Flags, Idols and Outrage Burnout

Because life has been busier than usual for me the last few weeks I have not posted anything here. I know, you conservative friends have been relieved, but it doesn’t mean I haven’t been reflecting on the myriad of news events in our broken world. I’ve been busy in part because my dear wife had rotator cuff surgery four weeks ago and has been unable to use her right/dominant hand and arm. I’m glad to be her “right hand man,” and I have a whole new appreciation for all she does and for the loving ministry of caregivers everywhere. She’s still got a few more weeks in her sling, but we are grateful that she’s recovering very well.

The other reason I’ve not written was something I couldn’t identify until recently. You know the feeling you get when you’ve got something wrong but you’re not sure what, and how it helps to get it diagnosed and have a name for it? Well I heard someone on NPR last week who gave a name to what I’ve been feeling about the current political malaise in our country and world. She called it “outrage burnout.” There is such a string of astonishing unjust and stupid actions taken by the President, his Attorney General, his cadre of crazy lawyers, ICE, etc. that before you can respond to one outrage there’s two or three more. I’m convinced it’s a very clever political strategy to simply wear down the opposition before the midterm elections. So with that caveat, here’s a post I started a week or so ago while waiting for my wife at a Doctor’s appointment. You will notice it is a bit dated but I believe it is still relevant enough to be worth your time.

When I was ordained a United Methodist pastor 49 years ago this month one of the traditional questions the bishop asked me and my fellow ordinands was “Are you going on to perfection?” We dutifully, if suppressing a chuckle, gave the acceptable answer which is “yes.” If asked that now in this penultimate stage of my life I’d have to say “Probably not!” The point of that question is that like any milestone event in life, e.g. graduation, marriage, bat mitzvah, ordination is just that, a milestone on a long journey and not a destination. It is also there as a not-so-subtle reminder that all of us, clergy alike and maybe especially clergy are FHB’s – fallible human beings standing in the need of God’s grace.

Since that day in 1969 I have learned many things about my own fallibility and the dark side of human nature that have convinced me beyond a shadow of a doubt that “perfection” is not achievable in this life—not even close.
In fact, one of the biggest issues I’m dealing with in my 72nd year of life is dismay that humankind seems to be moving further from perfection at an alarming rate. For most of my adult life I have been comforted and inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s statement that “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Lately however I find myself questioning which way that arc is bending. My biggest regret about my ministry is that both my church and the world seem even more divided and imperfect now than they did 50 years ago.

I will spare all of us the litany of evil and depressing events that bombard us daily like a biblical plague of locusts. It is hard to decide which of the seven deadly sins is most prevalent on any given day. But for the sake of argument let’s just tackle the first two the Ten Commandments. The top two of the Decalogue can be summarized: 1) Have no other gods but Yahweh, and 2) Worship no idols. I am thinking of those two just now because of the “to kneel or not to kneel” debate going on between NFL football players, NFL owners, and President Trump.
The NFL recently, in my opinion, violated the first amendment rights of their predominantly black players by threatening to fine anyone for not standing during the national anthem. President Trump raised the ante by harkening back to the good old “America love it or leave it” days of the 1960’s anti-war protests to question if anyone defying the NFL rule even belongs in this country! Do you suppose he will also deport all the Amish, Mennonite and Jehovah Witnesses who also refuse to bow down to any empire’s graven image? Those groups have been exercising their right to freedom of expression for decades, but then again they’re white so that must make a difference.

The Supreme Court ruled in the middle of World War II no less that Americans have the right not to stand for the national anthem. Why does it matter? Because God and God’s values of justice and equality for all of humankind trump, pun intended, any human law or allegiance. That’s what the “under” means in “One nation under God.” And by the way all national laws of any nation are human laws. For a more detailed discussion of what Professor Robert Jewett calls “zealous nationalism” vs. “prophetic realism” see my post on “Biblical Politics,” Nov. 5, 2012.
The flag controversy began as a protest against police using excessive and too often fatal force, against black people, especially those who are unarmed. That’s a legitimate justice issue and needs to be addressed in any and all peaceful means; and kneeling players succeeded in bringing attention to that cause. But President Trump and the NFL have misconstrued their protest by trying to make it about patriotism and respect for the military. Intentionally or not that is a diversionary tactic to avoid the important issue of racial justice, the central moral issue of all of American history.

When a flag or any symbol becomes more important than the divine issues of truth and justice it has become an idol. Whenever loyalty to country or party supersedes loyalty to truth we are worshipping a false god. When I was a Boy Scout many decades ago there was a badge called “God and Country.” I don’t know if there is such an award in scouting now, but I hope not. That title equates God and Country as if the two are synonymous. They are not. Every nation, tribe, race, organization or group of FHB’s is by definition imperfect–in other words needs to always be “going on to perfection.” We the people of the USA have not and will never “arrive,” and therefore always are in need of positive and constructive criticism. That is what the first amendment so wisely is intended to protect and why it’s number one.

As for the NFL, let’s just say I’ll have more free time this fall on Sundays and Monday nights as I exercise my freedom to boycott their ill-advised rule.

P.S. As I was writing this my wife asked me a very good question about freedom of expression. This was during Rosanne Barr’s fifteen minutes of fame where her show was cancelled by ABC because she tweeted some racist comments about Valerie Jarett who was a member of the Obama administration. The difference is that Rosanne’s comments were degrading and libelous, defaming the very being of an African American woman. The NFL protest call attention to a social justice issue in order for it to be addressed. Rosanne slandered another human being in the cruelest of racial stereotypes that have no redeeming or critical value (and was a repeat offender of such behavior). Yes, she later apologized, but hateful speech is like the proverbial toothpaste that cannot be put back in the tube once it is expelled. On the other side of the political aisle a few days later Samantha Bee was guilty of using very crude speech about Ivanka Trump, and she was just as wrong and perhaps more so because her comments were not a late night tweet but a scripted pre-taped commentary on her TV show. So far as I know Bee has gotten off with much less punishment than Rosanne, and that is yet another example of how justice and human decency are being eroded by the partisan vitriol polluting the environment we all live in today.

Bottom line is that freedom of e xpre4ssion has never been an absolute right. The over –used example is that no one is allowed to induce panic in a crowded theater by yelling “fire” when there is none. Freedom must be tempered by the higher values of truth and respect for the greater good of others and the community.

The flag debate is not new but an on-going dialogue that will always be going on to perfection, even when it moves one step forward and two back. Never has the need for the balance between individual freedom and communal responsibility been more needed than it is today. The secret is in the first commandment. If we truly put the higher power of being itself that we call God first and foremost in our loyalties and obedience then other issues fall into place and greed, materialism, nationalism, sexism, and racism will not rule our thoughts and actions. Of course humankind has been trying to live up to that high ideal for 4000 years or so. We’re not close to arriving, and that is discouraging; but by the grace of God we continue on the way, even when the goal seems hopeless. For to continue seeking God’s way when all seems hopeless is the very meaning of faith.

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Speak Truth to Power

In his book “Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy and Fairy Tale” Frederick Buechner challenges preachers to tell the whole truth of life and the Gospel with the closing line from Shakespeare’s “King Lear.” Buechner says, “…in the last act, the good and the bad, the wise and the foolish, the weak and the strong, all die alike, and the stage is so littered with corpses there is nobody much left except Edgar to stammer the curtain down as best he can. What he says is this: ‘The weight of this sad time we must obey; speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.’” Buechner offers this commentary: “They are not the most powerful lines in the play, but they are among the most telling because in them it would seem that Shakespeare is telling us something about himself and about the way he wrote his play…. In the interest of truth-telling there seems to be no risk Shakespeare is not willing to run as if from the conviction that if the truth is worth telling, it is worth making a fool of yourself to tell.”

It is the weight of the very sad times of political and social chaos in our country that demands that this foolish old preacher say what I feel and not what I ought to say.

I have watched President Trump and his band of billionaires violate the most sacred tenets of the US Constitution in his first month in office, and since only a few Republican representatives and Senators have had the courage to stand up to Trump’s authoritarian bully tactics I figure it’s time to add my voice to those who fear the consequences of his heavy-handed ways. I doubt that it will do a bit of good since the system of checks and balances built into our Constitution are currently suspended until enough Republicans realize the mortal danger we and the world are in if the current pattern of oppression and selfish nationalism is allowed to continue.

I continue to hope that sooner rather than later moral courage will override blind party and ideological loyalty in enough members of Congress to prevent the worst of the damage. But in the meantime innocent immigrant families are being torn apart, US citizens are being detained at airports for hours because they have “Muslim” names, and hate crimes and murder are being committed in the name of putting America First. This is wrong in the name of Christian values that proclaim that how we treat the “least of these” is how we treat Christ himself (Matthew 25:31-46). More than at any time in 150 years we are in a struggle for the soul of America like the one Lincoln described at Gettysburg “to see if this nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure.”
There is hope that Congress will do its job and investigate the Russian connection to the Trump campaign and administration. Those of us who remember Watergate know what a long and painful process that kind of inquiry can be. Whatever the truth is about the firing of General Flynn, and Mr. Trump’s business connections and potential conflicts of interest, and the meddling of the Russians in the electoral process, we need to know the facts before any verdict can be rendered. That investigation needs to occur, but I do not believe we can afford to allow this President to wreak havoc on marginalized people and on our environment for as long as that process will take. And we don’t need to.

We already have ample evidence to take action against this President and begin impeachment proceedings. On January 20 President Trump swore to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States, and he has failed to do so in the first month of his Presidency. I am no Constitutional expert, but here’s what the Frist Amendment of the Constitution says: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

The Founding Fathers believed those basic freedoms were so central to our democracy that they spelled them out in the very first item in the Bill of Rights. Freedom of religion and freedom of the press are the cornerstones of a free and open society. Faith-based people and reporters are on the front lines of the truth tellers in our society, and therefore the first people that authoritarian governments try to silence. Yes, I realize the amendment says that Congress shall not abridge those freedoms and so far it’s been executive orders and policies that have banned people from Muslim countries and excluded critical media from White House access. I’ll leave it to the lawyers to haggle over the technicalities while Rome burns, but it seems like common sense to me that if Congress can’t abridge those freedoms then neither can the President.

And it is Congress’s job to provide checks and balances and control a President who violates his Constitutional duties. If they fail to do so then they too are breaking their vow to uphold the Constitution. The Founding Fathers understood the weaknesses of humankind well enough to know what great power can do to even a well-intended person. We forget at our peril the wisdom of Lord Acton: “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” I believe that President Trump does believe he is doing what is best for the U.S. and what he promised to do during his campaign. The problem is that we do not live in an isolated nationalistic world. Fear is turning people all over the world into self-centered nationalists who are willing to sacrifice the best qualities of humanity for a false sense of security.

Yes the future is scary. It always has been. I wrote after the Brexit vote (“A Lament for Unity,” 6/25/16 post) that the history of centuries of bloody wars in Europe flowed from nationalistic fear, and now that misguided populism is spreading like a virus all over the world. Like it or not modern technology has created a global economy that we cannot put back in the bottle. We need forward-looking vision about how to adjust and thrive in a global community. We can’t retreat back into an isolationist, industrial age that is no more. To do so is only going to fan the flames of hatred and make us less secure, not more.