Why I Stayed Home this Christmas

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Christmas felt different this year. I did not feel the Light shining in darkness. It feels as though the darkness has overcome the light. I feel the heaviness of bombed out, homeless Ukrainians more than Zelenkov’s resistance lightens my spirit. “Faith, hope, and love abide, but the greatest of these is love.” Love overflows the banks of hope, and no hope that ignores reasons for despair is worth a damn.

So I stayed home on Christmas Eve. In the morning, the NPR annual broadcast of the Festival of Lessons and Carols that lifted my soul in years past, was silent. I didn’t turn it on. Everything was off. Fairy tales can be true, or they can be delusive. Ludwig Feuerbach, Karl Marx, and Sigmund Freud’s critiques of religion as illusion crashed the place where sugar plumbs once danced in my head.

Faith is a Leap — Reality is Existential

So much of what passes for Christian faith is nonsense. It doesn’t take a Ludwig, a Karl, or a Sigmund to ask what is real; it’s not a head trip. The difference between illusion and reality is existential — a disturbance of the stomach, a migraine, or a numbness that won’t go away.

Eight years into retirement, I have stopped looking for a church home. Nowhere is the darkness darker than in the churches that profess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior while following a stand-in savior who fabricates and perpetuates the lie that he has been robbed of his legitimate authority. The embrace of QAnon conspiracy theory — the latest iteration of the division of the world between the saved Bible-believing patriots, and the damn pedophiles, child kidnappers, and sex traffickers of the Deep State — fits like a glove, but it is a betrayal the churches profess.

I was never big on Satan. Over the years, the division of the human species between good (heaven-bound) and evil (hell-bound) made less and less sense until it made no sense at all. Belief in life after death, or, as William Stringfellow called it, “after-death life,” struck me as a comforting delusion, the fanciful escape from death, the limit of every mortal creature.

Who we are, and what we’re not

The Book of Genesis parable of humankind’s tragedy in the Garden of Eden goes straight to the heart of the matter. The temptation is to know what only God knows, namely, the difference between good and evil that would make them like God, i.e., the illusion that they, the human creatures, would never die. The great sin is refusing to be what we are — trying to be what we are not.

The Day after Christmas in Minnesota

December 26, 2022, marked the 160th anniversary of the Mankato Massacre when 38 Dakota were hanged on a platform built for public shaming. The white European settlers gathered to observe the largest execution ever to take place on American soil.

They came to watch the ultimate shaming, but, before the execution, they heard what they did not expect. The heard voices from the gallows, chanting a prayer to the Great Spirit:

Wakantanka taku
nitawa
tankaya qaota;
mahpiya kin eyahnake ca,
makakin he duowanca.
Mniowanca sbeya wanke cin,
hena ovakihi.

Dakota hymn

Many and great, O God, are Thy works,
Maker of earth and sky;
Thy hands have set the heavens with stars,
Thy fingers spread the mountains and plains.
Lo, at Thy word the waters were formed;
Deep seas obey Thy voice.
Grant unto us communion with Thee,
Thou star-abiding One;
Come unto us and dwell with us:
With Thee are found the gifts of life.
Bless us with life that has no end,
Eternal life with Thee.

Mankato was not calm the day after Christmas in 1862. No bright star shone down on the gallows. No angels sang. No babe in swaddling cloths. No shepherds knelt. No cattle were lowing. No ‘kings’ brought gifts. No carols rang out from the churches.

The day after Christmas was a time for crucifixion (a state execution) by White Christian Nationalists. Even so–or perhaps because it was a crucifixion — a Dakota hymn of faith, hope, and love still echoes from a gallows in Mankato. Love overflows the banks of hope, and no hope that ignores reasons for despair is worth a damn.

Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian and social commentator, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), Brooklyn, MN, December 26, 2022.

Life in America: I am not a Jellyfish!

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Apologies to By-the-Wind Sailors for calling them jellyfish. They are not jellyfish. A by-the wind sailor has a sail. Jellyfish have no sail; they just bob around.

My life is blown up and down in all directions. Right-side up, down-side-up north, east, south, west. But I am not a jellyfish. I am not a gelatinous blob.

Like the by-the-wind sailors along the Pacific coast, I have a sail that catches the wind. But what use is a sail without a keel and rudder?

I am not a by-the-wind sailor: I don’t get to choose my neighbor

The winds of time blow in different directions and are forever shifting. When it comes from the south, it blows me north. When it comes from the north, it blows me south. Most often it’s the west wind that pushes me and my by-the-sea sailors community east. No one can break ranks! Did I mention that by-the-wind sailors live in colonies. Like members of a political party in 2022, they live in colonies at the mercy of the wind.

But I have a mind that can, and does, make decisions. “Don’t just do something,” said Fr. Dan Berrigan, “stand there!” Sometimes I’m feel torn the Golden Rule (Do to others as you would have them to you) and “standing there” on things that matter, even at the risk of driving a wedge between my neighbor and me. To be loving does not mean becoming a by-the-wind sailor or a jellyfish. It takes a keel and rudder to tack against the wind. By-the-wind sailors have neither the heart to love nor the courage to move against the wind.

Don’t just do something. Stand there!

He [Jesus] said to him [the lawyer], “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.' This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

Stand Firm

I have what no by-the-wind sailor or jelly fish has. I have a rudder. I can go with the wind, or, by trimming the sail, tacking, or putting down anchor, I can go with, or resist, whatever wind is blowing. I can go with the flow or tack to a distant shore when the wind would drive me back, or I can put down anchor. I can do nothing but stand there.

"For freedom Christ has set you free; stand fast, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery." [Letter to the Galatians 5: 1].

To move with the wind is neither free nor responsible. It is a peculiar form of slavery. The freedom of Christ breaks the yoke of slavery. Slavery to what? The 59th chapter of the Book of Isaiah expresses in vivid metaphors the anguished heart of God over how poorly we treat each other. How do I love those “who rely on empty arguments and speak lies,” when they “conceive trouble and give birth to evil, when they hatch the eggs of vipers and spin the spider’s web”? How do I love those who seem like by-the-wind sailors, going with a colony blown toward destruction by storms of misinformation, disinformation, lies, misplaced faith, and certainty?

Prayer as Political

A recent week on Block Island, Rhode Island, the home of theologian, lawyer, civil rights and peace activist, author, and friend, William (Bill) Stringfellow and poet Anthony Towne, drew me back to A Simplicity of Faith: My Experience in Mourning when Bill, at the invitation of the Block Island Writers Workshop, remembered Anthony:

I consider that Anthony regarded the use of the languages the distinguishing feature between that which is civil and human and that which is brutal and dehumanized. The culture, he had noticed long since, had gone the latter way, and its debasement of language, indeed, its promotion of jargon, verbosity, redundancy, deceit, doublespeak and similar babel is evidence of a profound decadence.

His vocation -- as distinguished from his occupation -- was, in principle, monastic, as is my own. (That is the explanation of our relationship.) That is, he and I have understood that we had been called to a life of prayer, and that the practice of prayer is essentially political -- a matter of attention to events and of advocacy for the  needs of human life and of the life of the whole Creation. Prayer, in this sense, is not pietistic, but, on the contrary, radical involvement in the world as it is, prompted in the Word of God. -- William Stringfellow, A Simplicity of Faith (Wipf and Stock), p. 51-2.

November 8 and the Practice of Prayer

The 2022 national election is its own kind of prayer. Either we will vote to surrender our humanity to the prevailing wind of brutality, deceit, nationalism, authoritarianism, violence and hate, or we will choose to tack against the wind toward the horizon only prayer as politics can take us.

Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017, Wipf and Stock, Eugene, OR), Brooklyn Park, MN, October 21, 2022.

An Autobiographical Theology Chapter 2 Meeting Bill Stringfellow

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Photo of William Stringfellow, lay theologian, author, and lawyer.

This podcast is the second in a series of autobiographical reflection on life as a theological pilgrimage.

Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), 49 brief (two to four page) essays on faith and life; host of Views from the Edge; Brooklyn Park, MN.

Autobiographical Theology Chapter One audio

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The moral power of death

Jacket of “An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange La
Podcast, Autobiographical Theology, Chapter 1: The Moral Power of Death, by Gordon C. Stewart, 04.27.22

Optimism, Hope and the Lordless Powers

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This venture into podcasting is like the podcaster. It’s rough around the edges. It’s unpolished. It’s slow. Its pace and subject matter require patience. Thanks to Chuck Lieber for welcoming me to podcasting.

“Optimism, Hope, and the Lordless Powers” by public theologian Gordon C. Stewart, April 10, 2022

Gordon C. Stewart, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), 49 brief (two to four pages) reflections on personal and public life, Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, April 10, 2022.

A Life Between: First in a Series

The Moral Power of Death

When I first heard anyone speak of “the moral power of death,” I thought I must have been mistaken. Morality is one thing; moral power might describe the morally responsible use of power; death is something else altogether.

“Death is not a power,” I said to myself. “Death has no power. Death is the total absence of power. Death is what happens at the end; it is passive — an outcome of death-dealing powers in life. It has no morality. Death makes no distinctions among the powers that delivers every one of us all into its final keeping — e.g., a cardiac arrest, a traffic accident, cancer, ALS, old age, a gun shot, a murder, a war, or suicide — death doesn’t know the difference. The variety of means that deliver us to the end are varied, but death is always the same. It takes us when life is gone. It has no power of its own. Why, then, speak of death as a moral power? Who would talk like that?”

A Strange Man Named Stringfellow

William Stringfellow saw things differently. Forgoing Wall Street law firms’ lucrative offers, he rented a small tenement apartment in East Harlem after graduation from Harvard Law School. “The stairway smelled of piss,” he write.

“The smells inside the tenement — number 18, 342 East 100th Street, Manhattan — were somewhat more ambiguous. They were a suffocating mixture of rotting food, rancid mattresses, dead rodents, dirt, and the stale odors of human life.”

William Stringfellow, My People Is the Enemy: An Autobiographical Polemic (1964, Holt, Rinehart, and Winston).

Though I never had lived in a place like East Harlem, Stringfellow’s autobiographical polemic read like a personal letter. During the summers of 1961 and 1962, the hour-long daily commute between my suburban home and my summer internship on the streets of north Philadelphia put me in a dense fog between two different realities that had once seemed a world apart. The commutes became cognitive pauses that begged the fog to lift, but it didn’t . . . until three years later.

My People Is the Enemy became the text for the small group of seminarians engaged in bar ministry at Poor Richard’s in Chicago’s Old Town. Each Wednesday morning the seven of us convened at 6:00 a.m. to reflect on our experience at Poor Richard’s in light of Stringfellow’s book and to share a bare-bones Agape Meal.

My People Is the Enemy was transformative. I began to understand the title of Stringfellow’s book. Corinthian Avenue and Opal Street were not an accident. My people, not theirs, was the enemy. My people owned the tenements, evicted tenants, bribed the cops, provided the drugs, and red-lined property in Philadelphia, Broomall, and most everywhere else. My people, not the poor folks welfare, was the leach sucking blood from the ghetto we created and maintained. “My people” were the spillers and the sponges dependent on keeping the milk and hope spilling.

Stay tuned

Thanks for coming by.

Gordon C. Stewart, public theologian, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), 49 brief social commentaries on the news of the day, writing from Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, April 27, 2022. 

The Gospel of the Loser

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The beginning of this commentary will sound familiar to those who have read “The Counterfeit Gospel” (Jan. 29, 2022). The beginning through “The Gospel of Jesus the Loser” is edited and amplified. Everything from the rubric “From Prosperity to QAnon” is original to this post.

A Question of Glory

Donald Trump and I each claim a footing in the Presbyterian Church and its Reformed theological tradition. It’s hard to remember much of what happened in Confirmation Class. But it’s hard to forget the first article of the Shorter Catechism. The way to a meaningful life is “to glorify God, and enjoy Him forever.” None of us understood it, of course. But one thing was clear: We are not to glorify ourselves.

The Workshop for Cranking Out Idols

The Reformed faith tradition focuses on the majesty of God and our propensity to bow before an infinite variety of substitutes for the Infinite. The issue for faith is not belief or unbelief. The issue is idolatry. Earth is the theatre of God’s glory. Yet human nature is a perpetual factory of idols. –Jean Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion,1556.

Author theologian William Stringfellow described idols as “imposters of God,” — the finite, manageable works we crank out that take the place of the Ineffable and Infinite.

There are gods and there is God. There is the finite and there is the Infinite. The gods are nearer-to-hand stand-ins, substitutes that promise what they cannot deliver. The world is beautiful and filled with goodness, yet the underlying goodness is twisted against itself. The idols are endless and varied. Nation, work, money, status, race, religion, political party, ideology take center stage in “the theater of God’s glory.”

The Gospel of Jesus the Loser

By the standards of the Prosperity Gospel, Jesus of Nazareth was a loser. Yet the loser will not go away. The loser executed on a Roman cross was raised as the archetype of authentic humanity. Unless the church gets that straight, everything it gains is loss. In spite of all attempts to circumvent, delete, or deny it, the cross remains the primary symbol for those who seek to follow Jesus. Whoever spends time looking at Gustav Doré’s painting of the crucifixion cannot dismiss the horror of it, the cruelty of it, the god-forsakenness of it.

From Prosperity to QAnon

It’s a short distance from the Prosperity Gospel to QAnon. Neither pays attention to Matthew or Luke’s vivid narratives of Jesus in the wilderness. Is Satan real? Yes and no. Satan is not someone’s name. It’s a title — the Shatan, the Diabolos — for the diabolical. It has no other home than our hearts and minds, the blacksmith shop that never ceases. The factory that cranks out idols. Satan is the Adversary of the Divine. QAnon says little about God but sees Satan everywhere. QAnon is the latest metastasis of a simplistic theology that divides the world between God and Satan, good and evil, saved and damned, elect and non-elect, heaven and hell, soldiers and cowards. If those characteristics sound familiar, it’s because they are.

“You people seem normal”

Thanksgiving is a day of mostly cheerful moments, but some Thanksgivings are also epiphanies. My younger son’s college friend opened a window to his experience of Christian faith and practice. During a light-hearted conversation around the Thanksgiving table, the student guest took what seems like a risk, but it landed on ears that understood how he felt. “I don’t know quite how to say this,” he said with eyebrows rising, “but you people seem normal.” The conversation the followed focused on his view of Christians as whackos. The whackos held the worldview described in the previous paragraph. Why did he think so? While changing channels he had stopped in on Jimmy and Tammie Baker, Jimmy Swaggert, and other televangelists who had not seemed normal. They were abnormal by almost any standards mental health, reason and sanity.

The Lure of Prosperity

The Prosperity Gospel preachers proclaim it can all be yours, if… If you accept Jesus Christ as your Savior, if you stop thinking negatively, it can all be yours. It can all be yours in a secure gated community. It can be yours if you climb to the top. It can all be yours if you just close your eyes to the homeless who disturb an otherwise beautiful day. It can all be yours, if you stop thinking of yourself as a school drop-out ditch digger and think of yourself as (fill in the blank).

Flights from Ambigiuity

What is missing in the Prosperity Gospel and QAnon are the biblical stories of Jesus in the wilderness with Satan. Any study of the Gospel of Matthew’s or Gospel of Luke’s narratives lead to a conclusion that life is more ambiguous than we would like it to be. It is good that our material needs are met. It’s not good when we turn needs into greed. In the same way, religion can go either way. It is good to praise God and practice a tradition’s wisdom, but religion can become, and often is, a form of idolatry that substitutes itself for the Eternal and Ineffable it claims to worship. But the third scene in the wilderness narratives that leaps from the page in America today, is the one about power and authority described below.

Satan

You may or may not hear much about Satan from Prosperity Gospel preachers or, for that matter, from the pulpits of traditional churches. It’s either because it’s not popular. It won’t attract new adherents. Or it’s an embarrassment. Or the biblical texts that speak of Satan or the Devil require an inordinately long explanation than a sermon allows. Not so for QAnon where the talk is all about Satan.

What has been lost is a literary and emotional understanding of the complex and confounding character of the biblical Satan. Satan is the personification of the diabolical. The Trickster, the Deceiver, the Twister, the Half-Truth Teller, the Liar. Beauty, truth, and goodness are given lip service, but beneath the talk of beauty lies ugliness, beneath the tributes to truth lies deceit, beneath the salute to goodness lies a tornado twisting goodness into its opposite.

The most poignant of the three wilderness scenes

William Blake paints the most poignant of the three episodes of Jesus’s 40 days with the Diabolos in the wilderness. The scene is a mountaintop where Satan and Jesus the Christ have in view all the nations and kingdoms of the word. Blake’s painting gives visual expression to the narcissistic lure of political power and authority. “Then the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory. ‘All this I will give you,’ he says, ‘if you will bow down and worship me.’ Jesus says to him, ‘Begone, Satan, for it is written ‘you shall worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.'” (Matthew 4:10 NIV and NRSV combined)

Where was God?

Those who see the countenance of God in the face of Jesus the Loser face a challenge that won’t go away. Where was God when America’s First People were being stripped of their homeland, slaughtered, stripped of their religion and culture, and consigned to reservations and Christian boarding schools? Where was God when White hoods with torches burned their crosses and formed a congregation gathered around the lynching tree? Where was God at the whipping post? Where was God during the Holocaust, the “Final Solution”? Where was God at the gun massacres at Columbine, Sandy Hook, and Parkland? Where was God when Narcissus was dying of dehydration at the edge of the pond?

You will find God there

Jesus the Loser tells us where. God was among those who were robbed of their homeland. God was shuttled off to the reservations. God was hanging from the lynching tree. God was whipped at the whipping post. God was on the trains to Auschwitz; God was among the children, teachers, and parents at Sandy Hook. God was among the Losers — the tortured, the poor, the starving, the dying and the dead. God was in the pond inviting Narcissus to drink. We will find God there.

Letters and Papers from Prison preserves a poem from the cell of a pastor, theologian, professor, and resistor of the German Third Reich. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was hanged at Flossenburg Concentration Camp April 9, 1945 as the Nazi regime was collapsing.

CHRISTIANS AND UNBELIEVERS

  • Dietrich Bonhoeffer, July, 1944

Men go to God when they are sore bestead,
Pray to him for succour, for his peace, for bread,
For mercy for them sick, sinning or dead:
All men do so, Christian and unbelieving.

Men go to God when he is sore bestead,
Find him poor and scorned, without shelter or bread,
Whelmed under weight of the wicked, the weak, the dead:
Christians stand by God in his hour of grieving.

God goeth to every man when sore bestead,
Feedeth body and spirit with his bread,
For Christians, heathens alike he hangeth dead:
And both alike forgiving.

Gordon C. Stewart, Presbyterian minister (H.R.) and public theologian, Brooklyn Park, MN, author of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017, Wipf and Stock), available in kindle and paperback.

America and the Sands of Time

Who we shall become is as cloudy as who we have been. Whatever pasts and futures we Americans imagine differently, we know we are in the midst of a national and global crisis. Whether or not we wear a mask, social distance, or march on the streets, we sense it in our bones. Anxiety is everywhere. We cover our eyes and wait to see who and what shall become of us.

Crisis as terrible, wonderful, and . . . .

Crisis – that is, the serious encounter of a man (sic) with exactly that which now threatens his own life, with that which represents, signifies, and warns of his own death – is always terrible, wonderful, eventually inescapable, saving and holy. ― William Stringfellow, A Private and Public Faith.

Re-imagining America

Re-imagining America begins with facing reality as we experience it, and asking why. No two people experience America the same way, yet all of us experience the same America. How it looks from the shores of Palm Beach and La Jolla or the banks of the Potomac is different from East Harlem where “street lawyer” William Stringfellow worked and bore witness in “Jesus the Criminal” in Christianity and Crisis in 1970:

We who are Americans witness in this hour the exhaustion of the American revolutionary ethic. Wherever we turn, that is what is to be seen: in the ironic public policy of internal colonialism symbolized by the victimization of the welfare population, in the usurpation of the Federal budget—and, thus, the sacrifice of the nation’s material and moral necessities—by an autonomous military-scientificintelligence principality, by the police aggressions against black citizens, by political prosecutions of dissenters, by official schemes to intimidate the media and vitiate the First Amendment, by cynical designs to demean and neutralize the courts.

Yet the corruption of the American revolutionary ethic is not a recent or sudden problem. It has been inherent and was, in truth, portended in the very circumstances in which the Declaration of Independence was executed. To symbolize that, some 30 white men who subscribed to that cause at the same time countenanced the institutionalization in the new nation of chattel slavery, and they were themselves owners of slaves. That incomprehensible hy­pocrisy in America’s revolutionary origins foretells the contemporary decadence of the revolutionary tradition in the USA. — “Jesus the Criminal,” Christianity and Crisis, June 8, 1970.

Some things remain the same

Some things remain. Some things never go away. Some things that look different are the same. Jesus of Nazareth and Jesus Barabbas shared more than a name. Both were criminals in Roman custody. One was convicted and executed; the other was released. Both are with us still.

A numbing detachment from others

In 2020, it is no longer only the descendants of slaves in East Harlem who cope with the horrifying sense of meaninglessness, hopelessness, and lovelessness Cornel West described in Race Matters.

THE PROPER STARTING POINT for the crucial debate about the prospects for black America is an examination of the nihilism that increasingly pervades black communities. Nihilism is to be understood here not as a philosophic doctrine that there are no rational grounds for legitimate standards of authority; it is, far more, the lived experience of coping with a life of horrifying meaninslessness, hopelessness, and (most important) lovelessness.

The frightening result is a numbing detachment from others and a self-destructive disposition toward the world. Life without meaning, hope, and love breeds a cold-hearted, mean-spirited outlook that destroys the individual and others. — Cornel West, Race Matters (1994).

Alternative revolutions

Two revolutionary Jesuses are with us still. The prisoner who was released re-builds the haunted house on sand. The other builds a house on rock. We can rebuild the house on shifting sands that wash away our loftiest intentions, or we can build a house on the rock of meaning, hope, and love.

face page of Cornel West's Race Matters

While visiting the Westminster Town Hall Forum in Minneapolis years ago, Cornel West inscribed Race Matters with a gracious personal charge and benediction.

All these years later, I still don’t know how to fulfill the charge or honor his blessing. I have not stayed strong, I am not, and never have been, prophetic. But the instruction and the blessing are with me still.

Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, July 11, 2020.

Let those who gloat over me turn back

The sight of a white police officer pressing his knee on George Floyd’s neck is horrific, and because it is so egregious, it is a teachable moment of why and how different people see things differently. Things like law enforcement. . . or the Bible . . . or the news. Black churches in America are likely to rejoice in biblical texts that white Christians avoid as too harsh, too “us v. them,” too black and white, so to speak.

This morning I’m hearing Psalm 70 as the voice George Floyd’s brother Philonise bearing testimony before a committee of the United Sates Congress 401 years after Jamestown.

Be pleased, O God, to deliver me; *
    O LORD, make haste to help me.

Let those who seek my life be ashamed
and altogether dismayed; *
    let those who take pleasure in my misfortune
    draw back and be disgraced. 

Let those who say to me "Aha!" and gloat over me turn back, *
    because they are ashamed.

Let all who seek you rejoice and be glad in you; *
    let those who love your salvation say for ever,
    "Great is the LORD!"

But as for me, I am poor and needy; *
    come to me speedily, O God.

You are my helper and my deliverer; *
    O LORD, do not tarry.
 
-- Psalm 70, Book of Common Prayer Daily Office Lectionary, p.970.

Seeing America from on Top or from Below the Knee

“My concern is to understand America biblically,” wrote street lawyer theologian William Stringfellow, “– not the other way around, not (to put it in an appropriately awkward way) to understand the Bible Americanly.” — William Stringfellow, An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land (Reprint, Wipf and Stock, 2004).

Be pleased, O God, to deliver me. I, a child of privilege, need help. Let me not be ashamed. O Lord, do not tarry.

Gordon C. Stewart, by the wetland, Minnesota, June 14, 2020.

Collective Delusion

AN UNLIKELY COINCIDENCE

“What’s the book about?” asked friends while preparing Be Still! for publication. I would scratch my head and answered as best I could: “It’s about a certain kind of calm and resistance in a world gone mad.” The release of Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness, through no intention of the publisher or the author, coincided with the inauguration of a new president (January 2017).

QUIET! BE STILL!

The title “Be Still!” is taken from Psalm 46 — “Be still, and know that I am God” — and from the Gospel according to Mark story of the command to the storm-tossed sea: “Quiet! Be still!” Both the psalm and “the stilling of the storm” address our plight — the mass dehumanization which Holocaust surviver Elie Wiesel called “collective madness”.

How to explain the Holocaust is a life-long question for my generation. Elie Wiesel‘s “collective madness” comes as close as any other to the daunting question of why the German people fell for a madman and stayed quiet.

COLLECTIVE SELF-DELUSION

[F]ew Germans after the war would confess having given any loyalty to the Nazi movement. This was not a lie in the soul of the German nation; it was a part of a collective delusion that all the fascist movements brought upon their followings. It was as if the movements themselves, as things independent of the men that embodied them, were responsible for the things that happened.

Gilbert Allardyce, The Place of Fascism in European History (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1971)

SOMEDAY THEY WILL SAY, “WE DID NOT KNOW”

Well-publicized among Germans, already before Hitler came to power and during a period when he still depended on their consent rather than coercion, were the many actual deeds of butchery…. Some day the same Germans, now cheering Hitler’s strut into Paris, will say to their American friends and to their brave German anti-Nazi friends: “We did not know what went on, we did not know” and when that day of know-nothing comes, there will be laughter in hell.

Peter Viereck, German-American Scholar, Metapolitics: The Roots of the Nazi Mind, rev. ed. (1941; New York: Capricorn, 1965), 318

PRINCIPALITIES AND POWERS

For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.

Epistle to the Ephesians 6:12 (KJV)

The language of the Bible regarding principalities – the ruling authorities, the angelic powers, the demons, and the like – sounds, I suppose, strange in modern society, but these words in fact refer to familiar realities in contemporary life. The principalities refer to those entities in creation which nowadays are called institutions, ideologies, and images. Thus a nation is a principality. Or the Communist ideology is a principality. Or the public image of a human being, say a movie star or a politician, is a principality. The image or legend of Marilyn Monroe or Franklin Roosevelt is a reality, distinguishable from the person bearing the same name, which survives and has its own existence apart from the existence of the person.

William Stringfellow, Instead of Death (Expanded version)

THIRTY-THREE MONTHS AND COUNTING

Thirty-three months after the release of Be Still!, many of my generation hear echos from 1933. Though the “enemies” are different, the tactics and the language of national purification are the same, defying rational explanation. The principalities and powers which survive have their own existence apart from the persons who come under the spell of collective delusion and collective madness.

DISARMING THE PRINCIPALITIES AND POWERS

We humans are social creatures. but we are do not do well when herds become the substitute for self-critical community. The still, small Voice is heard away from the clamor. The life of a nation and every other principality and power is a spiritual matter before and after it is a political matter.

“Be still! Shut up! and know that I am God. I am exalted among the nations” (Psalm 46).