Easter

We left the story of Jesus of Nazareth last Friday. He had been executed in the most painful and degrading way possible. His closest followers were dispersed and in hiding. It must have seemed that Jesus and his movement had ended in utter failure. But then, something remarkable happened. This something is commemorated by the Easter holiday. Although Christmas is the more popular Christian holiday, Easter is actually the most important holiday in the liturgical year as the celebration of Christ’s resurrection is theologically more important than his Nativity. But I am getting ahead of myself.

The Gospel of Mark has the most concise account of what happened that first Easter.

1 When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body. 2 Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb 3and they asked each other, “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?”

4 But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. 5 As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed.

6 “Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. 7 But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’”

8 Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.

9 When Jesus rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene,out of whom he had driven seven demons.10 She went and told those who had been with him and who were mourning and weeping.11 When they heard that Jesus was alive and that she had seen him, they did not believe it.

12 Afterward Jesus appeared in a different form to two of them while they were walking in the country.13 These returned and reported it to the rest; but they did not believe them either.

14 Later Jesus appeared to the Eleven as they were eating; he rebuked them for their lack of faith and their stubborn refusal to believe those who had seen him after he had risen.

15 He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation.16 Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.17 And these sign swill accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons;they will speak in new tongues;18 they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.”

19 After the Lord Jesus had spoken to them, he was taken up into heaven and he sat at the right hand of God.20 Then the disciples went out and preached everywhere, and the Lord worked with them and confirmed his word by the signs that accompanied it. (Mark 16:1-20)

Mark 16:9-20 seems to be a later addition. At any rate, the earliest manuscripts do not have those verses. Whether the original ending has been lost or Mark intended to end his account so abruptly is unknown.

Matthew has more details.

1After the Sabbath, at dawn on the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to look at the tomb.

2 There was a violent earthquake, for an angel of the Lord came down from heaven and, going to the tomb, rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3 His appearance was like lightning, and his clothes were white as snow. 4 The guards were so afraid of him that they shook and became like dead men.

5 The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. 6 He is not here; he has risen, just as he said. Come and see the place where he lay. 7 Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead and is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him.’ Now I have told you.”

8 So the women hurried away from the tomb, afraid yet filled with joy, and ran to tell his disciples. 9 Suddenly Jesus met them. “Greetings,” he said. They came to him, clasped his feet and worshiped him. 10 Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”

The Guards’ Report

11 While the women were on their way, some of the guards went into the city and reported to the chief priests everything that had happened. 12 When the chief priests had met with the elders and devised a plan, they gave the soldiers a large sum of money, 13 telling them, “You are to say, ‘His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ 14 If this report gets to the governor, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” 15So the soldiers took the money and did as they were instructed. And this story has been widely circulated among the Jews to this very day.

The Great Commission

16 Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. 17 When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. 18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matt 28:1-20)

Luke and John have more to say of Jesus after His resurrection but I won’t quote them here.

The date of Easter has been a matter of some controversy in past centuries. The date of Easter is related to the date of Passover. The calculations on which the date of Easter is determined are based on a lunisolar cycle like the date of Passover but the cycle is not the Hebrew calendar. Generally, Easter falls about a week after Passover but it occurs about a month later in three years of the nineteen-year cycle. Various groups of Christians have had different methods of calculating Easter over the years and these differences have led to bitter disputes. There is still a different date for Easter among the Eastern churches since they use the Julian calendar for the liturgical year while Catholics and Protestants use the Gregorian calendar.

Among Catholics and some Protestants, Easter is generally celebrated by an Easter vigil beginning the previous evening. At dawn, a mass or service begins, etc.

And, of course, many people celebrate Easter by finding Easter eggs and eating candy delivered by the Easter Bunny.

 

Good Friday

Today is Good Friday, the day of Jesus’s crucifixion. It may seem strange to call it “Good” Friday since being crucified wouldn’t normally be considered as part of a good day but the word good is used in an obsolete sense meaning holy. Good Friday is generally celebrated with fasts and vigils. In the Roman Catholic church, no mass is held on this day.

Once again, I will be using the Gospel of Mark to tell the story.

Mark 15

1Very early in the morning, the chief priests, with the elders, the teachers of the law and the whole Sanhedrin, made their plans. So they bound Jesus, led him away and handed him over to Pilate.

2 “Are you the king of the Jews?” asked Pilate.

“You have said so,” Jesus replied.

3 The chief priests accused him of many things. 4 So again Pilate asked him, “Aren’t you going to answer? See how many things they are accusing you of.”

5 But Jesus still made no reply, and Pilate was amazed.

6 Now it was the custom at the festival to release a prisoner whom the people requested. 7 A man called Barabbas was in prison with the insurrectionists who had committed murder in the uprising. 8 The crowd came up and asked Pilate to do for them what he usually did.

9 “Do you want me to release to you the king of the Jews?” asked Pilate, 10 knowing it was out of self-interest that the chief priests had handed Jesus over to him. 11 But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have Pilate release Barabbas instead.

12 “What shall I do, then, with the one you call the king of the Jews?” Pilate asked them.

13Crucify him!” they shouted.

14 “Why? What crime has he committed?” asked Pilate.

But they shouted all the louder, “Crucify him!”

15 Wanting to satisfy the crowd, Pilate released Barabbas to them. He had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified. (Mark 15:1-15)

It would seem that this meeting of the Sanhedrin at night and before Passover was highly irregular and some have questioned the historicity of the Gospel accounts on that basis. I think that if the elders and priests of the Sanhedrin believed Jesus to be on the point of declaring himself the Messiah and leading a rebellion, they might not have been too concerned with fine points of legality in the face of a national emergency. Little is known of Pontius Pilate but in the historical accounts of Josephus and others, he does not seem to be the sort of man who had any scruples about putting a trouble maker to death even if he wasn’t certain of the man’s guilt. It is possible that he was impressed by Jesus’s force of personality. On the other hand, Josephus makes it clear that Pilate was a tactless man who did not like the Jews much. He was eventually recalled because his actions seemed likely to cause rebellions. Perhaps Pilate resented having the High Priest and others, who he might have considered semi-barbarians, insist on his crucifying a man he believed to be innocent. He might have refused just to be obstinate.

16 The soldiers led Jesus away into the palace (that is, the Praetorium) and called together the whole company of soldiers. 17 They put a purple robe on him, then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on him. 18 And they began to call out to him, “Hail, king of the Jews!” 19 Again and again they struck him on the head with a staff and spit on him. Falling on their knees, they paid homage to him. 20And when they had mocked him, they took off the purple robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him out to crucify him.

The Crucifixion of Jesus

21 A certain man from Cyrene, Simon, the father of Alexander and Rufus, was passing by on his way in from the country, and they forced him to carry the cross. 22 They brought Jesus to the place called Golgotha (which means “the place of the skull”). 23 Then they offered him wine mixed with myrrh, but he did not take it. 24And they crucified him. Dividing up his clothes, they cast lots to see what each would get.

25 It was nine in the morning when they crucified him. 26 The written notice of the charge against him read: THE KING OF THE JEWS.

27 They crucified two rebels with him, one on his right and one on his left. [28][a]29 Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads and saying, “So! You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, 30 come down from the cross and save yourself!” 31 In the same way the chief priests and the teachers of the law mocked him among themselves. “He saved others,” they said, “but he can’t save himself! 32 Let this Messiah, this king of Israel, come down now from the cross, that we may see and believe.” Those crucified with him also heaped insults on him.(Mark 15:16-32)

Luke has one of the thieves taking Jesus’s side.

39 One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!”

40 But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? 41 We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”

42 Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.[d]

43 Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:39-43)

Crucifixion is probably the most painful method of execution ever devised. The victim is slowly asphyxiated as he hangs on the cross. It was not uncommon for a man to linger for days writhing in pain the whole time. In addition to the pain, crucifixion was meant to be a humiliating, shameful punishment. Only the lowest of the low were crucified, which might have been a stumbling block to early Christian proselytizing.

33 At noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. 34 And at three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”).[b]

35 When some of those standing near heard this, they said, “Listen, he’s calling Elijah.”

36 Someone ran, filled a sponge with wine vinegar, put it on a staff, and offered it to Jesus to drink. “Now leave him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to take him down,” he said.

37 With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last.

38 The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. 39 And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, saw how he died,[c] he said, “Surely this man was the Son of God!”

40 Some women were watching from a distance. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joseph,[d] and Salome. 41 In Galilee these women had followed him and cared for his needs. Many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem were also there.

Those words were the first verse of Psalm 22. Matthew’s account parallels Mark’s but Luke and John report different last words.

46 Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”[e] When he had said this, he breathed his last.  (Luke 23:46)

28 Later, knowing that everything had now been finished, and so that Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, “I am thirsty.” 29 A jar of wine vinegar was there, so they soaked a sponge in it, put the sponge on a stalk of the hyssop plant, and lifted it to Jesus’ lips. 30 When he had received the drink, Jesus said, “It is finished.” With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.(John 19:28-30)

John adds another detail.

31 Now it was the day of Preparation, and the next day was to be a special Sabbath. Because the Jewish leaders did not want the bodies left on the crosses during the Sabbath, they asked Pilate to have the legs broken and the bodies taken down. 32 The soldiers therefore came and broke the legs of the first man who had been crucified with Jesus, and then those of the other. 33 But when they came to Jesus and found that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. 34 Instead, one of the soldiers pierced Jesus’ side with a spear, bringing a sudden flow of blood and water. 35 The man who saw it has given testimony, and his testimony is true. He knows that he tells the truth, and he testifies so that you also may believe. 36 These things happened so that the scripture would be fulfilled: “Not one of his bones will be broken,”[c]37 and, as another scripture says, “They will look on the one they have pierced.” (John 19:31-37)

Strange as it may seem, the breaking of their legs was an act of mercy since they would die sooner. It was surprising that Jesus had died after only being about six hours on the cross.

42 It was Preparation Day (that is, the day before the Sabbath). So as evening approached, 43 Joseph of Arimathea, a prominent member of the Council, who was himself waiting for the kingdom of God, went boldly to Pilate and asked for Jesus’ body. 44 Pilate was surprised to hear that he was already dead. Summoning the centurion, he asked him if Jesus had already died. 45 When he learned from the centurion that it was so, he gave the body to Joseph. 46 So Joseph bought some linen cloth, took down the body, wrapped it in the linen, and placed it in a tomb cut out of rock. Then he rolled a stone against the entrance of the tomb. 47 Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joseph saw where he was laid. (Mark 15:42-47)

To anyone on the scene, this must have seemed the end of the matter. Jesus of Nazareth was dead and his followers scattered. It would seem that, at best, he would only be a minor footnote in history.

 

Palm Sunday

Today is Palm Sunday, the Sunday before Easter. Palm Sunday commemorates Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem and the beginning of the climax of his earthly ministry.

Jesus Comes to Jerusalem as King

1 As they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethphage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples, 2 saying to them, “Go to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me. 3If anyone says anything to you, say that the Lord needs them, and he will send them right away.”

4 This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet:

5 “Say to Daughter Zion,
‘See, your king comes to you,
gentle and riding on a donkey,
and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’”

6 The disciples went and did as Jesus had instructed them. 7 They brought the donkey and the colt and placed their cloaks on them for Jesus to sit on. 8 A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, while others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. 9 The crowds that went ahead of him and those that followed shouted,

“Hosanna to the Son of David!”

“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”

“Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

10 When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred and asked, “Who is this?”

11 The crowds answered, “This is Jesus, the prophet from Nazareth in Galilee.” (Matt 21:1-11)

 

Palm Sunday is often celebrated by palm leaves to worshippers in churches. If palm leaves are not available locally, then other tree branches may be substituted. In many churches, the priest or other clergy blesses the palms and they are saved to be burned at Ash Wednesday the following year.

The actual date of Palm Sunday, like Easter, varies from year to year because the date is based on a lunisolar cycle like the Hebrew calendar. The date differs between Western and Eastern Christianity because most Eastern churches still use the Julian calendar for their liturgical year, even though the Gregorian calendar is universally used for civil purposes.

Palm Sunday begins Holy Week or the last week of Lent.

 

Jesus entering Jerusalem on a donkey
Jesus entering Jerusalem on a donkey (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

 

Theodore G Bilbo

Theodore G. Bilbo. It sounds like the name of a character in a fantasy story, doesn’t it? Perhaps the name of an amiable, good-natured, little fellow who goes on exciting adventures with elves, dwarves, and wizards. Well, Theodore G. Bilbo was an actual person, and although at five feet two inches was small enough to be a hobbit, he did not go on any adventures, as far as I know, and he was far from being good-natured and amiable. Theodore G. Bilbo was, in fact, one of the most racist people ever to serve in the United States Senate.

Not a Hobbit

Theodore Gilmore Bilbo was born in Juniper Grove, Mississippi, on October 13, 1877. Bilbo obtained a scholarship to attend Vanderbilt University Law School, but he failed to graduate perhaps from financial difficulties, although there were accusations of academic misconduct. Nevertheless, Bilbo was admitted to the bar in 1906 and began practicing law in Mississippi.

Bilbo was ambitious, however, and soon entered politics, serving in the Mississippi State Senate from 1908 to 1912. In 1910, Bilbo was accused of accepting a bribe to back a candidate for the United States Senate. Bilbo admitted to accepting the bribe but asserted that he was investigating political corruption. His fellow state senators did not buy the story, and he escaped being expelled from the Senate by one vote short of the three-fourths majority required for expulsion. This scandal did not seem to harm Bilbo’s political career. He was elected Lieutenant Governor, serving from 1912 to 1916. He then served two nonconsecutive terms as Governor of Mississippi, from 1916 to 1920 and again from 1928 to 1932, as Mississippi’s constitution did not permit governors to secede themselves.

Theodore G. Bilbo was a good governor. He became well known as a progressive populist who enacted policies to help the poorest residents of Mississippi, as long as they were White. He improved the state finances of Mississippi, implemented a state highway system, introduced compulsory school attendance, built charity hospitals for the poor, and ended public hanging. In his second term, Bilbo introduced the first state sales tax in the United States. Governor Bilbo had less sympathy for the Black residents of Mississippi, however. Among other things, he refused to prevent the lynching of Black Mississippians. Bilbo’s terms as governor were not without controversy, however, and a feud between the governor and the state legislature prevented the passage of a budget in the final year of his second term.

After his second term as Governor ended, Theodore G. Bilbo moved on to the Senate, serving from 1935 until the end of his life in 1947. In the Senate, Bilbo once again established a reputation as a progressive, fervently supporting Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. Bilbo feuded with his fellow Mississippi Senator, Pat Harrison, who was seen as representing the wealthier classes of Mississippi. Bilbo made use of the Senate floor to promote his populist opinions, haranguing against:

 “farmer murderers,” “poor-folks haters,” “shooters of widows and orphans,” “international well-poisoners,” “charity hospital destroyers,” “spitters on our heroic veterans,” “rich enemies of our public schools,” “private bankers ‘who ought to come out in the open and let folks see what they’re doing’,” “European debt-cancelers,” “unemployment makers,” pacifists, Communists, munitions manufacturers, and “skunks who steal Gideon Bibles from hotel rooms.”

Many of Senator Bilbo’s speeches were extremely racist, even by the standards of his time. As a result, the Democrat-controlled Senate would only assign him to relatively unimportant committees. When the Republicans gained control of the Senate after the 1946 elections, they along with the Northern Democrats, refused to permit Bilbo to take his seat because they believed his racist speeches had incited violence against Blacks in the South. Bilbo’s supporters among the Southern Democrats threatened a filibuster unless he was seated. The matter was resolved when Bilbo proved unable to serve his last term because he had developed oral cancer. Bilbo returned to Mississippi for treatment, and he died in New Orleans on August 21, 1947.

By describing Bilbo as racist, I do not mean that he only shared in the prejudices of his time and place. If that were the case, his racist views would be hardly worth writing about. He lived, after all, in the heyday of progressive, scientific racism in which all of the smart people believed that human beings could be graded like eggs from superior to inferior. No, Theodore G. Bilbo’s racism went further than the usual bigotry.
At some point, Bilbo joined the Ku Klux Klan, and he remained a proud member of the Klan his entire life, even after the Klan had dissolved as a formal organization. As a governor and senator, Bilbo upheld and advanced the Klan’s cause of White supremacy.

At the end of his life, Bilbo wrote a book titled Take Your Choice: Separation or Mongrelization, which served as a summation of his views on race. Although in the prologue he professed to have no feelings of hostility against persons of any race but only opposed the mixing of races, a cause he believed the Black man should support as much as the White man, the book’s contents tell a different story. Throughout his book, Bilbo made it clear that he believed that Blacks were intellectually and morally inferior to Whites, describing Blacks in the most uncomplimentary terms possible.

In his view, Whites founded every great civilization; Rome, Greece, Egypt, or Babylon. When the Whites began to mix with other races, these civilizations declined and vanished. Whites founded our American civilization, and only the heroic efforts of Southern Whites have prevented the race mixing that destroyed so many past empires. Unfortunately, the efforts of Northern Liberals to achieve political and social equality for the Blacks threatened to undo everything. Bilbo’s solution was to encourage the voluntary emigration of American Blacks back to Africa, the ultimate separate but equal endeavor.

I am writing about Theodore G. Bilbo partly because I enjoy writing about historical trivia, but mostly because I want to make an important point. It has become conventional wisdom in this country that America is a country based on white supremacy, shot through with systemic racism. As is often the case, conventional wisdom is wrong. America has been racist in the past; there is no denying that fact. Given that White people founded the United States of America, it is inevitable that our society would be based on White supremacy. just as a country founded by Blacks would be based on Black supremacy or a country founded by Asians would be based on Asian Supremacy. Every society in the world has been founded on the idea that its people are superior to the people living in other societies. It is only very recently, that in a few places, like the United States, the idea has taken hold that everyone should be treated equally.

I have said that Theodore G. Bilbo’s racist ideas were extreme even for his times, but his views were not too extreme for the people of Mississippi to elect him as governor and then senator. A large number of people throughout the South shared his racist ideas. That is not the case today. A candidate who expressed the sort of racist ideas that Theodore G. Bilbo expressed would be lucky to get just two percent of the vote. We are no longer the country that would elect a Theodore G. Bilbo to high office.
America has changed, vastly for the better, by embracing its founding ideals. Anyone who asserts that America is a systemically racist country in the twenty-first century is either a fool, ignorant of our history or a malicious liar.

Race Race

I try not to pay too much attention to what entertainers say about politics and current events because what entertainers generally have to say about politics and current events is often very silly. Sometimes I can’t help but notice some particularly silly comment made by an entertainer. Recently the very silly named Whoopi Goldberg said something about the Holocaust that was not merely silly but more than a little pernicious.

The last time I heard anything stupid and obnoxious from Ms. Goldberg was some years ago when she commented on the View that Roman Polanski’s actions, while deplorable, were not exactly rape-rape. Of course, forcing sexual intercourse with an intoxicated, thirteen-year-old girl is considered rape-rape in almost every jurisdiction in the civilized world, and Whoopi ought to have known better than to say something so profoundly stupid.

You wouldn’t think Ms. Goldberg could ever top the rape-rape comment, but she managed it again on The View, by saying that the Holocaust was not about race.

Whoopi Goldberg argued on ABC’s The View Monday the Holocaust was “not about race,” prompting pushback from co-hosts on the show.

“If you’re going to do this, then let’s be truthful about it,” Goldberg said. “Because the Holocaust isn’t about race. No, it’s not about race.”

Co-host Joy Behar asked Goldberg: “Then what was it about?”

“It’s about man’s inhumanity to man,” Goldberg responded. “That’s what it’s about.”

Ana Navarro, another co-host on the show, interjected, saying, “Well, it’s about white supremacy. That’s what it’s about. It’s about going after Jews and gypsies.”

“But these are two groups of white people,” Goldberg cut in. “But you’re missing the point. The minute you turn it into race, it goes down this alley. Let’s talk about it for what it is. It’s how people treat each other. It’s a problem. It doesn’t matter if you’re Black or white, because Black, white, Jews … everybody eats each other.”

So, according to Whoopi Goldberg, the Holocaust was not about race because both the perpetrators and the victims of the atrocities were White. This conclusion would be surprising to the Nazis who planned and carried out the Holocaust. According to Nazi ideology, Germans, Jews, and Slavs were distinct and ultimately incompatible races, despite all being the same color. If one follows Ms. Goldberg’s logic, such atrocities as the massacre of the Tutsis by the Hutus in Rwanda in 1994 or the Japanese atrocities against the Chinese during the Second World War were not about race either, although in each case, those responsible for the mass murders clearly did not believe the victims were the same race as themselves, despite having roughly the same skin color. It would seem that race is not just a black and white matter if you’ll pardon the expression, but something more complicated.

That brings us to the question of just what race is anyway. According to the free dictionary;

1. group of people identified as distinct from other groups because of supposed physical or genetic traits shared by the group. Most biologists and anthropologists do not recognize race as a biologically valid classification, in part because there is more genetic variation within groups than between them.
2. group of people united or classified together on the basis of common history, nationality, or geographic distribution: the Celtic race.
3. genealogical line; a lineage.

A bit overly politically correct, but it will do. In America, we believe that skin color is the most important physical trait to distinguish between groups of people or races. Elsewhere, where populations have similar skin colors, other characteristics are more important. These characteristics are just as important to people in Europe, Asia, and Africa as skin color is to North Americans. A person from Europe or North America might find it hard to tell the difference between a Hutu and a Tutsi or a Japanese and a Chinese, but a person from Africa or East Asia would probably have no difficulty making such distinctions. A person from Africa or East Asia might not be able to tell the difference between a German, a Jew, or a Slav but making such determinations in Central Europe in the middle twentieth century was a matter of life and death even though everyone was what Americans would consider White.
Just because two people happen to have the same skin color, it does not follow that they will view each other as belonging to the same group or race. If I were to travel to my ancestral homeland in Germany, no one in Germany would mistake me for being German or even European, despite my light skin. I suspect that if Whoopi Goldberg went to Africa, few Africans would see her as a fellow African, despite her dark skin. They would see her as a Black American. Her language, mannerisms, and cultural assumptions would show her as foreign to most Africans.
The curious thing about racial distinctions is how trivial they appear when looking objectively from the outside. Physical or even cultural differences that seem so consequential on the inside, as it were, are utterly meaningless to anyone not familiar with the local circumstances, culture, or history. Even so obvious a distinction as Black and White, which any human might consider significant, might be meaningless to an extraterrestrial visiting Earth for the first time. An alien would wonder why we are so concerned with racial differences since we are obviously all of the same species. The differences between any two groups of human beings would be minuscule compared to the difference between the alien and ourselves. From an extraterrestrial point of view, there is only one race that matters on Earth, the human race.
In a way, Whoopi Goldberg is right, though not at all in the way she might have intended. When viewed properly, The Holocaust and every other instance of man’s inhumanity to man is not about race at all since we are all members of the same human race. Maybe if we could get used to thinking about ourselves as the same race and learn to ignore the trivial differences between us, there would be a good deal less of that inhumanity.

New Year’s Day

I think that New Year’s Day must be my least favorite holiday. The problem is the date, January 1. This has to be the worst time to start off the new year. It is only a week after Christmas. All the excitement of the Christmas season has dissipated and there is a general impression of anti-climax. The holidays are over and it is time to go back to the general routine of everyday life. In addition, January is the coldest, dreariest month of the year and January 1 is right in the middle of winter. I know that winter officially begins on the winter solstice, December 21 or 22, but in midwestern North America, the cold weather begins about a month or more before the solstice. It is possible to forget the dreariness of winter during the Christmas season, but by January, it feels that winter has been here forever and will never end.

It seems to me that it would be better to start the new year at the transition between one season and the next, preferably when winter becomes spring. What would be more appropriate than to start the new year at the beginning of Spring, when the cycle of nature is renewed and new life springs up? Spring is a time of new hopes and beginnings, so why not start the new year at the vernal equinox, March 21? If starting the new year at the beginning of a month seems weird, why not start the new year on March 1 or April 1? Well, maybe starting the new year on April Fool’s Day is not such a good idea. Why do we start the new year on January 1 anyway?

We have the Romans to thank for the date of New Year’s Day. as well as for our calendar, which is derived from the ancient Roman calendar. Originally, the Roman calendar did have March as the first month of the year. According to Roman legend, Rome’s founder Romulus established a ten-month calendar, beginning in March and extending to December. This is why our ninth through twelfth months, September to December have names meaning seventh through tenth months. Obviously, this ten-month calendar didn’t work out at all, so Romulus’s successor, Numa Pompilius, the second king of Rome, added the months of January and February.

It is not clear how true these legends are, but the twelve-month calendar attributed to Numa was used until Julius Caesar reformed the calendar in 46 BC. At first, the year continued to start in March, but during the republic, new consuls began their terms of office on the kalends, or first day, of January, named for Janus the double-headed god of new beginnings. The Romans did not number their years forward from a past year, as we do, Instead, they named each year after the consuls who served for that year. So, instead of a particular year being 132 since whatever, it would be the year Titus Maximus and Gaius Flavius were consuls. For this reason, it seemed to make sense to start the new year with the beginning of the consuls’ terms, and January first gradually became accepted as the first day of the new year, and when Julius Caesar introduced his Julian calendar, the first of January was officially established as the new year.

 

The Roman god Janus

After the fall of the Roman Empire in the West, New Year’s Day began to be seen as a holdover from Rome’s pagan past, and a variety of dates were used as New Year’s Day, including Christmas, March 1, and March 25. Calendars still began with January, however, leaving the actual date the new year began up to whoever had the calendar. January 1 was restored as New Year’s Day when Pope Gregory XIII promulgated the Gregorian Calendar in 1582. As the Gregorian Calendar became established as the most widely used calendar in the world, January 1 became the first day of the year worldwide. This means thanks to the Romans and Pope Gregory XIII we are stuck with the new year starting in the dead of winter, instead of spring, and there is nothing I can do about it.

The Nativity According to Mark

The Gospel of Mark does not include a narrative of Jesus’s birth. Instead, Mark gets right to business with John the Baptist.

The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God,  as it is written in Isaiah the prophet:

“I will send my messenger ahead of you,
    who will prepare your way”
“a voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
    make straight paths for him.’”

And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. And this was his message: “After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

(Mark 1:1-8)

Then Jesus makes his first appearance, fully grown and ready to begin His public ministry.

At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. 11 And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

12 At once the Spirit sent him out into the wilderness, 13 and he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. He was with the wild animals, and angels attended him.

14 After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. 15 “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”

(Mark 1:9-15)

English: John the Baptist baptizing Christ
English: John the Baptist baptizing Christ (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Mark’s gospel was probably the first gospel written. It is the shortest of the four gospels and seems to have been intended as a sort of FAQ for Christians wanting to know more about the central figure of their faith. Mark doesn’t include a lot of details about Jesus’s life and teachings. He just gives the basic facts about Jesus’s ministry, his miracles, and his death on the cross.

The earliest Christians weren’t really interested in the details of Jesus’s birth or His early life. Even His teachings were of secondary importance. For the early Christians, the most important fact about Jesus was that he was crucified, died, and then came back to life, defeating death and sin and redeeming the whole world. Paul, whose letters are some of the earliest Christian writings hardly mentions any details of Jesus’s life. He was surely not ignorant. Both he and the recipients of his letters already knew the information found in the Gospels. For both Paul and the people he wrote to, the most important thing was the death and resurrection. For the earliest Christians Easter, not Christmas, was the most important day of the year. Indeed, the birth of Christ may not have been celebrated by Christians until the third or fourth century.

There is a lot of talk, these days, about the War on Christmas, and I have written posts about the Secular Christmas Grinches who seem determined to ruin Christmas for everyone, or at least strip it of all meaning until it is a generic “Holiday”. As Christians, we should remember the importance of Christmas and should fight against the increasing marginalization of the Judeo-Christian worldview that this nation was founded upon. Still, we should also remember that Christ’s death and resurrection was the reason he came into the world. If Jesus is the reason for Christmas, Good Friday and Easter are the reason for Jesus. We should remember Christ on the cross as well as baby Jesus in the manger.

The Nativity According to Matthew

The Adoration of the Magi (circa 1305) by Giot...
The Adoration of the Magi

 

Matthew begins his Gospel with the genealogy of Jesus. I’ll skip the genealogy and go straight to his account of Jesus’s birth.

 

18 This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. 19 Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.

20 But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23 “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).

24 When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. 25 But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:

“‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.’

Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”

After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

13 When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”

14 So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, 15 where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

16 When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. 17 Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled:

18 “A voice is heard in Ramah,
weeping and great mourning,
Rachel weeping for her children
and refusing to be comforted,
because they are no more.”

19 After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt 20 and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.” (Matthew 1:18-2:20)

 

Most people think that the slaughter of the baby boys in Bethlehem involved the murder of hundreds or thousands of innocents. Remember, though, that Bethlehem was a small village at this time with a likely population of a few hundred. It is doubtful that more than half a dozen children were killed, not enough to make it into any other sources we have for Herod’s rule. Herod was certainly ruthless enough to order such a massacre. He had no trouble killing members of his own family if he thought they threatened his rule. In fact, Herod being an Idumean (or Edomite) and not a Jew, was a foreigner and so was as despised by many Judeans as a Roman governor would have been. If he had heard that there was a potential rival to his throne, even a child, that the Jews might rally around, he would have wasted no time in disposing of that rival.

 

The word Magi usually refers to Zoroastrian priests. In Greco-Roman usage, the term Magi had connotations of magicians or sorcerers, exotic figures from distant lands. It is not clear just who the Magi actually were. They may indeed have been Zoroastrians. The references to the Star of Bethlehem suggest that they may have been astrologers. The Babylonians had a reputation for being skilled in astrology and magic so the Magi may have come from Mesopotamia. They may also have been Jewish since they were seeking for a king of the Jews. The fact that they were unfamiliar with the prophets may prove that they were Gentiles. The number of the Magi is not given in the Gospel. The reason that three are usually pictured is that there were three gifts; gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

 

It is also not clear just what the Star of Bethlehem was. There have been several theories presented, but none of them are entirely satisfactory. The star might have been a supernova, perhaps in a nearby galaxy. There is no way to know for certain since any supernova remnant so far away would be difficult, perhaps impossible, to detect. It might also have been a comet. This is rather unlikely. Although a comet would behave much as the star is said to behave, hanging in the sky over a certain location for several nights, comets were universally perceived as being harbingers of disaster in ancient, and not so ancient, times. The most likely explanation is a conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn. The astronomer Keppler discovered that there was indeed such a conjunction in the year 7 BC. The following year there was another conjunction of Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. This might have been very impressive to the Magi. It may also be that the Star was a supernatural phenomenon and one that cannot be studied today.

 

The Nativity According to Luke

Linus tells us what Christmas is all about

Linus is quoting from the Gospel according to Luke.

In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register.

So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,

14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”

16 So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. 17 When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.

21 On the eighth day, when it was time to circumcise the child, he was named Jesus, the name the angel had given him before he was conceived. (Luke 2:1-21)

Luke is a historian of the Hellenistic school, like Herodotus or Thucydides. Although he tries to establish times and places, he is less interested in being precise than in understanding the meaning of the events he records. In fact, it wasn’t so easy to give exact dates in those times, given that every city and region had its own calendar and way of numbering or naming the years.

There is a considerable amount of skepticism about the census, both on the dating and the procedure. Most skeptics regard it as extremely improbable that the Romans would make people travel here and there to register in their home towns. As a matter of fact, that is just how the Romans conducted their censuses.

Every five years, each male Roman citizen had to register in Rome for the census. In this he had to declare his family, wife, children, slaves and riches. Should he fail to do this, his possessions would be confiscated and he would be sold into slavery.
But registration meant freedom. A master wishing to free his slave needed only to enter him in the censor’s list as a citizen (manumissio censu).
Throughout the entire republican era, registration in the census was the only way that a Roman could ensure that his identity and status as a citizen were recognized. Fathers registered their sons, employers their freedmen.
Primarily the census served to count the number of citizens and to assess the potential military strength and future tax revenue. Most important, the census transformed the city into a political and military community.
But the census performed a highly symbolical function. To the Romans the census made them more than a mere crowd, or barbarian rabble. It made them a populus, a people, capable of collective action.
To the Roman the census was one of the foundation stones of their civilization.

As the Roman Empire expanded and citizenship was given out to other cities in Italy and around the Mediterranean, I would imagine that every Roman citizen had to go to his native city to register. Presumably, there were lists of citizens kept in major cities and in Rome. Paul claimed to be a Roman citizen at various times in Acts and you might wonder how he was able to prove it. Well, every Roman citizen had a sort of ID or diploma which would have been issued in his city.

But with the steady extension of the citizenship by individual grants to provincials isolated in peregrine communes, and with the informal settlement of large numbers of Italian immigrants in the provincial territories, a more effective means of registration became necessary. Formal documentation of the grant of citizenship to provincial soldiery appears first in 89 B.C., in the shape of a bronze tablet recording the decree of a proconsul enfranchising a unit of Spanish cavalrymen in the Social War, who are all named in a general list. Presumably each soldier received a copy. The cities of persons of higher status enfranchised by Octavian in c. 40 B.C. received a copy of a decree detailing all the privileges of their new status, while his auxiliary veterans could acquire copies of the enabling edict that enfranchised them. But it is only with the regularization of the grant of citizenship to the all time-expired auxiliaries by Claudius that a standardized document appears. This is the small bronze diptych known as the diploma civitatis, containing a brief and uniform formula conferring the Roman citizenship on the holder and his descendants, who is indicated by his name and military unit. These documents were not normally used for civilians, who received instead a copy in libellus form of the brief imperial warrant authorizing the registration of their enfranchisement in the archives at Rome.

Diplomata and libelli provided for new citizens. For the mass of the citizenry, for whom censorial registration at five-yearly intervals was an inefficient instrument, adequate provision was finally made by the creation of an official system of compulsory birth registration under the social legislation of Augustus (A.D. 4)… The Roman citizen was required to register the birth of his children within thirty days before a Roman official, and he received a wooden diptych recording the declaration, which acted as a certificate of citizenship for the child for the rest of his life. Like the military diplomata this contained the names of seven witnesses, and provided a presumptive proof of citizen status… Similarly the enfranchisement of freedmen, which depended upon a formal act, was recorded in a documentary tabella manumissionis. Citizens of diverse origins thus came to have some form of documentary evidence of their status.

Presumably, Paul registered at Tarsus while he lived there. To get back to the census; obviously, Joseph wasn’t a Roman citizen and Judea was under the rule of Herod, not the Romans. The census could have been a small-time affair, the mention of Caesar Augustus being either an exaggeration or a long-standing policy of Augustus to encourage the provinces to conduct censuses but conducted according to Roman norms, with every resident registering in his home town. You must not imagine, however, large crowds of people traveling to and fro. Remember that at this time most people would have lived their whole lives in the same village. Joseph’s journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem would have been very much an exception. The only thing really odd about this account was his taking Mary with him. As a woman, her residency would not have mattered much. On the other hand, she was also of the line of David and perhaps her presence in Bethlehem might have been desirable. Again you must not imagine that Mary was on the point of giving birth as they traveled. They could have spent several weeks in Bethlehem.

Missing Context

I don’t have a Twitter account for many reasons, not least of which is I feel that tweeting is something birds or the birdbrained do, not intelligent human beings. The only disadvantage that I can see to not having a Twitter account is that I miss out on many of the idiotic things that leftists tweet. Fortunately, many people on the right provide a valuable service by drawing attention to such tweets for the benefit of sane people.

I caught this particular tweet by Ida B Wells, courtesy of Gunfreezone.net.

I wonder if the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum has an exhibit about the bombing of Pearl Harbor? Is there any mention of the Rape of Nanjing or the activities of Unit 731 in this museum? One might suppose from the shame-ridden Ida B. Wells’s tweet that the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima for no particular reason; perhaps out of anti-Japanese racism. What is missing here is the context in which the decision to use the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was made. Let’s provide that context.

The United States was fighting a war against an enemy that had attacked it without warning or provocation. This enemy, the Empire of Japan, was an evil regime, as bad as, if not worse than Nazi Germany, as the links, I provided above might indicate. The Asian Holocaust perpetrated by the militarist government of Japan was even more horrifying than the more familiar Nazi holocaust against the Jews and other Untermenschen. Japanese atrocities get far less attention than the Nazi horrors, perhaps because most victims were Chinese. I would not go so far as to say that the civilians of the two nuked cities in any way deserved what happened to them, but the government they served had to be defeated.

Worse than the Nazis

The cost of defeating that evil regime would have been enormous had the use of the atomic bomb not ended the war. American military analysts estimated that American casualties suffered from an invasion of the Japanese home islands would number in the hundreds of thousands, perhaps even as many as a million dead or wounded. Japanese casualties, assuming the Japanese government was able to mobilize the civilian population to resist the invaders, would certainly have reached into the tens of millions.

Obviously, American military planners would have sought to reduce American casualties by inflicting as much damage as possible on Japan before any landings on the home islands. There would have been wave after wave of bombers targeting every military and industrial facility they could locate. Incendiary bombs would have been dropped on residential areas to break the will of the Japanese population. Maybe chemical weapons might have been deployed if the invasion bogged down into a stalemate. If Japanese civilians began attacking American servicemen in the occupied areas, the soldiers might have resorted to a policy of shooting anyone who approached them. Japanese deaths might have reached genocidal levels, and people like Ida B. Wells might be tweeting their shame at the American massacre of the peaceful Japanese.

Of course, dropping the atomic bomb might have been an atrocity if Japan were on the verge of surrendering, as some assert. I do not think that is a historically accurate view. The Japanese seemed determined to fight to the death even as they were losing the war. The Japanese did not surrender as the Americans closed in on Japan. They did not surrender when we recaptured the Philippines, or when we captured Iwo Jima and Okinawa. Even the first atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima did not induce the Japanese to end the war. It took the bombing of Nagasaki and the nearly unprecedented intervention of the Emperor to compel the Japanese military government to sue for peace.

This policy was not as insane or fanatical as one might assume. By August 1945, the Japanese situation was dire but not entirely hopeless. No one had ever successfully invaded the Japanese islands, and the Japanese military leaders had no reason to believe that the Americans would be any more successful than the Mongols. Indeed, the leaders of Japan had every reason to believe that if they managed to inflict sufficient casualties on the first waves of American servicemen to land on the coasts of Japan, a war-weary American population would urge a negotiated end to the war, leaving the Japanese military leaders in power. They might have been correct, although I think it more likely that the United States would have attempted to conquer Japan using the tactics I described above.

The simple fact is that the decision to use the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki saved millions of lives by ending the war sooner than it would otherwise have ended. The use of the atomic bomb quite probably saved millions of lives after the war. Nuclear weapons have made war between the major powers all but inconceivable by making the costs of such a war far greater than any possible gains. Consider a world in which the atomic bomb has never been developed. It is likely, perhaps inevitable, that the Cold War would become a hot war if the possession of nuclear bombs by both the United States and the Soviet Union did not deter both sides from committing acts of aggression directly against one another. We might have had a World War III or IV, with a cost of hundreds of millions of lives. We might right now be in the middle of World War V.

The Correct Decision

There is no reason for any American to feel shame over the use of the atomic bomb against Japan. That decision saved millions of lives by ending the most devastating war in history. There is little reason for any American to feel any shame about their history at all. The United States of America is not a perfect country, no nation in this fallen world is or can be perfect, but when American history is considered in proper context, America stands forth as a good and noble nation, for the most part. Americans have made mistakes and committed terrible injustices, but America has been a force for good in the world. Only the ignorant or those pushing a political agenda to degrade and delegitimize America would say otherwise.

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