From Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness by Gordon C. Stewart (Wipf and Stock), p. 87-91
It has lately come to pass that America has entered upon a dark age. . . .It is, I believe, an authentic dark age; that is, a time in which the power of death is pervasive and militant, and in which people exist without hope.
The helicopters that had been sent to Iraq and Afghanistan to protect us here at home were flying around downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul. The Blackhawk helicopters were on "urban training exercises," rattling the windows of residents' condos, homes, and apartments right here at home in Minnesota.
Why were they here? When did a city of civilians become the training grounds for the US Army, and why has there not been a louder outcry against the intrusive presence of the military into what we have now come to call "the homeland"? Perhaps because we believe it makes us safer, but citizen preoccupation with security is the spawning ground for national security states.
A day after the Pew Research Center issued its report on the strikingly divergent attitudes of whites and blacks about law enforcement following the death of Michael Brown, US Attorney General Eric Holder went to Missouri to meet with leaders there.
According to the Pew Center, Blacks and whites have sharply different reactions to the police shooting of an unarmed teen in Ferguson, Missouri, and the protests and violence that followed. Blacks are about twice as likely as whites to say that the shooting of Michael Brown "raises important issues about race that need to be discussed." Wide racial differences also are evident in opinions about whether local police went too far in the aftermath of Brown's death, and in confidence in the investigations into the shooting.
A LASTING MEMORY
I live in a predominantly white middle-class community southwest of downtown Minneapolis. The police aren't around much except to pick up a dead opossum that tried to cross the state highway. We don't think much about the police where I live. But I also have a memory from the summer of 1968 that puts me with those who believe that race and institutional violence-particularly police violence-are tied together in places like Ferguson and North Minneapolis and other places that feel to their residents like a military occupation.
The time I'm remembering came on the heels of The National Commission on Civil Disorders, known as the Kerner Commission, which warned that "our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white-separate and unequal." President Lyndon B. Johnson rejected the commission's multiple recommendations for addressing the problem of growing economic disparity between whites and blacks.
Back then I was a twenty-six-year-old assistant pastor at a downtown church in Decatur, Illinois. What I experienced in the church parking lot etched the report's findings in my heart and mind. I've never seen our society the same since.
The summer program for youth from the public housing projects let out at ten o'clock at night. Ninety-eight percent of the kids in Teen Town were black. The program had been a success by every measure, drawing one hundred to five hundred youth from the tenements to the downtown church on any given night. Until a neighbor from the apartment building next to the church called the police at closing time.
By the time I made it up the stairs from the recreation room, the squad cars were plunging into the crowd, billy clubs swinging in every direction, mace being sprayed indiscriminately in the kids' faces, police officers choking the program's assistant director with a billy club, handcuffing him and shoving him into the back of the paddy wagon.
That night, forty store windows were broken in downtown Decatur near the church. I drove home, slapped on my clerical collar and waded into the melee. It was clear to me that this was what the Kerner Commission described. This was the result of a police riot. It should never have happened.
Neither should it have happened in Ferguson, Missouri. You don't need to shoot a kid six times-and the sight of law-enforcement officers riding armored tanks with guns pointed at civilians reignites the enduring embers of the tragedy of race in America.
BLURRING THE LINE BETWEEN MILITARY AND
The Kerner Commission Report was issued as a result of urban civil disturbances in America's major cities. It spoke of race and police and National Guard violence-a systemic problem that threatened American society itself. Back then armored tanks with gun turrets patrolled the streets of Detroit. This month the very same thing happened with one important difference: this time, those who patrolled the streets were dressed in camouflage pants that looked like US Marine or Army attire. That was in Ferguson, Missouri.
The Night Hawks in their Blackhawk helicopters flew around the Twin Cities from Monday through Thursday night. It is no assurance that, according to the unit's Fort Campbell, Kentucky, commander, the same "urban training exercises" had taken place in San Diego, Phoenix, and other major cities. It doesn't make it right. It provides little comfort to those who value keeping a hard line between military and civilian life.
Our military adventures abroad can have disastrous domestic consequences. What we sent off to Iraq and Afghanistan are now training in our backyards. The message the commander wants us to hear is that they are here to protect us, our best friends, as it were, among our neighbors. "There are terrorists in every city," he said, wanting to assure us. But the presence of the "urban training" exercise feels more like an occupation by a national security state.
Ferguson, Missouri, and the Twin Cities of Minnesota are not in Iraq or Afghanistan, but they feel more and more like they are every day.
The questions are moral and spiritual, just as they were when the Kerner Commission identified the drift toward two societies: one white, one black. Just as they were in Abu Ghraib. Just as they are now when the US Army special forces unit is using our own cities as military training grounds . . . for what purpose?
HOW DO WE STOP THIS BEFORE WE'RE ALL DEAD OPOSSUMS?
Constitutional lawyer, civil rights attorney, and theologian William Stringfellow offered a strange wake-up call to American citizens who might choose to roll over and play dead. Long before the downtown training exercise in Minneapolis, he wrote, "My concern is to understand America biblically. The effort is to comprehend the nation, to grasp what is happening right now to the nation and to consider the destiny of the nation within the scope and style of the ethics and ethical metaphors distinctive to the biblical witness in history. The task is to treat the nation within the tradition of biblical politics, to understand America biblically-not the other way around, not (to put it in an appropriately awkward way) to construe the Bible Americanly.
Departure from Collective Madness
Gordon C. Stewart
Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness echoes the call of the Navajo sage and the psalmist who invited their hearers to stop--"If we keep going this way, we're going to get where we're going"--and be still--"Be still, and know. . . ." Like pictures in a photo album taken from a unique lens, these essays zoom in on singular moments of time where the world is making headlines, drawing attention to the sin of exceptionalism in its national, racial, religious, cultural, and species manifestations. Informed by Japanese Christian theologian Kosuke Koyama, Elie Wiesel, Wendell Berry, and others, the author invites the reader to slow down, be still, and depart from "collective madness" before the Navajo sage is right. Told in the voice familiar to listeners of All Things Considered and Minnesota Public Radio, these poetic essays sometimes feel as familiar as an old family photo album, but the pictures themselves are taken from a thought-provoking angle.
"This wondrous collection of rich snippets would be of interest and value if only for the rich source material that Gordon Stewart quotes from, as it must be an inexhaustible memory and/or file. But the many words he quotes are no more than launching pads for Stewart's expansive imagination and agile mind that take us, over and over, into fresh discernment, new territory, unanticipated demands, and open-ended opportunity. All of that adds up to grace, and Stewart is a daring witness to grace that occupies all of our territory."
- Walter Brueggemann , Columbia Theological Seminary
"In Be Still! Stewart masterfully spins a counter-narrative to the collective madness that is gripping our world. Like the psalmist, Stewart prays thoughtfully through metaphors and religious tradition, meshing theologians with news headlines to lead the reader to a deeper, more sustained truth. Be Still! reads like part op-ed and part parable. In these troubling and anxious times, may we, who have ears to hear, listen!"
-- Frank M. Yamada , President, McCormick Theological Seminary
"These are lovely, powerful, centering essays--messages from and for a fragile but beautiful planet."
- Bill McKibben , Author of Earth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet
"Gordon Stewart has a way with words, a clean, clear, concise, and yet still creative way with words, a way that can set the reader almost simultaneously at the blood-stained center of the timely--the urgent issues of our day--and also at the deep heart of the timeless, those eternal questions that have forever challenged the human mind. Stewart looks at terror, Isis, and all their kin, from the perspective of Paul Tillich and, yes, John Lennon. He moves from Paris, Maine, by way of the town drunk, toward the City of God. This is strong medicine, to be taken in small, but serious doses. Wear a crash helmet!"
- J. Barrie Shepherd , Author of Between Mirage and Miracle
" Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness , is exactly what its title proclaims: a departure from the frenzy and folly of our times. Each essay offers the reader an opportunity to breathe deep, to fall into the story or idea and consider what it means to be a citizen, a friend, a human being. The topics covered are both particular and universal (usually both at the same time), and the writing is wonderfully concise and open--much like poetry! This is a book you will want to open again and again; it's what the world needs now, more than ever."
- Joyce Sutphen , Minnesota Poet Laureate; Professor in English, Gustavus Adolphus College
About the Author
Gordon C. Stewart's guest commentaries on faith and culture have aired on All Things Considered and in print on Minnesota Public Radio, Minnpost.com, and the Minneapolis Star Tribune. An ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA), he has led ecumenical campus ministries and churches in Illinois, Ohio, Wisconsin, New York, and Minnesota. He was the first non-lawyer Executive Director of the Legal Rights Center, a nonprofit public defense corporation in Minneapolis.
Departure from Collective Madness
Gordon C. Stewart
Paperback: 186 pages
Publisher: Wipf and Stock (January 6, 2017)
Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.4 x 8.5 inches
Price: $47.00 (hardcover) $21.00 (paperback)