Words, Words, Words…

Words, Words, Words: Hamlet

As I watched the tragic scenes unfold across our nation in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, I remembered the phrase scratched on a napkin and slid toward me: “Words, words, words: Hamlet.” This writer of the quote in 1992 was Bill Hudnut, former long-time mayor of Indianapolis. Bill was a friend. I was pastor at Broadway United Methodist Church. We often had to agree to disagree. In considering the wounds to our nation’s soul just now, I think of Bill.

Officer Derek Chauvin on neck of George Floyd from Daily Guide Network, May 28, 2020

There have been too many words. I believe this is a message the rioters are tying to communicate — in imperfect ways, yes, but there have been too many words… words of promise, words to placate, words to delay. And, there have been too many words from the highest office in the land that harm and destroy. More, even worse, there have been words designed to incite violence. There are words tweeted in short attacks or enshrined in policies that reinforce the systemic racism of a nation that has never recovered from slavery, segregation and centuries of discrimination and shame.

MINNEAPOLIS, MN – MAY 27: Two men wear shirts stating “Rest in Power George Floyd” outside the Third Police Precinct on May 27, 2020 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images as shared in United Methodist Insight, May 28, 2020)

Hudnut wrote the note “words, words, words” as we listened to the remarks of a popular young governor. The speaker was his opponent in 1992, as Bill challenged the young governor for his seat. Hudnut lost that race. The governor went on to another term; then was elected senator, like his father before him. As I recall all these years later, Hudnut was reacting to the governor’s word-salad related to a question about law enforcement and tragedies like the death of Michael Taylor. How might we better address police abuse? In 1987, Michael Taylor, a 16 year old, was handcuffed and in the custody of Indianapolis police officers when he was shot and killed. The officers claimed Taylor had somehow, with hands in cuffs, behind his back, grabbed one of their weapons. — So, they said, “they had to kill him.”

Michael Taylor’s murder remains an open sore for many in Indianapolis, myself included. George Floyd’s murder and the national response only displays that we have a pervasive and longtime pattern of such abuse. We have only formalized the “lynching culture” prevalent a century ago. In 1987 Bill Hudnut and I publicly disagreed about Indianapolis’ response in the Michael Taylor case.

William Hudnut
GreatLakesMetros.wordpress.com

Don’t get me wrong — Hudnut was a wise voice, took a lot of heat for not being tough enough on crime and too friendly with the minority community. At the time, Bill challenged some prevalent police practices. Still, he was the mayor and thought his primary job was to keep the peace and the support of his party. In private, we talked on several occasions, we prayed together and he shared his profound sadness. Behind the scenes Bill took actions to improve police practices, including better public review — something that is still not sufficiently dealt with today.

Words, words, words: Hamlet” is remembered now. At the time they were first shared with me, neither of us knew how much “the Rev. Bill Hudnut,” graduate of Princeton University and Union Theological Seminary, was a part of a dying breed. He was a Republican committed to racial justice and civil rights in word and DEED. A part of his story is told in Indiana History, “William Hudnut III versus the Reagan Administration” (https://indianahistory.org/stories/william-hudnut-iii-versus-the-reagan-administration/).

Hudnut with Oscar Robertson
Indianapolis Star

The Republican Party lost its way. How can they claim to be the party of Lincoln or Grant? How? I wish it was this easy. If one can just blame someone else, it is too easy. Our nation has lost its way as well. Bill Hudnut was a practical politician — yes, he made compromises. He was right to have a jaundiced view of the language of the Democrats.

We have all lost our way. We somehow think that there is some easy way to undo the massive damage of racial injustice that is four centuries old in our land. “Words, words, words” Bill Hudnut rightly quoted from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In every arena related to racial justice we have talked too much and accomplished too little. The deceit was implicit in the opening words to our constitution, written by a slave owner, who knew better but never emancipated his own slaves. “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men (and women) all are created equal…” Perhaps our generation can do some bold things to make these sentiments more than words.

A Pandemic of Compassion

Might there be a Pandemic of Compassion?

Recently I raised three queries as to ways forward for people of faith responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. This posting focuses on the last question of the three: what shall we truly love and treasure in the future?

The first question (May 7th) was: Shall our choices be limited to Life or Livelihood? I told of my stealing a small pocket knife as a six-year-old, with the inscription on it: “God is Love.” My dad saw this, taught me a lesson about the true meaning of love and this has lead to a lifetime of learning the importance of moral choices. Life or livelihood is a false dichotomy. Still it has been promoted as a political agenda — “we must open,” we are told without clear plans for how this is best done. Now, in dozens of states in the U.S., we see the chaos of such either/or thinking. I know small business owners who are facing bankruptcy — it is heart wrenching, speaking with them. There are better ways to proceed that honor both livelihood and life as demonstrated in other nations just now. In the U.S. the political games continue.

Comprehensive guidelines for the common good, both in terms of public health and commerce, were offered in a 17-page document from the CDC two weeks ago. However, it was shelved by the White House. Governors, mayors and other leaders are left with an assortment of one page, scaled-down “suggestions” that arrived only today (May 15). These are vague directives full of “sorta-perhaps-you might-want-to-if-it-seems-right” guidance given in one page documents to separate groups. The message from the top is that we will love our “treasures,” more than life. Aid to small businesses, hospitals and cities may never arrive. The vulnerable ones (businesses and people) are set aside as so much “collateral damage.” And so… commerce, especially large corporate activities, has been pitted against the common good. If health officials are correct, we will see the results of this foolishness in two and three weeks when a resurgence of the virus appears — and even before that, tens of thousands more will succumb to the virus.

The second question (May 8) was: what shall we consider to be normal? Should our national and global experience in 2019, before the virus arrived, be considered normal? How long before we are past this pandemic? Is this a blizzard, long winter or ice age? For Christians we consider the question of idolatry — is money more to be treasured than the life of another? Believing this virus will not end soon, and wanting a better future than we have known, we asked what compass and a guide will help us live toward an even more flourishing future for all? Drawing on John Wesley’s counsel of “Do no harm, Do Good, Stay in Love with God” it was noted that even if we could go “back to normal,” we could do better than that.

Just ten days ago or so, we were approaching 60,000 deaths from the virus in the United States; today over 80,000 persons have died; conservative projections are that this will total over 100,000 by the end of May.

This brings us to the last question (May 15): what shall we truly treasure and love in the future? Let’s begin with basics — What is meant by “love” anyway? Few persons in the Wesleyan tradition have thought more about this than theologian Thomas Jay Oord. Dr. Oord suggests that love is “an intentional act, in relationship with others, that promotes the overall well-being.” In other words, love involves an action. It is in sympathetic or empathetic relationship with others, including God and the community. It is for the purpose of doing what is good for the whole. (See: “Thomas J. Oord on the Mystery and Definition of Love,” The Table podcast, 11/15/2018) Another valued theological voice is that of Steven Harper. Dr. Harper explores the lives of people of faith over the ages and offers regular insights into a theology of love in his postings at: https://oboedire.com/.

So, if love is an intentional act in relationship with others for the common good, how might we act now and in the future? How will we welcome the stranger? How will be live with hope, imagination and resilience? Ancient rituals thought essential like shaking hands, passing the peace, singing congregational hymns and corporate worship will be sidelined or radically modified. What of the sacraments of communion and baptism? How will we behave in loving ways to demonstrate a belonging to one another, offering words of meaning and the gifts of mutual empowerment? And what of ministries with the poor and the immigrant?

For this, I turn to you good reader. What do you imagine? How do you suggest we proceed? I will not leave you stranded with these questions. Let me turn to two persons who can help us “think forward together.”

The first is D. J. McGuire, who on a recent The More Perfect Union podcast, noted that in U.S. and world history we can see differing paths after a societal tragedy. For example, McGuire opines, “After WWI, the nations of Europe, especially Germany, were left in disarray and the U.S. turned to our own self-interest. President Wilson tried by failed — for many reasons — including his health. This led almost inevitably to the Great Depression, followed shortly by the Second World War.”

McGuire contrasts this with U.S. and international response following WWII. He observes that here “we aspired to something larger than our previous ‘normality.’ We sought to build international strength and an economy built to include many.” The years after WWII were not easy ones — there was the conflict in Korea, the nuclear arms race and deep systemic racism continued.

Even so, aspirational actions like the establishment of the Marshall Plan, the G. I. Bill, the Interstate Highway System, the establishment of the United Nations and dozens of other efforts from NATO, to NASA, to the Civil Rights Act, to cures or treatments for polio and tuberculosis. None of these efforts were perfect — like all human activities, there was corruption and abuse; however, the trajectory was set toward a better world and not merely a return to normal.

These were two almost contradictory impulses following a major crises. Within each trajectory there were (and are) multiple ways forward… many options.

The second voice is that of Rev. Mark Feldmeir, pastor of St. Andrew United Methodist Church in Highlands Ranch, Colorado. Mark calls us to a Politics of Compassion (https://www.gostandrew.com/resources/livestreaming/). It is a way of considering how love can be put into action. His sermons can be viewed on the church’s website and his book “A House Divided” will be released in September (Chalice Press).

Pando Aspen – actually one tree.

I will not rehearse aspects of Mark Feldmeir’s message here. Suffice it to say that he calls us to recognize our common humanity, our belonging to one another. He suggests that we shape our actions in terms of kinship, kenosis (or self-giving) and delight. Employing the metaphor of the large Pando of Aspen, which is actually one tree that spreads over miles in Fish Lake, Utah, he says: “Universal care, concern, and commitment fueled by creativity and collaboration are the keys to the salvation of the aspen grove. And to our own. We need the wisdom and compassion of the aspen that can only come from a deeper sense of connectedness and belonging, and a deeper commitment to the common good.”

Feldmeir goes on: “We may be inclined to believe that the antidote to this politics of contempt is a politics of compromise, which seeks to end disagreement and claim consensus. But in our politics, as in our religion, we have often made idols out of centrism and the ‘middle ground’… we can transcend a politics of compromise in favor of a politics of compassion, which fosters a way of relating to people and responding to real human issues with universal care, concern, and commitment.”

You see, good reader, we don’t have to create a Pandemic of Compassion — we already belong to one another. The question before our nation and world is whether we will have sufficient imagination to truly value and care for this gift… this place of belonging where we already reside. How will we act like we are aware that we are part of and called to love and care for this living creation?

Friend and gifted hymn writer Ruth Duck offers these words as we seek to spread a Pandemic of Compassion:

In Fear the World is Weeping

In fear the world is weeping, and longs with every breath.
For life and hope and seeking, new paths beyond this death.
And loving hearts are risking, their lives that we may thrive.
Praise God for those who labor. O may they stay alive.

Our lives are bound together, in sorrow and in prayer.
In life and hope and nature the Holy One gives air.
Around the world show wisdom; with open hearts give care.

A new world calls us onward; sing hope now everywhere.

Back to “Normal”?

What Shall We Consider Normal?

When I hear politicians say “we must get back to normal,” I can barely contain my laughter — or my tears. Good reader, would you suggest that what we were experiencing as a nation, as a world, in 2019 was “normal?” If so, we may need to have a little chat about faith, science, reason and being a society of constitutional law. We would need to talk about the meaning of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

This question about normalcy is the second of three questions we are considering in this time of pandemic. Here they are again: 1) What livelihoods will we love or treasure? 2) What shall we consider to be normal? 3) What shall we truly love and treasure in the future?

Blizzard, Long Winter or New Mini Ice Age?

In early March I began to see newsletters and opinion pieces that offered a metaphor regarding the changes the COVID-19 pandemic would bring. By now, dozens have used these images. Here is how it is framed: Is this pandemic going to be more like a blizzard, a long winter or a new mini ice age? In other words, How long will it last? How bad will it get? How much will we be changed?

Award winning journalist Laurie Garrett, a highly respected scientist and author of The Coming Plague has been warning of the possibility of a world pandemic for more than three decades. Garrett has emerged as someone who can offer us clues as to what may be ahead. In an interview with Frank Bruni in the New York Times on May 2, 2020 Garrett was asked: So, is “back to normal,” a phrase that so many people cling to, a fantasy?

Her answer: “This is history right in front of us,” Garrett said. “Did we go ‘back to normal’ after 9/11? No. We created a whole new normal. We scrutinized the United States. We turned into an anti-terror state. And it affected everything. We couldn’t go into a building without showing ID and walking through a metal detector, and couldn’t get on airplanes the same way ever again. That’s what’s going to happen with this.”

When asked in a CNN interview on May 7th if this situation is worse than she had predicted and feared, Garrett’s response was clear. She warned that things will not be the same and that five years from now we would still be dealing with the changes across all of our society brought by this pandemic. She noted that in every other viral outbreak over recent years, the CDC (Center for Disease Control) was a scientific center of good information and strategic thinking. However, now they have been reduced in scope, their guidelines are being set aside and this will only lead to a wider spread of the virus and deeper damage to our society and other societies around the world.

So… what shall we consider normal? Sadly, I believe that even with a change at the top of our government, the damage has been done and over the next year will continue with a result that…. well, at least a long winter of discontent is ahead, or, I hate to write this, but we may be entering another mild ice age like our world experienced from roughly 1300 to 1900 AD. As one writer has put it: For 600 years the earth was colder than average. This affected farming practices, house designs, and pushed Europeans to search for warmer areas and more fertile lands to farm, such as in North America. This was a multi-generational event that shaped the history of the world. People lived their entire lives in this ice age (Jeff Clark, “Blizzards, Winters and Ice Ages,”Rural Matters Institute, April 14, 2020).

Is Normal Our Best?

My sixteen year old grandson and I recently talked about societal norms in our weekly zoom chat. (“A weekly zoom chat with a 16 year old?” you say. Okay, I guess this is a new normal — at least for a while.) In our conversation, I rehearsed the sociological categories of social norms: folkways, mores, taboos and laws. He politely listened and then with appropriate doubt to the sufficiency of these categories, observed, “But none of those things can measure what is truly ‘normal,’ right? Don’t we need to also think about what things are ethical, I mean like moral?” Of course… such a smart grandson I have!

In the mid-1980s, I faced some powerful questions about norms and ethics. It was during the HIV-AIDS epidemic. I was pastor of Broadway United Methodist Church in Indianapolis. Suddenly there were many young men in that congregation and community who were getting very sick. They were dying from this strange new disease. First a few, then dozens. Our congregation had welcomed many gay and lesbian persons into membership. Actually, it may be better said that many LGBTQ folks were generous enough to welcome us. We were connected, the phony barriers and bigotries of religious tradition and being closeted were set aside for a new normal of common humanity. It was a marvelous time as I grew in understanding and faith. I learned many things about my own ignorance and unrecognized biases; and, it was a painful time as well when many of my superiors in the denomination were upset that we were breaking with what was their “normal.”

In the midst of this, a phone call came from the father of one of the young men who had been worshiping with us. He started by introducing himself as the young man’s father and then said, “I am a pastor in Ohio and I want you to know that I don’t agree with your theology or my son’s choices.” There was a long pause… I was expecting a theological harangue. Still, I could tell this might be different. Even over the phone from hundreds of miles away I knew the man was holding back tears. With a breaking voice this father went on. “I guess part of me thinks your church offers too much grace, but another part of me is so grateful you have found each other. I am glad he is connected even if it is not normal.”

As a pastor, I was grateful that that congregation had decided it would be normal to live in terms of too much grace… grace for all. John Wesley, Methodism’s founder often pointed to Psalm 145:9 which reads, “The Lord is good to all and his compassion is over all he has made” (NRSV), or from another source it is translated “God is good to one and all; everything he does is suffused with grace” (The Message).

Surely, my denomination is still very broken over how we align our ethics and our norms. I often ponder what John Wesley would think of our quarrels these days. For me, at least, I make the choice to come down on the side of Too Much Grace — for me and for all.

I have been warned by my psychologist and psychoanalyst friends to take care when speaking of any thing as “normal.” One of them was bold enough to say, “Well, I may be normal but you look pretty sketchy to me!” I replied, “this is what keeps folks like you employed.” Anyone who has read E.B. White’s delightful short story “The Second Tree From the Corner” will appreciate that, like beauty, normal is in the eye of the beholder.

If a healthy way forward, beyond this pandemic is to be discovered, it will require honesty about the scientific data, more good research, testing and tracking… and perhaps a vaccine. It will require more, I believe. It will require that we see that God’s compassion extends over all and to all.

Or, we can pretend that we can “go back” to a fantasy world, where science is diminished, bigotries are encouraged as normal, and God’s care for all is ignored.

Such a move backwards from the fact that we are all connected one to another and to creation is a possibility. Let’s choose another option. Wendell Berry wrote: “Only by restoring broken connections can we be healed. Connection is health.” (Berry, Wendell, Essays: 1969 to 1990). (See also https://wordpress.com/block-editor/post/philipamerson.com/6682)

So choose your metaphor: blizzard, long winter or ice age? What will be a compass and a guide as we seek to better align the normal with the ethical? I fear we are in a long winter at least; probably a mild ice age. John Wesley offered this overarching way of proceeding: “Do no harm, Do Good, Stay in Love with God.” I will look, in these ways, to restoring broken connections — to getting to a new normal or a “daily harmony” as one therapist friend suggests — and to living with others in terms of our common humanity and the sufficiency of God’s grace as we journey together.

Even if we could go “back to normal,” I would work and pray that we could do better than that.

Treasured and Loved: Whose Life? Which Livelihoods?

Treasured and Loved: Whose Life? Which Livelihoods?

Who will take responsibility? Is there a voice of ethical clarity among the leaders in the White House?

As a six-year-old I accompanied my father to a religious bookstore in Louisville, Kentucky. To my preschool eyes, the counters were a wonderland — filled with lovely trinkets — “notions,” as the store owners called them. I saw dozens of inviting small treasures designed, no doubt, by someone in post-war Japan to appeal to a six-year-old American child. One of these items, a small two inch pocket knife somehow, mysteriously, ended up in MY pocket. The imitation pearl handle carried the inscription “God is Love.” Those were the same words beautifully stenciled in the front of the sanctuary of the antebellum church where my father was pastor. In fact, those words, “God is Love,” were among the first three words I had learned to read.

Heading home, back across the old K & I bridge that separated Louisville from New Albany, I took out my new prized possession, opening the blade and reading the words again. Then I heard, “where did you get that?” I was jolted from my revere. I remember that my heart leaped and there was a noticeable wetness in my six-year-old pants. Again, “Where did you get that?” my papa asked. Through tears, I told him that it was beautiful and it had the words “God is Love” printed on it just like in the front of the church. “See,” I held it up, trembling and then handing my booty over. Within a half-an-hour we were back in the store. After paying for the knife, papa explained that he had given me a loan and I would be paying him back out of my allowance, with interest!

I learned a lot that day… and on many other days, as I learned personal habits of responsibility and about the lifestyle to be expected of followers of Jesus.

As the COVID-19 virus lumbers across our nation destroying the lives, health and the future of millions, I wonder if our president ever learned such a basic ethical lesson. As our healthcare, educational, commercial and technological strength is sapped away, instead of a clear taking-of-responsibility, instead of a plan, we are offered up excuses, phony narratives, wagons-full of diversions, and, most troubling we are given binary options as to who is to blame and how we are to proceed. We are told again and again — and shifting from day to day — that one idea, or group, or preference must be sacrificed to another in order to recover from this scourge.

I wonder — did anyone ever hold the six-year-old Donald Trump accountable that made a difference in his sense of the value of himself and others? Or, how about when he was twelve, or twenty-five, or sixty? Has this sad, sad man ever been asked to move toward healthy adulthood? It is precisely this that would help him now lead a nation in answering the questions, “Whose lives are to be saved and what is to be treasured?” Did he ever have to look past his own self-interests to know that life is complex and most things are NOT a simple either/or choice?

With the virus, a veil has been lifted that makes evident what was present but unseen by too many prior to this pandemic. It is much more than the narcissism and deceitfulness of the White House that is exposed. It is a revealing of the inequalities in healthcare access and economic resources available to our citizens. [I will not rehearse the data here as to which groups of persons are currently suffering the most from this virus. I will suggest that ultimately, we ALL face difficulties due to these inequities.]

The disparities in healthy options for care based on social class or race have become painfully clear. Who are suffering the most? Will we treasure these? As the statistics from this pandemic are presented it is clear that the essential front line workers, healthcare providers, AND public service personnel are also those who are the most economically challenged. They are the lower-middle class, the poor, the immigrant and those without shelter or healthcare options.

The United States represents less than five percent of the world population and current reporting has us with more than twenty-five percent of the reported cases in the world! Something is amiss. Something more than the way the counting is done — here or elsewhere!

Where is Our Treasure? If God is Love, what does it mean for us?

Persons familiar with Christian scriptures will have already anticipated that I will point to the teaching of Jesus found in Luke 12:34 and Matthew 6:21. Jesus offers this observation, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” Jesus goes on and teaches, in these passages and throughout the gospels, that it is the neighbor, the weak ones, the stranger, the immigrant, the poor, the wealthy — ALL are to be treasured. All are a part of God’s household of love.

What do we believe should be valued and who should be sacrificed? These are matters of the heart — they are core values. For most they are learned in childhood. Sadly, for some, these are never learned. They may also reflect our ability as a nation to stand tall and take responsibility now.

A second answer, found throughout scripture is our kinship with all others and all of creation. Every other person is a child of God and they should have BOTH a life and a livelihood.

In Genesis 4:9 after killing his brother Abel, Cain responds to the question, “Where is your brother?” He answers with those famous words, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Some translate this as “Am I my brother’s guardian, my brother’s baby-sitter, or my brother’s brother?” In this exchange of questions, it is the next question asked of Cain by God that we now face. It is “What have you done?” Are we our brother and sister’s kin?

I believe the answer for our citizens and responsible adults everywhere is, and must be, a resounding “YES.” Who is my neighbor? Who is the one who should receive my care? Every other person!

Sadly, I have known some pastors, rabbis and imams who read their scriptures differently. They would say the answer to the question “Where is your brother or sister?” is “they are only those who are in my congregation or who are truly Christian, Jew or Muslim. Only these are to be considered my neighbor,” they would suggest. Think of the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10). How can we not see that the three words “God is Love” apply to all, everywhere?

This is NOT a screed against the wealthy. Some of the most generous folks I have met are blessed with many resources and they share them wisely and widely. At the same time, some of the stingiest people I have known are persons who always, in every action and decision, seek to selfishly add to their possessions. In a year, or perhaps two, the answer will be clearer as to what we have truly treasured. We will see how some of those who have taken political actions in these months were also benefiting their own status, portfolios and bank accounts. This is, sadly, too often the human behavior.

We can love our livelihoods — but not if we sacrifice the neighbor.

For me, as a Christian, I continue to learn the core lesson that “God is Love.”

Congressional Big Boy Pants

Congressional Big Boy Pants

Just when you think things can’t get more ridiculous, along comes a congressman from my district that makes an astonishing remark. Congressman Trey Hollingsworth, Indiana’s Ninth Congressional District actually said that we should all put on our Big Boy Pants and agree that protecting our lifestyle during this COVID 19 pandemic is more important than protecting life.

I haven’t published much on my blog recently as I know there are many other valuable voices during this time. However, the letter below captures my “energy” and my sadness at the irresponsible ways many of our supposed leaders are seeking to avoid responsibility and blame others. So — here is that letter:

Dear Congressman Hollingsworth,

Greetings, sincere best wishes, and prayers for you.  Hearing your comments on a WIBC Indianapolis radio interview regarding our society in the midst of this COVID-19 pandemic left me dumbfounded.  I thought the news reports that you said we should protect our “way of life” as being more important than the “lives of our citizens” was a reporting error.  Then, this evening, you doubled down suggesting again that we have an either/or choice of life or livelihood.  You were suggesting that some should be sacrificed so that our lifestyle would not suffer. 

I don’t know your faith tradition – you are listed in religious preference for congressmen as an “unspecified Protestant.”  Your comments are far afield from the teachings of people of faith and moral persons everywhere.  Could you please send me information on the teachings you follow?  Exactly what kind of Protestant are you?  Are you familiar with the teachings of Martin Luther, John Wesley, John Knox or others regarding the sacredness of life?  I am certain your Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Muslim and Jewish constituents would find your stance outside their understanding of the central value of life.  Most non-religious folks I know have a stronger moral core. Would you say you get your moral clues more from Ayn Rand or Jesus the Christ?  I am just wondering if you value that silly idea from Jesus and other religious thinkers about each of us being “our brother’s keeper.”  I guess such ideas are to be jettisoned in the event of a pandemic.  Lifestyle over the life of some – is this what you are saying?

So, I am “putting on my big boy pants” as you suggested in your interview and writing you about your comments.  (BTW, I have been wearing BBP for over sixty years.)  Might I be among those to be sacrificed so you can proceed with your livelihood?  If not, what are you saying? 

Three reflections for you to consider:

1)  Which lives should be sacrificed, exactly?  Suddenly, persons on the lowest rungs of our social order are deemed “essential workers.”  Are these the lives we now sacrifice? I am speaking of janitors in hospitals and nursing homes, those who stock shelves, work at checkout counters of grocery stores and pick up our garbage. What about our nurses, medics and physicians? Many of these persons struggled to have decent food and lodging prior to this pandemic — and are even more threatened now.  What are YOUR PLANS to make certain these “essential” ones critical to a restart our economy will be rewarded and well treated now and in the future?  Please send me a copy of the plans you supported for the needed economic stimulus and point out how lives of these essential workers are valued in the plan.  The plans you and your Republican allies in the House propose don’t seem to include these good and essential folks in your desire to get back to “livelihood” of those you think who matter.

2) As with so many things, you set this dilemma up as a dichotomy, either life or livelihood.  Binary thinking seems to be the way of so many, especially in the Donald Trump era.  Sir, if this false dichotomy is an example of wearing big boy pants, I would simply say, it is small, immoral and dangerous.  Just where will you draw the line as to human sacrifice?  I would genuinely like to know.  Maybe this is the way you want our social order to be handled?  De we want our health care workers following such a false choice?  How about our public safety officers?  Our teachers?  Might we encourage them to think about who should be sacrificed so that the livelihoods of those you prefer can be secure?  I would pray that when you make decisions regarding our nation’s fate and future you consider multiple variables and shape arguments that are more than a simplistic either/or.  NOW is the time for humility and exploring the difficult calculus of saving both life and lifestyle.  In my experience, those who wear BBP are the ones who understand that we do all we can to save BOTH life and lifestyle.  Fortunately, Governor Holcomb, a Republican who seems to wear his BBP well, is modeling a more mature view and practice.

3) Over recent months I have sent you questions regarding our national leadership — and you have avoided answering them.  I now understand a little better why.  You must have thought these to be a bother because they might require nuance, a humble admission that life is complex and that you might not have all the answers.

Perhaps a clarification or apology is in order.  Or, perhaps you might want to go help carry bed pans at a hospital in Jeffersonville or work with medics on a life-saving run in Greenwood or sit with the preschool children of nurses in Bloomington and then tell us all about your belief that life-style is more important than life.  It is not a forced choice – it is a false one — I think you know that.  I will wait to hear you admit it.

Dear sir, please stop embarrassing those of us in the Ninth Congressional District of Indiana you were elected to represent.  See if you can find some genuine BBP that might look like they fit a United States Congressman.

Most sincerely yours,

Rev. Dr. Philip Amerson

The Whiteness Problem

The Whiteness Problem

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday arrives.  Another year.  Another invitation to dream, to conceive a different world.  Memories cascade:

  • Dr. King’s funeral, standing with other seminarians outside Ebenezer Church, then, marching/weeping along the route;
  • Harlem, a year later, discovering my profound ignorance of the white problem in our nation;
  • Two years later, substitute teaching in Atlanta and realizing that the young shy boy named Marty, who seemed so lonely, had the last name of “King;”
  • Graduate research on Racism and Suburban Congregations opened new vistas on the complexity of white racism.
  • Then, I was honored to pastor a predominantly Black church.

These memories and many more remind me of the Whiteness Problem our nation faces.  I am white; and have been shaped by hidden and obvious advantages of being placed in this racial category.  Even though there is more than a hint of Native American ancestry, my whiteness still shapes how I navigate the world and the social structures in which I live.  In the end I believe that all of our racial categories are only social constructs, they are none-the-less real and filled with the potential to do continuing harm to persons and groups.

White racism is the most negative of the templates shaping our nation’s core identity.  There is slavery, reconstruction, lynchings, Jim Crow, federal policies restricting loans for African Americans leading to widespread housing segregation, the practices of red lining that continue, the courage of Rosa Parks and the Civil Rights movement.   The Whiteness Problem is embedded in the warp and woof of our core.  Years ago Toni Morrison said that “Every American novel is about race.”  Her novel “Beloved,” for me captures a way of seeing who we are and seeing a more hope-filled future.

Sixty-five years ago the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka that racial segregation was illegal.  Desegregation of public schools was to be undertaken with “all deliberate speed.”  In a majority of our cities little has changed since then.

Sixty-two years ago, as I was preparing to enter the seventh grade, there were nine young African American persons in Little Rock, Arkansas who would risk personal safety to enroll in Little Rock Central High School.  President Eisenhower faced with the threats of violence responded by sending troops to protect those young persons.

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[Elizabeth Eckford on her way to class at Little Rock Central High School.  Photo by Will Counts.]
Fifty-two years ago, February 1968, the National Advisory Commission on Civil Rights, otherwise known as The Kerner Commission released their extensive and clear analysis of the White Problem: “What white Americans have never fully understood but what the Negro can never forget — is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.”

At the time, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said of the report that it was a “physicians warning of approaching death, with a prescription for life.”   Two months later, Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis.  Even so, President Johnson and Congress ignored the recommendations from The Kerner Commission Report.  Johnson was leaving office as his Vietnam War policies were an evident failure.  Richard Nixon would assume office in January of the next year.

In 1975, forty-five years ago, I completed my graduate work.  My dissertation title was simple, “Racism and Suburban Congregations: Strategies for Change.”  The research was part of a national effort entitled Project Understanding.  We measured changes brought about through a variety of interventions.  More than 1,100 persons were surveyed from more than seventy congregations in six cities.  We learned much; at the core of our learning was that the extent and pervasiveness of the Whiteness Problem waited to be addressed. 

Any enduring change would require more than sermons, teaching, pulpit exchanges or even legislation.  Change required relationship.  It required those of us who are categorized as “White” to see with new eyes.  It would require people lumped in each and all racial categories working together to uncover and end discrimination and prejudice.

Being “non-racist” is not sufficient. This myth of neutrality in vogue at the highest levels of our government seeks to paper over the deep wounds and sins that beset us.  It is the notion of “good people on all sides.”  Astonishingly, the racism that fueled the murders in El Paso is dismissed.  Defenders of the current administration say, “It’s not us, the White Nationalist are the true racists!”

This is the challenge — how to name the evil, the oppression and remain clear.  Amazingly, many leaders dismiss, confuse and obfuscate even as racist language, behaviors and institutional practices are on the ascendancy.  Senate Majority leader, Mitch McConnell stood before T.V. cameras and said “President Trump is not a racist.”  Really, Senator McConnell?  You say this with a straight face.

There are few who write about race and racism today as astutely as Tressie McMillan Cottom.  Her collection of essays “Thick” is a tour-de-force as it looks at the challenges and opportunities we face as a people seeking to live together with honesty and care.  One of the sharp essays in this collection is entitled, “(Black is Over) Or, Special Black.”  She writes of the way some seek to dismiss our deeply embedded racism by suggesting that the acceptance of academics like herself proves that we have entered a new era where the gifted, special Blacks prove we have moved on. 

She writes: “Black is not over… There is no post-black race theory or race work or racial justice or activism that can thrive by avoiding this truth.  Whether at the dinner table or in grand theories, the false choice between black-black and worthy black is a trap.  It poses that ending blackness was the goal of anti-racist work when the real goal has always been and should always be ending whiteness.”  [Thick, p. 152]

A Crack in Everything

On Wednesday, December 18th the House of Representatives voted to impeach Donald Trump. It was a day of sadness and a day of hope. For me the hope didn’t ensue from the debate on the floor of congress or even the the vote to impeach. Rather it came from a surprising place, Christianity Today magazine.

Mark Galli, longtime editor of the magazine who is about to retire, wrote an editorial that gave voice to a bubbling discontent that has marinated among Evangelical Christians for years. In short, Galli asserted that Donald Trump should be impeached and removed. https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2019/december-web-only/trump-should-be-removed-from-office.html.

Galli writes, this president’s actions and words are “profoundly immoral.” Trump, Mr. Galli asserts, “has admitted to immoral actions in business and his relationship with women, about which he remains proud. His Twitter feed alone—with its habitual string of mischaracterizations, lies, and slanders—is a near perfect example of a human being who is morally lost and confused.”

Was I surprised? Well, in truth my surprise was only that it has taken this long for an Evangelical leader with moral courage to surface. Over the past three years my Evangelical friends have lowered their gaze and voices when speaking of the wholesale surrender of Christian virtue to Donald Trump. They spoke of his enablers, like Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell Jr., having strayed far from any biblically normative ethic. Just how solid is the support for Mr. Trump?

There has been growing discontent and concern near the heart of important parts of the Evangelical universe. For years, words of concern have come from Fuller Seminary that the racist language and the horrific immigration policies of the Trump administration are not to be endorsed. Respected Evangelical colleges across the nation, places like Point Loma Nazarene in San Diego, Wheaton in Illinois, Seattle Pacific, Houghton in New York have seen a growing willingness to say “enough, this is not who we are!”

In May 2019 there was widely expressed faculty and student discontent at Taylor University in Indiana when Vice President Pence was selected as commencement speaker. Thousands signed a petition of concern regarding the racism and bigotry of the administration. There was a request to rescind the invitation, to no avail. Mr. Pence spoke; but dozens of the graduates and faculty did not participate or wore symbols of protest saying “We Are Taylor Too.”

In the state universities, like in my hometown, Evangelical student organizations are finding young Christian students who are embarrassed by the claims that Trump represents an Evangelical agenda. They discover alternative voices and perspectives.

I listen to the pundits who say the Evangelical support is a solid wall, eighty percent (80%) or more of the Evangelicals will support this administration. I doubt it. I doubt it will be there in November. O yes, I suspect a majority of those who wear the “Evangelical” label will march in line. However, there is dissent, especially among the young.

So, my belief, my hope at least, is that December 18, 2019 was an inflection point, a crack in the silence, a step by the honest adventurers away from all of the aiding and abetting. The gift of truth was spoken even amid the threats to “stay in line.” This crack in the facade of official Evangelicalism is an opening for small virtues like manners, and greater virtues like truth, altruism and beauty. I want to express gratitude ahead of time to our courageous Evangelical sisters and brothers speaking words of truth in the new year. May your tribe increase.

I am reminded of words of Leonard Cohen: Ring the bells that still can ring, Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in. (From Anthem by Leonard Cohen.  See also The Soul’s Journey, Alan Jones, p. 219)

Prayer: O Christ of Christmas, lite our way in the year ahead that we may see your pathways of hope.  Amen

I Choose Stories for Good

I Choose Stories for Good

Never let the facts get in the way of a good story.”  I chuckled when I first heard this — and understood the truth it contained.  This wisdom, first heard years ago, is both whimsical and helpful in appreciating the gifts of insight and delight offered by a good story. 

Stories provide a doorway to new understandings, new vistas on human realities and may even offer broader faith understandings.  Jesus of Nazareth knew the value of parable — story laid alongside life’s experience and opening the listener to deeper truths.  Stories are durable and can both deepen mystery or provide clues to one of life’s many puzzles.

What of the converse?   Can we say, “Never let story get in the way of fact?”  As the impeachment hearings in Congress began on November 13th we heard Ukrainian Ambassador William B. Taylor and George Kent, long-time expert on the Ukraine, speak of dueling narratives, competing stories.  These career civil servants were troubled by a counter narrative being peddled among certain American leaders based on conspiracy and contrary to the deep expertise of those committed to our national security.

What is a good story, for you, dear reader?

A deep, and I believe, good narrative has guided our nation’s best actions for decades.  Based on our constitution and constructive alliances with other nations it encourages the strengthening of human rights, democratic goals around the world.  Do we sometimes get it wrong and stand with the tyrant — I fear we do and we have.  However, the core narrative we share runs counter to tyranny and oppression.  The current “irregular narrative” dismisses our nation’s long-held values and seeks to divide, destroy common understandings and undermine trust relationship. 

What irony that on the day impeachment hearings begin, Mr. Trump entertained President Erdogan of Turkey and said he is “a big fan.” A big fan?  A fan of a man whose strong-arm tactics destroy democracatic institutions, who jails those who disagree, whose recent aggression in Syria destroyed a delicate peace in the middle east and has set the stage for the reemergence of ISIS?  A big fan?  What irregular narrative is being promulgated?  Why?  Who benefits in the larger history being written for our grandchildren?

The idea ofNever let the facts get in the way of a good story,” contains the word “GOOD.”  And, what is lacking in an “irregular narrative” is a link to our values and a moral compass.  A good story is built on that which is constructive and beneficial to human communities and societies.  The good story is one that encourages freedom and seeks to diminish tyranny.  Compass&Bible Abraham Lincoln used good stories as a critical part of his political legacy.  Even though his legacy is imperfect, overall he chose to resist the temptation to divide and destroy those who disagreed.  The alternative, the irregular narrative is based on a mountain of lies, of half-truths and a poisoned concoction of bigotry and deceit.  Ambassador Taylor identified this story as dangerous to our security. 

What makes a story good?  Good for you?  Good for your neighbor?  Good stories are, at root factual, they contain truths, even though some of the “facts” may be elaborated.  Good stories seek to help and not harm.  Good stories build up and strengthen others.

Falsehoods are being dressed up and widely shared on social media. Memes and tropes are invented that are specifically designed to undercut that which is good.  Truth is victimized and a search for the “good” is jeopardized.  We are living through a time when false narratives are employed to hold gain and hold power and do harm.  The temptation to accept the torrent of lies that come from politicians, tyrants and even television commentators seems too strong to be countered.  However, I will live believing truth will prevail.  What is “good” may appear to be lost in the tsunami of false information that seems to go unchecked. Still I choose a commitment to the commonweal, the beloved community, a community that includes all people.

Good stories are powerful things — at a fundamental level they reinforce and magnify the truth.  In the end, I believe the good in stories will prevail… but this good is fragile and under attack.  How do we know the good?  Well, there is being attentive to our history and our ongoing struggles with tyranny.   There is also the identification of truth-tellers.  I believe the narratives shared by patriots and long-time civil servants like Bill Taylor, George Kent, Fiona Hill, and Alexander Vindman will cut through much of the disinformation and deceit.

There is our faith… and with it, there is joy.

img_0759-2Like the license plate I saw on a crimson pickup truck years ago driven by a theology school dean which read “JOY N IT.”  Good stories, stories of faith, typically bring new insight, laughter and delight.  I choose stories that are good, in large measure because they also lead to joy.  The gift of honest exaggeration, of teasing, of hope-filled truths will always make clear the gift of sisters and brothers who can smile, and understand it when they say, “Never let the facts get in the way of a good story.”

Rhyming Omar and Donald

The Rhyming of Omar and Donald

Each morning I read the news and think “I’ve seen this play before.” On a smaller stage but with the same general plot and same speeches by the lead actors. I was in the Republic of Panama in 1969 and 1970, teaching at the Methodist school, the Instituto Pan Americano. There, I had a front row seat to watch one of the early reality television stars, General Omar Torrijos Herrera.

Torillos came to power in 1968. It was a “soft” coup d’etat. It came following his involvement in election fraud, the formation of alliances with other dictators, an appeal to campesinos with legitimate grievances and the backing of a major news outlet, La Estrella. Torrijos was ridiculed by the elites as a “tinpot dictator.” He was known for his womanizing even as he posed as the devoted husband and father. He was open to playing all sides against the middle as long as he was the winner. Sound familiar?

“History doesn’t repeat itself, it rhymes” is an aphorism attributed to Mark Twain. There are differences between Omar and Donald; however, they play the same games of distraction, bullying and corruption. Watching POTUS every day, I am reminded of Torrijos. The only difference in these daily productions is that Omar was the better actor and did claim some moral minimums beneath which he would not bend. He had no need to claim to be a stable genius — he was smart enough to know that. Torrijos was self confident enough to allow the great novelist Graham Greene to write a book about his time as “ultimate leader.”

As I watch Donald’s tactics of prevarication and distraction I see parallels to Torrijos. (“You’re not really seeing what you are seeing. Look over here, no I meant over there.”) It is all theater of the absurd. It saddens me to watch the Grand Old Party turned into the practitioners of Banana Republicanism. Each day in this nation and time our moral influence is reduced, our constitutional commitments reduced to ashes. What’s next?

In 1970 Torillos felt his power waning, so set up what Latin Americans call an autogolpe — a phony, self designed and manipulated coup d’etat. I remember it well. The general was out of the country in Mexico for the horse races. The alleged take over was dramatically reported, although oddly the “rebels” didn’t plan to take over the television stations or the country’s second busiest airport in the city of David some 300 miles away. Aided by other nations, Torrijos flew back to David. He then made a triumphant journey down the spine of the country. The military was pre-positioned to welcome him as he was cheered in every town back to the capital. There was some gunfire in the capital city and a few arrested — but it was a carefully scripted television event.

I wonder, might our nation be experiencing something similar — an autogolpe in plain sight? Might POTUS, sensing a potential loss in the upcoming 2020 elections, be engaged in his own little deception? Let’s see, he needs an enemy who can be painted as corrupt who is trying to overthrow him. He needs a major news outlet to support his phony allegations. Uhm, let me think?

Torrijos, brutal and venal as he could be, did have some redeeming qualities and left some enduring accomplishments for his nation. I could name several like the agreement with President Carter for the Canal to be turned over to Panama and Torrijos’ commitment to help the underprivileged with universal health care and education. Torrijos died in a mysterious airplane crash in 1981 at a point where he “seemed” to be moving in support of more democratic institutions.

Donald may leave behind a few accomplishments (I struggle to name many just now)… but at what expense to our moral and constitutional underpinnings? POTUS started with a nation rich in reputation, legacy and a commitment to pursuit of an ever more humane future for its citizens. He has spent many of these moral assets with little to show in return. In this way, the legacy and roles of these two men do not rhyme. One was a dictator who desired, in the end, to be honestly elected in a more democratic state — the other was surprised to be elected and has since evidenced increasing desire for dictatorial powers.

Balance, Imperfect but Balance

Balance, Imperfect but Balance

News of the death of Senator Richard Lugar arrives.  Not surprising, but saddening.  Coming two months after the death of Senator Birch Bayh it causes me to think about the gift of balance. 

Balance — that which allows us to stand  upright and walk forward.  Balance — that which keeps us from being overwhelmed by vertigo — whether physical or ethical.  Being Hoosiers, of a certain generation, for many years in the later half of the twentieth century, we United Methodists knew these two, one a Republican and the other a Democrat.  Each different, yet each shared our common Methodist heritage.  We United Methodists watched and lived with a balance displayed in our public/political lives — and in our churches.

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Lugar and Bayh were different — yet they seemed to come as a matching set.  Lugar modeled modesty and graciousness; an intellect – a political and ethical realism; an openness to bipartisan solutions to complex national and world situations.  Bayh was passionate, a natural leader, and could light up a room with his rhetoric; he too was an informed realist, and when prepared, could debate with the best, and his drive to make a difference saw him take a lead in essential societal changes.

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Bayh’s leadership on Title 9 legislation guaranteeing equal rights for women in education, sports and commerce was a difference maker.  Lugar’s commitment to disarmament resulted in much of the nuclear arms control that emerged and his persuasion finally lead to the ending of South African Apartheid.  They both clearly understood that the “perfect could be the enemy of the good.”

Balance: it is missing from our body politic as a nation.  It is missing from United Methodism.  One cannot help but wonder as to how the nation and church moved to our current state of mean-spirited dysfunction.  As a clergy person, I can say that I have watched much of United Methodism in Indiana move away from the welcoming of difference, the welcoming balance, in our faith life and practice.  I have watched as we have had bishops and pastors who were too fearful of conflict to understand the gifts Lugar and Bayh modeled for us as a nation and a church. 

One recent bishop in Indiana now wonders what happened to the “Methodist Middle” and I chuckle.  I watched as honest debate was stifled and only one limited model for being church promoted.  Cautious theological conservatism and focus on seeking the magic formula for “congregational development” was promoted over emphasis on the denomination’s social witness and honest public debate or support for church ministries with the poor or marginalized persons.  We increasingly became a church in Indiana that placed our resources and commitments toward white, suburban, conservative enclaves.  Expressed differences, and openness to other views  — like those modeled by Lugar and Bayh — were discouraged. 

Why for example were certain “preferred,” certain “more conservative” congregations allowed to thumb their noses at the giving to larger denominational causes (something we call a tithe or an apportionment)?  This preference and lack of accountability didn’t go on for a year or two, no, but for decades. Meanwhile such giving was expected by ALL others.  Other congregations, progressives and moderates, were never offered this same “tolerance.” In other words — the progressives and moderate congregations carried the financial responsibilities for all — freeing up resources for those who were more exclusionary in their perspectives and practices to invest.

I watched as decisions were made that moved United Methodism in Indiana to a more fundamentalist and exclusionary stance — preferred over encouraging honest listening and learning from one another about our differences and a seeking of balance.   I am not naive enough to miss the fact that the nation as a whole was drifting toward more bitter language and divisive understandings.  Or, that some leaders do their best to avoid as much conflict as possible — meaning they give more space to the louder voices of “so-called-traditionalists” backed by the political and media sway of the Institute for Religion and Democracy or the so-called Good News or Confessing organizations.  So, it is understandable that leaders might surround themselves with persons who did not search for the balance valued by a Lugar or a Bayh — an ability to seek compromise while still moving ahead.

It required balance to move forward and not end up in a cul-de-sac of narrow-mindedness — something our denomination is seeking just now.  I fear it may be too late… but if there is a way forward, we do have the gift, the model, of two men, Lugar and Bayh, both United Methodists, who brought very different gifts and perspectives.  Yet both made our nation better for their service.  I give thanks for them — and pray for balance to be regained in our nation and our church.

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