Quoting King

July 8, 2007

I’m currently reading Shane Claiborne’s Irresistible Revolution. I’m sure I’ll blog on it more fully once I’ve completed my leisurely perusal, but for now I’d like to highlight some quotes Shane brought to my attention. These are from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “A Time to Break Silence,” a speech given on the Vietnam war in 1967 at a meeting of “Clergy and Laity Concerned” at Riverside Church in New York City. MLK’s concerns went beyond his (incredible) devotion to civil rights in our country, to an even broader view of social justice. And it’s always good to reflect on values that should bring rich and poor, Christian and humanist, theist and athiest together.

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[It became clear that the war in Vietnam] was sending their sons and their brothers and their husbands to fight and to die in extraordinarily high proportions relative to the rest of the population. We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem. And so we have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools.

Funny how these words still ring true today:

As I have walked among the desperate, rejected, and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they ask — and rightly so — what about Vietnam? They ask if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today — my own government.

And here a call for a brotherhood of man, rooted in King’s own Christianity, though it could as easily be read as a call for a global humanism (in fact, King might have been closer to that than most of the Christians we know):

This I believe to be the privilege and the burden of all of us who deem ourselves bound by allegiances and loyalties which are broader and deeper than nationalism and which go beyond our nation’s self-defined goals and positions. We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for the victims of our nation and for those it calls “enemy,” for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers.

King also has this quote from a Buddhist leader on the war in Vietnam:

Each day the war goes on the hatred increases in the heart of the Vietnamese and in the hearts of those of humanitarian instinct. The Americans are forcing even their friends into becoming their enemies. It is curious that the Americans, who calculate so carefully on the possibilities of military victory, do not realize that in the process they are incurring deep psychological and political defeat. The image of America will never again be the image of revolution, freedom, and democracy, but the image of violence and militarism.

If you will, rephrase that quote for me with Iraq in mind instead of Vietnam (not the analogy is a perfect one, but analogies never are… this particular quote however makes a useful point):

Each day the war goes on the hatred increases in the heart of the Iraqis and in the hearts of those of humanitarian instinct. The Americans are forcing even their friends into becoming their enemies. It is curious that the Americans, who calculate so carefully on the possibilities of military victory, do not realize that in the process they are incurring deep psychological and political defeat. The image of America will never again be the image of revolution, freedom, and democracy, but the image of violence and militarism.

And here he waxes prophetic. One could make the same claim today about US militarism:

The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit, and if we ignore this sobering reality…and if we ignore this sobering reality, we will find ourselves organizing “clergy and laymen concerned” committees for the next generation.

And another gem:

On the one hand, we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.

And here’s another quote, though this time I’ve replaced “Communism” with “terrorism”:

This kind of positive revolution of values is our best defense against terrorism. War is not the answer. Terrorism will never be defeated by the use of atomic bombs or nuclear weapons. Let us not join those who shout war and, through their misguided passions, urge the United States to relinquish its participation in the United Nations. These are days which demand wise restraint and calm reasonableness. We must not engage in a negative antiterrorism, but rather in a positive thrust for democracy, realizing that our greatest defense against terrorism is to take offensive action in behalf of justice. We must with positive action seek to remove those conditions of poverty, insecurity, and injustice, which are the fertile soil in which the seed of terrorism grows and develops.


Connection

July 1, 2007

I work at a store. Many, many people come through my checkout each day, though the dominant group is Southern, middle-class, middle-age white women. So when someone different comes through my line, I often take interest.

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Two nights ago a black man with an accent came through my line. The accent was strong and from Anglophone Africa (and I’ve met a few people from Ghana in my town), so I asked “Do you mind if I ask where you’re from?”

“Over there in neighborhood X,” he said, referring to a place right down the road.

“Ah, ok.”

“But before that, South Africa.”

“A beautiful country. Where are you from in South Africa?”

Pauses for a second, thinking I’m probably just asking to be polite and won’t know wherever he names. “Have you heard of a place called Soweto?”

“Yeah, I’ve been there.” His eyes light up with amusement.

“Oh really? Where you living there?”

As I hand him his change, “No, I was just working as a volunteer for a few weeks.”

“Great, where at in Soweto?”

As I hand him his receipt, “Well, mostly outside of Soweto, but I was at Baragwanath Hospital several times.”

“I lived right by the power station near there, do you know it?”

“No, sorry.”

And then he was gone. If I hadn’t had another customer in line I probably would’ve asked what brought him to America, and especially to Searcy. There just aren’t many (black) South Africans in my town (I know a few white ones) and I’m always curious to hear the path that brought people from so far away. I enjoyed the brief little connection of shared knowledge of a place, even in Small Town, USA. Maybe he’ll come back through.


I’m an Addict

June 29, 2007

Admitting you have a problem is the first step to recovery. So, here goes…

I’m addicted to books. When I’m feeling good, I read. When I’m feeling bad, I go book shopping. My town doesn’t have many good bookstores (the really good ones are like an hour away), but one of them has a fair number of used books. Those are my crack cocaine–powerful but cheap and accessible.

I’ve had some really bad trips before. Sometimes I wake up the next morning and think “what the hell was I thinking? I’m never going to read that.” But mostly I keep going back because it feels so good. There’s a certain satisfaction in owning books of my own, sharing them with friends (don’t worry, we use bookmark-exchange programs for safety), and especially the ultimate rush–finishing a book one’s been meaning to snort for a long time.

I get a special kick from nonfiction. And today I got a little more money than I was expecting, and I bought four new books. Like any good addict, I justify my habit with excuses. I did get 4 books for $12.59 (including tax), all by authors I had heard of or on subjects I was interested in before I got the books. They are:

The Mating Mind, by Geoffrey Miller, subtitled “How sexual choice shapes the evolution of human nature.”

A Generous Orthodoxy, by Brian McLaren, some emergent-church theology, subtitled “Why I Am a Missional, Evangelical, Post/Protestant, Liberal/Conservative, Mystical/Poetic, Biblical, Charismatic/Contemplative, Fundamentalist/Calvinist, Anabaptist/Anglican, Methodist, Catholic, Green, Incarnational, Depressed-yet-Hopeful, Emergent, Unfinished CHRISTIAN.” Yeah, so he’s not that concise, but I got to hear him speak last year and thought he’s rather more likable than the majority of ministers/ pastors/ preachers (though I count several of those as friends).

Through a Window, by Jane Goodall, subtitled “My Thirty Years with the Chimpanzees of Gombe.” I know she’s influential/ well-known, and now I’ll get to learn why.

And, Islam: A Short History by Karen Armstrong, author of the A History of God, which I much enjoyed.

So, I’m happy now, high as I am on my fix. I’m shaking a little, and don’t think I’ll be able to get much sleep until I’ve inhaled a little wordage, so I should go back to my alley and read. I promise I’ll stop. But not tonight.


Defending Witchcraft

June 27, 2007

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Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation, which I generally enjoyed (though I have some rather strong reservations about many specific arguments), has finally arisen to defend witchcraft against its skeptics. Sort of.

In an article in the Huffington Post, Harris paints a hilarious picture.. First, imagine that you live in a country, around 500 years ago, where ~95% of the people believe in witchcraft.

Imagine being among the tiny percentage of people — the 5 percent, or 10 percent at most — who think that a belief in witchcraft is nothing more than a malignant fantasy…You argue further that a belief in magic offers false hope of benefits that are best sought elsewhere… If your name is Sam Harris, you may produce two fatuous volumes entitled The End of Magic and Letter to a Wiccan Nation. Daniel Dennett would then grapple helplessly with the origins of sorcery in his aptly named, Breaking the Spell. Richard Dawkins — whose bias against witches, warlocks, and even alchemists has long been known — will follow these books with an arrogant screed entitled, The Witch Delusion.

So, what would the reviews from the witches and sorcerers look like? Harris takes a few reviews of his and other prominent atheists’ books and replaces key words: “God” with “the Devil,” “religion” with “witchcraft,” etc. One of the results:

“The danger is that the aggression and hostility to [magic] in all its forms… deters engagement with the really interesting questions that have emerged recently in the science/[necromancy] debate. The durability and near universality of [witchcraft] is one of the most enduring conundrums of evolutionary thinking… Does [spell-casting] still have an important role in human wellbeing? … If [sorcery] declines, what gaps does it leave in the functioning of individuals and social groups?… I suspect the New [Skeptics] are in danger of a spectacular failure. With little understanding and even less sympathy of why people increasingly use [the evil eye] in political contexts, they’ve missed the proverbial elephant in the room. These increasingly hysterical books may boost the pension… but one suspects that they are going to do very little to challenge the appeal of a phenomenon they loathe too much to understand.” –Madeleine Bunting, The Guardian

(Via Friendly Atheist)


What if the Women of the Bible Had All Been Feminists?

June 26, 2007

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Lately I’ve been enjoying Amy Richards’ Manifesta: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future. I’ve been meaning to read something by Amy ever since I heard her speak this spring, and Manifesta hasn’t been letting me down. Amy is the brain behind the Ask Amy advice column at Feminist.com, and a long time proponent of equal rights and empowerment for women. As a male who has lately begun to come to grips with all the varieties of sexism and patriachy present in the conservative Southern town in which I was raised, Richards’ writing is truly a breath of fresh air.

While Manifesta does everything from summarize the history of feminism to describe what still needs to be done by the so-called Third-Wave of feminism and outline resources for community activism, it also has some hilarious moments. Since a healthy chunk of the examples of sexism I can recall from my upbringing involve religion, I particularly liked the section where Richards and Baumgardner (the coauthor) raise a question: “How would Biblical history have been different if the women had been feminists, and had gotten together for a good girl talk now and then?”

After the ladies loosen up around the table, Mary Magdalene would begin by talking about sex workers’ rights, and returning belly dancing to its origin as an exercise for giving birth. Leah and Rachel would resolve their longtime sisterly competition by ditching Jacob, the man their father married them both to, and agitate for women to be able to inherit their own property. Rather than being synonymous with evil, Jezebel would be lauded for her business acumen. Hagar would receive palimony and child support from her lover, Abraham. Sarah, Abraham’s wife, might even befriend Hagar, Abraham’s concubine and Sarah’s slave; at the very least, she would empathize. Bathsheba, tired of looking for love from a poetic boy who couldn’t commit, would have the presence of mind to leave King David. Delilah would teach them about orgasms and exhort her friends to make sure they got what they needed in bed. Lilith would be full of first wives’ club advice for Eve, and Eve would be pontificating about the politics of housework. Eve would also recognize that she had been framed, and refuse to take the Fall for her man or her God. Ruth wouldn’t be saying “Whither thou goest, I will go” to her mother-in-law or anyone anymore; she’d be blazing her own trails. Meanwhile, they’d all begin to question why the hell Lot’s wife was turned into a pillar of salt when her husband was busy offering up their virgin daughters to the marauders. (And why the hell she didn’t have a name.)

Man, I wish I wrote that. I mean, woman


The Tyranny of the Discontinuous Mind (I)

June 19, 2007

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Having recently finished reading Richard Dawkins’ The Ancestor’s Tale (and already posting about it here and here) I feel inclined to offer a brief book review, and then delve into one of the most fascinating recurring themes in the book.

The Ancestor’s Tale tells the history of life. That’s pretty broad. So the questions are how to pick a starting point and what to focus on? The format of the book is unique, beginning with homo sapiens (an understandable bias) and working its way backward in chronological time. This structure constantly reinforces the concept that evolution is not “intentional” or “progressive” in certain specific senses; if the clock was wound back and history was played out with even the slightest variations, any specific species (including humans) probably wouldn’t have evolved, or would be very different. So, viewing evolutionary history frontwards always carries the risk of seeing species evolving “toward” the present, and evolution simply is not directional in that sense. Dawkins calls this misperception “the conceit of hindsight”: We evolved, therefore we were meant to evolve. Not so.

The narrative structure of the book is therefore intentionally counterintuitive, and it’s something that Dawkins handles well. The reader is constantly reminded of this special caveat for evolutionay thinking, as intended by the author. That said, Dawkins also adds narrative wit by paralleling the Ancestor’s Tale to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, albeit loosely. Going back in time the narrative slowly picks up more characters. Beginning with humans, then picking up modern species that represent groups that diverged from ‘our line’ at some point in the past; chimpanzees, gorillas, the other apes, Old World monkeys, New World monkeys, more primates, rodents, laurasiatheres, xenarthrans, marsupials, monotremes, sauropsids, amphibians, and so on, back to the dawn of time.

Dawkins also does a good job of discussing various evidences for differing viewpoints and current controversies, clearly demarcating that which is widely agreed upon (chimpanzees are our closest modern relative), often instances in the (evolutionarily) recent past to the uncertain (the order of the rooting of the tree for mixotrichs, archae, and eubacteria), often more distant in evolutionary time.

That said, I liked the book. A recurring point that stood out to me was “the tyranny of the discontinuous mind.” Dawkins often referred to cases where our need to categorize, group, and name things which may in reality fall in a continuum, not discrete categories, gets in the way of the most accurate descriptions.

Names are a menace in evolutionary history. It is no secret that paleontology is a controversial subject in which there are even some personal enmities. At least eight books called Bones of Contention are in print. And if you look at what two paleontologists are quarreling about, as often as not it turns out to be a name. Is this fossil Homo erectus, or is it an archaic Homo sapiens? Is this one an early Homo habilis or a late Australopithecus? People evidently feel strongly about such questions, but they often turn out to be splitting hairs. Indeed, they resemble theological questions, which I suppose gives a clue to why they arouse such passionate disagreements. The obsession with discrete names is an example of what I call the tyranny of the discontinuous mind….

He then offers some excellent examples, which I shall write about soon.


I Believe in Evolution, Except for the Whole Triassic Period

June 19, 2007

Thank you Onion.

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This so-called Triassic period saw the formation of scleractinian corals and a slight changeover from warm-blooded therapsids to cold-blooded archosauromorphs. Clearly, such breathtakingly subtle modifications could only have been achieved by an active intelligence.

(Via 20 gram Soul)


Confession Time

June 13, 2007

I’m a feminist. I think women deserve equal political and social rights, equal access to the same jobs as men if they want them, and equal pay for the work they do. If that doesn’t sound extraordinary, then maybe you’re a feminist too.

This is a video of men being asked on the street what they think of feminists. It’s rather sad, but watch it for the best two answers–the last two. One guy uses the Bible to justify men being the head of women, and his wife’s reaction is absolutely priceless.

As with many types of injustice, it really took traveling outside my own country, especially in Africa, to realize the problems we have here. The interpersonal, social, and economic conditions for women abroad are often much lower than even in the American South, but that certainly doesn’t mean things are perfect here.

I think overall the name’s gotten a bad rap, so I go out of my way to describe myself as a feminist, which usually raises interesting questions. So, do you know a feminist? If so, thank s/he for being who they are.

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Let Freedom Ring?

June 12, 2007

I am not a patriot. I dislike nationalism in all its forms, and I hold no extraordinary allegiance to my country of birth. I see no more reason to fight for the economic gain of those who share my nationality at the expense of others as I do to fight for my Caucasian ethnicity.

I do however hold allegiance to certain principles–freedom and justice being primary among them–that I believe are worthwhile. To the extent that America is in line with those principles, or at least better than some other countries, I love America. To the extent that America falls short, I am an irrepressible critic. Principle stands higher than country, and it seems that most of the wars in the world have followed when country stands higher than principle.

Truthdig has a piece on Bush’s (positive) reception in Albania, at the same time as a report was released by the Council of Europe on America’s secret prisons. From the report:

What was previously just a set of allegations is now proven: large numbers of people have been abducted from various locations across the world and transferred to countries where they have been persecuted and where it is known that torture is common practice. Others have been held in arbitrary detention, without any precise charges leveled against them and without any judicial oversight. … Still others have simply disappeared for indefinite periods and have been held in secret prisons, including in member states of the Council of Europe.

So, how should we judge President Bush? They say history will judge him… Who knows, maybe later Americans will retain their penchant for preemptive war and laud Bush as a hero for setting a precedent. That’s not an America that I look forward to. One thing I can certainly say now is that the abuses of freedom and human rights that were often justified in our foreign policy by utilitarian calculations (civil war in Guatemala or elsewhere is better than a Communist takeover) have been thrown front and center by George Bush. From TruthDig:

We will remember that long after it was clear that Guantanamo was doing serious harm to our nation’s reputation in the world—on Sunday, Bush’s former secretary of state, Colin Powell, called for the place to be shut down “this afternoon”—Bush stubbornly kept it open.

Let the scandals of today pass. Certain things will stick in our minds much longer:

We will remember Alberto Gonzales not for his hapless stewardship of the Justice Department or the firings of those U.S. attorneys—well, actually, we will remember him for those things—but we’ll also remember that when he was White House counsel he dutifully provided legalistic justification for subjecting prisoners to treatment that international agreements clearly define as torture.

And, one last note on the Council of Europe report:

Marty [the author of the report] makes this point in his report. “We are fully aware of the seriousness of the terrorist threat and the danger it poses to our societies,” he writes. “However, we believe that the end does not justify the means in this area.” Resorting to “abuse and illegal acts,” he says, “actually amounts to a resounding failure of our system and plays right into the hands of the criminals who seek to destroy our societies through terror.”

If America is a beacon for freedom, justice, and human rights, then she is worthy of praise. If she is a den of selfish, aggressive foreign policy and a hunger for economic gain with no question of its consequences, then she is not. Most Americans don’t really care about numbers killed that much. In truth, American forces have killed (whether purposefully or accidentally) many more civilians in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere then died on 9/11 in New York. The conflagration begun by our military belligerency has arguably resulted in the deaths of more civilians than the continuation of Saddam’s murderous regime would have.

We, as Americans, normally accept these numbers not because we like death, but because we believe the American government is fighting for something that is true, noble, and just: American forces are fighting to preserve the American way of life. If America is not just in its treatment of enemies, are we fighting for justice, or for blind self-preservation?

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