America and the Sands of Time

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Who we shall become is as cloudy as who we have been. Whatever pasts and futures we Americans imagine differently, we know we are in the midst of a national and global crisis. Whether or not we wear a mask, social distance, or march on the streets, we sense it in our bones. Anxiety is everywhere. We cover our eyes and wait to see who and what shall become of us.

Crisis as terrible, wonderful, and . . . .

Crisis – that is, the serious encounter of a man (sic) with exactly that which now threatens his own life, with that which represents, signifies, and warns of his own death – is always terrible, wonderful, eventually inescapable, saving and holy. ― William Stringfellow, A Private and Public Faith.

Re-imagining America

Re-imagining America begins with facing reality as we experience it, and asking why. No two people experience America the same way, yet all of us experience the same America. How it looks from the shores of Palm Beach and La Jolla or the banks of the Potomac is different from East Harlem where “street lawyer” William Stringfellow worked and bore witness in “Jesus the Criminal” in Christianity and Crisis in 1970:

We who are Americans witness in this hour the exhaustion of the American revolutionary ethic. Wherever we turn, that is what is to be seen: in the ironic public policy of internal colonialism symbolized by the victimization of the welfare population, in the usurpation of the Federal budget—and, thus, the sacrifice of the nation’s material and moral necessities—by an autonomous military-scientificintelligence principality, by the police aggressions against black citizens, by political prosecutions of dissenters, by official schemes to intimidate the media and vitiate the First Amendment, by cynical designs to demean and neutralize the courts.

Yet the corruption of the American revolutionary ethic is not a recent or sudden problem. It has been inherent and was, in truth, portended in the very circumstances in which the Declaration of Independence was executed. To symbolize that, some 30 white men who subscribed to that cause at the same time countenanced the institutionalization in the new nation of chattel slavery, and they were themselves owners of slaves. That incomprehensible hy­pocrisy in America’s revolutionary origins foretells the contemporary decadence of the revolutionary tradition in the USA. — “Jesus the Criminal,” Christianity and Crisis, June 8, 1970.

Some things remain the same

Some things remain. Some things never go away. Some things that look different are the same. Jesus of Nazareth and Jesus Barabbas shared more than a name. Both were criminals in Roman custody. One was convicted and executed; the other was released. Both are with us still.

A numbing detachment from others

In 2020, it is no longer only the descendants of slaves in East Harlem who cope with the horrifying sense of meaninglessness, hopelessness, and lovelessness Cornel West described in Race Matters.

THE PROPER STARTING POINT for the crucial debate about the prospects for black America is an examination of the nihilism that increasingly pervades black communities. Nihilism is to be understood here not as a philosophic doctrine that there are no rational grounds for legitimate standards of authority; it is, far more, the lived experience of coping with a life of horrifying meaninslessness, hopelessness, and (most important) lovelessness.

The frightening result is a numbing detachment from others and a self-destructive disposition toward the world. Life without meaning, hope, and love breeds a cold-hearted, mean-spirited outlook that destroys the individual and others. — Cornel West, Race Matters (1994).

Alternative revolutions

Two revolutionary Jesuses are with us still. The prisoner who was released re-builds the haunted house on sand. The other builds a house on rock. We can rebuild the house on shifting sands that wash away our loftiest intentions, or we can build a house on the rock of meaning, hope, and love.

face page of Cornel West's Race Matters

While visiting the Westminster Town Hall Forum in Minneapolis years ago, Cornel West inscribed Race Matters with a gracious personal charge and benediction.

All these years later, I still don’t know how to fulfill the charge or honor his blessing. I have not stayed strong, I am not, and never have been, prophetic. But the instruction and the blessing are with me still.

Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, July 11, 2020.

What We Have in Common

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Over coffee at Starbucks following the 2018 American mid-term election, a psychiatrist observed an epidemic of stress among his patients, regardless of their political leanings. They’re like inexperienced swimmers doing the doggie paddle in a tsunami.

The tension, the angry tone, the incivility, the name-calling, the smirks, the mocking impersonations, the barrage of lies and twisted truth are leading many of us to Sigmund or Anna Freud’s couch. Or to a fifth. Or pills. And to acts of verbal or physical violence of our own. We’re brawling in America and we wonder how we got here.

Sigmund and Anna Freud, Carl Jung, Alfred Adler and today’s practitioners of therapy know something about stress. So do the wisdom traditions of religion — the Tao that bridges the differences that divide us. It is this deeper sense of the Tao that is the source of human goodness. The Tao (Way) of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism guides individuals, cultures, and nations to flourish across all the walls we erect to separate us from each other.

C.S.Lewis Belfast

In his The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis, to whom Ross Wilson‘s  statue pays tribute, wrote that without the perspective of the Tao, which calls us to something more than brute emotion, “…the world of facts, without one trace of value, and the world of feelings without one trace of truth or falsehood, justice or injustice, confront one another, and no rapprochement is possible.”

Today in America, emotions are displacing the Tao. Narcissim and nihilism increasingly divide us into what Lewis called “trousered apes” and “urbane blockheads” who call each other names from different sides of a dividing wall. Like Lewis in his time and place, public philosopher-theologian Cornel West identifies nihilism as the plague let loose in America in his book Race Matters. “Nihilism is a natural consequence of a culture (or civilization) ruled and regulated by categories that mask manipulation, mastery and domination of peoples and nature.

Cornel West by Gage Skidmore

Cornel West photo by Gage Skidmore

“We need … the courage to be impatient with evil and patient with people, the courage to fight for social justice. In many instances we will be stepping out on nothing, and just hoping to land on something. But that’s the struggle. To live is to wrestle with despair, yet never allow despair to have the last word.”

When the common ground binding a society together is shopping, we step out on nothing, just hoping to land on something. Everything is up for grabs. A culture which turns its back on a spiritual-moral compass we didn’t make up, and that connects us to something greater than oneself, soon leaves its people flailing in an emotional and cognitive tusanami.

We [America]are at a crucial crossroad in the history of this nation–and we either hang together by combating these forces that divide and degrade us or we hang separately,” says West. “Do we have the intelligence, humor, imagination, courage, tolerance, love, respect, and will to meet the challenge? Time will tell. None of us alone can save the nation or world. But each of us can make a positive difference if we commit ourselves to do so.”

The therapist’s couch in my friend’s office will never be empty. Some stress is part of life. But is it too much to hope that his clients may go there in sesarch of the Tao hidden beneath the false choice of being a trousered ape or an urbane blockhead, less patient with evil and more patient with people to meet the challenge of our time?

— Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, November

The beginning of an uprising

“To clasp the hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world.”

Question: Who said that?

Wait! Wait! Don’t tell me! Choose one (click the names for more information):

 

Or . . . someone else?

Answer: We know it’s not Bill Maher, though Bill does call for an uprising, but the uprising would be against religion itself as the source of disorder, even though Bill often invites Cornel West to be his guest on Real Time with Bill Maher.

Cornel West clasps his hands in prayer and, like Bill, rises up to resist the present order/disorder, but it’s not Cornel.

So maybe it’s Karl Barth. The statement often is attributed to Barth, the Swiss theologian who resisted Hitler and the Third Reich in the name of Christ. But a more-or-less careful internet search yields no confirmation of its source.

Because no one really seems to know for sure, perhaps the correct answer is someone else from an altogether unexpected different source.

Like someone’s twitter account.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, October 9, 2017.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ya gotta love Bill Maher

Gordon C. Stewart  www.gordoncstewart.com  March 23, 2012

Ya gotta love Bill Maher. Well, actually, you don’t have to, but I do.

I rarely miss “Real Time with Bill Maher” (HBO). Why? Because he’s real. So are his guests. Is Bill’s language outlandish? Is his tongue stuck in the 7th grade locker room? Yes. Despite the frequency of the ‘f’ word, the saintliest, as well as the unstaintliest, mouths from left , right and center consider it an honor to sit on the panel or be a featured guest. on Real Time. Go figure how Madeleine Albright, Amy HolmesCornel West, Herman Cain, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, Rep. Keith Ellison, P.J. O’Roarke, Michael Moore, Andrew Sullivan, and David Frum appear on Maher’s show. They accept the invitation because it’s one place where manure is called what it is and where the real gutter talk is exposed for what it is. He’s not interested in being nice. He’s interested in truth. And he’s not afraid to engage the opposition in matters political, economic, or religious.

“If it weren’t for throwing conniption fits, we wouldn’t get any exercise,” he wrote (“Offense Intended – and that’s OK,” Star Tribune, 03.23.12). “I have a better idea. Let’s have an amnesty – from the left and from the right – on every made-up, fake, totally insincere, placated hurt, insult, slight and affront. Let’s make this Sunday the National Day of No Outrage. One day a year when you will not find some tiny thing someone said and pretend you can’t barely continue functioning until they apologize.”

Maher wasn’t born or raised in Minnesota where we’re proud of Minnesota Nice, most of the time .But you don’t have to have been raised elsewhere to know that Minnesota Nice often leaves us itching for some unpolished reality. How else do we explain the election of a tough-talking, often crude professional wrestler radio talk show host as our governor?  Jesse Venturawas elected because he said what he thought and meant what he said in a world where candidates for political office rarely say what they mean or mean what they say. Underneath Minnesota Nice is a volcano of Minnesota mean, as well as nice.

Jesse is one weird dude. And that’s partly what attracted the people who were tired of taking Minnesota Nice too far. We want civility, but sometimes we get a little tired of not really talking about what we’re really talking  about.

None of us really wants to live in Pleasantville. Remember “Pleasantville” – the film about two 1990s teenage siblings, Jennifer and David, who get sucked into their television set where they become characters in the make-believe town of Pleasantville, David’s favorite TV show? Nothing much ever happens in Pleasantville. There is no conflict, no real feelings; just polite, mannerly sameness that is insulated from and apathetic toward anything that might smack of unpleasantness. Pleasantville is a nice place – happy, smiling, repressed and suppressed, orderly…without color.

As Jennifer and David play along in the perfect and pure little town of Pleasantville, their presence soon cracks open the boredom of gray uniformity. Color begins to break through the grayness as the citizens of Pleasantville discover sex, art, books, music and the concept of non-conformity, leading the Mayor to campaign to turn Pleasantville back to what it once was – a nice place where nothing much ever happens, and no one speaks like Bill Maher.

Maher’s Op Ed piece concludes:

“I don’t want to live in a country where no one ever says anything that offends someone. That’s why we have Canada. That’s not for us. If we sand down our rough edges and drain all the color, emotion and spontaneity out of our discourse, we’ll end up with political candidates who say nothing but the safest, blandest, emptiest, most unctuous focus-grouped platitudes and cant. In other words, we’ll get Mitt Romney.”

This morning Unedited Politics posted an excerpt from 1994 Romney-Kennedy Debate on health care, veterans, spending, deficits.