Saturday, June 27, 2020

Musings on a Zombie Economy Fostered by the Federal Reserve

   By Rudy Barnes, Jr.

One out of five corporations on Wall Street is a zombie corporation that cannot survive without Fed assistance. They are like spoiled children in a privileged family, with the Fed assuming their bad debts and helping them borrow money that they can’t pay back.  America now has a zombie economy, with banks at risk with trillions of dollars in zombie loans.

Since the 2008 recession the Fed has been praised for saving the economy with its low interest rates and quantitative easing.  In retrospect, by putting failed corporations on life support the Fed may have done more harm than good.  In a healthy capitalist economy, failed businesses should be allowed to die a natural death.  No corporation should be too big to fail.

America’s economy was anemic before the pandemic triggered the stock market crash in March.  The excessive debt of corporations and their overvalued stock made them dependent on the cheap money of the Fed and artificially low interest rates to avoid failure, but the likelihood of zombie loans going bad now threatens to turn a recession into a depression.

The stock market and the wealth of billionaires have surged in the pandemic, evidence of the distorted results of Congressional and Fed relief measures that have promoted crony capitalism.  Most economists no longer expect a  quick “V” shaped recovery, but anticipate the stock market will falter again with a slow recovery that will take years rather than months.

As in 2007, banks once again have too much bad debt on their books.  This time it’s corporate debt and not home mortgages that have gone sour and are threatening the failure of zombie corporations that cannot survive without Fed support.  It’s an exaggerated repeat of 2008 with more severe threats, but there are limits to what the Fed and Congress will do.

Economic justice requires an end to Fed subsidies to the zombie corporations of Wall Street while providing assistance to the smaller businesses on Main Street.  That would reduce disparities in wealth between the rich and a diminishing middle class.  The economic class divide in America denies economic justice as it becomes increasingly polarized and oppressive.

Race is a factor, but it’s not the only factor causing disparities in America’s wealth.  The Fed favors the mega-corporations of Wall Street over the smaller businesses of Main Street.  The next time the big ones on Wall Street fail, they should not be rescued by congressional aid or Fed subsidies, but be allowed to fail and split up into smaller sustainable corporate entities.

Over the years the Fed has supported mega-mergers on Wall Street that have increased economic disparities and reduced the competition needed for a healthy economy.  It’s time to provide for the common good and reverse that trend.  The Fed should not be sustaining zombie corporations and it should provide incentives for mega-corporations and megabanks to split up.  Bigger is not better, except for the super-rich and the zombie corporations on Wall Street. 


David Lynch has described how the government’s response to the coronavirus has unleashed zombie firms:  “Nearly one in every five publicly traded U.S. companies is a zombie, according to data compiled by Deutsche Bank Securities. That figure has doubled since 2013 and is up dramatically from the late 1990s, when there were almost no half-dead companies staggering across the landscape.
Years of ultralow interest rates intended to stimulate the economy after each of three 21st-century recessions created the conditions for zombies to proliferate, according to economists. Since the pandemic sideswiped the U.S. economy in March, the Federal Reserve has again lowered borrowing costs to near zero and further eased credit conditions by purchasing corporate bonds.
The Fed’s actions have drawn widespread support as an antidote to the pandemic-inspired economic collapse. Making it easier for companies to obtain financing should prevent countless business failures and millions of additional job losses, economists said. But that short-term success may breed long-term weakness, sapping productivity, investment and the economy’s competitive fire once the crisis passes.
...Like a recuperating hospital patient relying on painkillers, the economy needs cheap credit to recover. But used for too long, low interest rates act like a narcotic, leaving the economy craving easy money and unable to thrive without it.
...Weak growth prompts the central bank to cut interest rates, which allows zombies to multiply. A growing number of zombified companies further erodes the economy’s strength, leaving central bankers reluctant to raise rates from their zombie-friendly levels. And the cycle repeats, keeping failing firms alive and interfering with the emergence of more productive competitors.
After the 2008 financial crisis, the Fed kept rates near zero for seven years, then raised them in tiny increments until 2019, only to start cutting them again. With May’s 13.3 percent unemployment rate suggesting a long recovery lies ahead, Federal Reserve Chair Jerome H. Powell earlier this month said the central bank is “not even thinking about raising rates.”  That means more years of near-free money, an additional surge in business borrowing and thus more fuel for zombies. 
Nonfinancial business debt grew in the first quarter by almost 19 percent, the biggest percentage jump in at least 40 years, according to the Federal Reserve. Businesses took on more than $3 trillion in new debt in the first three months of 2020, almost 10 times as much as in the previous three months.
All that borrowed money was needed to replace revenue lost when the pandemic forced most factories, workplaces and retail outlets to close for several weeks. Without the borrowing surge, millions more Americans would have joined the 21 million workers currently idle. But at more than $16.8 trillion, business debt tops 78 percent of the economy.
...The epic economic collapse that began in March brought numerous corporate borrowers closer to zombie status, particularly in the retail and energy sectors. The number of corporations that S&P Global rated “CCC” or lower -- a sign of unsustainable finances -- reached an all-time high of 256 on May 31, according to Gregg Lemos-Stein, S&P Global’s head of research for corporate ratings.
That is nearly twice as many as at the peak of the 2008-09 crisis.
...While there is no formal definition of the term, companies that fail to book sufficient profits, or operating income, to cover their annual debt costs for three straight years are generally considered zombies, economists said.
...The extraordinary central bank action that has kept credit unusually inexpensive for so long has prevented market forces from weeding out failure and rewarding success, these economists said. Zombies make it harder for new companies to enter a market and for existing, more productive companies to grow.
...For now, interest rate increases are a non-starter given the economy’s profound weakness. But the Fed should require banks to beef up their reserves against potential losses by halting dividend payments. See

Frank Portnoy has described the similarity between the consolidated debt instruments causing the current proliferation of zombie corporations (CLOs that represent corporate debt) are to those that precipitated the 2008 recession (CDOs based on home mortgage debt).  “After the housing crisis, subprime CDOs naturally fell out of favor. Demand shifted to a similar—and similarly risky—instrument, one that even has a similar name: the CLO, or collateralized loan obligation. A CLO walks and talks like a CDO, but in place of loans made to home buyers are loans made to businesses—specifically, troubled businesses. CLOs bundle together so-called leveraged loans, the subprime mortgages of the corporate world. These are loans made to companies that have maxed out their borrowing and can no longer sell bonds directly to investors or qualify for a traditional bank loan. There are more than $1 trillion worth of leveraged loans currently outstanding. The majority are held in CLOs.
...According to many estimates, the CLO market is bigger than the subprime-mortgage CDO market was in its heyday. The Bank for International Settlements, which helps central banks pursue financial stability, has estimated the overall size of the CDO market in 2007 at $640 billion; it estimated the overall size of the CLO market in 2018 at $750 billion. More than $130 billion worth of CLOs have been created since then, some even in recent months. Just as easy mortgages fueled economic growth in the 2000s, cheap corporate debt has done so in the past decade, and many companies have binged on it.
Despite their obvious resemblance to the villain of the last crash, CLOs have been praised by Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin for moving the risk of leveraged loans outside the banking system. Like former Fed Chair Alan Greenspan, who downplayed the risks posed by subprime mortgages, Powell and Mnuchin have downplayed any trouble CLOs could pose for banks, arguing that the risk is contained within the CLOs themselves.
These sanguine views are hard to square with reality.
...The prices of AAA-rated CLO layers tumbled in March, before the Federal Reserve announced that its additional $2.3 trillion of lending would include loans to CLOs. (The program is controversial: Is the Fed really willing to prop up CLOs when so many previously healthy small businesses are struggling to pay their debts? As of mid-May, no such loans had been made.) Far from scaring off the big banks, the tumble inspired several of them to buy low: Citigroup acquired $2 billion of AAA CLOs during the dip, which it flipped for a $100 million profit when prices bounced back. Other banks, including Bank of America, reportedly bought lower layers of CLOs in May for about 20 cents on the dollar.
Meanwhile, loan defaults are already happening. There were more in April than ever before. Several experts told me they expect more record-breaking months this summer. It will only get worse from there.
...If we muster the political will to do so—or if we avert the worst possible outcomes in this precarious time—it will be imperative for the U.S. government to impose reforms stringent enough to head off the next crisis. We’ve seen how banks respond to stern reprimands and modest reform. This time, regulators might need to dismantle the system as we know it. Banks should play a much simpler role in the new economy, making lending decisions themselves instead of farming them out to credit-rating agencies. They should steer clear of whatever newfangled security might replace the CLO. To prevent another crisis, we also need far more transparency, so we can see when banks give in to temptation. A bank shouldn’t be able to keep $1 trillion worth of assets off its books. See

Bloomberg has reported on the Fed invitation to a “party like no other” sponsoring junk bonds,     
“You get an invitation to a party from the Fed, Treasury and Congress -- they offer to pick you up, take you home and bring you breakfast in bed the next morning,” said Bill Zox, a high-yield bond portfolio manager at Diamond Hill Capital Management.  “You know it is going to be a party like no other,” said Zox, whose firm oversees more than $20 billion in assets. Strong demand and low absolute borrowing costs encourage issuers to tap the high-yield market despite challenging economic data and renewed virus flare-ups.”

For the first time since 2008 the Fed has acknowledged the increased risk to big banks of excessive credit extended to zombie corporations.  The Fed is restricting bank buybacks and dividends so that the banks will have enough capital on hand to cover anticipated losses.  See

Statiista has provided the following chart on billionaire wealth surging during the pandemic: 

Saturday, June 20, 2020

The Fed Just Made Investments in the Stock Market as Safe as Bank CDs

   By Rudy Barnes, Jr.

The Federal Reserve has announced it will be buying corporate bonds to prop up the mega-corporations of Wall Street.  Those Fed bond purchases will supply the oligarchs of Wall Street with the cash needed to attract investors in overvalued stock rather than investing in low return treasury bonds or certificates of deposit insured by the FDIC.

Large corporations raise cash for their operations with corporate bonds that offer investors a higher return than U.S. treasury bonds and FDIC insured CDs, but with greater risk.  The Fed has taken the risk out of investing in stock by buying corporate bonds, and by keeping interest rates at close to zero it has discouraged investments in treasury bonds and CDs.
The partnership between the Fed and the mega-corporations of Wall Street is evidence of crony capitalism.  It provides more power to the super-rich oligarchs of Wall Street at the expense of smaller businesses on Main Street and exacerbates the dangerous disparities in wealth between the rich and America’s diminishing middle class.

The national debt is soon expected to reach $30 Trillion, with the Fed balance sheet to exceed $7 Trillion; and the Fed is now propping up the stock market despite objections that it will only produce a sugar high for the economy.  The consequences could be ugly, but the Fed has failed to explain the long-term economic impact of its aggressive new monetary policies.

The national debt will continue to rise to pay maturing bonds.  While Fed monetary policies create new dollars without increasing the national debt, they dilute the value of existing dollars.  Keynesian economists tell us not to worry about the massive national debt, and Trump has said that we can print money to pay our national debts; but there’s good reason to worry.

America’s inability to reduce its massive national debt and its continued creation of new money will lead to an economic meltdown.  The crony capitalists on Wall Street who are the primary beneficiaries of misguided Fed monetary policies will be the first to see it coming.  They have contingency escape plans, but most Americans will have to live with devalued dollars.

The Trump White House, along with a profligate Fed and a Congress beholden to its patrons on Wall Street all bear responsibility for the misguided monetary policies.  They promote the illusion that they benefit all Americans, but they don’t.  They have already motivated Americans to move their secure savings to a speculative stock market that is likely to collapse.

In propping up Wall Street, the Fed has insured investors a high-yield return on stock much as the FDIC insures low-yield bank accounts and CDs; but when mega-corporations fail, investments in their stock are lost unless the Fed or Congress bails them out as “too big to fail.”  That happened in 2008, but will it happen next time?  Don’t bet your savings on it.           


CNBC has reported that “The Federal Reserve is expanding its foray into corporate credit to now buy individual corporate bonds, on top of the exchange-traded funds it already is purchasing. 
....What it does primarily is continues to push fixed income lower and tighter and helps prop up the stock market, which is the real issue here” said Patrick Leary, chief market strategist at Incapital. “It’s a reminder to the marketplace that the Fed is here with its balance sheet and is going to deploy that balance sheet to try to support markets and market functioning.”
...The Fed has been deploying historically aggressive policy moves over the past three months, and Monday’s action again raised fears of overreach as the central bank helps prop up a credit market laden with “zombie” companies whose revenues don’t cover their debt payments.  “I think [the bond purchases are a mistake, because they already achieved their objective,” said Christopher Whalen, former investment banker and head of Whalen Global Advisors. “The Fed doesn’t need to get distracted. What they care about is that markets work and spreads don’t go crazy. The Fed has to realize that other than assuring that market conditions are acceptable, they really shouldn’t go diving into this stuff.”  See

According to Scott Minerd, markets may crash so badly that the Fed has to start buying stocks.  After the Federal Reserve’s monetary policy to buy junk bonds and corporate debt ETFs as part of its campaign to revive the American economy, “Next on its shopping list are US stocks,”.  The S&P 500 has skyrocketed 40% since March 23, when the Fed announced its unprecedented experiment with junk bonds. That surge, coming in the face of the collapse of the real economy, drove up market valuations to dotcom-bubble levels.  It's a troubling precedent that the Federal Reserve is going to sit there and continue to fund these zombie companies that don't deserve to exist."  Minerd thinks a reckoning is coming, and soon. He expects the S&P 500 will retest its March 23 low of 2,237.40 over the next month, potentially crumbling to as low as 1,600. That would mark a 49% collapse from where the index traded Tuesday during a strong rally.   Minerd warned his clients back in February that there were "red flags" in financial markets.  "This will eventually end badly. I have never in my career seen anything as crazy as what's going on right now," he wrote on February 13.  This isn't the first time Minerd has warned of a brewing storm. In August 2007, he said the credit squeeze at the time could morph into a recession. Stocks hit record highs that fall, before beginning an historic collapse as the Great Recession began.  ..."It's a troubling precedent that the Federal Reserve is going to continue to fund these zombie companies that don't deserve to exist," he said, and called the Fed's junk bond experiment an "almost socialist" program based on the notion that the government has an "obligation to keep companies liquid and finances," as opposed to just keeping markets functioning.  ..."One thing about bubbles is they tend to go on longer and go further than people ever expect," he said. Even the Fed is warning that the V-shaped recovery may not happen: “Until the public is confident that the disease is contained, a full recovery is unlikely."  Minerd said it could be "at least a good three- to four-year slog" before employment and GDP return to pre-coronavirus levels. Some jobs impacted by shifts in consumer behavior are "never coming back," he said, potentially causing "permanently" elevated unemployment.  "People have totally underestimated how long this is going to take," Minerd said. See

Martin Hutchinson has asserted that the Fed’s funny money makes the economy go flat.  He says ”Artificially low interest rates cause inflation ...yet not all inflation appears in official price statistics. In 1995–2000, inflation went into stocks, which reached valuations never before dreamed of. In 2002–07, it went into housing. Since 2009, it has gone into assets of all kinds. To show the level of distortion: If the Dow Jones Industrials Index were to trade at the same level as in February 1995, adjusted for both consumer price inflation and economic growth, it would today trade around 11,000. The difference between that and the Dow ‘s current price of 27,000 reflects the effect of ultra-low interest rates over a quarter-century. ...By keeping rates far below their natural level for a decade or more, central bankers have encouraged a mass of ill-advised investment. Not only does this suck up resources, but it starves the entrepreneurs and small businesses, who have less access to cheap capital than big businesses.
...The lesson is clear. Apart from their unpleasant social effects, artificially low interest rates kill productivity growth and thus prevent the improvements in living standards on which we have come to rely. Far from keeping rates at zero until the end of 2022, as it has promised, the Fed must quickly raise rates to their historically normal level, some 2 percent above the rate of inflation.”  See

Richard Bernstein has predicted that Fed policies are setting markets up for long term problems. “Bernstein warns unprecedented Federal Reserve policies may eventually cause serious harm.  He cites near record deficits and aggressive efforts to increase the money supply among the biggest problems.  ‘I’m surprised that people aren’t more concerned about what huge monetary growth means for the economy in the United States now,’ the CEO and Chief Investment Officer of Richard Bernstein Advisors told CNBC’s “Trading Nation” on Wednesday.  Bernstein is particularly concerned about the vast bond purchases the Fed is making right now.  “They’ve effectively turned the bond market into third grade soccer,” Bernstein said. ‘There are no winners or losers. Everybody gets a participation medal, and one has to wonder by taking out the risk return consideration from a huge market — what that means for misallocation of capital, where a bubble is going to form and things like that.’ …’There’s some pretty nutty stuff going on. ...We don’t necessarily worry about that in the next two days. But I think in the next year, two years [or] three years, that’s going to be a big concern people should have.’”  See

Jeremy Grantham is a stock market legend who has called 3 financial bubbles and says this one is the ‘Real McCoy.’  This is crazy stuff.”  Gratham has painted a very dire picture of the investment landscape in the U.S., suggesting that rampant trading by out-of-work investors and speculative fervor around bankrupt companies, including car-rental company Hertz Global Holdings Inc., reflects a market that may be the most bubblicious he’s seen in his storied career.”  Grantham noted “that monetary stimulus from the Federal Reserve, whose balance sheet has jumped from $4 trillion in March to $7.21 trillion last week, and efforts by the government to help average Americans has been a factor that has helped boost equity values amid this crisis.  ‘Clearly, the Fed scattering money around has created a favorable environment.’  Even before the CNBC interview that aired on Wednesday, Grantham and those at his firm had been bearish. “Uncertainty has seldom been higher…oddly, neither has the stock market,”  See

Stephen Roach has a warning for U.S. dollar bulls. The prominent economist says that the era of the U.S. buck may be coming to an end and, is forecasting a 35% decline soon in the U.S. currency against its major rivals, citing increases in the nation’s deficit and dwindling savings.  “The dollar is going to fall very, very sharply,” he told CNBC.  “The era of the U.S. dollar’s ‘exorbitant privilege’ as the world’s primary reserve currency is coming to an end.”  ...Worries about the global economy have traditionally encouraged buying of dollars along with other havens because of the perception of the U.S. as a stable economy and currency.  Roach, however, says that growing deficits will eventually change that perception and deliver a gut punch to the greenback.  See

Related commentary and URLs at    
(3/8/15): Wealth, Politics, Religion and Economic Justice
(8/9/15): Balancing Individual Rights with Collective Responsibilities
(10/18/15): God, Money and Politics
(6/4/16): Christianity and Capitalism: Strange Bedfellows in Politics
(10/1/16): The Federal Reserve, Wall Street and Congress on Monetary Policy
(2/11/17): The Mega-Merger of Wall Street, Politics and Religion
(3/11/17): Accountability and the Stewardship of Democracy
(9/16/17): The American Civil Religion and the Danger of Riches
(2/17/18): Musings of a Maverick on Money, Wall Street, Greed and Politics
(6/15/18): The Prosperity Gospel: Where Culture Trumps Religion in Legitimacy and Politics
(4/27/19): Musings on the Legitimacy of Crony Capitalism and Progressive Capitalism
(8/24/19): Musings on How a Recession Could Transform Religion and Politics in 2020
(12/28/19): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on the End as a New Beginning
(1/4/20): Musings on How a Depression (or a War) Could Make America Great Again
(2/8/20): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on America’s Love of Money and Lack of Virtue
(3/28/20): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on a Quick and Dirty Economic Revolution
(4/4/20): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on the Resurrection of America’s Values
(5/2/20): Politics, the Economy and Religion in a Brave New (Post-Pandemic) World
(5/9/20): Exposing the Corruption of Crony Capitalism
(5/16/20): The Evolution of America’s Libertarian Democracy from Plutocracy to Kleptocracy
(5/23/20): Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus, and Money Grows on Trees

Saturday, June 13, 2020

Was Jesus the Prophet of the Gospels or the Christ of the Church--or Both?

      By Rudy Barnes, Jr.

After more than 2,000 years, Christians still worship the triumphant Christ of the church and ignore the Jesus of the Gospels.  The gospel accounts describe Jesus as a radical Jewish rabbi in the prophetic tradition, but church doctrine transformed Jesus into a divine Christ and made salvation dependent on believing in Jesus Christ as a Trinitarian form of God.
Jesus never claimed to be divine.  He called his disciples to follow him as the word of God, not to worship him as God.  That would have been blasphemy.  Jesus taught the primacy of God’s love over Mosaic Law that was then considered God’s standard of righteousness; and he taught that anyone who did God’s will was his spiritual kin in the family of God.

Jesus warned his disciples that following him was a narrow and unpopular way that few would take, not a broad and popular way.  But from its beginning the church put its worldly popularity and power ahead of following Jesus and made salvation dependent on exclusivist belief in Christ as God rather than following the moral teachings of Jesus as the word of God.

The Apostles Creed defines exclusivist Chrisitan beliefs that ignore the universal moral teachings of Jesus.  It’s little wonder that the church lost its moral compass when it emphasized mystical beliefs in Christ as the only means of salvation.  Thomas Jefferson got it right when he observed that “the teachings of Jesus are the most sublime moral code ever designed by man.”  

The altruistic and universal teachings of Jesus are summed up in the greatest commandment to love God and to love our neighbors, including those of other races and religions, as we love ourselves.  It was taken from the Hebrew Bible, taught by Jesus and has been accepted by Islamic scholars as a common word of faith.

Christianity and Islam represent over half of the world’s population, and both religions promote exclusivist beliefs that condemn unbelievers.  God is too big for one religion, and in a world of increasing religious diversity, exclusivist beliefs produce interfaith hostility and violence.  Jesus taught that God’s universal love can reconcile all people as children of God.

Satan opposes God’s will to reconcile and redeem humanity by seeking to divide and conquer, and Satan is winning the popularity contest by doing a convincing imitation of God in the church and politics.  Christians today need to meet Jesus again for the first time and make his altruistic and universal teachings moral imperatives of their faith and politics.

Those who worship Christ should also be moral stewards of democracy and promote a politics of reconciliation with those of other races and religions.  To save democracy from its demise, voters must make the universal moral teachings of Jesus a common word of their faith and politics and oppose demagogues who use fear and divisive politics to promote their politics.


The hymn O Young and Fearless Prophet of Ancient Galilee is in the United Methodist Hymn Book at page 444, but it’s rarely sung, presumably since it emphasizes Jesus as a prophet and not as Jesus Christ, the divine Trinitarian form of God.

The Apostles’ Creed
I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth;
and in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord: who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried;
the third day he rose from the dead; he ascended into heaven,
and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty;
from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen

Jesus taught the primacy of love over law after being criticized by religious leaders for picking grain on the Sabbath, which was in violation of Mosaic Law (see Mark 2:23-27; Exodus 20:8-11; 34:21; and Deuteronomy 5:12-14).  He told them, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath”  (Mark 2:27).  Jesus later responded to the criticism of Jewish religious leaders that he and his disciples ate with Gentiles without a ceremonial cleansing of their hands.  He told a crowd: “Listen to me, everyone, and understand this.  Nothing outside a person can defile them by going into them. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles them.”  After he had left the crowd and entered the house, his disciples asked him about this parable.  “Are you so dull?” he asked. “Don’t you see that nothing that enters a person from the outside can defile them? For it doesn’t go into their heart but into their stomach, and then out of the body.” (In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.)  He went on: “What comes out of a person is what defiles them. For it is from within, out of a person’s heart, that evil thoughts come—sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly.  All these evils come from inside and defile a person.” (Mark 7:14-23)

When the family of Jesus heard that he was preaching to crowds, they went to take charge of him, saying, “He is out of his mind.” (Mark 3:20-21)   When they found him preaching to a crowd and Jesus was told that his family was looking for him, he made it clear that salvation was not limited to those who had exclusivist religious beliefs.  He told a crowd: “Who are my brothers and sisters?  Here are my mother and my brothers.  Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.” (Mark 3:31-35) 

On selfless service as the cost of discipleship, “Jesus called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.  What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?  Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?’” (Mark 8:34-37) 

Jesus likened discipleship to a narrow and unpopular gate in contrast to a wide and popular gate, saying, “Enter through the narrow gate.  For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it.  But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” (Matthew 7:13-14)
Marcus J. Borg presents the Jesus of the Gospels in Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time without denigrating the divinity of Jesus as the Christ (HarperSan Francisco, 1995).     

The title of Robin R. Meyers book says it all: Saving Jesus from the Church: How to Stop Worshipping Christ and Start Following Jesus (HarperOne, 2009).   

Thomas Jefferson embraced the moral teachings of Jesus but expressed contempt for the distortions and misuse of those teachings by Christian religious leaders. Jefferson wrote Henry
Fry on June 17, 1804: "I consider the doctrines of Jesus as delivered by himself to contain the outlines of the sublimest morality that has ever been taught; but I hold in the utmost profound detestation and execration the corruptions of it which have been invested by priestcraft and kingcraft, constituting a conspiracy of church and state against the civil and religious liberties of man." Thomas Jefferson, The Jefferson Bible, edited by O. I. A. Roche, Clarkson H. Potter, Inc., New York, 1964, at p 378; see also Jefferson’s letter to John Adams dated October 13, 1813, at pp 825, 826; Jefferson's commentaries are at pp 325-379. 
While many Christians considered Jefferson a heretic, Jefferson wrote of himself: “I am a Christian in the only sense in which he [Jesus] wished anyone to be; sincerely attached to his doctrine in preference to all others and ascribing to him every human excellence, believing he never claimed any other.” (p 334) For Jefferson, being a Christian meant following Jesus as God’s word rather than worshiping him as God’s son. He emphasized the moral teachings of Jesus over the mystical, and in so doing emphasized discipleship over orthodox Christian beliefs.  
Jefferson cut and pasted selected portions of the gospel accounts from four Bibles in four languages: Greek, Latin, French, and English (from the King James translation).  His Bible illustrates the moral dimension of religion and its role in shaping legitimacy in US culture. Jon Meacham affirmed Jefferson’s prominent role in shaping American values that are at the heart of legitimacy in American Gospel, Random House, New York, 2006 (see pp 56-58, 72-77, 80-86, 104, 105, 247-250, 263, 264; reference to Jefferson’s Bible at p 389); see also Meacham, Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, Random House, New York, 2012, pp 471-473.

Saturday, June 6, 2020

Musings of a Maverick Methodist on a Picture of Trump's Triumphalism

  By Rudy Barnes, Jr.

Last Monday Trump provided a vivid personification of triumphalism in religion and politics when he led a phalanx of cops, military personnel and his staff from the White House across the street to St. John’s Episcopal Church, after using tear gas to clear the route of protesters. Then Trump posed in front of the church sanctimoniously holding aloft a Bible.

That picture is worth a thousand words.  It’s unabashed triumphalism in the cosmic battle between the forces of good and evil that pit God’s will to reconcile and redeem humanity against Satan’s will to divide and conquer.  The picture depicts how Satan has been winning the popularity contest by doing a convincing imitation of God in politics and in the church.

The ascendancy of evil over good in politics became evident when most white Christians elected Trump in 2016.  But that could change.  The photo op has deeply offended many Christians who considered it a step too far in denigrating their faith.  It may inspire some who voted for Trump in 2016 to change their vote this November.  

On Tuesday I posted Trump’s photo op at St. John’s church on my Facebook page at and received a firestorm of responses.  They reveal how divided we are as a nation.  Most voters still claim to be Christians, but most white Christians still support a man whose egregious immorality is the antithesis of the moral teachings of Jesus.

I’m an independent in my politics and have been accused of being a radical right libertarian by Democrats and a wild-eyed liberal by Republicans for advocating the greatest commandment as a moral imperative of our politics.  It requires promoting a politics of reconciliation based on balancing divisive partisan objectives with providing for the common good.  It should be a common word of faith and politics for Jews, Christians and Muslims alike. 

Our partisan politics have become so divided and hostile that there is no understanding of the common good beyond partisan identity politics.  A majority of white evangelicals consider Trump their political messiah and have sacrificed Jesus on the altar of Republican politics, while Democrats remain committed to the leftist political objectives of their minority constituents.

Partisan political differences are expected, but when they are based on conflicting concepts of God’s will they can become intractable.  American Christians are split between the distorted evangelical doctrines of Trump’s supporters and the altruistic teachings of Jesus.  It’s a conflict in concepts of political legitimacy that’s undermining the fabric of American democracy.

The Bible uses triumphalist images of good and evil.  The Book of Revelation is an apocalyptic writing that some believe predicts the end times.  Revelation 13:5 may cause fundamentalists some discomfort since Trump fits the description of the Beast; but whether or not Trump is heralding the end times, he’s a clear and present danger to American democracy.     


For a detailed description of the events leading up to and following Trump’s photo op at St. John’s Episcopal church on June 1, see

The Episcopal bishop for Washington reacted to Trump’s photo op at St. John’s Episcopal church by saying that  “everything he has said and done is to inflame violence.”  See

Trump used triumphalist language on toughness in his national broadcast on June 1:  "Today, I have strongly recommended to every governor to deploy the National Guard in sufficient numbers that we dominate the streets," he said.  "If the city or state refuses to take the actions that are necessary to defend the life and property of their residence, then I will deploy the United States military and quickly solve the problem for them," he said.  "One law and order, and that is what it is, one law. We have one, beautiful law," he said.  And then, on ground where police had forcefully cleared peaceful protesters just minutes before, Trump strode across Lafayette Park -- accompanied by a slew of police officers and Secret Service -- for a staged photo-op in front of the historic St. John's Church and hold up a Bible. "It's a Bible," Trump said, to clear up any confusion.  ,,,Trump tweeted Tuesday morning. "Many arrests. Great job done by all. Overwhelming force. Domination. Likewise, Minneapolis was great (thank you President Trump!)."  "Trump was angered by coverage depicting him holed up in an underground bunker. He told aides on Monday he wanted to be seen outside the White House gates, according to a person familiar with the matter, which is part of what drove the decision to stage the photo-op at St. John's Church."                                                                             Why did it drive Trump crazy? Because his idea of strength and toughness is deeply distorted, twisted and gnarled over many decades of grievance and bravado. See, for Trump, being strong and being tough is tied directly to winning, to dominating, to using overwhelming force to get a desired result.  In his mind, might makes right. And the world is split between people willing to use their power over others and those too afraid to exert it.                                  
,,,Donald Trump thinks strength and toughness is about domination. About winning. About the powerful rolling over those less powerful.  Of course, as any emotionally mature person understands, might doesn't, in fact, make right. Toughness is not always about exerting your dominance because you can. True strength is rooted in the actions you don't take, the ability to understand that brute force should be your last resort, not your first instinct.  ...Donald Trump doesn't know that.”  See

Robert Kagan has suggested that Trump’s aggressive talk on toughness and dominating the streets may be a prelude to invoking the Insurrection Act of 1807 that would allow Trump to deploy U.S. military forces throughout the U.S.  Kagan noted,  “Anyone concerned about the state of America’s democracy ought to have been troubled Monday at the sight of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark A. Milley, striding behind Donald Trump during his presidential show of force at Lafayette Square. Dressed in combat fatigues and walking with Attorney General William P. Barr, national security adviser Robert O’Brien and others, the nation’s highest-ranking military officer did more than make himself part of the tableau of Trump’s photo op and campaign commercial. Milley gave tangible meaning to the president’s threat to deploy the U.S. military to put down “domestic terror” in the United States. His presence also raised questions about the military’s role as the country heads toward November and what the president has already declared could be “the greatest Rigged Election in history.”
The president’s call for military deployments against protesters was not some random Trumpian effusion. Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper advised the nation’s governors to “dominate the battlespace,” by which he meant American cities. Prominent Republican Sen. Tom Cotton (Ark.), a close Trump ally and presidential aspirant, called for deploying “the 10th Mountain, 82nd Airborne, 1st Cav, 3rd Infantry — whatever it takes,” against the “insurrectionists,” a deliberate reference to the Insurrection Act of 1807, which gives the president broad powers to deploy federal troops. Trump tweeted that Cotton’s suggestions were “100% Correct.” This is the context in which Milley appeared with the president in his battle fatigues. 
Dictators rule by controlling the “power ministries”: the domestic police and intelligence services, foreign intelligence services, and armed forces. U.S. democracy has been sustained by a strong tradition of ensuring that the power ministries serve the Constitution and the broader interests of the American people, not the political and personal interests of the individual in the White House.  ...The only thing preventing their use to undermine democracy is the refusal of the Cabinet, Congress, the courts and the military to let a president abuse his power in this way. ...But what is the military leadership to do when a duly elected president gives it a plausibly legal order to deploy in the United States? And what if that order comes after a contested election that the president has declared “rigged,” due to alleged foreign meddling or some alleged domestic fraud? When protesters gather in the streets, and the “law and order” president orders the military to move against that “insurrection” and “domestic terror,” will the fate of our democratic experiment depend on the military refusing to obey?
...If you believe that Trump would never do such a thing, or that the others would never let him, then you can go back to sleep. Maybe the image of Milley in battle fatigues outside the White House was just a passing moment, or maybe it will turn out to be the first in a series of pictures in some future history text about the undermining of American democracy. But if you’re not sure which, perhaps it’s not too early to start sounding the alarm.  See                                           

On how Trump’s Bible photo op splits white evangelical loyalists into two camps, see

Griffin Oleynick, a Dante scholar, has consigned Trump’s triumphalism to the sixth circle of Dante’s hell. “What else but boundless egoism (and, by consequence, de facto atheism) could explain the petty thuggery with which Trump (reportedly via the order of Attorney General Bill Barr) violently dispersed peaceful, legitimate protestors without warning? And after the protestors were gone? “He did not pray,” said Episcopal Bishop Mariann Edgar Budde. “He held up his Bible after speaking an inflammatory militarized approach to the wounds of our nation.” What attitude could possibly explain such a blasphemous gesture but Trump’s great disdain—gran dispitto—both for the sacred content of the book he likely never reads, and for all people of good will who strive daily to live by its precepts? The answer is clear: Trump believes in nothing and no one but himself. It’s time all Christians admitted it.
Thankfully, some have. This week a growing chorus of religious leaders—including Catholic Archbishop Wilton Gregory of Washington, who called Trump’s short visit to the John Paul II National Shrine the following day “baffling” and “reprehensible”—began issuing more pointed critiques of the president. That’s good news, and more forceful condemnation is certainly welcome. But we shouldn’t just look to our religious leaders to admonish Trump. Nor is anger and outrage the only religious response available to us. Trump continues to succeed in bluffing his way through his presidency in part because of the image of power and violence we allow him to project.”
...Trump’s words and actions—often delivered via Twitter, often agrammatical, often misspelled—are calibrated to enrage and frighten us. But they don’t project real power. Just the opposite. Trump is comically, hopelessly pathetic. He’s weak. We need to keep saying so, so that we actually believe it. Because it’s actually true.  
Dante would have agreed with C. S. Lewis: if there’s one thing the Devil can’t stand, it’s being mocked. Because that’s what evil is, in essence: a mockery of the good, the opposite of the real. In Dante’s view, evil is properly understood as a parody of the triune God of Love, whose very essence is being-in-relation. 
We shouldn’t let Trump scare us. He’s the one who’s afraid, acting out and saying stupid things because he knows he can be beaten.  See