Charles Leslie Featherstone

I know blogging has been slow, and I apologize for that.

But it’s gonna be slower for a while. My dad died last night (January 23), and I was reminded by my cousin Pamela that he died 15 years to the day after his father, Charles Thayer Featherstone, died in 2002. I hope this is not a pattern.

At any rate, I have no ideas at this point when regular, proper, religious blogging (as opposed to me merely riffing off news items in my thoughtful and pessimistic way) will resume. Have faith. Things may be happening, and while I’m not entirely hopeful — I have learned not to hope anymore — there are possibilities at work out there.

About my dad. Charles Leslie Featherstone was born on September 25, 1943, in Provo, Utah, to Charles and Avis Featherstone. A little bit about our middle names. It has been the custom in my family, since the first Charles Featherstone in this lineage emerged from Ohio in the 1840s, to take the middle names of sons from the mother’s family. I am Charles Howard, named after my my mother’s father, Howard Marsh. My father’s middle name came from his maternal grandfather, Leslie Primo, a French-Canadian who married sweet Sophia Carlson on the dry plains of Eastern Montana.

I’m unsure where Grandpa’s middle name comes from, save that someone on his maternal grandmother’s side had it.

Dad played baseball, and was apparently very good at it. He likely could have been a professional, and for years he regretted not pursuing that. But he also wanted to be an Army officer, though in the late 1950s, his astigmatism kept him out of West Point. He attended Washington State University where he majored in Science (he told me a chemistry degree, which he really wanted, required foreign languages, at that time German and Russian, and he was never very good at languages), and then received a commission as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army upon graduation in 1964. His specialty as artillery, and he spent 18 months or so in West Germany before returning to the United States, where he ran the rifle range at Ft. Lewis training troops bound for Vietnam. That’s where I was born.

He spent a year in Vietnam, something he promised to write about — apparently, my first birthday in 1968 was a traumatic day he has only described to me as “mass killing.” I don’t know if he ever did. After that, he specialized in air defense artillery, and even spent a year in the South Pacific helping to test the Safeguard anti-ballistic missile system. After that, he learned he wasn’t going to be promoted past the rank of captain — in fact, he was, for a time in the mid-1970s, the ranking captain in the US Army.

My father was a gifted mathematician. He could do sums in his head faster than then most folks could do them on a calculator or a cash register, and it was always amusing to see him calculate his change faster than the clerk could. And more accurately. I, of course, inherited none of that. He did a masters degree in some kind of advanced math at the Naval Post-Graduate School in Monterey, California, I think creating a type of statistical analysis of small arms fire still used today. I have seen his thesis, and it makes no sense to me.

Because, well, it’s higher math.

After the Army, he worked as a program manager for General Dynamics in Pomona, California. He wasn’t an engineer — he hired and wrangled engineers. And he worked for GD for 15 years, I think, until they laid him off with the downsizing of the California defense industry at the end of the Cold War. That was a crisis in his life, and one that changed him for the better once he faced himself.

My parents didn’t have a particularly good marriage, at least not from my standpoint, though they did both love each other. To get some sense of how they functioned, just watch the first few seasons on Mad Men, and see how Don and Betty Draper relate to each other. That was my parents’ marriage. Toward me, my father was for a long time violent and indifferent. But he was my dad, and while I was terrified of him, I also also ached to please him. And I wanted his approval.

I got it. When he faced his demons after losing his job at General Dynamics, after his second marriage went kablooey, he saw who he’d been, and what that had done to me, and he changed. He was kind, supportive, encouraging, and a good friend.

During the third act of his life, he taught math in the Rialto public schools, and focused mostly on teaching remedial students. He was good at teaching high school (a few days at a junior high, however, left him anxious, exhausted, and hospitalized for stress), and he also coached girls junior-varsity basketball, which he loved no end.

His mom’s death a few years ago allowed him to retire early. Which he did.

His death came suddenly and without any warning.


This is my favorite family photo. It’s from 1973, and we were living in Colorado Springs at the time. I was either in or had finished kindergarten, and we would soon move to Monterey. My mom was going to modeling school in Denver at the time (you can see January Jones playing her, right?) and that meant sticking me in the Ft. Carson daycare. Dad would come and pick me up in the afternoons, and he was kind. He would sometimes bring me bubblegum cigars. (After one work-related trip in Colorado Springs, dad brought me home a great big jawbreaker, and after that — for years — I would always await his return from business trips in the hopes he would bring me something, though I don’t recall he ever did.) Because of that, I will always associate that uniform with redemptive kindness. It was safety, even if he wasn’t always safe.

I will miss him.

More About “Elite Failure”

And then there’s this by Yanis Varoufakis in The Guardian that also describes perfectly what I mean by elite failure:

The era of neoliberalism ended in the autumn of 2008 with the bonfire of financialisation’s illusions. The fetishisation of unfettered markets that Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan brought to the fore in the late 1970s had been the necessary ideological cover for the unleashing of financiers to enable the capital flows essential to a new phase of globalisation in which the United States deficits provided the aggregate demand for the world’s factories (whose profits flowed back to Wall Street closing the loop nicely).

Meanwhile, billions of people in the “third” world were pulled out of poverty while hundreds of millions of western workers were slowly sidelined, pushed into more precarious jobs, and forced to financialise themselves either through their pension funds or their homes. And when the bottom fell out of this increasingly unstable feedback loop, neoliberalism’s illusions burned down and the west’s working class ended up too expensive and too indebted to be of interest to a panicking global establishment.

Thatcher’s and Reagan’s neoliberalism had sought to persuade that privatisation of everything would produce a fair and efficient society unimpeded by vested interests or bureaucratic fiat. That narrative, of course, hid from public view what was really happening: a tremendous buildup of super-state bureaucracies, unaccountable supra-state institutions (World Trade Organisation, Nafta, the European Central Bank), behemoth corporations, and a global financial sector heading for the rocks.

After the events of 2008 something remarkable happened. For the first time in modern times the establishment no longer cared to persuade the masses that its way was socially optimal. Overwhelmed by the collapsing financial pyramids, the inexorable buildup of unsustainable debt, a eurozone in an advanced state of disintegration and a China increasingly relying on an impossible credit boom, the establishment’s functionaries set aside the aspiration to persuade or to represent. Instead, they concentrated on clamping down.

In the UK, more than a million benefit applicants faced punitive sanctions. In the Eurozone, the troika ruthlessly sought to reduce the pensions of the poorest of the poor. In the United States, both parties promised drastic cuts to social security spending. During our deflationary times none of these policies helped stabilise capitalism at a national or at a global level. So, why were they pursued?

Their purpose was to impose acquiescence to a clueless establishment that had lost its ambition to maintain its legitimacy. When the UK government forced benefit claimants to declare in writing that “my only limits are the ones I set myself”, or when the troika forced the Greek or Irish governments to write letters “requesting” predatory loans from the European Central Bank that benefited Frankfurt-based bankers at the expense of their people, the idea was to maintain power via calculated humiliation. Similarly, in America the establishment habitually blamed the victims of predatory lending and the failed health system.

Western elites gave up trying to govern democratically, and instead, following 2008, with the politics of austerity, governed punitively. Governed as bureaucratic despots who doubled down and were unwilling to consider that the very policies, programs, and projects they championed were the cause of so much misery, dislocation, and fear.

In this, the promises of democracy — majority rule, accountability — were shown to be shams. Lies. The elite were no longer accountable in any meaningful way, and national governments were increasingly hamstrung by predatory international institutions. Donald Trump is a continuation of this without any pretense. And that, in a world where unaccountable, undemocratic governance has become the norm (and been so for at least a decade), is at least some kind of control and some kind of change.

Varoufakis is calling for a transatlantic New Deal, a nice call, but it is likely far too late. The people who govern the West are incapable of such thought any more. Which means the governments of the West are past being able to do what Varoufakis calls for.

Yes, Trump will fail. But we were facing failure anyway. The only choice we have is how. Not if.

What I Mean by “Elite Failure”

I talk a lot about elites failure here, that a good portion of the reason we in the liberal West are seeing the rise of illiberalism is because our elites have failed — they can no longer think straight about themselves, the societies they govern, or the world.

I’m not sure I’ve ever really explained what I meant by elite failure, however.

This bit by Walter Russel Mead from Foreign Affairs on the rise of “Jacksonianism” as evident in the election of Donald J. Trump, however, does a pretty good of describing one portion of elite failure:

Over the past quarter century, Western policymakers became infatuated with some dangerously oversimplified ideas. They believed capitalism had been tamed and would no longer generate economic, social, or political upheavals. They felt that illiberal ideologies and political emotions had been left in the historical dustbin and were believed only by “bitter” losers—people who “cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them . . . as a way to explain their frustrations,” as Barack Obama famously put it in 2008. Time and the normal processes of history would solve the problem; constructing a liberal world order was simply a matter of working out the details.

Given such views, many recent developments—from the 9/11 attacks and the war on terrorism to the financial crisis to the recent surge of angry nationalist populism on both sides of the Atlantic—came as a rude surprise. It is increasingly clear that globalization and automation have helped break up the socioeconomic model that undergirded postwar prosperity and domestic social peace, and that the next stage of capitalist development will challenge the very foundations of both the global liberal order and many of its national pillars.

While the liberal West has been relatively well-governed before — I’m thinking of the generation after the Second World War — It has not been true since the mid-1990s. In part, Western elites became enamored of their own victory and success in the Cold War. Thinking history was the struggle of ideas, as opposed to struggle of personality and passions, they were convinced history was over and all that remained was the working out of technocratic details.

That made it possible from them to ignore the damage that much of neoliberalism was doing in the West to the working classes that had done so well materially and morally up until the mid-1970s. “What alternative do you have?” asked neoliberalism as it privatized and financialized and globalized. Because the alternatives do, in fact, seem deeply discredited. Especially if history is viewed solely or primarily as a contest between competing ideologies over social organization. The working classes of the West, especially the non-immigrant working classes, were supposed simply to accept their slow-motion destruction in the name of progress and evolution.

But what the last decade or so is telling us that compelling people to endorse and vote for their own obsolescence, marginalization, and even extinction is a losing strategy politically. The “retrograde” plurality or majority will look at the promises of democratic governance — majority rule, and not rightly guided or enlightened rule — and wonder, if government is in our name, if our will is what makes government legitimate, why is it working against us, our interests, and most importantly, our dignity?

A society or community will always be governed by an elite. There is no way around that. That elite must always be cognizant of its connections, responsibilities, obligations to the people it governs. Elites must always remember people and place and appreciate their limits. The elites of the West have become disconnected, and feel little responsibility or obligation to the people they govern anymore. (More government programs are not it, since the people who design them, implement them, and administer them are almost never “served” by those programs, are never the objects of state care, and thus have no idea how degrading such attention and care really is.) The elites of the West have become enamored of a global humanity that really is an abstraction, and have forgotten the very concrete women and men they actually rule. That is what I mean by elite failure, and it is, sadly, probably an inevitable outcome of liberal democratic governance.

Because no form of government is permanent. There are just people, groping blindly, for meaning, purpose, and some way to organize themselves. Some are better than others, but all fall short of perfection — even liberal democracy — and all reflect certain central human ways of organizing ourselves, mobilizing resources, and holding each other accountable. All succeed to one extent or another, and all eventually fail.

Do Not Fear the King of Babylon

When we think of the conquest of Judah, and the destruction of Jerusalem, we tend to think of the exiles taken into captivity, hauled off to build a city of their own along the banks of Euphrates, to play their songs for those who will never truly appreciate those songs, and to weep and mourn and remember the loss.

But there was another remnant of Judah whose lives were also changed by the war that laid waste to Jerusalem:

9 Then Nebuzaradan, the captain of the guard, carried into exile to Babylon the rest of the people who were left in the city, those who had deserted to him, and the people who remained. 10 Nebuzaradan, the captain of the guard, left in the land of Judah some of the poor people who owned nothing, and gave them vineyards and fields at the same time. (Jeremiah 39:9-10 ESV)

The elites have been carried into exile. The people who keep and preserve the stories, rituals, and myths of Israel, who tend the temple, who count the coins in the treasury, who determine and manage the affairs of the court and the nation — they are gone. The city is broken and burnt, as wasteland, a shell of what it once was.

But only the elite have gone into exile. Judah is still full of Judeans, who are still God’s people, people with a language and culture and customs, and they have inherited the land from its dispossessed elite. The occupiers have doled out some of that which they have taken from the people they have conquered, and given it to the poor, to those “who owned nothing.”

It is interesting to note how this distribution of land comes about. As a result of the conquest and destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of Judah’s elite. I wonder how many of those who “owned nothing” were actually debtors who had been dispossessed, for whom this is something of a redemption as outlined in Leviticus 25. “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine. For you are strangers [תוֹשָׁבִ֛ים] and sojourners [גֵרִ֧ים] with me. And in all the country that you possess, you shall allow redemption of the land,” God tells Israel through Moses in Leviticus 25:23-24.

So, this land doesn’t belong to Israel. It belongs to God. Any talk of promised land and title deed needs to remember that. And even as Babylon has taken possession, it is still God’s land. Nebuzaradan, the Babylonian captain of the guard who with his own hands packed Israel off into exile, speaks to Jeremiah with the voice and authority of God — “The Lord your [singular] God pronounced this disaster against this place. The Lord has brought it about, and has done as he said. Because you [plural] sinned against the Lord and sis not about his voice, this thing has come upon you [plural].” (Jeremiah 40:2-3) He appoints a governor, Gedaliah, the son of Ahikam, son of Shaphan, to rule the remnant in Judah.

And Gedaliah speaks to the conquered remnant of Judah: “Do not be afraid to serve the Chaldeans. Dwell in the land and serve the king of Babylon, and it shall be well with you [plural].” (Jeremiah 40:9) And many refugees return to Judah, all but the elites of Jerusalem, and “they gathered wine and summer fruits in great abundance.” (Jeremiah 40:12)

So, perhaps it makes some sense that in the wake of the disaster, the land that had belonged to the elites — who sit in carts and trudge in long caravans on their way to far-off exile — gets doled out to “the poor people who owned nothing.” They are still the people of God, these poor who own nothing, still inheritors of the promise, even as their elites have been carted off into exile.

There are two remnants here. Those in Babylon, who would found the settlement of Tel Aviv along the banks of the Euphrates, who would wonder what the promise of God meant given the disaster that transpired, and what the promise of God to dwell among his people meant given that God’s house has been reduced to rubble and is, to boot, so far away. And those is Judah, who have inherited the land, who are left to work it.

Of course, there is chaos. Gedaliah, the leader of the Judean remnant, is murdered by a member of the dispossessed royal family. And his murderers eventually flee with Jeremiah and many of the other remnant of Judah to Egypt, even after Jeremiah warns them not to. Jeremiah pronounces doom on those who flee to Egypt, and says few will return to Judah. Those who go to Egypt will be tempted by its gods, and that remnant will be consumed by sword and fire and famine.

And they are. Again, this is no abstract if-then, else-then.

But it’s worth it to remember Jeremiah’s words to the remnant in Judah, as they pondered their fates following the assassination of Gedaliah. While Israel did not heed Jeremiah’s words, it is worth remembering God’s promise to a conquered and occupied people:

10 If you will remain in this land, then I will build you up and not pull you down; I will plant you, and not pluck you up; for I relent of the disaster that I did to you. 11 Do not fear the king of Babylon, of whom you are afraid. Do not fear him, declares the Lord, for I am with you, to save you and to deliver you from his hand. 12 I will grant you mercy, that he may have mercy on you and let you remain in your own land. (Jeremiah 42:10-12 ESV)

It’s Simply Too Late

So, Vice President-elect Mike Pence will take the oath of office on Ronald Reagan’s Bible, and he will place his hand specifically on 2 Chronicles 7:14

… if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.

It’s an interesting choice.

Pence could have chosen anything from chapter 6, which is the Chronicler’s account of Solomon’s prayer after he blessed the people of Israel and dedicated the temple. In fact, the words of Solomon’s prayer would have made more sense, that long plea Solomon makes for mercy and forbearance from God to forgive Israel when Israel repents.

When the prayer is done, Solomon calls God down from Heaven to dwell in this newly built house, and this his presence may never depart Israel:

41 “And now arise, O Lord God, and go to your resting place, you and the ark of your might. Let your priests, O Lord God, be clothed with salvation, and let your saints rejoice in your goodness. 42 O Lord God, do not turn away the face of your anointed one! Remember your steadfast love for David your servant.” (2 Chronicles 6:41-42 ESV)

Fire does indeed come down from heaven during this long ceremony, after this long prayer, and Israel grovels before the Lord.

Then, long after the dedication is done and the ceremony finished, God appears to Solomon “in the night” (an interesting reference, given that Solomon said at the beginning of chapter 6, “The Lord has said that he would dwell in thick darkness [Exodus 20:21]. But I have built you an exalted house, a place for you to well in forever.”) and answers Solomon’s prayer. I have chosen this house, God says:

13 When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command the locust to devour the land, or send pestilence among my people, 14 if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land. 15 Now my eyes will be open and my ears attentive to the prayer that is made in this place. 16 For now I have chosen and consecrated this house that my name may be there forever. My eyes and my heart will be there for all time. 17 And as for you, if you will walk before me as David your father walked, doing according to all that I have commanded you and keeping my statutes and my rules, 18 then I will establish your royal throne, as I covenanted with David your father, saying, You shall not lack a man to rule Israel.’
19 “But if you turn aside and forsake my statutes and my commandments that I have set before you, and go and serve other gods and worship them, 20 then I will pluck you up from my land that I have given you, and this house that I have consecrated for my name, I will cast out of my sight, and I will make it a proverb and a byword among all peoples. 21 And at this house, which was exalted, everyone passing by will be astonished and say, Why has the Lord done thus to this land and to this house?’ 22 Then they will say, ‘Because they abandoned the Lord, the God of their fathers who brought them out of the land of Egypt, and laid hold on other gods and worshiped them and served them. Therefore he has brought all this disaster on them.’” (2 Chronicles 7:13-22)

Pence is quoting from the promises of God made to Solomon, and by themselves, they sound like an open-ended promise to the people of God — remember me, and I will remember you. After all, God now dwells in the midst of the people, hearing and seeing all that they do. Feeling all they do.

Pence, like a lot of American Christians, confuses America the nation with the People of God. This promise is made to Israel, and by extension the church. There is no other people of God. Christians in Christendom easily confuse nation-state and community because the Christendom community is bounded by both church and state, it is both polity and congregation. To be Christian is to be a citizen (and vice versa). It’s an old problem, one Christians have never dealt well with. But I see no covenant between God and America, no evidence that God ever cut one with America past the self-righteous assertions of American Christians who confuse their civic enterprise with the call to follow Jesus.

But Pence makes another mistake here. This is not an open-ended promise. This is not a theoretical if-then, else-then. Like every set of promises God makes to Israel, it is embedded in the story of Israel’s failure. God speaks to Solomon of the consequences of turning away (Solomon is not the sinner in Chronicles he is the Deuteronomistic account), and Israel, under Solomon’s successor Reheboam, begins to turn away. Rebellion, idolatry, abandonment of the teaching, all lead to war and suffering and conquest.

It’s an object lesson — God demands our faithfulness, and God exacts a price for our faithlessness — but it must also be read embedded in the story of Israel. Which is one of faithlessness and failure. All that God promises Solomon in verses 19-22 comes to pass.

The repentance Pence quotes here comes, if it all, in Nehemiah 9, centuries later, when the exiles have been gathered, the law read, and the covenant renewed — under conditions of limited sovereignty, of Persian rule.

Most Christians do not want to deal with the fact that the story of Israel is one of failure. The story of the church, therefore, must also be one of failure. We will fail. We have found God’s favor and been blessed but God’s favor also included curses for faithlessness. And as often as we have done what we are told, we have not. Again and again, we are conquered and driven into exile, mindful that no arrangement we can put together on the basis of God’s promises and our adherence to the teaching will last forever.

It may be we are a faithful people living in a time of curses. That too is a divine calling, for which we are to bear witness, both prophetic and pastoral. Some of us, maybe many, are called to be priests without a temple. It may be if God’s people — the church in America — will repent, God will fulfill his promises and relent for a season. But we cannot even agree right now on what constitutes our sin, and because America, rather than the church, is what’s at stake for us, the supposed faithful remnant are constantly pointing at those outside, those others who do not share our virtues, and we say their sin got us here. And not ours.

And it may simply be far too late for repentance, whether we speak of Christians or Americans. Storm is coming, Assyrians and Babylonians are shoeing horses and sharpening swords. Consequences we began to bring upon ourselves long ago. God may relent, for a time, but it is probably too late to do much of anything except watch, pray, and seek safety.

An Update

Greetings all. I have been battling the flu for the last few days, and up until this morning, I felt like I was either dying or already dead or raised from the dead by some demonic alchemy.

I am, however, human again. Praise be to God!

Now, it’s Jennifer’s turn to get her head plugged and have the headache that will never end and the body aches and all that comes with. We even got flu shots in October — what a waste.

So, my brain has been barely working, just enough to type out copy at work and walk with a couple of kids who have been texting me. Anything else has been … more than I could manage.

Barring someone assigning me some kind of devotional — I liked the Advent series we did — blogging will likely be light. Unless I’m inspired. And since I am a gold-plated pessimist about Donald J. Trump, billionaire president-elect, I will try to keep comments about him to a minimum, since I’ve nothing really to add.

There’s gospel out there to be preached, to be heard, to be lived!

SERMON Beloved Child

I didn’t reach today, but if I had, it would have looked something like this.

13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. 14 John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15 But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. 16 And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; 17 and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:13-17 ESV)

I remember a conversation once with Kaylie Mendoza. She was talking about how much she hated language of adoption in scripture. Because in all her years in the foster system, no one adopted her — and for some fairly complex reasons I won’t explain here, no one could — and so, she wasn’t really anyone’s beloved child.

Which is why it has always been important to me to say to the kids who look to me as a parent-figure of some kind (and you know who you are), to say what this voice says from heaven.

“This is my beloved child, with whom I am well pleased.”

I have said it to Kaylie. Not as often, perhaps, as I should. I have said it Michaela, because as bright as she is, as successful as she has been in here life so far, she struggles and fears and wonders what will come of any of it. She fears failure. And so to her I say what I say to Kaylie or to any of those young people who stick around longer than to simply find safety:

“You are my beloved child, with whom I am well pleased.”

Jesus didn’t need to be baptized. And John — troubled, bug-eating, misfit and malcontent John — knew that. He knew this man had no need of repentance, no need of water and word, of the promises of God. Jesus is the promise of God. Made flesh in our midst. He doesn’t need this.

But we need him to do it. We need him in the water with us, wet, soaked, penitent, having words of blessing pronounced as he goes under and dies that symbolic death we all die when we go under.

We need him.

Because when we come to that water, when we go under, when promises are spoken and the blessing of God called down upon us, we join him. In the water. On the road. On the cross. In the tomb. Bearing wounds. Calling disciples to follow. Ascending to the heavens.

And he joins us. In school. Eating dinner. At boring, repetitive, poorly paid work that means little and seems to accomplish less. With friends, hanging out.

He joins us. At night, when we’re alone and frightened, when those who creep and lurk and hurt come and do their worst. He has been there, alone, frightened, beaten, broken, tortured.

He went into the water. And came out beloved child of God.

And so when we go in, we too come out, and even if we do not hear those words — because I didn’t — God speaks over us:

“This is my beloved child, with whom I am well pleased.”

Child of God. You. Me. All of us. Whether that water is a river or a font or a bowl on a pedestal, or tears are have cried in sorrow and shame and loneliness, we have been washed. Clean.

We are his. We are children, beloved and adopted, of one heavenly Father who is there with us. No matter how alone or scared or abandoned we have been. Beloved children of God.

Wanted. Needed. Called. Cared for. Redeemed. Risen. Alive.


The Problem of the Technocrats

This cartoon has been making the rounds, especially of many of my liberal and progressive friends who are both dismayed and very angry at the results of the recent U.S. presidential election:

The cartoon pokes at populism — the notion that, somehow, it makes sense for passengers to vote on who flies a plane — and in favor of technocratic elitism. You want a trained, skilled, experienced pilot to fly a plane. That improves the chances that you will actually get to where you are going and not die along the way.

It turns government into a set of specialized technical skills, best wielded by those with extensive training and education. People who have been prepared to govern.

There’s a word for this, or there used to be: Aristocracy.

This points to the limit of our technocratic thinking and our technocratic vision. Passengers on an airplane aren’t active participants in flying the plane, they do not debate where that plane is going or what route it should take to get there, what kind of amenities should be available in flight. They are mere consumers who pay for a product — “Fly me to Chicago! Can I have an extra bag of peanuts?”

Unwittingly, such thinking strips off the democratic pretense to technocratic politics. You don’t get a say in what the state does for you or to you, you merely consume what the state produces and must trust all those the state hires to do their jobs.

Again, there was a word for this kind of government, that compels trust in and obedience to those specifically born and trained for it: Aristocracy.

This has, for more than a century, been a problem with mass democratic governance. Either you believe in the process, at which point the outcomes of that process are uncertain, or you believe in right outcomes, at which point actual democratic processes are a hindrance or inconvenience because the will of the people in whose name all modern states are created and exist gets in the way. Technocratic elitism has, since the 1890s, been combined with a process designed to carefully manage democratic outcomes. In return, the “masses” were promised material comfort and economic security. After WWII, Western elites doubled down on this approach when it became all-too-clear to them that mass politics begot fascism, Naziism, and Bolshevism.

Better to turn people into passive consumers of expert government than risk their actual participation.

If we want to continue using the metaphor of the cartoon, then we also have to admit — the technocrats can’t fly this plane anymore either. Neoliberalism has delivered little but insecurity and fear, and the technocratic elite — our aristocracy, if you will — no longer know what they are doing, where they are going, or how to get there.

That too is the fate of aristocracies. Even ones built on education and experience.

Which means the ride is going to be bumpy one. Dangerous, even. That too is human. Only in a Hegelian sense — competition between grand ideas about human flourishing — did history come to and end in 1989. We are likely reverting to our very human norm in which the conflict between passions and personalities becomes what history is. The struggle to use ideology to organize communities and states to improve humanity and the human condition, while long-ached for, was likely only a temporary thing, an anomaly, an aberration, as strange as the accidental mass-wealth of the mid 20th century.

The truth is, we don’t know where we’re going, how to get there, or even what we are doing much of the time. We only think we do.

SERMON A Dangerous Man

I didn’t preach on Sunday. But if I had, it would have looked something like this.

13 Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” 14 And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt 15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son.”
16 Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men. 17 Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah:
18 “A voice was heard in Ramah,
weeping and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.”
19 But when Herod died, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, 20 saying, “Rise, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child’s life are dead.” 21 And he rose and took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there, and being warned in a dream he withdrew to the district of Galilee. 23 And he went and lived in a city called Nazareth, so that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled, that he would be called a Nazarene. (Matthew 2:13-23 ESV)

And so we have, tossed off here, one of the most horrific passages of scripture we may ever encounter. In a book full of horror, needless, pointless, purposeless violence.

Jesus is saved. In a dream, his foster father Joseph is told to flee with him, and Mary, to the safety of another land. Herod, who jealous and angry and very, very afraid. Jesus is a usurper, “the king of the Jews,” and he threatens Herod’s very own throne. Herod wants to keep his throne. He rather likes it, the wealth and the power and the privilege that come with being King of Judea, even if it means accepting Roman rule and Roman occupation.

He likes being king. Why wouldn’t he? Who would want to give up a throne, and all that came with it? So babies, toddlers, threaten him. If the cosmos has anointed him King of Judea, King of the Jews, then Herod’s has lost his throne. It is only a matter of time.

But no man goes quietly. King Saul lost his throne when he was faithless toward God, who commanded Samuel to go find and anoint a new king for all Israel from among the sons of Jesse. The young David struggled with Saul for years, perhaps decades, before he came into the kingdom that had been promised to him, fleeing and fighting and even giving himself in service to Israel’s enemies.

Herod will not go quietly either. If a mere toddler from Bethlehem threatens his throne, well … it is better to do away with all of the little boys in Bethlehem than to risk that loss.

That’s fear.

There’s a sad fact about scripture. It is not sentimental about the dead. That strikes us as strange, because we revere our dead. We seek purpose and meaning in their lives, their suffering, their deaths. They are still with us in many ways, telling us what our lives mean and what our purposes are, what we will live for. We fight hard against meaningless suffering, against pointless death, especially against innocent suffering and death.

Scripture doesn’t do that. The dead … are dead. They are gone. There is lament for the dead of Israel after Babylon destroys Jerusalem and carries its people into far away exile, but the message of scripture is not about the dead. It is about the living, the survivors, the remnant. Yes, we mourn our dead, and we bury them. But as we sit in the midst if the rubble of the city and lament our loss, we also know — we look forward in hope to a future, to the promise of God. And not backwards, to what we have lost. To what is no more.

In this, I believe the story of Israel that we have in scripture appreciates that we live in a violent, capricious, often times meaningless world, in which little is clear. In this passage, Jesus is saved, he flees the murderous violence of a jealous and frightened tyrant. But as a result, that tyrant murders anyway. Hundreds, possibly thousands, of children die.

Frightened and angry, Herod is a dangerous man. He kills what he fears, hoping the power to inflict death will make him less afraid.

It doesn’t work. Note well, he dies anyway.

The quote that Matthew takes from Jeremiah is part of a longer promise of God to the “people who survived the sword,” the exiles of Israel who shall be regathered in the land of promise. God specifically uses the name Ephraim in the prophesy he speaks to Jeremiah. Ephraim is one of the sons of Joseph, and a name synonymous with the northern kingdom that was destroyed by Assyria many years after renouncing its share in the promises to David and going its own way as a separate state.

There is a second part to Jeremiah’s prophesy, a response to Rachel’s crying:

16 Thus says the Lord:
“Keep your voice from weeping,
and your eyes from tears,
for there is a reward for your work,
declares the Lord,
and they shall come back from the land of the enemy.
17 There is hope for your future,
declares the Lord,
and your children shall come back to their own country.
Jeremiah 31:16-17 (ESV)

Tears at the loss of innocence. Comfort from God for the one who will not be comforted — they shall return. “There is hope for your future, your children shall come back.”

Who is Rachel weeping for? Matthew has her weeping for the murdered children of Bethlehem. But she isn’t weeping for the dead in Jeremiah, she’s weeping for the lost. Perhaps Rachel here is also weeping for Jesus, who has gone into exile and lives among a foreign people, and who — so far as we know — never returned to Bethlehem.

Jesus too, is a dangerous man. Even as a baby, even as a toddler, dangerous enough to have his birth written somehow in the stars, to draw wise men from the east — possibly Zoroastrian astrologers from Iran — bearing treasure and gifts. Dangerous enough because he is, as Matthew says, the son of David, the son of Abraham, inheritor and fulfillment of the promises made to both — land, blessing, descendants, a kingdom forever. Dangerous because, as the angel told his foster father Jospeh, “he will save his people from their sins.”

Into this world he came, a world full of dangerous men who inflict suffering and death out of fear or lust or rage. But in this one dangerous man, this Jesus who fled to Egypt in the dark of night, who died on a cross and who rose from the tomb, there is hope. He has come to share joy and sorrow, gladness and suffering, tedium and excitement, life and death. In this living and dying and rising, rather than in battle and killing, in hope rather than in fear, he conquers. And he rules.