Lord Have Mercer

Samuel Alfred Browne Mercer was an Assyriologist who failed to establish an academic legacy.  I quickly learned, when consulting his The Tell El-Amarna Tablets that his work was considered inferior, and that it would not have been published, had it not been for his wealthy wife.  Not a very ringing endorsement for a guy who wrote a grammar of Assyrian.  It was a little odd, then, in the library at Nashotah House when Mr. Tolan was clearing out shelf space, that he asked me if I would like a copy of Mercer’s autobiography.  The library had two and, well, needed more shelf space.  I thanked him for the slim volume and took it home to read.  The little book is self-published, and it had been typed with a sans serif font, something rare for a published volume in those days.  It had been annotated by hand, I presume by the author.  And it told a most interesting story.
Mercer, I was to learn, had been a student at Nashotah House.  Now, in my days at the seminary the internet had not yet made it that far into the backwoods of Wisconsin.  We eventually did get a dial-up connection and we thought we were so twenty-first century.  In any case, Nashotah House, when it finally established a website, did nothing so vainglorious as to list noted alumni or faculty.  The only two I ever heard praised were Gustaf Unonius and Michael Ramsey, the former for being the first graduate, and the latter as an adjunct instructor (and, incidentally, the Archbishop of Canterbury).  Samuel A. B. Mercer, as he styled himself, would not likely have raised even a unibrow.  He had written a couple of books on a learned topic, but had failed to impress.  Reading his life story was somewhat intimate, however.  He tells of riding on the top of a train in Russia to get from city to city with little money, and of visiting Ethiopia where, it seems, he was convinced the Ark of the Covenant might just be.  Had I not studied Akkadian and read about Assyriology, I might not have ever come across his name.  We were, however, touching at an odd juncture.
Not even rating a Wikipedia article, Mercer disappears into obscurity after his informal accounting of his life.  He apparently had a wealthy wife (home life is not the focus of his brief story), and a lasting desire to spend time in Kush.  Although it has been years since I’ve read his story, I recall that he did have a life of adventure and a little intrigue.  Maybe we were spiritual kin after all, for we each tried and failed to make an impression on an ivory tower world where those who tarry too long at Nashotah are deemed among the least important of academics.  After all, even the relatively comprehensive list of institutions of higher education on the University of Texas website (and Texas and Nashotah have a lasting connection) fails to mention the seminary.  Its little library, nevertheless, does hold evidence of a lost life-story or two.


Religion and Its Discontents


Travel broadens the mind. I’ve always felt that travel, for those who pay attention when they do it, is one of the best forms of education available. When I do campus visits for work, my time is spent talking to faculty, but on my walks between appointments I keep an eye out for my own education. This past week at the University of Texas in Austin, I couldn’t help but notice how much religion still plays into the lives of many people—even undergraduates. One of the first things I noticed as I approached campus was the sign outside a Methodist Church announcing a sermon series entitled “When Christians Disagree.” Anyone with experience within, let alone between, denominations knows that disagreement is endemic. It would be difficult to find a single point of Christian teaching that is universally held among Christians without at least one group of dissenters. In my own experience, disagreements run deeply within Christian denominations, and the hatred experienced is often more fierce than that between Christians and “heathens.”


Well, maybe not between some Christians and Islam. So on a campus kiosk I found posters for a seminar entitled “Muhammad: Messenger of Peace.” In a largely Christian context, Muslim students have a difficult time with their religion being castigated in the media and in popular thought. Almost all religions are capable of violence (I was going to write “All religions” but I couldn’t think of any instances where Jains have incited violence), but most highly value and promote peace as the ideal. Few religions are actually founded on violence. I’ve heard many Christians make the claim that Islam is about conquest, pointing to the rapid expansion of Islam following the time of Muhammad. They often overlook the Crusades, one of the most violent Christian reactions to another religion in history. Is Christianity all about violence? Who is “the prince of peace” anyway?


On a bulletin board I saw a notice for Asatru, the Pagan Student Alliance. If any religious group is misunderstood, surely it is Pagans. Christian missionaries liberally used “pagan” to denigrate the old religions they encountered throughout the world. Often attempts were made to eradicate such beliefs completely. With some success. Many forms of paganism today are revivals of the old religions, and a few are actual survivals. The Pagans I know are moral, peace-loving people as well. Claims of human sacrifice (often fabricated) aside, paganism was, and is, an attempt to make peace with the planet upon which we find ourselves. Peace, it seems, is a desideratum of many religions. If we studied college campuses, where such beliefs are encouraged to coexist, we might find a model that would work for people in the “real world.” And perhaps peace really would have a chance.

Persistent Idealism

Few spans of human life are so idealistic as our college years. There we meet many people from beyond our hometown, and we learn the treasures of diversity and different ways of doing things. Ideas mix and blend, and with professors who’ve learned so much telling us all the places we can go, the possibilities seem endless. I find the idealism of college kids refreshing. That’s one reason, I suppose, that I enjoyed teaching them so much. At work you’re far more often told why things won’t work and how they can’t be done. And I find myself thinking back to college and wondering when people lost their sense of vision. When did idealism die?

Yesterday I spent on the campus of the University of Texas at Austin. Between appointments I was crossing a quad area and noticed a bunch of blue and white balloons. We’re all still kids inside when we see balloons. I stopped to look. Then I noticed, across the street (in which sat a very obvious police car) a small group of students waving a Palestinian flag. Several police, frankly looking bored, stood between the two peaceful groups.


Looking back to the balloons, there were a series of tents set up and a sign read “Israel Block Party.” Obviously this had been a carefully planned event, and we all know the heinous story of the constant persecution of the Jews throughout much of “civilized” history. The simple table across the street bore the sign “Free Palestine.” Less than ten students stood around, handing out literature, peaceful, yet literally flying their flag. Yes, the Palestinians have also been oppressed for much of their history. If only adults could live so peacefully as these students. My heart went out to them.

The issue of Israel and Palestine is one of the deepest scars in our collective human psyche. Indirectly, that conflict is responsible for many tragic terrorist acts, including the attacks of 9/11. And it is so frustrating because both sides (and there are actually more than two) are victims. We like our good guys in white and our bad guys in black. I’m still an idealist, after all. Yet in Israel/Palestine we have two historically oppressed groups vying for the very same land. And in the middle of this maelstrom, the Bible. The very book that can be read as an eternal promise by God that the people of Israel should own this land. By 1947, however, we’d stopped relying on God and began relying on guns. And atomic bombs. And life has never been the same since.

Images of the wall going up between Israelis and Palestinians just after the wall went down in Berlin reminded me of Bush’s proposed wall between Texas and Mexico. Here in Texas just about everyone in the lower paying jobs I’ve met is hispanic. And friendly. Grateful in a way that many of us wouldn’t emulate in such low stations. We are all people. We all experience the same feelings, needs, and desires. Why not tear down the walls and let us look at one another? Take a good, long look. And my idealistic self says, if we face another human being with love everything will be all right.