Archive for October, 2011

Seamus Heaney and the magic of wild Ireland

One of the writers whose work I read in preparation for a visit to Northern Ireland in October 2000 was Seamus Heaney, who has a foot in both halves of the divided island country, having been born near Belfast and living in Dublin for many years. His poems often describe the rural Ireland untarnished by the tragedies of the Troubles, and in this, the last entry in his 1996 book, “The Spirit Level,” he gives us a glimpse of the beauty that is the west of Ireland.

Last night I read it again during an October sunset and it took me back to that time when I traveled, not in the west, but along the northern coast of Antrim. I had never before seen such beauty on earth, and I doubt that I ever will again. It was awe-inspiring.

 ”Postscript” by Seamus Heaney

Photo by Photos of IrelanPPostscript

And some time make the time to drive out west
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,
In September or October, when the wind
And the light are working off each other
So that the ocean on one side is wild
With foam and glitter, and inland among stones
The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit
By the earthed lightning of a flock of swans,
Their feathers roughed and ruffling, white on white,
Their fully grown headstrong-looking heads
Tucked or cresting or busy underwater.
Useless to think you’ll park and capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.


Seamus Heaney

From THE SPIRIT LEVEL (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1996)

Here’s a You Tube video of Heaney reading the poem at a convention in Dublin. (Click on the highlighted text.)

And here’s a short biography of the 1995 Nobel-winning poet from, the office site of the Nobel Prize.









‘Who is My Neighbor?’ an exhibit by John Lynner Peterson

Woman on Train, Australia, 1971

This black-and-white film photograph of an elderly woman on a train in Australia in 1971 is the one I like best of John Lynner Peterson’s exhibit, “Who is My Neighbor?” which is currently on display at the Clark County Public Library in Winchester. She seems forlorn and lonely, yet strong.

The Lexington photographer’s exhibit includes pictures, mostly black and white, of people in Papua New Guinea, Turkey, Afghanistan, Pakistan and the American Midwest. It’s some of the best portrait work I’ve seen.

The exhibit opened Oct. 1, and the reception and lecture by the photographer have already occurred, but the photos will be on display in the community room through Oct. 31.

The library also has a copy of Peterson’s book, “Who is My Neighbor?” For more information on John Lynner Peterson and Global Village Studio, visit (click on this link) or email him at For a description of the exhibit, go to To comment on the Facebook page, go to

For information on the Clark County Public Library and its upcoming exhibits and events, visit or call (859) 744-5661.

Smart phones for iDiots

I never thought I'd have a phone that's smarter than I am.

While millions of Apple addicts were honoring Steve Jobs’s legacy last week by buying the new iPhone G4, I was looking for the “old” iPhone G3S.

I was told by the Apple Store in Winchester that they would have some in Friday, and that they were free (with an $18 upgrade fee and a $25 a month Internet package). But the phones arrived a day early, so I had to go to the Walmart on Richmond Road in Lexington and pay 97 cents for the last one in the store.

Now if I can just figure out how to use it.

I can’t seem to find the instruction book.

My 11-year-old niece offered to show me how it works, but when I handed it to her, she started to down the Warriors app (based on a series of books about belligerent cats).

Little Miss Smarty Pants.

A few months ago, when the digital media director of the company I worked for gave a presentation on smart phone technology and what it would mean for newspapers, I swore I would never buy a smart phone.

I didn’t want anyone to be able to find my global position, nor did I even want to consider having a telephone that could do everything under the sun except block calls from annoying automated calling systems.

“I don’t want a smart phone,” I said. “I want a dumb phone.”

I wanted a phone that I could call and receive calls on, and reply to texts from young women so that they wouldn’t think was a hopeless geezer.

I’d have been happy with a Jitterbug, but it wasn’t an option on the AT&T family plan.

Steve Jobs with the first Apple computer I ever used for work, the original Macintosh.

Finally, however, my sister and others convinced me that if I didn’t want to be left behind in this brave new world of digital technology, I had to get with it and get a smart phone. The little flip phone I had been carrying was, you know, just so early 21st century.

And since everything I own or have ever used is an Apple product (starting with the boxy little beige Macintosh in 1994), I figured my phone might as well be an Apple as well.

Now, though, I have this beautiful, sleek piece of plastic and silicon, and I might as well use it as a paper weight.

I should use it to call someone who is familiar with the iPhone and can talk me through it. Can’t call Steve Jobs, he’s gone on to nirvana (wherever or whatever that is). Maybe I could find Steve Wozniak in the Yellow and White Pages.

If only I could figure out how to download that free app.

The Shrivers and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul

Three years ago, St. Joseph Catholic Church in Winchester began participating in a national Walk for the Poor to support the Society of St. Vincent de Paul Society.

Scott Stossel's authorized biography of Sargent ShriverSince the first walk, I've taken part in the fundraiser and also covered the first two for The Winchester Sun, because I've always been interested in faith-based efforts to help those in need.

I didn’t know, however, until this week that the society started not as an effort to aid the poor, but as one to aid Protestant converts to Catholicism. Nor did I know that it was started by the family of one of America’s greatest statesmen of the 20th Century, Sargent Shriver.

Shriver, the brother-in-law of President John F. Kennedy, who established the Peace Corps 50 years ago and led the War on Poverty under Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon Johnson, died this year. His was a long life given in service to those Christ called “the least of these.” He was a friend or acquaintance of some of the most beloved American Catholics of his century, including Dorothy Day, cofounder of the Catholic Worker movement, and Thomas Merton, the Trappist monk and writer.

Not only did Shriver lead the Peace Corps and the Office of Economic Opportunity during the War on Poverty, but he was a principle author of many of those programs to aid the disadvantaged, including Head Start, the Job Corps, Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), Foster Grandparents, Upward Bound, Legal Services to the Poor and, with his wife, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, Special Olympics. That legacy of service continues with their children, Tim Shriver, who is now the president and CEO of Special Olympics, and Bobby Shriver, who, along with U2 singer Bono, founded the advocacy group DATA (Debt, AIDS, Trade Africa).

But this family legacy of service to the poor didn’t begin with Sargent and Eunice Shriver. It goes back at least one generation more, with Shriver’s parents, who founded and led the Society of St. Vincent de Paul.

In Scott Stossel’s authorized biography, “Sarge: The Life and Times of Sargent Shriver,” which I began reading this week, I learned not only that Shriver’s Catholic faith was the source of his compassion, but that he was carrying forward a family tradition.

The Shrivers were originally the German immigrant Schreibers, who settled in Maryland and rose to prominence in business and politics in that state, which had been established as a colony by another convert to Catholicism, Lord Baltimore.

On June 1, 1910, Hilda Shriver, a Catholic, married her Protestant cousin, Robert Sargent Shriver, after receiving special dispensation from the cardinal archbishop of Baltimore.

Robert, Sargent’s father, soon converted to Catholicism and became devout in his new found faith. He and Hilda founded Baltimore’s Catholic Evidence League, to help Catholics apply biblical teachings to their daily lives, and a Catholic bookstore in New York. Together they also established Commonweal, the national journal for progressive Catholics.

And Robert Shriver established the National Catholic Convert League to give money to support Protestant clergymen who converted to Catholicism. It was later renamed the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. The elder Shriver also made weekly forays into Baltimore’s slums to distribute food to the poor, and that became part of the society’s work, for which it is best known today.


Robert Kennedy in Eastern Kentucky

Note: In my recent blog post about Gov. Bert Combs’ limousine at the Kentucky History Museum in Frankfort, I mentioned that the car was used in Sen. Robert F. Kennedy’s poverty tour of Eastern Kentucky in 1968 and that I had participated in an re-enactment of that historic occasion, “RFK in EKY” (also known as The Robert F. Kennedy Performance Project) in 2004. I just found this story I published on Sept. 16, 2004 in The Jessamine Journal.


 Re-enactment of Kennedy visit looks at poverty then and now 

“… I’ve seen proud men in the hills of Appalachia who wish only to work in dignity, but they cannot, for the mines have closed and their jobs are gone, and no one — neither industry, labor nor government — has cared enough to help …”

– Robert F. Kennedy, 1968


Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, D-N.Y., at a strip mine at Yellow Creek in Eastern Kentucky, 1968.

By Randy Patrick

Monell Patton sat on her front porch mending a faded yellow bed skirt as she and her husband, James, watched the strangers park their cars on the shoulder and walk up the road to where the old Vortex School once stood.

They had seen something like it 36 years ago, when Sen. Robert F. Kennedy of New York came to the mountains to hold hearings on the effectiveness of the War on Poverty in Eastern Kentucky. (Watch this video from Kennedy’s original visit.)

Monell was a young woman then, and she watched the senator and his entourage through a window because she was too bashful to meet him.

Still, he made a lasting impression.

“I  thought an awful lot of him,” she said. “Just thinking about him caring enough to visit this little place … It brings back a lot of memories. It makes you want to cry.”

Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, D-N.Y., being interviewed in Hazard, Ky., 1968.

Four months after he came to Kentucky, Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles while running for president.

“It was a shame, and it was a shock,” she said, her voice catching as she bowed her head.

Many politicians have come to Appalachia to “discover” poverty, but some mountain people believe Kennedy was different and might have made a difference.

Phyllis Buckner believes that.

She was among the cast of characters in “RFK in EKY,” a re-enactment of Kennedy’s 200-mile tour in February of 1968. 

The Appalshop performance, which director John Malpede compared to “street theater,” occurred last Thursday and Friday at the places the senator had visited.

Hazard lawyer Jack Faust portrayed Kennedy, and people from the area impersonated others who were part of the original tour.

Buckner portrayed her mother, Betty Terrill, and wore the black dress Terrill had worn when she was one of six witnesses who were questioned at a Senate Subcommittee on Manpower, Employment and Poverty, which was held at the one-room schoolhouse in Vortex.

In a re-enactment at a nearby church, Buckner repeated her mother’s testimony.

Asked by Kennedy what most worried her, Terrill had answered: “school books.”

“Next year I’ll have two in high school, and I won’t be able to afford to buy books for both of them, so they’ll have to quit,” she said.

“If they quit school, what happens to them? Are there any jobs?” Kennedy asked.

“No jobs. Not here,” Mrs. Terrill answered. “They have to go to other counties to find jobs.”

That hasn’t changed, Buckner said later that day.

“My husband hauls cross country, so we lead two different lives. I stay here, and he goes,” she said. “Anybody that has a job has to go out of the county to do it.”

Some things have improved, Buckner said. Books and school lunches are free for children, and the poor no longer have to buy food stamps. But welfare still barely pays enough for a family to survive.


Peter Edelman

Peter Edelman, who was  Kennedy’s legislative assistant and did advance work for his 1968  field hearings, spoke last Wednesday at the University of Kentucky about poverty in America and Kennedy’s legacy. [Read a review of Edelman's book, "Searching for America's Heart: RFK and the Renewal of Hope."]

“He always had a feeling about the people who were excluded, the people who were on the periphery,” he said.

During the presidency of his brother, John F. Kennedy, the senator, who was then attorney general, helped lay the groundwork for what would become the  War on Poverty. But it was President Lyndon B. Johnson who got legislation enacted in 1964 to establish those antipoverty programs, which included Head Start, Upward Bound, Job Corps, Legal Aid and others.

As attorney general, Kennedy held meetings on juvenile delinquency and poverty. One of his ideas was for a domestic Peace Corps, which resulted in Volunteers in Service to America. He also emphasized that government programs for low-income people should be controlled by the people, not by local politicians. That was the genesis of Community Action.

“The idea of maximum feasible participation, which caused all of that trouble, that really came from Robert Kennedy,” Edelman said.

Although Kennedy didn’t like welfare, he believed it should exist as a safety net for those who couldn’t work, and should provide an adequate income. But he was more concerned about providing jobs in depressed areas. He thought government should work with businesses, as he had done in Brookly, to revitalize depressed areas, and it should offer job training, and, where necessary, public jobs.

“He had come to see that the welfare system … was deeply flawed, that it was helping people in a totally inadequate way,” Edelman said. “You couldn’t really get out of poverty with welfare or a combination of welfare and food assistance. It was made available grudgingly. And most importantly, it was unconnected to helping people to find work, and to get away from depending on the cash help.”

Bobby Kennedy with children at the school at Vortex.

On Thursday at a preserved one-room schoolhouse at Barwick, Edelman and residents reminisced about Kennedy’s visit. Bonnie Jean Carroll, who was the teacher at the time, said the students were shy, so Kennedy knelt at their desks and whispered.

“I don’t know what all he said to them,” she said.

Some of the former students also returned Thursday for the performance. J.D. Farler recalled Kennedy’s words of encouragement to him: “You can be what you want to be.”

Other stops on the tour included Hazard; a strip mine site at Yellow Creek that Kennedy and his entourage had visited in defiance of the owner and his armed guards; Alice Lloyd College, where he had conducted a four-hour field hearing; and Whitesburg [read the New York Times article] and Prestonsburg, where he had given speeches.

The $300,000 production was funded by  foundations and took four years to make, according to Michael Hunt, a member of the staff.

Coal River and ‘The Last Mountain’

The Last Mountain movie poster

“Coal is mean, coal is cruel and coal kills,” said Maria Gunnoe, a resident of the Coal River area of West Virginia and daughter of a coal miner.

And we’re all responsible for it, she adds.

That’s strong language, but if you watch the documentary film “The Last Mountain,” you will understand her feelings and those of her neighbors.

Maria Gunnoe, coal miner's daughter and opponent of mountaintop removal mining.

The film by Bill Haney (watch the trailer at or by clicking on this link), tells the story of Coal River Mountain, the last mountain in the area that hasn’t yet been destroyed by Massey Coal, the largest coal company in the country and one which had gotten away with tens of thousands of violations of federal law before the EPA finally acted by levying a mere $24 million in fines.

In the film, one resident, Jack Spadaro walks beside his daughter’s school, which was beneath a coal silo, and runs his handkerchief along the white outside wall, then shows environmental attorney Robert F. Kennedy Jr. that it is covered with black coal dust. This is what the children’s lungs are going to look like, he said.

Another resident, Jennifer Hall-Massey, tells of the many neighbors who have been made ill, and others who have died, she believes, because of toxic minerals. The national average for brain tumors, she said, is about one in 100,000.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr., an environmental attorney and son of the late Sen. Bobby Kennedy, has been a leader in the fight to save Coal River Mountain.

“Here we had six living side by side,” she said.

The Appalachian Mountains, the oldest  in the world, are being destroyed by mountaintop removal mining, in which explosives with the combined force of an atomic bomb every week, are used to blast away the peaks, and giant earth-moving machines then level them to get to the thin coal seams. The “overburden,” which used to be forests and topsoil, but also includes poisonous minerals like arsenic and mercury, is pushed into streams, polluting the water. Water and waste are held in slurry ponds, which have escaped, flooding valleys and killing residents.

Homes have been damaged by flooding and blasting. People have died when huge boulders have crashed into houses.

“If the American people could see this, there would be a revolution in this country,” Kennedy says.

But I’m not so sure.

Kentuckians and West Virginians do know what is happening, yet they turn a blind eye to it. They drive around with bumper stickers on their car that read “Friends of Coal” and “Coal keeps the lights on.”

As Maria Gunnoe said, we’re all in on it.

We know that coal burning is the number one source of climate change, which is already having dire effects around the world, and which will destroy the atmosphere if we do nothing. The burning of coal is the reason for acid rain, which is the reason pristine mountain lakes as far away as New England are now dead, and why we’re warned not to eat even ocean fish like tuna more than once a week because of high levels of mercury contamination.

And it’s unnecessary. Americans are the most innovative people in the world. It’s absurd that our energy system is still based on something as antiquated and dangerous as coal, when there are so many ways to produce electricity that isn’t dependent on a finite and almost exhausted resource.

Before and after: What mountaintop removal mining does to an Appalachian landscape. Photo by Parade magazine.

The people of Coal River Mountain want to build wind farms — giant windmills that will produce enough electricity to supply tens of thousands of residents — as other communities have done, but they won’t be able to do so if Massey destroys the mountain first.

“They’re determined to knock down this mountain,” said one resident. “We’re determined to stop them.”

“The Last Mountain” is showing this week at the Kentucky Theater on Main Street in Lexington, and it is the only scheduled showing in Kentucky. If you care about the future of the mountains and their people and really want to understand what’s happening, you have to see this film. Visit the website at for show times.

To read a review of the movie in Parade and see more photos, visit:

Precious metal: Gov. Bert Combs’ car and Kentucky history

The governor's limo, a 1963 Chrysler Imperial LeBaron

Some guys are obsessed with machines. I’ve never been one of those guys.

What I am intrigued by is history, and the 1960s in Kentucky is one of my favorite eras. Civil rights, the War on Poverty, political reform and the nascent environmental movement were all part of that history.

That’s why I find the car in this photograph so fascinating. It’s a 1963 Chrysler Imperial LeBaron limo that was used by Kentucky’s three most progressive governors of the 20th century, who served back-to-back terms: Democrats Bert Combs and Edward Ned Breathitt, and Republican Louie Nunn.

Gov. Bert Combs with President Lyndon B. Johnson

I photographed it last week at the Kentucky History Museum when my sister and brother-in-law took me to Frankfort for the day for my 51st birthday. I took care of some business at the Kentucky Gazette, where I’ve been doing some freelance work, then we had lunch at The Dragon Pub, shopped at The Irish Sea and Poor Richard’s Books in the capital’s historical downtown near the Old Capitol and had bourbon chocolates at Rebecca Ruth.

By the time we made it to the Kentucky History Museum, we didn’t have time for the tour. But there was only one thing I was interested in seeing, and I talked the woman at the front desk into letting me go in long enough to take a picture of it.

The beautiful blue Chrysler, which is on loan to the museum by Steve and Linda Reeder of Lawrenceburg, Ky., was purchased by the state in 1962 by the state for $15,500 for Gov. Bert Combs, and was subsequently used by Ned Breathitt and Louie Nunn before it was retired from service at the end of the tumultuous decade.

The governor's limousine was used by Sen. Robert Kennedy in 1968.

According to the placard next to the vehicle, this is the car that Sen. Robert F. Kennedy used for his poverty tour of Eastern Kentucky not long before his ill-fated run for the presidency in 1968. It was also used by America’s first lady, Ladybird Johnson when she toured Western Kentucky during her beautification campaign, which was a precursor to the modern environmental movement that began with Earth Day in 1970.

Kennedy’s Kentucky tour is one of my favorite historic events from that time. It was part of a Senate field hearing on poverty and hunger in America that also included a visit to the Mississippi Delta. It included some of the legendary figures of Kentucky history, including the late Congressman Carl D. Perkins, D-Ky., and Tom Gish, the crusading editor of The Mountain Eagle.

In 2004, I took part in a re-enactment of the tour, RFK in EKY, with Peter Edelman, one of the senator’s aides (and husband of children’s advocate Marion Wright Edelman). It was right after I had met another protege of Bobby Kennedy’s, John Lewis, the congressman and civil rights leader.

Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, D-N.Y., in Hazard, Ky., in 1968. (Images by RFK in EKY Project)

The photographs on the wall behind the car tell not only of the governors and the Kennedy and Ladybird Johnson tours, but also of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, which was launched in Inez, Ky., in 1962 and was the origin of such programs as Head Start, Upward Bound, the Job Corps and Community Action.

Other images are of early opposition to strip mining in Appalachia, which concerned Robert Kennedy for both environmental and economic reasons, and which his son, environmental attorney Robert F. Kennedy Jr., has made a cause celebré.

Last night I watched the movie, “The Last Mountain” (watch the  trailer) at the Kentucky Theater in Lexington, in which RFK Jr. figures prominently. It also includes images from his father’s visit to Kentucky. I didn’t pay close enough attention to see whether the car was in the film, so I may have to see the film again.

I’ll blog more about “The Last Mountain” later, but if you are interested in the fate of the Appalachian Mountains, I would recommend that you go see it while it’s playing at the Kentucky. It’s an independent film with a limited showing, so this is probably the only opportunity you’ll have to see it in Kentucky.

Berea’s fall arts and crafts fair

Joan Schulte, left, is one of the many artists at the Kentucky Guild of Artist and Craftsmen fall fair this weekend. Photo by Randy Patrick


Morning in Berea. The scent of cedar wood chips. The sounds of dulcimers and children singing. Shafts of bight October sunlight through the trees illuminate stained glass, candles, colored yarn.

These were my first impressions of the Kentucky Guild of Artists and Craftsmen fall fair at Berea’s Indian Fort Theater.

“You couldn’t have asked for a prettier day for it,” a woman said to another as I was walking through the crowd.

It was a splendid day in my favorite little town in the Bluegrass.

The Kentucky Guild, which is based in Berea, is celebrating its 50th year. It was formed in 1961 to promote art and crafts, and it exhibits the work of juried artists in the Berea College Forest, at the base of Indian Fort Mountain, at different times of the year.

The fall fair is the one I like best. The weather is warm, but not uncomfortably so, and I like to come in the morning, when it’s cooler and not as crowded. I try to visit every year, to buy pottery and pictures and to see old friends.

Not only is the fair a treasure trove of visual art, including paintings, metal sculpture and hand-crafted wood, but you can often see artists at work.

There are always musicians playing  folk, jazz or mountain music, and the food  includes country cooking, such as soup beans with cornbread or peach cobbler.

Photographer John Snell

Today I enjoyed talking with the photographers Ralph Tyree of Winchester and John Snell of Lexington. They are both amazing artists. Another photographer I’ve bought several small black-and-white prints from over the years is Bruce Wess of Boone County. I like the way he uses light to form sharp contrasts, such as his picture “God’s Light,” taken inside the historic Episcopal Church at Rugby, Tenn., and “The Way of the Cross,” for which he used infrared film to capture sunlight on what appears to be a flaming cross at the approach of the University of the South.

If you missed it today, you have another opportunity to attend Sunday between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. Indian Fort Theater is located on Ky. 21 a short drive from Boone Tavern.


Almost as soon as I arrived, I went to the old Indian Fort Theater shelter, where I can usually find hot food and George Brosi with his fine collection of antiquarian books.But there were no books, the kitchen and restrooms were closed, and there was nothing happening in the amphitheater. I asked a volunteer and a visitor, and both said they had heard that Berea College had closed the facility because vandals had damaged it and stolen copper wiring and other things. They also said the buildings would be torn down and replaced with steel-and-concrete restroom facilities.

That’s a shame. I’ve been coming to Indian Fort Mountain for more than 30 years to hike (the trails are closed, though, when the art fair is going on), and I have fond memories of concerts, social justice and environmental rallies, and many other events when I worked as a reporter for The Richmond Register in the 198os and 90s.

A concrete block building just won’t be the same.

Robert Gunkler, 1957 Berea College graduate

The visitor I spoke with about the theater, Robert Gunkler, is a 1957 Berea College graduate whose father taught at the college. He said the theater was there when he was a student, and that it was used for an outdoor drama called “Wilderness Road.” He remembered some fellow students being recruited for the movie “Raintree County,” starring Elizabeth Taylor, because Berea was the one college where, in those days, you could find bearded students.

It’s nice to know some things haven’t changed. Berea has always been progressive and a little avant grade. May it ever be so.


For as long as I can remember hiking on Indian Fort Mountain, also known locally as “the Pinnacles,” there has been the sweetest little dog there that would follow me about. An Australian shepherd mix, she’s getting old, but she still lets visitors stroke her head and talk to her. I learned today that her name is Tilley, and that she has her own Facebook page and friends all over the world.


Amanda Barton, Berea College student artist

It’s possible to find affordable art at the Guild’s arts and crafts fairs. But if you’re going to be in Berea anyway,and are looking for a bargain, you should also visit Main Street, which runs through the college campus. Among the art galleries you’ll find there is one that exhibits Berea College student art. I stopped in today, had a look around and was talked with a friendly young artist, Amanda Barton, who was working a loom.

Berea may be progressive, but it’s also quite traditional!

Afterward, I had a cappuccino and a scone at Berea Coffee and Tea so that I could use their free WiFi and write this blog post. It’s a great coffee shop, with the kind of “character” you won’t find at corporate coffee shops.

And if you skip lunch at the festival itself, I’d recommend PapaLeno’s for lunch. The breadsticks, dripping in garlic butter, are wonderful, and my favorite main course is the chicken veggie pasta, which consists of pasta, grilled chicken, banana and green bell peppers, and black and green olives. Delicious!

Faith and politics: summer reading 2011

Politics and religion, you probably learned as a child, are the two subjects you shouldn’t talk about in polite company. Certainly you shouldn’t mix them together, because it can be an explosive combination.

Yet how faith intersects with political questions is mostly what I read about this summer and discussed with friends on Facebook or with family at the supper table.

I don’t think separation of church and state means separation of faith and values from public life. Unlike Western Europe, we haven’t reached the point where any reference to God in the public square is looked upon as either quaint or offensive.

On the other hand, I believe we should be careful about claiming God’s mantle for partisan agendas. That was the mistake that marginalized the religious right, especially Ralph Reed and his Christian Coalition, and that could do the same to the religious left, exemplified by Jim Wallis and Sojourners.

The chief operating officer of Sojourners, former Asbury Theological Seminary philosophy professor Charles Gutenson, is one of the authors whose thoughts on the relationship of faith and politics I read this summer.

His new book, “Christians and the Common Good,” begins by describing his fundamentalist rearing, with its emphasis on judgment.

“The concept of God I inherited led me to believe that God was out to get me,” he said. But the more he read the scriptures, the more he understood that the God of justice isn’t only concerned with individual salvation.

Gutenson was brought up to believe that religion is a private matter, except when it comes to saving souls. But he came to see that conversion is only the beginning, and that there is more to discipleship than getting others to convert.

Chuck Gutenson

To be political means to be concerned with the life we share in community, and that is also an overarching concern of the scriptures, Gutenson wrote.

Gutenson emphasizes, we must be careful not to read parts of the Bible out of context, but to see this collection, written over thousands of years, as a continuous story.

For example, when Jesus said that his kingdom was “not of this world,” he didn’t mean that he isn’t the Lord of all or that we shouldn’t be concerned with temporal things, just that his first coming wasn’t about political revolution and regime change.

Some of my conservative friends try to convince me that there is no scriptural basis for the idea that governments have an obligation to the poor. Gutenson shatters that argument.

When most people quote Jesus, saying that the poor you shall “always have with you,” they misunderstand his words. Jesus himself was quoting the Hebrew scriptures that said the poor you shall always have with you; therefore you must open your hands to the poor. It means exactly the opposite of what many people think.

In those same books of the Pentateuch, God gave laws to ensure economic justice. He instituted land reform, rules for lending and payment of wages, and periodic forgiveness of debt, and he said that people shouldn’t harvest all their crops, but leave some for the needy and migrants.

In Isaiah, God’s prophet rails against those “who make iniquitous decrees, who write oppressive statutes, to turn aside the needy from justice …” And in Ezekial 16:48, the Jews were told that God destroyed the entire city of Sodom because of its neglect of the poor, and that the same would happen to Jerusalem.

In the New Testament, Paul explains that people must pay their taxes so that the government can do its work to promote good and restrain evil (Romans 13), and in 2 Corinthians 8:15, we are told that society was organized not to ensure absolute equality, but so that “the one who had much did not have too much, and the one that had little did not have too little.” That is also the idea behind the graduated income tax, the earned income tax credit and Social Security.

Alisa Harris

If God cares for the poor, and we are created in his image and as stewards of his earth, then it follows, Gutenson reasons, that we, too, must care about “the least of these” in ways that are effective, and not just leave the unfortunate to their fate, or the vagaries of a free market.

While Gutenson makes an effective case for social justice, his views on the more controversial issues of abortion and homosexuality, seem to be more tenuous. I would like to have read a more thorough explication of these issues.

Abortion and sexuality, on the other hand, were just about the only issues fundamentalist Christians were concerned about in the environment Alisa Harris grew up in.

Harris’s 2011 book, “Raised Right: How I Untangled My Faith from Politics,” is a story of the religious right on steroids. As a kid, Harris, the daughter of the kind of Christians who picket abortion clinics and home-school their kids for religious rather than educational reasons, was a true believer. She never missed an opportunity for in-your-face political Christian witness.

One of the funniest stories in the book is the one about her attempt to “redeem” the San Juan County Fair 4-H goat costume contest for “the cause of Christ” by dressing up as Hillary Clinton, complete with the hair flip and a file folder labeled “CONFIDENTIAL.” Her goat, in a blue suit, was, of course, “Slick Willie.”

Years later, as a young journalist in New York, Harris had a kind of epiphany when one of her evangelical prayer partners was late for a meeting because she had attended a campaign rally for Hillary Clinton. It never occurred to her that one could be a committed Christian and a Democrat.  As she grew up, she encountered unexpected complexities and began to see that neither party has an agenda that is consistently “Christian.”

She eventually voted for Barack Obama for president, but Harris also came to understand that God is neither a Republican nor a Democrat, and that there is no political path to sainthood.

One of my favorite quotes in her book is from Peggy Noonan, the conservative, Catholic commentator and former aide to President Ronald Reagan.

“Beware the politically obsessed,” Noonan wrote. “They are often bright and interesting, but they have something missing in their natures; there is a hole, an empty place, and they use politics to fill it up. It leaves them somehow misshapen.”

Noonan’s observation made Harris uncomfortable. It makes me uncomfortable, too, because it is profoundly true.

I hope it makes you uncomfortable too. In both faith and politics, it’s good to get outside your comfort zone.


Here is a list of the books I read this summer (July, August and September):

— A Reason to Believe: Lessons from an Improbable Life, by Gov. Deval Patrick

— The Elephant in the Room: Evangelicals, Libertarians and the Battle to Control the Republican Party, by Ryan Sager

— In God’s Time: The Bible and the Future, by Craig C. Hill

— New York, by Edward Rutherfurd

— Christians and the Common Good: How Faith Intersects with Public Life, by Charles E. Gutenson

— A Short History of the United States, by Robert V. Remini

— Raised Right: How I Untangled My Faith from Politics, by Alisa Harris

— Writing in the Dust: After September 11, by Rowan Williams

— Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life, by Richard Rohr

— The Radical Disciple: Some Neglected Aspects of Our Calling, by John Stott

October and a new beginning

“October is a fine and dangerous season in America,” Thomas Merton wrote of his days as a student. “It is dry and cool, and the land is wild with red and gold and crimson, and all the lassitudes of August have seeped out of your blood, and you are full of ambition. It is a wonderful time to begin anything at all.”

That is a splendid description of the best month of the year, and I’ve remembered it since I first read Merton’s classic autobiography of his early life, “The Seven-Storey Mountain.”

The book tells of his odyssey from France, where he was a boy, to England, then New York, and finally to Kentucky, where, at the Abbey of Gethsemani near Bardstown, he found his true home and became one of the 20th Century’s greatest Christian writers and thinkers.

His impression of October was that of a young man heading back to college, but I quoted those words in a journal entry when I was 40, while on a trip to Britain and Northern Ireland, because they resonated with me at the time.

I knew then that I was in the “early autumn of my life, but autumn has always been my favorite season” and “a good time for a new beginning,” I wrote. Yet, while the moment felt “ripe with possibilities,” I was as “full of ambivalence as ambition.”

I was then a weekly newspaper editor,and trying to decide whether to remain in journalism or pursue some other career, possibly in Christian mission.

I chose to remain a newspaperman for another decade. But now, at 50, I find myself in the same place: ambivalent about whether to remain in the only profession I’ve known for more than a quarter of a century, or, like Odysseus, set off on some new adventure in the latter half of life.

In August, I lost my position as managing editor of the daily paper in my hometown of Winchester, Ky. Though I was told it had nothing to do with my performance, I felt rejected. The “lassitudes of August” weighed heavily. I put on a brave face, but I was emotionally drained. That has slowly started to change, thanks to the support of friends and family, and my faith.

Once again, though, I am at a crossroads. I have considered going into public relations, which is often the refuge of veteran journalists who want better pay, shorter hours and less stress. I’ve also applied for a part-time position at a public library, because for years I’ve thought about a second career as a librarian.

Yet presently there are two good community newspapers in Kentucky in need of editors, and both are in beautiful little towns. Landing either one of those jobs would give me an opportunity to do something I’m good at and show that I can land on my feet after a hard fall.

It seems strange to be making such a decision at midlife, but in a way, it also feels liberating to have a choice and, I hope, a new challenge.

October 2011
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