Christian Pretzels…

I’ve always had an ambivalent relationship with Christianity–a sine wave from mandatory Sunday School as a kid to “born again” in college, coffeehouse atheist in the ‘60s, Buddhist flirt in the ’70s, Episcopalian convert in the ‘80s, to unaffiliated quasi-believer in recent years. Not exactly a consistent pattern but it establishes my credentials as a pilgrim. I’m no longer a “true believer,” but the “faith” that remains is tested whenever I hear an evangelical Christian proclaim his or her support for the President who just bribed his porn star girlfriend to keep her quiet.

I think it’s crazy and I don’t think I’m alone in this regard. To me, the relationship between Trump and evangelical Christians looks like a Faustian bargain wherein evangelicals sacrifice their moral principles to support a morally bankrupt President they hope will deliver their ultra-conservative political agenda. The moral compromises and mental gyrations evoke the image of a twisted pretzel.

The incongruity of this pairing is astonishing. ABC News reports that 83% of Americans describe themselves as Christians – Christians of all denominations – from Catholics to snake handling congregations in the Ozarks, and of those polled, 55% identify as Protestant, 22% Catholic and 8% as other (Mormon, Jehovah’s Witnesses, etc.) with 37% of the Protestants identifying themselves as evangelicals.

Merriam-Webster defines evangelical as one with a “belief in the strict, literal interpretation of scripture” whose salvation comes through personal conversion by the atoning death of Jesus Christ. That would seem to include Christ’s moral teachings as well as his atonement, but my problem with evangelical Christians isn’t theological. My confusion is how they reconcile their moral and spiritual values with a politician as un-Christian as Donald Trump? Apparently, politics trumps morality in the Age of Trump.

This unholy alliance with ultra-conservative politicians didn’t start with Trump.  It has a long history, but their alignment with such an immoral agent brings the pairing into stark relief. Historically, it began with the Southern Strategy during the civil rights era. That’s when America began to politicize by religious affiliation. It further expanded after Roe v. Wade (the abortion decision) in 1973 and during the Ronald Reagan era (1981-1989). Evangelicals emerged as a political force and demographic courted by Republican candidates. Flash forward to the present.

The wild card in this poker game is Donald Trump who is not a conventional Republican nor one who personifies Christian values. Nevertheless, a large percentage of Christians made a devil’s bargain in 2016 and voted to have him as their President. How could they square their values with this candidate? I’m not writing to disparage Donald Trump. His character has been in evidence for decades. I want to know how Christians, people of conscience committed to Jesus Christ’s religious and moral teachings, have reconciled their beliefs and principles with the character and actions of a flagrant sexual predator, pathological liar, and borderline criminal?

Last month, when asked about Trump’s affair with porn star Stormy Daniels, Tony Perkins, an evangelical leader and president of the Family Research Council, told Politico that evangelicals are giving the President a “mulligan” for his past behavior. “We kind of gave him, ‘All right, you get a mulligan. You get a do-over here’ ” he told them in a podcast, adding that the president is providing the leadership the country needs because “Evangelical Christians are tired of being kicked around by Barack Obama and his leftists.” Now, that’s pretzel making of the highest order.

Christians–think of the Ten Commandments, the Golden Rule, and the Beatitudes, the moral guidelines of Christianity. Better yet, think of the Seven Deadly Sins – Gluttony, Fornication, Greed, Pride, Envy, Wrath, Boasting, and Sloth. They sound like bullet points on Trump’s resume’.

I’ve always been mystified by the politics of the religious right from Billy Graham to Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and James Dobson. There is room for everyone in the American political experiment. That’s what the Bill of Rights guarantees – freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion etc. But, the religious right thinks of America as a Christian nation – something the Founders debated and decided against. The right’s value system doesn’t accept the big tent version of America. It seeks a more restrictive America with limitations on other religions, women’s rights, gay rights, voting rights, and fair housing. Are these Christian values? How does the Golden Rule figure in this vision of America?

I don’t want to be unfair to sincere Christians who are taking an active role in American politics, but I am appalled to see them in bed with a morally despicable character like Donald Trump. Surely they can find one of their own to represent their political desires instead of a charlatan whose political rallies conjure up images of snake handling extremists and Elmer Gantry circus-tent revivals. At times like this I’m reminded of Bertrand Russell’s essay Why I Am Not a Christian and identify with this angel. Remember, the shortest sentence in the bible is “Jesus wept.”

 

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In Search of Heroes

My wife thinks I write too much about the past. She’s concerned that it dates me and worries that readers will think I’m old and out of touch. I agree with her that it’s important to live in the present, messy as that present is, but the past gives us context and offers us lessons for the present.

In times of stress I often find solace in books, and last week’s news cycle drove me into a new translation of The Odyssey. I’ve tried it before; in 1996 I listened to Robert Fagels’ version on tape but couldn’t finish it. The new translation by Emily Wilson is a fluid retelling of the saga that breathes a contemporary feel into the ancient story without damaging its classical roots. It’s full of brave warriors, damsels in distress, dangerous ogres, duplicitous enemies, faithless gods, raging storms and at its center an action hero working his way home from the Trojan War. I was immediately sucked in.

The poem’s provenance is as mythical as its subject. Originally, it was in the oral tradition, a tale told around a fire, and it must have been incredible to experience that way. In the 7th or 8th century BC the first written version was made, and it’s been at the center of classical literature ever since. I could get lost in it and let it consume my remaining 8 years and 7 months on earth (see my previous blog for details). It’s worthy of that kind of study.

But, don’t leave me now; we’re going back to the present shortly with Odysseus’ epic tale as a touchstone to the present. Odysseus, the action hero, is a flawed character who uses the cards he’s been dealt to overcome obstacles and guide his journey home. He and his faithful, long suffering wife, Penelope, remind us that life is difficult and packed with unpredictable twists and turns, but guided by ideals and goals they triumph in the end. In the age of Trump, we are desperate for a hero, someone whose courage, honesty, and example encourage us to persevere and find the right course to the future.

When I was growing up there were plenty of heroes – famous and not so famous – Eisenhower and the Allied troops at Normandy, John Kennedy and PT109, Ted Williams batting .406 and flying fighters in the Pacific, Chuck Yeager, Gloria Steinem, John Glenn and the Mercury astronauts, Jacques Cousteau, Jonas Salk, Joseph Welch, Golda Meir, Jackie Kennedy, Joan Baez, and Bob Dylan. These soldiers, politicians, sportsmen, scientists and artists were people we looked up to and tried to emulate.

There are still heroes in our midst, but this is not the same world we lived in 50 short years ago. There are no military victories to celebrate. We live in an uncertain world that can be destabilized by the actions of individuals (9/11), where state actors anonymously interfere in the affairs of other states through cyberwarfare (Russian interference in the US election), and our own President, the antithesis of a hero, is immoral, venal, and narcissistic.

Still, in spite of Donald Trump and the shaky state of world politics, I remain a long term optimist. There are men and women with heroic qualities, admirable people who are models of rectitude. They come from all countries, disciplines, and backgrounds – Malala Yousefzai the young Pakistani girl fighting for the rights of young women to an education, George and Amal Clooney working to end the civil war in South Sudan, Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter’s efforts for Habitat for Humanity, Angela Merkel giving safe haven to refugees in Germany, Christine Lagarde’s leading the IMF, and at a time when many of our sports heroes have been shown to have feet of clay, Roger Federer’s continuing superiority in the world of tennis. These individuals command our respect for their excellence, sportsmanship, and character.

Is it hyperbolic to single out a tennis champion as a hero when politicians are seriously discussing the use of nuclear weapons and the end of the world as we know it? Am I fiddling while Rome burns? On the contrary, I see Roger as almost mythic in stature, someone to emulate, someone whose pursuit of excellence can teach leaders everywhere to be better people. He possesses remarkable physical gifts, but it’s his tireless pursuit of on court excellence and off court life balance that has taken him to the top of his profession and allowed him to remain there. His unforgettable battles with Rafael Nadal are legendary and their rivalry has lifted the sport to a higher level. His passion for the game manifests in helping others and working to improve the sport. He celebrates family, and his wife, Mirka, and two sets of twins go with him wherever he plays. He competes for his country in the Olympics and Davis Cup, and is humble in victory and generous in defeat. The world would be a better place if there were more like him. To me his stature is heroic.

The world is hungry for heroes and heroines. At a time when gridlock is everywhere from our freeways to Congress to the war in Afghanistan it’s normal to look for someone with the character and leadership skills to guide us toward something better. In times of crisis it’s easy to be discouraged. If you stopped reading The Odyssey in the middle you might have imagined a different and darker ending. There were still many more storms and enemies in his path, but he believed in himself and his mission and, in the end, he made it home. I hope that holds true for us as well.

This week, with the White House in chaos and the stock market in freefall, you can be forgiven if you imagine a dark ending. I’m going with Odysseus and the belief that we will weather the storms, ogres, bullies, and bullshit that’s coming at us. We’ll get there; I just hope it’s sooner rather than later and that we have the means to clean up the wreckage when we do.

“Now godess, child of Zeus, tell the old story for our modern times.”

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Running Rapids and Reading Obits…

I feel blessed with friends who are smart, up to date, and engaged in the world, but I’m bothered by a recent phenomenon. Increasingly, M and I find our conversations with friends begin with an organ recital – what hurts, new ailments, what needs to be replaced, good home remedies, doctors’ appointments, and physical therapy magicians – before we move on to the nation’s health.

We also talk about scanning newspaper obituaries for friends and the names of notable people we admire. This wasn’t the new normal until about a year ago. Now it is. Last Sunday, for the second week in a row, the long form obituaries in the New York Times’ were all of people in our decade of life. I immediately went to the Social Security Administration’s life expectancy calculator to see how long I have.

Bingo! I should live another 8 years and 8 months. Good for estate planning but not much time left to write that New York Times bestseller.

All this was in my mind when I learned that my friend, Joel, suffered a serious stroke while visiting friends on Sanibel Island in Florida. His life will never be the same. In an instant, everything changed – for Joel, for his wife Jody, for his children, grandchildren and friends. The good news is, after being life-flighted to a hospital in Fort Myers and spending time in the ICU, he’s out of the hospital and starting the long path to recovery. As our mutual friend, Annie, says he’s a tough old bird and that bodes well for a good recovery. But, none of us will ever be the same. Each time this happens to a friend it reminds us that we’re closer to the end than the beginning.

I’ve known Joel for 60 years. We were fraternity brothers at the University of Washington and reconnected when our families moved to the Sun Valley area about the same time in the 70s. Our kids became friends and went to school together. We skied and played tennis together. We rode Slickrock, Gemini Bridges, and the White Rim trails in Moab. Twenty years ago, during an 18 day raft trip through the Grand Canyon, Joel flipped our raft and dumped Jody and me in the rapids at House Rock just after screaming “the perfect run.” And, Jody, a well-known rock climber, introduced my former wife to the sport and they’ve spent many days together at City of Rocks in southern Idaho. We have lots of shared memories.

On top of our shared interests, Joel is also a serious outdoorsman – bird hunter and fly fisherman – and we’ve eaten more meals of quail, sage grouse and buckshot than I can remember around the grill in their backyard. His love for Idaho, family, and the outdoors cost him professionally, but he made the necessary trade-offs so they could have the life they all loved. His boys, Erik and Matt, graduated from Dartmouth and Middlebury respectively but returned to Idaho to become outdoor professionals and raise their own children – now friends with my children and grandchildren.

And it’s all due to Joel, who for 30+ years commuted from Idaho to teach management courses at the Graduate Business School at Santa Clara University.

I haven’t seen Joel and Jody in almost 10 years, but I still care deeply about them. I moved to Seattle and they’re still in Idaho. We “see” each other on Facebook and I follow Erik and Matt’s adventures where they intersect with Doug, Diana, and Brent. But, the torch has been passed. We can joke about organ recitals and nostalgia for past adventures, but it’s really friendship that’s our connection.

I’m praying, yes praying, for Joel’s recovery and keeping my fingers crossed for good measure. I want both of us to live that last 8 years and 8 months in a high-quality way. We may not ride Slickrock or run House Rock rapids again, but our love for the outdoors remains. I hope in the near future Jody will pack up the van and the two of them will come to visit us in Seattle. In the meantime, I’ll relive “the perfect run”, especially the right side up part. Got to go now; got to get back to writing that New York Times bestseller before another month goes by.

My son Brent with his kids running the rapids at Lava Falls in the Grand Canyon

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A Friendship in Black and White

In 1964, Martin Luther King Jr. was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and Congress passed the Civil Rights Act. A year later the Voting Rights Act and Great Society legislation followed. Schools in the South were being integrated. It was the Summer of Love in San Francisco. It was the year I graduated from law school at UC Berkeley. I truly believed we were entering the post-racial era.

Flash back 20 years to 1945; I was an eight year old 3rd grader at Isaac I. Stevens Elementary. America was fighting WWII on two fronts. Gas and sugar were rationed and Ted Williams was flying Marine F4U’s in the Pacific theater.

Put me in coach. I can cover left field ‘til “The Splendid Splinter” comes home.

Times were lean for the country, but it wasn’t bad for an 8-year-old kid in Seattle. Isaac I. Stevens Elementary stands at the north end of Capitol Hill, a mixed neighborhood of older upscale, middle and lower income families. Within its boundaries are two Catholic schools, a Congregational Church, and a synagogue – and in 1944 its southern edge was Seattle’s Central Area, a mostly black neighborhood, where the edges were mixed and families lived in harmony while racially restrictive covenants were preventing other black families from buying in the white neighborhoods further north.

I feel lucky to have lived in a mixed neighborhood. My classmates were mostly white – Catholic, Jewish, and Protestant – but my friend Corky White was a Negro. I don’t know exactly where Corky’s family lived or where they went to church. That wasn’t important. He and I were friends and that’s what counted.

We sat together in Miss Jameson’s 3rd grade class studying Isaac Stevens, Washington’s first governor, doing times-tables, and learning how to write cursive. During recess, we joined our classmates on the playground for pick-up games of softball. I really liked him. I remember he was smaller than I was with short hair and dark skin. One day, I invited him to come home with me after school.

I don’t remember what or where we played, maybe catch in the backyard or a board game in the house. What I remember to this day is that when my father came home from his job at Todd’s Shipyard he and my mother had a quiet conversation in the kitchen before they sat me in the living room and told me not to bring Corky or any other Negroes home again. Not ever. They didn’t seem angry but the subject wasn’t up for discussion. I complied though I never understood. Still don’t.

We moved away from Capitol Hill when I was in the 5th grade and that was the last time I saw or heard of Corky White. Last year, on MLK weekend, I wrote up the story of how my parents’ racial animus interfered with that childhood friendship and posted it as a blog called, We’ll Never Get Over Slavery ( http://www.jackbernardstravels.com/well-never-get-slavery/ ). When It got a surprising amount of good feedback I shared it on Facebook and with my friend, Ed Moon, one of the first African-American pilots at Pan Am, who shared it with his wide network of readers too.

And… here’s where the story gets woo-woo…

One of the people on Ed’s distribution list is a former Missouri Congressman named William L. “Bill” Clay (pictured right) who retired from the House of Representatives in 2001 after representing his St. Louis district for 32 years. Not surprisingly, after so many years in Congress, Bill Clay decided to stay in the DC area after retirement. When he read my post about Corky he emailed Ed to say he had a friend living in Maryland who grew up in Seattle and goes by the nickname “Corky” White. A few emails with Bill and a few more directed to “Patsy” White (a shared email address) revealed that Cortez A. White of Rockville, Maryland, in a stranger than fiction way, was my childhood friend Corky. Six degrees of separation.

I often wondered what happened to Corky, but I never imagined I’d find out. The two of us are 80 now. Life took us in different directions, across the country and around the world, after those days at Isaac I. Stevens Elementary. I wanted to know how his story unfolded. He didn’t have any idea that he had played an important role in the evolution of my racial awareness. I was curious to know more about him, but a little fearful. Would his story be positive? Would my curiosity embarrass him? Had his life been difficult? Was it racist to ask such a question? Would an African-American kid from the segregated Central Area in Seattle have an inspiring story or one of struggle? The last thing I wanted was to be seen as a white guy writing about his poor black childhood friend. It could be awkward.

It turns out that Corky’s story is not much different from my own. He continued in Seattle Public Schools through high school and went on to the University of Washington, just as I did. With a degree in marketing and an engineering background, Corky started his career path at Boeing then accepted a job with the Buick Motor Company in Flint, Michigan. Five years later a headhunter in DC recruited him to help the government analyze the new safety standards for motor vehicles. In DC, he was offered a job with the management team of the WSSC (Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission), the agency that manages water and wastewater for the Maryland counties adjacent to Washington. While at WSSC, he was selected to attend MIT, as a Sloan Fellow, where he earned a Masters in Management. He was subsequently appointed to lead the agency as General Manager/CEO. He told me recently that since his retirement in 1999 he has “done nothing but enjoy (his) three children and seven grandchildren (here) in Montgomery County, MD.” Here he is with his wife, Patsy. Looks like a happy man to me.

Monday is Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and it feels good to be able to tell this story as the holiday approaches. I was wrong in 1965 when I imagined the advent of a post-racial era, and though there has been progress, there have also been setbacks. My dream of a post-racial America tanked with the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. in June of 1968 and Robert F. Kennedy in August of the same year. As I said in “We’ll Never Get Over Slavery” the racial divide in America is still an open wound – Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Freddy Gray, Philando Castile, and Charlottesville. Black lives do matter. We need to do better.

I don’t know how it feels to live inside a black skin, but I have my own upsetting story related to the MLK holiday. In 1996 I wrote a letter to the Salt Lake Tribune to decry the fact that despite Martin Luther King Day’s designation as a national holiday, the State of Utah chose not to observe it. Not only did it not recognize the holiday, it directed attention away by opening its annual legislative session every year on that day without mention or observance of either the Reverend King or the holiday.

My letter to the Tribune called out Utah officials, citing them as racists for ignoring this important national holiday. After my letter was published, I received two handwritten death threats in letters delivered to my home address. Gratefully, nothing happened; I wasn’t harmed or further intimidated, but it definitely put me on alert as I left home in the morning and arrived back in the evening. Utah began observing the MLK Day holiday the following year.

I’m looking forward to this upcoming weekend as a sober reminder of our black and white struggle with the legacy of slavery but also our aspirational goal of equal opportunity for all Americans. On a personal level I’ll celebrate my friendships with friends like Corky White, Bill Clay, Ed Moon, Stephan Blanford and others. Reconnecting with Corky was a gift. Thanks to Ed and Bill for their part in bringing the gift home and completing the circle.

This is a picture Corky sent me of the Isaac I. Stevens Elementary safety patrol the student group that helped kids cross streets near the school. Corky is in the front row lower right. I’m not in the picture though I was on the safety patrol at the same time. 

 

Friendships in Black and White.

PS: In yet another instance of six degrees of separation; when I told my friend and neighbor, retired African-American judge George Holifield, the Corky story he laughed and asked me to say hello. Yes, it’s true, he and Corky were friends and classmates at Garfield High School.

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Happy New Year – Welcome to Armageddon

Or is it?

In 1959, the Kingston Trio released a song entitled The Merry Minuet. Catchy little number about the state of world affairs:

They’re rioting in Africa
They’re starving in
Spain
There’s hurricanes in
Florida
And
Texas needs rain

The whole world is festering with unhappy souls
The
French hate the Germans, the Germans hate the Poles
Italians hate Yugoslavs, South Africans hate the Dutch
And I don’t like anybody very much!!

But we can be tranquil and thankful and proud
For man’s been endowed with a mushroom-shaped cloud
And we know for certain that some lovely day
Someone will set the spark off
And we will all be blown away!!

They’re rioting in Africa
There’s strife in
Iran
What nature doesn’t do to us
Will be done by our fellow man

Is it any wonder that on the first day of the new year, I’m thinking of Armageddon, the End of Days, and the Rapture? The world feels frighteningly unstable as we begin this new year. It’s surreal. Check out the references in the song and bring them forward:

  • Rioting in Africa – Congo, Mali, Niger, Central African Republic
  • Starving in Spain – climbing back from the edge of bankruptcy to confront separatists and neo-fascists
  • Hurricanes in Florida (Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Puerto Rico, Virgin Islands) in 2017
  • Texas needs rain – but not the climate change, Hurricane Harvey, kind
  • French hate the Germans – maybe not as much thanks to Trump
  • Italians hate the Yugoslavs – no problem, the genocidal Yugoslavs killed each other
  • South Africa (post-apartheid) the most stable country in Africa is held together by a thread
  • There’s strife in Iran – yes, today there were countrywide protests
  • But, most prescient –
    • For man’s been endowed with a mushroom-shaped cloud
      And we know for certain that some lovely day
      Someone will set the spark off
      And we will all be blown away!!

  • Yesterday, President Trump insulted Pakistan (a nuclear power)
  • He’s insulted and threatened a pre-emptive strike on North Korea (a rogue state and nuclear power)
  • He’s insulted Iran (a nuclear wannabe) and threatened to abrogate the negotiated nuclear agreement clearing the way for them to resume their weapons program.
  • He’s provoked Arab states by proclaiming Israel (a nuclear power) the rightful owner of both East and West Jerusalem.
  • Today, he poked Kim Jong Un with a tweet about the size of his nuclear “Button” (aka penis). Shameless, dangerous, juvenile, playground banter.

Is it any wonder I’m thinking of Armageddon?

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, Armageddon refers to the site or time of a final and conclusive battle between the forces of good and evil…a usually vast decisive conflict or confrontation.” Armageddon is a biblical construct out of the Book of Revelation. Rounding out its variants on the mythology of creation, rebirth, resurrection and redemption it ends either where physicists tell us it all really began – with a Big Bang – or with the biblical Rapture. I’d rather not be around for either one.

I’ve lived through the world-on-the-brink several times – WWII, the Korean War, the Cuban missile crisis, Watergate, the Vietnam War, 9/11,, and our endless wars in the Middle East. There are cycles and then… there are cycles.

Right now, the forces of good are in need of a resupply if they want to maintain the high ground. The swamp is being drained but the autocratic creatures – Russia, North Korea, Turkey, Hungary, Poland, Philippines, Venezuela, Egypt, Syria, and Iran are ascending. Democracy is weakened. America is hanging in on the democratic side but there’s a would-be autocrat tweeting away in the White House. If the great American experiment succeeds it will validate the Founding Fathers vision, but the Tweeter-in-Chief is currently doing his ignorant best to undermine 240 years of our institutional infrastructure.

I want to believe in a higher power, in karma, in the mandala’s circle of life. Yes, even in the promise of redemption in Christ, but lately I’ve been banking on the secular triumph of good over evil–no divine intervention, no mythological rack to hang my belief on, no promise of eternal life if it doesn’t work out. It’s faith at its most elemental. Will good win? I don’t know. What I do know is that Donald Trump has sold his soul to the other side, and I’m going to do everything in my power to see that he isn’t rewarded any more than he already has been.

Still… there’s a little part of me that would like a taste of The Rapture, a quick trip to heaven, preferably without Joel Osteen and his posse. Just a glimpse… no harps, no fluffy wings, no togas – just some Elysian fields.

Thank you and Happy New Year 2017.

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