"Sham on you!" — a word from the Founders

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A WORD TO SENATORS ABOUT PUBLIC TRUST

Public trust that you will tell the truth and seek the truth, no matter where it leads, was already dangerously low. Although we know that it is your constitutional right to set the rules for an impeachment trial, the American people know that a “trial” without witnesses and evidence is not a trial. Those still paying attention knew how it would end. Majority Leader McConnell told us. Some of us have stopped watching because we don’t care anymore. Others care but have tuned out to manage their blood pressure and keep their dinners down. We all could use an infusion of wisdom to guide us through this national crisis.

JOHN WITHERSPOON and JAMES MADISON

I write as a pastor in the tradition of John Witherspoon. Witherspoon was the only religious leader to sign the Declaration of Independence, whose moral philosophy influenced James Madison, the Founding Father of the U.S. Constitution. As President of The College of New Jersey (Princeton), Witherspoon taught moral philosophy. James Madison and other students took Witherspoon’s “Common Sense” philosophy of public morality into the courtrooms of 37 judges (including three Supreme Court justices), and onto the floors of the Continental Congress (12), the U.S. House of Representatives (49), and the United States Senate (28 Senators) where you now serve.

THE CONSTITUTION AND PRELIMINARY PRINCIPLES

In 1787 John Witherspoon participated in two simultaneous national meetings within four blocks from each other in Philadelphia. At Independence Hall the Continental Congress was preparing the U.S. Constitution. Down the street, the first national assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the Unites States of America was adopting the “Preliminary Principles” to guide the church through times of divided opinion and disharmony. There are eight (8) Preliminary Principles. I lift up for your attention the First (conscience) Fourth (truth) , and Fifth (mutual forbearance) Preliminary Principles.

PRINCIPLE: CONSCIENCE

“God alone is Lord of the conscience…” — First Preliminary Principle (1787)

One morning Henry Ward Beecher cut himself shaving. He didn’t like what he saw in the mirror. The public man and the private man were at odds. Public scandal and conscience formed the razor’s edge that cut through his defenses.

Everything hinges on the right and duty of conscience. One need not believe in God to avow the primacy of conscience.

The tight internal discipline and uniformity of the GOP caucus against calling witnesses and admitting evidence in the impeachment trial looks no different from the enforced cohesiveness of the Mafia, the Gangster Disciples, and other street gangs. Step out of line and you’re “going to go through some things.” Courage and conscience are not part of the code. Compliance and scheming have taken their place. We, the people, lose hope watching the gang-banging in the highest places of authority and power.

PRINCIPLE: TRUTH AND GOODNESS

“Truth is in order to goodness….” — Fourth Preliminary Principle (1787)

Truth-telling and truth-seeking are essential building blocks of a good society. The road to goodness is not falsehood, misinformation, disinformation, and concealment. Without truth-telling and truth-seeking we become a society built on quicksand.

“The Fourth Principle continues:

No opinion can be either more pernicious or absurd, than that which brings truth and falsehood upon a level, and represents it as of no consequence what a man’s (sic) opinions are.” — Fourth Preliminary Principle (1787)

Some opinions are pernicious (highly injurious or destructive: deadly). Others are simply absurd (ridiculous, silly, incredible). Some opinions are both. The exercise of one’s duties by means of falsehood is injurious to goodness. Truth is the plumb line against which an opinion is tested. Truth matters. Falsehood matters. Facts matter. Reality matters. There is no such thing as an alternative facts.

“On the contrary, we are persuaded, that there is an inseparable connection between faith and practice, truth and duty. Otherwise, it would be of no consequence either to discover truth, or to embrace it.” — Fourth Preliminary Principle (1787 –)

There is a direct connection between truth-telling, truth-seeking, and public life. The connection is essential for a civil society. When partisan interests displace truth and conscience, the result is a society with neither a moral code nor a functional Constitution. Watching the Senate impeachment trial tells a different story to the American people: power trumps principle.

PRINCIPLE: MUTUAL FORBEARANCE

“There are truths and forms with respect to which [people] of good characters and principles may differ. And in all these we think it the duty both of private Christians and societies, to exercise mutual forbearance towards each other.” — Fifth Preliminary Principle (1787)

‘Forbearance’ — i.e., patience, tolerance, continuing in relationship — is no longer a household word in 2020. Neither is it frequently practiced. Mutual forbearance is rarer still. Mutual forbearance is essential to achieving E pluribus unum (i.e. “one out of many), which Cicero saw as basic to relational bonds and thriving societies and states.

If God alone is Lord of the conscience, those who differ with respect to those “truths and forms” that are not universally accepted, i.e. political philosophy, owe it to each other and to the body politic to continue in respectful, peaceful relationship.

WHAT IS AT STAKE IN THE IMPEACHMENT TRIAL?

Mutual forbearance with people of good character and principles is embedded in the history of the Senate. But your good character is on trial. The impeachment trial is a test of the Senate’s conscience, commitment to truth and goodness, character and principles, and mutual forbearance. The great institution in which you are privileged to serve, and a general population that expects a trial to be a trial are at stake in your decisions. The Senate’s good character and principles, as well as Donald Trump’s, is on trial in the court of public opinion. Those who know their history can hear a long shout from James Madison and John Winthrop:

“Sham on you!”

— Gordon C. Stewart, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf & Stock), Chaska, MN, February 3, 2020.

The President and Kosuke Koyama

“Our ideals and principles, as well as our national security, are at stake in Syria, along with our leadership of a world where we seek to ensure that the worst weapons will never be used. America is not the world’s policeman. Terrible things happen across the globe, and it is beyond our means to right every wrong. But when, with modest effort and risk, we can stop children from being gassed to death and thereby make our own children safer over the long run, I believe we should act. That’s what makes America different. That’s what makes us exceptional.”

Conclusion of President Obama’s Sept. 10 national address on Syria.

Kosuke Koyama

Kosuke Koyama

By the end of his life in 2009, Kosuke Koyama had concluded that there is only one sin: exceptionalism.

I wish President Obama had been able to consult with Kosuke Koyama (1929 – 2009) before delivering this speech. He might have chosen his words more carefully. Koyama was a world-renowned Japanese Christian theologian and leader in inter-religious dialogue, author of Waterbuffalo Theology, Mount Fuji and Mount Sinai: a Critique of Idols, among other books.

Koyama first heard the claim of national exceptionalism in the Japan of his childhood. Japan was exceptional. The best. Number one. The Empire of the Rising Sun. The Emperor, supported by the religion of the imperial cult, could do no wrong. He was divine. So was Japan.

Dr. Koyama and his wife Lois moved to Minneapolis following his retirement. He shared with his friends his deep sadness that the old Japanese imperial claim had become the American claim.

America’s “leadership of a world where we seek to ensure that the worst weapons will never be used” is at stake.

Fact: the worse weapons ever used (nuclear and chemical) have already been used. We used them. We are the only nation on the planet to have dropped the atomic bomb. We dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan. We used chemical weapons in Vietnam. Agent Orange is a chemical weapon. Napalm is a chemical weapon.

America is not the world’s policeman. Terrible things happen across the globe, and it is beyond our means to right every wrong.

We have thought of ourselves as the world’s policeman and we still do. A policeman insures that the law of the land is enforced. The law that causes such resentment in the Middle East is the law of American exceptionalism and prerogatives. For the Arab world, this is what makes America different: the presumption of American exceptionalism expressed by re-arranging the economic-political-cultural landscape to advance Western interests, as in the case of Saudi Arabia, or by imposing and disposing, as in the CIA assassination of the legitimate President of Iran and the installation of the Shah, or our support for Saddam Hussein and Iraq in the Iraq-Iran War.

Very clearly, the U.S. has not sought to right every wrong. Nor should we. But our language is hollow at best and jingoistic at worst when one surveys the history of American intervention into the internal affairs of other sovereign states as the heir of British colonialism. The arrangements in the Middle East have their genesis in deals made by wealthy British and American elites with elite Arab Sheiks and strong men like Hosni Mubarak and Muammar Gaddafi until they no longer were useful.

“But when, with modest effort and risk, we can stop children from being gassed to death and thereby make our own children safer over the long run, I believe we should act.”

International scenes of human suffering and terror abound. In some cases we have chosen to act. In others, like Darfur, we chose not to act based largely on the principle of American self-interest. If American national interests were not threatened or affected, we did not act militarily. We acted humanely with humanitarian aid, but we did not act militarily to stop the horror of genocide in Darfur.

The principle of American national security and self-interest is clear in the President’s speech where he ties together the long-term safety of American children here at home with the short-term safety of children being gassed in Syria. That is, arguably, the way it should be. The use of chemical weapons and the threat of them in the hands of those who hate us is an ominous prospect.

Whether we should act is not, however, the question. The question is how America should act? Furthermore, how we decide to act should be informed and guided by the lessons of our own historic use of weapons of mass destruction and our own involvement in the supply of chemical weapons to Saddam Hussein, used in the Iraq-Iran War and allegedly used against his own people in Iraq.

It is an essentially moral position to condemn the use of weapons of mass destruction (chemical, nuclear, or biological. It is immoral to use them –an offense against humanity, and offense against all nature, and, for religious people, an offense against God.

Unfortunately there is not an equivalent of confession for nation states when they themselves have acted against their own declared moral principles. President Obama did not drop the bombs on Japan. Nor did he or his Administration supply the chemical weapons that did in Iraq what has happened to the mothers and children in Damascus. He might wish he could wash the blood from America’s hands or erase these chapters of American history, but he cannot. He cannot because the facts are facts, and the rest of the world remembers.

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em>“That’s what makes America different. That’s what makes us exceptional.”

“There is only one sin,” said Kosuke Koyama,.“Exceptionalism.”

The myth of American exceptionalism dates back to a great hope as the new nation was about to be born. It was spoken in a sermon by Puritan John Winthrop on the Arbella sailing the high seas from the Old World of England to the New World of America. The biblical text of John Winthrop’s sermon was the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew applied to the adventure of establishing an exceptional nation, “the city set upon a hill” (Matthew 5:14) to give light to the world.

Although the word ‘exceptionalism’ is foreign to most Americans except those in academia or those who are especially attuned to American politics, it is the controlling myth of American life and the ground to which succeeding American Administrations and Congresses have turned to justify American ventures – economic, spiritual, political, cultural, and military.

In some way or another it falls to each Administration to uphold the myth, even and perhaps especially, when the myth appears to be false. The aspiration of a city set upon a hill was etched in mind of the Church, not a nation-state. It was and is a call to a different way, and its original spokesman saw that city quite differently from the American military-industrial-technological-corporate complex. This Jesus, a Jewish rabbi living under the Roman occupation of the First Century C.E., was not a warrior or a policeman. He saw to the heart of the human condition and the tragedy of high moral claims that justify all forms of violence.

“Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye’, while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye” (Gospel of Matthew 7:3-5, NRSV).

There is only one sin.

Koyama’s last work was Theology and Violence: Towards a Theology of Nonviolent Love, published in Japanese in 2009 in Tokyo. There is, as yet, no American translation.