Awake in the Night

I wake in the night with pain in my heart for all that is happening in our country, and I feel utterly powerless.  How can we respond to a reign of terror?  How can we respond to cruelty after cruelty promulgated by people in power? Money grabs, land grabs, malevolent neglect, direct abuse, more power grabs.  I have been an activist most of my life, and I believed and hoped that activism might help to change the world for the better.  In some ways, it really has.  But the dream–of a whole society that was rooted in cooperation and mutuality, in care for all of its people–that dream feels lost in a nightmare of empire re-emerging like some multi-headed dragon from the flames of disaster.

In my feelings of powerless, an old friend comes to me.  Jesus sits with me in the dark night. He comforts me, strangely, by reminding me that in many ways I am powerless. I can’t control what “my government” is doing right now.  The idea that it is “my government” is an illusion, democracy has become an illusion, a thin veneer over oligarchy, over fascism.  But Jesus too was powerless: he and his friends had no political power.  He lived his whole life in the shadow of the Roman empire, and that empire killed him.  Yet he was able to respond, to act, to live a life.

How? He prayed, he taught, he healed the sick, he listened, he walked among the ordinary people, in the lowly places.  He recalled the words of the prophet Isaiah:

“The Spirit of the Holy is upon me,
    that one has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
That one has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
    and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the time of blessing from the Holy.”

He didn’t concern himself very often with the emperor or king or governor–he was clear that those powers were evil. Rather, he went directly to the poor, the oppressed, the sick, those were the ones who caught the eye of the divine blessing.  And later, when he painted a picture of the end of the world, this was the measure by which all people were judged:

I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me. … Whatsoever you do for the least of these, my relatives, you do for me.”  

There is a certain clarity in all of this. A letting go of all that I cannot control. A shift in focus to what is possible, what really matters. An appreciation for the heroes who are risking their lives to look after the sick, those who are bringing food for the hungry.  A remembrance of the One who is with us in the midst of our powerlessness. Thank you.

 

helper 485_108321

Photo Source Unknown

The Ongoing Struggle

I learned another new word in Passamaquoddy:  Mocahantuwok, which means wicked devils. I am not sure if the word is used in a friendly teasing way, or in a serious condemning way. But in a serious way, I have been thinking about using it for certain people in Washington DC who are bent on undermining the processes and hopes of democracy in this country.  You can guess who I mean.

It is not the worst time in our country’s history.  That might have to be the initial conquest of these lands, and the direct genocide of millions of Indigenous people.  (That oppression still continues of course, but perhaps in more indirect ways.)  Another contender for the worst time would be the 250 years of enslavement of captured African peoples. (That oppression also continues, also in more indirect ways.)  I don’t believe there was a golden age of American democracy, that we are now on the verge of losing.

But I do believe there was a dream of America that had something to do with democracy, cooperation, and reciprocity. I think about the poem of Black American, Langston Hughes, written in 1938.

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed–
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.
(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.
(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

…Let America Be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed! This dream was not only dreamed in America either. In learning more about my ancestors in Europe, I was struck by the ongoing struggles between the forces of domination, empire, and greed and the forces of reciprocity, cooperation, and shared power.  For example, my East Frisian ancestors valued their freedom and resisted domination, resisted being forced into feudalism. Friesland actually means Free Land.

But those relational values were even more striking among my early Innu ancestors on this continent. I remember reading parts of the record that the Jesuits wrote about the Innu during early conquest times. How horrified the Jesuits were that the Innu people would only follow the lead of their leaders if they agreed with them. (Democracy!) How horrified they were that a man might agree to a contract, but if he went home and his wife disagreed, he thought he should be able to get out of that contract. (Power was meant to be shared!)

Those are the same values we are now struggling over, in Washington, and all over this country, once again and still. Will we create a society in which all people are included, in which power is reciprocal and we cooperate for the good of all? Or will some mocahantuwok create a society in which they dominate over others, accumulate as much as they can, and destroy the rest of the people and the world?

It is no easy struggle.  I don’t know how we achieve our goal.  But I know I choose to live by the values of reciprocity, cooperation, and democracy in every way possible, and I choose to align myself with others who share those values. Perhaps each time we do that, in all areas of our lives, we contribute some spark of energy that makes the dream more possible.

Sunrise

Winter dawn

Empires in the Rhineland

As I explore my Germanic ancestors,  I have been struck by the repeated rise and fall of empires in Europe, somehow timely during these days in the United States when it seems that the impulse to empire is battling the impulse to democracy.  I didn’t study much European history during my educational exploits, so much of this has been new information. But most important to me, it seemed that the places where my ancestors lived were deeply shaped by the struggles of empires.

My grandfather Hochreiter’s birthplace, Linz, Austria, for example, was first named “Lentia” during the Roman Empire, one of the many frontier fortifications along the Danube River.  The Rhine River was also pivotal to the Roman frontier, and the Gerling’s town of Osterath was near the old Roman frontier settlement of Novaeseum, now Neuss.

The fall of the Roman Empire saw the rise of the Frankish Empire, the center of which was in the Rhineland. From Wikipedia:

Julius Caesar conquered the Celtic tribes on the West bank, and Augustus established numerous fortified posts on the Rhine, but the Romans never succeeded in gaining a firm footing on the East bank. As the power of the Roman empire declined the Franks pushed forward along both banks of the Rhine, and by the end of the 5th century had conquered all the lands that had formerly been under Roman influence. The Frankish conquerors of the Rhenish districts were singularly little affected by the culture of the Roman provincials they subdued, and all traces of Roman civilization were submerged. By the 8th century, the Frankish dominion was firmly established in western Germania and northern Gaul.

On the map below, the dark green area of “Austrasia” is centered in the Lower Rhineland. (Note that the city of Cologne is just south of where my ancestors were from many centuries later. They lived on the west/left bank of the Rhine.)

Frankish_empire

I somehow had always thought of Charlemagne as French, but he was actually Frankish, and likely born in the lower Rhineland area as well. The center of his court was in Aachen. The Franks were precursors to both modern France and Germany. Perhaps this explains something that my grandmother Johnson said about her family being both German and French. The Rhineland where they were from was Frankish, and went back and forth in later days between Germanic and French rule.

Soon after Charlemagne, his empire was divided into three parts.  I will skip right over the “Holy Roman Empire,” which was mostly a Germanic coalition of many kingdoms and cities that persisted through to the time of Napoleon. (My apologies to all true historians!)  But moving closer to the time before my own Gerling ancestors emigrated, the whole of the left bank of the Rhine was taken by Napoleon’s empire for France in 1795. I found out more about this time from a very helpful website describing the Rhineland Under the French.

The “Rhineland” only emerged as a united political entity in the first half of the 19th century. Before 1794 the area on both sides of the Rhine, between the river Moselle and the Dutch border, comprised a patchwork “rag-rug”, made up of many different territories and princedoms. …The French Revolution of 1789 was the event which influenced the political landscape in that epoch, beyond the borders of France and also in the longer term. …In 1794 revolutionary France conquered the regions left of the Rhine, which Napoleon subsequently annexed in 1801. They were systematically brought into line with the legal, administrative and political conditions in France. In 1802 the French constitution, le Code Civil, was introduced. The achievements of the revolution enacted in the Code Civil included the equality of all people before the law, an independent judiciary and the universal right to vote. However, “people” were still only defined as men; women were regarded as the chattels of men and were not recognized as independent persons.

It seems that the forces of empire and the forces of democratic ideals were beginning to wrestle with each other in those times, and I am very curious what my Gerling ancestors might have made of it all. Gerhard Gerling is described as a “hotel meister” (manager?) so he would have fit into the newly emerging class of small business people–whether by owning or working in a hotel.

In 1815, Prussia gained control of the area, and it became the new Prussian Rhine Province, but it had been irrevocably shaped by the prior years.

In 1815 the time of French influence was over, but had left behind far-reaching changes, which had been appreciated as a change for the better, especially in the areas of commercial law and administration. Therefore the population also resisted having to sacrifice such achievements for the sake of Prussian citizenship.

One thing that I wonder about. When sources say, “France took control,” or “Prussia took control”–they don’t mention the armies or the battles or what human cost might have been part of these shifts of power. It must have been difficult to live on the edges of these empires. In 1840, France threatened once more to claim the west bank, but it did not materialize. That was the year that the Gerlings, and many in their town of Osterath left it all behind to come to Missouri.

 

Sacred Trees and Resurrection

When I was looking through some old family photos, I wondered, what is this picture of a tree?  Then I saw my grandfather Heie Johnson almost hidden up in its branches.  I don’t know where it was taken, or by whom.  (Any Johnson relatives know the answer to that?)

Heie Johnson in a tree – Version 2

1930s

I’ve been doing a lot of research about my ancestors, trying to understand their legacy in me, trying to understand colonization and the possibilities for a different way of being. I came across a story concerning the missionary efforts of Christians in early pagan Germanic lands.  It said,

The favoured method of showing the supremacy of the Christian belief was the destruction of the holy trees of the Germans. These were trees, usually old oaks or elm trees, dedicated to the gods. Because the missionary was able to fell the tree without being slain by the god, his Christian god had to be stronger.

This is a sadly perfect example of the colonization forces of Christianity–that part of its history which is about domination, conquest, and empire.  But since today is Easter, I wanted to go back to something I learned from Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Parker, in their book, Saving Paradiseabout another force in the history of Christianity, a force that moved against domination on behalf of equality and interconnection.

They researched the visual world of early Christian worship, and what they found were beautiful mosaics: a deep green meadow under a blue sky, flowers, a tree with four rivers flowing from its roots spreading out over the land. There were sheep in the meadow and a figure of a man who was the shepherd of the sheep, with a kind and radiant face turned toward the people. There were men and women, all with radiant faces, each one holding in their hands a laurel wreath crown.

Each week as part of worship, after the readings and hymns, after the sermon and prayers, there was a communal potluck feast for all the members of the church. As people sat down together, those of the upper class were sitting next to workers and servants. Special attention was given to widows and their children, and to all the elders. At this holy communion meal, all brought what they had to share, and partook of its bounty together.

According to Brock and Parker’s research, this would have been the experience of Christians in the early centuries of Christianity. Most people were unable to read, but the symbolism of the images around them would be immediately apparent: the Garden of Eden, the original Paradise. The tree in the meadow was the tree of life described in the book of Genesis.  At the center of this early Christian worship was a celebration of the resurrection of Jesus. He was the radiant man tending sheep, the Good Shepherd, a living presence in their midst. They believed that by his resurrection, he had restored the original paradise, and reestablished the presence of the divine spirit within the whole created earth.

The Christian community was meant to be the living embodiment of this resurrection paradise. In the midst of a world controlled by the harsh realities of the Roman Empire, they came together to celebrate a new earth, imbued with the beauty and grace of divine blessing. They were an oasis of care and connection. Their vision of radical equality undermined traditional social status, and they operated a vast social welfare program that offered livable options for the poor and enslaved. When someone became a Christian, they dedicated all of their material belongings to the community. Christians were not allowed to kill or become soldiers in the army. They were striving for life in Paradise.

One thing that Brock and Parker did not find, in the visual world of the early church, was any representation of Jesus being crucified on a cross. Early Christians acknowledged the crucifixion and death of Jesus. Many of them had probably seen actual crucifixions, since the Romans carried out this brutal form of execution in public places, to terrify the populace and reinforce their imperial control. But for the followers of Jesus, the church itself—their communal gathering—was not a place to be filled with images of torture and cruelty. It was the place to remember that love was stronger than empire, and that heaven was possible here on earth.

It was only much later—nine centuries later—that the church first created images of Jesus on the cross.  Brock and Parker asked, “Why did Christians turn from a vision of paradise in this life to a focus on the Crucifixion and final judgment?” In their book, they trace the complex changes—century by century—that could account for such a development. Their trail of clues led to the 8th century, when the Frankish King Charles the Great, better known as Charlemagne, attempted to conquer and annex the Saxon people’s lands along the Rhine River. (Some of my ancestors lived along the Rhine River.)

The Saxons had practiced a hybrid form of Christianity, a blending of the Christian story with their earlier pagan practices—Thor and Woden and Jesus were all acknowledged, and their worship was held in sacred groves of oak trees or around holy springs. The Franks justified their expansionist assaults by claiming that the Saxons were not true Christians. They cut down the sacred oaks, and deforested the whole countryside. They baptized the Saxons under threat of death. The Saxons kept rebelling decade after decade, but ultimately lost the wars. And, sadly, it was their descendants (also my ancestors) who eventually carved that first image of Jesus on a crucifix, and carried out the first pogrom against their Jewish neighbors.

Christianity, once offering hope for those persecuted by the empire, had become the official religion of empire.  By the middle ages, paradise had been relegated to the afterlife, and the communion feast had been turned into story of death and sacrifice and judgement. It was in the 11th century that Bishop Anselm of Canterbury created the “theology of atonement.” This interpretation of Christianity, still haunting us today, claimed that humanity’s sins had so offended the almighty God that it required the sacrifice of his son Jesus on a cross, to bear the punishment for all of our sins. (If you thought that this was what all Christians believe, did you realize it only started in the 11th century?)

Worship was no longer a communal gathering of peace and love, but became visually and ritually punishing, intended to stir up fears of future horrors. The priest at the communion table was said to be re-enacting the death of Jesus each time, and this sacrifice was an indictment of all humanity. This death-focused theology found its natural counterpart in the Crusades. While up to then, Christians had been forbidden to shed blood without doing penance, now the boundary line was drawn at the church doors. Soldiers were promised heaven if they died in battle killing Muslims, Jews, or heretics. And so the process of colonization continued.

Decolonization is about learning the stories of our history, and rejecting the beliefs and practices that involve domination, conquest, and subjugation.  But decolonization also includes uncovering the liberating threads we might find in the midst of the forces of domination.  The stories of the early Christians around a communal shared meal are stories that give me hope. The stories of the people of the Rhineland worshiping in groves of sacred trees give me hope.

And here’s a new question:  the Christian missionaries thought their god could conquer the old gods, because they weren’t immediately killed when they cut down the sacred trees. But maybe they just got the timeline wrong. Because now, after too many trees have been cut down over the last many centuries, we are all in danger of losing our lives.  The destruction of the forests threatens the whole planet. I think we need to bring back the sacred trees.

The picture of my grandfather in a tree gives me hope.  I think he knew that the divine was present with him in that tree.  And these days, my own worship includes planting young trees in this place I call home.

Read this book:  Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Parker, Saving Paradise: How Christianity Traded Love of This World for Crucifixion and Empire, (Beacon Press, 2008), I quoted from pp. 263-271, and pp. 224ff.