dying, leaving parts of ourselves behind. Neither courage alone nor patience alone is the courage to be.
Which leads me back to where we began. If you now see homophobia, anti-Semitism, white nationalism, and climate change-denial as offensive, what do you do in relation to a homophobic anti-Semitic white nationalist climate change-denier?
SELF-KNOWLEDGE AND SELF-CRITICISM
I have never been a white nationalist. Neither have you, I suspect. But, looking back, I see that my classmates and I drank from the well of white nationalism. Every school day began with our hands over our hearts, facing the flag.
“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
Although we might have wondered why we were pledging allegiance to a piece of cloth, we didn’t give it much thought. We took it less as a statement of national aspiration than as a statement of national exceptionalism, a statement of fact.
But it wasn’t a fact. We learned that America was deeply divisible — between white western slave traders and the African men, women, and children they kidnapped, bought, and sold on the slave blocks; between the European settlers and the North American continent’s first people, cheated of their treaty rights, stripped of their land, religious practices, sovereignty, and civil rights; between professing Puritan Christians and the “witches” of Salem, burned at the stake as people “unfit for our society”; between the real Americans — the Christians — and the Christ-killers; between the straight majority and the LGBTQ minority who suffered alone in silence; between the landed aristocracy of the founding fathers and the laborers who bled picking cotton in the cotton fields in the south and worked without labor bargaining power and protections in the factories of the industrial north.
That was the “world” in which I lived, and that was the world that lived in me. As I continued through the years, I did my best to replace naïveté with consciousness, challenging the myth of American exceptionalism as a reformer, social critic, and activist.
I learned in time that unless I wanted to be a pompous ass, patience was required with others and with myself. “The sins of the fathers are visited upon the children to the third and fourth generation” is the Bible’s version of Plutonium-239’s half-life of 24,000 years. It describes the toxic waste passed down river from one generation to the next.
BALANCING COURAGE AND PATIENCE
Nuclear waste doesn’t disappear. Neither does the sin of exceptionalism in its racial, economic, gender, religious, and national manifestations. The toxic waste of exceptionalism — the conviction that one’s nation, race, culture, creed, gender, class . . . or species . . . is the exception to history and nature — is the unacknowledged original sin we manage to make original every day by exalting ourselves over others and over nature itself.
CLIMATE CHANGE AND THE REPUBLIC
As the climate change clock ticks toward midnight, patience seems less of a virtue than courage acting now. We who pledged allegiance to the flag “and to the Republic for which it stands” are losing patience with each other. We are ‘indivisible’ only if we decide we are. If we and those we elect place our flawed understandings of our personal interests above our responsibility to honor and maintain the Republic, our not-so original original sin may be our last.
It takes courage to confess one’s participation in the evils we deplore. And it takes patience with those who seem to have logs in their eyes. “If we say we have no sin,” declared the minister Sunday mornings in the church of my childhood, “we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us, but if we confess our sin, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
The minister who invited us to own up to sins of omission and commission was the man I knew at home as Dad. I wonder what Dad would do if he could see us now.
When the president of “the largest Christian university in the world” in Lynchburg, Virginia urges every student to buy a gun and get a permit to carry a concealed weapon, for whatever reasons, it seems a little oxymoronic and moronic. It’s neither Christian nor smart. It’s not what people do in college. They buy books, not guns. It’s not consistent with the traditions and standards of higher learning. Real universities don’t talk like that.
At one of the world’s first universities, the University of Paris (the Sorbonne), way back in the 13th century, a young Thomas Aquinas was a student of philosophy and Christian theology. His professors introduced him to great critical thinkers like Aristotle, Plato, and Maimonides in their original Greek and Latin languages.
Lynchville, Virginia in the 21st Century is long way from Paris in the 13th Century, and that’s too bad for all of us in America where what Aquinas later called “willful ignorance” has become the order of the day.
It is clear that not every kind of ignorance is the cause of a sin, but that alone which removes the knowledge which would prevent the sinful act. …This may happen on the part of the ignorance itself, because, to wit, this ignorance is voluntary. … For such like negligence renders the ignorance itself voluntary and sinful, provided it be about matters one is *bound and able to know.” [Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I-II, q. 76, a. 1, a. 3.]
Today’s Catholic World, an online encyclopedia, adds these footnotes to Aquinas’s text:
*Catholics are bound (required) to learn and know their Faith. A sin against faith (often caused by willful ignorance) is the gravest of all sins according to St. Thomas Aquinas.
St. Augustine, cited by St. Thomas, characterizes sin against faith in these words: Hoc est peccatum quo tenentur cuncta peccata. “This is the sin which comprehends all other sins.”
Liberty University is not a Catholic university. It’s not big on Catholics. It’s fundamentalist protestant. It prides itself on its knowledge of the Bible.
But don’t we have to suppose that somewhere in that auditorium in Lynchburg, there was a professor who cringed? Someone there who resonated with the old student at the University of Paris? Someone who thought that telling young professing Christians to arm themselves was a deliberate act of willful ignorance, a sin against faith, the sin that comprehends all others?
“Put away your sword. Those who live by the sword will perish by the sword” – Jesus of Nazareth to Peter after Peter had cult off the High Priest’s servant’s ear at Jesus’s arrest, 1st Century, according to The Gospel of Matthew 26:52.
Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock) host of Views from the Edge. Brooklyn Park, MN. Originally published 2015. Re-posted here June 13, 2022.
As the sun rose this [Easter] morning, a few of us warmed ourselves around a fire outside the church. Two charcoal fires were recalled, involving Peter, “the Rock” who crumbled like a piece of shale, and the risen Christ, who would re-create the scene to change the story from denial to welcome, forgiveness, and a commissioning to love.
Steve Shoemaker Verse, “The Charcoal Fire”
THE CHARCOAL FIRE
I do not know the man
I do not know the man
I do not know the man
Do you love me?
Do you love me?
Do you love me?
Feed my sheep
Feed my sheep
Feed my sheep
April 8, 2012
Gordon C. Stewart, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), edited and republished in memory of Steve Shoemaker. Steve is sitting on a Bristlecone Pine stump above the tree line in Colorado during a gathering of seminary friends. Mutual friend Anna Strong and canine companion stand by him.