Have We Learned Nothing?

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”  —George Santayana

I’ve got news for Mr. Santayana: we’re doomed to repeat the past no matter what. That’s what it is to be alive.”
― Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

Today I’m listening to my news podcasts and these are the stories:

1) We march closer to the possibility of nuclear war with North Korea.

2) Congress is trying to repeal the board that Elizabeth Warren helped set up before she was a senator.

3) The nation is arguing about Donald Trump’s tweets about kneeling in the NFL.

4) Donald Trump tweeted about an Iranian missile program which is “fake news” (aka not true. The incident didn’t happen.) and angered the Iranians.

5) Ken Burns is doing a PBS documentary on the Vietnam War

6) 60 years ago, Eisenhower (a Republican) sent the military to Little Rock, Arkansas so that 9 little Black kids could go to school with their White counterparts.

 

Historically,

  1. We’ve seen what nuclear war could do. When we dropped bombs on Hiroshima and later on Nagasaki, Japan, we destroyed everything for miles. According to one report, The two bombings … killed at least 129,000 people. Just two bombs and at least half of that number simply evaporated. Others had burns that killed them shortly thereafter, others died of radiation sickness weeks or months later.  Radiation from tests of these types of bombs stayed in the wind over the entire earth for some period of time.  We blew the bombs up over there and the radiation came here.  But that’s just tests.                                                                                                 Most of my childhood was spent trying to walk the Russians (then the U.S.S.R.) back from the brink of nuclear war under a thing called “The MAD doctrine”, which meant having seen what nuclear bombs could do, we could keep that from happening because it meant Mutually Assured Destruction — everybody would die, because we now had enough bombs to destroy the entire earth over and over.  Apparently, our government now doesn’t think the MAD doctrine isn’t valid anymore. I don’t know that the science has changed all that much. I’m pretty sure that people will die if nuclear weapons are used, and they will die the same way they did before, but the bombs are bigger and there are more of them.  As they said in a movie from my teen years, “The only way to win a nuclear war is to not play”.

 

2.  In what has to be the most short-sighted mistake ever made, because it’s so  close   in time… banks and Wall St. caused “the great recession” at the end of the Bush era and were rescued by Obama in the beginning of his term.  At that point, it wasn’t at all uncommon to have a “$35.00 cup of coffee” if your debit card overdrew and the bank charged you a fee for it. People lost their savings, their pensions, their houses, and their employment because of it.  Now Senator Warren — then a private citizen — helped to prevent that from happening again, by creating new laws and government board to oversee it all.

3. In 1968, when the country was divided about the Vietnam and the President (at the time, Richard Nixon) was losing his poll ratings and wanted to be re-elected, he criticized some protesters who had attacked his car, causing a counter-demonstration and riots between construction workers with pipes and anti-war protesters. Nixon won the election by dividing the country and we elected perhaps the most corrupt President ever.

4. Something happen in the Gulf of Tonkin in 1955 between ships at sea that got us involved, in the Vietnam war. There is controversy to this day about whether or not the events ever actually happened.  64,000 American troops died in the seventeen year war, with over a million people .  This was shown in Ken Burns’ documentary in the last two weeks.

More recently, we invaded Iraq when the President said Saddam Hussein had “weapons of mass destruction”. There were none. At least 50% of the population knew that to start with. People are still dying from the effects of that war, also caused by a lie.

5. The Little Rock 9 — Little kids, for goodness sake! — had to go to school with an armed escort because the governor of Arkansas blocked the children from going in, and the national guard was on the governor’s side. This began the desegregation of schools where people of different races got to know each other and saw that the other wasn’t all bad, and we could have one America.

According to Wikipedia the students were still subjected to a year of physical and verbal abuse (being spat on and called names) by many of the white students. Melba Pattillo had acid thrown into her eyes and also recalled  an incident in which a group of white girls trapped her in a stall in the girls’ washroom and attempted to burn her by dropping pieces of flaming paper on her from above. Another one of the students, Minnijean Brown, was verbally confronted and abused.

Of these 9 children, 2 have doctorates, 1 more has a master’s degree, one became a soldier and fought for our country, 1 became an author, 1 is on the list of 75 most powerful Black people in America, 1 became a teacher in Little Rock. In other words, they were a benefit to American culture and they were abused getting there. They have all received the Presidential Medal of Honor and attended the the inauguration of the man that conservatives say divided the country, Barack Obama.

 

Honestly, have we learned nothing? The Earth could end if we don’t learn from Hiroshima and Nagasaki Thousands, perhaps millions could die if we don’t learn from the Gulf of Tonkin, and Iraq. Even in peace-time, Americans can lose their homes, their jobs, and faith in our economy if Warren’s Board has its legal standing gutted by Congress.  America can erupt if politicians pit us against each other for their own gains. Good Republicans and the gifts of the Arkansas 9 will be forgotten if we forget Eisenhower’s work and call neo-Nazis “good people”.   Our best selves will be gone if we choose to forget  them. I, for one, refuse to have that happen.

 

Resisting With Peace,

 

John

 

 

 

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The Foundation of Justice: Fairness and “Equal Justice Under The Law”

This one has bothered me for awhile and it gets back to the very foundation of democracy. We have at least two systems of justice in this country. Until about two years ago, I believed that Justice was blind, because that’s the only way the world made sense. It’s still the only way that makes sense morally, but it is not the way the system operates, and thus the world makes no sense. When the justice system doesn’t operate ethically, we give up hope. When there is no hope, people get desperate, lash out, try anything — what we in Psychology call “acting out” — and then, oddly enough, get either punished for, or exonerated for, doing so.

Let me explain. Man walks down the street. He hasn’t done anything wrong. If he’s White and not too unseemly, that’s the end of the story. No one thinks twice. There is no story. 

If he’s Hispanic and he lived in Joe Arpaio’s county, even if he’s wearing a suit, he could be an illegal alien. Because he could be, he can be arrested and held without charges. Try explaining to your boss that you didn’t show up for work, because you were arrested. Then try to convince the boss that you didn’t do anything wrong

As if that weren’t enough, the President of the entire country you live in calls the man who did this to you “a hero”! Furthermore, he pardons the man, so you know you will never get justice. Turn on the TV and there are 50,000 people cheering for the sheriff believing that “he was only doing his job”! How does anyone live here under these conditions and believe in the American Dream? 

Why did this issue come up for me today? Today, six policemen in Baltimore were told that they would not receive jail time for killing a man. The man, Freddie Gray, already had physical problems you could see when he was unceremoniously dumped into a “Paddy Wagon”. The police in question drove over bumps in order to show him who was “in charge” and, if I remember, broke his spine. Forget the circumstances of whatever crime he committed, forget whether race played a part in this, forget whether or not this was an accident. The police (a group of men) killed a handicapped man and nothing happened to them. They are free to roam about the earth. 

The idea that there might be two justice systems started become clearer to me when the riots in Ferguson, Missouri happened. The sheriff who killed Michael Brown was seemingly exonerated by the police after a Grand Jury. I wasn’t happy about that decision, but the law had a process and I believed in it. Then I discovered that the Grand Jury in question was a “highly irregular” Grand Jury! What does that mean? In this case, the defendant got to make his case (usually done at trial) to a nearly all-White Grand Jury! He also is free to walk the streets. 

As I drive home through Hartford from my office in Springfield, I often see a sign that says “Blue Lives Matter!”, to which I say “All Lives Matter!”, knowing full well that they don’t. 

There are those who really believe that I don’t like police. There are a whole lot of cops that I do know and like — clients, family members, friends of family members. I believe in the idea of police who are just doing their job, and I believe in the idea that they should be fair. I also acknowledge that it’s an extraordinarily difficult job to do. They see the dregs of society. You know what, though? So do I. No one comes into my office because they are fine, or because their family is totally functional, or because there’s not drugs and violence involved. They come in because they have problems and some of those problems are so disgusting that they weigh my spirit down. Still, I don’t beat them. I’ve had to restrain clients in my job, but I’ve never used a billy club on them. Neither do many police get overly hostile. I really believe that most cops are good people with a very hard job to do, but in a world where everyone else is supposed to be responsible for their own behavior, police should be, too. But they are not.

Finally, of course, there’s the whole Donald Trump /Russia affair. Every day that goes by brings new news of the scandal. Forgetting all the rumors, the innuendo, the press reports, and without knowing what the Special Prosecutor will find, the President himself said he fired James Comey over “the Russia thing”. Donald Trump Jr acknowledged in public that he and members of the campaign had a meeting with the Russians. Cabinet members lied on forms for security clearance.

Did Trump obstruct justice? If I said derogatory things to a judge over parking tickets, would I be in jail? You’re darn right I would! If I was involved in a meeting with an enemy of my country, would I be in jail for treason? Of course, I would! And I would deserve to be there! If I, or one of my clients, lied on a government form, would I avoid jail? If the form was my taxes, or some client’s disability form, I would be in jail or needing to pay thousands of dollars in fines, but I sure as hell wouldn’t be able to keep a job with the government! And yet, without even a trial or a process, we know that these people committed crime. They said so. And yet, they still have jobs, they still aren’t in jail, they have faced no consequences for committing crimes!

How can we possibly believe that “justice is blind”, that the law is fair, that American law means anything at all if people who have done nothing wrong go to jail, if some people who commit a crime get one system and others get something different, and people who admit they have committed a crime face no punishment? And yet, most of us believe that right is right and wrong is wrong. We have to fix this. I don’t know how, but we have to fix this.

Resisting with Peace,

John

Be Gordon For Someone Else

[Deering friends, this is tomorrow’s sermon. I wrote it two days before the funeral. I think Read and I are on the same page. Rest of the world: I assume you won’t be in Goshen tomorrow, so you can see it now]

Sermon given at Goshen UCC, 9/10/2017 “Gordon, Community, and Christianity”

On August 2nd of this year, Gordon Sherman, my mentor for life, died at the age of 80 of complications from a stroke, which was a complication of years of smoking. Normally, for people, the cause of their death tells us something about how we should respond. I will impart to you that lesson: Don’t smoke, but that tells you nothing about Gordon. Gordon’s life, and passing, are inescapable for me this week, so I decided not to fight it, and try to preach on something else.

Yesterday, September 9, and this entire weekend, are huge events in my life. Yesterday, Saturday, Gordon’s funeral was held and the expectations were that there would be at least 450 people in attendance. After that, his wife Cy, is scheduled to have a reception at their retirement community. Today, immediately after church, I will be driving up to Deering, NH, for a final reunion and goodbye for Gordon at the place we met him – the Deering Camp and Conference Center, a UCC camp that changed my life.  I think hundreds of people are expected at that event as well. In any event, I know that I need to be there.  For all of those people that will know, care, remember, weep, and love, I suspect that you – here in Connecticut – have never heard of Gordon Sherman, because you, in Connecticut, have your own version of Gordon, in the form of Alden Tyrell, who, for years, was responsible for Silver Lake. Undoubtedly, some of you know the couple that replaced him, when you think of Silver Lake, and some of you will now know the new guy, as “the face of Silver Lake”. All of that is good.

Silver Lake, like the Deering of my youth, allows people like Gordon, or Alden, or who ever, to do what they do, and this church, like every other church out there, it seems to me, needs to do the same thing. That “thing” is to be Christianity, without even thinking about the world out there which needs Christianity so badly, so that when you go out in the world, your light shines so bright that the world takes notice and is changed.  Remember the burning bush that we’ve been talking about this summer? The one that caused Moses to go look at it? That is what Gordon and Deering taught me I could be, and what I now tell you that you can be.  There is an old saying that, a light is “harder to see without a dark to stick it in”. There is a lot of darkness out there in the world. The light that you bring to it will be noticed, I assure you, because I know a lot of lights. Those lights are powered by the Spirit of God that can only be experienced. There are those who think it’s important to use the words of Christianity to proclaim their faith. There are those, on the other hand, who think you should do the work of Christianity to show your faith. This morning, I want to offer you a third option for life-long change: be Christianity for someone. Be someone’s “Gordon”. Be to people in your world what Gordon and Deering were to me.

What does that mean? Gordon Sherman was a Christian from the moment he got up til the moment he went to bed, and then more of the same from sleeping to waking. Gordon had a job where he could do that.  Deering hosted retreats year-round and summer camps for youth during the summer. Gordon had to prepare for that, he had to say something to those who would come in, and so he did. In addition to preparing the linens and the heat and the food for people who came there, Gordon prepared himself.

Gordon was always reading, or praying, or listening to music in awe of its beauty, regardless of what else he was doing. Even that takes some getting used to, but Gordon managed it. Gordon shared his wisdom often, as he read this book or that. One of the first books Gordon shared with me was “The Practice of the Presence of God” by Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection. Brother Lawrence’s point was that Life is prayer. Everything should be done as prayer – with God in mind. Staff at Deering – “Camp Family” were taught to set tables by praying when you set down a knife, then set down a fork, then set down a spoon, as though God were watching. If it took you an hour to set the tables, you were praying for an hour and you felt energized and connected to God through your work.

Later, it was “Jonathan Livingston Seagull” which taught us – years before “Rick —–“The Purpose Driven Life” – that our individual lives had some purpose to God. After that, it was Richard Bach’s book, Illusions, which taught balance between growing yourself and helping – not forcing – others to grow, as well. Between those three books, there might have been a total of 250 pages all told, so they were not beyond anyone’s comprehension or anybody’s schedule. They were easy, but they changed your life, just as they had changed his.  Last week in church, we read the passage where Jesus says, “my yoke is easy and my burden is light”. Living a Christian life, being Christian – always in contact with God, knowing you having a purpose and that you are important, and not burning out but burning steady – are actually easy or actually make life easier.

Gordon always grew, always read, always stayed a step ahead of the rest of us, and held out that carrot for others to see. If you liked where he was going, you could follow his path. If you liked your own, that was fine with him, because you were still far ahead of the majority of the populous, just for reading those books.

By living that life, you come to believe that miracles can happen, and you see them more and more. It’s a miracle that you get up in the morning. It’s a miracle when you look at the trees. It’s a miracle that someone can compose a piece of music like Beethoven or Bach or Handel. And if those things are miracles, what about making things happen through prayer? Is that possible? Maybe. And if that’s possible, what else is possible?! World peace?! Maybe. And when you go into a room with that attitude, the people around you change. A bunch of people who believe in God, who experience God’s spirit, and that God knows them, who believe that they have a purpose and a meaning in life are unstoppable, even by the most horrific acts that human beings are capable of, because they know, know deep in their heart, that God exists, and God is with them, and that God is in everyone else as well.

Years ago, there was a Deering reunion, at Gordon and Cy’s retirement community. In that room were tons of teachers, tons of nurses, quite a few ministers some professors, and some musicians. None of them were hurting people for a living. Nearly all were specifically in the helping professions. The others were simply joyous for a living (musicians or artists or whatever). All of them gave hugs, if you wanted one. All of them made the world, and your experience of it, better. I believe that there are at least 1,000 people like this out there, simply because there was a Gordon, and then because there was the community of Deering people like Gordon. And every day is a chance to live like that, to be like that, to ….be… alive! First, there was Gordon and Cy. Then there were the Cadieuxs and the Hudsons and the Kennedys, and the Bordeuxs, and so many others to list, that were mentored by Gordon. Soooo many wonderful people in Camp Family over the years! And when they left the hill of Deering, they married – sometimes other staff, sometimes someone who didn’t know of Deering, and they introduced them to Deering people and the actual Deering itself. And those people had kids, or adopted kids, or taught kids, or helped kids, and a third generation was born and raised with Gordon’s influence… and the world became better because of it.

So, this morning, I want to encourage you to be Christianity for someone else. Experience Christianity every day, grow in your Christianity a little bit every day.  In short, be someone else’s Gordon, and this church, and this world, will not only survive, but thrive every day you’re alive. Amen.

No Better Place To Be …Ministers March on D.C. 

There was a time when Protestant Christianity was considered to be a popular force for good, rather than a popular force for oppression. There was a time when the American Dream, the American government, and America’s commitment to “liberty and justice for all” were all aligned. There was a time when we all wanted to be brothers and sisters. Some of those times were a long time ago, some just seem to be a long time ago. 

I had started to give up on that world view under Ronald Reagan, more under George Bush I, more under Bill Clinton, I gave up the hope for “truth” to win out when Bush II, Cheney, etc., took us to a war we knew was a lie. The Lie led to predictable consequences when the market crashed. I had hope for two years under Obama when the Tea Party and Republicans made their presence felt and “took back America” for themselves, instead of for the country’s people who had elected that President. I hoped against hope when Trump got elected that America wanted to do the right thing. Most of America, I remain convinced, does want to do the right thing. Still, a larger and larger portion of America, plus a leadership that wants to be hateful, added to by “evangelicals” who are interested in keeping things like they were in the 1950’s (read “white”) led to where we are. 

In short, decent, actual regular people live in a world where they have have come to believe that their leaders want the outcast to suffer. Some of those regular people bought into that and also want the outcast to suffer. What they don’t realize is that, after society removes the outcast, they’re next. The government wants some people to not be American, right-wing religious leaders want some people not to be considered human, or worthy of love, and the rest of the world doesn’t matter, either, because our psyche and souls are sick, and they have been for some time. The will to divide us into “real people” and “outcast” is blasphemy — the sin of hatred for the brothers and sisters that the same “Father ” that created us. 

So, in the middle of speaking into a void religiously, emotionally, and politically, a voice of hope came from my wife, sitting in the living room. “Hey, did you hear about the minister’s march on Washington? Something about judicial reform, Al Sharpton…. are you going?” I knew immediately that that was the only place on earth the God I believe in would want me to be.  

I’ve been getting old lately. I have diabetes and the day of the march, I had a blister on my toe (I know, boo hoo…) My breathing has been bad, my hip hurts if I do any walking or climbing, and just generally I’ve felt worn out. In the words of an old song, I’m “sin sick and sorrow worn”. Yet, on the morning of the walk, because that was where I needed to be, my feet did not hurt, my lungs never required a “puffer”, and my hip didn’t hurt most of the journey to the Department of Justice. My mind, body, and Spirit were in synch.  My psychology heroine, Virginia Satir, calls that “congruence” and says it is a state of flow with the Universe.

I long for the day, and felt it myself at the March, when the world feels in synch again — when people begin to believe that God calls us to love each other rather than divide ourselves, when justice makes sense to our national soul so that we actively chase it, when God’s name is used for the right things, when my wife, my daughter and I can all laugh at things that are now just irony.

Before the 3,000 ministers and 2,000 laity marched, those things were like a penny dropped down a deep well: they made no noise. Now, at least, I hear an echo coming back. At the rally, people of three or four faiths, many colors, different genders and gender identities, and different ages — in the middle of their own pain — prayed for the people of Houston. I suspect that many of those Texans wouldn’t let some of us share a toilet with them, or others expect justice from them, or expect control of our own bodies in that state. Yet the prayers came, and they came easily. This, in real time, is what “we shall overcome” means. This is what Jesus meant when he said “pray for those who persecute you”, and our community on a field in DC had managed it. 

Yes, Martin and Jesus were there in Spirit, so yes, it felt good to be in community. The speakers and preachers were of one mind and one accord — that we should take care of each other simply because God created all of us. There were no arrests that I know of, there was no violence, no weapons — nothing but a peaceful line of 5,000 people. Was there anger? Maybe. Was there a lot of hurt evident? Definitely. Grace, though, was stronger than all of those things. 

In the book “Little Big Man”, the native Americans say, when asked about White man’s time schedules, say things like “It was a good day to go fishing”. Yes, there is trouble in the world. Yes, North Korea still threatens war. Yes, some member of the administration undoubtedly lied that day. Yes, Taylor Swift had out a new (horrible) song. Robert Mueller’s team continued doing what it is doing. None of that mattered. We couldn’t remain frightened that day, or hang on every syllable of the news cast. It was a good day to care, and a good day to march. It was a good day to be with God. As I’ve said, there was no place on earth I’d rather have been that day. 

Resisting with Peace,


John