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A Simple Rule for Modern Life: 1,500 years of enduring wisdom

The Western Roman Empire had been in slow decline for decades, but began to rapidly disintegrate during the first half of the sixth century.  Emperors were weak, local factions fought each other for power and land, Goths from northern and eastern Europe began to migrate en masse into every part of the empire, including the Italian peninsula.  It was a time of civil and military disorder.  The bishop of Rome, not yet called pope, did what he could to provide moral authority and leadership with not a lot of success.  In the midst of it was Benedict of Nursia who understood that if humanity was to flourish it needed an ordered life that made adequate room for all essential needs.  Only then could harmony, learning, and exploration of new ways gain solid footing.

Unable to change Rome he did something with a small group of monks, founding a monastery on top of the hill called Monte Casino. Living together under his rule of life they were called the Benedictines. The Rule of Benedict was short and to the point.  An ordered life required enough time for sleep, a good eight hours, prayer and reflection, study, work, leisure, and eating.  Who could have imagined that an obscure monk from the early sixth century would come up with a rule of life that has endured for over 1,500 years?  Adapted in various ways it has guided religious orders of every kind, but more important it is a solid foundation for the daily lives of all humanity.

Kindle, Apple Books and book stores sell self help books almost as fast as they can get them to market.  Daily papers and magazines are replete with self helping advice columns.  Radio, television and the internet smother all with more.  The worthwhile is mixed with the absurd and harmful, and each has its avid consumers.

None, not one, surpasses the enduring wisdom of the Rule of Benedict that with adaptions for modern secular life remains a rule for the good life at home, work, and leisure.

  1. Get the sleep you d, eight hours for most.

II. Get the food you need at regular times – not more than you need.

III.Do your work diligently.  Avoid long hours and projects you cannot give the attention they need within the time allowed.

IV. Dedicate time in the morning, noon, afternoon and at bedtime for prayer, reflection, and mental health breaks.

V. Dedicate time each day for study, relaxation, or for developing a new skill.

VI. Be a person of courageous integrity, following God in Christ Jesus in the way of love as best you can.

VII.Take no pride in possessions, knowing they are only temporarily in your care.

Benedict would no doubt blanche at this bowdlerized adaptation of the rule, but I think if offers a simple, doable way of  a happy secular life in the 21st century, that avoids fads and magical cure-alls.  No. doubt there will be obstacles and constraints.  Corporations and other organizations often have little regard for the need employees have for a balanced life if they are to be fully productive.  Family and social conditions my not be favorable.  Follow Christ and do the best you can.

Faustian Bargains in Today’s America

Stories of Faust come in many versions and forms.  In each one, the hero sold his soul to the devil in return for nearly unlimited success in all his endeavors.  Predictably, his life of success brought neither happiness nor the sense of a purposeful, well lived life. 

I don’t believe the devil is wandering around offering to buy souls in return for success, but I do think the seductive power of that image exists.  At a heavy cost, evil tempts and seduces some to surrender themselves and their moral values in an effort to achieve material signs of success for themselves.  Succeed or not, they do material and emotional damage to those around them, the organizations and institutions they serve, and the legacy they leave behind.

We’re familiar with the Faustian story because it is the theme of every western movie and dime novel where a land grabbing rancher sacrifices everything to take over the town, steal all the land, and dictatorially rule his neighbors.  It never ends well for him. In different forms, it is a story acted out in every place and part of society. Frequently the subject of novels and film, it is most visible in real life when it’s made public in positions of power at top levels of business and government – examples of which have bombarded us for the past decade. Kevin McCarthy’s cowardly surrender of everything he could surrender to become a cypher of a Speaker is only the most recent example. Matt Gaetz is reported to have said he finally voted for McCarthy because, like Faust’s devil, he couldn’t think of anything else to ask from McCarthy. This will not end well for most of the trumpian aficionados who have done and will continue to do considerable damage to the nation and its people. What is performed on the national stage and obsessed over by cable news is present aslo in states and cities, small towns and families.  The scale may be different but it’s the same thing in essence with the same proportional results.

Question – so what is the difference between a Faustian bargain and more virtuous ambition to succeed and do well in Iife, achieving happiness if not total success, whatever success means?

It helps to understand happiness.  To be happy is to possess a feeling of satisfied contentment about one’s life lived well insofar as one is able.  Overall happiness does not rule out disappointment and tragedy, nor does it keep score counting wins and losses. It does strive for constant improvement but not perfection.  It values lifelong learning in whatever way learning works for each person. To the extent one is able, it is a feeling of comfortable ease in the presence of others from any standing or class, with expressing neither superiority nor deference, but always respect.

To achieve the success of happiness is to apply one’s talents and knowledge to the best of one’s abilities at whatever task. Competition is more about competing with one’s self than others.  If and when one achieves the top rung of the ladder of success, it will not be because others were stepped on or sabotaged along the way.  It will be because, through one’s respect for them, others were lifted and guided to their own achievements.

This kind of happiness and success are characteristics of the leadership needed at every level of society, and most especially in and at the highest level of government and corporate America.

The Compression of Time and Space on Society

Throughout history technology has compressed time and space.  It was a slow but steady process that leaped into hyperdrive in the last hundred years.  The world has suddenly become a much smaller place with things and people far away now near and present.  Counter-intuitively, it’s also made the world a much larger place with more to explore and experience than ever before.

Every improvement in communication technology has made the sharing of information easier, quicker and available to more people.  Every improvement in transportation technology has brought distant places closer and easier to get to.  The people and cultures of the earth are no longer complete strangers to one another.  They can no longer be divided into Greeks and barbarians, civilized and savage.  It is more obvious now than it once was that we are interdependent and that the welfare of each cannot be made certain unless the welfare of all is enabled.

It should be clear that for you and me to flourish, for our nation to flourish, the earth itself and all the people on it must also flourish.  Otherwise we will self destruct, maybe not now, but soon enough.  It should be clear, but it isn’t.  The unfettered glow of instantaneous world-wide information has become a garbage dump of the good, bad, toxic and irrelevant.  The ability to travel anywhere on earth in one day or less provides little opportunity for adjustment and reflection.  Massive migrations of people from one place to a better place used to each be confined to a predictable region, now it’s a globally integrated phenomena that will eventually redistribute skin colors and cultures in uncomfortable ways.

In our nation it’s caused large numbers of people to retreat from the compressed larger world into an even more compressed smaller world they hope will provide sanctuary from unwanted predatory change.  Recent years have seen the rise of would be leaders whose lust for power and position is their driving ambition.  They promote themselves as the only ones who can build the desired sanctuary.  They can’t but it is easily sold.  Their worldview is oddly the smallest and most compressed of all.  Their sole purpose is to get and keep power for the duration of their lives with no genuine concern for the consequences it will have on others now and in the future.  Dictators of one kind or another are the most obvious examples, but they exist at every level of society and commerce.

Two examples come to mind.  “The Villages” in Florida are reputed to be a community designed and built as a sanctuary from the larger world and all its troubles for those who an afford it, mostly white, mostly far right wing in their politics.  It is a tiny world of like minded people somewhat oblivious to the reality that the food they eat, water they drink, and all the services that support them come from outsiders whose own welfare is essential to the continued existence of the private world of Villagers.

The other example is Kevin McCarthy.  Politicians have big egos or they wouldn’t run for public office, and yet higher office is a seductive temptation, with most also having a vision of how their service can help make for a better world for them and their constituents.  On the other hand, it appears that McCarthy’s sole ambition is to possess the position and power of Speaker.  That’s it. There isn’t anything else.  He has shown he is willing to adopt whatever ideological facade will help him become Speaker.  His tiny world consists only of 218 votes.  The well being of the nation and the world is of no interest or consequence.  So it appears.  As it is, it looks like he will be blocked by other Representatives who also live in tiny worlds of their own and have no intention of letting an opportunistic outsider like Kevin get what he wants.

Villagers and McCarthys have always existed, large and small.  Destruction, violence and societal collapse are always the result.  It didn’t matter as much when time and space had not been so compressed, but it does now.  I don’t know what the solution is.  The Putins and Bolsonaros of the world will never go away.  We all live in bubbles of one kind or another.  We all have boundaries that create barriers to infringement on our time and space. My hope is that enough of us will more fully understand the importance of our interrelationships and decencies, more fully value the welfare of Mother Earth, all her creatures and resources. We live together on a little blue marble hurtling through space.  We can destroy each other, but the little blue marble will continue on without us, grateful for our absence. 

© Steven E. Woolley

John and the Jews: a serious problem for the church

The press continues to report on the rise of antisemitism in the U.S.  Trump’s notorious Mar-a-Lago dinner, for example, is among many reported cases.  It’s an outbreak visible in places large and small throughout the country.  Sadly, growing public awareness of the cancerous evil coincides with the time in the church year between Christmas and Easter when the Gospel of John is woven into Sunday readings.  Reaching a crescendo during Holy Week with blistering condemnations of Jews for failing to believe that Jesus was the promised messiah and for their engineering his crucifixion by the Romans.

It can’t be dismissed with a shrug  and a few cautionary  remarks in the middle of sermons.  John is perhaps the most favorite gospel of many Christians because it abounds in loving, reassuring passages such as the familiar football stadium banner, “For God so loved the World.” Jesus is most clearly understood as the Son of God in John.  He knows every thought and is the master of every situation, including his own arrest.  At the same time, John displays his human exhaustion, hunger, anger, and humor better than the other gospels.  How can John not be the beloved gospel attributed to the beloved disciple?  

It is a narrative about an observant Jewish messiah followed by Jewish disciples, with occasional forays into gentile territory to extend his gifts of healing and salvation. It’s hard to understand then why the narrative is also filled with condemnations of the Jews referring to them simply as ‘the Jews.”  It’s language which inspired twenty centuries of “Christians” to persecute, oppress, burn and murder Jews.  The violence was sometimes at its worst during Holy Week, especially on Good Friday.  From 1290 to 1472, Crusaders on their way to the Holy Land detoured to slaughter Jews they encountered.  The entire Jewish population of England was deported in 1290. To where? Anywhere not in Britain. Resettlement in Britain was informal and not officially tolerated until 1650. In the meantime, Jews in Eastern Europe were subject to periodic pogroms right through the 20th century.  Fifteenth century Spanish Jews were in mortal danger every day and often forced to convert by threats and through torture.  Oddly, Jews could usually find relative safety in Muslim territories. The holocaust of WWII that exterminated 6,000,000 Jews and others was so horrible we were positive the era of Jewish persecution had finally come to an end.  It didn’t.  It is here today in our own country. It is part and parcel of our long history of brutal discrimination against nearly everyone who cannot claim some sort of Anglo Saxon heritage.

It is the shame of the church, and the shame of every person who waves the banner of Christ.  It isn’t behind us.  It’s the greatest shame of nations led, at least figuratively, under the banner of Christ.  More than any other institution the church has a holy, moral obligation to do something, but what?

A good start would be by confronting John head on, especially during Lent and Holy Week.

Trying to explain context in readings from John is an option.  I’ve done that, but it always felt like an evasion that had little impact on what people in the pews heard in the readings to confirm their prejudices.  Another is to substitute “temple leaders” for the word Jews.  It’s closer to the truth, but it also evades the obvious problem of the words right there in the printed text.  One might eliminate  reading anything anti Jewish in John, but that also seems like evasion.   Some brutally honest adult Christian education can do wonders for those who attend and pay attention, but how many would that be? There are too many ‘buts’ in all these possibilities.

What we probably need is a combination of each.  Leave John out of Holy Week.  Present sermons with explanations that separate political manipulation in Jerusalem from the ordinary daily lives of the people. Conduct Christian education programs that address the problem directly, including the history it generated.  Boldly publish condemnations of anti semitism in every available way.  Teach Christians the fundamentals of Judaism.  Offer a morning or evening workshop from the Jewish prayer book, with obvious adaptations. 

Is it really necessary?  I think it is and that it will help in other areas where racism and other prejudices govern too much of every day life.   Failing to act when anti semitism is on the rise is to allow anti semites to feed on Holy Scripture.  It  encourages other voices claiming to be Christian to misrepresent the good news of God in Christ Jesus.  This is the year to act.

© Steven E. Woolley

Patiently Impatient: God’s time v. human time

How can one be patiently impatient?  Scripture encourages us to be patient as we wait on the Lord to act.  It reminds us that God works on God’s time, not ours.  The bible is filled with centuries between the announcement of God’s promise and its fulfillment.  

At the same time, the prophets and our Lord Jesus Christ command us to be aware of injustices in the world and act speedily to do something about them.  To paraphrase James, faith without works is dead, so get on with it.  Jesus has told you what to do, so do it.   It feels like God wants us to be patient with ‘him’, but snap to it in our own lives.

God is not slow to act, but when centuries pass before big things happen, it makes one wonder.  God is more actively engaged in our lives than we can possibly imagine.  What seems like slowness is the hard work of preparing the way for the time to be right for the big event to unfold.  Why so long?  Because God never compels but only invites, and it takes stiff necked humans a long time to get the idea.

It took Jacob fourteen years to mature from selfish, conniving young adult to responsible, God fearing leader of his large family.  It took the people of Israel four hundred years to be ready to venture from Egypt to the promised land of Canaan.  It took a thousand years of learning from the time of David for the world to be ready for the promised son of David and Son of God to be born in Christ Jesus. It’s been two thousand years since then and we are still unwilling to follow in the way of love that Jesus pioneered and commanded us to take as bearers of the good news of life in abundance for all.  We are slow, stubborn, willful creatures, are we not?

In the meantime God is more active in the affairs of the world than is easily recognized.  Miracles, if you will, are not rare but common.  Despite of our inclination toward greed, selfishness, and self righteousness; despite our desire to seek vengeance instead of justice; despite our abuse of creation without concern for what it will do to future generations; despite our willingness to kill one another in senseless wars and domestic violence; despite it all and more, humanity inches forward towards becoming more moral beings.

When is the time to act?, asked the apostle Paul. Now is the time for today is the day of salvation. Does that mean the end is near?  It’s not for us to ask, not for us to speculate.  It is for us to bear the light of Christ, however we are able, to shine the light of the kingdom of God that is right here, now to illuminate the way of love for others to follow, if they will.  That is our work.  No follower of our Lord Jesus Christ will be measured by how successful they were, they will be measured only by whether they bore the light as best they were able. 

And the end times?  The question still remains.  Are we in the end times?  Yes we are, as the theologians say, in the already but not yet; we who bear the light of Christ are already walking in the kingdom of God, though not in its fulfillment.  As Paul wrote, now we see through a glass darkly but then we will see clearly.  When is that?  I am in my eighties: for me the end time is visibly near.  It’s the same for all of us regardless of age, but youth sees the end as far away, of no immediate concern.  The elderly are not so naive.  It’s not ours to worry about the end of time, it is ours to be aware of our own time on earth, and the responsibility we have to point others to the way of love.

A Gritty Christmas Story

It’s the most wonderful time of the year, or so the song says. It is for many.  For some it’s a time of grieving, loneliness, and guilt about failing to live up to the expectations of the season.  Nevertheless, the season remains a time when the sentimental ideal of good times, good friends, beautiful decorations, and wallowing in “the real meaning of Christmas.”

What is the real meaning of Christmas?  Hallmark Christmas movies offer one answer.  Sadly it’s an answer that satisfies only for the duration of the movie.  Another answer comes from equally sentimental stories of the prince of peace.  They remind many of what is desperately hoped for yet failed to achieve.  Sadly, it’s a hope that dissolves by New Year’s Eve, but it’s on the right track as far as it goes.

Another meaning stands well apart from all the other holiday declarations.  There is nothing sentimental about it.  It’s a scene set in a smelly stable where a young unmarried woman gives birth to the Word of God made flesh.  She and her husband to be are far from her home.  Although the heavens break forth with choirs of angels singing hymns of glory, they are seen only by a few shepherds keeping watch by night.  In that moment the history of humankind and all creation is changed forever.  Jesus’ birth, life, teaching, death and resurrection are one singular event proclaiming who God is. It is an answer to Job’s plea that God be present to him on human terms, as a friend and not a stranger, one who would destroy the power of death.  Jesus, the helpless baby, is the way of peace and life who opened the gates to eternity to all who accept it.  In Jesus, God responded to Job’s demand to confront him as one human to another by the Word being born in rough circumstances to live and die as one of us. In his resurrection he was finally and fully revealed as God incarnate.

It’s a gritty story from beginning to end.  It’s also a story of the supernatural and natural realities becoming one. There is nothing magical about it.  When the question is asked why God, if there is a God, doesn’t do something about all the evil in the world, the answer is God has acted, and this is it.  Through God in Christ Jesus, the way of life and peace is made known, affirmed by all. 

For me, the holiday season can and should be celebrated in every way.  Let good times and good cheer abound.  Let tokens of love and gratitude be exchanged.  Let tears of sadness flow until there are no more.  Most of all, let the Prince of Peace be your guide and guard, not for a season but for life.

© Steven E. Woolley

America Needs a New Conservative Movement: some guidelines

What passes for political conservatism today is reactionary libertarianism favoring the wealthy and powerful through authoritarian rule.  The nation needs an authentic conservative movement to balance political decision making, but this isn’t it.  A more authentic conservatism was once self defined as modern day Jeffersonian belief in small government, imposing few regulations on business and private  property, but providing for a robust defense leveraged against the least possible spending on social welfare.  Low rates of taxation were axiomatic. Conservative performance wandered far from its professed beliefs but nevertheless were firmly held.  Conservatives envisioned an America of independent small businesses, family farms, and self reliant people whose property and liberty were secure. It was a Thomas Kincaid vision of a land that never was but remembered as if it had been and could be again.

In the real world of America as it is, the vision has been enthusiastically endorsed by voices of big business because they see it as an all you can eat buffet just waiting to be gobbled up; a reality that has been acted out episodically whenever oligarchs have managed to gain control of public policy.

Daily reality seems to keep the conservative ideal just out of reach for the masses. Yet with enough money one can live in the right neighborhood, or better yet, gated community.  Crime, street crime, not the bigger crimes called white collar, are portrayed as  growing, out of control everywhere.  Addressing problems of social and economic inequities is seen as a ploy to strip rights and privileges from some in order to give them to others who have not worked for them.  Only stern application of old time Puritan ethics can keep taxes from becoming confiscatory, the national debt ruinous, and nanny state socialism from emasculating the American people. At least that’s been the trajectory since the Reagan administration, a trajectory that has led to today’s corrupted far right conservative movement aspiring to what can only be called neo-fascism.  

A new conservative agenda would protect the rights and liberties of every American who desires to be as self reliant as they are able by fiercely regulating the anti competitive instincts of big business, evenn breaking them up if they become too monopolistic.

A more robust conservative ethic would expect local problems to be solved at local levels, with national problems needing national solutions. Issues having no regard for state boundaries such as health care, environmental protection, essential social welfare services, national infrastructure, and the protection of rights guaranteed to all by the Constitution, the least of these being the current popular beliefs about the second amendment, would be handled on a national basis.

A renewed conservative movement would retain the cautiousness that is its hallmark knowing that liberals can be tempted to leap before they look, and fail to calculate consequences accurately.  Too much centralization of government authority can be as dangerous as too much centralization of big business indicating caution best be shown. Conservatives know that the little guy can too easily become a pawn in a game played by the rich and powerful, so they must question what any course of action will have on that little guy. Sadly, recent decades of conservatives have played the little guy for a fool while big business interests called the shots. It’s time for conservatives to conform deeds to words.

Conservatives like equilibrium, especially social equilibrium.  They will always be uncomfortable with rapidly changing demographics, liberal immigration policies, and demands for less inequity in society.  It means disequilibrium that is unsettling will need to be tolerated until a new stasis can be found, and who knows what that will look like?

It’s not that conservatives dislike change; they’re fine with it if they can understand its need, purpose, and ways in which cherished American values will be strengthened.  In other words, they want some assurance that the new equilibrium will not create new inequities that will likely disfavor their primary constituencies                           

that always include the upper middle class.  The value this kind of conservatism adds to American democracy is its caution, requiring liberals to prove their case and restrain their ambitions in order to achieve a workable compromise.  It infuriates liberals who want to get on with it as quickly as possible, but it also leads to a more manageable pace of change that doesn’t end with change so abrupt that it paralyses needed systems of social and economic life.

America very much needs, and does not have, this kind of conservative movement.  While seldom producing effective executive leadership, it’s the kind of conservatism that’s at its best when serving as the loyal opposition.

Jiang Zemin: a personal reflection

Former Chinese “president” Jiang Zemin died recently at 96. While I was head of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce NYC office, I had the unique experience of spending a few days with him and his entourage during a visit to the city while he was still Mayor of Shanghai but slated to become the next leader of China. Why I was seconded to him is something of a mystery, but it worked out well. Since I had no product or service to sell, no authority to speak for the government or any special interest, and no particular standing in the pecking order of corporate America, he seemed eager to ask many questions about ordinary life in NYC and America in general. Of special interest to him were explanations of homelessness, beggars, mental health issues, housing for ordinary people, the way local government operated, and the differences between urban and rural America.  I attended most of his meetings and social functions with corporate leaders, and he was always curious about my assessment of their products, reputations and quality of leadership.  Maybe he figured that since I had nothing to offer and nothing to request from him, that I would be a less biased voice than others he was hearing.  Who knows?

He was equally forthright in sharing his belief that Americans were technologically advanced but basically uncivilized.  Compared to China’s three millennia of history, culture and wisdom, Americans appeared to him to be semi barbarians who had only recently traded tribal warfare for cutthroat commerce. I have some knowledge of China’s own history of internecine warfare, but was uncharacteristically smart enough to keep quiet.

My few days of being a minor presence as he attended to more important matters and persons came to a pleasant, unceremonious end, and that was that.  He went on to prepare China for the 21st century with a booming economy, global trade interests, technological advancement, the building of a strong middle class, and a more relaxed political environment.  Leaving Marxism far behind, he established the pattern for Chinese state capitalism. China’s current leadership seems intent on undoing it all, but I have my doubts about being able to stuff the people back into Mao jackets. 

Years after Jiang retired, my wife and I were on one of our visits to China. Knowing about my brief connection with the “president”, our government guide asked if I would like to visit him.  I declined, not wanting to bother him with a visit from someone he would not  remember, the unknown staffer from NYC who had nothing to offer and wanted nothing from him.  I regret that decision.  I would love to have had an hour or two to ask more questions, and learn from him what he had learned during his long tenure on the world stage.

Three Bones to Pick: Voting Patterns, Crime, Economy

I have a couple of bones to pick about seemingly unrelated subjects, but I suspect they have connections stronger than one might think.  Let’s get started with the current flood of mathematical evaluations of the recent election, to which pundits confidently attach motives and trends.

Analysis of voting statistics is a good and valuable thing.  It helps us see how voting patterns have shifted in the present, but it is probably too early and a leap to then transform those shifts into trends that predict future voting patterns.  Rational analysis is seldom a reliable indicator of voter decisions that are more often driven by emotions rather than disinterested rationality.  Which is not to say that decisions driven by emotions are not rational, they are quite rational in their own way.  They are calculations based on personal values, vigorous defense of self interest against perceived threats, real or imagined, and desires for more of what they believe others have and they don’t. The American value of individualism is so deeply ingrained in the American psyche that it’s nearly impossible for many voters to conceive of a greater good, or common good, that doesn’t deprive them of one of their individual goods. In the same way, it suspects that any good provided to another must mean someone else is deprived of the full measure of what they have enjoyed.  The value of cooperative synergy, helping create a greater good for all may work, at times, in a local context, but it’s almost impossible to see how it might work for the nation as a whole.  

For deeper understanding of voting patterns, there must be a sharp turn toward exploring closely-held values and how they influence voting behavior. 

That’s one bone down.The second has to do with crime.  The data indicate that many voters are deeply concerned about crime surging out of control and for some reason, think the GOP is better at doing something about it because Democrats are said to be soft on crime. Violent crime statistics are irrelevant to them.  Voter concern about crime is limited to violent street crime, not the bigger crimes committed on them by powerful and wealthy interests.  So called white collar crimes seem remote and hard to understand.  They have a point.  Street crime is immediate, sometimes fatal, and always traumatic. Conditions that nourish criminal behavior are of little interest – they look too much like excuses.  What voters want is a crackdown on criminals with punishment swift and certain.  It’s a utilitarian argument: get the criminals off the street and keep them off the street. There are neighborhoods where street crime is a real and present danger.  They get enough publicity to make voters believe it’s everywhere, even in their own neighborhoods, that have almost no street crime. Stoking the fear of crime has the added campaign benefit of rekindling every form of racial prejudice.  Throughout history there has never been a better way to mobilize the mob than to identify a minority population as the cause of every trouble, to be brutally persecuted as a way to cleanse society. More than other Western societies, Americans exacerbate the problem by making sure there are lots and lots of guns all over the place.  It makes it easy for anyone to blow off a little steam by shooting someone else.  At the same time, it holds out the illusion that a gun in every household is an effective defense against all the other guns in other households. I wonder if it has anything to do with Americans unwilling to give up playing wild west cowboy games.

So that’s the second bone.  The third is the economy.  I am baffled by voter tendency to think Republicans are better at managing a difficult economy. That we have an inflation problem is obvious.  The less affluent are having a hard time paying for essentials, much less anything else, and wages, while increasing, are not increasing fast enough to keep up with rising costs. It’s a bit scary to think we might be falling back into the raging wage/price spiral of roaring inflation experienced in the ‘70s.  Reagan’s solution was to cut taxes and regulations on business.  It’s been the GOP mantra ever since.  It didn’t work then, hasn’t worked since, and it can’t ever work, but still they hang onto it.  Promising a smaller, less expensive  government, Reagan blew the lid off defense budgets causing massive unfunded national debt.  Another standard ploy is to blame social service spending for  “out of control” federal spending. In Reagan’s time, the inflationary spiral was killed by the Fed shoving the country into a deep recession that threw millions out of work, and made the poor even more destitute. The data show that the economy does better, deficits are lower, and the national debt more under control when Democrats lead the nation.  It’s not a hard and fast rule.  They can make big mistakes, but their track record is a lot better.  The current administration is often criticized for trying to make the economy look better than it is. There is some spin to be sure, but it has also laid down the necessary steps for rebuilding our infrastructure, investing in future technologies, and reforming social programs that will assure a better economic future for all.  It’s the practical stuff of every day hard work that should appeal to conservatives. Maybe it’s out of sheer stubbornness that they keep on promoting the Reagan illusions.  

OK, I’m done picking bones for the time being.

Jesus in Hell – Still

A guest column on Country Parson is rare, so this is an exception. It is a short essay by my friend The Rev. David Hindman, UMC pastor and long time chaplain at William and Mary.

Considering this question has been prompted in recent days as I have heard claims from faithful Christians that Mahatmas Gandhi could not possibly be in heaven and is in hell because he was not a Christian. He is certainly the poster child for good people assigned to hell, but that company would logically also include Anne Frank, Abraham Heschel, Martin Buber, and any other remarkable person who had not said the sinner’s prayer or been washed in baptismal waters.

The concept of hell that precipitated these musings naturally presumes that there are those who are forever separated from God, from Jesus, or from the comforting presence of the Divine.  That company includes not only those many would consider worthy of hell (e.g., Hitler, Pol Pot, Stalin) but also all non-Christians, regardless or their morality, virtuous lives or anything other than them claiming Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior. For our co-religionists shaped by the theology of John Calvin, those not elected by the grace of God as predestined for salvation are likewise consigned to this realm.

But what if Jesus continues to reside in hell? How is that possible? Why is that something to be considered? Is it something biblical, or at least theologically plausible?  How could this be? 

Jesus, in his ministry, always favored and had a profoundly merciful compassion for the dispossessed, the outsiders, the marginalized, those who felt abandoned and forgotten, and the suffering. Indeed, his crucifixion outside the walls of Jerusalem marks Jesus himself as an outsider; his only words from the cross in two gospels are lamenting cries of abandonment by God (Mark 15:34; Matthew 27:46). He dies beyond the pale, beyond compassion care, seemingly on the far side of God’s presence. 

What community could be more abandoned, forgotten, dispossessed, marginalized, outside and suffering, than those populating hell? If such people are Jesus’ people, can we imagine that he has chosen to abide with them, to be among them, and to suffer with them, a quiet but faithful representative that even there, we cannot flee from God’s presence (Psalm 139:7-8). Is it possible that even there we cannot be separated from the love of God experienced in Christ Jesus; as Paul proclaims, “I’m convinced that nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus our Lord: not death or life…not height or depth, or any other thing that is created.  (Romans 8:38-39, my italics)? 

The mystery of the incarnation is that in Christ, God has pitched the Divine Tent among us; “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us…full of grace and truth (John 1;14). If the glory of God is in our midst, would that also allow for the Incarnate One to live in the most godforsaken realm of all, where humans also exist?

In Ephesians 4:10, we read, “He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe (my italics).” Through Christ’s humiliation on the cross, Paul tells us in his letter to the Philippians, “At the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (my italics, Phil. 2:10-11). John Wesley, spiritual forebear to those of us who swim our faith in the Wesleyan stream, believed that Christ’s power to confront and convert did not have to be limited by physical death; it was possible for humans still to be changed and blessed in the life beyond this life; is it not possible that such change could happen among those inhabiting the halls of hell? 

C. S. Lewis, in his novel The Great Divorce, envisions a bus connecting the realms of heaven and hell. The great horror of the story is that, upon experiencing the ways of heaven, many of those who arrive soon choose to go to hell. Using Lewis’ metaphor, is it not also possible that some would choose to depart hell for the joy of heaven?  (As a side note, the conservative and evangelical Lewis also envisioned a more expansive, hopeful, and humble image of God’s salvation; in Mere Christianity he opined, “We do know that no person can be saved except through Christ. We do not know that only those who know Him can be saved by Him.”)

Some will readily agree that Jesus, as affirmed in the Apostles’ Creed, did indeed descend into hell, but that “On the third day he rose again in accordance with the scriptures.” That affirmation, understandably so, may be considered a sequential statement: First Jesus dies, then he descends to hell, then he is raised from the dead, and then ascends into heaven. That makes perfect sense, especially for us humans who are bound by time and space.

But in eternity and in God’s timeless Being, time and space are irrelevant; they collapse into what Paul Tillich called The Eternal Now. If Jesus fills all things, and is Lord of all times and places, would not that Lordship include the realm of hell and those who would inhabit it? 1 Peter 3:18-19 boldly claims that Jesus was active in the season between Good Friday and Easter, “Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison…” This interesting phrase suggests the possibility that in God’s eternal economy of salvation, again there is no time distinction between Christ’s death and resurrection (“being put to death but made alive in the spirit”); so is it possible that the crucified One is also already alive in God even as he descends to hell and is present among them as the Risen One over whom death and hell no longer have ultimate power?

In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul describes the resurrected life and looks to the final consummation of human history of universal salvation and deliverance. “All will be made alive in Christ. But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father, after he has destroyed every ruler and every authority and power….The last enemy to be destroyed is death….When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to the one who put all things in subjection under him, so that God may be all in all (vv. 22-24, 26, 28).”   If death is the last enemy and if hell is the realm where God’s enemies are consigned, then in the end even hell and death will surrender and succumb to the marvelous love and presence of God, and God all will be all in all. There will be no place where God is not. If the resurrection of Christ is a promissory note and down payment on God’s final future for the whole creation, is it not possible that Christ is already there in the midst of those some think belong in hell, as a comfort, encouragement, and witness to God’s abiding eternal love and presence in the midst of the whole creation? Is it not possible and even plausible that already and even now, Christ continues bearing witness in that realm to the New Creation that is surely coming? 

What if Jesus remains in hell? Perhaps the better way to phrase it is, What if Jesus is already in hell, and will not leave or forsake those there because that is the nature of the God whose  steadfast love endures forever? That, it seems to me, would be good news for all.