colored drinking fountainI was out on a walk through town today when I ran into a friend doing the same thing. We chatted for a while, especially telling stories of where and how we grew up. He was a rural boy, living far outside the central Missouri county seat of Fulton. For Missourians, we know this area along the Missouri river as “Little Dixie” and Fulton is in its epicenter, in the “Kingdom of Callaway.” Fulton was founded in 1820, a year before Missouri’s statehood.

Virtually all of the towns along the Missouri River were slaveholder towns. They trucked in cash crops like tobacco and hemp, worked by slaves, and then sent them down river. After emancipation the economies of those farms and plantations fell on hard times. Though freed men and women often worked for wages at those very same farms later, they often had an indentured status, a new kind of slavery.

During the century between the Civil War and the Civil Rights movement of the 20th century, Jim Crow laws enforced segregation, characterized by unequal rights such as the right to vote. And for people like my friend whose childhood took place near Fulton, Missouri in the 1950s, segregation was on parade.

His mother, however, was engaged in her own civil rights movement long before its time. In the midst of segregation, rank discrimination and the barely concealed presence of the KKK, she protested in her own way. Like when it came to public drinking fountains, for example.

My friend told me that one of his earliest memories, perhaps when he was as young as Kindergarten, was of his mother marching her five children to the dual drinking fountains near the court house which were marked “white” and “colored” and lined up her brood to get long drinks from the “colored” fountain. This was in clear and dramatic sight of all the town’s people gathered at the court house. It was her protest. In the words of John Lewis, she was making “good trouble.”

The judge at the courthouse was a straight shooter, morally unwavering in his judgments and sentences. When he got wind that certain members of the Fulton community were threatening to go out to this woman’s house and vandalize or burn it, the judge came out into the common area of the courthouse, summoned the attention of all who were near, and made a statement:

“I want you to know that if I have the slightest reason to suspect that anyone has done harm to this woman or her property, I will arrest, charge and lock them up for eternity.” Evidently that threat did the trick. Nothing happened to my friend’s mother, family or property.

According to my friend, he ran into this same judge later in life, when he was a young man. The judge told him how much he respected his mother, that she was a courageous woman ahead of her time.

So she was. And he was a judge ahead of his time.

That’s what it takes – a moral sense that rises above the crowd, the courage to stand out and take a stand, and a community that resists the injustice in front of our own faces. And it starts by showing our children what is and is not moral and how to be a part of the solution when doing so is hard and sometimes risky.

 

On Tyranny – Timothy Snyder

Posted: August 10, 2020 in Uncategorized

On Tyranny

Timothy Snyder is a professor of History at Yale University. In 2017 he published a collection of twenty short reflections on tyranny entitled On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. It challenges the reader to become aware of the fragility of democracy and how authoritarian regimes may arise in our own time. In one sobering statement he suggests that “We are no wiser than the Europeans who saw democracy yield to fascism, Nazism, or communism. Our advantage is that we might learn from their experience.” I want to summarize here his twenty observations/suggestions.

  1. Do not obey in advance. Authoritarianism depends on the public giving blind ascent in advance to anything a repressive government or leader wants. Anticipatory obedience is a political tragedy.
  2. Defend institutions. It is institutions that help us to preserve decency. Institutions do not defend themselves and can be undermined. It is in the interest of autocrats to have weakened institutions under the control of the regime.
  3. Beware of the one-party state. Tyrannical regimes eliminate the competition and turn elections into farce. One-party regimes controlled by the autocrat at the top breed the worst forms of tyranny because there are no competing voices.
  4. Take responsibility for the face of the world. We live in a society of symbols. Notice the emergence of symbols that exclude some while building the status or pride of others. Notice the way propaganda is displayed by the indoctrinated.
  5. Remember professional ethics. Totalitarian regimes redefine what is acceptable and what is not. When norms are abandoned under the rubric of doing it for the good of the cause, professionals often abandon their ethics. Don’t do it.
  6. Be wary of paramilitaries. When people with guns start wearing uniforms in order to enforce the aims of the leader, the end is near. When the pro-leader paramilitaries, police and military intermingle, the end has come.
  7. Be reflective if you must be armed. If you are a member of the police or military, remember your Constitutional oaths and responsibilities to fellow citizens. Democracies fail when armed forces are swept into unconscionable behavior.
  8. Stand out. It is easy to follow along and autocracies depend on absolute obedience. The moment an individual sets an example to resist the regime the spell of the status quo is broken and others are given courage.
  9. Be kind to our language. Separate your way of talking from the terms of propaganda, typical phrases and buzz shorthand. Free yourself from the sound bites of hackneyed social media. Undermine cliches. Expose glittering generalities.
  10. Believe in truth. Dictators thrive on relativity and alternative narratives. With enough chaos in the rhetorical air, autocrats redefine law, norms and human decency. Be clear about what is and is not moral. Do not be blinded by loudness.
  11. Investigate. Figure things out for yourself. Don’t trust the propaganda of the regime. Encourage investigative journalism. Investigate propaganda sources. Take care that you do not pass on propaganda misinformation to others.
  12. Make eye contact and small talk. Do not let the regime set the tone. Engage in friendships beyond politics. Seek to understand others and share your opinion. Attempt to stretch beyond barriers. Dictators want neighbors to fear one another.
  13. Practice corporeal politics. Dictators destroy democracy when the only people that show up are their own supporters. People in power want us to stay home and be passive. Form common cause with new friends and march with them.
  14. Establish a private life. Despots want to control your private life and eliminate protections against government interference. Consider using electronic media less and have more face-to-face relationships. Tyrants seek a hook on which to hang you. Try not to have hooks.
  15. Contribute to good causes. Tyrants want everything under the state and all energies directed to the state. Be active in non-governmental organizations that express your values. Pick a charity and support it. Make choices that support society outside of government.
  16. Learn from peers in other countries. The present difficulties in the United States are not unique and belong to a larger trend. No country will shore up their democracies in isolation. Anti-democracy autocracies are everywhere. Be aware.
  17. Listen for dangerous words. Be alert to words used by authoritarians: extremism and terrorists. Be aware of notions of emergency and that this is an exceptional time in which rights and norms must be suspended in service to the common good.
  18. Be calm when the unthinkable arrives. Modern tyranny depends on moments of terror. Authoritarians exploit these events in order to end checks and balances, suspend freedom of expression, end rights to a fair trial, and dissolve opposing parties. It is the oldest trick in the Hitlerian book. Do not fall for it.
  19. Be a patriot. Set a good example of what America means for generations to come. They will need it. A patriot wants the nation to live up to its ideals. A patriot has universal values, standards by which he judges his nation, always wishing it well, and always wishing that it would do better.
  20. Be as courageous as you can. If none of us is prepared to die for freedom, then all of us will die under tyranny. It is a common error of our time to believe that democracy is inevitable; it is not. It is fragile. And narratives of great mythical futures insured by a cultic hero abound.

The founding fathers tried to protect us from the threat they knew in their own time, the tyranny that overcame ancient democracy. Anti-democratic currents in our own time provide a parallel threat, the forms of which would be almost unimaginable to those same founders. These times have been left to us with a similar charge, to be alert to the powers that would dominate rather than uplift the life of our people and nation. The charge to us is to remain vigilant, courageous, and willing to take a stand in the face of  every threat, foreign or domestic. There is no one else in the ring. Only us.

The World is Flat(er)

Posted: August 2, 2020 in Uncategorized

Flat EarthWhen Tom Friedman first released his provocative book, The World is Flat, people took notice; he had named dominant world currents that took everybody back to zero – the internet, globalization, democratizing movements. At the time we began to understand what he meant. But it didn’t turn out exactly as he predicted.

Those same currents generated tribalism and the emergence of new elites. The box was indeed shaken and reorganized, but the powerful made use of it for gain even as the less powerful suffered more. Social and world currents do have a leveling-out effect, even if not in the ways we imagine. Like pandemics, for example.

There is no doubt that the current pandemic has done the same kind of thing, at least for most of us. It has shaken institutions, organizing principles, the way we do commerce, family, religion and spirituality, family life, dating, education and entertainment. In many cases it has just  finished off what was already in the process of dying. In other cases our adapting actually pushes us to new ways of relating and organizing that creates a new way of typical living. For example, using Zoom as a way to gather is no longer novel, it’s simply assumed.

In the same way that Friedman’s observation that new communication and global commerce would shake us up and level us down, but at the same time did not take into account how the powerful would use it to their advantage, so our present pandemic has also leveled most of us out even as the elite and very wealthy have prospered. Even now wealthy politicians quibble about how many bread crumbs of unemployment benefits or relief assistance they want to throw under the table to the desperate.

As most world citizens have endured loss of health, life and livelihood, needed to adjust to new limitations, and in many cases made new discoveries about what is really important, a certain class of people — the elite and super-wealthy who are quite insulated from the ravages of COVID — have exploited the pandemic to their advantage. They have prospered off of the suffering of others, becoming even wealthier as millions have plunged deep into an economic depression. They have been helped to become even richer by government itself, which has favored certain people and corporations, giving them lucrative contracts and exceedingly generous bailouts. Even large churches that were in bankruptcy due to clergy child abuse cases were given aid – an artificial shot in the arm when they should have been allowed to experience the full consequences of their injustice.

It is not a new story, the wealthy exploiting hard times to get even wealthier. Every war provides that opportunity, and contractors that make every armament and supply necessary for the war effort profit, ending up better off after the war than before it. There are entities right now that are becoming fantastically wealthy as a result of our present pandemic.

Excluding that sorry dimension of the hyper-wealthy and powerful prospering during hard times, most people in the world are in roughly the same boat, even if located on  different decks for 1st, 2nd, and 3rd classes: We are forced to the essentials of life and our humanity; we allow ourselves to be remade not only for survival, though there is that, but also aspiring for a better self and world; the ways, structures and methods that used to carry us go flat even as new models and innovations take their places.

In important ways, the world is flattening again. When that happens everybody goes back to zero, a kind of universal flood that transports us in an ark of transition toward a new world. Just what world that shall become is as unknown to us as it was to Friedman. But it is being transformed, for good or for ill, before our very eyes. We are living at a dramatic inflection point filled with chaos. And the wise and courageous among us will walk across that newly leveled landscape and imagine a new world even before it appears.

Fork and Green Beans

Call it fortuitous. I was seated to the immediate right of Donald Trump on a bench before plank tables in a rather simple but spacious lodge-like dining hall. It was lunchtime. Though I wanted to avoid staring, I turned slightly to my left and watched him eat what was before him. Most conspicuous was the rather full fork of green beans that he proceeded to swallow in one hungry gulp.

“At least I’m eating my vegetables,” he said. I nodded. “And they were grown right here in Missouri,” I retorted.

In my dream, Donald was his present biological age, showing all the wear and tear of the years. But his emotional age was much, much younger. He was, as the unconscious goes, maybe ten. He sought the same kind of approval that a ten year old might desire. And because he was not allowed to grow into mature manhood, he remained stuck there, at age ten.

The trappings of his elite life had allowed him to move through growing up, but without the formation of mature manhood. He was given unbridled power and protected status too early. He continued a charmed life of little responsibility and self-indulgent freedom. His character never developed. In the end he became a menace to the world surrounding him, a person who exploited others as an immature ten year old might. He was enthralled with his own ability to get what he wanted. He was even excited by his ability to intimidate and harm others with his biases and prejudice.

But on that bench by that table with a fork of green beans, it was a different story. In a rare moment I looked upon a broken little boy and had empathy for him. That empathy in no way gave him a pass for his large catalog of future misdeeds. It was, rather, a glimpse into what existed before a course of events twisted it.

I suppose I have always wanted to look favorably upon Donald Trump. I want to look upon every person in that way before the world disfigured what was originally created in the image of God. But I have not been able to see Donald Trump that way, blocked as I have been by his heinous actions and thoughts. Even now, as his house of cards collapses, he doubles down on incessant lying, jeopardizing his own people, and threatening the democracy he swore to uphold.

The dream gave me what my waking self could not, some compassionate look beyond all the debris and destruction. I suppose we fantasize about doing that with other historical characters whose misguided motives harmed so many: every one was born somewhere to a mother, drank her milk, learned to walk, and toddled into life. If only we had known them before.

It was my subconscious that provided a boy eating green beans. There were no kids in cages, no obedient subordinates protecting him from prosecution, no unraveling of the hard work of generations.  We want to love people, or something of them, even a trace, that had some strand of a purpose in the mind of God. But everything they became keeps us from seeing it.

By the time this story is over, we will unable to see that part of him through our own contempt and disdain. But today, just today, I am allowing a benevolent eye to look upon a ten year old eating green beans. If I am capable of nothing more than that, at least I have this fragment of mercy, something I routinely depend upon for my own somewhat selfish, frequently unrighteous, and partially broken ten year old.

 

Constitution

Section. 1. The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.

Section. 2. The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

 

Constitution

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Constitution

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

Constitution

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Anne FrankFor those of us who are not on the front lines, not required to provide health care service during the pandemic, not work in jobs that are risky, our time of sheltering at home presents a different kind of challenge. We may have to contend with our own boredom, the loss of social interaction, or the interruption of life patterns. We may not like the ways our ordinary freedoms have been curtailed. Masks may be irritating. And the longer it goes the more certain psychological effects are felt: isolation, lack of direction, uncertainty about the future. Wondering about school.

However real this is – and it is real – it pales in comparison to other kinds of sheltering at home which are more urgent, the kind of necessary sheltering in which life is up for grabs: War that brings hiding from combatants. Blackouts to avoid the bombs from above. The power grid going dark in the middle of winter. Slow starvation. The Vietnamese living in tunnels as B52s dropped their payload on them.

In the midst of the rising genocide of the 2nd World War, Jews hid from Nazis who did everything in their power to exterminate them. In large part they were very successful in implementing their project, the “final solution.” If families were not able to flee to other countries before the borders were locked down, if they were not able to hide and remain undetected, they were captured, summarily executed, or sent to concentration camps. Such was the story of the Frank family and those who hid in Amsterdam with them.

Anne’s journal – and the later edits of it when she imagined a future book telling the story – reveals a world of horror told through the mind of a girl who went into hiding when she was thirteen and stayed until she was fifteen. It includes many of the preoccupations of any adolescent. But it also itemized the deprivations, military actions, racial profiling and death that stalked the Jewish community. We read the lists of Jewish laws that curtailed all freedoms and segregated Jews in every aspect. There are the tensions experienced among people living in close quarters for long periods of time. We are filled with fleeting hope as we hear the good news of the Allies advancing.

Anne and her family did not make it; they were betrayed, apprehended and sent to the camps. Her journals – left behind – were saved and later carefully published for the world to experience her story from the inside.

As I read Anne’s Journal, I realize how very shallow are my concerns about sheltering in place. I am not hiding. There is no imminent threat outside the door. What I experience is at most a psychological or spiritual challenge, some uncertainty about the unknown future. But I am not wondering if the Gestapo will find me or if some collaborator has informed on me.

Everything is relative. Just reading about the kind of sheltering required of the Frank family provides real perspective. My little concerns are just that, little. That realization provides room for compassion toward those who truly suffer in so many ways, and at the same time provides a merciful deliverance from self-preoccupation and the downward spiral into self-pity, a descent that can destroy us as surely as a virus can.

 

If there is anyone who models the evolution of the spirit, allows for old worlds to fall away in order that new ones take their place, it is Barbara Brown Taylor.

In the latest Christian Century series on “How my mind has changed” she did it again. You can read it for yourself;