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Christmas Baby

How to Be a True Patriot


Where are the Leaders?

Politics of the Right

Thomas Paine

Shelter of Simplicity

The Lemonade Well


Christmas Baby

Trees and turkeys hate this time of year, especially Christmas.  Well, I suppose if you’re an oak tree or a palm or a sequoia you may not dread the axe before Gratefulness Day.  And if you’re a wild turkey who can shut your gobble long enough to hide in the hedgerow you may be safe. Nevertheless, it’s not a good time to be an evergreen or a fat tom.  There be fowl play in the air.

Though I was born on December 25th, I don’t like it much myself anymore.  I love the Season but not the seasonings, Solstice but not the silly Santa and the same-old-Sacred.  I think I’ll celebrate with the forest and the birds.

Don’t get me wrong.  I have no desire to make good will and peace go away.  I like a few lights, some cider and a little more time with family and friends, if they can leave the cellphones in the car.  I enjoy a simple exchange of a few presents.  But what I really celebrate is that wetstuff from the sky with the gifts of greening hills, the freshness of the air, hikes to the glorious waterfalls, migrating birds and maybe a bit of wine-tasting by a fire.

What about the Christmas story?  Well, this might shock a few people who knew me as a minister, but it lost the magic a long while back.  I was a follower of the Bethlehem Baby for a good part of my life.  In fact, I was ordained as one of his shepherds.  Then it came to pass that this pastor no longer felt pastoral.  I met some nice sheep, but I suppose I just couldn’t see the connection any longer between the baby-god, his poverty and the religion of stables and pastures.

I jumped the fence to be a chaplain among the poorest people, those who have no homes, no families—whose holidays are often empty days, cluttered with sad sleighrides of emotions—who stand in the cold with cardboard signs as churchloads of credit-card-carrying followers of the Christmas Child pass them in the Winter night.

Now, I’m a writer and teacher, a lover of Nature and the wild.  Every day is a holy (extraordinary) day, a holiday, a day for peace, light and the good.  Each day is my birthday, a day to celebrate life and the new birth of hope.  The nativity of every lifeform on the planet is special, “blessed.”  I don’t need any wise people on camels or in cadillacs to tell me that.  I need no star.  I need the universe of stars, because they remind me that life is a spark of a gift and I am incredibly small, but somehow significant.

Along the snowy way I also discovered that I don’t need the baby anymore.  The manger is empty for me.  There are millions of poor children born every day and even on December 25.  I could learn a thing or two from them, but I don’t need someone to tell me to love or be compassionate, that I need saving from something.  That all seems to me now to be a huge distraction–to look back in history and mythology to find a savior, a messiah, to make me a better person, to make the world better.  We’ve had two thousand years and I wonder if we’re any better for the birth of a little Palestinian Jewish boy to teenage parents in a dusty reststop called Bethlehem.

I still find powerfully disturbing teachings in the life of that boy (about justice for instance, challenging religion for example) but my honor of him as a teacher and reformer doesn’t include the add-on title of “god” or “lord.”  Why would we get distracted from his life and simple instruction for that?  And more poor people die for me, because of me, each year through unhealthy work conditions, poverty, pollution, political policies and war, than anyone could have sacrificed themselves a long time ago.  Heaven is here (“the kingdom of heaven is within you”) and I’m reminded every time the seasons change that I am a part of Nature and Nature is good, beautiful and yes, sometimes brutal.  Nature is the present we seek and it is no toy or game to technologize or theologize with.  The natural world is all we have and that’s wonderful!  What a holyland we live in!

I left Christmas, like the crumpled wrapping paper around the tree of my childhood.  I stopped cutting a tree, choosing instead to climb one to honor the changing seasons of my life.  I need no hymn or carol to cause me to dance for higher, simpler presents.

So, I no longer celebrate either the Christian holyday or the consumer hollowday.  I opt out of the spending, the driving, parking, indebting madness, when millions of children (and adults) get more stuff and stuffing than they’ll ever need-–things, unneeded toys, symbols of nothing but the opposite of the original, “simple” message of love, justice, compassion. . .the true, lasting gifts.  And as I said, all the junk simply distracts us from the beauty of Nature.  Junk or Jesus, it adds up to the same thing: we are no better human beings than last year–-we just have more junk, in our minds and our over-stuffed mangers.

What could take the place of the manger and the mall?  Can anything replace the Elves or Angels, Santa’s Shack or the Stable? Let’s hope so.  For me, I am trying each year to return to a simpler, saner way.

I honor the Season itself.  The Solstice offers those free gifts described by the poet Robert Burns on his own birthday: “What wealth can never give nor take away.”  I am learning to cherish the simple “things” and “stuff” freely given to all by Nature.

I practice a deeper understanding of all beliefs, of all nations, races, creeds, colors and languages on this small spinning blue-green-brown ornament.  And I have a growing dislike for those who crucify the Bethlehem baby along with his message of compassionate justice on their artificial trees heavy with ignorance, judgment and bigotry.

I try not to kill anything to celebrate a holiday!  I don’t kill an animal or a tree to honor Life.  That’s just crazy.

Whatever your beliefs or means of celebrating, may you create a new tradition of peace in this beautiful time of year, find some universal goodwill, and avoid getting trapped in the wrapping of the past.  You don’t have to “Do the Holidays” this year.  You really don’t.

A Peaceful Green Season of Light to You!


How to be a (True) Patriot

Do’s and Don’t’s of a True Patriotic American

(Note:  this summary only pertains to Americans, since as we know, we are the only true Patriots)


*Always display a FLAG (fly a large one proudly on your porch, use flag stickers, lapel pins, bumperstickers, red-white-blue clothing, let them flap from your car window and more) because “flag day is every day”

*Repeat the Pledge of Allegiance at every opportunity (say “Under God” proud and loud)–notice those who do not say the words or cross their hearts. . .point them out

*Shed tears while singing the National Anthem (especially when singing “bombs bursting in air”)

*Sing “God Bless America” as often as possible (best when waving both a flag and a Bible)

*Support Our Troops (whatever they do, wherever they fight–right or wrong. . .because they can never be wrong. . .and even if they are, support them anyway).  Never fall for the “Bring Them Home” argument for “supporting” our fighting men (a liberal lie)

*Be a faithful, churchgoing Christian (know the “best” parts of the Bible, that is, a few lines from Jesus–think of Jesus as the Greatest American Who Ever Lived).  Always keep in mind that Jesus was White, spoke English, was a faithful Christian like you, that he’s the Best and Only God, and he loves America above all nations that ever were

*Remember that your Faith perfectly fits with American Exceptionalism and you should preach both every day in every way.  Take pleasure in the fact that AMERICANISM may one day be the Newest Religion blessed by Almighty God (after the godless liberal socialists are gone for good).  Secular Humanists will never survive before Our God!

*Proudly wave your Gun and claim the Second Amendment as the First

*Stand up for every elected official, school teacher, Veterans group or church that wants to display the Ten Commandments, teach Intellijint Dezine, say a graduation prayer or put up a cross on public land.  These are all fellow patriots and their Rights must be defended

*Tell anyone and everyone that the Founding Fathers were Christians and they intended for this nation to be a Christian Nation.  This is undeniably proven history (see the Bible and the Declaration of the Constitution)

*Use the words “terrorist” and “THEM” and “strength” and “National Security” as much as you can (make up as many jokes as possible to ridicule our enemies–but don’t forget our serious fight against THEM must be won)

*Question the patriotism of others whenever and wherever you see people Disrespecting Your Belief in Patriotism


*Don’t ever let anyone disrespect Old Glory

*Never question the Commander in Chief (unless he was elected by The Other Party)

*Never accept any threat to your Manhood (Gays and Women–and most minorities–are not true patriots and need your protection. . .except The Gays)

*Never allow a person of another (false) religion to hold public office (especially Atheists!)

*Do not stand for any other country’s claim to be “exceptional” or specially blessed by God

*Do not tolerate any (false) religion that refuses to salute the flag, serve in the military, recite the pledge or sing the Anthem (especially beware of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Quakers, Mennonites and any others who think their faith is greater than being American).  Remember that Any Religion that was not Born in America cannot live on American soil

*Never vote for any person or law that helps “the poor” and “needy” (freeloading bums) and definitely never, ever vote for any tax increase or “immigration reform” that gives rights to Illegals (mostly the Spanish)

*Don’t let your child attend a Public School!  But if they have to, have them wear Flag shirts, carry a Bible if they can, stay away from “freethinking” and challenge teachers who do not hold to biblical standards.  True patriots Homeschool so biblical/family values can be instilled at a young age

*Do not allow public displays that question or criticize God, faith or patriotism itself

*Never let down your guard for a second because WE KNOW there are people inside this country and outside who are intent on bringing US down!  Be vigilant and ready to Fight!

*Never watch the Lamestream Media.  As you know, they are all controlled by secular godless liberals.  Stay informed by watching FOX and skimming Reader’s Digest.  Limit your entertainment to Reality, Shopping or Game Shows and Soaps (there is a lot to learn from these programs and the commercials are educational too!)

Special Note:  How to be a Super-Patriot

*Let everyone know you are a Veteran (if you are not a veteran speak out to show that Veterans are Super-patriots and Every One of Them is not only the Greatest and Best American but a true HERO).  When a (cowardly) Veteran claims he is anti-war or screams “Bring Them Home!” shout him down, punch him if you can and tell him he is Not a Patriot and should Go Home to Russia

*Be a proud member of the Tea Party.  Believe and Do whatever Party Leaders say (especially learn from Bachmann, Beck, Limbaugh, Gingrich, Coulter and O’Reilly).  Go Hunting, drink Bud and chant “We’re Number One!” with fellow Mavericks and Rogues.  Use lots of bullets (made in the USA)

*Be Angry and Shout Down others, disrupting “discussions” or “forums” that are Un-American

*Fight for everything that is Truly American (you will always know what is obviously American)

–use the word “fight” as much as possible; it is another way of supporting our troops

(Remember:  everyone is free, except to disagree, with you.  GET ANGRY!  FIGHT!)

Chris Highland

Super-patriot in training

June 2011



There are some subjects that are not only interesting to address but constrain attention, demand to be raised up, aired out and honestly debated.  Topics or issues that are simply tossed around for the kick of it aren’t worth much type–wordgames at best. I actually enjoy wordplay but there comes a time when the words carry too deep a meaning to be played with. There are concepts and ideas (as well as living beings) that cannot be ignored precisely because they strike at the heart of our worldview and affect the soul of the individual and the spirit of the community.

Mahatma Gandhi (1869-1948), in the tradition of Buddha, Jesus, Henry Thoreau and others, taught and practiced a socially-integrated form of non-violence that he called “ahimsa” or non-harming.  It was Gandhi’s feeling that ahimsa applied to human society and the broader natural world alike.  He believed that life was invaluably precious no matter what personal attachments we may hold.  Once describing his fear of snakes he said, “I do not want to live at the cost of the life even of a snake” (An Autobiography).  For Gandhi, there was no option for the survival and health of world communities, from the smallest to the largest of earth’s inhabitants, aside from a commitment to non-harming.

Gandhi was no head-in-the-clouds idealist.  He said he wasn’t a visionary.  He simply practiced what he found in experience to be true.  He understood the practicality of seeing Truth and God as One.  His “experiments” in truth were lived over decades of struggle to distill the Hindu religion into active elements that he applied to the whole cultural and political realms.

One of the active guidelines of ahimsa is to utilize the spoken and written word non-violently.  Gandhiji wrote, “To say or write a distasteful word is surely not violent especially when the speaker or writer believes it to be true.  The essence of violence is that there must be a violent intention behind a thought, word, or act” (Harijan, 1936).  Therefore intention is central.  When we intend to do the best possible job of helping and not harming we are not being violent.  Though harm may still be a result of our words, we are not seeking to harm and so are not, at heart, practitioners of violence.  For the sake of this essay I am assuming that we can either choose action and language that heals and helps or we are–by our decision not to choose the good action, the good language–choosing to harm even to the level of violence.

When I entered seminary at the dawn of the ’80s new worlds of words opened up to me.  I discovered that, just as I knew how much I felt excluded by those who used to call me “just a youth,” then “a hippie,” and “a college kid,” so many others were harmed and de-humanized by the terms and phrases used in common discourse.  In particular I was exposed to two areas where the words we use either sink us into the mud of our own backyards (mired in himsa) or liberate us to clear the fences and see horizons (released by ahimsa).  The two areas I opened my eyes to were:

*Theological language

*Gender language.

These two forms of conveying meaning have been torn up, challenged and turned upside down over the centuries but particularly in the past thirty years or so.  That’s good.  The language we use for our god-talk and the language we choose for our gender-talk reflects on all our talking, all our language and makes it either meaningful for all or insider language for the few.

I determined while in seminary that I needed a retrofitting of my use of words.  I saw that this was not simply a linguistic shift but a major alteration in the mode of communication that I utilize.  Importantly, this was also not merely assenting to the prevailing winds of what became known as “political correctness”–being “PC.”  I was not about shifting a few words around.  I knew that my mindset needed to change.  In reflecting on my language about the divine I sensed that I had always been open to new words to describe my faith in relation to the Great Mystery.  The word “Jesus” was helpful for many years in relating to the spiritual life.  As I’ve written elsewhere, this name faded through college as I studied other religious viewpoints and philosophies that offered interesting alternative names for the holy such as “Buddha,” “Krishna,” “Allah,” “Tao,” and “Creative Lifeforce.”  Seminary theology classes, supported by Hebrew and Greek exegesis courses, served to solidify my emerging belief that these divine names are more slippery than we are often led to believe.  There is more mystery in nomenclature (and potential for himsa) than many seem willing to admit.  So I became sensitized through substituting various names for Who I was speaking about when speaking of the God-image we are so attached to in our minds.

During those seminary years I gained a broader perspective of language as the conveyor of meaning, not simply transference of concepts and ideas but force of meaning.  To speak of “God” as if we knew all the facets of who and what the name represents is foolish, I learned.  And I found that I could choose what to say, choosing my words carefully, to say something meaningful in the context of living, to not violate others purposely.  If I was speaking in a protestant church, I could use the name Jesus when intending to invoke the image of the compassionate servant of justice.  When speaking in a catholic communion I could use the name Christ or even Mary and sense a kinship with those gathered.  When speaking in a synagogue, I could use the name Ruler of the Universe and know I was understood.  And this was not only a practice in religious congregations.  When speaking with teachers in the school where I taught I could use a word like Spirit or Creator and be heard.  Among the students, who were mentally challenged already, I could simply say God and see their knowing smile.

The context in which we choose to employ terminology that has meaning for the matrix of the moment is basic.  Some will argue that it is disingenuous to pick terms simply because “that’s what those people want to hear.”  Yes, if that was the case, I would question the integrity of the speaker or writer.  But I am speaking about choosing from alternative metaphorically-charged words that one has a clear understanding about.  I ought to know what is being heard when I say “Jesus” in a particular church and know what that same name would mean in a synagogue (where the name might be conveyed meaningfully by a wise teacher and with a certain power!).  Among Muslims I learned to speak of Allah in the same way I used to speak of Jesus or the Lord God.  Among Native Americans I learned to be comfortable with Great Spirit or Creator.  With new age or atheist friends I had no problem speaking of Love, Beauty and the Good.  I was not denying that other names for the divine could be useful at other times in other contexts.  I was not saying that I never used other words.  It is a matter of knowledge of the way words are used and then attempting to use them in the “right” or most appropriate way to transfer meaning–to truly communicate (in the spirit of ahimsa).

It is not much of a leap from theologically-sensitive language to gender-sensitive language.  They are, I have found, interrelated and at times identical.  As I’ve said, to alter my words for the divine was to acknowledge that other terms could “speak the truth” without harm to persons or traditions in the way I intended.  Jesus could also mean Tao.  Allah could also mean Yahweh.  Buddha could mean all of the above and so could Great Spirit.  This is a more universal way of speaking but it is not simply mashing all these highly emotional and historical terms into an all-embracing One (though in itself this might not be undesirable).  When we talk of female and male there are clear bodily differences, perhaps major chemical or psychological differences.  Over the years we have witnessed “unisex” fashions and gender-neutral movements that also tend to blend male/female into One.  In some areas this makes sense to me.  Strictly separating men’s and women’s restrooms seems silly especially when a woman has endured the long lines at concert intermission.  Clothing designed for both women and men seems fine as well.  Why not?  But I am not interested in De-gendering so that the differences are blurred.  This can be himsa too.  Just as I’m not supportive of mashing all divine terms into one.  I may prefer one over another.  That’s honest.  But I ought to say it, make it clear, and be fully aware of my personal bias.  So it is with gender language.

When I first came to understand, from both female and male writers, speakers and professors, that language can offend and that it is unnecessary to do so, I accepted my responsibility to do the best I could to adjust my language for the sake of “truth in communication.”  I realized that if I wanted to communicate what I felt was true, in the best possible way, I had to pay attention to what I said and how I said it.  I was faced with a choice:  Just say whatever I wanted and risk losing, even harming, those I really wanted to hear me, or choose my words carefully and seek to bridge any differences without denying or even judging differences for the purpose of drawing people together not pushing them further apart.  This, I found, is tricky; it can be dangerous.  To employ gender-inclusive language is not all that difficult if one is aware of one simple fact:  I am a man and I want to be heard by women (or vice versa with a woman).  If I forget this when speaking or writing then I am in danger of not speaking the full truth that I wish to convey in my words.  When I begin my discourse, “my brothers,” I have already lost my sisters.  When I address my remarks to “Mankind” I have dug up a notion from the archives of male-based history-telling that immediately sections off women who may really want to listen.  Just as I would lose a vast number of listeners in wheelchairs by saying, “Now let us rise!,” so one who chooses words carelessly without thought to the greatest number of listeners will eventually be speaking to an empty room.

Words are easy weapons.  Yes, sticks and stones hurt but words also cause harm. My central point here is only to suggest that it is up to each speaker or writer to choose responsibly from alternatives and therein is the value to be gained.  If we do not in reality choose, we do not in practice do the right thing.  We are left with others (“authorities,” “scholars,” “standards”) choosing for us what to say and what to write.  To me, this is unacceptable.  I will not speak with archaic terms that divide and offend if I can help it.  If a word offends and I have the wisdom and knowledge to choose another then I will.  This is not pacifying and patronizing in intent.  It is a realistic practice of ahimsa.  While this is not to say that I always speak to “please” others (more on this below), I do wish to be heard, even when there is disagreement.  I have come to this conclusion over the past twenty-five years of speaking, teaching and writing.

This essay, at least in part, arose from controversies that I have had over my editing of the words of Thoreau and Emerson.  Beginning with the sixty selections in my second book, Meditations of Henry David Thoreau, I chose to substitute certain words used by the New England pond-philosopher to convey what I believed was his deeper and specifically spiritual meaning.  If he wrote of the life of “men” I changed the word to say the life of “humans.”  If he was penning some teaching of Nature and said, “to him who lives in the midst of Nature and has his senses still,” I substituted “to the one who lives in the midst of Nature and has their senses still.”  In went the manuscript and back it came with a lot of red ink and harsh words from the editor.  “How can you do this?  You are disrespecting Thoreau.  You can’t change his words.  This has to be done according to accepted standards!”  This response was all the more disappointing in that the editor was female. Months of haggling ensued and it finally came down to the publisher calling me and sheepishly asking me: “Please consider changing the text back to the original or we just won’t publish this book.”  After some tense negotiation I offered to compromise IF I could have a page at the beginning of the book with a full explanation of my concerns for inclusive language.  It was agreed upon and the book was published.

Then came my next book. Meditations of Ralph Waldo Emerson was compiled to match the Thoreau book in design so it was submitted with the original language and a foreword explanation of my concerns.  The new publisher, a woman, informed me that she agreed with my original intent to alter the words and asked if I would consider changing the text!  As the old editor was gone, I was delighted to “do the right thing” as regards this little book of spiritual readings.  I submitted a revised text and waited.  I immediately heard back from the new editor that she had big problems with changing the original!  The publisher stepped in, assured me that they would proceed with the “inclusive version” and all appeared well for production.  A few weeks later the publisher emailed that although the book was not going to be changed back, she felt we needed to run it by Emerson scholars and see what they say.  I challenged this, asking if we were seeking approval or including them in our editorial process.  After assurance that we were only being cautious about the market and didn’t want to surprise anyone, I drafted a letter to the president of the Emerson Society in Massachusetts to be sent on the publisher’s letterhead.  Though I objected to some of the wording and the offer to send the manuscript to him, I voiced this and let it go.

During this period I did a brief websearch and found a scholar at Cornel University who had written a book on Emerson’s language.  Just for some input I sent him an email sketching the issue and requesting his comment.  He was obviously unhappy with my choice to alter the text (as was a Thoreau Society employee who responded to my Thoreau book).  He sarcastically told me that I was not only quoting out of context but was “dismembering” Emerson’s essays, “dismantling” and “fragmenting” the man and his work. He concluded by saying, “Quoting Emerson out of context is kind of a minor national pastime.”  I responded to the professor’s email with a better explanation of the intent of my book project and that I indeed honored Emerson and encouraged readers to pick up the full essays; yet I was compiling a spiritual book and not a scholarly work.  I thanked him and sent it off.  Soon I received a second reply that essentially argued that no one would understand Emerson except by reading all of his essays in their entirety (and, one assumes, with the professor’s book in hand). I assume this would be said of Shakespeare by a Shakespearean scholar or by most other scholars who see themselves as the elite guard of a chosen historical figure.  He specifically addressed my use of inclusive wording in this way:  “to change his ‘man’ to ‘humankind’ is to betray the context within which he was writing and his own limitations within that context.”  This follows his statement that “Emerson can only speak to us from his own position in history.” I found these comments enlightening and as I told the professor/scholar, not altogether surprising.  Here, in my tiny little meditation book with sixty quotes, I have “betrayed” and “dismembered” Emerson, one of my great spiritual teachers over the past twenty-five years.  It seemed that what I was hearing was clear:  unless I was a scholar, who had not only read all of Emerson from first to last word but had really studied long enough (and received a doctorate to boot) to fully grasp all the historical contextual elements of the author and man, I really couldn’t write or say anything without betraying his person.  Sounded and still sounds like those who claim final authority to the King James Version of the Bible or at least similar to those who hold to the most literal readings of sacred scripture claiming that any altering betrays the holy and venerated “authority.”  I reject this wholeheartedly.  As one colleague said of this email exchange with the scholar, “Gives a bad name to Ivory Towers.”

See how much controversy can be squeezed out of a little language squabble?

Regarding the parallel to biblical versions I have to say, those who often argue that we cannot “update” or “contemporize” the Bible because it’s “God’s word” conveniently and often purposely forget to mention that the truth is, the Bible was not written in English and has come through various cultures and languages to reach contemporary ears.  As concerning Emerson and other authors, it is simply honest and realistic to assume that the words are not sacred and must be interpreted for today–especially if to Not do so causes harm.  Sure, that doesn’t always mean the words themselves are altered but if they can be altered in order to bring across the gulf of time the meaning of the author as we understand it, what’s to stop us?  I’ll claim ahimsa as a primary motivation. Only the purist and the most conservative editor would object to presenting the language of yesterday in the language of today.  What would cause them to object?  The very same reason that causes the fundamentalist biblical interpreters from adjusting to the modern world.  And let there be no misunderstanding here.  I am not arguing that we ought to alter every word to make it understandable to modern ears.  I am saying that a careful reading of any text rendered by a conscientious editor can produce a renewed expression of the original sources with revitalized meaning, and with the added benefit of employing ahimsa.

I continue to use the word “meaning” to put forth the case for substitutions in language.  Meaning is slippery, to say the least.  Meaning for who?  Meaning in what context?  And, how do you convey meaning?  Can meaning be transferred?  Difficult and slippery questions as well.  I use the term in the way Viktor Frankl has used it.  His psychological practice of logotherapy offers a means of healing through meaning, and in this sense meaning could be said to be one’s “monument” of life.  What gives a purpose, a matrix, a centering point for our lives?  How do we understand this center?  In my writing, my work, I find that meaning arises out of relational contexts that are unafraid to substitute or alter terms to enable the “aha” of understanding.  Often there are subtle ways of noticing the transference of meaning. A tear, a nod, sitting up, leaving the room, a smile, a glance or such.  And the best way that I’ve found to “make a monument of the relation” is to see it as a spiritual moment of, perhaps, grace.  It is something to see, hear, feel; but mostly something to settle into and meditate upon.  Thus I have, in my writings, sought out the contours of meaning through the presentation of meditational thoughts.  Not a comfortable journey for the scholars of standards but an adventure of creative awareness for the ones who find all of life a school of truth.

If one is to practice ahimsa, in word and act, one must have the feeling, the heart of a meditator.  Not of one special tradition or ritual but a balanced breathing and openness to the relations either produced or hindered by our life.  We cannot become too attached to the results of our actions or words, yet we must seek always to have the best intentions–to cause no harm.  In this manner we can honor all great teachers of the Way including Emerson, Thoreau and Gandhi by returning time and time again to authentic daily relations where, without fear, we can choose to speak their and our inclusive truth by the tough blessing of ahimsa.

Chris Highland

(first written in 2003)

Where are the Leaders?

Socrates, British Museum, London


“Nature seems sometimes to laugh at humankind, by giving them so many fools for kings.”

~Thomas Paine, Forester Letters, 1776


“The real workers are outside the Grange.  Just as the “real people of God” are outside the Church.  And the real leaders outside the world of politics.” ~Henry Miller, Big Sur


The great Greek philosopher Plato, who died 347 years before the Common Era, created an educational institution in Athens known as The Academy.  This school of higher education was open for business for centuries.  In fact, it’s doors were open for almost one thousand years and The Academy remains a model for universities around the world.  One of the “dialogues” Plato collected in this “academic” matrix, starring the rebel heretic Socrates, was a manual of good government.  It was called The Republic.  In this book Plato shines a light on the perpetual search for leaders.  Plato, through the voice of his hero and mentor Socrates, said,

“At present, I take it, we are fashioning the happy State, not piecemeal, or with a view of making a few happy citizens, but as a whole;. . . Suppose that we were painting a statue, and some one came up to us and said, Why do you not put the most beautiful colours on the most beautiful parts of the body — the eyes ought to be purple, but you have made them black –to him we might fairly answer, Sir, you would not surely have us beautify the eyes to such a degree that they are no longer eyes; consider rather whether, by giving this and the other features their due proportion, we make the whole beautiful. And so I say to you, do not compel us to assign to the guardians [Plato’s philosopher rulers] a sort of happiness which will make them anything but guardians; for we too can clothe our husbandmen in royal apparel, and set crowns of gold on their heads, and bid them till the ground as much as they like, and no more. . . .  When the guardians of the laws and of the government are only seemingly and not real guardians, then see how they turn the State upside down; and on the other hand they alone have the power of giving order and happiness to the State.”

Ah, Socrates was a dangerous teacher!  Notice what the old philosopher does—as Plato’s clay mask—to expose the best and worst “guardian” leaders.  The education of the leadership seeks not simply to make a few happy citizens in a piecemeal government but to create a happy State for all—the whole.  His line of reasoning is as strong as a rope of tight strands.  Socrates, in his own wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing manner, slips in this little analogy.  A statue is being painted.  A passerby, a critic, comes over and questions the artist.  “You ought to focus on the most beautiful parts of that body.  Draw attention to the most pleasing parts.  Give a little more highlight to those eyes.”  The artist answers:  “If I enhance one part, like the eyes, then they won’t really be eyes anymore.  They’ll be propaganda.  It would be showing partiality and make us all blind to the whole.  In fact, don’t you think if I focus on the whole statue it will actually beautify the whole body?  The entire statue will be whole and beautiful as I take time to draw out every single part in due proportion.”  The artist was clear.  Artwork, like statecraft, requires a wise eye to detail but only to enhance the whole piece.  As with Plato’s general philosophy, this eye must always be attuned to excellence and the noble soul—qualities not often found among the “guardians” of any era.  You might get a hint at what ultimately led Socrates to be executed by the State.  Let me explain the danger of this reasoning and the essential nature of this story for our contemporary void of leadership.

Eye for Excellence

“Due proportion.”  Plato doesn’t pull punches.  He smacks us where it hurts:  in our arrogance and privilege; in our wealth and quest for power.  Plato, through the avant garde artist Socrates, strikes at the core of poor government:  Beauty [and efficiency, justice, wisdom] is not in the eye of one powerful beholder.  It is in the eyes and the hearts of all the beholders.  Good leadership, in Plato’s eye, must give all parts their “due proportion.”  The enhancement or alteration of one aspect or facet distorts the entire monument to excellence (arete in Greek).  Plato’s point is crucial and crucially defacing of the statues erected for various causes, movements, political parties or social ideologies.  Take for instance the current patriotic fervour in the U.S..  Statues and monuments and memorials are being established at a blinding pace.  The administration and citizen groups are falling over themselves to “commemorate” and “dedicate” and very nearly sanctify for sainthood fallen “heroes” and martyrs.  These people are lifted up in the public eye as superhuman models for the collective whole.  In the Socratic statue, they are painted purple (think of the military’s Purple Heart) and beautified, if not beatified or deified.  While teachers, social workers, sanitary engineers or migrant workers are all but forgotten, and surely never paid fairly, given medals or recognized as heroes, the national attention (and the national budget) is zoomed in on the dead, the lost, the purple, red, white and blue.

A new proportioning is due.  Proper acknowledgment of value and excellence is due.  Those who dedicate their lives to teach—following in the ancient tradition of the Academy—are undervalued perhaps because they urge the young to challenge and question; to think for themselves.  A piecemeal approach to education or government is not only unwise but destructive in our day.  Teaching that includes investigative dialogue and pure philosophy (the love of wisdom) is not a luxury.  It is a buildingblock, a pedestal for the statue of the whole society.  It is the art of living.  People must learn to think and think wisely, for not only themselves but for all.  No single individual, corporation or even government can any longer “go it alone.”  In fact, I will emphasize at this point something Plato himself neglected.  Our actions and decisions, our education, our existence itself, is intimately tied to all other societies and peoples.  We need the planetary Plato.  Our statue is not the only one.  Beauty is not found in only one museum, Athenian plaza or mountain range.  It is universal.  As is our desperate need for leaders who know this, feel this and dedicate themselves to bringing us to it.

The New Guardians

Where indeed are the “Guardians?”  What has become of women and men who will guide and lead in a wise and compassionate, just and representative way?  There are few voices that would even approximate the echoes of the Academy let alone the incisive and tireless philosophic participation of a Plato or a Socrates.  By participation I call attention to the “out of touchness” of so many who are called and who call themselves leaders.  A guardian cannot be without touch.  A true representative must by nature be present to the living experience of those they represent, having not only a finger but both hands on the pulse of the veins that lace the lifeblood of the community.  Do you know any such person?  In these times we have “little statesmen/women” with little minds, as Emerson put it.  False or would-be leaders who simply mimic and mouth.  They practice what Emerson called a “foolish consistency.” They are bought and sold at high prices.  They are only guardians of the barn or corral, not rising above the herd to inspire.  They know little of the open, rolling, wild prairie.

I live in a country that consumes a disproportion of the world’s resources; disproportionately wastes and pollutes; and “elects” wealthy politicians—not the excellent, the wise or the best.  Plato’s republic remains a dreamy statue painted over time and again with purple by those in power.  His vision of the philosopher-rulers who serve the people as guardians—and not guardians of “national security” alone—has been lost in favor of favoritism and the politics of greed.  Many have said this better.  I simply wish to illustrate our leadership dilemma by asking again, Where are the guardians? Or perhaps the better question might be, How can we generate some guardians for our generation?

A few years ago I read about the director of welfare programs in a large Eastern city.  She wanted to see firsthand what the system was doing wrong and right.  So she left her high-rise office, “dressed down” and walked into welfare offices all across town.  The way she was treated was appalling.  She walked back into her high office with a new appreciation of the daily experience of common folk on the street.  And she made it change.  I heard a story of a homeless man who was slumped outside the entry to a Rotary meeting.  One by one, members passed him by with disgust hustling into the luncheon.  When all were assembled, the president of the Rotary Club was introduced.  With great applause, in walked the “homeless man.”  Sure enough.  It was the president.  A new lesson in civic mindedness was the afternoon talk.  I heard a similar story of a pastor who did this with his congregation.  Talk about a biting sermon and wake-up call that Sunday morning.  Reminds us of the Good Samaritan story or the gospel passage when the disguised divine says in essence, “As you treat others, so you treat Me.”

Ministry and Leadership

Leadership is wanting in congregations as well as congress.  Religious leaders are often influenced more by their salaries and the adulation of their constituents than on the purpose behind their existence.  In fact, being a servant or minister might actually be closer to the meaning Plato intended with his guardians (compare the Ministers and Prime Ministers of some countries).  Rule or guidance by The Wise was the platonic ideal—people who were instilled with a sense of their servanthood (but not slavish subservience) and the smarts to put the hopes and ideals of the people into practice, even if “unpopular,” even when the people forget those ideals.  We see glimpses of this practice of wisdom, but they are only glimmers off the rough edges of the community statue.

I am most dismayed, discouraged and angered by religious leaders.  Because I have been one for many years, serving as an ordained Protestant minister for fourteen years before leaving the church, I have some deep feelings about church leadership.  In a word:  it is weak.  Weak from the start.  Men and women are urged into the ministry probably as I was.  A well-meaning pastor told me I should give seminary a try.  He said this because he saw that I was eager to speak and teach and generally be involved in the leadership of the church, something I’d done since high school.  I journeyed to California to “give it a try” and found I liked the intellectual stimulation and the new environment for exploring faith possibilities.  Along the line something happened to me that I suppose happens to everyone in seminary at some point.  I was faced with the soul-shaking questions:  Can I do this?  Am I minister material?  Do I want to be in this system?  Do I really believe all this stuff? My answers emerged.  Unlike many who see seminary as a passport into only one land—the parish—I began to see that I probably wouldn’t fit the mold.  I had rejected major elements of the creeds, such as Jesus is the only way to God, and Christianity is the best religion, and I had thrown out the notion that I could only serve the Spirit in a church.  I found that chaplaincy was more suited to my path.  I have been on that trail ever since.

But what did my experience in seminary teach me?  That most church leader training is anemic and greatly lacking—mostly lacking in experience of anything outside the walls of the institution and lacking in hard thinking to carry over into church education.  My seminary incessantly called us a “community” yet people were overlooked and mistreated.  When I became homeless just out of seminary the school administration denied my little daughter and I a room in vacant housing on campus.  So much for community.  This is only part of what I mean by ministers lacking experience.  Most blend into the system reminiscent of the way someone might step into the enginehouse of a train heading for a bridge washout.  “All seems fine.  Full steam ahead.  Don’t blow the horn.  Steady as she goes.”  Though I credit some with challenging the structure to change and grow, the vast majority ride the train into oblivion, leaving it to others to assure them they are on track.   These folks would all blend in very nicely with a herd of sheep.  It would be funny, if it wasn’t so sad and disappointing.

Often I discuss this vacuum of leadership with people I work with.  Almost to a person I hear:  What is the church doing anyway?  I usually can’t answer.  If the churches believe in invisible ministry then I guess they are successful.  Some, once again to their credit, get “involved.”  They send a check now and then, or serve a meal for an hour or pat me on the back.  Good.  But not leadership.  Not what I think the church was founded upon.  And what’s that?  The church seems to me to be the antithesis of what it arose from.  The early community rallied around their martyred teacher who, like Socrates, was executed by the State for leading people away from the possessions and the power toward higher ideals.  First century People of the Open Road, or Way were concerned with due proportion, everyone had their needs met, everyone was a servant of everyone else, leadership arose from the community, voices spoke from the heart of the people and their daily experience, the Spirit was alive and active and non-institutional.  Outcasts, radicals, heretics, revolutionaries.  These were the people who stepped into the sandals of the dead palestinian rabbi.  They didn’t blend in.  They were a thorn in the sides of religious and political powers.  Non-conformists.  They saw beauty in the whole statue, the whole art of human/divine community.  They were willing to die.  They knew the cost:  Lost jobs, homes, reputations, possessions and even lives.  Do we see this level of commitment anywhere?  Are there leaders who sense the offensiveness of this and move out of the corral with their congregations?  Any leaping from the train?

The Living Statue

I have a proposal.  A little wild and idealistic.  A simple suggestion really.  Close down all the churches.  Yes, every last one.  Because I’m anti-Christian?  No.  I’m radically deluded enough to think that this act would actually be the most Christian thing, or at least, the most pro-Jesus thing to do.  Close the churches (o.k., synagogues, mosques and temples too) and open them for Service, not services.  Close them down to open them up.  Leadership openly transforms.  Let’s transform all these expensive properties to better use.  Let’s create shelters, social service agencies, community centers, reading labs, job placement offices and counseling spaces.  Let’s make meditation rooms and retreat areas that open out these buildings into true sanctuaries.  We’ve lost the way—The Way.  The way of the post-socratic palestinian peasant who taught one irritating, annoying, dissenting idea:  Love the divine and your neighbor as yourself.  I hear an echo:  Make the Whole Beautiful.  Love is that system-shaking, heretically hammering attack on the statue that changes everything.  Wealthy politicians fear it.  Church “authorities” shudder.  It redistributes the Good and the Excellent along with the “sacred property.”  It promotes people who are poor to be our Academy teachers, who raise questions of our possessions, even the beliefs we possess.  It makes heroes of disabled people who become our guardians, guiding us toward our innate abilities that make us human.  Love paints the eyes of the statue to call attention to seeing, when we most need that.  Then, when our communities most need to feel a neighbor’s pain of sickness or oppression, love highlights the heart and the mind of understanding.  Love is the anti-sentimental art of the wise.  Love is the higher vision of the whole living statue.  It senses that all is not well and so redirects resources to healing and wholeness.  It doesn’t have time to sit and proclaim, “Our statue is the best!”  It only has time to patiently and compassionately create and re-create the image of healthy human society.  The public is the statue, and only an artist can reshape the republic.  The artist guards our soul and reveals it, one brush stroke, one chisel blow, at a time.  The congregation is the minister, and only the art of faithful practice can repaint, and moreover reshape the church as the living body.

Where are the leaders?  Be careful when you ask the question.  Leaders cannot come from the outside.  Our leaders must be ours, those who know what we think and how we feel.  They have to arise from the people.  They may be you, they may be me.  Keep in mind, the word “lead” is derived from an old, a very old, term simply meaning “go, or travel.”  What is ahead is unclear.  The road we travel is dangerous.  We have no Socrates or Jesus now.  Who will lead?  One of us.  Or, All of us.  With reason and love– our only wisdom, the only guardian.

Chris Highland

Politics of the Right: What We Are Left With

Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home

Chris Highland

*     *     *

Revolutions are messy business.  Change can be rough, dangerous and deadly.  Those who call for or work for radical re-adjustment in thinking, in a social structure or in a religious worldview need to be more than a little sensitive to what the pulling of roots can mean.  Some of the plant (the society or the religion) may die in the process of change.  That may be desirable on some level but not necessarily inevitable.  In other words, those working to bring about shifts in thinking and living ought to have a fairly good idea in mind of the steps, the plans or blueprints, as well as the optional outcomes before and during actions and pronouncements of challenge and change.  To enact or force changes without these caveats of mindfulness would be a desecration of the “righteous duty” of the vision and the intent of the future-thinking acts.  There may need to be from time to time “change at any cost” unless that cost would facilitate the creation of a state–physical or mental–on a foundation formed by the very sand upon which the former order precariously stood.  Action must be conscientious and reasonable.  To act otherwise would not be wise.

The early American radical Thomas Paine, like Jefferson, was labeled a traitor and an atheist.  Writing Common Sense and many other political pamphlets he put himself on the map of the emerging republic and his location was Reason–the Freedom and Responsibility to Think and think Wisely.  The “Founding Parents” of the American innovation worked off the premise that all are created equal but all are responsible for creating environments, governments, even religions, where the human innovation can flourish unencumbered.  After Jefferson was pressured by Washington to accept the office of Secretary of State (he would have rather stayed home), he told his fellow Virginians:

“It rests now with ourselves alone to enjoy in peace and concord the blessings of self-government, so long denied to [humankind]; to show by example the sufficiency of human reason for the care of human affairs and the will of the majority, the Natural law of every society, is the only sure guardian of the rights of [humanity].” -Noble Cunningham, The Life of Thomas Jefferson.

Jefferson’s and Paine’s commitment to the reasonable nature of humanity threw them into conflict with those in and out of government who saw Reason as a threat to their own brands of pre- and post-revolutionary Un-reasonable religion.  Belief systems hostile to rational philosophy often seem unaffected by revolutions though they be reformations, “enlightenments,” or republican breakaways.  Though the puritanical Christianity of the 18th century still taught to “render unto Caesar” and “obey the authorities,” its masses on American soil were fresh from slicing away from the Fatherland and the new Motherland made it possible to worship without fear and compunction.  Therefore the earlier thinkers like Paine and Jefferson were both lionized and demonized for their beliefs that never denied a God or a Religion to any free person except the God of Coercion or the Religion of Control.  Since both coercion and control usurped the  human capacity for free judgment and action they could never be incorporated into the corpus of the revolutionary government wherein faith was integral, that is, faith in a reasonable and just Creator not owned by any One authoritarian structure.

When I visited Monticello and Washington in the late summer of 2004 I was particularly struck by the following.  I was indeed surprised to see the romanesque architecture with the almost godlike statuary of the Founders.  I was impressed by the sheer immensity of the structures and the city planning that presented, even invited an entry into a pantheon of possibilities.  One is immersed in the grandeur to be sure, yet concomitantly drawn into art, science, Nature, history, legislation, politics and even religion (the frieze along the ceiling of the Supreme Court fascinated me with their religious and philosophical images, which drew the attention of the court during the recent “ten commandments” case).  Walking among these incredible edifices one is captivated by the liberating images and messages at every turn.  The beauty of the setting is off-set, at least during my visit, by the ubiquitous construction of barrier after barrier, checkpoint after checkpoint, reminiscent of my experience in East Berlin after college.  Traveling from the countryside of Monticello to the Smithsonian and Natural History Museum I found myself proud of being a countryman of a revolution-created representative democracy where Nature itself is a major representative of who we are, not only honored but sculpted around and etched into virtually everything relating to the republic, its creation and its development.

In Jefferson’s day divisive parties formed whose insidious influence continues into our day.  Instead of concentrating on the Jeffersonian ideals of leadership by Reason, these parties by and large focused energy on furthering individual powerplays and beliefs often running contrary to the stated ideals of the republic.  This only serves to affirm the truth that today’s revolutionaries quite easily become tomorrow’s intransigent aristocrats protecting primarily their own positions and wealth.  Jefferson himself could be accused of this except for the fact that he was so reluctant to be appointed to office, simply wishing to live out his days at Monticello, and that he had such large debts at the end of his life.

In these days Fear rules so many decisions and acts of legislation.  Political “jobholders” (rather than leaders) convince masses of the public that we must be afraid and make decisions from a fearful, defensive and paranoid worldview.  Many on the so-called “Right” are masters at a politic of fear.  Often they are simultaneously masterful at wielding the sword of a self-righteous and fearbased religious philosophy.  I use the word philosophy loosely here, since Philosophy as the practice of wisdom is precisely, fundamentally, what is required in this political context where religion plays such an important and I would say insidious role. Take the arguments presented before the Supreme Court (2005) regarding the placing of stone monuments or plaques inscribed with the “ten commandments” on state or federal property.  Interestingly, a Baptist representative commented at the irony of a debate over these “graven images” of the ancient mosaic law, when the strictures themselves demand there be no graven images!  Those who have been protesting (in good American style) and praying outside the courtrooms to “preserve God in our government” are not even conscious of the fact that the words they are so emotional about were written by Jews, not Christians. Moreover, they continue to miss the entire point.  First, no government can legislate the divine out of existence (or keep God from the classroom by–rightly–excluding formal prayer by students in a publicly funded school).  Second, and related, no American government can choose a religion to be the official state religion.  Surely someone of the “Right Clergy,” the “Right Church,” realizes in their heart of hearts that a demand for a monument of the ten commandments on state property such as a classroom opens wide the door to all kinds of monuments on lawns and walls from Every Religion.  Can you imagine a capital building surrounded with monuments, statues and plaques written with ten, twelve, twenty commandments and other religious teachings?  Envision for a moment the walls of public school classrooms and courtrooms across the country covered with the “fundamental” teachings of all the world religions and, in addition, with all the teachings of the thousands of offshoot religious groups who will certainly ask for their fair and equal representation?  Does that sound good to the Self-Righteous Right?

This tension was made clearer recently in the debate between Barry Lynn of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State and Charles Colson (University of Virginia, 2008–see the YouTube video).  Lynn, and his Jewish co-debater, presented a very good case for keeping Religion out of Politics.  What Lynn did not stress enough, in my opinion, was the pluralism these Evangelicals seem constantly to ignore and wish would go away.  No one asks them if their ultimate goal is a Christian America, which is of course their goal.  Colson smugly argued that the voucher system is good for education yet no one challenged him with precision questions such as: What about Muslim or Buddhist school vouchers?  The same retort is perfect for those who lament no prayer in public schools:  Whose prayers?  Colson and his black co-debater argued that slavery was abolished because Christians were leading the way, yet no one fired back with the question, If the Bible did not support slavery in the first place would we have needed to abolish it?  They claimed that Martin Luther King was involved in Civil Rights because he was a Christian yet no one pointed out that King was, by his own admission, as much influenced by the Hindu Gandhi and the Nature philosopher Henry Thoreau than by Jesus.  What is so often missing from these “debates” on religion in public life is an honest discussion of Jefferson’s “wall of separation” as well as the very un-christian leaders of the anti-slavery and pro-human rights movements such as Paine, Franklin, Frances Wright, Walt Whitman and many others.

If the Religious Right got their way, my what a country this would be.  They of course would want to make sure, very sure, that the above scenario would never occur.  They would want to have Christianity declared the only official religion (“it’s our history” they ignorantly cry).  I spoke with a young person who recently graduated from a “Christian” high school who argued that it would be wonderful if America was Christian.  After pointing out that this was far from the intention of the Founders, in fact, the opposite of their intention in forming this republic, I wondered who would decide which Christian perspective would be the rule– Pentecostal, Catholic, Baptist, Methodist, Latter Day Saints?  Finally, my point was clear:  If certain Christians wish to form a “more Christian union”–“of the Christians, by the Christians, for the Christians”– by all means, go form one.  But that’s not America; could never be; should never be.  And I wonder, what if they did?  Maybe then they could show the rest of us how nicely Christians get along (history is replete with examples of that!).

We need the Right (religious or not).  We need the Left (religious or not).  We need the Moderates.  We need some Fundamentalists.  We need the Conservatives and the Liberals and the Radicals.  Why?  Because we need to have the freedom to debate and ask the hard questions and find our way, together.  If we can’t, then the American experiment is a failure–a failure of the polis to be a true Union.  “Unity in Diversity or Plurality”?  Let’s hope.  But we are a fragile and fearful unity.  The flag and the sword will not be enough to hold it together.  Neither will the cross.  They were never meant to.  Neither were monuments or religions (Christian or otherwise) meant to mark our public character.  If indeed we are “One nation under God” then at some point someday we have to agree that “God” can mean whatever to whoever, as long as the sense of the divinity of unity is the real guiding rule, the real “commandment” of this representative democracy-in-process.  And I say this in full understanding that “unity at all costs” is not necessarily desirable.  There are times for breaking the bonds, for a political or religious divorce due to irreconcilable differences.  There is a time for reformation, even revolution.  That time may be now.  It may not.  It does seem clear to me, we are in a moment of decision, a crisis for action.  Where is the heart of the country and if we can find it, feel it, hear it, is that heart healthy or not, worth saving or not?  There are many other countries to choose from on this globe, with their own hearts, with healthy or unhealthy constitutions.  Where will we go?  Who will we become?  Is there an America we haven’t even formed yet, dreamed yet?    We desperately need Jefferson’s sense of “Natural Law” and Paine’s incisive “common sense.”  What we need is not commands, pronouncements or preachings.  We need wisdom and the courage, the heart, to be the Founders–the ones who fight for freedom, who risk being called un-american, even “insurgents”– in our words and actions, in our day, our time.

With these questions I continue my search with a free mind open to possibilities and challenges.  I am confident I will have more to say later.  For now I refer the reader to Thomas Paine’s Age of Reason, the writings of Thomas Jefferson, Susan Jacoby’s excellent work, Freethinkers:  A History of American Secularism (Metropolitan Books, 2004) and of course The Constitution of the United States of America.


THOMAS PAINE: Revolutionary Insurgent, Radical Chaplain of Reason

“We need [people] with moral courage to speak and write their real thoughts, and to stand by their convictions, even to the very death.  We need have no fear of being too radical. . . .  Thomas Paine was one of the intellectual heroes–one to whom we are indebted.”

~Robert Green Ingersoll, “Thomas Paine” (1877)


“That you may long live to continue your useful labours, and to reap their reward in the thankfulness of nations, is my sincere prayer.  Accept assurances of my high esteem and affectionate attachment.”

~Thomas Jefferson, 1801 letter to Thomas Paine


“He served the embryo Union with most precious service–a service that every man, woman and child in [America] is to some extent receiving the benefit of today–and I for one here cheerfully, reverently throw my pebble on the cairn of his memory.”

~Walt Whitman, “In Memory of Thomas Paine.” (1877)


“In the early 1800s, the author of ‘Common Sense’–which had sold some 500,000 copies in the mid-1770s–would be castigated as a Judas, reptile, hog, mad dog, souse, louse, archbeast, brute, liar, and of course infidel.  The archbeast had earned not a penny from his most famous revolutionary pamphlet, because he allowed his words to be published freely in order to further the cause of independence.”

~Susan Jacoby, Freethinkers


“You will do me the justice to remember, that I have always strenuously supported the right of every [person] to their own opinion, however different that opinion might be to mine.  [The one] who denies to another this right, makes a slave of themself to their present opinion, because they preclude themself the right of changing it.”

~Thomas Paine, preamble to The Age of Reason (1794)

Insurgent:  from L. insurgere, “to rise up.”  (origin, 1765).  A person who revolts; a rebel not recognized as a belligerent.  Related to “surge”:  a rising, swelling, rolling, sweeping forward like a wave.

Souse, Louse, Archbeast & Infidel

In 1776 a small pamphlet was circulated in the colonies of America that boiled the blood until blood was flowing, and flowing freely for independence.  “Common Sense” was printed and distributed by the thirty-nine year old son of a Quaker father and an Anglican mother born in Norfolk, England.  The words of this young man who left school at the age of thirteen to work in his father’s garment factory, were not only revolutionary words–they were evolutionary ideas that clothed the common people with something greater than any flag of government or religion could offer:  independence of the body and mind.  Within this little earthquake of a document, passed from hand to hand among people hungering for liberation stand the words, “Of more worth is one honest [human being] to society and in the sight of God, than all the crowned ruffians that ever lived.”(1) Five-hundred thousand copies hit the oppressed colonies like a tsunami of reason, indeed, of common sense.  And the crowned ruffians shook in their shoes.  Paine asked the reader of this document to “divest himself of prejudice and prepossession, and suffer his reason and his feelings to determine for themselves, that he will put ON, or rather that he will not put OFF the true character of a [human being], and generously enlarge his views beyond the present day.”(2) After two hundred years this call seems oddly prescient in that we Americans are still struggling to put on that character and enlarge our views far after Mr. Paine’s body disappeared (that’s another story).

Nearly twenty years after he rocked the world on both sides of the Atlantic with common sense (in writing and in practice) Paine brought great pain to another tyrannical government of conscience, this time the Church, and Religion in general, with the publication of the two parts of  The Age of Reason.  It was this book that placed him square in the sights of the orthodox clergy (collared ruffians) and made him a target of many of the common folk he once stirred to revolutionary action.  Apparently few recognized that this man of vision and faith was simply taking the logic of his common sense argument “to the street” where religious ideas stunted the growth, the full emergence of a truly revolutionary society where not only Reason but Reasonable People were the authority–people who could clearly see the “overthrow of tyrants” as meaning, ultimately All Tyrants, including a tyrannical Church and its crowned ruffian God.

Might we again pray the prayer of Thomas Jefferson, that Paine might reap the reward of the “thankfulness of nations,” and not just the American nation?  Might we again express our indebtedness to Paine in the words of Robert Ingersoll:  “If to be in advance of your time–to be a pioneer in the direction of right–is greatness, Thomas Paine was great”?(3)

The Second Declaration of Independence

Towards an honoring of this greatness it remains to be seriously asked:  What became of Paine’s second revolution–the second independence?  Here is how it was presented to our countrymen and women of the eighteenth century and how it is laid at our feet today.  Only a couple of pages into The Age of Reason, Paine asserted the broader scope of his intention: “Soon after I had published the pamphlet ‘Common Sense,’ in America, I saw the exceeding probability that a revolution in the system of government would be followed by a revolution in the system of religion.”(4) He described what he saw as “the adulterous connection of church and state”(5) yet the fact that he saw this as a broad indictment of religion itself is evident in his examples of governments, “Jewish, Christian or Turkish [Muslim]” that needed changing as governments first, then the context would open for a matrix of religious revolution when people “would return to the pure, unmixed and unadulterated belief in one God, and no more.”(6) Of course, the “one God” whom the revolutionary speaks of is not your ordinary, run-of-the-millions deity, no royal ruffian.  This is the god of Deism; so revered by the Founders and so forgotten, dishonored, even reviled today by the “Religious Right.”  But this is ahead of the story.

The great orator of nineteenth century American freethought, Robert Green Ingersoll, proclaimed in honor of Thomas Paine, “The combined wisdom and genius of all [humankind] cannot possibly conceive of an argument against liberty of thought.”(7) Ingersoll noted that The Age of Reason presents us with the potential of liberating our thoughts, our minds, our reason.  Ingersoll said, “It put arguments in the mouths of the people; it put the church on the defensive; it enabled somebody in every village to corner the parson; it made the world wiser, and the church better; it took power from the pulpit and divided it among the pews.”(8)One book?  Yes, because the context was revolution, first in America, then in France.  Paine was there tacking up his ideas on every red, blue and white post.  And as those posts were burning along with the occupying militant forces, the Idea of Reason as the Greatest Ruler scattered along every street, into every home.  The parsons were cornered.  There is no stopping an Idea whose time has come.  Paine was there with his ideas at the right place, at the right time.  Depending on which side you sit.

A Reasonable Look at The Age of Reason

Paine’s arguments against Religion follow a logical course exposing the most cherished dogmas in the light of Reason.  It is my firm stance that Paine, and those in his tradition, set a course not unlike one the Corps of Discovery charted two-hundred years ago.  What Lewis and Clark did for “opening the frontier,” Paine and his corps offer for opening the spiritual wilderness, drawing new maps, and placing the old maps of religion in the archives.  And perhaps Paine and his pioneers point us, as they always have, to the New World of balanced spirituality guided by the Sacagawea of Reason, toward our still undiscovered American frontiers.

We could briefly lay out Paine’s timely logic in the form of questions addressed in The Age of Reason.  Our explorer moves along a philosophic path that aims to challenge any reliance on “revelation,” the bible or the Church to tell us anything meaningful about creation, life, death, God or Jesus, let alone the meaning of being “an American.” It will be obvious to any open-minded person of wisdom why it was that this book evoked such fear upon publication and why it is a book so dusty, denigrated and dangerous today.

Who has the true revelation from God?

What exactly was Paine’s contention with religion?  He begins his assault with the fundamentals.  In his words, “Every national church or religion has established itself by pretending some special mission from God, communicated to certain individuals.”(9) Paine lists of course Moses, Jesus and Mohammad.  Then he focuses on the bedrock of each claim.  Each religion holds to certain books that are believed “revealed” through “revelation.”  They are “the Word of God.”  But Paine is troubled.  How can someone say “God spoke to me” and then pass that along as “revelation?”  To the next person in line, the words would not be revelation but hearsay.  Paine reasons that the Almighty could certainly choose to communicate to someone, and probably does.  Yet second hand revelation is no revelation at all.  Therefore, religious claims to past revelation do not hold true for someone today.  This pertains to the claims of Jews, Christians, Muslims and them all.  It is not incumbent upon me to believe a supposed historical claim to received revelation, i.e., communication from God.  In Paine’s way of thinking, the only way that communication would come would be by the light of reason, a gift from the Creator not to be squandered and shunned.

Who was the real Jesus?

Fabulous claims of revelation naturally lead to assertions of specialness in individuals and hence religious “truth.”  Paine spends a great deal of time on claims about Jesus.  He begins by expressing his respect for the “real character” of Jesus as a “virtuous and amiable man;” that the morality he preached and practiced was “of the most benevolent kind.”  Jesus taught a morality quite similar to Confucius, Greek philosophers, Quakers and many others, yet what the Galilean taught “has not been exceeded by any.”  Having established this admiration, Paine moves on to do battle with the superstitions that have been perpetrated about his birth, life, death and resurrection.  In this he parallels the view and intent of Thomas Jefferson’s “Bible” of 1804, the project Jefferson called “a wee little book which I call the Philosophy of Jesus.”(10) He returns to these contentions time and again in both parts of The Age of Reason (second part added after 1793).  The author pulls no punches.  Regarding the assertions about Jesus’ miraculous birth and resurrection he places those alongside other, earlier, mythologies (nothing new to modern scholars of religious history) and comes back to the theme of hearsay.  A small number of people (“gospel” writers) wrote that they saw these things.  Well, that’s not revelation to us!  As regards the resurrection from the dead the author bluntly says, “The story, so far as relates to the supernatural part, has every mark of fraud and imposition stamped upon the face of it.”(11) What does seem true is that ultimately he was caught between the Romans and the Jewish hierarchy and there “this virtuous reformer and revolutionist lost his life.”(12) Again, Paine presages his old friend Thomas Jefferson’s own thoughts, the aging president reflecting that digging back of the evangelistic interpretations of the life and words of “this benevolent Moralist” (Jesus) we “would in time, it is to be hoped, effect a quiet euthanasia of the heresies of bigotry and fanaticism which have so long triumphed over human reason. . . .”(13) It is significant to note that Jefferson’s letter was written the same year the Great American Poet was born, the one who was to write: “Solitary at midnight in my back yard, my thoughts gone from me a long while, walking the old hills of Judea with the beautiful gentle God by my side.”(14) An age of reason had indeed dawned with the courageous attempt by pamphleteer, president and poet to bring a “gentle (reasonable) God” back down to earth.

Who Invented Christianity?

Paine saw that the interpreters of these ancient stories, at least the powerful ones who survived, invented fables to justify their control over the people.  These “Christian Mythologists”(15) borrowed elements from stories common in the ancient world and substituted Jesus as the hero.  From Adam and Eve to the Resurrection, these “authorities” wove fanciful tales that lead straight to absurdity, atrocity and eventually the assassination of reason upon the altar of “revealed” religion.  Paine ends one section with the statement, “The more unnatural anything is, the more it is capable of becoming the object of dismal admiration.”  His disdain was loud and clear.  And some will take these absurdities and make them “gospel.”  Here enters Paul.

Paine expends very little ink on Paul of Tarsus, the writer of most of the “New” Testament.  For Paine, Paul was a fool in the same way the apostle characterized his opponents.  His character “has in it a great deal of violence and fanaticism.”(16) Because Paul was a zealot, first as a Jew and then as a Christian, he lived and preached “always in extremes, as well of actions as of belief.”(17) Paul the “Apostle” felt himself sent out by a vision of Jesus to make arguments from city to city on matters of death, resurrection, immortality and morality.  In Paine’s opinion, the zealot Paul taught these things no better than the common creatures of the earth.  In fact, “A very numerous part of the animal creation preaches to us, far better than Paul, the belief of a life hereafter.  Their little life resembles an earth and a heaven.”(18)

For Thomas Paine, Paul presents and represents an image of God over against the Creation rather than in harmony with it; a God who has not only a low opinion of corrupt earthlings but a low morality as well.  This God as presented by Paul is more interested in “souls” and “beliefs” and “heaven” than the body, the right action of human endeavor and the beautiful teacher open to all, Nature.  Therefore, Paine has very little time to waste with Paul.  Though many scholars and clergy today would admit that it was indeed Paul who “founded” the Church, Paine devoted much more energy digging around in the Hebrew Scriptures and attempting to unravel the true teachings of Jesus in the Gospels, obscured as they are by superstition, mystery and miracle.

What does the Bible teach us about God?

Paine wrote a good deal of The Age of Reason while in prison in France.  His ideas, his very presence, were a threat to those who were “bringing order” to the chaos after the French Revolution (interesting for our day, this fearfully dangerous period under Robespierre, was known as the Reign of Terror).  Remarkably, as he wrote page after page attacking biblical teachings, Paine the prisoner had no Bible at hand.  From memory, given all his years hearing the preachings of biblical “authorities” and his own readings, he brought his keen reasoning to bear upon the “fabulous tradition” of the Bible.

Paine saw that passage after passage of the Bible (he only spoke of the Hebrew Bible rather than the “testament”) could only be read by a moral person with horror.  “To believe, therefore, the Bible to be true, we must unbelieve all our belief in the moral justice of God.”(19) He compares the fabulous tales of Moses, Joshua, Samson and the rest to other tales told by Homer, Plato, Herodotus and others of the ancient world.  Paine goes through the biblical narrative book by book showing the horrific and the fanciful stories and concluding that there is a “wickedness” in this “pretended Word of God.”  Here one can easily see why Paine was so vilified by his and succeeding generations.  He felt no restraint to hold his tongue.  “Good heavens!. . .it is a book of lies, wickedness and blasphemy; for what can be greater blasphemy than to ascribe the wickedness of man to the orders of the Almighty!”(20) Later, Paine defends his attacks on this book “without authority” in a way that reveals his understanding of the impact of his words.  He said that his work will “wound the stubbornness of a priest” while at the same time “relieve and tranquillize the minds of millions” freeing them from all those “hard thoughts of the Almighty”(21) that have been hammered into their minds (Paine may have had a streak of naiveté vis a vis the herd instincts of most Americans, and religious people of all lands.  However, I carry his good intention and hopefulness proudly but cautiously forward).

Paine saw that the Bible and “the testament” have been utilized by religious authorities to keep people subjugated in fear of both earthly rulers and heavenly.  He understood that the “authors” of the books of the Bible were not the actual writers and that the “commands of God” were nothing more than the demands of humans borrowing God’s name for their own purposes.  He reasoned that those called “prophets” were in reality simply “poets” creatively using their artistic skills never to be taken literally.  In these analyses Paine was closer to modern scholarship than he is given credit for.  In fact, on a personal note, I am puzzled why I never heard reference to Paine through all my years of biblical and theological study.  Or maybe I shouldn’t be puzzled.  Paine had his finger on a pressure point and the Church knew it and continues to be weak in its response.  The self-appointed authorities and “holy men” use the oldest tools of fools:  they ridicule, name-call, turn away, ignore and pretend this incisive reasoning does not exist or have any effect on their foolishness whatsoever or come close to touching their well-protected, institutionalized ignorance.

Paine said it should be obvious to any reasonable person what was going on here.  The Bible was a Big Distraction–a false word of god that stifled independent freethinking for the worst of reasons:  power to oppress.  Yet the old writer of “Common Sense” had great hope.  An old way was dying and deserved death.  Only Reason, in partnership with a strong belief in the goodness of a Benevolent Creator present in the goodness of Creation, could bring about the independence of mind and soul necessary for this revolution.  He described himself as “a man who would go through a wood with an axe on his shoulder and fell trees.”(22) He knew that some would try to replant what he would cut down—what was diseased and rotted wood.  “They may, perhaps, stick them in the ground,” he said, “but they will never make them grow.”

As Paine took on Religious Power face to face he addressed the fundamental flaw in the system–exposed the Emperor’s lack of clothes, so to speak–in the strongest terms ever uttered toward the Church. He said, “As to the Christian system of faith, it appears to me a species of Atheism–a sort of denial of God.”(23)

Paine was the Paul Revere of religious revolution (“The bibles are coming, the bibles are coming!”).  He understood through biblical analysis and philosophic inquiry that a screen had been set up between the people and the true Creative Force.  There was not only a Big Distraction but a Great Deception operating here.  To try to hide the true God behind masks of religious power seemed impossible, laughable, yet for Paine the deed has been perpetrated for centuries.  Clergy (“masters” and “doctors” of divinity) arise when common people forget or neglect their direct, immediately accessible connection with sacred Nature–The Word.  Instead of humbly assuming their role as “pointers” toward the Cosmic Director, these “representatives” of God draw the spotlight to themselves and their learned, “revered” positions (especially those with good salaries, houses, pensions and other perks).  Paine swung the lamps in another direction, reminding us that “Authority” has and will always reside in the natural universe whether it be in climates of water or desert, mountain or plain, whether it be terrestrial or extra-terrestrial.  Paine himself admired parts of Job and quoted the Psalms:  “The heavens declare the glory of God.”  Yet, for the greater part of religious history, the clergy have boxed in the heavens and painted the face of the divine in their image.  As Paine brought down earthly kings, so he brought down the “heavenly King”–the one veiled in dead languages and mysterious sacraments performed by those who would fence the faithful at a distance.  He called his readers to throw off the facades, pull back the curtains of deception and cease to be distracted by the books, the rituals, creeds and preachings of the actors on an artificial stage.  What would be left when we throw aside the pretenses and take down the stage, clear the room of the “holy furniture?”  Paine knew we needed to see the theater, the “room,” the sanctuary, in different proportions.

What does the Scripture of Creation teach us?

John Muir spoke of Nature’s beauty as “a temple lit from above.”  The greatest cathedral (mosque, synagogue, etc.) is open to all in the open air.  It is on this subject, of the sacred teachings of the natural world, where I find the core of brilliance in Thomas Paine.  He was an eminent precursor of Muir, Thoreau, Emerson, Fuller and Burroughs.  He stands as a respectable forefather to the environmental movements of our own day and an exemplar of what I call natural spirituality.  Here we let the archbeast speak for himself:

“Yes; there is a Word of God; there is a revelation.  The Word of God is the creation we behold and it is in this word, which no human invention can counterfeit or alter, that God speaketh universally to [humankind].”(24)

“The Creation speaks a universal language. . . .”(25)

“[Creation] preaches to all nations and to all worlds; and this Word of God reveals to [humanity] all that is necessary for [humanity] to know of God.”(26)

“Do we want to know what God is?  Search not the book called the Scripture, which any human hand might make, but the Scripture called the creation.”(27)

Revolutionary words and ideas!  The Bible or any other “holy writ;” Jesus, Moses, Mohammad or any other “holy human”–are only of value as they point to what is universally accessible regardless of language, nationality, geography, religion or philosophy, namely, when they draw our attention not to themselves, but to Creation—Nature as the Great Teacher.

Paine, like Franklin, Jefferson and others, was a Deist.  He described this faith position in these words, “The true Deist has but one Deity, and his religion consists in contemplating the power, wisdom and benignity of the Deity in His works, and in endeavoring to imitate Him in everything moral, scientifical and mechanical.”(28) In “Common Sense” Paine had presented, among many, an intriguing reason for the colonists gaining independence.  He argued from his Deistic understanding, “Even the distance at which the Almighty hath placed England and America, is a strong and natural proof, that the authority of the one, over the other, was never the design of Heaven.”(29)

The natural world was teaching a lesson!  There are designs all around for us to gain wisdom from, if we so choose.  Sometimes the simplest fact, like the separation of an ocean, is enough to reason a more defined political separation.  For a Deist, one will never see, as Moses was supposed to do, the face of God.  Yet, for a Deist, not merely the faces of the divine but the hands, the intelligence, the creativity–all that defines an active, alive deity, is observable and open to imitation.  This last claim is extremely radical.  Some contemporary liberation theology or mystical activism echo this belief that God not only created, past tense, but continually creates and we participate in that creation as co-creators (even Nietzsche wrote of this (30)). Paine did not seem to explicitly outline this, yet he was there, on the point.  Radical for his time.  Radical for ours.

In his 1925 essay, “The Philosophy of Paine,” the great America inventor Thomas A. Edison, owner of over 1000 U.S. patents and over 1200 non-U.S. patents, wrote:  “We never had a sounder intelligence in this Republic. . .I consider Paine our greatest political thinker.”(31) Thomas Edison said that Paine’s “Bible was the open face of nature, the broad skies, the green hills.”(32) I commend to you this essay and a scan of the list of Edison’s U.S. patents.  It is not a digression to say that if you read Edison’s essay by the electric light he captured in glass over a century ago, you may feel as I did about the light of Reason and Liberty captured in the philosophical and literary glass of the Inventor of America:  Thomas Paine.  Do I exaggerate?  Did Edison?  Decide for yourself.  Keep in mind that the man who first wrote the phrase “The United States of America” was the same one who “communed” with Washington, Jefferson and Franklin as they formed the “most perfect union.”  Never forget, as most of our co-patriots/matriots have, that the man “had a sort of universal genius. He was interested in a diversity of things; but his special creed, his first thought, was liberty.”(33)

Thomas Paine’s Legacy for Today’s Insurgents

One need not assume Paine’s deistic position to appreciate his thought or enliven his philosophy in action today.  There can be no argument that his first revolutionary idea and program had immediate and lasting social impact.  The second revolutionary idea and program has been laid at our feet and our minds, even, especially now, in this Age of Un-Reason.   Paine, like Franklin, flew a kite in a storm.  If that experiment frightens us we will never feel the shock of what Whitman called “the body electric.”(34) If we grab the line, we may just receive the jolt we most need to rise and be fully free.  This is the electricity that jumpstarts any worthy spiritual insurgency.

I say that we live in an age of Un-Reason and present my case (if I need to) in the form of these questions with my brief responses:

1.  How far has religion come, in real terms, from the days of the founding of the Republic?  Have we seen a decrease in the authority and influence of clergy or in the predominance of the Bible and its teachings?

The state of Religion has barely moved and hardly forward in two hundred years.  Yes, some spoke out for abolition and women’s suffrage (against the masses of churchgoing public); yes, some have joined with “movements” such as for Civil Rights.  Some.  For the most part, “Christians on the fringe of Christianity” (e.g., Quakers and Liberation theologians) alongside a handful of Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, Unitarians and Atheists, have been the catalysts for change and they have been pitifully few.  I would even offer that those “progressives” were, and are, simply good people who, in many instances, would do their good works naturally and “happen to be” connected to a faith tradition.  Yet, overall, Religion remains in a state of its own, apart from and hostile toward the United States.

Clergy, especially on the Radical Right (let alone the Lethargic Left), now exercise a huge influence on a very large number of religious Americans.  These “atheists and fanatics” as Paine described them, wield the Bible as more of a weapon than at any other time in history.  The ongoing battles in the courts and schools over “Bible Issues”—that is, “moral values” and “family” issues—distracts us as never before, consuming time and resources from the common good.

2.  The Founders fashioned the major documents of this country as Secular foundations of the government.  Are there major threats or outright assaults on the fabric of these documents today, especially by those who claim to speak for God?

Yes, there are looming outright and subtle threats and they must be met with force!  Force of Reason and the moral strength of history.  Our free system is not safe, in all branches of government, from local to national jurisdictions, from those who are elected to office primarily for their religious agenda rather than what Paine called “the disposition to do good.”  There are powerful religious voices who are set on crumbling this Republic into a “Christian Nation” (not fundamentally different from the Islamic Republic of Iran).  They threaten the strong fabric of our foundation and people united by their common sense, reason, purpose and service to the Creative Power of All must rise up for this revolution.

3.  Are we getting a balanced education in schools and universities, in the media, on the internet, about our heritage as an independent-thinking, diverse populous that takes strength from this “unifying plurality?”

One has to look hard and long to find balanced, reasonable education on a large scale.  Yes, there are “departments of philosophy” and other segments of the “intelligence machine” that offer students actual opportunities for critical thinking and reasoned, responsible action.  Yet, how little evidence there is that any are taking advantage of these courses or teachers.  The business world, the dollar, draws and drives the career goals of most.  To put it simply, there are opportunities for balance, for healthy integrated education, yet it just isn’t evident that many are seeking to focus on those studies let alone to practice an “Age of Reason” philosophy of living.

4.  What role does Reason play in our national character, practice and governance?  Where do we see and hear honest, open and civil debate on critical matters that concern the Republic by people who are guided by Reason rather than traditional creeds and convictions?

Again, I don’t see much evidence of a reasonable discussion or debate occurring in the public forum. In fact, the point can be made with one image.  Imagine Tom Paine espousing his views through any major news agency and then having an honest, civil debate with an opponent.  Of course, Paine was offensive to religious people by and large, and so would appear as such today.  Revolutionaries are not always pleasant to sit with!  Yet, in our climate of fear and the rule of unreasonable religion, Paine would be given a few minutes of soundbytes at best (maybe an NPR segment, an hour on Democracy Now or a public lynching on FOX) and there would be an outcry even from “Liberals” and “Liberal Clergy” saying “Paine needs to speak less offensively and more invitingly to religious people.  By God, we can’t have revolution!  Some of us would be out of a job—lose our pensions!”

Standing beside these four questions and responses, with nothing more than the waving of the Declaration behind me (or a ragged pamphlet), I will state clearly that a Paine Revolution must happen in America today!  A Paine-less Revolution would not be sufficient (catch the double entendre).  Thomas Paine’s religious beliefs, identical with his societal and political beliefs are critical for contemporary America (and beyond).  His strategic framework for action is summarized in these words: “The only idea we can have of serving God is that of contributing to the happiness of the living creation that God has made.”(35) And again, “Religion, considered as a duty, is incumbent upon every living soul alike, and, therefore, must be on a level with the understanding and comprehension of all.”(36) For Paine, religion was not about mystery or miracle.  It was about doing one’s “duty” in the real world, in the only house, the only room we know of and live in:  the earth.

His books were burned in England, a puppet of him hanged.  Nine months in a French prison for speaking out against the execution of King Louis XVI.  Attacked in America.  Common Sense was forgotten–seems ironic doesn’t it?  He was called an atheist, even a century later (by Theodore Roosevelt), (37) though he was not.  One might say he was the most faithful person of his generation, living the radical principles of a belief that We the People are inspired, encouraged in our independent and interdependence, on each other and Our Creator (whatever one may call that ultimate lifeforce), without absolute political or religious authorities.  The individual and The Individual (the collective in respect of the individuals who make up the collective society–The Individual in capital) is the locus of truth and liberty.  He saw no more reasonable, sensible common way.

“When it shall be said in any country of the world, my poor are happy, neither ignorance or distress is to be found among them; my jails are empty of prisoners, my streets of beggars, the aged are not in want, the taxes are not oppressive . . . When these things can be said, then may that country boast its constitution and its government.”(38) What country can possibly say this?  Who has the courage to champion this test of a boastful society today?

The Rights of Humans

“The weaker any cord is, the less will it bear to be stretched.” So the damnably common-sensical Paine wrote in another radical book that stretched the cord of irrational tyranny.  This had another catchy title (if you were among the common and commonly oppressed population):  The Rights of Man (1791-1792), and yes, he meant Human.  This guy just couldn’t help himself.  He jumped into any good fight.  But that was the point:  the good fight was worth fighting.  Oddly enough perhaps, he felt a “call” to stretch the weak cords of oppression wherever he saw it.  It was his right, and the rights of all, given by the very non-kingly, non-bullying, non-Churchly Creator.

Shortly before the world was slapped with The Age of Reason, Thomas Paine got himself deeply involved in another struggle, the French Revolution.  He was agitated by the conditions under King Louis and fascinated by the shocking new French constitution based on human rights.  He wrote to President George Washington to present his case, explaining in detail why he felt that a Mr. Burke in England was wrong in his arguments against a revolution in France.  He chided Burke for his criticisms of the French people (also quite common in our day) saying, “I know a place in America called Point-no-Point, because as you proceed along the shore, gay and flowery as Mr. Burke’s language, it continually recedes and presents itself at a distance before you; but when you have got as far as you can go, there is no point at all.”(39) Clever, witty and right on the issue.  Paine had spent much time in France, getting to know people and spending some time in prison.  He had little patience for those who argued from an ignorant and self-serving position—those who appear to be leading somewhere, but leave us nowhere.

Several points made by Paine in his letter to Washington, later published as the first part of The Rights of Man, are apropos to my line of insurgent thinking.  “It requires but a very small glance of thought to perceive that although laws made in one generation often continue in force through succeeding generations, yet they continue to derive their force from the consent of the living.”(40) This can apply to civil laws as well as theologies and religions.  If people consent to living by the old ways, in the chains of the past, they give power and force to those ways.  But free minds will not consent to what is not freely chosen.  Paine tells President Washington that there are three sources from which governments arise.  Superstition (founded upon religion); Power (sustained by Divine Right and “the idol” of Church and State); the Common Rights of human society.   It is only that government that rests on the people, their common will, their vote and consent, that will survive.  This is the highest state any State can attain.  This is the kind of State created by the revolution urged on and centered in common rights of all.

In the introduction to the second part of The Rights of Man, addressed to Lafayette and published in 1792, Paine argues that American independence would have meant little if the colonies had merely separated from England and not carried forward a revolution in the principles and practice of government (compare denominations and sectarianism).  In the building of the new society, “great ideas” are generated and encouraged and Nature is magnified.  Following the revolution, where species are kindred, we must continually return to Nature to learn more.  In classic Paine style he asserts, “As revolutions have begun. . .it is natural to expect that other revolutions will follow.”(41) He ends his detailed presentation with confident hopefulness as winter closes and spring is at hand: “Though the vegetable sleep will continue longer on some trees and plants than on others, and though some of them may not blossom for two or three years, all will be in leaf in the summer, except those which are rotten.”(42) A perfectly timeless and timely analogy.

Righting the Wrongs

In his great call to live a life of compassionate reason, the surging thinker Thomas Paine said, “The world is my country, and to do good my religion”(43) (quoted in Ingersoll). This man was eminently hopeful.  He saw the possibilities.  You could say, he had faith.  His faith was a musket shot across the bow of Religion as it was across an English frigate.  In his hands the Truth was a pamphlet easy for the common people to read and extremely difficult, indeed threatening, for the leaders to read.  Toward the end of The Age of Reason he wrote, “It has been the scheme of the Christian Church, and of all the other invented systems of religion, to hold man in ignorance of the Creator, as it is of Governments to hold man in ignorance of his rights.”(44)

It is time for a return to Paine; for an implementation of his call to a second independence; for people to seize the rights “endowed by their Creator;” for common sense and the true dawning of an era of unfettered reason.  There will be no text, no parchment of declaration or constitution in hand, for the principle text is “the Bible of the Creation.”  Thomas Paine, perhaps with an ironic smile, wished to leave his ideas “to rest on the mind of the reader.”  Nevertheless, this is no time to rest.  These ideas are the seeds of revolution, not simply reform.  This is a call for a spiritual insurgency, not a discussion group.  If we wait for true and virtuous leaders to arise and honest, reasonable clergy to guide, we will be waiting in vain.  These two-hundred year old opinions are as radically fresh today as in Paine’s day.  This is the most contemporary wake up call to Reason and Courageous action to dissolve the weapons of Un-Reason in this age of religious and political spinelessness and muddleheadedness.

We must take every opportunity to use any and all forums to express the truths of Thomas Paine for our day.  There is an urgency to be urged, to press on (L., urgere, to press, push, entreat).  The internet and print forums now offer great potential for a fresh new kind of pamphleteering in the tradition of Paine.  Joining a progressive political party or a cadre of religious reformers is only a possible and not always desirable first step.  We must be cautious not to be lulled into rhetorical reform movements that come and go and die out.  Start a Thomas Paine Society or such in your community.  Create a study group for The Age of Reason or a forum for discussion of the principles of freethinking.  And I would urge the remembering that this is not about being anti-Christian or anti-Religious, but being pro-Reason and pro-Creation.

Nature builds every altar we would need.  No altar to Paine must be built, but lightning rods must be driven into the earth in every land to remind and revere the sacred call to liberty.  Paine’s contemporary Robert Burns penned an “Inscription for an Altar of Independence”(45) that ought to be etched into any mind wishing to pay homage to the simple son of a garment maker turned revolutionary.  Burns wrote,

“Thou of an independent mind,

With soul resolv’d, with soul resign’d;

Prepar’d Power’s proudest frown to brave,

Who wilt not be, nor have a slave;

Virtue alone who dost revere,

Thy own reproach alone dost fear–

Approach this shrine, and worship here.”

While we search for those altars of independence, let us stand alongside Walt Whitman and all freethinking insurgents in every land, throwing our pebble on the cairn of Thomas’ memory (46).  Our matriotic challenge, duty and hope is presented in those famous words that close Thomas Paine’s ageless The Age of Reason: “Certain, as I am, that when opinions are free, either in matters of government or religion, truth will finally and powerfully prevail.”(47)

Chris Highland



1.  Common Sense (CS), 1776.

2.  CS

3.  “Thomas Paine.”  Robert Green Ingersoll.

4.  The Age of Reason (AR).  Part I, “The Author’s Profession of Faith.”

5.  Ibid.

6.  Ibid.

7.  Op. Cit.  Ingersoll.

8.  Ibid.

9.  AR.  Part I, “Concerning Missions and Revelations.”

10.  Jefferson.  Letter to Charles Thompson, 1816.

11.  AR.  Part I, “An Appreciation of the Character of Jesus Christ, and His History.”  Paine begins this section with “Nothing that is here said can apply, even with the most distant disrespect, to the real character of Jesus Christ.”

12.  Ibid.

13.  Jefferson.  Letter to William Short, 1819.

14.  Walt Whitman.  “Song of Myself,” 33.

15.  AR.  Part I, “Fabulous Bases of Christianity.”

16.  AR.  Part II, chapter 2.

17.  Ibid.

18.  Ibid.

19.  AR.  Part II, chapter 1.

20.  Ibid.

21.  Ibid.

22.  Ibid.

23.  AR.  Part I, “True Theology and That of Superstition.”

24.  AR.  Part I, “Defining the True Revelation.”

25.  Ibid.

26.  Ibid.

27.  Ibid.

28.  AR.  Part I, “Comparing Christianism with Pantheism.”

29.  CS.

30.  See Thus Spoke Zarathustra, part one:  “Companions, the creator seeks, not corpses, not herds and believers.  Fellow creators, the creator seeks—those who write new values on new tablets. . .fellow harvesters; for everything about them is ripe for the harvest.”

31.  Edison.  “The Philosophy of Paine.”  In The Diary and Sundry Observations.”  Dagobert D. Runes, ed., 1948.

32.  Ibid.

33.  Ibid.

34.  “I Sing the Body Electric.” Children of Adam.  “And if the body were not the soul, what is the soul?”

35.  AR.  Part I, “The Best Way to Serve God.”

36.  Ibid.

37.  Teddy Roosevelt.  Attributed.  At this time I have not traced the source.

38.  CS.

39.  The Rights of Man (RM).  Part I.

40.  Ibid.

41.  RM.  Part II, Introduction.

42.  Ibid.

43.  The Rights of Man (?).  Another version of this is attributed to Emerson:  “My country is the world and my religion is to do good.”

44.  AR.  Part II, chapter 3.

45.  Burns (1795).

46.   Walt Whitman.  “In Memory of Thomas Paine.” Speech delivered on the 140th anniversary of Thomas Paine’s birth, January 28, 1877, Lincoln Hall, Philadelphia.

47.  AR.  Part II, chapter 3, conclusion.


{reprinted from Inspiris, February 2009}

Shelter: “(origin unknown); something that covers or affords protection.”

My journey from the Bay Area to Whidbey and back connected me with a new sense of land, a deeper understanding of the simple life and a renewed appreciation for the true meaning of shelter.  After many years as an interfaith chaplain in the Bay Area, I found a refuge back in Washington where I was born and lived half my life.  While I lived on the island, a one-room cabin was my shelter; I drew water from a well; used a compost toilet; cooked on a propane stove and kept warm chopping wood and keeping the woodstove crackling.  My former work seemed a long way and a long time back.  Working with outcast persons on the edge, who never seem to fit in, mentally and physically challenged people, prisoners, frail and hungry elderly and unhoused humans called “homeless” I learned many valuable lessons never learned in kindergarten, let alone college and graduate school.  My time in the island forest reminded me to cultivate a simple life and listen to the ground-level lessons closer to the earth.

Now I am the coordinator for the Emergency Response Shelter in Marin County north of the Golden Gate Bridge.  Poor people are everywhere, mixed with the richest of the rich.  Our neighbors are George Lucas, Carlos Santana, Bonnie Raitt and the remains of the Grateful Dead.  This is Barbara Boxer’s backyard and as liberal and openminded as South Whidbey.  The shelter opened in December as a cooperative effort mobilized by the county, the Red Cross, and several social service organizations that specialize in supportive and healthy approaches to the weakest and most vulnerable on our streets.  Forty to eighty people are sleeping on our floor every night after sharing hot soup, a sandwich, coffee, tea, hot chocolate and laughter strained through tears and fears.  Staff is drawn from a pool of goodhearted women and men who have “been there”—they have personal experience with homelessness or addiction or illness or life on the edge.  Volunteers include nurses and doctors, therapists, social workers, VA outreach and members of local congregations.  A county supervisor regularly visits and always brings donations of clothing or food.  We have no guarantee to stay open after February 15 when, in some minds, the “emergency disaster” is over, but we’re taking this day by day, person by person, with little time to stop and worry about next month or next year.  The needs are immediate and lives are being protected and preserved daily.

From my little green cabin in the woods I have tramped right back into the urban forest full of needing, bleeding humanity.  I guess I couldn’t escape the reality for long.  But I keep the sanity and sensibility of the simple life on Whidbey close in my heart and mind.   A sense of gentleness and kindness, a sense of humor and a sense of touching the earth guide me.  I discover again:  this is what we all really need, whether homeless or homefull.  As the Irish say, “We are each a shelter, one to another.”


My friend Lee said, “There’s a sign in the jungle that says, ‘This way to the lemonade well.'”  After I finished laughing he explained that he saw that in one of those old Bob Hope movies when they’re running through the jungle and very thirsty.  Then they come to the sign. How silly.  A lemonade well, in the jungle.  But it’s what they needed.  Probably a trick.  Maybe a trap.  But a great sign to see in the jungle.  Lee said he wants to live in the jungle.  I don’t think I would.

Lee’s “forest wisdom” always gets me thinking.  I laugh. Then I wonder.  I reflect.  What is he teaching me? On this subject, richness and poverty, he gets me smiling as I ask, What is the Jungle? and, when I’m really thirsty I ask, Where is the Lemonade Well?

The American economy is shaky.  Corporations are crumbling.  People are losing jobs and savings.  Makes many very nervous.  Politicians say it will be alright.  Just a slump.  Some even say we’re really fine.  Numbers can be played with.  All in all, the country is doing great.  “We’re the greatest!”  Most of the conversation we hear about dollars comes from those who have something to lose–those with some wealth and assets.  But what about those who’ve already lost?  What about those whose well ran dry a long time ago?  Those who’ve lost jobs, houses and a little sanity?  Are we any shakier than we’ve ever been?

We’re all in this American Experiment “for better or worse.”  Perspectives depend on where we’re standing; whether that ground feels shaky or stable.  If we see it all as a jungle and we’re thirsty, or we see it as a game for winners the questions take on radically different meanings.  Who owns the well?  Who owns the lemonade?  Who runs the jungle?  Will I always be thirsty?

I read that a CEO has lost billions in the economic downturn.  He is left with a meager $20 billion or so.  Not his company.  He, as an individual.  Billions.  More bucks than many countries.  The Wall Street head who was forced to resign was making $200 million. The new “Acting” Governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger, wears a watch–a watch worth over $500,000.  In my chaplaincy work I am around people every day who have a few bucks in their pocket. . .if they have anything. . .if they have a pocket.  Most of us are somewhere in between the extremes.  Truthfully, I wouldn’t want to be either the one with billions or the one with a buck in a dusty pocket.  But I think my experience tells me there’s a common lesson in this jungle of wealth; a teaching about the value of poverty, or at least the value of finding one’s value.  Here’s one simple point:  While one can own the whole lemonade production company, control the well and decide who sees the signs directing us to the well, another may simply stand thirsty.  Yet, everyone has thirst.  Everyone needs lemonade.  Ultimately, the well belongs to everyone.  Our poverty is our need to quench and satisfy our thirst.  The richest person gets thirsty too.  And all have to find a way to that well.

Maybe this is a bit too obscure.  Here’s a personal example.  One man on the street angrily told me he hated rich people.  “They all drive expensive cars and don’t care about anyone but themselves.”  He complained about their reckless driving, the exhaust from their big jams of cars and their clear ignorance of pedestrians.  Being a proponent of the art of balance, I asked him if poor people are ever reckless and ignorant.  He didn’t like the question but had to admit, “Yeah, I guess so.”  Another person was clearer to the point:  “Rich folks need to learn some things about life.  I feel sorry for them.  They’re stuck in their pursuit of wealth and busy with business that means nothing.  I could teach them a few things.”  I agreed.  We all can learn from each other, poor or rich.  If we believe anymore in community, in a community well full of wisdom mixed with lemonade, then there’s hope.  I hear it, see it, feel it.  Yes, there’s hope.

Another friend, who used to live outside in a very rich county, wrote a song entitled, “The World is Mine.”  For over a year he lived on the grounds of a church.  He checked the outside and the doors each night like a security guard.  Some in that church didn’t like it when they saw homeless people around and especially when they saw something left in the bushes.  They called the police.  They put up No Trespassing signs.  They got angry and, when I spoke up, they pressured me to “talk with them” and “do something about these people.”  My friend moved on, disgusted and a little frightened by the hostility he felt there.  Most in the church, I think, would feel more compassion.  But they didn’t speak up.  They went along with the “authorities” and chased the poor away, off “God’s property.”  That’s really the irony isn’t it?  The enforcers of the property forget so quickly (maybe they’ve never been taught) that:  If God has anything to do with the property then, by God, it belongs to any seeking sanctuary and safety.  Alas, sanctuaries are locked and protected.  Fear is the faith of the current times.  And while the congregations are slipping deep into irrelevancy, poor neighbors who may actually be very “special to God”, are slipping away into the shadows, hiding from the laws of the Present Pharisees.  My friend, who wrote the song “The World Is Mine,” realized that some could try to shun him and shame him but his belief was strong and clear:  “I have seen the light of life and it told me what to do; It told me to love everyone, and if we all do.  It will be a better place to live.”

There’s some lemonade for your spirit!


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