Medieval Wars, Religion & Modern Society

I’ve been reading Susan Wise Bauer’s “History of the Medieval World from the Conversion of Constantine to the First Crusades.”  It’s a fascinating survey of the eras’ history from Asia and India to the Middle East, Europe, North Africa, and a light touch on portions of the Americas.  However, it is severely limited to the stories of violent competition for power and position among tribal chiefs, nobles, kings and emperors.  It moves on to the ebb and flow of mass migrations spearheaded by war, and the succeeding wars leading to the eventual formation of modern nation states. To the extent that she recognizes the role of religion, it is to portray caliphs and popes as agents of their own selfish interests and puppets of more powerful warrior princes.  Christianity and Islam are not seen as faiths to be followed but religions used to unite disparate people for political purposes.

It is a scenario unlike classical liberal education concerned more with the development of philosophy, especially political philosophy that guided nations into more civilized ways of existing.  Wars are, of course, a part of that history but tend not to play a central, domineering role.  Likewise, theology’s own story is about discovering more about who God is and how we are, to following God’s way of love as commanded by Christ Jesus. Institutions of the Church have too often been corrupt participants in struggles for political and economic power, but that is not the history of theology’s search for greater understanding of a deeper truth. Moreover, what is true of Christian theological history has parallels in Islamic, Buddhist, Hindu and other major religions.

I wondered why Bauer had ignored so much of theological and philosophical history that was foundational to developments in the arts, sciences, and political practice, and that she had nothing to say about economic development.  But it’s equally true these other histories have seldom covered the ego driven wars for power and territory as she has done.  It was good to learn how Visigoths and Moors became Spaniards, how eastern Franks became German and western Franks became French, and so on.  None of these histories can stand on their own. They all happened at the same time, engaging and conflicting with each other almost as much as tribal chiefs and would be kings did.

I suppose none should be given precedent over another,  but I’m going to do it anyway.  It seems to me that it is theology and philosophy that have pulled and pushed humanity toward more civilized societies by asking moral and ethical questions while positing answers.  As a Christian, I believe that following Jesus and proclaiming the good news means demonstrating by word and deed the moral standards for living together that God has declared for all humanity.  

It’s hard to know when history has a major turning point but perhaps we are in one now.  The more stable societies are the more likely they are to prosper in relationships with one another.  I wonder if the post WWII years have been the time when nations and their leaders finally learned that lesson.  It’s to our shame that peace had to be held together with threats of mutual annihilation, but it worked long enough for us to realize the whole idea is so immoral it must never be tried, notwithstanding Putin’s current nuclear saber rattling. Ego fueled armed conflicts still endanger too many people in too many places.  Petty conflicts over unimportant border still pop up.  Yet on the whole, most nations have settled down to peaceful, if sometimes tense, relationships with each other.  There are plenty of struggles for power and position among would be leaders, many of whom think authoritarianism is better than democracy.  None of that is good news, but it is good news that the world has grown beyond the never ending brutality of Medieval wars. WWII appears to have been its final defeat.  May it please God to be so. 

So now what?  Is the battle over, the victory won?  No.  Amidst the wreckage of two thousand years of war, it’s clear that creation itself has suffered irreparable damage at our hands.  We cannot change what was but we can change what will be, and creation care must be at the top of the list.  Along with it is the recognition that earth can’t continue in relative stability unless ifs people have adequate health care, good education, security in daily life, economic equity, and relief from every form of discrimination – areas of social morality God made unambiguously clear almost three thousand years ago through Amos and the other ethical prophets.  They were sealed, stamped and delivered to us by the very Word of God made flesh, Jesus. We’ve made progress which has been hard to do while wielding weapons and threatening death. However slow, we have made progress.  It’s time to lay down the weapons and bend more to the essential task at hand.  Can we do it? Humanity has been and is still too easily misled and motivated by intimidating fear mongering.  Often proving ourselves to be too gullible, falling for the silliest and most outrageous deceptions, we shall see.

© Steven E. Woolley

The Common Good: what it is and isn’t.

I used the term “common good” in a previous column, and used similar terms in other columns (greater good, good of the community, etc.).  But what is the common good? Philosophers and theologians have worked on an answer for centuries without ever coming to an agreement acceptable to all. There is no ideal common good from which all manifestations of it are derived.  The best we can do is to approximate it in a way that works for “our people” in the time and place in which they live.

For that reason there are many who deny that nothing called the common good can be more important than what individuals believe is best for their own self interests.  Any moral or ethical good shared in common with others must take the form of transactions creating temporary alliances. Trump’s world view is an extreme example.  Utilitarianism is a more popular approach to the common good.  We know it as the greatest good for the greatest number, often calculated in economic terms. It can easily morph into the greatest good for the most powerful. It can also be used to deny common good to minorities, a practice that has haunted America’s history for too long. Kings, emperors, dictators, and autocratic religious leaders declare what it is, claiming they have divine authority to do so. A professor friend says his freshman class students offer only a blank stare of incomprehension because they weren’t exposed to the idea in high school. As a Christian writer I believe God has authoritatively declared what standards are that the common good must meet, but has left it up to us to figure out how to apply them.

Messy as definitions of the common good are, they are the bedrock of stable societies, and more particularly of democracies like ours.  Phrases such as “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” and “in order to form a more perfect union” are portions of a fence that encircle the common good. The Constitution and amendments form the greater part of the fence.  More sections of fence are made of long standing American virtues including individualism, self reliance, voluntary action, generosity, faith in democracy, the rule of law, equal rights, etc.  The whole fence is never completed; it has gaps, is in need of repair, and sometimes fails.  Nevertheless, it encloses a hard to define sense of what adds up to the common good. 

However it’s understood, the common good is necessary for modern life to exist at all. No person or family can make it on their own. We depend on each other’s knowledge, labor, and resources to make it through even a single day.  That means the welfare of other people and of the community as a whole must be a priority for all.  It’s a priority that relies on the collective resources invested in improvements, maintenance, and preparation for the future.  It means individual rights to do as one pleases for one’s own self interest are not unlimited.             

As much as possible, the common in common good must be at least a tacit understanding and agreement by the community. To be good it must be equitable, show no favor to anyone and provide opportunity for every person without discrimination.  In a democratic republic such as ours, it is a standard never to be met, yet always approximated. What is customarily accepted as the common good must be subjected to continuous testing and evaluation that moves to correct historical inequities and strives to avoid future ones. It’s an uncomfortable process because it can never come to final resolution.  

Yet, simplifying the resolution for the common good by replacing democracy with the imposition of hierarchical authority is not an answer to this age old dilemma. 

© Steven E. Woolley

Building Bridges of Understanding to Nowhere

Much has been written about the need to build bridges in order to overcome the morass of divisive, recalcitrant politics being played as a zero sum game where everyone loses and nobody wins. The president’s speeches have been filled with similar appeals to the public and media.  Bridges do need to be built, but from where to where, and from whom to whom?  It seems most would-be bridge builders want to span the chasm between them and the remaining hard core MAGA crowd. That would be a pointless bridge to nowhere. Access to their world is permanently closed. In the meantime, the same bridge building technique passes over 85% of the adult public not in the MAGA crowd and not on the far left. They are people to whom the bridges need to be built.  Biden has the right idea with his appeals to the middle and working classes, but too many critics dismiss his pleas as just more of his empathetic ways. They’re wrong and he’s right to continue pressing.

Some bridge builders have the right idea but are their own worst enemies. An example I observed recently: adjacent to our Saturday farmer’s market, was a University student manned Black Lives Matter kiosk: a worthy endeavor to be sure. A white woman stopped to say she believed all lives matter.  No bridges were to be built then as several students heaped accusations of arrogant white privilege on her. A lost opportunity as they made their cause odious in the eyes of one more person who could have been engaged in constructive conversation. They used self righteous emotions as a cudgel for punishment rather building a bridge.

The failure to build bridges to the correct people is a problem in organizations and corporations as well. Years ago I consulted with an organization that had gained a national reputation as innovative, daring, and transformative. That narrative led them to put all their efforts into big projects and products offering potential for greater success.  They neglected the needs and interests of their bread and butter clients, who left them in droves. They became a hollow organization of elite managers filled with grand ideas, and no middle or bottom to support it.

That’s what happens when bridges are built over, not to, the people most needed for sustained success.  The moderate wing of the Republican Party failed miserably in maintaining connections with a base that was not against progressive ideas, just cautious about going too far too fast with too much.  Likewise, the Democratic Party found itself labeled the party of the Ivy League elite, passionate about justice and equity, but out of touch with “real America.”  It was a fatal mistake in a land when wheat and soybean farmers know more about world affairs than many urbanites.  Parties need to be aware that, urban or rural, regardless of color or ethnicity, they must never take the majority for granted, put them in separate silos, or disregard their differences. For the United States to remain united in a democratic republic, its people must be united with respect for their differences, not divided by them. 

Bridges need to be built from centers of political power to the majority of Americans, not the radical fringes. They have to be built to different places and serve different purposes with the intention of creating a network leading to the common good. What are they to be made of and how are they to be built? They have to be built on a foundation honoring American virtues of freedom, rights, cooperation and self reliance. Americans want a hand up, not a handout. They can’t define what that means, but it’s strongly held nonetheless.  Government policies and programs must be introduced, enacted, and administered as necessary to strengthening America’s core virtues.

Bold announcements about billions of dollars dedicated to this or that need can easily trigger hysteria over out of control spending.  Needed projects must first be announced by what they will do, and how that will make life better for all.

Finally, bridges have to work the way they’re supposed to. In politics that means elected officials and bureaucrats must remember they are in the business of customer service, which is something Washington based congressional staff and high ranking civil servants have a hard time understanding.          

The midterms are upon us. It’s probably too late for campaigns to start building bridges they have long ignored, but it’s not too late for them to be ready for the next general election.  In the meantime, individuals passionate about issues of justice and equity must better learn how to sublimate emotional outbursts in favor of building bridges that will change minds.

© Steven E. Woolley

American Grief, Hope & The British Monarchy

It’s been 246 years since America declared its independence from Britain.  It took two wars and multiple skirmishes to secure a stable friendship that evolved into an oft cited “special relationship,” a cousins once removed sort of thing.  Through two world wars, the Cold War, and a handful of other conflicts, we have grown closer than ever, albeit the former colonies a great power, and Britain much diminished.  So I suppose it’s not surprising that America is in a time of corporate mourning over the death of Queen Elizabeth II, hopeful anxiety over the ascension of Charles III, and speculation whether William and Harry will mend their breach. Americans can’t seem to get  enough of British dramas, books, actors, and royal family gossip.

It could be all for entertainment value but I think there is something else going on more closely related to the divisions and dissensions we have endured over the last twenty or so years. Our intense interest may have been brought to a head by our country’s four years with a corrupt, incompetent would be ruler who tried to overturn an election and finally resorted to invoking insurrection in order to stay in power. His plans didn’t work but served to inspire others down two dangerous paths.  One would have an authoritarian president ruling over a compliant Congress and court system.  The other would establish a new confederacy of independent states governed by a small, powerless federal government.  Both tracks would allow oligarchs of one kind or another to dictate laws and policies.  

Our democracy survived with the election of a new president, but the turmoil remains.  Upcoming elections suggest Congress may again become impotent and openly hostile to rights, freedoms, and the most precious elements of our democracy.  The climate is seeking its revenge on the abuse we’ve heaped on to this earth, our fragile, island home.  The pandemic upended our complacent way of life.  Resurgent old diseases and new ones remind us that good heath can’t be taken for granted. After WWII the U.S. dominated the world’s economy as the only advanced nation that had not been bombed into smithereens.  Still the largest, its near equals are the E.U. and China, meaning we can no longer exert dominance at will.  

What does all of this have to do with our fascination with the news of the Queen’s death and the ascension of Charles III?

From the early18th century, the British monarchy has been the symbol of continuity and stability with many prime ministers, battling parliaments, economic hard times, empire and its loss, devastating wars, and a diminished role on the world stage. Yet Britain has muddled through finding new ways to remain strong, making the most out of whatever condition it found itself in. Dukes and Barons have become innkeepers.  Knighthood goes to entertainers.  Rural and urban communities are at odds with each other.  Immigration has changed the color palette of the nation. The Scots can’t decide if they want to stay or go. The Welsh speak Welsh. On a public stage, the royal family engages in all the ordinary foibles of ordinary people. And Brexit, who knows how that will turn out?  Through it all, the monarchy has been a symbol of dependable continuity and national pride with the powerful demonstration of a seamless transition from one monarch to the next. The week long ceremonies of pomp, mourning, worship, and celebration engages the British nation as nothing else could.

America is engaged as well not only for the entertainment value, but rather subconsciously feeling a need to adopt it as our own to symbolize continuity and national stability. From the end of George Washington’s term to the end of Barak Obama’s, the office of president has been peacefully transferred from one to the next. True in times of assassination, untimely deaths, forced resignations, and even that of the only unelected president, Gerald Ford. The last twenty years have seen the rise of agents for a more authoritarian government headed by a “unitary” executive. With considerable skill and political manipulation, they created an emotionally driven movement of popular distrust in a government that gave us the Trump era. Trump’s term ended in a humiliating defeat at the polls, followed by a deceitful battle to overturn the election by claiming election fraud. When the courts threw out cases for lack of evidence, his people attempted an insurrection while he threatened to remain in the White House no matter what. It didn’t work, but it shook the nation. How could such a thing happen in a democracy like ours? Our symbols of stability and continuity were shattered.To where could we turn?

Perhaps through vicarious participation in the British monarchy’s traditions being covered hour by hour on American cable news, and on the front pages of every major newspaper, our nation will be able to regain hope and trust in our own traditions. Traditions that Trump & Co. could rattle but not destroy.

© Steven E. Woolley

The Middle Ages, Christianity, and Now:

Europe’s middle ages proceeded on two tracks. One, imposed by local warlords and kings, was the Christianization of tribes and individuals with rites and rituals not actually leading people to learn about or follow the way of Jesus. Serious intent to follow Jesus was mostly the realm of monasteries and a handful of others.  The second track was unending war, with all of its atrocities, between tribes and nascent kingdoms whose leaders wanted more power and land. They may have marched against each other under the banner of the cross, but that was mainly a tool to bind the loyalty of the people to the king, not Jesus. The nations we know as modern Europe jelled eventually, but not without keeping ethnic hostilities alive. Even the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries were driven more by angry self righteousness and greed for territory than anything else.

That history has led some to accuse Christianity of being a violent religion of oppression and subjugation. It’s a claim that ignores the substitution of Jesus’ discipleship for the prevalence of selfish greed and lust for power. Moreover, the same dynamic ran parallel in Asia where Buddhism became the dominant religion.

During the same historical age, Buddhism spread throughout southern and eastern Asia. Like Rome’s Constantine, kings and emperors recognized the useful tool of binding people together by displacing tribal gods.  With no real regard for teachings of the Buddha, rulers incited the business of killing in pursuit of territory and power.  Buddhism was simply the most efficient method to mobilize a more or less unified people behind them. Although the trajectory was different in Islam, there were also power and oppression similarities. But that’s a story for someone else to tell. The point is that rulers and peoples were capable of taking on the cloak of religion without following its teachings.

That now brings this column from the Middle Ages to our own time and to the seductive power of idolatrous dependencies. What is now ancient history hasn’t gone away, rather it has just changed its form. It’s seen in the religiously flavored armed conflicts in the Middle East and Africa, and among religious zealots throughout the world.  We see it played out in America by an aggressive move of right wing authoritarian political movement designed to unite conservative evangelical Christians, while trampling the way of following Jesus into the dust.  We see it in religious zealotry that willfully goes along with any authority that will give power to suppress all other beliefs, Christian or not. For Christians it’s a form of idolatry that occurs whenever self and corporate identity are dependent on things given greater value than God, as we know God in Christ Jesus.  

Jesus taught about the way of love that includes God, self, neighbors and even enemies. To follow God in the way of love demands that it be the single guiding authority far above everything else. Not that everything else is displaced, only that it be subordinate to the way of following Jesus.

What can that mean? We have to start with a different set of questions. What makes us, us?  What gives us our self identity, sense of worthiness and security? It might be to have enough money to handle every necessity, most wants, and a handful of luxuries. To have enough money is power and status, to not have it is to be vulnerable, serving even to erode one’s self worth.  Sometimes it’s having possessions that announce status or valued heritage. One’s dependency on unreliable things to confer identity and worthiness can be dangerous. Dependency on others for the love needed to feel fully human can be particularly treacherous. Human love is not dependable even at its best. Even the ones who love us most let us down now and then.  Sometimes needed love is not to be had. The soul withers and self worth fades in its absence.  Dependency on wealth, possessions, and the love of others to provide self identity, status, and worthiness can lead to such fear of losing it all that everything else in life is subordinated to clutching what we can and keeping others from taking it.

It’s hateful to be owned by money, things and the whims of other people. Can’t we just be ourselves? Wouldn’t that be enough? I think that’s what Jesus’ ministry was all about. 

We are most fully free to receive the imperfect love of others, embody love in ourselves, and give our love to others when we give up dependence on things and people to affirm who we are. So who are we? We are God’s unconditionally beloved. To give up dependency on things other than that assurance is to let love flow fully, freely.

Jesus loved Roman collaborators, adulterers, and maniacs. He loved the disciples who betrayed, denied, and abandoned him. He loved disease ridden lepers, the blind, crippled, sick, beggars, rich and poor, even crucified thieves. He loved them unconditionally then and he loves us now. He will never take that love away.

By giving up our dependency on others and becoming dependent on the love of God in Christ Jesus is to let love flow from us in every direction, including to those closest and dearest to us. To be fully human, to be authentically one’s own true self, is to know that we are loved by God in Christ Jesus. Dependency on anything else as more important opens the door to the corroding power of selfishness, fear and anxiety. It returns us to the mindset of the Middle Ages.

© Steven E. Woolley

Jesus In The Light Of Galilee’s History: an added dimension of understanding.

Jesus’ words and deeds have taken on a new dimension for me after reading a history of Galilee.*  Late as I am in my career, it isn’t too late to study the region’s history as it was where Jesus began and did most of his work to proclaim the good news that the kingdom of God was near, where he healed many people, and from where he walked for days and weeks to Jerusalem and surrounding territories.  So what were the conditions in Galilee during Jesus’ time?

It had not been a region of Israelite settlement since the Assyrian destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel many centuries before.  With encouragement from a newly reestablished priesthood, Jewish migration from Judea got into full swing in the first century B.C. after the Maccabean revolt. By the time of Jesus, Galilee had become a predominantly Jewish province with a culture and accent that Judeans took to be signs of country bumpkins.  Galileans were separated from Judea by the land of the despised Samaritans but maintained allegiance to the temple as the center of Jewish life and worship.  Nevertheless, they developed their own network of synagogues as gathering places for civic life and worship.  The area had long been under Greek or Roman control so gentile ways were not unfamiliar to the people.  In Jesus’ day the puppet king Herod Antipas ruled as Rome’s surrogate in an environment that fostered rebels, bandits, and self proclaimed messiahs. They were troublesome but easily put down.  Malaria was rampant in marshy lowlands, giving Galilee a reputation for being pestilent. Infant and new mother mortality rates were high.  Living into a “ripe old age” meant surviving past the age of 30.  The economy was agrarian, villages small, and and cottage industry diversified to produce the needs of daily life.  There were only two cities of any size: Sephora and Tiberius.  Sephora was the older and had Hellenistic origins.  Tiberius was a new city built by Antipas.  Few villagers ever went to them and there is no record that Jesus ever did.  

Gospel records and Sunday school illustrations present a different picture: one of pastoral landscapes, relatively peaceful villages, and prosperous fishermen. Jesus grew to maturity in the hilltop village of Nazareth where he experienced the reality of life in Galilee, both the good and bad.

He began his ministry not in Nazareth but along the shores of the Sea of Galilee and from there he called his first disciples.  In a mysterious way, the pastoral scenes depicted in the gospels were not entirely wrong. Wherever Jesus went he proclaimed that the kingdom of God had come near because he was its manifestation. Where he was the kingdom was.  In it was love, healing, reconciliation, and godly truth delivered in person by the Word of God made flesh. While others announced coming rebellions or an apocalyptic end of the world, Jesus promised that, through him, one could enter from this life into God’s eternal kingdom. No wonder people had a hard time understanding him.

He left the curious in awe of the authority in his voice calling all to love one another. What a different message in a land that bred rebels by the dozens.  They marveled at the healing power of his words and touch. They were astounded when he assumed the right to forgive sins.  Those who opposed him found themselves powerless to do anything despite their curses and threats of violence.  And so it was until the day Jesus chose for it to be otherwise.

What an odd place to begin the work of the world’s salvation: among villages of country people living in a region always on the edge of lawlessness, where Jews, gentiles and Samaritans bumped contentious elbows, and with a history of failed messiahs. His core followers were a ragtag group of fishermen, social misfits, Roman collaborators, and, of all things, women.  For all of it, his overwhelming presence of godly authority threatened Herod, annoyed Pilate, and unnerved the Jerusalem priesthood.

He couldn’t be stopped, not even by crucifixion.  One would expect the Jewish wars against Rome, starting in about 66 A.D., would have squelched any remembrance of a messiah who played by none of the rules. 

Unlikely things happen where God is involved.  As Rome had leveled Jerusalem and forced Jews out of the area, troublesome, backwater Galilee became the center of the Jewish world.  Rabbinic Judaism arose from Galilee to guide Jews throughout the world for the next two thousand years. Christianity, however, did not take root in Galilee, yet it spread quickly from there to every part of the Mediterranean and beyond.  If Christianity did not take root in Galilee, it was the garden where the seeds were sown for the world’s redemption, and where Judaism gained renewed life in a deeper faith.

©Steven E. Woolley

*Galilee In The Late Second Temple and Early Mishinaic Period: Life, Culture, and Society

David A. Fiensy, James Riley Strange, editors.

Fortress Press, 2014