Tag Archives: Massachusetts

Witching Well

Salem, Massachusetts, brings to mind images of intolerance and a culture ossified in superstition. That’s not really fair, of course. Even in the late seventeenth century the people of Salem were living during the Enlightenment and they understood enough of science to question the legitimacy of the spectral evidence of the kind that would stand in Washington DC today. With twenty direct deaths due to witchcraft accusations and many more lives disrupted or ruined, this tragic episode has perhaps unfairly cast New Englanders as credulous rubes willing to believe just about anything. If you’re like most of us, you may not be aware that other witch trials were going on around that same time period, but with differing results. Richard Godbeer’s Escaping Salem: The Other Witch Hunt of 1692 recounts the events in Fairfield County, Connecticut in Salem’s haunted year. As in Salem a young woman began experiencing fits. Medical explanations—rudimentary as they were—didn’t explain everything away, so supernatural causation was considered. Witchcraft was suspected. Accusations were made.

In the case of Kate Branch of Stamford, as Godbeer shows, Connecticut was learning the lessons of Salem in real time. The belief in witches and witchcraft was just as real, but realizing the bad press their northern neighbors were receiving, the Connecticut Yankees insisted on more stringent evidence. Indeed, judges dismissed the jury to reconsider their decision and even overturned it based on reason. These were people who knew that human lives were at stake. They also knew that Salem was doing nothing to vindicate the cause of either Puritans or justice. We don’t hear about it so much, I suspect, because those in power did the right thing. Given present circumstances, reading about Americans who actually learned from history is encouraging. We read daily of a president woefully unaware (and proudly so) of his own nation’s history. What could possibly go wrong?

Witch hunts are sad miscarriages of justice in the best of times. In days when minorities are being scapegoated for the problems capitalism itself causes, we have to wonder if, apart from those in contemporary Connecticut, we’ve learned anything from Salem at all. Wasn’t it clear that targeting women—many of them social outsiders, and pretty much all of them recently descended from immigrants—was in itself just plain wrong? We pride ourselves on having outgrown belief in magic, and yet we go into that voting booth without a rational reason to elect a self-evident bigot and abuser of women and do it anyway. Reading, knowing where we’ve come from, prevents all kinds of tragedies. And this isn’t alternative factual history. It happened in the very shadow of the calamity of Salem, Massachusetts.

Gray Magic

Fashion. Okay, I’ll wait here while you check your URL to make sure you’re on the right webpage. Back? Okay. Fashion is something about which I care so little that it surprises even me that I’m addressing it. I can blame my wife, since she sent me the article. In The Guardian. Entitled “Salem style: why this is the season of the witch.” Now it all starts to add up, even if it doesn’t make sense. Witches are among my favorite topics. If I have to go through fabric swatches to get there, I will. So it seems that the fashion world has cast its eyes back on Salem this year. A number of recent, high-profile books have addressed witches, and a number of movies have backed them up. As Priya Elan points out in his article, the political situation helps too. We’ve got a witch-hunter as the GOP candidate and, like in the good old days, being a woman is enough to qualify you as as witch in the language of elephants. Could it be that the fashion industry is making social commentary?

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Why are witches so compelling? Perhaps the failure of true gender equality to take hold has spawned a backlash. Women are still paid less than men for the same work. White men line up at the white elephant sale to say how marginalized they are. How hard it is to exist in a world where you can’t even buy a slave or two any more. Unless you call them employees and then you have to pay them something. Primate society rebels against unfairness. This, pure and simple, is evolution. Biologically, we’re told, evolution has no goals. Where we are, however, is progress. We don’t live in the Dark Ages, after all. In the Dark Ages they believed in witches. Wait, what?

Our throwbacks to Salem should be telling us something. The Witch remains one of the most haunting movies of last year. In just a month the Blair Witch reboot opens in theaters. The Harry Potter series has come back from the dead. Like Rosemary opening the brown paper parcel, we realize witches are everywhere. We fear those with power over us. We call them evil and try to find legal ways to burn them at the stake. Or hang them. Or invoke the second amendment. I may not care for fashion, but I can still spot a prophecy some distance off. It doesn’t take a witch to see the future. Or perhaps it does.

GF or TGIF?

For some today is Good Friday. Others are saying “TGIF!” There’s a basic disconnect that has grown between days of remembrance (okay, let’s just call them “holidays”) and the days required of capitalism. Easter is not generally considered a work holiday. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, coming on a Sunday, it is safely out of the reach of much commercialism. Although, vis-à-vis Christianity, it’s a stronger holiday than Christmas, it isn’t a federal holiday. In a world of religious pluralism, that’s no doubt correct. Still, for those who ponder deeply the tradition that wrought them, shouldn’t we be allowed to contemplate our loss without spending a vacation day?

It will come as no surprise to my regular readers that I often think about the ministry as a vocation. After all, I paid my good money and attended seminary. When I was teaching at a seminary and there was some pressure to move that direction, however, I felt that I was adequately served by daily masses and the opportunity to minister in the classroom. Before those days, however, I trudged into work in Ritz Camera in Brookline, Massachusetts, on Good Friday wearing black and feeling depressed. From long habit I wished to be in church. From financial necessity I stood behind the counter and smiled. Good Friday is that way. It’s hardly a holiday when loss lies all around. It’s a bleak day, one might say. Few bosses who don’t feel the depth of symbolism can quite understand. Work week interruptus.

No doubt it’s vain of me to try to encapsulate this into words. As a culture we prefer the bright, sunny colors of Easter—a holiday with considerable spending but without loss of work efficiency. We should be smiles all around. “Smiles, everyone! Welcome to Fantasy Island!” But we can’t get there without going through Good Friday. Meanwhile, those who don’t observe the day are glad that it’s Friday. Not exactly a holiday weekend, but a weekend nonetheless. Have we outgrown Good Friday? I should think not. For although we bring our cheery flowers and bonnets out for all to see, we all know that Monday is just another day at work.

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Gallows Hill

Over the past couple of weeks it has been in the news that the site of the “witch” hangings in Salem, Massachusetts has been identified. The actual site had long been suspected, and it was only recently confirmed by a group of historians using the empirical evidence available to historians. Although my interest in the Salem trials pre-dated my wife, nothing brings you so close to history as being a part of it. Descended from the brother of three of the women accused of being witches at Salem, my wife brings a sense of reality to the tragic accusations of three centuries ago. Although toyed about in the media (an episode of Sleepy Hollow, “Spellcaster,” in season two, featured an actual Salem witch) the fact is that nineteen innocent people were executed for a fanciful belief that the Devil was roaming about New England, and when you can’t catch the Devil, you have to use a scapegoat.

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One of those investigating the location of Gallows Hill was Benjamin Ray of the University of Virginia. I’m sure Professor Ray wouldn’t remember me, but one day as I was doing a campus visit for Routledge, I had taken AmTrak to Charlottesville to visit the religion department. Many of the faculty declined to see me, and as I sat on a bench in the hall (one of my academic dates had stood me up), Dr. Ray walked up to me and asked me if he could help. I explained who I was and he invited me to his office where we talked about Salem. I told him was wife was related to Rebecca Nurse, Mary Eastey and Sarah Cloyce, the two former, as he knew, executed for an imaginary crime, and the third accused. A strange quiet settled over the office. He told me his interest began because he too had descended from a Salem family. His ancestor, however, had been an accuser rather than a victim. It was a strange rapprochement. Opposite sides brought together in scholarship.

What truly frightens me about Salem is that we have not outgrown it. Presidential hopefuls spew the same fear and hatred toward Muslims, the hispanic immigrants who make our economy possible, and women (this should sound familiar) trying to “take the place of” men. And the crowds cheer, as crowds will do. Even though Donald Trump cussed twice in his Liberty University speech (an infraction for which a student would have to pay), President Jerry Falwell, Jr. (typing that makes me shudder) shrugged it off saying that we’re all sinners. Some sinners, however, carry a wicked, knotted rope with them while other sinners try to eke out a living in a nation where some can get rich by owning casinos while others frantically spend their inadequate cash hoping to win Powerball. We now know where innocent people accused of witchcraft died, but have we learned anything from it over these past three centuries?

Founding Principles

That feeling is in the air. Autumn began to stretch its melancholy fingers into August this year. Even before the month was half over the mornings had that chill in them that sparked the trees to begin their slow process of shutting down for the winter. Not wanting to admit that it was time to send my daughter back to college, I resisted what is one of the most compelling senses of self-abnegation that can be known—fall, in all its glory. When I saw a blog post on the Salem Witch Trials, I knew I wasn’t alone. The nights are already longer, and that sunset over summer’s beach comes earlier each day. Salem has a way of bringing that home to me. Innocent people murdered for fictitious crimes. Much of the fear that led to this miscarriage of justice was, of course, inspired by religion. The colonials had a great fear of new religious movements. Although it is difficult to believe, Baptists were such a new religion at the time. Considering how Baptist sensibilities now drive much of the Religious Right, it is difficult to imagine that once upon a time, being a Baptist could lead to accusations of being a witch.

As much as the Religious Right likes to make claims to a primitivism that is completely fiction (Christianity has always been this way), we have lost touch with what it meant to be a Christian in early America. States (still colonies) had their religious preferences, some even established. If you were a Baptist you’d be most comfortable in Rhode Island. If you leaned Quaker, Pennsylvania was for you. When these disparate colonies banded together into a country, it was quickly realized that religious freedom was the only way for them to work together. The government, the state, could not determine matters of individual conscience. Until, that is, that we could declare that the views of particular individuals on birth control—as informed by their religious authorities—could legally deny their employees full health benefits. Oyer and Terminer, anyone?

Freedom is a beautiful idea. It is a concept that only works, however, if it is shared equally. When one faction claims liberty for itself while limiting it for others, we’ve fallen back into times when the Baptist at your door was more dangerous than the Devil in his Hell. And so we revise our history and make claims that America was founded as a Christian nation. Evidence can be ignored, or, failing that, revised. Nothing is written in stone. When you visit Salem, there is a quiet little park, off the beaten path. Under some weary old trees are a set of stone benches against a stone wall. On each of the benches are engraved the names of those executed for being imaginary monsters. The leaves on those trees are, I’m sure, beginning to turn. Soon they will silently fall, and only those who are made of stone will deny that autumn is upon us again.

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Soldiers of Forfeiture

Somebody, perhaps a robot, reads my blog. I can’t imagine what keeps this feeble enterprise going sometimes, since continued growth of readership has been elusive for several years now. Still, I get requests to post information on my daily soapbox, sometimes for issues of which I’ve never heard. Civil Forfeiture is one of those issues. I’ve only ever been stopped for driving too fast once. I’m not a speeder by nature, and it was an oversight in one of those slowdown zones between a highway and town. I had no idea, however, that civil forfeiture might happen without any conviction or charge. See the infographic below from one of my readers at arrestrecords.com.

Social justice is perhaps the leading motif in my existence. I was attracted to the life of the clergy out of a profound sense that life is unfair. As if it’s not bad enough that nature posts us each at unequal starting places, human society joins in the game by contributing rules that are inherently unfair. Healthcare in the United States, for example, has been unequally distributed. I had figured this out even as a child when my family doctor walked into the examination room with a lit cigarette dangling from his lips, asking why I was having trouble breathing. I didn’t know what chronic bronchitis was in those days, but thankfully I grew out of it. In any case, laws for fair treatment of all citizens should underlie any just society. Not just healthcare, but basic, constitutional rights.

Having been reared in a small community where arrest was not rare—most of the time certainly deserved—I was woefully ignorant about what a person was free to do. I still am, I guess. I go to work each day hoping that I don’t infringe on any unknown law that stands to make this land a nest of freedom. Having arrived in Boston with a migraine after driving all my worldly possessions from Pennsylvania back in 1985, I parked in Winthrop, outside my apartment, with the right wheels to the curb, just like every other car on the block. I stumbled inside and fell into my unmade bed. My first morning as a Massachusetts resident, I awoke to find a parking ticket on my windshield. I went to the police station to explain what happened only to have the receptionist say, like a line from Gilligan’s Island, “Ignorance of the law is no excuse.” I can think of no better excuse. Is a law degree necessary for fair treatment? Whom did I harm by parking with the rest of the residents? At least I didn’t face civil forfeiture. If I had, all they would’ve found would’ve been a few boxes of books and enough clothes to get me through the week—all my possession fit inside my VW Beetle in those days. What more does a person really need?

Civil Forfeiture, an infographic from ArrestRecords.com

To the Swift

Despite its generally secular reputation, one of the great charms of New England is its churches. I was forcefully reminded of this during my recent trip to Boston. Each city along the way boasts impressive churches that might be glimpsed even from the highway, and although there are now many taller buildings it is possible to imagine the days when the steeples stood over all. Boston’s historic churches remain stunning symbols of the power Christianity once held in this city. We first climbed off the T at Arlington in the shadow of the great stone Arlington Church. On the Esplanade the looming steeple of the Church of the Advent violently reminded me of the deep mysticism that drew me to the Episcopal Church even while I was a Methodist seminary student. Park Street Church, King’s Chapel, The Old North Church, the Old South Church, and finally Trinity Church in Copley Square invited us to gander and ponder. Almost like fossils, these churches remind us of the history of what made the city, or the nation, what it is.

Trinity Church lies nestled at the base of the John Hancock Tower, Boston’s tallest building. A blue glass Brobdingnagian, this prophet of capitalism represents the highest possible aspirations of our race, so we are led to believe. The material triumph over the spiritual. And yet the tourists stop to photograph the stunning church. It is on the street level, down here among us mere mortals. Upon closer examination, I noticed the statue of the tortoise and the hare in the plaza of Copley Square, the holy terrapin racing toward the sanctuary, it appears from my angle. It seems that I have unexpectedly received a kind of epiphany.

Look closely.

Look closely.

I first came to Boston many years ago as a spiritual seeker. In the intervening years during which I was attempting to find out what that might mean in a life that was intellectually honest, many bronze sculptures appeared in this city. The one commemorating Robert McCloskey’s Make Way for Ducklings, installed after I completed my studies at Boston University, would not have caught my pre-parental attention, as I had never read the book. Now you have to stand in line even to snap a picture. The work of local artist Nancy Schön, both “Make Way for Duckings” and “The Tortoise and the Hare” are part of Boston’s continual evolution of character. Officially, we are told, the turtle and rabbit are representative of the Boston marathoners who trudge the final feet past this church toward the finish line. To me, this sculpture suggests something more as the hare dawdles and the tortoise breaks toward the church. It may be a marathon, indeed, but the race, I remind myself, is not always about being swift.