Saturday, September 10, 2016

September 11--Do You Remember?

Pictures of those lost in 9/11 from Ground Zero Museum

The Sunday following September 11th we were out West and couldn't get home. The Airlines were either shut down or swamped. So I didn't preach that Sunday--I was too far from the church. But the next Sunday I tried to gather my thoughts and preach to a group of people huddled together under a cross wondering. Wondering. And so was I.

As that sermon ended an Usher came and said, "There's a young man back here that would like to talk to you." I went back to talk to the man. He was dark-sinned. Obviously from some middle-eastern country. The first thing he said was, "I hope you don't hate all of us." Strange way to open a conversation. "I hope you don't hate all of us." And then he poured it out. He was from Iraq. He was a student. He was far from home. A Muslim. He was so embarrassed at what had happened. He said that in that long week since the towers fell some people had been ugly to him. Some didn't say anything--but they just looked like they hated him."I hope you don't hate all of us." And I tried to reassure him that I didn't and we didn't. That we did not hold all his people responsible for what happened.  That we were glad he was in our country and I hope things would go well for him. The young man turned around and left and I never saw him again. 

Now fifteen years later and a changed, mutilated world--I still remember what he asked me that Sunday morning. Do we hate them? In our over-reaction we sent our boys and girls out to fight the wrong enemy. No wonder they hate us. We tore their world apart while back home we seethed and raged. We didn't seem to remember that what had happened to us had happened to the rest of the world again and again. 

And here we are on another September morning. The stock market soars. Unemployment is about as low as we have seen it. We've had a black President whom so many hate. We have political candidates gouging at one another. And all around us people have taken sides about who is lying and who is really our enemy and who really will make or keep America great. We pick and choose how we see things. 

Refugees look for a safe home. Thousands have drowned trying to get to safety. Immigrants shudder these days. Many of their children don't sleep well at nights. Their wives with burkas do not travel alone to our Malls. In the Grocery stores we stare at Hispanics and wonder if they have papers. We hear about Terrorists continually. And we have made many rich with Homeland Security. And we have made ourselves much poorer with guns and bombs and drones and devastation in so many foreign places.  What is our future--we refugees from September 11th? Will we hate each other. Will we look out our windows where most of us are safe and grit our teeth and ignore the colored falling leaves. Will we be deaf to the birds that sing outside? Or the butterflies and the bees that still do their work.

I remember the young man with the dark-skin that asked me that troubling question. And it has reminded me of the question that woman asked Benjamin Franklin years ago. "What kind of country are you going to give us, Mr. Franklin? He said, "A republic lady, if we can keep it."

On September 11th I am drawn once again by those words of the Polish poet. He writes:

"Try to praise the mutilated world
Remember June's long days,
and wild strawberries, drops of wine, the dew.
The nettles that methodically overgrow
the abandoned homesteads of exiles. 
You must praise the mutilated world...
You've seen the refugees heading nowhere,
you've heard the executioners sing joyfully.

You should praise the mutilated world.
Remember the moments when we were together
in a white room and the curtain fluttered.
Return in thought to the concert where music flared
You gathered acorns in the park in autumn
and leaves eddied over the earth's scars.
Praise the mutilated world
and the grey feather a thrush lost,
and the gentle right that strays and vanishes,
and returns."*

No, there is no such thing as closure. 
But out there we still have a chance to 
find our way.
To forgive one another.
To speak kindly to the brown-skins...
and the crippled...and to the black skins...
and the white faces...and to the old and
the young and to say to one another
No, we really don't hate you.

But we, one and all will praise, together, 
our mutilated world. 

*partial poem by Adam Zagajewski

Letters written and posted on Ground Zero Museum wall

--Roger Lovette /

Friday, September 9, 2016

A Scholar of Fascism Looks at Trump

(This particular article appeared in Sightings. Sightings is a very responsible publication. It is published by the Martin Marty Center. Found at the University Chicago Divinity School. Worth pondering. --R. Lovette)

The Last Trump?

Editor's note. This is the first in a series of reflections on the Trump phenomenon—or "Trumpism," if such a thing can be defined—and what it says about the relationship between religion and politics in America today. Needless to say, the views expressed in these pieces are those of their respective authors and are not necessarily shared, or endorsed, by the Martin Marty Center, the Divinity School, or the University of Chicago. Look for further installments from Sightings leading up to the U.S. presidential election.
Blowing the Trumpet at the Feast of the New Moon | Source: Holman Bible (1890)
"In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump: for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality."
1 Corinthians 15:52-53

To English eyes the run-in to the U.S. presidential election sometimes suggests that the Olympic Organizing Committee has been commissioned to run politics. I hope some remarks from a historian from across the Pond and three thousand miles outside the Washington Bubble will add more light than heat.

Trump and Christianity

Throughout history state power and state violence against the vulnerable have formed an unholy alliance with religion, perverting creeds which (if the sacred texts are read selectively in a compassionate spirit) may even encourage respect for nature and compassion for all human beings. The Aztecs; the ancient Egyptians, Jews, and Romans; the Crusaders and Conquistadors of Christianity; the countries fighting in the First World War, whether Christian or Islamic and whatever alliance they were part of, all believed they had, as Bob Dylan once put it, "God on their side." The horrors of Japanese Imperialism were enacted by a regime legitimized by Shinto, a nature religion. Hitler invoked God repeatedly and has convinced at least one scholar he was a true Catholic. The Sinhalese extermination of the Tamil Tigers was justified by Buddhism. Islam has been invoked by all the most brutal tyrants of the Middle East. Religious sectarianism and interfaith wars have probably cost millions of lives throughout history.

So when we learn that James Dobson, founder of the group Focus on the Family, claimed Donald Trump recently accepted "a relationship with Christ," adding, "I know the person who led him to Christ," jaws should not drop. Both George Bush and Tony Blair, who almost double-handedly are responsible for the collapse into anarchy of Iraq and the consequent rise of ISIS, both claimed a special relationship with (an allegedly Christian) God. Christian supporters of Trump should perhaps be urged to re-read some of the key passages of the New Testament in which Jesus reveals his Gospel of compassion for different ethnicities and the socially deprived, and the tolerance of violence directed against oneself. The sword he brought divided Christians from Jews in terms of salvation, not Americans from the rest of the world militarily.

Trump and fascism

Despite the frequent stigmatizing of Trump by his critics as a "fascist," it would be refreshing if more journalists used political categories with greater nicety. Trump is a populist, or to be exact, a radical right-wing populist. He owes his power to voicing in hardly sophisticated rhetoric widespread prejudices and simplistic diagnoses to complex problems which, if translated into practice, would prove counterproductive, discriminatory, and inhuman in many areas, both domestically and on the international stage. The flamboyant Vladimir Zhirinovsky in pre-Putin Russia was a right-wing populist who said he wanted to charge foreigners in Russia a fee if they could not speak Russian, make vodka dirt cheap, and force all of Europe’s homosexuals to live in Holland. Putin is another, far more dangerous form of populist with geopolitical ambitions, while Berlusconi was a more lightweight, comic, less puritanical version; whatever their considerable weaknesses neither can be accused of fascism.

To be fascists they would, like Mussolini and Hitler, have to set about seizing power democratically so as to be able to dismantle or pervert the institutions of liberal democracy entirely. Trump, whatever his faults, has given no sign that he intends the destruction of the U.S. constitutional system and its replacement by a totalitarian "new order" with himself as its charismatic leader for (in his case a short) perpetuity. Nor did other so-called "fascists" such as Margaret Thatcher, Angela Merkel, George Bush, or Barack Obama, which similarly disqualifies them from the description. I grant that "Trump Is a Radical Right-Wing Populist" has less of a (populist) ring as a headline than "Trump Is a Fascist," and lends itself to less funny cartoons, but that is what he is. He wants America to be great again, but not to be reborn in a totalitarian new order, let alone force its citizens to be subjected to a coercive state monopoly of power, which for one thing would stop billionaires like him from enjoying the fruits of their ill-gotten gains or running for president.

Trump and fanaticism

Still, Trump embodies and encourages a process that underlies a considerable percentage of the suffering that has been inflicted by a minority of depraved human beings on fellow human beings down through the centuries: Manichaeanization. The Trump world is split into good and bad, black and white (or in his case White and anything non-White, or White without an American accent). Like a grotesque parody of Dante’s Inferno, Trump’s Hell has many places reserved for a host of those who are beyond redemption as potential American citizens. Manichaeanization combined with unchecked political or religious power leads to inhumanity, because those "in darkness" are demonized and dehumanized to a point where their suffering and death is regarded as moral and compassion for them is hence legitimately suspended.

All anti-state and state terrorists apply a Manichaeanized ideology to reduce the irreducibly complex realities of the world to a simple dualistic narrative. At this point the new-born "visionary" sees him- or herself (curiously) as entrusted with a mission to represent, or even fight for, Good. A close study of the atrocities of Nazism, the massacre of Breivik, or the horrors (not at all "medieval") of ISIS will reveal different groups of human enemies to be demonized and persecuted, but the same dualism, fundamentalism, and fanaticism at work. "Fanatic," from the Latin for a temple (thus a "profanity" is something outside the temple) implies that the Manichaean has a religious sense of fervor about the Truth, and in extremis will regard violence and inhumanity committed against alleged enemies of the Truth (or the culture/nation that is its guardian) as a sacred duty. But because Trump is operating in a rationally constructed, liberal constitution, there are countervailing powers that would restrain him from undertaking the most extreme actions. Once his hysteria and incompetence revealed themselves as a bad basis for a successful U.S. presidency he would in any case soon be removed democratically and peacefully, like Thatcher or Berlusconi, without being shot like Mussolini, committing suicide like Hitler, or being lynched like Saddam Hussein.

A bottom line

So what are genuine American humanists—Christian, Muslim, or secular—to do as the great political Superbowl approaches? Perhaps they should bear in mind that the crises of the present world system demand forms of non-fanatical activism which refuse to demonize or dehumanize anyone, even Mr. Trump. He is not the first simple-minded demagogue to appear on the political stage of a major nation. Nor will he be the last. Trump is no more (politically) immortal than his predecessors, and it is for those who can live with the complexity and tragedies of the world without being seduced by simplistic diagnoses and solutions to make sure they outlive him.


- Anthony, Michael. "Exclusive Interview with Dr. James Dobson - Did Donald Trump Recently Accept Christ? June 24, 2016.

- Kagan, Robert. "This is how fascism comes to America." The Washington Post. May 18, 2016.

- Matthews, Dylan. "I asked 5 fascism experts whether Donald Trump is a fascist. Here's what they said." Vox. May 19, 2016.

- Shekhovtsov, Anton. "Vladimir Zhirinovsky and the LDPR." Foreign Policy Journal. November 7, 2011.
Author, Roger Griffin, is Professor in Modern History at Oxford Brookes University. He is widely acknowledged to be one of the world's foremost experts on the socio-historical and ideological dynamics of fascism, as well as the relationship of various forms of political or religious fanaticism, and in particular contemporary terrorism, to modernity. His publications include The Nature of Fascism (Pinter, 1991), Modernism and Fascism: The Sense of a Beginning under Mussolini and Hitler (Palgrave, 2007), and Terrorist's Creed: Fanatical Violence and the Human Need for Meaning(Palgrave, 2012).
Sightings is edited by Brett Colasacco, a Ph.D. candidate in Religion, Literature, and Visual Culture at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

--Roger Lovette /

Friday, September 2, 2016

If I Had Just One Sermon to Preach

photo by Bev Norton / flickr
I have been trying to decide what would be most appropriate for this last  Sunday. I remember a friend of mine saying if you had just one sermon to preach--what would you say? Good question: if you only had one sermon to preach--what would you say?

Certainly that sermon should deal with the essence of the gospel. Surely it would be a good news in a world of so little good news. 

After thinking about all that is going on in the world—which is a lot—and all the things you bring into this room—what should I say? And what is it that we all need to hear?

I have chosen for our text that wonderful scene in Jesus' life. Our Lord pushed aside the carpenter shavings and turned toward adulthood. He found his cousin John and said, "Will you baptize me?" Standing there in the Jordan River, the wind blew. A bird sang off in the distance. And a voice spoke. It was a holy moment. For itwas God that spoke. And as Jesus came up out of the water that voice said: "This is my beloved." And this became the word that would carry him through thick and thin for the rest of his life. And there, in the Jordan River I have found my sermon. This is my beloved.

Tony Morrison has a wonderful novel called Beloved. It's the story of a woman trapped in slavery--a black woman in the 1800's in Ohio. The only thing she had in all her life--the only
photo by elycefeliz / flickr
thing she had--was her two-year old child who died. Who can imagine such grief? In her devastation, she went to see the man that carved tombstones. Knowing she had little or no money he said to her: "I've got a little sliver of granite left over. It is just the size for a baby's tombstone. If you can give me seven letters in the next few minutes I have a little time and I'll carve the tombstone and give to you for free." She couldn't read. She did not know how long letters were. She wanted to put "Dearly Beloved " on the tombstone because that's what the preacher had said over and over at the funeral for her baby. But the man said that was too many letters. And so she said, "Would the word, beloved be too long?" He counted on his fingers: "B-E-L-O-V-E-D." And he carved those seven letters of a very great love and an enormous, enormous loss.

And when we come to the Scriptures, two Gospels have carved this word into the beginning of the ministry of Jesus. And across waters and time and cultures and two thousand years, the word still remains: B-E-L-O-V-E-D.

It isn't the only time we bump into this word. Jesus would face the dark clouds and opposition and friends and family who did not understand and finally the Cross. All four gospels tell the story that of that time when Jesus and his three friends went up into the mountains to the place which has become known as The Mount of Transfiguration. There on top of the mountain, so far from the difficulties he would face, he would find a preparation to go on. Peter, James and John witnessed this surreal scene. They heard a voice that came to Jesus and said, "You are my beloved." And so he led them down, down the mountain with its twisting, winding trails all the way down where he would face the hard things that would lead him to the Cross. The Gospels tell us he did it with his head held high moving through his darkest hours with great dignity and grace because he had heard a word.

So this becomes the last word I think I would say if this was my last sermon. For if we listen closely the One that heard that word gave it out again and again wherever he went. And if we, too, can claim this word for ourselves, we can go out into all the hard things that we must do and we shall find that anchoring word, and we shall make it.

But someone here says, "But what about those other words?" Other words? "You are no good." "You are lazy." "You'll never amount to anything." "You're a nobody." "Worthless--absolutely worthless!" “Illegal.” “Trashy.” “Nobody.” “Deadbeat.” “Sissy.” "Stupid." We have heard these words all our lives from kindergarten and home and school and church and, it seems, everywhere. "Just who do you think you are?" And many of us have fought these old labels all our lives and we are exhausted from the fighting. And so we have tried a multitude of prescriptions to cancel out the ugly, ugly words: work, success, jobs, money, things sex, drugs, alcohol—addictions of all kinds. And none of these have not worked at all. 

Do you see why I have chosen this old story? For if you and me can somehow capture the essence of this word God gave his son, it may just carry us through. To close the gap between what God says and the realities of your life and mine. For this is our task and this is the great missionary word of the church: to tell each other and the whole wide world what God himself has called all of his children to discover this healing word, beloved.

But we can't do it alone. We can't operate on ourselves. And I think this is why we need church, if it's healthy. We shake the amnesia of many things in order to hear this special, special word. We hear music. We ponder sermons. We sing hymns. We wade through the baptismal waters. We take the Bread and the Cup. We listen to the old words of Scripture. But the great hope is that, somehow, we will be addressed and our names will be called. And if we ever, ever hear that word, beloved, we keep coming back because we know it's real and right and true.

photo by chick_e_poo / flickr
But it doesn't stop there. For Jesus did a wonderful thing. He took that benediction, that which had been given, and broke it and gave it away like the loaves and fishes. And they just kept coming. Not just the right people. But everybody. Like those hungry, hungry five thousand he fed that day. They kept coming--hungry for affirmation. Why did they all come—because they knew he thought they were beloved. We could go on and on, Lepers. The centurion’s son—an outsider, that stormy time when the disciples thought they would sink. Wild demoniacs, paralytics, tax collectors, Zaccheus. They all heard that wonderful word addressed just to them as if they were the only one: Beloved. You are beloved. 

The beat goes on. It is not just confine to stories in the Bible. Maybe you have heard the name Raymond Carver. He was one of the great writers of the twentieth century. He died a couple of years ago. He had an awful time with alcoholism. Lost his wife. Lost his family. Lost about everything he had. But in the last ten years of his life he put the bottle away with the help of some groups and doctors and AA. He met a woman named Tess Gallagher whom he dedicates his last book to. I love that dedication:
Tess. Tess. Tess. Tess. 

She was his light. He found some joy and meaning in those last ten years. Then he discovered he had lung cancer. He went through all the chemotherapy. There were ten months of courageous fighting before he lost the battle. The last book of poetry he ever wrote was called A New Path to the Waterfall. The last poem in the book is his benediction for his life.

And did you get
what you wanted
from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved.
To feel myself beloved of the earth.

It is the great, great dream of us all. To hear that voice that tells us, deep down, we matter and we count.

Leonard Sweet, a Methodist preacher tells of a little boy named Michael who was four years old. His mother told him one day that she was going to have a baby. Michael was so excited. He wanted a baby in their family. As his mother's stomach grew larger and larger, Michael would go up as she was standing there at the sink and put his nose on her stomach and put his arms around what he said was the baby. And he would sing:

You are my sunshine, my only sunshine,
You make me happy when skies are gray.
You'll never know, dear, how much I love you,
Please don't take my sunshine away.

Over and over Michael would sing that song. Sometimes the baby would kick and he would
photo by Scott & Elaine van der Chijs / flickr
giggle. He was so happy about the baby. The time came for the mother to go to the hospital and she had the baby. But there were a lot of complications. They did not know if the baby was going to live. She told Michael as best she could that the baby was very sick. Michael was so distressed and he wanted to see the baby. Well, the baby was in the neonatal unit and they didn't want him to see the baby with all the tubes and things she was hooked up to. But Michael insisted. He would not take no for an answer. All he talked about was his baby sister. Finally, the mother got permission from the doctors and they brought Michael to the hospital. He went upstairs and they took him by the hand and led him into the room. And he saw the baby. He didn't see the wires and feeding tubes and the monitors. He just saw his baby sister. He said, "Mama, I want to touch her." So they lifted Michael up and he put his nose against her nose and he said, "She's beautiful!" And he started singing:

You are my sunshine, my only sunshine,
You make me happy when skies are gray.
You'll never know, dear, how much I love you,
Please don't take my sunshine away.

The next day at kindergarten, someone from the hospital came to the school and said they wanted Michael to come back to the hospital. Was something wrong with the baby? No, the baby was a little better. But when the doctor read all the charts and reports from the night before, he noticed that at a certain time during the day, somehow the baby began to calm down and to rest peacefully. The Doctor discovered that a change came about the time that Michael had been there and when he had sung. They said the doctor wants Michael to come back and to sing to the baby. And so every day at the same time, they would take Michael from the school to the hospital, up the elevator, to the neonatal unit and he would put his nose on the baby's nose and he would sing: "You Are My Sunshine."

Leonard Sweet, in telling the story, says his favorite picture in his office is a picture of nine-year-old Michael and his five-year- old sister.

Once upon a time, God came down the stairs of heaven with a child in his arms. And you know, I think he was singing. But I don't think he was singing just to the baby. I think he was singing to the whole wide world. And I think I know what he was singing. Will you sing it with me?

You are my sunshine, my only sunshine,
You make me happy when skies are gray,
You'll never know, dear, how much I love you,
Please don't take my sunshine away.

And that's what I would say if this was the last sermon I was ever to preach. You are beloved. Beloved of God. And if we ever, ever get our arms around that idea we can take it all: death, life, things present, things to come, powers, no matter how high the waves or dark the night—nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

(This is the last sermon that I preached at the First Baptist Church, Pendleton (SC) as I finished an eighth-month interim. August 28, 2016. Fine, fine church.)

photo by Kyle / flickr

--Roger Lovette /

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Cell Phone Curse

My friend Ken Sehested first introduced me to this funny picture. Hope you find it as hilarious as I do. Sometimes I think technology is demonic--or at least negatively addictive. It may well sink us all. Folks, it 's not "get a phone" it's get a life!

--Roger Lovette /