Commonplace Book #166

Already a master of the rhetorical device of the jeremiad–calling the fallen nation back to its lost principles–but also now portraying himself as the victim of proslavery scorn, Douglass enjoyed being the aggressor. Claiming he was constantly accused of irritating Americans, rather than appealing to their better instincts, Douglass happily pled guilty: “I admit that we have irritated them,” he declared. “They desire to be irritated. As it is in physics, so in morals, there are cases that demand irritation, and counter irritation. The conscience of the American public needs this irritation. And I would blister it all over, from centre to circumference, until it gives signs of a purer…life that it is now manifesting to the world.” Douglass named the demons and stalked his prey. As the latter-day Jeremiah he spoke as did the ancient prophet, calling the nation to judgment for its mendacity, its wanton violation of its own covenants and warning of its imminent ruin.

David Blight, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, 180.

Commonplace Book #165

“A king is a king only as long as he remains on the throne,” Don Paolo said. “A King who no longer reigns in no longer a king, but an ex-king. There’s a country, a big country, from which the sun comes to us, that had a king, let us call him a big king of clubs, who ruled over millions of cafoni. When the cafoni stopped obeying him he ceased to reign, he was no longer a king.

Ignazio Silone, Bread and Wine, 123.

Commonplace Book #164

Power, after all, is frequently held and wielded not by elected officials and politicians, but by well-positioned lobbying groups, on the one hand, and the media, on the other. They will say in their defense that their mandate–sometimes given theoretical justification, more often just quietly assumed–is to hold the elected officials to account (the media) and to remind them of the real needs and interests of their constituents (the lobbyists). There is not doubt a grain of truth in that, but it is almost completely hidden under a ton of unscrutinized agendas. Official oppositions sometimes provide genuine critique, but often they don’t. Journalists sometimes do, but often simply reflect their own equally distorted agendas. We should not assume that our systems are automatically the best we could possibly have. This is where those who believe in the victory of the cross have something to say–quite literally. As Christians, our role in society is not to wring our hands at the corruption of power or simply to pick a candidate that supports one or another supposedly Christian policy. The Christian role, as part of the naming the name of the crucified and risen Jesus on territory presently occupied by idols, is to speak the truth to power and especially to speak up for those with no power at all.

N.T. Wright, The Day the Revolution Began, 400.

Commonplace Book #163

On December 23, 1845, [Frederick] Douglass delivered a bravura effort about slavery and religious corruption to a mixed Belfast audience of Catholics and Protestants. In an oration that included at least ten direct uses or paraphrases of scriptural passages and parables, Douglass turned Christian principles into weapons against proslavery religion–in his own country and in the British Isles. This forceful performance offended some of his auditors, while others all be fell over laughing and cheering. Caustic and sneering, Douglass demolished the very idea of a Christian slaveholder. They could “not serve God and Mammon, and they blasphemed in claiming any “fellowship with the meek and lowly Jesus.” He lifted Matthew 23:15 to condemn Christian “man-stealers” and “cradle-plunderers” as “Christ denounced the Scribes and Pharisees, when he said that they would compass sea and land to make one proselyte, and after they had made him, he was ten times the Child of Hell.” And he challenged the antislavery consciences of his audience. Would they be the “priest” who would not even see the suffering man by the side of the road,’ the “Levite” who looked and felt sympathy but chose a “middle course” and moved on, or would they be the “Samaritan” of compassion who bound the wounds of the victim? Or would they make Daniel’s choice to break the law, never worship an earthly king’s false gods, and risk death in the lion’s den? With memory still swirling with revenge against Thomas Auld, Douglass assured his well-churched Irish crowds that “a man becomes the more cruel the more the religious element is perverted in him. It was so with my master.” 

David Blight, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, 150.

Commonplace Book #162

Niebuhrian ideas were attracting intellectuals in many fields, but [The] Irony [of American History] had a special impact on historians of the United States. Richard Hofstadter’s American Political Tradition (1948) and other works had already played havoc with the “progressive” model dominant in the previous generation of Charles Beard and V.L. Parrington. For them the American experience had been shaped above all by a perennial battle between the popular forces of enlightenment and the privileged protectors of tradition; historical writing was an implicit call to arms. Hofstadter’s book exploded those categories by demonstrating how conservative many liberal heroes had been, and how deeply rooted the capitalist consensus had been among all social groups. Niebuhr’s Irony put Hofstadter’s post-progressive perspective on a firmer philosophical foundation and showed that the ironic stance could itself supply a kind of faith for the future. A somber faith, to be sure, as Lionel Trilling had already indicated in The Middle of the Journey (1947). Intellectual work was no longer to be a celebration of the people’s unbounded potential but a search for paradoxes, a statement of the tragic limits of human life. Within those limits human beings occasionally achieved beauty, excellence, responsibility, but always under the pressure of evil, treachery, despair. History was not a progressive march interrupted by temporary setbacks, but a drama of human weakness and strength. Many historians who came of age during the depression or Second World War–Perry Miller, C. Vann Woodward, Henry May, and David Brion Davis among others–were inspired by Niebuhr’s vision.

Richard Wightman Fox, Reinhold Niebuhr: A Biography, 246-47.

Commonplace Book #161

I was speeding with the train toward Buffalo, when, near that city, the sight of a workman doing something on the dizzy edge of a sky-scaling iron construction brought me to my senses very suddenly. And now I perceived, by a flash of insight, that I had been steeping myself in pure ancestral blindness, and looking at life with the eyes of a remote spectator. Wishing for heroism and the spectacle of human nature on the rack, I had never noticed the great fields of heroism lying round about me, I had failed to see it present and alive. I could only think of it as a dead and embalmed, labelled and costumed, as it is in the pages of romance. And yet there it was before me in the daily lives of the laboring classes. Not in clanging fights and desperate marches only is heroism to be looked for, but on every railway bridge and fire-proofing building that is going up to-day. On freight-trains, on the decks of vessels, in cattle-yards and mines, on lumber-rafters, among the fireman and the policemen, the demand for courage is incessant; and the supply never fails. There, every day of the year somewhere, is human nature in extremis for you. And wherever a scythe, an axe, a pick, or a shovel is wielded, you have it sweating and aching and with its powers of patient endurance racked to the utmost under the length of hours of the strain.

As I awoke to all this undealized heroic life around me, the scales seemed to fall from my eyes; and a wave of sympathy greater than anything I had ever before felt with the common life of common men began to fill my soul.

William James, “What Makes a Life Significant” (1900) in Mark Schwehn and Dorothy C. Bass, ed., Leading Lives That Matter, 19.

Commonplace Book #160

The founders contributed wisdom and often exhibited courage. But to remove them from political time as if they were ever, on a single day, holy men or paragons of virtue misses their true vocation and their true motivation. They did not live inside an impossibly romantic political forum where great minds communed on a regular basis to remind each other of their noblest ideals. They did not spend the bulk of their time sitting at their desks writing treatises, or standing before their congressional peers making sublime speeches. The lawyers among them were more typically engrossed in the ugly details of a property case, or in a dogged debate inside a courtroom; the many speculators among them mulled over the looming threat of debtor’s prison. They spend their time engaged in the polite banter of the tea parlor, and indulged in secret sexual trysts with prostitutes, mistresses, and, in the South, slaves.

These were our founders: imperfect men in a less than perfect nation, grasping at opportunities. That they did good for their country is understood, and worth our celebration; that they were also jealous, resentful, self-protective, and covetous politicians should be no less a part of their collective biography. What separates history from myth is that history takes in the whole picture, whereas myth averts our eyes from the truth when it turns men into heroes and gods.

Nancy Isenberg, Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr, 414.

Commonplace Book #159

Many of the lies and exaggerations that obscure the real Burr focus on his relationship to Alexander Hamilton. Historians have been too trusting of Hamilton’s portrait of Burr, discounting his partisan motives in blackening Burr’s name. Only half of that story has been told. Hamilton, an extremely motivated political thinker, was also a master of backroom politics. He was known for his poison-tipped pen, viciously attacking anyone he believed stood in the way of his political dominance. When it came to his sense of Burr as a competent rival, first in New York politics and later in presidential politics, Hamilton overreacted. He systematically sought, over a period of many years, to ruin Burr’s chances through insults, slights, and writing campaigns. The great irony is that Hamilton routinely accused Burr of lacking a moral compass, when no evidence exists that the self-possessed Burr ever insulted Hamilton.

Nancy Isenberg, Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr, viii.

Commonplace Book #158

I kept on as a janitor of the church, which is scheduled work. I still walk up on Fridays to clean, as I have always done, and on Sunday mornings I go up to ring the bell and sit through the service. I don’t attend altogether for religious reasons. I feel more religious, in fact, here beside this corrupt and holy stream. I am not sectarian or evangelical. I don’t want to argue with anybody about religion. I wouldn’t want to argue about it even if I thought it was arguable, or even if I could win. I’m a literal reader of the Scriptures, and so I see the difficulties. And yet every Sunday morning I walk up there, over a cobble of quibbles. I am, I suppose a difficult man. I am, maybe, the ultimate Protestant, the man at the end of the Protestant road, for as I have read the Gospels over the years, the belief has grown in me that Christ did not come to found an organized religion but came instead to found an unorganized one. He seems to have come to carry religion out of the temples into the field and sheep pastures, onto the roadsides and the banks of rivers, into the houses of sinners and publicans, into the town and the wilderness, toward the membership of all that is here. Well, you can read and see what you think.

Wendell Berry, Jayber Crow, 320-321

Commonplace Book #157

This is not an exactly true account of my life. The necessity of telling it has caused me to divide it into strands. Things that happened at the same time, different and even opposite feelings and thoughts that came all at once, have had to be strung out to be told. In fact, many things have always been happening all at the same time. Some of the funniest things have happened on some of the saddest days. Sometimes I have been happy in the midst of sorrow, or sorrowful in the midst of happiness. Sometimes too I have been perfectly content, in the amazing state of ignorance, not yet knowing that I was already in the presence of loss.

This is, as I said and believe, a book about Heaven, but I must say too that it has been a close call. For I have wondered sometimes if it would not finally turn out to be a book about Hell–where we fail to love one another, where we hate and destroy one another for reasons abundantly provided for righteousness’ sake or for pleasure, where we destroy the things we need most, where we see no hope and have no faith, where we are needy and alone, where things that ought to stay together fall apart, where there is such a groaning travail of selfishness in all its forms, where we love one another and die, where we must lose everything to know what we have had.

Wendell Berry, Jayber Crow, 354.

Commonplace Book #156

There is nothing about which I have greater misgivings than all that even slightly tastes of this disastrous confusion of politics and Christianity…If this faith in the saving power of politically achieved free institutions belongs to true Christianity, then I am no Christian, or even worse, I am a regular child of Satan, because, frankly, I am indeed suspicious of these politically achieved free institutions, especially of their saving, renewing power…. 

Soren Kierkegaard, “An Open Letter to Dr. RudelbachJanuary 31, 1851.

Commonplace Book #155

I had to call on [Rev] Don Angelo Girasole this afternoon,” Pietro said. “He gave me the impression of being a very decent man, a good clerk in an administrative office.”

Your quite right,” [Rev] Don Benedetto said ,”but Christianity is not an administration.”

“The others, those who believe they have historical vision, are worse,” said Pietro. “They believe, or pretend to believe, in a Man of Providence.”

“If they allow themselves to be deceived it is their own fault,” Don Benedetto interrupted, livening up. “They were warned about two thousand years ago. They were told that many would come in the name of Providence and seduce the people, that there would be talk of wars and rumors of wars. They were told that all this would come to pass, but that the end was not yet. They were told that nation would rise up against nation and kingdom against kingdom; that there would be famines and pestilences and earthquakes in divers places; but that all these things would not be the end, but the beginning. Christians were warned. We were told that many would be horrified and many would betray, and that is someone, whoever it might be, should say here is a man of Providence, there is a man of Providence, we must not believe him. We have been warned. False prophets and false saviours shall arise and shall show great signs and wonders and deceive many. We could not have asked for plainer warning. If many have forgotten it, it will not change anything of what will come to pass. The destiny of the Man of Providence has already been written. Intrabit ut vulpis, regnabit ut leo, morietur ut canis.” (“He will come in like a fox, reign like a lion, die like a dog).

“What a fine language Latin is,” said Pietro. “And what a difference there is between that honest old church Latin and the modern sibylline Latin of the encyclicals.”

“What is lacking in our country, as you know, is not the critical spirit,” Don Benedetto said. “What is lacking is faith. The critics are grumblers, violent men, dissatisfied men, in certain circumstances they may sometimes even be heroes. But they are not believers.

Iganazio Silone, Bread and Wine, 224-225.

Commonplace Book #154

Hence there is a certain “political” character involved in the idea of sanctification and it is this character which provides the only basis for the Church’s political ethic. The world is the world and the Church the Church, and yet the Word of God must go forth from the Church into all the world, proclaiming that the earth is the Lord’s and all that therein is. Herein lies the “political” character of the Church. If we regard sanctification as a purely personal matter which has nothing whatever to do with public life and the visible line of demarcation between the Church and the world, we shall land ourselves inevitably into a confusion between the pious wishes of the religious flesh and the sanctification of the Church which is accomplished in the death of Christ through the seal of God.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, 280.

Commonplace Book #153

“…the question suddenly occurred to him: ‘What if my whole life has been wrong? It occurred to him that what had appeared perfectly impossible before, namely that he had not spent his life as he should have done, might after all be true. It occurred to him that his scarcely perceptible attempts to struggle against what was considered good by the most highly placed people, those scarcely noticeable impulses which has had immediately suppressed, might have been the real thing, and all the rest false. And his professional duties, and the whole arrangement of his life and of his family, and all his social and official interests, might all have been false. He tried to defend all those things to himself and suddenly felt the weakness of what he was defending. There was nothing to defend….He lay on his back and began to pass his life in review in quite a new way. In the morning when he saw first his footman, then his wife, then his daughter, and then the doctor, their every word and movement confirmed to him the awful truth that had been revealed to him during the night. In them he saw clearly that it was not real at all, but a terrible and huge deception which had hidden his physical suffering tenfold. 

Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilych

Commonplace Book #152

The goal of Christian faith is to subject the total life to God, to “take every thought captive to obey Christ.” All life is under God, depending upon and subject to Him. Indeed, the very things which the natural mind makes the objects of its idolatrous worship become, for the mind of faith, instruments in service to God. The idolatrous man may worship the state as thought it were divine. Against this idolatry, exemplified in Roman emperor-worship and modern totalitarianism, Christianity has always protested. 

Jaroslav Pelikan, Fools for Christ: Essays on the True, the Good, and the Beautiful, viii.

Commonplace Book #151

If doubt appears, it should not be considered as a negation of faith, but as an element which was always and will always be present in the act of faith. Existential doubt and faith are poles of the same reality, the state of ultimate concern…But serious doubt is confirmation of faith. It indicates the seriousness of the concern, its unconditional character. This also refers to those who as future or present ministers of a church experience not only scientific doubt about doctrinal statements–this is necessary and perpetual as theology is a perpetual need–but also existential doubt  about the message of their church, e.g., that Jesus can be called the Christ.

Paul Tillich, The Dynamics of Faith, 22.

Commonplace Book #150

“When it was so dark at the St. Michael’s playground that we couldn’t see the basket, we couldn’t see [the statue of] Mary Magdalene, either. What Owen liked best was to practice the shot until we lost Mary Magdalene in the darkness. Then he would stand under the basket with me and say, CAN YOU SEE HER?

Not anymore, I’d say.


Of course she’s still there!’ I’d say

‘YOU’RE SURE?’ he’d ask me

Of course I’m sure!,’ I’d say. 


‘Because I know, she’s still there–because I know she couldn’t have gone anywhere–because I just know!’ I would say…


Yes! I screamed.


–John Irving, A Prayer for Owen Meany, 458.

Commonplace Book #149

“Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.” This community of strangers possesses no inherent right of its own to protect its members in the world, nor do they claim such rights, for they are meek, they renounce every right of their own and live for the sake of Jesus Christ. When reproached, they hold their peace; when treated with violence they endure it patiently; when men drive them from their presence, they yield their ground. They will not go to law to defend their rights, or make a scene when they suffer injustice, nor do they insist on their legal rights. They are determined to leave their rights to God alone–non cupidi vindctae, as the ancient Church paraphrased it. Their right is in the will of their Lord –and that no more. They show by every word and gesture that they do not belong to this earth. Leave heaven to them, says the world in its pity, that is where they belong. (The Emperor Julian wrote mockingly in a letter [No.43] that he only confiscated the property of Christians so as to make them poor enough to enter the kingdom of heaven.) But Jesus says: “They shall inherit the earth.” To these, the powerless and the disenfranchised, the very earth belongs.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, 109-110.

Commonplace Book #148

The matter is quite simple. The New Testament is very easy to understand. But we human beings are really a bunch of scheming swindlers; we pretend to be unable to understand it because we understand very well that the minute we understand we are obliged to act accordingly at once. But in order to make it up to the New Testament a little, lest it become angry with us and find us altogether wrong, we flatter it, tell it that is so tremendously profound, so wonderfully beautiful, so unfathomably sublime, and all that, somewhat as a little child pretends it cannot understand what has been commanded and then is cunning enough to flatter Papa. Therefore we humans pretend to be unable to understand the N.T.; we do not want to understand it. Here Christian scholarship has its place. Christian scholarship is the human race’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the N.T., to ensure that one can continue to be a Christian without letting the N.T. come to close…I open the N.T. and read: “If you want to be perfect, then sell all your goods and give to the poor and come and follow me.” Good God, all the capitalists, the officeholders, and the pensioners, the whole race no less, would be almost beggars: we would be sunk if it were not for…scholarship!

Soren Kierkegaard in Stephen Backhouse, Kierkegaard: A Single Life, 172.

Commonplace Book #147

We are not Christ, but if we want to be Christians, we must have some share in Christ’s large-heartedness by acting with responsibility and in freedom when the hour of danger comes, and by showing a real sympathy that springs, not from fear, but from the liberating and redeeming love of Christ for all who suffer. Mere waiting and looking on is not Christian behaviour. The Christian is called to sympathy and action, not in the first place by his own sufferings, but by the sufferings of his brethren, for whose sake Christ suffered.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters & Papers From Prison, 14.