Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Advent: Wait

It seems like I'm always waiting for something: the line to move, my kids to get ready, for things to happen.

I try to bear it with good humor, but the worst is when I have to wait idly. We were created to tell stories, to love, to make art, to sing, not just to be alive but to live. We can't shorten the wait by our activity, but when we wait idly we begin waiting to die.

The magi studied and scoured the heavens, and Simeon lived a life such that the gospel calls him righteous. How are we waiting?

Copyright © 2016 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Advent: Watch

I'll admit, I rarely have found the comfort others want me to during times of distress when they remind me that God is watching over me. God's eyes surely are on the sparrow, but aren't two of them sold in the market for one penny? He may know when they fall, but that doesn't keep them from falling. In the same way, God has sat enthroned between the cherubim during holocausts, genocides and other unspeakable horrors. He doesn't even intervene to keep parents from losing children. He can be hard to have faith in.

And yet I do. He urges us to have hope, and to watch for signs that he is coming. He never promises life will be easy -- that's a lie peddled by Hallmark Cards -- but he does say that though his justice tarries, to look for it. The wicked, he assures us, have fortified themselves on a muddy slope and guaranteed their own ruin, and the ruin of all those who work with them.

In the end, the prophet Isaiah promises, God will justify his servant, who will see the light of life and be exalted.

Wait for it. Wait for him, and keep watch.

Copyright © 2016 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Advent: Awake

Sometimes it's easier to stay asleep. Asleep we can stay warm, cozy and comfortable and ignore for a while longer all the responsibilities that are calling for our attention: personal, professional and to others.

Life doesn't give us that option. It may coax us gently awake with sunlight or coffee, or it may jar us awake with the screech of an alarm clock.

Ultimately, being awake is the only option. Awake to the wonders of God, awake to the problems pressing down on us, and awake to our responsibility to fight for one another.

Copyright © 2016 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Advent: Hope

Christmas cactuses bloom this time of year, but not every year. Like many plants, they bloom best under stress: not enough light, not enough water. From these stressors come beautiful flowers as the cactus strives to ensure the continuance of its line. Things look bad, but Advent is a reminder that hope, like beauty, endures.

Copyright © 2016 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Advent: a season of waiting in faith

My youngest daughter can't wait for Christmas. She's 7 years old, and it's all she can think about. It might be during breakfast, it might be when she comes home from school, and it might be after dinner, but she has one question guaranteed to come up every day: How long until Christmas?

She's like this with everything. A week ago it was “How many days until my birthday?” Last week it was, “When am I going to see Emma?” Some people wait patiently, like a match that slowly burns its way to the end. My daughter waits like a forest fire. All she wants is what she wants, and when she wants it is right now.

To her, the worst thing imaginable is having to wait. On Sunday, she was scheduled to see a friend at four o'clock. It wasn't even lunchtime before she started asking how long it would be until four o'clock. By one o'clock, the question was coming every 10 minutes.

If you could turn impatience into a person and give it a face, it would just look like her.

Some people have no difficulty waiting. Tell them it'll be 30 minutes, and they'll pick up a magazine and start reading, clean up a mess, or tackle some quick and easy chores. They'll grab a pen and paper, and write a quick to-do list, or maybe a letter if they're the old-fashioned sort. They'll find a piece of paper, pull out a pencil, and doodle the time away in an act of silent contemplation.

People like this find ways not just to kill the time but to use it wisely, because they know that all their fussing and fretting won't move the hands of the clock across its face any faster. The sun still will crawl its way through the heavens at a beggar's pace, and things will work their way to their inevitable conclusion in the proper time.

For such people, whether waiting is a discipline they have learned or a skill they were born with, it is a practice that scarcely troubles them.

Life itself is often about waiting, and how we wait reveals pieces of our character. An engagement is announced, and with excitement we at once begin counting down the days to the wedding. Other times we wait with dread, as our stomachs twist into knots and drop through the floor below our feet: A police officer approaches the car after pulling us over, or we pace in the waiting area while a loved one is in surgery.

Sometimes waiting is an idle kicking of the heels before a job interview or doctor's visit, or as we wait for a loved one to come downstairs so we can leave. Sometimes waiting is an active process, as we work hard, apply ourselves and learn so that our dreams will come true.

The gospel of Luke tells the story of a man who spent his life waiting for God to keep his promise. His name was Simeon, and according to the gospel, God had told him that he would not die until he had seen the messiah.

The gospel doesn't say how old Simeon was when this finally happened, but I've always imagined him with far more gray hair than black as he cradles the infant Jesus in his hands and realizes that the work of redemption has begun. How many days did he show up at the Temple, hopeful that this would be the day at last, only to go home disappointed? I imagine they must have numbered in the thousands.

As day stretched into day, did Simeon ever despair? Did he wonder if God had broken his promise, or changed his mind; or if maybe Simeon hadn't really been promised what he thought he had been after all?

A lot had happened, much of it bad. Pompey the Great had conquered Judea in 63 BCE. By the time Simeon held the infant messiah, Judea had been a vassal state of Rome for 59 years. Herod the Great had been king for about 36 years. The messiah was going to change all that, of course, but in the meantime, the people were oppressed and entire generations had known nothing but tyranny.

For Simeon and those around him who anticipated the coming of the messiah, the birth of Jesus had been a long time coming. It had been nearly 450 years since the Word of God had echoed in the hearing of his people and the last of the great prophets had grown silent. And now in the coming of this baby, Simeon saw the first stirrings of the promised redemption of his people and of the Gentiles around them.

From the vantage point of history and with the perspective of faith, we can attest that Simeon's trust in the promise of God was vindicated, and his long wait ended gloriously. It's easy enough to imagine him going home that evening, contented and filled with wonder that he had held the messiah in his own arms, and then dying peacefully in his sleep.

The messiah, according to prophecy, was going to usher in a new era in the world, one that would see the mighty brought low and the powerless raised to new heights. Like other people of his period, Simeon probably anticipated a messiah in the vein of the Maccabees, one who would drive out the Roman occupiers, defeat the Gentile nations, and rule in justice for all time.

I wonder what he'd make of the messiah the gospels present to us instead. Executed by the Roman governor at the age of 33, Jesus never led the Jewish people to freedom. Forty years after his death, the Second Temple was destroyed by Titus, following a siege that had lasted for four years. Some messiah. Even the Resurrection was limited to him, rather than being the expected worldwide event.

At this point in history we too are waiting for the messiah, not for his arrival but for his return. The wait can be just as hard for us as it must have been for Simeon. The kingdom of God, Jesus taught us, is in our midst. The unveiling of God's grand design has begun in him. It exists and is coming, in a state of here-and-not-yet.

By sight we see untrammeled greed rewarded at the highest places, and the hard work of the masses accumulating nothing but poverty and debt slavery. By sight we see a world where a liar and a bully can become president by fanning the flames of fear and racial resentment. By sight we see a church that allies itself with him in hopes of gaining influence.

But by faith we see a much better world, one where women are treated with respect and not dishonor. By faith we strive for a time when all nations, peoples and races are uplifted together and never demeaned, and their voices are respected rather than dismissed; where people are honored not because of (or despite) their status or behavior, but because of the Imago Dei that they carry. By faith we imagine a society and a church where the wealthy and the powerful exert all their efforts on the betterment of the powerless and disenfranchised.

Like Simeon, we also are waiting for the vindication of our faith, for the Redemption begun on the first Christmas to find its fulfillment.

As an observant Jew, Simeon would have known that righteousness is far more than mere religious piety. Study of the Torah and the writings of the Hebrew prophets would have taught him that the pursuit of justice is the sine qua non of religion, that mere belief in God is insufficient for righteousness. It requires action.

The wait is so long. By faith, let us make the one who is coming proud with how we have filled the time.

Copyright © 2016 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Ghost of the Civil War

I've been haunted a lot by a ghost these past few days – not one of those terrifying Hollywood ghosts, nor a cutesy friendly children's ghost either.

The ghost I've been haunted by is the sort who makes you stop consider how well we are meeting the challenge of our times, compared to how well the ghost faced theirs. When this particular ghost was still alive, there was a war on, and his country needed him. Eleven states in the South, fearful that the president would abolish slavery, had declared themselves free and independent of their brothers in the North. So one morning he got up, kissed his mother and father goodbye, and left the Pennsylvania farm he had known his whole life.

He is an ancestor of mine whom I've only known through a family legend. As his ghost has drifted through the house, I have wondered at how little I know about him. Did he enlist because he had a moral conviction that the Union must be preserved at all costs, or was there another reason? Did he think the war would end soon, or was he expecting to be away for years? Did he ever wonder if it would be worth it in the end?

To tell the truth, until recently I didn't even know his name. All I knew was one horrifying detail of his life.

“I have an ancestor who was a prisoner of war at Andersonville,” I once told one of my best op-ed columnists. Marc Kelley wrote for the Cranford Eagle while I was its managing editor, and also worked as a Realtor in the downtown.

“Did he survive?” Marc asked. “That was an awful place, you know. The commander of that camp was the only Confederate officer to be executed for war crimes after the Civil War ended.”

“He did,” I said, “and it's a good thing for me, too. After the war, he went on to get married and have children.”

That was all I really knew about him. For the longest time, I assumed he was a Learn, since I knew he was an ancestor on my father's side. A few weeks ago an email from my father set me straight. His name was Samuel Bowman, and he was the father of my Grandmother Ruth Learn's father.

With a little searching, I was able to find an online database of records pertaining to the Civil War, including a list of POWs at Andersonville, more formally known as Camp Sumter. I'd checked before but had been unable to find anyone named Learn in the database. Now that I had the right name, I went back to see what I could find. It wasn't encouraging.

According to the database, a Pvt. Sam Bowman died on July 20, 1864, while held at Camp Sumter in Andersonville, Ga. The cause of his death is listed as diarrhea. No other information was listed, aside from his unit — 147th New York Infantry, Company H — which told me nothing. Most likely Pvt. Bowman was buried in one of several mass graves on site.

The snippet of genealogy my father had included in his email mentioned that Samuel Bowman, born in 1842, had enlisted in the Union Army with his older brother James "J.J." Bowman. It also reported that Sam and his wife had one child, a son.

The Andersonville records do not list a James Bowman, who is buried at the Cambria Mills Cemetery in Fallentimber, Pa. I assume that J.J. made it home after the war had ended, and I hope that he lived a long and happy life with his wife, Eliza, and however many children and dogs they had.

But Sam! The story of his family seemed too painful even to consider. If he died in 1864, Sam couldn't have been more than 22 when he died. Was his wife already visibly pregnant when he left, or was she not yet showing? Did they even know?

Maybe their son already was born. Just imagine the tableau: She stands there in the early morning as J.J. and her Sam leave together. As she watches him go, never to return, she cradles their young son in her arms, or maybe feels him tug at her dress from where he stands next to her on the porch.

It's easy to picture her, young face darkened with foreboding; and just as easy to imagine the grief that would have pierced her heart when news came that her husband had died. She would never take another husband. When her son became a man himself, he married and continued the Bowman line. Picture the single mother, raising her son with the help of her late husband's family, reminded daily of the man she had loved as the son he had left her grew daily into his likeness.

But then, history smiled and I was pleased to discover that my original story was more correct. There was more than one Samuel Bowman at Camp Sumter. Pvt. Bowman died, but my ancestor Sam didn't.

When Sam left Camp Sumter and made the long trek home, he stopped along the way and courted Elizabeth “Fanny” Swain, and married her. They had one son, whom they named Edgar and raised together. When the time came, Edgar married May Cartwright. Together they had four children of their own, the second of whom was named Ruth Virginia Bowman. She was my grandmother.

Of the approximately 45,000 Union prisoners held at Camp Sumter during the war, nearly 13,000 died, primarily from scurvy, diarrhea and dysentery. When rescue finally came at war's end, the prisoners' deliverers described them as skeletal, emaciated, and covered with filth and vermin. There are pictures on the Internet. They could just as easily be pictures of Holocaust survivors.

As Marc had told me, the general pardon that President Lincoln extended to the rebel soldiers at the end of the Civil War did not extend to the commander of Camp Sumter. The record shows that Capt. Henry Wirz was tried and hanged for war crimes, the only Confederate official to be so tried and convicted.

(To be fair, some historians dispute that Wirz was responsible for the conditions at Camp Sumter, and instead blame the overcrowding and infectious disease, both due to circumstances beyond his personal control.)

In many ways, Sam Bowman is the perfect ancestor at a time like this. Like Lincoln, Gen. Ulysses Grant strode through his time like a titan. By dint of his position, his character and his drive, he moved the river of history from one bed to another. Claiming him as ancestor would be an exercise in vanity, like trying to make myself better by the association. Sam, on the other hand, was a nondescript nobody from central Pennsylvania.

My great-great-grandfather saw the end of the Civil War and the assassination of Lincoln. He saw the nation quit its half-hearted attempts at Reconstruction, and may have heard about the rise of jim crow justice and how by brute force the resentful South undid much of the hard-won work the Union did in liberating the slaves.

Sam may even have heard stories about the Great Migration as blacks fled a reign of terror in the South that would have put ISIS to shame, and ran North to places like New York and Chicago in the hopes of life, liberty and a future.

I only can imagine how he'd react to hearing that the Republican Party, once the Party of Lincoln, had forsaken that heritage and descended into what it's become now; and how it had elected a man as unstable as Donald Trump and so openly racist that the Ku Klux Klan was celebrating his election as their vindication.

Sam Bowman fought to save the Union. I'd hate to think of what he'd say to see it now, and I wonder how he would fight to save it again.

Copyright © 2016 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

So you voted for Donald Trump

I'm writing this to all my friends and family who voted for Donald Trump to be president.

Let me start by saying that I'm not mad at you. We've known each other for years. We've broken bread together, watched one another's kids, laughed at one another's jokes, and even worshiped together. Through the years we've learned to trust one another, and sought one another out when we needed wisdom and guidance.

Your friendship means the world to me, and this election has not changed that. I'm not mad at you. But I am terribly disappointed.

Why? Because of what Trump is and what he represents. Because of what he's going to do over the next four years to our country and the people who live here, and because of what he's already doing. It wouldn't bother me nearly as much if he had presented himself as an angel of light and tricked you, but he didn't do that. He showed himself for what he is, and you still voted for him.

I could go through a litany of his abuses, but I won't.

I could regale you with example after appalling example of his racism toward Hispanics and blacks, his anti-Semitism, and the ways he has mocked the disabled and vilified Muslims.

I could remind you that he encouraged violence at his rallies, telling his supporters that in the good old days, protesters would have been carried out on a stretcher.

I could remind you that we all heard him boast about sexually predatory behavior, that he has cheated on every one of his wives, and that he once described his own daughter as “a piece of ass” and even said he would date her if she weren't his own child.

I could get into all this with you, but why bother? You already know it. Many of you were appalled by these very things, and yet you were willing to vote for him anyway.

That's the part that I don't understand. Trump made it clear that in his America, ethnic minorities and minority religions are second-class and viewed with suspicion. I know you don't feel that way yourself, but when you voted for him, you said it was OK that he does.

You've taught your kids to treat everyone with equal respect, but you voted to have a president who wants to institute a religious test for immigrants and who shares racist, inaccurate statistics from white nationalists.

You would ground your son for a month of Sundays if you heard him talking with friends about grabbing my daughter “by the pussy.” If he tried to explain it was just a joke or “locker room banter,” you would scream at him so loudly that they would hear you in the next ZIP code. You heard Trump say that, and you voted for him to be president.

Trump insults those who criticize him, loses his temper if they one-up him, and mocks anyone who opposes or disagrees with him. If your daughter were dating someone like that, you'd want her to leave an abusive relationship. Instead, you just agreed the country should marry him for at least the next four years.

What's the message people should take from this? That as horrible as all these things are, you can live with them? That the dignity of your black neighbors, your Hispanic neighbors, your gay neighbors, your female neighbors, your Muslim neighbors, your Jewish neighors, is something you're willing to see take a hit? That their respectability is negotiable?

That's not the message you wanted to send but that's the message that was received.

I know the response: Hillary Clinton is just as bad. We both know that's not true. For years Trump has been as involved in the political system as she is, and when it comes to lies and corruption he has been playing in the majors for years. It's time to stop arguing for moral equivalence. We're too honest for that.

Being paid money to give speeches is is not the same thing as regularly refusing to pay bills to small businesses and threatening to bury them under an avalanche of litigation if they protest. Using a private email server is not the same as dealing in one oversize lie after another and stoking racial hatred.

For that matter, being married to an adulterer and forgiving him is nothing like being the adulterous spouse and leaving your partner for the woman you cheated with, and then repeating that process a few years later.

I've heard some of you cite abortion as the reason why you just couldn't vote for Clinton. That's a complicated issue, and it's one we can and need to discuss some time soon, but let's admit that this has become an idol on the Right.

Abortion is an ancient practice, but it is never once condemned in the Bible. The behaviors Trump practices are condemned roundly and repeatedly. In fact, Scripture makes that condemnation a major theme throughout.

But here we are. There is nothing to gain by arguing the merit of one candidate or another now, and that's not the point anyway. The dilemma is that we are being asked to accept a president-elect whose conduct and attitudes are morally abhorrent and have left people legitimately frightened for their safety and security.

Already the ugliness reported in Britain after the vote to leave the European Union is rearing its head here. Muslim women — easily identified by the hijab they wear — singled out and attacked. Kindergartners telling their peers they'll be deported soon. Blacks being called by the N-word openly.

Donald Trump did not create this ugliness, but through his campaign he brought it out into the open and gave it legitimacy. This is not something you wanted, but it has happened. By electing him, we have affirmed that this behavior is something we can live with.

We should not.

With the Republicans now in control of both chambers of the Congress and the White House, we likely will see a repeal of the Affordable Care Act, which means that millions of the most vulnerable members of our society are going to lose their health insurance. We also may see further cuts to the protections of minorities as the Voting Rights and Civil Rights acts are chipped away.

And that's just the beginning. The Republican Party in the last 16 years has systematically opposed both maintaining our social safety net and opposed setting watchmen over big business. Expect more children to go hungry, more school funding to be slashed, and more abuses by big business as wages drop and the wealth divide grows.

From where I'm sitting, it looks like our country is entering a dark time. I'm appalled that many of my fellow Christians – a reported 80 percent of white evangelicals, who claim to have a close and personal relationship with Jesus – decided that they could live with all that Trump has said and done about women and minorities if it means they might have a say in appointing Supreme Court justices.

As a Christian myself I have to note that the people likely to suffer under a Trump presidency are the people whom Jesus stands with and among.

On Jan. 20, Donald Trump will be our president. I understand that, and accept that there is nothing I can do about it. I cast my vote, and though a majority of Americans agreed with me, Trump has won the election by the book.

But let us remember that dissent is the highest form of patriotism. There are times patriotism means standing firm and saying "This is wrong."

Yes, let us come together. There is work to be done. There are people who will need advocates and there are things coming that we must oppose. I'd like to start by inviting you, my friends who voted for Trump, to get on board. Come together and stand with us, for the good of the nation.

Copyright © 2016 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

Facing a Trump presidency in faith

Let's talk for a moment about our president-elect.

During the past year, Donald Trump has maligned Hispanics, villified Muslims, mocked the disabled, spread racist lies about blacks and Jews, advocated violence against his critics, and bragged about sexually assaulting women. This is not a man who ran to be president of all America, but only of some of us. His entire campaign was built on excluding "the other" from his vision of America.

During that campaign, Trump regularly attacked the legitimacy of major institutions in this country: the news media, the Congress, both parties, our political process, our intelligence agencies and our military. He has indicated he would like to weaken the protections of the First Amendment itself, to make it easier to sue people who criticize him or who he feels treat him "unfairly." He has shown support for ending marriage equality, and for chipping away at the recently enacted protections for transgender youth at schools.

His business record is an open drain, one where he once lost nearly $1 billion in a single year and and where he has filed for personal bankruptcy not once but multiple times. He regularly has cheated small businesses by reneging on contracts and burying them in litigation to prevent them from collecting what he owes them. He also is subject to ongoing litigation over his business practices, particularly Trump University. This is someone whom we have elected to preside over our economy.

He has run a campaign not on substance and ideas but on innuendo, personal attacks, and one outsize lie after another. We have entrusted him with our international standing, our military and economic alliances, and with partnerships that go back decades if not centuries.

He has advocated violence at his rallies, directed it toward protesters and minorities; and when his supporters have engaged in violence he has praised them for their enthusiasm. As president, Trump will be the chief law enforcement officer of the nation.

Trump's supporters have commended him for "honesty" and not bowing to "political correctness"; but he has not pushed aside the bounds of political correctness to allow a free exchange of ideas, but to mock, humiliate and belittle others. He has not emboldened us toward greater discussion or honesty. He has instead encouraged us to indulge our worst impulses. We have given him the largest bully pulpit in the world.

And now that he's been elected to the presidency, I'm hearing from people that we on the Left are acting hysterically. Conservative Christians are telling us that we need to have faith, that God is on the throne.

This is not hysteria. This is a reasoned, calm and rational assessment of the existential threat that a Trump presidency poses to the Republic.

My 6-year-old is worried that her friends are going to have to leave the country because their parents are here without proper documentation. I comforted my 14-year-old today because she is worried about the increased bullying she fears her LGBTQ friends will face now, and because of the heightened threats to her friends and classmates of color.

Yes, God is on the throne, and by faith we attest that all these things work toward his greater glory. But God was on the throne on Aug. 20, 1934, and we all know what cold comfort his sovereignty proved to be to those who lived under the F├╝hrer. God also was seated on the throne on Oct. 29, 1929, when Herbert Hoover presided over the greatest economic crash in world history; and he was on the throne when George W. Bush presidend over the second greatest. God's sovereignty does not lessen the burden of enduring the things that happen in this world.

This isn't about faith or lack of faith in God's sovereignty. It's a recognition that we're about to see a lot of progress ripped up as millions of our most vulnerable citizens likely will lose their health insurance, as a right-heavy Congress votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act; as it further rips up the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts; as our gay and trans neighbors, friends and relatives face losing the legal protections and recognition they had begun to win; and as an unpredictable demagogue very possibly will get to make multiple lifetime appointments to the Supreme Court.

This is not panic, and it is not hysteria. This is recognizing what our country likely will have to endure, and it is the start of understanding the monumental task God has called us to in pursuing his justice here on earth under an unjust government.

Copyright © 2016 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Tuesday, November 01, 2016

Jack Chick Considered

Jack Chick, the creator of more than 250 of the world's most infamous evangelistic tracts, reportedly died in his sleep last Sunday night. He was 92.

Even if you've never heard of Jack Chick, you're probably familiar with his work. Over the past 50 years, his company has printed an estimated 800 million of his comics, little pamphlets about the size of a Tijuana bible. They're frequently found in bus stations, Laundromats and other public areas where people are bored and will kill a minute or two reading a religious tract if there's nothing else to do.

The tracts are not known for their sensitivity, nor for their accuracy. On both fronts they make InfoWars seem as down-to-earth as a Ken Burns documentary.

Once you have read a few of his comics, you will begin to understand that Chick saw the world in very stark terms. In his view, the road to hell is not only broad, it also has frequent on-ramps in places like rock music, Harry Potter, Dungeons and Dragons, public school, trick-or-treating, and even the Bible if it's not the approved 1611 King James Version.

Judging by his tracts, the only people Jack Chick considered to be decent were fundamentalist Christians like himself. They dress nicely, act and speak respectfully, and unflaggingly labor to tell people important truths that they don't want to hear, in order to keep those people out of hell. They overcome earthly obstacles no matter how sorely they're put upon, and they persevere and tell you that you need to ask Jesus to forgive your sins.

Non-Christians, on the other hand, are foul-mouthed, vulgar and often treacherous. Their faces are misshapen and angular, their teeth are crooked, and their mouths are twisted perpetually into grotesque sneers. They are nervous or angry and brittle, and explode whenever they hear someone mention Jesus. It's impossible to be ambivalent about Christianity, according to Chick. You either embrace it or you hate it with a passion.

Other things to know as you navigate this strange world: The truth is out there. It's just suppressed by a vast conspiracy aided and abetted by scientists, educators, the courts, liberals and the newspapers. The wicked always bray “Haw haw” like an infernal donkey when they laugh; and the most evil organization of all isn't the NFL. It's the Catholic Church, which over the years has created communism, your local Masonic lodge, the Ku Klux Klan and even Islam.

For all that they have offended and inspired mockery, Chick tracts also have gathered a perverse fandom. One of them even inspired a full-length movie adaptation. As a whole they reached the point years ago that they have become iconic pieces of religious Americana. His comics are so obnoxious, so over-the-top offensive, that they're like a joke he didn't know how to stop.

Except to Chick, it wasn't a joke. He was completely serious. He honestly believed that “true Christianity” was under siege by Catholicism, by secularism, by science and by falsified Scriptures. He saw himself and others who thought like him as the only guardians of an endangered truth.

Chick had some interesting beliefs, to put it mildly, the sort that forces you to take sides. The Southern Poverty Law Center includes Chick Publications on its list of hate groups, and the Christian Booksellers Association in 1981 considered expelling him from its ranks. (He withdrew his membership first.)

To Chick and his supporters, the angry reactions and denunciations his work received only justified their sense that he was right and was being hated wrongly by the people he was trying to rescue; while his inability or refusal to see how hurtful his tracts were only justified the beliefs of his critics that Chick was small-minded and hateful.

The divide left two groups of people, each convinced of the moral, spiritual and intellectual inferiority of the other. Given the potency of religious beliefs, difference of belief over his tracts and whether they had a place in evangelism was enough to sunder relationships within some churches. In many ways it parallels the partisan divide in American politics today.

In March 2004, Catholic Answers published an article by Jimmy Akin, a Catholic apologist and evangelist who met Chick at the world premier of the movie “The Light of the World.” Akin, a self-professed fan of Chick's work because of the bizarre fascination it elicits, recalls spotting Chick and wanting to debate him on his theology or even to goad him into disowning the conspiracy theories in his tracts.

But then he had an interesting, Christlike thought: “I decided that, if it was Chick, the most charitable thing I could do was simply be nice to him and chat,” he wrote.

What follows in Akin's article is one of the most thoroughly human and down-to-earth conversations imaginable. For perhaps a half-hour or more, the two men talked about writing, about illustration and art styles, about tracts and even about some of Chick's more outrageous conspiracy theories.

The article doesn't leave readers with the impression that the two men became friends, or that Chick suddenly disavowed a lifetime of conspiracy thinking and anti-Catholic sentiment. But it does suggest that the two men left one another a little more aware of their common humanity and perhaps even a little more inclined to view one another sympathetically. That divide, which to some might see impossible to cross, had been bridged, however tenuously, through the simple act of talking and listening to one another.

“Chick came across as a kind, gentle old man,” Akin wrote. "He was nothing but polite. He smiled. He laughed. Unlike the characters in his comic books, he didn’t say 'Haw! Haw!' when he laughed. From meeting him one would never suspect him to be the most infamous broadcaster of hate and paranoia in the Christian comic book world.”

Make no mistake: The overriding arc of Jack Chick's faith was one of fear. He was afraid of Catholics. He was afraid of music. He was afraid of gays and lesbians. He was afraid of Bible translations other than the King James Version. He was afraid of other religions. He was afraid of progress. He was afraid of Halloween, of evolution, and probably of Christmas too.

Behind all these things he saw the dark hand of a satanic conspiracy that had overtaken the entire world except for him and a few others, and that constantly threatened even them. At the age of 90, he apparently believed that the Catholic Church was monitoring him and even had plans for his assassination.

A faith that leads us to the summit of fear and then stops there, is not a faith that is reaching its potential; and I admit, I like to think that Chick is going to feel a little abashed to discover that God's grace is wider and different from what he imagined. But a faith that lets us feel better than somebody else isn't much of a faith either. It's not enough to save anyone.

I rather recall the question a teacher of the law once posed to Jesus about what was necessary to be saved. After Jesus answered, he told his interrogator the Parable of the Good Samaritan, where a wounded man was saved by somebody he hated more than anyone else in the world.

The message of that parable is one that his ancient audience needed to hear; it's one that Jack Chick needed to hear; and it's one that we would benefit from today, in these times of division between supporters of Hillary Clinton and supporters of Donald Trump.

The person you hate the most also happens to be the person you need.

Copyright © 2016 by David Learn. Used with permission.