Dow’s Word for Today


Lorenzo Dow preaching (1856), engraving by Lossing-Barrett

There was a man called Dow;(1)
Lorenzo, his first name.
Christian, his religion,
preaching, his vocation;
and practicing, winning a ne’er-sought fame.

Unmoored to any denomination or sect
(though Methodism he knew, through-and-through),
or anything else, ‘cept
his devotion
to the Good Book
to which he, daily, looked
for a word of inspiration
from the Divine and Living Word of salvation,
so, to preach with passion
(an abolitionist at heart) a message of liberation
after the fashion of his Lord and Savior;
that is to say, with an eccentric itinerancy
(or was it an itinerant eccentricity?).

Either way, no matter,
for one thing that did matter
was Dow’s condemnation
of any preacher
who dared turn the Bible against itself,
so, to set one verse or chapter
over against another;
thus, in so many words, proclaiming
to people, hungering and thirsting
for clarity,
this nonsensicality:
“You can and you can’t, you shall and you shan’t,
you will and you won’t, and
you will be damned if you do and damned if you don’t.”


Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

We owe this idiomatic phrase to the Reverend Lorenzo Dow.

Now, beyond Dow’s initial insight – his saying a critique, in his view, of faulty biblical interpretation that, inexorably, led to God’s retribution – his word can be applied to any circumstance in which either-or possible reaction to an existing condition will result in a less than positive outcome. To do or to say something or not equally yields a negative result.

The good Reverend Dow’s sage word applies, I think, to the current American political scene.

To wit…

As I listen, the airwaves are filled with the damning noise of vociferous insulting speech. As I look, the landscape is pockmarked with the damning signs of verbal bombs lobbed from every corner and landing on every side.

In this war, so far, of words, at each turn, there is a decision to be made. Respond, at times (perhaps, oft), in kind. Or not.

Generally, the choice has been to reply. For, I think, for some (for most?) to allow a precipitating message – especially one filled with the venom of outrageous excess, far surpassing the realm of truth and any boundary of decency – to pass unchallenged, unchecked is to risk having it stand in the public mind as fact and to leave the targets of the attack, often the voiceless, further defenseless.

Nevertheless, it seems to me, in this rancorous climate of deep dislike and deeper distrust, neither option avails any good. We’re all damned.

And after days, weeks, months, years of action-and-reaction – whether from within the walls of the White House or coursing through the corridors of Congress, whether from Republicans or Democrats, and whether, depending on one’s beliefs and loyalties, a sign of a necessary fighting spirit or a symptom of mean-spiritedness…

Increasingly, it matters less to me (though I don’t mean not at all) who started (in our amazingly speedy reversion to adolescent playground judgments) the latest round of name-calling. For we’re all damned.

Or who is more at fault (given how we humans, particularly when aggrieved, quickly adopt the language of ethical equivalencies and inequivalencies, that is, who or which side is more and less morally upright). For we’re all damned.

For, to employ another idiom, at the end (and at the beginning and through the middle) of the proverbial day, this is a hell of (verily, not) a way to run a government.

(1) Lorenzo Dow (1777-1834), American Christian evangelist

Illustration: Lorenzo Dow preaching; engraving (1856) by Lossing-Barrett

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