This essay opens with a fascinating description of ancient Mesopotamian civilization and then reflect on the meaning of the past and the future for us.
Living as they did among 2,000-year-old ruins and inscriptions, educated ancient Mesopotamians recognised that, even if their kingdom thrived for a millennium, it too would someday suffer the same fate. Mesopotamia weathered not one, but two dark ages in its tens of centuries of literate history. Surrounded by these cautionary tales from the distant past, Mesopotamian scribes instinctively dispatched messages to their unborn descendants: Voyager Records hurled toward a future they knew they would never see.
Epic, magisterial, even overwhelming. Difficult for me to imagine that one intellect could so beautifully filter so much information through a well-told story. I've read two other of Johnson's histories (one on Christianity and one on America) and admired them both, particularly for their fresh insights into familiar terrain. But the sheer scope and volume of this book is difficult to comprehend.
There are times when it bogs down in too much detail--I remember skimming past the developments in divorce custom and law. But there are also moments of revelation--he gives one of the best discussions I've ever read of Immanuel Kant.
His great skill is tying together diverse developments--in politics, music, literature, technology, philosophy, printing, etc. and coherently drawing out their themes and influences. Great figures stride across these pages--Jackson, Wellington, Chateaubriand, Wordsworth, etc.--but also ordinary folks revealed in their letters and diaries.
I enjoyed learning this chapter of Omaha's history in this morning's paper. Father Flanagan of Boystown helped hundreds of Japanese leave internment camps and come live on the farm here in Omaha. Flanagan objected to the internment.
“I see no disaster threatening us because of any particular race, creed or color,” Flanagan said around this time. “But I do see danger for all in an ideology which discriminates against anyone politically or economically because he or she was born into the ‘wrong’ race, has skin of the ‘wrong’ color or worships at the ‘wrong’ altar.”
Another example of Flanagan's Christian perspective:
Flanagan wrote to FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover about Okura’s case: “Either these people are guilty of subversive activities ... or they are not. If not — they are trying to be decent American citizens.”
Okura eventually was allowed to go to Boys Town and helped more than 200 more detainees leave the internment camps.
My last post in my series reading through Gary Dorrien's The New Abolition was February 3 because chapter three of the book is almost 100 pages long. And I decided early on to wait until I had completed the chapter before blogging about it, though I will likely break the chapter up into a series of posts. Why was this chapter so long? Because it sets up the crucial conflict between Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. DuBois, the conflict which shaped the Black Social Gospel (the subject of this volume) and the future endeavors for African American Civil Rights.
I continue to read not simply to learn more about this vital school of American theology but in the search for a richer understanding of the American tradition so that we might marshal the ideas and virtues of our past in order to confront the current national catastrophe of Trumpism which threatens the Christian gospel, morality, and basic human decency on an almost daily basis.
So the theological developments of people who lived in the midst of a racial dictatorship that daily threatened violence and daily delivered injustice and oppression might be of some use.
Let's begin with Washington and what can be admired about him. Dorrien writes at the outset that Washington's "accomplishments were colossal, and he achieved them in the face of a viciously oppressive society that erupted over any violation of Jim Crow." But then Dorrien follows up that praise with a death-delivering sentence: "But Washington believed that he had no legitimate opposition, which contributed much to his downfall--nearly as much as the fact that his humiliating strategy did not work." But more on the negatives later.
We must remember that Washington was born a slave and at the pinnacle of his power dined with the President. At the age of five he was valued at $400, Dorrien reminds us.
Washington had overcome resentment, which is a key for any person hoping to achieve moral progress. One thing I've blogged about is how much resentment, which is a moral weakness, seems to have played a role in the election. According to Dorrien, Washington realized "that bad systems made people do bad things and that people of noble spirit did not bear grudges." On the first point he seems to have anticipated Niebuhr.
He was educated by New England Congregationalists who came south after the war to educate the freed slaves. His education emphasized self-reliance and hard work, which became hallmarks of his own pedagogy. He believed education was the greatest need of his people, and he devoted his life to it, doing so in one of the most difficult of places--rural Alabama.
Dorrien reminds us that Tuskegee was "a Klan stronghold before the Klan existed," which means that in the midst of the worst of circumstances Washington achieved much, always walking a precarious line. Dorrien writes that Washington knew "that he had no margin for error." He became skilled at repressing his feelings in order to get along with white opponents of black education.
Washington's idea "rested on the promise that black economic progress would eventually dissolve the social friction between whites and blacks." As Dorrien has already pointed out, this simply did not work. Jim Crow grew worse in the years that white people were lauding Washington and his work.
He rose to national prominence by a speech called the Atlanta Compromise. Dorrien summarizes it, "The deal on the table was that if white America allowed blacks to succeed economically, black would we willing to wait for their rights." The story of Washington and the advance of Jim Crow is a reminder that sometimes incremental change becomes accommodation to evil. But one does not always know these things at the time. See my post on Frances Perkins, for example, on someone who chose to compromise her ideological purity and was later able to achieve much.
Interestingly, Dorrien points out that DuBois was not critical of the Atlanta speech. "For the rest of his life he said that the Atlanta speech, in its context, was a 'statesmanlike effort to reach understanding with the white South.' Had the white South responded with 'equal generosity,' the cause of racial justice would have moved forward."
But some African American leaders began to see Washington's compromise as an obstacle to progress, particularly because he was embraced as THE black leader by whites. Some, like Ida B. Wells, criticized him for not directly attacking lynching, though Dorrien argues that Washington did his best to address it indirectly by publishing his story Up from Slavery. Dorrien writes that the book "was published amid this mania of disenfranchisement, lynching, ramped-up segregation, and popular screeds justifying all of it."
One thing Dorrien does not shy away from his quoting the racist language of white politicians and clergy. Parts of this chapter were quite difficult to read. Important to read, but difficult. As important as it is to be reminded of the way the culture once spoke of African Americans, I don't want to print any of those obnoxious statements here. I refer you to the book.
The most difficult section was reading how the white press reacted to Booker T. Washington's dinner with Theodore Roosevelt at the White House. Here is one example, milder than many. This from a Memphis paper, "The most damnable outrage which has ever been perpetrated by any citizen of the United States was committed yesterday by the President . . ." and from there the language becomes obscene.
This one event lost Washington any support he had from whites in the South. Dorrien writes that he "keenly understood that white nationalist rage had surged out of control. He had to calculate the chance of a violent episode every time that he spoke in the Deep South away from Tuskegee, and for months after the White House dinner he stayed in the North."
As a paradigm of dignity, David Brooks selected A. Philip Randolph. Brooks writes, "Confronted by humiliating racism, [his family] hewed to a code of moral refinement and gentlemanly conduct that jarred with their material circumstances." About Randolph's father a biographer wrote that he was "guided by the values of civility, humility, and decency, inspired by religious and social service, and utterly devoted to the idea of dignity."
About Randolph, Brooks writes, "These qualities--his incorruptibility, his reticent formality, and above all his dignity--meant it was impossible to humiliate him. His reactions and internal state were determined by himself, not by the racism or even by the adulation that later surrounded him."
What a stirring tribute. I hope I sometimes embody that kind of dignity.
Randolph was a civil rights and labor leader and Brooks writes that "the chief challenges of Randolph's life were: how do you take imperfect people and organize them into a force for change? How do you amass power while not being corrupted by power?" These are excellent questions.
Yesterday I was reviewing an essay by the theologian Stanley Hauerwas on faith and politics in which we wrote, "The difficulty is that following a crucified Lord entails embodying a politics that cannot resort to coercion and violence; it is a politics of persuasion all the day down. It is a tiring business that is slow and time-consuming, but then we, that is, Christians, believe that by redeeming time Christ has given us all the time we need to pursue peace."
Brooks draws on David L. Chappell's book A Stone of Hope, which I highly recommend, to discuss the two different civil rights movements. He writes, "The first was northern and highly educated. People in this group tended to have an optimistic view of history and human nature." The other group was the "biblical prophetic tradition" and they thought the optimists practiced a form of idolatry. Brooks again:
One consequence of this attitude was that the prophetic realists were much more aggressive. They took it as a matter of course that given the sinful nature of man, people could not be altered merely by education, consciousness raising, and expanded opportunity. It was wrong to put one's faith in historical processes, human institutions, or human goodness. . . Change comes through relentless pressure and coercion.
How did nonviolence work? "Nonviolence allowed the biblical realists to aggressively expose the villainy of their foes, to make their enemies' sins work against them as they were exposed in ever more brutal forms." We must not be fooled into thinking that nonviolence didn't mean exposing the sins of the opponents.
In this chapter Brooks also draws attention to Bayard Rustin, the gay man who contributed essential elements of the philosophy of nonviolence and organized the March on Washington. He writes that Rustin viewed nonviolence as a form of discipline which would weed out our own moral corruptions.
Brooks also details the influence of Reinhold Niebuhr, though I believe the civil rights leaders moved beyond Niebuhrian realism to a more liberationist theology. Nevertheless, this section on Niebuhr is informative for current religio-political movements of protest and resistance:
Niebuhr argued that, beset by his own sinful nature, man is a problem to himself. Human actions take place in a frame of meaning too large for human comprehension. We simply can't understand the long chain of consequences arising from what we do, or even the origins of our own impulses. Niebuhr argued against the easy conscience of modern man, against moral complacency on every front. He reminded readers that we are never as virtuous as we think we are, and that our motives are never as pure as in our own accounting.
I admire the concluding paragraphs of this chapter:
The story of A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin is the story of how flawed people wield power in a fallen world. They shared a worldview based on an awareness of both social and personal sin, the idea that human life is shot through with veins of darkness. They learned, Randolph instantly and Rustin over a lifetime, to build an inner structure to contain the chaotic impulses within. They learned that sinfulness is battled obliquely through self-giving, by directing life away from the worst tendencies. They were extremely dignified in their bearing. But this same sense made them aggressive in their outward strategy. They knew that dramatic change, when it is necessary, rarely comes through sweet suasion. Social sin requires a hammering down of the door by people who are simultaneously aware that they are unworthy to be so daring.
This is a philosophy of power, a philosophy of power for people who combine extreme conviction with extreme self-skepticism.
You can find the previous post in this series, on the magnanimity of George Marshall, here.
[George] Marshall lived in the world of airplanes and the nuclear bomb, but in many ways he was formed by the moral traditions of classical Greece and Rome. His moral make-up owed something to Homer, to the classical emphasis on courage and honor. It owed something to the Stoics, with their emphasis on moral discipline. But particularly later in life it also owed something to the ancient Athenian Pericles, who embodied the style of leadership that we call magnanimity, or great-souled.
The magnanimous leader is called upon by his very nature to perform some great benefit to his people. He holds himself to a higher standard and makes himself into a public institution. Magnanimity can only really be expressed in public or political life.
But George Marshall didn't start out that way, he achieve magnanimity over a lifetime of self-mastery, as Brooks narrates it. He was not particularly brilliant as a child but exerted great effort to achieve his success. He writes, "His rise in the ranks of life would not come from his natural talent. It would come from grinding, the dogged plod, and self-discipline."
Marshall's character was formed in the military, first at the Virginia Military Institute and then in the U. S. Army. Brooks writes that VMI was not a great academic institution but that it existed in a "moral culture that brought together several ancient traditions: a chivalric devotion to service and courtesy, a stoic commitment to emotional self-control, and a classical devotion to honor."
In the Army, Marshall became an Organization Man, sublimating his own ego and ambition to the institution. His career was not stellar, often being passed over for promotions. Some of that may have come from his aloofness, an inability to form close friendships being the downside of his devotion to duty.
But he was admired for his administrative abilities and finally was in the right place at the right time and became Army Chief of Staff who then successfully led the Army through the Second World War, though he never had a battlefield command. When he became Chief of Staff he purged the officer ranks of incompetent men and radically reformed the institution, as only an institutional man could have, which prepared the Army for the coming war.
After his retirement he was routinely called upon to serve in new capacities, including two posts in the Cabinet at Secretary of State and then Defense. He was, of course, the architect of the Marshall Plan. Brooks writes that all his post-Army service was out of his sense of duty and obligation to the nation, when what he really desired was to finally have a private life.
The previous post in this series, one on Dorothy Day, is here.
While we sadly spend the early days of 2017 battling an effort by our new national leadership to put America First and close off our society, we should be reminded that global community is nothing new (nor is the reaction against it). Reading today in The Birth of the Modern by Paul Johnson, the British historian who is also a conservative, I encountered this description of the world in the early 19th century, which description arose out of a discussion of Western European trade relations with China:
Such cultural confrontations were inevitable as trade spread across the world and increasingly rapid and reliable forms of transport annihilated distance. Perhaps the most important single aspect of modernity was the way in which, almost imperceptibly, mankind was transforming itself into a single global community, in which different races and civilizations, now touching at all points, simply had to come to terms with each other. These frictions were usually solved by debate and agreement, with both sides recognizing the mutual advantage of peaceful conduct.
He does go on to point out that war did erupt and an unfortunate East-West divide was created which persists.
But I'm drawn to this idea of the global community as "the most important single aspect of modernity." Should we then conclude that Trump is an anti-modernist? A reversion to a more primitive pre-modern worldview?
Ida B. Wells, in her late 19th century anti-lynching campaign, laid the groundwork for newly organized civil rights activities. Which is why she is the second "Apostle of the New Abolition" in Gary Dorrien's The New Abolition about the black social gospel movement (Henry McNeal Turner was the first, and here is my blog post about him).
Wells' family was devastated by an epidemic, leaving her as a young woman to care for her siblings. She became the first African-American woman to own and run a newspaper, in Memphis. She eventually had to flee the South for safe haven because of her focus on lynching.
Lynching was "justified" by white citizens as a defense of white women from rape. Wells called attention to why that was not true, but directly addressed the sexual thesis, which most people ignored. Writes Dorrien,
On her sexual thesis, Wells was simultaneously emphatic, ambivalent, and repulsed. The leading citizens that burned Coy and show Fowler were "notorious" for preferring black women as sexual partners, Wells contended. They mythologized southern belles as pure-minded Christian ladies lacking sexual desire, and they vengefully punished the black men who dared to treat white women as sexual beings. They prated about defending the honor of white women while betraying them as partners, preferring black women for sex, as they had during slavery. White men were the barbarians in this picture; white women were more sexual than their husbands dared to imagine; black women were victimized by the predatory sexuality of white men; and black men caught hell for all of it, especially if they were not careful.
Dorrien concludes that "Everything about her argument was incendiary, or revelatory, depending on the reader." Her opponents chose to attack her character and compelled her to flee Memphis.
She went on the national and international lecture circuit and became a key organizer, though she often clashed with others in the black and progressive communities. She in particular called out the latter for their hypocrisies. "So many Christian leaders of her time were admired for their social virtue despite demonstrating little or none in the area of racial justice." He write at length about her feud with Frances Willard. Willard and, to my surprise Elizabeth Cady Stanton even, used racist tropes in their arguments for white women's rights (Anthony did not; she was a friend of Wells). "Wells was starting to become famous for saying harsh things about people who were renowned for their liberality and goodwill."
The end of her organizing career got caught up in what became the feud between Booker T. Washington and his allies and W. E. B. DuBois and his as to whether to accommodate or agitate (to put it too simply). Wells lived till 1931, but was long forgotten before her death, being left out of memoirs and histories of the era. In the 1960's she was rediscovered and her autobiography finally published in 1970, lifting her into the canon of civil rights history.