Hoosier United Methodists Finding Our Voice: A Call and Confession of United Methodists in Indiana
Revs. Maureen Knudsen Langdoc and Bryan Langdoc recognized as new ordinands, Clergy Covenant Day, 10/25/17.
I awoke this morning with an all too familiar thought about the church in the United States. It is this: The United Methodist Church (and other denominations like it) still act as if we are the Mainline church when, in fact, we have been moved to the sidelines. Must we remain silent in the false hope that we might regain our power position in society? NO!
With a sense of lost status, we employ business models and church growth strategies as if we still haven’t learned that our best hope is to once again be the church based on the leading of the Holy Spirit and the gifts of believers in each local setting. In the process, seeking not to rock the boat, we have remained silent to the realities all around. We have become cowardly in acting to address the national fevers of fear and division that threaten our future and undermine our best selves.
Where is there hope? In many places — mostly not recognized by the “church development experts.” I see hope in our young clergy, folks like Maureen and Bryan Langdoc. I see hope in the faithful folks sitting in the pews of our local churches that are so easily overlooked because they are in the “wrong neighborhood” or are “congregations too small to make a difference.” I see hope in the older clergy, many now retired, but who continue to offer their gifts. You GO — Maureen and Bryan; You GO — younger clergy across our nation; You Go — faithful lay persons in local churches; You GO — older clergy often ready to serve but overlooked; YOU GO — HOLY SPIRIT.
If we are true to our faith and not simply believing in some set of misguided techniques and strategies, we would be saying something about the challenges to our civil society. We would let God be God and stop trying to be soft-pedalling mediators. Admitting that the Gospel calls us to give witness against fear and division, whether we are mainline or sideline, we would seek to speak Gospel truth to the meanness and irrationality perpetrated on our people. So, I asked friends to join in putting together a petition. See: Hoosier United Methodists Speak Out.
There was a memorial service for one of those good retired pastors, Rev. Frank Sablan at Broadway UMC, one of the places Frank served. At this memorial service were several of the lay and clergy persons who had joined in ministry at Broadway. We gathered for a photo and I realized the treasure that is all around but often overlooked. Good people, still sharing their gifts. Mainline or sideline it doesn’t matter.
We call on Hoosier Untied Methodists to speak out. Our church needs this witness, even more than our nation. If you are not in Indiana, we encourage you to join with others in giving voice to our true hope.
A Call and Confession of United Methodists in Indiana.
We the undersigned United Methodists speak a word of concern for our nation; and we confess that we have been silent for too long.
In our nation’s body-politic we are witnessing behaviors that are fundamentally at odds with our most basic faith expressions and creeds. A culture of fear, personal attacks, disregard for the truth and denial of scientific research now undermines our most cherished covenants as a nation and people of faith. Daily there is an assault on our deepest values of respect and human equality through administrative language, policies and practices. This language and these practices undermine our commitments to honest dialogue, equal justice, decent speech, fairness toward our neighbor and care for our earth. In the process, our nation is losing its critical role as the most important actor in favor of basic human rights around the world.
The bullying, bigotry and exclusion which seek to overwhelm our better angels, run counter to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Our children and grandchildren are watching, and sadly, learning. How will we give Christian witness? We cannot remain silent any longer. We join Senator Jeff Flake and other men and women of courage and good will in saying “ENOUGH” of this course and destructive behavior.
We call on all of our congressional leaders, especially those in Indiana, to move toward greater civility, respect and desire for practices of justice for all upon which our nation’s greatness rests.
I am not a certified psychologist or psychiatrist — and the world is a better place for that, I am sure. Still, I will put out my analytic shingle today and offer this — the mental derangement we are experiencing is not just that of one lone-killer. We, corporately, too, suffer from what might be diagnosed as a “Lone Killer-Nation syndrome.”
The horrific events in Las Vegas are quickly assigned to one, single person, Stephen Paddock. It is how we have come to think about such tragic events. Here we have fifty-eight persons slaughtered and another 527 injured, many with life-altering physical and mental traumas. Over the past thirty years we have had nearly double the number of mass shootings as the next twenty-four nations in the world combined. (see: US Ranking in Mass Shootings)
We stand ALONE among the nations. Talk about American exceptionalism! Is this to be a sign of our strength and what we model for the world?
Symptoms of our national derangement:
With 5% of the world’s population, we have over 30% of the mass killings by gun violence?
The U.S. experienced mass murders at the rate of more than one per day in 2017 (see for example the Gun Violence Archieve (Gun Violence).
By ever-widening majorities, our citizens want stronger background checks on gun purchases (90%+), especially military style assault weapons (60%+).
However, these desires by the majority are ignored by legislators who believe they owe their election to support from groups like the NRA.
Researchers now find it necessary to distinguish between “mass murders” and “mass shootings.”
Politicians this week, made uncomfortable by this tragedy, say that “this is not an appropriate time to discuss gun violence in our nation.”
Pundit Bill O’Rielly, in the wake of this tragedy, opines that events like those in Las Vegas are the “Price of Freedom.”
As these killings were being planned in Las Vegas, many in congress were putting together legislation that would offer the option of silencers available on all weapons.
Historically, NRA membership and the sale of assault weapons INCREASES following tragedies like the one in Las Vegas. Stock values of companies that make these weapons increase following such tragedies!
We suffer from LONE-NATION mental derangement. For years the NRA, National Rifle Association, has blocked any effort to adopt common-sense gun control laws in the U.S. Laws, like those that have been implemented in places like Australia, demonstrate that a cure to our illness is possible. However, it will be increasingly difficult. At this point, we have more guns than citizens in our nation. Unwilling to control them, we have come to a point where these hundreds of million weapons are pointed directly at us, at our children and the children of every one of us — Republican, Independent or Democrat. There was no discrimination at that concert in Las Vegas — and this is what we are accepting in the future? Talk about CRAZY!
Yes, Stephen Paddock, committed an unimaginable atrocity — a lone gunman. “Las Vegas,” is now added to our internal maps of fear, joining “San Bernadino,” “Orlando,” “Columbine,” “Aurora,” “Newtown,” “Virginia Tech” and dozens of other tragedies.
Stephen Paddock had 23 weapons of war in his hotel room. Another 19 guns were found at his home. This along with thousands of rounds of ammunition. Many of these weapons used by Paddock were purchased at the Guns and Guitars store in Mesquite, Nevada. The store’s manager reported that he followed all of the procedures and background checks required. Really? This is the price of freedom — Really?
No, this is not the price of freedom, it is the cost of our societal derangement.
Our pugilistic president has once more sought to bully his way past the moral and legal heritage we together claim as a nation. Much has already been said about his pathetic performance in Trump Tower on Tuesday, 8-15-17. He spoke his mind. In the process truth, his presidency and our nation’s standing in the world were diminished. It was a shameful moment that will, I suspect, become a central moment identified as the end any prospect to provide ethical leadership.
Increasingly, however, my concern is not primarily about Mr. Trump’s bigotry and failings. He is clearly not up to the job, intellectually or morally. His ignorance and intolerance are, sadly, no longer astonishing. My concern is now with those folks who continue to stand behind him.
It was rather graphically portrayed on Tuesday. There, in the lobby of Trump Tower in New York were several Cabinet Secretaries standing behind as he spoke — each one of whom would be on the enemies list of the hate groups marching in Charlottesville.
The question before us all now is where do we stand? Political leaders — Republican, Democrat and Independent — have spoken out against the moral equivalency arguments misused by the president yesterday. However, this still begs the question about WHERE THEY WILL STAND GOING FORWARD?
We watch as one by one, folks leave their posts in the White House. Increasingly, many of these folks, fine people they, leave this administration with their reputations in tatters. They have, as the old joke goes, “Tried to teach a pig to sing.” The futility of this effort is identified as follows, “it only wastes your time and it annoys the pig.” As we have already seen there is a pathetic kind of musical chairs being played out in an administration that has no guiding set of principles other than the hope of returning us to a world that never existed — to the mythical land of “Make America Great Again.”
Romans 12:21 commends the faithful as follows: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” How then shall we live?
Is Mr. Trump redeemable? Yes, of course, as a person. I am a Christian pastor, after all, and I do believe in conversion. However, there is another question which we must consider: “Is this presidency redeemable?” To that I would answer “NO.” We have now passed the point of no-return for this administration. I speak for myself, and I regret to say, I suspect this is now the sentiment of a majority of others in our nation.
What then to do? Yes, you guessed it — we begin with ourselves — let’s start there. If we are not going to stand behind this fatally flawed president what will we do?
Years ago there was an Open Housing campaign that ran ads in national newspapers with the headline “Your Heart May Be in the Right Place But Are You?” As I suggested earlier this week on this blog, we need to reach across the many divides in our society (there are more than two, Mr. President) and build and rebuild what Dr. King called the Beloved Community.
(I am avoiding the question of what wasn’t done that allowed us to get to this place. I look around my denomination — United Methodism — and see our failures. We were so busy trying to grow our congregations that we missed what was happening in our communities. We allowed racist perceptions, fears of the undocumented and discrimination against gay persons to distort our Christian witness. We sought to “grow” our congregations by filling them up with people like ourselves.)
We need to be honest about the ways economic exclusion and racism have denied opportunities and allowed our nation to value crony capitalism and violence as our tools of choice when facing complex problems. For those of us who are perceived to be “white” and have thereby benefited from this underlying racial advantage, we need to rethink how we spend our time and resources. We may need to rethink our paternalistic styles of “helping the poor” as these often do more damage than good.
And, yes, we must support corporate, civic and political leaders who will no longer stand behind this president’s misguided set of words and actions.
We saw some corporate leaders take that step away in recent days, leaving the president’s manufacturing council. In every place now possible, I am prepared to argue that folks need to step away. Find a political leader who has a clear moral compass. Encourage and support him or her.
Send words of support to those corporate and political leaders who do step away and say, “Thank you for modeling true patriotism and the best of our citizenship by no longer following this misguided, confused man.” I believe our democracy is up to it. I pray our democracy is up to it.
Post Script — Why My Strong Words:
I have wondered if I should respond to the president’s words yesterday. After all, I don’t have much in the way of authority or agency. My words might only do damage or cause pain… perhaps even be painful to persons I love and respect. However, I haven’t exactly been a wilting violet in the past — and, there is a sense that each one of us needs to now join in seeking to be a bit more bold and honest if we are to seek a peaceful and healthy nation and world. I also decided to write after seeing the video attached below. It is chilling to see the intentions of hatred from the inside white supremacists. So, I have added my small voice — more, I pledge my actions on the behalf of reconciliation and stronger communities.
Perhaps Mr. Trump mistakes loud verbal fisticuffs with moral strength. Sad. He stepped off script and spoken his mind yesterday. Among the many utterly foolish things said a the press conference in Trump Tower yesterday (8-15-17) were these words: “I only tell you this, there are two sides to a story.” No, Mr. President, you are wrong. There are many sides.
As persons from MANY sides are saying today, there is no moral equivalency between Neo-Nazis, KKK and other supremacists with those who were counter protesters. The president says he took time to gather the evidence before he spoke. Really? Has this been our experience over the months of this twitter presidency? I wonder if he took the time to see the images in the video on White supremacists on Vice News video on HBO. This remarkable coverage, from inside the hate group, gives a clear picture of the violence intended leading to the tragic events. Surely Mr. Trump could and should have this information — AND MORE. He is, after all, the president of the United States.
There are multiple sides to our nation’s story. Perhaps Mr. Trump is only able to work in a binary world of either this / or that. However, this is a nation that continues to benefit when our leaders have a moral center and when they seek to unify rather than divide.
Some have recently suggested to me that I should be equally concerned about the hatred and violence expressed by groups on the left. All such hatred and violence must stop — I am concerned, yes, but not equally. The reality is that the actual criminality, on the streets, is not comparable in threat or in our response to it. White supremacists represent more than 90% of the violence visited on us by terrorists-made-in-America in recent years. Most tragically, these supremacist groups have been validated and sustained by the beliefs and actions of staff persons currently serving on the White House. When David Duke praises the courage of Donald Trump for his words yesterday, there is no clearer witness needed to the danger that is at hand.
As best as I can recall, I met Warren in the early 1980s. Warren professed himself to be a member of the Ku Klux Klan. I met him because Will told me I should.
We lived in a core-city neighborhood in Evansville, Indiana at the time. There were reports of several rape attempts in our neighborhood. The assailant was said to be an African-American man. Soon after these reports began, we learned that the Ku Klux Klan was going to patrol the neighborhood to protect our “white women” in our racially diverse community. What to do? Our ministry, known as Patchwork Central Ministries, was located in the center of this aggression, violation and fear-filled response. What to do?
Memories of these days have come rushing back into my mind this weekend. Seeing the hate-filled actions and language of the white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia has brought back images and stories now more than thirty years old. Some things have changed over the decades but, sadly, other things have not. Without recounting all of the ways we prayed, and we made strategies, and sought to give Christian witness back then, I would share one thing that proved most helpful. Someone, perhaps it was Calvin Kimbrough, suggested I should “talk with Will.” To say “Will” was enough. He didn’t need a last name — I knew it was Will Campbell in Mt. Juliet, Tennessee. We had recently read Will’s book “Brother to a Dragonfly.” He was a wonderful part of our tribe — a progressive Evangelical Christian! So I called him.
Mississippi born and a graduate of Yale Divinity School, Will was not only known for his engagement in the struggle for civil rights for African-Americans but was also known for developing friendships with a whole range of people including members of the Ku Klux Klan. You see, Will took this Christian Gospel for ALL PEOPLE stuff seriously.
I called Will, left a message and, in a day or so, he returned the call. Explaining our situation, he replied, “The first thing you need to do, is to say to the Klan ‘NO, YOUR ACTIVITIES ARE NOT WELCOME IN OUR NEIGHBORHOOD.'” That sounded good — We had already done that — said “NO.”
Then, Will, stumped me, surprised me. He confused me. Will asked, “What are the names of the Klan people you know?” NAMES? Will thought I would know their names! He thought I might know THEM? I confessed that I didn’t know any of those folks. He said, “Well, then, what the hell you been doing? You better get started. It is not enough to say ‘no.’ Now, your next step is to reach out to the Klan folks as people.” There are many stories of the way Will Campbell reached out, made friendships, and shared the gospel with folks with whom he strongly disagreed. He was a radical Christian in that he didn’t set up limits to where reconciliation and renewal might occur. Will Campbell believed in the power of Christian witness and love.
I don’t remember the exact sequence of events that followed, one thing led to another and I meet some of the folks who said they were members of the Klan. I remember Warren especially. Warren and I talked on several occasions. In fact, I invited him to our Sunday evening worship — and he attended — several times. He listened, stayed and ate dinner with the group.
The story of that season in our neighborhood moves on in many directions. The rapes ended. I don’t remember that anyone was ever caught. Then there was the evening in worship when the offering was taken. After receiving communion persons might leave something in the offering plate. Sometimes it was money, sometimes a poem, sometimes a prayer request, sometimes a drawing. On this evening, I watched as Warren made his way forward and dropped something heavy in the offering basket. As soon as worship was over and dinner was about to begin, I took the offering basket to the office. There I found a few dollars, prayer requests and Warren’s membership card in the Klan. And, yes, there was also a 22 calibre revolver.
Warren disappeared shortly after this. I called his phone a few times with no response. I went to his home once in a nearby town. Knocked on the door. There was no response. I left a note for Warren. He had disappeared. Word came from one of his friends that he had gone back to his hometown in Southern Illinois. Did he leave the Klan for good? Was this a sign of a conversion? Or, just a chance to make a new start? Maybe that is what conversion meant for Warren — and for me.
For me, Will taught that I needed to “know a name — and a person” if I am also going to condemn and say “NO” to their words and behaviors.
As I have thought about Charlottesville and the evil exemplified there this past weekend, I am reminded of a sermon that Dr. William Pannell preached years ago. He began by saying that he was going to use the ugliest four letter word in the English vocabulary. It was, he said, “the word THEM.”
Let me ask you, good reader, the question that Will Campbell asked me years ago. After you have said “NO,” (something we must do as a nation), do we know their names? My conversion continues — how about you?
Patchwork: Lessons from a Community of the Lost and Found
Our difficulties start with the fact that we have lost each other.
This weekend, July 15th, 2017 we will be joining others to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of Patchwork Central Ministries in Evansville Indiana. It hardly seems possible that four decades have passed since the Amersons, Doyles and Kimbrough’s made a covenant to live in an “intentional community” in a core-city neighborhood.
Alan Winslow, February 2017
We will also be celebrating the 95th birthday anniversary of Alan Winslow, a long-time member of the Patchwork Community. Alan, along with Alice Serr, lead Patchwork’s Neighborhood Economic Development Center for many years. This was a program of micro-lending before such efforts were widely undertaken. Alan is one of the scores of incredible lay persons who have been a part of the Patchwork story over these four decades.
Perhaps we were “foolish beyond our years” in 1977.
No doubt we were naive. Perhaps we were just a part of our generation’s search for an “alternative lifestyle.” No doubt we wanted to test some of theories learned in graduate school. As we would have said at the time, we were seeking to find new ways to live as people of faith. No doubt we were open to adventure, to odyssey, to new lessons about ourselves and others.
Whatever the case, we took the risk of leaving safe jobs and titles to join this experiment in covenantal living. (I will avoid the easy jokes about making these changes due to eating some bad tacos or barbecue.)
Judi Jacobson, Alan Winslow and Elaine Amerson, circa 1982.
We spoke of being an intentional community because this was the term used by others at the time. There were other Christians, friends in Philadelphia, Cincinnati, Chicago and California who were experimenting as well. It is safe to say we were trying to live out our personal vocations as Christians in ways that offered us the chance to explore new styles of worship, ministry and witness. Why Evansville? Why this medium-sized community down on the Ohio River? As we used to say, this only makessense if it can “Play in Peoria.”
Over the years the Patchwork Central Community grew from the ten of us (six adults and four children) to dozens of folks. We who would gather for worship, social service, educational and counseling programs, community organizing and protest rallies and so much more. We were “small but mighty in spirit” and our numbers seemed to increase in proportion to our commitment to try yet another mission. Food panty, after school program, health care clinic, art education, photography, minority leadership development, micro-lending through Neighborhood Economic Development, Back Alley Bakery, tool lending, low-income housing, jobs program for ex-felons painting houses and more. Our friend, Jim Wallis from the Sojourners Community, after a visit, jokingly said, “Patchwork is a place with more ministries than people!”
While many of us were United Methodist, ordained even, from the beginning we understood ourselves to also be ecumenical and interfaith in practice. So, quickly, there were friends from the Roman Catholic, United Church of Christ, Lutheran, Presbyterian and Jewish communities. Sunday evening worship grew. Before long this little gathering turned into several dozen who worshiped, ate and laughed together on Sunday evenings. The room was often overflowing with folks who found this to be a safe place and open place.
The three founding couples lived in separate homes, but shared many resources. The joke among the men was about who got to “wear the community necktie.” Truth is, we rarely wore ties. We improved our turn of the century (1890 to 1910) homes. Others joined. Some lived in the neighborhood, but folks joined from around the city and the region.
We grew in numbers and influence in the city. Soon we had the opportunity to purchase the Washington Avenue Synagogue nearby. How could we afford it? Our question became, “How could we not afford such a wonderful center for community activities and worship?” We covered the down payment for the facility by selling a used car that was given to us by Drs. Polly and Ernie Teagle of Belleville, Illinois. The rest of the mortgage we undertook “by faith.” Hard to believe bankers would support this rag-tag group. Such adventurism — but somehow it worked.
There are so many lessons from those years. On this anniversary I think about what it means to be lost and found. The 15th chapter of Luke’s Gospel is about finding and losing. Here are parables of lost sheep, lost coins and a lost child — and the finding again of each.
What was lost and what did we find in those early years at Patchwork? Who was lost and who found, at Patchwork? Here are four lessons from those years — the list could be much longer (and, no doubt will be in future reflections).
First, we had lost our belief the institutional church could act in creative ways, especially outside the impulse impelling it toward focusing most ministry in suburban neighborhoods. (There was a book published earlier written by Gibson Winter and entitled “The Suburban Captivity of the Church” named the dilemma we saw.)
What we found was this. If we took the risk of acting first, and asking permission later, some folks in the church would surprise us and support ministry within lower income communities. We decided to start Patchwork Central, and although some tried to dissuade us, others, some in leadership, said, “Well, you may be acting foolishly but we will do what we can to support you.”
I am not certain this would happen today. I see a majority of leaders who are so risk-averse they seem stuck forever in the way things were always done. For us, we have the gift of folks like Lloyd and Marie Wright and Sam and Marie Phillips. Lloyd was the United Methodist District Superintendent in Evansville and while he often wanted us to “slow down” and “not try to fight city hall,” he none-the-less stood by our fledgling efforts at new forms of ministry. Sam and Marie Phillips were the sort of progressive leaders we are lacking today. Sam had been a D.S. as well and was working in the area of global mission. The Phillips understood. And, I could name many, many others, clergy and lay. Suffice it to say — we found support and vision that we mistakenly thought had been lost to the entire church.
Second, speaking for myself, I thought the potential for ecumenical work in a core city neighborhood was a lost cause. There were pundits in those days who said that a focus on social justice would drive people from the church. Justice work was blamed for any decline in the church. It seemed a world of “every denomination for itself” and the primary focus of churches was only on church growth.
I was so very wrong. There were clergy like Ed and Mariam Ouelette (UCC), Walt Wangerin (Lutheran), Joe Baus (Presbyterian), Jim Heady (UMC), Alice Serr (Catholic) and Michael Herzbrun (Jewish) to name a FEW. AND, many of the strong and growing congregations were ones that joined us in our ministry efforts.
Third, speaking again for myself, I thought there were few resources in my new neighborhood upon arrival. I thought imagination and energy for change was lost to these new neighbors.
I remember, with embarrassment, saying that our work in those early years was to “bring resources to places where they don’t naturally occur.” Such hubris!! Such ignorance. I believed the notion that we would “discover the needs of the people” and set up plans and strategies to fix these dysfunctions. Instead, what we discovered were neighborhoods full of people with insights, talents, capacities and education beyond our imagination. The poverty problem was my own — my poverty of vision. I couldn’t see the potential resource that was all around. In almost every new endeavor we found folks with gifts to share. Where I had seen a desert of resource, there was more abundance than I could have imagined. However, I needed to stop and listen. If I did, I would discover that my role was more that of friend and coordinator than initiator.
Perhaps most significantly, I thought the basic ingredients of community were something I needed to bring because they were otherwise lost. Somehow, I thought, I was to bring them to a community void. Well, community by its very nature is about discovering relationships already available to us — if we can see them and risk finding.
We discovered that everyone can and does live in community. The question becomes how intentional do you want it to be? The choice is to risk living in new ways. The choice is to see with new eyes what is possible. It requires work. bell hooks, in her book Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope puts it this way: “To build community requires vigilant awareness of the work we must continually do to undermine all the socialization that leads us to behave in ways that perpetuate domination.”
In the parables we call the Prodigal Son in Luke 15 we too easily think of the son as the lost one. However, a closer read shows that the father and older brother were also lost. They had given the younger brother up for dead — and the parable suggests that when all seems lost, it is then a new relationship is possible, if it is accepted.
Ken Medema puts the lesson from scripture on finding and losing in a memorable verse:
Finding leads to losing, losing helps you find.
Living leads to dying but life leaves death behind.
Finding leads to losing, that’s all that I can say.
No one will find life another way.
There will, no doubt, be many memories this weekend about the early years at Patchwork Central. Some will want to speak of what we gave — or contributed — to this ministry that still survives. I will know the truth, for me Patchwork happened because of what I lost while there, and in so doing, what WE, together, found.
July 2nd is Independence Day for the United States! So insisted John Adams, always the contrarian. You see, Adams and others believed the festivities should be celebrated on the date the thirteen colonies officially voted to separate from Britain.
There are many parts of our nation’s birth story that are subject to question, even revision. The musical “Hamilton,” for example is a recasting of our nation’s earliest years. Hamilton gives new focus to the significance of Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr. (And the musical provides a delightful reconsideration of our ideas about folks like Washington and Jefferson.)
I have been thinking about the mirror images (and differences) between the United States and Canada. Canada celebrated its 150th Birthday on July 1st. We have so much in common. Two nations, so similar in cultural traditions and yet so different. We are, and we are not, mirror images. We both reflect the quest for democracy and freedom in North America… and have much to learn from one another.
Web searches on the topic of “Myths about U.S. Independence” or “Misconceptions surrounding the Revolutionary War” will uncover lists of the fallacies regarding our easily held stories of the nation’s birth. It is helpful to be reminded that our knowledge can always be advanced; our own self-identity is much more complex than our fifth grade history lessons portrayed. An engagement with the story of Canada, for example, makes these myths even more fascinating.
In May I had the privilege of meeting Sam Sullivan, recently elected to a second term as a member of the British Columbia legislature in Canada. Sullivan, former mayor of Vancouver, B.C., was left paraplegic following a skiing accident at age 19. A civic reformer, inventor, leader in rethinking urban landscapes and how we might live in more environmentally sensitive ways in the future. Sam is a delight to be around. He loves challenging the taken-for-granted worlds which too often confine us.
Sullivan is a student of history, especially the founding of our two nations. In our visit he enjoyed retelling the U.S.’s founding story, from a Canadian perspective. He reminded us that had there been no so-called “revolutionary war,” slavery would have been outlawed in the colonies decades earlier, women would have had the right to vote sooner and the taxes over which we have been told were the basis for the Boston Tea Party were, in fact, rescinded before the revolution began. He suggested we take a closer look at the ways France played a critical role in our founding as an “independent” nation.
If my perceptions surrounding Independence Day are distorted, what might I need to reconsider about the current social, cultural and political realities?
It is too easy for me to speak of the narcissism of the current occupant of the White House. He is indeed a troubled soul, so hungry for adulation that he surrounds himself with people who agree to only see the world through his lenses of reality. There is, no doubt, plenty to criticize. (I have given much space in this blog over recent months to doing so.) He seems to forever be looking for validation and praise, seeking self-worth by looking in the mirrors of the media for images that portray him as hero and victor. If he doesn’t like the reflection, it is “false.” The myth of Narcissus is, in fact, the story of one so hungry for adulation that he dies beside the stream admiring his own image.
But this critique is too easy for this Independence Day. How many times did I preach of the importance of seeing oneself clearly in the world in which we live and work? Drawing on the thoughts of great theologians like Reinhold Niebuhr or Dietrich Bonhoeffer, I encouraged myself and others to be aware of the “Little Hitler” that exists in every human breast.
Now for those of you who don’t like this theological assumption of original sin, I confess that I don’t like it much either.
I would prefer to speak of human beings as being originally blessed, avoiding anything to do with original sin. Honesty, however, compels me to believe that both make up the human condition. Our nation’s history and our personal ones argue that we are subject to less than noble self-understandings and actions. The temptation to move to binary thinking (one is all good and another is all bad) leads us to places where we can easily condemn the other and remain immature and unfulfilled ourselves. Let me recommend the teaching of Fr. Richard Rohr at the Center for Action and Contemplation on the limits of such binary theologies. [See Richard Rohr].
Please do not read this as suggesting an equivalency between the current occupant of the White House and Adolf Hitler. That is NOT the point. My suggestion is about the rest of us — that we all need to be freed from our tendency to divide the world too easily and believe our understandings are the only way to proceed. We, the people of the United States, need some honest looking in the mirror around our history, our bigotry and our potential.
The call is toward renewal, personal and social. The call to be freed from distortions in our self-perceptions and idealized views of our being somehow more special than others. This, I would suggest, is a true way to celebrate Independence, on July 2, July 4 and every day of the year.
I leave you with the words from the song of that great philosopher, Michael Jackson:
I’m starting with the man in the mirror I’m asking him to change his ways And no message could have been any clearer If you want to make the world a better place Take a look at yourself and then make a change
[Performed by Michael Jackson, written by Glen Ballard and Siedah Garrett]
My spouse, Elaine, lives with the belief that there is nothing that can’t be improved with duct tape. She is right — about 10% of the time! It is a running joke for us. Examples abound: screen doors, chipped flower-pot, refrigerator shelf corners, or uneven table legs can all be “fixed” with duct tape. Occasionally when there are efforts to repair a clock or extend a hotdog roasting stick, I confess to being embarrassed. Mostly it is fun discovering the duct-tape-inventions of my frugal spouse.
Such small embarrassments are more than outweighed by my love for her and knowledge that she has many more reasons to be embarrassed by me. My shirt may carry too many spots from spilled food from recent meals, I may greet someone by the wrong name, or ask for a comment to be repeated the seventh time, when I can’t acknowledge my hearing loss, I know I am an embarrassment for her. Much more so than a little duct tape here and there could fix. Elaine deserves the “most embarrassed by a spouse” award.
Embarrassment is on my mind recently. Serious embarrassment, not the sort easily ignored, laughed away, or mended by duct tape. We all, or most of us, know about embarrassment. I think of the big institutions in my life — my nation, my state, my church. I was helped by Neil Gross who writes, “Americans embarrassed by President Trump are experiencing vicarious embarrassment not for him but for the country. They’re embarrassed that, with Mr. Trump as president, the country’s claims to virtue, leadership and moral standing ring hollow.” (see Neil Gross, New York Times, 6-16-17, Does Trump Embarrass You?)
It is not the shameless pettiness, the vile language, or the ill-considered tweets that are most embarrassing. As Gross names it, it is an embarrassment related to our national standing in the world. We are all painted by the brush of Donald’s obvious ignorance and intolerance. He is our representative, our national voice and when he behaves like a six-year-old, each American loses something precious, something immeasurable for our nation and world.
Week after week there are multiple examples of Mr. Trump’s lack of knowledge, non-existent curiosity, or his disregard for basic decency. I am embarrassed “early and often” as they say. However, methinks the behavior of this seventy-one year old adolescent is not the core issue. We have not been carried to this current sad emotional valley by Donald Trump alone. There are multiple reasons we have arrived at this place.
Congressman Steve Scalise was shot last week while practicing for the annual baseball game between Republicans and Democrats in Congress. Scalise was apparently chosen because he is in the Republican leadership in Congress. A deeply troubled man from Belleville, Illinois, is said to have shot Scalise and others out of his anger over the political direction of our nation. What tragic madness!
Fortunately, congressional leaders responded with calls to lower the rhetoric, end the vitriol and display our national unity, despite our political differences. Good. This is a much-needed message. However, our problem is not just mean-spirited language and the damage it produces. Our nation didn’t arrive at this place suddenly. The ugliness and embarrassment didn’t begin in 2016. Year after year, we have lived with denials and multiple embarrassments. We have considerable makeup work to do to regain our sense of national pride.
Sadly, the horrible scenes played out on the practice field in Alexandria, Virginia last week were the 154th mass shooting in the United States in 2017. Over 6,800 persons have died due to gun violence in the first six months of 2017 (see: U.S. gun violence in 2017). Might it be that we should have acknowledged this reality and our embarrassment sooner? Might it be we should be persistent and ever more diligent in demanding change? I do not claim that stronger gun laws would have prevented the shooting on that Virginia baseball field. We will never know. However, I am convinced that having restrictions on who can purchase guns, especially assault weapons, would have reduced the number of mass shootings this past year. This is our continuing embarrassment.
The fact that our nation did not take strong measures against gun violence following the deaths of twenty children and six adults murdered at Sandy Hook School in Newton Connecticut, just prior to Christmas in 2012, makes it clear that our problems, our embarrassments, go much deeper than the divisive actions and language of Donald Trump.
Years ago, former Speaker of the House, Richard Gephardt, told me he believed that “politics is our best substitute for violence.” I agree, mostly. Still, when four out of every five adults in the nation want stronger gun laws and yet nothing is done we have a problem. We should all be embarrassed. Whether it is the vast sums of money now distorting our elections, the abuses of social media, the use of fake news, voter suppression, gerrymandering or all of the above, we should be embarrassed.
What can we do? Let me suggest four things:
Take personal responsibility. Let’s not get stuck in our embarrassment and pretend these problems will be resolved by others. This is our nation. In large and small ways we need to stay active in seeking leaders and institutions that exemplify the best of who we are as a people. Now is not the time to retreat into safe enclaves.
Plan and act locally. Find ways you can make a difference where you live. For some this will mean working with civil institutions and people of good will nearby. Others of us live in what might be called “citizenship deserts.” In Indiana, my home state, there is a selfishness and meanness (even in our churches) that makes working on the behalf of the poor or seeking environmental holiness difficult. In places like this our work is more basic. We need to build new networks of courage and encourage small communities of care to thrive and expand.
Speak on the behalf of the poor, the vulnerable, the stranger. Perhaps it is to end gun violence, perhaps to welcome the immigrant, perhaps in support of Medicaid coverage for the poor, perhaps to protect our threatened environment.
Act now. Channel that embarrassment. Do something today. It may be as simple as calling your congressman, your mayor or governor. Support measures that build up rather than destroy our civil society.
Drop the duct tape and join in helping our nation move past our many current places of embarrassment.