Standing firm @ Standing Rock

Tomorrow, December 5, is a watershed moment.

It’s the government-ordered deadline for the oil pipeline protesters to vacate the federal land where they have camped for water preservation since early 2016.

Today, the eve of the confrontation, several thousand U.S. military veterans are joining the protesters. So is a large group of religious leaders from around the country and world. Why? Because some moments are watershed moments, times when the watershed itself is in danger. Times when the earth cries out, as in the biblical story of Cain and Abel. Times like today when, according to the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth, “our Mother Earth is wounded and the future of humanity is in danger.” The People’s conference document continues as follows.

We confront the terminal crisis of a civilizing model that is patriarchal and based on the submission and destruction of human beings and nature that accelerated since the industrial revolution.

The capitalist system has imposed on us a logic of competition, progress and limitless growth. This regime of production and consumption seeks profit without limits, separating human beings from nature and imposing a logic of domination upon nature, transforming everything into commodities: water, earth, the human genome, ancestral cultures, biodiversity, justice, ethics, the rights of peoples, and life itself.

Under capitalism, Mother Earth is converted into a source of raw materials, and human beings into consumers and a means of production, into people that are seen as valuable only for what they own, and not for what they are.

Capitalism requires a powerful military industry for its processes of accumulation and imposition of control over territories and natural resources, suppressing the resistance of the peoples. It is an imperialist system of colonization of the planet.

Tomorrow those who stand firm at Standing Rock face forcible removal, arrest, and violence. In this watershed moment, they will do what America’s First Peoples have always done. They will beat the drums and lift their voices in prayer to the Great Spirit, standing firm at Standing Rock to honor Mother Earth and future generations.

Today, tomorrow, and for years to come, Standing Rock will symbolize the necessary turn from a civilizing model that insists on “man over nature”. A time when we turned to believing we (the human species) are above nature.  A watershed moment when we came to see that water is us. We are water. We are nature. Nature is us.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, December 4, 2016.

 

 

Planetary Economics

The beginning of the GOOD news is HARD news, according to John the Baptist calling people out into the wilderness of Nature (Gospel of Mark 1:1-8).

“We must change,” he cries. Only a 180 degree turn can deliver us from the consequences of the actions that have led us here. He sounds like Bill McKibbon.

For John the Baptist the system at issue was Roman imperialism, an economic-political system centered in Rome expanding out, enforced by military invasions, subjugation, occupation, buffered by generous religious tolerance so long as the religious practices did not interfere with Roman prerogatives.

One could repeat the sentence in 2015 with little change: “the system at issue is [American] imperialism, an economic system centered in [Washington] expanding out, enforced by military invasions, subjugation, occupation, and religious tolerance so long as the local religious practice does not interfere with [American] prerogatives.”

It is this spiritual, moral, economic, cultural and political captivity to a global system that cannot satisfy our real needs or the world’s that produces a longing in our hearts, a readiness to make the trip to the wilderness. We are being called to abandon the house built on the quicksands of greed, manifest destiny, national exceptionalism, and the illusion of unsustainable growth.

We’re a weary people in 2015. Wearied and still disheartened 14 years after “Shock and Awe” took down Saddam Hussein on the pretense that he had weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) that threatened us and the Bush Administration’s persistent mis-association of 9/11 with Saddam Hussein. We’re wearied of lies and 11 years of un-budgeted military expenses, the loss of thousands of American soldiers’ lives and as many as 100,000 Iraqi civilians, a military venture undertaken on the assumption that the Iraqi people would welcome our presence as the onset of a new representative democracy and “free market” economy.

That belief in the goodness of American intentions hit the rocks almost as quickly as Saddam’s statue hit the pavement in Baghdad. All the while we were wearied by the earlier invasion of Afghanistan, whose original justification was a quick elimination of Osama bin Ladin and Al-Qaida untempered by realistic knowledge of the long history of the military interventions that mired the invaders in quagmires such as the Soviet Union found itself before leaving in defeat. To the Afghans it didn’t matter whether the troops were Soviet or American. They were the same. They were the occupation forces of an imperial power destined to fail.

In the midst of the weariness about what was happening abroad, the financial system at home took the American economy to the brink of disaster in 2008. Occupy Wall Street rose to the top of the news cycles. Although the movement fizzled over time, as such movements inevitably do, it caught the attention of television viewers, internet surfers, and newspaper and magazine readers. Occupy Wall Street and the spot light it placed on “crony capitalism” became a hot topic around water coolers at work and the table in the coffee shops.

For the first time in recent memory, capitalism was no longer sacred, no longer off limits. Time’s front cover asked the question whether Capitalism was dead. But, as with Occupy, public attention is short-lived. Amnesia sets in when people are weary. How soon we forget…until some new John the Baptist issues the cry for a 180 degree turn for the sake of something better.

Maybe Naomi Klein is a new kind of John the Baptist. This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, reviewed here by the New York Times, places the over-riding systemic issue squarely before the general public again. Senator Bernie Sanders, America’s only socialist Senator who names climate action as among his four top priorities, is gaining attention as a presidential candidate. Elizabeth Warren, the Senate’s strongest voice on holding Wall Street accountable, is a bulldog who won’t let go. Put them with Bill McKibbon and 350.org and you begin to hear the echo of John’s recognition of the prophetic hard truth-telling that is the forerunner of good news.

The hard truth that precedes good news is the discovery of the myth that couples democracy with capitalism while viewing socialism as democracy’s opposite. Ideological myopia is to nations and cultures what horse blinders are to horses on a race track: they limit vision to the narrow path of the track they’re on. They prevent their adherents from seeing beyond the track.

When the climate is changing in ways that have begun to compel our attention, and when we ask how we will make it through the changes together, the bigger question of the economic system (the track itself) comes into view by virtue of necessity. It calls us off the track of species supremacy and “man over nature” into the wilderness of Nature itself.

The words ‘economy’ and ‘economics’ derive from the Greek words for ‘house’ and ‘the management of the household’. Their real subject is not about markets, free or otherwise. The issue is what and how the managers manage and why we let them. Economics is every citizen’s business because we all live together in the one house. No exceptions. Economics in the original sense is a spiritual-ethical perspective before it creates systems that support (or contradict) its premise of shared life and responsibility for the planet.

John the Baptist with his axe laid to the root of the tree, reminds us that economics is a spiritual matter of the first order. It is what the Hebrew Bible calls “the Day of the Lord” and John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth called “The Kingdom [i.e. Society] of God”. Economics is not an academic discipline, or the exclusive province of Wall Street traders who understand how the free market works. Genuine economics begins and ends with the philosophical commitment to the wellbeing of the entire household of Nature and its inhabitants.

The planet — this home within Nature without which no person, society or form of life exists — requires different management. The economy for which our hearts long is the one house imagined by the psalmist and announced by John in the wilderness beyond the track of the Pax Romana: the good news waiting for longing hearts to embrace it, an economy where “righteousness and peace will kiss each other” (Psalm 85:10) and wars will be no more.

The beginning of the GOOD news is HARD news. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

– Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, June 16, 2015

In the Footsteps of Mary

A sermonic reflection on America today, Dec. 14, 2014.

Today’s texts speak indirectly to the national outrage over the deaths in Ferguson, Cleveland, and Staten Island and to the larger context of the economic Law – Capitalism – under which they’ve taken place.

The Spirit falls upon Isaiah

…to provide for those who mourn in Zion– to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit….They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations. (Is. 61:2-4)

I am in mourning. Even in the midst of Zion. Though I already taste the fruit of the Kingdom of God which is yet to come in fullness, I am in mourning. In ashes. Faint in spirit. Living among the ancient ruins, the former devastations, the ruined cities, the devastations brought on by many generations including my own.

There is anger out there. Lots of it. There are calls for justice out there. There are “die-ins” on Interstate Highways blocking traffic, interrupting business as usual. And it’s good. It’s right. It’s an American thing to do.

But, like most movements, this one will pass in a few weeks or maybe months. It will go the way of Occupy Wall Street.

For while protesters were were being hand-cuffed for “die-ins”, Congress was taking the hand-cuffs off Wall Street and the “too-big-to-fail” banks. The Dodd-Frank restrictions enacted following the 2008 meltdown were being quietly removed by hidden-away paragraphs in the down-to-the-wire spending bill. There will be no more hand-cuffs. No more probation. No more accountability to the American people. The legal limits on dealing in the “derivatives” market were being deleted on Capitol Hill, and, perhaps worse, the Dodd-Frank provision prohibiting a second government bailout was replaced by a commitment to bail them out again.

While on Capitol Hill the Law was being re-written to deliver automatic bail to Wall Street, individuals protesting law enforcement tyranny on the streets were hauled off to jail hoping a friend would bail them out.

Only within the larger economic puzzle do the various pieces begin to make sense.

For all of America’s national wealth, we are among the poorest of nations. We are a classist society bordering on a caste society. Class has always been the issue in America. Race and class have always gone hand-in-hand, but classism has other hands as well.

The wider context surrounding the law enforcement racial divide is the classism embedded in a global capitalist economic structure.

We are living still amid the “ancient” devastations brought on by rich white slave traders who captured Africans like animals for a zoo to work their plantations for profit. Racism is a class issue, an ownership issue, an issue of economic privilege, before it is anything else. The coupling of race and class is as clear now as it ever was, despite the Civil Rights Movement and the election of America’s first African American president.

Capitalism is the issue. The accumulation of wealth. The increasing concentration of wealth. The hoarding of wealth. Wealth disparity, power disparity, racial disparity, electoral disparity, legal disparity; what’s enforced and what’s not; who’s in handcuffs and who’s not; who’s bailed out and who’s not; who’s charged and who isn’t; who’s in prison for what and who’s not; who’s on probation or parole and who’s not; who’s elected to Congress and who’s not; who owns what and who doesn’t; who can pay for an election and who can’t – are all about class, the control of the means of production and capital and the expropriation of cheap labor and natural resources that can’t talk back.

Enter now into this world the psalmist of today’s readings who dared to dream of a great reversal of fortunes:

When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream.

Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then it was said among the nations, “The LORD has done great things for them.”

“The LORD has done great things for us, and we rejoiced.

Restore our fortunes, O LORD, like the watercourses in the Negeb.

May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy.

Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.”[Psalm 126:1-6]

The tears of weeping bear the seeds for sowing and reaping of the sheaves of the new economic order. It is no accident that the psalmist mixes the metaphors of weeping, seeds, sowing, and shouts of joy, and sheaves. It is, as it were, a vision for the Earth itself. Honest weeping is the beginning – the sowing – that leads to earthly transformation and shouts of joy.

Mary, the newly pregnant peasant girl, becomes the representative, singing her song amid the ancient devastations, announcing the hope that will engage the powers of class “to provide for those who mourn” [Is.61:1]:

My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” [Luke 1:46b-55]

Put differently by Philip Clayton, Ingraham Professor of Theology at Claremont School of Theology, we are living

“…at the dawn of a new form of human civilization. Individuals, societies, and nations are now deciding whether to keep fighting to preserve the dying order, or whether to take leadership in building the new. It’s not a matter of waiting for more data; we already know what the old practices are doing to our planet, and we know what it takes to build a global society that is socially, economically, and environmentally sustainable. The ones who make the greatest difference are those who work and live with wisdom, with diplomacy, and with restraint, placing the good of the whole planet first.” [Philip Clayton and Justin Heinzekehr, Organic Marxism: An Alternative to Capitalism and Ecological Catastrophe, Process Century Press, 2014]

I’m still mourning. But I feel better. I know that the mourning is a holy thing, the hint of a coming “garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit” and so, I write. I pray. I sing. I mourn to the tune of Isaiah. I march to the dream of the Psalmist. I walk in the footsteps of Mary.

– Rev. Gordon C. Stewart, Honorably Retired, Views from the Edge, Third Sunday of Advent, Dec. 14, 2014.

Capitalism, Socialism, and the Earth

The online Oxford Dictionary defines democracy as “a system of government by the whole population or all the eligible members of a state, typically through elected representatives….”

But it immediately biases the discussion with the following sentence to illustrate the word democracy: “capitalism and democracy are ascendant in the third world.” That is, capitalism and democracy go together. Wherever capitalism goes, democracy goes. The ascend together as was imagined to be the case in the Arab Spring.

To the contrary, the online Oxford Dictionary defines capitalism as “an economic and political system in which a country’s trade and industry are controlled by private owners for profit, rather than by the state.”

The Oxford Dictionary identifies what we are coming to realize in America. We do not live in a democracy. We live under “the economic and political system in which a country’s trade and industry are controlled by private owners for profit rather than by the state.” Neither are they controlled by the people of the state, the body politic.

The presumed ideological kinship between capitalism and democracy has existed in America culture as long as most of us can remember. It wasn’t always so in the 1920s and ‘30s, but, as we are beginning to understand again by virtue of circumstance, democracy does not depend upon a capitalist economy. In fact, democracy and capitalism are contradictions in terms. They are philosophically incompatible.

The more natural kin of democracy is socialism, as defined by the online Oxford Dictionary: “A political and economic theory of social organization that advocates that the means of production, distribution, and exchange should be owned or regulated by the community as a whole.”

Democracy is the rule of the people, “a system of government by the whole population….” or, “the community as a whole.”

Finally in America an intelligent discussion is afoot about democratic rule and economics. Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate takes the discussion to a new level that views global capitalism as “the most profound threat humanity has ever faced: the war our economic model is waging against life on earth.”

Keep Awake – Undelivered sermon #1

KEEP AWAKE!

First Sunday in Advent, 2014
Texts: Isaiah 64:1-9
Mark 13:24-37

“And what I say to you I say to all: Keep awake.” [attributed to Jesus, Gospel of Mark 13:37].

It’s hard to stay awake in times like these. To be conscious means grief, helplessness, anger at the state of the world.

“Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” is supposed to bring comfort but it doesn’t, unless the heaven and earth of which Jesus speaks are the ones our pride has created. The imaginary ones. The heavenly and earthly projects that rise out of human insecurity as in the Genesis story of Babel, the story of what never was but always is, according to which the building of the ideal city is interrupted and the tower “with its top in the heavens” is “left off”.

But the word – the story about it – has not passed away. It endures. As fresh today as it was when first shared around a campfire as a way of telling each generation the respective places of God and man (humankind).

The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel.

The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel.

Fourteen years after the World Trade Towers collapsed in NYC, a new tower, “One World Trade Center” – taller, stronger, bolder – stands where the old towers fell on 9/11.

One World Trade Center, symbolizes a resurrection of the crashed myth. Standing a few blocks from Wall Street, where the global economy is reconstructed every day, One World Trade Center re-erects the myth of national supremacy, benign goodness, and the virtue of the American economic system. Which is different from a resurrection.

We could have left Ground Zero empty, void of monoliths and phallic symbols. We could have turned it into a plaza, a memorial to the error of pride, a turning away from global arrogance. A repentance from the economic-military-religious complex that expropriated the oil fields in the Middle East, assassinated the elected President of Iran in 1958, installed the Shah in his place, ignored the human rights of Palestinians, supported and installed western-friendly oligarchies and strong men in Saudi Arabia, Iraq (Saddam Hussein), Libya (Muammar Gaddafi), and Egypt (Hosni Mubarak) until, except for Saudi Arabia, they turned against us.

Instead of listening to the word that does not pass away, we Americans, to the sorrow of New Yorkers like Michael Kimmelman (” A Soaring Emblem of New York, and Its Upside-Down Priorities, NY Times, Nov. 29, 2014), opted for the old words and worn-out scripts that have failed us.

The Arab Spring in Libya, Egypt, and Tunisia did not do what the NeoCon exporters of Western democracy had imagined. It unleashed a seething volcano of anti-American resentment. Meanwhile, Afghanistan, Iraq, and now Syria, have become desert quagmires – Vietnams without jungles.

One World Trade Center

One World Trade Center

Eisenhower’s last speech to the nation warning of an emerging military-industrial complex is all but forgotten as One World Trade Center stands like a phoenix raised up…and up…and up from the ashes, the world’s tallest building, symbol of global dominance re-erected from the horrifying deadly collapse of 9/11.

Words and symbols are everything in this world.

As Mr. Kimmelman put,

“…[The World Trade Center Twin Towers] never really connected with the rest of Lower Manhattan. There had been talk after Sept. 11 about the World Trade Center re-development including housing, culture and retail, capitalizing on urban trends and the growing desire for a truer neighborhood, at a human scale, where the windswept plaza at the foot of the twin towers had been.”

It’s all about human scale. A plaza. Not a tower with its top in the heavens.

Staying awake is hard. Being attuned to what is not passing away takes faith. It takes hope. I takes courage. Maybe even love.

“From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near.” [Mark 13:28]

Jesus often seems to have said that the word we need to hear is spoken by nature. Learn from the fig tree. It waits through the dormant season to become tender again, to put forth its leaves toward summer when it produces its sweet figs.

Nature is calling. Nature is our home. Nature is what is – the real heaven and earth – the word that will not pass away, the word that will survive when we are gone. We need to love nature again. Awaken to nature. Re-imagine ourselves as part of nature, “creatures” like all the other creatures. Our words will pass away, even the best of them. Our Creator’s word will not.

During Advent – this most puzzling of seasons, the season of wakeful, wait-ful anticipation of a Coming in fullness – I find myself crying out like Isaiah. “You have hidden your face from us, and have delivered us into the hand of our iniquity.” [Isaiah 64:7]

“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence—as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil– to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations [the ‘ethnoi’ in New Testament Greek, i.e.” the peoples”] might tremble at your presence!” [Isaiah 64:1-2]

The “nations” have always been God’s adversaries, closed in on themselves, puffed up, defensive against intruders foreign and domestic, plunderers of nature and other nations, hostile to the foreigner, both human and Divine.

In this season of “economic recovery” when the poor continue to get poorer, the rich get richer, and the middle class shrinks, I pray “Good Lord, deliver us, from ‘the hand of our own iniquity’. Remember, ‘O LORD, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.’ [Isaiah 64:8]”

This word is the only word that lasts.

Stay awake, my soul. Stay awake to the whole of it, all of it – the sorrow and the grief of it, the loneliness of it, the anger in it, the guilt of it, the finger pointing out and away and the finger pointing back at me, a nation to myself, and the presence of the Potter – and my soul will be well.

“The Birth of Freedom” and the NYSE

The New York Stock Exchange was closed down. For two full days the trading bell on Wall Street did not ring. But on Main Street the bells that mis-identify American freedom with Wall Street were ringing in our living rooms, flooding the airwaves with campaign ads about freedom and the loss of it.

In front of Westminster Presbyterian Church on the Nicollet Mall at the heart of downtown Minneapolis stands an eye-catching sculpture called “The Birth of Freedom.”. The figures are naked, emerging from primal slime, evolving, reaching toward the heavens.

The Birth of Freedom, Paul Granlund

The late Paul Granlund was the sculptor. Westminster commissioned him to give visual expression to the words of the Apostle Paul:

“For freedom Christ has set you free; stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”  (Galatians 5:1)

There is a freedom from and there is a freedom for.

“For your were called to freedom; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love be servants of one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ But if you bite and devour one another take heed that you are not consumed by one another.” (Letter to the Galatians 5:13-15)

I listen to the campaign speeches. I hear the freedom talk. I see crowds cheering. I hear loud applause. And I wonder…what kind of freedom is being cheered? What kind of slavery is feared?

The advertisers who write the ads for the candidates and the PACs know the answers to these questions. They know that the psyche of American generations that grew up in the Cold War defines freedom as freedom from “Communism” or “Socialism.” They also know that the Christian Right fears submission to the “godless” whom they believe threatens their religious freedom.

But no one can take away my freedom or yours, and it is misleading to paint one’s political opponent as intending to take it way. For me, as a Christian, the freedom for which we are released (set free) is not freedom from but freedom for communion with my neighbors. It applies not only to personal relationships. It applies equally to the political and economic systems.

This morning the bell rang again at the stock exchange. The biting, devouring, and consuming of each other becomes a way of life again, the adored substitute for freedom. To condone it is to submit again to a yoke of slavery, the most widespread violence where, to quote Jacques Ellul,

“in this competition ‘the best man wins’ – and the weaker, more moral, more sensitive people necessarily lose.

The violence done by the superior may be physical (the most common kind, and it provokes hostile moral reaction), or it may be psychological or spiritual, as when a superior makes use of morality and even of Christianity to inculcate submission and a servile attitude; and this is the most heinous of all forms of violence.”

– Jacques Ellul, Violence: Reflections from a Christian Perspective, Seabury Press, 1969.

Meanwhile Paul Granlund’s “The Birth of Freedom” still stands silently in downtown Minneapolis, calling for the birth of something as yet beyond our imagination.  “Stand fast therefore [in the freedom for which Christ has set you free], and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” The Apostle Paul often wrote his letters from jail cells, charged with disturbing the Pax Romana.

The Web of Sanity and Fullness

Pond with morning mist evaporating

Pond with morning mist evaporating

A newspaper reporter asked me some questions. We were preparing for a First Tuesday Dialogues series on sustainability called “The Good Green Earth.”

The series would bring five speakers, including  spokespeople from the Gulf of Mexico deeply engaged in hazard assessment, technology, and recovery in the wake of Deepwater Horizon.

What’s your sense of the possibilities and trends for sustainability in your work now and what does it look like in the future?

I responded that one of my inspirations is Paul Tillich, according to whom:

Being religious means asking passionately the question of the meaning of our existence and being willing to receive answers, even if the answers hurt.

Faith consists in being vitally concerned with that ultimate reality to which I give the symbolical name ‘God’. Whoever reflects earnestly on the meaning of life is on the verge of an act of faith.

The Spider’s Web with Morning Dew

My calling as a pastor was to help us here at Shepherd of the Hill and here in Chaska literally “go out of our mind.”

Because the collective mind that has delivered us to this place is killing us and destroying the balance of nature.

My calling is to shake us loose from the mental and spiritual chains of species superiority, My calling is to shake us loose from the mental and spiritual chains of species superiority, the mistaken notion that we – humankind – are the exception to Nature.  It’s a call to help re-shape our understanding of ourselves as participants rather than owners, participants rather than conquerors or manipulators, members of a diverse natural order of interdependent life. The spiritual resources are there in Hebrew scripture, in the New Testament epistles to the Ephesians and the Colossians, and in the ancient respectful spirituality of some of America’s indigenous people. By “going out of our mind” we will come back into a the web of sanity and fullness.

What factors do you see pushing towards or against sustainability?

Historian of science and technology Lynn White said flat-out that the root problem of the sustainability crisis is religious or spiritual, and so is the solution.

So, number one, we have to address the old and emerging questions about what Tillich called “Ultimate Reality” and the meaning of our existence.  We have to go into labor to set the new theological and anthropological  paradigm free from of the old destructive thinking.  What we are beginning to find as we go into this spiritual labor is that this more respectful, more holistic way of thinking is not new at all – it’s the older paradigm that got side-tracked by greed and pride.

Building of the Tower of Babel – Master of the Duke of Bedford

God has “come down,” as it were, to frustrate our attempts at building the secure city called Babel; God is making us nomads again who recognize that we and the Earth are already full, not empty. Every settlement comes to nothing. Every tower built as a monument to pride falls. And number two, and I’m afraid there is no other way to say this – we will never make it without leaving behind the economic system of greed. Capitalism is killing us.

The consolidation of wealth and corporate power have a stranglehold on national, state, and local public policy. The members of the boards of the oil companies sit on the boards of General Motors and Ford.  So it’s no wonder that U.S. federal policies on transportation are car-friendly and suspicious of mass-transit, regardless of a car’s gas mileage. Osalescence is built in because you can’t sell something five years from now if the old model is still like new. Our health care and the FDA are in the palm of the insurance and drug company’s so that it’s illegal to go across the border to fill your prescription in Canada.

Finally, the sustainability of the human species itself is, I believe, imperiled by chemical alterations that are meant to do good but that, in the long run, make us biologically less resistant and resilient. Our natural immune systems are being weakened by pesticides in the food we eat and by the pharmaceuticals we ingest from the drug store.

Black tar heroin - U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration

Black tar heroin – U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration

We have become a nation of addicts.  Addicted to illusionary dreams of abundance.  Addicted to prescription drugs.  Addicted to fast food and faster short-term solutions. Even instant gratification is too slow. Controlled by advertizing that sells us prescription drugs that’ll give you an immediate erection but may send you to the emergency room if it last more than four hours,or drugs that may ruin your liver or land you in a casket, and the real pushers are not the petty drug peddlers on Minneapolis’s North Side. The real pushers are legal. They’re given license, while those who would shut them down are looked upon as crackpots and throw-backs who are opposed to progress.

So…what’s stopping real progress, a more Earth-friendly way of organizing human affairs that embraces reality itfself, “Being-Itself”?  The intransigent, legal, institutionalized arrangements of power and money, on the one hand, and our willing compliance with the de-democratization of America that salutes the system of greed. We have to learn again, and we are – very slowly –  pushing and screaming, that “the Earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof”. We have turned it over to the forces of greed and destruction.

The Good, Good Earth: Our Island Home

The Good, Good Earth: Our Island Home

We need to recover the gratitude and spiritual paradigm of a natural abundance in order to push against the false promises of those who would have us believe that our lives and the world would be empty without all the stuff that ends up in the landfills or washes ashore in the estuaries of the Gulf of Mexico.

So……Chime in, friends. How would you answer the reporter’s questions?

Cuban Altar Boys, the Pope, and Occupy

Pope Benedict has called for political reform in Cuba. The Cuban government has refused the request.  It continues to insist on one party rule.

Ninety miles away, here in the U.S., we have Occupy because an oligarchy has stolen the rule of the people. (“They may squirm in hearings, but Wall Street oligarchs know who has the power“.) The Supreme Court’s ruling has given the green light for some of the people (i.e. corporations) to rule the airwaves with the unlimited spending that buys elections “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” Which people? Follow the money and you will see the illusion that America is a democracy. We have hoods over our heads.

We’re an oligarchic society. For all intents and purposes we live under the rule of the few, for the sake of the few. Fewer and fewer of the crumbs in Jesus’ parable of the poor man Lazarus are falling from the rich man’s table.

Why would Raul and Fidel Castro, two former altar boys, and the Cuban Communist Party refuse to open up the Cuban political system?

One need only review the history of Cuba prior to the revolution for their reasoning. I’ve had this conversation. I had it in 1979 in Cuba, and I had it in 1966 in Czechoslovakia behind the Iron Curtain. See yesterday’s post (The Wafer and th Loaf: the Pope and Raul Castro)

The Iron Curtain was altogether different from the Cuban embargo. The Iron Curtain was raised from the other side of the fence. It was put up by what we then called the Eastern Bloc, not by us in the West, while the Cuban embargo, the Iron Curtain meant to strangle the success of the socialist experiment, was built by the U.S.  Against all odds, Cuba has survived without access to the world’s largest market 90 miles to the north.  Somehow or other, against all odds, Cuba defended itself successfully against the giant to the north’s invasion at Playa Giron, “the Bay of Pigs”. It has lived ever since in fear of its northern neighbor, especially its ex-patriot Cuban business class in Florida that led the Bay of Pigs Invasion. Now Pope Benedict is urging the Cuban government to open up the political process, to expand political freedom.

Partly it’s a matter of perception.

Here in the West we decried the Iron Curtain as the means of dictatorial regimes to keep people in East Germany from fleeing to West Germany. To us the Berlin Wall was a prison wall intended to keep people from fleeing to freedom.  As seen by the Czechoslovakian family with whom I lived during the summer of 1966 and by the students at the university in Bratislava, the Iron Curtain served an altogether different purpose. It wasn’t to keep them in. It was to keep us out. They believed in the egalitarian society they were hoping to create. The Wall had been raised to wall out the corrosive influences of Western materialism, the power of money that is capitalism, the culture of greed, the survival of the fittest, the culture of selfishness.

Today Cuba is poor. Or is it? How do we measure poverty…or wealth?

Prior to the Cuban revolution led by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, two former altar boys, Cuba was the U.S.’s source of sugar. The sugar came from sugar plantations owned by American Sugarwhose American elites and their Cuban partners gathered for lavish vacations on the white sands of Varadero Beach.  The American one-percent was reaping the profits and lying on the beach with their Cuban corporate friends at Varadero. It made no difference to them that the literacy rate of the Cuban people was among the lowest in the world.  The vast majority of the people could neither read nor write. It didn’t seem to matter to the elites or to Batista, the Cuban dictator whose government they had bought and paid for.  The vast majority of Cubans – those who spent their days cutting sugar cane on the large plantations, peasants who scratched out a living with a few chickens and pigs, and those who worked in the tourist industry in Havana and at Varadero Beach – had no health care, no dental care, and no safety net other than the Church’s charity. It was an island of economic injustice relieved by episodic acts of religious charity.

In short, Cuba was an oligarchy.

If Cuba “opens up” the way the Pope and most Americans believe they should, Cuba will very quickly become again the place it was before the former altar boys came down from the mountains to ousted Batista and American Sugar.

Is Cuba poor? Is America poor?  Cuba has had universal health care for longer than the US. Has had the Civil Rights Act. No one goes without seeing a doctor.  Its literacy rate is one of the highest in the world because of its government’s commitment to education and literacy for all its citizens.  Here at home a conservative U.S. Supreme Court is weighing arguments that could turn back America’s closest thing to universal health care, and the literacy rate is dropping, the prison population is mushrooming with school dropouts who can’t read or write. Those who can afford it, move their children out of the public schools into private schools.  The gap between the haves and have-nots widens every day. And the people on Wall Street who keep the rest of us living in the illusion that our future security rests with the interests of the oligarchy is as tall and thick as it ever was.

During his trip to Cuba Pope Benedict not only called for reforms in Cuba. His words also pointed north to the U.S. and the system that enshrines private capital and greed rather than God as the central principle around which Western societies are organized.  Pope Benedict denounced the ills of capitalism, as he has done repeatedly.

Benedict bemoaned a ‘profound spiritual and moral crisis which has left humanity devoid of values and defenseless before the ambition and selfishness of certain powers which take little account of the true good of individuals and families.’” (Nicole Winfield and Andrea Rodriguez, Huffington Post, 3/27/12).

The calls to open up the political system, on the one hand, and to end the ills of capitalism, on the other, are twin calls that echo 90 miles to the north as well as across Cuba.  We live in a closed system where the ills of capitalism turn the Constitutional rights and freedoms of a representative people’s democracy into a money game, a single-party oligarchy in which the one-percenters put hoods over our heads while they look forward to the installation of another Batista, the day when the can join their friends again on the white sands of Varadero Beach.

Sorrow Floats: the Healthy Deregulated Capitalism Myth Just Keeps Re-surfacing

Gordon C. Stewart | Thursday, Sept. 10, 2009MinnPost.com

“Sorrow floats.” Perhaps the line from a John Irving novel — in which “Sorrow,” the stuffed family dog preserved by a taxidermist, floats to the surface of the lake after a plane crash — helps explain what is happening in America.

Something dear to the American family died one year ago last September-October. Prior to the series of chilling events of that period, most of us had lived with the illusion of relative economic and financial health. Then Sorrow was rushed to the emergency room for government resuscitation.

Since then our memories of that pre-September 2008 world have taken a turn that families often take at funerals when the eulogies bear little resemblance to the reality of the deceased. We’re quarreling over what was real and what is mythical reconstruction.

Following the plane wreck that takes the lives of the Berry family parents in Irving’s “The Hotel New Hampshire,” the stuffed family pet bobs to the surface of the lake, floating among the wreckage. Sorrow floats. So does the thing we lost last fall.

What died? A ruling assumption

What died last year was the ruling assumption that an unregulated free-market system was the best way to organize an economy and that laissez-faire capitalism is democracy’s natural ally. The market almost crashed. It didn’t crash only because the federal government intervened to prevent a repeat of the crash of 1929. Sometime between mid-September and Oct. 7, when Congress passed its bill to stabilize the financial markets, the myth of the virtue of deregulated capitalism died. It was stuffed by the taxidermy of government intervention, but it still floats.

When a conviction or a myth dies, it doesn’t go away. It continues to bob to the surface. Sometimes, as in the case of the Berry family, the old dog is much easier to love after it is dead. Sorrow — obese, lethargic, and persistently flatulent in its old age — no longer waddles through the dining room to foul the air and ruin everyone’s dinner. In the public psyche, the unpleasant memories of the real life Sorrow give way to the stuffed Sorrow, a thing of nostalgia that lives on … even after it’s dead, and long after the plane has crashed.

Over and over, we forget

Sorrow and its old illusions float every time the reconstructed memory, forgetting the real Sorrow, barks about “socialism.” Sorrow floats every time we shout each other down in town-hall meetings. Sorrow floats every time nostalgia forgets that it was only by government intervention that Sorrow is still around. Sorrow floats every time we forget the voracious appetite, unscrupulous predatory practices, insatiable greed, and the obesity that led to the deaths of Lehmann Brothers, Merrill Lynch and Bear Stearns, not to mention insurance giant AIG and all the banks that had taken the plunge into a market of deregulated derivatives and mortgages that led to the epidemic of home foreclosures, bankruptcies, pension-fund collapses and job losses. Sorrow, the old dog that failed us, still floats and still barks a year after the crash when the mind forgets and nostalgically remembers a system we thought was working in our interest.

Old ideas and convictions die hard. The powerful economic forces that grew fat during the years when government was viewed as the people’s enemy will stoke the fires of public anxiety and anger, taking advantage of the floating Sorrow that reminds us of something that we love more in retrospect than we did the day it died of its own obesity.

The Rev. Gordon C. Stewart is pastor of Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church in Chaska. He is the moderator of Shepherd of the Hill Dialogues and former executive director of the Legal Rights Center. The views expressed in this article are his own and do not represent the views of anyone else.