Ancient wisdom on the art of deception

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sojourner_truth_with_lincoln_a

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

Truth alone is strong

In this moment of “the strife of truth and falsehood,” the Notre Dame organ voices the assurance of hope spoken by James Russell Lowell in the hymn “Once to Every Man and Nation.” “Though the cause of evil prosper, Yet truth alone is strong. ”

Are Rainbows Real?

Rainbow over the IL prairie.

Rainbow over the IL prairie.

They can be seen by other eyes than mine–
but rainbows are mono-directional:

they disappear if you will face the sun.
If you move toward a rainbow you will fail

to ever reach it: always up ahead,
elusive, magical–the circle seen

only above the earth. Sometimes instead
of one, two bows appear, and in between

a darker band in contrast to the light
below the palette of diversity.

Beyond prediction, measurement or fact,
a rainbow’s truth will live inside the eye.

– Verse and photography by Steve Shoemaker on the
plain behind his prairie home in Urbana, IL.

The inward being and the secret heart

I’ve been silent for awhile, absorbed in preparing a manuscript for submission, and the site will remain pretty silent over the next three weeks.

Between now and then, this sermon on YouTube was preached last Sunday at Shepherd of the Hill, the wonderful congregation I’m privileged to serve in Chaska, MN.

It is based on the 51st Psalm (selected) and sees the psalm in light of a rite for the cleansing of a leper in the Book of Leviticus in which the leper presents two birds.

1 Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin.

3 For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.
4 Against you, you alone, have I sinned,
and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you are justified in your sentence
and blameless when you pass judgment.

6 You desire truth in the inward being;
therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
7 Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
8 Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
9 Hide your face from my sins,
and blot out all my iniquities.

10 Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.
11 Do not cast me away from your presence,
and do not take your holy spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and sustain in me a willing spirit.

13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
and sinners will return to you.
14 Deliver me from bloodshed, O God,
O God of my salvation,
and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance.

15 O Lord, open my lips,
and my mouth will declare your praise.
16 For you have no delight in sacrifice;
if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased.
17 The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

Sober and Drunk

Socrates, The Louvre

Socrates, The Louvre

Is it true Socrates said
we should argue every problem
sober and then drunk? Well fed
then hungry? Free then enslaved? When
we try to ascertain truth,
historical or otherwise,
science, engineering, math–
is the answer that we all prize
irrefutable? Will all
bow down to its logic, reason,
pertinence? Or will it fail
to win the imagination,
hearts as well as minds–dreamers
as well as the philosophers?

– Steve Shoemaker, Urbana, IL, May 18, 2013

Wounded Pride

Just as the truth was dropped by a pigeon on Steve Shoemaker’s head during a moment of professional aspiration (see “SPLAT”, [published earlier today), it was spoken to me riding the bus after an interview that had gone badly. Steve was a candidate for a deanship. I was one of two finalist candidates for a presidency.

I had left the interview disappointed by my performance, increasingly concerned about the fit, and feeling that it wasn’t right (i.e. it wasn’t “a call”, as we say in the Reformed theological tradition.

With suitcase in hand I got on the bus for the airport and took a lonely seat to lick the raw wounds of damaged pride.

Several stops later a distinguished looking older gentleman dressed in a coat and tie sat down next to me.

“You here for business?” he asked.

“No,” I said, “just visiting.”

“Hmmm… I saw your suitcase. I was just wondering. Usually people dressed like you are corporate executives on a business trip, but they don’t usually ride the bus. What do you do? What’s your line of work?”

“Well…I’m a pastor.”

“Wonderful,” he said, “Where you from?”

“Cincinnati.”

“So what brings you to the great city of Chicago?”

“Well, I came for an interview for a college presidency, but it didn’t go well.”

There was a pregnant pause.

“Hmmm…,” said he, “There’s no higher calling than being a pastor. Why would a pastor want to be a president?”

“SPLAT !!!”

Why, indeed! “Pride goeth before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall.” (Proverbs 16:18)

I flew home to my church strangely comforted by the stranger on the bus, freshly called again to be a pastor.

But vanity is a curious disease that’s hard to heal, as Helen Hunt Jackson knew when she wrote in Ramona (1884),

“Wounded vanity knows when it is mortally hurt; and limps off the field, piteous, all disguises thrown away. But pride carries its banner to the last; and fast as it is driven from one field unfurls it in another.”

Beyond Fundamentalism

The influence of New Testament scholar Floyd Filson

The influence of New Testament scholar Floyd Filson

Conversion at Seminary”

Four years Wheaton College tried
to make a fundamentalist
Christianity the first
and last thought on my searching mind.
Then a liberal McCormick
Dean Filson took a chance on me–
I learned Bible truth could be
much wider, deeper, than mere fact:
changing this world was our call!
From civil rights to stopping war,
social justice cried for more
of faithful love, that holy force
learned by the Apostle Paul
when Jesus knocked him off his horse.

– Steve Shoemaker, Urbana, IL, May 25, 2013

Dean Floyd V. Filson was an internationally renowned New Testament scholar. A prolific writer, Filson published his own original New Testament commentaries and articles in scholarly journal, but he did not operate in a silo. He collaborated with co-authors and co-editors Oscar Cullman, G. Ernest Wright, and other world-class scholars. He also translated Rudolph Otto’s The Kingdom of God and the Son of Man, a book which, like Otto’s The Idea of the Holy represented a landmark shift in the understanding of God and of Jesus’s own consciousness. But more than a scholar, at least for the likes of Steve, was his unfailing kindness and belief in us. If he was aware of his stature in the world of academia, it was never apparent in the classroom or in his office. He was the definition of Christian humility. A ready smile, gentleness, respect for others, and a hearty “Good Morning!” were his signatures.

Monday six McCormick grads on whom Dean Filson took a chance will gather at the seminary for our annual Gathering. Steve and Don Dempsey were Class of ’68; Wayne Boulton, Harry Strong, Bob Young and I were the Class of ’67.

The Moment to Decide

Words are POWERFUL! They shape our most important decisions.

Language is the primary mechanism of mind control: truth becomes falsehood and falsehood becomes truth; beauty becomes ugliness and ugliness becomes beauty; goodness becomes evil and evil becomes goodness, twisted by the language of innuendo and word association.

American Crossroads’ campaign ad (see yesterday’s “Campaign Ads and the Snake”) is a case in point, an illustration of Timothy Egan’s New York Times piece,Deconstructing a Demagogue“:

Back in 1994, while plotting his takeover of the House, Gingrich circulated a memo on how to use words as a weapon.  It was called “Language: A Key Mechanism of Control.” Republicans were advised to use certain words in describing opponents — sick, pathetic, lie, decay, failure, destroy.  That was the year, of course, when Gingrich showed there was no floor to his descent into a dignity-free zone, equating Democratic Party values with the drowning of two young children by their mother, Susan Smith, in South Carolina.

Today, if you listen carefully to any Gingrich takedown, you’ll usually hear words from the control memo.

The cynicism that pervades the American electorate is due, in part, to this demagogic use of language. Words are precious things. Holy things. Sacred things. When they get twisted, they become vulgar and profane, one might even say ‘demonic’ in the sense in which philosophical theologian Paul Tillich defined ‘demonic’ as the twisting of the good.  (Paul Tillich, “Life and It’s Ambiguities,” Systematic Theology, Vol. 1, p. 102).

Paul Tillich was one of the first university professors dismissed from his teaching position during the Third Reich. At the invitation of Reinhold Niebuhr, he came to America where he taught at Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York, Harvard Divinity School, and the University of Chicago.

Tillich and his academic colleagues in theology, philosophy, and ethics (Willem Zuurdeeg, Martin Niemoller, Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Elie Wiesel) left us a rich legacy of careful analysis of the demagogic use of language.

Looking at America today, some observers argue that Hitler won his war after all. The Third Reich’s use of language and rhetoric is the substance of Language: a Key Mechanism of Control. The prescription that once led a nation regarded as “the most sophisticated culture” to swallow the toxin of twisted truth is with us still. The poison is peddled as cure and candy by candidates bought and sold by the private corporate powers whose Super PAC ads control our airwaves in America.

American Crossroads, led by the cunning of Karl Rove and the funding of the Koch Brothers and other wealthy Right Wing funders, is a Super PAC whose manual of operations is Gingrich’s memo, “Language: a Key Mechanism of [Social] Control,” renamed here as “Demonic Language: the Work of the Snake.” 

But the snake does not own the garden. Nor is it the author of language. Truth always has a way of peeking out from behind the bushes. And sometimes it cries out loud and clear, as it does from an old hymn I learned in childhood. It sings from the pews and in my heart in the hymn lyrics penned by James Russell Lowell I especially treasure in times when, watching a campaign ad, I need assurance that the snake has not won.

Once to every man and nation Comes the moment to decide, In the strife of truth with falsehood…. Though the cause of evil prosper, Yet t’is truth alone is strong; Though her portion be the scaffold, And upon the throne be wrong; Yet that scaffold sways the future, And, behind the dim unknown, Standeth God within the shadows, Keeping watch above His own.

– James Russell Lowell, 1845

Click to feel the power of the music on Preston Hawes’ violin. 

Alice in Wonderland – Did I Miss Something?

President George W. Bush

Official portrait from the George W. Bush Presidential Library

Sometime my stuff gets published. Other times it doesn’t.  This one was submitted to several major outlets eight months before the 2004 Presidential election that re-elected George W Bush. It never saw the light of day.

I wrote this following a Presidential Bush news conference. I was disturbed by the President. I was equally disturbed by the press. Here’s the piece as originally submitted…and rejected.  This morning, all these years later, the editor of “Views from the Edge” accepted the submission!

 

Did I miss something?  I watched the President’s news conference Tuesday night and scratched my head over the media coverage that followed it.  Time after time when asked to address reasons for concern about his truth-telling, the President of the United States sidestepped the question like a running back seeking to avoid the hit of a middle linebacker.

Question: “What about the pre-Iraq war claim that we needed to invade Iraq because we knew beyond any shadow of doubt that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and that we knew where they were?”

Sidestep: Saddam Hussein was an evil man.  He was a threat and the people of Iraq and the world are safer because a brutal dictator is gone.

This question and response typified virtually every exchange between the questioner and the President.  It was as though one were speaking English and the other Greek, as though the one responding were deaf, or as though the President believed that if he just repeated his handler’s lines again, the American people would follow him.  Does the President believe that we’re willing to trust authority, exchanging truth for falsehood, for the sake of security?

If ever there were grounds for impeachment, surely it is this President’s use of disinformation to mislead Congress and the American people into a war and occupation that have alienated traditional allies and fanned the fires of hatred of the U.S. across the Arab and Muslim worlds.  In the name of a “war on terror” this President continually makes up reality to suit his mission: the export of Western democracy everywhere in the world, supposing that of course everyone would want what we have.

Did I miss something?  At virtually every turn of the press conference the President repeated answers to questions that were not being asked and refused to answer the question that was being asked.  Nowhere in the mainstream press or television media have I seen this most obvious disconnect addressed head on. They all back off, like bit players in a king’s court.

In a recent interview with Bill Moyers, Kevin Phillips, the conservative Republican critic of the Bush Presidency, author of The Bush Dynasty, spoke the truth about this President’s deception and the long-lasting devastating consequences of his policies.  Asked about John Kerry’s presidential candidacy, Mr. Phillips answered that it remained to be seen whether Kerry had enough fire in his belly to “go for the jugular.”

What will it take for us, the American people, to recognize that this President has taken us into an Alice-in-Wonderland world where up is down and earth is sky and falsehood is truth?  What will it take before all of us insist that the Mad Hatter not define our reality? Have we become so cynical about our democratically elected officials that we expect evasion from our questions?

Did I miss something?  Did not this President once again refuse to take any responsibility for peddling disinformation that has placed 135,000 American soldiers directly in “harm’s way” while putting all of us at home in the sights of growing numbers of people around the world who see the truth and hate us?

Impeachment will not happen, of course, because no one has the stomach for another partisan wrestling match, and because a Presidential election is only eight months away.  As the recent DFL ad here in Minnesota regarding sexual offenders reminds us, neither party is immune to demagoguery. But in the name of sanity, this President must be turned out of office and our political discussions must shift boldly to insist unfailingly that real questions receive real answers rather than shifty side-step speeches that only take us further down the rabbit hole of national illusion and implosion.

In the Strife of Truth with Falsehood

Get ready for the verbal assaults.The PAC ads. The disinformation and misinformation media campaigns funded by big money with big interests that know how powerful words are.

Words are POWERFUL! Sometimes those of us who stand in pulpits doubt that our words matter. But reading this paragraph in Timothy Egan’s NYT,Deconstructing a Demagogue,”reminds me of just how powerful words are:

Back in 1994, while plotting his takeover of the House, Gingrich circulated a memo on how to use words as a weapon. It was called “Language: A Key Mechanism of Control.” Republicans were advised to use certain words in describing opponents — sick, pathetic, lie, decay, failure, destroy. That was the year, of course, when Gingrich showed there was no floor to his descent into a dignity-free zone, equating Democratic Party values with the drowning of two young children by their mother, Susan Smith, in South Carolina.

Today, if you listen carefully to any Gingrich takedown, you’ll usually hear words from the control memo.

And that’s just the beginning of the story of how language is used and abused for purposes of social manipulation. Gingrich knew that language is “A Key Mechanism of Control.”  Those who are well-schooled in theology and politics know that language is the primary mechanism of mind control: truth becomes falsehood and falsehood becomes truth; beauty becomes ugliness and ugliness becomes beauty; goodness becomes evil and evil becomes goodness, twisted by the language of innuendo and word association.

The cynicism that pervades the American electorate is due, in part, to this demagogic use of language. Words are precious things. Holy things. Sacred things. When they get twisted, they become vulgar and profane, one might even say ‘demonic’ in the sense in which Paul Tillich defined ‘demonic’: the twisting of the good. “The claim of something finite to infinity or to divine greatness is the characteristic of the demonic” (Paul Tillich, “Life and It’s Ambiguities,” Systematic Theology, Vol. 1, p. 102).

Paul Tillich, “The Courage to Be”

Paul Tillich was one of the first university professors fired during the Third Reich in 1933. At the invitation of Reinhold Niebuhr, he came to America where he taught at Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York, Harvard Divinity School, and the University of Chicago. Tillich and his academic colleagues in theology, philosophy, and ethics (Willem Zuurdeeg, Martin Niemoller, Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Elie Wiesel) left us a rich legacy of linguistic analysis of the language of demagogic use of language.They speak with authority because they each paid a price for their opposition to it.

There are those who say that Hitler won his war after all. His ingenious use of language and rhetoric is the substance of Language: a Key Mechanism of Control. Newt Gingrich is not Adolf Hitler. And we are all well-advised to be very careful with contemporary references to him, the Third Reich, or the Holocaust. Yet the language that once led a nation regarded as “the most sophisticated culture” to swallow the toxin of twisted truth is with us still. The demonic poison how rules the day in America, peddled as cure and candy by candidates bought and sold by the private corporate powers whose PAC ads control the airwaves.

Words are sacred. And those who abuse them enter into the darkness of the demonic twistings that led James Russell Lowell to write the hymn lyrics I sang as a child:

Once to every man and nation Comes the moment to decide, In the strife of truth with falsehood…. Though the cause of evil prosper, Yet t’is truth alone is strong; Though her portion be the scaffold, And upon the throne be wrong;, Yet that scaffold sways the future, And, behind the dim

unknown, Standeth God within the shadows, Keeping watch above His own. – James Russell Lowell, 1945, “Once to Every Man and Nation”

The PAC ads are coming. Plug your ears…or…better yet, listen carefully, listen critically. Then speak out “in the strife of truth with falsehood.”