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.
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.
Rock a bye baby on the tree top, When the wind blows the cradle will rock, When the bough breaks the cradle will fall, And down will come baby, cradle and all.
Multiple drafts of a reflection on “Rock a reflection on the Baby” missed the mark. I was aiming at humor, but I’m no Andy Borowitz. None of them was funny. Some I ripped up. They’re on the floor of my office. The most embarrassing I stuffed in the toilet.
The drafts had been attempts to take “Rock a Bye Baby” as the template for a commentary on American public life in February, 2022. The Baby and cradle on the top of the tree is rocked by gale force winds. We hear the boughs of the old tree creaking. But if and when the bough breaks and Baby and cradle do fall, we can only hope the Baby-lovers with chain-saws don’t cut down the tree and turn it into sawdust.
The Origins of “Rock a Bye Baby”
The oldest copy of “Rock a Bye Baby” is found in “Mother Goose’s Melody” in London in 1765. One story of origins locates it in a London pub on the occasion of the birth of King George II’s son, the prince who would continue the royal line they detested. The first known copy of “Rock a Bye Baby” has a hand-written note:
"This may serve as a warning to the proud and ambitious, who climb so high that they generally fall at last."
Foreshadowing in The Image
Daniel Boorstin’s book, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-events in America (1662), was a ground-breaker. Historian and Librarian of the U.S. Congress. Here are a few excerpts from Daniel Boorstin’s The Image in 1962.
“We [Americans] suffer primarily not from our vices or our weaknesses, but from our illusions. We are haunted, not by reality, but by those images we have put in their place.”
“Celebrity-worship and hero-worship should not be confused. Yet we confuse them every day, and by doing so we come dangerously close to depriving ourselves of all real models. We lose sight of the men and women who do not simply seem great because they are famous but are famous because they are great. We come closer and closer to degrading all fame into notoriety.”
“A sign of a celebrity is often that his name is worth more than his services.“
“The image, more interesting than its original, has become the original. The shadow has become the substance.“
“The American citizen thus lives in a world where fantasy is more real than reality, where the image has more dignity than its original. We hardly dare face our bewilderment, because our ambiguous experience is so pleasantly iridescent, and the solace of belief in contrived reality is so thoroughly real. We have become eager accessories to the great hoaxes of the age. These are the hoaxes we play on ourselves.“
“By a diabolical irony the very facsimiles of the world which we make on purpose to bring it within our grasp, to make it less elusive, have transported us into a new world of blurs.“
Thanks for coming by,
Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), Brooklyn Park, MN, February 12, 2022.
A crowd of students gathers on the university plaza at 11:00 p.m. for a parade to a bonfire. They walk by torch-light with drums drumming through the streets of the city, followed by a truck, on their way to the Opera House where a huge pile of wood is waiting. By the time they arrive, the crowd has grown to 30,000, eager for the match to be struck.
A voice thunders across the plaza:
The age of arrogant Jewish intellectualism is now at an end! . . . You are doing the right thing at this midnight hour — to consign to the flames the unclean spirit of the past. This is a great, powerful, and symbolic act. . . . Out of these ashes the phoenix will rise. . . . O Century! O Science! It is a joy to be alive!
The date was May 10 of 1933. The speaker was newly appointed Reich Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels. The event was part of “Action Against the un-German Spirit,” a program developed in April by the German Student Union’s Office of Press and Propaganda. At midnight of May 10, 1933, the sights, sounds, and scent of bonfires filled the air of every university town in Germany.
A member of the SA throws confiscated books into the bonfire during the public burning of “un-German” books on the Opernplatz in Berlin.” — United States Holocaust Museum.
The Twelve Theses
“Action against the un-German Spirit” was accompanied by another product of the Student Union leader gathering on April 8. “Twelve Theses,” 12 short statements designed to appeal to German Lutherans’ celebration of Martin Luther’s posting of 95 thesis on the Wittenburg Church door. The “Twelve Theses” were published and posted everywhere. In spirit and tone the “Twelve Theses” was the fitting companion of “Action Against the un-German Spirit.”
The students described their action as a “response to a worldwide Jewish smear campaign against Germany and an affirmation of traditional German values.” The following excerpts illustrate the tone.
"Language and literature have their roots in the people. It is the German people’s responsibility to assure that its language and literature are the pure and unadulterated expression of its Folk traditions.” “Purity of language is your responsibility!” “Our most dangerous enemy is the Jew and those who are his slaves…. "A Jew can only think Jewish. If he writes in German, he is lying. The German who writes in German, but thinks un-German, is a traitor!”
“We want to regard the Jew as alien… The unGerman spirit is to be eradicated from public libraries.” "At present there is a chasm between literature and German tradition. This situation is a disgrace." “We demand of German students the desire and capability to overcome Jewish intellectualism and the resulting liberal decay in the German spirit.”
On the List
The list of “unclean spirit”…”un-German”… or “anti-German” literature was long. Among the 4,000 books to be purged were the works of Albert Einstein and Thomas Mann, Hellen Keller, Jack London, H.G. Wells, Karl Marx, Erich Maria Remarque, Sigmund Freud, and Heinrich Heine.
Heinrich Heine was a widely-read 19th Century German poet, journalist and essayist whose prescient line in Almansor: A Tragedy, published a century before in 1823, hit too close for comfort in 1933.
“Where they have burned books, they will, in the end, burn people, too.”
–Poet Heinrich Heine, 1823
February 1, 2022, Brooklyn Park, Minnesota in the U.S.A.
At dawn I take the dog out and bring in the paper. “Campaign to ban books spreads across the U.S.” leaps from the front page, as had a report two days ago —“School Board in Tennessee Bans Teaching of Holocaust Novel ‘Maus’” NYT, Jan. 27.” The Tennessee school board had voted to remove the novel “Maus” by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Art Spiegelman because it contains swear words, according to the board minutes. The vote was unanimous.
When Art Spiegelman learned that “Maus” — his Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel about his family’s experience during the Holocaust — had been banned by a Tennessee school board, he told the Washington Post exactly what he thought of the antisemitic decision:
“It’s part of a continuum, and just a harbinger of things to come. This is a red alert.”
Art Spiegelman to Washington post re: censorship
Book burnings, censorship and purging have a history. Most often the books are judged as unclean, not pure, unpatriotic, unChristian, un-this and anti-that, un-American and anti-American, etc. Yesterday’s NYTimes article (Jan. 31, 2022) on book-banning cites a poignant quote by Lauri Halsi Anderson, contemporary author of young adult books.
"By attacking these books, by attacking these authors, by attacking the subject matter, what they are doing is removing the possibility for conversation. You are laying the groundwork for increasing bullying, disrespect, violence and attacks."
Letter to Benjamin Franklin, September 24, 1765
Correspondence between “Founding Fathers” Charles Thomson and Benjamin Franklin is preserved in the National Archives. Thomson’s letter to Franklin now feels as prescient in the U.S.A. as Heinrich Heine’s line was for Germany.
“The Sun of Liberty is indeed fast setting, if not down already, in the American colonies: But I much fear instead of the candles you mention being lighted, you will hear of the works of darkness.” — Charles Thomson: letter to Benjamin Franklin, September 24, 1765 .
At the time of Thompson’s letter, “the Sons of Liberty” were turning to violence and intimidation in response to the Stamp Act. Franklin was a principled Quaker committed to reason, civility and non-violence. Franklin would likely have chuckled at Thomson’s play on words, but not at the warning of the works of darkness.
Conroe, Texas, U.S.A – January 30, 2022
“If I run and if I win,” declares Donald Trump to a cheering crowd in Conroe Texas,”we will treat those people from January 6 fairly. And if it requires pardons, we will give them pardons because they are being treated so unfairly.”
He accuses Black prosecutors of racism. “These prosecutors are vicious, horrible people. They’re racists and they’re very sick, they’re mentally sick. They’re going after me without any protection of my rights from the Supreme Court or most other courts. In reality, they’re not after me, they’re after you…. If these radical, vicious, racist prosecutors do anything wrong or illegal, I hope we are going to have in this country the biggest protest we have ever had in Washington, D.C, in New York, in Atlanta and elsewhere.”
A little gray Maus who’d been shooed off the stage quivers and squeals to the audience, “This is a red alert!”
Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian, author of “Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness” (2017 Wipf and Stock), Brooklyn Park, MN, Feb. 3, 2022.
The beginning of this commentary will sound familiar to those who have read “The Counterfeit Gospel” (Jan. 29, 2022). The beginning through “The Gospel of Jesus the Loser” is edited and amplified. Everything from the rubric “From Prosperity to QAnon” is original to this post.
A Question of Glory
Donald Trump and I each claim a footing in the Presbyterian Church and its Reformed theological tradition. It’s hard to remember much of what happened in Confirmation Class. But it’s hard to forget the first article of the Shorter Catechism. The way to a meaningful life is “to glorify God, and enjoy Him forever.” None of us understood it, of course. But one thing was clear: We are not to glorify ourselves.
The Workshop for Cranking Out Idols
The Reformed faith tradition focuses on the majesty of God and our propensity to bow before an infinite variety of substitutes for the Infinite. The issue for faith is not belief or unbelief. The issue is idolatry. Earth is the theatre of God’s glory. Yet human nature is a perpetual factory of idols. –Jean Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion,1556.
Author theologian William Stringfellow described idols as “imposters of God,” — the finite, manageable works we crank out that take the place of the Ineffable and Infinite.
There are gods and there is God. There is the finite and there is the Infinite. The gods are nearer-to-hand stand-ins, substitutes that promise what they cannot deliver. The world is beautiful and filled with goodness, yet the underlying goodness is twisted against itself. The idols are endless and varied. Nation, work, money, status, race, religion, political party, ideology take center stage in “the theater of God’s glory.”
The Gospel of Jesus the Loser
By the standards of the Prosperity Gospel, Jesus of Nazareth was a loser. Yet the loser will not go away. The loser executed on a Roman cross was raised as the archetype of authentic humanity. Unless the church gets that straight, everything it gains is loss. In spite of all attempts to circumvent, delete, or deny it, the cross remains the primary symbol for those who seek to follow Jesus. Whoever spends time looking at Gustav Doré’s painting of the crucifixion cannot dismiss the horror of it, the cruelty of it, the god-forsakenness of it.
From Prosperity to QAnon
It’s a short distance from the Prosperity Gospel to QAnon. Neither pays attention to Matthew or Luke’s vivid narratives of Jesus in the wilderness. Is Satan real? Yes and no. Satan is not someone’s name. It’s a title — the Shatan, the Diabolos — for the diabolical. It has no other home than our hearts and minds, the blacksmith shop that never ceases. The factory that cranks out idols. Satan is the Adversary of the Divine. QAnon says little about God but sees Satan everywhere. QAnon is the latest metastasis of a simplistic theology that divides the world between God and Satan, good and evil, saved and damned, elect and non-elect, heaven and hell, soldiers and cowards. If those characteristics sound familiar, it’s because they are.
“You people seem normal”
Thanksgiving is a day of mostly cheerful moments, but some Thanksgivings are also epiphanies. My younger son’s college friend opened a window to his experience of Christian faith and practice. During a light-hearted conversation around the Thanksgiving table, the student guest took what seems like a risk, but it landed on ears that understood how he felt. “I don’t know quite how to say this,” he said with eyebrows rising, “but you people seem normal.” The conversation the followed focused on his view of Christians as whackos. The whackos held the worldview described in the previous paragraph. Why did he think so? While changing channels he had stopped in on Jimmy and Tammie Baker, Jimmy Swaggert, and other televangelists who had not seemed normal. They were abnormal by almost any standards mental health, reason and sanity.
The Lure of Prosperity
The Prosperity Gospel preachers proclaim it can all be yours, if… If you accept Jesus Christ as your Savior, if you stop thinking negatively, it can all be yours. It can all be yours in a secure gated community. It can be yours if you climb to the top. It can all be yours if you just close your eyes to the homeless who disturb an otherwise beautiful day. It can all be yours, if you stop thinking of yourself as a school drop-out ditch digger and think of yourself as (fill in the blank).
Flights from Ambigiuity
What is missing in the Prosperity Gospel and QAnon are the biblical stories of Jesus in the wilderness with Satan. Any study of the Gospel of Matthew’s or Gospel of Luke’s narratives lead to a conclusion that life is more ambiguous than we would like it to be. It is good that our material needs are met. It’s not good when we turn needs into greed. In the same way, religion can go either way. It is good to praise God and practice a tradition’s wisdom, but religion can become, and often is, a form of idolatry that substitutes itself for the Eternal and Ineffable it claims to worship. But the third scene in the wilderness narratives that leaps from the page in America today, is the one about power and authority described below.
You may or may not hear much about Satan from Prosperity Gospel preachers or, for that matter, from the pulpits of traditional churches. It’s either because it’s not popular. It won’t attract new adherents. Or it’s an embarrassment. Or the biblical texts that speak of Satan or the Devil require an inordinately long explanation than a sermon allows. Not so for QAnon where the talk is all about Satan.
What has been lost is a literary and emotional understanding of the complex and confounding character of the biblical Satan. Satan is the personification of the diabolical. The Trickster, the Deceiver, the Twister, the Half-Truth Teller, the Liar. Beauty, truth, and goodness are given lip service, but beneath the talk of beauty lies ugliness, beneath the tributes to truth lies deceit, beneath the salute to goodness lies a tornado twisting goodness into its opposite.
The most poignant of the three wilderness scenes
William Blake paints the most poignant of the three episodes of Jesus’s 40 days with the Diabolos in the wilderness. The scene is a mountaintop where Satan and Jesus the Christ have in view all the nations and kingdoms of the word. Blake’s painting gives visual expression to the narcissistic lure of political power and authority. “Then the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. ‘All this I will give you,’ he says, ‘if you will bow down and worship me.’ Jesus says to him, ‘Begone, Satan, for it is written ‘you shall worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.'” (Matthew 4:10 NIV and NRSV combined)
Where was God?
Those who see the countenance of God in the face of Jesus the Loser face a challenge that won’t go away. Where was God when America’s First People were being stripped of their homeland, slaughtered, stripped of their religion and culture, and consigned to reservations and Christian boarding schools? Where was God when White hoods with torches burned their crosses and formed a congregation gathered around the lynching tree? Where was God at the whipping post? Where was God during the Holocaust, the “Final Solution”? Where was God at the gun massacres at Columbine, Sandy Hook, and Parkland? Where was God when Narcissus was dying of dehydration at the edge of the pond?
You will find God there
Jesus the Loser tells us where. God was among those who were robbed of their homeland. God was shuttled off to the reservations. God was hanging from the lynching tree. God was whipped at the whipping post. God was on the trains to Auschwitz; God was among the children, teachers, and parents at Sandy Hook. God was among the Losers — the tortured, the poor, the starving, the dying and the dead. God was in the pond inviting Narcissus to drink. We will find God there.
Letters and Papers from Prison preserves a poem from the cell of a pastor, theologian, professor, and resistor of the German Third Reich. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was hanged at Flossenburg Concentration Camp April 9, 1945 as the Nazi regime was collapsing.
CHRISTIANS AND UNBELIEVERS
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, July, 1944
Men go to God when they are sore bestead, Pray to him for succour, for his peace, for bread, For mercy for them sick, sinning or dead: All men do so, Christian and unbelieving.
Men go to God when he is sore bestead, Find him poor and scorned, without shelter or bread, Whelmed under weight of the wicked, the weak, the dead: Christians stand by God in his hour of grieving.
God goeth to every man when sore bestead, Feedeth body and spirit with his bread, For Christians, heathens alike he hangeth dead: And both alike forgiving.
I often have wondered whether Donald Trump would disturb me less if we did not both claim a footing in the Presbyterian Church and the Reformed theological tradition. I have asked what happened to Donald after Confirmation Class.
To glorify God — Not Ourselves
If we remembered nothing else from confirmation class, it was the first and most important question of the Shorter Catechism. “What is the chief end of man (human beings)? Answer: The chief end of man (human beings) is to glorify God and enjoy God forever.” Whatever questions remained, one thing was clear. We are called to glorify God, not ourselves.
In the Reformed tradition of faith and practice the issue in life is not belief or unbelief. The perennial daily issue is idolatry understood as the substitution of what is finite and manageable for the “I AM” the Name too holy to name. Valuing humility and modesty in spirit and lifestyle, the Reformed tradition shuns extravagance, arrogance, and ostentatious living as gates to a world swirling toward self-destruction.
The Gospel of the Winner
The Prosperity Gospel is the impostor gospel on whose shoulders America hoisted a hologram to the Office of President and continues to insist Mr. Trump could not have been defeated. While greed knows no time limits, the Prosperity Gospel is the latest spiritual product of consumer capitalism which divides humankind into the elect and the damned, the materially privileged and the “less fortunate” for whom alike, amassing a fortune is life’s purpose and goal. Donald Trump is not just Donald Trump. He is the embodiment of privilege in all its forms: prestige, power, tower, country clubs for the rich and famous, a beautiful wife or two or three, a winner free to put his hands wherever his urges lead him with no evidence of guilt or shame. Donald is the symbol of success. Donald is a winner who cannot lose.
Paula White’s prayer service for Donald Trump offers a good look at what this impostor for God looks and sounds like. Paul White became a spiritual advisor in the Trump White House. Listen carefully.
Those who observe the prayer service for the president’s re-election in the aftermath of the January 6, 2021 Capitol insurrection must not forget or ignore how fascists rose to power in the 1920s and ’30s by inciting violence against leftist protesters. The Nazis sent Brownshirts to left-wing gatherings to provoke street fights and wreak havoc which they blamed on leftists. When more than 100 people were injured at the Red Wedding rally in 1927, the Nazis claimed they, the Nazis, were the victims of leftist anarchists. Hitler may have been a victim, but Hitler would never be a loser.
The Gospel of Jesus the Loser
By the standards of the Prosperity Gospel, Jesus of Nazareth was a loser. He did not prosper. He did not accumulate. He didn’t win. Yet the loser whose cry Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachtani? — “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” — rang out from the executioner’s cross was, according to Christian faith, raised as the archetype of authentic humanity. Unless the church gets that straight, everything it may gain will be loss. Jesus was not and is not a winner.
In spite of all attempts to circumvent, delete, or deny it, the cross remains the primary symbol for those who seek to follow Jesus. Whoever spends time looking at Caravaggio’s painting of the crucifixion cannot dismiss the horror of it, the cruelty of it, the god-forsakenness of it, or the helping hand of Simon of Cyene.
Like every other religious institution and faith tradition, the church which Donald and I once held in common is a failure. Lord knows how often the Presbyterian Church (USA) has stood on the other side of the fence from Jesus, Moses, and the prophets. Even so, like the Friends (“Quakers”), the voice of conscience lies near the heart of who we seek to be. We are taught to listen for “the still small voice” (the whisper) that calls us “to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God” (Micah 6:8).
From the Counterfeit Gospel of Prosperity to QAnon and Fascism
It’s a short distance from the winner or loser, good vs. evil, us/them theology of the Prosperity Gospel to QAnon and fascism. All these years after Edward R. Murrow called Joseph McCarthy’s search for communist conspirators to a screeching halt, a nameless figure who goes by “Q” gathers a following by uncovering a Satanic cabal working in high places of “the Deep State.” The enemy in 2022 is still leftists, as it was with the Third Reich and Joe McCarthy, but far worse and ludicrous — an underground Leftist cabal of child kidnapping, molestation, sex trafficking, pederasty, and cannibalism conspiring to take away our freedom. QAnon followers still make invoke the old fear of communist, but the culprits now are called Democrats.
QAnon’s view of Satan is fueled by the biblical literalist mindset of far-right fundamentalist and conservative Christian theology that turns Satan into an independent, identifiable being. If only it were that simple. The biblical Satan is the personification of the diabolical dimension of human nature. In the Bible Satan stands for the Trickster who twists Earth’s essential goodness against itself and its Creator. Satan’s workshop is the human mind and heart that cranks out impostors of God.
Responsibility and Ambiguity
Charles Thomson, a quiet member of America’s Founders, the first and only Secretary of the Continental Congress, wrote his friend Benjamin Franklin of his concern about “the cursed schemes dragging us into civil war, and national ruin.” The American experiment was “teetering at the edge of the cliff.” That was 1774, two years before the Declaration of Independence was issued. The threat of yearning for a king is as real now as it was then. Are we mature enough to turn back from the road to ruin? Will we remember, forget, ignore, or oppose the question and answer Donald and I learned in confirmation class? You don’t need a Presbyterian confirmation class to conclude that self-glorification is glory misplaced. Whatever happens, we do well to remember Charles Thomson’s wisdom and look at the diabolical dimension within ourselves and find the factory that cranks out substitutes for God. The search for glory always ends badly.
“The character of human life,” observed Paul Tillich, “like the character of the human condition, like the character of all life, is ‘ambiguity’: the inescapable mixture of good and evil, the true and the false, the creative and the destructive forces –both individual and social” — Time, May 17, 1963.
“Truth has stumbled in the streets, honesty cannot enter. Truth is nowhere to be found, and whoever shuns evil becomes a prey.” — Book of Isaiah 59: 14b-15a
The Press Conference
Moments ago House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy performed a Fred Astaire song-and- dance act, after which a “press corp” composed of theater critics, ballet dancers, singers, and actors from Broadway had time to asked embarrassing questions. The Minority Leader was frequently off-key. Every other step was a diversion. Some taps were an About-Face. It’s hard to tap dance in hip-boot waders.
Tap dancing in hip-boots
Mr. McCarthy offered no explanations for his well-documented changes of mind, reversals and U-Turns. If you were listening carefully, you might have heard an off-stage prompter’s cue from an unhappy puppeteer: “A b o u t Face!” But the tap dancer didn’t know which way to face. Without a moral compass it’s easy to get lost.
"No one calls for justice; no one pleads his case with integrity." -- Isaiah 59:4a
I watched it live on C-Span. No pundit told me what I was seeing and hearing, and no “Breaking News!” announcements made my heart race.
Truth is not an artifact
Truth-telling never was popular. Yet it was a founding virtue in American culture. “We hold these truths to be self-evident….” We didn’t, of course, but we said we did. Truth was the premise of all that followed in the Declaration of Independence. In 2022 truth is a relic, a dead virtue like Latin, rolling in the dust; nothing is self-evident. Or could it be that truth abides in America; you just have to hunt for it? Yet, even hunting for truth for the sake of goodness can be a u-turn toward evil, as it did seven decades ago until a truth-teller named Welsh and a truth-seeking reporter named Murrow confronted the demonic crusading behind the pretense of goodness.
"They rely on empty arguments and speak lies; they conceive trouble and give birth to evil." -- Isaiah 59:4
A sense of decency
When Senator Joseph McCarthy (R-WI) attacked a young attorney in Mr. Welsh’s law firm as a suspected communist or communist sympathizer, Welsh had had enough, and said so: “Let us not assassinate this lad further, Senator. You’ve done enough. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?“
“See It Now”
March 9, 1954 Murrow’s “Report on Sen. Joseph McCarthy” aired on his popular CBS program “See It Now” featuring excerpts in which the junior Senator from Wisconsin repeatedly contradicted himself. Joseph Welsh’s rebuke — “Let us not … Have you left no sense of decency”— swept across the country. Viewer letters to CBS ran 15-1 in favor of Murrow’s report.
Attack on the Press as “a Jackal Pack”
When Murrow offered the senator a full half-hour on “See It Now” to respond to the report in any way he might choose, McCarthy delayed his appearance until April 6. McCarthy did not appear in person. Instead, he provided CBS with a filmed response, accusing Murrow of being a communist-sympathizer, or worse. The transcript of McCarthy’s defense included an attack on the press as “jackal pack”:
Ordinarily, I would not take time out from the important work at hand to answer Murrow. However, in this case I feel justified in doing so because Murrow is a symbol, a leader, and the cleverest of the jackal pack which is always found at the throat of anyone who dares to expose individual Communists and traitors.
Excerpt, Sen. Joseph McCarthy rebuttal on “See It Now” (April 6, 1953)
"They hatch the eggs of vipers, and spin a spider's web." -- Isaiah 59:5a
Murrow later noted that McCarthy “made no reference to any statements of fact that we made” and addressed McCarthy’s accusations against himself. If the best defense is a good offense, McCarthy’s single-note smear strategy was no match for truth. Senator McCarthy was censured by the Senate, but his spirit and appeal to fear never left.
This sordid history is embedded in American culture. We’ve become a culture of distrust, suspicion, accusation, and division. There is no Edward R. Murrow, and if there is one or many, the multiplicity of news sources insures that the American public will no longer see or hear the same things across the political divide.
"So justice is far from us, and righteousness does not reach us. We look for light, but all is darkness; for brightness, but we walk in deep shadows. Like the blind we grope along the wall, feeling our way like those without eyes." -- Isaiah 59:10a
The descendants of Joseph McCarthy are feeding truth, decency, and the Constitution through the shredder. If you want to see reality with your own eyes and hear it with your own ears, tune in to C-Span and C-Span 2 to discern truth from falsehood, good from evil, transparency from obfuscation, a ballet from a tap dance in hip boots.
— Gordon C. Stewart, Brooklyn Park, MN, Jan. 12, 2022.
The day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, POTUS Franklin Delano Roosevelt addressed a joint session of Congress. “Yesterday, December 7, 1941—a date which will live in infamy…” he began. His oft-cited words could have been repeated the day after the attack on the U. S. Capitol January 6, 2020.
The POTUS defeated in the 2020 election called no special session of Congress on January 7, 2021. The day before (Jan. 6, 2021) the President stayed in the Oval Office dining room watching the rampage through the halls of Congress, and Capitol Police rushing Members of Congress, the Vice President and their staff members into hiding. He kept his eyes glued to the unfolding images as if watching contestants on Jeopardy.
When finally he spoke after 187 minutes of silence, he told those who had breached the Capitol “…So go home. We love you, you’re very special. We’ve seen what happens, you see the way others are treated that are so bad and so evil. I know how you feel. But go home, and go home in peace.” There was no special session of Congress, as on the day after Pearl Harbor. Congress impeached Mr. Trump for the second time over the objection of Jim Jordan (pictured below), Marjorie Taylor Greene, and others. Loyalist senators voted to acquit him. January 6, 2020 will be remembered as the day the Big Lie and Stop the Steal almost stole democracy.
Marjorie Taylor Greene 🇺🇸 @mtgreenee
We must remove Adam Schiff from Congress. It’s not enough to take him off committees. He has heinously abused power & LIED repeatedly to the American people to weaponize the government to attack his political enemies. He’s a Communists. All Communists must be expelled. 10:03 AM · Dec 15, 2021·Twitter for iPhone
Painting public figures as Communists has a history. In 1952 and following, the right wing of the Republican Party created a “blacklist” of Communists and Communist sympathizers.
10 PUBLIC FIGURES
Helen Keller Leonard Bernstein Burl Ives Pete Seeger Artie Shaw Zero Mostel Charlie Chaplin Langston Hughes Orson Welles Dolores del Rio
+Adam Schiff (added 12/15/22
The date of the 2021 Capitol insurrection coincided with the Feast of the Epiphany which my church celebrates every January 6th, no matter the current circumstances. On Epiphany the heart is lifted by the Gospel of Matthew’s story of the Magi (wisdom figures) who have come from afar, kneeling before a newborn as fragile as any newborn to offer their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
It was and is a question of kneeling
Prior to their arrival at Bethlehem, these sages from the East go to “Herod the king” asking for directions to the place where the new king has been born. A “troubled” King Herod summons his advisors to gather information. He then summons the “wise men” secretly to ascertain from them when the star had appeared. Herod gives them directions to Betlehem, and tells them to come back to him when they have found the child, “that I too may come and worship him.”
The Magi do not return to Herod. “And warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed for their own country by another way.” Herod is furious. Herod never disappears. Cunning and deceit never end. Darkness remains. But the Light –the star shining over an animal shelter — remains. Last year Epiphany there was darkness and there was light. A would-be king trembles and flies into a slaughter of innocents. For years to come, January 6 the memory of a violent insurrection and the Feast of the Epiphany will sit side-by-side. May we have the wisdom to follow the Light that cannot overcome the darkness.
The two competing images of the wise visitors to Bethlehem and of Herod’s cunning will through light on reality as it is. If Burl Ives and Pete Seeger were branded as Communists, I wonder about Dolly Parton. Dolly did appear with Big Bird on Sesame Street.
“What a Friend We Have in Jesus” is an old favorite of Protestant Christians. Pete Seeger (RIP) knew what happens when we look to Congress to save us.
“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious,” wrote Albert Einstein. “It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.”
Isabell’s Wonder and her Grandfather’s Wondering
Christmas felt different this year. Until four-month-old granddaughter Isabell smiled, gurgled, and giggled back from the blanket on the floor. Before that I had been stuck in the soul-wrecking kind of wonder, not the wondrous kind of wonder Einstein described. No sugar plums danced in my head.
Events of the past year were tumbling over each other. I hear the sound of a paper shredder and wonder whether any copies of the Constitution will survive the shredders. I see the Mother of Exiles, her lamp still held high, but dimming, while the torches of hate grow bright to erase Emma Lazarus’s poem welcoming “the poor, huddled masses, and tempest-tost, yearning to be free.” I hear the torch-bearers chanting in Charlottesville “You will not replace us! Jews will not replace us!” and hear the Munich Beer Hall Putsch in my language. I see the party of Lincoln riding the wave of the Big Lie and wonder when patriotism became treasonous and “open carry” the closest synonym of freedom. I see the gallows outside the Capitol, hear the shouts “Hang Mike Pence” and “Execute Nancy,” and wonder how individual freedom was severed from responsibility, and who decided only whites neighbor. I wonder what happened to the Golden Rule and the parable of the Good Samaritan. I wonder whether the demons of national exceptionalism and white supremacy can be exorcized, and if and when the 100-year fires, hurricanes, tornadoes, droughts, and floods will knock sense into climate change-deniers before the murder-suicide pact leaves no one to be replaced. I wonder what will become of us. I have to wonder.
Bethlehem and an Empty Chair for Elijah
We are no closer to Isaiah’s vision of the peaceable kingdom than the day Jesus was born in Bethlehem. The Hebrew prophets’ “Day of the Lord” or its New Testament equivalent, “the Kingdom of God” is harder to imagine when Herod seems closer than the wisdom of the Wise. Elijah’s empty chair at the annual Seder meal is kept empty as a sign of hope against hope that the Messianic kingdom of Isaiah’s vision and Jesus’ preaching are more than pipe dreams.
Isabell knows nothing about any of this. She does not wonder the way I do. Shel smiles back at her grumpy grandfather, wiggling, gurgling, and giggling with joy. Isabell is no stranger to Einstein’s “beautiful thing” — the ‘thing’ that is not a ‘thing’.
The Experience of the Sacred
Fred and Jo never met Isabell. They were in their mid-90s and mid-80s when she first opened her eyes. She never saw Jo and Fred walking hand-in-hand around the retirement center. If it weren’t for the gray hair and hint of a limp, on onlooker might mistake them for teenagers. Their love was as fresh as the morning dew. The luster of love’s delight had not dimmed or faded until Jo’s daily greeting —“Good morning, Dear. How are you today?”— stopped. Two years later, her heart stopped also.
When the funeral home attendants arrived at the Memory Care Center, Fred had settled himself in the chair at the foot of the bed. Respecting his grief and wanting to protect him from viewing their work, the attendants invited him to leave the room until they were finished. Fred declined their invitation. He stayed in the room to watch each step of the process of preparing the deceased’s body, and followed the attendants and the body down the elevator and out to the hearse.
When asked later what his experience had been watching the whole process while deep in grief, Fred looked at me and paused. . . for a long time. The look on his face was quizzical. “I’m looking for the right words,” he said. “I can’t explain it. “‘Wondrous’ is the only word that comes to mind.” “I can’t explain it.” “It was ‘wondrous’!”
In that moment 90-year-old Fred and four-month-old Isabell were on the same page, alive and pausing in wonder at the beauty of it all.
“There are in life a few moments so beautiful that even words are a sort of profanity.” (Diana Palmer)
Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (217 Wipf & Stock), Brooklyn Park, MN, Dec. 29, 2021.