The dangers of definition–I

Our scripture for this series  is from Congressman Fisher Ames: “Popular reason does not always know how to act right, nor does it always act right when it knows.”


One of the trickier parts of writing a new law is defining who or what is the topic and who or what the target for relief or for limits is.  Our lawmakers have recognized from the beginning that specific language is necessary to avoid the infamous “unintended consequences.”   They—or, more appropriately these days, the legislative staff—recognize that danger and usually are able to tailor legislation to fit a specific circumstance.   When they are even a little off the mark, the consequences sometimes generate headlines that obscure the difficulty of making sure the application of a law is as narrow as required.

It’s a difficult job that the public seldom realizes is so much a part of developing the laws that govern our lives every second of every day. But the last thing participants in the process want to do is produce an adverse impact on those not intended to be the subject of the legislation.

Sometimes it is best for the supporters of legislation to leave some things vague. There are a lot of reasons for that.  One is that getting more specific weakens the intended broad effects of some  legislation.  Another reason is that lack of definition allows wider interpretations of the law, sometimes in the authority a law grants governmental subdivisions to enact their own policies within the law’s general framework—a latitude that sometimes exposes those subdivisions to criticism of government over-reach.

It’s a balancing act.  For those who believe in balance in the laws, it’s a tough act.

We have been seeing a phrase used increasingly in legislation in the last few years that cries for definition.  Defining it, however, is a minefield.

The phrase is “sincere religious belief,” now most prominently being the center of Senate Joint Resolution 39, the Wesboro Amendment or, for supporters, the Religious Freedom Amendment.

How do YOU define “sincere religious belief?”  Most properly, how do you define “sincere?” In fact, why don’t you stop reading and write your definitions, AND write what you consider your sincere religious belief, then come back.  Do not read ahead before you do this.

(PAUSE while you write)

Thank you for doing that.  Do you have the courage to put these statements before the public?   If you are a public official passing legislation making “sincere religious belief” part of the law for the general public, don’t you owe it to the general public to state your definition of the term and let the public whose behavior you seek to approve or disapprove and regulate know what your sincere religious beliefs are? You cannot dodge the issue by saying religion is a private matter—because you have made it a general-public issue.

Most people probably never define their belief.  “Whatever my church says is good enough for me,” many will think.  Do you really know what your church says as a condition of being a member?  And have you ever wondered if you really do believe its creed or its dogma or its principles?   Or have the lessons of life moved you in a different direction?  Have you become less religious in terms of what your church’s standards for religion are? And who is to judge the sufficiency within the law of your belief and the sincerity of it?   We’ll talk about that in our next entry.

A shield, not a sword

Backers of the Wesboro Amendment, Senate Joint Resolution 39, defend it as “a shield, not a sword,” a protection of religious freedom rather than an attack on a segment of our population. But bumper sticker mottos such as “a shield, not a sword” are often purely political efforts to avoid having to intelligently address an issue and personally justify a position.  And the symbolism behind such mottos has a tendency to undermine the cause the motto purports to defend. 

Hiding behind a shield enables one to avoid seeing the other person.  All the other person might see is the sword that is being pointed at him from behind that shield.  The shield/sword analogy, therefore, emphasizes the greatest weakness of the proposal.  Hiding behind a shield does not mean the other side will or should go away.  The desire not to see the other side does not mean it does not deserve to exist.  And if the only thing the other side perceives is a sword pointed its way, it is increasingly likely to press its case even harder.

So it is that legislation using the shield and sword analogy weakens, not strengthens, the argument for the legislation and increases the skepticism of those who see no reason to hide behind one and wave the other.   

Defining the key words of a public policy that is this important and this divisive deserves more thought than is embodied in a slogan.  In the next few entries in this series (we haven’t decided how many), let’s explore the dangers of definition.

Equality: an inconvenient concept

One of our state lawmakers has argued that “our First Amendment rights to religion, speech, assembly, and association, endowed by our Creator, are not subject to government approval.  The First Amendment is designed not just to protect popular or politically correct religious beliefs or speech. It is designed to protect all religious beliefs and speech—even repulsive ones.”

This lawmaker buttressed his idea that our First Amendment rights are “endowed by our Creator” by citing the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men…are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

Combining statements made in two distinctly separate documents written for two distinctly separate purposes in this way can lead to mental and political mischief of the kind we have seen in our legislature for several sessions.

Missouri spends tens of millions of dollars every year so people like this lawmaker and his colleagues can, indeed, determine what our rights are.  Missouri has volume after volume of books that define our rights, some of which were favored by lawmakers such as this one who has argued that “Our country was founded on the belief that there are some areas into which government must not intrude.”

Anybody want to read through twenty volumes of Missouri statutes (plus the sixteen annual supplements published since the last statute books were put between hard covers) to find some areas in which the legislature has NOT passed some kind of intrusive law?

The unfortunately biggest flaw in the lawmaker’s reasoning comes from his citation of the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence (which, by the way, does NOT establish Freedom of Speech, Religion, Press, and Peaceful Assembly): “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men…are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”

The same lawmaker who once accused opponents of the campus religious freedom bill of pretzeling the debate to say the bill sanctions discrimination didn’t do such a bad job of pretzel-making himself by leaving out a critical qualification in that sentence. You remember from school, don’t you, that the sentence really begins: “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men ARE CREATED EQUAL, AND THAT THEY are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights…”

Equality.  What an inconvenient concept. It’s so much more convenient to leave out that part of the sentence to make this argument.

Equality gets in the way of so many things. Recognizing the idea that everybody is equally entitled to life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness could cause massive problems for those who are well-paid to make sure their clients enjoy those rights more than others or to those who think government-sanctioned privilege is something for them to buy for their own purposes. Government would be so much easier and so much more convenient to some people if it were not for that troublesome requirement that equality be part of the equation.  But ignoring it is easy.

And there’s another flaw in the use of the quotation in this discussion.  It stops with “happiness.”   Let’s look at the entire sentence:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,”

There’s a comma after “happiness,” not a period. But look at what the Declaration really says: that “to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men…”   The founding fathers sanctioned government as the means to balance those natural rights.  Our lawmaker correctly says the Declaration does not say certain rights are “afforded” us by government.  What the Declaration says is that governments are created to SECURE those rights in which all have an equal opportunity to share.

Gosh, this document is a whole lot more inconvenient than some would like us to think, isn’t it?

After that, the second sentence says, “That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

There’s a lot more after the first “happiness.”   But it’s more convenient to discuss only the first part, and certainly more convenient to be selective in what part of the sentence is used to justify a position. But it’s time to think about what the Declaration of Independence says.  Really says.  All of it.

Professor Danielle Allen of Princeton’s Institute of Advanced Study has a book out called Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence on Defense of Equality.   In the prologue, she wrote, “The Declaration of Independence matters because it helps us see that we cannot have freedom without equality.  It is out of an egalitarian commitment that a people grows—a people that is capable of protecting us all collectively, and each of us individually, from domination.  If the Declaration can stake a claim to freedom, it is only because it is so clear-eyed about the fact that the people’s strength resides in its equality.”

There it is.  The inconvenient concept.   Equality.

“Political philosophers have generated the view that equality and freedom are necessarily in tension with each other, “she wrote. “As a public we have swallowed this argument whole.  We think we are required to choose between freedom and equality.  Our choice in recent years has tipped toward freedom…Such a choice is dangerous. If we abandon equality, we lose the single bond that makes us a community, that makes us a people with the capacity to be free collectively and individually in the first place.”

Professor Allen spends 282 highly-readable pages taking the Declaration sentence by sentence and sometimes wordy by word to emphasize the care with which it was written and the purposes for each element.  It’s not just something to read quickly on July 4tth.

From its beginning when it states that the time has come for the colonies to be considered an independent nation of equal standing with other nations to the last sentence that says the signers who come from a variety of economic, social, and religious backgrounds “mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor,” the Declaration is about equality.

It was signed by wealthy delegates such as John Hancock and Charles Carroll as well as by Button Gwinnett, whose life is described by one source as “one of economic and political disappointment,”  and James Wilson, who later spent time in a debtor’s prison. They were equals as delegates. They were equals in what they dreamed of.  They were equals in the risk they knew they were taking.

The Declaration of Independence is so important it should be studied carefully by voters and those they elect.  Only by doing that, Professor Allen argues, can its true importance be understood and the descendants of those who risked everything by writing it, adopting it, and signing it be free.

And freedom is not freedom if it is not equally shared and is not an equally-borne responsibility.

A matter of degrees

Forgive us—or don’t; we don’t care—if we return to this matter from time to time, for it is so troubling.  Some of these thoughts came to us while we were in church and if they are antagonistic to you, too bad. We do not profess to have the certainty in our faith journey that others seem to have.  And in that, we are unrepentant.

Senate Joint Resolution 39, sent to the House by the Senate, provides—if voters approve the proposed constitutional amendment—protection from state penalties for any religious organization that refuses to perform same sex marriages or allow same sex marriages to be performed on its property.  It also protects individuals such as florists and cake-makers who refuse to provide flowers or cakes for same sex weddings or same sex wedding receptions if they have sincere religious beliefs about same sex marriage.

Surprisingly, though, this bill protecting religious liberty does not rule out the imposition of the mysterious “state penalties” against religious organizations that refuse to allow homosexuals to be members of their congregations.

Backers say it’s a “religious liberty” bill.  Whose “religious liberty?”

Suppose I am a florist, a follower of the Christ, as you can tell that I am by the decal of the icthys, the Christian fish symbol, on the front door of my shop. And suppose I am a homosexual florist.  And suppose a straight couple asks me to provide flowers for their wedding and weddings of other people like them.  And I tell them I have a sincere religious belief that allows me to refuse to serve them.  And further, my partner who runs the local bakery, shares my sincere religious belief and will refuse to provide their cake, or cakes to others, like them.

Where is my protection, our protection, under this amendment?   Why doesn’t this protection of religion cut both ways?  Or does this profession of religion only protect the straight segment of the population and by inference proclaim that members of the LGBT community aren’t religious enough to merit those special protections, too?  Do they not deserve protection for their religious liberty?

To the degree that this proposition lets you set me apart from others, you persecute me by making me less of a person than you and they are.

To the degree that this proposition lets you deny me the protections under the law you reserve for yourself, you diminish my status as a citizen of this country.

To the degree you do not allow me to do unto you what you do unto me—

To the degree that you exempt yourself from following the commandment that you love your neighbor as you love yourself—

To the degree that your legislation dismisses Paul’s admonition that “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female, for we are all one in Christ”—

You are not Christian.

The Wesboro Amendment

Anger and disgust can provoke competing and counterproductive emotions.

One leaves an observer of events rendered speechless.   The other leaves the observer spewing heated words that tumble over themselves and become so tangled that their value is lost.

So it is with the accounts of last week’s Missouri Senate passage of a proposed constitutional amendment under the guise of protecting religious freedom.  Perhaps through the discipline of writing and editing, thoughts will have some order.

Thank God, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act was not discovered in, say, 1953, before Brown v. the Board of Education and the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  Millions of Americans and thousands of Missourians might today still be denied equal access to housing, education, jobs, bathrooms, and drinking fountains if RFRA allowed them to be targeted for exclusion from equality under law by those who claimed to be motivated by a “sincere religious belief.”  Unfortunately, sexual orientation was not a high enough profile issue fifty or sixty years ago when civil rights, public accommodations, and fair housing laws were enacted with protections for various citizen groups that had suffered discrimination for decades, which is why bigotry in the guise of religious freedom is today able to attack a segment of our citizenry that was far less visible in 1964.

Only a few hours after Senate leader Ron Richard threatened reprisals against fellow senators who did not respect the traditions of the Senate, he was one of 21 Republican senators who signed a Previous Question motion that immediately stopped the Democrat’s filibuster against Senate Joint Resolution 39. So much for the Senate tradition of respecting the right of the minority to try to keep the majority from steamrolling legislation opponents think detrimental to the general population. We have observed the Republicans being quite reluctant to move the PQ when a filibuster is led by their own members.

Two, and sometimes three, Republicans voted with the Democrats who wanted the official record of the proceedings to reflect some of the things that happened during that filibuster.  Three Republican Senators, Bob Dixon, Ryan Silvey, and Rob Schaaf, voted with the Democrats against the move to stop the debate.

But Dixon and Silvey voted for the bill.

Schaaf was the only Republican to split with his party and join all of the Democrats who voted “no” on final approval of the proposed constitutional amendment.

Dixon and Silvey supported Democrats’ unsuccessful effort to amend the official record of the filibuster to show that the sponsor of the bill, Bob Onder, had suggested summoning the Highway Patrol to get two absent senators back into the chamber.

Dixon was furious when his fellow Republicans refused to let the amendments to the record be adopted.  The normally soft-spoken Dixon was uncharacteristically loud in his attack: “I am a senator, and I am disgusted at the slope and the speed with which this body is descending. When one member is disrespected, when any member has their rights disregarded in such a dastardly way, every Senator loses.  And not only that, our constituents are disrespected, the people are disrespected!”

But Dixon, who was concerned about disrespect for his constituents and for “the people” generally, voted for the bill.

Silvey also was angry about the rejection of the wording explaining what had happened during the debate.  “To say this did not happen is ridiculous,” he told his colleagues on the senate floor. And he continued, “What happened yesterday at the end of the debate was disturbing at best.  The fact we had members seeking recognition and ignored regardless of party should offend everyone in this room…What this debate is about is the soul of the Senate.”

But Silvey voted for the bill.

Senator Rob Schaaf, who has been part of Republican-led filibusters that were not stopped with PQs was the only one who continued to stand with Democrats.  “The beauty of the Senate design is destroyed…by not following our rules,” he said.  He called his party’s treatment of filibustering Democrats “disrespectful.”

Schaaf would have voted for the bill.

But he did not because he thought his party’s forced shutdown of debate raised “the stink of tyranny.”

This bill—which might be on our ballots later this year, thus presenting voters with the opportunity to further define Missouri’s narrowness or reject it (both, we suspect, in the name of religion)—and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act seem to spring from those who want to enforce the idea that this always-pluralistic country has always been some kind of “Christian nation.”

They want to be the ones who define “Christian.”

And that should strike a chord of fear in all of us.

You know who probably is cheering for our legislature as it works on SJR39?  The folks at the Wesboro Baptist Church in Topeka. This is their kind of religion.  The kind of people who show up at military funerals with signs reading “God Hates Fags,” whose web site says it stands against “the fag lifestyle of soul-damning nation-destroying filth,” love the kind of politics behind this kind of legislation.

So let’s just call this bill “The Wesboro Amendment.”

Interestingly, the Wesboro Baptist Church hasn’t needed RFRA to protect its religious freedoms.  It has the First Amendment, as we all do. Is the Missouri legislature so craven in its desire to appeal to the voting bloc known as “Evangelicals” that it advocates making the theology of the Wesboro Baptist Church part of our state constitution?  The actions last week are an answer to the prayers of the Wesboro faithful.

In Christian worship centers for the hundreds of denominations and non-denominational believers, a faith that advocates love for others is preached.  We wonder how many of those who voted for this bill have opened their hymnals on Sunday mornings and have sung Peter Scholtes hymn:

We are one in the spirit; we are one in the Lord, and we pray that all unity may one day be restored.

We will walk with each other; we will walk hand-in-hand, and together we’ll spread the news that God is in our land.

All praise to the Father from whom all things come and all praise to the spirit who makes us one.

(chorus):  And they’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love. Yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our love.

Or the words from the thirteenth chapter of the New Testament book of Paul’s letter to the Christians at Corinth that are familiar and often used in marriage ceremonies—of all kinds– perhaps some of the ceremonies involving some of those who voted for the Wesboro Amendment:

If I could speak all the languages of earth and of angels, but didn’t love others, I would only be a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.  If I had the gift of prophecy, and if I understood all of God’s secret plans and possessed all knowledge, and if I had such faith that I could move mountains, but didn’t love others, I would be nothing.  If I gave everything I have to the poor and even sacrificed my body, I could boast about it, but if I didn’t love others, I would have gained nothing…”

Three things last forever—faith, hope, and love.  But the greatest of these is love. 

In a matter of hours last week, the State Senate and its leaders demonstrated that talk of respect for tradition is cynical babbling in the face of partisan narrowness and they demonstrated how religion used for political purposes ignores the basic tenant of the teachings of the its founders.

Some of us, in observing recent events in the Senate, have heard the noisy gongs and the clanging cymbals.  And the noise and the clanging played a tune called “riffra” as the Wesboro Amendment moved closer to a ballot in Missouri this year.

The spirit of the St. Louis

There’s always somebody. Somebody not good enough for us no matter their circumstances. Somebody we can always tell, “Go back where you came from.”  Some of the campaign rhetoric this year reminds us of the story of a ship named for our second-largest city.

Let’s go back to Germany, 1938, where the Nazi government’s increasing persecution of Jews caused many to try to flee. Representatives of several western nations met at Evian, France in July, 1938, to discuss the worsening situation. Major nations such as the United States, France, and Britain refused to loosen their immigration laws to allow more refugees from Germany, even as Germany was tightening its laws against Jews wanting to flee. German policies against Jews broke into violence with the Kristallnacht on November 9-10 and in ensuing months, thousands of Jews were arrested.

Nine-hundred-thirty-seven Jewish passengers were aboard the S. S. St. Louis when it left Hamburg, Germany on May 13, 1939, hoping to find safety in Cuba or the United States.  But Cuba allowed fewer than thirty to disembark.

The St. Louis headed north, hoping to dock in the United States.  But this country had enacted a restrictive immigration law in 1924.  The state department worried that the Jews would be security risks or be dependent on government handouts if they were allowed in.  Passengers could not get tourist visas because they had no home address.  And there were a lot of other German immigrants waiting for entry.

After more than a month the St. Louis headed back to Europe, although not to Germany.  Britain agreed to take 288 of the passengers.  The remaining 620 went to Belgium, France, and the Netherlands, countries still at peace.

It was while the St. Louis was still at sea, its passengers still hoping to find asylum or at least safety in the United States that Heywood Broun, one of the great newspaper columnists of the time, wrote “There is a Ship” for the New York World-Telegram. It was published June 9, 1939.


There is a ship. It is called the St. Louis.  If suddenly the vessel flashed an SOS to indicate that the crew and the 900 passengers were in danger every other steamer within call would be hurrying to the rescue. That is the rule of the sea.

And no vessel which got the flash would pause to inquire the economic, political, religious or national position of those in distress.  It would want no more than the position of the ship.

And the captain on the bridge, according to the prevailing tradition, would ask the engineer to put on all speed so that the work of rescue could be completed as expeditiously as possible.  And this would be true of the skipper of a totalitarian merchantman, one from a democratic nation or a ship flying under the flag of a monarchy, liberal or otherwise.

But there is a ship.  It carries 900 passengers—men, women and small children.  This is a group of God-fearing people guilty of no crime whatsoever.  And they are in peril.

They are in peril which threatens not only their lives but their very souls and spiritual freedom.  It would be better for them by far if the St. Louis has ripped its plates in a collision with some other craft, or if an impersonal iceberg had slashed the hull below the water line.

Then there would be not the slightest hesitation in a movement of all the allied fleets to save these members of the human race in deep and immediate distress.

But this is not an iceberg or a plate which has been ripped away.  The passengers—men, women and children—are Jewish. It is not an accident of nature but an inhuman equation which has put them in deadly peril.  It is quite true that when the St. Louis gets back to Hamburg these 900, with possibly a few exceptions, will not die immediately.  They will starve slowly, since they have already spent their all.  Or they will linger in concentration camps—I refer to the men and women.  God knows what will happen to the children.

And so the whole world stuffs its ears and pays no attention to any wireless.

There is a ship. And almost two thousand years have elapsed since the message of universal brotherhood was brought to earth.

What have we done with that message?  After so many years we have not yet put into practice those principles to which we pay lip service.  Nine hundred are to suffer a crucifixion while the world passes by on the other side.

At any luncheon, banquet or public meeting the orator of the occasion can draw cheers if he raises his right hand in the air and pledges himself, his heart and soul to the declaration that he is for peace and amity and that all men are brothers.  He means it, generally, and so do the diners who pound the table until the coffee cups and the cream dishes rattle into a symphony of good feeling and international sympathy.

But there is a ship. If one were to look upon it with cold logic it would be better for every one of the 900 if the vessel suddenly buckled and went down in forty fathoms.  That would be more merciful.

Against the palpable threat of death we can muster brotherhood.  But against the even more plain sentence of life in death we pretend to be helpless.

Our answer is, “We must look after ourselves.  What can we do about it?  Life is greater than death.”  We agree.  Here is our test.  What price civilization?  There is a ship.  Who will take up an oar to save 900 men, women and children?


Heywood Broun died at 51 years of age on December 18, 1939. About the time he wrote this column, he had forsaken his professed agnosticism after extensive discussions with Bishop Fulton J. Sheen and had become a member of the Catholic faith.

Germany invaded the safe countries of Western Europe on May 10, 1940. The Netherlands surrendered five days later. Belgium gave up May 28.  And France fell June 22.   The Holocaust Museum in Washington estimates 254 former passengers on the St. Louis died during the holocaust, most of them at Sobibor and Auschwitz.  Fewer than one-hundred eventually made it to the United States.

The St. Louis was a German naval accommodation ship until it was damaged by the bombing of Kiel in August, 1944.  She was fixed and was a hotel ship in Hamburg for a while before being scrapped in 1952.

But the ghost of the spirit of the ship still hangs over us.

Jews in 1939.  Mexicans and Syrians in 2016.

There’s always somebody.

Reading hymns

It occurred to us a few years ago as we were singing a Christmas hymn in church, reading lyrics without music that were on the screens at the front of the sanctuary, that the hymns—beautiful as they are at Christmas—are sometimes not as good as the poetry or the prose behind them.

We become so accustomed to the pace and structure of the music that the words come from us unthinkingly.   If we remove the music and the false structure it imposes on the lyrics, we might find some of our Christmas hymns have different meanings and many of them could be sung year-around.  In fact, many could be sung year-around by removing one verse.

If we read hymns instead of singing them, we might find ourselves asking questions about the story that is told in the lyrics and sometimes even wondering about the origins of those lyrics. We’re not much of a student of music but we love it, especially at this time of year, but it seems that the lyrics come first and then somebody writes music for them.

Here’s a f’rinstance.  One of the nicest, lightest, Christmas hymns begins with the words, “Bring a torch….”   I bet you hear it in your mind right now, just because of those three words.  But who is “Jeanette Isabella?”

This is an example of how singing the lyrics changes the lyrics.   In this case, the music eliminates a comma.  If you read the lyrics of the poem, which goes back about seven centuries to the Provence region of France, you see that it is about TWO girls, not one.   The original title was Un Flambeau, Jeanette, Isabelle. (We appear to have Anglicized the names of the girls.)  Various sources we’ve checked say it originally was a dance tune for the nobility and didn’t show up as a Christmas tune until 1553 and an English version of the hymn wasn’t published until the middle of the eighteenth century.

One interpretation of the lyrics links this Christmas song to the Jewish celebration of Chanukah, the eight-day festival of lights that celebrates, as, puts it “the triumph of light over darkness, of purity over adulteration, of spirituality over materiality,” a theme with which many Christians identify as they celebrate the birth of Jesus.  The website tells us, “The torches, or candles, of ancient Hanukkah’s Festival of Lights played an important part in Christmas celebrations in Provence and southern Europe,” and calls this song, “a wonderful example of the torch songs of that time.”

The New-born *oil on canvas *76 × 91 cm *1600-1652

(Musee des Beaux Arts de Rennes)

“Bring a Torch” is one of those songs that draws the participant into the beauty of the music to the extent that the words are sung but the story they tell is not appreciated.   So let’s look at the lyrics (which might be slightly different depending on your faith traditions).   We’re going to change some punctuation and some of the structure of the poem for reading-out-loud purposes.

“Bring a torch! Jeanette, Isabelle! Bring a torch!

Come swiftly– and run! Christ is born!

Tell the folk of the village (that) Jesus is sleeping in His cradle!

Then we change from excitedly telling these two young girls to grab their torches on this night and dash into the village telling the villagers to approach in haste—but quietly.  Adore the child but do not create a disturbance.  He is sleeping the sleep of the newborn.  And although the song does not refer to his mother, she also probably is resting after the strain of childbirth.

Hasten now, good folk of the village. Hasten now, the Christ Child to see. You will find Him asleep in a manger. Quietly come and whisper softly.

Ah, ah, beautiful is the mother, Ah, ah, beautiful is her Son.

Hush, hush, peacefully now He slumbers. Hush, hush, peacefully now He sleeps.

We have seen a translation of the early French lyrics that places heavier emphasis on urging villagers to not disrupt the rest of the child and his mother.  They’re harsher than the more familiar lines of the hymn.  We don’t recall singing or hearing these words but this part of the poem begins with noise and disruption.  Perhaps it is Joseph who asks, or maybe an angel–the wording is not clear.

Who is that, knocking on the door?

Who is it, knocking like that?


And someone in the crowd gathered outside answers:


Open up!

We’ve arranged on a platter lovely cakes that we have brought here!

Knock! Knock! Knock! Open the door for us!

Knock! Knock! Knock! Let’s celebrate!


We can envision Joseph cracking the door open and slipping out to confront the crowd.  Speaking in a loud whisper, he tells the villagers:


It is wrong when the child is sleeping.  It is wrong to talk so loud. Silence, now as you gather around lest your noise should waken Jesus.


And as the crowd heeds his wishes, he opens the door and reminds them as they go in:


Hush! Hush! see how he slumbers.

Hush! Hush! see how fast he sleeps!

Softly now unto the stable,

Softly for a moment come!

Look and see how charming is Jesus,

Look at him there, His cheeks are rosy!


And we hear the whispered voices of the people as they file through the room:

Hush! Hush! see how the Child is sleeping;

Hush! Hush! see how he smiles in dreams!

We still don’t know who these two girls are or were.  Perhaps the names were plucked out of the air by the original writer of the poem to fit the meter of the poem.  But the more popular version seems to rely on a painting by Georges de La Tour (1593-1652), a French Baroque artist who did a lot of religious scenes lit by candlelight.  The story behind his painting is that Jeanette and Isabella (Isabelle in the French lyrics) are milk maids who have gone to the stable to milk the cows and find Jesus has been born there.  We don’t know who tells them to light the torches and spread the good news in the village.  But we are told the custom remains in France for children to dress up as farm folks and as they go to midnight mass, they sing the song that begins, “Bring a torch….”

If you want to take the time today—if you have the time today—and you have a hymnal in your home, you might want to read some other hymns.  It might be hard because there will be the tendency to read them the way the music has them sung.  But you might find reading hymns as poetry or prose is interesting and might even add a new dimension to this day for you.

Take a look particularly at “Joy to the World” and ask yourself after reading it why this song could not be the opening hymn in worship at any time of the year.

We hope we have not spoiled your enjoyment of the music of Christmas with this little excursion that began by wondering who Jeanette Isabella was.  Remember that our word Psalms comes from a Greek word that means “instrumental music” and the words that go with it.

Let all of us, regardless of our faith tradition, hope on this day that light will prevail.

It’s always a surprise

—to return from a trip that is incredibly stirring to find that nothing has changed when you get home.   When we rolled into Jefferson City about 1:30 a.m. today (Saturday, October 9), the businesses we drove past were the same as they had been two weeks earlier. The Jefferson City Oil Cartel was still charging twenty cents more a gallon for gasoline than the people in Fulton were paying. McDonald’s drive-through window was still open, serving the McMuffin that was a welcome bit to eat for travelers who hadn’t had anything since lunch at the Miami airport after our flight from Guayaquil, Ecuador that morning. American Airlines didn’t even drop its usual paltry package of pretzels on our drop-down tray tables on the flight from Miami to St. Louis. And if you expect to find any place to grab a quick bite at Lambert-St. Louis airport when your flight arrives sometime after 10 p.m., forget it. Lambert is a ghost town after 6.

Our day that started in Guayaquil ended in our own bed in Jefferson City about 2:30 this morning. We don’t know if today’s younger generation finds nothing remarkable about that. But our generation, or many in our generation, still have a “Gee Whiz”–a phrase of our generation–feeling about this sort of thing. We started our day on the south side of the equator trying to sort out what the Spanish-speaking airport attendant was saying over the loudspeaker in our gate area (among other things, I was summoned to the TSA security office downstairs because my checked bag had been randomly selected for a search—I have great sympathy for those people who have to search through bags of rank clothing that had clothed travelers for two weeks.). We finished it in our home in Jefferson City.

We might post some pictures from these two weeks some time later. Nancy already has been sharing some things on her Facebook page. But your correspondent doesn’t do Facebook or LinkedIn, or other internet stuff like that. Too much going on in the real world. And the “what I did on my autumn vacation” slide show isn’t what this series of observations is for.

The big bags have been unpacked. The two remaining clean shirts and one pair of clean socks are back in the drawers. The new washing machine will be getting a big workout this weekend. Sometime in the next few days, Nancy and I will go through the hundreds of pictures we took, considering how we have been changed by these last two weeks.

We met someone whose parents likely were alive during the French and Indian War. I hiked an ancient trail 9,000 feet up in the Andes Mountains to look down on a mysterious village. Nancy stood with one foot in the northern hemisphere and one in the southern. We both explored a unique ecosystem populated by hundreds of species found nowhere else in the world, a place where studies done almost two centuries ago continue to produce massive angst among those who believe understanding of our world should be limited to the words written by the author of Genesis.

We were among our fellow creatures of brown skin, yellow skin, white skin, red feet, yellow feet, blue feet, claws, and scales. We walked among the living and the dead. We heard the music of man and the music of nature. We walked on modern and ancient paths. We spent two weeks eating only things that had been cooked or peeled, washing our teeth with bottled water, and throwing toilet tissue in wastebaskets because leaving it in the toilet would damage the sewage system. We rode planes, trains, boats, and buses. And we drove a car to start the whole thing. We wandered in societies that seek God through the sun, the puma, the crucifix, and through being one with nature’s god. We lived with a country that uses currency requiring calculation of value with purchases that often involve bargaining and in a country that imports United States currency to use as its own money and gives back coins in change that are a mix of United States coins and the local country’s coins. We stayed in rooms that were unlocked with cards that fit into slots, or unlocked doors with a wave of the card, or with great big skeleton keys. Some restaurant menus listed various forms of beef, pork, chicken, or guinea pig. Some of our group sampled dozens of beers you won’t find in the liquor section of the grocery store. I was in a place that didn’t have any Coke or Pepsi products, so I had had a bottle of Inka Cola which was kind of a light cream soda.

Peru and Ecuador. Machu Picchu and the Galapagos. And other places.

We didn’t talk to a single person in any of those places who gave a tinker’s dam about Donald Trump or John Boehner, Obamacare, Governor Nixon’s veto of a right to work bill, and the insane pursuit of millionaire campaign donors by people thirsting for power.

And then we came home, changed people returning to a seemingly unchanged community where “Gee Whiz” experiences are unlikely. Travel once again has made us realize that the comfort of sleeping in one’s own bed has its value. But travel makes sure that sleeping in one’s own bed does not turn into living in a rut.

I have a religious objection

….to religious objections.

But I’m rooting for Kim Davis, the Rowan, Kentucky County Clerk who spent five days in jail for contempt of court for refusing to issue same-sex marriage licenses that the United States Supreme Court says are legal under the Constitution.  She’s out now and still has her job.  She remains “religiously opposed” to issuing same sex marriage licenses but is under a federal district judge’s order not to keep her employees from issuing the licenses she opposes.  If she does, she could be on the wrong side of the bars again.

Her lawyer says, “She loves God, she loves people, she loves her work, and she will not betray any of those three,” a statement that seems from this distance to advocate an interesting dance.

She does not want her name on any same-sex marriage license. Her attorneys say the licenses issued by her deputies while she’s been away are not valid because they don’t bear her signature.   However Kentucky law says any act she is entitled by law to do can be legally done by a “lawful deputy.”

Of course, some political candidates are quick to hitch their campaigns to Davis, who has become a symbol to an important voting segment of our population. Ted Cruz and Mike Huckabee have gone to Kentucky to sand by Davis. Other Republican hopefuls are keeping some distance.  One of our Missouri Attorney General candidates already has claimed that, if elected, he will have the power to issue an opinion that will protect those who have sincerely held religious objections to state and federal laws.  Apparently this candidate for Attorney General does not realize that an attorney General’s opinion does not have any force of law and is, as a judge said many years ago, is just another lawyer’s opinion.   Interestingly, none of the other candidates for Missouri Attorney General have claimed they also could be a savior.

Kim Davis is the darling of the Religious Right today and, should she wish, could make a lot of money on the speaking circuit.   Her release was a disappointment to many people, not because they believe she is wrong in her position but because her case could set up a court test of the Religious freedom Restoration Act movement.   But she and her supporters are fighting the same-sex marriage issue on more than one front, so her case is likely to get to the United States Supreme Court one way or another.

Some see this case that was, to be blunt, inevitable when RFRA started gaining popularity in increasingly conservative legislatures.  It has been framed as a question of whether government can force someone to violate their personal religious beliefs. The mirror image of the question is whether one person can impose their religious freedom as a way to limit the religious freedom or the secular civil rights of fellow citizens in a nation that has a history of trying to keep church and state apart.

We saw a cartoon the other day portraying the chaos that can result if RFRA is fully sanctioned in society.  A person in a supermarket checkout lane wants to buy some condoms but the checkout clerk says she cannot ring up that sale because it would violate the clerk’s sincerely-held religious beliefs.  “You have to go to register ten,” the clerk says.   So the customer takes the groceries to register ten and has no problem buying the condoms but is told, “I can’t ring up that ham because my sincerely-held religious beliefs do not allow me to sell ham.   You’ll have to go to register eight.”

There is another story that might provide some guidance.  Might.

The ancient historian Josephus, a Pharisee, has written that followers of that movement were supported by the common Jewish people in the time of Jesus.  They claimed to be guided by the law of Moses in their interpretations of Jewish law.  If your correspondent’s understanding of Jewish history is correct, the Pharisees claim to be the founders of today’s Rabbinic Judaism.   Josephus contrasts them to the Sadducees, an upper class whose authority came from the high priest in the times of Solomon.  We fear we have over-simplified the difference, but over-simplification of religion and government is so common today that we hope our indiscretion has not been a serious one.

Three of the Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, record the day that some Pharisees hoped to trip up a young rabbi with a challenging question.  Matthew and Mark say they were Pharisees.  Luke says they were “spies pretending to be sincere.”   Luke says they were trying to set up Jesus so he would say something that would make him vulnerable to prosecution by the Roman governor.

They first flattered him: “Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone’s opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances.”  Then came the zinger: “Tell us, then, what you think. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?”  The Jews objected to paying those taxes, of course.   Matthew says they asked the question maliciously.  Mark says they asked it hypocritically.

Jesus, who was born at night but not last night, recognized immediately what was afoot.  And he got a little testy because, as Luke says, he saw through their craftiness.  “Why put me to the test, you hypocrites,” he said in Matthew’s version.

“Show me a coin,” he demanded.  And when they gave him a denarius, He asked them, “Whose face  and inscription are on this coin?”  The scriptures don’t say if there was any hemming and hawing although there might have been at least some of the Pharisees who might have immediately seen where their strategy was about to go out of the wagon tracks.   “Caesar’s,” they answered.

We wonder if Jesus paused for dramatic effect or if he flipped the denarius back to the person who gave it to him as he said, “Therefore, render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”   The Pharisees, the scriptures say, were stuck silent and after a while got up and walked away.   They still didn’t like this guy.  But they couldn’t argue with him that day.

The Pharisees, common people like Kim Davis today, had a strong religious objection to the edicts of their government.  And they didn’t want to obey that government.   And some perhaps curried favorable public opinion by opposing them.

We’re not scholars of the Bible in our house.  But we are unaware of any similar statement in the Old Testament, which was the foundation for the Pharisees’ positions in those times.

What Jesus did that day was define the line between church and state.

Many of those who side with Kim Davis argue that she should not be persecuted in this Christian Nation for standing up for her Christian beliefs.   Others say it might not hurt for the Christian Nation to remember the day Jesus Christ defined the line between church and state.   And perhaps the Kim Davis case, if it works its way through the legal system, might determine how much the definition in the First Century of the Common Era remains the same these twenty centuries later.