Water is wider than blood

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Blood, as all men know, than water’s thicker
But water’s wider, thank the Lord, than blood.

Aldous Huxley, Ninth Philosopher’s Song, 1920

When Aldous Huxley turned the adage “blood is thicker than water” on its head there was no Earth Day. No COVID-19. No economy stuck in idle at the brink of the cliff. No orders or guidelines to stay home and wash your hands. But he had been the flu pandemic of 1918.

Makeshift hospital for flu patients, Oakland, CA, 1918.
Makeshift hospital for “Spanish” flu patients, 1918

Blood Brothers — Teddy Bonsall and I

“Blood is thicker than water” is about family ties, or becoming ‘blood-brothers’ the way Teddy Bonsall and I did when we drew blood with our pen-knives, and put our cut fingers together to mix our five year old blood. Maybe something in our little minds knew that ‘blood’ described the bond between soldiers in battle. Blood-brothers — soldiers who risked their lives, as our fathers had in World War II — were closer than brothers and sisters born of the same womb. The world was a war zone. Teddy and I would go down together, whatever new war might come along. We were blood brothers.

A virus doesn’t know about ‘blood-brothers’

The day after Earth Day 2020 tests the way we frame who and what we humans are and will, or will not, be on a planet on its way to boiling both blood and water. We are not blood brothers or blood sisters. We can no longer frame ourselves as warriors in wars between our nation and their nation(s) without committing species suicide. No more blaming the Spanish for the 1918 flu pandemic or China for the new coronavirus. There will be no great America without a green planet. Everyone is a child of water — the amniotic fluid of every mother’s womb, and the water that is wider than blood (the oceans, rivers, and water tables) that keep the ‘pale blue dot’ blue and green.

The Daily Briefings

Most afternoons I tune in to the president’s coronavirus pandemic team’s daily updates, but I can’t do it anymore. I’ve run out of Maalox, and I refuse to fill a glass or two from the liquor cabinet. This is no time to self-medicate. I’ve watched the climate-change-denying president and his ‘oleaginous’ vice president and administration re-frame COVID-19 as a foreign invasion — the ‘Chinese’ flu — to be ‘defeated’ by an army of American blood brothers. The updates are not COVID-19 updates. They are 2020 presidential campaign rallies with Dr. Fauci and Dr. Birx thrown in to provide cover for the medical disinformation no doctor or scientist can support. Day by day, the conflict between the president and the medical professionals becomes increasingly apparent in the faces of Dr. Fauci and Dr. Birx barely able to conceal their professional and moral in the face of a kind of medical malpractice they once could not imagine.

While the members of the coronavirus team stand shoulder to shoulder without masks, members of the White House press corps practice the social distancing guidelines the people with the microphone do not. Spaced six feet apart, the correspondents ask the questions that publicly trap the president in his own lies and contradictions. The medical professionals become more outspoken, less likely to say what the president expects them to say.

The White House press corps occasionally rises to the expectations of the First Amendment, offering slivers of hope that Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity will go away before the Earth is left to the viruses.

The Voice that cannot be silenced

photo of Aldous Huxley

I imagine Aldous Huxley in the last row of the White House correspondents section. He’s the only one in the room who brings wisdom from the “Spanish Flu” pandemic a hundred years ago.

He’s had his hand up for 20 minutes. No one will call on him.

Finally, in exasperation, he whispers in hopes someone watching might remember the greater threat to Earth itself:

“Blood, as all men know, than water’s thicker
But water’s wider, thank the Lord, than blood!”

Gordon C. Stewart, Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017, Wipf and Stock), Chaska, MN, April 23, the day after Earth Day 2020.

Rescued by a Virus – COVID-19 and the Chain-Link Fence

Two buddies and the chain-link barbed wire fence

I was five years old the morning I screamed from the top of the new chain-link barbed-wire fence that separated my next door buddy, Buddy Singleton, and me. Moments before, we had been speaking through the fence Buddy’s father had just put up to protect his property. We were friends. We wanted to play.What to do? One of us had to scale the chain-like fence. Clinging to the chain links, I climbed to the top where the barbed wire was. I lost my footing and screamed, hanging by one hand from the barbed wire that had spiked my hand. I hung there until my mother heard the screams and rushed to take me down. I never climbed a chain-link barb-wire fence again. The scar on my left hand reminds me every day.

Creative Commons photo of barbed wire by درفش کاویانی uploaded from Wikimedia.

Making Mistakes and the Consequences

Making mistakes is part of life. It’s just human. Sometimes our mistakes hurt ourselves, sometimes they hurt others. Sometimes they hurt both. But mistakes also teach us to look closely before trying to climb over a fence, no matter how lofty our intentions.

Today the fence I’d like to get over is harder to scale. “C’mon over,” says Buddy. “I can’t!” I say. “Sure you can. Just climb over the fence!” I’ve learned not to listen to a dangerous invitation. Having made that mistake, I now look up to the top, see the barbed wire, and decide to stay safe in my yard on my side of the fence. I don’t understand the Singletons, the Singletons don’t understand me, but each of us is sure we do.

Fences and neighbors

Today the invitations to “c’mon over” are hard to find. It’s not so much that we’re cowards; it’s that we don’t want each other in our yards. The Shadow’s question “What evil lurks in the hearts of men?” is no longer a question about all of us; it has become specific: “What evil lurks in the hearts of the Singletons?” “What evil lurks in the hearts of the Stewarts?” We no longer talk through the chain links. We call each other names, sure that, whatever evil is, its place is the other side of the fence. We get our news from different sources. We tell stories about the fence that separates good and evil, and the people on the other side of it. We don’t just see things differently. We see different things. We buy the stories about the fence and the people on the other side of it. The Stewarts watch MSNBC and listen to NPR; the Singletons tune into FOXNews and Rush Limbaugh. We’re worlds apart. Or so it seems, but . . .

“Something there is that doesn’t love a wall [a chain-link barb-wire fence] (Robert Frost in “Mending Wall”) bubbles up from a deeper memory in the year a virus locks us in our homes on both sides of the fence. COVID-19 knows nothing about fences and walls, good and evil, or state and national borders. Sometimes it takes a poet to take us to our deeper selves.

Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
- Robert Frost, "Mending Wall"

Gordon C. Stewart, at home in Chaska, MN, March 31, 2020.

Every day is the last judgment

There’s no need to hang about
waiting for the Last Judgement —
it takes place every day.

Albert Camus, The Fall (1956)

The Influenza Pandemic of 1918-19

The COVID-19 pandemic was not the first and will not be the last. Historical contexts, memory, and what we believe make a difference to how we live/die in the 2020 pandemic.The influenza pandemic of 1918-1919 killed between 20 and 40 million people, more than all the deaths in World War I. “It has been cited as the most devastating epidemic in recorded world history. More people died of influenza in a single year than in four-years of the Black Death Bubonic Plague from 1347 to 1351” – Stanford Encyclopedia.

In the United States, 195,000 Americans lost their lives in the month of October, 1918 alone. The influenza of 1918-19 became known as “the Spanish Flu” after it took the life of the King of Spain, but it was no more Spanish than COVID-19 is Chinese. A virus is a virus. It pays no attention to nations or the propensity of nations and peoples to target a scapegoat — another nation unlike one’s own — as though a virus knows the difference.

Chart showing mortality from the 1918 influenza pandemic in the US and Europe, courtesy of the National Museum of Health and Medicine

The Parable of the Last Judgment (Matthew 13:31-46)

First appearances can be deceptive, few more so than the teachings of Jesus. The Parable of the Last Judgment is not what it seems –it is not about future end of time. It’s a parable inviting the listeners to get their heads out of the clouds and put their feet on the ground. Its message? Pay attention to people in front of you, or nearby, living under the interstate bridge in the dead of winter. Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the sick, visit the prisoners — put yourself squarely in the midst of human suffering.

We might say, the measure of life is compassion in the midst of a world that makes no good sense. What happens at the end is not yours to know. Pay attention to today. Every day is the Last Judgment.

But there’s something else that goes unnoticed in individualistic cultures. Jesus’s parable it is not about the individual. The parable is not about you. It’s not about me. It’s a story that calls the nations to account for their behavior. In that sense, the parable is political. It’s about the polis and its values. There are no privileged nations. All are measured by one standard. The last judgment– the judgment of compassion, kindness, and humility — takes place every day.

The Opportunity of Trouble

Like the Influenza pandemic of 2018-19, the coronavirus pandemic of 2020 is a crisis in the Chinese sense of the word — danger and opportunity. The danger seems obvious, but perhaps the opportunity is greater. We are at war with each other across the U.S.A., shouting across a deep chasm that the other is a goat. We are in very deep trouble, but we’re in it together because of a deadly virus. In hopes we will come to the deeper knowledge of who we are.

“The human mind and the human heart move to truth through trouble,” said Irish Anglican priest G.A. Studdert Kennedy. “It does not really matter what sort of truth you seek. Bunyan faced with the problem of the soul, and Newton faced with the problem of the stars, are both alike in this: they are troubled spirits. They brood over a mass of apparently unconnected, unrelated, and meaningless facts. Bunyan mutters, ‘There is no health in me’; and Newton mutters, ‘There is no sense in them.’ For both it is dark, and they do not know the way. Both walk at times into the dungeon of despair. The pilgrim’s progress of the scientist and of the saint is made along much the same road, and it begins with a troubled brooding, and a heavy heavy burden at the back of the mind and heart. We must all start there. Life begins in Lent. But there comes to both a supreme and splendid moment, the moment when they cry, ‘I see! I see!’ Bunyan sees a Cross and a Man who hangs in agony upon it. Newton sees an apple falling to the ground. But into the minds of both there comes a blaze of light.” — G.A. Studdert Kennedy (“Woodbine Willie”) sermon “The Word with God.”

Perhaps a blaze of light will flood this moment of trouble, we will rediscover each other, find our better selves, and cry out with fresh joy, “I see! I see!”

1918 flu epidemic: the Oakland Municipal Auditorium in use as a temporary hospital. The photograph depicts volunteer nurses from the American Red Cross tending influenza sufferers in the Oakland Auditorium, Oakland, California, during the influenza pandemic of 1918.

Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017, Wipf and Stock, Eugene, OR), Chaska, MN, March 21, 2020.