Category Archives: Serious

National Anthem (revised)

Oh say can you see
In the morning’s stark glare
What an awful mistake
We have loosed upon the world?
At whose hair and broad ties
We can do naught but stare
On the TV each night
As each headline is unfurled?
And his raucous mad blare
As he punches the air
Gives proof if you look
That the man’s not all there
How long will that star spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the deceived, ruled by the depraved?

SPEAK LOCALLY – WITH A GLOBAL VOICE

The problems that we face – such as climate change, inequality, and the resurgence of authoritarianism, nationalism, and militarism – are global in scope and nature. We may feel isolated in our local struggles, but it is a very powerful thing to realize, as I have in the course of my travels, that there are quite literally billions across the planet who are waging similar struggles, feeling similar feelings, and seeking similar solutions. So when you speak locally, use that global voice, knowing that you are not alone.

TWO NOT TEN

I have never quite understood the emphasis that some American Christians put on the so-called “Ten Commandments,” particularly their insistence that governments should use tax dollars to create displays or monuments of them in courts, schools, and other public places.

Not there is anything particularly wrong with the Ten, mind you… It’s just that one might expect that Christians – especially conservative, fundamentalist Christians – would have a preference for the formulation laid out by Yeshua ben Yosef (a/k/a Jesus of Nazareth) himself, as quoted in Matthew, chapter 22:

The Greatest Commandment

34 Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. 35 One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question:36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (NIV; courtesy http://www.biblegateway.com)

I’d say that covers the territory pretty effectively. How many more commandments do we need, anyway? Why the Ten, not the Two?

Besides the fact that this formulation is ever so much shorter, I think it is also much more universal. After all, Jesus says “love the Lord your God,” which could just as well be applied to and accepted by Muslims or Hindus as Christians.

In fact, to me this says: Whoever (or whatever) your God (or guiding principle, or moral code, or object of worship, or purpose in life) happens to be, in short whatever that Most Important Thing in Life is, you should devote yourself to it fully. I think even atheists and freethinkers could get behind an idea like that, semantics nonwithstanding.

There’s your First Commandment sorted out.

As for the Second, I really can’t imagine anyone having a problem with “Love your neighbor as yourself” – unless, of course, one is afflicted with self-loathing or suicidal tendencies…

Well, no, on further thought, let me amend that. Your “rugged individualists” might have some trouble getting their heads around that commandment. I remember a conversation I had with a co-worker one day…

“Skip, what would you do if, after the collapse of civilization, I showed up at your house with my family?”

My response was immediate. “I’d invite you in and share what I could.”

“Right,” he said. “And that is where you and I are different. If our roles were reversed, I’d shoot you immediately – my family’s needs come first.”

He wasn’t being mean about it – indeed, he’s not a mean guy, he’s quite capable of generosity and compassion – but he had obviously thought things through, and made some choices, and those choices didn’t take into account this commandment’s call for community and solidarity.

Well, if these things were easy to do, if they came to us naturally, we wouldn’t need commandments at all, I suppose.

But to get back to the question of why the Ten, and not the Two… I suspect the answer might lie in this: they are two entirely different types of instructions, and those types appeal to different kinds of minds.

Briefly, these two kinds can be called algorithmic and heuristic. Algorithmic instructions are precise, specific, and step-by-step. Recipes calling for exactly two level teaspoons of salt, for example. Follow the algorithm correctly, and you should get the same results every time.

“Add salt to taste,” however, is a heuristic instruction. Heuristics are vaguer, more subjective, and likely to produce different results in different circumstances.

They’re also harder to judge.

If someone violates an algorithm – skips over a step, or doesn’t adhere to the specifications, or eats the wrong food on the wrong day, the error is usually easy to spot – and one can then correct, criticize, punish, or condemn as needed.  But with heuristics, there’s no precise standard, no target to hit or miss – you can only do a better or worse job of trying to follow the guideline.

How can you measure how well someone loves? You can’t – you can only supply feedback, guidance, and encouragement.

So perhaps it’s no surprise that the former, in the form of the Old Testament laws, should appeal to fundamentalists, people who generally show a preference for clear, hierarchical lines of authority and enforcement, unambiguous standards for judgment, and strong sanctions for noncompliance.

Oh, and by the way – that thing about public displays? Unconstitutional on its face, and here’s why. Different religious groups have taken the Old Testament list and broken it up in different ways. Specifically, Catholics and Protestants use different numbering schemes. So any monument that lists the “Ten Commandments” using one scheme or the other would thereby be showing a denominational preference, and that would be in direct violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

Using the Two instead would skirt that problem nicely. Imagine seeing this on our schoolhouses, courthouses, and prisons:

1. Love your God
2. Love your neighbor

And the details are left up to us.

THE PEACE AND JUSTICE FILES: WHEREIN I CALL FOR THE NEXT REPUBLIC

(“Peace and Justice Files” columnist Skip Mendler left the United States on January 19, and is headed towards the Eastern Mediterranean to help with refugee assistance. He’s taking a few stops along the way…)

Lage Vuursche, The Netherlands:

In the course of the years, I have had relationships with a number of cars… most of which have ended badly. My dear early-model Honda Civic took me cross-country twice, but eventually dissolved in winter road salt. My little Ford Festiva hydroplaned on the Northeast Extension on the way home from a demonstration in Philly in 2000, bouncing off a concrete divider while Don Henley was singing “End of the Innocence.” And my Hyundai Elantra… well, it got to the point where we just couldn’t afford the upkeep anymore – and then I realized that I didn’t really need it anyway.

Governments are kinda like that. For one reason or another, you have to get a new one every once in a while. They wear out, or break, or some calamity comes along and makes them unusable, or the cost of maintaining them becomes unsustainable.

I’d like to suggest that we are at that point.

I’ve been in The Hague for the last few days. Yesterday, my walk to the MC Escher Museum (highly recommended, by the way) took me past the US Embassy. Unlike most of the other embassies – indeed, unlike the Dutch Parliament or the royal residences – ours stood behind a high iron fence, ensconced between police command centers, foreboding and unwelcoming, more like a prison or fortress than anything else.

Something about that hit me hard. The day before, I had encountered a demonstration by some Sudanese folks, pressing for the arrest of President Omar al-Bashir, who has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes but not arrested… and I had of course spent the morning getting caught up on the news, reading about gas attacks and retaliatory bombings.

Looking at the flag over the embassy, I felt a wave of grief and shame washing over me. I sat down at the base of a nearby statue and gave myself permission to let it out.

I bawled like a child.

A couple of passing pedestrians check in on me, to make sure I was OK. A few minutes later, a couple of local policemen arrived, very kind, understanding, and sympathetic. We spoke for a while, and I gathered up my psyche and went on my way.

And that’s when it hit me.

It’s time to call for the Next American Republic. This one is broken, worn out, obsolete, and too expensive to maintain – and furthermore, it has been vandalized and tampered with, its safety mechanisms and pollution controls deliberately disabled.

Of course, we can’t go to a new government dealer, or even get a certified “pre-owned” Republic for a replacement. We’ll have to build it ourselves. We can use some of the old parts, maybe, the ones that still work – but before we get to that, we have some design work to do.

So let loose your creative imaginations, your highest ideals, your most fervent hopes:

What features would you like to see… in your Next Republic?


(Send me your ideas at skip.mendler@gmail.com, or post them on Twitter with hashtag #NextRepublic, or reply in comments below.)

Poem for Eustace St. Meeting

In this time of such turbulence and strife
We come into the Silence and here reclaim our life

The powers of the world outside may be deeply shaken
But here, within, the Spirit quietly awakens

And when the touch of Light has eased our pain
We can re-emerge to face the World again

(written at Eustace St. Friends Meeting, Dublin, 5 March 2017)

How It Ends for Donald

Dear Donald,

I have seen your end. It’s not pretty.

It happens at a rally, of course. One of those rallies that you love so much, that feed the gaping hunger in your soul. You are on a roll, and they’re loving it, they’re eating it up, you can tell them anything, promise them anything, ask them to do anything…

But then you slip. You get carried away by the moment, by the intoxicating power. Something comes out of your mouth that you didn’t expect. Something that breaks the spell. The roaring cheer that you expect doesn’t come. Instead, there is silence – an awful, awkward, painful … silence.

You look to your advisors, but they are staring at you, mouths agape. That wasn’t in the script, their faces tell you. You weren’t supposed to go there, not yet, it’s still too soon…

But you went there. And now the crowd is turning.

What happens next seems to be in slow motion. The Secret Service men come to surround you, guns drawn, faces grim, but it’s too late. The crowd has every exit covered. They swarm over the stage like a tsunami, bodies climbing over bodies, the faces that moments before were radiant with adoration now twisted into masks of betrayal and rage. They reach for you, grab at you, yank on your arms, clutch your pants, your feet… and the last thing you hear as you are lifted over their heads, as you feel your joints and tendons giving way, your fine clothes tearing, your heart exploding, is their chant:

“FAKER… FAKER… FAKER…”

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Three Americas

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