Month: January 2021

A context for chaos

Before Nick Saban’s “process,” there was Pope Gregory VII (1020-1085). Historian Diarmaid MacCulloch said Gregory instituted “a period of intensive Church reorganization and centralization in the eleventh and twelfth centuries.” After Gregory, “one of the most striking features of medieval western Christendom was its unity.”

However, “the Reformation decisively ruptured” this unity. Some papal practices were being questioned. The printing press (1436) encouraged literacy and the exchange of ideas. Political realignments were emerging.

The founders of the United States, children of the Reformation (1490-1648) and the Enlightenment (1715-1789), launched an experiment in democracy in 1776. Phyllis Tickle said our present era, “The Great Emergence,” can expect disruptions at least equal to those of the Reformation.

The January 6th insurrection can be understood within the context of the Great Emergence. Like the printing press, the Internet facilitates all kinds of ideas and political intrigues. Like the papacy in 1517, Jeffersonian democracy has doubters as it shows its age. Martin Luther (1483-1546) was born 398 years after the death of Pope Gregory VII. Donald Trump was inaugurated 398 years after America’s first slaves arrived in 1619.

Tickle understood that the cultural shifts now rocking us would be as traumatic as the shifts that rocked Europe 500 years ago. Given this urgency, February’s posts will be about the origins of the January 6th eruption, our struggle for unity in a deeply divided nation, and possible outcomes of today’s culture wars.

From “A guide to the hate symbols and signs on display at the US Capitol riots,” by Laura E. Adkins and Emily Burack, The Times of Israel, January 8, 2021 (Photo, Samuel Corum/Getty Images via JTA)

Reverently cynical, patiently serious

While working on yesterday’s post, I noticed that the late Phyllis Tickle said Diarmaid MacCulloch’s 2004 book, The Reformation: A History “is now generally regarded as one of the great works of historical scholarship.” Having never heard of Professor MacCulloch or his book, my curiosity outweighed my frugality and I sprang for the $4.99 Kindle edition, which arrived in a nano-second. I warmed up to the professor when I read:

I retain a warm sympathy for Anglicanism at its best: its distinctive, low-temperature culture and art, its ability and readiness to question itself, and an attitude to the exploration of truth which is both reverently cynical and patiently serious. I do not now personally subscribe to any form of religious dogma (although I do remember with some affection what it was like to do so). In trying to describe the Reformation to a world which has largely forgotten or half-understood what it was about, I regard that as an advantage. ‘Blind unbelief is sure to err’, sang the Christian hymn-writer William Cowper in Georgian England. Historians are likely to retort that blind belief has a record even more abysmal: historical narratives told with a confessional viewpoint lurking in the background are very likely to bend the story to fit irrelevant preconceptions.

When I survey the political and religious landscape, I see a tipping point. Will reason or passion prevail? Can we reason our way to civil conversation about agreed-upon principles? Or, is this the beginning of a Thirty Years’ War where passionate political persuasions become wrapped in religious dogma?

From The Encyclopaedia Brittanica, “Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648)

Pandemically speaking

In her 2008 book, The Great Emergence, Phyllis Tickle (1934-2015) noted some parallels between our present era of tumultuous societal change and similar periods–such as the Great Reformation (aka the Protestant Reformation). Tickle noted that the Reformation, from the late 1400s to the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia (which ended the Thirty Years War) overlapped the time when the bubonic plague ravaged Europe.

The first recorded outbreak of the bubonic plague was in China in 224 BCE, but the outbreak most familiar to us occurred in Europe in the mid-14th century. Between 1347 and 1352, one-third to one-half of Europe died from the plague–25 million people. The plague (aka “black death”) ended with the Great Plague of Moscow (1771-1772). In four centuries, 75 million Europeans died from the plague. The worldwide toll is unknown.

Tickle noted: “The result of such devastation and human vulnerability was–and inevitably always is–a generalized reconsideration of the efficacy of the Church and …. religion in general…. Whether the recurrence of pandemics simultaneously with the recurrence of ecclesial upheavals is pure coincidence or whether, as some would have it, there is some other connection is for a later and more adequately informed time to determine. At the moment, all that can be said is that there is a co-occurrence between history’s pandemics and our times of re-formation.” (Tickle had in mind the HIV-AIDS pandemic.)

Now we have a better understanding of causation and mitigation. That’s not fake news. That’s good news!

From “How do you slow a pandemic like coronavirus?”, by Mical Raz, University of Rochester Newscenter, March 12, 2020.

Underneath conspiracy theories

I’ve brushed shoulders with Charismatic and Pentecostal Christians for many decades. But, a January 20th Christianity Today article, “Failed Trump Prophecies Offer a Lesson in Humility,” by Craig Keener opened my eyes to a recent struggle within that part of Christianity. Some of their leaders said God told them that Donald Trump would be reelected president. It reminds me that church historian Roland Bainton said “the worst wars are religious wars.”

Craig Keener is a Charismatic Christian, and prior to Joe Biden’s inauguration, he wrote “the majority of Pentecostal and Charismatic pastors I know were not paying attention to such prophecies. Millions of online views and shares, though, show that many people were.” Then, he helped me understand how religious fervor can be used by QAnon and other conspiracy theorists. Here’s a salient quote:

“…some who prophesied Trump’s reelection remain adamant that they were correct. Perhaps the election as stolen or will be overturned, or in some mystical realm Trump is actually spiritually president. Some just change the subject.

On January 26th, CNBC’s The Rachel Maddow Show reported that up to 5,000 National Guard troops will remain in Washington through mid-March. The troops will remain because of online noise about violence around the Impeachment trial set to begin February 8. Also, there are rumors circulating among QAnon conspiracy circles that the Biden inauguration wasn’t real, a “deep state mirage.” Claims circulate that Trump’s second inauguration will be on March 4, the original date for presidential inaugurations.

A key to unity is understanding each other. This includes asking what’s underneath conspiracy theories that circulate on the Internet and what drives insurrectionists.

From “Failed Trump Prophecies Offer a Lesson in Humility,” by Craig Keener (see link above)

When politics reigns

An extended CBS interview with Dr. Deborah Birx aired January 24th on Face the Nation and on Margaret Brennan’s podcast. Here’s a transcript. I was surprised that there was no full time team in the White House working on the coronavirus. Dr. Birx, Dr. Antholy Fauci, and others were brought in from various agencies. Tyler Ann McGuffee, was the White House staff–a very valuable support person for Dr. Birx.

Dr. Birx was forthcoming about what went wrong. She kept extensive notes because she wanted us to be better prepared for the next pandemic. We needed more air time with Dr. Birx and Dr. Fauci, rather than sound bites on newscasts. The CBS interview filled in some blanks. For example, Dr Birx said:

I am convinced there were parallel data streams because I saw the president presenting graphs that I never made. So, I know that someone…was creating a parallel set of data and graphics…. I know what I sent up and I know that what was in his hands was different…. It is very important to me that we all agree on how the data is collected and how we use it…. We don’t cut it in pieces and say we’re only going to look at it in these two weeks because we look better than Europe in these two weeks. You can’t do that. You have to use the entire database. … Certainly Scott Atlas brought in parallel data streams. I don’t know who else was part of it, but … when the … people see what I was writing on a daily basis that was sent up to White House leadership, they will see that … I was highly specific on what I was seeing and what needed to be done.

This story was also covered by several news outlets, including The Hill and The Washington Post.

One reason I write this blog is to keep a running dialogue with my children and any friends who are interested and to provide contemporaneous reflections about lessons learned. One enduring lesson is what happens when politics reigns. Politics colors, and sometimes replaces, truth. One reason we have 423,000 COVID-19 deaths is our government’s response has been shaped too much by politics and too little by science.

“Dr. Deborah Birx: Quiet Female Leadership,” by Eva Lynch, The Tower, Spring, 2020 (Photo from U.S. Department of State)

The art of coexistence

In a January 20 article in The Atlantic, “Coexistence Is the Only Option,” Anne Applebaum writes about seditionists, those who engage in conduct or speech that incites others to rebel against the government, “not just the people who took part in the riot, but the far larger number of Americans who are united by their belief that Donald Trump won the election, that Joe Biden lost, and that a long list of people and institutions are lying about it: Congress, the media, Mike Pence, the election officials in all 50 states, and judges in dozens of courts.

Applebaum has seen this before, particularly in her husband’s native Poland and where she has spent half of her adult life. She describes in sobering, and somewhat shocking detail, events such as the armed men who stood outside the Ohio statehouse a few days ago. A poll as recent as last week indicated that 32% of Americans do not believe Joe Biden is legitimately our president. Applebaum says that if the poll is off by 50%, even 16% is a disturbing number. She says, “We have no choice except to coexist.”

From her experience in Europe and the U.S., and from her research, Applebaum says, “The literature in the fields of peacebuilding and conflict prevention overflows with words such as local and community-based and economic regeneration. It’s built on the idea that people should do something constructive–something that benefits everybody, lessons inequality, and makes people work alongside people they hate. That doesn’t mean they will then get to like one another, just that they are less likely to kill one another on the following day.

Each of us can listen and reach out. When tensions flair in our communities, we can seek to de-fuse and de-escalate. When those around us lose their “inside voices,” we can try to understand their hurt and anger. From the president’s inaugural address: ‘Let us listen to one another. Hear one another. See one another. Show respect to one another. Politics need not be a raging fire destroying everything in its path.” It’s our only option.

Photo of armed groups at Michigan Statehouse, from “Pro-Trump demonstrators, some armed, start descending on Michigan, Ohio and South Carolina statehouses,” by Associated Press/Nexstar Media Wire, January 17, 2021, WBTW-TV, Florence, South Carolina

A call to unity

President Joe Biden’s Inaugural Address was a personal word focused on the pandemic’s devastating impact on the nation’s health and economy. The assault on the Capitol two weeks earlier added an element of urgency to the new president’s call to unity. Some highlights:

“…the American story depends not on any one of us, not on some of us, but on all of us. On ‘We the People’ who seek a more perfect Union.” After citing some of the challenges that we now face, he said: “It requires that most elusive of things in a democracy: Unity. Unity.” Then, he said, “Today … my whole soul is in this: Bringing America together. Uniting our people. And uniting our nation. I ask every American to join me in this cause. Uniting to fight the common foes we face….”

Chris Wallace of Fox News said “I’ve been listening to these inaugural addresses since 1961, John F. Kennedy…I thought it was a great speech. … I thought this was the best inaugural address I ever heard.”

Yesterday, Dr. Anthony Fauci told Ted Koppel that we will see “much more of a coordinated, synergistic partnership between the federal government and the states.” The president set a tone of unity with his coronavirus team: “We might have setbacks. But…we’re not gonna point fingers. We’re not gonna blame people. We’re not gonna hide anything. We’re gonna be totally transparent and honest and we’re gonna try and fix it.” Each step toward unity helps restore confidence in our institutions. Dr. Fauci said, “And we’ve gotta repair it. We have to. Because the country’s at stake.”

From “Why Biden’s Inaugural Address Succeeded,” by James Fallows, The Atlantic, January 22, 2021


For a decade, I was part of a group that met weekly to “check in” with each other, using as our common reading Richard Rohr’s daily meditations, available by email from the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque. One left due to work conflicts. One died. Then came COVID-19. Two of us have resumed a weekly conversation based on the meditations. Last week’s theme was “Liberation.”

Friday night, I was immersed in writing yesterday’s post about Henry Aaron. I wasn’t conscious that Rohr’s liberation theme made its way into the Aaron story, but I wasn’t surprised. I told my friend in yesterday’s weekly conversation that our time with Rohr & Company has woven at least two themes solidly into my being: union and liberation. So solidly, in fact, that they roam freely in my conscious and unconscious mind.

Union is a mindset, a frame of reference, a worldview, a way of being, a faith claim, both journey and destination. It’s everywhere, such as the communion liturgy: “By your Spirit make us one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world.” The theme of union is in our Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag: “,,,one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

In the next few posts, I’ll reflect on what union means to me, beginning with President Biden’s inaugural address, which was a call to unity,

One memorable feature of Inauguration Day 2021 was a pair of Vermont mittens, later spotted with TJ, from Williamsburg Families

Opening the gift of liberation

Last night, I reminisced about Hank Aaron (1934-2021). My first baseball cards were from 1958. The Milwaukee Braves were my favorite team. In 1957, they won the first World Series I remember. Aaron was the league’s MVP, as he was in 1953, his last year in the minors. He dominated the South Atlantic League in its first year of racial integration, prompting a sportswriter to say, “Henry Aaron led the league in everything except hotel accommodations.”

Aaron, Félix Mantilla and Horace Garner were the first black Jacksonville Braves. When I became a major league baseball fan, I didn’t realize racial integration was new to MLB. As a young adult, I was aware of racial tensions leading up to Aaron’s 715th home run on April 8, 1974. Some of my older white friends (including my parents’ pastor) didn’t want a n—– passing Babe Ruth’s career record of 714. He seemed bewildered that Aaron had been a childhood hero for me.

I’m thankful Hank Aaron lived long enough to know he was appreciated by almost everyone. I’m thankful I’ve lived long enough to recapture some childlike naïveté. The historical context of Aaron’s life isn’t the whole story, but it’s an important part of the story. The good news is that when barriers (racial or otherwise) fall, everyone receives the gift of liberation. That conversation with my parents’ pastor reminds me that all of us have gifts lying around, waiting to be opened.

From “On the Field for No. 715: Craig Sager’s Tale of Hank Aaron’s Record-Breaking HR,” by Craig Sager, Bleacher Report, April 8, 2015

A resurrection

January 20th felt like a resurrection experience two weeks after a death experience on January 6th. Yesterday morning, I listened again to our first Youth Poet Laureate, Amanda Gorman, as she read her poem, “The Hill We Climb.” (You can read the text and see the video at the link below her photo.)

She spoke with passion, as in “Love’s Philosophy,” by Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822); with hope, as in “On the Pulse of Morning,” by Maya Angelou (1928-2014); with engagement, as in “Blessed Up,” by Wande; and with freedom, as in “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” sung by Aretha Franklin (1942-2018).

Standing where Lincoln gave his second inaugural address, and speaking with the same graceful power of resurrection over insurrection, Amanda Gorman said, “Somehow we’ve weathered and witnessed a nation that isn’t broken but simply unfinished.” Mr. Lincoln would be proud. Very proud.

From “Read the full text of Amanda Gorman’s inaugural poem ‘The Hill We Climb‘,” by Jennifer Liu, CNBC, January 20, 2021