Friday, November 26, 2010

Roger Williams: A Founder

Most of the Pilgrims and Puritans who ventured to this continent believed absolutely in their right to immigrate and lay claim to it. They furthermore believed that their version of Christianity was correct, and they tolerated no other versions. Such conviction gave them courage and direction.

Yet, as in all things and all times in history, a few people perceive the truth differently. Roger Williams was such a person.

He lived among the Puritans who founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and he was often the preacher in the pulpit. His unique opinions offended many, and he was forced to flee.

One of his opinions held that the Puritans had no right to seize Native American lands without contract and compensation. Such a notion was completely antithetical to a group who believed themselves ordained by God to carry His word into heathen places and enjoy the riches there. When Williams left Massachusetts Bay, he lived among the Native Americans for several months, surviving because of them and learning from them. When he established his own home and colony, he purchased from the indigenous Natives the land that later becomes the state of Rhode Island.

Another opinion that Williams offered is that Puritan church fathers had no right to discipline men and women for civil infractions. Williams believed that God’s law and man’s law are separate. Indeed, he is one of the first to distinguish between the State and the Church, calling for a separation of powers.

Williams’ seventeenth century beliefs have been tested over time, and the United States has affirmed Williams’ vision. Our judicial system has ruled that reparation should be made to the first Americans. Tribes have sovereignty and income as a result.

In addition, we have long held that the Church and State must be separate in order to insure religious tolerance and freedom. Having witnessed men and women burned at the stake for believing in a Protestant version of Christianity, the Founders feared a State religion that could punish, exile, and execute any who believed differently.

Williams was brave to speak so forthrightly for the rights of Native Americans. He was condemned for challenging the Church fathers. He is surely a man whom Thoreau, Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, and Leymah Gbowee would recognize as a brother.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Remembering the Founders

This month, in public and private schools across the nation, children learn about the Pilgrims who left England in search of a place where they could worship according to their consciences. They were absolutely certain that their quest was one ordained by God and praised Him for providing safe passage, land upon which to build, and life itself. Their courage is noteworthy.

The ship they will board has little room for cargo other than food and drink sufficient for a long voyage. They must choose from among their possessions, taking with them only the most essential and precious items, leaving everything else behind. Women must leave behind the family china, surrendering it to memory. Men let go of handmade keepsakes passed from father to son. Pilgrims shed their worldly goods, replacing them with an idea only: an unseen tomorrow built upon hope and made with faith.

Each dawn, Pilgrims must have searched the horizon for some sign that their mission was not undertaken in vain, for some sign of an Eden they could carve with their own labor. They must have chastised themselves if doubt wrapped itself around their hearts. They must have wondered if they were indeed among the chosen if they grew weak or became sick. Yet they persevered. They summoned courage to exchange the known world for an unknown one. They braced themselves for deprivation, and they suffered. Most Plymouth colonists perished; the survivors forged a partnership with the Wampanoag Indians, but when the Native Americans did not cooperate or refused to bend to the will of the Puritans, their religious intolerance and convictions allowed them to become brutal and cruel.

The Pilgrims and later the Puritans betrayed themselves by demanding religious conformity. They lacked compassion for others who did not believe as they did. They exiled, imprisoned, and executed the disobedient and different, and in doing so, they could not live up to John Winthrop’s vision for a perfect community, hereafter described in his own words from “A Model of Christian Charity,” 1630:

Now the only way to . . . provide for our posterity is to do Justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly . . . , for this end, we must be knit together in this work as one man, we must entertain each other in brotherly Affection, we must be willing to abridge our selves of our superfluities, for the supply of others’ necessities, we must uphold a familiar Commerce together in all meekness, gentleness, patience and liberality, we must delight in each other, make others’ Conditions our own, rejoice together, mourn together, labor, and suffer together, always having before our eyes our Commission and Community in the work, our Community as members of the same body, so shall we keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace.

How much courage will be needed to bring about such a community? How much compassion will be needed to care about the needs of others? How much sacrifice will be needed to insure that others have what they need? I challenge each of you to summon the courage, compassion, and selflessness required.

[Source for Winthrop's words: Note: I have altered spelling, using modern rules to make the passage easier to read.]

Friday, November 12, 2010

Icons of Courage: Henry David Thoreau

I admire Thoreau dutifully. He is an American icon who influenced Mahatma Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Nelson Mandela. He inspired the less well-known Chris McCandless to march to the beat of his own drum with words such as these: Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life you have imagined. McCandless, like the English Romantics and Thoreau at Walden, believed a man might be whole and fulfilled if he were fully open to Nature. As Thoreau said, I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

Thoreau was also a nay-sayer. He refused to continue as a teacher because the superintendent advised him to whip the children more often. He protested the government’s use of his tax money and spent a night in jail. He left off reading newspapers because each day’s edition repeated the news from the previous day: somewhere one human preyed upon another, machines failed to function, and fire or wind or water destroyed man’s best efforts to thwart those forces. He saw no point in reading the same tales over and over.

Indeed, Thoreau thought the best reading is the sort that one puts aside, having gleaned its lesson, in order to act as that lesson directs. Two principal lessons that Thoreau gleaned and imparted include:

o If you would convince a man that he does wrong, do right. Men will believe what they see.
o If the machine of government is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law

With each of these, Thoreau advocates for action, in particular for acting disobediently. A man must live what he believes, and he must dare to break unjust laws.

Thus, Thoreau may be characterized as the philosophical father of Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, and Leymah Gbowee, each of whom had the courage to be what Thoreau referred to as “finishers.”

All endeavor calls for the ability to tramp the last mile, shape the last plan, endure the last hours toil. The fight to the finish spirit is the one... characteristic we must possess if we are to face the future as finishers.

Can we find the courage to finish in the name of justice?

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Courage of Women: The Market Women of Liberia

No informed person doubts that Charles Taylor, former president of Liberia, is a despot, guilty of war crimes and human rights abuses. Witnesses against him are legion. Fewer people may be aware that courageous women, some of the Christian faith and some Muslim, joined hands and placed themselves in jeopardy to bring down Taylor and put an end to the Civil War he oversaw.

See the story of these women by buying or renting the documentary, Pray the Devil Back to Hell, by Gini Reticker and Abigail E. Disney. You may also visit journal/06192009/profile.html to see an interview with Ms. Disney, the producer of the documentary, and Leymah Gbowee, a woman whose vision inspired other women to trade their daily domestic duties and fear in a war-torn region for civil disobedience, transforming themselves from victims to defenders. These women may never have taken up arms, but they fought effectively and tirelessly to return peace to their homeland, one that is now led by a woman, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

Ms. Gbowee had a dream of peace, and she spoke from a Lutheran pulpit to share her dream, asking women to come together to pray for an end to the civil strife and rape as a weapon of intimidation and brutality. A Muslim woman, Asatu Bah Kenneth, joined Gbowee, pledging to gather Muslim women. Soon women of both faiths, women who had fled their villages and now lived in squalid refugee camps, joined to stage peaceful protests at the fish market in Monrovia, a place that Charles Taylor passed each day on his way from his home to his public quarters. Perhaps the women hoped that their presence would arouse the conscience (MLK, Jr.) of Taylor, but he ignored them.

Next, the women’s civil disobedience included a refusal to have sex with their husbands. In this way, the women applied pressure to the entire nation for now men joined the women in praying for peace--although the men’s motive was likely self-interest. Nevertheless, with both genders now desiring peace, efforts to bring about peace began, first with a formal petition submitted to Taylor, then with negotiations between war lords in Sierra Leone, and finally, with deliberations in Ghana.

There, the peace process moved agonizingly slowly, especially for the women who traveled to Ghana, leaving their livelihoods and families behind. Their sacrifice was becoming intolerable, yet the men felt no sense of urgency to end the civil strife.

The women had one final weapon: their nakedness. The men of their nation believe it a sin to see their mothers naked so these women, the emblematic matriarchs of Liberia, the consciences of their nation, threatened to bare themselves if the men did not return to peace talks and earnestly undertake them. The women’s tactic worked. They made the men ashamed for their inaction, and the men finally negotiated a treaty for peace.

When we doubt our abilities to make a difference, we should reflect upon Atticus, King, Mandela, and the Market Women of Liberia, especially upon Leymah Gbowee, the spiritual initiator of the protest and the one selected to read a petition to Taylor who had finally agreed to hear the women’s protest. Gbowee was not sure that she could stand so close to the nation’s tormentor and read the petition without giving voice to her rage and disdain. She wanted to tear the man apart rather than speak to him civilly when he had done nothing to insure safety and civility for his people. Gbowee then thought of all the deaths, the bloody violence imprinted on the hearts and minds of children. She thought of the sacrifices made by the protestors, and she subjugated her own desires, restraining them long enough to deliver a message for peace and hope.

We should hope that our characters are strong enough and brave enough to make such a stand for freedom, equality, voting rights, and peace. We should ask ourselves if we can act for the good of others in an uncertain future, then we must turn from fear and strive for the next generations.