Eponine and Irony, part 2

This is the second half of a post which begins here:

Tolstoy and Hugo did not leave much place for God in their survey of human history. Tolstoy acknowledged a god who gives standards of goodness to guide people, but other than that, both writers pretty much focused on human endeavor apart from spiritual powers. The contemporary Illuminati is much the same. As many setbacks as they have survived, they still view themselves as benevolent powers steering humanity by their own efforts. For a glimpse of how they view themselves, one might read the Foundation novels by Isaac Asimov. The Illuminati greatly resembles Asimov’s Foundation.

A Christian can suggest that the Illuminati are dupes of the devil, doing his work without realizing what they are about. Seen through spiritual eyes, that is (of course) true, and the outcome of that battle is not in doubt. But the Illuminati say that they have no illusions about spiritual powers—which means, of course, that they have blinded themselves to the spiritual world.

The Illuminati hopes to convince the world that all religions are the same, that no religion holds any genuine hope for an end to evil and suffering, and that religions should violently compete with one another and seek to destroy one another. Their attack on Christianity is two-fold. One arm has converted most traditional denominational structures into political entities that focus on worldly struggles for justice. These so-called churches reject any idea of doctrine; they redefine family values to undermine the traditional family, and they further the Illuminati’s goal of eliminating individuals for the sake of humanity as a whole. The other arm of the same attack has established megachurches: organizations that claim to uphold traditional doctrines and traditional values, but that teach little doctrine, turn their backs on historic expressions of Christian faith and its expression, and again eliminate individuals for the sake of humanity as a whole.

The Great Depression and the two World Wars helped to build a modern world in which the Illuminati could flourish. Fear was rampart; trust in the government as “the only organization big enough to handle our problems” was unprecedented. Public schools taught children how to view the world. True, children in the 1950s were still given heroes such as Christopher Columbus, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Edison, and Henry Ford; but the podiums of their statues were already being undermined so their greatness would collapse in a generation or two. More and more, history was described as movements among people; heroes and geniuses were devalued. The Illuminati did not arrange to kill President Kennedy. He was suiting their plans admirably. But his assassination made President Johnson fearful enough to dance to their every command. The Illuminati promoted conspiracy theories for two reasons: to cause the few people aware of their existence to fear them more, and to cause the average population to scoff more at the idea that they exist. Every American leader who seemed capable of greatness was undermined: Nixon with Watergate, Reagan with Iran/contra-gate, Clinton with his own personal faults and weaknesses, and so on. (Presidents before their time survived far greater scandals without losing power, as have kings and emperors in most of the world for most of history.) The Illuminati effectively used the Cold War and its balance of fear for their own purposes. They did not expect the Berlin Wall, the Iron Curtain, or the Soviet Union to crumble; but, when they did crumble, other international crises could be found to fill the gap. Moving into the twenty-first century, the Illuminati did not expect any threat to disturb their system.

The Illuminati did not expect Donald Trump. He stepped from their own world, an entertainer who understands scripts and deep-laid plans. Although morally he is no better than the worst of the Illuminati, he emerged as a defender of the traditional family and traditional Christianity. Trump personally had nothing to do with the fall of Weinstein and Epstein; if anything, he was too closely connected with both men and their organizations. His personal popularity and the evident success of his economic and political plans stymied opposition from his political opponents, who were battling to overturn his presidency through scandal and impeachment even before he took the oath of office.

The Illuminati also did not expect COVID-19. They have used fear of other diseases—AIDS, Ebola, and Zika—to promote their causes in recent years, but the timing of the current epidemic generates “the perfect storm.” Blending fearful discussions of the pandemic, racial differences and confrontations, and the upcoming election, the Illuminati are able to transfer fear (and other strong emotions) from one issue to another. They are able to sustain ongoing fear, dread, and hopelessness in the general population. They are able to call attention to ongoing differences in society, promoting unrest with potential for a class war.

Moreover, the Illuminati have been inching to change education—elementary, secondary, and higher levels—wanting it to take place through online courses rather than in classrooms. Online sources of information and interpretation are far easier for the Illuminati to control. The current pandemic has sped society toward the latest revolution in education. First children were taken from their families and put into schools; now they are taken out of schools and put in front of computer screens. So long as a few decision makers can control information on the Internet, they will continue their effort to shape society, guiding mass movements that share the Illuminati’s reverence for science, education, and equity of all people while sharing also the Illuminati’s rejection of individualism, traditional Christianity, and the traditional family.

Their timing is not flawless. They may not be able to continue stoking fear for three more months (between now and the election). They may have already peaked generating support for a party-chosen bland candidate in preference to a people-chosen heroic candidate. As the weeks pass, voters might become increasingly aware of the plot that is working to shape and change the national direction. In November, the powers of the Illuminati may suffer a stinging rejection from those citizens they have tried to herd into their pens. Like Tolstoy and Hugo, today’s Illuminati may underestimate the ability of individuals to think for themselves and to overcome the current of mass movements. History is not in the hands of the faceless elite; history belongs to all of us. And, in the end, history is in the Lord’s hands and must serve his plans. J.

Eponine and Irony

This summer I read, cover to cover, Tolstoy’s epic novel War and Peace. I also watched the movie musical made from Hugo’s epic novel Les Miserables. Both these great works from the nineteenth century contributed to my understanding of the underlying forces that are propelling our world and its communities in the mystical year 2020.

Tolstoy repeatedly and emphatically insisted that heroes and geniuses do not exist. We create them out of historic figures (or mythical figures) trying to understand history. Real history, according to Tolstoy, consists of movements among masses of people. Napoleon in his wars two hundred years ago was merely a chip bouncing on the waves of history. He had no more to do with the real history of his times than any other man or woman alive at the same time. Revolutionaries and street protestors, like those portrayed in Les Miserables, are equally impotent to shape the times in which they live. Hugo deliberately chose one of the most pointless and ineffective uprisings in French history—the June Rebellion of 1832—for his novel. Both Tolstoy and Hugo created fictional characters with meaningful lives and troubles to inhabit their novels. Both writers incorporated historical events as virtually meaningless background sights and sounds for their stories.

[With this innocuous beginning, I hope to have lost, by now, the more casual readers, along with those computer-generated searches that are designed to keep real thought and real truth from existing on the Internet. Indeed, some of those preceding sentences may well be copied and pasted into college papers handed in to professors for years to come. But my real Reader, if there is such a person, is advised to print a hard copy of this pair of posts. What I write and post today may well be edited or entirely removed in the coming days, and I might not be available to clarify or restore what I have written.]

Tolstoy and Hugo provide examples of a philosophy or world-view that has risen to dominate much of twenty-first century life. Behind this movement is a They or Them who really exist, although they are not formally organized as a single organization. One could call them the Illuminati, so long as one understands that they have no constitution or bylaws, no board of directors or officers, no membership list, no budget, no dues, no regular meetings, and no periodic newsletters. If they ever use a label like “Illuminati” among themselves, it is done with an ironic wink and grin. This Illuminati, like Tolstoy and Hugo, denies the value of individual accomplishment, of heroes and geniuses, of persons who mold and shape human history. When individual names (such as da Vinci, Rothschild, or Rockefeller) are attached to the Illuminati, the real Illuminati only chuckle in response. They lurk in the shadows, wanting no public recognition for their deeds. Yet, since this group includes the rich and the powerful, their influence extends into the lives of most people living in the world today.

They cross paths on the boards of large corporations. They see each other at gatherings of the Council on Foreign Relations, the Tri-Lateral Commission, and the Bilderberg Group. Their thinking is echoed by government officials around the world. Yet the Illuminati does not own or control any of these groups. They have uses for corporations, for governments, and especially for gatherings of people who discuss major issues and listen to one another to learn more about these issues. But the true Illuminati could not be extinguished by gathering and controlling people involved in the world at these levels.

The members of the Illuminati are rich and powerful. They all want to remain rich and powerful. In many ways, they compete with one another for wealth and power. They are not equipped to cooperate among themselves to run the world politically, economically, or in any other fashion. But they also do not believe that politics and economics run the world. They usually do not care who lives in the White House. Elections are, for the Illuminati, mere drama to entertain and distract the masses. In fact, most newsworthy events and most historic happenings are distraction and entertainment, neither caused nor controlled by the Illuminati, but used to achieve their deepest goals.

The Illuminati cannot control the weather. When storms happen, though, they find ways to use the aftermath for their own purposes. The Illuminati have no control over Mother Nature (or, if you prefer, God’s creation). They cannot start, spread, or eliminate diseases. When diseases happen, though, the Illuminati exercise their ability to focus attention on these diseases and their consequences or to distract people from these diseases and their consequences.

Their primary weapon is fear. Their primary tools are education and communication. What passes for news reporting in the current world is, in fact, an arm of the entertainment industry and not a service of communication for the world’s population. While they do not declare wars, fight wars, or bring an end to wars, the members of the Illuminati use past and present wars to shape public perception. Fear is their primary weapon: they are behind much of the fear that people have felt over the Cold War, nuclear weapons, environmental concerns, terrorism, climate change, street demonstrations, and COVID-19.

Because they deal in fear, the Illuminati do not want to solve problems of racial injustice, discrimination, or other factors that separate one group from another. Instead, they use their power over education and communication to highlight differences, stoke anger, and continue injustice. Government programs and privately-funded efforts that genuinely reduce injustice and promote cooperation are undermined; similar programs that continue injustice, damage cooperation, and generate further anger and fear are encouraged.

Like Tolstoy and Hugo, members of the current Illuminati are interested in broad movements among large groups of people. History and progress, to the Illuminati, are found in these movements. At the forefront of the powers that inhibit these movements are the traditional family and the traditional Christian congregation. The Illuminati encourages every opportunity that arises to undermine these two opponents. Removing children from their families to educate them in public schools was an Illuminati goal. Dominating the conversation in colleges and universities to turn students against their families and other traditional supporters of family was an Illuminati goal. Redefining the family to promote alternate lifestyles, even a rejection of biological gender, has been an Illuminati goal. Separating the joy of sex from the stability of marriage and family has long been an Illuminati goal.

Because it uses the entertainment industry to attack traditional families and traditional Christianity, the Illuminati has long endorsed anti-family behavior within that industry. As a result, children and young adults have succumbed to predators hidden within the industry for years. Public embarrassment of child stars emerging into adulthood has been the norm, not the exception. Charges against Harvey Weinstein and Jeffrey Epstein are only the tip of the iceberg—surrender of a couple of egregious examples for the purpose of maintaining the nefarious structure to which those men belong. The victims of this structure are not people singled out for programing by a massive conspiracy; their tragedies are the inevitable result of a view of life that places personal pleasure and profit ahead of appropriate human relationships—and that plans to train the rest of the world to do the same.

To be continued… J

Super Tuesday and the Presidential election

Who will win the presidential election this November? How will this week’s Super Tuesday shape the outcome of that November election? What can history tell us about the answer to those two questions?

Knowledge of history cannot provide certainty of the future. One thing history tells us is that things often change. But historic trends are helpful when preparing for future events. And historic trends say a lot about the November general election and this week’s primary elections.

On March 3, fourteen states and American Samoa will engage in selecting preferences for this summer’s national conventions of the Republican and Democratic parties. Roughly one-third of those delegates for these conventions will be selected by the elections held in these fifteen places. The trend over the past several election cycles has been that the candidate for each party who gains the most delegates on Super Tuesday eventually receives the party’s nomination for president. Therefore, much attention is devoted to the results of this week’s elections.

Since the middle of the twentieth century, seventeen presidential elections have been held. In ten of those elections, the incumbent President was nominated for a second term. Incumbent Presidents have won seven of the ten elections in which they ran. Looking at those ten elections may provide insight into what to expect when votes are casted and counted this November.

1956: In the 1952 election, Republicans nominated General Dwight Eisenhower for President, and Democrats nominated Governor Adlai Stevenson of Illinois. Eisenhower easily beat Stevenson, winning 55 percent of the popular vote and 39 of the 48 states. In 1956, the Republicans nominated President Eisenhower again, and the Democrats nominated Stevenson again. This time, Eisenhower won 57 percent of the popular vote and carried 41 of the 48 states. CANDIDATE MOST LIKE STEVENSON: Hillary Clinton, except that she is not on the ballot. Elizabeth Warren might be the closest candidate on the ballot to another Hillary Clinton.

1964: Lyndon Johnson became President less than a year before the election with the assassination of John Kennedy. With the legacy of Kennedy backing him, Johnson was nominated for a second term. Republicans chose Senator Barry Goldwater, who was a strongly conservative candidate who was unwilling to compromise his positions to attract centrist voters. As a result, Johnson won the election with 61 percent of the popular vote and 44 of 50 states, one of the most one-sided elections in recent history. CANDIDATE MOST LIKE GOLDWATER: Bernie Sanders, the Democratic Socialist.

1972: In 1971, Richard Nixon appeared very defeatable. However, the Democrats nominated liberal Senator George McGovern, and Nixon cruised to victory in the November election, with 60.7 percent of the popular vote and 49 of 50 states, another of the most one-sided elections in recent history. CANDIDATE MOST LIKE MCGOVERN: Again, Bernie Sanders.

1976: Vice-President Agnew and President Nixon both resigned office, and Gerald Ford became President without having been on the previous ballot. He was opposed in the primary campaign by Ronald Reagan but won the nomination. The Democrats countered with Governor Jimmy Carter of Georgia, a candidate outside of the national political stream, one who was presented as trustworthy and likeable, and one not as liberal as McGovern. Carter won with 50.1 percent of the popular vote and with 23 of the 50 states plus the District of Columbia (giving him 297 electoral votes to Ford’s 240). CANDIDATE MOST LIKE CARTER: Pete Buttigieg, who this past weekend withdrew from the primary race.

1980: In his second try for the Republican nomination, and with his teams in place from the previous election, Ronald Reagan achieved the nomination, while Democrats nominated Jimmy Carter (although he received a significant challenge in the primaries from Senator Edward Kennedy). Some Republicans feared a repeat of 1964, given Reagan’s conservative leanings. But Carter was faced with international crises (including the hostages in Iran) and a struggling economy. Reagan won the election with 50.7 percent of the popular vote, carrying 44 of the 50 states. CANDIDATE MOST LIKE REAGAN: Bernie Sanders.

1984: Reagan easily won the nomination for reelection from the Republicans. Democrats selected Walter Mondale, who had been Vice-President under Jimmy Carter. With a strong economy and no foreign policy disasters, voters favored President Reagan, giving him 59% of the popular vote and 49 of the 50 states—the third of the most one-sided elections in recent history. CANDIDATE MOST LIKE MONDALE: Joe Biden, who was Vice-President under Barack Obama.

1992: Vice-President George Bush won the Republican nomination and the general election in 1988, only one of four sitting Vice-Presidents who ran for President and won in the modern era. (Vice-Presidents Richard Nixon in 1960, Hubert Humphrey in 1968, and Albert Gore in 2000 all won their party’s nomination but lost in close elections.) After the Persian Gulf War, Bush was seen as unbeatable for reelection, but the Democrats nominated Bill Clinton, Governor of Arkansas. Like Carter, Clinton was seen as a Washington outsider, one who was as likeable as Carter if not as trustworthy, and someone who was moderate rather than a liberal like McGovern in 1972. H. Ross Perot ran as a third-party candidate. Clinton won the election with 43 percent of the popular vote, carrying 32 states and the District of Columbia. CANDIDATE MOST LIKE CLINTON: Pete Buttigieg (but see above, 1976 campaign)

1996: Clinton won the Democrat’s primary for reelection. He was opposed by Senator Bob Dole, a long-time Republican leader who was expected to appeal to moderates who had preferred Clinton to Bush. Perot also ran again. Dole’s campaign never caught the momentum that had carried candidates like Carter, Reagan, and Clinton into office. Clinton won reelection with 49.2 percent of the popular vote and 31 states plus the District of Columbia. CANDIDATE MOST LIKE DOLE: Joe Biden.

2004: Having won narrowly over Vice-President Gore in 2000, George W. Bush was nominated by the Republicans for a second term. The Democrats countered with Senator John Kerry, a war hero who challenged President Bush’s policies in Afghanistan and Iraq. The election was close, but Bush won with 50.7 percent of the popular vote and 31 states. CANDIDATE MOST LIKE KERRY: Similarities can be drawn between Kerry and Biden, Sanders, or Warren. Whoever wins the most delegates on Super Tuesday will probably be the best candidate to compare to Kerry.

2012: Senator Barack Obama defeated Senator John McCain in the 2008 election, and Republicans felt that President Obama would be easily defeated in his campaign for reelection, viewing him as hampered as Carter had been in 1980. During the primaries, Governor Mitt Romney emerged as the Republican frontrunner, although he was challenged by several conservative candidates. Each conservative candidate prevailed in one state or another under the “anyone but Romney” umbrella, but none of them consolidated support to deny Romney the nomination. President Obama won the election with 51.1 percent of the popular vote and 26 states plus the District of Columbia. CANDIDATE MOST LIKE ROMNEY: Probably Bernie Sanders, given the “anyone but Sanders” feeling of less liberal Democrats.

Conclusion: Presidents Ford, Carter, and Bush all faced difficulties in their first terms that cost them a second term—for the most part, these difficulties involved economic weakness of the United States. The economy in 2020 is strong. While main-stream media has tried to create a sense of crisis regarding President Trump’s foreign policy decisions—most recently regarding the Coronavirus—most voters do not seem to agree with the media assessment of Trump’s performance in office. The impeachment attempt against President Trump only strengthened his support, while further dividing Democratic voters. About the only hopeful sign for the Democratic Party in this election is that Reagan was able to beat Carter in 1980 without making many compromises to capture centrist voters. Aside from that, Sanders and Biden both face uphill battles to overturn incumbent President Donald Trump, when comparing this election to previous elections.

What of Mike Bloomberg? He most resembles H. Ross Perot as a candidate, even though he has entered the Democratic primaries rather than running as a third-party candidate. While it is hard to judge whether his campaign will damage Biden or Sanders more, it is clear that he will not help either of them to win in November, and his chances of beating President Trump are even less than theirs. J.

Ch-ch-ch-changes

The autumnal equinox has passed. When the alarm goes off in the morning, it is still dark outside. Darkness falls again soon after supper, so my evening reading and writing is done with the help of electric lights. The darkness contributes to the melancholy feeling I have about some other changes that happened in my life this month.

For the last ten years, I have been an adjunct instructor for a two-year college. I have taught at a branch campus of a state university; the branch is located on military property. Some of my students have been active military personnel; some retired from the military; some spouses or children of military personnel; and some simply nearby residents taking a college class. I have had students old enough to remember the day President Kennedy was shot; I have had students too young to remember the day that terrorists flew airplanes into the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon. I’ve heard many anecdotes about military life including events in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I began by teaching a course in World Religions since my degrees were in the field of religion. Most of my classes have been a survey of world history. Two nights a week for sixteen weeks I have guided students from the earliest civilizations in Mesopotamia, Egypt, India, and China, right up to current events. Some of my students have said that they never liked history until they took my class. Others have contributed to the class by sharing personal experiences in other cultures, things they’ve been taught in other classes, and things they’ve picked up from the Internet. I hope that among my dozens of students over the last ten years, a good number have gained not merely a few new facts but a way of learning about history that helps them lead more informed and interesting lives.

My summer class and fall classes this year were canceled due to low enrollment. The administration of the state university has been promoting online learning, and it appears that we have reached the point where more students would rather learn online than in the classroom. I’m not opposed to the latest technology, but when it comes to teaching history, I prefer the classroom experience. I like to see the facial expressions and body language of the people I am teaching. I like the conversations before and after class that cover many things not related to the subject matter of the class. I like seeing students interact with one another.

This week I told the school to keep my name off the spring listing of classes. I don’t know yet whether I have taught my last college class, but the burden of preparing a class, then having it canceled at the last moment, is one I want to avoid for a while.

Meanwhile, I am driving a different car. For the last fifteen years I have been driving a 1999 Ford Escort. It had about 50,000 miles on the odometer when I bought it; it now has more than 210,000 miles. The air conditioner hasn’t worked for years, and this fall a faulty sensor started causing a warning light to flicker on and off. In a recent post I described my Escort as “a common Ford to carry me home.” I suspect that the reference to the spiritual song “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” went past many of my readers.

My parents bought a Ford Granada when I was in high school. I learned how to drive on that car. When I graduated college, they gave me the car as a gift. A few years later I had the chance to buy a Mercury Sable in good condition from an elderly couple who no longer needed two cars. I sold the Granada to a man who lived on the same street as me, attended the same church, and needed a car. The Sable served well for many years, but I ended up buying the Escort fifteen years ago and selling the Sable to a high school girl who was getting her first car. The very same day I bought my current car, my daughter went to her job and heard a fellow employee say that he needed to acquire a car quickly. She told him about my Escort, he came by the house the next morning, test drove it, handed over five hundred dollars, and drove away.

The first car I test drove from the used car lot was a Ford Focus. It seemed OK when I drove it. However, before deciding on the car I asked to check the trunk. Last month two of my daughters were stranded by the side of the rode in a remote place for two hours because they had a flat tire. Although my daughter had owned the car for two years, she did not realize that there was no spare tire and no jack in the trunk. A call to 911 did not get help to them; eventually they found the number for the county sheriff and got the help they needed. Anyhow, when I opened the trunk of the Focus, I found no spare tire and sitting rainwater in the tire well. That ended my interest in the Focus.

The salesman suggested that I test drive a 2004 Honda Accord. It also handled well, it had a spare tire and no water in the trunk, and he dropped the price $1000 to match what he had been asking for the Focus. I went home that Saturday afternoon, did some research on the Accord, called him Monday to say I would buy the car, and drove it home on Tuesday. I’ve had more than a week to get used to it, and I am comfortable with the car. My Escort had a radio with a cassette tape deck, but my Accord has two radios—one with a CD player, which probably came with the car when it was new, and another with lots of lights and buttons that I don’t understand at all. It is set to a local station I enjoy, so I have not done much experimenting with it.

Though it seems strange after all these years to be in a different car—one that is not a Ford—I’m sure that I made the right decision. After all the book of Acts says several times that the first Christians were in one Accord, and what was good enough for them should be good enough for me. J.

Sugar: the spice that changed history–part two

Portuguese sailors explored the African coast in the fifteenth century, wanting to purchase gold without dealing with the sub-Saharan empires, which placed a surcharge on the precious metal. Coastal Africans were willing to exchange any commodity they had for European products, including horses and guns. They offered ivory, and they offered slaves. Once the Portuguese explorers found uninhabited islands nearby, they were happy to purchase slaves so they could establish sugar fields. The Africans were happy to sell slaves, not from their own tribes, but from neighboring tribes—captured prisoners of war. As the Atlantic slave trade grew, some African nations deliberately went to war with their neighbors to provide themselves with more slaves to sell to the Europeans.

The Portuguese sought a route around Africa so they could buy spices and other Asian products without paying a surcharge to west Asian merchants and governments of Arabia and the Ottoman Empire. At the same time, an Italian sailor proposed to the government of Spain that he could take ships directly to China and India by crossing the ocean to the west. Christopher Columbus did not have to prove to anyone that the world is round—educated people in Europe, Asia, and Africa had known the shape of the world for more than a thousand years. Greek scholars had even determined the size of the world with reasonable accuracy by measuring shadows in different cities. Most sailors did not want to try the western route because of the size of the world—European ships could not carry enough food and fresh water to supply their crews for such a long voyage. Columbus overestimated the size of Asia. He also suggested that the curve of the Earth is different measuring north to south than measuring east to west. (Had he been correct, the world would be shaped more like an egg than like an orange.) Columbus wanted gold from Asia, but he also wanted spices, including sugar. Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand gave Columbus the money he needed for three ships, and in the following years he made four voyages across the Atlantic Ocean and back again.

When Columbus first landed in the Caribbean Islands, he thought he was in Indonesia, and he called the people living there Indians. He found no gold and no sugar, but he found islands where sugar could be grown. Although Columbus never publicly admitted his mistake, others quickly realized that he had found land previously unknown to Europeans. They referred to the islands of the Caribbean as the West Indies, calling the islands of Indonesia the East Indies. Spain and Portugal, and later Great Britain and the Netherlands, copied the farming system first made by the Portuguese on islands near Africa, and soon a vast sugar industry was operating.

The Portuguese system involved many African slaves supervised by a few European landowners and managers. Slavery was not invented by the Portuguese; it has existed since ancient times. People became slaves due to debt, or to crimes, or to being prisoners of war; often slaves had rights protected by law. Some had respected duties such as managing the property of the rich or teaching their children; in some cases, certain slaves owned slaves of their own. The new system, prompted by an appetite for sugar, created the plantations and haciendas of the New World. In addition to sugar, American plantations also began raising tobacco, cotton, coffee, and rubber. When the local population was found insufficient for working the plantations (largely because of their lack of immunity to smallpox and measles), Europeans began transporting more Africans into the western hemisphere. In fact, between 1500 and 1800, more Africans than Europeans crossed the Atlantic Ocean to live in the Americas.

Until recently, history books said that we will never know the number of Africans removed by the slave trade. Researchers finally realized, though, that the slave trade was a business, and that there must be business records stored somewhere. Once they knew what documents they needed, they knew where to find them, and now it is known that roughly thirteen million Africans were forced into slavery during those three centuries. Even more appalling is the fact that the loss of one quarter of those thirteen million lives in transit across the ocean was considered a legitimate cost of doing business.J.

The spice that changed history–part one

Since early times people have been gathering and using spices and herbs. They make food taste better (and sometimes they hide the taste of spoiling food), but spices can also preserve food, or be used as medicines, or as perfumes, or in potions and salves and ointments. Merchants liked to deal in spices because they are incredibly efficient as merchandise. They are easy to transport and possess a large density of value, whether measured by weight or by volume.

The spice trade—and one spice in particular—helped to shape the history of the world. The Persian Empire built and maintained roads for government messengers and for their army, but these roads were also used by merchants traveling across the Empire from India to Egypt or Greece and back again. India, China, and Rome all imitated the Persian system of roads; the result was an intricate system of travel ways (some involving rivers or coastlines) called the Silk Road. Italian glass was sold in China two thousand years ago, and Chinese silk was sold in Rome. Anything that could be bought and sold traveled along the Silk Road—precious metals, gems, artwork, fabric, fruits, vegetables, animals, and slaves. Spices were an important part of this vast economy which linked three continents and would eventually shape two more.

The most prized spice that traveled the Silk Road was made from a plant indigenous to the islands of Indonesia. Indian travelers brought this spice west, selling it in India and also in Arabia. Europeans first encountered this spice when they traveled to Asia for the Crusades, and it rapidly became popular in Europe. Italian investors tried to raise this spice on islands in the Mediterranean Sea, but the climate was too temperate for this plant. By the 1400s, as Portuguese explorers traveled along the coast of Africa, they found uninhabited islands of the coast that were ideal for this Indonesian spice. Soon the Portuguese had a booming business raising and selling this popular spice, enriching the nation and making further travel possible.

If you search through your spice rack, looking for this particular spice, you will not find it there. This popular spice is not pepper, or cinnamon, or nutmeg, or cloves. Nor is it ginger or mustard. The name of this spice, so desperately wanted in Europe centuries ago, is sugar.

Of course now sugar is treated as a staple, sold in five pound bags like flour rather than in tiny jars or cans. Yet sugar is indeed a spice and was treated as a spice by merchants and by governments that taxed products when they were bought and sold. Europeans were familiar with other sweeteners, such as honey, but cane sugar appealed to the European sweet tooth. This addiction to sugar changed the history of the planet, as I will describe in coming posts. J.

Happy Reformation Day

On Halloween, 1517, Martin Luther changed the world.

Actually, that’s a pretty silly sentence. World-changing powers do not rely upon one person or one event (aside from the crucifixion and the resurrection of Jesus Christ). What Luther did on October 31, 1517, was one step in the reformation of the Christian Church in western Europe, a reformation that would have enormous consequences in the Americas, in Africa, and in many parts of Asia and of the Pacific Ocean lands. His action that day was a response to a long-standing misunderstanding in European Christianity about God’s forgiveness. To explain that misunderstanding–involving repentance, penance, purgatory, and indulgences–would stretch this post far beyond one thousand words.

But Luther wanted to talk about forgiveness. As a university professor and an Augustinian monk, Luther wanted to bring about a debate among the scholars of the Church. He wrote ninety-five sentences (usually called “theses”) and posted them on the chapel door of the University of Wittenberg, where Luther taught theology. The ensuing discussion would bring about Luther’s excommunication (kicking him out of the Roman Catholic Church–in the opinion of the Roman Catholics, denying that Luther was a Christian) and his condemnation as a heretic and an outlaw. Those who agreed with Luther–labeled “Lutherans,” although Luther preferred the label “evangelical”–had sufficient strength in numbers and in political power, to survive these accusations of heresy. They presented a description and defense of their beliefs to the Emperor, Charles V, in 1530. Over the next century they survived two major wars which ended in treaties which allowed them to remain in the Empire (although, once again, the details of these wars and these treaties would stretch this post to unwieldly length).

Why did Luther choose to post his ninety-five sentences on Halloween? All Hallows Eve came just before All Saints’ Day, a day when many people would visit the chapel in Wittenberg to view the relics collected by the Elector, Frederick of Saxony. Viewing these holy items (which were said to include a twig from the burning bush wherein God spoke to Moses, a scrap from the clothes in which the newborn Jesus was swaddled and a wisp of straw from the manger, thirty-five fragments of the cross on which Jesus was crucified and one of the nails which held him to the cross, a thumb of Saint Anne the mother of Mary, a tooth of Saint Jerome, and numerous parts of other saints and mementos of other Biblical events) was said to reduce the time a Christian would spend in purgatory before rising to Paradise. Luther’s challenge to the system of penance and indulgences was timed to gather much attention to his ninety-five sentences for debate.

Luther began, “When our Lord Jesus Christ said ‘repent,’ he willed that the entire life of believers was to be one of repentance.” Luther thus distinguished between true repentance and acts of penance. Luther assumed that the pope, Leo X, would be shocked by the outrageous claims of the sellers of indulgences. Yet Luther’s sentences involved further shocking remarks, such as Number 82: “Why does the pope not empty purgatory for the sake of holy love and the dire need of the souls that are there” rather than “for the sake of miserable money with which to build a church?”

Western European Christianity was ready for these kinds of challenges. Growing nationalism caused resentment against the political claims of the pope and of the Holy Roman Emperor. Preachers who were Biblically illiterate left their hearers hungry for the truth of God’s Word. Then as now, many Christians resented the appearance that the Christian Church was focused more on money and on political power than on rescuing sinners, healing broken lives, and establishing a genuine connection between God and his people. Luther cared little for the political implications of his sentences. He deeply cared about sinners who were being pushed away from God’s grace by the Church rather than reconciled to God through the Gospel.

Luther himself had faced turmoil in his earlier years. He hated God, thinking of God as a cruel judge who wanted to torture sinners and who demanded good deeds to pay for sins. Luther became an Augustinian monk because of his fear of God’s judgment and his hope to perform enough good deeds to please God. His superior in the Augustinian order, Johann von Staupitz, encouraged Luther to believe the Bible’s message of God’s love and mercy. Staupitz wanted Luther to find comfort in the promise of salvation through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Knowing that we learn best the things we need to know by teaching others, Staupitz arranged for Luther to teach classes on the Bible. Had Staupitz been more open about his convictions, today there would be Staupitzian congregations instead of Lutheran congregations. Yet Staupitz was content to deal one-on-one with desperate men like Martin Luther. Luther was bold enough to challenge the authorities and the system for the good of the Church and for its eventual reformation.

Luther could have been killed for his beliefs. Other men were killed for preaching the same message they had learned from Luther. But Luther lived until 1546. He married a former nun, and they had six children. Luther wrote hymns that are still sung today, and he wrote teaching materials for children and for adults that are still used today. He wrote many significant theological essays during his career, and the notes of his university students have been preserved and published, as well as many of Luther’s sermons. Even though Luther is best remembered for ninety-five sentences, his bold action one Halloween pales in comparison to Luther’s entire contribution to Christianity. J.

The New Social Order in America

An interesting document has recently crossed my desk at work: a booklet titled The New Social Order in America. Here is a selection of statements from the front cover:

“IN THE PRESENT SOCIAL CRISIS

“When old social and economic institutions are being abandoned;

“When government control of industry has been carried to an unprecedented degree;

“When legal regulation of wages and prices is being swiftly extended;

“When taxation of incomes, profits, inheritances, and luxuries is being immensely increased

“When organized labor has acquired unprecedented influence;

“When capitalists of the Charles M. Schwab type predict the approaching domination of America by the manual workers;

“In such a crisis, every thinking person wants to know the rudiments of the great issues up for decision, to think these issues through for himself, and to encourage others to face the social reconstruction with equal frankness….”

It sounds as though They (whoever They are) are threatening America’s liberties and its very survival. Patriots need to be informed of Their agenda to prevent Them from succeeding in Their nefarious schemes. And I think we all know who They are—government types, some of them elected, but many of them appointed and not accountable to the People; agitators, threatening violence in their efforts to reshape our society according to their own mistaken values; liberals, who do not trust liberty and capitalism, but who instead want to play Robin Hood, stealing from the rich to give to the poor. They trust big government to have the answer to all society’s problems. They discourage productivity and thrift, rewarding bad decisions with largesse taken out of the hands of those who have earned what they hold.

But before we get too excited at this document, guaranteed to help us beat back the New Social Order, I want to fill in the gaps that I left in the above quote.

First gap: “When millions of men are being summoned to service by the government;”

Second gap: “…by war necessity;

“When equal suffrage seems imminent;

“When prohibition of the liquor traffic is impending;”

Third gap: “When extreme radicals are the controlling native force in Russia;

“When the British Labor Party is uniting hand and brain workers on a program of fundamental economic reconstruction….”

Have you put those pieces together? A nation at war, sending millions of men into the conflict; equal suffrage imminent; probation impending; radicals in Russia—the date of this document is October, 1918.

And yet, the more things change, the more they remain the same. The radicals taking over Russia in 1918 were finally kicked out of the government in 1991, but Vladimir Putin was trained by the last generation of those radicals. Hardly anyone in the United States is opposed to women being allowed to vote, or in favor of the prohibition of alcohol, but questions of equal access to the ballot box and discussion of the use or prohibition of other substances are still burning issues. We have volunteers serving in our armed forces, and we are not sending millions of men to the conflicts in western Asia, but the reality of war and the cost of that war still concern us today.

Yes, the more things change, the more they remain the same. We have a social crisis today in which taxation, regulation, and abandonment of traditional institutions remain symptomatic of our problems. I haven’t had time to read the rest of the booklet, but the cover intrigues me. Here are the concluding words on the cover:

“As an aid to these ends, this study syllabus has been prepared as the cooperative product of a number of liberal thinkers.

“Copies may be secured at 15 cents each, eight for one dollar, or $12 per hundred, from Hornell Hart, 807 Neave Bldg., Cincinnati.”

If you should try to contact Mr. Hart, please let me know if you receive a reply. J.

Fifteen years later

I took part in two services this morning at two different churches. Neither preacher mentioned the terrorist attacks of 9-11 (so far as I can remember), but both spoke of the attacks during the prayers, and one of them had a moment of silence for the victims of the attacks.

Americans over eighty years old remember where they were when they heard about the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Americans over sixty years old remember hearing about the assassination of President Kennedy. Americans over forty years old remember the stretch of weeks during which John Lennon was killed, Anwar Sadat was killed, and attempts were made upon President Reagan and Pope John Paul II that seriously injured both men. Americans over twenty years old remember the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington (and the attempted attack that ended in Pennsylvania), but to college freshman that bit of history is probably a vague memory if they remember it at all.

It seems that each generation has a defining tragedy, an attack of such violence that its impact lingers in memory. Until Christ returns in glory, he warned us, there will be wars and rumors of wars. History is less a countdown to the Last Day than it is a continuing reminder that the world is polluted by sin, stained by evil, and subject to God’s righteous judgment. On the Last Day the earth will shake, and every earthquake of our lifetimes reminds us of the Last Day. Every storm, every flood, and every disastrous fire reminds us of God’s judgment upon a sinful world. Still, the end is yet to come.

Nature in revolt against humanity seems only fair, given the damage we regularly inflict upon God’s creation. Human violence against one another is devastating in a different way. War is one of the most vivid metaphors we have to describe the fight between God and evil; or rather, the revolt of evil against God. When nations engage of wars of conquest against their neighbors, or when nations are embroiled in wars of revolution, the violence and bloodshed and death—as well as the hatred that justifies such violence—presents an image of the war that began when Satan deceived the woman, and she and her husband ate the forbidden fruit. Although the decisive battle of this war was fought as Jesus was hanging on the cross, the culmination of this war will occur when Jesus returns in glory to claim his Kingdom.

Revelation 16:16 refers to a battlefield called Armageddon. This word has taken on several meanings in western culture. It literally means “the heights of Megiddo.” The city of Megiddo was on a plain in northern Israel; in ancient times, several significant battles were fought on that plain. As a geographical feature, the heights of Megiddo do not exist. I believe that Armageddon refers to the entire war between God and evil, from the first day of sin to the Last Day, the Day of the Lord. Evil forces gather sinners into their rebellion—all the nations of the world are involved. Yet Jesus wins without an arrow being shot, without a spear being thrown, without a sword being drawn, without a shot being fired, and without a bomb being dropped. His victory was announced from the cross when Jesus said, “It is finished.” Ever since that weekend, the people faithful to Jesus have been carrying news of this victory to all the nations of the world, as Jesus said we would do.

We need to remember acts of war, both as lessons from history and as pictures of what is yet to come. Commemorations of Pearl Harbor, or of the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, serve both purposes. May our memories of the past and our witnessing of present violence prepare us for the victory already won but yet to be seen in its fullness. And, to those who fear war and terrorism and violence, may we remember to share the good news of this victory. J.

 

Movies helpful to history students

As a history teacher, I often mention movies in the classroom to help the students gain some perspective on events and experiences that might be foreign to them. I’ve found that we cannot discuss the Greek and Persian wars without the movie 300 entering the conversation. To explain the events before and after that battle in light of what they think they know from the movie is beneficial. Once I led a before-class discussion of which war movies were truest to life. Since many of my students have military backgrounds, their perspective of war movies is probably more useful than that of the general population. Recently I recommended 1776 as a way to learn the issues and personalities surrounding the writing of the Declaration of Independence. Although Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, and the rest did not sporadically burst into song in Philadelphia that summer, the movie script successfully reproduces the conversations that happened during that key historic event.

In the coming week, I will be mentioning three more movies to the students. When we are at this part of the book, I frequently want to watch all three movies, even though generally I don’t have enough time for even one of them. Besides, I’ve already seen each of them enough times that I probably could speak much of the dialogue along with the characters on the screen.

Evita (1996) tells the story of Eva Peron, wife of the caudillo Juan Peron. She was part of his message to Argentina that he supported the common people and their goals. (After all, he married one of them.) The movie comes from a musical written by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, first performed on Broadway in 1979. (The soundtrack album was recorded and released in 1976.) As is the case with 1776, Evita depicts the principle characters singing rather than talking. In fact, there are very few spoken words in the entire movie. Casting Madonna in the title role was extremely controversial in the 1990s, but it worked. While the movie condenses history and combines events, it reflects the emotions of the time and place in a way that a classroom lecture and discussion cannot replicate. The movie runs two hours and 15 minutes.

Gandhi (1982) won many awards for its biographical portrayal of Mohandas Gandhi, known in India as the Mahatma. Like Evita, it condenses history, combines some events, and skips others entirely. Unlike Evita, the film Gandhi is not a musical. The key events of Gandhi’s life and career are shown within the proper historical and geographical setting. Again, a sense of the flavor of India during the first half of the twentieth century cannot be reproduced in the classroom. The movie runs three hours and 11 minutes.

The Last Emperor (1987) shows Chinese history during the first half of the twentieth century from the point of view of the final Qing emperor, who was only a boy when the rise of the Republic threw him out of power. Later, he naively cooperated with Japanese officials in an attempt to regain some of his lost power. He then is captured by Communist forces, who retrain him to be like everyone else in China. Once again, the film gives context to the historic events, dramatically depicting the way real people dealt with the changes that were happening in China during those decades. The movie runs two hours and 43 minutes.

An odd similarity among these movies is that all of them begin at the end of the life of the title characters (in the case of Evita and Gandhi, with their funerals) and then treat their lives and histories as flashbacks. This allows the moviemakers to make dramatic jumps in time between two events, omitting the portions of history that are less relevant or interesting for the script and the audience.

These three movies are vastly superior to the large number of movies that use history only as inspiration for the story the moviemakers want to tell. Most movies of historical fiction (and even some that pretend to be documentaries) consist of more fiction than history. This phenomenon is not new—Shakespeare’s historical plays were more imagination and propaganda than they were historical truth. (This may be as close as Oliver Stone will come to being compared to Shakespeare.) When I can point to a few helpful movies, though, it may assist at least one student to gain more appreciation of history than can be imparted in the classroom. J.