Nothing to Fear but Your Self

At Bible study last night, Pastor Sammie asked us why we were afraid. We struggled to produce a good answer. Buddhism puts a point on this: because of our attachment to material things. Christianity goes the other way. It asserts that we find the strength to resist fear only in embracing God.

But in the interval between surrender of materiality and the embrace of God, we feel pain. This is not just because the world tries to punish us for abandoning it. As Christians, we feel pain – we “pick up our cross” – because it is only through our pain that love knows where it must bring healing.

Even Jesus struggled with this:

Father, if it is possible, take this cup away from me.

Followed by the humiliating:

But not my will, but yours be done.

To avoid that pain, we choose to try to love ourselves. We pass judgment upon others. This one is fallen. That one is genetically inferior. All the -isms and -alities that divide us, and justify our reservation of our power for people like us.

In doing so, we make a grave error. The Most High loves all things, so in choosing not to love someone, we divorce ourselves from love.

The devil does not corrupt us. The devil only attempts to convince us to choose to reject love. He heaps pain upon the weak, and then whispers in our ear that God does not love us.

But if we lift our heads, the strong realize that in beating us down, Satan has loosened his grip on those around us. We receive their wonder and gratitude. We become meaningful. We become powerful.

Surrender your self. Be weak in the face of evil, and find strength in the Most High.

Climbing the Mountain of Healing

After eight years of fear-mongering and greed under the Bush Administration, on the day of Barack Obama’s inauguration, I stood in the conference room at work to watch the proceedings. Breathing more easily, I felt the will of Christ stretch itself across the nation to join with that of our new president.

I caught a clip of the Tea Party responder to this year’s State of the Union (a motivational speaker named Root) warming up the crowd at a Trump rally. While I can’t call it a message, the energetic peak of his oration was the statement “This is war!” That is one way to look at society, as a struggle to the death of factions in a world where there is just never enough. To survive, we have to find that mythical figure epitomized in our history by Washington, Lincoln or FDR: a great general and leader to whom we can entrust our lives.

The problem is that fear is a deeply ingrained physiological habit. It is a way of relating to the world that destroys reason. When the enemy is gone, the habit remains and turns inwards. For some, the escape is into substance abuse, but for others it finds release in seeking enemies among their fellows.

Again and again, our society has raised up representatives to heal those divides, and those representatives suffer terribly for our sins. Jackie Robinson and the Central High Nine were all abused for the privilege of entering the lily-white citadels of baseball and education, and understood that they could not respond in kind. I heard one of the Central High Nine speak on his experience, and while my first reaction was outrage, it was closely followed by awe at the strength and discipline he had demonstrated.

Barack Obama spoke about this problem in his confrontation with the bigots in the federal legislature who declared early on their intention to oppose him at every step. His response was of the type. It was captured for me in a photo: During one of the budget stand-offs with the House, he invited the Speaker to play golf. The event was memorialized on one of the greens with Obama crouched low over his ball, pointing to lay out the line to the hole while looking over his shoulder at Boehner for agreement.

I write this today because I find myself dumbfounded by the political analysis of Hillary Clinton’s campaign.

Obviously among the Republican front-runners we find those parroting the legacies of FDR (Trump) and Washington (Cruz). Their are bombastic and shallow, but raise fervor in their frightened partisans. There is much to be alarmed by in this phenomenon – it was the root of fascism in Europe. I consider it to be a cancer in the body politic.

On the Democratic side, we were promised a different dynamic, a dialog informed by reason. After the first Democratic debate, one headline characterized it as “The Adults Take the Stage.” But there are significant differences between the candidates, and these are not just in substance but in tone. The pundits have tried to characterize these differences, and now tend to settle “forward thinking” and “heart” on Sanders while saddling Clinton with “hanging on to the past” and “head.”

Sanders earns these designations for his fiery railing against the monied class. This appeals to the youth of our nation, those whose disdain for politics has allowed the establishment to secure its privilege by buying the House and Senate in off-term elections. Sanders promises a radical departure from the past, a storming of the castle to take back the wealth of the nation. He yells and gesticulates, demonstrating a strong emotional connection to his program that promises dedication to its achievement.

I have already expressed my discomfort with the similarities with the Republican front-runners.

I see Hillary struggling with her characterization. The body politic does seem to want passion, but when she projects it in her campaign stops, it rings false. That is picked on by the pundits, who have now taken to comparing her to Bush. But I believe that comparison reflects a deep and systemic misunderstanding of the disease facing our nation, and the fact that the temperament that makes Clinton so attractive to me at this time is simply incompatible with the politics of the males in the field.

Consider this: if you had liver cancer, would you feel encouraged by an oncologist who said “This is war! Your liver is evil! I’m going to take it out and stomp on it! And – oh yeah – thanks for putting my daughter through college.” Or would you like to be given sympathy and encouragement with specific options for treatment along with a description of side-effects and costs.

In other words, would you want a warrior or a healer?

In Hillary, I see the latter. Although I see it in Obama, it’s typically a feminine proclivity. Have some sympathy for her as she struggles against the burden of the pressures that have kept women from full and equal participation in our body politic.

A Matter of Character

In his final State of the Union address, Barack Obama eschewed partisan politics and stretched for the heights of statesmanship. Frustrated in his most heart-felt passions by the institutions that foment mistrust of government, his program of political renewal is built around appeals to cherished notions of our national character. While composed of practical steps – among them redistricting and campaign finance reform, voting rights, and extension of public education by two years – its illustrations were drawn not from  isolated instances of specific lives transformed by those benefits, but from abstract descriptions of relationships transformed when we act from hope and trust.

Obama supported the authority of his prescription by outlining the results of seven years of quietly doing what was possible while his opponents trumpeted doom. This includes enhanced international cooperation to isolate and weaken the agents of violence, improved terms of trade to protect workers and the environment, enhancement of personal security with health care reform, and revitalization of America’s manufacturing and energy sectors.

His restrained rhetoric is set against a collection of voices that trumpet conflict. This is not limited to the field of Republican presidential nominees – the growing strength of the Sanders campaign is fueled by harsh rhetoric targeting the financial elite. I believe that the popularity of those voices reflects the sense that for the average American, security is precarious. This is supported by polling that reveals that as regards their condition, 49% of Americans have become more angry over the last year.

As wages stagnate and costs rise, inevitably every choice faced by a working family is fraught with consequence. Any single error can set us on the hard road to poverty. In that state, our natural desire is to make our choosing less difficult – in much popular political rhetoric, to remove the impediments imposed by the state. Unfortunately, this logic appeals to the interests of those that siphon financial energy from the system. One of the Koch brothers, after the federal investigation of climate science racketeering by Mobil-Exxon, appeared in public to state that in many ways he is a liberal – he believes that businesses are most successful when the individual worker is free to make his own choices. As “success” to Mr. Koch translates to “higher profits,” what history has shown is that a family man will accept lower wages when facing competition from a younger, unburdened candidate. “Freedom” as understood by Koch translates to a lack of security that eventually pits every man against his neighbor for the benefit of owners.

In his book The Guardians: Kingman Brewster, His Circle, and the Rise of the Liberal Establishment, Geoffrey Kabaservice argued that the American century was birthed on the battlefields of WWII. For the first time, the American elite went to war, and came back appreciating the strength of the brotherhood that leads men to sacrifice their lives in service. It was this brotherhood that motivated the Veterans’ Acts that opened college and home ownership to the lower classes. And it was the clawing back of those gifts by that generation’s children that steadily weakened the lower classes as we entered the 21st century.

The fragility of the post-war Golden Age must lead us to ask: is Obama right? Is our national character one of quiet service, or a narcissistic struggle for privilege that slowly grinds down the weak?

Against the cynicism of the realist, Obama marshaled the words of the man that prophesied his presidency. In his last public address, Martin Luther King, Jr. promised his audience that they as a people would see the Promised Land. Obama borrowed not from that speech but from King’s Nobel Peace Prize address, in which the prophet heralded the ultimate victory of “unarmed truth and unconditional love.”

That may sound like another flimsy basis for policy prescriptions, but it actually leads to an analysis that shows the inevitability of our exit from this era of untrammeled selfishness. Throughout history, when economic activity expands into a new scale (from the city to the state, from state to nation, from nation to globe), those managing the expansion are able to erode the rights of those that created the technologies and products that allow the expansion. They do that by transferring knowledge to impoverished labor markets (or by importing cheaper labor). By selling goods back into the originating society, owners are able to reap enormous profits.

What ultimately happens, however, is that as wages equalize, poor workers motivated by the hope that they, too, would achieve the rights of their richer cousins gain the courage to organize to secure those rights. Having played out the cheap trick of producing in cheaper labor markets, the elite is brought under ever increasing pressure to actually increase the value of labor through organizational strategy. They then confront the truth that a competent and creative worker is the best source of operational improvements, and that personal security is essential to avoid fear that distracts her attention.

This has been played out again and again through history, in each of the transitions listed above. We now face the last transition to the global stage, and growing economic instability in  China suggests that the cheap trick has just about played itself out.

So if the morality of Obama’s appeal doesn’t resonate in the pragmatic mind, I believe that it yet reflects the wisdom of historical experience. His prescriptions are the investments that we need to make now to ensure that when the burden of poverty is leveled, we as a nation are prepared to lead the charge into a future of common accomplishment safeguarded by international compacts of economic and environmental justice.

While the elite may create panic with rumors of “one world government” and “black helicopters,” the past proves that the lower classes will eventually recognize their common experience, and organize to ensure that the government that creates the rules by which power is allocated will do so in a way that ensures that power servers that greater good, rather than the whims of the elite. All the lower classes need do is to marshal the courage to believe in the commonality of their experience (which is the root of all truth) and recognize that when they invest in each others’ power (loving unconditionally), they strengthen themselves.

Rush, Roger and Rove – er – Trump Come on Over!

After the loud conversation back and forth across the floor of the Barnes & Nobles Café, the extollers of Trump’s strength and the virtues of Chinese authoritarianism had settled back into their seats. Suddenly the one at the table next to me stood up and made his way across the floor. He was excited about the Asian gentlemen who had stood on a bench to take a photo of the floor layout, and then probed around under the magazine racks. “That’s just what they do – case the target, looking for places to hide bombs, then they come back spraying bullets.” Five minutes later, the store manager came by with a note written on receipt paper: “He’s our shelving maintainer.”

Shortly thereafter the gentleman’s wife arrived to guide him out of the store, offering me a pleading look.

Fear is such an easy tool to use to suck power out of people. It’s not just Donald Trump – the strategy was perfected in modern American politics by Lee Atwater and picked up by Newt Gingrich, Rush Limbaugh and Karl Rove. It’s the world-view of Roger Ailes at FOX News, a man that maintains a second entrance to the building so that the terrorists don’t know where to wait for him.

There is indeed a lot to be afraid of in the world today, but Roosevelt’s observation still holds true: “The only thing that we have to fear is fear itself.” Those that heed people like Rush Limbaugh and Donald Trump are subscribing to a mentality that divorces them from reality. It is a mentality that they propagate because it is only through that effort that the mentality survives. While there is comfort in the weight of its presence, as its adherents lose their ability to generate value in the world, the mentality must continue to spread in order to keep its power.

I confronted this for the first time back in 2002. Kevin told me that he had a dream in which he was walking to school and entered a secret tunnel that led into the White House. I asked him which backpack he was wearing, and he said “The one from Mom’s house.” I decided to go spelunking in her one night, and just bore down into the fear. I finally broke through into a psychic fog. Feeling my way through it, I discovered that it covered the entire nation. Curious, I put my ethereal hands under it and lifted it off the ground for a few seconds, then let go. It settled back down to earth.

It seemed that people found comfort in it.

Donald Trump’s popularity reflects the realization by the Republican base that their fear-generated loyalties haven’t brought them strength. Well, that’s not going to change until they choose to ally with authentic strength. It’s waiting there for them, what Christians call The Holy Spirit, that eternal repository of the wisdom of loving. It’s a mentality that finds beauty and joy in all things – particularly the weak and wounded that focus its attentions. It’s coming closer to us, and when it arrives, Ailes, Limbaugh, Rove and Trump will discover that all they have done is gather together those that need it most. It will sweep through the ranks of the fearful in an instant, because those that maintain fear have stolen the strength that once allowed pride to insist that it could go it alone.

This is what was meant by “like a thief in the night.” The mighty will trumpet their virtues, and convince the weak to tender loyalty for false promises of relief. But finally the weak will have nowhere to turn but toward love, and the mighty will realize that Christ had been there all along, waiting quietly in the background for truth to dawn in the heart.

And so what would I do, if I was on the stage with Donald Trump, when he begins spouting inane fear-mongering nonsense?

Ha, ha! Ha ha ha ha ha! Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha!

Laugh for a good thirty seconds.

Welcoming the Light of Love

Stephen Harrod Buhner closes The Lost Language of Plants just as I would have hoped. After recounting a healing session with a young lady, the book closes with four autobiographic sketches, each by a herbologist recounting immersion in biophilia. Left behind are the recriminations and the tone of moral superiority that marred the preceding chapters. Each of the writers focuses on the opportunity before us now – an opportunity to call into being relationships built around affirmations of love shared with the world around us.

As the book progressed, lunging between the yin and yang of natural and industrial chemistry, I found myself remembering my experiences of being stalked by predators. One was at a Webelos overnighter, of all things, at Camp Whitsett in the Southern Sierras. A Native American elder inducted a number of the senior scouts in a fire ceremony. As the ceremony progressed, I had a strong sense of the bear in the man, and felt the fire of predation building in the camp as the boys settled in to sleep. Rather than hiding from it, I let it enter into my heart, sent my will into the forest to demonstrate that no bears were present, and then breathed peace into the space I had cleared. The fear resided, and the camp settled into slumber. Several years later, I was driving home from work on Friday night, knowing that my youngest son had been sent to the Sierras on a camping trip, and felt the bear again in his presence. I sent the warning “Wake up, Gregory! Get Mr. Povah!” When he returned that Sunday, I learned that on Saturday morning, he had woken early, and heard a noise as Mr. Povah’s son Braden was dragged away from the camp by a black bear. The onrush of shouting campers scared the bear off, and Braden survived with only a bruised ankle.

Given his immersion in the natural world, I doubt that Buhner has not had similar experiences. But perhaps not – he has been chosen by the world of chlorophyll, the deep, patient source of renewal. That touches the animal realm through the herbivores, an intimate co-creative process that Buhner documents in loving detail. But the animal kingdom has another dimension as well: in Love Works, I enumerate the rites of blood – sex, maternity, the hunt and sacrifice. Each of these has its unique pathologies, and the fragility of animal existence means that those pressures are often driven into fear and rage.

In Dune, the great science-fiction author Frank Herbert advances the Bene Gesserit Litany against Fear:

I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.

It was this discipline that I exercised in Camp Whitsett. It is the discipline of the rational mind, a discipline that safeguards our ability to perceive clearly and so to exercise our intelligence when facing circumstances that our natural talents could never hope to overcome. It is to perceive the forces in play with the aim of negotiating a win-win outcome when the predator’s zero-sum mentality holds sway.

As I finished the life sketches that close The Lost Language of Plants, I was filled with the desire to find these people and join forces with them. A great barrier arose, followed by a vision and memory. Buhner shares the plant kingdom’s experience of light, that great source of love that originates from the sun and desires to merge with us through them. But when discussing with my sister the ecological disasters that will confront our children, I told her,

This is how we heal the world: by teaching the plants not simply to receive passively the light, but to reach up to the sun and guide its power to rebuild the devastated forests and savannahs.

This may seem like a little thing, but to accomplish it we have to convince them to surrender the conventions of the chemistry that Buhner celebrates so tenderly. It is to recognize that it is not the plant that is important, but the spiritual transformation that gives courage to the fearful through its physical manifestations.

Buhner touches on this metaphorically in describing his healing work. He testifies that he meets people that are missing parts, and is guided by visions of plants that can fill those voids. It is in establishing those relationships that healing arrives, through an expansion of spirit that occurs when our hollowness is filled.

I spent the rest of the day struggling with the grief that filled me then.

It has two parts. The first is that the plant is only an intermediary – it is a reservoir in which love gathers, but it is not the source itself. It was the source that disciplined me, forcing me stand apart until people realize that all intermediaries are imperfect. Secondly: in that place apart we are beset by those that would ravage the gardens that Buhner and his peers create. We plant the seeds of knowledge, and watch as they are corrupted by the predators. We heal the wounded, and set them again into the world, hoping that each time the light of love reaches more deeply into them.

It is hard to be told that our path has led us into evil. I wish that Buhner could see that scientific reductionism is a means of removing the primitive triggers of predation from the world. Yes, it has gone too far, but it has also created the field in which he and his friends plant their garden.

Lest we wish to repeat the experience of Eden, we must leave recrimination behind. I take solace that in his closing Buhner celebrates the light of love that will ultimately unite us all.

Confronting Fear

Perhaps piqued by surveys that reveal that nearly half of all Republicans believe that our president is secretly a Muslim, Barack Obama has published a conversation with his favorite Christian author, Marilynne Robinson. The first half of the essay ends as a cliff-hanger, with Obama responding directly to Robinson’s declared pessimism with his own declaration of faith in the Christian virtue of doing quietly what is right. This practice is now his only explanation for why, despite appearing unwashed behind the ears, the candidate in 2008 became President. In retrospect, he now recognizes an inexplicable resonance with the small-town electorates that lead the primary schedule.

Eager for the conclusion, I did a number of online searches before returning to the New York Review and discovering that the transcript was a prepublication release for coverage to be completed on November 12. Intrigued by his celebration of Robinson, I followed the links to her recent reflection on Christianity and gun violence.

Since Roseburg, I have taken this topic up a number of times, arguing that both sound public policy (and other posts on 10/2 through 10/8) and Christian ethics requires that we improve our regulation of gun acquisition. But in reading Robinson’s essay, I was immediately disturbed. That essay has a subtly chiding tone, contrasting the rebelliousness of America’s modern gun culture with the patient and non-violent endurance of Christians confronting political persecution during both its early years and the Protestant reformation. It celebrates Calvin, who was the tyrannical overlord of Geneva, applying the ultimate sanction against the Unitarian “heresy” of Michael Servetus. Finally, while declaring that we should tread lightly lest we allow our own views to color our understanding of the mind of Christ, Robinson’s innate pessimism is reflected in her selected passage from scripture (“He who lives by the sword dies by the sword”) and invocation of the Final Judgment, which she implies will involve the destruction of those that idolize fear in the form of a gun.

I finished the reading in somewhat of a panic, and spent a good half an hour trying to find contact information for Marilynne. Her author page on Facebook receives little traffic, and it appears that she no longer holds an academic posting. So I went back to the NY Review of Books and submitted a letter to the editor with a link to my post on the relationship between government and self-governance.

In motivating my effort to contact Marilynne, I offered that:

The men “prowl[ing] in the woods” will not be swayed by an argument framed against the great sweep of history, but rather in terms both visceral and personal.

The solution, as I think President Obama would agree, is to manifest the strength the arises from the discipline that settles upon us as people of faith:

Christianity resolves the tension between vulnerability and freedom through celebration of the evidence in Jesus of the divine power that supports our capacity to love.

When we confront and accept that evidence, there is simply no room left for fear.

Who Is in Charge Here?

A common motif in corporate management is the analogy of competition as a sport. A certain visceral energy comes into a community of people when they stand over their fallen enemies.

One of the challenges employers have in managing me is that I recognize the fundamental nature of that experience: the energy comes from feasting on the spirits of our foes. It’s literally vampirism. It’s wrong, and I refuse to participate.

A survey of the lives of prominent business and political leaders reveals a trend – not universal, but powerful: many of them crave attention. They are needy. They are unable to bring energy from within, and so must consume that produced by others. This creates conditions in which the culture of our organizations is not controlled by the needs of its constituency (workers and customers), but by the personal needs of its psychologically neediest members.

This is not an abstract problem. It severely damaged America during the terms of Presidents 42 and 43: Clinton hungered for the attention of women, and his indiscretion led to wasteful impeachment proceedings. W hungered for a father, and his need to outdo Bush Sr. in the Gulf lead to rash decision-making that cost the nation trillions of dollars and tens of thousands of ruined lives.

Why does that happen? Why do we allow these men (in many cases, empower them) to run our lives?

This is, in fact, the central conundrum of the Bible, starting with Cain and ending with Christ. Some women think of Christianity as a “men’s club”, but I don’t see it as something to be proud of. The Bible focuses on men because our weakness is the greatest problem to success in the mission we have been given.

When John is invited into heaven (Revelation 4), he encounters twenty-four “elders” celebrating the presence of unconditional love in their midst. Twelve are identified as the patron angels of Israel; the other twelve are encountered in the tiara of the holy mother who comes to bring the savior to humanity. So in heaven, there is a balance between the masculine and feminine angels.

Why don’t we feel the presence of those angels? The intimacy of their involvement with the doings of Earth is described so beautifully by John [Rev. 4:9-10] (emphasis added):

And when the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to Him who sits on the throne, to Him who lives forever and ever, the twenty-four elders will fall down before Him who sits on the throne, and will worship Him who lives forever and ever

In reading this, I have the image of a great welling up from all the living things of the Earth: the animals, plants, fungus, even the bacteria. This welling up travels up through the souls of the elders where it literally forces them to their knees in praise.

But after Eden, humanity was placed under quarantine. We are not allowed to participate in this upwelling, for as it says [Gen 3.24]:

He drove out the man, and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim and a flaming sword that turned every way to guard the way to the tree of life.

Being cut off in this way, our experience of life is dominated by the material world, and predominantly by the fear of death. When wielding fear to control others, men, whose natural participation with the creation of life is so distant, have less compunction than women. Too often, those that cherish life submit to the terrorism of aggressive men.

What Jesus demonstrated to us was the power that is available to us when we relinquish fear. It is to enter again into that upwelling, and with disciplined minds not only not to pollute it, but moreso to help to channel it. In so doing, we are embraced and sustained by it, just as Jesus was. It is this channeling, and not physical control, that was meant in Genesis 1:28:

God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.

In that divine relationship, the power of love sweeps all else before it. I once had an employer tell me that I was a “free spirit.” Not at all: I am constrained to avoid the use of fear, which in this world is to surrender power over people. But in surrendering that power, I have submitted to the purposes of a power that overwhelms all others, and so I cannot be turned by fear as others are turned.

Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who enter through it. For the gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it. [Matt. 7:13-14]