How Free Do You Want to Be?

June 6th, 2017 No comments

The words “rights and “freedom” are foundational to the American self-image. The Declaration of Independence includes the word “free” four times: once referring to the British tradition of civil rights, once in proclaiming Americans, as all British subjects were assumed to be, a free people, and twice referring to the former colonies as “Free and Independent States.” Likewise, the document declares that the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (freedom) is inalienable.

The word freedom has woven its way into the fabric of American life and history in a way that allows it to mean many things. When Ronald Reagan spoke about freedom he was not talking about the same thing as Jimi Hendrix and Richie Havens, or Martin Luther King, Jr., or Governor George Wallace of Alabama. The word represents conceptually an existential goal that validates any cause. Reagan conjured a vision of the liberating America of the World War II generation, Hendrix and Havens a dream of freedom from oppressive government and culture, King a land of equality and brotherhood, and Wallace a land where King’s goal could never be realized. The Confederacy went to war in 1861 to defend their rights (freedom to own people as property) and the Union responded with a call for a “new birth of freedom” (the disassembling of the Confederate notion of freedom).

That this is true ought to lead us to critically examine what someone means when they speak of rights and freedom. I found it interesting that in the wake of the latest attacks in London, President Trump saw fit to point out that the Federal Courts were keeping us from our “rights” by refusing to allow his Muslim ban to be implemented. Mr. Trump has a rhetorical advantage because he doesn’t have to be in any way specific about what he means by rights. His base knows what he means, wink wink. And so do the rest of us.


But what rights does our President think the courts are keeping us from? The question goes to the heart of the American political divide. Should the Federal government, in this case the Judicial Branch, be allowed to impede citizens from doing what they want to do? Or need to do? From the very beginning Americans have been arguing about what power the government has or ought to have.

The argument has evolved to the shape that the power of government is a restriction on freedom. Thomas Paine asserted in Common Sense that government arose out of our “wickedness.” Madison wrote that if men were angels no government would be necessary. And Thoreau began his pamphlet On Civil Disobedience by pointing out that the government that governs least governs best. It does not require a very deep knowledge of history to realize that all of these statements are true. Governments have often overreached and trampled on the “rights” of the people.

And yet, one could argue that the basic purpose of government, as envisioned by the founders, is to ensure maximum freedom for all. Government that functions badly promotes the rights of some, restricts those of others, and allows or even commits depredations against the powerless. Government that functions beneficially protects the rights of all against any who would seek to deny them.

Despite our polarization, we must all agree on the necessity of government to protect our rights. Perfect freedom is to be found only in the jungle. And, as John Locke pointed out, that freedom is so precarious that society found it necessary to limit the rights of some to protect the rights of all. Hence the institution of civil government. Molotov cocktail throwing extremists of the left and right would have us devolve into anarchy. Where do you draw the line between the government that defends and the one that tramples on your rights? It is a question hardly to be answered in a short blog post, and yet we can get an idea by again considering the theoretical foundation upon which our nation was founded.

In the Second Treatise on Civil Government (1689) John Locke proposes that history began with all people living in perfect liberty in the State of Nature. Prefect liberty means the right to do as one pleases, and to acquire property as one chooses (provided it is not already owned) without any external hindrance. This state of liberty, as he says, is not a state of license, because he tells us that the State of Nature is governed by the Law of Nature, which is reason. Reason dictates, so he says, that every person must place the boundary of their own liberty at the place where it infringes the rights of others. Yet there exists the danger of one choosing to violate the liberty of another. And while reason may legislate a paradise of human liberty it has no power to enforce its law. That is what people join to do. They sacrifice some of their liberty (binding each to the defense of the other) to protect all of it.

It may be of historical interest that the definition of liberty was understood by the American revolutionary founders as the protection of property, as found in Locke. That is why when the Constitution was ratified and the country came into existence the franchise was restricted to white males. This is often seen as a reflection of an ancient misogyny. But in fact only white males could own property, so the only ones with something to defend, therefore the only ones with interest in civil government, were white men. And only a tiny fraction of the overall population of them.

But even Locke pointed out that all people are created equal in that their first property is their life. This equality is not qualified by gender or race or any other consideration. Even the rich will readily admit that government in the United States has most often been manipulated by the few for the benefit of the few. But if we were to apply Locke’s reasoning with life as the central article rather than material goods, then the government would exist, supported by all, to defend the lives of all.

Now, if you are a Trump supporter who has made it this far you are ready to exclaim, “But that’s precisely what he is doing! Protecting our lives!” This conclusion follows from a fallacious beginning: that the greatest threat to American life and liberty comes from foreign Muslim terrorists. But the fact is that the problem is that since 9/11 the vast majority of terror attacks in the United States have been accomplished by citizens born in the United States.[1]  Nevertheless, in spite of the jumbled legalese now tumbling out of the confused voices of the Trump administration, any honest person with a brain knows the purpose of the ban is to protect us from Muslims. Mr. Trump and his minions have so stated on a number of occasions.

In contrast, by singling out members of a particular religion the travel ban violates not only the First Amendment in that it establishes a religious preference, but as well the Fourteenth, because it violates the principle of equal protection for all. Today, the threat supposedly arises from Islam. But if we violate the rights of innocent Muslims because in the past some have been guilty, then what is to stop us next week from choosing a devil of a different religion or ideology? Why not Evangelical Christians? By their own admission they are hardly spotless. If they can come for the Muslim, they can come for you.

When the courts blocked the Executive Order were they really violating our rights? Or protecting them? If the choice is between violating the Constitution to defend ourselves from a non-existent threat or blocking the will of the President in order to maintain Constitutional protections for all…. Well, you decide.

Freedom is not absolute. As formulated by our founders and those who inspired them, freedom exists only in mutuality. In order to remain free I must yield to your freedom, even your freedom to disagree with me, even when your freedom is offensive to me. The only exception is when you seek to do me harm, or I you. At which point the government steps in, not to inhibit the freedom of the offender, but to protect the freedom of the innocent.


[1] Uri Freedman, “Where America’s Terrorists Actually Come From,” The Atlantic, January 30, 2017, accessed June 6, 2017,

The dynamics of war

May 16th, 2017 No comments

Watching the last episode Ken Burns’ Civil War I noticed that many of the men who had fought in the Civil War spent the rest of their lives wishing they could relive the experience. To somehow relive what must have been the most horrendous experience. I have always wondered why.

Near the end of the last episode of Ken Burns’ The War Quentin Aanenson, a World War II pilot, in his eighties at the time of his interview for the film, reflects on the allure of combat. about the lure of war.

“The dynamics of war are so absolutely intense, the drama of war is so absolutely emotionally spellbinding that it’s hard for you to go on with a normal life without feeling something is missing.  Now, I have had a wonderful life. I have a family that just is ideal, and I’ve enjoyed my life.  But I find there are times when I am pulled back into the whirlpool. I find that the intensity of that experience was so overwhelming, and almost intimidating, that you can’t quite let go of it.”

I have never been in combat so I can’t really understand it. But I think, at least intellectually, I can imagine why someone who has experienced combat would be unable to let go of it — would keep returning to it. The imminent possibility of death removes the dread of it from the equation. All deliberation aside, one just plunges into action. It is an act of complete sacrifice, whether the outcome is life or death. The actor is never more fully alive. Few things can match the intensity of the experience.

And I think, particularly in war, this sacrifice is a gift of oneself to something one feels is of greater importance than life. Country, ideology, family. Often in accounts of war it is loyalty to one’s fellows. But it is one of the few times a human being is offered the opportunity to be completely selfless. It may be, in fact, the greatest expression of love a human can make.

Things or People?

May 14th, 2017 No comments

Yesterday I had a short conversation with an apparently conservative guy who claimed he wanted “smaller government” because big government is taking away his stuff. It has occurred to me that one of the enduring divides in American politics is this issue of the size of government. Many of the founders and many who followed them felt that the smaller the government the better. Madison famously wrote that if men were angels no government would be necessary. But since there must be government, one strain of American political thought has been that that government should be small, limited, and close to the governed.

By contrast, Hamilton hoped to have a government that would be big enough to control the national economy. This feeds into the basic definitional conflict between he and Jefferson: is the United States to be a landscape of personal liberty, or is it to be a great commercial and industrial empire? Thus it would seem that the small government people would be those in favor of maximum liberty, and the big government people would be in favor of economic growth.

But since the time of the founding the small government crowd has come to focus its ideas on the purpose of government on individual ownership. The basic argument of a small government Republican is that the government shouldn’t take his hard-earned money and give it to some deadbeat who refuses to work. It’s an understandable sentiment, but rooted in the false narrative that those who are unable to achieve health and prosperity are prevented only by their own lack of initiative. On the other side, those favoring big government hope to harness the power of the national government to provide opportunities for health and prosperity for those who are hampered by circumstances beyond their control.

The basic divide is between those who see the country as a nation of sometimes like-minded autonomous individuals, and those who see the nation as a community. Individuals can choose whether to care for their neighbors, communities by nature cannot.

Compounding the dilemma is the co-opting of the moral narrative by the small government crowd. People calling themselves Christians have invented a narrative connecting the Constitution of the United States to the gospel of Jesus Christ. This even though the Constitution’s only mention of religion has to do with the definition of a strict secular state: no religious test for office, no established religion, and no prevention of the free exercise (or not) of religion. And leaving aside Paul’s admonition to the Christians of his age that “our citizenship is in heaven.” (Phil. 3:20)

But I will argue it is the big government crowd that controls the narrative in the United States most closely adhering to the moral teachings of Christ. I draw your attention to what is known as the parable of the Widow’s Mite. Here is the story:

He sat down opposite the treasury and observed how the crowd put money into the treasury.q Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow also came and put in two small coins worth a few cents. Calling his disciples to himself, he said to them, “Amen, I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all the other contributors to the treasury. For they have all contributed from their surplus wealth, but she, from her poverty, has contributed all she had, her whole livelihood.” (Mark 12:41-44)

The connection with our national plight is here: what Jesus values most is not reluctant or even generous giving, but sacrifice. The widow, in the material sense, gave almost nothing, while the rest gave much. But the widow gave everything she had, casting her hopes for the future on Providence. The rest gave what they had left over, placing their faith only in themselves. Little reflection is necessary to connect the sacrifice of the widow with that of Jesus on the cross. And what was this money to be used for? The Jewish tradition is filled with God’s admonition to care for the stranger, the orphan, the widow and the poor. Christianity inherits this call to mercy. Christians have a responsibility to care for those who are unable to care for themselves. It follows that if the United States is a Christian nation, its society would be a community devoted to the welfare of all rather than a group of individuals interested primarily in the preservation of private property. See Acts 2:44-47.

In his famous anti-Vietnam War speech Martin Luther King, Jr. observed that to avoid moral death the United States must undergo a “revolution of values” from a “thing oriented society” to a “person oriented society.” This is the heart of it, is it not? Do we care more about our neighbor, or our stuff?

“A third rate burglary…”

May 13th, 2017 No comments

Saturday Night Massacre

May 9th, 2017 No comments

Sorry it’s been a while since I posted. This is irresistible.


April 7th, 2017 No comments

A nation of laws…?

April 4th, 2017 No comments

Associated Press: Trump adviser asked FBI to dispute Russia reports

February 24th, 2017 No comments

Nixon:  When you get in these people when you…get these people in, say: “Look, the problem is that this will open the whole, the whole Bay of Pigs thing, and the President just feels that” ah, without going into the details… don’t, don’t lie to them to the extent to say there is no involvement, but just say this is sort of a comedy of errors, bizarre, without getting into it, “the President believes that it is going to open the whole Bay of Pigs thing up again. And, ah because these people are plugging for, for keeps and that they should call the FBI in and say that we wish for the country, don’t go any further into this case”, period!

Haldeman:  OK.


The Smoking Gun Tape

Transcript and audio of the Smoking Gun Tape. This was one of the tapes released by Nixon on order of the Supreme Court. It revealed that Nixon had ordered a cover-up of the Watergate break-in just six days after the burglary. This is the tape that caused Nixon’s congressional support to melt away and triggered his resignation.

AP Source


February 22nd, 2017 No comments


San Diego’s Catholic bishop urges citizens to be ‘disruptors’ and ‘rebuilders’ in Trump era

Even before the White House announced stricter immigration policies Tuesday, there were signs of opposition. Addressing people “of all faiths and no faith,” San Diego’s Roman Catholic bishop on Saturday urged Americans to be “disruptors” and “rebuilders.” Donald Trump, Bishop Robert McElroy noted, had campaigned for the presidency as “the disruptor.”

διαβάλλειν – The one who creates division

February 20th, 2017 No comments

In Christian theology, the Devil is an angel who defied God, and thus became morally corrupt. His name is Satan, which translates to “the accuser,” but he is also called the Devil, which derives from the Greek word διαβάλλειν (diaballein), which is generally rendered “slanderer.” Both names are appropriate because in the Christian narrative world Satan stands before God accusing humanity of rebellion, which is a slander because the division between humanity and God was instigated by Satan himself.

Bishop Robert Barron notes that the construction of the word dia-ballein combines two Greek words: dia – through, and ballein – to throw. Adding those words together creates a sense of casting asunder, or division. One must be cautious in assigning meaning based on pure etymology because words often take on meanings removed from the component parts (under-stand doesn’t mean to stand under something), but in this case I think the interpretation is useful because one can see how accusing and slandering will cast relationships asunder and cause division.

When God created humanity ‘in his image,’ he created us in a love relationship that mirrored the love relationship of the Trinity. In the Trinity there are three distinct persons (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) whose relationship with each other is a total outpouring of love, called perichoresis. The image of God in humans is the total outpouring of love by humanity for God, just as God pours himself out to humanity. In the Genesis story Adam and Eve stand for all humanity, and God has provided everything for their needs, given them autonomy and dominion over the earth. We read his instruction not to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil as a threat: if you do it you will die. But in fact it was a warning: creating a division in our relationship will bring about the death of our love relationship. It is not, “if you put your hand on the stove I will burn you,” it is, “if you put your hand on the stove you will get burned.”

The narrative continues with the arrival on the scene of the serpent, widely understood to be Satan. Satan tempts Eve with the promise of hidden knowledge and lies to her about the consequences of giving in to that temptation. But, alas, she is helpless to resist, and she sins, and Adam includes himself in her sin. And the sin immediately resulted in death, as God had warned.

The reader may wonder how the act resulted in immediate death when the Genesis narrative shows Adam and Eve living for hundreds of years outside of Eden. But the death God warned against was the death of the love relationship. As Paul writes, they moved from love of the Creator to love of created things, and after they were never able to devote their full attention to the love of God. Their affections were divided, which removed them from the total self-giving love of God. Thus, they were divided from God. That is death. The Serpent, Satan, the Accuser, the Slanderer, had successfully brought about the fall of humanity, casting asunder the wholeness of humans, and casting asunder their relationship with God.

The curse of humanity throughout recorded history has been the operation of this division manifest in uncountable ways. Humans are not only divided from God by their disordered affections, they are separated from each other by the breaking of God’s Spirit. The result is all of the calamities known to man.

Dia-ballein. To cast asunder. Division is the fate of humanity, and as we look about us today we lament the division we see in American politics, as if it were something new. Of course it is not new but at times it is more pronounced and noticeable. Although this spirit of division is undeniable, in the national discourse its cause is debated. To the conservatives, it’s the liberals To the liberals, it’s Trump. To the immigrants and minorities it’s the whites. To the whites it’s the “other,” whoever that happens to be at the moment (Naive Americans, Blacks, Irish, Catholics, Asians, Eastern Europeans, Italians, Okies, Hispanics, Japanese, and now Muslims). There are accusing fingers pointing in every direction. Each side, at least in its own mind, has truth and righteousness on its side, but the result is ever deepening division, to the point that one wonders if it is possible to heal.

Donald Trump was elected after running a campaign that sowed division. It began with the accusation that Mexicans were sending “rapists and drug dealers” and continued with attacks on Muslims, the press, the courts, “political correctness.” To some this aggressive speech was refreshing, stating openly what they had long believed but were afraid to vocalize. Others, like the KKK and other white supremacist organizations, openly celebrated that at last their hateful ideology was becoming mainstream.

Now, I am not saying that Donald Trump is the Devil, but I am saying that Donald Trump is doing the Devil’s work. Because the Devil’s work is to accuse and slander, skills Donald Trump has mastered.

But Donald Trump is not alone. Since the election, and particularly since the inauguration, liberals have responded to the provocations of the Trump administration by pointing accusing fingers not only at Trump, but against those who support him. It may be argued that their anger is righteous, but we must also concede that the result of this anger is not righteousness but more anger and more provocation. An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind. If Donald Trump’s opponents are able to succeed in ending his presidency, it will not heal the division.

In a secular society like the United States, few are willing to consider national political and social problems in spiritual or religious terms. But it is clear that the strategies employed to solve these problems do exactly the opposite. Can we concede that peace cannot be restored or created by vanquishing our opponents? If so, then we may consider an alternative strategy.

Here, Christian theology comes to the rescue. The narrative that begins with the rebellion of humanity against the love of God, that sows division, ends with unity. The climax of the Christian story of salvation is the death and resurrection of Christ. The consequence of that event is that Christ has overcome death and division and restored the unity of man and God by restoring the love relationship. Theologically, this is accomplished by the death of the human spirit of division and rebirth in God’s Spirit of love and unity. That’s what Jesus means when he tells Nicodemus, “You must be born again.”

The biblical Christian outlook is that it is only by the death of our separateness can we be restored to union with God. When we become Christians, we receive the Spirit of Christ. There is only one Spirit of Christ. The result is that those who are living in Christ are all one, and the sign of that unity is the self-giving self-sacrificing love that Jesus modeled on the cross. When John writes “God is love,” he says implicitly that wherever self-denying self-sacrificing love is evident in the world, God is visible. And Jesus himself says that this is how his followers can be identified.

When Mohandas Gandhi was leading Satyagraha (truth war) against British rule in India, it was not difficult for him to find many willing to risk their well-being in violent revolution. It is perhaps symptomatic of the fall from grace that the human heart tends more toward vengeance than justice. But Gandhi insisted that no one could be his follower who did not surrender their inner urge to violence, even in thought. It is not enough to be nonviolent when one is incapable of mounting violent resistance. True nonviolence requires a nonviolence of the heart: a tendency to love and compassion rather than anger and punishment. The strength of Gandhi’s nonviolence was that even if he had the power to vanquish the British by force, he would rather have reached out in brotherhood. This is the Christian way.

And this must be our way. The truth is, the image of God is in all of us. We must learn to recognize that image in everyone we encounter. It is not likely that we will ever achieve substantial agreement on politics, but it is possible for us to love each other even if we disagree. South Africa in the time of apartheid could not have been any more divided. One way that President Nelson Mandela helped to heal that division was by reaching out to his opponents to work on projects they could agree on. “If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.”

I don’t think we should expect instant reciprocation. We may in fact receive violence in return for our love. But we must never give in to violence. We must have the courage to receive the blows of the enemy, knowing that our suffering will be the instrument that will save us both.

The alternative is to continue to divide. And this is the work of the one who creates division.

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