Category Archives: Historical events

Treating a whole population with suspicion always ends badly

I’m currently reading Spectacle, the telling of the story of Ota Benga, a Congolese man held captive in 1906 at the Bronx Zoo and placed on display in the zoo’s monkey house. This tragic story reveals our ugly history where Americans, by-in-large, believed in the superiority of the White races. But in chapter five, the author talks about another incident, The Brownsville Affair, during that same year. It is this affair that I wish to highlight.

The Brownsville Affair

In late July of that year, there was an altercation between a black member of the infantry division and a white man. The white man was killed. A mob ensued and when it was over, three more lay dead. Fast forward a few weeks into August and suddenly a bartender (white) is killed. The suspicion is instantly laid on the infantry, despite their white officers reporting that every infantry member was in his bed at the time. Evidence was planted to try to incriminate the men. When the men were interrogated, they denied any involvement and of course could not say who had killed the bartender.

But the people of Brownsville continued to accuse the men. And the decision was made to castigate them all for a so-called “conspiracy of silence.” The decision went all the way to President Theodore Roosevelt who signed the order having 167 men dishonorably discharged as punishment for a crime they did not and could not have committed. Here Pamela Newkirk recount Roosevelt’s comments

Despite pleas from black leaders, including Booker T. Washington, Roosevelt would sign the order denying the men–who had been deprived of legal counsel or a hearing–back pay, pensions, and eligibility to serve in the future. Roosevelt, considered a racial moderate for his time, unapologetically defamed the innocent men, saying, “Some of the men were bloody butchers; they ought to be hung.”

Not until Nixon, did this injustice be made right (and then the “justice” did not include any form of restitution.

The Trajectory When We Dehumanize others

Notice the trajectory:

  • One person of a group (a minority group) does something wrong.
  • Later, another ambiguous thing happens and blame is laid at the feed of an entire population.
  • Facts are not sought out but evidence is created and “justice” delivered because “these people” are butchers.

Is it any wonder that such minorities don’t feel particularly warm feelings when thinking about national pride. How could they? We’d like to think we are well beyond the years that we would place a human in a zoo to be gawked at. Indeed, we are. We’d also like to believe we are well beyond the years where we would demonize and be suspicious of an entire population of people. We are not there yet. There might be people who are butchers among the innocent. So, let’s ensure they don’t remain among us and accuse them of a conspiracy of silence for not pointing the guilty out. Let’s keep them all out just to be sure.

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Filed under Christianity, Civil Rights, Good Books, Historical events, Justice, News and politics, Race

Receiving mercy leads to…bold sin?

You’ve just been caught doing something unlawful and harmful to others. You are stopped by the authorities. Time passes and you realize you will not be held accountable for your crimes. There will be no court case. There will be no punishment.

Would this make you more likely or less likely to continue your criminal activities?

My wife is reading a biography of US President Andrew Johnson. Johnson was VP under Lincoln and thus became president after Lincoln’s assassination. Johnson was roundly hated by both abolitionists and southerners. Fellow southerners saw him as a sell-out and abolitionists hated his obvious racist beliefs.

The biography noted that southerners were quite worried that they would face many northern reprisals for their actions during the Civil War. Not only were these reprisals not forthcoming, Johnson provided clemency to many of Confederate leadership. The biographer points out that when it was clear that individuals weren’t going to be held accountable, there seemed to be an increase in racial hatred and violence against freed slaves.

I know post Civil War politics was more complex than my simplistic statement above. And yet, consider this: can mercy embolden more sin? In fact, it may provide that temptation to sin more. Consider St. Paul’s comments in Romans 6. Do we sin more since we receive grace? Apparently, he felt the need to comment on this because we might be inclined to think that a free pass allows us to keep on going down the wrong road.

Just in case you think I’m suggesting we shouldn’t be merciful to sinners, I am NOT saying that. I’m grateful for unmerited favor in my life. I need more of it. However, let us be careful to recognize that mercy may produce in us something other than humble repentance.


Filed under Historical events, Repentance, Uncategorized

Rwanda meetings

This coming week I have the pleasure of meeting up with several folks interested in the next step in our Rwanda efforts. We will be meeting with Rwandan church and gov’t officials to discuss possible training efforts before next Memorial period. Along with meetings in the DC area, we will tour, together, the Holocaust museum. I understand this will include a behind the scenes interaction with curators, holocaust survivors and others. Cool!

Hopefully, we will come out of these meetings with a clear plan for our next, yet-to-be scheduled trip. I don’t know if I’m alone in this experience, but meetings seems to drag on when I would rather start doing something. I know, at one level, how important listening is. But brainstorming and planning are way more fun! I hope we’ll get to that!

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Filed under christian psychology, Historical events, Rwanda

Remembering Little Albert

The latest issue of American Psychologist has a very interesting story about the search for John Watson’s baby Albert. Remember from your Psych 101 class that John Watson, a behaviorist at Johns Hopkins in the 1920s, attempted to condition the infant to be afraid of white rats by pairing scary sounds with the presentation of the rat. Most every history of psychology tells the story how his condition fear generalized to other furry objects.

For a couple of generations the story ended there. Myths held that the mother took the child away out of her anger; that Watson later deconditioned him. Neither are true. But these researchers decided to spend a great deal of time and energy seeing if they could discover who he was. With Watson burning his own notes before his death, they didn’t have much to go on.

I won’t relay all the details here but suffice it to say they likely discovered who Albert was (Douglas Merritte) and who his mother was (Arvilla, a wet nurse who lived/worked at the university as a wet nurse after becoming pregnant out-of-wedlock for the second time).

Sadly, the boy died before he turned seven (unclear but maybe due to meningitis). So, we haven’t any knowledge of the impact of Watson’s research on him.

What I find amazing is that it was considered ethical to seek and reveal this information in today’s American Psychologist. We are called to provide the highest standards in clinical and research settings, which include anonymity. Why was it okay to reveal this information now when the person in question isn’t able to determine whether he would want this information released. Maybe existing relatives helping with the search gave permission.

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Filed under Historical events, History of Psychology, Psychology

Do you know your women heroes of the faith?

Robert Kellemen and Susan Ellis have recently published a book, Sacred Friendships: Celebrating the Legacy of Women Heroes of the Faith (BMH Custom Books, 2009). If you are not familiar with your church history OR if you are but never studied the strong women of Christian history then you may find this book right up your alley. As you probably know, most history classes and/or texts tell the “great men” story–the story of the major players who changed the course of history. There’s Augustine, Martin Luther, Charles Wesley, Charles Spurgeon, and many more. But what of their wives. And what of other great female leaders in the church–and even those never known by any more than a handful?

Kellemen and Ellis tell the stories of a host of women of faith–often times using their own words. They start with Vibia Perpetua (know from an early manuscript) arrested in 202 AD and include other women from the early church. One of the first things you notice reading the book is that these women are real. They have real emotions, real concerns, questions, and longings. Having read many early church works, I can vouch that these female voices provide some realism while many of the male voices contained in early texts focus on theological concerns.

After covering several church mothers, these authors go on to cover “desert mothers” (e.g., prayer warrior Amma Theodora; spiritual leader, Marcella), writer/mentor mothers like Dhuoda (803-843), and a host of other medieval Christian women–both well-known and relatively unknown.

There are also chapters on reformation and puritan women. But my personal favorite is chapter 12 which is about African American women of faith. In particular the authors tell the story of Elizabeth Keckley, dressmaker, confidant, and counselor to Mary Todd Lincoln. There are numerous quotations from Lincoln and Keckley showing their tremendous love and support for each other. Based on their material here, it is not an understatement to say that Keckley provided the comfort for Mary after Abraham’s assassination that enabled her to not fall into suicidal despair.

I commend this book to you if you long for a taste of the story of female Christian leaders and supporters of leaders. They footnote the book well so you can find your own way to their original sources to drink more deeply should you so choose.

Check this link out for their page and 4 positive reviews.

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Filed under Christianity, Christianity: Leaders and Leadership, church and culture, Guidance and Counseling, Historical events

Rwanda’s Gacaca (truth and justice) courts

Am reading Romeo Dallaire’s memoir, Shake Hands with the Devil, of his time as UN commander in Rwanda before and during the 1994 genocide. It is amazing that this man isn’t in a psychiatric ward given his position as “observer” of the genocide and no power to do much of anything, even protect his own troops.

But last night I watched the documentary, In the Tall Grass, the story of a woman seeking justice in the village court (aka gacaca courts). The village turns out to hear her complaint that her neighbor killed her husband and children for being Tutsis. The villagers are asked what they saw and only one or two admit to seeing anything though it is assumed most know. The accused man admits to being present and “participating” in the killings but denies he struck the fatal blows. (They remain neighbors). His story is inconsistent. She claims she will forgive him if he confesses fully. He sticks to his story as being a witness to the events. But one woman stands up and tells the crowd how the children were murdered and where they are buried (the mother did not know this). So, the village goes and digs many holes in the area in order to find the children’s bodies–now 10 years later. They find them and several undertake, on film, to wash the bones and prepare them for proper burial. The accused participates in the washing and this woman watches it all.

I cannot fathom the experiences of 1994, of living next door to those who murdered your family, nor that of watching someone tenderly wash your child’s skull, rib-bones, etc.

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Filed under book reviews, conflicts, Cultural Anthropology, Forgiveness, Historical events, Movies, Rwanda

When your ancestors might not be so great…

Back from vacation and back to the heat of Philadelphia. New England was quite cool and a bit wet this summer. We still had many good experiences nonetheless.

While at my parents I read two things at the same time: a 2 volume set of the Shaw genealogy (my maternal grandfather’s heritage) and a book by Colin Woodward: Lobster Coast: Rebels, Rusticators and the Struggle for a Forgotten Frontier. Below are my thoughts from reading both documents.

I like learning about my ancestors. In past visits to my parents I’ve read my paternal grandfather’s daily diaries (more like logs of activities). This time I read about my maternal grandfather’s ancestors (family name: Shaw) back to the first immigrants to Boston in the 1630s. After a couple short generations, some of the Shaws emigrated through Maine to the Maritime provinces. Someone in the family compiled quite a history and so I learned about the hardworking, Scotch/English/Irish families. Some were Anglican, others became primitive Baptist and still others were “Orserites.” I find it fascinating to see how families lived through diseases, lost many children in their youth, and made a life out of nothing. It is also clear that back then cousins married each other. Interesting… The most peculiar thing was a story of how a young white boy was “bought” from an Indian tribe and brought into the Shaw clan.

The Scotch-Irish families in Maine and the Maritimes may not have had the greatest integrity. I didn’t learn this from the family genealogy but from “Lobster Coast” noted above. This book detailed the settling of Maine and the subsequent mis-use of the natural resources in the Gulf of Maine. I learned greater details about the use of “Scotch-Irish” to settle the Maine coast. This ethnic group was considered a ruthless and independent people and so perfect for settling Main and dealing with the native tribes. Apparently the first white Mainers lacked integrity as they would make treaties with the local Indian tribes only to welch on the treaty whenever expedient. I didn’t know that in the mid 1700s most of white inhabitants were pushed out of the land after riling the Indians for the umpteenth time. When the Mainers fled to Massachusetts for saftey, they weren’t that welcome there as they were seen to be a rather foul-mouthed, drunken crowd. I didn’t get that information in the Shaw genealogy. While I’d like to believe my family was the upright exception, it makes one wonder…

I can see my nearly genetic connection to the Mass/Maine/New Brunswick area. Whenever I return, it feels like home, even when I didn’t live in eastern Mass.

Its easy to forget that our ancestors, though strong Christians, were likely involved in stealing land from the native Americans.I suspect those who know their ancestors enslaved African Americans (or at least benefited from slavery) feel this same sick feeling in the pit of their stomachs.


Filed under ethics, Historical events

Jim Jones’ (People’s Temple) deception revisited

I watched the PBS special on Jim Jones and the Jonestown massacre that aired last night. I was struck by several things that at the same time disturbed and sobered me: Continue reading


Filed under Abuse, Cultural Anthropology, Historical events, self-deception