Protest

Protest

Ella Wheeler Wilcox


To sin by silence, when we should protest,
Makes cowards out of men. The human race
Has climbed on protest. Had no voice been raised
Against injustice, ignorance, and lust,
The inquisition yet would serve the law,
And guillotines decide our least disputes.
The few who dare, must speak and speak again
To right the wrongs of many. Speech, thank God,
No vested power in this great day and land
Can gag or throttle. Press and voice may cry
Loud disapproval of existing ills;
May criticise oppression and condemn
The lawlessness of wealth-protecting laws
That let the children and childbearers toil
To purchase ease for idle millionaires.

Therefore I do protest against the boast
Of independence in this mighty land.
Call no chain strong, which holds one rusted link.
Call no land free, that holds one fettered slave.
Until the manacled slim wrists of babes
Are loosed to toss in childish sport and glee,
Until the mother bears no burden, save
The precious one beneath her heart, until
God’s soil is rescued from the clutch of greed
And given back to labor, let no man
Call this the land of freedom.



Magnanimous

George-Marshall

David Brooks writes, 

[George] Marshall lived in the world of airplanes and the nuclear bomb, but in many ways he was formed by the moral traditions of classical Greece and Rome.  His moral make-up owed something to Homer, to the classical emphasis on courage and honor.  It owed something to the Stoics, with their emphasis on moral discipline.  But particularly later in life it also owed something to the ancient Athenian Pericles, who embodied the style of leadership that we call magnanimity, or great-souled.

The magnanimous leader is called upon by his very nature to perform some great benefit to his people.  He holds himself to a higher standard and makes himself into a public institution.  Magnanimity can only really be expressed in public or political life.

But George Marshall didn't start out that way, he achieve magnanimity over a lifetime of self-mastery, as Brooks narrates it.  He was not particularly brilliant as a child but exerted great effort to achieve his success.  He writes, "His rise in the ranks of life would not come from his natural talent.  It would come from grinding, the dogged plod, and self-discipline."

Marshall's character was formed in the military, first at the Virginia Military Institute and then in the U. S. Army.  Brooks writes that VMI was not a great academic institution but that it existed in a "moral culture that brought together several ancient traditions: a chivalric devotion to service and courtesy, a stoic commitment to emotional self-control, and a classical devotion to honor."

In the Army, Marshall became an Organization Man, sublimating his own ego and ambition to the institution.  His career was not stellar, often being passed over for promotions.  Some of that may have come from his aloofness, an inability to form close friendships being the downside of his devotion to duty.

But he was admired for his administrative abilities and finally was in the right place at the right time and became Army Chief of Staff who then successfully led the Army through the Second World War, though he never had a battlefield command.  When he became Chief of Staff he purged the officer ranks of incompetent men and radically reformed the institution, as only an institutional man could have, which prepared the Army for the coming war.

After his retirement he was routinely called upon to serve in new capacities, including two posts in the Cabinet at Secretary of State and then Defense.  He was, of course, the architect of the Marshall Plan.  Brooks writes that all his post-Army service was out of his sense of duty and obligation to the nation, when what he really desired was to finally have a private life.

The previous post in this series, one on Dorothy Day, is here.


6 tasks for Christians struggling with Trump

On Ministry Matters a post that gives a concise summary of  Ministry Matters™ | 6 tasks for Christians struggling with Trump 6 tasks for Christians struggling with Trump.

 

 


A Tale of Love and Darkness

A Tale of Love and DarknessA Tale of Love and Darkness by Amos Oz
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

My response to this memoir written by the great Israeli novelist is complicated. Huge sections of this very long book are five stars in quality, while other sections, not so much. 538 pages to cover mostly childhood and adolescence is simply too much. The book could have used some good editing, particularly because it often repeats a detail, sometimes more than once.

Oz's writing is rich with detail, beautiful descriptions of physical objects and scenes and compelling characters fully drawn. Here is a brief snippet:

"The bird sang with wonderment, awe, gratitude, exaltation, as though no night had ever ended before, as if this morning was the very first morning in the universe and its light was a wondrous light the like of which had never before burst forth and traversed the wide expanse of darkness."


The setting is dramatic--his childhood in Jerusalem before statehood, growing up among people who fled pogroms and the Holocaust, with cultural roots in both European peasantry and European intellectual life. He lives through the War of Independence when the family's basement apartment was filled with a dozen other people taking refuge from the shelling. His family and their friends are a who's-who of Israeli literary and political life. Included are amazing snapshots of, among others, Ben Gurion and Menachem Begin, in memorable scenes. Prime Minister Ben Gurion calls an adolescent Amos into his office and lectures him on the interpretation of Spinoza. As a child, Amos bursts into laughter during a speech of Begin's, embarrassing his grandfather.

Three large themes connect the disparate stories--Amos' love of books inherited from his father (the descriptions of books and libraries are the most beautiful passages in the memoir) and how literature shapes his life, Amos' disenchantment with his family's conservative politics which leads him to join the Left, and the complex relationships of family, particularly the relationships between Amos, his depressed mother, and his frustrated father.

A few weeks ago as I wrote my church column about Our Times and how we don't get to choose them, this memoir was resonating with me.  The members of his family had good lives in Europe which they had to leave.  They suffered.  The endured war and poverty and loss of status.  The memoir was a powerful reminder of how little is in our control and how much we in America have taken for granted of the tranquility of our lives.

A compelling volume, filled with delights, which I shall enjoy and return to for years to come.

View all my reviews


Civil Society

In an excellent essay in The Atlantic, Jonathan Rauch writes about how civil society can prevent the worst potential abuses of a Trump administration.  He writes that institutions will push back on unconstitutional acts, like they've already done this week.  The bigger worry is that Trump flaunts the norms of civil society and so all of us must push back against that coarsening of culture.  He writes:

To help the body politic resist de-norming, you need to make an argument for the kind of government and society that the norms support. You have to explain why lying, bullying, and coarsening are the enemies of the kinds of lives people aspire to. Instead of pointing to Trump with shock and disgust—tactics that seem to help more than hurt him—you need to offer something better. In other words, you need to emulate what the Founders did so many years ago, when they offered, and then built, a more perfect union.

This resonated with what I believe is the most essential task for me to engage in at the current time, and is one reason I think that some of the opposition is misguided, as it is participating in coarsening of discourse and social norms.  Let's be better than that.


Global Community

While we sadly spend the early days of 2017 battling an effort by our new national leadership to put America First and close off our society, we should be reminded that global community is nothing new (nor is the reaction against it). Reading today in The Birth of the Modern by Paul Johnson, the British historian who is also a conservative, I encountered this description of the world in the early 19th century, which description arose out of a discussion of Western European trade relations with China:

Such cultural confrontations were inevitable as trade spread across the world and increasingly rapid and reliable forms of transport annihilated distance.  Perhaps the most important single aspect of modernity was the way in which, almost imperceptibly, mankind was transforming itself into a single global community, in which different races and civilizations, now touching at all points, simply had to come to terms with each other.  These frictions were usually solved by debate and agreement, with both sides recognizing the mutual advantage of peaceful conduct.

He does go on to point out that war did erupt and an unfortunate East-West divide was created which persists.

But I'm drawn to this idea of the global community as "the most important single aspect of modernity." Should we then conclude that Trump is an anti-modernist?  A reversion to a more primitive pre-modern worldview?


Spiritual Adventure

Dorothy-day
 

Even as a child, Dorothy Day was "filled with a natural striving, a thrilling recognition of the possibilities of spiritual adventure" (her own words).  She is the next person discussed in David Brook's exploration of character.  Despite her childhood spirituality, the saintly Day emerged from a life of struggle and a very bohemian young adulthood.  Brooks uses her as an example of how character emerges from struggle and suffering.

Brooks uses the opportunity of recounting Day's life to explore the impact of suffering on building character.  He makes an important point near the beginning of that discussion, "When it is not connected to some larger purpose beyond itself, suffering shrinks or annihilates people."

How do we grow from suffering?  Brooks makes three points.  First that it "drags you deeper into yourself."  Suffering compels you to face your sins and weaknesses and won't let you get away with the easy answers.  Second, it teaches us our limitations, what we can and cannot control.  Finally, it teaches gratitude for the thinks we take for granted in good times.

He concludes,

Recovering from suffering is not like recovering from a disease.  Many people don't come out healed; they come out different.  They crash through the logic of individual utility and behave paradoxically.  Instead of recoiling from the sorts of loving commitments that often lead to suffering, they throw themselves more deeply into them.  Even while experiencing the worst and most lacerating consequences, some people double down on vulnerability and become available to healing love.  They hurl themselves deeper and more gratefully into their art, loved ones, and commitments.

 

Three other points I want to comment on in this chapter.

First, this:

It's hard now to recapture how seriously people took novel reading then, or at least how seriously Day and others took it--reading important works as wisdom literature, believing that supreme artists possessed insights that could be handed down as revelation, trying to mold one's life around the heroic and deep souls one found in books.  Day read as if her whole life depended upon it.

I think I read like this, or at least something similar.

Second.  He writes about Day's choice to live among the poor and experience their suffering and poverty.  I was once drawn to such a Christian conviction , though I never acted on it.  In the mid-Aughts I was reading much theology and Wendell Berry.  I was influenced by Day indirectly and others.  At the time I was coming out and worried about losing my calling as a pastor, I considered that if everything went south, then I'd choose some commitment to poverty.  But, life didn't lead in that direction, and my calling was clearly different.

I contrasted Brooks' discussion of Day in this chapter with Kittlestrom's discussion of Jane Addams and her relationship with Hull House in The Religion of Democracy.  In my blogpost on that chapter, I wrote about Addams's encounter with Tolstoy and how she ultimately rejected his ethical purity for a pragmatism she thought was more likely to solve problems.  These days I tend in the Addams direction.

Finally.  In this chapter I began to feel the constraints of Brooks' presentation and further admiration for Kittelstrom's figures. Brooks has yet to explore any figure who advocated for personal liberation.  All of his characters are dominated by restraint.  I know that is one of the themes of the book, but it's beginning to feel a little stifling.  Consider the discussion of Thomas Davidson in Kittelstrom.  In contrast to the submission of Day is this idea: " to grow their moral agency through nonconformity, resisting conventional authority and traditional standards and fixed ideas in several ways: by cultivating their individual understandings as active forces capable of shaping practice; by accepting uncertainty and partial truths as inevitable features of an unfinished, infinite, pluralistic universe."

Again, my coming out experience has emphasized the important of authenticity, liberation, and self-expression.  Maybe a book on the important virtues from the queer perspective?

And, here was my last post in this particular series, on the virtue of moderation as expressed by Dwight Eisenhower.


Moderation

History_Ultimate-Guide-to-the-Presidents_Truman-and-Eisenhower_SF_NEW_HD_still_624x352

"Moderation is a generally misunderstood virtue," writes David Brooks in his discussion of the moral character of Dwight Eisenhower (a previous blog post explored some other elements of this discussion).  "Moderation is not just finding the mid-point between two opposing poles and opportunistically planting yourself there."  

"On the contrary," he writes, "moderation is based on an awareness of the inevitability of conflict."  Moderates don't think the world can be fit neatly together.  Brooks adds, "If you think all moral values point in the same direction, or all political goals can be realized all at once by a straightforward march along one course, you don't need to be moderate, either. . . Moderation is based on the idea that things do not fit neatly together."

So, a moderate must accept "that you will never get to live a pure and perfect life," because there will always be compromises between competing values.

Brooks uses the opportunity of discussing this virtue in relationship to Ike to give a warning to political leaders.  Be careful what you do because "the damage leaders do when they get things wrong is greater than the benefits they create when they get things right."  Ike is often criticized for what he didn't do.  Maybe there was a good reason?

Brooks also contrasts Ike's farewell with Kennedy's inaugural.  Ike spoke with humility about finding balance, while Kennedy challenged the nation to move forward with confidence.  Brooks concludes with something that sounds like a dire warning at this particular moment,

Like the nation's founders, [Ike] built his politics on distrust of what people might do if they have unchecked power.  He communicated the sense that in most times, leaders have more to gain from being stewards of what they inherited than by being destroyers of what is there and creators of something new.


Let Your Light Shine

Let Your Light Shine

Matthew 5:13-20

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational UCC

23 January 2011

 

 

    One can make a pretty good argument that the phrase "the city on a hill" has been one of the most influential in American life. It has sure been used frequently in our political discourse the last generation. In the 2008 presidential campaign, Governor Sarah Palin used the phrase often, every time quoting Ronald Reagan rather than Jesus, which always amused me.

    Reagan, of course, eloquently used the phrase in his calls for America to look forward with optimism rather than sinking into the malaise which characterizes much of our culture in the 1970's. When Ronald Reagan used the phrase, he was quite clear that he was quoting John Winthrop, the Puritan preacher and twelve-term governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

    Many historians have argued that Winthrop's sermon is one of the most important and influential speeches in our history, having a profound impact upon the American self-image. The sermon was entitled "A Model of Christian Charity" and was about the love which all Christians should share with each other. It was this love which would bind the community and enable it to be what God had called it to be. Winthrop delivered his sermon in 1630. The story handed down about it is that he preached it to his Puritan congregation while they were crossing the Atlantic. The image is of him standing astride the deck of the ship Arbella, the ocean wind blowing the salt spray into his face as he defined God's mission for that adventurous congregation.

    In Winthrop's sermon, the Puritans are the New Israel, called of God to change the world by living out the kingdom of God in this new promised land, an unspoiled Eden. At its best, this image has inspired us Americans to do great things. At its worst this image has led to American exceptionalism and the idea that no matter what we do, we are on a mission from God to do it. This results in triumphalism and imperialism, which is clearly not the original intention of Winthrop, who wanted a community bound together by love.

Nor is American exceptionalism the original intention of Jesus of Nazareth in the Sermon on the Mount. For him the church would be the salt of the earth, the light of the world, the city on a hill, when it lived according to this ethic which would be subversive of the powers-that-be.

 

    More influential on my thinking, was a sermon I heard preached on this passage by one of my childhood pastors, the Rev. Dr. Jerry Field. I, who have heard thousands of sermons in my lifetime, can only recall the details of a very few. But Jerry's sermon on this passage is one of them. He was my pastor at the First Baptist Church of Miami when I was growing up. He was one of my mentors, the first person to invite me to preach, at the age of fourteen. There are a handful of Jerry's images, phrases, and themes that have stuck in my memory. Growing up a Baptist, we carried our bibles with us to most religious events, so in my bible from that period in my life, in the margins next to this passage of scripture are my notes from Jerry's sermon.

    Jerry was from West Texas, where his family had farmed in the difficult conditions of that region. His sermons were often filled with down home images of farm life. So, when he came to this passage "You are the salt of the earth," Jerry turned to pickling to explain the text. I remember him going into great detail in discussing the process of canning and how the salt would turn a cucumber into a pickle.

    There were three points to Jerry's sermon, of course. He preached that salt in the pickling process does three things. It penetrates, preserves, and heals. He then extended the metaphor to encompass our mission as Christians. Just like salt and the cucumber, we are to penetrate the world, work to preserve what is good, and heal what is wrong. It is an evocative, powerful, yet simple image which has stuck with me.

    

    When I was in college I received one of the greatest gifts of my life. Dr. Weldon Marcum who was our pastor emeritus, was suffering with Alzheimer's. It was quite sad to watch this brilliant, eloquent man turn into a confused, quiet person. One day his wife Elizabeth contacted my mother and told her that the next time I was home from college she wanted me to come over to their house because Dr. Marcum wanted me to have his pastoral library. Here I was, still a teenager, in the early years of my ministry, receiving a lifetime collection. I will never be able to measure the worth of that gift.

    Contained within that library were many works on the Sermon on the Mount, commentaries from the early and middle years of the twentieth century.     One that really stands out is the book The Christ of the Mount written in 1931 by E. Stanley Jones. Jones was one of the great missionaries in the history of the church. He was an American sent by the Methodist church to India in 1907, and he remained a powerful voice in worldwide Christianity until his death in 1973. I was particularly struck by this story which Jones tells:

 

Years ago when I asked Mahatma Gandhi what we could do to naturalize Christianity in India so that it would cease to be a foreign thing, among other things he replied: "Practice your religion without adulterating it or toning it down" – and he had in mind the Sermon on the Mount. It is Mahatma Gandhi's literal insistence upon this way of acting in gaining political freedom that has startled and challenged the whole Western world. He has proved that it is possible, and that is power. This fresh discovery, by a Hindu, of a truth long buried beneath the armaments of the fighting West has been one of the most important spiritual discoveries of modern times. . . . With this challenge facing us, of a non-Christian nation acting, on a wide-spread scale, on one of the most profound principles of the Sermon on the Mount we have now no alternative but to be Christian according to this pattern, or cease to be Christians in any effective sense at all. We must now cease to embalm it. We must embody it – or abdicate.

 

    In the same decade Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor and theologian who was later martyred by the Nazis, wrote The Cost of Discipleship. Written in 1937, the book contains Bonhoeffer's reflections on the Sermon on the Mount. It is a powerful Christian witness and one of the books that continues to deeply influence and convict the church.

    Bonhoeffer who knew a lot about what it meant to live according to the Sermon on the Mount. He experienced first-hand how living the ethics of Jesus could bring one into confrontation with the powers-that-be. At a time when many people kept quiet or hid for their own survival, he wrote with passion about what it meant to be the "light of the world" and a "city on a hill":

 

The followers [of Jesus] are a visible community; their discipleship visible in action which lifts them out of the world – otherwise it would not be discipleship. . . . Flight into the invisible is a denial of the call. A community of Jesus which seeks to hide itself has ceased to follow him.

 

    Here from the 1930's come two challenges to the Christian church. One comes from the Indian independence movement, which was the first major social movement to take its organizing principles from the Sermon on the Mount. That in itself stands as an indictment upon Christian history, as Stanley Jones himself understood. The other challenge is from a Christian pastor who was martyred by his ostensibly Christian nation because he too lived by the Sermon on the Mount.

 

Jesus calls us to live in such a way that we change the world. What does it really mean to be salt and light? How can we live the good life that radiates out, affecting the world around us?

    For one thing, we have to "let is shine." The old spiritual, which we will sing in a moment, encourages us that despite whatever darkness or difficulties we face, and no matter how small or feeble our little light might feel in the moment, we should "let it shine."

    And our little light gains power and influence when it is combined with other little lights, so that together the church might be the shining city on the hill. One of the first great interpreters of the Sermon on the Mount was St. John Chrysostom, who preached on these passages for his urban congregation in Antioch in the fourth century. Chrysostom contended that in the Sermon was a comprehensive vision of human life and society. Here was all that one needed to live the virtuous life, and that that virtuous life would be lived in new Christian republic fashioned upon the teachings of Jesus. For St. John, [note, the rest of this sentence is paraphrased from Margaret M. Mitchell's essay on Chrysostom in The Sermon on the Mount Through the Centuries] Jesus introduced a new politics which called humanity to a new homeland and a "provision for a higher life."

    One recent theologian who often used this passage from the Sermon on the Mount and the images of salt and light is the Anglican John R. W. Stott, who was also one of the founders of the modern evangelical right and its profound influence on politics and culture. Though I have profound disagreements with most everything John Stott has taught, I couldn't help but resonate with some of his teaching on this particular passage.

    Stott claims that what we get here is "Jesus' picture of God's alternative society." Just like Chrysostom argued, we are to form a counter-cultural society. But Stott was also clear that Jesus was teaching that we couldn't withdraw from the wider world, "Christians are not to remain aloof from society," he wrote, "but are to become immersed in its life." But while engaging actively with the world, we are to live differently because we are made different in Christ. In his 1978 book Christian Counter-Culture, Stott wrote:

[If the church accepted Jesus'] standards and values as here set forth, and lived by them, it would be the alternative society he always intended it to be, and would offer to the world an authentic Christian counter-culture.

 

    So, now maybe you realize that I've assembled a chorus of voices speaking to us from different times, different places, even different theological perspectives. The urban pastor in ancient Antioch to a farm boy from West Texas. From the Indian independence movement led by a Jesus-inspired Hindu to the modern evangelical right. From the ships bringing the Puritans to a new world. And from a martyr witnessing against the Nazis. But they are all telling us roughly the same thing.

    Jesus calls us to live in such a way that we change the world. If we live as Jesus taught us to live, then we will fashion a new kind of people. And that new kind of people will be a witness to the world that something different, something wonderful, something marvelous is happening. Let it Shine!


Changes to the Court

Here is an intriguing list of recommended changes to the Supreme Court, including expanding the number of seats to 19.  One goal of such a move would be that every president would then likely get a few appointments, lessening the fighting over each seat and bringing a wider diversity of people and voices to the court.  The author's main objection to 9 is that we have invested far too much power into a small number of people and often the one moderate who becomes the decisive vote.  Most nations now have far larger highest courts than we do and generally don't have the number of cases decided by one vote that we do.