Rejoicing on Pasca

Hallelujah! Christ is risen!

I love Easter. I love it more when the Christian community, East and West, by delightful coincidence happens to be celebrating it on the same day, but on years like this, when they don’t, I do my best to look at the silver lining: I get twice as many resurrected Christs. My intent had been to share another passage from John of Sinai today, but he has nothing very pleasant to say about Easter.

The gluttonous monk…counts the days to Easter, and for days in advance he gets the food ready. The slave of his belly ponders the menu with which to celebrate the feast. The servant of God, however, thinks of the graces that may enrich him.

Joy and consolation descend on the perfect when they reach the state of complete detachment. The warrior monk enjoys the heat of battle, but the slave of passion revels in the celebrations of Easter. In his heart, the glutton dreams only of food and provisions whereas all who have the gift of mourning think only of judgment and of punishment.

Well, I’m not a warrior monk, and I left my mourning on Great and Holy Saturday where it belongs. I suppose there is a reason why John of Sinai is standard Lenten reading for the Orthodox and not standard Easter reading. Though I admit the possibility that this is duplicitous of me, and I’m sure John of Sinai would accuse me of just that, but I’d like to think that I can think both of the physical feast and of the spiritual feast afforded by the resurrection. In fact, I rather like to believe that the two are related. With sacramental flavor, the feasts of holy days are intended to make tangible to our bodies and minds–more accustomed and attuned to the immediacy of physical stimuli than spiritual ones–the great joy which we have received from God. Today being the remembrance of that consummate joy of Christian existence, I intend to make that as holistic an experience as possible, letting my body partake of the joy of my heart, and vice versa. I can only hope that God consecrates that effort rather, and I don’t run headlong into gluttony and dissipation.

On that note, happy Easter everyone (even those of you who thought Easter was more than a month ago).

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Mourning on Great and Holy Saturday

Today Jesus is in the tomb and the Orthodox Christians around the world are mourning the savior. But this mourning cannot help but anticipate it relief, as the Paschal feast is within sight and the Lord is eager to spring from the tomb, resurrected, triumphant, and regnant forever. It is because of this that John of Sinai can speak of sorrow the way that he does.

Groans and sadness cry out to the Lord, trembling tears intercede for us, and the tears shed out of all-holy love show that our prayer has been accepted…Hold fast to the blessed and joyful sorrow…and do not cease laboring for it until it lefts you high above the things of the world to present you, a cleansed offering, to Christ.

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Contemplating Death on Great and Holy Friday

Today Christians in the Orthodox world are recalling the crucifixion of Christ, perhaps the most famous death in human history and, if our testimony is to be believed, the most important one as well. Christ death is itself a victory over death, which has a rightful claim on all humanity except the undefiled Christ. With his death, Jesus has sapped death of all its finality, taken from death its sting. It is a truth which warrants endless rejoicing, but just as the victory over death was not complete until the resurrection and our freedom over death not complete until the eschatological future, so today is not a day for the ruminating on victory but for contemplating death. John of Sinai believes that the remembrance of death is a necessary product of our sins, but he also insists that it is a spiritual virtue if rightly practiced.

As thought comes before speech, so the remembrance of death and sin comes before weeping and mourning…To be reminded of death each day is to die each day; to remember one’s departure from life is to provoke tears by the hour…Just as bread is the most necessary of all foods, so the thought of death is the most essential of all works. The remembrance of death brings labors and meditations, or rather, the sweetness of dishonor to those living in community…Just as some declare that the abyss is infinite, for they call it the bottomless pit, so the thought of death is limitless and brings with it chastity and activity.

Someone has said that you cannot pass a day devoutly unless you think of it as your last.

Remembering that humanity must still die keeps our sins in the forefront of our mind standing in judgment of our behavior now so that they will not stand so before the Lord in the last days. Considering our own deaths also reminds us of the inadequacy of them when compared to the atoning death of Christ, for “the day is not long enough to allow you to repay in full its debts to the Lord.”

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Learning Humility on Great and Holy Thursday

After a couple excellent years of sharing the date of Easter (Pascha) and one year of reasonably close proximity, the holiest day in Christianity is once again being celebrated at completely different times by Catholics and Protestants, on the one hand, and the Orthodox, on the other. While for most Americans, Maundy Thursday is just a distant March memory (if it’s remember at all), but today is Great and Holy Thursday in the Orthodox Church, the day when, like their Western counterparts, the Orthodox remember the washing of the disciples feet and the last supper on the night when Jesus was betrayed. Both these events–the radical servanthood of Jesus and the betrayal of the Christ for material gain–ought to inspire in us an enduring sense of humility. Humility, unfortunately, has a bitter taste to Christians, being one of those virtues which we know we ought to have but we never really aspire for because its no fun and (unsurprisingly) garners us little praise. John of Sinai, standard reading for the Orthodox during the Lenten season, views humility differently.

As soon as the cluster of holy humility begins to flower within us, we come, after hard work, to hate all earthly praise and glory. WE rid ourselves of rage and fury; and the more this queen of virtues spreads within our souls through spiritual growth, the more we begin to regard all our good deeds as of no consequence, in fact as loathsome…We have risked so far a few words of a philosophical kind regarding the blossoming and the growth of this everblooming fruit. But those of you who are close to the Lord Himself must find out from Him what the perfect reward is of this holy virtue, since there is no way of measuring the sheer abundance of such blessed wealth, nor words nor could word convey its quality.

Humility, after all, is only the rejection of false blessings in favor of real blessings, divine blessing of eternal import. To eschew earthly praise is only to suggest that we prefer the praise of God our Father to that of the devil our enemy. It is this humility which Jesus embraced in kneeling before his disciples, and this humility which Judas rejected in turning Jesus over to be crucified.

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Some Standard Wisdom for the Proactive Church Lady

Having highlighted the seedier side of Stone-Campbell views on the prospects and methods for evangelizing the newly freed slaves, let us turn now to a more egalitarian note. This comes from the Querists’ Drawer where Errett and his editorial staff answered questions on belief and practice sent in by readers. Here Errett comes to the defense of some women fed up with their unmotivated fellow congregants.

“We met today for social worship and the elder no being present, the deacon and the brethren would not lead in worship; the sisters went ahead and had singing, prayer and Bible reading. Did we do right? Would it have been right for a sister to have led in the breaking bread?”

In our judgment, you did just right. And if you had added the Lord ’s supper to observances, we should still say you did right. If a company of sisters in a neighborhood in which no brethren lived were to assemble for reading and prayer, what would there be to hinder their observance of the Lord’s supper? And if brethren are present and refuse to lead in the worship, no one can charge that the women usurp authority over them, if they go forward in the performance of duties from which the men shrink. Certainly, such men should never complain because the women outstrip them in zeal and faithfulness.

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It’s an Arbor Day Miracle: A History of the Tennessee Badlands

Image by UNC Press

Duncan Maysilles’s Ducktown Smoke: The Fight over One of the South’s Greatest Environmental Disasters is not actually a history of the Tennessee Badlands so much as it is a history of the legal battles being fought over the smelter smoke that created the badlands. Consequently, for those unaccustomed to environmental or legal history, the narrative can be quite dry. The discussion of legal principles and courtroom delay tactics, interspersed with obscure Latin, is spiced up only with the occasional turn to the chemical reaction of sulfur smoke with water in the air and the resultant effects on top soil. All in all, they are about the two dullest historical imaginable. Yet Maysilles crafts such an interesting narrative about such an unjustly obscure subject, that the curious reader can bear with the limits of his genre long enough to see the story to its end. The result is a fascinating little book that should be of interest to legal historians, environmental historians, and those who, like me, found themselves living right in the backyard of one of the most curious environmental anomalies in America.

The Ducktown Basin, Maysilles explains, was a geography that cried out for disaster. The rich copper deposits right on the surface were too tempting for miners to ignore. Transportation deficiencies made the raw materials too expensive to transport off site to smelt. The sulfur content of the rocks was unusually high, creating unusually toxic smelting smoke. The geography of the basin was such that the smoke, once in the air, could not escape and dissipate into the atmosphere. The moist climate of the temperate rainforest meant that the chemicals were constantly being delivered back into the the soil in the form of toxic rain. The resulting concentration of chemicals in the air and water stripped the soil, killed the trees, and launched a legal battle between the state of Georgia and the mining companies that made it all the way to the Supreme Court on multiple occasions.

Intrigued as I was by this untold story and fortunate enough to be going to east Tennessee for a visit, I took the opportunity to drive down to Ducktown and see what remained of the infamous badlands created through ignorance, negligence, and geographical misfortune. The answer: very little. At the Ducktown museum, which commemorates both the mine and the unusual topography it created, the woman behind the desk took me with pride to a satellite photo of the region from some decades ago. She recalled with pride, “The only two man made things you could see from space were the Great Wall of China and the Tennessee Badlands.” The nostalgia poured out of her as she remembered a time when, stripped of all flora and fauna, she need not worry about snakes or mosquitoes like her neighbors outside the basin in the lush Tennessee mountain forests. “It’s too bad,” she told me, “because we just look like everyone else now.” Maysilles tells a different story, one of workers who had to have separate car for work and everything else because just by driving into the basin the air would begin to peel away the paint. He shares, perhaps for the first time for modern eyes, the stories of small subsistence farmers who had their land stripped of its fertility and, when they protested, found themselves fired from the mines where they worked to supplement their income. He tells of a single woman who spent years in court seeking damages from the mining companies and won, only to have her settlement reduced to one dollar on appeal. Memory is truly a curious phenomenon, and it is difficult to sort out whose story should take precedence: Maysilles, the outside critic, or the woman at the museum who grew up in Ducktown and whose husband was a mine worker.

In any case, the story does not linger in the confusing days of the Tennessee Badlands. Cooperative ventures by the government and the various industries who have controlled the mining companies over the years have struggled to make the basin green again. These herculean efforts to reforest have been largely rewarded, though not immediately and not without struggle and expense. Driving over the crest and into the basin, we noticed no difference between the forests without and the forests within. The Ducktown Basin is teeming with life again, even snakes and mosquitoes. As the reforestation began to take hold, many in the basin, I suspect the woman at the museum among them, lobbied to have a piece of the badlands preserved as a memorial. It was actually this memorial that I had traveled out to see, a relic of the way the basin had looked when it was an environmental catastrophe and a tourist attraction. Here then, is the arbor day miracle. The reclamation efforts have been so successful, life so insistent on reclaiming the dead basin, that it is a struggle to keep the last little bit of badlands in its pristine, unnatural state. Here it is, as it appeared at the time of my visit, trying to fight off the invasion of trees, but failing so completely that the little saplings are springing up even in the steep slope that terminates in a flooded mineshaft:

Ducktown Badlands

Maysilles has given the curious and patient reader a wonderful glimpse into a largely ignored subject. His interest is primarily in the way the legal battle continues to be cited in major environmental cases today. Mine was in the hidden treasure that had been in my backyard all the years I lived in Tennessee but that I had never known about until I left. A law student told me recently that she loved the way Maysilles had made obscure legal principles comprehensible, in ways that even her text books couldn’t. Whatever it may be, if something about Ducktown has peaked your curiosity, I highly encourage picking up this book. I also wholeheartedly recommend that anyone in the region make a journey down to Ducktown to explore. The drive is beautiful (no matter what direction you come from), the community is quaint, and the history is engaging.

And if you should stop in and see the precious little old woman at the museum desk, tell her you read about her online and that there are still people fascinated by her community, even if they “just look like everyone else now.”

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Some Standard Wisdom for Converting Blacks

Less than a month into this series, I already feel the need to sound the reminder that in quoting some of these articles, my intent is not to endorse or make light of or even to stand in judgment of some of the darker sides of late nineteenth century thought. This warrants particular restatement with the following article by J. W. Crenshaw. It would be easy to read the below and assume either that my intent is racist or callous or anarchonistically judgmental. It is none of these. Instead, the following article sounds, among other things, a pair of themes that I have tried to reiterate here in various ways. The first is the need to complicate the narrative of the Civil War that we all learned in school: the North invaded the South to free the slaves and give blacks their rights. Historians have almost entirely abandoned this carefully constructed fiction, but the public still casts the Civil War in these terms, failing to see the stark racism and paternalism that dominated in the North no less than the South. The other is the sinister overtones that education often takes on in the hands of progressives. It’s a message that has ongoing merit.

Even if neither of these themes were present, however, the following is important to read both for those in the Stone-Campbell Movement because it is part of our collective history the consequences of which we continue to live with in the de facto racial segregation of our churches and for Americans in general who need to be forced to read chapters of our history which serve neither to glorify US nationalism or to provide the starting point in a narrative of national redemption. What follows in “Difficulties in Christianizing the Colored Race” is precisely the shades of grey that we all need to grapple with in the formation of our historical consciousness.

As to what the future of the colored race of America is to be, socially, politically or religiously, we do not believe any one can conjecture with any degree of accuracy. Naturally superstitious and with their race prejudices to contend with, we approach them more from a sense of Christian duty than from any hope of achieving grand results. To succeed in our mission work among them we must agree upon some decided policy. If properly approached, we do not believe that there is a better missionary field in the world.

Experience has proven that we can not reach them through the preaching of white men. The colored leaders now, excepting a few, are ignorant and superstitious. In what direction, then, does hope lie? Certainly not in this shouting generation. The hope and the only hope, speaking from experience, is in the children. And when we educate a few colored men, as we have been doing for this work, we must not measure their success by converts made. The children, who are just learning to read, are the ones most benefited. Those whom we send out must be impressed with the importance of continuing to sound into the ears of the auditors that Christianity is something more than shouting the clothes off in the first part of the night, and serving Satan the balance of the night. We need to select young men of good character to educate them for this work. There are brethren among us who have the means to help build such a school as we need for this purpose. With the plain gospel plea that we have, if loving liberal hearts, could be interested in this work, in the next generation many of the difficulties that now so hinder our progress could be surmounted, and thousands of this unfortunate race could be Christianized.

Brethren, this is a question worthy of the attention of every Christian.

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The Wisdom of J. Gresham Machen

J. Gresham Machen is one of my intellectual heroes and the man at whose metaphorical feet I (like so many others) first learned Greek. Here he is on the anti-intellectualism of his fellow conservatives:

The Church is perishing to-day through the lack of thinking not through an excess of it.

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In Other News

Thanks to the DPLA, images like this are accessible to all!

The DPLA has launched, yesterday while I was too busy presenting at a conference to join in the festive announcements across the history blogosphere. The DPLA (Digital Public Library of America) is an ambitious project which casts itself as the first step toward a global, free access library that will include the fullest possible amount of material (i.e. everything not covered by copyright). It is a social leveling project as much as an intellectual endeavor, allowing students at community colleges, in poorer regions of this country and eventually the world, and all the academically disadvantaged to have access to archives at places like Harvard. Relying on a variety of charitable institutions, the DPLA in its present form is a centralizing service that allows scholars–or curious web browsers–to search across a wide range of participating institutions in a single place and be linked directly to the material in those archives. It promises be, whether or not it fulfills its utopian vision of an equal academic play field, a tremendous resource for research (even as it is also likely to thwart the efforts of young scholars trying to think up excuses to get research funding to visit Boston). A link to the DPLA can now be found enshrined on my Resources page.

In less exciting news, the church institutional continues to disgrace itself on a variety of fronts. The Episcopal Church has won a “victory” in its civil case against itself before the Virginia Supreme Court.

The panel affirmed a lower court’s decision that the 3,000-member congregation, which voted in 2006 to leave the Episcopal Church, did not have the right to keep the sprawling property known as the Falls Church.

The Falls Church property is one of the country’s largest Episcopal churches and is a central landmark in downtown Falls Church.

The breakaway congregation, now called the Falls Church Anglican, has been worshiping in the Bishop O’Connell High School auditorium in Arlington County while it sought to overturn the Fairfax County Circuit Court decision from last year.

On Thursday, the Supreme Court affirmed that the property was rightly given to the mainline denomination but said some of the nearly $3 million in church coffers belongs to the Falls Church Anglican congregation.

I put “victory” in scare quotes because it hardly seems appropriate to call either side victorious when both have so miserably failed the basic standard of Christian charity and forbearance, applied particularly to this situation by Paul in 1 Corinthians 6. “Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded?” Probably because Paul’s churches never had anything like three million dollars in its “church coffers.” If it did, maybe Paul wouldn’t have been so quick on the draw with that “to have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat to you” nonsense.

The Orthodox Church global is having its own struggles. At the end of a long saga that has witnessed significantly more diligence than Catholic handling of sexual misconduct, Bishop Matthias has resigned. The head of the Chicago diocese of the Orthodox Church in America could no longer bear the odium of his sexual misconduct scandal and finally yielded to pressure from above to step down. In a deferential address–a momentary lapse from his conspiratorial theories about a liberal plot to manufacture his ouster–he expressed hope that “my stepping down will end the ordeal, allowing the diocese to move toward healing,” and asked “for everyone’s forgiveness for my failings, my mistakes and sins.” He then graciously offered to forgive everyone else, for what is not entirely clear. Maybe he forgives the woman who misunderstood his “inappropriate words that I thought were being received as humorous.” That certainly is the way this sincere apology feels: “I am sorry that my kindness and generosity to this person was viewed with suspicion and ulterior motives.” Growing up, when I made apologies like that I got slapped. I suppose being stripped of your diocese is the ecclesiastical equivalent.

In Prague, a much bigger fish has been fried by a much sexier scandal. Metropolitan Krystof, the head of the Orthodox Church in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, has stepped down after scandal broke about his lascivious life. The prelate is alleged to have had an affair with the wife of one of his priest’s and of fathering numerous illegitimate children. With all the talk of progress in Europe, it seems they are still very much medieval over there.

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Some Standard Wisdom for Purifying Politics

Some of the most interesting and surprising stories in the Christian Standard are in the “Current Topics” section, a kind of miscellany that includes comments on current news, politically charged barbs, and sarcastic quips. Here is a tidbit about one of what have probably been hundreds of failed political reform movements (should we read in this a prediction of how history will treat the Occupy movement?). Whatever its ultimate fate, the editorial staff at the Standard had high hopes for what seems to be a fairly simple proposition:

We hail with joy the Independent Scratchers, whose mission is a purification of politics. It is urged that while the worst elements of a party may secure the nomination of unfit men, nothing but the apathy of the best elements will secure their election. T he independent scratchers propose to defeat those men—and only those—on a ticket who are known to be corrupt. This will force the nomination of honest men, and be an effectual “brake” on machine politics. It has already done effective service, and is destined to play an increasing part in our public affairs.

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