Tag Archives: Massachusetts

Founding Principles

That feeling is in the air. Autumn began to stretch its melancholy fingers into August this year. Even before the month was half over the mornings had that chill in them that sparked the trees to begin their slow process of shutting down for the winter. Not wanting to admit that it was time to send my daughter back to college, I resisted what is one of the most compelling senses of self-abnegation that can be known—fall, in all its glory. When I saw a blog post on the Salem Witch Trials, I knew I wasn’t alone. The nights are already longer, and that sunset over summer’s beach comes earlier each day. Salem has a way of bringing that home to me. Innocent people murdered for fictitious crimes. Much of the fear that led to this miscarriage of justice was, of course, inspired by religion. The colonials had a great fear of new religious movements. Although it is difficult to believe, Baptists were such a new religion at the time. Considering how Baptist sensibilities now drive much of the Religious Right, it is difficult to imagine that once upon a time, being a Baptist could lead to accusations of being a witch.

As much as the Religious Right likes to make claims to a primitivism that is completely fiction (Christianity has always been this way), we have lost touch with what it meant to be a Christian in early America. States (still colonies) had their religious preferences, some even established. If you were a Baptist you’d be most comfortable in Rhode Island. If you leaned Quaker, Pennsylvania was for you. When these disparate colonies banded together into a country, it was quickly realized that religious freedom was the only way for them to work together. The government, the state, could not determine matters of individual conscience. Until, that is, that we could declare that the views of particular individuals on birth control—as informed by their religious authorities—could legally deny their employees full health benefits. Oyer and Terminer, anyone?

Freedom is a beautiful idea. It is a concept that only works, however, if it is shared equally. When one faction claims liberty for itself while limiting it for others, we’ve fallen back into times when the Baptist at your door was more dangerous than the Devil in his Hell. And so we revise our history and make claims that America was founded as a Christian nation. Evidence can be ignored, or, failing that, revised. Nothing is written in stone. When you visit Salem, there is a quiet little park, off the beaten path. Under some weary old trees are a set of stone benches against a stone wall. On each of the benches are engraved the names of those executed for being imaginary monsters. The leaves on those trees are, I’m sure, beginning to turn. Soon they will silently fall, and only those who are made of stone will deny that autumn is upon us again.

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Soldiers of Forfeiture

Somebody, perhaps a robot, reads my blog. I can’t imagine what keeps this feeble enterprise going sometimes, since continued growth of readership has been elusive for several years now. Still, I get requests to post information on my daily soapbox, sometimes for issues of which I’ve never heard. Civil Forfeiture is one of those issues. I’ve only ever been stopped for driving too fast once. I’m not a speeder by nature, and it was an oversight in one of those slowdown zones between a highway and town. I had no idea, however, that civil forfeiture might happen without any conviction or charge. See the infographic below from one of my readers at arrestrecords.com.

Social justice is perhaps the leading motif in my existence. I was attracted to the life of the clergy out of a profound sense that life is unfair. As if it’s not bad enough that nature posts us each at unequal starting places, human society joins in the game by contributing rules that are inherently unfair. Healthcare in the United States, for example, has been unequally distributed. I had figured this out even as a child when my family doctor walked into the examination room with a lit cigarette dangling from his lips, asking why I was having trouble breathing. I didn’t know what chronic bronchitis was in those days, but thankfully I grew out of it. In any case, laws for fair treatment of all citizens should underlie any just society. Not just healthcare, but basic, constitutional rights.

Having been reared in a small community where arrest was not rare—most of the time certainly deserved—I was woefully ignorant about what a person was free to do. I still am, I guess. I go to work each day hoping that I don’t infringe on any unknown law that stands to make this land a nest of freedom. Having arrived in Boston with a migraine after driving all my worldly possessions from Pennsylvania back in 1985, I parked in Winthrop, outside my apartment, with the right wheels to the curb, just like every other car on the block. I stumbled inside and fell into my unmade bed. My first morning as a Massachusetts resident, I awoke to find a parking ticket on my windshield. I went to the police station to explain what happened only to have the receptionist say, like a line from Gilligan’s Island, “Ignorance of the law is no excuse.” I can think of no better excuse. Is a law degree necessary for fair treatment? Whom did I harm by parking with the rest of the residents? At least I didn’t face civil forfeiture. If I had, all they would’ve found would’ve been a few boxes of books and enough clothes to get me through the week—all my possession fit inside my VW Beetle in those days. What more does a person really need?

Civil Forfeiture, an infographic from ArrestRecords.com

To the Swift

Despite its generally secular reputation, one of the great charms of New England is its churches. I was forcefully reminded of this during my recent trip to Boston. Each city along the way boasts impressive churches that might be glimpsed even from the highway, and although there are now many taller buildings it is possible to imagine the days when the steeples stood over all. Boston’s historic churches remain stunning symbols of the power Christianity once held in this city. We first climbed off the T at Arlington in the shadow of the great stone Arlington Church. On the Esplanade the looming steeple of the Church of the Advent violently reminded me of the deep mysticism that drew me to the Episcopal Church even while I was a Methodist seminary student. Park Street Church, King’s Chapel, The Old North Church, the Old South Church, and finally Trinity Church in Copley Square invited us to gander and ponder. Almost like fossils, these churches remind us of the history of what made the city, or the nation, what it is.

Trinity Church lies nestled at the base of the John Hancock Tower, Boston’s tallest building. A blue glass Brobdingnagian, this prophet of capitalism represents the highest possible aspirations of our race, so we are led to believe. The material triumph over the spiritual. And yet the tourists stop to photograph the stunning church. It is on the street level, down here among us mere mortals. Upon closer examination, I noticed the statue of the tortoise and the hare in the plaza of Copley Square, the holy terrapin racing toward the sanctuary, it appears from my angle. It seems that I have unexpectedly received a kind of epiphany.

Look closely.

Look closely.

I first came to Boston many years ago as a spiritual seeker. In the intervening years during which I was attempting to find out what that might mean in a life that was intellectually honest, many bronze sculptures appeared in this city. The one commemorating Robert McCloskey’s Make Way for Ducklings, installed after I completed my studies at Boston University, would not have caught my pre-parental attention, as I had never read the book. Now you have to stand in line even to snap a picture. The work of local artist Nancy Schön, both “Make Way for Duckings” and “The Tortoise and the Hare” are part of Boston’s continual evolution of character. Officially, we are told, the turtle and rabbit are representative of the Boston marathoners who trudge the final feet past this church toward the finish line. To me, this sculpture suggests something more as the hare dawdles and the tortoise breaks toward the church. It may be a marathon, indeed, but the race, I remind myself, is not always about being swift.

Fish Fridays

There’s an old myth among Protestants that on Fridays Catholics eat fish because fish are sinless animals. As far as I’ve been able to determine, this is pure fabrication on the part of curious outsiders. Still, it has grown a mythology of its own. Some say that the non-pecuniary piscines are that way because they, naturally, survived the flood. I’ve often wondered how that impacted the fresh-water varieties of fish, or if they evolved after the fact. In any case, the story, it seems, has grown with the telling. Fish on Fridays has nothing to do with the fish and everything to do with the people. And so does standing in line.

DSCN4792The New England Aquarium is, ironically, one of the big draws on a rainy day in Boston. I’ve stood in longer lines before, but after a late night of truncated fireworks and waiting an hour for a T train home after being thoroughly soaked, it is a test of endurance to stand for over an hour-and-a-half in rain encouraged by Hurricane Arthur. To see fish. To find sinlessness. The ocean, it always seems to me, is one of the places where human greed has not yet been fully realized (not that we haven’t tried) but in which we’ve dipped our polluting fingers time and again. Still, fish are fascinating. Watching them make lazy circles around the 200,000-gallon giant ocean tank, the many ways that creatures have evolved to swim enchants me like a kid. Of course, the real draw, for many, is the penguins. Psychologists have explored the human fascination with anthropomorphized animals. Penguins in their “formal attire,” clumsily totter about on two legs and occasionally display very human behavior. At feeding time some are polite, waiting their turn, while others are aggressive and pushy. If someone is too greedy, the bird next in line will push him or her off the rock into the water, where the offender has to come back to the group, having lost his or her place. Where does sin enter this picture?

Seeing fish on Friday has me wondering why we declare some animal behavior sinful and other animal behavior saintly. Wandering the four stories of this aquarium crowded with others seeking to avoid the rain is often like looking into a mirror. Do these animals realize they are trapped? Although the sea lions and seals seem happy and enthusiastic, and the penguins just bored, it is difficult to read the face of a fish. So after a long day standing, my family heads back into the rain, hoping to make it to some restaurant before this rain beats our weary umbrellas into utter submission. There’s almost no traffic today, but one driver speeds through the puddles down the great coastal highway 1, completely soaking those waiting to cross to drier climes. The wall of water coming at us would’ve made Cecil B. DeMille envious. It’s a holiday and I can’t figure what the hurry is as my second and last pair of shoes grows waterlogged from this selfish gesture only to get through the light. I’m pretty certain I’ve discovered where sin is, however, and it is definitely just outside the aquarium.

Freedom Trail

The machine gun on the bow of the National Guard boat would’ve impressed me as a boy. Now it kind of scares me. The helicopters overhead pass frequently. Police on jet skis chase girls in a canoe away from the shore of the Charles as if they were piloting a landing craft on D-Day. A whole blessed platoon of chartreuse-garbed police on bicycles pedal by, some clearly out of shape, creating a presence. It has been a quarter century since I’ve been in Boston to celebrate our freedom. I wonder where it’s gone. To get onto the Esplanade you have to be brushed with a metal detector. Although the web site said backpacks would be searched, the guy at the gate claims it said they were not allowed at all. “You can empty it out”, he said, “and put the contents in a plastic bag,” but the empty cloth must stay here under a tree like a naughty dog. “Happy Independence Day,” he says. I wonder if he’s aware of the irony.

Big Brother

Big Brother

We have become the most skittish home of the brave I know. We are being watched, we are told, for our own good. The watcher is not some enemy nation, but our own “leaders.” Lead us not, I pray, into temptation. I wonder when we considered chasing girls in a canoe away from the shore a matter of national security. In 1985 I called Boston home. When my wife and I came to the Fireworks Concert as a young engaged couple, we lazily wandered down to the Esplanade, plopped on a free bit of grass and saw maybe an officer or two the entire day. Now everyone on this grassy strip is treated as if they’re on a grassy knoll. Armed police on boats cruise the shore to make sure we’re minding our manners. After dark that helicopter spotlight can’t help but to make you feel guilty of something. There’s a hurricane coming, and three tons of fireworks are sitting anxiously on the barges in the river. The concert begins, but soon so does lightning. They skip right to the fireworks, forget the 1812 Overture. I wonder about my evil backpack under the tree.

The woman behind me is talking to her companion about how illogical the backpack rule is. “If the bag is empty, why can’t you take it in?” she asks. I’m not one to talk to strangers, but I have to turn around to agree. We exchange horror stories about being screened at the airport. Doesn’t anybody see how offended our revolutionary forebears would’ve been by such a military presence in peacetime? What if some crazed national decided to do something insane? Would that wicked machine gun hit me and my family, right on the waterfront, while trying to get the perpetrator? Are we collateral damage on the trail to freedom? Or is freedom even in the picture any more? We can’t let the terrorists win. Every time we face a backpack full of homemade explosives with hundreds and hundreds of chunky guys on bicycles and hovering our heads with deadly force, I can’t help but think it’s no contest. There’s a hurricane coming. They rush through the fireworks and I join the other owners of dispossessed backpacks looking for my luggage. Then the fattest raindrops I have even felt begin to fall.

Word of God in Bulk

Bay_Psalm_Book_LoCThe Salem witch trials were still half a century in the future. The Puritans, hoping for religious freedom, had come to Massachusetts. Despite prevailing attitudes toward the religious, the Puritans were keen on learning and began printing books. The first book printed in English in North America was the Bay Psalm Book. You see, the Psalms have a particularly important place in Christian (and Jewish) worship. In fact, much of what would later develop into the daily offices in the Church of England, adapted from the breviaries of the Roman Catholic Church, were services that started essentially as vehicles for reciting the Psalms. It is fair to say that Christian worship might have never taken on the elaborate forms that it has without the underlying recitation of the Psalter. The Bay Psalm Book, printed in 1640, is now the most expensive book ever sold at auction. According to the New York Times, one of the eleven known Bay Psalm Books has just sold for over 14 million dollars. The Bible has a way of continuing to surprise us.

As someone who has more Bibles than your average layperson, I find it isn’t difficult to think that Bibles are fairly common. They are. I actually switched to The Green Bible in my classes out of the ecological concern that there have been over six billion Bibles printed. The Gideons give them away, and even the Christian heavy metal band Stryper used to throw handfuls of Bibles into the crowds. Chances are, in the United States, you are not physically far from a Bible at any given moment. So why would someone pay 14 million dollars for one? The answer goes deeper than the suggestion that the Psalms contain timeless truths—you can get those free on the internet anytime—but that it is part of our heritage. We are who we are, in part, because of the “Bible believing” founders of our culture. Survival was not taken for granted in the mid-seventeenth century. The Bible was a pillar of certainty in dangerous times.

Yes, interpretations of the Bible have led to horrendous results. There is no point in denying the guilt. Hermeneutics, however, is a human activity. The Bible gives as well as takes away. Some of us may never have a million dollars to spend. Many people don’t have enough to eat. Specialists tell us that some 45 million Bibles are printed each year. Bibles are big business. In the words of Big Dan from O Brother, Where Art Thou? “Sales, Mr. McGill, sales! And what do I sell? The Truth! Ever’ blessed word of it, from Genesee on down to Revelations! That’s right, the word of God, which let me add there is damn good money in during these days of woe and want! Folks’re lookin’ for answers and Big Dan Teague sells the only book that’s got ‘em!” David M. Rubenstein, the buyer of the book, intends to send it around to libraries to display. Although I’ve spent over forty years studying the Bible, it takes the skills of a man from an investment firm to earn enough money to buy one. And I wonder if that’s Big Dan I hear laughing, or perhaps it’s just the sound of Puritans singing in the wilderness.

To the Flag

In the great witch hunt that began (or perhaps simply continued) with the Neo-con upsurge in which big business climbed into bed with theological conservatives, the pledge of allegiance became the acid test of true Americans. The Communists were now fading as a threat, and to be patriotic requires a clear and present enemy, so the un-Americans could be found among those who refused to pledge allegiance to a flag. In a recent CNN story, a case is going to court in Massachusetts to remove the words “under God” from the pledge. The dilemma is as simple as it is complex—children who do not believe in God may either recite what they don’t believe, or be ostracized for opting out. (Those of us who make a habit of opting out of things know the feeling well.) The argument goes that children are pledging loyalty to their country, not to a religion. Why should they be forced to say what they don’t believe?

The pledge has an interesting history. The original oath, a celebration of the now much-suspect Columbus Day, was intended as a quick credo of loyalty. No deity of any sort was invoked. Over time, additions started to creep into the pledge (the original version read “I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one nation indivisible, with liberty and justice for all”). It was not until after the tremendous horrors of World War II, when society was over-reacting to all kinds of threats, real and imaginary, that the words “under God” were added, in 1954. Godless Communists beware! Like the original pledge, this emended pledge celebrated a civil holiday—Flag Day.

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Nationalism could well be considered a form of religion. Customs differ in various parts of the world, and highlighting the differences allows for the conferring of unique advantages among the members. True capitalism cannot work in a culture of complete fair play or equality. Nations must be able to declare ownership and control of resources, including those known to every “human resources” officer in the universe as the most troublesome kind. To be useful to a nation, loyalty must be pledged. And children, who don’t have the experience or psychological development to make an informed choice about the Almighty, must say that they believe in “one nation, under God,” where “one nation indivisible” has itself been divided by God. Don’t get me wrong, I am glad to be an American—I can’t imagine being anything else. But I especially like the part about “liberty and justice for all.”