Steeling our minds steals wisdom from them |

Steeling our minds steals wisdom from them

Rev. Jack Van Ens

U.S. citizens in the 1850s felt their nation cursed by a plague. Battle lines formed. Heated exchanges occurred among senators on Capitol Hill. Politicians in the House of Representatives set their minds and would not budge. Slavery forced adversaries to steel their minds. Fierce debate over slavery stole from protagonists an ability to listen to opponents. Instead of being civil to those with whom they differed, those who steeled their minds turned savage.Thomas Hart Benton, editor of the Missouri Enquirer, wrote how polarized arguments about slavery won over thoughtful dialogue. Enemies rejected collaboration as spineless. Slavery split the nation even as it hardened made-up minds. A plague of biblical proportions ravaged our nation’s soul. Benton vividly described congressional debaters with minds hard as steel who argued over slavery. “We read in Holy Writ,” Benton wrote as he alluded to the 10 plagues God hurled against Pharaoh, “that a certain people were cursed by the plague of frogs, and that the plague was everywhere! You could not look upon the table but there were frogs, you could not sit down at the banquet but there were frogs, you could not go to the bridal couch and lift the sheets but there were frogs!”A similar calamity afflicted our nation in the 1850s as slavery forced debaters to militantly steel their minds against viewpoints they rejected.Into this fracas strode Abraham Lincoln. He told a friend Joshua Speed, “I am slow to learn and slow to forget that which I have learned. My mind is like a piece of steel, very hard to scratch any thing on it and almost impossible after you get there to rub it out.”Lincoln didn’t close doors leading to new insight. He never quite made up his mind. He wrestled with ambiguity, realizing this is the price we pay for being human. We don’t grip the final word on issues that defy easy remedies. Like the biblical sage, Lincoln mused over his battle plans against those who defended slavery. “A wise person attacks a city of warriors,” teaches biblical proverb, “and pulls down the strong defenses in which they trust,” Proverbs 21:22.Lincoln, asking whether he might be wrong, undercut slavery’s defenders, whose convictions were rarely shaken, rarely revised and rarely reconsidered.Like Lincoln, President George W. Bush sharpens his steeled mind, rarely scratched by questioning why we are at war in Iraq. But Bush differs from Lincoln because his mental profile differs widely from the Great Emancipator’s. Lincoln freed his thinking from enslaved certainty. He seldom reduced convictions to scathing sound bites or clever put-downs. He embraced ambiguity and used nuance, never apologizing for them. Lincoln harbored doubt to spur war decisions; Bush proudly decides not to doubt the war in Iraq.Our president uses tough rhetoric against evil to seal the case for what his sycophants cheer. He casts himself as a straight-shooting Texan who marches into the Dodge City of terror. The president guns down those who would kill him. He steels his mind against terrorists. Our president doesn’t like to keep holstered verbal guns he cocks when defending the war. He’s against “cut-and-run Defeatocrats.” Patriots fight; cowards question the fight by not “staying the course,” claims the Bush/Cheney team. “We have to fight terrorists over there so we don’t have to fight them over here,” Bush said. We help Iraqis on our side stand up for freedom so our troops can someday stand down and go home. Sitting beneath Washington’s portrait two weeks before midterm elections, Bush asserted what conservative media hype, “If we leave, they will follow us here.” He believes “the battle for the future of civilization is being fought on the streets of Baghdad.” Such sound bites rush to convict but collapse into what’s illogical. They prevent those with steeled minds from looking at the war using differing perspectives. Steeled minds are suspicious of introspection. “I don’t spend a lot of time looking in the mirror,” President Bush once crowed, “except when I comb my hair.” Surrounded by pundits siding with him, Bush spoke in late October with pro-war Wall Street Journal commentator Daniel Henninger. The president again distanced himself from a brooding Lincoln, who agonized over how to deal with slavery without splitting the nation. “Mr. Bush,” reports a fawning Henninger, “goes on the offense himself in the kind of plain speech that maddens his detractors but may endear him in the heartland: ‘Maybe it’s not being nuanced enough for some of the thinkers and all that stuff – that’s fine. But that’s exactly what a lot of people like me think.'”Stuff? Can you imagine a dismissive Lincoln referring to his musing, introspective wrestling spiked with probing questions as … merely stuff?Recently writing in the Wall Street Journal, former Ronald Reagan lead speechwriter Peggy Noonan sizes up how Bush’s mind is closed, conviction-filled and lacking nuance: “Republican political veterans go easy on ideology, but they’re tough on incompetence. They see Mr. Bush through the eyes of experience and maturity. They hate a lack of care. They see Mr. Bush as careless, and on more than Iraq – careless with old alliances, disrespectful of the opinion of mankind. ‘He never listens,’ an elected official who is a Bush supporter said with a shrug some months ago. Along the way the president’s men and women confused the necessary and legitimate disciplining of a coalition with weird and excessive attempts to silence Republican critics. They have lived in a closed system. They now want to open it but don’t know how. Listening is a habit; theirs has long been to suppress.”Two war presidents: Lincoln thought from the heart, looking for holes in his argument. Bush thinks bunkered by a steeled mind and sees no holes.The Rev. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth Ministries, enhancing Christian worship through lively storytelling and dramatic presentations. Van Ens’ book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes,” is available in local bookstores for $7.95.Vail, Colorado

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