zigzag journey

……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………… the un-assuming odyssey of a donkey learning to see…

Archive for the category “The Idea of America”

Journey Post 47: A Memorial Day Encounter Remembering American Pie

Note to readers:   I’ve written an essay on the parable of the good Samaritan (called, “Good Neighbor Sam”), which I will post in a week or two.  But since today is Memorial Day, I thought it more appropriate to write about America and those who gave their last full measure of devotion.


Friday night I had an encounter with American Pie.

I’m not referring to a recent series of films but to a classic song written and released in 1971, a retrospective on America in the decade 1959-1969 by Don McLean.  The song is a ballad, a lament about things lost.  It’s not just about the music and how it “died.”

The music is a metaphor for an America and a way of life that disappeared along with the music and died in a real way—at least in the perspective of 1971.  The sad longing to return to a simpler, more innocent time is palpable.  It looked to the time when America had saved the world and savored the happiness of music that made us smile and dance.  It’s a song worth reflecting on.

So why am I writing about this on Memorial Day, the day we remember our war dead?  Because Americans of my generation have a visceral attachment to the song, this ballad of the 1960s, this song expressing how things felt to us as we went forth doing our duty to preserve freedom and justice for our country and for struggling democracies around the world.  But, in the end, it seemed that the fate of Vietnam and the fate of America itself were one and the same: hopeless and not worth our sacrifice.

Many conflate Memorial Day and Veterans Day.  I certainly enjoy being thanked for my service, especially since that never happened until seven years after I came back.  But Memorial Day is about ultimate sacrifice, about losing one’s life for one’s comrades, about dying for our country.

Those of us who returned, however seriously wounded or hurting, did in fact return.  Most of us went back to civilian life, raised families and lived in their communities and led productive lives.  But we were all deeply affected by the experience in some way, some more than others.  In a very real sense, we all died, in part, in some fashion.  We left Vietnam, but Vietnam never left us.

I have my own memories of the men I served with, the men who died, especially my company commander, Capt. David Walsh, (pictured below, KIA June 10, 1969) whose story will always be with me—a man who led a small group out from our perimeter to take down snipers, who singlehandedly killed two of them before himself being brought down by a third.  He almost certainly knew that he wouldn’t come back, but he went out to keep safe the men he loved.

The Vietnam War is not explicitly mentioned in the song, but it hangs over every bit of it like a dark, ominous cloud.  That war was still going hot and heavy when Don McLean first sang the song in 1971.  Most troops would not be out until 1973.  Perhaps most Americans were thinking that we had already lost the war:  Newsman Walter Cronkite told us so.  After all, he was the most trusted man in America, (no irony intended).  He came to that conclusion when he visited Vietnam following the ’68 Tet offensive.

I played and sang American Pie in my first guitar recital on Friday night.  Before that night, I must’ve read and thought about the words every day for over a month.  Recitals like that are mostly about young people (middle and high school age), but the parents seemed at least familiar with the song.  I explained before starting that I had come home from Vietnam in 1969 wounded and disillusioned with an America that I loved: I think I shared the same outlook then as Don McLean did in the song—an America on the verge of self-destructing.

Vietnam may be fading from our collective memory, but it’s deeply embedded in the psyche of everyone who lived the confusing time McLean sang about.

He begins his ballad “a long, long time ago,” referring to “the day the music died,” his take on what happened in February 1959 when his hero Buddy Holly, along with Richie Valens and the Big Bopper, were lost in a single plane crash.

The song traces the course of the ten following years when we were “on our own,” going through a series of days on which, he says, is “the day the music died”:  After Holly, McLean loses his girl to another guy at a sock hop and knows he’s “out of luck.”  Bob Dylan (the “jester”) steals the “thorny crown” from Elvis (the “King,”).  Lennon reads Marx and the “quartet” (Beatles) practiced while “we sang dirges in the dark” (a possible second reference to the death of JFK).  As the culture and music was more influenced by drugs, the birds (Byrds) are “eight miles high an’ fallin’ fast” like bombs over North Vietnam. The Jester is on the sidelines and the Beatles are becoming Sgt. Pepper, who “refuse to yield” to other groups while the “sweet perfume” of marijuana is pervasive.  (Or, is the reference to “sergeants” to the military controlling demonstrators or the Chicago police dropping “sweet perfume”—tear gas—at the ’68 Democratic convention?)

     Any way you interpret it, the “day the music died” here seems to reveal that the American dream and promise of freedom is dead or dying….

On another day in December, 1969, there was the tragic Stones’ Altamont Speedway concert in which the Hell’s Angels did security, people died, and, McLean says, he saw “Satan laughing with delight….” “Jack flash” (Mick Jager) “sat on a candlestick.”  We were, as he said, “a generation lost in space with no time left to start again.”

McLean is a master at using double entendre.  Many have tried to figure it all out.  Don McLean himself has never explained it all, though he has mentioned some things.

His final verse was a retrospective on the era, and he has a line about the “three men I admire most, the Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost, they caught the last train for the coast the day the music died.”  After ‘Nam, I was doing my own search for God, and I kept hearing the question—not, “Is God dead?” as Time Magazine famously asked on its 1967 cover—rather, “Has God finally given up on America?  Is he getting out while the getting’s good?”

After Tet ’68, America seemed to begin its fall into what we later called “Vietnam syndrome”:  God is no longer blessing America, we can’t win a war against a “little” enemy like this, and we don’t ever want to get stuck in a quagmire like that again.  How could America actually lose a war?

American Pie seems (chronologically) to end at Altamont in ’69.  But before the song was released we heard the revelations about My Lai, and  young Americans killing other young Americans at Kent State in 1970.  Those, for me, were the final straw … at least until Nixon’s resignation.

The chorus of a song is generally key to its understanding, to getting the main point:

‘Bye bye miss American Pie, drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry,

An’ them good ole boys were drinkin’ whiskey and rye, and singin’,

This’ll be the day that I die…  This’ll be the day that I die.

Don McLean

I’m a couple years younger than Don McLean.  He was 13 when Holly died, I was almost 11.  But many of our experiences were the same.  For example, listening to Dinah Shore, the very popular all-American girl who had her own variety show sponsored by Chevrolet.  The Chevy song she sang played for about a decade.  One heard it everywhere all the time:  “See the U.S.A., in your Chevrolet, America is asking you to call.  Drive your Chevrolet through the U.S.A., America’s the greatest land of all!  On a highway or a road along a levee, everything’s completer in a Chevy….”  This was America, even if you were a Ford man.

When Holly died, he was famous for the song, “That’ll be the day.”  He was singing about his girl, that, if she left him, “that’ll be the day-hay-hay … that I die!”  The good ole boys drinking whiskey and rye were lamenting his death.

Judging by all that Don McLean put into this song, they were lamenting much more: the death of America itself.  While the metaphor of the music standing for America, our way of life and our religion may seem a bit overdrawn to people now, it was very real in 1971.  It was not just a phase that we were going through and got over or grew out of.  Something real died, and those of us who returned from that war at that time know that something died in us as well.

That’s why I’m thinking that, on Memorial Day, it’s very appropriate to remember those of us who came back.  And it’s okay to mourn.  You may not be able to understand what died.  Just know that it did.

I find it greatly ironic for me personally that, in the year I came home (1969), I was just beginning to discover that those “three men I admire most,” as he called the godhead, were not getting out but were very much still around and interested in us personally and individually.  In the year he released American Pie (1971), I became a Christian.  And I began to live.


If you would like to read the complete lyrics of American Pie, you can do so here:  https://web.archive.org/web/20141129095635/http://www.don-mclean.com/viewsong.asp?id=89

The Lake Avenue Essays # 2: Whose Agenda?… And Whose Pigeonhole?

If Jesus came back to America today, he might conclude that we were already in the midst of a presidential campaign.  Candidates are being measured and issues debated.  Christians are being courted because our vote matters.  The candidates are measuring us, analyzing how we might vote.  They, and most Americans, see us as the “religious right,” politically conservative, likely Republican.

How do you like that?  Not here five minutes and already you’ve been pegged into a pigeonhole?

You might be comfortable with that particular niche.  But the point of this piece has little to do with where you actually fit on the political spectrum.  My point has to do with what most Americans would think when they learn that you’re a Christian.

Michelle and I came back to the States from Senegal in 1989.  We had spent most of the 1970s and 80s in missionary training and living in Africa.  We had been isolated from much that was happening in American culture—living in a kind of Christian bubble.  What we found here was a far different country from the one we had left.

A little history:  The Nixon landslide in 1972 made political operatives sit up and notice how much clout Christians could have as a voting bloc.  Roe v. Wade in ’73 pushed a button that demonstrated Christian anger and willingness to speak up about the changing social and political agendas in our country.  By 1980, a number of organizations were claiming to speak for conservative Christianity, including the “Moral Majority.”  The “Christian right” or “religious right” was now a force to be reckoned with.

Those were heady days for Christians.  The possibilities of power were exciting.  It seemed to many that standing up for “family values” could stanch the seepage of moral sewage from the ‘60s and restore a more Christian America.  But, somewhere along the line, many forgot that hearts are not changed by the ballot box or moral law, and (as Chuck Colson said), salvation doesn’t come on Air Force One.  The American church was lured away by a political agenda—deflected from following the agenda of Jesus.

Jesus had an agenda?  Your first thought might be, “Well, he was intent on getting to the cross.”  Or, “He tried to get us to preach the gospel to everyone.”  And you’d be right … sort of….

Jesus’ agenda can be seen in the Gospel accounts.  It’s not rocket science.  Some feel the Gospels are difficult, the parables confusing, so they largely ignore them or read small bits or perhaps John.  But I want to remind you of something your English teacher taught: “What’s the main idea?”  The question is, what did he teach his disciples—his apprentices, if you will—over and over?  What’s the pattern?  Jesus taught them to think and showed them his Father’s heart—to see who he is, how he thinks, and gain his perspective—that they might know him who dwells among us.  “The presence of God is the central fact of Christianity” (Tozer).  Israel missed God and had no light to reflect.  We face the same danger.

You may be aware that Gandhi spent much time in Britain, living among British Christians.  Afterward he had this to say:  “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians.  Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”  I don’t know about you, but if I am to be persecuted, I want it to be for the right reasons.  Just what am I known for?  What light am I reflecting?  Into whose pigeonhole do I fit?

Post 33—At Risk of Repeating History, Part 3: Toward an America safe for freedom of religion and diversity

Part 3-A:   Getting the log out

getting the log out

America has not always lived up to its public persona:  “…liberty and justice for all.”  “…the land of the free and the home of the brave.”

Franklin Roosevelt’s iconic statement on fear—“the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”—is only partly true.  Our country has always had things to fear, threats from within and without.  We’ve always done a pretty good job at beating back external threats.  It’s the internal ones that we have not always dealt with very well.  I spent time in a previous essay looking at the McCarthy Era.  When, in 1950, Joe McCarthy first presented a list of “commies” in government, I was two:  too young to understand those events or the subtle threats made in the public square—but I certainly internalized the fear aroused by the prospects of communist cells functioning in my neighborhood and the reminders of impending nuclear Armageddon.

fear in the public square--mccarthy and list of commies

The messages we received about upholding America were everywhere.  Even my favorite TV superhero, Superman, was dramatically introduced as standing for “truth, justice, and the American way.”  How we thought and spoke of the American way back then was watched and listened to in a way that would make today’s political correctness feel almost libertarian.  In the 1950s and early 60s, its institutionalized form would brook no question about what that “way” was.  Those who did were often blacklisted, hunted, even jailed.  The “land of the free” was not a safe place for different or independent thinking.

fear in the public square--Superman

I’ve been listening to the ongoing debate about religious freedom and wondering if we are not in some way returning to the oppressive atmosphere of the 1950s.  That discussion is often associated today with the so-called “religious right” (or, “Christian right”), even though historically, it has been the political left who has spoken up about this freedom.  Freedom of religion is about so much more than outward manifestations of religion.  It is about basic freedoms that underlay our Constitution, including freedom of conscience, freedom of belief (or not), freedom of association, and freedom of speech.

In this post, I want to address fellow Christians in a public way, such that others might listen in.  Like it or not, the American Christian church is popularly perceived as standing more for a particular political and moral agenda than for being followers of Jesus.  Realize it or not, we Christians are in some ways responsible for that perception.  Hence my subtitle about “getting the log out.”

The popular perception, among other things, clouds any real discussion or debate on the merits of Christianity.  I discovered this when I worked outside the Christian “bubble” we had lived in for about twenty years.  I was a teacher in public schools.  Adults who learned I was a Christian had certain presumptions about my political and social views.  This was an automatic distracter when talking about Jesus as the Savior who came that we might know God: who he is, what he thinks, or understand his father heart—a message validated in history by the resurrection.

I’ve often heard it said that the greatest barrier to people becoming Christians is other Christians.  Tim Keller said it, as did G. K. Chesterton.  I’ve been haunted for years by a statement made by Mahatma Gandhi.  One of the most revered figures in history, Gandhi famously studied Jesus as he planned how to effectively mobilize Indians to demand independence.  At the time, he was living in Great Britain among British Christians.  His experience led him to this observation:  “I like your Jesus.  I do not like your Christians.  Your Christians are so unlike your Jesus.”*

getting the log out--right hand of God

Another statement haunts me, this one concerning others who were supposed to be a light to the world for God.  This statement was made by the Apostle Paul when he wrote to the Christians in Rome.  Paul, himself a Jew, wanted his own people to understand that being the physical descendants of Abraham did not entitle them to a place in God’s kingdom—unless they were also his spiritual descendants: i.e., that they also had “the faith of Abraham.”  Paul had to rebuke them because of their behavior toward those not of Israel:  “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you” (Rom. 2:24).

My fear, as I reflect on being known for a political agenda rather than a spiritual one, is that the way of Jesus and the name of God are shunned and blasphemed because of it.  If persecution is to come, then I want to be hated or mistreated because I am follower of Jesus, not because I want to push “my” moral imperative on the American people.  I want to be known for what I am for, not for what—or who—I am against.  I fear we have forgotten that morality cannot be legislated.  And, as Chuck Colson tried to remind us, “salvation does not come on Air Force One.”

Christians, as do all American citizens, have a right and an obligation to voice their political views.  Colson’s statement, I think, would fit well on a refrigerator magnet.  If we want our fellow Americans to see the light of Jesus and know God, then it would be useful to check out where the logs lie.  It’s one thing to be wrongly perceived as carrying the torch for an unpopular political viewpoint.  It’s quite another to actually allow the church to follow a political agenda and be deflected from following what I call “the agenda of Jesus,” (see the note below).  If so, God’s enemy is alive and happy on planet earth.


*The Gandhi quote can be found at http://thinkexist.com/quotes/mahatma_gandhi/, accessed 2/19/11

NEXT:  Part 3b will address how we understand freedom of religion as Americans and Christians, and how we can continue to survive as one nation.  We’ll also look at the “speck” in those other eyes.

NOTE:  The two essays posted after this one and labeled “The Lake Avenue essays,” were recently displayed for an arts celebration at our church.  #2, “Whose agenda?…And whose pigeonhole?” contains thoughts similar to those expressed in journey post 33-a, above.  But I would encourage you to read “Whose agenda?….” because it includes an historical note about the rise of the “religious right” and a brief explanation of what I call “Jesus’ agenda.”

Coming up … Only 3 months late….

I took a much longer time off from writing than I had anticipated.  As I mentioned earlier, I wanted to think through and pray about what I was going to say here–I will be hitting some hot-button issues.  But I also took time to look at some personal issues, and am now returning greatly refreshed and encouraged with where God is leading Michelle and I as we venture into this weird new state called “retirement.”

It’s great to be back writing again.

I am about to publish (this week, D.V.) the next installment in the series on the danger we face of repeating history and creating fear in the American public square. This post will directly address freedom of thought, conscience, religion, and belief (or “none”) in our pluralistic land, creating an environment safe for our incredibly diverse population.   Then we will resume examining the resurrection of Jesus.

I will also be putting up two essays that I have written for an arts exhibit at our church this next weekend.  If you’ve been following this blog, you may recognize some familiar themes.

Thanks for your patience.

Post 32 — At Risk of Repeating History, part 2: A history lesson on fear …

“The only thing we have to fear is—fear itself!”
— Franklin D. Roosevelt, 1st Inaugural Address, 1933

fear in the public square--mccarthy cartoon

Above:  Cartoon by Herblock  (Herbert Block)

Fear is not always a bad thing.  Fear is like the idiot light on the dashboard that tells us something is wrong:  danger is there—though it may not tell us what the danger is.  Fear can serve as a motivator to remove or alleviate the danger.  But when fear overwhelms us, as FDR said, it is the enemy.

Leaders and others of influence can do much to help remove fear or they can make it worse, either by intention or ignorance.  Franklin Roosevelt understood fear and what it could do.  So did Adolph Hitler.  One used fear to gain his own ends.  The other helped his nation face its fear and work on the problem.

Fear in the public square--Hiter haranguing

Fear was the first crisis that Franklin Roosevelt faced on taking office in 1933.  He understood fear because he had faced it when he was stricken with polio a decade before.  FDR had seen the fear in the eyes of his countrymen and drew from his own deep well of resources to speak words of inspiration and hope to them.  He knew that fear would hinder or cripple their best efforts to overcome the Great Depression; and though many of his economic actions were of dubious value in the long term, nevertheless they united a people into a community determined to fight and get back on its feet.

fear in the public square--FDR on the radio

Roosevelt’s iconic line about fear is today so familiar it seems trivial, mere window dressing for the era.  But there is nothing trivial about fear.  Fear in the public square spreads.  It infects every community and neighborhood and home.  It embeds itself in the dark recesses of minds old and young—especially the young.   Fear is the death of freedom, public and private, in more ways than we know.

A different type of fear pervaded the American public square in the early 50s.  In what we blithely label the “McCarthy Era,” leaders allowed the fear to grow, and this for what they thought were good reasons.  Their message seemed to be more of a warning:  “Are you part of the problem?  Be careful what you say—and what you think.”

Fear in the public square-it's ok

The cartoon above shows members of the House Un-American Activities Committee in the car, with the caption:  “It’s Okay — We’re Hunting Communists”

I was only two years old in 1950, so I don’t have first-hand knowledge of the Korean War, Joe McCarthy and his lists of Commies everywhere, the execution of the Rosenbergs, the un-American activities of the House Un-American Activities Committee, the black lists, or Red scare.  I didn’t listen the day freedom found a voice in newsman Edward R. Murrow, who said of McCarthy:  “…the line between investigating and persecuting is a very fine one, and the … senator from Wisconsin has stepped over it repeatedly.”*

fear in the public square--mccarthy and list of commies  fear in the public square--Ed Murrow

Left:  Sen. Joseph McCarthy and his list of “Commies”          Right:  Edward R. Murrow

Absorbing the fear doesn’t require awareness of events.  It’s in the faces and tone of people all around.

Things I do remember seem humorous today—but they weren’t at the time.  I heard that people lived “behind the Iron Curtain.”  My vivid imagination made up for what I didn’t know … a curtain with rivets … people expecting Gestapo-like thugs wearing the red star.  “Reds coming out of the woodwork” led to images of Commies living inside our walls, an odd take on the expression, “Even the walls have ears.”

Then there was the big yellow monster.  It inhabited every community wherever I rode with my mom in the car.  It resembled a gigantic round birdhouse with cone-shaped roof, perched high atop a pole.  A.k.a., the civil defense warning siren—it stood alone and silent, ready to announce Armageddon.  Every high-flying silver jet, I suspected, was a Russian bomber carrying its payload of atomic destruction.

fear in the public square--air raid sirens

Above:  Various types of air raid sirens used in the Los Angeles area

There was a TV show we don’t talk about today: “I Led Three Lives:  Citizen, Communist, Counterspy.”  True stories, real fear.  Herb Philbrick infiltrated a Communist cell group and reported its activities to his FBI contact.  Each episode was screened by J. Edgar Hoover—which made it truly American, right?

fear in the public square--I led 3 lives                    fear in the public square--Superman

Left:  Actor Richard Carlson as citizen Herb Philbrick           Right:  George Reeves as Superman on TV.  Part of the intro mentioned that he fought for “truth, justice, and the American way.”

The problem here, of course, was not the fear of death by atomic warfare or the existence of spies.  Life is dangerous and death is sure.  The problem—and the irony— was that so many well-intentioned people, good people who wanted to see our American freedoms protected from some very real evils, leaders and others of influence, were blind to the consequences of their actions.  Their actions produced a message writ loud between the lines about who you associated with and what you said.  Freedom of thought and conscience, of religious belief (or not) are so basic to free human existence that they are not mentioned explicitly in the Bill of Rights—but they are inherent in nearly every line.  It was those very freedoms that were threatened during the “McCarthy Era.”  We see that now.  What we may not see is that we stand at risk of losing them even now—which will be the focus of the next post.

The 1960s carried its own set of fears—our nation seemed to be coming apart—but certain events signaled that the time had passed for keeping the lid on unpopular views, views considered out of the mainstream of “American” thought.  People of my generation found that there was a new freedom to voice our consciences (and much else) in the public square and in our neighborhoods.  (This freedom was not universal, as some, including followers of Dr. King, were to realize.)

fear in the public square--A-country-at-odds

fear in the public square--student protest

Popular phrases like “Do your thing” were emblematic of this new freedom, and we insisted on speaking out about things that matter—things we felt were more representative of “truth, justice, and the American way” than censorship and monitoring of TV shows, wire-tapping, and inquisitions on loyalty.

Two events in the early sixties signaled an end to the reign of fear:  One took place in the wake of the Cuban missile crisis of 1962.  We had come closer to nuclear obliteration than any time before or since.  Both sides now realized just how the primitive and indirect means of communication had placed us and our futures at continuous risk of lethal misunderstanding and annihilation—and that must never be allowed to happen.  The hotline between the White House and Kremlin installed the next year greatly lessened fears of nuclear accident.  Conflict between the super powers was instead played out in surrogate locations, with “conventional” weapons, such as in Vietnam.

Fear in the public square--Mario Savio on top

The second event was the eruption of the “Free Speech Movement” at UC Berkeley in the fall of 1964.  Young people, personified in the charismatic and articulate student leader Mario Savio, began to speak their mind.  Their successes paved the way for the student protest movement of the 60s and the larger anti-Vietnam War movement.

The 1960s tore some gaping holes in the fabric of American society as it then was.  One good outcome, however, was that people began to speak their minds without fear (or in spite of it), according to conscience.   We learned again the lesson that, if we are really going to be a free people, we must be free to express our innermost thoughts and beliefs in the public square in a way that would encourage public debate and compromise in our diverse, pluralistic society.  Compromise or not, we must be free.

*  Another quote fro Ed Murrow:  “No one man can terrorize a whole nation unless we are all his accomplices.”  This and other thinking gems from the CBS newsman can be found on WikiQuote, here.

Postscript: “Soul freedom” for all in the public square — how we live with our deep differences

Shortly after I published the last post, with a parable about fear in the public square, I listened to the podcast from “Breakpoint This Week,” a part of Chuck Colson’s ministry.  John Stonestreet interviewed Os Guinness, an observer, writer, and speaker on culture and Christianity.   I was astounded, not only that his comments run parallel to my own thinking, but that I “just happened” to listen to it a day or two later.

Os Guinness speaks about “Soul Freedom,” i.e., freedom of thought, conscience, religion, and belief (or “none”) in the public square.  I am reading the book this interview was based on:  The Global Public Square:  Religious Freedom and Making a World Safe for Diversity.  That title says a lot.

There is a much bigger issue at stake here:  America is a pluralistic society, and if there is to be freedom for any, there must be freedom for all: Christian, atheist, Buddhist, Muslim, None, whether we agree on religion or moral values or not.

“One of the issues underlying all [other issues],” Guinness says, “whether it’s environmental, technological, or whatever, is ‘how on earth do we live with our deep differences?’. And the only answer to that is to really recapture the importance of religious freedom for everybody—for people of all faiths, and those who consider themselves as having no faith. That’s why I think this is a crucial generation….”

Guinness goes on:  “At the heart of human rights,” he explains, “is a concept of reciprocity. In other words, a right for one is a right for the other is a right for both. We’ve got to practice that here. We can’t restrict [Muslims] from the rights we demand for ourselves. And that’s the genius of Roger Williams. He was the first person to say you could build a society (which later became, of course, Rhode Island), by giving freedom of conscience to everybody without exception….”

Such comments, coming from a Christian, may surprise you, since you may believe that, whenever Christians talk about religious freedom, they just want it for themselves and, “screw everyone else!”

That is not what Jesus taught.  That is not what our Constitution is about, either.

Here is a link to the conversation with Os Guinness.  (You’ll need to copy and paste on your browser):   http://www.breakpoint.org/features-columns/discourse/entry/15/25825

Part 2 of “At risk of repeating history” will be up shortly.

journey post 31– At Risk of Repeating History, Part 1: A parable about fear in the public square

“The only thing we have to fear is—fear itself.”
—Franklin D. Roosevelt, Inaugural Address, 1933

fear in the public square--FDR 1st inaugural

Roosevelt speaking at his first inaugural, March 4, 1933

My agenda in this series of posts is to communicate that there is reasonable historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus.  It is the resurrection, as I’ve said before, that is the sine qua non of Christianity.  If the resurrection never really happened, then the whole superstructure is built on BS: either Jesus was a fraud or deluded, and his followers are to be pitied.

If Jesus did indeed rise from the dead, then his message of the gospel (“good news”) is true.  There is something that reasonable people can build trust on, in order to honestly know Jesus Christ and the God whose will and values he sought to live out.

Resurrection--empty tomb

I’ve taken quite a bit of time thinking and praying about presenting this particular post.  I’ve found it a great challenge to write something coherent that addresses two of my primary allegiances:  God and country, Christian values and American values.  I will likely step on everybody’s toes in the process.

My interest here is to “clear the air” so we can focus on Jesus and the resurrection instead of being distracted by all the noise and clamor often raised in the public square when Christians and non-Christians attempt to speak with each other about religious freedom, cultural values, morality, etc.  In clearing the air, I need to take some people to task, including both my fellow Christians and my fellow American citizens, Christian or not.

Christians and those who have been exposed to Jesus’ teaching know that he charged his hearers to be “salt and light” in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:13-16).  Those hearers certainly included all those he was speaking of in the Beatitudes … the poor in spirit, the merciful, the pure in heart, etc.

fear in the public square--salt and light

Many take “salt and light” as a charge to fight for what they believe are biblical values.  Since the 1970s, the “Christian right” et al has pitted itself against changes in moral standards and traditional values in a well-meaning effort to stand for righteousness.  The “culture wars” that resulted have succeeded in alienating a growing segment of the American population.  Large numbers of these people have launched another well-meaning effort, this one to insure that we are all more tolerant, accepting, and inclusive.  This effort has succeeded in raising the specter of fear, even paranoia, among Christians because it appears that their constitutional religious liberties are being systematically circumvented, compromised, or taken away.

A Parable

I’ve created my own version of the old story of three blind men who happen upon an elephant.  You know the story:  One runs into a leg and is convinced he’s found a tree; one comes upon the tail, convinced it’s a snake; while the third comes upon the trunk….

Fear in the public square--Elephant & Blind Men

My version is a parable to explain what I see happening that is preventing an open dialogue about the resurrection.  It has a message for both Christians and non-Christians (i.e., everyone).

The elephant here represents the institutional Christian church, (no particular denomination), and the Judeo-Christian ethic that lies behind our traditional system of law and moral values.  Because of age and size, it has dominated everything else in the room—which we’ll call “America.”

Three blind men are in the room.   One of the blind men, a convinced non-Christian, comes upon the mouth, feels its shape and size, and hears certain noises coming from it that sound really hostile to him.  The thing moves a leg, the room quakes, and the man senses the danger it may pose to him and all else in the room.  This blind man concludes that the animal is a hostile creature, ready to trample any and all creatures and he begins to seek a way to neutralize the danger that, he is sure, is about to erupt.

The second blind man is a Christian.  For him, the elephant is a friendly creature, ready to welcome anyone and certainly other beings in the room.  To him, this elephant was first on the scene, and therefore has a right to establish ground-rules for others that may enter.  But the second man has become aware of the first blind man’s alarm and fright, and hears him call out for a rope to bind the legs of the elephant so that it cannot harm or interfere with other people or animals in the room.  This second blind man gets frightened and attempts to fight off the effort to tie up the creature.

fear in the public square--Elephant in room

In the end, the third blind man (everyone else) runs away, afraid of the other two and terrified of the “thing” that they are fighting about.  The elephant, of course, has become so upset and scared by now that it turns into a raging beast, kicks both men, shakes off the rope, destroys the walls of the room and leaves it unfit for anyone or any other elephants to inhabit.

A couple of explanations are needed, perhaps.  First, the elephant represents the church as an institution, and is not synonymous with the teaching of Jesus.  The church is generally made up of all people who claim to be his followers—there are those who think they are followers, yet only warm the pews.

Second, there is no significance in the fact that the second blind man, a Christian, is separate from the elephant (the church).  No analogy or parable is perfect.

Here is where the toe stepping comes in.  I am telling this parable against both sides: against Christians whose good intentions to stand for righteousness are drawing attention away from Jesus and his gospel—and the resurrection that witnesses to him.  I’m also telling it against non-Christians whose good intentions are placing our common constitutional heritage at risk by seeking to squelch what they believe to be narrow mindedness and actual hate speech.  Their efforts are allowing fear to grow in the very place in which we need freedom to think and discuss/debate.  Our nation was directly founded by good folks who sought freedom and toleration for their beliefs.  Any time we allow fear in the public square, we risk the death of freedom and democracy.

fear in the public square--cartoon

I grew up hearing the following statement about who we are as Americans—it’s attributed to Voltaire:  “Mister, I may not agree with what you say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.”  I hope it’s still true.

Next:  Replacing fear in America:  “Do your thing, man!”

Delayed post coming–At risk of repeating history: fear in the public square

Dear Readers:

I mentioned that the new post would be up before Saturday, and here it is Monday. The problem is length.  It won’t edit into one post, so it is coming in 2 parts.

It’s an important post about how we discuss the resurrection and other matters. We are at risk of repeating history by creating fear in the public square.

Fear in the public square-it's ok

Thanks for your patience.


a reflection on the idea of America: The Power of Words to Move a Nation

An essay about the legacy of John F. Kennedy as leader.

Kennedys in Dallas

The images haunt us still:  that beautiful couple, smiling, ready to face a bright day so full of promise…the bright pink outfit and pillbox hat…the handsome, youthful visage, forever young…the images and the might-have-beens…a bright, shining, final moment….

You know where it will end, a dark recurring nightmare you want to wake up from before the shots.…  If only they could hear you:  “Don’t go there!”

Gallery of 42 images marking the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy

The Kennedys with Gov. and Mrs. Connally leave Love Field

Fifty years ago, my mom gave me a beautiful, poster-sized calendar with portraits of all the presidents in small ovals arranged with Washington top center and all the others in order down to the most recent, on a regal blue background.  John F. Kennedy, our 35th President, was located at center bottom.  My hero, Abraham Lincoln, was placed at the center.  I often stood before those faces, gazing upon each—among whom were some of our greatest leaders—pondering the meaning of the American presidency.

This week, I’m thinking on events surrounding the death of a president.  I find it easy to give in to self-pitying nostalgia over the loss of John Kennedy and “Camelot.”  One can make a case for linking that real loss with the remaining trauma of the 1960s.  I want to focus on lessons from his White House tenure that we might learn; these get lost if we see only the glamour, the life cut short, the might-have-beens.

The lessons concern the nature of public service and the nature of presidential leadership.  All seem to agree that Kennedy left certain unfinished tasks.  But they also agree he could inspire and move our nation by his words as few have with a vision of what America is all about, the idea of America….

Had it not been for Dallas, we would be focused this week on the 150th anniversary of another vision, the one cast at Gettysburg, given November 19, 1863. That battle, unknown to Americans then, marked the midpoint of the war and the point after which the South would never again be in a position to win.

Lincoln head

Lincoln gave us great words that day, great not because of their brevity (272), though their brevity enhanced them.  The occasion, the ideas, the delivery, and the genuineness of the conviction and longing they represented gave them power to move men and women.  They also confirm the image of our greatest president.  He spoke briefly, and before many could appreciate their import, he was gone.

Lincoln famously (and modestly) underestimated his “poor power to add or detract” and the impact his few lines would carry:  “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.”  We have forgotten that nearly as many Americans died in that one battle as in all the Vietnam war.  And few know the name of the featured speaker for the occasion, nor any of the thousands of words he uttered.  Lincoln’s words continue to remind us who we are and claim to be.

Words spoken today aren’t taken to mean as much as they once were.  We listen skeptically, at best, to our “leaders,” assuming their words are not so forthright as they are wont to have us believe.  We watch them parry questions from news people, noting how adroitly they use words to skirt the answers.

There was a time in our land that, when the President spoke, we would listen carefully, because what he had to say was of importance to everyone in the entire United States.  It was in our interest to know and consider what he said, because he was our leader looking out for our interests more than his own.

Kennedys in car downtown Dallas

I was 15 when President and Mrs. Kennedy rode into Dallas.  I have my own memories of that day, and I’ve spent much of this week pondering its significance.  I mourn that many young people I work with see John F. Kennedy as simply another dead president.  I hope that this week of remembrance may help them think otherwise and arouse their curiosity to probe the meaning of the presidential leadership he modeled.  I hope the message they receive is more than one of national self-pity and fatalism.

Schieffer headSchieffer in Dallas

Left:  Bob Schieffaer hosting “Face the Nation.”  Right:  In Dallas

Watching one special, I was struck by Bob Schieffer’s words.  The venerable CBS newsman was a young newspaper reporter in Dallas on that day.  I heard him mention several times that America was never the same after November 22, 1963.  Others echo that sentiment.  I agree with that, both as historian and as an American who lived the turmoil and malaise of the later 60s.  That is when the events in Dallas were given exclamation points by the assassinations of Dr. King and Robert Kennedy, by My Lai and Kent State.  A couple years following John’s death, we began to learn about the affairs (which I didn’t believe at first), and by the time of Bobby’s death,  my own sense of disillusion had set in:  the optimism and can-do spirit conveyed by JFK turned to pessimism and “can’t-do.”  His vision and the challenge he laid down by his rhetoric now seemed empty, confirmed by my draft invitation from LBJ to go to Vietnam.

I regained a sense of optimism after becoming a Christian in 1971, and time has given new perspective to the Kennedy years.  I (hopefully) see more clearly some things that matter.   In light of the revelations of his unfaithfulness, you might expect me as a Christian to condemn JFK.  I don’t dismiss that cloud over his integrity and character.  However, I have to pause and marvel at the graciousness of Jackie Kennedy who, after all, went into their marriage knowing this about him.  It was she who created the Camelot myth, and she now lies buried alongside him at Arlington, their secrets resting there.

Kennedy head

We are left to ponder John Kennedy’s inspiring words and how he used them to lead this nation.  Were they those of a hypocrite?  I’m convinced not.  Though many were penned by another, we rightly remember them as Kennedy’s own.  He spoke them.  He knew what he wanted to say at the time and used them appropriately and judiciously as few others have.  His words inspired us, gave us courage and hope.  In saying them, he made them ours.  He gave them to us, as others have, and they are now ours.

Nikita S. Khrushchev;John F. Kennedy

Nikita Khruschev and John Kennedy in Vienna

JFK’s words reflect the fact that he was a serious student of history.  He had an understanding of its direction and its dangers.  He often quoted Khruschev about the danger of nuclear war, in which “the living will envy the dead.”  He traveled extensively as a young man (he had money, you know), and was fascinated by international relations and wrote his Harvard thesis which became a book, Why England Slept.  Watching England sleep while Hitler built helped him when it came time to stand his ground (and to provide a compromise) when face to face with nuclear holocaust over Cuba.  It also helped that he had just read Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August about how miscalculations led to World War I.  Determined to avoid nuclear conflagration, he was able to negotiate a test ban treaty.

Kennedy Why England slept               The Guns of August

JFK was raised to honor the nobility of public service.  One who enjoyed the blessing of God to gain riches had a responsibility to give back.  John Kennedy lived that out (however imperfectly), as did many in the past century who were from wealthy families.  We may envy their money, but we do better to emulate their service.  Kennedy may have finagled his way into the Navy by his father’s influence, but he quitted himself well when the need arose to lead his men in battle.

This notion of public service gave meaning and legitimacy to his Inaugural words calling us to dedication and commitment:  “And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”  It was behind his creation of the Peace Corps and its call to service, and in part behind his call to go to the moon by the end of the 60s.  Americans responded.

Kennedy speaking Inauguration

Words are one of the simplest tools that a leader has at his disposal.  He may not be a great orator, but presidents can enlist the aid of great speech writers.  John Kennedy did.  They wrote what he wanted to say, and he had a vision that was communicated clearly, memorably, and eloquently.  Americans today might cringe at his Inaugural call to “pay any price, bear any burden” because we seem to have borne all the burdens of the world for the last 50 years.  But there is no question those words were appropriate to their time—and no, I don’t know what he might have done in Vietnam.

Consider one speech he gave to the American people (he did not use that phrase as we often hear it today to close a speech).  It was his “Report to the American People on Civil Rights,” June 11, 1963.  The speech is 13 minutes, 41 seconds of some of the most compelling and morally right words you will ever hear.  You will note that the final couple of minutes are different: the camera pulled away, as though expecting him to finish.  Instead, he continued on, never once looking at his prepared statement.  He was, as one said, “winging it” during one of the most significant speeches he ever made.

Watch it. It will give you some idea of the moral authority he carried when he spoke to us.  He spoke it knowing the stiff opposition he was facing in the South at that time, and his bill indeed stalled in Congress at the time of his death.  President Johnson (of Texas) used the memory of JFK to get it passed.

Here is the link from the Kennedy Library:  http://www.jfklibrary.org/Asset-Viewer/LH8F_0Mzv0e6Ro1yEm74Ng.aspx

Let me leave you with the last portion of Lincoln’s words at Gettysburg.  John Kennedy may have been killed by an “insignificant man,” as some say.  This has been so difficult to accept that many have insisted that there must have been a conspiracy.  But John Kennedy died for our nation as much as the men at Gettysburg.  Read these words with that in mind:

“… we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground.  The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract…. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Adlai Stevenson once said: “Your representatives serve you right.”  Let us then seek leaders who will be dedicated to the public service, not because they say it but because they’ve lived it.  Let us find leaders who lead by setting a vision articulated in words that will move us to follow his example.  They don’t have to copy the Kennedy style, but they do need to copy the substance.  This is the role of a leader.

(To those who expected this post to be about C.S. Lewis.  There’s a tie-in here:  Lewis died of liver failure on the very day John Kennedy was shot.)

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