You Courted the Unhinged Fringe

Posted: January 18, 2021 in Uncategorized

You courted the unhinged fringe as a way to scour up more votes, build a crowd, intimidate all who would oppose you, and you got them.

But now they’ve got you.

The moral stench of their racism and violence wafted across the borders that divide the monarchy from the pawns and suddenly it occurred to you: I can’t simply manipulate and use this unholy coalition; we have created one another in each other’s image.

You had succeeded in keeping their eyes off the primary project, the cause of enriching yourself and others like you. You did this by occupying them with a seething bucket of rage-filled lies, over and over.

It worked a long time.

Until, that is, the rot crept into your own house and the windows that broke were yours.

On that day, the bill came due and the credit card maxed out. When the collector came, he told you just what he wanted you to say.

And you politely obliged.

A few of the broken-legged team that had clung to you and the unhinged fringe wandered out of the smoke and debris, dazed and muttering, “How did it go this far?”

But you were not available for comment.

Because you were using all your energy appearing like a nice victim, scolding the fringe and ordering them to be unlike themselves.


Since you left, the cleanup has been monumental, like the aftermath of a hurricane, littered with pieces, fragments, and tattered flags.

The fringe is still here, being what it always has been. The weak, gullible and deluded are still here, always swayed by words of the next terrifying world.

But you, their cheerleader and advocate, enabler and high chieftain of social corruption, are gone. That’s not everything, of course, but it is something, if only a cautionary tale for a future we have yet to write.

Contemplation for a Great Conjunction

Look at us.

The space between us that threatens us

Each, both, and together.

We, who seem worlds apart, like Jupiter and Saturn…

Let us enter the space between us, curious and eager for discovery

From the inside—not from outside,

cold, bold, dark edges, borderlines, and walls,

From the warm light inside us,

together, let us be us.

Let us sit in space together, tell stories and listen,

and consider where and how we might align

Unthreatened, holding hands,

dancing in embraced shared space

What a great conjunction we are!

Look at us.

— Marisa Lapish, Selah Spiritual Wellness Center (poem originally in Deb Gregory’s Flourish website/blog)

We have all seen political movements rise and fall, in our own times and throughout history. And we have also observed iterations of those movements that have religious underpinnings. This is certainly not limited to the modern era; history is replete with examples of political machines that employed religious ideology or influence to achieve their ends. They often came in the form of theocracies, a hybrid system of religious and temporal rule in which religious laws are made one with civil laws. One does not have to search far to find them: The Taliban in Afghanistan, Ultra-orthodox Jewish communities in Israel, the Christian crusades, inquisitions, colonization, indigenous genocides and endorsement of slavery – all under the banner of the cross. During the Nazi era in Germany the Lutheran state churches were compromised to become the Reichkirke, Reich Church, packaging the ideology of the 3rd Reich with Christian trappings.

It is fair to say that these distortions of the purpose and theology of any of these religions create heresies. And I don’t mean that differing emphasis constitutes heresy. Different sects emphasize one or more aspects of a religious tradition and they become known for it. The Quakers and their quietism, the Mennonites and their pacifism, the Jewish Hasidism and their mysticism, the Sufis and their ecstasy. No, in those movements we find differences in emphasis, not substance.

Heresies, however they are defined (today’s heresy often becomes tomorrow’s orthodoxy) by whomever defines them (usually those with power with the ability to label dissenters), utterly twists and distorts the essential messages of the tradition. They often justify the use of power to persecute others. When combined with a totalitarian political system they utilize the symbols of the tradition to their own ideological ends, often omitting the most substantial aspects of the religious tradition in doing so.

In today’s America it has become clear that the most dangerous and abusive distortion of Christianity is manifested in the cult of TrumpChurch. Like many other fascist regimes that employ Christian symbols to their own ends (including the KKK and Neo-Nazi groups), TrumpChurch has coopted Christianity to legitimize and sanctify the movement of Trumpism.

This movement has antecedents, of course. TrumpChurch is the result of a long period of gestation at the fringe, now given legitimacy in the center – by the election of an administration that both used and empowered a base of thinking that was already there.

The troubling thing about TrumpChurch is not necessarily the underbelly of American culture that is and always has been racist and authoritarian; we expect that and generally suppress their ability to create mayhem through laws and institutions of government. But when those very organizations of law enforcement and governance become infected with that ideology they are given free reign, roaming in the daylight. We understand that they represent a clear and present danger.

But that is not the greatest concern in terms of heresy. Our greatest concerns regarding Christian heresy are located with an huge number of white evangelical churches and church leaders. They have bought into the heresy and are actively propagating it. Finally close to the levers of power, they found it irresistible to not fall victim to its seduction.

The excuses and rationalizations for promoting TrumpChurch are now well-known: Trump is a type of “Cyrus” who God uses to deliver believers and transact God’s purposes in the world. God uses compromised means and leaders to achieve certain sanctified ends, like appointing conservative justices who will defeat Roe v Wade. At the most extreme fringe of this heretical movement the leaders pronounce judgement and condemnation for anyone who would defy and replace God’s man, Donald Trump.

It’s all heresy. Donald Trump cares nothing for Christ or religions in general. He is an immoral dysfunctional human being, a sociopath. He feigns religious sympathy and even piety, staging mock publicity stunts with a Bible. He gathers one stripe of enabling Christian leaders around him to extend his influence among followers. He knows nothing of the Christian message, tradition, scriptures or practices. His attitudes and policies are conspicuously devoid of anything resembling a Christian worldview. He is a blasphemer. And the followers of TrumpChurch cling to him like a new messiah.

Some of those white evangelicals have reassessed their relationship with TrumpChurch. The young came first, their idealism bruised by affiliation with a tyrant absent any humanity or faith. And then women. And then thoughtful pastors. And then people who couldn’t look away and pretend anymore, who realized that the very things that would have been labeled as unacceptable yesterday have somehow become tolerable today. But many, many remain, their icon becoming a political martyr in an election they believe persecuted him and them.

What I want to propose is an alliance. It is an alliance between mainstream progressive Christians like myself and evangelical Christians who, when they examine their own deepest convictions, know that they have been deceived and taken for a ride. I want to propose that though we may come at this heresy from different beginning points, our conclusions are the same: This dangerous theocracy must be denounced and defeated, its twisted ideas exposed and rejected, and the damage to religious communities, fragile groups within our country and the nation itself repaired.

I think we can stand together on several principles to begin with:

  1. We do not want a state church in which there is no daylight between religious groups and governmental authorities.

2. We do not want to legitimize any one political figure as an infallible authority figure.

3. We do not want churches or church leaders officially endorsing one candidate or party for elections, and if they do they should have their tax exempt status removed.

4. We want to critique government and have a lively conversation of ideas in the public forum of democracy.

5. We do not want to establish (to use the language of the 1st Amendment) one religious voice as normative in the land.

6. We want the principle of religious freedom (again, 1st amendment) extended to all religious groups, not just some.

7. We do not want the religious convictions of any one religious group to be imposed on others.

Many of these are already part and parcel of our Constitution and ongoing tradition. In the times of heresy, however. they were misplaced. It is now time to restate and reclaim them. In the public square.

The hard work, however, is theological. Members and leaders in the white evangelical churches will need to revisit their own scripture and tradition – especially the lost aspects that used to be so very important to them, back before they were infected by power. This will require moral courage and the willingness to be persecuted and rejected by their own communities. And it is so very important that they do.

Unless we do this our politics will continue to be poisoned by the heretical hybrid of Trumpism and stained glass. Unless we do this the church will be lost – and should be – to every future generation that critically evaluates the difference between the way of Jesus and the twisted interpretation of him by his followers.

If not with fruitcake, then how?

Posted: December 13, 2020 in Uncategorized

A few years ago I made a retreat with some friends to Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky. Like for most, the pilgrimage was meant to help me shed a skin, discard what needed to be left behind, and to discover the hidden depths that remained concealed in the distracted life. After a few days of solitude, repeating ethereal worship and moving back and forth between the intersection of nature and community, a new space is opened inside. What fills it is a grace, of course, and it can’t be designed or planned.

During my days there I struck up a conversation with a monk during the designated conversation time (since the Trappists hold the discipline of silence). In order to support itself, the Abbey makes fruitcakes, sells them online, and ships them across the country. It’s a big deal. Access to Kentucky bourbon doesn’t hurt. And this monk had made fruitcakes his entire life at the Abbey. Fruitcakes and prayer.

During our brief talk I asked him how that worked, the fruitcake occupation with the spiritual life. He looked at me like I had asked why you get wet when it rains. If you can’t find God in a fruitcake, he said, then you can’t find God anywhere.

That thought has been shared before in the history of spirituality. St. Teresa of Avila famously said to keep watch during kitchen duty because “even when you are in the kitchen, our Lord moves amidst the pots and pans.”

I don’t believe, however, that my fruitcake-making monk read Teresa and then tried out the pots and pans formula with fruitcakes. Rather, I think it is a universal aspect of the spiritual life; there comes a time when one realizes that nothing out there is going to provide more than what can be found where you stand, in your own hands. Which makes sense of the monastic understanding of “stability.” Quit jumping around, here and there, and settle in where you are and find what is meant to be found.

Robert Fulghum is primarily known for his book All I really need to know I learned in Kindergarten. The most important Fulghum observation for me came not from his most popular book. It was rather an offhand observation he made that garnered little attention. Except for me.

One time when Fulghum was on a pilgrimage to India, he visited a renowned holy man. He hoped that Atlantis might rise out of the sea and his spiritual quandaries would be forever answered. But instead he said that after a while the holy man came out, scratched his back side, sat in front of Fulghum and said, “Go home.” Fulghum waited. Was the wisdom about to come? It was not as he expected. “Go home and find it. There is nothing here you can find that you can’t find at home.” And then he got up and wandered away.

We know many stories like it, parables and tales that use the long journey to lead us to where we began, but to behold it differently, with new eyes.

If you can’t find it at home, or among the pots and pans, or in the fruitcake in front of you, you’re not going to find it. All those who fret about lack of mobility during a pandemic are faced with the same thing. If you can’t find it where you are, you can’t find it. If you are left with yourself, if the porchlight is on but you discover that nobody is home, then nobody is home. You’ve got a problem. But then again you have the beginning of a journey. That is the first spiritual discovery, that the emptiness cannot be filled with outside things, moving parts, or our own moving feet. It can only be filled with holy things that have slumbered out of sight.

Like a babe in a manger, for example. Be there if you will, watching, beholding. Among the shepherds, animals, the fragile family, pots and pans and fruitcakes. If you can’t find it there, well, then you can’t find it.

Pin on Cornerstone 1: Faith

To the Transition Team of President-Elect Joe Biden:

As you prepare for and select the multi-facetted leadership required in a new administration, I would like to register but one of the many concerns you will be facing: This administration’s relationship to diverse American religious communities.

The First Amendment of our Constitution protects the free exercise of religion even as it limits the governmental establishment of any one religion. This understandable and yet sometimes uneasy tension is there for a reason; our founders had experienced both the curtailing of religious liberty and the establishment of theocratic church-state structures. Neither were desirable. Their constitutional outcome included provisions that prohibited both.

Nevertheless, religious life has always been and continues to be an important force in American life. As your administration decides how it wants to build bridges to religious communities I would like to provide some modest observations and suggestions.

First, let us not fall into the errors of the previous administration. We should avoid governmental alliance with one slice of the religious community to the exclusion of all others. During the Trump administration that slice primarily included one stream of white evangelical Christians. Only those leaders had the ear of the administration. Their concerns were narrow: End Row v Wade (by seating conservative judges), provide tax-payer dollars to private religious schools (by placing a Secretary of Education who favored private schools and not public education), and conduct policy with Israel in such a way that it reinforced their own Christian end-times scenarios (with a Secretary of State and Vice President who were those white evangelicals).

In return, the administration was paid handsomely with votes and blind allegiance, regardless of the actual irreligious nature of the President.

We do not want this for our country or our religious communities. Constitutionally speaking, we want to avoid even the appearance of the establishment or even preferential treatment of one religious community. It is an error to do so in such a diverse religious nation as our own. Morally speaking, we want to regard our neighbors as ourselves, making sure that all religious voices are around the table.

Rather, we should strive to secure a broad and diverse council of religious representatives that reflects the true religious diversity of our nation. These religious representatives need not agree in doctrine, practice or ethical issues. But they do need to be able to speak for their own communities, express respect for other traditions, and exhibit a willingness to pursue the common good of our democracy.

This religious diversity should include Jews from their several traditions, Christians of many denominations, Muslims both Shite and Suni alike, Hindus, Buddhists, Taoists, Bahais, indigenous religions and many others. They should engage in conversation that illumines both unique and shared concerns. And let it be said: This religious diversity must include religious ethnic representation at the same time that it considers historic religious identities.

There needs to be a director of this interfaith religious council, an experienced person who is able to gather the tribes together and foster a sense of unity.

This has been done before in past administrations. In that sense, it is nothing new. But in contrast to what we have just lived through, it will seem almost revolutionary. Which is why it should be done soon, confidently, and well.

Mr. President-Elect and Ms. Vice-President-Elect: Reach out to the broad religious communities of this nation in a generous, inclusive and truly interested way and you will touch much of the soul of America. It is an opportunity you dare not miss.

Investing at the right time

Posted: November 4, 2020 in Uncategorized

I’d like to buy that property. That nice piece of property in the middle of the war zone. Maybe Syria or Afghanistan. Or that lot next to the crack house. Maybe the property that was abandoned after the fires. Right in the middle of the earthquake, flood or mudslide. Under the debris of the tornado. I’ll take it. Cash on the barrel head.

People wondered about Jeremiah. His nation was cracking up, people heading toward exile, adversaries pounding on the door, the proud walls tumbling. And then, in the middle of chaos and disillusionment, he says he’s buying his cousin’s field (Jeremiah 32). When everyone is loading possessions into their carts for a quick escape, hiding away in the basement, and bracing themselves against impending famine, Jeremiah buys a field for the future, a future that can’t yet be seen.

He takes the deed and seals it in a clay jar for safe-keeping. And the word that comes to him from the Spirit is that in the future life will once again flourish on that very land. You can’t see it now, but it will.

Kings and empires rise and fall. Leaders are good, corrupt and everything in-between. The times are tranquil or full of angst. The people are wicked and righteous and both at the same time. We wish we could choose the times into which we are born or where, but that is not up to us.

Jeremiah buys the field, the field of the future, the field of hope. I hear it’s a risky investment. They say such blind faith is pure foolishness. The majority says to fly under the radar and protect yourself.

But what they don’t understand is that buying the field of the future clears the way for the future to unfold. Unless we bank on a vision of the future that is greater than the reality in which we now live, it won’t come. That vision of the future has to be announced, anticipated, trusted.

Buy the field. Whatever else is happening, just buy it.

Voting is always important, especially if you are part of a healthy democracy where voting is safeguarded for all citizens. In a quasi-fascist political system citizens go through the motions of free elections when the elections are rigged either before or after the election to secure a pre-determined result.

When the United States was at its best we encouraged integrity in the voting process and secured election observers in the world societies that had questionable integrity around their voting practices. In my opinion, we are now one of those societies that needs to be monitored. The reason is, in my mind, perfectly clear: Some citizens and leaders in power are attempting to repress voting by interrupting the voting process, suppressing the vote, and in the main making it harder for people to vote. Those who are attempting to suppress the vote or encourage intimidation of voters are the ones who stand to lose the most when everyone votes. That is the only trump card they have to play; they cannot win elections fairly.

The attempted corruption of our election process is symptomatic of a larger trend and problem, the erosion of democracy itself. For the last four years our present administration and its proxies and enablers have systematically dismantled or dismissed the very institutions that make for resilient democracies. All this is done under the rubrics of the “deep state.” In actuality, these structures have been put into place to bring accountability and leadership beyond and often in spite of who happens to pull the levers of power at the moment. Autocrats want to dismiss any voices that call into question their own.

Democracies are fragile. They take years to build and can be dismantled in a relatively short period of time. We live in such a time when totalitarianism is rising across the world, a new fascism. When this happens the free press is silenced, human rights violated, “law and order” used to control the opposition, and all of the organs of government are controlled in order to reflect the one worldview of the autocratic leaders. The illusion is created that the regime in returning power to the people, but that is a ruse; a new controlling class seizes the assets and enrich themselves at the expense of the very ones they pretend to protect. Coalitions of the fringe combine to create a minority that controls the majority. The Judicial system is highjacked to always rule in favor of the regime and corporate interests that keep it in power. The Congress becomes anemic and ceases to provide a balance of power. Religion is manipulated to create an idolatrous state church in which the form of religion is filled with the ideology of the regime. And yes, the veracity of elections is either compromised or surrounded by doubt and suspicion in order to manipulate the outcomes.

We are living in such a time. When I say that this is the most consequential election of my lifetime, I am not exaggerating. Democracy as we know it hangs in the balance. Only a vast demonstration of resolve and courage by our citizens will help change course. If we do not, in the span of only four years the country we know and love will become a weak and twisted version of itself.


I just read a Columbus Day statement issued by our own government. It is a strident denial of history, with shaming of anyone who might describe our American history in anything other than glowing terms. Those people, the ones who tell the whole story, are not really patriots. They are intent on tearing down our proud heritage. Or so the statement leads us to believe.

I guess I am one of those people because I am going to tell the whole story.

A few years ago, I sat in the Cathedral in Seville, Spain and gazed upon the silver-lined sarcophagus of Christopher Columbus. In fact, the resting place of Columbus was not the only silver encrusted thing in the space; the entire sanctuary was silver-plated. Sadly, I knew where all that silver came from. The Americas.

More than 20,000 years ago Asian peoples began migrating from what is now far east Russia westward across a land bridge that spanned what we know as the Bering Strait. In stops and starts, in waves of migrations and likely settlements on and around that glacier covered geography, with great physical and genetic adaptation, the ancestors of native American people moved across and down the Americas. Over the course of thousands of years their tribes inhabited every geography that would eventually shape them; lakes and woods, plains and desert, mountains, jungle and seacoast. They hunted, gathered, migrated with the seasons, established permanent encampments, sustained themselves with agriculture, used and developed tools, pottery and weapons, built monumental mound cities and stone temples, lived in cliff dwellings, pueblos, movable camps and island hamlets.

These numerous tribes formed alliances for protection and survival, competed for resources, waged war, raided their neighbors and took captives and horses, traded and engaged in commerce, imprinted sacred symbols and stories into rock, ritual and dance, shared rites of passage with children, and buried their dead in caves, on platforms, and in mounds. They hunted large beasts, fished the rivers and lakes, and balanced their diets with maize, beans and squash.

Just a few centuries after the Norse traversed the northern route of the Atlantic to the settle along the present-day coastlines of Greenland and Newfoundland, European powers began a vast exploration of the lands of other continents. Buoyed by the Discovery Doctrine of the Catholic Church that declared all lands unoccupied by Christians were eligible for the taking, the seafaring countries of the Spain, Portugal, Holland, France and England did just that. Beginning in the 15th century they invaded, made conquest of and colonized the lands and peoples of the Americas. They also brought their European diseases which decimated the tribes.

The Spanish dominated South America, Central America, and Mexico which then reached all the way into today’s American Southwest and California, and this became “New Spain.” The Portuguese claimed the huge area of Brazil. The French controlled much of Canada, the great lakes and the Mississippi river basin for “New France.” The English focused on the American eastern seaboard upward to and including Nova Scotia, as well as the western portions of Canada and northwest American coast.

The expedition of Columbus was the prelude to invasion, conquest and colonization.

The conquest by the Spanish was conducted by such conquistadors as Cortes in Mexico 1519, Pizarro in Peru 1532, de Soto in what would become the southeastern United States in 1539, and Coronado in the present-day American Southwest in 1540. Their methods of destruction and domination contributed to the conditions that would eventually bring their colonial downfall.

In addition to amassing more land for empire, the Europeans had intentional financial goals as they occupied and colonized other lands and peoples. They wanted to exploit the wealth of the colonized lands and return it to Europe or establish new cash crop plantations that would raise needed products for the European market. Whether it was silver, cotton, or sugar, a large work force would be required to make the enterprise cheap and efficient. They had a solution for that challenge, a solution that would reach beyond the indigenous peoples they had enslaved.

In the 16th century, the great European powers began what would become a 350 year-long slavery enterprise in the North Atlantic. Though the practice of slavery was not new in the world the scale of this was new. Never before had such a world-wide, trans-continental coalition arisen dedicated to the one end of joining commerce and slavery, a coalition that included the monarchs and merchants of Europe, the cooperating kings and chieftains of Africa, and the vast slave markets of the Americas.

Cargo ships filled with European goods left all of the well-known seafaring ports – Lisbon, Seville, London and Liverpool, Nantes, Amsterdam – and sailed to the slave river ports all along the western coast of Africa. Those European goods were exchanged for slaves who had been taken captive inland and brought up river to the market ports by the Africans themselves. The slaves were secured through a variety of means – as the spoils of war, through indentured servitude, taken in slave catcher raids. This human cargo was transported across the “big river” of the Atlantic to the slave mart islands of Jamaica and Cuba in the Caribbean and the slave harbors in Brazil, Mexico, and the southern English colonies. There they were sold for cash or traded for products that would return to Europe.

In the Americas, colonists received slaves from all parts of Africa and they became the key to the prosperity of every labor-intensive enterprise – silver and gold mines, sugar and coffee plantations, cotton, hemp and tobacco fields. In the American English colonies, the first instance of slave trade may have occurred more than a year before the Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth Rock. In 1619 an English ship carrying between 20-30 Africans in chains landed at Point Comfort in Virginia. The crew traded the human cargo to colonists from nearby Jamestown in exchange for food.

It wasn’t long until the slave trade not only enabled the production of wealth in the colonies through free labor, but the slaves became valued commodities to trade. Thus, possession and trading of slaves produced capital itself, which only increased the volume of the slave trade.

The British slave trade grew immeasurably in the 18th century, and between 1720-1730 over 10,000 slaves were sold in South Carolina alone. To add perspective, in South Carolina in 1732 there were 14,000 white people and 32,000 slaves. By the eve of the Declaration of Independence, 1776, the British were sailing ships of slaves at the pace of 200,000 every decade, most of them sold in Virginia and the Carolinas.

Of course, the institution of slavery became the single most divisive issue in American culture, leading to a Civil War. After emancipation, Jim Crow laws, segregation and discrimination took slavery’s place and continued until the Civil Rights movement of the mid-20th century. The legacy and remnants of slavery and racism haunt us still.

To pretend that Columbus and the conquistadors who would follow were simply proud adventurers makes a mockery of the real history that is ours. This false presentation is a distortion of truth, a whitewashing of the record, a denial of the genocide of indigenous peoples already in the Americas and the slavery of those brought here to work for the prosperity of their owners.

            I am proud to be an American for many reasons, but the invasion, conquest, colonization and exploitation of the Americas is not among them. I remain hopeful that we will someday realize the lofty dreams of our founders. But the way forward will not found through codifying the indefensible. Telling the truth is neither tearing down heroes nor demolishing heritage. Telling the truth is the only way to clear a pathway for future greatness.           

colored drinking fountainI was out on a walk through town today when I ran into a friend doing the same thing. We chatted for a while, especially telling stories of where and how we grew up. He was a rural boy, living far outside the central Missouri county seat of Fulton. For Missourians, we know this area along the Missouri river as “Little Dixie” and Fulton is in its epicenter, in the “Kingdom of Callaway.” Fulton was founded in 1820, a year before Missouri’s statehood.

Virtually all of the towns along the Missouri River were slaveholder towns. They trucked in cash crops like tobacco and hemp, worked by slaves, and then sent them down river. After emancipation the economies of those farms and plantations fell on hard times. Though freed men and women often worked for wages at those very same farms later, they often had an indentured status, a new kind of slavery.

During the century between the Civil War and the Civil Rights movement of the 20th century, Jim Crow laws enforced segregation, characterized by unequal rights such as the right to vote. And for people like my friend whose childhood took place near Fulton, Missouri in the 1950s, segregation was on parade.

His mother, however, was engaged in her own civil rights movement long before its time. In the midst of segregation, rank discrimination and the barely concealed presence of the KKK, she protested in her own way. Like when it came to public drinking fountains, for example.

My friend told me that one of his earliest memories, perhaps when he was as young as Kindergarten, was of his mother marching her five children to the dual drinking fountains near the court house which were marked “white” and “colored” and lined up her brood to get long drinks from the “colored” fountain. This was in clear and dramatic sight of all the town’s people gathered at the court house. It was her protest. In the words of John Lewis, she was making “good trouble.”

The judge at the courthouse was a straight shooter, morally unwavering in his judgments and sentences. When he got wind that certain members of the Fulton community were threatening to go out to this woman’s house and vandalize or burn it, the judge came out into the common area of the courthouse, summoned the attention of all who were near, and made a statement:

“I want you to know that if I have the slightest reason to suspect that anyone has done harm to this woman or her property, I will arrest, charge and lock them up for eternity.” Evidently that threat did the trick. Nothing happened to my friend’s mother, family or property.

According to my friend, he ran into this same judge later in life, when he was a young man. The judge told him how much he respected his mother, that she was a courageous woman ahead of her time.

So she was. And he was a judge ahead of his time.

That’s what it takes – a moral sense that rises above the crowd, the courage to stand out and take a stand, and a community that resists the injustice in front of our own faces. And it starts by showing our children what is and is not moral and how to be a part of the solution when doing so is hard and sometimes risky.


On Tyranny – Timothy Snyder

Posted: August 10, 2020 in Uncategorized

On Tyranny

Timothy Snyder is a professor of History at Yale University. In 2017 he published a collection of twenty short reflections on tyranny entitled On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. It challenges the reader to become aware of the fragility of democracy and how authoritarian regimes may arise in our own time. In one sobering statement he suggests that “We are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism. Our advantage is that we might learn from their experience.” I want to summarize here his twenty observations/suggestions.

  1. Do not obey in advance. Authoritarianism depends on the public giving blind ascent in advance to anything a repressive government or leader wants. Anticipatory obedience is a political tragedy.
  2. Defend institutions. It is institutions that help us to preserve decency. Institutions do not defend themselves and can be undermined. It is in the interest of autocrats to have weakened institutions under the control of the regime.
  3. Beware of the one-party state. Tyrannical regimes eliminate the competition and turn elections into farce. One-party regimes controlled by the autocrat at the top breed the worst forms of tyranny because there are no competing voices.
  4. Take responsibility for the face of the world. We live in a society of symbols. Notice the emergence of symbols that exclude some while building the status or pride of others. Notice the way propaganda is displayed by the indoctrinated.
  5. Remember professional ethics. Totalitarian regimes redefine what is acceptable and what is not. When norms are abandoned under the rubric of doing it for the good of the cause, professionals often abandon their ethics. Don’t do it.
  6. Be wary of paramilitaries. When people with guns start wearing uniforms in order to enforce the aims of the leader, the end is near. When the pro-leader paramilitaries, police and military intermingle, the end has come.
  7. Be reflective if you must be armed. If you are a member of the police or military, remember your Constitutional oaths and responsibilities to fellow citizens. Democracies fail when armed forces are swept into unconscionable behavior.
  8. Stand out. It is easy to follow along and autocracies depend on absolute obedience. The moment an individual sets an example to resist the regime the spell of the status quo is broken and others are given courage.
  9. Be kind to our language. Separate your way of talking from the terms of propaganda, typical phrases and buzz shorthand. Free yourself from the sound bites of hackneyed social media. Undermine cliches. Expose glittering generalities.
  10. Believe in truth. Dictators thrive on relativity and alternative narratives. With enough chaos in the rhetorical air, autocrats redefine law, norms and human decency. Be clear about what is and is not moral. Do not be blinded by loudness.
  11. Investigate. Figure things out for yourself. Don’t trust the propaganda of the regime. Encourage investigative journalism. Investigate propaganda sources. Take care that you do not pass on propaganda misinformation to others.
  12. Make eye contact and small talk. Do not let the regime set the tone. Engage in friendships beyond politics. Seek to understand others and share your opinion. Attempt to stretch beyond barriers. Dictators want neighbors to fear one another.
  13. Practice corporeal politics. Dictators destroy democracy when the only people that show up are their own supporters. People in power want us to stay home and be passive. Form common cause with new friends and march with them.
  14. Establish a private life. Despots want to control your private life and eliminate protections against government interference. Consider using electronic media less and have more face-to-face relationships. Tyrants seek a hook on which to hang you. Try not to have hooks.
  15. Contribute to good causes. Tyrants want everything under the state and all energies directed to the state. Be active in non-governmental organizations that express your values. Pick a charity and support it. Make choices that support society outside of government.
  16. Learn from peers in other countries. The present difficulties in the United States are not unique and belong to a larger trend. No country will shore up their democracies in isolation. Anti-democracy autocracies are everywhere. Be aware.
  17. Listen for dangerous words. Be alert to words used by authoritarians: extremism and terrorists. Be aware of notions of emergency and that this is an exceptional time in which rights and norms must be suspended in service to the common good.
  18. Be calm when the unthinkable arrives. Modern tyranny depends on moments of terror. Authoritarians exploit these events in order to end checks and balances, suspend freedom of expression, end rights to a fair trial, and dissolve opposing parties. It is the oldest trick in the Hitlerian book. Do not fall for it.
  19. Be a patriot. Set a good example of what America means for generations to come. They will need it. A patriot wants the nation to live up to its ideals. A patriot has universal values, standards by which he judges his nation, always wishing it well, and always wishing that it would do better.
  20. Be as courageous as you can. If none of us is prepared to die for freedom, then all of us will die under tyranny. It is a common error of our time to believe that democracy is inevitable; it is not. It is fragile. And narratives of great mythical futures insured by a cultic hero abound.

The founding fathers tried to protect us from the threat they knew in their own time, the tyranny that overcame ancient democracy. Anti-democratic currents in our own time provide a parallel threat, the forms of which would be almost unimaginable to those same founders. These times have been left to us with a similar charge, to be alert to the powers that would dominate rather than uplift the life of our people and nation. The charge to us is to remain vigilant, courageous, and willing to take a stand in the face of  every threat, foreign or domestic. There is no one else in the ring. Only us.