Because I posted some opinions last week on the subject of 9/11, and many readers of this blog may have no idea what terms like Building 7 refer to, and may in fact think that the opinions expressed in that post are somewhat bizarre and kooky (aside from being expressed in extremely bad verse), I am posting a couple of segments from a radio program that I heard this morning on WBAI, the show Guns and Butter, hosted by Bonnie Faulkner of KPFA 94.1 FM, Berkeley, California. (The show is, incidentally, an excellent one, and one of the advantages of living near New York City is that one is able to hear such things on the radio.) She was interviewing a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel named Dr. Robert M. Bowman, a man who, during the 1970’s, was in charge of the development of space-based weapons systems for the U.S. military, the program which later, under President Reagan, came to be called “Star Wars.” His comments echo the concerns I expressed in last week’s post; and, as they come from a man much more authoritative and knowledgeable in military matters than I will ever be, I thought I would transcribe them and publish them here.

B. Faulkner: I’m speaking with former director of Advanced Space Programs Development, Dr. Robert Bowman. Today’s show: “Vietnam, Space Wars, and 9/11.” I’m Bonnie Faulkner. This is Guns and Butter….

B. Faulkner: Well see, this is very important, and this is what we’re dealing with today, the consolidation of media and the control, particularly here in the United States….

R. Bowman: Of course, and it’s much, much worse today: when you have major events go on, and the government concocts a lie, it’s a lot easier to sell that lie today than it used to be. Think back to 1963 and the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Yeah, the Warren Commission was much like the 9/11 Commission, in concocting a cock-and-bull story to cover up the truth, but in 1963 there were still independent newspapers, and independent media; and so almost all Americans heard about the “grassy knoll.” But, fast-forward to today, and, when 9/11 happened, almost all the major media were absolutely dominated by a handful of multinational corporations, owned lock, stock and barrel by these corporations who profited greatly from the wars, and had interlocking boards of directors with weapons manufacturers and oil companies and all the rest. So, the result of that was that almost nobody, except for a handful of us in the 9/11 Truth movement, has ever heard of Building 7. And Building 7 is the smoking gun; it’s the Grassy Knoll of 9/11, if you will. And yet, so many people haven’t heard of it.

When Barack Obama was still in the Senate, I went to see him; I only saw him very briefly, said a few words, niceties, and he had to leave, but I briefed his chief of staff in the Senate for over an hour, and I showed him my 3-minute “smoking gun” video of Building 7, showing the BBC announcing the collapse of Building 7 ten to twenty minutes before it happened, and the BBC announcer talking about why Building 7 had come down — and you can still see it standing over her left shoulder. And it shows a clip of Larry Silverstein talking about his decision to “pull it,” and talking about his insurance policy which he took out only weeks before 9/11, specifically covering acts of terrorism. And it also shows about a dozen views of Building 7 coming down from different angles, each one looking, for all the world, like a perfect controlled demolition of an intact building with no visible fires, a building that had not been struck by an aircraft. And, if someone sees this video, and understands that that building came down at free fall speed at 5:20 in the afternoon, hours after the two tallest towers had come down, this 47-story, steel-reinforced building, it’s very hard for them to deny that the official Bush conspiracy theory about 9/11 is impossible. And yet, what happened when I showed this to Obama’s chief of staff — he said, “I’ve never heard of Building 7.” And he’s chief of staff for a leading United States senator and candidate for the presidency. So, that’s what the media has done; they have kept the American people in the dark about so much. The American people, rather than being informed, are brainwashed. So, we have a hard job.

B. Faulkner:
Well, even though Senator Obama’s chief of staff said he’d never heard of Building 7 before, after he found out about it from you …

R. Bowman:
(agreeing) … mm-hmm…

B. Faulkner: … he still didn’t do anything, did he?

R. Bowman: No, uh, well, I don’t know whether he ever told Barack Obama about this. And so I can’t say for sure if President Obama understands about Building 7 and knows that the official 9/11 story is a lie. I just don’t know. But he ought to know.

* * *

B. Faulkner: You found the official explanation of the failure of the air defense system on September 11, 2001 to be incredible. Did you reject the official account from the start, or come to this view over time?

R. Bowman: Well, my wife can tell you that, as we sat there and watched what was happening on the morning of September 11, 2001, what I kept saying over and over was: Where are the interceptors? And, I mean, that just doesn’t happen. Hijacked airliners do not fly around for an hour and forty minutes without being intercepted, unless our air defense system was deliberately sabotaged. And nineteen Arabs with boxcutters can’t do that. And something was fishy. I also, when I saw the first tower come down, I said: That can’t happen. There’s no way that an aircraft impact and the paltry fires caused by that could cause that structure to come down with all its thousands of tons of steel and concrete. And then the other one fell, too. I mean, I knew the whole thing was just fishy. And then, in the newspaper, while Condolissa Rice was going around saying, Oh my goodness, we never thought such a thing could happen; who could envision this kind of thing? — we find out that exercises were going on that very morning, simulating hijacked aircraft being flown into high-value targets — like buildings. And it was reported to the FBI that Moussawi was probably working on a project to fly a hijacked airliner into the World Trade Center. But, we’d go from being absolutely clueless to, within hours, the front page of the newspapers having all the names and pictures of the supposed hijackers; while an indestructible black box from the airliner supposedly evaporated in this fire, an unarmed passport from one of the hijackers floats to the street below — the whole thing is just fishy from the beginning.

A sobering read

June 22, 2010

I read this afternoon the manifesto of a group called “the Dark Mountain Project.” The authors of the manifesto are the writers Dougald Hine and Paul Kingsnorth. The document (it may be be downloaded here) speaks very bluntly about a failure of our current, global civilization, while suggesting that there are problems inherent in human civilization as such. It is a depressing, sobering essay. Given that I prefer being depressed and sober to being giddy and intoxicated, I recommend it. Here is a brief sample:

There is a fall coming. We live in an age in which familiar restraints are being kicked away, and foundations snatched from under us. After a quarter century of complacency, in which we were invited to believe in bubbles that would never burst, prices that would never fall, the end of history, the crude repackaging of the triumphalism of Conrad’s Victorian twilight — Hubris has been introduced to Nemesis. Now a familiar human story is being played out. It is the story of an empire corroding from within. It is the story of a people who believed, for a long time, that their actions did not have consequences. It is the story of how that people will cope with the crumbling of their own myth. It is our story.

This time, the crumbling empire is the unassailable global economy, and the brave new world of consumer democracy being forged worldwide in its name. Upon the indestructibility of this edifice we have pinned the hopes of this latest phase of our civilisation. Now, its failure and fallibility exposed, the world’s elites are scrabbling frantically to buoy up an economic machine which, for decades, they told us needed little restraint, for restraint would be its undoing. Uncountable sums of money are being funnelled upwards in order to prevent an uncontrolled explosion. The machine is stuttering and the engineers are in panic. They are wondering if perhaps they do not understand it as well as they imagined. They are wondering whether they are controlling it at all or whether, perhaps, it is controlling them.

All this is true, and it is good to hear it stated in such stark terms. As to the idea that civilization itself is the problem, or part of the problem (an idea suggested, in part, by the essay’s title, “Uncivilisation”), I don’t buy that; the essay is, in fact, a fine example of civilized writing, which is why I recommend it. Nor can I accept the authors’ description of the Christian gospel as a “myth of eternal salvation,” a phrase they let drop at one point. It is curious that, although Mr. Hine and Mr. Kingsnorth seem to have a notion of an ecological fall, and highly developed consciences, their metaphysical naturalism probably precludes any belief in the reality of sin.

Anyway, the essay is worth reading, and brings to expression a feeling which many of us carry with us much of the time these days — a sense of something having gone deeply wrong with the civilization we have inherited, of living in a world tottering dangerously on the brink. None of us, apparently, are very sure what to expect when the world tips over; these authors, nevertheless, think that we would do well to start looking into the pit that lies below. And I must ask myself: how, as a Christian, do I respond to this?

What Is Not Allowed

June 11, 2010

A poem, originally published in the Irish Times, June 5, 2010, and reprinted on the website Global Research, June 7, 2010,

by Richard Tillinghast

No tinned meat is allowed, no tomato paste,
no clothing, no shoes, no notebooks.
These will be stored in our warehouses at Kerem Shalom
until further notice.
Bananas, apples, and persimmons are allowed into Gaza,
peaches and dates, and now macaroni
(after the American Senator’s visit).
These are vital for daily sustenance.
But no apricots, no plums, no grapes, no avocados, no jam.
These are luxuries and are not allowed.
Paper for textbooks is not allowed.
The terrorists could use it to print seditious material.
And why do you need textbooks
now that your schools are rubble?
No steel is allowed, no building supplies, no plastic pipe.
These the terrorists could use to launch rockets
against us.
Pumpkins and carrots you may have,
but no delicacies,
no cherries, no pomegranates, no watermelon, no onions,
no chocolate.
We have a list of three dozen items that are allowed,
but we are not obliged to disclose its contents.
This is the decision arrived at
by Colonel Levi, Colonel Rosenzweig, and Colonel Segal.
Our motto:
‘No prosperity, no development, no humanitarian crisis.’
You may fish in the Mediterranean,
but only as far as three km from shore.
Beyond that and we open fire.
It is a great pity the waters are polluted –
twenty million gallons of raw sewage dumped into the sea every day
is the figure given.
Our rockets struck the sewage treatments plants,
and at this point spare parts to repair them are not allowed.
As long as Hamas threatens us,
no cement is allowed, no glass, no medical equipment.
We are watching you from our pilotless drones
as you cook your sparse meals over open fires
and bed down
in the ruins of houses destroyed by tank shells.
And if your children can’t sleep,
missing the ones who were killed in our incursion,
or cry out in the night, or wet their beds
in your makeshift refugee tents,
or scream, feeling pain in their amputated limbs –
that’s the price you pay for harbouring terrorists.
God gave us this land.
A land without a people for a people without a land.

Richard Tillinghast is an American poet who lives in Co Tipperary. He is the author of eight books of poetry, the latest of which is Selected Poems (Dedalus Press, 2010), as well as several works of non-fiction.

I present here two letters. The first is a letter from the Nobel Prize-winning scholar Elie Wiesel to President Barack Obama, urging him not to pressure Israel to stop expanding Jewish settlements into Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem. The text of the letter was found on israelnationalnews.com, published 17 April 2010:

It was inevitable: Jerusalem once again is at the center of political debates and international storms. New and old tensions surface at a disturbing pace. Seventeen times destroyed and seventeen times rebuilt, it is still in the middle of diplomatic confrontations that could lead to armed conflict. Neither Athens nor Rome has aroused that many passions.

For me, the Jew that I am, Jerusalem is above politics. It is mentioned more than six hundred times in Scripture — and not a single time in the Koran. Its presence in Jewish history is overwhelming. There is no more moving prayer in Jewish history than the one expressing our yearning to return to Jerusalem. To many theologians, it IS Jewish history, to many poets, a source of inspiration. It belongs to the Jewish people and is much more than a city, it is what binds one Jew to another in a way that remains hard to explain. When a Jew visits Jerusalem for the first time, it is not the first time; it is a homecoming. The first song I heard was my mother’s lullaby about and for Jerusalem. Its sadness and its joy are part of our collective memory.

Since King David took Jerusalem as his capital, Jews have dwelled inside its walls with only two interruptions; when Roman invaders forbade them access to the city and again, when under Jordanian occupation, Jews, regardless of nationality, were refused entry into the old Jewish quarter to meditate and pray at the Wall, the last vestige of Solomon’s temple. It is important to remember: had Jordan not joined Egypt and Syria in the war against Israel, the old city of Jerusalem would still be Arab. Clearly, while Jews were ready to die for Jerusalem they would not kill for Jerusalem.

Today, for the first time in history, Jews, Christians and Muslims all may freely worship at their shrines. And, contrary to certain media reports, Jews, Christians and Muslims ARE allowed to build their homes anywhere in the city. The anguish over Jerusalem is not about real estate but about memory.

What is the solution? Pressure will not produce a solution. Is there a solution? There must be, there will be. Why tackle the most complex and sensitive problem prematurely? Why not first take steps which will allow the Israeli and Palestinian communities to find ways to live together in an atmosphere of security. Why not leave the most difficult, the most sensitive issue, for such a time?

Jerusalem must remain the world’s Jewish spiritual capital, not a symbol of anguish and bitterness, but a symbol of trust and hope. As the Hasidic master Rebbe Nahman of Bratslav said, “Everything in this world has a heart; the heart itself has its own heart.”

Jerusalem is the heart of our heart, the soul of our soul.

– Elie Wiesel

The second letter is a reply to the foregoing, by an organization of Jewish Jerusalemites titled Just Jerusalem. I found this letter on the website of the New York Review of Books; the original site, with a list of signatories of the letter, is: http://www.en.justjlm.org/?p=97.

Dear Mr. Wiesel,

We write to you from Jerusalem to convey our frustration, even outrage, at your recently published letter on Jerusalem. We are Jewish Jerusalemites — residents by choice of a battered city, a city used and abused, ransacked time and again first by foreign conquerors and now by its own politicians. We cannot recognize our city in the sentimental abstraction you call by its name.

Our Jerusalem is concrete, its hills covered with limestone houses and pine trees; its streets lined with synagogues, mosques and churches. Your Jerusalem is an ideal, an object of prayers and a bearer of the collective memory of a people whose members actually bear many individual memories. Our Jerusalem is populated with people, young and old, women and men, who wish their city to be a symbol of dignity — not of hubris, inequality and discrimination. You speak of the celestial Jerusalem; we live in the earthly one.

For more than a generation now the earthly city we call home has been crumbling under the weight of its own idealization. Your letter troubles us, not simply because it is replete with factual errors and false representations, but because it upholds an attachment to some other-worldly city which purports to supersede the interests of those who live in the this-worldly one. For every Jew, you say, a visit to Jerusalem is a homecoming, yet it is our commitment that makes your homecoming possible. We prefer the hardship of realizing citizenship in this city to the convenience of merely yearning for it.

Indeed, your claim that Jerusalem is above politics is doubly outrageous. First, because contemporary Jerusalem was created by a political decision and politics alone keeps it formally unified. The tortuous municipal boundaries of today’s Jerusalem were drawn by Israeli generals and politicians shortly after the 1967 war. Feigning to unify an ancient city, they created an unwieldy behemoth, encircling dozens of Palestinian villages which were never part of Jerusalem. Stretching from the outskirts of Ramallah in the north to the edge of Bethlehem in the south, the Jerusalem the Israeli government foolishly concocted is larger than Paris. Its historical core, the nexus of memories and religious significance often called “the Holy Basin”, comprises a mere one percent of its area. Now they call this artificial fabrication ‘Jerusalem’ in order to obviate any approaching chance for peace.

Second, your attempt to keep Jerusalem above politics means divesting us of a future. For being above politics is being devoid of the power to shape the reality of one’s life. As true Jerusalemites, we cannot stand by and watch our beloved city, parts of which are utterly neglected, being used as a springboard for crafty politicians and sentimental populists who claim Jerusalem is above politics and negotiation. All the while, they franticly “Judaize” Eastern Jerusalem in order to transform its geopolitics beyond recognition.

We invite you to our city to view with your own eyes the catastrophic effects of the frenzy of construction. You will witness that, contrary to some media reports, Arabs are not allowed to build their homes anywhere in Jerusalem. You discover see the gross inequality in allocation of municipal resources and services between east and west. We will take you to Sheikh Jarrah, where Palestinian families are being evicted from their homes to make room for a new Jewish neighborhood, and to Silwan, where dozens of houses face demolition because of the Jerusalem Municipality’s refusal to issue building permits to Palestinians.

We, the people of Jerusalem, can no longer be sacrificed for the fantasies of those who love our city from afar. This-worldly Jerusalem must be shared by the people of the two nations residing in it. Only a shared city will live up to the prophet’s vision: “Zion shall be redeemed with justice”. As we chant weekly in our vigils in Sheikh Jarrah: “Nothing can be holy in an occupied city!”

Respectfully,

Just Jerusalem (Sheikh Jarrah) Activists

These two letters articulate an essential debate of the present time. It is a debate in which, as an American citizen, I am unavoidably involved. My own view is that President Obama is right to be pursuing a two-state solution, which has been the official policy of the United States government for decades. The position of Jerusalem in any two-state solution presents particularly intractable problems; I am not convinced that Jerusalem can viably serve as the common capital of two separate states. But, if there is to be any progress towards peace in the Middle East, the expropriation of Palestinian homes has to stop.

Maple seeds

April 29, 2010

In my yard, and in much of northern New Jersey, maple seeds are falling. These seeds are ingeniously equipped with wings, one wing per seed, so that, as the seed falls, the wing rotates, helicopter-fashion, and is borne up by the wind; the point of this device is, clearly, to carry the seeds away from the parent tree as far as possible and allow for their widest possible dispersion, thereby increasing the chances of some of them taking root while at the same time making life easier for the parent tree. It is as good an example of teleology in nature as one could ask for.

Normally, I would greet these signs of continuing life with joy, even given the prospect of having to clean them out of the gutters. But this year I am somewhat troubled by their appearance. The house in which I currently live is the house in which I was raised, and I distinctly remember that, when I was young, these seeds would fall around the middle of May; I know this because it was around the time of my birthday, May 22nd, that I would sweep them off the back steps. It seems clear that the maple seeds are falling this year two to three weeks earlier than they used to. A friend of mine mentioned to me yesterday that he has noticed the same thing with respect to the dandelions on his lawn and the flowers in his garden. And, most strangely, we have had a series of thunderstorms here in March and April, something that I would normally associate with summer weather.

Take these observations for what they are worth; they are not scientific proof of anything. But they agree with an increasing body of evidence, from around the world, that suggests that the planet is heating up. For my own part, I accept global warming as a reality, I accept also the common view of climate scientists that human activity — the burning of fossil fuels — is largely responsible for it, and I think concerted action needs to be taken to change things, including, in the first place, a large-scale conversion to renewable sources of energy. Those politicians who work actively for such change have my support; those who deny the existence of the problem, or who do all they can to delay and undermine any effective response to it, do not.

In the Book of Revelation, after the blowing of the seventh trumpet (11:15), the four and twenty elders who sit before God on their seats fall on their faces and worship God, saying:

“We give thee thanks, O Lord God Almighty, which art, and wast, and art to come; because thou hast taken to thee thy great power, and hast reigned. And the nations were angry, and thy wrath is come, and the time of the dead, that they should be judged, and that thou shouldest give reward unto thy servants the prophets, and to the saints, and them that fear thy name, small and great; and shouldest destroy them which destroy the earth.” (Rev 11:17-18)

If one claims to be committed to a “culture of life,” then one ought to be committed to stop global warming. There are no two ways about it.

This Saturday, April 24th, a special program will be aired on WBAI, New York, 99.5 FM, from 2:30 to 5:00 p.m., commemorating the Armenian Genocide. According to the brief notice posted on the WBAI website, the producers of the program are Heidi Boghosian and Zaum Der Taulian. I plan to listen to this show on the radio, and, most likely, record it; for those not in the New York City area, the program can be heard over the Internet on live streaming audio at http://stream.wbai.org/. For those unable to hear it live, the program should be available afterwards at http://archive.wbai.org/.

The following article by the historian Judith Herrin was posted yesterday to openDemocracy. The article on which it comments, “Take Me Back to Constantinople,” by Edward Luttwak, appears in the November/December issue of Foreign Policy. I hope people in the government read Luttwak’s article and his book (The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire), and take his very sane advice to heart.

Back to the eleventh century?

Judith Herrin, 17 November 2009

It is a great pleasure to read a contemporary appreciation of Byzantium which stresses its civilisation of quality, intelligence and success, and even a model from which we can learn. It is especially refreshing as it suggests that the stereotype of Byzantium, its very name an insult, may finally wane.

Only last Monday I read in Maureen Dowd’s op-ed piece, which I usually enjoy for her sharp and original judgements: “Obama will resist blinders as he grapples with the byzantine, seemingly bottomless conflicts he inherited”. Bottomless, maybe; Byzantine, no.

This notion of the Byzantine as complex and ill-begotten can be traced back to the treacherous destruction of the Christian city of Constantine in the Spring of 1204 by the Fourth Crusade – and the projection of the West’s bad faith since that day.

But I fear that Edward Luttwak may be stretching the argument a little when he proposes Byzantium as a model power for the United States. Or rather, it may be too late for Washington to absorb the lessons of Constantinople that he eloquently proposes, if it ever could.

As I attempted to show in my book, Byzantium, the surprising life of a medieval empire (which Luttwak reviewed most generously in the Times Literary Supplement) the core strength of Byzantium came from its inner Greek fire, a unique combination of pagan energy, Greek education, Roman law and administration, and Christian faith.

When the capital city was inaugurated in 330, all these elements were present and the society that resulted, with its extraordinary self-belief, was “born old”. This was the cultural background to its capacity to play the long game when necessary. It also gave it immense self-confidence and flexibility, permitting innovation and invention, from the unprecedented domed structure of Hagia Sophia to the secret of Greek fire itself. It was quite capable of delivering ruthless and crushing defeats as well as developing the arts, techniques and insignia of diplomacy that Luttwak praises.

Luttwak is right to stress Byzantium’s grasp of the long term as an instrument of rule. This in part stemmed from its historic sense of itself as Roman, but in a different way from Rome. Why, then, do I feel it is unlikely that the United States, which also has a capacity to be a cosmopolitan society like Byzantium, is not going to prove itself capable of taking Luttwak’s advice?

The core driver of American self-belief is surely the market, and the market has delivered to Obama most of the bottomless conflicts he grapples with. Byzantium’s defining force was the ideological combination of imperial rule and church rather than its economic system. However, it was the supposedly devious empire that grasped the simple but fundamental importance of a stable currency for radiating influence and exercising hegemony over its opponents. The gold solidus (or besant) was small in the hand but loomed large in the mind. It was to be minted by emperor after emperor (and even by some empresses, another aspect of Byzantium’s uniqueness) for almost 700 years from the fourth to the eleventh century without being debased or devalued – a period over twice as long as the current history of the USA.

Much of Byzantium’s military influence and diplomatic success was established on the basis of its reliable gold coin, and its devaluation proved very damaging. Today, Washington, after less than 200 years as a major trading country, happily devalues the dollar to diminish the value of its debt to China and make its goods cheaper to export. Sixty years ago the eminent economic historian Lopez described the Byzantine solidus as ‘the dollar of the middle ages’ – an analogy meant to communicate its universal attraction and trusted value. Today, such a comparison would be laughable.

It is hard, therefore, for a Byzantinist not to sense that when it comes to the United States it is back to the eleventh century. Given the acceleration of events, at this rate perhaps we can expect Washington to fall in less than a hundred years – unless the great power game itself is abandoned, a much more attractive alternative.

None of which is to diminish the military lessons Luttwak proposes or his framework of comparison. For too long the myths of classical Roman power, symbolically inscribed in the neo-classical architecture of Washington, have monopolised the idea of greatness and command held by US presidents, their staff, armed forces and media. Here too is another stereotype which should be abandoned.

From Brussels with love

November 5, 2009

From Brussels the verdict comes down:
No crucifix is to be shown
In schools of a public domain;
That’s something that Europe’s outgrown.

To buildings of private address
It’s well that your faith be confined.
With symbols you there may obsess,
And if you pray there, we don’t mind.

In Europe’s academied halls
Grave tutors cough mildly and nod
And say: “It is right that our youth
Be freed of this baggage of God.

A crucified God is a sign
That we are not fully our own.
It says we have lost the divine.
It says that our hearts are as stone.

We don’t want young people to think
There’s a flaw in this world we have built.
Let them go see a film, or a shrink,
If they’re plagued with despair, or with guilt.”

From Brussels the verdict comes nigh,
And here in my home I must weep
That those who have birthright so high
Should sell it for pottage so cheap.

On time passing

September 1, 2009

Today is the first day of the Byzantine year 7518 (see the post Happy New Year). It is the beginning of the ecclesiastical year, a day that the current Patriarch of Constantinople has seen fit to consecrate as the Day for the Protection of the Environment. It also marks the seventieth anniversary of the start of World War II, and the second anniversary of the founding of this blog. I’d like to reflect briefly on some of these things, on the passing of time, and on the state of this blog and my other work.

When I was a child, I viewed the events of the 1930’s and 40’s as ancient history. They had occurred a quarter of a century before I was born. That seemed to me the distant past, a bygone era when cars had running boards and events unfolded in flickering, black-and-white newsreels. Now that I am fifty years old, a quarter of a century seems like a short blip in time, a nothing. The Great Depression, the rise of Nazism in Germany and of Stalinism in Russia, the Second World War, the beginnings of the Cold War, all occurred in a brief period comparable to the time from Reagan’s presidency to the present. Human memory is short, and plays tricks with perspective.

Hardly a day goes by when I do not read one or more of the Psalms. I do this so habitually that I tend to think of them simply as contemporary prayers, applicable to my own current situation. Yet, if one accepts the ascription of most of the Psalms to the historical person, King David, these writings are older than Homer, older than the oldest surviving literature in a Western, Indo-European language. All of Greek literature is, relatively speaking, new, as the Greeks themselves were aware (see Plato’s Timaeus 22b Ὦ Σόλων, Σόλων, Ἕλληνες ἀεὶ παῖδές ἐστε, γέρων δὲ Ἕλλην οὐκ ἔστιν). The Greeks learned their alphabet from a man named Cadmus, the founder of the city of Thebes; the name is a Semitic one; kedem in Hebrew means both “East” and “old.” Cadmus was the old man from the East.

I once came across a very strange book with the title Hebrew is Greek (see reviews of it on amazon.com). The author, Joseph Yahuda, presents the thesis that Hebrew is a variant of the Greek language (not, curiously, the other way around). My knowledge of Hebrew is not good, but I know enough to feel certain that the thesis is basically preposterous. Nevertheless, the author finds enough linguistic parallels to convince me that there were cultural contacts at a very early, pre-literary stage. A couple of the parallels that seem most persuasive: ἀγάπη and ahava, according to Yahuda, are cognate (both terms for “love”), and so are tsedekah, and δίκη/δικαιοσύνη (the DIK root, meaning “justice,” is common). When I was teaching in Albania, I was surprised to learn that the Albanian word for ship, anije, is the same as the Hebrew word אניה (öneey-yah, Jonah 1: 3, 4, 5, etc.) — probably a relic from the early days when the only ships the Illyrians came in contact with belonged to Phoenician traders.

A possibility suggests itself. The Philistines could have been Pelasgians, a people who were widely spread in the Eastern Mediterranean before the arrival of the Greeks; the names are sufficiently similar to warrant considering this possibility. If there are deeply rooted linguistic parallels between the Greek and Hebrew languages, the Pelasgians/Philistines could have been a mediating agent of this.

None of this is perhaps very important. Yet it helps give me a sense of perspective on current events. Two years, or twenty five years, or seventy years, is not a long time in historical terms, much less so in geological ones. Human life is very brief. But, by the same token, much can change in a very short time.

I confess that some days I find it hard to concentrate on John Bekkos and events of the thirteenth century; some days, I would rather concentrate upon things that are unfolding before my own eyes. I would like to say that I have a great confidence in the future of humanity, but, if I were to say that, I would be misrepresenting my own sentiments. I would like very much to think that the future is bright; but I do not actually or habitually think this. The visible prospects for the continuance of the human race on earth are, at best, obscure. It is no longer something one can simply take for granted, as a natural fact.

Why do I say that? Some reasons:

  1. I take global warming, and the substantial contribution to it by human activity, to be sufficiently well-established to deserve to be called facts. What is not yet clear is how far it will be allowed to progress; but anything beyond a rise of 4º C in global temperature, it is said, would be utterly catastrophic and perhaps irreversible, and such a scenario is well within the bounds of possibility.
  2. The possibility that we are at or near a peak in global oil production also appears very real. While this does not spell an end to human civilization as such, it does portend possibly catastrophic economic consequences, as a global economy predicated upon perpetual growth in production comes up against the natural limitations of the earth’s resources. As was seen two years ago before the recession hit, the price of oil affects the price and availability of everything else — in particular, food, but also all oil-based products, which nowadays means pretty much everything since plastics are so ubiquitous. The idea that there will be a single energy source that will replace oil is the sort of assumption made by people who are unacquainted with the constraints of physical reality; after not much more than a century, a resource that took hundreds of millions of years to come into being, and that is the life-blood of the modern global economy, has been largely used up. Just as American oil production peaked in the early 1970’s, so, inevitably, the production of oil in countries like Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait, will also peak, probably in the not-too-distant future. And after that, who knows what kind of competition will take place over the remaining supplies?
  3. There is still the possibility of a nuclear war; in some ways, this possibility seems more imminent now given the nuclear ambitions of countries like Iran and North Korea. There is also the possibility that a nuclear weapon, or some similarly heinous weapon, could be made use of by a non-state organization like Al-Qaida.

There are other worries I have, but these are probably sufficient for showing that apprehensions about the long-term prospects of, at least, the current political order of things, if not of humanity itself, are rational.

What about the rationality of hope?

Hope is a Christian virtue, and, as it is founded in the ultimate reality, God himself, it cannot be false. But one must not confuse hope with rash confidence. As a Christian, I have hope that God will save me, in spite of my many sins, because of the blood of Christ; but if I conclude from this that I have no changes to make in my life to conform it to the will of God, then I delude myself, and my hope is found to be, not hope in God, but a rash, unfounded confidence in my own innate invincibility. So, similarly, when Christians claim to have a firm hope that God will see humanity through the hard times ahead, but then do nothing to address the present challenges they face, but instead pretend that things are fine and are going to remain just fine and that nothing in their lives needs to change, such Christians act irresponsibly; they show, not true Christian hope, but a rash confidence, what St. Paul calls a “confidence in the flesh” (Philippians 3:3-4).

Of course, it is no part of Christian doctrine that the world should last eternally. But, as we are stewards of it, we have a duty to preserve it; we have no right to think that, in hastening its demise, we are doing God’s will.

I suppose that what I am advocating here is an end to the divisions between liberals and conservatives on some fundamental issues. Both sides should be able to acknowledge that abortion is a moral evil, and that irresponsible sexual practice corrupts both personal life and families and whole societies. So also, both sides should be able to acknowledge that the proper stewardship of the earth’s resources is a moral imperative, given the current human situation. It is a life issue. It is wrong to think that the one is a conservative issue and the other a liberal one: both are basic to the common good and to any long-term continuance of civil society. Indeed, any social platform or political agenda that does not look to the common good is inherently immoral and, for that reason, unchristian. If Christians cannot agree on such things, if we bicker and accuse each other, we are simply wasting our time, and might as well eat, drink, and be merry with the pagans, for we are no better than them.

The possession of a blog is a great temptation to being foolish, a kind of permanent soap-box onto which to climb and give speeches before an invisible public. It is all the more foolish when the speech-giver is unemployed and has nothing to show for himself. After two years of writing this blog, all I can say is that the work on John Bekkos continues. Perhaps I shall find useful things to say about him in the months ahead.

Lincoln’s God

February 11, 2009

Tomorrow, February 12th, the two hundredth anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln will be celebrated. Lincoln is nearly everywhere understood to be the greatest man ever to have filled the office of President of the United States, and he served at the time of greatest upheaval to the society, during a war in which more Americans died than in most of our other wars put together. It is hard to overestimate the importance of the Civil War in shaping America’s political and social history, and it is hard to overestimate Lincoln’s own effect upon America’s self-understanding. We have few genuine icons in this land, although we have plenty of idols (and whole industries devoted to their production); Lincoln the martyr, the man who looks at us across time, not only from the $5 bill, but from countless pictures that people still put up on their walls, with the deep, melancholic, shrewd humanity of his face, is a real icon, a reminder of something we are always in danger of losing, a moral truth we seldom bring to realization.

When I was five years old, I was asked, in kindergarten, to draw a picture in honor of Lincoln’s Birthday. (Or perhaps what I was actually asked to draw was a picture for Valentine’s Day, but I threw in a portrait of Lincoln for good measure.) It turned out well; in fact, it was probably the first picture I had ever drawn that actually looked like the person it was supposed to represent.

In 2005, when I left my job in New Mexico and returned to New York/New Jersey, I made a point of stopping at Springfield, Illinois and visiting Lincoln’s grave. His body lies entombed under a white stone obelisk in a park at the north end of the town; the obelisk sits atop a large, colonnaded base of the same material, adorned with bronze statues representing scenes from the Civil War; visitors are allowed to enter, a few at a time, into that base to pay their respects to the late president. His tomb is of pink marble; on it, the words

ABRAHAM LINCOLN
1809-1865

On the wall behind, the words “NOW HE BELONGS TO THE AGES.” I was struck, when I went to pray there, by the complete absence of any Christian symbolism. Only civil and military flags and insignia. Of course, none of us have a great deal of choice in what people choose to put over us when we die. But I confess that the overall effect was a rather cold one. It felt like what was before me was the anti-Lincoln, the absence of the rational soul; as though the weight of madness and shallowness that had always surrounded him had finally engulfed him, taking physical, marble shape, and exulting in victory over his poor, lobotomized corpse.

I shuddered at that thought, and prayed for him and his family, that he would rest in peace.

Lincoln seems never to have been a member of any church, although occasionally, it seems, he did attend a Presbyterian church in Washington, D.C. He describes his own religious views in a bulletin addressed “To the Voters of the Seventh Congressional District” in 1846, in answer to a charge of irreligion laid against him by his opponent in the Congressional elections, Mr. Peter Cartwright (1):

July 31, 1846

A charge having got into circulation in some of the neighborhoods of this District, in substance that I am an open scoffer at Christianity, I have by the advice of some friends concluded to notice the subject in this form. That I am not a member of any Christian Church, is true; but I have never denied the truth of the Scriptures, and I have never spoken with intentional disrespect of religion in general, or of any denomination of Christians in particular. It is true that in early life I was inclined to believe in what I understand is called the “Doctrine of Necessity” — that is, that the human mind is impelled to action, or held in rest by some power, over which the mind itself has no control; and I have sometimes (with one, two or three, but never publicly) tried to maintain this opinion in argument. The habit of arguing thus however, I have, entirely left off for more than five years. And I add here, I have always understood this same opinion to be held by several of the Christian denominations. The foregoing, is the whole truth, briefly stated, in relation to myself, upon this subject.

I do not think I could myself, be brought to support a man for office, whom I knew to be an open enemy of, and scoffer at, religion. Leaving the higher matter of eternal consequences, between him and his Maker, I still do not think any man has the right thus to insult the feelings, and injure the morals, of the community in which he may live. If, then, I was guilty of such conduct, I should blame no man who should condemn me for it; but I do blame those, whoever they may be, who falsely put such a charge in circulation against me.

A. Lincoln

That Lincoln was, in some very general sense of the word, a Christian, and that he considered himself to be so, seems hard to deny, although it also seems hard to deny that he had little in the way of dogmatic, theological convictions in the usual sense. From the evidence of the foregoing letter, it would seem as though Lincoln’s specifically religious belief, at various times in his life at least, consisted of a view of divine providence that came close to fatalism or Stoic necessitarianism. Perhaps a kind of Calvinism, stripped to its barest philosophical essentials. Certainly nothing sacramental, trinitarian, or incarnational per se. But a very strong notion of the goodness and justice of God, and the ethical responsibilities incumbent upon men.

From an Orthodox or Catholic point of view, Lincoln’s religion seems a kind of throwback to the patriarchs. His favorite term for God is “the Almighty.” He worships El Shaddai, the mysterious, inscrutable, terrifying, righteous God who judges among the nations and directs the ways of men.

Perhaps what is most characteristic of Lincoln, as a thinker, is a combination of logic and piety, a piety of a very specific kind. The first thing that strikes one when one reads him is his clarity of thought. As, in Euclid’s Geometry, there is a clarity of reasoning, made possible by the clear enunciation of definitions, postulates, and common notions, so, in Lincoln’s Politics, there is a clarity which, analogously, rests upon explicit, postulated grounds. The postulates of Lincoln’s political thinking, the rational foundations of his political creed, were stated in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Lincoln saw the institution of slavery in the United States as an internal contradiction, a denial of the principle of universal human dignity upon which the moral truth of the American political experiment lay. He understood that that contradiction had a natural tendency to resolve itself, and that, if resolved in the wrong way, it would destroy political liberty in this country. In arguing for this, he quotes Jesus (Matthew 12:25), who provides him with a political common notion:

“A house divided against itself cannot stand.”

I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free.

I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided.

It will become all one thing, or all the other.

Either the opponents of slavery, will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become alike lawful in all the States, old as well as newNorth as well as South.

From: Speech Accepting the Republican Senatorial Nomination, June 16, 1858

Since he saw with such clarity that the situation of the country — half slave, half free — was unstable and untenable in the long run, and he was convinced that slavery was opposed to the original moral vision of the founders of the republic, he spent most of his political career seeking to prevent the extension of slavery to new territories, in the hope that, in this way, the institution would wither away gradually and die a peaceful, natural death. He was in no sense a radical abolitionist. Probably the man he chiefly looked up to, as a model for political action, was Henry Clay, “the Great Compromiser.” Lincoln was the last man in the world to wish to ignite a civil war, and he made that clear in his First Inaugural Address.

The piety of Lincoln is, in the first place, a political piety. The “fathers” are, for him, the Founding Fathers of the American Republic. As to the Fathers of the Church, he knows little about them. (He probably did not know that some early Church Fathers, like Gregory of Nyssa, agreed with him as to the fundamental evil of slavery.) But his attitude towards the former, the political fathers, is very much like what an Orthodox Christian might feel towards the latter. He sees these founding fathers as setting the ancient landmarks for political reasoning; he sees it as impiety to move them. He also, it must be said, is very skillful in investing his political convictions with the imagery and language of biblical faith. There was nothing false or contrived about this: Lincoln clearly did not think about these things in two separate boxes. He thought the moral truth of biblical faith had a living embodiment in the American political experiment, and he thought that the duty to protect that experiment was sacred.

Of course, the leaders of the South also read the Declaration of Independence, and they laid particular stress upon the following clause: “That, when any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation upon such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.” The view of the ruling classes of the South was that “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” were closely bound up, for them, with the chief economic support to their traditional way of life. Slaves were property (Jefferson’s phrase, “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” is a clear echo of John Locke’s “Life, Liberty, and Property”), and those who threatened the institution of slave-holding threatened their property, their way of life, and their economic freedom. In the early decades of the nineteenth century, as slavery as an institution again became economically profitable and the question about extending slavery to newly-opened territories provoked repeated political crises, the chief political voice of the South was the senator from South Carolina, John Calhoun, who presented a constitutional theory of radical state-sovereignty. The constitution, in his view, sets up a confederation of sovereign states, which implicitly retain the right to withdraw from the union if their interests so dictate. The issue of the extension of slavery to the territories was seen as vital to the South’s interests, and increasingly the claim was made that it was an issue over which southern States had a legitimate right to secede. And, just as Lincoln habitually expressed his political convictions in biblical terms, so too the leaders of the South made a religious case in defense of the righteousness of their way of life. Is not slavery found in the Bible, both in the Old and the New Testaments? Doesn’t St. Paul tell servants to obey their masters?

Lincoln was fully aware of the competing religious arguments, and he saw this as one of the most tragic aspects of the war, the fact that both sides sought a divine justification.

Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come, but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!” If we shall suppose that American Slavery is one of those offences which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South, this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offence came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a Living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope — fervently do we pray — that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, till all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn by the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.”

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan — to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.

From: Second Inaugural Address, March 4, 1865 (2)

A lot has happened in America in the 144 years since Lincoln’s death. One might in some ways wonder if we are still the same people and the same country. I hesitate to think what sort of man Lincoln might have become if, instead of being raised on a log cabin in Kentucky, he had been brought into this world in one of our suburban homes, and had his mind dulled early on by exposure to television and the rest of our aggressively crass culture. But it does seem to me that the civil war, like most wars, never really ended; it metamorphosed, and took various new, ideological forms. Could it be that the grandfather of radical economic libertarianism, the doctrine that government, in itself, is the problem, and that the solution to all our social ills is to get the federal government off the taxpayers’ backs, is John Calhoun? I confess that I sometimes see a certain spiritual affinity between John Calhoun and Photius of Constantinople. Perhaps the recent profusion of Orthodox monasteries in Texas, Arizona, and such places is not coincidental. A deeply-rooted sense that Union is a bad thing.

Let me close this very sketchy post with a line from Lincoln’s speech at the Cooper Union, February 27, 1860, words which deserve to be remembered, and which state, as good as any credo, what Lincoln’s faith was:

“Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it.”

NOTES

(1) Text of this letter in Richard N. Current, ed., The Political Thought of Abraham Lincoln (Indianapolis 1967), pp. 40 f.

(2) Op. cit., pp. 315 f.