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May 2009

Brooks on Empathy

An insightful analysis into jurisprudence and human decison-making by David Brooks.

Right-leaning thinkers from Edmund Burke to Friedrich Hayek understood that emotion is prone to overshadow reason. They understood that emotion can be a wise guide in some circumstances and a dangerous deceiver in others. It’s not whether judges rely on emotion and empathy, it’s how they educate their sentiments within the discipline of manners and morals, tradition and practice.

Dona Nobis Pacem

I love Vaughn Williams.  He is not a composer I learned back in elementary school when we were taught cclassical music.  I first heard him in church probably but didn't know it (one of his hymn tunes).  The first time I heard him and knew him was when OBU performed this piece while I was a student.  It is gorgeous and moves me every time I hear it.  I played the "Beat, beat drums" (lyrics by Walt Whitman) for my youth the first Sunday after the Iraq War began.

Biological roots to philosophical difference?

In the NYTimes, Nicholas Kristof writes about research which shows that liberals and conservatives respond differently to stimuli, particularly that related to disgust.

Psychologists have developed a “disgust scale” based on how queasy people would be in 27 situations, such as stepping barefoot on an earthworm or smelling urine in a tunnel. Conservatives systematically register more disgust than liberals.

It appears that we start with moral intuitions that our brains then find evidence to support.

All That You Can't Leave Behind

Though it was almost a year old, this album became the essential 9/11 album and seemed to take on a new life after that crisis. 

Peace on Earth, When I Look at the World, New York -- all these seemed created for the event.  Even the concluding song of Grace was like a benediction after listening to these other songs. 

I listened to the album many times in the month following, but I always skipped "A Beautiful Day."  Finally, more than a month later, I was driving to OKC from Fville and the sunset was perfect and I listened to the opening song.  It was a special moment, signifying that it was time to begin moving on from the trauma.

The Dallas Principles


President Obama and Congress pledged to lead America in a new direction that included civil rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans. We now sit at a great moment in our history that inspires the nation to return to its highest ideals and greatest promise. We face a historic opportunity to obtain our full civil rights; this is the moment for change. No delay. No excuses.. . . [Read the full text of the manifesto]

I Shall Not Be Moved

I Shall Not Be Moved

Psalm 1

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

Cathedral of Hope – Oklahoma City

24 May 2009

    In January 1993, Maya Angelou awed the nation with her poem "On the Pulse of the Morning," which she presented on the occasion of the presidential inauguration. In the poem "A Rock, A River, A Tree" call out to us. The Rock provides a place for us to stand, the River a place to rest by its side. Then the Tree speaks:

They hear the first and last of every Tree

Speaks to humankind today. Come to me, here beside the River.

Plant yourself beside the River.


Each of you, descendant of some passed

On traveller, has been paid for.

You, who gave me my first name, you

Pawnee, Apache, Seneca, you

Cherokee Nation, who rested with me, then

Forced on bloody feet, left me to the employment of

Other seekers—desperate for gain,

Starving for gold.

You the Turk, the Arab, the Swede, the German, the Eskimo, the Scot . .

You the Ashanti, the Yoruba, the Kru, bought

Sold, stolen, arriving on a nightmare

Praying for a dream.

Here, root yourselves beside me.

I am that Tree planted by the River,

Which will not be moved.

    Healing for our history of racial and ethnic divisions in the image of a tree planted by the waters. The Psalmist would be proud.

    Some ancient Hebrew writer celebrated the Torah by composing this first Psalm, which introduces the major themes of the hymn collection.

    Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked.

    Happy are those who delight in the law of the Lord.

    They are like trees planted by streams of water,

    Which yield their fruit in its season,

    And their leaves do not wither.

    In all that they do, they prosper.

    This original Hebrew poet had a rather clear cut view of human religious experience. Obedience to the law of God would result in happiness. Disobedience would result in a chaotic and tragic life. We know that the religious life is far more complex than that. Sometimes the good suffer and the evil prosper. Even the rest of this hymn book grasps that.

    Despite it's straightforward, simple faith, Psalm 1 does express a deep hope and longing--that following the path of righteousness and justice will bring us blessing and happiness.

    The prophet Jeremiah uses similar imagery to describe the life of the faithful. Jeremiah does not emphasize obedience to Torah. For Jeremiah it is a matter of where one places ones faith—in human beings or in God.

Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals

And make mere flesh their strength,

Whose hearts turn away from the Lord.

They shall be like a shrub in the desert,

And shall not see when relief comes.

They shall live in the parched places of the wilderness, in an uninhabited salt land.


Blessed are those who trust in the Lord,

Whose trust is the Lord.

They shall be like a tree planted by water,

Sending out its roots by the stream.

It shall not fear when heat comes,

And its leaves shall stay green;

In the year of drought it is not anxious,

And it does not cease to bear fruit.

    The Psalm expressed a hope and longing that by following the right path we will prosper. Jeremiah's hope is that having faith in God will grant us the strength to endure. He understands that the heat will come--that there will be droughts. But our faith in God gives us the ability to withstand the drought and not fear.

    Do you know the old American folk song, "I Shall Not be Moved" or "We Shall Not Be Moved?" If you don't we are going to sing it soon, and some of its lyrics are printed in your bulletin tonight. This is one of those songs which has developed many different versions and verses over time. So these are just a selection of the myriad ways the song is sung.

    The core of the song is this oft-repeated refrain:

I shall not be, I shall not be moved
I shall not be, I shall not be moved
Just like a tree that's planted by the water
I shall not be moved

    The song seems to have originated as a spiritual sung by African-American slaves. In the 1930's it became an anthem of the labor movement and was used in the Civil Rights Movement. Its most famous recordings are by Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley.

    Like Jeremiah, it employs this image of the tree beside the water to express a message of hope and faith—we will endure, despite the trials of life. And by expressing this faith, the song becomes, on occasion and in the proper setting, more than a gospel song—it is a protest song, criticizing the status quo for its injustices and imagining a better world ahead. There is nothing you, the powers-that-be, can do, to move me. And if I am not moved, we are not moved, then sooner or later, the future we dream about will come.

    Used in a protest song, the image of the tree beside the water is still employed on behalf of righteousness, but now it is less about our obedience and more about the righteousness of society.

    The Psalmist rooted the image in Torah observance. Jeremiah in faith that survives the heat and drought. Proverbs picks up elements of the image and connects them to the celebration of Sophia/Wisdom.

The Proverbs passage is not as explicit, in that it does not talk about the tree being rooted beside the water, but the connection is drawn by St. Jerome in his commentary on Psalm 1. Jerome then goes on to explore the connections between Sophia and Christ and to, then, interpret Psalm 1 as happiness resulting from being rooted in Jesus. It appears that each author has employed the imagery for his or her own theological emphases.

So, borrowing this image of the tree to explore happiness that results from right living, the Proverbs connects the image to the Divine Feminine in the person of Sophia/Wisdom. We read in the third chapter of Proverbs, beginning in verse 13:

Happy are those who find Wisdom,

And those who get understanding,

For her income is better than silver,

And her revenue better than gold.

She is more precious than jewels,

And nothing you desire can compare with her.

Long life is in her right hand;

In her left hand are riches and honor.

Her ways are ways of pleasantness,

And all her paths are peace.

She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her;

Those who hold her fast are called happy.

    There is a subtle change in the image. This time Sophia is the tree and we hold tight to her. Previously, we were the tree, and our roots went deep into the soil watered by the river of blessing. For this passage, being happy involves the determination to hold on tight.

    There is a contemporary parallel to this use of the image. It is also found in the poetry of Maya Angelou. In 1990 she published a volume of poems entitled "I Shall Not Be Moved." Clearly this is a favoured image of hers, reappearing in her poems.

    When we encounter the phrase, "I shall not be moved," it may not directly reference the tree beside the water back in Psalm 1. But as we remember the history of the phrase, through the slave song back to the scripture, we carry the image of the well-rooted tree forward.

    This volume of Maya Angelou's poetry explores the experience of African-Americans, particularly African-American women. In the poem "Our Grandmother" the phrase, "I shall not, I shall not be moved" becomes a refrain.

    Now, I'll not read this entire poem, because there is language in it that would be offensive when read by a white man, so I'd refer you to the entire poem. But some excerpts will convey the gist of its meaning:

She lay, skin down on the moist dirt,

the canebrake rustling

with the whispers of leaves, and

loud longing of hounds and

the ransack of hunters crackling the near branches.


She muttered, lifting her head a nod toward freedom,

I shall not, I shall not be moved.


. . .


In Virginia tobacco fields,

leaning into the curve

on Steinway

pianos, along Arkansas roads,

in the red hills of Georgia,

into the palms of her chained hands, she

cried against calamity,

You have tried to destroy me

and though I perish daily,


I shall not be moved.


. . .


She stood in midocean, seeking dry land.

She searched God's face.


she placed her fire of service

on the altar, and though

clothed in the finery of faith,

when she appeared at the temple door,

no sign welcomed

Black Grandmoter. Enter here.


Into the crashing sound,

into wickedness, she cried,

No one, no, nor no one million

ones dare deny me God. I go forth

alone, and stand as ten thousand.

The Divine upon my right

impels me to pull forever

at the latch on Freedom's gate.


. . .


Centered on the world's stage,

she sings to her loves and beloveds,

to her foes and detractors:

However I am perceived and deceived,

however my ignorance and conceits,

lay aside your fears that I will be undone,


for I shall not be moved.

    Now we aren't as simple and straightforward as the Psalmist. He claimed that Torah obedience would bring blessing. This black woman knows different. She knows that life can assault you, no matter who you are or what you've done. For Maya Angelou, not being moved is not just a matter of being well-rooted, it is determination and strength. Where Proverbs glorified the Sophia/Wisdom, the Divine Feminine, and instructed us to hold tight. Angelou honours the wisdom and strength of women.

    There is one final set of parallels. In Revelation 22, John of Patmos describes his vision of the New Jerusalem:

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.

    That final phrase is one of my favourites in all of scripture: "and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations."

    Notice that once again the image has shifted. The image now is more universal, more inclusive. Before, we were the tree, deeply rooted, either through obedience to Torah, faith, or Christ in the soil watered by God's blessing. Or we were holding tight to Divine Wisdom. Now the tree is part of God's gift, God's grace freely offered.

    The leaves and the fruit have appeared in some of these other scripture passages, but this is the first to really explore them. For John of Patmos, the fruit of the tree symbolize plenty and abundance. In the new creation, no one will be in need. And because no one is in need, that will be the opportunity for the healing of all the things that divide the nations – racism, war, oppression, greed, etc.

For John of Patmos, the tree beside the water is not simply about our own security. It is about the nations. "Just like a tree that's planted by the water, I shall not be moved," now becomes a vision of the kingdom of God.

So, we return full circle to Maya Angelou's inaugural poem, "On the Pulse of the Morning," which uses this image of the tree beside the water to excite our hope:

Lift up your eyes upon

This day breaking for you.

Give birth again

To the dream.


. . .


Lift up your hearts

Each new hour holds new chances

For new beinnings.

Do not be wedded forever

To fear, yoked eternally

To brutishness.


The horizon leans forward,

Offering you space to place new steps of change.

Here, on the pulse of this fine day

You may have the courage

To look up and out and upon me, the

Rock, the River, the Tree, your country,


. . .


Here on the pulse of this new day

You may have the grace to look up and out

And into your sister's eyes and into

Your brother's face, your country

And say simply

Very simply

With hope

Good morning.

Frank Rich on LGBT Civil Rights

In today's NYTimes, Frank Rich gives a good review of the current state of LGBT civil rights and criticizes the lack of movement by the Obama administration:

The most common rationale for his current passivity is that his plate is too full. But the president has so far shown an impressive inclination both to multitask and to argue passionately for bedrock American principles when he wants to. Relegating fundamental constitutional rights to the bottom of the pile until some to-be-determined future seems like a shell game.