We’ve seen and heard plenty of talk from Trump. Now we get to decide how to talk about Trump’s presidency. And I hope we’ll choose our words very carefully. We must not normalize his fact-denying, insult-slinging, bully-boy behavior. In particular, I pray that the press will frame his election in a consistent, accurate manner.
I disagree with Rep. John Lewis when he said that Trump is not the legitimate president-elect. This kind of rhetoric does not serve the cause of keeping Trump in check. In fact, although he is neither popular nor elected by popular will, Trump was chosen by the states in accordance with the Constitution through the Electoral College. Dirty tricks were used in the campaign – and voter suppression laws imposed in Republican-led states were the worst of them. But it is impossible to sort out which if any particular subterfuge determined the outcome. In our antiquated method of choosing presidents, a voter in Wyoming has 318% more influence while one in California has 15% less influence than the average American. Sounds a lot like blacks being counted as 3/5 of a human being, according to the original Constitution's system of allocation of representatives in Congress! So while we must accept the results, we must commit ourselves to changing this obsolete system, put in place in part to inflate the power of slave-holding states. This obnoxious historical relic has poisoned two presidential elections in the last 16 years.
Trump’s selection was nothing like a “landslide”. 107,000 votes in three states effectively decided the Electoral College for him. Every single time that Republicans claim he has a mandate from the people, every time they say that the “people have spoken”, every time they claim that Trump had an overwhelming electoral victory, they must be countered respectfully with the fact that he lost the popular vote by 2,865,075, and that even in the states’ Electoral College popular votes, he barely squeaked ahead. He has no basis for claiming that the American people are behind his agenda. Trump's presidency does not reflect the fact that the "people have spoken" for him. Rather, it reflects that the states, tilted in favor of those with small populations, have spoken.
The Republicans stonewalled President Obama by refusing even to consider his Supreme Court nominee. Sen. Mitch McConnell declared that “the American people should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court Justice.” Well, the people spoke in November, and reasonably it can be inferred that they supported Obama’s choice. McConnell said the people, not the states, should have a voice, so he should be held to account accordingly. The Democrats should filibuster any nominee except Merrick Garland for the Supreme Court.
Fifteen states - New Mexico, Nebraska, West Virginia, Idaho, Hawaii, New Hampshire, Maine, Rhode Island, Montana, Delaware, South Dakota, North Dakota, Alaska, Vermont, and Wyoming - have populations lower than the margin by which Hillary Clinton won the popular vote. Connecticut had 2,572,337 eligible voters in 2016, the nearest state’s number to that of Clinton’s margin of victory. Imagine that the entire state of Connecticut, with a population larger than those of 20 states, was barred from participation in the presidential election, and we see how the Electoral College distorts the will of the people. Ultimately it must be eliminated with a Constitutional amendment that provides for a direct election of the president by the American people as a whole. Short of that, there’s an equally effective approach called The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, an agreement among U.S. states and the District of Columbia to award all their respective electoral votes to whichever presidential candidate wins the overall popular vote. Sign the petition to support it now!
Website: JIMBURKLO.COM Weblog: MUSINGS Follow me on twitter: @jtburklo
See a video interview about my new novel, SOULJOURN
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Associate Dean of Religious Life, University of Southern California
Progressive Christians Pray in Solidarity with Muslims at Mosques
Inauguration Day, 1/20, 1 pm
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
--- Martin Niemöller, German Protestant pastor during the Nazi era
Progressive Christians Uniting is mobilizing its network in solidarity and support for Muslims by attending mosques for Friday juma’a prayer on Inauguration Day, 1/20.
Atop the mantel of our fireplace is a creche made of tin by our granddaughter, Rumi, and myself a few years ago. There it will stay through Epiphany, January 6, the day set aside to remember the visit of the three wise men from the east who were the first Gentiles to witness the incarnation of the Christ.
The primary activity of all the figures, and maybe even for the baby, can be summed up in one word: looking. Not just "looking", but "just looking".
My daily mindful prayer practice aims at the same experience.
And for me, it's easier said than done. Because most of the time I'm not just looking. If I'm looking at all, I'm looking for something. Looking up something. Looking into something. Most of my looking has preconditions, prejudices, assumptions. There's something I want, and I'm using my senses to find it.
Looking without preconditions, looking without the intention of seeing any particular thing, looking only for the sake of looking - that's a very different thing.
In the Hollywood hills on weekdays, and out in the wilderness on weekends, I walk with the intention of being as mindful as possible, aiming to take a God's-eye-view of all that is present within and around me. In a recent hike up the Backbone Trail in the Santa Monica Mountains, I looked at my way of looking. I love rocks, fossils, native plants, grand vistas. I find myself looking for these things along the steep trail. And that quest has its own charms and satisfactions. But far greater and deeper is the satisfaction of observing this impulse to "look for", letting it go, and then focusing on "just looking". Looking without any purpose or goal or aim. Just observing what is, as it is, in the moment that it is, then moving on and just looking at what is next, as it is, in the moment that it is. Without naming or describing or presuming anything about what is. And then being aware that the One within me who looks is beyond observation, liberated from temporality and judgment and opinion and evaluation and description. This kind of looking leads to awe and wonder and discovery: it's the wellspring of creativity. It makes it possible for us to see human needs that might otherwise have escaped our everyday attention. After a while of practicing this way of looking, I began to appreciate what I was seeing on its own terms, not just my own. The beauty of the landscape around me, as a whole and in its particulars, was amplified.
Such is the looking of the figures in the creche scene at the birth of Jesus. It is a window into the eternal quality of the now, an icon of the divine point of view. It is slack-jawed, timeless, aimless, free, worshipful Awe that is Love that is God. Maybe the wise men came to Bethlehem looking for the newborn King. But when they got there, and laid down their gifts, I like to think that they ended that quest and just looked at a little baby lying in the hay. Without believing anything about him, without assuming anything about him, without defining him. Just looking with full attention, total presence, pure love.
So, too, the shepherds looked. They had been "keeping watch" over their sheep. Then they were "keeping watch" over Jesus. Just looking.
So it was with the angels who were present in the myth of Christmas. The biblical Greek word for angel means "messenger". Somebody who reports on what is, as it is. Not on what is supposed to be. Not on what we wish it was. Angels "watch over": they just look, and then report what they see. The Greek word for "gospel" is related: "euangelion" or "good message". The gospel is what we see when we just look at what is, as it is, when and where it is, without filters or interpretations or preconceptions.
It's an epiphany - the biblical Greek word for a sudden appearance or manifestation - to discover the difference between "looking for" and "just looking". When I'm "just looking", I see incarnations of God that I might miss when I'm "looking for".
A "posadas" procession at the US/Mexico border in Arizona, 2015
"Las Posadas" is an old Mexican tradition enacting the effort by Mary and Joseph to find a place to stay on Christmas Eve. Actors depicting Mary and Joseph wander from "inn" to "inn" asking for a room, with a singing candlelight procession following them through the town. A link to the tune of the song: Pidiendo Posada. Here I offer my own words for the tune:
At each stop (4 inns plus the final destination), everyone sings:
Help us, dear innkeeper, we’re seeking shelter
Mary is pregnant, about to deliver
Help us, dear innkeeper, find a place to stay;
Mary must rest, for the baby is now on its way!
At each of the four stops the innkeepers answer:
We have no rooms and the hour is too late
You are too poor for our high nightly rate
Go down the highway and seek a cheaper place
Maybe you’ll find one that still has some space.
At the final destination, the innkeeper sings:
Welcome, dear travelers, wand’ring so far
Stumbling along by the light of a star
We have no rooms but we’ve got a place to stay
Back in our manger we’ll make you a bed in the hay.
All sing in response:
Jesus was born in a humble little manger
Honor him now as you welcome the stranger
Offer him room in your heart and soul tonight
Join in the spirit of giving and sharing his light.
When Yeshua was born, a star exploded in the sky, angels sang, and three astrologers from the East came to honor him. And shepherds came, too. They sat before the manger where the little baby lay. The astrologers placed treasures of gold, frankincense, and myrrh before the child. One of the shepherds took a little clay bird-shaped ocarina out of his tunic and blew a simple, joyful tune, his fingers dancing over its little holes as he blew through the hole in the bird's mouth. Then he set it next to the other treasures as a gift to the baby.
As he grew, the clay ocarina was Yeshua's most prized possession. Gold, frankincense, and myrrh were useless as playthings! Yeshua wandered the dusty streets of Nazareth playing simple, joyful tunes. Until one day, when a group of older boys grabbed it away from him. "We hate your music!" they yelled and taunted. One of them smashed the clay bird on a rock, breaking it to bits, and they laughed as they ran away.
It happened in front of Ezra's workshop.
The potter, his hands spattered with wet clay, heard the commotion and looked over the wall. He saw tears running down Yeshua’s cheeks. He brought the boy into his workshop. "The bird was my best friend!" wept Yeshua. Ezra wrapped his arm around Yeshua's shoulder. "Remember this, when people reject you or hurt you. Just like your ocarina was made from a lump of clay, so God made you out of a lump of clay and breathed life into you. That breath is forever, and nobody can take it away from you, even if they break your clay. Always remember who you are: the eternal breath of God. Here, sit next to me. I’ll give you some clay and you can make yourself a new friend out of it.”
Yeshua wiped the tears from his eyes, and quietly sat down at Ezra's work bench with the lump of clay. He looked at it for a while. He thought about what Ezra had said.
Dipping his hand in a basin of water to keep the clay wet, as Ezra had taught him, he slowly, carefully worked.
“Here, Ezra,” said Yeshua. “Do you like it?”
“Oh! What a beautiful bird! Your new friend! What beautiful feathers you have marked into the clay!” asked Ezra. "But he only has one hole, in his mouth..."
“That’s so she can breathe,” said Yeshua. “So she can be alive, and make music all by herself.”
Ezra laughed. “That’s wonderful! Now you wash up and go home, and come back tomorrow. I’m going to fire your bird in the oven to make it hard. Tomorrow you can pick it up and take it with you!”
Yeshua thanked him and walked home, feeling happy inside.
The next day, he went to the shop of Ezra the potter. The bird was on a rough wooden plank near the potting wheel. It was hard and smooth and beautiful. “Do you like it?” asked Ezra.
Yeshua smiled as he stroked it and held it close to his chest. “Oh yes, I like it!” he said, looking into Ezra’s eyes with grateful joy.
And then Yeshua put his lips around the beak of the clay bird. “You’re going to make it breathe?” Ezra laughed. Yeshua nodded and blew into the clay bird.
Ezra’s jaw dropped as he saw the tail of the bird twitch once, then twice. Where marks on clay once had been, real feathers spread out and fluttered. Yeshua held the bird in his hand as it came to life, its clay eyes giving way to bright, glistening ones; its beak moving as it sang. Ezra backed up, terrified. “No, no, it can’t be!” he muttered.
The bird flew up and around Yeshua’s head a few times, singing beautifully, and then returned to perch on his hand. “Be free,” said Yeshua. “And always remember who you are!” The bird rose up and circled his head over and over, chirping wildly, and then flew away.
Ezra was shaking with fear. “Don’t be afraid!” Yeshua said. “Thank you, Ezra. You made me feel better yesterday. You reminded me of who I really am. And you helped me find a friend!” Ezra blubbered a response as Yeshua ran joyfully home.
When Yeshua was a young man, he went to the Jordan River to be baptized. His cousin, John, did a ceremony of washing people clean of their mistakes and failures, so they could feel closer to God. Yeshua wanted to be as close to God as he possibly could get.
John was surprised when he saw his cousin standing in the line by the river, waiting to be baptized. John wondered if Yeshua had ever made a mistake or had any failures. Yeshua was the kindest person John had ever known. Why would he need to be washed clean? But Yeshua had his reasons, and wanted John to do the ceremony. And as soon as John poured the water over Yeshua’s head, standing in the middle of the river, the bird appeared over them. Yeshua looked up and saw it. “My friend! You’ve returned!” And the bird circled his head, over and over, chirping excitedly. Yeshua put out his hand and the bird landed on it. The bird chirped, and Yeshua spoke to it in return. As their conversation continued, John fell on his knees in the river, and as the water rushed around him, he prayed that he could be as close to God as was his cousin Yeshua.
After a while, as the people waiting by the river stared in amazement, the bird flew out of Yeshua's hand, and Yeshua followed it.
Above the river was a desolate land of dry and rocky canyons. The bird led Yeshua into one of the canyons, and up the side of a ridge he climbed, until the bird landed on a rock above a flat spot with a view of the valley below. Yeshua sat down, and there he stayed for forty days and forty nights, with the bird sitting above him.
In the middle of the day, he sweated in the hot sun. In the middle of the night, he shivered in the cold wind. He was hungry and thirsty. Over and over and over again, a question repeated itself in his mind: “Who am I?”
Strange, frightening dreams came to him. Or were they real? One night, a voice whispered to him: “I know who you are! You’re a sorcerer. You can make a clay bird fly. So you can make these stones into bread! Prove me right! You can do it!” Yeshua stared at the rocks around him, and in his hunger he wanted more than anything to turn them into loaves of bread. “No!” he yelled aloud into the desert emptiness, his voice echoing. “No! I am not a sorcerer! I’m here for another reason!”
“You are an all-powerful king,” whispered the voice on another night. “Look out over the valley, and the lands beyond. It’s all yours! I know who you are. You are the king of Israel! You have the power of life and death over all the people of this land.” Yeshua trembled, tempted to believe it. “No! No! I am not the new King Herod!”
A week later, the voice whispered again, even more insistently: “You are the all-mighty one! Jump down into the canyon below you. You’ll land on your feet! Prove me right! You’re a superhero!” And Yeshua stared down into the deep, stony canyon, and shrieked “No! No! I have a higher purpose than working wonders!”
On the morning after the fortieth night, the bird fluttered right over his head, trying to get his attention. He was so exhausted, body and soul, that he didn’t notice it at first. The bird fluttered in front of his face. He put out the palm of his hand and instead of landing, the bird dropped a sweet date into it. Yeshua ate it. The bird flew down to the palm grove in the valley far below, and brought back another one for Yeshua, and kept delivering dates to him until he was strong enough to stand up. “Thank you!” he cried out to the bird when it had brought him the last date. “Now I know who I am!” The bird flew high over him and disappeared.
Yeshua walked back over the mountains to the populated side of the country. He became a rabbi and wandered from town to town, teaching and healing. One day, he led a large group of people to a hillside and gave them lessons about how to get closer to God and be kinder to each other. Suddenly the bird flew to him, circled his head over and over, chirping loudly. The crowd was amazed. He reached into his pouch and pulled out some crumbs of bread and put them in on his palm and offered them to the bird, which landed on his hand and ate them. “Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life!” He lifted up his hand and the bird flew away.
As the people were leaving, Yeshua saw that Ezra was in the crowd. They embraced. “I’ve never forgotten your kindness to me that day when I was a little boy,” said Yeshua. “You were there to help me when I needed a friend.” Yeshua told Ezra of the times when the bird had visited him.
“The clay bird visited you today,” said Ezra. “I recognized it. I hope it still reminds you of who you really are.”
“It does, dear Ezra, it does!” said Yeshua, embracing him again.
Yeshua had many followers who wanted to join him in being close to God and being compassionate to each other. But others were jealous of his fame. They were afraid he might become too powerful and deprive them of their wealth and influence. So they decided to kill him. They bribed one of his friends to betray him, and they caught him and took him away to be beaten and then crucified.
Ezra was there, standing behind the crowds that watched what was happening to Yeshua, hoping and praying that somehow his life could be spared. When he looked toward the cross, he saw the bird flying frantically around Yeshua, chirping. Ezra watched it fly to a date tree and bring back fruit for Yeshua, who didn’t have the strength to eat it. But when Yeshua saw his friend, the bird, he remembered again who he was. He got up just enough strength to utter these words: “Forgive them!” And then he died.
After the soldiers took Yeshua down and carried his body away from the cross, and the crowds walked away, Ezra went up to the cross to see if the bird was still there. There was only silence. No fluttering of wings, no singing. But there, at the bottom of the cross, was the clay bird that Yeshua had made so many years before.
Ezra picked it up, whispered a prayer, and then blew into its beak. He held it out in hope that it would come alive and fly away, but there it remained, smooth and hard, in the palm of his hand.
Fifty-three days later, Yeshua’s friends held a secret meeting in Jerusalem, and Ezra attended, carrying the clay bird with him. The room was packed with people who were talking all at once. Some were crying, some were arguing. “Who are we, now that Yeshua is gone?” In the midst of the confusion, Ezra elbowed his way to the middle of the room and lifted the clay bird to his lips and blew into its beak. The people stared at him, confused. "Trust me!" he yelled. "Each of you, blow into the beak of the clay bird!" The crowd went silent. He held it up to the lips of each person in the room.
And just as the last person blew into the bird's beak, it came alive, and flew out the window. Seconds later, it returned, leading a flock of birds into the room. The flapping of the birds’ wings stirred the air like a strong wind, and all the people in the room were amazed. And then the bird flew around the room in a circle, and led the rest of the birds outside and away.
As the people stood in stunned silence, Ezra began to speak. He told the story of how Yeshua had made the clay bird come alive when he was a child, and how it came back to him to remind him of who he was. He told them how he found the clay bird at the foot of the cross when Yeshua died. And when Ezra finished the story, he said, “You and Yeshua are one, as long as you stay together as a community, remembering him. You, like he, are the breath of God that brought you to life. So go, fly free, serve each other and everyone you meet. Remember who you are, and stay as close to God as you can!”
NOTES: This story is based on myths about Jesus (Yeshua in Hebrew) that appear in the Bible and in other traditions. The Koran (in Surahs 3:49 and 5:110) says that Jesus (Isa) made a clay bird and then brought it to life to make it sing. The Infancy Gospel of Thomas, a non-canonical early Christian document, says that, at age 5, Jesus made twelve sparrows out of clay, clapped his hands, and they flew away. In Matthew 3, a dove alighted on Jesus when he was baptized by John in the Jordan, and in Matthew 4, “angels came and waited on him (Jesus)” at the end of his forty day temptation in the wilderness. Matthew 6 includes the part of Jesus’ sermon on the Mount about looking at the birds of the air. In Acts 2, the followers of Jesus gathered for the celebration of Pentecost after Jesus’ death and resurrection, and “suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.”
(This is a longer version of what I shared on Monday 11-14 with my students in the Public Policy course I teach at the USC graduate School of Social Work. Most of them are very disturbed with the results of the election. About half of them have undocumented relatives, and are deeply concerned with their fate.)
I had been transformed from a upstanding professional gentleman into a member of the underclass, in one second.
But when I got off the train, my wife, who is lovely in every way, scooped me up in our Prius and drove me to our nice house in the Hollywood hills, where a shower and clean clothes awaited me. In an hour I was an upstanding professional gentleman once again: bruised and scratched a bit, but otherwise presentable.
"The good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life." I cannot think of a more perfect summation of my face-plant incident than this one from the legendary Jane Addams, the mother of the social work profession and of the public child welfare system of America. This sentence was the product of her Christian faith put into daily practice. I "secured good for myself" by choosing and marrying a remarkably wonderful woman, working hard to get through school, and getting and keeping a great job that pays well and affords my family excellent health insurance. But as I sat on the train, stanching blood from my lip with my hankie, I looked around myself at the regular riders on the Blue Line. It's the train that runs through South Central LA. A lot of those folks had nobody to pick them up at the end of the line, nobody to comfort them and whisk them away to get cleaned up and better-dressed. Had they worked any less to get what little they had? Did I deserve my advantages any more than they deserved their disadvantages? In my condition, it was harder than ever to answer in the affirmative.
My face-to-face encounter with the pavement was one of those "values clarification moments". It reminded me why I vote for political candidates who are committed to social justice. striving to create a society that ensures real help in fall-down-flat situations: those disasters that are not "respecters of persons" (Acts 10:34, KJV).
The philosopher John Rawls undergirded Jane Addams' values when he posited a hypothetical gathering of the unborn. What kind of social arrangements would we make if we collectively designed them before knowing what sex, race, ethnicity, nationality, and social-economic status we would enter as babies? It is hard to imagine that we'd choose the current American system of wildly unequal access to good medical care and schools, inadequate social insurance, and extreme differences in exposures to crime and pollution. It is hard to imagine that in a constitutional convention of the unborn, they would fail to choose what prevails in Sweden, Denmark, and Norway: relatively low income inequality, generous social insurance, universal health care, excellent free education for all, lively democracy, freedom of speech, religion, conscience, and enterprise.
I'm voting for the candidates with policy positions that align most closely with this vision. Life is precarious for us all. We're vertical one second, horizontal the next. We're all on the Blue Line train together, hurtling into an uncertain future. We owe it to each other, and to the Divine Love that binds us all together, to set things up so that there will be comfort and care for everybody at the end of the line - no matter the circumstances into which they were born.
(Here's how I'm voting: VOTIVATOR: My Voting Choices, Nov 8 )
Putting Ritual Into Voting
by Jim Burklo
“Voting is a ceremony,” writes the philosopher, Paul Woodruff: “... it is an expression of reverence – not for our government or our laws, not for anything man-made, but for the very idea that ordinary people are more important than the juggernauts that seem to rule them.” The likelihood that any one person’s vote would decide an election is miniscule. People don’t vote because they think their ballot will decide the outcome. They do so because it is a ritual that is meaningful for them.
So let's put ritual back into voting, so that our hearts will move our hands to mark our ballots for the common good.
As you put your absentee ballot in the mail, or turn in your ballot at the polling place, salute it and say: "I salute all those Americans who risked their lives for my right to vote!"
Ask your friends and family members, or in a ritual in worship, asking parishioners: "With which hand will you be voting on November 8?" Take that hand and hold it with yours, and say: "May love (or God) guide your hand to vote for the common good!"
Here's a song for worship on November 6, celebrating our commitment to work, and vote, for the common good:
DEEPER LOVE: a hymn
Use freely, with attribution
(words: Jim Burklo, tune: O Waly Waly - The Water is Wide)
For deeper love we share the bread
I won’t be full till all are fed
Till every soul has home and bed
The rest of us can’t move ahead
For deeper love we share the wine
I cannot taste the love divine
Till every soul has walked the line
And you’ve had yours like I’ve had mine
Now Mary sings her birthing song
Till every voice can sing along
And voices weak will rise up strong
Her choir is one where all belong
No one’s saved till all are healed
As Jesus on the Mount revealed
Your life and mine forever sealed
Just like the lilies of the field
We follow where the Christ has led
To table that for all is spread
And no one’s sitting at the head
But deeper love in wine and bread
Website: JIMBURKLO.COM Weblog: MUSINGS Follow me on twitter: @jtburklo
See a video interview about my new novel, SOULJOURN
See the GUIDE to my articles and books
Associate Dean of Religious Life, University of Southern California