Posted in: history by bill-o on February 05, 2011

It played a key role in late Mideval and early modern British history and is a mentioned as one of the basic rights of Americans in the original, unamended Constitution of the United States. In fact, in the original 1787 Constitution that made almost no restrictions on the powers of the states, it is mentioned as being something that the states cannot do.

The concept is “attainder” and it is difficult to understand either British or American history without understanding what it is. To be “attained” is to be legally “singled out” for punishment. The “bill of attainder” prohibited by the U.S. Constitution (Article I, Section 9 (Congress) and Section 10 (the states)) refers to the legislative process of passing a law that singles out an individual or group of individuals for punishment. (Thus, bills of attainder are mentioned in Article I, the article about legislative powers.) Attainder laws are closely related to the concept of ex post facto (after the fact) laws. The founders of the U.S. were concerned about the separation of governmental powers: legislative, executive, and governmental. Decisions about crime and punishment, in their plan, ultimately came under the purview of the judiciary. Congressional attainder would have upset that balance between the three branches of the American government. It would have allowed the heat of public opinion to convict people of crimes via attainder, even if the courts ruled them to be not guilty. The prohibition against attainder remains a check against any possible “tyranny of the majority” against individual citizens, even though most Americans aren’t now aware of this. (James Madison argued in favor of outlawing laws of attainder in Federalist No. 44, arguing that they were “contrary … to every principle of sound legislation”.)

In the history of England, attainder was the ultimate legal sanction against a treasonous noble. Before the Tudor dynasty of kings and queens (1485-1603), during the Hundred Years War and the War of the Roses, most of the men who held any significant position of authority in the English government were also peers (lords) of the realm. The word peer originates from the Latin word par (meaning “equal”). Peers (dukes, marquesses, earls, viscounts, and barons) inherited their titles and associated privileges from their fathers, usually according to rules of strict male-line succession. Though dukes have the highest honor (precedence) amongst all of the peers and barons the lowest, all peers of the realm are in a sense equal (“on par”) with one another, as each one had an equal vote in the House of Lords. They were, in a sense, born into the family business of assisting the king in ruling his kingdom, and each one had the legal privilege of direct access to the sovereign. If a peer rebelled against the king and was arrested, the king could demand that Parliament pass an act of attainder against the peer. This act would revoke the title of the rebel lord. This revocation would also end the possibility of passing on that title to anyone else (son, grandson, nephew, etc.). Essentially, the title was “put to death”. An attained lord was thus reduced to the status of a commoner, and subject to punishments for commoners, such as burning at the stake. Since only peers were leaders of the body politic in pre-Tudor England, demotion from the peerage effectively ended a career in high politics, even for those who escaped the fate of execution after attainment. Those rebel peers who were killed in battle could still be attained after the fact (ex post facto).

The Two Flags

Posted in: history by bill-o on December 04, 2010

Shadows and Symbols had the opportunity recently to visit the National Museum of the Marine Corps (NMMC) in Quantico, Virginia, USA. (Quantico is a Marine Corps Base (MCBQ) that is located about 50 miles south of Washington, D.C.) The 4-year old museum is now one of the premier sites for military history in the United States. As of this past summer, the museum now includes exhibits based on the entire history of the USMC.

As I walked through the World War II (Second World War) exhibit of the museum, I turned a corner and encountered quite a surprise. I entered the room where the first American flag that had been raised on Mount Surabachi was prominently on display in a glass-enclosed case with a black background. Shocked to see such an American national treasure right in front of me with no other tourists in the room at that time, a museum guide, apparently posted exclusively for that particular room, explained to me the history of the flag, as well as the second flag raised later on that day.

For Americans as a whole, and for the Marine Corps (USMC) in particular, the flag raising on the western Pacific Island of Iwo Jima remains an enduring symbol of perseverance in the face of an enemy determined to kill or die trying. It’s memory is etched in stone at the Marine Corps War Memorial (Iwo Jima Memorial) in Arlington, Virginia. The Battle of Iwo Jima cost the lives of over 6,800 marines to secure the 8 square mile (21 square km) island. The raising of the American flag on Iwo Jima’s only prominent mountain marked the symbolic taking of the high ground on that island.

Many Americans don’t realize that there were actually two flags raised on Iwo Jima on February 23, 1945. This second flag is the one that was photographed, filmed, and formed into the Iwo Jima Memorial. Evidently, the NMMC does not display both flags at any one time. The day that I went, the first flag was on display. A few months from now, the second one will be returned to the same display and the first flag will be placed back into storage. The guide told me that the museum would like to eventually find a way to display both flags at the same time. For me, both flags are enduring symbols of a hard-won victory.

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Faded Glory

Posted in: Current Events,history,Popular Culture by bill-o on September 26, 2010

The musician and entertainer Liberace (1919-1987), a.k.a “Mr. Showmanship”, was the highest paid entertainer in the United States from 1950 to 1980. Known for his lavish, over-the-top costumes, candelabras on his piano, and bubbly personality, the Milwaukee-native, Polish-American rose to stardom both through musical talent and by personality.

Known in his later years primarily for his Las Vegas acts, Liberace opened the museum that bears his name in Las Vegas, Nevada, in 1979, as the place where his costumes, pianos, candelabras, jewelry, and even his cars could be displayed for the public to see. The museum was one of Las Vegas’s most popular tourist attraction through the 1990s, as it served as the place where Liberace’s fans could come to celebrate his memory after his death in 1987.

After the year 2000, the Liberace Museum began to decrease in popularity as his older fans began to die and younger adults did not know about him any longer. (Even the young children who might have remembered seeing Liberace on the “Muppet Show” television program are now in their 40s, by the way.) Finally, a few days ago, the museum announced that it was being forced to close its doors to the public on October 17, 2010, because of bad investments by its underlying foundation and because of poor attendance. The man who was once a superstar in the United States is now largely forgotten.

Faded glory.

You can read more about the closing of the Liberace Museum at:

In the Name of

Posted in: history,Reviews by bill-o on September 07, 2010

I recently had the chance (and the great joy) to view the HBO documentary film “A Small Act”. And just to make sure that I give credit to the people responsible for this outstanding film: It is a Harambee Media Production, in association with Considered Entertainment and Cherry Sky Films, and it was directed by Jennifer Arnold.

The documentary tells the story of Chris Mburu, a young student from a poor, rural part of Kenya who was given the scholarship money that he needs to attend secondary school by a teacher in faraway Sweden, Hilde Back. Chris was the top student in his primary school class but lacked the money to continue his education. Ms. Backe’s donation allowed Chris to attend and complete his secondary school education. From there, Mr. Mburu was able to attend the University of Nairobi for free, and he then able to attend and graduate from Harvard Law on a Fulbright scholarship. After graduation from Harvard, Chris Mburu eventually found employment with the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, where he specializes as a human rights advocate for refugees and for those who have been the victims of genocide and human rights abuses.

Mr. Mburu had never met in person and had lost track of each other sometime after Mr. Mburu’s graduation from secondary school. Grateful for Ms. Back’s financial support at a key point in his life and eager to give back to his homeland, Mr. Mburu started the Hilde Back Education Fund (HBEF) in the name of his former sponsor. This time, instead of receiving the financial assistance of foreigners for scholarships for students to attend secondary school, the HBEF would be for Kenyans to help poor and bright Kenyan students complete their secondary school educations.

Yet something was missing: Hilde Back herself, the namesake of the scholarship program. Mr. Mburu appealed to the Swedish Embassy in Nairobi for help in finding Ms. Back. One thing led to another and Ms. Back, now retired and in her 80s, was located in her apartment in Sweden. She then graciously accepted an invitation to visit Kenya to see the work of the scholarship that shares her name. On arrival, Ms. Back was treated with great honor and made an elder in the Kikuyu tribe.

This amazing story turns out to have an even more surprising history. We learn in the film that Ms. Back is a Holocaust survivor who had arrived in Sweden as a young child during World War II without her parents, who later perished in the concentration camps. Ms. Back comes to learn that the child that she had sponsored years ago had grown up to become a defender of human rights, and Mr. Mburu comes to know that his benefactor was a survivor of genocide.

We see in this film how a woman in the faraway country had become the parent of a great work for sponsoring young students, even though she, at first, knew nothing about it. Yet she had raised up a young person who then grew up to do the same thing for other younger ones coming up behind him. And he had done so in the same spirit of generosity as Ms. Back had done years earlier. This is why the newer scholarship program of Kenyans sponsoring other Kenyans is rightfully named after a refugee to Sweden: Because she had had the foresight to, if you will, “breathe life” into a young Kenyan, who would grow up and later breathe that same life into others in the same way.

I really can’t recommend this film highly enough. Please see it if you can.

This is a book that I had not known about until Peter at Slow Reads gave it to me as a recent birthday gift. I had not heard about it beforehand and was a bit intimidated by its large number of pages. That being said, I’m really glad that I started reading it and had no trouble staying motivated enough to complete this biography all the way through to its end.

The book by Eric Metaxas starts slowly, offering a detailed look into Dietrich Bonhoeffer‘s family, even touching upon his great grandfather and great uncle. This first chapter’s detailed look at Bonhoeffer’s ancestry exceeds what is normal for most biographies. However, extended family connections would prove to be important for him throughout his life, and this chapter provides some of the needed context for this. Bonhoeffer’s upper-middle class parents taught their children to come to their own conclusions after a careful consideration of the facts at hand. They also instructed them to eschew emotionalism of any kind. These character traits would later, of course, put the family at odds with the Nazi regime in the 1930s and 1940s.

The pace of the book quickens when Bonhoeffer begins his theological studies. Even though his professors were strongly in the camp of the 19th century German revisionist and liberal theologians, Bonhoeffer oriented his own thinking towards the neo-orthodoxy of Karl Barth, whom Bonhoeffer would befriend a few years later. The end of Bonhoffer’s period as a young adult student would end with him finding his first best friend, Franz Hildebrandt.

Much of the middle part of the book centers on the split between the “German Christians“, those Lutherans in Germany who acceded to the Nazi regime’s anti-Jewish policies, and the “Confessing Church“, which made several futile attempts at reconciliation but eventually ended up as a partially underground church movement. Since Germany followed the continental European model of funding church pastors and buildings via state funds, Lutheran pastors were reluctant to speak out too boldly against the Nazi state. The Confessing Church would not move fast enough for Bonhoeffer away from Nazism; he always seemed to be a few steps ahead when it came to realizing the seriousness of the evil of Hitler and his rule.

The middle part of Bonhoeffer’s short life was taken up with several foreign travels and assignments. Bonhoeffer worked as a pastor for German expatriates in Spain and England. He also spent some time in post-doctoral studies at Union seminary in New York. Bonhoeffer, intrigued by the community-life that he had heard about with Mohandas Gandhi, even made plans to visit India. Yet fate would permanently postpone Bonhoeffer’s trip to India, and the meeting of two of the 20th centuries great religious figures would never take place.

In the mid-1930’s, Bonhoeffer would return to Germany, and begin running the underground seminary at Finkenwalde in Pomerania in eastern Germany (now in western Poland). Here, Bonhoeffer would begin breaking down the usual barriers that separated a professor from his students. He would emphasize personal scripture meditation and servant-leadership and even a revival of Martin Luther’s injunction for Protestant Christians to confess their sins one to another. The Nazi state would eventually discover and shut down Finkenwalde, but the short two years that it was opened produced deep and lasting friendships, including Bonhoffer’s friendship with his second best friend Ebehard Bethge. Rural Pomerania was steadfastly anti-Nazi, so Bonhoeffer found many supporters for Finkenwalde in that region, including especially the grandmother of his future fiancee. Many of the members of Pomerania’s old aristocracy would lead the failed July 1944 assassination and coup attempt against Adolf Hitler.

Bonhoeffer was drafted into the resistance by his brother-in-law in the Abwehr, a German military intelligence operation that was filled with prominent resistance members. Bonhoeffer worked as a double agent, and the Abwehr gave him a means of resistance and the ability to escape being drafted into the military. Eventually, Bonhoeffer and his brother-in-law were arrested on a minor charge of helping to smuggle Jews out of the country. For many months, the Gestapo did not realize the full extent of Bonhoeffer’s resistance activities, and, since Bonhoeffer’s uncle had authority over the prison warden, Bonhoeffer was given favorable treatment. All of this changed after the aborted July 1944 coup attempt. Eventually, Bonhoeffer’s activities were exposed and he was ordered executed by Hitler just before the end of the war.

The book only mentions in passing the later controversies over Bonhoeffer’s theology, especially the meaning of the Bonhoeffer’s term “religionless Christianity”. Bonhoeffer was already imprisoned when he coined this phrase and died before he had had a chance to expound upon it in any detail. The author offers passing criticism of more the liberal views of Bonhoeffer’s theology, but a more detailed analysis of post-mortem theological arguments are left to other books.

The author also clearly comes down on the side of being in favor Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s decision to involve himself in the plot to kill and overthrow Hitler. The decision to undertake regicide is one that many of Bonhoeffer’s fellow Christians would disagree with. If you’re looking for an in-depth analysis of how Bonhoeffer weighed the pros and cons of this fateful decision, you will need to look at other books and sources.

The surprising parts of this book for me: Bonhoeffer’s deep sense of connectedness to family and friends. Bonhoeffer, a bachelor for most of his life until his engagement just before his imprisonment, believed in fully integrating his life between his family and his friends. Bonhoeffer’s friends often became closely linked to his parents and other family members. Bonhoeffer treated his former students like family. Bethge helped Bonhoeffer with the particularly sensitive mission of helping get Bonhoeffer’s twin sister, her Jewish husband, and their daughters out of Germany, and Bethge eventually married his niece. Bonhoeffer’s lifelong struggle with depression is also a surprise. Additionally, Bonhoeffer’s willingness to explore forms of community life in Protestant Christianity, including New Monasticism, make Bonhoeffer a man who was 50 or 60 years ahead of his time.

The book includes extensive excerpts from Bonhoeffer’s correspondence with family and friends. Some readers may not like switching between the narrative and these letters. Others may appreciate reading from these important original source materials.

All in all, this is a great book and one that I would highly recommend reading.

Fammunity, Part 1 – Introduction

Posted in: history,Spirituality by bill-o on July 10, 2010

For the last few months, I and some friends been discussing the concepts of spiritual families and spiritual communities. Combining the two words together led us to coin the new word “fammunity”.

Spiritual families are formed when a spiritual father is connected to spiritual sons. The reemphasis on spiritual families is an expression of what the book of Malachi talks about when it mentions God’s desire to turn the hearts of the fathers back to the children and vice versa. Families take time to build, and spiritual families provide for intergenerational building blocks of spiritual growth.

The roots of community life in Christianity go back all the way to the book of Acts, where the first followers of Jesus lived together in Jerusalem and held all things in common with one another. Spiritual communities continued through the centuries, usually on the edges of society, first, in the lives of persecuted believers, then, in monasteries and friars and, later, in networks of rural believers like the Amish and Mennonites. “Community” is where a group of people make the choice to share their lives with one another in an organic way. This often involves living together in some type of communal setting. These spiritual communities often include service to the poor and disadvantaged in their local neighborhoods. The younger generation, those now in their 20s and early 30s, in particular, is embracing community life. Several communities together form what is called a “community of communities”.

In later posts, I’ll talk about more about spiritual families, spiritual communities, and what they have in common with one another.

Monks Making A Living

Posted in: history,Spirituality by bill-o on May 29, 2010

CNN had a very good article recently about monks: “Monks making money: A business beyond prayer”. The article covers the history of Western monasticism and how monks today in the United States earn money to support themselves and their monasteries.

As the article points out, monks have some of the same concerns that we all do, including a slumping economy and rising health care costs. The monks also face a need to be entrepreneurial with their side businesses and yet also maintain a solitary of life of prayer.

Symbolic Height

Posted in: history by bill-o on May 24, 2010

For more than 150 years, the insignia of rank for officers in the United States military has consisted of stars, eagles, oak leaves, and bars. Veterans and current service members are well aware of these insignia and their significance as per authority and responsibility. These insignia is also where the past meets the present: History buffs of the American Civil War can see the same insignia for the same ranks on the officer uniforms from the Civil War Era as they would see on military uniforms today (with the exception of the gold insignia as discussed in a moment …). Insignia are living symbols, tying the officers today to the rich military tradition of the past.

What many people may not be aware of is that the origin of these symbols is not entirely clear. We do know that the gold insignia (2nd lieutenant and major in the U.S. Army, USAF, and USMC), as opposed to silver with all of the others, came after the Civil War in order to give these two ranks specific insignia like all of the other officers. We also know the years in which colonels received their eagles and captains and 1st lieutenants their bars. What we don’t know is the exact origin of the stars, eagles, oak leaves, and bars.

Yet a simple examination of the insignia, taken together as a whole, gives the right context for us. The highest ranks are the generals and admirals who wear stars. The more stars, the higher the rank. Stars are high up in the night sky. Multiple stars form constellations. Eagles, the rank of colonels, soar high above most other birds, but they are less high than the stars, of course. Oak leaves are next down the list of ranks, and leaves are the highest and most visible part of any tree. The remaining ranks consist of bars, which could be comparable to branches, the part of the tree that is lower and less visible than its leaves.

It’s this “symbolic height” that can give even the casual observer a sense of the rank of each officer.

Bearing the Shame

Posted in: history by bill-o on May 23, 2010

This Spring is the 65th anniversary of the Battle of Okinawa, which was the last major battle in the American strategy of “island hopping” by capturing successive islands in the western Pacific Ocean from the Japanese Imperial Army. The battle lasted for two and a half months and resulted in the defeat of the Japanese by mid-June 1945. A total of 1/4-million combatants and civilians died on the island during the 82 days of fighting.

By this late stage of the war, the Japanese fighting forces had been reduced to a fraction of their capabilities four years earlier. Stepping into this increasingly bleak situation for the Japanese was the man who would become the primary strategist for the Japanese army on Okinawa. His name was Lt. Col. Hiromichi Yahara. Col. Yahara, a war college professor for most of World War II, knew that victory over the Americans on Okinawa was not possible. Therefore, the best strategy for his side was to use Okinawa simply to wear down the American and British forces as much as possible in order to make their eventual invasion of the Japanese home islands more difficult. In support of this strategic goal, Col. Yahara planned for a “defense in depth” strategy. With this plan, Japanese soldiers would engage the Americans only in defensive ways, even to the point of retreating backward to more defendable positions. Col. Yahara’s superior officers did not always listen to his recommendations, but his overall suggestions were adhered to throughout much of the battle.

In spite of Col. Yahara’s strategies, the Americans did succeed in securing most of Okinawa by the beginning of the Summer of 1945. By that point, Col. Yahara and his commanding generals were reduced to living in a cave. They were then each faced with the choice of surrendering, taking off their uniforms and trying to blend into the civilian population, or committing suicide. The cultural norm of the Japanese army was for its field commanders to kill themselves rather than accept the shame and embarrassment of being captured, so each of the senior officers in the cave were prepared to end their own lives.

But before Col. Yahara could take his own life, his superior officers ordered him not to. In the future, someone would need to tell the story of the battle from the Japanese side, and the generals in charge knew that Col. Yahara, as their strategist for the battle, was the best man to record that story for future generations. One of the generals told Col. Yahara that, yes, this would mean that he would have to bear the shame of being captured by the enemy. However, that shame would pass away in time, and that shame would be outweighed by the colonel’s chance to write down the stories of the battle for the sake of history.

Col. Yahara obeyed the order of his generals, even after they themselves had committed suicide. He took off his uniform, went out of his cave, and attempted to blend in with the surrounding population. Eventually, Col. Yahara was recognized and taken prisoner.

Years later, in 1973, he published his book on the battle of Okinawa. His book is now available in English as well as in Japanese. Col. Yahara died in 1981.


Posted in: history by bill-o on March 14, 2010

This month is the 80th anniversary of Mohandas Gandhi‘s March to the Sea or Salt March, which occurred March 12 to April 5, 1930. Gandhi and 78 other men made the historic 390-km or 240-mile march down to the ocean in order to perform a simple act: To boil off salt from sea water. Gandhi’s act of mass civil disobedience eventually led to the arrest of 60,000 people on charges of failing to pay the British salt tax. In spite of the skepticism of other leaders for Indian independence, Gandhi chose to initiate the protest against the salt tax because (1) everyone in India used salt and (2) this tax hurt poor Indians the most.

Salt is a symbol that everyone can understand. It is everywhere and used by everyone. The chemistry of salt is so simple that it is the one chemical molecule, along with water, that most of us will remember from chemistry class: NaCl. Unlike precious metals and jewels, like gold or diamonds, salt is for everyday use. And unlike water, a very small portion of salt (i.e. a “pinch of salt”) is useful, whereas water is heavy and cumbersome to transport.

Take a closer look at the phrase “table salt”: Salt is so common, it is found on every dining table, the place of communion for family and friends. Is there any other substance that is given such an honor? Even the word “table” here implies that the grade of salt is good enough to be eaten by people. And to further the symbolism of communion: Unlike the plate, knife, spoon, and fork, the salt shaker is shared by everyone at the table.

Eighty years later, salt is still a potent symbol: To free something that is shared by everyone is a symbol of bringing freedom to everyone.

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