Radical politics in Lewis County, Washington

September 27, 2012

I listened as long as I could while the table full of old timers celebrated the staunch conservatism of Lewis County, Washington. “As far back as anyone can remember,” the one woman in the group kept repeating, “this county has voted Democratic only twice.”

One of the men mentioned two or three times that Lewis County has more retired people per capita than any other county in the state, which seemed to validate the county’s preference for the conservatism now being promulgated by the Republican Party.

We were sitting across from one another at the McDonald’s just off of I-5 in Centralia. Earlier we had been talking about easier topics, mostly prompted by my bicycle ride through the region, which gave me the nerve to suggest another point of view.

“It’s hard to realize that a hundred years ago Lewis County was noted for its radical politics,” I said. “In fact, my Seattle daughter wrote a book about rural radicalism in southeastern Lewis County.”

“Well, there were the Wobblies back in 1919,” the woman noted.

“The period my daughter studied,” I continued, “is mostly earlier than that, and it was centered in the granges and churches. One of the results was farmers’ co-ops in dairying and poultry, like in Winlock where I lived for a while when I was a kid.”

Later, my daughter (Marilyn P. Watkins, Ph.D.) reminded me of the central story line that I hadn’t remembered in the conversation with the old timers in Centralia. Farmers were at the mercy of the banks and railroads and lived harsh, poverty-stricken lives because they had so little control over the value of their work and crops. Their plight was similar to factory workers in town and to women in farming and working communities.

They realized two things: that they could improve their lot by working together; and that the only organization big enough and trustworthy enough to stand with them against the financial and structural power of distant, city-based corporations was the government.

In an essay (“Contesting the Terms of Prosperity and Patriotism,” published in Pacific Northwest Quarterly), Marilyn offers a clear summary of this point of view, expressed by grange members, rooted in the culture of family farming, and aimed at empowering farmers economically and politically.

“It was a collective approach that built on and further articulated the beliefs of the Populist movement. It recognized farming as a way of life for the family and the community, and it promoted education and cooperation through neighborhood-based chapters of national organizations for the whole family. Men and women in the grange recognized that their economic prosperity and their ability to participate in political decision making through their own organizations were linked.

“They believed that family farmers needed government help to combat the economic power of large corporations and to overcome social injustices, and they sought political alliances with urban labor to promote reform.”

It’s just as well that I didn’t have the full story in my mind during the easy-going conversation. Everyone there already had their minds made up, including the one guy who proudly wore his Obama button. As I left to start the day’s ride, the others were trying to decide how many of them it would take to tear if off of his shirt.

Maybe I should have stayed behind to help him fight them off.

As I bicycled northeastward on State Road 507, the political signs all promoted Republican candidates until I crossed over into Thurston County, where this is one of the first signs I saw:

The essay by Marilyn P. Watkins was published in Vol. 87, No. 3 (Summer 1996).The full account of her research on Lewis County is published in her book Rural Democracy: Family Farmers and Politics in Western Washington, 1890-1925 (Cornell University Press, 1995).

Speaking where the Bible speaks: a Protestant approach

September 24, 2012

Part Three of a Series on interpreting ancient texts in modern times

I belong to a church that used to proclaim this mantra: “Where the Bible speaks, we speak; where the Bible is silent, we are silent.” This slogan was based on two assumptions: 1) that the various biblical writers were the scribes but that God was the real author of the entire book; and 2) therefore the Bible is internally consistent.

Another assumption was also important: that all thoughtful people who use reasonable principles of interpretation will come to mutually agreed understandings of what the Bible teaches.

These assumptions have fallen by the wayside both in my church and in other ecumenical Protestant churches. We have discovered that people of good will, serious intent, and careful study habits come to different conclusions about what the Bible actually means.

Furthermore, careful and devout study of the Bible leads to different conclusions about broad theological themes (such as the nature of God), matters affecting the life of the church (such as the meaning of the Lord’s Supper), and issues related to ethical relations and moral practices (such as the patterns of marriage, procreation, and divorce). It is difficult to show that the Bible is internally consistent, regardless of how much we want it to be.

Fortunately, Bible scholars in my own church and in other ecumenical Protestant churches can help us find meaning in the ancient text even though the assumptions mentioned above are no longer reliable. They know the Bible in its original languages, are well versed in the systems of thought and life in ancient times, and understand how they affected the ways that biblical writers understood God’s intentions for life. These scholars also understand the scientific and cultural developments of later generations, including our own, that impact how people of any faith must live their lives.

One of these scholars is Rick Lowery, Ph.D. (Yale), whose field of special study is currently described as Hebrew Bible. Although Lowery publishes technical essays and books in his field, he also writes on current topics in an easily accessible form.

During recent weeks, he has contributed three essays to huffingtonpost.com in which he discusses topics currently under debate: “The Bible and Marriage Equality,” “Jesus and Medicaid,” and “Abortion: What the Bible Says (And Doesn’t Say).”

Although I appreciate the conclusions and recommendations that Lowery presents in these short essays, I am referring to them only incidentally. My purpose in this review is to note the methods of interpretation that this mature Bible scholar uses.

First, Lowery pays attention to what the biblical text actually says. He examines the Bible in small pieces, verse by verse and paragraph by paragraph, and in larger units, such as the Mosaic code compared with later prophetic traditions. He is interested in determining as precisely as possible how these elements of the Bible were understood by people in the time when they were written and also how that understanding gradually developed or changed in succeeding generations.

Second, he calls attention to complicating factors. Some of the topics that interest us today—abortion is Lowery’s example—are not even mentioned in the Bible. The challenge to students of the Bible, therefore, is to gain insights from related topics that are discussed in the Bible and then to apply them to the topics on which the Bible is silent.

Another complicating factor is the fact that some of the instructions in the Bible are based on what was the common knowledge of the time which we now know is not correct. Lowery’s example is the mistaken understanding of the biology of human reproduction that is stated in certain biblical texts. Faced with awkward texts, people today are required to derive as best they can ethical and spiritual principles that were intended in ancient times and then apply them to current topics of concern.

Third, Lowery derives broad principles that can be seen in and through various scripture texts and uses them to evaluate questionable verses and paragraphs. He also uses these principles as a critique of ideas in our own time, especially those that are supported on what he believes to be insufficient principles of biblical study. A good example of how he proceeds is the following paragraph from his blog “Jesus and Medicaid.”

When Jesus teaches his disciples how to pray, he tells them to ask for the kingdom of God on the earth, for everyone to have enough to eat every day, for canceled debts and for rescue from trying times (Matthew 6:9-13; Luke 11:2-4). Jesus expects his disciples to share his concern for the physical, mental and spiritual health and liberation of everyone, especially the most vulnerable.”

With this principle derived from ancient scripture, Lowery is able to speak a confident and prophetic word concerning the politics of health care in the United States. With the help of scholars like this, people in my church can reaffirm half of the old mantra.

We can speak where the Bible speaks, on some topics boldly proclaiming a mind-clearing, life-giving word of hope.

Disclosure: Richard H. Lowery, Ph.D., is an independent Bible scholar and semi-aggressive cyclist (and my son in law). His book The Reforming Kings was published by the Sheffield Academic Press in 1991.


The Beautiful Machine and other bicycle books

September 20, 2012

A  collection of review essays published in 2010 and 2011

 by keithwatkinshistorian.wordpress.com

The second blog that I published as keithwatkinshistorian was a review of Megan Timothy’s book 12,000 miles for Hope’s Sake. Since that posting on April 26, 1910, I have continued to report on books about bicycles and a bicycling way of life. Some of them, such as John Howard’s Mastering Cycling, are new publications, but other volumes are old books, some of which I read long ago and others that I have only recently enjoyed.

My choice of books for review on keithwatkinshistorian is dictated by three factors. First, they come to my attention, at libraries, bookstores, or in conversation and reading. Second, they make a constructive contribution to bicycle lore and literature, or to informed conversation about bicycles and their place in our time. Third, I enjoyed the book enough that I want to encourage others to read it, too. The fact that a new book on bicycling does not appear in my reviews could mean that I haven’t heard about it, or that I haven’t made the effort (or paid the money) to gain access to it. It could also mean that I have seen the book but have no interest in calling it to the attention of readers.

Blog publishing provides short moments in the attention span of readers, and as a result book reviews quickly disappear from sight and memory. In response, I have gathered the reviews I published during 2010 and 2011 into a single volume. It is filed in the section of keithwatkinshistorian entitled “Bicycle Diaries,” which will facilitate access to current readers of the blog and others who later subscribe or find it through online searches. To read the the full collection of review essays click The Beautiful Machine

Some of these reviews have been slightly edited. Those who read this collection online will discover, sometimes to their irritation (especially photos), that many of the links embedded when the reviews were first posted are still active and in some instances will connect readers to online sites. These links, of course, will not work when readers are using printed copies of this collection.

12,000 Miles for Hope’s Sake, by Megan Timothy

Heft on Wheels, by Mike Magnuson

Major, by Todd Balf

Two Wheels North, by Evelyn McDaniel Gibb

Bike Snob, by Eban Weiss

It’s All about the Bike, by Robert Penn

The Grace to Race, by Madonna Buder

Mastering Cycling, by John Howard

The Beautiful Machine, by Graeme Fife

Bike for Life, by Roy M. Wallack and Bill Katovsky

Outside Lies Magic, by John R. Stillgoe

The Urban Cyclist’s Survival Guide, by James Rubin and Scott Rowan

The Man Who Loved Bicycles, by Daniel Behrman

The tension between sacred principle and human context: A Muslim approach

September 17, 2012

Reading the Qur’an: The Contemporary Relevance of the Sacred Text of Islam, by Ziauddin Sardar (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011). Part Two

The sacred books used by Christians, Muslims, and Mormons contain many prescriptions about how people are to live. They are given as commandments rather than suggestions, with the force of divine law rather than of guidelines for a happy and prosperous life.

The problem for the faithful in our time is that many of these ancient commandments are contrary to dynamic principles and practices of our own time. This conflict can clearly be seen in laws concerning the handling of money, marriage and divorce, politics and religion, crime and punishment, and the relations of religious law and civil law.

This challenge is one of the most important topics that Ziauddin Sardar (described on the book jacket as “one of Europe’s leading public intellectuals”) addresses in his book Reading the Qur’an: The Contemporary Relevance of the Sacred Text of Islam.

As a devout, modern, and scholarly Muslim, Sardar use a short list of interpretive principles to resolves this conflict between ancient text and contemporary life. One of the most important is contained in the idea of contextualism.

An example comes in his discussion of Muhammed as the Prophet. Sardar writes that the Prophet “is always a conceptual model caught in the exigencies of his own time. This caveat applies not only to details of personal habits and dress, but must surely extend to the circumstances by which the nascent Muslim community he led secured its existence. For example, the revelations on warfare, the fight to survive as a community of faithful, addressed to Muhammed are entirely contextual. The fact that warfare, internecine as well as between peoples and nations, has remained a dominant feature of Muslim history is a testament to a failure of moral maturity to assert itself” (p. 223).

The tension between sacred principle and human context is at work in Sardar’s discussion of teachings in the Qur’an concerning marriage and divorce and the continuing relations between men and women. The social context when Muhammed wrote was male-dominated, polygamous, and ready to use violence as the means of resolving disputes.

Some of the teachings in the Qur’an, while accepting the fact of the current social order, laid down specific guidelines that would improve the situation significantly. Even these moderating features, however, were contradicted by other parts of the Qur’an which would “generate moral apprehension” of certain actions and which emphasized “an all-embracing emphasis on gender equality.”

The Qur’an has specific ways of banning actions such as polygamy and misogyny: reducing some practices to “a mere symbol” or allowing them only when “impossible contradictions” are practiced at the same time. “The moral goal is to move towards a society totally free from both polygamy and misogyny and their expression through domestic violence” (p. 308).

Christians have parallel challenges as we use the Bible to guide us in life today. How are we to deal with passages that tell women to keep their heads covered, be silent in church, ask their husbands about things afterwards, and be obedient to their husbands? How are we to deal with passages that instruct believers to obey their rulers because these persons have been set in their places of power by divine authority?

Some Christians make serious efforts to adhere to these principles within the context of contemporary American society. It’s rare to find any Christians who are absolutely consistent in this practice. Nearly everyone, whether they realize it or not, silently makes modest adjustments when circumstances seem to require adaptation.

Others declare that in some of these places the Bible is wrong and can be disregarded. The inculturation of the writers, these interpreters would say, kept them from perceiving God’s intentions for human society. The interpretive task for our time, therefore, is to set aside these erroneous passages and derive from our religious tradition and contemporary social theory a better way to pattern human life.

The contextualization that Sardar proposes stands somewhere between these two methods for dealing with the old texts. He readily acknowledges that the text as it stands contains ideas and issues commands that cannot be believed and practiced in other times and places. He is persuaded, however, that even these problematic texts can be understood in such a way that they are consistent with broader principles that can be applied in new times and places.

The challenge faced by the faithful is to wrestle with these texts until they allow their true meaning to be seen. Many Christians, conservative and liberal, Catholic and Protestant, evangelical and ecumenical, stand with Sardar in this middle position. Their reverence for the Bible and their devotion to its broad themes of the love of God and neighbor lead them to accept every text as “inspired by God” and serviceable for life today if they but work at the interpretive task long enough.

I have to confess that sometimes I lose that persistent patience. Sardar, however, encourages me to keep at the hard work of connecting text and context.

Teasing the meaning out of ancient texts: A Muslim approach

September 11, 2012

Christians, Jews, and Muslims face one challenge that is much the same for believers in each of these religious communities. We honor certain ancient writings as essential guides to faith and practice, but we live in a world vastly different from the worlds in which these writings came into being. How can these old texts be used to guide us as we deal with issues that are radically different from those with which the ancient writers were dealing?

Since my religious life has been lived within the framework of liberal Protestantism, I have always worked with principles of interpretation that help me with this challenge. I am well aware of the process by which my sacred texts came into being and I am at ease with practices of biblical study that encourage me to use all that I know from the modern world as I draw upon the books that were written over a period of several hundred years, the newest of which are nearly two thousand years old.

Even so, I have received new insights into this process from Ziauddin Sardar, a prolific writer who is described (on the book jacket) as “both a lay believer, like the majority of Muslims, and an astute scholar of Islam.” The title of his book points readers toward what they will find this volume: Reading the Qur’an: The Contemporary Relevance of the Sacred Text of Islam.

The book is adapted and expanded from a yearlong blog that Sardar wrote for The Guardian. He discusses technical issues about Islam’s central text, but he does so in ways that are accessible to readers who have little or no background in the scholarly disciplines upon which he draws. It is carefully organized so that readers will benefit from a straightforward reading of the book, starting with the Preface and Introduction and continuing straight through to page 374.

Many readers, however, will do as I did, which is start at the point that they find most interesting or pressing. For me, that was Part Four, Contemporary Topics, which includes chapters 41-52. Among the topics discussed are The Sharia’h, Power and Politics, Sex and Society, The Veil, and Freedom of Expression.

In the introduction to this part of the book, Sardar provides a concise restatement of principles that have guided him throughout the study. One of the most important is that he reads the Qur’an thematically rather than by the much used verse-by-verse method. His preferred pattern of reading “has enabled us to connect various verses in different parts of the Qur’an and see the text in much more holistic terms as interconnected, bound together by the interrelationships of what it is saying.”

A further advantage of this approach, he continues, is that it has also “allowed us to use tools of critical analysis ranging from semantics, hermeneutics and cultural theory to contextual analysis and old-fashioned intellectual (Socratic) questioning.”

The result is that “the whole can sometimes produce a bigger, more nuanced and hence more moral picture than the parts” (p. 283).

Sardar tells readers that contrary to what many Muslims believe, “morality does not end with the Qur’an” but, instead, begins with the sacred text. “The Qur’an paints the boundaries of the moral universe in broad brush strokes, points to the outer limits, and illuminates universal precepts. After that, it asks believers to explore, enhance, expand and develop their own understanding of morality and ethics according to their own context and times.”

He frequently calls attention to the shortcomings of the verse-by-verse method of interpretation. It leads to literalism. It keeps readers from recognizing the “cohesive outlook to the universe and life which the Qur’an undoubted posseses” (here Sardar quotes Muslim scholar Fazlur Rahman). This method of studying the Qur’an “has led to the practice of citing specific verses to justify certain positions, no matter how far these positions may be from the overall spirit of the Qur’an” (p. xviii).

The contrasting method that Sardar recommends is that we have to take each verse and then “make connections with other verses of the Qur’an, elsewhere in the text, examine the context, and tease out what the Qur’an is saying to us in our time. The purpose of the exercise is not to discover some sort of ‘absolute truth’, which is known only to God, but to get a more holistic and nuanced picture” (p. 284).

The clarity of Sardar’s defense of the thematic approach to reading the Muslim sacred text helps me, as a classic Protestant, to renew my own use of a similar method for studying my sacred text. The Bible is shaped by broad principles that emerged over time, and these principles take precedence over any one verse or group of verses. Both in devotional readying of the text and in more formal study, my ability to use the Bible to help me face the modern world is greatly enhanced by staying focused on the broad themes.

Biking past the Jantzen Beach fire

September 6, 2012

By the time I heard about the big fire, it was too late to see flames filling the nighttime sky. Two hours after the five-alarm fire was brought under control, when we drove across the Interstate Bridge on our way to church, the flames had disappeared, but the twisted ruins of the vacant Thunderbird on the River Hotel complex on Jantzen Beach-Hayden Island were clearly evident.

Three days later, fire fighters were still shooting plumes of water into smoldering, smoking hot spots.

Since its construction in 1971, this hotel has held down what once was a prime location on the Oregon end of this important bridge over the Columbia River. Even in these recent years, when it has been vacant, surrounded by chain link, and increasingly forlorn in appearance, it has riveted my attention on my frequent bike trips over the river.
Its demise has come about because newer, more efficient motels have been built near by, increasing the competition. Business plans change and once desirable properties lose their appeal.

In the case of the former Thunderbird, however, a major factor is continuing uncertainty about the proposed Columbia River Crossing, the $4 billion new bridge that is supposed to be built during the coming decade. The design for the bridge has not yet been determined nor has its exact footprint as it crosses Hayden Island where the hotel is located.

It’s too early to determine why the complex of buildings burned down. A crew of inspectors, chemists, and arson dogs has already begun their investigation of the ruins. Presumably, the demolition and removal of these ruined structures will get started fairly soon.

There will be lot’s to watch as I continue my rides across the I-5 bridge.

Preaching on Politics and God

September 4, 2012

I’m watching TV a lot less these days, and for one reason. Virtually every broadcast dealing with news and opinion is dominated by the political campaigns leading to the November election. There was a time when the public political debate dealt with ideas, policies, and programs, which made it worth one’s time to tune in, but not this year. Even news casters and commentators whom I have valued in the past find themselves sucked in by the destructive character of the current campaign. My soul is troubled.

That’s why I sympathize—but only in part—with people who hope that in their churches on Sunday mornings they will find respite from politics. Instead of hearing more of the distortions and character assassinations that seem to be the nature of today’s political discourse, they want to be renewed in faith and once again be brought close to the eternal Spirit of Love at the center of the Christian faith.

Some preachers, however, resist this temptation to do the safe thing, which is to leave politics outside and preach only on the sublime truths of religion. Instead, they persist in connecting faith and public life. Here’s how one preacher explains the practice:

Ministers can’t help themselves. It’s an occupational hazard that goes back, not just through American history, but biblical history, too. Clergy feel called to speak the truth to the real situations of the day. You might like the truth. You might not like the truth. But that’s what ministers are called to do. And it doesn’t come from the authority of a church or a council or an employment agreement. It comes from a deeper place of faith. That’s why ministers speak.

This statement comes from a sermon by Scott Colglazier, senior pastor of First Congregational Church in Los Angeles. On the four Sundays of August, while the nation was preparing for the two political conventions, he preached a series of four sermons on the general theme, Politics and God.

The titles are provocative enough: The Separation of Church and State (And Why Every Christian Should Support It); God (And Other Liberals); God (And Other Conservatives); Dear Mr. President: One Letter from One Minister.

The sermons do not disappoint. The preacher speaks forthrightly about the liberal American political tradition in the light of a faith that is rooted in the message that was at the center of Jesus’ ministry:

Think about it… when he gave his first sermon in a Jewish synagogue, he claimed that the Spirit of the Lord was upon him, and that he was here to bring good news to the poor. He was here to bring release to the captives. He was here to bring sight to the blind. And he was here to liberate all who were oppressed. And he also said he was here to establish a year of Jubilee, and a year of Jubilee meant a year when old debts would be released and people would finally get out from under the crushing weight of all those student loans!

In his third sermon, Colglazier states his belief that a genuinely conservative quality also belongs to the Christian message.

So, is God a conservative? Well, in a way, the answer is yes. There is a part of God that never changes, like a great mountain that slopes down to the restless sea. God’s love for the broken spirit? That never changes. God’s desire for justice? That never changes. Just as in our democracy, “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” should never change.

Although Colglazier draws upon the Bible to support his point of view (especially in the second sermon), he also draws extensively upon the American political tradition, including Roger Williams and Thomas Jefferson.

Colglazier does more than proclaim these ideas in a broad, general way. He moves directly into public policy discourse, for example, commenting on Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society and the current debate over health care. It is easy enough to see where the preacher’s personal sympathies lie, but he successfully (as I read and listen to these sermons) avoids taking an explicitly partisan view. There’s no advice about who to vote for or which way to vote on healthcare or banking legislation (or any other issue that confronts the electorate today).

If more preachers were preaching like this, the political discourse on TV might be better. I might even pay attention, once again, to what the politicians and commentators are saying.

Note: Colglazier appends this “personal word” to each of the sermons in this series: “I think it’s safe to say that everything I learned about church and state, politics and God, can be attributed in one way or another to my friend, Dr. Forrest Church, who passed away a few years ago. Simply stated, he is behind every word of this sermon.”

The image of Paul preaching to the city is a detail from a Povey window at First Christian Church, Portland, Oregon.