Horizontal Faith

This was the title of the August 13th sermon by Rev. Sarah Brouwer at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church.[1] Below are photographs of Westminster’s new addition now under construction and of Rev. Brouwer.

 

 

 

 

Preparing for the Word

Prayer of Confession:

“God of every day, you are beside us, behind us, and before us, every second of our lives. Yet, we confess we find you mostly in mountaintop moments, and seek you in our dark valleys. We struggle to take our daily walk with you. Remind us, O God, to pause—to consider you, and others. In a world of connectivity, help us stay connected to your Spirit, and to put relationships first. Put us in touch with the rhythm of your life, so our lives may mirror the constancy of your grace. In Christ’s name, we pray.”

Listening for the Word

Readings from Holy Scripture: Psalm 90: (NRSV):[2] 

“Lord, you have been our dwelling place
in all generations.
Before the mountains were brought forth,
or ever you had formed the earth and the world,
from everlasting to everlasting you are God.”

“You turn us back to dust,
and say, ‘Turn back, you mortals.’
For a thousand years in your sight
are like yesterday when it is past,
or like a watch in the night.”

“You sweep them away; they are like a dream,                         like grass that is renewed in the morning;                                   in the morning it flourishes and is renewed;                                 in the evening it fades and withers.”

“For we are consumed by your anger;
by your wrath we are overwhelmed.
You have set our iniquities before you,
our secret sins in the light of your countenance.”

“For all our days pass away under your wrath;
our years come to an end like a sigh.
The days of our life are seventy years,
or perhaps eighty, if we are strong;
even then their span is only toil and trouble;
they are soon gone, and we fly away.”

“Who considers the power of your anger?
Your wrath is as great as the fear that is due you.
So teach us to count our days
that we may gain a wise heart.”

“Turn, O Lord! How long?
Have compassion on your servants!
Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love,
so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.
Make us glad as many days as you have afflicted us,
and as many years as we have seen evil.
Let your work be manifest to your servants,
and your glorious power to their children.
Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us,
and prosper for us the work of our hands—
O prosper the work of our hands!”

Sermon (Extracts):

“Psalm 90 is typically read at funerals. . . . [and] has become one of my favorite Psalms. I appreciate the comfort of its familiarity; it returns me to the sacred moments in which it has been read. Funerals . . . sometimes . . .  can be moments for taking stock, checking priorities, and making meaning. This Psalm acts as a mirror, and the more I’ve read it, the more I see myself in a reflection of what a relationship with God might look like over the span of a lifetime. Of course, the language about God being angry is typically left out for memorial services, which is appropriate. But, given the chance, I love reading the whole thing.”

“There is something about God being angry that . . . [is] an important part of this Psalm. It’s raw, honest. God is not completely unaffected, and that makes God more relatable. A God who is accessible is emotional and reactive, and closely aware of the measure and rhythm of our lives.”

“I wonder if the reason the Psalmist focuses so much on God’s anger, and his own mortality, is because he’s projecting some things on to God. . . . [It] sounds kind of like the Psalmist is playing a bit of a blame game. It sounds like he knows he has done something to make God angry that he’d rather not let us know about here–God doesn’t get angry without good reason, after all.”

“And maybe there’s also a chance, he’s angry with himself. Either way, he’s working it out, externally processing with God, using God as a sounding board. And along the way he touches on some serious concerns, which might be the underlying root of that anger. The Psalmist is struggling with life and death, what it means to have this life at all, and then what it means to have that life be limited and fragile and messy. In the end, what it reveals is important–that not only can God take this kind of stuff from us, God desires it. We want and need God to be there for us. And I think that’s the way God wants it, too.”

“I found myself coming back to this Psalm most recently because it does help me remember times when God felt particularly close. Maybe you can relate, but for me it takes work and intention for God to feel close every day. I know on an intellectual level that God is always there, but to feel spiritually connected is another thing, even for someone who does this for a living.”

“What I assume about most people, church-going folks or not, is that God tends to be near at hand only occasionally, either during spiritually recharging mountaintop moments or in the hardest, darkest valleys of life. Those are liminal times and places, in which the distance between heaven and earth seem to come miraculously or desperately close together.”

“But we can’t be climbing mountains all the time, nor would we want the lowest of lows to be our constant companions. That kind of vertical experience of faith is not possible day-to-day, and it doesn’t express the whole of our journey. I’m not sure we talk enough about the ordinary days of faith– how God is with us as we answer emails, or shop for groceries and pay our bills, or even deal with conflict. Nothing about God is ordinary, but life gets that way, and so we struggle to connect the two. And maybe that’s because we haven’t been taught how, or at least we haven’t been asked often enough to consider how we might do it. It sounds simple, but what is simple is not always simplistic.“ (Emphasis added.)

“In her new book, Grounded: Finding God in the World—A Spiritual Revolution, Diana Butler Bass writes about this issue for herself, and for the sake of the church in the 21st Century. At one point, she is using the spiritual practice of walking a labyrinth to describe what she means. She writes, ‘Here in the labyrinth, I struggle to find words to describe what I feel. Up on the mountaintop, I [know] the language to describe God: majestic, transcendent, all-powerful. [But,] in this vocabulary, God remains stubbornly located in a few select places, mostly in external realms above or beyond… Like countless others, I have been schooled in vertical theology. Western culture, especially Western Christianity, has imprinted a certain theological template upon the spiritual imagination: God exists far off from the world and does humankind a favor when choosing to draw close… In its crudest form, the role of religion… is to act as a holy elevator between God above and those muddling around down below in the world.’”[3] (Emphasis added.)

This vertical theology [Bass] describes misses the part about the incarnation, the part about God being with us that sets Christianity apart. It doesn’t touch on our individual need to be known and enmeshed in God’s life, and for God to be known, at least in part, by us. It’s the horizontal part of our faith we have a hard time with. It’s the part that says God is relational, neighborly, immanent, fleshy, earthy, broken, poured out, dead and risen… and even though I can come up with those words I probably don’t say them enough. Our default is easier: to keep God up there, or in these walls, and to only connect on Sundays. But, this structure of Christendom that has shaped our whole worldview, is changing, it’s being dismantled, along with many of the other hierarchical institutions around us.” (Emphasis added.)

“People, including me, are seeking a more horizontal faith, and a God that doesn’t live somewhere else, outside of us, veiled in complex theology that is beyond our capacity to understand. As Bass writes, “my soul has a mile-wide mystical streak.” And that resonates with me. Not in a supernatural sort of way, but it’s a description of faith that affirms a wideness, and a wisdom. All of this doesn’t mean we forget certain pieces of our theology, rather it confirms that God cannot be contained–and that God has vastly different ways of being in relationship with God’s people.” (Emphasis added.)

“The Psalmist begins by praising God for being a dwelling place. It’s a more intimate metaphor, and one that is used throughout scripture. The Gospel of John uses it often, taking a turn from the other three Gospels in the way he talks about God. The word for dwelling is related to the word for womb. It’s an indwelling–that’s how close the Psalmist is to God. A place where one lives, a home to return to. The Psalmist doesn’t describe how the dwelling looks, only that it is has always been there, and it always will be, and that it seems to take the shape of whatever the Psalmist needs. There’s no hierarchy to it, but it is clear that God is God, eternal, and human beings are finite and needy. This, as it turns out, is the Psalmist’s struggle, not proximity to God, but how to fit as much abundance into one life as possible, especially when life seems so short.”

“I wonder what Christianity would look like if we were less interested in how to figure God out in these vertical systems, less concerned with who is right about God and who is wrong, or who is saved and who isn’t, and more curious about our own day-to-day walk with God? Different, I think. Freer, kinder. More creative. I think that, for the most part, when I feel close to God I am more generous, more justice-oriented, more at peace with what I am good at and even more so at peace with what I’m not good at. I’m less ashamed and more confident in who I am.” (Emphasis added.)

“The Psalmist prays that God would, “teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart” and “prosper the work of our hands.” Wisdom and purpose are what the Psalmist wants from God and life. I have to admit, it seems a bit countercultural. Even though the Psalmist finds life to be unbearably short, there is nothing here about Carpe Diem, Seize the day! YOLO- you only live once! And there’s no prosperity Gospel here, either. Nothing about, ‘prosper our retirement accounts so we can live comfortably in the end!’ The Psalm calls on us to ask: What is important in the end? And will we be in a close and fruitful relationship with God, and one another?”

“Teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart. Prosper the work of our hands.”

“Some days I get discouraged, because I feel like wisdom and prosperity defined like this are in short supply. And, I throw myself into the mix of those who have a hard time living this out. It’s easy to buy into the world’s definitions of wisdom and purpose, simpler sometimes to live mindlessly, distant from God, not treating each day as though it is a precious, wonderful, difficult and messy gift. Keeping God up here is more straightforward, more organized–it fits into our ordered society.”

“But, as my Old Testament Professor Terry Fretheim used to say, ‘God did not intend creation to be a machine…’ He writes, ‘For all the world’s order and coherence, a certain randomness, ambiguity, unpredictability and play characterize its complex life.’”[4]

“Unlike our tendency toward the vertical systems we have created for God–horizontal faith celebrates relationship, between us and God, but also among all people, and all creation. Our faith is not a machine that can be turned on, established, and instituted only when it is convenient–that promotes exclusivity and suffocates. Taken to an extreme, we’ve seen the dangerous ways this has played out over centuries, and even until the last few days in Charlottesville, when vertical theological power becomes twisted, misinterpreted, and used to dehumanize. horizontal faith, on the other hand, means there’s no power involved, no ego, no money, no walls, no competition. It’s no wonder the Psalmist uses organic images throughout: mountains, grass, even dust. We are intertwined with God, and all people, and all things, in a beautiful, sacred, web of relationship.” (Emphases added.)

“Poet Wendell Berry describes horizontal faith as well as anyone. (Emphasis added.) A farmer and writer from rural Kentucky, Berry has long used creation metaphors to describe his faith and call to environmental justice. His poem “The Wild Geese” seems like a modern interpretation of Psalm 90. It touches on life and death, wisdom and purpose, and our relationship with God, which is so much closer than we can believe. I invite you to close your eyes, and imagine what he writes,

‘Horseback on Sunday morning,

harvest over, we taste persimmon

and wild grape, sharp sweet

of summer’s end. In time’s maze

over fall fields, we name names

that went west from here, names that rest on graves. We open

a persimmon seed to find the tree

that stands in promise,

pale, in the seed’s marrow.

Geese appear high over us,

pass, and the sky closes. Abandon,

as in love or sleep, holds

them to their way, clear,

in the ancient faith: what we need

is here. And we pray, not

for new earth or heaven, but to be

quiet in heart, and in eye

clear. What we need is here.’”

“And it’s true. God is right here, God with us, our dwelling place. Not too far above or beyond our grasp. But, willing us to count our days as precious, and gain a wise heart– reminding us that prosperity and abundance are what has already been given us, in Christ.”

“Even within God’s very self–Creator, Christ and Spirit–there is a wideness and inclusivity. God’s very own diversity, God’s very own shape is a dwelling place for each of us, showing us that God is accessible to us all, and to our every need. It is this God who calls us, who desires us, and all we are. This is the God we have right here. God with us.”

Conclusion

Thank you, Rev. Brouwer, for opening our eyes to see and our ears to hear another interpretation of the 90th Psalm and to gain a better appreciation of our horizontal faith.

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[1] The bulletin for the service and the text of the sermon are available on the church’s website.

[2]  The New Testament passage was Hebrews 4:12-16 (NRSV).

[3] Bass, Grounded: Finding God in the World—A Spiritual Revolution (Harper Collins 2015). This book won the Religion News Association Book Award, the Nautilus Award (Better Books for a Better World) and the Religious Communicators Council’s Wilbur Award. Bass is an independent author, speaker, and independent scholar specializing in American religion and culture.

[4] Terence Fretheim, Creation Untamed: The Bible, God, and Natural Disasters (Theological Explorations for the Church Catholic) (Baker Academic 2010). Fretheim is the Elva B. Lowell Professor of Old Testament at Luther Seminary.

 

 

 

President Trump Condemns Cuba at the United Nations

On September 19, U.S. President Donald Trump addressed the United Nations General Assembly.[1]  Most media attention has focused on his bellicose remarks about North Korea and Iran. But he also condemned Cuba and Venezuela. Here the focus is on the general theses he advanced, his comments about Cuba and reactions to the speech.

Trump’s Speech

His fundamental thesis was the U.S.’ “renewing this fundamental principle of sovereignty” and “our success depends on a coalition of strong, independent nations that embrace their sovereignty, to promote security, prosperity and peace for themselves and for the world.” (Emphasis added.)

In short, the world needed strong, effective sovereign nations. As he stated, the U.S. does “not expect diverse countries to share the same cultures, traditions, or even systems of government. But we do expect all nations to uphold these two core sovereign duties:  to respect the interests of their own people and the rights of every other sovereign nation. This is the beautiful vision of this institution, and this is the foundation for cooperation and success.” (Emphasis added.)

Strong, sovereign nations let diverse countries with different values, different cultures, and different dreams not just coexist, but work side by side on the basis of mutual respect. Strong, sovereign nations let their people take ownership of the future and control their own destiny.  And strong, sovereign nations allow individuals to flourish in the fullness of the life intended by God. (Emphasis added.)

President Trump’s subsidiary premise was the assertion that “in fulfilling our obligations to our own nations, we also realize that it’s in everyone’s interest to seek a future where all nations can be sovereign, prosperous, and secure.”

On the other hand, this was not a universal action item for every sovereign nation. As he stated, “we believe that no nation should have to bear a disproportionate share of the burden, militarily or financially.  Nations of the world must take a greater role in promoting secure and prosperous societies in their own regions.” (Emphasis added.)

“That is why in the Western Hemisphere, the United States has stood against the corrupt and destabilizing regime in Cuba and embraced the enduring dream of the Cuban people to live in freedom.  My administration recently announced that we will not lift sanctions on the Cuban government until it makes fundamental reforms.” (Emphasis added.)

President Trump then went on at length about Venezuela’s problems, at least some of which he also sees in Cuba. In his words, “The problem in Venezuela is not that socialism has been poorly implemented, but that socialism has been faithfully implemented. From the Soviet Union to Cuba to Venezuela, wherever true socialism or communism has been adopted, it has delivered anguish and devastation and failure.  Those who preach the tenets of these discredited ideologies only contribute to the continued suffering of the people who live under these cruel systems.” (Emphasis added.)

Reactions to the Speech[2]

Trump’s comments on sovereignty were criticized by the Foreign Minister of Sweden, Margot Wallstrom: “This was a bombastic, nationalist speech. . . .  This was a speech at the wrong time to the wrong audience.”

Vali R. Nasr, the Dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies., said, “It looks like we will respect the sovereignty of countries we like, whether they are dictatorships or democracies, but we will not respect the sovereignty of countries we don’t like.” Nasr added, “His definition of sovereignty comes from a very narrow domestic prism.”

This speech generally did not get good reviews. For example, the editorial from the Guardian in London concluded that Trump “brought little clarity as to the wider strategy he contemplates. Threats and grandstanding are just bluster, not policy. Crises require a deftness the Trump administration has failed to demonstrate. He wants allies to back him, but seems oblivious that his lack of personal credibility is an obstacle to international cooperation. An “America First” approach runs counter to the UN’s multilateralism. His credo could be summed up by his claim that nations acting in their own self-interest create a more stable world. The question is what rules would states operate under? Not the UN’s, Trump’s response appeared to suggest. The president may want to speak of “principled realism”, but he is a reckless and dangerous leader, sitting, alas, in a most powerful position.”

These thoughts were echoed by a Guardian reporter, Julian Borger, who said the speech was full of “fulminations” of fear, especially his threat to “completely destroy North Korea,” which came just minutes after the U.N. Secretary General had told those at the Assembly and implicitly Trump himself, “Fiery talk can lead to fatal misunderstandings.” More generally, “Trump punched yawning holes in his own would-be doctrine, singling out enemies, expressing horror at their treatment of their people and threatening interference to the point of annihilation. What was left . . . was a sense of incoherence and a capricious menace hanging in the air.”

The New York Times’ editorial said, “In all this fury, before a world body whose main purpose is the peaceful resolution of disputes, there was hardly a hint of compromise or interest in negotiations.” “Mr. Trump’s dark tone and focus seemed a significant deviation [from previous U.S. presidents], not least his relentlessly bellicose approach to North Korea.” On the other hand, “Mr. Trump’s largely benign comments about the United Nations were encouraging.”

The Washington Post editorial also criticized “Mr. Trump’s schoolboy taunts of ‘Rocket Man,’ his sobriquet for North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, and his threats, if the United States is ‘forced to defend itself or its allies . . . to totally destroy North Korea.’ The leader of a powerful nation makes himself sound simultaneously weak and bellicose with such bluster.” This editorial also said “there was something discordant in using the United Nations podium to proclaim the virtue, essentially, of national selfishness over international cooperation and multilateral organization. No doubt Presidents Xi Jinping of China and Vladimir Putin of Russia will welcome this aspect of Mr. Trump’s address. They, too, have insisted on the unassailable ‘sovereignty’ of their formidable states and demanded that others not lecture them about values such as democracy and human rights, which they fear and abhor.” The editorial concluded, “Mr. Trump seemed to repudiate his own advocacy for human dignity and freedom when he said that “we do not expect diverse countries to share the same cultures, traditions or even systems of government” — as if democracy should be optional under the U.N. Charter.”

Surprisingly the Post’s respected foreign affairs columnist, David Ignatius, had a generally favorable reaction to the speech. He said, “the most surprising thing about President Trump’s address to the [U.N.] . . .  was how conventional it was. He supported human rights and democracy; he opposed rogue regimes; he espoused a global community of strong, sovereign nations.”

The editorial by the Wall Street Journal generally approved of the speech, but thought that Trump gave too narrow a definition to “national interest” by failure to include respect for the rights of the nation’s own people. Trump’s concept of sovereignty “also leaves authoritarians too much room to claim dominant [regional] spheres of influence,” such as Chinese and Russian leaders in the South China Sea and Ukraine. In short, Trump needs to learn “there is no substitute for U.S. leadership on behalf of American values and interests if he wants to build a more peaceful world.”

The speech’s negative comments about Cuba were rejected by that country’s Foreign Minister, Bruno Rodriguez, who  said that Trump “lacks the moral authority to criticize Cuba, a small and solidary country with extensive international cooperation.” Rodriguez also said in an interview with Telesur that the speech “was an unusual, aggressive, dominating, blatantly imperialist speech. Sovereignty [for Trump] means sovereignty for the United States, enslavement for all others; [it] completely ignores the concept of sovereign equality that inspires the [U.N.].” These comments were echoed by Cuba’s delegation to a Bilateral Commission meeting with the U.S.; the delegation said it protested “the disrespectful, unacceptable and meddling statements” by Trump at the U.N. Rodriguez also condemned the President’s aggressive comments against Venezuela and expressed Cuba’s solidarity with that country and its leaders. Granma, however, did publish the full text of the Trump speech.

Conclusion

There is much to criticize in the President’s speech. Foremost was his threat that the U.S. might have ”no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.” (Emphasis added)

His perceived need for “strong sovereign nations” totally ignores all the destruction and pain inflicted on the world by such nations throughout history. This emphasis also ignores the multilateral efforts, especially after World War II, to develop multilateral, international treaties and institutions, including the United Nations, to protect the world against the excesses of strong sovereign nations. Yes, like all human institutions, the U.N. is not perfect and can and should be improved. Although Trump had some kind words for the U.N. and the Marshall Plan after World War II, he said the U.S. could no longer enter into “one-sided alliances or agreements.”

The Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Theresa May, in her September 20 speech to the General Assembly implicitly gave the proper retort to the main thesis of Trump’s speech, that strong sovereign states were the appropriate building blocks for the contemporary world.[3] She said the following:

  • “The only way for us to respond to this vast array of challenges is to come together and defend the international order that we have worked so hard to create and the values by which we stand. For it is the fundamental values that we share, values of fairness, justice and human rights, that have created the common cause between nations to act together in our shared interest and form the multilateral system. And it is this rules-based system which we have developed, including the institutions, the international frameworks of free and fair trade, agreements such as the Paris Climate Accord and laws and conventions like the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which enables the global cooperation through which we can protect those values”
  • “If this system we have created is found no longer to be capable of meeting the challenges of our time then there will be a crisis of faith in multilateralism and global cooperation that will damage the interests of all our peoples. So those of us who hold true to our shared values, who hold true to that desire to defend the rules and high standards that have shaped and protected the world we live in, need to strive harder than ever to show that institutions like this United Nations can work for the countries that form them and for the people who we represent.”
  • “This means reforming our United Nations and the wider international system so it can prove its worth in helping us to meet the challenges of the 21st Century. And it means ensuring that those who flout the rules and spirit of our international system are held to account, that nations honor their responsibilities and play their part in upholding and renewing a rules-based international order that can deliver prosperity and security for us all.”

Trump’s comments on Cuba were a reprise of his June 2017 speech in Miami, Florida with severe criticism of Cuba that was enthusiastically received by the many older Cuban-Americans in the audience.[4] Both speeches, however, lacked nuance and failed to acknowledge the accomplishments of the Cuban Revolution, especially in health and education. It also is difficult to understand the basis for Trump’s assertion that the Cuban government was “destabilizing” or that it was “thoroughly corrupt.”

Both speeches also ignored the fact that Trump in June was only proposing to change two aspects of President Obama’s normalization policies: (a) banning U.S. persons from doing business with Cuban entities owned or controlled by the Cuban military or secret services and (b) banning U.S. citizens from going to Cuba on individual person-to-person travel, the latter of which has been subjected to criticism in this blog.[5]

The U.N. speech also failed to acknowledge that simultaneously and incongruously in Washington, D.C. the U.S. and Cuba were holding the sixth session of their Bilateral Commission that was established in the Obama Administration as a means to discuss the many unresolved issues that had accumulated in the nearly 60 years of strained relations; this session will be discussed in a subsequent post.

President Trump’s U.N. speech boasted about the U.S. announcing “that we will not lift sanctions on the Cuban government until it makes fundamental reforms.” This presumably refers to the U.S. embargo (blockade) of Cuba, which no longer serves any legitimate purpose for the U.S. and which, therefore, should be unilaterally terminated by the U.S. Moreover, the embargo soon will be the subject of a General Assembly resolution that again will condemn that U.S. policy and again undoubtedly will be overwhelming adopted.[6]

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[1] White House, Remarks by President Trump to the 72nd Session of the United Nations General Assembly (Sept. 19, 2017); Landler, Trump Offers a Selective View of Sovereignty in U.N. Speech, N.Y. Times (Sept. 19, 2017); Jaffe & DeYoung, In Trump’s U.N. speech, emphasis on sovereignty echoes his domestic agenda, Wash. Post (Sept. 19, 2017).

[2] Assoc. Press, Reaction to Trump’s UN General Assembly Speech, N.Y. Times (Sept. 19, 2017); Editorial, The Guardian view on Trump at the UN: bluster and belligerence, Guardian (Sept. 19, 2017); Borger, A blunt, fearful rant: Trump’s UN speech left presidential norms in the dust, Guardian (Sept. 19, 2017); Editorial, Warmongers and Peacemakers at the U.N., N.Y. Times (Sept. 19, 2017); Editorial, Trump undermines his own advocacy for human dignity, Wash. Post (Sept. 19, 2017); Ignatius, The most surprising thing about Trump’s U.N. speech, Wash. Post (Sept. 19, 2017); Editorial, Trump Shock at Turtle Bay, W.S.J. (Sept. 20, 2017); Cuban Foreign Minister Condemns Trump’s Aggressive Address at UN, CubaDebate (Sept. 19, 2017); Cuban Foreign Minister in Telesur interview condemns Trump’s aggressive speech at UN, CubaDebate (Sept. 19, 2017); Reuters, Cuba Calls Trump’s U.N. Address ‘Unacceptable and Meddling,’ N.Y. Times (Sept. 19, 2017); Statement by President Trump to the seventy-second session of the United Nations General Assembly, Granma (Sept. 20, 2017).

[3] Theresa May’s speech to the UN General Assembly 2017 (Sept, 20, 2017).

[4] President Trump Announces Reversal of Some U.S.-Cuba Normalization Policies, dwkcommentaries.com (June 19, 2017).

[5] Posts to dwkcommentaries,com: President Trump Announces Reversal of Some Cuba Normalization Policies (June 19, 2017); U.S. Reactions to Trump Reversal of Some U.S.-Cuba Normalization Policies (June 21, 2017); Cuban Reactions to Trump Reversal of Some U.S.-Cuba Normalization Policies  (June 22, 2017); This Blogger’s Reactions to Trump Reversal of Some U.S.-Cuba Normalization Policies (June 23, 2017). Other posts have criticised the proposed ban on individual person-to-person travel to Cuba, E.g., Cuban Entrepreneurs Issue Policy Recommendations to Trump Administration (July 19, 2017).

[6] Last year’s U.N. General Assembly resolution against the embargo is discussed in an earlier post. Other posts about the embargo are listed in the “U.S. Embargo of Cuba” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: CUBA .

Developments Regarding U.S. Diplomats Serving in Cuba

On September 19, the U.S.-Cuba Bilateral Commission held its sixth meeting, this time in Washington, D.C. The official statements about the closed meeting do not reveal much of the substance of the discussion.[1]

One of the subjects of the meeting was the medical incidents involving U.S. diplomats in Cuba.

The U.S. statement about the meeting stated there was discussion regarding “the incidents affecting diplomatic personnel at the U.S. Embassy in Havana. The [U.S.] reiterated its deep concern for the safety and security of the U.S. Embassy community in Havana and the urgent need to identify the cause of these incidents and to ensure they cease.”[2]

According to Cuban Foreign Ministry, the Cuban delegation also addressed the alleged incidents. They “reiterated that Cuba is strictly complying with its obligations as regards the protection of diplomats, which has never . . . perpetrated actions of this nature, nor has it permitted its territory to be used by third parties for that purpose.” Finally, the Cuban delegation “emphasized that the Cuban authorities have a great interest in clarifying this matter and concluding the investigation that is underway, at the suggestion of the highest level of government, for which the cooperation of the American authorities is essential.”

In addition, the Cuban statement said its delegation “reiterated its rejection of the backwardness of bilateral relations, measures to intensify the blockade and interference in internal affairs; confrontational rhetoric and political manipulation of the human rights issue that was used as a pretext to justify them, as well as the constraints that seek to condition an improvement in bilateral ties to the realization of changes in our constitutional order.”  It also “referred to the consequences of this change in the [U.S.] policy for relations between the two countries, including the effects it causes to various sectors in the [U.S.].”. (Emphasis added.)

Nevertheless, the Cuban delegation reportedly reaffirmed “their willingness to continue a respectful dialogue with the US government, . . . to actively implement the bilateral agreements signed in the last two years.” They alsotransferred concrete actions proposals from several Cuban entities to advance cooperation in areas of mutual benefit such as environmental protection, law enforcement, health, agriculture, hydrography and geodesy, among others.” (Emphasis added.)

The U.S. statement also said the U.S. “reviewed the Administration’s priorities and areas for engagement in the interests of the [U.S.] and the Cuban people, including human rights; implementation of the Migration Accords; and protecting the national security and public health and safety of the [U.S.].”

This meeting occurred simultaneously with President Trump’s speech at the U.N. General Assembly that included brief comments about Cuba and that will be discussed in a subsequent post. However, at the Bilateral Commission meeting the Cuban delegation registered a “strong protest;” about what it termed the “disrespectful, intrusive and unacceptable . . . speech.”

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[1] U.S. State Dep’t, United States and Cuba Hold Sixth Bilateral Commission Meeting in Washington, D.C. (Sept. 20, 2017); Cuban Foreign Ministry, Held in Washington VI Meeting of the Bilateral Commission Cuba-United States (Sept. 19, 2017); Assoc. Press, Cuba Again Denies Role in ‘Health Attacks’ on US Diplomats, N.Y. Times (Sept. 19, 2017); Assoc. Press, US to Press Concerns Over Incidents in Meeting with Cubans, N.Y. Times (Sept. 18, 2017). The so-called “Bilateral Commission” sessions were started as part of the process of normalization between the two countries since December 17, 2014, and have been discussed in prior posts: U.S.-Cuba Bilateral Commission Sets Agenda for Future Discussion of Remaining Issues (Sept. 12, 2015); Results of Second Meeting of U.S.-Cuba Bilateral Commission (Nov. 11, 2015); United States-Cuba Bilateral Commission Meets To Review Normalization Status (May 18, 2016); U.S. and Cuba Hold Another Meeting of the Bilateral Commission (Sept. 30, 2016).

[2] CBS News reported that one of the Americans suffering from an incident was the Regional Security Officer, who was the head of security at the U.S. Embassy in Havana. It also said closure of the Embassy was unlikely although there could be reductions of personnel. (CBS News, Investigation continues into attacks on State Dept. officials in Havana (Sept. 18, 2017).

 

 

 

A New Travel Warning for Americans Traveling to Cuba 

 Last Wednesday (September 13), the U.S. State Department issued a warning about Americans traveling to Cuba that was discussed in an earlier post.

On September 18, the Department updated its Cuba Travel Warning after Hurricane Irma had hit and damaged the island.[1] It stated the following:

  • “The Department of State advises U.S. citizens to carefully consider the risks of travel to Cuba while Hurricane Irma recovery efforts are underway.  Major roads are now open in Havana and power and water service has been restored in most of the city, but some parts of the country may be without power and running water. North central Cuba suffered severe damage and should be avoided until further notice. On September 6, the Department authorized the voluntary departure of U.S. government employees and their family members due to Hurricane Irma.”
  • “Travelers should apprise family and friends in the United States of their whereabouts, and keep in close contact with their travel agency, hotel staff, and local officials.”
  • “U.S. citizens in Cuba in need of emergency assistance should contact the Embassy by telephone at +53- 5280-5791 or the Department of State at 1-202-501-4444. At this time, U.S. citizens should not attempt to go to the U.S. Embassy in Havana as it suffered severe flood damage.”

Meanwhile the Cuban government announced that it would help its citizens recover from Hurricane Irma’s devastating swipe at its north coast and rebuild their homes. The plan would have the government finance 50 percent of the cost of construction materials for such rebuilding. Defense councils will certify the extent of damages and the resources necessary to make repairs.[2]

For homes that collapsed or lost their entire roofs, the state will take over interest payments. Defense councils also will consider subsidies for victims whose incomes are too low to purchase all the required construction materials, and those who still owe money on previous construction loans may be granted subsidies.

Hurricane Irma will have a major negative effect on Cuba’s economy. Economist Carmelo Mesa-Lago, a professor emeritus at the University of Pittsburgh, is convinced that GDP will decline over the last six months of this year. Another Cuban economist, Pavel Vidal, who is a professor at Javeriana University in Colombia, thought the hurricane damage “may pump up inflation” and cause ‘financial complications.”

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[1] U.S. State Dep’t, Cuba Travel Warning (Sept. 18, 2017); Rosenberg, US warns would-be Cuban travelers: consider the risks following Hurricane Irma, Miami Herald (Sept. 18, 2017)

[2] Information for the population, Granma (Sept. 18, 2017); Whitefield & Torres, Cuba announces program to repair Irma-damages homes as experts assess damage to economy, Miami Herald (Sept. 18, 2017).

U.S. Evaluating Whether To Close Embassy in Cuba 

On the September 17 “Face the Nation” television show on CBS, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was asked by John Dickerson, “Some senators suggested closing down the embassy there [in Cuba]. Should that happen?” Tillerson’s answer: “We have it under evaluation. It’s a very serious issue with respect to the harm that certain individuals have suffered. We’ve brought some of those people home. It’s under review.”[1] (Emphasis added.)

Nearly simultaneous reports indicate that U.S. investigators are pursuing various theories about what caused medical problems in some U.S. diplomats stationed in Cuba, including sonic attack, electromagnetic weapon or flawed spying device. Each theory seems to fit some, but not all, of what has happened. The perpetrator is also a mystery. “Suspicion has centered on Cuba’s government, a rogue faction of its security services or an outsider like Russia.”[2]

Conclusion

 With the five Republican senators on Friday, September 15, suggesting closure as the last potential action for the U.S. to take against Cuba, as discussed in a prior post, the question put to Secretary Tillerson on Sunday about closure was hardly surprising, but as it was the last question posed in the interview, there was no time for any follow-up questions.

Here are some of the unasked questions: Is the U.S. considering a temporary closure while the medical incidents are under investigation? If so, what are the details about such a possible temporary cloture? Or a permanent closure? What are the details about such a permanent closure? By the way, what is the status of the U.S. investigation? The Cuban investigation? Are there now more than the 21 U.S. individuals involved? Are they all Foreign Service officers? Are any members of their families? Where did the incidents occur? At the Embassy? At hotels? Which hotels? At their residences? Where are the residences located?

In any event, it should not be surprising that the State Department has closure “under evaluation” or “under review.” That would only be prudent under the circumstances. Assuming the reports about continuing, inconclusive investigations about the cause of the incidents are true along with Cuban cooperation in the investigations, however, permanent closure would not be prudent.

Once again, anyone interested in seeing the U.S. and Cuba continue their efforts at normalizing relations, as does this blogger, needs to closely follow developments in this mysterious story.

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[1] CBS Face the Nation, Transcript, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on “Face the Nation,” Sept/ 17, 2017; Reuters, Tillerson Says U.S. Weighing Closing Embassy in Cuba Over Sonic Attacks, N.Y. Times (Sept. 17, 2017); Assoc. Press, Top US Diplomat Says Closing Embassy in Cuba ‘Under Review,’ N.Y. Times (Sept. 17, 2017).

[2]  Assoc. Press, Cuba Mystery: What Theories US Investigators Are Pursuing, N.Y.Times (Sept. 16, 2017).

GOP Senators Ask Administration To Take Actions Against Cuba Over U.S. Diplomats      

On September 15 five Republican Senators asked U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to take certain actions against Cuba as a result of the medical problems being experienced by some of the U.S. diplomats who have been stationed in Cuba.[1]  The requested actions are the following:

  1. “Remind the Cuban government of its obligation to protect American diplomats [under Article 29 of the Geneva Convention on Diplomatic Relations].”
  2. “Demand that [the Cuban government] take verifiable action to remove these threats to our personnel and their families.”
  3. “Declare all accredited Cuban diplomats in the [U.S.] persona non grata [and thereby prompt Cuba to have them leave the U.S. under Article 9 of the Geneva Convention on Diplomatic Relations].’”
  4. “If Cuba does not take tangible action, close the U.S. Embassy in Havana.”

The five senators are the leader of this effort, Marco Rubio (FL), plus John Cornyn (TX), Richard Burr (NC), James Lankford  (OK) and Tom Cotton (AR), all members of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, which is chaired by Senator Burr.[2]

Separately there were new reports about other details of the problems of U.S. diplomats in Cuba.  U.S. diplomats on temporary duty in Havana stay in four hotels near the U.S. embassy, and all four have been sites of “medical attacks.” In addition to Hotel Capri, which was identified in a prior post, they are Hotel Nacional, Hotel Melia Cohiba, and Hotel Melia Habana. (The two “Melia” hotels are owned by a Cuban government agency, Cubanacan.) Rachel Maddow on her September 15th MSNBC show said that NBC News had learned that President Castro had offered to conduct a joint U.S.-Cuba investigation of this matter and that the U.S. had not responded to this offer.[3]

Meanwhile the U.S. and Cuba on September 15 held a meeting in Washington to discuss bilateral cooperation in law enforcement. According to the U.S. State Department, the discussions covered “national security matters, including fugitives and the return of Cuban nationals with final orders of removal” as well as “the incidents affecting diplomatic personnel at the U.S. Embassy in Havana.” The Cuban statement more generally said the discussions were about such issues as  terrorism, illicit trafficking in drugs and persons, and cybercrime. This meeting was the third such meeting; the first two were held during the Obama Administration.[4]

Conclusion

As is well known, Senator Rubio, a Cuban-American citizen, consistently has opposed U.S. efforts to normalize relations with Cuba, and thus it is not surprising to see him apparently initiate the above statement with the support of four of his Republican colleagues.

The good news is that the other 95 senators were not part of this statement, that Cuba by all reports continues to cooperate on investigating the circumstances surrounding these health issues and that the Trump Administration is not jumping to preordained conclusions about these issues.

This statement by Senator Rubio and four others was not justified and should be resisted by all U.S. citizens and their representatives in Washington. Instead allow the U.S. State Department and other agencies with Cuban assistance to continue their investigation in a professional and objective manner.

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[1] Dorsey, Five GOP senators ask Tillerson to close Cuba embassy after attacks on diplomats, CBS News (Sept, 15, 2017).

[2]  Rubio Press Release, Rubio, Colleagues Ask Tillerson to Expel Cubans, Close Embassy after Attacks on U.S. Diplomats (Sept. 15, 2017); Cotton Press Release, Senators Ask Secretary of State to Expel Cubans and Close Embassy Over Attacks on U.S. Diplomats (Sept. 15, 2017); Reuters, U.S. Lawmakers Want Retaliation for Sonic Attacks in Cuba, N.Y. Times (Sept. 15, 2017); Assoc. Press, The Latest: GOP senators want US pushback on Cuba, Wash. Post (Sept. 15, 2017).

[3] Rachel Maddow, Mysterious attack on US diplomats in Cuba confounds (Sept. 15, 2017).

[4] State Dep’t, [U.S.] and Cuba Hold Third Law Enforcement Dialogue in Washington, DC (Sept. 15, 2017); Cuba Foreign Ministry, Cuba and [U.S.] Authorities . . . Held Third Round of the Dialogue on Application and Compliance with the Law in Washington (Sept. 15, 2017);   The earlier law enforcement dialogues were discussed in these posts to dwkcommentaries.com: U.S. and Cuba Hold Law-Enforcement Dialogue (Nov. 9, 2015)(comment to Developments in U.S.-Cuba Normalization (Nov. 8, 2015); United States and Cuba Hold Second Law Enforcement Dialogue (May 19, 2016).

An Analysis of Robert Frost’s Poem, “The Lesson for Today”

When I heard the July 16 sermon, “Lover’s Quarrel,” at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church that was discussed in a prior post, I did not get the point of its title: “Lovers’ Quarrel.” It is not a common phrase for me. After subsequently reading and reflecting on the sermon, I concluded that God loves us and, therefore, sometimes has to quarrel with us when we stray. The same is true for human lovers.

The sermon says the phrase “lover’s quarrel” came from Rev. William Sloane Coffin while briefly mentioning that it originally came from an unnamed poem by Robert Frost, all as discussed in that prior post.

Although I had heard of Robert Frost, I did not know the title or content of the referenced poem. When I found and read (several times) the lengthy poem—“The Lesson for Today”–in which the phrase appears–I was still bewildered. Only after letting the poem lie untouched for several days, doing some research about the poem and then re-reading it again several times did I come to the following analysis or interpretation.

This poem was first read by Frost on June 20, 1941, at Harvard’s Phi Beta Kappa Society and then published in 1942 in a collection of poems, A Witness Tree, which was  awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1943. This poem, therefore, was written during the start of what later became known as World War II and after several unfortunate tragedies had occurred in Frost’s personal life– his daughter Marjorie’s death in 1934, his wife’s death in 1938 and his son Caro’s suicide in 1940.

 

These historical and personal circumstances, I believe, are the referents for the poem’s first line talking about “this uncertain age in which we dwell . . . as dark as I hear the sages tell.” But “If” precedes this statement and immediately suggests that the poet is wondering about the nature of the age in which he and others are living.

Frost or the fictional “first person” then engages in an imagined conversation with the “Master of the Palace School,” who is the Blessed Alcuin of York and who, circa 770, established schools to copy and preserve ancient manuscripts.  Alcuin’s doctrine of memento mori (remember that you have to die), which Frost says he holds, was part of medieval Christian theory and practice of reflecting on mortality, especially as a means of considering the vanity of earthly goods and pursuits.

Frost or the fictional first person imagines that Alcuin tells the paladins (the twelve legendary peers or knightly champions in attendance on Charlemagne) in his class,”the lesson for today is how to be unhappy yet polite.” (Emphasis added; the title of the poem.)

The first person in the poem also reflects on mortality. “There is a limit to our time extension, We all are doomed to broken-off careers, and so’s the nation, so’s the total race. The earth itself is liable to the  fate Of meaninglessly being broken off.”

One of the consequences of mortality is modesty about what anyone can know about the time in which he or she lives. Says Frost, “You [Alcuin] would not think you knew enough to judge  The age when full upon  you. . . . We can’t appraise the time in which we act. But for the folly of it, let’s pretend We know enough to know it for adverse. . . . There’s always something to be sorry for, A sordid peace or an outrageous war.”

Frost or the fictional first person also tells us that he has read Alcuin’s “Epitaph,” which is not quoted in the poem, but which reads as follows:

  • “Here, I beg thee, pause for a while, traveler,
    And ponder my words in thy heart,
    That thou mayest understand thy fate in my shadow:
    The form of thy body will be changed as was mine.
    What thou art now, famous in the world, I have been, traveler,
    And what I now am, thou wilt be in the future.
    I was wont to seek the joys of the world in vain desire:
    Now I am ashes and dust, and food for worms.
    Remember therefore to take better care of thy soul
    Than of thy body, because that survives, and this perishes.
    Why dost thou look for possessions? Thou see’st in what a little cavern
    This tomb holds me: Thine will be equally small.
    Why art thou eager to deck in Tyrian purple thy body
    Which soon in the dust the hungry worm will devour?
    As flowers perish when comes the menacing wind,
    So also thy flesh and all thy glory perish.
    Give me, I beg thee, O reader, a return for this poem,
    And pray: ‘Grant, O Christ, forgiveness to thy servant.’
    I implore thee, let no hand profane the holy rights of this tomb,
    Until the angelic trumpet announces from Heaven high:
    ‘Thou who liest in the tomb, rise from the dust of the earth,
    The Mighty Judge appears to countless thousands.’
    My name was Alcuin, and wisdom was always dear to me.
    Pour out prayers for me when thou quietly readest this inscription.”

Frost ends the poem with the following: “And were an epitaph to be my story I’d have a short one ready for my own. I would have written of me on my stone: I had a lover’s quarrel with the world.” In other words, Frost found a lot to dislike about the world in which he lived, but which nevertheless he loved. The poem, however, to my reading, has no Christian or other religious references or meaning. (Emphases added.)

This analysis or interpretation, it should be noted, was provided by this blogger who is not a student of literature and who had not read many poems by Frost or others. Therefore, I solicited the following comments from a friend, Nancy Welch Barnby, who has degrees in English literature (Grinnell College, B.A. and University of California (Berkeley), M.A.) plus years of teaching English, for her greater qualifications for such an analysis. The following are her comments on this poem.

  • “One should never assume that the speaker is the poet himself.  Of course, the poem no doubt mirrors many of Frost’s own views, but the final view here is essentially conservative, opining that no ideology (liberalism) can solve the problems of any era (ours or Alcuin’s).  Frost himself was more liberal.”
  • “Overall, I think what Frost is saying is that in no era can any ideology solve every problem.  Political systems can neither assuage our disappointments in life nor save us from death (or save our souls).  That’s the human condition in any era.
  • The final line is set up as the speaker’s epitaph, but note that it is starkly set apart from the rest of the poem for its lack of rhyme (to say nothing of the fact that it’s the last line and emphasized by the colon).  The speaker claims the epitaph as his own, but the poem as a whole underscores the idea that such is the human condition (always has been, always will be).  In essence, we all have a lover’s quarrel with the world.  We love the delights of living, but are frustrated by the sorrows we face (such as death and war, which you reference, or today the political realities of DACA, racial prejudice — well, too many to name).  Also note that the speaker is still addressing Alcuin at the end, which again joins the two ages in terms of man’s essential problem in living on earth.”
  • “This line references the idea that nothing really changes in the way man lives in the world: ‘But these are universals, not confined To any one time, place, or human kind . . .’ Another such line follows: ‘One age is like another for the soul.’”

Conclusion

Other comments on this poem or the sermon at Westminster Presbyterian Church are invited.