The Most Important Letter

This month’s events in El Paso, the presidency of Donald Trump, the realignment of American political parties over the past fifty years – indeed the totality of American history itself on this, the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first documented black slave on our shores – can be summarized by one powerful letter:

W.

Mariana Chmielowicz was born and raised in the kingdom of Galicia in the late 19th century.Galicia was the poorest region of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, an amalgam of Poles and Slavs in the middle of what would soon become Europe’s bloodiest battleground.

Whether through good luck, ingenuity or a little of both, Mariana joined thousands of Galicians in emigrating first to Germany then by ship to New York City. She left the day after Valentine’s Day, 1902, with $12 in her pocket and, for the Anglophones of her new home, an unspellable, unpronounceable Polish name. The clerk recording her entry beneath the shadow of the Statue of Liberty on March 1 noted her simply as “Chmiel, Maria.”

She told immigration officials she was joining a cousin at a labor farm in Priceburg, a suburb of Scranton in eastern Pennsylvania whose name would soon be changed to Dickson City.

By 1910, Mariana had met and married Josef Matan, a fellow Polish migrant, who had been born on the western edge of Russia – a couple in the

closing years of the long 19th century fleeing the convulsive final decades of European empires soon to vanish in flame and blood, entering through the golden door beside which the Mother of Exiles lifted her lamp.

“Matan” was a shorter name, but apparently no easier for English speakers to spell correctly. The growing family – three living children by the time Census taker Joseph Eisenberg knocked on their door across the railroad tracks from the Lackawanna River in the working-class Scranton suburbs – was spelled “Matta,” “Maden” and “Maton” on official documents for decades.

But regardless of misspellings, the Matan family received something far more valuable from Eisenberg on April 26, 1910: under the column marked “Race,” he scratched the letter W.

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No matter their language (they couldn’t read or write English yet), no matter their birthplace (European backwaters), no matter their nationality (nonexistent at the time), the Matans had the W.

Continue reading The Most Important Letter

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Independence Day

Independence is the radical statement that all humans are created equal…

written by a man who raped his slaves and forced them to bear his children.

 

Independence is the creation of a republic by “we the people”…

in which some people counted for three-fifths of a whole and the vast majority were given no voice in its government.

 

Independence is the rugged individualism of frontier settlements carved out of the inhospitable wilds of the west…

on land gained through subterfuge, betrayal, theft, bloodshed, genocide.

 

Independence is government of the people, by the people, for the people…

followed by assassination, coups, terrorism, disenfranchisement, lynchings and the crushing imposition of “separate but equal.”

 

Independence is the words of Emma Lazarus etched into a statue in New York Harbor welcoming “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”…

while sending away ships of Jews fleeing Nazi oppression in the name of “America First.”

 

Independence is the president of the United States saying, “We Shall Overcome” in a nationally televised address to Congress…

after decades of attack dogs, fire hoses, batons, blood and broken bones.

 

Independence is electing a president with a name like Barack Hussein…

before subjecting him to conspiracy theories arguing he is not truly American, then electing to succeed him the man who spread those racist lies.

 

Independence is celebrating 243 years of striving to achieve principles of liberty, justice and equality for all…

while separating, imprisoning, abusing and torturing families seeking asylum at our southern border.

 

The story of American independence is a story of tension between the mythology arising out of one set of historical facts and the shame arising out of another, more painful, less well remembered set of historical facts.

This July 4 – as with the first – we celebrate our independence while unjustly depriving others of theirs. The power on display in Washington, D.C., in the form of tanks and flyovers and high-value VIP tickets awarded to campaign donors and partisan lickspittles is felt in cages near El Paso, in lines on international bridges, in bodies losing oxygen in the rapid current of the Rio Grande.

Independence is the best of America…

and it is the worst of America.

 

Do not celebrate the former without remembering the latter.

How a Confederate Monument Erases History

“We shouldn’t erase history.”

I’ve heard this multiple times – on the news, from friends on Facebook, in person – when people talk about Confederate monuments.

As someone with a master’s degree in church history, I absolutely agree with not erasing it.

IMG_5439I recently travelled to Denton for a work conference, and during my spare time made a trip downtown to check out the beautiful Denton County Courthouse. On one side of the courthouse square stands a large arch topped by a soldier gripping a rifle. On the arch itself reads, “Our Confederate Soldiers.”

To enter the courthouse from that side (without stepping on the grass), you must pass under this archway. On either side are the dates of the Civil War – 1861 on the left, 1865 on the right – and a pair of inscriptions.

On the left reads: “Erected by the Daughters of the Confederacy in memory of our Confederate soldiers, who in heroic self-sacrifice and devoted loyalty, give their manhood and their lives to the South in her hour of need.”

And on the right, under an all-caps “In Memoriam,” the following sentence in quotation marks: “Their names graved on memorial columns are a song heard far in the future, and their examples reach a hand through all the years to meet and kindle generous purpose and mold it into acts as pure as theirs.”

A quick Google search tells me the quote is slightly altered from a passage in Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s 1885 poem “Tiresias.”

So let’s talk about history. Because this arch contains precious little of it. There was indeed a Confederate States of America with soldiers who fought for it. The war in which they fought did in fact begin in 1861 and end in 1865.

Thus ends the historical statements made by the monument.

But there’s a lot of history that seems not to have made it on to this memorial; what they were fighting for, beyond the South’s “hour of need,” is a glaring omission.

Continue reading How a Confederate Monument Erases History

The Fizzling of the Cambrian – and Creationism

Image result for cambrian explosion creationismYou may or may not be aware that one of my research interests is the response of Evangelical and Fundamentalist Christians to the theory of evolution. It was actually my whole master’s thesis.

So in studying how Christians have tended to oppose the teaching of Darwinian evolution (in which all living species are descended from a single common ancestor through natural selection and genetic mutation, among other processes) over the past century, one of the key arguments they’ve used against it is the existence of the Cambrian Explosion.

The argument is typically made this way: “Darwinism argues that all of life has gradually evolved from a single common ancestor, but they can’t explain the Cambrian Explosion, where the fossil record goes from basically no living species to an incredible amount of diversity in a very short time.”

This argument had two prongs: One was negative – the explosion is something evolution cannot explain; therefore, it chips at the foundation of support for the theory – and one was positive: The explosion is the fossil record’s evidence of God’s special creation of a limited number of “kinds” that then evolved to the current diversity of life. This idea, let’s call it young earth evolutionism, is still propagated by Ken Ham, founder of the Creation Museum and Ark Experience, as scientific creationism.

Here are some examples from my research: Continue reading The Fizzling of the Cambrian – and Creationism

On the United Methodist Church’s Decision

Noah’s flood might have required 40 days to drown the world, but the Methodist General Conference of 1844 nearly matched it, with the tide of slavery washing over the denomination and leaving it shattered after 41 days of acrimonious debate.

For decades, the question of slavery festered within the body of the nation’s largest denomination; by 1844, only one American organization was larger than the Methodist Episcopal Church: the federal government itself.

And like the government, Methodists were paralyzed by their divisions over the ownership of human beings. Initially one of the strongest anti-slavery voices in American Christianity – inheriting the convictions of its founder, John Wesley – Methodism in the South, like all of southern Christianity, had become increasingly tolerant, even supportive, of the institution as it became increasingly vital to the regional economy.

Northern bishops, however, became increasingly convinced of slavery’s evil, following in the tradition of evangelist Francis Asbury, who relied more on natural law than the Bible when he argued that “every perfection [God] possesses must be opposed to a practice contrary to every moral idea which can influence the human mind.” Likewise, slavery was “totally opposite to the whole spirit of the gospel.”

Methodist slaveholders took a different approach: using the plain text of the Bible – especially the Old Testament, which provided justification not only for slavery but also for the enslavement of Africans, descendants of the cursed son of Noah, according to a literal reading of Genesis.

Further, proslavery Methodists – again, like southern Christians as a whole – pointed to the several places in the New Testament where Paul sets out conditions of a master-servant relationship. It would be unscriptural, these slaveholders argued, to go beyond the plain, literal text of scripture.

As one southern Methodist bishop put it, there existed “no warrant from apostolic precept or example” to upend this relationship, and to do so would “go beyond the [biblical] charter and transcend the bounds of our commission.”

When Bishop James Andrew of Georgia inherited a slave through his wife – and with no way to easily free him under state law – abolition-minded northern Methodists were outraged. Andrew proposed resigning, but fellow southerners insisted he stay and fight. After 41 bitter days, the General Conference of 1844 requested his resignation – and within a year the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, was born.

Reunification would not occur for nearly a century.

History does not repeat itself, the saying goes, but often it rhymes. History rhymed pretty clearly last week.

Continue reading On the United Methodist Church’s Decision

Reading a Different Revelation

Image result for revelation and the end of all thingsWhen I was a kid, my favorite book of the Bible was Revelation.

Granted, this almost certainly was because it was easily the most interesting book to read for a kid who wasn’t allowed to bring an activity bag or any other distractions for worship service – also known as the slowest 45 minutes of my week. All I had was my Bible, and beasts, earthquakes and other calamities helped the time fly right by.

Obviously, growing up in a conservative evangelical faith tradition, I learned the “left behind” interpretation of Revelation, or to use the fancy technical term: premillennial dispensatiionalism. Rapture, Tribulation, World War III, Armageddon and all the rest.

Fast forward two decades or so, and I’m now teaching a class on Revelation at the Episcopal congregation my family attends. Far from repeating the code-book style of interpretation so common in American Christianity, we’re trying to find a healthier way of reading the book that would be recognizable to the original recipients. After all, it seems like the ultimate practice in arrogance to assume that a letter written 2,000 years ago is somehow all about you, and it certainly does us no favors to uncritically accept a reading that argues, as philosopher-theologian Randy Harris once called it, that “God so loved the world that he sent World War III.”

Continue reading Reading a Different Revelation

The Radical Incarnation

It’s the late 100s CE. A century has passed since Roman troops have destroyed the Jerusalem temple and crushed the Jewish revolt, unwittingly scattering a sect of Jews who followed an itinerant preacher whom the Romans had crucified some decades earlier.

Over the decades, that sect had separated from its parent faith; its followers were known, perhaps derogatorily, as Christians, claiming the crucified preacher they followed had in fact risen from the dead and was the son of God, if not actually God in some way. Subject to occasional persecution by various local officials in the Roman Empire, the Christian movement nevertheless had grown to a size and influence that it reached the notice of a Greco-Roman philosopher named Celsus.

We know very little about Celsus, except that around this time before the end of the second century, he felt compelled to respond to the Christian claims – the earliest known attack on Christianity. Called The True Discourse of Celsus the Epicurean, his work is only known insofar as it’s quoted by the famed bishop of Alexandria, Origen, in his apologetic work Contra Celsus, written around 247.

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In his The Interpretation of the New Testament in Greco-Roman Paganism (Hendrickson, 2000), John Granger Cook writes: “Celsus was something of a social conservative who viewed Christianity as a departure from everything that was ancient and true in the Hellenistic tradition.” (p. 17)

To the extent Origen fairly caricatures Celsus’ argument – and to his credit he does seem to quote Celsus at length without apparent modification, though you can’t really be sure about that sort of thing – what jumps out at me, especially in this season, is how much Celsus hated the notion of the incarnation.

The bulk of Celsus’ argument against Christianity could be boiled down to just one sentence: Gods don’t do that.

Continue reading The Radical Incarnation