It’s not easy to love one’s enemies and to pray for those who persecute you in 2020. It’s hard not to cheer when the president who has shown no grief for the 214,000 American dead or compassion for the sick and mourning succumbs to the virus he once called a hoax. But this is not a time for cheering. No amount of cheering will fix what ails us.
“For everything there is a season, and time for every matter under heaven,“ wrote the ancient Hebrew sage (Ecclesiastes 3:1) centuries before a young Donald Trump found direction in Norman Vincent Peal’s gospel of the Power of Positive Thinking that vaccinates a person or nation against self-defeating thoughts that block success. No longer is there a season or time for weeping. No time for mourning. No time for Ecclesiastes’ sullen declaration that “all is vanity” or the depths of despair in the Psalms, Proverbs, Jeremiah, Lamentations, or the “Woes” of Amos and Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Evil is shrunk to the size of a thimble — the temptation of thinking negatively about success. Slowly but surely, the prosperity gospel without a cross replaces the ethic of the Golden Rule — “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” — and the Sermon on the Mount’s “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
“[T]he struggle against evil can make us evil,” wrote biblical scholar Walter Wink in Engaging the Powers, “and no amount of good intentions automatically prevents its happening.”
Good intentions have been hard to find, and, when we think we’ve found them, they sometimes become evil in disguise. The “vanity” of Ecclesiastes is never far away. The Hebrew word “hehbel” is a breath of air, or of the mouth — evanescent, empty, puffed up, wicked, false, and often idolatrous.
Evil as a Parasite
Like other parasites, evil does not breathe on its own. It requires a host. It exists only because of goodness. Rarely candid or self-identifying before its work is done, evil is pernicious. It slowly sucks the oxygen out of goodness. It wears the masks of saviors whose agendas are destruction. Evil is an arsonist masquerading as the fire department that will rescue us, while it strikes the matches that turn forests and homes into cinders and ashes. It assures us that the scent we smell is not real. It presents itself as what is the straight-forward talk that warps what is straight into something crooked.
The Scent of Smoke
Sometimes the scent and sight of smoke rise from a constitution in flames. A crook with Covid-19 lights a match in the name of law-and-order while encouraging the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by” and saying not a mumbling word after the federal and state agents uncover a white supremacist plot to kidnap the Governor of Michigan and spark civil war.
Though the parasite of evil starts slowly, its threat to our health cannot remain hidden forever. Eventually the power of positive thinking has to face the greater power it denies. The longing for goodness, truth and beauty may yet lead vanity to the operating room where a real doctor removes the parasite from the body politic.
This is a season to straighten what is crooked, to resist evil, while always reminding ourselves that the struggle against evil can make us evil.
It ends before a paragraph is written. Anything I might say seems so obvious. Trite. I feel like Chicken Little! How many times can I warn that “the sky is falling!”? Why bother?
Once a preacher always a preacher? The people I most want to reach are professing Christians who leave me gasping for air: the part of the American electorate that seems so out of touch with their spiritual-moral core that they cannot see clearly the gaping chasm between their faith and their politics.
Can we find common ground?
Christians of all sorts read the same Bible. We read different translations, and we read it differently, but we read it. We cherry pick parts of the Bible that support our viewpoint and black out what we prefer to ignore. A search for a small patch of solid ground that could become the common ground for respectful conversation about faith and politics landed on Paul’s good counsel to the Philippians.
“Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, If there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” – Letter of Paul to the Philippians 4:8
Letter to the Philippians 4:8
We all need more of goodness. Less ugliness. Greater attention to the things that are excellent and worthy of praise; less attention to things that are worthy of scorn; more love, less hate. These qualities of character are a succinct guide in all areas of life. But no sooner do we agree with Paul’s wisdom than the divisions re-create themselves.
Christians, nones, dones, agnostics, and atheists
Yet no sooner do we shake hands in agreement with Paul’s advice, than we retun to the fight that brought us to this moment. In 2020, what do we deem truthful, honorable, just, pure, lovely, and commendable/worthy of praise, and how do the these qualities of character guide professing Christians as we make decisions in public life?
It troubles me that the nones, dones, agnostic and atheist friends practice what Paul advised more than the growing number who have read Paul’s letter. How does a professing disciple of Jesus become deaf to the shrillness, the ugliness, the smirk, the self-serving manipulation of the sacred, the drip-by-drip erosion of trust, the disappearance of what we once regarded as admirable?
White House Press Conference 09/23/2020
WH Correspondent: “Will you commit to a peaceful transition of power if you lose the election?” The President: “Well, we’re going to have to see what happens. You know that.”
WH Correspondent: “Will you commit to making sure there is a peaceful transfer of power?” The President: “We want to have — get rid of the ballots and you’ll have a very peaceful, there won’t be a transfer, frankly. There’ll be a continuation.”
Campaign mailing to homes in Minnesota
“To serve, protect, and defend the Constitution”
It’s hard to turn attention to whatever is excellent and worthy of praise when I see the American ancestors of the Philippian church applauding the desecration of what Paul taught, to say nothing of ignoring the violation of the President’s oath of office “to protect, serve, and defend the Constitution of the United States of America.”
The 2020 American electoral campaign reminds me of the day my two-year-old brother swallowed Drano before being rushed to the hospital emergency room where they pumped his stomach before the poison could kill him.
Who will pump our stomach before the Drano burns away the things that are commendable — and American constitutional republic — from inside out?
Gordon C. Stewart, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness, September 24.
Climate change just jumped from the back of the stove to the front burner of our national conversation, where it belongs. Without weighing in on this bizarre campaign seasons, we bring re-post this commentary of October 10, 2018.
CLIMATE CHANGE AND THE GOLDEN HOUSE — October 10, 2018
Have you sometimes felt you’d be better off not knowing? But you can’t help knowing what you know, or think you know?
This is a time like that. It doesn’t just feel like that. It is a time like that. I know, for instance, that the over-riding challenge of our time is climate change. I also know that the ruling party in my country denies that climate change is real, and that neither major party sees climate change action as Priority #1. I know from articles like the one in yesterday’s Phys.org (“Carbon tax gets renewed attention but still faces resistance“) and the U.N. report that the clock is ticking. We’re fiddling while the Earth burns.
The story of Nero burning down Rome appears to be apocryphal. I know that now. But before I knew that, I wondered what the Roman Senate was doing. Did the members of the Senate follow Nero’s lead? Did they light their own matches? Did they applaud? Did any of them head for the well for the water buckets to douse the fire?
The real Nero Claudius was much different, but also, it turns out, much the same as the one I thought I knew. Britannica speaks as “infamous for his personal debaucheries and extravagances.” Its biography of Nero offers the following on the burning of Rome and the aftermath.
The great fire that ravaged Rome in 64 illustrates how low Nero’s reputation had sunk by this time. Taking advantage of the fire’s destruction, Nero had the city reconstructed in the Greek style and began building a prodigious palace—the Golden House—which, had it been finished, would have covered a third of Rome. During the fire, Nero was at his villa at Antium 35 miles (56 km) from Rome and therefore cannot be held responsible for the burning of the city. But the Roman populace mistakenly believed that he himself had started the fire in Rome in order to indulge his aesthetic tastes in the city’s subsequent reconstruction. — “Nero: Biography and Accomplishments,” Britannica.com.
Trump Hotel with gold-infused glass, Las Vegas, NV
Today, Nero and the U.S. Senate mock what I know: climate change is real and action on climate change should be priority #1 for every political political party and nation. Knowing Jesus’ parable about the foolish man who built his house upon the sand, and the wise one who built his house upon the rock, I keep hammering on the door of the Golden House that’s built on sand. “Our prayers are hammer-strokes against the princes of darkness,” said Jacob Christoph Blumhardt long ago. “They must oft be repeated. Not a single stroke is wasted.”
I add my little hammer-strokes to those of Governor Jerry Brown, Bill McKibben, 350.org, the Sierra Club for the rescue of the rain forests, the oceans, and all things green from the Golden House that threaten to entomb us. I can only live by what I know: the cry and hope that the hammer-strokes are not too late.
At least two things stay the same: 1) The wisdom of the elders, whose walks over the hot coals of turmoil have brought them to a deeper serenity, and 2) history repeating itself when memory of a previous era is almost gone. We begin with a moment my elders in a Care Center.
Serenity in the Care Center
Click Conversation in the Care Center to read and hear the All Things Considered (Minnesota Public Radio, 91.1FM) ) commentary written during an earlier campaign season not that different from today’s. The MPR page includes an audio link.
Is history repeating itself?
American historian David McCullough answered “Yes” when asked at a Westminster Town Hall Forum whether history repeats itself. Things do come ’round again. They go away until they’re nearly forgotten. 2020 marks the hundredth anniversary of the birth of the political party that turned a floundering democracy into a totalitarian state built on a fictional master race.
Do two things at once. Stay calm and resist evil with goodness. In the words often heard by congregations as they leave Presbyterian worship to exercise their faith in public life,
“Go out into the world in peace. Have courage. Hold onto what is good. Return no one evil for evil. Strengthen the faint-hearted . . . .”
Reading Psalm 87 recently was one of those “Aha” moments when eyebrows raise at the sound of music you did not expect to hear. This psalm of Zion struck a different chord.
On the holy mount stands the city he founded;
the Lord loves the gates of Zion
more than all the dwellings of Jacob.
Glorious things are spoken of you,
O city of God.
A Memory of Willie
Willie got the willies when the congregation sang “Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken” in McGaw Chapel at The College of Wooster. The professor of German language and literature, a naturalized American citizen, was flashing back to “the Fatherland” where he’d been born, momentarily paralyzed by the memories that haunted him. The Third Reich of Willie’s childhood had usurped Josef Haydn‘s musical setting of Psalm 87 for its own grandiose purposes. Deutschland had become the new Zion, the city of God, of which glorious things are spoken.
A Rebuke of nationalist exceptionalism
Psalm 87 is the poetry of a different theology and politics that startles those looking for religious and national exceptionalism. No nation, especially those that hide their sin behind the lofty goals of “unity, justice, and freedom,” is the Holy City Uber Alles.
Among those who know me I mention Rahab and Babylon;
Philistia too, and Tyre, with Ethiopia —
‘This one was born there,’ they say.
And of Zion it shall be said,
‘This one and that one were born in it’;
for the Most High himself will establish it.
Psalm 87 is striking for what it is and for what it is not
This Hebrew psalm looks above and beyond the pretensions of nation, ethnicity, and religion. Not everyone in the glorious city if God is Hebrew. Not everyone is a Moses, Aaron, or Joshua. Sure, it names Rahab — the Canaanite prostitute who provided cover for the Hebrew spies as they prepared to conquer Canaan. But Rehab in Psalm 87, say the biblical scholars, represents Egypt, the nation of Hebrew enslavement prior to the exodus. And there are Babylon, the land of exile, and Philistia, whose better armed giant Goliath fell with a thud from the shot from little David’s slingshot? What are the Philistines doing in this Hebrew song? And Tyre and Ethiopia?
The Most High will build the city into which, looking back from the future, all nations will see and know they were born there.
The Lord records, as he registers the peoples,
‘This one was born there.’
Singers and dancers alike say,
‘All my springs are in you.’
No nation is ‘Uber Alles.” No nation is accountable only to itself. The One whose Name is too Other, too Holy, to be spoken aloud — the eternal Presence, “I Am Who I Am” — registers the disparate peoples as citizens of Zion, the birthplace of the world.
The likes of Willie will no longer despair of a sacred hymn turned into a national anthem that idolizes a nation as the city of God, deluding its citizens to believe that “this one or that one” from elsewhere was not born there. Is it too much to imagine a day when all the peoples will sing and dance alike and say of Zion, “All my springs are in You”?
After posting “The Incendiary President” yesterday, someone with better memory than I remembered the guest commentary aired by Minnesota Public Radio’s All Things Considered 10 years ago. Some things don’t change. The audio has vanished, but MPR’s archives preserves the text. In 2020, we are reaping the harvest of what we’ve sown.
Our nation is being poisoned by inflammatory rhetoric. How else does one explain the sending of a used condom to a Minnesota congresswoman, or the phone message left on Rep. Keith Ellison’s answering machine: “Timothy McVeigh said dead government workers are good government workers. Goodbye, Sambo”?
And that’s just here in Minnesota.
The success of a democratic republic depends upon the civility of its citizens and their respect for the offices of public servants, regardless of who occupies the office. Unless we clean up the language of our civil discourse, we are inviting unimaginable tragedy.
According to a Harris Interactive Poll taken this month, “more than 20 percent believe [President Obama] was not born in the United States, that he is ‘the domestic enemy’ of whom the U.S. Constitution speaks, that he is racist and aynti-American, and that he ‘wants to use an economic collapse or terrorist attack as an excuse to take dictatorial powers.’ Fully 20 percent think he is ‘doing many of the things that Hitler did,’ while 14 percent believe ‘he may be the anti-Christ’ and 13 percent think ‘he wants the terrorists to win.'”
Though I distrust the percentages of any poll, whatever the real percentages of such views, this cocktail is lethal. But it is not new. The acrid taste is familiar to my generation We grew up in another time when the civil discourse was being poisoned.
Sen. Joseph McCarthy was dumping poison — instigating a national witch hunt for communists and communist sympathizers in government, the entertainment industry, and labor unions. In the spring of 1954, McCarthy’s crusade of insinuation, innuendo and guilt by association was brought to an end by journalist Edward R. Murrow and Joseph Welsh, attorney for the U.S. Army.
Sharpening his teeth to devour his adversary by character assassination, McCarthy snarled and reminded Welch that one of Welch’s colleagues had belonged to an organization suspected of communist sympathies. Welch replied with words we all need to hear again: “Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”
Welch’s words took our breath away back then. They still do. A sense of decency is the only thing that will strengthen us to escape the politics of assassination and allow us to seek solutions in a difficult time. In Murrow’s words, “We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven into an age of unreason, if we dig deep in our history and doctrine, and remember that we are not descended from the fearful.”
Painting the president of the United States or members of Congress with McCarthy’s sloppy brush as domestic enemies — let alone as the Antichrist — gives deranged minds a license to send used condoms or hateful voicemails. Or even to plot an assassination.
I am a pastor. The use of Christian scripture to stoke the fires of fear and hate are the hardest to take. The Christian life takes evil seriously, but there may be no greater evil than ill-informed, loud spirituality. All the great religions hold some version of the essential tenet expressed in the First Letter of John, which, incidentally, is the only place in all of Christian Scripture that the idea of the Antichrist appears. “He who says he is in the light and hates his brother is in the darkness still.”
Where are the likes of Edward R. Murrow and Joseph Welsh now? We need them again.
Gordon C. Stewart, Minnesota Public Radio (91.1 FM), March 29, 2010. Re-posted September 4, 2020.
Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church in Chaska preserved some of the sermons from our seven years together. This sermon on Pharaoh’s midwives’ rescue of Moses from the bullrushes in defiance of the pharaoh’s order to kill Hebrew babies was preached in 2014. The biblical story speaks for itself in every time and place. In 2020 it again calls compassionate people to resist the policies of cruelty in the name of a compassionate God.
Footnote: the story of Katherine (Katie) refers my late stepdaughter, Katherine Slaikeu (RIP).
Let the earth rejoice;
Let the multitude of the isles be glad.
- Psalm 97, Book of Common Prayer
There is no multitude of isles here. I see instead a multitude of cattails, and lily pads waiting to splash bursts of yellow on this off the map wetland pond, this place like no other among the multitude of wetlands, marshes, and fens. It calls no attention to itself. Perhaps that’s why I like it so.
Eared Grebe caution and curiosity
This morning an Eared Grebe teenager is playing hide-n-seek, surveilling the stranger on the dirt road. I see only one. It darts behind the cattails and shows itself again, paddling among the lily pads with eyes trained on the stranger, its head turning left, to right, and straight ahead again before diving out of sight and rising here and there, looking and hiding until, suddenly, three siblings who’d slept in late turn the caution and curiosity of one into the daily familiarity of four — life without strangers.
Eared Grebes and the fine arts
I wonder whether Eared Grebes hear and see what only children, painters, musicians, and poets of my kind know, stopping to see and listen and rejoice with the isles themselves: “The LORD is King; let the earth rejoice; let the multitude of the isles be glad!” (Psalm 97:1).
Troubles and the gladness of another day
Do Eared Grebes know of kings and queens, of gods and goddesses? Do they shudder and call for momma, huddling in their nest when thunder rolls and lightening flashes to light the starless sky? Do they smell the far-off smoke or hear the crackling fires from the Outback? Do they rue the death of ‘Roos? Do they despair of fires, earthquakes, winds, rising seas, floods, and dried up ponds? Do they imagine the mountains melting like wax? Do they have phonies who plunge them into despair or the ‘truehearted’ who raise their spirits to the gladness of awakening to another sunrise over the wetland?
The wonder of cattails and lily pads
Are Eared Grebes more attuned than the stranger to the wonder of this isle of cattails and lily pads, this isle with no distractions, where LIFE Itself— beginning, middle, and ending — is “Lord and King”?
The LORD is King; let the earth rejoice;let the multitude of isles be glad!
Gordon C. Stewart, by the wetland isle, August 12, 2020.
So runs my dream, but what am I?
An infant crying in the night
An infant crying for the light
And with no language but a cry.
-- Alfred Tennyson,"In Memoriam"
Some things change; some things stay the same
George Floyd died face-down under a police officer’s knee, his hands in handcuffs behind his back, crying for help. Without the video taken by a distraught citizen, neither George Floyd’s cries nor the Minneapolis police officers’ behavior would have come to the world’s attention. The cries from pavements, walking paths, and apartments in Minneapolis, Atlanta, Louisville, Aurora and elsewhere in the U.S.A. are nothing new. What’s different now is that we have mobile phones with cameras.
What has not changed is Jesus’s rebuke of his disciples. Children raised in a Christian tradition, no matter how different their doctrines and practices, hear the story early in life. The story of Jesus’s love of children and rebuke of his disciples is a source of comfort. The story stayed with me through 40 years of ministry in higher education and prominent Presbyterian churches until life took a turn that led from the pulpit to the streets.
The Crosshairs of Race and Class
Legal Rights Center is the storied institution founded in 1970 by the American Indian Movement (AIM) and African American civil rights activists with the go-to street lawyer for Black and urban Indian communities of Hennepin County, Doug Hall. Legal Rights Center was one of a kind — an independent law office that belongs to communities of color for the purposes of social advocacy for and quality legal representation of low-income people of color that challenged the explicit and implicit white racism embedded in the court system. Seven years as Legal Rights Center’s executive director put me in the cross-hairs of systemic racism and the Minneapolis Police Department.
The Swastika on a Black man’s back
A young Black man comes to the Legal Rights Center to tell his story. All LRC attorneys and community advocates are in court. “Would you like to speak with the executive director?” asks the receptionist.
In the privacy of my office, he pulls up his shirt to show the swastika a police officer etched into his back.
The swastika, he says, was etched into his flesh after he had witnessed two MPD Fourth Precinct officers’ necessary use force during an arrest. No police officer wants a witness; no cop wants a complaint to be filed. The officers threw him, the witness, to the street and held him face-down. One of the officers took out his keys and scratched something into his back.
You should take this to the FBI
After the young man and I have reviewed his options, he chooses to do the unthinkable: tell his case directly to the Commander of the MPD Fourth Precinct. At Fourth Precinct headquarters, the commander leads us back to his office and asks what brought us there. I introduce myself as LRC’s new executive director and tell him why we’re there. The commander rarely looks up, takes phone calls, and shuffles papers on his desk. Just another Black kid who hates cops; just another clueless white do-gooder. Until the young man stands, turns his back to the commander’s desk, pulls up his shirt and shows him.
The swastika gets his full attention. He asks for information. Did he get the badge numbers or the squad car number? Did he hear any names? “Are you sure you can’t remember? Did one of the names begins with a ‘B’?”
“This goes way beyond Internal Affairs,” he says. “You should take this to the FBI.” The young man trusts the FBI no more than the Minneapolis Police Department. End of story.
Urination on an Ojibwe back
Residents of Little Earth of United Tribes housing report an incident involving an off duty Minneapolis Police Department officer working a second job as a Little Earth nightshift security officer. The outside temperature was below zero when the officer drove into the back parking lot and turned out the lights. Through their apartment window they watch him throw an inebriated man and woman onto the snow-covered pavement. The woman manages to run to an abandoned car. The man is lying on his back. The officer stands over the man, unzips his fly, and relieves himself. The witnesses do not recognize the man or the woman as Little Earth residents.
The Little Earth housing director reported the incident to Clyde Bellecourt (pictured here on the left), Vice President of the Legal Rights Center Board. Two days later Clyde learns the man’s identity and brings him to a small gathering to tell his story.
He’s not sure the blue denim jacket he’s wearing is the one on which the officer relieved himself at Little Earth. It could be someone else’s jacket. There are lots of blue denim jackets at detox. They try to give you the right one when you leave, but it’s not a clothing store. There’s no guarantee. All he can say is it looks like his. Even so, in hopes the jacket is the same, snd that it may provide DNA evidence matching the officer’s, the jacket is placed in our hands for safe-keeping. We put the jacket in an air-tight sealable bag, take it to a secure place no one will suspect (the trunk of my old Toyota) and proceed to arrange a meeting with the MPD Chief of Police.
The meeting is more than we expected. Eight senior officers, including the Deputy responsible for Internal Affairs. This is not normal. Somebody smells a rat. The police union has the MPD and the city administration in a strangle hold. The Chief agrees to get a urine sample from the officer in question and consents, with no protest, to our proposal that the DNA be done out of state at the MPD’s expense. During the two-hour meeting, we have the distinct feeling that the Chief has reasons to seek evidence of this officer’s alleged behavior. The urine sample and the jacket are sent to an independent lab in Maryland for DNA testing.
The report from the lab seems to disappoint the Chief as much as it does us. The jacket has been compromised by multiple layers of vomit and other materials accumulated over a number of years. The lab cannot establish evidence of a match. We return to the initial question whether the jacket given him when he left detox belonged to someone else. The detox center coatrack is filled with frayed blue denim jackets from Goodwill or Catholic Charities. A cashmere overcoat from Nordstrom’s never hangs on the detox rack.
Until broken systems cease to be
Unlike the more recent scene from Aurora, neither George Floyd, nor the man whose back now carries a swastika, nor the man and woman dumped in the dimly-lit parking lot at Little Earth was a child, but they were all met with the same condescension that Jesus rebuked. People with ears to hear recognize the echo and those with trained eyes see the distant light from another time and place. The rebuked disciples of Jesus know what Tennyson knew and live toward day this winter turns to spring when no child of God is hindered, “…for the kingdom of heaven belongs to these.” (Matthew 19:14b)
Our little systems have their day;
They have their day and cease to be:
They are but broken lights of thee,
And thou, O Lord, art more than they.
-- Alfred Tennyson, "In Memoriam" (Prelude)
Gordon C. Stewart, author, Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), Chaska, Minnesota, August 9, 2020.
Smiling East-West spirit, You move with sun and Son, Shining Peace on us.
Like a child piling blocks Your words construct new dreams, Towering poet.
Gentle and strong, as trees Bend gracefully in wind, You stand – and I bow.
— In memory of Kosuke Koyama, Peggy Shriver, NY, NY
Meeting Kosuke Koyama
One of the great pleasures in life has been the unexpected friendship with Japanese theologian Kosuke Koyama.
Ko, as his friends called him with great affection, and his wife Lois, a native Minnesotan, came to Minneapolis following retirement from a distinguished teaching position at Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York. I knew him only by reputation: John D. Rockefeller, Jr. Professor of World Christianity Emeritus; cutting edge Asian liberation theologian and leader in Thailand, Singapore, New Zealand, and the United States; author of Water Buffalo Theology, No Handle on the Cross, Three Mile an Hour God, Mt. Fuji and Mt. Sinai, among others; pioneer in Buddhist-Christian intersection and inter-religious dialogue; spell-binding keynote speaker at the Fifth Assembly of the World Council of Churches in Nairobi, Kenya.
The Firebombing of Tokyo
The friendship that developed, if friendship can be defined to include mentors and those they mentor, great minds and ordinary ones, people of stature and those who look up to them, the wise and the less wise, was particularly impactful because my father had been an Army Air Force Chaplain in the South Pacific in World War II.
During the March, 1945 firebombing of Tokyo, the planes came from my father’s air base. Though my father rarely spoke about the war, a sullenness came over him when I would ask him for stories. All these years later I was learning from Ko what the war had meant to him, the 15-year-old Japanese boy being baptized in Tokyo while the bombs dropped all around his church.
Neighbor-Love — “Even the Americans”
The pastor who baptized him took Ko’s face in his hands to instruct him: “Kosuke, you are a disciple of Jesus Christ. You must love your enemies…even the Americans.”
For the rest of his life Ko pursued the daunting question of what neighbor love means. Who is the enemy? Who is the neighbor? Are they one and the same? Late in his life, before he and Lois moved from Minneapolis to live with their son in Massachusetts, he had come to the conclusion that there is only one sin: exceptionalism. At first it struck me as strange. Can one really reduce the meaning and scope of sin to exceptionalism? What is exceptionalism, and why is it sinful?
The Sin of American Exceptionalism
At the time of our discussion, the phrase “American exceptionalism” – the claim that the United States is exceptional among the nations – was making the news. It was this view that led to the invasions and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq – the unexamined belief that the Afghanis and the Iraqis would welcome us with open arms as liberators – that captured in a phrase the previously largely unspoken popular conviction that America is exceptional.
In this American belligerence Ko heard the latest form of an old claim that had brought such devastation on his people and the people of the world. The voices from the White House, the State Department, and the Department of Defense, though they spoke English, sounded all too familiar, impervious to criticism and restraint on the nation’s military and economic adventures.
Hiroshima Day in Minneapolis 2006
Fourteen years ago today, on Hiroshima Day, 2006 he spoke to a small crowd at the Peace Garden in Minneapolis at the exact hour the bomb incinerated Hiroshima. His voice rang with a quiet authority that only comes from the depths of experience. Here’s an excerpt from that speech:
“During the war (1941-45) the Japanese people were bombarded by the official propaganda that Japan is the divine nation, for the emperor is divine. The word ‘Divine’ was profusely used.This was Japanese wartime ‘dishonest religion’, or shall we call it ‘mendacious theology’? This ‘god-talk’ presented an immature god who spoke only Japanese and was undereducated about other cultures and international relations. Trusting in this parochial god, Japan destroyed itself.
“Then, dear friends,”” he said to make his point to his American listeners, “do not trust a god who speaks only English, and has no understanding of Arabic or islamic culture and history. If you follow such a small town god you may be infected with the poison of exceptionalism: ‘I am ok. You are not ok.’ For the last 5,000 years the self-righteous passion of ‘I am ok. You are not ok’ has perpetuated war and destruction. War ’has never been and it will never be’ able to solve international conflicts, says Pope John Paul II.”
Two paragraphs later, Koyama spoke in terms that speak to the policy of drones and other advanced military technology:
“In spite of the remarkable advances humanity has made in science/technological [sic], our moral and spiritual growth has been stunted. Humankind seems addicted to destruction even with nuclear weapons and biological weapons. Today there are 639 million small arms actively present in the world (National Catholic Reporter, June 30, 2006). Fear propaganda always kills Hope. Violence is called sacrifice. Children killed in war are cruelly called a part of the ‘collateral damage’.”
This Hiroshima Day I wish I could break bread with Ko and my father to discuss the meaning of it all and share with Dad the haiku poems published in The New York Times following Ko’s death, written in his honor by his colleague at Union, Peggy Shriver, testaments to hope in belligerent times.