Diminishing Greatness

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There are a number of things that have been great about the United States of America:

Social Security is great!

Medicare and Medicaid are great!

Having more people with affordable access to healthcare as opposed to fewer people is great!

A safety net for the poor is great!

Good public education for all is great!

Having excellent colleges and universities is great!

The Civil Rights Act is great!

The Voting Rights Act is great!

The American with Disabilities Act is great!

The Environmental Protection Agency is great!

The Clean Air Act is great!

The Clean Water Act is great!

A Clean Power Plan to protect a livable climate is great!

National Parks and National Monuments safe from corporate exploitation are great!

The Emoluments Clause of the U.S. Constitution is great!

Having strong democratic allies around the world is great!

Caring about international human rights is great!

Standing up for journalists and a free press is great!

Not having a president who believes the press is the enemy of the people is great!

Not having a president who lies relentlessly to the American people is great!

Not having a president who is under six separate investigations is great!

Not having a president who has better relationships with murderous dictators than with our long time democratic allies is great!

Accepting refugees escaping violence and oppression is great!

Not separating children from their parents is great!

Not putting children in detention camps is great!

Not discriminating against people who orient themselves to religion differently, persons of color, persons who are LGBTQIA, and women is great!

As a country, we have fallen short of the Beloved Community, we have not implemented all of these great things fully, and sometimes we have fallen very short of the ideals and values that we have aspired to express, but we have still managed to do some great things together as a nation. (Yes, we have also done some really horrific things as well – genocide of indigenous people, slavery, Jim Crow, perpetuating the inequality of women, some clearly unjust wars, and we are an incredibly violent and often unjust society. There is nothing great or good about these things.)

It does not appear Trumpian Republicans are really trying to make America Great Again. Rather it seems they are trying to systematically destroy many of the greatest things we have accomplished. If you ruin all of these great things, what is left that is really great or good about our common life together? At the very least the result is a diminishing of whatever greatness we may have rather than its enhancement, and that is anything but great.

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Normal and Patriotic People

The vast majority of Germans who supported Nazism considered themselves to be very normal and patriotic people and good Christians.

The vast majority of Americans who supported the genocide of indigenous peoples considered themselves to be normal and patriotic people and good Christians.

The vast majority of Americans who supported slavery considered themselves to be normal and patriotic people and good Christians.

The vast majority of Americans who supported the segregation and oppression of Jim Crow considered themselves to be normal and patriotic people and good Christians.

The vast majority of Americans who supported the detention of Japanese Americans during World War II considered themselves to be normal and patriotic people and good Christians.

The vast majority of Americans who support travel bans and other restrictions on persons who are Muslim consider themselves to be normal and patriotic people and good Christians.

The vast majority of Americans who support rejecting refugees and asylum seekers consider themselves to be normal and patriotic people and good Christians.

The vast majority of Americans who support separating children from their parents at our borders and putting them in detention camps consider themselves to be normal and patriotic people and good Christians.

The vast majority of Americans who are against taking action to address climate change and other urgent ecological challenges consider themselves to be normal and patriotic people and good Christians.

Many of the great evils in our history and our present are made possible not by persons who see themselves as being evil, but by the actions or inaction of persons who feel they are very normal and patriotic and who often also see themselves as good Christians.

Many of the greatest perpetrators of evil in our past and present count on people who see themselves as normal and patriotic people who often consider themselves to be good Christians for support.

The longer the great perpetrators of evil can convince their supporters that they are normal and patriotic people and even good Christians, the longer they can perpetrate evil.

The great perpetrators of evil in the past and present are often masters of making their evil seem normal and patriotic and “Christian” or whatever the religion of the majority might be. This is what Hannah Arendt was getting at when she described the “banality of evil.” Much of the mechanics of evil in the world are not made possible by blatantly evil monsters but rather by ordinary and seemingly very normal people.

This is why persons who have considered themselves normal and patriotic people and good Christians have often been accomplices to some of the most horrific evils ever experienced in human history.

We are, however, not without hope, for many normal and patriotic people, both Christian and those who orient themselves to religion differently, are also capable of seeing that there is nothing normal, patriotic, or “Christian” about these evils.

The time is now for these normal, patriotic, and good people to take a stand and not let the evils of our past continue to be evils of our present and future. There is not a hero out there upon which we can depend to stop this. We must become heroes of goodness justice for each other.

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One Step Behind

The following words from Hannah Arendt have been haunting me as we continue to see the rise of authoritarian and xenophobic nationalism in the United States, Europe, and even in Brazil:

“It was the nature of the Nazi movement that it kept moving, becoming more radical with each passing month, but one of the outstanding characteristics of its members was that psychologically they tended to be always one step behind the movement – that they had the greatest difficulty in keeping up with it, or, as Hitler used to phrase it, they they could not ‘jump over their own shadow’” (Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem, p. 63).

At each step in the current movement towards more extreme expressions of fascism, most of its followers seem oblivious to where this will lead. Granted some are not oblivious at all, but the fascist movement needs millions who are rather oblivious to its implications to follow it (or at least remain apathetic) just long enough for it to take a hold that can not easily be broken.

In the last two years, we have seen the global fascist drumbeat become louder and louder against Muslims, against refugees and immigrants, against persons who are LGBTQIA, against people of color, against the environmentalists, against the free press, and against “the globalists.” And we have seen ever increasing radicalism in actions taken against these groups: more deportations, travel bans, parent/child separations, attempts to criminalize protests, detention camps veiled in secrecy and described by the children there as “hell,” and journalists being killed without repercussions.

Even if the followers are one step behind this global fascist movement and don’t fully realize where it is headed, it has already gone far enough that they are morally culpable for the evil consequences that can be seen all around us if we but open our eyes. But in the big picture, the issue of moral culpability is not the most important one for those who are already suffering; the truly urgent question for all who want a Beloved Community as opposed to a fascist one is: “How do we stop this fascist movement before it is too late?”

Steve Bannon, Sebastian Gorka, and Stephen Miller were the three most influential white nationalist figures in Trump’s campaign and early administration. These three persons are not the followers about whom Arendt was writing. These three are not one step behind the fascist movement. They are its leaders.

Bannon and Gorka were too public with their extremism to be effective inside the White House, so they have moved on to continue promoting authoritarian and xenophobic right wing nationalism around the world through other avenues of influence, especially in Europe.

Stephen Miller is the lone member of this fascist trifecta who remains in the White House. We don’t see him much publicly because he comes across as too extreme for public consumption, but Miller’s influence on Trump is great, and Miller brings the language and policies of the global fascist movement strongly into the actions and words of our current president. Miller is a significant force behind the rejection of immigrants and refugees, the travel ban, and the pro-nationalist and ant-globalist alt right rhetoric of Trump’s speeches, public pronouncements, and policy decisions. Miller is a true believer.

In the last few months, Trump and his nationalist followers have been increasingly emphasizing a “nationalist vs. globalist” dichotomy, which has been a hallmark of fascist rhetoric; and they have stepped up their efforts to destabilize pro-EU and pro-NATO governments in Europe. These efforts are also supported by Vladimir Putin. Regardless of whether or not Trump is removed from office, the alt-right/fascist agenda of Steve Bannon, Stephen Miller, and Sebastian Gorka to move the needle towards nationalism in Europe and around the globe has gained considerable and extremely dangerous momentum, and Putin is very pleased by the disruption this has wrought in the European Union and NATO Alliance.

It is an open question whether the forces for human rights, democracy, and care for the environment will have the courage and creativity to bring the momentum of global fascism to a halt before its power is too great. How will we stay one step ahead of the forces of fascism? If we don’t find a way to answer this question, we may see a repetition of unspeakable evil and suffering.

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Stay Woke

United Methodist Building Tear Gas

Advent is the time of the year when people who follow Jesus observe a time of expectant waiting for the humble arrival of the child of God in our midst. During this time we are encouraged to be alert, keep awake, or as my students at the university might say – Stay Woke. We have to be alert, we have to stay woke because even though this is a time in which we are expecting the child of God to come into our presence, the child of God often comes to us in unexpected ways. No one would have expected the child of God to come us in a manger, the child of a poor couple who couldn’t even find a room at the Inn for the birth of their child. This is hardly the grand entrance into this world that we would expect from the child of God, and we certainly did not expect the way this child of God would exit this world some three decades after the child’s birth.

Be Alert, Stay Woke – God is working in unexpected ways in this world, God becomes present to us in unexpected ways in this world, and we need to be ready to receive the child of God, we need to be ready to receive the presence of God when it is coming to us. We need to avoid having our hearts weighed down, we need to avoid having our hearts hardened. We don’t want that day to catch us unexpectedly when the presence of God comes into our midst. We don’t want to miss it, We don’t want to not recognize the presence of God when it is staring us in the face, we don’t to want miss our chance to be face to face with the presence and glory of God, a presence that will restore us, a presence that will strengthen our hearts in holiness. We don’t want to miss that day, we don’t want to miss that opportunity to bring justice and righteousness to the land. We don’t want to miss that in-breaking of the truth that teaches us who we truly are and what we are meant to be for each other. We don’t want to miss the coming of that truth that leads down the path of the way of love, humility, and justice.

Stay Woke – the presence of the child of God is coming, coming in ways we might not always see if we are not alert, if we are not ready to see it for what it is – the way of God’s love and justice breaking into this world.

Jesus reminds us that the presence of God might come to us in the form of a stranger, in a form we might not expect. Jesus reminds us that we are to welcome the stranger and that when we welcome the stranger we are welcoming the way of God in this world. Some of my dear friends at the United Methodist General Board of Church and Society in Washington DC tried to remind us of this fact this week when they put a poignant message on the marquee in front of their building which is right across the street from the United States Capitol and the Supreme Court of the United States. On their sign, they put these words “’I was a stranger, and you tear gassed me.’ …Wait a second.”

Tear gas is a chemical weapon that is banned in warfare, yet for some reason it is allowed by our government for crowd control. Tear gas is a chemical weapon that has a long history of being used on people of color in our society. Look back on the pictures of Selma, Alabama where tear gas was used on the people of God who were marching for love and justice walking across the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Tear gas is a chemical weapon that is especially harmful to children whose respiratory systems are still developing, and yet over the past week we still used this chemical weapon on children in diapers at our border whose families were seeking asylum in the United States.

These families are escaping violence and very likely escaping death to seek asylum – families much like Jesus’ family, who we are told that when he was a child had to escape the murderous authoritarian leader Herod and flee to Egypt and seek refuge there. Thankfully Egypt was more welcoming to the child of God seeking refuge than we currently are.

You likely have seen the pictures of the mother and her two children in diapers running through the tear gas at our border. If you have not seen the picture, you need to see the picture. We all need to look long and hard at that picture and ask ourselves the questions “Who are we? What have we become?”

Be Alert, Keep Awake, Stay Woke – the presence of God is coming in ways that we might not expect, through people that we might not expect, at times we might not expect, and in places we might not expect. Today is the first Sunday of Advent. Advent is the time of the year when people who follow Jesus observe a time of expectant waiting for the humble arrival of the child of God in our midst. When I look at the picture of the mother and her two children being tear-gassed at our border, I see that the children of God are here. They have arrived! The question is, “Will we deliver them into the hands of Herod, or will we welcome them into the hands of hope and recognize them as the presence of God we say we are waiting for?

Be Alert! Stay Woke! The presence of God is coming when we don’t expect it. As our brother Martin Luther King Jr. reminded us “We’ve got some difficult days ahead,” but “we aren’t going to let dogs or water hoses [or as in the case of this week, tear gas] turn us around. We aren’t going to let any injunction [or injustice] turn us around. We are going on” (adapted from Martin Luther King Jr.,  “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop”).  And when we look at the pictures of the two children who are among the many children and other persons who were making their way through the tear gas at our borders, may we all see the presence of God coming to us and be able to say “O come thou long expected Jesús (Spanish pronunciation)”  for “mine eyes have seen the coming of the glory of the Lord.”

Children Tear Gas

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Overcoming 21st Century Fascism

A global rise in fascism and other forms of nationalistic authoritarianism is a rather predictable phenomenon in a world moving towards ecological and economic collapse caused by an extractivist capitalism that is unsustainable for both people and the planet. As the world economy becomes more and more unstable and as our natural environment and the climate become more and more hostile to a flourishing human civilization, leading to increasing conflict from climate change induced scarcity; it becomes easier to move people with the propaganda of fear and even hate. The desire among many for “strong” authoritarian leaders who will protect them and provide quick and simple solutions to their problems and fears grows stronger as they long for a greatness that they perceived has been lost in a world that feels more and more uncertain, unsafe, and chaotic.

The compelling message of fascism in times like ours is that it creates simple explanations of the challenges we face that build on inherent racism and prejudices in society while providing simple (though most often extremely evil) solutions to those challenges. Fascism promises to protect the “people” from the “other.” It is always the “other” – other religions, other races, other ways of thinking, that are responsible for what is wrong. If the “people” just ban together and control or eradicate the other, then the problems will dissipate they are told. The “other” is responsible for our economic problems, for taking our jobs, for our crime and violence they are told. It is all based on a lie, a big lie, yet is a rather simple lie, a lie that a large number of people are ready and willing to believe.

We have seen the effectiveness of the big lie of fascism before in the 30s and 40s of the 20th Century. In a time of deep economic insecurity, in a country of deep racism and antisemitism that had been decimated by World War I, Hitler used the German “people’s” longing for a lost greatness to get them to believe his big lie that he could fix Germany by getting the people working again and by solving the “Jewish Problem.” The Jews are not good people he told the German people; they are not really Germans he told them; they are the cause of our problems he told them; if we eradicate the Jews, it will make Germany great again he told them; and the white Christian Germans followed Hitler down the path of ever increasing evil towards the Jewish people and others – suppression of the press, forced public identification and tracking of persecuted groups, restricted areas of living and movement, forced deportation, detention camps, concentration camps, slave labor, starvation, torture, firing squads, gas chambers.

As Hannah Arendt, the 20th Century philosopher and historian of totalitarianism, writes, “It was the nature of the Nazi movement that it kept moving, becoming more radical with each passing month, but one of the outstanding characteristics of its members was that psychologically they tended to be always one step behind the movement – that they had the greatest difficulty in keeping up with it, or, as Hitler used to phrase it, they they could not ‘jump over their own shadow’ ” (Eichmann in Jerusalem, p. 63). Whether its followers were a step behind or not, we all know that the Nazi movement quickly led them to some of the worst expressions of evil ever experienced in the history of humankind; and this expression of fascism was only defeated through a second World War and at the cost of millions of lives.

The current form of fascism being led and encouraged by the President of the United States and being emboldened globally by the president and his supporters has already moved into the stages of attacking the press, scapegoating other ethnic groups and persons of other religions, implementing travel bans, increasing forced deportations, creating detention camps, the emboldening of fascist organizations and activities, attacking the rights and equality of persons who are LGBTQIA, increasing violence against Muslims and Jews, and even the separating of children from their parents at our borders. The current fascist movement in the United States and around the world is becoming more radical with each passing month, and perhaps the typical MAGA devotees are still psychologically one step behind the movement, unable to jump over the shadow of their MAGA caps, but the movement keeps progressing to more radical and dangerous levels nonetheless.

We know from history that the only way fascism was defeated in the last century was through a horrific World War, It is difficult to know when or how fascism of the 20th Century could have been stopped before it gained its grip on power and made war inevitable. What we do know is that no other compelling vision or political strategy was able to convince or empower the German people and the people of Germany’s fascist allies to reject and overcome fascism internally before it was too late.

This is the great challenge we face today – how do we overcome fascism internally before it becomes too late to do so peacefully and through constitutionally prescribed political processes? How do we create effective political strategies and a compelling vision of a new way to be as a people that will address the economic uncertainties and ecological challenges that are leading so many people to listen to the message of fear and hate rather than the message of hope and love?

One thing is certain, we will not be able to fight fascism by simply doubling down on an adherence to economic and political systems that are leading the world to both economic and ecological collapse. Capitalism may have been effective at creating tremendous wealth and economic growth, but it has done so in a way that has treated non-human life, our ecological community, and often people themselves merely as commodities while ignoring the limits of the carrying capacity of the planet. Whatever benefits of economic growth capitalism has created are greatly overshadowed by the sixth great extinction and climate chaos it is unleashing on our world.

If the political answer to the rise of global fascism is simply more of the same extractivist and unsustainable capitalism, things are only going to get worse… a lot worse, and more and more people will be drawn to more extreme and often evil solutions to our problems. If we cannot figure out how to live within our planetary means and maintain a livable climate, the evils of the 20th Century might end up being eclipsed by the evils of the 21st.

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A Period of Consequences

History shows that if you give fascists an inch, they will take a mile, and they never play by the agreed upon rules of justice and decency that we often naively think will protect us from them. We cannot cajole, cater to, covertly control, or compromise with fascists. We cannot quietly influence them from positions in Congress, through the courts, in the president’s cabinet, or even on the golf course or in the country club. Appeasement of fascists is not an option. Resistance is the only remedy. Removing fascists from power is the fiercely urgent priority of now.

Our current president and many around him have given the green light to fascists around the world in Poland, Hungry, Italy, and Brazil; and they have given aid and comfort to other nationalist authoritarian regimes throughout the world such as North Korea, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the Philippines, and Russia. Other countries such as Austria, France, and the UK have seen fascist elements gain significant numbers and influence since the rise of Trumpism. Even Germany is experiencing a fanning of the flames of fascism they have not witnessed since the end of Nazism.

To stop this global rise in fascism and other forms of authoritarian nationalism we are seeing around the world, we must first end its hold on power here in the United States and become a positive force for democracy, diversity, justice, and global cooperation. If we do not end fascism here and very soon, it will lead us where authoritarian nationalism and fascism always take us – unspeakable suffering, horrific violence, and millions upon millions of deaths.

If you do not think this can happen, you have failed to learn the lessons of very recent history. If you think fascism can be confined to simply “making America great again” without including all of the evil inherent to fascism, you have not looked long enough into its dark soul to see the killing fields and death chambers to which it beckons those who think they are expressing patriotism but who soon find themselves doing unspeakable evil for the cause and cult of country.

The evil begins with attacks on the freedom of the press and an assault on truth itself; with vilification of persons who are seen as “other,” be they of different race, religion, nationality, sexual orientation, or gender identity; and with a call to put the interests of our country first to the point of being in conflict with the well being of the world. Then it progresses to the rejection of refugees, deportations, the building of walls, the building of detention camps, and the separation of families – even the separation of parents from their children. But it will not end there. Fascism never ends there.

Step by step fascism will desensitize its followers into not seeing their actions as evil but as necessary, even as heroic, for the good of the “People.” Step by step it will intimidate those persons who might speak up or act out against it, with intimidation quickly giving way to violent oppression. Step by step it will come to dominate the systems of law and justice that its opponents once thought would protect them, but which become the very systems that routinize the evils that eventually lead where fascism always leads us – to the ways of death and even to the ways worse than death.

As Winston Churchill warned us not too long ago, “The era of procrastination, of half-measures, of soothing and baffling expedients, of delays is coming to its close. In its place we are entering a period of consequences.”

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Below the Belt and Above the Fold

The Oklahoman

Oklahoma’s largest daily newspaper, The Oklahoman, decided to put the name and picture of the Democratic candidate for Governor of Oklahoma, Drew Edmondson, right next to the name and picture of Hillary Clinton on the front page above the fold of the Sunday edition right before Election Day. I get that The Oklahoman is one of the most conservative papers in the country. I get that the likelihood of The Oklahoman ever endorsing a Democrat for Governor in my lifetime is about as high as Senator Inhofe becoming a champion in the fight to do something about global warming, but this above the fold front page editorial linkage of Edmondson with Clinton is simply a below the belt dirty trick by a newspaper that cares very little for journalistic integrity and cares very much about serving the corporate elite in Oklahoma.

Yes, The Oklahoman also put a picture of the Republican candidate for Governor, Kevin Stitt, right next to the name and picture of Mary Fallin, but they didn’t put Stitt’s name and an extra picture of him right next to hers, and they know how even moderate Republicans in Oklahoma react to Hillary Clinton. Knowing the editorial history of The Oklahoman, it is reasonable to assume that this was a calculated move to peel away moderate Republicans from Edmondson and motivate the rabid Hillary haters at the last minute before the election. As unpopular as Governor Fallin may be, she has won numerous statewide elections in Oklahoma, whereas Clinton did not win one county in Oklahoma in 2016. There is perhaps no other politician more reviled than Hillary Clinton in this state. The Oklahoman knew exactly what they were doing by associating the candidate they oppose on the front page of the paper with Hillary Clinton – as if she has anything to do with the governor’s race in Oklahoma.

And why is it that The Oklahoman and the other major daily newspaper in the state, the Tulsa World, both endorsed Kevin Stitt over Drew Edmondson for governor. The reason has everything to do with the fact that Drew Edmondson made it clear that he cares more about funding education and protecting the environment than he does about protecting oil and gas companies from the restoration of the 7% gross production tax and protecting industrial agriculture from regulations that keep our land, water, and air clean. These two oil and gas funded newspapers would rather have a non-voting political neophyte who talks like Trump and runs his businesses like Trump than someone who won’t be completely controlled by the oil and gas industry like their newspapers are. This is the pathetic reality of Oklahoma politics and most of Oklahoma journalism.

One would think that after years of poorly funded K-12 and higher education, closing rural hospitals, a crumbling infrastructure, the highest incarceration rate on the planet, and years of revenue short falls, that Oklahomans would see through the myth that the oil and gas industry and the state and big city chambers of commerce are looking out for the interests of all Oklahomans, when in reality they fight for tax cuts and gutting environmental regulations that benefit the wealthiest among us but bring very little benefit to the most vulnerable citizens in our communities.

The pathetic reality of an oil and gas controlled Oklahoma politics will not change and the collusion among big business and big media to continue the hegemony of the fossil fuel industry will not end until the people of Oklahoma finally wake up to the reality that we are not “doing fine” and all is not “ok” and vote for a new Oklahoma that serves all people and that cares for well-being of our earth both now and for generations of life to come. Electing Drew Edmondson as Governor of Oklahoma would be a significant step in that direction. He is the only candidate running for governor who has a record of standing up against corporations for the well-being of people and the environment, and this is precisely why the state’s largest newspaper with deep ties to the fossil fuel industry so openly opposes his candidacy.

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