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Jesus On the Wisdom of Children

by John K. Stoner (November 24, 2017)

A child knows at a very deep level that he or she is dependent for their very survival on their parents.  And the parents know that their generous love for their child is the key to their child’s survival and flourishing.

Jesus said, “Unless you change and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of God.”  (Matt. 18). 

Why did Jesus bring the child’s relationship of loving dependence into his definition of the kingdom of God?  What does this have to do with the adult world of kings, presidents and premiers?

I wrote on Monday that “Jesus did not present these moral behaviors of enemy love, repeated forgiveness and generous empathy as nice ideas for a few religious folk, but rather as a social strategy for developing a new society—a historically sustainable and psychologically attractive model of human relationships.   He called it all the “kingdom, kingship, or pervasive ideology” of the grain of the universe itself, or of God. The "Good News" According to Jesus

What if his reference to children, and by implication to parents who love them into life and maturity, is Jesus pointing to a way of human relating which is effective and essential for operating a “kingdom”—that is, for running the world, because kingdoms were in his day the way the world was organized?

I believe that Jesus meant, “Unless you acknowledge that your life, your very survival, depends on the generous love of other people, you will not be an informed participant in God’s way of running the world which I am announcing and demonstrating to you with my life.”  Short of this wisdom of children, you will not enter into the kingdom  of God.  

Children and parents know, at some level, that little people need many chances to fail in learning to eat with a spoon, talk, and ride a bicycle.  If their parents condemn and punish them for failures instead of forgiving and encouraging them to try again, all kind of disaster and child abuse will follow.  Jesus was teaching his people that, in the long sweep of history, we remain children through our lives.  Our wisdom and experience are so limited that we never outgrow our need for deep trust on our part and repeated forgvieness on the part of others.  Precious few of us think that we will abuse forgiveness and second chances—why do most of us assume that others will?

So in a sense, today’s blog is a simple invitation (and maybe life’s greatest challenge) to remembering:  remembering both your experience of dependence (vulnerability)  as a child and the generous forgiveness you practiced as a parent.

Some people, indeed, have experienced very little of generous forgiveness.  These are wounded people, and we are becoming  more aware all the time of the grim personal and societal consequences of such sad deprivation. But that is a topic for another blog.  Today, the possibility of doing to others what we would like done to us, and, with courage and hope, doing a little more of good to others than was done to us.

The "Good News" According to Jesus

by John K. Stoner (November 20, 2017)

In today’s blog I will state some of the most basic of my understandings and commitments.  For you, and maybe as much for myself, I’ll try to write down what makes me tick.  Here is why I see what I see and say what I say when I look at our times and world.  

I said on Friday that I will generally start with fundamental principles based on history and/or Bible texts.  And I interpret the Bible through the lens of Jesus.  That substantially shapes my worldview.  I do not think my reading of the Bible and human experience is narrowly confined to my biases though I readily own the fact that I, like you, have my biases.  Here goes.

The good news announced by Jesus is that what you have a number of times in your life suspected to be true is in fact true: the greatest power in the universe is love.

This stands in contrast and opposition to the view of empire that superior violence is the greatest force in the world.  

Love is a greater power than violence, fear or death.  

The practice of love as compassion, forgiveness and invitations to try again is where you should put your faith.  Take risks for love, for love will win in the end.  This is God’s will, this is the way God made the universe, and God’s way of running the universe.

God is love, and whoever lives in love lives in God.  There I have dropped a brief definition of God, a word probably more misunderstood, abused and misleading than any other word in our language. 

Back to Jesus.  I said that his good news is something that you have a number of times in your life suspected to be true.  I want to enlarge  on that.  

Jesus called himself the “son of man,” or “the human one.”  He claimed to be something of the model human—I hope that does not disappoint readers who want me to say first and foremost that Jesus claimed to be the son of God.  I hold that we (or Christianity, or the Jesus crowd) would be further ahead if we started by taking seriously the idea that Jesus showed us first of all who we are, or who we can be.  Of course, by my, or classic Christian, understandings, he could not do that without showing us something centrally true about God, for we hold that we bear the image of God.  So what helps us see ourselves better also helps us to see God better.  That’s not the whole story, but if I have anything to do with it, I will not let you forget that Jesus taught that when we see ourselves better we also see God better.

Jesus is still important today because he said profoundly true things about human nature.  He taught that people are capable of loving both their neighbors and enemies, and should do it—to maintain human society and  make the world a livable habitat.  

He introduced the idea of “the kingdom of God,” which was the concept and claim of a new way of running the world, which did not assume it necessary use homicidal violence to “control” human nature. 

He taught serial forgiveness—his term was seventy times seven.   His followers were to be recidivist forgivers, because people often, usually, don’t get it right the first time.

He told stories of surprising forgiveness—a father who welcomed home a seriously wayward son—and generous empathy—a Samaritan (man of another religion, like a Muslim) who helped a victim of bandits after his own religious leaders passed him by.

Jesus did not present these moral behaviors of enemy love, repeated forgiveness and generous empathy as nice ideas for a few religious folk, but rather as a social strategy for developing a new society—a historically sustainable and psychologically attractive model of human relationships.   He called it all the “kingdom, kingship, or pervasive ideology” of the grain of the universe itself, or of God.

It is not hard to see even today that this was a new way of conceiving human, social and political relationships.  It stood in stark contrast to the dreams of emperors and kings with their armies, prisons, weapons and wars.   To believe that it would “work” took some faith then, and still does now.  But how much faith, compared to the faith that armies, prisons, weapons and wars are creating the world we want and the planet needs to survive another century?  

Musings on My Blog Plan

by John K. Stoner (November 17, 2017)

Thinking about my approach to writing this blog since Berry’s hard decision to retire from writing and deal with his impending death, I have found myself asking the most basic questions.  I decided it makes sense to share some of this process with you readers.  And as always, to invite your feedback, your thoughts.

Why will I chose one topic over another?

That question led me to think that you can reduce, or arrange, most of life as a process of selection or choice.  I might choose a primary focus on either current events or on Biblical themes—those options arise for me because my life of 75+ years has revolved around those two foci.  And then I quickly think, Why biblical themes and texts?  Because I see the Christian tradition’s focus, or obsession if you will, on the Bible as the church’s choice of this slice of recorded history, recording the voice of Jesus, as crucial for interpreting and guiding it’s way of life in the world.   

I will likely give, or seem to give, priority to history (I will use that word as parallel, almost synonymous, with Bible) over current events because what I try to learn from history explains my interpretation of current events.  Put another way, the light I try to shine on current events comes from human experience in the past.  So in the briefest compass, that is my decision for now: to give priority to Biblical texts and interpretation.  And this (coincidentally, subliminally or purposely) gives me room to draw generously on the book, IF NOT EMPIRE, WHAT? which is the cause of this blog in the first place.  

The reader’s questions and potential objections to this are surely many and obvious, to which my first response is that the way I’ve shaped my options may itself be artificial and misleading.  Put differently, the dichotomy between history and current events may be false—in our minds and experience they are so intertwined that they’re impossibe to separate as neatly as I suggest.  So I do it being fully aware of this.  Yesterday on the radio I heard someone say that journalism is the first draft of history.  I like that.  

And if readers now fear “too much Bible coming here,” my response is that the Christian tradition suffers a lot, terribly, awfully, not so much from too much Bible but rather from not enough good Bible—bad readings of history instead of good ones.  

Now a kind of interjection, or sidebar, to make another point.  I think that you and I are personally and seriously responsible to choose our interpretations of history/biblical texts.  This personal responsibility means that in the end no fundamentalist  or liberal or dominionist or inerrantist Bible interpretative tradition can replace your duty to decide what you accept as true.  You are today engaged in the very same process that writers of history/Bible were engaged—you’re trying to make sense of life, explain what it means, and just live it.  You are not doing that perfectly, and here’s the kicker—neither were they!

So then, my focus on Bible history is my engagement with all those characters who got (happened to get) their writings preserved in a collection that many hundreds of years later was decided to be “the Bible.”  But, you are asking (should be asking), why give so much attention to those old men?  Again, because there is reason to believe that they did a little better than a lot of others in understanding their times and recording what it meant. 

But, and here’s our response to the kicker, we’ve got to sort out what they got more right and what they got more wrong, because, again, they were not perfect.  This is our endless project of understanding and interpreting history—we can’t escape it without falling into some mindless ignorance of history, some cesspool of stupidity that thinks the human experience and task began with our generation.  

The big question which confronts (always has confronted) our species is:  what is the greatest power in the struggle between  good and evil?  Or maybe a little more subtly, what are good and evil?  I’m quick to grant that we don’t know everything about good and evil, but just as quick to deny that we know nothing about good and evil.  And so I aver that there are real and crucial choices between good and evil in our world, but also am sure that these choices can be greatly misunderstood, and massivly manipulated to engage people in false and deadly crusades against other people.  

So now the country I live in is “led” by a man whose morality and sanity are both in doubt, and he has the power of nuclear weapons at his fingertips.  The morning paper says that there is no mechanism to stop him if he decides to pull the trigger.  Is the power at his fingertips, the power of war, to be the final arbiter of human destiny?

Or is there possibly another power greater than the system which created and elected this man? 

My reading of the Bible/history says that there is. Jesus said there is.  Not all readings of the Bible say this—so that defines something of our project.  Which reading is right?  A lot hangs on our answer.  In this blog I will struggle with who and what is right.  


"Reliable Sources" on World Affairs

by Berry Friesen  (November 13, 2017)

      Turns out it is John Stoner opening this blog, but I'm turning it over to Berry. He had a good letter published in the LNP, Lancaster Newspaper yesterday (Sunday, Nov. 12). It deserves wider circulation--to encourage you to think about the questionable (Berry says failed) coverage we get from the most respected mainstream media, and to ask what your local paper is doing. On Friday I expect to say more about my plans for this blog.

To the Editor:

     "Reliable sources," the Nov. 5 Sunday LNP editorial, displayed the arrogance of a media outlet confident it has found a splinter in the eyes of its readership: we just don't trust mainstream outlets enough.

     You framed the ever-present problem of media distortion and misinformation ("Remember the Maine" or Gulf of Tonkin anyone?) by a case of media distortion and misinformation in which you have participated: unending hype about how the Russians interfered in our election. One version of this canard after another is run up the flagpole. Each gets shot down by the alternative press, but the mainstream media deeps manufacturing new ones without ever identifying why the prior versions failed.

     Please, do you take us for idiots?  Don't you think we can see the elephant in the room, even though you never mention it?  The "reliable sources" you are selling us did not tell us the truth about any of the crisis points in our world:  Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Ukraine, Libya, Yemen, North Korea.  Alternative media sources--the kind you look down on--did tell us the truth.

     The editorial proclaims LNP's readiness to "help (us) navigate the incessant bombardment" by unreliable sources.  Problem is, on global matters you are an integral part of the bombardment.

Berry Friesen
Manheim Township

Courage: To Be A Conscientious Objector

by John K. Stoner  (November 10, 2017)

It doesn’t take a lot of courage to be a conscientious objector…to something that everyone is objecting to.  It is easier to object to racism today than it was to object to slavery in 1850. It is easier to object to slavery today than it is to object to war. 

Camilo Mejia says, “I was a coward, not for leaving the war, but for having been a part of it in the first place.  I failed to fulfill my moral duty as a human being, and instead I chose to fulfill my duty as a soldier.  What good is freedom if we are not able to live with our own actions?  I am confined to prison, but I feel, today more than ever connected to all humanity.  Behind these bars I sit a free man because I listened to a higher power, the voice of my conscience.” (see his book

     John F. Kennedy said, "War will exist until that distant day when the conscientious objector enjoys the same reputation and prestige that the warrior does today."

Military conscription has not ended.

It has taken a new form.

Camilo Mejia volunteered for the military.  Later he had an awakening of conscience and an awareness of the moral injury which war was inflicting on him.  He became a conscientious objector to war.  

In the United States conscription has ended and we as persons are not conscripted for war.  But war goes on unobstructed, because our money is conscripted.  We could be conscientious objectors to war by being conscientious objectors to taxation for war. 

So, why aren’t we conscientious objectors to taxation for war?

Is it because we have not been able to imagine this—that we have not been creative enough in our objection to war to see the implications of funding war?  My own development of thought and conscience (obviously with critical help from others) has led me to believe that some form of war tax resistance is our moral, conscientious duty.  Our peace action support group here in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania,, has decided to promote symbolic war tax resistance.  We urge people to withhold $10.40 from their income tax payment and write letters to friends, family and public officials explaining why we do this as an act of conscience. ( )

        Someone has put it simply and unforgettably:  “If you pray for peace, don’t pay for war.” 

We believe that symbolic war tax resistance is both simple and profound, an act of courage which some consider large, and others small.  What is your view of it?  Write a comment, share your thoughts on the usual practice of praying for peace while paying for war.

Much more information is available from the National War Tax Coordiating Committee (see NWTRCC).  Bolster your courage by doing some research.  You will find ways to make conscientious objection to war taxes practical, if not easy. 

     To see the first in this series of 4 on conscientious objection click here .

Creativity: Expression of Conscientious Objection

by John K. Stoner  (November 6, 2017)

The earth itself cries out for conscientious objectors to war to save itself as a habitable place for human survival, I said in my previous blog. .

Conscientious objection to US wars was usually expressed by refusing military service until January, 1973 when the Selective Service ended the draft.  Then President Richard Nixon saw ending the draft as a strategy to blunt the impact of the anti-war movement.  

Since then, for almost fifty years now, people opposed to war have had neither the challenge nor the opportunity to refuse personal participation in war—that is, military service, as it is popularly called. 

But the use of war as an instrument of national policy has become ever more common, and today the United States is engaged in wars without end.  In this situation it has become ever more urgent to witness and work for peace, but most people are at a loss for how to do that in a concrete way.

It is clear that we need creativity in the search for a meaningful and effective form of conscientious objection to war.

I will suggest two forms of this necessary creativity.  The first must address the form and fact of our basic human loyalties, because patriotic or national loyalty is the bedrock argument for support of every war.  So we will have to be reflective enough, or creative enough, to ask  “To whom, or what unit of community or culture, do we feel a compelling and unyielding loyalty?”  

Most people feel relatively strong loyalty to family.  For some, loyalty to a school, business enterprise or sports team may be strong.  For many people a very strong, or strongest, loyalty may be to their religious community.

But in the modern world, probably the social unit which ususally receives the most passionate loyalty of people is the nation state.  Virtually all wars are fought in the name of  fatherland, homeland, flag and country.  And to what place have virtually all wars brought us in our year 2017?  Indescribable suffering, a fearfully unprecedented global refugee crisis, and the edge of extinction.  No wonder General Ray Odierno, Former Chief of Staff, U.S. Army, five years as a combat commander in Iraq said, “If you’ve ever been to war, seen what it’s really like, you never want to go to war again.”  (WHAT HAVE WE DONE: THE MORAL INJURY OF OUR LONGEST WARS, by DAvid Wood).   No wonder old men send young men to war—because old men would not go to war, and, not to be forgotten, old men make a profit.  Follow the money.  

And no wonder a sixth grade girl refused to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance in school.  When her mother, informed of this by the child’s teacher, asked the girl why, the child replied, “ Mom, I’m not going to stand there and lie.  And it’s not exactly liberty if they force you to say it, is it?”  (BRAIDING SWEETGRASS by Robin Wall Kimmerer).  (There years before football player Kaepernick, right?)

Loyalty is the question.  The daughter’s loyalty was to humanity and her (first? second?) mother, Earth.  

That is what we will all have to be creative enough to think about.  Is loyalty to our geographically boundaried nation state (and others to theirs) large enough for the simple survival demands of our species?  If the answer to that is not a clear and unequivocal “yes,” we cannot avoid a re-examination of our deepest loyalties.  

The second form of needed creativity for this hour is the search for clear and compelling ways to express our conscientious objection to war.  As I’ve said, our culture is largely committed to finding ways to express our conscientious objection to racism, white privilege and rape.  But war has been given a pass—for the sake of our moral wellbeing and the life of the planet, this must change.  The purpose of war is to kill people and break things.  I have read arguments that killing and breaking are tools, or means, not purposes, and that war has a “higher” purpose—usually something like “U.S. interests.”  This ignores the fact that acclaimed lofty purposes cannot justify or purify degraded and degrading means.  

     How do we give public expression to the private conviction of our inborn moral wisdom that human life is sacred—that all killing is both deicide and fratricide, for God lives in all of us, and we are all siblings.

In my next blog I will outline a form of conscientious objection to war which is advocated by the small community of conscience to which I belong here in Lancaster county, Pennsylvania.  To some it will seem too big, to others too small.  I conclude today with this from Desmond Tutu:  “Do your little bit of good where you are; it’s those little bits of good put together than overwhelm the world.”  

Conscientious Objection: Humanity's Default Position

by John K. Stoner  (November 3, 2017)

Berry told us Monday that the plain sad fact of his mortality is taking his voice out of this blog.  And how we will miss his voice.  We have come to depend on his findings of facts hidden, and truths ignored and suppressed.  The courageous pacifist Dorothy Day titled her autobiography THE LONG LONELINESS.  Let’s honor her by thinking of Berry as now beginning to say his long goodbye.  

Last Friday I wrote “Conscience, Creativity and Courage,” a call to recognize voices of conscience in this looming crisis of our own historical moment.  In the next several blogs I will go deeper into this call.

Today, conscience—the voice and voices of conscience.  First, I invite you to look nowhere beyond yourself for this timeless and urgent voice.  It’s an amazing thing about humanity—time and again the help our forebears needed was found hidden or ignored within their own selves. 

Consider this:  Most Americans are by now conscientious objectors to racism and white privilege.  They hear the voice of their own conscience in this matter.  And most men have been conscientious objectors to rape all along.  This is to point out that conscientious objection is familiar to most of us, though perhaps by other language, and has good standing with large segments of the population.  So much so that few of this majority of Americans would boast that some of their best friends make fun of conscientious objection to racism or rape.  

Given  this broad and strong inner voice of conscience, is it really surprising that conscientious objection to war and all homicide (killing humans) is the public stance of many people and the private conviction of many more?  But why would, or how could, this be so?

What if it should be nothing more, or less, than the expression of something broadly true but strangely hidden in the human soul?  Some voices are telling us that this is so. 

Maria Santelli, Director of the Center on Conscience and War in Washington, DC. says that “The default position for humanity is that of conscientious objection to war.”  March 2015 TED Talk, (see here)  That is a striking assertion, isn’t it?  But think about what we said above—most Americans are conscientious objectors to racism.  Do we think that society taught them this voice of conscience, or that they were born with an inclination to see all people first of all simply as people?  

Dr. Camillo Mac Bica,  Professor of Philosophy, School of Visual Arts (NYC), former Marine Corps Officer and Vietnam Veteran, says, "Human beings are not killers by nature. They [killers] have to be created.  Moral injuries are an inevitable consequence of a sophisticated manipulation and distortion of the recruits’ moral foundations and their moral identities and the profound moral confusion and distress they experience as the horror, the insanity, and the moral gravity of their actions in combat become apparent." (testimony at the Truth Commission on Conscience in War on March 21, 2010) (see here)

Martin Luther King, Jr., speaking at Riverside Church in New York City on April 4, 1967,  “Beyond Vietnam:  A Time to Break Silence,” said,  “We can no longer afford to worship the god of hate or bow before the altar of retaliation. The oceans of history are made turbulent by the ever-rising tides of hate. History is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals that pursued this self-defeating path of hate. As Arnold Toynbee says: 'Love is the ultimate force that makes for the saving choice of life and good against the damning choice of death and evil. Therefore the first hope in our inventory must be the hope that love is going to have the last word'.” (text of speech) (audio of speech)    

Most people most of the time are neither killing people nor fighting wars.  In fact, only a very small minority of people ever commit homicide.  That in itself would virtually establish beyond dispute that conscientious objection to killing is the default human position. 

It is time to affirm conscientious objection to war and all homicide as an essential prerequisite for human survival.  It is time to find and hear the voices which call us to act upon the deepest truths of our own conscience.

Far from asking people to become someone they are not or do something they cannot, we are inviting them to affirm and act upon who they already are, right now. 

The Spirituality of Psalm 90 *

by Berry Friesen (October 30, 2017)

“You turn us back to dust, and say, ’Turn back, you mortals’.”
Psalm 90:3

Psalm 90 is first of all about time—from the everlasting presence of YHWH (“a thousand years in your sight are like yesterday”) to the short span of our lives (“the days of our life are seventy years, perhaps eighty if we are strong”).

More precisely, it is about running out of time.  Human life is “like grass that is renewed in the morning; in the morning it flourishes . . . in the evening it fades and withers.” Traditionally, the psalm is attributed to Moses, the man who climbed to the top of the mountain and looked out over the Promised Land. He saw but never entered that lovely land; he ran out of time.

I will soon run out of time, not only because days on the calendar are ticking by, but because of a terminal cancer first diagnosed in May, 2016. As I read Psalm 90, my approaching death is foremost on my mind.

Of course, the experience of running out of time is built into the human condition. It is utterly unremarkable. Yet the psalmist identifies it as a deep—almost bitter—disappointment. “You sweep (our years) away; they are like a dream.”  How can we live with the burden of this hard reality?

As a first response, the poet blames YHWH, the everlasting one.  “We are consumed by your anger; by your wrath we are overwhelmed.”  The psalmist isn’t referring here to any sort of divine retribution or punishment, but to the implacable limits that define our existence.   And yes, the psalmist also is referring to how YHWH “set(s) our iniquities” in front of us, giving us no respite from the awareness of how our sin and the sins of others define and circumscribe our lives.

Thus, our time is quickly spent, consumed—used up—by “toil and trouble.”

But then the tone of the psalm shifts. “So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.”  In these words, we hear not bitterness, but a yielding to YHWH.  The psalmist is making an appeal to the source of his frustration—not for the erasure or easing of life’s limits, but for wisdom in living “so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.”

Let’s not paint this yielding to YHWH as solely a religious event; the psalmist is simply being consistent here. Blaming YHWH for our frustrating finitude and seeking YHWH’s help to cope with it are all of a piece.

So yielding to YHWH is a prominent aspect of Psalm 90’s spirituality.  Yet there is more.

First, notice the complete absence of personal pronouns throughout the psalm.  It’s all “we,” “us” and “our.”  The psalmist is speaking out of a collective consciousness, not an individual orientation, and expressing hope only for the social “we,” not the solo “I.”  This consciousness is what prompts the psalm’s strongest assertion of faith:  “LORD, you have been our dwelling place in all generations.”

Second, notice how the psalmist ends not on a philosophical or metaphysical note, but with a plea to YHWH “to prosper for us the work of our hands—O prosper the work of our hands!”

In my experience, it is rare to speak about our finitude and our labor in the same conversation; they are commonly assumed to be entirely different topics, far removed from each other.  Yet within the spirituality of Psalm 90, they belong together.  Shared labor can bear witness to a conviction that “our life" is important.  It will go on, notwithstanding the fleeting quality we experience as individuals.

Important, yes, even to the everlasting one:  “Let the favor of the LORD be upon us.”

Yieldedness to YHWH, a collective consciousness and shared work:  these together make up a spirituality that has helped sustain me these past 18 months.

I don’t know how much time remains for me, but life has already narrowed in many ways.  Reading and writing for this blog is becoming more difficult and so I do not expect to post regularly in the future. As you can imagine, I am pleased John can carry on.

As for the purpose of this blog—the formation of a non-imperial identity, capable of contributing to a world put at grave risk by the US-led empire**—I join the prayer of Psalm 90: “O prosper the work of our hands!”
*   For prior reflections on my illness, see "The Spirituality of Psalm 103" and "So Sweet and Such a Mess."
** For a short review of the scope of the empire's military footprint, see Sheldon Richman's "New York Times Acknowledges US Global Empire."