Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The Flag Through A Prism

This is a blog I had not intended to write.  But after several readers wrote asking for my thoughts about the controversy over flying the Confederate flag, obligation took over.  Hopefully there is something worthwhile to be added to all the current extensive conversation that is occurring.

First, full disclosure.  I was born and raised in the South in a medium-sized city in Arkansas.  My upbringing was typical of the 1950s South.  With a maternal family name of Lee, we were steeped in Civil War history and injected with Old South traditions and pride.  The absolute segregation of African-Americans was simply the “unquestioned way it is,” rarely openly discussed but clearly in evidence in the Black side of town, the “White/Colored” door signs, and the separated facilities (e.g. schools, movie houses, swimming pools, parks).  My extended family employed African-Americans for child-rearing, domestic help, and yard maintenance.  Our extended time together made them almost “family,” but they most certainly were not.  There was always a certain line of familiarity never to be crossed by either side.  Black voting and politics were nonexistent.  When I was a teenager, I was shocked to find out that some “special rules” also applied to white Catholics and Jews.  The doors of doubt were thusly opened slightly; the questions slowly began.

Arkansas was the jumping off point for school desegregation and the ‘60s civil rights battlegrounds.  The forced integration of Central High School in Little Rock hit my town like a bombshell.  To their lasting credit, the town fathers saw the handwriting on the wall and, anger and panic aside, quietly went about desegregation: from the first grade, one subsequent grade added each year.  We never made the headlines; violence was averted.  Structural change came, even if begrudgingly, even if changes in attitudes and perspectives lagged behind.

I left Arkansas at 21, and spent the rest of my adult life in Massachusetts/New England until returning to the South (North Carolina) ten years ago.  Trying to answer the many questions from “outsiders” during the turbulent ‘60s, questions I had never thought to ask, turned out to be the only way I was fully able to understand what “being Southern” really meant.  That experience steadily changed my perspective dramatically, even if my affection remained intact.  But one insight I also learned:  a Southerner can never explain his/her culture to a non-Southerner.  The starting points for such a discussion are simply too far apart.

A non-Southerner sees the South in 1-1 relationship to a specific topic of interest, typically slavery / segregation / civil rights.  The Southerner sees the culture as one complete entity made up of many inseparable facets, as if looking at many rich colors through a prism.  Each Southerner picks one’s own combination of facets that drives him/her, which makes the language of conversation into a near-incomprehensible verbal maze to try to decipher.

For some, “Southern Heritage” means a longing for the ante-bellum South lifestyle and social manners glorified in “Gone With The Wind,” even though such plantation excess was available only to the small minority of wealthy society.  For some, it refers to the Southern Greek Revival appreciation for education, intellect, art, architecture, philosophy, politics and thought that produced four of our first six Presidents.  For some, it refers to the agriculture-based economy, with slavery just a necessary dependency.  (Only some Southerners could afford to own slaves themselves, but the others still depended upon the plantation economy for their income and so the economic base had to be defended.)  For some, it refers to the Confederate nation and government, an in-your-face defiant statement personifying “states’ rights over federal” that reflects long suspicions going back to the Constitutional Convention itself.  For many, it refers to the military campaigns of the Civil War, and homage to the tactics, valor, courage and sacrifices of real family ancestors fighting against overwhelmingly superior  odds – regardless of the reasons for which they fought.  For some, it is redressing the destruction of Southern society in the Reconstruction Period by a punitive North in spite of Lincoln’s plan for forgiveness and reunification.  The epithet “damn Yankee” was taught to every schoolboy.

Yet the indefensible reality of slavery complicates the whole Heritage.  There are very few today who claim that slavery was a good or needed thing.  The post-reconstruction period proved that the agricultural economy did not really need it.  The undeniable truth is that Southern slavery – the absolute control by one individual over another, enforced by extreme physical torture and mental abuse – is a major blot on Southern Heritage that is indefensible today.  But in my childhood, slavery and Blacks were never talked about.  And it substantially remains in the shadows today, a topic polite ladies and gentlemen do not explore in honest discussion.  It needs conversation.  It still needs further redressing.

The Southern Heritage and Civil War that we seek to respect and honor ended in April 1865.  150 years ago.  Yet some Southerners today seem to still seek to reverse the finality of Appomattox and continue fighting that war.  They fight not on battlefields but in the legislatures and on social fronts, all while reciting the Pledge of Allegiance to the Stars and Stripes and the USA.  It is a schizophrenia, a paradox, that lives comfortably in the heart of a Southerner that an outsider can never quite comprehend.

The flag that we are debating today is not the flag of the Confederate nation.  It was the battlefield flag of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, designed to distinguish it clearly from the North’s Stars and Stripes in the chaos of the battlefield.  But for over a century it has been appropriated for causes well beyond its original purpose.  It was the flag flown when denying Blacks their new constitutional rights granted after the Civil War ended.  It was the flag flown at KKK demonstrations, at cross burnings, and at lynchings.  It was the flag that lined the streets in Birmingham and Selma, and when attacking the Freedom Ride buses.  It was the flag that hung over too-many assassinations, bombings and killings of the 1960s, and silenced all-White juries into no justice rendered.  Today the flag is used on apparel and license plates to apparently self-proclaim “I am a bad-boy rebel,” and it is even NASCAR’s unofficial sports flag!  Are those the battles and causes and people that we are seeking to honor by flying that flag on public buildings across the South?  Today, 20% of the population of the Old Confederacy states are African-Americans (as high as 37% in Mississippi).   Are they not “Southerners” also, or are “Southerners” inherently White-only?  Do we continue to ignore and deny African-Americans their existence and birthright just as the Founding Fathers did in their Constitution?  If all of our great-great-grandparents were Black slaves, would we even be having this conversation now?

We need to remember our history, learn from our history, honor our history.  But the sins of fathers should not be passed to their children, and the children should not take up the cause of their fathers.  We have to acknowledge ALL of our history, not just the selected parts, and see our ancestors in the full light of their times.  So we need to keep our statues and monuments.  We need to preserve our flags in the archives and museums in which all history is ultimately destined to lie, restoring the flag from being an misappropriated symbol of hate to its rightful symbol of valor.  We need to honor all of our citizens in our public places, not just some of them, remaining scrupulously neutral toward all. We need to keep the better parts of our heritage in our hearts, the lesser parts in our consciences.  Respecting and honoring the past does not require us to live in the past.

In my senior year high school yearbook, there is a picture of me standing beneath a Confederate battle flag being waved to rally a cheering home crowd attending a Friday night football game.  I get all the things that flag has meant to so many.  But that was a fall night in 1962.  53 years ago.  It is now 2015.  The world has changed dramatically.  For the better.  It is time to catch up fully with those changes.  It is time for all of us to move on.  In so doing, I am fully confident that my great-great-grandfather, Samuel Carroll Lee, a Confederate soldier from Tennessee, would be very proud of us all.

©  2015   Randy Bell                www.ThoughtsFromTheMountain.blogspot.com

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Humanity's Violent Inhumanity


There is so much violence in this place you have created that we call Earth.  It exists all through the life forms and food chain, from the simplest creatures through the complexity of human beings.  Yet in no instance is the violence so wanton, so random, and so outright cruel as violence perpetrated by humans, mainly to each other.  And we manage to do it in such myriad ways.  We, who are supposedly the most rationally intelligent of all the species.

Wars are fought for seemingly unexplainable reasons.  Mind-numbing genocide kills upwards of millions of people in an attempt to wipe out a whole section of humankind.  Innocent young girls are bombed as they attended Sunday School simply because they were Black. Young children are shot in their seats, in the school classroom intended to nurture their future.  Adults in a Bible study group are killed in a church that epitomizes the historical experience of African-Americans.  We shoot innocent bystanders for no apparent reason as a blood sport.  We kill or maim family members or loved ones out of our own inexplicable hurt.  We mortally wound a person’s self-esteem by an angry word or expression of disappointment – mental and emotional violence as deadly as the physical.  We bully impressionable children and vulnerable teenagers because they may be different, scarring them for life and perhaps pushing them into their own suicide.

How do we make sense out of all of this?  In the midst of the beauty of human life, the splendor of Nature, and the miracle of the science of Creation, how does this continuing violence we expend against each other fit into the Universe’s scheme of things?  What are we to take away from all of this?

“Violence is an inherent part of being human.  It has been there from the beginning of humankind.  Each of you is born with the capacity for it, though not necessarily for the execution of it.  So any understanding starts with accepting that it exists, and it exists within each of you.  How will you manage it?

Some people look to Me to stop it.  For Me to somehow magically put an end to the desire and ability for one person to harm another.  But it is not Me striking out at one another.  It is not Me holding the knife, the gun, the weapons of death and destruction.  It is not Me that says the words and does the acts that denigrate and marginalize others.  It is you.  It is your choice about whether you will do these things.  And why you would choose to do so.  Look inward, not outward.

Is this violence abhorrent?  Yes.  Not just because of the very real physical and mental pain it creates for the victim(s), for the families, for the community.  But also because it marks the very public descent of a human being to the most base instincts of his or her Self.  A decision to walk away from giving the gift of peace and happiness to others while feeling one’s own joy, and instead choosing to give harm and destruction to another while feeling one’s own pain and suffering.  Human life is about choice, and using one’s tools and capabilities to make good choices for one’s self and the many.  The reality is that human beings are capable of making some very bad choices.  These days it seems that the choices being made are increasingly worse ones.  And they are happening more frequently.

Your earthly world can be anything you choose to make of it.  For better or for worse.  As has been said, violence begets violence, because violence comes from fear and hopelessness.  When the emotion of fear is thwarted by hopelessness, it leads to anger which creates hate, and hate generates the act of mental and/or physical violence.  Violence, then, is seen as a tool to overcome that fear and hopelessness.  For a fleeting moment, the violent have power over what s/he fears.  Hope is rekindled – even if but for an instant.  As long as you allow, if not endorse, these moments of power, of revenge, of triumph, the violence will continue.

So ask yourself, what makes a person feel fear and hopelessness?  What makes a person susceptible to the force of hated?  Where, and from whom, does one learn to hate?  What makes a person then choose to perform the violence that flows from hatred?

The violence begins to stop when you choose to stop it.  As an individual; as a collective society.  When you take away the tools of violence from the fearful and hopeless.  When you do everything possible to protect the vulnerable.  When everyone who deplores violence actually does something to help prevent it.  By making their words heard, and speaking and standing in opposition to hate and violence, in the home and public square.  And truly means it and acts it.

Right now, you say that such violence is unacceptable.  Yet you do in fact accept it by your actions.  You talk about the equality of all persons, but continue to treat each other unequally.  You talk about the Brotherhood of Man and the Sisterhood of Women, but you do not welcome all into your family.  You talk about doors of opportunity, but then shut them to those seeking to enter.  You talk about unity but foster separation, and shrug your shoulders at unfairness.  Many of your ministers, politicians, leaders and their followers, preach anger and hatred toward each other on a daily basis.  What else would you expect to result from this continual dissension and turmoil besides violence towards each other?

You can imprison the offender after the fact.  Or you can remove the need to offend.  Ending your violence will not come from some divine intervention.  It will end when your ill-treatment towards each other ends.  When you take a truly honest look at your thinking and actions instead of your words.  It ends when the violence of negative thoughts and indifferent actions within your heart dies.  When you collectively stand and say loudly, “ENOUGH” – and mean it.  When you demand it of those who pretend to be your leaders – and demand it of yourself instead of hiding behind “it’s not me.”  When you open the doors of your home and welcome all to come inside and be your guests.  And when you leave the familiar comfort of your home to be their guests.

This is not wishy-washy, squishy-softy stuff.  Accepting all others with equal fairness, and removing fear and hopelessness, is one of the hardest challenges you will face in your lifetime.  As a person.  As a society.  As a community of human friends.  Good luck in meeting that challenge – if you are truly willing and able.  It is your Choice.”

©  2105   Randy Bell                www.ThoughtsFromTheMountain.blogspot.com

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

What Means Christian Nation?

It seems that every day in the social media jungle, there is some comment claiming that “America is [supposed to be] a Christian Nation,” as was supposedly intended by our Founding Fathers (which they most certainly did not).  Or that we need “a Christian in the White House” (we already have one).  Or that we need to have prayer in the public schools (the last place to which religious ritual should be entrusted).  Such thoughts are also echoed by some (thankfully not all) among the growing plethora of Republican candidates for president, reinforced daily by a series of Fox News opinionators.  They are all storytellers in the fairy tale of a supposed “war on religion” in America.

When I read or hear such comments, I am always struck by two questions.  1) What would such a “Christian Nation” look like; what would change and how would our nation be different from what it already is?  And 2) Which version of “Christian” would we put into such a special standing?

As a Christian Nation, does that mean we will reject the 30+% of Americans who do not call themselves Christians, and forcibly expel them out of the country?  Would we take away their right to vote, to own property, to practice their alternative religion or build their houses of worship?  Would we forbid them from political office or government service, even though that is expressly prohibited by our Constitution?  Would we require tax dollars to be used to support Christian churches as some countries do with their “state religion”?   Would we throw out 225 years of secular legal legislation and replace it with religious law interpreted from the Bible (Old and/or New Testaments?) – as they do in Iran from the Qur’an?   Is our most American secular holiday – Thanksgiving – to be reserved only for Christian prayers and meals?  Would we need to sign a loyalty oath to the “Christian Church” to be an American?

I personally find the idea of America as a Christian Nation to be dangerous on its face, and that opinion has nothing to do with Christianity itself.  Such a concept is a total assault against the values and promise of America as a safe haven for all comers of any faith.  Given that it is never explained what a Christian Nation would mean in specific, tangible terms suggests that this movement is coming from baseless, intangible fear.  The current absence of any government endorsement or adoption of any particular religion, and that wonderful precedence of keeping religions and government separate, is exactly what keeps our individual religions safe and sound.  We tamper with that neutrality at our own extreme risk.

Even so, the harder question remains: whose version of Christianity would we use (besides people’s assumed answer: “mine!”)?  For all the good spiritual lessons to be found in the original teachings of Jesus, the history of the Christian Church that followed is replete with internal fights over domination for power, violent persecution of contrary opinions as “heretics,” and the ultimate fracturing of the One Church into the many parts.  Roman Catholics and Orthodox Catholics split the original Christian Church a thousand years ago, while Protestants then broke away 500 years ago as a protest to Roman Catholic practices.  And now Protestants themselves have split into innumerable mainstream, evangelical, and “other” denominations.  The would-be Christian needs a detailed tour guide to navigate this religious maze.

Christians differ among themselves from church to church within the same denomination.  They differ within a single congregation.  All Southern churches within a denomination do not practice the same; their brethren churches in the North or West can be radically different in form and practice.  Further, most Christian denominations are fighting significant internal battles over issues of religious dogma, ritual, policy, inclusion, the role of women (or lack thereof), moral code, and the diminishing numbers in the pews.  Who then is the “true believer,” and where is s/he to be found?  I once heard a Baptist preacher of a large southern church say in an interview that, “Whenever you put ten Baptists into a room, you immediately have 14 different opinions.”  A Baptist minister friend filling in at two small Methodist churches in our rural county once remarked to her congregations on some of the similarities she found between Baptists and Methodists.  She was quickly rebuked that “please don’t tell us we are all the same!”  Then there is the question of whether some denominations are even Christian at all: e.g. Mormons, Quakers.

A primary tenet of Catholicism is the idea of the Pope as being infallible and having absolute authority.  Yet in survey after survey, the vast majority of American Catholics admit to not believing or following one or more dictums of the Pope.  In Ireland, one of the most Catholic of nations (and an ancestral home of many Americans), voters recently approved same-sex marriage by a resounding margin.  Some hailed that historical vote as a great victory for marriage equality, which it certainly was.  But the bigger significance of this vote was its overwhelming renunciation of Catholic authority, leadership and religious law – the same as is increasingly happening in America.

We often hope for religion to be the great unifier of humankind.  But that is not the way it has worked out.  While religions may seek to serve all of humankind, each typically wants to do so on its own terms.  And therefore all religions are ultimately destined to break down structurally into smaller components.  Religion is intended to nurture and be the expression of our spiritual being, and that being operates in our individual Self, a Self unique from all other Selves.  So our religion can be informed by Greater Lessons, but it must reside in the smallness of Self.

In truth, few Americans have been prevented from worshiping their God and expressing their spirituality by constraint of law.  Houses of worship have not been forcibly shuttered or prevented from being built by government force.  Ministers have not been gagged in the content of their sermon from the pulpit (though perhaps censored by their own leadership!).  No one has been denied a place on a ballot, or required to wear a religious identity patch on their arm, by governmental edict.  Religious freedom is alive and well in the homes and worship houses in America, which is where it is intended to be guaranteed – even if it is not so alive in the hearts of many of our citizens.

And that is the true beauty of America’s posture toward religion.  Take no side.  Leave each individual to find his/her own road, without interference, without being forced into an inappropriate alternative.  That was the real intent of our Founding Fathers.  Any real attempt to establish one single national religion would tear this country apart over which denomination wins; all others lose.  “Christian” is a beautiful inspiration containing many different meanings to which we can choose to aspire. But it is not a universal form applicable to a nation of 300 million independently-minded citizens rooted in individual American freedom.  Let us leave the details of that inspiration to the individual Self and to his/her conscience in the privacy of each home and house of worship.  Instead of expending our efforts in trying to achieve religious superiority, perhaps we should be focusing our energy on perfecting the practices of our own spirituality, and leave the souls of others to a power far greater than ourselves,   The public arena is no place to look to find one single true religion.

©   2015   Randy Bell               www.ThoughtsFromTheMountain.blogspot.com