A chief never deserts his people

In reading John Muir’s Travels in Alaska recently, so many of his experiences and vignettes begged to be remembered that I would have highlighted practically the entire book. Here are a few that transported me to the scene he describes:

Looking back on my Alaska travels, I have always been glad that good luck gave me Mr. Young as a companion, for he brought me into confiding contact with the Thlinkit tribes, so that I learned their customs, what manner of men they were, how they lived and loved, fought and played, their morals, religion, hopes and fears, and superstitions, how they resembled and differed in their characteristics from our own and other races. …

The Thlinkit tribes give a hearty welcome to Christian missionaries. In particular they are quick to accept the doctrine of the atonement, because they themselves practice it, although to many of the civilized whites it is a stumbling-block and rock of offense. As an example of their own doctrine of atonement they told Mr. Young and me one evening that twenty or thirty years ago there was a bitter war between their own and the Sitka tribe, great fighters, and pretty evenly matched. After fighting all summer in a desultory, squabbling way, fighting now under cover, now in the open, watching for every chance for a shot, none of the women dared venture to the salmon-streams or berry-fields to procure their winter stock of food. At this crisis one of the Stickeen chiefs came out of his block-house fort into an open space midway between their fortified camps, and shouted that he wished to speak to the leader of the Sitkas.

When the Sitka chief appeared he said:—

“My people are hungry. They dare not go to the salmon-streams or berry-fields for winter supplies, and if this war goes on much longer most of my people will die of hunger. We have fought long enough; let us make peace. You brave Sitka warriors go home, and we will go home, and we will all set out to dry salmon and berries before it is too late.”

The Sitka chief replied:—

“You may well say let us stop fighting, when you have had the best of it. You have killed ten more of my tribe than we have killed of yours. Give us ten Stickeen men to balance our blood-account; then, and not till then, will we make peace and go home.”

“Very well,” replied the Stickeen chief, “you know my rank. You know that I am worth ten common men and more. Take me and make peace.”

This noble offer was promptly accepted; the Stickeen chief stepped forward and was shot down in sight of the fighting bands. Peace was thus established, and all made haste to their homes and ordinary work. That chief literally gave himself a sacrifice for his people. He died that they might live. Therefore, when missionaries preached the doctrine of atonement, explaining that when all mankind had gone astray, had broken God’s laws and deserved to die, God’s son came forward, and, like the Stickeen chief, offered himself as a sacrifice to heal the cause of God’s wrath and set all the people of the world free, the doctrine was readily accepted.

“Yes, your words are good,” they said. “The Son of God, the Chief of chiefs, the Maker of all the world, must be worth more than all mankind put together; therefore, when His blood was shed, the salvation of the world was made sure.”

A telling illustration of the ready acceptance of this doctrine was displayed by Shakes, head chief of the Stickeens at Fort Wrangell. A few years before my first visit to the Territory, when the first missionary arrived, he requested Shakes to call his people together to hear the good word he had brought them. Shakes accordingly sent out messengers throughout the village, telling his people to wash their faces, put on their best clothing, and come to his block-house to hear what their visitor had to say. When all were assembled, the missionary preached a Christian sermon on the fall of man and the atonement whereby Christ, the Son of God, the Chief of chiefs, had redeemed all mankind, provided that this redemption was voluntarily accepted with repentance of their sins and the keeping of his commandments.

When the missionary had finished his sermon, Chief Shakes slowly arose, and, after thanking the missionary for coming so far to bring them good tidings and taking so much unselfish interest in the welfare of his tribe, he advised his people to accept the new religion, for he felt satisfied that because the white man knew so much more than the Indian, the white man’s religion was likely to be better than theirs.

“The white man,” said he, “makes great ships. We, like children, can only make canoes. He makes his big ships go with the wind, and he also makes them go with fire. We chop down trees with stone axes; the Boston man with iron axes, which are far better. In everything the ways of the white man seem to be better than ours. Compared with the white man we are only blind children, knowing not how best to live either here or in the country we go to after we die. So I wish you to learn this new religion and teach it to your children, that you may all go when you die into that good heaven country of the white man and be happy. But I am too old to learn a new religion, and besides, many of my people who have died were bad and foolish people, and if this word the missionary has brought us is true, and I think it is, many of my people must be in that bad country the missionary calls ‘Hell,’ and I must go there also, for a Stickeen chief never deserts his people in time of trouble…”

I’d like to visit Muir Woods next time I’m in California.

Old City night scene

View from my seat outside Race Street Cafe tonight at 2nd and Race Streets, catching up with Gavin Keirans. I somehow don’t think I had been there before. Across the street is a new luxury style tower that looks out over the Ben Franklin Bridge whose illuminated pillar you can see.

It was a beautiful night, the first that’s really felt like spring. I had come from McCrossen’s Tavern in Fairmount, where I caught up with Alex Smith after work. It was really great to be able to comfortably walk from work to McCrossen’s and then across the city to Race Street Cafe.

Justice and mercy in politics

Randall Smith writes:

I have had the pleasure of discussing Josef Pieper’s wonderful book on The Four Cardinal Virtues with my students this semester. Sometimes I wonder whether the best education I could give my students would be simply to take the list of books in Fr. Schall’s Another Sort of Learning and start working our way through them.

Every page of Pieper’s book brings new insights, but I was struck by this one the other day. Justice is one of those topics much in the news these days, whether it is “political justice,” “economic justice,” or “social justice.” Early on in his discussion of “justice,” Pieper makes this challenging observation: “We may venture to assert that expressions like ‘calumny,’ ‘malign aspersion,’ ‘backbiting,’ ‘slander,’ and ‘talebearing’ are now in their proper meanings scarcely intelligible to most people.”

Indeed, none of my students had ever heard the term “talebearing,” which admittedly is not much used in American English. Fortunately, Pieper defines it: “talebearing” is “privately spreading evil reports about another, and to that other’s friends, no less.” Classically, this was considered an especially grievous violation of justice, “since no man can live without friends.” The writer Pieper quotes to this effect is not some socially-conscious Brit writing during the age of Jane Austen or John Henry Newman; it was made by one rather socially-unconcerned Italian friar named Thomas Aquinas.

In Latin, the term Thomas and his contemporaries would have used for this vicious disposition to tear people down was derisio, from which we get the English term “derision.” It is the act that violated justice “by bringing shame to another through mockery.” How, asks Pieper, would we designate the special form of justice that “consists in sparing another man shame?” We no longer have a word for that virtue, perhaps because it has largely disappeared from society. …

I am not claiming there is never room for public shame. People who do morally wrong acts should feel guilt. They should be ashamed. Whether public shaming is the way to bring about this inner transformation in them is not clear. …

In the same chapter on justice, Josef Pieper adds another interesting comment. Suggesting that it might be possible for a just person to be mistaken about some particular issue and propose an objectively “unjust” solution to a problem, Pieper asks this question: “Should not all this be of some significance for the realm of political discourse, which is of course concerned with what is just and unjust? Does it not imply for example, that it may be quite possible and logical to reject a certain political objective as ‘objectively unjust’ – and even to combat it with intensity – without at the same time bringing the moral integrity of one’s opponent into the discussion?”

I wonder. Current evidence suggests not. Our opponents aren’t just mistaken, they are either fools or scoundrels or both. And the key skill we look for in political discourse is derision. This is what sells, both in television news commentary and in the magazines on supermarket checkout lanes. Are just institutions built on unjust words? Will constant recrimination bring reconciliation?

I like the idea that we can all gain from removing aspersions and derision from our political discourse. It reminds me of something Arthur Brooks talked about a year or two ago, which is the goal of practicing “warm heartedness” with one’s political opponents—that has to be the route to cultivating a better and more resilient society, doesn’t it?

Drexel Square, in progress

A view of 30th Street Station on the left, as I was standing on the platform of SEPTA Regional Rail waiting for a train a few nights ago. In the foreground, beyond the intersection, has been a parking lot for as long as I’ve known it. It’s in the process of redevelopment into Drexel Square, the very first part of the generational Schuylkill Yards project. Here’s a rendering of what that parking lot might look like in the future, with Maria Gialanella providing context:

Drexel Square.png

William Penn’s original plan for Philadelphia included five city squares. More than 300 years later, Drexel University, working with a Radnor, Pa.-based real estate firm, is prepared to add a sixth major square just blocks east of Penn’s campus.

Brandywine Realty Trust and Drexel University began construction Wednesday on the park, the first leg of a $3.5 billion public construction project in the area between Drexel’s campus and 30th Street Station. Known as “Schuylkill Yards,” the complex of several buildings will adjoin the Schuylkill River with the stated goal of building a research and development hub in University City.

The first phase of the new Schuylkill Yards should be complete in the fall of 2018, while the whole project will span 15 to 20 years.

“We are proud that our first project in Schuylkill Yards will deliver a green public gathering space where the community can connect, interact, and share experiences,” Brandywine President and CEO Jerry Sweeney said in a statement.

“Plant trees, under whose shade you do not expect to sit.”

No satisfaction unless we pause

A photo from the Porch at 30th Street Station, where I sat on Wednesday before catching my train to Washington. It’s a pleasant place to be now, with tables, swings, and grass where there was a parking lot a decade ago or less. And of course those glass towers are still new, too.

Here’s an excerpt from Fulton Sheen’s Finding True Happiness that was shared someplace recently:

The painter stands back from his canvas to see whether the details of the seascape are properly placed. True repose is such a standing back to survey the activities that fill our days.

We cannot get a real satisfaction out of our work unless we pause, frequently, to ask ourselves why we are doing it, and whether its purpose is one [of which] our minds wholeheartedly approve. Perhaps one of the reasons why so many of our economic and political projects miscarry is because they are in the hands of men with eyes so tightly glued to what they are doing that they never stop to question whether it should be done at all. Merely keeping busy, merely getting paid, can never satisfy man’s need for creative work. …

If we direct our work towards God, we shall work better than we know. The admission of this fact is another of the tasks for which we need repose. Once a week, man, reposing from work, does well to come before his God to admit how much of what he did during the week was the work of his Creator; he can remind himself, then, that the material on which he labored came from other Hands, that the ideas he employed entered his mind from a higher Source, that the very energy which he employed was a gift…

Scenes from Alexandria

Scenes from Alexandria, Virginia from early yesterday afternoon. It was a beautiful spring day, although the Potomac along this stretch was still and silent excepting for the ducks. Mai Thai, especially along its park and water-facing tables on its second floor, was a great place for lunch. Excellent meal. Walked back to the Metro afterwards, and headed back to Catholic University for the remainder of the Humanae Vitae symposium, mass with Cardinal Weurl at the Basilica, then an Acela to Philadelphia.