A Radiating Presence Everywhere

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We Saw No Tears – gods are strong and cold

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

Photo of daffodil

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.

Malcolm GuiteInterview series with Malcolm Guite — Part I, May 2012.

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.

Insurrection and Faith (Part 3)

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“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.

“examining critical public issues locally and globally”

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

Braver Angels

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.

Gordon C. Stewart, author of “Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness” (2017, Wipf and Stock), Chaska, Minnesota, February 16, 2021.

Insurrection and Faith (Part 2)

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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 Society manual.

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.

A Dilemma

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.

Stay tuned for “Insurrection and Faith (Part 3).

Gordon C. Stewart, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), 49 short (2-4 pages) social commentaries on public life. Chaska, Minnesota, February 13, 2021

Hitler’s former maid breaks her silence

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92 year-old Elisabeth Kalhammer tells her story of serving as Hitler’s maid. The interview includes rare film footage of her boss at his mountain retreat after he knew he’d been defeated.

Historic moments begin with nonchalance

Every U.S. Senator is now a juror in the second impeachment trial of Donald Trump, and we, the people, are witnesses again, as we were watching the events of January 6.

The mark of the historic is the nonchalance with which it picks up an individual and deposits him in a trend, like a house playfully moved by a tornado.

Mary McCarthy, “My Confession,” On the Contrary (1961)
“The Berghof” on the Obersalzberg, the house of Adolf Hitler. In the foreground, the gate house.

We have need of history in its entirety, not to fall back into it, but to see if we can escape from it.

– Jose Ortega y Gasset, The Revolt of the Masses (1930)

I know an Old Party that swallowed a lie … I guess she’ll die.

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“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

Insurgency and Faith (Part 1)

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THE BACK STORY 

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

Busting Up America — a Tale for a Tail

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Conspiring to Bust up a Country

“Traters, I will here remark, are an onfortunit class of peple. If they wasn’t, they wouldn’t be traters. They conspire to bust up a country — they fail, and they’re traters. They bust her, and become statesmen and heroes.” — Artemus Ward, “The Tower of London,” Artemus Ward in London (1872).

A Tale for a Tail

There’s an elephant in the living room. It looks like an elephant, but it’s not. Elephants have long memories. This beast has none. Like the taxidermist’s safari trophies, only the remains remain. It had a trunk and tusks, but what it once symbolized is no more. The tail that shooed away the fleas and flies has been replaced by a tale.

Some folks who remember the elephant know what happened. But even they are divided on what the elephant was.

This political cartoon by Thomas Nast, taken from a 1879 edition of Harper’s Weekly, was an early use of the elephant and the donkey to symbolize the Republican and Democratic parties. [Photo Credit: Kean Collection/ Archive Photos/Getty Images]

Some remember and weep over the tale now told in its name. Others have no memory or revise their memories to suit the patriot’s tale of the trophy hunter.

How totalitarianism happens, according to Hanna Arendt

L. K. Hanson 1.2021 quoting Hanna Arendt, German-American political theorist (Star Tribune 1.25.2012)

Every Violation of Truth is . . .

“The great masses of the people . . . will more easily fall victims to a big lie than to a small one,” wrote Adolf Hitler in Mein Kampf in 1924.

“Every violation of truth is not only a sort of suicide in the liar, but is a stab at the health of human society.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Prudence,” Essays: First Series (1841).

Gordon C. Stewart, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), Chaska, MN, January 25, 2021.

Things Fall Apart; the Centre Cannot Hold — a Sermon

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Friend and ministerial colleague John M. Miller spoke these words following the January 6 siege of the U.S. Capitol.

A sermon by John Miller, Chapel Without Walls, Hilton Head Island, SC – January 10, 2021

Text – “Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken.” – Matthew 24:29 (RSV)

Things Fall Apart; the Centre Cannot Hold

    January 6, 2021, like December 7, 1941, is a date that shall live in infamy. Four days ago  American democracy was shaken to its very foundations. It happened in the United States Capitol building, the seat of government of a nation which proudly proclaims itself the strongest democracy in the history of the world. But on January 6, our democracy endured its most damaging test since April 12 of 1861, and it was prompted by the nation’s president.

    In 1919, after the War to End All Wars had finally ended, and the foolhardy Treaty of Versailles was being thrust upon the barely-defeated nations of World War I, William Butler Yeats wrote what is perhaps his most famous poem. It is called The Second Coming. For his whole lifetime, the Irish poet had lived through injustices forced upon his fellow countrymen by the English. The people of the Emerald Isle had been kept in British bondage for centuries. In 1919 the world was in the grip of a major pandemic, the worst one in six centuries. Life could have not been more bleak for a brilliant, sensitive, and mystical bard.

    The Second Coming is a dark and ambiguous poem. Nonetheless several lines from it have been used to describe events around the world ever since Yeats wrote the poem. “Turning and turning in the widening gyre/ The falcon cannot hear the falconer.” We feel ourselves being drawn into a metaphorical swirling whirlpool or tornado, and we become severely disoriented.

    “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;/ Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,/ The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere/ The ceremony of innocence is drowned.”

    In the late morning of January 6 the head of state of the American government addressed several thousand of his most avid supporters near the White House. He had been carefully cultivating his cult for more than four years. (The two words are linguistically yoked.) Since November 3, 2020, he had been telling them that the election had been stolen, and he instructed them that they must try to stop Congress from counting and affirming the votes of the Electoral College. Taking him at his word, they began their march to the capitol as both Houses of Congress were in session, doing what the Constitution requires after every presidential election.

    “The best lack conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity.” Most of the people then meeting in the Senate and House of Representatives intended to approve the electoral count that would affirm Joseph Biden, Jr. as the next President of the United States. However, ten Republican Senators and a hundred and thirty-nine Representatives objected to the tallies sent to Congress from a few states whose citizens had chosen Mr. Biden. These were politicians who by now should clearly have known that Donald Trump would stop at nothing to avoid having to leave the presidency. Shortly after the process was begun, the capitol was breached by force, and the excited hordes stormed into it, streaming out in every direction. The Members of Congress were told to shelter in place, a new phrase in our ever-changing lexicon, usually reserved for another matter altogether. Most of them quickly went to their offices and locked the doors.

    Those of us who saw these events live on television watched the beginning of the formalities in the two chambers. But soon the networks were displaying videos from outside the capitol building, with growing crowds pressing forward, then breaking through the barriers and rushing into the capitol. “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;/ …The ceremony of innocence is drowned;/ …The best lack all conviction, and the worst are full of passionate intensity.” Though the electoral numbers were unassailable, the congressional objectors stood ready to make their case, until the mobs appeared at the doors of the House and Senate. We looked on with increasing dread, fearful of where the chaos was leading.

    Three or four days before Jesus was crucified, Matthew tells us he gave a lengthy monologue to his disciples. In it he very obliquely focused on what he perceived would be his imminent death and its aftermath. Matthew, chapter 24, is highly apocalyptic. The Greek word apocalypsos means “to uncover.” The meaning of an important future event is inevitably hidden, and the cryptic apocalyptic words are supposed to uncover their meaning to those who have eyes and ears to understand them. Apocalypticism was familiar to the people who wrote and who were the first readers of the Bible. Unfortunately, most of us find such words merely bewildering.

    “So when you see the desolating sacrilege spoken by the prophet Daniel, standing in the holy place (let the reader understand)” [except most of us who read this don’t understand much at all of what Jesus was saying] “then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains” (Mt. 24:15-16).

The problem for us is that we are far too removed from first-century Judea, and we don’t understand. In several places in the Gospels, Jesus spoke of what would precede his Second Coming after he had died. Matthew 24 is an example of that. For us 20 centuries later it may be too cryptic, too veiled. Furthermore, Jesus likely didn’t say everything Matthew said he said.

    Jesus hinted in several places in the Gospels that he would return again to the earth after he had died. Yeats took that imagery and wrote a very ambiguous and foreboding poem, but with no religious meaning at all. I am using both the Yeats poem and the apocalyptic teachings of Jesus as the basis for this sermon. No Christians can be absolutely certain about what Jesus meant by the Second Coming, but millions have been drawn to it like moths to a flame, with a great variety of interpretations regarding this phenomenon. “And if those days had not been shortened, no human being would be saved, but for the sake of the elect those days will be shortened” (Mt. 24:22). (Calvinists love that and all other verses which contain the word “elect.”)

    Did Jesus actually say all these things? I am convinced  he said some of them. Whatever else he was (and he was many other things), he was surely a first-century Jewish apocalyptic preacher.

    Jesus told his disciples, “Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken” (Mt. 24:19). When Jesus said that, was he predicting January 6, 2021, or Dec, 7, 1941, or April 12, 1861? Absolutely not. But he was predicting that things like that would occur. If we live, we will all experience wars and riots and plagues. It cannot be otherwise. Apocalyptic teachings proclaim that truth in their own uniquely strange manner.

    It is a certainty that millions of supporters of the president, as well as many Members of Congress, will not change their minds one scintilla about the best direction for this nation to follow as a result of what happened on January 6th. Fierce opinions don’t change readily.     

Many of the talking heads on television were aghast that there were not more police to prevent the mob from breaking into the capitol building. In the providence of God, we can be very grateful it was mainly the Capitol Police who were there to try to stop them. Had it been the DC police or the DC National Guard, it might have been a disastrously different story.  The capitol police are more like guides than they are like guards. They are not trained to quell riots, and fortunately, they didn’t stop the invasion. Put lots of guns into the hands of lots of males, and you’ll get lots of people shot. Had the capitol police fired many guns, instead of five deaths (only two caused by firearms), there could have been hundreds  injured and scores killed if armed police and National Guardsmen and armed demonstrators had  started blazing away at each other. The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate Second Amendment intensity. As awful as it was, it is amazing there was not far more bloodshed and vandalism within the nation’s seat of government. Most of the people on both sides of the conflict were relatively peaceful, considering how volatile the situation actually was, and who the assailants were.

Elections may be mocked, voters may be mocked, and democracy may be mocked. All of that happened on January 6. A tragically lifelong narcissistic president cannot do what our president did without severely damaging the body politic. For six years (two years of campaigning, nearly four years of being in office, and two months of incessant attempts to undermine the validity of a properly conducted election), he did what was natural to him. He attempted to expand his political base to support his “governance,” such as it is. That is all this tragic man knows how to do. He has shown himself incapable of being presidential, but he is extremely capable of being Donald J. Trump. Now he is being widely discredited, but most of all he should be pitied. He is not the worst person in history by any means, but he is obviously full of passionate intensity.

Though elections might be mocked, God is not mocked, even though on January 6 God and Jesus appeared to be mocked. One demonstrator carried a hand-written sign saying, “Jesus Saves.” Another carried a flag which said “Jesus 2020.” You may not have realized it, but Jesus also apparently was up for election in 2020, and in the Capitol Assault of January 6. Many of these people truly believe they represented Jesus in their actions. That is as sad as it is dangerous.

In my opinion, most in the mob were not intentional terrorists. They didn’t mean to terrorize Congress as such. They were simply duped by their leader into thinking their unruly presence would somehow nullify the Electoral College vote. That tells you how well the leader understands and respects the Constitution. But it also shows how brilliant he is at duping people.

Millions of Americans and thousands of Republicans elected to various offices throughout America, plus many Democrats as well, have doggedly supported President Trump up to and beyond January 6. When upcoming elections occur, remember the names of any such people. “Fool me once, and shame on you. Fool me twice, or indefinitely, and shame on me.” Donald Trump is not a monster, although he is a man with a severe personality disorder and/or mental illness. All of us should have realized and admitted that before now. The man should have been convicted of the articles of impeachment by an overwhelming vote in Congress last February, but it didn’t happen. Shame on the members of the party which kept him in office. As it was, January 6 turned out to be Three Cheers for the Democrats Day because of the president’s failed attempt to sway the voters of Georgia. He didn’t; it backfired. If Mike Pence had been the President for the past ten months, the Grand Old Party might have averted a very slim Democratic majority in both houses of Congress. A Republican president still in office became the Republican downfall.

However, the Democrats have little to crow about. Both parties have rendered it almost impossible to work with the other party amicably, and they are equally guilty of allowing this deadly impasse to have evolved. Democrats may think they stand on the moral high ground, but they have an uncanny knack of regularly cutting the ground out beneath their clay feet. Bernie Sanders and the now-famous AOC are examples of how they allow that to happen. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris have an immense job on their hands, though they may be the two Democrats most capable of uniting us once again. Let us hope and pray it may come to pass.

Does January 6 represent the end of the world and the Second Coming of Christ? Certainly not, although probably many fundamentalist Christians think so. But it will go down as one of the darkest days in American history. An assault on the nation’s capitol building was incited by a president who imagined a mob somehow could overturn an election whose results he refused to accept. Had he succeeded in his ploy, democracy would have failed, with incalculable chaos. 

However, that surely was not what Jesus was talking about on a spring day in the first third of the first century of the Common Era. Apocalyptic words can be interpreted in a wide fashion, but January 6 was not apocalyptic, either via Jesus or William Butler Yeats.

Nonetheless, Jesus does return to us in a continual Second Coming. We encounter him in the form of exhausted health care workers toiling on behalf of people dying from COVID-19. He is a poverty-stricken mother feeding her children all the food she has, saving none for herself. He is a demonstrator for the civil rights of oppressed people, and a policeman trying to maintain order among the demonstrators. Jesus comes back as a bricklayer, a minimum-wage child care worker, a fast-food worker, and a street sweeper. He can be seen in Members of Congress from both parties, carefully striving to do the nation’s business, clearly knowing that they can never achieve widespread acclaim among all the people.  

A chastened nation needs to emerge from January 6.The best lacked conviction on what to do when it should have been done five years or ten months earlier. Those who were the worst-equipped to do anything positive seized the January 6 headlines. The Georgia special election should have made January 6 a totally different kind of news day, but an out-of-control president and an uncontrolled throng of his supporters prevented that from happening.

A great American once said, “It’s never over till it’s over.” January 6 is not over. It will take years before it’s over. Even after order was restored in Congress and the Electoral College tallies were approved, there were still one hundred and forty-nine Republicans who voted against doing what Congress was required to do. This isn’t over. The Trump Phenomenon existed long before Donald Trump existed. It was there is the Whiskey Rebellion in Western Massachusetts during the Articles of Confederation period. It was there at Fort Sumter in 1861. It was there is the obliteration of Reconstruction in the truly rigged election of Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876. It was there is the Tea Party movement of the 1990s onward, and it may even have been the precipitating factor in the Boston Tea Party of 1773. It will require all the wisdom, courage, perseverance, and forgiveness the American people and their elected representatives can muster for one another if we are to emerge from the political nightmare we have endured for the past four years. As Lincoln said, “with malice toward none, with charity for all”, we must move beyond the partisanship we have so perversely allowed not only to exist but to cultivate among ourselves. 

America has become two giant tribes with two very different concepts on how to govern the third most populous nation on earth. There shall be no earthly messiahs to bring us together. But we must hope and pray that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will be the two ordinary humans who become the greatest unifiers we have available to us. That, after all, is what elections are about. 

“Then will appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory” (Mt. 24:20). Not literally, not visibly, but metaphorically, poetically, yet visible to the eyes of faith. Maranatha; come swiftly, Lord Jesus. Amen.

Silent Soldiers and Sedition

Blackwater/Xe and silent professionals

The Joint Chiefs of Staff issued a pre-emptive statement declaring their refusal to put boots on the street in the event the Commander-in-Chief declares Marshall Law. Even so, President Trump is not left without options. He has other troops, like the stormtroopers who stormed through the Capitol, threatened to hang the Vice President, kill the Speaker of the House, and succeeded in driving Congress into a secure bunker, while their commander-in-chief watched the news coverage and observed an unholy silence.

More dangerous than the motley mob believes the election was stolen are later intelligence reports of the presence and front-line leadership of soldiers well trained in military tactics, whether a random collection of ex-military personnel, or something more organized, like the “silent professionals” of Blackwater/Xe and other privately owned security companies. Click Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army for Jeremy Scahill’s Polk Award book (2007, Nation Books), or take a look at this excerpt from a New York Times Worst Seller List author.

We have a private army on our own soil. Its personnel are built around U.S. military Special Forces personnel who have joined Xe. They are snipers, demolition experts and former intelligence officers, both Army and CIA. Xe has its own intelligence department that hires out to corporations and the CIA, for profit. Does anything bother us about that?

Rev. Godon C. Stewart, “Blackwater/Xe: “How did it happen that the U.S. came to rely on mercenaries,” MinnPost, July 3, 2009

The Minnpost article was written eleven years ago. It bothered me then. It bothers me more now. I have no evidence that Blackwater/Xe or some similar “security” and training center was involved in the planning and execution of the January 6 insurrection. All I have is questions about “silent professionals” and the memory of a question asked in 2019. Within days of the Capitol attack, intelligence sources identified trained professionals as leaders who led those untrained in military equipment and tactics.

Pardons and Shadows

Blackwater/Xe, pictured here in Afghanistan (since re-branded Academi) still operates in the shadows under government contracts with the U.S. Department of State to protect U.S. embassies and with the DOD in Afghanistan and Iraq.

But there are moments — like the presidential pardons of four Blackwater “guards” found guilty of a massacre of 17 unarmed Iraqi civilians in Baghdad — when Blackwater comes into public view. Following Trump’s pardon, the lawyer representing the victims’ families in Baghdad spoke to an NPR reporter.

The Slaughter of Innocents

“This was Baghdad’s Bloody Sunday,” she said. “This was the slaughter of innocent civilians who were merely going about their day when a Blackwater convoy rolled through a traffic circle after having violated orders to stand down and not exit the Green Zone — and began firing indiscriminately into cars that were carrying people going to work.” A member of a victim’s family lamented pardons, calling the Blackwater guards “criminals, murderers and thugs. expressed his shock. “Today we were surprised that the American president issued a decision to pardon these criminals, murderers and thugs. I’m really shocked. … The American judiciary is fair and equitable. I had never imagined that Trump or any other politician would affect American justice.”

Pardoned Felon Gen. Mike Flynn returns as Trump confidante and advisor

Retired General Mike Flynn, the 25th U.S. National Security Advisor, fired, indicted, and convicted felon, later pardoned as a “great patriot,” has the president’s ear again. According to multiple news reports, Flynn and Sidney Powell have advised the president to invoke Marshall Law to order the confiscation of voting machines in the states he claims to have won. Given the president’s state of mind and knowing that he will face multiple criminal indictments and civil suits after vacating the Oval Office, and knowing the nationwide civil unrest his supporters will create this weekend, is it far-fetched to imagine him declaring Marshall Law under the guise of preserving, protecting, and defending the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic?

Paying attention

Such forces, unaccountable to the people, could, if they so chose, operate in black water for purposes that are anything but democratic. The current heated rhetoric of the far right is pouring toxins of fear and hate into the political water table, the poisons of a new McCarthyism with innuendos and bumper stickers that paint a popularly elected president as the nation’s internal public enemy. Our nation’s history of assassinations and assassination attempts requires that we pay attention to what’s happening under our noses right now. A company willing to hire on as trained killers and intelligence experts under the flag of democracy and freedom is also presumably capable of hiring on for insidious purposes.

Rev. Gordon C. Stewart, “Blackwater/Xe: How did it happen that the U.S. came to rely on mercenaries?” MINNPOST, July 3, 2009.

Privatizing the War in Afghanistan

Eight years after selling Blackwater/Xe in 2009, Erik Prince broke the silence of silent professionals in 2017 with an op ed in the Wall Street Journal. “The MacArthur Model for Afghanistan” (May 31, 2017) criticized the DOD’s restrictive Rules of Engagement and proposed appointment of a Viceroy with freedom to privatize the war in Afghanistan as he saw fit. The Viceroy would report directly to the President, thereby by-passing the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

By the time of the WSJ column, Mr. Prince had sold Blackwater/Xe, and founded Project Veritas, a private intelligence company that recruits former British spies and CIA agents to conduct secretive intelligence-gathering and infiltrations of the Democratic Party, Black Lives Matter, liberal movements, groups, and labor unions hostile to the Trump agenda. Among the botched Project Veritas cases targeted was the American Federation of Teachers. Erik Prince is the younger brother of Betsy Prince DeVos, the Trump Administration Secretary of Education until her recent resignation.

Blackwater/Xe and Project Veritas are two among a host of right-of-center “security” companies that hire out trained military, intelligence, and police personnel through public and private contracts.

Days before a second wave of domestic terror hits the US Capitol and state capitols this Martin Luther King Day and the January 20 Inauguration, does any of that bother you?

Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, January 13, 2021.

Second Siege — Martin Luther King Weekend

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Capitol Sieges during Martin Luther King Weekend

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day will be different this year. “Stop the Steal” mass gathering are scheduled to convene in state capitols, as well as returning to the nation’s capitol.

After Twitter’s shut down Donald Trump’s Twitter account, The Washington Post published “Capitol siege was planned online. Trump supporters now planning the next one.” “Twitter said it was particularly concerned about contributing to a possible ‘secondary attack’ on the U.S. Capitol and state government facilities the weekend of Jan. 16-17.”

Time will tell whether this weekend will bring a secondary attack, or whether history will regard the second attack as primary. News coverage since the January 6 insurrection has focused mostly on how the U.S. Capitol was left so unprotected — a plan said to have “failed” because of a series of miscommunications, or whether the plan had succeeded, pointing the finger of blame higher up the chain of command on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Washington Post

Less attention has been paid to Martin Luther King weekend with which the “Stop the Steal!” campaign coincides. Competing events will ring the bell for freedom: MLK’s call to “Let freedom ring!” from shore to shore for all God’s children, and DJT’s call to “Stop the Steal!” that will ring out from the clank of a bell crafted by a despot’s lies.

How Could This Happen?

Dutch philosopher of religion Willem Zuurdeeg was driven by a question that deserves our attention again. What is it about being human that led Germany to salute and fall in line behind a madman? His work offers insight into how and why people, religions, and nations become fanatical. Views from the Edge will turn to Zuurdeeg’s understanding in the weeks to come.

For now, the call for deeper reflection by each of us leaps from the final paragraphs of his description of fanatical claims and the “fanatical situation”:

Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness acknowledges Zuurdeeg’s work as “the indelible ink in which Be Still! is written.” Be Still!‘s essay “Our Anxious Time” (p.16-18) looks through the lenses of Zuurdeeg and Paul Tillich. Little did I know that the week before and during the 2021 Martin Luther King weekend observance the clanking bell would ring again or that I would be so ready to surrender to my own rampage of rage.

Grace and Peace,

Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN. January 11, 2021