Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Iceberg Dead Ahead! Key Threats Which Will Sink America


“Before a downfall the heart is haughty, but humility comes before honor.” (Proverbs 18:12, NIV)

If the American people were to wake up to the wisdom of the words above, we would realize - as some undoubtedly have already come to suspect - that America’s perceived greatness and its near-global hegemony stand atop a house of cards. As even the Chinese dictator Mao Zedong could clearly see, American dominance was and continues to be “a paper tiger… unable to withstand the wind and the rain,” the foolish man who builds upon a foundation of sand instead of rock.

Much of this underlying weakness is ignored because of the haughtiness of the ruling political class, made evident by the continued lack of accountability in the government in facing up to America’s major systemic problems: police brutality, suppression of the right to peaceably assemble, lagging school systems, child poverty and hunger, the obscene costs of higher education, and the titanic military-surveillance matrix. All of these problems have occurred and intensified under what many refer to as the “Pax Americana,” and, adding to the already paralyzing ironies, are almost all issues of illiberality and lack of resources in what we are told is the freest and wealthiest nation in the history of, well, history.

I am interested here in pointing out the two major contemporary reasons that the heart of America is being steered on a treacherous course toward a wider downfall. The first culprit is American exceptionalism, the religion of the patriot and the tool of many a phony statesman to remold the sensibilities and good intentions of the common man. While the civil religion of American exceptionalism should ring warning bells in the minds and hearts of American evangelicals, they tend to be one of the main proponents of its pillars and precepts. Instead of worshiping God, our timeless, loving Father, so many Americans profess a form of Christianity which aligns itself nigh-inseparably with the fleeting, hateful interests of the modern federal government. It is one thing to believe that the maxims of liberty and equality of man at America’s founding are ideas worth continuing, and it is quite the opposite thing to mock God with blind reverence for the rusting hull of our ever-growing ship of state. One way that we as citizens can work to clean the barnacles from her side and help her push past these choppy waters is to recognize that we have a problem. This may seem simple, but American exceptionalism thrives when we do not ask simple questions like: “where are my tax dollars going?”; “why do so many other nations hate us?”; “would I trust the people I vote for to watch my kids for five minutes at Wal-Mart?” This last question brings us to the next large part of the problem.

The other guilty party in this “haughtiness dilemma” is the President of the United States. Not simply the current chief executive, mind you. In reality, all of our nation’s Presidents since the Second World War have either overlooked America’s harmful trajectory or been actively complicit in it. It is a prerequisite of the office since its founding to appeal to some form of American exceptionalism, but this can come in forms less putrid than its modern manifestations. It can come in the form of calls to live up to the noble ideals of our Declaration of Independence or in calls to hope and the perseverance of community after disaster strikes. The latter occurred briefly following the attacks of September 11, 2001, and far more recently in the immediate aftermath of the George Floyd murder. However, both times were short-lived. The character of the people had been poisoned by the prevalence of American exceptionalism; its rabid supporters and those who see its evils manifested cannot long see eye to eye. Disappointingly, it has been so long since America has had a President who consistently works to build hope and community at home or abroad that a good number of people alive today have not lived in such an America. I know I certainly haven’t had that experience, even when I was too young to remember such things. Presidents certainly have their shining moments; even those of the “polished turd” variety. Southerner President Johnson signed landmark civil rights legislation. Radical cold-warrior President Nixon opened talks with China and established arms limitation treaties with the Soviet Union. Regardless, one thing that holds modern Presidents together is their hubris and inability to let haughtiness give way to humility. Even when a President is forced to apologize when scandals see the light of day, they keep working on their next schemes behind closed doors.

The lack of humility and honor in the modern executive branch is exemplified in its current leader, President Trump. Something new is happening; where Presidents once put on at least a facade of apology, President Trump has realized a level of executive arrogance that causes him to feel no need to admit to his wrongs. Instead, he gloats and spins tales that are often so absurd that they cannot be disproven by traditional means. This should not necessarily be an issue in a republican form of government, but President Trump wields the simplistic and worshipful rhetoric of American exceptionalism like few others; he certainly wields it well enough to keep a vast proportion of eligible voters convinced that things like health-care reform, defense spending reductions, or a less violence-prone policing system are steps toward the rebirth of Joseph Stalin.

I do not propose that the solution to a marvelous new America would be to give up all vestiges of American national pride. Pride in the incredible scientific and industrial achievements and founding values of the United States is something that I never give up despite my misgivings about America’s modern violence, corporatism, and hypocrisies. I propose the rejection only of the core tenets of American exceptionalism doctrine. Devotion to a flag and an anthem and a powerful President obscures the uses of critical thinking, reasoned judgments, and the right of the people to decide their representatives and their destinies. Faith should be placed in the Almighty who died for our sins, not in the power of a hellishly equipped military to exert our will on the unwilling. Schools should pass out more Constitution booklets instead of pounding the Pledge of Allegiance into our children's’ impressionable heads. Before our President holds up a Bible in the streets, his government should guarantee that those same streets are not the sites of police shootings or chemical attacks on the peaceably assembled.

Those in command and in places of privilege on board the Titanic when it sank were those most confident in its invincibility. They were also the least likely to perish should anything go awry. They plotted full steam ahead into the abyssal night despite reasoned judgement. Their level of “Titanic exceptionalism” was unchecked. Before our national vessel is torn asunder by the mass on the horizon, we the people must reject American exceptionalism for a reasoned love of nation; nation not as a machine of progress, but as a community meant to seek domestic tranquility and promotion of the understanding of the equal station naturally given man by his God to all nations, not as their barbaric invaders but as their willing company.
Konrad Hodgman is an ACN Peace Scholar and currently sits on the ACN Steering Committee. He is a Junior at Ashland University majoring in International Political Studies, Political Science, and History with a minor in Ethics.

Thursday, September 17, 2020

What's It All About?

When I need inspiration to handle a world that seems to be spinning out of control, my “go to” book is “Make Us Aware: The Writings by Dr. James Leslie”.  Dr. Leslie was chaplain of Ohio Wesleyan University from 1960-1988, very tumultuous times, indeed. The “James Leslie Center for Peace and Justice” was established in 2007 at OWU and this book was lovingly published by his colleagues in 2010. As I participated last week in the OWU Alumni Book Club to discuss it, I was moved by the long-lasting, profound impact he has had on his students and am absolutely convinced that his legacy will live on in perpetuity. I’d like to share a piece “What’s It All About?”. 

Full disclosure, I’m not an alum of OWU. However, to tell my journey with the nonviolence movement and the importance of activism means to start with my earliest years growing up in Delaware, Ohio, participating in programs sponsored by this chaplain’s office. He was my best friend’s father and a major influence in my life until his death. My eyes were opened to social justice, racial reconciliation, and world peace. During those turbulent times of the 1960’s, Dr. Leslie provided opportunities to process and protest the deaths of John Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King, the Vietnam War, the very first seeds of what we call today “Black Lives Matter”, to name a few. As a 14-yr old boy, he sat in Mahatma Gandhi’s hut and listened while Gandhi and his father discussed matters of faith and world affairs. He and MLK were awarded their doctoral degrees from Boston University on the same day.  Dr. Leslie’s orientation to the world was something I never would have experienced had he not organized thoughtful and peaceful vigils, speakers, protests, sit-ins, and marches. He taught me to view the world through a non-violent/civil rights lens. To realize that silence and inaction often translate to acceptance and agreement. That to not participate in the process for the change you want to see means you will forever live with the results of a world much different than it should be. To speak truth to power. 


And, now, his words, originally heard at an Alumni Convocation in June 1974. I hope you will agree with me that these words are as relevant and inspirational today as they were then.


What's It All About?

 What is it all about? It's about people. in a certain Midwestern college, in a county seat, coming together to renew friendships and memories, mostly pleasurable, but some sad.

It's about remembering traditions, of gathering in this place with these people, to keep in touch with each other and the world that surrounds us and sometimes engulfs us.

It’s about taking time to remember who created us and to try once again to discover why.

It’s about lowering our defenses for sixty minutes to confront one another and God.

It's about a world that is hurting right now more than we can comprehend. And it's about many of us who can't remedy such hurt and who are frustrated by it.

It's about people sometimes ignoring other people in faraway places with strange sounding names.

It's about a presence, and a power, to whom we choose to go for help.

It's about time.

It's about time we woke up to what's going on around us.

It's about time we recognized the skills we have at our fingertips, necessary for healing, for calming, for building, and for rebuilding.

It's about minds that can sort out good intentions from difficult attempts.

It's about people who want to do what is right and often end up satisfying their own appetites, and it's about guilt feelings for doing just that.

It's about humans being inhuman to each other.

It's about the same humans being dissatisfied with what has been, and trying now to make changes, to make a difference.

It's about God, trying to get through to us, and about us, being very trying, and sometimes, sometimes, catching glimpses of God in people, in actions and even in ourselves.

It's about time to begin.


Barbara Schmidt-Rinehart (Ph.D., The Ohio State University, Second Language Acquisition and Spanish Linguistics) is Professor of Foreign Languages at Ashland University. Her academic areas of research and publications focus on forms of address in Costa Rica, professional development abroad for US teachers of Spanish, and the homestay component of study abroad. She is the director of the “AU in Costa Rica” program and serves on the ACN Steering Committee.

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Pete Seeger, Selma, and Kenosha: Thoughts on Nonviolence and our Neighbors in Troubled Times


“I believe that in the period of history we are entering, it is going to be very difficult to love a large portion of the human race living here in the USA.”  -- Pete Seeger, June  6, 1965

I have spent the strange and terrible summer of 2020 alternately researching the life and work of songleader and folklorist Pete Seeger and standing with my Black Lives Matter sign on the corner of Main and Claremont. Seeger, the banjo picker and lifelong activist, has had a lot to say to me as trucks roar by and voices yell at the small band of Ashland’s persistent witnesses.

Around sixty days into the demonstrations, a nice old gentleman pulled up at the light, rolled down his window. “Thank you for not being like those violent protesters,” he said. He had obviously been watching the news filled with the late-night stand-offs in Portland: the tear gas, riot gear, umbrellas, fire and broken glass. He had also been listening to the political rhetoric designed to incite fear rather than offer insights to calm and heal.  But he had observed the motley collection of local people standing downtown and we didn’t match that reality: we hadn’t smashed, burned or looted anything.

His compliment struck us as absurd.

We are, indeed, a nonviolent protest but, honestly, what other option would we even have?  Certainly there are some of us who embrace Jesus’ ethic of loving enemies and refusing to strike back but others find that kind of talk naive and irritating. What unites us is our anger at the terrible life-destroying statistically undeniable bias in our country’s justice system. We have been heartened by the honks of support and look of joy and surprise on people’s faces as they drive past. We have also at times been shocked by some of the responses from our fellow Ashlanders, particularly when the screamed racist invective has been hurled at children. We all at times wonder if there is any purpose to what we are doing. One middle aged man on a Harley shook his head, “Jesus Christ! Give it up already.”

The week of the news from Kenosha followed by images of the counter-protest convoy of trucks flying “Trump 2020” and “Blue Lives Matter” flags pouring into Portland seemed very familiar to us. We see those same trucks every day--we jokingly call them the Ku Trucks Klan. But these are our neighbors who think we are terrorists and yell “All Lives Matter, dumbass!” at us as they pass. How on earth are our divided communities going to move forward? How much worse is this going to get?

In March, 1965, Pete Seeger and his wife Toshi walked alongside John Lewis on the march from Selma to Montgomery. Lewis was one of the great American apostles of nonviolence; for him nonviolence was a way of life. Seeger, took a more pragmatic approach. He, perhaps like most of us, was impressed and inspired by the nonviolence of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNNC) and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC); however, he couldn’t completely give up the idea that a conflict might arise where violence would be the last resort needed to stop a terrible enemy.

Pete Seeger was excited to hear all the singing going on around him. A group of teenage girls walked behind the couple. For mile after mile they sang. They sang church songs and school songs and freedom songs hoisting up the songs like sails to catch the wind. Some filled and went on for chorus after chorus with voices up and down the line joining in. Others just flapped against the mast to be lowered after only a couple of verses. Seeger jotted down the words marveling at the way that the girls were singing new words to old songs and adding their own verses--seemingly making some of them up on the spot.

I love everybody, I love everybody, I love everybody in my heart

One of the new verses surprised the veteran folk singer.

I love Governor Wallace in my heart . . .

Governor George Wallace of Alabama, who had famously intoned, “I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.”

For the communist Pete Seeger, this joyful moment of singing brought alive a piece of Christian teaching, “If any one says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1 John 4:20 RSV). It played over in his mind in the succeeding weeks. In June he gave the Baccalaureate address at a college. Telling the students about the march and the girls singing he said, “I’d like to commend this spirit to you, because I believe that in the period of history we are entering, it is going to be very difficult to love a large portion of the human race living here in the USA.”

Seeger was anticipating the escalating conflict and political polarization around the war in Vietnam and poverty at home: divisions that over the next few years brought riots to cities and death to college campuses and mass protests to the capital. But those words spoken 55 years ago never seemed more relevant than they do to me today.

They are honest words.

Today, many Americans find it increasingly hard, if not impossible, to understand the priorities and political commitments of their fellow Americans. Looking ahead, it will be hard for us to love each other after all that has been going on.

Pete Seeger, who was instrumental in bringing the song Kumbaya to the folk revival and the civil rights movement, did not offer those students what we might now call a Kumbaya moment at their graduation; instead, he issued a wake up call: “I believe the best thing you can do is make up your mind that you will be living in an unpleasant world for much of your lives.” But then drawing on his experience on Alabama’s Highway 80, he said, “If we are in for a struggle to keep our country from falling into bad ways, don’t think it need be a joyless struggle. Far from it. As Jesus urged his disciples, ‘Be of Good Cheer.’”

For me, these words have been incredibly helpful. I am not going to pretend (as we hear some say) that our problems will magically disappear after the elections in November. Whoever wins, we will be stuck for decades with the damage already done. These carefully nurtured divisions will continue to damage and destroy lives.  

How do we proceed into that future? I am with Pete Seeger and the Apostle John: the key question is how on earth are we to love our neighbors that we see everyday?

I appreciate Seeger’s honesty, loving some people is going to be a struggle.

Pete Seeger was not a Christian; his mother in-law used to jokingly chide him for his “diabolical materialism.” But maybe he understood Jesus’s words in John’s gospel better than many of us who profess to be his disciples. The words of Jesus that Seeger quoted to the students all those years ago come from John’s gospel: “In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

I take heart today from the joy Seeger glimpsed on the march from Selma to Montgomery: he witnessed a nonviolent movement building and celebrating community and singing together. Perhaps only when the struggle is nonviolent can there be the hope that it will not be a joyless struggle.

Peter Slade is a Professor in the Religion Department at Ashland University.