A Matter of Conscience: An Open Letter to Moderate Republicans

Blogger’s Note: This post is not only long, but upsetting. As the title suggests, I’m writing about politics. If you visit A Napper’s Companion for a lift, you may want to skip what follows. Please know that I feel compelled to share this letter.

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Mr. Trump, tear down this statue. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

February 26, 2016

Dear Moderate Republicans:

“If I were to remain silent,” Albert Einstein said, “I’d be guilty of complicity.” I’m neither a public figure nor a genius, but I borrow the iconic physicist’s words to make clear the reason for this letter. I don’t write as a Lutheran pastor, which I happen to be, but as a regular guy who feels not only sick, but under a moral obligation to speak.

I’m sick that half of the voting Republicans in Nevada believe that Donald Trump is the best available pick for President of the United States—49.6%. Half!

Sick that Trump appears poised to mop up delegates on Super Tuesday, now four days away.

Sick that the two youthful candidates seriously challenging Trump have ironic qualifications. One tried in 2013 to shut down the government he aspires to lead and is by all accounts reviled by his colleagues. The other has essentially given up on his elected responsibilities before his first term of service is finished. Why is he missing about 1/3 of votes? “Because I am leaving the Senate,” he replied, “I am not running for re-election.” If he thinks Senate duty is an insufferable slog, how well suited is he for the Oval Office, really?

Before going on—and you can stop reading any time—I want to qualify the word sick. I’m heartsick. The optimist in me says that most conservatives are troubled with how the Republican primaries are unfolding and embarrassed by the current candidates’ behavior. For what it’s worth, I write in the spirit of loving intervention. What I am compelled to point out pains me, as I have many dear friends who are Republicans, but the matter is urgent.

In less than a year, the next President will take office. What exactly is at stake?

Donald Trump promises to build a wall between the United States and Mexico, one foot taller than the Great Wall of China. “I want it to be so beautiful,” he says, “because maybe someday they’re going to call it the Trump wall.”

If Trump fails to get Mexico to pay for this project, he might fund it by selling the copper lady lifting her torch over New York Harbor. A nation that solves problems with walls won’t have much use for the words on her pedestal:

Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, the tempest-tost to me.

Of course, a wall by any name may prevent wretched refuse from entering the United States, but it won’t get rid of those already here illegally. Trump remains steadfast in his intention to muster a deportation force, which will track down 11 million undocumented immigrants—a term he rejects as politically correct—and return them to Mexico. That figure is under dispute, but it does notably include the immigrants’ children, who are by law U.S. citizens. Through “good management,” the exodus will be accomplished in a year and a half, maybe two.

Could any compassionate American bear to witness the spectacle from round up to drop off. Picture those flippantly called anchor babies, hundreds of thousands of little kids, herded onto busses with their families and dumped, my God, who knows where. We’re talking about millions of people. What sane adult can’t foresee a humanitarian crisis?

Mark Krikorian, Director for the conservative Center for Immigration Studies, says what some Republicans must be hoping, that Trump’s deportation statements are a “gimmick’: “He’s just making it up as he goes along. Whatever goes into his mind comes out of his mouth. There’s no way to deport 11 or 12 million people in a short period of time.”

I must be a prude where campaign gimmicks are concerned. Blustering about the deportation of what would amount roughly to the populations of New York City and Chicago combined isn’t strategic, it’s obscene.

Maybe other campaign promises are primarily attention getters, too.

Ted Cruz says he’ll carpet bomb ISIS, which sounds hawkishly sexy until you reckon the term’s meaning. Having been corrected, the Texas Senator now knows that he is calling for what Business Insider defines as “large-scale, unguided bombing,” which military experts insist would be a horrible strategy. You don’t remove warts with bulldozers.

Cruz also claims that Trump is actually weaker on immigration than he is. What does that say? “I’ll see your gimmick and raise it by a million . . . people!”

And Rubio, poor Rubio, seems like he is trying to stay out of trouble until voters come to their senses. The Republican Party establishment is hastily huddling around him. If Rubio can find within himself what he lacks, grace under pressure, he offers perhaps the best shot at derailing Trump. In last evening’s debate in Houston, the part-time Florida Senator seemed unscripted, even nimble, in his engagement with the front-runner, so there may be hope.

But time grows short, not only for Republicans, but for all Americans. Sick with the urgency of Super Tuesday, I state directly what is a matter of conscience: setting aside for a moment the criticisms Democrats richly deserve, moderate Republicans need to reclaim their party’s integrity and live up to its claim to be the Party of Lincoln.

I wish these harsh words applied only to the primaries in the months ahead, but the mere conceivability of a Trump or Cruz presidency is the result of Republican conduct in recent years. (Again, I admit that my party’s transgressions are abundant, but Democrats aren’t lustily casting ballots for a candidate who routinely uses vulgar language on the stump and threatens his opposition with frivolous lawsuits.)

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Name that country. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

In 2012 Thomas E. Mann and Norman J. Ornstein, one Republican and the other Democrat, published an article in the Washington Post with a provocative title: “Let’s Just Say It: Republicans Are the Problem.” An excerpt summarizes their argument:

“We have been studying Washington politics and Congress for more than 40 years, and never have we seen them this dysfunctional. In our past writings, we have criticized both parties when we believed it was warranted. Today, however, we have no choice but to acknowledge that the core of the problem lies with the Republican Party. The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.”

Examples of Mann and Ornstein’s charges are legion, but for brevity’s sake I’ll limit myself to two.

It’s no secret that Republicans are hell-bent on repealing Obama’s Affordable Care Act. All Republican candidates for President are locked and loaded. Gone are the days of accepting congressional votes as laws of the land and moving on—long gone. Since the ACA became law on March 23, 2010, “The House GOP has voted over 50 times to repeal all or parts of the health bill. Almost all of the bills died in the Senate” (AP report). Any bill reaching the President’s desk would get a swift veto. In other words, the House has held over four dozen symbolic votes, which seem little more than a silly waste of time until you consider what a House vote costs taxpayers. CBS News estimated in 2013, when the symbols stood at 33, that each vote cost about $1.45 million. So today, $1,450,000 x 50 = $72,500,000. Contemplate this. We’re talking about $75 million-worth of chest puffing and foot stomping, and we funded it. What’s more, we all know the definition of insanity (never mind understanding and accepting mathematical facts).

The other example I’ll mention of toxic Republican conduct is fresh, not yet played out. Antonin Scalia’s body was still warm—only a slight exaggeration—when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said a replacement shouldn’t be named until after a new President takes office. A couple days ago Senate Republican leaders announced that shouldn’t has solidified into won’t. The New York Times reports McConnell’s edict: “This nomination will be determined by whoever wins the presidency in the polls. I agree with the Judiciary Committee’s recommendation that we not have hearings. In short, there will not be action taken.”

Why not? When I sort through the answers, what I hear is Bartleby the Scrivener’s response: “I would prefer not to.” Or “you can’t make me.”

So this is where we stand. The constitutional and traditional duties of governance can be simply waved off. Given the strategy of obstruction employed by Republicans since President Barack Hussein Obama took office in 2009, should anyone be surprised that the party establishment is betting its farm on a Senator who shirked his responsibilities before the paint in his Capital Hill office was dry?

In fact, the thus-far successful candidacy of Donald Trump is built upon the Republican Party’s recent performance reduced to a sophomoric gesture. Conservative columnist Michael Gerson calls the front-runner’s way “the political philosophy of the middle finger.” These are words, not mine:

This philosophy “assumes that practices we know are wrong in our private lives—contempt, mockery, cruelty, prejudice—are somehow justified in our political lives. It requires us to embrace views and tactics that we would never teach our children—but do, in fact, teach them through ethically degraded politics. Imagine your teenage son (or daughter, for that matter) calling a woman a ‘fat pig,’ ‘dog,’ ‘disgusting animal’ or ‘bimbo.’ Imagine your child labeling someone he or she knows as a ‘loser,’ ‘moron’ or ‘dummy.’

This is the evidence of poor character, in any context. For Christians, the price of entry to the Trump movement is to abandon their commitments to kindness and love of neighbor. Which would mean their faith has no public consequence at all.

I can imagine how maddening it must be to feel lectured about something as massive and abstract as one’s political party, but I risk being a scold for the sake of conscience. Hardly ever do I hear Republicans admitting that their party’s actions in recent years have done great damage and their leading candidate for the highest office in the land is unacceptable. (And, now, endorsed by Chris Christie. I’m stunned.)

Any effective intervention begins with accepting responsibility. As a private citizen and a Democrat—and out of love for you and country—I call upon moderate Republicans for the moment to resist attacking me and accept their party’s role in our current national situation.

And I promise to take seriously any appropriately-worded, well-substantiated criticism of the Democratic Party. My party may well need an intervention, which I’ll endure with a light heart, on one condition: given present circumstances, you go first, please.

Respectfully yours,

John Coleman

Erie, Pennsylvania

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Oniontown Pastoral #1: My Wife Sleeping

Oniontown Pastoral #1: My Wife Sleeping

IMG_4284I’ve been going to bed by 9:00 p.m. lately and waking up several times during the night–changes in established rhythms. Wife Kathy and I have pruned home to 1000 square feet. My pastor work has slimmed to part-time to make room for writing. And Kathy cries out whenever she rolls over.

As our friends know, Kathy climbed to unfurl the royals on Brig Niagara. She put a new roof on our old house, remodeled the bathroom, fashioned a patio out of salvaged brick, and planted flowers I could never name.

When we bought our little house, which I call the hermitage, Kathy willed the dingy place into fresh order with elbow grease and doggedness. She has big plans: a vegetable and herb garden with raised beds; a deck cobbled together with wood from a backdoor ramp she will saw into pieces; and, of course, flowers.

Kathy has plans, but as we found out a few weeks ago, she also has rheumatoid arthritis. Questions still outnumber answers. Will medication help? Diet? Exercise? Can the condition be coaxed into remission?

She has swollen joints, particularly at the fingers and wrists, and pain all around. A steroid helps for now, but it’s not a long-term solution. Her spirit still sings. Just now she sent me this message: “I hope you are enjoying your morning writing time. You should try to get out for a walk today. What a lovely day. Love you.”

Lovely day, indeed. Lovely human being!

This morning at 1:48 I woke up, sipped some water, and watched Kathy sleep. She should win awards for the dexterity and variety of her snoring. A couple of exhales in a row, her throat sounded like a playing card being flip-flip-flipped by bicycle spokes.

When I smoothed hair away from her forehead, she started. “Oh, I’m sorry,” I said. For the first time in my life, I heard a complete, discernible sentence uttered in mmms. Cadence alone provided the words: “Oh, that’s okay. You can put your hand on my head.”

So I held her hair between the fingers of one hand, rested the other on her puffed out knuckles, and prayed—sort of. If wanting to draw pain out of my wife by touch, to take it upon myself, counts as prayer, then I prayed.

And if “Oh, my dear” counts, then I prayed without ceasing. How many times did moving a little bring rapid breaths and four or five ows out of her sleep?

“Your hands?” I asked.

“My leg,” she answered.

“Oh, my dear.”

She returned to snoring. I looked at her face and longed for a miracle, but I’m eccentric, a pastoral black sheep. You would expect articulate petitions from a trained theologian, but I pray best by breathing.

Each time Kathy resumed snoring, I drew close again and kept vigil. In our shadowy bedroom, we lay bathed in holy light.

One belief granted me sleep: every cry ripples in the waters of Eternal Love.

P. S. Please stay tuned for further Oniontown Pastoral posts and other explanations and solutions.

I Want to Be “Decisive” When I Grow Up

I guess decisive is the word. Maybe it’s convinced. Or certain. But since I’m fifty-something, the question of what I’ll be when I grow up is academic.

I am what I am, which is discerning. Discernment’s pace toward decisions is stately. It’s focused, but patient. That’s me. I’m comfortable with interesting and hmm. No need to stampede toward conclusions.

Practically speaking, I’m how rich and what poor. I know, for example, how to sit with people and listen, but am nearly clueless when it comes to what they should do. I can figure out how to string sentences together, but readers these days pay to be told what to do, and I suck at that. After “secure that smartphone and pay attention to your kid, wife, husband, and ferret Rafael,” my prescriptions run out.

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Raphael (Credit: Wikipedia)

My life-management skills are sketchy. Walking with you? That I can do. Giving you a plan or grid or diet? Don’t look at me. This is a suspect orientation for a Lutheran pastor and writer. Men who get paid to wag their chins on Sunday mornings and volunteer their personal essays for Internet consumption should clarify more often than mystify.

Here’s a brief study in what I’m bleating about. If I were a decisive grown up, you would be reading a compelling case for one of the characters currently plotting to be President of the United States of America. What a rush it would be to write with the conviction of, say, former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, who can tell you exactly whom to vote for and why.

I wish. Like hundreds of thoughtful citizens, I’ve been grazing in the unkempt fields of campaign coverage and punditry. Two states into the meal, I’ve strayed into gray pastures, nauseous with uncertainty. What I’ve got to say may feel good, but mostly as a purgative.

  • Does the news media manufacture—or at least feed—nerved up realities? Why the breathless, urgent reactions to voting in two Wonder Bread states—no insult intended (Iowa: 92.1% white; New Hampshire: 94% white)? Talk about racism! The suggestion that any candidate is already washed up comes from a malnourished perspective. Would Harry Carry have declared the game over if the Cubs gave up a couple of runs in the first inning? Do cancer patients call off chemotherapy when hair starts to fall out? Come on.
  • What is the most important consideration in voting for President of the United States? Platform? Experience? Promises? Charisma? The older I get, the more I care about intelligence and integrity. Maybe this concern grows out of my cynical hunch that some candidates don’t believe in much of anything—a whoredom that trumps all other prostitutions. I remember decades ago elders saying that they would vote for somebody from the other party; they rooted for the best person for the job. The sentiment is worth revisiting. How much stock should we place in a candidate’s humanity? You can study up on economics. But can you acquire character?
  • Is a revolution really the best corrective to our current governmental dysfunction? I acknowledge the appeal of a righteous battle, the blood rush and passion, the idealism and purity, the triumph of justice and common sense. There’s no shortage of revolts being proposed as we all pant for the results in South Carolina and Nevada. Bernie Sanders has employed the r-word itself. Other candidates vary the diction but stump in the same genre. Although I’m not without sympathy for Sanders’ uprising and even saw merit in Ron Paul’s long-shot crusade, revolutions have drawbacks. The Tea Party has been throwing everything not bolted down into the Potomac for a few years now, which has done nothing but dam up the government. How likely is it, then, that another revolution would yield better results? Nothing beats the language of war for whipping voters into a bloody foam, but if brawling remains our go-to legislative strategy, we’ll have to name Mathew Brady our Capital Hill Photographer. And 2.) losers in a revolution—and there can’t not be losers—go home pissed off and start plotting their revenge.

I could happily go on, speculating about the place of objective truth (what little there is) and manners in politics, but who really wants to follow me further into what started as a dreary example of one Lutheran pastor’s turn of mind?

The point, for anybody still awake, is me—by which I mean, maybe you, too. I’ll put myself in your shoes. Let’s see if I’m warm.

  • Every day is a litany of fast judgments and flawless answers. Television knows the best seat for surviving a plane crash and how to weave to escape a shooter. Family-friends-whoever cure timeless worldly ills with one flippant sentence. The lovely can transform the normal for three easy payments. You say, “I wish I were so sure.” Or “How can anybody be so impossibly full of crap?”
  • You’re overwhelmed, weary with information, each expert shaking you by the lapels. Even as you purchase another plan, your own wisdom speaks: “Tend first to your troubled heart, beloved.” “Hush up,” you respond, for the hundredth time, and swipe your credit card.
  • Part of you hangs onto the belief that you’ll feel settled eventually, at peace and complete. You’ll be grown up, a finished human being.
  • Then, sweet then: questions and doubts will fall silent. You won’t be vulnerable anymore. You won’t have to be humble either, but you will.
  • Long before the polls open, your choice will be set.

If your shoes don’t fit me, please forgive my presumption. But if they do, I’m guessing you have balm for humanity in your soul. If only somebody would listen, you would say, “Let’s pay attention to how we treat each other. Then what we should do to fix the world would be clear.”

As for me, I’m not decisive enough to speak up–afraid of sounding frivilous. Until I grow up, I’ll just say that I’m discerning.

Thus Spake the Rabbi

My stride has been ragged lately, my groove flummoxed. As the poet said, “Nothing is plumb, level, or square.” Or the politician: “What a terrible thing it is to lose one’s mind. Or not to have a mind at all. How true that is.”

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Old buddy Watson, twelve years of family joy

Joy is largely to blame. Wife Kathy and I had friends over the other night to catch up. When eyes turned toward me, I said, “I’m happy,” which took some explaining. During the last couple of years, though surrounded by more love and support than anyone deserves, I have been tired and stressed. Maybe burnout is the word. Against all worldly good sense, Kathy and I raided my retirement funds and bought a hermit-sized home. (“You might come to regret that,” an old colleague said, and I couldn’t disagree.) I left a fourteen-year, full-time pastorate and accepted a part-time call seventy miles south of Erie, right through the region’s snow belt. Oh, and we haven’t sold our big house yet.

We Colemans have either lost our minds or found them. It could be that you have to lose one mind to find another. Since gladness and good sense seldom form right angles, I’m not surprised that my stride and groove—constructs of a neurotic brain—are stepping lightly these days.

I didn’t use these words exactly to unpack “I’m happy” for my friends, but they understood. Forced to choose between weary, anxious circumstances standing in crisp formation or calm ambiguity weaving like a drunkard, I’ll take the latter.

That is to say, I have taken the latter and am learning to embrace uncertainty and surprises. Lately sleep has been whimsical. A new work schedule has taken issue with my long-standing afternoon habit of napping. Like an AARP veteran, I’m reading in bed at 8:30 p.m. and surrendering by 9:00 or 9:30. The result: I wake up at 2:00 a.m., float to the bathroom, return to bed, and abide in a space that is to sleep what free association is to therapy.

Neither refreshed enough to get up nor drowsy enough to disappear, I breathe. Deep breaths, yes, but not those of my past, taken to lift a burden just enough to endure another hour or hush a remark that can’t be retrieved. If insomnia is an enemy, my peculiar wakefulness is a bearer of gifts.

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A bulge on the forehead: “soon and very soon,” Watson

Darkness is upsetting if you’re trying to find something, but it’s a gentle companion if you’re waiting to be found. A few nights ago snoring found me, not my own, but wife’s and dog’s. The sounds, joining for a moment then going their own ways, were blessings. Kathy has been swollen, weak, and achy for the last couple of months, and neither we nor the doctors know why. No matter what noise it makes, her sleep is medicinal. I welcome it. And Watson has weeks rather than months to live. The fatty tumor on his flank is getting hard. The growth on his forehead pains him more by the day. I now hope to come home and find that he has slipped away while dreaming that he and I are going for a run like we did years ago. His snore means that we don’t have to say goodbye quite yet. God bless his kind soul, even our walls and floors will miss him. I think now of his eyes, alive and expectant when Kathy and I left him this morning, and am close to undone.

The first decoration I nailed up in the Coleman’s new home is wisdom from a rabbi, Abraham Joshua Heschel.

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Thus spake the rabbi

“Just to be” in a warm bed next to Kathy; “just to live” one more day with Watson: these are the teachings of wakefulness. My chest rises and falls, each in-breath a blessing, each out-breath sacred.

But my darkness isn’t deceptive. It would never say to a lost soul, “Just to be is a blessing.”

Instead I hear, “One corner of your joy will always be uneven, cracked with grief. Whatever mind you possess, it will never be satisfied.”

In this moment, I close my eyes to learn, invite the 2:00 a.m. wakefulness, and hear the rabbi more clearly. Breathing is grace. I survive on love. And I pray: “When my dog dies, Holy One, please help him not to be afraid.”