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.
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.
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!
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?
Does your tummy hurt this morning?
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!
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.
When I first heard anyone speak of “the moral power of death,” I thought I must have been mistaken. Morality is one thing; moral power might describe the morally responsible use of power; death is something else altogether.
“Death is not a power,” I said to myself. “Death has no power. Death is the total absence of power. Death is what happens at the end; it is passive — an outcome of death-dealing powers in life. It has no morality. Death makes no distinctions among the powers that delivers every one of us all into its final keeping — e.g., a cardiac arrest, a traffic accident, cancer, ALS, old age, a gun shot, a murder, a war, or suicide — death doesn’t know the difference. The variety of means that deliver us to the end are varied, but death is always the same. It takes us when life is gone. It has no power of its own. Why, then, speak of death as a moral power? Who would talk like that?”
A Strange Man Named Stringfellow
William Stringfellow saw things differently. Forgoing Wall Street law firms’ lucrative offers, he rented a small tenement apartment in East Harlem after graduation from Harvard Law School. “The stairway smelled of piss,” he write.
Though I never had lived in a place like East Harlem, Stringfellow’s autobiographical polemic read like a personal letter. During the summers of 1961 and 1962, the hour-long daily commute between my suburban home and my summer internship on the streets of north Philadelphia put me in a dense fog between two different realities that had once seemed a world apart. The commutes became cognitive pauses that begged the fog to lift, but it didn’t . . . until three years later.
My People Is the Enemy became the text for the small group of seminarians engaged in bar ministry at Poor Richard’s in Chicago’s Old Town. Each Wednesday morning the seven of us convened at 6:00 a.m. to reflect on our experience at Poor Richard’s in light of Stringfellow’s book and to share a bare-bones Agape Meal.
My People Is the Enemy was transformative. I began to understand the title of Stringfellow’s book. Corinthian Avenue and Opal Street were not an accident. My people, not theirs, was the enemy. My people owned the tenements, evicted tenants, bribed the cops, provided the drugs, and red-lined property in Philadelphia, Broomall, and most everywhere else. My people, not the poor folks welfare, was the leach sucking blood from the ghetto we created and maintained. “My people” were the spillers and the sponges dependent on keeping the milk and hope spilling.
Thanks for coming by.
Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), 49 brief social commentaries on the news of the day, writing from Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, April 27, 2022.
As the sun rose this [Easter] morning, a few of us warmed ourselves around a fire outside the church. Two charcoal fires were recalled, involving Peter, “the Rock” who crumbled like a piece of shale, and the risen Christ, who would re-create the scene to change the story from denial to welcome, forgiveness, and a commissioning to love.
Steve Shoemaker Verse, “The Charcoal Fire”
THE CHARCOAL FIRE
I do not know the man
I do not know the man
I do not know the man
Do you love me?
Do you love me?
Do you love me?
Feed my sheep
Feed my sheep
Feed my sheep
April 8, 2012
Gordon C. Stewart, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), April 23, 2022. This piece from 2012 is edited and republished in memory of Steve Shoemaker. Steve is sitting on a Bristlecone Pine stump above the tree line in Colorado during a gathering of seminary friends. Mutual friend Anna Strong and canine companion stand by him.
Easter was hard this year. I couldn’t bring myself to put my body in a pew. Imagining the shiny brass trumpets heralding Christ’s victory over sin and death had no more appeal than the silly silky banners waving up and down the aisle to make Easter more festive. Whether Easter felt like a fraud orI felt like the fraud didn’t matter yesterday.
A Ghost named Gus
If we’re honest about the resurrection, many, if not most, of us have some difficulty with one or another of the post-crucifixion stories of Jesus’ resurrection. Although my grandmother swore that our 120 year-old home was haunted by a friendly ghost named Gus, I’ve never gotten into ghostly apparitions.
Years ago an eccentric older congregant, long since deceased, claimed her deceased husband regularly visited her, standing at the foot of her bed. Even without this claim, there were multiple grounds for concluding that she would have been institutionalized in a previous generation. I never could get into her story, or the story about Gus’s footsteps creaking the steps of my childhood home. They were outside my experience. Like the Apostle Thomas, my faith is suspicious of such claims. “Unless I see for myself…” is second nature to me.
Unless I See
One person’s experience, however, is not the measure of all things, especially in matters that cannot be confirmed by objective verification. The world is full of experiences that are enigmas to my little piece of reality. My slice is not the whole pie, although, come to think of it, if my slice tastes like blueberries, chances are good the pie is blueberry. “To thine own self be true,” Shakespeare’s Polonius advises Laertes.
“And it must follow, as the night the day thou canst not then be false to any man . . . ” (Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 1, Scene III). Being true to oneself leads some honest people to leave the faith. Think Jean-Paul Sartre. Think Albert Camus. It leads others to stay and dig deeper. Though I was once almost one of the former, I am still one of the latter.
An Honest Conversation
Nowhere is the challenge of good faith greater than the resurrection. “Seeing for ourselves” like the Apostle Thomas is a hard way to live; it can be tricky. Sometimes we see things that aren’t there; other times we don’t see what stares us in the face. In a year like this, I rub my eyes in hopes of a clearer view of what is true. Honesty is slipping away in America. So is hope for the nation. The dark clouds of willful ignorance and unabashed dishonesty leave me looking for the light that faith tells me cannot be overcome.
Honesty, or the attempt at it, was what I had, but not much more. Although I could not say, with James Russell Lowell, “I do not fear to follow out the truth,” I know that the search for truth takes place “along the precipice’s edge.”
A Jarring Juxtaposition Between Two Fires
For the likes of those of us who stay, Easter is less accessible in the garden outside an empty tomb than in the encounters with the skeptical Thomas, and with Peter, who has gone back to his fishing nets after the crucifixion. Staying home on Easter for the first time reading the Gospels’ passion narratives, portrayals of Peter caused me to stop and ponder the jarring juxtaposition between two scenes around a fire.
The First Fire
The first fire is set in the courtyard of the High Priest’s residence where Peter “The Rock” crumbles like shale. Warming himself by the courtyard fire, two domestic workers identify Peter as Jesus’ disciple. His Galilean accent betrays him. Three times Peter denies it. “I do not know the man!” “I do not know the man!” “I do not know the man!” The rock crumbles.
The Second Fire
The second fire is lit on the shoreline to which Peter, the fisherman, returns after what would have been a bad night without the miracle shouted by the stranger on the shore. Peter has not become a fisher of fellow-humans; he is a fisher of fish again, not different from before Jesus had called him, except for the guilt he now carries from his denial before the fire in the courtyard. That I understand. That reversal I know by experience. I wasn’t Peter, but the dead, crucified, and buried Jesus whom the Creed claims “descended into hell” reached down into the hell of my own making to blow the remaining embers of the first fire into the charcoal fire of the second. The risen Christ is not an apparition. Christ comes as the stranger we forgot we knew, the host who serves us breakfast on the shoreline.
Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), writing from Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, April 20, 2022.
NOTE: “Between the Image and Reality” first appeared as a podcast by the same name. Here’s the printed text.
Letters from an American
The latest gift from the “best friend” I’ve never met greets me most mornings. Letters from anAmerican is Heather Cox Richardson’s daily news summary. Heather does what I cannot do. She collects the information on current events from a host of sources, swallows it, digests it, and brings it back to the nest to feed fledglings like me.
Heather Cox Richardson
Her succinct self-description resonates with me in this moment when marketing strategies and images continue to dig the mass graves of what little remains of reality:
I’m a history professor interested in the contrast between image and reality in American politics, I believe in American democracy, despite its frequent failures. — Heather Cox Richardson
Daniel J. Boorstin
In this era of American culture and politics we need the historians. Among them is Daniel Boorstin, the historian of the Library of Congress, whose controversial, ground-breaking book, The Image (1962), focused a laser beam on the emerging dominance of new image-making media and technology over American public life.
If you’re a fledgling waiting for the arrival of real food; if you take no pleasure in being deceived or seduced, if you are haunted by images we have put in the place of reality, Heather Cox Richardson may be the best friend you’ve never met. Click Letters from an American to welcome Heather to your nest. She’ll help you fly.
Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness, 49 two to four page social commentaries on faith and the news (2017 Wipf and Stock), writing from Brooklyn Park, Minnesota. April 16, 2022.
We wipe the tears from our cheeks watching the ruthless cruelty unleashed on Ukraine. This can’t be real! But it is. How can any nation do this to another? How could anyone do this?
The depth of the question
The question is not political. It’s not ideological. It’s deeper than that. So much deeper that few dare go there. The fortunate emerge from the darkness to see light again. They may or may not hold any scripture sacred, but they have sensed something of the psalmist’s view. “Even the darkness is not dark to You; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to You” Psalm 139:12). Darkness has no life of its own.
Others of us never find a way out. Like the joyful little girl who had taken such joy handing her latest drawing to her pastor on Sunday mornings, they find the world’s suffering too much to bear. Sadness and despair take the place where joy once lived. Empathic hearts are broken by the sufferings of others. They thrash in a sea of dark foreboding that douses the wicks of beauty, truth, and goodness. They take a final plunge sensing that “Hell is empty and all the demons are here.” (Shakespeare, The Tempest, (Act 1, Scene 2). With hearts broken by too much cruelty, they take a final step to get away from the demons here.
Quoting Scripture as cover for sin
My young friend did not stay among the demons long enough to hear Vladimir Putin quoting Jesus. “As the scriptures say,” said Putin to the crowd in the Moscow amphitheater, “‘Greater love has no man than this: that he give up his life for his friends.'” It was their children and extended families, not he, who were “laying down their lives for their friends” in Ukraine.
If Patriarch Kirill, Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia, other priests, and biblically literate lay people were listening in that amphitheater or on national television, they would recall the context of the line Mr. Putin was using from the Gospel According to John.
These things I have spoken to you, that My joy may remain in you, and that your joy may be full. This is My commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends. You are My friends if you do whatever I command you.
Gospel according to john 15:11-14
Joy and Love
The stadium in Moscow was not full of joy. If the old saw is true that the devil can quote scripture to serve the devil’s purposes, the high-jacked quotation ripped from its biblical context was evidence of it. It was they, not he, who were laying down their lives on orders of the Commander-in-Chief.
Mr. Putin’s presentation of himself as a Bible-quoting Christian may have impressed biblically illiterate members of the Russian Orthodox Church, American far-right evangelicals, and media propagandists Tucker Carlson and Steve Bannon, but biblically literate Christians of whatever stripe or nationality could feel their toes curl and their jaws clenching. People in the stadium that night were free to curl their toes so long as they didn’t clench their jaws. Curling toes are hidden by Shoes. Clenched jaws can’t hide.
How does it happen?
Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), Brooklyn Park, MN, March 24, 2022.
I write with great respect for your offices as President of the Russian Federation and as the Russian Orthodox Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia. My words to the two of you are confidential. Few people dare to speak candidly with you.
We haven’t met, but that’s not unusual; lots of people I’ve never met say I’m their closest friend. Many of them have made me up. They delete what they don’t like about me or my story, or do end-runs around my words. Take, for instance, my cry from the cross, “Abba, forgive them, for they do not know what they’re doing.” Forgiveness is real, but it’s not cheap. It’s not an excuse to sin.
Clean Monday was only three weeks ago. On Clean Monday you and Eastern Orthodox Christians on both sides of the Russian-Ukrainian border marked the beginning of “The Great Lent” with a service that features something a bit odd and humbling. Every worshiper bows down before another worshipper to ask for forgiveness with the intent of walking through the six weeks of the Great Lent with clean hearts and a clear conscience. I like that. I’ll return to the subject of bowing later.
Do you remember the parable of the Last Judgment? My parable isn’t about an End Time when the wicked will be punished and the good rewarded. It’s not about Then; it’s about the Now, the ever-recurring Now of daily life. The parable is about how to live your life now as a neighbor.
I told that parable not to scare people; I told it so the listeners would pause, reflect, and turn around when they are living like goats pleading innocence because they never see the suffering. The parable is the Beatitudes in story form. You may remember those: Blessed are the poor, the grieving, the meek, the merciful, the peace-makers, and those who yearn for righteousness. The Beatitudes and the parable of the sheep and the goats are meant to turn the popular winner-loser perception on its head. The sheep feed the hungry; the goats don’t see them. The sheep “see” the naked and clothe them; the goats don’t notice. It’s the same with the homeless, the sick, and the imprisoned. The goats would have “seen” if only they had known there was a reward at the end. The sheep have no knowledge of reward and punishment. It is the sheep that break the popular myth of reward and punishment.
The parable goes to the heart of my reason for writing. You have great authority and power. One of you is the latest “king” of the Russian Federation; the other is the latest “king” of Russia’s spiritual affairs, Patriarch Kirill, Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia. You are said to have a good relationship. But I tell you, if the sheep and goats were separated in real time at this moment, the two of you would be bleating billygoats leading the line of those who plead innocence.
It is not by accident that the parable is not about individuals. The sheep and goats gathered for judgment are not individuals. They are the nations, all of them. Russia is no exception. Ukraine is no exception. Poland is no exception. The United States is no exception. There is no exception.
Every nation is capable of great compassion and of astonishing cruelty. A nation can be peace-loving or war-mongering, merciful or cruel, loving or hateful, seeing or not seeing. Whenever a nation sees itself as exceptional or superior among the global community of neighbors, things always turn out badly, as is happening now in Ukraine. The sun shines and the rains fall without respect for borders.
As president of the Russian Federation you hold the power and authority of Russia’s head of state and commander-in-chief. You have exceeded all boundaries of moral restraint. The weight of the cruelty, suffering, devastation, and death unleashed on Ukrainian rests on your shoulders. Yet you do not see. You take no responsibility for the suffering imposed on Ukraine.
Patriarch Kirill, you also bear responsibility. The day after Clean Monday, your Ukrainian and Polish peers met in Kyiv. Aware of public criticism of your relationship with Mr. Putin, they appealed to you to meet with Putin to stop the war, and asked you to break your public silence about the war as the cause of suffering. Clean Monday was not clean this year. There can be no pleas of ignorance.
Finally, I leave you with another parable. This one was told by those who thought they saw divinity in my humanity. It was told of me, not by me. Whoever created the parable packed every challenge I faced during my life, which you also face now. Like the parable of the Last Judgment, It’s a work of imagination that puts everything in a nutshell, but its meaning is pretty simple really. It’s about bowing.
Then the devil took him to a very high mountain, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory; and [the devil] said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will bow down and worship me.”
The question of faith is about Now. The question is pointed. It draws no line between the political and the spiritual. It’s simple:
“To whom are you bowing now?”
— Jesus of Nazareth
Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness, Brooklyn Park, MN, March 18,2022.
Words to express what I feel and think in this moment of horror in Ukraine continue to escape me. In times when my head is spinning and stomach is swirling, I often turn to the other voices and facial expressions. The fruits of illusion — national exceptionalism and racial supremacy –smack us in the face. The greater our power, the lower we fall. We are living in Franz Kafka’s Parable “The Pit of Babel,” Franz Kafka: Parables and Paradoxes, first published in German in 1935 during the rise of the Third Reich.
The Pit of Babel
What are you building? — I want to dig
a subterranean passage. Some progress
must be made. My station up there is
much too high.
We are digging the pit of Babel
A House on Fire
Our One House Is on Fire
Our house is on fire. I am here to say, our house is on fire. […] Adults keep saying: “We owe it to the young people to give them hope.” But I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act. I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.
Greta Thunberg, 16 years old, to the World economic summit, August 19, 2020, the guardian
The recklessness of the Russian Invasion
One ominous sentence from the Russian leader threatened more than Ukraine. “Whoever tries to interfere with us,” he warned, “should know that Russia’s response will be immediate and will lead you to such consequences as you have never experienced in your history.” He said that Russia “is today one of the most powerful nuclear states.” Using combat power to try to take a nuclear power plant over — it just underscores the recklessness of this Russian invasion. — Robin Wright, “What Does Putin’s Sabre Rattling Mean?”– The New Yorker, March 1, 2022.
“Now, I am become death, the destroyer of worlds”
Text: We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried, most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita. Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and to impress him takes on his multi-armed form and says, “Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” I suppose we all thought that one way or another.
J. Robert Oppenheimer, one of the fathers of the atomic bomb
Prayer against War and the “Pride of Kings”
The language is from an earlier era. The prayer’s content, sense of reverence, and social responsibility commend the prayer for use in the midst of the madness of 2022.
O Lord, since first the blood of Abel cried to thee from the ground that drank it, this earth of thine has been defiled with the blood of humanity shed by the hands of sisters and brothers, and the centuries sob with the ceaseless horror of war. Ever the pride of kings and the covetousness of the strong has driven peaceful nations to slaughter. Ever the songs of the past and the pomp of armies have been used to inflame the passions of the people….
O thou strong God of all the nations, draw all thy great family together with an increasing sense of our common blood and destiny, that peace may come on earth at last, and thy sun may shed its light rejoicing on a holy unity of all people. Amen.
Walter Rauschenbusch, Prayers of the social awakening, 1910
Gordon C. Stewart, pubic theologian, host of Views from the Edge, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), endorsed by Bill McKibben, Walter Brueggemann, and MN Poet Laureate Joyce Sutphen; Brooklyn Park, MN, March 5, 2022.