The Knuckles of Sam Hose

12-Years-a-Slave-Lynching-Scene-02-720x300On April 23, 1899, a man named Sam Hose was stabbed, burned alive, and cut to pieces.

Sam was a black farmhand from Georgia who was suspected of murdering his master. On the run from the law, he fled across country, was captured and taken into custody. But as he was being transported by train to Atlanta, word leaked out that the infamous fugitive had been arrested and was going to be lynched.

Hose was hauled off the train at gunpoint and taken to a nearby farm in a small town while a crowd gathered round him. Some estimates place the size of the crowd at over 2,000 people. The news sparked a mad rush of worshipers from churches in Atlanta, where Sunday services were just ending. Demand to see the lynching was so great that the railroad company arranged several unscheduled runs, while those who were unable to buy tickets climbed in through the windows and clung to the sides of the trains.

Sam Hose was chained to a pine tree. His ears and fingers were cut off, and as the crowd cheered, he was stabbed and set on fire, dowsed with kerosene they had been given by a local vendor at no cost. He tried to pull himself out of the fire with his fingerless hands, but was pushed back in.

Twenty minutes later, he died. His last words were, “Oh my God. Oh, Jesus.”

What remained of his body was cut into pieces and passed among the crowd as souvenirs, like a twisted form of communion. His knuckles were placed on display in the window of a grocery store in Atlanta.

sam-hose-1Sam was one of 27 people lynched that year.

This is why I can’t understand when people say America is more wicked than it’s ever been, when they long for the glory days of our Christian past. Sam Hose was murdered by the honest, God-fearing folk of Atlanta. Sam Hose was burned into cinders by a crowd on its way home from church. And when I think about the rhetoric used in our churches to demonize outsiders, when I think about how so many believers are gearing up for what they believe is an apocalyptic war between the forces of good and evil led by a vengeful, slaughtering messiah, I can no longer accept the lie that a true Christian would never be swayed by a mob, that we could never find ourselves fighting on the wrong side in the conflict of right and wrong.

Some people say, “It’s hard to see how conditions in America could ever get so bad that Christians would be willing to murder.” But the truth is, it already happened. And it happened for a long time.

Hobby Lobby Holly & the Mystery of the Mirroring Selfies

gun-holly-700x884Holly Fisher, Twitter provocateur and wife of an army veteran, created a stir this weekend when she posted a picture of herself holding a Bible in one hand and clutching an AR-15 in the other.

She had been attracting media attention all week, both positive and negative, for posing in front of a Hobby Lobby wearing a pro-life t-shirt and holding a Chik-Fil-A cup. The caption read, “ATTENTION LIBERALS: Do NOT look at this picture. Your head will most likely explode.”

 

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Friends suggested that all the picture was missing was a Bible and a gun, so on the Fourth of July she provided that image.

 

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Fisher defended the picture in an interview with Inquisitr.com: “I have always been extremely conservative and passionate about my views. The last few years of the growing hate and intolerance among the ‘tolerant’ left has made me want to stand up and speak out. I saw this as a perfect opportunity to show where I stand . . . I want younger Americans to know it’s okay to not follow the current liberal path.”

Unfortunately for Holly’s brave stand, pundits soon noticed that the picture bore a striking resemblance to this picture:

 

            reem2

 

That’s Reem Riyashi, a Palestinian icon and mother of two who blew herself up at the age of 22 in 2004, and killed four Israelis, at a Gaza border crossing after faking a disability to bypass a security checkpoint. Even before her death Reem was famous for posing in pictures holding weapons, sometimes alone and sometimes with her three-year-old son.

Sometimes an entire line of argument can be summed up in a single photograph. For months I’ve been arguing that, psychologically, Christian extremists and Islamic fundamentalists *aren’t that different.* Whenever two groups hate each other, they tend to become like each other. Yet no matter how pointed the similarities became, a lot of people weren’t buying it. But now there’s Holly.          

Sociologist Bob Altemeyer spent decades studying the phenomenon known as “right-wing authoritarianism” (RWA). He wrote an entire book about it, which you can download for free on his website. Basically right-wing authoritarians (who constitute about 25 percent of the American population) are defined by three things:

 

(1)    Blind loyalty to established religious and political authorities

 

(2)    A willingness to act aggressively in order to defend those authorities

 

(3)    and a deep sense of conventionalism. They are the normal ones. Society is endangered by “weird” groups and minorities that threaten to disrupt the social order, and these unruly elements need to be put in their place, by force if necessary. They tend to agree with the statement that we need a charismatic leader to purge society of these unconventional elements.

 

You ever find yourself arguing with someone and realize that they’re not operating on the same logical plane as the rest of us? Do you sometimes wonder how some folks can claim to follow the teachings of the Bible better than others while ignoring much of what it says? You may be dealing with an authoritarian personality.

Authoritarians are highly dogmatic: they refuse to change their beliefs even when presented with overwhelming evidence that those beliefs are wrong. (They insisted that George W. Bush had never said we would “stay the course” in Iraq, though he had constantly said this). They are profoundly ethnocentric: they may demonize speakers of foreign languages for not using the English words for “God” and “Jesus.” They are selective in their reading of Scripture, frequently rationalizing ways to ignore the numerous passages about not insulting or attacking others. (In a study done at the University of Michigan, fundamentalist students rejecteda set of statements based on the Sermon on the Mount). They only care about facts to the extent that they support their already predetermined conclusions. Altemeyer found that if he said something was “the biggest problem our country faces!” they would always agree with him, no matter what he said the problem was.

Perhaps most importantly, authoritarians define themselves by who is and is not a loyal member of their team. Anyone perceived as being an outsider they view with suspicion and hostility. This may include the majority of their fellow Christians (who, in a neat evasion, are “not real Christians” for one reason or another). Yet if they perceive someone as being on their side, they will trust that person without question. This presents problems. “Authoritarian followers are highly suspicious of their many out-groups,” says Altemeyer; “but they are credulous to the point of self-delusion when it comes to their in-groups.”

So, although right-wing authoritarians can be found in all cultures, members of one tribe are not likely to trust the members of another tribe. Christian fundamentalists in America view Islamic fundamentalists in Palestine and Afghanistan with the same level of contempt that the Islamists feel towards them.

And they’re not likely ever to trust each other—even when they take identical selfies.

But as it happens, this idea that “Christian and Islamic fundamentalists are the same, lol” isn’t just a liberal fever dream. It’s borne out by the evidence.

As soon as Mikhail Gorbachev lifted the restraints on psychological research in the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, a colleague of Altemeyer’s, Andre Kamenshikov, administrated a survey to students at Moscow State University. These students answered the RWA scale (a scale Altemeyer and his colleagues had developed to assess the level of authoritarianism in an individual) along with a series of questions about who was the “good guy” and who was the “bad guy” in the Cold War. Who started the arms race: the US or the USSR? Would the US launch a sneak attack on the Soviet Union if it knew it could get away with it? Would the Soviet Union do this to the US?

At the same time Kamenshikov was doing this study, Altemeyer asked the same questions in three different American universities.

What they found was that in both countries, the high RWAs believed their government’s version of the Cold War more than most other people in their country. The leaders of their nation were the good guys, and the leaders of the other nation were out to kill and destroy all that was good and holy. In other words, says Altemeyer, “the most cock-sure belligerents in the population on each side of the Cold War, the ones who hated and blamed each other the most, were in fact the same people, psychologically.”

He concludes: 

“If they had grown up on the other side of the Iron Curtain, they probably would have believed the leaders they presently despised, and despised the leaders they now trusted. They’d have been certain the side they presently thought was in the right was in the wrong, and instead embraced the beliefs they currently held in contempt.”

Soviets and Americans. Westboro and the Taliban. Holly and Reem.

Sometimes the only difference is where you grow up.

AIDS, Authoritarians, & the Demon-Possessed Man, Part 3: When You Become the Monster

Jesus-expulse-the-gadarene-demonsAfter I left the group I began studying the mechanisms of scapegoating.

 French sociologist Rene Girard said that all human conflicts are built around something called “mimetic desire.” Here’s how it works. Suppose two brothers are happily playing in their front yard. The older one grabs a toy soldier from their pile of toys and begins playing with it. The younger one immediately wants it—not because of its inherent worth, but simply because his brother has it. This makes the older brother want it even more, and before very long the two are engaged in a huge fist fight.

 Luckily, though, the neighborhood whipping boy, Jerry, happens to walk by at that moment. Jerry wears glasses and is chubby. The two boys forget all about their argument and run off together to torment Jerry.
Continue reading

AIDS, Authoritarians, & the Demon-Possessed Man, Part 2: The Night I Stopped Hating

Tree-of-Life-ShadowIt’s not hard to see how an environment dominated by authoritarians can rapidly take on the contours of a nightmare.

For example, in a 1989 criminal case, psychology student Mary Wegman realized that some of her fellow jurists could not remember important pieces of evidence, invented evidence that did not even exist, and drew faulty conclusions from the evidence that everyone could agree on. (Subsequent tests indicated that each of these jurists scored highly on the RWA scale).

Imagine being the defendant in a trial in which certain jury members, perhaps because of the color of your skin, already presume your guilt and are literally incapable of seeing anything that might contradict it.

It sounds more like a situation out of Franz Kafka or The Twilight Zone, and yet it really happens.

In 1982 seven people died from taking poisoned Tylenol pills. Within two months 31 million bottles had been recalled. The New York Times covered the story over fifty times in the final three months of that year. The FDA immediately established new packaging guidelines and made product tampering a federal crime.

That same year the AIDS epidemic first burst into the national consciousness. Of the 771 people who had been infected, 614 had already died. Yet although this was ten times the number of Tylenol deaths, the New York Times ran only three stories.

The government largely ignored the problem until the end of the Reagan administration. Evangelical Gary Bauer, Reagan’s chief domestic policy advisor, blocked a report from the surgeon general on AIDS in the United States because he believed those who had AIDS deserved to die from it. Nor was this a fringe position. Jerry Falwell said, “AIDS is the wrath of God upon homosexuals.” Said White House communications director Pat Buchanan, “With 80,000 dead of AIDS, 3,000 more buried each month, our promiscuous homosexuals appear literally hell-bent on Satanism and suicide.”

What the media, and the White House, and the general public largely seem to have missed is that actual people were actually dying of a devastating plague, and that a significant number of these cases had not resulted from gay sex. Yet the meme persisted. “People need to awaken to the reality that this so-called love story does not have a happy ending,” said a recent essay, almost gleefully, going on to claim (erroneously) that the average homosexual male has between 200 and 250 partners in his lifetime. AIDS was obviously a gay pandemic (no matter what “science” tells us), and no one who’s gay could possibly be a true Christian… so, largely ignored by the rest of the Christian community, nearly 450,000 Americans died within a twenty-year period.

Here they are, in their own words:

“We were secluded from the rest – sequestered from the rest of the world so it was like where we were living . . . it was war and everywhere else it was peacetime and they didn’t want to know, and that’s how we lived.”

“To be that threatened with extinction and to not lay down, but instead to stand up and fight back – the way we did it, the way we took care of ourselves and each other.  The goodness that we showed, the humanity that we showed the world is just mind-boggling, just incredible.”

index.phpYet AIDS victims and gays continued to be demonized. Just as the Jews were held responsible for the Black Death in 1348, the homosexual community was blamed for terrorist bombings, earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, “and possibly a meteor.” Those who were suffering the most now had to contend with insane allegations about inflicting suffering on others.

The Moment I Realized That Other People Were Human

As one who was raised in a deeply religious and conservative environment, I was good at demonizing other people. Really good at it. In junior high I would gather in the courtyard every morning and give sermons on the dangers of gays, Catholics, and girls in short skirts, which won me a certain amount of popularity. Later in college, the end-times cult that I co-founded aligned itself with a nationally famous, far-right Evangelical ministry that said Jesus was going to return and physically kill thousands of people with his own hands. We were taught to beware the “gay agenda” and to view Christians in other denominations with suspicion. There’s a mass movement of young people doing works of justice, they told us, but because they don’t profess the name of Jesus, it’s a “false justice.”

As I absorbed these teachings my behavior changed radically, and so did that of the cult’s other members. I was belligerent and aggressive towards my gay and atheist friends. My thinking became compartmentalized and I was suddenly unable to have logical discussions. Yet the other cult members told me not to worry about it, said I was being “persecuted” for contradicting “the world’s” teachings. When a fellow student, who had been involved in peaceful demonstrations and interfaith dialogues, was accidentally run over, we celebrated his death as a sign of God’s wrath being poured out on campus.

But then when I moved to Kansas City and started getting punished constantly, something changed inside of me. Something deep and drastic.

It was a long process, but I think the pivotal moment happened one night as I listened to the community praying together from the floor of my bedroom, where I had been consigned following a series of truly disturbing events. Each night the group would gather in a circle and listen for two or three in minutes in silence to hear what “God” was saying. Then they would discuss what they had heard. On this particular evening a woman began the discussion by saying, “I feel like we’re being attacked. There are demons of control coming against us right now.”

The group prayed in silence for a moment longer. Then one girl said, “It’s Boze.” And another girl said, “I just heard the same thing.”

And they spent the next hour praying against me. As I sat there in my room listening to their prophecies about how God was going to “punish” me, at first I wondered what I could have possibly done to upset them. But then I realized: They’re wrong about me, and their prophecies are wrong, and the things they’re hearing from God are wrong. And I can prove it.

And gradually in those next weeks I quit being afraid of them. And though I wouldn’t have said it in so many words, I realized that I could never again single out any other group or person for shame and condemnation. I had been on the wrong end of that, one too many times now. I resolved to become an advocate for all who were trapped in nightmares.

 

AIDS, Authoritarians, & the Demon-Possessed Man, Part 1

an-active-service-unit-of-the-irish-republican-army-sets-up-a-vehicle-checkpoint-british-occupied-north-of-ireland-1994

In the 1960s and ‘70s, Northern Ireland was a nation at war with itself. Loyalist Protestants, seeking integration into the United Kingdom, took up arms against the Catholic republican majority. There were car bombings, gun battles, and random acts of butchery. Demagogues like the Reverend Ian Paisley fueled the fires of resentment.

 

 The song There Were Roses by folk singer Tommy Sands tells the true story of a tragic thing that happened to him. Growing up in the townland of Ryan, his two best friends were Allan Bell, a Protestant, and Sean O’Malley, a Catholic. Allan loved to dance; Sean loved a girl named Agnes. Some nights they would stay up late playing music. When the noise of guns disturbed the tranquil peace of the countryside, they swore their faiths would never come between them. Continue reading

The Bible Was Clear on Slavery (But Not in the Way You Might Think)

postfull-see-a-free-screening-of-12-years-a-slave-fassy_sarah_detIf you had lived in the days before the Civil War when the battle for abolition was heating up, whose side would you have been on?

It’s important to remember that for thousands of churches, this conflict was a religious conflict – with God and the Bible “clearly” defending a person’s right to own slaves.

It was a serious moral issue: the idea that slaves should be freed was dangerously immoral.

“The right of holding slaves is clearly established by the Holy Scriptures,” said the Rev. Richard Furman in 1823.

“How this question can at all arise in the mind of any man . . . that is acquainted with the history of the Bible, is a phenomenon I cannot explain to myself,” said Rabbi Morris Raphal in 1861.

Verses like Ephesians 6:1-5 and 1 Timothy 6:1-2 were marshaled by the pro-slavery forces, who in most cases were decent, God-fearing Christians who sincerely believed they were following the “plain meaning of Scripture.” (The Southern Baptist Church was actually founded on the belief that slave-owning was biblical).

Slave owners had the stronger biblical argument. To accept the arguments of abolitionists, our ancestors had to look beyond the literal reading of the Bible to its overall message about love, justice, and compassion.

Would we have done the same thing? To really see the heart of Jesus in the Scriptures may require tremendous moral courage and a willingness to resist the enormous social pressures to believe what everyone else does. In the 1860s when your pastor and your entire congregation said abolition was “immoral,” in the 1960s when Martin Luther King was condemned as a heretic in pulpits across the country, would you have had the courage to defy the convictions of your own religious community in defense of justice and freedom? Would you have that courage today?

What Frozen Taught Me About How to Read the Bible

Elsa          Frozen is one of those movies that stay with you. I’ve been thinking about it ever since I watched it again last week. Like most people I could empathize with Elsa’s longing to disappear into the mountains, away from friends and family, free of their rules and expectations, free to quit pretending, to be me. It’s a universal feeling, one that I think we’ve all felt.

 

            I love the second verse especially:

 

            It’s funny how some distance

            Makes everything seem small

            And the fears that once controlled me

            Can’t get to me at all

           

            It’s time to see what I can do

            To test the limits and break through

            No right, no wrong, no rules for me

            I’m free!

 

            There’s something so stirring about seeing a heroine growing in confidence, casting off the constraints that have bound her and soaring through wind and sky. Haven’t you ever felt that calling, that longing to forget what everyone else tells you you have to be and just be what you have to be?

 

            And yet I don’t for a moment think the writers fully endorse Elsa’s perspective. I got to wondering how they made Frozen and was surprised to learn that initially Elsa was supposed to be the villain. But when Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez sat down and started writing “Let It Go,” they began trying to imagine what it would be like to be her, to carry her emotional burdens: “this concept of letting out who she is, that she’s kept to herself for so long, and she’s alone and free, but then the sadness of the fact that the last moment is she’s alone. It’s not a perfect thing, but it’s powerful.”

 

            Elsa’s self-imposed isolation is hurtful to her sister and ruinous to the kingdom. The writers aren’t encouraging this, as is clear by the end of the movie. “Let It Go” comes at a place in the movie where the heroine is just beginning her emotional journey, hurt and confused but filled with a longing to transcend her meager surroundings and be confident and powerful. But to understand what the movie thinks about all this, we have to follow that emotional journey all the way to the end.

 

            It’s a precarious balance, but I think the writers got it mostly right. Because we could so easily say, “Elsa was wrong to feel that way!” But the truth is, while her feelings may not always be what we’d want them to be, what they “should”be, they’re a part of the human experience, and that’s beautiful.

 

            We have grace for Elsa because she’s so human. And I wish we could read the Bible in the same way we watch Frozen.

 

            So many people have tried to argue with me about the meaning of the Scriptures. You see, they don’t think I take the Bible seriously enough because I have reservations about some of the scarier passages in the Old Testament, the ones about killing children (Ps. 137:9) or stoning women who are raped (Deut. 22:23-25) or slaughtering whole nations. These are the ones they demand I believe in. “If you don’t believe the whole Word of God,” they insist, “you’re a false teacher!”

 

            And it raises some interesting questions, like: Why these passages? Why does no one ever demand a “literal reading” of, “Love your enemies,” or, “If you forgive others, you will be forgiven”? Why are you making, “Destroy all that they have, and do not spare them” the hill that you die on? What does that say about you?

 

            The truth is, like Frozen, the Bible has some very human elements. Human writers and human heroes expressed things that are often not appropriate. They did not always hear God correctly, and their image of God was not always accurate. Because the Bible is a story, and in order to grasp its full meaning you have to read it all the way to the end. There’s a twist at the end of the story, and the twist is Jesus.

 

            The Psalmist said, “Happy is the one who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rocks.”

 

            Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me.”

 

            Moses said, “You shall conquer them and utterly destroy them.”

 

            Jesus said, “Put away your sword.”

 

            David prayed, “Let there be none to extend mercy.”

 

            Jesus prayed, “Father, forgive them.”

 

            In the same way our knowledge of Hans, Anna’s fiancé, is dramatically altered by his self-revelation at the end of Frozen, the Israelites’ perception of God is dramatically altered by the self-revelation of Jesus.

 

           In the first case, the one we had trusted turned out to be a villain and deceiver.

 

           In the second, the one we had feared turned out to be gentle and good.

 

           And that’s really the message of the whole Bible: we thought God was like this; but all along, he was really like this.

 

           We thought God was proud and lofty. But he was meek and lowly.

 

           We thought he would execute vengeance. But he himself was executed.

 

           We thought he would take up the sword and kill. But he took up the cross and died.

 

          It’s the greatest of all surprises—a twist like no other.

 

            But we’ll never grasp what it means unless we read to the end. You can cut up the Bible into pieces and make it say whatever you want, just as you can take “Let It Go” out of Frozen and make a compelling argument for isolation and selfishness. But the true heart of the story is found in its closing scenes, in sacrifices made and love rekindled.