In the Name of God

This is the sin against the Holy Ghost: – To speak of bloody power as right divine,
And call on God to guard each vile chief’s house,
And for such chiefs, turn men to wolves and swine:-

To go forth killing in White Mercy’s name,
Making the trenches stink with spattered brains,
Tearing the nerves and arteries apart,
Sowing with flesh the unreaped golden plains.

In any Church’s name, to sack fair towns,
And turn each home into a screaming sty,
To make the little children fugitive,
And have their mothers for a quick death cry,-

This is the sin against the Holy Ghost:
This is the sin no purging can atone:-
To send forth rapine in the name of Christ:-
To set the face, and make the heart a stone.

Vachel Lindsay


Illinois poet Vachel Lindsay, one of the founders in 1915 of the Society of Midland Authors ,with which I have long been involved, penned this poem, “The Unpardonable Sin,” in the midst of World War I, as a screed against the presumption of those who would claim to be committing murder and mayhem on behalf of Almighty God. It has become a classic because it states the obvious so simply while confronting a tendency that has been all too prevalent in human history—the quest to justify one’s own cruelty in the name of God.

I doubt that this poem will have any influence on the leaders or followers of Islamic State, if they even are familiar with it. For starters, it is posed primarily as a challenge to Christians who would justify war in the name of Christ. Nonetheless, I would maintain that, despite its context amid a war that tore Europe apart, it has more universal meaning that condemns any attempt to justify war in the name of a deity, no matter the faith involved.

This is not the subject matter I have most typically addressed in this blog, but I was appalled, though not surprised, to read this week that Islamic State, in an English-language e-zine called Dabiq, actually stated in blunt terms that it has a right to enslave and sexually abuse captured Yazidi women whose husbands ISIS has killed or taken prisoner, on the grounds that “even cross-worshiping Christians for ages considered them devil worshipers and Satanists.” It goes on to note that the women were divided among Islamic State fighters, some of whom sold them into slavery. And all of this is supposedly endorsed by the Koran. One could go on with the grim details, but the fundamental picture seems obvious.

Once we have deemed another group of people subhuman because of their differences in belief, or race, or ethnicity, or whatever excuse we have, their feelings matter not a whit because Allah, or God, has given us permission to treat them as mere chattel or to kill them outright. In cases of what we now euphemistically call “ethnic cleansing,” God has supposedly given us permission to wipe them off the face of the earth.

The whole idea behind this makes many, if not most, of us recoil in moral revulsion, but we need to do more than that. We need to come to grips with the fundamental illogic that makes parts of the human race function in this way. There is an essential arrogance behind all this that cannot be ignored, nor can it be ascribed solely to one radical group or one religion. Christianity has too much to answer for in its own history to assume such a stance. It was only 150 years ago, as the Civil War was winding to a close, that many clergy in southern churches in the U.S. still found it possible to use Holy Scripture to justify slavery. Their “unpardonable sin,” in Vachel Lindsay’s phrasing, was to provide cover for an entire society that was racist to its core and used perverse religious logic in many cases to excuse unspeakable cruelty. There is a scene in the movie Twelve Years a Slave, based on the Simon Northup book in the 1850s, in which the sadistic slave owner to whom Northup has been sold stands in front of his slaves with a Bible and reads from Proverbs , “The servant who does not serve his master will suffer many lashes.” He proceeds to note, in a matter-of-fact tone of voice, that “many lashes may mean 40, or 100, or 150. This is holy scripture.” The fact that his slaves are not permitted to learn to read this scripture on their own to find the context from which their cruel owner has extracted this gem is more than ironic. It was a deliberate element of a system of subjugation.

So now we have ISIS resurrecting all the worst tendencies of every religion of every time in justifying the subjugation of other human beings, at a time when intelligent human beings have been hoping and praying that such notions have become a thing of the past. Sadly, that appears not yet to be the case; we have a long struggle ahead of us to expunge such logic from the human race once and for all. Too many people are still hanging on to too many prejudices and looking for justifications of one sort or another. And the most unpardonable of all, as Lindsay suggested, are those that justify their hatreds in the name of the Creator.

What lies at the core of this problem? I once heard Dr. Martin Marty, the theologian and long-time professor in the University of Chicago Divinity School, quote someone—I cannot remember whom—as stating that “a fanatic is someone who is determined to do for the Lord what the Lord would surely do for himself if only he were in full possession of the facts.” As absurd as that notion sounds on its face, it is all too real as human motivation. Somehow, we get it into our heads that a God whom Christians, Jews, and Muslims all describe as omnipotent, omniscient, and loving nonetheless needs the intervention of humans to solve problems that He has failed to perceive and remedy. And if this God is not taking care of business, well, then, it is up to us to do it for him. It is as if we are rushing to defend the honor of a helpless lady rather than worshiping a force far greater than ourselves. Here, God, let me help you by destroying these infidels.

Except that those “infidels,” however defined, are fellow human beings. And in order to get to the idea that these fellow human beings are lesser creatures who need to be slaughtered, enslaved, raped, or maimed, we have to cultivate the notion that the same God who created them and the entire universe somehow passionately hates a part of his creation so badly that he needs our help in getting rid of them.

I don’t care what passages out of the Bible, the Koran, or any other text some fanatic can extract or twist to construct this logic. If you believe in a deity who created the universe, that logic is an insult to the Almighty. And we need to grow up and accept the fact that it is all too easy to manipulate scriptural passages in isolation as justification for our own moral shortcomings. God does not hate the humans He created. He may very often be disappointed in their utter failure to achieve their own high moral potential, but what He does about that is his business, not ours. It is not our right to kill, injure, or enslave based on any differences among us.

There remains the problem of what to do about the people who insist on inflicting such injury on other people. When our own daughters were growing up, I did not endorse or employ corporal punishment because I do not think it is an appropriate remedy and certainly not the best. That said, I had no hesitation about using physical restraint to prevent them or their friends from doing harm to themselves or each other. I once gang-tackled one of our daughters in our living room to stop her from running away when she did not want to confront a serious issue in her life.

I think the same principle applies in both domestic and international situations where violence threatens to dominate people’s lives. Police are allowed to use force to prevent violence, for the same reason. None of this is because God wants us to hurt someone, but because there are times when we need to prevent such harm. The challenge in facing an insurgency like that led by Islamic State is that it inherently involves such complicated scenarios that may produce collateral damage. It is nearly impossible to find surgically sterile solutions; every option seems to leave blood on our hands. Even inaction, as President Barack Obama, like his predecessors, has learned on the job, can leave blood on our hands. There are few perfect solutions. But at least we can avoid the unpardonable sin of presuming that what we are doing is in the name of God. Far better to settle for the more humble proposition that, however imperfectly, we are simply seeking to reduce the level of pain in the world, and ideally to increase the volume of love and mutual respect. That is a goal that will ennoble any human being, no matter what faith he or she professes.


Jim Schwab

Food at the Riverside: Review

Restaurants can and often do feature curious logos, and one would expect no less from any independent restaurant in Boulder, Colorado, but an image of an upward-pointing fork with a upside-down goat sitting on top? Well, let’s just accept that. I didn’t see any goat on the menu anyway, just . . . .

Never judge a restaurant by its entrance. :)

Never judge a restaurant by its entrance. 🙂

goat cheese, unless I am missing something, which I doubt, although buffalo does make an appearance. This is the new West, after all.

And I can always appreciate an entrepreneurial sense of humor. I am a strong believer that a healthy sense of humor extends our life span, and I certainly hope to extend mine with a positive attitude and a disposition toward laughter as good medicine.

In a state where the sign inside “Food at the Riverside,” pointing to a separate downstairs facility, welcomed the now legal “Colorado Cannabis Industry Meetup” that evening, I might note that my own personal disposition is that humor and laughter beat drugs as a source of spiritual and psychological nourishment. But people will find solace where they will, and while I do not personally find any use for marijuana, I certainly favor decriminalization and taxation over wasting money and human resources on jail time for such activities. Our society has better things to do, just as it had better things to do than Prohibition nearly a century ago.


But that is all apart from my comments on Food at the Riverside, a small restaurant nestled alongside—and mercifully above—the sometimes mercurial Boulder Creek, as it ripples downstream after spilling out of the nearby Rocky Mountains. It is part of a larger complex known simply as The Riverside that includes an outdoor café and facilities for private events, in a building that began its existence long ago as a candy store.

I was part of an unexpected, reservationless group of 14 customers, all attendees of the 3rd International Conference on Urban Disaster Reduction at the nearby Hotel Boulderado. The hotel, by the way, is a wonderfully historic building that dates to Colorado’s nineteenth century and features a look that bridges the years between. It has its challenges, if you want all the modern conveniences of a newly built hotel. The elevator requires the operation of a hotel staffer, but you can ascend and descend five stories of stairs, as I did for three days, and get some aerobic exercise while moving around. In a state with more physical fitness per capita than perhaps any other in the U.S., and one of the lowest obesity rates, this is perhaps not a bad thing, although it is not necessarily the best for people with physical disabilities.

Despite our large group’s unexpected arrival early in the evening, Food at the Riverside quickly made accommodations. An adjacent room hosted a blues band for the evening, but we were able to hear each other and enjoy our conversation, and the evening was nice enough to allow the open window to filter the burbling sound of the creek below. In fact, at one point, that sound was loud enough to cause some of us to wonder if it was raining outside, but it was not.

Our delegation included only three Americans, the rest being from Taiwan and Japan. The size of our group allowed us to combine our orders in certain categories for discounted prices. The menu allows you to choose three items from salads, cold plates, warm plates, or grilled plates for discounts; the salads were all in high single digits, with three for $19; the grilled plates, the most expensive, still were only $10 to $12, or all three for $27. The latter options included duck breast (with butternut squash, granny smith apple, hazelnuts, and tarragon butter), lamb rib (spiced with cardamom brown sugar, plus pear, pomegranate, pistachio, arugula, and gryree), and New York strip steak (with whipped potatoes, grilled asparagus, and horseradish demi). I chose the last of the three, and I must say it was succulent and well prepared, and capped off an evening that began with a quality wine and beer list.

The salads were also all excellent; my choice was arugula, augmented with pears, Maytag blue cheese, toasted walnuts, and red wine vinaigrette. But others featuring romaine hearts, spinach, and golden beets were also available. They were all well worth their modest price.


I should also note that the manager, as we left, hastened to hand me the breakfast and lunch menu as well once he learned of my blog, and it does look interesting, featuring omelets, benedicts, paninis, and quiches, in addition to more classic fare. I may well be tempted to try either meal on a subsequent visit to Boulder, which for me is almost inevitable, given the local presence of the Natural Hazards Center.

When I do, if the season is appropriate, it may be nice to try the outdoor seating above the creek, where one can watch the joggers, bicyclists, and strollers, as well as the water, pass by. I can think of worse ways to spend a summer evening, especially if another band is playing inside.


Jim Schwab

Resilience in the Rockies

Our visiting delegation arrives in Lyons on the slightly chilly afternoon of October 1.

Our visiting delegation arrives in Lyons on the slightly chilly afternoon of October 1.

Back on July 28, I told the story in “The Fatal Attraction” of a gourmet restaurant in Gold Hill, Colorado, that somehow produced great food with the help of a fantastically dedicated staff in a small town nestled in the mountains. I also noted that the surrounding communities had suffered both wildfires in the past and torrential floods in September 2013, from which they are still recovering.  I recounted a few details of some presentations by the mayors of both Boulder and Lyons, and their city manager and town administrator, during the annual Natural Hazards Workshop in nearby Broomfield, Colorado.

Victoria Simonsen explains the flood maps at the visitor center in downtown Lyons.

Victoria Simonsen explains the flood maps at the visitor center in downtown Lyons.

I had the opportunity just last week to spend three days in Boulder at the Third International Conference on Urban Disaster Reduction (ICUDR), which attracted sponsoring delegations from Taiwan, Japan, and New Zealand, and other attendees from nations like Algeria. I will discuss later some of what transpired at the conference, but here I wish to note that the conference provided the opportunity to join a field tour to Lyons, where we were joined by Mayor John O’Brien and Town Administrator Victoria Simonsen, both of whom seem to personify resilience in their approach to rebuilding a town that, at the height of the flood, was divided by the rampaging water into six islands and saw a 400-foot gouge cut through the heart of the town. We were joined on the bus by Professor Andrew Rumbach of the University of Colorado-Denver College of Architecture and Planning, whose students have been assisting the town with plan development; details and the plan itself are available at their website,

This aerial photo on the wall of the visitor center shows the damage inflicted by the flood on a major local bridge.

This aerial photo on the wall of the visitor center shows the damage inflicted by the flood on a major local bridge.

It is less my intent here to reiterate the flood statistics that were shared (for those see the box below), but to provide a photographic rendering of the condition of Lyons one year later, after thousands of hours of volunteer and paid work have been expended to restore homes, utility services, and some semblance of normal life to a town that was on the verge of destruction just a year ago. The town also received some planning

The St. Vrain watershed under more normal conditions during our visit.

The St. Vrain watershed under more normal conditions during our visit.

assistance from the American Planning Association through the pro bono visit of an APA Community Planning Assistance Team earlier this year. One thing that is very clear is that the town’s leadership is very gracious about acknowledging the extent of such outside help. Without it, Lyons would most likely never have mustered the resources to stage its comeback.

During the flood, water overtopped this bridge in the Confluence neighborhood.

During the flood, water overtopped this bridge in the Confluence neighborhood.








Lyons: The Numbers

  • Normal stream flow: 120 to 200 cubic feet per second (cfs)
  • Stream flow at height of flood: 30,000 cfs
  • Streams involved: North and South St. Vrain Creek, which meet to form confluence in Lyons
  • Size of gash cut through center of town by flood waters: 400 feet
  • Deaths: 1
  • People evacuated: ~2,000
  • Population of Lyons: 2,035
  • Homes damaged: 211
  • Homes substantially damaged: 84
  • Trees lost in flood: ~10,000

Jim Schwab

Views of damage in Lyons’s Confluence neighborhood, so called because it is near where the North and South St. Vrain Creeks merge:












Here lie the remains of a mobile home caught in the swirling waters of the deluge.

Here lie the remains of a mobile home caught in the swirling waters of the deluge.