America at the Precipice

Two American Founders

The Founders Archives of the National Archives preserves a letter to Ben Franklin eighteen months before the Declaration of Independence was issued. Ben Franklin, the Philadelphia “Quaker,” became a household name. Charles Thomson (1729-1824), the Philadelphia Presbyterian, did not, and that’s a shame.

Charles Thomson was the Secretary of the First and Second Continental Congress, a quiet Founder on the road from colonial rule to an independent democratic republic. The official Declaration of Independence had only two signatures, the President and the Secretary of First Continental Congress: John Witherspoon and Charles Thomson.

He held the office of Secretary from 1774 throughout the American Revolution until the adoption of the Constitution. Thomson’s correspondence with his friend Benjamin Franklin is learned and passionate. His translation of the Bible and the Septuagint from Greek into English is the first English Bible published in America. Thomson’s love of language and range of literature is evident in his letter to Franklin.

Charles Thomson Letter to Benjamin Franklin

“When I look back,” wrote Thomson to Franklin in London, “and consider the warm affection which the colonists had for Great Britain till the present reign, the untainted loyalty unshaken fidelity and cheerful confidence that universally prevailed till that time, and then view the present heartburnings, Jealousies, gloom and despair, I am ready to ask, with the poet, ‘Are there not some chosen thunders in the stores of heaven armed with uncommon wrath to blast those Men,’ who by their cursed schemes of policy are dragging friends and brothers into the horrors of civil War and involving their country in ruin?”
Thomson Letter to Franklin, Nov. 1, 1774

Charles Thomson and Cato, A Tragedy

The poet whose words Thomson cited were from James Addison, the anti-royalist English poet-playwright, whose play, “Cato, a Tragedy” was widely read and often quoted by the Founders of the new nation. Whether intentionally or inadvertently, Thomson changed the “Cato” text from singular to plural to suit the circumstances that enraged him. “Blast the Man” (the king) became “Blast those Men” (i.e. Parliament) who had violated the rights and freedoms of the American colonies’ rights and freedoms under British law.

Dragging their Country into Ruin

The circumstances of November 1, 1774 have changed, but Charles Thomson’s unusual outburst is as fresh today as the day he wrote to Franklin. The longing for a king exceeds the bounds of time. The anxiety that hangs over us makes our heads spin; we long for solid ground, something solid that does not change. So it is that a political party and a portion of the American public have come to mistake treason for patriotism, a bully with a savior, a quack with a swan, and have followed the strong man’s quackery into the halls and offices of the Congress that makes America a democratic republic. When we confuse patriotism with terrorism, Charles Thomson’s letter from the Founders Archives is more than archival.

Teetering on the Edge of the Precipice

When a hollow man and hollow party hollow out the core of what we have thought we valued, the question from Cato’s tragedy rumbles like thunder from the heavens. Charles Thomson’s renderings from Cato fit the eve of a threatened sequel to January 6, when the democratic republic once again “teeters on the very edge of the precipice.”

Toward Healing the Wounds

Will we in 2022 share the hope and prayer with which Charles Thomson ended his letter of November 1, 1774: “Even yet,” he wrote, “the wounds may be healed and peace and love restored; But we are on the very edge of the precipice. I am sir your affectionate Friend and humble Servant.– Chas Thomson”

--Gordon C. Stewart, Public theologian, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017, Wipf and Stock), September 17, 2021.

When the news goes away

Days away from internet access brings a calmer reflection. Being in touch isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Out of touch with bad news brings relief to the body.

220px-Tipi_bij_daglichtIf living in the developed world means being on edge all the time, I’d prefer a less developed one — maybe a teepee with smoke signals for communication. Anxiety is real enough without the constant sting of bad news from far away and beyond my small sphere of influence.

Madison Avenue loves my anxiety. It preys on what can only be prayed about. An ad agency is no praying mantis! It loves green but its antennae hunt for the anxious selves who confuse wants with needs, buying the things we do not need if we believe we only exist by having them.

Stillness and being are not their thing. Selling is their game. They don’t pray. They prey on well-trained animals, ringing Pavlov’s bell for manufactured tastes and smells, while down on Wall Street Monday’s opening bell opens the door of hornets’ nest.

Praying_mantis_indiaLike the praying mantis, the non-preying prayers live far from the bells. In touch with what’s worth much more than it’s cracked up to be: a less bad news world where humans live teepee-lives in touch with the body . . . in the stillness of time.

“Their aim is to confound the plans of the afflicted, but the LORD is their refuge.” [Psalm 14:6, The Book of Common Prayer]

  •  Gordon C. Stewart, wilderness cabin, northern Minnesota, September 3, 2017

An American in a Strange Land

The title of Jim Yardley’s essay in the latest New York Times Magazine –“An American in a Strange Land“–reminds me of William Stringfellow’s book An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land and the biblical roots of “the strange land” metaphor. But the longer I pondered Yardley’s montage of American life, my heart went back to Jesus’s familiar, albeit misunderstood, invitation to the weary.

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
[Gospel of Matthew 11:28-29 NRSV].

On his month-long trip across America in search of answers to what had changed during his 10 year absence, Yardley pieced together the vastly different experiences he encountered into a montage that cries out for further explanation. The montage includes the residents of El Paso, Texas, no more than a long baseball throw across the border from Ciudad Juárez, who disdain Donald Trump’s claims about the border.

Jesus’s invitation is offered to the anxious. The church gets that. Trump gets that. They know we are anxious. Anxiety fills the pews and packs the rallies. Anxiety sends folks running to the gun shops and to the offices of the very same government whose existence they decry for permits to conceal-and-carry or for open carry licenses. Anxiety feeds on itself until the size of it no longer fits within the small confines of a king size bed. Few of us in America fit well in our beds these days.

Churches, gun shops, and politicians who thrive on feeding this frenzy sometimes appeal to Jesus’s call to the weary faithful, ignorant of the specific audience to which Jesus invitation was issued—laborers! The “weary” were the landless poor, ploughing the fields the landowner’s field, driven cruelly like an ox-teams (the word “you” is plural) whose yoke chafes and hurts. Their yoke is anything but “easy”; it is ill-fitting. It chafes. It hurts. The landowner’s yoke allows no rest.The burdens are “heavy” (crushing). ‘They are “heavy-laden.”

“Come to me…for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

Placed in its First Century context, it is an invitation to what many now describe as the underclass. Its audience is not the middle class, and certainly not the upper class. The invitation is issued to the working poor of a top-down economic system that offered cushions to landowners and yokes for everyone else.

In Jesus’s time the line between the landless poor and the wealthy landowners was more obvious perhaps. You were either in the field, so to speak, or you owned the field managers who managed the laborers. But, as I’ve pondered Yardley’s article about the America that strikes him as strangely different, and as I ponder my own anxiety, it strikes me that most of us share a common sense of having become dispossessed.

The pace of change and the nature of change leave us in a state of conscious, subconscious, and unconscious turmoil. The anxiety that is intrinsic to the human condition – we are mortals who die no matter how hard we fight against death —quickly turns in one of two directions. Both directions spiritualize what was not an individual invitation to block out the world’s realities. In the one, we sweep aside its political-economic reference point (the collective ‘you’) and use it to anesthetize ourselves against the unsettling social realities of our time. No one appreciates that more than the one-percent who own the land. In the other, sharing the misappropriation of Jesus’s words as spiritual only, we run to the gun shops and the politicians who feed the frenzy, hoping to defend and secure ourselves against the coming calamity of an Armageddon bought on by our own government’s “rigged electoral system” that favors Muslims, Mexicans, and LBGTQ over Christians, Euro whites, and heterosexuals.

Reading Jim Yardley’s article days before the 2016 election, I realize how anxious and irritable I have become. I’ll go to church this morning hoping for a word that sends me home with a less anxious heart and mind but that also charges to take sides with the landless poor. Our numbers are growing in America. The greatest irony of all is that a billionaire businessman who doesn’t pay federal taxes, views women as “bitches” in heat, exploits cheap foreign labor, out-sources jobs to the countries he decries as America’s cheating enemies, and has Hitler’s speeches in his bedroom is drawing the landless poor to the voting booth of the democracy he says is fake.

“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.Take my yoke upon. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

I’m trying, as best I know how, to dismantle the old yoke and the old yoke system and to replace it with the more easy, gentle yoke that better fits us all. In the meantime, we all are foreigners and strangers in a strange land.

-Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN 55318

Our Anxious Time

Ours is an anxious time, a fearful time, an insecure time. We feel it in our bellies.

This morning we’re moved to consider anxiety, fear, and insecurity. For that purpose we turn to philosophical theologian Paul Tillich* (scroll down) and philosopher of religion Willem Zuurdeeg** for whom the questions were passionate and all-consuming over their lifetimes. Even so, they were not the best of friends.

Zuurdeeg was a severe critic of Tillich’s attempts to create a theological system. He saw every system as a flight from finitude and ambiguity into what he called “Ordered World Homes” that make sense of, and defend against, the anxiety intrinsic to finitude. For Zuurdeeg, to be human is to be thrown into chaos and every philosophy from Plato to Hegel to Tillich is “born of a cry” – the cry for help, for sense, for protection, for a security that lies beyond one’s powers.

Reading Tillich’s Systematic Theology again after reading the news this morning leads to the conclusion that Zuurdeeg and Tillich were very close, as is often the case between critics of one another. One thinks, for example, of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung in a similar manner.

For all their differences, Zuurdeeg and Tillich were joined at the hip by their shared experience with madness in society and the demise of once-trusted foundations of western civilization. The rise of the German Third Reich led them to a lifelong search not only for answers but for the questions that might lead to insight into the existential situation into which Hitler’s madness threw the world headlong into chaos and destruction.

Anxiety, said Tillich, is distinct from fear. Fear has an object. We fear an enemy. We fear Iran; Iran fears us. Israel fears the Palestinians; The Palestinians fear the Israelis. “Objects are feared,” said Tillich.

A danger, a pain, an enemy, may be feared, but fear can be conquered by action. Anxiety cannot, for no finite being can conquer its finitude. Anxiety is always present, although often it is latent. Therefore, it can become manifest at any moment, even in situations where nothing is to be feared….. Anxiety is ontological; fear, psychological… Anxiety is the self-awareness of the finite self as finite. [Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, Vol. 1,  p. 191-192, University of Chicago Press, 1951]

Anxiety is the self-awareness that we are mortal. We are excluded from an infinite future. We were born and we will die and we know it. Despite every flight into denial, we know it in our bones. We have no secure space and no secure time. “To be finite is to be insecure” (Tillich, p. 195). In the face of this insecurity, said Zuurdeeg, the individual and the human species itself seek “to establish their existence” in time and space, though we know we can not secure it. The threat we experience in 2015 is the threat of nothingness. Politicians pander to it. Preachers pander to it. Advertisers prey on it. They eat anxiety for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Again, Tillich, writing as if for our time:

The desire for security becomes dominant in special periods and in special social and psychological situations. Men create systems of security in order to protect their space. But they can only repress their anxiety; they cannot banish it, for this anxiety anticipates the final “spacelessness” which is implied in finitude. [Tillich, p. 195]

So this morning I sip my coffee aware of and thankful for this moment of finitude, and determined that I will not turn over my anxiety into the hands of those who promise security from every fear. Willem Zuurdeeg and Paul Tillich looked directly into the heart of human darkness and saw a light greater than the darkness. I want to live in the light of their courage and wisdom.

Paul Johannes Tillich (1886-1965)

Paul Johannes Tillich (1886-1965)

*Born and raised in Germany, Paul Johannes Tillich was the first professor to be dismissed from his teaching position in 1933 following the election of Adolf Hitler as Chancellor of Germany for his outspoken criticism of the Nazi movement. At the invitation of Reinhold Niebuhr, he and his family moved to New York where Tillich joined the faculty of Union Theological Seminary. He went on to become one of the best-known philosopher-theologians of the 20th century, publishing widely from teaching from chairs at Union, Harvard University, and the University of Chicago. His best know works are The Courage to Be, The Shaking of the Foundations (a collection of sermons),and his three-volume Systematic Theology.

Willem Frederik Zuurdeeg (1906-1963)

Willem Frederik Zuurdeeg (1906-1963)

**Born and raised in the Netherlands in a family that served as part of the underground resistance to Hitler’s pogrom, Willem Frederik Zuurdeeg spent his life asking how western civilization’s most sophisticated culture (Germany), could fall so easily into the hands of a madman. His Analytical Philosophy of Religion became a major text for undergraduate and graduate philosophy of religion classes. When Professor Zuurdeeg died of cancer as Professor of the Philosophy of Religion at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, he left behind an unfinished manuscript later completed by his friend and colleague Esther Cornelius Swenson, the title of which is Man Before Chaos: Philosophy Is Born in a Cry. Click HERE for photographs of Willem Zuurdeeg and the family that gave Jews sanctuary in the Netherlands.

Father and Son – the Audi

2005 Audio A4 2.0 AWD Quattro Wago

2005 Audio A4 2.0 AWD Quattro Wagon

Anxiety wears many masks. Sometimes it looks like a car shopper. Sometimes the car shopper is like his Dad.

I’m at a new stage in life. Our income will be cut by 40% in 27 days when we are both retired. We are excited by the freedom to enjoy life together without the obligations and distractions but are also anxious about finances and the unknown.

So what am I doing at a car dealership, trading the 11 year old Toyota Avalon for a nine year old Audi?

I rationalize laying out $9,000 with reasoning that I “know” is convoluted and self-defeating. It goes like this.

We’ll be on the road for two months. The Avalon has 120,000 miles on it. Can we trust it?

The Avalon needs $1,000 worth of body work to repair the damage done when it’s getting-older driver swiped the side of the garage.

But… we could leave the scrape the way it is and save the $1,000. After all, it’s 11 years old, and we don’t even know whether we will need two cars in retirement. We could sell the Avalon and pocket the $7,500 to add to our small nest egg.

The Audi has only 83,000 miles on it. It’s All Wheel Drive, great for driving in winter conditions. It gets better gas mileage. Sure it takes Premium fuel, but that’s only 30 – 40 cents more than regular.

But it is an Audi. I’ve never owned an Audi.

It’s confusing for a guy who loves cars, a guy addicted to car shopping. My brother does it too. It runs in the family.

Dad's 1983 Buick Skylark

Dad’s 1983 Buick Skylark

When my father could no longer walk without a walker and long after my mother had (sort of) prevailed to stop him from getting behind the wheel of the 12 year-old Buick Skylark, Dad continued to insist he could still drive. He suffered increasing dementia as the Parkinson’s wore on. He also continued to insist he could still play golf. “Ken,” Mom would say, “You can’t even stand up. How are you going to swing a golf club?” “Just take me over. I can still hit the ball.” He also never gave up his role as a Minister of Word and Sacrament, wanting to preach until a few months before he died.

Despite the very limited financial resources which my mother managed like a cookie-baker who hides the cookie jar from kids on sugar highs, Dad always wanted to buy a new car. “Skip, let’s run over and look at that new Buick. I saw it on TV. It’s a beauty!”

Dad dropped by car dealerships as naturally as a sex addict drops by the adult store. Maybe there’s a relationship. The both sell toys.

Tom, the Audi dealer, is a very nice guy. No pressure. “Take it home and show Kay. She’s going to love it. It’ll be the perfect fit for your retirement road trips. Keep it overnight. Just bring it back tomorrow. We can finish up the paper work in the morning.” I leave the Avalon with Tom and leave with the Audi.

Driving the Audi home I begin to notice that the suspension is sportier, which makes for a great driving machine – the Germans make the best – but also means that the ride is stiffer. I remember how I’ve always come back to an Avalon because of the seat and the soft ride. But this is an Audi. I’ve never owned an Audi, and it has all at the bells and whistles. Like the Audi guy says, “You’re retired; you deserve a great car! You goin’ to feel really good in this.”

On the way home, it dawns on me: “So…that’s what this is about.

As of November 10 I no longer have a position. I no longer have a public roll. I am no longer capable of confusing public standing with personhood. I’m anxious, unconsciously fearful. “Retirement” means old age. Loss. Hearing loss. Teeth in a cup. Memory loss. The road to the loss of everything.

The next morning, I take the Audi back to Tom.

Buying an Audi has its own kind of logic, but it makes no good sense, given our finances.  Even with an extended warranty. Because we, the drivers, don’t have “extended warranties”. Getting older can also mean getting wiser. Getting more comfortable being ourselves without status or position and their sex symbols. It’s time to practice what I’ve always preached: We don’t own a thing. We wear out beyond repairs and maintenance. It’s all about anxiety.

I chuckle and imagine a smile on Dad’s face. God doesn’t need an Audi or a Buick. Neither did Dad. Neither do I! I’ll ease on down the road in the Avalon.

– Gordon C. Stewart, Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 27, 2014