Category Archives: Past as Prologue to Future

Freedom of Religion: the Right to Choose

Freedom of religion is based on the right to choose your faith community, that is, to associate with those who share your spiritual journey.

Freedom of religion is not something that began with the U.S. Constitution. The Roman Empire generally accepted the right of its subject populations to practice whatever religious beliefs they chose, so long as they did not appear to threaten the empire.

The Jewish Jehovah God was intimately bound to his people, caring for them and demanding a certain standard from them. Prophets tied the worship of God to justice and special concern for the vulnerable. God required his people to worship him and him alone, but the rest of the world could go its own way, as long as no other nation interfered with the Jewish worship of their God.

With Christianity and Islam, a different outlook emerged. At first, Christians saw the gospel as good news to be proclaimed, but they sought no political power. Only later did political leaders try to fuse Christianity with governing authority. This joining led to a perverted view of Christianity as simply one more lever of power.

Islam, the other evangelistic religion, conquered lands for their religion but generally allowed Christians and Jews to live in their own religious communities so long as they paid a tax for the privilege. Unlike Christianity, Islam was from the beginning a state religion.

Lands influenced by Christianity began to see the value of individuals choosing their own religious communities or no community. Christianity was a religion of the heart, not of an external state. Christianity shook off the shackles of Christendom.

When a religion—any religion—begins to force itself on those who wish to believe otherwise, that religion begins to lose its moral authority. When religion must force itself onto a society, it has failed.

Chills from Prague Winter: a Story of Nazi and Soviet Takeovers

Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948, is a memoir by Madeleine Albright. She chronicles the atrocities of Hitler’s rise to power in Europe, followed later by the Soviet takeover of her birth country. She reminds readers of the need for constant vigilance against demagogues.

Albright is the daughter of a former Czechoslovak diplomat, serving his country before, during, and after World War II. Albright’s family immigrated to the United States following the takeover of Czechoslovakia by Soviet communists. Albright later was U.S. Secretary of State under President Bill Clinton.

She tells of Hitler’s ascent in Germany and his unexpected rise to power. Hitler “transformed his country from a tottering democracy into a tightly organized dictatorship with a skyrocketing military budget and an aggressive international agenda.”

Konrad Henlein, a Czechoslovakian of German ethnicity, was used by Hitler in his conquest of the country. Henlein, Albright tells us, “was motivated less by Nazi ideology than by the lure of power and fame. His skill as a politician stemmed from his gift for lying with apparent sincerity.”

In paving the way to World War II, Albright quotes Winston Churchill’s assessment of Hitler, explaining why Europe was so desperately duped by him: “ . . . the world lives on hopes that the worst is over, and that we may yet live to see Hitler a gentler figure in a happier age.”

I could not help but be reminded of expressed hope in the early months of Trump’s presidency that he would become “presidential.”

Czechoslovakians of German ethnicity had valid reasons for contention with the Czech government, but their complaints were grossly exaggerated by Hitler to justify his occupation of their region. Similar to today’s “fake news,” Hitler spun the story his way.

I am reminded of Americans with valid complaints about their status—workers who have lost jobs and wages while digital newbies barely out of school become wealthy, or evangelical Christians who are sneered at. Unfortunately, they too often allow themselves to be used by politicians interested only in the advancement of their own fortunes or political agendas.

Yes, Albright’s memoir chilled me. We are never home safe. Democracies have fallen. Constant, sober vigilance is always needed.

Iran Is Persian, not Arab

For many Americans, Iran is barely on the radar screen. They confuse Iran with its neighbor, Iraq, and they tend to think of Iran as an Arab country.

In fact, Iran is not an Arab nation. Iran is the descendant of ancient Persia. The official language of Iran is not Arabic but modern Persian, also known as Farsi.

Though Iran is a Muslim majority nation, most Iranian Muslims are Shia Muslims, a minority in Islam. It differs from nations like Saudi Arabia, where the majority are Sunni Muslims. The division goes back centuries to disagreement over the successor to Mohammad .

American feelings about Iran are mixed with the horror of 9/11 and other terrorist activities. While Iran is certainly implicated in upheavals and bloodshed in the Middle East, none of the 9/ll terrorists were Iranians. Fifteen were Saudi Arabians and the others came from the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Lebanon.

Columbia University professor Gary Sick served under President Jimmy Carter while American diplomats were hostages in Iran (1979-1981). In writing my novel If Winter Comes, set during that period, I read his book, All Fall Down: America’s Tragic Encounter with Iran, during my research.

In a recent article in The Foreign Service Journal, Sick highlights Iran’s unique culture, going back 2,500 years. Also unique among most Middle Eastern nations, “Iran has experienced at least five major political upheavals in just 100 years” and has “a remarkable record of political activism.” (“Iran Inside and Out,” October 2017)

Religious leaders exert outsize influence over who competes in Iranian elections. Nevertheless, Iran has a more active record of political engagement than many of its neighbors. All Iranian citizens can vote. Regular elections are held for presidential, parliamentary, and municipal offices.

Reform minded candidates do manage to make it through the process. The current president, Hassan Rouhani, is a reformist, though he does not hesitate to stand up for his country in verbal battles with President Donald Trump.

Americans would profit by a deeper understanding of this fascinating country and the complex negotiations that led to the Iranian nuclear deal. Iran, more than many Middle Eastern nations, holds promise of change. We should not lightly dismiss our agreement with them.

“A Republic, if You Can Keep It.”

So spoke Benjamin Franklin in 1787 at the end of the convention to write the U.S. Constitution. He spoke in answer to a questioner who wondered what kind of nation this gathering of politicians had created. A monarchy like most European nations?

Answer: a republic, but only if you can keep it.

Ancient Rome also began as a republic but descended into tyranny. Why? For centuries, historians have studied possible reasons.

Some cite moral decline. Roman citizens became more interested in “bread and circuses” than in serving their republic, as they had in the beginning.

Or perhaps they yielded to the temptation to cede power to a dictator when times are hard. Citizens find it easy to believe a Caesar or a Hitler who promises easy solutions to economic problems or threats from enemies.

A democracy outlasts such threats if enough citizens look beyond the immediate present and choose long term goals, even sacrifice.

When Britain stood on the brink of extinction from the highly efficient German war machine at the beginning of World War II, their leader, Winston Churchill, didn’t promise a quick solution to the danger.

As the Nazis rolled over much of Europe, Churchill called for his people to stand firm while promising them “blood, sweat, toil, and tears.” Citizens rallied and sacrificed for the long term goal of defeating Germany.

John F. Kennedy inspired a generation of young people by calling on them not “to ask what your country can do for you but what you can do for your country.”

The vision of shared sacrifice is a powerful weapon. Not bread and circuses, but a sacrifice that includes all. Even the wealthy.

Five Hundred Years of History, Repeating? Our Choice.

In October of this year 2017, we mark the 500th anniversary of the day an obscure Christian monk named Martin Luther posted a scholarly document in Wittenberg, Germany. The document questioned certain practices of his church.

It was an unsettling time. Armies from the Middle East threatened Europe. Less than a century before, the city of Constantinople, the ancient bastion of eastern Christianity, had fallen to Muslim Turks. In a few years time, Turkish armies would lay siege to Vienna, Austria, and do so again late in the next century.

Even more disturbing were new ideas spreading through a recent invention, the printing press. Pamphlets and books, including Luther’s ideas, were now produced more cheaply and with lightning speed compared to the old way of copying manuscripts by hand.

The explosion of ideas created challenges to established ways of doing and thinking. The gatekeepers no longer functioned.

Tragically, war and conquest too often became the answer to these new thoughts. Rulers, anxious for political power, usurped religious ideas as a pretext for their own ambitions, unleashing great suffering.

Today’s internet age shows remarkable parallels to Luther’s time, but we don’t have to choose the ways so often chosen then. It’s not a zero sum game. We can reason together, gleaning the good from our old culture, while allowing new growth. We don’t have to agree on everything.

Changes have come, and they won’t go away, any more than they did in Luther’s time. How we use them is our choice.

Bet on Endurance Rather Than Brilliance

“Washington had finally hit upon a way to win this seemingly unwinnable war—not through military brilliance but by slowly and relentlessly wearing the enemy down.”

–From Valiant Ambition: George Washington, Benedict Arnold, and the Fate of the American Revolution; by Nathan Philbrick

For me, Philbrick’s study of our founding father and eventual first president portrays a practical leader. He won the American Revolution because of his honor and his tenacity, not because of any military genius.

First, having taken over the command of his country’s military forces, Washington would not go back on his word to lead them, through bad times and good.

Second, after several losing battles, he appears to have concluded that he could not defeat the mighty British army through brilliant campaigning against them. Instead, he took advantage of his native environment.

He withdrew into the countryside when British superior forces threatened to overwhelm his army. At his own choosing, he would return and attack, then leave the field again, then return.

Time was on his side. The British were fighting the French all over the world. They needed their forces elsewhere, not bogged down by a few colonies.

During another conflict, the Cold War with the Soviet Union, the United States also made use of tenacity. The U. S. won, not by military victory (Vietnam was a failure) but by growing a middle class with a stake in an open economy.

Except in a time of obvious attack, military campaigns cost lives and money that are better spent at home. Staying power and a system that allows ordinary citizens a fair share of the economic pie count for more.

Religion: Wrestling with its Role in a Democracy

Over the centuries, nations and empires that tolerated different religions generally have fared better than ones who didn’t. The Roman and Mongol empires, two of the most powerful empires in history, were generally tolerant.

Some Roman governments persecuted Christians, but only when they were convinced the Christians were a danger to Roman authority. So long as a religion didn’t threaten the government, both Roman and Mongol rulers generally exercised benign neglect. They avoided expending effort on costly maneuvers to force alien beliefs on their subjects.

Adherents of a particular religion, often dealing with matters of eternity and salvation, may believe they must gain control of their government for the good of all.

Such a view ignores the more powerful option: living lives of such compassion and kindness that fellow citizens are voluntarily drawn to their faith. Christians in the Roman empire followed this model, with much success.

Christianity fared less well when Christians formed alliances with political rulers, leading to brutal crusades and inquisitions.

European nations, emerging from such sullied religious histories, shook their heads in disbelief at the upstart new United States, allowing freedom for all religions. Surely, having no alliance with a particular religion, the country would fall prey to godlessness.

The opposite happened. Religion flourished. The Christian religion especially grew and influenced the culture of the country.

American Christians, now challenged by other emerging faiths, including atheism and secularism, wrestle with the temptation to use political power to advance their beliefs. Or will they follow the more successful option of living out their faith?

Donald Trump, a New Andrew Jackson?

The Hermitage, home of Andrew Jackson, seventh president of the United States, was a short drive from my elementary school in Nashville, Tennessee. Every year or so, our teacher would lead the class on a field trip to the Hermitage.

We toured the mansion’s rooms, my grade school colleagues and I, reveling in our release from school routine. Guides led us past rooms furnished in the upper class style of the early nineteenth century. Only later did I realize the slave labor required for Jackson’s comfort.

Jackson is known as a populist, the first president who was not one of the Massachusetts/Virginia founding fathers of the country. He represented the westward movement of the country by those who hadn’t inherited wealth.

Many of that day looked to improve their lot in life by settling west of the Appalachians on new land. No doubt they cheered Jackson’s forced removal of most of the native Americans from land their people had called home for generations.

In a time of rapid population growth and new inventions, the cotton gin led to the planting of more cotton. Plantation owners fought any attempt to abolish slavery, fearing loss of the unpaid laborers who supported their lifestyle.

The inconsistency of the American ideal of freedom with the subjection of an entire class of people was already leading to political battles.

According to reports, U.S. President Donald Trump has placed a picture of President Andrew Jackson on the wall of his office in the White House. Trump also is often called a populist, touted as breaking the power of government elites, an outsider.

Today also is a time of rapid transformation around the globe, caused by the computer age, globalization, massive immigration for economic and security reasons, and the entry of more women and minorities into the work force.

Economic inequality has increased, leading to prosperity for some and the loss of jobs and adequate wages for others. Those left behind feel alienated and abandoned by their politicians.

In the recent election, Trump took advantage of these trends by encouraging divisiveness and anger rather than offering a vision of cooperation for change.

We are not bound to follow the direction he has set. We can talk and respect each other and work out differences to real problems. Or we can hammer down the other “side” in anger and truly see our American dream vanish.

Short Term Thinking; Long Term Problems

Terrorism is an evil we can see and fear, unlike more insidious evils. After a terrorist attack, the media instantly portrays dead bodies and grieving families. We are angered, as we should be. We pass legislation for a strong military and sometimes send our armies to foreign countries to fight terrorists.

Other evils are harder to grasp because the results may not show up until years later: inferior schools or inadequate mental health facilities or lack of drug rehabilitation services.

Though most of us would say we believe in “good” schools, we don’t instantly see the damage to our country of a poorly educated work force.

Unless we have a mentally ill family member, we may think of mental illness only when we quickly pass by a troubled street person.

Throwing young drug offenders in prison is less costly than providing rehabilitation and job training for them—in the beginning.

What if we had not decided to invade Iraq after we were already involved in a war in Afghanistan? What if we had invested the money we spent for that war in schools and job training?

What if we had invested more in mass transit and less on securing oil fields in the unstable Middle East?

Going further back into our history, what if early settlers in Virginia had not decided to use slaves to work their tobacco fields? Suppose they had kept to small farms instead of large plantations?

We pay later for those easy choices, sometimes generations later.

Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood: Where Are You When We Need You?

Remember Mister Rogers? Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood on public television? Sometimes we laughed a bit at this gentle character who so quietly entered our homes and talked about feelings and helped children deal with fear and anger.

“Look for the helpers. Look for the people who are helping” is a quote of his repeated often in recent times after murderous attacks on innocent people.

In 1969, Fred Rogers appeared before the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Communications when President Nixon wanted to decrease funding for public television. Listen to his defense of continued funding so children might have access to quality programming.

How we need his calming, sure presence in these days of anger and incivility. Even the adults need help with proper expression of emotions.

Waiting for the Good Guys to Win

The biography Clementine: The Life of Mrs. Winston Churchill, by Sonia Purnell, reminds us of Britain’s dark times in early World War II, when the country stood alone against Hitler’s might.

The book lists the number of European countries fallen under Nazi control at that time. France, Poland, Denmark, Norway, Belgium, and Holland had been swept into the Nazi vortex. Now Britain was to be the next victim.

The author recounts a day in September, 1940, when Clementine and Winston visited the operations center for the British air force. They watched as the command sent up squadrons to counter wave after wave of the German Luftwaffe.

At one point, Winston asked, “How many more planes have you?”

The commander replied, “I am putting in my last.”

Yet, this small force somehow—God only know how—repelled the much stronger enemy.

England was never invaded, and the entry of the United States into the war following the bombing of Pearl Harbor slowly changed the tide.

This reminder of a time when the forces of evil should have won and didn’t offers comfort in this time of moral turmoil. Sometimes the good guys do win.

Those Presidential Orders? Don’t Forget Executive Order 9066

Seventy-five years ago (February 19, 1942), President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. The order authorized the forced removal of 110,000 people of Japanese descent in the U.S. to incarceration camps away from their homes, places of work, and community activities.

In an anniversary issue, The Seattle Times published pictures and copies of old news stories, as well as reminiscences of those who were affected.

The issue included images of Japanese families, loaded with whatever possessions they could carry, young children dressed in Sunday best holding dolls and toys, and one man telling his pet dog goodbye.

Japanese-Americans were forced to sell businesses at cut rate prices. One Japanese woman, before the evacuation began, recalled being spit upon by a Caucasian woman and told that she had caused the death of the woman’s son.

Anger at the attack by the Japanese government on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor fueled attitudes of hatred against an entire group of people who had no part in the attack.

Anger against a particular act of war was justified. The place we allowed the anger to take us was not, an unreasonable prejudice against thousands of ordinary people, many of them U.S. citizens. Later, young Japanese-American men sent to the relocation centers would join U.S. military forces. Some would die for the country that had sent them and their families to the camps.

Current executive orders mirror that earlier time. Understandable anger at terror attacks has mushroomed into unreasonable prejudice even as it did then.

A footnote: Blaine Memorial United Methodist Church began as the Seattle Japanese Methodist Episcopal Church 113 years ago. When its congregation was forced into internment camps, a member of one of Seattle’s founding families, E. L. Blaine, saved the church by holding the deed for the church in trust for the members until their return.

The current pastor at the Blaine church said recently, “The pressure he faced was enormous. But he stood up for us. We are now in that same position: are we willing to stand up for others?”