By John Rieping | All rights reserved | Previously published November 24, 2012, in The Madera Tribune
On our national day of thanksgiving, I reluctantly watched a cartoon on the journey of the English émigrés, the pilgrims, who sought religious freedom by settling in North America. While I love cartoons, I am unfamiliar with the newer Peanuts animated television specials and they clash with my nostalgia for the older ones.
Repeatedly the character Linus, who has always been the idealist, responded to the worries of friend Charlie Brown by urging him to “have faith.” After the second or third time, I wondered: have faith in what?
It reminded me of a feel-good song from the 1998 cartoon “Prince of Egypt,” which told the story of Moses (Moshe) and the liberation of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt. After the movie’s climax, pop stars Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston triumphantly sang, “There can be miracles when you believe.” The other lyrics of the song implied it was belief in one’s self, not God, that mattered.
Even in cartoons about religious people, God seems to be the twin of the fictional villain Lord Voldemort of the Harry Potter children’s novel series. It seems God too is “He Who Must Not Be Named.”
For those who don’t know U.S. history, Thanksgiving Day was established by our government as a national holiday to give thanks to You Know Who for the blessings and gifts received throughout the year. Next Sunday marks a time with an even deeper history however. Within a week begins the traditional Christian season of “Advent,” which is from the Latin for “coming” (adventus). The following weeks are a time to remember the long wait of humanity for a promised savior as well as a time to prepare our own hearts to welcome God anew. Let us Christians do so with thankful hearts.
From Oak to Acorn
A local fast food clerk once asked my dad where he was from. My dad replied, “Germany.”
She persisted, “No, what country do you come from?”
My dad repeated, “Germany.”
“Oh,” she said disappointedly, “I thought you were from someplace in Europe.”
My family dates back at least to the 12th century at Vorhelm in western Germany when a forebear sold himself to the local bishop to avoid being drafted for war duty. After the war ended he bought his freedom. In 1812, the Rieping homestead had to quarter French troops because it was on the supply route during Napoleon Bonaparte’s invasion of Russia.
About 1929 my grandfather Heinrich asked for his inheritance early and moved his young family of four to Klein Karlshoeh in Silesia, now western Poland. There my family suffered again from war when Adolf Hitler followed in France’s footsteps by invading Russia. Drafted into service, my uncle Hugo and his horse stepped on a mine during the attack on Stalingrad in Nov. 1942. He’d turned 19 only days before.
My father Josef, the eighth of 11 children, had a mischievous streak like myself. At age 6, he found a naturally hollowed tree in the woods near his home. Discovering the inside resembled a chimney, he lit a fire within. Nazi soldiers spied the smoke and, suspecting the worst, soon arrived. Josef fled and evaded the soldiers in the woods for hours before escaping home late that night.
When Josef returned home, he expected to be punished for extreme lateness. But after hearing the truth my strict grandfather proudly praised him and made sure he ate before going to bed. At the time my dad was confused at this unusual leniency. He later realized my grandparents feared to openly criticize the Nazi government, which encouraged children to report their parents to school authorities and punished dissenters harshly.
Around 1945, Russian soldiers came asking for my grandfather Heinrich. My grandmother Helene used the excuse that she was washing dishes to send my 8-year-old father to lead the soldiers to her husband, who was in the fields raking hay. My dad obeyed, and the soldiers took Heinrich away to a prison camp. As a large landowner, my grandfather was guilty of being influential in a tiny community.
That summer, at the urging of a Catholic priest, Helene fled west with her eight children; the youngest was only 3. Josef turned 9 during the trek. After bribing a border guard not to shoot for five minutes, the family made it across a kilometer-wide “no man’s land.” The story of my family would continue, and would lead across an ocean and a continent to California.
How do you compress an oak tree into an acorn? God does it every autumn, and in the same way the sum of a family’s history is written in you and I. All of us are a product of the past, and that is why history is important.
By John Rieping | All rights reserved | Previously published November 10, 2012, in The Madera Tribune
For months I’ve been pondering the nature and effects of power. For example, could a superhero with a quantum tunneling ability, like fictional comic book character Kitty Pryde who can pass through walls, penetrate someone else’s force field?
This particular philosopher is also a nerd.
I’ve been writing my own role play game, which is a kind of collaborative storytelling akin to childhood “let’s pretend” or “cops and robbers.” At the request of a 12-year-old nephew, my game has a superhero theme.
Classic role play games require people to talk, roll dice, and imagine choices and outcomes in a fictional world. In a world of electronic distractions and borderline illiteracy, such games are understandably a microscopic niche.
Nonetheless, one advantage old fashioned role play games can have over video games is a stronger sense of agency.
In game theory, the word “agency” refers to the control a game’s player feels he or she has over what happens in the game. Players generally want the power to act as they wish. Yet a maker of a game is unable to foresee every choice a player might want to make. So a game usually tries to create an illusion of agency in which a player doesn’t notice or feel held back by the practical limitations of the game.
The prototype of my role play game enhances the illusion of agency by directly sharing the power to shape the fictional world with the players instead of centering power in the rules or a single game “master.” Whenever players succeed at an in-game task, for example, they decide the consequences.
One could argue that democracies also try to maintain an illusion of agency. We say “every vote counts” and yet that can be a weak consolation after losing in an election.
A Catholic Frenchman later considered the father of political science visited the U.S. in the early 1830s on a royal mission to examine our prison system. While he did submit a report on that topic, Alexis de Tocqueville mostly used his two years of journeys here to explore our nation instead, and published his reflections in his now classic book, “De la démocratie en Amérique” (“Democracy in America”).
While he viewed the U.S. very positively, he did warn of a possible seed of unchecked tyranny within our system itself. Here, he noticed, the will of the majority not only dominates socially but also politically. So if the wishes of the majority were ever to become unjust there would be no escape.
He wrote, “If an individual or a party is wronged in the United States, to whom can he apply for redress? If to public opinion, public opinion constitutes the majority; if to the legislature, it represents the majority and implicitly obeys it; if to the executive power, it is appointed by the majority and serves as a passive tool in its hands. The public force (that is, law enforcement and military) consists of the majority under arms; the jury is the majority invested with the right of hearing judicial cases; and in certain states even the judges are elected by the majority. However iniquitous or absurd the measure of which you complain, you must submit to it as well as you can.”
He called such a hypothetical situation the “tyranny of the majority” and the “omnipotence of the majority.”
For those unhappy with the results of our most recent election, I think it must be pointed out that we do not yet have such a situation that de Tocqueville warned of to contend with. Instead we have, in many cases, a nation of two minds and evenly divided between them.
Moreover, whether we rejoiced in the results of Tuesday’s vote or not, we should be humbled by the reminder of the unreliability of human choice. For if others can seemingly err so strongly in our eyes, we should not forget that so can we, and we do. As De Tocqueville noted, “God alone can be omnipotent, because his wisdom and his justice are always equal to his power.” It is not so with us.
So what now? Let those of us who claim to be Christians follow the words of the apostle Paul, who wrote: “I strongly encourage that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men ― for kings, and for all those who hold authority ― that we may lead a quiet and peace-loving life in all godliness and honesty.” (1 Timothy 2:1-2).
I won't have a religion column in my local newspaper this week. I spent a good chunk of my free time this week wrestling with a new installation of Windows 8 and its second incarnation after the first one committed suicide. I also squandered time on writing a psychology essay on introversion and extroversion, and other such ab-nerd-ities. My apologies. Next week I hope to get back on track. I am grateful for the blessing of the mid-week Mass for the solemn holy day of All Saints Day. God is good, even when I'm less than such. May God bless you all.