Hollow Promises, Real Threats

Inauguration Day, January 20, 2017. 

Donald J. Trump takes the oath of office to be president of the United States with his hand on TWO Bibles!  (More on that later). 

He is now our president, my president.  Donald Trump?  How could this happen?  How, in this nation I love, could this occur?  I understand many of the dynamics, sociologically speaking: lost jobs, lost status, lost centers of cohesion.  Religious congregations and denominations have been narrowed into enclaves for the like-minded.  Patriotism has been turned into a category that is narrowly defined by a few talk radio hosts and Fox News.  But, am I not a patriot too, one who loves and will sacrifice for the country?

It was Bill Coffin who said “Good patriots carry on a lover’s quarrel with their country, a reflection of God’s lover’s quarrel with the world.”  Parker Palmer reminded me of this quote by Coffin in a recent interview with Krista Tippett (Parker Palmer on Patriotism and Trump).

Parker helped me better understand the emotional vertigo I was experiencing when he said, On January 20, 2017, the country I love will inaugurate a man who embodies many of our culture’s most soulless traits: adolescent impulsiveness, an unbridled drive for wealth and power, a taste for violence, nonstop narcissism, and massive arrogance. A man who has maligned women, Mexicans, Muslims, African Americans, immigrants, members of the LGBTQ community, people with disabilities, and Mother Earth — a man who’d sooner deny the obvious than apologize for the outrageous — will become President of the United States.

When time for the inauguration came I couldn’t watch — not in real-time.  I believe this is a day of tragedy for our nation. Actually, I pray fervently that I am wrong.  However, as one of my wise friends says, “There is no wrong way to do the right thing.”

Instead of watching the inauguration I read passages of scripture (Isaiah 43, Luke 4, Matthew 5-7, Psalm 30)  Psalm 30:5 reminds that “Weeping may linger for the night but joy comes with the morning.”   These passages offer a much more compelling inaugural — one that better fits the shape of our hope as human beings.

And I read passages from Rebecca Solnit’s book Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities.   It was here I read “And when you face a politics that aspires to make you fearful, alienated, and isolated, joy is a fine initial act of insurrection.” 

President Trump’s Inaugural
In the end, I did look at video clips of Mr. Trump’s inauguration address — with the sound OFF.  Then I read it.  It was watching the address in silence that I noticed something for the first time.  Where had I seen these behaviors before?  These facial expressions, the gestures, the snarls, the gesticulation?  It was familiar, and threatening, apart from any words.  If I had never seen him before, this was clearly an angry man — diffuse anger.  Expressing disgust over something.    Something deep in my psyche said “don’t get near him.”

I searched my memory.  Why was this truculent image so compelling?  Then I recalled the places it had been seen —

  • Troubled parents yelling at their children from the sidelines of a baseball game or soccer match. 
  • Crowds caught up in so-called professional wrestling matches or soccer matches.
  • A certain angry basketball coach yelling at the refs — or worse, his players.
  • School board meetings or city council meetings where angry citizens want to “protect their children” or “protect their property” from others, unlike themselves, — usually the less fortunate.

Photo by Will Counts of Elizabeth Eckford on way to Little Rock High School, September 4, 1957
I was reminded of my own adolescence, of my anger and soul-sick past efforts to denigrate or belittle others, that I fell into.  Thankfully this mostly occurred in my preadolescent years… so I recognized the fear laden, petty impulses I saw in those images.

And, mostly, I was reminded of the famous photo taken by my friend Will Counts depicting the angry mob following Elizabeth Eckford of the Little Rock Nine as she was on her way to school.  One of the persons shouting at her is Hazel Massery.  (Forty years later Hazel sought forgiveness and reconciliation with Elizabeth.)

Angry words are easily spoken, especially by the immature, but typically they result in false promises and dangerous threats.  To fulfill the promises made will require some compromises, apologies, new alliances with perceived enemies.  It is the threats that are more easily made and laced in bigotry that are real. Threats indicate an inability to think beyond binary categories of good and evil or us and them.

The scripture passages I read tell of the power of anger to destroy others — and in the process one’s own self.  The scriptures speak of a need for forgiveness (no matter whether one thinks it is needed).  The scriptures speak of a God who loves ALL and calls us to love others as we are loved.  You can swear on two, or ten, or one hundred Bibles but the real importance of the Bible is to know the stories and truths it contains… and to incorporate those into a person’s living and behaviors. 

Hand on the Bible, Mr. Trump is now caught in a web of his own making.  He will be expected by us all — including those who voted for him — to do more than merely shout insults from the sidelines.  Either/or views of the world won’t do much good when the complexities of modern life and governance confront.  Can a seventy year old grow up emotionally?  The world watches and hopes.

Dr. King, Congressman Lewis and Other Creative Extremists

Dr. King, Congressman Lewis & Other Creative Extremists

I was up in the air on the 2017 Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. Flying somewhere over Iowa, between Clinton and Waterloo, our flight pattern took us over the Skunk River.  For some reason then my thoughts turned to the presidential inauguration this week.

What might Dr. King say about our nation’s current dilemma in leadership?  Only a few days ago Congressman John Lewis indicated he would not be attending the presidential inauguration of Donal Trump and said he considered the election of the president-elect to be illegitimate.  

What might Dr. King say?  Would he agree with Mr. Lewis?  No one can know for certain — however, let me respond as one who was around when Dr. King was active. If anything, Dr. King might say that John Lewis was too timid — that he should have said more about resisting the impending disregard for fair elections, truth and transparency on the part of anyone who would seek to serve as president.  

I remember well Dr. King’s courage.  I remember that at the time of his death most white folks in the United States thought he was too radical and disagreed with him.  I remember his commitment to the poor, the immigrant, the disenfranchised.  I remember his care for the U.S. Constitution and the need to stand against those who would seek to distort justice.  Dr. King, like Mr. Lewis today, was considered by many well-intentioned persons to be an extremist for justice.  

Writing from the Birmingham Jail in April 1963, Dr. King responds to eight clergymen who indicated that the activities in the struggle for civil rights in Birmingham were “unwise and untimely.”  Does this sound familiar?  Aren’t we hearing the same thing about Congressman Lewis’ comments.

Here is a passage from Dr. King’s letter to the clergy in Birmingham in 1963:

So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime—the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists. [From “Letter from Birmingham Jail, April 16, 1963]

Prior to re-reading the text of Dr. King’s famous Letter From the Birmingham Jail while flying 32,000 feet in the air, my tendency was to think that perhaps Congressman Lewis had overstated — gone too far.  However, I now think Congressman Lewis’ statement was right, and was that of a courageous extremist.

For what might Mr. Lewis be called “an extremist?”  For asking us to “love the neighbor?”  For asking that our elections be fair and voter suppression to end?  For thinking foreign governments shouldn’t meddle in our democracy, nor be invited to do so by any candidate?  What about Donald Trump, where is he an extremist?  

Always before in my adult life, when I disagreed with the incoming president, I made the distinction between the person and the office.   However, what does it mean that most Americans today seem to respect the office of the presidency MORE than the man who was about to take the oath of office?  What does it mean that patterns of lies and deceptions have become normative?  What does it mean that this person will not be transparent with tax returns, seeks to find a dodge around potential conflicts of interest, challenges the intelligence experts of this nation, denies climate change, seeks to make alliances with known totalitarian practitioners and sees them as preferable to President Obama?

Reading an article by Ned Resnikoff in ThinkProgress (11/27/17) there was research that helped confirm my doubts and Congressmen Lewis’ concerns (see Ned Resnikoff, ThinkProgress, 11/27/16).  What we are facing is a constitutional crisis.  One that Dr. King would have recognized.  Resnikoff speaks of the coming administration’s style as “managed democracy.”  It is a perspective hostile to open, egalitarian standards of governance.  It is the preferred way suggested by Steve Bannon, now White House Chief Strategist, who famously said, “Darkness is good.  Dick Cheney, Darth Vader, Satan.  That’s power.”  Bannon hates a government based on compromise and consensus.  Borrowing from Putin’s crony Valdimir Serkoff, it is an approach that seeks to destabilize, distort, encourage contradictions and lies — always pointing to another as the true enemy or liar.

What happens when no news is to be trusted and all news is called “fake.”  What happens when press conferences turn into diversionary attacks on others or the media?  What happens when judges are accused of bias if you disagree?

The strategy is not new to our electoral process.  Karl Rove was a master at inversion or diversion whereby one’s own candidate’s weakness is projected on to the opponent preemptively.   Okay, that is politics, and as they say “it ain’t beanbag!”  

However, what is underway now, in our current experience, is so much more pernicious and dangerous.  It has been called inverted totalitarianism: All news media are said to be fake, so trust your prejudices over facts.  Who can know the truth? There are so many distortions and points of view… Or, all politicians are crooks and liars, our guy is so much more entertaining!  He is, so to speak, “a crook, but our crook.”  Reality television comes to Washington and truth is fractioned out of our institutions.  Schools, courts, churches, scientists, the press — all civic institutions are not to be trusted. 

When there is no truth to be trusted and when the people doubt their own moral compass with so many competing and confusing points of view — then those who can continue to distort and create confusion in a post-factual world, they can claim the power to keep their machinery going to their benefit.  It is no wonder that Mr. Trump admires Mr. Putin so fully.

I believe Mr. Lewis spoke and continues to speak a courageous word.  It is a word that is uncomfortable to hear.  John Lewis still has a strong moral compass.  He is still a creative extremist.  I stand with Congressman Lewis.

The New Non-Normal

The New NonNormal

Over the years one situation or another has been labeled the “New Normal.”   This was $3 a gallon gasoline in 2002 (something that is about to be true again), TSA personal searches prior to boarding an airline (this, sadly came true) or extreme weather events (something I fear is indeed truer month by month).

“New Normals” have included some positive things and some tragic.  We have witnessed on-line shopping, self driving cars, same day delivery by drones, gay marriage, uber transportation, school shootings, melting glaciers, electronic banking and social media of endless variety. 

There is, however, a “New NonNormal” that is afoot in our nation and patriotic Americans, especially people of faith, must resist it.  Any normalization in our culture and institutions that is not factual, thoughtful or ethical must be identified as outside the norms of our national identity.  Much has been said about the dangers of “normalization” within the presidency of Donald Trump.  Agreed.  There is much that must be identified as NonNormal and therefore opposed.  Let’s be specific.  We will not accept lies, programs based on prejudices rather than facts, or knee-jerk twitter-created public policies.

Good reader, lets join millions of others who will not accept the normalization of such things as torture, the denial of climate change, the practicing discrimination against religious or ethic minorities, preventative health care being taken away from millions of the poor, the demeaning or violation of women, the acceptance of gun violence or undermining the importance of quality journalism.

Yes, the list could go on and on and on.  Let’s make it simple.  Can we agree that truth is essential to our democracy and our way of life?  Can we agree that careful, factual information is vital to progress — whether this is information related to climate change, our news media or our national intelligence agencies?  Can we agree that national policies should be based on quality, iterative research — whether on tariffs, immigration or education reforms?

Simply this, it is NonNormal, if we don’t — tell the truth, gather our facts, and propose programs based on sound research.  To proceed otherwise is the “New NonNormal.”

  1. Tell the truth,
  2. Gather the facts,
  3. Act based on good research information. 

To do otherwise, must be understood as an unacceptable New NonNormal.

Jesus, the Globalist

This is the season when many Christians read scripture from the second chapter of Matthew’s gospel.  It is the story of the Magi’s visit, the fleeing of Mary, Joseph and the baby to Egypt and the slaughter of innocent children by Herod.

What a contemporary, compelling and relevant story from Jesus’ infanthood this is for us.  More, I have been thinking about all the ways a “globalist Jesus” is demonstrated by his entire life. His story begins as that of a refugee.  His teachings and ministry clearly move past borders of any nation, ethnicity or social class. While it appears his adult ministry was limited to Galilee and Judea, what the gospels record is a Jesus who, in our day, could be accused of being a globalist.  He is one who continues to surprise his listeners with the vision of God’s people as people who are boundary breakers, who travel as sojourners with those who are excluded or on the margins of a society. 

Consider the powerful parable of the Good Samaritan, or think of the words of the Sermon on the Mount.  Or, take a moment to repeat the Lord’s Prayer.  Slowly now, listen to each word and phrase.  “Our father… thy kingdom comeon earth… give us… forgive us as we forgive…”.   It is a prayer that is communal more than individual. Then there are those words of the so-called Beattitudes filled with global prejudices.  Take time to read Matthew chapter 5 or Luke 6.  Open your Bible, dust it off first if necessary.  Am I wrong?  Clearly the man Jesus could be charged with being a globalist and unpatriotic when it comes to any single nation or ideology. 

Today I write from Panama City, Panama.  It has been decades since I last visited and 47 years since Elaine and I taught at the Instituto Pan Americano (IPA).  IPA is a remarkable Methodist school known for bilingual and multicultural education.  

Panama is a very different country than I first experienced in 1969.  Much wealthier in some respects, still struggling in others. The skyline of the city is resplendent with high rise banks and luxury hotels – stretching in every direction. I can’t help but reflect on the contribution IPA has made to the emergence of Panama as an international financial center (for good and ill).  Being global or multicultural isn’t a path to solve all problems.  In fact, new difficulties are created that require wise and humane systems of social, cultural and religious activity.  

Those who know Panama can see in the distance, in the photo taken on New Years Day 2017, a photo of Ancon Hill. Until 1977 this location was the U.S. home of the military’s Southern Command.  From Ancon headquarters many Latin American dictators were supported and some democracies subverted all in the name of U.S. security.  Yes, many good things were also supported but as they say — “it’s complicated.”  Surely Panama’s history (for good or ill) cannot be told apart from the story of the American empire.

And, so we arrive at the ethical challenges of seeing Jesus as a globalist.  Easy answers about building walls, adding tariffs, registering those who seem different, choosing sides so that the whole world can be categorized as friend or enemy, certainly have an appeal.  They can even win elections and bring certain persons to power.  However, such perspectives are contrary to the teachings of the globalist Jesus. 

I am intrigued and concerned with the increased influence of the so-called “militantchurch” phenomena in Roman Catholicism these days.  They are more nationalist than “catholic.”  They are more protectors of privilege, even bigotry, than followers of the Jesus of the Bible.  Or, what of the recent bigotry of the likes of Franklin Graham or Jerry Falwell Jr. when it comes to this Jesus?  I read what they write and listen to what they say and rarely if ever hear a reference to this Jesus.  Nor do any of these pseudo-gospeliers seem to ever refer to the teachings of Augustine or Francis of Assisi.  Augustine wrote extensively about a Jesus who so engaged and loved the whole world so that we might seek to avoid violence and find an ethical path when living with empire. Francis offered a way of peace with others and all creation.  Two more globalist followers of the globalist Jesus were they.

Clarence Smart with Phil & Elaine, 2017.
But what about me?  What about my cohorts?  My critique of the militantchurch or of the apparently gospel-blind fundamentalist comes too easily.  When I visited IPA with Clarence Smart and Adrienne Mims recently I found myself wondering if the mainline church of today is able or willing to hear the call of the globalist Jesus?  Where is the evidence?

We seem to be tongue-tied by recent world events, more concerned about growing local congregations in our local places than starting schools, hospitals or agricultural programs reaching the global realities all around. Local can be a good focus but never the exclusive focus. I remember the missionaries and local leaders in Panama back 47 years ago.  They spoke as ones who knew the reality of Jesus the globalist.  They wrestled with the reality of empire and the tough ethical questions of development, economic or otherwise.

I remember the hundreds of students who would bring their tuition money each month, coins wrapped in handkerchiefs.  Fathers had driven buses charging 5 cents a ride and mothers were maids working 10 hour days and there was the hope of something better. But it was complicated — no simple “art of the deal” here.  

Which child is to be educated?  What of cultural traps that made some more special than others or the different imbalanced pay scales used by the canal company that kept some poorer than others? And what of militarism, U.S. intervention, drug cartels, the laundering of money?  Followers of a globalist Jesus understood the need to be “wise as serpents and peaceful as doves.”  No easy task in a world full of Manichaean temptations.  My missionary mentors and indigenous church leaders taught me to think globally as well as locally. 

Today, too many of our bishops write columns about cultivating the inner spiritual life, cautioning against critique of church practices, and remain mum when it comes to the assault on the poor and the sick.  They want to “get to know our congregations” but seem to miss the realities of the communities in crises surrounding these churches. The focus is all inward, about “me and my church.”  Surely IPA would have never been founded as a bilingual and multicultural Christian school had this been the focus 100 years ago by Methodists in Indiana. Spirituality is both inwardly focused and outwardly lived.  Both. That’s the point. 

In my home state of Indiana there is an opioids drug abuse crises, an innocent man goes unpardoned by Governor Mike Pence, a repeal of the ACA is likely meaning the option of reasonable preventative health care for the poor will end.  Ironically this repeal, in the name of economic concern, can lead to the closing of many smaller hospitals in our less wealthy communities — thereby creating more unemployment.  What has the United Methodist Church in the state, with more than 1100 congregations had to say or do about any of this?  Crickets….  nothing… instead, only a focus on individual spirituality and congregational development.  This is the self centered message of an anxious church to a troubled world.  Christ have mercy.  Sadly, ironically, this can become an ever spiraling downward process into self absorption, protectionism and irrelevance.  Will we hear and follow Jesus the globalist?

Some today seek to make the term globalist a negative one.  I disagree.  Disciples who follow a globalist Jesus are more needed today than ever before in my lifetime.