Why I Support Pope Francis

Many of my secular friends are having a hard time coping with Pope Francis, and I understand why.  He’s an enigma.  We’ve all borne witness to the likes of Pope Benedict, whose status as a theologian was overshadowed by his callous attitude and many missteps.

Pope Francis is in some ways Benedict’s polar opposite. Being a Jesuit—the first ever to hold a Papal tenure—he is humble, attempts to live a simplified life, and understands the plight of the impoverished.  He goes out at night and takes care of the sickly.  He finds humility to be a worthwhile attribute so much that he refuses to stay in the expensive Papal suite.  He gives up the Pope Mobile for an antique.  He speaks out against Capitalism. He walks the walk… even literally.

Meanwhile, Benedict’s tenure saw scandals galore: money laundering at the hands of the Vatican bank played into the notion of a Vatican City awash in Capitalism rather than the ethical behavior one expects to find at the Holy See.  He fumbled—like Bush did with FEMA during Katrina—when it came to dealing with allegations of pedophilia in the clergy.  We witnessed the proclaimed center of Catholic morality, including god’s chosen witness on earth, fall into corruption.

Rightly the secular masses are somewhat skeptical—why Francis to replace Benedict?  Is this the new face of Catholicism or just the guy they are using to spin the church right before they fall back into corruption once he is gone—like a placeholder for the second coming of Ratzinger?  Frankly, I don’t believe the highly-conservative heads of the College of Cardinals would have cast their votes for someone like Francis if they knew he was going to turn as many heads as he has; they have never cared about public opinion before and I doubt highly that they had a change of heart about it.  So the conspiracy theories that Francis is a Publicity Stunt for a dying church is growing a little tiresome.

But while there are your typical conspiracy nuts out there (especially those who just flat out hate religion, or just Catholicism in general), other secular individuals are just downright impractical.  They want Francis to allow women priests, to open up the doors to gay marriage in catholic churches, and if he doesn’t heed their demands, well, then he’s a terrible nonliberal, who does not belong in his position of authority.

Let me be clear: I’m not an atheist, yet nor am I a Catholic (in the practicing sense, but I do believe in a supreme being).  But I was a Catholic—raised into the faith and traditions and the shame (as every good Catholic, even former Catholics, knows well)—and so I am sympathetic towards Catholicism.  For me, even as an Apostate, Catholicism represents the earliest, most ‘accurate’ variant of what might be considered ‘actual’ Christianity; that is to say, it represents, to the best of its ability, the oldest continuing sect of what came from the Romanization of the dogmatic eschatological traditions of the 4th Century (which had already changed dramatically—perhaps almost entirely—from the initial post-Easter kerygma).  I’ve got a bias and I know it.

However I’m not one to let the church off easy for its many sins.  I’ve written scathing articles against the treatment of women, on confessional institutions that limit academic freedom of thought and research, and on certain conservative interpretations of the Bible.  In this respect, I am as much a Catholic as any other—one who is both reverent of its place in the world but skeptical of its own hierarchical claims to authority (said with only part of my tongue in my cheek).

Yes, I do think that the Magdalene Laundries were horrific.  Yes, I think the Crusades were unfortunate and a tragedy—especially for Muslims and Jews.  And, absolutely, I agree with anyone who thinks that every priest who has sexually assaulted or abused another human being—whether that be a child or a woman or a man—should be tarred and feathered and stuck out in the gallows at which people to throw rotten food.  And yet somehow I can’t think of a reason why I should let these terrible and historic events overshadow the present.

I’m not going to sit here and tell you all not to judge the people, or even people in general, because I think that is unrealistic.  Our world wouldn’t run if people weren’t judged by other people (it makes more sense the longer you think about it).  But maybe I’m just a stickler for judging individuals based upon their circumstances and context rather than taking the whole institution as a whole.  Maybe I don’t want to hold Francis responsible for the sins of his church fathers.

Would it be awesome if women were allowed into a priestly role?  Yes.  Shouldn’t the church allow gay marriages?  It would certainly be great for all those practicing Catholics who are also gay and who love just as deeply as a straight Catholic.  But let us be realistic here.  That isn’t going to happen now.  There are lines drawn in the sand.  It is a glorious thing when a Pope decides that it is time to cross one of those lines, let alone several—but we cannot expect total reform.  The Catholic church is a huge and ancient institution (which is a pleasant way of saying that parts of it are rather dated).  Things must happen slowly in order to take hold.

Granted, Francis is accountable for his own actions, in his own time (presently), in the broader context of the current state of the church.  And right now they are the actions of a decent man trying to desperately to teach his fellow Christians how to ‘Christian’ correctly—at least the way he sees as ‘correct’.  Given his predecessors, that is a tremendous leap forward. We should take that for what it is and be grateful.  Any man who risks his own life to sneak out and feed the poor—especially after angering so many dangerous people—is a man who is heroic.  When was the last time we had such a Pope? That is why I support him. Dimidium facti qui coepit habet.  Given time, it is my thinking that his accomplishments will be the light which shines the path for those who follow.

On Scholars and Kooks: A Few Simple Guidelines for Journalists in Popular Media

There seems to be some great confusion in the public media about the definition of ‘scholar’ and what it means, how it is actually used, and to whom it applies.  When it comes to defining ‘scholars’, journalists seem to have the hardest time actually determining who fits the bill; those that actually have earned that title are confused, for instance, with scientists (and are sometimes labeled as such), whereas those with no credibility whatsoever are given the esteemed honor of being a ‘scholar’ or ‘historian’ or ‘expert’.

This became clear ages ago, but over the last few years this phenomenon has really picked up with some frightening speed.  Clearly so is the example of how the Elkington’s (and their fake lead codices) were labeled as ‘Egyptologists’ (a title given to someone with a graduate or PhD degree in the field of Egyptology), ‘Biblical Scholars’, and ‘experts’. More recently this has been the case with Mr. Joe Atwill (who incidentally calls himself a ‘Biblical Scholar’).  In the hope of clarifying this issue for the press and laypeople out there who may not know what words mean, I’ve devised this post.

First, a layperson who self-publishes a book on something isn’t an ‘expert’.  They may be considered an enthusiast, an amateur, a hobbyist, a thrill-seeker.  These are polite titles.  More often than not, however, people who only self-publish do so because they do not want to have their ideas vetted by pesky things like editors, peers, or actual experts.  So less polite, but certainly more accurate, titles for many of these sorts of individuals might be ‘conspiracy theorist’, ‘loon’, or ‘Indiana Jones Wanna-be’ (actually this isn’t a complement).

Second, let us stop calling the self-published tomes of these sorts of people, who have zero credibility, ‘theses’.  This isn’t a thesis. To a layperson, with no background in the relevant field, any claim or argument that is new to them will appear to be ground-breaking.  That doesn’t mean that it is actually new, or useful, or even correct.

The purpose of peer review, of academic vetting, is to determine how well an argument or hypothesis can withstand criticism.  If the author of this book does not bother to go through this process, even unofficially, by having his book examined by experts prior to publication, then s/he does not have any grounds to claim that it is anything spectacular. That isn’t to say that an uncredentialed person cannot produce a solid book on a subject.  It may actually be ground-breaking, it may be earth-shattering, but if it hasn’t been vetted by other people with credentials then there is no means by which one can claim that it is.

Third, if you are ever unsure about whether or not someone has produced a new theory, and you are curious if this individual is trustworthy, as a journalist you have several options: (1) Google their CV—if they have a CV, check to see if they have some credibility (are academically published, have formal education or training in the relevant fields, etc…), (2) if you don’t trust Google, ask other scholars (your local University has them; they are underpaid—but they will help you), (3) engage with the material yourself (instead of, you know, just republishing the PR Web article or press release without any critical thoughts about it), (4) provide a basic caveat emptor that you are (presumably, as a journalist) not qualified to judge the arguments in the book and request your readers investigate the issue on their own critically, (5) don’t automatically label them as a Scholar, but look for signs (do they have a graduate degree or doctorate? Have they at least been published academically? Have they some engagement with scholars in a critical way? Are other scholars—not laypeople—praising their work? Aim for at least two of these three things before giving an individual press time).

What is perhaps most important to remember is that what you write will resonate with laypeople—your work, as journalists for professional news outlets, gives legitimacy to an idea.  So choose wisely and carefully.  It is your responsibility to examine the individual and the sources and their theories before you write on them.  If you fail to do so, you fail your audience.  The second you publish that article, it will be shared one-hundred, one-thousand, perhaps tens-of-thousands of times during its lifespan (before being dumped into a pay-wall archive).  So please, for the love of Pete, take the time needed to make sure that you are not putting a crank and their crazy conspiracy theory on a pedestal before you publish.  There is nothing more embarrassing for a journalist, I imagine, than highlighting a concept that is absolutely beyond credible.  And it drives people like me, who take history seriously, to drink.

(Author’s Note: I think it is important to state here that I have been diligent, over the past few years, to correct people about my credentials–those who confuse me for a scholar or an expert, I am quick to point out to them that, while I am a student, and I am in the guild, and I am academically published, that does not ipso facto make me an expert, a scholar, or professional historian.  When I publish, I vet my scholarship against other qualified, credible people so I know that what I put out to the guild is interesting and useful.  I haven’t always been so careful; in my past, I have made mistakes–quite similar to those made by Atwill, Ellis, Elkington, Jacobovici, and others–and I have worked hard to correct them.  So this all comes from experience; experience in the guild and outside the guild.  I think that this is vital: even though I could, by all means, consider myself a historian–as both a member of the guild and as a published academic–I refuse to do so until I have the laurels and the degrees to back that up.  This is the difference between who I was, and who I am; it is the difference also between Atwill and me.)

‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’ Now in North America!

ISD (twitter and Facebook) has informed me that ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’ has finally hit the shores of North America and you can get it at a huge discount!


Click to embiggen.

20% off!  Consider ordering your copy directly from ISD, follow the instructions in the image, cut out the middle man, save 20%, and get your copy sooner!  Sounds like a superb deal to me.

They also asked me a series of questions yesterday and I thought I’d share with you their questions (slightly modified for formatting) and my answers in full below:

  • ISD: I was hoping you might be interested in providing a personal statement about compiling the book.

Tom: ‘Is This Not the Carpenter?’ was a project that started five years ago and was my first step into academia.  It was definitely a labor of love for Thomas and I, and I am pleased to say that we both survived the project.

  • ISD: What were some of your experiences?

Tom: Besides owing a huge debt to my colleague and co-editor Thomas L. Thompson, I couldn’t have asked for a better group of contributors, all of whom are just superb human beings; they were all very patient with me despite my lack of experience.  I will say that my first time indexing reminded me of Hell Week when I attended Valley Forge Military Academy–except it lasted for a lot longer than one week and I got less sleep.

  • ISD: What you’ve learned from this project?

Tom: As an undergrad working with some really amazing scholars–Thomas Thompson of course, Roland Boer, Emanuel Pfoh, Niels Peter Lemche, Mogens Muller, James Crossley, everyone who contributed to the volume really–who are all very well established, I took away a lot from this project.  Besides developing a greater appreciation for the scholarship of all those involved, the most important lesson I’ve taken away from this project is the need for patience.

  • ISD: Why are your passionate about the subject?

Tom: I can’t think of a time in my life where I’ve never had an interest in history; my love of the ancient past is perhaps just deeper than my love of, say, American history.  I think it has a lot to do with the questions that are being asked–every person living today comes from an ancient family line; we are all descendents of some great empire or another that thrived thousands of years ago.  Digging into that ancient history, in a lot of ways, brings me closer to those ancestors. .  In other words, I don’t view history as a random series of dates or names. It is so much more personal than that.  History, for me anyway, is the study of the human experience.  And I feel that needs to be protected for my children, and their children, and so on.  Of course, I’m an idealist and probably far too optimistic for my own good.

On Using Terms Like ‘Incompetent’ to Describe Others in Academia

You all know the drill.  Someone disagrees with an argument made by someone else and they decide this person must be ‘incompetent’ because their argument is different.

This. Has. Got. To. Stop.

This tactic helps exactly zero people.  Unless someone is just plain wrong (i.e., they place the fall of Jerusalem in 40 CE, or something comparable which is completely bonkers, and they defend this point without any evidence), this polemical attack does nothing but alienate sides farther from each other without any real benefit to the audience.  Case in point:

“I will write a complete response to McGrath’s entire review in a future post. However, for now I am incensed enough at his outright incompetence (or is it plain old intellectual dishonesty?) and failure to write a straight and truthful account of Brodie’s Memoir that I will address just one of his remarks.”

Now whether or not James McGrath is missing something, or he is not reading Brodie sympathetically, or he is merely interpreting Brodie differently, is obviously an important part of a discussion.  But this does not ipso facto implicate James as ‘incompetent’ (he isn’t) or ‘dishonest’ (simply because he disagrees with something).  James holds advanced degrees which he could not have earned had he been incompetent (incompetence is when someone barely passes or fails a course–these people don’t generally find work in academia and I doubt many could write a successful dissertation) and he would never have received his Bachelors had he been dishonest (dishonest people are the sort who copy-verbatim-Wikipedia articles and turn them in as assignments; this is something I’ve witnessed happening in my own classes).

So let’s be clear.  James is not incompetent and he is not dishonest.  Is James perhaps guilty of not fully reading the material on which he writes?  Perhaps.  He has been called on this before–but this doesn’t make him incompetent.  It doesn’t make him dishonest.  And if one were to simply direct James to the information responsibly–you know, like civil human beings will do–then James can then correct or amend his claims based upon information he may have missed.  As an academic, James has many responsibilities–responsibilities that an amateur like Mr. Godfrey cannot understand fully (as he does not have these same responsibilities–nor would he likely want them).  But this is why so little is ever fruitful in conversations with Mr. Godfrey.  Every response James gives, regardless of its tone, is understood by Mr. Godfrey as an attack or assault upon some cherished belief.  He will likely interpret this very post as some aggressive move against him, rather than the constructive criticism it is.

So maybe we can start treating each other with a little more respect here?  Maybe we can do away with all the polemical name calling?  It is intolerable and I find that I have a hard time reading through all the vitriol to find the point that is being made.

Tackling a Storm God: A Deist’s Impression of Yahweh and the Control over Weather

1. The Crisis

On May 20th, an F5 tornado wrecked havoc in the community of Moore, Oklahoma. Scores of people died, including children; the tornado spared little. Through the devastation, a community mourned together and united, an inspiring story that has brought tales of heroism and perseverance in the face of such a catastrophic event. But like a Classical Greek play, a divine force takes a strong role as the great and powerful rod of Justice and Vengeance. This time, however, the narrative is just too annoying for me to stay out of it.

There are three sides of this story represented in the media, by talking heads and pundits, that make up this little ancient tragedy redivivus: (1) On the main stage is Yahweh, the omnipotent, destroyer of the wicked and/or savior to the fallen, but there are also (2) the fundamentalist, ultra-conservative Christian Army and (3) the disbelieving, anti-Religion, secularists who are both trying to spin this disaster to fit a preconceived notion about how the universe works and which forces govern the weather. It is a story that has played out in nearly every tragedy. I’m not saying who I think is right or wrong, but I do think that there is a serious mental lapse happening in both groups. As a agnostic deist, I have one foot in heaven and one foot in hell, and I’m quite content here; but it does give me, I believe, an interesting perspective on the situation and, frankly, I’m just too annoyed by all the polemics and rhetoric to not get involved.

2. The Blame Game

During the 2nd Century CE, Marcus Aurelius launched an assault on the Quadi, a Germanic tribe that had successfully routed a Roman Legion and laid siege to a town before being driven back by Aurelius’ army. During this assault, the Quadi had gained the upper hand. At one point, his army starving, dehydrated, and near defeat–surrounded on all sides by a vicious enemy intent on killing them, Marcus Aurelius humbly prayed to the gods for help. Within moments, a sudden storm brewed on the horizon and quickly started to drench the tired, thirsty Romans. Thunder crackled above them and giant lightning bolts seemed to be hurtling down into the ranks of the Quadi–some were struck, others scattered; the Romans, taking this as a sign, pressed forward and won the day.

A relief from the Column of Marcus Aurelius is a contemporary witness to the event; Notice a god hovering over the Roman legion, water raining down from his arms and body, with soldiers lifting up their shields so they might be filled with water.

This may sound like a fantasy story. In fact, the event probably did happen. Rainstorms, thunder and lightning, are all common natural phenomena and on hot days these storms can build up and strike without warning. Testaments to the event are highlighted by minted coins immediately following the victory honoring the gods and a relief on the column of Marcus Aurelius. Cassius Dio also tells us of the event, though his version of the tale is lost–possibly because of the weathering of time or because it was purposefully removed by Christians who wanted to have a monopoly on a god who grants miracles.

The reason I would consider that second possibility is because the only version of the story from Dio that we have available to us is one by an 11th century Christian monk named Xiphilinus (who, clearly, had copies of Dio’s tale). He accuses Dio of lying and suggests that, in reality, it was a Christian who prayed to Yahweh who then granted his wish and destroyed the enemy; in these fantasy stories, the kingly figure (in this case Marcus Aurelius) then is said–per Xiphilinus–to have bowed down and thanked Yahweh for his life-giving miracle. [If this sounds familiar, it is because there is a similar story (sans weather, but still miraculous) in Josephus concerning Alexander the Great.]

Do you see what he did there? He took one miracle story for the Roman pagans and made it all about Christianity. You may (aptly) be asking what this has to do with Oklahoma. Everything, unfortunately. As with the rain storm that saved Aurelius’ legion, due to the exceptional nature of the event, everyone feels the urge to look for deeper meaning. Though unlike Jupiter, who flies over the thirsty soldiers giving them a storm of life-giving rain, certain Christian groups have suggested that Yahweh has instead reverted back to his Old Testament ways, destroying towns and killing people because he is angry and vengeful. This is no idle position; for these Christians, they have Biblical support for this claim.

God floods the earth by opening the gates of heaven. Not so different than sending tornadoes towards populated towns.

In Genesis 19.24, God reigns fire down from the heavens. And in Exodus 9.23, Moses calls upon Yahweh to send forth a storm upon the land–which Yahweh does, causing it to thunder and lightning, rain and hail. Again in 1 Samuel 12.18, Samuel asks God to send a storm and once more he does this. Why all the storming? Because Yahweh is, after all, a storm god. No more clearly is this a thing than in 1 Kings 8, where Elijah has a ‘God duel’ with the prophets of Baal (another storm god). As it goes, Yahweh wins by ending a drought that has strangled the land by sending a storm. Yahweh controls the weather; the Bible is very clear on this. The sky is his domain, so much so that Moses has to climb a mountain to be with him (something akin to other storm god motifs–like Zeus on Mt. Olympus [also recent evidence suggests people gave offerings to Zeus at Mount Lykaion]). Indeed, Jesus’ command over the storm at the sea of Galilee and his ability to perform water miracles is a testament in the author’s portrayals to their recognition of Yahweh as a god of the storms and weather.

These storms are often associated with devastation–not salvation. So is it any wonder why highly religious people, like Pat Robertson, put the blame of the destruction of the storm on the victims for not praying as often as they should? Is anyone really surprised that Westboro Baptist Church blames a gay man for the wrath of god? They are merely following with the trope of the storm god so eerily laid out in the Bible. After all, something goes against god and god sends a lightning bolt at you (or a storm, or a drought–his call). Let me be clear, as these individuals are resting their understanding of the temperament and morality of god on the Bible, they aren’t wrong in their interpretation.

But atheists and other secularists in their own way have abused this to fit their agendas as well. One atheist group, rather than raising the money to support all the victims, thought it proper to raise several thousand dollars only for a single victim–a poor woman who had the misfortune of being mistaken for a Christian during an embarrassing interview with Wolf Blitzer–because she came out publicly as an atheist.

The interesting bit is that the Christian fundamentalists and the atheists are all asking the same thing: If god is all powerful, then why did this happen? It is a valuable question that deserves some consideration.

3. The Logical Problems of a Omnipotent God and Weather Catastrophes

This is where the whole logic of mainstream Christianity gets a little choppy. Following the tornado, many Christians called for prayer, but also the condemnation of Pat Robertson and others who are so quick to put the power of the storm in god’s hands. On the face of it, I see no problems with prayer and I certainly see no problem criticizing fundamentalists who put the blame for tragedy on innocent people. But let’s consider this for a moment; a lot of people–even Christians–are quick to criticize Pat Robert and Fred Phelps, Jr. because of their interpretations of the events but how many have considered the irony of their own religious ideals in light of the incident?

In one moment there is praying for the families of the victims (which, again, I get and appreciate the implications of it)–presumably to Yahweh, right?–and in the next there is criticism of the people placing the blame on the community for inciting god’s wrath. Do you, humble reader, see the problem?

I do not mind laying it all out: If god can have control over the weather–I’m presuming he can based upon the Biblical account of god–what good is praying to him *after* the events of the storm? Additionally, if he can’t control the weather, then what good is saying a prayer? The damage is already done and the souls of those departed are already due to be judged upon their own merits. But there is a far more twisted issue here; the issue that if god can control the weather–why allow tornadoes in the first place? Why not just create a planet where tornadoes aren’t a thing? Surely he could do that. If I can imagine it, surely the all-mighty can too.

This is where I just can’t fathom this sort of belief; and while I appreciate the tone of articles like this (John Byron), I also find fault with the logic of it. It is a challenge–especially when we’re talking about the death of children. The problem is that this realization–that an all-powerful god that controls the weather allowed this to occur (or had a hand in it) is downright disconcerting for people–it makes them uncomfortable because no god that they’d believe in would be so cruel or apathetic, and so they vehemently disagree to the point where it actually contradicts their own faith-arguments. And that is a good thing; I’m glad that most Christians are morally astute enough to recognize the Bible’s wrongness about weather patterns and natural disasters. But that does raise some problems for the believer, doesn’t it? It did for me.


“…and also I hate you.”

Certainly commentators have anticipated this; FOX News posted this article up, for example, claiming that the ‘practicality’ of faith and prayer rests in other peoples’ recognition of that faith, ergo they give generously (which, by the way, is absurd). In the Washington Post, a Christian author wrote a piece where he asks ‘Where was God?’ and his answer, though hollow, goes:

Human beings may not know all the answers of “why” God allows natural disasters or other evils in the universe. Although we personally would prefer that such disasters never occurred in the universe, we recognize intellectually that angry feelings towards tornadoes does not logically disprove God’s existence.

And he is certainly right in one respect–tornadoes do not disprove a god. In fact, for the strong believer tornadoes and destructive weather only further strengthen their faith in a deity like Yahweh the storm god of the Hebrew Bible. But Dave Sterrett, the author of this article, is wrong if he thinks that such catastrophe does not lay the foundations of doubt over an all-loving god. He writes, “The atheist is often assuming that if God is all good, then He would prefer to create a world without evil than to create a world in which evil exists.” But Sterrett doesn’t know his opponent well if this is what he thinks an atheist or secularist might argue.

Instead, the atheist is correct that an all-loving god would not intentionally send a storm to kill people, destroy their lives, ruin their homes, and kill their children. There is no love in such an act–and Sterrett must know this or he would not have resorted to a ‘mystery of god’ position (as in, ‘we can’t know why god does these things,…’) which is as absurd as the claim made by FOX that it is people’s faith–not their morality–that they give aid and comfort to the victims.

4. The Take-Away

In my humble opinion, the question shouldn’t be ‘why didn’t god stop the tornado?’ or ‘why did god allow this tornado to happen?’. The greater question–and one that is so often ignored–is, ‘what does this tragedy tell us about one another?’ What can we learn about how we deal with tragedy that might save us grief and sorrow in the future?

Through the clouds of wrath and flame I see a light–no, not god per se. I have no intentions of anthropomorphizing god. I do not indulge myself–as the artists of Aurelius’ column and the Christian monk Xiphilinus have done–in the process of finding god in the throes of destruction, and nor do I seek out god in the joy of wondrous actions. For me, as a deist, I’m content with naturalistic explanations for the goings-on of the world. No, I do not see god lifting crates of water. I don’t see god directing a tornado towards a school full of children either. Instead I see the light of humanity. I am not tied to certain dogmatic truths about a figure such as god–religiously or atheistically.

While some people are content with blaming god or blaming certain types of people they don’t like (I’d love to blame this on the absolute travesty that is the way education in the arts is being thrown away in this country–but I shall refrain). Storm systems exist on this planet like any other planet. We live in a universe that is not primarily geared towards supporting life; our existence might be nothing more than a byproduct of its main goal (and oddly enough, that may be why the universe is more suited towards the development of black holes).

Black holes snack on planets with masses much larger than Jupiter.

At the end of the day, what we find is that god is not the one keeping the lights on or the roof secure over our heads–at least, not directly. Seldom can Catholics and humanists agree on anything, yet when it comes to giving aid both groups have stepped up and provided help to those whose lives are devastated as a result of the weather. I do not attribute this to god, though perhaps some of you will. Instead I see the value in working together towards a common goal, putting aside pettiness and differences to help those who need it–to help other people for the sake of being good. Is that not a worthy goal? Is that not morally right? Can we stop the divisive language and work on rebuilding because it is the right thing to do?


See this (Joel Watts).

What if the King had Conceded to Colonial Demands?

In response to my last article on the causes of the Revolutionary War, a friend on twitter asked me (in twitter speak, so revised):  ‘What if King George had granted representation and a few of the colonist’s demands, would the war have happened?’  It was an interesting thought experiment, though I could not give a veritable answer in 120 characters, therefore blogging it only seemed appropriate.

However, I must stress that this sort of activity is stepping into the realm of science fiction; unlike some students of history, I do not presume to be omniscient.  I’m no Hegelian (re: imperialist determinist), not even by a stretch.  There is no way to no definitively what could or would have happened, supposing things had gone differently in, say, 1773.  Still I do think that understanding the sociological framework for the war itself can lend some clues to one possible alternate future (and I’m no J.J. Abrams either, just for the record–though Abrams may be a Hegelian for all I know). With that caveat fresh in the reader’s mind, we can proceed.

1. An Adequately Understood Timeline

A lot of back-and-forth took place between the crown and the colonies.  Most of it had been divisive and none had been missed on either side.  As far back as the 1760’s, rumors and actions led to suspicions of one another; the British accused the colonists of trading with the enemy during the French and Indian war and the Americans were increasingly upset with the continued loss of property and lives on the frontier settlements.  Worse, the British navy increasingly became abusive to New Englanders as a result of these rumors, often blaming them for all sorts of things as a result.  Their assaults on individuals spread through newspapers and incited unease among the population.

Then came taxes.  It is important to keep in mind that as far as the tax rate goes, the colonists had it pretty good.  The figures suggest that the colonists paid less taxes than those on the British mainland, and rightly so as they had more expenses–especially following the war, along with rebuilding destroyed estates and hiring a workforce and purchasing new lands with which to farm and subsequently supply Britain with continued goods.   Economically it made sense to allow the lower tax rates.  But as time went on, despite the low amount that was due, more taxes continued to pile up on things that previously had not been taxed.  Stamps, tea, glass–things that were necessary for living started getting a little pricier.

Again, it was not the money that was an issue; for the colonists it seems it had to do more with the principle of it.  Things perhaps would not have been so dire had there been 13 representatives in parliament, elected by the colonists, to speak on their behalf.  As a consequence, the levied taxes–and the arrival of troops and a fleet of war ships–felt unjustified and harsh, as well as unfounded.  Town meetings were held (legally) and votes were cast; individuals started boycotting the purchase of British goods.

The situation went from bad to worse, as the population–especially in New England–grew mortified by the actions of the King.  Things became violent.  As public outrage grew against the crown and the Loyalist enforcers, groups of people started to work against the British more openly.  Crowds gathered, effigies were hung with symbolic messages attached, Paul Revere worked on several engravings which would continue to spur resistance (like the one below).

Engraving from Paul Revere, adapted from an English original (click to enlarge).

It is important to note that localities in America had already started to move towards developing their own governing laws without consultation–and often in direct defiance of–parliament.  Patrick Henry had moved to resolve the current tax acts in place and commanded for the established bureaucracy in Virginia the powers to impose and enforce taxes, for example (though these were rescinded by conservative members the next day), and certain congresses had arisen to do the same in other colonies.   Then came the response in 1766 from Great Britain: the the Declaratory Act.  This act stated (re: reaffirmed) that all individuals were under the sole providence of the King and as subordinates under the dominion of Great Britain, all should recognize that only the crown has authority and power.  As one can imagine, this quite enraged the people of America further.

 Within four years time, from 1766 to 1770, life in the colonies was overshadowed by their ‘big brother’ with additional taxes and acts being supplemented.  But in 1770 the Boston Massacre occurred.  This incident set off a new series of events that launched the colonies towards independence and war at a much faster pace.  In 1772, the Gaspee Affair occurred–remembering the way that British naval officials had treated them years before (and continued to treat them), a few hundred individuals rushed the schooner Gaspee, killed the commander of the vessel, and burned it in the harbor.

After the Stamp Act (top), came the anti-Stamp Act movement which included a public display of defiance against the British (the hanging of an effigy of a colonist chosen to enforce the act in 1765, which led eventually to the Boston Massacre in 1770--five years later.

After the Stamp Act (top), came the Anti-Stamp Act movement which included public displays of defiance against the British (e.g., the hanging of an effigy of a colonist chosen to enforce the act in 1765), which led eventually to the Boston Massacre in 1770–five years later.

In 1773, the Boston Tea Party stood in direct opposition to the taxes on tea, instituted by the crown in favor of the debt-accruing East India Company, sparked additional support and rage from colonists.  Again, we must keep in mind that tensions were considerably high–a lot had occurred in several years time that had rubbed both sides the wrong way.  With mounting resolve, parliament instituted additional acts to quell rebellion and subdue the Sons of Liberty.  But these ‘intolerable acts’ would only further incite insurrection, leading to the first Continental Congress in 1774 and the perhaps inevitable confrontation one year later at Lexington and Concord.

2. What If?

I know that last section was long.  But remember, we’re trying to figure out what would have happened if the King had just accepted the demands of the colonists and without some background there is no way to do that.  But now, it seems, we all have some adequate information on the various milieux of the period.  So what if?

For me, the question should also be a matter of ‘when’.  When would the King consider this request?  Would it be after the French and Indian war, when the colonists had sacrificed so much–and prior to the institution of the Stamp Act?  Would it have been following the Stamp Act in 1765?  After the Boston Tea Party in 1773?  When the King would have considered these requests and at which point he would have permitted the colonist’s demands will ultimately bear upon our answer, would it not?

This may never have materialized.

Had the King chosen, following the French and Indian war, to bring representatives in for each colony in America, it seems less likely that a war would have broken out at the time it did.  It may be that a war would have happened later–but those circumstances are, obviously, unknown to us so presuming such a thing is not recommended.  Still, had this been done early on, there is a greater chance that public opinion would not have wavered so fervently towards independence.  After all, what reason would they have to complain?  Taxes were low and even if new taxes were instigated, it would have been at the hands of their elected officials–not the crown itself.  Additionally, the Sons of Liberty might never had formed, meaning that Paul Revere’s engravings and the tactics of his constituents to instill a sense of rebellion would never have come to pass.  There would not have been a Boston Massacre, a Tea Party, etc…. a form of peace would have probably been the status quo.

Now, had the King considered this premise in the early 1770’s, chances are likely that the war would have happened anyway–perhaps it would not have occurred the same way (such as the battles at Lexington and Concord) but it may have played out in a different manner and, quite possibly, with more egregious consequences; maybe France would not have felt the urgency to get involved, which would have meant no incoming supplies like weapons and munitions, leading to a Continental defeat.

What remains is merely speculation.  There is no one solution to the question(s); had the King displayed some leniency towards the colonists at all, it is always possible that history might have played out differently.  But this is precisely why we study the past.  We have the luxury, hundreds of years later, to enact these sorts of mental exercises.  The colonists certainly did mull it over.  Rightly, they could have fought back in 1770 following the Boston Massacre, but they waited, delegated, and considered options.  There are implications for that as well (e.g., that enough people were against a war that they allowed Great Britain additional liberties to tax them and attempt to contain them).

In the end, and I stress this again, the war was never about a single issue–it was about a build up of multiple issues over a long period of time.  Primarily, it was the result of a monarchy treating the colonists like second rate people; there existed no equality between the colonists and the British even though they had shed the same blood defending the land over which, later, they would fight (and shed blood again).  If one were to take anything away from this experiment, it should be this solemn fact.

The American Revolution Was NOT About Modern Issues

I was born and raised just a handful of miles from where General Sullivan started his long (and doomed) campaign north against the native Iroquois Confederacy and the British; in the town where I was raised, there lived a Declaration of Independence signer and on one day every year, ‘Heritage Day’, we celebrate the fact that where we live, over 200 years ago, was one of only three locations where the Declaration of Independence was publicly read.  A few miles west of me, the Liberty Bell was carried and hidden during the British occupation of Philadelphia.

Modern view of the Forks of the Delaware.

And the county in which I lived raised 9 companies to fight in the continental line, and one of those individuals is my direct ancestor.  Of those individuals raised to fight in the militia, almost all my direct ancestors were called to duty (though not all saw action).  My childhood home rested on what was once Leni-Lenape territory; land that was, in a large sense, stolen from them by the family of William Penn.  The area, called the Forks of the Delaware, was where the Treaty of Easton was signed, and where during the 1760’s, dozens of settlers were forced to flee their land, their homes, because of raids by the natives–some were killed.  General La Fayette, George Washington, and Benjamin Franklin were among those who visited the town and spent time in its local establishments.

I raise these points because I want to be clear that not only do I have an keen interest in the American Revolution, but I have practically grown up around symbols and places directly related to it.  Anyone with a sliver of situational awareness, who comes into my hometown, is immediately aware of its rich history.  Even the very flag of our town is modeled after the stars and stripes (13 of each).  One might say all this history is what spurred me on my own research.

Flag of Easton, PA (cir. 1776?)

One of the most important functions of the historian is to be able to explain why things happen–not just that they happen.  Sometimes it is important to express that something that is believed to have happened actually never happened at all.  In this way, the historian must always follow the evidence and not simply presume something based upon preconceived notions.  When it comes to the American Revolution, it takes a real patriot (in my humble opinion) to recognize the complexity and nuance of the times rather than presuming a fantasy or mythology about it.

One of things you learn is that a lot of our modern mythology of the period comes from after the time of the Revolution.  It is situated first upon America’s second war with the British–the War of 1812–and before and after the American Civil War, when many of the veterans of the Revolutionary War were dying (much like our present situation with veterans of WWII–basically 60-80 years after the war ended).  What we had were concerned citizens who started to realize that the founding of our nation–used so poetically during the War of 1812 and the American Civil War–may be lost to posterity if histories and biographies and lineages weren’t put to paper immediately.  And what followed were grandiose accounts of heroism and embellishments of deeds–not often by the veterans themselves, but certainly by those taking notes.  A picture of a perfect American movement were formulated in the minds of readers everywhere.  But this world is not one founded upon fact; it is a ‘master story’ wherein the sitz im leben and the cultural milieux of the day are all forsaken for what is essentially a world based in propaganda.

The issues of independence were not always black and white; the grey area between the extremes was the frontier farmer who–though a pacifist–was forced to fight a war which pulled him away from his family, leaving them vulnerable to British and native attacks.  It was the the burning of native villages and the murder of their people that helped forge this nation; while people were decrying British tyranny, they were murdering native women and children (though native attacks were just as brutal).  It had been luck–sometimes more than tactical advantage–that had brought victory for beleaguered and wary continentals on the battlefield.  And without the aid of the French (granting us arms and soldiers to fight, and experience with which to train Continental troops) who knows what might have happened.  The British were not the only enemy that had been faced; local corrupt government officials, put in place by opportunity, were as ruthless as some of the British dragoons.

In our modern time, these issues–our ancestors’ issues–are relatively unknown to the masses who wave their flags on the 4th of July.  Instead, anachronistically, certain individuals will try to make their own petty issues the issues of the patriots who fought to create this nation.  Like spoilt children, these modern day ‘tea baggers’ attempt to subjugate the past; they confuse ‘not always getting what they want’ with ‘tyranny’ and don’t have the slightest clue what the word ‘tyranny’ means.  They link modern hot-button topics like gun control and women’s rights to the Revolution, as if Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson and John Adams got together because the British were trying to enact stricter regulations on the sale and distribution of firearms (they weren’t), or as if Patrick Henry decried ‘Give me liberty, or give me death!–because I don’t want a public option or universal healthcare!’  The absurdity of it is astonishing (and speaks to the troubles of America’s education system–clearly standardized testing has failed us).

No, this hasn’t happened and no, it won’t happen.

At the time of the American Revolution (which broke out in 1775, not 1776 as some of these website owners seem to think), the British had troops in country already. In other words, aggressive foreign troops were on colonial soil–we don’t have that problem in the contemporary United States.  Additionally, the issue of representation was really important.  The problem was not that American colonists had to pay taxes (the taxes, compared to Englishmen on the mainland, were relatively low) but that they were unfairly taxed without any representation in parliament.  In these contemporary United States, we have so much representation we don’t know what to do with it all (and barely anyone writes to congressmen anymore and not everyone who can vote does vote–essentially nullifying the whole purpose of having representation).

The modern myth is that the American government is acting tyrannically.  But the problem with this myth is that the government is “of the people, by the people”.  We elect our own officials every few years.  We have a series of checks and balances in place precisely to prohibit a dictatorship.  And yet somehow–in some bizarrely paranoid and delusional worldview–there exist individuals in this country who actually believe that the United States government is a tyrannical one lead by a ruthless dictator (that the majority of this country elected twice).  Since these individuals are partially responsible for the government (you know, since we have free and open elections), one has to wonder what that says about them.

The irony here is that those involved in the Tea Party do not seem to have a grasp of what the term ‘patriot’ means, nor do they even seem to be able to follow their own rhetoric.   Their website claims that they are a ‘grassroots’ organization, but the Koch Brothers’–who help found the organization–are anything but (as their activities suggest).  Their claim that they are a 501(c)4 organization that does not endorse political candidates is simply false.  They claim that they want limited government help, but that doesn’t stop members from collecting from the government any chance they can get.


If I can be so bold, the only thing this modern day Tea Party has in common with the founding patriots of this country is the level of illiteracy (if their constant grammatical and spelling errors are anything to go by) and the style of clothes (though Revolutionary War patriots didn’t hang tea from their hats).   Their concept of a Neocon or Libertarian system was so foreign to the founders that they would not have recognized it as a legitimate form of government; instead they used the ideals most commonly associated with French revolutionary and philosophical thinking and the Bill of Rights was most dependent upon Classical ideals of democracy (though in a form of a Representative Republic).  Interestingly enough, the modern Neocon movement is one that would take away representation from the people and place it in the hands of the wealthy elite.  These are the same people supported by the Tea Party (who claim falsely that they were hijacked by Neocons, but in actuality their founders *are* Neocons).

To bring this back around, the most glaring (and damning) missive came from Michele Bachman (whose conspiracy theories always amuse me) who claimed that the POTUS had released information about the IRS “scandal” (of which it is not) as a way to ‘wag the dog’.  But ‘wagging the dog’ is something that conservatives have been doing since the days of Bush II.

If you haven’t seen ‘Wag the Dog‘ (1997), you should.  Robert De Niro stars in the film, so you know that someone is getting shot.  The premise is a simple one (yet prescient): How do you keep power when the country doesn’t like you (through either a scandal or something else)?  You use the media to spin something new; you start a fictional war.   You create an incident, you rally support by claiming you’re a patriot, and then fabricate a war which, under the guise of patriotism, is entirely supported by a populace who does not want to be considered a traitor (or condemned as committing treason).  Ring any particularly loud bells It should.

Michele Bachman’s base are precisely the group most ‘wagged’ by the dog.  They steal the language of the American Revolution to fit their own selfish means; words such as ‘patriot’, ‘liberty’, ‘tyranny’, ‘freedom’ and they alter the meaning of these words, take them out of context, and utilize them to justify their own political agendas.  Granted, both parties do this, but I don’t ever recall seeing Obama in a whig and tricorne.

In my opinion, modern day Tea Partiers have hijacked and diminished the vital roles of our ancestors and disgraced their sacrifices–and for what?  For more corporate power over the American worker, who cannot get a job because Tea-Party-backed legislators are making it easier to send work overseas?  For lower wages for the American family so poverty is a bigger issue in this country?  For poor healthcare and zero accountability?  The Tea Party would demolish all the progress this country has made; they seek to deny rights to others so fervently by spouting slogans like ‘read the constitution!’ and ‘protect our rights!’  And they would so eagerly forget about the religious oppression which drove so many of our ancestors to the port cities of the United States–like Boston, New York, and Philadelphia–to escape such persecution; they forget this, and then demand more religion in our modern government.

The real tragedy here is that they fail to see how completely inconsistent their own rhetoric has become; America is not rushing in to confiscate their weapons (though they have no problem wearing assault rifles in public, around children), no one is shutting them down, they still publicly assemble–their rights are still firmly intact, all the while lamenting them as if they have already been stolen away.

The hanging of an effigy of a Stamp Distributor.

In conclusion, we need to stop allowing this sort of rhetoric to continue.  If it seems as though I’m bringing the hammer down hard on the Tea Party, or that I’m being unfair, it is only because they are the ones so adamant about using this rhetoric.  To be clear, and I must stress this, liberals should not be using rhetoric of the founding fathers either.  However, the Tea Party seems to have completely adopted this rhetoric and have most prominently used it and that is problematic.  No current political party in the public eye has any basis for which to claim solidarity with the Sons of Liberty.  We just don’t live in such a world anymore; our policies, our goals, our sitz im leben is not theirs.  They fought and died so we wouldn’t have to face such challenges again.  Despite protestations from the Tea Party, we still don’t face those challenges.  We have, instead, a whole new range of challenges ahead of us and hijacking the past to incite the present is just plain dishonest.

On the Problem of Free Will and Original Sin

In a conversation about this post, someone remarked to me that god made man in his own image.  There are a lot of implications to this position, but the most troubling for me is the concept of original sin and free will.  So god creates man in the image of himself (so his pattern), but man has the ability to sin.  Ergo god has the ability to sin (because we’re made from his pattern).  It also implies (a) god is not perfect (we are not perfect), (b) god can be evil (we can be evil), (c) god can make mistakes (we make mistakes), and so on.

But perhaps the most troubling position here is the rather absurd way god is portrayed.  That is to say, god is portrayed as a vindictive megalomaniac with serious social and commitment issues.  Think about the Genesis account: God makes the world, god makes man, god tells man he is ruler over the other living things on earth so long as he does not commit sin (eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil) even though god made the tree and made man with the ability to eat from the tree. Does god create Satan or does he share the same preexistence as god?  Either way, god creates woman, Satan convinces woman to eat from the tree, woman convinces man to eat from the tree (that god put there), man and woman commit sin, god casts them out from paradise with all these problems (pain during childbirth, working the soil and toiling for survival, etc…).

Now, let me situate this in an analogy focusing on one aspect of creation; that is to say, the idea of creation itself.  Suppose you have all the powers of god for a moment. You decide to create a Ford truck. But what you really want is a Cadillac. You can’t blame the truck. So then you scrap the truck and make another truck, but this time you give it the ability to change into a Cadillac–but then it doesn’t do that, it stays a truck. Still, it isn’t the truck’s fault! You created the damn thing as a truck! Finally, let’s say you scrap the truck, create another truck with the ability to change into a Cadillac, and then try to show it all the amazing benefits it would have it would just change into a Cadillac–and if it doesn’t change into a Cadillac you’re going to burn it in hell for all eternity. But despite your pettiness and threatening tone, the truck remains a truck and in the end you’ve only proven you are a hopeless megalomaniac with sadistic tendencies. You still cannot blame the truck–if you wanted a Cadillac so badly, you just should have made a Cadillac.

If that isn’t twisted enough, how about the whole ‘temptation’ bit in the forest?  Consider this carefully now and don’t just react to what I’m saying.  Give it some thought while reading this analogy.

Let’s say your a parent.  You bake a batch of cookies and place them on the kitchen counter.  You then take your 4 year old and put them in the kitchen and, before leaving, you tell them to not eat the cookies from the cookie jar.  They have free reign of the kitchen, but they can’t eat from the cookie jar.  Then you walk out and lock the child and the cookies in the kitchen behind you.

Now let’s take a moment to reflect: 4 year old, kitchen, cookie jar (not tucked away in some cabinet, but sitting in a reachable position).  Let’s also presume that you have omniscient powers (like god is supposed to have, according to the bible, e.g., “…for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.” [1 John 3.20] and”The Lord certainly knows everything that people do; he knows their imaginations and their thoughts and their hearts.” [2 Esdras 16:54]).  So you knew that if you left the cookie jar there full of fresh cookies, your 4 year old would open it up and eat a cookie.

That is just what happens, too.  The child goes over to the cookie dish, eats a cookie, and you burst into the kitchen and you say, ‘well, guess you’re doomed to a lifetime of toil and, by the way, you’re going to burn for eternity.’  And then you shove your 4 year old into an oven.

Too harsh?  I agree.  But this is the story of the Genesis account.  Adam and Eve, who had no knowledge of good and evil (so, they were essentially innocent) and had just been created like five minutes before Satan showed up, committed a very forgivable act (eating fruit from the tree) and instead of doing the logical thing (you know, like removing the tree or putting it out of reach–like make it float or hover twenty feet up–or just not creating the damn tree in the first place) he places the tree within reach and gives creates evil and creates Satan (presumably) and allows all of this to happen even though he knew it was going to happen (because the Dude is all powerful and all knowing).  And still damns man to a lifetime of toil and also misery after death (the Christian view of Hell, for our modern audience).

The most interesting bit though, he could have created Adam and Eve with the ability to not sin.  And since he is god, all powerful, he could have done it so it wouldn’t influence our free will.  He could have created us with the ability to be free without committing murder; we already have limited free will (we can;t just sprout wings and fly, even if we want to do that).  So why not give us, say, wings and not give us the ability to commit murder?  Seems rather odd, right?  If he wanted Adam to not sin, then he should have created a being that couldn’t sin.  It is patently absurd–in fact everything about free will and original sin is absurd.  And if you are still following at this point, you can see why I feel that way.

Using the Bible to Support ‘Pro-Life’ Arguments

Bob Cargill shared an interesting verse this morning from Genesis 6, which portrays a frustrated god that so regretted his creation (man) that he sent a flood across the world that swallowed all life–all life, except a remnant that could fit on a relatively small ship comparatively (based on the measurements in Genesis, it would translate to roughly 500 feet long; smaller than the Titanic).  But I think that Bob’s apt point is that if God is ‘pro-life’ then why would he wipe it clean?  It is important to recognize that  those who take the genesis account seriously, those who take the biblical narratives literally, must believe that we’re not just talking about grown men and women with exceptional cognitive abilities to choose right from wrong, we’re talking about infants and disabled individuals who can not always make decisions on their own due to their limitations (you know, since babies really can’t decide where they are born or who their parents are, let alone make any sort of vital cognitive decision beyond whether or not to poop themselves).  Not to mention the perhaps thousands of women who might have been pregnant at that exact moment god decided to wash away the sins of the world (by quite literally washing away everything that had the potential to sin).

“Seriously, you’re all going to die.”

I know some may seek to justify this by making the argument that Jesus’ death had changed everything.  His coming signified the change in god’s personality, or so goes the argument.  God no longer orders the taking of women and children as war plunder, the dashing of children on rocks, or giant she-bears to go terrorizing and mauling mischievous children who don’t believe in resurrections.  It’s like god spent a few months at rehab and emerged a changed deity; he’s a gentler, kinder god on a 12-step plan to happiness.  While this is pleasant enough for me (I’m grateful we’re not still stoning people for picking up sticks on the Sabbath, don’t get me wrong), the idea that ‘all life is sacred’ is not really a big part of the biblical narrative.  How can it be?

Bob says it best:

People of faith must put their faith – and the claims made about their faith – in a real, modern context. Rather than rushing to regurgitate some worn out apologetic claiming, “God cannot tolerate evil,” or “It’s not genocide if God does it,” people of faith must consider that the one they consider to be the “objective moral foundation” for all things ethical at one point in history killed everyone on earth because he regretted creating them! Imagine this same death sentence on the world’s population today. It is nothing less than genocide.

Dude has ninja angels.

Taken in broader sweeps, the Hebrew Bible is far from being ‘pro-life'; indeed it is quite the opposite, portraying god as a sort of vengeful, wrathful warlord who demands the ultimate tribulation while single-handedly destroying his enemies.  At some points he even permits (and actually participates in) the massacre of a whole family of his loyalist servant (Job), and while he may have given Job back twice what he had, he still killed dozens of people who did not deserve to die (that little fact often gets glossed over in Sunday School).  Imagine your wife and children slain before you; don’t worry, you’ll get a whole new wife and more children.  Does that make it better?  Does that justify it?  No sane human being could find any justification in such atrocious (and needless) acts of violence.   And I would seek to remind everyone that Matthew is pretty clear that Jesus did not come to bring peace, but a sword (Matt 10.24)–nor did he come to abolish the law (Matt 5.17; that is, the Torah, and not one iota is to be removed).  The argument commonly made that none of that matters because he fulfilled the law is a non sequitur; he is specifically portrayed to say he did not come to abolish it, and clearly Matthew believed this was true, as he does all he can to situate Jesus as a priestly Moses figure who makes this very claim!

The fact remains, at the end of the day, that using the Hebrew Bible or the New Testament to justify pro-life positions are doomed to fail.  After the bible portrays god as ordering the slaughtering of the first born children of Egypt, any attempt to portray him as someone who cares a great deal about human suffering and human life falls flat on its face.   I’m sorry, but there is no ‘human value’ that god holds dear–only subservience matters to him.  Those who believe are saved (most of the time) and those who do not god deigns them to misery and destruction and torture and death: whether man, woman, child, or those unborn.  It is horrid and obscene.

Anyone who attempts to use the bible to validate their pro-life position is wrong.  Simply put, they need to find a different argument.  I’m not saying I am all for abortion; I’m pro-choice, but I don’t think abortion would be a decision I would support.  But I’m not everyone and I’m not in everyone’s shoes; I’m only in my own.  Objectively, pro-life is unjustified for that very reason, at least that is my opinion.

Cats in the Cradle: The Importance of Family Trees

The Discovery

A while ago I wrote on the value of online genealogy tools like Ancestry.com and Fold3.com.  Through them I was able to discover some rather amazing facts about my family tree about which I had no idea.  I have to say, the commercials for Ancestry.com are on the mark (with some caveats which I discuss at the linked article above).  Many of us go into family research blind, knowing nothing about our family history beyond two generations–unless, of course, you live in a castle somewhere with tapestries and oil paintings depicting your lineage (if so, you’re probably not reading this blog).    Tools like Ancestry and Fold3 give a glimpse of the past that may otherwise be completely lost and not everyone can find the time to go to the local courthouse and spend all day getting copies of their family documents (though I recommend it).

Since I wrote that first article, I have discovered a very rich history of heroism in my family.  It took a lot of legwork to track down most of these lines–sometimes cracking a line just takes a tenacious attitude and a lot of open tabs in your web browser to sites like findagrave.com and the Sons of the American Revolution  database and, of course, the state archives.  Knowing how to navigate through the data is something you pick up after years of doing serious research (which, thankfully, I have), but really it also utilizes a lot of common sense.  Also a healthy dose of skepticism can’t hurt–sometimes you find something that is just too good to be true and, in those cases, you must always validate (I repeat: always validate).  Validate, validate, validate.  I cannot stress that enough.  Validate.  (Okay, I’m done).

First the Awesome

Often people will discover some really amazing things about their family.  In my tree, I discovered at least eight direct ancestors (that is, someone who can be traced back directly) who fought in the American Revolution.  And for your curiosity, I’m sharing their names and some history I have gathered (some will be more complete than others):

Philip Neuhart (Newhard): Philip was born in America, his family having settled here as far back as 1733.  Enlisting in Thompson’s Rifle Battalion (later became known as the 1st Pennsylvania Regiment) in the regular army in 1776 (at the age of about 17), he went north to fight at the Siege of Boston.  Following that campaign, he journeyed with a large group of volunteers (many from Thompson’s Rifle Battalion and Daniel Morgan and his rangers) on what many would later write was a tedious and trying march to Canada with Benedict Arnold.  The volunteers from Daniel Morgan’s detachment and the men  from Thompson’s Rifle Battlion fought at the Siege of Quebec, but when they stormed the defenses–making it further than any other group of men–they were surrounded and captured before they could retreat.  Philip spent the next six months in grueling conditions at the hands of loyalists until he was paroled to British-occupied New York where his conditions only worsened.  Loyalists were said to spit on discharged patriots, many were beaten, chided, starved, and made to live on the streets with the rats.  A year or so later, Philip was finally permitted to leave New York under the accord that he would no longer fight against the crown–a truce that he apparently did not keep, as he shows up on muster rolls in the Pennsylvania militia in 1778 and through the rest of the war.  An alternate possibility (proposed by Bob Smalser, another family historian) is that he was exchanged in 1777 with Daniel Morgan and his men, but there is no direct evidence which links Philip with Morgan that I can find (though as a fellow rifleman, it is not beyond question as some of troops from Thompson’s Rifle Battalion were exchanged in 1777).

Captain Gerlach Paul Flick:  Having only arrived in America in 1752 on the ship Neptune, Paul Flick settled in Northampton County; he must have been an active participant in the community as he shows up on letters to the county government as a petitioner to build a series of guard houses along the Forks of the Deleware to protect against tribal raids from northern Native American tribes who, apparently, pushed south to raid the farmland and homesteads.  When the war broke out, he was commissioned a Captain (in Northampton County, and probably all Pennsylvania militia units, an officer was voted in by his peers) and given command over the 8th Company, 4th Battalion, Northampton County Militia.  His command shows up on rosters and returns during the Philadelphia Campaign.  It is possible that his company took part in the Battle of Germantown on October 4, 1777, fighting on the left flank against Hessian troops.  What is certain is that his company was responsible for picketing and skirmish action throughout the whole campaign.  Later in the war he joined up with a group of Rangers responsible for ensuring the safety of the Pennsylvania frontier, mainly meant to hold off the Native American tribes that the British had enlisted to help stop the rebellion.

The other individuals I know less about, but will list them in no particular order.

  • Johann Conrad Rau
  • Abraham Gross
  • Philip Fenstermacher
  • Deobald Schott
  • George M. Zimmerman
  • Johann Daniel Kuhns
  • Johan Valentine Schaffer

Additionally, I’ve learned that some of my ancestors fought in other rather vital wars that helped develop and shape this country.  Captain John Schaffer (son of Valentine Schaffer), my 5th Great Grandfather, fought in the War of 1812 and led men in the regular army against the British in what was widely considered the second war for American independence.  The War of 1812 is widely forgotten in America, which is unfortunate.  So having an ancestor who not only fought in the war, but was an officer in the war, is pretty cool.

I’ve also discovered that at least one direct ancestor fought in the American Civil War.  While the only photo I have of him is old, Peter Bruch was drafted into the 178 Pennsylvania Infantry regiment and saw some action until being posted to Washington as what must have been guard duty and provisional work.


Peter Bruch in old age.

The Interesting

Occasionally you find some ‘whoa’ moments while doing research.  The sort of thing you find really interesting, but isn’t quite so awesome as some of the other stuff you’ve found.  Usually this gets relegated to people not directly related–cousins, uncles, or aunts–that you may want to pass along your line anyway.

For example, during the Civil War, several Schall’s (great-great-great uncles and cousins) enlisted in the 153rd Pennsylvania (a Regiment made up of men only from Northampton County), just in time to take part in the Battle of Gettysburg, where Absalom Schall (distant uncle) received shrapnel wounds to his shoulder and arm from an exploding shell on the first day of the battle.

But sometimes you do find some pretty ‘Ah ha!’ stuff in your direct line and those are some good times.   Like the fact that I’m descended from nobility.  Oh, yes.

Nicholas Schall Sr. gravestone.  It has since been removed, though his burial place is still there with a chart detailing the site.

Nicholas Schall Sr. gravestone.

My earliest traceable ancestor was a Freiherr (Baron) in Germany: Baron Maximilian Ramian Henrich Schall von Bell. His wife, Baroness Anna Marie Elisabeth Hatzfeldt, belonged to a (still) illustrious lineage, which we can trace back to at least the 12th century (possibly earlier). Her father’s name was Melchior von Hatzfeldt, but because of some possible confusion with his birth/death date it is difficult to know if this is the same Baron Melchior von Hatzfeldt that led an army as a Field Marshall in the 30 Years War (but I have a suspicion it was him). What is certain is that both families—the Schall von Bell’s and the Hatzfeldt’s—were some of the oldest noble families of their time.

Maximilian died in 1742 in Germany, and soon after his son Nicolas, age 43, came to the United States in late October of 1752 on the ship Neptune (a year after Paul Flick came over on the very same ship, mentioned above) with his wife Catharine, sons Andreas (who is my ancestor direct) and Nicolas Jr., and their daughter Mary Ann.  Probably the single most fascinating thing I discovered while doing research was my noble heritage; one would think something like that would have been talked about during family reunions, right?

Additionally, aside from running off and fighting in various wars early on, it seems most of my ancestors were land owners and farmers.  And, as it turns out, also moonshiners.  Yes, that’s right.  Moonshiners.  This tradition seems to have died out during the prohibition years, but pretty interesting none the less.

The ‘Not So Awesome’

You take the ‘not so awesome’ with the awesome when you’re doing family research.   Whether it is that rather odd-looking crazy great-uncle or that cat-lady for an aunt, there are going to be some members of your family that have some dubious backgrounds.  It just happens.  Not everyone can be a noble, war hero, or a moonshiner, I guess.

One of the things I’ve found in my search is that one of my great-great grandmothers seems to have been sold into a marriage my her father after her mother died.  I can’t really prove this, but it seems the only likely scenario as she was under age when she married and seemed to have been working as a laborer in a household not her own prior to this incident.  But she must have also loved her husband; she had several children with him and remained married to him until his death and, it seems, she never remarried.

Additionally, it also seems as though one of my great-grandmothers was a little bit of a grifter with men.  She married four times, though her first husband was my great-grandfather Calvin Schall–unfortunate, since the only thing I’ve ever heard about him was that he was just the nicest guy anyone had ever met.

Sometimes, though, you get some really dark–and I mean dark–family history.  On my grandmother’s side of the family (Ukrainian), I learned a great aunt was held in concentration camps during the German invasion of World War II.  Why?  Well, apparently she lived (in peace) in a predominantly Jewish village of Stankova.  It is quite difficult to fathom that sometimes; somebody in my family had been a victim of the Nazi holocaust.  How do you even… I can’t….

Making the Case

At one point in human history, lineage meant everything.  It was so vital to the early Christians that Matthew fabricated a genealogical tree that went back to Abraham (to show Jesus’s favor to the Jews while depicting him as a new Moses) and Luke thought it necessary to develop one that went all the way back to Adam (in a sense, overriding Matthew’s account as if to suggest that Jesus came for all, not just the Jews).  Paternal lineages defined many facets of ancient society: they forged political bonds, developed land grants, built estates, earned military rank, and lorded over serfs or slaves. In these ways, I think that lineage is outmoded and unnecessary.    Certainly I do not think lineage should be the determining factor in ones life—no one should be condemned or confirmed due to the actions of their parents (or grandparents).

Still, I do believe lineage is important.  While many know their direct family–parents, grandparents–I would say most people don’t bother to investigate their roots beyond that point.  Until I had done some research into my family tree, I had (falsely) supposed that my ancestors had come to the United States in the mid-nineteenth century or even the early twentieth-century.  Because family histories are often lost over time–lands are sold, Bibles (with family trees in them) go missing, pictures can bleach in sunlight–it is quite possible that most are unaware of even their great-grandparents.  But why is any of this relevant to you?

As a student of history, I’ve witnessed the fallout from a general ignorance of the past.  History doesn’t repeat itself, people repeat history and often to tragic ends.   But while I would say that our society’s past(s) represent our society’s memories–and the preservation of memories are always important (even bad ones)–our family histories represents our most sacred and personal memories.  In a sense, if societal memories represent the ‘what we had for breakfast’ type of memory, our family tree is more akin to our memory of our first kiss, our first favorite teacher, our first fishing trip, or the time we fell while learning to ride a bike.  We may be situated, generally speaking, in a large biological network–also socially, culturally, ethnically–we are also situated within this more personal network, environmentally, with which we are supposed to get encouragement, care, support, love, and our basic values.  As infants, we don’t first imitate society, we imitate our parents.  As we grow, we may strive to imitate the world around us more broadly, but we are first and foremost affected by those who raise us (even if they suck at it, unfortunately).

Knowing where we come from is instrumental in answering questions about ourselves.  Sometimes we just don’t know how relevant our family history can be to our current situations because we often isolate ourselves to the present.  I was raised Catholic, though my grandfather and all of his relatives and ancestors were Lutheran.  While growing up, I was taught to question everything because of the distinct differences of belief in my tree; I am an apostate of the Catholic church today most likely because of the events that unfolded with the excommunication of Maximilian Schall von Bell in the eighteenth century.  It really is the perfect example of a butterfly effect that I can conjure.   But these ripples defined me.  Don’t you think it is time to find out what ripples from the past have worked towards defining you?


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