Republican DTs

Like you, I have watched in shocked disgust the ascendancy of one we shall call DT in the Republican Party’s primary elections. For some this means delirium tremens. You know what I mean. It has felt like the fascination of drivers slowing down to catch a glimpse of a terrible accident on the highway. And, of course, the usual words rise to our lips: the classic demagogue, a playground bully, a five-year old with a billion dollar spoon in his mouth, and so on. Like insomniacs with a bad dream, we hope it will disappear in the morning fog by Thanksgiving Day.

But then, we begin to ponder not only what we can do to stop this bully from breaking more of our nation’s diplomatic and domestic furniture, but also why we have come to this abyss and what it means. Here are some of my thoughts. You can add your own.

First, it represents a further collapse of our public realm of civil argument, negotiation, and compromise for the sake of the common good. Instead of the common good we have nationalistic arrogance. Instead of the public welfare we have stark racism and xenophobia. The core ‘republican’ values of public persuasion, mutual respect, and rational debate based on common and scientific knowledge are jettisoned. Even members of the Republican Party must question in what way they are any longer “republican.”

Much of our anger and anxiety revolves around the use of speech and the way it is mediated in our society. Politics is above all a world of speech, of rhetoric, as Aristotle and Cicero envisioned it. In its debasement, genuine politics becomes impossible. With DT we see speech’s utter debasement as a tool of humiliation, exclusion and irrational contradiction. What is said today has little to do with what was said yesterday or will be said tomorrow. In a world of broken promises, promises themselves become meaningless. With the loss of promise comes cynicism, despair and reliance on the whims of The Great One from day to day.

Over the past weeks, the image of Lucy holding the football for Charlie Brown returns again and again to my mind. In Schulz’s famous cartoon, she always takes the football away just as Charlie Brown puts all his effort into kicking it…and landing in renewed despair flat on his back. Lucy will not only remove the football again, but indeed, claim she was never holding it in the first place. It wasn’t even a football! This is the future for people who have suffered real economic loss as they run after DT’s show of vainglorious “Greatness.”

Just as DT has reached an almost certain victory over his Republican rivals, the country is riveted by the bizarre law hastily passed in my own state, North Carolina, to force (how?) people to use bathrooms according to the sex listed for them on their birth certificates. Would we all have to undergo strip searches to enter a public restroom? Somehow, this captures, in a very strange way, the “exposure” to which DT’s rhetoric has subjected people, stripping away all the conventions of civility that protect public argument from our inner passions. As Hannah Arendt claimed years ago, the public requires a realm of privacy, but even more it requires the exercise of self-discipline that does not reduce public concerns to private interests and the murky passions that haunt us all.

Many have been mesmerized by the outbursts of personal passions and chicanery  that have dominated our mercenary media. We now have the task of rebuilding, conversation by conversation, the public world that can rightly deal with the profound challenges to the welfare and existence of our societies and our very planet.

While the next six months will reduce our struggle to a political war to overcome the threat of the most ill-equipped presidential candidate in anyone’s memory, we also must continue to nurture the civil polities where people are actually trying to address the causes of our present DTs. I see it in churches like my own where roundtable and circle conversations are taking place. I see it in town and city councils where people come together around specific problems affecting their common life. I see it in the few places in the mass media where civil discussion and debate is being led by thoughtful moderators. There are pockets of it everywhere. Wherever you are, I hope you are nourishing and caring for these places of civility and common concern. It is from these seeds that we must replant our gardens after the elephants have passed on with their rampage.


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HB2, Bathrooms, and Politics

Some projects emerge out of long-desired purposes. For instance, I am now in the throes of creating as complete a catalog of Sylvia’s artistic work as I can. It spans over thirty years of work in stitchery, tapestry, mosaic, paper, mixed media and installation materials and spaces. It’s well over 300 pieces at this point and, with my daughter Aneliese’s help, will appear as a brand new Don’t worry, I’ll let you know.

Other projects simply arrive from “outside” because of the actions of others. At this juncture, most of the world knows that the Republican-dominated state legislature here in North Carolina stealthily rammed through an egregious piece of legislation a few weeks ago (known as HB2) that requires Transgender persons to use public restrooms, showers, and the like that match the “biological sex” on their birth certificate. And they did this, with other limitations on the right to sue for discrimination of this sort as well as prohibitions against raising the minimum wage in a municipality, in only one day from start to finish! Even the Governor, who clearly wanted to scapegoat Transgender persons for political persons, didn’t seem to know what he was signing.

As a result, I have joined with others in our Reconciling Conversations Group to begin a process of education and advocacy to respond to this attack. I’m going to end this blog with the letter that just appeared in our local media from the Group. Let me also expand on some of the underlying reasons we confront this kind of ignorance and bigotry. It seems to me that it is the currently predominant expression of the effort to maintain the form of political, social, and familial control that we have called patriarchy. In this region of the world, it was most powerfully articulated in the plantation system of slavery. So its sexual grounding in male power was also inextricably joined to racial domination. It is still, like an endemic disease, deeply rooted in our culture here. It is indeed a system of thought and practice that can easily be grasped at an emotional level by white males and those who depend on their power. While it is most graphically expressed in bathrooms and bedrooms, it is a system of power embracing the whole of life.

The immediate response by modern corporations against this form of domination reveals that white patriarchy (the corporation as plantation) is no longer the reigning model of economic organization. North Carolina is now struggling to reconcile these two loyalties. Though they are often reflected in the demographics between urban and rural constituencies, this is not the complete story.

Whether or not you confront this in your part of the planet, it seems to me to be the red thread connecting a lot of the conflicts going on around here right now. I hope it helps you understand the news, as well as political satire and humor, that is coming from here. Meanwhile, everyone is looking for their birth certificates in case they are questioned while heading to the toilet of their choice. I hope they’ll go on to reject this brazen assault of all our dignity.

Here’s the letter:

As members of the Reconciling Conversation Group of First United Methodist Church of Waynesville, we are striving to bring healing and reconciliation to our church family and the wider community by exhibiting love and acceptance for ALL persons regardless of sexual orientation and gender identities.  The Spirit of Jesus commands no less.

Thus, we are deeply concerned that:

  1. The recently passed law known as HB2 has deeply hurt and offended our LGBTQ members who are our brothers and sisters in the body of Christ.
  2. HB2 exhibits a total lack of medical knowledge and scientific understanding as to what it means to be a transgender person in today’s society.  Without adequate investigation of the facts about transgender persons, it inflames our fear and mistrust of others.
  3. HB2 is a denial of basic human rights.
  4. HB2 ignores the precedent set by nineteen states, the District of Columbia, and over 200 cities and counties that have passed laws, without incident, prohibiting discrimination against transgender persons in public facilities.  We know of no cases of transgressions or offensive behavior occurring because of these laws.
  5. HB2 denies legal recourse to all persons who have experienced discrimination of any sort.

We need to construct laws that enable all of us to live together in mutual understanding, trust, and respect.  HB2 stands in the way of this need.   As followers of Jesus Christ who showed unconditional love to all persons, we strongly urge that this law be repealed.

For the Group:

Betsy Hardin

Kenneth M. Johnson

Douglas Wingeier

William Everett

Jim Hoyt

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Spirals and Labyrinths at Easter

This year our Easter experience emerged as an exploration of the spiral that is often seen to be at the source of all life, whether in the galaxies of space or the double helix of our DNA.

For Holy Week we helped build a labyrinth of stones in the Sanctuary space, led by Scott Taylor, our Director of Music and the Worship Arts here at First United Methodist Church of Waynesville, North Carolina. During the week, we and others walked the labyrinth, often carrying a pebbleLabyrinth 2016-1_web we placed among the stones as we walked. Palm branches lay at its entrance to lead us from Palm Sunday to Good Friday. The walk of the labyrinth has become very popular in recent years, probably as a way of reclaiming the spiral of creative power at the heart of life in a world of so much destruction, disruption, and anger. A small journal was placed on a lectern so we could leave our thoughts behind for others.

On Saturday the stones were removed and Sylvia’s new art pieces were placed in the sanctuary. They consisted of two 14-foot panels of sumptuous fabric glowing against he cherry walls. The paraments on the pulpit and lectern, as well as runners on the altar table, echoed their vibrant, almost iridescent gold. Here is what she said about them:

Banner LeftThese two panels, with echoes of the theme in the paraments, are a visual meditation on the gathering and dispersing of life energy. This energy, which some of us call God, is most readily recognized by us when condensed into a finite, earthly manifestation, such as a human life, a tree, or a flower. On a grander scale we recognize light, love, music, and the cosmos as other showings. These mysteries are both metaphor and reality at the same time.

The Righteous Branch (The “Gathering” on the left)

In the story we call “The Stump of Jesse” (Isaiah 11) we trace the genealogy from Jesse through several generations to culminate in the birth of Jesus. In this panel I have attempted to use this story as an example of the gathering creative life energy until it becomes manifest as a new life. The dark form at the bottom of the panel represents this “stump” which will grow through succeeding generations as it flows upward. The spiral, found throughout creation, represents the coming together of this flow of energy as the birth of Jesus.

The Flower Full Blown (The “Dispersing” on the right)

Here the life-giving energy flows out of the dark cave of death/renewal toward the spiral of dispersion. The life force which became manifest in the birth of a child has grown and matured. The flower has become full blown.Banner Right It is once again returned to its source, but not lost or dissipated. It is in this ebb and flow that we participate, both in our lives and in our faith.

The great cosmic manifestation of this gathering and dispersing is the birth and resurrection of Jesus, the Christ. Each panel moves from a place of darkness through successive places of light. The blue and white crosses we observe in our central window above them come together and dissolve as a motif in the panels. The flames in the window become sparks given off by the suggested intense heat and light in the spirals. The pieced background refers to our Appalachian “crazy quilts” where bits of precious fabrics were used to form a new whole.

As Sylvia worked on these pieces over the past months, we talked often about what to name this “life force,” which we have tried to capture with words like “God,” “Allah,” “Creator,” and the like. But it is always a reality beyond naming, as we learn in the story of Moses at the burning bush. Moreover, it is bound into the core of our very existence, not as isolated individuals but as creatures within a lineage transmitted by DNA as well as the collective DNA of our libraries, customs, language, habits, and manners. So the DNA fragments came to be a kind of linkage of incarnation, the bridge between the material and the spiritual, the mundane and the transcendent.

This is a precious linkage, as our ethical disputes over gene research, preservation of memory, and respect for deep traditions tell us. But there is always a power transcending as well as working through that which binds us together over time and space. I hope that these pieces from her mind and hand will continue to arouse wonder and conversation as we walk the labyrinth of life in the years ahead.

Easter 2016 Lower

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Trumpism and the Struggle for (Re)Public(an) Life

Like most Americans and many of you in other countries, I have been trying to put together my own understanding and response to the rise of a vicious demagogue to be the putative Republican nominee to the US Presidency. While there are people much more informed about our political life who can trace the fracturing of the Republican party to its so-called “Southern strategy” and its inability to address the aching injustices of poverty and disintegrating local communities, my own thoughts have turned to some key themes that have been with me since I wrote God’s Federal Republic some thirty years ago.

In that book I traced the way our deep desire for personal confirmation finds expression in a desire for fuller public life as well as in demonic forms of narcissism and fraudulent celebrity. There are two deep religious strands in us: a yearning for “publicity” and for covenantal relationship. The first is the ground for our desire to found and preserve republics which can maximize our public life; the second builds a commitment to forms of federalism (derived from covenant) that knit these republics together in more expansive care for the common earth we inhabit.

This drive for publicity has now secured a technology that threatens the very covenants that hold us together as a people. You’re carrying it in your pocket or purse right now. That is, every individual is able and encouraged to become a kind of celebrity universe who Tweets, “likes,” and Instagrams his or her way to ever more expansive forms of celebrity fame. Donald Trump, along with ISIS and other terrorists, is its most virulent expression.

But not everyone can become a narcissistic universe, and so most of us live through virtual surrogates whom we follow in the digital universe. But in following these surrogates we expose ourselves to their power to shame as well as save us. (David Brooks has just written insightfully about this in “The Shame Culture,” New York Times, March 15, 2016.) Trumpism is only its most obvious expression. In building up a following of “the saved” they cast others into a fearful world of “others.” Their salvation becomes a cataclysm of vengeance and banishment. Narcissistic leaders seek to build a universe of Black Holes sucking everything else into them.

The decision to follow others to our own heart’s goal is found in every religious tradition, whether the figure we follow is Jesus, Mary, Muhammed, Moses, or even Buddha. And these religious tendencies can be hijacked at any time by the authoritarians and demagogues among us. Of course, every profound religious tradition also has traditions that lead us deep into our own hearts and souls to find the Holy One within, directly communing with our whole self. That, we know, is very hard to do. It takes disciplines of meditation, prayer, study, and service outside ourselves.

And yet it is precisely this claiming of a self grounded in confirmation before the One who presides in a greater Republic and a fuller Covenant that enables us to begin to think, feel, hope, and love in a wider and deeper way. In one sense, our problem is not so much the technology of digital communication as it is the destruction of smaller communities of truth-testing, cooperation, and face-to-face conflict resolution where we can participate in common work to change our lives and our world. In spite of the ravages of globalized capital, massive militaries, and sclerotic national politics, local communities can still be the places genuine public life and sustaining covenants can emerge. (I was especially encouraged recently by the “American Futures” work of James and Deborah Fallows, who published their findings in the March 2016 Atlantic as “How America Is Putting Itself Back Together.”)

I hope that our more engaged and informed citizens can resist the demagogue flailing in our midst, even though much damage has already been done. And I hope that out of this we can begin to deal more thoughtfully and energetically with the financial, political, and economic forces that have kept generations of my fellow citizens from participating fully in the publics and the economies in which they live. It begins in local communities—religious, civic, mutual aid, and voluntary associations—where we once again ignite a flame of citizenship through which to address our need to care for the earth and other creatures on whom we depend for life.

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