Category Archives: essays on culture

Conversations with Athena

 

In the conversation that followed, we recalled the June day, over ten  years ago, when we had first sat next to each other in a public speaking class.  She teasingly reminded me how shy I had been.

I pictured her back then, sharing scenes from her social life: her stories a playful medley, drawing me in, subverting my best defenses.   High school I had spent seeking refuge in a social cubbyhole. Finding myself seated next to this blonde, lissome girl proved a culture shock. I might as well have shared a desk with the goddess Athena; our early conversations had been that one-sided. Linda had been patient with her shy neighbor, and gradually our conversations became a partnership. Through getting to know her, I had stepped into the sunlight. Seeing her again, I wanted to share this, but it came out this way: “I still think of our conversations before class. You were quite the raconteur.”

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Fate and Heroism; a Musical Storm

Tacquamenon Falls, Michigan

As Georges Danton was to the French Revolution—“Audacity, audacity, and  always audacity!”—so Ludwig van Beethoven was to music in their time.

Beethoven battled to create a musical revolution, to free  the present from the past, a revolutionary tempest deposing  aristocratic elegance.  On an autumn evening,  I looked forward to Sturm und Drang in musical form, courtesy of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.

With a biting chill in the night air, winter served notice that its arrival was not far off, and the mild, sunny days of fall must give way.  Inside Detroit’s Orchestra Hall, with its elegant decorations and muted light, warmth would well  up from the music on  stage .

The evening’s musical program began with a pleasant surprise, a mood piece unfamiliar to me.  A discordant modern arrangement followed, with the evening’s anticipated musical sparks to be struck after the intermission.

After the brief respite, the musicians, in their black-and-white formal wear, returned to their places.  The conductor strode briskly to the podium to generous applause.  When he raised his baton, the orchestra came to life, like toy soldiers suddenly animated in a Christmas fantasy.  The string section played the most recognizable opening bars in music, the staccato notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.  Fate knocking.  Drawn in by the magnetism, the audience leaned forward in their seats.

The ominous tones of Fate were–after some lighter fare– answered by the clarion call of Heroism in the final movement, sung in shining tones  by the brass instruments.  In a liberation  of emotion, the Hero triumphed in aggressive chords driving to  the finale.  The audience, released from the music’s grip, responded with its own storm of applause.

The symphony is symbolic of Beethoven himself, or of the Revolutions of his time, if you prefer.

Strolling out again into the crisp night, I found myself reflecting that the heroic spirit of Beethoven’s Fifth lies dormant in our time.  It is perhaps sleeping in a vault with old clips of John F. Kennedy speaking, his finger jabbing the air.  Or captured on grainy film of Jackie Robinson dancing on the base paths, and  facing down the racists as he broke major league  baseball’s color bar.

Today, we are in desperate need of men and women to take up the baton, to show audacity in the face of today’s pervasive cynicism and nihilism.   Fate is knocking, yet we await Heroes to answer the call.

Leadership, Love, and the Last Full Measure of Devotion

Fugitive slaves seek the Promised Land

Abraham Lincoln’s expressive face impressed  an author who remembered  Lincoln’s gray-brown eyes as perhaps the saddest he had ever seen. “Yet, when a good story was told,” the author recalled, “whether by himself or another, his homely face lighted up till he was positively handsome.” In a largely pre-photographic world, however, the American people would come to know their president’s human quality  by his moral courage and empathy.

As the green  leaves of summer  took on fall colors in 1862, one year after the Civil War’s opening battles, Lincoln’s courage and political judgment faced a defining  test. The president announced, on the eve of a critical election, that he would issue the Emancipation Proclamation, which would put slavery on the path to extinction.  Significant numbers of the  North’s white voters, harboring visceral racial prejudices, despised the Proclamation. Even moderate Republicans balked over this issue. As a result, Lincoln’s party suffered major losses in that fall’s Congressional elections.

Why had not Lincoln, arguably American history’s shrewdest politician, waited until after the elections for his unpopular move? Certainly, that has been the course taken by  recent presidents. Yet, Lincoln knew that the loyalty and trust of the common people was an asset to be valued far above rubies, in the words of Proverbs, and not to be wasted  buying electoral advantage with dishonesty. If the nation were to endure the Civil War, he needed the people’s  trust. Indeed, for the coming trial by fire, Lincoln needed to win their love. Losing Congressional seats was simply the price that had to be paid to strengthen Lincoln’s bond with the people–as someone who meant what he said. Such is the sterner stuff of which leadership is made.

It does not surprise us to learn that when the Union cause was at its low ebb, the common people, though war weary, retained their personal affection for  Lincoln. Their faith in him endured, even during the  summer of 1864, when the casualty lists from the murderous battles in Virginia brought sorrow to every crossroads hamlet and town in the North. Their ranks dwindling daily, the toughest soldiers on the planet, the Union’s Army of the Potomac, still knew Lincoln simply as Father Abraham. Their chosen name for him testified both to their religious faith and their love for their commander. The reverential term, used by black and white soldiers alike, expressed as clearly as a bell that true leadership’s touchstone is love. With this emotional bond, Lincoln’s soldiers gave their last full measure of devotion, winning for the nation a new birth of freedom.

Where There Is No Vision, the People Perish

Be sure you put your feet in the right place; then stand firm.   —Abraham Lincoln

In the gray half-light before the dawn, a leader offers a vision of moral clarity, while avoiding the trap of self-righteous moralizing.   As the Proverb teaches, where there is no vision, the people perish.  Yet, a leader often has to rein in his more zealous followers in service of the broader cause. Otherwise, the zealots by their intolerance will repel many of the undecided who could still be persuaded.

Abraham Lincoln mastered the  political craft during decades of seasoning in the rough-and-tumble of local politics before he took his trade to  the White House.  Although influenced by the racial prejudice common to white people of his day, his conviction never wavered that, “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.”  Lincoln’s clarity on the immorality of slavery was a beacon for his countrymen, and his sincerity  was his bond with the common people.   Having found his own solid ground, he stood firm in curbing the excesses of the  Abolitionists, whose rigidity would have sabotaged the Union’s cause before battle with the Confederates had been fairly joined.

If the trumpet is uncertain, asked St. Paul, who will answer the call to battle?  Times of great change, whether in Lincoln’s day, our Revolution, the New Deal, or the New Frontier, call for leadership that provides moral clarity, and keeps the movement  to the straight and narrow path, rather than straying into  self-righteous posing. To America’s  sorrow, no such leader has come forward for almost 50 years.  This lack results in an  impasse:   “The old is dying, yet the new cannot be born.”

Let He Who Is Without Sin Cast the First Stone

let he who is without sin cast the first stone

Reclaiming the spirit of the law

(Repost)

A feverish look shines from the eyes of a young woman as three men in cloaks of fine linen march her into the village square. Her skin is the color of olives; her long, dark hair is not plaited.  She wears a plain robe woven from wool and on her feet sandals of leather. Derisive catcalls and cries of “Adulterer!” “Harlot!” greet her from the gauntlet through which she is pushed and prodded. The white disk of the noonday sun allows no  forgiving shadows.

 The local Inquisitors are using the young  woman as bait, setting a trap to ensnare an itinerant rabbi from far-off Nazareth, who teaches in parables and dares to question their authority. They confront him as he stands near the well, observing the trial about to begin. The laws of Moses command that adulterers be stoned, they taunt him, what say you about this one?

Jesus knows his foes well, these thin-lipped dogmatists of the letter of the law. In all their studies of the prophets, they have forgotten nothing and learned nothing. He has foiled their stratagems before, and he regards them with an expressionless scorn. The crowd impatiently awaits his reply.  Stones in hand, they have their work to do.  Jesus does not speak immediately. Looking  over the crowd, he  says in a voice that carries to the far side of the square:

“He that is without sin among you, let him cast a stone at her.”

Jesus fixes a steady gaze on the Inquisitors, as their smirk of arrogance fades. Those among the crowd who a minute ago were crying for the woman’s blood now have silent tongues. The faintest of breezes rustles the leaves on the sycamore trees. Somewhere in the distance, a child cries. The  Pharisees are reduced to shuffling away in silence; not a word of response have they spoken. They are convicted by their own consciences. The crowd disperses, pondering Jesus’ words. “What does it mean?” a voice asks. No one has a ready answer.

The young woman alone remains with Jesus. She stands silently, in a daze. The cold sweat trickles down her back. I do not condemn you, Jesus says, and she feels the strength returning to her legs. She begins to weep, as relief flows  through her like a river. But Jesus is not one for situational ethics.    He places a hand on her shoulder and says,  “Go, and sin no more.” Before leaving, the woman gets a cool cup of water from the well and offers it to Jesus. He smiles, but with sadness in his eyes, and thanks her.

For one sun bleached afternoon, the law tempered with mercy is redeemed from the ones with bloodless lips who would see it etched into stone. Jesus has spared a woman who broke one of Moses’ laws; in so doing, he has invited the wrath of the patriarchs.  Jesus knows that soon they will have their day.

Reconciliation Is More Beautiful than Victory

April 9, 1865, the signal act of reconciliation in American history took place –in the dusty hamlet of Appomattox, Virginia. The last embers of the Civil War were dying, as had 625,000 soldiers, blue and gray.  The courtly Southerner, Robert E. Lee, came to surrender his threadbare army, and he met the most unlikely of counterparts.  Union General Ulysses S. Grant had been a clerk in a leather goods store when the war began.  He wore his usual ordinary soldier’s coat, spattered with mud, and only distinguished by the three stars in each lapel.

When the papers were signed, Lee thanked Grant for his surprisingly generous terms.  Union soldiers watched respectfully as the gray-clad troops filed past; the order had come down from Grant that there was to be no celebration.  Most importantly, the terms of surrender ensured that there would be no retribution against Confederate officers.  Since General Grant,  hero to the public in the North, had signed the document, the radicals and newspaper editorialists could shout for trials and vengeance until they were hoarse, but it would avail them nothing.

The previous month, in his Second Inaugural Address, President Lincoln had anticipated the war’s end with the words, with malice toward none, with charity for all.  He pledged to bind up the nation’s wounds and to care for those who had borne the battle, and their widows and orphans.  Nowhere did he distinguish between blue and gray soldiers.

The common wisdom might be that the Southerners were the beneficiaries of Grant and Lincoln’s generosity.  The better  view of reconciliation is found in the words of Shakespeare.  The quality of mercy is not strained, the Bard wrote.  It is twice blessed, blessing him that receives, but also he that gives.  By choosing reconciliation, the victor eschews the darker, revengeful  side of human nature.  He is then touched, as Lincoln said, by the better angels of our nature.  Given the fertile soil of accommodation, the slow process of evolutionary growth can proceed.

Significantly, with the abandonment of post-war Reconstruction, the promise of reconciliation was denied the freedmen, even the 180,000 who had fought valiantly in the Union Army.  This retreat from equality remained a  stain on the nation’s record for a century.

In recent decades, the simple, but profound message of the meeting between the aristocrat and the former store clerk at Appomattox Court House has been lost in the noxious atmosphere of American politics.  Triumph at the polls is now the occasion for contempt, not respect, for the vanquished.  The new majority arrogantly rams through its agenda without concern for the minority’s deeply held values.  Reconciliation?  How quaint.  However, as Lincoln, Grant, and Lee knew, victory without reconciliation is a prescription for an endless cycle of rancor and revenge.

“Reconciliation is more beautiful than victory.”
Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, President of Nicaragua, 1990

Hew out of the Mountain of Despair a Stone of Hope

April 4, 1968, America lost Dr. Martin Luther King to a sniper’s bullet.  That evening, ignoring police warnings of violence, Robert Kennedy spoke to the black community of Indianapolis in the most  heartfelt speech I have heard   He spoke in words of anguish, yet he offered hope for America, thus echoing Dr. King’s call to “hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.”  While rage at Dr. King’s murder exploded into riots in scores of American cities, Indianapolis was spared violence.  Perhaps because people there  believed a leader actually cared?  Robert Kennedy’s voice, though silenced 2 months later by an assassin, speaks to us today.

What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but is love, and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.

—Robert Kennedy, April 4, 1968