The Nativity According to Matthew

December 20, 2017
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 yetdid 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 in 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 sorsorers, 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 actually 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 phenomonem and one that cannot be studied today. Whatever the truth of the matter is, I hope everyone has a wonderful Christmas.

 

 

 

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The Nativity According to Luke

December 19, 2017

Here is what Christmas is all about

 

Linus quotes from the Gospel according to Luke. There are two accounts of Jesus’s birth in the New Testament, the account that Luke gives and the account that Matthew gives. Mark ignores the question of Jesus’s birth entirely, preferring to begin with Jesus’s public ministry while John actually begins his account before the nativity and moves from there to Jesus’s career. Here is Luke’s account.

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)

There is a considerable amount of skepticism regarding 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 in 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. There would have been no need for her to travel. As a woman, her residency would not have mattered much.

 

Moving the Embassy

December 16, 2017

Last week, President Trump announced that the United States would recognise Jerusalem as the capital of the State of Israel and that the American embassy would relocate there. This shouldn’t be a controversial move. Jerusalem is the seat of the Israeli government and it is customary for an embassy to a particular nation to be located in that nation’s capital. There is also the matter that the Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995 requires the United States to locate its embassy in Jerusalem. The only reason that the US embassy remains in Tel Aviv is that every six months the president has been signing a waiver delaying enforcement of that law. President Trump has simply decided to enforce existing law and recognise the reality that Israel will not yield Jerusalem no matter how many UN resolutions are adopted.

Moving the embassy shouldn’t be a controversial move, yet because it concerns Israel, of course it is a controversial move. I am not going to get into the pros and cons of moving the embassy. It may or may not be a good idea. I just want to point out that the objections to moving the embassy seems to have two motives. The first motive is just the plain, old anti-Semitism that most criticism of Israel is based on. Israel,as a nation has its faults and can be justly criticized on many grounds, yet the tendency to single Israel out as an aggressive violator of human rights while ignoring the far worse actions of its enemies may be a good indication that the critic is less interested in peace or social justice than in attacking the Jews.

The other motive for objecting to moving the embassy is that it is upsetting the status quo, the established framework for thinking about policies in the Middle East. Acknowledging the reality that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel upsets the system of polite lies and ritual platitudes that everyone says to get along even if they know the statements do not accord with reality. Moving the embassy will damage the peace process, the critics assert, and it will provoke violence at home and abroad.

I wonder it if has occurred to the critics that the prevailing orthodoxies are not really working anymore. The peace process has been effectively dead for years. Essentially the Palestinians want Israel to be destroyed and the Israelis do not want to be destroyed. There is not much room for compromise there. As long as the Palestinians believe there is any chance at all that foreign pressure will weaken Israel to the point that it can be destroyed, there will not be peace. As long as everyone pretends that both sides sincerely want peace, there will not be peace. It may be that by showing that the United States stands firmly behind Israel, and will not allow Israel to be destroyed, that Israel’s enemies will finally understand that Israel is not going anywhere, that they will never be able to remove the State of Israel, and that they will simply, somehow come to terms with that fact, will there be any hope for peace in the region. In fact, many of Israel’s enemies; Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia have already quietly come to accept the existence of Israel, and even see Israel as a valuable, though clandestine, ally against the real enemies of peace in the region; ISIS, al Qaeda, Iran. Perhaps, by moving the embassy to Jerusalem, Donald Trump has done more to realize the dream of peace in the Middle East than many of his predecessors.

So far, there doesn’t seem to be the explosion of violence across the Middle East that the critics feared. This is obviously good and it perhaps suggests that outside of Palestine, the “Arab street” is not so obsessed with Israel as is generally supposed. But, even if had been increased levels of violence as a result of Trump’s announcement, that is not a very good reason not to move the embassy. Again, I wonder if it has occurred to the critics that adjusting our policies whenever someone threatens violence is not a good idea over the long term and will only encourage such threats. Here again, the years old practice of caving in and self censoring to appease violent barbarians and then pretending that we are doing no such thing does not serve us all that well.

This seems to be the primary motive for a lot of the opposition to Donald Trump, aside from his personality and public image as boorish and uncouth, that Donald Trump has little use for either  “political correctness” or for doing things the same way just because they have always been done that way. As Trump noted in his statement announcing the change in policy:

When I came into office, I promised to look at the world’s challenges with open eyes and very fresh thinking.  We cannot solve our problems by making the same failed assumptions and repeating the same failed strategies of the past.  Old challenges demand new approaches.

 

Presidents issued these waivers under the belief that delaying the recognition of Jerusalem would advance the cause of peace.  Some say they lacked courage, but they made their best judgments based on facts as they understood them at the time.  Nevertheless, the record is in.  After more than two decades of waivers, we are no closer to a lasting peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.  It would be folly to assume that repeating the exact same formula would now produce a different or better result.

The old ways are not working so it is time to try new ways. This seems to be the theme behind a lot of what President Trump is trying to do, and this seems to be the reason why a lot of people, who perhaps benefit from the failed status quo, really hate him.

We badly need leaders who will challenge the status quo if we want America to continue to be great. Trump is probably not the best man for the job. There is much to object to in his approach. Unfortunately, we don’t seem to be producing George Washingtons or Abraham Lincolns in this country. We are producing Donald Trumps, and as a former Secretary of Defense put it, “You go to war with the Army you have. They’re not the Army you might want or wish to have at a later time.” and of course, “If you are not criticized, you may not be doing much”.

By that last standard, Trump must be doing more than any other president.

The Story of Hanukah

December 12, 2017

Hanukah begins at sunset today, so I thought I would write a little about this holiday. Hanukah is the Jewish Festival of Lights. It is an eight day celebration which lasts from the twenty-fifth day on Kislev to the second day of Tevet. Since the Hebrew calendar is a lunisolar calendar, the days float around from November to December in the Gregorian calendar. This year the days of Hanukah are celebrated December 12-20.

English: Hanukkah menorah, known also as Hanuk...

Hanukkah was not a major holiday in the Jewish calendar, unlike Passover or the High Holy Days. The festival has increased in importance among North American Jews because of its proximity to Christmas. There is even a tendency among Gentiles to regard Hanukkah as some sort of Jewish Christmas. This is unfortunate, since the backgrounds of the two holidays are quite different. The story of Hanukkah is one of the Jewish people fighting for their freedom to worship God in their own way. I think this story is inspiring and worth learning, both for Jews and Gentiles.

The history goes back to the time of Alexander the Great. He conquered the Persian Empire in one of the most remarkable military campaigns in history. Unfortunately, when he died in 323 BC, he left no provision for any successors and so his generals fought among themselves and eventually Alexander’s empire was divided among them. One of these successors was named Seleucus and he gained control of what is now Iran and Iraq. His kingdom is known to historians as the Seleucid Empire. This time is known as the Hellenistic Era.

Around 200 BC the Seleucids defeated the Egyptians and gained the territories of modern Syria and Israel. During this time the Jewish religion was tolerated and respected by the Ptolemies of Egypt. During this time, also, the Greek language and culture spread far and wide among the conquered peoples. Greek culture had become “cool” and everybody wanted to be a part of it. People who adopted Greek culture could be said to be “Hellenized” from Hellene, the Greek word for Greek. This caused no little consternation among the more traditional Jews. They were afraid that in the rush to embrace Greek culture, many Jews would fall into the worship of the Greek gods and so to idolatry. So, to some extent, the events which followed were as much a civil war as a war between the Jews and the Seleucids.

Antiochus IV

In the year 175, Antiochus IV Epiphanes ascended the throne of the Seleucids. Unlike previous Hellenistic rulers he seemed to believe himself a god and was eager that everyone in his realm pay divine honors to the Greek gods. For most of the people in the Empire this was no great burden as a few more gods didn’t matter all that much. For all but the most Hellenized Jews, this was an impossible demand. There was only one God. When fighting broke out between Hellenized and traditional Jews, Antiochus sided with the Hellenized Jews and in 167 sent an army to capture Jerusalem and compel the worship of the Greek gods. A statue of Zeus was placed on the altar of the Temple and the Jewish religion was banned.

This sparked a rebellion and a guerilla war which was led by a priest named Matthias and his five sons. The most prominent of these was Judas Maccabeus. Antiochus IV had many other problems, especially with the Persians to the east and the rising power of Rome to the west and could never spare the forces necessary to crush the revolt. By 165, the Maccabees were able to retake Jerusalem and cleansed the Temple of the defilement of the pagans.

According to legend, there was only enough oil to light the Menorah for one day, and yet miraculously, they were able to keep it lit for eight days, until more oil could be procured. These eight days became known as the Festival of Lights and to commemorate this victory and miracle, a nine branched menorah is lit. A more prosaic explanation for the origins of this holiday is that the first Hanukkah was a belated celebration of Sukkot. Whatever the truth of the matter might be, I wish everyone a Happy Hanukkah.

Roy Moore

December 10, 2017

I probably shouldn’t write anything at all about former Alabama Chief Justice and current Senatorial candidate Roy Moore and the allegations of sexual misconduct levelled against him. I do not know anything at all about the case and have no idea whether he is guilty of the accusations of sexually abusing a fourteen year old girl back in 1979. A lack of knowledge doesn’t seem to have kept anyone else from commenting on the events, so I might as well make a few general observations.

First, it is too bad we don’t have an unbiased news media made up of professional journalist determined to get to the truth no matter where it leads in this country. Instead, we have a collection of partisan hacks who are more concerned about getting Democrats elected than informing the public. For this reason, it is not absolutely crazy to suggest that Moore is the victim of a smear campaign using fake news. They’ve done this sort of thing before. Even if Moore is guilty, how can we really be sure?

Which brings me to the second point. The timing of these accusations is suspicious. This does not, of course, mean that they are untrue but If the Washington Post had run the story a month earlier, Luther Strange would now be the Republican nominee and the Republicans would be sailing to an easy victory. Instead the story came out when it is too late to change the ballot. Even if Roy Moore drops out of the race, his name is going to be on the ballot. Did the Washington Post sit on the story, timing its release for political advantage? It doesn’t seem improbable. Would they have waited until after the election if Moore was a Democrat? Would they have ever released the story if he were a Democrat? Who knows?

The next point I would like to make is that even if Roy Moore is innocent of the specific accusations regarding a fourteen year old girl, he still seems to like young girls, at least as young as sixteen, which happens to be the age of consent in Alabama. This predilection not only makes the claim that he had a sexual encounter which a girl below the age of consent, but doesn’t reflect well on Moore at all. It is more than a little creepy for a thirty year old man to seek out dates with girls still in high school. There don’t seem to be any recent claims of Roy Moore pursuing young girls, though. Perhaps he has changed. He may have been faithful to his wife, who he first met when she was a teenager,  since they married in 1985. He may have found religion and been saved, ending his old life and habits. This would be an inspiring story of sin and redemption that might go over well in the Bible Belt. So why isn’t he telling it? Instead, he is evading the issue to the point where even as sympathetic a commentator as Sean Hannity is suspicious.

Aside from the sexual misadventures of his relative youth, Roy Moore is an undesirable candidate for the Senate simply because he is kind of a nutcase. Going over his political positions, he comes across as a caricature of a Christian Conservative. He seems to be more of a Christian theocrat than a constitutional conservative. If I saw such a character in fiction, perhaps in a Saturday Night Live sketch, I would complain that he was too ridiculous to be believed, and yet there he is.

Roy Moore is most famous for his controversy regarding the ten commandments monument he placed in the Alabama Supreme Court building while he was Chief Justice and for twice being removed from that position when he refused to obey a federal court order to remove the monument. Now, I can’t blame Moore for going out of his way to spite the secular, anti-theist fanatics who recoil from every religious symbol as though they were vampires, and, as a private citizen, he is certainly entitled to his opinion regarding the importance of religion in our public life, but, as a judge, and the Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, he was obliged to obey the law and the decisions made by higher judicial authorities. A judge’s authority derives from the law and he cannot simply ignore rulings made by superior courts without undermining his own authority and the rule of law. A man willing to substitute his own opinions and judgements in place of the law ought, perhaps, not to be trusted to serve in the Senate.

If Roy Moore is a conservative caricature, than his opponent, Doug Jones seems to be a liberal caricature, at least on the question of abortion, he opposes any restrictions on abortion right up to the moment of birth, though he seems to be closer to the mainstream on economic issues and less of a crackpot than Moore. The problem is that, at present, the Republicans only hold a bare majority, fifty-two seats, in the Senate. If Doug Jones wins the special election, that majority is down to only one seat, and it may be easier for the Democrats to gain a majority in next year’s midterm elections. It’s not an easy choice considering the damage the Democrats might do if they get a majority in Congress.

I’m glad I don’t live in Alabama, though if I did, I guess I would reluctantly vote for Moore on the grounds that it is better to vote for the lesser evil of a bad man over a bad political party. It is more than a little discouraging to place political expedience over personal character, but the party of Bill Clinton and Ted Kennedy established the precedent years ago and fighting by Marquess of Queensberry rules against an opponent that cares for nothing except gaining power is a good way to lose every time.

Thanksgiving

November 23, 2017

Today is Thanksgiving in the United States. It is most unfortunate that this day has become little more than an excuse to gorge on turkey. Even worse, the obscenity known as Black Friday has begun to creep back into the holiday making what ought to be a day of giving thanks to the deity a day of frenzied shopping. We in America have perhaps more to be thankful for than any other nation in history and we are probably the biggest ingrates.

Well, anyway, the whole mythology surrounding the Thanksgiving holiday,with the turkey meal, etc is based on the Thanksgiving celebration held by the settlers of Plymouth colony in 1621. They had a lot to be thankful for. These Pilgrims had decided to immigrate to the New World so that they could practice their religion freely. They had intended to settle at the mouth of the Hudson River but their departure from England on the Mayflower had been delayed and the trip across the Atlantic had been rough. They reached America farther north then they had intended,at Provincetown Harbor in November 1620. While they did not really have a legal right to create a colony in what is now Massachusetts, no one really wanted to spend the winter at sea so on December 21, 1620 the Pilgrims began to build the settlement at Plymouth.

Model of a 17th century English merchantman sh...

Would you spend any more time in a leaky ship like this than you had to? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The first winter at the new colony was very hard. About half of the colonists had died by spring. By what must have seemed incredible luck or divine providence, the colonists were able to make contact with two Natives who could speak English. One of these was named Samoset and he had learned some English from English trappers and fishermen. He introduced the Pilgrims to the other man, Squanto, who had a truly remarkable life. Captured by Englishmen, he was taken to England and instructed in the English language in the hope that he could serve as an interpreter. When he was brought back to New England, he was captured again, this time by members of John Smith’s expedition who planned to sell captured Indians as slaves in Spain. In Spain, some friars learned of this plan and had the Indians freed and instructed in the Catholic religion. Squanto was able to make his way back to England and then across the Atlantic. There, he discovered that his whole tribe had been destroyed by the diseases, probably smallpox, that the Europeans had already unwittingly brought to the New World.

Squanto was willing to help the Pilgrims and taught what they needed to know to survive in New England.The harvest in the summer of 1621 was good enough that the Pilgrims did not need to fear starvation that winter. They had a feast that Autumn to celebrate their good fortune and to give thanks to God. This celebration was not considered to be anything very remarkable. Thanksgiving celebrations were fairly common at the time, especially among people who had successfully made the difficult and dangerous voyage across the ocean. It was not really the first Thanksgiving.

The First Thanksgiving, painted by Jean Leon G...

The First Thanksgiving, painted by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris (1863–1930). The First Thanksgiving took place in Plymouth in 1621. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There were proclamations of thanksgiving at various times in American history, especially during the Revolutionary War, but the holiday we know of as Thanksgiving really began in 1863 when President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation that a national day of Thanksgiving was to be celebrated on the final Thursday of November. It might not seem that there was all that much to be thankful for in the middle of the Civil War but the tide was turning in the North’s favor after the victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg that July and the country was continuing to grow in strength and prosperity despite the horrors of the war. Lincoln’s proclamation set the date for the national holiday that has been celebrated ever since. Franklin Roosevelt set the date a week earlier in 1939 in the hope that an earlier date would mean a longer shopping season for Christmas, thus helping the economy still mired in the Great Depression. This was not without controversy and in October 1941 Congress officially set the date of Thanksgiving on the fourth, and almost always the last, Thursday in November.

So,enjoy your turkey but please spare a moment or two to give thanks to the deity you worship. If you happen to be an American you really are one of the luckiest people on Earth.

Veterans Day

November 11, 2017

Today is Veterans Day. This day began as Armistice Day, November 11 1918 being the day that Germany signed the armistice that ended World War I. President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed the first Armistice Day in 1919 to celebrate the courage of the men who fought and died in that war. The day was changed in 1954 in order to honor the veterans of all the wars of America.

I don’t have anything else to say except Thank You to all of the veterans who have served your country. You are better men and women than I am.

That Devastating Argument against Pro-Lifers

November 6, 2017

Patrick S. Tomlinson has come up with what he considers to be the argument that will silence the people who are against abortion once and for all. He puts forth his argument on Twitter, not, perhaps the best place to find reasoned debate, but here it is.

Whenever abortion comes up, I have a question I’ve been asking for ten years now of the “Life begins at Conception” crowd. In ten years, no one has EVER answered it honestly. 1/

It’s a simple scenario with two outcomes. No one ever wants to pick one, because the correct answer destroys their argument. And there IS a correct answer, which is why the pro-life crowd hates the question. 2/

Here it is. You’re in a fertility clinic. Why isn’t important. The fire alarm goes off. You run for the exit. As you run down this hallway, you hear a child screaming from behind a door. You throw open the door and find a five-year-old child crying for help. 3/

They’re in one corner of the room. In the other corner, you spot a frozen container labeled “1000 Viable Human Embryos.” The smoke is rising. You start to choke. You know you can grab one or the other, but not both before you succumb to smoke inhalation and die, saving no one. 4/

Do you A) save the child, or B) save the thousand embryos? There is no “C.” “C” means you all die. In a decade of arguing with anti-abortion people about the definition of human life, I have never gotten a single straight A or B answer to this question. And I never will. 5/

They will never answer honestly, because we all instinctively understand the right answer is “A.” A human child is worth more than a thousand embryos. Or ten thousand. Or a million. Because they are not the same, not morally, not ethically, not biologically. 6/

This question absolutely evicerates their arguments, and their refusal to answer confirms that they know it to be true. No one, anywhere, actually believes an embryo is equivalent to a child. That person does not exist. They are lying to you. 7/

They are lying to you to try and evoke an emotional response, a paternal response, using false-equivalency. No one believes life begins at conception. No one believes embryos are babies, or children. Those who cliam to are trying to manipulate you so they can control women. 8/

Don’t let them. Use this question to call them out. Reveal them for what they are. Demand they answer your question, and when they don’t, slap that big ol’ Scarlet P of the Patriarchy on them. The end. 9/9

I wonder just how many people on the pro-life side Tomlinson has actually talked to, because it seems to me that almost everyone would agree to save the five year old child. I don’t think that anyone would dispute that the life of a child who can think and feel pain is worth more than the life of an embryo who has not yet developed a nervous system. After all, everyone, no matter how strongly pro-life, agrees that abortion is permissible to save the life of the mother precisely because the life of an adult women is considered to be worth more than the life of an unborn embryo or fetus. A great majority of people who oppose abortion concede that abortion is acceptable is cases of rape or incest. This does not mean, however, that the life of an embryo is worth nothing at all or that it is acceptable to abort an unborn baby for trivial reasons or for no reason at all. Mr. Tomlinson actually addresses this in a follow up tweet.

Because a lot of people are missing the point, it is not being argued the embryos are not alive. Nor is it being argued they are without value. All that is being demonstrated is their value is not equal to that of a human child. That’s it. That’s the point.

Good, then we are in agreement. However, it does not follow that if an embryo is of lesser value than a child that it is acceptable to abort or destroy the embryo for any cause short of preserving the life of a more fully developed human being. Nor does it mean that somehow arguing against abortion is lying or being hypocritical. It is possible to concede the relative lesser worth of an embryo while still being concerned to protect the life of that embryo. Notice,also, that Tomlinson uses the adjective human to modify child but not embryo, a subtle  suggestion that the embryo is somehow not really human.

Tomlinson also misses, probably deliberately,  the distinction between a difficult decision between two evils and  decision to commit an overt act which may be considered evil. To illustrate the difference, consider these two scenarios.

First, suppose there is a mother at home with her five year child and their cat. Suddenly a fire breaks out and engulfs the house. The mother only has time to save either her child or her cat. She cannot save both. I think that everyone but the most fanatic animal rights lunatic would agree that she should save her child. Why? Because the life of a human child is worth more than the life of a cat. This does not mean, of course, that the life of the cat is not worth saving, or that the woman is lying when she expresses concern for the life and well being of her cat.

Now for the second scenario. Suppose that a mother is at home with her five year old child and their cat. The child tells his mother that he is bored so to amuse the child, the mother takes the cat outside, lights it on fire, and they both have a good laugh as the cat runs around the yard burning to death. I think everyone would agree that such behavior would be reprehensible. Why? Because even a person who is not sentimental about animals would recognise that torturing a living thing for no reason is an evil act.

What is the difference between the two scenarios? In both cases the cat suffers a painful death by being burned alive. The cat suffers the same level of pain in both scenarios. Does it make any difference? I think it does. The difference is between a regrettable choice and a deliberate act. In the first scenario the woman is blameless. In the second scenario the woman might be a psychopath. The end result is comparable, as far as the cat is concerned, but the motive is different and that is what makes the difference. It is one thing to allow an embryo or even a thousand embryos to perish while saving a child, it is quite another to deliberately destroy a human embryo who, if left alone, will develop into a human child

That is the core of the controversy about abortion, whether or not abortion is the destruction of a human being, the one thing that no one on the pro-choice side wants to discuss. They prefer to use euphemisms like “women’s health” or impugn the motives of pro-lifers by suggesting they are not interested in preserving life but oppressing women or establishing a Christian Theocratic patriarchy, anything to change the subject. My advice is don’t let them get away with it.

Refuse Fascism

November 2, 2017

Be sure to mark November 4 on your calendar because that is the day the revolution begins. Massive street demonstrations all over the country will drive the Fascist Trump/Pence regime out of power. At least, that is what the good people at Refuse Fascism hope will happen.

In less than a week, it begins; in 19 cities across the country, we will unite with courage and conviction, overcoming fear and uncertainty, to put a stop to the grave danger that the Trump/Pence regime poses to the world. Only the people acting together in non-violent mass protest, raising the demand that this regime must step down from power, can end this nightmare.

We are right to do this. For the survival of millions of people around the world, we must do this. For the rights of women to determine the course of their own lives, we must do this. For a future on this planet for all of our children, we must do this. If we don’t want to see white supremacist mob rule, in the government or in the streets, we must do this. For every group that is demonized and targeted by this regime, for whom this regime is already a brutal nightmare, we must do this. Our actions reflect the values of respect for all of humanity and the world we want – in stark contrast to the hate and bigotry of the Trump/Pence fascist regime.

These days, whenever I see someone using the word “Fascism”, I cannot help but think of Inigo Montoya’s line from the Princess Bride. I do not think they have the slightest idea what Fascism actually is.

 


Fascism is not a general term of abuse to be hurled against Conservatives, or whoever you do not like. Fascism is a word that describes a particular social and political ideology. According to Dictionary.com, Fascism is:

a governmental system led by a dictator having complete power, forcibly suppressing opposition and criticism, regimenting all industry, commerce, etc., and emphasizing an aggressive nationalism and often racism.

Politically, a Fascist state is a one party totalitarian state ruled by a charismatic dictator, in which the government claims total control over the lives of the citizen’s while those citizens have no rights the government is obliged to respect. Fascist economic policy is essentially anti-free market Socialism that while permitting private ownership of the economy controls it to such an extent that such ownership is largely nominal.

Is Trump a Fascist? Of course not. Trump has not suspended the constitution, abolished opposition parties, thrown dissidents in prison, or anything or the sort. Like it or not Donald Trump won the election and is the duly elected President of the United States.  Setting aside his often ill-conceived words, Trump’s actions as president have been entirely what one might expect of a slightly right of center president. If Donald Trump weren’t Trump, little of what he is doing would be controversial.

There are no mainstream figures in American politics who could even remotely be considered Fascists. There is no American Fascist Party. There are no politicians describing themselves as Fascists. The people who claiming to be fighting Fascism can go home. They have no one to fight.

I have to wonder what groups like Refuse Fascism hope to accomplish with these protests. The President’s term of office is set by the constitution at four years. Unless Donald Trump is impeached and convicted of a crime or resigns, he will be president in 2020 regardless of how many people are protesting against him. There is no constitutional provision for a do-over election. If both Donald Trump and Mike Pence resign or are removed from office, there is a clear line of succession  established by the Presidential Succession Act of 1947. If the President and Vice-President are unable to serve, then the Speaker of the House Republican Paul Ryan becomes President. The Senate President Pro Tempore, Republican Orrin Hatch is next, followed by the Cabinet Secretaries, all appointed by Trump, in order of the creation of their department. There is no legal or constitutional means by which Hilary Clinton or Bernie Sanders gets to be president, even if both Trump and Pence are removed. At present every single person in the line of succession is a Republican, and presumably part of the Fascist regime. This will only change if the Democrats gain a majority in either House of Congress in the 2018 midterms.

Given that even impeaching Trump and Pence would only result in other members of the Fascist regime becoming president, there is no legal, constitutional way to remove the Fascist regime. How, precisely do they plan to go about it non-violently, and how are we supposed to select a new president, given that the constitution will have been discarded? Is it the plan to force a democratically elected president and his cabinet from power and replace him with a leader chosen by a mob?

Ironic is a word that is overused but there is something ironic going on here, since these people don’t seem to have studied history at all. Overthrowing an elected government by the threat of mob violence is precisely what Benito Mussolini did with his March on Rome in 1922 and Adolf Hitler tried to tried to do with his Beer Hall Putsch in 1923. When you consider the very real possibility of violence breaking out at some of these anti-Fascist protests, based on the past history of violence by the Antifa, it might seem that the real Fascists are the ones protesting Fascism.

There is the irony. Refuse Fascism will not be able to force Donald Trump from the Presidency, but if they manage to create an atmosphere of disorder and chaos by continuous, daily, possibly violent, demonstrations they will succeed in creating the atmosphere that a real dictator can take over. Again, if they had actually bothered to study history, they would know that Fascist dictators like Mussolini and Hitler were preceded by chaotic, lawless conditions in their respective countries. If regular, constitutional government cannot maintain the order people need to live their lives, they will turn to the strongman who can.

If the people planning to protest this Saturday really wanted to fight Fascism, they would protest Trump’s policies while acknowledging that he is the legitimate President and not a dictator. They would be putting their efforts into recruiting candidates for office in the upcoming elections and seeing to it that he is a one-term president. But, that would take knowledge and maturity, two characteristics not often associated with the Left. It’s easier just to have a giant temper tantrum.

 

Halloween

October 31, 2017

Today is Halloween. The name “Halloween” is actually derived from “All Hallow’s Eve“, that is the day before “All Hallow’s Day” or All Saint’s Day. All Saint’s Day was and is a Christian, primarily Roman Catholic, holy day which celebrates all the saints in Heaven and includes prayers for those in Purgatory.

Halloween, however, is not a Christian holiday. It seems to have come from the Celtic festival of Samhain, which was a summer’s end or harvest festival. The Celts celebrated Samhain with bonfires to ward off evil spirits and sacrificed animals and sometimes humans to their gods. This pagan heritage has made Halloween controversial among Christians at times. The Protestant Reformers in England did not like the holiday and tried to suppress it because of its pagan and Roman Catholic origins. The Scots were more lenient and Halloween is celebrated there more than in England. The Irish, of course, still celebrated it as they remained Catholic and true to their Celtic Heritage. Halloween was not much celebrated in America until large numbers of Scots and Irish immigrated here during the nineteenth century.

As for the customs which have grown up around Halloween, it would seem that carving pumpkins into jack-o-lanterns is an American innovation. The Scots and Irish used turnips. Pumpkins, which are native to North American, turned out to be larger and easier to carve. Trick or treating seems to be derived from the Scottish custom of guising. Guising is the custom in which children would go from door to door in costume begging for treats and performing a trick or song in return. This custom was first noted in America in the early twentieth century. Trick or treating became the custom by the 1930’s. Haunted houses have also become popular since the 1970’s.

So, Happy Halloween, or Samhain.

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