Wednesday, November 30, 2011
On Nov 30 the Washington Post ran an obituary for Odumegwu Ojukwu, who ran the secessionist Nigerian state of Biafra from 1966 to 1970. Ojukwu died only a couple of days after my article "Nigeria's Civil War: The Untold Story" appeared on this blog on Nov 22.
The obit contained the sort of short, "sanitized" account of that civil conflict that my article was written to correct.
The Nov 30 Washington Times (you know, the rag founded by the Moonies) ran not one but two stories on the same page about the fuss being made in Rhode Island over Governor Lincoln Chafee putting a "holiday tree" in the statehouse instead of a "Christmas tree". Chafee pointed out that the tree "stands mere feet from the Royal Charter that, more than three centuries ago, granted 'a full liberty in religious concernments' and 'the free exercise and enjoyment of all their civil and religious rights' to the inhabitants of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations." Chafee added that "I would encourage all those engaged in this discussion -- whatever their opinion on the matter -- to use their energy and enthusiasm to make a positive difference in the lives of their fellow Rhode Islanders." Good for the guv!
Some reminders for the Christmasphiles in Rhode Island: 1. Your state was founded by Roger Willians, the guy who introduced the idea of separation of church and state to America. 2. The Puritans who settled New England strongly opposed the celebration of Christmas -- it was too Catholic or Anglican -- and they were the spiritual ancestors of the conservative Christians who today have hissy fits about the "secular humanist" efforts to drive God out of the US of A. 3. Christmas was not a legal holiday in all states until late in the 19th century. 4. The "Christmas tree" is an adaptation of the winter solstice tree used in pre-Christian pagan northern Europe to herald the return of the sun.
Fifty years ago I lived for a couple of years in predominantly Catholic Colombia. Christmas was celebrated there for a week with fireworks. And Christmas trees were a recent innovation imported from the US.
An aside: If Jesus were to visit the US today, one wonders what he would think of the potlatch of outdoor illuminated junk -- Santas, reindeer, lights, etc -- proliferating like a new disease in our neighborhoods, using coal-generated electricity and wasting zillions of dollars while millions of our fellow citizens go hungry.
Monday, November 28, 2011
"President Obama, Don't Turn Your Back on Women" is the head on a quarter-page ad on the op ed page of the November 28 New York Times. Because this organization of Catholics has credibility, I would like to quite the entire text here ---
"Providing no-cost family planning is good public health policy and an important advance under the Affordable Care Act. But if you grant the refusal clause the Catholic bishops want, you will be supporting discrimination against millions of Americans, both Catholic and non-Catholic, simply because of where they work or go to school.
"The majority of American Catholics support affordable access to contraception for all women and men, especially during these touch economic times. Catholics themselves use contraception: 98% of sexually active Catholic women have used the family planning the bishops want you tp exclude from healthcare coverage.
"Expanding refusal clauses to allow some institutions and universities to refuse to provide coverage for contraception is not what you promised in healthcare reform. Giving in to the bishops' demands will mean preventive healthcare will cost more -- not less -- for millions of healthcare and social service employees, teachers and university students and their families.
"American taxpayers' dollars should be used for the common good and to enable people to exercise their conscience-based healthcare decisions.
"If you want to do what's right by American Catholics, don't make this deal with the bishops. Listen to the majority of the 68 million Catholics who want contraception coverage for everyone, not the 271 active bishops in the United States who don't.
"Catholics for Choice, 1436 U St NW, Suite 301, Wash. DC 20009. www.catholicsforchoice.org"
Americans of all persuasions should tell Mr Obama the same.
Sunday, November 27, 2011
In his autobiography, Mirror to America, Dr. John Hope Franklin writes, "From the very beginning of my own involvement in the academy, the goal I sought was to be a scholar with credentials as impeccable as I could achieve. At the same time I was determined to be as active as I could in the fight to eradicate the stain of racism that clouded American intellectual and academic life even as it poisoned other aspects of American society.... While I set out to advance my professional career on the basis of the highest standards of scholarship, I also used that scholarship to expose the hypocrisy underlying so much of American social and race relations." During his career, John Hope Franklin encouraged his students and colleagues to embrace both scholarship and activism. On October 7, 2011, I thought about his words while listening to Sikivu Hutchinson, author of Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars, as she made her presentation at the 4th Annual Texas Freethought Convention in Houston, Texas. I have no doubt that Dr. Franklin, who is the recipient of hundreds of awards including the Presidential Medal of Freedom, a prominent historian and noted African American scholar, would agree that Sikivu is using her own scholarship, credentials, and professional career in her fight to eradicate the stain of racism that is clouding the vision of the intellectual, academic, and secular communities.
Soon after our boldest and most influential critical thinkers in the secular community have confronted and confounded the enemies of reason; after they appear to have said all that there is to say, Sikivu Hutchinson has stepped forward to demand the expansion of the discussion beyond the separation of church and state and has illuminated the conditions that exist in America especially with regard to oppressed and marginalized people. She is a disciplined, first-rate intellectual and speaks with authority on the issues of race, class, gender, and religion. She represents the role model for the atheists of this millennium who are ready to work towards a total societal transformation and who reject a piecemeal approach. With respect to her ability to accurately articulate the totality of the problems that we face as well as outline what must be done to move towards the achievement of social justice and universal human rights, Sikivu Hutchinson has no equal.
Saturday, November 26, 2011
On Friday evening, November 25 PBS aired Mexican composer Daniel Catan's 2010 opera "Il Postino" ("The Postman"), a magnificent production by the LA Opera with Placido Domingo and a superb cast. I am not a great opera fan but I would rank "Il Postino" with my favorite opera, Puccini's "Madama Butterfly". (I wrote a short story some years ago imagining what happened to Butterfly's little son after her suicide.)
"Il Postino" is based on the Oscar-winning 1994 Italian film of the same name, which in turn was based on Antonio Skarmeta's 1985 novel "Ardiente Paciencia" ("Burning Patience"). As the opera is sung in Spanish it uses dialogue directly from the novel.
The story is simple, with three main characters: Pablo Neruda, the great Chilean poet (1971 Nobel laureate in literature) and diplomat living in exile in 1953 on an island off the coast of Italy with his wife; Mario, a shy young mail carrier; Beatriz, the daughter of a local hotel keeper. In the 1985 novel the story takes place in the late 1960s and early 1970s on an island off the Chilean coast. (Neruda died of cancer in September of 1973, a few days after the 9/11/73 military coup that ousted the government of elected president Salvador Allende. What a coincidence: 9/11/73 in Chile and 9/11/01 in the US.)
In the opera and film (and novel) Neruda helps the uneducated Mario understand metaphors and poetry so that he can woo the beautiful Beatriz. I will say no more except about the story; you have to see this great production on the screen.
And read Neruda's poetry.
Friday, November 25, 2011
deer god. my name is jimmy an i am ate yeers old an my mom takes me to sunday skool evry sunday so i can lern about the book you rote. i like to go to sunday skool becauz after we leev we go to mcdonals so i can eet a hapy meel. sumtimes sunday skool iz fun but a lot uv the time i dont reely understan evrything. like the ten comanmunts. wen you say in yer book that ther shal be no other gods in front uv you i can understan that becauz i dont like people in front uv me becauz i am short an cant see over them. but wat other gods are you tawking about. hoo are they. an you shall not steel and you shall not kill. that iz ok. i dont steel an i dont kill excep sumtimes bugs. an you shal not comit adultery. i dont understan that but i gess i dont haf to think abowt that for a long long time until i grow up an am a adult. then ther is the comanmunt to honor yer mom an dad. i like that becauz my mom an dad are nice an giv me nice things. wat i dont understan in wen you say in yer book that if eny man or maybe little kid dont hate hiz mom an dad an brother an sister he cant be my disciple i just dont understan. how can you honor yer mom an dad an at the same time hate yer mom an dad an brother an sister. that just dont make eny sens. pleez god pleez splane that to me. wen i ast my sunday skool teecher she just told me that ther are sumthings you just haf to beleev even if they dont make no sense. so pleez god help me owt.
i have to go to bed now. good nite.
yer frend jimmy
Wednesday, November 23, 2011
by Gary Berg-Cross
Dave Letterman has a general list. So do various religious groups & regular folks. They have their top 10 lists (e.g. the police wife list) of things to be thankful for. Why not a humanist/nonbeliever list for Thanksgiving? Here’s a start on a list of things I’d wish would happen, that I’m thankful for or that people might say or think about on Thanksgiving.
10. It’s a day after President Obama pardoned 45-pound Liberty and understudy Peace from the butcher's knife ( fifth and sixth turkeys to skip the Thanksgiving feast during his administration. a (20-kilogram). I’d celebrate if he would realized that liberty and peace might be advanced by pardoning Climate Activist Tim DeChristopher Given Two-Year Sentence For Derailing Bush Oil Auction.
9. Historical skeptics may celebrate, educate and entertain their dinner guests with some myth busting facts. There are many to choose from including the apparent fact that the first Thanksgiving, a harvest festival, actually took place in little San Elizario, a community near El Paso, in 1598 -- twenty-three years before the Pilgrims' festival. Nice to know and sharing knowledge is something I’m always thankful for.
8. I celebrate Thanksgiving as a multicultural, humanist event rather than a religious one. Even the Pilgrim festival was more than a family holiday. It was more a multicultural community event. Remember the Pilgrims invited the Indians to join in. The Indian perspective on this is a bit sobering. In 1997 Linda Coombs, Aquinnah Wampanoag, put it this way:
"Thanksgiving is celebrated at the expense of Native Peoples who had to give up their lands and culture for America to become what it is today."
7. I’m glad that America is an exceptional nation. True. At least our founders were an exceptional and enlightened group and we would do well to be more like them or maybe an updated version of them. Now when I look over the crop of current Republican candidates which ones are exceptional like that?
6. I glad that I won’t be bombarded by silly gaffes of politicians this day. Sarah Palin isn’t pardoning turkeys any more right?
5. Some of us can celebrate the failure of the not-so-democratically-super, Super Committee. We can look forward to solving our problems the old fashion way – with people’s and representative involvement.
4. Managing and pulling off a great Thanksgiving feast requires quality planning and critical thinking. Let’s celebrate that type of productive thinking in the wider scope of society. If we can balance and compromise Aunt Marcie’s aversion to strong spices and Henry’s desires for something hot why not try accommodation more
consistently in a civil society?
3. Got space at the table and need to spark some conversation? Maybe there is still time to invite Paul Kurtz and PZ Myers to dine and share some insights on accommodation versus confrontation. It should be interesting to any Millennials attending. I’d sure be thankful for such a visit and free exchange of ideas.
2. Remember who/what to thank. Ken Guthrie a board member of Salt Lake City Pagan Pride made a good start on this - "I'm thanking, first, the universe for allowing me to be alive. I'm thanking my family for being with me, and I give thanks to the turkey that gave its life, the plants on our table, to the Earth itself for being abundant." That’s thinking and speaking clearly.
1. Not sure what is the # one thing to be glad of? One thought is that it’s only 31 days till Tom Flynn (he of "The Trouble with Christmas") goes to work on Dec. 25th. Whose turn is it to give him a call while he's in the office?
You tell me your candidates for being humanistically thankful…..I’m sure that you can improve on the list and I’d celebrate that.
Tuesday, November 22, 2011
by Gary Berg-Cross
For good or ill, for better understanding or to thwart understanding, conversations are filled with ideas about trust or really the trust – lack of trust continuum. It's an excess worthy of Thanksgiving feasts.
The failure of the super committee is blamed in part on a lack of trust between Democrats and Republicans. This lack of trust is said to fuel already deep divides between the side. Democrats came to believe that the Republicans really wanted to use the super committee to cut taxes, rather than the deficit. And Republicans members don’t trust Government period, even though they are part of it.
A lack of trust in the financial system (or government regulation) is part of the widespread, political polarization, but is also said to underlie Greek debt problems, US- Israeli relations, employee- employer relations (28% of employees don't trust the senior leaders in their organization, but maybe it’s higher now in the NBA!)
One reason I was thinking of trust, besides being bombarded by the above, was an article on the trust factor with atheists. This new work explains some of the unpopularity of atheists as I blogged on earlier comparing atheist and t-party unfavorability. Such data go back to 2006 and sociological studies by Edgell, Gerteis & Hartmann. Their survey of Americans, found that atheists “are less likely to be accepted, publicly and privately, than any others from a long list of ethnic, religious and other minority groups.” Writing in the American Sociological Review, they noted that “while rejection of Muslims may have spiked in post-9/11 America, rejection of atheists was higher.” Rejection is measured in several ways and one is whether a person would vote for a presidential
candidate of this type. Atheist are the lowest group, just under homosexuals.
This all comes despite the declining salience of divisions among religious groups. So why does the boundary between believers and nonbelievers in America remains strong? This authors ague that it is rooted in moral and symbolic, rather than ethnic or material, grounds. So atheists are seen as “others” and immorally so.
There has been some follow-up work to understand the dynamics a bit better and it turns out that trust is a key element. “Distrust Feeds Anti-Atheist Prejudice” shouts the article headline by Tom Jacobs reporting on new sociofunctional research by British Columbia psychologist Will Gervis finds that atheists are unpopular because they are widely perceived as untrustworthy. Distrust seems to be a major factor in why we are disliked more than other minorities, although this distrust of atheists generalized to like minded groups from more liberal, secular populations. They are like atheists, but who else is? Well, criminally untrustworthy individual such as rapists are. How does research get at this? They use something called the Conjunction test. You give a person a sentence like:
Amber, “an outspoken and politically active single woman.” Knowing that — and nothing else — about her, is it more likely that Amber is (a) a banker or (b) a banker and a feminist?
What if a person is some clearly immoral type (like a person who steals)? Who are they more like??? You guessed it. Rapists are not seen as people of faith (e.g. Christians, Muslims, Jews) through.
The researchers report that taken as a whole the results were consistent with a moral hypothesis that:
“the relationship between belief in God and atheist distrust was fully mediated by the belief that people behave better if they feel that God is watching them.”You can see a video called If Atheist Ruled American that expresses many of the implications that arise from beliefs such as "America is based on faith in God and that's why we have free speech and equal rights." Or that freedom of thinking will be taken away from people since we are just animals and atheists will wage a secret war against rights.
Of course such abstract, unfounded beliefs in what atheists are like can be changed by personal interactions and discussions (such as interfaith discussions that include atheists -discussed in a previous blog). Many people of faith don’t really know atheists and kindred folk well enough to understand their moral behavior. This is generally true of positive contact with out-groups. People can change their option if the exposure is positive. It’s happened and is happening to the GLBT community and it might even happen to the less popular atheist community. So be your moral, right-thinking self and let people see your humanity. It plays well when shown in a favorable light.
by Edd Doerr
Nigeria’s 1967-70 civil war has receded into history, all but forgotten and overshadowed by more recent messes. But there are things about it that need to be recorded but have never found their way into the history books. One way to begin to peel this onion is to reproduce verbatim a letter of mine that was published in the October 22, 1969, issue of Christian Century magazine. Let me note that the unnamed Nigerian educator mentioned in the letter’s second paragraph is Dr. Ernest Ukpabi, whom I knew back in the early 1950s. Ukpabi had recently earned his PhD at Brown University in Rhode Island. I invited this fellow Humanist and supporter of church-state separation to speak before our Indianapolis Humanist group about the Mau Mau affair in colonial Kenya. Shortly thereafter he returned to Nigeria and became an education official in the Rivers area of Nigeria’s Eastern Region. But before turning to the letter, let me jot down a hasty sketch of the history involved.
Nigeria achieved independence from Britain in 1960. In January of 1966 an attempted coup against the civil government by several young military officers caused the death of the prime minister and two of the four regional premiers. In the emergency the federal government handed over power to the armed forces. Major General Aguiyi-Ironsi then headed the Federal Military Government. A period of unrest followed. In July Ironsi was kidnapped and assassinated. Army Chief of Staff Lt. Col. Yakubu (Jack) Gowon assumed command. In May of 1967 the Eastern Region declared independence as the republic of Biafra. Lt Col. Odumegwu Ojukwu headed the breakaway state. Hostilities got under way in July when a Biafran B-26, apparently obtained illegally from France, bombed the Nigerian capital, Lagos. The war dragged on until Biafra’s surrender in January of 1970. Now to the letter.
“H.W. Turner’s ‘Religion in Nigeria’s Conflict’ (Sept. 10) provided valuable insights into that tragic civil war, but in concentrating on the problems caused by Islam in Northern Nigeria it passed over those caused by Catholic action in Eastern Nigeria.
“In January 1957 a prominent Ibo educator wrote me from the Rivers area that a movement was in full swing to make Eastern Nigeria (Biafra) a Catholic state. Eastern Nigeria is the largest Catholic stronghold in Africa, as Vietnam was and is in Asia. Before the 1966 coup that area endured many clashes over Catholic opposition to universal primary (public) education and growing Catholic control over education. By 1965 over half of all schools in Eastern Nigeria were tax-supported Catholic schools—used, as Bishop Mark Hurley of Los Angeles has written, as ‘instruments of evangelization.’
“On Jan. 11 of this year, at a conference on Biafra at Catholic University in Washington, Fr. Raymond Kennedy, an Irish priest high in Biafran circles, told me that the January 15, 1966, coup led by Catholic army officers that began the tragic chain of events occurred immediately after the Eastern regional parliament had approved a measure that would convert the Catholic schools to public schools. Some observers believe that this measure had a lot to do with the coup. In the Dec. 7 and Dec. 14 issues of Britain’s leading Catholic paper, the Tablet, Tom Burns, the editor, wrote that ‘the influence of the [Catholic] Church throughout the whole land [Biafra] is, however, out of all proportion to its numbers,’ and that Col. Ojukwu, a Catholic, ‘has chosen to use this religion as a rallying cry for resistance and an appeal to the outside world.’
“In December 1968 Archbishop Aggey and two other Nigerian bishops went to Rome ‘to protest to Pope Paul about the purported involvement of the Church in the Nigerian civil war’ (New York Post, Dec. 2, 1968). On Jan. 29, 1969, Joseph Tarka, Nigerian transport commissioner and one of the country’s top Catholic laymen, told the 21st annual U.S. Conference on Church and State that his and other churches in Nigeria had subverted religion and humanitarianism to political ends. And, as Stanley Meisler, the Los Angeles Times man in Africa, has confirmed, the Roman Catholic Church has been serving as Biafra’s public relations right arm.
“The evidence suggests that the Vatican is going all out to protect its missionary investment in Eastern Nigeria—the largest it has in Africa—and that elements within that church have been trying to make that area a Catholic state. Clericalists helped get us into Vietnam; we should be careful lest clericalist interests get us to send Green Berets to Africa.”
Now let me quote from Ukpabi’s 1957 letter to me: “Edd, trouble is brewing in Nigeria, particularly in the East. The Catholics are giving us hell about the introduction of universal primary education in this region. The usual shibboleth is being thrown about—such as “Education without religion is like a house without a foundation’ . . . Some Nigerian Catholics are really getting disgusted at what their ‘fathers’ are doing. In the election that is to be held on the 15th of March, the Catholics are openly to contest . . . There is a rumour around here that the head of the Catholic hierarchy in the Eastern region wrote the Pope a few years ago to say that, given ten more years, he could make East a Catholic state.”
Also of interest was this quote from Msgr. Mark J. Hurley in the 1969 Paulist Press study club edition of the Declaration on Christian Education of Vatican Council II. Hurley quoted a letter written by the head of the Nigerian Bishops Conference, Archbishop Charles Heeney of Onitsha in the then-Eastern Region of Nigeria, dated from early during the 1962-65 Council: “In Nigeria,” wrote Heeney, a member of the Holy Ghost Fathers, the main order in Eastern Nigeria, “the regional governments have frequently expressed their desire to take over the Catholic schools and make them . . . government schools . . . government pressure is increasing and the fate of the Catholic schools will probably be decided in the next five years. . . . The bishops hope that the [Second Vatican] Council will strengthen their hand to defend the schools . . . and convince governments that the Church is genuinely willing to cooperate and has a great contribution to make to the education of youth.”
To rewind a bit, I had joined the staff of Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU) in January of 1966, the same month as the Nigerian attempted coup. I spent much of early 1968 writing and publishing my first book, The Conspiracy That Failed (Americans United, 1968, 186 pp.), an account of the successful campaign in 1967 in New York to defeat a referendum on deleting the church-state separation clause (Art. XI, Sec. 3) from the state constitution. We won, 72% to 28%, in the first of a long chain of referendum victories over attempts to divert public funds to sectarian private schools.
During the summer of 1968 my AU colleague Gaston Cogdell had been dealing with a flood of inquiries regarding Catholic Church activity aimed at getting the United States to intervene in the Nigerian civil war on behalf of Biafra. The matter did not stir my interest until one day when my eight-year-old daughter, who had been rummaging through a box of old photos, found Ukpabi’s 1957 letter and brought it to me. “Daddy, I think this might be important,” she said. It was. The eleven-year-old letter connected a lot of dots.
I spent weeks researching the Nigerian conflict, reading, searching newspapers, interviewing, becoming acquainted with Nigerian ambassador Joe Iyala and press aide Jim Ochee. (The Nigerian embassy was only one block from my AU office at 1633 Massachusetts Avenue NW in Washington).
The pieces began to fit together like a puzzle. The war was a tragedy. About two million people died before it ended. Politicians were talking about U.S. intervention on behalf of Biafra. The Nigerians were somewhat inept at publicity for their cause, while Catholic Church leaders were doing a good job of pushing theirs.
During the fall of 1968 I recall spending a couple of hours presenting our findings to staff at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and delivering material to Senator Edward Kennedy, who had been leaning toward intervention. Nixon was elected in November. The war was dragging on. On one occasion I was able to dissuade Nigerian students from a New England university who wanted to occupy the Nigerian embassy to protest what they regarded as the slow pace of the Nigerian government in ending the secession. I told them it would hurt more than help their cause.
As AU was to hold its annual conference in New York at the end of January 1969, Cogdell and I suggested to the Nigerian embassy that they provide a speaker to discuss the church-state angle of the war. The embassy agreed to assign some minor official to the task, but Cogdell and I told them that that was not good enough, that the speaker had to be a cabinet minister and a Catholic. It was agreed finally that the speaker would be Transport Commissioner Joseph Tarka, a prominent Catholic politician in the cabinet.
When Tarka arrived in Washington on January 27, 1969, after he had flown in from Rome, where he had sought unsuccessfully to have a chat with the pope, my wife and I had dinner with him and ambassador Iyala at the chancellery. Tarka was a quiet, imposing, British-educated gentleman in a finely-tailored Savile Row suit. (An aside: When the ambassador learned that my wife was from Colombia, he began reciting from memory some of H.G. Wells’ short story “The Country of the Blind,” which was situated in that country.)
In an effort to be helpful to Tarka, I offered him my extensive notes on our research on the religious angle to the civil war, including suggestions for dealing with an American audience, adding that if my suggestions were presumptuous he should just disregard them.
When Tarka arrived in New York on Tuesday, January 29, for his address at the Park Sheraton Hotel, he wore a Nigerian dashiki. To my surprise he included all of my suggestions in his address, which was covered by the New York Times.
Following Tarka’s speech interest in U.S. intervention in the Nigerian civil war melted like ice in August. The conflict dragged on, with Biafra shrinking day by day, until the final surrender in January of 1970. Following the war life in Nigeria returned to something like normal, unlike the aftermath of our own civil war, still being argued over after a century and a half. Much has been written about the Nigerian conflict, the nitty-gritty of war and its “collateral damage,” but the religious angle goes unmentioned.
As the dust of war was settling, 62 Catholic missionaries—one bishop, 47 priests, and 14 nuns, most of them Irish and Italian – were convicted by a court in Port Harcourt on charges of illegal entry into Nigeria’s Eastern States and deported.
Nigeria’s civil war is buried in the past, but the Vatican and the hierarchy, the Old Boys Club, very largely out of sync with the majority of U.S. and European Catholics, is still up to its old political tricks, giving priority to anything that will slow progress for women’s rights, get public funding for its schools and other operations, say no to democracy in the church, dodge responsibility for generations of worldwide clerical sexual abuse. Is it any wonder that most Catholics pay little attention to bishops and neglect the collection basket?
Monday, November 21, 2011
Sunday, November 20, 2011
Yesterday was the 150th anniversary of the penning of the lyrics to The Battle Hymn of the Republic, which you may know better as the song with the rousing chorus “Glory, glory, Hallelujah!”
The tune was a little older that; it began life earlier in the 19th century as Say, Brothers, Will You Meet Us On Canaan’s Happy Shore. When the Civil War broke out in April, 1861, Union soldiers picked up on it, changing the opening words to the irreverent John Brown’s Body Lies A’mouldering in the Grave, which caught on quickly among the ranks. John Brown, you may recall, was the God expert abolitionist who had done as much as anyone to prevent America from ending slavery in the orderly, peaceful fashion of the other American republics and colonies. He was executed after a failed attempt to incite a slave insurrection at Harper’s Ferry in 1859. According to one story, the lyrics were dreamed up by a soldier whose name was also John Brown, responding to the joke he kept hearing from his buddies that “I thought John Brown was dead!” Some soldiers who sang the catchy tune thought they were nobly carrying on the work of “the” John Brown, whose soul marched with them; others no doubt had a less sanguine view, more along the lines of “Brown’s dead already – so what the hell am I doing here, getting ready to fill my own moldy grave?”
In any event, Union bigwigs were uncomfortable hearing their men dwell so incessantly on the “good chance of getting killed” aspect of their service, and thus sought a more uplifting song that would be as invigorating to march to without being quite so morbid. When Julia Ward Howe, the wife of a prominent abolitionist editor, accompanied her husband on a visit to President Lincoln and a review of troops stationed in Arlington, Virginia on November 18, 1861, a minister who accompanied her group suggested that if she found the lyrics unseemly, perhaps she could write some better ones.
That night, after Howe returned to the comfort of Washington’s Willard Hotel:
I went to bed that night as usual, and slept, according to my wont, quite soundly. I awoke in the gray of the morning twilight; and as I lay waiting for the dawn, the long lines of the desired poem began to twine themselves in my mind. Having thought out all the stanzas, I said to myself, “I must get up and write these verses down, lest I fall asleep again and forget them.” So, with a sudden effort, I sprang out of bed, and found in the dimness an old stump of a pen which I remembered to have used the day before. I scrawled the verses almost without looking at the paper.The resulting opus was a marvelous mixture of God, blood, and guts:
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord: He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored; He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword: His truth is marching on.Subtle, it wasn’t. We’re fighting for God, our enemies are fighting for “the serpent.” Retreating would be defiance of God’s command. Dying in God’s cause is a fine thing, because it makes you like Jesus. For the well-read, there were also lots of Biblical allusions to make themselves feel smart. Revelation 19:15, for example, is the source for combining the images of a sword and a winepress. The “righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps” related to the writing on the wall behind the lampstand in Daniel, which foretold the destruction of Babylon
I have seen Him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps, They have builded Him an altar in the evening dews and damps; I can read His righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps: His day is marching on.
I have read a fiery gospel writ in burnished rows of steel: “As ye deal with my contemners, so with you my grace shall deal; Let the Hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with his heel, Since God is marching on.”
He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat; He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment-seat: Oh, be swift, my soul, to answer Him! be jubilant, my feet! Our God is marching on.
In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea, With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me: As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free, While God is marching on.
He is coming like the glory of the morning on the wave, He is Wisdom to the mighty, He is Succour to the brave, So the world shall be His footstool, and the soul of Time His slave, Our God is marching on.
After Howe’s lyrics were published in the Atlantic Monthly a few months later, they became an instant hit, and the unofficial theme song for the entire Union war effort. Many others have followed in Howe’s footsteps by appropriating the same tune, from labor’s Solidarity Forever, for the Union Makes Us Strong to my personal favorite, Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory of the Burning of the School.
Howe is far from the only songwriter to associate God with military carnage. Just ten years later, across the Atlantic, Arthur Sullivan (who later teamed up with W. S. Gilbert on lighter fare) composed the melody for Onward Christian Soldiers, assuring listeners that “Christ, the royal Master, leads against the foe; forward into battle see his banners go!”
Christians are not alone in this. Mormon hymnal #258 urges “Hark! the sound of battle sounding loudly and clear; Come join the ranks! Come join the ranks! We are waiting now for soldiers; who’ll volunteer?” The Jewish Psalms, originally meant to be sung, proclaim:
People of Babylon, you are sentenced to be destroyed. Happy are those who pay you back for what you have done to us. Happy are those who grab your babies and smash them against the rocks.Why such a strong link between God and violence? Here’s my theory. Most wars don’t make much sense, except for a handful of big shots who profit from them. If there is no persuasive rational reason to persuade young men to risk their necks on your behalf, then you need to try some irrational reasons. “God wants you to do it!” is a time-tested, terrific justification for going out and getting shot. Putting God on your team also serves to dampen the soldier’s common-sense fear of death with the fraudulent promise of an afterlife. One Confederate wrote that “Christians make the best soldiers, as they would not fear the consequences after death as others would.” Another reassured his wife in 1862 that “when we lay all upon this altar of our country, the God of Nations will give us a permanent happy existence. How near akin is patriotism to religion!” A Pennsylvania soldier was more succinct: “Religion is what makes brave soldiers.” It’s little wonder that the chairman of the Military Commission in the Confederate House of Representatives testified near the end of the war that “The clergy have done more for our cause, than any other class … Not even the bayonets have done more.”
God’s truth marching on sufficiently inspired both sides in the Civil War to produce over 600,000 dead young men. In a world where religion had lost most of its influence – say, western Europe over the last 60 years – how easy would it be to replicate that feat?
Saturday, November 19, 2011
National secular organizations can play a greater supportive role the local level. For example, I'd love to know who attended the TFC from the states of Virginia and Maryland as well as Washington, DC. The TFC's data base has information from those who registered for the conference, and it would have been helpful to ask people to check a box if they would like to have their e-mail address shared with other convention attendees in their city or state. This could present tremendous opportunities for people to work together in their home states who may not otherwise know of one another. Many are, in fact, able to get together for 'meet-ups,' however, those involved in the planning of conferences and conventions increase the potential for like-minded people to get together when they serve as facilitators in this process. Perhaps future conference and convention planners will make it possible for participants who'd like to meet people from their city and/or state to do so.
- The American Atheists had an information booth which served as the 'office' for Dave Silverman, AA's president. Dave was promoting the March 24, 2012 Reason Rally on the Mall in Washington, DC. So far, 15 secular entities--many of which are national organizations--are sponsoring the event which is expected to attract thousands of people who stand for 'reason.'
- I met many African Americans: Glenn from San Antonio, TX is a retired educator and a retired member of US Air Force.
- Activist and author of Moral Combat: Black Atheists, Gender Politics, and the Values Wars, Sikivu Hutchinson of Los Angeles, CA served as a panelist and also delivered a dynamic presentation fearlessly tackling the issues of race, class, gender, and religion. blackskeptic.org
- For Houston residents Simone, a student at the University of Houston as well as Michele, a recent graduate, this was their first convention. Simone plans to be an atheist activist on campus, and like Eric, another African American who flew in from Spokane, Washington she belongs to the Secular Student Alliance. The work and reputation of the SSA attracted a very large number of students to the event.
- This was Jacqueline's, a former Marine from North Carolina, first convention, who came to hear all of her favorite authors including rapper Greydon Square.
- Speaking of authors, Donald R. Wright of Houston was also at the convention and his book, The Only Prayer I'll Ever Pray: Let My People Go was sold during the convention. He’s a Friend of WASH, and as a busy activist, he's the Vice President of the Humanists of Houston and the founder of the Radical Forum of Houston as well as the founder of the African American Non-theists Day of Solidarity. Please mark your calendars:
- The African American Non-theists Day of Solidarity will take place on the last Sunday in February as we gather in our own cities to celebrate past and present African American firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Also in attendance was writer for the Revolution newspaper and blogger Sunsara Taylor, a woman who also elegantly and fearlessly addressed the issues of race, class, gender and religion as both a panelist and a presenter. sunsara.blogspot.com
- Another very savvy woman was Ho Kui who flew in for the convention from Hong Kong! She thinks that many people in Hong Kong aren't believers but are very reluctant to say so. This was also her first convention and she explained that she didn't know that atheists held those kinds of events. Actually, these events are being held in Europe, Australia, in both East and West African nations; in Mexico, Canada, and throughout the US.
- Let’s commit to remaining connected electronically, by phone, and most importantly in face-to-face meetings as often as possible.
- Let’s stay connected in order to exchange ideas, seek advice, offer and request support. Let's also strengthen our commitment to live by and provide the highest standards of ethical secular values.
- In our own cities and towns as well as in our own homes, let’s do all we can do to enlarge the secular community through our own collective activities, by creating new organizations, cooperating with those with similar values and goals, and creating a tapestry of humanity through positive activity.
- Let all of our words and deeds promote, create, and defend social justice and universal human rights. Let’s make lifelong commitment to occupy reason!