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Re-learning the American Story

9 May

James Baldwin, in his recently reissued essay, Nothing Personal, observes that Americans are afraid of their past history, and as a result cannot understand their present and are deprived of their future. 

Why are we afraid of our past history?

I think of several reasons. Like all groups, our nation tells a primal story about itself, we put it in our school books and teach it to our children. We call our story “the American Dream”: We were persecuted people in Europe, coming to a New World wilderness. We found freedom and worked hard to turn the wilderness into a fine place to live and work. Our story parallels in many ways the biblical story of the ancient Israelites, and we frequently consider ourselves God’s chosen people. We say we are a nation of immigrants, and that we welcome others to join us.

This primal story was written and passed on mainly by the settlers who came to New England, with some input from those who settled the other original thirteen colonies.

As the years went by, we learned more about our nation’s origins and realize there is more to our history than the exploits of the original northern European settlers. Africans came at the beginning, imported against their will as slaves and mostly not through New England, but through ports in Virginia, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida; Chinese arrived in California; Japanese went first to Hawaii and from there to the mainland. Since we took over, in the Mexican-American War, the areas that Spain had claimed, Latinos came into the United States by annexation. Huge numbers of immigrants came in the nineteenth century from many regions of Europe, not only through Ellis Island, but also through ports on the Gulf Coast.

The story we learned in school, centering on New England doesn’t work anymore, because we know many American communities have different stories to tell.

Stories of origin seldom tell the underside, the failings of the founders, but as time goes on, those flaws come clear. The founders tolerated slavery, limited the rights of women, and dealt with native Americans in totalitarian fashion. Today, although some of us want to include this negative side in the story, many others resist. Most nations ignore or deny the negative element—they project it on “outsiders.” 

Even though most Americans today are quite “fundamentalist” in interpreting our Founding Fathers and the Constitution, there are powerful forces for updating our story and our national life. The founders were opposed to democracy, so they established a representative republic,  which gave us the Electoral College. Today many of us want a democracy. Much of our current struggle today is between those who insist on democracy (and want to expand voting rights) and those who prefer the founding vision (and limit voting rights).

The “founding fathers” were affluent and well-educated. Their new  nation favored people like themselves. Since their story leaves out more than one-half of the American people, it is understandable that our story has to be expanded to include everyone.

Why are we afraid of our past? Some are afraid because they are left out of the official story of our past and suffer accordingly. Others are afraid, because they fear that what the true story reveals will be to their disadvantage. Our story is not neutral, it depicts “losers” and “winners,” and re-learning our history will change the win-lose balance and upset the apple cart in ways that cause fear. Since how we tell the story determines both our present and our future, they strike fear, as well.

The great contribution of the American founders was the principle that all people are created equal. It’s the engine driving the effort to re-learn our history. The story of America involves constantly re-writing our story, but that requires honesty in facing the historical record and courage in accepting revision.

James Baldwin experienced the trauma inflicted by the American story. He understood the story can explode with tragic results. Our task is to re-tell the story and try to avoid the explosions.

How would you re-tell the American story?

(c) Phil Hefner.     5/8/2021

There’s a New World Out There

23 Apr

Blog # 75—There’s a New World Out There

I believe there’s a new world out there, and if I were younger, I would be raring to participate in it. When I say “out there,” I’m referring to my being cooped up by the pandemic— separated from the world around me for more than a year. Radio, TV, and newspapers have truly been my window to the world these past months.

I say this world is new, because it is full of possibilities for change. The zone of possibility is where God is to be found. Almost one hundred years ago, theologian Paul Tillich used the term Kairos to describe moments in which important change is possible. It’s a biblical term that refers to moments in which God is initiating change. Kairos calls for action; if we don’t act appropriately, the moment will pass, kairos  will go unfulfilled.

This new world is exciting, but also fraught—with possibilities that are full of promise, but also require hard work and breaking with old patterns of living. When the world teeters on the brink of newness, there also lurk struggle, danger, and conflict, because there are always people and forces who oppose change.

I’ll itemize the realms of newness and possibilities that occupy my attention. Look around you and put together your own list. Some of my items are graver and more significant than others—although all the changes are important for the people who are directly involved.

”Virtual” Reality. We’ve learned these past months that “virtual” can be “real”—and sometimes  more satisfactory than “in person.” (Notice that a new vocabulary of terms has emerged to function in a new world.) I learned this week that the school where I taught for over forty. years has had such good experience with Zoom that it may move a major portion of its program into the “virtual” realm. Some universities and seminaries have already been doing this.

Patterns of Work. My daughter, a social worker for the state of Kentucky, has been working at home for months. She has been informed that she will continue thus  indefinitely. Her daily routine has changed  accordingly. Her experience is so common that office  buildings in downtown Chicago and in other cities show many vacancies—or present tenants are subleasing to others. The “style” columns of our newspapers report on the fashion and cosmetics changes among women who now work largely from home, as well as those who wear masks.

Relations between the Races. Nowhere are the possibilities of change more present than in race relations.The pandemic revealed how our society works against black and brown people. “Systemic racism” has entered the conversation. Unfortunately, the term is also taken up into the culture wars, to mean that everyone is racist. That’s a misinterpretation. Systemic racism refers to the basic structure of our society. Systemic racism is not asserting that all people are racist, but rather that our societal system is.

Even those who have managed to shake off the evil of racism nevertheless participate in mechanisms of society that exert racist pressures. Even as unaware children, we may have attended schools whose districts were prejudicially drawn. We went to colleges and universities that were cocoons of white supremacy, or that even owe their existence to the institution of slavery. We might welcome interracial diversity, but we earned our living in and we’re consumers of companies and institutions that did not—or that tolerate blacks only if they behave “white.”

Our system of policing is deeply involved in issues of race. Changes will be very difficult, but we have the possibility of radically reshaping our institutions of police work.

The president of the United States speaks about systemic racism. For Fox News commentators, the term is “un-American.”  This means that the post-pandemic world has reached an inflection point—the conversation is changing.

It will be difficult. Americans have to re-learn their history. On the one hand, we want to honor our nation and its founders and pay tribute to the possibilities they set in motion. On the other, we must recognize that they built the nation on racist institutions—supporting slavery and other forms of discrimination. Two years ago, teaching this “critical race” theory was banned in some places. Nations have notorious difficulties in acknowledging the negatives that their national myths omit. Japan, China  and Turkey are examples. Germany is one of the few that has re-written its history.

Attitudes toward Essential Workers. Before the pandemic, we spoke of “essential” workers only in war time. Now we know how dependent we are all the time on people who, working largely behind the scenes, do the basic  work that makes our lives possible. Post-pandemic, we are aware that these workers are exposed to risks that the rest of us can avoid. And they are underpaid. Their wages do not reflect how important their work is. They are called “heroes,” but they do not receive heroes’ pay. 

The possibility for real economic justice confronts us here. Where would any of us be without essential workers? During the pandemic, the inequality gap became even wider. It is estimated that the “haves” increased their wealth by $400 billion dollars. Yet Congress vetoed a proposal to give unemployed persons $400 per week.

These zones of potential change, where new possibilities open up, could result in a radical re-shaping of American society. God is present, supporting action that results in more just and equitable ways of guiding our society.

Where do you see Kairos zones today?

(c) Phil Hefner.     4/23/2021

Grantchester 1978

30 Mar

We lived near Grantchester 1977-8. We returned in 2006 to find it greatly changed, built up by housing and businesses, but still recognizable.

Grantchester, Cambridgeshire 1978

Come walk with me.

We’ll have a pint at Green Man

then go on to Anstey Way,

pass the tea room 

and the green grocer,

cross the high street

and wind along Maris Lane—

it’s just a country road—

past Saint Michael’s church—

Sir Roger stands in brass 

ready to be rubbed.

We could take a 

byway to the pond where

Byron swam,

but let’s continue past the barn

and the fields it still commands.

The lane bends around the house

where Frazer first conceived 

the Golden Bough—a Scotsman’s

take on magical religion.

As we go with the turning path,

voila! the tea room in the orchard

along the Cambs where scholars

dock their punts for quiet respite.

And there is Rupert’s tower—

“the Church clock at ten to three

and honey still for tea.” Of this place

he sang in midst of war

“There’s peace and holy quiet there.”

This is Grantchester—

before the masters of commerce

rewrote Rupert Brooke.

With respects to Rupert  Brooke

“The Old Vicarage, Grantchester”—1912

J. G. Frazer’s book is  “The Golden Bough: 

A Study in Magic and Religion “

(c) Phil Hefner 3/302021

Two poems responding to the News of the Day

5 Mar

They set their sights so low

“My name, my personal brand,

is worth millions, I can’t let it

be cheapened!” 

He spoke earnestly to the interviewer.

They set their sights so low—

When your name’s on a tombstone,

what is its worth?

Fame and celebrity

seem to count for a lot,

even seem to rub off 

on those who touch

the sleeve of fame.

So many arse lickers

(as some would say)—

more than one imagines.

They set their sights so low—

Fame is like

yesterday’s newspaper—

a handy wrapper for today’s trash.


As If

A Prose Poem

Lives of denial carry on—

As if it isn’t of highest priority that our nation work to repair an imperfect union of many cultures and persons.

As if it is naive to believe the paths of power and truth should coincide.

As if it is of no consequence that all people are created equal.

As if it makes no difference that at our best we go forward two steps and backwards one.

As if it is not worthy of rational thinkers to hold that the profoundest law of nature, the basis of all things, is the Reality of Love.

As if it is a trivial question whether we are part of a world that is proceeding toward completion and fulfillment.

As if it is irrelevant that we are created in the image of God.

The engaged life is a wager that As If is a signal of the real world.

(c) Phil Hefner 

They set their sights so low

5 Mar

They set their sights so low

“My name, my personal brand,

is worth millions, I can’t let it

be cheapened!” 

He spoke earnestly to the interviewer.

They set their sights so low—

When your name’s on a tombstone,

what is its worth?

Fame and celebrity

seem to count for a lot,

even seem to rub off 

on those who touch

the sleeve of fame.

So many arse lickers

(as some would say)—

more than one imagines.

They set their sights so low—

Fame is like

yesterday’s newspaper—

a handy wrapper for today’s trash.

Phil Hefner     3/3/2021

Making All Things New—

2 Feb

“See, I am making all things new” Revelation 21


But I feel so old—

something new would 

wreak havoc in so many

bones and joints

redo sinews and nerves

rearrange my body chemistry

Is this really what you have in mind?

Something new means turning back the years

back to the time when all my parts

were so at peace that I was unaware of them

I simply called them into action

and they responded to the signal

Or do you have something else in mind?


Is newness really a different body

perhaps no body?

in a different world

Will brains work differently 

in this new world?

in my present world 

brain is the engine 

that drives my being—

who I am

Will there even be brains?

Or is this not your point?


Is newness 

something I wait for

sitting passively 

expecting it to fall upon me

Or must I prepare for it?

must I perform some work

before I am made new?

Must I open myself?

Is it within my grasp 

to be made new?

Is newness some kind 

of self-help?

Dare I hope

this is not what you have in mind?


Does it mean that what seems 

unheard of now

beyond our ken

inconceivable to our present minds

will be possible?

Say goodbye to status quo

and status quo ante alike?

Put poor ones on the pedestal

with princes, let the barren bear fruit?

It is my prayer

this is what you mean


In making all things new

an invitation is issued

to enter into the unbelievable

to enter into that which does not exist

to enter with into the shadow

the cloud of unknowing

Because believing is found in unbelieving

being in non-being 

light in darkness

knowing in unknowing

If this is your meaning 

prepare me for the journey

(c) Phil Hefner   1/30/2021

My Hope for a New America

22 Dec

The calendar turns to a new month and a new year. Six months ago, there was a lot of talk about how things would change after the pandemic, that we would not go back to the “old normal.” 

There was reflection on what we were learning about America and our society: (1) That African Americans and Latinos are marginalized in ways most Whites had not even imagined. (2) That our society in general and we ourselves personally are dependent on the multitude of people we call “essential workers” who we also call “heroes.” (3) That these essential workers, both people of color and whites, are largely underpaid and overworked—this includes nurses and nurses’ assistants, personal caregivers, school teachers, grocery store workers, janitors, and a host of others.  (4) That even though we have made progress toward gender equality, when our economy slowed down and schools closed, women most often had to assume duties of caring for children and families and also working in “essential” occupations.

We talked about how these revelations would demand new ways of doing things.

Now, however, I don’t hear so much talk about these things. Now there is much said about the new vaccine and seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. I remember there was a lot of talk about the end of the tunnel during the Vietnam War—when we finally exited the tunnel, things were not as we expected; there was conflict here at home and upheaval. There was a “new” normal at the end of the tunnel, and it was not always easy for us.

I hope we find a new understanding of America when we emerge from the tunnel. I hope we see that our nation is more than the story of the Mayflower and the European settlers. I hope we see America as a Euro-African-Latino nation. Millions of immigrants entered at Ellis Island, symbolized by the Statue of Liberty. But millions more came on the slave ships from Africa, beginning in 1619. Still more millions arrived at the southern border as Hispanic-Latino immigrants.  

Asian Americans first arrived in Louisiana in the late sixteenth century, but major immigration came in the nineteenth amd twentieth centuries. These immigrants came through California. There are now estimated to be 21 million Asian Americans.

And of course several million native Americans arrived far earlier than any other group.

The words of the founding fathers about striving for a “more perfect union” take on a new meaning when we consider an actual profile of who the Americans are.

My hope is that we will imprint a new image of America in our minds and a new idea of a more perfect union—an image that embraces all our people, cutting across social class, gender, race, ethnicity, and geography. 

There are many challenges for us as we reach the end of the tunnel. We will also want to memorialize the nearly 400,000 Americans who died by the coronavirus, perhaps erect public monuments to them. All of us who survive are represented in the number of those who perished.

But please do not think of returning to an old normal—it will be nonexistent.

(c) Phil Hefner 12-21-2020

Science says—-

23 Sep

Let us be clear at the outset: scientific research is a fundamental necessity for life today, and the conclusions of science can be ignored only at our peril. The world we live in requires scientific understanding, particularly since it is so permeated by technology; every person in our nation lives in the context of scientific medicine; we instinctively ask for the scientific view on every important issue we face today. 

Much of our current discussion of the Coronavirus pandemic revolves on “what science says” about public health, about the virus, about vaccines and antiviral drugs, and the like. The discussion frequently becomes simplistic and ideological. Political motives permeate most of what we get in the media.The role of science in our lives is not so simple. Three basic questions are central.

 Who is a “scientist”? My working definition is: a person with a scientific education, who earns their living for doing scientific work in a scientific setting (government or industrial lab, academic department of a college, university, or museum). Everyone else has scientific knowledge at second-hand. Since a great deal of scientific knowledge is expressed originally in mathematical equations, math knowledge is essential. Scientific presentations in the popular press, magazines, and TV are often fine, but they are translations from scientific language into English. Most of us, myself included, are dependent for our understanding of science on talented journalists who are scientifically educated. And this is not necessarily “real science.”

Where do we get our scientific knowledge of Coronavirus? My first response was: from the White House Coronavirus Task Force, but my investigation of the Task Force changed my mind. Because fewer than half of the members are scientists.

By my count, there are 27 members of the White House Coronavirus Task Force. Only nine, one-third—have a science education, mostly medical. Five are lawyers, the rest come from backgrounds in politics, finance, and government administration.

Why is this important? It means that the pronouncements of the Task Force are not necessarily scientific. The scientific materials considered by the Task Force are filtered through the understanding and the interests of the non-scientific members. Hearing Dr. Redfield, Dr. Fauci, Dr. Francis Collins, or some other epidemiologist on TV is a better source of scientific knowledge than a Task Force pronouncement. Advice from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) should be top priority, except for the fact they are edited by non-scientists, some of whom have their own agenda.

The best source of scientific knowledge about the virus may well be your local medical center and personal doctor. I will decide about getting the upcoming vaccine for myself when it is recommended by the University of Chicago Medical Center and my doctor.

How do we move from science to everyday life? “Relying

on science” is not simple, because the line from science to everyday life is not simple. For example, we are told by our doctors that we will benefit from a certain drug; there are risk factors involved, but the benefits outweigh the risks. The benefits and risks are science-based factors. That one outweighs the other is a judgment call, not science. Another example: that close crowds are risky for being infected is science-based. To decide whether or not to attend an event (protest, church service, family gathering, or eating in a restaurant), thus taking a risk, is a personal judgment. 

It is the aim of scientists and society to distinguish between the scientist (and other persons involved in science) and the scientific knowledge of the “world out there.” That is, in the final analysis, impossible.  Scientific knowledge can be used for good or ill. The human factor makes all the difference. Science has flourished under authoritarian regimes, including Communism and Nazism, and also free market democracies. It all depends on what shapes our judgment. Specifically in the case of the Coronavirus, our judgments may serve the larger common good, but they may also be selfish and destructive of the common good. We have already seen both altruism and selfishness at work. Formation of judgment is another huge topic of its own—to be discussed at another time.

The major judgment call we face is whether to remain closed-up or to open up the economy (or schools) or some hybrid mix of the two. The decision, unavoidably, becomes political. Human judgment is always ambiguous. Accepting and living with the ambiguity is a challenge. If schools open up, teachers and families will be infected; if schools remain closed, children will suffer. Neither part of the equation can be ignored or labeled “unscientific” or “insensitive.” 

We need to know the real science involved in our judgments—and then acknowledge that decisions will be fallible and ambiguous. This is the fundamental challenge of our current situation.

(c) Phil Hefner. 9/22/2020

Born to Reach

18 Sep

We see trees reaching 

as they stretch themselves 

to touch the sky.

Stumbling toddlers 

hoist themselves to reach what’s 

beyond them—it’s essential to

their childhood.

Runners at the finish

stretching to break the tape,

reach for the gold redemption.

Lying flat on the scaffold 

Michelangelo stretched his hand 

toward the plaster that loomed above 

and limned for all time afterward

what reaching is about—

God reaching earthward

stretching Adam into life,

reaching in his Maker’s image—

the image we see copied

in all the world.

(C) Phil Hefner. 9/18/2020

John Lewis’s Body

27 Jul

Your body crossed the Alabama

yesterday one last time. 

Led by two black horses

pulling your caisson over the bridge

with its despicable name—

the Edmund Pettus bridge—your life

a battle ‘gainst all his peak’d hat proclaimed.

The horses carried you this time;

on Bloody Sunday sixty years ago, 

spurred by troopers, 

they charged you,

maimed your body.

This day troopers ushered you in silence

over the bridge, hushed mourners praying

a benediction.

Your mind never faltered, stayed 

its course—all about love, you said.

Your spirit sustained you 

from sharecropper boy in Alabama

to lunch counters in Nashville 

and Lincoln’s monument on the mall.

You led with your  body, absorbed its pain. 

In the end,   

horses carried that body to glory.

(c) Phil Hefner.    7/26/2020