The history of Islam: part three

My first college roommate once asked me, “Do you know why we Arabs hate you Americans?”

I responded, “No, Mohamed, please tell me why you Arabs hate us Americans.”

“After World War II,” he informed me, “you helped rebuild your friends, Britain and France, and that made sense. You also helped rebuild your enemies, Germany and Japan, and that was strange. You helped everyone else in the world—you even helped the Jews get their own country—but you did nothing for us. That’s why we hate you today.”

It seems strange that a young man, born several years after the war ended and the rebuilding was accomplished, should carry a national grudge to the point of hatred. It also seems strange that, in spite of that hatred, he would travel to the United States to take classes in our schools. But Mohamed’s view of the United States reflects a reality found across the Muslim world over the past seventy years. (Bear in mind that, while most Arabs are Muslims, most Muslims are not Arabs. Yet from Indonesia to Nigeria, the feelings expressed by my roommate are common.) For a time, the United States had become a world power, matched only by the Soviet Union. But Muslims had exercised political power in the world in the past, and they expect to rise to that level again.

Five hundred years ago, many Muslims lived in powerful Old World empires ruled by Muslims. The Ottomans, the Safavids, and the Moguls each were stronger and more advanced than any European government. Muslims could take credit for scientific and medical advances, for philosophical inquiries, for outstanding artistic accomplishments, and for revolutionary mathematics (such as algebra). But new things were happening in Europe: exploration of the world’s oceans bringing discovery of previously unknown lands, reformation of the Christian Church, a Scientific Revolution, an Industrial Revolution, and a philosophy that called itself the Enlightenment. On the political front, Enlightenment philosophy declared that all human beings are equal and that we all have rights; that government should be limited in power and should protect those rights; that people should have freedom of speech, freedom of thought, freedom of religion, and freedom of assembly; and that education provides a way to develop those freedoms and to establish that equality. Coupled with an economic movement called Capitalism, this philosophy was developed in western Europe, was tried in the thirteen United States of North America, and was eventually established in Europe and was transported around the world.

 As the Muslim empires lost political power, some leaders tried to imitate European ways, hoping to catch up to Europe’s scientific and industrial advances and to maintain their place on the world stage. Other Muslims said that Enlightenment philosophy was opposed to Shariah and the Qur’an; they would accept western science and technology, but not western ideas about freedom and equality. By the end of the first World War, the Muslim empires had collapsed. European governments—especially Britain and France—held political power over north Africa and west Asia. But, following the second World War, Britain and France began to divest themselves of their colonies. They recognized national governments in Africa and Asia, withdrawing their armed forces and seeking trade with their former colonies. Where Old World empires once had prevailed, now Third World nations were on the board, eyed by the powers of the United States and the Soviet Union. The United States offered freedom, democracy, and the benefits of capitalism. The Soviet Union offered stability, socialism, and a dream of world-wide Communism. Both sides in the Cold War looked at the Third World as a battleground for their ideas. Both sides assumed that “the enemy of my friend is my enemy” and that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” If a government favored one side in the Cold War, opponents of that government were assumed to be fighting for the other side. The possibility of a third side that hated both Americans and Soviets seems to have escaped both Americans and Soviets during their conduct of the Cold War.

Eventually, the United States and its allies won the Cold War. The Soviet Union collapsed. China remained under the control of the Communist Party, but it turned away from socialism and embraced capitalism. Those few countries that cling to soviet-style socialism (North Korea and Cuba) are trapped in economic doldrums; those that embraced freedom and capitalism most fervently (such as Germany and Japan) became economic powerhouses.

Meanwhile, the Muslim world remains skeptical about the value of freedom and democracy. Most are governed by a small elite. While they learned to play the economic game of capitalism, teasing industry’s thirst for oil to their enrichment, Muslim governments continued to try to balance Shariah against Enlightenment values of freedom, equality, and education for all people. Well-to-do Muslim families in Asia and Africa have satellite dishes; they watch American television. They do not tune in to religious broadcasting or to documentaries on the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. No, they watch our entertainment shows. They have learned about life in the United States from Seinfeld and Friends, from Jersey Shore and the Kardashians. Given those examples, one can easily see why Muslims might question the benefits of freedom, democracy, and education for all people.

All Muslims are not the same. Many appreciate the United States and value what we are when we are at our best. Most do not wish harm upon us, so long as we leave them alone. But twenty years ago, a group of Muslim terrorists attacked the United States. They did not target churches; they worked to destroy the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. They showed us what they reject about us: our obsession with worldly wealth and power, our display of human beings at their worst rather than at their best.

Before we hope to be a light to the world, a shining city on a hill, the United States must clean up its own act. We must learn to use freedom responsibly, to use education in a way that shapes better people, to devote our resources for meaningful purposes. We can do better than we have done. When we live up to our own standards of truth and justice and the American way, then we will be recognized as people who have something worth sharing. J.

The history of Islam: part two

Muhammad’s insistence that he was receiving messages from God met skeptical ears and minds in Mecca, just as any claim to have messages from God meets skeptical ears and minds today. A few did believe Muhammad, though, and then a few more believed. This growing group of believers prompted resistance from the authorities in Mecca. For years the determination of both sides increased. A turning point came when the leaders of a nearby town (then named Yathrib; today called Medina) invited Muhammad to come to their town and settle disputes among their leaders. Muhammad’s clandestine journey to Medina became the first year for the Muslim count of years, as the assumed date of the birth of Jesus is the first year in the Christian count of years. (Because Muslims begin a new month every new moon and have no leap days or leap months, the Muslim year is ten or eleven years shorter than the Christian years. As a result, Muslim observances drift through the seasons, falling sometimes in summer and other times in winter.) Relations between Muhammad’s followers in Medina and his opponents in Mecca led sometimes to armed battles and sometimes to negotiations and compromises. In the end, Muhammad claimed authority in Mecca; he had the altars of false gods removed from the city center, but he kept one meteorite in Mecca, designating it as sacred to God. Observant Muslims treat that stone with reverence; it stands at the center of their pilgrimage ceremonies in Mecca.

When Muhammad died, he left no instructions about who was to continue leading the Muslims in Mecca, Medina, and the surrounding area. His followers understood that Muhammad was the last of the prophets; there would not be a next prophet. But they needed someone to guide their movement. Therefore, they designated a Caliph, a man who could speak in place of the prophet. Four Caliphs were selected in the thirty years after Muhammad died—a new one was chosen when the last one had died. Some Muslims believe that the fourth Caliph—Ali, the son-in-law of Muhammad—should have been the first Caliph. This controversy began the split among Muslims that continues as a division between Sunni and Shia Muslims. Other groups also had variant understandings about how Islam should be governed. After the death of the fourth Caliph, the Umayyad family gathered control of Muslim government, ruling from the city Damascus for almost a century. They eventually gave way to the Abbasid family, who built a new capitol city in Mesopotamia, the city of Baghdad, from which they continued to rule Muslim lands.

For, within a century of Muhammad’s death, Muslim Arabs had spread as an army across north Africa and into Spain, and also into western Asia as far as the western part of India. They permitted religious freedom to “People of the Book,” but they demanded that polytheists acknowledge the one God or die. The Caliphs, the Umayyads, and the Abbasids determined Sharia for the many people living in these lands. Already, though, Islam was splintering, as Shia and other groups resisted some of the interpretations of the central Islamic government. Muslims in Spain and Morocco never acknowledged the Abbasid government in Baghdad, recognizing their own local leaders as successors to the Umayyads. Other north African groups developed their own Muslim governments, including the Fatimid government in Egypt, who claimed that their leaders were descended from Ali and from his wife Fatima, the daughter of Muhammad.

Meanwhile, invaders were entering west Asia from the central part of the continent. The Saljuq Turks invaded the Abbasid Empire, leaving the Abbasid Caliph as a figurehead but dominating the government of Baghdad. The strength of the Saljuq Turks caused the Byzantine Emperor to call for reinforcements from western Europe, conjuring the Crusades. Turks were no more impressed by Byzantines by the European fighters, but they offered an alliance if the Christian Crusaders would help them battle the Fatimids in Egypt. The Fatimids offered a similar alliance. Reluctant to sign a treaty with either group, the Crusaders held their kingdoms for a bit more than a hundred years before they were overwhelmed by the Turks, led by the Kurdish general Saladin. Later the Mongol Empire, including additional Turks among their soldiers, seized Persia and Mesopotamia, including Baghdad. Mongols and Turks who remained in west Asia converted to Islam and continued to rule as their predecessors the Umayyads and Abbasids had ruled.

By 1500, Muslim rule was divided among three Empires, along with smaller kingdoms. In India the Moguls ruled, a Turkish group drew their name from the Mongol Empire. In Persia the Safavids held power. Further west the Ottoman Empire appeared. This Empire grew to claim much of the land that had belonged to the Byzantine Empire, overthrowing the final Byzantine government in Constantinople in 1453. At their peak, all three of these empires were mightier than any comparable power in Europe.

The balance slowly changed. European explorers and colonists brought wealth from other nations into Europe, while the Muslim empires remained stagnant. Technology and invention flourished in Europe, but not among the Moguls, the Safavids, or the Ottomans. Vibrant new ideas about democracy and human rights arose in Europe, but the Muslim empires held to their older ways. Eventually, the empires withered. British power displaced the Moguls in India. Austria and Russia pushed back the borders of the Ottoman Empire (which still survived until after World War I ended.) Many reasons have been proposed for this shift of power, and most of them probably contain some truth.

Some Muslim leaders tried to learn from European powers and imitate their successes. Muhammad Ali, a viceroy serving the Ottoman Empire in Egypt, practically created an independent country using European methods and technology. A group called Young Turks tried to do the same in the heart of the Ottoman Empire. Many Muslims imitated European culture, European music and clothing, and European philosophy regarding human rights. Others resisted. Movements calling for rejection of European ways, for a return to the vital principles of Islam, arose in all the Muslim Empires.

Meanwhile, Islam was spreading during these centuries in non-military ways. Merchants worked trade routes into Africa and across India to southeastern Asia, as well as into central Asia. When merchants built houses and mosques and brought their wives and children, their example often won converts to their religion. The peaceful Muslim incursion into the islands of Indonesia outlasted Dutch Christian influence in most of those islands, which is why the country today with the largest number of Muslims is Indonesia (not Pakistan or Saudi Arabia or Iran).

In my next post I will look at Islam in the world today and how it relates to other ideas, both religious and secular. J.

The history of Islam: part one

When I began college (a great many years ago), my first dormitory roommate was a young man named Mohamed; he was from the country of Jordan. After we had shared a room for a few weeks and had talked about other things, one day out of the blue he asked me, “We Muslims have great respect for your prophet Jesus; why don’t you Christians have any respect for our prophet Muhammad?”

No one could identify the difference between our two religions more distinctly.

Islam could be considered a Christian heresy, like Arianism and Nestorianism, or like some of the newer developments in Christianity. Both religions believe in one God. Both consider him eternal and unchanging, all-powerful, knowing all things, present everywhere. Both consider him good and holy and merciful and the source of all that is good. Both regard the one God as Creator of all that exists, and both define evil as corruption of the good things made by God. Both look to him as the giver of all laws, the One who has the right to tell people how to behave and to punish people for breaking his laws. Both religions await a Day of Judgment with a resurrection of all people, followed by heaven for God’s people and eternal punishment for God’s enemies. Both believe that God has spoken to his people through prophets. Indeed, when the teachings of Christianity are reduced to the verbs, “Trust and Obey,” no distinction remains between Christian teachings and Muslim teachings.

Muslims believe that Islam is the first and original religion, the only true religion, and that all other religions are corruptions of that true religion. Muslims believe that Adam and Abraham and Moses and David and Jesus all preached the same message that Muhammad preached, but that their message was changed by their followers. Muhammad’s prophetic messages, received as the Qur’an, teach that God is one and has no equal. The Qur’an clearly states that God has no Son. God sends messengers, but God has never sent a Savior. Each person is required to work out his or her own salvation by obeying God’s commands. As in Christianity, the commands can be reduced to two laws: be faithful to God, and love and help your neighbors. Anyone who can say—and truly believe—that there is no God but God and Muhammad is his prophet is a Muslim.

Muhammad was born in Mecca, a city in Arabia, around the year 570. The city of Mecca contained many religious people: some worshipped many gods, others were Jews, and others were Christians. Even the Christians were divided into groups that argued with one another. Muhammad wanted to know the truth, so he sought God in prayer and meditation, asking to be sent the truth. Evidently, Muhammad never heard or heeded Saint Paul’s warning in Galatians 1 to avoid anyone, even an angel, who brings a different gospel. A being of light appeared to Muhammad, telling him to recite, and began passing on to Muhammad messages the being said came from God. Those messages, when written, were preserved as the Qur’an.

More than half the people in the world today are either Christian or Muslim, although both religions include many nominal followers who are labeled as Christian or Muslim according to culture and family tradition, not according to their top priorities. In some places, the two growing religions confront one another violently, as in Nigeria, the Sudan, and Ethiopia. At first, Muhammad and his followers had greater respect for Jews and Christians than they had for polytheists. “People of the Book,” as they were called, were allowed to continue to practice their religion, although they paid higher taxes than Muslims and were barred from most government jobs. Some converted to Islam because they saw no difference between the two religions; others converted for economic reasons. Islam quickly became a majority religion in many parts of west Asia and north Africa.

Observant Muslims pray five times a day, facing Mecca. They donate two percent of their net worth (not their income) every year to assist the poor. They fast during daylight hours one month of the year, showing their commitment to God and their awareness of the problems of the poor. They seek, at least once in their lifetime, to take part in a pilgrimage to Mecca. They try to obey the commandments of God, which are encompassed in a legal system called Shariah. This system can vary from region to region, because religious questions (for most Muslims) are answered in a four-step process. First: what does the Qur’an say? Second, what do the history and traditions about Muhammad reveal? Third, what precedents have been set when the question has been asked before? Fourth, what does common sense (guided by the Qur’an and the traditions) suggest? Religious experts provide answers according to this path, and even governments are expected to follow the understanding of the experts. Muslim countries vary considerably in the amount of influence Shariah has over national and local laws. Afghanistan under the Taliban, Iran under the Ayatollah, and Saudi Arabia are more tied to Shariah as declared by the experts than are Turkey, Pakistan, Indonesia, and other countries that are largely Muslim in population.

Muslims agree about God, Muhammad, and the Qur’an. They disagree about many other things—for example, about whether God created the world quickly a few thousand years ago or worked through evolution through many millions of years, about the place of women in society and government, and about the use of violence to overthrow worldly and unholy entities in the world. Like Christianity, Islam is divided into competing groups that sometimes are more rigorously opposed to one another than they are to groups outside of Islam.

In two coming posts, I will describe the political history of Islam and the Muslim understanding of the world today. J.

The Byzantine Empire

According to tradition, the city of Rome was founded in 753 BC. (Archaeology suggests that people lived at that location far earlier, but likely for most or all that time, they did not consider themselves “Romans.”) The last Roman king was deposed in 509 BC, creating the Republic of Rome, which expanded over the centuries to rule the Mediterranean basin. Under Octavian Caesar, called Augustus, the Republic was replaced by the Roman Empire in 27 BC. This Empire continued to be ruled from Rome until Emperor Constantine moved the government to Constantinople in 330 AD. Constantine thus began the Byzantine Empire, which was viewed as a continuation of Roman government and culture; this Empire survived until the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453 AD.

In other words, the duration of the Byzantine Empire from Constantine until the Ottoman success was more than eleven centuries, a few more years than those that encompass the entire traditional Roman history from the founding of the city to the moving of the government. Given continuity of Roman culture, the Roman civilization lasted more two thousand years. Even treating the Byzantine Empire as a separate entity from Rome, its existence for eleven centuries makes it far more durable than most other Empires and other centralized governments of human history.

When historians focus attention upon the immigration of Germanic groups into the western Empire and neglect the continuity of Roman civilization in the eastern Empire, they misinterpret history. The west blended Roman civilization, law, and traditions with their Germanic ways; the east became more Greek in its outlook, but remained as a major world power through dozens of emperors. The Byzantine Empire had challenges of its own from immigrants, including Goths and Bulgars and Slavs and Avars. Later, it protected Europe from the advance of Islamic civilization, although it lost north Africa and parts of western Asia in the process. Roman literature, science, architecture, and philosophy were preserved by the Byzantines, as was the Christian religion. All of these were them communicated with other civilizations. Missionaries from Constantinople brought Christianity north into eastern Europe, even inventing an alphabet so they could share the Gospel of Jesus Christ with the Russians. Meanwhile, the Byzantine Empire remained a key link in the Silk Roads which united the continents in an economic system of trade (along with transportation of technology and of ideas) over the centuries. The Byzantine Empire was essential for world civilizations and particularly for the continuing development of western civilization while it remained in power.

The Emperor Justinian, two centuries after Constantine, was one of the most important rulers of the Byzantine Empire. He recodified Roman Law, enabling it to survive into modern times and to shape the legal codes of many current governments. He strengthened Byzantine power in the Mediterranean Sea, even recapturing some of the lands that had been claimed by Germanic governments. He also shared political power with his wife, Theodora—much to the dismay of many men in the eastern government and Church. Justinian, like Roman emperors before him, supported the arts and was responsible for beautification of the capitol city—in his case, including the construction of the church building called Hagia Sophia, or Holy Wisdom.

In the eleventh century, Muslim military forces in western Asia were strengthened by the influx of Turks from central Asia, who had been displaced by the growth of China. Needing reinforcements to keep his borders secure, the Byzantine Emperor called for help from European Christianity. Thus began the Crusades. The Emperor was not impressed with the quality of warrior arriving from the west, but he prepared to place them as shock troops in front of his better-trained soldiers. Instead, they headed south and captured Jerusalem, establishing five western-style kingdoms in the Holy Land, kingdoms that lasted more than a century. The eventual decline of those kingdoms led to further crusades, including the disastrous Fourth Crusade, which sacked Constantinople and never made it to Jerusalem. This event, though eventually overturned by Byzantine fighters, was the beginning of the end of the Byzantine Empire, even though it held on for another two centuries after that catastrophe. Distrust between eastern Christianity and western Christianity had begun before the Crusades and only worsened during these times. The fall of Constantinople was not recognized in Europe for the turning point of history that it became, although not many more years would pass before Turkish warriors were at the gates of Vienna, threatening to overwhelm western civilization. But that story awaits another chapter. J.

The Afghan mess

Some Americans have wanted, in the worst way possible, to end our nation’s involvement in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, the Biden administration has done exactly that, getting us out of Afghanistan in the worst way possible. Among other things, I am cynical about the timing of this mess. By the time voters are in a position to respond in any way to the events of the last several days, a lot of water will have flowed under the bridge. At that point, the President and his supporters are likely to respond to any criticism, “What difference, at this point, does it make?” And many Americans will agree with that attitude.

Twenty years ago, the United States suffered a terrorist attack from Al Qaeda, an attack that was planned by Osama bin Laden and his organization from within Afghanistan. President Bush asked the government of Afghanistan to hand over bin Laden for justice, warning that if the Taliban failed to do so, we would include them among our enemies and treat them accordingly. They failed to hand over bin Laden; we attacked and drove the Taliban out of power and into hiding. It took ten years to find bin Laden, but that operation ended successfully. We spent time trying to build a civilization in Afghanistan conforming to (what I will be calling, in my history posts) Enlightenment Values. These include the values that government belongs to the people and must respond to the people’s needs and demands, that all people are equal under the law, that all people have human rights that should be respected and protected by their government, and that education for all people should be provided—or at least respected and protected—by their government. For the most part, the Taliban does not hold those values or agree with them. In my opinion, President Bush hoped to establish governments in Afghanistan and Iraq that would maintain those values, proving that those values can exist in an Islamic culture and state. Many people would say that Bush and the United States failed to achieve those goals; others would suggest that the jury is still out on that question.

Blogger Doug reminds his readers that the United States gained valuable information about our terrorist enemies during our twenty years in Afghanistan, including (but going far beyond) information that made it possible to seize bin Laden in Pakistan. He also points out that we have spent twenty years working with the citizens of Afghanistan, building and supplying schools and other facilities, and encouraging people to respect one another. In spite of the present setback, Doug offers hope that the seeds of Enlightenment Values (as I call them) have been planted in Afghanistan and will sprout and grow, shaping the future of the nation, after the current dust has settled. We shall see.

Meanwhile, life goes on. In the short term, President Biden has lost some grass-roots support that helped him take office a few months ago. Other nations wonder if the United States has lost its willingness to protect all its allies: the Peoples’ Republic of China is eyeing Taiwan and licking its lips. President Trump and his supporters are speculating how he would have handled the reduction of American troops differently—perhaps a feint to pull out troops, followed by a swift and powerful response as the Taliban forces emerged from their holes. Perhaps that scenario would have made it possible to bring more American troops home in a better way. We shall never know.

This week, the United States has been embarrassed in the eyes of the world and of its own people. Such embarrassments have happened before. We the people will remember this week and will keep it in mind when we return to the polls for future elections. Voters are keeping personal lists of reasons not to trust or support the Biden administration and the Democratic Party. Republicans need to do more than keep lists, though—Republicans need a clear agenda of how best to serve the United States of America and its interests around the world. They also need electable leaders who will hold to that agenda during the election campaign and after they take office. This book has many chapters. Not all of them have been written yet. The future can be brighter than the present; in part, the outcome remains in our hands. J.

Popes and monks and other stuff

Constantine’s confession and avowal of Christianity was a mixed blessing for the Church. On the one hand, they were free from persecution—free to build churches and invite people to join them for worship, free to share their faith with neighbors and family and friends, free from fear that they might be arrested, tortured, and killed for their faith in Jesus Christ. On the other hand, this freedom opened the doors for nominal Christians, for those who claimed a place in the Church without true faith in the Savior, for those who sought to use the Church for their own purposes rather than joining the Church from a commitment to Jesus Christ.

Moreover, Constantine’s embrace of Christianity brought worldliness into the Church. Now the Church could receive gifts of money and property and could maintain that property—for the service of the Lord, but also for worldly profit and gain. Now the Church could become involved in worldly politics—in the name of Jesus, but sometimes contradicting his will and his purposes for the Church. Becoming respectable in the world encouraged some Christian leaders to imitate the world and to judge their service to God by the world’s standards of success. These challenges remain for Christians to face in the twenty-first century Church.

Constantine and the eastern (Byzantine) emperors after him believed that they answered only to God. Church leaders answered to God and to the emperors. A structure of authority had developed within the Church, acknowledging various ministries in each congregation with a head pastor or bishop, along with regional leaders who could be considered archbishops. Five of those archbishops had pre-eminence in the Church because of the size and antiquity of their congregations—those in Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, Rome, and Constantinople. The most important decisions about faith and practice were made in councils—the few great councils, and many smaller regional councils that handled lesser matters and affirmed the conclusions of the great councils. Much later, three of the pre-eminent congregations would be overwhelmed by the growth of Islam, leaving Rome and Constantinople to quarrel over leadership of Christianity on earth. By this time, the head pastor in Rome had already assumed political power, filling the vacuum left as Roman power retreated to the east. Power battles between Rome and Constantinople, and between the pope and secular leaders in western Europe, would fill the pages of history in later centuries.

Even before Constantine, the practice of monasticism had already begun in the Church. Some Christians sought closeness with God, closeness that could not reach its fullness in congregational life. They went into the wilderness to pray, to meditate, to escape worldly temptations, and to test themselves with ascetic practices. They survived with minimal food, minimal clothing, minimal shelter, and no social commitments. In some ways, these monastic practices were informed by the same Greek distrust of the physical world that had energized Gnostic beliefs. Yet these monks and hermits also offered a way for Christianity to survive and flourish in spite of the challenges of worldliness that the Church faced in those centuries.

One of the most famous Christians to practice monasticism was Anthony, who lived in Egypt. He had a reputation of holiness, of total commitment to Jesus Christ, and even of being capable of working miracles. To escape the world, he made his home in the desert. Because of his reputation, other Christians sought him in the desert and asked to join him. Anthony might have asked them, “What part of ‘alone’ do you not understand?” Instead, accepting the inevitable, Anthony made a set of rules about asceticism and self-denial. He did not require those rules of all Christians, but only of those who insisted on living near him.

Many other early Christians followed Anthony’s rules, or sets of rules that were similar. What worked in the Egyptian desert—especially regarding clothing and food—was not suited for life in Europe; Benedict of Nursia (480-550) developed the Benedictine Rule that some Christians still follow today. Common patterns in monastic life included poverty, chastity, and obedience. Bread, water, and some green vegetables were frequently the diet of monastic Christians—lettuce, but no dressing; bread, but no butter; no meat or dairy; no wine or other alcoholic beverages; no luxuries, and only the bare necessities. Jerome—a monk living in Bethlehem, famous for his Bible translation—disparaged Christians who paid too much attention to hygiene. Jerome claimed that you could distinguish the real monks from the imitators, because you could smell the real monks even before they entered the room.

Monastic communities developed forms of Christian worship that many congregations still use today. They preserved and copied Christian literature—not only the Bible, but also the writings of many Church Fathers. As non-Christian groups invaded Europe and devastated many centers of civilization, monastic Christianity preserved what was best from Roman times. Patrick, a Christian from Britain, was kidnapped as a boy, taken by pirates and sold into slavery in Ireland. After a few years, he escaped, and ended up living for a time in a monetary in France. Patrick remembered the pagans of Ireland and felt burdened to bring them the Gospel. When he became the great Saint Patrick, missionary to Ireland, he also imported monasticism from France. In later generations, when France had been overrun by Germanic groups, missionaries came from Ireland, bringing back the Gospel and the monastic life that Patrick had transplanted to their island. In this way, Christian faith and Roman traditions remained alive in western Europe during the region’s most troubled times.

For a time, then, early Christianity was the prevailing culture of the Mediterranean world. J.

Free to be stupid

ARE WE FREE TO BE STUPID? OR IS IT STUPID TO BE FREE?

Most political arguments boil down to questions of freedom and of human rights. Sometimes debate results from a conflict of rights. For example, does an unborn baby possess the right to life, or does his or her right to life begin only after birth, when it no longer depends directly on the support of his or her mother? Does a woman’s right to freedom allow her to do whatever she wishes to her own body—even to the point of killing a child developing within her body—or is her freedom limited by her child’s right to life? People who have made up their minds about such issues are sometimes unable to see the reasonable thinking that supports the opposing position.

As American citizens, we have freedom of speech. But that freedom is restricted. We are not free, for example, to shout “Fire!” in a crowded theater. We are not free to threaten public leaders, or any person or group of people, with violence, or to call other people to attack them violently. Yet we are free to disagree with our leaders. We are free to contact them, to try to persuade them to exercise their authority in certain ways. We are free to support their political opponents and to try to persuade our fellow citizens to vote for those opponents. When support for a leader or a party is prohibited by law or attacked by powerful corporations that provide space for public statements, then democracy and freedom both suffer.

Part of the debate about freedom relates to the Social Contract. Citizens willingly limit their rights and freedoms to the government for the benefit of all citizens. The government builds roads, defines how the roads are to be used (speed limits and other traffic laws) and taxes the use of those roads (license fees, tolls, and fines for breaking the law, for example). Citizens use the roads. They might willingly break traffic laws. They might even avoid paying some of the required taxes. But, when those citizens are caught breaking the speed limit or driving with an expired license, the law punishes them with further fines and other penalties. We accept government control over the roads for the obvious benefit of safe and rapid transportation.

At some point, though, citizens begin to resist the restrictions made by their government, restrictions that are intended (at least on the surface) to benefit all citizens. People are required to wear seat belts and are fined if they are caught traveling unbuckled. This is supposed to protect those people and also to save the general public from sharing the medical costs of injuries to unbelted drivers and passengers when they suffer from a collision. Smoking tobacco is prohibited in many places, and taxes are placed on cigarettes to discourage smoking. Freedom to smoke is not entirely prohibited, but the government protects non-smoking citizens from second-hand smoke and, in general, uses its power and authority to discourage smoking.

How do issues of personal freedom and the Social Contract relate to the current virus crisis? For the good of all citizens, does any government (national, state, or local) have a right (or even a responsibility) to require all citizens to be vaccinated or to require all citizens to wear masks? Can these questions be answered by appealing to precedents set by the seatbelt debate or by the smoking debate? First, cigarettes can be taxed to discourage smoking, but no fair tax can be applied to people who refuse to be vaccinated against COVID or refuse to wear masks. Second, rapid transportation by car is a right that can be regulated by the government, including license fees and speed limits and even the use of seatbelts, but people are free to walk or ride bicycles or use public transportation; they do not need to travel by car if they dislike the regulations about transportation by car. But a law requiring vaccination, or even a law requiring masks, reaches beyond personal privilege into choices that should involve individual freedom, choices that should not be coerced by government rules and regulations.

Ironically, the labels pro-life and pro-choice that, for more than a generation, have applied to sides in the abortion debate appear to have flipped in the mask and vaccination debate. Regarding abortion, the conservative position is called pro-life because it defends a baby’s right to life, even before that baby has been born. The liberal position is called pro-choice because it defends a woman’s right to do as she chooses to her own body, even while that body supports the growth and development of a child. But now the conservative position regarding masks and vaccines can be called pro-choice. Citizens can choose whether to wear a mask. They can choose whether to receive a vaccine. The opposing position calls itself pro-life. It claims that lives are being lost to the virus, lives that would be spared if everyone wore a mask and if everyone received the vaccine.

Science is used to support both sides in the abortion debate, the seatbelt debate, the cigarette debate, the mask debate, and the vaccine debate. Once the debate has ended (as is the case with seatbelts and cigarettes), people remember the science that supported the winning side and forget the science that supported the losing side. While debates continue, people remember and quote scientific facts and statistics and observations on both sides of the debate. Science is used to support either side; science does not end the debate and declare a winning side and a losing side.

Freedom to smoke cigarettes, or freedom to ride in a car without wearing a seatbelt, might be described by some people as “freedom to be stupid.” When a debate is not settled, though, either side might consider the position of the opponent to be “stupid.” If national and state and local governments passed laws prohibiting all the behavior that some people consider “stupid,” no judge or lawyer would be able to remember all those laws, and no police force would be capable of enforcing all those laws. Rules and regulations generally address the most important choices and decisions, leaving people free to make a lot of decisions on their own, even at the risk that some people—probably most or all people—will, from time to time, make a stupid decision.

Because it is entwined with politics on the highest levels, debate about the current virus crisis has become highly enflamed, with both sides regarding their opponents as stupid. Some claim that thousands (or even millions) of lives are at stake; others reply that the freedom of all citizens is at stake. Some citizens prefer to live with a government that exercises close control of personal decisions, minimizing risks and protecting all citizens from any preventable danger. Other citizens prefer to live with a government that protects freedom, regulating only behavior that is so dangerous that it can rightly be labeled “criminal.” Inevitably, elected leaders must seek and establish a compromise that protects freedom as much as possible while also reducing danger to citizens as much as possible.

Given the choice, I lean toward freedom. I do not trust the government to monitor my life and to protect me from all the stupid decisions I might make. While the virus crisis is not the best arena to shape a national debate about personal freedom and government control, it happens to be the arena in which we stand today. While we await compromises reached by our elected leaders, I continue to wave the banner of freedom. After all, I have been taught to think for myself. I have been taught to question authority. Watching movies like Dead Poets’ Society and Footloose and The Matrix—not to mention Star Wars and Blues Brothers and Ferris Buehler’s Day Off—I have learned the important of remaining free, challenging the status quo, and defending my independence as a human being. That, my friends, is the battle we are fighting today. J.

An experiment in alternate history: part two

Play along once again as I try to picture how things could be different today….

Imagine a scenario in which Donald Trump won the election back in November 2020. Almost instantly challenges are filed in six states claiming that ballots were excluded because of minor discrepancies making them irregular and suspicious. Lawyers appear before judges demanding recounts and the reversal of decisions made by vote counters, but judges refuse to involve themselves in the election process. As a result, Donald Trump is certified as the winner of the 2020 election and is inaugurated for a second term on January 20, 2021.

Does Joe Biden fade into the background, as Al Gore did a score of years earlier, or does he remain in the public light, insisting that the election was stolen from him? If he takes the second course, how does the mainstream media respond to his accusations? Do they insist that the 2020 election was the fairest election in history, or do they cast aspersions on the election officials who discarded irregular and suspicious ballots? Do they label Biden’s position the “Big Lie” and repeatedly ask why anyone believes him, or do they support him with suggestions that somehow the democratic process was corrupted by a refusal to include ballots that were irregular and suspicious?

Imagine a rally supported by Joe Biden and the Democratic Party—I’ll pretend it happened on January 7 rather than January 6—questioning the official tally from the election and demanding that Congress refuse to accept the results of that election. How many people would turn out to protest in that case, and how calm would they be? If a small number of the demonstrators breached security at the Capitol and entered the building, how much damage might they cause? Would an investigation be held the summer after the demonstration? Would the patriotism of every American present at that demonstration be questioned by political leaders and by the media? Would Biden and other political leaders be held responsible for the actions of their supporters if federal property was damaged or if people were injured or killed?

After a close election, and with an evenly-divided Congress, how successful would President Trump be in continuing to pursue his policies? Would all his political appointments be meekly accepted by Congress, or would opposition be registered against advisors who were viewed as overly favorable to Trump and his policies? How much support from Congress and from the media would Trump be given as he continued negotiating agreements with China, with Russia, and with other governments, all designed to put American interests ahead of internationalism? Would Trump be able to generate a plan to repair and improve America’s infrastructure, a goal he stated during his first term and reiterated during the campaign? And what would be the effect of American military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan be during Trump’s second term? Would he continue to withdraw American soldiers from those battlegrounds, or would he leave some of them in place to support the governments America helped to form in those nations?

How would your life be different today if Donald Trump was still President of the United States? I’m curious; I really want to know. J.

An experiment in alternate history

Play along with me here: picture this “alternate history” and describe, if you can, where you and the country would be today….

Recall that throughout the summer and early fall of 2020, President Donald Trump reminded voters that he was pushing for a vaccine to fight COVID-19, that American companies were working overtime to create and test this vaccine, and that it would be available before the end of the year—if possible, even by election day. This is not alternate history—President Trump repeatedly said such things during the campaign.

But imagine, now, that when the voters were counted, President Trump defeated Candidate Biden and won reelection. Complaints and challenges come, of course, from Biden’s supporters. Allegations are raised that, in half a dozen states, ballots were set aside as irregular and suspicious and were not counted. Voices call for investigations, and many Democrats refuse to concede the election (including Candidate Biden himself). But the election results are certified. On January 20, 2021, Donald Trump takes the oath of office and begins his second term.

Imagine now that the vaccine is distributed in exactly the same way as it was in our real history. The number of bad reactions to the vaccine is identical. The course of the disease and its variant strains is identical. But President Trump continues to claim credit for production of the vaccine, and many people even refer to it as “the Trump vaccine.”

Many Americans take the vaccine, just as they did with Biden in the White House. Many Americans refuse the vaccine, just as they did with Biden in the White House. Many Americans hope for victory over COVID through the Trump vaccine; many Americans warn of the risk of an insufficiently tested medication mass produced and grumble about the connection of big government with big business—in this case, the pharmaceutical industry.

Does America’s mass media report the news about the vaccine in the same way? If it is “Trump’s vaccine,” do they continue to minimize and ignore bad reactions to the vaccine. If it is “Trump’s vaccine,” do they still minimize and ignore the medical professionals who speak words of caution about the vaccine. As new strains of the virus appear, and as vaccinated people still get sick, does America’s mass media continue to support the vaccine? Does it continue to blame the unvaccinated people for preventing victory over the virus through production and distribution of the vaccine?

Do “blue states” still have higher vaccination rates than “red states,” or do red state citizens enthusiastically receive Trump’s vaccine? If some Biden supporters remain openly reluctant to receive Trump’s vaccine, are they accused of opposing science and of being selfish, hating their neighbors, and otherwise being terrible people? Do Facebook and Google go out of their way to support Trump’s vaccine and to undermine opinions, reports, and other information that questions Trump’s vaccine? Is the appearance of new virus strains still a reason to get the vaccine, or do the new strains become evidence for the mass media that “Trump’s vaccine” has failed to protect Americans?

What about you? If Donald Trump was still President, if he was claiming responsibility for getting the vaccine developed and distributed, if he was urging all Americans to be vaccinated against COVID, would your feelings about the vaccine be different? Would you be more likely or less likely to receive the vaccine if it were Trump’s vaccine?

Would politicians and the mass media continue to claim that 97 % of the people hospitalized for COVID did not receive the vaccine, or would they question the accuracy of that statistic if President Trump repeated it? Maybe, given Trump’s use of that statistic, people would question its reliability. Maybe they would want to know who determined that statistic and what measurements they used. Does it refer to people in the hospital today, or on some other day? Who asked the patients about their vaccination status? Why hasn’t the statistic been updated since it was first quoted? Could it be that it includes all people hospitalized for COVID since the disease was first recognized, including the many who were hospitalized before the vaccine was available?

I know these are a lot of questions. But I have changed only one fact, putting Donald Trump back in the White House instead of Joe Biden. How many news facts and scientific determinations are revised by that one political change? Tell me what you think. J.

Highway Blues

Trooper Erick Sweetwater saw the young woman sitting at the side of the road, right where the callers had said she was seen. She was staring away from the road, at the expanse of juniper bushes and mesquite and red clay and sand that stretched several miles to the horizon. He pulled his car onto the gravel shoulder and stopped. Leaving the motor running (so the air conditioner would keep the car cool), he opened the door, stepped out, and closed it again. The young woman did not look at him—she continued to stare ahead of her.

Esme felt the hot sun baking her short black hair and her bare arms. Never before had she been left by a truck driver on the road between stops. Never before had she needed to be rescued by a police officer. This was her third summer traveling around the county, and up to now things had gone well. A mixture of anger, embarrassment, and anxiety enveloped her, preventing her from looking up at the trooper as he approached.

Trooper Sweetwater walked carefully toward the young woman, his boots crunching the gravel. He sensed her discomfort. He could see that she was physically unharmed, but he knew that no one chose to sit at the side of the road in the middle of nowhere on a hot July afternoon. The situation required him to be calm, cool, and professional. “May I help you, Ma’am?” were his first words, as his eyes took in her gray backpack, her thin red blanket rolled into a bundle, her white t-shirt, her jeans, and her sandals.

“I suppose so,” she mumbled dimly. “I guess I’ll need a ride back to the Mart.” The Mart was on the north side of town, twenty miles down the road. It consisted of a gas station, two fast food restaurants, and a convenience store; a small motel stood next door. The Mart was a convenient stop for drivers of every kind of vehicle, the last stop of its kind for more than fifty miles along the highway.

“I’ll be happy to take you there,” Trooper Sweetwater assured her, “but first I’ll have to see some identification,” he added apologetically. Sighing, Esme stood and pulled a driver’s license from the pocket of her jeans. “Esmerelda A. Nye,” Erick read silently from the license. He noted her address and hometown and her birthdate, and he glanced between the license and its owner to verify that the photograph matched her face. Still holding the license, he pulled out his notebook and a pen. “What brings you out here to the middle of nowhere?” he inquired curiously.

Esme sighed. Hitchhiking was not illegal, but it was strongly discouraged. Her form of hitchhiking did not involve thumbing for a ride next to the road. Instead, she met drivers—mostly truck drivers, pilots of the big eighteen-wheel trucks carrying food and clothing and furniture and people’s possessions from place to place—and asked them for rides. They were already on the road, traveling from place to place, and they were being paid for their work. Some were forbidden from taking on passengers, but most were not. A few were quick to assure her that they would be happy for her company and expected no additional pay or favors for their trouble. Those that suggested otherwise, she carefully avoided. A lot of drivers were happy for company on their journeys. Some offered her lengthy monologues while they drove, sharing with her their opinions, their perceptions, their views of life and the universe and everything. Others drew her into conversation, as willing to learn about her as to instruct her. A small number drove in silence, not caring to speak or to hear from her. Almost all of them took her from one point to another, and then she was able to find another willing driver at the next point. Never before had she been thrown out of a truck in the middle of nowhere.

But how could Esme explain this way of life to a Trooper and expect him to understand? Esme assumed that she did not fit into the neat categories of travelers of which the Trooper would approve. Deciding to limit her account to the briefest version possible, Esme stated simply, “I accepted a ride from a truck driver. Then we had a disagreement, and he made me get out of his truck. That’s how I got here.”

Erick raised his eyebrows and wrote a brief note on his notepad. “You had a disagreement?” he clarified, and Esme nodded. Although his mind was filled with questions, Erick did not want to stand in the hot sun, and he did not want to force Esmerelda to do so either. Quickly, he made up his mind how to proceed.

Handing the license back to Esme, he gestured toward his car. “Grab your stuff and get in,” he invited. He opened the front passenger door—not the rear doors, that would label her a criminal or a prisoner, but the front door, indicating that she was his equal, possibly even a partner. Esme could not, of course, be his partner, not being a uniformed officer of the law, but Erick was not going to treat her as if she had done something wrong.

Esme picked up her backpack and blanket and climbed into the car. Erick closed the door, got in behind the wheel, and circled back onto the road. For a moment, they drove in silence. Then, quietly and gently, Erick asked her, “What was the disagreement about?”

Esme shrugged. “Politics,” she said. Did anyone ever talk about anything that couldn’t be wrapped up in the word “politics”? Most of the drivers she had met thought along the conservative side of the political spectrum. They admired President Trump and had disdain for President Biden. Some thought that Biden, or his associates, had stolen the election from Trump; others weren’t sure. Some described Biden as a willing partner of evil; others considered him feeble—under the control of the bad guys without himself being genuinely bad. Talk about anything, though—the weather, the condition of the roads, the price of gasoline, law enforcement, people looking for jobs, people not looking for jobs, health and wellness—soon the conversation turned to politics. In politics, at least the way most people described politics to Esme, there were only two sides: one was right and the other was wrong. One side was going to save America from all its problems, and the other was out to destroy America.

Although she did not feel strongly about any of these topics, Esme found that she agreed with the right-leaning truckers she had met. At least she was able to smile and nod and keep things friendly; when a driver asked her opinion, she was able to say the same things other drivers had been saying to her. How was she to know that a driver who looked like all the other drivers, and who sounded at first like all the other drivers, was going to have opinions on the far side of the road? How was she to know that this left-learning liberal truck driver was going to kick her out of her cab merely because they disagreed about something as minor as politics.

“Politics,” repeated the trooper. He obviously wanted more information than that one word from her. In fact, as a trooper, Erick also had an opinion about politics. He had met college girls who outwardly resembled Esme—girls who talked about defunding the police and abolishing the death penalty and legalizing all kinds of drugs and generally being a lot nicer to criminals than to their victims. He hoped that this Esmerelda was not going to be that kind of radical. But, he reminded himself, she was a person in need like other persons in need. His job was to protect and to serve.

“Yeah, politics,” Esme reiterated. Then, to keep the trooper from digging, she gave him more information. “We started off talking about the price of food at the Mart and how it’s going up, and why there aren’t enough truckers working these days to get food and other things where they need to be. Then we jumped to masks and vaccinations and the whole virus conspiracy….”

“You think the virus is a conspiracy?” Erick interrupted her. “You think somebody invented the story?”

Esme shook her head. “No,” she clarified, “I know the virus is real. And I know some people have died from it. But most of the people who get sick from it get better. The way to stop it wasn’t shutting down the economy, or making everyone wear masks, or making everyone get shots that not everyone trusts. They’re using fear to control people, and when they get away with it because of the virus, they’ll keep on using other things to keep people afraid.”

Trooper Sweetwater wanted to ask Esmerelda who she had in mind when she talked about “they” and “them.” He wondered if she had anyone particular in mind, or if she was just casting blame onto some shadowy entity hiding somewhere in the country. But a more important line of inquiry pushed that question out of importance. “So I gather you haven’t gotten the vaccine?” he asked.

Esme shook her head. “Nope,” she said.

“And you’re not wearing a mask,” the trooper continued.

“Nope,” she said again. Then she added, “Look, I got sick from the virus last year. I had a fever and was in bed for three days. Then I got better. I’ve got natural immunity—I don’t need any shot to protect me from the virus. And I’m not going to be able to spread it to anyone else.”

Trooper Sweetwater frowned. “That hasn’t been proven, you know,” he commented.

“That’s only because they don’t to prove it. They don’t even want to study it. They don’t want to know. When people test positive for the virus, they don’t even ask, ‘Have you had this before?’ If they asked, they would know that being sick once protects people better than getting the shots. It works that way with other sicknesses—stands to reason it works the same with this one. But they don’t want to know; it would shoot down their entire play for power.”

By now they had almost returned to the Mart. Erick would not have thrown Esmerelda out of his vehicle twenty miles out of town, but he was uncomfortable knowing that she hadn’t received the vaccine and wasn’t wearing a mask.” Making a quick guess, he said to her, “That’s really why the trucker made you get on, isn’t it?—because you admitted that you haven’t had the shots, and you refused to wear a mask.”

Esme nodded. “Yeah,” she said quietly. “That’s it.” But, in her mind, she added, “but it’s all politics, any way you cut it. If he’d been like the other drivers, if he thought the way they think, he wouldn’t have cared about the mask, or the shot.”

The trooper pulled his car into the parking lot of the Mart. “You can grab your stuff and get out here,” he told her. “And, the next time you ask someone for a ride, maybe you’d better find out how they feel about vaccinations and masks before the two of you hit the road.” Esme took her backpack and blanket and left the car. As she walked away, Trooper Sweetwater reached for his glove compartment. Pulling out a spray bottle of sanitizer, he began to clean the passenger seat and the dashboard of his car.

Esme crossed the hot parking lot, heading for the front doors of the Mart. She felt as if other people were staring at her as she walked. She thought she even heard one person whisper, “That’s her!” But how could any of these people know anything about her? The trooper hadn’t sent out any message about her, at not least while she was in the car with him.

Convinced that she was imagining things, maybe even getting a little paranoid, Esme decided to buy herself a burger and a Coke before looking for another ride. Or maybe she would get a milkshake. And Esme also thought that she might take the trooper’s advice and sound out her driver’s feelings about masks before the two of them pulled out onto the highway.