John Lewis — “what did you do?”

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MARTIN LUTHER KING AND JOHN LEWIS

Photo of John Lewis (1964)

Behind every Moses is an Aaron. John Lewis was Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Aaron. If Dr. King was the face and voice of the civil rights movement, John Lewis was, and still is, its soul.

PANCREATIC CANCER AND A MEMORY OF SELMA

News of his Stage IV pancreatic cancer was a sad day that calls for national reflection, thanksgiving for his witness, and prayers of intercession that “his suffering be minor and his transition easy.”

Pancreatic cancer is no stranger to the seven old seminary friends who gather annually for friendship and study. Steve Shoemaker and Wayne Boulton pancreatic cancer diagnosis preceded John Lewis. We are down to four and counting, but the memories of walking from Selma to Montgomery in March,1965 did not pass with Steve and Wayne; they are alive and fresh among the busload of seminary students who rode the bus from Chicago to Selma, AL to walk with Moses (Martin Luther King Jr) and Aaron (John Lewis) across the Pettus Bridge to Montgomery.

CANCER, CALENDARS, AND CLOCKS

John Lewis knows that some cancers metastasize. America’s “original sin,” i.e., deep-rooted and omnipresent, never quite goes away. It may appear to be in remission. It may hide awhile, but it is always there.

“WHAT DID YOU DO?”

Day after day — hour by hour, now — the calendar and clock are turned back against the dream. But there is different calendar and clock beyond the control of white nationalism. Until his last breath, John Lewis will bear witness to a better life on the other side of America’s original sin. It falls to all of us afflicted to walk across the bridge Pettus Bridge with confession resistance, and joyful hymns of praise.

BE THOU OUR GUARD WHILE TROUBLES LAST

Thy Word commands our flesh to dust,
Return, ye sons of men:
All nations rose from earth at first,
And turn to earth again.

A thousand ages in Thy sight
Are like an evening gone;
Short as the watch that ends the night
Before the rising sun.

Time, like an ever rolling stream,
Bears all its sons away;
They fly, forgotten, as a dream
Dies at the opening day.

Like flowery fields the nations stand
Pleased with the morning light;
The flowers beneath the mower’s hand
Lie withering ere ‘tis night.

O God, our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Be Thou our guard while troubles last,
And our eternal home.

— Isaac Watts

What did you do?” – Congressman John Lewis. “Come on, now. We can do better than this!” – Congressman Elijah Cummings (RIP), Chair of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform.

Gordon C. Stewart, Feb. 22, 2020.

What I was and am not; what I am and wasn’t

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TO SEE MORE CLEARLY

Seeing more clearly takes time. It takes experience. It demands patience — with myself and with others — and it takes courage. Courage to let go of ideas we took for granted: who we are, what we aspired to become, our place in the cosmos.

Paul Tillich knew about courage and patience. The first professor to be dismissed from his teaching position during the rise of the Third Reich, Tillich came to see faith as “the courage to be” — and “to be” means being in motion, growing, changing, dying, leaving parts of ourselves behind. Neither courage alone nor patience alone is the courage to be.

Which leads me back to where we began. If you now see homophobia, anti-Semitism, white nationalism, and climate change-denial as offensive, what do you do in relation to a homophobic anti-Semitic white nationalist climate change-denier?

SELF-KNOWLEDGE AND SELF-CRITICISM

I have never been a white nationalist. Neither have you, I suspect. But, looking back, I see that my classmates and I drank from the well of white nationalism. Every school day began with our hands over our hearts, facing the flag.

Photo of school children reciting the American Pledge of Allegiance.

“I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

Although we might have wondered why we were pledging allegiance to a piece of cloth, we didn’t give it much thought. We took it less as a statement of national aspiration than as a statement of national exceptionalism, a statement of fact.

But it wasn’t a fact. We learned that America was deeply divisible — between slave traders and plantation owners, and the African slaves they kidnapped, bought, and sold on the slave blocks; between the European settlers and the North American continent’s first people, cheated of their treaty rights, stripped of their land, religious practices, sovereignty, and civil rights; between professing Puritan Christians and the “witches” of Salem, burned at the stake as people “unfit for our society”; between the real Americans — the Christians — and the Christ-killers; between the straight majority and the LGBTQ minority who suffered alone in silence; between the landed aristocracy of the founding fathers and the laborers who bled picking cotton in the cotton fields in the south and worked without labor protections in the factories of the industrial north.

That was the “world” in which I lived, and that was the world that lived in me. As I continued through the years, I did my best to replace naïveté with consciousness, challenging the myth of American exceptionalism as a reformer, social critic, and activist.

I learned in time that unless I wanted to be a pompous ass, patience was required with others and with myself. “The sins of the fathers are visited upon the children to the third and fourth generation” is the Bible’s version of Plutonium-239’s half-life of 24,000 years. It describes the toxic waste passed down river from one generation to the next.

BALANCING COURAGE AND PATIENCE

Nuclear waste doesn’t disappear. Neither does the sin of exceptionalism in its racial, economic, gender, religious, and national manifestations. The toxic waste of exceptionalism — the conviction that one’s nation, race, culture, creed, gender, class . . . or species . . . is the exception to history and nature — is the unacknowledged original sin we manage to make original every day by exalting ourselves over others and over nature itself.

FEMA photograph of helicopter fighting California forest fire.
FEMA photograph of helicopter over California forest fire.

CLIMATE CHANGE AND THE REPUBLIC

As the climate change clock ticks toward midnight, patience seems less of a virtue than courage acting now. We who pledged allegiance to the flag “and to the Republic for which it stands” are losing patience with each other. We are ‘indivisible’ only if we decide we are. If we and those we elect place our flawed understandings of our personal interests above our responsibility to honor and maintain the Republic, our not-so original original sin may be our last.

It takes courage to confess one’s participation in the evils we deplore. And it takes patience with those who seem to have logs in their eyes.. “If we say we have no sin,” declared the minister Sunday mornings in the church of my childhood, “we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us, but if we confess our sin, God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

The minister who invited us to own up to sins of omission and commission was the man I knew at home as Dad. I wonder what Dad would do if he could see us now.

Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, Nov. 30, 2019.

The “invaders” — a psalmic reflection

The Power of Language for good and for evil

According to the New York Times, the Trump 2020 re-election campaign has run 2,000+ Facebook ads framing the national conversation by calling the migration at our southern border “an invasion”.

Introducing an exercise

It gets harder every day. The carnage is in full sight. So are the tweets. It’s depressing. In times like this a Psalm sometimes comes along that expresses the emotions. They laments. The anger at cruelty. Hope for something better beyond what we can see as possible.

Psalm 79: How Long, O Lord?

 O God, the nations have come into Your inheritance;
    they have defiled your holy temple;
    they have laid Jerusalem in ruins.

America today is not the sweet land of liberty of whom we sing. We grieve amid the latest ruins in El Paso and Dayton. We lament the human sacrifice that defile the good green Earth,Your holy temple, the inheritance of global grace.

  They have given the bodies of your servants
    to the birds of the heavens for food,
    the flesh of your faithful to the beasts of the earth.

They trade doves for vultures, and olive branches for military materiele on the streets of Baghdad and Kabul, El Paso, and Dayton, Virginia Beach, Aurora, Thousand Oaks, Pittsburgh, Annapolis, Santa Fe, Parkland, Sutherland Springs, Las Vegas, Orlando, Fort Lauderdale, Burlington, Orlando, San Bernardino, Roseburg, Chattanooga, Charleston, Sandy Hook . . . . Mankato and Wounded Knee.

They have poured out their blood like water
    all around Jerusalem,
    and there was no one to bury them.

  We have become a taunt to our neighbors,
    mocked and derided by those around us.

The invaders call the tired and the poor, yearning to breathe free; the homeless, and tempest-tossed “invaders” — caravans of an invasion crossing the southern border. The vultures prey on fathers and daughters drowned and lying face-down on the Texas bank of the Rio Grande. In the name of national security they take nursing children far from their mothers’ breasts, separate families, and forget where they have placed the invaders’ children, while the authorities retreat to golf courses and sent their children to fancy summer camps.

Let the groans of the prisoners come before You;
    according to Your great power, preserve those doomed to die!

May the groans that hurt Your ears rouse the nation’s conscience to close the prisons and preserve all those White Nationalism dooms to die.

“National extremists are idealists. Racial and religious extremists are idealists. ISIL is idealist. American exceptionalism is idealist. . . . Idealistic terrorism lives to rid the world of evil as its adherents understand it, projecting evil as ‘the other’ while flying ‘the sore point’ in ourselves that we conscious animals seek to avoid.”

“Idealism and Terror,” Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), p. 33-39

Return sevenfold into the lap of [their captors]
    the taunts with which they have taunted You, O Lord!
But we Your people, the sheep of your pasture,
    will give thanks to You forever;
    from generation to generation we will recount Your praise.

“I’m ninety-six,” wrote Benedictine monk Sebastian Moore of Downside Abbey, introducing his last book, “and for most of my life I’ve been a monk. My life as a monk has been, for the most part, a search for God as real.”

Dom Sebastian Moore, OSB, Remembered Bliss (2014, Lapwing Publications)
  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, August 6, 2019

America’s silent colossal National Lie

“The silent colossal National Lie that is the support and confederate of all the tyrannies and shams and inequalities and unfairnesses that afflict the peoples—that is the one to throw bricks and sermons at.” — Samuel Clemmons (Mark Twain).

The National Lie of white supremacy may lie silent for a time, but it doesn’t die easily. It was the unspoken lie behind the invasion and slaughter of people it called ‘savages’ to justify stealing America’s indigenous peoples’ continent and herding them onto federal reservation. The conquerers were white. The indigenous peoples were ‘red’. The invaders spoke English. Those they conquered did not. The same colossal National Lie rationalized the invasion of “the dark continent” to capture men, women, and children as slave labor to work the plantation owners’ cotton fields. The faces of the Lie wore white hoods, lit crosses on lawns, and hanged their former slaves from the lynching trees. And on and on it goes. It lives on in 2020, no longer silent, branding brown, Spanish-speaking migrants fleeing for safety “invaders” who must be stopped.

It’s a long way from El Paso TX to Dayton OH — a 22-hour drive through Oklahoma, Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana. It took less than 13 hours for El Paso and Dayton to become twin cities suffering together “all the tyrannies and shams and inequalities and unfairnesses that inflict the people” while the lie of White Nationalism carries on.

“A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.” — Mark Twain.

  • Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN

The Invaders of the Land of the Long White Cloud

Llightning struck down 50 worshipers and injured another 50 In Aotearoa — the Land of the Long White Cloud — the Maori name for their home before foreign invaders re-named New Zealand.

Evening scene of the Maori people on the banks of the Waikato River, Land of the Long White Cloud, 1847

The mind of western white nationalism makes few, if any, distinctions between Muslims and Jews. Although we rightly think of anti-Semitism as responsible for the gas ovens of Nazi Germany and the long history of anti-Jewish pograms, the term ‘Semite’ applies more broadly to the Hebrew- and Arab-speaking people of the Middle East. Whether gathered at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh or in the mosques of New Zealand makes no difference. Their existence is a threat to the mindset of white superiority and, more lately, western nationalism.

A 72 page white nationalist manifesto did not know, or chooses not to know, that the original invaders were not dark skinned people. They were not Middle Easterners. They were not Semites. They were not Muslim. It was the Dutch and English colonizers who “discovered” and then invaded the Maori “Land of the Long White Cloud” (English translation) that turned the Maori homeland into the land of their own displacement, subjugation, and long-suffering. The invaders were white Europeans who considered it their right and calling to spread their religion and culture around the world.

Judaism and Islam claim a common family origin in Abraham, but they do not same the same maternal lineage. They do not claim the same mother. Jews and Christians see themselves as the children of Sarah, the mother of Isaac. Muslims claim Hagar, Sarah’s banished slave woman, the mother of Ishmael, as their mother. Neither Sarah nor Hagar, nor Abraham, nor Isaac, nor Ishmael was “white.” The predominant religion of the western culture is rooted in Middle Eastern people and cultures. And, the scriptures Jews, Christians, and Muslims share in common the memory that the estrangement between the Isaac and Ishmael ended when the re-united to bury father Abraham.

One can suppose with near certainty that yesterday’s attack on mosques in New Zealand, like the bombing of Tree of Life in Pittsburgh arose from the cauldron of anti-Semitism, hatred toward the children of Abraham — Isaac, the son of Sarah, and Ishmael, the son of Hagar. So apparently different, and yet the same.

Ignorance is not bliss. Knowledge that feigns ignorance is a fools’ paradise that turns long white clouds of an otherwise blue sky into dark clouds of smoke, dust and smog.

— Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, March 19, 2019.