Saturday, April 27, 2019

Saint Thomas the Human

Of Jesus’ twelve disciples, Thomas, to me, is the most intriguing. There’s the mystical Thomas, of the Secret Gospel of Thomas, to whom Jesus chooses to divulge his secrets:(1)   Jesus said to his disciples: "Compare me, and tell me whom I am like."
(2) Simon Peter said to him: "You are like a just messenger."
(3) Matthew said to him: "You are like an (especially) wise philosopher."
(4) Thomas said to him:
"Teacher, my mouth will not bear at all to say whom you are like."
(5) Jesus said: "I am not your teacher. For you have drunk, you have
become intoxicated at the bubbling spring that I have measured out."
(6) And he took him, (and) withdrew, (and) he said three words to him.
(7) But when Thomas came back to his companions, they asked him:
"What did Jesus say to you?"
(8) Thomas said to them: "If I tell you one of the words he said to me,
you will pick up stones and throw them at me,
and fire will come out of the stones (and) burn you up."

-Saying 13 Patterson/Robinson translation 

And then there’s the other mystical Thomas, of The Book of Thomas  the Contender, who is portrayed as the twin brother of Jesus:  

The savior said, "Brother Thomas while you have time in the world, listen to me, and I will reveal to you the things you have pondered in your mind.

"Now, since it has been said that you are my twin and true companion, examine yourself, and learn who you are, in what way you exist, and how you will come to be. Since you will be called my brother, it is not fitting that you be ignorant of yourself. And I know that you have understood, because you had already understood that I am the knowledge of the truth. So while you accompany me, although you are uncomprehending, you have (in fact) already come to know, and you will be called 'the one who knows himself'. For he who has not known himself has known nothing, but he who has known himself has at the same time already achieved knowledge about the depth of the all. So then, you, my brother Thomas, have beheld what is obscure to men, that is, what they ignorantly stumble against."  

-from the John D. Turner translation 

The Acts of Thomas, a third-century writing, portrays Thomas as a missionary to India, as well as a twin brother of Jesus, who performs miracles and admonishes a newly-married couple to abstain from sex. This Thomas makes the Puritans look like free love advocates. 

But, of course, the Thomas we know best is the Thomas of John’s Gospel, the disciple who was not present in the Upper Room when the risen Christ first appeared to the other apostles. When told of this miracle, he took the disciples’ tales with more than a grain of salt: 

 “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”    

A week later his disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”

(John 20:25b-29 (NRSV) 

Thomas does not go so far as to put his hand in Jesus’ side, but he got the point. It’s always seemed unfair that Thomas is singled out and admonished by Jesus because of his doubt, while the other disciples were never so tested. Professor Elaine Pagels in Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas (Random House, 2003), argues that the author of John’s Gospel was familiar with the Gospel of Thomas, and used the story to discredit the disciple as insufficiently trusting. 

The theologian Marcus Borg made a distinction between the pre-Easter Jesus and the post-Easter Jesus, with the Gospel of John portrait of Jesus being very much a post-Easter one. John does not follow the narrative of the three synoptic Gospels—Mark, Matthew, and Luke—but presents us with a mystical Jesus who says “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” -John 14:6 (NRSV) John’s Christ puts a premium on belief, as opposed to, say, Luke’s Sermon on the Plain, or Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount, where actions and attitudes are the focus.  

Perhaps Pagels is right—that the author of John wanted to discredit the Thomas of the Gnostic Gospel. But even if he did the Thomas portrayed in John’s Gospel is a sympathetic character because he’s so human—of course he’s unwilling to believe a dead man could come back to life. (In the synoptic Gospels, the male disciples don’t believe Mary Magdalene when she announces the Resurrection, but Jesus never admonishes them for unbelief.) Yet for someone raised as an agnostic and still having a difficult time with belief, I identify with this Thomas. I was confirmed at Trinity, Iowa City, in 1979, which was not Anglo-Catholic enough at the time to require confirmation names. If it had, mine would have been Thomas. 

In the Anglican Communion, the feast of St. Thomas is December 21, so he’s lost in the pre-Christmas anxiety. The Roman Catholics celebrate him on July 3, which means he loses out to Independence Day in the United States. So the most reliable celebration of St. Thomas is the Second Sunday of Easter, when the Gospel reading is the story of Thomas’s doubt and belief. And, of course, the service ought to include the singing of “O Sons and Daughters, Let Us Sing!” 

I’m still fascinated with the mystical Thomas of the Gnostic Gospels and curious about the Acts of Thomas. But the all-too-human Thomas of John’s Gospel resonates with me.

Image: St. Thomas by El Greco (Wikimedia Commons)

Friday, December 28, 2018

On the Fourth Day of Christmas: Life isn't fair--the Holy Innocents

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:

 “A voice was heard in Ramah,
    wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
    she refused to be consoled, because they are no more."
Matthew 2;16-18 (NRSV)

The selection of December 28 as the Day of the Holy Innocents seems out of place--the story takes place after the Epiphany, which we celebrate on January 6. A quick Google search found a concise answer to the question by Michelle Arnold, "staff apologist" for the Catholic Answers Forum:

The arrangement of the Church’s liturgical calendar is not always intended to be in chronological order. Sometimes feast days are arranged by theological significance.

In this case, there are a slew of feast days right after Christmas that emphasize the fact that the events surrounding Christmas were an anticipation of Christ’s eventual passion, death, and resurrection. On December 26 is the feast of St. Stephen Protomartyr the first Christian martyr after the establishment of the Church. December 27 is the feast of Sr. John the Evangelist the Beloved Disciple who stood at the foot of the Cross and received the Blessed Mother from Christ to be his own Mother. December 29 is the feast of St. Thomas Becket, bishop and martyr. In the midst of this is December 28, the feast of the Holy Innocents, the first martyrs after the birth of Christ.

In short, the Church’s placement of a slew of martyrs’ feast days right after Christmas is intended to remind Catholics that Christ was, as Bishop Fulton Sheen once pointed out, the only man born to die. Christmas is important because it made possible Easter.

While Matthew's gospel is the only source for the Massacre of the Innocents, historian Thomas Madden points out that such a slaughter would have been consistent with what we know about Herod the Great, the king of Judea. Even though Herod was "king of the Jews," though under Roman oversight, many did not consider him Jewish, because his mother, Cypros, was the daughter of an Arab sheik, and thus a Gentile. Jewishness, then as now, was matrilineal. His father was an Idumean--someone who was considered racially impure by many Jews.

Herod, perhaps because of his questionable parentage, went out of his way to direct Roman wealth to his domain, engaging in numerous building projects, including the rebuilding of the Temple, new walls around the city of Jerusalem, the port city of Caesarea. But these projects cost money, and his high taxation made him hugely unpopular--he hired mercenaries and maintained what amounted to a secret police to prevent rebellion. And he placed a golden statue of an eagle--a symbol of Rome and a violation of the Commandment against graven images--atop the gate of the new Temple. When two popular teachers, Judas and Matthias, persuaded their pupils to take down the eagle, Herod had teachers and students burned alive.

The story of the Holy Innocents may not be literally true, but it's certainly in keeping with Herod. Matthew, who was writing to a Jewish audience, has the Holy Family flee to Egypt, in a reversal of Moses' flight from Egypt. After Herod's death, the family returns not to Bethlehem, but to Nazareth.

But surely Matthew is also reminding us that life isn't fair--that in the human realm, those in power will commit enormities to maintain their power. One can hardly look at the last hundred years to find countless examples of the massacre of innocents in the name of power, prejudice, and fear.

As Michelle Arnold explains, the Day of the Holy Innocents is one of "a slew of martyr's feasts right after Christmas" to remind us that Christmas leads inevitably to Golgotha and to Easter.

Image: Pieter Brueghel the Elder, Massacre of the Innocents

Thursday, December 27, 2018

The Third Day of Christmas: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

"Nathaniel said to him, 'Can anything good come out of Nazareth? Philip said to him, 'Come and see.'"
-John, 1:46 (NRSV)

In the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches, the Gospel reading for Christmas morning is John 1-14. For me, who had a secular upbringing, the reading initially seemed out of place. Why do we read the Prologue to John's Gospel on Christmas? There was no mention of Bethlehem, or Jesus' earthly birth. And later in the same chapter, we have Nathaniel make the quip about Nazareth, a remote town in Galilee. Philip doesn't say, "The man was born in Bethlehem--he's a proper Messiah," but "Come and see."

We celebrate the author of the Gospel According to John on December 27, the Third Day of Christmas. Like the other three canonical gospels, the earliest manuscripts of John are anonymous. Ancient tradition has attributed it to John, one of the Twelve Disciples, identified with the anonymous "disciple whom Jesus loved" in the gospel. Artists usually portray him as a beardless young man. In "The Da Vinci Code," by Dan Brown the author argues that the beardless figure on Leonardo's "The Last Supper" is actually a woman, whom the book identifies as Mary Magdalene. But it's clearly the figure of John, as any historian of Renaissance art can explain.

But back to my initial question: Why do we read the Prologue to John on Christmas. It's a reminder that Christ was, as we say in the Nicene Creed, "eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, True God from True God." If Matthew and Luke write of Jesus' birth on earth, John tells us the eternal Christmas story:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.  All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being  in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John [the Baptist]. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.  He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.

 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.  But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (John 1-14 (NRSV)
The late theologian Marcus Borg made a distinction between the pre-Easter Jesus and the post-Easter Jesus. The three synoptic Gospels--Matthew, Mark, and Luke--focus on the pre-Easter Jesus--his earthly life, mission, death, and the reports of his resurrection. And while John gives us stories from Jesus' earthly life, they don't follow the pattern of the first three.  Without the Gospel of John, Jesus is the Jewish Messiah who expands his ministry to Gentiles. With John, Jesus is "the way, the truth , and the life"(John 14:6).

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

The Second Day of Christmas: a blunt reminder

Now during those days, when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food. And the twelve called together the whole community of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables. Therefore, friends,[b] select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task,  while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word.” What they said pleased the whole community, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, together with Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. They had these men stand before the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.
-The Acts of the Apostles, chapter 6:1-6 (NRSV)

On the day after Christmas Day, the Church throws us a curveball. From the magical story of the Lord coming to earth in the form of a sweet baby, we celebrate the church's first martyr--a man who, in the tradition of the Old Testament prophets, speaks out against the powerful--and is killed as a result.

I recently heard that a poll of historians named Alexander the Great to be the most significant figure in Western history. Jesus and Paul were tied for fifth. The reason: Alexander imposed Greek culture and language all over the eastern Mediterranean. Christianity could not have spread so rapidly without the first "lingua franca." By the third century B.C. Jewish scholars in Egypt began translating the Hebrew Bible into Greek; by Jesus' time, the resulting book, the Septuagint (seventy), so named because 72 men were supposed to have translated it, had supplanted the Hebrew text in some communities. The book was written, appropriately enough, in Koine, the dialect of Alexandria, Egypt, which had become the language of commerce throughout the Near East.

Thus there were Jews in Palestine whose sole language was Koine Greek, and it appears that many of them became followers of Jesus. And one of the first rifts in the church was over language--the Greek speakers felt the Hebrew (Aramaic) speakers were neglecting their widows. The matter was handled quickly enough by the twelve disciples, though with a certain arrogance: "It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables," which doesn't seem in keeping with Matthew 20:28: "Just as the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve..." The seven men included one Stephen, who turned out to be an effective preacher as well as a servant.

Stephen's preaching led to accusations of blasphemy, and as a result, he was brought before the Sanhedrin, the council of Jewish elders. His speech to them may not have been politic, but he was literally speaking truth to power. After giving a synopsis of Jewish history from Abraham through Solomon, and pointing out the Chosen People's, stubbornness, he aims his rhetoric at his audience: "You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do.  Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers. You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it.” (Acts 7:51-53)

Stephen is immediately condemned to death by stoning for blasphemy. Like Jesus, he asks forgiveness for his killers. And the author of Acts mentions that a man named Saul is among Stephen's persecutors.

After the joyous celebration of Christmas, the Church gives us a blunt reminder that proclaiming the Gospel can have deadly results. But the story of Stephen's martyrdom also gives us a reminder that the most adamant foes of Christ can become his allies. Saul the persecutor, or course, becomes St. Paul the Apostle.

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

On the First Day of Christmas: An audacious proposition

“My point, once again, is not that those ancient people told literal stories and we are now smart enough to take them symbolically, but that they told them symbolically and we are dumb enough to take the literally.”

~John Dominic Crossan
In what we now call the first century, there was a small sect of Jews and "God-fearers"--people who attended the synagogues, but weren't willing to submit to circumcision, Jewish dietary laws, and other rules of that faith--who accepted an audacious proposition: that God himself had come down to earth to live among us in the form of an itinerant rabbi named Joshua, or Jesus, from the backwater town of Nazareth.
And what was worse, this man had accumulated a ragtag army of followers, including fishermen, a tax collector, and an anonymous woman of ill repute. He singled out the poor, the mournful, and the hated as blessed, while condemning the rich and favored. He showed up in Jerusalem just before the celebration of Passover, and went on to outrage both the Jewish and Roman authorities by attacking the money-changers at the Temple--an action which led to his execution for sedition against the empire.
His death by crucifixion should have been the end of his movement, but his followers claimed he had come back from the dead. And somehow, more and more people--especially the God-fearers--joined the movement, or the Way, as he called it. As the Way's adherents increased, and their leader had not yet made a promised second return, there was a need to write the story down.

The first narrative was the Gospel According to Mark--attributed to a friend of Simon bar Jonah, whom Jesus called Peter, "The Rock." It begins not with Jesus' birth, but with his baptism in the River Jordan. Mark was probably writing to Jesus' followers in Rome.

The next two Gospels, those attributed to Matthew, a Jew who was also a despised tax collector; and Luke, a Greek-speaking companion of Paul, a persecutor of the Way before his conversion, give us two conflicting birth narratives. Both place Jesus' birth in Bethlehem, the city of David, and the place where the Davidic Messiah (Anointed of God) was to be born. And both proclaim a miraculous virgin birth. John's Gospel, like Mark's has no birth narrative, but we read the prologue to his gospel on Christmas morning, for it places Christ as, as we say  in the Nicene Creed, "begotten, not made, of one being with the Father." but let us consider the narratives of Matthew and Luke:

In Matthew's account, Mary and Joseph are betrothed (but considered married) and living in Bethlehem. When Joseph learns Mary is pregnant, he initially plans to "divorce her quietly" rather than shame her and perhaps subject her to death by stoning, but an angel comes to him in a dream, saying that Mary will bear a son conceived of the Holy Spirit, who will save the people from their sins. Matthew, writing to a Jewish audience, cites the prophets, and then references the story of the Exodus, though with a twist. The baby Jesus, after being proclaimed a great king by wise men from the East, survives a plague of the firstborn, though brought about by the false king Herod, by the Holy Family's flight into Egypt. When the family returns, it is to Nazareth.

Luke is writing more to the Gentile God-fearers, who are less familiar with Jewish narratives. He places the birth in Bethlehem with the device of a census, in which each head of household must travel to the city of his tribe. The census is for the purpose of Roman taxation. Luke, in fact, goes out of his way put the onus on the Romans--it takes place during the reign of Caesar Augustus, when Quirinius was governor of Syria. Joseph and Mary can't even find a decent place to stay, so Jesus is born in a stable. Instead of Matthew's wise men, Luke brings lowly shepherds, summoned by angels, to see the infant king. And the angels proclaim Jesus to be a Savior--the same word used to describe the emperor. If Matthew's Jesus is greater than Moses, then Luke's is greater than Augustus.

The two birth narratives, if taken literally, not only contradict each other, but are at odds with the facts as we know them--the Census of Quirinius took place in 6 A.D.--about ten years after Herod's death. And the Romans never required people to travel to their tribal hometowns. Matthew and Luke weren't historians. They were writing to put the birth of Christ into perspective to their respective audiences. And their narratives must have connected. Nearly two thousand years after they wrote their narratives, we're still repeating them.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Don't Kill the Magic: an airline man takes over Amtrak

Having spent much of my productive life at the state and federal levels observing, studying, regulating and then leading a rail management team, I am appalled with what increasingly appears to be a unilateral violation of the public trust by Amtrak's current leadership to dismantle our interconnected, intercity passenger network, beginning with the hollowing out of its long-distance passenger network.
-Joseph Boardman, former Chief Executive Officer, in Railway Age, May 10, 2018

“There's something about a train that's magic...” In the 1980s Amtrak launched what may have been its most successful marketing campaign ever. In the face of shutdown budgets from the Ronald Reagan Administration, Amtrak, which had taken over most American intercity passenger trains in 1971, ran a series of television advertisements for its of long-distance western trains, featuring the throaty and sensuous voice of Colleen Dewhurst promising mystery and adventure: "And where the Rockies are most forbidding

you will pass through and travel on to the ocean named for peace,” she huskily intones in the 1986 ad promoting the Chicago-Seattle/Portland Empire Builder. The legendary folksinger Richie Havens ends the commercials with a plaintive “All Aboard Amtrak.”

Passengers flocked to the trains, whose 1950s-era equipment had recently been replaced by double-deck Superliner cars. And every time Reagan or his successors promised to cut Amtrak out of the budget, these same passengers deluged their representatives in Congress with letters and calls, and the national system survived. Today the “national” in the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, Amtrak's official name, is under assault by, of all people, its Chief Executive Officer. And his first target for elimination is the Chicago-Los Angeles Southwest Chief.

In its first 46 years of operation, Amtrak's management understood that while the busy Boston-New York-Washington Northeast Corridor was the core of its operation, it had an obligation to serve the rest of the country as well, with both short-distance intercity trains and the overnight long-hauls, such as the Empire Builder and Southwest Chief. Not only do the long-distance trains serve places with little or no alternative public transportation, they assure support from members of Congress who would hesitate to fund Northeastern service alone. But on January 1, 2018, when former Delta Airlines chief Richard Anderson became Amtrak's sole CEO, that whole understanding has vanished.

Anderson is no believer in the magic of train travel. After all, air travel once had its own aura of magic. But since the advent of airline deregulation and the rise of executives such as Anderson, flying has become more of an ordeal than a magical experience. And Anderson's first actions as Amtrak CEO were to impose the kind of passenger-unfriendly rules so familiar to fliers—confiscatory refund policies, the elimination of discount programs such as AAA and Veterans' Advantage, and a reduction in senior and child discounts.

It then announced it would eliminate (the press release said “retire”) the Pacific Parlour Car on the Los Angeles-Seattle Coast Starlight—a first-class lounge car that has boosted ridership on the route. There are no plans to replace it.

In late March Amtrak announced it would stop operating most special trains or charter operations, thus throwing away the goodwill of hundreds of organizations, along with the extra revenue such services provided.

And then Anderson began bad-mouthing the long-hauls. At the California Rail Summit April 19, Anderson, who appeared angry when asked about the services, said that the long-distance services cost $750 million a year to operate (a figure based on questionable accounting practices—something I'll cover in a later post), and then went on to complain that only four per cent of passengers travel from end to end. This seems to reflect Anderson's airline background—the idea of multiple stops is simply alien to him. Anderson was asked, “What about the 'National' in NRPC? Are you not supposed to operate a national system? He was, according to one observer, “fuming,” and abruptly said,Anyone have a question about policy?” as though these questions weren't.

On the same day as the California Rail Summit, a news release announced that “Amtrak will offer contemporary and fresh dining choices for sleeping car customers, instead of traditional dining car service, embarking aboard its Capitol Limited and Lake Shore Limited trains beginning June 1. Translation: No more hot meals; cold boxed dinners for sleeping car passengers, whose meals are included in the ticket price; and no option but the lounge car menu for coach passengers, who until June 1, could pay for meals in the diner.

And then on May 8, railroad artist and railfan Andrew Fletcher released a bombshell—an e-mail he had received from Joe Boardman, Amtrak CEO from 2008 to 2016—which accused Amtrak management of attempting to eliminate the national Amtrak system beginning with the Southwest Chief. I was skeptical at first because the e-mail seemed hastily written and was replete with grammar and punctuation errors. It was not like the well-crafted Boardman messages I was used to reading when I worked for Amtrak. But Mr. Boardman confirmed the message, and later published a more polished version in Railway Age, That a former Amtrak CEO would publicly criticize his successor was unprecedented.

Amtrak, Boardman reminds us, “is not a privately held corporation whose fate is to be determined by a few individuals behind closed doors. It was created by the people and for the people and and is funded by taxpayers who help supplement Amtrak's farebox revenue. Amtrak provides a cherished public service, with opinion polls repeatedly validating support for its existence and even expansion.”

And in June, Boardman's prediction that “Amtrak management and its board of directors have drawn a line in the sand at the foot of Raton Pass, targeting the Southwest Chief as their first—but not last—long-distance train to target for cutting” came true.

The Chief is a special case. Much of its route through Kansas, Colorado, and New Mexico is little-used or unused by Burlington Northern Santa Fe freights. But BNSF was willing to work with the states and Amtrak to maintain the line. And the states came up with the money, in the form of TIGER (Transportation Investment Gaining Economic Opportunity) Grants. In March of this year, New Mexico Senator Mark Udall announced that Colfax County, New Mexico had received a $16 million TIGER grant for improvements on a 200-mile stretch of track between Lamy, New Mexico and Trinidad, Colorado.

But there was a catch: Amtrak had to make a $3 million copayment in order for the county to receive the grant. And in May, Amtrak Chief Financial Officer William Feidt refused to make the payment unless "a comprehensive financial plan and accompanying commitments by relevant states and BNSF for the remainder of the infrastructure investments and additional maintenances (sic) costs for this route in New Mexico must be completed.” Amtrak has never imposed such conditions on track improvement projects on other segments of its route.

Senators and Representatives from the there states were incensed, to say the least, at Amtrak's decision to renege on its earlier commitment to maintain the line. They requested a meeting with Amtrak officials. But instead of negotiating with the people's representatives, they arrogantly refused to consider anything but cutting the route. They proposed replacing the train with bus service between Dodge City, Kansas or La Junta, Colorado on the one hand, and Albuquerque, New Mexico on the other. New Mexico Senator Martin Heinrich said, I think this was one of the most unproductive meetings with an agency level official that I’ve ever experienced,” he said. “To learn that not only are they planning to pull back their commitment to the TIGER grant, but that they're going to abandon the route I think is just outrageous.”

And if Anderson gets his way, he'll effectively kill the train. There's very little about a bus that's magic, after all. 

Image: Westbound Southwest Chief emerging from Raton Tunnel, by "Hinge of Fate," Wikimedia Commons

Tuesday, April 03, 2018

Watching "Roads to Memphis" in the Age of Trump

I just finished watching "Roads to Memphis" about the journeys of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and James Earl Ray, from April, 1967 to April 4, 1968. The documentary then follows Ray to his eventual capture at London's Heathrow Airport on June 8, when he was attempting to flee to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), then ruled by white supremacists.
I had seen it before when it was first shown in 2010, but it still felt like a punch to the gut as the camera focused on the squalid bathroom from which Ray fired his 30.06 rifle at our greatest champion of nonviolence.
Ray was a small-time criminal who had escaped from the Missouri State Penitentiary on April 23, 1967. The documentary follows him on the lam--through the United States and Canada, and then to California and to Mexico, where he tries and fails to make pornographic movies. He returns to California, where commits himself to the presidential candidacy of Alabama governor George C. Wallace, who's running a campaign to bring back racial segregation.And somehow he gets the idea that powerful people would reward him if he killed the symbol of the civil rights movement.
We follow him to Atlanta, and finally to Memphis, where he rents a room overlooking the Lorraine Motel, where King is staying. We know the rest.
Fifty years later, the legacy of James Earl Ray is still with us, marching by torchlight in Charlottesville, murdering churchgoers in Charleston, killing a man who was armed only with a cellphone. There are just too many examples. And nearly eight years after we elected the first black president, the onetime "Party of Lincoln," nominated a man who had claimed Barack Obama had not been born in America, and whose campaign tactics resembled those of George Corley Wallace. And we elected him.
Yet there was a glint of hope toward the end of the program, when Coretta Scott King came to Memphis to head the march her late husband had planned to lead. And there is surely hope today, as we see women stand up for their rights to be free and equal citizens. We see the students of Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High stand up for their right to go to school without being murdered. The Black Lives Matter movement is similarly calling for an end to the assumption that black people's lives do not mean as much as those of others.
Thousands of Americans have been spurred into activism by the rise of Donald J. Trump and his politics of division, many choosing to oppose the Party of Trump in the state legislatures. Locally, here in the very red 11th State Senate District of Indiana, Edward Liptrap, a Navy veteran and woodworker, is taking on Republican Joe Zakas, who's held the seat since 1982 and was unopposed in his last general election, in 2014. In Indiana's Second Congressional District, three strong candidates are vying to challenge Republican Jackie Walorski, who regularly praises the Trump Administration.
And perhaps it's time for former president Barack Obama to return to active politics and take on the mantle of King. James Wolcott, writing in this month's issue of Vanity Fair, suggests it in a roundabout way. And Obama has the distinct advantage of a Secret Service that should be more than a match for any budding James Earl Ray.