Telling the Truth — the Journey of Repair

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An earlier Views from from the Edge post featured a brief summary of an unusual step: a Board of Trustees’ $27.6M action plan to redress institutional entanglement in institutional slavery and ongoing institutional racism. Here’s the full press release from Princeton Theological Seminary (founded in 1819) in Princeton, New Jersey.

Photograph of Princeton Theological Seminary in 1879
Princeton Theological Seminary in 1879

PRESS RELEASE, Princeton, NJ, October 18, 2019

PRINCETON, N.J., October 18, 2019 – Princeton Theological Seminary’s Board of Trustees unanimously endorsed the implementation of a multi-year action plan to repent for its ties to slavery. The approved series of new initiatives, ranging from increased student financial assistance to curriculum changes to added support for the Center for Black Church Studies, is a direct response to a report the Seminary published in October 2018 after conducting a two-year historical audit.

“The report was an act of confession,” says John White, dean of students and vice president of student relations. “These responses are intended as acts of repentance that will lead to lasting impact within our community. This is the beginning of the process of repair that will be ongoing,” says White.

White served as chair of the historical audit recommendations task force, which included trustees, faculty, administrators, students, and alumni, who led a deliberative process to provide opportunities for the campus community to discuss and respond to the audit report. The task force hosted more than 25 events, meetings, and conversations on the campus in the previous academic year. Feedback gathered from students, faculty, administrators, and alumni was incorporated in the recommendations presented to the Seminary’s board. The Board of Trustees also conducted a year-long process of study.

“From the beginning,” says White, “the Board of Trustees has encouraged a thorough process of understanding our history that would lead to meaningful response.”

With an immediate rollout of the plan and continuation through 2024, the Seminary intends to make meaningful and lasting change with the more than 20 approved initiatives, including:

  • Offering 30 new scholarships, valued at the cost of tuition plus $15,000, for students who are descendants of slaves or from underrepresented groups
  • Hiring a full-time director of the Center for Black Church Studies
  • Hiring a new faculty member whose research and teaching will give critical attention to African American experience and ecclesial life
  • Changes in the Seminary curriculum, including a required cross-cultural component and integrating into the first-year curriculum for every master’s student sustained academic engagement with the implications of the historical audit
  • Designating five doctoral fellowships for students who are descendants of slaves or from underrepresented groups
  • Naming the library after Theodore Sedgwick Wright, the first African American to attend and graduate from Princeton Seminary
  • Naming the Center for Black Church Studies after Betsey Stockton a prominent African American educator in Princeton during the antebellum North and a Presbyterian missionary in the Sandwich Islands (present-day Hawaii). Prior to gaining freedom, Stockton was owned by the chair of Princeton Seminary’s Board of Trustees.
  • Enhancing community partnerships and supporting historically disenfranchised communities in and around Princeton
  • Ensuring every member of the Princeton Seminary community understands its history
  • A committee has been established to oversee the implementation of the plan and will regularly report progress to the board. The program costs for the responses represent a commitment of more than $1 million annually on an ongoing basis. To sustain this programming in perpetuity, $27.6 million will be reserved in the endowment.

“The Seminary’s ties to slavery are a part of our story. It is important to acknowledge that our founders were entangled with slavery and could not envision a fully integrated society,” says Princeton Seminary President M. Craig Barnes. “We are committed to telling the truth. We did not want to shy away from the uncomfortable part of our history and the difficult conversations that revealing the truth would produce.”

The historical audit uncovered that the Seminary did not own slaves and its buildings were not constructed with slave labor. Yet, the Seminary benefited from the slave economy, both through investments in Southern banks in the mid-19th century and from donors who profited from slavery. Also, founding faculty and leaders used slave labor at some point in their lives. Several of the first professors and board members were deeply involved in the American Colonization Society, which advocated sending free blacks to Liberia.

“Our response to the historical audit is the beginning of our community’s journey of repair as we seek to redress historic wrongs and to help the Seminary be more faithful to our mission as a school of the church, both now and in the years to come,” says Barnes. “We are taking tangible action to write a new chapter in our story.”

CONFESSION AND REPENTANCE: VIEWS FROM THE EDGE COMMENTARY ON CONTEXT OF PRESBYTERIAN ETHOS

A Prayer of Confession of Sin for “what we have done” and “what we have left undone“– like the one below — is an essential component of Presbyterian Church (USA) services of worship. We do it every Sunday as a habit.

Merciful God,
we confess that we have sinned against you
in thought, word, and deed,
by what we have done,
and by what we have left undone.

We have not loved you
with our whole heart and soul
and mind and strength.

We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.

In your mercy,
forgive what we have been,
help us amend what we are,
and direct what we shall be,
so that we may delight in your will
and walk in your ways,
to the glory of your holy name.

[Book of Common Worship]

Sometimes a habit is more than habitual. Sometimes we mean what we ask: “help us amend what we are, and direct what we shall be….” Sometimes, with God’s help, we do it.

Gordon C. Stewart, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) Minister of Word and Sacrament H.R., Chaska, MN, November 12, 2019.

Elijah Cummings and the Blue Note Gospel

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Photo of antique copy go Thomas a Kemis' Imitation of Christ.

“No one can be a speaker without risk to his soul unless first he is fulfilled when he says nothing….”Who enjoys tranquility? “The one who doesn’t take seriously either praise or lack of it from people.” – Thomas à Kempis (1379-1471)

Thomas à Kempis‘ words from the Imitation of Christ describe the human challenge to each of us: to be one person… everywhere…every day…all the time.

EVERYWHERE, EVER DAY, ALL THE TIME

Elijah Cummings never seemed to get too big for his britches. He seemed unaffected by praise or the lack of it — “a speaker” whose soul was uncorrupted by the need for public praise.

The child of sharecroppers, he stayed grounded in the black church in the “rat and rodent infested” city of Baltimore where he was free to be just another brother moaning the Blues and shouting the gospel shout in a stormy world, as Otis Moss III put it, while those enjoying the ease of white privilege were quiescent and mum, or worse.

America is living stormy Monday, but the pulpit is preaching happy Sunday. The world is experiencing the Blues, and pulpeteers are dispensing excessive doses on nonprescription prosaic sermons. . . . The church is becoming a place where Christianity is nothing more than capitalism in drag.

Rev. Otis Moss III, Pastor of Trinity United Church, author of Blue Note Preaching in a Post-Soul World.

THE BLUES MOAN AND THE GOSPEL SHOUT

Every year, every week, every year for 40 years, Elijah Cummings went back and forth between a different kind of church the mixes the Blues Moan and the Gospel Shout in such a way that they cannot be separated, and his chair in the United States Congress, where being yourself everywhere everyday all the time poses a daunting challenge. His long-time friend and pastor at New Psalm Baptist Church, Bishop Walter Thomas, said of him:

He’s the congressman, but to members, he is Brother Elijah Cummings. … He’s one of us. . . He sits in Congress. He has major concerns and issues he has to solve in the world Monday through Friday, and he sits beside them on Sunday morning. He seeks the same place to be fed as they do. To them, he is their brother in Christ.

Baltimore Sun, October 17, 2019

On stormy Mondays at the Capitol in recent weeks, we observed the Chair of the House of Representatives Oversight and Reform Committee fulfill his oath of office by demanding the truth from those in power while expressing compassion for those whom others scorn. The only ‘t’ he knew was ‘truth’; the only club to which he belonged had no entry fee. Insisting on the truth, he was a lion who roared like the Hebrew prophet Amos. “Come on now! We can do better!”

THE BLUE NOTE GOSPEL

When speaking to the “fixer” who had told the truth, the lion became as gentle as a lamb, expressing God’s anguish like the prophet Hosea. Speaking directly to Michael, he was a grandfather who practiced the Blue Note Gospel.

“I don’t know why this is happening for you. But it’s my hope that a small part of it is for our country to be better.”

Let me tell you the picture that really, really pained me. You were leaving the prison, you were leaving the courthouse, and, I guess it’s your daughter, had braces or something on. Man, that thing—man, that thing hurt me. As a father of two daughters, it hurt me. And I can imagine how it must feel for you. But I’m just saying to you—I want to first of all thank you. I know that this has been hard. I know that you’ve faced a lot. I know that you are worried about your family. But this is a part of your destiny. And hopefully this portion of your destiny will lead to a better, a better, a better Michael Cohen, a better Donald Trump, a better United States of America, and a better world. And I mean that from the depths of my heart.

Whether speaking with Michael or challenging those of his colleagues who returned home to the tees and greens of privilege, Elijah Cummings was the same. He was one person everywhere every day all the time. His integrity stayed intact.

“When we’re dancing with the angels, the question will be asked: In 2019, what did we do to make sure we kept our democracy intact? Did we stand on the sidelines and say nothing?”

“Come on now! We can do better than this!”

Elijah Cummings to the House of Representatives Oversight and Reform Committee

— Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, October 18, 2019. For commentaries on the blues of white privilege, see “The Stories We Tell Ourselves” (p.71) and “The Forlorn Children of the Mayflower” (66f.) in Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017, Wipf & Stock, Eugene, OR).

Fake news from the Pearly Gates

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Maid exposes Peter in the courtyard. The Denial of St Peter by Gerard van Honthorst (1622-24)

Saint Peter: Greetings, Donald. I’ve been expecting you, but not so soon. I have a few questions before you go through the Pearly Gates to the streets of gold.

Donald: Sure, fire away. I’m very familiar with pearly gates. It can’t be much better than Mar-a-Lago. Fire away!

Mar-a-Lago Club entrance gate

Okay, Donald. But I have to warn you–everyone up here is equal. There are no private clubs. No towers. No penthouses. No White Houses. No barrios. No borders. No trade restrictions. No nations. No classes other than the de-programming and re-training classes. Everyone has free medical care. No one is rich. No one is poor. It’s a lot like Karl Marx hoped society would be … except for God. Karl was surprised. Are you ready?

Are you serious!!! Why would I want to go in there? This is crazy. Karl Marx was evil. Communism was evil. Socialism is evil. Obama’s evil. Nancy’s evil! Are they here?

Barack and Nancy haven’t arrived yet, but, when their time comes, we’ll treat them the same way we treat everyone else. Lots of your friends are here in the re-training course: Joe [McCarthy], Roy [Cohn], other members of the Trump family.

What about Karl? He’s been dead a long time.

Karl is enjoying the pleasures of the equality he preached while still with you. Karl’s big surprise was that there is a God.

I don’t want to be any place where Karl is welcome. Jerry [Falwell] and Franklin [Graham] told me all about the Judgment. No way Karl is here! No way!

I guess that’s a matter of judgment, don’t you think?

Right. I’m President. I make the judgments. I decide.

I see. It seems you don’t quite get it, Donald. There are no presidents here. No one owns any property here. Everyone here is a child, just like Jesus said. Can I call you ‘Donnie’?

No. I hate that! Mother called me ‘Donnie’. My dad called me ‘Don’.

Okay, Don, I won’t call you ‘Donnie’.

And don’t call me ‘Don’. Dad kicked me out of the house and sent me away to a military academy. I hated that!

But your dad did help you avoid the draft, right? That bone spur thing. Remember?

I did have bone spurs! They were terrible!

Do you still have them? Show me your foot. Everyone up here has bare feet. There are no shoes. Nothing is hidden. Let me see your foot.

No, they’re gone!

Donald, bone spurs don’t just go away, and, when they’ve been removed, the foot will bear the scars from surgery. Show me your foot.

I don’t have a scar! My sister came to the rescue with EZorb. It went away! I’m not hiding anything. I don’t hide things like the fake news and the whistleblowers.

I see. Donald we have a truth problem. Your sister couldn’t have given you EZorb. It didn’t exist when the draft board gave you the deferments. Truth is truth up here, Donald.

That’s fake news! Fake news! You’re part of the deep state that was out to get me.

I’m sorry you feel that way, Donald. Here it doesn’t matter how you feel. It matters what you did. Only facts matter here.

I was making America great again. I’m not like you. I never let a maid expose me out in the courtyard!

You’re in for a great surprise. This is not Mar-a-Largo. Here the maids who spoke truth in the courtyards and cleaned the toilets, and all the undocumented workers, are equal to everyone else. It’s only a matter of time before your family’s driver and all those people at the border join the maids and me up here.

You believe everything you read in the Times? What driver?

Zoltan Tamas, who’s been in ICE lock-up for the last six months.

I don’t know anything about that! It’s all fake news. All fake news!

I’m sorry, Donald. You’ve failed the test. But, like I said, there’s grace here. Feel free take a seat here outside the Pearly Gates until your family’s driver and all the other ICE detainees arrive. In the meantime, a little scripture might help prepare you for the re-training.

I don’t need re-training by a loser, a big time lose just like Judas! Anyway, I didn’t bring my Bible.

I know! You don’t have a Bible, Donald. So…Click THIS LINK for Jesus’s surprising story of the sheep and the goats, the parable of the Last Judgment, to help you understand why people go through re-training here. The Losers turn out to be Winners, and the Winners are Losers. We do our best up here to keep hell empty!

— Gordon C. Stewart. public theologian, Chaska, MN, October 16, 2019

Something about long, lazy days and whirring air conditioners

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Consider the contrast between Live and Learn‘s appreciation for Earth’s seasons and Franklin Graham’s focus on heaven in a recent Fox radio interview chastising public figures who openly reject or express doubts about their Christian faith.

“I’m going to keep telling people how they can have a relationship with God how they can have their sins forgiven and how it can make and have that hope of heaven one day by putting their faith and trust in Jesus Christ.”

Franklin Graham, Fox radio interview with Todd Starnes Click THIS LINK for more.

Although the Live and Learn quote from Sarah Dessen’s That Summer is not specifically theological, it captures the contrast between two kinds of religion. One celebrates life (“So much in one summer, stirring up like the storms that crest at the end of each day, blowing out all the heat and dirt to leave everything gasping and cool”) and seeks to live responsibly on the planet.

The other kind of religion sees faith as the ticket to heaven (a paradisal life after life), instead of eternal punishment in you know what, while the sweet smell of honeysuckle is overcome by the smell of sizzling asphalt and the porpoises wash ashore because of plastic.

Click HERE for he post “Something about long, lazy days and whirring air conditioners” on Live and Learn.

I’m having a hard time . . .

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“I’m having a hard time ...”
 he said with a scowl
 coming through the line
 to shake the hand 
 of the preacher who had
 preached his first sermon
 at the church judged
 to be the leading voice in
 the civil rights and peace
 movements in the city.
 
 “I’m having a hard time
 not hitting you,” he said,
 holding back his right arm
 with his left hand as the
 new 26 year-old anti-war 
 pastor reached to shake 
 his hand.  

 “Pools of Blood” had packed 
 a punch with the chair of the
 City Human Rights Commission.

GCS, July 20, 2019

Written in response to today’s Weekend Writing Prompt challenge to write a poem or prose on the word “judge” with exactly 95 words.

We sat down over coffee later that week.

NO WAR AGAINST IRAN

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Hours before authorization for military strikes oft Iran (and sudden reversal), an email from RABBI ARTHUR WASKOW‘s arrived in my inbox. Views from the Edge republishes it without further comment.

Although the focus of Rabbi Waskow’s epistle is Iran, the opening paragraph distills into a few words a perspective we share. There are “three urgent impending disasters:” war with Iran; the war that threatens to deport “millions” of immigrants; and the war against Mother earth.

EMERGENCY: NO WAR AGAINST IRAN

“Dear Gordon, This morning I started writing a Shalom Report letter that addressed three urgent impending disasters: A Trumpist war against Iran; a Trumpist war against immigrants living in American cities and towns, whom he just threatened with imminent sudden mass deportations of “millions”; and an escalation of the Trumpist war against Mother Earth.

“The Trumpist obsession with subjugating others is at a tipping point – between utter lethal disaster or the deepening and broadening of resistance.

“I thought we had about a week. I went to an eye-doc appointment. It turned out we had only hours. setting aside the other emergencies. Still with dilated eyses, I am trying to see clearly, and I am for the moment

“I ask you right now, as soon as your receive this, to act against the Trumpists’ plans to attack Iran. After that, please read the rest of this letter where I will outline what I think is going on..

“What to do now:

{“contact.first_name, please call your members of Congress. Here’s what I invite and encourage you to do:

“1) Call the Congressional Switchboard at 202-224-3121. Call three times, for your two Senators and one Congressperson. (If you live in DC and have no Senators, call Senator Schumer, the Minority Leader.)

“2) Ask the Capitol operator for your representative/senators, and when connected say your own version of this:

“‘My name is _ and I am a constituent living at [your address]. I’m calling to urge [Congressperson/Senator X] to publicly oppose U.S. military attacks on Iran. I urge [her/him] to tell the president he does not have constitutional authority for any attacks.’

“‘[Congressperson/ Senator X ] should point out any retaliatory strike on Iran for what happened to the U.S. drone could spiral out of control. Instead, I strongly urge [[Representative/Senator X] to call for the U.S. to return to diplomacy, including supporting a convening of the UN Security Council to work to defuse tensions in this global crisis.'”

“Gordon, I urge you to step up your activism today to prevent all-out war with Iran. The Shalom Center will have a number of suggestions for actions you can take over the next few days, but today I urge you to call Congress right away as critical meetings are happening in D.C. right now.

“A potential U.S. retaliatory strike is likely being discussed in the White House as I write this. The White House has said they will be briefing Congressional leaders later today and that is often a sign that an attack is imminent. Meanwhile, Speaker Nancy Pelosi has called a caucus meeting of Democrats for later today. Members of Congress will be the key here and active peace-loving people need to push them to stand in Trump’s way.

“The only way to pull us out of this spiral toward war is for supporters of peace like you to get active and push Congress to stand up to the president and tell him clearly that he has no authority to go to war.

“Please call now.

“Background:

“But the Trumpist Regime worsened the sanctions. They were aimed at totally disrupting the Iranian economy and literally starving the Iranian people. They were beginning to damage daily life –- all because the Trumpists could not bear an Obama-initiated agreement that offered hope for bringing Iran back into the international community. Faced with enormous US pressure, the Europeans began to cave in.

"Third big step on the road to war: Trump threatened nuclear war if Iran were to resist by interfering with oil shipments in its Gulf.

 "It is not clear whether the claims of such interference are lies as blatant as the “Tonkin Gulf attacks” in 1964 that never happened; but even if they were real, they were defenses against a devastating economic war imposed by the Trump regime.

"Now it is clear – Iran and the US agree – that Iran shot down an unmanned drone. Iran says it was flying over Iranian territory.The Trumpist regime claims it was over the Gulf. No matter where it was, cause not for war but for diplomacy. And given the history of those in Washington now unleashing the mad dogs of war, veterans of the lies about Iraqi nuclear weapons, and given the history of Trumpist efforts to provoke a war, I very much doubt the US claim. It would fit Trumpist policy to send a drone over Iranian territory.

“There are more thoughts about the past that few Americans remember but practically all Iranians do:

“The CIA’s overthrow of a democratically elected New Dealish Iranian government in 1953 to prop up a tyrannical Shah who used torture against his critics. Why this CIA/ US action? Because the Mossadeq government intended to nationalize American oil companies that were draining Iran of its resources for US profits.

“When the Islamic Revolution succeeded in 1979 and the Shah fled, the US refused to extradite him to stand trial for his crimes. Americans remember only that Iranians reacted by detaining dozens of Embassy staff for a year.

“In 1980, Iraq under the rule of Saddam Hussein invaded Iran. The US supported Saddam, even aiding him in using chemical weapons against Iran. The war ended in 1988. The death toll on both sides was about 500,000.

“This is not a history likely to inspire trust for the US government on Iran’s part. Add the
Trumpist abandonment of the nuclear-disarmament agreement so painstakingly negotiated and enforced.

“And the history of Trumpism does not inspire much trust among most of the American people in the truthfulness of the Trump regime.

“That’s the background. If you have not already made your calls to Congress, please do so now: 1202-224-3121

“Thanks!! And given the burdens this unfolding disaster is liable to put upon our ability to resist, please contribute through the maroon “Contribute” budget just below
sohl [that is “peace” in Farsi, the language of Iran], paz, peace! — Arthur
With blessings of shalom, salaam, peace.”

Thank you, Arthur,

Gordon

GORDON C STEWART, CHASKA, MN, JUNE 21, 2019

The Day the Ashes Were Turned into Water

We are drowning in a sea of lies, but the ocean has a way of caring for itself. Without exception, all life is part of the Ocean. If it seems strange to be talking about water on Ash Wednesday, perhaps a memory will bring water and ashes together for you, as it did for me.

The Ash Wednesday I’m remembering, I robed 20 minutes or so before the 7:00 PM Ash Wednesday. There was plenty of time. I went to fetch the the little ZipLock bag of ashes. I’d forgotten that the credenza where I’d always stored the ashes had been moved from my office to the church basement. I rushed to the basement to where the credenza had re-located. There was no credenza. Finally it dawned me that the credenza had been sold at for a couple of bucks at the annual festival-flea market last fall.

“Somebody has my ashes,” I thought, “and they’ll probably treat them like dirt! Or maybe they’ll freak out, thinking the ashes are somebody’s cremains!”

What to do? Burn some newspapers! Smoke a cigar! No time for that. There would be no imposition of ashes. No outward, visible sign that we are dust and we return to the dust — the thing we never want hear. It was then that the missing ashes were turned into water.

We filled the baptismal font with water and marked each worshiper with the waters of baptism. “[Carol, Bob, Judi, Clyde], you are a disciple of Jesus Christ. Live in his love and serve him. And never forget to be grateful.”

The last worshiper to leave that Ash Wednesday Service offered to do for me what had been done for her.

“Gordon,” she said, marking my forehead with water, “you are a disciple of Jesus Christ. Live in his love and serve him. And never forget to be grateful.”

Like the miracle at Cana where water was turned into wine at a wedding, the turning of ashes into water became an unexpected moment of joy in the communion of saints.

Today, when we feel overwhelmed by a sea of lies, remember that everything empties in the Ocean. I wish you an Ash Wednesday when your ashes are turned to water, and a few drops of the vast Ocean wash away what you’ve lost and welcome you home for a sacred communion.

— Gordon C. Stewart, Ash Wednesday, March 6, 2019, in Chaska, MN.

Photograph is the baptistery in the Church of the Sacred Heart in Monza, Italy, uploaded from Wikipedia.

Tell Out My Soul

Tell out, my soul, the greatness of His might!
Powers and dominions lay their glory by;
Proud hearts and stubborn wills are put to flight
;
The hungry fed, the humble lifted high.

“Tell Out My Soul” rang out across the world yesterday, the last Sunday of Advent and the first Sunday of the government shut-down in the USA. The third stanza (above) expresses a timeless and timely hope.

In the immortal words of Timothy Cratchet (Tiny Tim) to Ebenezer Scrooge’s “Bah, humbug!” (A Christmas Carol): “God bless us, every one!”

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, December 23, 2018.

You Tyrant!

Recalling Steve Shoemaker’s post “A Song for Each Kind of Day” after returning to the habit of reading the Psalms each morning, I am stunned by the aptness of the Psalm for today.

The Psalms are existential in nature. They are profoundly personal, but they also address public life. They give voice to the heart’s desire in a given time and place — our thanksgivings, yearning, exultations, lamentations, and cries against injustice. Often they are the poet’s responses to public life in the light of faith.

THAT’S NOT NICE!

You tyrant, 

why do you boast of wickedness 

against the godly all day long?

 You plot ruin;

Your tongue is like a sharpened razor,

O worker of deception.

 You love evil more than good

and lying more than speaking the truth.

You love all words that hurt,

O you deceitful tongue.

 Oh that God would demolish you utterly,

topple you, and snatch you from your dwelling,

and root you out of the land of the living!

 The righteous shall see and tremble, 

and they shall laugh at him, saying,

“This is the one who did not take God for a refuge,

but trusted in great wealth

and relied upon wickedness.”

  • Psalm 52:1-7 (Book of Common Prayer)

Psalm 52 isn’t nice. The psalmist knew nothing of Watergate or the Mueller investigation, or Donald J. Trump. Nor was he imbued with an ethic that told him not to judge, to be kind, to watch his tongue, to believe that all’s right with the world because God’s in His heaven or the claim everything happens for a reason.The psalmist is not a fatalist or a determinist. He holds sacred his personal responsibilty for public life. His life is not his own. He knows himself to be a member of a commonwealth. When the integrity of the commonwealth comes under threat, his heart must speak.


BREAKFAST WITH A PSALMIST

Former U.S. Attorney General Elliot Richardson is remembered for “the Saturday Night Massacre” when he resigned his office, refusing to obey President Richard Nixon’s order to fire Watergate Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox. 

NYTimes_Saturday_Night_Massacre.jpegYears later, Elliot Richardson came to Minneapolis as the featured speaker at the Westminster Town Hall Forum. As was the custom, he moderator and the guest speaker enjoyed conversation over breakfast the morning of the Forum. At his initiation, the convsersation turned to religion. He was writing a book, occasioned in part by the growing public agreement with John Lennon’s “Imagine There’s No Religion,” arguing that, if the slate of human history were wiped clean of religion, we would re-create it in a heartbeat because it’s in our nature. Searching Amazon’s listing of Richardson’s books, it appears it was never published. If we had the opportunity again all these years later, I would ask him if he had crawled inside Psalm 52 before he took the leap of faith that made him a hero of personal conscience and public intergrity.

ONLY A POEM (A PSALM) 

Some things are matters of the heart. Some things in public life pierce the heart so deepLy; some sins against the commonwealth are so egregious; some wealth is so obscene; some abuses of power against the commonwealth so obvious, that only a poem (a psalm) says what we feel. There is a psalm for this kind of day.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, on the wetland, Dec. 18, 2018

Open Letter to President Trump

November 15, 2018

Dear Mr. President,

I’m concerned for the country. I’m also worried about you. The two go hand-in-hand, yet they are not the same. Though we have never met, we share something: we were baptized in Presbyterian churches. Neither of us can remember that moment. We were infants. We had no choice.

Because we do have a choice now, I write to share with you the story of another person who, unlike us, was old enough to choose.

Kosuke Koyama was 15 years old at the time. Japan was his country. Tokyo was his home. The United Church of Japan was his church family. The scene of his baptism could not be more different from ours. It was 1945 during the American fire bombing of Tokyo. The worshipers could hear the bombs exploding all around the church. Through the windows they could see the flames.

His pastor gently took  Koyama’s face in his hands, looked him in the eye, and charged him with words that succinctly say what baptism into Christ means:”Kosuke, you are a disciple of Jesus Christ. You must love your enemies. Even the Americans.” It was a defining moment for the rest of Kosuke’s life.

Kosuke Koyama - RIP

Kosuke Koyama (1929-2018 “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Mt. 25:23) RIP

Through the eyes of faith, Koyama later plumbed the depths of that moment, and came to a deeper understanding of what had happened to his native country. Japan had come to regard itself as exceptional — a singularly superior nation and culture. Japan had made itself into its own house god. It had twisted love of country (patriotism) into nationalism, and nationalism gave license for imperialist adventures that led to unimaginably horrific consequences. In 1967 the United Church of Japan issued a Confession of Responsibility During World War II as a way of restoring the church’s integrity.

Kosuke Koyama died in 2009 after a distinguished professional career that officially ended with his retirement from the John D. Rockefeller Chair of World Religion at Union Theological Seminary in your home city. Robert McAfee Brown, who wrote the book you and I were assigned to read in confirmation class, The Bible Speaks to You, was Koyama’s faculty colleague. During his 14 years at Union Seminary, and following his retirement, Dr. Koyama created a legacy that lives on in his books (Water Buffalo Theology, Mount Fuji and Most Sinai, No Handle on the Cross, and others) and in the lives of those he influenced by his teaching and humble character.

World War I centenary

World War I Centenary, Paris, France, Nov. 11, 2018

Today you call yourself a nationalist. You have embraced the great sin that Kosuke came to see so clearly in his native country. Watching you at the Arc de Triomphe last week for the 100th anniversary of the armistice that ended World War I, I saw you through Koyama’s lens of faith. You sat among the company of other world leaders, but you looked very alone. Sitting very nervously away from the spotlight, you waved back to someone, as if to assure yourself of your importance. I saw a very lonely man without the company of friends and allies. In that moment, I felt a bit of sympathy for you. I wished you could slip away to a nearby cafe where we could talk, just the two of us as pastor and president.

Trump and Macron III July 2017Then I heard the President of France, Emmanuel Macron, step to the podium to issue a rebuke to nationalism as “a betrayal of patriotism” that eliminates what makes a nation great: its moral compass. While my heart leaped for joy, I wondered what you were feeling and thinking all alone there in Paris.

Patriotism is the exact opposite of nationalism. Nationalism is a betrayal of patriotism. By saying “our interests first, who cares about the others,” we erase what a nation holds dearest, what gives it life, what makes it great and what is essential: its moral values. I know there are old demons which are coming back to the surface. They are ready to wreak chaos and death. History sometimes threatens to take its sinister course once again.

I thought again of Koyama and wondered whether it would have made a difference if your pastor had baptized you during a bombing raid when you were old enough to choose, looked you in the eye, and said, “Donald, you are a disciple of Jesus Christ. You must love your enemies [and friends], even the French.” New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, a short walk from the White House. It was President Abraham Lincoln’s home church during his presidency. Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln worshiped there to hear a word from a free pulpit which they knew they could not command. It could become a home for you, Melania, and Baron, too.

I will pray for you. I will love our country. But I will not worship it. Neither should you.

Respectfully,

Gordon C. Stewart

Retired Minister (HR), Presbyterian Church (USA), Chaska, MN