This weekend will see the flourish of red, white, and blue return as Independence Day festivities fill the streets. No other symbol has been more emblematic of our country’s independence than the American flag. Unfurled and waving in the breeze, the primary colors usually invoke national pride and liberation. The American flag had an altogether different meaning for Samuel Battle, the New York Police Department’s first black cop, during the beginning of his career as in 1911. In a working environment where his fellow white officers wanted him gone, it meant isolation, as Arthur Browne shows in his biography,One Righteous Man: Samuel Battle and the Shattering of the Color Line in New York:
Battle’s work chart scheduled his first reserve duty for midnight to 8 a.m. on the Thursday after he started patrol. Finishing a four-to-twelve night shift, he was to sleep in the stationhouse with a platoon on call in the event of an emergency. A dormitory was outfitted with a couple dozen bunks and was draped in the odors of overworked men, discarded shoes, soiled linens, and tobacco smoke.
Fetid air and all, the officers of the Sixty-Eighth Street stationhouse resolved that this was a whites-only domain. Cops carried a cot upstairs to a room on the second floor, where the precinct stored the American flag, and left the mattress and springs under Old Glory as the black man’s accommodations.
Equating science with atheism is one of the most dangerous byproducts of America's culture wars. This strange polarization portends disaster, as the country divides into factions that cannot find common ground on the way the world operates. And it goes without saying that there will be no agreement on what should be done when scientifically significant issues need political action.
In the book I show how Adam evolved from an obscure character in Jewish literature to the "Central Myth of the West," and now stands as an almost impenetrable barrier to millions of Christians accepting modern science.
Many Christians, unfortunately, believe their faith requires a "first man" who sinned and brought trouble on the world (feminists can thank two millennia of patriarchy for getting the "first woman" off the hook). The central Christian theme is "Creation-Fall-Redemption": God creates a perfect world; Adam "falls" by sinning, wrecks everything, and God curses the creation with death and suffering; and Christ redeems the world. In this picture Adam and Christ function as symmetrical "bookends": Adam breaks everything and Christ fixes it.
We embarked upon a journey to test whether two people could come to grips with deep, traumatic, historic wounds and find healing. We had no idea where we would end up.
I burst into tears in the parking lot of the Lowndes County Interpretive Center in rural Alabama. Tom and I were five days into the 6,000-plus mile healing journey that informedGather at the Table, the book we wrote about healing the many wounds Americans inherited from the legacy of slavery. We had just crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma where, in March 1965, John Lewis (now a 15-term U.S. congressman) and more than 600 protesters tried to begin a 54-mile march to Montgomery. On a day that came to be known as Bloody Sunday, Alabama state troopers confronted the peaceful marchers and viciously attacked them with billy clubs. I watched these events unfold on television as a 14-year-old child embraced in the warm comfort of my family home in Chicago.
My great-grandparents were enslaved in Lowndes County, Alabama, which is at the heart of the historic march route. They lived a lifetime of Bloody Sundays. My great-grandmother Rhoda Reeves Leslie was alive when I was a child. I knew her. I loved her. I had no concrete idea, until that very moment in the parking lot, what anguish she and other members of my family had suffered as slaves, and then as people who were terrorized by Jim Crow laws, disenfranchised from voting, and kept from becoming full citizens in the land of the free and the home of the brave. In 1965, there were zero black voters in Lowndes County because of voter suppression through poll taxes and intimidation. Even today, it is deeply impoverished. Tom's face morphed into a representation of all white people and everything they had done to people like me.
I didn't know what to say. So I said nothing. I sat in the passenger seat next to Sharon while she sobbed. Twenty minutes earlier, on the drive from the Voting Rights Museum, I had asked her, What would you do if you had lived here then?
I would kill them, she said, staring straight ahead as she drove, clutching the steering wheel in a death grip. I watched the first tear roll down her cheek.
I am often accused of being a Kumbaya kind of guy. I believe seriously in love and peace and want everybody to get along. I also believe that people are born with a basic sense of humanity that can enable them to changenot just themselves but the communities in which they live. I know Sharon shares that belief, but it is sometimes hard to keep the faith.
Rajeev Goyal was in the Kavre district of Nepal when the April 25 earthquake struck and has been involved in relief work since then. He and his team quickly mobilized and have distributed 2,000 waterproof tarps. When the second earthquake struck on May 12, he and his team were in the city of Kattike Deurali. They are all safe and intend to continue their relief efforts. Their goal is to give out 10,000 tarps to families hit hard the most in Kavre. Right now more than 40,000 families have lost their homes. More than 8,000 Nepalese have lost their lives.
The destruction of homes and deaths reminds Goyal of the terror of the Maoist War in Nepal. In 2001, the Peace Corps deployed him at Namje, a remote village in the eastern hills of Nepal, as a volunteer translator during the conflict. He chronicles his experiences in The Springs of Namje. The passage below recounts the harrowing environment he encountered when he arrived in Gaur, a town at the border of Nepal and India.
The moment the landing skids hit the ground, we were in a cloud of twirling dust. When the blades finally stopped whirring, it was so quiet that I imagined we were in some desolate location, but outside a thousand dark-skinned men, fresh after the kill, stood motionless, staring at us. Normally the site of a UN helicopter in a village would bring all the schoolchildren out, cheering and howling, but not on this day. We had landed at the site of unspeakable crimes in a Terai town, with the unfortunate name Gaur (pronounced like the English word gore), just a few kilometers from the Indian border.
“I hope you’re ready for this,” Lena Sundh whispered in my direction as her cloth shoe met the warm ground. As the country representative for the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), she had more than a vague sense of the horrors that lay ahead. The men parted and allowed her to pass as she made the slow walk toward the Gaur hospital. I zipped up my blue and white vest and scurried after Lena.
Video used by permission of The School District of Philadelphia. All rights reserved.
It’s the time of year when our newsfeeds are filled with posts highlighting the best commencement speeches of the season. This got us thinking about what Martin Luther King, Jr. might say to young people today who are heading into the next chapter of their lives; his speech “What Is Your Life’s Blueprint?” immediately sprang to mind. In it, Dr. King, speaking at Barratt Junior High School in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, encourages students to be the best people they can be, regardless of their status in life.
Now, you can watch this rarely seen film of that speech. Recorded on October 26, 1967, just six months before his assassination, Dr. King’s words will still resonate with young people today and encourage them to keep moving in the struggle for justice and make our nation a better place in which to live.
“I believe that if Dr. King were alive today, he would enlist an army of young people to help each other and America in the education process. He would trust them to bring their energy and sense of justice to end gang violence and to reverse the feeling of helplessness that hurts so many of our young people. He would keep marching against unjust laws, racism, war, and poverty. Dr. King made America a better place for all people to live during the turbulent years of the civil rights struggle. Using his insights, his courage in tackling difficult problems, and his loyalty to nonviolence both in action and in the language we use with each other, perhaps we can continue building the America he once thought possible. What do you think?”
My mother kind of freaked out when I told her about the proposal for Sex Workers Unite! I never thought of her as a prude. When I was growing up, she rarely seemed embarrassed about sexuality matters, and her several non-traditional relationships definitely influenced my critique of the whole white picket fence family idea. But for her daughter to write about prostitutes’ rights threw her for a loop.
There are huge stigmas against sex work. For my mother, who came of age after World War II when the sexual double standard was as popular as drive-ins and girdles, embracing the women’s movement and sexual liberation of the 1960s was a radical rejection of her parents’ protestant conservatism. As a feminist, she rejects the idea that a woman’s sexual history is evidence of her worth or her integrity.
But sex work and the sex industry are another matter. For her, women “shouldn’t have to” be prostitutes; women should have education and employment opportunities and enjoy wage equality and childcare. My mother is also a successful businesswoman, a pioneer in a field that had very few women when she entered it in the early 1970s, rife with sexism, harassment and even sexual violence. She’s a feminist because the movement was supposed to liberate women through economic independence so they didn’t have to exchange sex for money or other support.
I’m certain being in the spotlight for not wanting the PBS show Finding Your Roots to include mention of your slave-owning ancestor has been a real pain. The unwanted headlines, the online comments, the “Dear Ben” letters must be getting old. I’m sure you want this whole episode behind you. I get that: I’m related to the most successful transatlantic slave-trading dynasty in U.S. history.
I thank you for your honesty in admitting you were embarrassed. Many white people, upon discovering enslavers among our ancestors, feel embarrassed, ashamed, and guilty. But as I learned from Will Hairston, a white descendant of one of the wealthiest Southern enslaving families in American history, “Guilt is the glue that holds racism together.”
I appreciate you writing on your Facebook page, “We deserve neither credit nor blame for our ancestors and the degree of interest in this story suggests that we are, as a nation, still grappling with the terrible legacy of slavery. It is an examination well worth continuing.”
Yes it is. And I can tell you from personal experience that what you choose to do next to continue that examination is what matters now.
Twenty years ago, Beacon Press published Michel-Rolph Trouillot’s Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History. Whenever I’m asked to name my favorite Beacon book, I name this one without hesitation. It’s the kind of mind-expanding read that changes the way you look at public monuments, statues of leaders, national holidays, and the daily news. Trouillot wrote a book about the past that makes you see the present with fresh eyes. It cracks open the pat narratives we tell ourselves about our history, and it provides us with the tools to examine our taken-for-granted ideas about the workings of the world, our world, today.
Silencing the Past manages to do several things at once, and apart from the numerous insights Trouillot offers, what’s so impressive is that the book is never dull and pedantic. It’s a history of the Haitian Revolution, the first successful slave revolt in history, which the West has, from the start, failed to acknowledge. It’s a philosophy of history, an exploration of how silences enter the historical record. It’s a study of how power intersects with and influences knowledge. It’s partly an anthropological study of professional Western history as a guild. It’s a description, concretely illustrated, of how history is a process—one that academics and amateurs, painters, politicians, and the public are all involved in. It’s also a kind of grand narrative about what our grand narratives leave out. And through all of this headiness, Trouillot remains approachable and friendly, his voice clear and jargon-free. His insights are deadly serious, but he injects a touch of playfulness into the otherwise solemn proceedings.
In January 1965, a campaign for voting rightslaunched in Selma, Alabama. Escalating police attacks against nonviolent demonstrators culminated in the shooting of Jimmie Lee Jackson on February 18. He died eight days later. In response, on March 7 activists set out to march from Selma to the state capitol in Montgomery. The marchers crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge where they were met by a blockade of state troopers and local lawmakers. After refusing to disperse, the marchers were attacked with clubs and teargas. The event came to be known as “Bloody Sunday.” James Reeb (January 1, 1927—March 11, 1965) was among 40 Unitarian Universalist ministers who answered a call from Martin Luther King, Jr., for religious leaders to join him in Selma after the violent confrontation. On March 9, 400 religious leaders joined 2,000 African Americans to march over the bridge again to the site of the attack, where they kneeled and prayed before returning to Selma; the march had been cut short because of an order prohibiting it until protection could be provided to the marchers. That night, Rev. Reeb and two other UU ministers were attacked outside a whites-only restaurant. Rev. Reeb died two days later from his injuries. On March 21, a federally sanctioned march from Selma to Montgomery began. The march was limited to 300 people but swelled to 25,00 by the last day. On August 6, President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
This eulogy for the Reverend James Reeb was delivered by the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in Brown Chapel, Selma, Alabama, March 15, 1965.
And, if he should die, Take his body and cut it into little stars. He will make the face of heaven so fine That all the world will be in love with night.*
These beautiful words from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet so eloquently describe the radiant life of James Reeb. He entered the stage of history just thirty-eight years ago, and in the brief years that he was privileged to act on this mortal stage, he played his part exceedingly well. James Reeb was martyred in the Judeo-Christian faith that all men are brothers. His death was a result of a sensitive religious spirit. His crime was that he dared to live his faith; he placed himself alongside the disinherited black brethren of this community.
Seven years after the end of the Civil War, hundreds of African Americans in Baltimore gathered at historic Madison Street (Colored) Presbyterian Church for the purpose, “[O]f adopting measures to petition the Congress of the United States to tender the powerful mediation of this great government towards ameliorating the sad condition of a half million of our brethren now held in slavery in the island of Cuba by Spain.”S.R. Scottron, noted black inventor and a co-founder of the Cuban Anti-Slavery Committee, was the evening’s keynote speaker. He urged his enthusiastic audience to remember, “They had passed through the Egyptian bondage and through the sea of blood, and having become clothed in the habiliments of freedom, knew how to sympathize with the 500,000 of their own race bowed down in Cuba. The Cuban patriots were opposing wrongs as galling as those which adduced the American patriots to rise up against the oppression of Great Britain.” Scottron’s advice was that African Americans should “petition the government of the United States to extend a liberal policy to the colored race in Cuba. The 800,000 votes of the colored people here would have their weight in that direction.” After Scottron concluded his speech, church deacons circulated the petition for signatures.
Rev. Henry Highland Garnet
Less than a week later Scottron joined a delegation that included Rev. Henry Highland Garnet, George T. Downing, and J.M. Langston to present petitions to President Ulysses S. Grant signed by tens of thousands of African Americans and allies across the country in support of the resistance movement in Cuba. African Americans demanded that the US government grant belligerency status to the Cuban freedom fighters and also support the abolition of slavery on the island. The Cuban solidarity movement was a national phenomenon with organizing activities in cities including Sacramento; San Francisco; Virginia City, NV; New Orleans; Boston; Philadelphia; New York; Washington, DC; and many other places. Estimates of the number of signatures gathered in support of the struggle ranged from tens of thousands to as much as half a million.
President Obama’s forceful comments on the need for federal support of child-care programs were one of the most notable aspects of his recent State of the Union address. As he said, “It’s time we stop treating child care as a side issue, or a women’s issue, and treat it like the national economic priority that it is for all of us …. In today’s economy, when having both parents in the workforce is an economic necessity for many families, we need affordable, high-quality child care more than ever … [It is] a ‘must-have,’ and not a ‘nice-to-have.’”
As a longtime advocate for quality, accessible child care, I was heartened to hear these words at such a high-profile time. It occurred to me that it had been more than 40 years since a US president had so visibly addressed the child-care issue—and on that occasion, the message had been very different.
A depiction of one scene at Sand Creek by witness Howling Wolf
Stuck them on their hats to dry.
Their fingers greasy and slick.
—Simon Ortiz, from Sand Creek
A part of US Civil War history largely ignored, the Sand Creek Massacre, received national attention on its 150th anniversary when Colorado governor John Hickenlooper apologized for the atrocity that occurred on November 29, 1864.
On that date, John Chivington, an ambitious politician known as the “Fighting Parson,” led 700 members of the Third Colorado Volunteers in the grisly deed, attacking Cheyenne and Arapaho civilians who were restricted to a refugee camp near the military post of Fort Lyon in southeastern Colorado. Without provocation or warning, the Union army authorized militia attacked, leaving dead 105 women and children and 28 men. In its 1865 investigation, the Congress Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War recorded testimonies and published a report that documented the aftermath of the killings, when Chivington and his volunteers burned tepees and stole horses. After the smoke had cleared, they had returned and finished off the few surviving casualties while scalping and mutilating the corpses—women and men, young and old, children, babies. Then they decorated their weapons and caps with body parts—fetuses, penises, breasts, and vulvas—and back in Denver they displayed these trophies to the adoring public in Denver’s Apollo Theater and in saloons. Yet, despite the detailed report of the deeds, neither Chivington nor any of his men were reprimanded or prosecuted, signaling a free field for killing.
Martin Luther King, Jr. receives the Nobel Prize for Peace from Gunnar Jahn, president of the Nobel Prize Committee, in Oslo on December 10th, 1964.
Fifty years ago today, at the age of thirty-five, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, becoming at the time the youngest person to have received the award in history. Now, as civic unrest continues to flare up over the unjust deaths of Tamir Rice, Mike Brown, Eric Garner, John Crawford III, and too many others, it seems clear that Dr. King’s message of hope and resilience are as necessary now as ever before. “I refuse to accept the view,” King said in that acceptance speech, “that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality.” Later in the speech, he continued:
I believe that wounded justice, lying prostrate on the blood-flowing streets of our nations, can be lifted from this dust of shame to reign supreme among the children of men.
I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits. I believe that what self-centered men have torn down men other-centered can build up. I still believe that one day mankind will bow before the altars of God and be crowned triumphant over war and bloodshed, and nonviolent redemptive good will proclaim the rule of the land. “And the lion and the lamb shall lie down together and every man shall sit under his own vine and fig tree and none shall be afraid.” I still believe that we shall overcome.
This faith can give us courage to face the uncertainties of the future. It will give our tired feet new strength as we continue our forward stride toward the city of freedom. When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds and our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, we will know that we are living in the creative turmoil of a genuine civilization struggling to be born.
Fifty-nine years ago today, Rosa Parks was arrested in Montgomery, Alabama, for refusing to surrender her seat on a bus to a white passenger. The incident sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which, led by the young Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., brought a renewed urgency to the civil rights struggle. In an excerpt from The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks, Jeanne Theoharis traces the aftermath of Parks’s arrest and the lead-up to the bus boycott, and shows exactly what was at stake for Parks as she made the decision to let her arrest be used as the rallying point for a new movement.
After being escorted into city hall, Parks laughed to herself. “Who would have thought that little Rosa McCauley—whose friends teased her for being such a goody Two-shoes in her dainty white gloves—would ever become a convicted criminal, much less a subversive worthy of police apprehension, in the eyes of the state of Alabama?” Upon getting to the jail, she requested her phone call. Thirsty, she asked for water but was refused; the water was “for whites only.” “Can you imagine how it feels to want a drink of water and be in hand’s reach of water and not be permitted to drink?” Parks wrote later. Finally, a policeman brought her some water.
They asked her if she was drunk. She was not. She recalled not being “happy at all” or particularly frightened but found the arrest “very much annoying to me” as she thought of all the NAACP work she had to do.That evening she didn’t feel like history was being made but felt profoundly irritated by her arrest, which seemed a detour from the week’s more pressing political tasks.
She repeatedly asked for a phone call. Finally, she was allowed to telephone her family. Her mother answered and upon hearing that Rosa had been arrested, worriedly inquired, “Did they beat you?” Both her mother and Raymond were horrified to learn she was in jail, but Rosa assured her mother she had not been beaten. She then asked to talk to Raymond who promised to “‘be there in a few minutes.’ He didn’t have a car, so I knew it would be longer.”Home making dinner, Raymond was angry that no one had informed him of Rosa’s arrest.According to Rosa, “There was one man who was on the bus, he lived next door to where we lived, and he could have if he’d wanted to, gotten off the bus to let my husband know that I was arrested. My husband thinks kind of hard of him for not at least telling him.”
Thanksgiving is the favorite holiday of many US Americans; unlike the rather boring or divisive holidays that honor Columbus, Presidents, Martin Luther King, Jr., Independence, veterans and war, the birth of a religion, and a new year, Thanksgiving is centered on sharing food with family and friends. Individuals and families travel long distances at great expense to be with one another. It might be surprising to learn that the cherished tradition of Thanksgiving is, in fact, the most nationalist of all holidays because it narrates the national origin myth. The traditional meal, as we know, consists of the foods cultivated by Indigenous farmers—corn, squash, pumpkin, sweet potatoes, and turkey.
Berlin Wall from the West side on November 7, 1989 (All photos by Philip C. Winslow)
Between 2009 and 2011, journalist Philip Winslow offered us a dozen of his insightful “Observation Posts,” pieces which opened our eyes to international issues with original reporting. Over a career that has spanned more than thirty years, Winslow has reported on world events for the Christian Science Monitor, the Toronto Star, Maclean’s magazine, ABC radio news, CTV News, and CBC radio. He also served in two United Nations peacekeeping missions and worked for the UN in the West Bank for nearly three years. He is the author of two of our books: Victory For Us Is to See You Suffer: In the West Bank with the Palestinians and the Israelis and Sowing the Dragon’s Teeth: Land Mines and the Global Legacy of War. He has been living and working in Asia for several years. I’m delighted to welcome him back to Beacon Broadside with this remarkable remembrance of one of the most significant events of the past decades.
Reporters will recall few “news conferences” during their careers that yielded anything like exciting news. The ritualistic event commonly is staged to drum up publicity for one of these: a revelation everyone already knows (the latest iPhone); denial of wrongdoing (desperate celeb); confession of wrongdoing with weepy apology (ditto); or imminent government crackdown on something or other.
The short-notice summons to reporters by the rump government of the German Democratic Republic on the evening of November 9, 1989 was not mistaken for one of those. As dull as GDR routine news conferences could be, no Berlin-based correspondent was going to skip this one. But no one I knew predicted the drama that was about to unfold.
Visitors discover an exhibition in the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, in Warsaw. The museum officially opened last week.
I remember the confusion I felt when I visited my family’s town, Radomsko, on my first trip to Poland in the fall of 2000. What was I looking for? I had no idea. I didn’t know anybody there. My relationship to the town, where my mother’s family had lived for over a hundred years, had been obscured by time, emigration, and trauma.
In the Radomsko Regional Museum, located in the lovely historic town hall, I accompanied a guide past collections of pottery shards from archeological digs, displays of nineteenth-century butter churns, exhibits of roof thatching and farm implements.
There were photos of Radomsko citizens deported to Siberia under Russian rule, infantry helmets from the First World War, and gruesome pictures of Polish partisans from the town, standing in front of pits before their execution by German soldiers. Where was any mention of the town’s Jewish citizens, nearly 55% of the town before World War II, almost all of whom perished under the German occupation?
When Francine and David Wheeler lost their son Ben in the Sandy Hook tragedy nearly two years ago, one book they turned to for guidance was Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. Speaking with Oprah Winfrey last year, David Wheeler said he connected with Frankl’s message because “so much of what he writes resonates with me . . . . Because man’s salvation—and he means that not only in the religious sense, but actual survival—is found in and through love.” The Wheelers were able to take that spirit of love, and turn it into force that nurtured them through immense grief. It is a story as powerful as it is familiar to followers of Frankl’s teachings.
Fifty-five years after the original US publication of Man’s Search for Meaning, Frankl’s timeless wisdom has helped generations of readers cope with hardship and overcome adversity, and his life-affirming vision continues to resonate today. In 1991, the book was listed by the Library of Congress as one of the top ten most influential books in the US, while more recently, Amazon listed it as one of its 100 Books to Read in a Lifetime. Writing in The Atlantic, Emily Esfahani Smith notes that Frankl, an Austrian Jew who survived a prolonged ordeal in Auschwitz and other Nazi concentration camps, devised wisdom there, “in the middle of unimaginable human suffering, [that] is just as relevant now as it was then.”
Boston’s first Italian American mayor, Thomas M. Menino, addresses a crowd at Faneuil Hall. (Courtesy of Pam Donnaruma and the Post-Gazette)
It was with great sadness that we received the news today of Mayor Tom Menino’s passing. An enormously popular public servant, Menino was not only Boston’s first Italian American mayor but would become its longest-serving mayor in history. To remember him, we’d like to present the following passage from The Boston Italians, Stephen Puleo’s tribute to the vibrant Italian American citizens of Boston who, like Menino, transformed the city around them. First published in 2007, some of Puleo’s facts might seem dated, even poignant in hindsight, but we think it captures the spirit of Mayor Menino, a man who ushered Boston from the troubles of the last century and into the promise of the new millenium.
An enormous mural in Mayor Tom Menino’s outer office virtually covers one wall and beckons visitors to study its details. Painted by Menino’s cousin, the scene depicts the mayor’s grandfather sitting in his Italian village, awaiting passage to America. Across a wide body of water that dominates the painting is the skyline of an American city, its shores a two-week voyage away in real life but just a few inches away on the canvas. The mayor describes the painting with pride; it is, he says, the beginning of the Menino story in the United States. Without Thomas Menino’s monumental decision to leave Grottaminarda, Avellino, and travel to a strange country, his grandson would never have had an opportunity to make his own special history in Boston. Thomas Menino settled in Boston’s Hyde Park section, at the far western corner of the city, a neighborhood his grandson still cherishes and lives in today, and from which he built the political base that has enabled him to lead the city for more than a dozen years.
One thing I had noticed about the academic study of religion is that scholars invariably study their own. I do not just mean that Mormons write books about Mormons or Catholics about Catholics. It goes deeper than that: mainline Protestants typically observe people much like themselves, as do Orthodox Jews. My membership in none of the above, it turned out, had given me something of an academic advantage. I may have lacked the insights that come from lifelong involvement with one particular faith. But in return I was widely viewed as someone writing about religion with no particular axe to grind. When a referee was needed, there I was. Those I studied generally treated me as an outsider but also as one making a special effort to understand them. Far from feeling excluded from their world, I felt, if anything, a bit wary about the warm embrace they offered.
Yet the fact that I had spent so much time among deeply religious Christians made me increasingly aware of two ways in which my differences with them were insurmountable: I was Jewish by background and nonreligious by conviction. For me, the two had always been intertwined. My parents were not themselves religious, nor for that matter strongly committed to any ideology. (I recall my father telling me that when he grew up, everyone he knew was either a socialist, a communist, or a Zionist, but that he had managed to avoid all such identification.) Nonetheless my parents felt Jewish enough to arrange a bar mitzvah for me, and so without much conviction on their part or mine, I did my religious duty at the age of thirteen. That has pretty much been it. I do at times read the Old Testament—the prophets in particular appeal to me—but I cannot say that the angry God pictured therein is one I find especially attractive. It is not just that I have a hard time envisioning God creating the world and then meddling with it when we human beings displease him. The religious side of Judaism is as much about practice as it is about belief, and even in this realm I feel no urge to honor the tradition by following rules that at best seem arbitrary and at worst absurd. Although I know my share of rabbis, and even though I admire their learning and commitments to social justice, I cannot bring myself to regularly attend the synagogues of any of American Judaism’s major branches. The only times I enter a shul are when I am invited to speak in one. I study religion but do not practice it, not even the one in which I was ostensibly raised.