Monday, June 18, 2018

On Failing to Change the World

I have been reading The Triumph of Human Empire by Rosalind Williams. The author ties the biographies of Jules Verne, William Morris, and Robert Louis Stevenson around a common theme: Humanity has extended its dominion over every part of the globe, and while this may be inevitable, it results in great losses not only to wild nature but to human nature.

For example, in the writings of Jules Verne, Captain Nemo explores the vast unknown expanses of the oceans, in which he desires to leave behind the conflicts of the human race, which take place on land or on the surface of the sea; but he cannot leave behind his own conflict with the human race. He sees the oceans as the ultimate freedom, but he is not really free. And whether it is Captain Nemo revealing the secrets of the oceans, or riders in a balloon revealing what the unknown center of Africa is like, the very act of exploration brings these wild and unknown spaces into the range of human knowledge and therefore dominion. Verne wanted to explore the unknown world, but at the same time regretted the end of the frontier.

I would like to concentrate on William Morris, a writer about whom I knew literally nothing until I read Williams’ book. He was most famous as one of the leading British socialists of the late nineteenth century. He despised capitalism because it oppressed the poor workers, but also because it substituted cheapness for craftsmanship. He inherited a fortune and also ran a successful interior decorating business, for which he was criticized as being a socialist hypocrite. But he ran his business by artisinal, rather than industrial, standards; he particularly detested artificial dyes, and spent a lot of effort on improving natural dyes.

The triumph of cheapness in the economy was just part of the larger picture of ugliness that was gripping the world, in Morris’ view. He loved the Old Norse sagas, and mourned the loss of ancient heroism. He went to Iceland to see the places where the events in the sagas took place. While there, he was enraptured by the wildness of the volcanic landscape, and enchanted by the relative equality of all the people, country people without a rich class of capitalists. But he also loved sailing up the Thames from dirty London into the agrarian countryside. The countryside was ordered into woodlots and fields, and therefore conquered, but it was still filled with plants and animals. Morris despised the loss of the beauties of a farmed countryside.

So, what did Morris do? He spent a fair amount of time in socialist activism. But he knew that no matter how much he did, socialism would remain an elusive goal: the forces of money and power opposed it, so it didn’t matter whether socialism was better for the people or not. Instead, he spent most of his time writing poems and novels about heroic struggles in faraway or nonexistent lands. That is, he was one of the first prominent writers of fantasy. He was much revered by C. S. Lewis (Perelandra and Narnia) and J. R. R. Tolkein (Hobbit and Lord of the Rings). (Tolkein was also enraptured by the Old Norse sagas.)

This might seem like simple escape. The world is ugly and getting uglier, so we should like in our imaginations. But that is not how Morris saw it. He strongly objected to “escape” as a description of his writings. Instead, what he was doing was to create a vision of what the world could be like, how we could live, if we pursued beauty instead of ugliness. Morris could not convince very many people of socialism, but he got thousands of people to imagine a beautiful world, and many of these, in cumulative small ways, helped to partially reverse the slide toward ugliness. Morris stirred up a feeling of heroism in the minds of thousands; and, through his successor Tolkein, millions.

This is what I am devoting most of my time to, also. I do not spend very much time in political activism. Instead, my main activities are teaching and writing. This summer, my focus is on writing fiction. I have many novels that need to be refined and perfected, and a few that have not yet been written. Am I wasting my time on a dilettante activity while the masses of poor suffer violence and oppression? I hope not. I hope that my writings, about people real or imagined who pursue beauty and peace against massive opposition, will inspire thousands of other people, who will collectively do more to make the world better than I could ever do myself. My fiction is either historical (e.g. about the Cherokee leader Nancy Ward, or about the writer of Ecclesiastes, or about Heloïse and Abélard) or alternative-futures (What would happen if a new Confederacy arose in Oklahoma? What would happen if a man actually tried to quixotically live a life of altruism?) rather than fantasy like the writings of Morris, and I hope that my writings will have more impact than his did (most of which are forgotten today except by scholars).

William Morris failed to change the world. I expect to fail also. But he succeeded, and I hope to succeed, more by writing than would have been possible by a complete devotion to political action. Lots of people can participate in political action, but only I can write the books that are currently dormant on my computer drives. Now that I have finished this essay, that is what I am going to do right now.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Silent Struggles of Faith in the Novels of Shusaku Endo

I very much appreciate, and hope you get a chance to read, the thoughtful novels of the Japanese Christian writer Shusaku Endo, which include Silence (which Scorsese made into a movie) and The Samurai. Both of these novels are about Catholic missionaries in Japan right before, or during, the persecution of Christians in Japan after 1600. These are thoughtful novels, neither championing nor condemning Christianity. I consider Endo to have been Japan’s answer to Graham Greene (The Power and the Glory and Monseigneur Quixote), or the other way around.

In both of the Endo novels that I have read, European and Japanese Christians look to God for guidance, and receive only silence in response. Endo wrote, “In the thick darkness God is silent.” Many of us have had this experience.

The historical background of The Samurai was when the shogunate (military dictatorship) of Japan sent a delegation of minor samurai, with the Spanish Franciscan priest Luis Sotelo, to open up trade relations with New Spain, a trip that eventually took them to Spain and to the Vatican in 1613. Immediately thereafter, persecution nearly eradicated Christianity from Japan. The samurai from whose viewpoint much of the novel is written, Hasekura Rokuemon, was a real person. He kept a journal, but it has been last. Most of what we think we know about this delegation comes from Sotelo’s obviously self-centered and unreliable account of the journey. He thought he would be single-handedly responsible for the salvation of Japan. He was sure he would become the Bishop of Japan. Since Hasekura’s account has been lost, we have to fill in the details with imagination, which Endo did in this novel.

The one thing we know for sure is that neither the Catholic priests nor the Japanese had simple and clear motivations. The priest, as depicted by Endo in the character of Father Velasco, is sincere in his desire to serve the Japanese, even if it means losing his life, but he was also ambitious. The Japanese—the three samurai, their attendants, and the merchants—converted to Christianity by just going through the motions so that they could establish trade contacts with Christian countries, but at the end the Japanese wondered if maybe this Jesus, this ugly beat-up Jesus hanging from crucifixes, actually did love them, he who had died even more miserably than they. Jesus, they speculated, was a miserable dog who shares our miseries.

Here are some quotes that beautifully illustrate this last point. The samurai Nishi speaks to Hasekura: “I can believe in Him now because the life He lived in this world was more wretched than any other man’s. Because He was ugly and emaciated. He knew all there was to know about the sorrows of the world. He could not close His eyes to the grief and agony of mankind...Do you think He is to be found within those garish [European] cathedrals? He does not dwell there...I think He lives in the wretched homes of those [Native American] Indians...That is how He lived His life. He never visited the houses of those who were puffed up or contented. He sought out only the ugly, the wretched, the miserable, and the sorrowful. But now even the bishops and priests are complacent and swollen with pride. They are no longer the sort of people He sought after...Those who weep seek someone to lend an ear to their lamentations. No matter how much the world changes, those who weep and those who lament will always seek Him. That is His purpose in living.” [Chapter 9]

Endo also alerts us to the rivalry between Jesuits and Franciscans for access to Japan, before the shogunate shut them both out.

This novel is tragic (not unlike Silence and Scorsese’s adaptation of it). Toward the end, the Japanese samurai discover that their whole journey had been a trick on the part of their overlords, that not only was the failure of the journey but the execution of the samurai were planned from the very beginning. One of the feudal lords had tolerated Christianity, but the shogun hated Christianity, and the feudal lord had to do something to prove to the shogun that he was serious about eradicating Christianity from Japan—by executing a samurai who had, however insincerely, converted to Christianity.

The feeling I take away from the two Endo novels I have read is that no religious question has an easy and straightforward answer.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

A New Creationism

For many decades, creationists have defended the special creation of humans uniquely in the image of God and that animals, while also specially created, are not in the image of God. Recent creationists have considered “human” to be the same as what scientists call Homo sapiens.

This has not always been the case. The “polygenists” of the nineteenth century believed that white people were the descendants of Adam and Eve, but that dark people, while also specially created, were one or more species of animal. As you can imagine, this view was very popular in the United States, mostly but not only in the South.

It has been many years since creationists considered dark people to be animals. But it looks like they are going to have to do so again. The most fundamentalist Christians believe every word that comes out of Donald Trump’s mouth. Many of them even believe that God put Trump in the White House. And Donald Trump has had a couple of things to say about the boundaries of the human species.

  • In January of this year, Trump said that Haitians and Africans were from “shithole countries”. While this does not necessarily mean that Trump has kicked them out of Homo sapiens, it certainly means that he has placed them at an inferior level. Jefferson Davis and Stonewall Jackson would be proud.
  • In May of this year, Trump said that undocumented immigrants (nearly all Hispanic) were not humans, but animals. This was an exact quote.

It appears that creationists either have to distance themselves from Donald Trump or else redefine the human species along the lines that He has drawn.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Republicans and Christians: In the Entropy Business

The business plan is simple: just create havoc, disorder, mayhem, hatred, confusion (or, as scientists call all of this, entropy) and then sell people the things they need to survive in this entropic environment.

Oh, and by the way, they call this entropy “freedom.”

The Republican Party uses this plan in almost every way. Let me just use one example: guns. Republicans want everyone to have guns all the time everywhere. If you don’t have a gun, and somebody shoots you, it’s your own damn fault. What happens when you increase the number of guns in circulation among human beings, some of whom are ready to pull a trigger whenever they get angry? Predictably, you get more shootings. How do you protect yourselves from shooters? You need to get a gun also. The NRA keeps laws that restrict firearms from being enacted, resulting in more shootings; AND they represent manufacturers who will sell you firearms. The Republicans are in the entropy business: they create an environment of gun violence, then claim the solution to gun violence is more guns—then they sell you guns.

This is the plan in Oklahoma, anyway. The Oklahoma House passed a bill that would allow anyone who is legally able to carry a firearm to bring them to school. The governor vetoed the bill, but state representatives are threatening a special summer session to override the veto, and the NRA threatens to mount a campaign against her.

The Republican business plan:
  • Create an environment of gun violence.
  • Convince people that guns are the answer to gun violence.
  • Sell guns.
  • Make profit.

The fundamentalist churches are also in the entropy business. The first thing they do is to tell you that, unless you accept their doctrines and become a Republican and stand your ground regarding unlimited access to guns, then you are going to hell. If you even question Donald Trump, you are going to hell. They make everyone in their churches feel like all of society around them is damned, mostly because of Democrats. But, they offer the solution: give them your obedience and your money. The fundamentalist churches make lots of money and get lots of people to obey the Republican Party by convincing people that the only way to not be overwhelmed by the entropy of the world is to join them.

The Christian business plan:
  • Create an environment of hell.
  • Convince people that Republican churches are the only way to keep out of hell.
  • Sell church membership.
  • Make profit.

These business plans are working nicely. According to a recently updated CNN article, there have been 22 school shootings in the first 20 weeks of 2018.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Who Needs Nazis When You Have Fundamentalist Christians?

One of the unusual experiences you can have when you visit the South is that the airwaves are dominated by Christian radio stations. And not positive Christian stations, but stations that loudly proclaim all the worst things about fundamentalist faith.

When I drove through the Oklahoma City area recently, I found seven Christian stations. And on two of them, simultaneously, the preacher’s message was this: If you do not believe in an eternal hell of infinite and ceaseless torture, you CANNOT believe in Jesus Christ, and therefore YOU will go to hell. That is, the preacher was saying, if you do not believe in my interpretation of the Bible, you will go to hell. You will go to hell unless you believe in a literal, eternal hell.

Oh, but God loves you.

Now, suppose that the preachers, being mere humans, might have misinterpreted scripture. But, of course, this is impossible, since they consider themselves to be infallible and inerrant as individuals. They cannot be wrong, because God exists. They are no more likely to be wrong than for God to be wrong. What they are saying is, of course, blasphemy.

But they take their blasphemy even further. One of these preachers, representing Rhema Church in Tulsa, insisted that the Jews brought the Holocaust on themselves. All Jews are guilty of the crucifixion of Jesus, His blood is upon them, unless they become Christians.

This is exactly the message that preachers, under the orders of Hitler, proclaimed to Jews who were about to be transported to the death camps. The difference is that, if a German preacher under the Third Reich refused to say this, he could be killed. There is utterly no obligation for modern preachers to say this unless they are, in their heart of hearts, Nazis.

Why do they say this? Because, according to at least one gospel, a crowd of Jews insisted that Jesus be crucified, and they said, “Let his blood be upon us and upon all our generations.”

Leaving aside for the moment whether this really happened, the modern preachers are making a totally incorrect assumption, but one that they keep secret. They assume that the people in that crowds that day in Jerusalem two millennia ago had the AUTHORITY to condemn all Jews in all generations after theirs. Furthermore, that God Himself was OBLIGATED to obey them; God had to condemn all Jews through all time for the sins of the ones in the crowd that day long ago.

This is as ridiculous as for me to commit some evil, and then call forth condemnation on my daughter, her soon-to-arrive baby, and all my descendants for such evil as I may commit. This would mean that I can send my daughter and all my descendants to hell just by calling for God to do so.

Of course, those Jews had no such authority, nor did God have any such obligation. But the modern preachers assume upon themselves the authority to proclaim that God is so obligated. The only reason the preacher said this on the Rhema station is that he deeply loves what the Nazis did and hopes that some group of people do the same again. The assumption upon which they build their belief—and, apparently, their entire framework of faith—is so utterly ridiculous that no other explanation is possible except that they want to believe the Jews deserved the Holocaust.

It is things like this that make fundamentalist Christianity an imminent and severe danger to the future of the world. And if you want to hear things like this, just come to Oklahoma or any place else in the South and search the airwaves for just a few moments and you will find them.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Lynchings in the Depressed South

In the previous essay, I said that, since the fall of the Confederacy, white southerners have had little to live for, which explains their many dysfunctional symptoms of depression. That since they lost the Civil War, they have had nothing to live for or which could inspire them. But I realized that there was, in fact, something that could life the spirits of white southerners after the Civil War.


We usually think of lynching as white people taking out their anger on innocent black people by torturing and hanging them. And certainly, this is one of the functions of lynching. There was almost no form of torture that was not practiced somewhere or sometime during lynchings. That is, it went way beyond mere anger, but a lust for inflicting a maximum amount of pain and degradation on the black victim. Nor were all lynchings the result of a mob mentality that went out of control. Sometimes they were planned with cold ruthlessness.

Sometimes the lynchers particularly hated their black victims for having the very virtues that they claimed blacks did not have. In Okemah, Oklahoma, near where I live, a black mother tried to defend her son who had shot a white police officer. It is true that the son needed to face justice for his deed, but justice is not what he faced: it was lynching, without a trial. The mother, Laura Nelson, did in fact help him to resist arrest, but her crime was not a capital one. The lynchers, once they had subdued their victims, then raped Laura before killing both her and her son. If a white mother had defended her son, the southern whites would have esteemed her motherly virtues.

The point I wish to make in this essay is that lynching was not mere anger; it was a celebration of bloodlust on the part of an entire white community. That is, while the Confederacy had inspired them before 1865, it was lynchings that inspired them for the hundred years after that. It was a source of community pride and inspiration. And as I said previously, some of them were planned as community events. Here are some examples:

  • The organizers sold tickets, and for an extra fee you could shoot the victim’s body. Sometimes the bodies were so full of shot that they were difficult to move.
  • The organizers printed and sold postcards celebrating the lynchings.
  • Lynchings drew huge crowds. One in Waco, Texas drew a crowd of fifteen thousand.
  • Lynchings could not be prosecuted because the entire community would maintain a conspiracy of silence. Note: the entire community.

You can read more at this NPR interview.

I am a mostly-white man (although a member of the Cherokee tribe) of Southern origin. As such I bear some of the blame and responsibility for what my fellow whites did. When a black male looks at me, he may see simply another person, or he may see me as partly guilty for lynchings. I am not a racist, but how could a black man know this just by looking at me? I bear part of this blame unless I publicly proclaim my hatred of racism, as I have done often before, as I am doing now, and as I will continue to do, online and in published books.

Lynchings continue to occur, though they are now rare. A white racist dragged a black man, James Byrd, by a rope behind his pickup truck and killed him in 1998 in Jasper, Texas. But lynchings are no longer a readily-accessible form of white southern pride. They appear to have no outlet for their hatred any more, except driving their trucks around with Confederate flags or stickers. But the anger is still there and will find some outlet. And they have guns. I suspect that, soon, their victims will not just be black people, but all of us who love black people. As a non-racist surrounded by racists with automatic weapons, I no longer feel safe in America.

Tuesday, May 1, 2018

What's Wrong with the South?

It’s depressing to live in the South. Sure, there are pockets of economic and societal vibrancy, such as parts of Tulsa, such as Ft. Worth or Houston or Atlanta. But for the most part the South is a quagmire of stagnant depression. The only outlet for this depression is occasional anger, which they recently exhibited by pushing Donald Trump into the White House. He preached a Gospel of Anger, and the south whooped and hollered and passed around the beer. The only other time I have seen southerners inspired to excitement was when they drive around with huge Confederate flags flying from the beds of expensive trucks, before parking them beside their shacks.

For many of them, driving around in big trucks even without flags is a source of excitement, especially if the truck payments are more expensive than their rent. The trucks give them a feeling of power many of them have in no other way.

The South used to have a sense of purpose. The Confederacy was inspired mainly by one idea:
the right of states to have slavery. When Southerners lost the Civil War, they never got anything to replace their passion for slavery.

It is not just poverty, although much of the poverty comes from the inability of southerners to care about working reliably. It is depression.

I saw examples of depression as I walked across town yesterday.

First, I saw garbage piled up in their yards. Not everybody’s, but approximately every third or fourth house in Durant, Oklahoma, where I live. There is nothing about being poor that requires all this garbage. The garbage is a message to the rest of the public that they hate other people almost as much as they hate themselves.

(Image from City of Durant website)

Second, they let their dogs run loose and attack other people. One man sat on his porch and watched his dogs run an entire block to attack me. Fortunately, the dog repellant spray worked. There is nothing about being poor that requires people to let their dogs run loose and attack people. It is just a message to the rest of us that they hate us almost as much as they hate themselves.

Third, what do they do with the little bit of money that they get, either from poorly-paid and irregular work, or from public assistance? A woman sat out on her front porch and talked loudly into her cell phone, not caring who would hear. She said they would have lots of money saved up if her husband didn’t go out to bars all the time. He could just get drunk at home and save some money. So not only do white trash men hate themselves, they foist this hatred on their wives too. (Maybe if I’d listened longer I would have heard her talking about their lousy sex life. But I figured I’d better keep walking.)

They have nothing to live for but God and the Confederacy. But to them God is not the source of love but the idol around which they rally, a war god they believe will vanquish all the white liberals and descendants of ex-slaves whom they do not like.

How can this ever change? The inertia is too great.

This is the Bible belt where most people are creationists. I saw an advertisement for a movie, “The Truth about Dinosaurs,” in Bristow as I drove through on Sunday. It is, I can only assume, a darkumentary about how evolutionary scientists are all liars and are damning our souls by making us believe dinosaurs lived more than 4000 years ago. Whom are they trying to convince? Most people in the South already believe the Earth is only 6000 years old, and dinosaur fossils resulted from a flood 4000 years ago. The creationists already rule everything in Oklahoma. What are they trying to accomplish? They just want to proclaim that they are God’s truly chosen people who are the only ones who know the truth. They want to hate the non-creationists, most of whom live outside of the South.

Dogs that bite other people, trucks that run over other people: this is the only glimmer of enjoyment that many southerners have.

Oh, and having lots of kids. Not taking care of them, spending time with them to show them how to care about their neighbors. The mothers may do this, but the fathers are too busy driving their trucks around. One man parked his truck in my yard, so I had it towed away. He threatened me with violence, and said he needed his truck because he had five kids. His kids were not an expression of love but an excuse for aggression.

Bogged down in depression, acutely aware that slavery will never come back, and told by their preachers that they are God’s chosen people, Southerners will never change. Red state confederates sit around and live off of welfare provided by blue state tax dollars. And they are just fine with it.