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The Problem of Loyalty

“It might be argued that the problem of loyalty is the key problem of our age …

“Loyalty may be said to be evil in the sense that if any action is defended on the grounds of loyalty alone, it is defended on no rational grounds at all.  ‘I do this out of loyalty to my party’ is irrational and amoral unless it is consequent upon, ‘My party is operating wholly and in every particular for the benefit of the human race.’  ‘I do this out of loyalty to my leader’ is irrational and amoral unless it is consequent upon, ‘My leader’s character, or purpose, or policy is such that it ought to be supported.’  Loyalty in itself is not a moral basis for action.”

                  — Harry Blamires, The Christian Mind 

Current Events

“Neither past events nor great metaphysical problems challenge the average individual, the ordinary man of our times.  He is not sensitive to what is tragic in life; he is not anguished by a question that God might put to him; he does not feel challenged except by current events, political or economic …

“A man caught up in the news must remain on the surface of the event; he is carried along by the current, and can at no time take respite to judge and appreciate; he cannot stop to reflect.”

                                     — Jacques Ellul, Propaganda  

Don’t Get Fooled Again

             “Will you walk into my parlor?” said the Spider to the Fly,

              “‘Tis the prettiest little parlor that ever you did spy.

                The Way into my parlor is up a winding stair,

                 And I have many pretty things to show when you are there.”

                                                     — “The Spider and the Fly,” Mary Howitt, 1829


* * * * * * * * * * * *


Very few people on either side of the debate seem to understand what “separation of church and state” is really all about.  The original intent was to protect poor Pilgrims against the corrupting influence of entanglement with the power establishment – not the other way around.

Ever since the Emperor Constantine conquered his rival Maxentius “by the sign of the cross” at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge (312), most of Christendom has assumed that it is not only possible but even proper and necessary to maintain a solid connection between the government and the kingdom of God.  The Radical Reformers of the 16th and 17th centuries – the so-called “Anabaptist” followers of Conrad Grebel, Menno Simons, and Jacob Amman – disagreed.  They were convinced that the gospel had been sullied and the church corrupted by this unholy alliance.  As a result, they adopted a principled and conscientious stance apart from the state.  Many paid for it with their lives.  It is primarily to them that we owe our modern concept of “separation.”

Fast forward to the present.  On January 20, 2017, on the occasion of the inauguration of the forty-fifth President of the United States, Franklin Graham stood up at the podium and praised the new American Head of State in the following words:  “Mr. President, in the Bible rain is a sign of God’s blessing.  And it started to rain, Mr. President, when you came to the platform.”

The tragic irony of this spectacle is not lost upon some of us who remember the pilgrimage of Graham’s father, the Reverend Billy Graham.  During the early days of his ministry Billy maintained personal ties with many governmental and political figures.  It was his habit to invite presidents and governors to share the platform with him at his evangelistic crusades.  In the late 1960s he kept up a fairly close relationship with President Richard Nixon.  All this came back to bite him in a big way after Watergate.

In 2011, at age ninety-two, Billy Graham was asked if he had any regrets over his long career.  His response?  “I would have steered clear of politics.”[i]  This wasn’t a new idea for him at the time.  As a matter of fact, it reflected a conviction that had taken hold of him as early as 1979 when, in an interview granted to Sojourners magazine, he said:


     I have gone back to the Bible to restudy what it says about the responsibilities we have as peacemakers.  I have seen that we must seek the good of the whole human race, and not just the good of any one nation or race.

     There have been times in the past when I have, I suppose, confused the kingdom of God with the American way of life.  Now I am grateful for the heritage of our country, and I am thankful for many of its institutions and ideals, in spite of its many faults.  But the kingdom of God is not the same as America, and our nation is subject to the judgment of God just as much as any other nation.[ii]


The words of the elder Graham ought to give us pause – especially at a moment when his son appears to be granting unqualified support to a government leader whose mantra is, “From now on it’s going to be America first!”

“Franklin Graham,” says Americans United for Separation of Church and State, “seems determined to repeat his father’s mistakes.”[iii]  Perhaps so, but the rest of us don’t have to follow in his footsteps.  Far better to embrace his father’s change of heart.  Like Billy, we’ve all been tricked and trapped and co-opted by the political establishment too many times in the past.  Let’s pray we don’t get fooled again.


[i] “Evangelist Billy Graham Says He Now Regrets Involvement in Politics,” Americans United for Separation of Church and State, March 2011.

[ii] “A Change of Heart:  Billy Graham on the Arms Race,” Sojourners magazine, August 1979.

[iii] See footnote 1.

Team Spirit

Football 001

“It is needless to speak of the totalitarian frame of mind for which the exercise of sports paves the way.  We constantly hear that the vital thing is ‘team spirit,’ and so on.  It is worth noting that technicized sport was first developed in the United States, the most conformist of all countries, and that it was then developed as a matter of course by the dictatorships, Fascist, Nazi, and Communist, to the point that it became an indispensable constituent element of totalitarian regimes.

“Sport is an essential factor in the creation of the mass man. “

Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society. 

Books 001


Bewildered: Postscript


In certain respects the discussion following my last post seems to have veered off topic and into the weedy realm of politics, as was almost guaranteed to happen.  I have already made it clear that I am not interested in politics.

My old pal James Jones says, “I don’t think I know anyone who likes him, but when put next to Hillary …?”  The answer to this is simple:  If you don’t like him, don’t support him.  You don’t have to support any of these people.  You are free not to participate.  There is another way, as Terri Moon indicated in her reference to “a different kingdom.”


Please do not misunderstand the following as the expression of a political perspective on my part.  I detest politics.  Republican, Democrat, Liberal, Conservative — it’s all bosh as far as I’m concerned.  My problem is that I cannot for the life of me understand how anyone can find anything to “like” about a person who can only be described as a coarse, crude, crass, cruel, unfeeling, greedy, materialistic, power-hungry, egotistical megalomaniac; a loud-mouthed, foul-mouthed, self-aggrandizing, blustering, boasting, bullying braggart; a willfully ignorant, cheerfully unlettered, anti-intellectual boor; a philanderer, an adulterer, and a debauchee.  “Baffling” is the  only word that comes to mind.


(Originally published January 22, 2015)

     The renunciation of power is infinitely broader and harder than nonviolence (which it includes).  For nonviolence allows of a social theory, and in general it has an objective.  The same is not true of nonpower.

         – Jacques Ellul, The Subversion of Christianity 

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the brave men and women who served alongside him as architects of the Civil Rights Movement were people of high ideals.  In every situation they strove to conduct themselves in a manner worthy of truth and virtue.  Their words and actions were chosen with grace.  They kept a constant eye on the quality of their witness for Christ.  They cared deeply about individual integrity and collective responsibility.  And yet it would be neither unfair nor inaccurate to say that their decision to make nonresistance the keystone of their social and political strategy was never a matter of mere principle.  It was also a pragmatic consideration.  They were convinced that nonviolence would work.  They knew it could work because they had seen it work for Ghandi.  They adopted it because, for all the pain and anguish it entailed, it was still the plan most likely to succeed.

The case is very different with the Pilgrim.  The Pilgrim has no good earthly reason for embracing weakness.  He embraces it because it is central to who he is.  He gets nothing by turning the other cheek – nothing but a lashing and a cross.  He has no worldly goals.  His only objective is to identify with his Master.  He belongs to that looking-glass kingdom where reality is a mirror-image of the kosmos and heaven simply the world turned upside-down.  He shuns force as a means to noble ends.  He rejects the notion that truth, in order to be true, must have the backing of the state, the validation of the law, and the endorsement of film stars.  He cares nothing for the pillars or powers that be.  Presidents and kings in his estimation are merely marginal.  He has no network, no connections, no lobbyists in Congress.  The definitions in his dictionary have all been turned inside-out:  loss is gain, debility is power, failure is success, ignominy is glory, and death the pathway to life.  He is the wisest of fools and the most foolish of the wise.

In the first century the oppressed inhabitants of Judea were still dreaming of Judas Maccabaeus.  In their deception they looked for a hero to smash the Roman yoke.  What they got was a baby in a manger.  They looked for a political strongman to set the world to rights.  What they got was an itinerant poet-preacher.  They looked for a king to lead a liberating army.  What they got was a convict on a cross.  Many never grasped the point.  But there were a few who eventually fell under the spell of the devastating, earth-shattering truth:   My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.

It was of such the poet was thinking when he wrote, “They went forth to battle, but they always fell:”

Their might was not the might of lifted spears …

            Their wreaths are willows and their tribute, tears;

            Their names are old sad stories in men’s ears;

Yet they will scatter the red hordes of Hell,

Who went to battle forth and always fell.*


This is why the Pilgrim, if he boasts at all, will always boast exclusively about his weakness.  In contradistinction to political operatives, cultural strategists, and ambitious men and women of every stripe, he understands that to fulfill his true destiny he must learn to be content with infirmities, insults, distresses, and difficulties; for when he is weak – and on no other occasion – then he is strong.


*  Shaemus O’Sheel, “They Went Forth To Battle But They Always Fell.”


“The idolatry of patriotism, believing that any one nation’s or people’s cause is so worthy that to it human lives — whether “friend” or “foe” — should be sacrificed, must be unveiled not first when it has actually led to open warfare but already when the possibility of such slaughter has been accepted into government plans.  Not taking of life, but the idolizing of one’s interest which leads finally to killing, is the deepest sin of militarism. Whether or not the sixth commandment forbids all killing is still debated; in any case the first forbids nationalism.”

                — John Howard Yoder

The Firebird LXIV

LXIV:  The Last

There remains in my mind no clear notion of the length and duration of my fall, though to this day I retain the impression that it went on for a very long time.  At first I seemed to be plummeting into the depths of the earth at a sickening rate of speed.  I fell faster and faster by the minute.  This went on for what felt like months and years.

At some indeterminate point there came a change.  I sensed the rate of my descent gradually slowing.  When next I was aware of anything at all, I realized that I was no longer dropping into the dark like a heavy cold stone, but rather floating and drifting on gentle airs like a feather in the breeze.  Gradually it dawned on me that I had experienced something like this many times before, always in dreams:  a long, precipitous fall ending at last in a soft and pleasant landing.

Slowly a sense of ease and deep comfort enveloped me.  I lay motionless for a long while as these and many other thoughts passed to and fro across the surface of my mind.  When at last I opened my eyes I saw that there was a wall beside me – not a wall of bricks and stones, but of paint and plaster, its smooth surface faintly overspread with the first gray glimmer of dawn.  Affixed to this wall, just above my head, was a shape familiar to me from what seemed a long distant past:  a small shelf covered with books, toys, and wooden knick-knacks.  Under my head was a down pillow.  Sheets, blankets, and a thick patchwork quilt were tucked up around my chin.

Throwing the covers aside, I sat up and looked around.  I was in my own bed in my own room.  Except for the stump of a candle flickering in the corner, all was softly dark.  I jumped out of bed, my bare feet slapping the cold hardwood floor, and crossed to the window where I found the curtains drawn.  Quickly I pulled them aside and leaned upon the sill, standing on tiptoe for a better view of the world outside.

The ground beyond the glass was covered with a blanket of pure white snow.  All was still and quiet as death.  The moon hung high and bright in the gray sky, and one star, huge and red as fire, shone brilliant just above the horizon.  At the touch of a breath of wind three vague shapes flew swiftly out of the bare branches – leaves, I thought, though there was something distinctly birdlike about their fluttering movements.  Away among the black trees two shadowy figures, suggestive of a man and a horse, were moving off slowly into the distance, fading gradually into the dusk and the mist.  A faint red glow began to rise above the treetops at the edge of the world.

I shut the curtains and re-crossed the room.  Then I got back into bed and pulled the covers up under my chin.  Out of the corner of one eye I discerned the dim shape of a tattered book lying on my nightstand – a book I did not recall seeing there before.  Looking up, I became aware of two pale orbs, like tiny stars enclosed within a pair of blue marbles, staring down at me from the bookshelf above my head.

“Is it Christmas yet?” I asked, gazing up at them.

“Hush,” said a familiar voice.  “For you it is always Christmas; and for you Christmas morning is always about to rise.  As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be:  world without end.  Amen.”

The two blue stars winked and blinked and faded.  In the next moment they were gone altogether.  The candle in the corner guttered and sputtered and went out.  I spoke a word to the fleeting darkness.  I yawned and stretched and blessed the rising light.

And then I closed my eyes and fell asleep.

The End

The Firebird LXIII


His blue eyes flashed.  He cocked his head toward the hill.  Looking up, I saw the eight-legged horse grazing upon the green grass that grew around the base of the tree, just above the lintel of the great black door.  Nearby a bearded figure with a tall slouched hat on his head was plucking the golden apples and stowing them in a big sack that lay open-mouthed beside him.  Among the branches of the tree I caught a glimpse of the fleeting shapes of three birds:  a raven, a dove, and a sparrow.

The bird’s eyes flashed again.  I followed his gaze to the bottom of the hill.  There, beside the darkened door, lay a long wooden ladder.

“I will!” I cried.  “I will ascend!  I will pluck and eat the golden apples once more!”  But when I looked, the small gray bird had gone.

I ran, then, with all my might – ran to the foot of the hill and laid hold of the wooden ladder.  Its rails and rungs were rough with splinters and nails, but I seized it nonetheless and flung it up over the gaping doorway so that its head came to rest among the roots of the great tree.  Then, with my heart pounding in my ears, I began to climb, hand over bleeding hand, never taking my eyes off the golden fruit and the glossy green leaves of the tree.

I was reaching for the top rung when a great rusty nail pierced my palm.  With a cry, I released my hold and thrust my hand into my mouth.  As I did, the rung beneath my right foot gave way with a crack like the crack of doom.  The wood splintered and dropped away in pieces.  An instant later I was falling, down, down, down, faster and faster into the dark depths of the open door below.

 *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

The Firebird LXII



I came to my senses on the farther bank of the great stream.  My friend was nowhere to be seen.

Stumbling to my feet, I squinted up through the falling snow to the top of the little round hill.  Its summit rose smooth as the crown of a baby’s head above the surrounding snow-dusted pines.  On its highest point stood a noble tree with great broad leaves that trembled and shimmered green and gold in the vibrant air.  Directly above the tree hung the Firebird, his face like the rising sun, his tail the tail of a comet.  So great was the heat under the canopy of his outstretched wings that I could see the snow melting and running in sparkling rivulets down the flanks of the knoll.

Without another thought I plunged in beneath the pines and quickly traversed the narrow band of woodland, emerging at length in the open space at the foot of the hill.  Here I made an odd discovery:  a rough cloth bag was lying on the ground just beyond the fringe of trees.

This bag, I thought I’ve seen it before; and upon closer examination I came to the realization that it was the very sack from which I had once scattered seed over the level ground at the bottom of another round-topped hill:  the one near my old home where I had first seen the eight-legged horse grazing in the moonlight.

A snatch of verse went flitting through my mind:


                                      Plant it, sow it in the ground,

                                                Cast it all away.

                                      In its time it shall be found

                                                And live again.


Approaching the hill in quest of a nearer view, I saw the branches of the tree bending under the weight of a crop of large golden apples.  These I recognized in an instant as the same golden apples that had once filled the basket given me by the lady of the linen kirtle.  At the tree’s foot stood a great door, like the entrance to a mine, a huge dark chasm gaping in the face of the hill.  Beyond the timbers of its massive posts and lintel I saw nothing but an empty blackness.

“Yes,” said a voice at my ear.  “It is just as you suppose.”

At the sound I gave a start and turned.  Once again I found the small gray bird sitting on my shoulder.

“Just as I suppose?”

“Do you not?  And did you not expect and hope that it would turn out to be so?  That in its time all should be found and live again?  Look up on the hillside.  Tell me what you see.”

I gazed and bit my lip.  “I’m not sure,” I said.

“Are you not?  Then look again!  This tree, as you have surely guessed, is the source of the apples that renewed your strength and youth.  It is the Beginning and the End.  Its leaves are for the healing of the nations.”

I pondered this a moment.  Then:  “Do you mean to say that I have simply come full circle?”

He clacked his beak and shook his head.  “No circles,” he said.  “Only spirals.  Rising spirals.  Will you ascend?”

I was longing for a taste of those golden apples.  “Show me,” I said.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *