‘I AM’ and ‘i am’

Inside and Outside the Bubble

The biblical story of Cain and Abel is a lulu! It’s a poetic work of theological anthropology.  The Genesis story invites us to ask again who we humans are, and what we are not, a question best addressed outside the bubble of species self-glorification. Climate change bursts that bubble. If living inside the bubble once seemed free of consequence, it is does no longer.

The Bunkers

Theological anthropology was not a hot topic for Archie, Edith, Gloria, and ‘Meathead’ in the Bunker home, or so we thought. But writer and producer, Norman Lear, used the Bunker family dynamics as a means of raising public consciousness beyond the choice of arrogance or platitudes.  

Norman’s Jewish heritage is a tradition of stories of divine-human encounter. Often these stories are humorous as well as serious. More often than not, the Hebrew Bible narratives carry meanings, sub-texts, mind-bending twists and turns, and nuances only available to those who have learned Hebrew. The story of Cain and Abel is one of those. I’d love to hear what Norman would make of the Hebrew tale of fraternal homicide.

Cain and Abel

The story comes on the heels of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Eve soon gives birth to her first-born son, Cain, and his brother Abel. The difference between the brothers is offered without further comment. Cain is a tiller of the soil (a farmer); Abel is a shepherd. Then the writer creates the scene in which the brothers are bring their offering to the YHWH (“I AM”). 

No one hugs an asparagus

Abel offers “the choicest of the firstlings of his [sheep] flocks.” Cain offers “the fruit of the soil.” I hear Norman laughing. “A sheep is precious. It pulls on our heart strings. A vegetable? Not so much. You can hug a sheep. No one hugs an asparagus.”  

Perhaps the Hebrew names  — Kayin (Cain) and Hebel (Abel)—provide hints as to why YHWH (“I AM”) “pays heed to” Hebel’s offering, but “pays no heed to” Kayin’s. ‘Hebel’ (Abel) is a breath or puff. The root of Kayin (Cain) is “to get, to gain, to have gotten.” Kayin is a hustler, an egotist, who offers what will not die, i.e., vegetables, that will sprout again next season.  Hebel offers a sheep, an offering close to the heart. Hebel offers what he knows himself to be — a precious mortal animal, a puff of the Breath, not the Breath itself on which all life depends. Hebel’s sheep is not perennial; when you sacrifice it, i.e. let it go, it does not sprout again.  Hebel lets go of the myth that he is more than he is. He knows that, like the choicest sheep he offers, he is, at the same time, precious but passing — a puff, not the Breath itself. 

 Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian, Author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017, Wipf and Stock), Brooklyn Park, MN, Dec. 8, 2022.

Where’s Nancy?

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Truth has stumbled in the streets,
honesty cannot enter.
Truth is nowhere to be found,
and whoever shuns evil becomes a prey.

Isaiah 59:15 NIV

Eighty-two year old Paul Pelosi, hit in the head by an intruder’s hammer, undergoes emergency surgery for a fractured skull. An intruder admits to breaking into the Pelosi home and hitting Mr. Pelosi with a hammer. He is looking for Nancy.

I read the morning paper, “Right-wing figures rush to spread Pelosi lies,” is the lead story. “The push is on to sow doubt, distrust over attack.”

The same defense-by-offense attack machine whose Willie Horton ad hit the bull’s-eye of white fear to smear Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis as “soft on crime” kicks into gear again in an election year. Fox News’ quickly shifts into another gear, deflecting attention from the specifics of the attack — this was the home of the Speaker of the House for whom the January 6 “tourists” had shouted, “Where’s Nancy?” — to launch into the same mode that produced the Horton ad. It could have happen to any of us!

Steve Bannon’s War Room plants seeds of doubt and deceit: “Very strange new details on Paul Pelosi attack,” says the War Room, knowing the 78,000 War Room subscribers are likely to respond: “Gosh, I wonder what those strange new details could be?” Roger Stone weighs in on Telegram, referring to the attack as an “alleged attack” and calls readers to smell the “stench” of mainstream news reporting. Elon Musk posts on Twitter “There is a tiny possibility there might be more to this story than meets the eye,” pointing his readers’ to a far right source known for spreading far right disinformation. Elon Musk has 112,000,000 Twitter followers. Hours later, with no explanation, he takes down the post.

Donald Trump stays silent…sort of. On “Truth Social” there is no mention of the event, no expression of sorrow and request for prayers for Mr. Pelosi’s full recovery, no word of sympathy for the Speaker of the House or the rest of a traumatized family, no condemnation of violence, no call for the Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, and other militias to stop the violence, no reference to the rule of law, no recognition of responsibility for unleashing the beasts of hate and terror. Truth Social repeatedly repeats narcissistic lamentations, blaming the Left for conspiring against him.

A numbing detachment and destructive disposition

Not even news of a cracked skull breaks through some skulls. We live, one might argue, in a web of narcissism and nihilism. “[W]e are coping with a life of horrifying meaninglessness, hopelessness, and (most important of all) lovelessness,” wrote Cornel West in Race Matters.

The frightening result is a numbing detachment from others and a self-destructive disposition toward the world.

Life without meaning, hope, and love breeds a cold-hearted, mean-spirited outlook that destroys both the individual and others.
Cornel West, Race Matters (1993, Vintage Press)

A disease and cure of the soul

“Is there really any hope,” asks West,”given our shattered civil society, market-driven corporate enterprises, and white supremacy? If one begins with concrete narcissism, one must talk about some kind of politics of conversion…Narcissism is a disease of the soul.”

It will take something more than partisan politics to change it. Even so, we are not without Even so, we are not without sources of wisdom, hope, and guidance. Neither truth nor honesty is dead, nor is the way to recover of the public square. An ancient collection of wisdom offers a way forward. The Book of Proverbs names seven things that are detestable to God:

  • haughty eyes,
  • a lying tongue,
  • hands that shed innocent blood,
  • a heart that devises wicked schemes,
  • feet that are quick to rush into evil,
  • a false witness who pours out lies, and
  • a person who stirs up dissension among brothers and sister.

Flip the proverbs to the other side of the coin, and consider the practices that keep a society from falling.

Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian and author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), a collection of social commentaries through eyes of faith; Brooklyn Park, MN, November 2, 2022.

The Gift of Barclay

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Barclay (Cavalier King Charles Spaniel)

Those who have had to say good-bye to the dog in the family understand. Others may wonder how a pet’s death can cause such deep sadness.

August 22, 2020

Yesterday morning it became clear that Barclay, our nine year-old Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, was laboring and less able to enjoy life. We knew he has the heart condition many Cavalier King Charles Spaniels develop and have seen signs Barclay is slowing down. He isn’t his playful self.

Barclay took his last ride in the car, wagged his tail going into the veterinary clinic, and sat on my lap while Kay and I faced the decision we did not want to make. As he did the first time I held him — he was (3.5 lbs.), he licked my face and nibbled my left ear, expressing that same love and trust with Kay before they gave him the first shot that tranquillized him.

Five days later, August 27

The feeling now is emptiness and the irrational sense of guilt for “putting him down,” as they say. Kay and I are teary and sad. I have a flood of tears behind the dam of denial. I miss his presence: the morning kiss and nibble on my ear; walking one step behind me going down the stairs, like a paramedic ready for a rescue; his delight chasing light and shadows, moths and butterflies; throwing his ball at our feet for a game of soccer (he was a goalie; you couldn’t get the ball past him); alerting us when it was time to watch Ari, have a cocktail, and play two or three minutes of soccer; his gentleness with grandson Elijah; practicing the training commands he liked — sit, down, heel, leave it — while regarding the rest as suggestions to consider; sitting patiently to lick the peanut butter from our fingers.

To call Barclay “precious” understates his sweetness and goodness.

Six days later, August 28

It’s been six days since Barclay died. I haven’t been able to shake the sorrow. The tears remain locked behind the dam in the reservoir of sorrow filled by the tears a lifetime. These feelings are particular to this moment in time, but the reservoir feels deeper and darker than the loss of Barclay. The picture of his last moment —lying on the veterinarian’s table with his paws hanging over the edge, trusting us with his life — still haunts me.

These feelings are what they always are: neither rational nor irrational. Reason can measure the width and depth of things, but it has no access to the depths of the non-rational, known only to the heart.

Twelve Days Later, September 3

It’s time for the evening news. Barclay is missing; Donald Trump is not. I’m struck by the contrast. Barclay never lied. There was no pretense in him. Lying and pretense were as far from Barclay’s character as honesty and humility are from the former president. During Barclay’s nine years with us, he never had an accident. Not once. Donald Trump made a mess of the White House, and continues to smear the media with his excreta every day. There is no good reason one would confuse the stench from a pigsty with the aroma wafting from a bakery. When everything is shaking, reason does not stop the quivering. Shaking and calmness are matters of the heart.

At my age, the reservoir has its share of grief and sadness. Much of the sorrow is of my own making, things I have done and left undone that hurt others and myself. Mixed with those tears are the gasps of a global lament: the mess we are leaving to our grandchildren; the horror of January 6 and the relentless disinformation that erodes the public trust on which the survival of democratic republic depends; the Big Lie swallowed and promoted by those who know it’s not true; the return of the hangman’s noose and the hanging tree, weapons of mass destruction, war, and guns concealed and carried freely in public; the insanity of the Strong Man pummeling Ukraine into submission, and the former American president who, like Putin, knows no other words than MINE; the fundamentalist churches’ exchange of the gospel of the crucified Jesus, the Loser, for the prosperity gospel for winners.

How much the reservoir is personal and how much is public is hard to tell, but I also know there are tears of joy and love in my deepest self. All that’s left at the end is love. If my DNA follows my parents’ lifespans, I have six or eight years left to release the sorrow, guilt, and shame, and re-fill the reservoir with tears of joyful thanksgiving for the gift of Barclay and of life itself. Love never ends.

Gordon C. Stewart, Brooklyn Park, MN, September 7, 2022

Do You Know How it Feels?

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Straightforward integrity

The House Select Committee hearings are studies of character. What we have seen seems courageous. It takes courage to bear witness to the truth when thugs are threatening your life over and over and over again, and when you can’t use your name any longer because it might bring harm to your mother, your grandmother, and yourself. But what we are looking at goes deeper than courage.

Integrity in high and low places

We have been looking at the integrity of those who did the right thing under pressure from the highest rung of American power. Integrity is the still point from which courage comes. Character that is true to itself was once expressed in the adage, “A man’s (sic) word is his (sic) bond.” Integrity is the alignment of word and deed, the plumb-line of conscience and responsibility. Almost two centuries ago, American writer Charles Caleb Colton wrote,

“Nothing so completely baffles one who is full of trick and duplicity…as straightforward and simple integrity in another.”

Charles Caleb Colton, Lacon (1985), 2.14.

Straightforward and Simple Integrity

We have witnessed straightforward and simple integrity in high places — Secretaries of State Rusty Bowers (AZ) and Brad Raffensperger (GA); former Attorney General Bill Barr; the President’s daughter, Ivanka; leaders of the US Department of Justice, the White House Attorney — and in low places where most of us live and do our jobs without public recognition, people like Ms Shaye Moss and her mother, “Lady Ruby,” in Fulton County (GA).

Integrity and trustworthiness are the brick and mortar that keep a house from falling. Tricks and duplicity, like termites and carpenter ants, slowly destroy the foundations and eat away the framework of the house we take for granted. The infestation — Donald Trump’s Constitutional mischief; the once-upon-a-time Grand Old Party’s steadfast complicity in promoting of the Big Lie; three Supreme Court justices who were confirmed only after well-scripted assurances that they regarded Roe v Wade as settled precedent, and, as such, would not overturn Roe v Wade— is eating away the trust and respect without which a house creaks and crumbles.

Securing the House: “I will not play with laws I swore allegiance to”

Moments before Rep. Bennie Thomson gaveled the June 21 hearing to order, Republican Arizona House Speaker Rusty Bower received a letter from the 45th President of the United States of America “remind” Mr. Bower of something he never said. Speaker Bower testified under oath that he had never, ever, at any time, anywhere, under any circumstances said the election was rigged. The reminder was a lie.

Mr. Bower’s resistance to repeated pressure from the White House was an act of integrity. “It’s a central tenet of my faith,” he said.” Violating the Constitution is foreign to my very being. I will not do it.” In his diary he had written, “It is painful to have friends…turn on me with such rancor.” But “I do not want to be a winner by cheating. I will not play with laws I swore allegiance to.”

“I know sage, wormwood, and hyssop, but I can’t smell character unless it stinks.

edward dahlberg, “On Human Nature,” Reasons of the Heart, 1965.

The View from Above and the View from Below

Some people view the world from above. They see through eyes of power, possession and privilege. Most of us see life from the lower places of the dis-enfranchised, the dispossessed, the powerless, the forgotten, and those who feed their children, struggle to make the month’s rent, pay the utility bills, find a doctor or a warm blanket in a homeless shelter. They do not call attention to themselves.

Among those who see the world from below are Ms. Shaye Moss, an election worker for the past 10 years in Fulton County, Georgia, and her mother “Lady Ruby,” whose lives were turned upside down by a phone call from the President to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger.

Video of Ruby Freeman’s testimony from below and the phone call from the top.

When asked what had passed between them at the poling site, Shaye Moss, looking over her shoulder at Lady Ruby and smiled. She answered, “A ginger mint.”

Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), writing from Brooklyn Park, MN, June 22, 2022.

The Sin that Comprehends All Others

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Recent talk of “Willful blindness” in reference to the House Select Committee on January 6 public hearings leaves the door ajar to re-publish “Two Universities: Paris and Liberty” from Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), p.101-2.


Two Universities: Paris and Liberty

“Let’s teach them (i.e., Muslims)
a lesson if they ever show up here,”
Falwell told thousands of students here
Dec. 4, with an unsubtle reference to
a pistol in his back pocket. Five days
later, he announced plans to let
qualified students store guns
in residence halls for the first time.

—Nick Anderson, “For Many at Liberty University”

When the president of “the largest Christian university in the world” in Lynchburg, Virginia urges every student to buy a gun and get a permit to carry a concealed weapon, for whatever reasons, it seems a little oxymoronic and moronic. It’s neither Christian nor smart. It’s not what people do in college. They buy books, not guns. It’s not consistent with the traditions and standards of higher learning. Scholars and presidents of real universities don’t talk like that.

In the thirteenth century CE, a young Thomas Aquinas enrolled as a student of Christian theology and philosophy at one of the world’s first universities, the University of Paris. His professors introduced him to the writings of Aristotle, Plato, and Maimonides in their original Greek and Latin languages, and to the Christian scriptures.

Lynchburg, Virginia in the twenty-first century is long way from Paris in the 13th Century, and that’s too bad for all of us in America where what Aquinas later called “willful ignorance” has become the order of the day.

Thomas Aquinas wrote,

It is clear that not every kind of ignorance is the cause of a sin, but that alone which removes the knowledge which would prevent the sinful act. …This may happen on the part of the ignorance itself, because, to wit, this ignorance is voluntary. …  For such like negligence renders the ignorance itself voluntary and sinful, provided it be about matters one is *bound and able to know.

Thomas aquinas,Summa Theologica, I-II, q. 76, a. 1, a. 3.]

The sin that comprehends all others

Thomas Aquinas quoted St. Augustine, upon whose work his thinking drew, with a statement about willful ignorance. “Hoc et peccatum quo tenentur cuncta peccata” (This is the sin which comprehends all other sins).

Liberty University is not a thirteenth century Catholic university. It’s Protestant and fundamentalist. It prides itself on its knowledge of the Bible.

But don’t we have to suppose that somewhere in that auditorium in Lynchburg, there was a professor who cringed? Someone there who resonated with the old student at the University of Paris? Someone there who thought that telling young professing Christians to arm themselves was a deliberate act of willful ignorance, a sin against faith, the sin that comprehends all others? Someone who knew Matthew 26:52 by heart — Jesus’s words to Peter when Peter had cut off the high priest’s servant’s ear at Jesus’s arrest –“Put away your sword. Those who live by the sword will perish by the sword” — and wanted to scream out loud about willful ignorance?

Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), Brooklyn Park, MN, June 13, 2022.

How could you have been so foolish?

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2122 Earth Day Question

The clock of climate catastrophe continues to tick closer to midnight. If anyone is still around on Earth Day 2122, they would likely ask how we could have been so foolish. “What were you thinking? What distracted your attention from the five-alarm fire that turned our Home to ashes?”

Earth Day 2022 Answer

“Well,” we might answer, “lots of things. Important things; really important things. Too many worries to number. Like Ukraine. Like bullies in Russia and America and Uvalde. Like weapons of war that slaughtered children learning their ABC’s and the teachers who were teaching them.  Like the resurgence of nationalism that drove us deeper into caves we assumed to be secure. Like the assaults on truth, the sudden appearance of ‘alternative facts’ and ‘fake news.’ Like our unwillingness to discuss what is real. 

“Most everywhere we turned, things were not good. Here at home, violence paraded through the streets of crowded neighborhoods. Guns and automatic weapons were killing civilians in shopping malls, schools, synagogues, mosques, churches, roadsides, and public squares. Misinformation and disinformation eroded public trust in the institutions essential to a democratic republic. A major television network promoted the former president’s certainty that the American election was stolen. Members of Congress advocated conspiracy theories that blaming our troubles on Satan operating in the Deep State. In Florida Mickey and Minnie, Donald Duck, and Goofy and Democrats were scorned as cannibals, sex traffickers, and pedophiles because they continued to say the word ‘gay’.

How could you be so foolish?

“All of that was important,” the 2122 Earth Day survivor might say. “But even the most worthy of those concerns was penultimate. They distracted your attention from the over-arching threat to everyone and everything, everywhere on the good Green Earth. Every day was Earth Day,  You ignored it.

“You were not the first generation with a chronic inability to focus, but you are the last. There were no safe rooms in the one House. No nation, no race, no clan, no caste, creed, ideology, gender, politics, tradition survives when its inhabitants become arsonists who burn their own House to the ground. The temperature was rising, the sea levels were rising, the oceans heating, the manatees dying for lack of clean water, the skies over Ukraine were black and filled with smoke and toxins. How could you have been so stupid?”

What was wise did not suit our tastes

“We had little taste for reality. We mistook a smorgasbord of tastes for reality itself. We took the table for granted. Everything was reduced to personal preference. Freedom without guardrails was the god we served. Few of us had the good sense to step back from the feast to wonder, ponder, gasp, or ask what was real and what was not. What is truth? Is anything really real?  Everything became subjective. Everything was a matter of opinion. Truth? Whose truth? Reality? According to whom?

“When the legs of the smorgasbord table began to crack, we continued to stuff ourselves. When the table legs began to creek, few of us noticed. Everything else might break, but not the smorgasbord table. Climate change? The end of Nature as we had known it? The Corona pandemic? Everything became fake news. We thought the table could not break.” 

Masters of Illusion

The masses have never thirsted after truth. They turn aside from evidence that is not to their taste, preferring to deify error, if error seduce them. Whoever can supply the illusions is easily their master; whoever attempts to destroy their illusions is always their victim.

— Gustave Le Bon (1841-1931) French author and polymath, quoted by L.K. Hanson in “You Don’t Say” in April 18, 2022 Star Tribune.

“When it came to things that mattered most, we had become the seducers and the seduced who en masse mistook personal freedom for Ultimate Reality. The Smorgasbord Table would never end.”

Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), Brooklyn Park, MN, June 12, 2022. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Just Another Day

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Just another day. Another mass shooting. Funerals for young children who left home with homemade sandwiches in their backpacks on their way to school in Uvalde. Another day of partisan hide-’n-seek for who is to blame. Just one more day of jabbering and cross-fire when the NRA sheds tears and offers prayers for the kids and families of Uvalde, and then applaud the former president and Texas senator talking about the need for more good guys with guns to stop the bad guys with guns. Just another day in the land of the free, the home of the bullies.

Just another day 100+ days after mass graves began to be dug in Ukraine for children and parents as innocent as the children mowed down in Uvalde. Another day in far-away Ukraine and close-by in neighbors in Uvalde, Buffalo, Tulsa. Another day when Members of Congress ignore the oath to the Constitution they solemnly swore. Another day when patriotism falls prey to partisan propaganda insisting, though they know better, that “guns don’t kill; people do.” A day like any other when nothing happens to stop the power of the gun lobby, dark money, PACS, and the belief, without evidence, that the election was stolen.

Just another day when the monsters of lies and fear turn us against each other.

Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), Brooklyn Park, MN, June 5, 2022.

An Autobiographical Theology Chapter 2 Meeting Bill Stringfellow

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Photo of William Stringfellow, lay theologian, author, and lawyer.

This podcast is the second in a series of autobiographical reflection on life as a theological pilgrimage.

Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), 49 brief (two to four page) essays on faith and life; host of Views from the Edge; Brooklyn Park, MN.