The Rape of the Sermon on the Mount

A friendly reader suggested that “Get Off My Corner” (Be Stil! Departure from Collective Madness, p. 133-36) is more poignant today than the day it was written during the Obama presidency. With nothing better to say, we lay humility aside — a very Minnesotan thing to do, but, increasingly a very un-American thing to do.

GET OFF MY CORNER!

Let us hope and pray that the vast intelligence,
imagination, humor, and courage will not fail us.
Either we learn a new language of empathy and
compassion, or the fire this time will consume us.

— Cornel West, Race Matters

I’m sitting calmly in my office when the phone rings. It’s a parishioner who lives near the downtown post office. “I don’t know what’s happening,” she says, “but there’s some kind of ruckus on the corner. There’s some kind of booth on the corner.”

I drive to the Post Office. I park the car half a block away and see a large booth on the street corner. The woman handing out literature is yelling at a man who’s crossing the street, and he’s yelling back. I can’t hear what they’re saying until I draw closer.  A man crossing the street to get away from the booth is shouting over his shoulder. “You’re not only anti-Semitic! You’re anti-American!”

Lyndon LaRouche Photo reads "Is This Your President"

The booth features . . . [a photograph] of the President of the United States. But this is no ordinary photograph. There’s a mustache imposed on President Obama’s picture, the mustache of Adolf Hitler and a call for his impeachment, “Dump Obama!”

I approach the booth.

“What’s happening?” I ask.

She slides a flyer toward me across the counter. “Read it,” she says. I put my finger on the mustache. “You don’t want to hear what we have to say. You’re a spy!” she says as she steps backward, tilts her head in the air, and bellows out “O beautiful for spacious skies, For amber waves of grain, For purple mountain majesty, Above the fruited plain. America!  America! God shed His grace on thee….” But before she sings the last line of the stanza – “and crown thy good with brotherhood…” – she stops and orders me off her corner. “Get off my corner!”

She is carrying the message of Lyndon LaRouche, a perpetual candidate for President whose only consistency over a long checkered history of ideological swings on the political spectrum is the red-hot lava of righteous rage.

The behavior of the woman at the Post Office, like that of the Florida pastor whose threat to burn Qur’ans nearly set the world on fire several years ago, is bizarre. But the rage she expresses is not unique to her. Because it is so outrageous, it shines a light into the darkness of the widespread incivility of our time, an incivility that erupts from a core conviction hidden below the surface of our consciousness.

We’re street brawling over what kind of America we will be, and “Can’t we all just get along”- the plea of Rodney King as he witnessed the Los Angeles riots following the “innocent” verdict  exonerating the police officers whose beatings of him had been aired repeatedly on national television– is long forgotten. We’re dividing ourselves into true believers and heretics, patriots and traitors, suspicious of each other all the way to the White House.

This is not new. This volcano of anger erupted in the trial of Anne Hutchinson (1637), banished by the court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony as “a woman not fit for our society” who, when banished, went on to co-found the State of Rhode Island. It erupted in the execution of Mary Dyer, a Quaker hanged for heresy in 1670, and in the Salem Witch Trials. The horrors of powerful religious dogmatism led the Founders of the new American republic to write into the constitution that there would be no established religion. The American republic would a secular republic with freedom of religious expression. It would not be a theocracy.

This is not new. This volcano of anger erupted in the trial of Anne Hutchinson (1637), banished by the court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony as “a woman not fit for our society” who, when banished, went on to co-found the State of Rhode Island. It erupted in the execution of Mary Dyer, a Quaker hanged for heresy in 1670, and in the Salem Witch Trials. The horrors of powerful religious dogmatism led the Founders of the new American republic to write into the constitution that there would be no established religion. The American republic was to be a secular republic with freedom of religious expression. It would not be a theocracy.

As the new nation was being conceived, demagoguery often replaced politics, i.e. the art of compromise, as it often does now.  One does not compromise with the enemy. One eliminates him.   Rodney King’s plea is regarded as the way of the ill-informed, cowards, heretics, and Anti-Americans.

The lava of anger originates from a hidden, unexamined conviction that the United States is the chosen people, the messianic people whose job is to eliminate evil within and without in the war of good against evil. It is an idea born of the rape of the Judeo-Christian tradition by nationalism which installs America as the exception to history, the nation divinely ordained to banish Anne Hutchinson in 1637, hang Mary Dyer in 1670, and destroy the reputations of decent people as un-American in Senator Joseph McCarthy’s purge of secret communists in the early 1950s. It’s the belief that America is the exception…and that the real America is only some of us, the righteous believers.

In the unspoken consciousness of our collective memory, “You are the light of the world” becomes the declaration of fact spoken about America, not an itinerant preacher’s call to a small band of first-century disciples to persist in the hard politics of love and peace in a time of hate and violence. The ensuing lines from the primary text, The Sermon on the Mount – “You have heard that it was said, ‘You must love your neighbor as yourself,’ but I say to you, love your enemy and do good to those who persecute you” – are forgotten, ignored, torn out, blacked out or burned on the altar of messianic nationalism.

Even more ironic is that those who attack others, including a sitting president, as un-American – i.e. heretics  who do not bow to the idea of America as the collective messiah  of history– scream against government and taxes as enemies, socialist intrusions on their individual freedom to hoard what is theirs.  The biblical city is no longer for a community of sharing of the wealth and care for the least; it becomes a sandbox of greed and competition where the highest value is my freedom to get and keep what is mine.

The irony is that in the minds and hearts of those who have been raped, “America the beautiful…God shed his grace on thee…” is not a statement of aspiration but of fact.  And the prayer “God mend thine every flaw” –  the flaws of selfishness and greed, our meanness to each other, our name calling and stereotyping, our entrenched partisanship, our collective global nationalist arrogance – become a distant memory of a censored sentiment.

The irony is that in the minds and hearts of those who have been raped, “America the beautiful…God shed his grace on thee…” is not a statement of aspiration but of fact. And the prayer “God mend thine every flaw” – the flaws of selfishness and greed, our meanness to each other, our name calling and stereotyping, our entrenched partisanship, our collective global nationalist arrogance – become a distant memory of a censored sentiment.

In times like these when ugliness replaces beauty, America the beautiful is, as it always has been, a courageous aspiration and prayer for sanity in the midst of collective madness.

Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf & Stock, Eugene, OR) available for reviewing and purchase through the publisher or Amazon Prime.

I chose to show him empathy

When the killer of 11 Shabbat worshipers at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh was admitted to the hospital emergency room, he had no idea the E.R. nurse who showed him compassion was Jewish. In this piece, Ari  Mahler, R.N. writes of his experience. It was originally published on Blogspot.com.

“The Jewish Nurse”

I am The Jewish Nurse.

Yes, that Jewish Nurse. The same one that people are talking about in the Pittsburgh shooting that left 11 dead. The trauma nurse in the ER that cared for Robert Bowers who yelled, “Death to all Jews,” as he was wheeled into the hospital. The Jewish nurse who ran into a room to save his life.

To be honest, I’m nervous about sharing this. I just know I feel alone right now, and the irony of the world talking about me doesn’t seem fair without the chance to speak for myself.

When I was a kid, being labeled “The Jewish (anything)”, undoubtedly had derogatory connotations attached to it. That’s why it feels so awkward to me that people suddenly look at it as an endearing term. As an adult, deflecting my religion by saying “I’m not that religious,” makes it easier for people to accept I’m Jewish – especially when I tell them my father is a rabbi. “I’m not that religious,” is like saying, “Don’t worry, I’m not that Jewish, therefore, I’m not so different than you,” and like clockwork, people don’t look at me as awkwardly as they did a few seconds beforehand.

I experienced anti-Semitism a lot as a kid. It’s hard for me to say if it was always a product of genuine hatred, or if kids with their own problems found a reason to single me out from others. Sure, there were a few Jewish kids at my school, but no one else had a father who was a Rabbi. I found drawings on desks of my family being marched into gas chambers, swastikas drawn on my locker, and notes shoved inside of it saying, “Die Jew. Love, Hitler.” It was a different time back then, where bullying was not monitored like it is now. I was weak, too. Rather than tell anyone, I hid behind fear. Telling on the people who did this would only lead to consequences far worse.

Regardless, the fact that this shooting took place doesn’t shock me. To be honest, it’s only a matter of time before the next one happens. History refutes hope that things will change. My heart yearns for change, but today’s climate doesn’t foster nurturing, tolerance, or civility. Even before this shooting took place, there’s no real evidence supporting otherwise. The FBI and the Southern Poverty Law Center note that Jews only account for two percent of the U.S. population, yet 60% of all religious hate crimes are committed against them. I don’t know why people hate us so much, but the underbelly of anti-Semitism seems to be thriving.

So now, here I am, The Jewish Nurse that cared for Robert Bowers. I’ve watched them talk about me on CNN, Fox News, Anderson Cooper, PBS, and the local news stations. I’ve read articles mentioning me in the NY Times and the Washington Post. The fact that I did my job, a job which requires compassion and empathy over everything, is newsworthy to people because I’m Jewish. Even more so because my dad’s a Rabbi.

To be honest, I didn’t see evil when I looked into Robert Bower’s eyes. I saw something else. I can’t go into details of our interactions because of HIPAA. I can tell you that as his nurse, or anyone’s nurse, my care is given through kindness, my actions are measured with empathy, and regardless of the person you may be when you’re not in my care, each breath you take is more beautiful than the last when you’re lying on my stretcher. This was the same Robert Bowers that just committed mass homicide. The Robert Bowers who instilled panic in my heart worrying my parents were two of his 11 victims less than an hour before his arrival.

I’m sure he had no idea I was Jewish. Why thank a Jewish nurse, when 15 minutes beforehand, you’d shoot me in the head with no remorse? I didn’t say a word to him about my religion. I chose not to say anything to him the entire time. I wanted him to feel compassion. I chose to show him empathy. I felt that the best way to honor his victims was for a Jew to prove him wrong. Besides, if he finds out I’m Jewish, does it really matter? The better question is, what does it mean to you?

Love. That’s why I did it. Love as an action is more powerful than words, and love in the face of evil gives others hope. It demonstrates humanity. It reaffirms why we’re all here. The meaning of life is to give meaning to life, and love is the ultimate force that connects all living beings. I could care less what Robert Bowers thinks, but you, the person reading this, love is the only message I wish instill in you. If my actions mean anything, love means everything.

Respectfully,

Ari Mahler, RN.
4th December 2018

A follow-up post will appear on Views from the Edge.

–Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska MN, March 1, 2019.

“Get off my corner!”

Sen Joe McCarthy purging America of disbelieversGordon C. Stewart (copyright)

I’m sitting calmly in my office when the phone rings. It’s a parishioner who lives near the downtown post office. “I don’t know what’s happening,” she says, “but there’s some kind of ruckus on the corner. There’s some kind of booth on the corner.”

I drive to the Post Office. I park the car half a block away and see a large booth on the street corner. The woman handing out literature is yelling at a man who’s crossing the street, and he’s yelling back. I can’t hear what they’re saying until I draw closer.  A man crossing the street to get away from the booth is shouting over his shoulder. “You’re not only anti-Semitic! You’re anti-American!”

The booth features an eight-foot tall photograph of the President of the United States. But this is no ordinary photograph. There’s a mustache imposed on President Obama’s picture, the mustache of Adolf Hitler and a call for his impeachment, “Du mp Obama!”

I approach the booth.  “Just another Jew,” says the woman.

“What’s happening?” I ask.

She slides a flyer toward me across the counter. “Read it,” she says. I put my finger on the mustache. “You don’t want to hear what we have to say. You’re a spy!” she says as she steps backward, tilts her head in the air, and bellows out “O beautiful for spacious skies, For amber waves of grain, For purple mountain majesty, Above the fruited plain. America!  America! God shed His grace on thee….” But before she sings the last line of the stanza – “and crown thy good with brotherhood… – she stops and orders me off her corner. “Get off my corner!”

She is carrying the message of Lyndon LaRouche, a perpetual candidate for President whose only consistency over a long checkered history of ideological swings on the political spectrum is the red-hot lava of righteous rage.

The behavior of the woman at the Post Office, like that of the Florida pastor whose threat to burn Qur’ans nearly set the world on fire several years ago, is bizarre. But the rage she expresses is not unique to her. Because it is so outrageous, it shines a light into the darkness of the widespread incivility of our time, an incivility that erupts from a core conviction hidden below the surface of our consciousness.

We’re street brawling over what kind of America we will be, and “Can’t we all just get along”- the plea of Rodney King as he witnessed the Los Angeles riots following the “innocent” verdict  exonerating the police officers whose beatings of him had been aired repeatedly on national television– is long forgotten. We’re dividing ourselves into true believers and heretics, patriots and traitors, suspicious of each other all the way to the White House.

This is not new. This volcano of anger erupted in the trial of Anne Hutchinson (1637), banished by the court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony as “a woman not fit for our society” who, when banished, went on to co-found the State of Rhode Island. It erupted in the execution of Mary Dyer, a Quaker hanged for heresy in 1670, and in the Salem Witch Trials. The horrors of powerful religious dogmatism led the Founders of the new American republic to write into the constitution that there would be no established religion. The American republic would a secular republic with freedom of religious expression. It would not be a theocracy.

As the new nation was being conceived, demagoguery often replaced politics, i.e. the art of compromise, as it often does now.  One does not compromise with the enemy. One eliminates him.   Rodney King’s plea is regarded as the way of the ill-informed, cowards, heretics, and Anti-Americans.

The lava of anger originates from a hidden, unexamined conviction that the United States is the chosen people, the messianic people whose job is to eliminate evil within and without in the war of good against evil. It is an idea born of the rape of the Judeo-Christian tradition by nationalism which installs America as the exception to history, the nation divinely ordained to banish Anne Hutchinson in 1637, hang Mary Dyer in 1670, and destroy the reputations of decent people as un-American in Senator Joseph McCarthy’s purge of secret communists in the early 1950s. It’s the belief that America is the exception…and that the real America is only some of us, the righteous believers.

In the unspoken consciousness of our collective memory, “You are the light of the world” becomes the declaration of fact spoken about America, not an itinerant preacher’s call to a small band of first-century disciples to persist in the hard politics of love and peace in a time of hate and violence. The ensuing lines from the primary text, The Sermon on the Mount – “You have heard that it was said, ‘You must love your neighbor as yourself,’ but I say to you, love your enemy and do good to those who persecute you” – are forgotten, ignored, torn out, blacked out or burned on the altar of messianic nationalism.

Even more ironic is that those who attack others, including a sitting president, as un-American – i.e. heretics  who do not bow to the idea of America as the collective messiah  of history– scream against government and taxes as enemies, socialist intrusions on their individual freedom to hoard what is theirs.  The biblical city is no longer a community of sharing of the wealth and care for the least; it becomes a sandbox of greed and competition where the highest value is my freedom to get and keep what is mine.

The irony is that in the minds and hearts of those who have been raped, “America the beautiful…God shed his grace on thee…” is not a statement of aspiration but of fact.  And the prayer “God mend thine every flaw” –  the flaws of selfishness and greed, our meanness to each other, our name calling and stereotyping, our entrenched partisanship, our collective global nationalist arrogance – become a distant memory of a censored sentiment. In times like these when ugliness replaces beauty, America
the Beautiful is, as it always has been, a courageous aspiration and prayer for sanity and the ancient wisdom of the Letter of James that calls us all to engage each other and the world of nations differently: “The fruit of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.”

You don’t get to have a non-Jewish Jesus

Gordon C. Stewart     Feb. 14, 2012

“Who was Jesus?” I asked the Jehovah’s Witnesses who had rung the doorbell. Through the upstairs window where I do my writing, I had seen the van pull over across the street and empty out. I thought perhaps there was a family gathering next door until two of them walked up the drive way.

An email response to “Whitney Houston, the Leper, and You” (posted below) reminded me of the conversation that ensued. Here’s the email from Ann in Texas:

“So nice to hear from you and feel your energy out there flushing out injustice and ranging around in the ‘big ideas,’ and formative experiences. Bravo!  Passion writes action… and here’s mine… an odd reaction, I’m sure, but to the leper story, and the overturning of the tables and all the examples we use to cast aspersions on ancient Judaism that help perpetuate in my mind a subtle continuing contemporary anti-Judaism and the continuing need for an Israel that has morphed into “pants” to small to hold it.  Now there’s a view from the edge!”

I share Ann’s concern. I hold my breath every time I preach or write on texts like this, painfully aware of the anti-Semitism that continues in subtle and not-so-subtle forms.

When the Jehovah’s Witness rang the doorbell, I was deep into writing a sermon on planetary stewardship and sustainability in the wake of the B.P. oil “spill” – Deep Water Horizon blow out in the Gulf of Mexico.

The dogs were barking up a storm at the two men standing on their porch. I went down, answered the door, and stepped outside to meet them.

They were kind and gentle people. They wanted me to know that the world was coming to an end. “Yes, I know,” I said, “what do you fellas think about the crisis in the Gulf of Mexico?” They preferred to talk about Jehovah, the Book of Revelation, the end of the world… and Jesus.

“Okay, let’s talk about that. “Who was Jesus?”

“He was the Son of God.”

“And who was the Son of God?”

“Jesus Christ.”

“And who was Jesus Christ?  Christ is not Jesus’ last name. It’s a title. So who was Jesus?”

“The Son of God, Jesus Christ.”

“Let me ask it differently. Who was Jesus of Nazareth?’ Who were his people and what was Jesus’ religion?

“What do you mean?”

“Well, Jesus was a real man, in real time. He lived in a particular time and place. Jesus didn’t suddenly plop down out of the sky. So who was Jesus of Nazareth?

“He was the Messiah, the Christ. He came to bring the new Covenant.”

“And what about the first covenant? What was Jesus’ religion?

“He was a Christian,” they said.

“Jesus was a Christian?! You can’t follow yourself. A Christian is someone who follows the Christ.  Jesus was not a Christian. Jesus was a Jew. And he’ll always be a Jew. You don’t get to make him up like that. We can’t create Jesus in our own image. You don’t get to have a non-Jewish Jesus!”

We talked then about Jesus and the Book of Revelation. We discussed the fact that the Book of Revelation is a literary genre of the first century called “apocalyptic” that was peculiar to that time; that it was written by a disciple of Jesus held prisoner by the Roman Empire on the Isle of Patmos, who was denouncing the imperial claims of the Roman Empire, and proclaiming its end in bizaare images of Jewish Scripture (in Danile and Ezekiel). The Book of Revelation wasn’t, as so many think today, a book of predictions about the future or the end of the world.

“You’ve thought about this a lot,” said one of the men. “You really seem to have spent a lot of time studying this.”

I thanked him for the compliment and responded that although I’ve been thinking about these matters all my life, I still know very little.

At the end of the 45-minute conversation, I told them how much I respected their commitment to their beliefs and their sacrifices of time and money. I took their literature and invited them to think about what Jesus would have us do about the crabs, the oysters, and the oil-soaked birds drowning in oil in the Gulf of Mexico.

If we were all as committed to the healing of the planet and to the care of the poor as my visitors were that day to spreading their message with urgency, the world would be a better place.

Those of us who carry the name “Christian” don’t get to have a Jesus who is a Christian. The only Jesus we get to have was and always will be the Jewish Jesus of Nazareth, whose people have been crucified many times by the anti-Semitic pogroms of those who claim to follow him.

The Jesus who heals the leper also tells the leper to “go and show yourself to the priest and offer the sacrifices that Moses commanded for your cleansing….” Jesus is telling the man to practice his Jewish tradition, but Christian interpreters typically fail to notice the startling clarity of Jesus’ Jewishness. Likewise, any reading that begins with the assumption that Jesus was a Christian mistakes Jesus’  turning over of the money-changers’ tables in the temple as his rejection of Jewish faith and practices rather than the deepest affirmation of the Jewish covenant by which he lived. In faithfulness to the covenant, he protested the abuse of the covenant by the religious leaders of his time who had forsaken their high calling by collaborating with and cozying up to the Roman economic and military powers that occupied Jerusalem – just like today.

Thank you, Ann, for the email that reminded me.