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.
I’m not ready for this. I’m not wired for a world gone haywire. Like the psalmist, I am “old and gray” (Ps. 71:18), living in a frantic world that makes no sense, knowing that speaking what little I think I have come to know will not reach beyond what remains of a shrinking circle of influence. Even so, I continue to write in the vain hope it may make a difference.
Listening through the stethoscope
Sitting in front of a blank sheet of paper/blank computer screen is the morning exercise to find my deeper self again. Writing is like a stethoscope to hear what’s inside my chest. Writing taps into the deeper stream of consciousness — sighs and groans too deep for words.
Some days begin and end with a blank page. Other mornings the groaning and sighing summon me to write. Not just for myself, but for others as well. That’s what publictheologians do.
Reality and illusion
The Psalter is always close by. The psalms take me deeper. Only then can I go wider. The Psalms are poetry. They are not prescriptions. They are the naked, honest, unfiltered, uncensored expressions of what the psalmist feels and thinks in that moment. The psalmist is exposed. No secret is hidden. No pride left unmasked. Every Illusion of grandeur blown away by the wind.
The three year-old and the-man-in-the-radio
The poet of Psalm 71 is old and gray. So am I. Listening through the stethoscope, I hear unresolved sighing and groaning from early childhood.
I am three years-old, sitting around the dining room table with my grandparents and my mother. My mother and I are living with Grandpa and Grandma Stewart in Chestnut Hill, MA. My father is in the big war somewhere far, far away. Every night, Grandpa looks at his watch, stops eating, leaves the table, and walks over to the big brown radio. He pushes a button to let the man-in the-radio talk to us. “Shhhhh,” says Grandpa, as I continue talking. “We need to be real quiet so we can hear the news.” The man-in-the-radio begins to talk. He’s serious. He’s not fun, but no one is afraid of him. Everyone listens carefully.
Some nights the man-in-the-radio stops to let another man in the radio talk. The other man is not nice. He’s not kind. He’s mean. He’s angry. He’s scary. Even for Grandpa! I watch the faces of my mother, grandpa and grandma as they listen for news about the big war far, far away where my father is the Army Chaplain. My father is the only one on Saipan who doesn’t have a gun. He may not make it home or he might come home dead.
Honoring a promise
I am old and gray and hard of hearing, but I have a stethoscope. I still hear the groaning and sighing in my chest and I still hear the madman in the radio. I determined early in life that if Adolf Hitler won the war and came to Chestnut Hill, I would not be silent. I would not stay seated. I would stand up. I would speak up! I would tell what I know and not let go, for the sake of generations yet to come.
And now that I am old and grey-headed, O God, do not forsake me,
til I make known Your strength to this generation
and Your power to all who are to come. (Ps. 71:18 BCP).
Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf & Stock), Brooklyn Park, MN, October 3, 2021.
This “conversation” between Grandpa (Bumpa) and Elijah took place during the Senate’s first impeachment trial. It’s been buried in the draft file. Elijah was two-and-a-half at the time. But some things are still true when Elijah is four.
Elijah: I don’t get it, Bumpa! I have questions.
Grandpa: What questions, Elijah? Shoot!
I don’t want to! We don’t like guns at daycare!
I’m sorry, Elijah. I don’t mean shoot. I meant it as a “figure of speech”.
Yeah! We like figures. One, two, free, four, . . . l, m, n, o, p. . .
I’m so proud of you!, Elijah! You know your numbers and your ABCs! But “a figure of speech” is different, it’s an idiom.
Like . . . you might say that somebody “lies like a rug.” So what are your question?
We hate lying, We like facts, right Bumpa?
Yes. We do, Elijah.
So we don’t like the Publicans. They lie like rugs, right?
Yeah, Publicans, like the ones on TV who hate facts and get all angry on TV.
We’re not Publicans! We like Jesus, right?
Well, yes, sort of. You’ll come to your own faith as you grow older. The Publicans collected taxes for the Romans. It would be like Americans working for a foreign government.
Okay. But we’re not publicans. We don’t like craters and creezin, right?
Creezin? Are you sure you have the right words?
Geez, Bumpa! Don’t ya know? C r e e z i n ! Like you and Grandma have for breakfast every morning.
Ah, now I get it. We eat Raisin Bran. R a i s i n B r a n. You mean treason! T r e a s o n.
Yeah! Are they going to de-peach you? Did you commit creezin? Are you and Gamma craters who should be de-peached? Publicancraters?
Those are big words you’ll learn about in school. No, we can’t be impeached, and we’re not Publicans. We try to stick with the facts, not lie like a rug. Any other questions?
Yeah. Ucranes. We have Ucranes at the cabin. Do Ucranes whistle?
A recent Minnesota Poll sent me back to the “draft” file to retrieve John M. Miller’s one-page commentary reflecting on results of a Pew Research Center poll asking where people get their news in 2021. John is an old friend and colleague influenced by Dutch philosopher of religion Willem Zuurdeeg, Professor of the Philosophy of Religion at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago. John is a voracious reader who reads widely, but his writing makes clear that he listened more carefully than most to his old professor.
Reading too much — thinking too little
Each student is in danger of reading too much and thinking too little. If one section of this book should commend itself especially to the reader, he (sic) should not begin with reading more about this topic, but first of all reconsider his own thinking on the subject. A bibliography tempts the student to extend his reading and to postpone his own philosophizing.
— Willem Zuurdeeg, author of An Analytical Philosophy of Religion and Man Before Chaos: Philosophy Is Born of a Cry.
Some Highly Distressing Statistics re: “The News”
by John M. Miller
The Pew Research Center recently published the sources from which Americans prefer to receive the news. From the highest percentage to the lowest, here are the results:
Television – 35% News websites or apps – 26%; Search engines – 12%; Social media – 11%; Radio – 7%; Print publications – 5%; Podcasts – 3%; No news source – 1%.
This means that 87% of the respondents to the poll prefer to get their news on a screen, either a computerized screen or a TV screen. To me that is simply astonishing. For generations print publications were virtually the only source of news. Then radio, and then television, came along. But this poll says it is the Internet that is now the dominant source for news (news websites and apps, search engines, social media, and podcasts.)
Short and Simple
It also is painfully disheartening to me that only 5% of Americans prefer to read news in vetted written form: newspapers or news magazines. They are the only media that truly give thorough coverage of any news stories, yet 95% of the American public prefer brief, less detailed information about what is happening in the world. They want it kept simple.
Liminal and Subliminal Biases: Talking without pause
Almost all news that is available on television or the Internet has a recognizable bias: Republican/Democrat; conservative/liberal; local/state; national/international. etc. That is true in many news publications as well, but the bias there is “liminal” as opposed to subliminal. The “hot medium” of a screen does more of a number on us than print does, because we can read at our own pace and reflect on what we are reading to whatever depth we choose. However, the faces on the screen just keep talking without pause.
Little Time to Ponder
If we are watching news on a screen, subconsciously we are swept along at whatever pace the news is being reported, and either it does or does not fully register with us. In other words, we may or may not completely absorb what is said, but we have very little time to ponder it if we intend to hear and see what is next reported.
One percentage number in this poll is a total sham. That is the one per cent of everyone who responded by saying they avail themselves of no news sources at all. Were that an accurate number, it would be highly encouraging, but surely it is untrue. Far more than 1% of Americans are deliberately ignorant of “the news.” Therefore the rest of the numbers are somewhat skewed. But the lowest poll number is highly suspect.
News Sources and American Perception
What happens when these news sources genuinely reflect the American perception of the news? Donald Trump: that’s what. It is not surprising that Trump won in 2016. On the other hand, it is therefore amazing that Joe Biden won in 2020. Maybe Americans have learned that it is imperative to pay more attention to real news. If so, what a wondrous advancement that is!
– March 16, 2021
John M. Miller, the OLD Philosopher, is Pastor of The Chapel Without Walls on Hilton Head Island, SC. More of his writings may be viewed at www.chapelwithoutwalls.org. Republished by Views from the Edge, Saturday, October 2, 2021.
Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), 49 brief reflections on faith and life, available from the publisher HERE and from Amazon HERE; Chaska, MN,
THE WETLAND POND
The wetland pond is shrinking.
Dark-chocolate cattails and
summer-green milkweed pods
burst into the white cotton
balls they always do when
autumn comes, a cotton
field of wisps and puffs that
match the color of my hair.
The sumacs are changing into
the red dress they always wear
this time of year, a royal
crimson robe, glistening in
the morning sun before
frost and snow turn their
fleeting autumn puffs from
regal red to winter white.
I see no yellow on the wetland
pond beside this dirt road that
has no name or dot on anyone’s
map. The yellow lilies on the
lily-pads have gone to sleep
to greet the Spring again if
the pond is still here.
--GCS, September morning walk
September 27, 2021.
O LORD, what are we that You should care for us?
mere mortals that You should think of us?
We are like a puff of wind;
our days are like a passing shadow.
Do not cast me off in my old age.
(Psalm 144:3,4; 71:9 BCP)
The Founders Archives of the National Archives preserves a letter to Ben Franklin eighteen months before the Declaration of Independence was issued. Ben Franklin, the Philadelphia “Quaker,” became a household name. Charles Thomson (1729-1824), the Philadelphia Presbyterian, did not, and that’s a shame.
Charles Thomson was the Secretary of the First and Second Continental Congress, a quiet Founder on the road from colonial rule to an independent democratic republic. The official Declaration of Independence had only two signatures, the President and the Secretary of First Continental Congress: John Witherspoon and Charles Thomson.
He held the office of Secretary from 1774 throughout the American Revolution until the adoption of the Constitution. Thomson’s correspondence with his friend Benjamin Franklin is learned and passionate. His translation of the Bible and the Septuagint from Greek into English is the first English Bible published in America. Thomson’s love of language and range of literature is evident in his letter to Franklin.
Charles Thomson Letter to Benjamin Franklin
“When I look back,” wrote Thomson to Franklin in London, “and consider the warm affection which the colonists had for Great Britain till the present reign, the untainted loyalty unshaken fidelity and cheerful confidence that universally prevailed till that time, and then view the present heartburnings, Jealousies, gloom and despair, I am ready to ask, with the poet, ‘Are there not some chosen thunders in the stores of heaven armed with uncommon wrath to blast those Men,’ who by their cursed schemes of policy are dragging friends and brothers into the horrors of civil War and involving their country in ruin?” — Thomson Letter to Franklin, Nov. 1, 1774
Charles Thomson and Cato, A Tragedy
The poet whose words Thomson cited were from James Addison, the anti-royalist English poet-playwright, whose play, “Cato, a Tragedy” was widely read and often quoted by the Founders of the new nation. Whether intentionally or inadvertently, Thomson changed the “Cato” text from singular to plural to suit the circumstances that enraged him. “Blast the Man” (the king) became “Blast those Men” (i.e. Parliament) who had violated the rights and freedoms of the American colonies’ rights and freedoms under British law.
Dragging their Country into Ruin
The circumstances of November 1, 1774 have changed, but Charles Thomson’s unusual outburst is as fresh today as the day he wrote to Franklin. The longing for a king exceeds the bounds of time. The anxiety that hangs over us makes our heads spin; we long for solid ground, something solid that does not change. So it is that a political party and a portion of the American public have come to mistake treason for patriotism, a bully with a savior, a quack with a swan, and have followed the strong man’s quackery into the halls and offices of the Congress that makes America a democratic republic. When we confuse patriotism with terrorism, Charles Thomson’s letter from the Founders Archives is more than archival.
Teetering on the Edge of the Precipice
When a hollow man and hollow party hollow out the core of what we have thought we valued, the question from Cato’s tragedy rumbles like thunder from the heavens. Charles Thomson’s renderings from Cato fit the eve of a threatened sequel to January 6, when the democratic republic once again “teeters on the very edge of the precipice.”
Toward Healing the Wounds
Will we in 2022 share the hope and prayer with which Charles Thomson ended his letter of November 1, 1774: “Even yet,” he wrote, “the wounds may be healed and peace and love restored; But we are on the very edge of the precipice. I am sir your affectionate Friend and humble Servant.– Chas Thomson”
A psalmic reflection on Derek Chauvin in light of Psalm 32 and John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme”
Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven,
and whose sin is put away!
Blessed/happy is the one to whom the LORD imputes no guilt,and in whose spirit there is no deceit!
He is guilty. It was his knee that pressed George Floyd’s neck against the pavement. I saw it with my own eyes. I watch his eyes during the trial. I see no hint of remorse. No sense of guilt. He sheds no tears. His mouth stays shut. He does not speak.
When I kept silent,
my bones wasted away
through my groaning all day long.
For day and night
Your hand was heavy on me;
my strength was sapped
as in the heat of summer.
Is he silent now in solitary confinement? Does he have conversations with himself? Does he scream at the jury for failing to vindicate him? Does he talk with God? Is he restless all day and all night? Does he feel a heavy hand pressing down on him the way his knee had pressed down on George Floyd’s neck? Is he wasting away, groaning all day long?
You are my hiding place;
You preserve me from trouble;
You surround me with shouts of deliverance.
He is not preserved from trouble in maximum security. The shouts of other inmates on the solitary confinement cell block are taunts, not shouts of deliverance: “I can’t breathe; I can’t breathe, Mr. Officer! Get your White knee off my Black neck!” There is no hiding in this place where only perps, not cops, do time. There is no solitude. There are no shouts of deliverance.
“I will instruct you and teach you in the way that you should go;
I will guide you with My eye.
Does he sense a presence waiting to instruct and guide him into a way beyond the White/Black—Innocent/Guilty—Cop/Perp—Top/Bottom—Up/Down-World his eyes are trained to see? Does he sense the presence of a different Eye, a greater I than he?
“Do not be like a horse or mule, without understanding;
Whose temper must be curbed with bit and bridle,
else it will not stay near you."
Will he bow his head to be fit with the long-suffering patience that reins in deluded mules and bucking broncos? Will the solitary cop in orange shift from wailing in the minor key of down-and-out-over-and-done to the glad shouts of deliverance by an I greater than he? Does he hear the the chant — “a love supreme…a love supreme…a love supreme” — of a bridled Coltrane resounding off the walls in this not-so-God-forsaken place?
In this place where cops are perps and perps are cops with heads bowed by the law, will the killer cop bow the knee that killed George Floyd? Will he bow his head to be fit with the bit and bridle of a Love Supreme that delivers the soul from every illusion of supremacy?
A Love Supreme
Click HERE and scroll forward to 6:00 minute to hear Coltrane’s unexpected chant, a love supreme, a love supreme.
— Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), a reflection on Psalm 32 (GCS Unauthorized Version), and the solitary confinement of Derek Chauvin, August 9, 2021.
Early morning reflection from the dirt road by the wetland pond
Walking the off the map dirt road where nothing much happens, it’s quiet. The only sounds are bird songs; the only things that lie here are the lily pads lying on the shrinking wetland pond bordered by the cattails and wild flowers between the pond and the unpaved road. Nothing toils or spins. Nothing is anxious here. Not this morning.
“Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet, I tell [all of] you [human beings], even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.” (Jesus of Nazareth, Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 6:28b-29.)
There are no Solomons here. No kings. No countries. No states. Nothing seduced by the will-to-power. No illusions of sovereignty. No delusions of grandeur or control. No toiling and spinning like the mind observing it all from the dirt road. Everything is what it is: Yellow Goat’s-Beard, Yarrow, and Golden Clubs; Sweetflag, White Sweet Clover, and Butterfly-Weed; Bugle-Weed, Cuckoo-Flowers that aren’t cuckoo, and Bullhead-Lilies that don’t bully; pink Storkbills, Wild Sorels, Common Milkweeds, and blue-violet Pickerelweed.
Only the hunting-blind on the distant hill gives evidence of other spinning heads that toil for the mastery we cannot have. The hunting-blind on stilts high about the pasture waits for trigger fingers. Soon buckshots from the tower will fire babel that breaks the silence of this place. The flowers of the field — the Butterfly-Weed, the Bugle-Weed, and the Cuckoo-Flowers, the Lilies, and the lily pads — are not anxious. They are what they are. What is is what is. What will be will be. They neither toil nor spin.
— Gordon C. Stewart, from the wetland, August 3, 2021
We saw no tears during the daily coronavirus updates. Narcissus could not lift his head from his image in the pond. The inner well of empathy was empty. Eternal and solitary, he was imperial and impervious to suffering. Gods don’t cry. Narcissus is strong and cold. He bows to no one but himself. To him every knee must bow. He does not know the truth: Illusion always dies.
A Daffodil Blooms Where Illusion Died
The Resurrection of Empathy
On the spot where vanity dies of thirst, beauty raises its head again. A daffodil breaks through the tamped-down place where Narcissus bowed to himself, and lifts its head to the sky as a silent Ode to Joy.
Compassion floods the Reflecting Pool and radiates from candles on the White House steps in honor of the dead. The wordy self is hushed. Heads are bowed in solemn silence in recognition of what is greater than ourselves. Tears flow. The well of empathy is full again.
Hanging by a Thread — The Pressure of Being and Holiness
One moment I was alone in the room, myself the centre of my own little self-constructed world, the next it was as though I had been flung an infinite distance to some edge or margin, to make room for the enormous presence and pressure of sheer Being and Holiness that filled the room. I felt the ground go from beneath my feet and suddenly realized that I was utterly dependant, that I was hanging by a thread. But I was content to hang by a thread if only to know that there was, at the heart of things, and radiating everywhere, this Holy Presence.
Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), 49 brief reflections on faith and life, available from the publisher HERE and from Amazon HERE; Chaska, MN, March 5, 2021.
The maximum capacity crowd at the First Tuesday Dialogue did not have a crystal ball. It was February 1, 2013, eight years before the insurrection that would come eight years later. QAnon, the Proud Boys, the Boogaloo Bois, Wolverine Watchmen, Oath Keepers, and other White nationalist militias that traveled to Washington, D.C. to “Stop the Steal!” were unknown, but the mindset was already there.
Some Mindsets Never Really Die
Some states of mind are like toxic waste. They have long shelf lives. Before two people in the crowd took the floor to read aloud from the John Birch Society Blue Book and newsletter, it had been years since I last thought of the John Birch Society (JBS). What we thought had ended with the public shaming of Sen. Joe McCarthy and McCarthyism had not died. Like a baton that changes hand in a mile relay race, the mindset of McCarthyism was passed into the hand of the John Birch Society.
Like McCarthy’s search for traitors hiding in government and the entertainment industry the Birch Society’s conspiratorial mindset was ludicrous. The JBS had alleged that President Dwight Eisenhower (“Ike”) was not to like. Ike, his brother, Milton, and Allen Dulles, director of the CIA were closet Communists or Communist sympathizers.
When the John Birch Society Blue Book and newsletter were quoted on February 1, 2013, those who knew their history recognized the old voice we thought had died in the mid-1960s.
The Jack Ash Society lyrics (Mary Brooks)
A bunch of jack ashes at large in this land
Have suffered a terrible fright
They looked under their beds and discovered such reds
As Allen and Milton and Dwight
If more you would know of this Jack-Ash credo
See the blue book, the black book, the white
If you do you will find we're all Reds of some kind,
Like Allen and Milton and Dwight.
Joe McCarthy is dead, so Jack Ash instead
Leads the anti-Communist fight;
U. S. Reds he has found swarming all around.
(179 million so far)
Including Allen and Milton and Dwight.
If you believe in more hospitals, housing, and schools,
New highways and civil rights,
The Ashites will add you to the un-American list,
Along with Allen and Milton and Dwight
Social security's a Bolshevik plot
Cooked up by some shrewd Muscovite.
So go naked you must or be security risk
Like Allen and Milton and Dwight.
Beware of good pay and the minimum wage,
It's part of the Socialist blight;
Created by conspirators bold,
Like Allen and Milton and Dwight.
Pete Seeger and the “Jack Ash Society”
The Berkeley Pit
Long Shelf Lives
An uninformed passer-by may assume the Berkeley Pit is a swimming hole, a place to swim and fish. It’s not. Nothing lives there. The Berkeley Pit is a pool of deadly toxins left behind by the Atlantic Richfield Company which bought the site from Anaconda Copper. Anaconda Copper left long ago, but the Berkeley Pit is still there. The Pit is not managed by the Department of Parks and Recreation. It’s an U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Superfund site, one of the largest, if not the largest in the land of the free.
The Call for Patriots
By 2013 the John Birch Society’s had made a quiet comeback in American political-cultural. It had not perished. The toxins from its Superfund clean-up site had seeped into the stream of American consciousness. It has never been cleaned up.
Now, more than ever, your patriotic leadership is needed. Is this the America our Founders envisioned? Their principles, and the Constitution itself, are under attack by forces that include socialists, Marxists, globalists, and the Deep State. We’ve created some great resources for you to educate Americans and stand for freedom. May we count on your help? We, as Americans, cherish our God-given liberties. We stand for a free and independent nation that fully abides by the Constitution and the Founding Fathers’ values. The John Birch Society provides a national program designed to counter the Deep State/Big Government agenda and to restore our rights.
John Birch Society website
The Birther Movement and “Stop the Steal!” Call for Patriots
The “Birther” and “Stop the Steal!” movements repeat the Birch Society call for real patriots to fight against “socialists, Marxists, globalists, and the Deep State.”
During Barack Obama’s campaign for president in 2008, throughout his presidency, and afterwards, “there was extensive news coverage of Obama’s religious preference, birthplace, and of the individuals questioning his religious belief and citizenship—efforts eventually known as the ‘birther movement‘”, by which name it is widely referred to across media. The movement falsely asserted Obama was ineligible to be President of the United States because he was not a natural-born citizen of the U.S. as required by Article Two of the Constitution. Birther conspiracy theories were predominantly held by conservatives and Republicans, as well as individuals with anti-black attitudes.
“Barack Obama citizenship conspiracy theories,” Wikipedia
The Pit of American Toxic Waste
Donald Trump tapped into that toxic stream in which right is wrong and wrong is right, truth is wrong and falsehood is right, information is wrong and disinformation is right, reality is wrong and fantasy is right, science is wrong and ignorance is right, confession is wrong and denial is right, Howdy Doody is wrong and Mr. Bluster is right.
But some things stay the same. White is still right and Black is still wrong. Barack Obama had no birth certificate. He had been elected, but his presidency was illegitimate. So was the election of 2020. Donald Trump is legitimate. Real patriots know they wish to believe. Real patriots stand back and stand by until the time is right to fight.
The toxins in American culture reach far back into our history, and the Pit is deep. The prevailing myths of White supremacy and national exceptionalism were here from the start. The Founding Fathers’ and Mothers’ values are both healthy and toxic.
Cleaning Up the Superfund Site
Only we can clean up the mess. The toxins in the Berkeley Pit still poison the American mind and turn hearts to stone. American culture and politics will be clean when we embrace our history as the continuing struggle between truth and falsehood, reality and fantasy, and all the hard truths we prefer not to see.
Bob Dylan, like Mary Brooks and Pete Seeger, may have thought the Birch Society was terminal. Or perhaps Bob, like Mary and Pete, knew that some toxins continue to make us blue.
John Birch Paranoid Blues — Bob Dylan
Gordon C. Stewart, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock) — 49 two-four page social commentaries on faith and life — Chaska, MN, Feb. 24, 2021.
No one really knows the origins of “Ring-a-round the Rosie.” Some say the nursery rhyme sprang from the Black Plague, the epidemic that took children as well as adults, kings as well as paupers. Others say it has different origins, but I don’t care. This is my blog, and I’ll cry if I want to, cry if I want to! “We all fall down.”
It’s Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent in a QAnon world when reality doesn’t mean much anymore. Truth is a fiction. Choose your fantasy. It doesn’t matter anymore. We may fall down, but, like corks thrown into the sea, we bob up again. Or so some think. We never really fall down. Yet something in us knows that how Narcissus dies bowing to his own reflection, and that the flower only blooms when he and his loyal Echo return to dust.
What stories shall we tell ourselves in a time when the pond we thought was ours is drying up, when there is no up or down on a spinning Big Blue Ball floating in space that feels upside-down and falling back to dust and ashes?
The Parable of the Madman
When the madman in Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Gay Science parable steps into the marketplace with his lantern lit on a bright morning seeking God, and later announces, “God is dead! God is dead. And we have killed him, you and I,” those who view God as a phantasm laugh in derision. You can’t kill what never was. The believers don’t laugh. They throw him out when he enters the church to sing his requiem for God, leaving him to ask, “What are these churches but the sepulchres of God?”
“How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers?” asks the madman. “What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed; and whoever is born after us — for the sake of this deed he will belong to a higher history than all history hitherto.” — The Gay Science, Book 2 (1882)
What stories do we tell ourselves?
Ash Wednesday brings every fantasy to a halt. There is no higher history than all history before us. There is life and there is death. Both are real. Where do we find a footing? What stories do we tell ourselves? What does a disciple of Jesus do when the Jesus hanging on a cross crying out that the horror of god-forsakenness has been re-shaped into a positive thinker, a White supremacist, a Christian nationalist? What to do in a reality denying QAnon world in the aftermath of January 6, 2021?
Where your treasure is
“Whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:6). “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Mt. 6:19-21).
The imposition of ashes
Ring-a-round the Rosie seems different this Ash Wednesday, but it’s not. It’s always the same. Going forward for the imposition of ashes I acknowledge the reality I flounder to avoid. “Dust to dust; ashes to ashes.” The ashes that smudge my forehead always have to be imposed. We all fall down.
Gordon C. Stewart, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), 49 short commentaries on faith and life; Chaska, Minnesota, February 17, 2021.
“World history would be different if humanity did more sitting on its rear.” — Bertolt Brecht, Drums in the Night (1922).
Dialogues Series cancelled
The Epidemic of Gun Violence in America three-part series ended where it began. The first event was also the last.
In addition to concerns outlined in “Insurrection and Faith (Part 2), the featured presenters of different positions on the Second Amendment and gun control withdrew. Each refused to appear on the same stage as the other. Each regarded the other as a fanatic.
The Shepherd of the Hill Church board came to a rueful decision to cancel the Dialogues series. A public letter accompanied the press release. NOTE: “The church with the rocking chair” refers to the large Amish rocker created for Shepherd of the Hill’s front lawn after the Amish School massacre at Nickel Mines, PA.
Public Letter from the Board of Shepherd of the Hill Church
February 8, 2013
"This the word of the LORD to Zerubbabel: Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, says the LORD of hosts….” – Zechariah 4:6 (NRSV)
In this spirit we at Shepherd of the Hill – the church with the rocking chair – have chosen to cancel the First Tuesday Dialogues previously announced for Feb. 19 and March 5 on Gun Violence in America.
The First Tuesday Dialogues serve a single purpose: examination of critical public issues locally and globally with respectful listening and speaking in the search for common ground and the common good. The program expresses our own Christian tradition (Presbyterian) whose Preliminary Principles of Church Order (adopted in 1789) call us to honor individual conscience and direct us toward kindness and mutual patience.
The First Principle -“God alone is Lord of the conscience…“- upholds “the still, small voice” in the midst of social earthquakes, winds and fires. It requires us to listen. Ours is a tradition that honors dissent. The voice of one may be where the truth lies. The Dialogues are meant to give space for that voice on critical public issues.
The Fifth Principle declares that “There are forms and truths with respect to which people of good character and conscience may differ, and, in all these matters, it is the duty of individuals and of societies to exercise mutual forbearance.” It is our tradition’s answer to Rodney King’s haunting question: Can’t we all just get along?
These historical principles are not only our historical tradition. They represent a daily interpretation of Jesus’ teaching to love our neighbors in the present moment. One can only love God, whom no man or woman has seen, wrote the Apostle Paul, if we love the neighbor we do see. How we treat the neighbor is how we treat God.
The success of Shepherd of the Hill’s community programs depends upon a wider acceptance of these principles of respectful listening and exchange among individuals in dialogue. They also assume a group small enough to engage each other more personally and thoughtfully.
If numbers were the only measure of success, last Tuesday’s Dialogues event on gun violence … was a huge success. 138 people attended. The Chapel was filled. I thought perhaps it was Easter! But it wasn’t Easter. There was tension in the room. The established habit of the Dialogues program – one person speaks at a time without interruption or rebuttal, no clapping, and respectful listening – gave way to a sense of one team versus another. When a woman dared to stand to ask how many people in the room had lost a loved one to gun violence and proceeded to tell her story of personal tragedy, she was not met with compassion. She was met with shouts that her story was irrelevant. … She deserved better.
We all deserve better than to be shouted down, no matter what our experiences or views are. One first-time visitor who had come to oppose gun control shared his puzzlement over the treatment of the woman. “How could anyone not have compassion for her pain?” he asked. “Everyone should be moved to compassion by her story of personal tragedy, no matter what we think about the Second Amendment.”
America always jeopardizes its promise as a place of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness when might and power rule. To the extent that we fear that we are unsafe, it will be because we have chosen to ignore the wise word to Zerubbabel to live not by might, nor by power, but by God’s spirit reflected in the commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves.
The Gathering Storm: eight years later
Marjorie Taylor Greene brings QAnon to Congress and threatens the life of her colleagues. A mob storms the the U.S. Capitol, injuring and killing Capitol Police; Representatives and Senators are whisked away to a secure place. The Speaker of the House and the Vice President are moments and a few yards away from being assassinated.
The POTUS who had ridden the wave of the Birther Movement to the White House in 2016; had legitimized armed White supremacists in Charlottesville and tweeted “Liberate Michigan!” while armed White militia occupied of the Michigan State Capitol and threatened to execute the Governor; had stayed silent following the murder of George Floyd and cleared Lafayette Park of a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest for a photo op with a Bible before declaring himself the law-and-order president; had stayed silent following the school massacre at Parkland; had declared the new coronavirus a hoax; and had told the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by” for a stolen election, and lit the match that nearly destroyed the foundations of the American Republic. The POTUS is impeached a second time, acquitted by a Senate vote of 57 guilty to 43 innocent, nine short of the two-thirds necessary for conviction.
Our language going forward
L.K. Hanson’s cartoon brings this historic moment into focus. How do we reduce the temperature of our language? Can we talk? If so, when, where, and how? Braver Angels offers an opportunity to soften the rhetoric and find the lost common ground we thought we shared. Click the link to learn about Braver Angels and consider joining them.
Flashback and Portent — The Epidemic of Gun Violence
Flashing back to February 1, 2013 feels like a flash forward to America in 2021. An evening in a small church in Chaska, Minnesota on gun violence gave hints of what was coming in eight years later. It was a glimpse into the apocalyptic mind and heart that led to the insurrection of January 6.
February 1, 2013 Opening of First Tuesday Dialogues’ series on gun violence
The parking lot was full. Until that night, First Tuesday Dialogues’ attendance had ranged between 35-75 people. Attendance that night was 138.
The threat of disruption and violence did not materialize. Everyone entered respectfully. But there was a storm cloud hovering over the room. I wondered when the thunder and lightning would come.
I welcomed the crowd, laid out Dialogues’ simple practices and ground rules — respectful listening and speaking with no interruption, no cheering, no booing, no clapping.
The evening began with a half-hour exchange between the city’s Chief of Police and the Carver County Sheriff expressing different views on the increase of massacres like the one at Sandy Hill in Newtown.
The tone was set for a respectful conversation.
The Invisible Guest named John
A Q&A with the chief and sheriff was allotted 20 minutes. A woman in the last row was the first to raise a hand. She was handed the microphone and began by expressing anger that we were having such a discussion. The Second Amendment was the Second Amendment. No government was going to take away her guns. She then began reading from a John Birch Society manuscript. Lots of people clapped and shouted their approval.
A woman a across the aisle was in tears. I gave her the microphone. She stood to ask a question. “Has anyone here lost a loved one to gun violence?”
Four or five hands went up, but before she could tell her story, the first speaker shouted at her, “That has nothing to do with the Second Amendment!” Shouts again rang out. I reminded everyone of the Dialogues’ expectations. If you are holding the microphone, the floor is yours. When you are not holding the microphone, you listen. No rebuttals. No clapping. No shouting. No us versus them.
The woman who’d been crying answered her own question. “I have,” she said, and told the wrenching story story from her childhood. Her story was chilling. The wounds were still fresh. The room was quiet.
The Coming Apocalypse
Two voices later voices foreshadowed America eight years later. The first spoke with passion. Obama and the feds were coming to take his guns. The government is going down. The economy will collapse. The dollar won’t have any value. Grocery store shelves would be empty. Those who are not prepared would have no food to feed their families. We need to get ready for the chaos that’s coming.
The man who next held the microphone agreed. The economy is built on sand. It will collapse. It will be “every man for himself.” If you don’t have a secure bunker full of food to last you a year, you’re in trouble. If you don’t have a secure bunker, build one. Now! When your neighbor comes asking for food, too bad. Have your guns ready.
Like the person who had turned the Q&A into a time for monologues, this speaker had a manuscript from which he quoted. His apocalyptic tone and message felt like the street corner preacher’s citing The Revelation to Saint John, the last book of the Christian Bible, shouting about the end of the world, but this apocalypse was different. Real god-fearing patriots don’t rant on street corners. They don’t preach, and they don’t kneel. They rise up to expose and overthrow the communists, socialists and other collectivists who control of the world. Real patriots stand and fight He was reading from the John Birch Societymanual.
The evening ended peacefully. There was no physical violence. Gun rights advocates were thankful and looking forward to the next event. Others participants expressed fear of violence or discomfort with the rudeness. They would not be back for the next event in the series.
If Dialogue’s programs success were measured by attendance, the first evening had exceeded expectations. If drawing people of opposing views were the measure, the evening had been a success. Although there had been raw moments that tested the Dialogues norms, the expressions of opinion had been honest. Nothing was left on the table or kept under the table.
During the days that followed, we learned that an estimated 180 people had chosen to attend a public hearing on gun control at the state Capitol. There would be hearing to keep them away from the Feb. 19 program focusing on the Second Amendment. Those who had been at the Capitol were reported to be less respectful and more extreme. We should expect the crowd to double on the 19th.
“All parties die at last of swallowing their own lies” — John Arbuthnot
Dr. John Arbuthnot (1667-1735) became a household name in Great Britain for writing The History of John Bull. John Bull soon became the British equivalent of America’s Uncle Sam.
Although John Arbuthnot was the ground-breaking mathematician said to have inspired Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and Alexander Pope’s Peri Bathous, Or the Art of Sinking in Poetry, John Arbuthnot was a biographer’s nightmare.
“Dr. Arbuthnot,” as he was known with great affection, left behind little information for a biographer who might praise him. So deep was his humility that, according to Alexander Pope, Arbuthnot allowed his children to play with and burn his manuscripts. He didn’t toot his own horn.
Dr. Arbuthnot may seem irrelevant in 2021. He knew nothing of The Apprentice, the Birther Movement, the Grand Old Party (GOP), or Donald J. Trump. Nothing of COVID-19, fake news, stolen elections, the Deep State, Q, or QAnon. He couldn’t imagine watching from Cambridge the live coverage of a mob insurrection in Washington, D.C. He knew nothing of the Proud Boys, the Boogaloo Boys, Wolverine Watchmen, Roger Stone, Marjorie Taylor Greene, or the GOP’s duplicitous response to Rep. Greene’s endorsements of domestic terrorism to save America from Satan and from Jews sending laser beams down from outer space to light the fires in California.
The creator of John Bull didn’t need to know our particulars to understand what is happening to Uncle Sam’s country in 2021.
Like the cartoonist of the garish satirical cartoon of “John Bull” with the head of Napoleon held high on a pitch fork, he didn’t need to sit in on the second impeachment trial to read the fear on the faces of GOP senators. He knew that every political party dies swallowing its own lies.
Two days before U.S. Senators become jurors, one can only hope! “Come, John Arbuthnot, Come!” “Come, Lord Jesus!, Come!” “Come, Sojourner Truth, Come!”
John Arbuthnot’s choice of a text from which to speak during a time of deep division reveals what he considered most important in life. The Elizabethan language is no longer ours, and its spirit is at risk, but its truth and wisdom abide. So does courage, if only the Senate Jurors and we, the people, seek it.
Better is he that laboureth, and aboundeth in all things, than he that boasteth himself, and wanteth bread. My son, glorify thy soul in meekness, and give it honour according to the dignity thereof. Who will justify him that sinneth against his own soul? and who will honour him that dishonoureth his own life? The poor man is honoured for his skill, and the rich man is honoured for his riches. He that is honoured in poverty, how much more in riches? and he that is dishonourable in riches, how much more in poverty?” –Ecclesiasticus 10:27-31.
A sermon preach’d to the people at the Mercat Cross of Edinborough on the subject of the union. Ecclesiastes, Chapter 10, verse 27 (King James Version)
Gordon C. Stewart, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), Chaska, MN, January 7, 2021
After the Newtown school massacre, the church in Chaska hosted a carefully prepared program of respectful conversations on The Episode of Gun Violence. The first of three consecutive Tuesday evenings would begin with the local police chief and sheriff who represented pro- and anti-gun control positions.
The three of us met over morning coffee to go over last-minute details of that first event, but the conversation took a different turn. The chief and sheriff recommended we cancel the program because of real threats of organized disruption and, perhaps, violence. The good news was they were coming. The bad news was they were coming with guns. The church decided to proceed, and declined the chief’s offer of uniformed officers to ensure peace and security. Later that day, I did as I was taught. I held a meeting with myself to clear my head and prepare for what might come. The letter from myself to myself is still on file. The rubrics have been added.
LETTER TO MYSELF (THE MODERATOR)
How do we have this conversation? Can we talk? Can we all get along?
Every word, every phrase, is a powder keg. All speech is suspect. We listen not with open ears to hear a different point of view. We approach each other with suspicion, reacting defensively or aggressively to any hint that the conversation might be prejudiced against one’s own point of view. Even a title is a land mine.
Guns and I
I love the U.S. Constitution. I also don’t like guns. My only experiences with guns have been negative. The assassinations of President Abraham Lincoln in the Booth Theater and JFK in Dallas; Martin Luther King, Jr. supporting the striking sanitation workers in Memphis; presidential candidate Senator Robert Kennedy. A gun has only one purpose: to shoot something or someone. It has no other use. Violence is often committed with one’s own fist. But capacity to hurt or destroy does not define a hand. A foot may kick, but that’s not why we have feet. A baseball bat picked up in a moment of rage is a lethal weapon, but it is not by definition a weapon; its purpose is to hit a baseball within the rules of baseball. A car can become a lethal weapon in the hands of a car bomber, but its purpose is transportation, to get us from here to there and back.
Prone to evil and slothful in good
The human capacity for violence is deep and ineradicable. It’s in our DNA. The story of Cain’s slaying of his brother Abel is not about the beginning of human history; it is one of the defining facts of human nature itself. As my tradition puts it in a Prayer of Confession, “We are prone to evil and slothful in good.”
My tendency toward evil is often the conviction that I am right. I need to be reminded that my experience with guns is not the same as it is for those who grew up on a farm or a ranch where guns serve the purpose of killing a wolf or coyote or of putting down an injured horse out of mercy. The experience in rural America is different from the small town outside a major city in which I was raised, and it is different from urban centers by reason of low population density. My ownership of a gun on the farm is not a threat to the person next door in a tenement or in the housing development of the suburb. Guns in rural America serve different purposes. And, it seems to me, the split and the suspicion regarding guns and violence in America is to a great extent defined by these two very different social experiences, demographics, and cultures. You cannot love God unless . . .
Beyond fear and suspicion
Having spent the past two weeks trying to organize a series of respectful conversations in the wake of Newtown has brought home how difficult it is to have conversation. Fear of the other is rampant. “I won’t appear on the same program with him. He’s an extremist.” Or, “I don’t think I’ll come. I don’t like trouble.” Or, “You bet I’ll be there. We’re going to pack the house!”
But the gospel of Jesus which is the center of Christian faith calls us to live by the Spirit of the Living God, not by fear or suspicion. Christ himself was the human “other” – the one on whom every side projected its hatred of the other side – and ultimately the representative of the “Wholly Other” who is other to us all.
Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also. (First Letter of John 4:20-21).
First Letter of John 4:20-21 NRSV
Mutual Respect and Forbearance
I also find wisdom in the organizing principles of my religious tradition. The Preliminary Principles of Church Order (adopted in 1789) give some advice for how to conduct ourselves when we strenuously disagree. They are called preliminary because they lay the theological-ethical foundation for life together. They are aspirational principles to guide church members and local churches in how we interact as disciples of Jesus. As children of God, we believe:
…” that there are truths and forms with respect to which people of good character and principles may differ. In all these it is the duty both of private Christians and societies to exercise mutual forbearance toward each other.”
Preliminary Principles of Church Order (adopted at the organizing of the Presbyterian Church USA in 1789).
Can we have a respectful conversation?
I’m trying my best to do my duty. Can the pastor with strong personal views also serve as the Moderator? Can I exercise and promote mutual forbearance toward each other? Can we talk? Tonight we will give our own answer to Rodney King’s haunting question: “Can’t we all just get along?”
Lord, take my hand, and lead us on toward the light.
The question remains and has become more urgent now. Stay tuned for the rest of the story, Gordon. February 2, 2021
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.
When I first heard anyone speak of “the moral power of death,” I thought I must have been mistaken. Morality is one thing; moral power might describe the morally responsible use of power; death is something else altogether.
“Death is not a power,” I said to myself. “Death has no power. Death is the total absence of power. Death is what happens at the end; it is passive — an outcome of death-dealing powers in life. It has no morality. Death makes no distinctions among the powers that delivers every one of us all into its final keeping — e.g., a cardiac arrest, a traffic accident, cancer, ALS, old age, a gun shot, a murder, a war, or suicide — death doesn’t know the difference. The variety of means that deliver us to the end are varied, but death is always the same. It takes us when life is gone. It has no power of its own. Why, then, speak of death as a moral power? Who would talk like that?”
A Strange Man Named Stringfellow
William Stringfellow saw things differently. Forgoing Wall Street law firms’ lucrative offers, he rented a small tenement apartment in East Harlem after graduation from Harvard Law School. “The stairway smelled of piss,” he write.
Though I never had lived in a place like East Harlem, Stringfellow’s autobiographical polemic read like a personal letter. During the summers of 1961 and 1962, the hour-long daily commute between my suburban home and my summer internship on the streets of north Philadelphia put me in a dense fog between two different realities that had once seemed a world apart. The commutes became cognitive pauses that begged the fog to lift, but it didn’t . . . until three years later.
My People Is the Enemy became the text for the small group of seminarians engaged in bar ministry at Poor Richard’s in Chicago’s Old Town. Each Wednesday morning the seven of us convened at 6:00 a.m. to reflect on our experience at Poor Richard’s in light of Stringfellow’s book and to share a bare-bones Agape Meal.
My People Is the Enemy was transformative. I began to understand the title of Stringfellow’s book. Corinthian Avenue and Opal Street were not an accident. My people, not theirs, was the enemy. My people owned the tenements, evicted tenants, bribed the cops, provided the drugs, and red-lined property in Philadelphia, Broomall, and most everywhere else. My people, not the poor folks welfare, was the leach sucking blood from the ghetto we created and maintained. “My people” were the spillers and the sponges dependent on keeping the milk and hope spilling.
Thanks for coming by.
Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), 49 brief social commentaries on the news of the day, writing from Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, April 27, 2022.