Decline of the West


This is a slightly modified and updated version of a previous post.

Oswald Spengler wrote a classic study of what he regarded as the rise and fall of various civilizations throughout the history of mankind. The key for Spengler was that these civilizations are natural organisms and like any other natural entity, they are born, grow, decay, and eventually die. The British historian, Arnold Toynbee, wrote his Study of History after Spengler and while he agreed with Spengler on many points, he regarded civilizations as artificial, not natural. There is no reason to expect that all civilizations will necessarily die out. But in his study, he noted that sixteen of the twenty-one fully developed civilizations he identified have, in fact, died out and four of the remaining five were in their death throes. The only relatively “healthy” civilization Western civilization.

But despite its relative healthy state, Western civilization is in the latter portion of its cycle — a series of stages that every civilization goes through — and while its roots grew strong in the rich soil provided by the fall of the Western Roman Empire, Toynbee could see the beginnings of a trend toward dissolution beginning in the Reformation with the failure of Christianity to withstand a variety of attacks from without and within. The most vital society in Western civilization was, as Toynbee saw it,  the new kid on the block, India — because of its

“vast literature, magnificent opulence, majestic sciences, soul touching music, awe-inspiring gods. It is already becoming clear that a chapter which has a western beginning will have to have an Indian ending if it is not to end in the self-destruction of the human race. At this supremely dangerous moment in history the only way of salvation for mankind is the Indian way.”

A healthy spirituality is essential to the well-being of any human civilization.

In general, Toynbee presented the history of each civilization in terms of challenge-and-response. Civilizations arose in response to some set of challenges of extreme difficulty, when “creative minorities” devised solutions that reoriented their entire society. Challenges and responses were physical, as when the Sumerians exploited the intractable swamps of southern Iraq by organizing the Neolithic inhabitants into a society capable of carrying out large-scale irrigation projects; or social, as when the Catholic Church resolved the chaos of post-Roman Europe by enrolling the new Germanic kingdoms in a single religious community. When a civilization responds to challenges, it grows. Civilizations declined when their leaders stopped responding creatively, and the civilizations then sank owing to loss of control over the environment, nationalism, militarism, and the tyranny of a despotic minority. Again, Toynbee believed that societies do not die from natural causes, but nearly always from self-inflicted wounds. And that death necessarily involves the death of the soul — the vital spirit that kept the civilization alive throughout the ages, though this sounds much like Spengler’s “organic” view of civilizations.

Whether or not we agree that India will dance on the charred remains of Western civilization (or whether we agree with Toynbee at all) we can certainly agree that the cycles that he insisted all civilizations repeat seem to be very much in evidence today — even if we simply focus on a small part of Western civilization, namely, the United States of America. Clearly, we have lost control over our environment, given global warming, which many of us continue to deny. Further, the growth of nationalism, militarism, and the “tyranny of a despotic minority” are very much in evidence as I write this brief blog. In particular, we can see the increase of militarism today as so many political decisions seem to be directed by the military which enjoys the lion’s share of our annual budget, just as we can see the immense influence the “despotic minority” of the wealthy have on the President and this Congress and their determined attempt to turn this democracy into an oligarchy.  But the growth of nationalism and especially militarism, along with the failure of a “creative minority” to maintain a foothold in this society, seem to have brought about what Toynbee called “an answering withdrawal of mimesis on the part of the majority” — i.e, apathy. This is especially disconcerting.

Looking at both the ancient Greek and Sumerian civilizations, Toynbee saw a movement through what the Greeks called “kouros, hubris, and haté.” These signify the growth of  especially the military in those societies from a surfeit of power through excessive pride, to disaster. If he were alive today he would doubtless note a similar pattern emerging in this country, if not in the West generally. And it all seems to be hidden under the cloak of “national security” born of the fear of terrorism.

Selective Reading

While I try very hard not to read or discuss (and certainly not to write about) the current political situation and about the many problems we face that I simply cannot remedy, the following headline and brief story jumped out at me because it has so many ramifications:

What would Jesus do about climate change? According to one self-described Christian, not much.

Conservative pundit Erick Erickson fired off a tweet Wednesday saying his savior called on him to be a good steward for the planet… but that concept doesn’t extend to global warming.

Erickson then sat back in his comfortable easy chair and read the comments that followed his tweet. He was mostly amused by those he felt misunderstood what “stewardship” means. In fact, of course, he is the one who misunderstands what the word means. Given that we are dependent on the earth, on the air and water and on protecting our home as much as we can, the word reflects the obligation this places upon us to care for the earth and seek to preserve it for future generations. This is what “stewardship” means. And if global warming threatens the earth, as it surely does, then it follows that stewardship involves an attempt to curb global warming if at all possible.

I cannot speak about the obligation that Christians, in particular, may or may not have to respect their planet as I can recall no passage in the New Testament that seems to address this topic. But the love we are directed to have for our fellow humans would seem to imply a concern for the planet on which we all live and upon which our lives depend. I suspect the version Mr. Erickson reads is not the one I used to read so carefully.

Once again, we have a “self-described Christian” making it clear that he has his own interpretation of what the Lord has told him to believe and how to act. This is the attitude that has turned so many against the Church even though, by the way, many of Erickson’s fellow-Christians objected strongly to what the man tweeted.  The notion that each of us is privy to the Word of God and can interpret the Bible for ourselves is at the root of many misunderstandings of just what that book says and, even more to the point, what it intends. But when Jesus says that there really are only two laws, that we love our neighbors and that we love God, two things become crystal clear: Love is the main directive of the New Testament and love implies a determination to sacrifice our own pleasures and desires in order to helping others.

There are many ways to interpret the Gospels — and even the four books do not agree with one another in every respect. But the main message is clear and it would appear that it imposes obligations upon us to love one another and this would seem to imply caring for the planet upon which we all depend. But this is not the end to the story because Christianity — in its many guises — is only one religion among many and the messages that are set forth in the many Holy Books of those religions frequently are at odds with one another. But the central message of all of them, it would appear, is that we are not alone on this earth and we must take others into account and do whatever we can to help them when we can and love them if we are able. The notions of hatred and prejudice that many find in such books as the Old Testament, for example, are not to be taken for the heart and soul of the doctrine that all Holy Books, including the Old Testament, preach: care about one another and do not put yourselves first.

Mr. Erickson is deluded and finds in the New Testament a doctrine that supports his desire to ignore global warming. He finds solace in the words he is convinced he reads there. But others are unable to find those words which seem to be in direct conflict with the words that most people do find there. We can only feel sorry for the man while at the same time we can understand how it is that an ordinary man can find support for his biases wherever he is determined to seek it. It is called “selective reading,” closely related to selective hearing. It’s sadly not uncommon.

Rights Of Man

Back in the day when folks used the word “man” to denote all humans and before the rad-fems got their collective drawers in a bunch because they were convinced that the term was another sign of male dominance in their world, there was talk about the “Rights of Man.”  The doctrine was decidedly an Enlightenment concept and could be found in declarations from the French after their revolution in 1789 and was later to be found in the title of Thomas Paine’s famous book that attempted to encapsulate the rationale behind the American Revolution and the subsequent attempt to ratify a Constitution. It did not, of course, talk about the rights of the males of the human species. Rather, it spoke about the rights of all human beings — French or American, or anything else.

The recent movements the world over toward a new Nationalism is disturbing  on many levels, but most disturbing of all is its tendency to fly in the face of the notion that lies behind the declarations of the rights of all humans; namely, the notion that all humans regardless of race, color, creed, or sexual preference have the same rights. We see this in the recent decision of Great Britain to go it alone and separate itself from the rest of Europe and in the recent movement in this country to “Make America Great Again” by building a wall between the United States and Mexico and refusing sanctuary to those who have been displaced and are homeless. These attempts to isolate the countries reinforce the notion that England or the United States are somehow different from the rest of the world and, clearly, superior in that there is a thinly disguised jingoism hiding behind the movements. We don’t need you: stay away; we can go it alone.

This is absurd on its face, of course, because the economy of any single country these days is dependent on the rest of the world; but more important than that is the “hidden agenda” of jingoistic nonsense that denies the fundamental Enlightenment notion that all human beings have the same rights and while we are not the same in any other respect we are none the less the same in our right to be (as Kant would have it)  respected as “ends in ourselves.” Kant regarded this as the cornerstone of his ethical system: all persons are ends in themselves and ought never be treated merely as a means. That is, regardless of who we are we are not to be used or to use others “merely as a means” to our own ends. This undermines slavery, obviously, but it also undermines what has come to be called “discrimination” of any sort.

I have always thought Kant’s ethical system to be the strongest of any I have studied even though it places huge responsibilities on all of us to acknowledge the fact that other humans are basically the same as ourselves. It’s a truly Christian notion, of course, though Kant doesn’t couch his theory in the language of the New Testament. There is no talk about loving our neighbors. Still, he would insist that we must acknowledge our neighbor’s rights because they are the same as our own. The notion that we should build walls to keep them out, or that we should send people away because they practice another religion or seem to pose a distant threat because others who look like them pose a threat, is in direct contradiction to the fact that all humans have the same rights.  This is so despite the fact that we show ourselves ready at a moment’s notice to de-humanize other people by gearing up the propaganda machine and inventing pejorative names for the “enemy.”  After all, if they are the enemy then they are not really human and they are to be destroyed. War propaganda is a terrible thing, but in its way the movement toward Nationalism is a step in the same direction. It makes us out to be better than “them” no matter who “them” happens to be.

I am not naive and I do realize that others do not always recognize our rights and there are those in this world who would just as soon that we not exist and would love to make that happen. But we should never lose sight of the moral high ground and insist that any violence toward other people, in the form of walls or the nightmare of another war, should never be an option until all else has been shown to fail. There is no moral defense of war. When it happens it is always a matter of expedience and neither side is right if it is willing and able to kill those who wear a different uniform or have a darker skin, or practice a different religion. All humans have the same rights and we have a responsibility to recognize those rights until it has been demonstrated that they refuse to recognize ours. Even then, if he must, the soldier goes to battle with a heavy heart because he knows that what he does is wrong. And, in a small way, this is true of those who build walls.

It is one world and we are all in this together, like it or not. And we must always keep in mind that all humans have the same rights and no one has any sort of claim to be superior in any legitimate sense of that term to any one else.

Religion and Morality

It has always struck me as odd that those of a liberal political persuasion are frequently, if not always, averse to any talk about religion or morality — especially religion. I suspect it has something to do with the historical record of religions, especially Christianity, in which the Church, as the embodiment of the religion, has shown itself to be intolerant and authoritarian, not to mention responsible for thousands of deaths. The Church decides what is right and wrong and it has been throughout its history intolerant of those who would dispute its absolute authority on such matters as good and evil.

Dostoevsky had problems with this role the Church has played and pilloried it in his remarkable book The Brothers Karamazov. He was himself a deeply religious man but he was also distrustful and suspicious of the Church and insisted that its claim to absolute authority on matters of ethics has threatened, if not removed altogether, the freedom that makes human beings human. In any event, I share his distrust of the Church as an institution and would follow him in insisting that religion be separated from the institution in which it finds itself housed, to wit, the Church. The two are not the same, by any means. Christ preached love; the Church, historically preaches intolerance — as do so many of its followers.

And this brings us to the point I raised at the outset: why so many intellectuals have rejected the Church as well as the religion they often confound with the institution that houses it. I suspect it is all about tolerance, or the lack of same. As I have noted in past blogs, we hear again and again (and again) that we must not be “judgmental,” which is to say, we need to be more open-minded and tolerant of other ways of living and believing. But the notion of tolerance is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, we should tolerate other points of view — not blindly, not always accepting, but after thinking our way through them, listening and questioning, but tolerant none the less. On the other hand we should not tolerate, say, views that promote violence, hatred, and fear. In a word, we need to be circumspect but not refuse to make judgments (be “judgmental”), acknowledging that we must remain open to the possibility that we do not have all the answers and that those very answers may come from the most unexpected sources — even from others whose opinions are diametrically opposed to our own.

There are certain things we come across in our lives that simply should not be tolerated. The insistence that we not be “judgmental” is simplistic nonsense  — because it ignores those very actions that we not only should not but must not tolerate, namely those actions that lead to the violations of another’s personhood or violate the universal principle of fairness that transcends all ethical systems. And these sorts of actions are precisely those that religions preach against. The tendency to turn away from religion and morality toward a relativism that would insist that all actions are somehow good simply because they are practiced by someone is wrong-headed, as I have noted in the past, because it makes impossible the judgment that some practices are quite simply wrong. Words like “right” and “wrong,” “good” and “evil” are not frightening. It is possible that in talking about these things we might become intolerant when we should remain open to other points of view. But that is a mistake and something we should avoid at all costs; it is not, however, a necessary concomitant of searching for answers to complex moral issues. We should not be afraid to talk about those things that we and others do that are simply not right. If I see a young woman being attacked on a dark night I should not tolerate such an action; I should instead intercede in her behalf. Intolerance may at times involve intervention, but it need not do so. The determination not to be intolerant or not to interfere with the actions of others should not blind us to the fact that we, as humans, should never fear the making of judgments and, at times, recall that intervention may be necessary. Good judgment is the key.

In any event, it is not religion and morality that we should be wary of, but the reluctance to acknowledge that at times it makes perfect sense to be intolerant. And it always makes good sense to exercise judgment; it’s what leads to informed action rather than impulsive behavior.

Dostoevsky Redux

I am reposting a previous piece of mine that received little or no response — not because of the lack of response but because (a) it’s one of my favorites  (b) Dostoevsky has always seemed to me to be one of the deepest minds I have ever sought to fathom, and (c) I have nothing new to say at this point!

In one of the most dramatic portions of that most dramatic novel, The Brothers Karamazov, the two brothers Ivan and Alyosha meet to discuss the “dossier” that Ivan has put together to prove that God does not exist. It is a collection of brutal stories of human cruelty, capped off by the gruesome story of a landowner who turns his dogs loose on a child because the child threw a stone that hurt the paw of one of the man’s favorite hounds. He does this in front of the child’s mother. As Ivan says after reading the story, “I believe the [man] was later declared incompetent to administer his estates.” These were stories that Dostoevsky himself culled from the newspapers and saved for the purpose of working them into his novel. After the reading, while Alyosha, the devout and saintly brother, sits in stunned silence, Ivan tells him he does not accept a God who would allow such pain and suffering: because of the evil in this world, he “returns his ticket.”

The chapter in which this dialogue takes place is the heart of the novel where Ivan also tells his story of the Grand Inquisitor who tells Christ that he has done more harm than good in coming to earth. It has taken the Church years to remedy the situation, to take upon itself the burden of freedom that Christ wanted to place on humankind, a species that really only wants “earthly bread” and is quite content with the illusion of freedom. As the Inquisitor says, “Know then that now, precisely now, these people are more certain than ever before that they are completely free, and at the same time they themselves have brought us their freedom and obediently laid it at our feet.” Indeed we have.

The dialogue between the atheist and the devout Christian brings up many fascinating problems, one of which has to do with the nature of faith. In fact, I would argue that the novel as a whole revolves around the question of faith — what it is and how humans can hold on to it in a world that makes no sense. And that is the key here: faith is necessary precisely because things don’t always (seldom?) make sense. Indeed, if things made sense we wouldn’t need faith; we could simply draw logical conclusions to prove that evil is a fiction (as Augustine and others of his ilk attempted to do). In a word, faith is precisely the capacity and willingness to accept the irrational — that which makes no sense. There is no rational response to Ivan Karamazov with his dossier. There is only stunned silence and blind acceptance. That seems to be Dostoevsky’s point — if novels can be said to have a “point.” Father Zosima, in the same novel, has no adequate answer for the mother who comes to him and asks why her innocent child had to suffer and die. There is no answer. We must simply accept. And that is precisely what we sophisticated modern folk cannot do.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to say precisely when Western humankind lost its faith. But Nietzsche loudly proclaimed that God was dead at the end of the nineteenth century. Perhaps that was the moment. But it came on the heels of pervasive corruption within the Church, volcanic eruptions, plagues, and warfare — and the benefits accruing from the scientific and industrial revolutions. If it wasn’t gone when Nietzsche said it was, it surely was by the time of Great War in which thousands of young men died in the trenches in a war that was marginally insane. Those were times that truly tested human faith and it was found wanting. Faith in an unseen God who demanded sacrifices became less and less real to growing numbers of people whose attention shifted during their longer lives to immediate pleasure and the gratification of desires in this world — and who definitely did not want to make sacrifices.

Ivan Karamazov would understand — though, in the end, he went mad.

Our Violent Age

In a brilliant short story the great Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges attempts to get inside the head of a Nazi war criminal, Otto Dietrich zur Linde. The man awaits execution and is writing, not an apology, but an explanation of what led him to assist in the execution of Jews. He feels no contrition since he is convinced he is part of a historical movement that will bring the dawn of a new day — even after the defeat of Germany by the allies. He believes that he is dying for a great cause, much like the martyrs who died for Christianity. And that thought consoles him. “To die for a religion is simpler than living that religion fully. . .The battle and the glory are easy.” And Nazism was a religion, of sorts.

One of the Jews that zur Linde must “deal with” is a poet by the name of David Jerusalem who is brought before him, a man he greatly admires. Finding himself unable to condemn Jerusalem to the gas chambers, he gradually drives him mad until the man takes his own life. Still, zur Linde has no regrets. With Jerusalem, he tells us, whatever compassion he may have felt died.

The “new age” that zur Linde thinks is dawning and which makes these sacrifices worthwhile is an age of violence.

“Now an implacable age looms over the world. We forged that age and are now its victims. What does it matter that England is the hammer and we the anvil? What matters is that violence, not servile Christian acts of timidity, now rules.”

Now, aside from the fact that zur Linde is borrowing from Nietzsche, whose philosophy informed the thinking of many a Nazi and who condemned Christianity as the religion of the weak, we have here a profound and penetrating observation: we now live in an age of violence. All international disagreements are solved by killing. The Christian religion of love and forgiveness, if it ever truly blossomed, is no longer possible in this new age.

This is a bleak outlook, to say the least. And it would be easy to dismiss it as simply a novelist’s attempt to understand the tortured thinking of a condemned Nazi. It is all of that, and it is gruesome, to say the least. Evil is gruesome and most of us cannot stand to even think about it. Hanna Arendt, after studying the Nazi, Adolph Eichmann, concluded that evil is banal, more common than we can imagine. That, too, is a gruesome thought. But it is one we really ought to ponder, since it does appear that Christianity is no longer a force in our world — it does not course through the veins of the average Westerner as it did in the middle ages when, we are told, there were no atheists. Today we do not find a religion that demands sacrifices and appeals to the weak the least bit appealing, since we cannot imagine ourselves to be such a person. We are strong and life is not about sacrificing what we want. And we solve our problems with violence, not diplomacy and civil discourse.

I don’t know how much of Borges’ tale I buy into. But I find it worth pondering, since we do seem bent on shooting first and asking questions afterwards. “Make my day!” To be sure, men have been prone to violence throughout the ages. But while we regard the “Great War” as the war to end all wars, it “only” cost an estimated 20 million deaths, as contrasted with the Second World War which cost an estimated 60 to 85 million deaths. Joseph Stalin alone was supposed to have been responsible for 20 million deaths, in addition to the millions the Nazis killed. At the end of World War II England ordered the bombing of Dresden, which had no military objective whatever. And even ignoring the atom bomb, which may or may not have been justified by war standards, America, which is supposed to command the moral high ground, has recently condoned torture and sent drones into the far East to kill supposed terrorists, while also taking thousands of civilian deaths in what is callously referred to as “collateral damage.” Moreover, nine countries count 15,000 nuclear weapons in their arsenals, any one of which would drarf the atomic bombs used in the Second World War.

We tend to think of strangers, such as the Syrian refugees, as a threat rather than as folks to be welcomed into our hearts and homes. We find it difficult to “live religion fully.” Instead, we pay lip service to religion and bend it to our preferred way of looking at the world. True religion makes demands on us and we are not comfortable with a doctrine that requires that we do our duty and love our neighbor. Perhaps we do live in a new age, one that rejects love and finds it much easier to hate.

Rhetoric Of Hate

My blogging buddy Keith, who is almost always spot on (I know because I always tend to agree with him), recently responded to one of his readers who was commenting on the awful rise in gun deaths in this country. Keith worried that, given this nation’s proclivity for violence, with the rise in “rhetoric and hate mongering” there would be more hate crimes.

I have commented before about the terribly weak claim of those who defend the widespread sale of all manner of guns on the grounds that this is our “right” as guaranteed by the Second Amendment. This claim is based on a complete misunderstanding of that Amendment which is all about the militia and only tangentially about guns. It defends the right of the militia to their guns because those who wrote the Amendment wanted to have nothing to do with a standing army and thought an armed militia would be sufficient deterrent to those crazies over there in England (or wherever) who might want to once again take over this country. In any event, the sale of automatic weapons to anyone with the money to pay for them is madness and would never have been defended by the founders of this nation. But it matters not, because the “gun control” discussion is not based on reason and historical fact. It is based on rhetoric and hate mongering, as Keith pointed out.

What we fear and hate is almost always what we do not understand. In a word, the root cause of the increase in mass murders can be put down to the fact that so many citizens in this country are simply ignorant of other people and their beliefs, thus they are easily persuaded that “they” are out to get “us.” As long as our politicians, and those who would be politicians, play on our fears and can rely on our ignorance hate crimes will continue and will indeed increase. And this seems to be the order of the day: frantic rhetoric by those who claim to be in the know that appeals to fear and increases hatred of those who are different from us or who practice a different religion.

I must confess that I do not know much about the religion of Islam. That is a gap in my education that I really need to fill in. But I do want to know more about it and what I do know I respect: it is a religion of peace and love — just as Christianity is supposed to be.  The son of one of my friends converted to the religion of Islam and is now living with his wife in the Middle East. He was raised a Lutheran and converted because he decided after considerable thought and research that becoming a Muslim would make him a better person, that there was less hypocrisy in that religion and for the most part those who practice it are loving and decent people — just like him. Now I don’t know whether he is right, though he seems happy to have made that radical change in his life. I do know that the Quran teaches that the purpose of human existence is to worship God. I also know that those who form groups like IS are part of the lunatic fringe, just as those who preach hatred in the name of Christ are part of the lunatic fringe. Of increasing concern in this regard is that, as things are progressing, that fringe seems to be expanding and the rhetoric of hate that issues forth from the lips of political candidates like Donald Trump do nothing less than throw gasoline on a fire that may already be out of control.

The only way to root out fear and eliminate hatred of those who differ from us is to get to know them better, to try to understand where they are coming from and what they most deeply believe. It is one thing to have “gun control” and to try to keep weapons out of the hands of those who are clinically insane and I support those controls. But it will not solve the problem, sad to say. What must happen is that all of us must want to understand things and people we are afraid of. If I know the sound in the other room that scared me moments ago was the cat I will not be afraid. Knowledge is the key to rooting out fear — together with a determination to accept the fact that those who preach hatred must be ignored if they cannot be made to shut up.

Two Gods

Some years ago, when I was teaching a required course in great books that we called “Humanities,” I was discussing with the class the assigned reading, the Book of Job. The discussion was going  well, I thought, but my repeated reference to the “God of the Old Testament” apparently riled one of the students who spoke out: “it’s the same God as in the New Testament, you know.” Well, I didn’t know. The student was a Born Again Christian and I had only been born once. From my apparently stunted perspective the two Gods seemed miles apart, the Old Testament God a vengeful and even vindictive God who would throw Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden for disobedience and punish Job for bragging rights. He’s the God who said to Eve: “I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception, in sorrow shall thou bring forth children; and thy desire shall be thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.” The God of the New Testament struck me as a forgiving God, a god of love and compassion. He is the God who said “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which spitefully use you, and persecute you.” The two seemed, as I say, miles apart. But clearly I did not know what I was talking about.

In any event, in reading The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, a novel recommended by a good friend, I came across the same concern I had expressed, to wit, the reflection by one of the main characters in the novel that the two Gods were very different. The novel raises a number of interesting questions and, while disturbing in many ways, is a good read, focusing on a very twisted Baptist preacher who decides to do a year of missionary work and hauls his wife and four girls to the Congo to drag the natives out of the utter darkness (where they appear to be quite happy, thank you very much) and into the light that apparently only he can see. Needless to say, he botches the job, alienating the natives entirely while abusing and doing untold damage to his children and making life a living hell for his poor wife. But such is the enthusiasm of the “true believer” who is convinced that he (or she) has the truth and everyone else should shut up and pay attention. Our hero is a hellfire and brimstone preacher who hopes to save souls by scaring the shit out of them. His mania can be found just this side of insanity. He bases his world view on a reading of the Old Testament having, apparently, never gotten as far as the New Testament — except for the Book of Revelation. Yet he insists that he is a devout Christian.

All of which raises the deeper question of the untold damage “Christians” have done over the centuries in direct defiance of the teachings of their Founder. How on earth the message of peace and love got translated into a message of intolerance and hate defies reason, though it would appear folks are simply more comfortable with the Old Testament God. But, then, many things we humans do defy reason. The sad thing in this case is that so much good has turned rotten and so many lives have been ruined by well-meaning zealots who think they know all that needs to be known. Just like my student who knew that the God of the Old Testament is the same God as the God of the New Testament, a conviction I knew better than to tamper with by trying to get her to think.

Peace On Earth?

[This is a somewhat modified post I wrote just before Christmas in 2011.  I will simply add my best wishes to all for a very happy holiday — and urge that we continue to hope there can be peace on earth and good will among men and women.]


Joe Hill was a labor organizer in the 1920s who wrote songs, drew posters and cartoons, and helped raise the consciousness of the working men of this country to the fact that they were being exploited by their wealthy bosses who did little actual work. Wallace Stegner wrote a biographical novel about Joe Hill that tells the story and draws the reader’s sympathies toward Joe and his cause — a cause that has echoes in the “Occupy Wall Street” movement: there are still those who are aware that there are the few in this country who exploit the many and grow wealthy off the sweat of another person’s labor.

In the novel, Joe finds himself drawn back to San Pedro, California where one of Joe’s few friends, runs a mission. The man’s name is Lund and they go way back. The difference between the two is that Lund has managed to keep his faith while Joe has lost his long ago. In fact, in one scene Joe has castigated Lund for being part of the problem: offering men solace when they should be angry and doing whatever it takes to throw off the yoke of disdain and contempt that the bosses want to keep in place. After one especially long harangue, Lund reflects on the things he wants to tell Joe — but he won’t because he knows that Joe Hill has blinders on: all issues are black and white, the poor are good and the wealthy are evil. There are no shades of gray.  Lund reflects on this outlook on life:

“You apostle of hostility and rebellion, I could read you a sermon on brotherly interdependence, I could show you how you and I are both everybody’s servant and everybody’s master. I could demonstrate to you that your way of righting wrongs may cure these wrongs but will surely create others. I could be eloquent to show you that there is no way but the way of peace. You sneer at peace, but I could show you that peace is not quietude and not meekness, not weakness, not fear. It need no more accept current evils than you and your fellows in the violent crusade. It doesn’t even demand what Christianity has been demanding for centuries. It doesn’t demand love, necessarily. It demands only reasonable co-operation, for which men have a genius when they try.”

Strong sentiments, and wise words. And while there are many good and decent people on this earth, our urge to violence seems ever at the ready: quietly out of sight  (for the most part) we support troops all over the world ready to engage in violence in the name of peace. Or we turn up the sound on our TVs as our President orders drone strikes against unseen and unknown enemies in the name of American “freedom.” There’s a bit of Joe Hill in many of us it seems: would that we could take a page out of Lund’s book.

Lund’s sentiments are, however, a bit pie-in-the-sky. He puts me in mind of the hero of Dostoevsky’s novel The Idiot who tries mightily to live a good, Christian life in a world filled with greed, deceit, and animosity. It is small wonder that idealists often becomes cynics in their old age. With this in mind, while I sincerely wish we could turn our weapons into plowshares, I recall Thomas Jefferson’s failed attempts to placate a bellicose British government while tossing our navy into the Ocean (as it were) and disbanding what there was of a national army. That didn’t work so well. Further, Stegner’s novel in the end pretty much answers Lund’s idealism by raising serious doubts as to whether the fat-cat bosses would have been willing to sit down and listen to the legitimate grievances of the workers. Nor would they today (did I hear someone mention Walmart?). Sometimes it is necessary to be ready for violence in the name of keeping the peace; however, it would be a good thing for us to commit to the notion of violence as absolutely the last resort and listen to the words of Lund urging “reasonable cooperation” — especially if we are at all serious about “peace on earth.”

Intriguing Parallel

One of the little games academics often like to play — when they aren’t hunkered down in their offices worrying about tenure and promotion — is to look for similarities between the Roman Empire and modern America. The game can be fascinating, even if a bit of a stretch at times. But let’s indulge ourselves and look at some of the obvious similarities because, as we know, the Roman Empire disappeared as surely as the language they spoke. And this must give us pause.

To begin with the Roman Empire started out as a Republic and degenerated into a dictatorship. Our nation started out as  Republic (designed after the Romans, as it happens) and has now degenerated into an oligarchy, if not a dictatorship by the 1% of those who control the wealth and political power in this country. The similarity resides in the fact that in both cases, those who came to rule are not elected by the people and do not even pretend to represent the people’s interest.

The Romans had their bread and circuses. We have television and our iPods. In both cases, those in power use the entertainment to divert attention of the masses away from real problems to a world of make-believe where good fights evil and good, as defined by the power-brokers, always prevails.

The Romans had their gladiators. We have the NFL which looks more like its prototype every day.

The Romans used violence to deal with troubles, as do we.

The Romans persecuted the Christians while the Christians in America today exhibit complete intolerance for those who disagree with them and in extreme cases also resort to persecution and even violence out of the conviction that they have the Truth — e.g., the bombing of abortion clinics and the attacks on personnel who work there. In both cases the common element is intolerance of other points of view.

The Romans had their public forums and Senate debates, while we have TV talk shows. In both cases there is much shouting and very little listening, a great deal of smoke and very little fire.

The Roman Empire eventually withered from within and was less and less able to resist the barbarian hordes who surrounded the Empire and eventually not only came within the walls, but gained political control as well. We have reared our own barbarians. They have grown in numbers and are increasingly in control of political power. They hide in their mansions and wear expensive suits, or they pierce and tattoo their bodies and buy the latest automatic weapon from Walmart. In either case they seek power and are as small-minded, stupid, and self-seeking as were the hordes the Romans were unable to hold off.

The Romans became increasingly illiterate as their empire crumbled and learning withdrew into the monasteries. America is becoming increasingly illiterate and its citizens are unable to use their minds to follow the shell game the wealthy play at every turn and which deprives them of their freedom right before their very noses. And the irony is that the people don’t know they are losing their freedom because if they have cable they have hundreds of TV channels to choose from and they are easily persuaded this is true freedom.

But there are major differences. We exploit the earth that is supposed to sustain us and we have pollution on a grand scale and nuclear weapons enough to destroy the world over. The Romans did not.