A post for bright Americans   

As far as I can tell, the people who read my blog are all  A) Americans and  B) bright people.  The two do not always go together, but I have a great deal of faith in my readers.  I say that, mostly because you’ll feel better about reading this post if I compliment you this way.  (OK, OK, I do think you are bright, too.)

Therefore, since you have these qualities, I have a little thought exercise for you.

Imagine this were the year 1800.  You are going to advise democratically-minded leaders in Latin America who want to create new nations out of the colonies there.  You know the story about the United States.  So what would you tell them they need to establish in order to build a solid democracy?

Think a moment……

This icon is inserted here to help you pause and think.

This icon is inserted here to help you pause and think.

(Picture a spinning wheel icon or an hourglass icon here.  Imagine “Jeopardy” music in the background….)

Think some more……

Got it?

OK, let us see how you did, compared to what those leaders in Latin America actually did without your good advice.

By 1825, leaders in most of these new nations in Latin America (there were variations, of course) had achieved all of the following (which were all what the U.S. had achieved):

  • – they had declared, fought for, and achieved independence from a European “mother” country
  • – they had studied Enlightenment ideas of rights, natural law, liberty, and republican forms of government
  • – they had written Constitutions
  • – they had established republican forms of government
  • – they eliminated titles that had granted upper class members aristocratic status
  • – the right to vote was granted to landowners
  • – economies had shifted from mercantilist dependency on the “mother” country to market-based capitalism

Well, how did you do?  How many of these did you get?

Now think about those Latin American leaders.  They did pretty well, didn’t they?

Yes, but…..fast forward to about 1980.  How were these Latin American nations doing?

Not well.

One-hundred and fifty years after embarking on the project of democracy, most Latin American countries were characterized by the following:

  • – military rule, dictatorships, or rule by small oligarchies
  • – severe restrictions on the freedom of press, assembly, speech, and religion
  • – human rights abuses that included, in many places, the arrest and torture of political opponents
  • – tremendous inequality, whereby elites dominated and ruled society
  • – economies that had been about the size of the US in 1800 (Argentina and Mexico, for instance), in 1980 were less that 1/3 the size of the US (GDP per capita)

(A brief caveat:  many Latin American nations have made great strides toward democracy in the last two decades, which is why I made 1980 the cut-off date.  And a few were pretty solid before 1980.  Two thumbs up for Costa Rica!)

The United States ended up far more democratic than most Latin American nations.  Now, since you are a bright and thoughtful American (I added “thoughtful” because you have read this far in the post) you will not react to this comparison of Latin America with the USA with a declaration along the lines of “Yeah, we are the USA!  We are totally awesome!  Whatever we do turns to gold!”  For, of course, you do not want to imply that Americans are “naturally” better at democracy, or that Americans are God’s favorite children, or that Americans are just plain entitled.  You do not want to assume the attitude of Ryan Lochte talking to police in Rio after trashing a gas station bathroom.  No.

Instead, because you are thoughtful and bright, you are saying this to yourself: “Hmm, this is interesting.  Latin American countries had so many elements of democracy, including (perhaps) a few I had not thought of.  Why didn’t they turn out democratic?”

Yes, that is the question you are asking yourself.  Good job.

And here is the answer to the question of why democracies did not develop in Latin America:  I don’t really know, completely.  (But I have ideas.)

You don’t really know, completely, either. (You probably have ideas, too,)

But it is a good question for you to ask, because it will lead to deeper thinking and understanding about how democracies are built and how the world works.  It is something I have been wondering about since some dramatic experiences in Kenya.

First observation:  democracies are complicated and difficult to establish.

The characteristics listed above do not, alone, insure a democracy will develop in a nation.  But what else do they need?

Homework:  think about that one before my next post.



Good Guys vs. Bad Guys

You know that movie? The one where there are good guys and there are bad guys.   And the bad guys are doing terrible things to society and the good guys are fighting them. And it looks like the good guys will lose, but then in the end they eliminate the bad guys.

Yeah, it’s Star Wars. No, check that. The Avengers. Or maybe I mean Die Hard. Uh, is it Braveheart? Or maybe that classic western, Shane. No, it is every James Bond movie ever made. Wait, of course. It is….The Little Mermaid.

Yeah, OK.  The Good Guys vs. Bad Guys story is a very common formula. It’s one of Hollywood’s favorite stories. For that matter, it’s a favorite story in a lot of other places in our culture.

Actually, the movie I have in mind is The Green Berets, with John Wayne (who did a few films, it seems, with this formula).

The film is about the Vietnam War. It came out in 1968, right in the middle of the war. There is a moment early in the movie when a group of reporters receives a history lesson. It’s obvious there is some controversy about the war and the public has been invited to a press conference to hear the soldiers’ side of the story. A reporter named Beckworth asks the Green Berets about the South Vietnamese government, pointing out they do not have free elections or a Constitution, even though a committee was formed to write one.

Sargent Muldoon: soldier, history teacher, philosopher of human nature and Good Guy. Is there nothing he cannot do?

Sargent Muldoon: soldier, history teacher, philosopher of human nature and Good Guy. Is there anything he cannot do?

The officer with the Green Beret-ish name of Sargent Muldoon then gives everyone a little history lesson to explain why the U.S. military is supporting South Vietnam.  (The clip in the link above is of the whole press conference in the film, about four minutes long.  The history lesson begins around minute 2:30, if you want to see that part):

“The school I went to Mr. Beckworth, taught us that the thirteen colonies, with proper and educated leadership, all with the same goal in mind, after the Revolutionary War, took from 1776 to 1787, eleven years of peaceful effort, before they came up with a paper that all thirteen colonies would sign, our present Constitution.”

With the history lesson out of the way, the movie then heads off to Vietnam where John Wayne and the good guys fight bravely for the free world. This includes a cute boy whom the film writers decided to give the very un-Vietnamese-ish name of “Hamchunk.”  (OK, that last comment has nothing to do with the point of this post.  I just have a little mental spasm every time I think about a movie giving the name “Hamchunk” to an Asian boy).

It’s typical John Wayne fare and fun if you like that sort of thing. The theme song is catchy.

As a historian, though, I can’t help myself. Sargent Muldoon has some factual problems. For instance, the United States actually had a constitution before The Constitution — it was called the Articles of Confederation. But truth be told, that doesn’t bother me too much. Hollywood regularly messes up its historical facts and this is the type of goof that most people wouldn’t remember anyway.

The bigger problem I have is this: it’s the Good Guy vs. Bad Guy narrative.

Now, Good Guy vs. Bad Guy stories are often fun and exciting. A lot of interesting plots and stories have been told with this simple formula. And on a certain level, it reflects something that we all should know (and Christians should know): that ultimately, some day, good will triumph over evil in this world.

But it stinks as analysis for how the world is today. And it stinks as a formula for how good will ultimately triumph over evil.  And it stinks as analysis of human nature.

(Sorry to be a spoil sport here, for all of you John Wayne fans. Be thankful you are not my kids, who had to endure this sort of thing from me when we watched movies).

The problem is this: I instinctively identify with the Good Guys in these films. After all, I like to think of myself as The Good Guy. The one who is right, and knowledgeable and can handle evil in the world through my own wits, courage and effort.

And that kind of thinking tends to blind me to my own limitations, my failures, and the sin within me. In fact, I like that blindness.  Who wants to see their own limitations, failures and sins?

But (spoiler alert) I am not going to overcome the sins of the world by my own effort, even if I join up with a bunch of other Good Guys. Apart from saving the world, it is a problem in dull, ordinary, daily life when I lose sight of my deep need for God’s grace and wisdom and guidance.

OK, we Christians know this. We know these movies are just entertainment.

Do we?

This brief observation about advertising is brought to you by Apple's logo. Have you ever seen it before?

The brief observation in the text to left about advertising is brought to you by Apple’s logo. Have you ever seen it before?

Here is something to consider: isn’t it true that if we hear a story over and over and over again, (without reflection or an alternative story to challenge the dominant story) it is likely to seep into out being, without us realizing it. Shoot, it doesn’t even have to be a story. That’s why advertisers work so hard just to get us to recognize their brand. It works.

Here is an alternative story to the Good Guys vs. Bad Guys story: though all people are good in the sense that they are created by God, all people are also stained by sin and limited in their understanding. The Good News is that God offers us forgiveness and grace and wisdom. But we cannot generate it without God.

But back to the Good Guys vs. Bad Guys story that is so common. The Green Berets is interesting because it consciously tried to make the connection between entertainment and real life.  It did not simply situate itself as entertainment. Produced at the height of the controversies over the Vietnam War, it was clearly a statement about how to solve the problem of the war. Trust in our own goodness and toughness and righteousness, and we will defeat the evil of communism.

That story, in so many other forms, seeps deep into the soul of our culture. So I think we ought to think more deeply about the way that human nature is portrayed in the everyday stuff around us.

As it turned out, the Vietnam War was a lot more complicated than The Green Berets made it out to be.   Whatever righteousness and wit and courage we Americans had was not enough to shape that conflict the way we wanted it to be shaped. In real life, the Good Guy story did not come true.

The Good Guy/Bad Guy story is not, by any means, just a conservative characteristic. There are liberal versions. For radicals in the 60s, the solution was to work for a revolution to overthrow the bad guys controlling the system. Many leftists in the 60s were sure that revolting against the Establishment would produce a good society. Some thought the North Vietnamese were the Good Guys. That didn’t work, either.

For liberal idealists, the solution was just to believe in the goodness of all human beings, a stance captured in John Lennon’s hit, “Imagine.” The Beatles made some nice music but let me just say that the Christian rocker Larry Norman, in his song “Readers Digest,” gave what I thought was the most succinct critique of this view of human nature: “The Beatles said all you need is love and then they broke up.”

Here, then, is a parting thought that I plan to expand upon later: democracy (and other institutions, like the church, the family, business, education, movies, rock songs etc.) work best when they are built on systems that, to paraphrase James Madison, recognize that humans are not angels.

That moment when the Marines land in a helicopter to evacuate you….

One day about twenty-five years ago, my wife and I were eating lunch with our pre-school daughters. We were missionaries, teaching at Rift Valley Academy in Kijabe, Kenya.   As was so often true in this particularly glorious part of God’s creation, it was a beautiful, sunny day, with temperatures in the low 70s. RVA was on a break, so there weren’t many of students around.

Suddenly, we heard a car honking, incessantly: “Beep, Beeep, Beeeep, BEEP!   BEEEEEEP!”   A car came tearing up our driveway. I ran outside and a fellow missionary jumped out of the car and said, “A group of armed men came out of the forest up above the upper road. They attacked Kiambogo Primary School” (a Kenyan school about a mile away) “and shot a number of students. We’re gathering down at the chapel to decide what to do.”

He then jumped back in the car and took off.

Well, now.

Some context. Kenya had been experiencing political unrest. And political unrest in Kenya was serious business.

Also, Kenya’s infrastructure was not highly developed, which meant that there were not many police outside of urban areas. We had a police station in the area that housed two policemen. They did not have a vehicle, so if we needed them in an emergency, we had to drive down to get them. In other words, we had to take care of a lot of security ourselves.

But roaming mobs of men with guns?

Suffice it to say, to this point in my life I had not experienced anything that was much like this situation. It was…..a tad unsettling, shall we say.

I scurried off to the chapel, where other teachers and staff were gathering. There was a lot of nervous discussion, of course. We were informed that many of the Kenyans who had jobs at RVA had run home to see if their children were safe.

After a short time, one missionary arrived who asked: “How do we know if these reports are true?”


That was a good question. We stopped and considered that one.

This man explained that he had lived in Uganda during a particularly unstable period and he knew rumors could spread and really put people on edge. Once, in his car with his family, he had been stopped at a roadblock and a soldier interrogated him with a loaded machine gun pointed at his face.  He was allowed to move on, and things calmed down.

About fifteen minutes or so after this, we found out that his suspicions were correct. The stories were false. No soldiers had come out of the forest. The Kiambogo primary school was fine. In fact, we read in the national newspaper the next day that this same rumor had been spread in dozens of places throughout the central region of Kenya, (all with the feature that a primary school near that area had been attacked) causing quite a bit of panic. The analysis was that the rumors were politically-motivated.

But I’d like us to consider two questions here.

Question #1: Was it actually plausible that something like this could happen?

Answer #1: Yes.

Here are some things I did experience in Kenya: at one point, crowds of Kikuyu people were stopping cars on the upper road, pulling out individuals from the rival Luo group and beating them up. One man was killed. The main highway into Nairobi had been effectively shut down. We felt isolated.

During teachers’ meetings before the school term began, one of the things we did was go over emergency procedures. We were told how, in a national emergency, we would gather faculty, staff and students together in a dormitory, while we waited for U.S. marine helicopters to arrive to evacuate us out of the country.

Now, this is what a truly terrible political situation looks like.

Now, this is what a truly terrible political situation looks like.

It had happened elsewhere. In the year before the Kenyan election, we had talked with missionaries who had to be evacuated from Liberia and (what was then) Zaire. Those two nations had fallen into civil war, where the social and political order had pretty much collapsed. Kenya bordered Somalia and Sudan, which were experiencing devastating civil wars.  Imagine the “law” of the land consisting of young men and teenage boys driving around in pickup trucks with machine guns. That happens.

Fortunately, it never came to this in Kenya. In fact, most years, Kenya has been secure and stable. And some nations in Africa that we don’t hear about, like Botswana and Senegal, have been extremely stable democracies for decades.  In Kenya, there have been a few moments, during election season, when stability was a real concern. This happened to be one of those moments.

So, during those months in Kenya, I struggled with this anxiety: Could the entire social and political order in this place I am living collapse?

It struck me that I had never felt that way in the United States. And I haven’t felt it since. Of course, there have been other kinds of anxieties about security in American society. But nothing like this.

After that, I began to ask myself a question that I have occasionally revisited in the years since then.

So here is Question #2: Why are some nations occasionally in danger of political and social collapse? Why are other nations more stable? What holds the social and political order of a nation together? (OK, that is more than one question, but you get the idea).

Answer #2: I don’t know, exactly.

However, I think that some things, like paying careful attention to history, particularly how cultures and institutions develop, can help us better understand these issues. I’m going to post a few blogs exploring these issues.

And I think it may be helpful for us in the United States to remember during this crazy election year, in which all sorts of fears, anxieties and unsettling things have arisen, that the social and political order is not going to collapse, no matter who gets elected. It is true we have some unhealthy components to our system. We need to take those seriously.  But we actually still have a solid foundation to our political order.

In other words, in the United States we don’t fear that the marines will have to evacuate us to some other place, while things fall apart around us. I know what that fear is like.

My Blog is Coming Back. Maybe.

For those who, for some reason, might be interested: I’m planning to get my blog up and running again. I haven’t posted since last fall, but for various reasons, I’m going to give it another run.

I stopped posting because the demands on my time and mental energy from the regular semester got too heavy. Something had to go. It was the blog.

I cannot do this. But, hey, I know the first verse to "Like a Rolling Stone," by Bob Dylan. My friends are not impressed.

I cannot do this. But, hey, I know the first verse to “Like a Rolling Stone,” by Bob Dylan. My friends are not impressed.

Of course, maybe I still ought to be able to pull this off. After all, I have friends who can speak seven languages, run 100-mile races, nail a back-aerial on the balance beam, and (most impressively) quote obscure lyrics on the spot from any of several hundred songs Bob Dylan has written. I also have some friends who can stay on top of their professorial duties and post almost daily on their blogs.

I’m impressed and amazed by all of these achievements. I would love to be able to do any of them. Well, maybe not the 100-mile race thing.

But maybe, as a more modest achievement, I can keep a blog going with some regularity. I am on a sabbatical this fall and will be spending my days writing and researching for a book. During the “off-hours,” I hope that I can manage some posts.

And then the spring semester will arrive….and we’ll see what happens.

Columbus Day is Racist. Columbus Day was Created to Fight Racism. Wait. How Does that Work?

Happy Belated Columbus Day. Or Happy Belated Indigenous Peoples Day. Or Happy Belated Thanksgiving, if you happen to be Canadian.

Now I’m done with Canada for this post. Back to the United States.

Monday, of course, was Columbus Day in the United States — unless you happen to live in St. Paul, Minn., Portland, Ore., Albuquerque, N.M. or several other cities in the United States. Then it was Indigenous Peoples Day.

So what is going on here?

Well, in addition to finding an excuse to sell mattresses at half-price, we Americans use our holidays to remember history in particular ways. For about two centuries, we told the story of Columbus as a way to try to explain something about American character, even though Columbus never set foot on any territory that would eventually become the current 50 states.

(Columbus did land in Puerto Rico, so we do have a US territory to geographically connect us to the man. Interestingly, Caribbean and Latin American nations have not historically honored Columbus like the United States has. But that’s a different post.)

Columbus in our nation's capitol, looking a bit as if he had just set foot on the shores of New Jersey.

Columbus, looking a bit as if he had just set foot on the shores of New Jersey.

Americans have honored Columbus for quite some time. Since 1792, in fact. Columbus symbolized progress, the discovery of new knowledge, and a liberating break from old restrictions. So, rightly or wrongly, he entered our historical consciousness as someone fundamental to American identity.  In 1836, for instance, Congress commissioned a large painting of Columbus’ landing for the US Capitol building. You can still see it there.

In the late 19th-century, Catholics had additional reasons to praise Columbus. Christopher Columbus was Catholic, a historical fact rarely highlighted by wider American society. This was important because at that time, Catholics were seen by many Protestants as a threat to American democracy. They argued that the Roman Catholic Church was hierarchical. It did not believe in the separation of church and state. Catholics believed that only priests could interpret the Bible properly. Because the nineteenth century was an era when the Bible was frequently read in public schools, Catholics often set up their own private schools, rather than have their children subject to instruction and biblical interpretations from Protestant teachers.

Wait, are those crocodiles coming ashore to eat our defenseless American children? No, don't be silly. Look closely. They are Catholic cardinals. Ah, yes. That makes sense. (A Thomas Nast political cartoon from 1871).

Wait, are those crocodiles coming ashore to eat our defenseless American children? No, don’t be silly. Look closely. Those are Catholic cardinals creeping up the beaches. Well, now. That makes a lot more sense, doesn’t it? (A Thomas Nast political cartoon from 1871).

In response, Protestants believed Catholics were undermining public education and, with it, the character of the American republic. Many Protestants formed organizations to limit Catholic immigrants. Anti-Catholic Americans even formed a political party in the 1850s, the Know-Nothing Party, to try to keep Catholics out. The Know-Nothing party dissolved in the sectional conflicts that led to the Civil War, but by 1890s, the impulse was back. The American Protective Association was established to limit Catholic immigration.

Columbus, of course, was also Italian. Immigration from Italy increased noticeably from the 1880s to the 1920s and this, too, provoked a backlash from many native-born Americans. Italians were perceived as dirty, prone to crime, (Mafia stereotypes abounded), and a people who did not mix well with surrounding communities. These characteristics would undermine democracy, it was thought, so a bunch of Harvard grads formed the Immigration Restriction League in 1894 to try to keep these “criminals” and other undesirable immigrants out. If Donald Trump had been around then, he would have been a founding member.

And then there was anti-Italian racism. Yes, Italians were actually thought to come from a separate race. In the scientific thinking of the day, there were three separate races under the rubric of the white race: Teutonic (which included Anglo-Saxons), Alpine and Mediterranean. Take a big guess who the genetically superior and the genetically inferior groups were in this scheme.

The founder of the Immigration Restriction League put it this way: Americans must decide whether they wanted their country “to be peopled by British, German and Scandinavian stock, historically free, energetic, progressive, or by Slav, Latin and Asiatic” (meaning Jewish) “races historically down-trodden, atavistic and stagnant.”

This form of racism had consequences. Organizations like the Immigration Restriction League campaigned for immigration restrictions based on race. They succeeded. The Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 put quotas on immigration from different countries, with the biggest limitations placed on nations with “Latin” and “Slavic” races. Immigrants from southern and eastern Europe faced greater restrictions than immigrants from the more favored “Teutonic” races of Scandinavia, Germany, and Great Britain. In the late 1930s, those immigrant restrictions, the racially-based thinking behind them, and the economic anxieties of the Depression led Americans to refuse to accept any sizable number of Jewish immigrants from Germany and Austria, despite Hitler’s willingness to ship them out of his nation. Ouch.  Racially-based immigrant restrictions lasted until 1965.

So Italian-Americans had anti-racist reasons to campaign for Columbus Day.  So did Irish, German, Italian, and Polish Catholics.  After all, if Anglo-Saxons could celebrate an Italian Catholic like Christopher Columbus as a hero for the American nation, wouldn’t they be more likely to accept Italian-Americans on an equal plane? Wouldn’t this prove that one could be fully Catholic, fully Italian-American and fully American at the same time?

In 1892, on the 400-year anniversary of Columbus’ famous voyage, an Italian-American named Carlo Barsotti pushed for national recognition of Columbus. Building on existing affection for Columbus in the nation, Italian-Americans held massive rallies every year on October 12 (the date Columbus hit land in the Caribbean).  They had deeply personal reasons to convince fellow Americans to recognize Columbus as a true American and a hero.  By World War I, New Jersey, New York, California, and Colorado (all states with significant Italian-American populations) had made Columbus Day a state holiday. By 1921, thirty states had followed.  FDR proclaimed it a national holiday in 1937.

Oddly, despite the growing embrace of Columbus Day, Congress still passed racially-based restrictions on Italian and Eastern European immigration. Most Americans see what they want to see in their historical figures, and many Americans wanted to see a bold adventurer who discovered new lands, not an Italian Catholic who represented the immigrant dimensions of American society.

Nevertheless, the creation of Columbus Day was driven primarily by those who faced racism and wanted full and equal acceptance into American society.

Columbus is inside. But that's Mary up there at that top.

Columbus is inside. But that’s Mary up there at that top.

Fast forward to the 1990s. While I was a graduate student at the University of Notre Dame, the Native American student organization on campus organized a protest against Columbus. They were particularly disturbed by a series of massive paintings depicting the life of Columbus that lined the hallway of the Administration Building (the one with the “Golden Dome,” which we alumni hold with such affection.) The Administration Building, with its paintings of Columbus, had been built in 1879, just when anti-Italian and anti-Catholic sentiment was beginning to rise again. For the Native American students in the 1990s, however, Columbus symbolized European destruction of their people.

The anti-Columbus cause, then, was driven primarily by those who faced racism and wanted full and equal acceptance into American society.

I’ll let you savor that irony for a moment.

OK, that’s enough of that.

Because I think the Native Americans have a point. Italian-Americans faced discrimination and prejudice, but not nearly on the scale or with as profoundly difficult consequences as Native Americans have faced. (I trust you are knowledgeable enough on this point that I don’t have to list or describe the historical injustices that Native Americans have endured).

I’m perfectly fine with changing Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day.  We Americans already celebrate progress, the discovery of new knowledge, and a liberating break from old restrictions every time we upgrade our iPhones.  Furthermore, Italian-Americans today are thriving in America.  They enjoy full acceptance, and do not face any structural racism that confounds their daily lives. The same cannot be said of Native Americans.

Plus, we’ll always have Columbus, Ohio. Just like Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman in “Casablanca” will always have Paris. Only not quite as romantic.

There is a historical and theological point here, too. Indigenous Peoples Day would remind us of our national sins, while recognizing the dignity of a segment of American society that has often been pushed to the side. Confessing our historical sins can be a healthy thing, provided we also accurately recognize our historical virtues, which does not seem to be a problem for most Americans.

In fact, it can be a virtue to honestly and soberly face and admit our national sins.  Those of us who are Christians ought to understand this on a deep and profound way.  As with individuals, nations that fail to admit their sins end up falling into disordered, harmful behaviors. Ignoring our historical sins can lead us to imagine ourselves to be a people without fault. Having mis-diagnosed the past and our national character, we can end up blaming problems on something or somebody else. Believing that we pretty much have everything together, we can fail to take seriously those who point out issues of injustice.

This is actually a difficult thing to do as a nation — most nations only face their historical sins when they are forced into it politically (more on that in my next post).

We’ve overcome racism (conceptual and structural) faced by Italian-Americans. Great.   So throw out Columbus Day. Let us face the more difficult cause of overcoming racism (conceptual and structural) faced by Native Americans.  Bring on Indigenous Peoples Day.












Church Camp, Courage, and the Nazis

In an early blog post, I confessed that I am a Big Chicken. I have this on good authority: I scored quite high in “harm avoidance” on the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory that I took in 1986. It’s tough to argue with science.

Because I generally do not get angry at people, I have occasionally been told I am kind and caring. That’s nice of these people, but there is an uglier truth; I’m a social coward.   I often try to avoid making people mad or upset with me. Growing up, I avoided getting in trouble so that people would not think badly of me. It often has been not so much about compassion and doing what is right as it is about the protection and preservation of my own standing in with others.

Oddly, my desire to please others can get me into trouble. I found this out in the 5th grade church camp at Camp Lakewood.

For some reason, the boys in our tent were left unattended for a time one afternoon. To minds, this meant that we had to do some “boy” things. My friend Steve and another guy whose name I can’t remember (we’ll call him “Todd”) thought it would be a great idea if we raided a girls’ tent.

I didn’t know what “raiding” meant, but I went along because, you know, I didn’t want to make Steve and Todd upset with me.   We snuck over to the empty girls’ tent (who knows where they were?) and slipped inside. It was then that I learned that “raiding” meant dumping over their suitcases, throwing their clothes around, and tipping over their cots. I realized I was supposed to join Steve and Todd in these activities.

It was an awful moment for a Big Chicken.

On the one hand, Steve and Todd would be annoyed with me if I did not join in. On the other hand, the girls would be upset with me if I joined in. And then there were The Camp Authorities. They would be really upset with me if I joined in.

What was I to do?   I went into classic bystander mode: I stood to the side, shuffling my feet.

Afterward, Steve commented that I didn’t do anything in the raid. “I did, too,” I lied, not very convincingly.

That night at dinner in the camp dining hall, one of the camp counselors stood and announced that someone had raided a girls’ tent that afternoon. He asked that those who did it should stand up.

That was a very awful moment for a Big Chicken.

I thought that we would be in the clear if we just laid low. The moment would pass and nobody would find out. But lo, and behold, Steve stood up. (What was he thinking?!?) Then Todd stood up! And now I was in deep trouble. I quickly realized that if I didn’t stand up, Steve and Todd would be mad at me, and then they would tell the counselors, who would be mad at me, who would tell the girls, who would be mad at me. I stood up.

Church camp is a great place for the confession of sins. Particularly confessions that are provoked by peer pressure.

Our punishment was to clean out one of the bathrooms. The girls did not say anything more about the raid that week. They might have felt justice had been properly meted out. Or they might have still been mad at us but knew it wouldn’t do any good to say anything. (By the 5th grade, girls have had a lot of practice at being annoyed with boys). Meanwhile, the counselors said a few nice things about our willingness to be honest and come forward. The work in the bathroom seemed to be helping out the camp somehow. I felt a bit noble. Not deservedly so, but I felt noble anyway.

And that, oddly, brings us to what is really and truly an awful era in world history. I am intrigued by the courage of “rescuers” in World War II, perhaps because of my memories of peer pressure and my desires to avoid trouble.   When we think of courage in history, we often think of soldiers, for courage is obviously a key component of military activity. But I also find courage among civilians interesting because it emerges in ordinary life when it would be so easy to stand to the side and shuffle one’s feet. Soldiers usually do not have the choice to be bystanders; civilians usually do. In fact, millions of Europeans chose to be bystanders while the Nazis rounded up Jews and other opponents or undesirables and sent them off to concentration camps.

But there were also rescuers. We are most familiar, probably, with Oskar Schindler. Many Christians know about Corrie Ten Boom. There were thousands more. I find each individual story fascinating.

Lucas Carrer

Lucas Carrer

Two of my favorite rescuers are Metropolitan Chrysostomas and Lucas Carrer. In 1943, when the Germans occupied Greece, a contingent of Nazi officers landed on the island of Zakynthos. The German commander called in Carrer, the mayor, and asked him to hand over a list of the names of all Jews living on the island.

What to do? What would you do?

Carrer went to Metropolitan Chrysostomas, the local bishop of the Greek Orthodox church. After some discussion, the two met with the Nazi commander, gave him a piece of paper, and told him that this was the list of Jews on the island.

It had two names on it: Bishop Chrysostomas and Lucas Carrer.

That is courage.

The Nazis did not send the two to concentration camps (a real possibility) and the Nazis did not manage to locate the Jews of the island, either.   Bishop Chrysostomas and Lucas Carrer had burned the lists of the 275 Jews on the island. They also got word out to the Jews to flee into the hills. After occupying Greece for a year, the Nazis were forced to pull out. For the mayor, the bishop, and the Jews on the island, the story has a happy ending. Millions of others, of course, were not so fortunate.

Why are some rescuers and others bystanders? I would like to think that if I were under Nazi occupation, I would have been a rescuer. However, I know what it is like to want to preserve myself and avoid conflict. I understand how the bystanders thought. Would I really have been a rescuer? It is disturbing to realize I cannot answer with certainty.

Why, then, did some people become rescuers? It might be that there is an inclination toward courage that is hard-wired into some of us (OK, some of you). But even if that is true, there is more to it than that.

Metropolitan Chrysostomas

Metropolitan Chrysostomas

Christians, I think, would probably argue that there is a spiritual dimension to courage. I agree. Through their own accounts, we can see the personal dimensions of faith and the Holy Spirit at work in the lives of Nazi resistors like Corrie Ten Boom, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Niemoeller.   If I had more information, I would guess we would find the same sort of personal spiritual evidence from Bishop Chysostomas and probably Lucas Carrer.

But the fact remains that there were plenty of Christians who were bystanders, as well. I think, then, that it would be helpful to consider how social and cultural patterns shaped rescuers as well.

This, then, is a point I find interesting: when asked why they risked their lives to help others, most rescuers found the question puzzling. Most say that they were just doing what was right. They didn’t agonize over the decision at the time.

This would seem to indicate that there is something to the patterns of their lives before the big moment of decision arrived. There is evidence that these were people who were in the habit of doing what was right in the small things before the Big Thing came along. Over time, they had developed a strong sense that their own comfort, status and safety was less important than the welfare of others.

Those patterns have spiritual dimensions to them. Ultimately, true courage is about loving others more than our own lives. That is something that does not simply happen because of a one-time commitment. Or, in theological terms, it seems to be more about sanctification than justification.

That is one reason why spiritual practices matter. Disciplines like regular worship, prayer, fellowship, and Bible study matter. And so does church camp.

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.