By John Rieping | Published 1 Oct 2014 in The Madera Tribune | All rights reserved |
The hot and sunny summer of 1793 had been good for the harvest in France, a country troubled by foreign and civil war, but tough for the millers, who lacked water to power their trade.
Hunger and fear met in the metropolis of Paris when news came of the surrender of the port city of Toulon to the British. Many were frustrated. More than four years of liberal revolution had not conquered poverty or inequality as promised. Parisians protested, occupying the hall of the French National Convention on Sept. 5 and petitioning for emergency measures.
The legislators responded and a “Reign of Terror” began that day to “protect” the nation and bring “salvation” to the people. When the campaign against accused traitors ended on July 28, the Revolutionary Tribunal had formally executed about 16,594 people in France and another 25,000 without even a fair trial, according to Dr. Marisa Linton of Kingston University and Donald Greer of Cambridge. Others died in custody or were lynched.
Criticizing the government once, if overheard by an informer, could send a man and his family to the then state-of-the-art guillotine for beheading. The accused were not allowed to say a word in self-defense. Most who died were common people, not aristocrats or the wealthy. Some were fellow revolutionaries.
“If the spring of popular government in time of peace is virtue, the springs of popular government in revolution are at once virtue and terror: virtue, without which terror is fatal; terror, without which virtue is powerless,” said French revolutionary leader Maximilien Robespierre in a speech February 5, 1794, justifying the government’s tactics. “Terror is nothing other than justice, prompt, severe, inflexible...
“It has been said that terror is the principle of despotic government. Does your government therefore resemble despotism? Yes, as the sword that gleams in the hands of the heroes of liberty resembles that with which the henchmen of tyranny are armed.”
France would be liberated, equal and fraternal — whatever the cost.
Particularly targeted was an institution considered an enemy to enlightenment and progress — the Catholic Church. On July 12, 1790, the Civil Constitution of the Clergy closed the last legal loopholes for church property and monastic orders, legislating them out of existence. It also reduced the number of bishops from 135 to 83 and required clergy to swear an oath of loyalty to the government.
Only five bishops and half of the clergy agreed.
Violence grew against those who went to Mass and nuns who would not abandon their consecrated life. Reaction was not always peaceful. Some believers didn't turn the other cheek. The campaign escalated.
Priests who would not swear loyalty were banned from preaching in February 1791, and all such priests were considered suspect and arrested after a Nov. 29th decree. Countless priests died of harsh conditions in chains on prison ships in French harbors.
In 1793, the government replaced the days and months of the Gregorian Calendar, such as Sunday, with a new calendar featuring a 10-day week with a day of rest and festivity at its end.
By the time of the Reign of Terror, the government would establish an atheistic and human-centered Cult of Reason and a deistic Cult of the Supreme Being in attempts to de-Christianize the nation. For a nationwide Festival of Reason, churches across France were transformed into Temples of Reason.
Far worse happened at the docks of Nantes.
From Nov. 1793 to Feb. 1794, around 4,000 or more Catholic priests, nuns, and families — including women and children — were drowned in the Loire. Or as Jean-Baptiste Carrier, member of the Revolutionary Committee of Nantes, called it: “vertical deportation.” More than 2,000 were also executed by firing squad at a nearby quarry.
Ten months after it started, the government would end its bloody Reign of Terror. Five years later, it would fall to the dictatorship of military genius Napoleon Bonaparte, who dreamt of empire. With his defeats, the revolution at last lost its final champion.
Yet, despite it all, Christianity remained.
“During a frustrating argument with a Roman Catholic cardinal, Napoleon Bonaparte supposedly burst out: 'Your eminence, are you not aware that I have the power to destroy the Catholic Church?' The cardinal, the anecdote goes, responded ruefully: 'Your majesty, we, the Catholic clergy, have done our best to destroy the church for the last 1,800 years. We have not succeeded, and neither will you.' ” (Ross Douthat, New York Times, March 28, 2010)
By John Rieping | Published 8 March 2014 in The Madera Tribune | All rights reserved |
Earlier this week, an Internet meme amused me.
In its first of two panels, the image showed the faces of the characters of the classic movie "Star Wars" -- robot C-3PO, Jedi master Obi-Wan Kenobi, and young Luke Skywalker -- as they stared ahead. Below them was the film quote, "You'll never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy."
The second panel showed the characters from behind, but the panorama before them was not Mos Eisley space port on the planet of Tatooine. Instead it showed the U.S. Congress in session.
I shared it online with a friend, who commented she was coming to agree with its sentiments more and more. Dangerously, her words made me reflect, and I realized I could not embrace the meme's cynicism.
Power may indeed tend to corrupt, as British historian Lord Acton proposed in 1887, but that doesn't necessarily mean that all politicians are dishonest and unjust.
A long time ago in our very own galaxy, the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BC) considered political theory to be a branch of the philosophy of ethics. By ethics, humanity aspires to happiness by a life of virtue, he taught, and by politics we cultivate virtue in a people so it may be happy.
Such thinking is not so distant from us. After all, some of our laws clearly exist to discourage and punish behavior our U.S. society views as bad, whether it be voyeurism or bribery. When our morality shifts, the laws of our democracy often belatedly follow, and sometimes the other way around.
Late in February, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder reminded me anew of the connection between politics and ethics with his justification for President Barack Obama and himself refusing to uphold laws they consider wrong. Elsewhere, more than a handful of state attorneys general, fellow Democrats, have also abandoned their similar sworn duty.
In the latter cases, the issue revolves around constitutional amendments or laws limiting the definition of marriage to one man and one woman.
Attorneys general must resolve, Holder said, "not merely to use our legal system to settle disputes and punish those who have done wrong, but to answer the kinds of fundamental questions -- about fairness and equality -- that have always determined who we are and who we aspire to be, both as a nation and as a people."
In short, Holder, Obama and others are following their consciences, like many brave souls in history have also done in the face of what they see as unfair laws.
It is an unexpected stance from members of an administration that on Feb. 18, 2011, rescinded many existing conscience protections for medical workers, who previously were allowed to refuse to offer services that violated their morals or religious beliefs.
No longer would federal law allow pharmacists to say no to prescriptions for abortifacient drugs, a doctor to decline to treat a lesbian for infertility, or an ambulance driver to reject taking a woman to an abortion.
While the U.S. president and attorneys general follow their hearts, the unelected citizen has been told that the law trumps their convictions.
The award-winning play and movie "A Man for All Seasons" dramatizes the true tale of Sir Thomas More, the high-ranking chancellor of England during the 16th-century reign of King Henry VIII. Ultimately More would be executed rather than deny his conscience and accept the king's claim to be the spiritual head of Christianity in England.
In the drama, More's future son-in-law, Will Roper, urges him to detain a man openly willing to betray More for profit, but he will not: "Go he should if he were the Devil himself until he broke the law!"
This outrages Roper, who thinks laws should be ignored when dealing with evil people.
More replies with equal passion: "What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil? ... And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you -- where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws from coast to coast, Man's laws, not God's, and if you cut them down -- and you're just the man to do it -- do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake!"
Whether in theater or history, More embodies the paradox of deep respect for both law and conscience. May God raise up more such politicians.
By John Rieping | Published 14 Feb. 2014 in The Madera Tribune | All rights reserved |
Contrary to my usual sloth, I drove to a cinema on the last weekend of January. Lest anyone yawns, realize I last did so for “The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey” in 2012. My own trek involved no dwarves or dragons, but it did have more drama than expected.
As is my tendency, I failed to notice the steady march of the clock until only just enough time remained to reach the matinee of “Gimme Shelter.” I rushed out of my apartment, accidentally selected the wrong destination on my GPS navigator’s touch screen, and impatiently chose a new one.
My sub-compact car sped down State Route 99 and I arrived minutes before showtime — at the Police Science Institute in Fresno, California. Apparently my hasty fingers had erred twice.
“Better late than not at all,” I thought.
I redirected my GPS device and followed its advice across Fresno’s surprisingly busy afternoon streets. At the multiplex, lines of people extended like fingers from the box office, which had lost connection to its computer network. After a wait, I bought my ticket and hurried through a nearby open door, which a security guard soon informed me was the wrong one. Out I went, then back in.
I sprinted to the darkened cave where “Gimme Shelter” lit a wall in front of invisible tiers of seats. I groped up stairs and down a row of feet I stepped on to finally slouch into a seat. My self-contentment at my patience and determination to support an exceptional film would quickly be broken by two women on my left.
“Another door closes,” one of them said repeatedly in a loud sing-song tone.
A glance revealed both were adults, one older than I, and the “mockery” kept flowing out. No one else spoke up, so indignantly I scolded them about theater behavior. The elder nodded without upset and they left. It was only then I figured out her 20-something companion had the mind of a child. I had completely misunderstood.
I shed tears about more than the movie during the next two hours.
How often we see what we presume rather than what is present, especially when stressed. This bias extends far beyond encounters with strangers.
In the fantasy novel “The Truth,” author Terry Pratchett writes, “Be careful. People like to be told what they already know. Remember that. They get uncomfortable when you tell them new things. New things... well, new things aren’t what they expect... because the world is not supposed to happen like that. In short, what people think they want is news, but what they really crave is olds... Not news but olds, telling people what they think they already know is true.”
I hope such a mistake explains the unacceptable behavior Feb. 5 by the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child.
I refer not to its accusation of a conspiracy of silence about Catholic clergy misconduct and resultant harboring of abusers. This old claim ignores reality. Anyone involved in this area knows of the church’s efforts to clarify its policies and to add strong safeguards for children. I saw firsthand these sincere and extensive changes from the inside, so-to-speak, as a seminarian and a Benedictine monk (temporary vows only) as well as later as a volunteer in youth ministry.
I refer not to committee claims that the Holy See promotes violence against homosexuals or their children. The Vatican has explicitly condemned “all forms of violence against homosexual persons” (apostolic nuncio to the UN, Archbishop Celestino Migliore, 2008) on multiple occasions. “The Catechism of the Catholic Church,” paragraph 2358, teaches “they must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity.”
No, I refer to recommendations that the Catholic Church contradict its long-standing teachings on the dignity of the human person, including those involving sexuality and abortion. Such an attack on religious liberty is outrageous.
However we Christians must never forget what our freedom is for.
“Religious liberty is a foundational right. It’s necessary for a good society,” said Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput in 2012. “But it can never be sufficient for human happiness. It’s not an end in itself. In the end, we defend religious liberty in order to live the deeper freedom that is discipleship in Jesus Christ.”
Let us correct errors and stand up for our rights — but with love. If we falter as I did at the theater, let us work on a better sequel.
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).
By John Rieping | All rights reserved | Previously published October 27, 2012, in The Madera Tribune
I mistook it for a misunderstanding based on poor grammar when I first heard about the controversy over Richard Mourdock, an Indiana Republican candidate running for the U.S. Senate.
During a debate Tuesday, he said, “I struggled with it myself for a long time, but I came to believe that life is that gift from God. And I think even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.”
The copy editor in me cringed at his unclear use of the word “it.” As a fellow Christian, I instinctively realized the first “it” referred to the issue of abortion and the second “it” to new life. The second "it" did not refer to rape. No Christian in his right mind believes God desires rape to happen.
I assumed that Mourdock’s poor grammar caused some to misinterpret his statement and the misunderstanding sparked justifiable outrage in Democratic and Republican politicians alike.
I guess I’m a bit naive.
Mourdock clarified and affirmed what he meant at a press conference Thursday, but by Wednesday some politicians had already made it clear they instead took offense at his belief that human life is always a gift from God.
“I don’t know how these guys come up with these ideas,” President Obama told talk show host Jay Leno after the host accurately paraphrased Mourdock’s comment.
Obama didn’t need to look any further than scriptures shared by Jew and Christian alike.
“Behold, children are a gift of the Lord, and the fruit of the womb is a reward from him.” (Tehillim/Psalm 127:3)
“For it was you (God) who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb… My frame was not hidden from you, when I was made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes beheld my embryo (in Hebrew, “golmi” or “golem”). In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed.” (Tehillim/Psalm 139:13, 15-16).
Similar messages can be found in the words of the Jewish prophets Jeremiah (1:5) and Isaiah (44:2) along with the complaints of Job (10:8-12).
Since when does such a basic Judeo-Christian belief disqualify a person from governmental office? Wait. Don’t answer. Apparently the answer is: now.
Efforts to denounce and politically isolate Mourdock continue.
While it is difficult to imagine a worse origin for a pregnancy than rape, would any Christian or Jewish politician claim God is responsible for the existence of some human life and not of others? Or that God values some humans but not others?
It seems the Great Recession was worse than we thought if even God’s unconditional love and omnipotence has been downsized.
It has long been said that after God created humanity in his own image we’ve been ever eager to return the favor. But I agree with the great African bishop Augustine (AD 354-430) who said: “If you comprehend it, it is not God.” Or as John, an apostle of Jesus, wrote in a letter: “God is greater than our hearts.” (Cf. 1st John 3:20)
In 2007, Jonathan Torgovnik, a photojournalist for Newsweek magazine, co-founded the nonprofit Foundation Rwanda after hearing firsthand of the terrible hardships of women who had birthed children from rapes committed during the 1994 Rwandan genocide. A few of their stories can be read on its website, www.foundationrwanda.org. Don’t expect uplifting tales with happy endings.
An estimated 20,000 children resulted from rape during the genocide.
One woman, Stella, says of her son, “He is my life. He is the only life I have. I love him. I like him. He is my only kid. If I did not have him, I don’t know what I would be.”
Another woman, Valentine, shared how she favored her firstborn girl, born of marital love, over her violently-conceived daughter, who she initially felt no affection towards at all. When the second baby cried she would ignore her. “But,” she said, “slowly I am beginning to also appreciate that this other one is innocent.”
Nevertheless the precious hearts of these women are nothing compared to that of God, who promised through the prophet Isaiah: “Can a woman forget the baby nursing at her breast? Will she have no compassion on the child of her womb? Yea, they may forget, yet will I not forget you.“ (Isaiah 49:15).
I think the above video on the controversial Health and Human Services mandate in the U.S. speaks for itself. :)
By John Rieping | All rights reserved | Previously published August 3, 2012, in The Madera Tribune
The talented musician, Ludwig, wanted little to do with the Catholic Church or its priests, which isn’t completely surprising.
The archbishop of Cologne ruled his birthplace, Bonn, within the Holy Roman Empire of the 18th century. Only two centuries before, a religious and political conflict — the Cologne War — devastated the Electorate of Cologne.
The war began because an archbishop, never known for priestly character, resolved to marry an attractive nun without renouncing his princely position. The pair had a love affair for two years before Archbishop Gebhard von Waldburg announced his conversion “to the light” on Dec. 19, 1582.
His switch from Catholicism to the teachings of John Calvin, a French pastor and theologian, upset the delicate balance of power between Protestants and Catholics in the Holy Roman Empire. The archbishop of Cologne was one of the seven imperial governors who elected future emperors. Previous converts had resigned from office to avoid bloodshed, but Gebhard did not.
So it was that, with the future of the empire at stake, Protestants and Catholics fought for five years with the support of co-believers and mercenaries from elsewhere. Villages disappeared, and the formerly richest region of the empire would be ruined economically.
By the 18th century, life had become normal again. But such recent history hardly inspired trust. Moreover, Ludwig had a passion for more than beautiful music in the major city of Vienna. Prostitutes and young female students would also occupy the elegantly dressed musician’s time.
If he was in a church, it was for the music.
There were exceptions, such as when his mother — the only family member he had a loving bond with — died at 41 in July 1787 of tuberculosis and poor nutrition. His father surrendered more deeply to alcoholism, and Ludwig had to petition to become head of the household — at the age of 19.
His parents had seven children, but only three boys had survived. Ludwig took seriously his responsibility for his two younger brothers. Once when he discovered one cohabiting with an employee, he demanded they marry or he would report them to the authorities. They did so.
A decade later, his own life would change further after he was diagnosed with syphilis, a common sexually-transmitted disease. Though the connection wasn’t known at the time, syphilitic meningovasculitis likely damaged a nerve in his head, and slowly caused deafness.
Fear of what people would think caused him to isolate himself from others to protect his secret. The society he loved was taken from him.
In 1815, his brother Kaspar died. He left behind a wife and son, Karl. On his deathbed, he had asked Ludwig — who never married — to be co-guardian of the 9-year-old boy. That relationship would be difficult and full of heartache and disappointments.
Yet, through his deafness and trials, Ludwig’s relationship with God did grow.
“What is to be done?” he wrote to a friend shortly before his death. “What is to become of me if this lasts much longer? Mine has indeed been a hard doom; but I resign myself to the decrees of fate, and only constantly pray to God… The Almighty will give me strength to endure my lot, however severe and terrible, with resignation to His will.”
During a thunderstorm, Ludwig von Beethoven would die of a cold surrounded by close friends on March 26, 1827. More than 10,000 attended his funeral in the church of the Holy Trinity. The deaf pianist is considered one of the greats of classical music.
Only God can judge anyone’s soul, but I think Ludwig gained wisdom through suffering.
For artists, in particular, he urged: “Don’t only practice your art, but force your way into its secrets. For it and knowledge can raise men to the divine.”
What does he mean? The medieval Christian thinker Thomas Aquinas argued that God is the supreme Beauty, and all that exists reflects that beauty to some degree. Furthermore God is not only the ultimate cause of all beauty; God continues to “pulchrify” (beautify) creation, and God’s creatures participate in divine beauty when they accept and cooperate with God’s light.
Such divine beauty not only pleases the senses but also enlightens the mind. “The eyes and ears of our soul,” Aquinas wrote, “enable our vision to see the transcendent beauty present ontologically in all being.”
Ludwig apparently agreed. Like many throughout history, he discovered that beauty and truth, at their best, can both grant us glimpses of God, and they are worth suffering for.