Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Navel of the World

My Israeli tour was based around Christian holy sites, but I had many goals for the trip. I wanted to sample the people, politics, and history of the place as much as its religious sites. I got all that and more.

We went where Jesus went. That took us to Jerusalem first, then Bethlehem, Jericho, Capernaum, Nazareth, etc. Most of the shrines are in Arab-controlled or Israeli-controlled areas with majority Arab populations, so it was helpful to have a Palestinian Arab tour guide. He is a devout Christian, a seventy-four-year-old grandfather who had gone to seminary as a young man but dropped out. His knowledge of Old and New Testament Scripture and of the history of his country was vast and much superior to my own.

I’d had eleven years of Catholic education that included religion classes every day, but it wasn’t my favorite subject. After graduating high school, I became indifferent toward my religion for ten or twelve years and started going back to church only when I had children and they began asking questions about God. I know the basics of Old and New Testament scripture and I believe them, but I’ve never been inclined to evangelism. My faith is a private thing. I’ll discuss it with other believers but I don’t like to push it on anyone and I don’t often write about it.

On our second night in Jerusalem we were taken up on the roof of our Vatican-owned hotel by a resident priest named Father Kelly from Ireland’s County Clare. We could see nearly all of the Old City and much the new Jerusalem. It was dusk as Father Kelly pointed to the Mount of Olives from which Christ entered the city through the Golden Gate on Palm Sunday. Then he pointed to the Church of the Dormition, next to which the Last Supper was held on Thursday. From there, he explained, Jesus walked across the Kidron Valley back toward the Mount of Olives to the Garden of Gethsemane where He suffered His agony in anticipation of what was to happen the next day, Good Friday. Judas betrayed Him there and He was led back into the Old City as a prisoner. Father Kelly pointed out all the places where Jesus was passed around between Caiphas, Herod and Pilate - where He was condemned, crucified, died, was buried, and rose from the dead. This is the essence of Christianity and I had no idea it all happened in such a small area. I got an overview of my faith both literally and figuratively.

Very early the next morning our group’s priest, Father Bob Vaillancourt, took a few of us into the Old City to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre before the crowds arrived. In that ancient building are the sites of both the Crucifixion and the Resurrection. Two thousand years ago, they were just outside the city wall in the open. Now they’re in a huge building that’s been built and destroyed over and over since the 4th century. Though I’d been taught about the events of Holy Week many times during the past fifty years and had come to accept them, something changed. My awareness of what happened there was no longer just intellectual. It suffused me.

Jerusalem is the navel of the world, holy to three great religions, the followers of which comprise more than 40% of the world’s population. We Christians walked among Jews at the Wailing Wall and among Muslims just above it at the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aksa Mosque. History abounds with stories of conflict between and among all three religions. The war we fight today can’t be understood without knowledge of what the three have in common and what is different about them.

The political environment wasn’t too different in Christ’s day 2007 years ago from it is today. Jews ran the Temple Mount, of which only the Wailing Wall remains. Romans, with their pantheon of gods, ruled Israel. They destroyed the Temple in AD 70. Islam, the religion of Muslims, didn’t exist until Muhammad established it 600 years later. Muslims conquered Jerusalem in 632 and built the Dome of the Rock on the site of the former Jewish Temple. Christians led a Crusade to take Jerusalem from Muslims in 1099. Muslims retook it in 1187. Jews re-conquered Jerusalem in 1967. So it goes. At any given time during the past three millennia, conflicts were either just ending or just about to begin in Jerusalem. Periods of peace were short-lived. Jesus was in it but not of it. He transcended it.

A week before going to Israel, I watched a film called “John Paul II” with John Voight in the title role. As a young man, John Paul was an actor and college student in Poland when Nazis took over his country. He wanted to take up arms against them but was persuaded by a local priest that he could resist more effectively as a priest. Then the Soviet Union took over Poland and he resisted them too, ultimately smashing their rule with the help of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. The Soviets sent an assassin who shot him twice in 1981, but he survived. Joseph Stalin once asked, famously: “How many divisions does the pope have?” A thousand years ago, popes had many. John Paul II, however, had none. As it turned out, he didn’t need any. Being the Vicar of Christ on earth was enough to defeat the Evil Empire.

John Paul II’s example was fresh in my mind when visiting Jerusalem and it helped me understand what Jesus did there there two thousand years ago.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

First Days in Israel

“What the heck are you going there for?” That was the usual reaction when I told people my wife and I were going to Israel for ten days. “Aren’t you afraid?” Truth be told I was, a little, but the perceived danger only made the trip more exciting. My wife went seven years ago and I promised to go with her some day. We planned a tour for last October, but it was postponed when Hezbollah attacked and Israel retaliated in late summer.

After landing in Tel Aviv, we took a bus for our hotel in Jerusalem. Our first guide was a Palestinian Christian who used a microphone to explain what we were seeing out the bus window. I saw wreckage of olive-green military equipment next to the highway, including the wreckage of a 1940s era aircraft. I knew them to be purposely left as a reminder of Israel’s 1948 War For Independence but our guide didn’t point them out. He was an Israeli citizen - one of over a million Arabs who are - but evidently he didn’t feel any patriotic pride in that phase of Israel’s history. It was a pattern I was to notice among other Israeli Arabs over the next few days. Can’t blame them, I guess.

There were small groups of young Israeli soldiers here and there along the highway. Most carried automatic rifles resembling M16s. Some were women who looked like teenaged girls. All Jewish citizens of Israel, male and female, must serve two years of active duty and about twenty in the reserves. Arabs are exempt, but they may volunteer. Of seven million Israelis, one million are Arab.

Our hotel, the Notre Dame Center, was built by the French in the 1880s and is owned by the Vatican today. Two popes, including John Paul II stayed here. It’s just outside the “New Gate” of the wall around the Old City. This wall - Jerusalem’s newest, was built by the Turk Suleiman five hundred years ago in preparation for another European Crusade that never came. Earlier walls mostly failed to keep out invaders because Jerusalem was destroyed seventeen times over its three-thousand-year history. Our hotel had been used as an Israeli bunker during the Arab invasions of 1948 and 1967 when fighting was intense. According to the hotel’s brochure: “The south wing, facing the Old City, became uninhabitable as a result of bomb explosions . . .” There were still pock marks of bullets in the limestone exterior, especially around windows.

We were warned not to go into the city alone and I needed sleep, but I was too excited just to be there. While my wife took a nap, I went through the gate into the old city looking for a bottle of wine. Walking the old, narrow, stone streets, I saw men sitting around and checking me out as I walked by - it was obvious I wasn’t a native. I found an old hotel not too far in and bought a nice bottle of red from Bethlehem. Back in our room I drank a glass and went to bed. I was woken up around 4:00 am Israeli time by a Muslim call to prayer from just inside the old city across the street. It went on for about fifteen minutes and I went back to sleep.

Wednesday morning, we took the bus into Bethlehem’s arid hill country, a few miles south of Jerusalem. It’s an Arab town inside the West Bank and under control of the Palestinian Authority. We had to pass a checkpoint through the large fence constructed by Israel to seal it off from the rest of Israel. Our guide disdained it. He said we should be building bridges, not fences. The Palestinian side was covered with graffiti, but in Arabic. I wished I could read it.

In Bethlehem there are twice as many Muslims as Christians. A few years ago it was just the opposite and I wondered why the change. There was little evidence of prosperity. Every dumpster overflowed with trash. Graffiti showed on most walls at street level. One was a spray-painted symbol with crossed automatic rifles which I think represents Hamas. Not wanting to ask, I decided to look it up when I get home.

The bus pulled into a parking garage next to a poster of Yassir Arafat. That was near Shepherd’s Field, where an angel appeared to them and announced the birth of Jesus Christ. You remember the carol: “Where shepherds watched their flocks by night . . .” There was electricity but the water wasn’t on to the restrooms. We met our new guide, I asked him why Christian Arabs were leaving. He said it was “the situation” and because they went away looking for jobs. I asked why Christian Arabs were moving away in greater numbers than Muslims but he didn’t want to talk about it. One of the first things he told us was that we could ask him questions about anything but politics. My question was demographic but, increasingly in Israel, as in Europe and in the United States, demographics is politics.

My first days in Israel, I learned about politics and people. During the next two, my religion was to come alive.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Lonely Grave

It’s a lonely grave. Most are of course, but this one is all by itself on a wooded hillside. A stone wall surrounds the gravestone and an old oak tree. You can tell the tree grew there when the hillside was a pasture. Massive limbs came out its trunk horizontally before heading skyward because sunlight was available all the way around for most of the tree’s life. Now, however, the sky is crowded with branches of taller white pines that choke out sunlight. Whoever made the cemetery likely planted the oak tree. Most of its limbs are dead now and the tree won’t live much longer. The gravestone shows a weeping willow etched on top of the dark, gray slate and one can still read the words clearly unlike inscriptions on the more popular marble stones which have disintegrated with acid rain over the years. It reads:

wife of Jacob Stiles
died August, 1848
AE 51 yrs 7m

Around the little cemetery beautifully-made, double stone walls snake over and around the steep forested knolls on what’s left of the old farm where Olive lived. Someone obviously took pride in their construction because they’ve held up well for more than a century and a half, but the cemetery enclosure is falling apart. I doubt it was built by the same person(s?) who made the others.

Down the wooded hillside and across an old road is a cellar hole. I assume it once held up the Stiles house, but I can’t be certain because roads on the old maps don’t always agree with what I could see on the ground, and I know why. There was a big wind in early December, 1980 that blew down a lot of timber in the area which is now mostly National Forest. The federal government built a new road through its holdings (which now include the old Stiles place) to salvage what timber it could. The government road doesn’t always follow the older roads on my maps.

The Stiles place was abandoned, probably after 1850 I’m guessing, and nobody hayed the hillside anymore. White pines and hardwoods took it over. The 1858 Stoneham Map is badly smudged in this area of Stoneham close to the Lovell town line near Horseshoe Pond and the nearest discernible house was then owned by someone named Stanley. There’s another home owned by someone named Gray further in toward the Stow town line. Both were gone on the 1880 map which shows fewer homes in that vicinity.

However, an eyewitness account was supplied to me by Lovell Historical Society’s Cathy Stone whose uncle, Arthur Stone, visited Olive Stiles’s grave in 1890 and again in the late 1930s. Stone describes the Stiles place as a cellar hole at “the end of the road.” In 1890, he’d hiked a road leading from near where Cold Brook goes into Kezar Lake westward toward Horseshoe Pond. The road is still discernible but not passable for vehicles of any kind. It comes out perpendicular to another road going from Joe McKeen Hill in Lovell northward over the Stoneham line to the new government road mentioned above where there’s a locked gate today. Stone said it was pasture all along this route in his day and still being grazed by cattle. It’s all woods now, however.

“Here on a rocky hillside farm . . . Jacob Stiles had lived and raised his family of eleven children” he wrote. “. . . . The Stiles farm stretched from the mountain top [Styles Mountain on the USGS map] down to the shores of Horseshoe Pond. . . . and Jacob Stiles doubtless named [the pond]. . . . About a half mile further out in the pasture there was a square lot enclosed on all four sides by a stone wall [containing] a slate grave stone . . .”

Remember, Stone was writing probably just before 1940 about both an 1890 trip and the more recent one: “Fifty years ago a small oak sapling was the only vegetation within the enclosure except the wild flowers that covered the ground. . . . Today, the oak sapling is a sturdy tree but otherwise nothing is changed.” Stone, also, called the grave lonely and “high on a hillside looking out over the pond and over miles of woodland to where in the south a low blue mountain wall stopped the vision.”

That view is gone in the 21st century, and can only be imagined. It must have been stunning. The 1941 USGS map confirms the area was still pasture.

Stone seems to have obtained information about the Stiles family from locals between his first visit and his second. “Olive was the second wife of Jacob . . . [she] brought up the first wife’s brood,” he wrote. Imagine stepping into that situation? Raising eleven children on the last farm at the end of the road in this remote corner of Maine? Olive Stiles must have been quite a woman.

“She undoubtedly won the affection of her [eleven] stepchildren,” wrote Stone. “The grave proves it. During her life she used to walk out along the cart path to the pasture and look out over the pond. Perhaps she and Jacob used to go out there in the long summer evenings after the chores were done. She thought the place was beautiful and told her family that when she died she hoped she could be buried there.” Stone suggested her stepsons built the stone wall around the grave. and that would fit with my observation. They didn’t build walls as well as their father did.
Stone owned a cabin on Horseshoe Pond and could look across toward the hillside pastures of the old Stiles farm. He dreamed of taking a moonlight stroll up there to sit near the grave in case Olive had something she wanted to whisper to him. We don’t know if she ever did, but perhaps she and Stone have communicated in some other place and time.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Hate Crime Absurdity

Our media is hypersensitive when it comes to reporting perceived insults to Muslim students in our schools, but downright obtuse when it comes to whatever may trouble Christian or Jewish students.

It was big news in Lewiston, Maine when a kid left a bag containing a piece of ham on a table in the lunch room where a group of Somalian immigrant students were sitting. The story made front page headlines in the Sun Journal, the city’s daily newspaper. It also ran on WMTW, the local TV station. The Boston Globe picked it up too. The April 19th Sun Journal reported:
One student has been suspended and more disciplinary action could follow a possible hate crime. Lewiston police are investigating, and the Center for the Prevention of Hate Violence is working with the school to create a response plan. . . . Placing ham where Muslim students were eating was "an awful thing" said Stephen Wessler, executive director of the Center for Prevention of Hate Violence. "It’s extraordinarily hurtful and degrading" to Muslims, whose religion prohibits them from being around ham. It’s important to respond swiftly, Wessler said.

There have been no reports I know of about how Muslims may be offended by classes teaching that homosexual behavior is normal and natural. Several public schools sponsor assemblies in which homosexual and transgender behaviors are natural too. Certainly there have been no front page headlines. Jews and Christians may be offended by such material also but our media is virtually silent about it. They must know that the Roman Catholic Church teaches that homosexuality itself is “intrinsically disordered” and homosexual behavior is sinful. Under Islam a homosexual act is punished with death by stoning. Orthodox Jews consider it an abomination. None of this comes up to leaving a bag containing a piece of ham on a table though.

Christian, Muslim and Jewish students must accept homosexuality in the schools even though it offends their religious beliefs. It’s legal in Maine and every other state since the recent Supreme Court ruling in “Lawrence vs Texas.” Muslim (and Jewish) students have to accept students in the lunch room who eat ham sandwiches even though it offends their religious beliefs because it’s legal too and always has been. The boy who left the bag with ham on the table was suspended because he was flaunting his dietary behavior around students who considered it offensive. It was “an awful thing . . . extraordinarily hurtful and degrading,” and the Sun Journal strongly suggested his suspension didn’t go far enough and more punishment was warranted because of an alleged “hate crime.”

A week after the ham incident, over five thousand public schools across the country observed a “Day of Silence” in support of homosexuality. Students at all these schools were encouraged to be silent for a day to protest purported harassment of gay and lesbian students. They were also encouraged to wear T-shirts and buttons supporting homosexuality. Events of this nature have been sponsored by public schools for more than ten years. Though no homosexuals were harassed that day, Christian students who were offended by the school’s orchestration of homosexual propaganda were. After peacefully expressing their opposition to what they consider brainwashing, dozens were suspended in several districts around California. In the Sacramento area, more than three thousand students stayed home to avoid exposure to pro-homosexual indoctrination. According to the Catholic news service

Other students concerned about the one-sided messages determined to wear clothing and distribute literature which peacefully highlighted the dangers of homosexuality. Dozens of religious students were disciplined for expressing their viewpoints at Inderkum, Rio Linda and San Juan high schools.

Did you hear anything about this anti-Christian harassment? Probably not. The same media outlets that trumpet “hate crimes” involving their pet minorities ignore similar incidents involving groups of which they disapprove. None of this comes up to leaving a piece of ham on a table, I guess. Anything that would make a particular group feel uncomfortable is a possible “hate crime” - unless that group is Christian.

American students have been disciplined for using the word “gay” as a pejorative. Our media regularly trumpets so-called hate crimes, many of which are later discovered to have been staged. The new Democratic Congress is pushing a beefed-up “hate crimes” bill adding sexual orientation to the list of potentially aggrieved minorities. Attempted enforcement of similar laws in the UK illustrate their absurdity. An 11-year-old boy, for example, was visited in his home by two policemen for calling another boy “gay” in an email. He was using the word to mean “stupid” as many children do, but in the UK it’s a hate crime. In another case, the Daily Mail reported last October:

14-year-old Codie Scott was arrested and thrown in a police cell for almost four hours after she was accused of racism for refusing to sit next to a group of Asian pupils in her class. Teachers reported the youngster . . . after she claimed it was impossible for her to get involved in the class ‘discussion’ because only one of the Asian pupils spoke English. She had her fingerprints and DNA taken but was eventually released without charge.

Mark Steyn, in his recent book American Alone reported on a UK homosexual charging a Muslim cleric with “homophobia” for preaching against homosexuality and the Muslim countercharging the homosexual with “Islamophobia” for criticizing Islam. UK Thought Police were having a difficult time sorting it out.

I can’t help but wonder what George Orwell would say about all this.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Students Discuss Guns

The first day back from spring break, I asked students what news stories they heard while they were gone.

“All those shootings in Virginia,” said a boy. Others nodded and several side conversations started, each about a detail of the story.

“I’d like to hear all your comments about it,” I said, “but only one at a time and let’s be systematic about it. First we’ll summarize what happened, then discuss why it happened, and finally how to prevent shootings like this in the future. So, who can sum up what happened?”

“An Asian guy killed two people in a dorm, then shot a whole lot more people a few hours later in another building,” said the boy.

“Okay. Any other details?”

“He had two guns and a lot of clips for them, and he just kept on shooting,” added another boy. “He sent a DVD of himself and all his guns to NBC too.”

“He bought the clips on Ebay,” said a girl.

“A teacher blocked the door so his students could jump out the window, and the guy killed himself when the police showed up,” said another student from the back of the room.

“All right. Why did he do it?” I asked.

“He killed a girl he had been dating,” said another girl, “and someone else who was in the dorm with her. Then he just went crazy and killed all those other people.”

“His teachers reported him when he wrote some papers that scared them.” said another. They said he needed counseling. He went away for a while when he was in high school, but it didn’t do any good I guess. He was really quiet. He didn’t talk to people.”

“Anything else about why he did it?” I asked.

“He was crazy,” said a boy.

“Obviously,” said a girl.

“How can we prevent shootings like this in the future?”

“Don’t let people like him have guns,” said the girl. “He was obviously crazy and he shouldn’t be able to buy guns.”

“Nobody was allowed to have guns at that school,” said a boy, “but he had them. You can’t stop people from getting guns.”

“The gun store has to check on people who want to buy guns, don’t they Mr. McLaughlin?” said the girl.

“States make gun laws and they’re different state to state,” I said. “Maine, for instance, is lenient about guns. Other states like Massachusetts or New York are stricter. Virginia is a lenient state, but the Virginia Tech campus was a ‘gun-free zone.’ The federal government has gun laws that all states must obey and an FBI check is necessary for anyone who wants to buy a gun at a gun shop. They check on whether the customer has committed a serious crime. I think Virginia checks his past for mental illness.”

“The guy was mentally ill though,” said a girl. “Why didn’t they find that out?”

“I don’t know,” I answered. “Maybe because he was in an institution when he was a minor child under eighteen and records are private. I’m not sure.”

“So, people can carry guns in Virginia, but not at Virginia Tech?” asked a boy.

“Nobody was allowed to bring guns onto the campus but the police and the school has its own police force.”

“They didn’t do much good, did they?” said a boy.

“Evidently not.”

“He shouldn’t have been a student at that school. Colleges shouldn’t let mentally ill people in.” said the girl.

“Many people struggle with emotional problems and mental illnesses and recover from them with medication or counseling or both. A lot of college students and a lot of professors do too, but it’s a private thing and you don’t hear about it. Most are not dangerous,” I said.

“If Virginia had tougher gun laws, he wouldn’t have been able to buy the guns,” said the girl, “and none of this would have happened.”

“He could still have bought the guns from someone else, just not a store,” said a boy. “Most people get guns that way and if the school let people have their guns in class, that guy would have been shot before he killed thirty-two people.”