We May Not Be Meek. But Our Nation is a lot Better Off because Some People Were.

It’s that time of year again, when everyone in our society begins to obsess about two critically important decisions in life:  1) how can we outflank the other aggressive shoppers on Black Friday and  2) what specific thing to be thankful for on Thanksgiving.  (Actually, wouldn’t the world be a much better place if we all put as much energy into the latter as we do the former?)

Ah, aren't you glad we have this holiday to think about what is really important in life?

Ah, aren’t you glad we have this holiday to think about what is really important in life?

If you obsessing about the shopping part, I’m afraid I can’t help you.  You and the other 4538 crazed shoppers who descend on Walmart on Friday morning (Thursday night?) will just have to fight it out among yourselves.

However, I have something new and different for you to be thankful for:  humility.  Not your own.  You can try to be thankful for that, but it won’t work, for some reason.  No, I mean the humility of good people who have gone before us.  They have given a great gift to us.

How?  Consider the abolition of slavery.  Several years I posted a piece about how we all ought to be thankful for those who worked to eliminate slavery.  Because of them, slavery is not only illegal in American society, but we all actually believe slavery is wrong.  We have all inherited that idea.  We did not come up with it ourselves.  We don’t get any credit for taking a stand on that one, folks.

It’s hard to believe, but through most of human history, nobody thought that slavery was an institution that people ought to be actively campaigning against.  Slaves, of course, hated the system and wanted to get away.  A number of people thought it was bad.  But they saw it as an unfortunate part of the world that we all had to live with, like poverty.

And then, in the early eighteenth century some people actually got this crazy idea that slavery violated God’s intention for the world and that God wanted them to do what they could to eliminate it.

Now, I admire William Wilberforce, God bless him, but he did not actually single-handedly abolish slavery and he didn’t start the whole thing.  Decades before he came on the scene, some other people got the ball rolling.

One of those persons, whom I think historians and Christians alike have not paid enough attention to, was a man named John Woolman.  (I’m guessing you’ve never heard of him unless you are a Malone University alum who remembers Woolman dorm.  Even then, the name might not have even meant anything to you.  Sigh.)

Woolman was a Friend (Quaker) from New Jersey who became convinced that he needed to do what he could to convince others to give up slavery.

So, if you were John Woolman with this crazy idea, how would you do it?  Would you debate slaveholders and convince them through evidence and the superior power of your reasoning that they were wrong?

No.  And here is bad news for those of us who love to post on Facebook.  Or, (ahem), write blogs. Argument and debate rarely ever change anybody’s mind.  The only time argument really works is when all involved are less concerned with scoring points and more concerned with wanting to try to gain deeper understanding, which includes a willingness to consider that one might be wrong about something or other.  That doesn’t happen very often.

Here is where humility comes in.

Before going out to discuss slavery, John Woolman prayed that the Lord would strengthen him and help him set aside “self-interest.”  He confessed in his journal that often when he went to speak to others, he realized that he himself was guilty of desiring things for his own benefit.  (Scoring points, perhaps?  Greater holiness?  Superior grasp of the truth?)

And then, do you know who Woolman went to talk to?  Fellow Christians.  Fellow Quakers, in fact.  When he addressed them, he spoke of how they all needed to work together in “brotherly love.”   They should all “promote the pure spirit of meekness and heavenly-mindedness.”  He pointed out that they all needed to be “truly humbled as to be favored with a clear understanding of the mind of truth.”

And then he urged them to put aside their self-interest and consider what it is that God wants.


Prayer.  Self-searching.  Confession of one’s own selfishness.  Seeking meekness.  Admitting that one does not always see the truth clearly.  Showing brotherly love with those one disagrees with.


I don’t know why those of us who are Christians should be surprised by this, but I think if we were honest with ourselves we would have to admit that the most surprising thing of all is this:

It worked.

imgresOver a period of a couple of decades, the Quakers managed to eliminate all slave-holding among themselves.  Not only that, they had an incalculable influence on non-Quakers who worked against slavery:  former slaves, evangelicals, William Wilberforce, and secular-minded abolitionists who followed them, just to name a few.   Woolman and his Friends started the movement.

Let me point out that it was not just John Woolman who demonstrated humility.  Perhaps we should give even greater credit to the Quaker slaveholders who voluntarily freed their slaves. They had to give up wealth and status to do that.  And before they even reached that point, they had to give up something that we all hold on to even tighter:  pride.  They had to consider the suggestion that they were wrong.  And then admit it.

So, yeah, there are a lot of things here we can learn for our own lives.

A place to start:  on Thursday we should thank God that his grace worked through John Woolman, the other Quakers, and all the other people who were humble enough to actually admit that they were often selfish, muddled in their thinking, and did not love others as much as they should.  And then that they went and did something with their chastened hearts.

We should be thankful for that.  Because we have all benefited from their humility, even though we don’t really deserve it.

The Critically Important Task of Losing Well

The Brits are a funny people.

Yes, they are humorous:  Monty Python is proof of that.  And I could tell you stories about a couple of my British friends who make me laugh.

But I’m thinking of a different kind of funny.  I mean funny as in a bit strange.  And I could tell you stories about a couple of my British friends who…well, no, let’s not go there.

Instead, let’s go here:  the British are funny because their government actually pays the leader of the party that loses the national election.  They give her or him a post in government with a salary equivalent to a cabinet member.  This person gets a car and a paid staff.  The loser.

It is both “funny ha-ha” and “funny strange.”

And yet…..it is crucially important for the successful operation of their democracy.

Jeremy Corbyn: Labour Party leader and the current Important Loser -- OK, Her Majesty's Official Opposition --in Great Britain right now

The Right Honorable Jeremy Corbyn: Labour Party leader and the current Important Loser — OK, Her Majesty’s Official Opposition –in Great Britain right now

The official title for this person is “Her Majesty’s Official Opposition.”  That title encompasses an idea, “loyal opposition,” that is not used in the U.S. very much.  That is why it may seem funny to Americans.

But there is something very important here.  Back in 1992, when I found myself observing the political strife around me in Kenya, I heard the U.S. ambassador to Kenya give a speech in which he said that a problem Kenya was dealing with was that they did not have a tradition of a “loyal opposition.”

That phrase has stuck with me ever since.  What is it?

The concept of the “loyal opposition” actually encompasses many things.  Among them lies the thinking that disagreement is legitimate, that dissent is a healthy part of democracy, and that political opponents should not be treated as enemies to society.  In 1937, Great Britain went so far as to officially create this position, to protect dissent in their parliamentary system.

Putting up with dissent is not easy, though.  In fact, because of our sinfulness as humans, I would argue our default mode is to try to ignore, silence, or even eliminate those who disagree with us. People in power don’t want to have to listen to those who criticize them.

This is one thing that makes building a democracy so difficult.  When Kenya got its independence in 1963, it had to build a nation from more than thirty different ethnic groups.  Fearing division and fragmentation, the leaders created one political party, KANU, that was supposed to encompass all people.  They effectively outlawed all other parties.  The result was that Kenya did not develop healthy practices of dissent and disagreement in politics.  Political opponents, journalists and protesters were jailed if they got too critical.  Some were killed in mysterious circumstances.  Those in power solidified their grip on the system.  After thirty years, the nation had a grand total of two presidents and the first, Jomo Kenyatta, only vacated his post because he died.  During the 1992 elections, a time when I was wondering if my family would have to be evacuated, political strife ran deeply because opponents were pushing for an alternative party.  The ruling party, KANU, saw these dissenters not only as a threat to their power, but as enemies to the nation.

Unlike those funny Brits, the United States does not officially have a position of loyal opposition built into its system  It does, however, have many of the principles embedded in other ways.  Checks and balances ensure that one branch of government will be able to disagree and even block another branch.  The federalist system of dividing power between the national government and state governments is another way of doing that.  The Bill of Rights guarantees rights of assembly, speech, religion and press, thereby implicitly promoting dissent.

But it was not easy to establish practices of loyal opposition.

The clearest example of this were the Sedition Acts.  In 1798 — after the Constitution had been in effect for more than a decade — the Federalist faction in Congress passed laws that leveled fines and imprisonment for anyone writing anything “false, scandalous, and malicious against the government.”  President John Adams, a Federalist, signed it into law.

A newspaper editor, Thomas Callendar then wrote “the reign of Mr. Adams has, hitherto, been one continued tempest of malignant passions.  As president, he has never opened his lips or lifted his pen without threatening and scolding.  The grand object of his administration has been to exasperate the rage of contending parties, to calumniate and destroy every man who differs from his opinions.”  He was fined $200 and jailed for nine months.

Another newspaper editor, Luther Baldwin, wrote that he wished that a cannonball that had been fired in honor of Adams’ birthday had landed instead in the seat of his pants.  Baldwin was fined $100.

Some politicians thought Adams’ opponents really were enemies to the nation and threats to democracy.  And they tried to silence them.

When you think about it, these are the kinds of shenanigans that we think about happening in many African or Latin American nations.  Or Russia.  Or Egypt. Or Turkey. Or Myanmar (if you think about Myanmar, that is).

Fortunately, the United States worked through it, for the most part.

John Adams made a grave error by signing the Sedition Acts into law, but he later did something that was crucial for American democracy:  he lost.  More importantly, he lost well.  In the 1800 presidential election, he was defeated by Thomas Jefferson, who was supported by a different faction, the Democratic-Republicans.

And what did John Adams do?  He left Washington DC and went back home to Massachusetts.

To those of us steeped in stable democracies, this is such a typical, “normal” thing for a politician to do, it doesn’t even seem notable.  (Our lack of surprise is one of those Good Things that we don’t realize about ourselves.)

Consider this, though:  it was the first significant peaceful transfer of power in modern times.  Adams did not try to take over the military.  He did not claim voter fraud.  He did not arrest his opponents.  He did not try to change the Constitution in ways to keep him in power.  Those are all things that politicians facing electoral defeat have done in many places in the modern world.

John Adams: A Truly Great Loser

John Adams: A Truly Great Loser

Adams knew how to lose.  It was, in my estimation, his greatest moment.

Thomas Jefferson should get credit, as well.

In a rather famous inaugural address in 1801, he said, “we are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.”  He meant that the loyalty to the democratic system should be greater, than loyalty to one’s party or political allies.  Meanwhile, dissent was critically important.  “All, too, will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable,” Jefferson declared, “that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect, and to violate would be oppression.”

The Sedition Act had punished Jefferson’s allies.  But in 1801 he did not try to arrest his opponents as payback.  Jefferson did not try to pass a new set of Sedition Acts (which had expired) to silence the opposition.  He did not turn to the military to solidify his power.

Jefferson knew how to win in a manner that was healthy for the nation.  Believe it or not, I seriously think that this was his finest moment — maybe more so than that Declaration thing.

We need to keep the loyal opposition idea in mind.  In a rather crazy election year when passions and anger seem to be running more deeply than in the past, in an election when many are behaving badly, let us remember that there are principles that are higher than our particular candidate, our particular party and our particular political issues.

Those funny Brits are on to something, after all.












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?