More Witches

WitchHuntAronson It’s been some time since I’ve been to Salem. It’s been even longer since I’ve read Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. The events of 1692, however, continue to haunt me. I recently read Marc Aronson’s Witch-Hunt: Mysteries of the Salem Witch Trials. Intended for a young adult readership, Aronson’s book really isn’t proposing any new theories about why religious violence was perpetrated against the vulnerable, mostly female, pool of those living in a very superstitious society. It does, however, show some of the issues in sharp relief—more academic books sometimes cloud the issues with erudition. Historians will continue to debate what happened in Massachusetts at the end of the seventeenth century when the Enlightenment was getting underway and the explanatory value of science was overcoming the world of miracle and magic. Even with science on our side, however, adequate explanations of the sad social madness of Salem are still lacking.

As Aronson points out, there seems to have been a certain amount of greed involved as laws allowed the property of “witches” to be confiscated. Equally culpable are the learned clergy of the day, some of whom overrode their disinclination towards belief in witchcraft to hang a few women (and fewer men) for an imaginary crime. Lack of full historical documentation and the unrecorded lives of women often combine to raise many questions about Salem. It remains clear, however, that the outlook of the clergy influenced perceptions on the ground. Aronson suggests that Cotton Mather’s earlier accounts of Goodwife Glover of Boston—a woman executed as a witch without even her first name having been recorded—may have “inspired” similar violence among the population of Salem. When devils are suspected, the clergy are never far.

When the mania died down after a lethal year, the clergy, both Increase and Cotton Mather among them, recanted the easy execution of a few expendable women, and fewer, less expendable men, in Salem. Since we lack documentation, we will never know fully what was behind the witch-hunts, apart from misogyny and misperception.

Aronson ends his little book by asking us to consider modern terrorist hunts and the eerie similarities to the mindset of Salem. Listening to some media interviews, particularly on Fox, after the Boston Marathon bombings, we haven’t traveled so very far from Salem. In a world of high technology, where Satan is said to once again stroll the streets of Massachusetts, we have to wonder if the witch-hunts will ever truly end.

Fear of Religion

Two online articles have, in my limited reading, linked the bombing of the Boston Marathon by Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to religion. Although the boys are/were not part of any radical sect, it was their belief that their Muslim faith, apparently, motivated the bombings. While such revelations will no doubt prompt Islamophobia in some, the true terror belongs to all exclusive religions. People want to be part of exclusive groups. Whether it is the ritziest country club or the most erudite book circle, we all want to be part of that group that is superior. I recall very clearly in my New Testament classes at Boston University how our professor explained that Christianity never grows as fast as when it excludes people. He claimed the writers of the Christian Scriptures knew that. Conversion is fine and good—it gives you a gold star when you save souls—but not too many. If everyone’s invited to the party, it loses its appeal. Here is the dilemma of proselytizing religions. We want to grow, but not too much.

Throughout history people have rejoiced at the troubles of the exclusive few. It does not explain fully or in any way excuse antisemitism, but the fact that Judaism doesn’t seek converts may raise the jealousy factor of those outside. Those religions most anxious to convert others are also the ones with the longest track records of violence. Nothing promotes hateful behavior like insecurity. Insecurity is frequently masked with evangelistic bravado. The fact is, even if one religion won out—especially if one religion won out—the violence would increase dramatically. This sounds rather crass, I know, but it reflects the state of world religions pretty well. Religions, after all, are made up of people.

Plenty of Muslims participate in sporting events like the Boston Marathon. Islam has contributed tremendously to western culture, laying the groundwork for much of our science and philosophy. It corners no market on religious terror. Religions are often outgrowths of human frustrations with our limited possibilities. We know we have to die, and we dream of gods but we can’t emulate their strength or majesty or immortality. We want the best for those we love. The world, however, doesn’t conform to the deep desires of humankind and religion, whatever its origin, helps us cope. Evolutionary psychologists are increasingly of the opinion that religion has utilitarian purposes in human development. Religions, however, also take their premises rather too seriously at times.

In the name of love

In the name of love

Loneliness of Long-Distance Runners

1988. I was standing along Boylston Street, in Copley Square, watching the Boston Marathon. As the weary first place runner trudged by, I somehow neglected to take a photograph. I did snap one of the number two winner. I always have had an affinity for those who don’t win. Those who try, only to be beaten by others. His name didn’t stay with me, but I still have that photo, a moment in time, when everyone was excited about the culmination of a long tradition. When I heard that there was a bombing at the marathon yesterday, I experienced a different kind of culmination. I wondered what kind of people we had become. The Boston Marathon, a long-time symbol of endurance and pushing oneself to the limit, came to a crashing end. Along with another chapter in the innocence of a world gone mad. Just last October, I posted a photo on this blog that I had snapped near where one of the bombs went off. As I write this nobody has a clue as to who was responsible or what they were trying to prove.

BostonMarathon

The NRA gun barons were not on hand to stop the terrorists, I note. Funny how they always show up too late. Perhaps we should all start carrying hand-grenades. We all have a choice whether to do more good or evil in the world. To leave behind a better place or a worse one. The Boston Marathon is an international event, with long-distance runners from around the world competing. More against themselves than against anyone else. Just to finish the grueling course. Who would want to hurt just anyone, including several children—those who love to race and dream and hope for a better tomorrow?

The news saddens me, for we like to think we live in an enlightened nation. Maybe a little soft around the middle, but generally a congenial place. We hold events like the Boston Marathon to celebrate human achievement—those who push themselves to the limit but then keep going. Standing in the crowd in 1988, I remember how we clapped for those who seemed too exhausted to trudge those last few yards to the finish line. We wanted them to succeed. I couldn’t tell you one of their names, but we were all wishing the best for them. That is the human spirit. It takes a coward’s coward to plant bombs amid crowds and then not even claim your own evil victory. Terrorism, already heinous, without even trying to make a point. And yet the runners run on. Like the marathon itself, we must keep believing that we can reach that ribbon and that the vast majority are hoping for our success.