Braveheart, 2010: Boehner as Robert the Bruce to Bachmann’s William Wallace?

by the Night Writer

“There’s a difference between us. You think the people of this country exist to provide you with position. I think your position exists to provide those people with freedom. And I go to make sure that they have it.”

With those words Mel Gibson as William Wallace in the movie Braveheart challenged a feckless Scottish noble, foreshadowing not only Braveheart’s battles with the English but also with the gentry that represented his supposed allies in the fight for Scotland’s independence. It also symbolically foreshadows an uncomfortable relationship between the Tea Party and the Republican leadership in the ongoing fight for freedom in America.

In 1297 the central players in an uneasy alliance were William Wallace, the upstart rebel who shocked and demoralized the English with a dramatic victory in the Battle of Stirling Bridge,  and Robert Bruce, the scion of a wealthy and politically powerful Scottish family. In 2010, Republican lion and presumptive Speaker of the House John Boehner plays Robert the Bruce to Michelle Bachmann’s  Wallace.   Bachmann was out-front for the burgeoning Tea Party movement, driving her enemies to distraction and helping spark a historic Republican rout that changes the balance of power in much the same way that Stirling Bridge did. Her decision to now run for a leadership position in the Republican caucus has been greeted coolly by her nobles. I know there are those who will raise an eyebrow or a guffaw at equating Michelle Bachmann with a figure as historically significant as William Wallace but at the heart of the matter there are similarities.

Bachmann is derided by her enemies (both in and outside the Republican party) for being out-spoken, outrageous and deliberately provocative. That’s pretty much how Wallace was presented in Braveheart: coarse, blunt and sometimes appearing to be making it up as he went along. The way the Scottish nobles fought the English in those days is also not too different from the way the Republican leadership has historically contended with the Democrats: a show of force before the battle which merely sets the stage for a parley in the center of the field that ends in negotiation. When Wallace showed up — nearly unwanted — before one battle he was told to hang back and be quiet. When he rode forward to be part of the parley anyway someone asked him what he was doing and his response was “picking a fight.”  The passion and taunts of Wallace and his men discomfited the “civilized” combatants who weren’t expecting to be mooned or to be told that their general could bend over and “kiss his own arse.” Similarly, Bachmann and her unwillingness to “play nice” is barely tolerated by the party elite, while the passion and populism of the Tea Party rallies and town halls has shaken the political professionals and pundits who hope it is an aberration and not a new fact of life.

Consider this as well — the English king, Edward I (aka “Long-shanks”) was as ruthless and canny a leader as there ever was. He controlled the Scottish nobles by also granting them lands in England as well as Scotland, meaning any true rebellion wouldn’t just undermine him, it would undermine their wealth as well. Similarly, the entrenched Republican leadership, epitomized by Boehner the Bruce, has gained power, prestige and wealth by managing the status quo. Like any good general, the Boehner knows how to take advantage of opportunity when someone rocks the boat, but also realizes that if the boat rocks too much there’s no telling who all will go overboard. (At least he may take comfort in knowing that President Obama is no Edward I.)

In the movie, Robert the Bruce is stirred by Wallace’s example and conviction, but also swayed by his father’s adamant insistence that the only thing that was important was keeping his land, his possessions and his title, even if it meant lying, cheating and betraying others. As for the Boehner and the others who have been in D.C. for a long time, they will have to search their own souls to determine whether to be guided by principal or the political equivalents of the land, possessions and titles they’ve acquired by playing the game.

Of course, the risks aren’t solely with them. History tells us that Robert the Bruce eventually united the Scottish clans and factions and became king of an independent Scotland  (even if this was helped by Edward I dying and being replaced by a less resolute heir). History also tells us that William Wallace was defeated at the Battle of Falkirk, just one year after Stirling Bridge, when the Scots cavalry, commanded by the faithless nobles (Bruce was not present), abandoned the field when they could have routed a broken English attack and left Wallace and his pike-men and archers (under the command of one Sir John Stewart) at the mercy of the English cavalry and long-bows. Wallace and his surviving army were scattered and within two years he was ultimately betrayed into English hands, taken to London, convicted of treason and summarily drawn and quartered. While there are many who would like to see the same happen, metaphorically, to Bachmann (or perhaps literally given the vitriol some use in the comment sections of the newspapers), there are two historical lessons to be learned. One is not to trust your “leaders” to have your back. If they’re truly leaders then they need to be out front, which is what Wallace urged Bruce to do. In the movie he tells Bruce, “Your title gives you claim to the throne of our country, but men don’t follow titles, they follow courage. Now our people know you. Noble, and common, they respect you. And if you would just lead them to freedom, they’d follow you. And so would I!” In the movie Bruce is inspired by Braveheart’s passion and sacrifice and summons the will to ignore his father’s advice and to see the cause through to the end.

The second lesson is that a cause that captures people’s hearts and minds is greater than any one individual or group of individuals. While some might say that it’s silly to compare our modern circumstances with Scotland’s fight for freedom from tyranny, let’s not lose sight of the fact that the Scots had little knowledge of what we call democracy. They were used to a feudal system of gentry and serfs where the individual was regularly at the mercy of his “betters” who could impose sanctions and indignities with impunity, even to the point of claiming “first night” rights with a bride. Yet the people  still valued and longed for the right to live their own lives, even if it cost their lives. In comparison, our dealing with a government that would force us to buy health insurance, tell us what kind of light bulb or fast food we can buy or electronically strip-search us “for our own protection” seems almost petty. Or does it?

One of the remarkable documents that came out of Scotland’s battle for independence was the Declaration of Arbroath. Written in 1320, some 450 years prior to our own Declaration, it includes the words that I hope will resonate for another 400 years or more:

It is in truth not for glory, nor riches, nor honours that we are fighting, but for freedom — for that alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself.

Of golden chains and gilded gags

by the Night Writer

As part of the furor of the political season, I have seen several news stories in recent days about activist pastors provocatively announcing their intention to endorse candidates from their pulpits. Predictably, this has led to activist groups such as Americans United for Separation (ignore the oxymoron) of Church and State to file complaints with the IRS about the churches violating their tax-exempt status. This was, of course, what the pastors were hoping for in order to force what they hope will be a defining battle over free speech.

All of which I’m sure would cause our hallowed founding fathers — be they Christian, Deist or Other — to shake their heads at the ignorance abounding on all sides.

At issue is that the churches, like most U.S. churches over the past 50 years, have incorporated themselves as 501c3 organizations, ostensibly gaining limited-liability and tax-exempt status, but with the caveat that they can’t engage in politics. The pending confrontation has both sides enthusiastic about the battle, while the IRS is likely much less so. From the article in Tuesday’s Star Tribune:

Although pastors across the country have staged similar protests for years (more than 100 of them this year alone), the IRS has dropped them after investigating the cases, and agency officials have declined to say why they did so.

That’s likely happened because the IRS already knows that a church doesn’t need 501c3 status in order to be tax-exempt.

Despite the rampant ignorance (remember, “ignorance” is not the same as “stupidity”), the issue isn’t that complex. Here’s a useful and easy to understand website that explains this. One section in particular contains the following:

The IRS has acknowledged for decades that it is completely unnecessary for any church to apply for a tax-exempt status. According to IRS Publication 557, as well as IRS Code § 508, churches and church ministries are “exempt automatically.” Application for an exempt status is not only superfluous, but to do so subordinates that church to the IRS. Churches in America have always been nontaxable anyway. It simply makes no sense for a church to go to the IRS and seek permission to be exempted from a tax the government can’t impose in the first place.

The church in America is protected from the government by the First Amendment:

“Congress shall make NO law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” It would be absurd to suppose that you could have free exercise of religion if you had to pay for it (taxes). If Congress can make NO law respecting the church, it can make NO law to tax the church.

The IRS lacks the jurisdiction necessary to tax the churches in America. The IRS has no more jurisdiction over the churches in America than it does over the churches in Canada. It would be as absurd (and tyrannical) for the IRS to tax the churches in America, as it would be for the IRS to tax churches in Canada. They don’t have jurisdiction.

Neither is your church required to be a 501c3 in order for your contributions to be tax-deductible. Nor is this a radical new concept of Church and State. America’s churches have always been “free” churches as opposed to the state churches prevalent in Europe at the time of our founding. They have neither been under the jurisdiction of, or supported by, the government. In the 1950s the 501c3 was offered as a “benefit” to the churches, perhaps to codify the tax-exemption…while at the same time making all churches who accepted the bargain fundamentally subservient to the State, especially in matters of free speech.

Now you could call it conspiracy, or merely one of those unintended consequences government is so good at, but there conceivably could be a reason why the State (regardless of the administration du jour) might seek to bind the Church’s hands with gold and close its mouth with silver: the Church had historically always been the first to speak up against tyranny, both within and without. Indeed, going back to pre-Revolutionary days, it was the pastors of many denominations who spoke out from their pulpits against the Crown’s violations and depradations, earning the clergy the deep enmity (along with sizable bounties on their heads) of King George and the Tories who referred to them as “The Black Regiment” (because of their black robes). More accurately, the preaching and activism of the clergy was likely worth several regiments in the field. (Here’s a sample sermon, circa 1776, from Rev. Samuel West, perhaps a distant relation of mine.)

The call to conscience, based on the word of God, will often stand in opposition to the rule of law as wielded by tyrants. Henry II is not the only ruler to, in one form or another, say, “Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer would be a more contemporary version of Thomas Beckett). Bloody decrees somehow only served to fan the flames then; now subtle favors and lulling complacency may be more devastating to liberty. To speak out is not merely the right of the clergy, but their responsibility as well. As John Adams said,

“It is the duty of the clergy to accommodate their discourses to the times, to preach against such sins as are most prevalent, and recommend such virtues as are most wanted.

For example, if exorbitant ambition and venality are predominant, ought they not to warn their hearers against those vices?

If public spirit is much wanted, should they not inculcate this great virtue?

If the rights and duties of Christian magistrates and subjects are disputed, should they not explain them, show their nature, ends, limitations, and restrictions, how muchsoever it may move the gall of Massachusetts?”

As with any right, it comes with responsibility, especially where a nation’s destiny is concerned. As Charles Finney said,

“If there is a decay of conscience, the pulpit is responsible for it.

If the public press lacks moral discernment, the pulpit is responsible for it.

If the church is degenerate and worldly, the pulpit is responsible for it.

If the world loses its interest in Christianity, the pulpit is responsible for it.

If Satan rules in our halls of legislation, the pulpit is responsible for it.

If our politics become so corrupt that the very foundations of our government are ready to fall away, the pulpit is responsible for it.”

Martin Luther’s own words were an unheeded warning in the 1930s as the German state church was subsumed and subverted by the Nazis into a facile caricature of Christianity unable to resist genocide and heritage-shattering megalomania:

“If I profess with the loudest voice and clearest exposition every portion of the truth of God except precisely that little point which the world and the devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ however boldly I may be professing Christ.

Where the battle rages there the loyalty of the soldier is proved; and to be steady on all the battlefields besides is mere flight and disgrace if he flinches at that point.”

I’ll credit the vision of the Minnesota pastors speaking out today and applaud their stance, but they never would have had to defend their free speech rights and responsibilities if their churches hadn’t incorporated and accepted their chains and gilded gags in the first place. (One might also wonder when the Revs. Jeremiah Wright and Al Sharpton, and Fr. Pfleger might be called into account by Americans United).

The American Church has accepted a foolish bargain and allowed liberty to be burned before its altars. The cause is no more dire today than it has ever been. Similarly, the cost is the same and must be paid with vigilance and boldness.

Too cynical? Yeah, right

by the Night Writer

Peter Bell, Chairman of the Metropolitan Council, had a commentary on the Strib’s editorial pages today with the headline “America Needs a Little Less Cynicism”. Being kind of a cynical person myself when it comes to the appointed bureaucrats of the Met Council, I expected some hand-wringing about how the toxic discourse in the public square has poisoned the people against their well-meaning political overlords, and my initial cynicism was validated in part by one of Bell’s first statements:

Of all the political challenges we face today, perhaps the most difficult is the depth and breadth of cynicism in America. This attitude, from across the political landscape, is a contagious virus limiting our trust and confidence in institutions both big and small, public and private. In February, a New York Times/CBS survey found that just 19 percent of Americans trusted government to do the right thing, matching the all-time low and well below the level of trust in government in the aftermath of Watergate.

I will say, however, that the article turned out to be fairly even-handed in its hand-wringing, citing examples of how all sides are equally guilty of both earning and fomenting cynicism, even touching lightly on the fact that some of the most cynical people in the whole equation are the politicians themselves.

Left out, however, is the fact that cynicism is an American right and custom, born out of a system fundamentally designed to “speak truth to power”… and one that perhaps causes Power to toss sops, instead of truth, to the people in order to stay in place. In some countries, however, mocking your leaders will get you arrested, even killed. Here it will get you a late night television show. In some countries, the people’s only recourse is bloody revolt. Here, our leaders are swept from power with handsome pensions and lifetime sinecures in the lobbying and punditry classes (or is that too cynical of me?).

The American heritage of individualism and self-reliance has historically bred its people to look suspiciously at a government that promises something too good to be true, even as our individualism and self-reliance is continually seduced away from us. Some credit Ronald Reagan with coining the sarcastic phrase, “We’re from the government and we’re here to help you,” but I’m sure I heard it when I was growing up in the 70s, and it may have been born in the 1930s when expanding Federal programs and powers started to come in to save us from ourselves, all while Will Rogers became the most famous and beloved figure in America by making political commentary a mass- (and multi)-media entertainment form.

Here’s another old joke: what is the motto of the terminally cynical?

“Yeah, right.”

And What is the motto of the terminally naive?


I suppose that too much cynicism can be corrosive and when there’s an abundance of something it tends to become devalued, but cynicism also brings accountability. And, as Will Rogers said, “Chaotic action is better than orderly inaction.” The way I read Peter Bell’s column, he’s suggesting that cynicism undermines good government; I think undermining cynicism leads to bad government. A certain distrust and feistiness toward one’s government is healthier than fatalism (though fatalism, too, is becoming more seductive).

I do heartily concur with one of the statements he made in closing, however:

The surest way to reduce cynicism in America is to rely less on major institutions to do for us what we can and should do for ourselves.

One can perhaps wonder where Greece (acclaimed as the birthplace of democracy) might be today if its people had been a bit more cynical – or empowered – the last 50 years.

Speaking of our American heritage of skepticism and satire, here’s a fun video I saw over at TechnoChitlins; it’s kind of a VH1 “I Love the (17)70s” take:

The bridges of Minneapolis and San Luis Rey, and the Tower of Siloam

Who, what, when, where? Those are the first things we want to know when a disaster makes the news. Close on their heels comes the question hardest to answer: Why?

That question breaks into two parts, the physical and the metaphysical. Why did the bridge fail structurally, and why were these particular people apportioned to survive, die or be injured? The first question will eventually be known to the millimeter; the second will remain fuzzy. Implicit in the second one, however, is the fear that everything is random, that there is no justice, or that justice is applied on a scale so grand that we can’t calculate it; either way we are left with uncertainty as to just what measure is due us personally. The thing is, we want there to be a reason and order to things, and optimistically assume (or hope) that our own accounts will balance to the “good”; promising or justifying our own deliverance from calamity.

We easily extend our version of grace to others (as long as they’re victims and not members of the opposition party), generously judging them good or innocent by the most general of categories: he was a “nice guy”, she was a young mother. “Why do bad things happen to good people?” we cry. Other people, or other times, might view calamity as judgment or karmic justice.

Similarly, was it chance or God’s plan that resulted in the deaths in the collapse of the 35W bridge in Minneapolis? Was it God’s indifference that lead to the fall, or God’s providence that the calamity was not more catastrophic? If there is such a “goodness” scale, by what measure can the survivors claim deliverance and what comfort can be given to the families of those who didn’t? How can a former missionary go missing while a child abuser survives?

People didn’t start asking these questions just when President Bush took office, either. In his 1927 novel, “The Bridge at San Luis Rey,” Thornton Wilder tackles similar questions and circumstances in the person of Brother Juniper who tries to ascertain the central failing in the lives of five people who perish when the titular bridge falls into a chasm. (He could come to no conclusion). Going back a bit further, in John 9:2, Jesus was asked about a blind man, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

“Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life.” Whereupon he made mud and put it in the blind man’s eyes and then sent him to wash in the pool of Siloam, healing his blindness. Interestingly, Siloam is mentioned again in Luke 13 when people suggest to Jesus that calamity overcame certain people as a judgment. His response: “… those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them, do you think that they were worse sinners than all other men who dwelt in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.”

Or, (excuse my jump in character but not in context), in the words of Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven, “We’ve all got it coming.” The point being made was that no one is innocent, but each may come to the revelation of salvation by grace; by the work of God, not man.

I’m not trying to be dark. In fact, I believe that there is an order and justice in the universe even if we can’t see it all at once. I believe that because, in fact, we are able to see beauty and justice from time to time. If it weren’t so, all would be chaos and despair. Instead, in the midst of the refining fire of a disaster there are gleaming streaks of gold rising through all the impurities; the acts of courage, altruism and goodness in the survivors and rescuers (perhaps even unplumbed in their lives up until that point), and of a community pulling together in empathy and faith.

Bridges are aspirational; tangibly they are an example of our ability to overcome an obstacle to achieve what we want. The failure of one is not just a challenge to getting what we want, it is a repudiation of our ability to even conceive of it; the cutting of the tight rope woven of our doctrines that we walk to find our own salvation. In Mark Helprin’s book “Winter’s Tale” the allegorical and eternal Jackson Mead, an engineer representing either Lucifer or man (I go back and forth on this), strives to bend steel, nature and his will into casting a tremendous bridge of light to Heaven that — like our human understanding — touches the far shore for a moment and falls. Yet one of the messages of the book is that the balances are exact; and one thing cannot fall without something else rising and even more gloriously.

The 35W bridge fell in a crush of broken steel, concrete and bodies — and though the dust sought to obscure it, we could suddenly see something clearly: we are the bridges, standing in or reaching across the gap for and to one another.

Standing, always.