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At our best as humans, we know how to blush

SATURDAY, AUG. 30, 2014

“Man is the only animal that blushes. Or needs to.”

Mark Twain said that in his “Pudd’nhead Wilson’s New Calendar” many years ago. I wonder if he ever read the prophet Jeremiah.

In two places, Jeremiah 6:15 and 8:12, the prophet sadly observed that the people of Jerusalem didn’t “even know how to blush.” This came in the midst of a hold-their-feet-to-the-fire kind of reality check aimed at those same people.

They had turned very far away from the covenant made centuries before with God. So Jeremiah found his mission to be living out and speaking out of God’s deep anger and even deeper sadness. Predictably, Jeremiah’s call to reality fell on the deaf ears of Jerusalem.

Leading up to the fall of Jerusalem in 587 B.C. – and the Babylonian exile of many of its citizens that followed – Jeremiah basically hammered Jerusalem’s utter disregard of its “chosen” status with God. No, “disregard” is too tame. They mocked that chosenness by their actions.

Today, I join a list of religious commentators to suggest our current culture runs parallel to Jeremiah’s Jerusalem in many ways. Can we learn from Jeremiah’s insights into certain of our cultural attitudes and how he saw God respond to those attitudes? Don’t know.

My caution rests in what some religious and political observers refer to as “American exceptionalism.” For many people, religious and non-religious, this parallels the concept of God choosing Israel as a special people. Bluntly, it goes much too far when it means “America only.”

As a country, many things we do are exceptional. The flip side is that many other things we do are ruthless and unjust. The problem expands when we deny that reality. And we deny it daily in so many ways.

The current tragedy being played out in Ferguson, Missouri, that began with the controversial – and from where I stand, unnecessary – killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown is only the most publicized example of denial run amok. As we wait for the legal process to work, let’s learn to blush.

The people of Jerusalem had lost the capacity to blush because their lives had lost the capacity for shame. Self-indulgence was the prime motivator. Individualism ran rampant. Little to no sense of community or regard for others ruled the day. Does that sound at least vaguely familiar?

We have so many valid reasons to blush. Yet I believe we deny those reasons in part because we are fearful to admit our culture and many of our people are living out of control. A sense of common decency is in tatters. We often choose being “right” over being just.

We demand our rights and forget the responsibility that underlies those rights. One bottom line: we forget that being human is so much more than self-indulgence. For those of us who try to be Christians, we too easily forget that Jesus showed us how human life could be.

I personally see that when all religious traditions put their proverbial “best foot forward,” we all seek the essence of living the best way humans are designed to live. One sign of that “best way” is knowing how to blush at the best times.

Jeremiah focused only on those times when blushing meant that people could experience a sense of shame for hiding their fullest capacity to be human. To paraphrase Mark Twain: we need to blush in that way.

But I think there is another wonderful reason to blush. The “blush of gratitude” happens when we realize how blessed we are to be humans who can love and share and stand for healthy life.

The Rev. Paul Graves, a Sandpoint resident and retired United Methodist minister, is the founder of Elder Advocates. He can be contacted at

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