The Shadow Rising


I’m interrupting my series on simplism because I’ve been hearing and reading so much foolishness and downright filth on what passes today for TV news and on Facebook. None of it is new, but it’s still dangerous because it influences us. Nothing evil, by which I mean harmful and corrupting, ever goes away but keeps resurfacing in slightly new forms to trouble the world again. I’m reminded of something Tolkien’s wizard Gandalf says in a chapter of The Lord of the Rings called “The Shadow of the Past”: “Always after a defeat and a respite, the Shadow takes another shape and grows again.”

Just this morning, I have read comments asserting that Hitler gave refuge to Jews and didn’t hate them but only opposed Zionism. Another asked why there are even Muslims in the United States to be put into detention camps. Another came from a shopkeeper who apparently thinks people mind that he salutes the flag, says “God bless America” and “Merry Christmas,” and appreciates the service rendered by police officers and firefighters. Doing any of those things he imagines to be “politically incorrect” could be in itself pleasant, affirming of the good, and harmless, but when laced with belligerence turns mean and ugly.

“God bless America” doesn’t have to be belligerent but can be our particular homeland part of, “God bless the world, all its people, and all its non-human creatures as well.” “Merry Christmas” doesn’t have to be shouted or snarled in people’s faces but can be said as a cheerful well-wish in the same spirit as Tiny Tim’s, “God bless us, everyone.” Saluting the flag can be an act of respect and personal commitment to the common welfare of the nation; it need not be bellicose and arrogant toward other nations and peoples. Appreciating the stressful, often dangerous and sometimes heroic service of police officers and firefighters does not exclude seeking to end the abuses of police power and the racism much too frequent and sometimes deeply ingrained. Indeed, caring about the quality of police work is necessary to respecting its service.

It’s easy to mock political correctness when it gets pushed to silly extremes, although I would caution against too quickly assuming that what sounds strange is therefore silly without trying to understand what the issue might be and where harm might lie. Much, however, of what gets scorned as “PC” is really respectful of people who have been denied respect in our society. People get testy when others don’t laugh at their jokes which were considered funny fifty years ago and are still commonplace as in-group humor in like-minded and like-prejudiced gatherings.

Politically, we are living in a season of self-serving attempts to make frustrated and fearful people dangerously angry, and it’s working. Economic hard times always breed resentment and suspicion of unpopular minorities, and we are still living in an economically hard time for many. Shouting at each other online isn’t helping, and now people are shouting at each other in public places, and the rage is escalating. Mocking each other isn’t helping, either.

The shadow is rising among us. We greatly need to stop looking at each other as enemies. We really are in this thing together, this thing called life. We don’t have to agree with each other, but understanding and respect would go a long way toward bringing us back into the light together.

God’s Name Is Not Norm


During my forty years of pastoral ministry, I often found that people who came to me in some type of personal distress were not looking for in-depth counseling or for someone to solve their problems but for understanding and reasoned assurance that their distress was valid and normal. Once satisfied that they themselves were not delusional, weak, or defective and that their distress was justified, they felt capable of dealing with the problem themselves. For them, there was the situation itself, and there was their own set of emotional reactions to it. They needed satisfaction that the latter was not wrong or crazy, that their feelings were appropriate, and that the situation was their problem and not they themselves. In these instances, “normal” meant sane, reasonable, understandable, and appropriate. That I was able to understand and walk a short way with them in their distress freed them to work on the situation themselves.

Normal, however, is not always so helpful a category. I’ve just watched a short video in which a black photographer explains the need she discovered some time ago to show black people doing such normal things as registering to vote. In the larger society of the United States, white was considered normal. Black people were not pictured in scenes showing what normal people do but only in scenes showing, often negatively, what specifically black people do. White people were just people because their skin color was not an issue; it was the accepted norm, and photographs of them showed only people and what people do. Black people were black, and black was not the norm; photographs of them were seen as showing black people, not just people.

This distinction between the assumed normal and the other that is not assumed normal underlies the current furor over the declaration, “Black lives matter.”

This distinction between the assumed normal and the other that is not assumed normal underlies the current furor over the declaration, “Black lives matter.” That statement does not say other lives do not matter but simply declares the truth that has been denied and continues to be denied throughout our land. If “all lives” had from the beginning of this nation’s history been assumed to include black lives, female lives, homosexually oriented lives, etc., etc., then there would be no need for the specific declaration that black lives matter. It has long been common knowledge that our famous declaration, “All men are created equal,” referred at the time to all adult, white, male property owners. Neither women nor black slaves were included. Subservient white people who did not own real property were not included, either. Today, responding belligerently or piously to the declaration that black lives matter with a contrary, “All lives matter,” means attempting to shout down the much needed insistence that those left out of the norm be included.

Once decades ago in a presbytery meeting, a woman elder was presented as the nominating committee’s choice for moderator of the presbytery. The outgoing moderator was a man, but his predecessor was a woman. A minister rose to voice his protest: “Do we have some new rule that every other moderator must be a woman?” I bit my tongue because I wanted to rise and ask if we had a rule that every other moderator had to be a man. For that minister, the normal moderator was male. For him, I suspect, a token female as moderator was okay, maybe, but the norm had to be protected. Let’s not start considering a female leader normal.

I could go on. And on and on and on. One of my sons and I are working on the first in a series, we hope, of children’s storybooks. The main human character uses a wheelchair. His family is white. One family is Jewish, another black. Am I being “PC”? The acronym PC, “politically correct,” is used with scorn to protest the respectful acknowledgment of people not considered by the majority to be normal. When the normally left-out are included, people whose sense of normalcy is thereby threatened get offended. What I am doing in writing the stories this way is trying to enable children to see themselves in those stories and in my son’s illustrations. The feeling I want for the young reader is, “Hey, that kid looks like me!” And, “That kid who looks like me is a normal kid in the story.” I can almost hear some voice telling me sarcastically, “You forgot the Muslim!” But, no, I haven’t. If all goes reasonably well, there will be more books in the series. Children, I suspect, will be quite comfortable with the gathering of people and animals. Some adults may be offended, but probably not adults who love someone excluded from the realm of the presumed normal.

A majority that regards itself as the norm pushes out people not included in that norm. Very often, that majority of normal people attributes to God the establishment of the rules and boundaries for what is normal. I have thought to myself that there seem to be many who think God’s name is Norm with reference, not to the name Norman, but to a capitalized Normal from which those who do not fit are piously and sometimes viciously but always harmfully excluded with presumed divine sanction or even divine mandate for the exclusion.

God’s name is not Norm. The God of the Bible is a breaker of norms, and Jesus made a ministry of stepping out of the norm to be with the excluded, entering into the humiliation in which they were forced to live and becoming with them an object of scorn. Christianity cannot become the guardian of the norm without risking the exclusion of its Christ. God is the One who loves the people left out normally.