Monthly Archives: August 2010

American Jeremiad 

Among my people are wicked men who lie in wait like men who snare birds
And like those who set traps to catch men.
Like cages full of birds, their houses are full of deceit;
They have become rich and powerful and have grown fat and sleek.
Their evil deeds have no limit.
They do not plead the case of the fatherless to win it,
They do not defend the rights of the poor.
Should I not punish them for this? declares the LORD.
Should I not avenge myself on such a nation as this?
A horrible and shocking thing has happened in the land:
The prophets prophesy lies, the priests rule by their own authority,
And my people love it this way. But what will you do in the end?…
To whom can I speak and give warning? Who will listen to me?
Their ears are closed so they cannot hear.
The word of the LORD is offensive to them; they find no pleasure in it.
                    –Jeremiah 5:30,31; 6:10

Poor Jeremiah.  What a frustrating task he had been given, and how futile it all seemed.  If only the people would have listened.  The LORD was ready to pour out his forgiveness, if they repented. But they just could not admit they had done wrong.  They were God’s chosen people, after all; his own inheritance.  Indeed, his temple was in their midst; he himself dwelt among them.  So they would always be safe, they thought.

“Do not trust in deceptive words and say, ‘This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD!'” he said.

“If you really change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly, if you do not oppress the alien, the fatherless or the widow and do not shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not follow other gods to your own harm, then I will let you live in this place, in the land I gave your forefathers forever and ever.  But look, you are trusting in deceptive words that are worthless”  (7:4-8).

But they would not hear of it. 

The prophet’s words may safely seem light years away from us, but we have only to look around us to see how little human nature has changed in 2,600 years.  The rich still devour the poor, the powerful always stepping on the weak. Courts and lawmakers are corrupt; immigrants and the poor find no justice, and we all fall prey to the greedy.  None of this is surprising.  What is even more tragic, however, is that so few of God’s people seem to take it to heart. 

In Jeremiah’s day, in the face of ominous threats from an unruly empire to the east, professional prophets and priests continued to wave the flag and preach the invincibility of the Israelite state, since God was on their side.  Few bothered to look within or ask, “Yes, but are we on God’s side?”  Instead, they treated him more as a mascot than the Master of the universe.

In our American hubris we assume that this has always been and will always be God’s country.  That America can do no wrong and is accountable to no one. That we are free to inflict our greed and vengeance on any nation we please because we can, and wherever we go, the Almighty will go with us.  We’re America.

See how desperately we cling to our national myths and how tirelessly we try to silence all the little voices worldwide that dare even to whisper, “The emperor is naked.”  Sure of our righteousness, we indignantly tighten our borders against the onslaught of humanity that daily pours across seeking a drink of water– only because on the other side we have fouled their streams or diverted them to our own use.  In vengeance we attempt to hunt down every naysayer who, tired of our holding his head in the toilet, dares to kick against our divine imperium.  How dare they use terror and violence!  Those are our prerogatives alone.  (I am not in any way condoning terror and violence, and they do not suddenly cease to be what they are, terror and violence, simply because our side uses them.)

We even ascend our national pulpit quite frequently to wag our finger at other nations and lecture them on human rights, democracy, fairness, the rule of law, and yes, even torture.  [China, in fact, after years of enduring our sanctimonious jeremiads, recently issued a report on human rights conditions here.]  It seems much easier, you see, to snip the wires and silence the alarm bell, than to admit we have a problem– that we are the problem.  Always much simpler to treat the symptoms than the disease– in the short run, at least.  Simple and tragic. 

Tragic because we exhaust ourselves, our armies and our treasure in attempting to stop our ears to the truth.  In reality, we would not be spending trillions “fighting terrorism” if we had not been pillaging and oppressing the Muslim world directly or indirectly for generations.  We do this, we claim, to protect American interests.  What are those interests?  Chevron, Dow, Coca-Cola, DynCorp, Halliburton, Monsanto, Ford, WalMart.  These terrorists, they’re jealous of our freedom, we say.  Yes, they are.  They want freedom, too.  Freedom from us.

Now we’re planning to spend hundreds of millions to secure a border that will never be secure, for without justice, security is but an illusion.  It never occurs to us that people come here, not because we are so wonderful, but because our economic policies in our own hemisphere have left them no other choice.

I do not dispute that my country has done and continues to do some good in the world, but the idea that the world hates us so much because we stand for truth, justice and democracy is a pathetic deception.  The image we have of ourselves– the America that gives and gives and gets nothing in return but ingratitude– should have expired with the Marshall Plan.  That America, if it ever existed at all, is long dead.

The truth is that the U.S. is, and has always been, a nation tragically at odds with itself.  We stand for one thing, but pursue another.  We speak soaring words that make the world dream– of freedom, democracy and the sacred rights of humanity– but our ambassadors are not Tom Jefferson or Abe Lincoln;  they are Caterpillar, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and Blackwater.  

Decide, O America, which will ye be?  A free republic or an empire?  For history proves you cannot be both.

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A Tribute to Kaj Munk

Sixty-six years ago a body lay in a freezing ditch outside of Silkeborg, Denmark.  It was that of a man of middle age and of looks not terribly prepossessing, especially with that bullet through his head (a distinction which is rarely flattering).  Oddly, he was not the victim of a robbery or some gangland slaying.  This was not the body of a wealthy man, as the world reckons wealth.  Nor was this a case of suicide.  You see, Denmark was under Nazi occupation.  This was a political statement.  This man was murdered simply for telling the truth.  Not the ordinary kind of truth we are used to telling, such as “two and two are four,” or “the American Revolution ended with the Treaty of Paris in 1783.”  I’m talking about speaking truth to power.  Courageously. And relentlessly.

When it came to speaking the truth, it seemed Kaj Munk was no ordinary man.  Unlike most Christians, he actually believed what Jesus said about himself, and he thought this should affect the way a Christian lived his life.  That’s right, he was one of those rare oddities of human nature:  someone who actually takes Jesus at his word and lives accordingly.  The world calls them fools.  There haven’t been many.  As a pastor Munk also took his ordination vows seriously and, like his Master, tried to keep the wolves from entering the sheep pen.  The wolves he fought so tenaciously were much the same as in Jesus’ day:  fear, compromise, lies, expediency, racism, religiosity, materialism, greed. 

A playwright as well as a pastor, Kaj Munk spoke truth to power and did it so eloquently and fearlessly that he seemed like another John the Baptist.  He spoke out against exploitation of workers, poverty and hunger, prejudice, the persecution of Jews, totalitarianism, the corruption of the state church, as well as the cruelty and injustice of the Nazis and their Danish henchmen. “The goodness of God,” he said, “as we see it in Jesus is meek and long-suffering, but never compromises with evil.” And again, in one sermon denouncing the deportation of Jews, he said, “To be silent in the face of sin is to speak the language of the devil.”

No, compromise was certainly not in this man’s vocabulary.  Even as they hung on his every word and gulped down his courage like interned prisoners ravenous for bread, his parishoners, friends, neighbors, and fellow Danes, living under a cruel occupation, knew Kaj Munk was not long for this world.  Years ago I happened to speak to a Danish woman who had grown up during the war.  She said that Munk was so outspoken, everyone held their breath knowing he would be killed by the Gestapo, probably sooner than later.

But it’s a funny thing about courage.  Just like fear, it can be contagious.  A few days later, after the murder, four thousand Danes gathered to bury Kaj Munk, despite violent threats from the Nazis and their sympathizers and even warnings from the Church Ministry.  Instead of chilling the passions of national resistance, his death had the opposite effect, sparking outrage within the church and without.  Munk’s laying down his life for the truth gave his fellow countrymen more courage to carry on his work.

In tribute to Reverend Munk, the following is an excerpt from his sermon, “The Truth cannot be Pickled”:

John [the Baptist] was not a very cautious man. He believed in the truth. King Herod was committing adultery. The Baptist called on him and told him to stop it. He risked his life by doing so. And, more than that, he was in danger of provoking rebellion and civil war. It might even stir up the Romans, who could use this as a pretext to mix in the internal affairs of the country. This could have bloody consequences for the whole Jewish people.

Why did John not keep silent? That would have been far more sensible and considerate. John was possessed of a burning faith—the faith that truth is to be preached. There are people who believe that truth can be salted down, that it can be pickled and be taken from the jar and used when convenient. They are mistaken. Truth cannot be pickled. It is found only in living form, and it must be used the moment it appears. If not used, it dies and decays, and it soon be-comes destructive. The most dangerous of all lies is dead truth.

…John was a man of spirit, the Spirit of God, of Truth. Therefore, he had not the slightest faith in the idea that truth can exist hermetically sealed. The day came when he was convinced that the time for action was at hand. He said to himself: “Now the truth demands that I put it into action.” His heart beat fast within his hairy chest. His tongue seemed paralyzed. But within that jittery heart there was a great peace: “Now I speak as I ought to speak; now I am acting in accordance with my call as befits a man.” In his troubled heart there was a great calm. It gave him strength to utter the few but sufficient words: “It is not lawful for thee to have her.”

“Peace be with you” is the greeting of the Church. We sing of the peace that is “more than angel watch.” And every Sunday we pastors stand before the altar, hands extended upon the congregation saying: “The Lord lift up His countenance upon thee and give thee peace.” It is a great error to think that this “peace” means fare you well, live well, sleep well, and have a good time; that God will see to it that you always have rubbers to wear in the slush. No, the peace of God means that the soul is at rest. It has found a place of rest in its relationship to the truth. Rest is a difficult word, for truth is ever on the march. Rest in this connection means to march together with truth.

That is the peace which protected John when he appeared before Herod. It could not protect his body, but it gave him poise and dignity for all time. The Bible speaks of John’s time in such a way that his time becomes our time. This event in the life of John the Baptist took place in ancient times and in a distant land. But it also takes place in Denmark today.

Among us, too, there are good men who possess this burning faith in the truth to be proclaimed. They do not believe in truth as a stored substance. They cannot go about pretending, and looking away from the truth. They are of flesh and blood and they know fear—fear of their own fate, fear of the tragedy that truth may bring down upon our people. The tragedy which hypocrisy, silence, and lying brings upon a people will, in the course of time, be a thousand fold more fateful.

…In our nation, too, there is a Herod who flirts with the idols—the spirit of compromise which, for the sake of personal well-being permits itself unseemly conduct.

John wields the ax of righteousness. Herod was but a tiny branch on the great tree of evil. But, great or small, judgment had been pronounced. The sprout [in Danish “Kvistling,” a word play on the Norwegian traitor Quisling] must be cut off.  His Majesty, naturally, did not argue with John. He ordered handcuffs. Thus it has always been. Truth has the word at its command; error has sword and chains. And error continues to delude itself, even to believe it is the stronger of the two.

Now John was in prison. He had delivered his message. In the darkness of his dungeon he sensed the sword hanging over his head. But in his heart was the peace of God, the approval of a good conscience.

What an uncomfortable book the Bible is! Does it not tell us that a good conscience is insufficient, and that even the peace of God may vanish from our hearts? Could not the Bible have dressed up the naked facts a bit? The incident of John’s doubt been passed over in silence? The Baptist might then have died a spotless champion. Alas! The Bible is such a primitive book. It is quite out of place in diplomatic circles, too uncouth for the propaganda ministry. But we have to take it as it is; there is nothing you can do about it. The Bible too is saturated with that dangerous, uncompromising regard for the truth. It tells us the Baptist fell into doubt—as something that it is well for us to know.

…Well, folks who never risk anything are always disappointed when those who do fail to endure. See how manfully and wholeheartedly Jesus defends His friend. He throws Himself into the breach for John with all His untried authority: Though he be weak now, do not forget what he was and what he did in his strength. He was not a reed shaken in the wind. He did not straddle the issue. Go to the Rigsdag if you would see that sort of men.

Now Salome is dancing in the king’s house. There is great merriment. And this man, who was to have been guardian of the law and dispenser of justice, must finish the course he has set—under the silly pretext, perhaps, to prevent someone worse from taking over. That is to say: To keep out a rogue you must be one. Then, between dances, and to the accompaniment of orchestral strains, they bring in the Prophet’s head on a platter.

Herod, Herod, are you so great an idiot as to think you serve the good powers of life with this evil game—that it can lead to anything but corruption of soul, and to ruin and damnation for yourself and your misguided people?

And you, my countrymen, who have been cast into prison because you found yourself compelled by the voice of truth, I pray that you may be strong, and faithful to that inner conviction of having done the right. If there be those among you who are doubtful and uncertain, I absolve you from that sin on behalf of my Lord, as He forgave John. I assure you that He will judge you by your efforts in the cause of truth. You have helped create the spirit out of which alone a sound future can grow. Let it be said to you: The Lord of truth has let His face shine upon you. May He grant you His peace! Ame


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Learning Nothing from History– Again

It is in the very nature of empires to overextend themselves.  Just ask the ancient Assyrians, Persians, Greeks, and Romans. Oh yes, and the Ottomans, too.  And uh, Spain, and of course the British.  

One of the signs that Rome had overreached herself was the need to hire foreign mercenaries to fight her wars.  There simply were not enough Italian soldiers.  Another was the ever increasing militarization of the Roman economy– simply more and more resources needed to support an empire collapsing of its own weight or being overrun by “barbarian” tribes pushing westward.

Although the American empire may not be the exact equivalent to, say, the British in terms of the amount of territory ruled directly through its governors, U.S. hegemony spans the globe, as do our military bases, corporate interests, and cash to prop up unpopular regimes. 

There are now more private contractors involved in the war in Afghanistan than military personnel, and we are about to turn Iraq over to them as well (they call it a pull out). 3,100 firms or agencies are involved in the war on terror (that’s 1,200 government agencies and 1,900 private companies), a web so large and intricate that Defense Sec’y Gates admitted it’s difficult to get the information he needs. We’re spending more and more on war and intelligence in the name of national security, while millions of Americans are unemployed, our infrastructure collapsing, teachers laid off, and libraries closing.

There is a well-known native folktale of how monkeys are trapped in the wild. Fruit is placed in a cage allowing only an opening wide enough to fit the monkey’s hand.  Once the creature grasps the fruit, however, its fist becomes too large to extricate.  The monkey becomes enraged and trashes about as it tries to have the fruit and freedom too.  Loosing its grip on the fruit would be the logical solution, but the monkey cannot conceive of something so practical.  In reality, monkeys are quite resourceful creatures, and probably no self-respecting one would allow itself to be caught this way.  It’s only we human beings who are so foolish. 

In today’s blog Salon’s Glenn Greenwald had this to say about signs that America’s empire is collapsing:   

“Does anyone doubt that once a society ceases to be able to afford schools, public transit, paved roads, libraries and street lights — or once it chooses not to be able to afford those things in pursuit of imperial priorities and the maintenance of a vast Surveillance and National Security State — that a very serious problem has arisen, that things have gone seriously awry, that imperial collapse, by definition, is an imminent inevitability?”

As Shakespeare says in Sonnet 129:

   All this the world well knows; yet none knows well
   To shun the heaven that leads men to this hell.

Shame that Hegel was right, and we learn nothing from history. 


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