The famed essayist G.K. Chesterton keenly observed that, if you really want to understand something, you have to either get way inside it or get way outside it.  I have lived my whole life in the trappings of the Christian traditions, religious and otherwise — Baby Jesus, Christmas carols, Wise men, Christmas trees, gifts, turkey dinner and special dessert.  Religious or not, my family’s Christmas celebration was the biggest holiday of the year, by far.

But what is it that is being celebrated here?  What is the real heart of it  all?  To do that, you have to strip away all those trappings, get way outside of it all, and look at the bare bones of it all.  Do that, and here is what you find.  A child was born to a relatively poor family at a time when the territory now known as Israel was a province of the Roman empire.  He would, in his lifetime, achieve no wealth, no position, not even much of a following.  He lived the life of an itinerant preacher, and his only real claim to fame was that he sufficiently angered the local politicians to get himself arrested, humiliated, tortured and executed in the fashion of a common thief.  He left no assets, no writings of any kind, and his following pretty much abandoned him.

Despite all of that, this man started a movement that took over all of Western Europe.  That movement, more than any other influence, dictated the course of history in the West.  Wars were waged in its name.  Empires were created and merged and destroyed because of it.  Some of history’s most heroic acts, and some of its most vile and horrendous crimes, claimed justification from it.

Perhaps the very strangest outcome of the man’s life is that, over the centuries, a host of people claiming to be his followers developed the practice of interpreting his teachings in various, and rather peculiar, ways, and then greeting those who held differing interpretations with hostility, discrimination, oppression and even war.  Interpretations about what he said, and what he was, have spawned a seemingly endless list of such groups, each identifying its followers as the “true” Christians, and each identifying the other as entirely, and even repugnantly, wrong.

How then to dilute the truth out of this morass?  To really stand outside all of this, one has to ignore all interpretations, even ignore the very notion of doctrine.  What emerges, what you are left with, is nothing less than the very meaning of being human.  In the worldview he describes and lives, nothing else matters — not class or caste, not wealth or power, not religious status or beliefs.  The man had only one message, stated either directly or by analogy of one sort or another.  No matter the context, his message was, stripped to its essence, always the same:  our meaning as humans lies in being singlemindedly responsible for each other.  Whatever his precise words may have been, there can be no doubt about their meaning.  What he meant, and what he lived without hesitation or limit, is that we are made, and we are here, to take care of each other.

On its face, not a very earthshaking message, except that, for one, it rings absolutely true, and for another, he lived it to perfection.  What he did was set an unquestionable ideal for every human being, an ideal that is the very measure of what it is to be human, an ideal that is actually available to every human being regardless of his or her place in life.  Now there is a message that literally shakes the earth.  No wonder those in power at the time wanted him dead.  No wonder the Roman government wanted his followers expunged.  And no wonder that, throughout the centuries, those who actually lived this message were persecuted in one way or another.  The message puts power in its place, and power decidedly and profoundly doesn’t like it.

The message has been cruelly twisted and perverted throughout the centuries, and more than likely those who perverted it did so because they couldn’t handle the real message.  The most common perversion has been to replace this quintessentially moral message with a commitment to doctrine, cunningly replacing the need for moral action with blind belief.  Now one has only to believe in this or that, and by that simple means one attains eternal salvation, often to the exclusion of those who don’t buy your particular religious package.  The contrast between such perversions and the true message could not be more stark.  Jesus’ message is total dedication to others.  That’s it.  All the rest stands or falls on its fidelity to that moral polestar.

So, if that’s it, then what is Christmas, really?  Why all this carrying on about the birth of this one child?  Here’s why.  Because, by living that extraordinary life, he has given me hope for meaning.  His life is a guarantee that mine has true worth, true and inexhaustible value.  Now the world is not just the transient journey of an accidental being, a mere collection of pleasures and pains.  I am significant, truly significant, and I am significant right now, not because of some future event.  There is infinite significance to every moment of my life, and this child is going to prove that beyond a shadow of a doubt.

Christmas, then, is the celebration of all that.  The gifts, the glitter and the gatherings, it all carries that same message.  Christmas is a time of giving, because that is what my whole life is about.  and this child is the very personification of that meaning.

Merry Christmas.  Indeed.










































Medical doctors, when they begin their careers, take what is called the Hippocratic oath.  Attributed to the ancient Greek medical authority Hippocrates, it is still an admirable statement of the ideals of medical practice.

The very first principle to be followed by those in the medical profession is fundamental, to say the least.  First, it says, do no harm.  That seems like a fairly low bar, but it is in fact a comfort to know that the person who proposes to treat me will start by making sure that what he or she does is not going to hurt me.

It would be a truly wonderful thing if that were the first principle of our elected officials.  Sadly, it almost seems that the present majority is doing exactly the opposite.  They have taken several actions to strike down protections of the environment.  They have proposed eliminating health insurance for millions of people and raising rates on those who do have insurance.  They have slashed regulations protecting the people against financial predators.  They have slashed regulations protecting workers.  They have sold off public lands for private gain, and they have raised the price of visiting those lands and reduced the public services on those lands.  They have approved the appointment of judges who are incompetent at best, and radically biased against people’s rights at worst.  They have restricted the right to vote.  They have restricted, and in some cases eliminated, the right of workers to bargain collectively.

It is, frankly, difficult to find a piece of legislation, or a presidential action, that has actually helped the people.  Who are they serving?  Certainly the exceedingly wealthy, that much is obvious.  Why?  Because the exceedingly wealthy give these elected officials the money they need to get re-elected.  Certainly that odd bunch commonly referred to as the “Trump base.”  Why?  Because, by definition, they voted for Trump.

For all the rest of the American people, the best these elected officials can do is rationalize and equivocate.  Yes, the tax plan serves the exceedingly wealthy.  But just you wait!  All that money is going to trickle down to the average guy!  Yes, the dismantling of the Affordable Care Act seems to eliminate insurance for millions and raise the price of insurance for others. But “believe me”, we’re going to provide better insurance, and we are going to insure everyone!  It has to come to the point that no one can be believed, and no one can be trusted to do anything to help us.

Let us start again.  Let us do that by finding people — Republican, Democrat, Independent — who are first and foremost honest people, and who prove themselves dedicated solely to the interests of the people, of all the people.  And we should, before they do anything, make this basic promise:  primum non nocere, the first thing is:  do no harm.




















The United States Senate is poised to approve a tax bill that will, more than any other action it has ever undertaken, change the face of America.  And not for the better.

The tax bill that is before the Senate is five hundred and fifteen (515) pages long.  I have spent some of my professional life reading statutes, and it is not easy.  A clever mind can weave all kinds of things unnoticed into a statute, and you can just imagine how many lawyers and tax experts spent untold hours weaving things into those 515 pages.  Yet that bill was presented to Congress just a week or so ago, and the proponents of the bill have refused time to review the bill and have also refused to hold open debate about the details of the bill.  Once it has been passed, those clever little items will come out to reward the authors.

For now, though, we do know several important things.  First, this bill is intended to allow a far more thoroughgoing concentration of wealth in the hands of a smaller and smaller group.  See, for instance, the elimination of the estate tax, which will benefit only a fraction of one percent of Americans, and which will allow the largest of estates to continue to grow unchecked.  It is likely that the passage of this bill will cause more than ninety percent of American wealth to be held by a fraction of one percent of the population.

Second, the enactment of this bill will cause the national debt to grow to an intolerable level.  When that happens, and it will happen fairly soon, we, and likely our children, will have to pay for that increase by significantly reducing Social Security benefits and Medicare and Medicaid coverage.  It will also mean a reduction in medical and scientific research and serious cuts in public education from kindergarten to doctoral programs.  All of this will mean an increase in poverty and a decrease in the availability of health care, for the poor and the elderly, but also for the general population.

But there is a third thing, and this is the scariest one.  American democracy has been based on, and perhaps even defined by, an openness to all to the opportunity to make a decent living and afford at least a modicum of comfort and financial security.  It has been possible for almost all to live comfortably at a certain level, and it has also been possible, through hard work and ingenuity, to achieve great heights, intellectually and financially and creatively.  This is what has made America a beacon for the world.  It has also created a certain feeling of mutual identity among Americans.  The differences between coasters and heartlanders, as significant as they sometimes seem, nevertheless allowed each to accept the other as true Americans.  Minnesotans and Texans each have unique characteristics, and perhaps even unique languages, but they will all agree that they are all Americans.  Significant wealth never created the radical caste differences in America that have so long defined other cultures.  In fact, those who present themselves as superior because of their wealth are commonly derided as just deluded snobs.

This bill, by guaranteeing the intense concentration of wealth in the hands of a very few, will inevitably turn America into a de facto plutocracy.  There is, after all, a finite amount of wealth in the world.  It is far more difficult than it once was to increase that amount, and so the only way to concentrate wealth is to take it from the many and give it to the very few.  That is precisely what this bill will do.  How and why our legislators allowed such a thing to happen in America will be a subject of study for centuries.  What we need not study now, what we already know from the sad lessons of history, is that impoverishing the many for the benefit of the few always results in violence.  That is what I fear the most.

I have had the privilege of meeting and knowing Americans from all regions and all walks of life.  They all share the characteristic of being people of good will.  South or North, West or East, the people of America are warm and giving people.  They live their lives for their children and their neighbors and for those in need.  They do that because they themselves have modest demands, and they have had those demands mostly satisfied.  Their streets are not paved with gold, but they are paved.  Their homes are not castles, but they are warm and comfortable homes.  They have, by and large, enough and more, and these good people give both of their abundance and their substance.  That is what Americans are.

What I fear is that this bill, if enacted, will be a step toward the end of that America.  It will lead to slashing education, slashing medical and scientific research.  It will slash the aid we give to the less fortunate.  And, for all of us, it will make it tougher — much, much tougher — to achieve even that basic level of comfort and security that has allowed us to be the warm and open people we have been for so long.

Gloomy, I know.  Likely? I fear.  Please show me I am wrong.