The Charcoal Fire (Revised)

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As the sun rose this [Easter] morning, a few of us warmed ourselves around a fire outside the church. Two charcoal fires were recalled, involving Peter, “the Rock” who crumbled like a piece of shale, and the risen Christ, who would re-create the scene to change the story from denial to welcome, forgiveness, and a commissioning to love.

Steve Shoemaker Verse, “The Charcoal Fire”

THE CHARCOAL FIRE

Charcoal Fire
Three times
Denial:

I do not know the man
I do not know the man
I do not know the man

Charcoal Fire
Three times
Forgiveness:

Do you love me?
Do you love me?
Do you love me?

Charcoal Fire
Three Times
Commission:

Feed my sheep
Feed my sheep
Feed my sheep

Steve Shoemaker
Urbana, IL
April 8, 2012

Gordon C. Stewart, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), April 23, 2022. This piece from 2012 is edited and republished in memory of Steve Shoemaker. Steve is sitting on a Bristlecone Pine stump above the tree line in Colorado during a gathering of seminary friends. Mutual friend Anna Strong and canine companion stand by him.

The First and Second Fires

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A Required Honesty

Easter was hard this year. I couldn’t bring myself to put my body in a pew. Imagining the shiny brass trumpets heralding Christ’s victory over sin and death had no more appeal than the silly silky banners waving up and down the aisle to make Easter more festive. Whether Easter felt like a fraud orI felt like the fraud didn’t matter yesterday.

A Ghost named Gus

If we’re honest about the resurrection, many, if not most, of us have some difficulty with one or another of the post-crucifixion stories of Jesus’ resurrection. Although my grandmother swore that our 120 year-old home was haunted by a friendly ghost named Gus, I’ve never gotten into ghostly apparitions.

Photo of Henri Fuseli's painting of Hamlet and his father's ghost
Hamlet and his father’s ghost — Henry Fuseli

Years ago an eccentric older congregant, long since deceased, claimed her deceased husband regularly visited her, standing at the foot of her bed. Even without this claim, there were multiple grounds for concluding that she would have been institutionalized in a previous generation. I never could get into her story, or the story about Gus’s footsteps creaking the steps of my childhood home. They were outside my experience. Like the Apostle Thomas, my faith is suspicious of such claims. “Unless I see for myself…” is second nature to me.

Unless I See

One person’s experience, however, is not the measure of all things, especially in matters that cannot be confirmed by objective verification. The world is full of experiences that are enigmas to my little piece of reality. My slice is not the whole pie, although, come to think of it, if my slice tastes like blueberries, chances are good the pie is blueberry. “To thine own self be true,” Shakespeare’s Polonius advises Laertes.

“And it must follow, as the night the day thou canst not then be false to any man . . . ” (Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 1, Scene III). Being true to oneself leads some honest people to leave the faith. Think Jean-Paul Sartre. Think Albert Camus. It leads others to stay and dig deeper. Though I was once almost one of the former, I am still one of the latter.

An Honest Conversation

Nowhere is the challenge of good faith greater than the resurrection. “Seeing for ourselves” like the Apostle Thomas is a hard way to live; it can be tricky. Sometimes we see things that aren’t there; other times we don’t see what stares us in the face. In a year like this, I rub my eyes in hopes of a clearer view of what is true. Honesty is slipping away in America. So is hope for the nation. The dark clouds of willful ignorance and unabashed dishonesty leave me looking for the light that faith tells me cannot be overcome.

Honesty, or the attempt at it, was what I had, but not much more. Although I could not say, with James Russell Lowell, “I do not fear to follow out the truth,” I know that the search for truth takes place “along the precipice’s edge.”

A Jarring Juxtaposition Between Two Fires

For the likes of those of us who stay, Easter is less accessible in the garden outside an empty tomb than in the encounters with the skeptical Thomas, and with Peter, who has gone back to his fishing nets after the crucifixion. Staying home on Easter for the first time reading the Gospels’ passion narratives, portrayals of Peter caused me to stop and ponder the jarring juxtaposition between two scenes around a fire.

The Denial of Saint Peter by Caravaggio (1610)

The First Fire

The first fire is set in the courtyard of the High Priest’s residence where Peter “The Rock” crumbles like shale. Warming himself by the courtyard fire, two domestic workers identify Peter as Jesus’ disciple. His Galilean accent betrays him. Three times Peter denies it. “I do not know the man!”  “I do not know the man!” “I do not know the man!” The rock crumbles.

The Second Fire

The second fire is lit on the shoreline to which Peter, the fisherman, returns after what would have been a bad night without the miracle shouted by the stranger on the shore. Peter has not become a fisher of fellow-humans; he is a fisher of fish again, not different from before Jesus had called him, except for the guilt he now carries from his denial before the fire in the courtyard. That I understand. That reversal I know by experience. I wasn’t Peter, but the dead, crucified, and buried Jesus whom the Creed claims “descended into hell” reached down into the hell of my own making to blow the remaining embers of the first fire into the charcoal fire of the second. The risen Christ is not an apparition. Christ comes as the stranger we forgot we knew, the host who serves us breakfast on the shoreline.

Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), writing from Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, April 20, 2022.

Lordless Powers at Play

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How can a human being be so cruel?

We wipe the tears from our cheeks watching the ruthless cruelty unleashed on Ukraine. This can’t be real! But it is. How can any nation do this to another? How could anyone do this?

The depth of the question

The question is not political. It’s not ideological. It’s deeper than that. So much deeper that few dare go there. The fortunate emerge from the darkness to see light again. They may or may not hold any scripture sacred, but they have sensed something of the psalmist’s view. “Even the darkness is not dark to You; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to You” Psalm 139:12). Darkness has no life of its own.

An Allegory of Repentance or Vanitas; AKA Tasso in the Madhouse

Others of us never find a way out. Like the joyful little girl who had taken such joy handing her latest drawing to her pastor on Sunday mornings, they find the world’s suffering too much to bear. Sadness and despair take the place where joy once lived. Empathic hearts are broken by the sufferings of others. They thrash in a sea of dark foreboding that douses the wicks of beauty, truth, and goodness. They take a final plunge sensing that “Hell is empty and all the demons are here.” (Shakespeare, The Tempest, (Act 1, Scene 2). With hearts broken by too much cruelty, they take a final step to get away from the demons here.

Quoting Scripture as cover for sin

My young friend did not stay among the demons long enough to hear Vladimir Putin quoting Jesus. “As the scriptures say,” said Putin to the crowd in the Moscow amphitheater, “‘Greater love has no man than this: that he give up his life for his friends.'” It was their children and extended families, not he, who were “laying down their lives for their friends” in Ukraine.

If Patriarch Kirill, Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia, other priests, and biblically literate lay people were listening in that amphitheater or on national television, they would recall the context of the line Mr. Putin was using from the Gospel According to John.

These things I have spoken to you, that My joy may remain in you, and that your joy may be full. This is My commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends. You are My friends if you do whatever I command you.

Gospel according to john 15:11-14

Joy and Love

The stadium in Moscow was not full of joy. If the old saw is true that the devil can quote scripture to serve the devil’s purposes, the high-jacked quotation ripped from its biblical context was evidence of it. It was they, not he, who were laying down their lives on orders of the Commander-in-Chief.

Mr. Putin’s presentation of himself as a Bible-quoting Christian may have impressed biblically illiterate members of the Russian Orthodox Church, American far-right evangelicals, and media propagandists Tucker Carlson and Steve Bannon, but biblically literate Christians of whatever stripe or nationality could feel their toes curl and their jaws clenching. People in the stadium that night were free to curl their toes so long as they didn’t clench their jaws. Curling toes are hidden by Shoes. Clenched jaws can’t hide.

How does it happen?

Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), Brooklyn Park, MN, March 24, 2022.

Jesus to Putin and the Patriarch

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Dear President Putin and Patriarch Kirill:

I write with great respect for your offices as President of the Russian Federation and as the Russian Orthodox Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia. My words to the two of you are confidential. Few people dare to speak candidly with you.

We haven’t met, but that’s not unusual; lots of people I’ve never met say I’m their closest friend. Many of them have made me up. They delete what they don’t like about me or my story, or do end-runs around my words. Take, for instance, my cry from the cross, “Abba, forgive them, for they do not know what they’re doing.” Forgiveness is real, but it’s not cheap. It’s not an excuse to sin.

Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill and Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin.

Clean Monday was only three weeks ago. On Clean Monday you and Eastern Orthodox Christians on both sides of the Russian-Ukrainian border marked the beginning of “The Great Lent” with a service that features something a bit odd and humbling. Every worshiper bows down before another worshipper to ask for forgiveness with the intent of walking through the six weeks of the Great Lent with clean hearts and a clear conscience. I like that. I’ll return to the subject of bowing later.

Do you remember the parable of the Last Judgment? My parable isn’t about an End Time when the wicked will be punished and the good rewarded. It’s not about Then; it’s about the Now, the ever-recurring Now of daily life. The parable is about how to live your life now as a neighbor.

I told that parable not to scare people; I told it so the listeners would pause, reflect, and turn around when they are living like goats pleading innocence because they never see the suffering. The parable is the Beatitudes in story form. You may remember those: Blessed are the poor, the grieving, the meek, the merciful, the peace-makers, and those who yearn for righteousness. The Beatitudes and the parable of the sheep and the goats are meant to turn the popular winner-loser perception on its head. The sheep feed the hungry; the goats don’t see them. The sheep “see” the naked and clothe them; the goats don’t notice. It’s the same with the homeless, the sick, and the imprisoned. The goats would have “seen” if only they had known there was a reward at the end. The sheep have no knowledge of reward and punishment. It is the sheep that break the popular myth of reward and punishment.

The parable goes to the heart of my reason for writing. You have great authority and power. One of you is the latest “king” of the Russian Federation; the other is the latest “king” of Russia’s spiritual affairs, Patriarch Kirill, Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia. You are said to have a good relationship. But I tell you, if the sheep and goats were separated in real time at this moment, the two of you would be bleating billygoats leading the line of those who plead innocence.

It is not by accident that the parable is not about individuals. The sheep and goats gathered for judgment are not individuals. They are the nations, all of them. Russia is no exception. Ukraine is no exception. Poland is no exception. The United States is no exception. There is no exception.

Every nation is capable of great compassion and of astonishing cruelty. A nation can be peace-loving or war-mongering, merciful or cruel, loving or hateful, seeing or not seeing. Whenever a nation sees itself as exceptional or superior among the global community of neighbors, things always turn out badly, as is happening now in Ukraine. The sun shines and the rains fall without respect for borders.

As president of the Russian Federation you hold the power and authority of Russia’s head of state and commander-in-chief. You have exceeded all boundaries of moral restraint. The weight of the cruelty, suffering, devastation, and death unleashed on Ukrainian rests on your shoulders. Yet you do not see. You take no responsibility for the suffering imposed on Ukraine.

Patriarch Kirill, you also bear responsibility. The day after Clean Monday, your Ukrainian and Polish peers met in Kyiv. Aware of public criticism of your relationship with Mr. Putin, they appealed to you to meet with Putin to stop the war, and asked you to break your public silence about the war as the cause of suffering. Clean Monday was not clean this year. There can be no pleas of ignorance.

Finally, I leave you with another parable. This one was told by those who thought they saw divinity in my humanity. It was told of me, not by me. Whoever created the parable packed every challenge I faced during my life, which you also face now. Like the parable of the Last Judgment, It’s a work of imagination that puts everything in a nutshell, but its meaning is pretty simple really. It’s about bowing.

Then the devil took him to a very high mountain, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory; and [the devil] said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will bow down and worship me.”

The question of faith is about Now. The question is pointed. It draws no line between the political and the spiritual. It’s simple:

“To whom are you bowing now?”

— Jesus of Nazareth

Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness, Brooklyn Park, MN, March 18,2022.

The Pit of Babel

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Words to express what I feel and think in this moment of horror in Ukraine continue to escape me. In times when my head is spinning and stomach is swirling, I often turn to the other voices and facial expressions. The fruits of illusion — national exceptionalism and racial supremacy –smack us in the face. The greater our power, the lower we fall. We are living in Franz Kafka’s Parable “The Pit of Babel,” Franz Kafka: Parables and Paradoxes, first published in German in 1935 during the rise of the Third Reich.

The Pit of Babel

What are you building? — I want to dig 
a subterranean passage. Some progress
must be made. My station up there is 
much too high.

We are digging the pit of Babel

A House on Fire

image of Greta Thunberg speaking on climate change.
Greta Thunberg addresses EU Parliament’s environment committee, Wednesday 4 March 2020

Our One House Is on Fire

Our house is on fire. I am here to say, our house is on fire. […] Adults keep saying: “We owe it to the young people to give them hope.” But I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act. I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.

Greta Thunberg, 16 years old, to the World economic summit, August 19, 2020, the guardian

The recklessness of the Russian Invasion

One ominous sentence from the Russian leader threatened more than Ukraine. “Whoever tries to interfere with us,” he warned, “should know that Russia’s response will be immediate and will lead you to such consequences as you have never experienced in your history.” He said that Russia “is today one of the most powerful nuclear states.” Using combat power to try to take a nuclear power plant over — it just underscores the recklessness of this Russian invasion. — Robin Wright, “What Does Putin’s Sabre Rattling Mean?”– The New Yorker, March 1, 2022.

“Now, I am become death, the destroyer of worlds”

J. Robert Oppenheimer

Text: We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried, most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita. Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and to impress him takes on his multi-armed form and says, “Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” I suppose we all thought that one way or another.

J. Robert Oppenheimer, one of the fathers of the atomic bomb

Prayer against War and the “Pride of Kings”

photo of Walter Rauschenbusch
Walter Rauschenbusch (1861–1918), American Theologian and Pastor, leader of the Social Gospel Movement.

The language is from an earlier era. The prayer’s content, sense of reverence, and social responsibility commend the prayer for use in the midst of the madness of 2022.

O Lord, since first the blood of Abel cried to thee from the ground that drank it, this earth of thine has been defiled with the blood of humanity shed by the hands of sisters and brothers, and the centuries sob with the ceaseless horror of war. Ever the pride of kings and the covetousness of the strong has driven peaceful nations to slaughter. Ever the songs of the past and the pomp of armies have been used to inflame the passions of the people….

O thou strong God of all the nations, draw all thy great family together with an increasing sense of our common blood and destiny, that peace may come on earth at last, and thy sun may shed its light rejoicing on a holy unity of all people. Amen.

Walter Rauschenbusch, Prayers of the social awakening, 1910

Gordon C. Stewart, pubic theologian, host of Views from the Edge, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), endorsed by Bill McKibben, Walter Brueggemann, and MN Poet Laureate Joyce Sutphen; Brooklyn Park, MN, March 5, 2022.

White Privilege in Verse

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Trumpeter Swans, Hudson, WI

Down is Up and up is down

The trumpeter swans
Know nothing of
White privilege
White is what they are
Down under and
Above the down
Except for beaks
As black as ebony
on ivory

Their voice is not
the honk of pride
and privilege
Pens and cobs
Teach their young
The Beatitudes
Where Up is really
Down and Down is
Up without a down-
Ward sneer at
Loons or Redwing
Blackbirds

Ebony and ivory
Nesting in a wetland
Marsh where no
Manicured lawns 
And Scotts-fed 
Greens feed faux-
White privilege.
- GCS, May, 2021
Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to  him, and he began to teach them.

He said:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
 Blessed are those who mourn,
    for they will be comforted.
 Blessed are the meek,
    for they will inherit the earth.
 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
    for they will be filled. 
 Blessed are the merciful,
    for they will be shown mercy.
 Blessed are the pure in heart,
    for they will see God.
 Blessed are the peacemakers,
    for they will be called children of God.
 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."

-- Gospel According to Matthew 5:1-10 NIV
Rush Limbaugh receiving Presidential Medal of Freedom, 2020.
Rush Limbaugh receiving Presidential Medal of Freedom honoring people who have made “an especially meritorious contribution to the security or national interests of the United States, world peace, cultural or other significant public or private endeavors” — State of the Union, 2020.

Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, March 3, 2022.

Vladimir Putin — Another Wild Camel

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Imagine yourself listening in on a conversation between God and Vladimir Putin. Even if you don’t believe in God. Pretend you do for just a moment. -:)

“But I know your rising and your sitting,
    your going out and coming in,
    and your raging against me.

Because you have raged against me
    and your arrogance has come to my ears,
I will put my hook in your nose
    and my bit in your mouth;
I will turn you back on the way
    by which you came.
-- 2 Kings 19:25-27

“Your arrogance has come to my ears.”

The rage and arrogance hurt my ears. If I had a hook, I’d put it in Vladimir Putin’s nose to rein in his urge to reign. If I had a bit to tame arrogance, I’d put it in the mouth of Putin’s best friend in Florida who applauds Putin’s “genius” in re-framing the invasion of Ukraine as a peace-keeping mission. Two best friends who have no other friends.

The “hook” in the nose and the “bit” in the mouth were tools for bringing an unruly camel under control. The raging camel was Sennacherib, the arrogant King of Assyria. The message is for him.

Isaiah put these words on the lips of the One who has no lips but whose anguish cries out in us and whose tears run down our cheeks whenever a feral camel wanders into someone else’s yard.

Whoever wrote Second Kings would be shocked to find that the story of the two kings — Sennacherib of Assyria and Hezekiah of Judah — would be read in 2022. But the story is ageless. Watching another strongman invade his next door neighbor, who can fail to imagine the divine rebuke of the unruly camel who sticks its nose under tents where it does not belong, and the other camel whose mouth never stops?

-- Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian, author of "Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness" (2017 Wipf and Stock, Eugene, OR), writing from Brooklyn Park, MN, February 25, 2022.

When All That’s Left Is Love by Rabbi Allen Maller

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WHEN ALL THAT'S LEFT IS LOVE

When I die
If you need to weep
Cry for someone
Walking the street beside you.
You can love me most by letting
Hands touch hands, and
Souls touch souls.
You can love me most by
Sharing your Simchas (goodness) and
Multiplying your Mitzvot (acts of kindness).
You can love me most by
Letting me live in your eyes
And not on your mind.

-- Rabbi Allen S. Maller

Rabbi’s Maller’s website — rabbimiller.com — is a treasure trove of Jewish tradition and biblical interpretation.

Gordon C. Stewart, Public Theologian and social commentator, host of Views from the Edge; author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017, Wipf and Stock), Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, Feb. 8, 2022.

The Gospel of the Loser

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The beginning of this commentary will sound familiar to those who have read “The Counterfeit Gospel” (Jan. 29, 2022). The beginning through “The Gospel of Jesus the Loser” is edited and amplified. Everything from the rubric “From Prosperity to QAnon” is original to this post.

A Question of Glory

Donald Trump and I each claim a footing in the Presbyterian Church and its Reformed theological tradition. It’s hard to remember much of what happened in Confirmation Class. But it’s hard to forget the first article of the Shorter Catechism. The way to a meaningful life is “to glorify God, and enjoy Him forever.” None of us understood it, of course. But one thing was clear: We are not to glorify ourselves.

The Workshop for Cranking Out Idols

The Reformed faith tradition focuses on the majesty of God and our propensity to bow before an infinite variety of substitutes for the Infinite. The issue for faith is not belief or unbelief. The issue is idolatry. Earth is the theatre of God’s glory. Yet human nature is a perpetual factory of idols. –Jean Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion,1556.

Author theologian William Stringfellow described idols as “imposters of God,” — the finite, manageable works we crank out that take the place of the Ineffable and Infinite.

There are gods and there is God. There is the finite and there is the Infinite. The gods are nearer-to-hand stand-ins, substitutes that promise what they cannot deliver. The world is beautiful and filled with goodness, yet the underlying goodness is twisted against itself. The idols are endless and varied. Nation, work, money, status, race, religion, political party, ideology take center stage in “the theater of God’s glory.”

The Gospel of Jesus the Loser

By the standards of the Prosperity Gospel, Jesus of Nazareth was a loser. Yet the loser will not go away. The loser executed on a Roman cross was raised as the archetype of authentic humanity. Unless the church gets that straight, everything it gains is loss. In spite of all attempts to circumvent, delete, or deny it, the cross remains the primary symbol for those who seek to follow Jesus. Whoever spends time looking at Gustav Doré’s painting of the crucifixion cannot dismiss the horror of it, the cruelty of it, the god-forsakenness of it.

From Prosperity to QAnon

It’s a short distance from the Prosperity Gospel to QAnon. Neither pays attention to Matthew or Luke’s vivid narratives of Jesus in the wilderness. Is Satan real? Yes and no. Satan is not someone’s name. It’s a title — the Shatan, the Diabolos — for the diabolical. It has no other home than our hearts and minds, the blacksmith shop that never ceases. The factory that cranks out idols. Satan is the Adversary of the Divine. QAnon says little about God but sees Satan everywhere. QAnon is the latest metastasis of a simplistic theology that divides the world between God and Satan, good and evil, saved and damned, elect and non-elect, heaven and hell, soldiers and cowards. If those characteristics sound familiar, it’s because they are.

“You people seem normal”

Thanksgiving is a day of mostly cheerful moments, but some Thanksgivings are also epiphanies. My younger son’s college friend opened a window to his experience of Christian faith and practice. During a light-hearted conversation around the Thanksgiving table, the student guest took what seems like a risk, but it landed on ears that understood how he felt. “I don’t know quite how to say this,” he said with eyebrows rising, “but you people seem normal.” The conversation the followed focused on his view of Christians as whackos. The whackos held the worldview described in the previous paragraph. Why did he think so? While changing channels he had stopped in on Jimmy and Tammie Baker, Jimmy Swaggert, and other televangelists who had not seemed normal. They were abnormal by almost any standards mental health, reason and sanity.

The Lure of Prosperity

The Prosperity Gospel preachers proclaim it can all be yours, if… If you accept Jesus Christ as your Savior, if you stop thinking negatively, it can all be yours. It can all be yours in a secure gated community. It can be yours if you climb to the top. It can all be yours if you just close your eyes to the homeless who disturb an otherwise beautiful day. It can all be yours, if you stop thinking of yourself as a school drop-out ditch digger and think of yourself as (fill in the blank).

Flights from Ambigiuity

What is missing in the Prosperity Gospel and QAnon are the biblical stories of Jesus in the wilderness with Satan. Any study of the Gospel of Matthew’s or Gospel of Luke’s narratives lead to a conclusion that life is more ambiguous than we would like it to be. It is good that our material needs are met. It’s not good when we turn needs into greed. In the same way, religion can go either way. It is good to praise God and practice a tradition’s wisdom, but religion can become, and often is, a form of idolatry that substitutes itself for the Eternal and Ineffable it claims to worship. But the third scene in the wilderness narratives that leaps from the page in America today, is the one about power and authority described below.

Satan

You may or may not hear much about Satan from Prosperity Gospel preachers or, for that matter, from the pulpits of traditional churches. It’s either because it’s not popular. It won’t attract new adherents. Or it’s an embarrassment. Or the biblical texts that speak of Satan or the Devil require an inordinately long explanation than a sermon allows. Not so for QAnon where the talk is all about Satan.

What has been lost is a literary and emotional understanding of the complex and confounding character of the biblical Satan. Satan is the personification of the diabolical. The Trickster, the Deceiver, the Twister, the Half-Truth Teller, the Liar. Beauty, truth, and goodness are given lip service, but beneath the talk of beauty lies ugliness, beneath the tributes to truth lies deceit, beneath the salute to goodness lies a tornado twisting goodness into its opposite.

The most poignant of the three wilderness scenes

William Blake paints the most poignant of the three episodes of Jesus’s 40 days with the Diabolos in the wilderness. The scene is a mountaintop where Satan and Jesus the Christ have in view all the nations and kingdoms of the word. Blake’s painting gives visual expression to the narcissistic lure of political power and authority. “Then the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. ‘All this I will give you,’ he says, ‘if you will bow down and worship me.’ Jesus says to him, ‘Begone, Satan, for it is written ‘you shall worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.'” (Matthew 4:10 NIV and NRSV combined)

Where was God?

Those who see the countenance of God in the face of Jesus the Loser face a challenge that won’t go away. Where was God when America’s First People were being stripped of their homeland, slaughtered, stripped of their religion and culture, and consigned to reservations and Christian boarding schools? Where was God when White hoods with torches burned their crosses and formed a congregation gathered around the lynching tree? Where was God at the whipping post? Where was God during the Holocaust, the “Final Solution”? Where was God at the gun massacres at Columbine, Sandy Hook, and Parkland? Where was God when Narcissus was dying of dehydration at the edge of the pond?

You will find God there

Jesus the Loser tells us where. God was among those who were robbed of their homeland. God was shuttled off to the reservations. God was hanging from the lynching tree. God was whipped at the whipping post. God was on the trains to Auschwitz; God was among the children, teachers, and parents at Sandy Hook. God was among the Losers — the tortured, the poor, the starving, the dying and the dead. God was in the pond inviting Narcissus to drink. We will find God there.

Letters and Papers from Prison preserves a poem from the cell of a pastor, theologian, professor, and resistor of the German Third Reich. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was hanged at Flossenburg Concentration Camp April 9, 1945 as the Nazi regime was collapsing.

CHRISTIANS AND UNBELIEVERS

  • Dietrich Bonhoeffer, July, 1944

Men go to God when they are sore bestead,
Pray to him for succour, for his peace, for bread,
For mercy for them sick, sinning or dead:
All men do so, Christian and unbelieving.

Men go to God when he is sore bestead,
Find him poor and scorned, without shelter or bread,
Whelmed under weight of the wicked, the weak, the dead:
Christians stand by God in his hour of grieving.

God goeth to every man when sore bestead,
Feedeth body and spirit with his bread,
For Christians, heathens alike he hangeth dead:
And both alike forgiving.

Gordon C. Stewart, Presbyterian minister (H.R.) and public theologian, Brooklyn Park, MN, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017, Wipf and Stock), available in kindle and paperback.

The Counterfeit Gospel

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Donald and I

I often have wondered whether Donald Trump would disturb me less if we did not both claim a footing in the Presbyterian Church and the Reformed theological tradition. I have asked what happened to Donald after Confirmation Class.

To glorify God — Not Ourselves

If we remembered nothing else from confirmation class, it was the first and most important question of the Shorter Catechism. “What is the chief end of man (human beings)? Answer: The chief end of man (human beings) is to glorify God and enjoy God forever.” Whatever questions remained, one thing was clear. We are called to glorify God, not ourselves.

In the Reformed tradition of faith and practice the issue in life is not belief or unbelief. The perennial daily issue is idolatry understood as the substitution of what is finite and manageable for the “I AM” the Name too holy to name. Valuing humility and modesty in spirit and lifestyle, the Reformed tradition shuns extravagance, arrogance, and ostentatious living as gates to a world swirling toward self-destruction.

The Gospel of the Winner

The Prosperity Gospel is the impostor gospel on whose shoulders America hoisted a hologram to the Office of President and continues to insist Mr. Trump could not have been defeated. While greed knows no time limits, the Prosperity Gospel is the latest spiritual product of consumer capitalism which divides humankind into the elect and the damned, the materially privileged and the “less fortunate” for whom alike, amassing a fortune is life’s purpose and goal. Donald Trump is not just Donald Trump. He is the embodiment of privilege in all its forms: prestige, power, tower, country clubs for the rich and famous, a beautiful wife or two or three, a winner free to put his hands wherever his urges lead him with no evidence of guilt or shame. Donald is the symbol of success. Donald is a winner who cannot lose.

Paula White’s prayer service for Donald Trump offers a good look at what this impostor for God looks and sounds like. Paul White became a spiritual advisor in the Trump White House. Listen carefully.

President Trump White House spiritual advisor Paula White

Those who observe the prayer service for the president’s re-election in the aftermath of the January 6, 2021 Capitol insurrection must not forget or ignore how fascists rose to power in the 1920s and ’30s by inciting violence against leftist protesters. The Nazis sent Brownshirts to left-wing gatherings to provoke street fights and wreak havoc which they blamed on leftists. When more than 100 people were injured at the Red Wedding rally in 1927, the Nazis claimed they, the Nazis, were the victims of leftist anarchists. Hitler may have been a victim, but Hitler would never be a loser.

The Gospel of Jesus the Loser

By the standards of the Prosperity Gospel, Jesus of Nazareth was a loser. He did not prosper. He did not accumulate. He didn’t win. Yet the loser whose cry Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachtani? — “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” — rang out from the executioner’s cross was, according to Christian faith, raised as the archetype of authentic humanity. Unless the church gets that straight, everything it may gain will be loss. Jesus was not and is not a winner.

In spite of all attempts to circumvent, delete, or deny it, the cross remains the primary symbol for those who seek to follow Jesus. Whoever spends time looking at Caravaggio’s painting of the crucifixion cannot dismiss the horror of it, the cruelty of it, the god-forsakenness of it, or the helping hand of Simon of Cyene.

Like every other religious institution and faith tradition, the church which Donald and I once held in common is a failure. Lord knows how often the Presbyterian Church (USA) has stood on the other side of the fence from Jesus, Moses, and the prophets. Even so, like the Friends (“Quakers”), the voice of conscience lies near the heart of who we seek to be. We are taught to listen for “the still small voice” (the whisper) that calls us “to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God” (Micah 6:8).

From the Counterfeit Gospel of Prosperity to QAnon and Fascism

It’s a short distance from the winner or loser, good vs. evil, us/them theology of the Prosperity Gospel to QAnon and fascism. All these years after Edward R. Murrow called Joseph McCarthy’s search for communist conspirators to a screeching halt, a nameless figure who goes by “Q” gathers a following by uncovering a Satanic cabal working in high places of “the Deep State.” The enemy in 2022 is still leftists, as it was with the Third Reich and Joe McCarthy, but far worse and ludicrous — an underground Leftist cabal of child kidnapping, molestation, sex trafficking, pederasty, and cannibalism conspiring to take away our freedom. QAnon followers still make invoke the old fear of communist, but the culprits now are called Democrats.

QAnon’s view of Satan is fueled by the biblical literalist mindset of far-right fundamentalist and conservative Christian theology that turns Satan into an independent, identifiable being. If only it were that simple. The biblical Satan is the personification of the diabolical dimension of human nature. In the Bible Satan stands for the Trickster who twists Earth’s essential goodness against itself and its Creator. Satan’s workshop is the human mind and heart that cranks out impostors of God.

Responsibility and Ambiguity

Charles Thomson, a quiet member of America’s Founders, the first and only Secretary of the Continental Congress, wrote his friend Benjamin Franklin of his concern about “the cursed schemes dragging us into civil war, and national ruin.” The American experiment was “teetering at the edge of the cliff.” That was 1774, two years before the Declaration of Independence was issued. The threat of yearning for a king is as real now as it was then. Are we mature enough to turn back from the road to ruin? Will we remember, forget, ignore, or oppose the question and answer Donald and I learned in confirmation class? You don’t need a Presbyterian confirmation class to conclude that self-glorification is glory misplaced. Whatever happens, we do well to remember Charles Thomson’s wisdom and look at the diabolical dimension within ourselves and find the factory that cranks out substitutes for God. The search for glory always ends badly.

“The character of human life,” observed Paul Tillich, “like the character of the human condition, like the character of all life, is ‘ambiguity’: the inescapable mixture of good and evil, the true and the false, the creative and the destructive forces –both individual and social” — Time, May 17, 1963.

Gordon C. Stewart, Presbyterian minister (HR), and public theologian, Brooklyn Park, MN, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017, Wipf and Stock), available in kindle and paperback.