The Death of an Old Soldier

Harlan Miller, 1915-2004

Mr. Miller, as he was called, was our beloved brother in Christ who taught us the meaning of perseverance and faith in the face of overwhelming adversity. His story is part of St. Paul’s story. He was known to the community as an impoverished hermit living in a two room shack. His will named St. Paul’s rector as his executor, and gave all that he had to the church. At his funeral his deceased veteran’s flag was presented on behalf of a grateful nation to his nearest living next of kin: the congregation of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church.

Harlan was born in the valley to a poor farming family. His formal education is uncertain. It’s likely that he worked for Whitman College as a young man, and in his thirst for knowledge he sat in on as many classes as he could. Steeped in late 19th and early 20th century literature, the ultimate word of truth came from his treasured late 19th century Encyclopedia Brittanica. What we know of those years was recorded in Latin in his daily diary. It revealed the ordinary routine of a young man painfully uncomfortable in society.

Mr. Miller entered the army shortly before the onset of WWII, and was part of the 1942 invasion of North Africa. He was severely wounded, and required years of hospitalization before he could reenter civilian life. We may never know what effect the war years had on him: his diary was mostly silent about them. We know that Harlan survived while those around him didn’t. He wasn’t a hero. He was just a poor farmhand, a little old to be in the infantry, doing what he knew had to be done for his country. He didn’t intend to get blown up in an artillery barrage. He didn’t intend to spend years in the hospital, or end up an impoverished and alone. He lived into old age, but some part of him was killed in war. In war there are many Harlan Millers.

We do know that once home in Walla Walla, he was unable to find regular work and got by with odd jobs. Though he was known as a hermit, he wasn’t alone. The congregation of St. Paul’s became his family. Among its members he found welcome, caring love, and respect. He seldom missed a Sunday, always sat in the same place, tithed with a few coins carefully placed in the plate, and was shyly reserved. He was dedicated to midweek bible studies, and congregational feasts where he held fast to proper etiquette as defined by his Encyclopedia Brittanica. The unsuspecting would be caught by surprise when he offered a few words of wisdom citing ancient Greek and Roman sources. Harlan’s one luxury was tea that he ordered from far distant sources. It was a badge of honor to be invited to his home for a cup of tea, served formally in cracked, mismatched tea cups. His carefully cultivated Irises adorned St. Paul’s landscape. As his years advanced, several members of the congregation made sure he had food, clothing, and heat. The youth group winterized his place as best they could. Increasing needs created problems: he was set in his ways: modern appliances and medicines were an unwanted invasion of his early 20th century world.

The shack was demolished after his death. A Habitat for Humanity home now resides on the property. His life estate of a few thousand dollars was divided between St. Paul’s, and a church he sometimes visited in Vancouver, B.C.

“Rich men endowed with resources, living peacefully in their home were honored in their generations, and were the pride of their times. Some of them have left behind a name, so that others declare their praise. But of others there is no memory; they have perished as though they had never existed; they have become as though they had never been born. But these also were godly men, whose righteous deeds have not been forgotten; their wealth will remain with their descendants, and their inheritance with their children’s children. The assembly declares their wisdom, and the congregation proclaims their praise.” (Sirach 44)

What is the Right Way to Celebrate Memorial Day?

What is the right way to celebrate Memorial Day?  To celebrate, at least in its older meaning, is to observe with ceremonies of respect.  Those who have died in war deserve solemn respect and profound honor, but not glorification.  Glorifying their deaths demeans them by using them to glorify war itself. 

It is often said that we owe to them the freedom we now enjoy, but that doesn’t seem right.  So many died in places and for causes that had little to do with our personal freedom or national security.  We glibly call them heroes.  That doesn’t seem right either.  I don’t think they wanted to die, didn’t intend to die, and few died heroically, at least not in the usual way we think of things heroic.  Moreover, not all who died in war, died on the battlefield.  Many returned alive but with some deep part of their soul killed, never to be restored to wholeness.  We owe them our best efforts to prevent wars in which others would die. 

It is time to reject millennia of glorifying death in battle.  It isn’t glorious.  It is the price paid by some for the human hubris, greed, and selfishness of others.  To be sure, we have confronted human hubris, greed, and selfishness to fight wars defending the world against conquest by forces of evil.  We have also fought our own wars of conquest, subjugating peoples to create a new nation from coast to coast.  We fought a terrible civil war to determine whether a nation dedicated to the equality of all ‘men’ could long endure (Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address).  We have fought wars of questionable justification and purpose, costing much and gaining little.  The dead of each deserve our ceremonies of respect offering grateful thanks and profound apologies. 

It is right and a good thing for us to pause each year for a national day to remember the high cost of war and honor those who paid with their lives.  Placing flags at headstones, pausing to say each name, is a tradition in the right direction.  Offering prayers of confession and contrition for our human inability to live in peace with one another, is another.  I wonder about other ways.  Everything comes to a stop on military bases at the end of the day when retreat is sounded and the flag is lowered.  If a flag can be honored with a moment of silence, imagine the entire nation stopping everything for a full minute on memorial day.  Across the continent bells would ring, sirens would sound, traffic and activities would stop for sixty seconds, people would stand in silence, not to salute a flag, but to remember the lives of those who died in the nation’s battles. 

Grant, O God, that your holy and life-giving Spirit may so move every human heart, and especially the hearts of the people of this land, that barriers which divide us may crumble, suspicions disappear, and hatreds cease; that our divisions being healed, we may live in justice and peace. (BCP 823)

Campaign Funding, Corporations & Moral Agency

An impressive number of major corporations have announced they are withholding campaign contributions to candidates that submit to Trump’s Big Lies about the election and January 6 insurrection.  Have these companies developed a moral backbone?  Don’t count on it.

Ever since the 2010 Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United, progressives have been upset that corporations were entitled to the same rights as individuals when it came to political speech and contributions.  It’s led to wide ranging questions about moral culpability and demands that corporations be held accountable as moral agents.  Can we expect corporations to be moral agents?  Probably not.  Moral agents are natural persons, human beings.  Corporations are legal persons as defined by law, but they are not human beings.  Corporations, like human beings, can be held accountable for obeying the law, but that’s not the same thing as expecting an institution to be a moral agent.

Moral agency has to do with what is good and right, not what is legal or illegal. Every human being is a moral agent whether they are aware of it or conscious of making moral decisions. Humans are moral agents because they are human, conditioned from infancy to have an understanding of right and wrong within the context of the society in which they are raised. Most moral decisions humans make are routine, habits of the heart guiding judgments without too much thought. Other decisions require effort, not always in terms of right or wrong, but more like working out the quandary of ‘what should I do, and why should I do it?’ Some are serious moral questions of right and wrong that can become quite complex.

In the 1980s, a colleague and I taught a class to introduce corporate managers to what it means to be moral agents in the context of their companies and the work they do for them.  We had the idea that corporations could be morally responsible organizations without infringing on responsibilities to investors.  Managers, properly educated, would act as moral agents on behalf of the corporation’s ethical culture, and everyone would be better off.  We were wrong.  We used Harvard Case Studies about companies that had made compelling moral decisions under challenging conditions, which sounded great until everyone of them had not long after been indicted for behavior that was unethical and illegal.  What happened?  Executives had made courageous moral decisions in the name of the company, but the institution, as such, didn’t care one way or the other.  When those executives were no longer on the scene, the moral standards that guided them went with them.  High moral standards exist only in the lives of decision makers, not in the ‘life’ of the company.  That’s true not only for corporations, but for every organization and institution.

The point is, corporations are not human beings.  They are legal entities having neither brain nor soul.  They are an assembly of parts organized to produce a maximum return to investors through products sold at a profit abetted by shrewd financial manipulation.  Whatever moral principles companies (or any organization) follow are the product of individuals who manage them, and the power they temporarily exert to influence corporate culture.  

For what it’s worth, we changed our approach to teaching the class, dumped the case studies, used as our text the play “A Man for All Seasons”, and worked on what it means to be a moral human being, not a moral executive.

That brings us back to corporations that have decided to withhold campaign funds from Trump oriented candidates. It’s possible that some are guided by executives making a moral decision for the good of the nation. Corporate leaders are more likely reading the public opinion tea leaves and their effect on the products and services they offer. Will it last? The Magic Eight Ball says the outlook is not favorable. Prevailing thought among corporate leadership is, the less government oversight and interference in the way they do business, the better. They know the deregulation crowd flows toward the Trump camp, so the practical move is to throw money in that direction. If their read of public opinion tea leaves changes, they will turn on a dime.

Corporations, as corporations, cannot be trusted to act for the public good. They’re soulless entities created to productively employ capital producing goods and services the public is willing to buy. That they do well, but no more than that can be expected of them. That is why we need government regulation of business. It is the government’s job, acting on behalf of the public interest, to establish the rules by which corporations do business. Rules that set terms and conditions for transparency and honesty in dealing with customers, investors, employees, trading partners, and competitors, must also be rules protecting the health, safety and welfare of the public and the environment in which we live.

With that said, wisdom reminds us that the government is also an organization.  It has no soul, no brain, no inherent interest in what is good and right.  Its moral standards and direction are the product of legislators and executives working out agreements among competing ideas about what is right and good for the nation.  The American ideal tries for the place at which freedom and the public good meet.  Since the 1980s, the trend has been toward libertarianism that subordinates the good of the community to the freedom of persons (corporations included) to act as they choose with as little oversight as possible.  Since 2008, the pendulum has begun to swing back toward a balance in which the good of the community has a more equal standing.  Four years of Trump’s amorality showed how determined libertarian forces are to prevent much of a swing.  Biden’s election gave the swing a little momentum.  The 2022 midterms will add to the momentum, or stop it altogether. 

Political Hypocrisy & The Need For A Conservative Party

It’s hard not to be stunned by the depth of unethical hypocrisy displayed by political leaders, subservient to Trumpism. They’re intent thwarting good faith moves to address the nation’s needs. McConnell and McCarthy lead the pack, but the pack includes hundreds of legislators toeing the libertarian line with all of its racist undertones and evidence free faith in imitation laissez-faire government. Fringe characters like Greene, Boebert and Gaetz dominate the tabloid news cycle. They’re window dressing distractions from those who stay out of the press but have greater influence.

We need two parties that will focus on the needs of the nation, offering objections and alternatives to each other based on their analysis of available data. The public has a right to expect that some kind of negotiated settlement can be reached. What the public has a right to expect hasn’t been true since 2008. The sole message since then of GOP campaign committees and super PACs has been to stop whatever Democrats propose, labeling them as socialist. Nikki Haley’s Stand for America PAC, for example, hammers on a socialist agenda that doesn’t exist, accuses Sen. Sanders of trying to weaken Israel, says Biden is soft on Russia, and claims Biden’s $2 trillion investment in America’s future will burden tax payers, while Trump’s tax cuts creating a $2 trillion debt and no benefit to the nation was a good thing.

Where are their proposals for addressing the nation’s most pressing needs? The answer seems to involve substituting non existent issues, issues of lesser importance and intractable issues to divert attention from the work that needs to be done. One GOP representative complained that Democrats were ignoring the most important matters facing the nation which he said were: closing the border with Mexico; criminalizing abortion; defending second amendment rights; and imposing strict law and order enforcement in big cities. National security, always a go to issue, is framed by the GOP in terms of bellicose military preparation for another WWII.

During the four years of quasi libertarian rule under Trump, what did the nation get? Promises of a health care and infrastructure plan that never materialized. Foreign relations and international trade blundering that eroded America’s standing in the world. A tax cut that ballooned the deficit and debt but provided no measurable good to the economy. Desperate handouts to agriculture to cover losses from failed tariff wars. Low unemployment (yay) accomplished through low wage jobs offering no benefits (boo). Deregulation of industry that jeopardized public and environmental health and safety. A move toward autocratic fascism, and the endorsement of white supremacy. Perhaps worst of all, a sustained propaganda campaign to create public distrust of the nation’s electoral processes that have as clean a record for integrity as possible.

The crucial issues the nation must address are in familiar categories: health care, affordable housing, infrastructure, education, environmental degradation, working conditions and job site safety, economic security and equity, deep seated practices of racial discrimination, and the like. National security, a perennial favorite, has more to do with cybersecurity, protecting intellectual property, guaranteeing transparency in international trade, resolving proxy wars and regional conflicts, and guarding against insurrectionists. No major power has any interest in conquest by warfare. Competition for global leadership is all about technology and trade. These are needs and issues that respect no state boundaries. While states need flexibility to manage solutions locally, only the federal government has the ability to plan and finance programs to benefit and protect all of us. Standards of justice that respect the dignity of every human being cannot be at risk from state to state. Reagan was wrong about government being the problem. Low tax, small government aficionados are wrong about the private sector’s ability to make everything work together for the good through the magic of the market place.

Following the small government, low tax line to its end would produce a second tier balkanized union of semi united states, or, as Trumpism would have it, a fascist libertarian state depriving individuals of their cherished rights and freedoms. What we need is effective, efficient democratically responsive government attuned to the needs of ordinary people.

The tiresome fear mongering about socialism is especially misguided. No serious person desires the nation to adopt Marxist-Leninism. Even Russia and China have laid that ideology aside. We don’t even want to emulate the Nordic countries. What GOP propagandists call socialism is common sense public investment in the means of economic security accruing to every person regardless of their condition in life.

Guaranteed health care, quality public education, infrastructure built for the future, protection of the environment, and regulation of business that protects employees, consumers and investors, while optimizing conditions for fair competition. None of that is socialism. It’s just good public policy in a free and democratic nation. For that to be our future, we need a reformed conservative party to act as a cautionary check on liberal exuberance.

Solving Homelessness Begins With A Change Of Attitude & Perspective

‘Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?” (BCP 305)  These words from the Baptismal Covenant permit no conditions or exclusions.  It was a long time ago, but my several years of working with street people, all men, taught me two things.  First, they wanted and needed to be recognized as worthy of respect as brothers of equal status before God, no matter what else might separate us.  Second, nothing could improve their lives until they had the sustainable basics of food, clothing and shelter. 

Homelessness is a problem in urban areas of most any size.  The presence of homeless persons in our otherwise dignified downtowns can ruin it for everyone else.  They gather in unsightly, unsanitary camps, sleep in doorways, wander in parks, panhandle, smell bad, and relieve themselves in public places.  Nobody wants them around. The problem provokes predictable outcries.  “I don’t care where they go, I just don’t want them here.” “If they don’t want to sleep on the street they should get a job.”  “Those panhandlers make plenty of money.”  “They’re nothing but a bunch of lazy drug addicts.” The myth of American self reliance says that all you need to make it is the willingness to do a little hard work.  If that’s true, the homeless have demonstrated they’re unwilling – they are morally deficient, the authors of their own problems, and deserve little sympathy.  It’s often said that a plurality of hard working Americans are within a paycheck or two of losing it all.  For them, the homeless people around them are the worst nightmare of what could happen to anyone, regardless of how hard they work.

The result is a sense of public disgust that strips the homeless of their humanity,  and labels them unworthy of dignity or respect.  The ardent wish that they just go away is merely a nice way of favoring extermination.  It’s not far from former practices of lobotomies and forced sterilization to prevent the least and poorest from reproducing.  Of course no one today suggests such a horrible thing, but still the cry goes up: Can’t someone get them out of our sight?  So we bulldoze camps, prohibit loitering, close public restrooms, limit access to libraries, and figure out other ways to make being homeless more difficult than it already is.   

I don’t have a solution.  But I know this.  Every human being needs to sleep somewhere, and where they are is where they are going to sleep.  Every human being needs to eat, and hunger will drive one to any means at hand.  Every human being needs to urinate and defecate, where they are is where it will happen.  Every human being needs to bathe and wash clothes if they are to have any chance at being acceptable in public or to employers.  If there is no place for that, they will be dirty and smelly.  

The causes of homelessness are complex, interrelated, and difficult to address.  Before any grand scheme can make progress, the basics of life must be attended.  By whom?  The tax paying community.  Providing the basics of life for the homeless creates a public good that benefits the entire community.  The community’s generous investment will create a generous return for everyone’s quality of life, and accrue to the economic well being of individuals.  It can’t be just a local community here and there, it has to be wide spread across the country, not because they’re forced to, but because it’s the right (and profitable) thing to do.

It should be a proverbial no-brainer, but it isn’t.  The opposition is well stocked with ammunition about the higher priority of other needs directly benefiting hard working tax payers – priorities for which the public is already unwilling to pay.  A popular down home comedian made a joke of it, claiming the homeless (bums) got themselves into it, they can get themselves out of it, and his audience cheered.  

Oddly enough, it wasn’t so long ago that most communities, however unjust they were in other ways, had a crude understanding of how important it was to meet the basic needs of the most poor among them.  County orphanages, poor farms and workhouses existed in most places, often with taxpayer reluctance, and seldom offering more than the bare necessities, along with the Scarlet P of poverty assigned to the residents.  Nevertheless, the community understood the need to provide for those of their own who would otherwise be homeless.  Places like that began to disappear with the advent of Social Security in 1935, but in the community of my youth two survived until about 1950.

Times have changed.  We have an array of welfare and social service programs intended to keep those most in need out of homelessness.  Where the systems work, they work well, but homelessness is a serious problem just the same.  How it gets addressed is a mystery, at least to me.  

Whatever the solutions are, they have to start with recognition of our collective obligation to respect the dignity of every human being, no matter what their condition in life.  Homeless persons cannot be denied their dignity as beloved of God and worthy of being treated accordingly.  The tax paying community as a whole, not just its voluntary charitable agencies, must boldly make this investment in the future of the community.  Because it’s an investment, it needs to be made with generosity of spirit and intent.  Funded in good measure, the stability provided will enable many to regain the footing needed to return as “productive members of society.”  That kind of investment doesn’t paint anyone with a Scarlet P.  Instead, it makes a clear statement that the community has your back, believes you can make it, and intends to lend a hand to help you recover.

Will there be competing demands for public investment?  Of course, but it’s not a question of either/or.  It’s an issue of both/and.

Will some be homeless anyway?  Yes.  There are persons whose lives are so disordered that they’re unable to abide by any rules, not even their own.  There are some whose condition in life has deprived them of economic and social usefulness to the community.  That’s no excuse for punishing the few by denying help to the many. 

I’ll end with a prayer based on Psalm 72: Make government an agency of your justice, O God, and give your righteousness to all in authority.  May they judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice.  May the land yield prosperity for the people, and may the government defend the cause of the poor, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor.

Peace in Jerusalem? It may depend on humanity giving up its warring ways

Deadly violence in Israel has erupted once again.  It’s captured the world’s attention, and with it aspersions are cast in angry self righteousness.  The Levant has been a whirlpool of contending peoples visiting war, famine and death on each another since the beginning of recorded history, so the current outbreak should not surprise anyone.  This eruption centers on a corrupt, unmerciful hardline Israeli prime minister facing off against a corrupt, unmerciful Hamas still harboring delusions of erasing Israel’s existence.  Their mutual enmity is acerbated by the eviction of Palestinians from East Jerusalem homes they’ve occupied for generations, although their right to ownership has often been disputed; ultra-orthodox Jewish leaders who have no sympathy for Palestine rights; Palestinian resentment over their status as a minority with limited rights in their own country; the echoes of Arab-Israeli wars in the not too distant past; and genuine housing needs of a growing population.  

How are we to understand it, and what, if anything can we do about it?

Recently, I wrote that Jesus’ ascension was a real life metaphor illustrating the permeable boundary between earth and heaven, between physical and spiritual reality.  I want to suggest that the history of the eastern Mediterranean lands, including the current violence, is a living metaphor for the human condition.  It gathers our collective behavior and reflects it back to us in painfully violent focus.  This land made holy by human hopes, prayers, and God’s own decree, cannot be at peace until the people of “this fragile earth our island home” learn to live in peace with one another.  What’s going on in the Levant is a microcosm of what’s going on all over the globe, particularly in places dominated by the Abrahamic faiths.  When we stop oppressing and killing each other over the color of skin, tribal loyalties, religious pedigrees, caste differences, and lust for political power, there will be peace in Jerusalem.  

We humans are too committed to our violent ways for that to happen anytime soon.  Can’t there be peace in Jerusalem before then?  No doubt there can, and I hope there is.  It depends on the people who live there deciding to set an example for the world, rather than reflecting the world back on itself.  Will they do it?  Only God knows.  They can if they have the will.  In the meantime, those of us who live in other places can do as we are able to be agents of peace with justice – not law and order justice, but godly justice.  All those signs proclaiming No Justice – No Peace aren’t threats of riot; they’re statements of truth. Peace that is more than the absence of violence cannot exist unless there is a collective and concerted commitment to godly justice.  We’re not there yet.  We’re not yet willing to give up the desire for vengeance.  We’re not yet willing to give up structured advantage so that others are not disadvantaged.  We’re not yet ready to give up pride of family and tribe that treasures social hierarchy.  We’re not yet ready to give up measuring human worth by wealth and possessions.  We’re not yet ready to give up love of celebrity.  Christians, sadly, are not yet ready to follow Jesus. 

It’s not just a God thing.  There’s a danger in getting too mystical about it, or falling into the Christian nationalism trap.  The Realpolitik of the region stands on its own as a human problem humans can solve if they’re willing to do it.  But let’s not forget that the Levant is also the place where God has been made known to us.  God has spoken from it and through it, and acted in it.  We call it The Holy Land, and it is.  In some sense, it’s like a parabolic mirror gathering images of human behavior from throughout creation, and focussing the reflection of our unjust brutality back on us.  It reminds me of John the Baptist on the banks of the Jordan calling the gathered brood of vipers to repent.  We, the peoples of this planet, are the brood of vipers.  When we begin to change our ways, there will begin to be peace in Jerusalem.

Like a Dignified Superman, Jesus Lifted Off To Ascend Into Heaven: or something like that

Three impossible things are at the center of Christian faith:  the virgin birth, the resurrection, and the ascension.  Of these, the ascension may be the hardest to swallow.  God is not constrained by the limitations of human knowledge or experience, so Jesus’ birth by the Virgin Mary and his resurrection from the grave are well within the realm of godly action.  But scripture records that about forty days after his resurrection, Jesus assembled some of his followers on the Mt. of Olives, and there ascended bodily into heaven.  It’s a scene well within human knowledge and experience.  There’s a certain silliness about imagining Jesus lifting off like a dignified Superman to ascend into a heaven up there above the clouds.  We know what’s up there, and it isn’t heaven.

On the other hand, why not? Ascending is our way of thinking about what is higher and better.  We climb corporate and social ladders.  We get promoted up, and demoted down.  Upward mobility is a good thing, downward isn’t.  We celebrate rising stars in every field of endeavor. Higher floors in skyscrapers are favored over lower floors. We want to be above the fray.  We sort socio/economic classes from low to high.  Nothing gets our attention like a soaring stock market.  Things ascending are good (except prices).

It makes Jesus’ ascension into heaven a perfectly reasonable metaphor, except a metaphor is a mere figure of speech, and Jesus went the top of a hill to bodily ascended out of sight. He performed in reality what we normally take as a figure of speech. Where did he go? He went where he said he was going, to heaven. It’s not a place up there somewhere. The best that can be said is that it’s a state of being in God’s presence that exists beyond dimensions of time and space defining the limitations of earthly reality. But he promised to be with us always. How can he do that if he’s not here? Because it’s beyond our limited grasp of time and space, he can be both gone and not gone – gone from view but not from presence. It’s a presence not like a warm memory of what was, but a powerful reality existent in our lives.

What God came to do as the Word of God made flesh in Jesus was accomplished. There was no more to be done through Jesus as an earthly presence. But much remained, and remains, to be done through God’s power that continues to abide with us and is known to us as the Holy Spirit. It’s tempting to put human limitations on the Holy Spirit, and why not? Things spiritual are so ethereal, at least as we experience them. There’s not tactile substance to them. They live in our imaginations and best intentions, and we can sometimes feel them in certain places among certain people. Good thoughts are sent to others, knowing full well they bear no real power. We say we will be with you in spirit, which we hope will excuse our absence. We talk about the spirt of the times, of teams and work groups with only a vague sense of what that means. Talk of spirits surrounds us, but we seldom take it seriously.

We’re amused at the superstitious naïveté of people in former times who believed the spirit world and physical world lived together in the same space.  Witches, goblins, demons and such were daily realities for them.  Not so for us, we’ve left alf that behind.  Perhaps we’ve left too much of it behind.  Our sophistication makes it difficult to apprehend the powerful and palpable presence of God’s Holy Spirit abiding with us.  Maybe it would be easier to believe if the Holy Spirit would act with authoritative dominance, but God engages creation through enticing love.  George Herbert (d.1633) captured it in a famous poem rendered here as prose:

“Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back guilty of dust and sin. But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack from my first entrance in, drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning if I lacked anything. A guest, I answered, worth to be here: Love said, you shall be he. I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear, I cannot look on thee. Love took my hand, and smiling did reply, who made the eyes but I? Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame go where it doth deserve. And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame: My dear, then I will serve. You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat: So I did sit and eat.”

Movies, television and popular literature make it difficult to recognize the power and presence of God’s Holy Spirit acting through love because God is not a fairy godmother or genie in a bottle, and doesn’t work through crystals or incantations. God is disinterested in our expectations for how spirits are to behave. God’s Holy Spirit will be among us as she chooses. Jesus ascended, just the way scripture says he did, to be seen no more, but he is always present in the power of the Holy Spirit. It is the power of creation itself. There is no other.

Following Jesus & Escalating Cycles of Disrespect

Black Lives Matter, Me Too and related movements have boldly confronted conditions embedded in American society that have made it difficult for non-whites and women to enjoy all the rights and privileges America epitomizes.  It’s been a century and a half since the Constitution was amended to extend our treasured “unalienable rights” to all persons; a century since women were included in all persons; nearly the same for American Indians; and over a half century since civil rights legislation was supposed to enforce what the Constitution had guaranteed.  Yet unalienable rights have been denied until those in authority were forced to cede them.

In the meantime, movements espousing white nationalism, white supremacy, and white militias tried to make common cause with conservative populists under the crude umbrella of Trumpism.  They have formed an anti-democratic, authoritarian coalition that endorsed storming the Capitol to incite an insurrection and upend a presidential election.  Sadly, many claiming the label of conservative evangelical Christianity have traded following Jesus for following them.  It’s been enough for some to question the liberal principles upon which the nation was built.

On the sidelines, folks steeped in the lore of American exceptionalism, proud of the communities they’ve built, and proud of their own hard work under challenging circumstances, have become deeply concerned about the moral degeneration they believe is all around them.  They’re perplexed about why being white and proud of hard earned accomplishments has become a bad thing.  Worse, they wonder why America’s dirty laundry has to be aired in public, displacing all the good things the nation stands for.

It’s created a cacophony of angry voices amplified by pundits and news media trolling for ratings, that relish doing what they can to keep it going with repeated calls to “Lets you and him fight,” punctuated with “Ain’t it Awful.”  Some media outlets have become megaphones for blatant falsehoods.  Are they part of the coalition of anti-democratic white nationalists, or are they just pursuing profits without regard to ethics and the public good?  It’s hard to tell.  Maybe both.  Media mouths claim innocence, point fingers, and vengefully attack whoever questions them. 

On Main Street, around the block, and in families, it’s come down to this: if I think you are disrespecting me, I’m going to disrespect you and then some.  Anything you get that’s more than I think you deserve is going to cost, and I’m going to make you pay dearly.  If you’re going to cause trouble, you’re going to get trouble.  It’s a dangerous perversion of school yard taunts waged with words and actions that can only lead to destruction of all we hold dear, unless the cycle is broken.  King, Lewis, Parks and others avoided the trap of exchanging disrespect with more disrespect, thereby gaining ground in recovering denied rights.  That was a long time ago.  Whatever the lessons learned by it were forgotten when the Trump era demonstrated you could get away with ever more aggressive mud slinging, accuse the other guy of starting it, claim first amendment rights, and build a popular following in the process. 

The only certain path to progress is to break the cycle of escalating, aggressive disrespect.  It can be broken while continuing to call out injustice and falsehood.  It doesn’t take everyone, but it takes enough to make a difference.  Breaking the cycle depends on following the principles of non-violence demonstrated by King, Lewis, et al.  Paul, in his letter to the Romans, advised: “Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.  If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.  Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’  No, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals (shame) on their heads.’  Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom. 12).  God’s vengeance is never revenge; it’s always in the direction of healing and reconciliation.  

Paul’s counsel, wise as it is, is always subordinate to Jesus’ command to love one another as he has loved us (John 13, 15).  It’s a little too easy for today’s Christians to say they love Jesus in the context of familiar surroundings and the comfort of shared world views.  Claiming to love Jesus has little credence unless it’s lived out by following Jesus.  To live into Jesus’ command to love one another as he has loved us means to “…be doers of the word, and not merely hearers…” (James 1).  To be a doer includes, but means more than, engaging in good works that heal and restore those who are most oppressed and in need.  Every social service organization does good works.  Being doers of the word also means doing the work of orienting one’s beliefs, attitudes and behaviors in a more Christlike direction.  That requires commitment to godly justice that respects the dignity of every human being.  It means calling out without putting down.  It means refusing to engage in zero sum gaming.  It means recognizing that somewhere in the opposition’s most repulsive argument, there is a spark of truth that needs to be heard. It means those appearing most unjust may be the ones most in need of healing and restoration.  It means fearless self examination of one’s own tendency to claim unwarranted righteousness.  It means rejecting violence even when surrounded by it.  It means having the courage to face the consequences of standing firm, not in Jesus’ name, but as Jesus did.

Critical Race Theory: Why is it such a threat to the right wing?

My limited understanding of critical race theory is that it investigates the role and place of race at the intersection of law, social mores, and political power.  Not exactly a new thing, it’s been around since the 1970s.  It threatens right wingers partly by the assertion that race played a central role in structuring American society, and partly by academics drawing from Marx that social problems are more a function of social systems than of individual beliefs and attitudes. 

The right wing seems terribly threatened by something most people outside the academy have never heard of.  Trump issued an executive order in 2020 demanding that federal funds be prohibited from underwriting teaching critical race theory.  Arizona and Idaho have passed bills against teaching it in their public schools.  Right wing groups are apoplectic about it. Sen. Scott’s rebuttal to Pres. Biden’s speech to Congress asserted boldly that the United States is not a racist country.   It causes one to wonder what could be so frightening to them.

We can’t pretend that race is not a factor in American society.  No matter how much we desire to believe we’re all made of the same stuff, and that all lives matter, we have been diligent about prejudicially dividing the population into discrete groups according to skin color, countries of origin, and ethnic traditions.  Examining race in the context of law, social mores and political power requires understanding the experiences unique to each race.  Critics call it identity politics, and complain that it divides us into competing minorities when what we need is greater unity as Americans.  Michael Ramirez published an April 26 editorial cartoon in which the left side of the panel labeled “Liberals” listed dozens of race, ethnic and social subsets.  The right side of the panel labeled “Everyone Else” had only one category: American.  His point?  The left is dividing us against each other; everyone else sees only Americans.  His cartoon reflected a common belief that until recently there was a common narrative defining America and Americans that worked to unite us in common purpose.  Liberals are destroying that narrative.  In truth, it was a  narrative held in common only by portion of white America that assumed everyone else could easily assimilate into it if they wanted to.  If they didn’t or couldn’t, there was something wrong with them.  Never-mind that the legal structures of the nations worked against them. 

Moynihan called it benign neglect, but there wasn’t anything benign about it.  The old common narrative was blind to the history and social structures that prevented non-whites from assimilating; it reserved for itself the right to dictate terms and conditions for what assimilation meant; and it was disinterested in how the values and traditions of others might add to create a different common narrative.  So entrenched is the old narrative that even today there are efforts to enshrine Anglo-Saxon culture as the official definition of America and Americans. 

To its critics, critical race theory is a frontal attack on the glorious story of how Anglo-Saxon culture built the nation.  The attackers they point to are academics whose voices angrily accuse white America without mercy or desire for reconciliation.  But critical race theory is not a thing.  The many books that try to say ‘This is It’ can’t agree with each other on a common definition.  It’s a wide ranging field of study with no fixed dogma.  Academic work in critical race theory is an essential key that helps unlock a more complete and honest understanding of American history.  It focusses on the stories of each of our people, told in their own voices about the roles they played in the building of the nation.  

There are many strands to the story of who we are woven into the fabric that is American society.   Some fear that examining each strand will deconstruct the fabric so that it can never be put back together.   I think it will help us up better understand how the fabric was woven so it can be repaired where torn, and made stronger to last longer.  Shared knowledge of how the American fabric is woven is what can create a new common narrative that celebrates the dignity of each of us.