Blazing Bright or Brightly Blazing?

The phrase “blazing bright” in the 2020 State of the Union Address, followed by the Senate’s impeachment acquittal, the president’s claim of total exoneration, and his promise to take revenge on “evil people” prompt this reflection.


Bust of Nero

Whether Nero ( 37 CE – 68 CE) burned Rome to the ground is disputed, but Suetonius claimed he did, and that’s good enough for me. Suetonius’s claim that Nero was mad, devious, and cruel entertainer remains undisputed.

Suetonius tells the story of the Rome brightly blazing:

Pretending to be disgusted by the drab old buildings and narrow, winding streets of Rome, he brazenly set fire to the City; and though a group of ex-consuls caught his attendants, armed with oakum and blazing torches, trespassing on their property, they dared not interfere. He also coveted the sites of several granaries, solidly built of stone, near the Golden House [Nero’s palace]; having knocked down their walls with seige-engines, he set the interiors ablaze. The terror lasted for six days and seven nights, causing many people to take shelter in the tombs . . . . Nero watched the conflagration from the Tower of Maecenas, enraptured by what he called “the beauty of the flames; then put on his tragedian’s costume and sang “The Fall of Ilium” from beginning to end.

Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus (c. 69 – c. 130/140 CE)


Centuries after Nero’s demise, the president of the new republic claimed a greatness that would have reminded Nero and the Roman Senators of themselves and the burning of Rome. “America’s enemies are on the run,” said the president, “America’s fortunes are on the rise and America’s future is blazing bright” [DJT State of the Union Address, 2020].

The president was right. The future is blazing bright . . . in California and Australia . . . . Belittling his predecessor’s belief in the climate change, the president attributes the fires to someone’s failure to rake the leaves.


Among Nero’s first acts as emperor was to cancel many of Claudius’ edicts and decrees, referring to his predecessor as a “doddering old fool.” To the general public Nero was a welcomed change. Like those before him, the early part of Nero’s reign was considered by many to be a mini-golden age; the populace believed him to be generous, kind, and accessible. There were lavish games, plays, concerts, chariot races and gladiatorial tournaments, and taxes were even reduced. He restored much of the Roman Senate’s power that had been lost over the years, but this restoration had a hidden agenda; it was only done to enable the young emperor to pursue his worldly pleasures, to sing (he did not possess a great voice) and play his lyre. While he sang, no one in the audience was permitted to leave the performance.

Nero, Wikipedia summary of Suetonius and Tacitus.


As Nero prepared to commit suicide with the assistance of his aide, he paced rhe halls, repeating the line that boasted of his greatness as an entertainer: greatness as an entertainer: “Qualis artifex pereo!” (“What an artist dies in me!”). First and last, the emperor was an entertainer.

Years later, a REAL artist, Michelangelo, was painting The Last Judgment fresco on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel when Biagio da Cesena, the pope’s master of ceremonies, pestered him for a special privilege: a glimpse of the veiled painting. Michelangelo finally acceded to his request, after which Biagio complained to the pope that a painting of nudes was inappropriate for so holy a place.

When the finished fresco was unveiled, Biagio da Cesena — with donkey ears, and a snake covering his nakedness — appeared prominently among the damned in hell, tormented by devils. When he complained to Pope Paul III, the pope replied, “God has given me authority in heaven and on earth, but my writ does not extend to hell. You will just have to put up with it.”

In 2020, the paint on the fresco is still wet. How “Blazing Bright” will be finished remains a work in process. The American people will finish the painting in November. Between now and then the world is Brightly Blazing while Nero continues to celebrate his greatness as an entertainer: “Qualis artifex pereo!

Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Feb. 8, 2020

A Razor Tongue and Razor Wires

A Razor Tongue and Razor Wires is the fruit of an unexpected conversation this morning between the news from Nogales, Arizona, and Psalm 52 on faith and politics. The Psalm texts are from The Book of Common Prayer.

You tyrant, why do you boast of wickedness
against the godly all day long? -Psalm 51:1

Why do you rip innocent children from their parents’ arms? Why do the babies and toddlers yell for their parents at the southern border? Why do you paint yourself as godly when the godly weep and cry out to you from the holding camp?

You plot ruin;
your tongue is like a sharpened razor,
O worker of deception.

Huffington Post, 02/07/2019 11:31 pm ET:

The City Council of Nogales, Arizona, has voted unanimously on a resolution ordering Trump administration officials to rip out new ‘lethal’ razor wire coiled on a border fence along the downtown shopping district.

“Such wire is ‘only found in a war, prison or battle setting’ and is highly inappropriate for an urban area, states the resolution the council passed Wednesday. The bristling concertina wire is now attached to the fence from top to bottom.

“‘Placing coiled concertina wire that is designed to inflict serious bodily injury or death in the immediate proximity of our residents, children, pets, law enforcement and first responders is not only irresponsible but inhuman, the resolution states.”

You love evil more than good
and lying more than speaking the truth.

State of the Union Address:

President Trump 2019 State of the Union Address to Congress

You paint political opponents as enemies of the Country (with a capital ‘C’) and speak hate in the name of making America Great Again. You hold rallies where your base yells “Lock her up” and applaud your hoax that the Mueller investigation is a “witchhunt” like the Massachusetts Bay Colony burning the alleged witches of Salem.

You love all words that hurt,
O you deceitful tongue.

You prey on our emotions. You carefully select the people in the balcony whose stories tug at our heart strings and demonstrate your humaneness. You position yourself as our only sure defense against all enemies foreign and domestic, pointing to the white family left to cope with their loved one’s murder by an illegal immigrant you call an“alien”. Your tactics are clever and effective. You say nothing about the killing of 17 students and one staff member and wounding of another 17 at the Parkland school shooting, or the alleged Russian contributions to the NRA. You divert the nation’s attention from the real world by pointing to heroes and victims who fit your purposes. Your words hurt and deceive by what you have spoken and what you have left unaddressed. You say nothing about climate change and a sustainable energy policy, claiming victory that we are now the world’s largest net exporter of fossil fuel energy. You ignore having turned you back on America’s closest friends and allies, and our withdrawal from international treaties that leave us more vulnerable. You say nothing about anything of substance.

O that God would demolish you utterly,
topple you, and snatch you from your dwelling,
and root you out of the land of the living.

O that Congress would act to stop you! O that your cabinet would invoke the 25th Amendment. O that Melania would abandon you and divorce you for your infidelities and bullying schemes. O that the Supreme Court would rule that you may be indicted while occupying the White House. O that God would snatch you from your opulent dwellings in Trump Tower and at Mar-a-Largo where only the one percent can golf. 

The righteous shall see and tremble,
and they shall laugh at him, saying,

“This is the one who did not take God for a refuge,
but trusted in great wealth
and relied upon wickedness.

O that we shall see and tremble at the greatness of his fall, saying,“This is the maker of the Tower of Babel who seeks to make his name great and confuses our speech. This is the one who claims of great wealth, surrounds himself with fixers and cabinet members sent to prison, arranges agreements with his mistresses to keep them silent and The National Enquirer to keep the stories in a vault, while concealing from public scrutiny the tax returns he promised to provide two and a half years ago.”

But I am like a green olive tree in the house of God;
I trust in the mercy of God for ever and ever.

I will give You thanks for what You have done
and declare the goodness of Your Name 
in the presence of the godly.

I am old and gnarly. Prune back my cynicism. Make me green again, drinking from Your mercy, trusting what I cannot see, and pay You the homage due Your Name alone.

— Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, reflecting on Psalm 52 and the state of the nation, January 8, 2019.

Water is NOT a Commodity


Nine (9) year-old Luke Sekera-Flanders of Fryeburg in Maine’s poorest county, Oxford County, took on the Nestle company, one of the world’s largest bottled water-for-profit producers, which was seeking a 45 year contract with the Public Utilities Commission. Nestle’s CEO has declared there is no human right to water and that the way to preserve water is to put a price on it. Nestle sees water as a commodity.

“I get my water from the Fryeburg Water Company,” said Luke. “In school we learn about being a good neighbor….”

Sometimes we live on different planets, one public and poor; the other private and getting richer. Or different sides of an aisle as at last night’s State of the Union Address. Score one for the Psalmist: “Out of the mouths of babes and suckling…” (Ps. 8:2)  Click the link below to hear Fryeburg’s little David, Luke Sekera-Flanders.

Boy testifying against Nestle contract in Fryeburg, Maine

This video won a special place in my heart. Oxford County is my maternal ancestral home. My mother and the rest of the Titus and Andrews family would be so proud of Luke.

Meeting President Bill Clinton

January 28, 1998

He gave the State of the Union address
the night before, and flew on Air Force One
to our college town in the middle-west
to check out press and public reaction.
(The sex with an intern story made news
the week before.) For six years he had met
not politicians, but “Local Heroes”
at airports (Do-Gooders the Democrat
Party chose.)
Our church worked with homeless men.
As Pastor, I was picked to shake his hand
as he came off the plane (in a long line
with 14 other folks.) He called each one
of us by name. He firmly gripped my hand,
looked in my eyes, pretending to be fine…/

– Steve Shoemaker, Urbana, IL, January 28, 1988

Steve Shoemaker with President Bill Clinton

Steve Shoemaker with President Bill Clinton

Join Steve next Tuesday at 7:00 p.m. at Shepherd of the Hill Presbyterian Church.

A Critique of the State of the Union

The climax of last night’s State of the Union Address was the President’s call for an up or down vote on proposals to curb gun violence in America. The applause was uproarious and continuous.

This violence must stop.

But what of the underground stream of violence that erupts in gun violence in the nation that prides itself on the greatest military the world has ever known and the greatest economy the world has ever known?

Is it a coincidence that the geysers of unprecedented school, mall, and street massacres in the homeland have come at the same as America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?

Is the world’s greatest military something to celebrate?

How does one measure a military’s greatness? By its superior capacity for violence over other militaries, or its ability to subject foreign nations to the American will for freedom and democracy? By the number of dead it leaves behind in other military ventures?

Is an economy’s greatness measured by the size of a nation’s Gross National Product?

The measure of an economy- from the Greek word oikonomia, the management of a household- is how well it serves the inhabitants who live in the house.

How well is the American economy serving its members?

An economy is not measured by the amount of stuff it produces. It’s also measured by the fairness of the distribution of those goods within the one household, the oikonomia.

By that measure, can we really declare that the American economy is the greatest in the history of the world?

During last nights State of the Union Address the loudest shouts came in response to a call to end to gun violence in America. But it doesn’t mean we want to stop the violence. The applause through the rest of the night took for granted the essential goodness of the underlying systemic violence of the American military-industrial-corporate-complex and the military whose superior capacity protects those interests abroad while creating Rambos on our own streets at home.

The home of the brave and the land of the free is neither so brave nor so free. We will only be brave and free when we connect the insanity that shoots innocent school children here at home with the carnage the world’s greatest military has left overseas.

The American republic was born in the violent occupation by Western Europeans who believed they were God’s special people. That belief has morphed over time. But it continues to be the case that violence is as American as apple pie. While we applaud the attempt to end gun violence in our schools, malls and streets, the underground stream of violence rolls on undetected beneath the the nation’s delusions of grandeur about the exceptional greatness of our economy and our military. Violence is enthroned as the god of the not-so-free and the no-so-brave.