Category Archives: History

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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Denying the Holocaust: Albany Teacher Suspended for Teaching Nazism

The Nazis are stealing your children!

The Nazis are stealing your children!

Nazis are bad. I learned that lesson in high school like everyone else, though, let’s be honest, we all knew that Nazis were bad before we ever made it to high school. Nevertheless, that is the lesson I was taught. Nothing more; nothing less. At Albany High School in New York, one teacher tried to take this lesson a little further in three sophomore English classes:

As part of the 10th grade English persuasive writing assignment, the Albany High students were asked to pretend their teacher is a Nazi government official who must be convinced they believe Jews are the source of Germany’s problems: “You must argue that Jews are evil, and use solid rationale from government propaganda to convince me of your loyalty to the Third Reich!”

The teacher is on leave, facing possible termination, because school officials and government leaders were appalled. Said Superintendent Vanden Wyngaard, “You asked a child to support the notion that the Holocaust was justified, that’s my struggle. It’s an illogical leap for a student to make.” Said New York City Councilmen David Greenfield, “The teacher responsible for coming up with and assigning students with this task must be held accountable for attempting to indoctrinate children with anti-Semitic beliefs.” Said Director of the Jewish Federation Shelly Shapiro “It’s not how you teach about how prejudice has led to genocide.”

Well it certainly was not how I was taught that prejudice led to genocide. I learned, “Prejudice leads to genocide. It happened with the Nazis. So don’t be prejudiced like the Nazis.” And that was it. Something tells me that Shapiro is short-selling the pedagogical value of what is happening here. These students, in addition to learning a valuable lesson in English (because no creative writer has only had to write the perspective of laudable characters with whom everyone agrees), would take away from this assignment a powerful and deep understanding of not merely the tired truism that “prejudice has led to genocide” but an experience of precisely how it led to genocide. It teaches the student, in the most basic way, what it was to be a civilian in Nazi Germany, under a government that flooded the intellectual marketplace with antisemitic propaganda and expected you to learn a new cultural script to mirror it. The applications extend far beyond merely a better grasp of the history of 1930s Germany to a life lesson in the way propaganda continues to be employed and continues to shape the thinking of citizens around the world. Some clever honors student might even have concluded that the consumption of media in contemporary America might be shaping his or her thought in similar ways.

Renowned scholar of religion and American culture Stephen Prothero draws much the same conclusion:

I think it’s Greenfield who is lacking in common sense here. And it’s the superintendent who is being illogical.

I suppose it is possible that the teacher is a closet Nazi attempting to reconstruct the Third Reich in Albany. But isn’t it more likely that he or she is trying to teach students about the dangers of propaganda and the horrors of the Holocaust?

Consider the student who felt “horrible” about doing this assignment. Is that really a bad thing? How are high school students today supposed to feel about Nazism and the Holocaust?

Apparently, what they are supposed to feel (and think) is nothing, because the lesson high school teachers are going to take away from this fiasco is to avoid this topic at all costs, lest they risk losing their jobs.

Prothero points to a further dimension of “this fiasco,” the special place of the Holocaust in the American imagination. Historian John Fea has pointed out that if the principles espoused here to teaching the Holocaust were universally applied, teachers could no longer teach the thinking of Puritans who killed witches, settlers who killed Native Americans, southerners who kept slaves, nativist who oppressed Catholic immigrants, etc. What a moralistic history we are left with! And an incomplete history at that, a half history. Of course, no one would ever suggest hamstringing historians on those topics because they are not blessed by the kind of special pleading that surrounds the Holocaust. There is no villain like Hitler, no enormity like the Holocaust, and no racism like antisemitism. That, in the end, is the kind of lesson we were taught by the two-dimensional treatment of Nazism in school. No depth, no perspective, because the history of Nazism is alone a truly simple matter in history. It is a lesson against thinking for most students, and it is a tragedy that this teacher should suffer for bringing thought–in the form of an entertaining thought experiment the like of which I never enjoyed in high school or college–back into the subject of Nazism.

I hope the teacher is reinstated, because termination over something so ridiculous is unthinkable. I also hope the teacher is fired, because to take any punishment, even a slap on the wrist, and then return willingly to that environment of educational repression strikes me as a tacit admission that the teacher actually did something wrong. Of course, the teacher is probably sitting at home now worrying about paying bills, working long enough to retire some day, and coping with social ostracism. So what I really hope is that whatever the teacher wants happens. It’s a shame that it had to go this far.

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Japan through a Lens

The New York Review of Books blog has a fascinating article on the work of Hamaya Hiroshi, a famous Japanese photographer. The article is in honor of an exhibit at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles (if anyone is fortunate enough to be in the region) and includes some really exemplary samples of of his work (which I won’t share here, because I am not all that confident in my grasp of fair use). For the historian, however, the article holds an interest all its own as it explores the way art and artists can be instrumental in the construction of national identity and, consequently, complicit in some of the more atrocious features of a nation’s military and cultural imperialism. This is not an indictment of Hayama, of course, but an invitation into the world behind the photographs and their continuing aesthetic appeal. The parallels in other cultures are obvious. The article offers a contemporary examples of Nazis plundering Polish art looking for their own Teutonic heritage. Norman Rockwell springs to mind as an artist who constructed as much as reflected American national, cultural identity. But the example of Hayama suggests that art can work in more subtle ways:

Hamaya was born in a plebeian district of Tokyo, and his early photographs of the 1930s are of its typical denizens: geisha, beggars, prostitutes, and burlesque dancers. Typical urban scenes, in other words. His rejection of this world for the primitive life of peasants in the Snow Country is an interesting example of how important art can emerge from questionable motives….

This was the time when, encouraged by a famous Japanese businessman with ethnographic interests, Hamaya first set off for the Snow Country. The idea was to document the true “Japanese spirit.” Living among the northeastern peasants, recording their dignity in the face of hardship, was for him a “return to Japan.”

I will let you see where it goes from there, but the article and the exhibit both strike me as worthwhile for more than just the stunning photographs included. It is unfortunate that one is so much easier to access than the other.

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Robert E. Lee on History and Hope

Here is another intriguing quote from Robert E. Lee that I picked up in my readings (I believe, again, from Charles Reagan Wilson):

My experience of men has neither disposed me to think worse of them; nor indisposed me to serve them; nor in spite of failures, which I lament, or errors, which I now see and acknowledge, or of the present state of affairs, do I despair of the future. The march of Providence is so slow, and our desires so impatient, the work of progress so immense, and our means of aiding it so feeble, the life of humanity is so long, and that of the individual so brief, that we often see only the ebb of the advancing wave, and are thus discouraged. It is history that teaches us to hope.

I agree with Lee up until he invokes history. History has taught me everything except to hope in our feeble means of aiding progress. What discourages me is not the photograph of existence that I will experience before I wither like grass in a field, although it certainly would be enough. It is my understanding of history, of seeing how far we have advanced in the art we have made of sin, that makes me despair of progress. Though not of the future; on that Lee and I agree. But my confidence in the future is not based on history or progress but on the providence that Lee so emptily evokes. It is because I can mimic the words of another southern preacher quoted in Wilson: “His ends embrace the universe; His purposes are co-extensive with Time.” I do not give myself over to despair precisely because, unlike Lee, I abandon any belief that man is a causal agent in progress or in attaining the object of our collective hope. My hope is in the Lord.

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A Southern Nation of Speechifiers: Heyrman and Eastman in Conversation

University of Chicago Press

Christine Leigh Heyrman’s Southern Cross makes a wonderful companion piece to Caroline Eastman’s A Nation of Speechifiers. More precisely, Heyrman preemptively corrects a historical oversight in Eastman’s much more recent work. Both authors are concerned with identifying the relationships of nonelites to structures of power in the early national period. Both argue that the changes which took place after the turn of the century were not the rosy picture of democratization which has been the academic orthodoxy for politics, society, and religion for some time. Both excellently demonstrate their cases. Yet, while Heyrman treats her subject comprehensively within her limits, Eastman claims a broader scope than she is ultimately able to encompass.

In Nation of Speechifiers, Eastman argues that far from a great triumph of democratization that once dominated thinking on Jacksonian politics or even the perpetual repression of nonelites that has dominated some feminist and minority histories, the period immediately after the Revolution was one of profound cultural negotiation in which nonelites were able to seize access to public participation in limited but meaningful ways. She looks at politics, education, voluntary associations, trade organizations, publishing, and professional oratory to see the ways that women, children, and racial minorities had a public voice prior to 1810. After that, however, culture shifted as the nation solidified. A war won, a peaceful party transition, and a new vision of suffrage for white men all functioned to close the previously permeable borders of public participation and exclude nonelites.

Yet Eastman glaringly omits religion as an arena in which women, children, and racial minorities had a public voice, a curious oversight particularly in view of Eastman’s stress on oratory as a means of public power. The omission might have made a good avenue for further research had not Heyrman perfectly tackled the question more than a decade earlier. Heyrman takes the same period Eastman considers, treats the same nonelites that Eastman does, but focuses narrowly on religion in the South. The conclusions she draws are largely the same. A newly formed (at least in the South) evangelicalism is initially open to the public voice and at least informal authority of women, children, and racial minorities. After the turn of the century, however, Heyrman exhaustively and convincingly traces the restriction of power into the hands of older white males. She concludes, much as Eastman does, by attacking facile notions of democratization by asking the question democratization for whom.

Eastman’s omission of religion—and of the South and transmontane America almost in their entirety—clearly could have been corrected by reading Heyrman, and the failure to do so borders on inexcusable. Yet readers of Heyrman can benefit from consulting Eastman as well. Heyrman explains the changes in evangelicalism largely as evangelistic necessities. “To put the matter bluntly, evangelicals could not rest content with a religion that was the faith of women, children, and slaves” (193). Growth required appeasing and then appealing to white men, in whose hands all temporal power rested. Eastman suggests there is something more at work in the culture at large here. Eastman’s exclusion of the South from her study may throw this observation into doubt for the arena of Heryman’s work, but nevertheless the question must be raised whether or not evangelistic necessity adequately explains the need for a more male-oriented, “traditional” religious structure. Even if it does, do the broader cultural changes charted by Eastman explain what is driving this evangelistic need? In Heyrman, essentially, evangelicals hit a glass ceiling above which a movement of women could no longer ascend. The time of the early nineteenth century as the period of change is incidental; it is just when the need for change outweighed the inertia of convention. Eastman’s work suggests there is something more happening in the period.

Both books are supremely readable, and Heyrman in particular has a literary flourish rarely seen among historians. Though my interests and preferences tend toward Heyrman’s work, I confidently recommend either for general reading. Eastman’s more theoretical framework may scare off non-academics, but anyone who has even a hobbyists interest in the period will be more than amply rewarded by putting in the effort to understand her argument. Together, these two works give a picture of early national American democracy that will challenge the narrative taught in most colleges not to long ago and still, consequently, taught in most grade schools.

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This is the House that Chris Built

I did not enjoy reading 1493. I fully expected that I would, given my recent foray into environmental history, but it turns out that the very act of gaining knowledge in advance sapped the joy from the reading. Mann, it seemed, had little new to offer me that I hadn’t already seen argued with more force and clarity elsewhere. In fact, I found the reading so dreary, so basic and redundant, that I had entirely discarded my original intention to review it here. This past week, however, the book came up in a discussion of those who were either new to the field of environmental history or who were outside the field of history altogether. Their unabashed enthusiasm about the work led me to reconsider Mann’s purpose and thus to reevaluate the book’s value.

Charles Mann hardly needs my recommendation. His earlier book, 1491, was a bestseller. That work explored the Americas prior to the arrival of Columbus. This latest work, 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created, is sometimes, though inadequately, cast as a sequel. In fact, what Mann sets out to do is to update and make accessible the pioneering work of Alfred Crosby first expressed in books like The Colombian Exchange and Ecological Imperialism. The basic premise is that in inaugurating the modern age of truly global intercourse Columbus did not discover a new world so much as create one. The rapid, primarily unintentional, transport of organisms big and small, the change in the way the land was used, and massive demographic shifts made the world of today what it is, making 1493 the beginning of our present age.

This conceptualization of the world is, unsurprisingly, necessarily flawed. Global intercourse no more started with Columbus than electricity started with Thomas Edison. The first voyage of Columbus makes for a convenient watershed moment, and Columbus himself is an important if exaggerated figure. Nevertheless, a view of history in grand, sweeping moments of dramatic change pervades the book, even as it is at odds with the way professional historians generally conceive of historical change.

Beyond this, however, Mann does a phenomenal job both of engaging serious scholarship in environmental history and, in spite of not being under the strictures of academic ethics, citing precisely from whom he derives the ideas he synthesizes. Those familiar with the field will notice the strong hand not only of Alfred Crosby but William Cronon, John McNeil, and countless others. Of course, if those names are familiar to you, as they are to me, then you may find nothing to intrigue you in Mann. For the vast majority of the reading public, however, for whom the Colombian exchange is still little more than the uneven trade of smallpox for syphilis, Mann opens up a whole new world of just how dramatically the transition to large scale global commerce has altered the world. Extended sections on potatoes, rubber, and mosquitoes introduce the reader to the all-too-often unwritten changes that the Americas brought to the world. A host of lesser actors appear: earthworms, honey bees, pigs, malaria, sweet potatoes, and more. All, Mann successfully and correctly argues, typically had a much larger impact on the course of human history than did the human agents conventional history is preoccupied with.

So in the end, it is impossible to fault Mann’s work for what it is: a synthesis of historical scholarship intended for a general audience not familiar with the material. The reader who knows this can find in Mann an unusually useful tool, infinitely more accessible than the standard work by historians and even more dramatically superior in its scholarship when compared to the pop histories of journalists, not to mention talk show hosts. It is a long book, prohibitive for those unaccustomed to anything more intense than a blog post (not, of course, to disparage that medium), but Mann’s style will generally appeal to avid readers making the heft bearable. Time and inclination permitting, 1493 is an excellent place to get your foot in the door of the cutting edge of one of the youngest subdisciplines in historical research.

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History for History’s Sake

In his 1969 article, “Second Thoughts on History at the Universities,” British historian Sir Geoffrey Elton made the following recommendation:

Teachers of history must set their faces against the necessarily ignorant demands of ‘society’…for immediate applicability. They need to recall that the ‘usefulness’ of historical studies lies hardly at all in the knowledge they purvey and in the understanding of specific present problems from their prehistory; it lies much more in the fact that they produce standards of judgment and powers of reasoning which they alone develop which arise from the very essence, and which are unusually clear-headed, balanced and compassionate.

Elton’s view is likely to win at least public support from many academic historians, as much as it is equally likely to elicit public scorn from just about everyone else, particularly those outside of the humanities (and of those particularly scientists for whom usefulness is assumed, in the discipline if not always in the particular research project). Yet, in truth most historians today go to great lengths to contort themselves and their work to conform to expectations of social relevance. Every new paper, every new book is subjected to one degree or another to questions not just of how it advances human knowledge but how it might benefit human society. Most defenses are theoretical and superficial, but that they must be made at all reveals something.

It would be easy, not to mention self-serving, for me to now turn and defend a universal application of Elton’s advice that history be pursued without regard for usefulness. After all, I have spent most of my admittedly short academic career studying the most utterly useless facts jotted into the marginalia of history. The more esoteric, the more alluring. But critics of the humanities in general and history in particular are largely correct. Rightly gone are the days when the government could and would subsidize the pursuit of knowledge of the sake of knowledge, particularly knowledge which has no clear future applicability. History is, in this respect, the worst academic offender.

Yet Elton is correct when his own language is allowed to limit the scope of his observation. The above are from reflections on “history at universities” and directed at “teachers of history.” As history continues to be rightly scrutinized for its social value, it is important not to transfer criticisms of professional historians onto the discipline as a whole. Historical thinking–rather than the academic fruits of the professionalized application of historical thought–is in fact a necessary tool. It has been rightly observed that all humans are historical thinkers, existing as much in their reflection on their individual (and on our collective social) past as they do in the present. The “standards of judgment” and “powers of reasoning” that characterize self-conscious historical thought are crucial tools in the continued functioning of our species. If we allow our critique of ivory tower academics to come to bear on the general curriculum–in universities, but also in high school or middle school as well–then we jeopardize the intellectual future of our children.

It is not uncommon now–and this is true both of where I went to school and of the university I work for now–that undergraduates can be expected to take more than twice as much science as history, regardless of their intended field. The deeply incorrect assumption here is that people on average will need more biology in their lives than, for example, American history, more familiarity with chem-lab safety protocol than the causes and consequences of the communist revolution in China. The devaluing in the public mind of history, abetted as it has been by the increasing specialization in the discipline (e.g. a professor I know who studies only the history of agricultural technology in the plantation South), is poised to create a generation of historically and culturally illiterate actors, agents in the making of our ongoing history.

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Abortion is Murder, Rabbi

In an ill-advised recent article, Rabbi Boteach attempted to argue in the Huffington Post that the Catholic Church ought to abandon its stance on abortion because it is based on a mistranslation of the Hebrew in the Septuagint. There are countless reasons–logical and illogical–why the Catholic Church, not to mention other “Bible-believing” Christians, can ignore Boteach’s argument, not the least of which is that the very last Christian denomination that would take doctrinal advice about its tradition from a rabbi is the Roman Catholic Church. There are better reasons of course, including that the Catholic Church does not view the Septuagint with the same disdain that modern Jews do (the opinions of late-antique Jews notwithstanding). It is also worth noting that even if the tradition were based on a faulty reading of the text in question, the Catholic Church has traditionally been loathe to interpret Scripture without tradition as a hermeneutical lens. Wrong or not, the tradition gives the normative starting point for reading the sacred text.

The best reason, however, for ignoring Boteach is that the Christian pro-life tradition does not spring exclusively (or even primarily) from the verse in question. Boteach rightly identifies a passage in Exodus as the prooftext to which many contemporary Christians turn to ground their opposition to abortion in Scripture:

The Hebrew Bible makes only one reference to abortion, and this is by implication. Exodus 21:22-23 states: “And if two men strive together and hurt a woman with child, so that her fruit depart, and yet no harm follow, he shall be surely fined, accordingly as the woman’s husband shall lay upon him, and he shall pay as the judges determine. But if any harm follows, though shalt give life for life.”

He even goes through the trouble of tracing the Catholic tradition of interpretation for this verse back through Byzantine law to the writings of the second century Latin father Tertullian–a noble effort for a HuffPo article. Not being in a position–nor thinking it particularly relevant–to challenge this historical account, I grant it to him, arguendo. I will even grant him his exegetical work on the meaning of the original text. In both cases the points are moot. 

What truly matters is that Boteach fails to consider a Christian tradition against abortion that antedates even Tertullian and is based on another text in the Hebrew Bible which references abortion by implication: “Thou shalt not kill.” Outrage is sure to follow at the suggestion that the commandment can be simply construed to prohibit abortion, but the argument being made here is not an exegetical one. It is historical. I need not demonstrate that the prohibition on murder extends to the unborn, only that the text was not corrupted in its translation to the Septuagint and that an early Christian tradition construed the verse to prohibit abortion.

If anyone seriously doubts the first point, I will be glad to argue it, but for my purposes here, the latter point is the more novel and more contentious. Yet, had Boteach bothered to dig only a little deeper he would have found an earlier contemporary of Tertullian, Athenagoras, writing passionately against all murder, including abortion. The following is from his A Plea for Christians, specifically from a section when he is answering charges that Christians kill and eat babies as part of their “love feasts:”

For when they know that we cannot endure even to see a man put to death, though justly; who of them can accuse us of murder or cannibalism? Who does not reckon among the things of greatest interest the contests of gladiators and wild beasts, especially those which are given by you? But we, deeming that to see a man put to death is much the same as killing him, have abjured such spectacles. How, then, when we do not even look on, lest we should contract guilt and pollution, can we put people to death? And when we say that those women who use drugs to bring on abortion commit murder, and will have to give an account to God for the abortion, on what principle should we commit murder? For it does not belong to the same person to regard the very foetus in the womb as a created being, and therefore an object of God’s care, and when it has passed into life, to kill it; and not to expose an infant, because those who expose them are chargeable with child-murder, and on the other hand, when it has been reared to destroy it.

The passage is interesting for its implications both for the Christian position on capital punishment and our modern delight in virtualizing our love of torture. For the moment, however, consider that abortion falls into a single category, “murder,” considered here by Athenagoras: execution, abortion, infanticide. They are all equally beneath the broad heading of murder which, naturally, Christians abstain from. All these are not only opposed by Christians on the grounds that all are murder, but Athenagoras thought them so central to Christian belief and practice that anyone who knew a Christian would know that he abhorred execution and opposed abortion and that on those grounds could be freed from any suspicion of infanticide. There is no complex exegetical wrangling, no attempt to define the way Hebrew law applies to Christian ethics. Just the simple maxim Christians do not murder and the obvious (at least in the second century) implication that this includes abortion.

The precedent goes back even farther than even Athenagoras. The late first century Didache includes a clear statement on abortion and it links it again, not with the passage Boteach cited, but with the general prohibition on murder:

Thou shalt do no murder, thou shalt not commit adultery, thou shalt not corrupt boys, thou shalt not commit fornication, thou shalt not steal, thou shalt not deal in magic, thou shalt do no sorcery, thou shalt not murder a child by abortion nor kill them when born, thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s goods, thou shalt not perjure thyself, thou shalt not bear false witness, thou shalt not speak evil, thou shalt not cherish a grudge, thou shalt not be double-minded nor double-tongued

Here the connection with the Ten Commandments is even clearer, as the various applications of the commands are interspersed haphazardly with quotes from the Decalogue. Not only does the general command not to murder apply, but it applies specifically to murder of “a child by abortion” and, as with Athenagoras, infanticide.

The two passages offered provide wonderful avenues for further contemplation. The language of creation and the perception of the fetus as a child as early as the first century would seem to lend legitimacy to much of the rhetoric used by the pro-life camp. More important, however, at least for my purpose here is the fact that the anti-abortion stance of Christianity, the tradition that Boteach ties specifically to the Catholic Church, is neither bound to the passage Boteach considers nor is it as late in its articulation as he imagines. The belief that God has tasked his people with the preservation of life–in all the richest, theologically-informed meanings of the word–is not something the exegetical acrobatics and critiques of tradition can remove, especially not ones that fail by their own critical criteria.

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An Honest Assessment of Evil

Some years ago, I raised questions about the place of the Holocaust, and Auschwitz in particular, in debate regarding the problem of evil. It was my contention then–one which I continue to stand by–that the Holocaust did not represent any special evil, any new sort of paradigm shattering expression of the depravity of human behavior. In fact, the truly shocking nature of the Holocaust was precisely in that it was consistent with the overarching history of humanity’s gross inhumanity.

In reading Vernard Eller’s Christian Anarchy in conjunction with the Anarchy in May series, I came across similar arguments he was making with regard to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Though I thought it best to delay sharing them so as not to overwhelm readers, the arguments bare reiterating and Eller argues them well:

With zealotism, things get worse rather than better. It turns out that the black heart of the black West is the United States of America. “More than any other event in history the worldwide human experience of those August days in 1945 (Hiroshima and Nagasaki) was a recapitulation of the primeval Fall.”

…Why would it not be nearer to speaking the truth in love to say some things such as these: “In World War II, every combatant that possessed atomic capability used it. That some did not possess it is of no moral credit to them. T he evidence is that all would have liked to have it and would have used it if they had had it—as would the Romans (or the Zealots) if it could have been theirs in the first century. So where is this quantum jump in moral evil?

“Whereas Hiroshima was destroyed with a single bomb, other cities in other nations and other wars have suffered similar devastation from conventional (if not primitive) weapons—it just took a bit longer to do it. So where is the quantum jump in moral evil?

“Although we are not obligated to agree, we are obligated seriously to consider and thoughtfully to respond to President Truman’s rationale for using the bomb. His explanation cannot simply be waved aside as disingenuous.”

…”That the Hiroshima bomb was not ‘history’s most evil event’ as the zealots make it out to be is shown clearly by its context. The bomb was not used as a first strike but as one blow in a raging war in which every combatant already was throwing everything he had. And the U.S. had not started but had entered only under the provocation of what was indeed a dastardly first strike. The U.S. purpose in using the bomb clearly was to achieve a surrender and a cessation of hostilities, and was in no way a genocide of the Japanese people…”

Now I am opposed to war—all war, including the U.S. involvement in World War II. But in my anti-war manual of the Bible I find not one little bit of this business of playing fast and loose with the facts in order to single out one nation’s “war demon” as the special recipient of true Christianity’s righteous rage. If find it suggesting, rather, that from Cain on, all war has been very much the same, a manifestation of the same spirit of sin no matter who’s doing it how—even if it should be the “peace people’s” war against the U.S. Government.

The same, of course, should be said for the Holocaust, and Eller’s argument should give Christian’s pause as they attempt to single out Nazi Germany’s “war demon” as somehow more atrocious than their own. After all, the same war which saw the internment of Jews in Germany saw the internment of the Japanese in America. The same war that saw Hitler exterminate six million Jews over the course of twelve years saw the Americans exterminate seventy thousand Japanese civilians in a single day. You do the math: which nation was the more efficient executioner of non-combatants?

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Who Owns Jerusalem, Historically?

I believe very strongly that the artificial drawing of new national lines by benignly disinterested world powers is idiotic. A popular form of postbellum recreation for Western countries during the colonial period on through the early twentieth century, the foolhardy attempt to make new countries has led to countless wars in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. Of all the manifest stupidity that has been splattered across the pages of history, there has been no more boneheaded move on the part of the wise world rulers than the creation of an independent Israel in 1948. Recognizing this is, of course, not the same as suggesting that the state of Israel, now in existence, should be as blithely destroyed or that the Palestinian people have a right to any or all of the land that was given to the Jews after World War II. It is, primarily, a historical observation, a looking back into time and performing the academic equivalent of a facepalm in view of our forefathers shortsightedness and naivete.

Unfortunately, however, the ability of so many to distinguish between historical and political realities has apparently been stunted by decades of war and rhetoric that grasps hopelessly at historical straws to justify political actions. Consider this passing, and thoroughly unnecessary, aside in Seyyed Hossein Nasr’s brief introduction to (and apology for) Islamic civilization, Islam:

But [Arabs] remain of central importance in the ummah because of their historical role in the Islamic world…and the significance for all Muslims of the sacred sites of Islam that lie within the Arab world, especially Saudi Arabia, and old Jerusalem, which was historically in Palestine but has been occupied by Israel since 1967.

Subtle, Nasr. Not to mention irrelevant to your point, which was, ostensibly, to explain the ongoing significance of the Middle East and Arabs to the global Muslim community. Most unfortunate of all, however, when evaluating a work of supposed history, is the ease with which Nasr states as a matter of incontestable fact that “historically” Jerusalem has been in Palestine. Perhaps in the primary sense of the term Palestine prior to 1988 as a geographical determination, Jerusalem has always been in Palestine and, of course, still is. As for who has controlled Jerusalem, I would hope that Nasr–as with every thoughtful intelligent person with access to Wikipedia–would realize that if anyone can ever be said to have owned it, then just about everyone can be said to have owned it. So, in the interest of injecting some much needed history in to the question of who “historically” Jerusalem belonged to, let’s construct a timeline beginning with David, the first Israelite who “occupied” the city:

  • ca. 1000 BC – David seizes Jerusalem
  • 586 BC – After more than four centuries of Israelite occupation, Jerusalem falls into the hands of the Babylonians
  • 539 BC – Cyrus the Great and his Medo-Persians take control of all Babylonian holdings, soon after allowing the exiled Israelites to repatriate and be ruled, alternatively, by Israelite governors and Israelite theocrats
  • 332 BC – Alexander conquers and the region is held by his Ptolemaic successors
  • 198 BC – The rival Hellenistic Seleucids take control of the region
  • 167 BC – The Israelites resume autonomous control after the Maccabean Revolt
  • 63 BC – Pompey captures Jerusalem for Rome
  • AD 614-629 – Jerusalem is briefly in the hands of the Sassanid Persians before returning to the Romans (now known to history as Byzantines)
  • AD 637 – Jerusalem is captured by the Rashidun Caliphate, representing the first time in more than one thousand years that Jerusalem was under the control of non-Jewish Semites (e.g. Arabs)
  • AD 1099 – The First Crusade results in the establishment of the Kingdom of Jerusalem
  • AD 1187 – Saladin takes Jerusalem back for the Ayyubids
  • AD 1229 – Frederick II treats to return control of most of Jerusalem to the Kingdom of Jerusalem
  • AD 1244 – Mercenary Turkic Khwarezmians take Jerusalem and raze it to near total destruction
  •  AD 1247 – The Ayyubids resume control of Jerusalem
  • AD 1250 – The Mamluks overthrow the Ayyubids, thus inheriting Jerusalem
  • AD 1517 – The Ottomon Turks take control
  • AD 1917 – The British win control of Jerusalem as part of World War I and are entrusted with its care
  • AD 1948 – The State of Israel declares independence and begins the process of occupying of Jerusalem

Was that easy enough to follow? If not, realize that the above is the condensed and sanitized version. It omits the centuries of infighting between various Arab states, a number of momentarily successful Jewish revolts, the constant battling between Persian and Egyptian Muslim groups, and so on. The result ought to be a humble refusal to say that anyone has a legitimate historical claim to Jerusalem. The Jews are in the wonderful position, historically, of being the first and last group to hold it (unless there are some Jebusites who protest), but that reality is historically incidental. If people really want to give Jerusalem back to its previous owner, then pass it back to the British. After all, they won it fair and square the way territorial lines used to be drawn. Of course, the problem there is that the British don’t want it. We could go back another generation and give it to the Turks, ethnically and geographically distinct from the Palestinians with their “historical” claim to the territory, who ruled it before the British in the form of Ottomans and Mamluks. Of course, Turkey has enough problems of it’s own without adopting Levantine ones. One of those problems happens to be a restless Kurdish population. Turkey might consider signing over their rights to Jerusalem to the Kurds who ruled it before the Turks did in the form of the Ayyubid Caliphate.

In truth, a historical evaluation of who has ruled Jerusalem throughout its history shows both Jews and Arabs (which most modern, self-identifying Palestinians are) are both in the ethnic minorities. Turks, Persians, Greeks, and Romans occupied it with at least equal frequency. In fact, in the above timeline, Jews and Arabs each have only about four centuries each in the form of the Davidic and Rashidun dynasties respectively. If either party wants to make a historical argument on the grounds of frequency of occupation or proximity to the present, they will find other groups with stronger cases based on the offered criteria.

What’s truly important to remember, however, is that deciding national lines on the basis of historical arguments is a modern novelty, not to mention a modern fantasy. It’s lucky for Americans that people who owned our land one thousand years ago (which was the last time an Arab empire ruled over Jerusalem) can’t just demand to have it back. For millennia, borders have been determined in the same bloody way. It’s awful, it’s immoral, but it’s effective. Moreover, it is precisely what we are seeing played out in the modern Israeli-Palestinian conflict. UN resolutions and negotiated borders cave under the tantalizing prospect of land won a the expense of life. What will ultimately decided the conflict–if we can pretend, after seeing the above timeline, that the conflict will ever be ultimately resolved this side of the eschaton–will be who ends up with the biggest guns in the best positions when everyone gets bored of fighting. War and politics are a nasty business (perhaps the same nasty business variously named). Let’s try not to sully the noble discipline of history by impressing it into the service of armed conflict.

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