Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Searching for the scriptures

 Review and reflection: Karen Armstrong, The Lost Art of Scripture: Rescuing the Sacred Texts (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2019) 

The Bible is generally regarded as the most influential book in the world, and is consistently among the best-sellers. Whether that is for good or ill is less certain—it may sell well, but it doesn’t seem that all of the buyers read it, as this meme reminds us. And when it is read, disputes about how to understand it are nothing new, as church history tells us. Many forget the principle of starting from the larger view and moving on to the details, and get lost in the proverbial forest because of the trees. 

Armstrong takes a larger view in this book, first by including the other scriptures of the world, and linking them to historical developments. This method of surveying of Hebrew, Christian, Greek mythology and philosophy, Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, and Chinese writings produces fascinating insights and parallels. This approach views sacred texts not primarily as instruction manuals, but as prods to seek that which is behind our great questions. In this, she would seem to agree with the classic view that divine matters come to us as an enigma, understanding comes from seeking truth, imbued with a sense of wonder (Plutarch, De E Apud Delphos 384, 385). 

book cover -  Karen Armstrong
This quest to pursue an enigma engages both sides of our mind. Failure to understand this, along with the role of each of the two sides, leads to an imbalance that is literally killing us. It is multiplied when listening to those who cherry-pick completely non-representative passages from scriptures and use them to characterize their prejudices in a way that leads to increasing strife and misunderstanding. 

Regaining the balance of the two sides gets a lot of attention here, and to me, it’s the best part of the book. Neurology tells us that the truth behind Plato’s cave parable (Republic 514a-520a) is reasonably accurate: we don’t have direct contact with the world. What we do have are perspectives gained from our senses, which are only representations of reality. Our mind’s left side senses linear, scientific ideas, while the right side deals with relationships and a desire for justice, as well as unity. The right is also more attuned to “other” and “Other.” Armstrong maintains that the right side is where prophets, speaking poetically, expressed their scriptural insights, and that the prophets have been among the few to integrate that with the practical left side. However, in today’s world, a scientific mindset has upended the balance, and seeks to define (i.e., set limits to) the infinite, thereby containing it. 

Scripture, in all faiths, is a product of civilization, which is also a science (a body of knowledge which requires specialized skills and training), but it is also an art. As a sacred text, often divinely revealed, it is authoritative. But it is also something that lives in the right hemisphere of the brain, the land of music and poetry. It does not “mean” anything as such, but is meaning itself (just as, some theologians state, God is being itself)—and as Armstrong writes, like all religious language, it “must eventually segue into the silence that is an expression of awe, wonder and unknowing” (68). 

The origins of scriptures are not in writing, but in performance—singing, reading, acting, and liturgy, and thus it requires interpretation, the same as a musical score. It is not intended to confirm a stance, but to challenge and call for transformation. A note on writing: as Armstrong notes, while known in the ancient world, writing was unwieldy and used as a memory tool or for records. It was not intended for daily use or, and it was understood that one who studied the stories knew them by memory (Plato, Phaedrus 274c-275b). We can also note that this approach, evidenced by quoting the first lines of a passage, is found in the Gospels and Epistles. 

However, since the Enlightenment, especially in the West, everything, including scripture, is increasingly read with a scientific approach instead of a spirit of wonder and enigma. Its byproduct, the Reformation, celebrated the written word and sought clarity and definition.  Armstrong doesn’t note the irony of the “law of unintended consequences” here—the Reformation spawned not only this attitude, which has befuddled the meaning of scripture, but also set off demands for personal and political freedom which came to haunt religion and the governments that established churches supported. 

Armstrong concentrates on a shift from scripture as a prod to radical change to using it as proof-texts for what becomes an increasingly smaller view of the world. One of the casualties of this search is the insistence of Augustine (among others) that scripture taught only love of neighbor. She notes that the Chinese philosopher Fang Yizhi (1611–71) wrote that this misleading, mechanistic approach created a West that is “detailed in material investigation … [but] deficient in comprehending seminal forces” of the ineffable (390, Fang Yizhen, Wu li xiao, 1.25a, 1.6, 12a). As the doctrinally-centered approaches which this pursuit results in increase, there is a loss of transcendence, which leads to self-serving justifications that are cruel, divisive, and complacent. In this regard, Darby is little different from Qutb or many others today: scripture is read to confirm one’s views rather than to seek transformation. If more people read the scriptures with a seeking attitude, there would be a lot less disability exclusion and a lot more acceptance in a shared, inclusive journey. Scripture is incomplete when, as the United Church of Christ suggests, we place a period where God places a comma. 



Thursday, August 6, 2020

A theology of diversity

A review and reflections on Theodore Hiebert, The Beginning of Difference: Discovering Identity in God's Diverse World (Abingdon Press, 2019).

In the wake of the 30th anniversary of the ADA, as well as recent movements for racial justice, we have heard a lot about acceptance, accommodation, and diversity. Engagement of these ideas is more than toleration, and a crucial presumption of disability as well as racial equity. It’s also more than being an ally; it requires inclusion at an equal level for all. It also requires accommodation of difference without discriminating against some ability or trait that reflects a culture, whether ethnic, linguistic, or of a subgroup. And it requires understanding how these factors form identity for individuals and groups.

Often, such acceptance and understanding fails due to being unaware. How often has someone mentioned an access problem and the reply is “I never thought about that”? Although this is not the only cause, many times, generating awareness is a major step toward resolution. Thus, a critical factor is the response to difference when one becomes aware of it: is there acceptance, or is there an effort to impose one’s own norms on another? Does one honor differences, giving others dignity, or deny them, thereby seeking to eradicate, or worse, act as if they do not even exist? 

These are the questions which Hiebert raises in a study of Genesis and Acts. He begins by sharing his own growth in awareness of difference, and then considering how storylines in both books parallel actions of recognizing difference, seeking to understand the difference, and fostering respect for those who are different. The book is, as the title states, an exploration of the growth of identity through cultural factors in Genesis, and then how this growth is repeated in Acts. This, in turn, leads to reflections on how this understanding affects other factors--in our case, principally disabilities.
Cover of book: black with white title and author, and a small color wheel

Beginning with the Babel story, Hiebert follows through with Noah and his descendants, focusing on Abraham’s line. As a story of origins, Genesis is important for this quest, because exclusivist readings and questionable translations have led to misleading interpretations. Although his result is a radically different understanding, it is also a conservative one, for it “seeks to go back and recover the original views and values of biblical text” and to listen to what the writers of Genesis said, and then extend those understandings to today’s world (xxix-xxx).

Hiebert contends that Babel should be read as a story about reconstructing the world after the Flood. The Flood is an interruption of the story of humanity and a new beginning, but the first efforts of humans in this effort are not much different than the first. In response, God creates difference—but not as a punishment. This is often obscured by faulty translations and lexicography: the root problem faced by God is to confound empire building by royal figures who would impose their culture on others. God’s action is to “mix,” as one would ingredients for a cake, rather than “confuse” (20).  

Genesis then proceeds to tell the origin of the world’s family tree in a series of narratives about interaction of different cultures, by which the writer seeks to instruct us in how maintain an identity while also engaging others. Thus Abraham’s family teaches us how to respond to differences. The same plot repeats: conflict arises, rivalry drives a reaction, followed by a response of harm, then a path to survival. Yet while Cain and Abel told us about a failure to engage, we now see responses that bring about separate, diverse cultures. To the attentive reader, these stories also offer a critique of the rigidity of patriarchal structures and tell us of the conflict and consequences of this system, coupled with how an imaginative response of generosity leads to a realistic path forward.

Hiebert then turns to the Pentecost story, where he finds a parallel to Genesis: the first Christians, rooted in Judaism, move from a single culture, language, and place to reaches out for diversity as they go “to the ends of the earth.” But not only do those followers take this message, they adapt it to the receiving cultures. The linguistic diversity of Pentecost illustrates this adaptation as it validates the distinctive identity of other cultures. Then in Acts 10, after some prodding, Peter realizes a call to reach out to other cultures. This outreach offers a charter for the church, a charter which Hiebert calls on us to follow through by celebrating and living with difference. 

An outreach to cultures in general would certainly an outreach to people with disabilities. We can recall that “mixture” is a call for genuine inclusion. In disability and other ministries, this can be summed up in the phrase “ministry with.” This would gather people as partners and equals who would teach everyone with their own gifts. People with disabilities are not simply an unreached group to be objectified (as in the phrase “ministry to”). This approach is true for all: honor the culture, use that honor to respect and learn about God’s gift of diversity, and join as included partners.

Disclaimer: I borrowed this book from the Indianapolis Public Library, and promised to return it in three weeks. The promise was fulfilled.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Why isn't this in history books?

Recently, I’ve seen a lot of memes detailing an obscure incident involving minorities, followed by something along the lines of “why isn’t this in the history books?” I’m not surprised. There isa problem here, but we also need to note the popularity of the line “don’t know much about history” and realize that we have both a book-content problem and a paying-attention-in-class problem.

For a starting point, let’s start with a quote that doesn’t often make history books—maybe because it’s in a theology book:
The actual history of every country is full of shabby and even shameful doings.  The heroic stories, if taken to be typical, give a false impression of it and are often themselves open to serious historical criticism. Hence a patriotism based on our glorious past is fair game for the debunker…. The image becomes dangerous in the precise degree to which it is mistaken, or substituted, for serious and systematic historical study (C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves, HarperOne, Kindle edition, 32).
Textbooks are not “serious and systematic” historical study. They are a product designed to certain specifications, and those specifications often have more to do with general outlines than understanding how the field works. James Loewen’s writings about racial history and teaching provide a good source to understand this. Read his book Lies My Teacher Told Me and visit his website and pay attention. Loewen has also recently done an interview with Katie Couric that provides a good summary.

Reading a textbook tells you what someone else thinks is important. A frequent complaint is that books leave out important things. Indeed, they do. But there simply aren’t enough books, writers, or reading time to cover everything. The historian Barbara Tuchman commented of The Proud Tower that she could have written the book three times without repeating anything. This is simply something one has to be aware of--few of us have time to read everything!

Human nature is also a factor. Reinhold Niebuhr, for one (and most forcefully), argues that pride springing from the ability of self-transcendence is humanity’s original sin, and is what lies behind the story of the Fall in Genesis (The Nature and Destiny of Man, Scribner's, 1943). Pride works all kinds of mischief, and looks for hooks to hang its tenets on. After reading Loewen, you may come to understand better how this links to an often-repeated statement by Jim Wallis that racism is America’s original sin.

Aside from pride, we must also consider that history is not simply some set of facts that one pours into their head. In Practicing History, Barbara Tuchman gives an excellent look at how historical writing is done (and how it ought to be done), and concludes with:
If history were a science, we should be able to get a grip on her, learn her ways, establish her patterns, know what will happen tomorrow. Why is it that we cannot? The answer lies in what I call the Unknown Variable—namely, man…. History is the record of human behavior, the most fascinating subject of all, but illogical…
(Barbara Tuchman, Practicing History, New York: Ballantine, 1982, 147-148).
History is much more about understanding what sort of mistakes people make (along with, perhaps, the occasional good decision), reading and evaluating sources, and grappling with human nature so one can put together an understanding of what has happened across a span of time. If you have a favorite era, such as the Civil War, it’s fine to read within those bounds, but expanding your horizons will give greater insight. In this respect, Tuchman’s The March of Folly is an example of how an idea seems to keep recurring throughout history

As you consider these points, also keep in mind that any story has at least two sides. Someone who is trying to mislead will often push a false dichotomy—the notion that there are only two choices. In history, two sides is usually the starting point for a good count. And we turn again to Tuchman, who proposed a principle in A Distant Mirror that is often known as Tuchman’s Law: “the fact of being reported multiplies the apparent extent of any deplorable development by five-to-tenfold,” implying that bad news captures our attention more than good news, and is more likely to persist in memory and reporting.

Related to this, I’ll ask if you have seen the memes prattling about how slavery wasn’t all that bad, that others have been enslaved, and so forth? As is often the case, one needs to define the terms at hand. “Slavery” is not the same everywhere and at all times. An understanding of how American chattel slavery, based on race, and its pseudo-intellectual underpinnings is important to the current context. This is where the list you may have expected comes in: 
  • The New York Times 1619 project
  • Winthrop Jordan, White Over Black (a review with notes here)
  • Ronald Takaki, A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America (just what it says)
  • Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (an anthropological approach to history, looking at neglected factors in historical developments)
  • Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States (a grass-roots view--keep this in mind when someone tells you it's terrible)
  • Since there's usually something about religion in here, church history has often been bowdlerized in the same ways. That may require more work, but this one is a good start.
Finally, it’s important to understand the limitations of humans (Niebuhr again), of historical record (Tuchman again), and that all of this is simply the best reconstruction we can offer. Trying to put yourself into a position of someone you read about is a good exercise, but before you do, look at these and remember that we’re not perfect:
and be better informed!

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Riding the ADA bus at 30

A series of recent discussions on the 30 anniversary of the ADA has led me to review and re-review a piece which I wrote for a now-defunct publication in 2013: Rachel Simon, Riding the Bus with my Sister: A True Life Journey (Tenth Anniversary Edition) (New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2013).

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
I'm diffrent! I'm diffrent!”

In her opening pages, author Rachel Simon quotes these words spoken by her sister Beth “as if she were hurling a challenge . . . beyond the limits of the sky.” A challenge, for that's what we alway face. But I also wonder, might they be something else?

Could they be words of rejoicing, a celebration of finding oneself despite a lack of role models?

Might they reflect years of frustration with a world that congratulates a few who conform to a popular, comforting model that praises us for overcoming the obstacles placed in our way?

Could they be about a world that does not seem to understand what is really going on, one that does not care to understand, but is always ready to pronounce judgment?

Beyond the limits of the sky-- recalling the Psalms that long for justice, and asking where God is now?

Or might they be all of these at the same time?

The book tells the story of an older sister visiting her younger sister with a developmental disability. Beth spends her days riding the buses in her town, and the as the story unfolds with its details, so does the story of a life changed. The details of change range from Rachel's decision to make time to visit, to the problems of lodging, to the events on the bus, talking with Beth there and elsewhere, as well as the drivers and others. We ride along as each visit (about once a month) tells a different aspect of the story. The story of each month also provides the base for a time of anamnesis, remembering and reliving the events that brought the two sisters to be so close and yet so far apart.

As the story begins, there is a deep sense of not knowing, despite wide-ranging searches. Rachel is at a point in life where she should be satisfied, but that is not the case. Exploring this feeling, the present becomes a reminder of days when, after a series of medical tests on Beth, a doctor delivers the diagnosis “she's retarded.” It seems dismissive, as if she will never attain personhood, but the family fights back: Mommy says, “People used to hide mentally retarded kids in back rooms. We will always have her as one of the family.”

That Beth will be part of the family has consequences, of course, and they reach beyond Beth's life. Rachel recalls seeing her sister in the hall at school, with the other members of her “special” class, and writes of how she feels like shouting a hello, so that “everyone who knows me will spin around the see her and understand that these two separate worlds aren't two separate worlds at all.”

Some of the language may be shocking; as the author explains, that is part of the story and a deliberate choice. The story of Riding the Bus with my Sister is not only that of learning to accept self and others, but the story of the forces and ideas in the 1960s and 1970s that brought together those often separate worlds. Early legislation, such as the Rehabilitation Act, and then the Americans with Disabilities Act have opened doors for people with disabilities. I also grew up in a world of “special needs” and segregation. Change did not come overnight, and there is still a way to go, and some who ought to know better are still in the way, but we now claim the same world.

Changing the world did not end with the ADA. Remembrances and reflections show that however well-intentioned it is, legislation does not change hearts. Recounting a practical problem that surfaced frequently while riding the bus, Rachel recounts a conversation with Beth:  

            “They don't always want us in here.”
            “Us?” I ask. “Who do you mean?”
            She frowns, and opens a bathroom door.
            “Anybody who's not them,” she [Beth] says.

Another time, in a restaurant, where people are watching the pair (joined by Beth's friend Jesse), she remarks that there is “so much separateness in this almost empty room that I can't breathe.” Is difference a cause for separation, or can it be a cause for understanding that we are all different, a new challenge to be celebrated? This is all the pertinent as “I can't breathe” has gained added importance as a statement of the need for equity in all of human life.

book cover, a tree with the title in the bough, and a bus on a street

Language carries with it a raft of baggage, and separation in space becomes separation that reinforces difference. Decried by some as “political correctness,” a shift from identification by diagnosis to person-first language signifies a change from object to subject. No longer called a “retard,” the “person with a developmental disability” becomes a living being. As a person first, Beth and others are no longer separated from the world, but become someone who joins in our struggles—in my field, the difference between ministry to and ministry with.

As Rachel's attitude begins to embrace this change in language, she recalls her own past again. There's the sadness of a mother whose life becomes clouded by depression. In a day when no one spoke of such things, she left the family for a time. It is a reminder that we often create our own monsters by trying to avoid reality, to hide it away, and not allow it to be part of the family.

It is a tale that makes one think of Mary Shelly's Frankenstein as, instead of a series of letters to a sister, we join in a series of trips with a sister. These trips unmask the reality and call us to learn about humanity. Like Frankenstein's creature, Rachel Simon finds the world to be an inhospitable place to anyone who seems to be different. As one driver comments of the sisters, “you're both shocked at the intolerance in the world.” To that, he adds, “maybe it's the price you pay to be more human.” That realization leads Rachel and Beth to conflict, but it also leads them to change.

The subtitle of Frankenstein is The Modern Prometheus, reflecting on the Greek Titan who shared fire, making humanity come alive. After reading Simon's book, I am again reminded of Teilhard de Chardin's words that “the day will come when, after harnessing the ether, the winds, the tides, gravitation, we shall harness for God the energies of love. And, on that day, for the second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire." The transformation could not be more complete in this book.May it be so in our lives.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Singing a world

Walter Brueggemann, A Glad Obedience: Why and What We Sing. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2019.

The Psalms are a perennial favorite—even among those who don’t read the Bible. However, one must admit that some are more of a favorite than others. Many struggle with the implications of the final lines of 137, for example. Of course, many more of the collection offer hope and comfort, which accounts for their popularity. And the collection doesn’t hide from reality, thus the humanity of all befits what most regard as a hymnal for the Temple in Jerusalem.

In one of his typical short but thought-filled topical books, Walter Brueggemann offers insights into the lasting value of the Psalter. He is not unlike a classical prophet, addressing the people of his day to offer comfort, strength, and prods to improvement. His approach deconstructs social attitudes from a perspective that stands outside of political boundaries. In this book, he writes that singing is a way of celebrating our humanness as a gift of God (xvi). Further, anthropologically, we are engaged in “world construction” when we sing hymns, because the world that we sing about is rooted in yet very different from the one that  regularly stands before us (1).

cover of book, a row of organ pipes

As I write this, two trends are prominent in the news. First, a pandemic has closed most of our churches to public worship, and thus removed singing together from many lives (although there are some well-done technological solutions). So it seems appropriate to think about what singing in worship means to us. Second, we are becoming forcefully aware, often in a disturbing manner, of many levels and forms of discrimination in modern society—as well as how their persistence is abetted by often-unrecognized social structures.

As I wrote this, I remembered classes I’ve taken and taught that deal with music in worship, studies that contain significant portions about African-American communities. There is a sense of these roots, whether singing Psalms, the unique slave songs, or modern expressions, of the promise of a very different world. We come to understand, through music, that among these ancient songs are also protest songs, and that in protest there is hope. (Anyone wishing to learn more about the role of music in the Black church and it social role should look into Eileen Southern, The Music of Black Americans). These factors are all a good indicator that, as Brueggemann writes, we sing because life is given by, sustained by, and claimed by God. We sing because we refuse to have our lives be any less—or more—than that (2).

Singing is an act of resistance—whether protest songs, laments, spirituals, prayers, or others. The Psalter, whose Hebrew title םילהת means “praises,” includes all of these forms. The Psalms are also a gift. And they are a reminder, as we sing or recite them, that the impulse to value everything according to its monetary value, to make all of life a commodity to be bought, sold, or traded, is not new, and constant vigilance is required to affirm life first (14).

With these thoughts, Brueggemann moves through selections of the Psalter, where he finds many, diverse voices. This diversity is also why the Psalms endure through time and cultures. The constant is the divine pledge of דסֶחֶ (hesed, steadfast love), and this is a pledge of solidarity and fidelity to Creation (177).

And this leads to disability, especially the implications for social and medical models. Lives of disabled people are often compromised by judging them according to various notions of economic value, such as the ability to produce inside a discriminatory system, or the costs of care. This kind of thinking reached a peak in Nazi Germany with the Aktion T-4 program of mass murder. Today, while no one openly advocates such actions, disabled people join with other groups as assistance programs are routinely threatened with less-than-subsistence funds, insufficient health care, and restricted access in the name of economics. Filicide of disabled children often receives little or no attention or punishment. Correcting accessibility violations requires private lawsuits, and nearly 30 years after a law requiring access was passed, still brings opposition. Rather than accept diversity, solutions are often equally unrealistic and demeaning: (involuntarily) submit to prayer for healing, or some medical approaches that treat people as if they were machines, requiring enduring “a series of technological fixes” (195). We don’t need labels like “special needs,” we need the same acceptance that others expect and whether realizing it or not, regard as their privilege.

Welcome to Psalms of Praise (front), Psalm 150 (back)
Cover and back pages of the program book for presentation at First UCC, Xenia.
Computer technology has advanced since then.

I would like to thank William Crowder for working with me on a project, The Psalms of Praise, which we presented at his then-pastoral charge, First United Christian Church of Xenia OH, which provided an unparalleled opportunity to first gather my thoughts and reflections on the Psalms.

I borrowed this book from the Indianapolis Public Library, promising in return to return it within three weeks. I have fulfilled that promise.

Monday, June 15, 2020

Traveling with an atlas

Mark V. Hoffman and Robert A. Mullins, Atlas of the Biblical World. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2019.

It was in second grade, I think, that everyone in my class received a state map. We didn’t do much with it, but it was a fold-up wonder that opened a new world. Looking at it, I saw where we lived, places nearby that we sometimes traveled to, and places further off that sounded fascinating. Thus began an interest that developed as I pursued historical studies—learning how geography has had an integral role in shaping events, and growing in understanding how others live.

As I moved into a major of religious history, it seems natural to say that Bible atlases were along for the journey. More so than for many other books, one is needed here—its events take place in a generally unfamiliar land, there are often varying accounts of an event, as well as different names than other sources use, and other problems that challenge a reader. Bible publishers have responded with maps bound in with the text, but they are often dated and require flipping pages, so a stand-alone version that can sit next to one is a useful resource. Mine received a lot of use; I suspect I’m not alone in wearing out copies of the Oxford Bible Atlas just in time to buy a new edition.

While the Oxford atlas remains a good choice, this recent offering from Fortress provides worthy competition. In general, each page has a section outlining the text references, books or chapters and background on one leaf. Opposite that is a map illustrating the geography and movements involved. There are five sections that flow chronologically: Beginnings, The People of Israel in Canaan, A People Divided, Invasion and Occupation, and Jesus and the Emergence of Christianity.

I mention this organization to remember one of my seminary professors who remarked of one paper that simply being aware that the book of Jeremiah is not in chronological order is useful. The Hebrew Bible is organized by themes – Torah, Prophets, and Writings. While the role and places of the prophets are often missing here (which I see as the book’s greatest lack), the whole does a good job of helping make the storyline of the Hebrew Bible clear.

The Christian scriptures start with five books that are only vaguely in chronological order (like the Hebrew records, a trait that often frustrates modern western readers), and often alludes to events that are obscure. It then pries into someone else’s mail, often conjoining the letters and obscuring the background of events. Here the layout and background are again useful.

Overall this approach is helpful as the authors relate the biblical stories to other historical events, thus removing some of the “bubble.” It’s easy to forget about the wider world, one that is only tangentially mentioned most of the time. Another helpful feature is reference to archaeological findings and what they tell us about the story. Archaeology doesn’t “prove” the Bible, but it does tell us a lot about the background of the stories, and thus help us understand it. The section “Invasion and Occupation,” dealing mostly with the inter-testamental period (when much of the Apocrypha were composed) is particularly good in helping to understand the political movements which led to the tensions, situations, and parties of the Gospels.

cover of atlas

In summary, then, this a very effective tool for understanding. It’s not the most comprehensive, but that isn’t the goal. It’s factual, which means that some of the popular legends aren’t included, but that’s fine with me. Mark Twain wrote in the conclusion of his rollicking book The Innocents Abroad that “travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” It also is fatal to fakery (something Twain remarks on a lot in that book!) and expands horizons and knowledge. You may well find me online, looking at Google maps (especially with the new accessibility features, but stretching our boundaries also includes a good book of this sort.

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

The Devil of Details

One of the most challenging aspects of teaching history comes when students are half-listening (if they're listening at all) until a phrase passes their ears that produces a knee-jerk reaction. "Socialism" is one of these words. 

Some perspective on this term comes from the ostensible topic here, a book by Kenneth Barnes, Redeeming Capitalism (Eerdmans, 2018). Barnes outlines the history of economic systems, surveys both good and bad effects and developments, and suggests some theologically-based corrections to the way things are today (most of these center on restraining rampant greed). 

Along the way, he notes: "Since the end of World War II, and the beginning of the Cold War, one word above all others has been anathema to US politicians, socialism. Among the many reasons for this, perhaps the two most obvious are a general confusion about what socialism actually is and a widely-held conviction that socialist experiments in Europe and elsewhere have not been successful. Confusion over what socialism actually is may be traced to deliberate and, some might say, cynical attempts by its opponents to convolute Democratic socialism with it totalitarian Marxism" (83).

Eugene Debs campaign poster for socialist party, 1912

With the costs of being disabled, economic systems are always in the mind of people with disabilities. Hearing someone opine that wheelchairs are only around $300 (reality check: my last one came to $21,000, and we had to pay about $4000) should prove that. But economics, and Barnes, are also about what we value. Jesus of Nazareth stated that trying to serve both God and wealth would lead to cognitive dissonance (Matthew 6.24). The medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas argued that those who would raise the price of an item because of its advantage to the recipient commit a sin of deceit (Summa Theologiae 2b.77.1,4). The Archbishop of Canterbury, announcing that John Swinton's Dementia: Living in the Memories of God was awarded the 2016 Michael Ramsey Prize, stated that the failure to value people as something other than economic units was "one of the most profound failures of our society." 

A recently-concluded round of campaign commercials and reading this article from History News Network brought Barnes, my wheels, Aquinas, and Swinton together for me. 

It also reminded me of repeated efforts to get students to pay attention to that place where the devil lives--details. Or could we say, it's a reminder of the need for understanding history and practicing careful discernment (a.k.a. critical reading) of what we read. In this case, "socialist" has a variety of meanings and distinctions. It also originated in a particular historical setting, and, as is usual in everything from religion to politics, not all who claim the label or oppose it are using it accurately.

Being able to sort this out is one of the purposes of education (especially if you wish to distinguish "education" from "training," which I'll probably get into sometime). Before we proceed, I'll add that another purpose of education is learning to express what you've found in a clear manner. When I was in grad school, one day one of my advisors and I had a great conversation about students who responded "that's not what I meant" about their papers. It may be (and we can often figure that out) but it is what you told us!

I've seen a lot of memes lately that mention "socialism" but clearly don't have any idea what it's about.This is why I dislike the memes that are so prevalent on Facebook. Beyond their general inaccuracy and one-sidedness, they don't invite discussion, their purpose seems to be reinforcing one's pre-existing notions without thinking. But then, thinking is what killed Socrates.

Disclaimer: I borrowed this book from the Indianapolis Public Library and promised to return it within three weeks. I fulfilled that promise. 

Friday, May 29, 2020

White Over Black

In the light of recent events, I've been looking at some of the materials from when I taught history, and the background to that from grad school classes. One important book was Winthrop Jordan's White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812 (Penguin, 1969). And I've referred to it in several social media posts--so rather than keep repeating myself, I decided that it would be better to share my notes here. Please keep in mind that these are notes and forgive the grammar and short phrases.

Also from class, this poster is a little reminder: racism isn't new, it didn't end with the Civil War, and it wasn't confined to the southern states. A review like this can only scratch the surface--the book is well worth reading. So here we go.

The two platforms: every radical in Congress voted for Negro suffrage, Geary said in a speech there can be no possible objection to Negro suffrage

Ch 1, First Impressions: Initial English Confrontations with Africans shortly after 1550 English voyagers first reached West Africa, they found the natives different in appearance, religion, manner of living. Color was most obvious and immediate. Black and white had long been opposites with emotional and moral impact in England, thus the Africans were under an immediate disadvantage. There was also scientific curiosity, especially with discovery of other colors as in North America. Soon clear to most that it was not from sun or climate. Naturalistic explanations were challenged by Biblical readings; a few allowed God’s curse on Ham to be of color. Religious difference was easier to categorize–heathen. They were also viewed as “savage” or failing to meet English ideas of civilization; this led to much debate over whether this was inherent and alterable. Adding to this was discovery of chimpanzee (orang-outang) at same time, whose human resemblance arose further curiosity; linked to black men by perceived sexual wantonness (3-43).
Ch 2, Unthinking Decision: Enslavement of Negroes in America to 1700 there's no evidence that slavery was part of first English settlements in America or even intended, but it grew: the first blacks arrived in Virginia in 1619, 1640-60 evidence of enslavement, after 1660 evident in statute books. Not enough evidence to explain how and why this came to be. The New World placed pressures on traditional controls. Plentiful land, scarcity of labor, need for cash crops developed three systems: free wage labor, temporary servitude (most common in early settlements), and slavery. Common law was well behind social practice; although servitude was not practiced and liberty valued, its ground remained. Slavery had persisted through history in Iberian peninsula, Portugese explorers had captured Negroes for slaves, and some were sent to American settlements by 1550. Although English were prejudiced for liberty, American social and economic conditions called for some form of bound labor. New England had less demand for labor, but as early as 1638 there were slaves, but restricted to “strangers” or justified as punishment for crime and war captivity. In VA and MD, tobacco became a cash crop, requiring cheap labor. First stage, 1619 arrival of Negroes, after 1640 evidence that some were in slavery, and matter of law after 1660. By 1640 some are serving for life and posterity–others recorded as limited indenture; but all are considered suitable for field work while whites are not; enslavement and discrimination rise together in mutual cause and effect. 1664, English took over Dutch colonies, whether Negroes were slaves is not clear, but slavery flourished in New York. In the Carolinas it was deliberately started as a colony from Barbados. English distinguished themselves from others, and distinguished among the non-English, allowing Scotch and Irish a closeness, but not equality, while not allowing slavery, even for Catholics. Indians and Negroes seemed radically different. Consistent factors in slavery are economics, inability to struggle against English; attitude–heathen and thus not Christian, civilized, changing from religion to nationality, then complexion (44-98).

Part 2, Provincial Decades 1700-1755
Ch 3, Anxious Oppressors: Freedom and Control in a Slave Society a period of growth without appreciable opposition, part of increasing diversity that included Scotch-Irish, Germans. Negro population varied, 25% NC, 30% MD, 40% VA, 60% SC, but spotty in north: 15% NY, 8% Boston, RI 3%, NJ and PA 8%. In plantation of the south, legal confusion over status, giving rise to slave codes detailing status, compensation, patrols, militia; fear of rebellion was constant. Free Negro considered dangerous as potential fomenter of revolt, 1741 NY case shows assumption they were “more Negro than free”. Growing pattern, widespread before Revolution, that all were barred from social participation, restricting residence, voting (101-135).

Ch 4, Fruits of Passion: The Dynamics of Interracial Sex began almost immediately, rivaled revolts as source of tension; colonists and travel writers show that every social rank engaged in concern; enough similarity to allow desire and gratification, enough difference to make public aversion. A few legal interracial marriages occurred, mostly in New England, mostly of Negro men and lower-class white women; but prohibited in all southern colonies and MA, PA. But concubines were openly taken in south. SC writings open about passionate advances of Negro women, justifying their infidelity. Negro men and white women became source of tension during revolt rumors, probably representing more a reaction to fear than reality. Tendency to lump all mulattoes together as Negro socially and legally, a denial that the condition existed (136-178).

Ch 5, The Souls of Men: The Negro’s Spiritual Nature Christianity was universal in asserting need to care for all souls, conversion of slaves a source of tension for it implied a sameness, reducing distinct status of white; coupled with persistent idea that a Christian should not hold another Christian in slavery (well before 1729, all southern and 2 northern colonies had laws that baptism did not necessitate manumission); fears that conversion fostered rebellion or at least discontent. To many, they seemed too ignorant to educate, or at least a great challenge. Those interested in conversion first asserted, in response to chief obstacle, that it would make for better slaves by encouraging obedience to masters. Revolution began to erode ideas of social subordination, but it took some time for them to be seen as inconsistent with slavery–aside from Quakers and Judge Samuel Sewall, who wrote one of the earliest anti-slavery tracts, 1700, following a few Puritans who saw failure to offer the gospel as a most serious offense. New England, with few Negroes and powerful clergy, tended to accept them in churches; in south clerical influence was weak despite Anglican establishment (bishop in London). Conversion was also viewed as outsider meddling, which struck a growing sensitive point in the colonies. Around 1740, Great Awakening, intensity of personal conviction, beckoned Negroes (179-215).

Ch 6, The Bodies of Men: The Negro’s Physical Nature from 15th century on, travels and discoveries led to new information, and various races gained attention. Color was an early grouping characteristic as scientific description became popular. Initial distinctions were clearly of types, with no hierarchy socially; to some the ideas of Chain of Being and discovery of Negroes and apes at same time placed the two in association; although there was a barrier between human and beast and the Negro was clearly man to all. Origin and cause of appearance of Negro and Indian were cause of discussion that mixed Bible, observation, and speculation. Notable that whites presumes Adam to have been white; blackness itself became sufficient cause for categorization, and was easily picked up under American slavery. There is little, if anything, to suggest that anyone saw internal differences beyond tropical disease and sometimes ability to labor in hot climates (216-265).

Part 3, The Revolutionary Era 1755-1783
Ch 7, Self-Scrutiny in the Revolutionary Era after Great Awakening, growing awareness of American position, sense of destiny, diversity; consciousness of prejudices and awareness of race issues. Quakers first to protest slavery, as result of self-examination after 1754 French war, pushed by John Woolman, oppressive to both owner and slave, is unscriptural and inhumane, based on color and selfishness. Discovery of prejudice a widespread occurrence after 1760: Samuel Hopkins, Benjamin Franklin; emerging arguments that emancipation would reform, inverting justification that ignorance was reason for enslavement, thus examples such as Phyllis Wheatley. Environmentalism typical of Revolutionary changes of thought, a naturalistic growth, linked to ideology of natural rights (secularized God found in nature, not Bible, God not a judge but legislator, rights as members of humanity). In all, new scrutiny of society from Revolution meant that placid, unheeding acceptance was no longer possible (269-311).

Part 4, Society and Thought 1783-1812
Ch 8, The Imperatives of Economic Interest and National Identity forming workable, lasting political union most pressing issue after Revolution. Sectional division was major problem; by 1790 clear that slavery would survive only in south; DE, VA, MD uncertain, with other divisions there was no bloc. 1790's expansion of cotton whetted existing use of slaves. Slavery was issue in Continental army, Northwest Territory, Constitutional Convention. 1790 Congress met petitions against slave trade, resulting in sharpened sectional interests, awareness of explosive nature whose divisiveness was masked by tenuous compromise. After 1800 less disturbance until 1819-20 Missouri Compromise debates, period marked by search for national identity. Most of this based on English modifications rather than fusion, so African element neglected (315-341).

Ch 9, The Limitations of Antislavery with Revolution, all states ended slave trade but only two ended slavery; but it was clear that principles required abolition, making it matter of when and how. First secular society was Society of the Relief of Free Negroes... 1775. Federal power gave a point of attack, thus 1794 a group of societies began to lobby Congress, but the energy fell away soon after. One reason for decline was success: abolition in most of north by 1804; southern reaction was to restrict manumission; with Britain cast off a decline of natural rights philosophy as relevant; unwillingness to meddle with private property. Quakers notable among Christians who continued concern and carried it after emancipation, paying back wages, etc., to give special attention for having wronged, establishing schools. Others stressed humanitarian treatment, which also tended to undercut pro-slavery arguments, stimulated by awareness of abuses. Growth of romantic sentimentality a symptom of retreat from rational engagement of issue, leading to new extravagance in rhetoric (342-374).

Ch 10, The Cancer of Revolution failed to provide spark for abolition, but did start other revolutions, first among slaves. 1804, Haiti (St. Domingo) far more violent and long-simmering. Many early refugees to VA in 1793, with reports of insurrection, other southern states barred entry from West Indies. Little surprise to Americans, who felt that everyone yearned for freedom, but also as revealed in discussions about governing Louisiana Purchase, not all are able. Difficult to determine American rebellions, as wildest rumors were believed, but actual events suppressed to quell further unrest; most were small, isolated incidents. 1800 genuine rebellion in SC under Gabriel; Federalists seized as Jeffersonian plot; followed by others, subsided 1802. Effect to reinforce codes, weaken abolition (375-402).

Ch 11, The Resulting Pattern of Separation Gabriel’s plot a prime force, but not the turning point of new mood reflected in fugitive laws, restrictions on meetings. Increasing restriction on free Negroes in south, whose numbers increased rapidly: firearms, court testimony, vagrancy, meeting slaves, taxes, voting. Segregation emerged as new wall of division; noticeable break in churches with Allen and Jones (403-426).

Part 5, Thought and Society 1783-1812
Ch 12, Thomas Jefferson, Self and Society writings important because many read and reacted. Hated slavery, but thought Negroes inferior, especially mentally, but “moral sense” was equal (although he struggled with both, finding moral lapses a result of environment, and noted several gifted mentally). Conscious of his own guilt in slaveholding, his Notes on the State of Virginia speak of “unhappy influence” of slavery upon masters (429-481).

Ch 13, The Negro Bound by the Chain of Being sees fusion of Christianity and Newton, with world of cohesiveness, energy, systematic order. Mankind seemed untidy in such schemes. By end of 18th century, Great Chain of Being was popular concept; Linnaean classification was separate means of order. Great Chain used to give Negro lower status in slavery arguments; any principle of order was attractive those who saw society in turmoil. Samuel Stanhope Smith 1787 first American study of race: difficulty of determining separate human species is evidence that such was never the case, based on Linnaeus to support Genesis. Charles White, comparative anatomy in argument for inferiority, also supported multiple human origins (482-511).

Ch 14, Erasing Nature’s Stamp of Color the trait which attracted most attention. Samuel Stanhope Smith, 1787 and 1810 essays, gradual alterations in appearance from heat, which thickened skin and released bile, unfavorable locations also degenerated into savagery, distilled prevalent thinking. From here, “no jump at all” to idea that God intended whiteness; also claimed to see lighter skin on Negroes in America, that it would eventually become white. Benjamin Rush, environmentalism, color from leprosy as a result of poor diet, could infect whites, so separation required until cure found. Henry Moss, a white Negro appeared in Philadelphia 1795, studied by Rush and student Charles Caldwell; all the while overlooking growing literature on albinism in all races and animals. Continuing effort and presumption was that some had turned black, seeking to uphold Genesis with white Adam (imago Dei); to most it was adaptation for hot climate. 1813 William Charles Wells suggested a natural selection of blackness as protective from heat. Lull 1793-1807, environmentalism came to end with new discoveries that marked end of lull. Samuel Latham Mitchill, 1806, as yet unknown generative agency that produces and sometimes alters color, passed on through generations as possibility (512-541).

Ch 15, Toward a White Man’s Country colonization, beginning 1790's in VA, movement to rid state (if not nation) of blacks, failed more from enormity of task than lack of desire. Underlying concerns: emancipation would result in racial intermixture, seen as effort to maintain white purity of a people on a mission. Jefferson’s Notes suggest colonization. Some northern voices suggested it to ensure full equality (its other side that the white man’s country was not theirs); but anti-slavery in general did not find attraction. William Thornton, 1788, incompatible people who belonged separately. Samuel Hopkins, a means to Christianize Africa. By 1806 the movement faded away; international conflict rendered removal impossible, anti-slavery was fading, realization of obstacles including lack of massive support (542-569).

Ch 16, Exodus VA 1806 restrictions on manumission, debate shows underlying agreement that it would betray the Revolution, denying freedom because of a few or restricting rights to private property; but the decision to pass admitted the failure founded in fear of increase of free Negroes, representatives of freedom which slaves sought; guilt leading to animosity (573-582).

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Lindsay's Gift: A review

A review: James F. McIntire, with contributions from Timothy J. McIntire and Lacey Elizabeth McIlwee, Lindsay's Gift: Faith Learnings from a Girl with No Words. N.P.: Just Words Publishing, 2020.

Lindsay’s Gift is in part a memoir of life with a disabled child, part theological reflection, part challenge, and all-imbued with a sense of purpose that is needed today. 

McIntire opens with a recollection that will be familiar to many who live with disabilities: at the announcement of his young daughter's diagnosis, a person told him that his house had been invaded by “the enemy,” and if he had stronger faith, it wouldn’t have happened. In a way, the book is a rebuttal of that idea: his daughter Lindsay, diagnosed with developmental disabilities, was perfectly strong, and ready to take on the world. Much as Benjamin Hoff describes Winnie-the-Pooh in The Tao_of_Pooh, she “simply is” and as such stands as a beloved child of God (18-20). 

The book is organized in a series of short chapters around a theme, such as “angels live among us,” an approach that is good for discussion or study groups (and a study guide is available). There are many stories in here that will be familiar to those who live with disabilities. These will also provide insight to allies and advocates. With the memoir and theological reflections, each chapter, although short, could provide fodder for lengthy discussion and reflection.

A few of my favorite things:

  • The mundane and the extraordinary in life run together, just as readily as the sacred and profane, and God speaks in both (36-37).
  • Life and baptism are never meaningless. It is not for any of us to decide or doubt how the Spirit moves in anyone. Grace is God’s gift, it does not require affirmation from the recipient or outsiders (43).
  • “I am what I am” at the burning bush is sufficient. We are. Not we are what we produce, or create, or whatever (48).
  • Recognizing each other as manifestations of “I am” is as important in our churches as is adding ramps, elevators, bathrooms, sound systems, and other accoutrements of accessibility (50). If we start with this, we can avoid thoughtless statements like calling someone a fire hazard for sitting in the aisle in their wheelchair (56).
  • None of us know how the spirit of God moves in another, whatever their diagnosis, but each of knows that the Spirit moves (85).
  • Her older brother is right on: people will often ask me what's it like being The sibling of someone with special needs and every time I answer is the same: I don't know, I didn't grow up with a sibling with special needs I grew up with two sisters who are both equally annoying (90). 
  • Her younger sister is too: Lindsay was born into a world that was not yet ready for her arrival... I like to imagine that because of society's maladaptation Lindsay built her own world (114). 
  • The topic of inspiration porn—this idolization to make us feel comfortable around disabled people also hurts the parents (131).

An epilogue discusses words that are used to hurt. Insisting on respectful language is not “political correctness,” it is understanding that insulting terms are not socially acceptable. 

Many of these terms derive from the early twentieth century eugenics movement, which was used as a means to eliminate “inferior” people or remove them from society (and the gene pool). A United States Supreme Court decision of 1927 (Buck v. Bell) confirmed compulsory sterilization. The horrors of the Nazi movement, such as Aktion T4, derived from these ideas. Hitler wasn’t a creative sort, but he was good at picking up the substance of undercurrents in popular dislikes and moving them to the fore. After the war, the United States returned to these ideas and promoted a  a cult of “normal” that sought to sum up the diversity of people in a single IQ number. 

"We're all in this together" is a frequent blurb on our local television stations. If that is true, Christians and other people of faith cannot stand by and continue to accept notions such as eugenics and derogatory language about others. As a social media meme states, the idea that some people are worth less than others is a primary cause of problems today.  This morning's news (outrageously false tweets, more minorities dead, and disability filicide for starters) serve as a call to examine ourselves, and this book will remind you why. 

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of the book from the author, and he's a good friend, albeit distant. But he would be able to catch up with even my powered wheelchair and punch me if I posted an artificially positive review.