So much can and should be said following the death of Congressman John Lewis, but every attempt to pay tribute to him here on Views from the Edge fails to reach the high bar of tribute and thanksgiving to which he is entitled. Into this wordless void came a message sharing Eric Whitacre’s virtual global choir singing “Sing Gently” – the sound of hope and gentleness that sings what words cannot say.
The Congressman’s words after watching video of George Floyd’s death reach are as deep and wide as Eric Whitacre’s musical testimony (scroll down).
“We’re one people,” he said, “we’re one family. We all live in the same house, not just the American house but the world house.”
They cracked his skull at the Pettus Bridge; his character remained unbroken
John Lewis’s skull was cracked by officers enforcing the law-and-order of white supremacy and white nationalism, but his faith and Christ-like character could not be broken. He was as gentle as he was strong.
Sing boldly. Sing gently. If John Lewis found the strength and courage to sing his way through all the troubled waters his world was making, who am I to keep from singing?
Gordon C. Stewart, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock) available on the publisher’s website and on Amazon, Chaska, MN, July 20, 2020.
Sharing comes naturally to Elijah. In this scene recorded by Gramma, Elijah surprises Grampa (Wumpa) with a piece of his pizza. Elijah has no knowledge of hoarding. He demonstrates the generosity of the widow of Zarephath who shared her last provisions with Elijah.
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
-Isaiah 58:6a-7 NRSV
Gordon C. Stewart (“Wumpa”) with Elijah and Gramma in Chaska, MN, March 26, 2020 in this period of social distancing.
In Illinois after the diagnosis of scarlet fever and other hemolytic streptococcal infections of the upper respiratory tract is made, "Isolation is required for a minimum period of 14 days after onset and thereafter until the nose, throat, glands, and ears are normal on inspection or until the physician reports complete clinical recovery."1
Other states have essentially the same regulation except that the minimum quarantine period is 21 days instead of 14.
SILENCE IN THE HALF-FORGOTTEN HOUSE
The house on Church Lane was in Pennsylvania, not in Illinois, but the Scarlet Fever and the quarantines were the same. No baseball. No backyard games of hide-and-seek or tag. No evenings with the fireflies. No school. Not everything felt like a curse.
To prevent blindness, the room was dark. Other than Mom delivering meals, checking the fever, and reminding me not to scratch, the room was empty and quiet with one exception: the purring of Buddy, the cross-eyed cat with the crooked tail. Even a cat needs company sometimes. I like silence. A lot! But not that much. We’re not meant to be alone. Everyone needs a friend like Buddy.
FINDING OURSELVES IN SOLITUDE
Old memories return in times that awaken them. Live & Learn’s gift of a “Blessing for a Writer” came at just the right time. I fancy myself a writer, but words worth writing have been hiding during the spread of the latest pandemic when the fever and isolation are everywhere..
Might the solitude lead us to find each other?
“Only in solitude do we find ourselves; and in finding ourselves, we find in ourselves all our [neighbors] in solitude.”
— Miguel de Unamuno, “Solitude,” Essays and Soliloquies (1924), tr. J.E. Crawford Finch.
Today, Ash Wednesday, is a solemn day that calls for distraction from frivolous distractions, you might say.
Entertainment cultures shun solemnity. Ash Wednesday interrupts our flight from the knowledge of our mortality: “You are dust and to dust you shall return.”
Steve Shoemaker, seen here welcoming President Clinton to Champaign-Urbana, shared a poem that leads me a decision Ash Wednesday: plagiarize or leave the page (Views from the Edge) blank?
I HAVE NOTHING
I have nothing…
no thoughts, no ideas
Worse, only clichés
crowd my mind:
or remembered words
wielded by real writers.
Feeling only frustration,
tempted by alliteration,
or worse, rhyme…
Is it worse to plagiarize
than to leave a blank page?
— Steve Shoemaker, Feb. 6, 2013
In memory and thanksgiving for Steve’s faithful solemnity and smile,
Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Ash Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020
Mitt Romney’s speech as a Senator-juror in the impeachment trial came as a surprise because he broke with his party’s ranks, and because he appealed to conscience and religion. No Senator-juror in the history of impeachment had stepped out of line from the party line. Citing the seriousness of the articles of impeachment against President Trump, Mr. Romney explained his reasons for voting to convict the president:
As a Senator-juror, I swore an oath, before God, to exercise “impartial justice.” I am a profoundly religious person. I take an oath before God as enormously consequential. I knew from the outset that being tasked with judging the president, the leader of my own party, would be the most difficult decision I have ever faced. I was not wrong.
“Anger is an emotion arising from a refusal to permit violation…poised at the place where frustration is ready to become action.”
REFUSAL TO PERMIT VIOLATION
One might say the dissenting senator’s vote rose from a refusal to permit violation of the Constitution, a violation the Republican House minority and Senate Majority at first denied without exception. Later, after the House managers presented a compelling case, the Republicans changed their position from complete denial of the allegations to arguing that, though they were wrong, they did not “rise to the standard of high crimes and misdemeanors”. All members of the president’s party held their noses, crossed their fingers, and voted for acquittal on both Articles of Impeachment. Except for one betrayer who is now the target of the man he voted to convict.
“I am a profoundly religious person. I take an oath before God as enormously consequential.”
The oath of office and the subsequent impeachment trial oath to “do impartial justice” places the mantle of conscience on the shoulders of all who “solemnly swear” them. Repeated violations of the oath of office have driven public trust in Congress and the Presidency to a point of despair or anger. Only a public recovery of anger, as Keizer defines it, will lift us from the reign of despair and tyranny.
Views from the Edge called attention to James Madison, John Winthrop, and ethical principles of conscience (“God alone is Lord of the conscience”), and truth (“Truth is in order to goodness. Nothing is more pernicious or absurd than the opinion that truth and falsehood exist upon a level, and that it is of no consequence what a man’s [sic] opinions are”). Conscientious pursuit of truth and courage to speak truth have become the exceptions to the prevailing norms of power and privilege, and the pursuit and maintenance of them.
FRUSTRATION READY TO BECOME ACTION
Mitt Romney’s exceptional vote for what has gone out of style (integrity) is akin to Garret Keizer’s case for what has gone out of style in religion, mischaracterized by the ranting street corner preacher who thunders about the fires of hell: the wrath of God.
“I am unwilling to commit to any messiah who does not knock over tables,” writes Keizer, referencing the scene of Jesus with the money-changers. “The wrath of God is not the wrath of the abusive parent or of power abused. It is the absolute claim of personhood asserting itself in the face of power and chaos alike.”
“There is such a thing as killing someone with kindness. The thoroughly gentle God, the unceasingly kind God, the God of the unalterable smile is also the fairy God, the clown God, the stuffed animal God — perhaps not a great deal more helpful than the threadbare giraffe that a child clutches in his dark room….”
Garret Keizer, The Enigma of Anger
THE WRATH OF GOD AND DELIVERANCE FROM OUR DARK ROOM
For years I have felt the folly of a theology which deletes the first part of the biblical claim that God is “slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love,” leaving the abused woman or child, or nation to swim in empty concrete pools of kindness unfilled without the tears of justice.
Our country has become a dark room. But occasionally, as happened yesterday on the Senate floor, a candle is lit for justice, goodness, and truth. This room need not stay dark if we, the abused, claim again the wrath of God and the place of anger: “the refusal to permit violation…poised at the place where frustration is ready to become action.” To refuse anger will kill us with kindness, leaving us each clutching our stuffed animals in a dark room owned by a tyrant.
Gordon C. Stewart, author of “Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness” (2017 Wipf & Stock) — available in kindle and paperback through the publisher or Amazon — Chaska, MN Feb. 6, 2020
Click HERE to view the current photographs of the real estate listing ($85,000) for the Mill and 2.7 acres on Mill Pond in my ancestral home of Andrews Hollow, the same property described in “The Man Who Loved Graves” (Views from the Edge, 2012) back when the battery was fresh. The photographs did more than take me back to childhood. They took where I’ve never been: inside the Mill, which I’d assumed had gone to rot — and living quarters that come as a complete surprise.
By January 13 the number of Views from the Edge daily visits had fallen to an all-time low of 20. The battery was dead. But life is a funny thing. The next day the number jumped to 495. All because a stranger dropped by with jumper cables that jump-started a dead battery down by the old Mill stream.
A lifelong aversion to anything ‘orthodox’ kept me away from G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy before inheriting a copy from the library of my late friend Wayne. Wayne was neither orthodox nor Orthodox, but there it was — Orthodoxy — with passages he had marked and indecipherable comments he had written in the margins.
The Arrogant Oligarchy of the Living
“Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors,” wrote G.K.Chesterton in a book I’d never read until my friend Wayne died. “It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking around.” — G.K. Chesterton, “The Ethics of Elfland,”Orthodoxy (1908).
I’ve often had the sense of this oligarchy and find it treacherous. Not only because it’s arrogant and oligarchical, but because it is foolish and destructive. Tradition is not the enemy of vitality. Nor is it the enemy of free thought nor science.
Without tradition we are like by-the-wind sailors, the jellyfish who have no way to propel themselves, thrown this way and that by the tides and storms. Jellyfish go with the flow without conscience, memory, or agency to create a better future.
Collecting the Fragments: Egoism and Altruism
“There is a huge and heroic sanity in which moderns can only collect the fragments. There is a giant of whom we see only the lopped arms and legs walking about. They have torn the soul of Christ into silly strips, labeled egoism and altruism, and they are equally puzzled by His insane magnificence and His insane meekness. They have parted His garments among them, and for his vesture they have cast lots; though the coat was without seam woven from the top throughout.” — G.K. Chesterton, “The Ethics of Elfland,” Orthodoxy.
The Seamless Coat Woven from the Top
“Lopped arms and legs walking about.” What an image! The soul of Christ torn into silly separate strips of egoism and altruism. Chesterton had a way with words — images that jar the senses of what is real, pushing the by-the-sea sailors in a direction we did not expect.
The Democracy of the Living and the Dead
“All democrats object to [anyone] being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good person’s opinion, even if he is our father. I, at any rate, cannot separate the two ideas of democracy and tradition; it seems evident to me that they are the same idea.” — Chesterton, “The Ethics of Elfland,” Orthodoxy.
Honoring the Great Ancestors and Great Grandchildren
My seven years at the Legal Rights Center — a public defense corporation founded in 1970 by the American Indian Movement and African-American civil rights activists — moved this by-the-sea sailor to think again about freedom and tradition.
We inherit a tradition from the ancestors and are responsible for passing the treasure (i.e., the tradition) to the next generation. In times of decision-making, American-Indian culture universally calls us to consider the previous seven generations and the seven generations that will follow: the democracy of the dead, the living, and those who come after us. This tradition of America’s First Nations, like the Reformed Christian tradition, looks back, looks ahead, and looks up for the re-weaving of the strips. The coat without seam was, is, and always will be woven from the top.
Wayne’s name is scribbled in pencil at the top of the title page of Orthodoxy. This year Wayne no longer lives to protest and resists the arrogant oligarchy of those who happen to be walking around. He has joined the blessed democracy of the dead.
An earlier Views from from the Edge post featured a brief summary of an unusual step: a Board of Trustees’ $27.6M action plan to redress institutional entanglement in institutional slavery and ongoing institutional racism. Here’s the full press release from Princeton Theological Seminary (founded in 1819) in Princeton, New Jersey.
PRESS RELEASE, Princeton, NJ, October 18, 2019
PRINCETON, N.J., October 18, 2019 – Princeton Theological Seminary’s Board of Trustees unanimously endorsed the implementation of a multi-year action plan to repent for its ties to slavery. The approved series of new initiatives, ranging from increased student financial assistance to curriculum changes to added support for the Center for Black Church Studies, is a direct response to a report the Seminary published in October 2018 after conducting a two-year historical audit.
“The report was an act of confession,” says John White, dean of students and vice president of student relations. “These responses are intended as acts of repentance that will lead to lasting impact within our community. This is the beginning of the process of repair that will be ongoing,” says White.
White served as chair of the historical audit recommendations task force, which included trustees, faculty, administrators, students, and alumni, who led a deliberative process to provide opportunities for the campus community to discuss and respond to the audit report. The task force hosted more than 25 events, meetings, and conversations on the campus in the previous academic year. Feedback gathered from students, faculty, administrators, and alumni was incorporated in the recommendations presented to the Seminary’s board. The Board of Trustees also conducted a year-long process of study.
“From the beginning,” says White, “the Board of Trustees has encouraged a thorough process of understanding our history that would lead to meaningful response.”
With an immediate rollout of the plan and continuation through 2024, the Seminary intends to make meaningful and lasting change with the more than 20 approved initiatives, including:
Offering 30 new scholarships, valued at the cost of tuition plus $15,000, for students who are descendants of slaves or from underrepresented groups
Hiring a full-time director of the Center for Black Church Studies
Hiring a new faculty member whose research and teaching will give critical attention to African American experience and ecclesial life
Changes in the Seminary curriculum, including a required cross-cultural component and integrating into the first-year curriculum for every master’s student sustained academic engagement with the implications of the historical audit
Designating five doctoral fellowships for students who are descendants of slaves or from underrepresented groups
Naming the library after Theodore Sedgwick Wright, the first African American to attend and graduate from Princeton Seminary
Naming the Center for Black Church Studies after Betsey Stockton a prominent African American educator in Princeton during the antebellum North and a Presbyterian missionary in the Sandwich Islands (present-day Hawaii). Prior to gaining freedom, Stockton was owned by the chair of Princeton Seminary’s Board of Trustees.
Enhancing community partnerships and supporting historically disenfranchised communities in and around Princeton
Ensuring every member of the Princeton Seminary community understands its history
A committee has been established to oversee the implementation of the plan and will regularly report progress to the board. The program costs for the responses represent a commitment of more than $1 million annually on an ongoing basis. To sustain this programming in perpetuity, $27.6 million will be reserved in the endowment.
“The Seminary’s ties to slavery are a part of our story. It is important to acknowledge that our founders were entangled with slavery and could not envision a fully integrated society,” says Princeton Seminary President M. Craig Barnes. “We are committed to telling the truth. We did not want to shy away from the uncomfortable part of our history and the difficult conversations that revealing the truth would produce.”
The historical audit uncovered that the Seminary did not own slaves and its buildings were not constructed with slave labor. Yet, the Seminary benefited from the slave economy, both through investments in Southern banks in the mid-19th century and from donors who profited from slavery. Also, founding faculty and leaders used slave labor at some point in their lives. Several of the first professors and board members were deeply involved in the American Colonization Society, which advocated sending free blacks to Liberia.
“Our response to the historical audit is the beginning of our community’s journey of repair as we seek to redress historic wrongs and to help the Seminary be more faithful to our mission as a school of the church, both now and in the years to come,” says Barnes. “We are taking tangible action to write a new chapter in our story.”
CONFESSION AND REPENTANCE: VIEWS FROM THE EDGE COMMENTARY ON CONTEXT OF PRESBYTERIAN ETHOS
A Prayer of Confession of Sin for “what we have done” and “what we have left undone“– like the one below — is an essential component of Presbyterian Church (USA) services of worship. We do it every Sunday as a habit.
Merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.
We have not loved you with our whole heart and soul and mind and strength.
We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
In your mercy, forgive what we have been, help us amend what we are, and direct what we shall be, so that we may delight in your will and walk in your ways, to the glory of your holy name.
“To rest is to give up on the already exhausted will as the prime motivator of endeavor, with its endless outward need to reward itself with established goals. … To rest is to give up on worrying and fretting and the sense that there is something wrong with the world unless we are there top put it right.” - David Whyte, Consolations: the Solace, Nourishment, and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words.
In search of rest, I retreat from the world of 2019 and my “already exhausted will”. The walls inside the cabin by the wilderness are rough-cut pine, the natural color of the president’s orange hair. Alas! The world comes with me, even by the wetland: I cannot rest from comparisons and disdaining thoughts of orange hair and Greenland.
I’m worrying and fretting, wanting to put the world right: rescue the English language from the words that paint the world orange: words like ‘bad’…’good’ … ’nasty’ … ‘nice’ …’not nice’ … ‘loyal’ … ‘disloyal’, that divide, blame, simplify, stereotype, scapegoat, and choke the best in us. Words do matter. The unexamined underlying meaning of words matters most.
First thing in the morning, while Barclay is still asleep in his kennel, I do what I once disdained as flight from action. The word ‘devotional’ has a different meaning now. A ‘devotional’ is not an escape from responsibility. The half-hour devotional is what it says: to devote attention to the Source of consolation and solace in the world that makes my head hurt. Here at the cabin, I devote my attention to the Psalm before checking the mouse trap.
Sometimes the Psalm consoles; other days it does not. When something in the Psalm whets my appetite for the underlying meaning of the words, I turn to the Paraphrases of the Church of Scotland. The Paraphrases, like scripture itself, take me to an earlier time that knew nothing of the United States, Greenland, Denmark, or Mexico, orange hair, or the “summer camps” for migrant children along the border. I read the Paraphrase of Psalm 146:
The stranger’s shield, the widow’s stay,
the orphan’s help is he:
But yet by him the wicked’s way
turned upside down shall be.
— Psalm 146:9, Paraphrases
Consoled and nearly comforted by David Whyte and the old Scot paraphrase of the ancient Psalm, I put down the Paraphrases to fill Barclay’s bowl with fresh dog food before freeing him from his kennel, remembering the One,
Who righteous judgment executes
for those oppress’d that be,
Who the hungry giveth food;
God sets the pris’ners free.
-- Ps. 146:7
But first I free from the trap the orange mouse my dog shall never see.
– Gordon C. Stewart, by the Minnesota wetland, August 22, 2019.