The blasphemies of the American civil religion

Soldiers have sacrificed for my religious “freedom,” therefore I am required by the masses to worship a flag regardless of my convictions.  To not do so is frequently called “sacrilege.”

The “American Dream” is a gift given to the most faithful.  Some black men (who, because of their status, have more to atone for than we white people) have achieved playing football, therefore expressing the injustices others experience means they are ungrateful to be allowed their high social status…it is to turn the nose up at the gift.

Police “lay their lives on the line” to protect us, therefore they ought to be able to kill us with impunity—and we must be grateful to them.  I sometimes wonder if I should be happy if a firefighter decided to burn my house down with my family in it.  He does, after all, make great sacrifices to protect me from fires.

The cult of “freedom” is the American version of the Emperor cult of the Caesars of ancient Rome.  Its salvation (freedom) requires me to revere its totems (flags), genuflect for its songs (anthems), tithe to its temples (establishments), worship its messiahs (providers of freedom), venerate its martyrs, fund its priests (politicians), honor its patriarchs (forefathers), and exegete its scriptures (constitution).  It has all the ceremonies, rites, rituals, traditions, orthodoxies, and heresies of any religion—and like many theocracies, it wars with others to maintain its position.  Every war is somehow, inexplicably, a battle for my freedom.  Any foreigner (non-citizen) is a faithless pagan and somehow, less.  To become a proselyte, one must pay an awful price.  And just like in the Emperor cult of Rome, you can have any other “religion” you want, as long as you make sure it plays second fiddle to the Empire—because don’t forget that the Empire makes your religion possible.  Your god must always honor the Empire cult.

And for the blind, following masses, to question the civil religion, to refuse to worship its flag by pointing out injustice is to question this salvation, to blaspheme its messiahs, its totems, and its anthems.

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James

I’ve been there
In that darkest place;
Felt that bitter hollow
In my chest
As my life was
Ripped away
So cruelly
And the sound of music
Amplified the emptiness.

I’ve looked down
At hands that shake;
Not comprehending
The wild shriek inside which
Was my soul tearing
Itself apart to open
Them…to let go
Of my own flesh,
My children.

I’ve walked through that
Valley—the Valley of Shadows;
Taken the blame
And wondered how
Someone I had loved
Could hate me
So thoroughly.
I’ve learned to hate
Just to survive it,
Then struggled to stop.

Not knowing how,
Turning to the shepherd
Who has always
Brought me to green places,
Peaceful streams
Of fresh water,
The one who has always
Prepared tables for me,
Right in front of
All my betrayers,
I’ve walked that Valley,
Fearing no evil
Sensing his presence
And trusting his discipline.

And goodness and mercy followed me
To his house.

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Small things

How important the small things are!
Time spent with a friend stacking
Stones in the ground while the cool breeze
Gentles the sun’s blazing rays
Reminds me that I’m not alone.
I am part of this world—as the grass,
As a neighbor, as the birds in the sky,
As the leaves of the trees.

How vital are the minutia which
Keep us grounded? Putting away the clothes,
Preparing dinner, taking out the trash,
Feeding the dog…we are carnal creatures,
Living physically, subsisting as all
Organisms do: by making a place
In relation to others; by caring for
One another, by being home.

It is a lie of the ego which insists
“I am destined for some great thing.”
A champion hubris hoping to attain
That which only God may inhabit.
I once told myself I must look beyond small things,
That I would soon “be someone.” That
People would care what I thought
And read what I wrote.
Those days are long gone.
Now I am pleased to enjoy discovering
The wormy grains of rough-cut pallet wood,
Distressed by years of abuse and weather,
Dismissed as disposable resources meant
For moving something valuable from one place
To another. I see myself in the boards, in the rocks,
In the trees and the dishes: a mere thing in this world,
Used up and thrown away by people who know
Little other than their own ambitions to be something
Other than what they are, to treat me as chattel. I have
No more ambition of my own, other than to survive the day,
To come home to my wife, to feel her warm smile,
To sense her steady breathing beside me at night, to bury my
Nose in her honey hair and hold every detail about
Each moment in my mind as long as it will stay
Before fading into that nameless euphoria
Which has no words, only that note of
Visceral contentment felt deep inside:
The distant memory of peace and security
Known only by the innocence of childhood.

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The mind of a bird

This summer, a pair of Warblers
Chose our porch to raise a brood.
It didn’t seem the wisest choice to me,
As, no matter how thoughtfully we open it
They constantly find their world upturned
Whenever we use the front door.
But I don’t claim to know what goes on in
The mind of a bird. I suppose as they
Built their moss-covered nest
They must have thought the space
Under the eave seemed hidden enough
To be safe from the Red-tailed Hawks
Which patrol the trees in our neighborhood
And high enough to be safe from
Invaders of the slithering variety.
Though their presence, viewed through the
Storm door, taunts our orange and white
Tabby to the brink of madness,
I guess they figured a little foot traffic
Is a small price to pay for a safe place
To settle down and raise some chicks.
And I like to think that maybe we’ve earned a good
Reputation in the local bird community.

The young are hatched now for a few days,
Their tiny heads popping up over the edge
Of the soft nest. Left alone while mother
And father hunt, I climb onto the railing
To see the babies. Mouths open, eyes closed
Waiting for mother, the three chicks seem
A tiny grey ball of soft fluff.
“We’ll keep an eye on you until she returns,”
I whisper. In a heartless world it seems
The least we can do.

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Crape myrtle, II

Heat-loving crape myrtle,
Its early-summer blossoms
Shed their tiny petals
Snow-like in the verdant grass.

Reaching for the knobby
Branch, I pull a
Cluster of its sweet
Fragrant softness, to cut it

Clean with my knife,
Which I close and put
Back in my pocket.
Burying my nose deep

In its sweetness
I draw deeply into
My lungs its spirit:
A soft aroma, drawn

From far beneath
My feet, deep in the
Red clay by roots
I cannot fathom.

Knowing of only one
To share the moment with,
I carry the tender shoots
Past the Roses and

The Hostas, the Basil
And the Cilantro, the
Lemon Balm and the
Lavender into the kitchen

Where she washes
The supper dishes,
Her blonde curls skimming
Her neck with such tenderness

As would make Solomon
Blush. Presenting my
Offering, I hope only
For her smile.

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Micah 6:8, a commentary

He has shown you, dying one,
What is required.
It is not great acts, done in “his name.”
It is not towering accomplishments,
The building of powerful institutions.
It is not measured in bricks and mortar
Or in titles, power, and success.
These things require power, wealth,
And the sacrifice of one’s neighbor.
One must do “a little evil”
To build something so great.

What is required, just as in Micah’s time,
Cannot be bought with sacrifices,
The likes of which are offered also
To the idols of our neighbors.
If it could not be purchased
With thousands of rams
Or ten thousand rivers of olive oil,
Offered with a self-serving heart,
How, then, can you think
That another campus will honor him?
How can you think he would be impressed
With yet another giant temple
To your own power and achievement?
How can you think he would care
About anything that can be bought with money?

Do not think that your giant barns will save you.
His burden is lighter than that.
His requirement is easy.

He wants you to act justly:
To treat those around you fairly,
To do what is right when it comes
To your neighbor.

He wants you to love mercy:
To value kindness even to those
Who you deem unworthy of it.
To look to the people “beneath” you,
Rather than those “above” you.

He wants you to walk humbly
With him: to be smaller
Than you would wish to be.

He has already shown you how.

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A letter to a hypocrite

Dear sir,

I hear, again, you’ve been talking about “peace,” that the word closes your letters and that you say it warmly with an exhortative knowing smile whenever your conversations or gatherings conclude. I hear you’ve been taking about “social justice,” and that you wince and lead prayers whenever some new great injustice has been committed in the world, committed by the powerful against some poor, helpless group.  I hear you’re still preaching to your listeners that the proper Christian life is one which promotes “peace” instead of “war” and “social justice” instead of the abuse of power.

I suppose all of these are good.  I can’t argue with them.

But, I have begun to think that peace and justice are, for you, all about presidents and congressmen, nations and civilizations, policies and laws.  I think the only wrongs you see are those done by the great big powerful people and systems—and this is why you encourage us to sign official petitions, write to our congressmen, and march in protests.  You see peace and justice only in terms of power.  Peace must be infused with power if it’s really going to “work.”  We’ve got to be strong if we’re going to defeat the powers in the name of justice.

Nevermind that this is the same rationale the powers use to wage their wars and commit their atrocities.

Yet, with all this talk of peace and justice, you do not talk to the people around you well.  You talk over them.  You interrupt them.  I’ve seen you use them and manipulate them.  You have no patience for them.  They are not sheep in your eyes, but obstinate mules testing your patience by resisting your efforts to build and support the powerful solutions which you think will bring peace and justice to the world.  So, you rail against them and get angry.  You push them out of the way.  I have seen you shout at them, lie to them, and hate them—justifying it as “peace.”

Oh, and others.  I have seen others who occupy positions of authority in “institutions,” who post articles about justice and peace and mercy, who teach lessons and read books about these things.  But, ultimately, their boss decides what is just and unjust, and they go right along.  And I have watched the ones deemed “champions of peace and justice” quietly fade into the background while the boss climbs over people and hurts people and uses them up to seek his ends.  The champions will not speak up; they will not share that cross.  They tell themselves, “See, if I get fired, I won’t be here any longer to do justice.”  So, they sit quietly and approvingly while violence is done to their neighbor.  They put up with and, by defending it, commit injustice—in order to do justice.  They do evil for the sake of good.  “Better that one person should die for everyone than that we all should die.”

It is because, sir, like you, their love for “peace” and “social justice” is about issues, not people.  It is about power and control, not truth.  They, like you, do not understand the words of Micah: that what is required of God’s people is not big acts of power but “to act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God.”  This, of course, takes one inevitably to the cross: the ultimate injustice.  And you…you have decided you won’t end up there.  No, you put your neighbors on it.  You put your friends on it, your brothers and sisters, church members, coworkers…your children.

All because you still do not believe that Jesus’ peace is one which bears a cross.  You still agree with the powers.  You still don’t know the story.  You don’t know what peace is because you agree with the crucifiers and not the crucified.  You believe in the powers and not the cross.  You have convinced yourself that God’s way of doing peace is not good enough.  If only he had asked you.  You are opposed to God, against him.  And, because of that, you are lost.  I feel sorry for you.

You may still be standing now.  You may rack up your accomplishments and even “succeed.”  But you will never, ever do peace.

God forgive you.

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