January 8, 2020 — The Day After Iran’s Retaliation
“Dad, before you bray on FOX this morning, I want you to remember how much I adore you. You’re the greatest president ever! No matter how much of a jackass the world thinks you are or what Tucker Carlson said, I know you killed that Iranian guy to end a war, not to start one. I’ll always love you.”
“But they’re going to say I did another dumb thing! I have to be tough!”
“Don’t even think about it, Dad. Just be yourself. Everyone knows you’re kidding!”
The dawn of a new year is like turning the page in a bad novel, believing it will get better. No one likes a gloomy Gus! But reality is what it is. Or maybe it’s not. Just when we thought it couldn’t get worse, it did. A toddler playing with matches at his country club threatens to set the world on fire. The toddler and his playmates pretend not to see the bigger fire raging all around them. Only toddlers would believe they can win the game of “Chicken” when their opponent is Nature itself.
THE REAL AND COPIES OF COPIES OF THE REAL
“Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen.” But faith gets harder when what you can see turns your hair white.
“In postmodernity of Late Capitalism,” writes professor David White in “The Contested Status of Truth, “the [facsimile] precedes the original and the distinction between reality and representation vanishes. There is only the simulation . . . Fictional representations — copies of copies of the real — are rapidly replacing the real in our experience.” (Insight: the Faculty Journal of Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, Fall 2019.)
Fictional representations repeated repeatedly remove us from what is real. The representation creates its own reality . . . ‘alternative facts’. When comedian Lewis Black tells his audience, “You can’t just make sh-t up,” the auditorium comes alive because the audience knows it’s true.
There are six things that the LORD hates, seven that are an abomination to him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that hurry to run to evil, a lying witness who testifies falsely, and one who sows discord in a family.
Book of Proverbs 6:16-19 NRSV
IT’S RAINING, IT’S POURING, THE OLD MAN IS SNORING
While global warming accelerates beyond previous expectations — and those earlier scenarios were already ominous and urgent — the party in control of American policy is snoring. Environmental standards that clean air, water, and soil are erased with the stroke of a pen.
It’s not a hoax, Mr. President. Not a hoax, Mr. McConnell, et.al. History will remember you as the climate change deniers intent on partisan control while the planet turned brown.
Likewise, you, Mr. McConnell, will be remembered as the Senate Majority Leader who ended discussion and debate on the Senate floor, and worked hand-in-glove with the impeachment defendant to assure that Mr. Trump is acquitted.
[Blessed are they] who stand by their oath even to their hurt; who do not lend money at interest, and do not take a bribe against the innocent.
Psalm 15: 4b-5a
WHO ARE YOU CALLING CHICKEN?
Had you forgotten, or did you not know, what the people of Iran have never forgotten: the CIA engineered the 1953 coup d’etat that overthrew Iran’s democratically elected president and put the Shah in power for the next 25 years . . . until the Iranian Revolution paid back the insults with American hostage-taking. Iran has a long memory, a proud history, and rich culture that is many centuries old. The new insult — assassinating an Iranian state official — stokes the embers of smoldering fires, leaving our allies scratching their heads once again, wondering what you were thinking, if you were thinking at all. Did you consider that, by assassinating the Iranian General, you also would eliminate a strange but highly effective ally in our common campaign against ISIS?
TOWARD A CULTURE OF GRATITUDE, APPRECIATION, DELIGHT, AND JOY
“Perhaps the resources of our culture — organized around the priority of spectacle and commodity and power — have been exhausted. . . . They cannot deliver the flourishing they claim. They cannot foster a culture of gratitude, appreciation, delight, and joy. They can only foster a culture of hatred, suspicion, and fear.” — David White, Insight.
David Kanigan’s Sunday Morning introduced me to Niall Williams’s words and a photograph of architecture from Berlin. “We are our stories. We tell them to stay alive or keep alive those who only live now in the telling. In Faha, County Clare, everyone is a long story….” — Niall Williams, History of the Rain.
HEARING AND TELLING STORIES
Pondering Williams’ short sentence reminded me of Frederick Buechner’s Telling Secrets. We don’t just have stories. We ARE our stories. And our stories contain secrets.
I’m imagining a scene that will not happen in real time. There is a large room. Folding wooden chairs have been arranged in a huge circle. Members of Congress and their staff members are sitting there. There is no assigned seating. Mitch McConnell and Nancy Pelosi are there.
Adam Schiff and Doug Collins are there. Scattered among the tailored suits and silk ties are members of the Capitol cleaning and custodial staff, the barbers and stylists, the shoe shiners, the cooks, kitchen assistants, table waiters, and dishwashers are all there. The mailroom clerks, the Capitol Guard, and Secret Service are there. No chair is different than another. Shaker-like oak chairs, every one the same. There is no dais. No microphone. No television cameras. All cell phones are off. There are no distractions. The room is quiet.
All eyes are fixed on the Ojibwa dancer sitting alone in the empty space created by the circle formation. All ears are listening to the story the Ojibwa Elder is telling through his flute. Everyone hears the story and his prayers to the Great Spirit offered without words through his drumming. Then he begins to sing toward the four directions. They watch his body turn to the West, and follow his lead, all turning as he turns.
Look towards the West Your Grandfather is looking this way Pray to Him, pray to Him! He is sitting there looking this way!
Look towards the North Your Grandfather is looking this way Pray to Him, pray to Him! He is sitting there looking this way!
Look towards the East Your Grandfather is looking this way Pray to Him, pray to Him! He is sitting there looking this way!
Look towards the South Your Grandfather is looking this way Pray to Him, pray to Him! He is sitting there looking this way!
Look up above (upwards) God (“Great Spirit”) sits above us Pray to Him, pray to Him! He is sitting there looking this way!
Look towards the Earth Your Grandmother lies beneath us Pray to Her, pray to Her! She is laying there listening (to your Prayers).
Everyone is both curious and caught up in the moment. The OIjibwa is on bended knee. He kisses the Earth. He lifts his eyes upwards. With his right hand he cups his left ear, listening for the voice of the ancestors who looked toward the four directions. The people in the circle begin to hear what he is hearing. The Ojibwa, like Moses parting the waters, is creating a path into the center of the circle, as the sounds draw closer. The Ojibwa shaman open to the doors for the Gathering of Nations, dancing and singing because they know what the people in the wood chairs do not: No one owns land. No one can own a Grandmother.
We are our stories. We tell them, including the secrets we’ve dared not tell, to stay alive or keep alive those who only live now in the telling. Humankind is a long story.
“You must unite behind the science. You must take action. You must do the impossible. Because giving up can never ever be an option.”
Greta Thunberg, US Congress, Washington DC, September 17, 2019.
This Christmas we share a chapter from Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017, Wipf and Stock) first aired on MPR’s “All Things Considered” during the Occupy Wall Street Movement. Today there is no Occupy Wall Street. There are no tents. No camps. No protests. But Mary, and the hope she sings in her Magnificat, will never goes away.
Mary of Occupy
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud
in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful
from their thrones,and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
- Gospel of Luke 1:53-55
in other cultures, and other times, the young woman would be called a peasant. But here and now, she is a protester, one of a dwindling number of ragged young people on the government plaza. She moves among the occupier sleeping bags and protest signs in the cold of winter, singing her song of hope and joy.
She makes no demands, which is confusing to some. Hers is a different way: a bold announcement that the old order, symbolized by Wall Street, is already finished. Her purity and her message are impervious to the game of demand-and-response that serves only to tweak and tinker with the old system of greed and financial violence.
She simply affirms the great new thing that will come to pass. to her it is more real than much of what she sees.
A song like hers is being sung this season in churches through- out the world. The song rejoices in a new world order about to be born. The “same old, same old” world, the one defined by who’s up and who’s down, by social pride and social humiliation, by the overfed and underfed, by extremes of extravagant wealth and pov- erty—that world is over. The mountains of greed are brought down and the pits of desperation are raised up to the plain.
The song celebrated in churches is the Magnificat, the Song of Mary, a composition of the Gospel of luke. it has special meaning to Christians who believe that Mary bore in her womb the savior of us all. But the Luke story also serves as a metaphor for the compassionate character of a new society about to be born.
“My spirit rejoices in God my Savior,” sings this peasant girl living in the time of the Roman empire’s foreign occupation. She is full of the One who “has scattered the proud in the imaginations of their hearts,” who “has brought down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up those of low degree,” the leveling God of mercy and justice.
Imagine for a moment an opera house. At one end of the stage stands Mary, the voice of prophetic madness, her tender voice softly rejoicing in the hope growing inside her. At the other end stands a massive chorus, in tuxedos and gowns, thundering its hymn of praise for the market, for its grandeur, for the preservation of the status quo.
“He has filled the hungry with good things,” the girl sings, “and the rich he has sent empty away.” Her voice cannot compete in volume. But in its clarity, it drowns out the mighty chorus.
As Mary’s song is read in churches this Sunday, some anonymous girl will slip unnoticed into the back pew. She will listen to the reading of luke’s Magnificat, and she will hope, like Mary, that the world will hear the message.
Christianity Today, the flagship journal of conservative evangelicals in the U.S.A., has called for Donald Trump’s removal from office.
[T]he facts in this instance are unambiguous: The president of the United States attempted to use his political power to coerce a foreign leader to harass and discredit one of the president’s political opponents. That is not only a violation of the Constitution; more importantly, it is profoundly immoral.
The reason many are not shocked about this is that this president has dumbed down the idea of morality in his administration. He has hired and fired a number of people who are now convicted criminals. He himself has admitted to immoral actions in business and his relationship with women, about which he remains proud. His Twitter feed alone—with its habitual string of mischaracterizations, lies, and slanders—is a near perfect example of a human being who is morally lost and confused.
Mark Galli, Editor-in-Chief, Christianity Today
The New York Times saw Mr. Galli’s criticism of the president as a crack in the evangelical voting bloc’s foundation, but not the beginning of the end of evangelical support.
Barring the unforeseen, Mr. Trump will be the first American president to face voters after being charged with high crimes and misdemeanors. One voting bloc voicing criticism this week: evangelicals. But the critics remain a minority in a political movement that Mr. Trump has reshaped in his own mold.
NYT, Dec. 20, 2019
I am a Christian. I don’t read Christianity Today. I don’t even read The Christian Century, the progressive counterpoint to Christianity Today. I’m too old and ornery for flagships. Any sort of flag-waving, especially when done in the name of Jesus, turns me into what I don’t want to be: just another noisy name-caller. What do I know? I could be dead wrong in my understanding of faith and public life. But I still would vainly hope that what Swiss theologian Karl Barth wrote about Thomas Hobbes might be said of me. “Greater than the horror his strange kerygma arouses is the praise he deserves for not being blind and stupid . . . and for his vision and knowledge. It should be part of Christian vigilance to see and know what [Hobbes] saw and knew.” — Karl Barth, The Christian Life.
I’ve never attended a Billy Graham crusade. I always found it ironic that evangelicals who believe that everything boils down to an individual decision rely on mass rallies.
TRUMP RALLIES AND MINDS WITHOUT COMPASSION
Watching Mr. Trump’s facial expression and body language, listening to speech that dehumanizes, humiliates, treats his critics as enemies of the nation itself makes my skin crawl. Only the knowledge that some in the crowd claim to follow Jesus is more disturbing. How can people hoot and holler on cue from a man with orange hair who makes fun of disabled people, lies so often no one keeps count anymore, throws away women, lawyers and fixers like bubble gum, builds a wall against Central American refugees and takes children from their mothers’ and fathers’ arms at the border, fattens the rich and sends the needy away, and alienates America’s traditional democratic allies with insults with the swagger of Vladimir Putin?
How can people who profess Jesus Christ as their Lord and Savior applaud a well-coifed billionaire madman dressed in a starched white shirt with gold cuff links, a silk tie, and a suit that costs more than the people standing behind him make in a month? How will they sing “Silent Night” and “Joy to the World” this Christmas Eve when a poor woman doesn’t get to gently lay her child lowly in a manger because the nation to which she had fled for safety has taken her child away?
Crowds have always been a refuge for people driven by demagogues into the arms of fear, which may explain why in the Christmas story the angel says to the shepherds, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy that will be for all the people” (Luke 2:10), and why, centuries later, the early Italian Renaissance scholar and poet Petrarch answered the question how and why such a thing as a rally happens.
In the hateful, hostile mob (O strange vagary!)
My only port and refuge can I find,
Such is my fear to find myself alone.
- Petrarch, “Laura Living,” Conzanier
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has greater reason to recuse himself from participation in the Senate impeachment trial than Jeff Sessions had for recusing himself from the DOJ investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election.
An online dictionary defines ‘recuse’ as “the withdrawal of a judge, prosecutor, or juror from a case on the grounds that they are unqualified to perform legal duties because of a possible conflict of interest or lack of impartiality.”
Until the day Mr. Sessions made his announcement, the terms ‘recuse’ and ‘recusal’ were unfamiliar to most Americans who work outside the court system. Though Mr. Sessions’ decision angered the president, it was the right thing to do. Senate Majority Leader McConnell should do the same.
If public perception is nine-tenths of reality, a Senate trial that is not a trial will deepen and spread the cynicism that threatens the survival of this Constitutional Republic. Unless the Senators act like Senators willing to lay aside partisan rancor for the sake the greater good, the distrust in America’s foundational institutions and democracy itself will widen further into a chasm that no one can cross. We need to believe that our better angels have not left us.
Senator McConnell’s view that impeachment is a partisan sham is a matter of public record. Sen. McConnell has established the rules for the trial in close collaboration with the White House, which seems unusual. He has decided there will be no witnesses. The trial will be short. The verdict appears to be in before the trial begins,
No trial is more important than an impeachment trial. The Senate is composed of women and men as flawed as the rest of us. But is it too much to ask that the Senators approach this moment of crisis the way American jurisprudence expects a jury of peers to assess the evidence before coming to verdict? Prospective jurors for a trial on Main Street who have come to conclusions of guilt or acquittal are dismissed during voir dire as unfit for jury duty.
Members of the Senate will serve as the only jurors, after swearing an oath many Senators cannot take in good conscience: “I solemnly swear [or affirm, as the case may be] that in all things appertaining to the trial of the impeachment of [the person being impeached], now pending, I will do impartial justice according to the Constitution and laws: So help me God.”
This oath taken before an impeachment trial is secondary to the Oath of Office to “support and defend the Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic.” There is a remedy for any Senator who cannot honestly swear the oath “to do impartial justice. . . . So help me God” in an impeachment trial. It’s called recusal.
A jury and trial that are shams will stab at the heart of who we thought ourselves to be. Pogo will again prove right. But this time, the consequences are odious. We will have met the enemy and discover he is us.
Today you will decide whether to advance articles of impeachment to the Senate. Sadly, we who will watch the debate on the House floor know what to expect. Republicans will be Republicans. Democrats will be Democrats. Only a handful of Members, if any, will break ranks with their party lines.
My generation grew up believing America was different from those we were taught to fear. We were not a one-party State of Hitler or Stalin which allowed no dissent. We did not pledge allegiance to a party, or so we thought; we and those who represent us owed our loyalty to the Constitution of a democratic republic.
In times of stress, I spend time alone in the pre-dawn stillness. In the days to come, I encourage you to begin each day with a copy of your Oath of Office, the Constitution, and the official seal of your office with the nation’s long-standing motto, E pluribus unum.
The motto is thought to point back to Cicero’s paraphrase of Pythagoras in De Officiis where he discusses essential bonds that keep together a family or a society. “When each person loves the other as much as himself, it makes one out of many (unus fiat ex pluribus), as Pythagoras wishes things to be in friendship.”
If today’s debate is a shouting match between two party scripts with no room for dissent, the essential bonds of friendship, mutual respect, and trust will tear even farther, and the Constitution you have sworn to preserve and protect will be well on its way to becoming a fiction. Let your conscience guide you to speak and act with wisdom and courage.
Views from the Edge occasionally publishes a guest commentary that speaks with a different voice. John Miller begins most every morning reading through newspapers that represent diverse perspectives, left, right, and center. John’s readers respect his astute social criticism, and enjoy John’s unexpected turns of phrase, quick wit, and inveterate habit of going where angels fear to tread . . . all in the name of the LORD, of course! Views from the Edge added the photograph to the original commentary.
“BORIS TRUMP AND DONALD JOHNSON”
by John D. Miller
The British people have had three elections thrust upon them in the past year. After two of those elections, the new prime minister turned out to be Boris Johnson.
Mr. Johnson has had a long, colorful, and unpredictable career as a politician. To Americans, he was best known as the Mayor of London. After that he was elected to Parliament, where he was appointed foreign minister by Theresa May. Having Boris Johnson as foreign minister would be like making Bernie Madoff the Secretary of the Treasury. Neither man would be naturally well suited to the office.
When Mrs. May was rejected by her fellow Conservatives in Parliament, Mr. Johnson rose to the pinnacle of British political power. He was unable to keep the natives from becoming overly restless, however. In an attempt to solidify his position, he called the third election of 2019, which he won, predictably, on December 11, because his opponent as leader of the Labour Party was even more odious, or ineffective, than he. Jeremy Corbyn would probably be an horrendous PM.
When Donald Trump became President of the United States in early 2017, he had never held a political office, unlike Boris Johnson, who had been in politics for many years. Trump was a billionaire real estate developer and television reality show host. Both men were very popular populists, each attaining his popularity in his own singular, inscrutable ways.
Despite the differences in their backgrounds, Donald Trump and Boris Johnson are so much alike in most ways that their names could be transposed. Donald Trump could be Boris Trump or Donald Johnson, and Boris Johnson could be Donald Johnson or Boris Trump. I have chosen to call them Boris Trump and Donald Johnson.
Both men look alike. They think alike. They act alike. They speak alike.
Obviously they are not exactly alike. For example, Donald Trump has his own hair, and lots of it, and he combs it into a unique coif. Boris Johnson also has his own hair, but it looks like he never combs it. It appears to be a jostled nest in which several birds have recently roosted.
Nevertheless, both men are highly narcissistic. (Anyone who chooses to call that much attention to himself is a classic narcissist.) They are astoundingly unpredictable in what they say, except that they both have said so many unpredictable things their pronouncements have become quite predictable in their unpredictability. That is no way to govern reasonably or well.
Boris Johnson will lead the United Kingdom into disaster when shortly he promotes the Brexit vote, urging his zealous lemming followers to leap into the sea. Almost certainly the vote shall pass, and Britain will be catapulted into its worst crisis since World War II. British voters knew all this when they elected him. But they did it anyway.
Welcome to our world, British voters! Now you will know in your churned innards how half of your electorate feels. You chose someone you knew was a lethal wild card, also knowing exactly what he would do to undermine your political system and your economy. But you went ahead and elected him, because you thought the other choice was worse, which he probably was.
Fortunately, American voters still have eleven months closely to observe Boris Trump before our election is held. The UK will not be prevented from their plunge, which is already a tragically foregone conclusion. However, the USA still has a chance to come to its senses.
John D. Miller is Pastor of The Chapel Without Walls on Hilton Head Island, SC. More of his writings may be viewed at www.chapelwithoutwalls.org.
John Arbuthnot (1667-1735) is not a household name, but this much we know: he was as disgusted as many of us in America in December, 2019.
A contemporary and friend of Jonathan Swift and Alexander Pope, physician-mathematician-writer John Arbuthnot, wrote satire flavored by his Scottish sense of humor. In 1713, Arbuthnot wrote “Proposals for printing a very curious discourse… a treatise of the art of political lying, with an abstract of the first volume” which systematized “a rhetoric of bad thinking and writing. He proposes to teach people to lie well.” — Wikipedia.
He also wrote this line that encourages all who now grieve for America:
“All political parties die at last of swallowing their own lies.”
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 slave traders and plantation owners, and the African slaves 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 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.
We are in the midst a constitutional crisis in the U.S.A. that leads most of us scratching our heads. How did we get here? How will we get out of it? No one knows.
Part 1 of this three-post series suggested kinship with dogs who, by nature, live in packs led by Alpha Dogs. In Part 2, we turn to a time-honored voice from an earlier time.
AN OUTSIDE PERSPECTIVE
Karl Barth‘s way of seeing and hearing offers one such perspective. Barth was one of great theologians of the 20th Century, known for his brilliance, and for his early opposition to the rise and rule of Adolf Hitler and the nationalist ideology of the Third Reich.
Barth saw what those with “eye disease” did not. Idolatry, not atheism, is the issue for the human creature.
In Adolf Hitler and nationalist party that ended a constitutional republic, Barth saw what he called “the lordless powers” that have no Lord but themselves. They allow for no superiors. They submit to nothing and to no one. They are what Barth’s American friend William Stringfellow called “imposters of God” that prey on our anxiety, powers greater than ours, in effect a ‘lord’ — an Alpha Dog — to protect us and conquer what threatens us.
“DEUTSCHLAND UBER ALLES”
As a Christian theologian, Barth professed faith in Jesus Christ as Lord. This Lord is no victor. For Barth, Jesus Christ was the man for others who stooped to wash others’ feet, a chore assigned to household slaves; unmasked the lordless powers of empire; wept over the city, and rode into it “humble and riding on an ass” in counterpoint to the emperor entering the city on his white stallion; proclaimed a kingdom of infinite compassion not built by ‘the lordless powers’; prayed on his knees to the Lord of lords and King of kings of all the lesser packs; and bent his back to the soldier’s whip and Roman execution, and reached out to the rebel on the cross next to his.
The Jesus of Nazareth who bowed his head to no other power than YHWH — the Ineffable One, the Eternal One, the Lord beyond the lordless that rise and fall and are forgotten — represents humankind in our proper relationship with God.
“The demonism of politics consists in the idea of ’empire’, which is always human as such.“
The Nazi Party and its Alpha Dog were ‘Lordless’ because they were accountable to no one and to nothing. Their authority and power were absolute. Everyone in the pack was ordered to yield to a headstrong man and a “headstrong dream.”
Barth’s theological anthropology offers insight into our vulnerability in an anxious world.
Man’s (sic.) alienation from God at once carries with it his self-alienation: the denaturalizing of the humanity and fellow humanity of is own existence, the contraction of the determination, inalienably given to him as God’s creature, that he should belong to God and have in God his Lord, the beginning of speech, action, and therefore existence, which are headstrong because they have no Lord.
Karl Barth, The Christian Life, 213-14.
Knowing that social control requires consent of the pack, Hitler and the Third Reich systematically transposed the prevailing religious belief system into the key of nationalist supremacy. The religion that proclaimed the elusive Kingdom of God and Jesus Christ as Lord was brought to Heel: Heel! Sit! Down! Off! Leave it it!
The church that prayed “Thy Kingdom come” bowed the knee to the nearer-to-hand kingdom, raising its arm to salute the national messiah. “Heil Hitler!” and Sieg Heil” replaced Handel’s ‘Messiah’.
For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given, and the government shall be upon His shoulder; and his name shall be called Wonderful Counsellor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:5).
As for the Jews? It’s much harder to bring to heel a people whose faith looks to YHWH, the Holy One, and does not regard any human being as a divine incarnation. They would need to be removed from the fictional Aryan pack. They were stripped of every constitutional protection, herded onto trains, and delivered to concentration camps as people unfit for German society.
“MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN”
Like the Germans in the lead up to 1933, we in America in 2019 are manipulated by well-calibrated propaganda and disinformation campaigns that ‘denaturalize’ and turn neighbors into enemies in the age of cyberspace.
Slogans are simply vents with whose help ideologies surface and in the form of loud whistles call for general applause and acknowledgment. Let us not be deceived: we all listen to the most varied catchwords, we all use them more or less merrily, and in so doing show that we ourselves are people who have been struck and stabbed and snared by systematized ideologies.
Propaganda is putting things in black and white. … What they have to push systematically is their own excellence and usefulness, and by way of background must show how utterly valueless and harmful their rivals and opponents are.
THE TRUMP PHENOMENON
Classical Christian theology is clear about the need for an Alpha Dog. Its understanding of human being is sometimes called theological anthropology. Our mortal human nature is best understood in light of our submission — witting or unwitting — to this, that, or another power. When an Alpha Dog rises to claim the allegiance of a pack, we are thrown back.
Most of us in Roman Catholicism and progressive protestant churches have moved beyond patriarchal metaphors and talk of kings, kingdoms, and lords. We speak instead of ‘kin-doms’ without kings — horizontal societies without authority, what Barth called “the Lordless powers.” The reign of compassion is upended and replaced by an Alpha Dog who reigns absolutely, using propaganda, fear, hate, and cruelty to bring the pack to Heel.
The comforter feels heavy. My body is sore. So is my spirit. I shift from one side to the other and turn on my back, but it doesn’t help.
I look over to the night table at the old digital clock that once told my parents the time of day or night — the inheritance with the BIG red numbers that glow in the dark to help old folks read them.
The red numbers read 3:13.
I throw off the covers, stumble down the 18 steps to the first floor, make a pot of coffee, pour myself a cup, turn on the small table lamp by the fireplace, and sit down for an early morning conversation with the psalmist in the copy of The Book of Common Prayer Sue Kahn put in my hand years ago.
MEDITATION ON PSALM 5 (SELECTED VERSES)
In the morning, Lord, you hear my voice; early in the morning I make my appeal and watch for you.[v.3]
I will put my trust in You. I will not surrender to powers that know no higher power.
You, Lord, are the Breath that breathes in all and makes the sun to shine and the rain to fall on the just and unjust — “Lord of lords and King of kings,” the Eternal One from Whom the little kings and usurpers cannot flee.
I make my appeal to You for Whom the darkness is as light. Things are dark here in America. We are divided. The future looks dark. Although my faith tells me You are present everywhere, I do not feel hopeful. It seems as though You have left us to our own devises.
For You are not a God who takes pleasure in wickedness, and evil cannot dwell with You. [v.4]
Though it feels as though You are hiding, I have to believe You do not take pleasure in wickedness, and that the partisan evil, as bold and obvious as the big red numbers on my parents’ digital clock at 3:13 A.M, will not prevail. Evil cannot dwell with You.
Braggarts cannot stand in your sight; you hate all those who work wickedness. [v.5]
Does it matter to You?
If braggarts cannot stand in Your sight, come into sight. Show Yourself. Take Your seat on the judgment throne to hold the braggarts accountable for their treason against You and all that breathes. Summon the braggarts to stand before You before it is too late.
Do You hate wickedness? Does Love also hate? Do You shrug and let it go?
But as for me, through the greatness of your mercy I will go into your house; I will bow down toward your holy temple in awe of you. (v.7)
I will bow down in awe of You. The good green Earth is Your temple. I will look to the greatness of Your mercy. When it feels as though You are hiding, I will seek You. I will remember the wisdom of the Hasidic grandfather teach his grandson about You, when young Yechiel came home in tears because his friend had stopped looking for him in a game of hide-and-seek.
“Rebbe Barukh caressed Yechiel’s face, and with tears welling up in his eyes, he whispered softly, ‘God too Yechiel, God too is weeping. For, He too has been hidden with no one looking for Him’.” (Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim).
i used to run through fields laughing, blowing bubbles floating up, up, away off to Who-knows-where … now I watch the bubbles burst, burst, burst – dreams, illusions, hopes, bursting into air … time and death bursting all our bubbles for we are puffs of air but for a time … till some child runs again through fields of green, blowing bubbles that float … up and up … swelling, rising, not yet bursting each bubble its own never to be repeated self precious beyond belief … while we in our old age move toward the end of time evaporating into eternity Whence we came.
In times like these, it helps to step outside the box.
My canine friend Barclay and his predecessors, Maggie and Sebastian (RIP), offered an opportunity to see ourselves and others differently.
REFLECTIONS OF AN ALPHA DOG
I love dogs. No one loves dogs more than I, except for Mark, and he and his latest golden retriever are in Maine. Like Mark, I have to have a dog! Living with Barclay, I’ve noticed the same thing I saw with Maggie and Sebastian.
Barclay is calmest when the Alpha Dog establishes and maintains authority: Heel Sit! Stay. Down. Off. Leave it. Fetch. Get the ball! Drop it.
Barclay loves his human Alpha Dog. It’s in his nature to submit to the pack’s Alpha Dog.
Without an Alpha Dog, Barclay is a mess.
We tell ourselves we’re not canines; we’re human beings. We’re not members of a pack, and we don’t have Alpha Dogs. We arethe Alpha Dogs who give the commands that house-train Maggie not to look you in the eye and squat on the Persian rug, and Sebastian and Barclay to lift their legs on fire hydrants instead of the legs of the dining room table. The Alpha Dog’s house is not their ‘loo‘, as the British say.
Dogs seem happiest when the pack’s Alpha Dog has established clear limits and boundaries.
HUMANS, PACKS, AND ALPHA DOGS
Living with Maggie, Sebastian, and Barclay while obsessing over events in the U.S.A. recently lead me to wonder: Is there much difference between canines and humans? Are we also pack animals in need of an Alpha Dog?
Members of 12-Step groups answer yes. They join anonymous packs whose participants recognize that an addiction has taken over their lives — “My name is Bob/Harriet, and I’m an alcoholic/heroin addict” — and encourage each other in their shared day-by-day surrender to a higher power, however each member defines it.
Twelve-Step programs do not have a theology, but they do have an anthropology and a philosophy that runs counter to a dominant culture which, if is certain about anything, it’s that we’re not members of a dog pack. We don’t submit to anything; we’re the Alpha Dogs!
PARTS TWO and THREE
Part Two will look through the eyes of Paul Tillich, Willem Zuurdeeg, and Karl Barth as their wisdom applies the American scene in 2019.
Thanks for dropping by. Leave a comment, if you wish, to widen and deepen the conversation.
From the pulpit I could see him in the last pew. He always arrived late — usually during the first hymn — and left early, during the last hymn. Some people prefer to be anonymous, for all kinds of reasons.
For months, I wondered who he was.
Then, one day, he stayed through the closing hymn, the benediction, and what we Presbyterians call “The Charge” to follow in the way of Christ that begins, “Go into the world in peace; have courage . . . .”
“Go into the world in peace; have courage; hold to what is good; do not return evil for evil; strengthen the faint-hearted; support the weak; help the suffering; honor all people; love and serve the Lord rejoicing in the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.”
He heard the words but left as quickly as before.
Then, one day, he found the courage to introduce himself at the door. As best I can recall, he said with a smile, “You may have wondered who I am. “My name is Sam. I’m dying of AIDS.”
Sam was my up-close-and-personal introduction to AIDS and the HIV/AIDS community. Months later, he became the first and only patient to offer me the Charge and Benediction.
Thank you, Sam, for your courage, for keeping the light of faith burning where others sought to blow it out, and for your gracious Charge and Benediction. Rest in peace.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”
— “Morning Mist Over the Creek” by Steve Shoemaker, Urbana, IL Feb. 6, 2013
Steve Shoemaker (RIP) was the Views from the Edge colleague whose verses and poems, written in the middle of the night, were sent to “his publisher” from his iPhone before dawn. Five of Steve’s verses/poems are republished in Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness. At six-feet eight inches, he towered above the crowd. In this photo, his 6’8″ frame rests on a 1,000+ year-old Bristlecone Pine above the tree line. – GCS
“Poetry is the impish attempt to paint the color of the wind.” –Maxwell Bodenheim, quoted in Ben Hecht’s play Winkelberg (1958).
This sermon was written for a congregation of one the first Sunday after stepping out of the pulpit five years ago.
First Sunday in Advent, 2014 Texts: Isaiah 64:1-9 Mark 13:24-37
“And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.” [attributed to Jesus, Gospel of Mark 13:37].
It’s hard to stay awake in times like these. To be conscious includes grief, helplessness, anger at the state of the nation and world, and the stupidity of the human race.
“Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” is supposed to bring comfort but it doesn’t, unless the heaven and earth of which Jesus speaks are the ones our pride has created. The imaginary ones. The heavenly and earthly projects that rise out of human insecurity as in the Genesis story of Babel, the story of what never was but always is, according to which the building of the ideal city is interrupted and the tower “with its top in the heavens” is “left off”. But the Word – the story about it – has not passed away. It endures. As fresh today as it was when first shared around a campfire as a way of telling each generation the respective places of God and man (humankind).
Fourteen years after the World Trade Towers collapsed in NYC, a new tower, “One World Trade Center” – taller, stronger, bolder – stands where the old towers fell on 9/11. One World Trade Center, symbolizes a resurrection of the crashed myth. Standing a few blocks from Wall Street, where the global economy is reconstructed every day, One World Trade Center resurrects the myth of national supremacy, benign goodness, and virtue of the American economic system.
We could have left Ground Zero empty of monoliths. Turned it into a memorial and monument to the error of pride, a turning away from global arrogance. A repentance from the economic-military-religious complex that has expropriated the oil fields in the Middle East, assassinated the elected President of Iran in 1958, installed the Shah in his place, ignored the human rights of Palestinians, supported and installed western-friendly oligarchies and strong men in Saudi Arabia, Iraq (Saddam Hussein), Libya (Muammar Gaddafi), and Egypt (Hosni Mubarak) until, except for Saudi Arabia, they turned against us.
Instead of listening to the word that does not pass away, we Americans, to the sorrow of New Yorkers like Michael Kimmelman (NY Times, Nov. 29, 2014), opted for the old words and worn-out scripts that had failed us. The Democratic Spring in Libya, Egypt, and Tunisia did not do what the NeoCon exporters of Western democracy had imagined. It unleashed a seething volcano of anti-American resentment. Meanwhile, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, have become desert quagmires – Vietnams without the jungles.
Eisenhower’s last speech to the nation warning of an emerging military-industrial complex is all but forgotten as One World Trade Center stands like a phoenix raised up…and up…and up from the ashes, symbol of global dominance resurrected from the horrifying deadly collapse of 9/11.
Words and symbols are everything in this world.
Mr. Kimmelman opines, “But it [i.e. the World Trade Center] never really connected with the rest of Lower Manhattan. There had been talk after Sept. 11 about the World Trade Center re-development including housing, culture and retail, capitalizing on urban trends and the growing desire for a truer neighborhood, at a human scale, where the windswept plaza at the foot of the twin towers had been.”
It’s all about human scale. A plaza. Not a tower with its top in the heavens.
Staying awake is hard. Being attuned to what is not passing away takes faith. It takes hope. Maybe even love.
“From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near.” [Mark 13:28]
Jesus often seems to have said that the word we need to hear is spoken by nature. Learn from the fig tree. It waits through the dormant season to become tender again, to put forth its leaves toward summer and the production of figs. Nature is calling. Nature is our home. Nature is what is – the real heaven and earth – the word that will not pass away, the word that will survive when we are gone. We need to love nature again. Awaken to nature. Re-imagine ourselves as part of nature, “creatures” among the multitude of creatures. Our words will pass away, even the best of them. Our Creator’s will not.
During this most puzzling of seasons – the Season of Advent, the season of wakeful, wait-ful anticipation of a Coming in fullness – I find myself crying out like Isaiah. It feels something as though “you have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.” [Isaiah 64:7]
“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence—as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil– to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations [the ethnoi in NT Greek, i.e. the peoples] might tremble at your presence!” [Isaiah 64:1-2]
The “nations” have always been God’s adversaries, closed in on themselves, puffed up, defensive against intruders foreign and domestic, plunderers of nature and other nations, hostile to the foreigner, both human and Divine.
In this season of “economic recovery” when the poor continue to get poorer, the rich get richer, and the middle class shrinks, and the climate change clock ticks closer to midnight, deliver us, Good Lord, from “the hand of our own iniquity”.
Remember, “O LORD, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.” [Isaiah 64:8]
This word is the only word that lasts. Stay awake, my soul. Stay awake to the whole of it – all of it: the sorrow and the grief of it, the loneliness of it, the anger of it, the guilt of it, the finger pointing out and away and the finger pointing back at me, a nation to myself, and the presence of the Potter – and my soul will be well, new and fresh every morning.
Gordon C. Stewart, Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (Wipf and Stock, 2017) available on Amazon in kindle and paperback, Chaska, MN, First Sunday of Advent, November 30, 2019.
“Every violation of truth is not only a sort of suicide in the liar, but is a stab at the health of human society,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson in “Prudence,” Essays: First Series (1841).
I imagine Emerson quietly applauding Fiona Hill boldly calling out the false narrative that stabs at the health of democracy in her testimony before the U.S. House Intelligence Committee’s Trump impeachment inquiry.
PARTISAN PROPAGANDA: THE BIG LIE
“The great masses of people . . . will more easily fall victim to a big lie than to a small one.”
Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf (1924), 1.10.
MAKING THE WIND APPEAR SOLID
“Political language . . . is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to the wind.”
George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language,” Shooting the Elephant (1950).
TRUTH AND FALSEHOOD
“Man can certainly keep on lying (and does so), but he cannot make truth falsehood.”
Karl Barth quoted in The New York Times obituary, December 11, 1968.
TRUTH NEEDS NO PROPAGANDA
If there has always been propaganda in some form, from the time of the modest newspapers of the seventeenth century it has developed with a new speed and to a new degree, as new and more effective instruments have been found and brought into use. One should note that the truth needs no propaganda and does not engage in it. As the truth, it simply speaks for itself and opposes falsehood. Propaganda is a sure sign that what is at issue is not the truth but an ideology which needs it, to whose nature it corresponds, and which is not ashamed to make use of it.
Karl Barth, “The Lordless Powers,” The Christian Life, translated by Geoffrey W. Bromley, p.227.
Propaganda and National Security
Continued promotion of a self-serving false narrative under the guise of patriotic concern for national security puts American national security at risk.
A subsequent Views from the Edge commentary will explore what Karl Barth‘s “lordless powers” and Christian scripture calls “principalities and powers.”
Gordon C. Stewart, November 23, Chaska, MN, Nov. 23, 2019.
Guys don’t do sleepovers. Or so I thought reading A Plan this morning . . . until I stopped to think.
Four (4) ‘Old Dogs’ (seminary classmates who have maintained friendship through the years) do five-night sleepovers every year. Once there were seven (7). Now there are four (4).
We arrive at the annual ‘Gatherings’ limping on replaced knees with hips and memories in need of repair, bearing matches to light the fire, a Book of Common Prayer, and a Fifth or two . . . to make four equal seven again.
There’s nothing like a sleepover celebration with old friends. Some are confident that the departed — Wayne, Steve, and Dale — are still with us around the fire. Others need the help of a Fifth or a few Seven-and-Sevens to get four to equal seven.
What I had come to know (by feeling only) was that the [GATHERING]’s true being, you might say, was a sort of current, like an underground flow of water, except that the flowing was in all directions and yet did not flow away. When it rose into your heart and throat, you felt joy and sorrow at the same time, and the joining of times and lives. To come into the presence of the [Gathering] was to know life and death, and to be near in all your thoughts to laughter and to tears.
“Mr. Trump did not directly tell me to lie to Congress. That’s not how he operates. He doesn’t give you questions, he doesn’t give you orders, he speaks in a code. And I understand the code, because I’ve been around him for a decade.”
— Michael Cohn, Feb. 27, 2019 testimony before Congress.
SPEAKING IN CODE
Although Michael Cohen knew of his boss’s business dealings in Russia, Mr. Trump often said in Michael’s presence that he had no business ties in Russia. Michael, his lawyer-fixer for 10 years, understood what he meant. It wasn’t a statement of fact. It was code for an order: Deny any connection with Russia.
“They’ve got him — credible witnesses, documents, and who knows what else. In all my years as a prosecutor, I’ve never seen such an open-and-shut case.” — U.S. Attorney General Elliot Richardson’s announcement to President Nixon of the results of the federal investigation of bribery. The case was resolved with a quid pro quo: Quid: Vice President Agnew would resign with a plea “no contest”; Quo: the Vice President would not go to prison.
Today is the day after an exhausting day for many Americans. It’s the day after the day that began with congressional impeachment hearings and ended with the latest presidential candidates debates. The day after our heads spun seems a good day to reach back to taste the sweetness of wisdom.
THE ART OF WORLDLY WISDOM
Never exaggerate. It is a matter of great importance to forego superlatives, in part to avoid offending the truth, and in part to avoid cheapening your judgment. Exaggeration wastes distinction and testifies to the paucity of your understanding and taste. Praise excites anticipation and stimulates desire. Afterwards when value does not measure up to price, disappointment turns against the fraud and takes revenge by cheapening both the appraised and the appraise. For this reason let the prudent go slowly, and err in understatement rather than overstatement. The extraordinary of every kind is always rare, wherefore temper your estimate.”
A lifelong aversion to anything ‘orthodox’ kept me away from G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy before inheriting a copy from the library of my late friend Wayne. Wayne was neither orthodox nor Orthodox, but there it was — Orthodoxy — with passages he had marked and indecipherable comments he had written in the margins.
The Arrogant Oligarchy of the Living
“Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors,” wrote G.K.Chesterton in a book I’d never read until my friend Wayne died. “It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking around.” — G.K. Chesterton, “The Ethics of Elfland,”Orthodoxy (1908).
I’ve often had the sense of this oligarchy and find it treacherous. Not only because it’s arrogant and oligarchical, but because it is foolish and destructive. Tradition is not the enemy of vitality. Nor is it the enemy of free thought nor science.
Without tradition we are like by-the-wind sailors, the jellyfish who have no way to propel themselves, thrown this way and that by the tides and storms. Jellyfish go with the flow without conscience, memory, or agency to create a better future.
Collecting the Fragments: Egoism and Altruism
“There is a huge and heroic sanity in which moderns can only collect the fragments. There is a giant of whom we see only the lopped arms and legs walking about. They have torn the soul of Christ into silly strips, labeled egoism and altruism, and they are equally puzzled by His insane magnificence and His insane meekness. They have parted His garments among them, and for his vesture they have cast lots; though the coat was without seam woven from the top throughout.” — G.K. Chesterton, “The Ethics of Elfland,” Orthodoxy.
The Seamless Coat Woven from the Top
“Lopped arms and legs walking about.” What an image! The soul of Christ torn into silly separate strips of egoism and altruism. Chesterton had a way with words — images that jar the senses of what is real, pushing the by-the-sea sailors in a direction we did not expect.
The Democracy of the Living and the Dead
“All democrats object to [anyone] being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good person’s opinion, even if he is our father. I, at any rate, cannot separate the two ideas of democracy and tradition; it seems evident to me that they are the same idea.” — Chesterton, “The Ethics of Elfland,” Orthodoxy.
Honoring the Great Ancestors and Great Grandchildren
My seven years at the Legal Rights Center — a public defense corporation founded in 1970 by the American Indian Movement and African-American civil rights activists — moved this by-the-sea sailor to think again about freedom and tradition.
We inherit a tradition from the ancestors and are responsible for passing the treasure (i.e., the tradition) to the next generation. In times of decision-making, American-Indian culture universally calls us to consider the previous seven generations and the seven generations that will follow: the democracy of the dead, the living, and those who come after us. This tradition of America’s First Nations, like the Reformed Christian tradition, looks back, looks ahead, and looks up for the re-weaving of the strips. The coat without seam was, is, and always will be woven from the top.
Wayne’s name is scribbled in pencil at the top of the title page of Orthodoxy. This year Wayne no longer lives to protest and resists the arrogant oligarchy of those who happen to be walking around. He has joined the blessed democracy of the dead.
Last Friday was not the Ides of March, but it may have been the day the soothsayer warned Julius Caesar of the consequences of overstepping the Roman Republic’s limits to executive power.
According to Plutarch, on his way to the fateful meeting of the Roman Senate on the Ides of March, Caesar passed the seer, mocking his fortune-telling with a confident sneer: “The Ides of March are come.”
“Aye, Caesar,” said the seer, “but not gone.”
That same day in 44 BCE the soothsayer’s warning was confirmed. As many as 60 senators ended the threat to turn the Roman Republic into an eternal dictatorship.
THE DAY OF THE SOOTHSAYER
Events last Friday echo the soothsayer’s warning:
Maria Yovanovich, the nonpartisan diplomat of impeccable character summarily recalled from her duties in Ukraine with no explanation, honored the House Intelligence Committee’s subpoena to appear for testimony at the Committee’s impeachment inquiry hearing;
The president who had suddenly dismissed Ms. Yovanovich just as suddenly smeared her reputation with a tweet while she was testifying before the Committee;
Roger Stone, the career dirty-trickster and long-term friend and mentor of Donald Trump, architect of the 2016 “Make America Great Again” campaign strategy and tactics, was convicted by a jury on all seven counts of making false statements, obstruction, and witness tampering;
President Trump tweeted:
“So they now convict Roger Stone of lying and want to jail him for many years to come. Well, what about Crooked Hillary, Comey, Strzok, Page, McCabe, Brennan, Clapper, Shifty Schiff, Ohr & Nellie, Steele & all of the others, including even Mueller himself? Didn’t they lie?”
Donald J. Trump tweet during Maria Yovanovich testimony, November 15, 2019.
ROGER STONE’S RULES
Roy Cohn and Roger Stone are the the political dirty-trickster mentors who who trained Donald Trump in the Machiavellian rules for how to succeed in business and politics.
The following are a few of “Stone’s Rules” as he shared them in the documentary film Get Me Roger Stone:
“Hate is stronger than love”
“Unless you can fake sincerity, you’ll get nowhere in this business”
“Politics isn’t theater. It’s performance art. Sometimes, for its own sake”
“White shirt + tan face = confidence”
“Hit it from every angle. Open multiple fronts on your enemy. He must be confused, and feel besieged on every side.
“Never turn down the opportunity to have sex or be on TV.” (attributed to Gore Vidal)
“Nothing is on the level”
“It’s better to be infamous than never famous at all.”
Presidential historian Jon Meacham spoke within hours of the president’ latest tweety. “My sense,” he said, “is that we have a president who is congenitally incapable of seeing beyond his own self-interest. And what these witnesses have done is proven that while he wants to build a wall at the border, he has no interest in building a wall around our elections.” (The Beat, Friday, Nov. 15.)
ARE THE BOYS (THE KING’S MEN) STILL THERE?
“A political leader must keep looking over his shoulder all the time to see if the boys are still there. If they’re not, he’s no longer a political leader.” (NYT obituary for Bernard Baruch, June 21, 1965.)
Bernard Baruch Obituary, New York Times, June 21, 1964
The impeachment inquiry is about much more than a sitting president’s continuance or removal from office. It’s about the survival of the Constitution of the American Republic in an era when an entire political party has substituted the habits of Stone’s Rules for the sworn duty of every elected member of Congress “to support and defend the Constitution of the United States of America.”
“Admit nothing. Deny everything. Launch counterattacks. Attack, attack, attack. Never defend. Distract, distract, distract!” is a heinous violation of the Oath Office.
Is it too much to hope that soothsayer’s warning will result in coming to our senses? If not, we may be left to hope John Arburthnot was right that “political parties die at last of swallowing their own lies.”
Last week I asked a psychiatrist friend whether he has been seeing increased levels of stress in his patients. “Yes,” he said, “Universally.”
As the impeachment inquiry hearings begin today, we are divided and angry. But we’re all under stress, and we’re all Americans. When we’re stressed, we do strange things. Some of us clam up. Some of us scream and shout. Some of us need company. Which led me to think again this morning about the stress test waiting room and a World War II veteran named Bill. I’m wondering what Bill might say.
Bill in the Stress Test Waiting Room
He sits by himself in the hospital waiting room.
“Where you from?” he asks, as if welcoming the stranger who’s come to his home for a stress test.
“Where?” he asks over the whine from his hearing aids.
I’m not anxious to strike up a conversation. I’m here for a stress test. I’m an introvert. Chatting with strangers when I’m gathering myself when I’m under stress, waiting for a stress test, is the last thing I want.
His gowned wife, fresh off the treadmill, returns from her stress test.
“This is my wife, Jane. She’s a lot younger than I am. I’m 96.”
“Ninety-four,” says the younger wife. “We’ve been together 15 years.”
“Chaska’s the county seat,” says Bill. “That’s where i was sworn in.” (Clearly, he’s an extrovert. He feels better when he has guests.)
“World War II?”
“February 6, 1942. Eighty of us. A lot of guys from Chaska.”
“Where’d you serve?”
“He was part of D-Day,” answers Jane. Bill’s head sinks toward his lap. His chin begins to quiver. A long pause follows.
“Only 15 of us came back.”
“Were you injured?”
“No,” he says, forming his hands in prayer and looking up. “I don’t know why.” He falls again into silence.
Bill’s body is with us, but he’s not here. He’s back at Normandy Beach on D-Day.
“That’s a lot of death,” I say. “A lot of killing. A lot of loss.”
He looks up, nods, and drops his head again.
“Post-traumatic Stress,” I say quietly to Jane. “I’m a pastor. I’ve seen it so many times with Vietnam War and Iraq War veterans.”
“I think so,” she says. “He still can’t talk about it after all these years.”
The technician calls my name. “Mr. Stewart?”
As I stand to leave the stress test waiting room, Bill reaches up to say good-bye with a firm handshake and friendly smile for the whippersnapper from Chaska.
I leave the waiting room and get on the treadmill, reminded that there is stress and there is stress, knowing that mine bears no comparison to Bill’s and thankful for a few moments with a 94 year-old who has every reason to think he’s 96.
Today and tomorrow, as I zoom in on the televised public hearings on impeachment, I’m wondering what Bill would say.
An earlier Views from from the Edge post featured a brief summary of an unusual step: a Board of Trustees’ $27.6M action plan to redress institutional entanglement in institutional slavery and ongoing institutional racism. Here’s the full press release from Princeton Theological Seminary (founded in 1819) in Princeton, New Jersey.
PRESS RELEASE, Princeton, NJ, October 18, 2019
PRINCETON, N.J., October 18, 2019 – Princeton Theological Seminary’s Board of Trustees unanimously endorsed the implementation of a multi-year action plan to repent for its ties to slavery. The approved series of new initiatives, ranging from increased student financial assistance to curriculum changes to added support for the Center for Black Church Studies, is a direct response to a report the Seminary published in October 2018 after conducting a two-year historical audit.
“The report was an act of confession,” says John White, dean of students and vice president of student relations. “These responses are intended as acts of repentance that will lead to lasting impact within our community. This is the beginning of the process of repair that will be ongoing,” says White.
White served as chair of the historical audit recommendations task force, which included trustees, faculty, administrators, students, and alumni, who led a deliberative process to provide opportunities for the campus community to discuss and respond to the audit report. The task force hosted more than 25 events, meetings, and conversations on the campus in the previous academic year. Feedback gathered from students, faculty, administrators, and alumni was incorporated in the recommendations presented to the Seminary’s board. The Board of Trustees also conducted a year-long process of study.
“From the beginning,” says White, “the Board of Trustees has encouraged a thorough process of understanding our history that would lead to meaningful response.”
With an immediate rollout of the plan and continuation through 2024, the Seminary intends to make meaningful and lasting change with the more than 20 approved initiatives, including:
Offering 30 new scholarships, valued at the cost of tuition plus $15,000, for students who are descendants of slaves or from underrepresented groups
Hiring a full-time director of the Center for Black Church Studies
Hiring a new faculty member whose research and teaching will give critical attention to African American experience and ecclesial life
Changes in the Seminary curriculum, including a required cross-cultural component and integrating into the first-year curriculum for every master’s student sustained academic engagement with the implications of the historical audit
Designating five doctoral fellowships for students who are descendants of slaves or from underrepresented groups
Naming the library after Theodore Sedgwick Wright, the first African American to attend and graduate from Princeton Seminary
Naming the Center for Black Church Studies after Betsey Stockton a prominent African American educator in Princeton during the antebellum North and a Presbyterian missionary in the Sandwich Islands (present-day Hawaii). Prior to gaining freedom, Stockton was owned by the chair of Princeton Seminary’s Board of Trustees.
Enhancing community partnerships and supporting historically disenfranchised communities in and around Princeton
Ensuring every member of the Princeton Seminary community understands its history
A committee has been established to oversee the implementation of the plan and will regularly report progress to the board. The program costs for the responses represent a commitment of more than $1 million annually on an ongoing basis. To sustain this programming in perpetuity, $27.6 million will be reserved in the endowment.
“The Seminary’s ties to slavery are a part of our story. It is important to acknowledge that our founders were entangled with slavery and could not envision a fully integrated society,” says Princeton Seminary President M. Craig Barnes. “We are committed to telling the truth. We did not want to shy away from the uncomfortable part of our history and the difficult conversations that revealing the truth would produce.”
The historical audit uncovered that the Seminary did not own slaves and its buildings were not constructed with slave labor. Yet, the Seminary benefited from the slave economy, both through investments in Southern banks in the mid-19th century and from donors who profited from slavery. Also, founding faculty and leaders used slave labor at some point in their lives. Several of the first professors and board members were deeply involved in the American Colonization Society, which advocated sending free blacks to Liberia.
“Our response to the historical audit is the beginning of our community’s journey of repair as we seek to redress historic wrongs and to help the Seminary be more faithful to our mission as a school of the church, both now and in the years to come,” says Barnes. “We are taking tangible action to write a new chapter in our story.”
CONFESSION AND REPENTANCE: VIEWS FROM THE EDGE COMMENTARY ON CONTEXT OF PRESBYTERIAN ETHOS
A Prayer of Confession of Sin for “what we have done” and “what we have left undone“– like the one below — is an essential component of Presbyterian Church (USA) services of worship. We do it every Sunday as a habit.
Merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.
We have not loved you with our whole heart and soul and mind and strength.
We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
In your mercy, forgive what we have been, help us amend what we are, and direct what we shall be, so that we may delight in your will and walk in your ways, to the glory of your holy name.
At long last, this Wednesday (Nov. 13, 2019) we will see the faces, hear the voices, and watch the body language of the members of the House Intelligence Committee and those who testify. Witnesses to the quid pro quo — we’re no longer arguing whether there was a quid pro quo — will bring their testimonies. Members of the Committee will examine, weigh the evidence, and decide whether to recommend impeachment.
This Wednesday we will be ushered to our seat in the observer section through different doors chosen by the flip of remote to select the door that suits the conclusions to which we have already come. Some will be ushered in by Fox; some by MSNBC or CNN; a few who prefer no pundits, will watch it on C-Span. Those who walk through different doors to the left or the right will watch the same thing so differently that an outside observer might wonder whether we were seeing different things.
THE QUESTION AND THE VOICE OF THE DEAD
The question at issue is whether the President violated his oath to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution. As each of us considers the gravity of Mr. Trump’s quid pro quo with Mr. Zelensky, we might do well to listen to the dead. Our ancestors no longer belong to a political party. Some of the dead were patriots, others were not. The harshest critic sometime was a patriot while the one who talked incessantly of patriotism turns out to have been a scoundrel. G.K. Chesterton is among the dead who speak from the grave with wisdom and wit and a twinkle in his eye:
I have formed a very clear conception of patriotism, I have generally found it thrust into the foreground by some fellow who has something to hide in the background. I have seen a great deal of patriotism; and I have generally found it the last refuge of the scoundrel.
G.K. Chesterton, The Judgement of Dr. Johnson, Act III.
WHAT KIND OF “QUID PRO QUO?
Michael Mulvaney was right, and he was wrong in saying that quid pro quo‘s “happen all the time.” “Something for something” is not evil. I want an apple; you want an orange. II give you one of my apples; you give me one of your oranges. “We do it all the time.” “I’ll support the funding bill for bridge repair in your district, if you support the bill for road repair in my district.” We do it all the time. That’s the nature of politics in a democratic republic. We elect public servants to serve us within the wider context where local self-interests convene to get thing done by the art of compromise.
But this alleged wrongdoing is not that kind of legitimate quid pro quo between equals. There is nothing inherently unconstitutional in a “something for something” transaction to protect, preserve and defend the Constitution of the United States of America. The question is whether the President’s “something” (release of $300+ Million of military assistance with an invitation to the White House) in exchange for a conditional “something” (Ukrainian investigation of a likely opponent in the 2020 U.S. election with a public announcement by Mr. Zelensky) was in the best interest of the United States or whether it served his own personal purposes for re-election.
THE DEMOCRACY OF THE DEAD
The American Republic is still young among the nations, but we have a tradition, an inheritance of self-government under the Constitution and the rule of law. Tradition and freedom are not opposites. “Tradition means giving voice to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors,” wrote Chesterton, sounding like an Ojibwe teaching his people to make decisions after looking back seven generations of the ancestors and forward seven future generations yet unborn. “[Tradition] is the democracy of the dead.” — G.K. Chesterton, “The Ethics of Elfland” in Orthodoxy.
Was the President’s quid pro quo an act of patriotism, or was it the behavior of a scoundrel. If Donald Trump was a scoundrel, does the offense rise to the level of “high crimes and misdemeanors”?
How’d you talk if you couldn’t tweet? I tweet all the time. Watch! Mom hates it when I do this. I like FaceTime better. It’s more personal.
We sent letters. We wrote them with a pencil or a pen, put them in envelopes, licked the back of the postage stamps — if you had lots of letters, it took a long time — and we took them to the Post Office. The letters would arrive in two or three days, sometimes a week. We had to be patient back then. Everything was slower.
And we dialed phone numbers on rotary phones. I still remember our number on Church Lane, EL6-1490. Teddy Bonsall’s was EL6-1476. And sometimes, when I’d pick up the phone to dial Teddy, somebody else was already talking to somebody else on our phone. It was called “a party line“.
Wow! Did you have parties every day?
It’s hard to explain, Elijah. Maybe this will help. Search for the Postage Stamp Monologue on Mom’s iPad for a better feel for how grampa feels most of the time in your world.
Wow! He’s really mad, grampa! I’m glad you don’t have to lick postage stamps anymore or dial 999-999-9999, like Vanya. I got an idea! Let’s FaceTime Uncle Andrew and Calvin!
Gordon C. Stewart (Grandpa), Chaska, MN, Nov. 7, 2019.
Why a memory bubbles up in a particular moment often is a mystery. Other times an explanation does not require a Freudian or Jungian analyst.
I’m having breakfast at the Hyatt in downtown Minneapolis with former U.S. Attorney General Elliot Richardson. Just the two of us. We are meeting to get acquainted before the noon Westminster Town Hall Forumwhen I will introduce him to a packed house and the radio audience of Minnesota Public Radio (MPR).
“VOICES OF CONSCIENCE: KEY ISSUES IN ETHICAL PERSPECTIVE”
A singular moment of American history qualifies Elliot Richardson for the public forum that features “Voices of Conscience: Key Issues in Ethical Perspective.” Elliot Richardson was the United States Attorney General in the Nixon Administration, a lifelong Republican remembered for refusing President Richard Nixon’s order to fire Archibald Cox, the Special Prosecutor of the Watergate affair. The memory of Elliot Richardson’s act of courage is still fresh in the hearts and minds of those who respect the courage of conscience in American public life. Elliot Richardson refused to sell his soul to the White House.
“WHERE’S MY ROY COHN?”
The turmoil of 2019 seems explanation enough for the reappearance of the memory from twenty-two years ago.
Bill Barr became the Trump Administration Attorney General after Jeff Session angered the president for refusing to recuse himself from overseeing the Department of Justice investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. That was after FBI Director James Comey had been fired after a one-on-one private dinner at the White House when the president asked for Comey’s pledge of personal loyalty.
In the midst of failed attempts to secure personal loyalty, and nostalgic for the fealty of his former lawyer, whom Alan Derschowitz described as “the quintessential fixer,” the president’s is reported by the New York Times to have cried in a moment of exasperation, “Where’s my Roy Cohn?”
ROY COHN AND THE TACTICS OF JOSEPH MCCARTHY
Roy Cohn had been front and center stage on national television as Senator Joseph McCarthy’s Senate Committee hearings hunting for Communists and Communist sympathizers allegedly hidden in the U.S. military, government agencies, and the entertainment industry.
Edward R. Murrow‘s televised commentary featuring Army defense lawyer Joseph Welsh’s rebuke of McCarthy and his tactics brought McCarthy to a screeching halt:
“You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”
Joseph Welsh, Esq. statement to Sen. Joseph McCarthy, 1954.
THE LONG ARM OF ROY COHN
In the wake of Murrow’s broadcast and the turning of public opinion against McCarthy’s character assassinations of America’s political left as unpatriotic, Roy Cohn left McCarthy’s side to go into private practice. During the 30 years that followed, his clients were a rare assortment of the famous (the Archdiocese of New York, the New York Yankees and the team’s owner, George Steinbrenner; Aristotle Onassis) and the infamous (mob bosses “Fat Tony” Salerno, Carmine “the Cigar” Galante, extortionist “Teflon Don” John Gotti, and the owners of Studio 54 convicted of tax evasion, among others.
Roy Cohn became Donald Trump’s personal lawyer, mentor, and fixer, the master teacher who taught his disciple how to succeed in public life: require absolute loyalty, strike fear in anyone who dare oppose you, manipulate the media, attack harder when attacked, and demonize your opponents as public enemies. In the end, the disciple did to Cohn what Cohn had taught him to do. After the New York Supreme Court disbarred Roy Cohn and Cohn was dying from complications reportedly related to AIDS, the lawyer-fixer-mentor’s friend was no longer useful. The mentee dropped his loyal “friend” like a rock.
ELLIOT RICHARDSON and THE ARC OF THE MORAL UNIVERSE
Roy Cohn and Elliot Richardson had three things in common. They were lawyers. They had their moments in the national spotlight. They worked closely Republican Presidents. But they stand on opposite sides of history.
But, if “the arc of the moral universeis long, but … bends toward justice” (Martin Luther King, Jr., quoting Theodore Parker), the shadow of Joseph McCarthy and Roy Cohn is short and fleeting, and the memory of a courageous Republican who refused to sell his soul to the White House may yet awaken the party he would not recognize to surrender the question “Where’s my Roy Cohn?” for a different question:
Thursday’s New York Times (Oct. 31) reported that “Paula White, a televangelist based in Florida and personal pastor to President Trump whom he has known since 2002, has joined the Trump administration in an official capacity.” The White House announced the news the same day the House authorized its impeachment procedures.
If you’re an embattled president about to be impeached for betraying your oath of office to “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution,” you might welcome a spiritual advisor who, though lacking theological education credentials, confirms your view that you are engaged in spiritual warfare.
As one observer put it, “If you’re wealthy like Donald Trump is, and you have a preacher who says your wealth is a sign God approves of you, you’re probably going to like that preacher. And if there is one major element in Donald Trump’s religious beliefs, it would be this prosperity gospel.” — Tom Gjelten.
PAULA WHITE’S MESSAGE OF SPIRITUAL WARFARE
THE PROSPERITY GOSPEL IS NOT THE GOSPEL OF JESUS
Whatever the differences between evangelical Christians and progressive Christians on Biblical interpretation, there is general agreement that the gospel of Jesus and the “prosperity gospel” are very different gospels.
The Book of Amos and the Letter of James scorn the worship of wealth and privilege, and the teaching of Jesus consistently calls people to make friends with their enemies rather than seek their defeat. “You have heard it was said ‘you shall love your neighbor and hate your enemies’. But I say to you ‘love your enemies and do good to those who persecute you.'”
Furthermore, there is the matter of credentials. The majority of American Christian churches — progressive, orthodox, or evangelical — require three years of theological education beyond a Bachelor of Arts/Science as qualification for ordination. My denomination — Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) requires courses in Hebrew and Greek, the languages in which the Hebrew Bible and New Testament were written, as a qualification for ordination. Why? Because the people in the pews deserve preachers and teachers who know what they’re talking about before they set foot in the pulpit — or step on stage.
Paula White has no such credentials. She falsely claims to have a doctorate. Not even close. She never finished college, let alone graduate school. She’s an entertainer and a fraud whose performances belong on The Apprentice. “You’re fired!”
PAULA WHITE QUOTATIONS
There are many different ways that people get licensed or ordained through different ministries, denominations, etc. So – but for myself, there was no formal seminary.
I have nothing to be sorry about.
God takes what the enemy meant for your bad and turns it for your good! It wasn’t a set back but a set up! Wait and see what God is getting ready to do for you!
Some people left you for dead. They thought it was over. They said you’re hopeless, you’re helpless. You can’t be used. You’re not ministry material. You’re going to be poor. You’re going to be messed up. But guess what? Tell the devil, go to hell. You’re a liar.
YOU are on the verge of a complete breakthrough in every area of your life. Spiritually, Financially, and Relationally God has shown me that this is a season of victory for His people. As I went deeper in the Spirit the Lord revealed that before the breakthrough comes, certain things must be dealt with. Specifically, there must be a complete defeat of your enemies!
I don’t go where I’m tolerated. I go where I’m celebrated.
What I might have considered good, good doesn’t mean every day is going to be perfect, you’re going to have bad breath, your hair is not going to be in perfect place.
THE WAR ON THE CONSTITUTION
By most indications, the American constitutional crisis will only get worse as the White House continues to stonewall Congress and publicly whitewash itself with the likes of the appointment of Paula White. It could be worse. It could be Ms. White’s dear friend, Benny Hinn. It remains to be seen whether the American people will fall for it.
When my most intimate companion failed to respond as normal, I feared she had suffered a stroke like the cerebral hemorrhage that took Uncle Bob years ago. Uncle Bob was the smartest guy in South Paris, the Harvard Law valedictorian who, against all expectation, had made South Paris his home until he suddently dropped dead leading the Congregational Church’s Annual Meeting. He had shown no signs of stress during worship, directing the Choir from the organ bench as he had for 25 years. Church meetings are like that — they often raise a leader’s blood pressure — but this was different! All of a sudden he was gone.
Like Uncle Bob, she showed no signs of stress before retiring last night. She is the one who has done the most of anyone to encourage my writing and publishing — filing things away until I needed them, flagging a mis-spelled word or correcting faulty grammar. I’ve depended on her every day for the past six years. She is more than an assistant. Since the day we met, I’ve turned her on. This morning is different. Nothing turns her on.
I gently carry her to the garage, cover her with a blanket, and drive to the Urgent Care at the Southdale Mall. They admit her for tests and suggest I return in an hour in an hour or so.
“Do you have the time?” I ask.
He gives me a strange look and checks his iPhone. “It’s 10:30. We’ll text you when we’re done. Where can I reach you? What’s your number?”
“I don’t have a number.”
“Okay, how about an email?”
“I don’t have a mobile phone. You know, there are no public clocks anywhere anymore. Everybody’s in a bubble.”
He pauses and looks up. “Hmmm. You know . . .I hadn’t thought about that! Come to think of it, I guess you’re right. “Okay . . .well, just be back by 11:30.”
Anxious and alone with an hour to kill, I wander the corridor from shop to shop before going into Macy’s. It’s easy to distract yourself shopping, and Macy’s is just the place. You can find anything at Macy’s…except a clock. “Excuse me, do you have the time?” I ask the clerk in the men’s shoe department. It’s not a question he gets anymore. He glances at his iPhone, looks up, and, with a strange look, gives me the time: “10:45.”
With forty-five minutes to spare, I remember Macy’s famous Lakeside Grille and follow the confusing signs to catch a late breakfast or early lunch. I tell the waitperson I have an important appointment at 11:30 and ask for the time. “10:50,” he says. “I don’t have a phone. Would you be so kind as to give me a heads up when it’s 11:15?” He takes my order and agrees to notify me. I scarf down the Oktoberfest special of pork schnitzel, spaetzl, and green beans, wondering what time it is. The waitperson is nowhere to be seen. I ask another waitperson, “I’m sorry. Do you have the time?”
I rush back to Urgent Care, anxious about the test results. “Mr. Stewart,” says the neurologist, “I’m sorry. We ran all the tests and the news is not good, but it’s not beyond hope.” I breathe a sigh of relief, waiting for what comes next. “She’s still alive, but she needs immediate surgery. We have a neurologist standing by.” “What’s the cost,” I ask, knowing she has no insurance. “We can replace her keyboard for $485 so you can turn her on again, but she’s old. It’s only a matter of time before she goes. Or you can buy a new one for an additional six-hundred dollars or so. Your call.”
End of life decisions, like putting down my canine companion after fourteen years– are harder than others. For months after Maggie’s death, I swore I’d never get another dog. There’d never be another Maggie. I couldn’t bear the thought of holding another Maggie in my arms when her time would come.
“I’m a writer,” I say. “Like lots of other writers, I have ADHD and sometimes, like Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, I drink too much. I’m completely dependent on her for filing and saving my work. She keeps it all in her head. Besides she’s the only one I’ve ever turned on.”
“Not to worry, Mr. Stewart. If you leave her with us for 24 hours, we’ll be glad to download her memory to the new MacBook Air. We’ll treat her with great respect. We’ll take good care of things. We’ll be glad to recycle her free of charge. As Hemingway said, ‘Time is the last thing we have.'”
I leave her behind to be downloaded and recycled, grieving my loss, but consoled by the knowledge that, life Uncle Bob and Maggie, she will be in a safe place.
New Jersey is not the first place one expects to hear a public confession of slavery with an action plan to make reparations for institutional racism. It may, therefore, come as a surprise that Princeton Theological Seminary, the nation’s second oldest graduate school (1812), has put New Jersey on the map of the national debate about reparations.
Princeton Theological Seminary’s Board of Trustees has unanimously approved a plan that commits $27,000,000 for a five-year Reparations Action Plan and $1,000,000 each year thereafter in perpetuity.
EXCERPTS FROM PRINCETON THEOLOGICAL SEMINARY NEWS RELEASE
“’The Seminary’s ties to slavery are a part of our story. It is important to acknowledge that our founders were entangled with slavery and could not envision a fully integrated society,’ says Princeton Seminary President M. Craig Barnes. ‘We are committed to telling the truth. We did not want to shy away from the uncomfortable part of our history and the difficult conversations that revealing the truth would produce.
“The historical audit uncovered that the Seminary did not own slaves and its buildings were not constructed with slave labor. Yet, the Seminary benefited from the slave economy, both through investments in Southern banks in the mid-19th century and from donors who profited from slavery. Also, founding faculty and leaders used slave labor at some point in their lives. Several of the first professors and board members were deeply involved in the American Colonization Society, which advocated sending free blacks to Liberia.
“’Our response to the historical audit is the beginning of our community’s journey of repair as we seek to redress historic wrongs and to help the Seminary be more faithful to our mission as a school of the church, both now and in the years to come,’ says Barnes. ‘We are taking tangible action to write a new chapter in our story.’”
— Princeton Theological Seminary, PRINCETON, NEW JERSEY, October 18, 2019
Princeton is the oldest seminary of the Presbyterian Church (USA). Its announcement gives meaning to the prayer of confession and acts of repentance, strengthening hope that all religious communities and the nation itself will take responsibility for systemic institutional racism and move toward a just and equitable society.
Rev’d Gordon C. Stewart, Presbyterian Minister (HR), author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (click HERE for a look), Chaska, MN, October 29, 2019.
Today a rare mixture of people momentarily lay aside their differences to gather in Baltimore’s New Psalmist Baptist Church to give thanks to God for the life of Elijah Cummings. This is a community like few others — members of Congressman’s home church, constituents of his Congressional District, colleagues in the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate, the powerless and the powerful, the homeless and and the well-housed, the hungry and the well-fed; elected officials and career civil servants, maids and nannies and those who employ, red and yellow, back and white, all precious in God’s sight — convened at this most awkward moment when the Congressional impeachment inquiry, led by the deceased, has been called a ‘lynching’ by a child of white privilege.
James Cone — The Cross and the Lynching Tree
In The Cross and the Lynching Tree, the late Professor and author James Cone of Union Theological Seminary in NYC elucidates the blindness of white Christians who see no relation between the cross of Jesus and the lynching tree.
“In the “lynching era,” between 1880 to 1940, white Christians lynched nearly five thousand black men and women in a manner with obvious echoes of the Roman crucifixion of Jesus. Yet these “Christians” did not see the irony or contradiction in their actions.”
“The cross can heal and hurt; it can be empowering and liberating but also enslaving and oppressive. There is no one way in which the cross can be interpreted. I offer my reflections because I believe that the cross placed alongside the lynching tree can help us to see Jesus in America in a new light, and thereby empower people who claim to follow him to take a stand against white supremacy and every kind of injustice.”
Is it too much to hope and pray that today’s awkward moment in Baltimore help white Christians see the cross in the lynching tree, understand the sordid history of lynched (black) and lynchers (white), lay aside glib talk of a lynching, whether ignorant or intentional, and find our way beyond the collective sin of white supremacy.
Thank you, Elijah and James, for your witness and wisdom. The chariot has come to take you home. RIP.
The Honorable Elijah Cummings, the first African American to lie in State in the U.S. Capitol, was the son of sharecroppers. However courageous his parents and grandparents were, they knew that the lynching tree was just a breath away. They would have seen white nationalism up close. Neither they nor their son nor any other black man, woman, or child spoke of lynchings metaphorically. A lynching was a lynching; the body hanging from the tree was always black. The lynchers were always white.
NOT A LYNCHING
Elijah Cummings knew the difference between an impeachment inquiry and a lynching. As Chair of the powerful U. S. House Oversight and Reform Committee, he oversaw his committee’s impeachment inquiry with great care and due respect, as an honorable man who knew the difference between a bi-partisan investigation of facts and a one-party lynch mob. He was a Democrat committed to the truth, due process, and justice.
CONDOLENCES TWEET: VERY HARD TO REPLACE
Shortly after the Congressman’s death was announced, the president did a very presidential thing. He paid his respects:
My warmest condolences to the family and many friends of Congressman Elijah Cummings. I got to see first hand the strength, passion and wisdom of this highly respected political leader. His work and voice on so many fronts will be very hard, if not impossible, to replace!”
BEFORE CONDOLENCE TWEET
✔ @realDonaldTrump · Jul 27, 2019 Rep, Elijah Cummings has been a brutal bully, shouting and screaming at the great men & women of Border Patrol about conditions at the Southern Border, when actually his Baltimore district is FAR WORSE and more dangerous. His district is considered the Worst in the USA…… ✔ @realDonaldTrump ….As proven last week during a Congressional tour, the Border is clean, efficient & well run, just very crowded. Cumming District is a disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess. If he spent more time in Baltimore, maybe he could help clean up this very dangerous & filthy place.
AFTER CONDOLENCES: WHITE PRIVILEGE, LYNCHINGS, AND TIT FOR TAT
Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump)So some day, if a Democrat becomes President and the Republicans win the House, even by a tiny margin, they can impeach the President, without due process or fairness or any legal rights. All Republicans must remember what they are witnessing here – a lynching. But we will WIN! (1 day ago).
MAKING SENSE OUT OF WHAT DOES NOT MAKE SENSE
With the exception of the group of psychiatric professionals who have expressed their diagnoses about the President’s mental health, most professionals adhere to the strict protocol resisting diagnosing a person the practitioner does not know. If a professional in the field cannot and should not diagnose, neither should we. Yet we know Donald Trump better than many people know their own families. I’m a retired clergyman, not a psychiatrist, but I recognize the behavioral signs of mental illness.
general disregard towards safety and responsibility
a tendency to take risks,
being deceitful with frequent lying.
Someone exhibiting this behavior may also:
lack deep emotional connections,
have a superficial charm about them,
be very aggressive,
and get very angry sometimes.
Other behaviors that may be signs of ASPD include:
don’t care if they have hurt someone,
are impulsive and abusive and lack remorse.
In the case of ASPD, abusive doesn’t necessarily mean violent.
“I WILL PRAY FOR YOU”
To call a Congressional impeachment inquiry a “lynching” insults Elijah Cummings, all descendants of chattel slavery, and the U.S. Constitution’s provision for removal of a president from office after a public trial. An impeachment trial is not a lynching. Few people know that better than the Congressman who lies in State while the President lies.
Elijah Cummings was a man of character who practiced his faith, an exception to the rule of retaliation. The beloved Congressman from Baltimore is one of only two people on “the Hill” I’ve heard say of the president, “I will pray for you.”
Max Coots was our family’s John Muir, Robert Frost, and Wendell Berry. He was a naturalist and poet whose whimsy and wit lifted people from the doldrums of the harsh winters of the New York North Country. Max’s Seasons of the Self spoke to me years ago. His poem “A Harvest of People” — found during an internet search — put me again in the presence of his wit, wisdom, and gentle spirit.
Let us give thanks for a bounty of people:
For generous friends, with smiles as bright as their blossoms. For feisty friends as tart as apples; For continuous friends who, like scallions and cucumbers, keep reminding us that we’ve had them. For crotchety friends, as sour as rhubarb and as indestructible; For handsome friends, who are as gorgeous as eggplants and as elegant as a row of corn; and the others as plain as potatoes and as good for you. For friends as unpretentious as cabbages, as subtle as summer squash, as persistent as parsley, as endless as zucchini, and who, like parsnips, can be counted on to see you through the winter. For old friends, nodding like sunflowers in the evening-time. For young friends, who wind around like tendrils and hold us.
We give thanks for friends now gone, like gardens past that have been harvested, but who fed us in their times that we might live.
Max Coots was Minister of the Unitarian-Universalist Church in Canton, New York for thirty-five years. Every August, he found solitude along the Grasse River in the barn board retreat he’d built with materials he’d rescued from the dump. Max had a solar shower in 1973.
The other twelve months, Max was an old beech tree, providing shade in summertime and dropping beech nuts from the pulpit that kept alive a host of chipmunks and squirrels in wintertime.
— Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, October 22, 2019.
“No one can be a speaker without risk to his soul unless first he is fulfilled when he says nothing….”Who enjoys tranquility? “The one who doesn’t take seriously either praise or lack of it from people.” – Thomas à Kempis (1379-1471)
Elijah Cummings never seemed to get too big for his britches. He seemed unaffected by praise or the lack of it — “a speaker” whose soul was uncorrupted by the need for public praise.
The child of sharecroppers, he stayed grounded in the black church in the “rat and rodent infested” city of Baltimore where he was free to be just another brother moaning the Blues and shouting the gospel shout in a stormy world, as Otis Moss III put it, while those enjoying the ease of white privilege were quiescent and mum, or worse.
America is living stormy Monday, but the pulpit is preaching happy Sunday. The world is experiencing the Blues, and pulpeteers are dispensing excessive doses on nonprescription prosaic sermons. . . . The church is becoming a place where Christianity is nothing more than capitalism in drag.
Every year, every week, every year for 40 years, Elijah Cummings went back and forth between a different kind of church the mixes the Blues Moan and the Gospel Shout in such a way that they cannot be separated, and his chair in the United States Congress, where being yourself everywhere everyday all the time poses a daunting challenge. His long-time friend and pastor at New Psalm Baptist Church, Bishop Walter Thomas, said of him:
He’s the congressman, but to members, he is Brother Elijah Cummings. … He’s one of us. . . He sits in Congress. He has major concerns and issues he has to solve in the world Monday through Friday, and he sits beside them on Sunday morning. He seeks the same place to be fed as they do. To them, he is their brother in Christ.
Baltimore Sun, October 17, 2019
On stormy Mondays at the Capitol in recent weeks, we observed the Chair of the House of Representatives Oversight and Reform Committee fulfill his oath of office by demanding the truth from those in power while expressing compassion for those whom others scorn. The only ‘t’ he knew was ‘truth’; the only club to which he belonged had no entry fee. Insisting on the truth, he was a lion who roared like the Hebrew prophet Amos. “Come on now! We can do better!”
THE BLUE NOTE GOSPEL
When speaking to the “fixer” who had told the truth, the lion became as gentle as a lamb, expressing God’s anguish like the prophet Hosea. Speaking directly to Michael, he was a grandfather who practiced the Blue Note Gospel.
“I don’t know why this is happening for you. But it’s my hope that a small part of it is for our country to be better.”
Let me tell you the picture that really, really pained me. You were leaving the prison, you were leaving the courthouse, and, I guess it’s your daughter, had braces or something on. Man, that thing—man, that thing hurt me. As a father of two daughters, it hurt me. And I can imagine how it must feel for you. But I’m just saying to you—I want to first of all thank you. I know that this has been hard. I know that you’ve faced a lot. I know that you are worried about your family. But this is a part of your destiny. And hopefully this portion of your destiny will lead to a better, a better, a better Michael Cohen, a better Donald Trump, a better United States of America, and a better world. And I mean that from the depths of my heart.
Whether speaking with Michael or challenging those of his colleagues who returned home to the tees and greens of privilege, Elijah Cummings was the same. He was one person everywhere every day all the time. His integrity stayed intact.
“When we’re dancing with the angels, the question will be asked: In 2019, what did we do to make sure we kept our democracy intact? Did we stand on the sidelines and say nothing?”
“Come on now! We can do better than this!”
Elijah Cummings to the House of Representatives Oversight and Reform Committee
— Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, October 18, 2019. For commentaries on the blues of white privilege, see “The Stories We Tell Ourselves” (p.71) and “The Forlorn Children of the Mayflower” (66f.) in Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness(2017, Wipf & Stock, Eugene, OR).
It’s 4:02 A.M. I should be asleep. I’m wrestling with an enigma, the one that looks back from the mirror. Shortly before calling it a day last night, I came upon the enigma, and having found it, couldn’t let it go, or it could be said that finding me, it wouldn’t let me go.
Looking at the clock next to the bed moments ago brought to mind the line from Chaim Potok about the “four-o’clock-in-the-morning questions.” Potok’s four-o’clock-in-the-morning questions arose from the dissonance of a traditional Hasidic Jew in a modern culture that does not know the Torah and the Talmud.
I brew a pot of coffee, pour a cup, sit down with my MacBook Air, and return to the enigma I met last night.
The riddle in my mirror
For now [in our immaturity] we see in a mirror [an αίνιγμα — ‘enigma/riddle’], but then [when we come to maturity] we will see face to face. Now I know in part [in fragments], but then I will know fully, just as I have been fully known [by God].
First Corinthians 13:12, GCS Greek to English translation
The Greek word αίνιγμα has nothing to do with dimness or poor eyesight (“now we see in a mirror dimly“). It’s deeper than that. It’s vexation. We are puzzles to ourselves, knowing some pieces of ourselves, but not having all the pieces of the puzzle(s). And the Greek text is better translated as ‘mature’ rather than ‘perfect’.
No question is more puzzling than the ancient question of who we are. Who am I, the man who cuts himself shaving in the mirror? Who are we, this evolving species changing day by day in this time of climate departure when the future of life on the planet is uncertain? Who and what are we becoming?
Sixteenth Century reformer John Calvin began his theological opus with these laser-like sentences at the tender age of 27 years old:
Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid Wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But as these are connected together by many ties, it is not easy to determine which of the two precedes and gives birth to the other.
How I came to see life is rooted in this theological tradition. Like the characters of Potok’s novels who feel alone wrestling with the ancient Hebrew texts (Torah and Talmud), in one hand, and the culture of a very different time and place, those of us who still get up early in the morning with excitement of exploring an ancient Greek text highjacked by the Christian Right often feel placeless. Vexation is not popular, but, like Chaim Potok, I tell myself that wrestling with the riddle is who we are.
The face of my father
Looking in the mirror, I know less than I once thought, about the huge vexing questions of 2019. I’ll never have all the pieces or solve the enigma, but I do have some guiding fragments. I see my father’s kindly face looking back at me and reach up to the bookshelf to fetch the Bible which contains a pearl of great price: the prayer written by his own hand in pencil:
O Thou before whom ages pass away like minutes and in whose sight the mighty hosts of men are like a sparrow in the hand, keep our faith strong in Thee, confidence unshaken — Give clear insight as [we] face the days ahead. Help us so to entrust ourselves to Thy hands that in the awareness of Thy faithfulness we find all the security we need and in Thy service all our peace.
Then the news broke in that Elijah Cummings died at approximately 2:45 A.M. this morning at Johns Hopkins Medical Center in Baltimore. Congressman Cummings was a man of deep faith, a beacon of compassion and integrity who spoke kindly words of hopeto Michael Cohen about the power of forgiving grace while chairing a House of Representatives Oversight Committee hearing. Elijah Cummings died in the city he loved and served as a public servant in service to his Lord.
First Corinthians 13 concludes with words of consolation and hope, the clue to living the riddle. “So faith, hope, and love abide, but the greatest of these is love.”
Saint Peter: Greetings, Donald. I’ve been expecting you, but not so soon. I have a few questions before you go through the Pearly Gates to the streets of gold.
Donald: Sure, fire away. I’m very familiar with pearly gates. It can’t be much better than Mar-a-Lago. Fire away!
Okay, Donald. But I have to warn you–everyone up here is equal. There are no private clubs. No towers. No penthouses. No White Houses. No barrios. No borders. No trade restrictions. No nations. No classes other than the de-programming and re-training classes. Everyone has free medical care. No one is rich. No one is poor. It’s a lot like Karl Marx hoped society would be … except for God. Karl was surprised. Are you ready?
Are you serious!!! Why would I want to go in there? This is crazy. Karl Marx was evil. Communism was evil. Socialism is evil. Obama’s evil. Nancy’s evil! Are they here?
Barack and Nancy haven’t arrived yet, but, when their time comes, we’ll treat them the same way we treat everyone else. Lots of your friends are here in the re-training course: Joe[McCarthy], Roy [Cohn], other members of the Trump family.
What about Karl? He’s been dead a long time.
Karl is enjoying the pleasures of the equality he preached while still with you. Karl’s big surprise was that there is a God.
I don’t want to be any place where Karl is welcome. Jerry [Falwell] andFranklin [Graham] told me all about the Judgment. No way Karl is here! No way!
I guess that’s a matter of judgment, don’t you think?
Right. I’m President. I make the judgments. I decide.
I see. It seems you don’t quite get it, Donald. There are no presidents here. No one owns any property here. Everyone here is a child, just like Jesus said. Can I call you ‘Donnie’?
No. I hate that! Mother called me ‘Donnie’. My dad called me ‘Don’.
Okay, Don, I won’t call you ‘Donnie’.
And don’t call me ‘Don’. Dad kicked me out of the house and sent me away to a military academy. I hated that!
Do you still have them? Show me your foot. Everyone up here has bare feet. There are no shoes. Nothing is hidden. Let me see your foot.
No, they’re gone!
Donald, bone spurs don’t just go away, and, when they’ve been removed, the foot will bear the scars from surgery. Show me your foot.
I don’t have a scar! My sister came to the rescue with EZorb. It went away! I’m not hiding anything. I don’t hide things like the fake news and the whistleblowers.
I see. Donald we have a truth problem. Your sister couldn’t have given you EZorb. It didn’t exist when the draft board gave you the deferments. Truth is truth up here, Donald.
That’s fake news! Fake news! You’re part of the deep state that was out to get me.
I’m sorry you feel that way, Donald. Here it doesn’t matter how you feel. It matters what you did. Only facts matter here.
I was making America great again. I’m not like you. I never let a maid expose me out in the courtyard!
You’re in for a great surprise. This is not Mar-a-Largo. Here the maids who spoke truth in the courtyards and cleaned the toilets, and all the undocumented workers, are equal to everyone else. It’s only a matter of time before your family’s driver and all those people at the border join the maids and me up here.
You believe everything you read in the Times? What driver?
I don’t know anything about that! It’s all fake news. All fake news!
I’m sorry, Donald. You’ve failed the test. But, like I said, there’s grace here. Feel free take a seat here outside the Pearly Gates until your family’s driver and all the other ICE detainees arrive. In the meantime, a little scripture might help prepare you for the re-training.
I don’t need re-training by a loser, a big time lose just like Judas! Anyway, I didn’t bring my Bible.
I know! You don’t have a Bible, Donald. So…Click THIS LINK for Jesus’s surprising story of the sheep and the goats, the parable of the Last Judgment, to help you understand why people go through re-training here. The Losers turn out to be Winners, and the Winners are Losers. We do our best up here to keep hell empty!
— Gordon C. Stewart. public theologian, Chaska, MN, October 16, 2019
Whether the American constitutional republic survives the present crisis depends on us no less than it did when Thomas Paine challenged the American public at the beginning of the American experiment.
THE AMERICAN CRISIS: THOMAS PAINE
These are the times that try men’s souls: the summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. – Common Sense.
Thomas Paine was the American Revolution journalist whose pamphlets by the title “Common Sense” supported independence from the British crown. Paine published those words on December 19, 1776 in Pennsylvania Journal. He spoke them to the American Continental Army one week later.
SHRINKING OR STANDING
The American crisis then was the survival of a dream. Would the American people stand up or would they be fair-weather patriots — summer soldiers and sunshine patriots?
In April 1775 the colonists had begun the rebellion against King George and all things royal, but the temptation to return to monarchical rule has never be far away. The result of the revolution was a democratic republic based on a non-monarchical constitution that divided the powers of government into three separate and equal branches — congressional, executive, and judicial. The U.S. Constitution was crafted to establish limits on executive authority. There would be no king in the new American democratic republic.
BEN FRANKLIN WARNING
In these sentiments, Sir, I agree to this Constitution, with all its faults, – if they are such; because I think a general Government necessary for us, and there is no form of government but what may be a blessing to the people, if well administered; and I believe, farther, that this is likely to be well administered for a course of years, and can only end in despotism, as other forms have done before it, when the people shall become so corrupted as to need despotic government, being incapable of any other.
BEN FRANKLIN, SPEECH TO THE CONSTITUTIONAL CONVENTION, JUNE 28, 1787.
“WHEN THE PEOPLE SHALL BECOME SO CORRUPTED”
Well-administered government is necessary for us. The success of the American experiment. i.e. a non-monarchical democratic republic, depended on an uncorrupted electorate and uncorrupted administration of the three equal branches under the new U.S. Constitution.
Government itself is not evil. Despotism is. Despotic government is the end product of a corrupted people incapable of the uncertain complexities of the separation of powers. The desire for a strong man in times of uncertainty like ours is only checked by the protections of the U.S. Constitution. A strong man is not King George. Franklin saw the elevation of a corrupt despot by a corrupted people above the equal powers of Congress and the judiciary as the nation’s greatest threat. The longing for the return of King George was the stuff of summer soldiers and sunshine patriots.
THE KNOT OF CRUELTY AND RECKLESSNESS
The knot in my stomach has a history. I remember the same knot while watching Joseph McCarthy and Roy Cohn until Joseph Welch spoke the lines that would stop McCarthy: “Until this moment . . . . I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness. . . . . You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency? Have you no sense of decency left?”
The U.S. Senate later censured McCarthy for his reckless character assassinations of his fellow citizens whose left-of-center politics he suspected of communist sympathies or allegiances. McCarthy all but disappeared. Roy Cohn did not. Cohn went on to become the lawyer for media mogul Rupert Murdoch ; Mafia figures Tony Salerno, Carmine Galante, and John Gotti;and real estate developer Donald Trump. “In 1986, a five-judge panel of the Appellate Division of the New York State Supreme Court disbarred Cohn for unethical and unprofessional conduct, including misappropriation of clients’ funds, lying on a bar application, and pressuring a client to amend his will.” (Roy Cohn, Wikipedia)
Only an informed electorate that persistently demands uncorrupted government under the division of powers of the U.S. Constitution will save us from the despotic government a corrupted people deserve. This is a time that tries our souls. Those who stand now will be loved and thanked by their children and grandchildren.
“What’s the book about?” asked friends while preparing Be Still! for publication. I would scratch my head and answered as best I could: “It’s about a certain kind of calm and resistance in a world gone mad.” The release of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness, through no intention of the publisher or the author, coincided with the inauguration of a new president (January 2017).
QUIET! BE STILL!
The title “Be Still!” is taken from Psalm 46 — “Be still, and know that I am God” — and from the Gospel according to Mark story of the command to the storm-tossed sea: “Quiet! Be still!” Both the psalm and “the stilling of the storm” address our plight — the mass dehumanization which Holocaust surviver Elie Wiesel called “collective madness”.
How to explain the Holocaust is a life-long question for my generation. Elie Wiesel‘s “collective madness” comes as close as any other to the daunting question of why the German people fell for a madman and stayed quiet.
[F]ew Germans after the war would confess having given any loyalty to the Nazi movement. This was not a lie in the soul of the German nation; it was a part of a collective delusion that all the fascist movements brought upon their followings. It was as if the movements themselves, as things independent of the men that embodied them, were responsible for the things that happened.
Well-publicized among Germans, already before Hitler came to power and during a period when he still depended on their consent rather than coercion, were the many actual deeds of butchery…. Some day the same Germans, now cheering Hitler’s strut into Paris, will say to their American friends and to their brave German anti-Nazi friends: “We did not know what went on, we did not know” and when that day of know-nothing comes, there will be laughter in hell.
For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.
Epistle to the Ephesians 6:12 (KJV)
The language of the Bible regarding principalities – the ruling authorities, the angelic powers, the demons, and the like – sounds, I suppose, strange in modern society, but these words in fact refer to familiar realities in contemporary life. The principalities refer to those entities in creation which nowadays are called institutions, ideologies, and images. Thus a nation is a principality. Or the Communist ideology is a principality. Or the public image of a human being, say a movie star or a politician, is a principality. The image or legend of Marilyn Monroe or Franklin Roosevelt is a reality, distinguishable from the person bearing the same name, which survives and has its own existence apart from the existence of the person.
Thirty-three months after the release of Be Still!, many of my generation hear echos from 1933. Though the “enemies” are different, the tactics and the language of national purification are the same, defying rational explanation. The principalities and powers which survive have their own existence apart from the persons who come under the spell of collective delusion and collective madness.
DISARMING THE PRINCIPALITIES AND POWERS
We humans are social creatures. but we are do not do well when herds become the substitute for self-critical community. The still, small Voice is heard away from the clamor. The life of a nation and every other principality and power is a spiritual matter before and after it is a political matter.
“Be still! Shut up! and know that I am God. I am exalted among the nations” (Psalm 46).
Americans say the word ‘love’ a lot! Nearly all of us do. But, except for members of the armed forces, we don’t much like the word ‘duty‘. How is it, then, that one of the greatest intellects of the 20th century known for his often inscrutable philosophical theology, Paul Tillich, put ‘love’ and ‘duty’ together in one short sentence?
The first duty of love is to listen.
Perhaps Tillich’s German culture might help explain his coupling duty and love. Duty is higher on German culture’s ladder of human virtues than in Tillich’s adopted home in the United States where ‘freedom’ rather than ‘duty’ is seen as love’s companion.
WATCHING LESTER HOLT AT THE RESTAURANT BAR
Lester Holt of NBC’s Nightly News is on the television screens behind the bar. Kay sits to my left; a stranger is on my right. We can’t hear the sounds, but the visuals leave no doubt about the day’s lead stories:
Sixteen year-old climate change activist Greta Thunberg is at the podium of the United Nations, issuing an urgent call for action now, before it’s too late.
The President of the USA drops by the meeting on climate change . . . for 15 minutes;
Speaker Nancy Pelosi announces an impeachment inquiry, a decision taken in consideration of the Trump-appointed Inspector-General’s finding that a whistleblower’s complaint appears credible and is of urgent concern to national security.
The guy sitting to my right watches in silence. He looks neither happy nor unhappy. He seems perplexed, staring at Lester and the verbal summaries of each news item.
Finally he shakes his head and breaks the silence. “Just like that Mueller thing. They already wasted thirty-million dollars on that Russian thing, and they got nothing. Now they’re going to waste our tax money again.” I shake my head “No” and ask whether he knows that the Mueller report does not exonerate the president on the question of obstruction of justice. He listens and says he didn’t know that. I continue, rather politely, or so I thought, until reading the note my wife slipped in front of me:
You’ve just ruined this place for us.
The 20-something bartender chimes in from behind the bar. “I don’t care about politics. All I know is — any politician who doesn’t take a paycheck is okay by me. I’m good with that.” I bite my lip and order a second Manhattan. Being human is hard!
LOVE’S FIRST DUTY: JESUS, A PHARISEE, AND W.H. AUDEN
The guys at the bar don’t know I’m a Presbyterian and couldn’t care less if they did. But I should have told them! A bit like the Friends (“Quakers”), we hold a high respect for the right and duty of conscience. We stand up for what is right, true, and good, as we understand it. In doing so, we are often guilty of ignoring the log in our own eye while pointing to the speck in our neighbor’s. Given that I’d ruined our favorite place, it’s not likely we’ll see each other again. And that’s a shame, all because I’d forgotten that the deepest duty of conscience is to love, and the first duty of love is to listen.
The Pharisee was right when he answered Jesus’s question about the summary of the Law. “You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength and love your neighbor as yourself.” Or, as W.H. Auden put it:
You shall love your crooked neighbor, with your crooked heart.
“Either we serve the Unconditional/Or some Hitlerian monster will supply/ An iron convention to do evil by.”
A conversation between two year-old Elijah and old Grandpa (Bumpa)
Bumpa, you’re old. You know LOTS of stuff. What’s a crater?
Where’d you hear about craters, Elijah? Have you been watching the nature channel at daycare?
We don’t have the nature channel at daycare. We watch stuff for kids on PBS.
I don’t think we have any craters here in Minnesota.
Whew! So we don’t have to look out for craters?
Are you sure you have the right word?
Yeah. It’s all over the news this week. Didn’t you watch Adam Sniff?
Let’s make sure we’re talking about the same thing. Let’s look it up.
Yeah, let’s look it up. You want to do it? Or you want me to do it?
Let’s do it together on my iPad. I’ll be right back.
You don’t to have go upstairs, Bumpa. I don’t want ya falling. I have Mom’s iPhone right here. I use it all the time.
Okay, just google the word ‘crater’ and let’s see what comes up.
I don’t spell yet. I’m still liddle, but I know my ABCs. Sometimes in my car seat I punch a bunch of buttons and somebody Mom doesn’t know talks to me on FaceTime!
Okay. Let Bumpa do it. I’m 77. Okay?
Let’s just google crater and see what we learn.
Finding Wikipedia satellite photo in Google search
There we go, Elijah. Here’s a picture of Crater Lake in Oregon. Gandpa and Grandma have been to see it.
Here’s what it says on Wikipedia:
Around 7,700 years ago, Mount Mazama erupted in Oregon, disgorging 15 cubic miles of magma over the western United States. It took a quarter of a millennium of snow and rain to fill the caldera with the serene waters wanderlust hikers now know as Crater Lake. Image from a RapidEye satellite.
Wikipedia Crater lake description.
I don’t get it, Bumba! So why would anyone call somebody a ‘crater’? We’re not sposed to call people names, right?
Right! Maybe you have the wrong word. Or the wrong spelling. What was the other word you asked about?
Elijah asks about creezins
Yeah. Creezin! It’s like craters! Don’t you ever listen to the news?
I do. I listen to MPR when I’m driving.
Yeah, Mom and I do too on the way to daycare and on the way home. We get lots of news. It’s an hour drive each way. It’s like ‘crater’.
I see. Was there a volcanic eruption? I must have missed it.
Geez! It’s all over the news. Creezin! Everybody’s talking about it. Don’t ya know?
You mean raisins? Granpa eats raisin bran every morning.
Uh-oh! Are they going to throw you and Gamma out? Are they going to de-peach you cause you eat raisin bran? You’re white, but don’t live in a white house, right? Did you commit creezin?
Not to worry, Elijah. We’re safe. Grandma and are not going to be de-peached. Any other word you don’t understand?
Elijah asks Bumpa about cranes
Yeah. Ucrane. We have sandhill cranes and trumpeter swans at the cabin, right? Are there any ucranes?
We have sandhill cranes and frumpeter swans on the wetland, Elijah. So far as we know, there are no cranes by rhe cabin. It’s a long way from the news.
We’re like Greta, right? We’re conservationists, right, Bumpa? Do ucranes whistle? Or do they also whoop and honk?
–Conversation between Grandpa (Bumpa) and 2 yr.-old grandson (Elijah), Chaska, MN, September 28, 2019.
Who are we? Can we suspend shouting long enough to reflect on who and what we in the United States aspire to be? By what social norms do we measure a person’s or a nation’s well-being? A culture’s shared values form the foundation on which a society is built. Every culture is both an inheritance and a work in process. Without thoughtful care, time and neglect eat away the mortar between the foundation’s bricks.
FOUNDATIONS OF A DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC
The Constitution represents the boundaries of that consensus. If we didn’t know it before, we know in 2019 that the constitutional republic we call the United States of America is no Eden. Lord knows, Abel’s blood still cries out from our history and Cain’s inexplicable, impulsive violence will stain our hands again. Repeatedly. Sin is like that. It crouches at the door as in the Genesis legend. There is no perfect culture or society. Although we miss the mark (which is what the biblical word ‘sin’ means) by intention or by inattention, it falls on each of us to reaffirm and refresh the cultural code and ethical norms by which we measure ourselves personally and collectively. These measures are not abstract.
TRADITIONAL CULTURAL’S MORTAR — NORMS AND MEASURES
Don’t call people names.
Don’t make fun of people
Be honest/tell the truth
Your word is your bond
Deal fairly with each other
Empathize with those less fortunate than yourself
Be generous with your money
Help those who suffer
Be true to yourself, but be ready to compromise
Settle disagreements peacefully
Don’t get too big for your britches
Do not show off
Be above board in your dealings with others
Love your family
Respect the individual right to religious belief and practice
Honor the principle of free speech
Protect a free press
Be courageous and patient
TUCKPOINTING THE MORTAR
Check out the mortar. Is it holding? Where does it need tuck pointing? Re-assess traditional culture’s tangible ways of measuring the quality of human life. Delete those you consider outdated. Add other measures you believe should be added. Then look in the mirror. Look at your behavior. Look at what you choose to watch and hear. Think again about who and what you want us to be. See the mortar crumbling. But don’t stop there. Despair is no excuse. Get up and do something to repair the foundation of humankind’s best nature.
— Gordon C. Stewart by the wetland, September 16, 2019
“Watching Dorian’s devastation of the Bahamas while being hit by an avalanche of tweets that treat tragedy as a television opportunity has left me speechless. Nothing from the White House connects the dots — the growing frequency of 100 year storms, floods, and fires (weather) — with an urgent call to act now on climate change. The planet’s lungs are on fire in the Amazon while the man who promises to make american great again shreds established regulations put in place to protect water, air, our forests, and soil. Meanwhile $3.1 B are stripped from FEMA and national security to pay for the wall for which we were promised the Mexican government would pay. I feel like the psalmist. ‘How long, Lord? How long?'”
Those words went up on FB yesterday, breaking a long silence on FB and here on Views from the Edge. That was before reading Katha Pollitt’s piece in The Nation. “Almost Everything Bad that Trump Did This Summer” details some of the Trump Administration behavior between June 3 and September 1, 2019.
Uhuh! I’m watching it right now, Bumpa. It’s real! The Big Bad Pig destroys the three houses of the three liddle wolves.
There’s a story Bumpa and Gamma grew up with, but it’s the Big Bad Wolf who’s bad. The Big Bad Wolf huffs and he puffs and he blows down two of the three little pigs’ houses but can’t blow down the third little pig’s house because the third little pig build his house of brick. The Big Bad Wolf couldn’t blow it down.
Nope! Different story! This is about the Big Bad Pig. Pigs are greedy, Bumpa. Pigs are nasty! The Big Bad Pig blows up all the houses, even the one made with brick and the one made of concrete. But then the three liddle wolves give up on security. They build a house made of flowers!
I remember standing with my classmates at Marple Elementary School for a period of silence on November 11. It was Armistice Day, the anniversary of the end of World War I.
Observing the silence was hard! It wasn’t happy; it was sad. It was an enforced unhappy silence to remember what none of us kids wanted to remember: those who had died in an antique time in service to their country, and the horrors of war itself. I must have wondered why our teachers would enforce a sad silence that made us unhappy. In 1954 Armistice Day became Veterans Day in America. (Click HERE for information about the change.)In Canada, Europe, Great Britain, and Australia, November 11 is called Remembrance Day.
On Remembrance Day I was at home listening to the radio . . . when the time came for the Two Minutes Silence. Suddenly the radio itself went quiet. I had not moved to turn the dial or adjust the volume. There was something extraordinarily powerful about that deep silence from a ‘live’ radio, a sense that, alone in my kitchen, I was sharing the silence with millions. I stood for the two minutes, and then, suddenly, swiftly, almost involuntarily, wrote this sonnet. You can hear the sonnet, as I recorded it on November 11th three years ago, minutes after having composed it, by clicking . . . clicking on the title.
November pierces with its bleak remembrance
Of all the bitterness and waste of war.
Our silence tries but fails to make a semblance
Of that lost peace they thought worth fighting for.
Our silence seethes instead with wraiths and whispers,
And all the restless rumour of new wars,
The shells are falling all around our vespers,
No moment is unscarred, there is no pause,
In every instant bloodied innocence
Falls to the weary earth, and whilst we stand
Quiescence ends again in acquiescence,
And Abel’s blood still cries in every land
One silence only might redeem that blood
Only the silence of a dying God.
William Blake painting of “Cain fleeing from the wrath of God “as Adam and Eve look on in horror following the fratricide.
All these years later, I still struggle with silence on November 11, and on days like yesterday, the 80th anniversary of The Night of Broken Glass (Kristallnacht). Yet, as a person of faith who knows darkness as well as light, I have learned over the years to silence the radio for an unenforced Two Minute Silence.
Abel’s blood still cries in every land
One silence only might redeem that blood
Only the silence of a dying God
— Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, November 11, 2018.
“Create in me a clean heart, O God…” is a well-known prayer from the Psalms. It’s context — its back-story — is not so familiar.
Psalm 51 is a prayer attributed to David. It is not a quiet prayer. It is a wrenching, sobbing prayer, the words tumbling from David’s mouth in halting phrases and stammers with tears flooding his eyes, streaming down his cheeks.
The Inward Being
“Behold, You seek truth in the inward being;
therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.” (Psalm 51:6)
Is the secret heart the deepest place in us, the place where God is: the equivalent or synonym for “the inward being” – a poetic parallelism of Hebrew poetry? Or is it, perhaps, the secret place where we hide from God: the hiding place where we go off to a different heart than the Divine heart? Or could it be both at the same time?
David’s secret heart is dirty and he knows it. He cannot wash the stain of blood from his hands. “Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,” he cries out, “and cleanse from my sin! For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.” It is a scene from Shakespeare’s Macbeth:
“Out, damn spot! OUT, I say…. all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand. Oh, oh, oh!”
The Hebrew Psalms are like that. They are not sanitized. They plunge the reader into the conflict between the reader’s inmost being, the true secret heart, you might say – the heart that pumps life into us – and the secret heart of our flight from truth and goodness, the heart of deception and self-deception.
Why is David crying out? What has he done? What is the sin that is ever before him, the blood he can’t wash from his own hands?
A Response to Accusation
Psalm 51 comes in response to an accusation that has exposed the bloody behavior his secretive heart has produced. It is Nathan, David’s commander on the battlefront, who confronts David with the truth.
Nathan has just returned from the front to tell David that Uriah, the King’s next door neighbor, a man of impeccable loyalty valor, Bathsheba’s husband, whom David’s scheming heart has sent off to war, is dead! His blood is on David! Nathan has spoken the truth to power.
There is no wisdom in David’s secret heart. There is treachery there.
“Purge me!” cries David. Imagine Richard Burton at his most dramatic. “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me and I shall be whiter than snow!” (Ps. 51:7)
Hyssop, the foliage of an aromatic plant named in the Passover story (Exodus 12:21-27), was used in the cleansing of a leper (Leviticus 4:51).
Two Small Birds
The rite of cleansing centers on two small birds. One bird is killed. The other bird is washed in the blood of the other under the flow of water and the sweetness of hyssop. The one bird dies. The second bird lives.
“Thus he (the priest) shall cleanse the house with the blood of the bird, and with the running water, and with the living bird, and with the cedarwood and hyssop and the scarlet stuff; and he shall let the living bird go out of the city into the open field; so he shall make atonement for the house, and it shall be clean.” (Lev. 14:52-53)
“Deliver me from blood-guiltiness, O God, the God of my salvation” cries Uriah’s killer curled up in a ball, hoping against all hope, “and my tongue will sing aloud of Your deliverance.” (Ps. 51:14)
Release Into the Open Field
David is both birds. He is the one who deserves to die. He is also the one who is living. He lives not because of the secretive heart that had conspired against Uriah, betraying his own inward being – “Against You only have I sinned…” (Ps. 51:4). He lives on because there is more mercy in God (the inward being) than there is sin in him.
“The sacrifice acceptable to God,” he concludes with tears, is “a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, You will not despise.”
His body quivers as he imagines himself as the bird released into the open field by mercy alone, “according to Your steadfast love; according to Your abundant mercy.” (Ps. 51:1)