Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Promise and Flaw in Organized Religion

Last year was the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s 1517 proclamation of objections to Catholic Church practices. At age 33, Luther, chair of theology at the University of Wittenberg, wrote a scholarly treatise titled “Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences”, later called his 95 Theses. He sent it to Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz and Magdeburg.

Luther’s criticisms were well founded. Representatives of the Pope traveled around selling indulgences, the right to confess all sins on the death bed, thereby giving the buyer complete absolution. Some Christians were not confessing their sins in church, because they could buy this right to confess everything at the end. In Wittenberg, indulgences were advertised as paying for the new St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, but the funds were used by Archbishop Albrecht to pay debts from purchasing his archbishopric from the Pope. Luther wrote, “Any Christian who is truly repentant has a right to full remission of all penalty and guilt without any letter of indulgence.”

Luther swiftly broadened his attack on the Catholic Church and the Pope as its head. In his pamphlet “To the Christian Nobles of the German Nation” in 1520, he argued that the Church does not need worldly possessions and that a congregation should select its own priest. He later wrote that a Christian achieves salvation by faith alone, without needing a hierarchical church structure, and that the Pope does not have the exclusive right to interpret scripture.

Luther was forced to defend himself before Papal representatives, who demanded that he recant, and at the Diet of Worms, an assembly of many German states in the Holy Roman Empire. When the Pope issued a papal bull threatening to excommunicate him, Luther publicly burned it. He was excommunicated and forced to hide from arrest.

Unlike others who had challenged the Catholic Church and the power of the Pope, Luther masterfully used the new technology of printing to spread his ideas. Courageous and determined, he successfully appealed to common Christians. Communities across northern Europe and, more important, their local rulers adopted his religious reforms, transforming Europe by splitting the Protestant North from the Catholic South.

Luther’s followers in Wittenberg created a community chest administered jointly by town, church, and congregation to feed the hungry, allow poor students to study, and offer credit to poor artisans. Luther believed that everybody should be educated to read the Bible in their native tongue, so primary schools were expanded, including for girls.

At first, Luther appeared to be sympathetic to Jews. He wrote in 1519, “What Jew would consent to enter our ranks when he sees the cruelty and enmity we wreak on them—that in our behavior towards them we less resemble Christians than beasts?”That behavior was publicly exhibited at Luther’s own City Church St. Mary’s of Wittenberg. High on one outside wall was a “Judensau”, a relief depicting Jews suckling at a pig, with words degrading rabbis and Jewish ideas about God. It had decorated the Church for two hundred years.

Luther was a great reformer of Christian religious practice and social thinking. But the religious community he wished to create was welcoming only for those who followed his lead. Luther condemned in the strongest terms anyone who refused to give up their religion for his. He named the Pope the Antichrist. He pronounced the harshest sentence on Jews who remained true to their beliefs. In “On the Jews and Their Lies” in 1543, Luther advised his followers to burn their synagogues, confiscate their valuables, take away their holy books, forbid them from owning houses, and prevent their rabbis from preaching. That year, Luther wrote a pamphlet defending the Wittenberg Judensau as correctly depicting the source of Jewish holy books in the pig’s anus. Good Christians must prevent Jews from living as Jews.

Many organized religions represent communities of exclusivity, where insiders are promised glorious rewards and outsiders suffer unending torment. For centuries after Luther, Protestants and Catholics warred against each other. Christians only stopped killing Jews a half century ago. Muslim Shia and Muslim Sunni kill each other in the Middle East. Despite powerful moral exhortations about non-violence, Buddhists attack Muslims in south Asia. After suffering near extinction in Europe because of their religion, Jews destroyed Palestinian communities in the 1940s.

A highway billboard near our home in Wisconsin says I will go to hell, because I don’t share a particular form of Christian belief. Orthodox Jews have enough power over Israeli politics to enforce religious rules which exclude me and my children.

Religions are the strongest propagators of peaceful messages, but religious communities have killed millions of people who follow other beliefs. The contradictions in Luther’s teachings eventually forced the world’s Lutheran churches to disavow his writings about Jews, but only after the Nazis had put into genocidal practice his written instructions.

Even such disavowals often come with caveats. The official statement of the Missouri Synod of the Lutheran Church about Jews deplores discrimination, but is mainly concerned that Luther’s words could provoke anti-Lutheranism, and ends with the hope that Jews will finally see the light and convert.

Luther was a great and flawed man. Like all human creations, religions can raise us up or bring us pain.

Steve Hochstadt
Berlin, Germany
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, March 13, 2018

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Off With Their Heads!

An historical film is attracting audiences in Berlin. “The Silent Classroom” offers a fictionalized version of a remarkable protest in East Germany and the more remarkable government reaction. In 1956, thousands of Hungarians fought to free their country from Soviet domination and one-party dictatorship. A class of seniors preparing for final exams heard of the revolt from the American radio station in West Berlin, which the East German government had forbidden its citizens to listen to. Hungarians asked people in other countries to stay silent to protest Communist oppression. One student, Dietrich Garstka, told his comrades, “We’ll do that too!” In class, everyone was silent for five minutes.

The government went crazy. The Hungarian revolt of 1956 had installed a democratic socialist government before Soviet tanks crushed the uprising three weeks later. The Soviets and the other Communist governments in eastern Europe defined the revolt as counter-revolution and asserted that Western spies were behind it. The Western news media who reported the Hungarians’ program for freedom and human rights were spreading false propaganda. Students who silently honored the uprising were counter-revolutionaries, too.

Specialists interrogated the students. The Minister of Education insulted and threatened the students: unless they named the ringleaders, the whole class would not be allowed to take the exams which qualified them for university. The class displayed extraordinary solidarity and refused to give in to government pressure. They were all thrown out of school.

Garstka soon crossed the border into West Germany, which was still relatively easy in 1956, and was followed by 15 of the other 19 students in his class. They took their exams there and pursued their careers, cut off from family and friends.

The system that transformed their silence into subversion was a perfectly self-contained organism. All media were monitored and controlled. Information about internal problems, weaknesses, and injustices was propaganda, fake news designed to weaken the system, and thus counter-revolution. Anyone who taught uncomfortable facts about history or politics was labeled an accomplice of Western enemies, a hater of the system, and punished with the weight of the state. Science was not allowed to contradict political ideology.

East German communism had very different intentions and assumptions than the Nazi government which it replaced. But both systems shared this enclosed structure of self-protection, where deviation was treason, where facts were subordinated to rigid ideology, where questioning was punished by exclusion. Both saw only black and white, and jailed people who realized there was grey.

Those structures are the opposite of democracy. But the forces of arrogant ideology, of undoubting righteousness, of hatred for difference can exploit the tolerance of democratic systems to disrupt them from within. The extraordinary democracy of the German Weimar Republic in the 1920s allowed the Nazis to grow strong enough to overthrow it. Or I should say that too many people in Germany, people with power and influence, through weakness, self-interest, and political expediency, let the Nazis come to power by not opposing them strongly enough.

Now in America we saw armed men, who disdain our elected government, take over a public installation at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, threaten government officials and then escape without punishment. We heard a presidential candidate encourage his supporters to beat protesters and disbelieve any news he doesn’t like. We see virtually all leading Republican politicians accept Trump’s vilification of the press, self-enrichment in office, and smearing of the judiciary.

Americans who report on these events are attacked with verbal violence. I have been called seditious, a traitor. Activists for civil rights have been called communists and anarchists, whose political activities are thus illegitimate. The whole progressive movement, whose candidate, Bernie Sanders, almost won the Democratic nomination for President, is identified as hating America. Thousands screamed that the losing candidate in the last election should be put in jail. They say that journalists who report uncomfortable information about politicians they like are spreading lies. Many people have urged this newspaper to stop publishing my articles, because they don’t like the facts I write about.

Listen to the radio, scroll around the internet, or go to rallies for the President, and you’ll find many people with these attitudes. Instead of lurking on the fringes of the American political system, these people are brought into the White House and given press credentials as if they were real journalists. The President has called journalists “sick people” who hate our country and the other party “un-American” and “treasonous”. Telling the truth and defending democracy means being bombarded with insults and threats from the small far right minority, who only see black and white.

What if they had full power in our government? What would they do with me, the traitor? Or our journalists, professors, scientists? Or you?

We must prevent that, to avoid repeating the naive complacency of other peoples who have allowed their freedoms to be taken away. Asserting your right to think and act freely can be dangerous, as the East German students realized. But they demonstrated solidarity, courage, and determination in the face of naked shameless power.

We have to do that, too.

Steve Hochstadt
Berlin, Germany
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, March 6, 2018

Monday, February 26, 2018

Kids Against Guns

Once again thousands of Americans poured into the streets to express a clear political position. This time it was high school students horrified at the mass murders of other students and at the unwillingness of politicians to do anything about it.

Students lay down in front of the White House last Monday. Survivors of the attack at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida rallied at the state Capitol and urged legislators to change gun laws. Thousands of students across the country walked out of school last Wednesday to protest gun violence.

A nationwide school walkout is planned for March 14, lasting 17 minutes for the 17 Florida victims. Then come a march in Washington, called March For Our Lives, on March 24, and a National High School Walkout on April 20, the 19th anniversary of the Columbine shooting.

We never know what incident will provoke a mass social movement. Wikipedia conveniently lists all school shootings with 3 or more deaths over the past two centuries. There were 3 in the 19th century, one in the first half of the 20th century, 6 more before 1990. Then there were 9 in the 1990s, 5 in the 2000s, and 11 since 2010, more than one a year. Before Columbine in 1999, only one incident involved more than 7 deaths; since then, six with 10 or more deaths. In the past year, three school shootings have left 26 dead. If we widen our gaze to all shootings at schools, then there was one every other day in January, mostly without deaths.

After Columbine and Sandy Hook there were protests about how easy it is for those who plan mass murders to get powerful weapons, but they didn’t last long enough to force politicians to listen. Will this time be different?

Days after the Florida massacre, Republican state legislators there voted not to consider a bill to ban large-capacity magazines and assault weapons. Instead, as school shootings increase, the Republican response has been “More guns!” Republican state lawmakers recently decided to bring guns onto college campuses in Arkansas, Georgia, Texas, Ohio, Tennessee, Kansas, Wisconsin and other states. Two Republican candidates for Congress, Tyler Tannehill in Kansas and Austin Petersen in Missouri, are giving away an AR-15 as part of their campaigns. Donald Trump’s call to arm teachers and spend millions training them fits neatly into the Republican policy of arming everybody.

It’s useful to stand back and think about whether this idea has even been proposed for other similar situations. Dylann Roof murdered 9 people at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC, on June 17, 2015, with a Glock .45-caliber handgun. On November 5, 2017, Devin Patrick Kelley killed 26 people at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, with an AR-15 pattern Ruger AR-556 semi-automatic rifle. These mass killings are the most horrific of a growing wave of church shootings.

Dallas Drake and his team of researchers at the Center for Homicide Research in Minneapolis counted 136 church shootings between 1980 and 2005, about 5 per year, but 147 from 2006 to 2016, over 13 per year. Should we arm priests and rabbis and ministers?

Right now, the political engagement of young Americans for gun control is very high. Can the kids accomplish politically what generations of adults have not be able to do – prevent further school massacres?

The political protest of youngsters can move national politics in particular circumstances. In May 1963, schoolchildren marched in Brimingham, Alabama, to protest segregation and discrimination. That Children’s Crusade had political effect mainly because of the violent response of Commissioner of Public Safety Bull Connor and his policemen, and the bombing a few months later of the 16th St. Baptist Church, killing four little girls. Politicians learned that attacking children with fire hoses and batons is stupid. Now they politely listen and then ignore the youngsters’ message.

The Australian response to a massacre in 1996 is sometimes brought up as a model for the US. The government not only banned further sales of semiautomatic weapons, but confiscated 650,000 guns. Since then there have been no mass killings. But an Australian gun owner and supporter of restrictions argues persuasively that Australians, with their very different history, don’t like guns and offered no opposition to this revocation of their right to own weapons of mass killing. Too many Americans love guns for this to work here. Our culture accepts, even glorifies gun violence.

But it is not necessary to transform our culture to deal with guns in America. Most of the kids may not be able to vote yet, but persistent political action could shift the small number of votes needed to defeat the small number of state and federal legislators who stand in the way of majority votes for banning assault rifles and large capacity magazines, for tightening rules about who can own guns.

We’ll see if students can keep up the pressure all the way to the elections in November. That would require behavior uncommon among teenagers – long-term political engagement. It may save their lives.

Steve Hochstadt
Berlin, Germany
Published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, February 27, 2018