Marco Rubio booed at town hall. And…?

I woke up this morning to a barrage of headlines in my news feed about last night’s CNN town hall, almost all of which pertained to Marco Rubio–the superstar Republican senator from Florida–being jeered, booed, and castigated for his “pathetically weak” response to the school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. It’s easy to see why the focus was on Rubio. A former presidential hopeful and regular figure in the national spotlight had a very rough night at the hands of a crowd that had little patience for half measures and political posturing. But with four other major public figures taking the stage with Rubio last night, a lot was probably missed by drive-by news consumers who catch headlines and soundbites but little else.

1) It’s not too soon to talk about guns. It’s too late.

Rep. Ted Deutch gave voice to the most universal sentiment of the crowd in his opening salvo. With great conviction he delivered an increasingly familiar counterpunch to the tired voices in the national discourse who assume a mock moral high ground in the aftermath of a tragedy to chide reformers with the refrain, “Now is not the time to talk about guns. Now is the time to mourn. How dare you politicize this.” The students, teachers, and families of victims last night were having none of it. They echoed Deutch all night just as they have been laying heavily into lawmakers and pundits in the last week: why didn’t we talk about guns after Sandy Hook, why didn’t we talk about guns after the Pulse shooting, why is it never the time to talk about guns? Deutch minced no words and drew thunderous (speech obscuring) applause when he declared: “The folks in our community don’t want words, they don’t want thoughts and prayers, they don’t want discussions, they want action and we owe it to them [inaudible].”

The criticism spread out like buckshot to an almost infinite host of naysayers who tried to speak on behalf of the victims’ need for peace not politics. Deutch and the crowd together believed that political change was the best hope for peace.

2) The absentees were more significant than the attendees

Deutch’s words must have at least in part been directed at Gov. Rick Scott, who sent his heart out to everyone Wednesday night but refused to talk about reform. When peppered with questions about gun control, Scott said “there is a time to continue to have these conversations” but it apparently isn’t now. No wonder then that he declined to make his way to the town hall (or even to join remotely), given that his presence would have likely been even more grating than that of Rubio.

CNN also noted that the president declined to participate, an inclusion that seemed calculated to try to embarrass the president for being absent. But frankly, I doubt his presence could seriously be expected (given that he didn’t already happen to be at Mar-a-lago at the time) and would probably have been neither appreciated nor productive.

More significant, by far, was the absence of any state legislators. They were too busy, as it turns out, refusing to publicly debate gun control legislation (something the news seemed to find particularly ironic given that the same session declared pornography a public health concern). Given the tremendous latitude that individual states have to enact meaningful gun control–both in terms of restricting purchasing and strengthening enforcement–and the comparative responsiveness of state governments compared to the federal government, the absence of any state lawmakers is perhaps the most important feature of last night’s line up.

The best evidence shows a strong correlation between state level gun laws and a reduction in gun deaths. Gun control activists should stop trying to reproduce Australian gun control in the US and start focusing their attention where it might have results. The absence of Scott and other state level officials should be an embarrassment to them, but it also represents a key weakness in the tactics of gun control advocates.

3) The mundane courage of Marco Rubio

In comparison, at least, Rubio is to be commended: at least he showed up. And, to their credit, the crowd and panelists made sure to give him his due on this before excoriating him for his positions. When fellow Florida senator Bill Nelson (D) reminded the audience of the courage it took for Rubio to show up when no other elected Republican officials would, Rubio protested that he was no hero.

They’re both right. It shouldn’t take any special measure of bravery for an elected official to stand up before his or her constituents, but unfortunately it does. Yet it seems that most politicians don’t have even this mundane level of courage. One reason the president would never be in a meeting like the one last night is because he cannot stomach the perception that he speaks to anything other than massive adoring crowds of red-capped devotees. Even moderate support is considered to be an embarrassment, so that crowd sizes and TV ratings have to be inflated to sustain the illusion of unwavering popularity. The optics always have to be just so.

Maybe Rubio didn’t care about the optics. Maybe he was arrogant enough to believe that he could spin them to his favor. Maybe he genuinely wants to make a turn away from politics to public service. (But probably not.) Whatever the case, he seems to genuinely be walking the walk to go with his big talk of speaking with those who disagree with us, being open to public challenges, and resisting the insularity of the tailored media.

Even if in saying it, he sounded more like he was gearing up for another presidential run than addressing the problem at hand. An especially uncomfortable exchange with a victim’s father had Rubio deploy a reframing tactic–“Fred, first of all, let me explain what I said this week, and I’ll repeat it”–that was better suited to a presidential debate than the public expression of personal and civic grief that characterized the town hall.

4) Jake Tapper misreads the room and misunderstands his role

If Rubio occasionally seemed to forget this was not a town hall on the campaign trail in 2016, he was not the most egregious offender. It wasn’t even the NRA representative, who behaved exactly as everyone wanted and expected her to behave. No, the most out of touch was Jake Tapper.

I like Jake Tapper, most of all for his level-headedness and his willingness to (if you’ll excused the mixed transportation metaphors) right the ship when things go off the rails. That’s also precisely the reason why he was a terrible choice to moderate this town hall. Repeatedly throughout the night he tried to rein in the excesses of a boisterous crowd, excuse panelists from answering loaded or misdirected questions, and ensure that everyone had the opportunity to be heard.

At one point early on he said, “I’m not going to tell anybody in this room not to feel strongly and – – and not to feel emotional. The only thing I will tell you is…” The line was cringe-worthy, like standing up at a meeting of the NAACP and saying, “Now, I’m not going to say I know what its like to experience racism, but…” Nothing that comes after the “but” (or Tapper’s more characteristically verbose “the only thing…is”) can ever overcome the weight of the introductory clause.

This was not a debate, something that Tapper and the panelists continued to reiterate; it was a corporate act of catharsis. That’s why a substantive engagement with Nelson or Deutch mattered less to everyone involved than venting their white-hot grief at Rubio and the NRA. In that context, the moderator’s job is not to provoke meaningful discussion but to carve out meaningful space for the students, teachers, and families–on a national platform with the icons of their most seething anger right in front of them–to give a distilled voice to the overwhelming sentiment of a nation.

In this, Tapper repeatedly failed, being too true to himself and (in consequence) false to the people who needed that forum most.

5) The NRA did just fine

The real star of the night was not Rubio, who acted as a kind of Journey cover band opening for Bono. Before she ever arrived, Dana Loesch (“the NRA lady”) was already at center stage in everyone’s mind. The NRA (rightly) gets much of the blame for mobilizing the political forces against gun control on a national level. Yet Loesch deserved arguably more credit than Rubio for showing up (particularly since the senator may have been her only constituent in the room) and she made her arguments well to an even more hostile crowd than had faced Rubio.

In the bulk of their substance, moreover, her argument were true, at least as they pertained to this particular case. That is one of the features of the NRA’s genius, to undercut the general argument for gun control with specific arguments about an instance of gun violence. Yes, law enforcement failed to stop what should have been an easily identifiable killer…in this case. Yes, better mental health screening would have prevented the killer from owning a weapon…in this case. Yes, better reporting of state officials to national background check databases would have made it harder for someone to buy a gun…in this case. She was right at almost every turn.

The crowd, of course, didn’t care. They knew that their movement was not about preventing the Marjory Stoneman Douglas shooting. That had already happened. They needed to stop the next tragedy, the one we aren’t predicting yet, with general laws that will have a general reduction on violent gun crimes. And they’re willing to start just about anywhere. When Rubio told a father that the assault weapons ban would remove 200 gun types from circulation but leave 2,000 similar weapons out there, the father responded, “Are you saying you will start with the 200 and work your way up?” Rubio was not. He was saying that the only solution is the (to him) patently absurd suggestion that we “literally…ban every semi-automatic rifle that’s sold in the U.S.” Wouldn’t you know it, that was the biggest applause line that Rubio or anyone got all night. (Oops.)

Bonus: A little something for history teachers

My favorite moment of the evening came much later, when a social studies teacher rose and, to roaring applause and laughter, posed a question to Loesch in the form of an exam prompt: Define “a well regulated militia,” and “using supporting details” explain how a teenager with a military weapon fits into that definition.

As a history instructor, a found the moment unspeakably fulfilling. Nothing more truly embodies the absurdity of the fact that politically empowered adults need to be led by adolescents to make meaningful progress on gun control. If we’re going to revese the normal order of things, why not hold public figures to at least the same standards we hold high school and college students. In that spirit, I offer these notes to Loesch on her response (as if she were one of my students):

  • Too much fluff in the introduction; don’t try to pad your word count with unrelated information.
  • The reference to George Mason’s definition of a militia is historically rooted but logically unsatisfying (as a primordialist appeal to authority rather than a coherently developed argument)
  • The projection of gender equal language onto the revolutionary period is anachronistic. It suggests the whole argument rests on an unsustainable attempt to collapse the present and the past
  • Answer the entire prompt the first time; I shouldn’t have to direct you to produce a complete answer
  • Strong, self-consistent second half of the answer (once given), but it is unclear how it relates to the initial part of your response.

Grade: C-

To see the town hall or read the transcript, click here.

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The Moral Minority

President Donald Trump attends the Liberty University Commencement Ceremony

Jerry Falwell Jr. pledging allegiance to…God, I hope.

This morning I stumbled on an article by Adam Laats–Professor of Education and History at Binghamton University–in advance of his latest book on conservatives and higher education, Fundamentalist U: Keeping the Faith in American Higher Education. Laats joins a host of other recent commentators trying to make sense of the relationship of socially conservative, “moral majority” white evangelical values voters to the crass, vulgar, grabby,  unrepentant philanderer-in-chief. Using the bipolarity of Liberty University’s relationship to the president as a backdrop (Jerry Falwell Jr.’s ongoing endorsement of the president and the students symbolic and highly significant protests over that endorsement), Laats poses the following questions:

 

Do these protests show a new evangelical outrage at jingoistic, sexist, racially coded appeals to right-wing politics? Or do most college-age white evangelicals—like most of Liberty’s students and alumni—join Falwell in embracing Trump?

The answer, it seems, is yes on both counts, and Laats’ new book (which I’ll be interested to find time to read) explores the history of this paradox, this struggle for the evangelical soul between politically conservative white nationalism and Christian moral protest.

The examples Laats offers in the article demonstrate impressive range, chronologically and geographically, from the colonial establishment of the core of the Ivys to the fundamentalist educational resurgence in the 1920s to Cold War red scares to modern resistance to anti-Muslim bigotry. For every institutional expression of jingoism and xenophobia there is, if not quite an equal and opposite reaction, at least a voice in the wilderness crying out against it.

My alma mater doesn’t make the cut in the article, though I hope to see it in Laats’ book. Certainly Harding University fits the paradigm being described above. Here is a university that was founded by a pacifist and Christian anarchist, named after a pacifist and Christian anarchist, that was nearly forced out of existence during World War I for promoting conscientious objection to military service. It is also a university that is now regularly included at or near the top of most lists designating America’s most conservative institutions of higher education. This is largely based on the strength of its American Studies Institute, a pure Americanist Cold War holdover that has attracted as speakers such luminaries as Margaret Thatcher, Condaleeza Rice, Henry Kissinger, and George W. Bush. (I was there when Dubya visited, and let me say that two hours of his personal charisma and folksy charm undid a lot of the personal animosity I cultivated through eight years of watching him enact terrible policies.)

It as also brought in less dignified–but by some warped measures more influential–conservative figures like Sean Hannity. Hannity’s visit, perhaps better than anything, embodied Laats’ depiction of the two opposing poles in evangelical higher education. The radio and TV pundit’s speech (in advance of a live-from-Harding show) was generally well received by an audience primed by years of indoctrination to accept uncritically the marriage of conservative Christian morals and conservative American politics.

The mood changed, however, during the question and answer phase, when a young student got up and asked Hannity if he was aware of the irony or even absurdity involved in delivering a “kill the Muslims before they kill you” sermon (my words not the student’s) at a university founded by pacifists. Hannity gave a dismissive, offensive, and profoundly fallacious response about hypothetical burglars and rapists and sent the student on his way, but illusion of ideological harmony had been shattered. Most of the audience left still agreeing with Hannity–just like most Liberty students will not be returning their diplomas in protest–but everyone understood that xenophobia and Republican politics did not hold uncontested sway over the narrative of Christian conservatism in modern America.

As an anarchist, environmentalist, and pacifist who comes to all of those positions using a decidedly conservative logic, I find myself sympathizing most often with those lonely voices shouting down evangelical hypocrisy from within. Yet it is somehow reassuring to read Laats and be reminded that I am shouting from within and not from beyond the walls of my own faith community. There is a sense of alienation that festers when you’re a conservative Protestant who is nauseated by the current political climate of “dog-whistle racial nationalism” and the role of other conservative Protestants in legitimizing it. It’s good to know that we too stand in the historical fullness of the evangelical tradition even if only as its harshest and most persistent critics, a moral minority fighting an altogether different battle from the outraged, culture warriors who surround us.

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Clean Monday

Scripture:

1 Timothy 4:4-6

For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer. If you point these things out to the brothers and sisters, you will be a good minister of Christ Jesus, nourished on the truths of the faith and of the good teaching that you have followed.

Exodus 19:10-11

And the Lord said to Moses, “Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow. Have them wash their clothes and be ready by the third day, because on that day the Lord will come down on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people.”

History:

Richard Clarke Cabot, The Christian Approach to Social Morality, 10-11

The problem we are concerned with is, of course, the problem of chastity, the problem of purity as a virtue. Now there is something paradoxical in this or any other virtue. There is no virtue of any kind unless one feels temptation, no virtue in bravery where there is no tendency to run away, no virtue in truth unless one has a tendency to lie. When one thinks one possesses a virtue one must realize that a virtue means a victory over temptation, and never the absence of temptation. Chastity is more than innocence or ignorance, just as courage is more than insensitiveness to fear. One cannot speak of purity or chastity without making this clear at the outset.

Neither does one mean what is sometimes called frigidity, that is, the knowledge of a given temptation without any personal sense of it, a head knowledge without a heart knowledge. Neither does one mean by chastity anything which is implied in a life led under physical restraint. The murderer who tries to murder and whose pistol misses fire is physically restrained from doing what he intended to do, but so far as virtue is concerned he has as little as the one who succeeds. So anyone physically free from evil relations has not necessarily chastity or purity ; and this is equally true, though less obvious, when one is restrained not by physical bonds but by fear of physical consequences. One who remains in the path of what is called virtue merely for fear of physical consequences has nothing to do with the special topic with which we are dealing today. Neither can we define chastity as the abstinence from certain acts, for if we did there could be no such phrase as “a chaste wife” ; yet we must retain that phrase.

But, if we cannot use purity to mean simply innocence or ignorance, or the abstinence from certain acts, or the results of physical fear or restraint, we have, it seems to me, nothing left for a definition except this: the guidance and inspiration of a consecrating affection. That, I believe, is the ultimate meaning of purity or chastity — that in the presence of temptation one is guided by the power of a consecrated affection, a higher love.

Reflection:

Cleansing and self-mortification are themes of recurring significance at the start of Lent, whether it’s Ash Wednesday or Clean Monday. At the start of the great period of fasting and repentance in the church, the tendency is to focus on purging the evil from our lives. It becomes a kind of spiritual spring cleaning where we sweep the cobwebs out of the untended corners our souls and resolve not to let any immoral dust-bunnies settle in again in the year to come.

And all of that is wonderful. Yet in spite of the fact that this year I feel less like I’m tidying up and more like I’m facing off against a malevolent stink demon, this Clean Monday my thoughts turn less to purging the evil than to consecrating the good. Both are an intrinsic part of preparing ourselves spiritually for the renewed experience of our salvation that comes each Easter. In a recent article, Fr. Stephen Freeman has highlighted the same need to strike a balance, advising that Lent is more than just “fasting and perhaps making a good confession.” It is a call to consecrate our lives and our property to divine purposes. So this year, I hope to fast in a way that stresses less the need to give something up and more the need to repurpose it to righteous ends. I still stand with the Israelites at the foot of the mountain in need of cleansing in anticipation of the Lord’s arrival, but I must try to remember Paul’s words to Timothy that all things are good if we set them apart for God in prayer and Thanksgiving.

Prayer:

I am unworthy—how can I reply to you?
    I put my hand over my mouth.
I spoke once, but I have no answer—
    twice, but I will say no more.

–Job 40:4-5

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Screaming Once More into the Void

After a long hiatus–in which thinking and writing professionally took priority over thinking and writing recreationally–I have returned. This space was always first and foremost an exercise in self-reflection for me, but as other outlets provided equally satisfying avenues of expression it became less necessary (if not really less gratifying). Yet in a new era and a new climate, I now find myself with too much to say and too few places where it feels safe to say it.

So, on the advice of my therapist, I’m going to try to “take [my] lingering emotional energy and intentionally channel it through healthy choices and behaviors.” In that regard, few things are as cathartic as crying out into the chasmic emptiness of the Internet, where each voice is so miniscule that it truly evokes the perspective-alterting vastness of space. Here–where everyone can be heard and no one is–I return to speak my piece into the void and find solace in the emptiness that answers back.

https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/60/ESO_-_Milky_Way.jpg

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Some Standard Wisdom on Brain Pickling

One of the recurrent themes in the articles that caught my eye while reading through the 1880 editions of the Christian Standard was the confidence with which they trumpeted the scientific knowledge of their day. Looking at the science of a bygone era, in edition to being tremendously amusing, ought to give us pause today about our own scientific hubris and force us to wonder how future generations will perceive our cutting-edge thought, particularly as it filters down to the popular level. This piece was copied by the Standard from Scientific American, which is still in publication.

[…], by far the greatest anatomist of the age, used to say that he could distinguish in the darkest room by one stroke of the scalpel the brain of the inebriate from that of a person who lived soberly. Now and then he could congratulate his class upon the possession of a drunkard’s brain, admirably fitted from its hardness and more completed preservation for the purpose of demonstration. When the anatomist wishes to preserve a human brain for any length of time, he effects that object by keeping that organ in a vessel of alcohol. From a soft pulpy substance , it then becomes comparatively hard, but the inebriate, anticipating the anatomist, begins the indurating process before death, begins it while the brain remains the consecrated temple of the soul while, while its delicate and gossamer-like tissues still throb with the pulse of heaven-born life. Strange infatuation this, to desecrate the God-like. Terrible enchantment that dries up all the fountains of generous feelings, petrifies all the tender humanities and sweet charities of life, leaving only a brain of lead and a heart of stone.

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Some Standard Wisdom on Ministers’ Wives

After a couple of weeks of more serious excerpts, it is time to return to more lighthearted fare. This offering, entitled “The Minister’s Wife” was intended, almost certainly, as a sarcastic critique of the unrealistic expectation that congregations had for the spouses of their leaders. Still, I can’t help but read it and think that, hovering just beneath the surface, is an genuine wish.

The minister’s wife ought to be selected by a committee of the church. She should be warranted never to have a headache, or neuralgia; she should have nerves of iron; she should never be tired or sleepy, and should be everybody’s cheerful drudge; she should be cheerful, intellectual, pious, domesticated; she should keep her husband’s house, darn his stockings, make his shirts, cook his dinner, light his fire, and copy his sermons; she should keep up the style of a lady on the wages of a day-laborer, and be always at leisure for “good works,” and ready to receive morning calls; she should be secretary to the Band of Hope, Dorcas Society, and the Home Mission; she should conduct Bible classes and mothers’ meetings; should make clothes for the poor and gruel for the sick; and finally she should be pleased with everybody and everything, and desire no reward beyond the satisfaction of having done her own duty and other people’s too.

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Thinking Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln has always loomed large in the American consciousness, as martyr president’s have a tendency to do. Interest has peaked in recent years, however, with a number of major insertions of Lincoln into the popular culture. Bill O’Reilly’s best selling book stands out, as does the Oscar-winning Spielberg film Lincoln. Better than both of those, as far as I’m concerned, is the highly plausible revisionist history film, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. In each case, and throughout history, there has been a tendency to glorify the dead president, a pull that even historians have trouble resisting. While there is no need to disparage Lincoln, contrary voices needed to be heard and praise needs to be qualified by critical analysis. Consider, for example, the following quote from the New York Evangelist written in the midst of Lincoln’s first term:

A year and a half of very difficult administration has shown our President to be a plain, good man, honest in heart, pure in intention, but certainly not those rare geniuses, who are born to “ride in the whirlwind and direct the storm.” We have taken a plain country lawyer out of his village and placed him at the head of the Government, and imagined him to be a great man, and because he does not quite measure to the character, were ready to censure and complain. Might we not rather reprove ourselves for our unreasonable expectations?

Here we have a laudatory account of the “good,” “honest,” and “pure” president from a friendly source, but consider how great a leap it is for the mind in 2013 to transport into a context in which Lincoln would need to be defended against detractors not by stressing his monumental works but by emphasizing his mediocrity. We should not be so enamored for Lincoln that we forget that even his friends did not perceive him to be one of “those rare geniuses,” a status he would assume indelibly after his death.

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Some Standard Wisdom on Invisible Gas

This weeks thought from the Christian Standard was borrowed from the New York Evangelist and, like last week, illustrates just how little things have changed, if not in the way Christianity is actually treated by society than at least how Christian perceive their relationship to the broader culture.

Invisible Christianity seems to be a favorite doctrine with many people. The doctrine, it would appear, is this: that you may be saved and nobody know of it. You may get to heaven nicely without any “ado”—so quietly, in short, that nobody will suspect where you are going. Such is a fair statement of the doctrine so many people like. By all means get to heaven, they say, but don’t alarm anybody about it. Keep it all to yourself—the quieter you go to heaven the better. This is the doctrine of invisible Christianity.

I wonder what the world would think if some man told them he had invented invisible gas? Why, they would say the man’s mad—the very thing gas is for is to give light; it must be visible. And, strange to tell, this is just what God says of the Christians—that is, of the soul that’s saved. “Ye are the light of the world,” He says. What could be plainer? But is the light to be seen? Hear what God says, “A City that is set on a hill can not be hid” (Matt. V. 14). “Can not be hid.” That’s what God says about the man or woman that’s saved. Invisible Christianity is not in the Bible. Quite the opposite. If you are saved, your light will be easily seen by the world as a city built on a hill.

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Some Standard Wisdom on Asceticism

We pick back up our quotes series from the 1880 Christian Standard with some thoughts on asceticism, which appeared to have the same negative connotation in nineteenth century American Protestantism that it has today.

Too much is said in these days against “asceticism,” but the danger of the Church does not lie in that direction. […] in cloaks are more in vogue than “hair shirts.” Daily food is a lawful indulgence. But fasting is sometimes profitable to both body and soul. Many luxuries of domestic life are lawful in themselves; to give them up in order to have more money for benevolent uses, or in order to discourage social extravagances, is a dictate of pure Christianity. John Wesley had a right to own silver plate, yet he nobly refused to possess more than two or three silver spoons “while so many poor people were lacking bread.” An excellent man in my congregation sold his carriage just as soon as he found that his horses were eating up his charity fund too fast. My friend is no ascetic. He is a very sensible and sun-shiny Christian. If the same spirit which actuated him were more common in the church, there would be fewer luxurious equipages, fewer wine bottles, fewer card tables, fewer sumptuous evening parties; but there would be more missionaries in the West, and more Bibles in China and Japan. Self-denial soars above them.

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Feast of Franz

Today we take a break from our regularly scheduled wisdom from the Christian Standard in order to observe the feast day of Franz Jägerstätter.  Not on your calendar?  Perhaps it should be.  Jägerstätter was a German Catholic who refused to take up arms during World War II.  He offered himself for non-combatant service, but the Nazis cared even less for conscientious objection during the nationalistic global wars than Americans did.  Instead of allowing him to work as a military paramedic, the Nazis sentenced him to execution by guillotine. On the day of his death, he penned these words:

If I must write… with my hands in chains, I find that much better than if my will were in chains. Neither prison nor chains nor sentence of death can rob a man of the Faith and his free will. God gives so much strength that it is possible to bear any suffering.

His story would remain largely untold, until academics uncovered him and offered him to the world. In 2007, the Roman Catholic Church recognized him formally as a martyr and beatified him, making May 21st his feast day. Jägerstätter is a reminder both of the unconquerable power of the human will invigorated by the divine and of our certain ignorance of the countless stories of brave, pious fortitude that might inspire us if only we knew the half of them.

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