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The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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Beyond tough

Our understanding of strength is narrow and often upside down

Two experiences and a question: The first experience is personal. A friend, Ed Nesselhuf, sits in my office answering routine questions about family when his voice breaks. Tears fill his eyes as he describes his adopted Guatemalan son's visit to his homeland to see his mother's grave.

Ideas of strength rooted in the faith that Americans say they hold don’t penetrate to the marrow of our national consciousness.Photo by Michael D. Watson."He wanted to return and save her," Ed says of the woman wasted by alcohol. "But that dream had to die." Even so, new ones spring to life as the young man, 17, prospers in South Dakota with adoptive parents.

The second experience, the presidential campaign, is corporate and ongoing. TV ads picture President Bush walking up a gravel road and cutting brush on his ranch. His opponent, Sen. John Kerry, rides his Harley and tosses a football. We see both aiming rifles and in uniform.

The macho images fortify jut-jawed assurances that they are "tough on terrorism, willing to do what's needed to protect the nation," which is code for spilling blood. The message: "I'm stronger than the other guy. I'll keep you safe."

But a question is diligently avoided. Worse, it's impossible to raise because just asking it is considered a sign of weakness, the kiss of political death. The question: What is strength? Individually, socially, nationally — what does it mean to be strong?


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