The Birth of a Nation – Dick Lehr

The Birth of a Nation – Dick Lehr

The Birth of a Nation chronicles the lives of D.W. Griffith, director of the 1915 film for which the book is titled, and William Monroe Trotter, a black civil rights leader who fought to have the film banned from theaters in Boston and the United States.

Lehr gives a brief backdrop of both men’s upbringings: Griffith the son of a Civil War veteran who fought for the South; Trotter also the son of Civil War veteran, but for the North, and who spearheaded equal pay for his all-black Union regiment.

The meat of book follows Griffith as he goes from failed stage actor to pioneer in directing “moving pictures,” and Trotter as he goes from Harvard-educated businessman to a leader in the civil rights movement. The stories of the two collide with the production and release of The Birth of a Nation.

I haven’t seen the film, nor do I have any desire to, but the impact it left on the technical aspect of directing films as we know it today can’t be understated. Unfortunately, nor can the blatant racism it promoted. Lehr does an admirable job of explaining both, noting that Griffith, with his use of quick cuts of multiple cameras, close-up shots and musical scores  laid the foundation for what we expect from a movie. No one at the time had seen anything like it. That the content is so overtly racist (the film is at least partially credited with the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan) is a moral tragedy.

The release of the film spurred a heated battle, with groups around the country fighting to ban it from theaters on the basis of its portrayal of black Americans. No one fought more fiercely than Trotter. Through lawsuits, lobbying both Boston and Massachusetts legislature, and organized protests, Trotter led the charge against Griffith and his work. The biggest obstacle facing him, other than the inherent prejudice of those Trotter needed to help stop the film, was that Griffith claimed protection due to his First Amendment right to free speech. Trotter, a newspaper owner himself, was extremely wary of abridging that right. Instead he hoped to shutter the film based on its morality, or lack thereof, when depicting black characters.

In a long and valiant fight Trotter, and the majority of the black population of Boston, got the state legislature to appoint three officials the power to stop a film they deemed immoral. What seemed to be a victory turned to defear when the three officials met and, after a short deliberation, deemed The Birth of a Nation fit for showing. The film played for months in Boston and around the country, grossing an estimated $60 million in 1915.

I read this book for a few reasons: first, as someone who works in television I wanted to know the history of the movie that essentially wrote the blueprint for how modern films are made. Second, as a journalism major I found the debate surrounding the film fascinating. It serves as a perfect case study for free speech versus what today we call “hate speech.” Where does Griffith’s right to produce racist content lose out to the harm it caused to black Americans? What qualifies as harmful speech, presenting a “clear and present danger” as it would later be labeled, and what is protected served as the focal point of the long debate in 1915. That debate still rages today.

This leads me to the third reason: a theme of the book, and therefore a theme of the reality of this conflict, is the use of a new medium to push a racist agenda. The sheer amazement and visceral reaction to a motion picture in 1915 played an undeniable role in The Birth of a Nation’s success at the box office and in court. Griffith’s film simply made too much money and, in a strategic marketing ploy, had the tacit support of judges, lawmakers and even President Woodrow Wilson. The use of a new medium to enrapture the populace but also serve as a prejudiced tool reminded me, in some ways, of social media today. Something can spread across the country in an instant, and in the time it takes for anyone to recognize it as toxic it’s too late. Similarly to movies in 1915, Twitter today is new and wide-reaching. Similarly to the racism in The Birth of a Nation, hateful and racist attacks can be posted and shared far and wide. And, just as in 1915, bigoted language pushes the limits of what the First Amendment protects. This new, instant and widespread medium arrived quickly, and the world still doesn’t quite know how to handle it just yet.

I don’t know who to credit this quote to, but I heard it from a professor: “History doesn’t repeat; it rhymes.” When I finished this book I felt disheartened. Disheartened because the fight of black Americans to be seen as equal, to have their rights as humans recognized, to attempt to work within the legal system to change an injustice and being swatted down sounded too familiar. Many of the reasons given to keep The Birth of a Nation in theaters and to write off its racism sounded too familiar. Responses to a Trotter-led protest outside the Tremont Theatre in April 1915 could be copied verbatim by critics of the Black Lives Matter movement and no one would know the difference. Sometimes history’s song is a sad one.

But we need to know the words.

Thank you for reading,

AR

1 Samuel

1 Samuel

The book of 1 Samuel follows the lives of Samuel, Saul and David. Samuel represents a new line of priests, with Saul and, after Saul’s demise, David representing a new line of king.

We start with Samuel, born to a previously barren mother and then given to the local priest to be raised under God. That priest, Eli, eventually angers God to the point that God revokes the promise of Aaron’s family line (of which Eli is a part) being the priesthood. “‘I promised that members of your family would minister before me forever.’ But now the Lord declares: ‘Far be it from me! Those who honor me I will honor, but those who despise me will be disdained.'” (1 Samuel 2:30). God breaking his covenant with the Levites results in Eli’s death, the ark being stolen (temporarily) by the Philistines and Samuel’s ascension to the top of Israel’s priestly ranks.

This reminds me of God wanting to destroy the earth again after Noah, or of God arguing with Moses over whether or not to kill the Israelites after they escaped Egypt. I understand the idea of being rewarded for obedience and punished for rebelling, but the idea of God “changing his mind” on previous decisions puzzles me. But more on this later.

The Israelites ask Samuel to select a king for them. The king God reveals is Saul, and his reign begins soon after.

Saul loses God’s favor quickly. While fighting the Amalekites, Saul receives these instructions from God: “‘Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy all that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.’” (1 Samuel 15:3). Saul does defeat the Amalekites, killing every man, woman and child except their king. But Saul’s army also takes cattle and sheep, which Saul says are to be sacrificed to God. Because of this, God “regrets” having made Saul king and rejects him as king over Israel. To repeat: because Saul did not kill every living thing, he was rejected.”Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the Lord?” (1 Samuel 15:22).

This mentality calls back to the man who took plunder from Jericho and his entire family was stoned to death. I struggle to see a reasoning behind which enemies live and who die, or even in what battle. Some cities should be absolutely destroyed, some you can plunder, some only the animals are spared. It’s so arbitrary, and the punishments so punitive, that “obedience” serves no other purpose than for the sake of obeying.

Another puzzling addition is that God regrets making Saul king, implying God made a wrong choice. God certainly changes his mind about Saul, with him starting as “God’s anointed” but ending tormented by “evil spirits”. So God is all-knowing, but changes his mind? God has a plan, but also has regrets? Samuel tells Saul, “He who is the Glory of Israel does not lie or change his mind; for he is not a human being, that he should change his mind” (1 Samuel 15:29). This line comes a dozen verses after God states his regret for making Saul king, and rejecting him as such. Then half a dozen verses later we see again, “Until the day Samuel died, he did not go to see Saul again, though Samuel mourned for him. And the Lord regretted that he had made Saul king over Israel” (1 Samuel 21:35). Assuming God is the “Glory of Israel,” aren’t these two statements completely at odds with each other?

The third main character in the book is David, who wins Saul’s favor by famously killing the giant Philistine Goliath with a sling and a rock. David serves as Saul’s right-hand man and wins battle after battle, growing Saul’s empire. By all accounts David is a ferocious warrior, but this eventually causes Saul to disdain him.

“As they danced, they sang:

“Saul has slain his thousands,
    and David his tens of thousands.”

Saul was very angry; this refrain displeased him greatly. “They have credited David with tens of thousands,” he thought, “but me with only thousands. What more can he get but the kingdom?” And from that time on Saul kept a close eye on David. (1 Samuel 18:7-9)

This offers a glimpse into where power comes from in this world; the more you killed the more you were either feared or revered, and therefore your fame and potential for power grew. Saul believes David will try to overthrow him. This is in part because of God’s rejection of Saul as king, and also due to David’s incredible talent as a warrior. Saul offers David his daughter’s hand in marriage, hoping the dowry will be David’s downfall.

They repeated these words to David. But David said, “Do you think it is a small matter to become the king’s son-in-law? I’m only a poor man and little known.”

When Saul’s servants told him what David had said, Saul replied, “Say to David, ‘The king wants no other price for the bride than a hundred Philistine foreskins, to take revenge on his enemies.’” Saul’s plan was to have David fall by the hands of the Philistines.

When the attendants told David these things, he was pleased to become the king’s son-in-law. So before the allotted time elapsed,27 David took his men with him and went out and killed two hundred Philistines and brought back their foreskins. They counted out the full number to the king so that David might become the king’s son-in-law. Then Saul gave him his daughter Michal in marriage. (1 Samuel 18: 23-27)

Among the barbaric things I’ve read thus far, asking for 100 foreskins and receiving 200 foreskins ranks fairly high. The initial request shocked me, but the fact that David doubles it shows me that bloodlust may be his second love, behind his faith in God.

Saul, undeterred, continues to plot against David, to the point that David flees Israel. Saul pursues him and, twice, David has the chance to kill Saul but refuses. After the second time Saul pledges to leave David be, and David resides in Philistine lands. While living there, David continues to wage war on a small scale to keep favor with the local ruler.

When Achish asked, “Where did you go raiding today?” David would say, “Against the Negev of Judah” or “Against the Negev of Jerahmeel” or “Against the Negev of the Kenites.” He did not leave a man or woman alive to be brought to Gath, for he thought, “They might inform on us and say, ‘This is what David did.’” And such was his practice as long as he lived in Philistine territory. (1 Samuel 27:10-11)

It’s telling that David’s “practice” for years was raiding, plundering and killing. This is our hero, the one known for killing “tens of thousands” and leaving no man or woman alive, but because he refuses to kill Saul, his king, he is held in high regard.

Later the Philistines attack Israel and Saul goes to meet them on the battlefield. Seeing he is outnumbered, Saul consults a “medium” who conjures up Samuel’s ghost. This struck me as strange because it is essentially forbidden to use a medium or perform “magic” in Israel. It is explicitly outlawed in the Bible and the medium herself is at first afraid to perform the ritual. Only after Saul assures her he won’t kill her does she do it. The act is moot anyway, because Samuel’s ghost rebukes Saul and tells him he will die. The next day the Philistines rout the Israelites and Saul falls on his sword, setting the table for David, who had actually wanted to march against Saul’s army but was denied the chance.

I had heard of David as a man after God’s own heart. David certainly has faith in God and obeys his commands, as proven by not killing Saul, God’s anointed, when he had both reason and opportunity to do so. But David also revels in bloodshed and death. Moreover, David had no qualms about going against Israel as long as he didn’t have to harm Saul personally. The preservation of one chosen person while causing harm to the rest of the Israelites certainly lines up with God’s actions in the Old Testament thus far. While David may not be a good man, he is certainly a man who understands God.

Thank you for reading,

AR

Ruth

Ruth

Ruth is the Moabite daughter-in-law of an Israelite woman named Naomi. After the death of both Naomi’s and Ruth’s husbands, they return to Bethlehem, where Ruth declares “your people will be my people and your God my God” (Ruth 1:16).

In Bethlehem Ruth meets a man named Boaz, a relative of Naomi’s husband. Boaz takes Ruth in, allowing her to work his fields unharmed and giving her enough food for herself and Naomi. Some time later Boaz asks another, closer relative if he will buy Naomi’s lands and marry Ruth, to keep the lands in the dead husband’s name. The man refuses, and so Boaz buys the land and marries Ruth in his place.

Ruth then has a son, Obed, who turns out to be the grandfather of David. This seems to be a story of the Israelite society working out the way it was designed to. Naomi treats Ruth as her own daughter. Ruth stays with Naomi, keeping the promises she made when she married Naomi’s son. Boaz is kind, and offers aid to his relative’s widow and her daughter-in-law. And at the end we learn one of the great Biblical characters comes from their marriage.

It’s a nice story, albeit a short one. I felt refreshed not having to read about a massacre of a city or of a plague. Ruth is a short story on loyalty, human kindness and compassion. It’s also the first book in which God does not have a direct role.

Thank you for reading,

AR

Judges

Judges

Judges, as described in the Bible, are more like heroes who rescue Israel from oppression. “Then the Lord raised up judges, who saved them out of the hands of these raiders,” (Judges 2:16). This book alternates between times of peace and captivity for the Israelites, with peacetime being overseen by a judge. Israel has no king during these years and often acts against the will of God, causing him to become angry, which leads to him allowing Israel to be taken over, then a judge will save them and the cycle begins again. There are about a dozen named judges, but I want to focus on three: Deborah, Gideon and Samson.

Deborah, a prophet and Israel’s leader at the time, is the first real heroine of the Bible. She asks a man to lead the Israelite army against the Canaanites and assures God will deliver the enemy into his hands, despite the Canaanites having “900 chariots.” However, the man refuses to go without Deborah, prompting her to respond, “‘Certainly I will go with you… But because of the course you are taking, the honor will not be yours, for the Lord will deliver Sisera into the hands of a woman’” (Judges 4:9). Deborah defeats Sisera’s force in battle, but Sisera himself escapes the battle to a nearby tribe. He enters the tent of a woman named Jael, who gives him milk and allows him to sleep. While Sisera sleeps, Jael hammers a tent spike through his temple.

“The Song of Deborah” glorifies her victory in battle and gives due credit to Jael. A warrior woman hasn’t appeared in the Bible yet, and praising another woman for killing a man seems almost ludicrous when I look back at the earlier books. When the Old Testament has been so against women having any sort of standing equal to men, it was interesting to read about a woman leading God’s chosen people, if only for two chapters.

Some decades after Deborah the Israelites again fall to a rival nation, this time the Midianites. Gideon then rises up to save his people. In a situation similar to the story of Jericho, Gideon faces a force that vastly outnumbers his own. Instead of trumpets and shouts to bring down a wall, Gideon surrounds an enemy camp with 300 men armed with torches and jars. On his command they light the torches, smash the jars and watch as the entire enemy encampment plunges into chaos. The Midianites begin killing each other, then run away. Gideon pursues and kills them.

Samson is the hero of heroes in Judges. He reminds me of Hercules, or Achilles. Samson is born to a barren mother after an angel visits her; he kills a lion with his bare hands; he murders 30 Philistines over the answer to a riddle; he uses torches tied to 300 foxes to burn Philistine lands; he kills 1000 more with a donkey’s jawbone; and he ripped a city’s gates from their foundation. His incredible strength is given to him by God through his hair, which must never be cut. His lover Delilah eventually betrays him (shades of Hercules) by telling this secret to the Philistine leaders. They cut his hair and weaken him (shades of Achilles’ heel), then tie him up and gouge out his eyes. After his hair grows back a bit, Samson dies by pulling a Philistine temple on himself, killing thousands more who had come to see Samson chained.

The stories are fantastically entertaining. A king so fat an assassin kills him with a knife that gets stuck in the king’s belly. Gideon’s bastard kills his 70 legitimate brothers to take power. The tribes of Israel nearly eradicate their fellow tribe of Benjamin. These stories echo other cultures’ mythology but focus on Jehovah as opposed to Zeus or Odin. The themes set forth in the earlier books are strengthened: God is terrifying and should be feared; Israel will falter if they associate with other peoples; power comes through violence. They were entertaining to read in the same way as the Iliad or Gilgamesh are.

But then one of the last stories of the book brings us back to the brutal barbarism of the culture. A man and his concubine enter a town for the night and an old man takes them into his home.

While they were enjoying themselves, some of the wicked men of the city surrounded the house. Pounding on the door, they shouted to the old man who owned the house, “Bring out the man who came to your house so we can have sex with him.”

The owner of the house went outside and said to them, “No, my friends, don’t be so vile. Since this man is my guest, don’t do this outrageous thing. Look, here is my virgin daughter, and his concubine. I will bring them out to you now, and you can use them and do to them whatever you wish. But as for this man, don’t do such an outrageous thing.”

But the men would not listen to him. So the man took his concubine and sent her outside to them, and they raped her and abused her throughout the night, and at dawn they let her go. At daybreak the woman went back to the house where her master was staying, fell down at the door and lay there until daylight.

When her master got up in the morning and opened the door of the house and stepped out to continue on his way, there lay his concubine, fallen in the doorway of the house, with her hands on the threshold.28 He said to her, “Get up; let’s go.” But there was no answer. Then the man put her on his donkey and set out for home. (Judges 19:22-28)

To avoid the “outrageous” act of sodomy, the man offers his virgin daughter to be gang-raped. His guest throws his concubine outside to them, where she is raped to death. He then throws her on his donkey and, later, sends her body parts to the tribes of Israel as some sort of call to arms. The Israelites take offense to her being raped to death, but had she lived what would happen? Nothing? That is outrageous.

Stories like this, or of a man sacrificing his daughter to God for a victory against his enemies (Judges 11:34-40), make me view the stories of the Bible as mythology of an ancient people far more than a relevant religious text. The Bible has undeniable social and societal worth, and should be studied as a look into the Hebrew culture just as we do the Greeks of Romans. But the stories within the Bible chip away at the idea, for me, of a perfect and just God.

Thank you for reading,

AR

No Place To Hide – Glenn Greenwald

No Place To Hide – Glenn Greenwald

No Place to Hide serves as a literary companion to the Academy Award-winning documentary Citizenfour. Where documentary-maker Laura Poitras presents the government-shaking revelations provided by Edward Snowden in film, Glenn Greenwald presents them in written form.

Greenwald offers a different viewpoint and a deeper look into the historic meeting in Hong Kong. Having seen Citizenfour, this book provided me more context to their first contact with Snowden, those days holed up in a hotel room and the fallout from the revelations from the perspective of the first person to disclose them. I highly suggest watching the documentary and reading the book. The information in both will rattle you to the core.

In No Place To Hide, Greenwald presents an unrelenting point-by-point analysis of how the National Security Agency conducts warrant-less mass surveillance both internationally and domestically on U.S. citizens. One benefit of the book is that Greenwald is able to publish copies of the top-secret documents given to him by Snowden in full. Using those documents for support, he proves a series of disturbing truths.

The NSA collects all of your electronic metadata and does so without a warrant. That is not hyperbole, it is the actual slogan of NSA collection. And here are the NSA’s own Powerpoint slides to prove it. This means that when you make a phone call, or send a text or email, the NSA collects who you sent it (you), who you sent it to, where you were when you sent it, where the recipient was when they received it, how long the call was or how many messages were sent, and the time the message was sent and received. They now the who, what, when and where for every communication you have.

While the government has said it does not read emails or texts, nor listen to calls, that is highly debatable. But even at face value, metadata can in many cases be more intrusive. Imagine the government hires a private investigator to follow you. While the investigator wouldn’t know exactly what you said or wrote, he would know where you went, who you talked to, how long you talked, how often you talked, what you bought, what you looked at…a vast majority of what makes up a person’s day and life. Or in the words of Princeton Computer Science Professor Edward Felten:

Consider the following hypothetical example: A young woman calls her gynecologist; then immediately calls her mother; then a man who, during the past few months, she had repeatedly spoken to on the telephone after 11 pm; followed by a call to a family planning center that also offers abortions. A likely story-line emerges that would not be as evident by examining the record of a single telephone call.

How does the NSA collect this information? With the help from nearly every major telecommunications company in the United States. They partner with Verizon. They work hand-in-hand with AT&T, even building secret rooms within AT&T facilities that directly funnel customer information. They work with Google and Facebook to collect users’ private data. So while the Snowden leaks did eventually get legislation in place to rein in the NSA’s direct collection, these private companies can, and do, hand that data over to the NSA.

The NSA claims they collect all of this data to prevent terrorism. This is a lie. According to two separate, independent review panels with access to Top Secret documents the NSA has not stopped a single terror attack. Attacks that have been thwarted are due to the work of typical law enforcement.

The NSA has, however, monitored Brazilian and Mexican presidents; hacked the UN Secretary General for political advantage before global meetings; and spied on dozens of countries for economic gain – even our allies. The CIA (who, along with all government agencies, uses the NSA’s surveillance) even spied on the U.S. Senate committee charged with overseeing the NSA’s domestic surveillance program. Despite the government adamantly denying spying for any reason other than “to stop terrorism,” case after case shows this is not true.

Another casualty of a governement’s unrestrained domestic and international surveillance is adversarial journalism. Greenwald was labeled a traitor for aiding fellow “traitor” Snowden. Snowden still can’t return to the U.S. for fear of imprisonment, with some lawmakers calling for his death. Claims that he endangered government secrets and U.S. assets are unfounded – he simply showed hypocrisy and outright lying committed by the U.S. government. Good journalism serves as a watchdog, fighting abuse of power at every turn. Edward Snowden saw gross injustice being done to his fellow citizens. Glenn Greenwald thought, rightly, that those citizens and the world deserved to know what the government of the most powerful country in the world was doing to them in the dark. The Guardian and the Washington Post won a Pulitzer for their NSA reporting for a reason. A government that works in the dark is a dangerous one, and its citizens have a right to know what is being done for them and to them.

More generally though, the fact that the government can hack any device at any time and collect all communications potentially eliminates keeping sources safe. The loss of this vital journalistic aspect could effectively freeze any adversarial press. Moreover, the treatment of Snowden and fellow whistleblower Chelsea Manning greatly deter others from coming forward. A government meddling with, or even outright threatening, the media dulls the blade of adversarial journalism. It gives the governement editorial power over the very estate charged with keeping track of it. It is the CIA spying on the U.S. Senate on a grand scale. The Post, after accepting its Pulitzer, then wrote an editorial arguing against a pardon for Snowden. One wonders why.

We need whistleblowers, now more then ever. We as private citizens live increasingly public lives, where the government has the ability to learn personal and private details. In contrast, the government acts more and more in the shadows. In this past election alone, Donald Trump refused to release his tax records, leaving the American public in the dark about his financial dealings and partnerships. And Mike Pence is fighting to keep his own emails secret.

So why is all of this important? Most pressingly, Mike Pompeo has been floated as the new CIA Director. Pompeo fully supports reverting back to pre-Snowden NSA, effectively destroying the USA Freedom Act and expanding the NSA’s capabilities with little oversight. He, predictably, cites fighting terrorism as his reasoning.

But more importantly we as citizens deserve privacy. We have every right to be left alone. We have every right to not worry about someone, somewhere, looking up our private thoughts and conversations without warrant or reason. In Snowden’s own words:

“Privacy isn’t about something to hide. Privacy is about something to protect. That’s who you are. That’s what you believe in, that’s who you want to become. Privacy is the right to the self. Privacy is what gives you the ability to share with the world who you are, on your own terms, for them to understand what you’re trying to be. And to protect for yourself the parts of you that you’re not sure about, that you’re still experimenting with. If we don’t have privacy, what we’re losing is the ability to make mistakes. We’re losing the ability to be ourselves. Privacy is the fountainhead of all other rights. Freedom of speech doesn’t have a lot of meaning if you can’t have a quiet space to decide what it is that you actually want to say. Freedom of religion doesn’t mean that if you can’t figure out what you actually believe without being influenced by the criticisms and sort of outside direction and peer pressure of others. And it goes on and on and on. But privacy is baked into our language, our core concepts of government and self in every way. Without privacy, you won’t have anything for yourself… Arguing that you don’t have privacy because you have nothing to hide is like arguing that you don’t care about free speech because you have nothing to say.”

Thank you for reading,

AR

On the 2016 Presidential Election

On the 2016 Presidential Election

Republicans are not to “blame” for Trump. The DNC colluded to put forth a flawed candidate who did nothing to appease what voters apparently wanted: a job boost and any kind of change. Add that with Democrats not turning up to the polls and there is enough “blame” to go around for everyone. The same power that Democrats, and the country to some degree, fear in the hands of Trump was made that way over the last eight years. The left needs to take a look in the mirror.

Additionally, not everyone who voted for Trump is a racist or a bigot or a misogynist. That said, Trump is. He is a racist. He is a bigot. He is a misogynist. By voting for him you elected those things to the White House. Just because you say you cast your vote for his policy does not mean you can ignore what he has shown himself to be. You, in your small way, gave those voices a seat at the most powerful table in the world.

Along those lines, to those saying “Give him a chance to prove himself” I respond by saying he has had chances. A 70-year-old man has an established worldview and pattern of abusing others for his own personal gain. To suggest now that he has more power would somehow make him more restrained seems doubtful at best. And a week in to his transition he has named a white nationalist as his chief strategist. He has floated Joe Arpaio and Dave Clark for Secretary of Homeland Security. A man of pink jumpsuits, criminal contempt charges and deportation raids; and “blue lives matter,” “fix the ghetto not the police” rhetoric, respectively. His top choice for EPA administrator denies climate change. Trump had a chance to surprise me, and he did not.

I find it entirely possible, probable even, that he conned those who did vote for him. At least those who believed when he said he wanted to “drain the swamp” in Washington. His cabinet front-runners include Rudy Giuliani, former New York City mayor and political lifer, for Secretary of State or Attorney General; Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the House, for Secretary of State; Forest Lucas, founder of Lucas Oil, for  Interior Secretary; and Steven Mnuchin, who worked for Goldman Sachs for 17 years, as Treasury Secretary. From lobbyists to the political elite to his own children, his Oval Office shows very little radical change. His proposed tax plan also most benefits the richest of Americans, and may even hurt the poorest.

But even if this administration does follow through on the economic promises, the social cost may be too much. I am a straight, white male. I can’t speak to living a day in the life of a black man, a Muslim woman, a Latino family or a LGBTQ teen. So I won’t. But I can listen, and I hear a lot of those voices saying they’re scared. It’s scary when the KKK celebrates Trump’s election. It’s scary to read that the FBI reports an increase in hate crimes against Muslims this past year to the highest point since 9/11. It’s scary to hear Trump promise to deport 2 million people. It’s scary when the Vice President-elect advocated for spending tax dollars on conversion therapy as the governor of Indiana. Again, I don’t know anything about the challenges facing these groups. But that should make me more prone to listen, not less.

I don’t want to see eight years of white working class individuals feeling ignored and angry erase the progress made to help others who have felt ignored and voiceless for decades, or even centuries, in this country.

Finally, as skeptical as I am of this man and nervous about what policies his government could enact, I have been encouraged by the desire to have fierce resistance to anything that might wipe away that progress. The ACLU, Planned Parenthood, ProPublica and many others have seen a swell in donations. In a perverse way Trump’s election may have shaken us to action. I can only hope that fire doesn’t die out.

It’s been a week since I learned Donald Trump would be President. The moments of absolute dread keep ebbing away, but my adversarial skepticism remains sharp as ever. Equally important my desire to ensure social equality does not regress has been stoked to a new high.

Thank you for reading,

AR

 

Joshua

Joshua

Joshua picks up after the death of Moses and follows the Israelites as they enter the promised land. In the first chapter God tells Joshua “As I was with Moses, so I will be with you” (Joshua 1:5). This phrase strikes me as slightly ironic because the sole reason Joshua is leading the people is because God forbade Moses from entering the promised land in the first place. God shunned Moses at the end. God’s message to Joshua most likely serves as encouragement for the people, establishing Joshua as the leader and one who God works through, as he worked through Moses. But the other side of the coin seems to imply God will be with Joshua as long as, and only if, he obeys.

Joshua’s first conquest is Jericho. He sends spies into the city who stay with a prostitute named Rahab. Rahab hides the spies when the king’s men come looking for them, in exchange for her and her family being spared from what she rightly expects to be a slaughter. The spies agree, telling Rahab to bring her family to her house and they will live. Rahab then lets the spies out of her house in a unique way: “So she let them down by a rope through the window, for the house she lived in was part of the city wall.” (Joshua 2:15).

This becomes an important detail when we learn how Jericho falls.

When the trumpets sounded, the army shouted, and at the sound of the trumpet, when the men gave a loud shout, the wall collapsed; so everyone charged straight in, and they took the city. They devoted the city to the Lord and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it—men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys. Joshua said to the two men who had spied out the land, ‘Go into the prostitute’s house and bring her out and all who belong to her, in accordance with your oath to her.'” (Joshua 6:20-22). 

Now, the spies told Rahab to bring her family into her house, which we learn made up a part of the city wall. That wall collapses. Then the Israelite army goes in and kills “every living thing.” And then spies get Rahab and her family? How was her house not destroyed?

Simply, the entire Rahab element of this story makes little sense. Joshua doesn’t send spies to any other city. Joshua orders the spies to “look over the land” and the next sentence states they entered a prostitute’s house. The only information the spies gain is that the whole land fears the Israelites because of their wholesale slaughter of cities. Then they leave, Israel destroys Jericho using none of the information gained, and they spare one family out of tens of thousands who eventually die by the Israelites’ hands. Sparing lives goes against nearly the entire rest of the book. Joshua doesn’t show mercy, as we learn soon after Jericho.

When Jericho falls, an Israelite named Achan steals a robe, gold and silver from the city. Because of this, when the Israelites attempt to take the next city, Ai, they fail. “So about three thousand went up; but they were routed by the men of Ai, who killed about thirty-six of them” (Joshua 7:4-5). Losing 36 men out of 3,000 hardly qualifies as a route, but I think the point here is that with God angry at Israel, Israel will fail. So Joshua calls the people together and discovers Achan stole from Jericho. To turn God’s anger away, “all of Israel” stones Achan, his family and his livestock then burns them. Another example of women and children dying for the actions of one man.

With Achan’s sin atoned for, the Israelites move again on Ai. Here’s the account:

When Israel had finished killing all the men of Ai in the fields and in the wilderness where they had chased them, and when every one of them had been put to the sword, all the Israelites returned to Ai and killed those who were in it. Twelve thousand men and women fell that day—all the people of Ai. For Joshua did not draw back the hand that held out his javelin until he had destroyed all who lived in Ai. But Israel did carry off for themselves the livestock and plunder of this city, as the Lord had instructed Joshua.

So Joshua burned Ai and made it a permanent heap of ruins, a desolate place to this day. He impaled the body of the king of Ai on a pole and left it there until evening. At sunset, Joshua ordered them to take the body from the pole and throw it down at the entrance of the city gate. And they raised a large pile of rocks over it, which remains to this day. (Joshua 8:24-29)

Slaughtering whole cities isn’t new in the Old Testament. However, two specific and unique details regarding Ai stood out to me to make it worth exploring further. First, Israel plunders Ai immediately after stoning a man and his family for plundering Jericho. The only difference being God forbade plundering Jericho, and apparently instructed the Israelites to plunder Ai. It seems fickle, and cheapens any sort of message that God wants to get across, unless that message is “I am God so do as I say.”

Second, the additional brutality. If losing 36 men in a battle served as a route for Israel, what would they call murdering 12,000 civilians? Impaling the king on a pole sends a message of violence and mercilessness, like an Israelite Genghis Khan. But this too was apparently done at the request of God, or at the very least he allowed it. The idea of God instructing and even wanting total destruction comes up again later: “For it was the Lord himself who hardened their hearts to wage war against Israel, so that he might destroy them totally, exterminating them without mercy, as the Lord had commanded Moses” (Joshua 11:20). So we have God, helping a ruthless warlord in Joshua destroy every human life he comes across, forcing those people to stand against him just to die, sending a message of fear throughout the whole land by way of merciless violence. And yet the Bible continues to call these acts good.

“Not one of their enemies withstood them; the Lord gave all their enemies into their hands. Not one of all the Lord’s good promises to Israel failed; every one was fulfilled” (Joshua 21:44-45). Over and over I read God wants to kill everyone and everything. Joshua 12 simply lists 31 cities and kings destroyed by Israel, all with the populations massacred, many with their kings impaled. Every person in every city dies. But, for Israel, this was the fulfillment of good promises. I contest that definition of good.

Thank you for reading,

AR