Tag Archives: history

Who Is My Neighbor: the Quality of Mercy

A young man in his blue linen cloak paces the dimly-lit room, then looks out the window at the crowd gathering in the village square. His ambitions exceed his current station, but he expects that to change after today. He is a lawyer, which is to say he occupies a lower rung in the religious order. He steps down the mud brick stairs of his house to the courtyard, then walks through the arch and onto the street.

Shielding his eyes against the sun, now glowing white in a molten sky, he can clearly see the plaza. There are more people than he expected. Surprises irritate the young man, but he consoles himself that the larger audience suits his purpose. He walks briskly to the village square–he always moves briskly–thinking over his scheme to confront, and perhaps trap, the itinerant rabbi from distant Nazareth. His superiors cannot fail to be impressed.

Near the well, Jesus is talking to a small circle of men. As the lawyer approaches the crowd, he feels his hands sweating. Moving through the throng, he strides up to face the rabbi. After a modest  introduction, he asks, “How can I attain eternal life, Teacher?” He expects that Jesus’ answer will offend the orthodox and prove his undoing. The crowd is silenced by the lawyer’s boldness, just as he had hoped.

Jesus’  expression takes no note of the lawyer’s sarcastic tone and his voice is mild as he  turns the question back on his inquisitor, offering him a dialogue. The lawyer knows the law by rote and so he confidently quotes its letter. Jesus’ response, now provocative, exposes a chink in the lawyer’s armor. The lawyer tries an evasion. “Who is my neighbor, that I am to love?”

The crowd waits for their teacher to take up the challenge, perhaps with a sermon like the ones they have heard him deliver. Jesus smiles thinly, a knowing smile, but in his eyes there is a flash of anger. He has faced so many of these inquisitions–meant to trap him into some blasphemy–over the last year. The rekindled memories leave him inwardly seething. He has thought about the answer to this question, or one very like it, through cool, dark velvet nights with only the flickering fire as companion, and so He retains his composure.

Masking his anger with an even voice, Jesus tells a tale of two pious men who pass by a wounded stranger on the robber-plagued Jericho road, not even approaching him to see if alive or dead; and of the third traveler who stops to assist the man, bathing his wounds in oil and taking him to an inn for shelter. Jesus faces the lawyer, but the crowd is his real audience–and when mentioning the solicitous man, He calls him a Samaritan. Even his close followers glance at each other–did he really say Samaritan? According to Jewish tradition, Samaritans are despised outcasts; there is bitterness and enmity between the two peoples. A Samaritan as role model does not sit agreeably with the crowd, but Jesus had warned his followers that he had come to bring a sword.

His parable completed, Jesus asks the lawyer, “Which of these three, do you think, sir, was neighbor to him that fell among the thieves?” In the telling of the tale, his anger has faded; his voice is almost serene.

The lawyer’s arrogance has wilted in the Light. “He that showed mercy,” he replies, leaving unspoken the distasteful name, Samaritan.

Jesus’ voice is a friendly invitation. “Go and do likewise.”

As the Samaritan ministered to the injured man, so Jesus discerned the wounded spirit of the lawyer inside the cynical shell. He treated his foe with acceptance, but with the parable challenged him to think anew. In so doing, He placed before his audience a gift, allowing them to see, if they chose, that the quality of mercy is for outcasts as well as members of the tribe, for the reproachful as well as the faithful.

Sometimes a story’s meaning is inside, like a kernel in a husk; and other times the story’s most eloquent message is revealed by the manner of the narrator.

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Robert Kennedy: Leadership of Humane Purpose

Robert Kennedy’s words  touched the American spirit, transcending his death 50 years ago, with a truth that speaks to our time, too.

Robert Kennedy, campaigning in 1968

Robert Kennedy, campaigning in 1968

Yet we know what we must do. It is to achieve true justice among our fellow citizens. The question is not what programs we should seek to enact. The question is whether we can find in our own midst and in our own hearts that leadership of humane purpose that will recognize the terrible truths of our existence.

We must admit the vanity of our false distinctions among men and learn to find our own advancement in the search for the advancement of all. We must admit in ourselves that our own children’s future cannot be built on the misfortunes of others. We must recognize that this short life can neither be ennobled or enriched by hatred or revenge.

Our lives on this planet are too short and the work to be done too great to let this spirit flourish any longer in our land. Of course we cannot vanquish it with a program, nor with a resolution.

But we can perhaps remember, if only for a time, that those who live with us are our brothers, that they share with us the same short moment of life; that they seek, as do we, nothing but the chance to live out their lives in purpose and in happiness, winning what satisfaction and fulfillment they can.

Surely, this bond of common faith, this bond of common goal, can begin to teach us something. Surely, we can learn, at least, to look at those around us as fellow men, and surely we can begin to work a little harder to bind up the wounds among us and to become in our own hearts brothers and countrymen once again.

Memorial Day: Lest We Forget

On Memorial Day in the United States.  Lest we forget…

“As the sun disappeared below the horizon and its glare no longer reflected off a glassy sea, I thought of how beautiful the sunsets always were in the Pacific. They were even more beautiful than over Mobile Bay. Suddenly a thought hit me like a thunderbolt. Would I live to see the sunset tomorrow?”

Eugene B. Sledge, 1st Division, U.S. Marine Corps, WW2
from With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa

Guarding against the Dangers of Good Intentions

Good intentions will always be pleaded for every assumption of authority. The Constitution was made to guard the people against the dangers of good intentions. There are men in all ages who mean to govern well, but they mean to govern. They promise to be good masters, but they mean to be masters.

Daniel Webster, US Senator, 1827 – 1840,  known as “Defender of the Constitution”

Somewhere I Read of the Freedom of Speech

In bygone times, when you came across a political commentator  you found annoying, the solution was to change the channel. Now, an online mob forms with the fervent intention of silencing the offending voice. To the cyber barricades!   Hashtag campaigns, public shaming, boycott the advertisers! And ironically the mobs are often composed of those who label their opponents “authoritarian.” Ah, but the Constitution’s  45 word First Amendment and its resilient spirit of free speech  has proven to be  the most reliable bulwark against real authoritarians.

Dr. King: 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.

Conversion while Witnessing the Flames

For International Women’s Day, a story of a pioneer, Frances Perkins, first female U.S. Cabinet secretary, architect of the New Deal,  and the day that changed her life.

One spring day in 1911, Frances Perkins witnessed one of the most heart wrenching scenes in American history. The epiphany she then experienced led her to a path less traveled, as she became  the first female Secretary of Labor and the leading architect of the 1930s New Deal.

She was lunching that afternoon with friends at a small café in the Greenwich Village district of New York City. Nearby, the Triangle Shirtwaist factory occupied the upper floors of a grimy, rundown building. In crowded quarters, young immigrant women sewed clothes in nine hour shifts, six days a week, for paltry wages.

The Witness

While Perkins was sipping tea and conversing, a hidden fire smoldered in the lint and scraps of cloth  in the factory. When it flared up, the women ran to escape.  The fortunate discovered  a  way out, but many workers found exit doors impossible to open. Banging and pounding on the doors proved futile, and their desperate pleas went unanswered. One hundred feet above street level, they were trapped with the flames. The Triangle owners  had locked doors from the outside, so they could control the workers leaving the plant.

Smoke poured from the upper floors, and Perkins went into the street to see what was happening. Women climbed out of the windows and stood precariously on the  ledges, hoping for a miracle. The fire trucks arrived, but their ladders did not reach high enough. The firemen watched helplessly as women began to jump to their deaths, driven by the searing flames. One hundred forty-six workers perished. The youngest among them were fourteen year-old Kate Leone and Rosaria Maltese.

In a civil suit resulting from the fire, the plaintiffs were awarded $75 per deceased victim.  Two years later, one of the owners was found guilty of again locking factory doors during working hours, and he was fined $20.

The Path Less Traveled

Perkins, then 31, was a social worker by profession, but after watching the horror of the Triangle fire, she chose a  new direction. She threw herself into political reform to advocate for the working class. When women won the right to vote in 1920, more doors opened for skilled and dedicated women to rise in the progressive movement.

Perkins joined the administration of Governor Franklin Roosevelt in New York. When FDR became president in 1932, with the country prostrate and demoralized in the Great Depression, Frances Perkins became the Secretary of Labor. She was the first woman to serve in the Cabinet. She found herself right at home in the rough and tumble of national politics.  Perkins was tough, but she was also persuasive. She knew how  to work with people on their terms—an invaluable skill, particularly for a woman in the 1930s.

Perkins became the New Deal’s chief policymaker, overseeing reforms that would allow blue collar workers greater participation in American life. The American middle class flourished in this fertile soil. In the process, Roosevelt’s Democratic Party grew to be a broad coalition, with the working class as an integral  partner. This realignment of American politics endured for two generations.

The Charlatans

In 1968, a young man wrote a book entitled Revolution for the Hell of It. Abbie Hoffman was a leader of the late 1960s counter culture and the icon of a new social type, the celebrity protester. He was famous for being famous, and the television cameras, like faithful puppies, followed him from protest to protest.   His remarks, however inane, regularly made the evening news.  As his book’s title implies, Hoffman mocked the diligent efforts of reformers in the mold of  Frances Perkins. He was, indeed, openly derisive of the American working class and its culture and values.

It has been remarked that as the Vietnam War became more unpopular with the American public, the anti-war protestors became even more despised.   While this might seem a paradox, the attitude and behavior of the Abbie Hoffmans of that era dispels any apparent contradiction.  Although the vast majority of anti-war protestors demonstrated peacefully, the fringe who instigated violence were always sure to attract the media’s attention, and the American public reacted.  The provocateurs’  contempt for working class Americans goes a long way to explain the election of conservative Republican Richard Nixon as president in 1968 and his landslide re-election four years later.

Yet, a strange thing happened after the Democratic Party’s presidential election debacle in 1972. As the years went by, through the 1970s and the 1980s, the attitudes held  by the 1960s extremists migrated from the fringes to become more  prevalent in the Democratic Party. Perversely, repeated defeats led to a doubling down on failure.  Instead of a searching self-examination, Democrats of the leftist persuasion blamed the  voters, especially those in the working class who were white. This arrogance was no longer confined to the activists, but came to permeate the party leadership.

Frances Perkins would have been appalled, both on a personal and political level.  The Democratic Party had not only turned its back on her constituency, but it had also eschewed her politics of persuasion.