The Invention of Wings

The Invention of Wings, by Sue Monk Kidd.  Viking, 2014.

The Grimke sisters, at the center of Kidd’s new novel, were among the 19th century’s first outspoken abolitionists and feminists, yet largely forgotten today. Most abolitionists were Northerners, whose knowledge of slavery was second- or third-hand. The Grimkes, however, had grown up in a Southern slave-holding family, and thus brought a dynamic firsthand perspective about the treatment of slaves to their writings and lecture tours. Their pamphlet “American Slavery As It Is” strongly influenced Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose later widely-read novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin persuaded tens of thousands to oppose slavery. Continue reading “The Invention of Wings”


Disciples: How Jewish Christianity Shaped Jesus and Shattered the Church, by Keith Akers.  Apocryphile Press, 2013.

Following up on his previous book The Lost Religion of Jesus, Keith Akers continues his examination of Christianity in its earliest stages, presenting a very different view from what Christianity later became under Paul. This Jewish Christian movement, which practiced simple living, nonviolence and vegetarianism, has been completely lost, even though it represented what Jesus actually taught. Contemporary scholars of religion are mostly unaware of its existence, yet the author’s conclusions are based solidly on historical sources of the period.  For more details, visit the the author’s blog here.

Had Christianity stayed closer to its original vision, we would likely have a kinder world in which resources would be more equitably shared and no climate/environmental crisis would be looming on the horizon. The more people who are Christian read this book and begin to work for change in their churches, the better the future will be.



The Last Runaway

The Last Runaway, by Tracy Chevalier.  E.P. Dutton, 2013.

I’m always intrigued when characters face tough moral choices, and Chevalier’s latest novel takes us to a time in American history when acting compassionately was highly dangerous. The passage of the Fugitive Slave Law in 1850 required all citizens, on penalty of heavy fines and/or imprisonment, to assist slave hunters in returning slaves to their masters. Imagine you are a young Quaker–an abolitionist and pacifist–living on a farm on the Ohio frontier at that time, as our protagonist is, and runaway slaves are often passing through the woods next to your property. They are hungry, needing shelter and direction to the next safe place, sometimes ill or injured, cold in winter. If you are caught helping them, the resulting fine could cause you to lose your farm. What do you do? Continue reading “The Last Runaway”

A Mighty Long Way

A Mighty Long Way: My Journey to Justice at Little Rock Central High School, by Carlotta Walls LaNier and Lisa Frazier Page.   One World/Ballantine, 2009.

Those who try to carry the human race forward to greater fairness and inclusiveness must sometimes pay a high price.  Not many teens would have been able to withstand the taunts and overt hostility of their classmates to the degree that Carlotta Walls faced when she was among the first African-American students to integrate a previously all-white Southern high school in the 1950’s. Furthermore, her account reveals that the time of continual insults, danger, and deliberately inflicted pain wasn’t just a short-term hurdle to get over, but lasted throughout her high school years. Ultimately segregationist resistance came to pose mortal danger not only to herself and the other African-American students, but to their families and friends. Much of the fear and anger was internalized and buried, only to resurface much later to be processed and healed. Carlotta’s determination to continue at the school all the way to graduation required remarkable courage, and to read the story as only she can tell it is unforgettable.

The Value of the Ordinary

Here’s a passage that recently caught my attention. It’s taken from Awakening to Zen, by Philip Kapleau, Roshi:

“The deeply aware person sees the indivisibility of existence, the rich complexity and interrelatedness of all life.  Out of this awareness grows a deep respect for the absolute value of all things, each thing.  From this respect for the worth of every single object, animate as well as inanimate, comes the desire to see things used properly, and not to be heedless, wasteful, or destructive.
To truly practice Zen therefore means not leaving lights burning when they are not needed, not allowing water to run unnecessarily from the faucet, not loading up your plate and leaving food uneaten.  These unmindful acts reveal an indifference to the value of the object so wasted or destroyed as well as to the efforts of those who made these things possible for us: in the case of food, the farmer, the trucker, the storekeeper, the cook, the server.  This indifference is the product of a mind that sees itself as separated from a world of seemingly random change and purposeless chaos.  This indifference robs us of our birthright of harmony and joy.” Continue reading “The Value of the Ordinary”

The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined

The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, by Steven Pinker.  Viking, 2011.

I can’t stop telling people about this amazing landmark study of societal progress concerning violent behavior! Everyone I’ve talked to is cheered by the news that the 20th century was not the most violent; that with occasional exceptions, humans have been making solid progress in reducing violence; and that our treatment of “out-groups” of a different race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, age, or even species, has grown increasingly respectful. The author writes clearly and enlivens his descriptions of countless psychological studies, numerous graphs and, in the beginning chapters, grisly depictions of torture, with just the right amount of anecdotal passages to keep the reader engaged throughout its nearly 700 pages. For example, you’ve got to love that the concept of deterrence is explained using lyrics from the old Jim Croce song “You Don’t Mess Around with Jim.” Continue reading “The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined”

Expanding Empathy

I’ve been reading The Better Angels of our Nature, Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker’s amazing 2011 landmark study of violence and its decline.  Among numerous insights I’ve gained from it are two aspects of empathy I hadn’t really considered.  I knew them subconsciously, but understood them more clearly from this reading.

One is that empathy has what Pinker calls a “dark side.”  Our feelings of empathy with someone in a painful or unfortunate situation may temporarily incapacitate our sense of fairness, so that we favor the person we know over others equally or more deserving.  For example, one study acquainted participants with a seriously ill child awaiting medical treatment.  Those who empathized with her wanted to move her to the head of the queue, ahead of other children who had been waiting longer or who needed the treatment even more.  Participants who received the same information about this child, but didn’t empathize with her, treated all children fairly.

A second consideration is the way that empathy can be increased and spread by print and broadcast media.  Continue reading “Expanding Empathy”

Good News About “The Story of Chickens”: Public Slaughter Cancelled

Two weeks ago I blogged in this space about “The Story of Chickens,” a project sponsored by the Spencer Art Museum at the University of Kansas (KU).  This so-called “art” exhibit called for the display of five chickens in a moveable coop at several locations in Lawrence, Kansas; the chickens were then to be slaughtered in public and served at a community potluck.   I am happy to write today that the project has been substantially altered because local animal cruelty law does not permit slaughter within Lawrence city limits. No chickens will be displayed or slaughtered; the project has been reduced to the display of an empty coop and a concluding dinner.  For details, see the news release from United Poultry Concerns and yesterday’s article in the Kansas City Star. Continue reading “Good News About “The Story of Chickens”: Public Slaughter Cancelled”

Violence Is Not Art: An Open Letter to the Spencer Art Museum

Today I sent the following letter to my alma mater, the University of Kansas, in protest of an upcoming exhibit at the university’s Spencer Art Museum called “The Story of Chickens.”  This project will encourage townspeople to get to know and care about five chickens over a period of time, then the chickens will be slaughtered in public and served at a potluck. Continue reading “Violence Is Not Art: An Open Letter to the Spencer Art Museum”

Self-Realization, Not Self-Aggrandizement

Robert Aitken, Roshi

Zen master, professor, pacifist, and social activist Robert Aitken, Roshi, was a pioneer in bringing Zen to the West in the 1950’s.  He founded the Honolulu Diamond Sangha, which now has affiliates worldwide, co-founded the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, and authored over ten books of Zen teachings.  He died at age 93 last summer; what turned out to be his final interview was published in Tricycle magazine this spring.  One of his statements in that interview impressed me so much that I invite you to ponder it with me:

“Just because historical statistics show lots of war, it does not follow that behind history there is an imperative to wage war.  Indeed, the imperative is self-realization.  It is the perversion of self- realization into self-aggrandizement that directs the course of our lives to violence.” Continue reading “Self-Realization, Not Self-Aggrandizement”