Category Archives: Religion and politics

Power vs. Powerlessness in Christianity

One of my favorite hymns from my Baptist youth included the refrain about Jesus, “He could have called ten thousand angels/To destroy the world and set him free/He could have called then thousand angels/But He died alone for you and me.”

This moving hymn still has value for me today, conveying the essential message of Jesus as lying in his demonstration of the power in powerlessness.   In modern day terms, given his dilemma as his crucifixion approached and given the abysmal circumstance he saw in the world, he could have decided to just “kick ass” and call down a horde of angels…so to speak…and righted the wrongs that he so astutely observed.  But he offered us the poignant and vivid lesson that the only meaningful way to address the wrongs in the world is not to wield power in response to power but to find that our power lies in powerlessness.  This has been demonstrated so graphically in our lifetime with the passive resistance of Martin Luther King in the United States and Nelson Mandela in South Africa.

The powerless I am speaking of here does not mean wimpishness.  The powerless refers to a hidden power that lies in attitude more than military and/or political might, seeing the wisdom of “beating our swords into ploughshares” and attacking the subtle systemic power grid that has created and maintains the oppression in the status quo. One easily overlooked expression at these two approaches toward power was seen in the recent confirmation hearing of Brett Kavanaugh for the Supreme Court nomination.  Christine Blasey-Ford, who accused Kavanaugh of sexual abuse when they were teenagers, offered in her testimony a carefully worded and measured response to the questions she faced, demonstrating an effort at being as careful and honest as she could be.  Following her, after a “half-time” in which certainly the “head coach” had intervened, Kavanaugh responded with fire and fury which included many instances of out right refusal to answer questions or deflecting from answering them.

Many Christians have adopted the Kavanaugh and Trumpian style of power, feeling that “might makes right” and demonstrating their feeling that their “spirituality” is weak and ineffective, requiring the reinforcement of political and legislative power. They fail to recognize the wisdom in the bromide, “You can legislate morality.”  Ancient Chinese wisdom told us that legislation becomes necessary when the internal moral code has broken down.  The more this internal code has been broken down, the greater the need for legislation and the greater will be the ferocity with which it is sought.  This is beautifully illustrated in the 38th chapter of the Tao te Ching by Lao Tzu, Stephen Mitchell translation:

The Master doesn’t try to be powerful;
thus he is truly powerful.
The ordinary man keeps reaching for power;
thus he never has enough.

The Master does nothing,
yet he leaves nothing undone.
The ordinary man is always doing things,
yet many more are left to be done.

The kind man does something,
yet something remains undone.
The just man does something,
and leaves many things to be done.
The moral man does something,
and when no one responds
he rolls up his sleeves and uses force.

When the Tao is lost, there is goodness.
When goodness is lost, there is morality.
When morality is lost, there is ritual.
Ritual is the husk of true faith,
the beginning of chaos.

Therefore the Master concerns himself
with the depths and not the surface,
with the fruit and not the flower.
He has no will of his own.
He dwells in reality,
and lets all illusions go.

 

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Here is a list of my blogs.  I invite you to check out the other two sometime.

https://anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com/

https://literarylew.wordpress.com/

https://theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com/

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The Need of a Religious “Splinter in the Brain” for our Culture

Emily Dickinson used the phrase “a splinter in the brain” to describe a sudden irruption in the routine functioning of one’s mind.  Our mind’s do work like a machine, prone to constantly regurgitate thoughts and feelings to keep our preconceptions and biases in place.  (Just as I do in this blog!)  This is too often a relentless, even monotonous process that we see from time to time when we realize we are talking to someone who will not allow us to intrude into their monologue.

The same phenomenon is present with any tribe as groups of peoples are just like individuals, striving to function in such a way so as to keep in place preconceptions and biases that maintain group coherence.  A contrary vein of thought or behavior is frowned upon and at times violently oppressed.  When this group coherence becomes more important to the group than functioning amicably with neighboring tribes war can often take place…always under some “justified” pretext of an affront or insult to the groups dignity or integrity. A closed system such as this can be dangerous which healthy tribes will address with allowing some degree of dissent.  This dissenting voice will always come from someone/s who deviate from the norm and offer a different perspective on the “reality” that prevails within the tribe.  These are often the voices of artists and religious leaders who serve the function of “a voice crying in the wilderness.”

Religion having always been an important part of my life, my focus here and elsewhere is often the role of the church in our country, particularly given the horrible catastrophe that is brewing in our country.  The church often appears to have been “culturally encapsulated” so that it often serves only to reinforce the biases and prejudices of the status quo, failing in its task to offer a prophetic word, a voice from beyond the pale of the cultures obstinate insistence of grinding on in its “metaled ways.”

The following is a relevant post from another one of my blogs from yesterday:

Barack Obama has answered the bell and has come out swinging, addressing the Republican morass of recent decades that has created our country’s present debacle, and yes, taking not-so-veiled jabs at the figure-head and spokesman for this roiling cauldron of chthonic energy.  I stumbled across a book just last week by Rebecca S. Chopps entitled, “The Power to Speak: Feminism, Language, and God,” which is relevant to this cauldron as she explores how language, including religious language, can be used to give expression to hidden dimensions of the heart, individually and socio-culturally. But for this “revelation” to occur, there must be a voice/voices from beyond the pale of the status quo who see into the heart of the poisonous mindset which is always oriented primarily to maintain the prevailing power structure.  Chopps writes as a feminist but also as a Christian…apparently…though if she calls herself a Christian she is certainly beyond the pale of the Christian power structure that would “legitimate” her wearing that label.

Here I will share a couple of paragraphs from Chopps’ book:

Proclamation, in feminist discourses of emancipatory transformation, resists and transforms the social symbolic order.  Proclamation is a form of resistance to the practices and principles of modernity that control, dominate, and oppress.  But proclamation resists by way of transformation, seeking to provide new discourses by a variety of strategies, methods, and ways, and to transform the ruling principles and order into ones that allow, encourage, and enable transformative relations of multiplicity, difference, solidarity, anticipation, embodiment, and transformation.  Transformation occurs by creating new images of human flourishing, new values of otherness, and multiplicity, new theoretical practices of solidarity and anticipation. 

This is reminiscent of one of the most powerful of Paul Tillich’s sermons, “The Shaking of the Foundations” in which he argued that the purpose of the church is to, “rattle the cage” (my term) of the status quo.  But the status quo does not want to be “rattled” and will arm itself to the teeth in an effort to deny any affront to its comfy zone of satisfaction, where “they bask, agreed upon what they will not ask, bland, sunny, and adjusted by the light” of the unquestioned assumptions which give them privilege and power.  This is also obviously so with the power structure of religious culture though often those most ensconced in that power structure are basking even more in the comfort of a falsetto humility which does not permit any consideration or discussion of their motivations.

I conclude with another paragraph from Chopps:

Through discourses of emancipatory transformation, proclamation enables those marginalized voices who so often have not been heard, to speak: to speak of the beauty, hope, pain, and sorrow they have known on the margins.  Proclamation also speaks within the ambiguities of the order, the ambiguities, for instance, of the bourgeois who, though promised freedom in his autonomy, discovers few genuine possibilities for the community, relationships, and love he so desires.  Unable to find any “authentic meaning” the bourgeois attempts to fill in the empty spaces of his or her soul through the attainment of material goods that great momentary satisfaction with increasingly diminished returns.

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Here is a list of my blogs.  I invite you to check out the other two sometime.

https://anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com/

https://literarylew.wordpress.com/

https://theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com/

Does Sin Have Meaning Any Longer in our Culture?

I have some taint of the Trumpian arrogance in me so that it is hard to say, “I made a mistake.”  Yes, my “memory bank” failed me in yesterday’s post and the “relevant” poetry blurb at the very end was not the one I had in mind, a problem which I have now corrected.  I’m making this “confession” though facetiously just so any of you who are interested can return to yesterday’s post and sample a bit of the wisdom of Stanley Kunitz. However, admitting being mistaken is a very human flaw and I’m in recovery now from having been mired in that morass of self-loathing and infantile arrogance most of my life.  Richard Nixon when he resigned in 1973 did not really admit doing any wrong, declaring famously at one point in the debacle, “I’m not a crook.”  But when the impeachment proceeding reached a certain point of intensity, he did resign and with great humiliation walked to that waiting helicopter with his wife and continued his flight into political ignominy.  He was in great pain, greatly shamed and humiliated by what his words and behavior had led to, but under the pressure of the political structure that he was part of and respected to some degree, he accepted disgrace and meekly resigned, a tacit admission of wrong-doing.  Nixon had some inner sense of self-control that allowed him to not resort to the violent impulse that would explode in many people when they are shamed like he was.

There is something to say for a religious culture in which “confessing sins” is part of life.  Even though this “sin” matter goes deeply beneath the surface…and from time to time circumstances lead us to exploring the matter more intently, discovering that the real sin lies in the “thoughts and intents of the heart—it is helpful to have the surface level of the issue commonplace enough that we can readily admit shortcomings.  But occasionally people appear in our culture who have steeled their heart about even a cursory acknowledgement of sin or fault and they will brazenly refuse to admit wrong on even the most trivial matter.  And if one of these people happen to stumble into a position of power, they can wreak havoc on all who are within their sphere of influence.

 

Here is a list of my blogs.  I invite you to check out the other two sometime.

https://anerrantbaptistpreacher.wordpress.com/

https://literarylew.wordpress.com/

https://theonlytruthinpolitics.wordpress.com/

Arrogance Lies at the Root of Lawlessness

The lawlessness that I wrote about yesterday boils down to arrogance.  It is arrogance that makes one think that he can live by, “the letter of the law” and it is arrogance that leads one to think he can disregard the law.  Trump is the perfect example of this arrogance, championing “the law” while simultaneously stomping on very basic civilities such as telling the truth!  And he can’t even respect simple laws of diplomacy, one of which is to not insult other dangerous psychopaths who are leading other countries.

Arrogance is one of the  root flaws of our species.  We are wired toward self-preservation and to organize into tribes with that same goal.  And “self-preservation” is a noble goal but not when it becomes paramount so that it is sought to the neglect of and even violence toward those who are different.  And this arrogance is now seen in large sections of the Christian faith who have done the bidding of Trump and now interpret their faith as a means of “hunkering down” in their own little safe enclave.  Even the teachings of Jesus can become a fortress when the “discerning spirit” is not employed, leading one to see the role of “the flesh” in his understanding of spiritual truth.

Trump is a black hole and thus a formidable spiritual presence in our world, albeit an abysmally dark “spiritual presence.”  Being the black hole, all those who so much as tippy-toe into his orbit become slaves to his seductive, unconscious enticement. The will-to-power is one of our most basic needs but can be catastrophic to self and others when not mitigated by the teachings of Christ who taught the power of powerlessness.

The “Lawlessness” in “The Letter of the Law” Mindset

Lawlessness was a common pulpit battle-cry in my conservative youth.  The word was often spit out, with great emphasis and passion, conveying just how contemptuous lawlessness was and that it was an indicator of how God-forsaken our country was becoming.  The New Testament word for lawlessness was, “anomia” with the root word “nomos” meaning a standard and the alpha privative (“a) conveying the absence of that quality.  And “lawlessness” is a problem in any culture as it reflects a break down of basic structures in the social body, leaving such qualities as decorum, civility, propriety, and the legal code being unattended.  But “lawlessness,” when focused merely on outward compliance with social and moral norms misses the point, as it is possible to adhere closely to a social and spiritual code even though deep in the heart there are unacknowledged character flaws which produced the people in the time of Jesus that he called, “hypocrites” or simply “actors.”

French sociologist Emile Durkheim (late 19th century) was one of the first to address the subject of “anomia” and he offered socio-cultural suggestions about the break down of “law-and-order” that often afflicts a culture.  But he noted two different, apparently antithetical dimensions to anomia, one being the overt disregard for social norms and the other being an obsessive focus on the social norms, the latter being a legalistic, “letter-of-the-law” approach to commonplace rules of social decorum and civility.  In other words, too little “law” could produce social unrest but also heavy-handed emphasis of social, civil, and moral codes could lead to the same.  To summarize Durkheim’s observation, social chaos could be brought about by laxity or disregard for the law but likewise hyper-emphasis on “the law” could lead to similar problems.

A relevant word here is “judgement” in the since of interpreting and enforcing the laws, a key feature of “judgement” being discretion.  For example, I often think of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan women at the well who was accused of adultery.  The “letter-of-the-law” required that Jesus should lead the charge in stoning the woman to death which would have had the added benefit of improving his standing with the religious establishment of the day (i.e., the Pharisees) who so famously emphasized the importance of literal compliance with the rules, especially regarding morality.  But Jesus defied the “law” and forgave the woman and told her to, “go and sin no more.”  Jesus recognized that the law always demands “interpretation,” that is discretion, and that strict and obsessive compliance with the law would eventually lead to the complication that Durkheim would note.

It is interesting…and very revealing…that in contemporary times the fiercest defenders of “law-and-order” and   of “human decency, decorum, and social civility” have found as their spokesman Trump who is the embodiment of indecency, social impropriety, and egregious dishonesty.  They have found the perfect embodiment of the hidden dimensions of their heart, a man who is the very antithesis of everything that Jesus stood for.  They proclaim that they are champions of moral, ethical, and legal propriety, yet they have empowered a man who demonstrates in his daily life the lack of all human decency and basic kindness.  They have given power and continued support to a man who demonstrates that he feels he is above the law.  Two relevant anecdotes from his past are his repeated public statements revealing his sexual interest in his own daughter and his brazen decision to walk in to the dressing room of a teen-age beauty contest and “size up” young girls in various stages of undress.  And more recently he has exceeded the power of his office and is blatantly attempting to influence other branches of the government because of his attitude, “Who is gonna stop me?”  He is fulfilling his dark prophecy that he could stand in the streets of Manhattan and shoot someonethe and he would not lose support.

Recently the Trump administration deported a man who had lived her for 32 years, was a respected and productive citizen, and the father of several young children.  Yes, he had “broken” the law in that he had not legally immigrated.  And, therefore in the mindset of Trump and his minions, “the law is the law” and must be obeyed.  “Ship him back to Mexico!”  Case closed, and those involved in the decision can sleep easily that night knowing that they, “obeyed the law.”  But the teachings of Jesus suggest there is a higher law in which one can, relying on the depths of his heart and its judgement, “forgive” this person and, metaphorically at least tell him, “Go and sin no more.”  But the moral and ethical ambiguity of life is not permitted by these spiritually immature people who assiduously rely on, “the letter-of-law” and are spared any anguish in their heart about what was the “right” thing to do.  It is much easier if you can determine what is “right” and “wrong” by relying on a rule book.  Just ask the rank-and-file Isis warrior who is never troubled by any lame-ass, wimpy thingy like, “moral ambiguity.”  Spiritual discernment, i.e. “discretion,” involves soul-searching and this existential process is related to what the Apostle Paul described as the Holy Spirit searching, “the thots and intents of the heart”

Christianity is being, “weighed in the balances and found wanting,” which is a necessary development in mature religions that see the value of self-criticism.  But like Trump, some Christians cannot handle any feedback which does not fit their carefully crafted, self-serving image and cling even more desperately to their dogma. The criticism actually encourages them as it strikes a naïve belief in their heart that they are being, “persecuted for His sake.”

The Trumpian Black Hole Claims Another Soul!

Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the current press secretary for the White House, is not a bad person.  Raised in the household of an Arkansas Baptist preacher, her faith remains very central to her life and unfortunately she is subjected to daily internal torture as she has signed onto the job of daily spinning the President in a favorable light, of “turning a sow’s ear into a silk purse.”  However, good…and especially innocent people…can allow themselves to be sucked into the orbit of very bad people and then find themselves increasingly in the spot of defending a man who is the antithesis of Christian values.  But, she continues to stay in the position and, I’m sure, daily reassures herself with some Christian bromide such as God having put her in a difficult spot to help this God-ordained President to “make America Again.”  But the problem is the premise—that God has chosen Trump, not realizing that just because one thinks something does not make it so, regardless of how he/she wants it to be.  She has hitched her wagon to a train-wreck and can only attempt to spin the ongoing tragedy in a favorable light rather than humbly acknowledge, “Oops, I made a mistake.”  She, like many of the Trump supporters are demonstrating the same character flaw of Trump—an inability to admit having made a mistake.  And this weakness of character cannot be covered up with the lame and self-serving excuse, “God is leading.”

The most egregious example of her blatant disregard for basic human and Christian value is her stance toward a staff person who made light of Senator McCain who appears to be on his death bed.    But, instead of firing the individual or offering an apology herself, Sanders’ response was to be furious merely over the fact that this horrible “verbal tic” of the GOP mind-set was leaked to the public.  Anyone who has flirted with the Trumpian black hole…or jumped head first into it…cannot escape demonstrating gross errors of judgement like this as warped judgement is a key element of their job description.  Trump demands total loyalty, almost like a dark god of some sorts, and one must always spin everything he does and says in a way to not offend him.  He is a “vengeful” god and will “destroy” anyone who does not go along with his game plan.

My concern here is the common Christian deceit that just because one is serious with his/her faith, he/she can make a horrible mistake and lamely cover up it up with faith in God.  This does not diminish the validity of their faith, only demonstrating what the Apostle Paul admitted, “I will to do good, but evil is present with me.”  This deep-seated character flaw is related to a tradition in some Christian circles to focus on “the evil that is out there” and not recognize that the real evil that needs attention is always in one’s own heart.  From experience I can attest it is much easier to see the evil “out there” than to own it in the depths of one’s own heart, a realization which does not end the conflict but opens one to an internal struggle that has always been there and always will.  Failure to understand this spiritual malady lies at the root of evangelical Christianity’s current steadfast commitment to Trump.

 

 

School Shootings and Spiritual Bromides

Another high school shooting, another response with the perfunctory, “You are in our thoughts and prayers.”  This bromide is now catching a lot of flak, especially when coming from politicians who obviously prefer a glib, meaningless bromide rather than any commitment to addressing a politically-divisive issue.  With still another round of, “thoughts and prayers,” we have the commitment of these politicians to renew their commitment to further displays of, “not gonna do a damn thing.”  And many spiritual persons, steeped in “performance art” religion, will also offer this platitude and not dare to question their legislators and local authorities.

Spiritual bromides are common…and even have value.  Offering our “thoughts and prayers” to those who have experienced misfortune or tragedy.  And these words can convey the heart’s deepest sentiment and any such expression carries value.  But spiritual bromides can become so common place that they are merely the aforementioned, “performance art” designed to convey to others the appearance that, “we feel your pain.”  Since politicians, and spiritual leaders who have long-since lost their soul, will have to face this situation again, I suggest they have a new button on their computer, “TAP,” which they can automatically press in a moment like this and send out the automated message in which “thoughts and prayers” are wished.  Even better, they can call one of their staff persons and get them to push the button, allowing them to continue with interruption their daily routine of “spiritual activity” designed only to make them feel better about themselves.

Religion is so susceptible to being reduced to bromides like this, described by poet Conrad Aiken as, “well-worn words and ready phrases which build comfortable walls against the wilderness.”  Words are easy, and regardless of how noble they might be, they can be simply the noise of “sounding brass and tinkling cymbals,” if they have no gut-level meaning in the person using them.  This style of meaningless language is captured by an Irish poet, W. R. Rodgers, in this excerpt from his poem, “Word.”

Once words were unthinking things, signaling

Artlessly the heart’s secret screech or roar,

And once they were the gangways for anger,

Overriding the minds qualms and quagmires.

Wires that through weary miles of slow surmise

Carried the feverish message of fact

In their effortless core.  Once they were these,

But now they are the life-like skins and screens

Stretched skillfully on frames and formulae,

To terrify or tame, cynical shows

Meant only to deter or draw men on,

The tricks and tags of every demagogue,

Mere scarecrow proverbs, rhetorical decoys,

Face-savers, salves, facades, the shields and shells

Of shored decay behind which cave minds sleep

And sprawl like gangsters behind bodyguards.

Its foremost ardour or its farthest wish,

Its actual ache or naked rancour.