I've always liked quiet. And, like most people, I've experienced the world's madness. "Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness" (Wipf and Stock Publishers, Jan. 2017) distills 47 years of experiencing stillness and madness as a campus minister and Presbyterian pastor (IL, WI, NY, OH, and MN), poverty criminal law firm executive director, and social commentator. Our dog Barclay reminds me to calm down and be much more still than I would be without him.
Three year-old grandson Elijah’s a joy. He’s joyful! He’s loving. He’s funny. He makes me smile with his summersaults, singing and dancing. He makes me proud of him every morning when he helps fill Barclay’s bowl with his prescription dog food. Like Barclay, Elijah sees no evil, hears no evil, and speaks no evil, but he recoils at the sound of meanness.
Elijah isn’t mean. He loves Nora; Nora loves him. Elijah doesn’t know he’s Black; Nora doesn’t know she’s White. No one is superior at daycare.
Elijah doesn’t know what a country is, let alone that there’s something wrong with it, or how to make it great. He hasn’t learned to fear people like those who lynched 14 year-old Emmett Till in 1955, or their White nationalist offspring: the Boogaloo Bois, the Wolverine Watchmen, and the Proud Boys “staying back and standing by” with their pistols and rifles loaded if things don’t go their way in the 2020 election.
My grandson is too young to know the names of Medgar Evers, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, James Baldwin, W.E.B. Dubois, Paul Robison, Congressmen John Lewis and Elijah Cummings, President Barack Obama . . . or Trevon Martin, Freddie Gray, Philando Castille, Botham Jean, Breonna Taylor, Atatiana Jefferson, George Floyd, and countless other unarmed people like him who were killed by the police.
Elijah is three years-old. He didn’t see President Obama award the Presidential Medal of Honor to Civil Rights Movement hero Congressman John Lewis, or President Trump bestow the same honor on Rush Limbaugh whose daily radio broadcasts are seances with Joe McCarthy.
When I came home from voting with the bright red sticker I VOTED, Elijah recognized the letters. He knows his ABC’s. Someday I’ll tell him I voted for him and for all his friends and enemies.
“LIBERATE MICHIGAN” and “LIBERATE VIRGINIA” and campaign rally chants to “LOCK HER (i.e., the Governor of Michigan) UP!” would be disturbing under any circumstances. But the mantras that stir up domestic terrorists like the Proud Boys and the Wolverine Watchmen don’t come from two guys in a bar or members of a school PTAs in Michigan or Virginia. They come straight from the mouth of the President of the United States of America (POTUS) fighting to stay in the Oval Office where he will remain immune from criminal prosecution..
“I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
President’s Oath of Office
“TO THE BEST OF MY ABILITY”
When the oath-taker who swears to execute the duties of office “to the best of my abilities” has little or no ability to execute them, there is a problem. If a next-door neighbor’s sister and niece were to risk warning the neighbor that their brother and uncle is a skillful con-artist who cheated his own family out of their inheritance — a man with no moral standards, no respect for reality or truth, no conscience for establishing a fake university and fleecing the students who trusted him with their money — ordinary people would pay close attention. The neighbor might not be surprised when, several years later, well-armed militias swarm the neighborhood on orders of the “law-and-order” president of the homeowners’ association. But, even then, they might stay silent to protect themselves.
When the oath-taker who swears to execute the duties of office “to the best of my abilities” has little or no ability to execute them, there is a problem.
If a next-door neighbor’s sister and niece were to risk warning the neighbor that their brother and uncle is a skillful con-artist who cheated his own family out of their inheritance — a man with no moral standards, no respect for reality or truth, no conscience for establishing a fake university and fleecing the students who trusted him with their money — ordinary people would pay close attention.
The neighbor might not be surprised when, several years later, well-armed militias swarm the neighborhood on orders of the “law-and-order” president of the homeowners’ association. But, even then, they might stay silent to protect themselves.
The president of the association who walked out of the 60-Minutes interview with Leslie Stahl is railing now that tonight’s debate moderator and debate commission are biased and unfair in their decision to shut down his microphone during the two minute periods when his opponent is speaking. He will participate according to the rules to the best of his (limited) ability.
At tonight’s debate, Mr. Trump’s sister and niece will not be surprised when their brother and crazy uncle throws a fit and stomps off the stage in a rant.
As the president often says, when he knows something will happen, “We’ll see what happens.” When it happens, remember to tell your friends you first heard it on Views from the Edge. -:)
UPDATE: THE DAY AFTER THE DEBATE (OCT. 23)
Oops! Our prediction didn’t happen. We stand by the rest of the commentary as free-lance effort to highlight the American dilemma now and as far as the eye can see.
Gordon C. Stewart, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), Chaska, MN, October 22, 2020.
Like Shakespeare’s Hamlet, many a son is driven mad by a father’s ghost. Although most of our fathers were not murdered, as was Hamlet’s, our fathers whisper through the air long after they have ceased to be. We hear a voice that defies us to be as big as they or to exceed their stature, or to fill the void of emptiness and their sense of shame and shortcomings they took to the grave, or to find the love they withheld from us as children. A father’s ghost sometimes drives a son mad.
We are our father’s sons. Appearances to the contrary, madness is never far away.
“That he is mad, ’tis true; ’tis true ’tis pity;
And pity ’tis ’tis true —a foolish figure….”
— Plutonius to Queen Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother.
(William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2.)
The healthier sons among us still see our father’s ghost without being stuck in a room where his is the only voice that keeps us captive. We write a wider narrative that puts the father’s ghost where it belongs within the expanding narrative to which experience over time leads us to write. The less fortunate walk through life in “the hollow inner space where the story should be, but never was.” (Dan P. McAdams, The Strange Case of Donald J. Trump.)
The hollow inner space where the story should be
People without a redemptive narrative of the self — a life-story written in one’s own blood: the defeats no less than the successes, the release from the father’s ghost, the changes that unmute the helpless child’s cry for love and integrate the conscious changes that awake us from sleep-walking — deserve our pity and prayers.
A truly authentic fake
“Trump is always acting, always on stage,” writes McAdam, “— but that is who he really is, and that is all he really is. He is not introspective, retrospective or prospective. He does not go deep into his mind; he does not travel back to the past; he does not project far into the future. He is always on the surface, always right now.
“In his own mind, he is more like a persona than a person, more like a primal force or superhero, rather than a fully realized human being.”
Glitter and compassion
Long before the chairs and drapes in the Oval Office were glittered with yellow-gold, Edgar Alan Poe wrote in his Philosophy of Furniture, “Glitter — and in that one word how much of all that is detestable do we express.”
Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a tragedy too detestable to express: a trail of tears created by a son’s inability to write a narrative that integrates and moves beyond obsession with his father’s ghost.
The hollow inner spaces of others bring a tear to God’s eye, and call us to compassion in hopes that a new narrative of redemption. Truly authentic fakes who hide their emptiness with glitter deserve our pity and our prayers. They do not deserve applause or votes.
Any responsible citizen keeps track of the news. No American can honestly claim ignorance about matters of utmost national importance, like a white supremacist domestic terrorist plot to kidnap the governor of Michigan, or the invitation to a domestic terrorist group to “stand back, and stand by” . . . or the lifetime appointment to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Anyone who can’t — or won’t — answer the question whether it is legal to interfere with and intimidate citizens’ Constitutional right to vote; anyone who can’t, or won’t, say unequivocally that the Constitution does not grant a president the authority or power to prevent the peaceful transfer of power; anyone who claims not to know President Trump’s frequently declared three-fold litmus test for filling the vacant seat of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg brings to mind the wisdom of Albert Einstein, Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes, and St. Augustine.
The lie was raised to the dignity of a political instrument.
Sin has many tools, but a lie is the handle that fits them all.
It’s not easy to love one’s enemies and to pray for those who persecute you in 2020. It’s hard not to cheer when the president who has shown no grief for the 214,000 American dead or compassion for the sick and mourning succumbs to the virus he once called a hoax. But this is not a time for cheering. No amount of cheering will fix what ails us.
“For everything there is a season, and time for every matter under heaven,“ wrote the ancient Hebrew sage (Ecclesiastes 3:1) centuries before a young Donald Trump found direction in Norman Vincent Peal’s gospel of the Power of Positive Thinking that vaccinates a person or nation against self-defeating thoughts that block success. No longer is there a season or time for weeping. No time for mourning. No time for Ecclesiastes’ sullen declaration that “all is vanity” or the depths of despair in the Psalms, Proverbs, Jeremiah, Lamentations, or the “Woes” of Amos and Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Evil is shrunk to the size of a thimble — the temptation of thinking negatively about success. Slowly but surely, the prosperity gospel without a cross replaces the ethic of the Golden Rule — “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” — and the Sermon on the Mount’s “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
“[T]he struggle against evil can make us evil,” wrote biblical scholar Walter Wink in Engaging the Powers, “and no amount of good intentions automatically prevents its happening.”
Good intentions have been hard to find, and, when we think we’ve found them, they sometimes become evil in disguise. The “vanity” of Ecclesiastes is never far away. The Hebrew word “hehbel” is a breath of air, or of the mouth — evanescent, empty, puffed up, wicked, false, and often idolatrous.
Evil as a Parasite
Like other parasites, evil does not breathe on its own. It requires a host. It exists only because of goodness. Rarely candid or self-identifying before its work is done, evil is pernicious. It slowly sucks the oxygen out of goodness. It wears the masks of saviors whose agendas are destruction. Evil is an arsonist masquerading as the fire department that will rescue us, while it strikes the matches that turn forests and homes into cinders and ashes. It assures us that the scent we smell is not real. It presents itself as what is the straight-forward talk that warps what is straight into something crooked.
The Scent of Smoke
Sometimes the scent and sight of smoke rise from a constitution in flames. A crook with Covid-19 lights a match in the name of law-and-order while encouraging the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by” and saying not a mumbling word after the federal and state agents uncover a white supremacist plot to kidnap the Governor of Michigan and spark civil war.
Though the parasite of evil starts slowly, its threat to our health cannot remain hidden forever. Eventually the power of positive thinking has to face the greater power it denies. The longing for goodness, truth and beauty may yet lead vanity to the operating room where a real doctor removes the parasite from the body politic.
This is a season to straighten what is crooked, to resist evil, while always reminding ourselves that the struggle against evil can make us evil.
If you applauded the president’s message to the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by” when the 2020 election doesn’t go his way, don’t read this tongue-in-cheek letter. If you find it chilling and need a good laugh, this epistle may bring a smile and a chuckle.
Views from the Edge: To See More Clearly, by the wetland, MN, October 1, 2020.
It ends before a paragraph is written. Anything I might say seems so obvious. Trite. I feel like Chicken Little! How many times can I warn that “the sky is falling!”? Why bother?
Once a preacher always a preacher? The people I most want to reach are professing Christians who leave me gasping for air: the part of the American electorate that seems so out of touch with their spiritual-moral core that they cannot see clearly the gaping chasm between their faith and their politics.
Can we find common ground?
Christians of all sorts read the same Bible. We read different translations, and we read it differently, but we read it. We cherry pick parts of the Bible that support our viewpoint and black out what we prefer to ignore. A search for a small patch of solid ground that could become the common ground for respectful conversation about faith and politics landed on Paul’s good counsel to the Philippians.
“Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, If there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” – Letter of Paul to the Philippians 4:8
Letter to the Philippians 4:8
We all need more of goodness. Less ugliness. Greater attention to the things that are excellent and worthy of praise; less attention to things that are worthy of scorn; more love, less hate. These qualities of character are a succinct guide in all areas of life. But no sooner do we agree with Paul’s wisdom than the divisions re-create themselves.
Christians, nones, dones, agnostics, and atheists
Yet no sooner do we shake hands in agreement with Paul’s advice, than we retun to the fight that brought us to this moment. In 2020, what do we deem truthful, honorable, just, pure, lovely, and commendable/worthy of praise, and how do the these qualities of character guide professing Christians as we make decisions in public life?
It troubles me that the nones, dones, agnostic and atheist friends practice what Paul advised more than the growing number who have read Paul’s letter. How does a professing disciple of Jesus become deaf to the shrillness, the ugliness, the smirk, the self-serving manipulation of the sacred, the drip-by-drip erosion of trust, the disappearance of what we once regarded as admirable?
White House Press Conference 09/23/2020
WH Correspondent: “Will you commit to a peaceful transition of power if you lose the election?” The President: “Well, we’re going to have to see what happens. You know that.”
WH Correspondent: “Will you commit to making sure there is a peaceful transfer of power?” The President: “We want to have — get rid of the ballots and you’ll have a very peaceful, there won’t be a transfer, frankly. There’ll be a continuation.”
Campaign mailing to homes in Minnesota
“To serve, protect, and defend the Constitution”
It’s hard to turn attention to whatever is excellent and worthy of praise when I see the American ancestors of the Philippian church applauding the desecration of what Paul taught, to say nothing of ignoring the violation of the President’s oath of office “to protect, serve, and defend the Constitution of the United States of America.”
The 2020 American electoral campaign reminds me of the day my two-year-old brother swallowed Drano before being rushed to the hospital emergency room where they pumped his stomach before the poison could kill him.
Who will pump our stomach before the Drano burns away the things that are commendable — and American constitutional republic — from inside out?
Gordon C. Stewart, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness, September 24.
We’ve had chipmunks and mice join us in the cabin next to the wetland, but never a woodpecker. Until last night.
The A-frame cabin is a quiet place. On an autumn day, we open all the doors and windows to let the breezes in, and to hear the sounds of trumpeter swans, ducks, geese . . . and various sorts of woodpeckers, like the Pileated Woodpecker that left a stump where an old oak tree stood three years ago.
This time of year there is a different sound: the pinging of acorns falling against the metal siding. It has no beat, rhythm, or staccato, like the rat-a-tat-tat of a woodpecker. Last night the pecking was coming from near the apex of the rough-cut pine walls inside the A-frame.
How does a woodpecker get inside a cabin? We concluded it had come through the screen door we had mistakenly left open. The woodpecker spent the night and next day with us until it came down from the rafters and flew back outside.
Early this morning, living with a woodpecker felt like a metaphor America before, and perhaps after, the November election.
Woodpeckers don’t belong inside the people’s house. If, by our neglect or a fluke of nature, a woodpecker should fly in through the screen door (the Electoral College) and is destroying the house peck by peck, the owners must usher him out before he does further damage. If they refuse to remove him, or he refuses to leave, the woodpecker will turn the rough-cut pine interior walls of a constitutional republic into sawdust. The metal siding may continue to stand, but the structure will be an empty shell occupied by a woodpecker.
Woodpeckers use their beaks to communicate as much as they do to find food. In a code all its own, a pecker’s Morse Code may signal personal distress or warn others of the same ilk against the cabin-dwellers conspiracy to take away their freedom and their Second Amendment right to defend themselves.
How the story unfolds is in our hands. If you’re a person of faith who has not decided how to cast your ballot, here’s some pointed guidance: Vote the Golden Rule rather than the Rule of Gold. You cannot serve two masters.
God help us all!
Gordon C. Stewart, by the wetland, September 22, 2020.
Can you hear the tablets breaking? Does it matter anymore?
As soon as [Moses] came near the camp and saw the [Golden] calf and the dancing, Moses’ anger burned hot, and he threw the tablets from his hands and broke them at the foot of the mountain. — Book of Exodus 32:19 NRSV
The artist’s in the portrait below seems to be wondering how we will answer in this election: Can you still hear the shattering of common decency? Is it making you sick?
You shall not take the Name of the Lord your God in vain ( Exodus 20:7) explained
According to Hebrew Bible scholar W. Gunther Plaut, the commandment against using the divine Name for vain purposes “forbids man [sic] in every respect to use God’s name wrongly or in vain. [M]urder, adultery and theft are circumscribed by opportunity and fear, but misuse of God’s name, once it becomes a habit will proliferate ‘and in the end one’s every assertion will be preceded by using the Name’. The result is a devaluation of awe and respect, and in time the holiness of God has no further meaning.
“On the whole… Jewish tradition treated the prohibition with utmost regard. It frowned on a all secular or self-serving use of the Name.” — The Torah: A Modern Commentary, Union of American Hebrew Congregations, NY, 1981.
And hast thou sworn on every slight pretense, Till perjuries are common like bad pence, While thousands, careless of the damning sin, Kiss the books outside, who never look’d within. – W. Cowper (1731-1800 CE) cited by The Torah: A Modern Commentary
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor (Ninth Commandment)
According to a report in Politico, Caputo, along with scientific adviser Paul Alexander, pressured officials to alter the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports, a long-running weekly journal that features the latest science-based research and data on infectious diseases. Known as MMWR, the report has long been a sacred government information resource for doctors, scientists and researchers tracking outbreaks. Caputo has often publicly pushed back on CDC statements about the coronavirus and said falsely in a Facebook video on Sunday that the CDC has a “resistance unit” against Trump, according to The New York Times. His Facebook page has since been made private. The officials pressured CDC to change the reports, at times retroactively, to better align them with Trump’s often rosier public statements about the coronavirus, Politico reported. — Excerpts from article by Andrew O’Reilly, Fox News
Yesterday Mr. Caputo apologized to CDC staff for his accusations and disrespect for CDC scientists.
Attorney General Bill Barr
In Barr’s eyes . . . it’s the Democrats who are actually doing what Barr’s critics allege of him.
“You know [how] liberals project,” Barr told Kass. “All this bullshit about how the president is going to stay in office and seize power? I’ve never heard of any of that crap. I mean, I’m the attorney general. I would think I would have heard about it. They are projecting. They are creating an incendiary situation where there will be loss of confidence in the vote.” In a moment of supreme irony, Barr then immediately hypothesized a fanciful scenario where unnamed figures rigged the vote in a battleground state. —Matt Ford, The New Republic, “Bill Barr’s Titanic Lack of Self-Awareness, The New Republic, Sept. 17, 2020.
Human Nature and the Normalization of Wickedness: Wisdom from Hannah Arendt
Arendt considers one particularly pernicious breed of liars — “public-relations managers in government who learned their trade from the inventiveness of Madison Avenue.” In a sentiment arguably itself defeated by reality — a reality in which someone like Donald Trump sells enough of the public on enough falsehoods to get gobsmackingly close to the presidency — she writes:
“The only limitation to what the public-relations man does comes when he discovers that the same people who perhaps can be ‘manipulated to buy a certain kind of soap cannot be manipulated — though, of course, they can be forced by terror — to ‘buy’ opinions and political views. Therefore the psychological premise of human manipulability has become one of the chief wares that are sold on the market of common and learned opinion…
“The self-deceived deceiver loses all contact with not only his audience, but also the real world, which still will catch up with him, because he can remove his mind from it but not his body.”
Election 2020: Who are we? What shall become of us? Who is “us”?
November 3, 2020 is about who we have become and who we choose to be.
The sound of Moses’ tablets breaking was heard again within minutes of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death. Justice Ginsburg’s dying wish was that her seat on the Court remain empty until after January 2021 — after the inauguration of 46th President.
Before prayers could be offered for the dead, we could see a vulture swooping to prey on a fresh corpse before the family had time to offer prayers for the dead and for themselves. Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell broke the respectful silence most Americans observe following a death, no matter your differences. You show respect for the dead and for the grieving.
McConnell immediately announced his disagreement with a dying wish that her seat on the Court remain empty until after inauguration of the 46th President in January 2021. Justice Ginsburg’s request had precedent. The Majority Leader had prevented President Obama from appointing a successor to Justice Scalia on the grounds that no SCOTUS vacancy should be filled during the last year of a president’s term. In the waning days of President Trump’s term of office, McConnell announced he would welcome an appointment and put it on the Senate floor for a vote.
There are no principles. Not even a trace of common decency, not a moment of silence that normal follows death –in this case, a momentary suspension of the politics of deceit and the worship of power.
With a crassness that breaks the common observance of respectful silence following a death in the community, practice Senator Mitch McConnell Senate and President Trump immediately declared his disagreement with Justice Ginsburg’s last wish. Her desire has precedent. The Senate will welcome a nomination during the remainder of President Trump’s term of office — an “about face” from his refusal to honor the nomination of President Barack Obama 11 months before the next President would take office.
There are no principles. Not even a trace of common decency that shows compassion for those who grieve and that respect for the deceased — a momentary suspension of the politics of deceit and the worship of power.
“@GOP We were put in this position of power and importance to make decisions for the people who so proudly elected us, the most important of which has long been considered to be the selection of United States Supreme Court Justices. We have this obligation, without delay!”
– DJP tweet
VOTE on or before November 3. It matters. Our character and this experiment in democracy are on the ballot as never before.
Climate change just jumped from the back of the stove to the front burner of our national conversation, where it belongs. Without weighing in on this bizarre campaign seasons, we bring re-post this commentary of October 10, 2018.
CLIMATE CHANGE AND THE GOLDEN HOUSE — October 10, 2018
Have you sometimes felt you’d be better off not knowing? But you can’t help knowing what you know, or think you know?
This is a time like that. It doesn’t just feel like that. It is a time like that. I know, for instance, that the over-riding challenge of our time is climate change. I also know that the ruling party in my country denies that climate change is real, and that neither major party sees climate change action as Priority #1. I know from articles like the one in yesterday’s Phys.org (“Carbon tax gets renewed attention but still faces resistance“) and the U.N. report that the clock is ticking. We’re fiddling while the Earth burns.
The story of Nero burning down Rome appears to be apocryphal. I know that now. But before I knew that, I wondered what the Roman Senate was doing. Did the members of the Senate follow Nero’s lead? Did they light their own matches? Did they applaud? Did any of them head for the well for the water buckets to douse the fire?
The real Nero Claudius was much different, but also, it turns out, much the same as the one I thought I knew. Britannica speaks as “infamous for his personal debaucheries and extravagances.” Its biography of Nero offers the following on the burning of Rome and the aftermath.
The great fire that ravaged Rome in 64 illustrates how low Nero’s reputation had sunk by this time. Taking advantage of the fire’s destruction, Nero had the city reconstructed in the Greek style and began building a prodigious palace—the Golden House—which, had it been finished, would have covered a third of Rome. During the fire, Nero was at his villa at Antium 35 miles (56 km) from Rome and therefore cannot be held responsible for the burning of the city. But the Roman populace mistakenly believed that he himself had started the fire in Rome in order to indulge his aesthetic tastes in the city’s subsequent reconstruction. — “Nero: Biography and Accomplishments,” Britannica.com.
Trump Hotel with gold-infused glass, Las Vegas, NV
Today, Nero and the U.S. Senate mock what I know: climate change is real and action on climate change should be priority #1 for every political political party and nation. Knowing Jesus’ parable about the foolish man who built his house upon the sand, and the wise one who built his house upon the rock, I keep hammering on the door of the Golden House that’s built on sand. “Our prayers are hammer-strokes against the princes of darkness,” said Jacob Christoph Blumhardt long ago. “They must oft be repeated. Not a single stroke is wasted.”
I add my little hammer-strokes to those of Governor Jerry Brown, Bill McKibben, 350.org, the Sierra Club for the rescue of the rain forests, the oceans, and all things green from the Golden House that threaten to entomb us. I can only live by what I know: the cry and hope that the hammer-strokes are not too late.