Human Packs and Alpha Dogs –Part 2

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AMERICA 2019: PUZZLING AND CONFOUNDING

We are in the midst a constitutional crisis in the U.S.A. that leads most of us scratching our heads. How did we get here? How will we get out of it? No one knows.

Part 1 of this three-post series suggested kinship with dogs who, by nature, live in packs led by Alpha Dogs. In Part 2, we turn to a time-honored voice from an earlier time.

AN OUTSIDE PERSPECTIVE

Karl Barth‘s way of seeing and hearing offers one such perspective. Barth was one of great theologians of the 20th Century, known for his brilliance, and for his early opposition to the rise and rule of Adolf Hitler and the nationalist ideology of the Third Reich.

Barth saw what those with “eye disease” did not. Idolatry, not atheism, is the issue for the human creature.

In Adolf Hitler and nationalist party that ended a constitutional republic, Barth saw what he called “the lordless powers” that have no Lord but themselves. They allow for no superiors. They submit to nothing and to no one. They are what Barth’s American friend William Stringfellow called “imposters of God” that prey on our anxiety, powers greater than ours, in effect a ‘lord’ — an Alpha Dog — to protect us and conquer what threatens us.

“DEUTSCHLAND UBER ALLES”

As a Christian theologian, Barth professed faith in Jesus Christ as Lord. This Lord is no victor. For Barth, Jesus Christ was the man for others who stooped to wash others’ feet, a chore assigned to household slaves; unmasked the lordless powers of empire; wept over the city, and rode into it “humble and riding on an ass” in counterpoint to the emperor entering the city on his white stallion; proclaimed a kingdom of infinite compassion not built by ‘the lordless powers’; prayed on his knees to the Lord of lords and King of kings of all the lesser packs; and bent his back to the soldier’s whip and Roman execution, and reached out to the rebel on the cross next to his.

The Jesus of Nazareth who bowed his head to no other power than YHWH — the Ineffable One, the Eternal One, the Lord beyond the lordless that rise and fall and are forgotten — represents humankind in our proper relationship with God.

“The demonism of politics consists in the idea of ’empire’, which is always human as such.

The Nazi Party and its Alpha Dog were ‘Lordless’ because they were accountable to no one and to nothing. Their authority and power were absolute. Everyone in the pack was ordered to yield to a headstrong man and a “headstrong dream.”

Barth’s theological anthropology offers insight into our vulnerability in an anxious world.

Man’s (sic.) alienation from God at once carries with it his self-alienation: the denaturalizing of the humanity and fellow humanity of is own existence, the contraction of the determination, inalienably given to him as God’s creature, that he should belong to God and have in God his Lord, the beginning of speech, action, and therefore existence, which are headstrong because they have no Lord.

Karl Barth, The Christian Life, 213-14.

Knowing that social control requires consent of the pack, Hitler and the Third Reich systematically transposed the prevailing religious belief system into the key of nationalist supremacy. The religion that proclaimed the elusive Kingdom of God and Jesus Christ as Lord was brought to Heel: Heel! Sit! Down! Off! Leave it it!

The church that prayed “Thy Kingdom come” bowed the knee to the nearer-to-hand kingdom, raising its arm to salute the national messiah. “Heil Hitler!” and Sieg Heil” replaced Handel’s ‘Messiah’.

For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given, and the government shall be upon His shoulder; and his name shall be called Wonderful Counsellor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:5).

Handel’s Messiah

As for the Jews? It’s much harder to bring to heel a people whose faith looks to YHWH, the Holy One, and does not regard any human being as a divine incarnation. They would need to be removed from the fictional Aryan pack. They were stripped of every constitutional protection, herded onto trains, and delivered to concentration camps as people unfit for German society.

“MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN”

Like the Germans in the lead up to 1933, we in America in 2019 are manipulated by well-calibrated propaganda and disinformation campaigns that ‘denaturalize’ and turn neighbors into enemies in the age of cyberspace.

Slogans are simply vents with whose help ideologies surface and in the form of loud whistles call for general applause and acknowledgment. Let us not be deceived: we all listen to the most varied catchwords, we all use them more or less merrily, and in so doing show that we ourselves are people who have been struck and stabbed and snared by systematized ideologies.

Propaganda is putting things in black and white. … What they have to push systematically is their own excellence and usefulness, and by way of background must show how utterly valueless and harmful their rivals and opponents are.

THE TRUMP PHENOMENON

Classical Christian theology is clear about the need for an Alpha Dog. Its understanding of human being is sometimes called theological anthropology. Our mortal human nature is best understood in light of our submission — witting or unwitting — to this, that, or another power. When an Alpha Dog rises to claim the allegiance of a pack, we are thrown back.

Most of us in Roman Catholicism and progressive protestant churches have moved beyond patriarchal metaphors and talk of kings, kingdoms, and lords. We speak instead of ‘kin-doms’ without kings — horizontal societies without authority, what Barth called “the Lordless powers.” The reign of compassion is upended and replaced by an Alpha Dog who reigns absolutely, using propaganda, fear, hate, and cruelty to bring the pack to Heel.

Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Dec. 12, 2019

Truth needs no propaganda

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Truth and falsehood

“Every violation of truth is not only a sort of suicide in the liar, but is a stab at the health of human society,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson in “Prudence,” Essays: First Series (1841).

I imagine Emerson quietly applauding Fiona Hill boldly calling out the false narrative that stabs at the health of democracy in her testimony before the U.S. House Intelligence Committee’s Trump impeachment inquiry.

U.S. National Intelligence expert on Russia begs U.S. House Intelligence Committee members to stop spreading the Russian intelligence false narrative about Ukrainian interference in the 2016 U.S. election.

PARTISAN PROPAGANDA: THE BIG LIE

“The great masses of people . . . will more easily fall victim to a big lie than to a small one.”

Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf (1924), 1.10.

MAKING THE WIND APPEAR SOLID

“Political language . . . is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to the wind.”

George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language,” Shooting the Elephant (1950).

TRUTH AND FALSEHOOD

“Man can certainly keep on lying (and does so), but he cannot make truth falsehood.”

Karl Barth quoted in The New York Times obituary, December 11, 1968.

TRUTH NEEDS NO PROPAGANDA

If there has always been propaganda in some form, from the time of the modest newspapers of the seventeenth century it has developed with a new speed and to a new degree, as new and more effective instruments have been found and brought into use. One should note that the truth needs no propaganda and does not engage in it. As the truth, it simply speaks for itself and opposes falsehood. Propaganda is a sure sign that what is at issue is not the truth but an ideology which needs it, to whose nature it corresponds, and which is not ashamed to make use of it.

Karl Barth, “The Lordless Powers,” The Christian Life, translated by Geoffrey W. Bromley, p.227.

Propaganda and National Security

Continued promotion of a self-serving false narrative under the guise of patriotic concern for national security puts American national security at risk.

A subsequent Views from the Edge commentary will explore what Karl Barth‘s “lordless powers” and Christian scripture calls “principalities and powers.”

  • Gordon C. Stewart, November 23, Chaska, MN, Nov. 23, 2019.

Germany in 1933 and the U.S.A. in 2019 — Then and Now

THEN

In this short video Karl Barth addresses the question of how the German people were led to sacrifice a democratic constitutional republic for the dream of Adolf Hitler.

Karl Barth, theologian, professor, author, founder of the Confessing Church which refused to participate in the surrender of faith to the ideology of the Third Reich, and author of The Declaration of Barmen.

NOW: VIOLATION OF THE OATH OF OFFICE

What we see in the U.S.A. in 2019 is chilling. During his visit to the U.S.–Mexican border the American President violated his oath of office “… to the best of my Ability, to serve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States of America.” (Article II, Section One, Clause 8, U.S. Constitution). If, during his recent visit to Calexico, the President advised U.S. Border Patrol officers to pay no attention to judges, as reported by CNN and Jake Tapper, the President committed an impeachable offense. He not only did not serve and protect the Constitution. He openly defied it. He put himself above the law.

EYE DISEASE and THE LORDLESS POWERS

It takes what Barth called “eye disease” not to see the systematic erosion of the rule of law by what Barth called “political absolutisms and lordless [i.e. unaccountable] powers” built around a charismatic madman’s dream. The parallels between then and now smack us in the face every day: requiring from cabinet members a sworn loyalty oath and breach of silence agreement; telling the U.S. border patrol to ignore the law and the courts and do what he says; ignoring the law and court orders upholding the legal and human rights of asylum-seekers; separating migrant children and their parents; declaring that his knowledge of world affairs superior to career State Department, Department of Defense, military, and intelligence professionals; ignoring wise advice and counsel; ridiculing past presidents as inferior to himself; assaulting freedom of the press guaranteed by the First Amendment; encouraging violence by refusing to criticize white supremacy, white nationalism, and white hate groups; replacing legitimate patriotism — love of one’s country — with national idolatry; putting personal and family wealth, power, and fame ahead of the checks and balances of the U.S. Constitution.

SEEING THROUGH OBFUSCATION AND DELAY

Wednesday’s (April 10) news further to the sense of a kind of coup d’état — the bloodless undermining of the rule of law in this constitutional republic by those sworn to uphold it. Attorney General William Barr’s refusal to answer questions posed by a Congressional committee re: his decisions about redaction and release of the Mueller Report, and Treasury Secretary Munchen’s deferral to the Department of Justice re: the Congressional demand from the IRS for the past six years of President Trump’s tax returns led me back to Barth.

FAITH AND ETHICS: UNMASKING THE LORDLESS POWERS

“We do not know what we are doing when we pray ‘Thy Kingdom come,’ namely that, negatively at least, we are asking for the gracious unmasking, overcoming, and ultimate abolition of these absolutisms that rule us per neras [i.e. by wrong].” – Karl Barth, The Christian Life, p. 219.

— Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, April 12, 2019


The Beloved Community

Swiss theologian Karl Barth and Martin Luther King, Jr. enjoying a moment of laughter.

This year’s Martin Luther King, Jr. commemoration comes in the fifth week of the American federal government partial shut-down over a wall. In the name of the Beloved Community — the just and peaceable society — Dr. King and Dr. Barth had things to say about building walls.

Karl Barth and Martin Luther King, Jr. are formative influences on my life. I hadn’t realized until this morning how fully their theology and ethic were in the warp and woof of last Sunday’s sermon at Knox Church in Cincinnati. With apologies to these two great figures, we post an excerpt from a sermon of one of the many lesser lights who live in their long shadows.

Something there is in the Beloved that doesn’t love a wall. Something there is in Jesus that tears down the walls between neighbors and turns enemies into friends, brick by brick, stone by stone — between the Judeans and the Samaritans, and between the male apostles and the Canaanite woman; between the “righteous” who choose purity over compassion and the “good” Samaritan who binds up the wounds of the one in the ditch; between the publicly scorned blind beggar and the charitable nickel-and-dimers who passed by on their way to secure homes and lavish parties; the crowds on the street and the sinful Zacchaeus in the sycamore fig tree; between the Beloved Son and the hosts of sinners who flocked to him for acceptance, forgiveness, healing, hope, and compassion.

For Jesus, love was not a private thing. Love must be made public. As Cornel West puts it, “Justice is love made public.”

Sermon by GCS, Knox Presbyterian Church, Cincinnati, OH, Jan. 13, 2019

— Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Jan. 20, 2019.

Plunging into Life: William Stringfellow

Jacket of "My People Is the Enemy"

Jacket of “An Ethic For Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land”

As I look at the structural violence symbolized by today’s funeral for Michael Brown in Ferguson and consider the Blackhawk helicopters from Fort Campbell, KY that turned Minneapolis and St. Paul, MN into an Army urban training ground last week, I’m remembering William Stringfellow with thanksgiving.

Bill Stringfellow was a thorn in the side of both church and state, a predictably  unpredictable, lovable, hatable, tenacious, brilliant street lawyer, constitutional lawyer, and Episcopal lay theologian. The great Swiss theologian Karl Barth observed, during a speaking tour across the United States, that Stringfellow was the person who most captured his attention. If he were an American, he would listen to Bill.  My copy of his most poignant work on the subject of what he called “principalities and powers” – An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land – was water-logged and mildewed because of a flood in the church basement, but his earliest book, My People Is the Enemy, sits prominently on my book shelf.  He wrote the following from the one room, rat- and cockroach-infested tenement apartment in East Harlem where he had chosen to live and work among the poorest of the poor instead of accepting one of the New York law firm offers following graduation from Harvard Law School.

 To become and to be a Christian is not at all an escape from the world as it is, nor is it a wistful longing for a “better” world, nor a commitment to generous charity, nor fondness for “moral and spiritual values” (whatever that may mean), nor self- serving positive thoughts, nor persuasion to splendid abstractions about God. It is, instead, the knowledge that there is no pain or privation, no humiliation or disaster, no scourge or distress or destitution or hunger, no striving or temptation, no wile or sickness or suffering or poverty which God has not known and borne for [humanity] in Jesus Christ. He has borne death itself on behalf of [humanity], and in that event he has broken the power of death once and for all.

 

That is the event which Christians confess and celebrate and witness in their daily work and worship for the sake of all [humanity].
To become to be a Christian is, therefore, to have the extraordinary freedom to share the burdens of the daily, common, ambiguous, transient, perishing existence of [humans beings], even to the point of actually taking the place of another [person], whether he be powerful or weak, in health or in sickness, clothed or naked, educated or illiterate, secure or persecuted, complacent or despondent, proud or forgotten, housed or homeless, fed or hungry, at liberty or in prison, young or old, white or [black], rich or poor.
For a Christian to be poor and to work among the poor is not a conventional charity, but a use of the freedom for which Christ has set [humanity] free.
~ William Stringfellow – 1964,  My People is the Enemy [Anchor Book edition, p. 32.]

 

Thank you, Bill, for your wisdom, courage, and witness. We need it now as much as when you wrote it. “Lux aeterna luceat eis, Domine, cum sanctis tuis in aeternum, quia pius es. Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine; et lux perpetua luceat eis” (“May everlasting light shine upon them, O Lord, with thy saints in eternity, for thou art merciful. Grant them eternal rest, O Lord, and may everlasting light shine upon them.)”