Monday, July 15, 2013

What about the working poor?

Written in 2003 and posted elsewhere, links were good at the time

There is a page called the Global Rich List that lets you enter your annual income, click a button, and learn where you sit on the global pile of dough. I learned that I am the "44,982,565 richest person in the world."

The explains its methodology via a link at the bottom of the page; its results page is a plea for contributions to CARE International.

In 1999 a local paper profiled a family in Nashville, the family of Tommy Slush. He lived with his wife and two daughters in a mobile home in a trailer park. Tommy has had a steady job for thirty years. His employer praised Tommy's work ethic as one of the strongest he has ever seen. Tommy often worked double shifts as an assistant pressman at Ambrose Printing and Office Supply. He makes four hundred and twenty-five dollars per week. His wife and oldest daughter work also.

The Slush family is part of the "working poor," people who are one step away from poverty. The working poor don't ever sit in fifty dollar seats at Titans games or take weekend trips down to Destin. For Tommy Slush and his family, a dinner at Ponderosa is a major excursion that they can afford maybe three or four times per year.

They are not on welfare. They just don't have a savings account because they have to spend all they make to pay for their home, their food, their clothing and their transportation.

If you input Tommy's $22,100 (1999) annual income on the Global Rich List page you discover that he is in the top 6.8% richest people in the world and his income ranks 408,329,049 in the world.

Here is a profile of American "working poor," defined "by scholars as families earning between 100 and 200% of the federal poverty levels." Understand that in 2001, the percentage of Americans living at or below the poverty level was 11.7 percent, “lower than in most of the last two decades” when "the rate exceeded 12 percent. “A family of four was classified as poor if it had cash income less than $18,104 last year.”

That means that analysts classify a family of four as "working poor" if they make between $18,000 - $36,000 per year. In some parts of the country, $36K would not be a lot, of course, but in most places a family of four can live okay on that amount if they practice good budgeting and wise spending. The linked report names some barriers that keep the working poor from moving to self-sufficiency. Three of them are key:

1. Their income does not increase from year to year, or barely keeps up with inflation

2. Babysitting is a major problem because many of the jobs they work have irregular or odd hours. And child care is expensive.

3. Reliable transportation is a problem.

To which I would add another important one: As a rule, the working poor are lousy personal financial managers with high consumer debt (so are a lot of higher income folks!) because they use credit cards to bridge cash-flow gaps. But that deepens their hole.

I'd like to introduce you to "Rhonda," a woman I spotted yesterday walking along a state road in the country, 50 yards from her flat-tired car. I pulled up, displayed my sheriff's department badge and credentials (I am a department chaplain) and asked whether I could give her a ride. She accepted.

She was en route from Murfreesboro, 30 miles distant, to my town of Franklin to appear in court appearance for a non-traffic misdemeanor charge. She was late, so I took her to the court and went in to verify her reason for lateness to the judge if necessary. It wasn't, but I hung around anyway.

Rhonda was in her mid-thirties, a single, welfare mom with a four-year-old daughter. She had no family in Tennessee, nor any real friends, being a fairly new resident to the area. She had lost her job last week (she had been a restaurant hostess) because no child care was available for her evening shift. She had been taking her daughter to work but management had let her go for that reason.

I had called the sheriff's dispatch and asked them not to tow her car if possible, but when thunderstorm moved in the deputy on patrol decided it had to go. Knowing the road, I can't blame him. But the tow charge would cost Rhonda $75, which she didn't have, and she'd still have to fix her tire.

The judge threw out the legal charge. Her public defender wrangled a deal with the tow operator and the sheriff's department that if the department called that tow company for the next tow, they'd not charge Rhonda. Everyone agreed, so that was a relief. The tow lot hosed enough air into her tire to get up the road a stretch to a a Marathon gas station that had a garage.

Marathon patched the puncture enough to get Rhonda to the Franklin Wal-Mart. She'd bought her tires at another Wal-Mart and said she had the hazard warranty. Wal-Mart replaced her tire free under warranty. While they did I drove Rhonda to Murfreesboro to pick up her daughter at Kindercare, who had told Rhonda on the phone that the girl could not stay late, period, even at extra cost. When we got back to Franklin her car was ready. She took her daughter and drove home. (Yes, I gave her some money.)

Rhonda wants to work. She named a long list of places she had applied to no avail. She has a paralegal degree, office-management skills and computer skills. She presents herself well, has a good vocabulary and was remarkably even tempered throughout the long day.

And there are thousands of women just like her. I don't have a solution, either.

The devil of it is that if she accepts a full-time job she will lose her welfare benefits. (If you think about it, it makes sense.) State-run welfare is paying her tuition at trade school plus a stipend, but only during the two semesters. The idea is that once she gets a trade certification, she can get a decnt job and stay off welfare permanently. I can't argue with the concept. But it's difficult to do.

That's the nutshell problem: babysitting or child care, low wages and generally unreliable transportation. But those are almost uniquely the problem of the American poor.
I know from personal experience overseas what non-US poverty really means - try visiting a Honduran family, as I have, who has a single-room sapling cabin (not a log cabin, a sapling cabin) with a dirt floor, no electricity, no medical care, two sets of homemade clothing, and whose total net worth consists of one cow and three chickens, which they bring into the cabin each night to keep the animals safe.

Spend some time in the Third World, away from the airport and cities, and you'll learn what poverty means to about a billion people.

Yet as a whole, the world's population is not really poor, especially by historical standards. According to economist Richard A. Esterlin in "The Worldwide Standard of Living Since 1800 (p. 23), published inJournal of Economic Perspectives, Winter 2000,

By most measures here, the rates of change in the less developed countries in the last half century have substantially exceeded those in the historical experience of western Europe. If there are limits to growth in the standard of living—an imminent stationary state—it is not evident in the historical record.
Indeed, Berkeley scholar J. Bradford DeLong writes that 25 years ago you could assert that the world's economic structure was not working. 
The difference in living standards, productivity levels, and life chances between rich and poor parts of the world was greater in 1975 than it had been in 1925, and vastly greater in 1975 than it had been in 1800.

Since 1975, however, we have turned a very important corner. As Yale economist T. Paul Schultz was the first (to my knowledge) to point out, since 1975 global inequality in personal incomes has not been rising but falling. Since 1975 the world has not only become a richer place, but the world's poor have seen their incomes grow faster than the world's rich.
And he asks excellent questions:
Why, then, has no one noticed? Why are our newspapers full of reports of growing economic gulfs between rich and poor in our world? And why are they full of reports of the crisis of a model of economic development that does not serve the interests of the world's poor?
The answer, he thinks, is because most of the improvement has taken place among the 2.5 billion people who live in only two countries, India and China, which have both freed their economies substantially from statist suffocation since 1975. Says DeLong, "Centrally-planned states have managed to invest more and grow faster for short periods only, and at immense and unacceptable human cost."

How can the remaining billion people of the world climb to higher standards? Well, this is a start, the work of pioneering Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto, who says that the world's poor people actually have trillions of dollars of assets, but lack personal property rights that are protected by law and preserved in systems of records.

It seems clear to me that the main causes of poverty in the world today are political, not material.

Endnote: The greatest engine of economic well-being in the West was the drive toward universal literacy, according to Esterlin. And the drive toward literacy was religious:

What one can say with some assurance is that the early 19th century differences cited above [in his paper - DS] are the product of trends that reach as far back as the 16th century, well before the onset of modern economic growth, trends that are connected in part to the  Protestant Reformation with its emphasis on the need for each individual to be able to read the Bible himself (Cippola, 1969; Easterlin, 1981; Melton, 1988; UNESCO, 1957).
This drive for every adherent of Christian faith to be able to read the Bible really began with Humanism in the 15th century. Erasmus, who strongly influenced Martin Luther, thought that the Scriptures should be accessible to all, rather than the property of the priesthood. Luther strongly agreed, and translated the Latin Catholic Bible into German for that reason. The printing press, recently invented then, made widespread literacy possible, but theology gave literacy its raison d'etre.

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Thursday, July 11, 2013

What do you put in church visitor packets or new welcome folders?

What do you put in your church visitor packet or new welcome folder?:

Justin – When we create Welcome Packets for churches we recommend including information about your beliefs, a list of ministries/opportunities your schedule of services, and pictures of your pastor/staff.

Deborah – Hi Chris, We ask for info such as: Are you just visiting or looking for a new home church, or have a prayer request.  Basic info, address, phone number etc. Would you like to be contacted by the pastor or home visit. Office hours, service and Sunday School times. Phone numbers etc.

Lawrence - The gospel of John, welcome notes with the pastor’s and church leader’s address and phone numbers to contact in case of needs, the church activities and motto.  A gift token and hope to see you again note with Jesus love you.

Matthew - When I was at one church we made a DVD that had people if church talking about the missions vision and values of the church. We also showed pictures and videos of other things we did in the community.

Christopher - Tracts, a contact information sheet, and a church events schedule for the current month.

Nodela  – We give our first time visitors gift bags that contain: visitors card to fill out and return, ministry brochure, church administrator business card, pen, pad, candy, monthly calendar, a thank you and invitation note card, prayer card written by my Bishop, a sermon CD and one of my Bishop’s books.  On the outside of the bag I place a portion of our mission statement. I then follow up with more information about our ministry and then a “hello” note card for those that do not have a church home. Many have been receptive of this method and pleasantly surprised to receive it. Some have come back and purchased additional CDs or DVDs.

Richard - I’m partial to the Pocket Testament League’s Gospels of John which have the plan of salvation on the first few pages. They’re especially good for New believers Packets.

John - We used to put in a magnet with the church’s name and address and church times for the fridge. Some good candies (Wurthers), a $5 gift card to Tim Horton’s ( or Starbucks for some of you), and a church pen (only use good quality), and a simple short relevant tract.

Nick - I wish churches would include the pastor’s theological positions so you can determine at the front end if you’re a good fit.

Tom - Our packet includes the Folded Cover with Welcome on front, Church Name & Location, Inside: Information card for visitor to fill out and a Thank you card is mailed later for visit.  Also, card inviting them to a Daily Telephone Scripture Message, A Bic Clic Stic pen.  Many churches give imprinted pens to their visitors.

Lisa - From the perspective of someone who has visited many churches, I appreciate when the packet includes a current church newsletter (so I’m aware of events), a statement of the policies of the church, a bulletin, a name tag, and a snack (one church I went to, Sts. Martha and Mary Episcopal Church in Eagan, MN, offered a snack of M & M’s, perhaps a play on its initials).

Michael - Besides the usual items describing the church, CD of the message and some fun things like coffee mugs and pens with the church logo and some goodies one church includes a $5.00 visa card so the visitor could buy gas for a return visit. This church also hand delivered the welcome packet to the home the next day after the first visit

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Sunday, July 7, 2013

How Jesus invented individual liberty

A free nation may be understood as one that is not under occupation or domination of another nation. In that sense the old Soviet Union was a free nation. But it was not was a nation of liberty.

Freedom is a political condition. Liberty or its lack is a way of life condition, the ability of a people to live their lives as they wish, with minimum assistance or interference from the state. America's Founders sought to bring forth both a country free of British occupation and a people living in liberty. As Lincoln later put it, America is "a nation conceived in Liberty." Liberty is enjoyed by persons, not by governments. A government may be free, but only persons can be in liberty.

The Declaration of Independence says that one of the unalienable rights of human beings is the right to the pursuit of happiness. No right to achieve it, only the right to pursue it. However philosophically the Founders may have conceived of happiness, they definitely understood that happiness is personal and that the nature of its pursuit was something for each man or woman to decide how best to achieve. That is what liberty means. Our Founders knew that public liberty required private virtue and that liberty did not mean there should be no restraints, but that’s a topic for another day.

My thesis is that the entire idea of individual liberty was invented by Jesus of Nazareth. Literally no one in the world, Jew or Gentile, had conceived of individual, personal liberty before Jesus.

In Jesus’ day the Jews were neither free nor at liberty. Judea, the rump remainder of the ancient, independent Jewish kingdoms, was under direct Roman occupation. The Romans, however, had little interest in how the Judeans lived. As long as the Jews paid Rome’s taxes and accepted Roman dominion peaceably, the Romans were satisfied. The Romans did not even govern Judea directly but through native authorities.

Because of Rome, the Jews were not free. But their lack of liberty was their own doing. Everyone in the ancient Near East, Jews and Gentiles, were tribal. Like today’s Arab Muslims, the Jews identified themselves first by their religion, then their family, clan and tribe, almost always in that order. These groupings defined the norms of behavior and determined almost everything about how its members lived.

Here is a real-world example. In 1982 I was a U.S. Army captain attending the Field Artillery Officer Advanced Course at Ft. Sill, Okla. There were a large number of foreign officers attending. The Arab contingent was pretty large, and most of them were Saudis. But in my section there were two Egyptian lieutenant colonels and one major.

The two light colonels and I became good friends. Their names were Solomon and Osman. They were great guys and real party animals, as Muslim men often are when they reach the decadent, non-Islamic West.

Anyway, one day the entire class of 300 or so was taking a tactics exam in an auditorium-type room. We all sat at long, folding tables and opened the exams when told to start. Needless to say, all the US officers had long ago internalized the credo, "An officer does not lie, cheat, steal nor tolerate those who do." Cheating on this or any other assigned work would end a career!

The first section of the test was multiple choice. To my right rear sat all the Saudi officers in a row. Very soon, we all heard a slue of Arabic, followed by a clear enunciation of the letter, "B." A moment later, more Arabic, then "D." Repeat, ending with "A." And so on.

Throughout the test, the Saudis made no attempt to disguise their verbal collaboration. I was irritated and I was not the only one. But we knew nothing would be done about their cheating for political reasons, and besides, foreign officers' scores did not affect our class standing.

A couple of days later I asked Lt. Col. Solomon why the Saudis were so blatant in their cheating. He broke into laughter and replied, "They were not cheating. The Saudi lieutenant colonel fills the role of the sheikh while they are here. The major next to him was reading his answers to all the rest so they could make sure they did not score higher than him on the test. If they did, it would bring great shame to him and would be dishonorable for the junior officer. Very bad problem, that." 

So to be a first-century Jew or Gentile was to live like that. To be a member of, say, the tribe of Benjamin was to be told what your occupation would be, when you could work and when you could not, whom you would marry, where you would live, what you may do and when, how to treat your parents and relatives, how to raise your children, what you must teach them, how you must worship and when and where, how you must dress, what you may eat and when you may eat it, and countless other things.

The very concept of individual liberty was non-existent. If you could go back in time and tell an ordinary Judean that the God-given rights of men and women were the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, no one would have understood you any more than if you had tried to explain  suborbital mechanics or antibiotics.

This was social system into which Jesus was born. And he set about it with a wrecking ball.

Here is why I say that Jesus of Nazareth invented individual liberty:

1.                Jesus denounced the social system of honor and shame that dominated how people lived and related with each other.
2.                Jesus directly refuted the idea that blood relationships could determine how an individual lived his life.
3.                Jesus insisted that the heart of true religion was not obligations imposed upon a person externally, but was an ethic of love from within.

In an honor-shame system, one’s social standing is determined by how well one conforms to the norms of the group. (Anyone remember their teen-age years?) These are not systems found among today's Jews, whether in Israel or elsewhere. Jesus wasn't denouncing Judaism (duh) but a wider-ranged social order that inhibited righteousness. 

Honor-shame systems work differently for men than for women. For men, the focus is on where you stand in the pecking order. To be in debt to someone else, either financially or in obligation, is shameful. To have others obligated to you is honorable. To accomplish is honorable, but if you take too many steps up the ladder at one time, that is shameful.

How the family and clan are shamed or honored by its members is especially important. Hence the sixth Commandment, “Honor your father and your mother.” To bring shame upon one’s elders was literally to risk death. In Matthew 17, Jesus recounts this accusation against him: “The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’”

Jesus knew what Deuteronomy 21 says,
“If someone has a stubborn and rebellious son who does not obey his father and mother and will not listen to them when they discipline him, ... 20 They shall say to the elders, “This son of ours … is a glutton and a drunkard.” 21 Then all the men of his town are to stone him to death.

People accusing Jesus of drunkenness and gluttony were not being merely contemptuous. They were issuing a death threat. Jesus knew it, but he was undeterred.

In Luke 9, Jesus told a man, “Follow me.”
But he said, “Lord, permit me first to go and bury my father.” But he said to him, “Allow the dead to bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim everywhere the kingdom of God.”
Here Jesus openly committed mutiny against the entire way that Jewish society was organized and understood in that day. This man says he will follow Jesus after his father dies. If his father had already died, he would have been buried within 24 hours and the man would have already been able to follow Jesus. He is not at liberty to do so now because of externally-imposed constraints.

Jesus responds that the man was trapped in the way of death. Leave the way of death behind now, Jesus says, and proclaim the kingdom of God.
Another [man] also said, “I will follow you, Lord; but first permit me to say good-bye to those at home.” But Jesus said to him, “No one, after putting his hand to the plow and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.”
Jesus tells this fellow not even say goodbye to his family. In other words, do not linger in the way things are now, not even to bid it farewell. You can’t plow a furrow backward so don’t even look that way.

That both these conversations took place in the context of family relationships highlights the serious sedition Jesus was mounting against the entire social order of his time. In that day and place, family relationships were absolutely everything. That Jesus was willing to take a chainsaw to the very fundamental way his entire society was organized illuminates how serious he was about a new way of living. At the end of Matthew 12,
   While Jesus was still talking to the crowd, his mother and brothers stood outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone told him, “Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.”   He replied to him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”
Jesus entirely redefined a fundamental fact about not only the basis of the honor-shame system but the whole society itself: the preeminence of blood relationships.

True family would no longer be defined by accident of birth. Who one’s father was of no importance any more – this in network of societies, both Jewish and Gentile, where the words, “Name, son of father’s name” or "name of the house of name" was a common way of referring to oneself.

Henceforth, people were to be members of a family of equals in which there was only one Father, God himself.

Men could gain honor or lose it. Women, however, had nowhere to go but down. A woman’s honor was determined by her sexual status, namely:
  • Was she married? To be a spinster was dishonorable. To be a widow was more unfortunate than dishonorable, though dishonor was attached to it some. 
  • If married or widowed, did she have children? Being childless was dishonorable.
  • Was she chaste before marriage and virtuous after marriage? Sexual purity and fidelity practically defined honor for women, though, as Proverbs 31 explains, to be married with children and to be industrious with a good business sense was the most honorable status of all for a woman.
Jesus kicked this norm down, too. He denounced sexual sin but he denounced also the idea that a woman’s worth was irrevocably damaged by it. So Jesus openly talked with a Samaritan woman of loose morals at a well one day, explaining that he knew all about her highly-checkered past, but that it didn't matter because her future under God’s grace was more important than her past under sin’s grip.

Luke 7 relates when Jesus went to dinner at the home of Simon the Pharisee. A sinful woman of the city, name and occupation unknown, came to Jesus with a jar of ointment. She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair.

Simon objected that if Jesus really was a prophet, he would have know what kind of sinful woman she was. Jesus rebuked him and told the woman, “Your sins are forgiven ... go in peace.” This unnamed woman’s status of sinful dishonor was only important to Jesus insofar as it enabled her to come to him for forgiveness and a reset.

Jesus simply rejected the rigid behavioral norms of his day in favor of what the apostle Paul later called “a more excellent way.”

Jesus redefined the most basic relationships of his day so that circumstances of birth and relationship could not set one’s worth. Each individual was liberated to control his or her own destiny by relating primarily to God, and through God to everyone else.

Which is to say: there is no greater honor than to be adopted by God and be the brother or sister of Christ. It was not being born that mattered in living, it was being born anew.  Spiritual rebirth supersedes all other arrangements. Hence, in Christ,
There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Gal. 3.28).
These were not merely new teachings, they were positively revolutionary. No one was bound any longer by conferred status; all were liberated by divine endorsement of their inherent worth as beloved of God. Life in Christ brings personal liberation from every kind of spiritual bondage, including but not limited to politics, self-indulgence, selfishness, self-righteousness, entertainment and even religion itself.

Christ has set us free for freedom’s own sake. It is not through religion that we are freed; it is through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. We obey the moral commandments of Jewish tradition and the teachings of Jesus, both in order to gain freedom and because we have already been freed.

"It is for freedom that Christ has set us free" (Gal. 5.1): free to love, free to live in joy and peace. Free to be generous in all we have, free to know our worth is God given, not human determined, free to live in ways that please God.

Free at last!
Free at last!
Thank God Almighty,
We’re free at last!

Thursday, July 4, 2013

The myth of Gettysburg's Little Round Top

Monument to the 20th Maine near the summit of 
Little Round Top, Gettysburg battlefield
On July 2, 150 years ago, one of the most heralded combat actions in US Army history took place. It was the second day of the battle of Gettysburg when the volunteers of the 20th Maine Regiment defended a hill known as Little Round Top (LRT henceforth) against the determined attacks of the 15th and 47th Alabama regiments. Other CSA regiments attacked elsewhere along the Union line.

LRT was key terrain because it sat just south of the end of the Union line which was entrenched along Cemetery Ridge, running northward from LRT to the small town of Gettysburg. "Key terrain" in military parlance is that terrain which, when occupied by a military force, affords a distinct advantage to the force possessing it. In this case, LRT afforded a comprehensive observation point over most of the battlefield, especially of Union positions, and a location from which enfilading fire could be placed upon much of the Union line along Cemetery Ridge. "Enfilading" fire is when the long axis of the beaten zone (where the rounds fall) corresponds to the long axis of the target, as opposed to defilade, when most or all of the target is outside the beaten zone.

Statue of Maj Gen. Warren atop Little Round Top. 
The general was called the "Savior of the Union" by 
the northern press for recognizing the hazard if 
CSA troops had gained possession of the hill.
On July 2, the second day of the battle, Maj. Gen. Governeur Warren, chief engineer of the Army of the Potomac, went to the peak of LRT to observe the battlefield and was shocked to discover that the hill was unoccupied. Spotting CSA formations maneuvering to occupy it, Warren sent an urgent notice to Col. Vincent Strong of the 1st Division, V Corps, who immediately sent a brigade to the area.

The 20th Maine wound up gaining the summit of LRT, arriving only 15-20 minutes before the Confederate regiments, who promptly attacked. The Maine troops were commanded by one of the most remarkable military figures America has ever produced. Colonel Joshua Chamberlain, the 20th Maine's commander, had no military experience or training before the war, spending his life in the bookish realm of Bowdoin College, where he taught classical studies and was an ordained minister.

Maj. Gen. Joshua Chamberlain
The battle of Little Round Top began his reputation but there was much more to come in the war for him. By war's end, he had been wounded six times. He was the only man in the Union army promoted to a higher rank (brigadier general) while a battle literally raged around him, this by Gen. Ulysses Grant at Petersburg. President Lincoln later brevetted Chamberlain to major general.

At Appomattox, Grant appointed Chamberlain to command the Union troops receiving the surrender of arms and colors from the various Confederate formations, probably the highest honor Grant could have conferred on any officer. Chamberlain went on to serve as governor of Maine and president of Bowdoin College. He was somewhat belatedly awarded the Medal of Honor for his command at LRT, receiving the decoration in 1893. He died in 1914 at age 85, the last Civil War soldier of either side to be counted as dying of wounds, having never fully recovered from his grievous battle wounds.

On July 2, 1863, Col. Chamberlain took 386 soldiers to the top of LRT. Within about an hour, 29 were dead, 91 wounded, and 5 missing, losses of one-third of their strength. The two CSA regiments had been repulsed with heavy losses themselves. The 20th Maine held the hill through the next day, although by then the center of the battle had shifted to the center of the Union line, where three divisions of CSA infantry attacked and were repulsed with very heavy loss. Since that day, the 20th Maine has been credited with, minimally, preventing the Union line from being turned by the Confederate troops which, it has been said for 150 years, would have meant the rout of the Union army at Gettysburg.

Had the Union lost LRT, it is universally acknowledged, none of the events of July 3 would have transpired as they actually did. The heavy losses the Army of Northern Virginia suffered on that day would not have occurred. The way instead would have been free for Gen. Robert E. Lee to advance the army toward Washington, D.C., with the battered Army of the Potomac offering only ineffectual resistance. Hence, the popular imagination holds that Chamberlain and the 20th Maine actually saved the Union itself from defeat.

Sorry, no.

In fact, a compelling case can be made that the battle for Little Round Top, for all its incredible bravery and lethality, was nothing more than a local action with little actual effect upon the battle of Gettysburg as a whole, much less upon the fate of the whole Union.

When I was finishing my military career in the 1990s, I worked for Maj. Gen. Peter Berry, a Maine native and devoted Chamberlain fan. He even had a bust of Chamberlain in his office and owned some of Chamberlain's original papers. Maj. Gen. Berry was also a close friend of one Brig. Gen. Nelson, who was the chief of military history for the whole Army. (He was a real historian, too, with a Ph.D. in the field from Princeton and published books and monographs.)

So the two generals got all us staff officers on an Army bus one day (we were stationed in Washington) and off we went to tour the Gettysburg battlefield, conducted at every point by the US Army's chief of military history, which would seem to me to be as about an authoritative docent as you could get. Brig. Gen. Nelson explained early on that as a Nebraska native, he had no apologist position for either side.

As we stood near the Warren statue at Little Round Top, Brig. Gen. Nelson explained the course of the action there and then why it didn't matter much in the outcome of the battle. The terrain at the time was  wooded. The summit of the hill was mostly cleared, but there was no road up the hill and the ground was still timbered in many places and generally very rough. Nelson pointed out that although LRT enfiladed the southern half of the Union line, small arms fire against the Union lines would have been wholly ineffective because of the engagement distances. Had the Confederates taken LRT, Nelson said, they would have had excellent observation of the disposition of Union formations, which would have been a real advantage.

But the Union commander, Gen. George Meade, would have adjusted his tactics and lines accordingly and almost certainly would have sent troops to attack LRT. A larger hill nearby, called Round Top (later, Big Round Top) was already in Union hands (though fighting for its possession continued until the next day). Artillery atop that hill could have effectively bombarded CSA troops on LRT, also.

No, said Nelson, the only way LRT could have afforded the CSA a location from which to inflict actual damage upon Union forces was artillery fire upon the Union line. But that would have required the Confederates to clear perhaps hundreds of yards of wooded terrain, irregular and rough, all uphill, then drag the cannon and ammunition up. This would have been no easy task as an exercise, but in actual combat, under fire or attack, probably could not have been accomplished at all and would have taken well into July 3 to get done at in any event. And Lee could not have afforded to wait on it.

Bottom Line: the battle of LRT has remained in the public imagination as a decisive action of the whole war. But in fact, its outcome more likely than not did not affect even the outcome of the battle. Here is an interactive, chronological map of the Gettysburg battle. A clip from the movie, "Gettysburg," which shows the 20th Maine's final, desperate and successful attempt to stave off defeat, is below.


And finally, speaking of things Civil War, there is the fabled "rebel yell." The largest Civil War veterans reunion ever held was at Gettysburg on the battle's 50th anniversary in 1913. More than 50,000 Civil War veterans of both armies attended, though not all had fought at Gettysburg, of course.

One story of the 1913 reunion I read said that when thousands of the Southern veterans lined up before Cemetery Ridge and together wailed out the rebel yell, a loud moan of despair arose from the Union veterans on the ridge. PTSD?

The elderly Confederate line advanced at a walk while the Union veterans crouched behind the stone wall of The Angle and other places along the old defensive line. No one else made a sound. When the two formations were only a dozen feet apart, suddenly all semblance of old military discipline was broken and the former enemies embraced and shook hands and slapped each others' backs.

There is a recording, purportedly of an elderly Confederate veteran giving the rebel yell. His name was Thomas Alexander of the 35th North Carolina Regiment, who made the recording in 1935 for a radio station at a regimental reunion. Here is the recording, followed by a contemporary digital special-effects manipulation of Alexander's yell to emulate that of a whole infantry company.

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Wednesday, July 3, 2013

The "right of the people peaceably to assemble" doesn't mean Christians

Rehoboth Denies Free Speech and Freedom Rally
When asked in writing for a permit to hold a beach service in Rehoboth, Pastor Robert Dekker recieved this reply: 
"I am so sorry to inform you that I cannot grant your request to have church services on the public beach in Rehoboth. I cannot mix Church and State. I trust you understand. Wishing you the very best." 
The church is saying "Regardless of your faith, all people should be hightly concerned over this civil rights violation" - what are your thoughts?
After being denied a "permit" for a church service on Rehoboth Beach a few weeks ago, Pastor Robert Dekker of New Covenant Presbyterian will be preaching a public sermon on July 4 at 930am entitled "A line in the sand". This sermon will be preached on the beach at the end of Rehoboth Avenue. The public is invited to assemble peacefully.
What are your thoughts?
Here's the church flier
So this does not mean anything any more, I guess:


Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
That the First Amendment's restrictions are directed at the US Congress does not matter. Because of the doctrine of "incorporation," the Bill of Rights applies to state law as well as federal law.

Where is the ACLU when you need it?

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Are we first in the universe?

Enrico Fermi was one of the leading lights of physics in the 20th century. About mid-century he pondered the possibility of life on other worlds and calculated that once a species achieved rudimentary space travel technology, it should be able to reach the farthest points of the Milky Way galaxy in only five million years.

Since the galaxy is billions of years old, he expressed what became known as Fermi's Paradox by asking a simple question, "Where is everybody?"

The belief that the universe must be teeming with life, and much of it must be highly intelligent, has come to be known as the "theory of mediocrity" of the Earth and its inhabitants. It is the idea that there is nothing exceptional about our planet, its life forms and especially homo sapiens, that we are all merely average examples of that found across the galaxy.

That belief (which has no actual scientific data to back it up) gave rise to the still-ongoing SETI project (Search for Extraterrestial Intelligence). However, SETI continues to come up empty and some of its researchers are starting, perhaps, to ponder a shocking possibility - that homo sapiens is one of the first, maybe even the only, highly-intelligent life form to have developed in the galaxy.

Science writer Mark Thompson explains that even a 14-billion-year-old universe may not be old enough to result in planets teeming with life, especially intelligent life.
It seems that the evolution of stars precluded the formation of rocky planets much before the appearance of Population I stars. If that is the case, and adding a generous margin for error, it looks like the first planets like Earth would have formed no earlier than 8 billion years ago. 
If that is true, then it may well be that we are not necessarily the first life, but perhaps amongst the first intelligent life (as we know it) to evolve.
Furthermore, there is no teleology in evolution theory. No outcome is inevitable, there are no such things as "higher" life forms. There is only survival, or not. Hence, technological, inventive beings are not a rational or inevitable development of evolution at all. There is no "rational" development of life in the first place and no evolutionary outcome is inevitable in any way.

Harvard biologist Ernst Mayr has pointed out that since life first appeared on Earth, there have been an estimated 50 billion species. And yet only one, us, has developed high intelligence. Mayr says that such intelligence does not obviously offer a species survival advantage and hence may be so rare that homo sapiens may be a "one off" in the universe.

In 2011 I put together a slide presentation for the topic to discuss Fermi's Paradox at church. You will probably be surprised at the conclusion. Here 'tis:


But for argument's sake, let us stipulate that in the known universe there are at least 200 billion species that are at least as intelligent as homo sapiens. Sound like a lot? It averages only one per galaxy.

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