Word Care as Culture Care

Caring for WordsAs a reader, a singer, and a writer I love words. I love that moment when I find just the right word or sequence of words to convey a thought. I love when we find the right words to give a name to something a group I’m a part of is trying to express. I delight in the varieties of expression I find in great writing. There is the spartan economy of a Hemingway, the rich description of a Tolkien, and the evocative writing of Alan Paton in Cry, the Beloved Country that makes you realize how much he loved South Africa, and grieved for her. Last year I found myself moved to tears at the sheer beauty of words set to music in Ola Gjeilo’s setting of St. John of the Cross’s Dark Night of the Soul.

I’ve written recently about the idea of culture care instead of culture war and Makoto Fujimura’s fine book on Culture Care. I am in the midst of another book that explores this theme, Marilyn McEntyre’s Caring for Words in a Culture of LiesSome might think that the book was just published in a political season where accusations of lying seems rampant. Rather, it came out of the Stone Lectures at Princeton in 2004. McEntyre covers the range of ways we might care for words in conversation, in long sentences(!), in poetry and story, in reading and writing well, and in resisting lies and telling truth. I’m finding every page a rich reflection on the use and power and wonder of words, and the necessity of using them well. She speaks to me, and for me when she writes in the beginning:

“If you’ve ever loved and learned a poem by heart, or underlined sentences just because they were beautiful, or labored over a speech about something that mattered, I know we share the concerns and the pleasures of stewards who recognize that we hold a great treasure in trust. It is my hope that a sentence here and there will start a conversation or encourage some of you to speak the truth that is in you, to find a sentence that suffices in a hard time, or simply listen into the silences where the best words begin.”

Word care is indeed an important part of culture care. To care for words, to expose their deceitful use, and to strive in our own use to speak truly and well is the work of those who realize the stewardship of a “great treasure in trust.” Words can be used to appeal to “the better angels of our nature” or to our basest instincts. Words can commend what is most noble in thought and character and deed, or they can be used to pollute our minds, debase our character, and bid us to sordid acts. Words can edify or tear down. How we use words can strengthen the warp and woof of a culture or rend the garment of our life together.

Words matter.

For those who claim to follow Christ, we claim to follow one spoken of by John as “the Word.” He is the one who equated contemptuous words with murder. His brother James wrote, “If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless” (James 1:26, ESV). Jesus said, “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak” (Matthew 12:36, ESV).

This gives me pause. I speak and converse and write a good bit. It is all an open book to God. Whether it is “petty” deception or cutting speech, it will be accounted for. By the same token, I take great encouragement that gracious words, or maybe even the restraint from the gratuitous cheap shot will receive God’s “well done.” Proverbs 16: 24 says, “Gracious words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the body.” Words well-spoken contribute to the health of a culture and enjoy the approbation of God.

I hope I can live up to this at Bob on Books. When I write about books, I want to portray them accurately so that the prospective reader is not misled, and the author can say I understood what he or she was trying to say, whether I agree with that or not. I aspire to use words with care, both in the art and the intent of the writing. I hope I can inspire those who read me to the love of words, both in books and life, and to a better conversation about all the things that make up our life and culture. And I long that my words might at least dimly reflect the beauty of the God I love and the unspeakable grandeur of the future hope that grounds my life, that others might long with me for these things.

This to me is to care for words.



Reflections on “The Future of Work”


Derek Thompson (far right) and panelists at “Future of Work” Photo (c) 2017, Robert C Trube

The other day, I ordered food at my favorite Panera without talking to a person. A kiosk allowed my to swipe “My Panera” card, greeted me by name on screen, displayed the menu by categories, allowed me to select items, check out and make a payment with my credit card. A receipt was emailed to me. It took people to prepare my food, but only one person was working checkout. Most people were using kiosks.

A few years ago, three or four people would have been doing what the kiosks did. My experience illustrated what several speakers at an event I helped host Tuesday evening were exploring. Work is changing, and automation in various forms is either changing our work, or requiring that we change jobs, if we can.

The event was called “The Future of Work.” Derek Thompson, a senior editor at The Atlantic moderated a discussion with three academics, a development economist, a labor economist, and a marketing and information technology professor. It was a rich conversation that opened my eyes to some vitally important issues.

Thompson came to my attention a year ago when he wrote an article titled “A World Without Work.” It explored what happens when technology change and market forces put people out of work. And significantly for me, the article centered around time he spent in my home town of Youngstown, Ohio, a city that knows all too well the dislocations of the loss of jobs, shrinking from a high of 170,000 people when I was young to just over 60,000 at present. Talking personally with Derek, we talked about the “Youngstown diaspora” in my own city of Columbus, Ohio, which has a growing rather than shrinking population. We noted how so many who could leave Youngstown, because of education and other factors, did so, and how this changed the fabric of the city, and so many others like it.

Thompson, both in his talk, and in the article made the observation that “many people hate their jobs, but they are considerably more miserable doing nothing.” One of our panelists, reflecting his Christian beliefs (it was a religiously diverse group) noted that work came before the fall in Genesis. It reflects something of what humans made in the image of God are like. God worked, and it seems work, as well as rest, is important to being human. It was after the fall that work got laborious and frustrating, hence the tension we live in between not always liking our work, but hating not working more.

The panel explored the implications this raises in a world where technology might both put people out of work, and possibly mean others will work less. What will we do with the disparities of income between those who profit tremendously from either making the technology or using it to entertain–and the others who don’t? They explored the idea of the “universal basic income”– a guaranteed level of income for all whether they have employment or not. Most were pretty ambivalent or even opposed to this idea–kind of like society rather than parents supporting us while we live in our basement playing video games.

Another question that was discussed was what will we do should we need to work less to earn sufficient income on which to live? Will we just consume? Or will we find other ways to work, perhaps to create things, or to serve others? Or will we work and earn more than we need, simply because work is what we do? There is a question of what a life well-lived looks like should remunerative work be less of a necessity.

One of the clearest things to come out of the night is that many jobs face automation. Thompson had us consider clerical workers, for example the grocery clerk who grabs an item, scans an item, bags an item, and repeats. There might be some good that comes out of eliminating hard, repetitive, and tedious work. But automation is spreading far beyond this. We are talking about computers driving cars and trucks on one hand, and computers doing radiological diagnostics on the other. It is either people in the service economy doing very relational things with other humans, or people in the knowledge industry, those who create, maintain, or utilize the technology, who will be the last to be automated. Computers do not compose great music or write great books–or invent iPads!

Even if new technology creates as many jobs as it eliminates (about which I am uncertain), the people who lose a livelihood are in great pain. Such things raise questions about what kinds of inner resources do we cultivate against such possibilities, and also what kind of society will we be when change causes such dislocation and pain. Will we be a zero sum society with winners and losers, or will we find ways to stand with those who suffer–to make our neighbor’s pain our own and get through it together?

It seems to me that we cannot afford either a mentality of entitlement for ourselves or indifference to our neighbors. Our families, our schools and our religious institutions alike need to form people to embrace change rather than to hate it or cling to the familiar past. Perhaps it is the bedrock of belief that enables us to cope with the changes in our environment. It is a danger that some of our panelists discussed, that we make work, especially in a particular career, that bedrock. Yet, in a time of great change, this is shaky ground at best. Do we not need something else that gives us the wherewithal to grow and change, grieve and embrace, and discover an abiding joy that sustains us through the changes of life, including changes in how we work? The truth is, none of us knows what the future holds. For some, the answer is in the cliche’ of “knowing Who holds the future.” Whether you buy that or not, the changing world of work poses the question of “what grounds my life?”

[Derek Thompson, in addition to his editorial post at The Atlantic, is the author of the recently published Hit Makers, reviewed here.]

Black Blocs and Free Speech


Ben Schumin, Own Work – March on Crystal City CC BY-SA 3.0

One of the more disturbing trends coming to university campuses as well as other public settings is the rise of the “black bloc.” Black blocs first came into being in Germany in the 1980’s in Autonomists movement protest against squatter evictions. These spread to the U.S. in 1990 and became prominent in the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle in 1999.

What is a “black bloc?” Wikipedia gives the following description:

“A black bloc is a name given to groups of protesters who wear black clothing, scarves, sunglasses, ski masks, motorcycle helmets with padding, or other face-concealing and face-protecting items. The clothing is used to conceal marchers’ identities, and hinder criminal prosecution, by making it difficult to distinguish between participants. It is also used to protect their faces and eyes from items such as pepper-spray which law enforcement often uses. The tactic allows the group to appear as one large unified mass.”

It should be noted that the term “black bloc” refers to the clothing worn by the groups and not the racial identity of the participants. 

Recently, black blocs have come into the public awareness during the Trump inauguration, when they smashed windows and destroyed property in Washington, DC and elsewhere in the country.

More troubling yet were the riots that broke out in Berkeley when controversial conservative writer Milo Yiannopoulos was slated to speak. About 1500 Berkeley students gathered to peacefully protest, something quite appropriate under their First Amendment rights. This protest was broken up and turned into mayhem by a group of 150 using black bloc tactics. According to an Inside Higher Ed article, they came:

“…to start fires, break windows and hurl rocks at police officers — and who accomplished all of those things. They wore black and concealed their faces with masks. They brought — and used — bats, metal rods, fireworks and Molotov cocktails to get their message across, in the process undermining ‘the First Amendment rights of the speaker as well as those who came to lawfully assemble and protest his presence,’ a spokesperson for Berkeley said in a statement.”

Perhaps the most troubling incident took place recently at idyllic Middlebury College. Charles Murray, author of the controversial The Bell Curve was slated to speak there. A political science professor, Allison Stanger, would be moderating a question and answer session afterwards. In this case a group of students and faculty shouted and chanted so long that Murray could not speak. Then Stanger was attacked by protesters afterwards who yanked her hair so violently she needed to wear a neck brace. Then about 6 to 12 who may not have been students and using black bloc tactics attacked her car until police were summoned when they fled.

Many of those who have engaged in black bloc actions have been described as anarchists, and indeed, it seems that the effects of their actions are the destruction of civil order. In most cases there is a protest against something, and often the destructive acts have been against symbols that represent what they are protesting (e.g. smashing the windows of a Starbucks).

One of the troubling aspects of black blocs is how they undermine legitimate but peaceful protest. It is likely for example that all those at Berkeley were tarred with the same brush as a result of the black bloc tactics. Yet there were two different groups present, one acting legitimately and one illegally.

The Middlebury incident tells a more nuanced tale. It would suggest that black blocs represent an extreme of what has become acceptable in many public fora–to simply shout down and suppress speech we do not like or disagree with. It is troubling to me that faculty, those who should represent reasoned discourse and collegiality joined in these protests, even against one of their own colleagues.

Most faculty I know would repudiate such things, yet it is troubling that some will join in. It suggests how deeply the disease of poisoned discourse has penetrated not only our social and news media, but even the halls of education.

I wonder if some of it comes down to our loss of a capacity to have a good argument. I speak of good in two senses: both in being able to support a contention with cogent reasons and in being able to do so with charity toward the person with whom we differ. When all we speak in are soundbites, we may lose the capacity and intellectual heft for substance.

I also wonder if it arises from a belief that there is a “right not to be offended.” That has always puzzled me. I have always believed that being offended was not something others could do to me but a choice I made, which means I have other options when I hear something to which I could take offense. I could be curious to know why someone would hold such an idea. Or I might simply decide that they are acting the fool–someone impervious to reason, in which case I might change the subject or just walk away.

While I never approve of such violence or anarchy, I do wonder if sometimes it arises from a perceived or real sense that speech is being ignored, or even suppressed. Nihilism and anarchy seem to be close cousins. Do people turn to anarchy when they become convinced that reasoned discourse and civil protest are meaningless? Do people act in these ways when they see others doing immoral but legal things because it is within their power to do so? Only those with a very different outlook can take the long view of a Martin Luther King, Jr. who said, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” In the wake of police violence and efforts to suppress basic human rights, King chose the way of love and non-violent resistance.

This leads me to ask whether our present inability to foster civil discourse, and the increasing incidents of the suppression of free speech reveal the paucity of the spiritual resources in our lives. Do we feed our lives on anger and outrage because we have no reason for hope? Do our tantrums reveal that we have given up on truth? Have we give up on the faith of a King, a Desmond Tutu, a Karol Wojtyla to embrace the blackness of nothing? These are the questions the rise of black blocs, and other forms of suppressing free speech and civil discourse raise for me. What about you?

Culture Care Instead of Culture War

culture-careRecently I went with a group of friends to see Martin Scorsese’s film rendition of Shusaku Endo’s Silence.  It is not an easy movie to watch but one with gorgeous cinematography and one that raises profound questions about suffering. What was also a point of reflection for me was the violent, dark, special effects heavy, and loud trailers of coming attractions that preceded the film. The feature was a work of beauty, an enrich work of art. The trailers, and perhaps the movies they represented were a war on the senses and perhaps the spirit.

The trailers seem to reflect the dominant metaphor of our society–war or battle. We hear of culture war. There are those who believe precious values and cultural goods have been threatened or lost and the ground needs to be recovered. Others dig in, believing progress and liberty are under threat.

Perhaps war is sometimes a sad and necessary corollary of the human condition–cultural or military. But perhaps, at least in the dimension of culture, if not international relations, there is an alternative. In a recent book (Culture Carereview forthcoming), artist Makoto Fujimura proposes an alternative to culture war, and that is culture care.

Rather than contesting Fujimura wants to focus on creating, fostering a movement that results in fresh works of goodness, truth and beauty in the arts that inspire the soul and feed our common life.  His assumption is that culture is something to be cultivated and nourished, not captured and conquered. It is not enough to make a living if we do not also have that which is worth living for.

It does strike me that culture warriors rarely create works of beauty. It is perhaps instructive that the acceptance of gay marriage was not accomplished simply by a court decision but also prepared by expression in visual media, music, literature, and fashion that swayed the mind of a nation. Meanwhile a culture-warring church was undermined by divorce, sex scandals and abuse, power struggles between men and women, and often ugly rhetoric.

Perhaps it is too late to know but one wonders what it would have meant to cultivate a culture absorbed not in banal Christian romance fiction, sentimental art, and “Jesus is my boyfriend” pop music, but works of depth and realism and beauty with power to capture the imagination not simply of an insular Christian sub-culture, but a wider culture hungering for an alternative to “the wasteland” of modern mass culture.

I look forward to seeing more of Fujimura’s vision of culture care. It seems that it is never too late to create and preserve cultural goods. Augustine’s City of God cast a vision that buoyed a church facing a crumbling Roman empire. Bach’s chorales and cantatas did as much to nourish the Reformation of the church as did the writings of Luther and Calvin. Rembrandt’s portrayal of the Return of the Prodigal deeply embeds the truth of this parable in our mental vision.

I’ve wondered about the wisdom of the trillions spent in the American wars of the last decade. Did we squander opportunities to rebuild our national infrastructure and equip our people for the new economy? I equally wonder about the squandering of energies in the culture wars of the last thirty years. Might it be time and past time to pursue an ethic of culture care?



The Scandal of the Church in America: Part Two


Claude Vignon, Lament of St. Peter CC BY-SA 3.0

Yesterday I made the contention that the scandal of the Church in America is that it is deeply divided within itself, that we have deeply rent the body of Christ, and that these divisions reflect the divisions in our country rather than the unity of people across our differences in Christ.

So what can and must be done?

I am not proposing that we all just try to gather in some kind of circle around a campfire, hold hands, and sing “Kumbaya.”

First of all, I believe we must awaken. I wonder whether most of us are all that disturbed that the Church in America is divided within itself and that we often include fellow believers in “the enemies” we are fighting and attacking (even when we’ve been told that our warfare is not to be against flesh and blood). I wonder if we are caught up so much with the urgency and the grievances of our particular tribe of Christians, and those with whom we have made common cause that we are woozy like boxers who have been punching each other too long.

Second, I believe we need to lament our sad state. We may not have a clue how we can mend the wounds between us. That tells us how desperate things are. It acknowledges that we need an intervention from on high. Lamenting takes us into a place where we realize our desperate need for God, and that to go on in the way we have is increasingly intolerable.

Third, as we begin to grasp our own contribution to the deep divisions that exist among believers, and the ways we have wronged in word, thought, and deed, in personal acts and unjust structures, we need to repent. Repenting is to call our own sins for what they are, to acknowledge them to God, and the wronged person as wrong, to come to terms with the real hurt and harm we have caused, and to acknowledge our intent, with God’s help to live differently and to determine what that difference will look like. Often we need to do this with the offended.

Repenting is hard, particularly when we think the other might have more to repent of than do we. Often the others think it the other way around. The question sometimes is simply, who will end the rounds of accusations and begin the process of repentance and restoration?

Fourth, we can begin to engage with our fellow believers across our differences and often at this point, what is most needed is simply to attend.  To attend is to listen to understand rather than to refute. Can we listen well enough that we can repeat what is said in a way that the other recognizes that we understood them? We may have to ask ourselves beforehand whether we are truly open to such dangerous listening, because it may open us to different ways of seeing things.

Fifth is that I believe there is a necessity at times to contend. We cannot start here, I think, because I think so many of the things we would contend for are things in which we are deeply invested. The process of awakening, lamenting, repenting, and listening, may help us discern where we are healthily and unhealthily invested, enabling us to advocate for the right reasons, as well as with the right demeanor. But there are things where we really do disagree. The question is whether we will ever seek to come to a meeting of the minds, or at least to identify what we can agree upon and work from that. So often, differing parties only contend in their books and talks directed toward those who agree with them.

Sixth, this may lead us to amend our ways toward each other and toward how we address each others concerns.

I dream of several changes that might flow out of this:

  • I hope this would lead our churches into a similar process of listening deeply to God, the Holy Scriptures, and one another, more intensely than to the political echo chambers that form many of our views.
  • I would hope public Christian leaders would sit down with those who differ greatly to practice these steps and model them for others. Imagine if Franklin Graham, from Samaritan’s Purse, and Jim Wallis from Sojourners met each other as believers and modeled this effort toward coming to a common mind and communion of heart.
  • I dream of the day when Christians, instead of aligning with one political party or another, would line up together to advocate for public policies that reflect the whole of the counsels of the Bible and challenge both parties to end the either-or approaches that characterize so much of our politics that set our people against each other.

As I wrote yesterday, I am convinced that if we do not work at composing and reconciling our differences in the American Church, we have little right or hope of expecting our American politicians to do it. I believe this is urgent for several reasons:

  • Christ is grieved and not glorified by how we have torn asunder his Body.
  • Our divisions sow seeds of doubt about the power of our gospel.
  • Our children are abandoning many of our churches because of our behavior around these divisions.
  • If we allow our divisions across race, gender, economics, and politics to continue, we will only aid and abet the inflaming of differences that could lead to a very scary future, and not one from powers outside our country.

Where am I beginning? I’ve decided that from now through Lent I am not going to post political posts or comments in social media in order to work on the six steps above in my own life. I’ve become increasingly aware of my own participation in the divisions about which I’ve written. I’m also going to look for at least a few fellow believers with views different from mine who would be open to practice this with me (anyone interested?).

Do me a favor, would you? If you think these posts on target, pass them along to church leaders you know, locally or nationally. I don’t want to see our generation repeat the error of church leaders in the pre-Civil War era. I hope instead they will say, “we must reconcile our differences and lead our country in doing the same.”

The Scandal of the Church in America: Part One


Dunkard Church, a key landmark in the Battle of Antietam, and some of those who fell.

The scandal of the Church in America is that there is no apparent Church but only churches. I suppose you could argue that it has always been this way, although I do not think this lessens the scandal. The proliferation of denominations and independent churches reflects our strong independent streak and that we do not wish to be answerable to each other. I do think it is a contributing factor, but I think the scandal goes deeper.

The scandal is that our captivities to racial, sexual, economic and political identities and ideologies has left the Church in America a deeply divided body–divisions that reflect and in fact parallel American society. We are a far cry from the beautiful and radical ideal that the Apostle Paul proclaimed in a similarly divided society: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free,there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).

I am deeply troubled for what this means both for the Church in America, and for America itself. I have lived here all my life, and through the cataclysmic year of 1968, but I have never been so troubled. What disturbs me most is not the newly installed administration, nor all the push-back by others who oppose it. It is that I see believing people lining up on one side or another of these fault lines, and many others, and often not the least troubled at the things they are attributing to their fellow believers–sometimes vicious things. Nor are we troubled that we are often advocating diametrically opposed positions and invoking the name of Jesus as we do so. Often we are engaged in a tribal warfare of words between conservative evangelicals, progressives, Catholics, mainline churches, and churches of people of color. Often, we aren’t listening to what anyone outside our own “tribe” is saying.

My pastor made an observation in the midst of preaching through the gospel of Matthew that I have been mulling over. He observed that when the religious establishment colluded with the political powers of their day, the result was the killing of Jesus. While I believe that Jesus is risen, I also believe that the visible manifestation of Jesus, called “the body of Christ” is being torn apart, perhaps as the scourges used to whip Jesus before crucifixion turned his back into bleeding ribbons of skin. Church, do we see that this is what we are doing to ourselves? Is it a wonder that so many churches are declining?

Perhaps it has always been this way in our national history. The churches of the North were deeply divided from the churches of the South before (and after) the Civil War. They preached the same Christ from the same Bible, but the North advocated abolition while ignoring its own racism and complicity in a national economic system that depended on slavery. Southern preachers defended “the peculiar institution” even as slaves and former slaves turned to the same Christ, formed churches, and yet were excluded from being consider full human beings or the opportunity to worship at the same altar.

We often talk about in our American history of the breakdown of political efforts to avert war, but has the Church in America ever reckoned that the blood of the 600,000 who died in the Civil War is also on our hands? Our dividedness then aided and abetted and inflamed the divides in our land and tore country apart even as it tore many denominations into northern and southern counterparts, some lasting to this day. One wonders what might have been if church leaders from North and South, who may have been educated in the same seminaries, had reached across the lines and said, “we must reconcile our differences and lead our country in doing the same.”

I am not an “America First” person, but rather a “kingdom of God” first person. The greatest commandment to love God and neighbor and the great commission to take the gospel to the nations has precedence in my life. Nevertheless I deeply love this country and the constitutional structures and freedoms that allows us to be many and yet one, e pluribus unum. What troubles me as a kingdom person who regularly affirms “the communion of the saints” is that this communion often does not extend beyond the church doors–sometimes not even within them! If we cannot model a unity that would consider it a scandal to speak with a divided voice as a church (and often bitterly against each other), then how dare we call on our political leaders to act with civility and to consider the common good when we will not do this even within the body of Christ!

I believe this is urgent, my brothers and sisters. We have had one civil war in our history that the Church made no effort to stop but in fact aided and abetted by our conflicting messages and inflammatory rhetoric. Another may take a different form where our political factions take up arms (Lord knows we have enough of them) in our cities if they cannot resolve their differences or be heard in the halls of Congress and the office of the President. We could fall into anarchy or tyranny. I like to say that children who play with matches inside the house often do not realize they can burn the house down until they do. Our incendiary and inflammatory speech may not stop there. It didn’t before the Civil War. Church, I’m asking, is it time to say “we must reconcile our differences and lead our country in doing the same?”

[Tomorrow, I explore what I think must be done.]

Legal But Immoral; Moral But Illegal

stowepaintingStill reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin in our book group. This morning we discussed two chapters that present diametrically contrasting situations. In the first, Haley, a slave trader taking a group of slaves down the Ohio to New Orleans, sells the infant child of a slave, takes the child when the mother is distracted, and when she finds out, basically says, “get over it.” She does. Later that night, while in fetters, she jumps into the Ohio River, and drowns. For Haley, it is the cost of doing business. Nothing he did was illegal, but as even he admits, there may be some things in the end he will need to repent of. This is the legal but immoral chapter, highlighting one of the worst aspects of slavery, breaking up families, even the bond of mother and child.

The next chapter is set in a Quaker settlement, presumably in eastern Indiana. Eliza and her child, who ran from their owner when she learns he is selling the child, have taken refuge with them.  News comes to the Quakers of another slave they will be sheltering. It turns out it is George, Eliza’s husband, an intelligent but abused slave of another owner. The chapter ends with the joyous reunion of husband and wife in a settlement vowed to protect them even though they are breaking fugitive slave laws. This is the moral but illegal chapter, where a religious community defies the law to help break the shackles of human bondage.

Both chapters open our eyes to a disturbing reality and a fateful choice. The disturbing reality is that not all that is legal is moral. Holding slaves or denying voting rights to a class of people because of gender or ethnicity was legal at one time in this country. Sometimes this leads people to fateful choices. Those who harbored and aided the flight of slaves broke fugitive slave laws.

What is hard in all of this is that the rule of law is considered indispensable to an ordered society. The just and impartial administration of law is crucial to a society that believes that all are created equal. President and poor man are subject to the same laws and should enjoy the same rights, and suffer the same punishments should they break these laws. Lawlessness, a contempt for the law where the law is wantonly broken, is rightfully denounced and punished, because unchecked, it leads to an anarchy of fear and violence.

Some in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s day would have called the acts of the Quaker settlement lawlessness. Yet I would argue that the practice of civil disobedience is never wanton or contemptuous of law. It takes law and justice seriously enough to disobey and challenge laws that violate more basic moral law, whether concerned with human rights and dignity, or concerned with refusing to the state the allegiance one should give to God alone, even when such allegiance is “lawfully” demanded. It also does not seek to evade the penalties of lawbreaking, another way of showing the seriousness with which both laws, and the decision to disobey a law is taken.

Today, we celebrate those who sheltered and aided fugitive slaves. We recognize them as worthy of honor because they refused to do the legal but immoral action. We celebrate those who lied to Nazis and risked their lives to help Jews escape to safety. We celebrate Rosa Parks simply for sitting down.

It does seem that in many cases, those who refused to obey immoral laws picked their battles. Then as now, one could find a hundred things to go to jail for. Sometimes the battles picked them. This also happens in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, when a state senator in a free state (Ohio, no less), supports a fugitive slave law, and then find he can’t obey it when escaping slaves seek shelter in his kitchen.

Perhaps all the talk of sanctuary cities and so forth makes reading Uncle Tom’s much less a matter of abstract discussion. What the reading does for me is call into greater focus the contrast between legal but immoral laws and moral but illegals acts, and the uncomfortable reality that sometime, I may also have to choose between these.

There is no question that civil disobedience is a challenge to law. This should challenge any of us who care for the rule of law to be watchful against the use of law for immoral ends, and to be vigilant for the just and impartial enforcement of law. It is a gift to live in a country where the rule of law is highly valued. It is a gift to be guarded against both tyranny, where law is used to oppress, and anarchy, where law no longer rules.

More fundamentally, the possibility of civil disobedience relies upon a moral compass-the ability to recognize when law violates the good, the true and the beautiful. It challenges us as citizens that perhaps our first work is to cultivate that moral awareness in our own lives and actions. Doing such work helps us distinguish between something that is truly wrong and something that simply doesn’t serve my interest or suit my taste. There are many sources of outrage, and not all are rooted deeply in the moral sense. This reflection, this cultivation of character, and integrity of life seems to me to be essential to the disposition that both upholds the rule of law, and knows when there is a higher law that must instead be obeyed.

First Freedoms


“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” (First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution)

These are some of the words that make me most proud to be an American. Written at the end of the eighteenth century, they enunciate the crucial freedoms that recognize human dignity and provide the space for a diverse populace to live together in a democratic republic.

Recently I’ve been reading John Inazu’s Confident Pluralism and have been impressed again what a singular thing are the five freedoms within the First Amendment. While there has been much legal contention about these freedoms, (and I’m not a constitutional, nor any kind of lawyer, so I won’t go there) I continue to believe that it is critical that every American understand these freedoms, and fight for them, even when they are exercised by those with whom we disagree.

The freedoms are:

  1. Freedom of religion, which includes the refusal of government to privilege any religion by its support, and the free exercise of any religion, which includes not only freedom to worship but freedom to proclaim one’s faith publicly as a private citizen. This includes all religions and protects equally the conscience of those who adhere to no religion.
  2. Freedom of speech. This freedom generally allows Americans to say what they think, particular in agreement or disagreement with their government but also on a host of other issues. It means Americans may be critical of duly elected government without fear of arrest or other harm (otherwise, most or all of our late night talk show hosts would be in jail). It does not mean we can give false testimony in court, defame another person’s character without proof, threaten others with bodily harm or incite lawlessness.
  3. Freedom of the press. Tyrannical governments have always sought to shut down or control the press. A free press allows people to express themselves through publication (even as I am doing right now) without fear of government sanction, even if their expression challenges government actions. As a college student, I watched a couple determined reporters at the Washington Post pursue a story that led to the resignation of a U.S. President to avoid impeachment for high crimes and misdemeanors against the United States. While our press freedoms protect even very biased media reporting, I believe the press undermines its ability to keep government honest when it is itself not fair and impartial.
  4. Freedom of peaceable assembly. The first amendment protects the right of people to gather and associate for all kinds of reasons with those with whom they wish to assemble. Historically, this has protected women’s colleges, fraternal societies, and much more. It allows groups to define their membership. Some have challenged this when such definitions appear discriminatory. Yet at very least, it seems that to foster robust and diverse associations, these should be able to organize around the qualities that distinguish them, around their distinctive mission and message.
  5. Freedom of petition. This is the basis on which everything from a letter to a congress person to a peaceful protest march is based. It includes the freedom to circulate petitions to change laws. In 2010, I was part of a petition movement to see tougher human trafficking laws implemented within both my state and the U.S.–laws that treated the trafficked as victims and went after perpetrators more rigorously. It was exciting to see laws changed both in my state and nationally as a result. Freedom of petition doesn’t always mean we get our way, or do so as quickly as we would wish.

If one surveys the nations of the world, you will see instances of countries that deteriorate into anarchy or tyranny. It has happened in highly civilized countries. It can happen here. Under the grace of God, I believe the exercise and protection of these freedoms (and often they are protected by their vigorous exercise) are the best way to avoid “the apocalypse” in our own nation.

It also seems that we must fight for these freedoms, even for those with whom we deeply disagree. As a college student, I found myself in the unusual position of advocating for the recognition by our university of an LGBT group that wished to form a student organization (this was in the 1970’s). Some of my Christian friends disagreed. For me it was a simple question of peaceable assembly and that these students should enjoy the same right as we did. They were students. They equally paid tuition and fees. And they were human beings with dignity.

It seems that we are in a time where we may need to do this quite a bit. We may both need to be outspoken in defense of our deepest convictions, and defend the rights of those who differ deeply with us. This is hard, but I fear that the alternative is downright scary, for it would seem to involve the suppression of the ideas, or even, as it has come to be in some places, the lives of those with whom we deeply differ. American greatness is ultimately not the contest of power and who are the winners and losers but rather the quest to live up to the ideals of our first freedoms and to include all our people in them. It is messy and conflictual, back and forth, but I’ll take that any day to tyranny or anarchy.

When We Can’t Pray for Leaders We Don’t Like


When I wrote the other day on “Praying for a President You [Don’t] Like” I got as much feedback as I have gotten on about anything I’ve written, except when I’m talking about food with Youngstowners!

There were quite a number, perhaps a majority who felt this gave words to what they struggled to find words for. Some even wanted to reprint the post. I’m glad that my own process of giving voice to things I have deeply felt helped others.

Here is one comment that has had me thinking:

“I want to be at a place where I can pray for this President. I’m not there yet. I started to read Bob’s prayer and had to stop.”

There were others who had similar thoughts. I know many women, ethnic minorities, LGBTQ persons, immigrants, (or Democrats!), and many others who are troubled by statements, things promised, or ideas put forth and how they were said in this campaign.

I’m grateful for that honesty. I thought this comment itself a great and honest prayer. To say, “God, I want to be at a place where I can pray for this President. I’m not there yet” seems to me to be enough and more than enough. A wise person said to me, “pray as you can, and not as you can’t.”

This brings me to a concern of whether it is right to pray for someone who commenters described as “evil”, “self-serving”, “narcissistic” and so forth. I sense some think that these qualities are irreversible. I find myself more reserved in such judgments, perhaps because I don’t have to look hard to find instances of these qualities in my own life. Even if there is a quantitative difference between me and another and a seemingly irredeemable character to the person, I think of Hebrews 10:31 that says, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” The verse refers to those who hold the knowledge of the truth in contempt. I would not want any human being to face this, and if I think this a possibility for a person, I pray that God would extend mercy and transformation to spare them this “fearful thing.”

I do find myself pleading for this man (and any president) because both his and the nation’s destiny are at stake. I think of Luke 12:48 which says, “Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more.” I believe every leader will give account not only to their people, and in the case of presidents to the bar of history, but also to God. The apostle Paul, who calls upon us to pray for leaders said this during the reign of Emperor Nero, who wrought terrible havoc and even turned Christians into human torches to light Rome. Perhaps what helped Paul pray for even despicable leaders was the prayer of another martyr, Stephen, for those who stoned him while Paul (Saul) looked on. Stephen prayed, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”

Some seemed to wonder if praying for a leader is tantamount to blessing, condoning, and submitting to what they do, particularly if it is evil or unjust. I have sometimes prayed that God would limit and thwart the evil particularly corrupt leaders have perpetrated. More than that, Christians have always believed that if the choice is obeying human authority or God, God wins hands down. Not only have Christians refused emperor worship, but they have sheltered fugitive slaves and disobeyed fugitive slave laws (in the US), they have sheltered Jews or others who are objects of genocide, often at the risk of their own lives, they have refused to participate in unjust wars, and more. They have marched, sat down, and boycotted. I can pray for liberty and justice, and my commitment to these inalienable rights may also require me to obey a higher law when human laws command idolatry or violate the rights to life and liberty of others.

I don’t know anyone but a fool or fanatic or lawless person who welcomes the chance to engage in civil disobedience. All the more reason, it seems to me to pray. Paul urges such prayer for leaders “that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life.” We may not always be granted it, but it is never wrong to seek God’s shalom.

I’ll conclude with a friend’s comment that summed up well for me why we pray even for the leaders we don’t like:

“A true show of our character as people of faith is whether or not we can truly love our enemies, and one way of doing that is praying for them, regardless of how distasteful we find them to be. God is not incapable of changing and softening any of our hearts, including those of our leaders. Praying for the leaders that you despise requires the grace and maturity to put aside anger and hurt to appeal to God on their behalf (and the behalf of your nation, state, city, etc.).”

Praying for a President You [Don’t] Like


President Donald J. Trump. Photo by Gage Skidmore, CC BY-SA 2.0

Sometimes I’ve questioned friends of mine who are people of faith who constantly criticized the current president in social media, whether his last name was Bush or Obama. I’ve asked whether they prayed for their president as much as they posted against him. For any who claim to be attempting to live a biblically informed life, the Apostle Paul writes:

“First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way” (1 Timothy 2:1-2, ESV).

I find myself a bit in the place of the friends I’ve chided. While I don’t make a habit of endless posts on political matters on Twitter or Facebook, which I just think is tiresome and disproportionate to the realities of life, I have to admit that this is not the president I wanted. That person never made it out of the primaries (yes, I’m going to leave you guessing!). But there is no wiggle room, at least for me, out of Paul’s injunction. And so here’s how I will pray for our incoming president.

O God, you rule over all things, and so even though I can’t make sense of it, this man will preside over our nation. Have mercy on him, and on us! He needs your mercy. He has been entrusted with and will answer for much as he presides over one of the great nations of the world. He can do great good or great harm, and one way or another will give account for his stewardship of this trust.

Grant him a humble heart as he comes to grips with the huge task before him, greater, really, than any single person can handle. May it drive him to his knees in the most fervent prayers of his lifetime, and take him to a new place of recognizing his need for the good will and aid of all the people he serves.

He will need wisdom beyond all the experience he has acquired. Grant him to cherish this more than gold or silver. Give him wise counselors who will not be an echo chamber of his own thoughts but will have the courage to say the hard thing. Grant him the greatness of soul that listens to the hard word for what can be learned, no matter who is speaking it.

I am fearful, Lord, when I hear we are in a “post truth” era. O God who sees into and discerns the heart, give our president the awareness that every word is spoken before one who is Truth, and who sees the things that are concealed. Grant him to grow in integrity and be led by truth in this office, that he would see the horror of deceiving those he serves.

I long for a society where “liberty and justice for all” is not just a pledge but the daily pursuit of our president and all our public servants. Grant our president as one who has come from the place of privilege and power to set an example of using these, and when necessary, laying them aside to lift up those without place or power. Grant him and all our public servants, and especially those who administer justice, to be impartial toward friend and enemy alike, in the righting of wrongs.

I do long for a peaceful and quiet life, not only for myself but for all people. Grant our president to pursue the things that make for peace, between parties, between peoples of different ethnicities, between our social classes, our religious groups, between men and women. Grant the greatness of soul that uses the gentle answer to turn away wrath and to plant a life giving tree in desert lands.

Grant our president a courage that is not rashness and a resolve that is not bravado in the service of justice and the proper defense of our land. At the same time, grant him a generous heart both for our people, and for the peoples of the world who share our humanity.

Finally, guard our president from dangers physical and spiritual. Protect his marriage from the estrangements that pressure can bring and his family from the dangers of the public spotlight and the temptations to undue influence.

O Lord, it strikes me that it would be a hypocrisy to pray these high and noble aspirations for our president, but to excuse myself from these same things. Grant the grace, power and courage to all who seek you to live up to these things, both for your glory, and the good of humankind. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.

I apologize if this is more “religious” than is to your taste. I like what Jim Wallis, the founder and president of Sojourners has said, that “faith is always personal but never private.” Authentic faith, it seems to me always has both public implications and public consequences. At very least, putting this prayer out to you, I hope will have the consequence of committing me to pray it, or prayers like it for our president. I hope you will hold me to that, and if you share my convictions about a biblically informed faith, join me in those prayers. Our president, our nation, and our world needs them.

[In response to comments on this post, I wrote a follow-up titled “When We Can’t Pray for Leaders We Don’t Like“]