Who’s Bigger?

Sometimes we have to work so very hard for unity. On the day before the conference proper began, I decided to take in some of the sites. In San Antonio this means the River Walk and the Alamo. I was awake early, as usual, and since the Alamo doesn’t open its doors until 9 a.m., I took the River Walk first. Seeing the gift shops selling countdown to Obama’s last day novelties, I had to shudder. It may be a sad day when you have to look to the Alamo for consolation. What looked like a rainy morning became a sunny day and the Alamo was crowded by the time I arrived. Last time I was here I stopped in the church, and I think that was it. I decided to look in the Long Barrack room, noting the sign that read “Please remember this is a place of reflection and respect.” No photos. No food. Just respectful thoughts. I stepped inside.

 

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There can be no disguising that this site was host to a bloody battle some time ago. As I looked at the period rifles and the caliber of the musket balls graded up to cannon balls, I reflected how we’ve invented ways to hurl bigger and bigger pieces of hateful stone and metal at each other, faster and faster. A few thousand died near here, perhaps some in this very room. A couple of guys walked up and one said to the other in his beautiful Texan accent, “There’s some beautiful weapons here.” I could almost hear the tears in his voice. His companion agreed. “They’re bigger than what I carry,” he prayed. People had died here in the past, and it seemed that perhaps the best we could look forward to was more deaths in the future. Reflection and respect.

There’s no point in visiting a place like the Alamo without a sense of the history that made this place what it is. It is not a shrine to glorified warfare. It is a mission, an abandoned church, that became out of necessity a place of self-defense. I just can’t shake the thought that so many people died here, but the point of visiting seems to be celebrating a nation where you can wear your weapons proudly. It is a supreme irony that this particular November the conference I attend happened to have long ago locked in this particular venue this particular year. I could very much use a place of reflection and respect. Instead, I’m thinking of how so terribly hard it is to work for unity in what seem to be the increasingly Untied States.


Remember the Alamo

I’ve never started a fight. I’m actually a very conciliatory type, willing to be wronged in order to avoid an unnecessary confrontation. This election has made me feel a little pugilistic, however. The sheer size of Trump’s loss based on the popular vote makes me hope I’m not alone in this. I find myself in San Antonio at the moment. The American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting, which rolls around the weekend before Thanksgiving, has been a regular aspect of my career since 1991. My hotel room overlooks the Alamo, and the implications—indeed, the irony—are not lost on me. I don’t know a great deal of Texas history, but what kid grows up without hearing about Davy Crockett, who died a few yards from where I lay down my head?

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I’ve known many Texans in my life. Many of them have been, and continue to be, perfectly reasonable people. Good and loyal friends. Lots of people like to live here. Indeed, the population of the state has swelled over the past quarter century. I’ve also encountered Texans (particularly at Nashotah House) who acted like the enemy at the Alamo wasn’t Mexico, but the other states. In the light of last week’s election I’m reminded of the words of one of the Mexican officers, after Santa Anna declare the battle a light one. Reportedly another officer quipped, “with another such victory as this, we’ll go to the devil.” Voices from the other side of the wall. Maybe it’s the lack of sleep from getting in so late, but I’m looking at the Alamo and Pink Floyd’s The Wall is going through my head. The lesson of the Alamo is that although you may lose the battle you can still win the war.

This is my second visit to San Antonio. Last time I was here, for the same conference, one of my doctoral advisors was over from Edinburgh, and we walked through the Alamo together. Today we are lamenting Brexit and Trump together. By slim margins the alt-right has learned to game the system. The problem seems to be apathy. It’s clear that we’re going to have to fight from now on just to get a little social justice around here. Strange words coming from the fingers of a lifelong pacifist, but you’d think that the work of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Susan B. Anthony might have had more lasting effects. Perhaps it truly is time to remember the Alamo.