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διαβάλλειν – The one who creates division

February 20th, 2017 No comments

In Christian theology, the Devil is an angel who defied God, and thus became morally corrupt. His name is Satan, which translates to “the accuser,” but he is also called the Devil, which derives from the Greek word διαβάλλειν (diaballein), which is generally rendered “slanderer.” Both names are appropriate because in the Christian narrative world Satan stands before God accusing humanity of rebellion, which is a slander because the division between humanity and God was instigated by Satan himself.

Bishop Robert Barron notes that the construction of the word dia-ballein combines two Greek words: dia – through, and ballein – to throw. Adding those words together creates a sense of casting asunder, or division. One must be cautious in assigning meaning based on pure etymology because words often take on meanings removed from the component parts (under-stand doesn’t mean to stand under something), but in this case I think the interpretation is useful because one can see how accusing and slandering will cast relationships asunder and cause division.

When God created humanity ‘in his image,’ he created us in a love relationship that mirrored the love relationship of the Trinity. In the Trinity there are three distinct persons (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) whose relationship with each other is a total outpouring of love, called perichoresis. The image of God in humans is the total outpouring of love by humanity for God, just as God pours himself out to humanity. In the Genesis story Adam and Eve stand for all humanity, and God has provided everything for their needs, given them autonomy and dominion over the earth. We read his instruction not to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil as a threat: if you do it you will die. But in fact it was a warning: creating a division in our relationship will bring about the death of our love relationship. It is not, “if you put your hand on the stove I will burn you,” it is, “if you put your hand on the stove you will get burned.”

The narrative continues with the arrival on the scene of the serpent, widely understood to be Satan. Satan tempts Eve with the promise of hidden knowledge and lies to her about the consequences of giving in to that temptation. But, alas, she is helpless to resist, and she sins, and Adam includes himself in her sin. And the sin immediately resulted in death, as God had warned.

The reader may wonder how the act resulted in immediate death when the Genesis narrative shows Adam and Eve living for hundreds of years outside of Eden. But the death God warned against was the death of the love relationship. As Paul writes, they moved from love of the Creator to love of created things, and after they were never able to devote their full attention to the love of God. Their affections were divided, which removed them from the total self-giving love of God. Thus, they were divided from God. That is death. The Serpent, Satan, the Accuser, the Slanderer, had successfully brought about the fall of humanity, casting asunder the wholeness of humans, and casting asunder their relationship with God.

The curse of humanity throughout recorded history has been the operation of this division manifest in uncountable ways. Humans are not only divided from God by their disordered affections, they are separated from each other by the breaking of God’s Spirit. The result is all of the calamities known to man.

Dia-ballein. To cast asunder. Division is the fate of humanity, and as we look about us today we lament the division we see in American politics, as if it were something new. Of course it is not new but at times it is more pronounced and noticeable. Although this spirit of division is undeniable, in the national discourse its cause is debated. To the conservatives, it’s the liberals To the liberals, it’s Trump. To the immigrants and minorities it’s the whites. To the whites it’s the “other,” whoever that happens to be at the moment (Naive Americans, Blacks, Irish, Catholics, Asians, Eastern Europeans, Italians, Okies, Hispanics, Japanese, and now Muslims). There are accusing fingers pointing in every direction. Each side, at least in its own mind, has truth and righteousness on its side, but the result is ever deepening division, to the point that one wonders if it is possible to heal.

Donald Trump was elected after running a campaign that sowed division. It began with the accusation that Mexicans were sending “rapists and drug dealers” and continued with attacks on Muslims, the press, the courts, “political correctness.” To some this aggressive speech was refreshing, stating openly what they had long believed but were afraid to vocalize. Others, like the KKK and other white supremacist organizations, openly celebrated that at last their hateful ideology was becoming mainstream.

Now, I am not saying that Donald Trump is the Devil, but I am saying that Donald Trump is doing the Devil’s work. Because the Devil’s work is to accuse and slander, skills Donald Trump has mastered.

But Donald Trump is not alone. Since the election, and particularly since the inauguration, liberals have responded to the provocations of the Trump administration by pointing accusing fingers not only at Trump, but against those who support him. It may be argued that their anger is righteous, but we must also concede that the result of this anger is not righteousness but more anger and more provocation. An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind. If Donald Trump’s opponents are able to succeed in ending his presidency, it will not heal the division.

In a secular society like the United States, few are willing to consider national political and social problems in spiritual or religious terms. But it is clear that the strategies employed to solve these problems do exactly the opposite. Can we concede that peace cannot be restored or created by vanquishing our opponents? If so, then we may consider an alternative strategy.

Here, Christian theology comes to the rescue. The narrative that begins with the rebellion of humanity against the love of God, that sows division, ends with unity. The climax of the Christian story of salvation is the death and resurrection of Christ. The consequence of that event is that Christ has overcome death and division and restored the unity of man and God by restoring the love relationship. Theologically, this is accomplished by the death of the human spirit of division and rebirth in God’s Spirit of love and unity. That’s what Jesus means when he tells Nicodemus, “You must be born again.”

The biblical Christian outlook is that it is only by the death of our separateness can we be restored to union with God. When we become Christians, we receive the Spirit of Christ. There is only one Spirit of Christ. The result is that those who are living in Christ are all one, and the sign of that unity is the self-giving self-sacrificing love that Jesus modeled on the cross. When John writes “God is love,” he says implicitly that wherever self-denying self-sacrificing love is evident in the world, God is visible. And Jesus himself says that this is how his followers can be identified.

When Mohandas Gandhi was leading Satyagraha (truth war) against British rule in India, it was not difficult for him to find many willing to risk their well-being in violent revolution. It is perhaps symptomatic of the fall from grace that the human heart tends more toward vengeance than justice. But Gandhi insisted that no one could be his follower who did not surrender their inner urge to violence, even in thought. It is not enough to be nonviolent when one is incapable of mounting violent resistance. True nonviolence requires a nonviolence of the heart: a tendency to love and compassion rather than anger and punishment. The strength of Gandhi’s nonviolence was that even if he had the power to vanquish the British by force, he would rather have reached out in brotherhood. This is the Christian way.

And this must be our way. The truth is, the image of God is in all of us. We must learn to recognize that image in everyone we encounter. It is not likely that we will ever achieve substantial agreement on politics, but it is possible for us to love each other even if we disagree. South Africa in the time of apartheid could not have been any more divided. One way that President Nelson Mandela helped to heal that division was by reaching out to his opponents to work on projects they could agree on. “If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.”

I don’t think we should expect instant reciprocation. We may in fact receive violence in return for our love. But we must never give in to violence. We must have the courage to receive the blows of the enemy, knowing that our suffering will be the instrument that will save us both.

The alternative is to continue to divide. And this is the work of the one who creates division.

Jesus and the Two Party System

March 3rd, 2016 No comments

Adams v Jefferson

As a student of US history I learned that at least since the Washington administration there have been two competing visions of America. These visions can be understood by considering the formation of what is called the “First Party System” pitting the ideas and followers of Alexander Hamilton against those of Thomas Jefferson. Hamilton’s vision of the United States was a commercial and industrial empire that would rival Britain in wealth and power. Jefferson’s was of a vast landscape of liberty, occupied by prosperous yeoman farmers enjoying freedom from the political and economic difficulties accompanying Europe’s emergence into modernity.[1] Both of these men and their allies strove to harness the new national government to their purposes.

Washington himself had a very different idea about the purposes of the national government. He believed that the national government should not work for only a faction of the population, but for all Americans. That is why he appointed men to his cabinet with such divergent views as Hamilton and Jefferson. But Washington was exceptional in many ways, and his warning against the dangers of factionalism and party politics in his Farewell Address went unheeded by his countrymen.[2]

Washington’s warning that the “spirit of party” might bring about the destruction of the fledgling republic almost came true in the first presidential election held after he left office. Throughout the Washington administration and continuing even more intensely during the Adams administration the disagreements between Hamilton and Jefferson were hardened. The animosities were so great that Jefferson, who by a quirk of the Constitution in its original iteration had become Vice President to his rival the Federalist John Adams, resigned his post and returned to Monticello to consider how to bring about the end of his political foes’ influence. In his mind the revolution had been betrayed and the republic endangered by the excesses and monarchical leanings of the Federalists and needed to be rescued. When the election of 1800 approached Jefferson decided to run against Adams for the presidency.

Jefferson had been elevated to the Vice Presidency in the administration of his rivals because the constitution at that time gave the office to whoever obtained the second most electors in the Electoral College. To prevent a similar circumstance in 1800 Jefferson conspired with New Yorker Aaron Burr to run simultaneously, under the assumption that Burr would receive enough electoral votes to be named Vice President. Then the Executive would be controlled by a single faction: Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans, and Federalist policies could be vanquished.

The election resulted in a deadlock in the Electoral College, which sent the election to the House of Representatives. The House was controlled by Federalists, who did not want to see either Jefferson or Burr become President. A deadlock in voting in the house resulted in a tie between Jefferson and Burr, leaving none of the other candidates (including Adams) with a chance of winning. The stalemate in the House nearly led to the fall of the government, as Federalists steadfastly refused to elect either Jefferson or Burr, and the Democratic-Republican Governors of Pennsylvania and Virginia threatened to call up the militia to install Jefferson as President by force.

Hamilton was the power behind the scenes. He detested Jefferson but he hated Burr even more (he would eventually be killed by him in a duel), and he realized the importance of maintaining unity among the States, which were not yet fully committed to union. Hamilton realized that without union his dream of a great commercial empire to rival Britain was unlikely. So he cut a deal with Jefferson, that he would persuade the House to elect Jefferson President, and that Jefferson would not dismantle the fiscal policies Hamilton had championed, that had pulled the country from its crippling Revolutionary War debt. Jefferson would deny for the rest of his life that he had made a compromise, but he did leave intact the Federalist financial policies, and there is enough evidence to indicate that he did negotiate to leave little doubt of it.[3]

In my estimation this election and its outcome was one of the most momentous events in world history. It had two enormous consequences. The first was that it established trust in the political system contained in the Constitution. The peaceful transfer of administration from one faction to a rival faction was unheard of. Subsequent revolutions in France and Latin America would be unable to duplicate it and would suffer decades of civil unrest. But that stability that resulted allowed the United States to avoid become factionalized and succumbing to internal and external threats and to prosper and grow. Trust in the system would only be broken when a divided Republic found its politicians unable to compromise as had Hamilton and Jefferson, and that failure resulted in Civil War. But by 1860 there was a real established union to defend. There was not in 1800.

The other consequence was that the rivalry between the two visions of America became institutionalized in the two party system. Where in other countries similar rivalries resulted in bloodshed, in the United States the appeal of the two factions was confined to the electoral system and their weapons to the ballot box. This is not to deny that there has been plenty of scandal there, but the effect was to perpetually postpone the final decision about what the United States was to be. The subject of American domestic politics and foreign policy ever since has been the tension between these two visions.

In effect, the two irreconcilable positions became the basis for American politics. US history shows periods when one side or the other prevailed. When the ideas of one were in the minority, they were content to agitate and await their next turn at bat in the next election. What bound the two rival factions into one people was faith in the system. Both sides could experience setbacks and not have to concede defeat. This isn’t really compromise, but over the years it has tended to prevent the United States from straying too far toward one side or the other.

Now we are astonished by the state of our national politics. Americans have lost faith in the institutions of government. Many fail to acknowledge the legitimacy of duly elected officials. The reins of government are held by Wall Street oligarchs. One faction in the national government has sworn not to compromise with the other, leading to strains on the system of checks and balances. Whole populations feel alienated from their government and from each other. Numbers of people have begun to see defiance of the national government as patriotism. Some have suggested that true patriotism lies in the destruction of the Republic.

The problem here isn’t really that there is no spirit of compromise. Americans have never been very good at compromise. The problem is that more and more people have lost faith in the entire system of our government based on the Constitution, the system that has throughout America’s history fostered the sense that even if we vehemently disagree we are all still American. Rather than seeing each other as fellow countrymen we are dividing into rival tribes, even to the point of fraternal violence.

Today I read in my morning meditation about Jesus casting out demons, and some in the crowd accusing him of casting out demons in the name of Beelzebub. Jesus responded to those accusers “Every kingdom divided against itself will be laid waste and house will fall against house.” (Lk. 11:17 NABRE) As I read this I though how appropriate to describe the current state of our nation.

The demon we must exorcise is our alienation from each other. As Americans we are not called to agree with each other or even to like each other. But we are called to respect each other as fellow citizens, and to respect the laws and institutions that make us so.

The unity of government which constitutes you one people is also now dear to you. It is justly so, for it is a main pillar in the edifice of your real independence, the support of your tranquility at home, your peace abroad; of your safety; of your prosperity; of that very liberty which you so highly prize. But as it is easy to foresee that, from different causes and from different quarters, much pains will be taken, many artifices employed to weaken in your minds the conviction of this truth; as this is the point in your political fortress against which the batteries of internal and external enemies will be most constantly and actively (though often covertly and insidiously) directed, it is of infinite moment that you should properly estimate the immense value of your national union to your collective and individual happiness; that you should cherish a cordial, habitual, and immovable attachment to it; accustoming yourselves to think and speak of it as of the palladium of your political safety and prosperity; watching for its preservation with jealous anxiety; discountenancing whatever may suggest even a suspicion that it can in any event be abandoned; and indignantly frowning upon the first dawning of every attempt to alienate any portion of our country from the rest, or to enfeeble the sacred ties which now link together the various parts.

For this you have every inducement of sympathy and interest. Citizens, by birth or choice, of a common country, that country has a right to concentrate your affections. The name of American, which belongs to you in your national capacity, must always exalt the just pride of patriotism more than any appellation derived from local discriminations. With slight shades of difference, you have the same … manners, habits, and political principles. You have in a common cause fought and triumphed together; the independence and liberty you possess are the work of joint counsels, and joint efforts of common dangers, sufferings, and successes….[4]

[1] By “emergence into modernity” I mean the rise of industrial capitalism and its accompanying effects such as the creation of an exploited working class and the race by European powers to colonize the resources of every corner of the globe.

[2] “The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty.

Without looking forward to an extremity of this kind (which nevertheless ought not to be entirely out of sight), the common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it.

It serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which finds a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions. Thus the policy and the will of one country are subjected to the policy and will of another.

There is an opinion that parties in free countries are useful checks upon the administration of the government and serve to keep alive the spirit of liberty. This within certain limits is probably true; and in governments of a monarchical cast, patriotism may look with indulgence, if not with favor, upon the spirit of party. But in those of the popular character, in governments purely elective, it is a spirit not to be encouraged.” George Washington, “Washington’s Farewell Address 1796,” The Avalon Project, 2008, accessed March 3, 2016,http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/washing.asp.

[3] See Ferling, John E. Adams Vs. Jefferson: The Tumultuous Election of 1800. Pivotal Moments in American History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

[4] Washington Farewell Address.

What Kind of Extremists Will We Be?

January 18th, 2016 No comments

IFWT_MLKMugShot

The life and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. has been woven into a narrative that serves the interests of the status quo. It is not that the ways he is portrayed are entirely inaccurate, but they are misleading. Our narrative celebrates his life as a triumph of civil rights; that after marching across the Pettus bridge to Washington he gave a speech declaring “Let my people go!” and the racial divide closed. Whew. Glad that’s over with. And now we have a black president we can despise and our racial issue has been solved. Or so it once seemed.

King has been tamed like all of our heroes have been tamed. But Dr. King was not a tame man. And he was not a moderate. If he had been a tame moderate he would not have been able to concentrate enough ill will against him to warrant assassination. Dr. King was dangerous.

The first misconception is that King’s concern was focused or even mainly focused on racial justice. It is true that he entered the stage of public action in support of a movement to remove demeaning racial barriers in Montgomery. King’s activism challenged and demolished the system of Jim Crow segregation, the maintenance of a legally enforced inferior class based on race. And for that we rightly celebrate his life.

But even in the midst of that struggle his vision was greater and more dangerous. In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail King writes about a conversation with his white guards where he observed that rather than opposing him poor whites should support his cause, because the system created a false sense of superiority in whites that left them content to be little or no better off than their black neighbors. Their economic and social plight was almost identical, but they were content to allow it by the logic that at least they weren’t black. Racism in America was fostered as a means of social control — of both blacks and whites. King’s vision wasn’t simply justice for black people. It was justice for everyone. That’s what made him so dangerous.

I once was lulled like many others into the false belief that because of King’s work our national racial divisions had been set on a course of inevitable solution. Yes, there was still work to do, but we were making progress. The final vision of a racially blind society was inevitable. But in the last couple of years I have been forced to acknowledge, as have many others, that my torpor only served to perpetuate injustices that have yet to be addressed. Racism may be illegal but it is nevertheless still enshrined in the hearts and practices of many, even some who deny (even with sincerity) they are racist.

Less than three weeks before he was murdered Dr. King delivered remarks that addressed the civil unrest plaguing America at that time. Here is what he said:

Now I wanted to say something about the fact that we have lived over these last two or three summers with agony and we have seen our cities going up in flames. And I would be the first to say that I am still committed to militant, powerful, massive, non­-violence as the most potent weapon in grappling with the problem from a direct action point of view. I’m absolutely convinced that a riot merely intensifies the fears of the white community while relieving the guilt. And I feel that we must always work with an effective, powerful weapon and method that brings about tangible results. But it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the negro poor has worsened over the last twelve or fifteen years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.[1]

Does it not seem that these words could be spoken today? The injustices that King fought against are still with us.

King’s ultimate goal was the creation of what he called “The Beloved Community.” The Beloved Community would consist of a world without division; all people living in harmony through the love of God (agape) as expressed in the human heart. If we pigeon-hole King into the Civil Rights box and leave him there we really don’t know him at all, and we do him great disservice.

The world has changed too little since King’s assassination. King never spoke in favor of violence, he never advocated division, he decried economic and social injustice, and he sought a world community based on true brotherhood. And for boldly proclaiming that dangerous vision he ended on the balcony of a motel in Memphis in a pool of blood. Today we see throngs cheering the extremist voices of violence and fear and exclusion and division and hate. And I’m not referring to foreign despots and jihadists, I’m pointing the finger at our own political “leaders.” It seems we have little to celebrate on the day we commemorate Martin Luther King.

But the fact that we do remember says that at some level we still value his vision. It is something still to strive for. It won’t be realized by following the fear-laden siren song of our contemporary culture, and it won’t come into existence by denying the ugliness of the world as it is. It can only be made real by opposing extreme hate with extreme love. In response to being labelled an extremist by his fellow clergymen for his desegregation efforts in Birmingham, Dr. King wrote:

But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.” Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” Was not Martin Luther an extremist: “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.” And John Bunyan: “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.” And Abraham Lincoln: “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” And Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal . . .” So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?[2]

The world moves through the motivation of extremism. If we want to create the world of brotherhood King envisioned, we too must be extremists. Even our inaction is an extremist act. What kind of extremists will we be?

 

[1] Martin Luther King, “The Other America” (Speech, Grosse Pointe High School, Grosse Pointe, Michigan, March 14, 1968), accessed January 18, 2016, http://www.gphistorical.org/mlk/mlkspeech/.

[2] Martin Luther King, “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” The King Center, accessed January 18, 2016,http://www.thekingcenter.org/archive/document/letter-birmingham-city-jail-0.

Nobly Save or Meanly Lose

November 26th, 2015 No comments

lincolnThe origins of our current observance of Thanksgiving are in this proclamation by President Lincoln. The year 1863 witnessed the turning point of the Civil War at Gettysburg and Vicksburg. It was the year Lincoln traveled to Gettysburg to dedicate the Soldiers’ National Cemetery where he prayed that the sacrifice of the soldiers would result in a new birth of freedom: freedom for the millions who were held in bondage and not even considered human by many of their countrymen. That freedom was long and hard-fought and still not perfect, but it adds to the American sense of itself as the beacon of liberty in the world.

Americans in the years since the Civil War have sacrificed much to create a world where people can live free. The offering of American blood and treasure for the liberation of the oppressed once made the United States the envy of the world, and the model for the hopes of the downtrodden. But side by side with American generosity there sadly has always existed an ugliness that today is manifest in bigoted nativist super patriotism.

Lincoln saw the tragedy of the Civil War as God’s wrath upon Americans’ “national perverseness and disobedience”. For him, the terrible losses in the war were tragic but necessary sacrifices. Lincoln believed that the American experiment was “the last, best hope of earth”. He appealed to history in urging the preservation of the union.

The union was preserved but the struggle for the hope Lincoln pointed to goes on. What Lincoln envisioned was larger than the abolition of slavery, as great as that was. Today we may give thanks in whatever way we see best, or not at all. This is a blessing afforded us out of the experience of those who learned from bitter history that people must be left free to worship (or not) as their conscience dictates. How we relate to a larger reality may divide us, but what ought to unite us is the principle that we can do so without fear. We must never forget that our freedom depends upon the freedom of others.

Read the words of Lincoln’s 1863 proclamation below, and unite with him in his concern for “all those who have become widows, orphans. mourners, or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged.”

Abraham Lincoln: Proclamation 106 – Thanksgiving Day, 1863

The American Presidency Project contains the most comprehensive collection of resources pertaining to the study of the President of the United States. Compiled by John Woolley and Gerhard Peters

The Bell Struck Twelve

November 24th, 2015 No comments

ignorance and want

Man’s children: Ignorance and Want

– Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol, 1843

From the foldings of its robe, it brought two children; wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable. They knelt down at its feet, and clung upon the outside of its garment.

“Oh, Man, look here! Look, look, down here!” exclaimed the Ghost.

They were a boy and a girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread.

Scrooge started back, appalled. Having them shown to him in this way, he tried to say they were fine children, but the words choked themselves, rather than be parties to a lie of such enormous magnitude.

“Spirit, are they yours?” Scrooge could say no more.

“They are Man’s,” said the Spirit, looking down upon them. “And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!” cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city. “Slander those who tell it ye. Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse. And abide the end.”

“Have they no refuge or resource?” cried Scrooge.

“Are there no prisons?” said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words. “Are there no workhouses?”

The bell struck twelve.

“there was no one left to speak for me”

November 1st, 2015 No comments

save-your-country-from-them

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

-Martin Niemöller

Our enemies are not those we are being programmed to hate, our enemies are the ones doing the programming. We’d better wake up, people, or there will be no one left to speak for us.

Facts are Stubborn Things, Mr. Huckabee

September 6th, 2015 No comments

emancipation
John Adams, while defending the wildly unpopular soldiers who had fired into the crowd in the incident known as the Boston Massacre, famously remarked, “Facts are stubborn things; and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.” This morning Republican Presidential hopeful former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee compared jailed Kentucky Clerk Kim Davis to Abraham Lincoln, suggesting that Lincoln defied the Constitution in his struggle against slavery.

Folks, this is exactly the monotonous note I have been strumming in my one note samba about history and politics. Politicians hope you don’t know the facts so that you can be swayed with lies. In fact, slavery was legal and in full practice in the United States throughout Lincoln’s lifetime. Slavery was legal and still practiced in Kentucky, Maryland, West Virginia, and Delaware throughout the Civil War, and was legal in parts of Louisiana at the end of that war. The Emancipation Proclamation declared emancipation only for slaves “within the rebellious states” where Lincoln had no practical jurisdiction. Effectively, the Proclamation didn’t free any slaves, and in fact did not end slavery. Slavery in the United States was ended by the Thirteenth Amendment in December 1865, after Lincoln’s assassination.

So, although Lincoln was against slavery, and changed the character of the Civil War to be about emancipation, Lincoln always acted within the law and the Constitution in regards to slavery. A man seeking the Presidency should know that.

A Conscious Choice to Love

July 21st, 2015 No comments

poverty

First off, let’s stop thinking about Civil Rights as a black/white Issue. It has always been a white issue. That is to say that the application of the one drop rule in the American consciousness has resulted in a binary perception of white/non-white where whites have access to privilege and non-whites do not. In some cases and at some times this binary perception has been codified into law, in the form of Jim Crow laws, Asian and Hispanic Exclusion laws, etc. It is currently illegal to apply this perception of race in public accommodation, but public racism continues in hidden forms.

Racism is founded on a perception of difference that is not real. Scholars today have debunked the mythologies that once classified people according to skin color or blood. When categorizing different people groups, it is almost always done by language families, because scientists have recognized that there isn’t any essential or significant biological difference between members of the human race. This is, by the way, what differentiates the Civil Rights Movement from the Gay Rights Movement, because the former is trying to instill a recognition that there is no biological or genetic difference, and the latter wants to assert the opposite: that there is a “gay” gene that biologically differentiates people with same sex attraction from everyone else.

The goal of Civil Rights movements is to achieve civic equality. Our current efforts to achieve that goal, while historically significant and legally successful, have failed to produce a difference in public perception that makes it real in fact as well as in law. The events of recent months have shown that while racism has been driven from the law books it is still very much alive in the hearts of the people.

This is, I believe, at least partially because the methods of achieving civic equality have focused on categorizing people according to race. For example, every government form one fills out asks a question about race. One must self-identify in one of a number of predefined categories. The purpose of this is to ensure that one self-identifying group cannot achieve access to services disproportionately to another, or in some cases the opposite, to ensure that one self-identifying group obtains access at least on an equal basis to others. Do you not see the irony here? We categorize people according to race (a fictional category) in order to erase the consequences of false perceptions of race.

I think it is interesting that the man most associated with the Civil Rights Movement had a vision of an America that was not divided by race. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., told the nation in his most famous speech of his dream for America:

And when this happens, when we allow freedom to ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!’[1]

His dream was not for Black people, it was for all people.

One sees his vision of a Beloved Community full of diversity in his earliest writings. And when he was assassinated in Memphis in 1968 he was embarked on a campaign against poverty. Poverty is a condition that does not recognize socially constructed racial differences. King recognized this, and he also recognized that poor people have much more in common with each other than they do with more prosperous members of their socially constructed group. In fact, false differentiation according to race is an impediment to rising out of poverty for all groups, not just Blacks. It pits people against each other who ought to be allies.

Overcoming the harmful effects of racism is a monumental task that we as a society have begun but are yet far from achieving. There is no silver bullet. There is no easy or quick solution. I think an essential step in achieving the goal of real civic equality is to differentiate according to economics rather than ethnicity. The effects of poverty are devastating to people regardless of ethnicity. Overcoming poverty will go a long way toward erasing racism. In the United States the political elite are thoroughly integrated, while racism runs rampant among the poor.

But I am convinced that the ultimate solution is to be found in education. It is a fact that humans are taught to hate; by their families, by their environment, and by their culture. But, as Nelson Mandela noticed, if someone can be taught to hate, they can be taught to love. And so our ongoing effort must be to educate the current generation out of racism and into love. And, as King and others (i.e., Gandhi, Mandela) noticed, the only way to do that is to respond to hate with a self-sacrificing love that awakens the conscience of our lost brothers and sisters. We can’t hate our enemies into loving us. I don’t believe anyone makes a conscious choice to be racist, but I believe we can make a conscious choice to love.

[1] “I Have a Dream,” August 28, 1963, in James Melvin Washington, ed., A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1991), 220.

What Can We Believe In?

July 10th, 2015 No comments

“Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.” This quote from the eighteenth-century philosophe Voltaire sums up the Enlightenment argument against religion. The Protestant Reformation in Europe resulted in an era of bloody and destructive religious warfare. Beginning in the seventeenth century many educated people concluded that the problem was not one church or the other, but religion itself. Religion, by its very nature, does not rely on what we consider “reason” for its claim to validity. Who can believe rationally in a worldview that spurns reason (ghosts impregnating teenagers, defiance of physical laws, resurrection from the dead)? And, consequently but even worse, convinced millions of people over decades to brutally murder their fellows over issues of minute dogma.

The Enlightenment project was a reaction to all this. The Enlightenment philosophes sought to rescue knowledge from the superstitious shackles of religion. In effect, they set out to redefine Truth, and the ways that Truth could be known. Prior to this period, what was true was what the Bible said, or, more precisely, what certain religious leaders said the Bible said. Since the Wars of the Reformation demonstrated that the Bible could be made to say just about anything, the philosophes rejected the Bible and religion as a basis for truth, and instead settled on science.

Concurrent with the Religious Wars was the Scientific Revolution. Those engaged in scientific research were able to show that real truth could be obtained by scientific investigation and explained using mathematical formulae. They were successful in convincing that scientific evidence was unassailable. And since the way one came to know scientific truth was by the exercise of the mind – reason – the West entered the “Age of Reason.” Subsequently in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries, every field of endeavor was re-oriented to a foundation in science. What began as a means of explaining the structure of the universe and the nature of the physical and biological world became the basis for understanding every aspect of life. Is it not telling that every proposed method of arranging society to meet the challenges of industrialization appeals to science: scientific Marxism, Positivism, Social Darwinism?

The great enemy of science, it was thought by many, was religious superstition. Raising science to the level of godhood (during the French Revolution the Cathedral of Notre Dame was renamed the “Temple of Reason”) was supposed to allow mankind to move forward without being dogged by fantasy and delusion. But today we are witnessing a remarkable phenomenon: science itself has become religion.

Here’s what I mean. In any number of social debates from climate change to vaccinations to sexual orientation each side on the debate tries to bolster its arguments by appeal to scientific research, or to scientific experts. But the problem is that each side can appeal to science, because each side can find scientists who will confirm whatever their political position is. So in the end, science is not used as a means to validate truth, it is used as a means to validate belief. What is that but religion?

So here’s the dilemma. If we can’t believe in God because it’s unscientific, and we can’t believe in science because it’s religious, what can we believe in?

A Great and Fatal Mistake

June 1st, 2015 No comments

Personalities AE  6As I was doing some research for a new essay assignment I am working on in my US History I (to 1877) classes I ran across an address in opposition to the proposition of acquiring all of Mexico after the Mexican-American War by then Senator from South Carolina John C. Calhoun. Calhoun was an unabashed racist, white supremacist, and supporter of State’s rights over Federal power and he is mostly known for these things. In his speech he cited as one of his reasons:

Nor have we ever incorporated into the Union any but the Caucasian race.  To incorporate Mexico, would be the first departure of the kind; for more than half of its population are pure Indians, and by far the larger portion of the residue mixed blood.  I protest against the incorporation of such a people.  Ours is the Government of the white man.  The great misfortune of what was formerly Spanish America, is to be traced to the fatal error of placing the colored race on an equality with the white.[1]

His speech is mostly remembered for this, more to our shame than his I think because he was reflecting a commonly held belief of the time. But I found in the speech an observation about liberty that I think is pertinent and worth considering, and I am including it here only for that consideration. I do not endorse Calhoun or his racist ideas (nor, in fact, do I long for secession), but I think he makes a valid point here in terms of our own estimation of liberty and our foreign adventures.

But of the few nations, who have been so fortunate as to adopt a wise Constitution, still fewer have had the wisdom long to preserve them.  It is harder to preserve than to obtain liberty.  After years of prosperity, the tenure by which it is held, is but too often forgotten; and I fear, Senators, that such is the case with us.  There is no solicitude now about liberty.  It was not so in the early days of the Republic.  Then it was the first object of our solicitude.  The maxim then was, that “power is always stealing from the many to the few”; “the price of liberty is perpetual vigilance.”  Then no question of any magnitude came up, in which the first inquiry was not “is it constitutional” — “is it consistent with our free, popular institutions” — “how is it to affect our liberty.”  It is not so now.  Questions of the greatest magnitude are now discussed without reference or allusion to these vital considerations.  I have been often struck with the fact, that in the discussions of the great questions in which we are now engaged, relating to the origin and the conduct of this war, their effect on the free institutions and the liberty of the people have scarcely been alluded to, although their bearing in that respect is so direct and disastrous.  They would, in former days, have been the great and leading topics of discussion; and would, above all others, have had the most powerful effect in arousing the attention of the country.  But now, other topics occupy the attention of Congress and of the country — military glory, extension of the empire, and the aggrandizement of the country.  To what is this great change to be attributed?  Is it because there has been a decay of the spirit of liberty among the people?  I think not.  I believe that it was never more ardent.  The true cause is, that we have ceased to remember the tenure by which liberty alone can be preserved.  We have had so many years of prosperity — passed through so many difficulties and dangers without the loss of liberty — that we begin to think that we hold it by right divine from heaven itself.  Under this impression, without thinking or reflecting, we plunge into war, contract heavy debts, increase vastly the patronage of the Executive, and indulge in every species of extravagance, without thinking that we expose our liberty to hazard.  It is a great and fatal mistake.  The day of retribution will come; and when it does, awful will be the reckoning, and heavy the responsibilities somewhere.[1]

[1] John C. Calhoun, Speech in the United States Senate January 4, 1848 in Richard K. (Richard Kenner), 1800-1864. Crallé, The Works of John C. Calhoun, vol. IV (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1888), 396ff.

 

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