Our connection with the animals is a complex issue. I mean we eat some of them while others work for us and others are pampered pets, friends of a sort or virtually members of the family. I think it used to be more like the friendship thing and less like the next meal thing. By ‘used to’ I mean before we fell into sin and we all lived together on earth as a paradise. Perhaps I will write something more on that in a future installment. Then, there is the other end of the spectrum: the future rather than the past. Do dogs really go to heaven & etc. CS Lewis often expounded on his theory that the destiny of the animals is tied to the destiny of man who has dominion over them – long story short – As per the book of Romans, nature fell when we fell and waits for redemption along with our redemption. Ergo, Lewis concluded, the animals will make the jump to eternity on our coat tails. Another future blog post!
For now, let me just say that all our lives have been touched and shaped by the animals that pass through them. The usual suspects are dogs, cats and horses – though there are substantial minorities favoring other species! These days I am not much of a pet person. My wife’s cat and I co-exist – mostly peaceably. But in my youth it was definitely dogs – three dogs in particular.
Patty was a pure-bred Irish setter with a big long certified birth name I no longer recall. He arrived as a Christmas Puppy for my mother who had long admired the breed. Patty was a moron. He was forever doing things like getting his head stuck in the hand-hole for unlocking the sliding barn door. Let me assure you that easing a frantic Irish Setter’s head back through such a hole is a task. But such incidents took place because you pretty much had to lock Patty in the barn if you wanted to go anywhere. We were hunters and hunting was, I suppose, in Patty’s blood. But his idea of hunting was to run back and forth across the woods with much loud crashing and thrashing and, if you forgot for a moment to hold it up too high, suck on the end of your gun barrel as though it were a soda straw. He loved the smell of gun powder. Patty also loved to accompany the tractor and trailer on wood-cutting expeditions. And when he attracted the negative attention of other dogs along the way, to run underneath the moving tractor with the neighbor dogs darting in and out. This necessitated stopping, breaking up the dog-fight and putting Patty in the trailer, tied to the spare tire – which was no guarantee he still wouldn’t jump back out and end up running alone beside the trailer on back paws only. Patty frequently went to war with bees, snapping them out of the air – and getting stung until his mouth got too swollen to carry on. Always a drooler, with a mouth full of bee venom patty left puddles fit for wading. There’s more. Suffice it to say Patty had character and enthusiasm and needed constant watching over. He made me laugh and made me more responsible.
Spot was a Dalmatian/Mutt mix. When we moved from town to the farm, dad got Spot from a litter at my Great Grandfather’s farm. (Grandpa Ros kept pure Dalmatians and wasn’t overly attached to the ‘accidents’.) Spot got along with everyone as long as it was all fun and games. He liked playing with us kids though he could play kind of rough. And as he grew he became a marauder, single handedly wiping out the little flock of Muscovy Ducks that lived on the farm when we arrived. Soon after, Spot turned his attention to our White Rock Chickens. When you locked Patty in the barn he only whined and got his head stuck in the hand-hole. Any effort to discipline Spot or put him somewhere he didn’t want to go ended with his backing into a corner growling and ready to defend his liberty with teeth. Dad worked hard with Spot but the end came as it probably mush have soon anyway. Spot was also an inveterate car chaser and one week while I was away at church camp, Spot was run over. The lessons I learned from Spot were somewhat different from those I learned from Patty but I was sorry Spot was gone and wished he could have learned better and, perhaps, that I could have helped him more.
To set the context, I was twelve when Spot came along and just ready to take off for college when Patty turned up under the Christmas tree. Bandit, (all mutt) definitely THE dog of my youth, arrived on the scene in between – a replacement for Spot and the established boss dog when Patty got there. Bandit left the chickens alone, pretended he couldn’t see bees (or spiders or snakes or…) Bandit seemed embarrassed the few times he accidentally touched the electric fence – a quick yelp followed by a survey of the scene as though to establish whether his indiscretion had been observed. Bandit never ran when walking would do and knew how to be quiet in the woods – and everywhere else. At any rate, he hated the sound of gunfire and promptly disappeared any time he saw a firearm. But he loved to camp in our woods with me anytime guns weren’t involved. If I ever thought of bandit as protection of any sort I didn’t think it for long as it became obvious Bandit thought of me as protection. Bandit stayed well away from our pigs unless we happened to be working with them – moving them, ringing them, etc. On all such occasions Bandit would station himself directly behind me, stick his head between my legs and bark what I took to be vile obscenities and challenges at the porkers. He would go anywhere I would go. He felt sure I would fend off the neighbor dogs, the pigs, any night monsters, etc. Fortunately, Grizzly bears were scarce in central Indiana in my teen years. AND bandit climbed trees. Well some trees anyway. That also arose from his determination to go where I went. I climbed trees. I never saw a tree I didn’t want to climb. It started one beautiful summer afternoon hiking through the woods on the way to a neighboring pond where we had fishing privileges. I stopped to climb a familiar tree on the south side of our wood lot – a sprawling old oak growing near the top of a high bank. The situation produced a large limb about fifteen feet up the oak but extending outward to just above ground level at the top of the bank. A good hopping step put your feet on that limb. A walk along the limb to the trunk and on up a virtual spiral staircase of typical radial/wheel spoke limbs. But on this day, I hopped onto the limb and so did Bandit. I grinned. I walked to the trunk and so did Bandit. I laughed and scratched him behind the ears. I went up a couple limbs and Bandit followed. He reached his limit there so I sat down and he lay along the limb with his head on my leg. It was, as they say, a moment: a boy and his dog, in a tree, masters of all they surveyed. We always stopped to climb that tree (and a couple of others Bandit learned to navigate) after that. Some years later when I brought Mikel (my then fiancé/now wife of forty + years) home to meet the folks, we took a walk – with Bandit – in the woods and even though he was an old dog by then, he got to show off his tree climbing ability for her. Along with being a constant companion, Bandit taught me that trust makes many seemingly impossible things possible.
Though Spot came to a bad end, Bandit and Patty died of old age there on the farm. All three rest beneath the shade of an old hickory in the pond lot, and, I suppose, they were only animals. But I learned things from all three of them and they are, in part, responsible, for good or ill, for the person I am.
In these days when organized religion is so often despised and so many Christians are lone wolves or – at best – find their only community online – which, if you ask me, is actually worst – ritual is frequently viewed as the ugly step-sister of the religious world. On the one hand, I understand. When religion becomes ONLY ritual, it tends toward emptiness. But I find that happens far less often than the critics think. I will confess that I was not raised ‘high church’ and my roots still show. My approach to worship is, no doubt, too casual and ‘free-range’ for some. And yet – baptism, the Lord’s supper, communal prayer, a blessing pronounced, a good responsive reading or the public reading of Scripture in general – these things remain meaningful to me and, when they go by the wayside, I think we lose something important.
I have come to regard ritual as a language of sorts – one through which God communicates truth to us on a deeper level than just verbal. Consider the Old Testament ritual of the Passover. When the Israelites neglected it – and they did neglect it more often than not – God thought it was a big deal. There were Kings (Hezekiah and Josiah for instance), prophets, (Zechariah and Haggai for instance) and other kinds of civic leaders (Jerubbabel and Ezra for instance) whose whole ministries and authority were thrown into restoring the Passover (and other rituals). Promises were made for keeping the ritual celebration. Punishments were levied for neglecting it. A great deal of what led to the Babylonian Captivity was the neglect of the Jubilee cycle with all its ritual. In other words, God behaved as though the keeping of the prescribed rituals was a matter of some import.
Why? Well, part of it was remembering. God leading the Israelites out of Egypt was kind of big deal and the ritual practices of the major celebrations (Passover, Tabernacles, Pentecost) kept the memory alive. After all, if you forgot what God had done, you might fall into relying on Him less and yourselves more – with the usual tragic outcomes. So, ritually celebrating Pentecost kept the memory of the giving of the law on Mt. Sinai alive. Participating in the rituals of Tabernacles kept the memory of God’s support through the wilderness fresh to the mind. And the detailed ritual observance of Passover made it impossible to forget that dread and very final type of judgment that fell on all who were not covered by the blood of the lamb.
OK – so I am giving something away with that last sentence! It was only partly about remembering – though remembering, in itself, is plenty important. The rituals also looked forward. The Passover not only described what God had done in the Exodus – it also described what God was going to do in Jesus Christ. The very same thing is true for the other holidays if you care to study it out. There’s a reason the Holy Spirit fell on the church on the Day of Pentecost and are we not still being led through the wilderness and provided for all along the way. (BTW – Jubilee literally means Trumpet Day – let’s see a day involving a trumpet on which all the slaves are set free, debts are cancelled, and the big reset button is pushed. Hmmm, nope, sorry, can’t come up with a thing. LOL. The details run much deeper than this brief general picture I am presenting. God absolutely packed these rituals with meaning that looked forward to His real solution for sin, death, and the curse. Study the OT holidays and see!
And the rituals are so largely pectoral and symbolic which carries a kind of punch and gives the message a staying power that would be lacking otherwise. For instance, if God just wrote an essay – kind of like this one – and said, Here, read this and remember it. – let’s just say the rituals have proven more effective – WHEN THEY ARE OBSERVED!
When the Israelites neglected the rituals they lost touch with God’s past provision and His future plans. Raise your hand if you think that’s a bad thing. Of course, this being a blog post, I can’t see whether you raise your hand or not. But that’s another thing – rituals are generally designed for communal practice. If we were together – the raising of hands would have an inclusive power beyond words. And when the Israelites forsook the prescribed communal communicative pectoral participatory rituals – they lost more than they could afford. They became less connected to God and less able to recognize His purposes when they were finally fulfilled.
All of this being the case with the Old Testament rituals – why should we assume anything different concerning New Testament rituals. I get it. Baptism is symbolic. I’ve read Romans and I Peter. The power is in the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ not in any magic water. The power is in what He did – not in a formula we repeat. That does not mean the ritual is unimportant and can be set aside without cost. Practicing the ritual keeps us connected to what God has already done and prepares us for what He is going to do. And what is God going to do? True, I may only know in the most general terms and have to guess a lot at that. But then, the Old Testament Israelites didn’t know exactly to what the details of their rituals were pointing either. Nevertheless, the rituals turned out to be powerfully prophetic – bright neon arrows pointing directly at Jesus when He came. Neglecting New Testament rituals may well leave us less prepared for God’s next moves and break our connection to what He has already done.
At the end of the day my advice is simple. Go to church and participate in the rituals. They matter and are not to be despised nor forsaken.
First, my apologies for being less than faithful in my blogging lately. This is the time of year when two IRCC ministry programs overlap – the Garden and the Scrap ministry. It keeps my hopping and this year, the scrap ministry is more than usually challenging. Having written before of the Community Harvest garden, let me say a few words about the scrap ministry. Some years ago I was questioned by a reporter for the Canton Repository as part of an article he was writing about recycling in the County. I gave honest answers that left me less than satisfied with myself. Basically, I didn’t really recycle a lot of things because it required much more effort than just putting it out for the trash man to haul away. Recognizing Stark County’s status as the landfill capital of the Eastern U.S. rendered my ‘throw away’ mentality even worse in my own eyes.
Never being content with the private exercise of virtue, my newfound determination to recycle became a ministry for the congregation I shepherd. And being a goal setter, we now set new goals every year for tonnage in paper/cardboard and scrap metal. The goal for paper this year is 70,000 pounds. We’re on track.
Now, about scrap metal – what qualifies? Anything made of metal. I tell people we scrap from paper clips to bulldozers. No kidding – we have done both. Well, the bulldozer was actually a bucket trencher circa 1940’s – a bulldozer body with a 10’ bucket wheel instead of a blade. I can tell you the bucket wheel weighed at least as much as a blade would have. In fact, that was the project that resulted in my crew of helpers changing the name of their group (previously scrap corps or scrap elves) to ‘Scrap Dummies’. They adopted that name because I kept getting them into these impossible jobs and they kept coming back. Note: anything will fit on an 18’ trailer if you cut into enough pieces and make enough trips! Anyway – buckets of rusty nails, old cars and trucks – parts of old cars and trucks, auto-batteries, appliances of all sorts, steel or aluminum cans, old plumbing fixtures, pipes, dehumidifiers, air conditioners, furnaces, hot water heaters, aluminum siding/gutters… We have cleaned up farm dumps and ransacked houses scheduled for demolition. We have cut up at least four semi-box trailers. We’ve done a few house trailers too but those are losing propositions. We’ve sorted the brass and the big cast iron sound boards out of several upright pianos – the wooden parts serve other purposes in the garden and nativity set ministries. We know how to separate out non-ferrous, motors, etc. My two favorite tools are a gas powered cut off saw and a short handled eight- pound sledge-hammer. You can take things apart fairly quickly if you have no concern for ever putting them together again.
The scrap ministry is always a fair amount of work – and for what it’s worth – if those of us involved in it took part time jobs at minimum wage we could make the congregation more money than we get off the same amount of hours working scrap. But the landfills would be more full and people wouldn’t have this way to get rid of things and support a good cause in doing so. I love the scrap ministry!
For reasons I won’t go into at the moment, I switched the scrap goal this year from pounds (we have been exceeding 100.000 pounds per year the last few years) to dollars. This was done in January – i.e. before we knew about the pandemic! The ramifications of the pandemic are both deep and wide. All local congregations could tell their story! Among the other places IRCC has been touched by the pandemic – it hit the scrap ministry. The price of scrap was already comparatively low owing to the evolving trade situation with China (the biggest customer for U.S. scrap metal). The pandemic drove those prices down to next to nothing – at the worst - $20 per ton for basic steel – most of the time the last couple of years the pre-pandemic price has bounced between $60 and $100 per ton. And, like everyone else, the scrap yards shut down for a while and when they opened it was not for full regular hours and they weren’t always taking all the usual types of scrap. All this for the year we set out to raise $10,000 from scrap metal! Had we set a weight goal – even one higher than 100,000 pounds, we would already have hit it. But as it is, we worked hard to get half the money raised in 75% of the year. Which explains why I have not been blogging as regularly as usual. To meet the goal, we need to raise as much in this last quarter as we did in the first three. Hence, I designated the last quarter of the year – Operation Impossible Scrap Goal and set the weekly benchmarks necessary to accomplish it. Here in week two, we are on track – but just!
Although you may not be able to tell it yet – I did not write all this as a complaint. I wrote it as a lead up to the following sentiment I once heard expressed by Chuck Swindoll - God is in the habit of providing wonderful opportunities but He cleverly disguises them as hard work and seemingly impossible situations. That’s probably not an exact quote of Swindoll but close enough! I think God often wants us to answer a question for ourselves (He already knows the answer). You say you want something. You claim that feeding the hungry is a value you get behind. You think you want to make a difference in the local ecology and economy via recycling. You assert that these things are so – but how bad do you want them? Bad enough to glean commercial corn patches in the rain? Bad enough to process semi box trailers and bulldozers in the heat?
Even as Operation Impossible Scrap Goal was about to commence, before any formal word could get out, the phone calls started coming in. An HVAC contractor with a load of AC units and furnaces he wanted shed of. (One day of moving them. Three consecutive Monday evenings for the scrap dummies to process them. Three consecutive Tuesday mornings of hauling it all in.) This got us to the halfway point in time for the final quarter to begin. But more was to come. The new owner of an old body shop wanting to clean out a lot of stuff accumulated over the previous owner’s years of work. A guy with a couple of trucks to contribute. Nothing to it but work. I suppose God could just drop a dump truck load of Number 1 copper ($2.50 a pound currently) in our lap. But then we wouldn’t have to answer the question. We all have to answer it. I hope we always answer right.
Well, the presidential election is just around the corner and the Republican and Democrat candidates agree on only two things:
So, I offer the same basic advice as in every Presidential election.
Of all the ministries at Indian Run Christian Church, I think the Community Harvest Garden is best known out in the community. We raise potatoes, cabbage, peppers, corn, squash, watermelon, tomatoes, eggplant, cucumbers etc. – and even sunflowers – almost a local landmark now. From soil prep to closing out the garden, the ministry runs from May to November and produces, on average, 30,000 pounds of food per year. We add to that produce we are able to glean from commercial growers and the average tally goes up to over 40,000 pounds per year over the decade or so we have been at it. Like many ministries, it started much smaller – a few hundred pounds of potatoes raised by the youth group over the summer and grew from there. A small portion of the food is distributed to local individuals. Some more of it goes out as a welcome addition to the processed items in our grocery giveaways. Most of it goes to Stark County organizations that specialize in feeding the hungry. We figure there’s no need to reinvent the wheel and these organizations like Stark County Hunger Task Force, The Salvation Army, Hope Outreach Ministries, etc. already work at the point of greatest need.
The garden produces many blessings within the congregation. Recently, we dug 4,500 pounds of potatoes in one evening. One of our deacons pulled an antique potato digger behind his tractor and the crew fell in behind with buckets. The buckets were carried to a couple of men who bagged the potatoes and a few more transported the bagged spuds to the barn for weighing and eventual delivery. We had so many volunteers (including a number of youngsters) the potato digger couldn’t keep ahead. Perhaps you had to be there and see all those kids, attended by parents and grandparents swarming a row of freshly turned up taters – but it was a big blessing!
There are also moments of disappointment – a crop that doesn’t turn out, long dry spells, and nobody likes the annual fight with the potato beetles and corn borers. But blessing arises from these as well. You should go to our Facebook page and see the video of the water cannon our deacons made from the fire departments old grass fire pump. It’s a lot more fun than bucketing water! While you’re there you can see a video of the potato digger in action as well. And everyone discovers the old truth, there’s just something satisfying about getting your hands in the dirt and growing food. I think it has to do with the terms of our original creation – after all – our first job was to tend the garden.
But none of that is the reason the ministry is well known outside the congregation. The reason for that is our doing it outside the building – right along route 44. The Sunflowers call attention of course, but people honk when they go by – not at the sunflowers – at the volunteers of the moment out there chopping weeds, picking peppers, or, recently, working the water cannon.
One of the great weaknesses of the way we often ‘do’ church is that most of the blessings are kind of trapped in the building. It’s kind of like locking the salt in the shaker or keeping the lamp under the bushel basket. Yes – I think worship services are wonderful – and crucial for the life of the congregation. But the work of the church needs to get out in the sunlight more.
I relayed in a previous blog post that my father lived with a fear of snakes. I have never had this fear myself. On my recent vacation my sisters were horrified, upon discovering a snake in the garage of our rental facility, that my first instinct was to conduct an up-close examination rather than, I guess, calling 911. They are their father’s daughters. I have no fear snakes. Spiders on the other hand…I have always, at least as long as I can remember, been afraid of spiders. The fear is not based on anything any spider ever did to me. Giant horror movie spiders do not move the terror needle for me. But honest actual spiders of almost any size just give me the willies. They have too many limbs, too many eyes (I realize the same could be said for the Biblical descriptions of Cherubim and Seraphim) too strange methods of moving, hunting, eating, and – I don’t know that I can quantify it. Spiders are just creepy.
I don’t generally go into histrionics; I just develop strategies to avoid spiders when I can and murder them when I can’t. I always recall an occasion when my daughter, Sarah, and I were setting a trot line in the Muscatatuck River. I had tied off one end of the line to a tree on the bank and the two of us canoed out to a mostly submerged tree that had fallen into the river and washed to its current location. As we approached the tree I spied a short knobby branch I thought would be perfect to tie off the other end of the line and pointed it out so Sarah could see what I wanted her to steer toward. As she took the last few strokes I leaned over the prow of the canoe, line in hand, ready to tie off. What had appeared at a distance to be the swollen end of the knobby branch – that swollen end I thought would serve so well to keep the line in place below it, THAT swollen of the knobby branch raised up on its eight legs and made to defend it’s position. It was a big old wolf spider like the ones that used to make waves moving through the grass in my parent’s lawn. Those long-ago spiders persuaded me I did not actually want to lay down in the grass. This spider persuaded me that another branch would be even better for tying off the trot line.
As a child I thought the big black and yellow ‘Writing Spiders’ were the worst – partly because they would weave their large orb webs right over tomatoes and strawberries that needed picking. At least my mother thought those particular fruit needed picking. I was fairly sure we would never miss them.
Then as a young teen I learned about tarantulas – spiders that eat birds and mice – and trap door spiders, Ugh! It just kept getting worse!
Then as a grown man I found out about Camel Spiders. Look them up. Seeing that American soldiers in the Middle East had to deal with these arachnid monsters made me glad I never enlisted. Camel Spiders are not venomous. They don’t need to be! They eat tarantulas! Also lizards. Sometimes kittens. All of which they murder by brute force. Worse, they have a propensity to chase human beings. I should add that the technical literature assures me the chasing thing is not actually the case. Here’s what happens. A soldier will be stationed on guard duty in that extra hot part of the world. The Camel Spider is simply looking for shade and sometimes finds it in the shadow of the soldier/sentinel. Eventually, the Camel Spider actually leans against the soldier’s boot. The Camel Spider is large enough that leaning creates a pressure sensible to the soldier who looks down and realizes there is a spider the size of a chihuahua leaning on his boot. The soldier moves, often with alacrity. The soldier’s shadow goes with him. The Camel Spider says – Hey that’s my shade! And makes every effort to keep in the shadow of the retreating soldier – which increases the speed of the soldier’s retreat, which… So, you see, the Camel Spider is not actually chasing the soldier. It’s only trying to stay in the soldier’s shadow. … I’m sorry, but the distinction seems a little hazy to me.
Well, in the world as it once was, before the fall from Eden, man was at peace with all creatures. In the world as it will be, I am certain God can bring us to peace again. Even the spiders and I.
I have just returned from vacation and will be keeping my distance from most people since I have been out of state. That said, I’m pretty sure no one can catch anything worse than irritation from reading my blog posts – so here goes. Mikel and I visited several waterfalls, crossed a pretty good ‘sky-walk’, took a tube ride in the Chattahoochee, went on a dolphin tour, kayaked in the Atlantic, put in some time on the beach, visited old friends, spent time with my sisters, did a little fishing, and toured several museums. Among the museums, the smallest and perhaps most interesting was the Uncle Remus Museum. I report on this with some trepidation as the whole ‘Uncle Remus’ thing – considered so innocent in the days of my childhood – is a matter of great controversy today. I have also subsequently come to realize that many members of the last couple of generations don’t know anything about Uncle Remus or his cast of characters: Brers Rabbit, Fox, Bear, et al. So, a brief reminder – Joel Chandler Harris grew up in the late Ante-Bellum south and spent part of his childhood on a plantation where he had some association with actual slaves. Harris became a newspaper man and, later in his life, wrote a series of children’s stories about a little boy (himself) who loved to hear the stories told by an elderly black man on the plantation – Uncle Remus. The stories are related in a thick deep south dialect and involve a community of animals who behave like human beings.
Even the fairly sanitized Disney version (Song of the South) is frowned upon these days (The film has not been re-released since 1986 and has never been released in any home video version in America.) and the elements of it that are still present in the theme parks are in the process of heavy revision. I doubt there remains a public school in the United States in which any of the Uncle Remus stories are told in any form.
Editors at the time advised Walt Disney to make it clear that the film was set post-civil war – after the slaves were freed. Disney did not take that advice. The great weakness of the Disney story is clear – it presents a sanitized version of an old south in which the white people live in mansions and the black people live in shacks (charming Disney-ized shacks but shacks nonetheless) and the white people are definitely in charge and the black people are definitely not but everyone, including the black people are OK with the arrangement and it’s all one big happy community. This was a serious mis-step on Disney’s part but cut Walt this much slack – the film was released in 1946. Even if we all should have known better – some of us didn’t. Some of us weren’t even born yet!
But here’s the big disconnect for me. The Disney version – which is the version most familiar to most of the population – is no more true to the original story(s) than are the Disney versions of Robin Hood, Pocahontas or the Hunchback of Notre-Dame – which is to say – not very. The original stories (in all cases) are both better and worse but in any case, ought to be judged on their own merits. The Uncle Remus stories are, by and large, older African folk-tales recast to make use of American Flora and Fauna (Brers Rabbit and Fox take the place of Brothers Leopard and Antelope, etc.) The point of the stories is the same in the American versions as in the older African versions – sometimes your enemies are bigger and stronger than you and have sharper teeth and claws. Fine: outwit them. The outwitting process may well involve deception and mis-direction but you survive as opposed to being gobbled up.
In their original context the stories were harbingers of hope for an oppressed people who often dared not say certain things in plainer language. Forget racism for a moment – by modern standards Brer Rabbit was a sociopath. But before we get too upset at the way he deceives Brer Wolf into volunteering to be locked into a chest and scalded to death, let’s remember that Brer Wolf had been busy devouring Brer Rabbit’s children. Think about it for a minute. It bothers me that Brer Rabbit so cavalierly arranges for the innocent Brer Possum to meet a fiery end. But even though Brer Possum did not eat up all the butter (Read the story for yourself – if you dare!) his innocence was marred by the despised cowardice he showed in leaving Brer Racoon to face the dog alone! Again, think about it for a minute.
Should the Africans have been brought here as slaves? Absolutely not! But they were here. Was their English a little accented and did their grammar depart somewhat from the English norms? No more so than any other first-generation people learning to speak a strange language. Remembering and preserving these things does not strike me as racist nor does any particular dialect strike me as an indicator of ignorance or lack of intelligence. And did they sometimes have to live by their wits in a situation where all other forms of power were in other hands?
Well, I will cease my rant and say only this. Set Disney aside for a moment and judge the Uncle Remus stories for what they are. I hate to see history – even the black parts – maybe especially the black parts disappear. I believe there is a light at the end of the darkness. But we won’t get there by pretending the darkness didn’t exist. Pronounce it Brers or Brothers – all men are mine.
Given our current state of race relations, the whole question of what exactly constitutes racism, and the (it seems to me) current tendency to judge figures from the past (Andrew Jackson, Robert E. Lee, et al) by the standards of the hyper-present, it may be profitable to recall that the particular Christian brotherhood in which I minister (The Restoration Movement) was born just prior to the Civil War and grew to a national movement in the shadow of that conflict. Thus, the questions of race relations and slavery were woven deep into the fabric of the movement. I will do my best here to consider the good, the bad and the ugly and perhaps we will understand the past a little better and in so doing, understand ourselves better as well.
The primary leaders in the founding of the Restoration Movement were Thomas and Alexander Campbell (father and son) and Barton W. Stone. And, of course, all three men had definite opinions.
In 1801 Barton W. Stone freed the one slave he owned – a slave inherited along with a small farm. As Stone preached his message of religious freedom (A Christianity free from the conventions of society and denominational hierarchy, guided by the Bible, particularly the New Testament, alone) he urged all who heard his message to follow his example and free their slaves. He saw slavery as another of the many societal conventions which were at odds with the teachings of Christ and the apostles. To use Stone’s own language – Slavery does not harmonize with the principles of the kingdom. We view the period, not far distant, when African slavery shall no more be known in our happy country – when mercy and truth shall meet together and righteousness and peace kiss each other.
Still, Stone’s views would not pass the test of political correctness today. It is uncertain whether Stone had a low view of the character of the African slaves or whether he thought the situation had simply been rendered impossible by the cruelty of our national circumstances, but he did not believe the slaves could be successfully integrated into American society. He favored an organized Federal program to free the slaves and return them (if they could or would not return to their native tribes) to a colony to be founded for the purpose in Africa. There was this difference from today – the arrival of the slaves from Africa was much more recent. The idea was also favored by Andrew Jackson, James Monroe, and others. In fact, something on the order was tried though it was managed by a private foundation rather than the federal government. Research the American Colonization Society. The first group of slaves were taken by ship to a strip of land purchased in Sierra Leone in 1820. There were also several black led ‘Back to Africa’ movements. But the vast majority of the freed slaves wanted to stay here.
Again, whether from a low view of slave character or a despairing view of the situation is unknown, but Stone’s views on the subject were so strong he vowed that if the slaves were freed to live among the general population of America he would quickly move somewhere else to be beyond their reach. This statement prompts many to think Stone’s chief fear was that freed slaves would seek vengeance on their former oppressors.
As it turned out, Stone did not move to another country or move on account of freed slaves at large in society. After some years of being frustrated that the vast majority of his southern Christian brothers would not free their slaves, and dealing with the backlash of being considered an abolitionist trouble maker, he moved to Illinois to escape that tension – in other words, not to escape freed slaves but to escape intransigent white slave owners.
Thomas Campbell, operating a little ahead of Stone but in the same locale (Kentucky) organized special religious services and Sunday School classes for slaves. He was quickly confronted by the white members of his congregation and the larger community and informed that it was illegal to educate slaves except in the presence of several white witnesses to make sure rebellion was not being fomented. Campbell protested that surely such societal shackles were not intended to be placed on the simple teaching of the gospel. He was sternly told otherwise. Warned of penalty to come if he did not discontinue the slave services, Campbell moved to Pennsylvania where (he thought – another story) he could “teach all men freely”.
Following several other adventures, Thomas and his now adult son, Alexander settled in Bethany, VA – around 1811. Alexander, like Stone a decade earlier, inherited slaves (several) along with a large farm from his father in law. Campbell immediately freed the slaves, gave each family a little property and educated any who wished in his own school, alongside his own children. Campbell also thought the Federal Government should organize and fund a program to free and return all the slaves to Africa – but that was, he thought, the government’s job. These freed slaves were here and he would do what he could.
In 1829 Campbell became a delegate to the Virginia Constitutional Convention. He had two connected aims – to prevent the split of Virginia and West Virginia and to advocate for the Abolition of slavery. In both cases, he wished more than anything else to prevent the Civil War which even then he saw as a distinct possibility. Incidentally, both his aims for the convention and his desire to prevent the war were epic failures.
In 1830 Campbell began to shape his appeal against slavery in the terms for which he has become famous/infamous – Enlightened White Self Interest. Campbell, though against slavery was also against radical or militant abolitionist views. Consider a few of his published quotations.
Slavery is … The largest and blackest blot upon our national escutcheon, that many headed monster, that pandora’s box, that bitter root, that blighting and blasting curse under which so fair and so large a portion of our beloved country groans.
As sure as the Ohio winds its way to the gulph(sic) of Mexico will slavery desolate and blast our political existence unless effectual measures be adopted to bring it to a close while it is still in the nation’s power to do so.
Regarding radical/militant abolition – It shall only be realized in the light of burning palaces, cities and temples amidst the roar of cannon, the clangor of trumpets, the shrieks of the dying, the horrid din and clash of a broken confederacy and the agonizing throes of the last and best republics on earth.
Back to Enlightened White Self Interest – Campbell taught and wrote that slave holders were, themselves, slaves to the system of slavery. Often linking the idea to Romans 6:16, Campbell pictured slavery as a societal system which actually reduced innovation, restricted the economy, and held slave holders back. Apart from the immediate economic shortfalls of slavery, Campbell taught that slave states had to spend an inordinate amount of time and resources on legislation to prop up their failing system – an effort which must ultimately be in vain. In all these ways and others, Campbell appealed to white slave owners to give up slavery for their own sake and for the sake of increased prosperity which, he assured them, would follow.
Campbell’s primary proposal was for the government to set aside about $15,000,000 per year for a few years, the money to be used to reimburse white slave owners the calculated value of any slaves they freed and pay the way for the freed slaves to return to Africa. Campbell predicted that by the end of the three to four years, slavery would have vanished and the wounds be healed for $45,000,000 to $60,000,000 – a tiny fraction of what an otherwise coming war would cost the nation.
Whether or not one agrees with the practicality of Campbell’s proposed solution, the main problem people have with him today is that he appealed only to ‘enlightened white self-interest’ and never spoke (publicly anyway) of the tragedy of slavery for the slaves. It was just that all those poor white slave owners were cheating themselves!
Many argue that Campbell did feel the horror of slavery for enslaved blacks but that his public campaign was directed to those he thought capable of solving the problem and framed so as to give those who could solve it the motivation to do so. Certainly, the way Campbell treated his own inherited slaves may back that narrative. And Campbell did give this one other hint – he taught that radical abolitionists missed exactly one half of the point in that they loved the slaves but hated the slave owners, many of whom were culturally trapped in their flawed position. Beyond that, Campbell is not here to defend himself. And, at any rate, his efforts failed and the Civil War happened,
By 1845, Restoration Movement churches existed in several states but were splintered along with the rest of the nation. Congregations in Ohio, Indiana and Pennsylvania tended toward radical/militant abolition. Congregations in states further south tended to be pro-slavery (more on that in a moment). Campbell and the cluster of congregations in Virginia tried to walk the middle path he had laid out.
As to those pro-slavery southern congregations, a minister by name of James Shannon was the most outspoken leader, defending slavery on the basis of Ephesians 6:5-9, Colossians 2:22-4:1 and the book of Philemon. What Shannon never asked (out loud) was whether there was a difference between presenting a moral justification of slavery and giving spiritual rather than political advice to unfortunates who found themselves trapped in slavery as a condition of the fallen world rather than the kingdom of God.
As with every time and every human movement, there was right and wrong – things wisely understood and things sadly missed. Many of today’s sages would be surprised if they knew how they will be judged by the standards of days to come. For myself, I choose to appreciate the wisdom and compassion of men like Campbell while understanding that they were men of another time, shaped by and dealing with a culture vastly different than our own.
I remember well the day my son, Andrew – still at some single digit age at the time – stood in the gift shop at Turkey Run State Park pleading for a little bow and (suction cup tipped) arrow set. I began the old -When I was your age – recitation but stopped short. A lot went through my mind in a pause that lasted less than two seconds. I was suddenly nine years old again. It was a fine Saturday in the Fall of the year and, free from the demands of the school week, I had plenty of time on my hands. I wanted a bow and arrow. I wanted a bow and arrow bad! So, I went to the weeping willow tree in the backyard. I was extremely familiar with this tree and with the properties of its branches having been sent to it on several occasions to select a suitable switch to be employed in the process of my own socialization. I chose a nice pliant branch – back past the long whip-like leaf stem – and harvested about a yard of it. I also knew the location of a bail of twine and where dad kept his tools. In almost no time I had cut notches and bent the willow branch to a length of twine some inches shorter than the branch itself. Presto! A bow! Arrows? There was a fine weed patch where no one ever mowed behind the utility shed. I was as familiar with the weed patch as with the willow tree but for different reasons. It was a great place to catch grasshoppers to be used as bait for the chubs, bull heads, and sunfish in the local creeks. Among the other botanical selections, the weed patch featured horse weed (Giant Ragweed) the seven-foot-tall stalks of which dry to a semi-hard woodenness as summer passes and the nights grow cooler. The straight and easily broken off upper halves of the horse weed stalks were custom made for arrows. True, they were soft in the center so that after a few shots the notch got kind of deep – but there were plenty more. Also true, they lacked fletching – a problem for which I had no likely solution – unless I could shoot a bird with one of them – problematic since without fletching reliable aim is hard to come by. Well, who cared? The bow and arrow worked plenty good enough to hit all the imaginary lions, tigers and bears I stalked with it. Toward evening, when the call for supper came, I decided to fire off one last shot before surrendering the use of my wondrous creation for the day (I instinctively knew I would not be allowed to play with it in the house.) I suddenly remembered a little rhyme from somewhere – I shot an arrow into the air; it fell to earth I know not where. “Well”, I thought, “I’ll know in just a minute!” I notched the arrow, drew back as far as I could, took aim at a convenient cloud and let fly. Dad had been having a conversation with one of the neighbors and, having also heard the call for supper, was rounding the house, still engrossed in the conversation, the neighbor tagging along. I never knew what that conversation was about. I only knew – knew for certain – as I watched the arrow reach the apogee of its flight and begin its downward journey – knew beyond the slightest degree of doubt – exactly where it would fall to earth. It struck dad full in the chest with a sickening crunch produced by the splintering of the tip of the horse week. A few of those splinters pierced dad’s shirt and stuck a little in his skin. Dad, who, unlike me, had not seen it coming, was both dumbstruck and mystified – but not for long. He quickly surveyed the yard – occupied at the moment by only the three of us – dad, the neighbor, and the one holding a bow. It took dad remarkably little time to sort the whole matter out. Neighbor forgotten, he plucked and tossed the arrow and strode toward me like grim doom. My feet seemed to have grown roots deep into the earth. I could only stand and wait. Dad stood before me a second, searching for adequate words, surrendered the effort, snatched the bow from my hands, broke it over his knee and headed for the house. A few deep relieved breaths later, I followed. So, I said to Andrew – When I was your age – then I shut up and bought him the toy bow and arrow.
One more, following up on Epimenides and Akhenaten – this time a person named in the Bible and one whose relationship to the idea of monotheism was a bit looser – but that’s getting ahead. Cyrus the Great started out as Cyrus the only kind of big deal. He was king of a comparatively small region called Anshan. He clashed with another such territory (Ecbatana) held by one of the Median tribal chieftains and quickly doubled his holdings. To simplify a lot of political and military stuff – there was an alliance between Cyrus and the whole of the Medes. The Medes perceived they were getting the short end of the stick in this partnership and rebelled. Cyrus crushed the Medes and the Medo-Persian Empire becomes the Persian Empire with Cyrus now a Really Big Deal. Somewhere in the middle of the cooperative period, the Medo-Persian forces also conquered Babylon. This is reflected in the book of Daniel with Belshazzar and the handwriting on the wall. In the end, Cyrus held all the Median territories and all the Babylonian territories and others. For instance. in acquiring Babylon – Cyrus also acquired Israel which Babylon had conquered earlier.
Despite the brutality of his rapid military expansion (Especially if you ask the Medes!) Cyrus the Great also goes down in history as Cyrus the Humane. Certainly the Jews fared much better under the Persians than under the Babylonians – barring that potential setback in the book of Esther – but that part comes well after the death of Cyrus who only held his vast empire for 9 years before passing on in 530 BC. Anyway – that humane thing:
The Babylonians had practiced cultural annihilation in the course of their conquests. For instance, with Israel – they had taken what they considered the best and brightest of the Jewish population and shipped them off to other portions of the empire where they might serve Babylonian interests. At the same time, they relocated a lot of non-Jews from other regions they had conquered to Israel and forced a lot of mixed marriages. The result was the Samaritans who populated Palestine at the time Israel returned – a return arranged by Cyrus – as predicted by Isaiah (44:28, 45:1) and as reported in the first chapter of the book of Ezra and II Chronicles 36:22-3. The famous Cylinder of Cyrus – discovered in the 19th Century uses language mirroring that of II Chronicles – only referring to lots of peoples and territories – not just the Jews. Nebuchadnezzar had taken captive peoples from their homes and relocated them. Cyrus let them all go home and endorsed and sought the favor of all the various gods of their various tribes and territories in the process. (Cyrus figured all the territorial gods were really manifestations of one larger God) Cyrus even helped finance all these home-goings and provided a certain amount of legal protection for all the returning refugee groups since it was certain the people the Babylonians had settled in all those lands would not be glad to see the original inhabitants returning.
This was, indeed, humane. Of course, Cyrus was also self-interested. Cyrus knew what happened to the old Assyrian kingdoms. The Medes and Babylonians happened to them. And Cyrus knew that he, himself, leading the Persian Empire had happened to the Medes and Babylonians. And Cyrus was keeping a keen eye on what, he was sure, would be the next Big Dog – those Greeks off in the West. For what it’s worth, Cyrus was right. Alexander the Great would swallow up the empire built by Cyrus the Great. But it would take a while and lots of Greeks before the rise of Alexander would fail to get it done: partly because Cyrus established a lot of semi-independent Persian Vassal States, each with a fierce new interest in defending their own territory and ALL of them between him and the Greeks! All of this is also in the background of the book of Esther. The later Persian King, Ahasuerus, was totally consumed with worry over the steady advance of the Greeks. The big six-month party featured in Esther was an attempt to make sure of his alliances with all those vassal states – to make sure they’d rather fight (for the Persians) than switch (allegiance to the Greeks).
OK – again – why should you want to know all this? I find that those not disposed to take the historical accuracy and authenticity of the Bible seriously fall into two equal but opposite errors.