What’s wrong with the world?

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Photograph of G.K. Chesterton
G.K. Chesterton

The look on G.K. Chesterton‘s face could be ours. But who would think to give Chesterton’s answer to the question raised by a London newspaper, “What’s wrong with the world”? Chesterton wrote back two words: “I am“.

Dear Sir:

Regarding your article “What’s wrong with the world.”

I am.

Sincerely Yours,

G.K. Chesterton

The Society of Gilbert Keith Chesterton

Chesterton knew intuitively and by study that there’s something not right that defies description and prescription, a kind of universal virus that included him.

What ever happened to sin?

Psychologist Karl Menninger of the Menninger Clinic began his book Whatever Became of Sin with a funny story:

“On a sunny day in September, 1972, a stern-faced, plainly dressed man could be seen standing still on a street corner in the busy Chicago Loop. As pedestrians hurried by on their way to lunch or business, he would solemnly lift his right arm, and pointing to the person nearest him, intone loudly the single word ‘GUILTY!’

“Then, without any change of expression, he would resume his still stance for a few moments before repeating the gesture. Then, again, the inexorable raising of his arm, the pointing, and the solemn pronouncing of the one word ‘GUILTY!’

“The effect of this strange accusatory pantomime on the passing strangers was extraordinary, almost eerie. They would stare at him, hesitate, look away, look at each other, and then at him again; then hurriedly continue on their ways.

“One man, turning to another who was my informant, exclaimed: ‘But how did he know?’”

The sense of broken relatedness

“No word in the Christian vocabulary is so badly understood, in the world and in the church, as the word sin” (Douglas John Hall, The Cross in Our Context). Sin is a condition — the state of separation, broken relationship, estrangement from the Other, other people, and one’s self. This state manifests itself in particular acts of broken relatedness, “an active nonbeing, a refusal, a rejection, a no to the other: the other who is God, the author of life; the other who is the neighbor, he partner in life; the other that is creation itself, the context of life. … The recovery of relationality in Christian preaching and teaching is not a” concession to modernity or postmodernity; it is a recovery of the original Hebraic and early Christian ontology . . . .

To sin is to act in defiance of this essential relatedness of all living creatures. It is characteristic of sinful acts that the sinner points away from one’s self to shift responsibility elsewhere — the political, economic, or cultural system that shapes our behavior, or another person. It is only a mature soul who would think to answer the question “what’s wrong with the world” with two words: “I am”.

The Seven Social Evils of the World

Mohandas Gandhi made popular the “The Seven Social Evils of the World” first spoken by the Rev’d Canon Frederick Lewis Donaldson in a sermon at Westminster Abbey on March 20, 1925. Gandhi re-published them seven months later in his weekly newspaper, The Young Indian:

  1. Wealth without work.
  2. Pleasure without conscience.
  3. Knowledge without character.
  4. Commerce without morality.
  5. Science without humanity.
  6. Religion without sacrifice.
  7. Politics without principle.

The Seven Social Evils “Blunders” of the World

Mohandas Gandhi’s grandson later re-named them “The Seven Social Blunders of the World.”

The grandfather knew they were more than blunders. A blunder is a momentary slip — a mistake resulting usually from stupidity, ignorance, or carelessness. Mohandas Gandhi knew what Frederick Lewis Donaldson knew: there is something within each and all of us that makes our heads turn when the man on the street corner points in our direction and says, “Guilty.” No other word compares with the word ‘sin’ to describe what’s wrong with the world. We all are. “I am.”

Few people make much difference to the shape of the world. But every one of us, by turning from the seven social sins, contributes to the mending of the world.

— Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, June 17, 2019.

You will be like God

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

Looking again at the Genesis stories of creation and fall (Gen.1-4) through these eyes seems to go to the heart of the story of humanity and the rest of nature.

The Garden of Eden is a natural paradise. All the creatures are living in harmony within the limits of nature itself.

Then, without explanation, a pernicious idea intrudes. The serpent suggests to the humans that they can become the exception to creaturely existence. “You will be like God! You will be the exception to the rest of us. You will know what no creature can know. You will be like the Creator. You will know good and evil.”

There has been no thought of evil in the Genesis paradise before the sin of exceptionalism breaks the unity of all creatures under the reign of the glad Creator who had declared it all ‘good”.

Only two chapters later, “The LORD saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the LORD was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart” [Gen. 6:5-6].

In a similar vein, J. Robert Oppenheimer, father of the atom bomb, declared, “There are no secrets about the world of nature. There are secrets about the thoughts and intentions of men.”

With a wisdom and passion akin to the Genesis writer, Oppenheimer opined after watching the first nuclear explosion, “We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita; Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty, and to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says, ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’ I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.”

One can hope and pray that the wisdom of Genesis, Oppenheimer, and Koyama will turn those with their fingers on the buttons of nuclear arsenals away from the power of the serpent’s deception, and make a sad Creator glad again.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, January 11, 2017.

King David

King David

King David

“A man after God’s own heart,”
Divinely favored, protected,

Yet violent, a killer with a stone,
Then beheading giant Goliath.

A womanizer, polygamous,
Taking beautiful Bathsheba

When her husband was away,
Then plotting his death…done.

A model King? God’s anointed?
But war-cursed when he sinned…

Ancestor with his stolen wife
Of the coming Messiah:

He never prayed to escape justice,
Always finally knew his own fault,

Sang sweetly of God’s goodness,
Confessed his stinking sins,

Suffered, lost his man-love, love-child,
Yet by grace, with grace, ruled forty years…

– Steve Shoemaker, Urbana, IL, Oct. 7, 2014

Verse – Ash Wednesday

The palms had been saved for 11 months,
then burned to ashes. Thin tapers all lay
like kindling near the Christ candle. Our mouths
moved silently reciting sins. Today
we wear a black plus on foreheads:
it means we have forgiven all of those
who sinned against us, and even ourselves.

We light a taper, place it in the sands
surrounding Christ, shifting under us.
We tell the skeptical that God forgives
them–they tell us the same absurd good news.
Our Pastor prays and lays upon our heads
a blessing undeserved. We leave this place
each marked by two crossed lines of dirty grace.

– Steve Shoemaker, Urbana, IL, March 6, 2014

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.

sin

numbers one as to sin i’m usually all in
help another out sorry no doubt
you’ve heard i’m too busy for that route

help a neighbor that’s way too much labor
when i need a hand please understand
i’ll expect you to drop what you planned

i always take care of number one
you it’s true are always number two
don’t you wonder i have your number

-Steve Shoemaker, Urbana, IL, April 10, 2013