Scary History

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”  – George Santayana

I hate this quote.

OK, maybe “hate” is too strong of a word. Maybe I should say I dislike this quote. Or it annoys me. Or I have problems with this quote. Maybe I should say this quote gets on my nerves.


No. I hate this quote.

I’m sure you’ve heard this quote somewhere. It’s used to justify the importance of history. Teachers often use this quote as an argument against skeptics (and when I say “skeptics” I mean students — sixteen-year olds are highly practiced skeptics) who don’t see why they have to take a history class. This quote, however, is not a good way to explain why history is important. There are several reasons why this is so, but let me give you one:

It actually reinforces bad moral reasoning.

Here is how it works: a teacher or a professor is covering a historical subject with very obvious ethical and moral issues, such as the Nazis or slavery. The pragmatic cultural climate we live in sends the message that we study history so we don’t make the mistake of doing bad things again (hence the popularity of the Santayana quote).

In the end, though, how does the student engage the underlying message when the history of the Nazis or slavery is presented like this? Consciously or unconsciously, the mind processes it this way: “Yeah, the Nazis were evil. Slavery was bad. So I should not kill 6 million Jews and I should not enslave millions of Africans. I haven’t done either of those things and I won’t in the future. Gee, that was easy. Let’s go play a video game.”

Right and wrong are easy!   Just ask almost any 21-year old.

Right and wrong are easy! Just ask almost any 21-year old.

Here is our problem folks: young people (and many old ones) think ethics is easy. Christian Smith’s national study on emergent adults (Americans between the age of 18 and 30) found that nearly all thought it is easy to know right and wrong. Respondents said things like, “Usually it’s not hard. Usually the wrong choice kinda glares at me like ‘No! Wrong!'” “Doing the right thing, it’s pretty easy. I would feel bad if I knew it was wrong.” “I would say it’s pretty easy to know. I have kind of a gut feeling with some things, so overall it’s pretty easy to trust my own instincts.” “I was brought up with a good idea of right and wrong and if it was wrong, my heart and head tell me. I don’t think it’s very hard.”

No. No. No.

It is true that the ethics of some matters are easy to see and act upon. But many, many things are not so easy to see or act upon. In fact, it is kind of scary to realize so many people think it is easy.

Let me give an example of a good historical study that shows how even something that seems straight-forward — Nazism — is actually complicated. One of the best books I have ever used in my classes (and one that is assigned in a lot of courses) is a work by Christopher R. Browning entitled Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland. Browning studied German men in a battalion during World War II. These men were not members of the Nazi party and were not rabid fascists. They weren’t elites. They were older men for the army, generally in their 40s, who were drafted into the army for non-combat duties. They tended to come from jobs such as office-workers, truck drivers, waiters or salesmen. They were ordinary men.

Browning opens the book with an account of how the commander, a Major Trapp, gathered his men one morning and told them they had been given orders to go into a town of Jozefow, Poland. They were to round up all the Jews, send the men to work camp and then shoot all the women, children and elderly. He trembled and even teared up as he gave the orders. And he explained that anybody who did not think they were up to task could step out.

Read this book.

Read this book.

Then Browning describes the actions of the men in the battalion, in Joszefow and later killings. Some of the accounts, which come from interviews of the men after the war, get gruesome in their description of the massacres. Although a few men seemed to carry out these evil tasks without any hesitation, many found the tasks very difficult, ghastly and disturbing. Over time, as they were ordered to conduct similar killings, the men would drink heavily beforehand to dull the emotions they felt.

A small number withdrew and did not participate. They were not punished.

A number of subtly unsettling questions usually arise in the reader at this point in the book:  Wait, some German soldiers actually felt bad about committing these atrocities?  And some were allowed to pull out and were not punished? And if these men felt bad, but knew they could pull out, why did they continue on carrying out these atrocities?

These are the kinds of questions Browning explores and wants us to consider. The main question he addresses is why “ordinary men” participated — and continued to participate — in these evil actions.

There is a lot to this book, but let me make a few points. The men rationalized their atrocities in a lot of different ways. Some pointed out that the Jews in Poland were killing Germans in their resistance fighting. They said it was Jews who organized the American boycott of Germany. Some men gave twisted justifications for killing. For instance, because the tasks were so gruesome and difficult, some of the men said that it would be cowardly to withdraw. If they withdrew, they would be putting the burden of the killings on their colleagues in the battalion, while they themselves got off easy. In other words, the courageous thing to do, in their minds, was to kill innocent people. That’s a twisted idea, but if one ponders the context, one can see how a person could conclude that.

Some oddities: 1) that someone would reason this way 2) we could see why it would look sensible to them.  (If you don’t see it, read the book).

Browning gives a number of quite plausible explanations for their behavior (I’ll let you read the book to find out what they were). In my class discussion, I usually have my students list reasons why they think these men would do what they did. They list quite a few: respect for authority, fear of reprisals if the didn’t follow orders, peer pressure, the role of mass media in producing stereotypes of Jews, loyalty to the German nation, fear of being known as a coward, and many more.

By this point several strange things have happened to the students. They often write that they had always pictured the Germans as monsters or machines. The students (and most people, I think) had never really thought of German soldiers as ordinary humans.

This is significant. Something very interesting goes on inside of us when we think of the Germans as monsters: we put them in a totally different category from ourselves, which lets us off the hook of doing any difficult moral wrestling. They are evil: we are not. It’s easy. We can go play our video games with a clear conscience.

But when we start to understand why ordinary Germans did these hideous and evil things, it gets scary. Now the German soldiers seem a bit more like us. We don’t want that.

My students also begin to realize that while on the surface the question of killing innocent Jews is simple, (and we can see that it is clearly wrong) in the context of the time, it was not so simple. The better students start to understand that a whole host of cultural factors (media, politics, nationalism, group identity, etc.) shaped the perceptions and moral decisions of these men.

So if cultural forces led many Germans to make deeply unethical decisions — and they were blind to their culture and how twisted their justifications were — what makes us so sure that we always get our ethical choices correct? That’s scary.

Often, a student will say that these men did not have a choice. The class has to unpack this a bit. Someone usually points out that the soldiers had a choice of withdrawing and they were not punished, so they did have a choice. But someone else will reply that the soldiers did not know, for sure, that there would be no reprisals. A good point. You can’t trust the Nazi establishment for something like this. So did they really have a choice?

But now a few more difficult questions arise. Even if a soldier were punished for refusing to kill the Jews — sent to a concentration camp, for instance — isn’t that a choice one could take? It’s not a good or a happy choice. But it is a choice. And might sacrificing one’s own life so that one does not participate in killing be the right choice?

And then, the really scary question: if we were a 44-year old German man, raised in German culture of the early 20th century, and then drafted into the battalion, what would we do? Obviously we would all like to say we would refuse to participate. But given what we (now) know about how media, nationalism, group loyalty, peer pressure etc, operate, do we really know how we would behave if we grew up in that context? That’s a really, really scary thought.

I also remind students that there were “rescuers” in Germany and other European nations who actively worked to save Jews and others targeted by the Nazis. They risked their lives — some literally gave their lives — to do such a thing. But rescuers were few and far between. The vast majority of ordinary Germans — and a large proportion of ordinary non-Germans in Nazi-controlled areas — were “bystanders.” They kept their heads down and tried not to get involved. Very few tried to hide Jews from the Nazis.

So, now we have some difficult questions. If right and wrong are so easy to see, why didn’t these ordinary German soldiers see what was right? And if right and wrong are so easy to carry out, why didn’t ordinary Germans and millions of ordinary bystanders in Europe rescue the Jews?

Those are not easy questions to answer.

And it raises the question about how we learn from the past. If I learn, simply, that some people in the past have done evil things — enslaved others or committed genocide — is that knowledge alone going to instill in me the virtue to do what is right and be more than a bystander? Or will it simply make it easier for me to pat myself on the back and, like the Pharisee in the temple, thank the Lord that I am not a sinner like ordinary men?


History and Snow Globes

If you read this blog, chances are either you have some appreciation for history, or you are really desperate for a few bad jokes and some cheap snark. If it is the latter, somebody may need to have a long conversation with you about your priorities.

Of course, there are many people who would say that if is the former, you may need to have a long conversation with someone about your priorities. History may be nice if you need a hobby, like collecting snow globes, but beyond that, what’s the point?

Cute.  But does this have any lasting significance for my life?

Cute. But does this have any lasting significance for my life?

I’ve been dealing with this way of thinking throughout my professional career. For instance, I occasionally run into a student who doesn’t understand why they are required to take a history class. And by “occasionally,” I mean a couple dozen students every semester since 1983.

But then, sometimes I get a student who not only loves history, but actually wants to major in history in college. Last month, for instance, I talked to a student who was seriously thinking about becoming a history major. She was thoughtful, did some research on the question, and had very good reasons for thinking about history as a major.  Cool.

“But I’m not sure what I will tell my parents,” she said.

Ah. Parents.

Yes, what self-respecting parent would want their child to go off to college to major in history, particularly if they aren’t going to teach? That seems about as productive as collecting snow globes.  Only you have to pay a hefty tuition fee to do it.

I understand the concern. History does not seem to be practical. It does not seem to lead to any clear jobs, other than teaching history to students who don’t know why they should be taking a history class.

You might guess that I have a lot to say about this. It is hard, however, to unpack it all in a blog post. So let me tell you what I told my student: read Why Study History? by John Fea, a historian at Messiah College.


Cute. But does this have any lasting significance for my life? Actually, yes. More than you may know.

In a variety of different ways, Fea lays out the importance of history (something that is good to consider whether or not you majored in history).  He describes many reasons for studying history.  He explains what goes into the academic study of history. And he has a wonderful little chapter for college students and parents alike, entitled “So What Can You Do With a History Major?”

What can you do with a history major? Here is a hint: Fea discusses a former student of his who is working in a hospital in Malawi, explaining she is an agent of change who got her job “because and not in spite of the fact that she was a history major in college.” Is that strange? No. I see this in many of my former students: a good history education can actually make you better at your calling, whatever it may be.

I’m serious. Here is something for you to ponder: if you want to go into business, become a history major. History majors get higher scores on the GMAT (the test used by graduate programs for acceptance in the MBA) than those who majored in finance, international business and business education.  (Shh. Don’t tell my business professor friends that I told you this).

Truth in advertising: philosophy majors scored better than history majors, but I’m not going to cry about that. Philosophy is OK, too. More importantly, given the jokes I hear about the uselessness of philosophy as a field of study, it shows you our culture has a flawed understanding of college majors.  How did that happen?  Well, there is a history behind this development in our society.  That’s for a later post, I suppose.

But jobs are only one part of who we are. What I really like about Fea’s book is that he explains why history is important for Christians. For instance, Christians know we are supposed to love all people. To love all people means, in part, that we are to welcome strangers, as Christ commands us in Matthew 25.

But it is not very easy to welcome strangers. Strangers are, well, strange to us. As Fea explains, people who study the past — with its people who think in complicated, strange, and rather different ways — practice intellectual hospitality to strangers. Studying history carefully, as Fea explains, builds in habits of empathy and humility — virtues that are critical for Christians.

There is more, a lot more, in this book.

If you read my blog for something other than the bad jokes and cheap snark, you will know that, like Fea, I am trying to do similar things. There are so many ways that a good study of history can help us understand better, love better, and grow in wisdom.  Fea argues this clearly and effectively.

Spread the word. History: it’s better than snow globes.





The Confederate Flag vs. The American Flag

Recently, a former student of mine, Dale Swearingen, posted the following on Facebook:

“I just want to post this as a discussion point:  If the Confederate flag should be removed because it’s mostly being linked to racism and violence, then shouldn’t we also remove our current flag due to the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Native Americans?”

Let me first point out that this is a fine example of how to approach a difficult and controversial subject.   How we say what we say is as important, I believe, as what we say. Dale’s post is not accusatory, insulting or overbearing. It invites discussion and reflection. Civic discourse — the way we talk about social issues in public — is actually quite important. As historian Tracy McKenzie points out in The First Thanksgiving, all too often we use history or civic discourse for the purposes of ammunition rather than illumination. I’m guilty of that too often, myself.

Selma, Alabama, 1965.  What flags do you see?

Selma, Alabama, 1965. What flags do you see?

Second, a short answer to Dale’s question is that while it is true that both flags point to a history linked to racism and violence, there is still a significant difference between the two. The American flag has been used to justify unjust situations, but it has also been used, historically, by the oppressed in American society to remind Americans that we are still not as just as we could be. It was carried by black civil rights leaders in all the key civil rights moments, including the march in Selma. Native Americans commonly fly the American flag at events tied to their identity, such as Indian rodeos. Cesar Chavez, who worked for the rights of poor Mexican-American farm laborers was often pictured in front of the flag. It is a flag that has been embraced by just about all American communities. (Jehovah Witnesses and the Amish are exceptions, for theological reasons.) Some members of these communities have protested against the American flag or seen it as a sign of oppression, but they tend to be minorities within their own communities.

However, when have blacks, Native Americans, immigrants, religious minorities or other “outsider” groups working for justice flown the Confederate flag? What causes for justice has the Confederate flag stood for? Some fly it for the cause of states rights, or the cause of southern whites who feel marginalized, or vague principles of being a “rebel” against the establishment. But these have been narrow and limited causes.  And they have all been bound up in racism.  Am I missing a bigger cause that the Confederate flag stands for that includes all Americans?

So there is, I believe, a qualitative difference in the ways the two flags have been used in American society. When the day arrives where whites and blacks march together with the Confederate flag for causes against some sort of evil or injustice — particularly against racism –then I will start to change my view of the overall cultural meaning of the Confederate flag.

But even that response, while valid, does not get at all the issues.

There is another, deeper, more sobering point that all Americans need to consider. Dale’s question gets at a hard but an important historical question for all of us who are Americans: what about the injustices that have been tied to the actions of the American nation? It’s possible for white northerners to argue about the Confederate flag in a way that puts all the hard ethical, social and relational work on someone else. But addressing racism and race relations in our society is hard work that applies to all Americans.

What is included and excluded in "heritage?"

What is included and excluded in “heritage?”

One way to think about Dale’s flag post is to consider the way that the word “heritage” is often used. Some have argued that the flag (and this applies to both the Confederate and American flags) has been used for racism or hate, but that is not what the flag is really about. It’s really about our heritage. And heritage is about what is good in our past. Therefore, both the American flag and the Confederate flag are really about noble ideals.

That can be a tempting route to take because it is optimistic and easy to understand.

Too easy. That understanding of heritage produces national denial. It pains us to see a friend or a loved one deny that they have a problem when it is clear they are struggling with something like addiction. Similarly, it should pain us to see our culture in denial when struggling with a social problem like racism.

Slavery. Indian Removal. Discrimination against immigrants. Gender inequities. Segregation. Religious discrimination. These are inescapable aspects of American history. As such, they are part of our heritage, just as much as the Bill of Rights, religious freedom, economic opportunity, and votes for women are part of our heritage. Furthermore, the American heritage of racism would not be a great problem if we were at a point today where we have figured out racial problems. We haven’t. So let’s try to understand the problem better.  You can’t do that, fully, without understanding history.

Others have said that the flag is a sign of hypocrisy. American history is full of people in power who have preached justice, equality, and freedom, while denying it to those outside of their group. Therefore, the flag is about historic injustices.

That can be a tempting route because it takes a strong stand on justice and is easy to understand.

A good book to read if you want to get all fired up about injustices in America's past.  And feel self-righteous about it.

A good book to read if you want to get all fired up about injustices in America’s past. And feel self-righteous about it.

Too easy. That understanding removes me from having to search myself for any connection to injustice. That makes it pretty easy to be self-righteous. You can do this if you are white, by the way. Just identify with the oppressed in America’s past in such a way that enables you to say that the collective problems of injustice in America are caused by other people, or groups that you don’t identify with. The historian Howard Zinn tended to write history this way. If you have ever run into his books you see he presents a searing critique of the United States. (Actually, his work is a bit more complicated than that because of his Marxist worldview, but I think the basic stance still holds). He was provocative, which can be helpful, but mostly I found it was too easy to agree with him in a way that produced self-righteousness.

Nobody likes to face sin within themselves. In the same way, we don’t like to face sin in those in history we identify with. And who, from the past do we identify with?   Southerners, blacks, whites, Catholics, evangelicals, Jews, workers, women, Indians, Democrats, Republicans, immigrants, business leaders — there are many, many options here. But we’ll instinctively and unconsciously want to defend those we identify with, while ignoring their sins. That’s one way we sin.

Christians ought to be good at confessing the sins of those we identify with. Alas, I confess that we are not always good at this. I include myself in this. We ought to be good at confessing the sins of Christians in the past because we believe that sin infects all of us. We Christians ought to be good at this because we should be humbly and sincerely confessing our own sins on a regular basis. And we Christians ought to be good at this because we know that, by the grace of God, we are forgiven when we confess our sins. And Christians we ought to be good at this because we know that through this grace, God transforms us into more of what we should be.

So where does that leave our discussion on history and the flag? I’ll say this about the United States: it is a land that has been deeply stained by slavery, segregation and racism, but it is also a land that has provided opportunities to address these evils. Democracy doesn’t make us good, but it can provide the freedom for good people to address injustices, sins, and problems within society.   And it can give us the freedom to try to change them. It’s not easy, but we have the freedom to do the hard work. The problem is that we also have the freedom to completely ignore the hard work. (Hey, do you want to play a video game or go the mall?)

A truly good patriot and good Christian, then, does not deny the sins in America’s history.   A good patriot and good Christian will soberly look at America’s history to gain deeper understanding about how past sins have been effectively addressed and what, historically, has brought about justice, freedom and equality in an American society stained by sin. And a good patriot and good Christian will then ask, how am I a part of a system, an institution, a way of thinking that is bound up in this?

Is Religion Declining in the U.S.? Don’t Bet On It.

Every now and then, some very smart people in the United States take a look at society and conclude that religious commitment is declining.  These smart people have been saying this since…..1660.  That’s when the second generation of Puritan ministers started preaching sermons, which we call “jeremiads,” bemoaning what they saw as the decline of religious faith in New England.

And with that, a proud American tradition was born:  predicting the decline of religion in America.  Secular leaders have declared this with some satisfaction, seeing it as an example of progress.  Christian leaders, like the Puritans, have declared this with anguish, seeing it as a way to stir complacent congregations to action.  The reported decline of American religion is such a common practice that that is has popped up every two decades or so for the past 350 ears.  And then the smart people are proven wrong by reality.

The line between secularism and religion keeps shifting and taking on different forms, but religious commitment keeps persisting.  I’ve been suspicious of the recent declarations that the rise of the “nones” mean that religion is declining in the United States.  I have been doubtful, not just for historical reasons, but for the way that the data has been interpreted.

Thomas Kidd, a professor of American history at Baylor University, (and an excellent historian, I should add) analyzes the data much better than I can.  You should read his blog post, which can be found here.

(For those that read my last post, I should tell you that, yes, I am still planning another one on the flag controversy.  In case you are interested, that is).




Kenya, The Confederate Flag, and History

The first time I saw a Confederate battle flag up close, I was in Kenya.

(You know, you really can’t predict what you will run into when you become a missionary).

Back around 1990, I was teaching American history to high school students at a boarding school in Kenya. Most of my students, the children of missionaries, were Americans from both the South and North. But I had a few Africans, Norwegians, Koreans, and Australians in the mix. When I got to the Civil War section of the semester, a student named Scott brought in his Confederate flag to display in class, as a matter of pride. With his Yankee classmates in mind (and his Yankee teacher, no doubt), Scott presented the flag like he was wearing a college football sweatshirt on the Friday before the big game. It was if he were bringing an Alabama Crimson Tide flag to a classroom with a bunch of Ohio State fans in it.

The classroom block at Rift Valley Academy in Kenya where I taught.  I really wish I had a photo of me in class with Scott and the flag, but this was back in the days when I didn't take a selfie of me and my class every thirty minutes, like I do now.

The classroom block at Rift Valley Academy in Kenya where I taught. I really wish I had a photo of me in class with Scott and the flag, but this was back in the days when I didn’t take a selfie of me and my students every fifteen minutes, like I do now.

(I really don’t know what the Norwegians and the Africans thought of all of this. But in that boarding school setting most students were used to odd cultural juxtapositions popping up regularly.)

Scott was a good guy: earnest, hard-working, a bit squirrely at times, but someone who wanted to do what was right.

So we had a conversation about the flag in class. I explained that he needed to realize that many people look at that flag and see racism. As I recall, Scott replied that he didn’t see racism when he thought of the flag. He said he thought about his family, and barbeques, and enjoyable times he had back home in Alabama.

And in that setting — a multi-national boarding school in Africa, with a framed picture of the Kenyan president hanging on the wall, jacaranda trees blooming outside our window, his parents 1400 miles away in Zambia, and his grandparents 8000 miles away in Alabama — I could see how the Confederate battle flag would elicit in Scott warm, cherished memories of home.

But then I think of another southerner. A black southerner: John Lewis. Born in 1940 near Troy, Alabama, Lewis attended segregated schools. After hearing Martin Luther King, Jr. on the radio, Lewis joined the Civil Rights movement. He participated in sit-ins at segregated lunch counters, joined the Freedom Rides on desegregated buses, suffered beatings by angry mobs, and was arrested more than forty times.

He also helped organize the famous march in Selma, Alabama in 1965, designed to insure that blacks in Alabama would be given their right to vote. In the march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, Lewis was nearly beaten to death. Quite a few of the white state troopers who beat him had the Confederate battle flag on their helmets.

State trooper at Selma, Alabama, 1965.

Selma, Alabama, 1965.

In that setting, I can see how the Confederate battle flag would elicit in John Lewis memories of inferior school facilities, police beatings, political resistance to equal rights, threatening epithets shouted by whites, and terrorists who killed blacks. The last of which, as the shooting in Charleston, South Carolina has reminded us, has not ended. (Actually, have any of them fully ended?)

Several observations. First, the Confederate battle flag is not one thing. I’ve seen people say it “is” racist and others say it “is not” racist. Strictly speaking, neither of those comments are true. The flag is a symbol, and symbols elicit all sorts of associations, images, connotations, and experiences. I associate the flag with a lot of things, including a classroom in Kenya, which I’m guessing is not a common connotation. I’ve only scratched the surface with Scott and John Lewis, for the associations are all over the map, so to speak.

The difficulty here is that symbols and images have power. This is why advertisers find all kinds of clever ways to stick scantily-clad women into commercials — those women will elicit all sorts of associations, images, connotations, and experiences (not necessarily healthy ones) in the minds of the viewer.  If the scantily-clad women provoke positive connotations in the viewer, the viewer will automatically (without even thinking about it) feel more positive about the product which has, of course, no real connection to the scantily-clad women. But the viewer will be more likely to buy the product. That’s how symbols work.  They influence behavior.

But not all associations are created equal. Some give a fuller picture of reality than others. Some — like Dylann Roof’s association of the Confederate flag with a race war he wanted to provoke — are quite dangerous. And whether or not the viewer realizes it or not, they are tied to history.

So how should we, as a society, handle these conflicted associations with the flag? It’s difficult. In the end, I think the problem with the Confederate flag is its history — a history that is tied too heavily to a burden of racial injustice.  When Scott told me what the flag meant to him, as I recall, he didn’t make any historical references, even though it was a history class that provoked his actions. While his individual conception of the flag was not much of a problem, the flag is a social and cultural symbol, which is a problem. So while individual associations elicited by the flag may be harmless and sometimes even admirable, the cultural and collective history of the flag has been largely one that has elicited, supported and promoted racist behavior and systems.

Dixiecrat Convention, 1948

Dixiecrat Convention, 1948

How?  Well, here is a brief history of the flag, in case you have not heard it by now. Many people today don’t realize that the Confederate battle flag had not been flown or displayed very much between the 1870s and the 1930s. During that time, it really was not a common symbol of the South. In 1948, some southern Democrats called Dixiecrats split with their party because they opposed civil rights legislation.  In the process they waved, and in many ways resurrected, the Confederate battle flag as a symbol for their cause. From there, it appeared in all sorts of public conflicts over civil rights.  Whites who burned civil rights literature waved the flag.  Whites who appeared at civil rights marches to protest civil rights flew the flag. Soon, the flag was popping up all across the South.  It spread into the white segments of southern culture.  So, it started with a political movement to oppose equal rights, maintaining racist connotations in many quarters, even as it also spread out to comparatively harmless uses beyond the South, as can be seen with the “Dukes of Hazzard,” NASCAR races, and tacky coffee mugs.

Some people will say that the original use of the flag was not tied to racism. This is the historical argument that the South was fighting for states rights, not slavery, in the Civil War.

Students at the University of Alabama burning civil rights literature

Students at the University of Alabama burning civil rights literature

This is not an accurate understanding of American history. The essential reason that the southern states supported states rights and turned to secession was to preserve slavery. In other words, slavery caused the states rights agitation and was the primary cause of the Civil War. I can provide mountains of evidence for this. Academic historians know this, but alternative interpretations of the Civil War have been around a long time, (think of “Gone with the Wind”) telling the story of the war in ways that divorce it from slavery. These stories are deeply flawed.

Furthermore, the states rights dynamic lay behind the resurrection of the flag a century later. The state of South Carolina did not raise the flag over the capitol grounds until 1961, right in the middle of the civil rights conflicts. There were official pronouncements that this was to commemorate the centennial of the Civil War. Some people have argued, therefore, that the flag was not tied to racism, but to a war fought over states rights. Besides the flaw in this view of the Civil War, it masks another dynamic in the South in the 1950s and 60s.  Similar to the political forces that caused the Civil War, opposition to civil rights drove a lot of southern states rights arguments in the 1950s and 60s.

Selma, 1965

Selma, 1965

I understand that some people hold warm and rather innocent associations with Confederate flag. However, this is largely possible because these associations have erased blacks and race relations from the history or from current conception of the South. And that is a problem.

And yet, even as I believe that the flag should come down from governmental sites, and even though I care about this issue, I actually have little emotional investment in this conflict, compared to many blacks and white southerners.  As a white northerner, the flag neither forms a key part of my identity nor insults it. That makes it easy for me to take a stand. But there are historical and theological implications in an issue like this that are tougher to come to terms with.  And they apply to everyone.  So, for all of you non-southerners out there, I have more for you to think about, which I will get to in my next post.



Breaking News: The New York Times Has Discovered Evangelical Christians living in New York City.

We interrupt our sporadic string of “Circuit Reader” blog posts to report that the New York Times has come across an amazing discovery: there are evangelical Christians —a lot of them –living within the very borders of the Big Apple.

The Times, with its modest motto, “All the news that is fit to print,” regularly reports on topics that it deems essential for human flourishing, including politics, education, business, sports, arts, automobiles, health, food and (what is so obviously central to the meaning of life), fashion.   It has devoted regular sections to each of these.

Religion does not have its own section because, unlike fashion, nobody finds it important. Plus it is fading away as the United States becomes more secular and it will soon be irrelevant. Particularly virulent and oppressive forms of religion, like evangelicalism, are only practiced by close-minded or rather unstable white people in the Midwest and the South.

These people live in New York City?

These people live in New York City?

But this entire view of the world may be undermined by this new discovery. The Times reported today, shockingly, that there is “An Evangelical Revival in the Heart of New York.” Using painstakingly dogged investigative journalism unseen by a Times reporter since Billy Graham drew 2.4 million people to his NYC crusade in 1957, the newspaper has discovered that this Saturday there will be a festival in Central Park that is expected to draw 60,000 people. The evangelist Luis Palau, who is actually well-known by people in exotic places like Rio de Janeiro, Guatemala City, Wheaton, Dallas, Santiago, and Pasadena, will be preaching.

900 of the 1700 churches supporting the festival are Hispanic, an ethnic link which may have led the Times to this fascinating discovery. Even more surprising, the newspaper has found that immigrants from Latin America, Asia and Africa find comfort in the lively atmosphere of New York City AND pentecostalism. In another breakthrough, akin to the accidental discovery of penicillium mold by Alexander Fleming in 1928, research has revealed that there are between 1.2 million and 1.6 million evangelicals living in New York City,

What's this?  Evangelicals read books?

What’s this? Evangelicals read books?

“The size of the festival belies the city’s secular reputation and speaks to the vibrant evangelical movement in New York,” the newspaper reported in a rather puzzled tone.

No word yet on whether or not this means the Times will pay attention to religion in the future.



Baseball, Hot Dogs, Apple Pie and Rioting

The disturbances in Baltimore a couple of months ago have me thinking about riots in the United States.

Do you remember that time when the Secretary of State was extremely worried about the rioting in Boston? The city, he said, was in a state of disorder, lives were in danger, local law enforcement had not effectively suppressed the riots, and troops would need to be brought in to establish order.

One to two thousand people had roamed the streets, attacking houses, beating up people and burning property.

The year was 1768 and the Secretary of State was Lord Hillsborough, speaking before Parliament in London. The disturbances in Boston had been provoked by government officials in Boston who had seized a ship, the Liberty, which belonged to John Hancock.

The Sons of Liberty do their thing.

The Sons of Liberty do their thing.

Yeah, it was one of those American Revolution things. The Sons of Liberty were out leading the way. Rebellion against the British, and that sort of stuff.

Riots of various sizes and dimensions were actually somewhat common in the American Revolutionary era. Between 1760 and 1775, there were forty-four riots in the American colonies.   Fortunately, the main grievances were gone after the British were defeated and the United States could rule itself. And so, in the 1780s…..riots still popped up. In the 1780s there were major riots in Boston, New Haven, Philadelphia and Charleston.

Rioters in New York City in 1849 do their thing.

Rioters in New York City in 1849 do their thing.

The young nation, however, made it through the turbulent period of its founding. And….there were more riots. Between 1830 and 1860 there were thirty-five major riots in Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore.

In fact, in every decade of American history, we can find at least one major riot — usually more. I discussed the Philadelphia Bible Riots in my last post. The New York City draft riots during the Civil War (which were not the only riot in during the Civil War) lasted for four days and killed 105 people. The Great Railway Strike of 1877 provoked riots in Baltimore, Pittsburgh and many other cities, leaving more than one hundred dead.  The Chicago Race Riot of 1919 (one of twenty-five in the U.S. that year) left thirty-eight dead and thousands of black families homeless. The 1960s, of course, produced many different kinds of riots. And you may remember the Rodney King riots in the 1992. These listed are just the tip of the iceberg.

But why do Americans do this? The Canadians refrain from rioting, unless hockey is involved. Riots have been pretty common throughout U.S. history, though.

Railway rioters in Pittsburgh in 1877 do their thing.

Railway rioters in Pittsburgh in 1877 do their thing.

A common response is that riots are driven by irrational people who get angry and then can’t control themselves. Some blame riots on people who just want to take advantage of an unstable situation to rob and steal. I read comments recently about the riots in Baltimore that declared that those people don’t know how to protest.

Were the riots in Baltimore simply an example of people who just did not know how to use available democratic means (petition, protest, political action) to address problems?

There is more to it than that. History (are you surprised?) can help us see more clearly. In the vast majority of cases, we find people rioting because they believe (rightly or wrongly) that a legal, political, social and/or political system is failing to address an injustice. They believe that normal political processes (petition, protest, political action) have not worked. That is why the violence of riots very often target specific properties or symbols of authority. You can find this dynamic in each of the riots I have mentioned, including the recent riots in Baltimore.

Rioters in Tulsa in 1921 do their a black Baptist church.

Rioters in Tulsa in 1921 do their thing…to a black Baptist church.

After the recent shooting at the AME church in Charleston, I read some people say that they were thankful riots did not break out. But I don’t think rioting was really likely in this situation. Partly, this is because of the rather amazing statements of forgiveness by the AME church members. But even without that, I think it was unlikely because this was not a situation in which the justice and law enforcement system failed. Dylann Roof obviously drew upon racist and hateful motives that can still be found in our society, but the law enforcement and legal system acted as it should. It apprehended him and initiated prosecution. Everybody understands that.

Rioters at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago do their thing.

Rioters at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago do their thing.

Conversely, rioting usually occurs when the legal system does not do what it is supposed to, at least in the eyes of the rioters. In Baltimore and Ferguson, there was a backstory (there is always a backstory) dating back decades in which blacks were treated differently than whites by law enforcement. The political or community efforts to address the issue were not effectively heeded by those with authority. The same is true of most riots through American history. The issues change, but the dynamics of the system are quite similar.

But I have been wondering about something else. The Sons of Liberty in the American Revolutionary era raise questions in my mind. Could it be that rioting in American history has often been an unfortunate but logical working out of several beliefs that are found among American ideas of democracy?

(FILE FOOTAGE) April 29, 2012 marks the 20th anniversary of the Los Angeles Riots, when a jury acquitted three white and one hispanic LAPD officers in the beating of Rodney King following a high-speed pursuit. Thousands of people rioted in LA over the six days following the verdict.

Rioters in Los Angeles after the 1992 Rodney King decision do their thing.

There are several historical elements here. Thomas Hobbes wrote that the most important right of nature we have is to “defend ourselves” by all means. John Locke, arguably the Enlightenment political thinker who had the greatest influence on the creation of the United States, built upon Hobbes. Locke argued we have a moral responsibility to defend ourselves against those who seek to harm us. And, of course, in his social contract theory, Locke extended this to say that if the government authority acts against the interest of the people, they have the right and the moral obligation to resist this authority. These men, of course, were read by the Founders. Ben Franklin wanted our national motto to be “Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God.” Thomas Jefferson’s quote, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants,” has been used by those who see resistance to authority as a sacred duty.

Rioters in Baltimore in 2015...ah, you get the idea.

Rioters in Baltimore in 2015…ah, you get the idea.

Unfortunately, there is a fine line between peaceful resistance and violent resistance. And it is very difficult to determine, under this thinking about “rights,” just when violent resistance is justified. George Washington thought that taking up arms against the British was justified, but that the 1786 Shay’s Rebellion in Massachusetts (in which excessive taxes were the sticking point) was not justified. Lord Hillsborough thought the Sons of Liberty were out of line. The Sons of Liberty thought they were working for, well, liberty. Similar divided thinking about justice can be found in just about every riot since then.

Fortunately, the vast majority of our conflicts in American society are handled through peaceful means. But there is still this underlying current of violence in the name of justice and rights that comes to surface occasionally, when a legal and/or political system is perceived as failing to address injustices. And, of course, we have not effectively solved all issues of justice in our society, so I expect riots to occur again numerous times in my lifetime. Rioting, unfortunately, may be as American as apple pie.













A Quiz Over Your Knowledge of Riots!

Do you remember that riot in Philadelphia, the “City of Brotherly Love?”

The one that lasted for three days, where crowds burned more than thirty buildings to the ground, including two churches? And four people died?

It was the one where the poor people in the urban areas felt they were being systematically discriminated against. So they rioted.

Over the Bible.

Yep, I’m talking about that event in American history that we all learned about in high school history class: The 1844 Philadelphia Bible Riots.

As my students might ask, “That was a thing?”

Yes. The Philadelphia Bible Riots were a “thing.”

(The riots are also known as the “Nativist Riots of 1844” but some people called them “The Philadelphia Bible Riots.”  That’s the term I prefer, because that’s just the kind of guy I am.)

The situation? The Philadelphia school board had passed a policy allowing Catholic students in public schools to take their religious instruction from Catholic leaders. In response a mob marched into a Irish neighborhood and approached a fire station operated primarily by Irish Catholics. Somebody fired a shot and the riot was on.

So, you see, I was not giving you the whole story. They did not really riot over the Bible. They really rioted over a school board policy.

As if that makes more sense.

And this was caused by....the Bible?  Well, not exactly.

And this was caused by….the Bible? Not exactly.

Why burn down thirty buildings over a school board policy?  How can a committee meeting lead to four deaths?

Yes, we still do not have the whole story.

Here, then is my main point about riots: there is always a backstory. We may read about an event that sparks a riot, but the spark is not the cause of the riot. The causes lie in patterns, systems and actions that have been in place for years beforehand. That’s the backstory.

Let me briefly explain the backstory to the Philadelphia Bible Riots. (The whole story is more complicated, but this is a blog post, so you get a summary.  For a fee, or a good hamburger, I’ll give you more than a summary).

The backstory to the Philadelphia Bible Riots is that Irish immigrants, escaping poverty in Ireland, had been pouring into eastern cities for about a decade. They were poor. They were also more likely to commit crimes, fall into domestic abuse and abuse alcohol than the wider population.  And they faced prejudice and systematic discrimination.

You may have heard the old phrase, “No Irish Need Apply.” This was that era. Because many native-born Americans viewed the Irish as dirty, disruptive, violent, drunkards, the Irish often had a hard time getting decent jobs. Like many immigrants down through history, they took the jobs that other Americans did not want: digging canals, building sewers, cleaning streets and hauling manure.

For most non-Irish Americans, it was just fine that the Irish took these undesirable jobs. But what if the Irish immigrants started to work their way into higher level jobs? And what if they agreed to take these better jobs for less pay?

In fact, that is exactly the Iris immigrants would do. Employers knew this. Employers also knew a good thing when they saw it. If they could hire two dozen Irish immigrants for semi-skilled work for less pay than the non-Irish, they’d fire two dozen semi-skilled non-Irish workers and hire the Irish. As a result, job competition led a lot of working class non-Irish Americans to resent the influx of Irish immigrants.

Then -- as now -- community leaders called for a peaceful approach to the conflict.  This broadside came from Catholic bishop, Francis Patrick.

Then — as now — community leaders called for a peaceful approach to the conflict. This broadside came from Catholic bishop, Francis Patrick.

Remember also that this was an era before unemployment compensation, food stamps, insurance or pensions. There were no safety nets. So if you did not have a job, you faced starvation. The stakes were high. Many would be willing to turn to violence against those who threatened job opportunities.

But there is more. The Irish were also Catholic. Many Protestants at this time (who dominated the nation, numerically and culturally) thought of the U.S. as a Christian nation.  But in their minds a Christian nation meant a Protestant nation.  Catholicism was seen as anti-democratic and a barrier to progress. Many Protestants believed if a conflict arose between the pope and the Constitution, Catholics would blindly follow the pope. (Protestants never thought to ask what they themselves would do if a conflict ever arose between the Bible and the Constitution. Would they “blindly” follow the Bible?)

For their part, Irish immigrants were desperate to escape poverty in Ireland. Like your ancestors (if you are an American but are not completely Native American or African American) they came to the United States for opportunity. They were willing to take lower wages because that economic opportunity was better than what they had in Ireland. And most Irish were loyal Catholics. This meant they felt deeply the Protestant charge that they did not fit into America, despite its rhetoric of freedom. They held to the Catholic teaching that the Bible could only be properly interpreted by church authorities. Many were not happy to send their children to a school where the teachers would, in essence, teach a Protestant view of Christianity.

Neither the working-class non-Irish nor the Irish immigrants felt like those in power were really listening to their concerns.  Working class non-Irish felt threatened by immigrant Irish, who felt threatened by working-class non-Irish.  All believed their rights were threatened.

For just a glimpse of the passion and sense that immigration was a threat, check out this broadside from Protestant Philadelphians right before the riot broke out:

“The Americna Republicans of the city and county of Philadelphia, who are determined to support the NATIVE AMERICANS in the Constitutional Rights of peaceably assembling to express their opinions on any question of Public Policy and to Sustain them against the assaults of Aliens and Foreigners are requested to assemble on THIS AFTERNOON, May 6th, 1844, at 4 o’clock, at the corner of Master and Second streets, Kensington, and to take the necessary steps to prevent a repetition of it. Natives, be punctual and resolved to sustain your rights as Americans, firmly but moderately.”

Is it possible to riot “firmly but moderately?”  Probably not.

So, you put all this together — cultural prejudices, intense job competition, perceived threats to American democracy, conflicts over the role of religion in the schools — and you have mixed together dry wood, oxygen and gasoline. That’s the backstory.

All it needed was a match. That was the school board decision.

This history can help us as we think about the riots of the past year. It is easy to focus in on the specific event — a police shooting — and think that this one incident is what caused the disturbances.

No. There have been hundreds of police shootings every year for years and they do not produce riots. An event like a police shooting is simply the match. The backstory is the wood, oxygen and gasoline piled up together.

The question for us, then, is this: how well do we understand the backstory of the recent riots?