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President Obama, Christianity, and the Truth about American Exceptionalism

President Obama just laid to rest all the speculation that he isn’t a Christian.

During his speech in Kenya, he said one of the most Christian things any U.S. president has ever said. No, he didn’t shove Jesus down anyone’s throat. He did something much more important. He definitively pointed to what makes the United States a “Judeo-Christian Nation.”

“What makes America exceptional is not the fact that we are perfect. It’s the fact that we struggle to improve. We’re self-critical. We work to live up to our highest values and ideals, knowing that we’re not always going to achieve them perfectly, but we keep on trying to perfect our union. And what’s true for America is also true for Kenya. You can’t be complacent and accept the world just for what it is. You have to imagine what the world might be. And then push and work toward that future. Progress requires that you honestly confront the dark corners of our own past. Extend rights and opportunities to more of your citizens. See the differences and diversity of this country as a strength, just as we in America try to see the diversity of our country as a strength, not a weakness.”

What’s so Christian about that statement? Many will disagree with the President. They will say that his emphasis on self-criticism is actually anti-American. But the freedom to be self-critical is an important freedom that the United States models to other nations. Just as important, that self-criticism is based on America’s Judeo-Christian roots.

I tend to bristle whenever politicians talks about American “exceptionalism,” but self-criticism is actually exceptional in human history. Throughout history, very few nations ever attempted to be self-critical, certainly not in a way that confronts “the dark corners of our past” or is concerned about extending “rights and opportunities” to those who are marginalized by society.

René Girard calls this the “modern concern for victims” in his book I See Satan Fall Like Lightning. He writes,

“Examine ancient sources, inquire everywhere, dig up the corners of the planet, and you will not find anything anywhere that even remotely resembles our modern concern for victims. The China of the Mandarins, the Japan of the Samaria, the Hindus, the pre-Columbian societies, Athens, republican or imperial Rome—none of these were worried in the least little bit about victims, whom they sacrificed without number to their gods, to the honor of the homeland, to the ambition of conquerors, small or great.”

For example, take ancient Rome, one of the greatest empires in human history. Rome promised peace to its citizens, but the Pax Romana was waged with a sword. Because Rome benefited from that violence, there was no Roman self-criticism of its political system. When Rome conquered another nation, there was no self-critical discussion about “human rights.” Nor did Rome have anything like the modern impetus for “social justice” that sought to change unjust political and economic structures. As theologian James Alison writes, in ancient Rome, “the defeated would be killed or enslaved without further ado. They had no rights: that’s what being defeated meant.”

The exception in the ancient world were the Jews. Unlike other nations, the Jews were self-critical and that self-criticism stemmed from their experience of oppression in Egypt. The Egyptian Empire enslaved the ancient Israelites. Like in ancient Rome, there was no self-critical voice in ancient Egypt. No Egyptian prophet would ever say to Pharaoh, “You know, maybe we should treat those Israelites with a little more compassion and respect.”

But Moses set the course for the transformation of the human understanding of God. The Judeo-Christian tradition primarily begins with the Exodus. The God of the Exodus doesn’t identify with the powerful, but with the victims of human culture.

Exodus reveals that God breaks into our world as One who is with the scapegoats of human society. The prophetic word from this God doesn’t justify political action that leads to oppression, injustice, and poverty like the ancient gods of Rome or Egypt. Rather, this God, the God of the Hebrews, sides with the oppressed.

For ancient Israel, the political message was clear: God sides with the oppressed, so don’t become an oppressor. Whenever Israel’s political establishment neglected to care for the poor, the widows, the marginalized, there was a self-critical message that demanded the nation care for the poor and marginalized:

There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore, I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land. (Deuteronomy 15:9)

Cursed is the man who withholds justice from the alien, the fatherless or the widow. (Deuteronomy 27:19)

He raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap; he seats them with princes and has them inherit a throne of honor. (I Samuel 2:8)

Because of the oppression of the weak and the groaning of the needy, I will now arise, says the Lord, I will protect them from those who malign them. (Psalm 12:5)

A ruler who oppresses the poor is like a driving rain that leaves no crops. (Proverbs 28:3)

The reason the Bible was so insistent that the good people of Israel care for the weak, poor, and scapegoated victims of Israel is because good people often fail to question their own goodness. Because good people can be so pleased with their goodness, they simply cannot believe that they have become oppressors and so they cannot be self-critical about their oppressive ways. The prophet Ezekiel spoke directly to and about people who refused to doubt their own goodness when he said, “The people of the land practice extortion and commit robbery; they oppress the poor and needy and mistreat the alien, denying them justice.”

Jesus continued to highlight the particularly Jewish concern for victims of culture. For Jesus, to participate in the Kingdom of God was to structure our lives in a way that cares for those in need. He stated his mission in his first sermon, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because He has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to release the oppressed.”

Jesus took this a step further near the end of his life. He explicitly identified himself with the poor and needy, the very ones that good people ignored without remorse:

“‘Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you since the foundation of the world: for I was hungry and you gave me to eat, I was thirsty and you to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, sick and you visited me, in prison and you came to see me.’” Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, thirsty and give you to drink, a stranger and welcome you, naked and clothe you, sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the last of these my brothers, you did it to me.’”

President Obama has never been more Christian than when he emphasized America’s exceptional ability to be self-critical. Amidst human history, that ability to doubt our own goodness for the sake of victims we have created is exceptional. If the U.S. has any claim to Judeo-Christian roots, it’s because of that ethical concern.

 

Photo: President Obama speaking in Kenya (Screenshot from YouTube, KTN News Kenya)

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Sandra Bland being arrested (Photo: Screenshot from YouTube)

My White Dad and Sandra Bland: On “Assaulting” a Police Officer

“I fixed the problem with your car,” the mechanic told my dad. “You can pick it up now.”

It was the mid-1990s. I was a junior in high school. My dad and I drove to the auto shop to pick up my new car. Well, it wasn’t new per se. It was used, very used, but it was new to me.

Needless to say, I was very excited. And my dad was excited for me. I remember him being very proud of me. He has always been a proud, patient, and joyful father. I can only remember him getting angry twice during my childhood. Once at my brother. And once at a police officer.

He had to make a left hand turn across traffic to enter the auto-body shop. There was a median in the road, marked by solid double yellow lines. My dad crossed the lines, entered the median, and when it was safe, he turned into the parking lot so that I could drive home my new car.

That’s when we heard the sirens and saw the flashing lights.

The police officer followed us into the parking lot. My dad stopped and the police officer knocked on his window.

“Sir,” the officer began. “Do you know why I pulled you over?”

“I have no idea,” Dad replied as he shook his head with frustration.

“You crossed the double yellow lines. I’m going to have to give you a ticket.”

“For crossing a double yellow line?!?” My dad asked incredulously.

“Yes sir. It’s against the law,” the officer responded as he walked back to his car. After a few minutes, he returned with the ticket. “Here you go sir. You have a month to pay the fee or contest in court.”

By now my dad had turned into a different person. He was filled with anger like I’ve rarely seen. “This is ridiculous,” he complained. “People make that turn all the time. I can’t believe you gave me a ticket for that!”

“Sorry sir,” the officer impassively replied. Then he simply walked away.

I’ve learned two things since that day. First, I’ve learned that any encounter with a police officer doesn’t define who a person is. My dad thought the police officer was abusing his power, and my dad responded with uncharacteristic, but understandable, anger.

Second, I’ve learned to be grateful that my dad isn’t black. Because if my white father had been born black, the officer may not have simply walked away. Things might have escalated very quickly into a yelling match and my dad might have been arrested for “assaulting” a police officer or for “resisting arrest.” And it would have been my dad’s fault.

For example, take a look at the 52 minute video in the Sandra Bland case. Sandra was pulled over for failing to signal a lane change. For the first few minutes of the encounter, Sandra was just like my dad – irritated but compliant. She answered every question the officer asked. Then the officer asked her to put out her cigarette.

“Do you mind putting out your cigarette, please?”

Sandra responded with a natural question, “I’m in my car. Why do I have to put out my cigarette?”

The officer didn’t answer Sandra’s question. Instead, he demanded that she step out of the car. “You can step on out now.” Then he threatened her with a taser.

Why? A police officer can demand that someone exit a vehicle when the officer thinks there is a threat. You know, a lit cigarette can be used as a dangerous weapon.

Sandra was subsequently arrested and died in her jail cell.

How could this happen? Ask many white people and they will tell you it was Sandra’s fault. According to CNN law enforcement analyst Harry Houk, Sandra was the problem. “The whole thing here is that she was arrogant from the beginning. Very dismissive of the officer. She was uncooperative.”

Once again we find white people blaming a black victim of violence. She’s to blame because she was “irritated.” She’s to blame because she refused to put out her cigarette. She’s to blame because she’s black.

A white response that blames Sandra Bland is a racist response. White people can get away with being irritated at police. We don’t have to be kind to officers. We can express our anger and not fear arrest.

A black person though? If a black person shows any anger, they will likely be arrested or possibly killed. And it will be construed as their fault.

White Americans can no longer live in denial of the racism that infects us. Yes, racism infects police culture, but white America cannot simply blame police culture. Racist attitudes and structures are everywhere – from politics to education to mass incarceration to economics to housing.

Racism is a particularly pernicious form of scapegoating in America. Robert Hammerton-Kelly states in his book The Gospel and the Sacred that, “Scapegoating … is the psychosocial propensity to relieve frustration by lashing out at someone defenseless, or to avoid responsibility by blaming someone…”

The police officer was clearly frustrated that Sandra didn’t bow down to his demands and so he relieved his frustration by lashing out at a defenseless Sandra Bland, who’s only “weapon” was a lit cigarette. Since smoking a cigarette in a car isn’t illegal, Sandra had every right to ask why the officer requested that she put it out. Asking the question isn’t resisting arrest, nor is it a threat to the police officer’s safety.

But no matter. Case after case after case shows that an officer can make up any excuse to accuse a black person of resisting arrest or assaulting a police officer and treat them with brutal force. The point is that Sandra’s arrest and subsequent death never should have happened. And those events never would have happened if Sandra was white. That’s because to be black in America is to be America’s national scapegoat. From the very beginning, white America has relieved our collective frustration by uniting against black people, lashing out at them with impunity because the power structures lean heavily in our favor.

White denial of this fact only leads us to avoid taking personal responsibility for the racism that infects each of us. Blaming black victims of police violence is indicative of our denial that we are racists. “It’s her fault,” we say. “She was arrogant.” Well, my dad was “arrogant,” too. He was “irritated.” But he’s still alive. Despite his arrogance and anger, his encounter with the police didn’t escalate into imprisonment or death. That’s because he was born with the privilege of being white in America.

It’s time for white people to stop our personal and collective denial of racism. It’s time for us to recognize that racism and white privilege have infected our country since the beginning of its history. That recognition is the first of many steps we must make to help dismantle the racism that continues to infect America.

Photo: Sandra Bland being arrested (Screenshot from YouTube)

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Racism In The Civil-War North

Editor’s Note: As mimetic creatures, we are connected to one another not only in the present, but also across time. Being able to think historically helps us to understand how we are shaped by what we have deemed worthy of memory, while an understanding of mimetic theory helps us to look back at our history and search for the unheard voices. Dr. Tracy McKenzie’s articles provide us with a rich, complex understanding of the past that neither romanticizes nor scapegoats those who came before us. This deeper understanding can inform our present.

In this article, Dr. McKenzie reminds us that around the time of the Civil War, the North as well as the South held to an ideology of racial prejudice and white supremacy. An understanding of the racism that permeated the entire nation is essential to the struggle for full racial justice that continues today.

I shared in my last post the concern that the recent scrutiny of the Confederate battle flag may simply end up replacing one myth about the American Civil War with a different one. On the plus side, most of the online chatter has rightly dismissed the postwar southern invention that the conflict had little to do with slavery. On the minus side, much of the editorial opinion I’ve read implicitly promotes the postwar northern fiction that the conflict was first and foremost a moral struggle over the institution. Both views are wrong, and both prevent us from reckoning honestly with our nation’s racial history.

As I explained last time, the Civil War was never a clear-cut struggle between defenders and opponents of slavery. While the white South was nearly unanimous in its defense of human bondage, the North was badly divided. To generalize broadly: the cause of Union unified the North, the cause of emancipation divided it, badly blurring the distinction between the two sides.

For different reasons, it’s likewise true that the war was never an unambiguous contest over racial equality. On this issue, the opinions of whites in North and South were almost—if not quite—interchangeable. The range of attitudes was undoubtedly greater in the North than in the South, but in both regions the vast majority of whites took white supremacy for granted and denounced all appeals for racial equality. Much of the condemnation of white southern racism during the debate over the Confederate battle flag has left the mistaken impression that the men who marched under the Stars and Stripes had significantly different views.

I won’t take the time to overload you with examples, but here are just a few observations that attest to the pattern I am describing. I’ll concentrate on white northern attitudes:

Let’s begin in the late 1850s. In many of the eighteen free states, adults could easily remember a time when bondage had been legal in their own neighborhoods. Slavery had been legal in all of the original thirteen colonies at the beginning of the American Revolution, but the northern states began to phase out the institution after the achievement of independence. They typically did so very gradually, however, commonly passing what are known as “post-natal” statutes that only freed slaves not yet born. Pennsylvania was the first to act in 1780 and set a pattern that was widely followed. The Pennsylvania law stipulated that no slaves currently living would ever be freed, but that any future children born to enslaved mothers would be freed on their twenty-eighth birthday. Other northern states followed suit, with New Jersey being the last to act in 1804 when it declared that all slaves not yet born would be free when they reached adulthood. This gradual approach minimized the financial impact of emancipation on slaveholders and insured that slavery would linger in the North, although in increasingly small numbers, all the way up to the Mexican War.

As enslaved African Americans made the transition from slavery to freedom in the North, they quickly discovered that “freedom” did not mean equality. Five states (Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, and Oregon) legally prohibited free blacks from settling within their borders or required them to post prohibitive bonds for “good behavior.” In the remaining states, blacks were relegated to the most menial, low-paying jobs; consigned to segregated schools, when schools for blacks even existed; often prohibited from giving testimony in courts; always barred from serving on juries; and in the vast majority of cases, disqualified from voting explicitly because of their race. (When the Civil War ended, nineteen of twenty-four Union states still disfranchised black voters. Those that allowed blacks to vote were typically New England states with minuscule black populations. Overall, only 6-7 percent of adult black males could legally vote in the North at war’s end.)

In northern politics, race was a combustible theme throughout the 1850s and 1860s. Both major parties recognized its power. Generalizing broadly, northern Democrats sought to score points with northern voters by convincing them that the reason Republicans opposed the extension of slavery was that they favored racial equality. Republicans tried to deflect such charges by assuring northern voters that they were as committed as anyone to white supremacy. Where both parties clearly agreed was in their reading of the northern electorate. No political movement could expect broad success across the North if voters became convinced that they questioned the hierarchy of the races.

Such racially charged politics pervaded the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858. In their contest for a U. S. Senate seat from Illinois, the two future presidential candidates perfectly modeled the larger strategy. For his part, the Democrat Douglas continually charged that Lincoln and his Republican Party were a bunch of abolitionist fanatics with radical views on race. According to Douglass, the Republicans

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Democratic Stephen Douglas, U. S. Senator from Illinois

“really think that under the Declaration of Independence the negro is equal to the white man, and that negro equality is an inalienable right conferred by the Almighty, and hence that all human laws in violation of it are null and void. With such men it is no use for me to argue. I hold that the signers of the Declaration of Independence had no reference to negroes at all when they declared all men to be created equal. They did not mean negroes, nor the savage Indians, nor the Fiji Islanders, nor any other barbarous race. They were speaking of white men. They alluded to men of European birth and European descent—to white men, and to none others—when they declared that doctrine. I hold that this Government was established on the white basis. It was established by white men for the benefit of white men and their posterity forever, and should be administered by white men, and none others.”

This was race-baiting with a vengeance. While I find no evidence that Lincoln ever similarly pandered to white racism—intentionally trying to whip up a crowd with cheap racist remarks—he understood full well that he had to convince voters that Douglas was wrong if his campaign was to survive. And so he sought to persuade the audience that it was possible to oppose slavery without favoring the end of all racial distinction. Lincoln confessed his belief that slavery was a “moral, social, and political evil.” He admitted his opinion that the black man had just as much right as the white to “earn his bread by the sweat of his brow.” But this need not lead to complete racial equality, Lincoln explained.

Republican Abraham Lincoln in 1858

Republican Abraham Lincoln in 1858

“I will say, then, that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races: that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people. . . . And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.”

Northern racism kept the Republican Party on the defensive throughout the war. By all accounts, it was more virulent in the lower North than in the upper North, stronger in the Midwest than in New England, more pronounced in cities than in the countryside, more common among immigrants and blue-collar workers than among native-born Americans and farmers. Catholic archbishop John Hughes spoke for New York City’s massive Irish population when he insisted that Catholics “are willing to fight to the death for the support of the Constitution, the government, and the laws of the country. But if . . . they are to fight for the abolition of slavery,” he declared, “they will turn away in disgust from the discharge of what would otherwise be a patriotic duty.”

Class animosities also figured prominently in attacks on the Republican campaign against slavery. New York City’s Democratic newspapers argued that emancipation would eventually lead to a mass exodus of newly freed bondsmen from the South to northern cities, where they would compete for jobs with working class whites and drive down wage levels. Campaigners in 1862 for New York gubernatorial candidate Horatio Seymour announced that “a vote for Seymour is a vote to protect our white laborers against the association and competition of Southern Negroes.” Such working-class resentment of blacks reached its pinnacle in July 1863 when New Yorkers rioted for four days in protest of the new federal Conscription Act. During the New York City Draft Riots, as they are known, angry Irish laborers trashed African-American homes, burned an African-American orphanage to the ground, and lynched a half-dozen black New Yorkers.

Racism was almost as pronounced in the Midwest. Republican politicians from the region lamented that it was ubiquitous. Republican Congressman George Julian of Indiana confided in a letter, “Our people hate the Negro with a perfect if not a supreme hatred.” Republican Senator Lyman Trumbull of Illinois agreed. “There is a great aversion in the West . . . against having free negroes come among us,” Trumbull conceded. “Our people want nothing to do with the negro.” The Chicago Times spoke for a broad swath of Midwestern sentiment when it blasted Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. Alluding to Lincoln’s allusion to “the proposition that all men are created equal,” the Times editorialized:

“It was to uphold this Constitution, and the Union created by it, that our officers and soldiers gave their lives at Gettysburg. How dare he, then, standing on their graves, misstate the cause for which they died, and libel the statesmen who founded the government? They were men possessing too much self-respect to declare that negroes were their equals, or were entitled to equal privileges.”

Race continued to be a powerful weapon in the presidential campaign of 1864. Seeking to protect themselves from Democratic charges that they favored black equality, the Republicans took two steps aimed at redirecting the voters’ attention away from the controversial emancipation policy. First, they temporarily abandoned the “Republican” label and ran instead under the banner of the “National Union” Party, a transparent attempt to make loyalty to the Union, rather than support for emancipation, the defining issue of the campaign. Second, they scratched the current vice-president from the ticket. Vice President Hannibal Hamlin of Maine was widely perceived as a man of radical racial views, and some Democrats had even insinuated that the supposedly swarthy Hamlin was a mulatto. To replace him the Republicans opted for an individual that no one ever accused of liberal racial views, the current military governor of Union-occupied Tennessee, Andrew Johnson. A staunch southern unionist who hated slaveholders and slaves alike, Johnson would later publicly proclaim in his 1867 State of the Union address that blacks  possessed “less capacity for government than any other race of people. No independent government of any form has ever been successful in their hands. On the contrary, wherever they have been left to their own devices they have shown a constant tendency to relapse into barbarism.”

While the Republicans tried to soft-pedal emancipation in the campaign, northern Democrats did everything they could to emphasize the issue, always linking Republican support for emancipation to the party’s supposed commitment to full racial equality. There was no subtlety in Democrats’ playing of the race card. They lampooned Lincoln as “Abraham Africanus I” and insisted that he and his Republican Party wanted nothing so much as a thoroughgoing intermixture of the races on terms of complete equality. Democrats coined a new term in the 1864 campaign—miscegenation—and informed voters that the creation of a mongrel race that was neither black nor white was the Republicans’ true objective. Democratic pamphlets and broadsides told voters that the Republicans wanted ex-slaves and Irishmen to intermarry, and Democratic artists imagined a ballroom of interracial couples celebrating a Republican victory.

No, the Civil War was not a referendum on racial equality.  Next time we’ll talk about what to make of this fact.

Dr. Robert Tracy McKenzie is the chair of the Department of History at Wheaton College. He is the author of The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History ​from Intervarsity Press, along with two books pertaining to the American Civil War (published by Cambridge University Press and Oxford University Press). He blogs at http://faithandamericanhistory.wordpress.com. 

Top Image Credit: This sketch of a purported scene from the New York City Draft Riots appeared in Harper’s Weekly later in 1863.

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Photo: Flickr, Flbonacci Blue, Creative Commons Licence, some modifications

The Planned Parenthood Scandal: Beyond the Morality Police

Planned Parenthood was put on the defensive last week when a heavily edited video surfaced of a Planned Parenthood executive discussing the organizations procedures for organ and tissue donations.

The scandal provides a perfect moral dilemma for our culture to discuss the morality of Planned Parenthood. The older I get, the more I realize that morality is tricky business.

That’s because in these types of culture wars everyone couches their arguments in the name of moral goodness. Each side claims the mantle of goodness, while they demonize their opponents.

For example, the Center for Medical Progress, the group that recorded and edited the video, claims that the recording proves Planned Parenthood is lying about violating federal law by selling fetal organs for profit and using unethical practices of altering standard abortion procedures.

Planned Parenthood defended themselves against those accusations and in return made their own accusation against the Center. Planned Parenthood claims that the people at the Center for Medical Progress are the real liars. They describe the Center as “A well-funded group established for the purpose of damaging Planned Parenthood’s mission and services”. Planned Parenthood goes on to state that the Center, “has promoted a heavily edited, secretly recorded videotape that falsely portrays Planned Parenthood’s participation in tissue donation programs that support lifesaving scientific research.”

Personally, as I dive deeper into this scandal, I’m having a hard time finding the truth amidst the complexity of this issue. And that’s because both sides have good goals of protecting victims.

It may seem paradoxical to many, but as a progressive Christian, I hate abortions. I realize that they are at times necessary for the safety of pregnant women, but I wish they never happened. Unborn children should be cared for with love and respect, not be killed as victims. I also wish that those who fight so desperately for the government to care for unborn children by making abortions illegal would fight with the same fervor for the government to care for children who are already born. And so, since I don’t like abortions, I sympathize with the Center for Medical Progress because they want to end abortions.

But I also hate Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and other diseases that organ and tissue donation could cure through “lifesaving scientific research.” If we can discover ways to cure life-threatening diseases that victimize people, surely we should do that. And so I sympathize with Planned Parenthood’s practice of tissue and organ donation because it’s directed toward the noble goal of curing debilitating and fatal diseases.

Each side is directed toward a good goal. It’s complicated because those noble goals come with an ethical cost. Indeed, the unborn should be cared for, but the born should be cared for, too.

Our cultural pattern of becoming scandalized by the other side isn’t helping. Whichever side we are on, becoming the morality police is only making the scandal worse as we scapegoat and talk past each other. This pattern gets us stuck in a scandal of unhealthy righteous indignation over and against our opponents.

The alternative to getting stuck in a scandal isn’t to avoid scandals, but rather to go through them. As we go through them, we might just discover ourselves becoming un-scandalized as we see that the other is actually motivated by a good goal. In acknowledging the other’s good goal, we begin to see them as human and not the evil demons our minds have made them out to be.

When we acknowledge that our opponents are trying to protect the vulnerable, we begin to see them and ourselves in a more truthful light. That’s because in these difficult moral issues we must make a choice between two, and often more than two, imperfect options. Whichever choice we make, we find ourselves in the tragic moral dilemma of neglecting the needs of some in order to protect the needs of others. This situation doesn’t make us bad people, but it does tarnish any claim to pure goodness. Good people, it turns out, admit that they can’t help everyone and that moral choices often involve a less than perfect outcome.

We might also begin to question our own claim to moral authority by discovering the ways that we have demonized the other side to create in ourselves a sense of “goodness” in opposition to the evil we project upon our opponents.

In the midst of the Planned Parenthood scandal, the easy answer is to claim the mantle of moral authority by demonizing the other side.  That answer isn’t helpful. What I am discovering is that as long as we continue to demonize one another, no one can claim the moral authority of being good. We sacrifice that claim the moment we start pointing the finger of accusation.

I’m also discovering that when we stop accusing one another, we can begin to create new space between us. That space, as opposed to being filled with scandalous hostile accusations, can be filled with creativity and cooperation.

What will that creativity and cooperation look like? I’m convinced we will never find the answer until we acknowledge the good goal of our opponents and that our own methods of winning these cultural battles are often tainted with impure motivations and tactics. Sometimes demonizing others allows us to feel better about the morally questionable decisions we have to make. Admitting that our position actually does cause harm to others is very unpleasant, but it is absolutely necessary if we are to work together to find solutions that are better than what we have now – solutions that we cannot imagine on our own.

Photo: Flickr, Flbonacci Blue, Creative Commons Licence, some modifications.

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Soulless Economics

Austerity, the tool of neoliberal capitalism, stands up to Greek democracy and stares it down. Oh well.

We’re remarkably comfortable with soulless economics.

Pope Francis, speaking this week in Paraguay, cried to the nations of Planet Earth: “I ask them not to yield to an economic model . . . which needs to sacrifice human lives on the altar of money and profit.”

But we have yielded to this economic model, in thought, word and deed:

“At issue,” USA Today informs us, “is whether Greece has taken adequate steps to cut spending and raise taxes to deserve the new three-year, $59 billion infusion of funds it has requested, and whether it can be trusted to follow through on the austerity program it has proposed as the price for new loans.”

The pope’s words haven’t penetrated the pseudo-objective certainties of financial reporting, much less the dark sanctuaries of money and power. But they must. And eventually they will, or human evolution is dead. An allegedly impersonal economic structure, which quietly benefits the infinitesimally few who have far more than they need, is no foundation for our future.

This economic system is a relic of the Industrial Age, or perhaps it’s a relic of the Agricultural Revolution. It’s imbued with deep prejudices — human beings can be bought and sold, the nurturing of human life (women’s work) has no monetary value whatsoever — and reinforces our place outside the circle of life, separated from one another and from our deepest values.

Climate change and poverty are intertwined, the pope cries out in his stunning encyclical, “Laudato Si” — “Praised Be” — which reaches well beyond traditional Catholicism in its scope and message . . . and well beyond the parsimonious morality of global capitalism. We must, he declares, “look for solutions not only in technology but in a change of humanity” and “replace consumption with sacrifice, greed with generosity, wastefulness with a spirit of sharing.”

And we cannot bring about a change in humanity without a change in our economic system, which asks for sacrifice only from those who already have next to nothing and has no language that values generosity, except the sort that flows from the poor to the rich (but then it’s called “interest”). The present system does not acknowledge our connectedness to one another or to the planet or in any way understand that true, lasting prosperity emerges from sharing and giving, not exploitation.

“But the campaign of bullying — the attempt to terrify Greeks by cutting off bank financing and threatening general chaos, all with the almost open goal of pushing the current leftist government out of office — was a shameful moment in a Europe that claims to believe in democratic principles,” Paul Krugman wrote recently in the New York Times. “It would have set a terrible precedent . . . even if the creditors were making sense.

“What’s more, they weren’t. The truth is that Europe’s self-styled technocrats are like medieval doctors who insisted on bleeding their patients — and when their treatment made the patients sicker, demanded even more bleeding.”

What God are we worshipping?

In his book Sacred Economics, Charles Eisenstein writes: “It is hugely ironic and hugely significant that the one thing on the planet most closely resembling the forgoing conception of the divine is money. It is an invisible, immortal force that surrounds and steers all things, omnipotent and limitless, an ‘invisible hand’ that, it is said, makes the world go ’round.”

And thus Greek ATMs have no euros to dispense. “Without more help from the European Central Bank,” the USA Today article continued, “the Greek banking system may soon run out of cash” — implying that cash has the same sort of objective existence as oil or wheat or diamonds. That’s absurd, of course. Its existence is purely symbolic: an exchange medium with a commonly agreed-upon value backed by a government or central bank.

Krugman, describing the mysterious persistence of this medium, wrote that “if the money doesn’t start flowing from Frankfurt (the headquarters of the central bank), Greece will have no choice but to start paying wages and pensions with IOUs, which will de facto be a parallel currency — and which might soon turn into the new drachma.”

Money, in other words, is a function of social need. It is not an independent entity controlled solely by a financial priesthood, whose terms for its use — high interest rates, austerity, endless debt and poverty for some, endless freedom to exploit the human and environmental commons for others — are absolute.

Imagine a currency that serves a humane, intelligently conceived economic system, one that has at its core an awareness that all life is sacred. Imagine this reality reflected, rather than spurned, in every financial transaction that takes place, no matter how small, no matter how large.

 

 

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press), is still available. Contact him at koehlercw@gmail.com or visit his website at commonwonders.com.

© 2015 TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, INC.

 

Image Credit: 123rf.com Stock Photo, Copyright Barry Barnes

Confederate Flag Capitol

Down At Last: Thoughts On The Confederate Battle Flag, Pt. 3

Editor’s Note: As mimetic creatures, we are connected to one another not only in the present, but also across time. Being able to think historically helps us to understand how we are shaped by what we have deemed worthy of memory, while an understanding of mimetic theory helps us to look back at our history and search for the unheard voices. Dr. Tracy McKenzie’s articles provide us with a rich, complex understanding of the past that neither romanticizes nor scapegoats those who came before us. This deeper understanding can inform our present.

In this article, Dr. McKenzie continues his series bringing his historically critical perspective to the debate on the Confederate flag. 

I plan to write again soon at much greater length about the rapidly unfolding events in the South Carolina legislature, but I thought I would share a few quick reactions to the just completed debate there over the proposal to remove the Confederate battle flag from the grounds of the state capitol. As you’re surely aware by now, on Monday the South Carolina Senate voted 37-3 to lower the flag for good. Then in the wee hours this morning the state House of Representatives followed suit after an intense and contentious thirteen-hour debate. By a margin of 94-20 they concurred with the Senate and sent the measure to Governor Nikki Haley for her signature. She is expected to sign the bill at any moment, which means that the flag will be gone by tomorrow, an outcome that no one could have anticipated a scant three weeks ago.

I plan to write again soon at much greater length about the rapidly unfolding events in the South Carolina legislature, but I thought I would share a few quick reactions to the just completed debate there over the proposal to remove the Confederate battle flag from the grounds of the state capitol. As you’re surely aware by now, on Monday the South Carolina Senate voted 37-3 to lower the flag for good. Then in the wee hours this morning the state House of Representatives followed suit after an intense and contentious thirteen-hour debate. By a margin of 94-20 they concurred with the Senate and sent the measure to Governor Nikki Haley for her signature. She is expected to sign the bill at any moment, which means that the flag will be gone by tomorrow, an outcome that no one could have anticipated a scant three weeks ago.

I’ve only skimmed the extensive news coverage of the debates in Columbia, but three assertions caught my attention because of the way that they speak to the role of historical memory in the legislature’s emotional deliberations. Two of them I’ll pair together. They are almost perfectly symmetrical and almost equally illogical, although one of them will be mostly ridiculed and the other widely applauded.

During the debate in the Senate, Senate majority leader Harvey Peeler Jr. opposed the removal of the flag on the grounds that “moving the flag won’t change history.” It would be tantamount to “removing a tattoo from the corpse of a loved one and thinking that would change the loved one’s obituary.” Two days later, representative Jenny Horne, who passionately supported the flag’s removal, decried all discussion of the past. After the House finally approved the measure, Horne, who emerged as one of the heroes of the debate, told a Washington Post reporter she was tired of talking about the purported values of those who carried the flag into battle. “What we’re here to talk about is what’s in the here and now,” she told the Post. “And in 2015, that flag was used as a symbol of hatred.”

In fairness to both, we need to acknowledge that Peeler and Horne were both engaged in an unscripted, emotional debate, but we still need to think deeply about their claims. Neither is supportable. The debate over what the Confederate battle flag symbolizes has always been a dispute about historical memory—popular memory of the past from the vantage point of the present. Neither Peeler nor Horne get this. Peeler argued as if the Confederate battle flag testifies only to the past, blind to its power as a living symbol that makes a statement—an inexact and debatable statement, to be sure—to all who view it.

Horne, for her part, takes Peeler’s obtuseness and turns it upside down. The debate over the Confederate battle flag can be settled without any reference to the past whatsoever, she implied to the Post reporter. Dylann Roof has settled the question quite nicely, thank you very much. What other evidence is needed? But the flag is a symbol, and symbols are inescapably imprecise. They’re squishy things that often mean different things to different people. We can’t classify symbols as “true” or “false,” as if they were mathematical postulates. What we can do—and are obliged to do in instances such as this one—is to ask whether a particular symbol is appropriate, whether it reasonably can be made to stand for the values that are imputed to it. Was Dylann Roof simply a deranged mad man, or were there rational grounds why someone seeking to incite race war might want to be photographed with that flag? If the battle flag is a “symbol of hate,” as Horne stressed repeatedly, it didn’t become one three weeks ago.

The third claim that caught my eye was attributed to several opponents of the flag’s removal who insisted that the battle flag was in reality a noble symbol that has been “hijacked” by racists. Unlike the previous two claims, this is one that takes the past seriously. What is more, it shows an admirable sensitivity to how symbols can evolve in their predominant meaning over time. Unfortunately, the claim just isn’t true. I’ve already made the case that the battle flag is appropriately viewed as a racist symbol because of its connection with the Confederate defense of slavery and white supremacy during the Civil War. But even if we concede for the moment that the flag only became a symbol of racism after it was “hijacked” by bigots sometime after the war, who did the hijacking? Was it only extremists like Ku Klux Klansmen? Deranged killers like Dylann Roof? Or should the list include more mainstream figures?

In his book The Confederate Battle Flag: America’s most Embattled Emblem, historian John M. Coski notes that white southerners rarely displayed the  flag between the end of the Civil War and the late 1930s. The original incarnation of the Ku Klux Klan, which existed briefly during the early years of Reconstruction, was not popularly associated with that emblem. After the Klan was reborn during World War I, in part because of the popularity of D. W. Griffith’s notorious movie Birth of a Nation, Klan rallies regularly featured not the Confederate battle flag but the Stars and Stripes.

The dust cover of this monograph shows battle-flag waving delegates to the 1948 Dixiecrat Convention.

The dust cover of this monograph shows battle-flag waving delegates to the 1948 Dixiecrat Convention.

Although the popularity of the Confederate battle flag began to pick up at the close of the Great Depression, another decade passed before it would became a prominent symbol of white supremacy. And in what context did it do so? If there was a single moment that embodied the flag’s renaissance as an important cultural symbol, it came in 1948 and it centered around none other than the popular governor of South Carolina, Strom Thurmond. After walking out of the Democratic national convention that year in protest of a possible civil rights’ plank, the segregationist “Dixiecrat” Party that the South Carolina governor helped to found quickly embraced the Rebel banner. When the fledgling party met in convention in Birmingham later that year, state delegations entered the convention hall waving Confederate battle flags. White South Carolinians voted overwhelmingly for Thurmond in that fall’s election, giving him 72 percent of the ballots cast. Black South Carolinians didn’t vote–not because they were indifferent, but because they weren’t allowed to.

Blaming unnamed fringe groups for “hijacking” an honorable symbol just won’t wash.

Back with more soon.

Dr. Robert Tracy McKenzie is the chair of the Department of History at Wheaton College. He is the author of The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History ​from Intervarsity Press, along with two books pertaining to the American Civil War (published by Cambridge University Press and Oxford University Press). He blogs at http://faithandamericanhistory.wordpress.com. 

Top Image Credit: Confederate Flag in front of South Carolina Capitol by eyeliam via Flickr.  Creative Commons License

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Thoughts On The Confederate Battle Flag, Pt. 2

Editor’s Note: As mimetic creatures, we are connected to one another not only in the present, but also across time. Being able to think historically helps us to understand how we are shaped by what we have deemed worthy of memory, while an understanding of mimetic theory helps us to look back at our history and search for the unheard voices. Dr. Tracy McKenzie’s articles provide us with a rich, complex understanding of the past that neither romanticizes nor scapegoats those who came before us. This deeper understanding can inform our present.

In this article, Dr. McKenzie continues his series bringing his historically critical perspective to the debate on the Confederate flag. 

In my last post I alluded to a recent CNN poll that suggests that nearly three quarters of white Americans do not view the Confederate battle flag as a symbol of racism, despite Dylann Roof’s best efforts to the contrary.

Let’s think about this a bit. The actual question posed to respondents was, “Do you, yourself, see the Confederate flag more as a symbol of Southern pride or more as a symbol of racism?” Much of the furor over the continued exhibition of the flag on public property revolves around the contention that the flag is racially divisive and intrinsically insulting to African Americans. (According to the same poll, nearly four fifths of black respondents see the issue in precisely this light.) So here is a slightly modified question for white Americans that might be more relevant to the controversy at hand than the one that the CNN pollsters asked:“In your opinion, is it reasonable for African Americans to view the Confederate battle flag as a symbol of racism?” How would you answer? Here would be my response, as someone who has taught and written on the American Civil War for more than a quarter century: Definitely, absolutely, unequivocally, indisputably, and (lest there be any doubt) emphatically, YES!

I’ll explain in a moment, but let me start with a bit of autobiography. I was born, raised, and educated in the South. I still have family in the South, I’m proud of my southern roots, and I speak unapologetically with a southern accent, even though I have now lived nearly half of my life outside the region. (My best friend in the UW history department used to tease me mercilessly about my accent, saying that when I used fifty-cent academic phrases like “epistemological presuppositions,” it reminded him for all the world of Gomer Pyle singing opera.)

s-c-confederate-flagI’ll go further. In my youth, I was enamored with all things Confederate, including the Confederate battle flag. My lifelong fascination with history began with an obsession with the Civil War. The historian Arnold Toynbee recalled thinking as a child at the close of the nineteenth century that “history is something unpleasant that happens to other people.” (By “history,” Toynbee had in mind those once-in-a-lifetime upheavals—revolutions, wars, the collapse of dynasties and civilizations—that traditionally got all of the attention in world history textbooks.) Toynbee then went on to acknowledge that his understanding of what history entailed was surely influenced by his very privileged and protected upbringing. “If I had been a small boy in 1897 in the Southern part of the United States,” he mused, “I should not have felt the same; I should then have known from my parents that history had happened to my people in my part of the world.”

When I reflect on my early interest in history, I call to mind a succession of snapshots centered on my evolving awareness that “history had happened to my people in my part of the world”:

* Watching the two-part movie Johnny Shiloh on “Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color” when I was six or seven. (The movie was about drummer boy Johnny Clem, who actually wasn’t present at the Battle of Shiloh, but no matter.)

* Talking with my grandfather, who had been born in 1890, and whose father had actually been alive during the Civil War and could remember troops riding into the farmyard to “requisition” the family cow.

* A trip at age eight or nine with my mom to the “Confederama” in Chattanooga, a diorama depicting the 1863 Battle of Lookout Mountain, otherwise remembered as the “Battle above the Clouds.”

* The Halloween that I was nine years old, when my grandmother dyed my old Sunday suit gray and I went trick-or-treating as a Confederate officer (and later wearing that uniform to meet my older sister’s Yankee fiancé).

* And yes, decorating the wall of my bedroom with a small Confederate battle flag.

“When I was a child,” the apostle Paul wrote in II Corinthians, chapter 13, “I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child, but when I became a man, I put away childish things.” My adulation of the Confederacy was not malevolent, and I don’t think it was racist, but it was undeniably childlike—innocent, maybe; ignorant, definitely. Indeed, my ignorance was unbounded. To begin with, I knew nothing of the war’s complicated internal dynamic in my part of the South. I grew up in East Tennessee, which overwhelmingly supported the Union during the war and sent more than thirty thousand men into the Federal Army.

I also had literally no inkling of the conflict’s connection with the controversy over slavery. In this regard, my early understanding of the Civil War was not unlike what you might learn from attending a Civil-War re-enactment today. In my mind’s eye, the war was a whites-only affair in which both sides were honorable and the underlying causes need not be mentioned. As I grew older, I did learn that the contest was also a struggle over ideas, but these ideas had absolutely nothing to do with the South’s benign “peculiar institution”—that was a damned Yankee lie. (I still recall the thrill that I felt when my seventh-grade civics teacher conclusively proved—to my 12-year-old mind—that the “War Between the States” was a principled struggle over state rights. Take that, damn Yankees!)

It was not until my junior year of high school that I fell from this state of innocence. My American history teacher took a chance and required us to read a small book by Georgia-born Yale historian C. Vann Woodward: The Strange Career of Jim Crow. “Jim Crow” was a phrase that came to serve as a nickname for the pervasive system of segregation that emerged in the former Confederate states after the Civil War and persisted for nearly three generations. In Strange Career, I read about Jim Crow school systems, Jim Crow streetcars, Jim Crow drinking fountains, Jim Crow restrooms, Jim Crow telephone booths, and Jim Crow Bibles for swearing on in segregated courtrooms. I was appalled. Although I had been born and raised in the South, I lived in an overwhelmingly white Appalachian community, and I was just young enough to miss most of the furor over forced integration of southern public schools, so I was truly unaware of the South’s complex and tortured racial history. The Strange Career of Jim Crow did not touch on the Civil War itself, but it became the point of entry through which I now revisited the South’s history with new eyes.

I was troubled by what I discovered, but I didn’t stop loving the South. True love “is not blind,” G. K. Chesterton reminds us. “That is the last thing that it is. Love is bound; and the more it is bound, the less it is blind.” Indeed, because I love the South, I think I can sympathize with why so many white southerners feel compelled to defend the Confederate battle flag. I want to speak for them, if I can, in a later post. But first, we have to deal with some hard truths.

Let’s start with the basic question of why eleven southern states seceded from the Union during the winter of 1860-1861. A one-word answer will get us started: fear. A chorus of politicians and journalists told southern whites that the election of a Republican president signaled the beginning of the end of their way of life, and they made clear—again and again and again—that the central pillar of that way of life was the enslavement of African Americans. Demonstrating this systematically would quickly grow tedious, so here are a few representative samples from a plethora of possibilities (I assure you I’m not cherry-picking):

Let’s begin with the Charleston Mercury, one of the most outspoken voices for secession in the event of a Republican victory in 1860. Three weeks before the presidential election, the Mercury laid out a systematic case for secession in an editorial titled “The Terrors of Submission.” The writer listed eleven reasons to favor secession, ten of which involved the effects of a Republican victory on slavery. The South’s “abject prostration to Abolition rule at Washington” would undermine confidence in slave property, cause slaves to depreciate in value, and encourage abolitionists to “renew their operations on the South.” But more than southern pocketbooks were in jeopardy, the Mercury warned.

The ruin of the South, by the emancipation of her slaves, is not like the ruin of any other people. It is not a mere loss of liberty, like the Italians under the BOURBONS. It is not heavy taxation, which must still leave the means of living, or otherwise taxation defeats itself. But it is the loss of liberty, property, home, country—everything that makes life worth living.

Stephen Fowler Hale (1816-1862), mortally wounded at the Battle of Gaines’ Mill in 1862.

Stephen Fowler Hale (1816-1862), mortally wounded at the Battle of Gaines’ Mill in 1862.

As support for secession grew from South Carolina to Texas, the states of the lower South regularly sent agents or “commissioners” to the state governments of the upper South to enlist their support for disunion. The letter of Alabama commissioner Stephen F. Hale to the governor of Kentucky was fairly representative of their arguments. Writing in late December 1860, more than a month and a half after Abraham Lincoln’s election, Hale set out in lurid detail the predictable consequences of submitting to the Republican administration soon to be installed in Washington, D.C.

The Republican Party was determined to destroy “the sovereignty and equality of the States,” Hale insisted, “resting its claims to popular favor upon the one dogma, the Equality of the Races, white and black.”

What Southern man, be he slave-holder or non-slave-holder, can without indignation and horror contemplate the triumph of negro equality, and see his own sons and daughters, in the not distant future, associating with free negroes upon terms of political and social equality, and the white man stripped, by the Heaven-daring hand of fanaticism of that title to superiority over the black race which God himself has bestowed?

Alexander Stephens (1812-1883)

Speaking at a public rally some three months later in Savannah, Georgia, the recently inaugurated vice-president of the Confederacy, Alexander Stephens, sought to crystalize the ideological core of the southern rebellion. The former U. S. congressman derided the view held by some of the Founding Fathers that slavery “was wrong in principle.” “Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea,” Stephens assured his cheering audience.

Its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery—subordination to the superior race—is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.

Finally, a word from the president of the Confederacy, the former U. S. Senator and Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis. Two weeks after the opening battle at Fort Sumter, the Mississippi statesman stood before the Confederate Congress and rehearsed the causes for the recent eruption of war. After making the case that the Constitution was intended by its framers to be a compact among sovereign states, Davis turned his attention to the “spirit of ultra fanaticism” in the North that had led to “a persistent and organized system of hostile measures against the rights of the owners of slaves in the Southern States.” The Republican Party was bent on “impairing the security of property in slaves, and reducing those States which held slaves to a condition of inferiority.”

Jefferson Davis (1808-1889)

Jefferson Davis (1808-1889)

Unimpeded, the Republicans’ fanatical crusade would have tragic consequences. Not the least of its victims would be the slaves themselves, Davis lamented. “Under the supervision of a superior race,” the South’s African and African-American laborers had been “elevated from brutal savages into docile, intelligent, and civilized agricultural laborers.” The Republican agenda would also cripple the South’s production of cotton, rice, sugar, and tobacco—for “which the labor of African slaves was and is indispensable”—and destroy the region’s bounteous prosperity. “With interests of such overwhelming magnitude imperiled,” Davis concluded, “the people of the Southern States were driven by the conduct of the North . . . to avert the danger with which they were openly menaced.”

So much for the politicians and journalists. Do their views prove that the men and boys who put on the Confederate uniform were similarly motivated? Of course not. Historians who have studied the values of Confederate soldiers have learned that they entered the service for all kinds of pragmatic as well as ideological reasons: for adventure, for money, to impress women, to defend women, to get away from home, to defend their homes, to defend their “country,” to be true to their forefathers, to resist “tyranny,” and—in at least one out of five cases—because they were drafted and had no choice.

ManningAnd yet historians have unearthed precious little evidence that the Johnny Rebs in the ranks viewed the essence of the war any differently than their leaders. Especially when we focus on the soldiers who enlisted the earliest and fought the longest, it seems that the fighting men in gray saw eye to eye with Davis, Stephens and company. In her book What This Cruel War was Over: Soldiers, Slavery, and the Civil War, historian Chandra Manning relates that Confederate soldiers wasted little breath expounding on state rights. Reviewing literally thousands of documents, Manning found that in their letters and diaries Confederate soldiers “virtually never discussed political principles such as states’ rights.” She elaborates,

For the men who filled the Confederate ranks, secession, the Confederacy, and the war were not about state sovereignty or whether the central government could levy a tariff or build a road. Secession, the Confederacy, and the war were about securing a government that would do what government was supposed to do: promote white liberty, advance white families’ best interests, and protect slavery.

MarchingMastersSouthern historian Colin Woodward agrees. Over the course of years spent combing the diaries and correspondence of Confederate soldiers, Woodward discovered that “the proslavery ideology was entrenched in the minds of Southern whites of all classes.” In his book Marching Masters: Slavery, Race, and the Confederate Army during the Civil War, Woodward notes that, whenever Rebel soldiers reflected on what was at stake in the war, their thoughts always came back to slavery. They worried about the loss of economic opportunity if slavery was prohibited from further expansion. They claimed to be anxious for the purity of white womanhood if an inferior black race was set loose by abolitionist fanaticism, and they were troubled more generally by the loss of racial control that emancipation would bring about. Simply put, the war that erupted in 1861 “was about protecting slavery,” and all ranks “knew that going in.”

So let’s return to our original question: Is it reasonable for African Americans to view the Confederate battle flag as a symbol of racism?” Yes it is, but I think we can go further: it would be unreasonable for them to see it as anything else.

Back soon with more.

Dr. Robert Tracy McKenzie is the chair of the Department of History at Wheaton College. He is the author of The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History ​from Intervarsity Press, along with two books pertaining to the American Civil War (published by Cambridge University Press and Oxford University Press). This post and all images first published at http://faithandamericanhistory.wordpress.com.

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Confederate Flag Capitol

Regional Pride Or Racism? Thoughts On The Confederate Flag, Pt. 1

Editor’s Note: As mimetic creatures, we are connected to one another not only in the present, but also across time. Being able to think historically helps us to understand how we are shaped by what we have deemed worthy of memory, while an understanding of mimetic theory helps us to look back at our history and search for the unheard voices. Dr. Tracy McKenzie’s articles provide us with a rich, complex understanding of the past that neither romanticizes nor scapegoats those who came before us. This deeper understanding can inform our present.

In this article, Dr. McKenzie begins a series bringing his historically critical perspective to the debate on the Confederate flag. 

Although no one could have planned it this way, the recent seminar that I attended at Yale began only four days after the cold-blooded murder of nine worshippers at Charleston’s Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. The focus of the conference was on ways of teaching nineteenth-century American slave narratives, and our conversations about race and American history took place against a backdrop of a national conversation about the meaning of one of the most controversial symbols in our nation’s past: the Confederate battle flag.

As a professional historian, it was an exhilarating and frustrating time. It was exhilarating in that it was one of those rare moments when it looked like the broader public might be alive to the power of the past in the present. It was frustrating—and continues to be—because that initial impression looks increasingly incorrect. The tragedy at Charleston has evoked an outpouring of dogmatic opinion about the Confederate battle flag, and we may very well be witnessing the emergence of a cultural consensus against public displays of the controversial symbol. And yet popular understanding of the battle flag’s historical connotations seem as ignorant as ever.

TshirtI’m not talking here about groups like the Sons of Confederate Veterans, which I have written about earlier, much less the sort of person who would buy a t-shirt like the one pictured to the right, which I came across conspicuously displayed in front of a Gettysburg souvenir shop only a week after the photos of Dylann Roof and his Confederate flag swept the internet. (The shirt’s slogan—“If this flag offends you, you need a history lesson”—seems designed primarily to help the historically ignorant feel smugly superior.) In culturally controversial debates such as this one, there will always be a significant element of public opinion that is both dogmatic and impervious to evidence, and it is a waste of time to try to reason with them. As a former colleague of mine used to observe, you can’t reason someone out of a conviction that reason didn’t lead them to.

No, what has troubled me far more are the views of Americans not affiliated with such fringe groups. A CNN poll conducted ten days after the Charleston shooting offers some profoundly disturbing insights into popular attitudes concerning the Confederate battle flag. (To see the poll in its entirety, click here.)  On the one hand, 55 percent of Americans now claim to oppose the display of the battle flag on government property (with the exception of museums). Why they do so is not entirely clear. In response to the query “Do you, yourself, see the Confederate flag more as a symbol of Southern pride or more as a symbol of racism?” 57 percent of respondents associated the flag with southern pride, 33 percent linked it with racism, and 5 percent connected the flag equally with both.

In sum, more than three fifths of Americans (62 percent) deny that the Confederate battle flag has significant racist connotations.

Interestingly, such attitudes don’t vary significantly by region. The proportion of respondents who think of the flag as a symbol of racism was 40 percent in New England, 35 percent in the Midwest, 36 percent in the South, and 37 percent in the West. For the most part (and we have to be cautious here, because of the margins of error), when it comes to views of the Confederate flag, the South is more or less American in its perceptions.

Not surprisingly, views of the flag do vary dramatically by race. Nearly four-fifths (79 percent) of African Americans view the battle flag as a symbol of racism. Scarcely a quarter (28 percent) of whites would agree. To put it the other way around, 71 percent of white Americans don’t see the Confederate battle flag as a racist symbol. Among southern whites, that proportion is fully 82 percent.

What are we to make of these figures? I’ll be back soon with some thoughts.

 

Dr. Robert Tracy McKenzie is the chair of the Department of History at Wheaton College. He is the author of The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History ​from Intervarsity Press, along with two books pertaining to the American Civil War (published by Cambridge University Press and Oxford University Press). He blogs at http://faithandamericanhistory.wordpress.com. 

Top Image Credit: Confederate Flag in front of South Carolina Capitol Building by eyeliam via Flickr.  Creative Commons License

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The Collateral Damage of Austerity

Officials in France and in Brussels said on Monday that they were unhappy and dumbfounded with the no vote, but let it be known that they would hold the door open to the possibility of a compromise between Greece and its creditors.”

Dumbfounded? Why? Because the godlike power of the creditors was insulted?

Mainstream coverage of economic matters — the above quote is from the New York Times — seldom cuts very deep into the world of money, seldom questions who’s in charge, and seldom dares to suggest that an economic system ought to serve humankind rather than vice versa.

The austerity packages Greece has endured as its condition of economic bailout over the past half-decade — dictated by those who wielded financial power and were determined to profit enormously off the suffering of Europe’s economic losers — have not only further gutted the country’s broken economy and prevented any sort of recovery toward self-sufficiency, but have shattered the socioeconomic structure of life for a huge segment of the Greek population. All of which is . . . you know, too damn bad. Money is as money does. The creditors have no choice but to impose severe restrictions on Greek social spending.

As Robert Kuttner wrote recently at Huffington Post, Greece’s economic comeback, including needed governmental reforms such as more effective tax collection, “would be so much easier and more effective in the context of a recovery program as opposed to a debtors’ prison.”

Much of what I read about the situation reminds me of the way the mainstream media cover war: as both necessary and, in human terms, utterly abstract, with its consequences the stuff of separate, lesser stories, which have no bearing on the war’s national value and ongoing necessity.

The collateral damage of Greece’s austerity includes:

  •          An unemployment rate of more than 25 percent, and nearly double that for young people. “Meanwhile, our future flees. A quarter million university graduates have abandoned our nation. They have no choice: unemployment for those under 25 has hit 48.6 percent,” Michael Nevradakis and Greg Palast write at OpEd News.
  •         Pensions slashed multiple times, “two-thirds of pensioners live below the poverty line,” according to Nevradakis and Palast.
  •         Devastating cuts in healthcare, leaving nearly a million people without any, the U.K. Independent reported last year. The article quoted Dr. David Stuckler of Oxford University, lead author of a report on the crisis in the medical journal The Lancet: “The cost of austerity is being borne mainly by ordinary Greek citizens, who have been affected by the largest cutbacks to the health sector seen across Europe in modern times.” The consequences of have been particularly devastating to the most vulnerable, with infant mortality rising by 43 percent between 2008 and 2010, and stillbirths up 21 percent, according to the article.
  •          “And, for the first time since World War II, widespread starvation had returned,” Nevradakis and Palast write. “500,000 children in Greece are said to be malnourished. Students fainting from hunger in frigid schools which cannot afford heating oil is now a common phenomenon.”

Debtors’ prison, indeed. “Imagine,” Kuttner writes, “if the Europeans came bearing genuine technical assistance, investment capital and debt restructuring as opposed to more austerity demands.”

Imagine an economic system focused on serving human, and planetary, needs. Yet in the current dying howl of capitalism, human needs are reduced to frivolous luxuries. Where’s the profit in good schools and healthy children? As the profiteers impose austerity on the vulnerable, indebtedness becomes a condition to be mocked. Yet we are all indebted. Our lives depend on the good will of others.

In the wake of World War II, for instance, Germany was forgiven most of its Nazi-era debt. “In the 1950s, Europe was founded on the forgiveness of past debts,” Thomas Piketty and other economists point out in an open letter to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, published in The Nation. This forgiveness allowed it to make “a massive contribution to post-war economic growth and peace. Today we need to restructure and reduce Greek debt, give the economy breathing room to recover . . .”

And Kuttner asks us to “consider the many hundreds of billions of dollars of official aid that went to the big banks that caused the financial collapse of 2007-2008. Their sins, and the resulting damage to the global economy, were far worse than those of Greece. Yet they were showered with official aid. That double standard is also staggering.”

A bogus moral authority seems to accompany the accumulation of wealth — a sense that one deserves it, while those without wealth deserve servitude and hopelessness. Beyond this moral authority lies the desperate need not to recognize the common humanity of those who are struggling to survive.

 

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press), is still available. Contact him at koehlercw@gmail.com or visit his website at commonwonders.com.

© 2015 TRIBUNE CONTENT AGENCY, INC.

 

Image: Flag of Greece, Wikimedia Commons

donald

Donald Trump, Immigration, And The Politics Of Satan

Donald Trump created a stir recently with his comments about immigration.

“When Mexico sends its people, they aren’t sending their best. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists and some, I assume, are good people.”

We could easily dismiss Trump and his comments by claiming that he’s our nation’s crazy uncle. But our crazy uncle is gaining in the GOP polls. After announcing his candidacy and making his comment about immigrants, he surged to second place among Republican voters.

It’s early, of course. I don’t expect Trump to maintain his surge. But I do think his comments reveal something important about politics.

Immigration and the Politics of Satan

In the biblical book of Job, Satan is the Accuser. Satan roams throughout the world as a prosecutor looking to make accusations against people. But Satan doesn’t care if people are good or bad. As we see with Job, all Satan cares about is making accusations.

In other words, truth doesn’t matter. All that matters is making an accusation that sticks.

Donald Trump made an accusation against Mexican immigrants that has struck a chord with many Republican voters. And that’s the point behind the satanic principle of accusation. As René Girard claims in his book, I See Satan Fall Like Lightning, “Satan seeks to have others imitate him.” Our imitation of Satan primarily comes in the form of accusations against our fellow human beings. That accusation is usually based on fear, a contagious emotion that is easily manipulated by the satanic principle of accusation.

But the fear is baseless because it isn’t grounded in truth. That’s especially true in the case of immigration. Study after study shows that immigrants, whether legal or illegal, are less likely to be involved in violent crimes than the rest of the population.

In her study, Bianca Bersani, professor of Sociology at the University of Massachusetts, states, “Foreign born individuals exhibit remarkably low levels of involvement in crime across their life course.”

Jorg Spenkuch of Northwestern University finds that, “There is essentially no correlation between immigrants and violence crime.”

The Public Policy Institute of California reveals that, “Immigrants are underrepresented in California prisons compared to their representation in the overall population. In fact, U.S.-born adult men are incarcerated at a rate over two-and-a-half times greater than that of foreign-born men.”

Donald Trump’s accusations against Mexican immigrants is a clear example of the politics of Satan. Satanic politics orders the world through accusation, exclusion, andscapegoating. While native born Americans actually have a higher rate of violent criminal activity, that fact doesn’t matter to the politics of Satan. What matters is making an accusation that sticks.

Immigration and the Politics of God

Fortunately, we do have an alternative to the politics of Satan. We don’t have to order our lives around the principle of accusation and exclusion.

The way God wants us to order our lives, including our politics, isn’t based on accusation and exclusion, but love and acceptance. For example, take Exodus 22:21, “You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” Leviticus 19:34 continues the theme, “The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.”

The politics of God makes no distinction between “illegal” and “legal” immigrants. Rather, all immigrants are human beings worthy of being included and treated with love. The Bible calls us to empathize with all immigrants, “for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” While in Egypt, the Israelites were marginalized and treated as less than human. In modern America, we’d call them “illegal immigrants.”

But the Bible calls us to something higher. The Bible calls us away from the divisive politics of Satan and toward God’s politics of love.

Instead of making accusations against immigrants, the Bible calls us to love them. Instead of excluding immigrants, the Bible calls us to include them.

The differences between the politics of Satan and the politics of God couldn’t be clearer. It’s the difference between exclusion and embrace. This election cycle, let’s follow God who calls us to “love the alien as yourself.”

 

Photo Credit: Flickr, Gage Skidmore, Creative Commons License