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WELCOME! CrossCurrents aims to provoke thought and enrich faith by interpreting current events in the light of Catholic tradition. I hope you find these columns both entertaining and clarifying. Your feedback and comments are welcome! See more about me and my work at http://home.comcast.net/~bfmswain/onlinestorage/index.html or contact me directly at bfswain@juno.com NOTE: TO READ OR WRITE COMMENTS, CLICK ON THE TITLE OF A POST.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

#455: What Would a “Trump America” Be Like?


Base on Donald Trump’s acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, it is possible to project the impact of his proposed policies on American Life.
 I have decided to try a thought experiment.  I’ll assume Donald trump is a serious political leader.  I will assume he wins November’s election.  I will assume he follows through on his acceptance speech agenda. I will even assume he is successful in implementing his proposed policies. These are all big “ifs,” but they allow us to imagine America under the leadership of Donald Trump, and to compare that image with Catholic Social Teaching.

Based on Trump’s own words, we can expect the following;

In Foreign Policy: We can expect less war and occupation aimed at nation building and regime change.  We can also expect more war against ISIS and other terrorist organizations, and more conflict with Iran.  We can expect special support for Israel, with no stated concern for the Palestinians or their supporters. 

We can expect expanded defense spending to “rebuild our depleted military.” We can expect a trade war with China. 

The first of these expectations is clearly in line with Catholic Social Teaching, as almost all Catholic leaders opposed the invasion of Iraq and other similar attempts at regime change or nation building.  All the other elements are more or less in conflict with Catholic Social Teaching, which has expressed concern for the Palestinian people, and shown a preference for diplomatic agreements (like the one with Iran) over confrontation. 

Catholic Social Teaching has also long shown a major concern for the relation between the advanced industrial nations and the developing world. On this significant issue, Trump was totally silent during his speech. His “America First” agenda is concerned about globalization’s impact, not on developing nations, but only on the US.

On Public Safety and Social Harmony: Based on Trump’s “Law and Order” rhetoric, we can expect more emphasis on police power and its militarization, with no attention to the problem of excessive police force.  Trump also expressed no particular concern about (let alone a solution) for the continuing problem of mass incarceration. 

We can expect some kind of ban on immigrants (and even tourists from France?) from many countries, based either on their faith or on some other type of profiling.  We can expect to see a “Fortress America” with a wall along its southern border, and tightly guarded entry from all sources.  We can expect that many families would be torn apart by deportations due to visa problems and undocumented legal status. 

We can expect full support for the expansion of gun ownership and markets under Trump, who boasted of his support from the National Rifle Association.  We can expect churches to have a tax-exempt license to engage in partisan politics.  And we can expect the culture war issues to be largely ignored, with the possible exception of LGBTQ rights. 

On nearly all of these issues Catholic Social Teaching takes positions significantly different from Trump’s.  This is especially true with regard to Trump’s positions on immigration, as shown by the recent verbal clash between Trump and Pope Francis regarding the U.S.-Mexican border, in which Francis proclaimed that it was “not Christian” to build walls preventing migration. The Church regards migration “for a better life” as a human right, a concept unknown to Trump based on his words.

On Economics.  Trump proposed reducing taxes for everyone.  Thus we can expect that (1) rich Americans will pay less tax, and that (2) income inequality will become even worse than it is now.

We can expect that markets will be unchecked under a president committed to growth at all costs.  We can also expect unchecked industrial practices under a president who opposed regulations.  Finally, we can expect exploding carbon emissions once Trump “lifts restrictions” on energy businesses and coal, oil, fracking, and nuclear energy go unregulated (while renewable like sources like wind, solar, etc got no mention).  We can expect worsened environmental damages and pollution in the absence of regulations on environmental impacts.

All this flies against Catholic Social Teaching’s long-standing critique of “unbridled capitalism,” its calls for income equality and even the redistribution of wealth (Pope Francis labels income inequality “the worst of all social ills”), and conflicts as well with its more recent support  for environmentalism as “care of creation.”

On Climate Change.  In his acceptance speech, Trump was totally silent about climate change; on other occasions, he has been a climate change denier.  So we can expect, not only little US initiative to combat and adapt to climate change, but we can even expect the promotion of policies that will accelerate climate change, such as the removal of restrictions on energy practices.  This is clearly contrary to Catholic Social Teaching in general and to the specific concerns of Pope Francis in his major encyclical “Laudato Si,” in which he linked climate change to nearly all global and social unrest, including global poverty and terror.

On Social Welfare and the Safety Net: Trump said almost nothing about policies regarding jobs, student debt, poverty, crime, mass incarceration, social security, etc.  But his speech implied, and earlier speeches have made explicit, that he expects an unregulated market to generate “trillions of dollars” in a free market expansion that would automatically fix all these problems.  In short, Trump presents himself not as a neo-conservative, not as a neo-liberal, but as a classic laissez-faire liberal capitalist, who expects the unbridled forces of the market to resolve all social problems. Catholic Social Teaching, meanwhile, has long rejected this idea, which Pope Francis himself has referred to as a fraud.

On the Supreme Court: Trump has promised to name strict constructionists to the Supreme Court, so we can imagine the likely outcome: a SCOTUS more conservative than any we’ve had in our lifetime.  From the point of view of Catholic Social Teaching, this would be a mixed blessing, raising the prospect of the reversal of Roe V Wade, but at the same time holding the prospect of many decisions inhibiting the advancement of a freer, more just society.

In short, the American we can imagine under Trump mixes a few ideas congenial to Catholic Social Teaching (he is less combative about international relations), some other issues where he simply remains silent (like climate change, income inequality, and third world development), and many more issues where his position conflicts implicitly or explicitly with Catholic Social Teaching. 

Personally, I believe my assumptions at the outset are highly problematic.  I do not find Trump a serious leader, I do not expect him to win, I doubt that he would succeed in achieving his goals even if he actually pursued them.  Yet it is still instructive to understand exactly what the man is proposing for our country, and how it fits--or does not fit--with the propositions of our faith. 
© Bernard F. Swain PhD 2016

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

#454: 10 Facts That STILL Answer: “Was Jesus Married?”

Once again the mainstream media has given wide coverage to the "new news" about the wife of Jesus, as Harvard's Karen King finally expressed her belief that the document which began the controversy is probably a fake. This induces me to revisit what I wrote 4 years ago, when the story broke. My aim is to demonstrate why this was ALWAYS much ado about nothing.

In the face of this week's ignorant media hype about a new discovery, let’s set the record straight…
Any talk of Jesus being married always stirs needless controversy, so this week’s news out of Harvard--about an ancient text in which Jesus speaks of “my wife”--poses the kind of teachable moment that calls for some serious fact checking.
Fact #1:  The belief that “Jesus never married” is not Catholic doctrine.  It is true that generations of Christians have assumed that Jesus was single, and passed on that assumption as a kind of pious tradition, part of our popular image of Jesus, like long hair and a beard.  But this popular belief is not in our creeds or our catechism; at most it is an informal, unofficial “teaching” commonly communicated to believers.  But Catholics are not required to believe this, and they never have been.
Fact #2: Believing that Jesus was married is not heresy.  The September 19 Boston Globe claimed that “The notion that Jesus may have been married” is “considered heretical by the Catholic Church.” This is just ignorant reporting.  To be heresy an idea must contradict an “orthodox” doctrine.  But since there is no official Catholic doctrine (one way or another) about Jesus’ marital status, then there is nothing to contradict. Hence heresy on this question is impossible.  Claiming Jesus married does clash with the popular tradition I mentioned above, but disagreeing with popular tradition is not heresy.
Fact #3: The Roman Catholic Church DOES allow married men to be priests.  That same Globe article claimed with similar ignorance that “These issues remain intensely relevant in Christianity today, particularly in the Roman Catholic Church, which allows only celibate men to be priests.” Not true!
Catholicism embraces five different “rites ” or worship styles, and four of the five (often refer to collectively as the “Eastern Rites”) ordain married man as priests.  Only the “Latin Rite” requires celibacy of all candidates for the priesthood--and even that is changing, since former Anglican priests may now be accepted as Latin Rite priests even if they are married. The confusion is based on numbers: more than 90% of all Catholic priests belong to the Latin Rite, so celibate priests do outnumber married priests. But the Catholic Church allows both.
Fact #4: Priestly celibacy is not a doctrine.  History rather than doctrine explains why Latin Rite priests must be celibate while Eastern Rite priests may marry in.  Long ago all priests (except members of all-male religious communities) could be married, but in the 11th century a general rule of mandatory celibacy was adopted for Latin Rite priests. That rule was never adopted for the Eastern Rites.  So the fact here is simple: priestly celibacy is just a rule; there were married priests before this rule was adopted, they are still married priests outside that rule’s jurisdiction, and there will be married priests again whenever the rule is dropped.
Fact #5: We do not actually know if Jesus was married or single.  Our best source is the books of the New Testament, and these books are totally silent on the question.  In fact, they’re totally silent about Jesus from the age of 12 to the beginning of his public life at about 30.  We know virtually nothing of the adolescence and early adulthood of Jesus--the very period when his own culture would have expected him to marry.  If, as a hypothetical argument, Jesus had been widowed in his mid-twenties, his married life would be invisible. It would have fallen into that huge gap in the gospel narratives--a gap that no other source can fill.  The fact is, we just do not know.
Fact #6: We will probably never know.  Harvard’s Karen King, who announced the new fragment, told reporters “It’s not saying we got the smoking gun that Jesus was married.” After all, just because one person writing long after the death of Jesus puts the words “my wife” in the mouth of Jesus does not mean we have discovered a new fact, or even that many others believed it to be so.  And it certainly does not mean these were Jesus’ own words. It just means one person wrote it, true or not, for reasons we cannot know. 
The fragment probably dates from the late fourth century, and may be based on a text from the mid-too-late second century--that is, more than a century after Jesus’ death.  All of the New Testament books are closer to Jesus’ lifetime.  There is nothing in the new discovery that can penetrate the silence of the New Testament.  That silence is definitive, and I can think of no way anyone could penetrate that silence.
Fact #7: The old evidence trumps any new discoveries.  All of the other ancient texts and alternative “gospels” that have fueled books like The DaVinci Code are also further from Jesus time than the authentic Biblical texts.  Most of these alternative texts were specifically rejected as less than reliable during the process of forming the Christian Bible as we know it today.
We are often told history is written by the winners, and the simple fact is the winners are the texts that made it into the New Testament “canon,” which means literally the “yardstick” by which we measure the value of any text about Jesus.  All the alternative texts were the losers, simply because they failed to measure up.  As sources go, the New Testament trumps any other source we can realistically imagine
Fact #8: The New Testament evidence is not clear.  What does the New Testament’s silence mean?  Some argue it means Jesus was single, or his wife would have been mentioned along with his mother, father, and brothers.  Others argue the silence means Jesus had been married, since his culture saw a celibate adult male as abnormal, and we would expect the Gospels to mention someone challenging him, and Jesus offering a response and defense.
Both arguments are logically coherent, but neither one has much evidence to support it.
In other words, the Gospels’ silence cannot really settle the question.  We can speculate: what if, for example, Jesus were widowed before his public life began? His wife might not be mentioned simply because she was no longer present. But any such answer is just speculation.  We know the texts are silent, but we cannot tell for sure what that silence means.
Fact #9: If Jesus was married, our core Christian beliefs remain unchanged.  Nothing in our creeds, are catechisms or our theological principles about Jesus Christ is based on the premise of Jesus’ celibacy.  If Jesus was married, then the popular devotion about his single state would be inaccurate--but nothing else would change.  My Catholicism does not hang on this question, and yours should not either.  For me, the question of Jesus’ marital status is nothing more than idle curiosity.  It is not a deal breaker--or even a game-changer--for my faith. It clearly did not matter enough (one way or the other) to the authors of the Gospels, or to St. Paul, or to the other New Testament authors, to include any mention in their texts.
Fact #10: But it might change some attitudes.  Clearly much of Christian history has been ambivalent or even negative about marriage and sexuality (see CrossCurrents #359).  In the New Testament, St. Paul essentially regards marriage as a last resort so those who cannot hack celibacy do not fall into adultery.  And the assumption of Jesus as life-long celibate has often fueled the double standard by which celibates are superior to married people.  Many modern Christians would like to see that double standard fall, and see a golden opportunity in debunking the celibacy of Jesus.  More broadly, people who disparage the place of sexuality in Christian history might love the opportunity, with the leverage of a new “revelation,” to reboot Christianity over again and get it right this time.  Controversy over minor matters advances the cause and makes good newspaper copy--but such controversy does not fit the facts.
On this score, ironically, our Christian faith is rooted much more firmly in fact than most of the media coverage.
© Bernard F. Swain PhD 2012

Thursday, June 2, 2016

#453: To Honor the Dead: Pursue Peace—or Perpetual War?



I could not avoid a strong sense of irony during the week leading into Memorial Day 2016.




Last week saw President Obama’s appearance at Hiroshima, a report on US-Russia-China nuclear talks, a trade opening to Vietnam, and my personal viewing of two movies about bombing: “Children of Nagasaki” and “Eye in the Sky.”

The observation of Memorial Day itself remains full of irony, inasmuch as the original practice of the holiday promised a different message.  At first “Decoration Day” aimed only to honor the fallen Union Soldiers of the Civil War, but the actual observances soon included decorating graves of Confederate soldiers as well, even though many southern states kept a separate holiday for this purpose. Then, after World War I, the focus enlarged again to include all fallen America soldiers in any war.

The irony is that, while this history acknowledged the dead on both sides of the Civil War, no other war gets the same recognition. The assumption is that the Civil War is unique because, even though they fought for two separate countries under two different flags, the dead on both sides were Americans. In short, only American lives matter on Memorial Day. “Enemy” lives from other wars do not--nor do civilian lives (the so-called “collateral damage") that typically outnumber military deaths in modern war.
"Collateral" remains

Had Memorial Day’s focus enlarged further to remember all war dead, it might have become our national day for reflecting on the tragic loss of tens of millions of lives in wars world-wide since the Civil War. Instead, it has become a patriotic celebration in which we remember only the service of soldiers, and only US soldiers. The focus is less on the tragedy of war and more on glorifying the sacrifice of our warriors. Instead of citizens wearing poppy pins or black armbands to remember war’s fallen, we see ballplayers wearing camouflage on their baseball caps.
 But the chief irony came from President Obama himself, when he spoke at Hiroshima and called the atom bombing symbolic of the risks contained in humanity’s technological leap forward:

In the image of a mushroom cloud that rose into these skies, we are most starkly reminded of humanity’s core contradiction; how the very spark that marks us as a species -- our thoughts, our imagination, our language, our tool-making, our ability to set ourselves apart from nature and bend it to our will -- those very things also give us the capacity for unmatched destruction…
The wars of the modern age teach this truth.  Hiroshima teaches this truth.  Technological progress without an equivalent progress in human institutions can doom us.  The scientific revolution that led to the splitting of an atom requires a moral revolution, as well. 

I find this statement true, and important, but also ironic, for two reasons. 

First, because its message is nearly identical to the message delivered by Vatican Council II (1962-1965). Surveying the signs of the times to reset a vision for the future of the Catholic Church in the world, the Council called for wisdom sources to keep pace with modern technological power, to harness that power for good:

The modern world shows itself at once powerful and weak, capable of the noblest deeds or the foulest; before it lies the path to freedom or to slavery, to progress or retreat, to brotherhood or hatred…

Man judges rightly that by his intellect he surpasses the material universe, for he shares in the light of the divine mind. By relentlessly employing his talents through the ages he has indeed made progress…especially in his probing of the material world and in subjecting it to himself. Still he has always searched for more penetrating truths, and finds them...

The intellectual nature of the human person is perfected by wisdom and needs to be…

Our era needs such wisdom more than bygone ages if the discoveries made by man are to be further humanized. For the future of the world stands in peril unless wiser men are forthcoming.

So Obama’s point is well made, but more than 50 years later, and one can argue that those 50 years technological power has remained largely unchecked by wisdom, without much concern about steering that power in the right direction.

This problem is particularly acute if we talk about the role of the United States: are we helping wisdom to keep pace by promoting peace, or aiding runaway power in the form of perpetual war? Thus the second irony: the president’s good message risks contradicting many of his own administration’s policies

For example, the latest “START” deal to limit nuclear may do quite the opposite, as the New York Times recently reported:

The United States, Russia and China are now aggressively pursuing a new generation of smaller, less destructive nuclear weapons. The buildups threaten to revive a Cold War-era arms race and unsettle the balance of destructive force among nations that has kept the nuclear peace for more than a half-century.

In fact, the US is expected to "revitalize" its nuclear arsenal over the next 30 years at the cost of up to $1 trillion!

Moreover, the Times reported last week that a new Pentagon census of the US nuclear arsenal reveals that “Mr. Obama has reduced the size of the nation’s nuclear stockpile at a far slower rate than did any of his three immediate predecessors, including George Bush and George W. Bush.”

Also last week, the process of normalizing relations with Vietnam took a similar turn. President Obama announced that the US is lifting its decades-long embargo on military arms sales to Vietnam, saying: “The decision to lift the ban…was based on our desire to complete what has been a lengthy process of moving toward normalization with Vietnam.”

 This strikes me as a devil’s bargain: achieving further reconciliation with our former enemy at the cost of feeding the proliferation of arms in Southeast Asia.  But this of course promotes and extends America’s longtime role as the #1 arms dealer in the world.

None of these events mark America as a country dedicated to promoting peace.  Rather, they seem to reflect a belief in either the necessity or even the virtue of perpetual warfare.  At best this means that America is resigned to violent responses to violence around the world rather than leading us in a different direction.  At worst it means that we embrace the grip of violence because it is profitable for us.  As Pope Francis explained to schoolchildren visiting the Vatican last spring: "Many powerful people don't want peace because they live off war."

During Obama’s visit to Hiroshima, the media rehashed the old debate about the wisdom of dropping atomic bombs on Japanese cities. Most mainstream media admitted that the decision remains controversial, yet implied a near-consensus that the bombings saved lives by avoiding an invasion. 


There is of course no way to resolve the dispute because there’s no way to prove an alternative history that never occurred.  But these facts are true: (1) both General MacArthur and General Eisenhower declared the bomb unnecessary; (2) the Japanese with the high command was prepared to surrender if the emperor’s role was preserved; (3) the US instead insisted on “unconditional surrender,” which was a deal breaker; (4) after surrender, the emperor was protected anyhow. Arguably, then, an invasion was not necessary, except for American stubbornness. (See: http://swaincrosscurrents.blogspot.com/2015/08/ivespent-last-week-reflecting-on-70-th.html )


But the debate about Hiroshima and Nagasaki will continue because of two distinct moral views about the use of violence.  In one view (championed by the majority of characters in the new movie “Eye in the Sky”), killing, even at the cost of innocent lives, can be justified on the speculation that such killing will save more lives.  The other view (the minority view in the movie) is that the ends do not justify the means, that one must not kill innocents even in the hope of saving other lives. 

In the first view, it is numbers that count: “The greatest good for the greatest number.” In the second view, it is intention and virtue that counts: “Do no harm,” even if one risks great sacrifice.  In the movie, these two views clash over the life of a single innocent girl.  But in real life, these two views may be the difference between policies of perpetual warfare and policies that move, however achingly, toward peace.

One “survivor” of the Nagasaki bombings (who later died of radiation sickness) wrote in 1946 about the experience of his family. His story, in its homespun, almost dull way, reflects the kind of fervent commitment to peace that has kept Japan free of nuclear weapons and strictly limited its military spending.

 But his memoirs did not appear for 20 years after World War II because the American “occupational censors” would not allow their publication. And the movie version of his “Children of Nagasaki” could not be made for 20 more years, finally appearing in 1983.  The irony here: the movie’s delay enabled the director, like the original writer a dedicated Catholic, to include footage of John-Paul II visiting Hiroshima to proclaim Catholicism’s anti-nuclear principles.


The censorship of this story, like last week’s opposition to any US apology for the bombings, reflects how the world’s most powerful nation continues to avoid acknowledging its part in the global devastation that marked most of the 20th century.  And we continue to pretend that we are not responsible for massive killings in the 21st century.

And so as Memorial Day arrives, we wave our flags and salute our soldiers and remember their service and sacrifice and feel proud of our nation.  We see little mention of the 140,000 who died at Hiroshima, the 80,000 who died in Nagasaki, the uncounted thousands who died of radiation sickness in the years that followed, the 3 million Vietnamese who died during the Vietnam War, or the 200,000 Iraqis who died following the American invasion.

We think of ourselves as the home of the free and the brave--and no doubt that is true.  But neither freedom nor bravery guarantees virtue.  And if we seek a future of peace rather than perpetual warfare, we will need a nation famous not just for its freedom, not just for its bravery, but for its goodness and moral courage.
© Bernard F. Swain PhD 2016

Friday, May 13, 2016

#452: Must America Be the Modern Sparta?


As the editorial pages and the blogosphere filled up with appreciations for the life of Father Daniel Berrigan, SJ, who died last week in New York, my sadness was not for him but for our country. 
Berrigan, who was 94, had a full life devoted to the cause of peace, often choosing radical, even illegal actions in the name of gospel values.  But by 2016, more than 50 years after he began his crusade, America doesn’t seem to have made much progress toward peace. We peaceniks used to say, amid the struggle over Vietnam, “The enemy is not the enemy.  The real enemy is War.” And we still have not conquered war. 

In fact, a blog post that popped up on my Facebook page last week observed that the United States has been at war for 93% of its history.  That means 21 scattered years of peace in our entire national life! Find the details at http://www.informationclearinghouse.info/article41086.htm  .


I remember how shocked I was to read, during my college days, that 1968 was the first year of the 20th century that no British soldier died in combat.  I should not have been shocked, of course: I should have known that permanent warfare is the price of empire.  And sure enough, Britain went to war in Northern Ireland the very next year. 

By the age of 30 I was less naive.  In 1977 I told a fellow peacenik that I planned to look for work in Canada, just in case of war.  I’d done some rough math, and figured that, based on our past history, we could expect the next war by the time my one-year-old child reached draft age.  I was close enough: the first Gulf War came 14 years later. 

Still, that 93% is even bleaker, and it stuns me (even though three of the 21 peaceful years came just as my first child was born).  Think of what that figure of 93% means:

It means that no U.S. generation has lived ever lived their lives in peace. 

It means that every single U.S. president has been a wartime present

It means that no U.S. child has grown up in peace.

It means that no U.S. parent has raised their children free of war. 

Of course, even the tamest of our schoolbooks revealed how bloody U.S. history has been.  Our nation was born in the blood of Revolution in the 18 century, became an indissoluble union in the bloodbath of the Civil War in the 19th century, and we spent most of the 20th century fighting wars overseas.  And those modern wars have inflated our military’s scope beyond all our rivals and allies put together.  We remain the only nation to use nuclear weapons in war, and the only major nation to claim the right of a first nuclear strike.

The US military has expanded dramatically even in the last 15 years. We now maintain up to 800 military bases in 70 countries. We have up to 150,000 military personnel present in 153 foreign countries.  It used to be said that the sun never set on the British Empire, but today we can say that the sun never sets on the U.S. military.  Viewed strictly for our war making capability, we are the world’s only global empire.

Why so much war?  Since World War II, it is largely because our leaders have convinced enough of us that our “National Security” can be jeopardized by the puniest forces, by the vaguest, most remote threats.  So we went to war in Vietnam supposedly to prevent the “dominoes” from falling across Southeast Asia.  We fed weapons to the Taliban supposedly to thwart Soviet control of Afghanistan. We backed the Contras to unseat the Sandinistas in Nicaragua.  We invaded Grenada to stop the construction of an airfield.  We occupied Panama to unseat Noriega.  We attacked Saddam Hussein and bombed Iraq, invaded Haiti, invaded Afghanistan, invaded Iraq again to remove Saddam, waged war in Pakistan, Yemen, Libya, Somalia, and now Syria.All those in the last 40 years, at the cost of millions of lives and countless refugees. 
Except for Vietnam itself, public protest has failed to alter US policy.  It is as though the American people really believe that the likes of Saddam Hussein, Muammar Gaddafi, Manuel Noriega, and Daniel Ortega were threats to the most powerful--and most isolated--nation on earth.   
We might even argue that the paranoia has intensified since Vietnam.  50 years ago, “Weapons of Mass Destruction” meant the hundreds of real Soviet nuclear weapons aimed at us. By 2002, “WMD’s” meant some non-existent cache of aluminum pipes hidden in Baghdad.  And a healthy percentage of Americans still believe that Saddam was behind 9/11, and that our mission in Iraq had some connection to something called the “Global War On Terror.” Of course, it does connect now—since Saddam’s henchmen metastasized into ISIS after our invasion.  As one Facebook post put it: “All this started by invading a country to drive out the terrorists that weren’t actually there until we went in to drive them out.”

It seems we Americans are prepared to accept war on the flimsiest of excuses.  And the government has made this as easy as possible by (1) Eliminating the draft to short-circuit popular protest and (2) Paying for war on credit.  We don’t feel war touching our families or our wallets, because the cost of war falls on the poor who serve and on the future generations who will inherit our debt.

Moreover, our people seem to actually believe that such “threats” jeopardize our “freedom,” and we willingly sacrifice many of our liberties to protect "it."

This theme is, of course, as old as the nation itself:  “Live free or die”; “I regret that I have but one life to give…”; “Better dead than bread”; “The Domino theory” ; “Operation Iraqi Freedom.”

Perhaps we need to face facts and ask ourselves (if only to honor the spirit of Dan Berrigan): “Are we Americans by nature a war-like people?”

As a school kid, I love ancient history, and was particularly fascinated by the typical textbook contrast between Athens and Sparta.  Athens, we learned, was the seat of Greece's noble culture: sculpture, theater and poetry, history, philosophy, learning.  Sparta, by contrast, was portrayed as a kind of barracks-state, its men constantly preparing for or waging war.  We gathered, from the stories, that these wars were fought for honor, for revenge, for security, for wealth--but anyhow war was Sparta's defining trait.

This stereotype about the two cities lives on.  After all, who ever heard of a football team called “The Fighting Athenians"? 

As I grew older, and I began commuting to high school in Boston, I learned of a traditional nickname for the city of Boston: “The Athens of America.” Actually, Samuel Adams proposed nearly the opposite in a 1764 letter. "Boston,” he wrote, “might become a Christian Sparta."

But in 1819, William Tudor (a leading literary figure and co-founder of America’s first railroad) wrote a letter describing the town as "perhaps the most perfect and certainly the best-regulated democracy that ever existed. There is something so impossible in the immortal fame of Athens, that the very name makes everything modern shrink from comparison; but since the days of that glorious city I know of none that has approached so near in some points, distant as it may still be from that illustrious model."

The phrase “Athens of America” stuck. And even if the nickname does not accurately describe Boston itself (and certainly it predates Boston’s becoming America’s pro sports capital!), it does describe why Bostonians are proud of their town. We like to think that our contribution to the richness of American culture (in the arts, education, politics, science, etc.) over nearly 400 years is all out of proportion to our size and power.

Why this digression?  Because, dear reader, as a native Bostonian I not only embrace this (admittedly romantic) image of my city, but I also hold the fervent desire that it be a model for my country.

Alas, it seems to be a hopeless longing.  Many people around the globe (not only the French!) may admire American movies, our jazz, our jeans, our energy and vitality and creativity.  But despite all that, our image for most others in the world is defined by our real presence in the world—a presence that has brought (and still brings) our troops to every continent and, tragically, has left behind the victims of Washington bullets.

Must I accept that we are Sparta? 
   © Bernard F. Swain PhD 2016