Ancient wisdom on the art of deception


Sojourner Truth and President Abraham Lincoln

Monday, after we’d read aloud Psalm 52, Kay proposed we create T-shirts with a simple message: ‘Psalm 52’. She was joking, of course. We’re not the sort to wear our religion on our chests! She had in mind the following lines.

You tyrant, why do you boast of wickedness

…all day long?

You plot ruin;

your tongue is like a sharpened razor,

O worker of deception.

You love evil more than good

and lying more than speaking the truth.

You love all words that hurt,

O you deceitful tongue.

O that God would demolish you utterly,

topple you, and snatch you from your dwelling…!

Yesterday we picked up a copy of the latest Star Tribune. The editorial, “Trump practices art of deception,” called Sunday night’s sharpened razor tweet from the White House to Iranian President Rouhani “another alarming distraction to take the spotlight from other news, such as the fiasco in Helsinki…” (Star Tribune, July 24, 2018).

Ancient wisdom is called ‘ancient’ because it’s old. It’s called ‘wisdom’ because it speaks plainly to things that never seem to go away. But you can’t put a whole psalm or an editorial on a T-shirt! The above picture of President Lincoln and Sojourner Truth would get the truth part. But a simple psalm # points to the ongoing tension between truth and the practiced art of deception.

‘PSALM 52!’

  • Gordon C. Stewart on the wetland, July 25, 2018

General Pershing and the Commander-in-Chief


These Letters to the Editor (August 19) responding to President Trump’s tweet that invoked a debunked legend about Gen. John J. Pershing subduing Muslim rebels in the Philippines with bullets dipped in pig blood deserve an audience beyond the readership of the Star Tribune.

I won’t stand for fake news about my cousin, Gen. John Pershing

“I don’t usually express my political opinions in public, which may or may not be a good thing. But now it’s personal. When a sitting president tries to spread fake news about my relative, Gen. John J. Pershing, I take it personally. (“Under siege, Trump turns fire on GOP,” front page, Aug. 18).

“Cousin John was an exemplary general, most notably because of the humane and respectful way he treated the African-American soldiers under his command. To even suggest that the general displayed hateful behavior is, at best, ill-informed or, at worst, vicious and ignorant.

“In this case, President Donald Trump is propagating fake facts to make a fine, upstanding historical figure look like a white supremacist. Totally not true, as historian after historian has repeatedly said. The events that the president is using to make a point simply did not happen.

“This is just another example of the bullying behavior Trump has shown over and over. If he can’t get his way, he finds someone else to put down or uses fake news to make his point — even if the point has no merit.

“Melania Trump has said she wants to fight bullying while she is First Lady. I suggest that she start at home.”

  • Susan Wiesler Dean, Northfield, MN [fourth cousin of Gen. John J. Pershing]

220px-General_John_Joseph_Pershing_head_on_shouldersThis Letter to the Editor followed.

“Long story short.

“Trump has defamed and slandered the good name of Gen. John ‘Black Jack’ Pershing.

“Short story longer.

“He and George Washington are the only two people to be named General of the Armies. As a young man, Pershing taught at an all-black school. He was given the nickname ‘Black Jack’ as a pejorative because he treated the black students fairly, and he works the ‘insult’ proudly. When he arrived in the Philippines, he gave a copy of the Qur’an to the local leaders and offered to assist in building mosques. During World War I, he had the command of the segregated 369th and was respected and admired by the black troops.

“While Pershing was apolitical, the treatment that blacks received from him and their fellow French troops gave hope to the civil rights struggle of returning black vets between the wars. He was never an Islamaphobe.”

  • Ernie Neve, Minneapolis

The same day the Star Tribune published the letters, the president waved to his departing chief strategist, Steve Bannon, as a warrior against fake news:

“Steve Bannon will be a tough and smart new voice at @BreitbartNews…maybe even better than ever before. Fake News needs the competition!” – Donald J. Trump.


The Wisdom of Solomon and the Budget Crisis

Today we re-publish this piece from a similar budget show-down in Minnesota.

The Wisdom of Solomon and the Budget Crisis – social commentary  published by Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Photo of NH farm gate

Last week I drove past a sign hanging from the fence of a pasture. It read: “Don’t Cross This Field Unless You Can Do It In 9.9 Seconds … The Bull Can Do It In 10.” I couldn’t help but think of the face-off over the debt ceiling in our nation’s capital. The clock is ticking. Soon we — the USA — won’t have time make it across the field without defaulting….

An Ash Wednesday Question

What do we do? How do we stop this?

“Motorists and walkers scattered in terror Monday night as a gunman fired two bursts of bullets at passing vehicles near an Oakdale grocery store, killing a 10-year-old boy and wounding two other people. Click HERE for the Start Tribune story.

We can‘t stop it. America is an arsenal with an open door. And any attempt to close the door is “unconstitutional”. Liberty, one of three basic rights outlined by The Declaration of Independence, is killing the other two. “Liberty” trumps not only “the pursuit of happiness” but “life” itself.

“At least two vehicles struck by bullets sped into the parking lot of the nearby Rainbow Foods at 7053 10th St. N. seeking help.”

Responsible gun owners did not do this. An irresponsible gun owner did this. But it would have made not one ounce of difference if the passersby had been armed. They were sitting ducks, like the ducks in a carnival booth. There is no protection against irresponsible use of a firearm.

Is the concern about violence in America – about life and the pursuit of happiness – equal to the concern for the constitutional right to bear arms? Can we talk about what is happening on the streets and in the schools across America without shouting that guns are not the problem – that people are the problem?

People are the problem. So are the lethal weapons like the one that made its way into the hand of the man who stands on a corner and fires at passers-by. These are not water pistols. These are not cap-guns. These are not bows and arrows. Can we talk about the problem of people using guns to kill their neighbors? Can we even have a discussion without the NRA holding us hostage?

Today is Ash Wednesday when Christians ponder the mystery of the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ on the way to the cross.

“And while [Jesus] was still speaking, Judas came, one of the twelve, and with him a great crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and the elders of the people. …And they came and laid hands on Jesus and seized him. And behold one of those who were with Jesus stretched out his hand and drew his sword, and struck the slave of the high priest and cut off his ear. Then Jesus said to him, ‘Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.’ “ (Gospel of Matthew 26:47-52)

In Luke’s version of the arrest, Jesus tells the disciple ‘No more of this!’ And he touched his ear and healed him.” (Gospel of Luke. 22:51)

“The 33-year-old gunman, who was in police custody Monday night, began firing a handgun about 6:10 p.m. while standing in the street near Hadley Avenue N. and 7th Street N….” – Star Tribune, Minneapolis, Minnesota, Feb. 12, 2013.

Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are the three core rights of the Declaration of Independence. Faith, hope, and love are the great spiritual values of the Christian tradition. Our freedom is not found in a weapon. It is found in Jesus of Nazareth for who was executed after the angry crowd yelled for the release of the other criminal, Jesus Barabbas, the armed insurrectionist.

It’s Ash Wednesday. At his arrest, the Jesus who is arrested by an armed militia tells his uncomprehending disciple to put his sword away: “Those who live by the sword will die by the sword.”

“No more of this!” Please, for the sake of God, stop this!

Police Chief spokesman for gun control

“Small Town’s Big Voice on Gun Control” appeared this morning in the Star Tribune.

Click HERE to read the story on Chaska Police Chief Scott Knight, including information about last Tuesday’s First Tuesday Dialogues event on “Gun Violence in America” at Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church here in Chaska. Here’s a photo of Chief Knight and Carver County Sheriff Jim OIson from last Tuesday’s Dialogue.

Scott night (l with Sheriff Olson

Scott night (L) with Sheriff Olson

The Convoy and the Man on the Bridge

Cup of coffee in hand, I read this story on the front page of the morning newspaper (click on): Truckers lined up rigs to save suicidal man.

Seeing a man clinging to an overpass high above Interstate 94, Carl Hoffman, a quick-thinking state trooper, “found an ingenious way to save him. He summoned a convoy of 18-wheelers…positioning them one by one to break a potential plunge to the pavement about 25 feet below.”

Carl Hoffman deserves a medal. So do the truck drivers. But the truckers got back on the road before anyone took their names. “The drama over, ‘we told the truckers to take off,’ trooper Hoffman said, leaving the identities of the Good Samaritans a mystery to authorities.” One of the truckers told the trooper that he had done this once before in Florida.

Trucker are a different breed of cat.

Take Wes, for example. Wes logged over a million miles as an over-the-road long-distance hauler. He and his wife, Alice, are members of Shepherd of the Hill Presbterian Church, the wonderful small church I like to call a collection of characters with character.

Wes and Alice are retired in their 80s. Wes was recently diagnosed with cancer that leaves him in great pain and some confusion.

I walk into his hospital room. His eyes are closed. I speak his name. He opens his eyes. His face breaks into a smile. His eyes grow wide. He reaches out his hand. “Oh, my! Look at you. You came all this way just to see me? Oh, my!  Great to see you. You didn’t have to that. You didn’t have to come all that way…just to see me.”

“No problem,” said, “it only took me four hours.” We both laugh. It takes 25 minutes, and he knows it, although the cancer has taken its toll on his memory and cognitive skills. ‘Yeah, but you didn’t have to come.” He squeezes my hand and holds on.

Reading the paper this morning, I imagine Wes as one of those truckers lined up in the truck convoy under the bridge.

Like each of the those truckers, Wes has his own story. And he has lots of stories to tell.

Wes and Alice are the only people I know who have had a coyote for a pet. While Wes was was on the road with his rig, Alice was taking care of the farm with the coyote at her side for companionship and protection.

During one of those weeks, one of the calves was in trouble back on the farm. Alice called the veterinarian. When the vet arrived and reached to open the gate to the pasture, Alice stopped him.  “Don’t go in there. That bull’s mean. Stay right here. Watch this.” Alice opened the gate enough for the coyote to enter the pasture. The coyote ran directly to the bull, stared him down, grabbed hold of the chain from the bull’s nose, yanked the chain tight, and led the submissive bull into the barn. No bull!

So…who saved the calf’s life? Alice? The veterinarian? Or the coyote that got the bull into the barn?  Who rescued the despondent man on the I-94 overpass? The State Trooper? The firemen who cut through the fence and pulled the man to safety? The six truckers in the 18-wheeler convoy?

One of the long-distance haulers is coming down the home stretch asking why his pastor would “come all that way just to see me.” He and his fellow Good Samaritans know the answer better than the pastor.

The Wafer and the Loaf: the Pope and Raul Castro

I woke up this morning to read “Pope calls for ‘justice, peace, freedom and reconciliation’ in Cuba. He was greeted by Cuban President Raul Castro, who promised religious freedom in his Communist nation.”  What follows is my reflection on this piece in light of three weeks in Cuba in 1979..

Curious. The headline and the story are curious.

Pope Benedict arrives in Santiago, Cuba. In Mexico he has just criticized Cuba’s Marxist model as obsolete and has called for a future of “justice, peace, freedom and reconciliation” in Cuba.

The President of Cuba, Raul Castro, welcomes the pontiff to Cuban soil.

The media focuses on the Pope’s call for change in Cuba, on the one hand, and Mr. Castro’s promise of  religious freedom in Cuba, as though the latter were a new development.

In 1979, on the heels of the Catholic Bishops Conference in Puebla, Mexico, I spent three weeks in Cuba, one of 75 churchmen and theologians invited by the Evangelical Theological Seminary of Matanzas, Cuba and the Presbyterian-Reformed Church of Cuba.

Most of the guests were from Central and South America. Others were from France, East and West Germany, Rumania, the Soviet Union, Mozambique, Angola, South Africa, Zimbabwe. There were four of us from the U.S: Professors Harvey Cox, , Robert McAfee Brown and a tag-along practicing pastor and college chaplain from Wooster, Ohio.

What do I remember most about that trip? Five memories:


1) Approaching Cuba from the air, looking down at this island 90 miles from the coast of Florida, asking how this little David had managed to slay Goliath at the Bay of Pigs, and wondering what was so threatening to us that the U.S. government continued to punish it with an economic embargo. I felt like a bully. Guilty. Ashamed. Humble.

2) Getting sick on a collective farm, sitting under a tree after drinking a complementary glass of banana juice. I was quickly tended to by Cuba’s medical and pharmaceutical system. They continued to check on me until all was well. Everyone gets health care.

3) The Cuban pastors’ response to a long breast-beating speech by Robert McAfee Brown, one of the foremost theologians in the U.S.  Brown spent 45 minutes in a biblically based sermon apologizing to the Cubans, a kind of cathartic confession in full public view. I was with him all the way. The Cuban response? Stop that. You didn’t do this. The American people haven’t done this to us. Your government has. Wallowing in guilt won’t help you and it won’t help us. We all need to find ways to promote justice and peace in our own contexts. We are all here as friends, brothers and sisters in Christ.

4) Walking through the streets of Matanzas in the evening. Children playing freely in the streets. Windows and doors wide open. Neighbors talking and laughing with next-door neighbors. This could not be staged. This was the real Cuba.  As Harvey Cox, the charming professor from Harvard Divinity School who is fluent in Spanish, led the three of us through the streets, children followed him like the Pied Piper. Harvey would laugh with them and they with him. We would sing and walk. It was playful, like nothing that was happening back home.

5) A conversation with Communists on the veranda of the home of the President of the seminary. Raul Castro was among them. They were there to welcome us to Cuba. They also wanted to talk theology and society. They wanted to know what we really believed about God, about the Kingdom of God, and about social justice and economic equality. I don’t remember his name now, but I do remember the long one-on-one conversation during that cocktail hour with a member of the Communist Party. He had grown up Roman Catholic but was no longer a believer. The Church, he said, had kept the people in their place before the revolution. The Party had raised them up to believe in themselves. The Church had given them a wafer; the Party gave them bread, real food, real nutrition. The Church proclaimed the Kingdom of God after you die; the Party proclaimed a society of justice and peace that could be achieved in this world.

He asked what I thought. I told him that the version of Christian faith that he had described was not my faith. It was something else, but it was a very popular distortion of the life and teaching of Jesus. I told him that I shared his hope, that what he called “the classless society” I called the Kingdom of God, and that, to the extent that we were each working for the elimination of poverty, the end of starvation, and the health and joy of all God’s children, we were working toward the same goal under different names.  I rehearsed my history of Christian-Marxist dialogue dating back to seminary and the summer of 1966 living in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia as the Experiment in International Living Chicago Ambassador to Czechoslovakia. I told him of Josef Hromadka, the Czech theologian who had begun this dialogue because, said Hromadka, there was only one reason that the Bolshevik Revolution was atheistic: the sin of the Church. Its failure to align with the poor rather than the rich. The Church and the Czar had become of one cloth, just as he had been describing. The Church was giving people nothing but a wafer; the bread would come only after death. Lenin and Trotsky were insisting that to be genuinely human was to eliminate the economic structures that produce poverty and despair and that delay the distribution of real bread until an afterlife. Like Marx, they saw religion as the opiate of the people, the ideological blanket that blinded people to their earthly reality. But the biblical Kingdom is not about the Church, it’s about the new society in which the love of God reigns everywhere. It’s the NEW city, the new Jerusalem, and, in that new city, there is no longer any temple. There is no longer any need for the church because the Kingdom has come.”

The man from the Party’s eyes were wide.

I asked the man on the veranda where he thought his hope for such a society came from. “I don’t know,” he said, “I think it’s just part of being human.” “Yes,” I said, “but why? How’s that hope get there? Why should we hope unless there is something in being itself, something in the deepest part of us, that holds out the promise of its fulfillment, an inner sense that beckons us beyond the present conditions? The name for me is God.  None of us has ever seen God, yet I see God in Jesus of Nazareth, a worker, a carpenter, preacher of the Kingdom of God. I hear in your visions an echo of the Sermon on the Mount. I get the clearest sense of it when we share the meal at the Lord’s Table, the sign of the Kingdom.  The Kingdom will not come by Prometheus stealing fire from the gods. We have to work for it, but we also ‘wait for it with patience.’”

“Thank you, I’ll have to think more about that. You sound like Jose.” There’s a long pause. “Well…We’ll have to wait and see. I guess only time will tell who’s right,” he said. Like Harvey and the kids on the street that evening, we shared a good laugh, shook hands, and moved on to another conversation.


It’s now 33 years later and I’m reading about Raul Castro’s “promise” of religious freedom, the very same Raul Castro who was on the veranda at the seminary, who graciously welcomed the guy with the wafers to Cuban soil, except for kissing his ring. Priests and lay people from throughout Cuba throng to the site. None of them is hungry for bread.

Curious…for a country with no religious freedom. Don’t you think?

Child found in burning house; Mom at a casino

Click HERE for the story that triggers this morning’s recollection and reflection.

Richard and I walk through the big doors of the giant casino. We’re there to pick up a charitable contribution from a casino. We enter the space between the big outside door and the big doors that lead into the vast space of cachinging slot machines.

I’m going through the second set of doors when I realize that Richard isn’t going in. He’s standing in the no man’s land between the two sets of doors. He’s frozen in his tracks.

“I can’t go in there,” he says. “I hate this place!”

“What’s happening? Why? What’s going on?”

“My wife’s in there. We’re broke. We’re losing our house.because of this damn place. Can’t pay the mortgage or the water bill ’cause she’s throwing our paychecks into a slot machine. I hate this place! I don’t want their —–  money!”

Eventually we walk together through the doors. Richard points across the room. “That’s her,” he says. “Let’s go this way. I don’t want her to see me.” We go to the executive suite to pose for a photo-op with the casino’s executive. He hands us the blood money. “Smile,” says the casino photographer. I smile a disingenuous grin.  Richard has too much integrity to sacrifice himself on altar of the golden calf.

The story of the mother who left her children in the middle of the night to head for the casino reminds me of that day years ago when we went to pick up the check that came from ripping off Richard’s wife and this latter victim of false hope.

The State of Minnesota considers expanding the “gaming” industry to generate revenue for a tight state budget. We need to change our language. It’s not a “game” unless there’s a level playing field. The casino always wins. And we lose…not only at the slot machines and pull-tab tables.  We lose our homes, our children, our souls, and a culture of shared responsibility. All because…well…because we prefer slot machines to taxes. We sneak out on our kids at midnight, knowing full well that if we do, the whole house could burn down.

Ya gotta love Bill Maher

Gordon C. Stewart  March 23, 2012

Ya gotta love Bill Maher. Well, actually, you don’t have to, but I do.

I rarely miss “Real Time with Bill Maher” (HBO). Why? Because he’s real. So are his guests. Is Bill’s language outlandish? Is his tongue stuck in the 7th grade locker room? Yes. Despite the frequency of the ‘f’ word, the saintliest, as well as the unstaintliest, mouths from left , right and center consider it an honor to sit on the panel or be a featured guest. on Real Time. Go figure how Madeleine Albright, Amy HolmesCornel West, Herman Cain, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, Rep. Keith Ellison, P.J. O’Roarke, Michael Moore, Andrew Sullivan, and David Frum appear on Maher’s show. They accept the invitation because it’s one place where manure is called what it is and where the real gutter talk is exposed for what it is. He’s not interested in being nice. He’s interested in truth. And he’s not afraid to engage the opposition in matters political, economic, or religious.

“If it weren’t for throwing conniption fits, we wouldn’t get any exercise,” he wrote (“Offense Intended – and that’s OK,” Star Tribune, 03.23.12). “I have a better idea. Let’s have an amnesty – from the left and from the right – on every made-up, fake, totally insincere, placated hurt, insult, slight and affront. Let’s make this Sunday the National Day of No Outrage. One day a year when you will not find some tiny thing someone said and pretend you can’t barely continue functioning until they apologize.”

Maher wasn’t born or raised in Minnesota where we’re proud of Minnesota Nice, most of the time .But you don’t have to have been raised elsewhere to know that Minnesota Nice often leaves us itching for some unpolished reality. How else do we explain the election of a tough-talking, often crude professional wrestler radio talk show host as our governor?  Jesse Venturawas elected because he said what he thought and meant what he said in a world where candidates for political office rarely say what they mean or mean what they say. Underneath Minnesota Nice is a volcano of Minnesota mean, as well as nice.

Jesse is one weird dude. And that’s partly what attracted the people who were tired of taking Minnesota Nice too far. We want civility, but sometimes we get a little tired of not really talking about what we’re really talking  about.

None of us really wants to live in Pleasantville. Remember “Pleasantville” – the film about two 1990s teenage siblings, Jennifer and David, who get sucked into their television set where they become characters in the make-believe town of Pleasantville, David’s favorite TV show? Nothing much ever happens in Pleasantville. There is no conflict, no real feelings; just polite, mannerly sameness that is insulated from and apathetic toward anything that might smack of unpleasantness. Pleasantville is a nice place – happy, smiling, repressed and suppressed, orderly…without color.

As Jennifer and David play along in the perfect and pure little town of Pleasantville, their presence soon cracks open the boredom of gray uniformity. Color begins to break through the grayness as the citizens of Pleasantville discover sex, art, books, music and the concept of non-conformity, leading the Mayor to campaign to turn Pleasantville back to what it once was – a nice place where nothing much ever happens, and no one speaks like Bill Maher.

Maher’s Op Ed piece concludes:

“I don’t want to live in a country where no one ever says anything that offends someone. That’s why we have Canada. That’s not for us. If we sand down our rough edges and drain all the color, emotion and spontaneity out of our discourse, we’ll end up with political candidates who say nothing but the safest, blandest, emptiest, most unctuous focus-grouped platitudes and cant. In other words, we’ll get Mitt Romney.”

This morning Unedited Politics posted an excerpt from 1994 Romney-Kennedy Debate on health care, veterans, spending, deficits.