Daily Riches: Religion and Established Privilege (Thomas Merton)

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Thomas Merton’s quotation on religion and privilege arrived following a national campaign with loud cheers and boisterous rallies that turn Christianity into white nationalism. “…Faith in God . . . becomes in fact faith in [one’s] own nation, class or race.”

Richer By Far

“Of course, it is true that religion on a superficial level, religion that is untrue to itself and to God, easily comes to serve as the ‘opium of the people.’ And this takes place whenever religion and prayer invoke the name of God for reasons and ends that have nothing to do with him. When religion becomes a mere artificial facade to justify a social or economic system–when religion hands over its rites and language completely to the political propagandists, and when prayer becomes the vehicle for a purely secular ideological program, then religion does tend to become an opiate. It deadens the spirit enough to permit the substitution of a superficial fiction and mythology for this truth of life. And this brings about the alienation of the believer, so that his religious zeal becomes political fanaticism. His faith in God, while preserving its traditional formulas, becomes in fact faith…

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Tikkun Olam

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Fourth Presbyterian Church – Chicago

John Buchanan looks to the Jewish concept “tikkun olam” amid the alarms of 2018. Dr. Buchanan is Pastor Emeritus of Fourth Presbyterian Church-Chicago, past Moderator of the Presbyterian Church (USA), and former editor of the The Christian Century. “Hold to the Good” is now his pulpit in retirement.

Hold to the Good

For years, at the conclusion of public worship, I have used words that come from St. Paul, written 2,000 years ago.

“Go into the world in peace and courage.
Hold to the Good.
Honor all God’s children.
Love and serve the Lord,
Rejoicing in the power of the Spirit.”

Last Sunday, as a guest preacher at Westminster Presbyterian Church, Grand Rapids, Michigan, when I came to the words “Hold to the Good” I almost couldn’t go on. The news from Pittsburgh Saturday morning stood as a contradiction to those words and to everything I hold dear and regard as essential to our life together….

…the trust that in the eternal struggle between good and evil, good will ultimately prevail,

…the trust that the heart of the nation I love, its government and politicians, is essentially fair, honest and good,

…the hope that the long arc of history bends, as Martin…

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The Press and the People

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The Ordeal – Sculpture by Edith Beckwoldt, St. Nikolai, Hamburg, Germany.

“No man in the whole world can change the truth. One can only look for the truth, find it and serve it. The truth is in all places.” —  Dietrich Bonhoeffer quotation inscribed on Edith Beckwoldt’s sculpture “The Ordeal”.

“There is great anger in our Country caused in part by inaccurate, and even fraudulent, reporting of the news. The Fake News Media, the true Enemy of the People, must stop the open & obvious hostility & report the news accurately & fairly. That will do much to put out the flame…” — Donald J. Trump tweet, 6:03 AM – 29 Oct 2018.

 

 

Mein Kampf dust jacket“It is the press, above all, which wages a positively fanatical and slanderous struggle, tearing down everything which can be regarded as a support of national independence, cultural elevation, and the economic independence of the nation.” ― Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf.

Many advise against any and all such comparisons. As a public theologian raised on Bonhoeffer’s witness, theology and ethics, I ask, “How, in good conscience, can we not?” The playbook today is the same as it was in Bonhoeffer’s time. According to The Art of the Deal’s ghost writer, the speeches of Hitler were prominent in the penthouse bedroom of Trump Tower.

Enter Charlie Chaplin’s parody of the unlikely rise of the Fuhrer and the call to national unity.

“Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” – Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

“We are not to simply bandage the wounds of victims beneath the wheels of injustice, we are to drive a spoke into the wheel itself.” – Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

— Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, October 31, 2018

No one can burn the truth

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The most telling point in yesterday’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing was the sudden shift away from Rachel Mitchell, the experienced prosecutor of sex crimes whom the Republican all male majority had appointed to examine the accuser and the accused on their behalf. It was an unprecedented protocol.

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Professor Christine Blasey Ford

All morning, during the testimony of Professor Christine Blasey Ford, the members of the majority ceded their five-minutes to Ms. Mitchell. She, not they, did all the questioning. Then, early in the afternoon session with Kavanaugh, the protocol disappeared.

Ms. Mitchell’s impartial inquiry came to a sudden end when Sen. Lindsay Graham lit the match that shifted the focus from Ms. Mitchell’s methodical inquiry. The protocol for “getting at the truth” went up in flames. Ms. Mitchell never was called upon again. The men who had brought her from Arizona to Washington, D.C. brushed her aside without explanation or comment by anyone of the committee. She was no longer useful to the majority’s purposes.

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Sen. Lindsay Graham (R)

Experts in the field of sexual violence have eyes and ears — and a sixth sense — most of us don’t have. They know the typical behaviors of victims and perpetrators. Belligerence is one of the behaviors of perpetrators. Judge Kavanaugh’s less than judicial demeanor — his unrestrained anger and belligerent attack on Sen. Klobuchar’s legitimate, pertinent  questions about the use of alcohol — would have rung a familiar bell. Ms. Mitchell’s attempt to get at the truth had gotten too close.

The Judiciary Committee appears ready to recommend confirmation. Majority Leader McConnell has pledged to push it through the full Senate.

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The Universal Man, Liber Divinorum Operum of St. Hildegard of Bingen (1165)

Last night the American Bar Association, which endorsed Judge Kavanaugh as highly qualified, called for what the chair, majority members, and the nominee himself have steadfastly refused to do: suspend the process and call for the FBI to re-open its independent investigation of the facts.

It’s enough to make me hope that Mechtild von Magdeburg, the lesser known medieval mystic contemporary of Hildegard von Bingen was right:

“No one can burn the truth.”

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, September 28, 2018.

A Window of Opportunity: Rosh Hashanah

Today is Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year that celebrates the birth of humankind with the blowing of the shofar (AUDIO LINK).

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Rosh Hashanah’s meaning takes me back to last week’s Jewish wedding in Boston Symphony Hall, the kind of joyful occasion that’s good for the weary soul. Although I might have anticipated meeting a Holocaust survivor in his/her 90s, I did not expect the survivor to be my age.

Stephen and I were born two months apart in very different words — the Warsaw ghetto under Nazi occupation, and the U.S.A., respectively. Stephen and his mother survived. His father and the rest of his family died in the gas ovens of Auschwitz. His father arranged for two-year-old Steve and his mother’s to escape and survive under the clandestine protection of Polish Christian. How Stephen’s father made the arrangements is a mystery lost in time and the ashes of Auschwitz.

Rosh Hashanah is marked by the blowing of the shofar that starts the 10 High Holy Days leading up to Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

What is Rosh Hashanah all about? In addition to its meaning as the “head of the year”, we also refer to it as the “Day of Judgment”. What, in fact, did the Rabbis tell us to do on Rosh Hashanah? Curiously, there is virtually no mention of our own personal judgment in the Rosh Hashanah prayers. Instead, the prayers are all about the general condition of the world. – Rabbi Asher Resnick.

The Jewish sense of time is different from the dominant understanding of time in the West. Time spirals. It loops back and forward. Rosh Hashanah cycles back in order to spiral forward. It is, like every other Jewish holiday, “a metaphysical window of opportunity” (Rabbi Asher Resnick).

Meeting Stephen, the retired doctor in Princeton, New Jersey, in Boston at a Jewish wedding opened a different kind of metaphysical window of opportunity. The rapport was immediate, the window of opportunity opened between us as if we were long-lost friends. Such times redefine time. They spiral back to fetch hope for a new humanity and carry it forward in another dark time. This Rosh Hashanah I sound the shofar for Stephen, his family, all victims and survivors of the Holocaust, and the Polish Christian family that protected Stephen and his mother until the horror was (more or less) over and a mad world repents.

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the shofar (ram’s horn)

Shana Tova!

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, September 10, 2018.

 

 

 

 

A Clear and Present Danger

We Americans are living in the face of evil. I do not speak easily of ‘evil’. Even now, I hesitate using the word.

But I can find no better word to describe what I hear in the tone of voice and the language that distorts truth, idolizes the nation, insults neighbors and allies, reveres the strong men of North Korea and Russia, presents himself as superior to all his predecessors, withdraws from multinational peacemaking and climate accords, divides the world into winners and losers, refuses to criticize white supremacists, separates poor children of color from their parents at the border, demonizes his adversaries, puts an anti-Semitic preacher from the farthest edge of the religious right on the world stage to represent the American people at the dedication of the U. S. embassy’s re-location to Jerusalem, and does it all in the name of making America secure and great again.

In Christian theology, evil has no standing of its own. It is the twisting of the good, the warping of truth, the abandonment of self-knowledge, the rebellion against accountability, the transfer of free-floating anxiety onto an object of fear that can be defeated, and the illusion of the power of the strong man’s to rescue the good.
Th strong man is the opposite of the preacher from Nazareth who lifted up the poor, the meek, the mourning, the leper, the alien, the foreigner, the religiously different (the ‘good’ Samaritan), declaring that the kingdom of God belongs to them, not to the rich, the proud, the well, the patriots, the people of his religion.

How a disciple of Jesus hears the voice of Jesus in the voice of the strong man is a puzzle whose pieces remain hidden until they are exposed for review. Promotion of the good includes the unmasking of evil, the wisdom to discern when the good is turned upside down, and when truth is twisted by the serpent’s trickery.

“Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil” is the cry from the pews of most every Christian church across the world, the echo of the prayer the soon to be crucified Jesus taught his disciples. Tempted to surrender better selves into the hands of evil, how does a disciple of Jesus manage to salute the strong man in the Oval Office and the party that obeys his will? Every day, I scratch my head, but also try to remember.

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.”

  • Gordon C. Stewart on the wetland, June 27, 2018.

The Eleventh Commandment

“Thou shalt not even think about using a chain saw.”

IMG_9456At the cabin next to the wetland we love quiet candle-lit evenings by the wood-burning stove. The candles are easy. We buy them. The wood for the fires is harder. We gather the logs and the kindling from the surrounding woods, drag them next to the deck, and break or cut them into pieces to fit the dimensions of the small wood stove. In a week or two, a friend and I will get out the chain saw to cut up large oaks that have fallen in the woods. But that will come later.

This morning Kay and I gathered what we could carry from the woods and were breaking the breakable pieces into kindling. It felt good to be making progress on our first spring work day. Barclay, the five year-old ever cheerful, light-chasing Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, was entertaining himself on the ground above the septic system. He doesn’t know there’s a sceptic system under there, and, if perchance he did know, wouldn’t care as long as there were light and shadows, squirrels, chipmunks, birds flitting around him and soaring over the wetland. Back by the deck, Kay and are enjoying the creative act of turning twigs into kindling and tree limbs into logs for the wood stove. It occurred to only one of us to stand at the edge of the pile instead of in the center of the cluster branches twisting every which way. The other who is typically less aware of his surroundings suddenly lost his balance and hit the deck, so to speak.   

Unruffled by my failure at even the smallest of tasks, I lay still for a moment as Kay rushed to my side, asked if I had hurt myself, and extended a loving hand to pull me to my feet. Barclay never noticed. Then came the eleventh commandment:

ten commandmentsThou shalt not even think of using a chain saw, for in the day that you use it, you shall surely die! 

“No chain saw for you,” said Kay. “Don’t even think about it!”

  • Gordon C. Stewart writing from the wilderness, April 29, 2018.

Good Friday Kind of Grief

Good Friday is not a happy day. It’s a day to stand at the abyss of hopelessness and to turn what Otis Moss III and his father Otis Moss, Jr. call “pathetic grief” into “prophetic grief” that lifts up others.

Good Friday is a day for heart-felt reflection. A day to stop talking. A day to listen carefully to the Gospel readings and the Requiems of Gabriel Fauré or Maurice DurufléA day to let the tears well up in us. A day to stop pretending. A day to experience afresh the pathetic grief that links us with all the world until is becomes the prophetic grief that turns the world right-side up.

I wish you a meaningful Good Friday.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Good Friday, March 30, 2018.

Addition by Subtraction: Leveling the Playing Field

Today levels the playing field. Our differences make no difference today.  Whether you are religious, agnostic or atheist is beside the point today. All the quarrels and distinctions are beside the point.

“One is still what one is going to cease to be,” wrote Jean-Paul Sartre in Nausea, “and already what one is going to become. One lives one’s death. One dies one’s life.”

Today is Ash Wednesday, the leveler. The eraser. The reminder that we are mortal. That I am living my death as you are living yours and dying my life while you are dying yours.

This year more close friends and classmates are closer to dust and ashes. As I ponder the meaning of it all, my appreciation of the religion into which I was born increases. “I have always said that often the religion you were born with becomes more important to you as you see the universality of truth.” — Ram Dass. Born into and raised in the Christian faith has led me to the universality of truth.  Today the church’s practice reduces the size of my ego. Ash Wednesday levels me to a universal truth: the baseline of zero.

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Ash Wednesday ashes

The imposition of ashes — “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return” — is the reminder of the universal truth of our shared mortality.  Wisdom embraces the math of addition by subtraction: the erasure of every source of hubris and division. Today, I will offer my forehead for the imposition of ashes and pray that in the citadels of power someone else will experience the same, for the sake of life itself.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Feb. 14, 2018.

Grandpa, Is this the End?

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Grandpa and Elijah

Grandpa, is this the end?”

The end of what, Elijah? You seem anxious. That’s not like you. End of what?

End of the world! Don’t you know? You’re the preacher!

You didn’t hear that from me. Where’d you hear about the end of the world? Who said that? Who got you all stirred up?

Mom did! I heard her!

What exactly did Mom say? And to whom did she say it?

She said it to Grandma. I heard it. I hear stuff, Grandpa. I don’t need hearing aids. You miss a lot of stuff. I heard it with my own ears.

Touché! But let’s step back a second to make sure you got it straight. What did Mom say?

Mom said “It’s over. Our world’s coming to an end!

What were you doing when Mom said that?

I was just crawling like I have all day, and playing with some wires. Mom didn’t like it.

Aha! I see. “Our world’s coming to an end” is different from the world coming to an end.

Uh-uh! She called me a terrorist! I’m not, Grandpa!

Oh, my! There are terrorists and there are terrorists, Elijah. Was Mom laughing when she said you were a terrorist and that the world had come to an end?

Yes. She was. But before she laughed, she’d been crying a lot. That’s when she called Grandma.

What did Mom say to Grandma? How did the conversation start?

NagasakibombShe said, “Mom, I’m so tired! He’s getting into everything! He started crawling! I have to follow him every second. I can’t let him out of my sight; I’m exhausted! Our world’s coming to an end!”

Well, Elijah, there are worlds and there are worlds. And one person’s terrorist is another person’s child. It’s confusing to a little guy.

Yeah! This morning I pulled myself up. Pretty soon I’m going to walk. The beginning of life for me. The end of the world for Mom.

— Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, February 13, 2018.