Glocks in the State Capitol Building

Glock owner at State Capitol hearing. Photo by David Joles, StarTribune.

Glock owner at State Capitol hearing. Photo by David Joles, StarTribune.

Not in my worst nightmares did I think I’d see the day.

This morning’s Star Tribune front page “Debate Triggers Show of Weapons” and the accompanying photographs are chilling. There are two photos. In one a young man with a loaded Glock strapped to his waist stands with arms folded, looking defiantly smug while he waits to testify about before a legislative committee in the Minnesota State Capitol. In the other two men sit at the hearing table with microphones. One reads from a manuscript; the other covers his face with his left hand as though he can’t believe they’re even discussing this.

I identify with the man with the hand covering his face. I don’t understand the man who brought the .40-caliber Glock to the hearing loaded with 15 rounds. Why would he do that?

“You have to be your own hero on your own white horse” is the way he explained it. He feels safer with his Glock.

Put next to that the statement of Pope Francis, as reported by Vatican Radio: “Faith and violence are incompatible.”

The Pope was preaching on the exact text often used by those who believe that violence and division are compatible with Christian faith. The text is Luke 12:51 in which Jesus asks, “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!” The division, as interpreted by the Pontiff, is between living for yourself or living in the light of God. Here are Francis’ words:

“The word of the Gospel does not authorize the use of force to spread the faith. It is just the opposite: the true strength of the Christian is the power of truth and love, which leads to the renunciation of all violence. Faith and violence are incompatible”.

The halls of a legislature are intended to be sacred spaces where differences are resolved for the sake of the greater good, where my self-interest and your self-interest, as they are perceived by elected representatives, are expressed and resolved peacefully without intimidation. The chambers of representative democracy are the last place where any legislator or innocent visitor to the State Capitol should face the explicit or implicit intimidation of someone with a Glock.

Faith and violence are incompatible… so are democracy and intimidation.

The Prophets: Parents of Newtown

The parents of the murdered children of Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown are back in Washington, D.C today and tomorrow. They are meeting with our nation’s law-makers.

Like Jeremiah, “the Weeping Prophet” who cried over the plight of his people, these mourning parents are courageous spokespersons for sanity, compassion, and an end to America’s love of violence.

May the Spirit that inspires these grieving parents to leave home for meetings in the center of American power and public scrutiny stir the consciences of the Congressional Representatives and Senators with whom they meet.

A friend brought to my attention “Thank God, I’m Alive” on the latest tragedy of gun violence to garner national attention in Santa Monica, California.

As Moses said when Joshua wanted to silence two people (Eldad and Medad) who were speaking out without authorization: “I wish that all God’s people were prophets!” (Book of Numbers 11:29, Torah, Hebrew Bible).

I invite your prayers and well wishes for the parents of Newtown as they carry forward the prophetic tradition. Let no one silence you. Speak the truth with love, and let the Spirit do its work.

Please share your comments.

Of humanity, earth, and teshuvah

by Gordon C. Stewart, Feb. 27, 2013. Copyright

The Gospel reading for next Sunday tells of Jesus speaking about terrorism and violence, and an urgent invitation to turn.

Some people tell Jesus “about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.” The speakers seem to be contrasting the Galileans – known for their armed resistance to Roman rule – and the Jerusalemites. Jesus himself is a Galilean! As often happens, the non-Galileans are putting him to the test, and as he does so often and so ably, Jesus the Galilean Jewish rabbi begins by appearing to agree with their prejudice. He asks whether these violent Galileans were any different from the rest of the Galileans. One can almost hear the applause from the more sophisticated Jerusalemites.

Then he quickly shifts ground to a scene in Jerusalem. He asks them whether the eighteen saboteurs “upon the tower of Siloam fell, and slew them, do you think they were worse sinners than all others in Jerusalem? No,” he says, “but unless you (plural) reform/ repent, you will all likewise perish.”

Here is the text in an unfamiliar form from The Orthodox Jewish Bible (OJB) Copyright © 2002, 2003, 2008, 2010, 2011 by Artists for Israel International.

Lukas 13:1-9

1 Now on the same occasion there were some present reporting to Rebbe, Melech HaMoshiach about the men of the Galil whose blood Pilate mixed with their zevakhim (sacrifices).

2 And, in reply, Moshiach said, Do you think that these men of the Galil were greater chote’im (sinners) than all others of the Galil, because they suffered this shud (misfortune)?

3 Lo (no), I say, but unless you make teshuva, you will all likewise perish.

4 Or do you think that those shmonah asar (eighteen) upon whom the migdal (tower) in Shiloach fell and killed them, do you think that they were greater chote’im (sinners) than all the Bnei Adam living in Yerushalayim?

5 Lo (no), I tell you, but unless you make teshuva, you will all likewise perish.

6 And Rebbe, Melech HaMoshiach was speaking this mashal. A certain man had an etz te’enah (fig tree) which had been planted in his kerem, and he came seeking pri (fruit) on it, and he did not find any. [YESHAYAH 5:2; YIRMEYAH 8:13]

7 So he said to the keeper of the kerem, Hinei shalosh shanim (three years) I come seeking pri on this etz te’enah (fig tree) and I do not find any. Therefore, cut it down! Why is it even using up the adamah (ground)?

8 But in reply he says to him, Adoni, leave it also this year, until I may dig around it and may throw fertilizer [dung] on it,

9 And if indeed it produces pri in the future, tov me’od (very well); otherwise, you will cut down it [Ro 11:23].

The “mashal” (a familiar proverb or parable) he re-interprets is already part of his and his hearers’ self-understanding from Yeshayah (Isaiah) 5:2; Yirmeyah (Jeremiah) 8:13.

Reading the text in a form much closer to the original context of Jesus’ linguistic-religious-cultural-political-economic context serves to awaken me to hear it with new ears.

Jesus is speaking about collective social life – politics, economics, religion, resistance, keeping the faith. He is calling for thorough-going societal transformation – from blaming others (the Galileans) to looking in the mirror to be startled by the log that is in one’s own eye, individually and collectively: the underlying violence in our way of being in the world, taking up “ground” on this beautiful planet.

In Hebrew Scripture the human species, Adam, is derived from Adamah – earth, soil, dirt, ground. We, the fig tree, are here to produce sweet figs.

The Owner of the vineyard with the barren fig tree shows two traits in this Mashal: disappointment and frustration (“Why is it even using up the ground?”) and the extraordinary patience that allows it more time to produce the sweet fruit for which it was created.

As I look out to the world outside, and as I look in the mirror in the morning, I feel a tiny shiver of G-d’s frustration and long-suffering with the likes of us. I wonder what it will take before we see the reflection of ourselves and our way of the violence of terrorists. Are they any different from the rest of the people in the Galil, Yerushalayim, Chaska, or Washington, D.C.? When and how shall we make teshuvah?

Confronting our inclination to violence

A thoughtful reflection from New Zealand:

Confronting our inclination to violence.

“The Birth of Freedom” and the NYSE

The New York Stock Exchange was closed down. For two full days the trading bell on Wall Street did not ring. But on Main Street the bells that mis-identify American freedom with Wall Street were ringing in our living rooms, flooding the airwaves with campaign ads about freedom and the loss of it.

In front of Westminster Presbyterian Church on the Nicollet Mall at the heart of downtown Minneapolis stands an eye-catching sculpture called “The Birth of Freedom.”. The figures are naked, emerging from primal slime, evolving, reaching toward the heavens.

The Birth of Freedom, Paul Granlund

The late Paul Granlund was the sculptor. Westminster commissioned him to give visual expression to the words of the Apostle Paul:

“For freedom Christ has set you free; stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”  (Galatians 5:1)

There is a freedom from and there is a freedom for.

“For your were called to freedom; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love be servants of one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ But if you bite and devour one another take heed that you are not consumed by one another.” (Letter to the Galatians 5:13-15)

I listen to the campaign speeches. I hear the freedom talk. I see crowds cheering. I hear loud applause. And I wonder…what kind of freedom is being cheered? What kind of slavery is feared?

The advertisers who write the ads for the candidates and the PACs know the answers to these questions. They know that the psyche of American generations that grew up in the Cold War defines freedom as freedom from “Communism” or “Socialism.” They also know that the Christian Right fears submission to the “godless” whom they believe threatens their religious freedom.

But no one can take away my freedom or yours, and it is misleading to paint one’s political opponent as intending to take it way. For me, as a Christian, the freedom for which we are released (set free) is not freedom from but freedom for communion with my neighbors. It applies not only to personal relationships. It applies equally to the political and economic systems.

This morning the bell rang again at the stock exchange. The biting, devouring, and consuming of each other becomes a way of life again, the adored substitute for freedom. To condone it is to submit again to a yoke of slavery, the most widespread violence where, to quote Jacques Ellul,

“in this competition ‘the best man wins’ – and the weaker, more moral, more sensitive people necessarily lose.

The violence done by the superior may be physical (the most common kind, and it provokes hostile moral reaction), or it may be psychological or spiritual, as when a superior makes use of morality and even of Christianity to inculcate submission and a servile attitude; and this is the most heinous of all forms of violence.”

– Jacques Ellul, Violence: Reflections from a Christian Perspective, Seabury Press, 1969.

Meanwhile Paul Granlund’s “The Birth of Freedom” still stands silently in downtown Minneapolis, calling for the birth of something as yet beyond our imagination.  “Stand fast therefore [in the freedom for which Christ has set you free], and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” The Apostle Paul often wrote his letters from jail cells, charged with disturbing the Pax Romana.

Free Enterprise and Violence

“The competition that goes with the much-touted system of free enterprise is, in a word, an economic ‘war to the knife,’ an exercise of sheer violence that, so far, the law has not been able to regulate. In this competition ‘the best man wins’ – and the weaker, more moral, more sensitive necessarily lose. The system of free competition is a form of violence that must be absolutely condemned.

“The violence done by the superior may be physical (the most common kind, and it provokes hostile moral reaction), or it may be psychological or spiritual, as when the superior makes use of morality and even of Christianity to inculcate submission and a servile attitude; and this is the most heinous of all forms of violence.”

– Jacques Ellul, Violence: Reflections from a Christian Perspective, Seabury Press, NY, 1969)

Jacques Ellul

Jacques Ellul was active in the French Resistance Movement during World War II, a social critic, lay theologian, sociologist, Professor of Law and Government at the University of Bordeaux, and prolific author.  His legacy includes The Technological Society, Propaganda, The Political Illusion, and The Presence of the Kingdom.

Click HERE for information on Jacques Ellul from the International Jacques Ellul Society.


Release of Barabbas - artwork by Wenceslas Coehergher

Another acrostic poem by Steve Shoemaker, April 16, 2012, a reflection from the standpoint of Jesus Barabbas, the man released by Pilate. He is variously described as “among the rebels,” “a notorious prisoner, ” and a bandit/terrorist. Jesus of Nazareth is crucified. Jesus Barabbas is set free.


Because my father was a Rabbi, when

Assassinations became part of our

Rebellion against Rome, my friends were then

Amazed that I would kill.  But victory

Belongs to us:  power yields only to power.

Being arrested, jailed, soon a martyr,

All will help the cause! Peaceful ways never

Save a soul.  Blood alone will set us free…

The desire for the society that is beyond up-and-down, oppressing-oppressed, haves-and-have-nots takes many forms.  Steve’s “Barabbas” is the son of a peaceful rabbi, a man of peace. Unlike his rabbi father, Barabbas knows that “Peaceful ways never save a soul. Blood alone will set us free.”

What do you think?

Ist Barabbas right that “Power only yields to power!”

Is violence – the taking of blood – necessary “to the cause”?

There are two Jesus figures in the story. One takes life; the other gives it.

How do you understand Steve’s last line?

A Sermon on Suffering

The post of my friend Steve Shoemaker’s poem “Murillo’s Christ after the Flagellation” and the comments that you posted prompted the sermon I delivered this morning at Shepherd of the Hill Presbterian Churchin Chaska, MN. The sermon never would have happened without your thoughtful, penetrating comments on the earlier post. THANK YOU. Here’s the sermon.


“Now the men who were holding Jesus mocked him and beat him; they also blindfolded him and asked him ‘Prophesy! Who was it that struck you?’ And they spoke many other words against him and reviled him.”  Gospel of Luke 22:63

Two months ago I created a blog. One of my seminary classmates, Steve Shoemaker, wrote the other day to say that he was impressed by how prolific I was. I thought maybe he meant “wordy” until he said that my productivity embarrassed his laziness as a poet. So, he said, “Here’s the deal I’ve made with myself. For every piece you put up on your blog, I’ll write a poem.” Steve is 6’8 and a basketball player in college. Clearly, he hasn‘t lost his competitive spirit.

A poem arrived last Friday. It’s a reflection on a painting by sixteenth century Spanish artist Bartolomé Esteban Murillo. In the painting, Jesus is bent over on all fours after he being mocked and beaten.

Christ after the Flagellation

Steve’s poem, “Murillo’s Christ after the Flagellation” changed the direction of the sermon this morning.  Here’s the poem.

The human had been tied to the whipping

post, a pillar that had been used many

times before by the Romans (and ages

earlier by the Greeks–but for a much

different purpose). Now, his pale skin looks

translucent (should it not have been darker,

with more blood?) His mother recalled his bris.

They had both cried then, too.

A strong young man, broad back, thick arms, now on

hands and knees, but head raised with eyes open:

seeing a cross that’s even worse ahead…

Still, unflinching, resigned–no, determined

to go on, face more pain, indignities,

shame, even death (there is no sign of God.)

Shortly there arrived a brief comment from a blogger who blogs about the daily struggle with mental illness.

“This poem brought tears to my eyes.”

Score one for my friend Steve.

Later in the day another comment arrived on the blog in response to Steve’s poetry. Like the first comment, this one also comes from someone with a history of some kind of long-term suffering. It reads as follows.

I have a response to the stories of Christ’s beating that often leaves others aghast. So brace yourselves:

He was beaten for several hours, or a day or two? Big deal. Those of us who have suffered years of abuse and terror know what real suffering is.

I don’t find focusing on Jesus’ suffering, or any of that 12 stages of the cross crap, to be helpful at all. I find it to be insulting. As if there is something noble and glorious about suffering. Nope, not a damn thing to recommend it. I know that Jesus voluntarily placed himself in the position for that to happen. So? Doesn’t help.

Please, fellow readers, don’t think that I am an isolated one, or few. There are lots and lots of us feeling this way.

The world is full – FULL – of people who have suffered much worse for decades or lifetimes. Think of people who live in North Korea. Or poor girls growing up in India. Or young girls in Fundamentalist Church of the Latter Day Saints settlements who get married off to much older men and are then raped daily for the rest of their lives. Jesus’ few days of humiliation are nothing in comparison.

The Lenten/Easter season is my favorite church season because I am reminded of how deeply I am loved and how quickly I am forgiven. Jesus’ brief beating plays no role in that….

The writer is hardly alone in his thinking about this. What do we say about those whose tenures of torture and suffering far exceed the relatively short period of Jesus’ suffering?  Is focusing on Jesus’s suffering and the stations of the cross insulting to those who have suffered, and continue to suffer, for decades or for a lifetime?

How would you reply to the writer?

Here’s how I responded:

Your thoughtful response calls for an equally thoughtful reply. So I’ll try.

The cross, in my theology, in no way minimizes or disrespects the suffering of others. Nor does it say, as it is too often understood by sacrificial atonement theology, that suffering itself is noble or glorious. The cross was an instrument of Roman torture and execution. The Jesus who was tortured and executed, as were thousands of his Jewish contemporaries, is not somehow God masquerading in human flesh. That being said, moving the cross to the sidelines of Christian faith and reflection is, in my view, a mistake. Well meaning because it reacts against the twisted theology that understood it to be separate from, and above, all other human suffering, but mistaken nonetheless.

When I look at the cross, I see all these people. And I see myself there as both the crucified and the crucifier. What I see in the crucifix is total abandonment. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me!” And in some way I hear not only the cry of Jesus but the cry of the God Dietrich Bonhoeffer described as the Divine Center we push to the edge of the world.  I see in the Christ-event the tragedy and the hope of the divine-human encounter.

Sebastian Moore (The Crucified Jesus Is No Stranger and The Inner Loneliness) and Joseph Campbell awakened me to this richer Christology. Moore: “We have to think of God as closer to our evil than we ever dare to be. We have to think of God not as standing at the end of the way we take when we run away from our evil in the search for good, but as taking hold of us IN our evil, as the sore point which the whole idealistic thrust of man is concerned to avoid

“Redemption through the blood of Christ is (wrongly!) interpreted as the bending of Reality itself to man’s great dream of himself. And it is exactly the reverse. It is the ending of the dream. It is the beautiful collapse of the whole enterprise. It is the invasion of man by himself, with God at the center as love.” (Bolding added  for emphasis.)

Closer to home, another great theologian, my wife, Kay, reflected on the cross the other night at a Lenten series on “The Place of the Cross”:

“The Apostle Paul used to talk about all of his theology in terms of transformation at the foot of the cross. If a theological insight couldn’t go to the foot of the cross and be transformed there, then it wasn’t of God. This darkness is not for lightweight faith statements or testimonies. The annihilation of all goodness and all love which takes place in the action of one human being in violence to another human being—it cannot be redeemed by any other force but God’s pure love. That is a faith statement that lives inside a vacuum until manifested. There is no meeting of love and abandonment, they are mutually exclusive realities. We are lost. Period. And if God is to find us, then it is all about God’s initiative.”

From today’s perspective, Moore’s language is too gender- specific, not inclusive. But the substance of his Christology is totally inclusive. We’re all there. Anything short of that either drifts off into a new utopian project or into some new rendition  of the power of positive thinking. The power of Christian theology is its gravitas: it doesn’t turn away.

I told the blogger, “Love to hear more…. Hope we can keep the conversation alive.”

Hours later, an email arrived from the second blogger who had watched “The Leper” on the blog saying s/he was moved and grateful for the sermon.

If I could sit down in a coffee shop or in a living room by the fire to continue the conversation, this is what I would say.

The cross of Jesus does not minimize other suffering. It casts a light backward and forward into all darkness for all time. From inside the light we see the darkness of all human violence and abuse, and at the foot of the cross, we look up to realize that the protest against the suffering we impose on others and our own self-imposed suffering – our own reviling of others and our reviling or ourselves — is not just our protest. It is God’s. It is the suffering of God at the hands of a godless world. And the word for “they reviled him” is the same as the word “blasphemed” him.  Whenever we treat others cruelly, or treat ourselves cruelly, we blaspheme God. We are reviling and whipping the back of God.

From Jesus’s cry to God – “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” – there comes an echo from the heavens: “My children, my children, why have you abandoned me? My children, how could you forsake Me?”

The cross calls for an end to the reviling of others and our own sorry self-flagellation, as though those we revile, or we ourselves, would be or should be beyond love’s reach.

Who is the “the human tied to the whipping post”? Who puts her there?

Will you join the suffering of the God who wants it all to stop? Will you rejoice in the inevitable, eternal reach of God’s love and redeeming grace?

Footnote: Here is Steve, the poet, among the Bristle Cone Pines at 11,000 feet in Colorado:

Steve Shoemaker


A fellow student at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, we’ve continued the friendship for 47 years. A published poet, Steve was the Senior Minister of the McKinley Presbyterian Church and Director of the McKinley Foundation (campus ministry) at the University of Illinois for many years. He hosts “Keepin’ the Faith” on WILL, Illinois Public Radio,. He and his wife, Nadja, a research biologist, live in a geo-thermally-heated house on the prairie outside Urbana, IL where his neighbors often spot Steve’s kites riding the winds of the prairie skies.