A Trump for the Common Man & Woman

I read an interesting post the other day.  The gist of it was that Trump is a president who can’t be controlled by veteran lawmakers, lifers the author called them, “a cesspool of dictators.”  Nor can he be controlled by their allies, the entrenched elite of life in D.C.  None of them care anything about ordinary people.  If anything, they’re the enemy.  In Trump there is at last a president who can’t be bought and sold by them.  He’s a president for the common man and woman.  The author would like to get rid of all veteran lawmakers, and her immediate solution is term limits, always a popular offering.  Her post was heartily approved by quite a few commenters.  She took exception to contrary opinions, mine in particular, labeling them as the product of being brainwashed by drinking the liberal media “Kool-Aid”.  
It’s a mindset endorsed by an increasingly shrinking number of tea partiers and hard right libertarians who remain hopeful that Trump will turn out to be what he advertised himself to be during the campaign.  In one sense, they have a point.  His predictably unpredictability makes it impossible for the customary ways of negotiating public policy to work.  His word cannot be trusted.  Truth, and facts are fungible.  His boasts of indisputable competency are offset by his history of incompetency.  However integrity is defined, he seems to have little of it.  Of empathy, he knows nothing.  Working with him on important issues has to contend with his ignorance of basic facts, superficial awareness of complex issues, disinterest (or inability) to engage in informed conversation, and the megalomania that appears to drive his very being.  In that context, it’s true that he cannot be controlled.  In another way, it might be said that he’s just not trustworthy.  To his credit, he’s consistent on a few things: the border wall, undoing anything connected to Obama, and business practices free of regulatory oversight. 
He has indeed claimed to be for the (white) common man and woman, and his followers have embraced it in the face of all evidence to the contrary.  They remind me of people we’ve all met who inexplicably trust persons out to hurt them and mistrust those out to help them.  It speaks, if nothing else, about how alienated a portion of the population has become, epitomized by the so called white working class.  Part of it has to be due to dramatic increases in income and wealth inequality, the stagnation of lower income growth, and the demise of unions as powerful representatives of workers.  Another part is undoubtedly due to growing recognition that those of European descent are on their way to becoming a plurality, not the majority, and it signals the end of their domination of cultural standards.  They’re indications of an increasing awareness of class differences, either real or imagined, that help drive feelings of alienation.  The (white) alienated are not unhappy about backing someone who promises to stem the tide of change, and undermine the elite, even if he has no allegiance to them, except at campaign style rallies where, with P.T. Barnum like showmanship, he promises what he can deliver only as a side show illusion.
It’s not that the author doesn’t have a legitimate gripe.  Lifers, as she calls them, can become egotistically focussed on the power politics and social climbing that define what the capital city can be.  As one grows in seniority, it’s hard not to be influenced by a constant flow of favor seeking sycophants.  I imagine it’s why she favors term limits.  I worked in and around D.C. for enough years to see for myself what a seductive place it can be.  I also know that gaining understanding of complex issues, and mastering the art of guiding legislation through to completion, is not something easily or quickly learned.  Moreover, I’ve known, and know now, members of congress who keep their integrity, don’t lose their humility, and never forget the people they represent.  It means I’m not a fan of term limits.  They’re arbitrary, absolve the electorate of responsibility, and would lead to career legislative aids becoming the de facto congressional power.  Current majority leadership has failed us, and it’s time to get rid of them, but that’s up to the electorate backing qualified candidates.  It’s also up to fair, not gerrymandered districts, a decent level of civic education, and more robust voter turnout.  It’s a national disgrace that 50% plus one of a small minority of eligible voters get to decide who represents every one. 
The author of the post is certain that I, and presumably anyone else not in her camp, have been brainwashed by drinking the liberal media “Kool-Aid”.  That’s why we can’t see the truth that she sees.  Liberal media, I presume, is any source that’s not her source.  It reminds me of a local friend who admonishes me to be more broad minded and watch Fox News to get the truth.  As it turns out, it’s his only source of broadcast news, and all his other sources are from the hard right wing – and beyond.  A neighbor, a wonderful lady who carries a pocket full of dog treats, loves every dog in the neighborhood, and knows all their owners, is like him.  She was stunned, I mean stunned, to learn that Rush Limbaugh is not a reliable source of truthful news about what’s going on in the world.  It seems to be a pattern for those who are certain the rest of us have drunk the liberal media “Kool-Aid.”  They want us to broaden our views by narrowing our intake to right wing propaganda.
Remember Jim Jones?  It was back in 1978 that he induced his followers isolated in a compound in Guyana to drink poisoned “Kool-Aid,” committing ritual suicide to avoid an imaginary apocalypse of which they had all been convinced.  He did it by isolating his people and limiting what they could learn about the world outside.  That’s where the drink the “Kool-Aid” thing came from.  It happens in a less dramatic way when people restrict themselves to one source of information about the world around them that turns out to be, um what would the word be?, ah, yes, fake news that labels all other sources fake.  It may not be as fatal or evil as Jim Jones, but it is damaging to the health of the community, and it is evil. 
Getting a fair and balanced no spin handle on the what’s going on isn’t easy.  Those of us who try go to a wide variety of sources, check and verify, and do our best to sort out reporting on what’s happening from editorial comment on what it means.  For what it’s worth, I write editorial commentary as a progressive Christian from a centrist point of view, but I try to make sure it’s grounded in verifiable fact.

As for the author of the post that started this column, her Trump, it turns out, isn’t insulated from outside control.  He’s obligated up to his carefully coiffed hair to those who have lent him money.  He’s controlled by his insatiable ego driven appetites.  He’s easily influenced by anyone who offers a little something for his business interests.  He bathes in flattery.  Those who once worked their influence through campaign contributions and deep knowledge of the issues they represent have learned that, when it comes to the Trump administration, simple old fashioned bribery disguised as business deals and campaign cash work very well all by themselves.  In the end, he will be controlled by our Constitution and the rule of law.

The Unending Wars of Harlan Miller

Memorial Day Weekend is when I write a column remembering Harlan Miller.  Mr. Miller died at an old age, an impoverished hermit with no family other than his church.  He left his estate to it, and named the rector his executor.  The property on which his shack stood is now the site of a Habitat for Humanity home.  There wasn’t much else.  
Memorial Day remembers those who died in military service.  It should be a day of solemn reflection on the sinful inhumanity of war, and the grievous waste of young lives who were sent into battle.  Harlan didn’t die in battle.  He was blown to bits in North Africa, survived, spent years in the hospital, and was left to live out his days earning his living with odd jobs, never having a career, poor, and alone.  Not all those who died in battle are buried in graves marked by rows of white crosses.  Many, like Harlan, died in pieces, not all at once.  They came home with some part of them dead, some part of their future dead, some part of their soul dead, some part of their hopes and dreams dead, some part of their humanity dead.  Death comes to us all, but these kinds of death cruelly haunt and hurt the partly living.  We can give them parades and thank them for their service.  We can acclaim them heroes, and pretend they are protectors of our freedom.  Can we restore what has been killed?
War has been glamorized to excess in every generation.  Homer’s Iliad, stories in the Hebrew scriptures, Medieval tales of gallantry, the heroics of Nelson, Wellington, Washington, Lee and Grant, they all glamorize war, romanticize it, and entice the young to pursue it.  I wonder if it has to do with a collective subconsciousness that is terrified to admit to moral responsibility for the brutal immorality of war, and so recasts its stories as heroically righteous.  Otherwise the burden of guilt would be too great for us to bear. 
Americans are particularly drawn to WWII, the Good War fought by the Greatest Generation; I admit to being among them.  Of all wars, this was the one that was morally righteous.  Those who died did not die in vain.  Heroes were made, and myths have endured to lift the war years to the apogee of everything the United States stands for.  We tend to overlook the Harlans of the era who came home partly dead, living out their years partly alive.  With all good intentions, and genuine patriotic sincerity, we say of the dead that they died to protect us, and of the veterans we say they served and fought for our freedom.  And so they did. 
That was WWII.  There are no other good wars in our history.  There have been wars of some justification: the American revolution, WWI, the Civil War perhaps, even Korea.  Each had at least something to do with the defense of democracy, freedom, and the security of the United States.  We have now been engaged in decades of undeclared war spread across the face of the globe.  None of them can be fully justified no matter how just war theory is tortured to make them seem so.  With Orwellian duplicity we send young men and women to kill and be killed, promising that they are doing the right thing for God and country.  As we should, we honor returning veterans for their service, then dishonor that service by claiming it was for the protection of our freedoms, when it was really to salve political egos, enhance the economic profitability of a few, or both.
Emerging from it have been thousands of Harlan Millers.  They volunteered.  It was their patriotic duty.  It promised adventure.  It was their best chance for a future life.  Gallantry and respect would be theirs.  They returned partly dead, not sure how to thrive in a civilian world in which their war was but a forgettable nightly news clip unrelated to the daily lives of ordinary people.  We’re not heartless.  We’re now more aware of PTSD, and what it has done to too many veterans.  We’re mostly united in trying to do something about it.  We’re not united about doing anything to stop the undeclared wars.  The majority of us have been sold on the idea that, bad as they are, they are for our own good, and the eventual good of the people in whose lands they are conducted.  It is Orwellian.
This Memorial Day weekend maybe we could do more than picnic and parade.  Maybe we could take a few moments to reflect on our responsibility for the violent sinfulness of the world we have created, and for what?

“Lord God Almighty, you have made all the peoples of the earth for your glory, to serve you in freedom and peace: Give to the people of our country a zeal for justice and the strength of forbearance, that we may use our liberty in accordance with your will.  Guide with your wisdom those who take counsel for the nations of the earth, that in tranquillity your dominion may increase until the earth is filled with the knowledge of your love; through Jesus Christ our Lord.” (BCP 258)

Leaving Comments

Dear Readers,
One friend said she’d like to comment, but there is a “No Comment” button at the bottom of each column.  That simply means no one has yet made a comment.  Just click on it, and you will be magically taken to a comment page where you can write away to your heart’s content.  Most comments go through right away.  Comments with vulgar, obscene language get shunted aside.  And if I find comments to be abusive, they get deleted.  This is a place for civil conversation.
Country Parson

Kim, Trump, North Korea, Iran: It’s all here in one exciting show

Fareed Zakaria posts a daily “Global Briefing.”  A few days ago he cited a WSJ column by Tod Lindberg that endorsed Trump’s maneuvering on a possible upcoming meeting with North Korea’s Kim as being an example of well thought out strategic thinking.  This morning we learned that Trump had bailed, which might have been the smartest thing he could have done.  
Mr. Lindberg believed that walking away from a bad deal with Iran over nuclear issues, was a prelude to the Korean talks.  By doing it, Trump took it off the table as an indicator of what a future deal with North Korea might look like.  It was a clear display of Trump’s diplomatic mettle, and it put Kim in the position of having to take something stronger if he wanted any deal at all. 
Mr. Lindberg no doubt follows these matters far closer than I, but I had trouble taking him seriously.  For starters, what made him think the Iran deal was bad?  Then he appeared to assume that Trump carefully thought this out before making his decisions.  If he did, it’s a dramatic departure from his usual pattern.  Thinking things out is hard work, and Trump is loathe to work hard at anything, especially thinking.  My guess is that Mr. Lindberg was doing the best he could to read sophisticated rationality into a gut level move that’s more in tune with the way Trump acts.  If you’re desperate to make Trump look presidential, it’s what you have to do. 
He also presumed that Kim wants or needs to accept a deal from the U.S.  No he doesn’t.  They’ve gone 65 years without one, and they don’t need one now.  If Kim wants anything, it’s to be recognized as a legitimate player worthy of respect by other world leaders.  He already is a player; what he wants is legitimacy and respect.  Whether Trump does or doesn’t go through with a meeting during his term, Kim will have made his point.
The entire vaudevillian act has been consistent with an established Trump pattern.  First he manufactures a diplomatic peccadillo, then makes huge threats about tariffs or some such.  When other parties respond in kind, he huffs, puffs and bluffs before reaching an accommodation that returns to the status quo.  Calling it a victory, he takes a few campaign laps before receiving his laurels from Fox.  In this case, it was not about trade and tariffs, but about photo-ops, peace prizes, and curtain calls in front of a nuclear backdrop.  I have no idea what Trump will do next, but Kim is well on his way to reaching a form of rapprochement with South Korea, and strengthening his bonds with China.  It could lead to further engagement with Pacific rim nations.  Who knows? 

Kim may be as big a megalomaniac as Trump, but he’s probably a lot smarter, and has been watching how best to play this fish to his own advantage.  He seems to be doing it well so far.  As always, I could be wrong, and Mr. Lindberg absolutely right.  After all, what do I know?  I’m just a Country Parson. 

We Live in Strange Times, and I Wonder

One of my right wing friends, and I do have a few, recently posted an op-ed piece from someone in the Las Vegas area recommending impenetrable border walls, gated communities, and armed guards as preventatives to keep us safe.  It was a sad commentary on American life from someone who has the means to live behind guarded gates.  He was trying to call out the hypocrisy of gun regulation advocates who also live behind guarded gates, but that’s not what he ended up revealing.  For him, it appears that everyone outside the gates is a potential threat, and I might  guess it’s especially true if they are not white, speak Spanish, or look homeless.   People like that have been around a long time.  They marched in white hooded robes, burned crosses, and cheered the nascent fascism of the early 1940s America First movement.  Their influence was felt among the rank and file of good people who were disgusted by what they did, but open to bits and pieces of what they said while tolerating the rest.
Years ago our daughter and her family lived in Jakarta, in a gated neighborhood protected by armed guards.  Her office was downtown, its walls pockmarked by bullets from recent riots, so the precaution made some sense.  Our small city in the rural West has one gated neighborhood.  As far as I know, no one has ever paid any attention to the gate, but it’s a very nice one.  Nevertheless, there is a strong current of agreement with the man from Las Vegas, and fear that the boundary is thin indeed between our small city and Jakarta of the late 1990s.  In many different ways it expresses one message: You, me and our friends are all good people, but everyone else is suspect, maybe armed and dangerous, the possibility of attack is ever present and highly probable.  The despised federal government that should stay out of our lives, should not stay out of their lives.  If it can’t deport them, it should harass them into submission.  But it should stay out of our lives.  
Living in that frightening world, it’s no wonder that many of my conservative friends are well armed, fearful their guns might be taken away, and certain that mortal danger is always nearby.  It doesn’t help that there was a daylight house burglary not far away a few days ago.  The burglars were caught, all is well, but that didn’t stop brave talk from armchair quarterbacks threatening to shoot first, as if, somehow, shooting and killing are not related.  Of course, if you’re only killing an “animal,” does it matter?  
It’s a strange time.  Violent crime is declining while fear of violent crime is escalating, and it’s all mixed up with immigration, racism, economic dislocation, and libertarian fantasies.  People who earnestly proclaim their belief in old time moral values continue to give unquestioning support to policies and politicians that are blatant offenses against them.  Several times I’ve asked one friend to explain how he does it.  His instant answer is “What about Hillary?,” which is such a non sequitur that I’ve struggled to find anything to say.  I guess it’s what happens when you live in a frighteningly dangerous world that, to me, is more illusion than reality. 
Into it stepped Michael Curry, presiding bishop of the American Episcopal Church, preaching to the entire world while at a wedding attended by the social and economic elite of the English speaking part of it.  His proclamation of God’s power expressed in love nailed to the chapel’s door an indictment of the world’s failure to hear and heed, and the whole world listened.  Love, God’s love, casts out fear (of the other).  It is said that perfect love casts out all fear, but we don’t experience perfect love, or perfection in anything else. We can, however, see it lived out imperfectly in the lives of those who follow in Christ’s footsteps as best they can.  If imperfect love can’t cast out all fear, it can shove it into the closet where it can’t dominate us, and it can transform the choices we make in private and in public.
I wonder if Bishop Curry’s message of God’s power expressed in love can penetrate the lives of people who believe they live in a dangerous world,  surrounded by dangerous others who are not like them?  I wonder if those whose hearts were easily warmed by his inspiring words will forfeit the opportunity to make changes by forgetting all about in a few days?   I wonder if those who take it seriously will use it like a bludgeon to beat the opposition about their heads and shoulders?  I wonder if those who love Jesus but decline to follow in his ways will try to undermine it?  I wonder all that and more.  Wonder as I might, I am convicted without doubt of God’s promise that “[His] word that goes out from [His] mouth shall not return to [Him] empty, but shall accomplish that which [He] purposes, and succeed in the thing for which [He] sent it.” (Isa. 55)

Note:  ‘He’ is used for need of a personal pronoun because the intimacy that only a personal pronoun can give is fundamental to the relationship God has with us.  ‘She’ is equally acceptable, and neither is accurate.

Community & the Church

Bowling Alone, the 2000 book by Robert D. Putnam, was one of those best sellers many bought but few read because they got everything they wanted through media reports and interviews.  I was one of them.  His point, as I recall, was the social organizations that had bound Americans together in community were dead or dying.  Bowling leagues, fraternal organizations, church membership, they were all being abandoned by Americans who no longer found them important or helpful.   It was, said Putnam, leading to the alienation of one from another, and from a sense of community shared with others through personal conversation in the public arena.   
That was eighteen years ago.  He tended to blame it on television, but saw hope for a revival of community, enough to spawn a cottage industry based on it.  In the meantime, the internet, digital devices and mobile phones have demonstrated their abilities to further the deterioration of face-to-face interconnectedness, while creating the illusion of community through platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.  
Even in our rural city, bowling leagues have faded away, the Elks club is all but shuttered, there are no young Masons.  The local Eagles, which openly markets itself to the so called working class, is doing very well.   It may say something about who feels the deepest need for community, and where they find it.  Is it an example of tribalism run amok?  Maybe not.  Maybe they know something the church doesn’t.  More on that later lest I digress too far.  I miss the bowling leagues. They brought together a mix of people who would otherwise not know each other.  Could they not compete with the NFL, NBA and local sports bars?  The Elks and Masons were restricted membership groups that appealed to (white) men who aspired to rise in the power structure, and, once vetted were admitted to the possibility.  That plum is no longer theirs to offer.  Oddly enough, the country club, once the most exclusive of them all, is doing quite well.  It lowered its dues, opened membership to anyone who can pay, and provides the best available space for smaller events and dinners.  If golf is your thing, it’s a great course.  Whether it forms a nucleus of community is another, unanswered, question.
What are nuclei of community in your area?  In ours, one might look to  Rotary and Exchange clubs that have done well by becoming open to all, engaging in important local issues, and sponsoring local events raising money for crucial needs.  Youth athletics and school events bring parents together, at least to know each other by face or name, but they tend to separate themselves by race and economic class.  The colleges have various public offerings that bring a few together for an hour or two.  The local paper works to keep the general public well informed about the region, and is generous in promoting events that can bring people together.  They all have one thing in common.   They don’t create communities whose primary purpose is to strengthen bonds that build and sustain community by nourishing each individual to become more self aware, to recognize their own value and talents, to trust themselves to be vulnerable in the presence of others, and to recognize the value and talents of others struggling to do the same in their own states of insecurity.
The result has been a troubling level of disconnect and alienation that has captured the attention of academics, authors, pundits, and political consultants.  The evidence is on the pages of local internet forums that have opened doors encouraging free expression of isolation, fear, distrust, alienation from whatever is seen as the elite, the power structure, the old boys network, the other – whoever that might be.  Instead of community understood at a broad level, it has become retreat into small groups of like minded people, sure that they’re surrounded by enemies, unwilling to enter the public commons for fear of being attacked.
It can’t be blamed entirely on the digital age of automatons walking around staring at their phones, or texting in place of conversation, and all the rest, though they stand justly accused.  A signifiant part of it was hiding in the wings waiting to be expressed once the oddly comforting hierarchy of old boy networks and club elites began to crumble.   People need to know who they are and where they belong in the context of community that makes sense to them, and in which they feel safe.
What about church?  What is its role in all of this?  Church is the house of religion, and religion has got a bad name among too many.  Religiously unaffiliated is the fastest growing denomination.  Atheism has become its own religion.  And whatever church once stood for lost its usefulness with the collapse of the social hierarchy.  Why waste a weekend morning attending a useless service?  Look at them.  Conservative evangelicalism has become an arm of secular right wing politics.  The big non-denominational ones provide musical entertainment and uplifting talks that are a mile wide and an inch deep.  And the mainline is the last redoubt of the old elite. Who wants to hang out with them?
What can I say?  Mea Culpa.  We have sinned in what we have done and in what we have failed to do through our own fault, our most grievous fault.  The Church, at least the mainline churches, including Roman Catholics, fell into the ease of participating in the socio-economic hierarchy of the post war era.  Too many preached a tepid gospel message  that reinforced God’s endorsement of peace, prosperity, and patriotism epitomizing the realization of the American dream.  Children in the once overflowing Sunday schools were fed a curriculum of thin religious gruel by ill prepared volunteer teachers.  As soon as they could, they quit coming, so did their children, and their grandchildren never came.
Yet it is in the bosom of the gospel message that the deepest hungers for genuine community can be nourished with holy life giving food.  It is in the strength of the gospel message that people can be led from prejudice to truth; delivered from hatred, cruelty, and revenge; break down walls that separate us; be united in bonds of love; and work through their struggles and confusion to accomplish God’s purpose on earth (BCP 815-16).  These are the good things the church has to offer to a people starving for them.
Where is the place of the church in whatever socio-economic hierarchy comes into being?  It doesn’t have one.  It shouldn’t look for one.   It should ignore whatever place others assign to it.  It must focus only on following Jesus, proclaiming that the kingdom of God has come near, and serving as an agent of God’s healing, reconciling power in the world around it.  Christ didn’t come to save the church.  Christ came to save the world, and the church is the most important agency of that work.
In a previous column I wrote that the self can never be defined in isolation.  It can only be defined in terms of its relationship to others, so community, one way or the other, is  essential to our existence.  Whatever we do always has an effect on others, and that effect will either help build up relationships, and thus community, or tear them down.  God in Christ Jesus has called us, all of us, into community that builds up by strengthening bonds of love, lending a hand to those whose burdens are too heavy, removing walls of separation and oppression, and confronting injustice whenever it’s encountered.  It doesn’t take a denomination or congregation to pursue worthy ends such as these.  Any group can adopt them.  What the church recognizes is that it is God, and not humanity, who has called us to this work.  It is God who feeds us with holy food, drink, and Spiritual presence to have the strength to go on.  It is God who forgives and heals.  It is God who is the very source of life and love, and there is no other.  It is God who says to each person, “You are created in my image, and it is good.”  That’s what the church recognizes, proclaims, teaches, and makes available to all.
Those who enter into the community of the church are sent forth to live their daily lives in other places of work, society, politics, and leisure in all of their many manifestations, but always bearing the love of Christ as best they can.  Is there genuine community outside the church?  Of course there is, and it’s to be celebrated and encouraged.  The church is bold to assert that the source of genuine community is always traced back to God, no matter how it is  manifested in the world.  It is in community that we are able to realize the full potential of our individuality, not as “radically autonomous,” but as radically complete.  

The church stumbled in the work it has been given to do.  It’s time to get back to it.  It’s too easy to make excuses by saying that the church is only the gathered assembly of believers, and so it’s everyone’s responsibility.  The clergy are the ones who have been called to serve as pastors, and they are the ones who must assume the responsibility of being the shepherds God has called them to be.