Interfaith Lecture Recaps

Joel Hunter expands on evangelical Christianity in eighth Interfaith Friday


In the eighth edition of the Interfaith Friday Series, the Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson, vice president of religion, moderated a number of questions with interfaith advocate Joel Hunter, who represented evangelical Christianity.

Hunter served as a spiritual adviser to President Barack Obama from 2008 to 2017. He served on the boards of the National Association of Evangelicals from 2004 to 2017 and the World Evangelical Alliance from 2006 to 2017. He participated in the Global Christian Forum in Bangkok, Thailand; the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Melbourne, Australia; the U.S.-Islamic World Forum in Doha, Qatar; and the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations in Madrid, Spain. Hunter was senior pastor of Northland Church in Longwood, Florida, for 32 years.

Now, Hunter serves as the chairman of the Community Resource Network, a nonprofit organization he founded that focuses on helping marginalized and homeless families.

What follows is an abridged version of Hunter’s conversation Friday in the Hall of Philosophy. Hunter and Robinson’s remarks have been condensed for clarity.

From where you sit in your tradition, why should we be moving in an interfaith direction either here at Chautauqua or in the world?

Just from a utilitarian perspective, we have problems in this world that are way too big — not only to solve with any one group, but even to move the needle with any one group. So if you are serious about any world problem — poverty, climate change, the marginalization of people, the persecution (of people) and so forth — we have to do that together. When I say together, I am not just talking about interfaith; I am talking about people of good faith and good will, people who have a basic humanitarian inclination that says, “I want everyone to be treated with respect, to be treated fairly.”

The second answer I would give to that is that the universe has been created in a complementary fashion. We see this in Scripture when God said, “It is not good for you to be alone.” We see this in the very nature and in the very ontology of God. But then he said, “I will make you a helper suitable.” In Hebrew, the word helper is “one who answers back.” Now, why did God do that? Not only because we are made in his image and were made for relationships, but there is a sense in which we only best operate in the midst of differences that can complement our deficiencies.

We see that all the way from quantum mechanics to the principle of entanglement. When two photons become somehow linked in a spooky universe, if you affect one, the other one eight miles away shows a reaction. So there is a principle built into our very creation of us being entangled together. In our faith tradition, there is a sense in which the church is made up of differences that fit together. We need each other, and that same principle is true in the world. Personally, we will not grow without befriending and advocating for people who are different than we are.

There is something that happens when you know someone who is different and you now have a friendship. When people talk to me about Muslims, they are not talking about Muslims in general, they are talking about my friend, Muhammad Muslih. Whatever they are saying better come out pretty well in that shape because this guy is my friend. There is something about this connection of differences that is really beneficial and we need personally.

When you come to the metaphorical interfaith table, what gifts do you bring as an evangelical Christian to that table? 

Just Jesus. Jesus or God. I was walking with a monsignor and I said, “I will tell you, evangelicals are so thankful for the 200 years of Catholic social, theological development. We are leaning heavily into what you guys have already studied, we are with you, thank you.” He said, “I will tell you what, we could use your passion. We need your passion because we tend to live in our heads and in our rituals. We need to be fired up, and that’s what evangelicals can bring us.” So maybe we can bring some fire.

What gifts do other religions bring to the table that you might benefit from? 

This is so fun for me because I go down my list of friends and I just see what they add to my life. So, Judaism is our mother religion, and you’re always nice to your mama. There is a sense of identity. There are observant Jews and non-observant Jews, there are believer Jews and non-believing Jews, but there is a sense of cultural belonging that they have, and there is a sense in which there is a kinship there. That is such a healthy thing. There are always a dozen (religions) that point out that the world is the enemy, but there is a resilience there that all of us would benefit from knowing, because a lot of us tend to get panicked when we just get poked a couple of times.

With the Muslims, there is an obedience there, a simple obedience and observance that is quite admirable.

With the Hindus, I love the inclusiveness of the Hindus. Hindus have never met a belief they couldn’t go, “Alright, I kind of like this.” There is this warmth and this friendship. If you hear an evangelical say, “Tell me what you believe,” it’s like we are already on alert, but a Hindu goes, “No, really, tell me about what you believe. I would be interested and maybe I could believe some of that, too.”

For Buddhists, there is this sense of, “Don’t throw all of your eggs in the basket of this world. Don’t think that just because something has happened in this world, it is the end of the world or the end of your life.” When Buddhists practice right, there is this healthy detachment. There are a lot of great qualities that all of us can learn from.

Do you have any sacred texts or holy teachings that are telling you that yours is the one true religion? 

Yes. In John 14:6 (Jesus said), “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Don’t get all offended, or be offended, I don’t care. Yes, Jesus is the center of our universe. He is the creator of the universe. In the beginning was the word, the word was with God, the word was God, nothing was made if not made through him, and the word became flesh and dwelt among us. So he is the organizing principle of the universe.

There are two ways to interpret that Scripture. One is exclusively. If you’re not an active, believing, follower of Jesus Christ and have given your whole life to him, then you are going to hell. That is the exclusive way. If you can’t get to the Father, give it up, you’re going to hell.

There is another (interpretation), though. There are several Scriptures I could point you to that would be more inclusive in its interpretation and it gives room for “I haven’t had the opportunity to hear who Jesus is,” or they have lived in a world where that option was not a viable option for them. That is not to say that his death on the cross hasn’t also paid for those. Because remember what he said on the cross? “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do.” Ignorance is a line of defense, and he was dying for those who were ignorant and pleading for their forgiveness at the same time.

So, yes. On one hand, I believe that all that is goes through Jesus Christ, but that does not necessarily mean that I think that everybody who doesn’t carry around the label of Jesus Christ is doomed.

Do you have extremist practitioners of evangelical Christianity? 

I used to, and still do, defend my Islamic brothers and sisters when people accused Islam as a religion of terrorism. That can’t be any more possible than Christianity as a religion of KKK people. There is a great propensity for all of us to try to justify what we do through the use of Scripture and to somehow contort the natural meaning of Scripture into something that is not at all like Jesus. So we do have lots of folks now who are claiming to have Biblical backing, but remember, the devil knew Scripture. Those of you who are Christian, remember the desert temptation — it talked about the devil coming and quoting Scripture to Jesus in order to tempt him. Well, he still does. Those who are anti-God still use Scripture to justify what they are doing to make it seem like that is what God would want.

Clara Ester reflects on memories with Martin Luther King Jr. in interfaith lecture


Clara Ester will never forget the look on Martin Luther King Jr.’s face as he lay beside her on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. However, even 50 years later, she still can’t manage to describe it without nearly falling apart.

At 2 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 15,  in the Hall of Philosophy, Ester gave her lecture, “Spirituality, Advocacy and Activism: an MLK-Inspired Life,” presented in conversation with the Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson, Chautauqua’s vice president of religion.

Ester, a retired deaconess of the United Methodist Church, is also the founder of People United to Advance the Dream. Her lecture was a part of Week Eight’s interfaith theme, “Not to be Forgotten: A Rememberance on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.”

Ester has dealt with the effects of racism her entire life, but it wasn’t always clear to her that was what she was facing.

She grew up in Memphis, Tennessee, in an all-black neighborhood and attended all-black schools and churches.

“I could ride anywhere I wanted on the bus because the bus came to our neighborhoods to take us downtown,” she said.

Once she arrived downtown, she was always dropped off at the back door of her destination.

“We would enter and go down into the basement, never understanding that they had seven to eight floors in that store that we were not allowed to shop in,” she said.

When she was 5 years old, her mom took her and her brother to Chattanooga, Tennessee, to see Lookout Mountain. Because of her Native American ancestry, Ester’s mother could often pass as Caucasian, so when they arrived at Lookout Mountain, the employees said nothing to her. Ester believes this is only because they could not see her and brother at the time.

Once the family was inside the park, Ester and her brother went into the bathroom.

“It looked like a mansion,” she said. “It was spotless, clean, they had tables to change the baby, they had mints on the counter.”

But then the two of them were spotted, and Ester said the entire day changed.

“A gentleman came over to my mom with his nger in her face and said, ‘You know better,’” she said.

Therefore, Ester’s family left the park and went across the street to eat breakfast at a cafe, but Ester’s brother was forced to wait outside.

“My mother would not allow my brother to go into the cafe,” she said. “It was not the thing, in those days, for a young, black male, 7 years old, to look at a white woman.”

Ester said she remembers asking her mom what happened that first day in the park. But all her mother would say was “one day,” she would tell Ester.

Ester’s church pastor was James Morris Lawson Jr., a leader in the civil rights movement who advocated for the use of nonviolent tactics.

“Jim was into everything civil rights,” she said. “He even came back from India and shared with the staff and Dr. King the nonviolent concept.”

Ester said in the wake of the Freedom Rides, her church became a “holding ground” for travelers so they did not have to sleep on the highway at night. Many of them were white, and Ester and many others helped make food for them and their families.

“It allowed you to understand the urgency that some white people had for things that are not correct, for injustices,” Ester said. “There were young couples that wanted to stand up and say this was wrong.”

During her junior year of college, the sanitation strike began. It all started on Feb. 1, 1968.

There was a thunderstorm, but in Memphis, the Public Works Department required all of their black sanitation workers to continue working. That day, two sanitation workers, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, took shelter from the rain in the back of their garbage truck. As Cole and Walker rode in the back of the truck, an electrical switch malfunctioned, the compactor turned on, and they were crushed. The Public Works Department refused to compensate their families.

“What happened from that, from their death, was 1,300 sanitation workers stood up a week later and refused to go to work,” Ester said. “The strike took a very active role in the city. Can you imagine garbage not being picked up around here for a couple months?”

Lawson contacted King about the strike, and King came to speak with the sanitation workers. When he left, he promised he would return soon.

When King returned to Memphis on April 3, 1968, the first thing he was told was that there were threats against his and his wife’s lives. Ester said King declared those threats were meaningless to him.

“He talked about seeing the mountaintop and that we as a people will get there one day,” she said. “He said he was not afraid of anything because his eyes had seen the glory.”

As a way to get involved in the movement, Ester would leave school to prepare food for sanitation workers to take home. On April 4, 1968, a member of the church staff came into the room to invite everyone to get catfish that night.

Ester arrived at the Lorraine Motel grill for catfish, and King was exiting his room.

“He was laughing and talking to everybody and telling Ben Branch to play his favorite song, ‘Precious Lord,’ ” she said.

Then she heard the gunshot.

“I remember seeing people ducking and somebody hollering, ‘Get down, get down,’ ” she said. “The whole time, I was looking up.”

Ester said she doesn’t remember how she got there, but she arrived at the top of the balcony, stepped over King’s body and began to feel for a pulse.

“There was maybe something moving, but it didn’t appear that his stomach was even moving,” she said.

To aid his breathing, Ester unbuckled his belt and pants. She then asked for a towel to press against the wound on the right side of his neck.

The thing Ester said that has stuck with her all of these years later is the expression on King’s face as he lay beside her.

“He talked about the mountaintop and his eyes were open, and he had the most pleasant expression on his face because he was talking and laughing,” Ester said. “So his eyes are open, with a smile on his face. ‘I may not get there with you, but we as a people will get to the mountaintop.’ I will never forget his face.”

Ester said the church staff went to the hospital with King, but before they returned, she knew he was no longer with them.

Ester still does not believe it was solely James Earl Ray who assassinated King.

“I am not making a public statement saying this was a set up, but deep in my heart, how does a man who is in prison escape from prison and have enough money to stalk Dr. King in Atlanta, and then make his way to Memphis without some kind of support?” she said.

Ester said there are still many details that do not add up, and even five decades later, more details are still surfacing.

According to Ester, Lawson met with Ray on many occasions and even performed his jail cell marriage and, later, his funeral service.

At one point, Lawson told Ester that Ray did not do it.

“Will that ever change?” she said. “Who knows. Fifty years later, we are getting information. We are seeing the information the government holds on to.”

Ester said she struggled with hating white people after King’s death, but the lessons he left behind helped her heal.

“That hate started building up in me,” Ester said. “He changed my life because I could see those eyes; I could see them looking toward those pearly gates and saying we are going to get there and realizing we couldn’t get there through hate. How can I hate people and make this world any better?”

Apologizing for her previous animosity toward white people, Ester told the audience that she wants to work on creating a better world together, regardless of differences.

“We have to get busy building relationships, quicker and faster,” she said. “I have to love everybody in this room before I leave Saturday morning to start making a difference in this world. It has to be personal. Together, if we work together, we can change and make this world better.”

Peniel Joseph outlines moments in ‘heroic’ civil rights movement


Peniel Joseph refers to his mother as his first historian.

As an immigrant from Haiti, Joseph’s mother raised him in New York City during the race riots of the 1960s. The city was afire with protests against racism and de facto segregation, but she refused to shield him from the flames. Standing with him on his first picket line at 9 years old, it was his mother, a black feminist, trade unionist and activist, who inspired him to create change.

At 2 p.m. Tues., Aug. 14, in the Hall of Philosophy, Joseph, the founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the University of Texas at Austin, gave his lecture, “The Passion of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: How the King Assassination Continues to Shape American Democracy,” as part of Week Eight’s interfaith theme, “Not to be Forgotten: A Rememberance on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.”

“My mother believed in human rights and social justice with every fiber of her being, and she really tried to transplant that feeling and that belief in both of her sons,” Joseph said.

According to Joseph, the “heroic” civil rights movement took place from May 17, 1954, to Martin Luther King’s assassination on April 4, 1968.

“When we think about that heroic period of the civil rights movement, in a way — as Americans and even globally — that period unspools cinematically for all of us,” he said.

In 1954, the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case decision declared separate public schools for black and white students to be unconstitutional.

In 1955, Emmett Till was murdered in Money, Mississippi.

In the same year, Rosa Parks and King, who served as a spokesperson for the Montgomery Bus Boycott, fought for the end of racial segregation on buses in Montgomery, Alabama, which they achieved in 1956.

In 1957, the Little Rock Nine, a group of nine African-American students, enrolled in Little Rock Central High School. Their enrollment was followed by the Little Rock Crisis, in which Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus called in the state National Guard to prevent the black students from entering the high school. However, later that month, President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent in federal troops to escort the Little Rock Nine into the school.

The start of the direct action movement took place in February 1960. As a result of that, four black students from North Carolina A&T College sat down at a Woolworth lunch counter in downtown Greensboro, North Carolina. That sit-in movement expanded from four students to tens of thousands of people by spring.

Joseph said the most important part of the sit-in movement was that it became the “seed bed” for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

“SNCC is going to be the group that are the designated shock troops of American democracy,” he said. “It is SNCC that is thinking about interracial democracy. It is SNCC that is talking about environmental justice and anti-war activism.”

In 1961, Freedom Riders rode interstate buses into the segregated South to fight for the enforcement of the Supreme Court decision in Boynton v. Virginia, which declared segregation of interstate transportation facilities, including bus terminals, unconstitutional.

“They are going to be violently repulsed by white supremacists and Klan violence,” Joseph said.

In May of 1961, President John F. Kennedy’s Justice Department, led by Attorney General Bobby Kennedy, is “forced” to work to protect civil rights activists, Joseph said.

“Really the Kennedy administration, for the next two years, are grudging allies for the civil rights movement,” he said.

Kennedy started civil rights reform in 1963, nearly a decade after the beginning of the movement.

“Before, the Kennedys are really only begrudging allies because they feel that the civil rights movement is going to hijack the president’s domestic agenda and his international agenda,” Joseph said. “By 1963, the president realizes his agenda should be the civil rights movement.”

The year 1963 is also the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation, and the Birmingham campaign.

“Birmingham, Alabama, is literally and figuratively on fire in 1963 at the prospect of not just racial segregation, but at the prospect of a movement for black citizenship that is not just led by Martin Luther King Jr., but by Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth,” Joseph said.

As a result of the Birmingham campaign protests, King was arrested and wrote the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

“King talks about the consequences of white liberals and white moderation,” Joseph said. “He talks about his disappointment with white moderates and would-be allies who are more satisfied with peace at the expense of justice.”

Joseph said the greatest outcome of King’s letter is the connection he made between the civil rights movement and the founding principles of American democracy.

“(King) makes an argument that the core of American democracy should be racial justice and black citizenship,” he said.

Also in 1963 was the March on Washington, where King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.

Joseph said the speech is only remembered by its last stanza, even though that was not King’s main point.

“That is a 17-minute speech where we have remembered to forget the most radical components of that speech,” Joseph said.

According to Joseph, the most radical component of King’s speech was the beginning.

“He starts by saying, ‘Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy,’ ” he said. “King is constantly talking about small-D democracy and connecting that to the ideas of racial justice, economic justice and peace.”

Joseph said it is important to remember that the events in 1963 not only affected black people, but their white allies as well.

“The racial terror that engulfed the United States transcends race, even as it focuses on black and brown people primarily,” Joseph said.

In 1964, the Civil Rights Act passed and outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin.

In 1965, the Watts Riots took place in Los Angeles, California, when Marquette Frye, a young African-American motorist, was pulled over and arrested by a white Highway Patrolman for suspicion of driving while intoxicated.

Joseph said King’s work in Los Angeles following the riots mirrored the work of Black Lives Matter activists in present day.

“(King) confronts groups and neighborhoods who are being assaulted by a criminal justice system that is a gateway to multiple systems of oppression,” he said.

Even though King was celebrated in previous years with honors such as the Nobel Peace Prize and Time magazine’s Man of the Year, Joseph said he started to be vilified in 1967.

“He is vilified as a troublemaker, as somebody who is fomenting violence, as somebody who is un-American and not a patriot because he is saying the triple threats facing the world are materialism, racism and militarism,” Joseph said. “King is talking about perpetual warfare in 1967 and guess what? Fifty years later, we are a country that is in a perpetual state of war.”

Additionally, King spoke out against the Vietnam War in 1967 in a speech titled “Beyond Vietnam” in front of 3,000 people at Riverside Church in New York City.

“(King) says that it is going to be a ‘bitter (but) beautiful struggle,’ but the only way to achieve racial and economic justice domestically is to stop exporting violence overseas in the name of freedom,” Joseph said.

In 1968, King was trying to organize 1,000 sanitation workers who were on strike in Memphis, Tennessee, when he was assassinated.

Joseph said when looking back on the 50 years following King’s death, one must pay attention to how the “juxtapositions have grown.”

“We live in a country that elected the first black president in 2008, yet at the same time, Barack Obama presided over a criminal justice system where you had a disproportionate amount of black and brown women and men engulfed in the belly of the beast of that system,” he said.

Another example of a juxtaposition under and since Obama’s leadership is the resurgence of hate groups such as the Ku Klux Klan. According to Joseph, the most prominent example was the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, organized and comprised of white supremacists.

“We should not immortalize white supremacy,” he said. “We should not say these are just regular people who are misunderstood. It is the opposite of citizenship, the opposite of democracy, the opposite of not just Dr. King’s dream, but the opposite of what we think of as our core values as Americans. It is the opposite of equality, the opposite of justice, the opposite of fairness and certainly it is the opposite of nonviolence.”

In the midst of those modern-day juxtapositions, Joseph believes America is still democracy’s best hope.

“We are still the last, best hope on earth for social and political transformation, for racial and economic and gender and LGBTQ justice, for human rights,” he said. “King imagines a democracy capacious enough to include and to place at the center the most marginalized, dispossessed, humiliated and disparaged among us.”

Joseph said it is King’s example of optimism that encourages him to keep his faith.

“What is so important for us is that we remain hopeful and are committed to doing the work that King was unable to finish,” Joseph said. “He provides us so much optimism in expanding our vision of what is possible. There is an alternative that is possible.”

Bryan Stevenson imparts Martin Luther King Jr.’s requirements for justice, peace


As a child, Bryan Stevenson’s biggest dream was to swim in a swimming pool.

When he and his sister, Christy, recall the first time they did, they joke about how they had to ask all of the white kids to get out first. Except that is not how it happened. Bryan and Christy learned at an early age to alter the memories they can’t bear to remember.

When Stevenson was 12 years old, his mother announced she had saved enough money to send them on a bus trip to the brand new Disney World resort in Orlando, Florida. He and his sister wore their swimsuits underneath their clothes, and the minute they exited the bus to spend their first night in South Carolina, they raced to the motel pool. On the count of three, they jumped in, and chaos immediately broke out around them. Parents were screaming at the other children to get out of the pool, some even grabbing them before they had the chance to respond. When there was one little boy left in the pool, a white man came over and pulled him out. That is when Stevenson asked him a question.

“The question that I asked him was ‘What’s wrong?’ ” Stevenson said. “What he said to me, I remember like it happened yesterday. He looked at me and he said, ‘You’re wrong, n*****.’ ”

At 2 p.m. Mon., Aug. 13, in the Hall of Philosophy, Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative, a nonprofit organization that represents prisoners who may have been wrongly convicted, poor prisoners without effective representation, and others who may have been denied a fair trial, gave his lecture, “Honoring Dr. King’s Legacy: What Should We Have Learned in the Past, but Have Not Yet, to Our Peril?” as part of Week Eight’s interfaith theme, “Not to be Forgotten: A Rememberance on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.”

Now, Stevenson, who is also the author of Just Mercy, has started to think about that day in the swimming pool differently. He wonders if the children remember getting out of the pool because two black kids jumped in. He wonders if that man remembers what he said to him or why he felt the need to say it.

“I worry they haven’t talked about it,” he said. “I worry that they are not haunted by what was done, and I even worry that they do not have a consciousness of wrongdoing or shame or mistake.”

Stevenson said he worries about the lack of consciousness because without memories, human beings repeat mistakes again and again.

“Because we don’t remember, I think we are living in this time of crisis,” he said.

There are four things Stevenson said Martin Luther King Jr. would want people to remember.

The first is that Americans can’t have justice if they are unwilling to get into close proximity to the people who are suffering.

“(Dr. King) could not march without going to Selma, he could not be an advocate unless he was willing to go to Albany, he could not make a difference in the lives and spaces of this country without going to Birmingham,” Stevenson said. “It was key to his philosophy and to his vision that justice requires proximity.”

Stevenson learned about proximity from his grandmother. When he was a little boy, his grandmother started giving him hugs and would squeeze him so tightly it would start to hurt.

“An hour later, she would see me and she would say, ‘Bryan, do you still feel me hugging you?’ ” Stevenson said. “If I said no, she would jump on me again.”

Stevenson’s grandmother developed cancer in her 90s, and Stevenson, who was a college student at the time, went to visit her before she passed. Her eyes were closed, and he was not sure she could hear him until the moment he got up to leave.

“My grandmother opened her eyes and she squeezed my hand, and the last thing she said to me was ‘Bryan, can you still feel me hugging you? I am always going to be hugging you,’ ” he said.

Stevenson said that day with his grandmother taught him the importance of presence within proximity.

“There is something that happens when we get closer to people who are suffering and struggling,” Stevenson said. “When we get close to people who have been abused and neglected and who have been marginalized, at minimum we can wrap our arms around them, and our presence means that something can be transformed.”

Stevenson said he experienced the power of proximity firsthand when lawyers came into his home community and fought for all of the black children’s rights to receive an education. That work led Stevenson to become the first in his family to go to college.

Stevenson loved college so much that he wanted to stay for as long as possible. He went through undergrad as a philosophy major and realized he could only do graduate work in history, English or political science. Stevenson chose Harvard Law School and said he found himself “deeply disillusioned.”

“I went there because I was concerned about inequality and racism and poverty, and it didn’t seem like anybody was talking about those issues,” he said.

After finishing one year of law school, Stevenson switched to the school of government to get a degree in public policy, only to find he was more miserable there than he was before.

“They were teaching us to maximize benefits and minimize cost, but it didn’t seem to matter whose benefits got maximized and whose costs got minimized,” Stevenson said.

Therefore, Stevenson returned to law school and aimed to become proximate with the work that really mattered to him.

He took a course that required him to spend a month with a human rights organization. Stevenson ended up in Atlanta, Georgia, working with a group of lawyers who represented people on death row. After one week on the job, a lawyer asked Stevenson to go to death row and let an inmate know he was not at risk of being executed in the next year.

The next day, Stevenson left to meet the inmate. He said he was most nervous about the man being disappointed that he was only a law student.

“I was pacing back and forth, trying to rehearse exactly what I was going to say to this man,” he said.

When the guards finally opened the door, there stood the first condemned prisoner Stevenson had ever seen. When the prisoner walked over to him, Stevenson told him about his execution date, and the prisoner grabbed his hands and asked him to repeat it two more times.

“That is when this man said, ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you,’ ” Stevenson said. “He said, ‘You are the first person I have met in the two years I have been on death row who is not a death row prisoner or a death row guard.’ ”

After that initial conversation, Stevenson and the inmate got wrapped up in conversation about each other’s lives for three hours. After that, the guards burst into the room, and Stevenson noticed they were mad.

“They threw his arms back and started putting the chains on his wrists so violently I could see the metal pinching his skin,” Stevenson said. “I begged them to be gentler, and this man looked at me and said, ‘Bryan, don’t worry about this. You just come back.’ ”

The guards shoved the man toward the exit, and when he reached the door, he planted his feet.

“I stood there and I watched this man close his eyes, throw his head back, and then he started to sing,” Stevenson said. “He started singing this hymn: ‘I’m pressing on the upward way, new heights I’m gaining every day; Still praying as I’m onward bound, Lord, plant my feet on higher ground.’ ”

Stevenson said having the proximity to hear that man sing is what changed his life forever and decided his career path.

The second thing Stevenson said King would want people to remember is the power one has to change narratives.

“We can’t just engage in policy debates and issue debates,” he said. “We have to understand the narratives underneath the policies and the issues.”

Stevenson believes mass incarceration exists in America because of a “false narrative.”

“We say that people with drug dependencies are criminals, and so we put them in jails and prisons,” Stevenson said. “We did not have to do that. We could have said that people with drug addiction and drug dependency have a health problem, and we need our health care system to respond to this problem.”

According to Stevenson, people made the choice to imprison those with addiction and dependency because of what he calls “politics of fear and anger.”

“We were being governed by people who were preaching to us to be afraid and to be angry, and I believe if we allow ourselves to be governed (that way), we will tolerate things we are not supposed to tolerate,” he said.

King taught that fear and anger are the essential “ingredients of injustice,” Stevenson said.

“Go into the world where there is oppression, and if you ask the oppressors why they do what they do, they can give you a narrative they believe justifies the abuse of other people,” Stevenson said.

Stevenson said the narrative regarding race needs to change more than any other.

“I don’t think we are free,” he said. “I don’t. I think we are burdened by a history of racial inequality that has created a kind of smog in the air, and it doesn’t matter where you are — California, New York, Alabama or Mississippi — we are all burdened, we are all unhealthy as a result of history that we haven’t talked about.”

Stevenson said what needs to be talked about is that Americans live in a “post-genocide society,” the genocide being the massacre of Native American people.

“We kept their word, ‘Chautauqua,’ but we made the people leave,” he said. “And we do not have any echo of that suffering in our minds or in our hearts.”

That massacre created a narrative of racial difference, one that Stevenson said led to Americans being comfortable with two centuries of enslavement.

“It was this ideology of white supremacy that we made up to justify enslavement,” Stevenson said. “It was that black people are different than white people — they can’t do this, they can’t do that, they aren’t full human. They are three-fifths human, the Supreme Court said. That narrative was the true evil of slavery.”

The 13th Amendment talks about the abolishment of involuntary servitude and forced labor, but because it does not say anything about ending the narrative of racial differences, Stevenson believes slavery did not end, it only evolved.

“(Black people) were murdered and beaten and drowned and hanged, and it was something that we turned our eyes away from,” he said. “We were tolerant. We allowed fear and anger to make us do nothing, and millions of people were terrorized.”

The third thing Stevenson said King would want people to remember is to stay hopeful, because hope is a “super power.”

“It is critical that we hope, because hope will get us to stand up when other people say, ‘Sit down,’ ” Stevenson said. “It will get us to speak when other people say, ‘Be quiet.’ There is something powerful about it, and the truth is you’re either hopeful or you are the problem.”

Stevenson said living in Alabama makes it hard for him to remain hopeful. In Alabama, Confederate Memorial Day and the birthday of Jefferson Davis, the  president of the Confederate States, are state holidays. In addition, Alabama does not celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day. It celebrates MLK-Lee Day.

But it is not just the South that causes Stevenson to struggle with hope.

Stevenson was representing a client in the Midwest, and when he sat down in the courtroom, the judge got angry and told him to sit in the hallway until his lawyer got there. Stevenson got up and introduced himself as the lawyer, and both the judge and the prosecutor laughed.

“I got to thinking what it was about this judge that when he saw a middle-aged black man in a suit and tie, sitting at the table, it didn’t even occur to him that that’s the lawyer?” Stevenson said.

A couple years ago, he talked about the incident in a TV interview. A few weeks ago, Stevenson’s secretary approached him and said there was a man who wanted to talk to him. The secretary tried to explain that Stevenson was busy, but the man began to cry.

“I went down into our lobby, and it was an old white man and he just grabbed me and started sobbing,” Stevenson said. “I didn’t recognize him, but through his sobs he said, ‘I heard you talking on TV. I am the judge that told you to go back out in that hallway. I am so sorry.’ ”

Although Stevenson told him he did not need to apologize, the judge persisted.

“There is something powerful that happens when we have the courage to confront the things that need to be confronted, but our hope is key to our ability to do that,” Stevenson said.

The fourth and final thing Stevenson said King would want people to remember is that one must be willing to do things that are inconvenient and make the individual uncomfortable.

“We can’t create justice if we insist on only doing the things that are comfortable and convenient,” he said. “It just doesn’t work that way.”

A few years ago, Stevenson got a call from a man who was scheduled to be executed in 30 days. The man said his lawyers had abandoned his case and he needed someone to take it. Stevenson discovered the man suffered from intellectual disabilities, meaning he could not legally be executed.

Stevenson went to the trial court, the state court, the appeals court and the federal court, and all told him it was too late.

The day of the execution, Stevenson was still waiting for a decision from the United States Supreme Court. An hour before the man’s scheduled time, the phone rang. The clerk told him the motion was denied.

Stevenson said this situation embodied the most difficult part of his job.

As Stevenson told the man he could not stop the execution, the man began to sob. But he told Stevenson to stay on the phone because there was something he needed to say. However, he could barely get it out because an aspect of his disability was severe stuttering under stress.

“At one point, I was just standing there holding the phone, and tears were running down my face,” Stevenson said. “It was so uncomfortable, so painful, my mind actually wandered.”

Stevenson’s mind wandered to a little boy he knew in church when he was a child. This little boy also had a stutter, and Stevenson’s mother witnessed as he started to laugh at the boy. Stevenson’s mother made him apologize, give the little boy a hug and tell him he loved him.

As Stevenson returned to the present moment, he heard what the man on the phone had to say.

“He said, ‘Mr. Stevenson, I want to thank you for representing me. I want to thank you for fighting for me,’ ” Stevenson said. “And the last thing that man said to me was ‘Mr. Stevenson, I love you for trying to save my life.’ ”

After the man was executed, Stevenson thought he could not continue his work.

“It was too hard and it was too painful,” he said. “I was thinking about how lonely he was, and the question I had in my mind was ‘Why do we want to kill all of the broken people? What is it about us that when we see brokenness, we want to crush it and hurt it and kill it?’ ”

Not only did Stevenson realize he represents broken people, he also realized he works in a broken system. But his greatest revelation that day was discovering why it is he started to do this work in the first place.

“I realized I don’t do what I do because I have been trained as a lawyer,” Stevenson said. “I do not do what I do because someone has to do it. I don’t do what I do because it is important. I realized I do what I do because I am broken, too.”

However, even though some people are broken, Stevenson does not believe it makes them any less capable of changing the world.

“It is the broken among us that can teach us the way mercy can heal,” he said. “It is the broken that understand the power of compassion. It is the broken that can teach us why justice is urgent in a society like ours and (it is) in brokenness that we understand what our humanity is all about.”

In the end, Stevenson said in order to achieve King’s ideal peace in society, people must learn to look beyond the surface of those around them.

“I believe each of us is more than the worst thing we have ever done,” he said. “I think if someone tells a lie, they are not just a liar. I think if someone takes something, they are not just a thief. I think even if someone kills someone, they are not just a killer. Justice requires that we know the other things you are.”

Brigham Young University law professor and expert on religion and law Frederick Gedicks to explain necessary limits of religious pluralism


As a young boy growing up in New Jersey, Frederick Gedicks believed he was a religious minority. Gedicks was raised a Mormon in a community with few Mormons — a childhood experience that sparked his interest in the study of religious liberty. Now, Gedicks works as Guy Anderson Chair and professor of law at Brigham Young University and has been cited in United States Supreme Court opinions.

This combination of academia and personal experience as a religious minority has led Gedicks to understand the role of religious freedom in America and the necessity of balance. Blind acceptance of complete religious pluralism, he said, is dangerous.

“Often, people talk about religious pluralism as if it’s an unqualified good, saying difference is always good and the more difference we have, the better,” he said. “But there has to be limits to pluralism.”

At 2 p.m. Thursday, August 9, in the Hall of Philosophy, Gedicks will address the limits of religious pluralism in his lecture, “Three Problems of Pluralism,” which is part of the Week Seven interfaith theme, “Let Them Eat Cake? Defining the Future of Religious Freedom in the U.S.”

Gedicks, who previously served as a visiting research fellow of the ReligioWest project in Florence, has spent years explaining the balance of church and state in the United States. At Chautauqua, he will analyze what happens without balance, when the government relinquishes its role of law enforcement in religious freedom cases.

Gedicks will lay out the consequences by identifying three necessary “limits.”

“First, if a religious accommodation generates harm to other people who don’t benefit from the accommodation, that suggests a limit,” he said. “If an accommodation is requested in an area of American life that is more public than private, like a government office, that suggests a limit. Finally, what would happen if we push the justification for an accommodation to its logical limit? It could spill over and result in a situation that would undermine the government’s ability to operate.”

Beyond explaining general principles, Gedicks will connect the limits of religious pluralism to the contested Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission Supreme Court case. In addition to this case, Gedicks said there are applicable, real-world examples that demonstrate the necessity of balance between church and state.

“There are religious parents who, for religious or spiritual reasons, are suspicious of modern medicine,” he said. “If they don’t treat their children for easily curable diseases, then they’re liable under the criminal law. We also have religious polygamists who marry underage girls. So yes, religious pluralism is good, but it’s not an unlimited good.”

Gedicks also recognizes that the Masterpiece Cakeshop case marks a shift in the overall discussion of American religious liberty. When he began his academic work, Gedicks said much of the religious freedom discussion centered on minorities, but recent cases have demonstrated a change.

“I think discussions about religious liberty are more polarized now than they used to be,” he said. “Twenty or 30 years ago, a discussion about religious accommodation was focused on minorities. Now, Christians, particularly conservative Christians, have been aggressive in seeking religious accommodations in public life.”

Tayo Rockson emphasizes global understanding, cultural communication

  • Tayo Rockson, founder and CEO of UYD Management, speaks on the importance of communicating across cultures during his lecture Wednesday, Aug. 8, 2018 on the Amphitheater stage. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

Tayo Rockson has a message drilled into his head: “The world is bigger than you, and if you want to succeed in it, you have to understand it.”

He shared this mantra with Wednesday’s 10:45 a.m. morning lecture attendees in the Amphitheater on Aug. 8, speaking to communicating across cultures, a continuation of Week Seven’s theme, “The Arts and Global Understanding.” The morning kicked off with a celebration of the Chautauqua Literary and Scientific Circle Class of 2018, which graduated earlier that day.

“If you look around the world today, we can see that due to the internet and migration patterns, we’re experiencing a whole new world. The intersections of worldviews, ideas, cultures, religions, is influencing every single policy we have today. … So, it’s imperative for leaders of today and tomorrow to learn how to navigate across these differences. It’s no longer just an option to ignore them.”

-Tayo Rockson, CEO, UYD Management

A son of a diplomat, Rockson was raised in Nigeria, Sweden, Burkina Faso, Vietnam and the United States, where he now resides. Rockson serves as the chief executive officer of UYD Management, a consulting and leadership firm that helps companies incorporate diversity, inclusion, hiring, retention and social justice strategies. He is also the host of “As Told by Nomads,” the No. 1 cross-cultural podcast in the world.

Rockson was named one of the Top 40 Millennial Influencers to Follow in 2018 by New Theory magazine and is the author of The Ultimate Guide to TCK Living: Understanding the World Around You.

He opened his lecture with a question for the audience: how many people have had a “nagging thought?” For Rockson, his is how to efficiently execute cross-cultural engagement. As a child, his method was through basketball.

“I had a Taiwanese teammate, a Dutch teammate, a Cameroonian teammate, an American teammate, and I’m Nigerian,” he said. “We had a common goal that was to win. That was my first clue, a common goal. Establishing mutual purpose is so key when you want learn how to communicate effectively across cultures.”

Thus began his quest to connect across borders, a question to resolve his nagging question. The answer: To effectively engage cross-culturally, one must educate — not perpetuate — and communicate. Education begins with the education of ourselves.

Rockson asked the audience to think about three questions — “What have my experiences been?,” “What prejudices do I hold?” and “How much have I strayed outside of my comfort zone?” To answer, he asked the audience to jot down three places they lived, their three best friends and their last three partners, followed by descriptors. Rockson then asked for volunteers to share their responses.

Chautauquan Joann Rose offered to share. A Philadelphia native, Rose moved to a small town and has since relocated to a suburb. One of her best friends was born in Puerto Rico; the other two are her husband and grandchild.

“You can really get isolated in your environment, but over the years if you move and you change, you expand, hopefully,” she said, when asked by Rockson what this information said about herself. “There’s always room for expansion.”

Based on these answers, Rockson asked the audience to examine their biases — are they rooted in fear, insecurity or avoidance?

To overcome these prejudices, Rockson said, people must educate themselves about their environment by learning to collect and gather information, becoming an active listener and being an active member of their community.

“Something amazing happens when you commit to active listening,” he said. “Because actively listening is listening to learn, listening to understand and listening to evaluate. … It is not listening to confirm, which is what a lot of us do.”

Listening to confirm only perpetuates stereotypes and prejudices, Rockson said. He experienced this firsthand when he moved to the United States and a man, after learning he was Nigerian, approached Rockson pretending to hold an imaginary object, which he raised after singing “Circle of Life” from “The Lion King.”

Misguided questions about his culture led Rockson to realize that people trivialize others’ identities through jokes and that marginalized groups feel the need to hide to avoid this humiliation. He said it’s too easy for people to brush others aside as being “too sensitive,” something the media perpetuates through misrepresentation and lack of diversity.

“If we don’t do a better job of creating these stories that are accurate, inviting more people to create these stories through the media,” Rockson said, “… if we don’t do a better job of just clicking send or reshare based on a headline without actually reading, we are going to create this system where no one is listening and we are going to perpetuate certain stereotypes. … Once you perpetuate, you create systems of discrimination, intentionally or unintentionally.”

Communication is key to eroding stereotypes, he said. Rockson quoted Martin Luther King Jr.: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

Rockson offered self-directed questions as a guide for contentious conversations: “What is my goal for this conversation?,” “What do want from this person out of this conversation?,” “What do I want for myself out of this conversation?” and “What do I want from the relationship moving forward?” After examining these motives, Rockson offered a final question — “How will I act if that’s what I want?”

Communication is rooted in abandoning egos and the need to be right in order to find common ground, Rockson said.

“My call to action to you all today is this: educate, don’t perpetuate, instead, communicate,” he said. “Fact of the matter is, you all have a choice; you can choose to see the world as is and do nothing about it, or you can choose to see a world that is hurting and participate by changing the narrative. Whichever choice you make, you’re changing the world in some shape or form. My choice is that you choose the latter, so I leave you with this question: Will you use your difference to make a difference?”

After the conclusion of Rockson’s lecture, Institution Chief of Staff Matt Ewalt opened the Q-and-A by asking if “exposing ourselves to other cultures at times limits ourselves from thinking of cross-cultural understanding within our own community.”

“I don’t think it’s mutually exclusive,” Rockson said, “that if you educate yourself on another person or another culture, you’re going to lose that aspect of yourself.”

Ewalt then turned to the audience for questions; two attendees asked how to find spaces to communicate across cultures.

“If you share your story and create spaces for others to tell their stories, you don’t know what the ripple effect of that is,” Rockson said. “But one thing that won’t allow growth is not doing anything. The very least that anyone can do is tell their story.”


Douglas Laycock outlined the parameters of religious freedom

  • University of Virginia Professor Douglas Laycock speaks about religious freedom during the Interfaith Lecture, Monday, August 6, 2018, in the Hall of Philosophy. BRIAN HAYES/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Even before the First Amendment was ratified, Douglas Laycock said practicing religious freedom has never been a piece of cake.

At 2 p.m. Monday, August 6, in the Hall of Philosophy, Laycock, the Robert E. Scott Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of Virginia School of Law, gave his lecture, “Free Exercise of Religion – from Martin Luther to Masterpiece Cakeshop,” as part of Week Seven’s interfaith theme, “Let Them Eat Cake? Defining the Future of Religious Freedom in the U.S.”

The prelude to America’s “experiment with religion liberty” began with Martin Luther’s Protestant Reformation, Laycock said.

“Earlier reformers had been oppressed, but Luther had the enormous advantage of the printing press and he spread alleged heresy on a continental scale,” he said.

Laycock said although Protestants and Catholics were fighting for religious liberty, neither group was ready for it.

“They both assumed that they should enforce their faith wherever the government would cooperate,” he said. “Never forget that it was government, not churches, that had the power to punish and to execute. That is why our constitution protects religion from government, not the other way around.”

However, it turned out many governments were willing to persecute. The resulting persecutions, or “wars on religion,” consumed Europe for the next 200 years, Laycock said.

“Of course, the English experience is most salient in America,” he said. “England was irretrievably Protestant by the end of Elizabeth’s reign in 1603, but the persecutions continued, and religious warfare broke out in intervals. Anglican Puritans’ civil war in the 1640s was a revolution that overthrew a Catholic king in 1688, and a final climactic battle between Protestants’ and Catholics’ claims to the throne in 1746 is within the living memory of the men who wrote the Constitution.”

All of this human suffering led “sensible people” to question the premise: Why not let each individual determine a religious stance for his or herself?

First came the idea of tolerance.

“The state would still designate the true church and support it in various ways, but the state and the true church would tolerate dissenters,” Laycock said.

Religious equality was the second idea, Laycock said.

“Rather than one official church that tolerated all of the others, religious liberty would be a natural right,” Laycock said. “It would mean equal rights for every church and every believer and, eventually, every non-believer as well.”

The concept of religious liberty sparked debate among the American people.

“Defenders of the old regime offered multiple reasons for state control of religion, but all of the reasons had one thing in common: Religion is too important to be left to individuals,” Laycock said.

One of most common reasons for giving the state control of religion was to “save souls.”

“If there is one true faith whose believers will be saved, and many false teachings whose believers will be damned, then heretics need to be forced into the true faith for their own good and also to protect the innocent that they might lead astray,” Laycock said.

Laycock said the argument of keeping the peace was secular and the argument of saving souls was more theological and with both, each individual’s salvation was at stake.

“That turned the old view on its head,” he said. “Religion was far too important to be left to government.”

By the early 18th century, toleration had come — even to New England. First, government officials exempted dissenters from attending the established church. Eventually, they declared that any Christian denomination can hold its own worship service and by the 1720s, the United States and New England were enacting regulatory exemptions for religious minorities.

“First, they exempted Quakers and Baptists from paying a church tax, then they exempted Quakers from swearing oaths, and in 1757, during the French and Indian War, Massachusetts finally addressed the most difficult issue of all and exempted Quakers from serving in the militia,” Laycock said.

During the American Revolution, every state wrote a constitution; the federal constitution followed in 1787.

“Church and state was a major issue in those constitutional conventions, but the fight was over how to finance the church,” Laycock said. Including religion in the state and federal constitutions led to the most fundamental disagreement, Laycock said.

On one side, Americans declared that the constitutional right to religion must include the right to be exempt from laws that interfere with one’s religious beliefs unless the government has a strong reason for refusing an exemption.

The other side of the debate said that exemptions for Quakers, Jewish people and dissenters who refused to pay the church tax were all enacted by legislatures, Laycock said.

“(The legislatures) addressed specific problems,” Laycock said. “They tell us nothing about what rights were made judicially enforceable, and they tell us nothing about any claim to religious exemptions for any new law or new practice that might arise in the future.”

The issue of church and state first reached the Supreme Court in 1878 with Reynolds v. United States, the prosecution of a polygamous Mormon leader.

“The opinion is embarrassing to read today,” Laycock said. “The court said polygamy wasn’t even really a religious practice, and it had been a practice of Asian and African people, but never Europeans.”

Laycock said the court drew a definitive line between belief and action.

“It said you can believe any religion you want, but you have no right to practice it if the legislature says no,” Laycock said.

But the court’s protection of belief was short-lived. In 1890, the Supreme Court upheld a test oath that prevented Mormons from voting in Davis v. Beason. The oath covered not just polygamy, but also “speech, church membership and mere belief.”

“Congress revoked the church’s corporate charter and seized all of its property besides actual places of worship,” Laycock said. “Shortly after, the Mormon Church banned any plural marriages.”

However, in 1892, the Supreme Court had ruled on a case about a Presbyterian church in Louisville, Kentucky. The court declared that civil courts must defer to the highest authority in the denomination.

“That decision has given rise to a principle that churches have the right to control their own internal affairs,” Laycock said.

He said that principle is why the Supreme Court unanimously decided in 2012 that employees in positions of religious leadership can’t sue their churches for alleged discrimination and why churches can’t be required to perform weddings, except in accordance with their own rules.

The debate around the free exercise of religion remained an issue of personal belief until it became a “culture war issue” in the late 1990s, Laycock said.

“Gay rights groups and civil rights groups demanded a total carveout for all civil rights claims, and of course, the sponsors couldn’t give them that,” he said. “Secular civil liberty groups dropped out of the Coalition for the Free Exercise of Religion, and religious groups could not pass a bill without them.”

The most recent example of a culture-based case was the Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission.

Masterpiece is among a handful of cases where conservative Christians in the wedding business refused to assist with a same-sex wedding and get sued under a state public accommodations law,” Laycock said.

Laycock said vendors, like the owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop, view marriage as an inherently religious relationship and therefore think of weddings as religious events, too.

“Their job is to make their part of the wedding the best and most memorable it can be,” he said. “(People who provide services for weddings) see themselves as promoting it, celebrating it, and they say they can’t do that.”

Over time, Laycock said cases like Masterpiece have been litigated under state constitutions in blue and purple states with statewide gay rights laws. However, the federal government took a much larger role in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case because Colorado had no previous ruling interpreting the state constitution’s free exercise clause.

The baker claimed that the cake decorations were works of art protected by the free speech clause.

“If you look at the pictures of those cakes, that’s not crazy, but it is an argument with no logical stopping points,” Laycock said. “If cake decorating is speech, then lots of businesses are speech.”

Laycock and a colleague filed a friend of the court brief for Masterpiece devoted to free exercise.

“We said this (wedding) is a religious event; only small business should be exempted and only with things directly connected to the wedding,” he said. “Almost no one took us seriously except for seven justices on the Supreme Court.”

In 2015, William Jack, a Christian activist, tested the flip side of the Masterpiece argument. He went to three different bakers requesting cakes with religious messages hostile to same-sex marriage. Each baker refused to make  the cake, and they were charged with religious discrimination, but the charges were dismissed.

“The same Colorado law that prohibits sexual orientation discrimination prohibits discrimination on the basis of any religious belief or practice,” Laycock said.

Laycock said in its decision of the Masterpiece Cakeshop case, the Supreme Court proved that the reason for protecting free exercise now is the same as it was 200 years ago: to reduce human suffering and preserve social peace.

“Religious liberty is one of America’s great contributions to the world, and we should not let it slip away either in legal wrangling or in a bitter culture war,” Laycock said.

John Scherer discusses five questions to change one’s life, work

  • The Rev. John Scherer discusses how to transform one's workplace into a "Spiritual Development Dojo," on Wednesday, August 1, 2018, in the Hall of Philosophy. ABIGAIL DOLLINS/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

As a former combat officer on a U.S. Navy destroyer, Lutheran chaplain at Cornell University, co-creator of the Leadership Institute of Seattle Graduate Program, therapist, author and magician, the Rev. John Scherer has mastered the art of doing it all. Now, he works to help others do the same.

At 2 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 1, in the Hall of Philosophy, Scherer, founder and president of Scherer Leadership Center, gave his lecture, “Seva as Sadhana: Workplace as Spiritual Development Dojo,” as part of Week Six’s interfaith theme, “The Spirituality of Work.”

Acknowledging that every audience member is a “work in progress,” Scherer began by posing a question:

“What if you could see that every day you are going into work, you are going into a classroom, or a dojo, where you get to practice and develop yourself?” he said.

Scherer’s answer to that question is derived from his latest book, Five Questions that Change Everything: Life Lessons at Work. According to Scherer, the five questions he compiled will “change everything.” Everything except for one’s self, the “one thing that never needs to change.”

“You do not need to change yourself. You need to come home to yourself,” he said. “That changes everything.”

Scherer said steering people away from the mindset of being “more (of) this, less (of) that” was the founding principle of his leadership program in the 1980s.

“(It’s) not about trying to be somebody else, but discovering more fully and deeply who is alive in there and bring that to the world,” Scherer said.

The first of the five questions is: What confronts you? To give more depth to this question, Scherer used a metaphor of a tiger.

“If you were in a jungle in India and a tiger came up on you suddenly, what would the human instinct be to do?” he said. “Run.”

Scherer said if one runs, instinct also kicks in inside the tiger’s brain.

“It sees that small, slow figure trying to run away, the yummy one with the crunchy center, and the tiger sees lunch,” Scherer said. “The cat is hard-wired to chase something trying to run away, so if you run away, your chances of survival are zero.”

However, if one turns and faces the tiger, the tiger will process that reaction and think about it, Scherer said.

“If you think about it for a second, that is fairly significant,” he said.

Scherer said if one’s chances of survival by running is zero, and the chances of survival in facing the tiger are “something greater than zero, it is probably a chance worth taking.”

Scherer then asked the audience what the tiger represents in their own lives.

“Who is a difficult person in your life right now, a difficult relationship?” Scherer said. “What is a decision you are having trouble making? What is something going on in your circle of in uence that doesn’t feel right, that you are hesitating to confront?”

Scherer said something that has assisted him in confrontation is practicing aikido, a traditional Japanese martial art.

Aikido has been very important to me in reframing something,” he said. “When something is coming at me, I am trying to figure out how can I get off the line of attack and figure out what the lesson is.”

The second question is: What am I bringing to this encounter?

“If I were to face the tiger, what am I bringing?” he said. “My hopes? My fears? My intentions?”

The third question is: What has been running me? For this question, Scherer used a metaphor of a hamster running in a wheel.

“How is my life like the hamster in the wheel?” Scherer said. “It might be a lovely, lovely life, but how is it lovely in the wheel? It might only be lovely in the current wheel, and that is better than having a life in a wheel that’s not very lovely, but it is still a life inside of a wheel.”

A life inside the wheel means “every day is the same, only a little different,” Scherer said.

“What you hope for is incremental change,” he said. “Maybe I can make this a little better, maybe I can make my relationship with my partner a little better, my kids, my neighbor, whoever.”

Scherer said what runs people is “default.”

When working with executives and senior-level management in his leadership program, Scherer often sees that people are trying to be a persona, rather than a person.

“We wake up in the morning, and we pump up that persona,” he said. “Whether it’s a mom or a dad or whatever your roles are, you put on the role, and meanwhile, behind that pump-up doll is a real person. That is the position.”

Scherer believes alternating between position and person causes an internal disconnect.

“That’s why you feel like something isn’t working,” he said. “You are not here to be the position, you were created to be the person that is inside of the position.”

The fourth question is: What calls me?

“What calls out from inside you?” Scherer said. “What are your charisms? What are your gifts?”

Scherer said charisms are what one is good at, but has never been taught.

In addition, Scherer asked, “What calls from outside one’s self?”

As an example, he told a story of his son Asa. One day when Scherer was coming home, he heard Asa playing the grand piano in their living room. Scherer said he could feel the entire house shaking, and that is when he had a realization. The realization was that it was not the piano or the music that was shaking the house — it was Asa.

“Nothing happens until he places his hands on that keyboard,” Scherer said. “Your job, your work is just your piano. Nothing happens until you take your uniqueness, your God-given charism, and you put your hands on that keyboard.”

The fifth questions is: What will unleash me?

Scherer said this question is derived from the basis of the Aramaic name for salvation, which is to be “delivered, released or set free.”

“It is the word Jesus would have used if he talked about salvation,” he said. “(Jesus) never asked people, ‘Do you believe this, this and this?’ ” he said. “ ‘You are seeing something, you are coming here to me, and that has already set you free.’ ”

Ultimately, Scherer said he believes everyone was put on earth with an assignment.

“A great theologian said, ‘We show up here with sealed borders,’ ” he said. “How do you discover what your sealed borders are? That is what life is about: discovering why we are here.”

To figure out one’s purpose, Scherer suggested three things:

“First, why we are here? (For) continuous development, continuous discovery of the soul and the essence of who we are,” he said. “Second, expressing whoever that is out into the world as fully and free without abandonment. And the third thing is (to live) in such a way that that contributes to the creation of life in the way it could be. I guarantee one of those questions will be a key that can unlock the door to your greatest life.”

Maggie Jackson stresses need for face-to-face interaction in interfaith lecture

  • Maggie Jackson, author of "Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age," speaks during the Interfaith Lecture Series, Tuesday, July 31, 2018, in the Hall of Philosophy. BRIAN HAYES/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Due to rapid advancements in technology, Maggie Jackson knows the art of asking for directions is dying. However, she still believes it is worth asking because the benefits of face-to-face interaction — even with those who disagree — are endless.

At 2 p.m. Tuesday, July 31, in the Hall of Philosophy, Jackson, a journalist and author of Distracted, gave her lecture, “Outside the Walls of Our Perspective: How Tolerance Sets Us Free,” as part of Week Six’s interfaith theme, “A Spirituality of Work.”

“The moment when I am asking (for directions), I am placing myself in the hands of a stranger, I am trusting their take on the world, and they too gain by offering the gift of their knowledge and by interacting with someone who, for a little while, sees the world with very fresh eyes,” Jackson said. “You might say that what is really going on here is the gift of a second chance. New connections are made, new perspectives are constructed before two people head off in new directions.”

According to Jackson, only a quarter of Americans talk regularly to people with opposing political views, and social circles are shrinking. She said that applies to both core networks: the intimates or family and friends we talk about important matters with, and larger networks or one’s “weaker ties.”

“We are essentially talking to the mirror,” she said. “After all, it is easier, quicker, smoother to keep behind the walls of our perspective and affirm the rightness of our tribe. As a result, common ground shrinks, science tells us, and differences in perspectives widen.”

Jackson said staying behind these walls leads to “clashing realities” among different groups of people.

“Interactions with others, when they do occur, seem to be chances to do battle with an online comment, a dinner party rebuttal or a street confrontation and then retreat, retreat, retreat,” she said.

Jackson paraphrased the novelist Richard Wright and said, “We are hugging the easy way of damning all we do not understand.” She posed three questions to the audience: How can we? How can we start getting along together? How can we rediscover the humanity of those most different from us?

Answering Wright’s questions is where Jackson said many people tend to “give up the fight.”

“Here is where some might say ‘get real,’ ” she said. “Democracy is under threat; this is an age of anxiety and anger. Sixty percent of Americas call this the lowest point in U.S. history in memory, across generations. Some might say we need to ‘take our country back’ and that ‘the time for compromise has passed.’ ”

Jackson referred back to a moment in history when a metaphorical “green shoot of hope sprouted in a desert of hate.”

Durham, North Carolina, was one of the last towns in the country to formally desegregate its schools in 1970. When a federal court-ordered ultimatum came down that the schools must be integrated, school administration set up a 10-day series of town hall meetings to prepare for the changes to come.

Two co-chairs were named: Ann Atwater and C.P. Ellis. Along with being co-chairs, the two also happened to be mortal enemies.

Atwater was an eighth-grade drop out, a sharecropper’s daughter and a tireless advocate for Durham’s poor, black population. Ellis was a gas station owner and the local chief of the KKK in Durham, the most active Klan chapter in the country, Jackson said.

“Atwater and Ellis knew one another well,” Jackson said. “They had met on many battlegrounds such as marches, boycotts and city council meetings.”

In the lead up to the town meetings to discuss desegregation, Atwater and Ellis refused to speak to or even look at one another, Jackson said. However, after the first meeting, Ellis called Atwater and proposed that they set aside their differences for the sake of their children.

After finding common ground stemming from their shared roles as parents, Jackson said the effect of Ellis’ call on the second meeting changed their relationship entirely.

“Both (of their) kids had been taunted and bullied at their schools for what their parents were doing,” Jackson said.

Although their rivalry could have ended there, Jackson said Ellis continued to retreat to the “comfort of his assumptions” and still pushed back on Atwater’s principles of belief.

In planning for one of the last nights of the meetings, Atwater invited a celebratory gospel choir, and Ellis retaliated by demanding he be able to set up a exhibit to display KKK, Nazi and white supremacist paraphernalia.

To everyone’s surprise, Atwater stood up for him, Jackson said.

That night of the final meeting as he sat in the classroom with his exhibit, a group of angry black teenagers headed his way.

“The city was tense; the time was right for a riot,” Jackson said. “They headed to the classroom, and Ann Atwater stood and blocked their way. She said ‘If you want to know where a person is coming from, you have got to see what makes him think what he thinks. Step closer. Take a look. What is on the other side of the divide? What are we failing to see?’ ”

According to Jackson, Atwater countered Ellis’ gesture of contempt with “the gift of deep regard.”

“She answered his retreat by stepping forward and standing up for her enemy, calling on all around her to see the world from his point of view,” Jackson said. “This perspective-taking was a folk wisdom that is now being understood scientifically as one of the most powerful antidotes to prejudice that we have. Perspective-taking is the cognitive side to empathy. It is reaching out for fuller understanding of another. By taking one another’s perspective, we begin to flesh out the stereotype. We look past the labels.”

Jackson said by taking a new perspective, Atwater and Ellis called on the people around them to probe opposing views, not to condone or destroy them and to cultivate something Jackson called miraculous: the gift of another chance.

“In one masterful moment in 1971, Ann Atwater gave both herself and C.P. Ellis a new beginning that neither opposed,” she said.

After the meetings, Ellis left the KKK and was labeled a pariah in his KKK chapter. He went on to help lead a mostly black union at Duke University. Although Atwater was accused by some in her community of “selling out” by working with Ellis, she became one of the city’s greatest activists.

“Each learned how to stand up for what they believed was right, while adjusting what right might be,” Jackson said. “Step closer, imagine (a different) point of view and this thoughtful regard sets people up for mutual discovery. This is how tolerance can be freeing.”

Jackson believes the hope for tolerance displayed through this unlikely friendship represents the importance of both the “science of prejudice and the lessons the past can teach us.”

“Division breeds hatred, quickly and easily,” Jackson said. “While seeing the other up close, taking on another’s perspective, engaging with others despite inevitable discourse, all of this opens and then changes minds.”

Simran Singh talks a need for more Sikhism representation in interfaith dialogue

  • Simran Singh, assistant professor of religion at Trinity University in San Antonio, lectures on Sikhism as part of the Interfaith Friday series Friday, July 27, 2018 in the Hall of Philosophy. RILEY ROBINSON/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

In the fifth edition, July 27, of the Interfaith Friday Series, the Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson, vice president of religion, moderated a number of questions with interfaith advocate Simran Jeet Singh, who represented Sikhism.

Singh is an assistant professor of religion at Trinity University and senior religion fellow for the Sikh Coalition, a civil rights organization based in New York City. This year, Singh is serving as the Henry R. Luce Fellow for Religion in International Affairs at NYU’s Center for Religion and Media. Simran is also on the board of the Religion News Association, a fellow for the Truman National Security Project and a term member for the Council on Foreign Relations. Simran has received various accolades and awards for his teaching and social justice work. Most recently, he received the Walter Wink Scholar-Activist Award from Auburn Seminary, the Presidential Excellence Award for Teaching from Columbia University, Educator of the Year from the Dialogue Institute of the Southwest and the Community Pillar Award from the Northside Education Foundation.

What follows is an abridged version of Singh’s conversation. Singh and Robinson’s remarks have been condensed for clarity.

From where you sit in your tradition, why should we be moving in an interfaith direction either here at Chautauqua or in the world?

Singh: For communities like mine that are so often invisible, marginalized or disempowered, interfaith can serve as a vehicle for lifting up these communities. I have been involved in interfaith work since elementary school; we were the only (Sikh) kids in San Antonio, and my parents would have us perform, speak and represent interfaith programs. For me, I have found that at that time, no one thought about Sikhs. No one in Texas was thinking about interfaith any more broadly than Jewish, Christian and Islam — if they could find a Muslim. That is what interfaith looked like to us then. Now, 30 years later, (there is an) increasing inclusion of minority communities, the affirmation that we belong, we matter. Even sitting on this stage with you, I could not imagine doing something like this when I was kid, and I feel like myself and members of my community have fought tooth and nail just to be seen. I know this is happening more and more on a national level, but it is not happening at a lower level. People aren’t reaching out and making the effort to do that.

This interfaith (dialogue) historically has been and continues to be a power play. There are certain people who get seats at the table, and there are certain people who don’t. In a sense, it is not different than how power works in any other context, whether we are talking politically, in local communities or in your own household. There are people who have power, who can open up spaces for people who don’t have power and create equity. We can produce equal footings for other people in our community. For me, that is what I really appreciate about interfaith.

When you come to the metaphorical interfaith table, what gifts do you bring as a Sikh to that table?

Singh: So one of the things I am working on and writing on is this idea called the “technologies of the self.” It is something that I find to be incredibly powerful in a world where it seems to me that people are becoming disillusioned with discipline and practice. So many young people that I encounter in my classrooms and outside of them say, “I am spiritual, but not religious.” And I am all for that, but what I often interpret from that as we talk further is that they are interested in this concept of spirituality and meditation and yoga, but don’t want to commit to any sort of daily ritual because they find that to be meaningless. In many ways, I completely empathize with them. I felt that way growing up. As my daily discipline as a Sikh, we are supposed to do prayer five times a day, and as a teenager, I found it ridiculous that I was saying the same thing five times a day. (When) I came across Saba Mahmood’s book, Politics of Piety, it completely changed how I understood the importance of the practice of discipline, and that is what gave me the insight into what is different about the Sikh community that we are seeing right now: why is it that in every single incident that I have encountered and studied, Sikhs respond with their values? It’s always love, it’s always optimism, it’s always justice. The only answer I have is this idea of daily sustained discipline. Every single day, do the right thing, so when push comes to shove, you do the right thing. That is something I have seen from the Sikh community, and it’s the most powerful lesson that I have taken in the last 10 to 15 years.

What gifts do other religions bring to the table that you might benefit from?

Singh: The past few years I have been teaching Islamic studies at Trinity University in San Antonio. One of things I have really appreciated from studying Islam has been this concept of Ahl al-Kitāb, the idea that there are “people of the book” and that they share a fraternity of Jews, Christians and Muslims. The idea of “book” has transformed over time, but they have a core identity that stays together. What I love about that is that it gives us a language for this idea of familyhood. I would love for us, Sikhs especially, to think about what it would mean to develop language that extended beyond our identity. This idea of Ahl al-Kitāb allows us to do that, to imagine what a community looks like and what they have in common in a way that is actually tangible. We can identify based on that single term that there is a set of core values, of a shared history, of shared texts, of shared ritual and of shared culture. We have language that does that for us in a broader way. We can say “humanity,” we can say “familyhood,” but those terms, when we use them to talk about one another, have become so watered down that it doesn’t really do any work for us. So what does it mean to develop language that we can institutionalize in a way that really means “I have a connection with you”? I don’t know what the answer to that is, but I look into that concept and say, “I want some of that.”

Do you have any sacred texts or holy teachings that are telling you that yours is the one true religion?

Singh: In our tradition, we have a scriptural text that was compiled by our gurus themselves. It is all music, it’s all written to song and it is all poetry. It is not just their own writings; they included the writings and songs of other traditions. It is a sort of devotional and mystical literature and music that essentially communicates two messages: What it’s like to experience that connectedness with love, and how does one get to experience it? There is not much of anything else. What we find in our tradition and our theological belief is that one can reach this goal of love from any religious path. It is this true, essential idea of pluralism to the point that we have other religious figures in our own Scriptures, and we have no problem with that because our idea is it doesn’t matter what your background is, as long as you live a life of love. We don’t care too much about afterlife, we don’t have a concept of missionizing or conversion, and it is because we have this core, deeply held belief that one should be devoted, and one should be loving, and it doesn’t matter where they are coming from. So there is not anything to be interpreted as “You have to be a Sikh in order to be a good person” because we explicitly believe the opposite.

Do you have extremist practitioners of Sikhism?

Singh: Just like any religious tradition, we have extremists, and just like any other religious tradition, we have them of all stripes. I think the violent extremism is boring, and so I don’t want to touch on that because that is what we always talk about as a society. What I think is super interesting, what I am constantly trying to wrap my head around, is the type of extremism that I find reads religion in such a way that it flips the core idea on its head, and then you end up with something that seems exactly opposite of what was intended. For example, I have talked about how oneness is the ultimate principle and so much of the Scripture talks about “How do we break down these divisions and dichotomies we have produced in our heads, not just about people we encounter, but how we organize our understanding of the world?” The most common in the context of religion is what’s pure and what’s polluted. In the Sikh tradition, a lot of work is done by our gurus institutionally, scripturally around destroying these ideas of divisions, destroying the idea that there is something better than something else and the constant reminder that God is in everything. But still, there are Sikhs who end up living in such a way that they have very strong beliefs that there are only certain things that are divine and only certain things that are profane. That strikes me as fascinating because the entire logic of the Sikh theological system relies on this core principle of divine presence in everything. To then say this particular site is holy because God lives here, or this particular day is the most holy because this is divinely sanctioned, or this material substance is something we should eat, or that we should touch because God is here or God is not there — that is extremism. They take those ideas to their edges, and it completely changes the way we understand what Sikhism is about.

Sally Kohn debunks the simplicity of hate in America

  • Sally Kohn, author of The Opposite of Hate: A Field Guide to Repairing Our Humanity, speaks Wednesday, July 25, 2018 in the Hall of Philosophy. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITORSally Kohn, author of The Opposite of Hate: A Field Guide to Repairing Our Humanity, speaks Wednesday, July 25, 2018 in the Hall of Philosophy. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

The minute Sally Kohn’s 9-year-old daughter, Willa, was told ethics were the study of right and wrong, she knew there was no way it could be that simple. To Willa, even though people can be wrong for believing in something that is not morally right, she believes there is no such thing as wrong people.

And that, Kohn said, is where her daughter is exactly right.

At 2 p.m. Wednesday, July 25, in the Hall of Philosophy, Kohn, author, progressive activist and CNN political commentator, gave her lecture, “The Opposite of Hate,” as a part of the Week Five theme, “The Ethics of Dissent.”

“The question is, can we dissent from the bad things happening in the world without resorting to the idea that the people behind those bad things are permanently and irredeemably bad?” Kohn said.

Kohn said her politics come from a deep belief in equal dignity and justice for all people, along with the belief that if one shares those principles, dissent is not only necessary, it is the only ethical choice.

“In the face of extraordinary and mounting injustice, I think silence is immoral,” she said. “Dissent is not only just and justified, but required.”

Kohn began her career traveling as a senior campaign strategist with the Center for Community Change, helping communities band together to “make change in policies and institutions.”

One day, a producer saw Kohn speaking at a conference and told her she should be on television. She promptly dismissed the idea.

“The whole point of being an organizer is (that) you’re behind the scenes helping other people be in the spotlight — the people doing the work, the people affected by the issues,” she said.

In 2009, Kohn finally agreed to work with the TV producer to learn more about media in hopes it would make her a more well-rounded organizer. However, that decision progressed beyond her job as an organizer, and Kohn ended up spending two years as a progressive political commentator on Fox News.

“This is the part I should probably mention: I’m gay,” she said. “As you might expect, a lefty lesbian community organizer on Fox News is kind of a strange thing.”

Kohn said the first day she walked into Fox News, she was “prepared for battle.”

“I was up in arms,” Kohn said. “Not just politically, but emotionally.”

Kohn believed the people she had watched on air and the viewers who supported the ideological beliefs of the network would be “completely and totally hateful people in every sense.”

But two things happened on her first day. One, Kohn realized the Fox News employees were merely people. Two, she realized where the hate she feared receiving actually stemmed from.

“I am the one who hates them,” Kohn said. “I was the one who had all of these stereotypes and preconceived notions. I made these blanket generalizations and judgments about people, whole groups of people I had never even met.”

Kohn’s revelations at Fox are what led her to investigate hate in society, which she did in her most recent book, The Opposite of Hate: A Field Guide to Repairing Our Humanity.

“I wanted to look at the science and psychology of why we hate and why we demean and dehumanize people and groups of people because of their ideas and their identity,” she said.

In addition to examining why people hate, Kohn also compiled a series of stories about people like former terrorists and neo-Nazis who left “lives of extraordinary hate behind.”

“I figured, if they can do it, there’s got to be hope for me and the rest of us,” she said.

Kohn said her journey gathering information for The Opposite of Hate reaffirmed her core values, something she thinks is difficult to do in America.

“In moments of struggle, especially in the sort of ethic, political struggles our country is facing now, it can be easy to lose sight of our values,” Kohn said. “Or worse, to let our opponents shape our values for us.”

Just as Kohn believes there is right and wrong in the world, she also thinks there is a right and wrong way to dissent.

“When we seek to protect the equal dignity and treatment of some by attacking and demeaning others, we violate the principles we purport to defend,” she said.

To Kohn, it is unconscionable that certain world leaders, and by extension their followers, treat entire groups of people “like disposable trash.”

However, the problem to Kohn is that people direct their anger not only at the opposing side’s beliefs, but at the people behind the beliefs “in broad and totalistic ways.”

“We are fighting the incredibly unjust and offensive generalizations on Muslims, for instance, based on the heinous acts of a small handful of extremists, and in turn making generalizations about all conservatives, all people from the South or even all Trump voters,” she said.

Kohn recognized that while some people may believe it is a “blind rationality” to dismiss President Donald Trump’s supporters, it is still wrong to assume those supporters believe everything he stands for. However, Kohn said instead of questioning the morality of Trump voters, it is more important to believe that they can change before the next election.

“To me, ethical dissent means we stand up for the equal dignity and humanity of those on our side while not rejecting the dignity and humanity of those opposing us,” she said. “This is only possible if we believe that all people are inherently good and full of the intention of goodness.”

To contextualize her argument that anyone can be good, Kohn explained why she opposes the death penalty.

“I believe no person should be condemned to death, that no person should be judged for the worst thing they have ever done in life,” Kohn said. “People are inherently possible of change and redemption and deserving of forgiveness. Can I have that same grace for Trump supporters?”

Kohn said Trump followers deserve grace because it is “important to separate leaders from followers.”

“We blame the people themselves and blame their angry (reactions), not as a condition created by leadership and context, but as inherent to them,” she said. “Isn’t it wrong, not to mention inaccurate, to portray people who are following the context set out by leaders and media as inherently wrong?”

Kohn believes being angry toward people for falling prey to hateful views and feeding into them is valid, but it does not justify hatred in response.

“Hatred is never the answer to hate,” she said. “Just like cruelty is never the answer to cruelty, and injustice is never the solution to injustice. We should hate problems, not people. We should fight ideas, not individuals. Dissent should not be personal, it should be principle.”

On the other hand, Kohn said it is natural to believe it is naive to respond with compassion and kindness in the face of injustice.

“I understand the impulse — suggesting that to be kind in the face of cruelty is not only naive, but tying one hand behind our back in the fight for our lives,” Kohn said. “At moments, I want to come out with both hands swinging.”

However, in studies of of revolutionary movements and movements of dissent for justice around the world, nonviolent movements have always been more successful, she said. Therefore, Kohn will continue to practice what she preaches by teaching her daughter that violence is never justified, people are inherently good and change is always possible.

“While I still believe there is right and wrong, and I still try to teach (Willa) there is right and wrong, she is right that there are no wrong people,” she said. “When I keep that principle as the north star in my dissent, then I really am creating a possibility for change and, I believe, doing what’s right.”

Steven Conn discusses the impact of Thoreau on Gandhi, King

  • Professor Steven Conn gives his lecture "Thinking About Thoreau" as a part of the Interfaith Lecture Series on Tuesday, July 24, 2018 in the Hall of Philosophy. HALDAN KIRSCH/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

At different times and in different places, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., two of the world’s most influential leaders of social change, found the power of peace through an essay published on the premise of war.

At 2 p.m. Tuesday, July 24, in the Hall of Philosophy, Steven Conn, historian and W.E. Smith Professor of History at Miami University in Ohio, gave his lecture, “Thinking about Thoreau,” as part of the Week Five theme, “The Ethics of Dissent.”

Conn’s lecture centered around Henry David Thoreau and his essay, originally titled “Resistance to Civil Government.”

“In this historian’s humble opinion, any discussion of dissent and the ethics of it needs to begin with Thoreau and that essay,” Conn said. “It thrills me, it challenges me and it troubles me.”

First, Conn expanded on what made Thoreau’s essay “thrilling.”

It all started on July 23, 1846, when Thoreau was arrested by a sheriff in Concord, Massachusetts, for refusing to pay his $1 poll tax. He was released after one day and one night because an anonymous friend paid his tax.

In 1848, Thoreau revisited his experience of being arrested in a lecture he gave at the Concord Lyceum. The following year, he reworked that lecture into his essay “Resistance to Civil Government”; after his death in 1862, it was renamed “Civil Disobedience.”

“That essay put the phrase ‘civil disobedience’ into common usage and unleashed it on the nation,” Conn said.

Upon its release in 1849, Conn said the essay “sank like a stone” among American readers. The essay only received a few reviews and those few dismissed Thoreau’s ideas as silly.

As an example, Conn paraphrased a review published by author and critic, John Macy, in 1913.

“(Macy said) Thoreau’s essays on forest trees and wild apples were classics to be found in a school 25 years ago, but the ringing revolt of the essay ‘Civil Disobedience’ is still silenced under the thick respectability of our times,” Conn said.

Although the essay was failing to make its mark in the United States, Conn said it had an entirely different effect outside of the country.

In 1931, Gandhi said he took inspiration from Thoreau’s work for the movements he led in India.

Conn referenced Gandhi’s words.

“Before I read that essay, I had never found a suitable English translation for my Indian word satyagraha,” Conn said, quoting Gandhi.

Conn said he conducted research to confirm Gandhi’s statement and found that the term “civil disobedience” appeared frequently in the press in the late 1930s and was “almost always in connection with India and Gandhi.”

Thoreau’s ideas also reached Denmark. In the 1940s, an anonymous member of the Danish resistance released a personal testimony on the impact of “Civil Disobedience.”

“This person, him or her, I do not know, wrote that ‘Thoreau’s (essay) stood for me and my first leader in the resistance movement as a shining light,’ ” Conn said.

In 1962, “Civil Disobedience” found its way to Israel when Martin Buber, an Austrian-Israeli philosopher, “summed up Thoreau’s meaning to the world,” Conn said.

“He noted he had read ‘Civil Disobedience’ as a young man,” Conn said, “and I quote, ‘I read it with a strong feeling that here was something that concerned me directly.’ ”

According to Conn, Buber spent much of his life wrestling with his opinion on the essay until he came to understand the origin of his feelings.

“Buber put it this way: ‘By speaking as concretely as he does about his own historical situation, Thoreau expresses exactly that which is valid for all human history,’ ” Conn said. “That’s staggering.”

Next, Conn discussed how the many layers of “Civil Disobedience” make it a challenging piece to understand.

“At its broadest, at its simplest, Thoreau uses the essay to explain why he was arrested and how he responded to it,” Conn said. “He was asked to pay his taxes, when he was asked to do so he refused, (but then) he tells us it was because he opposed the Mexican-American War.”

Although Thoreau’s resistance of the war correlated with the resistance of not paying his tax, Conn confirmed the dates of these events do not line up in the order Thoreau implied. The Mexican-American War started in 1846, but Thoreau had been refusing to pay his taxes since 1842.

“The war, in other words, the war might have prompted Sam Staples, the town sheriff, to arrest (Thoreau), but it was not actually the cause of his protest in the first place,” Conn said. “Slavery was.”

Conn said slavery was a primary motivation, specifically for “the cheerleaders for the Mexican-American War.”

“(Thoreau) brings these two issues together, slavery and the war, when he writes ‘When one-sixth of the population of a nation (the United States), which has undertaken to be the refuge of liberty, are slaves, and a whole country (Mexico) is unjustly overrun and conquered by a foreign army, and subjected to military law, I think that it is not too soon for honest men to rebel and revolutionize,’ ” Conn said.

Conn believes what makes Thoreau’s opinion on the war profound is that the foreign army he is referring to is from the United States, and the country “unjustly overrun” is Mexico.

“Now he is putting the reader in the position of Mexicans watching this (U.S) army come at you and impose its military law on you,” he said. “It is a really complex, fascinating sentence.”

Although Thoreau talked about slavery negatively, he never declared his opinion in his essay. Conn said Thoreau didn’t because he believed it was self-evident.

“Thoreau isn’t interested in persuading a reader that slavery is an evil institution,” Conn said. “He simply starts with that as a given. He doesn’t deign to entertain the pro-slavery, anti-slavery debates that swirled with such energy in those decades. It is simply beneath his contempt to engage in any protracted discussion of whether slavery is right or wrong. It’s simply wrong.”

Instead of engaging in the debate, Conn said Thoreau wanted to draw attention to the “complicity with slavery on the part of his neighbors and fellow citizens of Massachusetts.”

“There are thousands who (opposed slavery and the war), who yet in effect do nothing to put an end to them,” Conn said. “He goes on, not very kindly, about those who, ‘esteeming themselves the children of Washington and Franklin, sit down with their hands in their pockets and do nothing.’ ”

Conn believes Thoreau achieved two things by implicitly expressing his opinion on slavery. First, he made slavery the reader’s problem instead of shifting the blame to an outside party. Second, he juxtaposed opinion with action.

“Opinions are cheap and easy and, ultimately, meaningless. Action is what actually matters. What are you going to do about it? And when are you going to do it? That’s the challenge and the demand of this essay.”

-Steven Conn, W.E. Smith Professor of History, Miami University in Ohio

The motivation for Thoreau to take action was not derived from an external source, but from his own conscience, Conn said.

“Thoreau sees the individual conscience as pure and clear and unambiguous, quite unlike the workings of government, which are driven by what he calls ‘the rule of expediency,’ ” Conn said.

Lastly, Conn described the aspect of the essay that troubles him.

“It is striking to me how much of this essay is framed around negative actions, rather than positive ones,” Conn said. “The essay is still with words like ‘resign,’ ‘refuse’ and ‘recede.’ All of these imply walking away, rather than engaging with the world and with others.”

The closest Thoreau ever came to expressing a collective political goal was when he “extrapolated his own actions onto others,” Conn said.

“Thoreau writes, ‘If 1,000 men were not to pay their taxes this year, that would not be a violent and bloody measure, as it would be to pay them, and enable a state to commit violence and shed innocent blood,’” Conn said. “ ‘This is, in fact, the definition of a peaceable revolution, if any such is possible.’ ”

Thoreau’s equation is that 1,000 acts of individual “cautions” add up to a “peaceable revolution,” but Conn does not agree.

“I think it is fair to ask if that is really possible,” Conn said. “I am not so sure. And even if it is, I think it is fair to ask what kind of a society we would have the day after that revolution, and Thoreau provides no answer to that.”

Underneath all of the issues Thoreau discussed was an underlying opinion that government and democracy were useless, and he was not alone in his stance. Emma Goldman, an activist and writer, described herself as an anarchist and claimed Thoreau inspired her ideological beliefs.

“Goldman referred to Thoreau as ‘the greatest American anarchist,’ ” Conn said. “And in her essay ‘Anarchism: What it Really Stands For,’ Goldman quotes extensively from ‘Civil Disobedience.’ ”

Because “Civil Disobedience” can be interpreted as radical right, radical left, both and neither, Conn said the radical individualism Thoreau wrote about had no goal beyond “infidelity to one’s own conscience.”

“That is the political end onto itself, not necessarily the means to get somewhere else,” Conn said.

Even with the essay’s varying interpretations, Conn said it still managed to lead political and social change in the United States.

In 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. was in a jail cell in Montgomery, Alabama, for protesting the treatment of black citizens. Before writing the historic “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” King learned of civil disobedience through Thoreau’s essay and referenced it to his letter.

“Just as Thoreau did not use his essay simply to issue a bill of indictment against slavery, King didn’t use (his) letter to make a vigorous argument against segregation,” he said. “Instead, the letter is addressed to his fellow white ministers, and like Thoreau did to his neighbors, King took them to task for their complacency in the face of injustice.”

Conn believes King also recognized the weaknesses of civil disobedience. According to King, the main weakness was Thoreau’s failure to define what an “unjust law” is.

“That is the challenge King takes up in his letter, and perhaps the most important work that he does,” Conn said. “Almost as if he’s directly talking to Thoreau, King writes, ‘How does one determine when a law is just or unjust?’”

King offered a three-part answer. First, he suggested a just law is a man-made law that squares with or does not contradict “moral law.” Second, a law is unjust if it made and enforced by one group, but isn’t binding on that group. Third, unjust laws are laws imposed on people who have no opportunity to participate in the lawmaking process in the first place.

“Legal segregation, by all three of King’s measures, fails the test, and therefore those laws stand as unjust,” Conn said. “Not only can they be broken, there is a moral civic imperative to do so.”

Conn thinks King’s interpretation of civil disobedience changed the meaning of Thoreau’s essay for the better because it introduced the concept of turning an individual act into something collective.

“Thoreau believed that if each of us were to examine our own conscience honestly, if we were to stare at our ethical selves in the mirror without inching, we would be compelled to put them to work changing the world,” he said. “Perhaps the biggest challenge Thoreau leaves us with is how to get others to join their hands with ours. As we read ‘Civil Disobedience,’ we realize that conscience is a powerful force in the world, but conscience plus community is what can move those proverbial mountains.”

Otis Moss discussed superheroes define the society they protect

The Rev. Otis Moss III. Monday, July 23, 2018 in the Hall of Philosophy. RILEY ROBINSON/ STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

With great power comes great responsibility, and the only people who know that better than superheroes are the comic book artists responsible for creating them.

Comics have gone from the pages of the Sunday newspaper to movie screens, breaking records at the box office. They have shifted from humorous diversions to a source of cultural influence, a long, powerful journey rivaling only those of the characters within them.

At 2 p.m. Monday, July 23, in the Hall of Philosophy, the Rev. Otis Moss III, senior pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, gave his lecture, “Wakanda Forever: Comics, Subversion, and the Moral Imagination,” as part of Week Five theme, “The Ethics of Dissent.”

Comic books are a form of sequential art, a series of images arranged in a specific order to tell a story. This form of art originated with cave paintings in Egypt that were shared with the Greek and Roman empires, Moss said.

Constantine the Great, Roman emperor, recognized that his people were followers of Jesus and decided to convert to Christianity. He then became head of the church and implemented sequential art within cathedrals in the form of stained glass windows.

“It was a subversive, nonviolent, radical action that happens in Rome where sequential art became a part of the liturgy of worship,” Moss said.

The Rev. Otis Moss III. Monday, July 23, 2018 in the Hall of Philosophy. RILEY ROBINSON/ STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Over time, sequential art evolved from stained glass windows, to graphics and then into comics that can be defined by five components: the moment frozen in time by the artist, the frame, the image in the frame, the words, and the flow, Moss said.

“When you are reading, you become a collaborator and a co-laborer with the artist,” he said. “You fill in the blanks with your imagination.”

According to Moss, the birth of modern-day comics came about in the “shadow of Nazism,” when weekly pamphlets were made about Superman, Batman and Captain America from 1938 to 1941.

In 1938, Jewish artists Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created Superman.

“(Siegel and Shuster) took their immigrant sensibilities and the subtext of being an outsider and placed them on paper to create Superman,” Moss said. “Superman is an immigrant story.”

Superman was an undocumented immigrant because he was sent away by his parents from the challenges and trials that were happening on his home planet. Once he arrived on earth, Superman was adopted by an American family and given the name Clark Kent. Moss said Siegel and Shuster did this to provide a subtext of their parents’ and grandparents’ experiences on Ellis Island.

In addition to immigration, there is also a Christ narrative in the comic.

“Superman was the only son of Krypton; his father sent him to Earth. He has powers that no one else does, and his job is to save everybody,” Moss said.

In 1940, the first “Batman” comic was released. Moss said Batman’s story is the most amusing because he has no real superpowers.

“Batman’s only power is privilege,” he said. “He is a millionaire; that’s really where his power comes from. The fact that I have all of that money gives me privilege to train myself, so I can fight against crime.”

Batman was also a representation of nonviolence, as he refused to kill because his parents were killed by gun violence.

In 1941, the first “Captain America” comic book was released. According to Moss, Captain America’s primary goal was to fight fascism and represent a “critique on masculinity.”

This superhero started as Steve Rogers, a normal man who was injected with a super-soldier serum and then became “powerful” and “a great soldier,” Moss said. However, Rogers began to criticize the military industrial complex and decided he did not want to fight for the military, but for the people.

“He eventually says, ‘It does not make me a man by my strength, it makes me a man by my ethics (and) what is in my heart,’ ” Moss said.

In 1942, Wonder Woman made her entrance. As an immigrant from the Amazon where there were no men, Wonder Woman became the first feminist character in a comic book.

“She brings to life this idea of ‘I will not define my humanity solely by a male hierarchy,’ ” Moss said.

Readers’ initial response to these characters was positive, but that changed in 1950 after Joseph McCarthy said comics were a danger to children’s minds.

“(McCarthy wondered), ‘What will happen to the minds of girls if they think they are a hero?’ ” Moss said. “What will happen to this world if kids think they are Superman or Batman or Captain America, and they begin to critique their generals and say, ‘What you ordered me to do is immoral?’ ”

Many comic book writers were frightened by McCarthyism, and started to rewrite the superheroes’ stories to make them more patriotic.

In 1955, comic books made a shift in a racial direction when Moss said a young man named Stan Lee witnessed Rosa Parks refuse to give up her seat on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama.

“As he was witnessing it, he said, ‘Bigotry and racism are among the deadliest social ills plaguing the world today,’ ” Moss said. “But unlike a team of costumed villains, they can’t be stopped with a punch. The only way to stop them is to expose them.”

As a way to expose bigotry and racism in the United States, Lee created a series of characters known as the X-Men.

“He could not make his way down to Montgomery, he could not join the movement, so he said, ‘You know what? I am going to put the ideals of the movement in the comic book as a subversive idea that when any time a child reads it, they will understand what is happening out in the South,’ ” Moss said.

The X-Men story begins with the idea that there are certain people on earth who have the X-Gene, a mutant gene that gives each person a particular power. The main character in the book is Professor X, who is symbolic of Martin Luther King Jr. Professor X is a great visionary who believes he can teach the younger generation to not only be liberators, but also to participate in relieving suffering in the world, Moss said.

“He has a dream that those who have the X-Gene, who are different from the majority, can live in harmony with the majority even though they physically look different from it,” he said.

Another character in the comic is Magneto, symbolic of Malcolm X, who believed that people with the X-Gene had to build their own institutions because society would never accept them.

Moss said those differing opinions led the main characters to the overarching plot.

“The narrative was, ‘I look different and you treat me different,’ but here was the interesting thing: the American government wanted the labor of those with the X-Gene but did not want to give them citizenship,” Moss said.

The X-Men comics also contained symbols of immigration, most prominently symbolized in the “Mutant Registration Act.” Every mutant was required to register with the government to make sure they were not a danger to people around them. As a result of this, people began siding with and against the immigrants, and a civil war broke out.

“There is one group that says, ‘We need to document everybody and we need to make sure they do not come to our country,’ ” Moss said. “But there is another group that says, ‘Wait a minute, don’t you know that mutants make the country better?’ ”

According to Moss, the civil war in the comic series predicted the current “fight between red and blue states in America.”

“When art allows imagination to flow, and you are examining what is happening in the world, you can sometimes be prophetic in your communication,” he said.

Along with immigration, “X-Men” also contained a queer subtext because some mutants were forced to “live in the closet” to prevent registration or being placed in an internment camp.

Whether they are superheroes or X-Men, Moss said all comic book characters share the same “moral center.”

“All of them do not want to kill, and all have a vision of what the world and the nation can be,” he said.

The most recent example of a comic character with a moral center comes from “Black Panther.”

“Black Panther” is set in Wakanda, a technologically superior African country in the Marvel Universe. Wakanda is ruled by the Black Panther, also known as King T’Challa.

According to Moss, T’Challa’s power comes from the “ancient and holy spirit of the panther.”

“Anyone can be endowed in this spirit, and it is not your strength but your integrity that gives you your real power,” Moss said. “If you have a moral center, then anyone can be a hero.”

However, it is not just big name superheroes who symbolize greater issues. One example of a less well-known comic is “Jessica Jones.” Jones is a detective whose character symbolizes the #MeToo movement through her experience with sexual assault.

“She was attempting to do (an) investigation when someone assaulted her, someone of great power who had power by using their voice to force people to do what they do not want to do,” Moss said. “It is a painful story, but also critiques what is happening in the world today.”

In modern times, graphic novels like Black Panther and Maus are used in schools all over the world to teach about subjects like racism, the Holocaust, faith, life and death.

One that stands out to Moss is a graphic novel he gave to his daughter titled I Kill Giants. The story begins with a young girl who isn’t paying attention in school. When her teachers ask what she’s doing, she says she’s busy killing giants. Later on in the comic, it is revealed her mother was dying of cancer and that was the giant she was trying to fight.

“It is a powerful book that helps you understand grief, and that everybody will have to face the giant,” Moss said.

Ultimately, Moss believes the only way comic books can be be used to their full potential is if children and adults alike indulge in the messages they represent.

“Maybe if we had a narrative like Clark Kent, we wouldn’t be seeking so many walls,” Moss said. “Maybe if we had a narrative like Luke Cage, we would understand that everyone has worth. Maybe if we had a narrative like Wonder Woman, we would not have to deal with so many hashtags. Because if they are imagining a world that is not yet, there is a moral center.”

Soltes illustrates how Russian leaders shaped ‘godless Russia’

  • Georgetown University professor Ori Z. Soltes delivers his final lecture of the week on religion and the Russian government Thursday, July 19, 2018 in the Hall of Philosophy. DAVE MUNCH/PHOTO EDITOR

Gorbachev, Lenin, Stalin and Putin went beyond imagining the godless world John Lennon sang about — they built it.

At 2 p.m. Thursday, July 19, in the Hall of Philosophy, Ori Z. Soltes, a professor at Georgetown University, former director and curator of the B’nai B’rith Klutznick National Jewish Museum and lifelong scholar, discussed how Russia’s most memorable leaders of the past 75 years have shaped religion in his lecture, “The New and Old Russia: Between Millennia: Religion from Gorbachev to Putin,” as the last of Week Four’s interfaith theme, “Russia and Its Soul.”

Soltes was in Kiev when the Russian government officially returned control of the Kiev Pechersk Lavra monastery to the Russian Orthodox Church in 1988.

“This was a very important moment and obviously symbolized the (need) to reopen the open acknowledgment of the importance (of Russia’s religion),” Soltes said.

As conversations about religion made a transition, so did government leadership. Three years after Soltes’ trip, Boris Yeltsin replaced Mikhail Gorbachev and became president in Russia’s first direct election.

Throughout the 1990s, Chechnya, a predominantly Muslim-occupied Russian republic in the North Caucasus, was a tipping point in Moscow conflicts.

“The Chechens were feeling pressed upon by the Russians, and the Russians were feeling pressed upon by the Chechens,” Soltes said.

In 1999, Russia went to war after Shamil Basayev, a Chechen Islamist and rival of secular leadership, led an invasion of Dagestan. Vladimir Putin took the lead in ending the spread of the insurgency to neighboring republics by starting a campaign to defeat the rebels.

That same year, Boris Yeltsin resigned as president, and Putin won the following election.

“(Putin) won rather quick popularity for suppressing the Chechen insurgency, although erratic violence continued for sometime thereafter,” Soltes said.

To contextualize this time period, Soltes quoted a 1993 article from The New York Times titled “Religion Returns to Russia, with a Vengeance.”

“While tradition put the Orthodox at an advantage, the established Church’s long coexistence with the Soviet state left it tainted,” he read. “All priests were carefully screened by the state, and many bishops and priests are still hounded by accusations of collaborating with the K.G.B.”

Soltes went on to explain how the article said even though the Russian Orthodox Church finally won freedom from state control, it still finds itself “bowed under the baggage of its past” in present day.

Soltes also referenced a section in the Times’ article about an event at the Lokomotiv Stadium in Moscow. In 1993, more than 20,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses gathered and stood and applauded for more than an hour as 2,000 neophytes took turns being baptized. In 2017, Putin classified Jehovah’s Witnesses as an “extremist organization.”

“Clearly, that must have been in response to what this article said back in 1993,” Soltes said. “The Church is running to the state to protect us from the invasion of all of these improper, incorrect, inaccurate Christian denominations and the like.”

Soltes believes Putin’s decision to outlaw Jehovah’s Witnesses makes it clear that throughout human history, “religion has never, ever, ever been disconnected from politics.”

“The Pharaoh rules because you believe if you are part of his constituency that he is at least ruling with the dignity of the gods, or at most, the god itself incarnated,” Soltes said. “Whether it is the Pharaoh, those desperate monarchs or whether it is the occasional American presidential candidate, religion and politics have always been interwoven.”

Soltes saw the intersection of religion and politics in the streets of Kiev in 1988 during a Pamyat rally. Pamyat is is an anti-Semitic organization that identifies itself as the “People’s National- patriotic Orthodox Christian movement,” Soltes said.

“I do not mean that the Church has associated itself with right-wing nationalism,” Soltes said. “I think that more often than not, the right-wing Russian nationalists associate themselves with the Church, (believing that) to be Russian is to be Russian Orthodox, and that’s how you have to be. There are not two ways about it.”

Soltes believes the “politics over religion” mentality is why some people might long for the return of the Soviet Union.

“We want to be dominant; we want not to be respected as much as feared,” he said. “And that is one of the things the young people who were mentioned this morning (at the 10:45 a.m. lecture) like about Putin — that he has made (Russia) feared again. A disturbing thought, at least in my mind.”

Soltes compared Putin to a leader of a cult, and said that there is something mystical to him about political figures who are seen in the public eye as someone “larger than life.”

“By mystical, I mean they’re perceived to have some more of a connection to something beyond them, and I think Putin has captured some of the imagination of his population with respect to that,” he said.

However, Soltes said, mysticism and masculinity go hand in hand for Putin because he is admired for “his macho as well.”

The same fear was directed toward Joseph Stalin. Soltes said even though Stalin murdered 30 million of his own people, he is still rising in popularity in present day as a symbol of another era when Russians were feared.

Soltes believes, in terms of fear, there is both a conscious and unconscious association between Putin and Stalin. And the comparisons do not end there. Although the two figures do not share the same name, Putin does share the same title “apropos of Jesus,” just like Vladimir Sviatoslavich, who brought Christianity to the Kievan Rus’, and Lenin, who created the Soviet Union.

“What a convenience,” Soltes said. “We’ve got the three Vlads, another trinity.”

Another similarity among these Russian leaders is the shifting support of religion.

Construction and restoration of Orthodox churches started in the 1990s and has continued under Putin’s leadership, as has the teaching of religion in schools. In January, Putin announced his initiative to incorporate Islam’s beliefs and language in Russian schools’ curriculums. However, in July, he approved a package of anti-terrorism laws that sent the opposite message. These laws forbid sharing faith in homes, online or anywhere other than recognized church buildings.

To Soltes, a symbol of these leaders’ fluctuating religious viewpoints is St. Isaac’s Cathedral in St. Petersburg. The cathedral was built under Nicholas I, completed under Alexander II and was designed to make a statement that St. Petersburg was the real capital of Russia, not Moscow.

It operated as a church until 1931, the same year Stalin blew up the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. Although Stalin did not blow up St. Isaac’s, he did convert it into a museum of religious history. However, at the end of the Soviet period, it was decided that the cathedral needed to be reverted back to an active church. It took until 2017 for the cathedral to be revived, and while there is currently an active chapel inside, part of the building still functions a museum.

“Of course, you pay to go in the museum,” Soltes said. “So, we are not stupid, are we? It is a source of income; why would we give that up just for faith?”

Soltes finished his lecture by reading a poem by Joseph Brodsky, a 20th-century poet who shifted from writing poetry in Russian to writing in English. The poem, “Elegy,” depicts the battle of spirituality in the heart and soul, Soltes said.

“ … now the place is abuzz with trading / in your ankles remnants, bronzes / of sunburnt breastplates, dying laughter, bruises, / rumors of fresh reserves, memories of high treason, / laundered banners with imprints of the many / who since have risen,” Soltes read. “At sunrise, when nobody stares at one’s face, I often, set out on foot to a monument cast in molten / lengthy bad dreams. And it says on the plinth ‘commander in chief.’ / But it reads ‘in grief,’ or ‘in brief,’ / or ‘in going under.’ ”

Ori Z. Soltes discusses Stalin’s role in shaping Russia’s population

Georgetown University Professor Ori Z. Soltes speaks during the Afternoon Lecture on Wednesday, July 18, 2018 in the Hall of Philosophy. HALDAN KIRSCH/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Joseph Stalin was not shaped by the Russian Revolution. He was one of its architects — a crude Georgian national who rose up the ranks of a Russian political movement to bring down the Romanov dynasty, taking all of its citizens down with them.

At 2 p.m. Wednesday, July 18, in the Hall of Philosophy, Ori Z. Soltes, a professor at Georgetown University, former director and curator of the B’nai B’rith Klutznick National Jewish Museum and lifelong scholar, gave his lecture, “God within the Godless Soviet Union: Majorities and Minorities,” as part of Week Four’s interfaith theme, “Russia and Its Soul.”

“Our Lady of Kazan,” also called “Mother-of-God of Kazan,” was one of the most revered icons within the Russian Orthodox Church, representing the Virgin Mary as the protector of the city of Kazan and a guardian of all of Russia.

There were multiple copies of “Our Lady of Kazan.” The original icon disappeared from Constantinople in 1438 and miraculously appeared in the 1550s. After that, the icon was stored in Kazan until it disappeared again in 1904.

Georgetown University Professor Ori Z. Soltes speaks during the Afternoon Lecture on Wednesday, July 18, 2018 in the Hall of Philosophy. HALDAN KIRSCH/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

“This explains why and how the Russians lost the Russo-Japanese War. ‘The Lady of Kazan’ was not there to protect the nation,” Soltes said.

To prevent a second defeat, Stalin ordered the icon to be attached to a plane to protect the city during the Battle of Moscow in 1941. Soltes said this “offers a paradox to Stalin” because he had previously blown up the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow. Stalin had intended to use the land to build a palace for the supreme Soviets to meet, but this never happened and the site remained fallow.

During the same time period, Stalin decided that only “Soviet socialist realism” could appear in art, music and literature. Soviet composers such as Dmitri Shostakovich and Sergei Prokofiev felt the pressure to scale back their work to align with Stalin’s requests.

“Within the musical world of the Soviet Union under Stalin, you have a two-world condition,” Soltes said. “The stuff (the composers) want to write that really feeds their own souls is not the stuff that they could have performed.”

Where literature was concerned, Soltes said, it was far more difficult for writers to incorporate their feelings toward Stalin and Russia because written language is more concrete than music, which is more open to interpretation. Because of this, writers were the most prominent group of people who perished under Stalin’s rule.

“There were some who managed to survive, (without whom) the Russians could not have survived,” Soltes said.

One poet in particular was Anna Akhmatova. Akhmatova’s work flourished from the 1890s to the 1930s when she mastered the art of symbolism that “reacted against the realist literature that proceeded.”

“(Symbolism) meant that, sometimes, what I am writing has a meaning beneath the surface that only those really attuned to it can discern,” Soltes said.

Akhmatova became part of a symbolist poetry group called “acmeist,” whose members believed they were the “spiritual height of things.” Soltes said this group was important because its works caused the direction of spiritual writing to move away from traditional religious beliefs.

“I am not talking about Orthodox, Jewish, Muslim or Catholic,” he said. “I am talking about something which encompasses all of that and transcends all of that.”

In terms of visual art, artists from all over the country came together to create an underground world that was used to practice freedom of expression.

One team of young artists, Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid, created a form of subversive art that countered socialist realism.

“They take Soviet socialist realism, and they turn it on its head,” he said.

Another visual artist was Grisha Bruskin. Bruskin was Jewish and learned Hebrew from his father, although the teaching of that language was not sanctioned in Russia at the time. The background of Bruskin’s paintings were filled with Hebrew writing. Sometimes it was just a random combination of letters, but other times entire phrases or tracts could be interpreted.

Soltes said it was not that Jewish people like Bruskin had a different religion from other Russians, but a different nationality.

“The perspective of the Soviet Union of classification, with respect to Jews, is it’s a nation,” Soltes said. “(However,) that does not mean that you don’t make use of the old religious prejudices when you need them in order to suppress that particular group.”

According to Soltes, this nationality concept exhibits a “three-world condition.” Artists who produced their art for public consumption was one world, art produced to express one’s soul was the second and the the third was the question of to what extent can or should one express their nationality in their work, something Bruskin mastered by incorporating the Hebrew language.

During this period in Russian history, the population’s smallest minorities were Jews and Muslims.

In the 1700s, Poland was divided into sub-countries three different times. The third Polish division took place under the rule of Catherine the Great, empress of Russia.

“She suddenly found herself, by acquiring a piece of Poland, acquiring a substantial amount of Jews that she did not want,” Soltes said.

Catherine’s response was the Pale of Settlement, a designated territory within Russia where Jewish people were required to live, therefore restricting their rights.

Alexander II, the next emperor of Russia, tried to lift the settlement but was assassinated in 1881 before he could sign the necessary documents. After his assassination, Alexander III became emperor and enacted the May Laws, which Soltes said only further restricted Jewish rights with rules that prohibited them from living outside of larger cities and towns, owning or managing real estate, leasing land and operating their businesses on Sundays or other Christian holidays.

The May Laws were intended to be temporary restrictions, but were not lifted for 13 years until the start of the first Russian revolution in 1905. Soltes said the Jewish people identified strongly with the concept of a revolution.

“The idea that the problems of society are a function of uneven finances, if we can level that playing field then all the other kind of religious, racial and ethnic prejudices will go away, would — needless to say — appeal to the Russian Jews,” Soltes said.

In 1917, Vladimir Lenin, a Russian communist revolutionary, became Soviet Russia’s head of government. In 1922, when the revolution ended, Lenin decreed that the Jewish people’s official language in the new Soviet state would be Yiddish, as opposed to Russian.

“He thinks of the Jews as a national group more than as a religious group,” Soltes said. “A symptom of that mentality is that he starts to plan for a Jewish Autonomous Oblast.”

The Jewish Autonomous Oblast was a federal entity of Russia in the far east that was created to be the new area in which Russian Jews would reside.

In 1924, Lenin died and Stalin continued planning the JAO. In the spring of 1928, Soltes said 654 Jews arrived to begin the new settlement.

“The summer was filled with torrential rains. It was a mess,” Soltes said. “By October, more than half of (the Jews) had left.”

In 1930, the capital of the JAO, Birobidzhan, was completed. In that same year, a Soviet propaganda film was created in Yiddish to encourage Jewish people to come settle in the capital. However, it took over a decade before the population increased.

“By 1937, the population was rather desolated because that is when Stalin had already begun to turn a corner with respect to all kinds of things, including his attitude toward Jews,” Soltes said.

When World War II started, there was an influx of Jewish people in the JAO, a majority being refugees from Nazi Germany. The population in Birobidzhan was rising, and at its peak reached more than 30,000; however, Stalin’s relationship with the Jewish residents was “uneasy,” Soltes said.

The culmination of that uneasiness occured in 1950 with “The Doctors’ Plot.” According to Soltes, Stalin came up with the idea that all of the Jewish physicians in Moscow were engaged in a conspiracy to slay the Soviet leaders. Stalin began a series of trials to test his theory, but died in 1953 before he could finish.

In 1961, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, a poet, released a poem called “Babi Yar” that revolved around the slaughter of nearly 34,000 Jews in Kiev by the Nazis in 1941 and denounced the anti-Semitism that had spread throughout the Soviet Union. Readers responded to Yevtushenko’s poem with outrage because there was no monument commemorating the massacre. Although a monument was erected in 1976, the Soviet Union claimed the fascists had massacred the Kievans.

During this era, Soltes said the Soviet Union supported the state of Israel because it thought Israel was going to become a socialist state, until it aligned with the United States in 1950.

“There (were) all kinds of ins, outs, up and downs in (the Soviet Union and Israeli) relationship over the course of decades,” Soltes said.

These “ups and downs” pertained not only to Judaism, but also to Islam.

“Russia, the Soviet Union and post-Soviet Russia have dealt with Islam in a number of ways which are different from the ways in which they have dealt with Judaism,” Soltes said.

From the time of Kazan’s conquest in 1552 to the time of Catherine the Great, there was a systematic repression of Islam in the growing Russian empire, according to Soltes. Ultimately, six out of the 15 Soviet republics were Islam.

“Now, we are not dealing with the Muslims ‘on the other side of the fence’ in a political and not just religious way, but we have actually got them within (the borders),” Soltes said.

In 1910, the first mosque was built on Soviet soil. In 1917, there were 25,000 mosques across the Soviet Union, but Stalin turned in the other direction and started closing them down. By 1970, there were only 500, according to Soltes.

The Islam republics are demolished and during World War II, Stalin deported 500,000 Russian Muslims.

Ori Z. Soltes examines the evolution of religion in ‘godless Russia’

  • Professor Ori Soltes discusses the foundations of Russia in his lecture, "Icons and Identity: The Shaping of Mother Russia" on Monday, July 16, 2018, in the Hall of Philosophy. ABIGAIL DOLLINS/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER

Ori Z. Soltes has never encountered a country as religiously obsessed as the United States, a country that prides itself in its separation of church and state. With one exception: Russia.

Soltes, a professor at Georgetown University, former director and curator of the B’nai B’rith Klutznick National Jewish Museum and lifelong scholar, gave his first of four speeches as part of Week Four’s theme, “Russia and Its Soul,” at 2 p.m. Monday, July 16, in the Hall of Philosophy, titled “Icons and Identity: The Shaping of Mother Russia.”

According to Soltes, throughout history and leading up to present day, Russia has always been a “bundle of contradictions.”

“It is a place where you will encounter warmth exceeded nowhere else,” he said. “You will also encounter violence exceeded nowhere else.”

This struggle within the Russian sense of identity can be symbolized by what Muscovites originally said of St. Petersburg, Soltes said.

When Peter the Great established St. Petersburg in 1703, it was because he was infatuated with Western Europe and wanted it to become his “window on the west.” However, the people of St. Petersburg said it was almost too Russian to be European and yet too European to be Russian.

“The sense of what we are is even visible, contrastively, in the way (Moscow and St. Petersberg) understand each other,” he said.

This identity struggle appears in Russian language as well.

The country’s primary, and only official, language is Russian, but a law was passed in 1997 permitting groups with different parent languages to be able to teach those other languages.

“You’ve got about 160 different ethnic groups with different languages that they might choose to juxtapose with Russian as the way to go,” Soltes said.

Soltes believes Russia’s history is tied not only to the idea of being Russian in ethnic, linguistic or cultural ways, but religiously as well.

The topic of Russian identity started being explored in the ninth century by Russian archaeologists, paleontologists, art historians and artists working together to imagine the first evidence of human life in the country. What they discovered is that these early people differed greatly from modern-day Russians.

“The problem with this is that they probably were not speaking Russian, and they are probably not Russian Orthodox,” Soltes said. “Who knows who they were; they just happened to be there.”

As it turned out, the first Russian citizens were nomadic, a community of people without fixed habitation who regularly moved to and from the same areas.

“The first viable group that seems to assume a kind of political identity in that area is a group that has come from the Crimea and beyond, known as the Khazars,” he said.

Soltes said there are two things about the Khazars that make the idea of Russian identity and soul “very interesting.”

The first is the fact that the Khazars were Turkic, so in terms of language, they had nothing to do with Slavic languages. The second is that a majority of Khazars converted to Judaism as opposed to Russian Orthodoxy.

Regardless, the Khazars were pushed out of the area by a Germanic group from the north, otherwise known as the Vikings. Their leader, Rurik, established himself in Kiev and Novgorod.

“So, in the late ninth and 10th centuries, that central area is dominated by a group that is probably not Slavic, but Germanic,” Soltes said.

The reason for Soltes’ uncertainty is that if there was an indigenous population in Russia at the time of the Germanics, they would have been “a Mediterranean or Middle Eastern sort.”

“They would be dark-skinned, (have) dark hair, dark eyes, and this group coming from the north probably has light skin, redish, blondish hair and bluer eyes,” he said. “So what is it that creates the ethnicity that we are talking about when we are talking about Russia from its beginning?”

According to Soltes, even Russian President Vladimir Putin would have to admit he does not know the answer to the question of Russia’s original ethnicity.

In addition to ethnicity, the beginning of present-day Russia can be associated with the arrival of groups sent from Constantinople to try to evangelize and civilize the Slavs, Soltes said.

These groups developed the Cyrillic script, a writing system used for various alphabets across Eurasia. It is based on the Early Cyrillic alphabet developed at the Preslav Literary School in the First Bulgarian Empire.

“The significance of this is not only that we see the presence of Christianity actively now on the scene,” Soltes said, “but we are reaching the point where we can actually find stuff to read that might tell us what is going on, as opposed to just imagining from archaeological remains, oral stories or visual arts.”

In 988, the Kievan Rus’ established the largest polity in Europe, and the people embraced Christianity as their official religion. Church and state became a unified concept. The acceptance of Christianity would mean that going forward, any definition of what it means to be Russian would have to include religion, Soltes said.

Soltes said what people need to realize is that Kiev is part of Ukraine, so the beginning of Russia was actually Ukraine.

“For those of us who insist that there is a such a thing as ethnic purity, guess what?” he said. “You’re wrong.”

As religion in Russia continued to develop in the 11th and 12th centuries, so did iconography.

“(Iconography) is all about symbolic language. It is the language of intermediation between this reality and that other reality, the Divine reality, in which these figures function as interceptors.”

-Ori Z. Soltes, Professor, Georgetown University

By the 1230s, the Mongols were invading Russia, and Kiev was destroyed by 1240.

“The center of Russian being had to shift, for defense purposes, away from where the Mongols could still continue to attack, north toward Novgorod,” he said. “Novgorod pretty much becomes the political and spiritual capital.”

In the 13th century, Novgorod developed its own school of icon making known for its rich colors and attenuated figures.

One example of an icon created during this time was “The Trinity,” by Russian painter Andrei Rublev. It is his most famous work and the most famous of all Russian icons. It is regarded as one of the highest achievements of Russian art, Soltes said. “The Trinity,” now referred to as “The Holy Trinity,” depicts the three angels who visited Abraham and Sarah to inform them that they would be having a child. The importance placed on icons and symbolism then became a way to differentiate between new and old believers of Russian Orthodoxy.

For instance, old believers only recognize a baptism where the whole body is submerged three times. New believers are “willing to sprinkle some water on you and say you’re done,” Soltes said.

Jumping to the 18th century, a time when Romantic nationalism is at its apogee across Europe, there was a group of students at the St. Petersburg Academy of Fine Arts who questioned why their senior painting was to be of the gods of Valhalla. They considered the topic to be “Norse mythology” and decided to withdraw from the school.

The students then established their own group over the course of seven years. They went to various locations in Russia to paint the landscape and the people. One of those students was Isaac Levitan, the painter of “The Silent Monastery,” Soltes’ personal favorite.

“Aside from the religious emphasis (in the painting) is the way in which, in symbolic terms, the monastery world is that intermediary between us and God,” he said.

To conclude, Soltes touched on the concept of “Holy Russia” that arose during the 19th century.

“It was all about the identity of Russia as a scared territory, understood in very distinct Christian terms, in fact, specifically Russian Orthodox Christian terms,” he said.

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