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More Lessons from the Aztecs

Amazon.com: Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs: 9780190673062: Townsend,  Camilla: Books

A few more points to highlight from Camilia Townsend's Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs.

"It required thousands of years of effort on the part of Mexico's women to turn those little tufts [of kernels on teosinte] into what we would recognize as ears of corn."

Why is this observation significant?  One of her themes in the book is the resilience of the people of central Mexico in facing hard times and a constantly changing world.  So way in their prehistory we have this example.  Untold generations slowly genetically modifying a plant into a nutritious, edible grain.  Could we draw any hope and inspiration and resolve from this?

Writing about the formation of early Nahua culture in the central valley, she says, "To do good, a person had to suppress egotism and do what was best calculated to keep his or her people alive and successful in the long term.  Everyone was expected to give thought to the future."  What a good lesson for us.

She writes about how Nahua storytellers had different versions of stories and histories that would be publicly, orally performed.  And part of the ritual was purposely to hear these various versions.  From this she concludes, "The expression of different points of view, they knew, worked to bind people together."  And in another place, "To them, truth was necessarily multiple; they knew that no single person could give a full account of an important moment."

In a chapter about the Mexica's attempts to respond and survive in the early days of the conquest, she writes about how they worked hard to record stories and preserve their language and states, "If they could not remember their past, how could they articulate demands for their future?"

In a chapter on the third generation after the conquest, she writes, "They would experience loss, but it would never be permanent.  Life was not easy, but it was nevertheless profoundly good.  It was too simple to say that any enemies, including the Europeans, could ever bring pure evil or utter devastation to the land."

As I wrote in previous posts while reading and reviewing this book, I resonated with its key takeaways about a life of resilience in the midst of catastrophe, about learning to live well in a world that is constantly changing, of being flexible and persistent.  Virtues that we definitely need for the times in which we live.

 

 

 


Fifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs

Fifth Sun: A New History of the AztecsFifth Sun: A New History of the Aztecs by Camilla Townsend
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"This was no stable world of immutable beliefs but instead a shifting, constantly altering world."

This is a marvelously well-written history of the Aztecs. Subverting the standard little bit of that history most of us know. And presenting a rich, mesmerizing culture full of complex and interesting characters and ideas.

One of her goals is to present the conquest as a turning point in Mexica history and not as the ending, so the conquest comes in the middle of the book. The early chapters are on the rise of the Mexica and the creation of Tenochtitlan within the context of the larger Nahuatl culture of the central basin. Then the later chapters are how generations of Mexica responded to the conquest and maintained their language, culture, and identity in the face of crisis.

So they come across as excellent guides to resilience in the midst of catastrophe.

In each chapter she focuses on particular characters and paints them in vivid detail. There is Shield Flower, early in Mexica history crying out at her captors. Flamingo Snake, the performer, who charms a king. Malintzin who in a crucial moment claims her voice and agency leading to her rescue and power. Tecuichpotzin, with whom you suffer the indignities of a royal princess at the time of conquest. And Chimalpahin the historian who works devoutly to rescue the stories of his people.

I'm grateful to have met them and others and to now have a better grasp of this part of our human story.

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The Consolations of History: On Consolation Part 4

 

The next three chapters of Michael Ignatieff's On Consolation explore the theme at the nexus of the personal and political realms by focusing on Condorcet, Marx, and Lincoln.  Each faced personal despair as part of larger historical, political forces that also required consolation for the public.  Condorcet was a believer in the more rational, early part of the French Revolution, and thus despised by the Jacobins.  He continued, from hiding, to argue that rational self-government and human progress were possible.  Marx also sought consolation in his understanding of history and vision for the future, in a revolutionary politics that would create a more just world.  Both men were critical of religion for holding people back from taking the steps into a better human society.  Marx in particular found the consolations of religion distracted people from the work that needed to be done.  

Ignatieff has a very telling description of Marx's vision:

It was a utopia that was only possible to believe in if you had faith that human beings as they actually were--harassed, lonely, oppressed, selfish, and envious--could be transformed by revolutionary change.  Why bother with revolution if, on the other side, you were left with men as miserably individualistic, as egotistical and divided as before.

Lincoln, of course, did find solace in religious traditions.  He is also less optimistic and utopian than Condorcet and Marx.  He has a humility about even his own side in the war.  

Ignatieff focuses on the majestic Second Inaugural Address.  Every time I'm in the Lincoln Memorial I, of course, re-read the words engraved on the wall.  And every time I cry.

Lincoln believed humility created space for mercy and reconciliation, at the same time believing that a righteous God had judged everyone for their complicity in the sins of the nation.

Ignatieff concludes by holding up Lincoln as an example for our times.  He writes, "He struggled with exactly what we struggle with: the tidal force of political malice that recurrently rises and threatens the hard-won civility on which a democracy depends.  What helped him, as it might help us, was the tenacity with which he forced the best traditions he had inherited--in this case the Gospels and the Psalms--to deliver insight and perspective."  And so Ignatieff draws from Lincoln this lesson for us:  "That we are not condemned to live imprisoned in the rhetoric, foolishness, and mendacity of the present."

May it be so.


1491

1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I had been intending to read this book for many years, but was waiting around till I picked up a copy at a book sale or used bookstore. And finally did this year. While I had high expectations for the book, it exceeded them and really blew me away. Not only was my understanding of pre-Columbian indigenous societies in the Americas limited, much was incorrect or ignorant.

What was most interesting was his emphasis on how indigenous people actively shaped and cultivated the landscape for thousands of years. Europeans did not find a wilderness, and the parts that appeared more wild had only recently become that way when the local populations had been destroyed by European diseases and had not continued their long maintenance of the land. The most surprising revelation of all in this theme of Mann's is the notion that the Amazon forest was an intentionally cultivated orchard and not a wild jungle.

I highly recommend this book.

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Reconstructing Thanksgiving

Reconstructing Thanksgiving

Matthew 6:25-33

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational Church

21 November 2021

            Six ancestors of mine traveled on the Mayflower and landed at Plymouth Rock in December 1620.  Four of them died in the first winter.  The teenager Elizabeth Tilley lost her parents, aunt, and uncle.  The adolescent John Howland, who arrived as an indentured servant to the colony’s governor John Carver, survived the winter, but his master and mistress did not.  John and Elizabeth later wed and lived long lives in which they produced a large family and gained wealth and status.  I am rightly proud of my ancestors and draw strength from their example of endurance, courage, resilience, and faith. 

            Wanting to know more about these family heroes, I’ve read a lot in the history of the colony.  I’ve gained a better understanding of the theology that animated them, of the great risks they encountered and overcame, of their roles in forming the values of democracy, representative government, and religious freedom. 

            But any reading of that history also informs one of the colony’s relations with the indigenous people and how that relationship was far more complex and ultimately violent and unjust than the Thanksgiving myth we learned as kids presented the relationship as being.  Last week in our worship, we explored those critical questions and deconstructed the myth.  Which leaves us asking: Once we’ve interrogated the myth with these critical perspectives, what value can this 400th anniversary hold for us?  For me it is very personal—how to look at my ancestors with honesty—to value what there is to value, to honor what there is to honor, and to regret what deserves regret and remorse.

            In biblical studies, in the study of how we interpret scripture, there is an understanding that we humans take three broad approaches to scripture, and these somewhat align with developmental stages.  We first approach scripture with naiveté, accepting the stories at face value.  Then, usually beginning in adolescence or young adulthood, we realize that there are critical questions we want to raise about the text.  For some people, of course, these critical questions lead to a deconstruction of belief that results in disbelief.  For others, the asking of critical questions can lead to no longer taking the stories at face value, but continuing to find some value and truth in them.  Those folks then usually advance to the third broad approach, which is called post-critical naiveté.  In this phase, we are aware of the critical problems and continue to interrogate the text with them, but we don’t get stuck in the critical mindset.  We move on to embrace the stories again looking for what truths they tell, what values they hold, what meaning they might have for us. 

            It is this broad interpretative approach that has guided my study of the Thanksgiving story as I prepared for this worship series to mark this 400th anniversary.  We can’t accept the Thanksgiving story that we once did with no exploration of the critical questions.  Our commitments to fairness, justice, honesty, integrity compel us to ask those questions.  But I don’t believe that means rejecting the story completely and disposing of it as having no meaning or value or importance to us.  It is more than a relic.  I believe we can still learn from and be inspired by it.  That’s my goal in today’s sermon.

            To help us in this exercise, I first want to turn to an idea from Hispanic theology.  That might seem a little surprising when we are basically concerned about the interactions between a group of English people and Wampanoag Indians.  But Mexican-American theology is derived from the colonial experience and the mixing of various races and ethnicities and the liminal spaces along national frontiers.  It can enrich our understanding of how theology intersects with culture and identity.

            And in particular I want to look at the concept of fiesta.  This summer I read the book Galilean Journey: The Mexican-American Promise by Virgilio Elizondo.  Elizondo presents fiesta as one of the “symbols of new creation.”  He writes, “The tragedies of [Mexican-American] history have not obliterated laughter and joy, warm friendship and the capacity to love.”  He writes that in their culture there exists a “propensity for celebration.”  This is the fiesta, which he then describes as “the mystical celebration of a complex identity, the mystical affirmation that life is a gift and is worth living.”  And very importantly, this celebration comes in the midst of and acknowledging “the very contradictions that are of the essence of the mystery of human life.” 

            Elizondo then ties the concept of fiesta to some of Christianity’s oldest and deepest values.  He writes,

From the very beginning Christianity saw itself living out a new universal love that would not be limited by cultural or religious boundaries.  This new love came through many cultures but at the same time transcended them by opening them up to the wealth and riches of other cultures.

            Elizondo concludes that this is part of God’s “new creation.”  The new identities formed through the mixing of cultures represents the fullness of the kingdom of God which “bypasses human segregative barriers.”

            For three days in the autumn of 1621 a group of Wampanoag and English sat down to eat together.  They celebrated the harvest, which could only have come about from the Wampanoags helping the colonists learn how to farm in this new land.  They were also honoring an alliance which had formed for their mutual benefit.  They didn’t fully trust one another.  They weren’t close friends.  But, they were practicing the ancient rites of both people to honor one another with hospitality, generosity, and gratefulness. 

            And, so, that celebration we call “the First Thanksgiving” was an opening to a possible future.  It was the beginnings of a fiesta and might have led to more learning from one another and true friendship and cooperation.  And we know that for some English and Wampanoag it did.  There are stories of true friendship, of cooperation, of mutual respect, even if the atrocities of colonial history are far more dominant. 

            So, can we still honor that moment in time as a moment when possibilities crossed boundaries?  When a little of God’s plan for the world broke through fear and racism and skepticism, if just for a moment? 

            One reason I think we can is what Thanksgiving has come to mean across the centuries.  In every community I’ve ministered in, Thanksgiving is the one time a year when people of various faiths and ethnicities generally come to together for worship and fellowship.  Interfaith Thanksgiving services are common throughout this country.  Omaha’s is today at 5 at First Christian Church.  Why are those held this week?  If not because we contemporary Americans see in that past event an opportunity.  Maybe an opportunity that wasn’t fully taken then and still now isn’t fully taken, but we are trying.  And so I love that this is the week every year when I’m most likely to join in worship with Jews and Muslims and even sometimes Indigenous people. 

            This is also the time of year when even the most secular Americans generally focus, at least some of their attention and dollars, on helping other people.  Through this holiday and Christmas, Americans donate food and clothing and money and volunteer their time to help the poor and the hungry and unhoused.  And we have a record of being one of the most generous of nations.  Is that because we’ve spent centuries now practicing Thanksgiving?  Being grateful for our blessings and then from that, sharing those blessings with others?  Surely, the focus of this holiday has had a pedagogical effect upon us as a people.

            So, there is much in the Thanksgiving story that requires critical questions and compels our regret and remorse, but there are also ideals to value.  To pick up and develop and do an even better job of living into them.

            And maybe that’s how we Congregationalists, at our best, have used the story.  I mentioned last week that Margaret Bendroth, the longtime Congregational archivist, has claimed that the way we embraced the Pilgrim story is what helped us to avoid fundamentalism and to become the progressive denomination we have. 

            Bendroth writes that Congregationalists used history to unite them, rather than shared doctrine, biblical interpretation, or denominational structure.  And all along they edited out aspects of that history and embraced others.  The values they embraced from the Pilgrims were adventure, freedom, and an openness to possibilities.  Obviously that romanticizes and maybe even white-washes a group that was rather dogmatic.  But it’s not like those values are absent from the Pilgrim story, they are present. 

            She writes that Congregationalists at their best learned to study and reflect on their history and to ask questions about it.  Which led to living with ambiguity and embracing the new.  That enabled Congregationalists to be more open to liberal interpretations of scripture when those arose and to embrace modern advances more easily. 

            She writes that the focus on history also meant that Congregationalists understood that there’s wasn’t only one story, one perspective.  That there were others.  Which led to Congregationalists being at the forefront of ecumenical developments. 

            And in recent decades the UCC has been open about embracing the moral complexity of its past and trying to learn from it in order to create a more just world and a better future.  Bendroth concludes her book by writing:

The past is as real and as consistently challenging as the people who created it, and its demands are not easily satisfied.  The most important work of any religious tradition is to recognize—sometimes to celebrate and other times to fiercely mourn—its enduring power.

            What, then, does this 400th anniversary mean for us? 

            It’s a chance to examine our story, to ask questions about it, to realize the ways it has shaped us for good and bad.  And to then learn from it. 

            To learn what was wrong.  What we don’t want to embrace.  What we don’t want to follow.  What we want to repent for.

            But also to learn what was of value.  What can inspire us and make us better.

            To learn what opportunities and possibilities it did present.  And how we can emulate those in our time and our place.  And do better.

            So, we need a fiesta—a celebration, that crosses the boundaries of identity and culture, and helps to imagine and embody the kingdom of God. 

            400 years after that meal between the Pilgrims and Wampanoag, we can do that.  And what better holiday than this one?  Happy Thanksgiving.


This Land Is Their Land

This Land Is Their Land: The Wampanoag Indians, Plymouth Colony, and the Troubled History of ThanksgivingThis Land Is Their Land: The Wampanoag Indians, Plymouth Colony, and the Troubled History of Thanksgiving by David J. Silverman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ahead of this year's 400th anniversary of "the First Thanksgiving" I wanted to read this Wampanoag based account that stands as a corrective to the myth. This is a very good and effective book. And even though I've read a number of historical accounts of Plymouth colony, there was much I learned or saw in new perspective while reading this book.

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The Rock of Anzio

The Rock Of Anzio: From Sicily To Dachau, A History Of The U.S. 45th Infantry DivisionThe Rock Of Anzio: From Sicily To Dachau, A History Of The U.S. 45th Infantry Division by Flint Whitlock
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

While on vacation in July, my son and I visited the 45th Infantry Museum in Oklahoma City. I'd like known about it but had never stopped there. It's an excellent little museum.

My mother's father was in the 45th and seriously wounded at the Battle of Anzio, spending six months in the hospital and carrying shrapnel in his body near his spine the rest of his life. After touring the museum, I realized I wanted to know more details, so I bought this book in the gift shop.

While often harrowing in its details about combat, the book inspires with the stories of courage from ordinary fellows who are pushed to human extremes.

If you enjoy WWII or military history, I recommend it.

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Freedom in the Making of Western Culture

Freedom: Freedom In The Making Of Western CultureFreedom: Freedom In The Making Of Western Culture by Orlando Patterson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What a remarkable achievement.

One is impressed by the sheer breadth of this work. The number of disciplines in which Patterson is well read, evidences understanding, and is able to synthesize--sociology, history, philosophy, classics, literature, theology, biblical studies. His chapters on Saint Paul demonstrate that he had read some of what at the time were the leading scholars on Paul and scholarship that was then new and paradigm shifting, but before the paradigm had fully shifted. One would expect someone not an expert in a field to only know the conventional understanding not the latest groundbreaking ideas.

One is also impressed by his analytical abilities, the way he structures an argument, and the eloquence he musters.

And there is the power and originality of his theses, the core one of which is that freedom, the central value of the Western world, is intimately tied to the history of slavery. And that the dark side of freedom has been carried into contemporary debates.

Other of this theses are also original and compelling, such as that it was women who first prioritized freedom and women who elevated personal freedom again at the close of the Middle Ages and the dawning of modernity.

A truly remarkable book.

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The Ornament of the World

The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval SpainThe Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews, and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain by María Rosa Menocal
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An enjoyable read about Medieval Spain and the ways in which the three monotheistic faiths interacted with one another and created one of the world's great and most influential cultures. The approach may be a bit romanticized, but who cares. We need to highlight those positive moments in world history that give us glimpses of what is possible.

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Music: A Subversive History

Music: A Subversive HistoryMusic: A Subversive History by Ted Gioia
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A really fun read. Gioia advances a few key theses in this history of music--that music is deeply connected to magic, that music is deeply connected to violence, that musical innovations are created by outsiders and eventually mainstreamed by the power structure. The latter means that he doesn't accept some of the standard histories that claim some prominent political or church leader introduced some innovation and he goes looking for where the ideas really came from. He's got a thesis as to why drums were not prominent in early country music, and it ties back to the prehistoric move from hunting to herding cultures. He defends universal aspects of music (arguing with ethnomusicologists) and often the common thread that connects geographically diverse cultures with similar music is the animals they kept. This is full of fun, provocative ideas and stories.

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