News, views, notes and quotes

7 January 2015 • No. 5

¶ As of midnight on New Year’s Eve, the US’s longest-ever war, in Afghanistan, officially ended. Only . . . not quite:

      •Nearly 11,000 US troops remain in Afghanistan and are cleared for certain combat missions. A “status of forces” agreement with the Afghan government is good through 2024.
      •2014 was the deadliest year of the war for Afghans. The UN reports 3,200 civilians have been killed, a 20 percent rise from 2013. More than 4,600 Afghan military and police died.
      •The US has spent some $1 trillion in waging this war. (For perspective: A million seconds is 12 days. A billion seconds is not quite 32 years. A trillion seconds is 31,688 years.)
      •Since the war began in 2001, some 3,500 NATO-led soldiers have died, more than 2,300 of them US soldiers; 3,200 US contractors have died. Anti-government fatalities are estimated between 15,000-25,000. Estimates for civilian deaths start at 20,000.
      •Today Afghanistan produces twice as much opium as it did in 2000 (equaling 90 percent of the world’s opium crop).

¶ “[A]fter 2001, the US, in its quest for vengeance against the Taliban and al-Qaeda, partnered with the very warlords whose criminality and human rights abuses had created the conditions that led to the rise of the Taliban in the first place. . . . When they were backed by the CIA and Pakistan’s military, they became involved in heroin trafficking and opium production. So, the reason that opium has flourished in Afghanistan is because we have brought in, supported, tolerated figures who are involved in very grave criminality and in human rights abuses and in torture. And we’ve done this because it’s been deemed militarily expedient.” —Matt Aikins, interview with Amy Goodman, Democracy Now! Aikins is a journalist based in Kabul, Afghanistan, and author of the recent Rolling Stone magazine story, “Afghanistan: The Making of a Narco State.”

¶ “Edward W. Brooke III, who in 1966 became the first African-American elected to the United States Senate by popular vote, winning as a Republican in overwhelmingly Democratic Massachusetts, died on Saturday at his home in Coral Gables, Fla. He was 95.” So read the opening lines of numerous media accounts on 3 January 2015. A member of that endangered species known as “liberal Republication,” he was the first Congressional Republican to call for former President Richard Nixon’s resignation. Further down in the reports was a comment providing context for a say what? phrase in the opening line, “first elected by popular vote”: The only previous black senators, Blanche K. Bruce and Hiram R. Revels, both Republicans, were elected not by voters but by the Mississippi Legislature in the 1870s.

¶ Most are unaware that, until 1913, US Senators were elected by state legislatures. Or that religious affiliation as a prerequisite for voting wasn’t eliminated until 1810. The original US Constitution restricted voting rights to property-owning white males. Property ownership and tax requirements were not completely eliminated until 1850. In 1870 the 15th Amendment gave formal voting rights to all adult males, but it would be another century before African-Americans were effectively enfranchised.

¶ It wasn’t until 1920 that the 19th Amendment granted suffrage to women; and in 1924 both citizenship and voting rights to Native Americans. Four presidents—John Quincy Adams (1824), Rutherford B. Hayes (1876), Benjamin Harrison (1888) and George W. Bush (2000)—won the popular vote but lost the election. In 1787 less than 1.3 percent of the US population voted in the first presidential election. Barely half do now.
      The US is the only developed democracy in the world where less than half its eligible voters cast ballots when every candidate for one house of its legislature is on the ballot (what we call “midterm elections”). In 2013 only 16 percent of registered voters cast ballots in Los Angeles’ mayoral election.

¶ All of which raises the question: When did the US become a democracy? Or even: Given the unprecedented concentration of wealth in an ever-narrowing segment of the population, do we have one now?

¶ In 1776, John Adams, signer of the Declaration of Independence and later President, wrote: “Depend upon it, Sir, it is dangerous to . . . alter the qualifications of voters; there will be no end to it. New claims will arise; women will demand the vote; . . . and every man who has not a farthing, will demand an equal voice with any other. It tends to confound and destroy all distinctions.”

Trauma healing. John Cummings spent 16 years turning an old plantation in Louisiana into a slavery memorial. On 7 December 2014, the Whitney Plantation, located between New Orleans and Baton Rouge on the west bank of the Mississippi River, opened its doors to the public for the first time in its 262 year history, as the only plantation museum in Louisiana with a focus on slavery. He hired the Senagalese scholar Dr. Ibrahima Seck to trace the lives of slaves at the plantation, and he's commissioned statues and artifacts to make visitors feel the presence of those ghosts, especially the ghosts of the children held captive there. Read more.

Bittersweet news. George Stinney, a 14-year-old African American in Alcolu, SC, was the youngest person to be executed in the US, allegedly for killing two white girls. In 1944 it took an all-white jury 10 minutes to deliberate his case following a three-hour trial in which no witnesses were called in his defense. Stinney was so small he had to sit on a telephone book in the electric chair. The Civil Rights Restorative Justice Project (CRRJ), directed by Northeastern University law professor Margaret Burnham, in cooperation with pro bono lawyers and a SC judge, reopened the case, and on Wednesday 14 December, SC Circuit Judge Carmen Mullins exonated Stinney. CRRJ is working to document every racially motivated killing in the American South between 1930 and 1970. So far, they've documented 350 cases.

Surely one of the most significant theological breakthroughs in the late 20th century is the recovery of the created order—symbolized by “land”—in the vision of God’s redeeming work. In Scripture scholar Ellen F. Davis’ words, “The memory of being landless is central to the biblical story. . . . The voices we hear in the Old Testament bespeak throughout an agrarian mindfulness that land . . . is inseparable from self ‘before God.’. . . In his indispensable study of Israel’s land theology, Christopher Wright [God’s People in God’s Land: Family, Land, and Property in the Old Testament] suggests that the covenant is properly conceived as a triangulated relationship among Israel, the land, and YHWH, ‘all three having the family as the basic focal point at which the conjunction of the three realms issued in ethical responsibilities and imperatives.’” —Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible

Featured this week: 3 litanies for use in worship to commemorate the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Search the "litanies and prayers" section of this site for the following:
     •Litany for Martin Luther King Jr. Day
    •People of the Dream
    •We, too, have a dream

¶ In the November 2013 issue of The Atlantic, James Fallows reports on the conclusion of a panel of 12 scientists, entrepreneurs, engineers, historians of technology, and others to assess the innovations that have done the most to shape the nature of modern life. Most of the top 50 breakthroughs were not made by heroic individuals but were “achievements of groups of people who built on one another’s efforts, sometimes over spans of many years.” While “popular culture often lionizes the stars of discovery and innovation” (think Steve Jobs today and the Wright brothers of yesteryear), most breakthroughs can be traced to how such individuals “persuade large groups to work toward a common end.” —“The 50 Greatest Breakthroughs Since the Wheel”

¶ “An independent political fact-checking organization recently lambasted media hype about the Ebola virus in the United States., a Pulitzer Prize-winning nonpartisan site, named Ebola exaggerations by media outlets and politicians the ‘Lie of the Year.' Noting that many more people died in the U.S. this year from the flu than Ebola, PolitiFact mentioned several inaccurate claims made about Ebola and its spread.” —Brian Kaylor,

¶ Here’s a lovely, simple song of benediction our congregation is learning this Sunday: “Go in Peace” by Sam Baker. (Readers in the southern hemisphere, disregard the snowy photos.)

¶ And in anticipation of Black History Month—celebrated in February in the US and in Canada, October in the United Kingdom—live under the authority of the following charge by Harriet Tubman.


©Ken Sehested, Language not otherwise indicated above is that of the editor.