What happened in Memphis?

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“King of the Hill” came to mind while looking for some explanation for the cruelty we saw in Memphis. This incident seems different. Tyre Nichols had not been stopped for “driving while Black.” The cops were also Black. Why would five Black cops stop a young Black man to beat him as though they were members of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK)? This horror was not about race. What happened was about something deeper that’s killing us all from inside out.

King of the Hill

Pieter Brueghel the Elder (1526/1530–1569) King of the Hill (cropped from “Children’s Games”)

Training for the game of Dominate

The object of King of the Hill is domination. In my back yard, most of us got to be king, for a moment. The rest of the time we were disgruntled subjects, doing what we could to knock the latest king off the mountain. It was just a game we kids played in each other’s back yards.

It was fun back then, but it’s not fun and it’s not funny anymore. It’s no longer a kindergartners’ game. Children no longer play King of the Hill in our backyards these days, and that’s too bad, because, if they did, we adults might see and flee from the game we’ve been trained to play. King of the Hill has become America’s game.

You have to dominate or you’ll look like jerks

“You have to dominate,” declared the king of the hill to the nation’s governors, “or you’ll look like a bunch of jerks, you have to arrest and try people . . . You don’t have to be too careful . . . . You have to dominate. If you don’t dominate, you’re wasting your time.”

Donald Trump had just peeled back the layers of obfuscation that keep the game’s ugliness out of sight and hearing, until it surfaced again, as it did in Memphis two years after George Floyd died under a White police officer’s knee in Minneapolis.

Some social critics attribute the unrestrained violence to police training or the lack of it. But perhaps the cause and remedy are deeper than police training. Before they put on badges and uniforms to “protect and serve,” they — like the rest of us — had been well-trained by the culture of king of the hill where the objective is to dominate without legal and moral guard rails to restrain us.

Domination = you can cheat, you can lie, you can beat without consequences

America stands at a crossroads between the reign of compassion or tyranny; between kindness and cruelty; between tending to the Samaritan’s wounds or throwing him in the ditch. “You have to dominate. If you don’t dominate, you’re wasting your time.” And, remember, “You don’t have to be too careful.”

To get to the top of the hill and stay there, you can cheat, you can lie, you can roll stones down the hill to stop disloyal subjects and enemies from taking your place.

We are well trained in how to succeed in a society without the spiritual, moral and legal guardrails that would keep us honest and true to our better selves. “It’s a movement,“ said an angry president, referring to Black Lives Matter. “The only time it’s successful is when you’re weak and most of you are weak.”

King of the Hill — dominate or you’ll be dominated — has become America’s game in Minneapolis, in Memphis, and here, there, and everywhere. It’s not fun anymore.

Gordon C. Stewart, Public Theologian, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017, Wipf and Stock), 49 short social commentaries on faith and public life; Brooklyn Park,

C’mon now! We can do better!

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“…The world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land; confusion all around…. But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars.”

THE REV. DR. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR., Memphis, TN, April 4, 1969

The world was messed up on April 4, 1969, the night the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr spoke these words in his last speech. America was sick. It was troubled, confused and confusing, shrouded in darkness. Is it less messed up now? Is America in 2023 healthier now? Are we less troubled? Less confused, and less confusing? Do we agree that it is only in deep darkness that we can see the stars?

The Plumb-line and the bob

“Let justice roll down like waters,” implored Amos in the 8th Century BCE, “and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” Amos’s imagery became a poetic plumb-line of Martin Luther King, Jr, and the civil rights movement. The plumb-line, kept taut by the heavy bob of righteousness and justice, was the moral standard in a crooked world.

Martin Luther King, Jr called America to stay true to the plumb-line of justice and righteousness that keeps a society aligned with its better self. Just as gravity pulls a weighted string taut, straight and vertical from top to bottom, the plumb-line of Amos and Martin is the moral plumb-line that sets the standard for a just society.

What is the plumb-line in America? Is there any plumb-line left by which to assess the world and America? What worth is a plumb-line if it stays hidden, is pushed to the side, stored in a museum of artifacts from another time? What happens to a society when the national plumb-line is hung by the hand of greed and weighted at the bottom with a bob of material wealth that moths consume and thieves break in and steal? What happens to the soul of a person or a society that builds a house without a plumb-line?

To the civil rights movement, justice meant following Jesus in turning over the tables of the money-changers with non-violent action that would recognize the intrinsic structural connection of love and justice. “Justice,” ways Cornel West, “is Love made public.” The movement of non-violent social transformation was a movement of faithful souls willing to pay the price. Though the great host of those who honored the plumb-line never stood in the limelight, the names of Martin Luther King, Jr, Rosa Parks, C. T. Vivian, Ruby Bridges, Hosea Williams, Ralph Abernathy, Fannie Lou Hamer, Hosea Williams, Bayard Rustin, Andrew Young, Jessie Jackson, and John Lewis will never be forgotten.

Most of the freedom riders of the 1950s and ’60 are dead and buried, but America’s original sin is not. Neither is the plumb-line of righteousness and justice.

Though we sometimes feel overwhelmed by the darkness, we are not without light. The darkness is the same. The darkness is White, as it has been since the genocide of America’s First Peoples and the day White kidnappers loaded African hostages on slave ships as cargo to be bought and sold on the slave market.

America’s original sin and its darkness remain the same, but so does the light of blackness. Amos’s plumb-line calls us to our better selves. Congressmen Elijah Cummings, John Lewis, Jim Clyburn, Hakim Jeffries, and Bennie Thompson still insist that a better America can only be built with a weighted plumb-line, not a pendulum, or a string without a bob.

https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/video/2019/oct/17/elijah-cummings-memorable-speeches

Gordon C. Stewart, Public Theologian, Brooklyn Park, MN, January 18, 2023.

Elijah asks Grampa why Santa’s in Congress

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ELIJAH (5 yrs. old): Bumpa, now that Santa Claus is in Congress, will he still come next Christmas?

BUMPA: Santa Claus isn’t in Congress.

Uh-hu! He’s all over the news. He’s very conventional. Don’t you watch the News Hour or listen to NPR?

I do. Grandma and I watch the News Hour every night. I think maybe you meant ‘controversial’.

Then you saw him with your own two eyes. He looks different ‘cause he shaved his beard and his hair’s not white, but it’s definitely Santa. You forgot to put your ears in again, didn’t ya.

You mean my hearing aids.

Yeah. your ears. Maybe you need to change the batteries.

Elijah, there must be a misunderstanding. Santa isn’t real.

Whoah! You don’t believe in Santa and Rudolph? I’m going to tell Mommy! You’re an atheist!

I think you’re confusing religion and politics. I have a lot in common with Atheists and a lot of differences. I go to church. They don’t. I worship God. They don’t. But we both believe Santa is a fantasy. He’s an illusion. Congress is different. Congress is no illusion. Congress is real.

You went to school, right, Bumpa?

Yes.

Mommy says you used to say the Pledge of Illusion every morning. 

We did, Elijah. But it’s the Pledge of Allegiance, not the pledge of illusion. It’s important to get that straight. 

What’s a pledge?

Well, it’s pretty simple, Elijah. A pledge is a promise. 

Like when I promise Santa every Christmas that I’ll be good next year.

Right. Now you’re getting the hang of it. If you’re bad, Santa won’t bring any presents. You’ll get coal in your stocking. The Pledge of Allegiance is sort of like that. It’s a promise to do the right thing for your country. 

Yeah, and it’s not an illusion, right?

Right.

What’s an illusion?

It’s something that isn’t real. Like Santa Claus. An illusion is something that isn’t there. You can’t make a promise to an illusion ‘cause it’s not real.

Our country’s real, right, Bumpa? 

Right.

And so is Congress, right?

Right.

But Santa isn’t?

Right.

He is too, Bumbpa! Santa’s real! He’s a member of Congress who pledges allegiance. He was just put on two committees. 

Okay, it’s taken me a long time to get what you’re talking about.  The new Congressman isn’t Santa. His name is Santos.

And Santos is real, right?

Well, yes and no, Elijah. Yes, Santos really is in Congress, and, No, he lied to get there. None of what he said about himself is true. It was all an illusion, and everyone knows it.

So, Santos will get coal in his stocking next Christmas?

Gordon C. Stewart, Public Theologian, Author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017, Wipf and Stock), Brooklyn Park, MN, January 19, 2023.

The day prayers set off the hospital fire alarm

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Some memories blur over time. Others, like the hospital visit with Nee-gon-we-way-we-dun (Clyde Bellecourt, Jr), still ring the fire alarm.

Photo of Clyde F. Bellecourt, co-founder of the American Movement (AIM) and the Legal Rights Center.

I had come to visit Clyde — Nee-gon-we-way-we-dun (“Thunder Before the Storm”) — in the cardiac care unit after he had suffered a minor heart attack. It had been Clyde and the Legal Rights Center (LRC) Board who invited me to step in as LRC’s interim executive director. LRC and I were in the same boat: our boats were sinking. I stayed at LRC for the next seven years.

LRC is the creation of Black and American Indian community civil right leaders as an “outside the system” community-based public defense corporation belonging to, managed by, and serving low-income African-American and American Indian defendants in the courts of Hennepin County.

I had been in Clyde’s room in the cardiac care unit no more than 10 minutes when an Anishinabe Midew arrived to offer prayers for healing to Gitche Manitou (the Great Spirit). She brought sage and sweetgrass, the herbs for ‘smudging’ in preparation for prayer. Smudging serves the purposes of cleansing, keeping evil away, and providing a spirit of calm and peacefulness.

The Midew had, of course, come with matches to bring the herbs to a smolder to create the smoke for smudging. She lit the match, and the smoke triggered the hospital fire alarm throughout Hennepin County Medical Center. The alarm stopped a few minutes later when an attending nurse smelled the sweet smell of smudging, and sent the word that stopped the alarms. We never did get to the prayers.

If we had gotten beyond the preparation for prayer, the Midew would have offered something like this Ojibwe prayer for the healing of each other and the healing of the planet:

Grandfather,
 look at our brokenness.
 We know that in all creation
 only the human family
 has strayed from the Sacred Way.
 We know that we are the ones
 who are divided
 and we are the ones
 who must come back together
 to walk the Sacred Way.
 Grandfather, 
 Sacred One,
 teach us love, compassion, and honor
 that we may heal the earth
 and heal each other. 
 (Ojibwe prayer)

The Legacy of Thunder Before the Storm

Clyde is gone now (RIP), but his legacy will live on. Though he could not end the racism or heal America of the trail of broken promises, he did what a human being is called to do. Because he did, his thunder is still heard. Professional sports teams no longer bear the names or wear the logos that dehumanize America’s first peoples. Although fans of the Cleveland ‘Guardians’ (MLB) and the Washington ‘Commanders’ (NFL) may not know or care why, when, and how their teams took their names, those who know will not forget the persistence that blew away the insults. Soon no one will remember, with a chuckle, the day preparation for prayer set off the fire alarms. No one will know that security systems can’t be smudged.

Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian, host of Views from the Edge, Author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), writing from Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, December 19, 2022.

Why I Stayed Home this Christmas

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Christmas felt different this year. I did not feel the Light shining in darkness. It feels as though the darkness has overcome the light. I feel the heaviness of bombed out, homeless Ukrainians more than Zelenkov’s resistance lightens my spirit. “Faith, hope, and love abide, but the greatest of these is love.” Love overflows the banks of hope, and no hope that ignores reasons for despair is worth a damn.

So I stayed home on Christmas Eve. In the morning, the NPR annual broadcast of the Festival of Lessons and Carols that lifted my soul in years past, was silent. I didn’t turn it on. Everything was off. Fairy tales can be true, or they can be delusive. Ludwig Feuerbach, Karl Marx, and Sigmund Freud’s critiques of religion as illusion crashed the place where sugar plumbs once danced in my head.

Faith is a Leap — Reality is Existential

So much of what passes for Christian faith is nonsense. It doesn’t take a Ludwig, a Karl, or a Sigmund to ask what is real; it’s not a head trip. The difference between illusion and reality is existential — a disturbance of the stomach, a migraine, or a numbness that won’t go away.

Eight years into retirement, I have stopped looking for a church home. Nowhere is the darkness darker than in the churches that profess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior while following a stand-in savior who fabricates and perpetuates the lie that he has been robbed of his legitimate authority. The embrace of QAnon conspiracy theory — the latest iteration of the division of the world between the saved Bible-believing patriots, and the damn pedophiles, child kidnappers, and sex traffickers of the Deep State — fits like a glove, but it is a betrayal the churches profess.

I was never big on Satan. Over the years, the division of the human species between good (heaven-bound) and evil (hell-bound) made less and less sense until it made no sense at all. Belief in life after death, or, as William Stringfellow called it, “after-death life,” struck me as a comforting delusion, the fanciful escape from death, the limit of every mortal creature.

Who we are, and what we’re not

The Book of Genesis parable of humankind’s tragedy in the Garden of Eden goes straight to the heart of the matter. The temptation is to know what only God knows, namely, the difference between good and evil that would make them like God, i.e., the illusion that they, the human creatures, would never die. The great sin is refusing to be what we are — trying to be what we are not.

The Day after Christmas in Minnesota

December 26, 2022, marked the 160th anniversary of the Mankato Massacre when 38 Dakota were hanged on a platform built for public shaming. The white European settlers gathered to observe the largest execution ever to take place on American soil.

They came to watch the ultimate shaming, but, before the execution, they heard what they did not expect. The heard voices from the gallows, chanting a prayer to the Great Spirit:

Wakantanka taku
nitawa
tankaya qaota;
mahpiya kin eyahnake ca,
makakin he duowanca.
Mniowanca sbeya wanke cin,
hena ovakihi.

Dakota hymn

Many and great, O God, are Thy works,
Maker of earth and sky;
Thy hands have set the heavens with stars,
Thy fingers spread the mountains and plains.
Lo, at Thy word the waters were formed;
Deep seas obey Thy voice.
Grant unto us communion with Thee,
Thou star-abiding One;
Come unto us and dwell with us:
With Thee are found the gifts of life.
Bless us with life that has no end,
Eternal life with Thee.

Mankato was not calm the day after Christmas in 1862. No bright star shone down on the gallows. No angels sang. No babe in swaddling cloths. No shepherds knelt. No cattle were lowing. No ‘kings’ brought gifts. No carols rang out from the churches.

The day after Christmas was a time for crucifixion (a state execution) by White Christian Nationalists. Even so–or perhaps because it was a crucifixion — a Dakota hymn of faith, hope, and love still echoes from a gallows in Mankato. Love overflows the banks of hope, and no hope that ignores reasons for despair is worth a damn.

Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian and social commentator, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), Brooklyn, MN, December 26, 2022.

Pinocchio’s World in January 2023

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It’s a new year according the calendar, but it’s the same world we had hoped to leave behind on New Year’s Eve. It’s still Pinocchio’s world. Pinocchio’s nose has grown longer each year. Those who have mistaken insurrection for patriotism, and party loyalty for fidelity to the Constitution have all but forgotten Jiminy Cricket. The voice of conscience is missing. All that’s left is the song meant to encourage children:

When you wish upon a star
Makes no difference who you are
Anything your heart desires
Will come to you
If your heart is in your dream
No request is too extreme
When you wish upon a star
As dreamers do
Like a bolt out of the blue
Fate steps in and sees you through
When you wish upon a star
Your dreams come true

Optimism and the hand grenade

Before taking the oath of office, a prerequisite for the new Congress to convene, is sworn in, the new majority pulled the pin on the hand grenade before throwing it, leaving the House a mess without a Speaker.

THE REALITY OF CLIMATE CHANGE

The worst of it is the failure to face and act upon the reality of climate change. Whether by willful ignorance, misinformation, blind optimism, despair, or humankind’s Achilles’ Heel — our mortal propensity toward illusion — there is a deafening silence, louder than the calamity of war, that will not go away in 2023 and the years that follow.

Jiminy’s optimism has faded and the voice of conscience is weaker now. If Pinocchio’s nose had grown longer in private, it would be less consequential. No one would follow him. But Pinocchio cannot stand living without a stage and applause. The audience has come to the theater wanting Pinocchio to be more than someone’s puppet. Whoever is managing the strings, one thing is certain. It is not Gipetto. Pinocchio never goes on stage without Jiminy Cricket.

My father’s absence, return, and absence again

What child does not find hope in Jiminy Cricket’s calm invitation to wish upon a star, no matter who you are? But what adult can believe it “makes no difference who you are/ Anything your heart desires/Will come to you/If your heart is in your dream”? Does it? Does fate step in? Will fate see us through 2023? Fanciful thinking won’t get us through.

Questions of reality and illusion have been part of me since the day my father stepped from the B-29 Bomber at Logan International Airport. My mother and grandparents had assured me that I did have a daddy, but they had also prayed for his safety, and listen to the radio, hoping there would be no bad news about American troops in the South Pacific.

When my father stepped from the B-29 at Logan Airport and scooped me up in his arms, I pulled back. “Are you really my Daddy?” “I am,” he said. “And I’m never going away again!” The next morning, he was gone. What child knows the difference between “I’m never going away again!” and leaving the next day to be honorably discharged from the Army Air Corps? 

Skepticism in Pinocchio’s world never left me. What is, and is not, trustworthy; what is real and what is illusion; what are faith, hope, and love in a Pinocchio world? In the adult world of 2023, Jiminy Cricket has changed his tune, but his call to conscience remains. Fate and destiny are not the same. Optimism is not the same as hope. Faith is a leap of faith, hope, and love that plunges into a sea of not-knowing and not-yet for the sake of a destiny greater than fate.

Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian and social commentator, Brooklyn Park, MN, January 5, 2023

The Benefit of the Doubt

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Dismay and a wider view

Stepping back from my dismay that the Department of Justice (DOJ) has not yet indicted Donald Trump brings into view the wider context that suggests good reason to give AG Merrick Garland and the DOJ the benefit of the doubt.

In the executive branch of federal government, the Department of Justice is responsible for protecting and enforcing “the rule of law” but the DOJ cannot do its job by itself. The Attorney General would be foolish to indict Donald Trump without careful planning with other departments and agencies that bear responsibility for domestic civil order and national security. How, when, and where to take Donald Trump into custody are daunting questions the DOJ cannot answer alone. The likelihood of January 6 on steroids received cheers just a few days ago when Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene stoked the embers of January 6.

“I tell you what,” she said, “if Steve Bannon and I had organized that [i.e., January 6], we would have won, not to mention we would’ve been armed.”

The necessity and threat of collaboration

Collaboration with the Department of Homeland Security, Capitol Police, Speaker of the House and Minority Leader, Senate Majority and Minority Leader, the Senate and House Judiciary Committees and the Secret Service would seem wise and prudent. Donald Trump is no longer in the Oval Office, but his fingerprints everywhere in the executive branch of government, in Congress, and in the judiciary. One slip, one leak could trigger a greater horror than January 6.

There are ‘moles’ — Far Right operatives — embedded in the institutions meant to protect the Constitution and we, the people. No interagency plan is secure. The DOJ is in a pickle. The pickle is green, but it’s not Kosher. It’s only green inside, with different shades of green we don’t see in ordinary times, green as in Marjorie … and Peter Navarro’s “The Green Bay Sweep.”

This week, the House Special Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol will make public its referrals for criminal investigation and release its final report. The Republican Party, led by the Freedom Caucus, will call it a witch hunt. Jim Jordan, soon to become chair of the House Judiciary Committee, will fulfill his pledge to investigate the investigators and impeach Attorney General Garland and the president who “stole the election” of 2020.

Reservation and purpose of evasion

January 3, every elected member of the House of Representatives and one-third of the Senate will take the Constitutional Oath of Office. “I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic… without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion….”

The Constitution has already been undermined by Far Right members of Congress who cross their fingers while mouthing the words about domestic enemies. Once again, they will have no scruples taking the Oath without reservation or purpose of evasion.

Nothing feels sane these days because it isn’t. Doubt is always in order.‘Thinking outside the box’ requires us to keep our eyes fixed on what is happening inside the box — the institutions meant to uphold and preserve the rule of law, guard the nation from enemies foreign and domestic, and protect the future of democracy.

Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian, Author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017, Wipf and Stock), Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, December 18, 2022.

The Darkness of the Limelight

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The Nihilism of which Cornel West wrote in Race Matters describes American culture across all lines of division. 

Nihilism is to be understood here not as a philosophic doctrine that there are no rational ground for legitimate standards of authority; it is, far more, a lived experience of coping with a life of horrifying meaninglessness, hopelessness, and [most important of all) lovelessness. The frightening result is a numbing detachment from others and a self-destructive disposition toward the world. Life without meaning, hope, and love breeds a cold-hearted, mean-spirited outlook that destroys both the individual and others.

Cornel West, Race Matters, p. 22-23

A Lived Experience

Years before meeting Cornel West, Professor Paul Lehmann, spoke of him as a brilliant rising star, and advised me to keep my eyes open for him as a source of wisdom worthy of attention.

A decade later, Cornel was the guest speaker of the Westminster Town Hall Forum at Westminster Presbyterian Church in downtown Minneapolis.

Shunning the Limelight

Of all the Forum speakers, Cornel West made the most lasting impression. It wasn’t what he said. It’s what he did. He wanted to meet the rest of the church staff, and he did. He eagerly greeted each and every one as if that person were the apple of God’s eye. With Al in the basement boiler room office, members of Al Cooper’s custodial staff, administrative support staff, associate pastors, he greeted them eagerly, as though they, not he, were the honored guest.

That was then. This is now. Some things are different; other things have not changed. For both good and ill, the present moment springs from our roots. To turn a blind eye to the past is to become blind to the present.

American history is a tinderbox of unresolved contradictions. We inherit a legacy of both neighborliness and violence, compassion and cruelty, wisdom and folly, love and hate, aspirations toward a more equitable society and persistence of the pecking order. Underneath every contradiction lies the fear of our mortality, the denial of death that spills the blood of Abel. Abel’s blood still cries out from the ground where kidnapped Africans lived and died as property of White slave owners deluded by the same presumption of racial, religious, and cultural superiority that committed mass murder of America’s indigenous peoples after coming here to practice religious freedom and build the biblical “city set upon a hill.”

The Politics of the Limelight

No nation is exceptional. Every nation that imagines itself to be the city set upon a hill rises by, and falls on, its own sword. The rise and fall of the myth of national exceptionalism has turned Ukraine into a killing field. Once the strongmen had been Stalin and Hitler. Now, their protégé continues the propaganda of lies and fears to establish himself and Russia as exceptions to the tides of history.

We cannot point to Vladimir Putin as unusual. He’s not. While Putin seeks to rescue Russia from the ashes of history, the defeated president who gathered the wood and lit the match on January 6, 2022, continues his campaign of arson that will Make America Great Again, free of criminal indictment and prosecution to stop him. In the meantime, the people he has seduced into conflating America and himself feed the “rule of law” and the Constitution through the paper shredder.

The Politics of Cultural Conversion

People like Al in the boiler room, and administrative assistants like Eloise, Mary, and Sharon quietly stand guard over the boiler and the paper shredder, remembering the moment when Cornel West shined a light on them. With no need for recognition, they practice “the politics of [cultural] ]conversion that shuns the limelight — a limelight that solicits status seekers and ingratiates egomaniacs.” (West, p. 31)

Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian, Author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017, Wipf and Stock), Brooklyn Park, MN, December 14, 2022.

A Vapor that Vanishes

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“For what is your life? It is but a vapor that appears for a little time and afterward vanishes away.”

Letter of James 4:14b RGT

A Vapor or a Mist

The Letter of James’ answer to the question of who and what we are is unexpected by those trained to believe one’s life is more than a vapor that vanishes away. Other translations render ‘vapor’ (ατμις) as a mist or smoke that vanishes or disappears. The NT Greek word ἀφανίζω,v can be translated as vanished, snatched out of sight, extinguished, destroyed, consumed, or deprived of luster.

When the luster fades

When a megalomaniacal public figure’s media echo falls faint, the spotlight dims, and the luster fades, an ingrained, well-practiced defense mechanism takes over: When a critic attacks, project onto the critic what you yourself are and fear becoming — an irrelevant psycho.

What you are, and fear you are becoming

General John Kelly being sworn into office with President Donald Trump and Mike Pence.

Former White House Chief of Staff, retired US. Marine Corps General John Kelly, claims that his boss, the former president, tried to use the FBI, the IRS, and other federal agencies as weapons against perceived enemies, former FBI Director James Comey and Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, among them.

The former president’s spokesperson refuted Kelly’s claim with the defense mechanism and tone to which the world has grown accustomed:

“It’s total fiction created by a psycho, John Kelly, who . . . made it up just because he’s become so irrelevant.”

DJT spopkesperson

A Letter to the Editor

Sharon Decker’s letter to the editor of the Star Tribune (Nov. 17, 2022) poses vexing questions.

Photocopy of Letter to the Editor of the Star Tribune Took you a while, GOP

Lord, let me know my end
    and what is the measure of my days;
    let me know how fleeting my life is.
Surely everyone stands as a mere breath. Selah
     Surely everyone goes about like a shadow.
Surely for nothing they are in turmoil;
    they heap up and do not know who will gather.

Psalm 39:4-6 NRSVE

Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian, author, Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), Brooklyn Park, MN, Nov. 30, 2022.

The Kidnapping of Satan

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As a retired ordained minister born and bred in the Presbyterian Church (USA), I find the embrace of QAnon among ‘evangelical’ Christians staggering, but I am not stunned.

QAnon’s Satan

Satan is the central character of QAnon conspiracy theory. Satan conspires from deep within the Deep State from which an anonymous snitch exposes the truth — a Satanic plot of pedophiles, child molesters, sex-traffickers, cannibals, and kidnappers conspiring against the savior of freedom, righteousness, and truth, Donald Trump.

The historical roots of QAnon

‘Christian nationalism’ has a long history. A group of expatriating British citizens, seeking refuge to practice their faith without government interference, planted its flag on Native American soil. They brought with them two myths: white supremacy and Christian exceptionalism, essential building blocks to build the city set upon a hill, a holy nation, God’s own people, the New Jerusalem. It is not incidental that Satan, ‘the prince of this world,’ the source of evil, arrived with them.

Wayward Puritans

Sociologist Kai Erikson’s Wayward Puritans: a Study of Social Deviance offers insight into the psycho-social dynamics of social cohesion and deviance. Social deviance is a tool of insuring a society’s cohesion. The Massachusetts Bay Commonwealth consensus was fraying. At Mrs. Anne Hutchinson’s trial, Presiding Judge, Gov. John Winthrop, expressed the reason the defendant had been brought to trial: “troublesomeness of spirit and the danger of her course amongst us, which is not to be suffered.”

“Unfit for our society”

“Mrs. Hutchinson, the sentence of the court you hear is that you are banished from out of our jurisdiction as being a woman not fit for our society, and are to be imprisoned till the court shall send you away.” Judge, Gov. John Winthrop.

Anne Hutchinson accepted the court’s sentence and left the Bay Colony to co-founded, with Roger Williams, the state of Rhode Island.

Others were not so lucky. Quaker Mary Dyer was banished, and hanged in 1660 on Boston Common after three times violating the court’s banishment.

At Salem, between 1662 and ’63, women, men, and girls (19 female and six males) accused of practicing witchcraft, were executed as unfit for (a Christian) society.

The First Amendment: no to Christian Nationalism

A century later, when the Founders adopted the First Amendment establishing the right of religious freedom, the memory of this intolerance and the horrors of the idea of a Christian nation informed and shaped their conscience.

The idea of Satan has been kidnapped

How, then, did it come to pass that some professing Christians have embraced the Satan of QAnon? Only Satan knows. But there lies the problem. Satan doesn’t know, and can’t know, because there is no ‘being’ named Satan. QAnon misconstrues references to Satan in the Bible. The Hebrew שָׂטָן (śāṭān) is variously translated into English as accuser, adversary, liar, slanderer. Accusation, lying, and slandering are behaviors, not a name. Nearly always, the article ‘the’ precedes Satan: the accuser, the adversary, the trickster, the slanderer.

Delusion, illusion, and self-glorification

The New Testament Gospel narratives of Jesus alone with the Devil τοῦ διαβόλοß (Koine Greek rendering שָׂטָן śāṭān) for forty days in the wilderness are not about a being named ‘Satan’. They are about Jesus and the rest of us in our propensities toward illusion, delusion, and self-glorification. Will Jesus do what no other human being can do — turn stones into bread, leap from the Temple without a fatal fall, refuse power over the nations — as what defines him?

The scene of Synoptic Gospel narratives is the wilderness; the circumstance is mortal vulnerability: unassuaged weariness and hunger. The adversary beckons Jesus to become what he is not. The wilderness narratives paint pictures marking the difference between honoring the truth of our finite (limited) mortal nature, and confusing one’s self with what we are not: Infinite and Immortal. Jesus refuses to glory himself.

The beasts fo the human spirit

The Gospel of Mark, the earliest of the New Testament Gospels describes the wilderness experience without the three temptations added later added by Matthew and Luke. “The Spirit drove him into the wilderness to be tested by the Satan, and he was with the wild beasts, and angels ministered to him.”

Christian faith and QAnon

This is the Jesus professing Christians proclaim as Lord and Savior. It is this way of living that is the way of Christ. This is the Christ who leads us through the wilderness toward and beyond Golgotha (the Hill of Skulls). This is the savior who tells the śāṭān to go away when Peter acts as the Satan, the adversary, the liar who tells Jesus he will never die.

Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian, host of Views from the Edge, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017, Wipf and Stock), Brooklyn Park, MN, Nov. 30, 2022.

Stay Woke!

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A prefatory word of introduction

This sermon has been dormant since 2014. It was written the first Sunday following retirement. It has never been spoken from the pulpit, no ears have heard it, no one has read it until now. Noah Bieman’s Los Angeles Times editorial, “The Great Divide” (republished today by the Star Tribune), offers reason to post it. Jesus of Nazareth never heard of Florida or its governor’s description of it: “a refuge of sanity, a place “where woke goes to die.”

“KEEP AWAKE!”

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.”

Jesus of Nazareth (Mark 13:37, NIV)

It’s hard to stay awake in times like these. To be conscious means grief, helplessness, anger at the state of the 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 teaching a new generation the respective places of God and humankind.

Fourteen years after the World Trade Center Twin Towers collapsed, a new tower, One World Trade Center — taller, stronger, bolder — stands where the old towers crumbled on 9/11. One World Trade Center resuscitates a national myth on life support.

Standing a few blocks from Wall Street, where the global economy is reconstructed every day, One World Trade Center picks up the pieces of the myth of national supremacy, benign goodness, and presumed virtue of the American economic system.

We could have left Ground Zero empty of monoliths. Turned it into a memorial to the error of undue pride, a turning away from national arrogance. A repentance from the economic-military-religious-technological complex that 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 (“The Great Divide,” 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 became desert quagmires – Vietnams without jungles.

Eisenhower’s last speech to the nation warning of the emerging “military-industrial complex” is a pessimistic memory we ignore as the phoenix of One World Trade Center is raised up…and up…and up out of the ashes, symbol of global dominance to fool ourselves again.

Human scale –truer neighborhoods

“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.”

Michael Kimmelman, “The Great Divide,” Los Angeles Times, Nov. 29, 2014

What is at issue is human scale, a windswept plaza, or a tower of divine proportions with “its top in the heavens.” Our words will pass away, even the best of them.

Keeping awake

Keeping awake is hard. Staying attuned to what is not passing away takes courage in search of wisdom. It takes faith. It takes hope. It takes love.

During this most puzzling of seasons — the Season of Advent, the season of wakeful anticipation of a Coming in fullness — I find myself crying out with Isaiah. It feels 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, plunderers of nature and other nations, hostile to the foreigner, both human (the other) and Divine (the Other).

Deliver us from ourselves

In this season of ‘economic recovery’ when the poor continue to get poorer, the rich get richer, and the middle class shrinks, 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 toward it, the guilt of it, the finger pointing that points back at me, a nation to myself, and the presence of the Potter — and my soul shall be well, new and fresh every morning.

Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2027, Wipf and Stock), Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, November 20, 2022.

When a critic attacks

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“What is your life?” asks the Letter of James. “You are a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes.”

Letter of James 4:14b (NIV)

When a megalomaniacal public figure fears that his Echo is growing faint, and that the spotlight is fading, or turning against him, an ingrained and well-practiced defense mechanism kicks in, as surely as night follows day:

When a critic attacks, project onto your critic what you yourself are, and fear becoming.

Former Director of Homeland Security, later chosen to serve as White House Chief of Staff, retired Marine Corps general John Kelly, claims that his boss tried to use the FBI, the IRS, and other federal agencies as weapons against the president’s perceived enemies — former FBI Director Jim Comey and Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, among them.

Photo of Mike Pence swearing in of retired Marine Corps General John Kelley to the office of Secretary of Homeland Security.
John F. Kelly is ceremonially sworn in prior to President Trump’s speech at DHS Headquarters on January 25, 2017. Kelly was actually sworn in five days prior.

The former president’s current spokesperson refutes Kelly’s claim with the defense mechanism to which Americans have become accustomed:

"It’s total fiction created by a psycho, John Kelly, who . . . made it up just because he’s become so irrelevant.”

“You do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life?” asks the Epistle of James. “You are a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes.” (James

A Letter to the Editor

A Letter to the Editor in today’s Star Tribune (Nov. 17, 2020) asks and answers a few vexing questions about fiction, psychos, and irrelevance.

Photocopy of Letter to the Editor, Star Tribune (Nov. 17, 2022)
Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian, author, Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), Brooklyn Park, MN, November 17, 2022

Can Crocodiles Fly?

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What is real?

Tomorrow’s 2022 election is about reality. Some appearances are real, others are not. Some things are fixable, other are not. Some illnesses are curable, others are terminal.

Which is climate change? Which is democracy? Though the ballots do not ask these questions, the results of this election will tell us what we think is real, fIxable, and curable or unreal, unfixable, and terminal.

Priorities: a habitable planet

Climate change belongs at the top of every ballot. Check one: climate change is real/not real. Check one: A habitable planet is/is not more important than everything else on this ballot. Check one: My vote does/does not matter.

All other legitimate concerns, irrespective of partisan perspectives — the economy, capitalism or socialism, taxation, race, nation, human rights, war, peace, women’s rights, end of life decisions, agriculture, integrity, truth, qualifications for office, religion, crime, integrity, distribution of wealth, poverty, hunger, ability, and energy — count for nothing without a habitable planet.

Fame is not a qualification for public office

Fame/infamy does not qualify or disqualify a candidate for public service. Personal integrity, character, experience, a sense of humility, and vision for the future — not media visibility or public popularity — are appropriate considerations for a voters decisions.

If media visibility and popularity qualify people for public office, I’d bet on Oprah. Odds would be lower for Kanye West, Elon Musk, Eric Zuckerberg, or Jeff Bozos.

Celebrities on the 2022 ballot include a Hall of Fame football player in Georgia; a retired cardiovascular surgeon-television entertainer in Pennsylvania; a high-profile Phoenix TV news anchor in Arizona. All of them join a higher profile entertainer in denying the legitimacy of the 2020 election, denying that climate change is real, and defending the continuance of fossil fuel producers.

Crocodiles can’t fly or lie

If you believe crocodiles are harmless, and that crocodiles can fly, take a deep breath before you vote. What most distinguishes crocodiles from humans is simple. Crocodiles can have you for lunch, but can’t get their heads around climate change or democracy, and they can’t lie any more than they can fly.

Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian, writer and author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), Brooklyn Park, MN, Nov.6, 2022.

Where’s Nancy?

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Truth has stumbled in the streets,
honesty cannot enter.
Truth is nowhere to be found,
and whoever shuns evil becomes a prey.

Isaiah 59:15 NIV

Eighty-two year old Paul Pelosi, hit in the head by an intruder’s hammer, undergoes emergency surgery for a fractured skull. An intruder admits to breaking into the Pelosi home and hitting Mr. Pelosi with a hammer. He is looking for Nancy.

I read the morning paper, “Right-wing figures rush to spread Pelosi lies,” is the lead story. “The push is on to sow doubt, distrust over attack.”

The same defense-by-offense attack machine whose Willie Horton ad hit the bull’s-eye of white fear to smear Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis as “soft on crime” kicks into gear again in an election year. Fox News’ quickly shifts into another gear, deflecting attention from the specifics of the attack — this was the home of the Speaker of the House for whom the January 6 “tourists” had shouted, “Where’s Nancy?” — to launch into the same mode that produced the Horton ad. It could have happen to any of us!

Steve Bannon’s War Room plants seeds of doubt and deceit: “Very strange new details on Paul Pelosi attack,” says the War Room, knowing the 78,000 War Room subscribers are likely to respond: “Gosh, I wonder what those strange new details could be?” Roger Stone weighs in on Telegram, referring to the attack as an “alleged attack” and calls readers to smell the “stench” of mainstream news reporting. Elon Musk posts on Twitter “There is a tiny possibility there might be more to this story than meets the eye,” pointing his readers’ to a far right source known for spreading far right disinformation. Elon Musk has 112,000,000 Twitter followers. Hours later, with no explanation, he takes down the post.

Donald Trump stays silent…sort of. On “Truth Social” there is no mention of the event, no expression of sorrow and request for prayers for Mr. Pelosi’s full recovery, no word of sympathy for the Speaker of the House or the rest of a traumatized family, no condemnation of violence, no call for the Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, and other militias to stop the violence, no reference to the rule of law, no recognition of responsibility for unleashing the beasts of hate and terror. Truth Social repeatedly repeats narcissistic lamentations, blaming the Left for conspiring against him.

A numbing detachment and destructive disposition

Not even news of a cracked skull breaks through some skulls. We live, one might argue, in a web of narcissism and nihilism. “[W]e are coping with a life of horrifying meaninglessness, hopelessness, and (most important of all) lovelessness,” wrote Cornel West in Race Matters.

The frightening result is a numbing detachment from others and a self-destructive disposition toward the world.

Life without meaning, hope, and love breeds a cold-hearted, mean-spirited outlook that destroys both the individual and others.
Cornel West, Race Matters (1993, Vintage Press)

A disease and cure of the soul

“Is there really any hope,” asks West,”given our shattered civil society, market-driven corporate enterprises, and white supremacy? If one begins with concrete narcissism, one must talk about some kind of politics of conversion…Narcissism is a disease of the soul.”

It will take something more than partisan politics to change it. Even so, we are not without Even so, we are not without sources of wisdom, hope, and guidance. Neither truth nor honesty is dead, nor is the way to recover of the public square. An ancient collection of wisdom offers a way forward. The Book of Proverbs names seven things that are detestable to God:

  • haughty eyes,
  • a lying tongue,
  • hands that shed innocent blood,
  • a heart that devises wicked schemes,
  • feet that are quick to rush into evil,
  • a false witness who pours out lies, and
  • a person who stirs up dissension among brothers and sister.

Flip the proverbs to the other side of the coin, and consider the practices that keep a society from falling.

Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian and author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), a collection of social commentaries through eyes of faith; Brooklyn Park, MN, November 2, 2022.

Life in America: I am not a Jellyfish!

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Apologies to By-the-Wind Sailors for calling them jellyfish. They are not jellyfish. A by-the wind sailor has a sail. Jellyfish have no sail; they just bob around.

My life is blown up and down in all directions. Right-side up, down-side-up north, east, south, west. But I am not a jellyfish. I am not a gelatinous blob.

Like the by-the-wind sailors along the Pacific coast, I have a sail that catches the wind. But what use is a sail without a keel and rudder?

I am not a by-the-wind sailor: I don’t get to choose my neighbor

The winds of time blow in different directions and are forever shifting. When it comes from the south, it blows me north. When it comes from the north, it blows me south. Most often it’s the west wind that pushes me and my by-the-sea sailors community east. No one can break ranks! Did I mention that by-the-wind sailors live in colonies. Like members of a political party in 2022, they live in colonies at the mercy of the wind.

But I have a mind that can, and does, make decisions. “Don’t just do something,” said Fr. Dan Berrigan, “stand there!” Sometimes I’m feel torn the Golden Rule (Do to others as you would have them to you) and “standing there” on things that matter, even at the risk of driving a wedge between my neighbor and me. To be loving does not mean becoming a by-the-wind sailor or a jellyfish. It takes a keel and rudder to tack against the wind. By-the-wind sailors have neither the heart to love nor the courage to move against the wind.

Don’t just do something. Stand there!

He [Jesus] said to him [the lawyer], “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.' This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

Stand Firm

I have what no by-the-wind sailor or jelly fish has. I have a rudder. I can go with the wind, or, by trimming the sail, tacking, or putting down anchor, I can go with, or resist, whatever wind is blowing. I can go with the flow or tack to a distant shore when the wind would drive me back, or I can put down anchor. I can do nothing but stand there.

"For freedom Christ has set you free; stand fast, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery." [Letter to the Galatians 5: 1].

To move with the wind is neither free nor responsible. It is a peculiar form of slavery. The freedom of Christ breaks the yoke of slavery. Slavery to what? The 59th chapter of the Book of Isaiah expresses in vivid metaphors the anguished heart of God over how poorly we treat each other. How do I love those “who rely on empty arguments and speak lies,” when they “conceive trouble and give birth to evil, when they hatch the eggs of vipers and spin the spider’s web”? How do I love those who seem like by-the-wind sailors, going with a colony blown toward destruction by storms of misinformation, disinformation, lies, misplaced faith, and certainty?

Prayer as Political

A recent week on Block Island, Rhode Island, the home of theologian, lawyer, civil rights and peace activist, author, and friend, William (Bill) Stringfellow and poet Anthony Towne, drew me back to A Simplicity of Faith: My Experience in Mourning when Bill, at the invitation of the Block Island Writers Workshop, remembered Anthony:

I consider that Anthony regarded the use of the languages the distinguishing feature between that which is civil and human and that which is brutal and dehumanized. The culture, he had noticed long since, had gone the latter way, and its debasement of language, indeed, its promotion of jargon, verbosity, redundancy, deceit, doublespeak and similar babel is evidence of a profound decadence.

His vocation -- as distinguished from his occupation -- was, in principle, monastic, as is my own. (That is the explanation of our relationship.) That is, he and I have understood that we had been called to a life of prayer, and that the practice of prayer is essentially political -- a matter of attention to events and of advocacy for the  needs of human life and of the life of the whole Creation. Prayer, in this sense, is not pietistic, but, on the contrary, radical involvement in the world as it is, prompted in the Word of God. -- William Stringfellow, A Simplicity of Faith (Wipf and Stock), p. 51-2.

November 8 and the Practice of Prayer

The 2022 national election is its own kind of prayer. Either we will vote to surrender our humanity to the prevailing wind of brutality, deceit, nationalism, authoritarianism, violence and hate, or we will choose to tack against the wind toward the horizon only prayer as politics can take us.

Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017, Wipf and Stock, Eugene, OR), Brooklyn Park, MN, October 21, 2022.

The Gift of Barclay

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Barclay (Cavalier King Charles Spaniel)

Those who have had to say good-bye to the dog in the family understand. Others may wonder how a pet’s death can cause such deep sadness.

August 22, 2020

Yesterday morning it became clear that Barclay, our nine year-old Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, was laboring and less able to enjoy life. We knew he has the heart condition many Cavalier King Charles Spaniels develop and have seen signs Barclay is slowing down. He isn’t his playful self.

Barclay took his last ride in the car, wagged his tail going into the veterinary clinic, and sat on my lap while Kay and I faced the decision we did not want to make. As he did the first time I held him — he was (3.5 lbs.), he licked my face and nibbled my left ear, expressing that same love and trust with Kay before they gave him the first shot that tranquillized him.

Five days later, August 27

The feeling now is emptiness and the irrational sense of guilt for “putting him down,” as they say. Kay and I are teary and sad. I have a flood of tears behind the dam of denial. I miss his presence: the morning kiss and nibble on my ear; walking one step behind me going down the stairs, like a paramedic ready for a rescue; his delight chasing light and shadows, moths and butterflies; throwing his ball at our feet for a game of soccer (he was a goalie; you couldn’t get the ball past him); alerting us when it was time to watch Ari, have a cocktail, and play two or three minutes of soccer; his gentleness with grandson Elijah; practicing the training commands he liked — sit, down, heel, leave it — while regarding the rest as suggestions to consider; sitting patiently to lick the peanut butter from our fingers.

To call Barclay “precious” understates his sweetness and goodness.

Six days later, August 28

It’s been six days since Barclay died. I haven’t been able to shake the sorrow. The tears remain locked behind the dam in the reservoir of sorrow filled by the tears a lifetime. These feelings are particular to this moment in time, but the reservoir feels deeper and darker than the loss of Barclay. The picture of his last moment —lying on the veterinarian’s table with his paws hanging over the edge, trusting us with his life — still haunts me.

These feelings are what they always are: neither rational nor irrational. Reason can measure the width and depth of things, but it has no access to the depths of the non-rational, known only to the heart.

Twelve Days Later, September 3

It’s time for the evening news. Barclay is missing; Donald Trump is not. I’m struck by the contrast. Barclay never lied. There was no pretense in him. Lying and pretense were as far from Barclay’s character as honesty and humility are from the former president. During Barclay’s nine years with us, he never had an accident. Not once. Donald Trump made a mess of the White House, and continues to smear the media with his excreta every day. There is no good reason one would confuse the stench from a pigsty with the aroma wafting from a bakery. When everything is shaking, reason does not stop the quivering. Shaking and calmness are matters of the heart.

At my age, the reservoir has its share of grief and sadness. Much of the sorrow is of my own making, things I have done and left undone that hurt others and myself. Mixed with those tears are the gasps of a global lament: the mess we are leaving to our grandchildren; the horror of January 6 and the relentless disinformation that erodes the public trust on which the survival of democratic republic depends; the Big Lie swallowed and promoted by those who know it’s not true; the return of the hangman’s noose and the hanging tree, weapons of mass destruction, war, and guns concealed and carried freely in public; the insanity of the Strong Man pummeling Ukraine into submission, and the former American president who, like Putin, knows no other words than MINE; the fundamentalist churches’ exchange of the gospel of the crucified Jesus, the Loser, for the prosperity gospel for winners.

How much the reservoir is personal and how much is public is hard to tell, but I also know there are tears of joy and love in my deepest self. All that’s left at the end is love. If my DNA follows my parents’ lifespans, I have six or eight years left to release the sorrow, guilt, and shame, and re-fill the reservoir with tears of joyful thanksgiving for the gift of Barclay and of life itself. Love never ends.

Gordon C. Stewart, Brooklyn Park, MN, September 7, 2022

Do You Know How it Feels?

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Straightforward integrity

The House Select Committee hearings are studies of character. What we have seen seems courageous. It takes courage to bear witness to the truth when thugs are threatening your life over and over and over again, and when you can’t use your name any longer because it might bring harm to your mother, your grandmother, and yourself. But what we are looking at goes deeper than courage.

Integrity in high and low places

We have been looking at the integrity of those who did the right thing under pressure from the highest rung of American power. Integrity is the still point from which courage comes. Character that is true to itself was once expressed in the adage, “A man’s (sic) word is his (sic) bond.” Integrity is the alignment of word and deed, the plumb-line of conscience and responsibility. Almost two centuries ago, American writer Charles Caleb Colton wrote,

“Nothing so completely baffles one who is full of trick and duplicity…as straightforward and simple integrity in another.”

Charles Caleb Colton, Lacon (1985), 2.14.

Straightforward and Simple Integrity

We have witnessed straightforward and simple integrity in high places — Secretaries of State Rusty Bowers (AZ) and Brad Raffensperger (GA); former Attorney General Bill Barr; the President’s daughter, Ivanka; leaders of the US Department of Justice, the White House Attorney — and in low places where most of us live and do our jobs without public recognition, people like Ms Shaye Moss and her mother, “Lady Ruby,” in Fulton County (GA).

Integrity and trustworthiness are the brick and mortar that keep a house from falling. Tricks and duplicity, like termites and carpenter ants, slowly destroy the foundations and eat away the framework of the house we take for granted. The infestation — Donald Trump’s Constitutional mischief; the once-upon-a-time Grand Old Party’s steadfast complicity in promoting of the Big Lie; three Supreme Court justices who were confirmed only after well-scripted assurances that they regarded Roe v Wade as settled precedent, and, as such, would not overturn Roe v Wade— is eating away the trust and respect without which a house creaks and crumbles.

Securing the House: “I will not play with laws I swore allegiance to”

Moments before Rep. Bennie Thomson gaveled the June 21 hearing to order, Republican Arizona House Speaker Rusty Bower received a letter from the 45th President of the United States of America “remind” Mr. Bower of something he never said. Speaker Bower testified under oath that he had never, ever, at any time, anywhere, under any circumstances said the election was rigged. The reminder was a lie.

Mr. Bower’s resistance to repeated pressure from the White House was an act of integrity. “It’s a central tenet of my faith,” he said.” Violating the Constitution is foreign to my very being. I will not do it.” In his diary he had written, “It is painful to have friends…turn on me with such rancor.” But “I do not want to be a winner by cheating. I will not play with laws I swore allegiance to.”

“I know sage, wormwood, and hyssop, but I can’t smell character unless it stinks.

edward dahlberg, “On Human Nature,” Reasons of the Heart, 1965.

The View from Above and the View from Below

Some people view the world from above. They see through eyes of power, possession and privilege. Most of us see life from the lower places of the dis-enfranchised, the dispossessed, the powerless, the forgotten, and those who feed their children, struggle to make the month’s rent, pay the utility bills, find a doctor or a warm blanket in a homeless shelter. They do not call attention to themselves.

Among those who see the world from below are Ms. Shaye Moss, an election worker for the past 10 years in Fulton County, Georgia, and her mother “Lady Ruby,” whose lives were turned upside down by a phone call from the President to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger.

Video of Ruby Freeman’s testimony from below and the phone call from the top.

When asked what had passed between them at the poling site, Shaye Moss, looking over her shoulder at Lady Ruby and smiled. She answered, “A ginger mint.”

Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), writing from Brooklyn Park, MN, June 22, 2022.

Faith and a “Clear and Present Danger”

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I had never heard of the Faith and Freedom (F&F) Coalition before hearing Donald Trump would be the keynote speaker for F&F’s “Road to Majority” conference in Nashville, TN.

Did the Faith and Freedom organizers remember the 2016 presidential candidate’s unintended exposure of biblical ignorance when he called Second Corinthians “Two Corinthians” at Liberty University? Liberty is the Bible-believing school founded by Jerry Falwell, Sr., as a Christian counter-weight to the godless universities that were eroding America’s foundations. And, if Faith and Freedom is about freedom, why invite the president who drove a lawful peaceful Black Lives Matter demonstration from Lafayette Park with tear gas — in order to pose in front of an historic Episcopal Church holding a borrowed Bible upside down?

Wisdom calls aloud in the street, 
      she raises her voice in the public squares; 
at the head of the noisy streets she cries out, 
     in the gateways of the city she makes her speech: 

“How long will you simple ones love 
    your simple ways? 
How long will mockers delight in mockery
   and fools hate knowledge?’” — Book of Proverbs 1:20-22.

What would Donald Trump say after the House Select Committee on January 6 had held its first three public hearings, providing irrefutable evidence of intense pressure on Vice President Pence? What would he say to the sworn testimony of former Attorney General Bill Barr and others that there was no evidence of fraud, that the election had not been stolen? What would he say about Ivanka’s sworn testimony that she believed the Attorney General because she trusted him. How would Mr. Trump respond to Barr’s sworn testimony that the president appeared to be “out of touch with reality”?

A clear and present danger

How would he rebut Conservative Republican retired federal Judge J. Michael Luttig’s live testimony? The judge testified that the January 6 attack on the Capitol was part of a “well-developed plan by the former president to overturn the 2020 election at any cost, so that he could cling to power that the American people has decided to confer upon his successor,” and that he considers Trump and his “Big Lie” legitimizers “a clear and present danger”?

The Speech for “Road to Majority”

From the podium of the Faith and Freedom convention, he practiced what Roy Cohn and Roger Stone had taught him. Always go on offense; never go to the defensive side of the line of scrimmage. “Mike Pence had a chance to be great,” he said. “He had a chance to be historic. Mike Pence did not have the courage to act!” He said nothing about his last phone call with the vice president on January 6 in which he called Pence a “wimp” and worse, according to the sworn testimony of his daughter Ivanka, the White House Attorney, and White House staff who were in the Oval Office. In his speech to the Faith and Freedom convention, Trump disparaged the vice president as a “human conveyor belt” for going forward with counting the votes that would certify results of the election. He had considered calling Pence a “robot.”

Historical Flashback by historian Heather Cox-Richardson

On August 9, 1974, Nixon became the first president in American history to resign.

[Barry} Goldwater, along with House Republican Leader John Jacob Rhodes and Senate Republican Leader Hugh Scott, entered the Oval Office around 5 p.m. The Arizona senator sat directly in front of Nixon’s desk, the others to the side. Goldwater told Nixon he had perhaps 16 to 18 Senate supporters left – too few to avoid ouster. Congressman Rhodes said House support was just as soft.

Rather than admit guilt, though, he told the American people he had to step down because he no longer had the support he needed in Congress to advance the national interest. He blamed the press, whose “leaks and accusations and innuendo” had been designed to destroy him. His disappointed supporters embraced the idea that there was a “liberal” conspiracy, spearheaded by the press, to bring down any Republican president.

When his replacement, Gerald Ford, issued a preemptive blanket pardon for any crimes the former president might have committed against the United States, he guaranteed that Nixon would never have to account for his illegal attempt to undermine his Democratic opponent, and that those who thought like Nixon could come to think they were above the law.

“What I admire about Nixon was his resilience,” one of Nixon’s 1972 operatives told a reporter decades later, ‘It’s attack, attack, attack!’ “

That operative, who sports a tattoo of Nixon on his back, was Roger Stone, who went on to advise Donald Trump’s political career.

Heather Cox Richardson, Letters from and American, June 17,2022

Leave no Stone unturned

Not every resilient thing is worthy of praise. Roger Stone is resilient. Nuclear waste is resilient. Attack, attack, attack is resilient. Never defend! “Repeat, repeat, repeat. Attack, attack, attack! Never show weakness. Only show strength!

Who will remove the Stone? What congressional delegation will do for America what John Jacob Rhodes, Hugh Scott, and Barry Goldwater did when they walked into the Oval Office to tell President Richard Nixon it was time to resign? Who will go to Mar-a-Largo to tell Donald Trump that his game is over, that he can no longer lie his way out of the sand trap, that they will not pull him out to put him back on the course? When and how will the Republican National Committee (RNC) re-gain enough respect for the U.S. Constitution to tell the world that the “Big Lie” was a lie? When will Faith and Freedom become faithful to the Lord it professes?

Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), Brooklyn Park, MN, June 21, 2022.

The Sin that Comprehends All Others

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Recent talk of “Willful blindness” in reference to the House Select Committee on January 6 public hearings leaves the door ajar to re-publish “Two Universities: Paris and Liberty” from Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), p.101-2.


Two Universities: Paris and Liberty

“Let’s teach them (i.e., Muslims)
a lesson if they ever show up here,”
Falwell told thousands of students here
Dec. 4, with an unsubtle reference to
a pistol in his back pocket. Five days
later, he announced plans to let
qualified students store guns
in residence halls for the first time.

—Nick Anderson, “For Many at Liberty University”

When the president of “the largest Christian university in the world” in Lynchburg, Virginia urges every student to buy a gun and get a permit to carry a concealed weapon, for whatever reasons, it seems a little oxymoronic and moronic. It’s neither Christian nor smart. It’s not what people do in college. They buy books, not guns. It’s not consistent with the traditions and standards of higher learning. Scholars and presidents of real universities don’t talk like that.

In the thirteenth century CE, a young Thomas Aquinas enrolled as a student of Christian theology and philosophy at one of the world’s first universities, the University of Paris. His professors introduced him to the writings of Aristotle, Plato, and Maimonides in their original Greek and Latin languages, and to the Christian scriptures.

Lynchburg, Virginia in the twenty-first century is long way from Paris in the 13th Century, and that’s too bad for all of us in America where what Aquinas later called “willful ignorance” has become the order of the day.

Thomas Aquinas wrote,

It is clear that not every kind of ignorance is the cause of a sin, but that alone which removes the knowledge which would prevent the sinful act. …This may happen on the part of the ignorance itself, because, to wit, this ignorance is voluntary. …  For such like negligence renders the ignorance itself voluntary and sinful, provided it be about matters one is *bound and able to know.

Thomas aquinas,Summa Theologica, I-II, q. 76, a. 1, a. 3.]

The sin that comprehends all others

Thomas Aquinas quoted St. Augustine, upon whose work his thinking drew, with a statement about willful ignorance. “Hoc et peccatum quo tenentur cuncta peccata” (This is the sin which comprehends all other sins).

Liberty University is not a thirteenth century Catholic university. It’s Protestant and fundamentalist. It prides itself on its knowledge of the Bible.

But don’t we have to suppose that somewhere in that auditorium in Lynchburg, there was a professor who cringed? Someone there who resonated with the old student at the University of Paris? Someone there who thought that telling young professing Christians to arm themselves was a deliberate act of willful ignorance, a sin against faith, the sin that comprehends all others? Someone who knew Matthew 26:52 by heart — Jesus’s words to Peter when Peter had cut off the high priest’s servant’s ear at Jesus’s arrest –“Put away your sword. Those who live by the sword will perish by the sword” — and wanted to scream out loud about willful ignorance?

Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), Brooklyn Park, MN, June 13, 2022.

How could you have been so foolish?

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2122 Earth Day Question

The clock of climate catastrophe continues to tick closer to midnight. If anyone is still around on Earth Day 2122, they would likely ask how we could have been so foolish. “What were you thinking? What distracted your attention from the five-alarm fire that turned our Home to ashes?”

Earth Day 2022 Answer

“Well,” we might answer, “lots of things. Important things; really important things. Too many worries to number. Like Ukraine. Like bullies in Russia and America and Uvalde. Like weapons of war that slaughtered children learning their ABC’s and the teachers who were teaching them.  Like the resurgence of nationalism that drove us deeper into caves we assumed to be secure. Like the assaults on truth, the sudden appearance of ‘alternative facts’ and ‘fake news.’ Like our unwillingness to discuss what is real. 

“Most everywhere we turned, things were not good. Here at home, violence paraded through the streets of crowded neighborhoods. Guns and automatic weapons were killing civilians in shopping malls, schools, synagogues, mosques, churches, roadsides, and public squares. Misinformation and disinformation eroded public trust in the institutions essential to a democratic republic. A major television network promoted the former president’s certainty that the American election was stolen. Members of Congress advocated conspiracy theories that blaming our troubles on Satan operating in the Deep State. In Florida Mickey and Minnie, Donald Duck, and Goofy and Democrats were scorned as cannibals, sex traffickers, and pedophiles because they continued to say the word ‘gay’.

How could you be so foolish?

“All of that was important,” the 2122 Earth Day survivor might say. “But even the most worthy of those concerns was penultimate. They distracted your attention from the over-arching threat to everyone and everything, everywhere on the good Green Earth. Every day was Earth Day,  You ignored it.

“You were not the first generation with a chronic inability to focus, but you are the last. There were no safe rooms in the one House. No nation, no race, no clan, no caste, creed, ideology, gender, politics, tradition survives when its inhabitants become arsonists who burn their own House to the ground. The temperature was rising, the sea levels were rising, the oceans heating, the manatees dying for lack of clean water, the skies over Ukraine were black and filled with smoke and toxins. How could you have been so stupid?”

What was wise did not suit our tastes

“We had little taste for reality. We mistook a smorgasbord of tastes for reality itself. We took the table for granted. Everything was reduced to personal preference. Freedom without guardrails was the god we served. Few of us had the good sense to step back from the feast to wonder, ponder, gasp, or ask what was real and what was not. What is truth? Is anything really real?  Everything became subjective. Everything was a matter of opinion. Truth? Whose truth? Reality? According to whom?

“When the legs of the smorgasbord table began to crack, we continued to stuff ourselves. When the table legs began to creek, few of us noticed. Everything else might break, but not the smorgasbord table. Climate change? The end of Nature as we had known it? The Corona pandemic? Everything became fake news. We thought the table could not break.” 

Masters of Illusion

The masses have never thirsted after truth. They turn aside from evidence that is not to their taste, preferring to deify error, if error seduce them. Whoever can supply the illusions is easily their master; whoever attempts to destroy their illusions is always their victim.

— Gustave Le Bon (1841-1931) French author and polymath, quoted by L.K. Hanson in “You Don’t Say” in April 18, 2022 Star Tribune.

“When it came to things that mattered most, we had become the seducers and the seduced who en masse mistook personal freedom for Ultimate Reality. The Smorgasbord Table would never end.”

Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), Brooklyn Park, MN, June 12, 2022. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hearing and not hearing the Hearing

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Introduction: When the rooster crows, GCS

photo of rooster on car in Key West

Last night the House Select Committee investigating January 6, 2021 held its first public hearing. Responsible news outlets chose to air the hearing in prime time as a matter of national interest. Fox News did not. The Fox News audience did not hear the rooster crowing at daybreak.

Heather Cox-Richardson’s Letters from an American offers the following review of the hearing. The letter’s opening quotation of Committee Vice Chair Liz Cheney (R-Wy) has been highlighted by Views from the Edge.


Heather Cox Richardson, Letters from an American, Jun 10, 2022

“Tonight, I say this to my Republican colleagues who are defending the indefensible: There will come a day when Donald Trump is gone, but your dishonor will remain.

Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyoming), Select committee public hearing, june 9, 2022

So Representative Liz Cheney (R-WY), vice chair of the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol, damned her Republican colleagues at tonight’s first hearing on the January 6 insurrection.

And that was only a piece of what we heard tonight.

Calmly, carefully, convincingly, and in plain, easy to understand language, committee leaders Bennie Thompson (D-MS) and Cheney placed former president Donald Trump at the center of an attempt to overturn our democracy. They were very clear that what happened on January 6 was an attempted coup, an “attempt to undermine the will of the people.” All Americans should remember, they reminded us, that on the morning of January 6, Donald Trump intended to remain president, despite his loss in the 2020 election and his constitutional obligation to step down in favor of President-elect Joseph R. Biden, as every president before him had done.

The committee established that there was no fraud in the 2020 election that would have changed the results of the election, showing testimony from Trump’s attorney general Bill Barr that the argument that Trump had won was “bullsh*t.” The committee presented testimony from other administration figures, including Trump’s chief of staff Mark Meadows and his daughter Ivanka, that Trump had been told repeatedly that he had lost. And yet, even with his inner circle telling him he had lost, and even with more than 60 failed lawsuits over the election, Trump continued to lie that he had been cheated of victory.

It was Trump who “summoned the mob, assembled the mob, and lit the flame” for January 6, the committee says. Unable to accept his loss and determined to remain in power, Trump organized and deployed an attack on our democracy.

The committee established that the attack on the Capitol was not a random, spontaneous uprising. The rioters came at Trump’s invitation. While they had been muttering about the results since immediately after the election, it was Trump’s tweet of December 19, 2020, that lit the fuse. That night, the former president met with lawyers Sidney Powell and Rudy Giuliani, former national security advisor Michael Flynn, and others at the White House. Shortly after the meeting, Trump tweeted that it was “[s]tatistically impossible to have lost the 2020 election. Big protest in D.C. on January 6th. Be there, will be wild!”

Members of the extremist organizations the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers took Trump’s December 19th tweet as a call to arms. On December 20, they began to organize to go to Washington. These radical white supremacists had taken great pride in Trump’s shout-out in a presidential debate on September 29 that the Proud Boys should “stand back and stand by.” After that comment, membership in the Proud Boys had tripled.

Members of the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers testified that they went to Washington because Trump personally asked them to. “Trump has only asked me for two things,” one man testified: “my vote, and he asked me to come on January 6.”

The committee provided evidence that 250 to 300 Proud Boys arrived in Washington to stop the counting of the electoral votes. Nick Quested, a documentary filmmaker working to film the gang, testified that the riot was not spontaneous: the Proud Boys, who were allegedly in Washington to hear Trump speak, walked away from the rally at the Ellipse even before then-president Trump spoke, walking to the Capitol and checking out the police presence there. The Oath Keepers, too, were in Washington to stop the count and were expecting Trump to invoke the Insurrection Act, enabling them to fight for him to remain president.

The groups quite deliberately fought their way into the Capitol in a planned and coordinated attack. Meanwhile, Trump continued to stoke the crowd’s fury at then–vice president Mike Pence for refusing to overturn the election in his role as the person in charge of counting the certified electoral votes. The rioters stormed the Capitol and went in search of Pence and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), their calls for “Oh, Nancy,” echoing like the singsong chant from a horror movie. When he learned that the rioters were chanting “Hang Mike Pence,” the president said: “Maybe our supporters have the right idea.” He said that Pence “deserves it.”

Videos of the violence outside the Capitol further undercut the attempt of Republicans to downplay the rioters as “tourists.” Asked by Thompson if any one memory from January 6 stood out to her, Officer Caroline Edwards, who fought to protect the Capitol, said yes: the scene of “carnage” and “chaos.” It was like a war scene from the movies, she said, with officers bleeding on the ground, vomiting. She was slipping in people’s blood, catching people as they fell. “Never in my wildest dreams did I think… I would find myself in the middle of a battle,” she said. More than 100 police officers were wounded in the fighting, attacked with cudgels and bear spray, and at least nine people died then and immediately after.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) was only one of many people caught up in the violence to contact Trump and beg him to call off the rioters. Clearly, Republicans as well as Democrats knew the mob were his people and that they would respond to his instructions. And yet, he refused. He did nothing to call out the military or the National Guard to defend the Capitol.

Ultimately, those requests came from Vice President Pence, in what appears so far to be an unexplained breakdown in the usual chain of command. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley testified that Pence was very clear that the military needed to turn up and fast to “put down this situation.” In contrast, Meadows talked to Milley not about protecting the Capitol, but to say “we have to kill the narrative that the vice president is making all the decisions.” Milley said he saw this as “politics, politics, politics.”

After the attempt to overturn the election and keep Trump in power had failed, according to Cheney, Representative Scott Perry (R-PA) and “multiple other Republican congressmen” tried to get Trump to pardon them for their participation. While they are now insisting they did nothing wrong, the requests for a presidential pardon show that they were aware that they were in trouble.

After the hearing, CNN congressional correspondent Ryan Nobles talked to Representative Adam Schiff (D-CA), who is on the committee. “It’s actually a pretty simple story of a president who lost, who couldn’t stand losing, who cared nothing about the constitution and was determined to hold on to power and who incited a mob when everything else failed,” Schiff said.

The hearing provided some new information about the January 6 coup attempt that had not previously been publicly available. It also put what we already knew into a clear and compelling narrative using the words of Trump’s own advisors, including his daughter, and video previously unseen by the public. That story singled Trump out as the author of an attack on our democracy and isolated him even from those in his inner circle in a way that could weaken his influence in his party.

At the same time, the committee’s presentation was horrifying, reviving the pain of January 6 and clarifying it by bringing together the many different storylines that we have previously seen only in isolation. The timeline juxtaposed the mob violence with Trump’s own statements about how Pence was letting them down, for example. It showed Officer Edwards being knocked unconscious while Trump claimed the mob was made up of “peaceful people… great people,” and described “the love in the air, I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Pundits had speculated before tonight’s televised hearing that it would not make compelling television, but they could not have been more wrong. The Fox News Channel, some of whose personalities were involved in the events surrounding January 6, refused to air the proceedings. Nonetheless, that channel inadvertently proved just how powerful the hearing was when it ran Tucker Carlson’s show without commercial breaks, apparently afraid that if anyone began to channel surf they might be drawn in by the hearing on other channels.

Veteran reporter Bob Woodward called the evening “historic.” Looking back at the 1954 hearings that destroyed the career of Senator Joe McCarthy by revealing that he was lying to the American public, Woodward said that tonight’s event “was the equivalent of the Army-McCarthy hearings.”

Thanks for subscribing to Letters from an American. This post is public, so feel free to share it.
© 2022 Heather Cox Richardson

Copied and republished on Views from the Edge by Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), writing from Brooklyn Park, MN, June 10, 2022.

Just Another Day

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Just another day. Another mass shooting. Funerals for young children who left home with homemade sandwiches in their backpacks on their way to school in Uvalde. Another day of partisan hide-’n-seek for who is to blame. Just one more day of jabbering and cross-fire when the NRA sheds tears and offers prayers for the kids and families of Uvalde, and then applaud the former president and Texas senator talking about the need for more good guys with guns to stop the bad guys with guns. Just another day in the land of the free, the home of the bullies.

Just another day 100+ days after mass graves began to be dug in Ukraine for children and parents as innocent as the children mowed down in Uvalde. Another day in far-away Ukraine and close-by in neighbors in Uvalde, Buffalo, Tulsa. Another day when Members of Congress ignore the oath to the Constitution they solemnly swore. Another day when patriotism falls prey to partisan propaganda insisting, though they know better, that “guns don’t kill; people do.” A day like any other when nothing happens to stop the power of the gun lobby, dark money, PACS, and the belief, without evidence, that the election was stolen.

Just another day when the monsters of lies and fear turn us against each other.

Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), Brooklyn Park, MN, June 5, 2022.

An Autobiographical Theology Chapter 2 Meeting Bill Stringfellow

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Photo of William Stringfellow, lay theologian, author, and lawyer.

This podcast is the second in a series of autobiographical reflection on life as a theological pilgrimage.

Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), 49 brief (two to four page) essays on faith and life; host of Views from the Edge; Brooklyn Park, MN.

A Pastoral Letter after Uvalde

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Moments ago Andrew Long gave Views from the Edge permission to re-publish his pastoral letter to the people of First Presbyterian Church of Watertown, NY. If you read nothing else, I call attention to the fourth and fifth paragraphs that offer a peek into the new world of his five year old son and his peers.

Dear Friends in Christ, 

I had a hard time getting out of bed this morning. I didn’t sleep very well last night. The smallest sound in the cool evening air through our open bedroom widows roused me. And these words from Scripture kept circling my mind: 

A voice is heard in Ramah,
   lamentation and bitter weeping.
Rachel is weeping for her children;
   she refuses to be comforted for her children,
   because they are no more.–Jeremiah 31:15


We wept last night watching the news from Uvalde, Texas. We wept at the sight of parents frantically searching for their children. We wept for the dead. We wept over the immediate shenanigans coming from the talking heads. 

And we wept because we have an elementary-aged son who has told us about the shelter-in-place, active-shooter drills they routinely have at school.

I wish I was exaggerating. God, I wish I was exaggerating. It almost sounds comical. I had fire drills when I was in school and was told not to pick the paint off the radiator because it likely had lead in it. Our son has had to learn, before age five, how to hide and keep silent so that an active shooter in his school won’t find him. 

Are you OK with that? I’m not.

Frankly, I don’t think God is OK with it either. I know Jesus isn’t. He nearly excommunicated one his disciples when that disciple tried to keep children from coming to him. And in a society where laws are made and/or reversed to ‘protect’ the unborn, but only ‘thoughts and prayers’ are given to the families of children who are gunned-down at school, we must look at ourselves deeply and question what we truly value in life. Right now, sadly, life for every one of God’s children does not seem to be at the top of the list. 

Right now I’m thinking of the statue of Jesus that stands across the street from the Oklahoma City Bombing Memorial. Jesus has his head in his hands and his back turned to the site of the bombing. He stands on a pedestal made from the same number of polished marble stones as the number of children who were murdered in the bombing. Jesus weeps. 

We should, too. 

Feel deeply the intense sadness of this moment. As people of faith, we do not have the luxury of turning away. Our faith is founded on the truth that all people are created equally in the sacred image of God. When one of those beloved image-bearers is taken from this earth, all of us are diminished. It is no longer ‘out there’ or ‘somewhere else’; it is right here, right now. We must not turn away. 

And in our weeping, maybe the Lord will fill us with just the right amount of righteous anger to truly work for a more just and peaceful world.

A world where children can learn their ABC’s before they learn about active shooters. 

A world where thoughts and prayers are followed by action and policy. 

A world where idolatry gives way to true, robust faith in God. 

A world where every person can fully access the abundant life Jesus Christ came to give us all. 

Come, Lord Jesus. Make it so! 
 +andrew

P.S.–Secondary Traumatic Stress is a real concern in times such as these. STS happens when we witness the first-hand trauma of others. Please know that I stand ready to pray with you, visit with you, even sit with you in silence if you are struggling right now. Please reach out to me at (Phone numbers and emails deleted by Views from the Edge) if I can be of assistance.
Copyright © 2022 First Presbyterian Watertown, All rights reserved. 

Thanks for coming by Views from the Edge, May 26, 2022

Autobiographical Theology Chapter One audio

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The moral power of death

Jacket of “An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange La
Podcast, Autobiographical Theology, Chapter 1: The Moral Power of Death, by Gordon C. Stewart, 04.27.22

Elijah’s Fifth Birthday

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Conversation the day before Elijah’s birthday

Bumpa (Grandpa): Tomorrow’s your birthday, Elijah!

Elijah: Yeah, tomorrow I’m gonna to be five! I’m gonna be a BIG boy tomorrow!!!

I remember when you walked with your hands behind your back, like Grandpa. You don’t remember because you were little. I don’t think you’ve seen this video Grandma took.

Elijah at 15 month

You were only 15 months back then. You’re much bigger now, but you’ve always been big in my eyes. Tomorrow you’ll be another year older.

Yeah! I’ll be five! I won’t be four anymore. I’ll be big a big boy!

Great expectations

Elijah opens his eyes with great expectations, checks out his hands, his feet, his arms and legs, and bursts into tears. Hearing his sobbing, Mommy does what good mothers do. She comes to console him.

Mommy: What’s wrong, honey? It’s your birthday. Did you have a bad dream?

No.

Does your tummy hurt this morning?

No.

Does your throat hurt?

No. Don’t ya know? You know!!!

I don’t, honey. I won’t know unless you tell me.

Uh-uh!!! You know everything. Mommies always know.

Well, I don’t unless you tell me. Today’s a happy day. It’s your birthday. You’re not four anymore. Today you’re five! You’re a big boy now!

I’m not! Bumpa lied!!! I’m just the same. I’m not bigger! I’m still four!

Honey, Grandpa wouldn’t lie to you. Did he tell you your arms and legs would get bigger over night?

He did. He said I’d be bigger on my birthday. Bumpa lied!!!

Did he say you’d wake up bigger on did he say you’d wake up older today?

Whatever! Bumpa’s confused and confusing. I’m not walking like him anymore!

Elijah 5th Birthday
Gordon C. Stewart, Public Theologian, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), 49 two to four page social commentaries on faith and life. Writing from Brooklyn Park, MN, May 23, 2022.

Optimism, Hope and the Lordless Powers

Video

This venture into podcasting is like the podcaster. It’s rough around the edges. It’s unpolished. It’s slow. Its pace and subject matter require patience. Thanks to Chuck Lieber for welcoming me to podcasting.

“Optimism, Hope, and the Lordless Powers” by public theologian Gordon C. Stewart, April 10, 2022

Gordon C. Stewart, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), 49 brief (two to four pages) reflections on personal and public life, Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, April 10, 2022.

The day prayers set off the hospital fire alarm

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Some memories blur over time. Others, like the hospital visit with Nee-gon-we-way-we-dun (Clyde Bellecourt, Jr), still ring the fire alarm.

Photo of Clyde F. Bellecourt, co-founder of the American Movement (AIM) and the Legal Rights Center.

I had come to visit Clyde — Nee-gon-we-way-we-dun (“Thunder Before the Storm”) — in the cardiac care unit after he had suffered a minor heart attack. It had been Clyde and the Legal Rights Center (LRC) Board who invited me to step in as LRC’s interim executive director. LRC and I were in the same boat: our boats were sinking. I stayed at LRC for the next seven years.

LRC is the creation of Black and American Indian community civil right leaders as an “outside the system” community-based public defense corporation belonging to, managed by, and serving low-income African-American and American Indian defendants in the courts of Hennepin County.

I had been in Clyde’s room in the cardiac care unit no more than 10 minutes when an Anishinabe Midew arrived to offer prayers for healing to Gitche Manitou (the Great Spirit). She brought sage and sweetgrass, the herbs for ‘smudging’ in preparation for prayer. Smudging serves the purposes of cleansing, keeping evil away, and providing a spirit of calm and peacefulness.

The Midew had, of course, come with matches to bring the herbs to a smolder to create the smoke for smudging. She lit the match, and the smoke triggered the hospital fire alarm throughout Hennepin County Medical Center. The alarm stopped a few minutes later when an attending nurse smelled the sweet smell of smudging, and sent the word that stopped the alarms. We never did get to the prayers.

If we had gotten beyond the preparation for prayer, the Midew would have offered something like this Ojibwe prayer for the healing of each other and the healing of the planet:

Grandfather,
 look at our brokenness.
 We know that in all creation
 only the human family
 has strayed from the Sacred Way.
 We know that we are the ones
 who are divided
 and we are the ones
 who must come back together
 to walk the Sacred Way.
 Grandfather, 
 Sacred One,
 teach us love, compassion, and honor
 that we may heal the earth
 and heal each other. 
 (Ojibwe prayer)

The Legacy of Thunder Before the Storm

Clyde is gone now (RIP), but his legacy will live on. Though he could not end the racism or heal America of the trail of broken promises, he did what a human being is called to do. Because he did, his thunder is still heard. Professional sports teams no longer bear the names or wear the logos that dehumanize America’s first peoples. Although fans of the Cleveland ‘Guardians’ (MLB) and the Washington ‘Commanders’ (NFL) may not know or care why, when, and how their teams took their names, those who know will not forget the persistence that blew away the insults. Soon no one will remember, with a chuckle, the day preparation for prayer set off the fire alarms. No one will know that security systems can’t be smudged.

Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian, host of Views from the Edge, Author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), writing from Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, December 19, 2022.

The Democracy Of The Dead

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“The Democracy of the Dead,” a podcast by Gordon Stewart, Brooklyn Park, MN.
Gordon C. Stewart is author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), and host of Views from the Edge (gordoncstewart.com). He writes and publishes from Brooklyn Park, Minnesota.

The Charcoal Fire (Revised)

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As the sun rose this [Easter] morning, a few of us warmed ourselves around a fire outside the church. Two charcoal fires were recalled, involving Peter, “the Rock” who crumbled like a piece of shale, and the risen Christ, who would re-create the scene to change the story from denial to welcome, forgiveness, and a commissioning to love.

Steve Shoemaker Verse, “The Charcoal Fire”

THE CHARCOAL FIRE

Charcoal Fire
Three times
Denial:

I do not know the man
I do not know the man
I do not know the man

Charcoal Fire
Three times
Forgiveness:

Do you love me?
Do you love me?
Do you love me?

Charcoal Fire
Three Times
Commission:

Feed my sheep
Feed my sheep
Feed my sheep

Steve Shoemaker
Urbana, IL
April 8, 2012

Gordon C. Stewart, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), April 23, 2022. This piece from 2012 is edited and republished in memory of Steve Shoemaker. Steve is sitting on a Bristlecone Pine stump above the tree line in Colorado during a gathering of seminary friends. Mutual friend Anna Strong and canine companion stand by him.

The First and Second Fires

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A Required Honesty

Easter was hard this year. I couldn’t bring myself to put my body in a pew. Imagining the shiny brass trumpets heralding Christ’s victory over sin and death had no more appeal than the silly silky banners waving up and down the aisle to make Easter more festive. Whether Easter felt like a fraud orI felt like the fraud didn’t matter yesterday.

A Ghost named Gus

If we’re honest about the resurrection, many, if not most, of us have some difficulty with one or another of the post-crucifixion stories of Jesus’ resurrection. Although my grandmother swore that our 120 year-old home was haunted by a friendly ghost named Gus, I’ve never gotten into ghostly apparitions.

Photo of Henri Fuseli's painting of Hamlet and his father's ghost
Hamlet and his father’s ghost — Henry Fuseli

Years ago an eccentric older congregant, long since deceased, claimed her deceased husband regularly visited her, standing at the foot of her bed. Even without this claim, there were multiple grounds for concluding that she would have been institutionalized in a previous generation. I never could get into her story, or the story about Gus’s footsteps creaking the steps of my childhood home. They were outside my experience. Like the Apostle Thomas, my faith is suspicious of such claims. “Unless I see for myself…” is second nature to me.

Unless I See

One person’s experience, however, is not the measure of all things, especially in matters that cannot be confirmed by objective verification. The world is full of experiences that are enigmas to my little piece of reality. My slice is not the whole pie, although, come to think of it, if my slice tastes like blueberries, chances are good the pie is blueberry. “To thine own self be true,” Shakespeare’s Polonius advises Laertes.

“And it must follow, as the night the day thou canst not then be false to any man . . . ” (Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 1, Scene III). Being true to oneself leads some honest people to leave the faith. Think Jean-Paul Sartre. Think Albert Camus. It leads others to stay and dig deeper. Though I was once almost one of the former, I am still one of the latter.

An Honest Conversation

Nowhere is the challenge of good faith greater than the resurrection. “Seeing for ourselves” like the Apostle Thomas is a hard way to live; it can be tricky. Sometimes we see things that aren’t there; other times we don’t see what stares us in the face. In a year like this, I rub my eyes in hopes of a clearer view of what is true. Honesty is slipping away in America. So is hope for the nation. The dark clouds of willful ignorance and unabashed dishonesty leave me looking for the light that faith tells me cannot be overcome.

Honesty, or the attempt at it, was what I had, but not much more. Although I could not say, with James Russell Lowell, “I do not fear to follow out the truth,” I know that the search for truth takes place “along the precipice’s edge.”

A Jarring Juxtaposition Between Two Fires

For the likes of those of us who stay, Easter is less accessible in the garden outside an empty tomb than in the encounters with the skeptical Thomas, and with Peter, who has gone back to his fishing nets after the crucifixion. Staying home on Easter for the first time reading the Gospels’ passion narratives, portrayals of Peter caused me to stop and ponder the jarring juxtaposition between two scenes around a fire.

The Denial of Saint Peter by Caravaggio (1610)

The First Fire

The first fire is set in the courtyard of the High Priest’s residence where Peter “The Rock” crumbles like shale. Warming himself by the courtyard fire, two domestic workers identify Peter as Jesus’ disciple. His Galilean accent betrays him. Three times Peter denies it. “I do not know the man!”  “I do not know the man!” “I do not know the man!” The rock crumbles.

The Second Fire

The second fire is lit on the shoreline to which Peter, the fisherman, returns after what would have been a bad night without the miracle shouted by the stranger on the shore. Peter has not become a fisher of fellow-humans; he is a fisher of fish again, not different from before Jesus had called him, except for the guilt he now carries from his denial before the fire in the courtyard. That I understand. That reversal I know by experience. I wasn’t Peter, but the dead, crucified, and buried Jesus whom the Creed claims “descended into hell” reached down into the hell of my own making to blow the remaining embers of the first fire into the charcoal fire of the second. The risen Christ is not an apparition. Christ comes as the stranger we forgot we knew, the host who serves us breakfast on the shoreline.

Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), writing from Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, April 20, 2022.

Between the Image and Reality 2

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NOTE: “Between the Image and Reality” first appeared as a podcast by the same name. Here’s the printed text.

Letters from an American

The latest gift from the “best friend” I’ve never met greets me most mornings. Letters from an American is Heather Cox Richardson’s daily news summary. Heather does what I cannot do. She collects the information on current events from a host of sources, swallows it, digests it, and brings it back to the nest to feed fledglings like me.

Heather Cox Richardson

Her succinct self-description resonates with me in this moment when marketing strategies and images continue to dig the mass graves of what little remains of reality:

I’m a history professor interested in the contrast between image and reality in American politics, I believe in American democracy, despite its frequent failures. — Heather Cox Richardson

Daniel J. Boorstin

In this era of American culture and politics we need the historians. Among them is Daniel Boorstin, the historian of the Library of Congress, whose controversial, ground-breaking book, The Image (1962), focused a laser beam on the emerging dominance of new image-making media and technology over American public life.

“The deeper problems connected with advertising,” wrote Boorstin, “come less from the unscrupulousness of our ‘deceivers’ than from our pleasure in being deceived, less from the desire to seduce than from desire to be seduced.

“We Americans suffer primarily not from our vices or our weaknesses, but from our illusions. We are haunted, not by reality, but by those images we have put in the place of reality.”

Daniel J. Boorstin, the image: Or, What happened to the American Dream (1962)

If you’re a fledgling waiting for the arrival of real food; if you take no pleasure in being deceived or seduced, if you are haunted by images we have put in the place of reality, Heather Cox Richardson may be the best friend you’ve never met. Click Letters from an American to welcome Heather to your nest. She’ll help you fly.

Follow-up coming soon: The Bubble of Pretend.

Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), forty-nine brief reflections on faith and the news, Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, April 10, 2022.

Between The Image and Reality

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Thanks for listening.

Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness, 49 two to four page social commentaries on faith and the news (2017 Wipf and Stock), writing from Brooklyn Park, Minnesota. April 16, 2022.

Lordless Powers at Play

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How can a human being be so cruel?

We wipe the tears from our cheeks watching the ruthless cruelty unleashed on Ukraine. This can’t be real! But it is. How can any nation do this to another? How could anyone do this?

The depth of the question

The question is not political. It’s not ideological. It’s deeper than that. So much deeper that few dare go there. The fortunate emerge from the darkness to see light again. They may or may not hold any scripture sacred, but they have sensed something of the psalmist’s view. “Even the darkness is not dark to You; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to You” Psalm 139:12). Darkness has no life of its own.

An Allegory of Repentance or Vanitas; AKA Tasso in the Madhouse

Others of us never find a way out. Like the joyful little girl who had taken such joy handing her latest drawing to her pastor on Sunday mornings, they find the world’s suffering too much to bear. Sadness and despair take the place where joy once lived. Empathic hearts are broken by the sufferings of others. They thrash in a sea of dark foreboding that douses the wicks of beauty, truth, and goodness. They take a final plunge sensing that “Hell is empty and all the demons are here.” (Shakespeare, The Tempest, (Act 1, Scene 2). With hearts broken by too much cruelty, they take a final step to get away from the demons here.

Quoting Scripture as cover for sin

My young friend did not stay among the demons long enough to hear Vladimir Putin quoting Jesus. “As the scriptures say,” said Putin to the crowd in the Moscow amphitheater, “‘Greater love has no man than this: that he give up his life for his friends.'” It was their children and extended families, not he, who were “laying down their lives for their friends” in Ukraine.

If Patriarch Kirill, Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia, other priests, and biblically literate lay people were listening in that amphitheater or on national television, they would recall the context of the line Mr. Putin was using from the Gospel According to John.

These things I have spoken to you, that My joy may remain in you, and that your joy may be full. This is My commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends. You are My friends if you do whatever I command you.

Gospel according to john 15:11-14

Joy and Love

The stadium in Moscow was not full of joy. If the old saw is true that the devil can quote scripture to serve the devil’s purposes, the high-jacked quotation ripped from its biblical context was evidence of it. It was they, not he, who were laying down their lives on orders of the Commander-in-Chief.

Mr. Putin’s presentation of himself as a Bible-quoting Christian may have impressed biblically illiterate members of the Russian Orthodox Church, American far-right evangelicals, and media propagandists Tucker Carlson and Steve Bannon, but biblically literate Christians of whatever stripe or nationality could feel their toes curl and their jaws clenching. People in the stadium that night were free to curl their toes so long as they didn’t clench their jaws. Curling toes are hidden by Shoes. Clenched jaws can’t hide.

How does it happen?

Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), Brooklyn Park, MN, March 24, 2022.

Jesus to Putin and the Patriarch

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Dear President Putin and Patriarch Kirill:

I write with great respect for your offices as President of the Russian Federation and as the Russian Orthodox Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia. My words to the two of you are confidential. Few people dare to speak candidly with you.

We haven’t met, but that’s not unusual; lots of people I’ve never met say I’m their closest friend. Many of them have made me up. They delete what they don’t like about me or my story, or do end-runs around my words. Take, for instance, my cry from the cross, “Abba, forgive them, for they do not know what they’re doing.” Forgiveness is real, but it’s not cheap. It’s not an excuse to sin.

Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill and Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin.

Clean Monday was only three weeks ago. On Clean Monday you and Eastern Orthodox Christians on both sides of the Russian-Ukrainian border marked the beginning of “The Great Lent” with a service that features something a bit odd and humbling. Every worshiper bows down before another worshipper to ask for forgiveness with the intent of walking through the six weeks of the Great Lent with clean hearts and a clear conscience. I like that. I’ll return to the subject of bowing later.

Do you remember the parable of the Last Judgment? My parable isn’t about an End Time when the wicked will be punished and the good rewarded. It’s not about Then; it’s about the Now, the ever-recurring Now of daily life. The parable is about how to live your life now as a neighbor.

I told that parable not to scare people; I told it so the listeners would pause, reflect, and turn around when they are living like goats pleading innocence because they never see the suffering. The parable is the Beatitudes in story form. You may remember those: Blessed are the poor, the grieving, the meek, the merciful, the peace-makers, and those who yearn for righteousness. The Beatitudes and the parable of the sheep and the goats are meant to turn the popular winner-loser perception on its head. The sheep feed the hungry; the goats don’t see them. The sheep “see” the naked and clothe them; the goats don’t notice. It’s the same with the homeless, the sick, and the imprisoned. The goats would have “seen” if only they had known there was a reward at the end. The sheep have no knowledge of reward and punishment. It is the sheep that break the popular myth of reward and punishment.

The parable goes to the heart of my reason for writing. You have great authority and power. One of you is the latest “king” of the Russian Federation; the other is the latest “king” of Russia’s spiritual affairs, Patriarch Kirill, Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia. You are said to have a good relationship. But I tell you, if the sheep and goats were separated in real time at this moment, the two of you would be bleating billygoats leading the line of those who plead innocence.

It is not by accident that the parable is not about individuals. The sheep and goats gathered for judgment are not individuals. They are the nations, all of them. Russia is no exception. Ukraine is no exception. Poland is no exception. The United States is no exception. There is no exception.

Every nation is capable of great compassion and of astonishing cruelty. A nation can be peace-loving or war-mongering, merciful or cruel, loving or hateful, seeing or not seeing. Whenever a nation sees itself as exceptional or superior among the global community of neighbors, things always turn out badly, as is happening now in Ukraine. The sun shines and the rains fall without respect for borders.

As president of the Russian Federation you hold the power and authority of Russia’s head of state and commander-in-chief. You have exceeded all boundaries of moral restraint. The weight of the cruelty, suffering, devastation, and death unleashed on Ukrainian rests on your shoulders. Yet you do not see. You take no responsibility for the suffering imposed on Ukraine.

Patriarch Kirill, you also bear responsibility. The day after Clean Monday, your Ukrainian and Polish peers met in Kyiv. Aware of public criticism of your relationship with Mr. Putin, they appealed to you to meet with Putin to stop the war, and asked you to break your public silence about the war as the cause of suffering. Clean Monday was not clean this year. There can be no pleas of ignorance.

Finally, I leave you with another parable. This one was told by those who thought they saw divinity in my humanity. It was told of me, not by me. Whoever created the parable packed every challenge I faced during my life, which you also face now. Like the parable of the Last Judgment, It’s a work of imagination that puts everything in a nutshell, but its meaning is pretty simple really. It’s about bowing.

Then the devil took him to a very high mountain, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory; and [the devil] said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will bow down and worship me.”

The question of faith is about Now. The question is pointed. It draws no line between the political and the spiritual. It’s simple:

“To whom are you bowing now?”

— Jesus of Nazareth

Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness, Brooklyn Park, MN, March 18,2022.

The Pit of Babel

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Words to express what I feel and think in this moment of horror in Ukraine continue to escape me. In times when my head is spinning and stomach is swirling, I often turn to the other voices and facial expressions. The fruits of illusion — national exceptionalism and racial supremacy –smack us in the face. The greater our power, the lower we fall. We are living in Franz Kafka’s Parable “The Pit of Babel,” Franz Kafka: Parables and Paradoxes, first published in German in 1935 during the rise of the Third Reich.

The Pit of Babel

What are you building? — I want to dig 
a subterranean passage. Some progress
must be made. My station up there is 
much too high.

We are digging the pit of Babel

A House on Fire

image of Greta Thunberg speaking on climate change.
Greta Thunberg addresses EU Parliament’s environment committee, Wednesday 4 March 2020

Our One House Is on Fire

Our house is on fire. I am here to say, our house is on fire. […] Adults keep saying: “We owe it to the young people to give them hope.” But I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act. I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.

Greta Thunberg, 16 years old, to the World economic summit, August 19, 2020, the guardian

The recklessness of the Russian Invasion

One ominous sentence from the Russian leader threatened more than Ukraine. “Whoever tries to interfere with us,” he warned, “should know that Russia’s response will be immediate and will lead you to such consequences as you have never experienced in your history.” He said that Russia “is today one of the most powerful nuclear states.” Using combat power to try to take a nuclear power plant over — it just underscores the recklessness of this Russian invasion. — Robin Wright, “What Does Putin’s Sabre Rattling Mean?”– The New Yorker, March 1, 2022.

“Now, I am become death, the destroyer of worlds”

J. Robert Oppenheimer

Text: We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried, most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita. Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and to impress him takes on his multi-armed form and says, “Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” I suppose we all thought that one way or another.

J. Robert Oppenheimer, one of the fathers of the atomic bomb

Prayer against War and the “Pride of Kings”

photo of Walter Rauschenbusch
Walter Rauschenbusch (1861–1918), American Theologian and Pastor, leader of the Social Gospel Movement.

The language is from an earlier era. The prayer’s content, sense of reverence, and social responsibility commend the prayer for use in the midst of the madness of 2022.

O Lord, since first the blood of Abel cried to thee from the ground that drank it, this earth of thine has been defiled with the blood of humanity shed by the hands of sisters and brothers, and the centuries sob with the ceaseless horror of war. Ever the pride of kings and the covetousness of the strong has driven peaceful nations to slaughter. Ever the songs of the past and the pomp of armies have been used to inflame the passions of the people….

O thou strong God of all the nations, draw all thy great family together with an increasing sense of our common blood and destiny, that peace may come on earth at last, and thy sun may shed its light rejoicing on a holy unity of all people. Amen.

Walter Rauschenbusch, Prayers of the social awakening, 1910

Gordon C. Stewart, pubic theologian, host of Views from the Edge, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), endorsed by Bill McKibben, Walter Brueggemann, and MN Poet Laureate Joyce Sutphen; Brooklyn Park, MN, March 5, 2022.

White Privilege in Verse

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Trumpeter Swans, Hudson, WI

Down is Up and up is down

The trumpeter swans
Know nothing of
White privilege
White is what they are
Down under and
Above the down
Except for beaks
As black as ebony
on ivory

Their voice is not
the honk of pride
and privilege
Pens and cobs
Teach their young
The Beatitudes
Where Up is really
Down and Down is
Up without a down-
Ward sneer at
Loons or Redwing
Blackbirds

Ebony and ivory
Nesting in a wetland
Marsh where no
Manicured lawns 
And Scotts-fed 
Greens feed faux-
White privilege.
- GCS, May, 2021
Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to  him, and he began to teach them.

He said:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
 Blessed are those who mourn,
    for they will be comforted.
 Blessed are the meek,
    for they will inherit the earth.
 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
    for they will be filled. 
 Blessed are the merciful,
    for they will be shown mercy.
 Blessed are the pure in heart,
    for they will see God.
 Blessed are the peacemakers,
    for they will be called children of God.
 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."

-- Gospel According to Matthew 5:1-10 NIV
Rush Limbaugh receiving Presidential Medal of Freedom, 2020.
Rush Limbaugh receiving Presidential Medal of Freedom honoring people who have made “an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors” — State of the Union, 2020.

Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, March 3, 2022.

Vladimir Putin — Another Wild Camel

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Imagine yourself listening in on a conversation between God and Vladimir Putin. Even if you don’t believe in God. Pretend you do for just a moment. -:)

“But I know your rising and your sitting,
    your going out and coming in,
    and your raging against me.

Because you have raged against me
    and your arrogance has come to my ears,
I will put my hook in your nose
    and my bit in your mouth;
I will turn you back on the way
    by which you came.
-- 2 Kings 19:25-27

“Your arrogance has come to my ears.”

The rage and arrogance hurt my ears. If I had a hook, I’d put it in Vladimir Putin’s nose to rein in his urge to reign. If I had a bit to tame arrogance, I’d put it in the mouth of Putin’s best friend in Florida who applauds Putin’s “genius” in re-framing the invasion of Ukraine as a peace-keeping mission. Two best friends who have no other friends.

The “hook” in the nose and the “bit” in the mouth were tools for bringing an unruly camel under control. The raging camel was Sennacherib, the arrogant King of Assyria. The message is for him.

Isaiah put these words on the lips of the One who has no lips but whose anguish cries out in us and whose tears run down our cheeks whenever a feral camel wanders into someone else’s yard.

Whoever wrote Second Kings would be shocked to find that the story of the two kings — Sennacherib of Assyria and Hezekiah of Judah — would be read in 2022. But the story is ageless. Watching another strongman invade his next door neighbor, who can fail to imagine the divine rebuke of the unruly camel who sticks its nose under tents where it does not belong, and the other camel whose mouth never stops?

-- Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian, author of "Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness" (2017 Wipf and Stock, Eugene, OR), writing from Brooklyn Park, MN, February 25, 2022.

When the bough breaks

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Rock a bye baby on the tree top,
When the wind blows the cradle will rock,
When the bough breaks the cradle will fall,
And down will come baby, cradle and all.

Multiple drafts of a reflection on “Rock a reflection on the Baby” missed the mark. I was aiming at humor, but I’m no Andy Borowitz. None of them was funny. Some I ripped up. They’re on the floor of my office. The most embarrassing I stuffed in the toilet.

The drafts had been attempts to take “Rock a Bye Baby” as the template for a commentary on American public life in February, 2022. The Baby and cradle on the top of the tree is rocked by gale force winds. We hear the boughs of the old tree creaking. But if and when the bough breaks and Baby and cradle do fall, we can only hope the Baby-lovers with chain-saws don’t cut down the tree and turn it into sawdust.

The Origins of “Rock a Bye Baby”

The oldest copy of “Rock a Bye Baby” is found in “Mother Goose’s Melody” in London in 1765. One story of origins locates it in a London pub on the occasion of the birth of King George II’s son, the prince who would continue the royal line they detested. The first known copy of “Rock a Bye Baby” has a hand-written note:

"This may serve as a warning to the proud and ambitious, who climb so high that they generally fall at last."

Foreshadowing in The Image

Daniel Boorstin’s book, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-events in America (1662), was a ground-breaker. Historian and Librarian of the U.S. Congress. Here are a few excerpts from Daniel Boorstin’s The Image in 1962.

“We [Americans] suffer primarily not from our vices or our weaknesses, but from our illusions. We are haunted, not by reality, but by those images we have put in their place.”

photo of Trump baby balloon over a crowd in London.

“Celebrity-worship and hero-worship should not be confused. Yet we confuse them every day, and by doing so we come dangerously close to depriving ourselves of all real models. We lose sight of the men and women who do not simply seem great because they are famous but are famous because they are great. We come closer and closer to degrading all fame into notoriety.”

A sign of a celebrity is often that his name is worth more than his services.

The image, more interesting than its original, has become the original. The shadow has become the substance.

The American citizen thus lives in a world where fantasy is more real than reality, where the image has more dignity than its original. We hardly dare face our bewilderment, because our ambiguous experience is so pleasantly iridescent, and the solace of belief in contrived reality is so thoroughly real. We have become eager accessories to the great hoaxes of the age. These are the hoaxes we play on ourselves.

By a diabolical irony the very facsimiles of the world which we make on purpose to bring it within our grasp, to make it less elusive, have transported us into a new world of blurs.

Thanks for coming by,

Gordon

Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), Brooklyn Park, MN, February 12, 2022.

When All That’s Left Is Love by Rabbi Allen Maller

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WHEN ALL THAT'S LEFT IS LOVE

When I die
If you need to weep
Cry for someone
Walking the street beside you.
You can love me most by letting
Hands touch hands, and
Souls touch souls.
You can love me most by
Sharing your Simchas (goodness) and
Multiplying your Mitzvot (acts of kindness).
You can love me most by
Letting me live in your eyes
And not on your mind.

-- Rabbi Allen S. Maller

Rabbi’s Maller’s website — rabbimiller.com — is a treasure trove of Jewish tradition and biblical interpretation.

Gordon C. Stewart, Public Theologian and social commentator, host of Views from the Edge; author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017, Wipf and Stock), Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, Feb. 8, 2022.

Yearning

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Last night’s documentary of Congressman Jamie Raskin before and after the tragic loss of his beloved son, showed qualities of character in short supply: personal integrity, moral-spiritual courage, a playful spirit, and faithfulness to his oath of office to uphold the Constitution. Those qualities were evident before and after the tragic death of his son “Tommy” whose funeral was the day before the January 6 attempted coup at the U.S. Capitol.

Thomas (“Tommy”) was 25 when he took his life. Thomas fell within the 18 – 29 year-old age range of the Harvard-Kennedy Center Youth Poll taken in the autumn of 2021. The poll’s findings are staggering.

When one in four young adults between ages18 and 29 think of doing harm to themselves more than once in a two-week period (Oct. 26- Nov. 8, 2021) something is terribly wrong.

More than half (51%) of young Americans report having felt down, depressed, and hopeless — and 25% have had thoughts of self-harm — at least several times in the last two weeks.

Fall 2021 Harvard kennnedy center Youth poll, december 1, 2021

The Post- 9/11 Generation

The youngest participants in the poll were one year-olds when the Twin Towers fell in 9/11, 2001. Tommy was four. The oldest were eight years old, old enough to be terrorized and fearful of the world around them. Even the children at the lower end of the poll’s range would not have escaped sensing their parents’ emotions — shock, fear, panic, despair, anger, dread.

Thomas Raskin and His Peers

No stranger can know what broke in Tommy on New Years Eve. But we do know this. Whatever mixture of clinical depression and despair over a dark world he could not repair, we know from the Harvard-Kennedy Center Youth Poll that Tommy lived and died as one of a host of young adults struggling to make it through the day.

Tom Raskin’s generation has been served an omelet of violence, fear, distrust, and hatred for breakfast. Every day. They have never known a time of peace. Terror has broken into their homes and schools, synagogues, churches, mosques, malls, supermarkets, music concerts with a frequency and rapidity unknown to my generation.

The events of their lifetime blow the hinges off my generation’s prevailing sense of innocence. The America they experience is the scene of madness, splintered into camps of trust or distrust in one another and the institutions on which democracy depends. They encounter a world of cruel absurdity. Election to office is not public service. Partisanship is more about power and greed than about governing wisely. Driving Black or walking Black puts target on your back, and the man with the badge puts his knee on your neck until you can’t breathe. A president of the United States of America sweeps a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest off the plaza for a photo op, proudly holding up a Bible he doesn’t read. This generation knows that White’s not right. White privilege weighs on people like Tommy, as it always has on African Americans and America’s First People for whom Whiteness meant slave-ownership and genocide.

On top of all that, there is Donald Trump, and there is QAnon

Any pastor who visits congregants in psychiatric hospitals or hospitals for the criminally insane is not shocked when religion becomes the host of insanity. Often the patient suffered illusions of grandeur. Some think of themselves as Jesus Christ, or feel the burden of saving people from a cruel world. Some hear voices. Some live in a endless nightmare of conspiracy. I would like to say I’ve never seen anything close to QAnon, but I can’t say that.

Many of the patients I’ve visited know where they are; some know why there are there. But the years of my pastoral visits ended before Donald Trump and QAnon. I’ve met the likes of Donald several times in a hospital for the criminally insane, but I never met anyone who imagined a satanic conspiracy of a cabal of child-kidnapping, child-molesting, sex-trafficking cannibals intent on destroying a president.

Why would it surprise us that 51% of young adults in the poll feel “down, depressed, and hopeless” or that 25% of them have had “thoughts of self-harm — at least several times in the last two weeks?” Twenty-five year old Thomas Raskin was one them.

There is a Yearning for Meaning, Integrity, and Courage in the Storm

Thomas’s father writes in Unthinkable: Trauma, Truth, and the Trials of Democracy reflects on how January 6, 2021 would have affected Tommy. That “stomach-churning, violent insurrection; that desecration of American democracy would have wrecked Tommy Raskin.

“So as a congressman and a father of a lost son and two living daughters, I would take a stand, with everything I had left, against that violent catastrophe in the memory and spirit of Tommy Raskin, a person I have, alas, not even begun to properly render in words.”

Rep. jamie raskin, unthinkable: trauma, truth, and trials

While a criminally insane former president remains free, Tommy’s father and every prosecutor who can hold him to account have bull’s eyes on their backs. Perhaps, by the grace of God and the stand of a grieving father, the Constitution will continue and the Oath of Office be honored.


Gordon C. Stewart, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017, Wipf and Stock), Brooklyn Park, MN, Feb. 7, 2022

The Maus That Squealed

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A crowd of students gathers on the university plaza at 11:00 p.m. for a parade to a bonfire. They walk by torch-light with drums drumming through the streets of the city, followed by a truck, on their way to the Opera House where a huge pile of wood is waiting. By the time they arrive, the crowd has grown to 30,000, eager for the match to be struck.

A voice thunders across the plaza:

The age of arrogant Jewish intellectualism is now at an end! . . . You are doing the right thing at this midnight hour — to consign to the flames the unclean spirit of the past. This is a great, powerful, and symbolic act. . . . Out of these ashes the phoenix will rise. . . . O Century! O Science! It is a joy to be alive!

The date was May 10 of 1933. The speaker was newly appointed Reich Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels. The event was part of “Action Against the un-German Spirit,” a program developed in April by the German Student Union’s Office of Press and Propaganda. At midnight of May 10, 1933, the sights, sounds, and scent of bonfires filled the air of every university town in Germany.

A member of the SA throws confiscated books into the bonfire during the public burning of “un-German” books on the Opernplatz in Berlin.” — United States Holocaust Museum.

The Twelve Theses

“Action against the un-German Spirit” was accompanied by another product of the Student Union leader gathering on April 8. “Twelve Theses,” 12 short statements designed to appeal to German Lutherans’ celebration of Martin Luther’s posting of 95 thesis on the Wittenburg Church door. The “Twelve Theses” were published and posted everywhere. In spirit and tone the “Twelve Theses” was the fitting companion of “Action Against the un-German Spirit.”


The students described their action as a “response to a worldwide Jewish smear campaign against Germany and an affirmation of traditional German values.” The following excerpts illustrate the tone.

"Language and literature have their roots in the people. It is the German people’s responsibility to assure that its language and literature are the pure and unadulterated expression of its Folk traditions.” “Purity of language is your responsibility!” “Our most dangerous enemy is the Jew and those who are his slaves…. "A Jew can only think Jewish. If he writes in German, he is lying. The German who writes in German, but thinks un-German, is a traitor!”
“We want to regard the Jew as alien… The unGerman spirit is to be eradicated from public libraries.” "At present there is a chasm between literature and German tradition. This situation is a disgrace." “We demand of German students the desire and capability to overcome Jewish intellectualism and the resulting liberal decay in the German spirit.” 

On the List

The list of “unclean spirit”…”un-German”… or “anti-German” literature was long. Among the 4,000 books to be purged were the works of Albert Einstein and Thomas Mann, Hellen Keller, Jack London, H.G. Wells, Karl Marx, Erich Maria Remarque, Sigmund Freud, and Heinrich Heine.

Heinrich Heine was a widely-read 19th Century German poet, journalist and essayist whose prescient line in Almansor: A Tragedy, published a century before in 1823, hit too close for comfort in 1933.

“Where they have burned books, they will, in the end, burn people, too.”

–Poet Heinrich Heine, 1823

February 1, 2022, Brooklyn Park, Minnesota in the U.S.A.

At dawn I take the dog out and bring in the paper. “Campaign to ban books spreads across the U.S.” leaps from the front page, as had a report two days ago —“School Board in Tennessee Bans Teaching of Holocaust Novel ‘Maus’” NYT, Jan. 27.” The Tennessee school board had voted to remove the novel “Maus” by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Art Spiegelman because it contains swear words, according to the board minutes. The vote was unanimous.

When Art Spiegelman learned that “Maus” — his Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel about his family’s experience during the Holocaust — had been banned by a Tennessee school board, he told the Washington Post exactly what he thought of the antisemitic decision:

“It’s part of a continuum, and just a harbinger of things to come. This is a red alert.”

Art Spiegelman to Washington post re: censorship

Book burnings, censorship and purging have a history. Most often the books are judged as unclean, not pure, unpatriotic, unChristian, un-this and anti-that, un-American and anti-American, etc. Yesterday’s NYTimes article (Jan. 31, 2022) on book-banning cites a poignant quote by Lauri Halsi Anderson, contemporary author of young adult books.

"By attacking these books, by attacking these authors, by attacking the subject matter, what they are doing is removing the possibility for conversation. You are laying the groundwork for increasing bullying, disrespect, violence and attacks."

Letter to Benjamin Franklin, September 24, 1765

Correspondence between “Founding Fathers” Charles Thomson and Benjamin Franklin is preserved in the National Archives. Thomson’s letter to Franklin now feels as prescient in the U.S.A. as Heinrich Heine’s line was for Germany.

“The Sun of Liberty is indeed fast setting, if not down already, in the American colonies: But I much fear instead of the candles you mention being lighted, you will hear of the works of darkness.” — Charles Thomson: letter to Benjamin Franklin, September 24, 1765 .

At the time of Thompson’s letter, “the Sons of Liberty” were turning to violence and intimidation in response to the Stamp Act. Franklin was a principled Quaker committed to reason, civility and non-violence. Franklin would likely have chuckled at Thomson’s play on words, but not at the warning of the works of darkness.

Conroe, Texas, U.S.A – January 30, 2022

“If I run and if I win,” declares Donald Trump to a cheering crowd in Conroe Texas,”we will treat those people from January 6 fairly. And if it requires pardons, we will give them pardons because they are being treated so unfairly.”

He accuses Black prosecutors of racism. “These prosecutors are vicious, horrible people. They’re racists and they’re very sick, they’re mentally sick. They’re going after me without any protection of my rights from the Supreme Court or most other courts. In reality, they’re not after me, they’re after you…. If these radical, vicious, racist prosecutors do anything wrong or illegal, I hope we are going to have in this country the biggest protest we have ever had in Washington, D.C, in New York, in Atlanta and elsewhere.”

A little gray Maus who’d been shooed off the stage quivers and squeals to the audience, “This is a red alert!”

Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian, author of “Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness” (2017 Wipf and Stock), Brooklyn Park, MN, Feb. 3, 2022.

Light and Bright and White Again

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Reality is a Hologram?

REALITY

The book of flesh and
Blood hangs by a
Slender thread we cut
To shred the pages
We wish were not —
The days and nights of
sadness, fear and dread
Where death is real

Reality is now a holo-
Gram for us who live
In cyberspace and Sci-
Fi worlds that wipe
The Black board clean
And White again
As it was before the
Black birds came

The hollow holograms
Float on air they never
Breathe while we and
All that is or ever was
In flesh and blood shine
Light and bright and
White again but miss
Clouds and rainbows

GCS
 2.2.2022
Rainbow over the IL prairie.

Between Substance and Illusion

“The line between substance and illusion is as thin as the line between reality and appearance. The history of humankind is a tale of an idiot, humankind’s conscious preference for the ‘sweet illusions’ that glimmer from tinsel, broken glass, and oily rags for the colors of a rainbow.
“It seems to be the contention of the Trump campaign that nothing is really true,” wrote Jack Holmes in the September 26, 2016 issue of Esquire; “it only matters what enough people believe, and whether you can dangle enough shiny objects in front of them until the clock runs out on November 8.” -- Jack Holmes, Esquire, September 26, 2016

Gordon C. Stewart, Brooklyn Park, MN, Feb. 1, 2022

The Gospel of the Loser

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The beginning of this commentary will sound familiar to those who have read “The Counterfeit Gospel” (Jan. 29, 2022). The beginning through “The Gospel of Jesus the Loser” is edited and amplified. Everything from the rubric “From Prosperity to QAnon” is original to this post.

A Question of Glory

Donald Trump and I each claim a footing in the Presbyterian Church and its Reformed theological tradition. It’s hard to remember much of what happened in Confirmation Class. But it’s hard to forget the first article of the Shorter Catechism. The way to a meaningful life is “to glorify God, and enjoy Him forever.” None of us understood it, of course. But one thing was clear: We are not to glorify ourselves.

The Workshop for Cranking Out Idols

The Reformed faith tradition focuses on the majesty of God and our propensity to bow before an infinite variety of substitutes for the Infinite. The issue for faith is not belief or unbelief. The issue is idolatry. Earth is the theatre of God’s glory. Yet human nature is a perpetual factory of idols. –Jean Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion,1556.

Author theologian William Stringfellow described idols as “imposters of God,” — the finite, manageable works we crank out that take the place of the Ineffable and Infinite.

There are gods and there is God. There is the finite and there is the Infinite. The gods are nearer-to-hand stand-ins, substitutes that promise what they cannot deliver. The world is beautiful and filled with goodness, yet the underlying goodness is twisted against itself. The idols are endless and varied. Nation, work, money, status, race, religion, political party, ideology take center stage in “the theater of God’s glory.”

The Gospel of Jesus the Loser

By the standards of the Prosperity Gospel, Jesus of Nazareth was a loser. Yet the loser will not go away. The loser executed on a Roman cross was raised as the archetype of authentic humanity. Unless the church gets that straight, everything it gains is loss. In spite of all attempts to circumvent, delete, or deny it, the cross remains the primary symbol for those who seek to follow Jesus. Whoever spends time looking at Gustav Doré’s painting of the crucifixion cannot dismiss the horror of it, the cruelty of it, the god-forsakenness of it.

From Prosperity to QAnon

It’s a short distance from the Prosperity Gospel to QAnon. Neither pays attention to Matthew or Luke’s vivid narratives of Jesus in the wilderness. Is Satan real? Yes and no. Satan is not someone’s name. It’s a title — the Shatan, the Diabolos — for the diabolical. It has no other home than our hearts and minds, the blacksmith shop that never ceases. The factory that cranks out idols. Satan is the Adversary of the Divine. QAnon says little about God but sees Satan everywhere. QAnon is the latest metastasis of a simplistic theology that divides the world between God and Satan, good and evil, saved and damned, elect and non-elect, heaven and hell, soldiers and cowards. If those characteristics sound familiar, it’s because they are.

“You people seem normal”

Thanksgiving is a day of mostly cheerful moments, but some Thanksgivings are also epiphanies. My younger son’s college friend opened a window to his experience of Christian faith and practice. During a light-hearted conversation around the Thanksgiving table, the student guest took what seems like a risk, but it landed on ears that understood how he felt. “I don’t know quite how to say this,” he said with eyebrows rising, “but you people seem normal.” The conversation the followed focused on his view of Christians as whackos. The whackos held the worldview described in the previous paragraph. Why did he think so? While changing channels he had stopped in on Jimmy and Tammie Baker, Jimmy Swaggert, and other televangelists who had not seemed normal. They were abnormal by almost any standards mental health, reason and sanity.

The Lure of Prosperity

The Prosperity Gospel preachers proclaim it can all be yours, if… If you accept Jesus Christ as your Savior, if you stop thinking negatively, it can all be yours. It can all be yours in a secure gated community. It can be yours if you climb to the top. It can all be yours if you just close your eyes to the homeless who disturb an otherwise beautiful day. It can all be yours, if you stop thinking of yourself as a school drop-out ditch digger and think of yourself as (fill in the blank).

Flights from Ambigiuity

What is missing in the Prosperity Gospel and QAnon are the biblical stories of Jesus in the wilderness with Satan. Any study of the Gospel of Matthew’s or Gospel of Luke’s narratives lead to a conclusion that life is more ambiguous than we would like it to be. It is good that our material needs are met. It’s not good when we turn needs into greed. In the same way, religion can go either way. It is good to praise God and practice a tradition’s wisdom, but religion can become, and often is, a form of idolatry that substitutes itself for the Eternal and Ineffable it claims to worship. But the third scene in the wilderness narratives that leaps from the page in America today, is the one about power and authority described below.

Satan

You may or may not hear much about Satan from Prosperity Gospel preachers or, for that matter, from the pulpits of traditional churches. It’s either because it’s not popular. It won’t attract new adherents. Or it’s an embarrassment. Or the biblical texts that speak of Satan or the Devil require an inordinately long explanation than a sermon allows. Not so for QAnon where the talk is all about Satan.

What has been lost is a literary and emotional understanding of the complex and confounding character of the biblical Satan. Satan is the personification of the diabolical. The Trickster, the Deceiver, the Twister, the Half-Truth Teller, the Liar. Beauty, truth, and goodness are given lip service, but beneath the talk of beauty lies ugliness, beneath the tributes to truth lies deceit, beneath the salute to goodness lies a tornado twisting goodness into its opposite.

The most poignant of the three wilderness scenes

William Blake paints the most poignant of the three episodes of Jesus’s 40 days with the Diabolos in the wilderness. The scene is a mountaintop where Satan and Jesus the Christ have in view all the nations and kingdoms of the word. Blake’s painting gives visual expression to the narcissistic lure of political power and authority. “Then the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. ‘All this I will give you,’ he says, ‘if you will bow down and worship me.’ Jesus says to him, ‘Begone, Satan, for it is written ‘you shall worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.'” (Matthew 4:10 NIV and NRSV combined)

Where was God?

Those who see the countenance of God in the face of Jesus the Loser face a challenge that won’t go away. Where was God when America’s First People were being stripped of their homeland, slaughtered, stripped of their religion and culture, and consigned to reservations and Christian boarding schools? Where was God when White hoods with torches burned their crosses and formed a congregation gathered around the lynching tree? Where was God at the whipping post? Where was God during the Holocaust, the “Final Solution”? Where was God at the gun massacres at Columbine, Sandy Hook, and Parkland? Where was God when Narcissus was dying of dehydration at the edge of the pond?

You will find God there

Jesus the Loser tells us where. God was among those who were robbed of their homeland. God was shuttled off to the reservations. God was hanging from the lynching tree. God was whipped at the whipping post. God was on the trains to Auschwitz; God was among the children, teachers, and parents at Sandy Hook. God was among the Losers — the tortured, the poor, the starving, the dying and the dead. God was in the pond inviting Narcissus to drink. We will find God there.

Letters and Papers from Prison preserves a poem from the cell of a pastor, theologian, professor, and resistor of the German Third Reich. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was hanged at Flossenburg Concentration Camp April 9, 1945 as the Nazi regime was collapsing.

CHRISTIANS AND UNBELIEVERS

  • Dietrich Bonhoeffer, July, 1944

Men go to God when they are sore bestead,
Pray to him for succour, for his peace, for bread,
For mercy for them sick, sinning or dead:
All men do so, Christian and unbelieving.

Men go to God when he is sore bestead,
Find him poor and scorned, without shelter or bread,
Whelmed under weight of the wicked, the weak, the dead:
Christians stand by God in his hour of grieving.

God goeth to every man when sore bestead,
Feedeth body and spirit with his bread,
For Christians, heathens alike he hangeth dead:
And both alike forgiving.

Gordon C. Stewart, Presbyterian minister (H.R.) and public theologian, Brooklyn Park, MN, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017, Wipf and Stock), available in kindle and paperback.

The Counterfeit Gospel

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Donald and I

I often have wondered whether Donald Trump would disturb me less if we did not both claim a footing in the Presbyterian Church and the Reformed theological tradition. I have asked what happened to Donald after Confirmation Class.

To glorify God — Not Ourselves

If we remembered nothing else from confirmation class, it was the first and most important question of the Shorter Catechism. “What is the chief end of man (human beings)? Answer: The chief end of man (human beings) is to glorify God and enjoy God forever.” Whatever questions remained, one thing was clear. We are called to glorify God, not ourselves.

In the Reformed tradition of faith and practice the issue in life is not belief or unbelief. The perennial daily issue is idolatry understood as the substitution of what is finite and manageable for the “I AM” the Name too holy to name. Valuing humility and modesty in spirit and lifestyle, the Reformed tradition shuns extravagance, arrogance, and ostentatious living as gates to a world swirling toward self-destruction.

The Gospel of the Winner

The Prosperity Gospel is the impostor gospel on whose shoulders America hoisted a hologram to the Office of President and continues to insist Mr. Trump could not have been defeated. While greed knows no time limits, the Prosperity Gospel is the latest spiritual product of consumer capitalism which divides humankind into the elect and the damned, the materially privileged and the “less fortunate” for whom alike, amassing a fortune is life’s purpose and goal. Donald Trump is not just Donald Trump. He is the embodiment of privilege in all its forms: prestige, power, tower, country clubs for the rich and famous, a beautiful wife or two or three, a winner free to put his hands wherever his urges lead him with no evidence of guilt or shame. Donald is the symbol of success. Donald is a winner who cannot lose.

Paula White’s prayer service for Donald Trump offers a good look at what this impostor for God looks and sounds like. Paul White became a spiritual advisor in the Trump White House. Listen carefully.

President Trump White House spiritual advisor Paula White

Those who observe the prayer service for the president’s re-election in the aftermath of the January 6, 2021 Capitol insurrection must not forget or ignore how fascists rose to power in the 1920s and ’30s by inciting violence against leftist protesters. The Nazis sent Brownshirts to left-wing gatherings to provoke street fights and wreak havoc which they blamed on leftists. When more than 100 people were injured at the Red Wedding rally in 1927, the Nazis claimed they, the Nazis, were the victims of leftist anarchists. Hitler may have been a victim, but Hitler would never be a loser.

The Gospel of Jesus the Loser

By the standards of the Prosperity Gospel, Jesus of Nazareth was a loser. He did not prosper. He did not accumulate. He didn’t win. Yet the loser whose cry Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachtani? — “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” — rang out from the executioner’s cross was, according to Christian faith, raised as the archetype of authentic humanity. Unless the church gets that straight, everything it may gain will be loss. Jesus was not and is not a winner.

In spite of all attempts to circumvent, delete, or deny it, the cross remains the primary symbol for those who seek to follow Jesus. Whoever spends time looking at Caravaggio’s painting of the crucifixion cannot dismiss the horror of it, the cruelty of it, the god-forsakenness of it, or the helping hand of Simon of Cyene.

Like every other religious institution and faith tradition, the church which Donald and I once held in common is a failure. Lord knows how often the Presbyterian Church (USA) has stood on the other side of the fence from Jesus, Moses, and the prophets. Even so, like the Friends (“Quakers”), the voice of conscience lies near the heart of who we seek to be. We are taught to listen for “the still small voice” (the whisper) that calls us “to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God” (Micah 6:8).

From the Counterfeit Gospel of Prosperity to QAnon and Fascism

It’s a short distance from the winner or loser, good vs. evil, us/them theology of the Prosperity Gospel to QAnon and fascism. All these years after Edward R. Murrow called Joseph McCarthy’s search for communist conspirators to a screeching halt, a nameless figure who goes by “Q” gathers a following by uncovering a Satanic cabal working in high places of “the Deep State.” The enemy in 2022 is still leftists, as it was with the Third Reich and Joe McCarthy, but far worse and ludicrous — an underground Leftist cabal of child kidnapping, molestation, sex trafficking, pederasty, and cannibalism conspiring to take away our freedom. QAnon followers still make invoke the old fear of communist, but the culprits now are called Democrats.

QAnon’s view of Satan is fueled by the biblical literalist mindset of far-right fundamentalist and conservative Christian theology that turns Satan into an independent, identifiable being. If only it were that simple. The biblical Satan is the personification of the diabolical dimension of human nature. In the Bible Satan stands for the Trickster who twists Earth’s essential goodness against itself and its Creator. Satan’s workshop is the human mind and heart that cranks out impostors of God.

Responsibility and Ambiguity

Charles Thomson, a quiet member of America’s Founders, the first and only Secretary of the Continental Congress, wrote his friend Benjamin Franklin of his concern about “the cursed schemes dragging us into civil war, and national ruin.” The American experiment was “teetering at the edge of the cliff.” That was 1774, two years before the Declaration of Independence was issued. The threat of yearning for a king is as real now as it was then. Are we mature enough to turn back from the road to ruin? Will we remember, forget, ignore, or oppose the question and answer Donald and I learned in confirmation class? You don’t need a Presbyterian confirmation class to conclude that self-glorification is glory misplaced. Whatever happens, we do well to remember Charles Thomson’s wisdom and look at the diabolical dimension within ourselves and find the factory that cranks out substitutes for God. The search for glory always ends badly.

“The character of human life,” observed Paul Tillich, “like the character of the human condition, like the character of all life, is ‘ambiguity’: the inescapable mixture of good and evil, the true and the false, the creative and the destructive forces –both individual and social” — Time, May 17, 1963.

Gordon C. Stewart, Presbyterian minister (HR), and public theologian, Brooklyn Park, MN, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017, Wipf and Stock), available in kindle and paperback.

Two Universities: Liberty and Paris

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When the president of “the largest Christian university in the world” in Lynchburg, Virginia urges every student to buy a gun and get a permit to carry a concealed weapon, for whatever reasons, it seems a little oxymoronic and moronic. It’s neither Christian nor smart. It’s not what people do in college. They buy books, not guns. It’s not consistent with the traditions and standards of higher learning. Real universities don’t talk like that.

At one of the world’s first universities, the University of Paris (the Sorbonne), way back in the 13th century, a young Thomas Aquinas was a student of philosophy and Christian theology. His professors introduced him to great critical thinkers like Aristotle, Plato, and Maimonides in their original Greek and Latin languages.

Lynchville, Virginia in the 21st Century is long way from Paris in the 13th Century, and that’s too bad for all of us in America where what Aquinas later called “willful ignorance” has become the order of the day.

 It is clear that not every kind of ignorance is the cause of a sin, but that alone which removes the knowledge which would prevent the sinful act. …This may happen on the part of the ignorance itself, because, to wit, this ignorance is voluntary. …  For such like negligence renders the ignorance itself voluntary and sinful, provided it be about matters one is *bound and able to know.” [Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I-II, q. 76, a. 1, a. 3.]

Today’s Catholic World, an online encyclopedia, adds these footnotes to Aquinas’s text:

*Catholics are bound (required) to learn and know their Faith. A sin against faith (often caused by willful ignorance) is the gravest of all sins according to St. Thomas Aquinas.

St. Augustine, cited by St. Thomas, characterizes sin against faith in these words: Hoc est peccatum quo tenentur cuncta peccata. “This is the sin which comprehends all other sins.”

Liberty University is not a Catholic university. It’s not big on Catholics. It’s fundamentalist protestant.  It prides itself on its knowledge of the Bible.

But don’t we have to suppose that somewhere in that auditorium in Lynchburg, there was a professor who cringed? Someone there who resonated with the old student at the University of Paris? Someone who thought that telling young professing Christians to arm themselves was a deliberate act of willful ignorance, a sin against faith, the sin that comprehends all others?

“Put away your sword. Those who live by the sword will perish by the sword” – Jesus of Nazareth to Peter after Peter had cult off the High Priest’s servant’s ear at Jesus’s arrest, 1st Century, according to The Gospel of Matthew 26:52.

Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock) host of Views from the Edge. Brooklyn Park, MN. Originally published 2015.  Re-posted here June 13, 2022.

The Charcoal Fire — 10 Years Ago

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As the sun rose this [Easter] morning, a few of us warmed ourselves around a fire outside the church. Two charcoal fires were recalled, involving Peter, “the Rock” who crumbled like a piece of shale, and the risen Christ, who would re-create the scene to change the story from denial to welcome, forgiveness, and a commissioning to love.

Steve Shoemaker Verse, “The Charcoal Fire”

THE CHARCOAL FIRE

Charcoal Fire
Three times
Denial:

I do not know the man
I do not know the man
I do not know the man

Charcoal Fire
Three times
Forgiveness:

Do you love me?
Do you love me?
Do you love me?

Charcoal Fire
Three Times
Commission:

Feed my sheep
Feed my sheep
Feed my sheep

Steve Shoemaker
Urbana, IL
April 8, 2012

Gordon C. Stewart, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), edited and republished in memory of Steve Shoemaker. Steve is sitting on a Bristlecone Pine stump above the tree line in Colorado during a gathering of seminary friends. Mutual friend Anna Strong and canine companion stand by him.

‘I AM’ and ‘i am’

Inside and Outside the Bubble

The biblical story of Cain and Abel is a lulu! It’s a poetic work of theological anthropology.  The Genesis story invites us to ask again who we humans are, and what we are not, a question best addressed outside the bubble of species self-glorification. Climate change bursts that bubble. If living inside the bubble once seemed free of consequence, it is does no longer.

The Bunkers

Theological anthropology was not a hot topic for Archie, Edith, Gloria, and ‘Meathead’ in the Bunker home, or so we thought. But writer and producer, Norman Lear, used the Bunker family dynamics as a means of raising public consciousness beyond the choice of arrogance or platitudes.  

Norman’s Jewish heritage is a tradition of stories of divine-human encounter. Often these stories are humorous as well as serious. More often than not, the Hebrew Bible narratives carry meanings, sub-texts, mind-bending twists and turns, and nuances only available to those who have learned Hebrew. The story of Cain and Abel is one of those. I’d love to hear what Norman would make of the Hebrew tale of fraternal homicide.

Cain and Abel

The story comes on the heels of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Eve soon gives birth to her first-born son, Cain, and his brother Abel. The difference between the brothers is offered without further comment. Cain is a tiller of the soil (a farmer); Abel is a shepherd. Then the writer creates the scene in which the brothers are bring their offering to the YHWH (“I AM”). 

No one hugs an asparagus

Abel offers “the choicest of the firstlings of his [sheep] flocks.” Cain offers “the fruit of the soil.” I hear Norman laughing. “A sheep is precious. It pulls on our heart strings. A vegetable? Not so much. You can hug a sheep. No one hugs an asparagus.”  

Perhaps the Hebrew names  — Kayin (Cain) and Hebel (Abel)—provide hints as to why YHWH (“I AM”) “pays heed to” Hebel’s offering, but “pays no heed to” Kayin’s. ‘Hebel’ (Abel) is a breath or puff. The root of Kayin (Cain) is “to get, to gain, to have gotten.” Kayin is a hustler, an egotist, who offers what will not die, i.e., vegetables, that will sprout again next season.  Hebel offers a sheep, an offering close to the heart. Hebel offers what he knows himself to be — a precious mortal animal, a puff of the Breath, not the Breath itself on which all life depends. Hebel’s sheep is not perennial; when you sacrifice it, i.e. let it go, it does not sprout again.  Hebel lets go of the myth that he is more than he is. He knows that, like the choicest sheep he offers, he is, at the same time, precious but passing — a puff, not the Breath itself. 

 Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian, Author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017, Wipf and Stock), Brooklyn Park, MN, Dec. 8, 2022.