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.
We saw no tears during the daily coronavirus updates. Narcissus could not lift his head from his image in the pond. The inner well of empathy was empty. Eternal and solitary, he was imperial and impervious to suffering. Gods don’t cry. Narcissus is strong and cold. He bows to no one but himself. To him every knee must bow. He does not know the truth: Illusion always dies.
A Daffodil Blooms Where Illusion Died
The Resurrection of Empathy
On the spot where vanity dies of thirst, beauty raises its head again. A daffodil breaks through the tamped-down place where Narcissus bowed to himself, and lifts its head to the sky as a silent Ode to Joy.
Compassion floods the Reflecting Pool and radiates from candles on the White House steps in honor of the dead. The wordy self is hushed. Heads are bowed in solemn silence in recognition of what is greater than ourselves. Tears flow. The well of empathy is full again.
Hanging by a Thread — The Pressure of Being and Holiness
One moment I was alone in the room, myself the centre of my own little self-constructed world, the next it was as though I had been flung an infinite distance to some edge or margin, to make room for the enormous presence and pressure of sheer Being and Holiness that filled the room. I felt the ground go from beneath my feet and suddenly realized that I was utterly dependant, that I was hanging by a thread. But I was content to hang by a thread if only to know that there was, at the heart of things, and radiating everywhere, this Holy Presence.
Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), 49 brief reflections on faith and life, available from the publisher HERE and from Amazon HERE; Chaska, MN, March 5, 2021.
The maximum capacity crowd at the First Tuesday Dialogue did not have a crystal ball. It was February 1, 2013, eight years before the insurrection that would come eight years later. QAnon, the Proud Boys, the Boogaloo Bois, Wolverine Watchmen, Oath Keepers, and other White nationalist militias that traveled to Washington, D.C. to “Stop the Steal!” were unknown, but the mindset was already there.
Some Mindsets Never Really Die
Some states of mind are like toxic waste. They have long shelf lives. Before two people in the crowd took the floor to read aloud from the John Birch Society Blue Book and newsletter, it had been years since I last thought of the John Birch Society (JBS). What we thought had ended with the public shaming of Sen. Joe McCarthy and McCarthyism had not died. Like a baton that changes hand in a mile relay race, the mindset of McCarthyism was passed into the hand of the John Birch Society.
Like McCarthy’s search for traitors hiding in government and the entertainment industry the Birch Society’s conspiratorial mindset was ludicrous. The JBS had alleged that President Dwight Eisenhower (“Ike”) was not to like. Ike, his brother, Milton, and Allen Dulles, director of the CIA were closet Communists or Communist sympathizers.
When the John Birch Society Blue Book and newsletter were quoted on February 1, 2013, those who knew their history recognized the old voice we thought had died in the mid-1960s.
The Jack Ash Society lyrics (Mary Brooks)
A bunch of jack ashes at large in this land
Have suffered a terrible fright
They looked under their beds and discovered such reds
As Allen and Milton and Dwight
If more you would know of this Jack-Ash credo
See the blue book, the black book, the white
If you do you will find we're all Reds of some kind,
Like Allen and Milton and Dwight.
Joe McCarthy is dead, so Jack Ash instead
Leads the anti-Communist fight;
U. S. Reds he has found swarming all around.
(179 million so far)
Including Allen and Milton and Dwight.
If you believe in more hospitals, housing, and schools,
New highways and civil rights,
The Ashites will add you to the un-American list,
Along with Allen and Milton and Dwight
Social security's a Bolshevik plot
Cooked up by some shrewd Muscovite.
So go naked you must or be security risk
Like Allen and Milton and Dwight.
Beware of good pay and the minimum wage,
It's part of the Socialist blight;
Created by conspirators bold,
Like Allen and Milton and Dwight.
Pete Seeger and the “Jack Ash Society”
The Berkeley Pit
Long Shelf Lives
An uninformed passer-by may assume the Berkeley Pit is a swimming hole, a place to swim and fish. It’s not. Nothing lives there. The Berkeley Pit is a pool of deadly toxins left behind by the Atlantic Richfield Company which bought the site from Anaconda Copper. Anaconda Copper left long ago, but the Berkeley Pit is still there. The Pit is not managed by the Department of Parks and Recreation. It’s an U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Superfund site, one of the largest, if not the largest in the land of the free.
The Call for Patriots
By 2013 the John Birch Society’s had made a quiet comeback in American political-cultural. It had not perished. The toxins from its Superfund clean-up site had seeped into the stream of American consciousness. It has never been cleaned up.
Now, more than ever, your patriotic leadership is needed. Is this the America our Founders envisioned? Their principles, and the Constitution itself, are under attack by forces that include socialists, Marxists, globalists, and the Deep State. We’ve created some great resources for you to educate Americans and stand for freedom. May we count on your help? We, as Americans, cherish our God-given liberties. We stand for a free and independent nation that fully abides by the Constitution and the Founding Fathers’ values. The John Birch Society provides a national program designed to counter the Deep State/Big Government agenda and to restore our rights.
John Birch Society website
The Birther Movement and “Stop the Steal!” Call for Patriots
The “Birther” and “Stop the Steal!” movements repeat the Birch Society call for real patriots to fight against “socialists, Marxists, globalists, and the Deep State.”
During Barack Obama’s campaign for president in 2008, throughout his presidency, and afterwards, “there was extensive news coverage of Obama’s religious preference, birthplace, and of the individuals questioning his religious belief and citizenship—efforts eventually known as the ‘birther movement‘”, by which name it is widely referred to across media. The movement falsely asserted Obama was ineligible to be President of the United States because he was not a natural-born citizen of the U.S. as required by Article Two of the Constitution. Birther conspiracy theories were predominantly held by conservatives and Republicans, as well as individuals with anti-black attitudes.
“Barack Obama citizenship conspiracy theories,” Wikipedia
The Pit of American Toxic Waste
Donald Trump tapped into that toxic stream in which right is wrong and wrong is right, truth is wrong and falsehood is right, information is wrong and disinformation is right, reality is wrong and fantasy is right, science is wrong and ignorance is right, confession is wrong and denial is right, Howdy Doody is wrong and Mr. Bluster is right.
But some things stay the same. White is still right and Black is still wrong. Barack Obama had no birth certificate. He had been elected, but his presidency was illegitimate. So was the election of 2020. Donald Trump is legitimate. Real patriots know they wish to believe. Real patriots stand back and stand by until the time is right to fight.
The toxins in American culture reach far back into our history, and the Pit is deep. The prevailing myths of White supremacy and national exceptionalism were here from the start. The Founding Fathers’ and Mothers’ values are both healthy and toxic.
Cleaning Up the Superfund Site
Only we can clean up the mess. The toxins in the Berkeley Pit still poison the American mind and turn hearts to stone. American culture and politics will be clean when we embrace our history as the continuing struggle between truth and falsehood, reality and fantasy, and all the hard truths we prefer not to see.
Bob Dylan, like Mary Brooks and Pete Seeger, may have thought the Birch Society was terminal. Or perhaps Bob, like Mary and Pete, knew that some toxins continue to make us blue.
John Birch Paranoid Blues — Bob Dylan
Gordon C. Stewart, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock) — 49 two-four page social commentaries on faith and life — Chaska, MN, Feb. 24, 2021.
Samuel Clemons (“Mark Twain”) wrote in his autobiography words akin to the Gospel of Mark’s briefest description of Jesus’s 40 days and nights in the wilderness:
“With the going down of the sun my faith failed and the clammy fears gathered about my heart. Those were awful nights, nights of despair, nights charged with the bitterness of death. In my age as in my youth, night brings me many a deep remorse.
None of us is ever quite sane in the night. Our faith fails. The clammy fears gather in our hearts. Despair descends. It is into this primitive night of the soul that Jesus enters when Mark describes Jesus’s wilderness temptation with one line:
“He was with the wild beasts, and angels ministered to him.”
Living with the Wild Beasts
The Gospel of Mark says nothing about three temptations, as in the later Gospels of Matthew and Luke.
Mark cuts to the heart of the matter. Jesus enters the frightening solitude which Gerard Manley Hopkins described as a miserable soul “gnawing and feeding on its own miserable self.”
The wild beasts of Mark and of the Hebrew Scripture are symbols representing the violence and arrogance of nations and empires: the lion that threatened David’s sheep; the lion with wings, and a bear gnawing insanely on its own ribs in Daniel’s dream; a leopard and a dragon with great iron teeth destroying everything in its way. The beasts of Daniel and the Hebrew Scripture symbolize the deepest threats, threats to human wellbeing and existence itself. In Daniel’s dream, when the Ancient of Days takes his judgment seat and gathers the nations (wild beasts), they are as nothing before him, but “of his kingdom there shall be no end.”
Like Samuel Clemons, with the going down of the sun [our] faith fails and the clammy fears gather about my heart.
The Primal Cry
In his book Man Before Chaos Dutch philosopher-theologian Willem Zuurdeeg argues that all philosophy and religion is born in a cry. Whether the great philosophies of Plato or Aristotle or Hegel, whether Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, Christianity or what we arrogantly describe as ‘primitive’ religions; whether the political philosophy of Western democracy or Islamic theocracy or one or another economic theory – capitalist, socialist, communist, or communitarian – all philosophy and religion is born in a cry for help. It is the primal cry of human vulnerability, our contingency, our finitude, our mortality. It is the cry for order, protection and meaning in the face of the chaos without and within.
Separated from all social structure and from all the answers that express or muffle the cry, removed from civilization and all distraction – no computers, no video games, no reading material, no play stations, no TV, no artificial noise, nothing unreal to distract him – in the wilderness of time, “he was with the wild beasts.”
The One Line Cliff Note
“He was with the wild beasts” is a kind of cliff notes for Jesus’ entire life and ministry. He would dwell among the wild beasts – the unruly principalities and powers that defy the ways of justice, love and peace. He lived and died among the wild beasts that mocked him at his trial – “Hail, King of the Jews!” – stripped him of his clothing, plaited a crown of thorns believing they had seen the end of him. But after the beasts of empire had torn him to shreds, he become for us the crucified-risen King whose love would tame us all.
There are times for each of us when the beasts are all too real, moments when faith falters, nights in the darkness when despair gnaws and paws at us, and hope has all but disappeared.
Beasts and Angels in the Atlanta Airport
A young woman sits in the Atlanta airport. She is returning home from a year of study abroad. All flights have been delayed because of a storm. She is anxiously awaiting the final leg of her journey home. But home as she had known it no longer exits. Her mother and father have separated. Her father has entered treatment for alcoholism. She has entered a wilderness not of her own choosing. The beasts are tearing her apart. Her ordered universe has fallen apart.
She goes to the smoking lounge to catch a smoke. A stranger, her father’s age, sits down. He jolts her out of her fog. “Do you have the time?” he asks. As strangers are sometimes wont to do, they begin to talk. Unaware of her circumstances, he tells her that he is a recovering alcoholic, a former heavy drinker whose drinking was destroying his marriage until his wife became pregnant. The impending birth of his daughter snapped him into treatment and sobriety. “I thought I was going to die,” he says, “but it was the beginning of a resurrection, a whole new life.”
The young woman begins to feel a burden lifting. The stranger finishes his cigarette and disappears. She never gets his name. The loudspeaker announces her flight’s departure. She boards her flight, and as the plane rises through the clouds, she finds herself momentarily sandwiched between two sets of clouds – one below, one above – and the space between is filled with rainbow light, a world whose grandeur and grace exceed all reasons for despair. She is strangely calm in the face of what lies ahead. A sense of peace descends. She is sure that the man has been given to her as a gift. She has been with the wild beasts. An angel has ministered to her.
Dreaming with Daniel
During these 40 days and nights of Lent we live more consciously with the wild beasts, praying that the angels of our better nature will minister to us in the wilderness of time, dreaming with Daniel and Jesus of the Ancient of Days taking his judgment seat and gathering the nations. They are as nothing before him, but of his kingdom there shall be no end.
Gordon C. Stewart, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), Chaska, MN, Feb. 22, 2021.
No one really knows the origins of “Ring-a-round the Rosie.” Some say the nursery rhyme sprang from the Black Plague, the epidemic that took children as well as adults, kings as well as paupers. Others say it has different origins, but I don’t care. This is my blog, and I’ll cry if I want to, cry if I want to! “We all fall down.”
It’s Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent in a QAnon world when reality doesn’t mean much anymore. Truth is a fiction. Choose your fantasy. It doesn’t matter anymore. We may fall down, but, like corks thrown into the sea, we bob up again. Or so some think. We never really fall down. Yet something in us knows that how Narcissus dies bowing to his own reflection, and that the flower only blooms when he and his loyal Echo return to dust.
What stories shall we tell ourselves in a time when the pond we thought was ours is drying up, when there is no up or down on a spinning Big Blue Ball floating in space that feels upside-down and falling back to dust and ashes?
The Parable of the Madman
When the madman in Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Gay Science parable steps into the marketplace with his lantern lit on a bright morning seeking God, and later announces, “God is dead! God is dead. And we have killed him, you and I,” those who view God as a phantasm laugh in derision. You can’t kill what never was. The believers don’t laugh. They throw him out when he enters the church to sing his requiem for God, leaving him to ask, “What are these churches but the sepulchres of God?”
“How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers?” asks the madman. “What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed; and whoever is born after us — for the sake of this deed he will belong to a higher history than all history hitherto.” — The Gay Science, Book 2 (1882)
What stories do we tell ourselves?
Ash Wednesday brings every fantasy to a halt. There is no higher history than all history before us. There is life and there is death. Both are real. Where do we find a footing? What stories do we tell ourselves? What does a disciple of Jesus do when the Jesus hanging on a cross crying out that the horror of god-forsakenness has been re-shaped into a positive thinker, a White supremacist, a Christian nationalist? What to do in a reality denying QAnon world in the aftermath of January 6, 2021?
Where your treasure is
“Whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:6). “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Mt. 6:19-21).
The imposition of ashes
Ring-a-round the Rosie seems different this Ash Wednesday, but it’s not. It’s always the same. Going forward for the imposition of ashes I acknowledge the reality I flounder to avoid. “Dust to dust; ashes to ashes.” The ashes that smudge my forehead always have to be imposed. We all fall down.
Gordon C. Stewart, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), 49 short commentaries on faith and life; Chaska, Minnesota, February 17, 2021.
“World history would be different if humanity did more sitting on its rear.” — Bertolt Brecht, Drums in the Night (1922).
Dialogues Series cancelled
The Epidemic of Gun Violence in America three-part series ended where it began. The first event was also the last.
In addition to concerns outlined in “Insurrection and Faith (Part 2), the featured presenters of different positions on the Second Amendment and gun control withdrew. Each refused to appear on the same stage as the other. Each regarded the other as a fanatic.
The Shepherd of the Hill Church board came to a rueful decision to cancel the Dialogues series. A public letter accompanied the press release. NOTE: “The church with the rocking chair” refers to the large Amish rocker created for Shepherd of the Hill’s front lawn after the Amish School massacre at Nickel Mines, PA.
Public Letter from the Board of Shepherd of the Hill Church
February 8, 2013
"This the word of the LORD to Zerubbabel: Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, says the LORD of hosts….” – Zechariah 4:6 (NRSV)
In this spirit we at Shepherd of the Hill – the church with the rocking chair – have chosen to cancel the First Tuesday Dialogues previously announced for Feb. 19 and March 5 on Gun Violence in America.
The First Tuesday Dialogues serve a single purpose: examination of critical public issues locally and globally with respectful listening and speaking in the search for common ground and the common good. The program expresses our own Christian tradition (Presbyterian) whose Preliminary Principles of Church Order (adopted in 1789) call us to honor individual conscience and direct us toward kindness and mutual patience.
The First Principle -“God alone is Lord of the conscience…“- upholds “the still, small voice” in the midst of social earthquakes, winds and fires. It requires us to listen. Ours is a tradition that honors dissent. The voice of one may be where the truth lies. The Dialogues are meant to give space for that voice on critical public issues.
The Fifth Principle declares that “There are forms and truths with respect to which people of good character and conscience may differ, and, in all these matters, it is the duty of individuals and of societies to exercise mutual forbearance.” It is our tradition’s answer to Rodney King’s haunting question: Can’t we all just get along?
These historical principles are not only our historical tradition. They represent a daily interpretation of Jesus’ teaching to love our neighbors in the present moment. One can only love God, whom no man or woman has seen, wrote the Apostle Paul, if we love the neighbor we do see. How we treat the neighbor is how we treat God.
The success of Shepherd of the Hill’s community programs depends upon a wider acceptance of these principles of respectful listening and exchange among individuals in dialogue. They also assume a group small enough to engage each other more personally and thoughtfully.
If numbers were the only measure of success, last Tuesday’s Dialogues event on gun violence … was a huge success. 138 people attended. The Chapel was filled. I thought perhaps it was Easter! But it wasn’t Easter. There was tension in the room. The established habit of the Dialogues program – one person speaks at a time without interruption or rebuttal, no clapping, and respectful listening – gave way to a sense of one team versus another. When a woman dared to stand to ask how many people in the room had lost a loved one to gun violence and proceeded to tell her story of personal tragedy, she was not met with compassion. She was met with shouts that her story was irrelevant. … She deserved better.
We all deserve better than to be shouted down, no matter what our experiences or views are. One first-time visitor who had come to oppose gun control shared his puzzlement over the treatment of the woman. “How could anyone not have compassion for her pain?” he asked. “Everyone should be moved to compassion by her story of personal tragedy, no matter what we think about the Second Amendment.”
America always jeopardizes its promise as a place of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness when might and power rule. To the extent that we fear that we are unsafe, it will be because we have chosen to ignore the wise word to Zerubbabel to live not by might, nor by power, but by God’s spirit reflected in the commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves.
The Gathering Storm: eight years later
Marjorie Taylor Greene brings QAnon to Congress and threatens the life of her colleagues. A mob storms the the U.S. Capitol, injuring and killing Capitol Police; Representatives and Senators are whisked away to a secure place. The Speaker of the House and the Vice President are moments and a few yards away from being assassinated.
The POTUS who had ridden the wave of the Birther Movement to the White House in 2016; had legitimized armed White supremacists in Charlottesville and tweeted “Liberate Michigan!” while armed White militia occupied of the Michigan State Capitol and threatened to execute the Governor; had stayed silent following the murder of George Floyd and cleared Lafayette Park of a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest for a photo op with a Bible before declaring himself the law-and-order president; had stayed silent following the school massacre at Parkland; had declared the new coronavirus a hoax; and had told the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by” for a stolen election, and lit the match that nearly destroyed the foundations of the American Republic. The POTUS is impeached a second time, acquitted by a Senate vote of 57 guilty to 43 innocent, nine short of the two-thirds necessary for conviction.
Our language going forward
L.K. Hanson’s cartoon brings this historic moment into focus. How do we reduce the temperature of our language? Can we talk? If so, when, where, and how? Braver Angels offers an opportunity to soften the rhetoric and find the lost common ground we thought we shared. Click the link to learn about Braver Angels and consider joining them.
Flashback and Portent — The Epidemic of Gun Violence
Flashing back to February 1, 2013 feels like a flash forward to America in 2021. An evening in a small church in Chaska, Minnesota on gun violence gave hints of what was coming in eight years later. It was a glimpse into the apocalyptic mind and heart that led to the insurrection of January 6.
February 1, 2013 Opening of First Tuesday Dialogues’ series on gun violence
The parking lot was full. Until that night, First Tuesday Dialogues’ attendance had ranged between 35-75 people. Attendance that night was 138.
The threat of disruption and violence did not materialize. Everyone entered respectfully. But there was a storm cloud hovering over the room. I wondered when the thunder and lightning would come.
I welcomed the crowd, laid out Dialogues’ simple practices and ground rules — respectful listening and speaking with no interruption, no cheering, no booing, no clapping.
The evening began with a half-hour exchange between the city’s Chief of Police and the Carver County Sheriff expressing different views on the increase of massacres like the one at Sandy Hill in Newtown.
The tone was set for a respectful conversation.
The Invisible Guest named John
A Q&A with the chief and sheriff was allotted 20 minutes. A woman in the last row was the first to raise a hand. She was handed the microphone and began by expressing anger that we were having such a discussion. The Second Amendment was the Second Amendment. No government was going to take away her guns. She then began reading from a John Birch Society manuscript. Lots of people clapped and shouted their approval.
A woman a across the aisle was in tears. I gave her the microphone. She stood to ask a question. “Has anyone here lost a loved one to gun violence?”
Four or five hands went up, but before she could tell her story, the first speaker shouted at her, “That has nothing to do with the Second Amendment!” Shouts again rang out. I reminded everyone of the Dialogues’ expectations. If you are holding the microphone, the floor is yours. When you are not holding the microphone, you listen. No rebuttals. No clapping. No shouting. No us versus them.
The woman who’d been crying answered her own question. “I have,” she said, and told the wrenching story story from her childhood. Her story was chilling. The wounds were still fresh. The room was quiet.
The Coming Apocalypse
Two voices later voices foreshadowed America eight years later. The first spoke with passion. Obama and the feds were coming to take his guns. The government is going down. The economy will collapse. The dollar won’t have any value. Grocery store shelves would be empty. Those who are not prepared would have no food to feed their families. We need to get ready for the chaos that’s coming.
The man who next held the microphone agreed. The economy is built on sand. It will collapse. It will be “every man for himself.” If you don’t have a secure bunker full of food to last you a year, you’re in trouble. If you don’t have a secure bunker, build one. Now! When your neighbor comes asking for food, too bad. Have your guns ready.
Like the person who had turned the Q&A into a time for monologues, this speaker had a manuscript from which he quoted. His apocalyptic tone and message felt like the street corner preacher’s citing The Revelation to Saint John, the last book of the Christian Bible, shouting about the end of the world, but this apocalypse was different. Real god-fearing patriots don’t rant on street corners. They don’t preach, and they don’t kneel. They rise up to expose and overthrow the communists, socialists and other collectivists who control of the world. Real patriots stand and fight He was reading from the John Birch Societymanual.
The evening ended peacefully. There was no physical violence. Gun rights advocates were thankful and looking forward to the next event. Others participants expressed fear of violence or discomfort with the rudeness. They would not be back for the next event in the series.
If Dialogue’s programs success were measured by attendance, the first evening had exceeded expectations. If drawing people of opposing views were the measure, the evening had been a success. Although there had been raw moments that tested the Dialogues norms, the expressions of opinion had been honest. Nothing was left on the table or kept under the table.
During the days that followed, we learned that an estimated 180 people had chosen to attend a public hearing on gun control at the state Capitol. There would be hearing to keep them away from the Feb. 19 program focusing on the Second Amendment. Those who had been at the Capitol were reported to be less respectful and more extreme. We should expect the crowd to double on the 19th.
“All parties die at last of swallowing their own lies” — John Arbuthnot
Dr. John Arbuthnot (1667-1735) became a household name in Great Britain for writing The History of John Bull. John Bull soon became the British equivalent of America’s Uncle Sam.
Although John Arbuthnot was the ground-breaking mathematician said to have inspired Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and Alexander Pope’s Peri Bathous, Or the Art of Sinking in Poetry, John Arbuthnot was a biographer’s nightmare.
“Dr. Arbuthnot,” as he was known with great affection, left behind little information for a biographer who might praise him. So deep was his humility that, according to Alexander Pope, Arbuthnot allowed his children to play with and burn his manuscripts. He didn’t toot his own horn.
Dr. Arbuthnot may seem irrelevant in 2021. He knew nothing of The Apprentice, the Birther Movement, the Grand Old Party (GOP), or Donald J. Trump. Nothing of COVID-19, fake news, stolen elections, the Deep State, Q, or QAnon. He couldn’t imagine watching from Cambridge the live coverage of a mob insurrection in Washington, D.C. He knew nothing of the Proud Boys, the Boogaloo Boys, Wolverine Watchmen, Roger Stone, Marjorie Taylor Greene, or the GOP’s duplicitous response to Rep. Greene’s endorsements of domestic terrorism to save America from Satan and from Jews sending laser beams down from outer space to light the fires in California.
The creator of John Bull didn’t need to know our particulars to understand what is happening to Uncle Sam’s country in 2021.
Like the cartoonist of the garish satirical cartoon of “John Bull” with the head of Napoleon held high on a pitch fork, he didn’t need to sit in on the second impeachment trial to read the fear on the faces of GOP senators. He knew that every political party dies swallowing its own lies.
Two days before U.S. Senators become jurors, one can only hope! “Come, John Arbuthnot, Come!” “Come, Lord Jesus!, Come!” “Come, Sojourner Truth, Come!”
John Arbuthnot’s choice of a text from which to speak during a time of deep division reveals what he considered most important in life. The Elizabethan language is no longer ours, and its spirit is at risk, but its truth and wisdom abide. So does courage, if only the Senate Jurors and we, the people, seek it.
Better is he that laboureth, and aboundeth in all things, than he that boasteth himself, and wanteth bread. My son, glorify thy soul in meekness, and give it honour according to the dignity thereof. Who will justify him that sinneth against his own soul? and who will honour him that dishonoureth his own life? The poor man is honoured for his skill, and the rich man is honoured for his riches. He that is honoured in poverty, how much more in riches? and he that is dishonourable in riches, how much more in poverty?” –Ecclesiasticus 10:27-31.
A sermon preach’d to the people at the Mercat Cross of Edinborough on the subject of the union. Ecclesiastes, Chapter 10, verse 27 (King James Version)
Gordon C. Stewart, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), Chaska, MN, January 7, 2021
After the Newtown school massacre, the church in Chaska hosted a carefully prepared program of respectful conversations on The Episode of Gun Violence. The first of three consecutive Tuesday evenings would begin with the local police chief and sheriff who represented pro- and anti-gun control positions.
The three of us met over morning coffee to go over last-minute details of that first event, but the conversation took a different turn. The chief and sheriff recommended we cancel the program because of real threats of organized disruption and, perhaps, violence. The good news was they were coming. The bad news was they were coming with guns. The church decided to proceed, and declined the chief’s offer of uniformed officers to ensure peace and security. Later that day, I did as I was taught. I held a meeting with myself to clear my head and prepare for what might come. The letter from myself to myself is still on file. The rubrics have been added.
LETTER TO MYSELF (THE MODERATOR)
How do we have this conversation? Can we talk? Can we all get along?
Every word, every phrase, is a powder keg. All speech is suspect. We listen not with open ears to hear a different point of view. We approach each other with suspicion, reacting defensively or aggressively to any hint that the conversation might be prejudiced against one’s own point of view. Even a title is a land mine.
Guns and I
I love the U.S. Constitution. I also don’t like guns. My only experiences with guns have been negative. The assassinations of President Abraham Lincoln in the Booth Theater and JFK in Dallas; Martin Luther King, Jr. supporting the striking sanitation workers in Memphis; presidential candidate Senator Robert Kennedy. A gun has only one purpose: to shoot something or someone. It has no other use. Violence is often committed with one’s own fist. But capacity to hurt or destroy does not define a hand. A foot may kick, but that’s not why we have feet. A baseball bat picked up in a moment of rage is a lethal weapon, but it is not by definition a weapon; its purpose is to hit a baseball within the rules of baseball. A car can become a lethal weapon in the hands of a car bomber, but its purpose is transportation, to get us from here to there and back.
Prone to evil and slothful in good
The human capacity for violence is deep and ineradicable. It’s in our DNA. The story of Cain’s slaying of his brother Abel is not about the beginning of human history; it is one of the defining facts of human nature itself. As my tradition puts it in a Prayer of Confession, “We are prone to evil and slothful in good.”
My tendency toward evil is often the conviction that I am right. I need to be reminded that my experience with guns is not the same as it is for those who grew up on a farm or a ranch where guns serve the purpose of killing a wolf or coyote or of putting down an injured horse out of mercy. The experience in rural America is different from the small town outside a major city in which I was raised, and it is different from urban centers by reason of low population density. My ownership of a gun on the farm is not a threat to the person next door in a tenement or in the housing development of the suburb. Guns in rural America serve different purposes. And, it seems to me, the split and the suspicion regarding guns and violence in America is to a great extent defined by these two very different social experiences, demographics, and cultures. You cannot love God unless . . .
Beyond fear and suspicion
Having spent the past two weeks trying to organize a series of respectful conversations in the wake of Newtown has brought home how difficult it is to have conversation. Fear of the other is rampant. “I won’t appear on the same program with him. He’s an extremist.” Or, “I don’t think I’ll come. I don’t like trouble.” Or, “You bet I’ll be there. We’re going to pack the house!”
But the gospel of Jesus which is the center of Christian faith calls us to live by the Spirit of the Living God, not by fear or suspicion. Christ himself was the human “other” – the one on whom every side projected its hatred of the other side – and ultimately the representative of the “Wholly Other” who is other to us all.
Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also. (First Letter of John 4:20-21).
First Letter of John 4:20-21 NRSV
Mutual Respect and Forbearance
I also find wisdom in the organizing principles of my religious tradition. The Preliminary Principles of Church Order (adopted in 1789) give some advice for how to conduct ourselves when we strenuously disagree. They are called preliminary because they lay the theological-ethical foundation for life together. They are aspirational principles to guide church members and local churches in how we interact as disciples of Jesus. As children of God, we believe:
…” that there are truths and forms with respect to which people of good character and principles may differ. In all these it is the duty both of private Christians and societies to exercise mutual forbearance toward each other.”
Preliminary Principles of Church Order (adopted at the organizing of the Presbyterian Church USA in 1789).
Can we have a respectful conversation?
I’m trying my best to do my duty. Can the pastor with strong personal views also serve as the Moderator? Can I exercise and promote mutual forbearance toward each other? Can we talk? Tonight we will give our own answer to Rodney King’s haunting question: “Can’t we all just get along?”
Lord, take my hand, and lead us on toward the light.
The question remains and has become more urgent now. Stay tuned for the rest of the story, Gordon. February 2, 2021
America and the world stand at a crossroads between love and hate, democracy and despotism, and some would say, good and evil. Mohandas Gandhi and Cornel West offer reflections on what’s happening to us and how to move forward in a Qanon world.
Loving evil too much to give it up
“Must I do all the evil I can before I learn to shun it? Is it not enough to know the evil to shun it? If not, we should be sincere enough to admit that we love evil too well to give it up.
— Mohandas Gandhi, NON-VIOLENCE IN PEACE AND WAR (1948), 2.74
A crucial crossroads: Making a positive difference
A Memory of Cornel West
Cornel West’s guest appearance at the Westminster Town Hall Forum in Minneapolis stands apart less for what he said to the crowd than for what he said and to whom he said it before the Forum. At his request, he met each member of the church staff. He greeted each person with the unconditional respect due a human being without regard for role, title, or social standing.
He didn’t save the world that day. He lit up the faces of the strangers he knew were his sisters and brothers.
“Whatever you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it.” ― Mohandas Gandhi
Gordon C. Stewart, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), Chaska, MN, January 28, 2021.