Open Letter to President Trump

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November 15, 2018

Dear Mr. President,

I’m concerned for the country. I’m also worried about you. The two go hand-in-hand, yet they are not the same. Though we have never met, we share something: we were baptized in Presbyterian churches. Neither of us can remember that moment. We were infants. We had no choice.

Because we do have a choice now, I write to share with you the story of another person who, unlike us, was old enough to choose.

Kosuke Koyama was 15 years old at the time. Japan was his country. Tokyo was his home. The United Church of Japan was his church family. The scene of his baptism could not be more different from ours. It was 1945 during the American fire bombing of Tokyo. The worshipers could hear the bombs exploding all around the church. They Through the windows they could see the flames.

His pastor gently took  Koyama’s face in his hands, looked him in the eye, and charged him with words that succinctly say what baptism into Christ means:”Kosuke, you are a disciple of Jesus Christ. You must love your enemies. Even the Americans.” It was a defining moment for the rest of Kosuk’s life.

Kosuke Koyama - RIP

Kosuke Koyama (1929-2018 “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Mt. 25:23) RIP

Through the eyes of faith, Koyama later plumbed the depths of that moment, and came to a deeper understanding of what had happened to his native country. Japan had come to see itself as exceptional –a singularly superior nation and culture. Japan had made itself into its own house god. It had twisted love of country (patriotism) into nationalism, and nationalism gave license for imperialist adventures that led to unimaginably horific consequences. In 1967 the United Church of Japan issued a Confession of Responsibility During World War II as a way of restoring the church’s integrity.

Kosuke Koyama died in 2009 after a distinguished professional career that officially ended with his retirement from the John D. Rockefeller Chair of World Religion at Union Theological Seminary in your home city. Robert McAfee Brown, who wrote the book you and I were assigned to read in confirmation class, The Bible Speaks to You, was Koyama’s faculty colleague. During his 14 years at Union Seminary, and following his retirement, Dr. Koyama created a legacy that lives on in his books (Water Buffalo Theology, Mount Fuji and Most Sinai, No Handle on the Cross, and others) and in the lives of those he influenced by his teaching and humble character.

World War I centenary

World War I Centenary, Paris, France, Nov. 11, 2018

Today you call yourself a nationalist. You have embraced the great sin that Kosuke came to see so clearly in his native country. Watching you at the Arc de Triomphe last week for the 100th anniversary of the armistice that ended World War I, I saw you through Koyama’s lens of faith. You sat among the company of other world leaders, but you looked very alone. Sitting very nervously away from the spotlight, you waved back to someone, as if to assure yourself of your importance. I saw a very lonely man without the company of friends and allies. In that moment, I felt a bit of sympathy for you. I wished you could slip away to a nearby cafe where we could talk, just the two of us as pastor and president.

Trump and Macron III July 2017Then I heard the President of France, Emmanuel Macron, step to the podium to issue a rebuke to nationalism as “a betrayal of patriotism” that eliminates what makes a nation great: its moral compass. While my heart leaped for joy, I wondered what you were feeling and thinking all alone there in Paris.

Patriotism is the exact opposite of nationalism. Nationalism is a betrayal of patriotism. By saying “our interests first, who cares about the others,” we erase what a nation holds dearest, what gives it life, what makes it great and what is essential: its moral values. I know there are old demons which are coming back to the surface. They are ready to wreak chaos and death. History sometimes threatens to take its sinister course once again.

I thought again of Koyama and wondered whether it would have made a difference if your pastor had baptized you during a bombing raid when you were old enough to choose, looked you in the eye, and said, “Donald, you are a disciple of Jesus Christ. You must love your [friends] and enemies, even the French.” New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, a short walk from the White House. It was President Abraham Lincoln’s home church during his presidency. Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln worshiped there to hear from a free pulpit a good word they knew they could not not command. It could become a home for you, Melania, and Baron.

I will pray for you. I will love our country. But I will not worship it. Neither should you.

Respectfully,

Gordon C. Stewart

Retired Minister (HR), Presbyterian Church (USA), Chaska, MN

 

 

 

Daily Riches: Religion and Established Privilege (Thomas Merton)

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Thomas Merton’s quotation on religion and privilege arrived following a national campaign with loud cheers and boisterous rallies that turn Christianity into white nationalism. “…Faith in God . . . becomes in fact faith in [one’s] own nation, class or race.”

Richer By Far

“Of course, it is true that religion on a superficial level, religion that is untrue to itself and to God, easily comes to serve as the ‘opium of the people.’ And this takes place whenever religion and prayer invoke the name of God for reasons and ends that have nothing to do with him. When religion becomes a mere artificial facade to justify a social or economic system–when religion hands over its rites and language completely to the political propagandists, and when prayer becomes the vehicle for a purely secular ideological program, then religion does tend to become an opiate. It deadens the spirit enough to permit the substitution of a superficial fiction and mythology for this truth of life. And this brings about the alienation of the believer, so that his religious zeal becomes political fanaticism. His faith in God, while preserving its traditional formulas, becomes in fact faith…

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Unspeakable Speech: 2018

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What happened across America last week is unspeakable. But these unspeakable acts of violence have a long history in speech itself. The bombs mailed from Florida did not come out of a speechless void. Nor did Saturday’s attack on Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh.

Tree of Life

Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha Congregation

If ever the Hebrew proverb was true that those with a pure heart and gracious speech will have the king for their friend (Book of Proverbs 22:11), it is true no longer in 2018. The massacre of Jewish worshipers on Shabbat does not come out of a vacuum. Hate speech once uttered cannot be put back. It has a murderous history we dare not forget, and casts a long dark shadow into the future we dare not abide.

Words are powerful. Speech is powerful. Silence is powerful. Acquiescence is powerful. When the words come from the President of the United States — or when they do not come, or when they come only in part — they contribute to the worst in us. They cast their shadow far into the American future. White nationalism/Christian nationalism is the forbidden fruit of the tree from which we must not eat. It is not the fruit of the Tree of Life (Genesis 3). It is the fruit of the tree of death.

As the city officials and Jewish leaders in Pittsburgh prepare for the President’s controversial visit the day they begin burying their loved ones, we offer a rabbi’s voice to help the rest of us understand.

Reb Arthur WaskowHealing for the Stricken Community,
for the Shaken Jewish People,
and for Our Deeply Wounded Country

Dear friends,

There are many disastrous levels to the murderous massacre at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.

There is the immediate personal disaster of eleven lives destroyed, others wounded, families and friends bereft, a neighborhood traumatized.  To all these, The Shalom Center as a body and I individually send blessings of swift refuah (healing) for the wounded,  deep respect and grief for the dead, and loving care for those bereaved.

There is the broader disaster of shock to the American Jewish community, until now so profoundly joyful to have found full acceptance in America these last several generations, after millennia of persecution elsewhere and elsewhen.
Some of us took from that safety acceptance in becoming affluent, even wealthy, even powerful. Some of us took from that safety acceptance in becoming social critics, progressives, even radicals.

Less comfort as critics than as powerful, of course – but comfortable that all the clauses of the First Amendment affirmed our worth as Jews, as sacred fringes on conventional assumptions, as challengers who could wrestle not only with God (as our name “Yisrael” describes us) but with the rigidified habits of ourselves and others.

And even worse, the broader disaster of facing an American government that our immigrant forebears who came here for freedom’s sake could not have fathomed:

A government honeycombed with white supremacism, moving into neofascism,  calling forth from the shadows into boastful visibility those who concoct bombs to enforce their racism, who can openly revel in their contempt for women, who can turn hatred of foreigners into willingness to rip babies from their mothers’ breasts,  who can turn their greed for hyperwealth into willingness to torch the Earth that is our common home, our only home  — and who can turn their latent anti-Semitism into mass murder.

How do we respond to these layered levels of disaster?

-Rabbi Arthur Waskow, Shalom Center, Philadelphia, PA

Following a week of unspeakable violence, Rabbi Waskow’s question addresses all of us. Today in Pittsburgh is a day to keep silence before a Word of comfort and direction deeper than our own. Tomorrow and November 6 is time for all of us to speak.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, October 30, 2018

Hope is IN SPITE OF Troubles!

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Kosuke Koyama - RIP

Kosuke Koyama (1929-2009)

“You have to be hopeful; you have to give them hope.”

“Okay,” I said, “but I can’t give anyone else hope. Hope comes from within.”

Hope seems harder in 2018 than it was when Kosuke Koyama advised the younger preacher to stay positive. Years later, it was to Dr. Koyama that Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness was dedicated for many reasons. Maintaining hope was one of them. His humility was another. His characteristic kindness and compassion reached out when friends were scarce. But nothing became more impactful than the statement he made over lunch: “There is only one sin: exceptionalism.”

Years before his death in 2009, Koyama (“Ko”) had begun to view the environmental crisis through the lens of humankind’s presumption: the mistaken belief that we, the human species, are the exception to Nature. For Ko it was a form of idolatry.

In light of this week’s avalanche of news, I’ve wondered what Ko would say. He still would bless us with his smile. He would encourage us to resist the claim of American exceptionalism, the confusion of nationalism (worship of country) with patriotism (love of one’s country), any border policy that takes children from their parents arms in the name of national security, every energy policy that feeds the coffers of the fossil fuel industry (“God is green,” said Ko), every exaltation of greed, every distortion of truth, every tax policy that keeps the poor poor while lining the pockets of the 1%, and any President and Congress that reminded him of Emperor Hirohito and the cult of national exceptionalism he grew up with in Tokyo. The god of empire, he observed, never says no. The God of the Bible says no: “You are a stiff-necked people!”

But amid all the issues that deserve our attention, I believe Ko would urge us to keep our eye on the biggest of sin — the mega sin — the sin against Nature that imperils the planet as we know it. His legacy invites us to bow our stiff necks to that which is bigger, longer lasting, and more encompassing than ourselves. Everything less is built on sinking sand.

Ko spoke in metaphors and parables. I believe he would remind us of Jesus’ parable of the wise man who built his house upon the rock versus the foolish one who built his house upon the sand. “And the rains came down, and the floods came up, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell: and great was the fall of it.”

256px-ShipTracks_MODIS_2005may11

NASA satellite photo of clouds created by the exhaust of ship smokestacks.

 

He would rally behind Bill McKibben’s declaration that “climate change is the single biggest thing that humans have ever done on this planet. The one thing that needs to be bigger is our movement to stop it.” The only way to stop it is to turn from the the mega sin — the idol of human exceptionalism, the worship of ourselves.

“[T]hrough endurance, to feel that life is surrounded by the warm approval of God, will that not be the experience of hope? Hope is in spite of troubles. There is not hope apart from troubles. There is no automatic hope, no easy hope. Hope is hope against all odds.” — Kosuke Koyama, Three Mile an Hour God.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, September 25, 2018.

 

May God thy gold refine

Views from the Edge reader Carolyn responded to yesterday’s re-blog of Hold to the Good’s Fourth of July article on the difference between patriotism and nationalism by John Buchanan. Carolyn wrote the following:

True patriot, Senator Carl Schurz of Missouri, in a debate said:

‘The Senator from Wisconsin cannot frighten me by exclaiming ‘My country, right or wrong.’ In one sense I say so too. My country; and my country is the great American Republic. My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right. Feb. 29, 1872.

Schurz expanded on this theme in a speech delivered at the Anti-Imperialistic Conference, Chicago, Illinois, October 17, 1899: “I confidently trust that the American people will prove themselves … too wise not to detect the false pride or the dangerous ambitions or the selfish schemes which so often hide themselves under that deceptive cry of mock patriotism: ‘Our country, right or wrong!’ They will not fail to recognize that our dignity, our free institutions and the peace and welfare of this and coming generations of Americans will be secure only as we cling to the watchword of true patriotism: ‘Our country—when right to be kept right; when wrong to be put right.’”—Schurz, “The Policy of Imperialism,” Speeches, Correspondence and Political Papers of Carl Schurz, vol. 6, pp. 119–20 (1913).

+++++

I also like to bear in mind some phrases from verses 2 and 3 of the wonderful patriotic song “America the Beautiful”.

“America! America! / God mend thine every flaw / Confirm thy soul in self-control, / Thy liberty in law!”

“America! America! / May God thy gold refine / Till [‘Til] all success be nobleness / And every gain divine!

Amen

“Making America ‘Great’ Again!”

Donald Trump’s refrain begs for interpretation. What does he mean by ‘great’? Is there a synonym for ‘great’ in Trump’s speech and demeanor?

“Make America the BULLY again!”

Mr. Trump – Mr. You’re Fired! – acts like a bully and talks like a bully. “We’re going to make America great again! You’re going to love it!”

Need we say more? Yes, we do. Because people are falling for it.

imposters-of-godImagine the voice of William Stringfellow coming from the same stage as Mr. Trump:

“The sheer arrogance of the idolatrous claims of nations, perhaps especially those possessed of enormous economic and military strength, is so starling that the fascination of men (sic) with idolatry can be explained in no other conceivable manner than as moral insanity….

“More than one President of the United States, not to mention other lesser orators, have propounded, with sober face, the theme that America’s extraordinary power evidences an erstwhile holy dispensation and constitutes God’s partisanship for American dominance in the world.”- William Stringfellow, Imposters of God: Inquiries Into Favorite Idols, Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2006. [Imposters for God was original written as a confirmation curriculum for confirmands in the Episcopal Church in America.]

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Presbyterian minister, Chaska, MN, Feb. 27

Why is pop culture fascinated with the end of the world?

Minnesota Public Radio’s Public Insight Journalism asked the question after release of the film Seeking a Friend for the End of the Earth. Here’s how I responded.

Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death makes the case that our culture is death-denying.

One could argue that our fascination with end of the world films and stories is an entertaining and objectified way of dealing with one’s own personal destiny. Every death is “The end of the world.” The end of the world writ large on the planetary screen moves the issue into the world of fiction, fantasy and myth from which, like all cultures before ours, we create meaning in the midst of time.

There are other reasons for our fascination, of course. Supreme among them, in my view, is the dualism and the violence that saturate Western culture: God/Satan, Good/Evil, Moral/Immoral, Saved/Damned, Blessed/Cursed.

It is this misreading of ancient Jewish and Christian texts that makes the will to power the central theme of our time. The late Japanese Christian theologian Kosuke Koyama said that all “sin” has the same root. It is the claim of “exceptionalism.” Under the banner of nationalist exceptionalism’s shameless stealing of the metaphor of “the city set on a hill” away from its proper setting in Jesus’ nonviolent Sermon on the Mount, we assume Western Culture and the U.S.A. to be the Golden City and the agent of divine will. The exercise of that fallacious conviction results in wars of foreign intervention, occupation, and “pre-emptive strikes” in the name of national security.

We have become a national security state. The “end of the world” fascination in our time is heightened by the knowledge that global destruction – nuclear night – is entirely possible. We fear it. We know it. Yet we are also a culture addicted to entertainment where our worst nightmares get projected onto a movie or television screen where we know that what we’re watching is fiction. The fiction is almost always a high-tech version of the old racist and xenophobic dualism my generation grew up on: cowboys and Indians.

Beneath the question of why our culture is fascinated with end of the world is human nature itself. We human beings, like all other animals, are mortal. We may be exceptional in that we are (more) conscious and self-conscious, but first and last, we are animals. We are born. We live. We die.

As conscious animals, we are capable of great feats. We are also, so far as we know, the only animal capable of self-deception, denial, illusion, and species suicide. The denial of death is the great denial, and immortality is the human species’ great illusion.

The fact of death looms over life for each of us existentially and for the species itself from the beginning and in the middle, not just at the end.  Death is our shared destiny. Death is extinction. Our fascination with the end of the world is a strange Molotov cocktail comprised of all of the ingredients of the human condition, most especially the spiritual terror of annihilation, and the illusion of winning. It is the ongoing legacy of the biblical myth of Cain, humanity’s “first-born” who kills his brother Abel, the myth that describes our time and place in history.

If, like in the movie, you had only three weeks left before the end of the world… What would you do?

I’d do what I’m doing now only more consciously. I’d continue to write each morning. I’d do my best to live gratefully, attending to beauty in nature and in art (classical music and paintings) and to family and friends. I’d pray more thoughtfully. I’d walk my dogs more joyfully, stop yelling at them for barking, and find a place on the North Shore to look out to the horizon of Lake Superior. I’d eat lobster and Dungeness crab with lots of hot butter and salt, rib-eye steaks, garlic mashed potatoes. I would avoid Brussels sprouts! I’d end each meal with a Maine blueberry pie, flan, or Graeter’s ice cream, and a Makers Mark Manhattan.  Then I’d settle down on the couch next to the love of my life, Kay, by the fireplace, turn off the news, see if we can make a little fire of our own, get anchored again in the Sermon on the Mount, and return to sources of joy and laughter in the poems of Hafiz. I’d give up being intentional/purposive. I’d live in the moment.

Just one country?

Kosuke Koyama – RIP

The late Japanese Christian theologian Kosuke Koyama (click HERE for NYT obituary) said, “There is only one sin, and it is exceptionalism.”  Koyama was baptized during the bombing raids of Tokyo in WW II. As the bombs exploded and the building burned around the church, Kosuke’s pastor looked him in the eye. “Kosuke,” he said, “You are a disciple of Jesus Christ. You must love your enemy… even the Americans.”Koyama first saw the myth of exceptionalism in the Japan of his youth where the Emperor and the Divine were hand-in-glove. Japan was an exceptional people that could not fail. In his later years, following his retirement from Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York, “Ko,” as his friends called him with great affection moved to Minneapolis.

During the 15 years I knew him, he shared his greatest sadness that the ideology of exceptionalism he had experienced as a  boy in Japan he now saw in the United States.

Today in 2012 political candidates cunningly appeal to the myth, believing that doing so  will rally true believers to cast their votes for them as the truest believers in America. Steve Shoemaker sent this piece today.

Verse – Steve Shoemaker, Urbana, IL May 2, 2012

The U.S.A. actually  is just one

country out of quite many “under God.”

It would be wrong to think the summer sun

shines only on our farms.  In other lands

the children grow as strong and bright as here,

and elders have respect around the world

(in fact, in many places they don’t fear

such loneliness and high cost of health care.)

 

 

Other countries are also free and brave, and have fine soldiers ready to defend

their shores.  It’s sweet and seemly that we give

our lives to save our families,  friends and land,

but we must not think we’re exceptional

and forget, too, the international.

“Get off my corner!”

Sen Joe McCarthy purging America of disbelieversGordon C. Stewart (copyright)

I’m sitting calmly in my office when the phone rings. It’s a parishioner who lives near the downtown post office. “I don’t know what’s happening,” she says, “but there’s some kind of ruckus on the corner. There’s some kind of booth on the corner.”

I drive to the Post Office. I park the car half a block away and see a large booth on the street corner. The woman handing out literature is yelling at a man who’s crossing the street, and he’s yelling back. I can’t hear what they’re saying until I draw closer.  A man crossing the street to get away from the booth is shouting over his shoulder. “You’re not only anti-Semitic! You’re anti-American!”

The booth features an eight-foot tall photograph of the President of the United States. But this is no ordinary photograph. There’s a mustache imposed on President Obama’s picture, the mustache of Adolf Hitler and a call for his impeachment, “Du mp Obama!”

I approach the booth.  “Just another Jew,” says the woman.

“What’s happening?” I ask.

She slides a flyer toward me across the counter. “Read it,” she says. I put my finger on the mustache. “You don’t want to hear what we have to say. You’re a spy!” she says as she steps backward, tilts her head in the air, and bellows out “O beautiful for spacious skies, For amber waves of grain, For purple mountain majesty, Above the fruited plain. America!  America! God shed His grace on thee….” But before she sings the last line of the stanza – “and crown thy good with brotherhood… – she stops and orders me off her corner. “Get off my corner!”

She is carrying the message of Lyndon LaRouche, a perpetual candidate for President whose only consistency over a long checkered history of ideological swings on the political spectrum is the red-hot lava of righteous rage.

The behavior of the woman at the Post Office, like that of the Florida pastor whose threat to burn Qur’ans nearly set the world on fire several years ago, is bizarre. But the rage she expresses is not unique to her. Because it is so outrageous, it shines a light into the darkness of the widespread incivility of our time, an incivility that erupts from a core conviction hidden below the surface of our consciousness.

We’re street brawling over what kind of America we will be, and “Can’t we all just get along”- the plea of Rodney King as he witnessed the Los Angeles riots following the “innocent” verdict  exonerating the police officers whose beatings of him had been aired repeatedly on national television– is long forgotten. We’re dividing ourselves into true believers and heretics, patriots and traitors, suspicious of each other all the way to the White House.

This is not new. This volcano of anger erupted in the trial of Anne Hutchinson (1637), banished by the court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony as “a woman not fit for our society” who, when banished, went on to co-found the State of Rhode Island. It erupted in the execution of Mary Dyer, a Quaker hanged for heresy in 1670, and in the Salem Witch Trials. The horrors of powerful religious dogmatism led the Founders of the new American republic to write into the constitution that there would be no established religion. The American republic would a secular republic with freedom of religious expression. It would not be a theocracy.

As the new nation was being conceived, demagoguery often replaced politics, i.e. the art of compromise, as it often does now.  One does not compromise with the enemy. One eliminates him.   Rodney King’s plea is regarded as the way of the ill-informed, cowards, heretics, and Anti-Americans.

The lava of anger originates from a hidden, unexamined conviction that the United States is the chosen people, the messianic people whose job is to eliminate evil within and without in the war of good against evil. It is an idea born of the rape of the Judeo-Christian tradition by nationalism which installs America as the exception to history, the nation divinely ordained to banish Anne Hutchinson in 1637, hang Mary Dyer in 1670, and destroy the reputations of decent people as un-American in Senator Joseph McCarthy’s purge of secret communists in the early 1950s. It’s the belief that America is the exception…and that the real America is only some of us, the righteous believers.

In the unspoken consciousness of our collective memory, “You are the light of the world” becomes the declaration of fact spoken about America, not an itinerant preacher’s call to a small band of first-century disciples to persist in the hard politics of love and peace in a time of hate and violence. The ensuing lines from the primary text, The Sermon on the Mount – “You have heard that it was said, ‘You must love your neighbor as yourself,’ but I say to you, love your enemy and do good to those who persecute you” – are forgotten, ignored, torn out, blacked out or burned on the altar of messianic nationalism.

Even more ironic is that those who attack others, including a sitting president, as un-American – i.e. heretics  who do not bow to the idea of America as the collective messiah  of history– scream against government and taxes as enemies, socialist intrusions on their individual freedom to hoard what is theirs.  The biblical city is no longer a community of sharing of the wealth and care for the least; it becomes a sandbox of greed and competition where the highest value is my freedom to get and keep what is mine.

The irony is that in the minds and hearts of those who have been raped, “America the beautiful…God shed his grace on thee…” is not a statement of aspiration but of fact.  And the prayer “God mend thine every flaw” –  the flaws of selfishness and greed, our meanness to each other, our name calling and stereotyping, our entrenched partisanship, our collective global nationalist arrogance – become a distant memory of a censored sentiment. In times like these when ugliness replaces beauty, America
the Beautiful is, as it always has been, a courageous aspiration and prayer for sanity and the ancient wisdom of the Letter of James that calls us all to engage each other and the world of nations differently: “The fruit of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.”