The Invaders of the Land of the Long White Cloud

Llightning struck down 50 worshipers and injured another 50 In Aotearoa — the Land of the Long White Cloud — the Maori name for their home before foreign invaders re-named New Zealand.

Evening scene of the Maori people on the banks of the Waikato River, Land of the Long White Cloud, 1847

The mind of western white nationalism makes few, if any, distinctions between Muslims and Jews. Although we rightly think of anti-Semitism as responsible for the gas ovens of Nazi Germany and the long history of anti-Jewish pograms, the term ‘Semite’ applies more broadly to the Hebrew- and Arab-speaking people of the Middle East. Whether gathered at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh or in the mosques of New Zealand makes no difference. Their existence is a threat to the mindset of white superiority and, more lately, western nationalism.

A 72 page white nationalist manifesto did not know, or chooses not to know, that the original invaders were not dark skinned people. They were not Middle Easterners. They were not Semites. They were not Muslim. It was the Dutch and English colonizers who “discovered” and then invaded the Maori “Land of the Long White Cloud” (English translation) that turned the Maori homeland into the land of their own displacement, subjugation, and long-suffering. The invaders were white Europeans who considered it their right and calling to spread their religion and culture around the world.

Judaism and Islam claim a common family origin in Abraham, but they do not same the same maternal lineage. They do not claim the same mother. Jews and Christians see themselves as the children of Sarah, the mother of Isaac. Muslims claim Hagar, Sarah’s banished slave woman, the mother of Ishmael, as their mother. Neither Sarah nor Hagar, nor Abraham, nor Isaac, nor Ishmael was “white.” The predominant religion of the western culture is rooted in Middle Eastern people and cultures. And, the scriptures Jews, Christians, and Muslims share in common the memory that the estrangement between the Isaac and Ishmael ended when the re-united to bury father Abraham.

One can suppose with near certainty that yesterday’s attack on mosques in New Zealand, like the bombing of Tree of Life in Pittsburgh arose from the cauldron of anti-Semitism, hatred toward the children of Abraham — Isaac, the son of Sarah, and Ishmael, the son of Hagar. So apparently different, and yet the same.

Ignorance is not bliss. Knowledge that feigns ignorance is a fools’ paradise that turns long white clouds of an otherwise blue sky into dark clouds of smoke, dust and smog.

— Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, March 19, 2019.

What was I thinking?

Ever have one of those days when you wonder what in the world you were thinking?

After eating at The India Spice House, I stopped in at the adjoining grocery store. A box of Bourbon-flavored biscuits made in Oran caught my eye.  They looked good. I confused Oran (in Algeria) with Oromo, the identity of the Ethiopian Muslim men who had prayed for my friend Phil in the ICU Waiting Room two nights before. “That’s great,” I thought to myself. “The biscuits will make a nice gift.”

Gift to Muslim prayers

Gift to Muslim prayers

At the hospital I handed the box to two Oromo brothers holding vigil in the ICU Waiting Room. No words were exchanged. They accepted the gift, smiled, and nodded.

Only on my way to visit Phil in the ICU did it dawn on me. Muslims don’t drink! Even if the biscuits were made in Oromo instead of Oran, Bourbon-flavored anything is unacceptable, even disrespectful, however unintentional.

I returned to the Waiting Room. They smiled broadly. “Good!” said the one who speaks English. The other repeated his word with raised eyebrows. “Good!” We shook hands the way brothers do on the street in the hood. All was well! Salaam, Shalom, Peace was everywhere in the room.

Grace covers a multitude of sins!

Give up your faith

“For 40 years,” writes Steve, “I had been a Pastor on college campuses where many students were of the marrying age, and perhaps because I would not accept money for weddings, was often asked to officiate.”

Verse -“Give Up Your Faith”

was what I told several Christians
who were wanting to marry
someone of another Faith.
“It’s the Christian thing to do,”
I said. “Give up what you love
for the person you love.”
(“Remember the Golden Rule?”)

Only a very few became Muslim,
or Buddhist, or Hindu or Jewish,
but I felt those who did were
showing clearly the love of Jesus…
I was glad to be an evangelist.

– Steve Shoemaker, Urbana, IL, October 11, 2013

Creating hell in the name of heaven

Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people living for today
– John Lennon

The bombs were heard in my living room last night.

The echoes of last Sunday’s suicide bombing of a church in Pakistan that killed 80 people sounded in the voices of two Pakistani members of Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church in Chaska, Minnesota where I serve as pastor. Twelve members of the church had gathered to talk about something totally unrelated to Pakistan, Afghanistan, or Christianity and Islam. We were there to share. The quiet horror of Samuel and Nasrin – “I was sad all day.” – was like a bomb going off in the living room. I ask myself, why? What is happening?

I am a Christian, a disciple of Jesus. Strange as it may seem, I often feel the way John Lennon did. I dream of a different kind of world where there are no more bombings or shootings in a Kenyan mall, in Peshawar and Lahore, Pakistan, in Baghdad, Damascus, or Boston in the name of God. I am tired of all claims to righteousness, whether professedly religious or professedly secular. I would like to wipe the human GPS of its magnetic field between due North heaven) and due South (hell) and re-orient us all toward the rising sun.

The voices that fight for heaven to erase hell do not all sound the same. They speak Urdu, Parsi, Arabic, Hebrew, and English. They claim different names: Muslim, Jewish, Christian, and sometimes secular. They live in different parts of the planet in different time zones and different climates. But if you listen, they all sound alike and they do the same thing.

They do not look up at the sky. They look down. They march in lockstep rhythm because the Quran or the Bible or nationalism tells them to. They live for tomorrow – for heaven or some version of it – not for today. One doesn’t have to strain to see what’s happening, and, when anyone sees it, how can one help but imagine a different world, a different kind of humanity: one without religion?

The bombing in Peshawar last Sunday is said to have been a payback for American drone strikes that had killed innocent civilians in Pakistan. For the suicide bombers, the Cross was the emblem on the shields and helmets of Christian Crusaders. Back then the Knights Templar of Holy War killed with swords. Today the suicide bombers associate the Cross with the drone attacks of the Christian West.

Religion is with us and, depending on how one defines it, always will be. A wise elder statesman, Elliot Richardson, observed toward the end of his life that religion is the problem, but that if we erased all of the religions were erased from the face of the Earth, they would re-invent themselves in a heartbeat. Why? Because that’s how we’re made. As defined by the likes of Emile Durkheim, Margaret Meade and Paul Tillich, religion spans a much wider terrain than the belief systems for which heaven and hell are essential. Furthermore, whether or not we are professedly religious, each of us has some kind of inner GPS, some version of a societal ideal (heaven) and a social and personal horror (hell).

What’s happening across the world is profoundly and earth-shakingly religious. Though our languages are as different as Arabic is from English, and as far from each other as Peshawar and a mall in Kenya are from a Quran-burning church in Florida, the voices of Abraham’s three children (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) all sound the same whenever we create hell on Earth in the name of heaven.

For the Pakistani friends in my living room last night the Cross stands for a divine interruption of the cycle of violence and all claims to righteousness. In the crucifixion of a Palestinian Jew of the First Century C.E. what we see is anything but the excuse for a crusade to eliminate hell in the name of heaven.
The Jesus we seek to follow threw his life into the spokes of the wheel of violence to stop it, and we must do the same.

Every Sunday worship service concludes with a “Charge” – an instruction in how to live.

Go forth into the world in peace.
Have courage.
Hold on to that which is good.
Return no one evil for evil.
Support the weak.

When the bombs tear through a church or a mosque or a neighborhood in the name of our imagined heaven for the righteous, we need to remember that there are Muslims, Jews, secularists, and other religious practitioners who seek to practice the way of peace…”living for today” throwing themselves into the spokes of the wheel of violence.

The Abel Project in the City of Cain

The same day America honored the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington most remembered for Dr. King’s “I have a dream” speech, America’s first black President, who had just delivered a great speech in honor of Dr. King’s dream, appeared on the Newshour to discuss military strikes in Syria.

Irony of Ironies

Martin Luther King, Jr. was as deeply committed to peace and to non-violent, non-military solutions to global problems as he was to ending racism. As his analysis of the national, international, and human condition continued to develop, he became an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War, capitalism, and imperialism. He grasped as well as any public figure of his time, and of ours, the insidious institutional power of an unelected, undemocratic web of the economic-military-corporate complex at work behind the scenes of American public life.

President Obama’s speech from the same spot where where Dr. King had stood 50 years before at the March on Washington was a potential seminal moment of American history. It was a great contradiction to that potential to view the President’s interview on The Newshour (PBS) later in the day regarding Syria. I couldn’t put together the President’s honoring of Dr. King’s dream just hours earlier with his entertainment of military action in Syria. For whatever reason, the media did not seem to notice the incongruity and the irony.

The Newhour also featured a conversation among foreign policy experts about the advisability of “punishing” Syria for crossing the red line of chemical weapons. University of Chicago Professor John Mearsheimer’s raised the gravest voice of caution. “Stay out militarily.” He also reminded the other two panelists and the viewing audience that the United States is the only nation ever to have dropped the bomb. The world has not forgotten. Click HERE to listen to the conversation.

Martin Luther King, Jr. rose to national prominence because he issued a clarion call for the dawning of the City of Peace in the midst of the City of Cain, the city of bloodshed. In King’s view you can never get to the City of Peace by means of the methods of the City of Cain: violence, the lex talionis, or worse.

Ethical decisions, in personal life or in international affairs, are rarely simple. Our hearts go out to the innocent children, women, and men who died from chemical weapons in Syria. We want to be our brother’s and sister’s keepers. We want to help. We want to stop it. That sense of compassion is as it should be. All hearts should break over this horror. But something else is called for before we act on the impulses of the compassion.

It is also worth remembering who it was that first asked the question “Am I my brother’s keeper?” It was Cain, who made the statement to God to put the blame for his own homicide back on the One who held him responsible for the senseless murder of his brother Abel in a fit of anger. “Sin is crouching at your door, and you must master it.” Dr. King and others who choose the methods of non-violent resistance to great tragedies like the one in Syria interpret the instruction to Cain – you must master your anger – as the instruction to master one’s own knee-jerk retaliatory response. Patience is required. Taming the lion that crouches at our own door is a chief task of becoming genuinely human.

The Blood of Abel and the City of Cain

For Martin Luther King, Jr., Mohandas Gandhi, the Dalai Lama, and a host of un-noted, anonymous souls, the way of violence, even in behalf of the good, represents a failure to tame the lion crouching at our door and further entrenches the City of Cain.

Beyond the philosophical-ethical-theological considerations are other facts. The “red line” of chemical weapons is one that was crossed years ago. It was crossed in Vietnam. A trip to the nearest Veterans Hospital is a humbling reminder. It was the United States that used Agent Orange and Napalm in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia as part of Operation Ranch Hand. Our hands are not clean. As much as we might like, we do not speak from moral high ground. We have already crossed the red line. The moral finger we point toward Syria points back at us. To unleash even the most minimal, narrowly targeted Cruise Missile strike on Syria from a warship from the coast of a tinder-box in a far off place is like throwing out a boomerang expecting that it will not return to us in retributive violence. As Dr. King understood so well, violence begets violence.

As if that were not enough, the struggle in the Middle East is confounded by another form of political-economic-cultural-religious-military violence: the American corporate presence in the oil fields, arranged by American and Saudi elites (Sunni Muslims), and the expropriation through the United Nations of Bedouin Arab land to create a homeland for the survivors of the holocaust of World War II Germany. The intent, so far as the general public was concerned, was compassion. Provide a safe place, a homeland. But the homeland belonged to someone else when the United Nations expropriated it for the creation of the State of Israel, and the Arab world has never forgotten the way it happened.

“Am I my brother’s keeper?” drove popular sentiment to support the creation of Israel. Why the homeland was not carved out of Germany or perhaps France is an interesting question. Or why the United States did not carve out of our vast geography a territory in the United States of America as a safe haven, is a question long since ignored by nations who thought they were taking the moral ground but not forgotten by Palestinians, Shiites, and most of the Middle East.

Those questions aside, Israel today is a sovereign State in the midst of an Arab world that resents both its presence, the history of its creation, and the United States as its most faithful ally and supporter.

Behind it all stands a military-industrial-technological-corporate complex that feeds on mistakes like Iraq and Afghanistan, and the question of whether we are our brother’s keeper, responsible to play policeman to the world. Martin Luther King, Jr. never lunched on the food at the lunch counter of the military-industrial-technological-corporate complex. Nor should we. Neither should the President. Neither should Congress.

The Abel Project: We are the World

An alternative to a military response with potential catastrophic consequences for the Middle East and for us is the neglected methodology of nonviolent, passive resistance by which Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mohandas Gandhi changed the world.

If we and the rest of the world believe in the City of Peace and wish to redeem the blood of Abel in the City of Cain, let the recording artists of the world with the full support of the United Nations, the Vatican, the World Council of Churches (Orthodox and Protestant Christians), the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, and international Jewish organizations representing the spectrum of Judaism lift the people’s voice so clearly across the world that it cannot be ignored.

Call it “The Abel Project” – named for the innocent who was lost to the world, the slain brother of Cain, whose blood still cries out to God from the ground.

Let there be candlelight prayer vigils for an end to the way of Cain in Syria. Let the lighted candles in every national capitol, every state or provincial capitol, and in cities and towns around the world make the statement that we, the people of the world, led by the three warring children of Abraham and Sarah (Jews, Christians, and Muslims), stand for the transformation of the redemption of the blood of Abel and in the name of the City of Peace.

The President can contribute to that effort but he must not attempt do it alone. Nor can he lead it.

Unleashing the potential of a worldwide vigil in the spirit of “We are the World” must rely on the untapped power of the United Nations as a force for peaceful resolution, the original dream that inspired its Charter. He must do it not only with our closest allies in the West but with the leaders of nations that resent our history in the Middle East and Southeast Asia who are suspicious of American saber-rattling from the Western presumption of moral high ground. The voice of the world must include the two warring branches of Islam – Sunni and Shiite – whose tensions and hatreds also lie at the center of the conflict in Syria and most of the Middle Eastern Arab States.

If he does, the irony between the August 28, 2013 commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the poor people’s march on Washington and the evening news will resolve itself in a new decision to honor the legacy of the fallen witness to the power of non-violent resistance and the power of love as the only method and power that ever really change the City of Cain. For the sake of Abel, our slain ancestral brother, let the candles be lit across the world.

Two Kinds of Religion

“How a Single Voice Threatened to Spark a Forest Fire”

Gordon C. Stewart, September 28, 2010

Minnesota Public Radio (MPR, 91.1 FM) published this commentary after a Florida pastor threatened to burn the Quran. The same Rev. Jones is part of the story of the toxic video that has inflamed the Muslim world today. Some things never change.

Everyone from time to time feels insignificant. As I did, while watching fires burn across the world, lit by the words of one pastor in Florida. I felt like a spectator in the stands watching the game I care about go terribly wrong, a hostage of verbal terrorism uttered in the name of Christ.

I would imagine that the Rev. Terry Jones and his small congregation also had felt insignificant before they announced the 9/11 Quran burning, and that they were stunned when their pastor’s voice, although terribly misguided, lit the forest on fire without ever burning a Quran.  One of their own, one who had felt insignificant, had raised his voice and now had the ear of a commanding general, the secretary of defense and the president of the United States.

The difference between the Rev. Jones and most people is that he has a pulpit.  On any given Sunday he speaks and a few people actually listen.  Most of us do our ranting and raving in the shower, at the water cooler or with like-minded people at the coffee shop, but we don’t much expect anyone to listen.

But as the Jones story developed, those of us with pulpits were feeling no less beside the point.  Then, as I prepared for worship, I was drawn by some old lines about spiritual arson. “Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue is a fire … a restless evil, full of deadly poison” and “the seeds of righteousness are sown in peace by those who make peace” (Letter of James 3).

The thought crossed my mind: We could invite a Muslim friend to join me in the pulpit, perhaps my neighbor Muhammad or Abdi or one of their children, whom I meet daily while walking the dogs.  I decided to invite Ghafar Lakanwal, a Pashtun Afghan-American cultural diversity trainer, a Muslim and naturalized U.S. citizen, to bring greetings of peace and share some passages about peacemaking from the Quran in our Sunday worship on 9/12.

Our little church in Chaska welcomed Ghafar, and his words about the spiritual “obligation to learn, not burn” still ring in our ears. Our service drew media attention, and Ghafar’s words were heard on the evening news  and noticed by a stranger in Australia, who sent a message through the church website. “I was touched,” he wrote, “when I read about your recent Sunday service in the news. …  I for one can testify that it has certainly comforted a far away Muslim to know that there are neighbors who will stand together in difficult times.  My salaam [to you].  May we all grow together to attain Allah’s pleasure.”

“Ah!” someone will say. How can any Christian rejoice when the author uses the name “Allah” for God?  But the reaction to the “name” is misbegotten.  It is not the name of God; it’s the Arabic word for what we in English call God.   The forest fire lit in defense of “God” in advance of the anniversary of 9/11 reminds us that two kinds of religion potentially exist everywhere people gather to practice their faith. One kind burns. The other kind learns.  One hates; the other loves.

As James, writing to those who would follow Jesus, put it: “With [the tongue] we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so” (James 3:9-10).  We can set the forest ablaze with our small spark or we can use it to light a candle of hope and peace. But, after the events of this month, none of us can again think that what we say is insignificant.

Rep. Allen West: Joseph McCarthy Reincarnated?

Do you believe in reincarnation?

Rep. Allen West

I didn’t until I read this story of FL Rep. Allen West (22nd District, FL), pictured here, acting like Sen. Joseph McCarthy, whose search for closet Communists dominated the era of American politics now remembered for “McCarthyism”.  Click Rep. Allen West says 81 House Members are Communists” – ABC News to read  the story and see the video.

Rep. Keith EllisonClick Rep. Keith Ellison (5th District, MN) for information on the Co-Chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. I know Keith, the first Muslim elected to the U.S. Congress. When Keith left the Legal Rights Center in Minneapolis, I succeeded him as its Executive Director. Keith is always breaking new ground, but becoming the first Muslim member of Congress who is also a hidden member of the Communist Party isn’t part of his ground-breaking. It’s a lie. He is profoundly religious. If being one’s brother’s or sister’s keeper, caring for the poor, makes him a Communist, as Senator Joe McCarthy, once thought…well..McCarthy’s and West’s claims say more about them than about those they fear and love to hate.

U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy

Rep. West’s allegation that 81 members of the U.S. Congress are Communists, leads me to re-post this social commentary previously published by Minnesota Public Radio in September ’09, a year after the crash on Wall Street.

SORROW FLOATS

 Gordon C. Stewart, 9.10 09

“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.

Erin McClam’s “5 weeks on the brink: Reliving meltdown of ’08,” (September 5, 2009) recounts the series of chilling events that almost led to a national crash just one year ago.

Something dear to the American family died last year.  Most of us lived in the illusion of economic and financial health until the day it was rushed to the emergency room for a government rescue.

Since then our memories of the pre-September ‘08 world have taken the turn that families often take at funerals where the eulogies bear little resemblance to the reality of the deceased. We’re quarreling over what was real and what is mythical re-construction.

Following the plane wreck that takes the lives of the Berry family parents in 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 in September-October 2008.

What died was the assumption that an unregulated free market system was the best way to organize an economy, the natural partner of democracy.  The market almost crashed.  It didn’t because the government intervened before a reoccurrence of the crash of 1929.  Sometime between mid-September and October 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, Sorrow 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.  The real life Sorrow gives way to the stuffed Sorrow, a thing of nostalgia that lives on…even after it’s dead, and long after the plane has crashed.

Sorrow floats every time fear sounds the alarm of “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.  The stuffed Sorrow floats every time we forget the greedy 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 disappearances, and job losses.  Sorrow floats a year after the crash when the mind forgets and nostalgically remembers a system we thought was working in our interest.

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