The Measures of Ourselves

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Midtown Manhattan viewed from Weehauken, NJ, photo by Dmitry Avdeev.

THE FOUNDATION AND THE MORTAR

Who are we? Can we suspend shouting long enough to reflect on who and what we in the United States aspire to be? By what social norms do we measure a person’s or a nation’s well-being? A culture’s shared values form the foundation on which a society is built. Every culture is both an inheritance and a work in process. Without thoughtful care, time and neglect eat away the mortar between the foundation’s bricks.

FOUNDATIONS OF A DEMOCRATIC REPUBLIC

The Constitution represents the boundaries of that consensus. If we didn’t know it before, we know in 2019 that the constitutional republic we call the United States of America is no Eden. Lord knows, Abel’s blood still cries out from our history and Cain’s inexplicable, impulsive violence will stain our hands again. Repeatedly. Sin is like that. It crouches at the door as in the Genesis legend. There is no perfect culture or society. Although we miss the mark (which is what the biblical word ‘sin’ means) by intention or by inattention, it falls on each of us to reaffirm and refresh the cultural code and ethical norms by which we measure ourselves personally and collectively. These measures are not abstract.

TRADITIONAL CULTURAL’S MORTAR — NORMS AND MEASURES

  • Be respectful
  • Don’t call people names.
  • Don’t make fun of people
  • Be kind
  • Be honest/tell the truth
  • Your word is your bond
  • Deal fairly with each other
  • Show compassion
  • Empathize with those less fortunate than yourself
  • Be generous with your money
  • Help those who suffer
  • Be true to yourself, but be ready to compromise
  • Settle disagreements peacefully
  • Don’t get too big for your britches
  • Be humble
  • Do not show off
  • Be above board in your dealings with others
  • Love your family
  • Respect the individual right to religious belief and practice
  • Honor the principle of free speech
  • Protect a free press
  • Be courageous and patient

TUCKPOINTING THE MORTAR

stone mason tuck pointing the mortar

Check out the mortar. Is it holding? Where does it need tuck pointing? Re-assess traditional culture’s tangible ways of measuring the quality of human life. Delete those you consider outdated. Add other measures you believe should be added. Then look in the mirror. Look at your behavior. Look at what you choose to watch and hear. Think again about who and what you want us to be. See the mortar crumbling. But don’t stop there. Despair is no excuse. Get up and do something to repair the foundation of humankind’s best nature.

— Gordon C. Stewart by the wetland, September 16, 2019

Shabbat Bereishit – The Sound of Your Brothers’ Bloods Cry Out to Me From the Earth

Rabbi Eric Gurvis’s post on Cain and Abel and the debate about guns and mental health came to our attention this morning after posting “Non-Verbal Communication: Cain Looking at Us”.

Source: Shabbat Bereishit – The Sound of Your Brothers’ Bloods Cry Out to Me From the Earth

Non-verbal Communication: Cain looking at us

Cain and Abel – the mythical story of the first two children of humanity – in the Book of Genesis (Genesis 4:1-16) is about something that never happened way back when but about what is always happening with us: the inexplicable violence to which humankind turns against itself. It’s about the yawning abyss of violence into which we plunge when we can’t make sense out of life or when things don’t go our way.

Yesterday’s brief post on Via Lucis Photography of Religious Architecture focuses on a capital of Cain and Abel in a Romanesque church.

Photograph by Dennis Aubrey of Via Lucis Photography of Religious Architecture

Photograph by Dennis Aubrey of Via Lucis Photography of Religious Architecture

Like the Genesis writer, the Medieval artist whose hand crafted the story in stone many centuries later was doing theology and anthropology. The biblical author told the story with words; the Medieval sculptor told it with non-verbal communication.

The face of Cain on Via Lucis held my attention long after I’d gone on with the day. It kept returning to mind.

Cain’s head isn’t turned toward Abel whom he is pummeling to death with his stave. He’s looking away from Cain at someone or something else, as if to say the viewer, “So, you think I’m cruel. You think I’m different. You’re looking in the mirror.”

In the biblical story God tells Cain, “sin is crouching at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.” The Medieval sculptor’s art seems to be saying it in stone. Cain’s head is cocked, his eyes looking at us. At you. At me.  And, perhaps, at God, to whose failure to rescue Abel he shifts responsibility: “Am I my brother’s keeper?”  The capital seems to say Cain knows he owns us and the endless history of violence in which the blood of the silent victims cries out from the ground, unless and until we – persons, groups, religions, races, cultures, nations, a species – master the sin that’s forever crouching at our door.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, October 16, 2015

 

Friendly fire and Fratricide

“There is the possibility that fratricide may have been involved,” said a U.S. military official yesterday of the five American soldiers’ deaths in southern Afghanistan, according to news reports like this one from NBC News. The sentence came over my car radio yesterday. I’ve been pondering it ever since.

Interesting choice of words: “fratricide”, the killing of a brother, meaning, in this case, one of our guys, not one of their guys.

The Genesis story of Cain and Abel is the archetypal fratricide in Western culture. Cain turns to violence. Abel, his biological brother, is dead. When God asks Cain where his brother is, Cain retorts, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

The answer is “Yes, Cain, you are.” Fratricide is out of order.

So is friendly fire. But what about killing the Taliban? Is that “unfriendly fire”? Is that not fratricide because the Taliban are not my brothers?

My ears are attuned to fratricide and to the use of language that brings theology and humaneness into stories like yesterday’s tragedy in Afghanistan and many wartime public relations press releases. The implication is clear. One of our guys may have killed one of his own guys.

In a subsequent statement, another military official said that, in the daylong fight preceding the apparent friendly fire airstrike, the joint U.S.-Afghan security forces operation had killed “lots of them” (i.e., Taliban, the enemy, the non-brothers). The case is being investigated.

Every death of a human being at the hands of another human being, on the ground or from the air, is an act of fratricide.

William Blake painting of "Cain fleeing from the wrath of God "as Adam and Eve look on in horror following the fratricide.

William Blake painting of “Cain fleeing from the wrath of God “as Adam and Eve look on in horror following the fratricide.

 

Climate Change: Changing the Way we Think

Video

“We are nature; nature is us. We are NOT the exception to nature.” Rev. Gordon Stewart looks at basic religious assumptions of Western culture and the need to reinterpret the stories that got us here. He looks at the stories of creation, Cain and Abel, and the Wise Men who “departed by another way” as holding clues to the change in consciousness that is required in our time.

Religion and Politics: Cain and Abel

The Ongoing Saga of Cain and Abel

Gordon C. Stewart | published by MinnPost.com

Religion and politics: oil and water? The problem is that each stakes a claim for the same turf. They both answer the question of how we live together. The fact that religious creeds and political creeds stake claims to leads some of us to separate them, not only as they are separated by the U.S. Constitution, but by carving out different spaces on the same turf: one private/personal sphere (religion), the other public/social sphere (politics). Religion says to politics: Keep your hands off my private beliefs! Politics says to religion: Keep your hands off public policy!

With the exception of adherents of the extreme right or left in religion or politics, most of us have had enough of religious or political fundamentalism. We’re tired of explosive tirades and single-issue politics whose test-tube is organized religion. We’re equally tired of political power plays that dress up a political party (take your choice) as the incarnation of righteousness.

The U.S. Constitution does a good thing when it insists that there be no established religion in this country. Looking back on the failed experiment of the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s blending of religious creed and political authority that resulted in the banishment of dissident Anne Hutchinson (1637), the execution of Quaker Mary Dyer, and the Salem witch trials, the framers of our Constitution had every reason to protect the body politic from the tyranny of any religious majority.

Faith, a vision of the peaceable society

But even as I celebrate the anti-establishment provision of the Constitution, there is no way to separate faith and politics. It’s impossible because faith is about more than the private/personal sphere — it’s a vision of the peaceable society. Faith and politics live in the same territory every time the vexing questions appear regarding the public/social/economic/military ideas and beliefs that create public policy for good or for ill.

The three Abrahamic religions — Judaism, Islam, and Christianity — answer Yes to the question “Am I my brother’s/sister’s keeper?” Our three traditions refuse to confine religion to the vertical and the private. Faith is a living relationship with the Divine that expresses itself, according to Amos, Jesus, and Muhammad, primarily in the daily practice of keeping or caring for the neighbor. Jewish, Christian and Islamic faiths are social as well as personal, public as well as private. While alms-giving and charitable giving are essential, they count for little without also addressing the public policies that set the fires that drive people into the arms of charity. The Cain and Abel story strikes me as a place to anchor the discussion. In the biblical story, Cain (‘kayin’ which means ‘Get’ in Hebrew) is humanity’s first child East of Eden. When Cain kills his young brother Abel (‘puff’ or ‘vapor’ in Hebrew), YHWH asks Cain where his brother is. Cain answers with a crafty question that still echoes down the centuries with war and bloodshed and religious hatred: “I don’t know. Am I my brother’s keeper?”

A call from the NRA

While concentrating on the Cain and Abel story last Monday, my phone rang. The little window on the phone said “NRA.” “Mr. Stewart?” “Yes.” “I’m calling for Ronald Schmeits, president of the National Rifle Association, to invite you participate in a survey with one simple question. It will take just a minute of your time. Mr. Schmeits has an important message. When the message is finished, Mr. Schmeits’ assistant will come on the line for the one-answer survey.”

The message went something like this: “Right now the United Nations is meeting behind closed doors planning to ban all guns everywhere in the world. Even as I speak, they’re planning behind closed doors to take away your freedom in this country. The United States is a sovereign country. We cannot allow a bunch of banana republic dictators to take away the American people’s freedom to bear arms. If we let them succeed, it will be the end of the Second Amendment and the end of freedom in our own country.” Mr. Schmeits’ assistant came on the line to pose the survey’s one “simple” question: “Mr. Stewart, do you think we should allow the United Nations and a bunch of banana republic dictators to take away our freedom? ”

“May I ask how you got my name?”

“Yes, sir, you’re in our data base either as an NRA member, contributor, or as someone who believes in the civil liberties.”

“Well …,” I said, “… I am an advocate for civil liberties.”

“So, Mr. Stewart, would you like to answer the question?”

“Are you serious?! You want me to answer a question that has only one answer, a question premised on demagoguery, fear and lies? Give me a break.”

“You’ve had your break! Have a nice day, Mr. Stewart!”

At that point I wished I’d had a gun. In the name of Abel and all things good, I was becoming Cain.

The work of all religion and politics

YHWH tells an angry Cain in the Genesis story that “sin is crouching at the door, and its urging is for you. But you must master it.” It is the human leaning toward violence that humanity must overcome.

The story of humankind is Cain’s story, the refusal of this mastery. The long sweep of human history is the story of slaying the brother because we have not mastered the beast that crouches inside ourselves. “I am not my brother’s/sister’s keeper.” The sin — i.e. the refusal to take responsibility, the rebellion of separation and of slaying that from which we cannot be separated — goes un-mastered and slays the brother. It comes hurling down the centuries of human development as a rock, a caveman’s club, a sling shot, a rifle, a handgun, a Bazooka, an M-15, an airplane turned into a missile, a drone that kills innocent civilians whose blood, as in the Genesis story, “is crying out to Me (YHWH) from the ground.” Abel’s blood is the ink in which our story is written. Cain’s story sets the stage for the work of all religion and politics worthy of their callings. It is the real story of the Fall from grace held in common by Christians, Jews, and Muslims. It also holds the key to re-writing the story, not by claiming innocence, but by taking responsibility for a violent world.

For faith and for politics alike there is one over-riding question: Am I my brother’s keeper? Or will I insist on the right to slay him? Am I willing to take responsibility for my neighbor, to master the urge to violence that crouches at my door? Do my religion and my politics slay or keep my brother/my sister from deadly harm?

Are we willing to re-claim the Earth as sacred turf — through responsible religion and responsible politics — so that the voice of Abel’s blood no longer cries out from the ground to a horrified God?

Faith and Politics

For faith and for politics, there is one over-riding question: Am I my brother’s keeper? – Gordon C. Stewart; Published by MinnPost.com | Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2010

Religion and politics. Oil and water. The problem is that each stakes a claim for the same turf. They both answer the question of how we live together. The fact that religious creeds and political creeds stake claims to truth leads some of us to separate them, not only as they are separated by the U.S. Constitution, but by carving out different spaces on the same turf: one private/personal sphere (religion), the other public/social sphere (politics). Religion says to politics: Keep your hands off my private beliefs! Politics says to religion: Keep your hands off public policy!

With the exception of adherents of the extreme right or left in religion or politics, most of us have had enough of religious or political fundamentalism. We’re tired of explosive tirades and single-issue politics whose test-tube is organized religion. We’re equally tired of political power plays that dress up a political party (take your choice) as the incarnation of righteousness.

The U.S. Constitution does a good thing when it insists that there be no established religion in this country. Looking back on the failed experiment of the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s blending of religious creed and political authority that resulted in the banishment of dissident Anne Hutchinson (1637), the execution of Quaker Mary Dyer, and the Salem witch trials, the framers of our Constitution had every reason to protect the body politic from the tyranny of any religious majority.

Faith, a vision of the peaceable society

But even as I celebrate the anti-establishment provision of the Constitution, there is no way to separate faith and politics. It’s impossible because faith is about more than the private/personal sphere — it’s a vision of the peaceable society. Faith and politics live in the same territory every time the vexing questions appear regarding the public/social/economic/military ideas and beliefs that create public policy for good or for ill.

The three Abrahamic religions — Judaism, Islam, and Christianity — answer Yes to the question “Am I my brother’s/sister’s keeper?” Our three traditions refuse to confine religion to the vertical and the private. Faith is a living relationship with the Divine that expresses itself, according to Amos, Jesus, and Muhammad, primarily in the daily practice of keeping or caring for the neighbor. Jewish, Christian and Islamic faiths are social as well as personal, public as well as private. While alms-giving and charitable giving are essential, they count for little without also addressing the public policies that set the fires that drive people into the arms of charity.
The Cain and Abel story strikes me as a place to anchor the discussion. In the biblical story, Cain (kayin which means ‘Get’ in Hebrew) is humanity’s first child East of Eden. When Cain kills his young brother Abel (‘puff’ or ‘vapor’ in Hebrew), YHWH asks Cain where his brother is. Cain answers with a crafty question that still echoes down the centuries with war and bloodshed and religious hatred: “I don’t know. Am I my brother’s keeper?”

A call from the NRA

While concentrating on the Cain and Abel story last Monday, my phone rang. The little window on the phone said “NRA.” “Mr. Stewart?” “Yes.” “I’m calling for Ronald Schmeits, president of the National Rifle Association, to invite you participate in a survey with one simple question. It will take just a minute of your time. Mr. Schmeits has an important message. When the message is finished, Mr. Schmeits’ assistant will come on the line for the one-answer survey.”

The message went something like this: “Right now the United Nations is meeting behind closed doors planning to ban all guns everywhere in the world. Even as I speak, they’re planning behind closed doors to take away your freedom in this country. The United States is a sovereign country. We cannot allow a bunch of banana republic dictators to take away the American people’s freedom to bear arms. If we let them succeed, it will be the end of the Second Amendment and the end of freedom in our own country.”
Mr. Schmeits’ assistant came on the line to pose the survey’s one “simple” question: “Mr. Stewart, do you think we should allow the United Nations and a bunch of banana republic dictators to take away our freedom? ”

“May I ask how you got my name?”

“Yes, sir, you’re in our data base either as an NRA member, contributor, or as someone who believes in the civil liberties.”

“Well …,” I said, “… I am an advocate for civil liberties.”

“So, Mr. Stewart, would you like to answer the question?”

“Are you serious?! You want me to answer a question that has only one answer, a question premised on demagoguery, fear and lies? Give me a break.”

“You’ve had your break! Have a nice day, Mr. Stewart!”

At that point I wished I’d had a gun. In the name of Abel and all things good, I was becoming Cain.
The work of all religion and politics

YHWH tells an angry Cain in the Genesis story that “sin is crouching at the door, and its urging is for you. But you must master it.” It is the human leaning toward violence that humanity must overcome.
The story of humankind is Cain’s story, the refusal of this mastery. The long sweep of human history is the story of slaying the brother because we have not mastered the beast that crouches inside ourselves. “I am not my brother’s/sister’s keeper.” The sin — i.e. the refusal to take responsibility, the rebellion of separation and of slaying that from which we cannot be separated — goes un-mastered and slays the brother. It comes hurling down the centuries of human development as a rock, a caveman’s club, a sling shot, a rifle, a handgun, a Bazooka, an M-15, an airplane turned into a missile, a drone that kills innocent civilians whose blood, as in the Genesis story, “is crying out to Me (YHWH) from the ground.” Abel’s blood is the ink in which our
story is written.

Cain’s story sets the stage for the work of all religion and politics worthy of their callings. It is the real story of the Fall from grace held in common by Christians, Jews, and Muslims. It also holds the key to re-writing the story, not by claiming innocence, but by taking responsibility for a violent world.

For faith and for politics alike there is one over-riding question: Am I my brother’s keeper? Or will I insist on the right to slay him? Am I willing to take responsibility for my neighbor, to master the urge to violence that crouches at my door? Do my religion and my politics slay or keep my brother/my sister from deadly harm?

Are we willing to re-claim the Earth as sacred turf — through responsible religion and responsible politics — so that the voice of Abel’s blood no longer cries out from the ground to a horrified God?