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.

Confusing the Bill of Rights with the Bible…Again

Another two letters laced with ricin was sent to the White House and NYC’s Mayor Bloomberg.  It seems that the person who sent these letters is incapable of differentiating between the Bill of Rights and the Bible.

All three mailings read in part: “You will have to kill me and my family before you get my guns. Anyone wants to come to my house will get shot in the face. The right to bear arms is my constitutional God given right and I will exercise that right till the day I die.”

via Third Letter Sent to President Obama, Similar to NY Mayor Ricin Letters: Sources | NBC New York.

No, it is not your ‘God given right’; it is your right as a citizen to bear arms in this secular nation.  The Bible contains no mention of firearms or guns since no book of the Bible was written at a time when there existed guns.  So aside from your threats and your treason (by, you know, attempting to assassinate public officials), at least have the courtesy recognize the difference.

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.

Hypocrisy.

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.

The American Revolution and the Debate Over Gun Control

While doing research for a side project in which I have a great interest (American History), some general myths have been debunked (for me, at least) in the process.  One such myth is the notion of gun access and the American Revolution.  There is this (somewhat fictive) notion in some parts of the country, by certain individuals, that citizen soldiers–every one of them armed with his own gun–turned aside the British occupation and invasion of the colonies.  Some (like David Kopel) have argued that the British attempted to confiscate and limit gun access to the general public and this, somehow, facilitated the start of the American revolution.

The classic (that is to say, the modern, media-driven) impression of the militiaman is that of Mel Gibson, running out of his burning home carrying an assortment of six or more muskets and rifles.  But how accurate is this pro-gun argument?  What does history tell us?

patriotAdvRpt

There is no way that the NRA leadership did not squee during this scene.

The notion that an armed populace rising up against the British, angry at the seizure of weapons in Boston, is a simplistic one that does not take into account the variety of other factors leading up to the war.   Interestingly, those American militiamen and minutemen who fought at the first battles of the war–Lexington and Concord–seem to have been armed by the community (generally there were magazine stores, buildings filled with barrels of gun powder, and weapons stores where muskets would be kept somewhere in outlying areas) and also, in some ways, by the British themselves.  As colonies of British empire, communities in the New World were required to keep up an active duty militia of armed men and artillerists with working cannon.  While the wars in Europe spread to the Americas, the French and their Native American allies were a constant threat to the frontier regions of many Northern colonies (all of New England, New York, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, though also Maryland and Virginia).  During the 1760′s, the rise in bloody raids by French and Native forces, along with the burning of crops and farms (and amounting to the deaths of over 200 Pennsylvanians), the edict of arming the general populace and maintaining military associations seemed only reasonable and expected.

It should be noted strongly that certain factors, socially and regionally, led to the consequence of a some-what armed populace–mainly required military enrollment.  However that isn’t to say that everyone was armed; this myth needs to be dispelled.  The notion that every farmer had a rifle is one that is often played upon by politicians and activists without knowing the facts.  For a large part of the war, a good portion of the Continental Army just wasn’t armed (either because munitions were left behind in a struggle or because new munitions had not yet arrived from Europe).

David Kopel writes, “The Patriots of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, resolved: “That in the event of Great Britain attempting to force unjust laws upon us by the strength of arms, our cause we leave to heaven and our rifles.””  But even if this had been stated, an attempt to suggest that this had started the war is nothing more than a fantasy.  In Pennsylvania, when the Militia Act went into effect in March of 1777, and classes of men were called up to serve (essentially drafted) and sent to the lower PA counties to participate in the Philadelphia Campaign under General Washington.  It was the job of the local governments to arm and supply provisions for these men, though if men had arms, they were requested to show up with them.

Why is this important? On October 3, 1781, the state of the Lancaster militia, residents of Lancaster who were called up to arms (the men who so gallantly charged the claim that they would raise their illegal arms to fight the British–in Kopel’s fantasy world, that is), had been so depressing that Governor Reed wrote to General Lacey that he had “no arms here, Mr. Moore having last week delivered all in the store to our militia of the town, and after this, you know, there is no recovering them” (which, by the way, supports the contention that these were not arms belonging to individual gun owners, but to a community magazine and storage area).  After which, Reed wrote that, “Colonel Ross called yesterday to inform me that he had a battalion of 690 in the same naked condition.”  The disposition of these troops was such that, without arms, they were useless and so Reed had to actually call them back home (though they were not discharged).  During the Battles of Germantown and Brandywine, hundreds of Pennsylvanians sat around camp in the regions of Chester and Trappe waiting for muskets instead of joining the fight.

These kids are better armed than many of the militia companies during the Revolutionary War.

When the British marched on Lexington and Concord, they did so not to harm any of the people, but to destroy the weapon stores and magazines in those areas to prevent rebellion (though they had already invaded at this point and had established a foothold in Boston–the war had already begun).  In other words, they did not go house to house and remove weapons from individuals (this is a mythic construct), but were headed to a community building where these arms were located to destroy them.  Through good intelligence, colonial militiamen and minutemen had already emptied the magazines and store houses and had armed themselves, some with those very armaments, and prepared for a fight.  Such is confirmed in eyewitness testimony of one Sylvanus Wood, a man who joined with other militia on the green at Lexington.  In 1858 his account was published, wherein he writes that the Captain of the militia at Lexington yelled:

“Every man of you, who is equipped, follow me; and those of you who are not equipped, go into the meeting-house and furnish yourselves from the magazine, and immediately join the company.’

Further supporting my position here is the fact that none of these men were solid shots.  While they may have drilled with weapons on occasion, they were not accustomed to firing a weapon often, as many citizen soldiers weren’t skilled at shooting as the math proves (don’t let your eyes gloss over, keep with me here–it pays off).

Assuming that every casualty inflicted during the battles at Lexington and Concord were the results of musket and rifle fire (they weren’t, some were caused by bayonets and bladed weapons–but for the sake of argument), just 15 out of every 100 rounds fired from the colonial militia (numbers unknown, but said to be around 70 at Lexington and around 1000 by the end of the engagement at Concord)  found their target (inflicting about 15% casualties on the British; about 270).  Of the British forces (numbering about 1800 regulars), they did slightly worse; less than 1 out of every 10 shots fired struck a colonial militiaman, which amounted to about 90 casualties.

While the number of British wounded and dead seems high, at the onset of the Battle of Lexington, the British (numerically superior, about 250 to 70-ish American militiamen) inflicted 19 casualties while receiving none.  So while potentially hundreds of rounds were exchanged in the beginning of the fight, by the British, loosely speaking only 8% hit someone.  Marksmanship just wasn’t important; the value of a musket was not in its accuracy but in the amount of them you could bring to the battlefield.  Most muskets were not rifled, so when a volley is fired by a company of men with muskets, within 50-75 yards, it acts like a shotgun.  Sometimes you hit and most times you didn’t.  But the real value to muskets was their fast-loading time and ability to keep up a continuous and steady fire upon the opposing forces.

“It’s a good thing we don’t have to fire at will, I can’t see a damn thing with all this smoke flying about.”

As well, during the Siege of Boston in 1775-6, the militia participating in the siege had been given spears to use in case of an enemy assault, partly because ammunition stores were low and some men just didn’t have weapons to fire.  Later in the war, the situation had not much changed.  While many Pennsylvania riflemen were expert marksmen, the accuracy rate was abysmal amongst them.  We’d like to think that the hardened frontier made these men crack shots, but even in the thick of combat, as skilled as some of these veteran soldiers were in 1778-9 (like during the Sullivan campaign), hundreds of rounds were expended with few finding their mark.  As has been noted elsewhere, at the skirmish of Wetzell’s Mill, at least two dozen veteran riflemen fired at Lt. Col. Webster as he rode, on his horse, right towards them at close range; somehow, every round expended missed him and his horse.

The implications here are obvious; while some men on the frontier made it their livelihood to hunt for food and defend against attacks from local tribes, a good portion of the population did not bother with them.  Worse yet for Kopel’s position, even those who did own and use guns (which were expensive) did not seem to use them regularly to be efficient with them.

The fact is that the 2nd Amendment has never been about owning a gun.  Such language is not present there at all:

A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.

The context–given that it was written during the Revolution–is quite clear, that this is related to the function of an well regulated militia which, by the way, is run by the state government (and which played a key role in the American revolution); today we call them the National Guard.

Not the definition of a ‘well regulated militia’.

The notion of owning a firearm was not unheard of during the period of the Revolution, but it was more common that weapons were kept in community areas specifically for use by the militia who would need them in times of crisis.  In other words, the American colonials had already established a form of gun control, wherein private ownership–even on the frontier (of which most of Pennsylvania was included)–was rare enough that people simply could not arm themselves to fight in the Revolution.  The random speeches and poetic tracts of leaders, notwithstanding as anything more than propaganda, does not prove otherwise.  Attempts to saddle the issue of pro-gun ownership on the founding of this country, when the facts are on the table, are doomed to failure.

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.

Book Review: Candida Moss – ‘The Myth of Persecution’

15a97f0a723e11e29a6422000a9e06c4_7I had very little knowledge of this book prior to receiving my copy, though I did have high expectations based upon what little I did know.  A professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at Notre Dame, Dr. Candida Moss has focused quite a bit on the subject of martyrdom and judging from her earlier work she tends to treat the evidence objectively (while remaining realistic about it), making her a superb scholar.   From the blurb on the book, it looked to be a subject with which I have a lot of interest; it appeared to have that edge, that revisionist quality, of which I felt I would enjoy reading.

There were a lot of ways this book could have failed.  It is not an easy task to challenge a foundational doctrine.  Often books of this magnitude will fall short somewhere, either in interpretation, or in attempts to find bizarre explanations that side-step critical issues.   So it is, in fact, a testament–a μάρτυς, if you will–to Dr. Moss’s abilities that this book finds its footing and takes off running from the very first page.   It does not disappoint.

In the introduction of The Myth of Persecution, Dr. Moss spends a good amount of time laying out the framework for the rest of the book.  She engages, first and foremost, the modern mindset of martyrdom within Christianity–a temperament that she treats carefully and respectfully–and how this contemporary mentality feeds off of a tradition of an ancient persecuted Christian church.  In certain cases throughout the history of the world, persecuted Christians (i.e., those who often face inexplicable hardships, including death) have likened their struggle with the ancient martyr traditions, often dualistically (as in a battle between good and evil).  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, she writes, as “Sometimes this idea inspires great courage and heroism and provides comfort to the sick or dying” (p. 9).  She then goes on to aptly point out the distinction between actual persecutions and the invoked kind.  That is to say, those who would relate disagreements (often minor) between themselves and other political- or social-opposing groups (like those relating to how religious issues should be handled in a secular society which makes allowances for minority rights, for example) to persecution.

QuitSquirming1We all know about this tactic, don’t we?  How often do we hear someone talking about how they are ‘religiously persecuted’ because they can’t force prayer in school?  Or how about those who feel oppressed because they can’t get judicial officials to follow the law of the Bible instead of modern, secular laws?  Dr. Moss highlights this important issue with a good blend of criticism while recognizing the social factors that push this mentality onward.  For that she gets bonus points, in my book.  It is far too easy to get lost in the polemics and vitriol, and yet she somehow manages to avoid all that by cutting right to the social factors and implications, while remaining honest and forthright about the ‘wrongness’ (if I can use it that way) of such blatant word misuse.  But while this is not persecution in the true sense, she argues, this is how modern western societies–particularly in America–interpret the word:

In this polarized view of the world, disagreement and conflict–even entirely nonviolent conflict–is not just a difference of opinion; it is [in the mind of this social entity-Ed.] religious persecution. (ibid.)

Dr. Moss is tactful, never making any accusations or calling into question anyone’s integrity or honesty; she treats these feelings are genuine (though when it comes to politicians, she may be too generous).  Still, her underlying premise is that there are individuals, whether they are religious or political figures, who evoke the language of persecution and–when this occurs–there are real and unfortunate consequences.

It is almost as if they knew I was writing this book review!

It is almost as if they knew I was writing this book review!

These mythical constructs that a person might conjure–specifically those constructs empowered emotionally by persecution language–are far from beneficial.  Rather than drumming up strong convictions, bolstering courage in face of opposition, or seeking out peaceful solutions, those groups within our society who feel persecuted are charged-up by this language, encouraged to become reactionary, and cause tremendous trouble–even to the point of committing acts of violence.  In other words, one who is under the impression that they are being persecuted–rather than simply acknowledging a disagreement in opinion–are likely to find justification in retaliation; that is to say, those who feel persecuted become the persecutors.

Then Dr. Moss throws in the wrench: What if the age of persecution is (mostly) a myth?  What if this deep-seated social memory recall, that many Christians learn from a young age, is not rooted in the verisimilitude of history?  This raises all sorts of questions, and Dr. Moss does a fine job dealing with them all.  As a minimalist, I am always more interested in the ‘why’ than the ‘what’; ‘what is this story saying’ is important, but not as important–in my opinion–as ‘why is this story being told?’.  So I was delighted to see Dr. Moss express this very concept:

When asked to describe the experiences of Christians under Roman Rule,…others might refer to those martyrs burned alive or beheaded or to the extreme tortures and grisly forms of execution that only the most sadistic minds could conjure up. …  This is the picture of the early church that we get from nearly two thousand years of literature, art, and–now–film. .. When it comes to why Christians were persecuted, people are hard-pressed to supply an answer.  (pp. 127, 128)

To be clear, she does not outright deny that Christians are persecuted (or that they were persecuted in antiquity); she is particular in what she says:

There’s no doubt that Christians thought they were persecuted;… Nor should we underestimate the reality of their experiences.  There is no doubt that Christians did die, that they were horrifically tortured and executed in ways that would appall people today,….  At the same time, the statements of apologists like Justin martyr, Tertullian, and Eusebius do not fit the evidence.  We need to be wary of the claims of Christians that they were everywhere and always persecuted, when, in fact, they were not.  (pp. 160, 161)

That said, I have to find something about which to be critical lest I be considered a bias reviewer; to be fair to Dr. Moss, these criticisms don’t have any impact on the value and usefulness of this book, and most of what I have to criticize is superficial at best.

Let me preface this by saying I really enjoyed Dr. Moss’s discussion of the early martyrdom traditions and how, like most ancient literature, there are clear designs at work, where the authors of these traditions show literary indebtedness to other,more ancient narratives (both Greco-Roman and Jewish).  Still, I would have liked to see a discussion of some of the earlier persecution stories dealing with Paul and Ignatius.  While Paul is talked about a bit (especially on his rhetoric of persecution), I don’t recall reading anything about his supposed imprisonment (as this is, itself, a form of persecution.  Both of these narratives have similar (unbelievable) elements (Colossians 4:18, where Paul is supposedly writing from prison, vs. Ignatius’ Epistle to the Romans):  Here they are, captured by Romans for, apparently, just practicing Christianity, and yet these same captors are supplying both Paul and Ignatius with a seemingly endless amount of ink and papyri just to write about the very same religion for which they were arrested.  And just who sent the letters?  It seems rather bizarre to imagine the Romans, who are presented as hostile towards Ignatius, would just do his bidding by sending out mail.  Likewise it seems just as silly to presume that other Christians would smuggle them out.  In the church tradition, Paul is supposedly martyred, but Ignatius reminds us in his epistles that he is supposedly surrounded by all sorts of wild beasts heading toward the Colosseum to be martyred!

Additionally, a discussion of the Abraham/Isaac traditions would have fit nicely into Chapter 1, which deals with the concept of martyrdom prior to Christianity.  While not necessarily a ‘martyr tradition’ in the official sense (read the book to find out why the language is important), in some versions of the story, Isaac is killed by Abraham.  This story also has certain motifs, like with that of Socrates, of a death narrative that was deemed both necessary and pious in certain Jewish and Christian traditions.  In my opinion, the father having to sacrifice his son to embolden a covenant has some interesting (albeit, generic) correlations with the passion narrative itself.

Of course, these minor critiques are nothing to worry about.  Their absence does not detract from the book in any way.  To the contrary, and to Dr. Moss’s credit, what she didn’t include couldn’t hurt her case, but only make it stronger.  The best example? The rather small size of the Christian movement in the first few centuries.  As a barely noticeable religion, a historian would be hard-pressed to find a solid reason why the Romans would even take notice of Christianity, make any sort of distinction between it and Judaism, or find just cause (or any cause) to launch a campaign of persecution against them.  Quite to the point, Pliny, a provincial governor of Bithynia (see his Epistulae) in the early second century, doesn’t even seem to notice them through most of his political career (which is extensive, and he surely would have come into contact with them at some point were there persecutions prior to the period!), and only when someone brings them before him, he acts–but he is utterly confused by them, and has to write the emperor in order to find out what to do with them (besides what he has already done)!  He isn’t even sure if holding the name ‘Christian’ itself or if the actions done under the name are considered an offense.  Had the Christian movement been larger, had there been an edict or discussion or law concerning the persecution of Christians prior to or during his governorship, Pliny would have known about it.  So not only is Dr. Moss right, arguments could be made which greatly support her conclusions in this very important volume.

This is a book about which I could go on and on, but I don’t want to drag this review out any longer (and continue to bore the pants off my readers when they could be enjoying the book I’m reviewing instead).  The Myth of Persecution espouses many truths about modern society and ancient society, both religious and secular.  But it also exposes a truth about humanity as a whole, though quite indirectly: we are satiated by myth.  Humans are simply more inclined to accept a traditional perspective than a factual one.  Man is intrigued more by legends of heroism than by real courage and heroism (and many of us wouldn’t even know where to look for it).  And whether a story is historical or not will never be as important as whether it is good or not.  For that reason, as well, some may not like what Dr. Moss has to say.  Her presentation–sound and verifiable as it is–will not win support from certain social groups and individuals who find the age of martyrs a useful tool in directing the masses to fulfill their agendas.

This guy probably won't buy it, though he is one person who really needs to read it.

This guy probably won’t buy it, though he is one person who really needs to read this book.

For those who are interested in the early church–that is, the best approximation we can find of what that ‘early church’ might have looked like–this book is a dream come true.  It analyzes long-ignored subjects in a tenacious–yet fruitful–manner that will grab your attention and keep you turning pages.  It is an enjoyable read and Dr. Moss has much to say–all of it is engaging, thoughtful, and brilliant.  These are traits that are hard to come by in even the most popular academic books.

69237_10100195428741034_1733929245_nFinally, I would add–in light of today being International Women’s Day–that The Myth of Persecution is defining in others ways not directly relevant to the subject of martyrdom.  There is something really exhilarating and refreshing about a book like this, which defies centuries of church tradition dominated by a testosterone-run hierarchy, written by an intelligent and (dare I say) attractive woman, in a profession (academia) also dominated by men (though, finally, the dynamics are shifting–yet not fast enough).  Scholarship (and society, more broadly) needs more of just this sort of thing; it needs more books that shake the foundations of long-held presuppositions by bright female scholars like Dr. Moss.  I hope she helps keep studies like this coming (and I also hope she lets me keep reviewing them).

I hope readers will check out the other reviews along this review tour:

Wednesday, March 6th: RMP

Wednesday, March 6th: A Philosopher’s Blog

Thursday, March 7th: A Book Geek

Saturday, March 9th: The Musings of Thomas Verenna

Monday, March 11th: Aspire2

Tuesday, March 12th: Earliest Christianity

Wednesday, March 13th: 50 Books Project

Thursday, March 14th: Do You Ever Think About Things You Do Think About?

Monday, March 18th: The Way Foreward

Tuesday, March 19th: The Dubious Disciple

Wednesday, March 20th: Exploring Our Matrix

Thursday, March 21st: The Gods Are Bored

Monday, March 25th: Broken Teepee

Also check out her interview at the Huffington Post and check out her book trailer here:

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