The violent insurrection at the Capitol on January 6 is the consequence of many things, but at its heart is the need for absolute certainty.

On January 6, a crowd of rioters stormed the United States Capitol, intent on disrupting the ceremonial tally of Electoral College votes by a Joint Session of Congress. They were fueled in large measure by a misguided belief in claims of widespread electoral fraud — claims that have been repeatedly debunked — as well as by White Supremacy, Christian Nationalism, and a healthy dose of conspiracy theories, in particular the QAnon conspiracy theory. How is it that so many people can commit themselves to a cause whose foundations are easily falsified and whose basic ideology has long been discredited?

It turns out that more than truth, more than accuracy, we crave certainty — even if we’re wrong about the things we’re certain of. …


Projecting certainty is a coping mechanism for dealing with the uncertainty that isn’t going anywhere.

I’ve long been a fan of Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight.com and its accompanying podcast, but the title of an episode earlier this week was in perfect sync with the outlook of this blog: Embrace the Uncertainty.

In the context of Silver’s podcast, the title refers to the inherent uncertainty in election polling and the anxiety that such uncertainty produces in people with an interest in the results of the election. Specifically, those supporting Biden in the current contest look at the forecast model—which, as of the date of this writing, predicts that Biden has an 88% chance of winning the election to Trump’s 12%—and wonder whether that means that Biden will, in fact, win the election. Silver, as an accomplished analyst, cannot do what he’s being asked: give a guarantee about the results of the election. All he can do is share the percentages that his model provides: 88% to 12%. …


Have you noticed that no one seems to die anymore? Don’t get me wrong, people still continue to cease to be alive, their metabolic processes having come to an end: we are presently in the middle of a global pandemic that has ended the lives of hundreds of thousands. I’m not talking about that — I’m talking about the way we talk about death. More and more, I’ve noticed that people are resorting to euphemisms to talk about death. People don’t die, they pass away, depart, are lost, or go home.

My anecdotal experience has been born out by the data. A few months ago, a friend of mine conducted an examination of the language used around instances of death and posted it on Reddit. He had heard me talk about this phenomenon and wanted to see if it were true. He used NewsBank’s “America’s Obituaries & Death Notices” database to search 66,477,915 death announcements from 1985-present and discovered a major shift starting in 2000 toward replacing the word died with euphemisms. In 2015, such euphemisms overtook died in popularity. …


The Fourth of July celebrations will be subdued this year. And it is not only because the US is in the middle of a devastating pandemic, but because there has been greater awareness in recent months than perhaps ever before of the flawed state of our democracy. Against that backdrop, it is not unreasonable for people to wonder about the usual celebrations we’d normally have on Independence Day. What does it mean at such a time to celebrate America?

A Democracy In Part

A thoughtful review of history will reveal that the Founding Fathers were not democrats, at least not as we would understand it. In fact, it has been said that during the Revolutionary period, the word revolution was not terribly frightening: England had had a “Glorious Revolution” with the ascent of William & Mary to the throne that breathed new life into Great Britain’s power and influence. …


In times of crisis and upheaval, a chorus of voices will rise to assert their support or their critique of the state of affairs. This chorus will involve commenting on protests, legislative solutions, governmental actions, and so on. Into this chorus of voices, the clergy will often try to speak to the present moment from the perspective of faith.

It is precisely at that moment that they will receive pushback—usually from their own parishioners. “You’re getting political.” “I don’t like politics in the pulpit.” “The church shouldn’t get involved in politics. We should just focus on becoming better people or on prayer.” …


Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God’s servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience.For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing. Pay to all what is due them — taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due. …


I have a friend who is something of a theological sparring partner. He and I don’t agree on much, but we enjoy each other’s company and have a good time debating points theological and political.

He is a Christian Anarchist. That is, he believes that any government that does not have the consent of all its citizens is immoral. This is not the system we live under, of course. Even in its better days, the American republic and its constitutional system have only ever really had the consent of a substantial majority. …


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I might be a racist.

I don’t want to be, but I don’t know whether I do enough to be sure I am an anti-racist.

I realize that sounds shocking, so let me break that down a little bit, because we in this country are terrible when it comes to talking about race, and we need to clarify a few things first.

White folks like me often get upset when we are accused of racism because we imagine ourselves to be good people who don’t wish anyone ill. And for the most part that’s true. …


The following is an excerpt from The Certainty of Uncertainty: The Way of Inescapable Doubt and Its Virtue by Mark Schaefer.

By the time you finish reading this book, you could be dead.

It’s not that long a book, but even so, a car accident, a slip and fall, a random crime, a plane crash, a sudden and devastating disease, a heart attack, a brain aneurysm, or any other random lethal misfortune could claim your life before you get to the final page. Or not. The problem is that you don’t know which fate awaits you.

We, perhaps alone among the creatures that inhabit the globe with us, can contemplate our own mortality. We are aware of the basic fact that one day we will cease to exist. We are conscious of the reality of our inevitable deaths, but we don’t know what it all means or what, if anything, lies beyond death. …


When I was a kid there were four television channels: ABC, CBS, NBC, and PBS. That was it. Unlike residents of larger cities that might have some independent stations, those Big Three and PBS were our only options.

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Coworkers talking about last night’s episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm or This Is Us. Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

Chances were, then, that if you came into school one morning having seen something the night before on television, a lot of people had also seen it. …

About

Mark Schaefer

Retired Methodist pastor, lawyer, language nerd, and Red Sox fan. Upstate NY transplant in DC. Author of “The Certainty of Uncertainty.”

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