Notes From The Balcony

Progressive Reflections on Post-Modern Living in a Multifaith Age

Posts Tagged ‘Politics’

Tillich, Kierkegaard, and Jon Stewart

Posted by John Montgomery on October 16, 2010

I keep reading about the tea party movement(s) and I must say the more I read, the more I get confused. So, I thought I would put my own theological two-cents into the discussion as well. Why not?

Now I’m going to make some generalizations about alienation and reconciliation, themes Paul Tillich and Soren Kierkegaard associated with sin and grace. I’m not saying these comments apply to anyone in particular, even Glen Beck. But having said this, I think we have got to struggle with transforming the present climate of anger based debate, and in that context raise the question how we might move our conversation (if it really is a conversation) to a different level.   

A couple of weeks ago, the General Board of Church and Society (GBCS) withdrew its endorsement from the One Nation: Working Together march (which frankly was for the majority of the 400 or so endorsing organizations a self-select process activated mainly by pressing a button on the website and uploading a logo). The decision was made primarily because the rally had evolved into a political gathering self-consciously mobilizing voters for the Democratic party in the upcoming November elections. Parallel to these developments, the rally had become for many a counter demonstration against Glenn Beck and his tea party followers. Jim Winkler was correct in that while our church can advocate for certain values and strategic policies, it can not become a partisan organization.

As Jim Wallis so famously taught us, God is not a Republican, nor is God a Democrat. I still have that bumper sticker on my car. Now I’m looking for someone to produce one that suggests that God drinks coffee as well as tea.

In the long run, One Nation became a partisan pissing contest to use a theological term. Most estimates suggested that Beck’s rally gathered more followers. Few lives were transformed and the public debate was simply reset expressing a deeper separation between the parties than we started with.

An alternative approach has been emerging that might in the long run actually serve  as a grace event in the midst of the growing chaos defining current public debate. Of course, I am speaking about the upcoming rally/march sponsored by Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Stewart has indicated that the rallies are not responses to Beck’s Restoring Honor event, but are meant to satirize the political process, and the news coverage spawned from it. But whether it is a direct or indirect response, their joint call for a Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear qualitatively changes the essentials of the conversation. If you stay with me, I even have a theological justification for why that might be true!

So, let me start with Soren Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard was for many the father of 20th Century existentialist theology. SK was a 19th Century Danish pastor and theologian who wrote a lot, but the center of his reflections at their best had to do with sin and faith and how those traditional notions were tied to our own most intimate experiences. If you are looking for a book, I would begin with The Sickness unto Death.

I’m going back to Kierkegaard because as I look at the present Tea Party Movement, much of what I see looks to have more to do with anger, despair and paralysis than a new movement generating effective proposals.  If one is going to talk about despair, then SK is the place to start.

SK’s existential analysis begins by pointing out that human beings are relational creatures through and through. We are relationships that take relationships to our relationships and in taking a relationship to those relationships we posit a relationship to the one who put us in these relationships to begin with.

Despair (the sickness unto death) is defined as the intensification of alienation and separation and understood as the reality being talked about when we Christians talk about sin.

SK describes three “stages” in the faith journey, if you will three modes of despair. It starts in immediacy, turns inward to circumspection and then moves to defiance (first active, then passive). One might notice that the first and last are more reflective of a public, outward posture and the middle stage is more private, and inward.

Immediacy has to do with despair that the world is not the way we think it is supposed to be. 

Circumspection focuses less on the world and more on the self – I’m not what I am supposed to be, so I withdraw.

Active and passive defiance, which in one way or another is where one shakes a fist in the face of God is a series of lived rants that proclaim if the world and if my selfhood are not as they are suppoed to be, then God is not what God is supposed to be and I’m going to let the world and others know it. I’ll be the best mistake that I can be.

Paul Tillich discusses these dynamics in several places. Obviously, for the most thick conversation, one might look to his systematics. The Courage to Be contrasts the Christian transformation occasioned by a grace event with Stoic grit/n and bear perserverence. But, where  time and again I find him most helpful is in his short sermon, You Are Accepted.

Tillich contrasts sin and grace as a state of being versus a transformative event. A witness to grace leading to faith is not a process of making an argument for a better way, but the shattering of an illusion leaving one with a choice to either move forward in faith or reassert ones despair.

Grace is an event that happens – it happens at the moment of one’s deepest despair – it happens or sometimes, it doesn’t – it certainly doesn’t happen if one does not think it is necessary. Now it seems to me that in the context of SK’s model, the grace event might be somewhat different depending on the stage of despair.

So, it seems to me that immediacy is transformed by expanding the context – putting the basics in perspective. I am struck that given the current trend of mission trips, when folks return in one way or another they report that while they went to serve, they discovered that in reaity they had been served.  Given a new perspective, a new sense of unity was at hand.

The shattering of the illusions undergirding circumspection is transformed not by expanding the context, but by “rubbing one’s face in the fact of innocent suffering.” You’ve got it bad and you just want to sit and feel sorry for yourself.

One of my favorite stories of late is the witness of a man who was dutifully but reluctantly serving in a soup kitchen because his wife pushed him to do it. Suddenly, standing in the line, he finds one of his friends from work looking to get a box of food to help his family to make it through the next couple of weeks.

In such a shocking encounter, he witnesses that his arrogant charity suddenly became compassionate solidarity.

Finally, it seems to me that defiance is not transformed by attention to a larger content or a deeper identity with that context. Defiant despair is a lucid response and is not transformed by new information. Such despair is only tranformed when one grasps how silly defiance is. Perhaps, this is the power of a Jon Stewart or a Stephen Colbert addressing our current malaise. Humor, even sarcasm, satire, even gentle teasing can become the event of grace.

I plan to watch the impact of these susprisingly effective manifestations of the word. Camus has something to say here as well, but I’ll wait until my next blog post!








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Shall we gather at the DC mall?

Posted by John Montgomery on October 3, 2010

I’ve been singing, “shall we gather at the river” all weekend long. Words like the Potomac or mall or memorial or DC don’t quite fit the rhythm, but I am still working on it. For the last week this question has been the subject of intensely active conversation by social networkers on United Methodist Communication’s Facebook page (The United Methodist Church). It is a conversation that is a bit bizzare.  If one was checking that page to learn about World Communion Sunday, one would be quite surprised by what was there to be found.

This facebook discussion had been occasioned mainly by the NYT article that mentioned (wrongly) that GBCS was a sponsor of the upcoming  One Nation Working Together march that was held yesterday, Saturday, October 2, 2010.

Much of the passionate, but confused rhetoric in the comments came because the NYT article failed to make a distinction between endorsing an event, i.e. inviting one’s associates to participate and sponsoring an event, i.e. engaging in the planning and financing of the agenda. When one looks at the broad list of 400 or so endorsers, the presence of  socialist and communist groups (don’t leave out unions and gay groups) associated with the program catalyzed anger that blew the cover off the pot and rant after rant followed as it boiled over.  

The other part of the problem is that the NYT portrayed this march as a counter-demonstration to Glenn Beck’s Restoring Honor gathering last month. As far as I can tell, the march was originally proposed before the Beck event was planned and it was to focus on the sort of DC standstill regarding progressive issues like employment and health care. 

I know we have tea-party Methodists, but in these conversations, their imitation of Glenn Beck is staggering. Since UMC tea-party activists can’t seem to make distinctions between anybody to the left of right wing, you can tell where the discussion went.

This is not to suggest that the original intent of the rally did not change. The opening talk by MSNBC’s Ed Schultz signaled with no ambiguity the event’s new face: in the end it became a rally to get out the votes for Democrats on November 2. NCAAP President Jealous’ statement with its denigration of Beck followers saying that “we” are the antidote to Beck and the tea-party did not tone down the offense.

Anticipating these developments, this past Friday as Jim Winkler announced that while GBGS stood by the rally’s original goals and concerns, partison statements made recently by the original sponsors signaled that the agenda had shifted and GBGS withdrew its endorsement.

In the end, Winkler’s statement was carefully written and I have come to believe exactly the decision that was needed. Finally, Saturday was what it was – four whole hours. Now it is over.

But for me, what also remains to be watched is the apparent deepening of the polarization of our public debate and its impact on conversation in our church. In his statement, Winkler noted the increasing lack of civil discourse within the United States.

Perhaps more troubling, discourse within The United Methodist Church has taken on a very un-Christ-like tone.  E-mails and phone calls made to the board by clergy and laity have been shocking in their vitriol.

Winkler’s off-hand report that clergy are participating is quite scary to me.

In fact, my immediate response was critical:

With all respect, this feels like GBCS has been bullied into this decision. While I know that some of those groups who were on the larger list are controversial and partisan, doesn’t that go with the territory. On the larger United Methodist Church page, progressive Christians like me have been subjected to vitriolic nonsense and I am now sure that these tea-party commentators are going to celebrate because they put the church leaders in their place. GBCS has pioneered in these matters. Let’s not lose our nerve now.

I need not share the bullying comments. You can imagine – the attack on social justice as the Marxist redistribution of wealth, the suggestion that people ought to read the Bible (something that I assume is already true), Spong-like heresy, can’t speak for the church as a whole, etc. If you really enjoy this stuff, it goes on for pages.

But, the more I have thought about it, I want to be careful and not challenge the integrity of the GBGS staff. They have seen this before and I take it that the timing had to do with more than submitting to pressure.

So should we gather at the river?

It seems to me that if I was going to stand on the Mall to witness against Beck and his followers, I would go to a qualitatively different event…like Jon Stewart’s Take Back Sanity. We didn’t need a pissing contest this weekend. The timing of this move did not stop the debate, but simply reset it and frankly sides just started talking past each other again. The question becomes not how we can yell louder, but what we might do to occasion the transformation of such defiant despair.

My next post will seek to address the question of why Jon Stewart’s satire might help. The answer is found in Kiergegaard and Sartre and a late night discussion in University of Chicago’s Regenstein Library back in the 80s with my M.Div. colleagues.

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In Memory of Beth Rickey

Posted by John Montgomery on September 19, 2009

In the midst of the current health care debate (if you can call it that), researchers from Harvard have published a new study suggesting that almost 45,000 unnecessary deaths per year can be associated with the lack of health insurance.

The study, conducted at Harvard Medical School and Cambridge Health Alliance, found that uninsured, working-age Americans have a 40 percent higher risk of death than their privately insured counterparts, up from a 25 percent excess death rate found in 1993.

“The uninsured have a higher risk of death when compared to the privately insured, even after taking into account socioeconomics, health behaviors, and baseline health,” said lead author Andrew Wilper M.D., who currently teaches at the University of Washington School of Medicine.. “We doctors have many new ways to prevent deaths from hypertension, diabetes, and heart disease — but only if patients can get into our offices and afford their medications.”

CNN’s  reporting about the release of this study notes not surprisingly that there have been questions raised about  the findings

Two authors of the Harvard study, Himmelstein and Dr. Steffie Woolhandler are co-founders of the Physicians for a National Health Program, which supports government-backed “single-payer” health coverage.

The National Center for Policy Analysis, which backs “free-market” health care reform, calls the Harvard research flawed.

“The findings in this research are based on faulty methodology and the death risk is significantly overstated,” said John C. Goodman, the president of the NCPA in a statement. But Goodman did note there is “a genuine crisis of the uninsured in this country.” [my emphasis]

At this point, I will let others sort out the fine points of methodology and research perspectives. Nevertheless, it is so easy to get caught up in the theory and miss the point that this is about real people. I found the CNN article helpful in that regard as it begins with the story of the death of actual persons.

“A freelance cameraman’s appendix ruptured and by the time he was admitted to surgery, it was too late. A self-employed mother of two is found dead in bed from undiagnosed heart disease. A 26-year-old aspiring fashion designer collapsed in her bathroom after feeling unusually fatigued for days.”

This issue was brought closer home to me this week as I received a letter from my friend and colleague Pat Rickey Tuecke about the passing of her cousin, Debbie Rickey in a cheap motel in Sante Fe. Beth Rickey was a sad casualty of a broken health care system. Having fought a mysterious immune system collapse first begun after she returned from a mission trip to Mexico thirteen years ago, her condition was made worse by the development of Crohn’s Disease. Unable to work because of the debilitating symptoms and now uninsurable because of a “preexisting condition,” Rickey used up all of her personal financial resources purchasing exorbitantly expensive medications and treatments. While family and friends had sought to help over the years, she died essentially destitute and homeless. It is a deeply troubling story.

Even more so, Rickey’s story represents a provocative sense of irony. In the midst of raucous “tea party” demonstrations where fringe forces parade absurd signs portraying the “current occupant of the white house” as a reincarnation of Hitler, where confused marchers spout interchangeable slogans saying that our nation is on the verge of socialism, or is it communism, or is it fascism. (Isn’t it all the same?), where we read blog posts that mistakenly argue that libertarianism and capitalism are identical, the vitriolic public discussions tempt us all to despair.

Our faith leaders rightly encourage alternative approaches to dialogue, yet they are maligned for making such calls

Beth Rickey grew up in a time when one could tell the difference between the vision of honest conservatism and the rhetoric of ultra right wing pundits. No more today – all one has to do is listen to Glenn Beck or Lou Dobbs.

Some know Rickey’s history and about her moment of fame. Rickey was a staunch Republican activist from the state of Louisiana. She served on the party’s central state committee. She voted for Goldwater and worked in Ronald Reagan’s campaigns. She strongly supported the civil rights movement and from reports of her family, she was proud to be the niece of former baseball commissioner, Branch Rickey, who opened the door for Jackie Robinson to play in the major leagues.

Rickey knew what real racism looked like and she understood real fascism, for in the late 80s and the early 90s when David Duke ran for the governor of the state, she almost single-handedly led the opposition to his candidacy. While Duke suggested that he had put his association with the KKK behind himself, that he was not anti-Semitic, she did the research to back up the truth of Duke’s prejudices, his real commitments to Nazi principles and his deep racism.

In time, others followed her lead and eventually Duke was defeated.

In honor of Beth Rickey’s committed life and final struggle, perhaps it might be appropriate to seek the truth beyond the cynical partisan bickering we now experience and find a solution to the disastrous consequences of our broken systems. It might make a difference in as many as 45,000 lives.

Links for further information:

Quin Hillyer’s obituary in The Washington Times is touching, and highly recommended.

Kenneth Stern writes in Forward, the Jewish Daily

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Add To My Basket (Week Two, July 2009)

Posted by John Montgomery on July 19, 2009

Robert Wright has a provocative new book out, The Evolution of God (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2009)

Written from the perspective of cultural anthropology, Wright explore the evolution of God (i.e. the idea of God) in eachof the three Abrahamic faith traditions and poses the question as to whether we can find a way to keep from killing each other. The book is written with masterful wit. I spent more time on thed bibliography and footnotes (many annotated) than the actual text.

See this week’s PBS interview with Bill Moyers and Robert Wright

Wright is now s senior fellow ast the New American Foundation and editor in chief at

Dasvid Neiwert’s book, The

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