Open Letter to President Trump

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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

 

 

 

The Press and the People

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Breckwoldt prüfung

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

The Two Parts of Wisdom

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A Facebook comment led me to recall the words of a 16th century theologian most people today regard as an old fuddy-duddy. First the old fuddy-duddy:

Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid Wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But as these are connected together by many ties, it is not easy to determine which of the two precedes and gives birth to the other.

CalvinInstitutio

John Calvin (1504-1564) was no more a Calvinist than Jesus was a Christian. You can’t follow yourself. He didn’t. He sought wisdom. Many times his search led him to disconcerting conclusions, and actions that trouble me. But the quotation from the very first paragraph of the first page of Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion is pure gold. It’s stayed with me as priceless. They could have come from Carl Jung!

Prodigal Son Rembrandt drawing

The return of the prodigal son – Rembrandt drawing

Recognition of the inseparable connection between the knowledge of self and the knowledge of God is as old as philosophy and theology themselves. Augustine of Hippo wrote about coming to the knowledge of God through the knowledge of himself. “Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee,” wrote St. Augustine after leading an unsavory life like the one portrayed in Jesus’ Parable of the Prodigal Son. Only by delving into the self that was deeper than his squandering was Augustine able to write his Confessions and The City of God. The search for knowledge of himself and for the knowledge of God were of one piece.

Anticipating the FBI’s expanded background check of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, I began to wonder what we’re seeing and how we’re seeing it in light of the two kinds of knowledge that give birth to “the true and solid Wisdom.” Then, almost by accident, I stumbled across a remarkable personal reflection on sexual abuse and sexuality on Facebook. I’d never heard of the writer until this morning. But I do know his mother, a ministerial colleague, who appears to have raised him to search for two parts of wisdom.

With the writer’s permission, we share here the LINK to the personal reflection on Facebook. It’s long, but well worth the read.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, October 1, 2018.

 

 

Trapped in the Schemes They Have Devised

 

Carl Jung

Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961)

Over the years I’ve had a problem with the “us versus them” voice of some psalms of the Book of Psalms. The division of humankind into the ‘righteous’ and the ‘wicked’ leaves me cold. Often I have wanted to recommend to the psalmist a session or two on a Jungian analyst’s couch to get in touch with the ‘shadow’. But, in other times, like the one through which we’re living in America, the psalmist’s poetry is without parallel in giving voice to what I feel. Psalm 10 is one of them.

Psalm 10 is a cry for help in a time of trouble when God seems far off, as though hiding, while “the wicked arrogantly persecute the poor” (v.1), but it also holds a conviction that the persecution is only for the moment. Why? Because, already, the arrogant “are trapped in the schemes they have devised” (verse 2).

Their ways are devious at all times; 

Your judgments are far above out of their sight; 

they defy all their enemies.

They say in their heart, “I shall not be shaken;

no harm shall come to me ever” (v.5).

….

Their mouth is full of cursing, deceit, and oppression;

under their tongue are mischief and wrong (v. 7).

…. 

They lurk in ambush in public squares

and in secret places they murder the innocent;

they spy out the helpless. 

They lie in wait, like a lion in a covert,

they lie in wait to seize upon the lowly

they seize the lowly and drag them away in their net.

The innocent are broken and humbled before them;

the helpless fall before their power (vs. 7-9).

Sometimes the most poignant insights come from the psalmist’s couch. I read the Psalms most every day. I still remember what I’ve learned from Jung about my ‘shadow’ and the fear within me that paints ‘the other’ as wicked, wrong, or wretched. I know that the finger that accuses others often points back at my own sorry self. But the faith I was taught and still practice equally reminds me that anger has a rightful place when the lowly are broken, humbled, and dragged away in the net of the powerful. I remember the ‘righteous’ anger of Amos and the rest of the prophets. I remember Jesus.

Elijah in high chair

Grandson Elijah safe at home.

I see my grandson, Elijah, safe at home with his family in Minnesota, and think of all the children wrenched from their parents arms at the Mexican border. I live in hope that, though innocent children have been carried away to unknown places by the Administration’s net, it is only a matter of time before those who have made them orphans are themselves “trapped in the schemes they have devised.”

– Gordon C. Stewart in the wilderness, August 29, 2018.

The Day My Head Hurt

images_headache-drawing-12You’ve had days like this. I know you have. Days when everything hurts. Days when you open your eyes and can’t see, or wish you couldn’t see. Days when, if you have hearing aids, you put them away. Days when your head hurts, though you have no headache. Days when what you cherish is belittled, twisted, misrepresented, and assaulted.

The dedication of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem was a day like that. NPR ran the story that gave voice to why it hurts so badly in 2018. The American Administration’s selection of Robert Jeffress and John Hagee, both evangelical religious exclusivists with views that are marginal to the American mainstream, rubbed against the grain of traditional American values of respect, propriety, and decency. At no time in my memory has the United States handed the people’s microphone to representatives know for insulting the host nation’s religion and way of life. But NPR can’t voice the part that hurts this writer.

I look and listen as a retired Christian pastor who claims the same tradition President Trump calls his own. We were both confirmed in the Presbyterian Church (USA). Some of us remember what the president seems to have forgotten in confirmation classes. The Presbyterian-Reformed tradition of the Christian faith does not claim exceptional status among the world’s many religions. It calls for respect. The Presbyterian Church’s Confession of 1967 expresses it this way.

Christians find parallels between other religions and their own and must approach all religions with openness and respect. Repeatedly God has used the insight of non-Christians to challenge the church to renewal. But the reconciling word of the gospel is God’s judgment upon all forms of religion, including the Christian. [Confession of 1967, 9.24]

God is bigger than any belief, creed, or religion. Claims to divine favoritism that confine the Divine within the borders of national or religious geography blaspheme God’s ubiquitous presence and freedom. As the late Kosuke Koyama put it, the God of Jesus is a spacious God! Not a house god or national god.

We also believe that the reconciling gospel of Christ calls the church and its people search actively  for cooperation and peace, “even at risk to national security“.

C 67The president’s overtures to North Korea and Russia have given reason to wonder whether perhaps he is following that spirit of The Confession of 1967. But, then, I hear the name calling, the insults, the braggadocio, and remember the dedication of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem, and the headache threatens to become a migraine. But I have learned over the years since confirmation class that, though the loudest voices often hold the microphone, there is an inverse relation between loudness and truth, volume and good sense, loud clashing cymbals and the still small Voice that cannot be silenced.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, August 20, 2018,

 

Easter and April Fools’ Day

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Creation – Day 5 (detail), mid-12th Century, Palermo, Italy,

Today is Easter Sunday and April Fools’ Day. Easter celebrates the victory of life over the power of death, or, as a Medieval hymn put it, “Now the green blade rises from the buried grain. April Fools Day dates back to the 1500s when the Gregorian calendar replaced the Julian calendar. Those who forgot that April 1 was no longer the beginning of a new year were called “April Fools”. They were fools because they were living in the past.

The threat and reign of death in the midst of time plunge us into death’s grip long before we die. Though the canonical Gospels’ descriptions of the resurrection vary in their details, all of them make it clear that a cruel state execution has met its match and more. The evidence is an empty death garment and armed guards who “quaked and became like dead men.” Those who issued the orders and followed them are made to look like fools. A new ordering of things had begun.

However one interprets the resurrection — physical or metaphorical — the Easter story is intrinsically theological and political in the most profound senses of both words. It proclaims of the victory of life over the moral power of death exercised by ill-informed institutional power and authority.

A participant in last week’s Lenten Series “Be Still To See More Clearly” asked the question you may be asking. “What’s theology got to do with politics?” I answered “Everything! Theology is intrinsically political and all politics is theological. What did Jesus preach? He pointed beyond himself to the Kingdom of God which is here in part but yet to come in fulness. A kingdom is a society. Societies are people. Jesus’ good news was the society that is not captive to the up-down world. Jesus was the model of non-exceptional ethics and morality. He was not a prisoner of the politics of death. He insisted that there is only ONE house with many rooms and called his disciples to live and die for the house that unites us all as the benefactors of creaturely interdependence.”

This Easter and April Fools’ Day a case of the shingles keeps me away from the hymns of glad rejoicing and publicly expressed hope for the world. This morning’s news from the Washington Post reminds me that the conflict between the Kingdom of God and the kingdoms of this world is as real as it was two days before Easter. On Easter morning tweets went out repeating the folly of Good Friday.

Trump says ‘no more’ to DACA deal, threatens to cancel NAFTA to force Mexico to secure the border.

President Trump said on Twitter that there would be no deal to legalize the status of millions of “dreamers,” undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children, stating that the U.S. border with Mexico was “getting more dangerous” and directing congressional Republicans to pass tough new anti-immigration legislation.

Trump also lashed out on Twitter at Mexico and threatened to “stop” the North American Free Trade Agreement in retaliation for Mexican authorities not doing enough in the president’s estimation to secure its border with the United States. – Washington Post, April 1, 2018.

This Easter and April Fools’ Day many husbands will leave their golf clubs home to sing the hymns of love’s triumph over the moral power of death. One can always hope there will be one more. Stranger things have happened before at the 19th Hole.

“Now the green blade rises from the buried grain. Love is come again.”  Christ is risen! Happy Easter. No joke!

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Easter and April Fools’ Day, Chaska, MN, Aril 1, 2018.

 

 

 

 

 

If you see a turtle on a fence post…

It’s not every day a stranger gives one a lift. When they do, we owe them our gratitude. Last September Peter Wallace, host of Day1, invited me to Atlanta. In December we recorded Day1’s radio program for the the second week of February for first Sunday of Lent.

My thanks to Peter and Day1 for the privilege and my thanks to any of you who choose to  take a look or open an ear. Here’s how to access it.

  1. Click THIS LINK to open the Day1 website.
  2. On the top right hand of the page, click on the link “Launch Day1 Playlist”.
  3. A window will open showing the last three episodes of Day1.
  4. Click on “Gordon Stewart: He was With the Wild Beasts” and you can stream the program on your computer.

The 40 minute podcast is in three parts: 1) an interview with Peter Wallace, 2) the sermon for the First Sunday of Lent (“He as with the wild beasts”), and a follow-up dialogue with Peter.

Readers of Views from the Edge may remember the earlier post about the complete stranger who helped me navigate the Atlanta Metro system on my way to the 10:00 a.m. appointment at the Day1 studio. As the old saying goes, “If you see a turtle up on a fencepost, you can be pretty darn sure it didn’t get up there by itself.”

Grace and Peace,

Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, February 15, 2018.

 

 

 

Just when we thought …

Just when those of us schooled in progressive schools of thought had become confident that the old schools of thought were dead, that old doctrine we love to hate — original sin — begs for reconsideration.

Progressives of every stripe view original sin as toxic waste material best left behind in the guarded cemetery of bad ideas. Whether secular humanist, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, animist, atheist, agnostic or whatever progressive school of thought, the idea of progress in one form or another has united us against the nay-saying disparagers of basic human goodness.

Then along comes the American election of 2016 and the year that leaves us in shock. January 20, 2017 the nation’s first African-American President handed the Oval Office and the nuclear codes to the primary funder and spokesperson of the Birther-movement determined to erase all things Obama.

Suddenly the reign of sin and death has made a comeback. The sins are ‘original’ both in the old sense of infecting the entire body and freshly creative beyond imagination.

The idea of “sin” itself —  not just “original” sin — had fallen into disrepute, a relic of unenlightened religious orthodoxy until it started to best describe the behaviors of the Oval Office. The arc of the new American administration and Congress looked anything like a rainbow.

“Sin, guilt, neurosis; they are one and the same, the fruit of the tree of knowledge.” Sound like unenlightened orthodoxy paraphrasing the story of the Garden of Eden?

51F+WLhaYmL._SX347_BO1,204,203,200_It was Henry Miller, whose Tropic of Cancer and other books were blacklisted by American publishers as obscene, who looked deeply into himself and the human condition, sounding like the Genesis writer. Or, God forbid, St. Augustine of Hippo or John Calvin.

Neither Augustine nor Calvin meant by original sin or total depravity that life is without an underlying goodness. Like Miller, they pointed to something that is as without explanation as the sudden appearance of the serpent in the Garden of Eden story: our inexplicable proneness to evil and slothfulness in good.

 J. Robert Oppenheimer, father of the bomb, lamented, as though peering ahead to 2017-2018 when two little boys in the White House and North Korea would call each other names while playing with nuclear matches:

  • Despite the vision and farseeing wisdom of our wartime heads of state, the physicists have felt the peculiarly intimate responsibility for suggesting, for supporting, and in the end, in large measure, for achieving the realization of atomic weapons. Nor can we forget that these weapons as they were in fact used dramatized so mercilessly the inhumanity and evil of modern war. In some sort of crude sense which no vulgarity, no humor, no overstatement can quite extinguish, the physicists have known sin; and this is a knowledge which they cannot lose.
    • Physics in the Contemporary World, Arthur D. Little Memorial Lecture at M.I.T. (25 November 1947)

The old biblical serpent is never far away. The vulgarity of sin and death is the story of our time.

Gillray_Shakespeare_Sacrificed_20_June_1789

1909 painting The Worship of Mammon, the New Testament representation and personification of material greed, by Evelyn De Morgan.

Eating from the ONE and only tree of all the trees from which we cannot eat without bringing on our own destruction —  the forbidden Promethean kind of knowledge that divides the world into good (us) and evil (them) — we now wonder how the Seven Deadly Sins not only sit upon the throne of the enlightened democratic republic we thought we knew but infect all who, quite originally, only see evil outside ourselves.

“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall….” – Robert Frost, “Mending Wall”

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, January 18, 2018

New Year’s Gift from the Lutherans

The First Quarter 2018 Issue of Currents in Theology and Mission published today a review of Be Still!. Currents is the quarterly theological journal of the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago and Wartburg Theological Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa. Click Book Reviews for the review by Edward F. (Ted) Campbell, McCormick Theological Seminary Professor of Old Testament Emeritus.

ELCA-Logo-VerticalThanks to Currents in Theology and Mission editors Craig Nessan (Wartburg Theological Seminary) and Kathleen Billman (Lutheran Theological Seminary at Chicago), and “Book Reviews” editors Ralph Klein, Troy Troftgruben, and Craig Nessen for featuring Be Still! as the first among Currents‘ “Book Reviews” for the First Quarter 2018.

Prayers for grace, peace, stillness, and for small victories of “prophetic” madness over collective madness in 2018.

  • Gordon C. Stewart,  Chaska, MN, December 29, 2017.

 

Christ the King

Poet Malcolm Guite’s poetry holds the essential paradox of the Christian faith and life. Open the re-blogged piece to read and listen to his poem for the last Sunday of the Christian liturgical year, Christ the King Sunday.

Malcolm Guite

20111119-111210We come now to a feast of Ends and Beginnings! This Sunday is the last Sunday in the cycle of the Christian year, which ends with the feast of Christ the King, and next Sunday we begin our journey through time to eternity once more, with the first Sunday of Advent. We might expect the Feast of Christ the King to end the year with climactic images of Christ enthroned in Glory, seated high above all rule and authority, one before whom every knee shall bow, and of course those are powerful and important images, images of our humanity brought by him to the throne of the Heavens. But alongside such images we must also set the passage in Matthew (25:31-46) in which Christ reveals that even as He is enthroned in Glory, the King who comes to judge at the end of the ages, he is also the hidden King…

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