Wednesday, November 11, 2015

A Tale of Two Widows

This past weekend, at several thousand churches across America, attendees were exposed to a pair of scripture lessons from the lectionary, about widows.

I was a guest at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Indianapolis, where my dear friend Rev. Grace Burton Edwards had returned from her current post in Columbus Georgia to help that parish, where she began her ministry as an Episcopal priest, celebrate its centennial.

The gospel lesson on Sunday was the familiar passage in Mark 12, where the widow puts her last two mites, or pennies, in the offering box.

Earlier in the chapter, Jesus observes “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets!  They devour widows' houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation."

A few minutes later, a poor widow approaches.  When the widow puts her pennies into the offering box, Jesus tells his disciples,  “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury.  For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on."

And that is the end of the chapter.   It doesn’t go on to say that she went home and her grain basket had been refilled and her oil had been replenished.   She had put in everything, all she had to live on.  She was not an exemplar, but a victim.  A victim of those who devour the homes of widows.   Modern capitalist Western society has assuaged its guilt by assuming she went home to a heavenly reward, but the Bible says no such thing. She went home and died.   End of story.  No next chapter.  

Jesus was not celebrating the righteousness of the poor.  He was condemning the neglect of the wealthy. 

Meanwhile, one of the optional Old Testament lessons – and the basis for Grace’s sermon – was the Book of Ruth.  As Grace described in her sermon, I’ve long been familiar with this story in a kind of “How I Met Your Mother” sense.   The Book of Ruth is the story of Naomi, an Israelite woman in the years between Moses and David, who with her family fled a famine in the alleged Land of Milk and Honey and sought refuge in nearby Moab.   While there, Naomi’s sons married Moabite women; then both her husband and her sons died.  

Naomi’s only option, as a useless old widow in a Bronze Age society, was to return to Israel and throw herself on the mercy of distant relatives.   The story here is that one of her widowed Moabite daughters-in-law, Ruth, chose to leave the similar sparse “comfort” of her own culture, and go with Naomi back to Israel.
Back in Israel, Naomi arranged to introduce Ruth to her nephew Boaz.   Boaz married the foreigner and, with the exception of one sentence at the end of the book of Ruth, that was the happy end of the story;

What I didn’t know until I heard Grace’s sermon was that the Moabites and the Israelites, at least according to oral tradition, were closely related.   The Israelites were the descendants of Abraham, through his wife Sarah and their son Isaac.   The Moabites were the descendants of Abraham’s nephew Lot (of Sodom and Gomorrah fame), through an incestuous liaison with his own daughter.    In other words, in the eyes of the Israelites, the entire Moabite race was conceived in the worst possible sin, and not worthy of even touching.   Worse, one might say, than the relationship today between modern Israelis and modern Palestinians.  Or than certain modern American whites and modern American blacks.

Yet Boaz, an Israelite in good standing, fell in love with the honorable Ruth and married her.   Their grandson was Jesse, and their great-grandson was King David, the first real king of a stable and viable Hebrew kingdom, and (according to prophecy) the ancestor of the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth.

So what’s the story?   Had Boaz the Israelite acted on his culture’s prejudices against an immigrant woman from a despised and dehumanized culture, there would have been no King David and no Messiah.   

So what is the connection here?  

Whether or not you consider yourself a Christian, if you know me or you’re reading this in English, you are part of a culture that has been shaped by the religion built around the life of Jesus of Nazareth, who either was or was perceived to be the Son of God. 
A religion based on this man/God-man’s testimony was eventually adopted by almost almost everyone  on half of the face of the earth. 

And what did this person/entity have to say about widows?  

That the power structure of that time (and this) should be damned for devouring their houses, their meager possessions, their lives.

Yes, that they would be blessed for sharing the last of their unsustainable income with others.   But not that that was God’s  plan for all humanity.    Jesus clearly said that a system that reduced widows to abject poverty so that the rich could congratulate themselves for giving a tiny fraction of their wealth, was corrupt and reprehensible.

And that poor widows from foreign countries – whether it was Naomi in Moab, or Ruth the Moabite in Israel, or a modern Mexican or Syrian refugee in the United States  – should not only be welcomed; but could be the instrument through which each culture’s future and even “salvation” was assured.

My question in this political season is this:  is the United States of America on the side of Ruth the Moabite, or of those who would send her back into the desert?   Is the United States on the side of the widow who gave her last two pennies, or on the side of the scribes who would “devour her house?”

A portion of western society has been built upon Jesus’ message of radical inclusion.    I would argue, the best portion of our society.   Large portions of our society, though,  have been built on alternative viewpoints that either ignored or outright rejected the Biblical stories that encouraged us to accept and embrace the poor and the foreigner.     I don’t think that that is the best of what people are capable of, or what the Absolute Being that I want to follow would encourage.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Two kinds of gun owners

The Second Amendment was added to the Constitution – assuring the right to bear arms to participate in a well-regulated militia – in a different time in Western history.   At the time, gun ownership outside a few cities on the Atlantic seaboard was already a fact of life.   It was reasonable to own a gun for hunting, to protect against bears and rabid dogs, and to band together against potential attacks by the British, the Indians, or – as we tend to forget – a possible slave insurrection in much of America.

Bears, rabies, and the British are no longer much of a threat.   We exterminated or extirpated the native Americans.  We (with much difficulty and resistance) freed the slaves 150 years ago.   Hunting is still a legal hobby, but it is an expensive indulgence.  The idea that feeding one’s family by hunting and butchering wild animals is cheaper than just buying a half a hog is not realistic. 

But even within the last 50 years, the rationale for gun ownership has changed.  Even fifty years ago, perhaps half of Americans chose to own guns, and in rural areas hunting and the occasional wild animal were reasons to take a gun out of the locked gun cabinet; but most gun owners didn’t define themselves by their ownership of a gun.

Even then, though, even when I was a teenager, there was an acknowledgment that the power to kill that a gun offered was, in fact, something of a rush.  Holding and shooting lethal weapons gives young men erections, and we used to acknowledge it and make jokes about it. 
Today the best estimates are that there are more guns in America than ever before – perhaps 300 million of them – but they are concentrated in fewer and fewer households; perhaps 100 million Americans own a gun.    Included in this number are tens of millions of people who still use them with the same care and on the same limited occasion as we always did.

But I think in the last 20 years, and certainly the last eight, the number of gun owners who have adopted a rationale that their gun is necessary for self-defense – against the almost non-existent threat of an armed home invasion, or against the prospect of encountering someone who looks threatening on the street or in a restaurant -- has exploded, even as fifty million “old-school” gun owners have died and been replaced in the general population by seventy million younger people who don’t see the point of inviting death into their homes.

The 240 million of us who don’t own guns don’t necessarily define ourselves by that choice.   On a daily basis, most of us are preoccupied with making a living, raising our families, and when we have time to take up a cause, with faith and hunger and poverty and civil rights and social justice or even just with coaching youth sports. 

Estimates are that 84 percent of gun purchasers/owners are men, and 74 percent of them are white men; even though white men only make up 34% of the American population.   There is a considerable overlap between gun ownership today, and supporters of the extreme wing of one dwindling political party, that gets its worldview  from a persistent drumbeat of paranoia-trading television and talk radio hosts.   And for these people, maintaining their personal arsenal is not something that occurs to them from time to time; it is the core of their post-apocalyptic worldview.

We’re not under attack, and the world is not coming to an end.    We’re not in a hot war with the Nazis or a Cold War with the Soviets, and it’s been 14 years since a tiny faction of an oppressed culture on the other side of the world inflicted any damage to us on our soil; our cars are safer than ever before, and we’ve almost eradicated numerous diseases that once struck terror into every parent’s heart.   Most forms of violent crime have been decreasing for decades, except for mass shootings and the epidemic of suicides and accidental shootings that happen dozens of times a day. 

Today’s arguments for gun ownership come predominately from people who expect to have to use them, against other human beings of the same nationality.     Their fears are not rational, but are fed by industries that profit immeasurably by feeding them.   All one has to do is to read any comment board on any news site to realize that they are motivated by fear and anger, and that their arguments consist of rhetoric, insults, and threats.    They are a small minority of Americans, but they are not a fringe.   There are perhaps fifty million of them.   They have made it impossible  for one of America’s two major political parties to nominate a Richard Lugar, a John Danforth, or even a Ronald Reagan.
Those of us who want to live without the constant threat of death from a heavily-armed civilian population need to understand the difference between these two kinds of gun owners, find common ground with the ones that are willing, and make sure the ones who are making our world a worse place are given the influence that their positions deserve.  

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Social Media and Racial Violence

Two weeks ago I got pretty involved in a social-media exchange after a neighbor was killed by a stray bullet.  What really upset me, and caused me to start contacting Facebook and the local media about their comments policies, was a post from a pseudonymous stranger from Alabama on a local TV station’s comment section, for which that station uses Facebook.

I found the comment to be racist and misogynistic, and so I reported it.   The TV station agreed with me and blocked the user.  Facebook didn’t agree, and suggested that I contact the other Facebook user directly.   So I did.

I was surprised by the response, in which the poster seemed to apologize:  ”I went to remove the comment, but it said page not found... I apologize, Ron. That was an extremely horrible comment. I really am full of hate and anger and I need to figure out a much more constructive way to let that go than be a jerk on news articles I come across. I really am sincerely sorry... my bad.”

So I followed up:  

“Thanks for responding.   After Facebook declined to remove the comment, and after I PM'd you, WTHR-13 in Indianapolis removed the comment.  But I appreciate you acknowledging my emails.   I realize your message to me might be sarcastic, but I will take you at your word.   Thank you for the apology.   Why do you feel you are full of hate and anger?”

He came back with a lengthy response, which I didn’t agree with, but I did respect his candor. 

“No, it wasn't sarcastic... I think I am so angry because there really is a disproportionately larger amount of black perpetrated crime and in particular, black-on-white violence in not just the US, but globally. I am frustrated that the media and our government largely covers this up and portrays a false narrative that blacks and whites can live together in harmony. I believe whites that buy into this deception put their lives in danger... your neighbor being a prime example.

“My comments were juvenile, hateful and stupid and I apologize for them... they did nothing constructive and where a product of my frustration because I've sadly seen this type of story over and over and over again, check out a site called --- they log on the black-on-white crime that goes ignored by the main stream media.

“Anyway. you may disagree with my train of thought, but I appreciate your concern. I also thank you for calling me out on my infantile and rude comment. I sometimes forget that behind all these news stories are actual, real people whose lives matter and have loved ones that cared about them.”

I’ve drafted the following as another response; but rather than send it to him directly, I'll send him a link to this blog.

So, thanks again for responding and being so candid with me.  I’ve been thinking a lot about our exchange.   I did go to the website you suggested, and at least I can say that I’m glad to see that it is full of links to actual local news sources. 

Here’s my take on this issue of interracial crime.  I think between following the crimes themselves, and the trials, it’s easy to fill a page with a dozen new stories a day.   But in terms of the real size of the problem, I rely not on the media but on the statistics published by the FBI, here:

Focusing just on murders, the number of murders in the US has been slowly dwindling for a few decades, down to about 15,000 in 2012 from 20,000 twenty years earlier.  One thing that hasn’t been changing much is who is getting killed by whom.

Most people get murdered by people they know.  Most black people are killed by black people (about 93% of black murder victims are killed by other blacks, year after year).  Most white and Hispanic people are killed by white and Hispanic people (about 84%, year after year). 

In 2012, black people represented 47% of murder victims, almost all of whom were murdered by black people.  White and Hispanic people represented 48% of murder victims, 84% of whom were murdered by other whites or Hispanics.   (American Indians, Asians, and other ethnicities make up the rest).

Blacks make up only 13% of the 330 million people in America – about 45 million people.  So the fact that they are 47% of the 15,000 murder victims is a serious problem.  And the fact that other blacks commit most of those 7200 murders is a serious problem.   I’m not sure that we can separate those numbers from the issues of poverty and of unequal policing and sentencing – I don’t think that using those numbers to say that “it’s a black problem” really gets at all the issues.

But here’s the bigger issue in my mind.  In addition to the 7200 (out of 45 million) black people who are murdered each year, about 7300 white and Hispanic people (out of 275 million) are murdered each year – 6300 of them by other whites and Hispanics.   So, yes, there appear to be 1000 white and Hispanic victims of interracial murder every year.   Three a day.   Fill a website up with links to stories about them and it looks like an epidemic.

But another way to look at those numbers is that only 1000 of the 15,000 murders in America each year are black-on-white crime.   Your chances, as a white American, of being the victim of a black-on-white murder are 1000 in 275,000,000, or 3.6 in a million.   On the other hand, the 45 million black people suffer from a “mere” 500 interracial murders – so their chances of dying in an interracial murder are actually, at 500 in 45,000,000, or 11 in a million, far greater. 

(And, at the risk of making even more people mad, no, these numbers don’t include police shootings, unless they are prosecuted as murders, which they rarely are.)

And even that’s not the real issue.  Every death is a tragedy and every murder is an outrage, and when they happen by the hundreds or thousands that’s an atrocity.   But I’m more concerned about the 15,000 murders of all kinds, most of them intra-racial; most of them within families; most of them within poor families.   I’m more concerned about the 10,000 accidental deaths from firearms, almost all of them children, almost all of them within families.  

These happen twenty-five times more often than black-on-white crime, and they happen because we as a society have become armed to the teeth against threats that are so rare that they are almost imaginary.


I don’t expect my arguments to change the mind of my new internet acquaintance.  His arguments certainly didn’t change mine.

I am glad that I took some action and maybe, together with this person with whom I vehemently disagree, ratcheted down the rhetoric in a couple of places.

I want my local news outlets to stop letting anonymous posters use their comments sections.   But in the meantime, I don't think its enough for us to shrug our shoulders.

I think we all say things on the internet we wouldn’t say on the street or in the lobby of our children’s school.   I know we all tolerate such things on the internet; or at least look the other way.  Perhaps we shouldn’t look the other way.     

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Flags and Lost Causes

I own a Scottish flag, as well as three kilts and related accoutrements -- all part of showing off a Scottish heritage that I didn't know I had until 15 years ago.   My great-grandfather Harry Cummins had been in the United States so long that none of HIS descendants even know their name was Scottish. 

So it's not like I grew up hearing bagpipe music in my cradle; although the Scottish heritage may be baked a bit into my DNA.   It's a fun culture with which to identify -- unique music, games, clothing; and stereotypical cultural traits like being independent, fearless, industrious, and inventive (which I like to think describes me) as well as thrifty and rebellious (which really doesn't).

I've been thinking about my Scottish flag the last couple weeks, as the controversy over the so-called Confederate flag has swelled in the aftermath of the shooting in Charleston.   Many of my friends seem to identify with the southern cross in a way that sounds similar to the way I feel about my Scottish connections -- it's a symbol of a way of life and an ideal, not of racist intent.   They think that being charged with racism for owning and displaying one is unfair to them, and the suggestion that it is a symbol that American society needs to remove from the public square and retire to a museum feels like an attack on them.

So I've been thinking about some comparisons.

Scotland and England were separate countries -- and frequently at war -- for hundreds of years before the vagaries of royal bloodlines made them one country, Great Britain, in 1603 -- with a Scotsman as king!    The British flag that we know today, the Union Jack, was a combination of the red-on-white horizontal English Cross of St. George, an the white-on-blue diagonal Scottish Cross of St. Andrew.

Of course the Scotsman, King James, moved to London, commissioned a Bible to be translated to English, and pretty much became an Englishman.   Within a few decades the Scots were bucking for independence again.   The last of the Scottish insurrections came in 1745 when "Bonnie Prince Charlie" returned from exile, raised an army in the Scottish Highlands, and not only seized Edinburgh but began to march on London.

The English had had enough.  They brought troops home from their never-ending meddling on the continent and forced the rebels all the way north to Inverness, where Charles ordered a disastrous counter-attack at Culloden that was the last battle fought on British soil

Today British as well as Scottish history treats Culloden as a tragic and epic tale of heroism and patriotism.   There remains a desire for Scottish independence -- just last year, the British government agreed to hold a referendum on the issue, and presumably would have honored the results if a majority of Scots had voted to secede!   But I also think that for 270 years, British culture has done a better job of merging English and Scottish, than American culture has done of merging Northern and Southern.

And it didn't happen right away.  In fact, in the immediate aftermath of Culloden, the British treatment of the Scots was far worse than anything that happened in America's Reconstruction period.   Scots were disarmed, of swords as well as guns.   Wearing kilts or anything in the traditional clan tartans was banned -- upon penalty of jail for a first offense, and deportation for a second.   Landowners who kept their land lost many of their traditional property rights.    And other became so impoverished that they sold their land to English speculators -- which led to "The Clearances."

It's not true that the English rounded up the Highlanders and shipped them all to North America and Australia.   But as the English turned the Scottish countryside from cattle- and cash-crop farming to sheep-grazing land for their burgeoning woollen mills, tenants were forced off their land with the crops still in the ground.   Thousands starved.  Hundreds of thousands chose to leave everything for a new start in the New World.

Now THAT'S losing a rebellion.   Talk about a Lost Cause.

But another difference between the 18th century rebellion in Britain and the 19th century rebellion in the United States was that there was no third ethnicity in Britain who remained an oppressed underclass.

It's not just that the remaining British Scots have spent three centuries making incredible contributions to the industrial might, the literature, and the military strength of the United Kingdom.  The same can be said for American Southernors over the past 150 years.   The difference is that in Britain, waving a Scottish flag is not waving a red flag at several million citizens who know that their permanent enslavement was one of the purposes of the government and army that flew that flag, and that many who fly it today openly call for their removal or death.

I would urge everyone to spend a few days looking at the world through their eyes.

And to my American friends who feel attacked by the calls to bury their Confederate flags, I would say:    give in on this one.   You're not being asked to give up your Faulkner, your motorcycle, your hunting gear, your Lynyrd Skynyrd, or your college football tickets.    I'll keep my kilt and sporran and haggis recipe.   I don't think it's fair that I should give up my Scottish flag, because it doesn't offend anyone; but I would do it if it would help retire a symbol that many millions of Americans see as hostile and painful.

Image compliments of Steve Pollock via Creative Commons:

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Curating Lincoln: Another Look at "So Costly a Sacrifice"

reprinted by permission from The Urban Times  

Is the sesquicentennial of the Civil War is coming to a close with more of a whimper than a bang?
A few years ago there was a flurry of all things Civil War and Abraham Lincoln, starting with two major new scholarly AND popular Lincoln biographies by Michael Burlingame and Doris Kearns Goodwin, and including a Spielberg film starring Daniel Day Lewis, all timed to coincide with the 200th anniversary of Lincoln's birth and the 150th anniversary of his election and the outbreak of the War Between the States.  Are we burned out?
“Yes and no,” says Indiana State Museum Curator of American History and Fall Creek Place resident Dale Ogden.   “Re-enactments are as big as ever.  The books keep coming.  Civil War history has almost taken on a Lord-of-the-Rings life of its own.  I do think it will ebb a little here, though.”
Indiana played no small part in that opening whirlwind of historical attention, largely because the Lincoln Financial Corporation, headquartered now in Philadelphia but once based in Fort Wayne, decided to get out of the business of maintaining a Lincoln museum in northeastern Indiana and to get some exposure out of donating its substantial collection to more high-profile and high-traffic institutions.  The State of Indiana ended up participating in a rather spirited "bidding" war, and the collection ended up staying in the state that was Lincoln's Boyhood Home -- in an arrangement whereby the massive collection of Lincoln books and papers went to the Allen County Public Library, one of the premiere public genealogical and research libraries in the country; and the smaller collection of artifacts found a home at the Indiana State Museum in Indianapolis.
A handful of Lincoln items are on constant rotation through the State Museum's permanent history galleries, but a key to Indiana's success in maintaining the collection was the commitment to mount periodic special exhibitions based on the collection.  Right now, the fourth such exhibit is on display -- and while "So Costly a Sacrifice:  Lincoln and Loss" won't be the last Lincoln special exhibition to come to White River State Park, it is the most fitting coda to the national observance of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War that I've seen. 
The responsibility for this exhibition, like two major shows and one two-dimensional exhibit that proceeded it, fell to Ogden.
The role of curator can vary depending on the size, priorities, and program of the museum.  Some curators -- particularly paleontologists and archeologists -- can spend most of their careers building and documenting a collection, and publishing the knowledge they create in professional journals.   Ogden has always been a curator with a special gift for pulling together a room full of artifacts, arranging them in a particular order, and then telling stories about them in a way that conveys his own sense of wonder -- "this particular object was actually used by this particular person to do this remarkable thing right here -- in spite of the challenges posed by that last thing we looked at -- and now here it is right in front of us!   Isn't that amazing?" 
Ogden started working in what has become his milieu 31 years ago, when the museum was in the Old City Hall Building on Alabama Street.   In a six-year span he was curator of three of the most artifact-intensive exhibitions the museum has still done to date -- a military history exhibit based on the institution's own collection, and then two popular culture exhibits, on broadcasting history and sports history, based on collections that he and his colleagues built from scratch in two-year campaigns. 
Ogden's early exhibits were as colorful and riotous and sometimes uneven as the overly-ambitious production schedules and culture of the museum itself under its director in those days, Lee Scott Theisen.  The series of Lincoln exhibitions -- and especially "So Costly a Sacrifice," are the work of a mature craftsman.
The challenge to the museum staff of mounting biennial Lincoln exhibits has been that the number of three-dimensional objects in this collection is relatively small.   The inaugural installation in 2010 essentially showcased it all -- and, when coupled with a traveling exhibit from the National Archives in the adjoining gallery, was almost overwhelming in the sense of connection it gave to modern viewers of the life and legacy of the great President.   “We had an obligation to prove ourselves, to show that it was not a mistake that the collection stayed here,” Ogden says. 
“There are some really iconic things in the collection,” Ogden shares, and cites the ambertypes of Lincoln’s sons Willy and Tad that are being displayed again for the first time in five years.  “The thought of Lincoln sitting on his bed, in the midst of the Civil War, mourning his son – if that image doesn’t move you, you shouldn’t be a curator.
“It still moves me every time I talk about it. But you have to use them judiciously or they can lose their power.”
Three years later, in the midst of the Civil War sesquicentennial, Ogden zigged when the rest of the museum world was zagging.   While everyone else was borrowing and lending military artifacts and images to tell the story of the war, Ogden negotiated with institutions around the country to borrow objects that they weren't using, to supplement a smaller number of Indiana's own artifacts to tell the story of four generations of the Lincoln family.   It was an exhibit that engaged in some "log cabin" myth-busting -- pointing out with three-dimensional evidence that while Lincoln came from humble roots, he, his wife, and his surviving descendants were ambitious and successful far beyond the norm for nineteenth-century America.
"So Costly a Sacrifice" is built around a subtext of mortality in the way that Peter Sellers' last movies and Warren Zevon's last albums were.    The exhibit is not morbid, but it is about morbidity.   For this exhibit, Ogden supplemented the Lincoln collection objects with an abundance of materials from the museum's own collection -- and fully the first third of the gallery deals with ante-bellum American's familiarity with death.
A child's coffin, a death mask, and memorial "hair wreaths"
from a time when death was a frequent visitor.
The exhibit sets the stage with reminders that unexpected death was a frequent visitor in those days:  a child's coffin, a Victorian hair wreath woven from the locks of deceased relatives, and death masks that were created, in the years before photography, for portrait artists to use as models after the fact.    One compelling object is a portable, perforated “cooling table” for displaying the deceased.  “Most funerals were at home,” Ogden explains.  “People would put chunks of ice under these tables to keep the body from decomposing too quickly.”
“You died in bed, you were viewed in the parlor, you were buried in the churchyard.  It was kind of the ideal of the ‘good death,’ which the Civil War shattered.  But the Civil War also was the beginning of the modern funeral industry.  ”
A label makes the point that three in ten Americans born in the early 19th century died before adulthood, which led to a sobering math equation for my 14-year-old son to consider about his 35 classmates. 
The carnage of the Civil War is depicted with some of the earliest objects in the museum's collection -- battlefield souvenirs of whole trunks of trees riddled with shrapnel, and shells retrieved by soldiers who were able to describe the deaths of companions that they caused.
Still, Lincoln was the first American president to be assassinated.   Between the circumstances of his death just days after Lee's surrender, and the new technology of the telegraph allowing the nation to experience the news simultaneously, it was an unprecedented shock to the body politic.   One of Ogden's favorite components of the exhibit is a display of published versions of Easter Sunday sermons delivered two days after the assassination, from all over the country -- all of them drawing liberally on the parallels between Lincoln's death and that of Christ.
“From an intellectual standpoint, this is the most fun I’ve had in all the years I’ve been here,” Ogden confides.  “Part of it was an epiphany on my part – things that I knew, but that came together for me in doing this show.  I knew Lincoln was shot on Good Friday, and so the next Sunday was Easter.  But the fact that by the afternoon of the day he died, people in San Francisco knew it – it amplified the tragedy, made it more universal.  What a huge shift in the human condition.”
And by the next morning, Americans were pouring into churches for Easter services to hear the President eulogized in Messianic terms.
Nearby, one print shows George Washington welcoming Lincoln into heaven.  Another is a death-bed scene in which Washington himself, not God, is the face in the clouds, surrounded by angels, who is looking down on the martyred 16th President.
My family and I toured this exhibit two days after the 150th anniversary of Lincoln's death, and two weeks after a visit to Washington, DC, which included a trip to the Lincoln Memorial.   Inscribed on the north wall of that monument is Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address, also delivered 150 years ago this spring.  It's the one containing the words, "with charity for all, with malice toward none."   But it also contains the haunting admonition that, "Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said 'the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.'"
The six-year national commemoration of Lincoln and the Civil War is drawing to a close, but Lincoln would no doubt agree that the work of reconciliation is on-going.  His modern-day Indiana curator is no doubt willing to engage you in a conversation on the subject.   "So Costly a Sacrifice" continues at the Indiana State Museum through July 5.   It is worth another trip. 

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Times Union's Coverage of the Upcoming Valley 40th "Birthday" Party

 reprinted  by permission of the Warsaw Times Union

by David Sloan, Times Union Staff Writer

AKRON – Whether they were Talma Tigers, Burket Hawks, Mentone Bulldogs, Akron Flyers, Beaver Dam Beavers or Tippecanoe Valley Vikings, alumni of the Tippecanoe Valley School Corp. are invited back to the district for its 40th anniversary event.

The seventeen members of the Valley Hometown Advisory Board have been busy planning the Tippecanoe Valley High School 40th birthday celebration so its alumni can reconnect with each other and the school corporation.

The event is June 20 from 1 to 5 p.m. at TVHS. Graduates of Akron, Mentone, Beaver Dam, Burket and Talma high schools – all the schools that now make up TVSC – are invited as well as their families.

“The idea is to make it a family event,” said Angie Miller, advisory board member and Mentone principal.

Lunch will be served at 1 p.m. Miller said it will include pulled pork sandwiches, chips and a cookie.
A variety of activities is planned for adults and children, including inflatables for the kids, corn hole, a selfie station and the gym will be open.

Homemade ice cream will be provided. The local tractor club, Echoes of the Past, will make 10 gallons of ice cream with the use of a tractor, according to Adam Heckaman, TVHS Distinguished Alumni representative to the advisory board.

Miller said items from Valley’s past will be on display during the June 20 celebration.
TVSC Superintendent Brett Boggs said there will be a silent auction of two autographed basketballs signed by this year’s girls basketball state runner-up team as well as two plaques of the team.
The advisory board hopes to have technology in place in time for the celebration so alumni who can not attend can view it on Skype.

Miller said the board is planning for 350 people to attend. People can RSVP by calling 574-353-7741 or online at but Miller said they also can just show up the date of the event.

“But when the food is out, it’s out,” she cautioned.

Along with current and former students, some of the former teachers expected to be at the event will include Nancy Alspaugh, Charlie Smith, Kevin Campbell, Wayne Cumberland and Tom Roy.

The Valley Hometown Advisory Board is a 17-member group of TVHS graduates, current students and staff. The board administers the Valley Hometown Fund with the purpose of connecting TVSC alumni “with their schools and hometowns in support of education and community development.”

The Fund is an effort to raise awareness and money for community and educational needs in the TVSC, while recruiting alumni to re-engage in their hometowns. It is not a separate non-profit corporation with its own overhead expenses – the Northern Indiana Community Foundation serves as its fiscal agent so that all contributions to the effort are tax-deductible and go entirely to support projects in the community.

The fund is not an alumni association and does not charge membership dues or fees.
Ron Newlin, Tippecanoe Valley Alumni Association, graduated from TVHS in 1976. He said his family moved a lot when he was growing up, so when he came to Valley before his sophomore year he was able to make a fresh start.

He said he wasn’t forced into any clique and the school and community were very welcoming. He could get involved in everything, something that at larger schools is not always possible, he said.
Newlin earned degrees from Ball State and Indiana University, and they constantly are contacting him about speaking to students or donating money. But he said he feels a deeper obligation to the Valley community.

It wasn’t, however, until a few years ago that someone – Boggs – contacted him about giving back to his high school. If high schools like Valley can get their alumni involved, those graduates can not only make financial contributions but also provide other contributions like mentorships to students.

“The long game here is, my hometown and my high school are actually places I want to include in my will. My estate will likely make more of a difference here,” Newlin said.

Jordan Fraser just graduated from TVHS. He said he grew up just a mile away from the school so it’s been a part of his world “forever.” He said he uses what Valley has taught him every day.

As for what he’s looking forward to at the 40th anniversary celebration, Fraser said, “For me it’s reconnecting that bond.”

He said he hopes to build connections, and hopes that the event is a stepping stone to get the community involved.

“I want Valley to be a part of my future. I hope we have (this event) again. If not, I hope homecoming becomes a part of the community,” he said.

From working with the board on the 40th anniversary celebration, Fraser said he’s learned more about the other alumni. “I’ve built my connection pool a bit,” he said.

Donations to the Valley Fund can be made at the Northern Indiana Community Foundation, Rochester, with “Valley Hometown Fund” in the memo line. Donations for Valley’s 40th anniversary celebration should have “Valley 40th” in the memo line.

For more information on the fund, visit or visit its Facebook page at

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Some thoughts on Iran

Man, can we hold a grudge.

We’ve been in a cold war with Iran for my entire adult life – since the American embassy was seized during the Iranian Revolution in 1979, my senior year of college.   That’s over 35 years now, coming up on as long as we were in a Cold War with the Soviet Union.   It hasn’t occupied central stage in our consciousness the whole  time like the conflict with the Russians did, but it’s never eased. 

This diplomatic crisis weighed heavily on me at the time – it inspired me to go to graduate school and study diplomatic history with Robert Ferrell and apply for the foreign service, instead of law school.  In fact, I passed the foreign service exam in November 1980; the Reagan hiring freeze cancelled my interview, and probably changed the course of my life.  I was young and patriotic and saw the foreign service as a way to participate in the protection and projection of American values.   I wasn’t a pacifist.  I would have supported a viable military response. 

But even then, even with a history degree, I didn’t fully appreciate the backstory on Iran, or Persia.

Persia is one of the great civilizations in world history.   The modern Iranians have a cohesive ethnic identity and a language, Farsi, which is at least as identifiable to its 2500-year-old predecessors as modern English is to Chaucer.   Persia had a religion – Zoroastrianism – that I’m going to get back to in a bit here.  They had cats and rugs.   The Western world would probably be entirely different if the Greeks had not turned the Persians back at famous battles like Marathon and Thermopylae in the 5th century BC.

In fact, Persia is the dividing line between what we consider the Western World and the Eastern World.  More precisely, I suppose, that dividing line was the Fertile Crescent of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in modern Iraq.   Our most ancient oral literary and religious traditions date to Abraham, who came west from Ur of the Chaldees in the Fertile Crescent about 2000 BC and settled in Canaa.  At the same time, others carried the first trappings of civilization –  agriculture and the Code of Hammarabi, among others – a few hundred miles west of Ur.  Those were the Persians.

While the Persians were settling in modern-day Iran and the descendants of Abraham were migrating to Egypt and back, in Mesopotamia the city of Babylon emerged as the cultural center of the Fertile Crescent. For 1500 years, though, Babylon was ruled by Assyrians, from the west.   The Assyrians also battled with the ancient Hebrews, but it wasn’t until a resurgent Babylonian empire conquered the Assyrians and kept going, that ancient Israel actually fell, resulting  in the famous Babylonian captivity of the Hebrews under Nebuchadneezer.

The Babylonian captivity didn’t end until this Babylon was conquered by the Persians.  It was the Persians, under Cyrus, who allowed the Hebrews to return to Israel.   But it was at this time that our Bible first began to be put into writing; and the robust religions of Christianity and Islam that grew out of the Hebrew Bible and religion were deeply affected by the good-vs.-evil mentality of Persian Zoroastrianism. 

Persia (as well as Israel and everything else in the modern middle-East) was then conquered by the Macedonian Greeks and then the Romans, but Farsi and Zoroastrianism continued to flourish until 700 BC.   The Romans, of course, eventually destroyed Jerusalem and dispersed the troublesome Hebrews, and later adopted Christianity as their state religion.   They never really stamped out local religions or ethnicities, though.

It wasn’t until Mohammedism, or Islam, took root among the nomadic Arabs to the south of ancient Mesopotamia, that the middle east became predominately “Muslim.”   And here is where it gets interesting.   For all the Western rhetoric about persecution and forced conversion, the Islamic Arabs allowed Christian and Jewish enclaves to survive throughout their empire, because they were “people of the book.”   That’s one of the reasons the current ISIS is so problematic – they are killing and destroying 2000-year-old Christian communities – communities that “somehow” survived Mohammed and Saracen and the Seljuk Turks and Saddam Hussein.   The Arabic Muslim world has long had a practice of exacting a “tax” from the Christians and Jews in their states; but it started out as a means of having them pay for a government in which they were not allowed to participate.   Sort of like the British view of the American colonies in the years before the American Revolution.   It’s a bad policy that cost the British their most lucrative colonies; but it’s a long way from genocide. 

The early Arabic Muslims had no such teachings, however, about other religions; which is why in Persia, Zoroastrianism did die out.  It does seem that in Persia and points east, the locals may have been converted to Islam at the point of a sword. 

Most of what we Westerners now know about ancient Persian culture comes to us through Western filters, 
such as  Neitszche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra.   Michael Crichton’s re-telling of the Beowulf legend, Eaters of the Dead, was conveyed through the eyes of a Persian official who had been kidnapped by Vikings in 10th-century Russia.   Frank Miller’s bizarre version of the Persians in the popular 300 graphic novels and films demonized them as the ultimate “others.” 

Modern Iran dates from the dissolution of the (Islamic, but Turkish) Ottoman Empire after World War I.  It was one of several proxy states that the British and French created in their efforts to rebuild their own empires; but this one had a cohesive identity and culture.   Shah Reza tried to stay neutral in World War II, but the British invaded supposedly to prevent Iran from tilting toward Nazi Germany, and also to create a supply line to Russia.   After the war, the British and Americans replaced Shah Reza with his son, Reza Pahlavi, who was a more compliant ally in their rivalry with their new adversary, the Soviet Union.

For 25 years the “new” Shah of Iran was presented here as a progressive pro-Western ally, but he probably never had the support of the Iranian people.  But the Iranian Revolution of the late 1970s didn’t become violently anti-American until after Jimmy Carter reluctantly granted the deposed and dying Shah sanctuary on medical grounds.   Their government allowed radical groups to seize our embassy; we imposed sanctions and armed Iraq in a war against them, and we’ve been at odds ever since.

And frankly, there isn’t a good reason for Iran and Israel to be mortal enemies, beyond the fact that Islam became a uniting force for the Shah’s oppressed opponents.   The Arab world has always had reasons, real and imagined, to resent the creation of modern Israel in their midst, but strategically Israel doesn’t affect Iran except as a foothold for what they understandably see as Western imperialism.    They’ve not helped themselves by meddling in the affairs of Arab states and arming Hezbollah in Lebanon, but they are hardly the only guilty party in the region.

Iranians have every reason to see themselves as a strong and independent modern power, but a beleaguered and surrounded one.   The world would no doubt be safer if they didn’t have nuclear weapons, but the same is true of Pakistan, India, China, Russia, and NATO.   The United States didn’t prevent India from getting nuclear weapons because they were a counter to the Chinese.   We didn’t prevent Pakistan from getting nuclear weapons because they were a counter to the Soviets in Afghanistan.  It’s widely believed that we haven’t prevented Israel from getting nuclear weapons. 

Iran’s apocalyptic rhetoric is frightening and not helpful toward achieving peace.   But we don’t give them the benefit of the doubt that their leaders’ sabre-rattling is a matter of playing to their base in the same way that the sabre-rattling of American Republicans is. 

The Christian (and post-Christian) West has strong cultural ties to Israel, and part of that is still some reasonable guilt over complicity in a Western state’s near-genocide of the Jewish people  just 70 years ago.   But if you want to get cultural, you can argue that there may have been no Bible and maybe no Judaism if the Persians hadn’t rescued the Hebrews from the Babylonians 2500 years ago.  And we could probably stand some self-reflection over our role in Iran’s current isolation.

I think the nuclear limitations treaty that the U.S., along with Germany and the U.N. Security Council, is negotiating with Iran is worth seeing through on its own merits, but also as a next step in re-establishing relations and providing Iran with a path back into the community of nations.