Is the Constitution Still Relevant? On Watergate, the Saturday Night Massacre, and Why we Need Zombie Fred Thompson

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Let us put aside, for the moment, the fact that Donald Trump never wanted to be president. A pin we shall place in discussions of his gross incompotence, which was discussed seriously by only small, but important cadre of Republicans throughout his candidacy; three million more Americans than those who voted for Trump saw it as well. As much as it pains us, we must rush past more than mere mentions of his outrageous Twitter behavior, his painfully awkward encounters with State leaders, his irresponsible logorrhea that upends international diplomacy, his fundamental lack of even the most basic understanding of U.S. history and the Constitution, the complete dearth of intellectual curiosity that drives him to watch hours upon hours of cable news as his source of information, or even that he favors crackpot, ideologically-based, but facts-challenged bloviating from people like Andrew Napolitano over actual government intelligence to support his unfounded, historically-unparalleled accusations of illegal wiretapping by a then-sitting president. Let us admit that this paragraph could continue as one horrible, run-on sentence filled with evidence from the FAKE NEWS with which he is obsessed. Because all of that is really a distraction to what has happened in the past 24 hours.

I realize that in my small but faithful readership there are many people who actually lived through Watergate. I did not; I was born in 1976, but I grew up in an intellectual, politically-involved family. I am a voracious reader and an avid watcher of documentary films. My favorite on Watergate is the 1994 Daniel Shorr/BBC doc, A Third Rate Burglary. Released the year Richard Nixon died, this comprehensive, over 6-hour examination narrated by a man who was himself a member of Nixon’s “enemies list,” chronicles in great detail the sinking of Nixon’s Titanic; even today, reasonable people can disagree on when exactly it hit the iceberg. Was it in ordering the plumbers to take photos of Daniel Ellsberg‘s psychiatric records to staunch the bleeding from the steady release of the Pentagon Papers? Was it the moment conspiracy was spoken about in the Oval Office? Was it when he fired Archibald Cox, the independent counsel charged with determining if our president is a crook? Was it because Nixon knew that the unredacted tapes would be end of him, so in what became known as the Saturday Night Massacre–a bloodless Night of the Long Knives— Nixon, incensed that Cox would not accept the outlandish Stennis Compromise (hey, let’s exploit a hearing-impaired Senator and hope he doesn’t hear the bad parts when transcribing; seriously, click the link), he ordered the Attorney General Elliot Richardson to fire Cox; he refused, and was fired, as was Deputy AG William Ruckelshaus, who was succeeded by the man who did pull the proverbial trigger, Robert Bork (who was later denied a seat on the United States Supreme Court in a brutal hearing).  Was it when Nixon then made a pathetic attempt to release redacted versions of the tapes (made known only because of the begrudging Senate testimony of Alexander Butterfield)? Or when the tapes were released after the Supreme Court had to tell the president that they were not his personal property? When did the presidency start to take on water and how rapidly it occurred is a fun intellectual game because we are removed from the fear and the danger. What did the president know and when did he know it? 

Not so today. The firing of Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey has some parallels and some important differences. There was no denying that Cox was fired because Nixon was trying to protect his own threatened power; Democrats wanted Comey fired because of his inarguably inept handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails (which is in itself a symbol of the partisanship that has broken our government), something that appears to have impacted the presidential election in not insignificant ways. I imagine decades from now there will still be debate about this, but right now there is no denying that we are in a Constitutional crisis.

And the Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is currently taking time to excoriate Democrats about Obamacare. That’s what’s happening, and that’s what worries me. Fiddling while Rome burns.

Our current AG, Jeff Sessions, who has financial ties to for-profit prisons while calling for a return to draconian drug sentencing, is so morally questionable that Coretta Scott King wrote a letter about him. He is more Bork than Richardson or Ruckleshaus. Our current House Judiciary Committee has rabid partisans in the majority, such as climate-change denier Lamar Smith or my home state’s Steve Chabot, a staunch defender of Trump. I know that I was not alive during Watergate but I think I have a working understanding of the details, and I don’t have much confidence right now that there are principled Republicans in power who will get moving the wheels of justice. It is time for us to stop this knee-jerk, partisan reactionary behavior and understand that we are at a vital juncture in our nation’s history. We need leaders of the majority party such as Fred Thompson, who before becoming an actor and a part-time presidential candidate, managed to ask the most important, aforementioned question to Butterfield about the listening devices in the Oval Office. (Some feel Thompson gets more credit than he deserves.) Millions of citizens already are convinced that elections do not reflect the will of the people; we can jump down the rabbit hole of the Electoral College another time, but there is no doubting that Trump is the most unpopular incoming, nascent president. We’ve already breezed past his gross incompetence, so it is not as though we owe the man a thing. He has to go.

There was a famous moment in Bill Clinton’s first term after the Republicans swept into power in the unprecedented 1994 midterm election. He was being so overshadowed by the bombastic Newt Gingrich that Clinton had to say to the press, “The president is relevant.”

Is the Constitution?

Our responsibility as citizens is to make it impossible for the government to do anything until it does due diligence and shows us that, indeed, the Constitution is still relevant and it still works. Let’s hope we don’t have to call upon a zombie Fred Thompson to get it done.

Touched in the head and dying of the damp: On being sickly and afraid of the AHCA

Had I been born a century earlier, I don’t know if I would have made it. I spent my first birthday in an oxygen tent because I had pneumonia.

I was born in July.

A lot of my earliest memories are of being in the hospital for surgeries. I had ear tubes installed 5 or 6 times; that’s what we called it,, or at least that’s what I’ve told myself we called it to make this a better story. Even my parents can’t remember how many times I had that surgery, how many installations, but I remember the earaches that precipitated the surgeries and made me wish for death even before I could express that thought. By the time I was ten I had already been through the chicken pox, mono (twice), pneumonia (twice), flu almost every year, and at least two major orthodonture surgeries (I’ll write another time about when I had ten *extra* teeth removed). Then there were my allergies, the most excruciating of which was poison ivy. I only have to be within a certain proximity of poison ivy to be infected; I once was so covered a Nurse Ratchett berated me before surgery as I sat in my underoos and she eyeballed the rash on, as Ian Anderson sings in one of my favorite Jethro Tull songs, “the parts they never mention.” She threatened to cancel the surgery, which was a big deal because I knew how hard it was for my parents to get off work in the first place, so being the sensitive soul that I am I took the fact that I got poison ivy as a moral failing. The surgery–my tonsillectomy and adenoidectomy, I think, which had to be done because of my jacked-up teeth and to prepare for the retainers from hell I wore for six years–went forward. The list goes on. My back issues started when I was 16; I was once on disability for four months. I had a shingles outbreak–see aforementioned Tull song–while chaperoning a youth retreat at Purdue University, which was a fun drive home.

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What’s especially funny is that my mom’s name really is Peggy. 

And, of course, you’ll be knowing that I have Bipolar Disorder, which brings with it not only the mental aspect but also the fact that depression writes itself on the body. I went through three years of hell having almost every -oscopy under the sun to deal with my stomach issues and nothing came up because it was my bipolar screaming for attention.

All of this to say, I have spent a great deal of time in bed and dealing with the attenuating anxiety that comes with fearing that everyone sees me as weak. Or unreliable. Or lazy. Oh, I know the intellectual arguments against this and it does not matter how many times people tell me such is not the case, in my mind, there is always the pull between wanting to rest so I can get better and the incessant fear that everything is going to fall apart because I am ill too often. People will stop thinking I am capable. I will be unable to fulfill my responsibilities. I wonder if my decreasing desire to do much of anything social outside church, Xavier, my studies, and the occasional village event is owed less to my being 40 and more to do with the fact that I am becoming even more sickly.

Sickly.

See, that’s the word I think would have been used for me had I been born a century earlier. That’s how it would have been written in the family lore. Oh, Aaron was the sweetest little boy but he was sickly. I imagine that I would have perished fairly young, vanquished by “the damp.” Perhaps I would have made it to early adulthood before dying in an unseemly way, only to be spoken about after a few drams of whiskey. He was touched in the head, that boySmart, but troubled.

I have the unmerited grace bestowed upon me to live in a situation in which I can maneuver my schedule to work around the illnesses. It is one of the reasons I am so transparent and honest: I want people to know that I hate this reality and when I commit to things I do so out of a genuine desire to participate and make a difference. I am writing this right now because I can’t lie in that bedroom any more worrying myself into a tizzy, so I write hoping that my words will communicate the deep, genuine desire I have to not be “sick again.” I wish my eyes were not on fire and my hands blocks of ice. I’m not ready to stop planning or to think that I can’t accomplish the things I want to do, but I also realize I kind of hit the lottery. My friends and family and community are understanding; I have a home and access to medical care. I have work that *barely* allows us to pay the basic bills. If any of these ingredients were to go, I cannot be honest about how resilient I would be. I physically cannot work a 9-5 job. It is important for me to be honest about this; it is important for all of us to be honest about how the loss of healthcare or slipping further into debt can decimate our lives. I have more of a security net than many, but it ain’t much.

I don’t feel sorry for myself and I do not ask anyone to feel sorry for me. My life is an abundance of blessings and I thank God everyday. I did nothing to deserve the incredible life I have been given, so I’m just grateful for it. The flip-side of that is being honest about what frightens me. People like me have a long history of ending up in terrible places, of having our vulnerabilities be too much to defend and we lose control. As I wait for the medication to kick in so I can go back to sleep, I am thinking about how many people have lives that can be destroyed with the single blow of an unfateful wind. Of what might happen if my healthcare goes away; if Miriam and I can’t afford to keep the house when it is passed to us. And I see a country in which a not insignificant number of people would be just fine if I were to die, because my political beliefs mean my physical ailments don’t deserve treatment. A country in which we are content to prioritize making money as a right, but not a society in which we recognize that some people, through no fault of their own, have physical and mental struggles that directly impact their everyday lives and therefore need care. I don’t know any of us who deal with chronic illness who are happy about it, or want to be a drain on others, but for fuck’s sake we are not going to just go ahead and die. That doesn’t get to be part of the deal, okay?

I will be seeing a new doctor in July and I am hoping that like finding the right therapist, this will be a key to my being able to navigate and negotiate my health more successfully. But let all of us finally take a stand against the politics of healthcare. This is not about one side winning; this is about real suffering and dying. This is about a commitment to being a species which prioritizes using knowledge to help people. All people. Because we all need help, in one way or another. There are none of us who can do this on our own. And we are none of us more deserving by merit of our birth. It baffles me that a country that was supposedly founded to stop the abuses of a ruling class has produced perhaps the most genocidal, despotic autocracy in human history. The AHCA will be a death sentence to millions. Literally millions. Some more quickly than others, but the toll will be massive. We can do better.

With the loss of the Johnson Amendment, the time has come for Bonhoeffer’s religionless Christianity

Today the president signed an Executive Order, once again proving that he is incapable of actual governance according to the strictures of the Constitution, that seriously erodes the Johnson Amendment. Introduced in 1954 by then-Senator Lyndon Banes Johnson, the legislation does not allow tax-exempt organizations to be both overtly political and avoid paying taxes. This essentially makes the Johnson Amendment an IRS matter, not a free-speech matter, but Evangelical Christians cry foul and persecution, despite the fact that, as John Wagner reports in The Washington Post,  “Violations of the Johnson Amendment are infrequently pursued by the IRS, but evangelicals claim it has been used selectively against them, preventing Christian leaders from speaking freely in church.” Alas, here’s the rub. Too many Evangelical Christians–who voted overwhelmingly for a thrice-married servant of Mammon with a penchant for being handsy and believes Communion is a magic cracker–fear that they can’t be openly misogynistic, homophobic, Islamaphobic, and xenophobic in the name of Jesus Christ.

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In the Evangelical mindset, religious freedom is the ability to deny service to a dying person because he or she is “objectionable,” including even vital medical treatment.  It is essentially saying that being an asshole is a religious right, and the president just gave credence to this so-called “war on Christianity” that is neither war nor against Christianity.

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I don’t hear Evangelicals decrying the genocide of gays in Chechnya. In fact, Evangelical Christians arguing for religious freedom are often the ones who spread rabid anti-LGBTQ hatred overseas.  There is not a reasonable argument to be made that today’s Executive Order is anything other than a wink and a nod to those who wish to scream about the supposed splinter of sin in the eyes of others while ignoring the oak tree in their own. Don’t be fooled; this has nothing to do with following Jesus Christ.

I’m a pastor who is very active on issues often deemed political. I argue that these issues actually belong to the Gospel before they belong to American politics, but I toe the line; I do not mention politicians by name from the pulpit, and I try to speak about on issues, not persons. I do this because if the church I serve were to pay taxes, it would fold. Property tax alone where we are would take a significant portion of our budget; I already am only hired for 18 hours a week, but work much more because I am not a servant of Mammon. I am a servant of Jesus Christ. I find it interesting that most of the leaders claiming religious persecution pastor the largest, most wealthy churches and the pastors have a huge salary. They also are often pastors who more preach self-help (buy my book!) than the Gospel. There are exceptions, but not many.

I don’t want to be associated with them anymore.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a name that is cynically invoked by many Evangelicals, set forth a concept called “religionless Christianity.” It is a controversial idea that if oft-misunderstood. Bonhoeffer argued that religious doctrine interfered with people’s ability to connect with God, especially in an increasingly irreligious world. Bonhoeffer would not have claimed that the answer is nondenominationalism and coffee bars instead of a sacristy. Bonhoeffer taught us that the power of the Incarnation is that God experienced the joys and sorrows of human life, just as we do now; if we want union with Christ, we seek it in community, we seek in solidarity with the suffering of those around us. If we want to understand God, we must understand Christ’s suffering; and if we want to understand Christ’s suffering, we must address the suffering that the world causes to others.

I am a pastor within the United Christ of Christ (UCC) serving a Presbyterian Church (USA) congregation. I am a firm believer in denominationalism because it keeps pastors accountable; it means that we have to undergo training, that we report to local, regional, and national governing bodies; in the Reform tradition, it means that we pastors have very little power compared with the congregation, which is perhaps the single greatest polity development in the history of the faith (even though I sometimes yearn for the power of a priest, I’m glad I don’t have it). But if today is a signal of what Christianity is and will remain, it needs to go. Our religion needs to die because this travesty of political demagoguery has as much to do with Jesus Christ as does a pine tree at Macy’s in December

It takes money to run a church. Sadly, when many people hear that I am a pastor they make assumptions; my physical appearance does not help, either, as most people aren’t used to a pastor covered in tattoos. They assume that I don’t pay taxes, which I can assure you, I do. We pastors are often taxed heavier because we are considered independent contractors but still receive W-2s. My meager salary is heavily taxed, but that’s okay.  I didn’t take a literal vow of poverty but I did in my heart. I follow Jesus Christ, not Benjamin Franklin. Tax-exempt status reminds us that our goal is to preach the Gospel, not to involve ourselves in partisan politics. To be sure, there are issues that are important to people of faith. And their faith may motivate them to act. That’s fine; we all have that right as citizens. But to argue that religious freedom is the right to drag temporal, secular, earthly politics into the pulpit angers me, both as a minister and an American.

I call upon fellow Christians to rise up against this Executive Order; make it clear that this is not about religious freedom, this is about the unholy matrimony between Evangelical Christianity and the Republican Party. This is about a vulgar abomination passing itself off as the good news. If this is religion, call me religionless.

A Bluegrass Eastertide: In the Garden with Stephen

This Eastertide I have been connecting the narrative lectionary texts to a gospel song, loosely defined as “bluegrass gospel.” I married into bluegrass royalty; my lovely wife’s parents were (and still are) part of The Hotmud Family, a band that originally included legendary songwriter Tom “Harley” Campbell. Much more on that next week, but suffice it to say I am not a picker and a singer, as true bluegrass musicians define it. I do play a mean guitar and I’m told my singing voice makes people want to stay in the room, which is always nice, but I’m not claiming festival-worthy gospel. However, on Easter a confirmation you and I sang “Hard Times Come Again No More.” The next Sunday, my amazing wife Miriam joined me for a sendup of the Staley Brothers’ version of “Angel Band,” and this past Sunday a member who grew up in this congregation and sings with Soul Stirrers group, joined me for “In the Garden,” my maternal grandmother’s favorite hymn. I did my best Johnny Cash meets Hank Williams interpretation to match the amazing voice of my singing partner, and it was a pure joy. Sadly, I did not record any of the songs BUT this Sunday I am going to Facebook Live the end of worship when we play a very special tune. I’ll link it in a future blog. Click here for the scripture selection    

The problems of the present often have interesting effects on the past, don’t they? Our contemporary woes can seem so potent and acute that we yearn for a time before they emerged. We humans have a remarkable capacity to forget previous pains, to produce in our minds a time in which things were better. Perhaps they were, but often our woebegone present can produce rose-colored glasses through which we gaze upon a time that never really existed. This is frequently the case with talk about the early Church: we imagine a holy assembly when in reality, as Acts 6 makes clear, it was a hodgepodge, not unlike today. There is something both comforting and deflating about this: the Body of Christ has always been a tenuous community trying to make a go at following the example of Jesus, and we’ve never quite gotten it right.

Today’s passage begins with griping; the Hellenists—the Gentiles, the non-Jews—are complaining against the Hebrews that the work of the Church is not being done: widows are going without food. The Twelve—Judas having been replaced by Matthias—gather everyone together and say, “Look, we can’t all do everything and there’s lots of important work. The community has made it clear that we need new ministries, so let’s select some people from within the community to focus on feeding those in need.” What we encounter here is remarkably telling; while the Church is moving more toward hierarchy, with a top-down approach, this need for ministers comes from the bottom-up. While Luke, the author of Acts, does not use the word “deacon,” literally meaning “servant,” that’s essentially what we see: the ordination of our first diaconate. And notice that the seven deacons each have Greek names. This also is telling: in order to address the concerns of the Hellenists, the community selects servants from among their numbers. The community recognizes that being invitational means bringing as many voices and perspectives to the table as possible; it means not vesting power in the majority alone, but rather it is offering equity to all who submit to God’s call.

Thus, we encounter Stephen. A deacon. A servant of the second generation; the biblical witness uses descriptions that were originally applied only to Jesus’ disciples: successful healings, effective preaching, signs and works. The power of the Holy Spirit has not skipped a generation.

This is not the only language that is repeated from earlier in Luke’s work. Stephen’s arrest, trial, and execution are remarkably similar to that of Jesus; while Stephen is not accused of claiming to be the Son of God, the dynamic is the same. The religious council does not recognize that God is working in new ways; they claim to defend tradition, but Stephen says that there has been nearly constant rebellion against God since the time of Moses, and like Jesus he is to be a rejected prophet for pointing it out. Stephen criticizes King Solomon, about whom he charges apostasy for claiming that the Jerusalem Temple contains the presence of God. Stephen quotes Isaiah and uses the oft-repeated refrain, “you stiff-necked people,” eliciting the words of Amos and Jeremiah, before accusing the Sanhedrin, the Jewish Council, of murdering God’s agent.

Many scholars believe that the story of Stephen’s trial is a narrative archetype rather than the minutes of an actual event; the story is written at least 50 years after Jesus’ death at a time in which it appears that the Hellenists and the Hebrews were splitting from one another. The harsh words of Stephen most likely are those of a Gentile-Christian community that feels persecuted by their Jewish siblings. This is common in the New Testament; many scholars believe that Jesus’ harshest words against the Pharisees don’t actually come from him, but rather from the second-generation follows who wrote the text. Ditto with Acts 6; what we likely have is an argument between two religious groups using the same scriptural traditions to accuse the other of doing it wrong.

We are a people of stories. Each week we gather to hear stories of sacred scripture; during prayers of the people, we tell ongoing stories from our individual and collective lives, asking for spiritual solidarity; as a congregation, we honor those who came before us by learning about our history and continuing to emphasize the spiritual, ethical, and moral principles that have carried us through seven generations. Each day, we add to the story and we can rest assured, for good or ill, future generations will talk about what we have done. during our own time.

The story in Acts reflects a community making sense of rejection; a community trying to manage fear by discerning meaning out of even the most dire of circumstances. The story in Acts is a reminder that no matter what is going on, our basic tasks remain the same: we are to take care of one another. Amidst clashes, even deadly ones, the widows still need to be fed. The Word of God needs to be proclaimed. There never was a time in which that wasn’t the case, and there never was a time in which doing that was not difficult.

Part of following God is wanting—needing—to feel that there is a place of safety, even as danger abounds. Our song today, “In the Garden,” reflects just such an experience on the part of its composer, C. Austin Miles. He wrote:

One day in March, 1912, I was seated in the dark room, where I kept my photographic equipment and organ. I drew my Bible toward me; it opened at my favorite chapter, John 20-whether by chance or inspiration let each reader decide. That meeting of Jesus and Mary had lost none of its power to charm.

As I read it that day, I seemed to be part of the scene. I became a silent witness to that dramatic moment in Mary’s life, when she knelt before her Lord, and cried, “Rabboni!”

My hands were resting on the Bible while I stared at the light blue wall. As the light faded, I seemed to be standing at the entrance of a garden, looking down a gently winding path, shaded by olive branches. A woman in white, with head bowed, hand clasping her throat, as if to choke back her sobs, walked slowly into the shadows. It was Mary. As she came to the tomb, upon which she place her hand, she bent over to look in, and hurried away. John, in flowing robe, appeared, looking at the tomb; then came Peter, who entered the tomb, followed slowly by John. As they departed, Mary reappeared; leaning her head upon her arm at the tomb, she wept. Turning herself, she saw Jesus standing, so did I. I knew it was He. She knelt before Him, with arms outstretched and looking into His face cried “Rabboni!”

I awakened in full light, gripping the Bible, with muscles tense and nerves vibrating. Under the inspiration of this vision I wrote as quickly as the words could be formed the poem exactly as it has since appeared. That same evening I wrote the music.

Christianity is a religion that requires us to face the world and not ignore the ugliness. At times, that is terrifying. But in our submission, in our dedication to following the man from Nazareth, in our willingness to walk the Jerusalem Road there is an assurance that God is with us. That’s really what is happening in Acts. And also in Miles’ song: Christians turning to our shared sacred story and expressing the unshakable faith that following God means we are never alone.

There is no perfect Church. There is no perfect person. There is always more to a situation than what we see, whether we want to admit it or not. There is always the possibility that we are wrong; it will always be the case that there are people who want to kill us: spiritually, emotionally, physically, mentally. But God never leaves us, even when we’ve made a right mess of things. Sometimes, that’s all we’ve got and all we’re going to get. The secret is to realize that it is enough. Amen.