Category Archives: Religion

July 26, 1925 (a Sunday)

William Jennings Bryan in a Dayton pulpit.

On this date, after eating an enormous dinner, William Jennings Bryan, prosecutor in the Scopes Monkey Trial, laid down to take a nap and died in his sleep. Bryan’s personal physician, Dr. J. Thomas Kelly, concluded, “Bryan died of diabetes melitis, the immediate cause being the fatigue incident to the heat and his extraordinary exertions due to the Scopes trial.” Clarence Darrow was hiking in the Smoky Mountains when word of Bryan’s death reached him. When reporters suggested to him that Bryan died of a broken heart, Darrow said, “Broken heart nothing; he died of a busted belly.” In a louder voice he added, “His death is a great loss to the American people.”

Bryan’s death triggered an outpouring of grief from the “common” Americans who felt they had lost their greatest champion. A special train carried him to his burial place in Arlington National Cemetery. Thousands of people lined the tracks. Historian Paul Boyer says, “Bryan’s death represented the end of an era. This man who had loomed so large in the American political and cultural landscape for thirty years had now passed from the scene.”

July 25, 2007 (a Wednesday)

Church/State sign.

On this date, Pope Benedict XVI said the debate raging in some countries — particularly the United States and his native Germany — between creationism and evolution was an “absurdity,” saying that evolution can coexist with faith. “They are presented as alternatives that exclude each other,” the pope said. “This clash is an absurdity because on one hand there is much scientific proof in favor of evolution, which appears as a reality that we must see and which enriches our understanding of life and being as such.”

The pontiff, speaking as he was concluding his holiday in northern Italy, also said that while there is much scientific proof to support evolution, the theory could not exclude a role by God. He said evolution did not answer all the questions: “Above all it does not answer the great philosophical question, ‘Where does everything come from?'”

July 23, 2004 (a Friday)

The Creation of Adam (Michelangelo)

The Creation of Adam (Michelangelo)

On this date, the document “Communion and Stewardship: Human Persons Created in the Image of God” was published on the relationship between creation, evolution, and Christian faith by the International Theological Commission (ITC) of the Roman Catholic Church. At the time, the ITC was headed by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI. Although the function of the ITC is to advise the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith of the Church, and documents of the ITC are not considered expressions of Church teaching, this document does indicate that Christianity and evolution are certainly compatible:

According to the widely accepted scientific account, the universe erupted 15 billion years ago in an explosion called the ‘Big Bang’ and has been expanding and cooling ever since. Later there gradually emerged the conditions necessary for the formation of atoms, still later the condensation of galaxies and stars, and about 10 billion years later the formation of planets. In our own solar system and on earth (formed about 4.5 billion years ago), the conditions have been favorable to the emergence of life. While there is little consensus among scientists about how the origin of this first microscopic life is to be explained, there is general agreement among them that the first organism dwelt on this planet about 3.5 – 4 billion years ago. Since it has been demonstrated that all living organisms on earth are genetically related, it is virtually certain that all living organisms have descended from this first organism. Converging evidence from many studies in the physical and biological sciences furnishes mounting support for some theory of evolution to account for the development and diversification of life on earth, while controversy continues over the pace and mechanisms of evolution. While the story of human origins is complex and subject to revision, physical anthropology and molecular biology combine to make a convincing case for the origin of the human species in Africa about 150,000 years ago in a humanoid population of common genetic lineage. However it is to be explained, the decisive factor in human origins was a continually increasing brain size, culminating in that of Homo sapiens. With the development of the human brain, the nature and rate of evolution were permanently altered: with the introduction of the uniquely human factors of consciousness, intentionality, freedom and creativity, biological evolution was recast as social and cultural evolution. [Emphasis added; from the statement "Communion and Stewardship: Human Persons Created in the Image of God," plenary sessions held in Rome 2000-2002.]

July 21, 1553

Warrior-Monks and Dwarf Pirates

Shaolin monk in contemplation.

On today’s date, 120 Buddhist temple monks met an approximately equal number of “Japanese pirates” in battle.

The so-called Japanese pirates, wakou or woku, were actually a confederation of Japanese, Chinese, and even some Portuguese citizens who banded together. (The pejorative term wakou literally means “dwarf pirates.”) They raided China during the Ming Dynasty for silks and metal goods, which could be sold in Japan for up to ten times their value in China.

By 1550, the Shaolin Temple had been in existence for approximately 1,000 years. The resident monks were famous throughout Ming China for their specialized and highly effective form of kung fu (gong fu).

Thus, when ordinary Chinese imperial army and navy troops proved unable to eliminate the pirate menace, Nanjing’s Vice-Commissioner-in-Chief, Wan Biao, decided to deploy monastic fighters. He called upon the warrior-monks of three temples: Wutaishan in Shanxi Province, Funiu in Henan Province, and Shaolin.

According to contemporary chronicler Zheng Ruoceng, some of the other monks challenged the leader of the Shaolin contingent, Tianyuan, who sought leadership of the entire monastic force. In a scene reminiscent of countless Hong Kong films, the eighteen challengers chose eight from among themselves to attack Tianyuan.

First, the eight men came at the Shaolin monk with bare hands, but he fended them all off. They then grabbed swords; Tianyuan responded by seizing the long iron bar that was used to lock the gate. Wielding the bar as a staff, he defeated all eight of the other monks simultaneously. They were forced to bow to Tianyuan, and acknowledge him as the proper leader of the monastic forces. Zheng narrates these events in his account (written around 1568):

Tianyuan said: “I am real Shaolin. Is there any martial art in which you are good enough to justify your claim for superiority over me?” The eighteen [Hangzhou] monks chose from amongst them eight men to challenge him. The eight immediately attacked Tianyuan using their hand combat techniques. Tianyuan was standing at that moment atop the open terrace in front of the hall. His eight assailants tried to climb the stairs leading to it from the courtyard underneath. However, he saw them coming, and struck with his fists, blocking them from climbing.

A Shaolin monk soars through the air in a kung fu stance.

The eight monks ran around to the hall’s back entrance. Then, armed with swords, they charged through the hall to the terrace in front. They slashed their weapons at Tianyuan who, hurriedly grabbing the long bar that fastened the hall’s gate, struck horizontally. Try as they did, they could not get into the terrace. They were, on the contrary, overcome by Tianyuan.Yuekong (the challengers’ leader) surrendered and begged forgiveness. Then, the eighteen monks prostrated themselves in front of Tianyuan, and offered their submission.

The monks fought the pirates in at least four battles. The second battle was the monks’ greatest victory: the Battle of Wengjiagang, fought in the Huangpu River delta in July, 1553. They chased the remnants of the pirate band twenty miles southward for ten days, killing every last pirate. Monastic forces suffered only four casualties in the fighting.

During the battle and mop-up operation, the Shaolin monks were noted for their ruthlessness. One monk used an iron staff to kill the wife of one of the pirates as she tried to escape the slaughter.

Although it seems quite odd that Buddhist monks from Shaolin and other temples would not only practice martial arts, but actually march into battle and kill people, perhaps they felt the need to maintain their fierce reputation.  After all, Shaolin was a very wealthy place. In the lawless atmosphere of late Ming China, it must have been very useful for the monks to be renowned as a deadly fighting force.

References:

  • Meir Shahar, The Shaolin Monastery: History, Religion, and the Chinese Martial Arts (Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii Press, 2008) pp. 69-70.

July 21, 365 C.E.

The Hellenic arc.

Greece is one of the world’s most seismically active countries. The ancient Greeks attributed earthquakes to the God of the Sea, Poseidon, perhaps because so many of them were centered under the waters. On today’s date at about sunrise, the “Cretan earthquake of 365″, an undersea earthquake with an assumed epicenter near Crete and estimated to have been higher than 8.0 on the present-day Richter Scale, occurred. It caused widespread destruction in central and southern Greece, northern Libya, Egypt, Cyprus, and Sicily. In Crete, nearly all towns were destroyed.

Of course, today we know that earthquakes are due to the movement of huge tectonic plates on the Earth’s surface. The Africa plate subducts beneath the Aegean Sea plate along the Hellenic arc (aka Hellenic trench or subduction zone), from the western Peloponnesus through Crete and Rhodes to western Turkey, at a rate of almost 40 mm/year. As a result, shallow-focus earthquakes (focal depths less than 50 km) occur on faults in the boundary-region of the two plates. In the twentieth century, the largest shallow-focus earthquakes to have occurred near the Hellenic-arc plate boundary had magnitudes of about 7.2, but the earthquake centered near Crete in 365 CE was much larger than any Hellenic arc earthquake of the twentieth century. In other parts of the world, convergent-plate tectonic environments similar to that of the Hellenic arc have produced earthquakes of magnitude 8 and larger.

The Crete earthquake was followed by a tsunami which devastated the southern and eastern coasts of the Mediterranean, particularly Libya, Alexandria, and the Nile Delta, killing thousands and hurling ships nearly two miles inland. The quake left a deep impression on the late antique mind, and numerous writers of the time referred in their works to the event.

The Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus described in detail the tsunami hitting Alexandria and other places in the early hours of 21 July AD 365. His account is particularly noteworthy for clearly distinguishing the three main phases of a tsunami, namely an initial earthquake, the sudden retreat of the sea and an ensuing gigantic wave rolling inland:

Slightly after daybreak, and heralded by a thick succession of fiercely shaken thunderbolts, the solidity of the whole earth was made to shake and shudder, and the sea was driven away, its waves were rolled back, and it disappeared, so that the abyss of the depths was uncovered and many-shaped varieties of sea-creatures were seen stuck in the slime; the great wastes of those valleys and mountains, which the very creation had dismissed beneath the vast whirlpools, at that moment, as it was given to be believed, looked up at the sun’s rays. Many ships, then, were stranded as if on dry land, and people wandered at will about the paltry remains of the waters to collect fish and the like in their hands; then the roaring sea as if insulted by its repulse rises back in turn, and through the teeming shoals dashed itself violently on islands and extensive tracts of the mainland, and flattened innumerable buildings in towns or wherever they were found. Thus in the raging conflict of the elements, the face of the earth was changed to reveal wondrous sights. For the mass of waters returning when least expected killed many thousands by drowning, and with the tides whipped up to a height as they rushed back, some ships, after the anger of the watery element had grown old, were seen to have sunk, and the bodies of people killed in shipwrecks lay there, faces up or down. Other huge ships, thrust out by the mad blasts, perched on the roofs of houses, as happened at Alexandria, and others were hurled nearly two miles from the shore, like the Laconian vessel near the town of Methone which I saw when I passed by, yawning apart from long decay.

July 21, 1925 (a Tuesday)

Darrow addressing the jury and courtroom spectators.

On this date, the eighth day of the Scopes Monkey Trial began. Before the jury was called to the courtroom, Darrow addressed Judge Raulston, “I think to save time, we will ask the court to bring in the jury and instruct the jury to find the defendant guilty.” This ensured that the defense could appeal the case to a higher court, which might rule the Butler Act unconstitutional. The defense also waived its right to a final address, which, under Tennessee law, deprived the prosecution of a closing statement. This greatly disappointed Bryan, who was unable to deliver a grandiloquent closing speech he had labored over for weeks [archived here].

John Scopes was found guilty of teaching evolution and sentenced to a fine of $100.  After the verdict was read, Scopes delivered his only statement of the trial, declaring his intent “to oppose this law in any way I can. Any other action would be in violation of my ideal of academic freedom — that is, to teach the truth as guaranteed in our constitution, of personal and religious freedom.”  The trial came to an anticlimactic end.

References:

  • John Thomas Scopes, William Jennings Bryan, and Rhea County Court. The world’s most famous court trial: Tennessee evolution case (Cincinnati: National Book Co., 1925).

July 20, 1925 (a Monday)

William Jennings Bryan (seated at left) being questioned by Clarence Darrow (standing at right).

On this date in the Scopes Monkey Trial, assistant defense attorney Arthur Hays rose to summon one more witness – William Jennings Bryan – as an expert on the Bible. Malone, another attorney on the defense team, whispered to John Scopes, “Hell is going to pop now.” Calling Bryan was a highly unusual move, but Bryan agreed with some enthusiasm, stipulating only that he should have a chance to interrogate the defense lawyers. During his examination, Bryan stated his reason for testifying: “These gentlemen…did not come here to try this case. They came here to try revealed religion. I am here to defend it and they can ask me any question they please.” Judge Raulston, concerned that the crowd massing to watch this clash of legal titans would prove injurious to the courthouse, ordered that the trial reconvene on the adjacent lawn.

Darrow examined Bryan for almost two hours, all but ignoring the specific case against Scopes while doing his best to undermine a literalist interpretation of the Bible. After initially contending that “everything in the Bible should be accepted as it is given there,” Bryan conceded that the words of the Bible should not always be taken literally. “[S]ome of the Bible is given illustratively,” he observed. “For instance: `Ye are the salt of the earth.’ I would not insist that man was actually salt, or that he had flesh of salt, but it is used in the sense of salt as saving God’s people.” Although Bryan believed the story of a big fish swallowing Jonah, Joshua making the sun stand still, and other miracles, he conceded that the six days of creation, as described in Genesis, were not literally twenty-four hour days but were probably periods of time lasting many years.

Fundamentalists in the audience listened with increasing discomfort as their champion questioned Biblical “truths,” and Bryan slowly came to realize that he had stepped into a trap. At one point, the frustrated Bryan said, “I do not think about things I don’t think about.” Darrow asked, “Do you think about the things you do think about?” Bryan responded, to the derisive laughter of spectators, “Well, sometimes.” It was an embarrassing and bleak moment in what had been Bryan’s brilliant career.

July 19, 1925 (a Sunday)

Rev. Byrd (left) and Rev. Potter (right), with Byrd's children John and Lillian, in front of the parsonage.

On this date, in the midst of the Scopes Monkey Trial, Rev. Howard Gale Byrd resigned as pastor of the Methodist Episcopal Church North in Dayton, Tennessee when members of his congregation objected because a visiting minister, Rev. Charles Francis Potter of the West Side Unitarian Church in New York City, proposed to preach on the topic of evolution. Potter was adviser on the Bible to Clarence Darrow in his defense of John Scopes. He also gave the opening prayer one morning of the trial.

Raised in a pious evangelical Baptist family, Potter was a precocious boy who by the age of three was able to recite entire Bible passages from memory. Potter accepted a Baptist pastorate in Dover, New Hampshire, in 1908 and another in Mattapan, Massachusetts, in 1910. During Potter’s years as a Baptist preacher he began to question many of the orthodox Christian tenets with which he had been raised. He was increasingly influenced by liberal theological ideas, especially the “higher criticism” of the Bible. In 1914 frustration with Baptist church leaders who questioned his theological views led to his resignation from the Baptist ministry and conversion to Unitarianism.

In 1919 Potter was called to be minister of the West Side Unitarian Church in New York City, where he served from 1920-25. Under Potter’s stimulating leadership the West Side Unitarian Church became a focal point of liberal thought, activity and interpretation of the scriptures. Potter came to national attention in 1923-24 when he participated in a series of radio debates with the formidable fundamentalist Baptist pastor, Rev. John Roach Straton of the Calvary Baptist Church in Manhattan. The debates at Carnegie Hall stirred public interest in the fundamentalist-modernist doctrinal questions that were circulating at the time. They were soon published in four volumes entitled The Battle Over the Bible, Evolution versus Creation, The Virgin Birth—Fact or Fiction?, and Was Christ Both Man and God?

July 17, 1925 (a Friday)

Judge Raulston delivers a ruling.

On this date, Judge John Raulston ruled in the Scopes Monkey Trial that the defense will not be allowed to present expert testimony on evolution or its consistency with Genesis:

This case is now before the court upon a motion by the [prosecution] to exclude from the consideration of the jury certain expert testimony offered by the defendant, the import of such testimony being an effort to explain the origin of man and life. The state insists that such evidence is wholly irrelevant, incompetent and impertinent to the issues pending, and that it should be excluded. Upon the other hand, the defendant insists that this evidence is highly competent and relevant to the issues involved, and should be admitted. . . . In the final analysis this court, after a most earnest and careful consideration, has reached the conclusions that under the provisions of the act involved in this case, it is made unlawful thereby to teach in the public schools of the state of Tennessee the theory that man descended from a lower order of animals. If the court is correct in this, then the evidence of experts would shed no light on the issues. Therefore, the court is content to sustain the motion of the [prosecution] to exclude the expert testimony.

Darrow was livid and accused Raulston of bias. “I do not understand,” said Darrow, “why every suggestion of the prosecution should meet with an endless waste of time, and a bare suggestion of anything that is perfectly competent on our part should be immediately overruled.” Raulston asked Darrow, “I hope you do not mean to reflect upon the court?” Darrow replied, “Well, your honor has the right to hope.” Raulston responded, “I have the right to do something else” and held Darrow in contempt of court. Darrow later apologized for his remark, prompting a big hand from spectators, and Raulston dropped the contempt citation. Darrow and Raulston shook hands.

After expressing concern that the courtroom floor might collapse from the weight of so many spectators, Raulston transferred the proceedings to the lawn outside the courthouse. There, the defense read into the record, for purpose of appellate review, excerpts from the prepared statements of eight scientists and four experts on religion who had been prepared to testify. The statements of the experts were widely reported by the press, helping Darrow succeed in his efforts to turn the trial into a national biology lesson.

July 16, 1925 (a Thursday)

John Thomas Scopes, June, 1925.

On this date, lawyers for both sides in the Scopes Monkey Trial debated the issue of whether the defense should be allowed to present expert witnesses. Mr. Darrow said:

We expect to show that [the Bible] isn’t in conflict with the theory of evolution. We expect to show what evolution is, and the interpretation of the Bible that prevails with men of intelligence who have studied it. [Metcalf] is an evolutionist who has shown amply that he knows his subject and is competent to speak, and we insist that a jury cannot decide this important question which means the final battle ground between science and religion—according to our friend here—without knowing both what evolution is and the interpretation of the story of creation.

The prosecution argued that such testimony was irrelevant to Scopes’ guilt or innocence under the statue. Assistant prosecutor Hicks said:

[W]hy admit these experts? Why admit them? It is not necessary. Why admit them? They invade the province of the jury…If they want to make a school down here in Tennessee to educate our poor ignorant people, let them establish a school out here; let them bring down their experts. The people of Tennesee do not object to that, but we do object to them making a school house or a teachers’ institute out of this court. Such procedure in Tennessee is unknown.

Dudley Field Malone countered for the defense, arguing in a thundering voice that the prosecution’s position was borne of the same ignorance “which made it possible for theologians…to bring Old Galilee to trial.” He concluded by saying:

There is never a duel with the truth. The truth always wins and we are not afraid of it. The truth is no coward. The truth does not need the law. The truth does not need the force of government. The truth does not need Mr. Bryan. The truth is imperishable, eternal and immortal and needs no human agency to support it. We are ready to tell the truth as we understand it and we do not fear all the truth that they can present as facts. We are ready. We are ready. We feel we stand with progress. We feel we stand with science. We feel we stand with intelligence. We feel we stand with fundamental freedom in America. We are not afraid. Where is the fear? We meet it, where is the fear? We defy it, we ask your honor to admit the evidence as a matter of correct law, as a matter of sound procedure and as a matter of justice to the defense in this case.

It was a powerful speech. Anti-evolution lawmaker John Washington Butler (who authored the statute Scopes was charged with violating) called it “the finest speech of the century.” Members of the press gave Malone a standing ovation and most courtroom spectators joined in the sustained applause.

July 15, 1925 (a Wednesday)

Drugstore owner Fred Robinson and his family with chimp Joe Mendi (second from left) sipping a Coca-Cola.

On this date, the prosecution in the Scopes Monkey Trial presented its case against the defendant, calling to the stand Rhea County School Superintendent Walter White, two of John Scopes’ students (Howard Morgan and Harry Shelton), and Fred Robinson, who was a drug store owner and head of the school board. When the time came for cross-examination, Darrow went on the offensive. White conceded that the textbook Scopes was accused of using – Hunter’s Civic Biology- was the official biology textbook of the state of Tennessee. The students admitted that learning Darwin’s theory of evolution from their football coach had in no way damaged their faith or their character. Robinson testified that he himself sold copies of the offending textbook in his drugstore where John Scopes had been arrested.

Towards the end of the day, the defense called its first witness, zoology professor Maynard Metcalf, to explain evolution and to prove that even devout Christians accepted evolution; he was not only an evolutionary biologist from Johns Hopkins University but also a Sunday school teacher at his congregational church. The prosecution argued that Metcalf’s scientific testimony was irrelevant, but Judge Raulston had not yet made up his mind so he excused the jurors while Metcalf was initially questioned.

As court ended that day, Bryan handed Darrow a small wooden monkey, a tiny memento of the trial.

July 14, 1925 (a Tuesday)

A trained chimpanzee named Joe Mendi performs for a group of school children outside the home of Mrs. F. Robinson.

On this date, lawyers in the Scopes Monkey Trial argued over whether it is appropriate for Judge Raulston to begin each court session with a prayer. Darrow stated, “I understand from the court himself that he has sometimes opened the court with prayer and sometimes not, and we took no exceptions on the first day, but seeing this is persisted in every session, and the nature of this case being one where it is claimed by the state that there is a conflict between science and religion, above all other cases there should be no part taken outside of the evidence in this case and no attempt by means of prayer or in any other way to influence the deliberation and consideration of the jury of the facts in this case.” Nevertheless, the judge overruled the objection.

An angry Judge Raulston appointed a committee to investigate who leaked to reporters the story that he would not grant the defense’s motion to quash the indictment on constitutional grounds.

"A Venerable Orang-outang", a caricature of Charles Darwin as an ape published in *The Hornet*, a satirical magazine on 22 March 1871.

Outside the courtroom, two chimpanzees and a strange appearing man who was called “the missing link” were brought today to Dayton and attracted large crowds. One of the chimpanzees — named Joe Mendi — wore a plaid suit, a brown fedora, and white spats, and entertained Dayton’s citizens by monkeying around on the courthouse lawn. Apparently, the stunt was designed to “prove” that it was not man who evolved from the anthropoid, but the anthropoid which devolved from man. Mr. Bryan’s eyes sparkled as he gazed at the chimpanzee. “Wonderful!” he said. “Wonderful!” The so-called missing link was Jo Viens, formerly of Burlington, Vermont where, it was said, he was once mascot for the Burlington Fire Department. He was 51 years old, of short stature with a receding forehead and a protruding jaw like that of a simian, and had a peculiar shuffling walk which was said to be like that of an anthropoid. Mr. Nye asserted he was an example of how men “may go down now even as he [mankind] went down ages ago into the anthropoid.”

July 13, 1925 (a Monday)

The judge (right) and jury.

On this date, the defense in the Scopes Monkey Trial argued that the indictment of John Scopes should be thrown out for violating either the United States or Tennessee constitutions. This was the heart of the defense strategy; the goal was not to obtain the acquittal of Scopes, but to have a higher court – preferably the U.S. Supreme Court – declare laws forbidding the teaching of evolution to be unconstitutional. As expected, Judge Raulston denied the defense motion.

Notably, it was today that Clarence Darrow made the following famous statement during the trial:

If today you can take a thing like evolution and make it a crime to teach it in the public school, tomorrow you can make it a crime to teach it in the private schools, and the next year you can make it a crime to teach it to the hustings or in the church. At the next session you may ban books and the newspapers. Soon you may set Catholic against Protestant and Protestant against Protestant, and try to foist your own religion upon the minds of men. If you can do one you can do the other. Ignorance and fanaticism is ever busy and needs feeding. Always it is feeding and gloating for more. Today it is the public school teachers, tomorrow the private. The next day the preachers and the lectures, the magazines, the books, the newspapers. After while, your honor, it is the setting of man against man and creed against creed until with flying banners and beating drums we are marching backward to the glorious ages of the sixteenth century when bigots lighted fagots to burn the men who dared to bring any intelligence and enlightenment and culture to the human mind.

July 11, 1977 (a Monday)

The Love That Dares To Speak Its Name

By James Kirkup

Christ blessing - Raphael, 1506.

‘Christ Blessing’ – Raphael, 1506.

As they took him from the cross
I, the centurion, took him in my arms–
the tough lean body
of a man no longer young,
beardless, breathless,
but well hung.

He was still warm.
While they prepared the tomb
I kept guard over him.
His mother and the Magdalen
had gone to fetch clean linen
to shroud his nakedness.

I was alone with him.
For the last time
I kissed his mouth. My tongue
found his, bitter with death.
I licked his wound-
the blood was harsh

For the last time
I laid my lips around the tip
of that great cock, the instrument
of our salvation, our eternal joy.
The shaft, still throbbed, anointed
with death’s final ejaculation.

 Christ at the Column - Giovanni Antonio Bazzi (Il Sodoma), 1514.

‘Christ at the Column’ – Giovanni Antonio Bazzi (Il Sodoma), 1514.

I knew he’d had it off with other men-
with Herod’s guards, with Pontius Pilate,
With John the Baptist, with Paul of Tarsus
with foxy Judas, a great kisser, with
the rest of the Twelve, together and apart.
He loved all men, body, soul and spirit – even me.

So now I took off my uniform, and, naked,
lay together with him in his desolation,
caressing every shadow of his cooling flesh,
hugging him and trying to warm him back to life.
Slowly the fire in his thighs went out,
while I grew hotter with unearthly love.

It was the only way I knew to speak our love’s proud name,
to tell him of my long devotion, my desire, my dread-
something we had never talked about. My spear, wet with blood,
his dear, broken body all open wounds,
and in each wound his side, his back,
his mouth – I came and came and came

as if each coming was my last.
And then the miracle possessed us.
I felt him enter into me, and fiercely spend
his spirit’s final seed within my hole, my soul,
pulse upon pulse, unto the ends of the earth-
he crucified me with him into kingdom come.

Christ at the Column - Donato Bramante,  c. 1490.

‘Christ at the Column’ – Donato Bramante, c. 1490.

-This is the passionate and blissful crucifixion
same-sex lovers suffer, patiently and gladly.
They inflict these loving injuries of joy and grace
one upon the other, till they die of lust and pain
within the horny paradise of one another’s limbs,
with one voice cry to heaven in a last divine release.

Then lie long together, peacefully entwined, with hope
of resurrection, as we did, on that green hill far away.
But before we rose again, they came and took him from me.
They knew what we had done, but felt
no shame or anger. Rather they were glad for us,
and blessed us, as would he, who loved all men.

And after three long, lonely days, like years,
in which I roamed the gardens of my grief
seeking for him, my one friend who had gone from me,
he rose from sleep, at dawn, and showed himself to me before
all others. And took me to him with
the love that now forever dares to speak its name.

Zen stones

'Gay News' issue #96, dated 3 June 1976.

‘Gay News’ issue #96, dated 3 June 1976.

The above poem alluding to Jesus Christ and same-sex attraction was published, along with a drawing by the illustrator Tony Reeves, on page 26 of issue 96 dated 3 June 1976 of the British periodical Gay News. It expresses the fictional love of a Roman Centurion for Jesus and describes him having sex with the Christ’s crucified body. It also suggests Jesus had sex with Pontius Pilate, the disciples, and John the Baptist.

In early November 1976, a certain Mary Whitehouse obtained a copy of the poem and construed it as blasphemous. She announced her intention to bring a private prosecution against the magazine under the Blasphemy Act of 1697. Under Section 8 of the Law of Libel Amendment Act of 1888, intended to protect newspapers from vexatious litigation, this required the leave of a judge in chambers. Leave to bring this prosecution was granted on 9 December 1976. The charges named Gay News Ltd and Denis Lemon as the publishers. A charge against Moore Harness Ltd for distributing was subsequently dropped.

The indictment described the offending publication as “a blasphemous libel concerning the Christian religion, namely an obscene poem and illustration vilifying Christ in his life and in his crucifixion”. The Gay News Fighting Fund was set up in December 1976. Judge Alan King-Hamilton QC heard the trial at the Old Bailey on 4 July 1977, with John Mortimer QC and Geoffrey Robertson representing the accused and John Smyth representing Mary Whitehouse.

'The Dead Christ' - Andrea Mantegna, 1480.

‘The Dead Christ’ – Andrea Mantegna, 1480.

Prosecuting Counsel John Smyth told the court: “It may be said that this is a love poem — it is not, it is a poem about buggery.” The defense argued that far from being “vile” and “perverted” the poem glorified Christ by illustrating that all of mankind could love him. During the six-day trial columnist and TV personality Bernard Levin and novelist Margaret Drabble testified that the Gay News was a responsible paper that did not encourage illegal sexual practices.

On Monday, 11 July 1977, the jury gave their 10-2 guilty verdict in the case of Whitehouse v. Lemon. Gay News Ltd was fined £1,000. Denis Lemon was fined £500 and sentenced to nine months imprisonment suspended. It had been “touch and go”, said the judge, whether he would actually send Denis Lemon to jail.

Mary Whitehouse’s costs of £7,763 were ordered to be paid four-fifths by Gay News Ltd and one-fifth by Lemon. Gay News Ltd and Denis Lemon appealed against conviction and sentence. On 17 March 1978, the Court of Appeal quashed Denis Lemon’s suspended prison sentence but upheld the convictions. Gay News readers voted by a majority of 20 to 1 in favor of appealing to the House of Lords. The Law Lords heard the appeal against conviction and delivered their judgment on 21 February 1979. At issue was whether or not the offense of blasphemous libel required specific intent of committing such a blasphemy. The Lords concluded that intention was not required. The appeal was lost.

Man of Sorrows - Maarten van Heemskerck, 1532.  The artist has depicted Christ with an erection, which according to some scholars' interpretation, is a symbol of his resurrection and lifelong power.

‘Man of Sorrows’ – Maarten van Heemskerck, 1532. The artist has depicted Christ with an erection, which according to some scholars’ interpretation is a symbol of his resurrection and lifelong power.

The European Commission of Human Rights declared the case inadmissible to be heard by the European Court of Human Rights on 7 May 1982. The £26,435 raised by the Gay News Fighting Fund through benefits and donations from the gay community and others, including a £500 donation from Monty Python, was sufficient to cover the costs of the trial and appeals.

On 11 July 2002, a deliberate and well-publicized public reading of the poem took place on the steps of St Martin-in-the-Fields church in Trafalgar Square in central London, but failed to lead to any prosecution. Police officers surrounded the campaigners as a collection of people opposed to the reading attempted to shout as loud as they could to prevent anyone from hearing. The protest passed off without any incidents, with campaigners arguing for blasphemy laws to be scrapped. “We have won an important victory for free speech and the right to protest”, declared human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell. The author, James Falconer Kirkup, at the time 84, criticized campaigners because he did not want the poem to be used for “political ends”.

For years, publishing this poem was illegal in the UK, although the poem was and is widely available on the Internet. Whitehouse v. Lemon was the last prosecution for blasphemy in the UK. Britain’s ancient laws of blasphemy and blasphemous libel, which made it illegal to insult Christianity, were finally abolished by the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act of 2008.

'Saint Sebastian' - Guido Reni, 1615, currently at Palazzo Russo in Genoa.

‘Saint Sebastian’ – Guido Reni, 1615, currently at Palazzo Russo in Genoa.

The scandal “The Love That Dares To Speak Its Name” provoked was out of all proportion to any offense it might have caused to believing Christians, just as the celebrity it achieved was out of all proportion to any merit it might have enjoyed as literature. The poem would probably have been read by only a few hundred people, and perhaps largely forgotten, if it were not for the publicity of the trial.

The poem’s lack of originality is apparent from its title, which is not merely an inverted cliché but one that is a reference to the famous poem by Lord Alfred Douglas (1870-1945), “Two Loves“, which was itself a reference to the Shakespeare sonnet #144, also named “Two Loves.” The imagery of Kirkup’s poem is relentlessly shocking, from the opening verse where we read that the dead Christ has “the tough, lean body of a man no longer young, beardless, breathless, but well hung” to the fifth verse, an enumeration of Christ’s sexual partners (although it clearly is not pornographic because it is not obscene simply for the sake of obscenity). The mention of Paul is particularly inane, since Paul never met Christ and many Christians suspect that his message might have been very different if he had. Moreover, Kirkup betrays his ignorance of the gospel story by leaving out the most likely candidate for “the disciple whom Jesus loved”: Saint John.

Central figures in Bernini's 'Ecstasy of Saint Teresa'.

Central figures in Bernini’s ‘Ecstasy of Saint Teresa’.

Yet, much classic religious art has always been intensely erotic, whether it be Guido Reni’s Saint Sebastian, which was a favorite painting of both Oscar Wilde and Yukio Mishima, or Bernini’s Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, a sculpture which depicts a truth evident to any open-minded reader of the story of Teresa of Avila: that her “raptures” are essentially orgasmic. The two central figures of the swooning nun and the angel with the spear derive from an episode described by the mystical cloistered Discalced Carmelite reformer and nun in her autobiography, The Life of Teresa of Jesus (1515–1582). In the passage, she describes being pierced by a seraphim’s spear: “In his hands I saw a long golden spear and at the end of the iron tip I seemed to see a point of fire. With this he seemed to pierce my heart several times so that it penetrated to my entrails. When he drew it out, I thought he was drawing them out with it and he left me completely afire with the love of God. The pain was so sharp that it made me utter several moans; and so excessive was the sweetness caused me by this intense pain that one can never wish to lose it.”

It was a pity that the furor overshadowed Kirkup’s other achievements as a poet and writer, which were considerable. His poem “No More Hiroshimas” [archived here] is particularly moving.

July 10, 1925 (a Friday)

Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan during the trial.

On this date, the famous Scopes Monkey Trial began in Dayton, Tennessee with jury selection in the Rhea County Court House.

On 21 March 1925, Tennessee Governor Austin Peay had signed the Butler Act, making it illegal “to teach any theory that denies the story of divine creation as taught by the Bible and to teach instead that man was descended from a lower order of animals.” In May, the American Civil Liberties Union had announced that it was willing to offer its services to any teacher who challenged the constitutionality of the new Tennessee anti-evolution statute.

Local town leaders, realizing that a controversial trial would bring attention to Dayton and that the resulting publicity might thereby economically benefit the town, had recruited a local high school teacher, John Scopes, to stand trial under the Act. The 24-year-old Scopes was in his first job after graduating from the University of Kentucky in 1924. He taught algebra and physics, served as athletic coach, and occasionally substituted in biology classes at the Rhea County High School. The indictment identified the date of his teaching evolution as “the 24th day of April.”

Clarence Darrow, known as one of the best lawyers of his era, led the defense while William Jennings Bryan, three-time Democratic candidate for President and a populist, led the prosecution. The stage was set for one of the most famous trials in American history. For many Americans, this event marked the beginning of a re-examination of long-held religious beliefs and a growing acceptance of evolution and its implications for the place of humans on the planet.

More photos are available here.

July 6, 1935 (a Saturday)

The 14th Dalai Lama as a child in Amdo, shorty after his discovery by a party of monks.

On this date, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet (born Lhamo Dondrub) was born to a farming family, in a small hamlet located in Taktser, Amdo, northeastern Tibet. He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989, and is also well known for his lifelong advocacy for Tibetans inside and outside Tibet.

Dalai Lamas are the head monks of the Gelugpa lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. Tibetan Buddhists traditionally believe them to be the reincarnation of their predecessors and a manifestation of Avalokiteshvara or Chenrezig, the Bodhisattva of Compassion and patron saint of Tibet. Lhamo Dondrub was selected as the rebirth of the 13th Dalai Lama at the age of 2, although he was only formally recognized as the 14th Dalai Lama on 17 November 1950 at the age of 15.

June 30, 1860 (a Saturday)

A cartoon from Vanity Fair depicting Bishop Samuel Wilberforce.

On this date, one of the most memorable dramas in the history of science took place at the annual meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science at Oxford University. Darwin’s The Origin of Species had been published in 1859, but his health was not good enough to allow him to go to the Oxford meeting. However, Thomas Henry Huxley was there and it was he who so brilliantly debated Darwinism with Bishop Samuel Wilberforce of the Church of England. More than 700 people crowded into the lecture room on that day – so many, in fact, that the meeting had to be moved to the library of the University Museum. Wilberforce, having refused to regard monkeys as his ancestors, turned to Huxley during the debate and asked whether it was through his grandfather or his grandmother that he claimed descent from “a venerable ape.” Huxley took the challenge and is reputed to have answered, “If I am asked whether I would choose to be descended from the poor animal of low intelligence and stooping gait, who grins and chatters as we pass, or from a man, endowed with great ability and splendid position, who should use these gifts to discredit and crush humble seekers after truth, I hesitate what answer to make!”

June 28, 1971 (a Monday)

Church/State sign.

On this date, Lemon v. Kurtzman was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.  Although unrelated to the teaching of evolution, the Court established a set of legal criteria for determining whether a law violates the Establishment Clause. In order to be constitutional under the “Lemon test,” a law must have a secular purpose, not advance or inhibit religion, and not excessively entangle the government with religion. The Lemon test will be applied to subsequent cases on the teaching of evolution.

June 23, 1912 (a Sunday)

Alan Turing Memorial in Sackville Park, Manchester, England. The statue depicts Turing holding an apple in his right hand, a reference to the way he chose to end his life. That was Turing’s last message to the world, with clear parallels not only to the legendary scientific knowledge of Isaac Newton, but also to the biblical interpretation of forbidden love.

Alan Turing Memorial in Sackville Park, Manchester, England. The statue depicts Turing holding an apple in his right hand, a reference to the way he chose to end his life. That was Turing’s last message to the world, with clear parallels not only to the legendary scientific knowledge of Isaac Newton, but also to the biblical interpretation of forbidden love.


On this date, the mathematician Alan Mathison Turing was born. Turing was a genius and a visionary who foresaw the digital world in which we now live and who believed machines would one day think. In the eyes of scientists today, Turing sits alongside Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, and Charles Darwin at the table of scientific greats.

Turing’s first professional success came with publication of his paper entitled “On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem” (1936). In the course of solving Hilbert’s Entscheidungsproblem (Decision Problem), Turing invented the hypothetical device that became known as the Turing machine, and proved that some such machine would be capable of performing any conceivable mathematical computation if it were representable as an algorithm. Andrew Hodges, a biographer of Turing, describes it this way:

The concept of “the Turing machine” is like that of “the formula” or “the equation”; there is an infinity of possible Turing machines, each corresponding to a different “definite method” or algorithm. But imagine, as Turing did, each particular algorithm written out as a set of instructions in a standard form. Then the work of interpreting the instructions and carrying them out is itself a mechanical process, and so can itself be embodied in a particular Turing machine, namely the Universal Turing machine. A Universal Turing machine can be made do what any other particular Turing machine would do, by supplying it with the standard form describing that Turing machine. One machine, for all possible tasks.

It is hard now not to think of a Turing machine as a computer program, and the mechanical task of interpreting and obeying the program as what the computer itself does. Thus, the Universal Turing Machine embodies the essential principle of the computer: a single machine which can be turned to any well-defined task by being supplied with the appropriate program.

This is why Turing is given credit for having invented the principle of the modern computer.

But in the 1930s, when Turing began working on the Entscheidungsproblem, the word “computer” had a meaning different from the one it has today: it meant simply a person who did computations — that is to say, a person engaged in the active use of algorithms. Turing wrote:

We may compare a man in the process of computing a real number to a machine which is only capable of a finite number of conditions q1, q2, …, qR which will be called “mconfigurations”. The machine is supplied with a “tape”, (the analogue of paper) running through it, and divided into sections (called “squares”) each capable of bearing a “symbol”.

The point should be emphasized: Turing was not considering the computing machines of his day. No such machines existed at the time, only calculating devices too crude to undertake any complex mathematics, and certainly not programmable. He was actually modelling the action of human minds. The physical machines would come ten years later.

British mathematician Alan Turing, shown aged 16 at the Sherborne School in Dorset in 1928.

Turing is best known for his work in cracking the Nazi codes, which gave the allies a consistent intelligence advantage over the enemy, shortening World War II by years and saving millions of lives. “Turing arguably made a greater contribution to defeating the Nazis than Eisenhower or Churchill. Thanks to Turing and his ‘Ultra’ colleagues at Bletchley Park, Allied generals in the field were consistently, over long periods of the war, privy to detailed German plans before the German generals had time to implement them,” said Richard Dawkins. “After the war, when Turing’s role was no longer top-secret, he should have been knighted and fêted as a saviour of his nation. Instead, this gentle, stammering, eccentric genius was destroyed, for a ‘crime’, committed in private, which harmed nobody,” referring to Turing’s sexual orientation.

Turing also devised what is known today as the “Turing Test.” The Turing test is a proposal for a test of a machine’s capability to perform human-like conversation. Described by Alan Turing in the 1950 paper entitled “Computing Machinery and Intelligence“, it proceeds as follows: a human judge engages in a natural language conversation with two other parties, one a human and the other a machine; if the judge cannot reliably tell which is which, then the machine is said to pass the test. It is assumed that both the human and the machine try to appear human. In order to keep the test setting simple and universal (to explicitly test the linguistic capability of some machine), the conversation is usually limited to a text-only channel, such as a teletype machine as Turing suggested.

However, Turing was a gay man living in an era when the word still meant “happy” or “lighthearted” and anyone who acted on a homosexual impulse was subject to criminal prosecution, not only in England where Turing lived but in many other countries as well. Nevertheless, rather naive and somewhat unworldly, Turing was never particularly concerned to hide his sexuality, and throughout his life he spoke openly of his attraction to men.

In 1952, Arnold Murray, a 19-year-old recent acquaintance of Turing’s, helped an accomplice to break into Turing’s house, and Turing went to the police to report the crime. As a result of the police investigation, Turing acknowledged a sexual relationship with Murray, and a crime having been identified and settled, they were charged with gross indecency under Section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act of 1885.

Turing came to trial on 31 March 1952 and made no serious denial or defense, instead telling everyone that he saw no wrong with his actions. He was particularly concerned to be open about his sexuality even in the hard and unsympathetic atmosphere of his profession in Manchester, England. Turing was convicted of the same crime Oscar Wilde had been convicted of more than 50 years before. He was given the choice between imprisonment or probation, the latter conditional on his undergoing hormonal treatment designed to reduce libido. To avoid going to jail, he accepted the estrogen hormone injections, which lasted for a year, with side effects including gynecomastia (breast enlargement). His lean runner’s body took on fat. His conviction led to a removal of his security clearance and prevented him from continuing consultancy for the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) on cryptographic matters. At this time, there was acute public anxiety about spies and homosexual entrapment by Soviet agents. In America, Robert Oppenheimer had just been deemed a security risk.

On June 8, 1954, his housekeeper found Turing dead, with a half-eaten apple left beside his bed; the previous day, he had died of cyanide poisoning. The apple itself was never tested for contamination with cyanide. The autopsy revealed that Turing’s stomach contained four ounces of fluid that smelt of bitter almonds: a solution of a cyanide salt. His death was not accidental; there was enough poison to fill a wine glass. Turing, thought the pathologist, had taken bites from the apple to make his last drink more palatable. Although he left no note, most believe that his death was intentional; Turing had himself spoken of suicide. His mother, however, strenuously argued that the ingestion was accidental due to his careless storage of laboratory chemicals. Biographer Andrew Hodges suggests that Turing may have killed himself in this ambiguous way quite deliberately, to give his mother some plausible deniability. Others suggest that Turing was reenacting a scene from “Snow White”, reportedly his favorite fairy tale. It has even been suggested that Turing’s suicide was in fact the work of the British secret service determined to remove a security risk.

Interestingly, in 1928 while a student at Sherborne School, Turing fell in love with a boy one year ahead of him in school, Christopher Morcom. The boys bonded over their shared passion for science. Unfortunately, on 13 February 1930, Turing’s beloved Christopher died at the age of 18 of bovine tuberculosis, which he had contracted years earlier when he drank tainted milk. His death profoundly affected Turing and may have spurred his intellectual achievements.

A letter sent from Alan Turing to Christopher Morcom’s mother.

In his biography of Turing, Andrew Hodges refers to an essay Turing wrote to the mother of his deceased boyfriend:

He fell in unrequited love with Christopher Morcom, a very talented youth in the school sixth form, and his longing for friendship brought him to communicate. A brief flowering of scientific collaboration perished when Morcom suddenly died in February 1930 of tuberculosis. Turing’s correspondence with the dead boy’s mother gives insight into the development of his ideas in the aftermath. He was concerned to believe the dead boy could still exist in spirit, and to reconcile such a belief with science. To this end he wrote for Mrs Morcom an essay [entitled 'Nature of Spirit'], probably in 1932. It is the private writing of a twenty-year-old, and must be read as testament to background and not as a thesis upheld in public; nevertheless it is a key to Turing’s future development.

The essay begins with a general account of the influence of developments in physics and quantum mechanics on the scientific conception of the universe, then moves quickly into the question of free will:

It used to be supposed in Science that if everything was known about the Universe at any particular moment then we can predict what it will be through all the future. This idea was really due to the great success of astronomical prediction. More modern science however has come to the conclusion that when we are dealing with atoms and electrons we are quite unable to know the exact state of them; our instruments being made of atoms and electrons themselves. The conception then of being able to know the exact state of the universe then must really break down on the small scale. This means that the theory which held that as eclipses etc. are predestined so were all our actions breaks down too. We have a will which is able to determine the action of the atoms probably in a small portion of the brain, or possibly all over it. The rest of the body acts so as to amplify this.

In stating the classic paradox of physical determinism and free will, Turing is influenced by Arthur Stanley Eddington’s assertion that quantum mechanical physics (“more modern science”) yields room for human will. Eddington asked how could “this collection of ordinary atoms be a thinking machine?” and Turing tries to find some answer.

There is now the question which must be answered as to how the action of the other atoms of the universe are regulated. Probably by the same law and simply by the remote effects of spirit but since they have no amplifying apparatus they seem to be regulated by pure chance. The apparent non-predestination of physics is almost a combination of chances.

Here, Turing says that although the atoms, in their action, “seem to be regulated by pure chance” (emphasis added), in fact they are “probably” subject to the same “will” by means of which we as human beings are able to control at least a small portion of our brains. Thus the “remote effects of spirit” have not, in fact, been banished.

As McTaggart shows matter is meaningless in the absence of spirit (throughout I do not mean by matter that which can be a solid a liquid or a gas so much as that which is dealt with by physics e.g. light and gravitations as well i.e. that which forms the universe). Personally I think that spirit is really eternally connected with matter but certainly not always by the same kind of body. I did believe it possible for a spirit at death to go to a universe entirely separate from our own, but now I consider that matter and spirit are so connected that this would be a contradiction in terms. It is possible however but unlikely that such universes may exist.

Then as regards the actual connection between spirit and body I consider that the body by reason of being a living body can “attract” and hold on to a “spirit,” whilst the body is alive and awake the two are firmly connected. When the body is asleep I cannot guess what happens but when the body dies the “mechanism” of the body, holding the spirit is gone and the spirit finds a new body sooner or later perhaps immediately.

As regards the question of why we have bodies at all; why we cannot live free as spirits and communicate as such, we probably could do so but there would be nothing whatever to do. The body provides something for the spirit to look after and use.

Alan Turing, 29th March 1951. Image supplied by NPL Archive, Science Museum (London, UK).

By the time of the publication of “Computing Machinery and Intelligence” in 1950, Turing had decided that artificial intelligence was possible — a machine could be built that could have the qualities of a human mind — which his now-famous test was designed to detect. In his paper he addressed an argument opposed to his view:

This argument is very well expressed in Professor Jefferson’s Lister Oration for 1949, from which I quote. ‘Not until a machine can write a sonnet or compose a concerto because of thoughts and emotions felt, and not by the chance fall of symbols, could we agree that machine equals brain — that is, not only write it but know that it had written it. No mechanism could feel (and not merely signal, an easy contrivance) pleasure at its successes, grief when its valves fuse, be warmed by flattery, be made miserable by its mistakes, be charmed by sex, be angry or depressed when it cannot get what it wants.’ This argument appears to be a denial of the validity of our test. According to the most extreme form of this view the only way by which one could be sure that a machine thinks is to be the machine and to feel oneself thinking. One could then describe these feelings to the world, but of course no one would be justified in taking any notice. Likewise according to this view the only way to know that a man thinks is to be that particular man. It is in fact the solipsist point of view.

The gist of Turing’s view now was that the existence of consciousness (“but know that it had written it”) is an illusion, a quality emerging from and ultimately to be explained by great complexity. His approach would not accept “intentionality” as any better an explanation than “spirit” or “soul”. In this conviction he is close to Buddhism. “I do not wish to give the impression that I think there is no mystery about consciousness,” he wrote. “There is, for instance, something of a paradox connected with any attempt to localize it.”

The mystery of how matter comes to support human mind was the burning theme of Alan Turing’s lifelong inquiry. In 1932, he believed that “spirit” could live on, and in a sense he proved that yes, it could. In the end, Christopher Morcom’s spirit lived on not in his body but in a wholly different form, in the work of Alan Turing.

References:

June 22, 1633 (a Wednesday)

Galileo

On this date, the Florentine-Italian astronomer Galileo Galilei was compelled by the Roman Inquisition to recant the theory he held that  Earth travels around the sun.

June 19, 1987 (a Friday)

Church/State sign.

On this date, Edwards v. Aguillard was decided. In a 7-2 decision, the Supreme Court invalidated Louisiana’s “Creationism Act” because it violated the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

June 16, 1902 (a Monday)

George Gaylord Simpson

On this date, the American evolutionary biologist George Gaylord Simpson was born. Simpson was the most influential paleontologist of the twentieth century and a major participant in the Modern Synthesis, contributing Tempo and Mode in Evolution (1944) and Principles of Classification and a Classification of Mammals (1945). Among other things, he is notable for anticipating such concepts as punctuated equilibrium (in his 1944 work, see quantum evolution), and dispelling the myth that the evolution of the horse was a linear process culminating in the modern Equus caballus.

[My favorite Simpson quotes - Ed.:]

“Any sensitive person must feel a basically religious awe in the face of the mysteries of life and of the universe, but belief in an anthropomorphic god, in a savior, or in a prophet is nonsense” (Autobiographical Notes, 1970, p. 17).

“The fact – not theory – that evolution has occurred and the Darwinian theory as to how it occurred have become so confused in popular opinion that the distinction must be stressed” (This View of Life: The World of an Evolutionist, 1964, p. 10).

June 11, 1963 (a Tuesday)

Self-immolation of Thich Quang Duc

At midday on this date, Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức took a ride in a car to the corner of Phan Dinh Phung and Le Van Duyet streets (now Nguyen Dinh Chieu and Cach Mang Thang Tam streets) in central Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City). Đức emerged from the car along with two other monks. One placed a cushion on the road while the second opened the trunk and took out a five-gallon gasoline can. Đức calmly seated himself in the traditional Buddhist meditative lotus position on the cushion. A colleague emptied the contents of the gasoline container over Đức’s head. Đức rotated a mala (string of wooden prayer beads) and recited the words Nam Mô A Di Đà Phật (“homage to Amitabha Buddha”) before striking a match and dropping it on himself. Flames consumed his robes and flesh, and black oily smoke emanated from his burning body.

Đức’s last words before his self-immolation were documented in a letter he had left:

Before closing my eyes and moving towards the vision of the Buddha, I respectfully plead to President Ngô Đình Diệm to take a mind of compassion towards the people of the nation and implement religious equality to maintain the strength of the homeland eternally. I call the venerables, reverends, members of the sangha and the lay Buddhists to organise in solidarity to make sacrifices to protect Buddhism.

The Most Venerable Thích Quảng Đức, whose lay name was Lam Van Tuc, was born in 1897 in a small village in a province in central Viet Nam.

In August of 1963, Diệm, a Roman Catholic who had been oppressing the Buddhist majority, used regular troops to arrest and imprison more than one thousand Buddhists in Hue and Saigon. Protests spread, and Quảng Đức’s self-immolation was followed by similar acts. Madame Nhu, the president’s sister-in-law, referred to the burnings as “barbecues” and offered to supply matches.

People around the world began to question a regime that would oppress peaceful Buddhists and provoke such shocking sacrifice. Many Americans viewed Thích Quảng Đức’s act as a demonstration that Vietnamese lacked the most cherished of American liberties: freedom of religion. Such was the outrage that officials genuinely feared that it would lead to the end of Diệm’s reign and the American effort to combat communism in Vietnam. The U.S. government found it increasingly difficult to continue its support of the man they had put in power.

The statue of Thich Quang Duc at the corner of Nguyen Dinh Chieu and Cach Mang Thang Tam streets.

The JFK administration demanded that Diệm find a way to end the protests. Diệm refused, outrageously claiming yet again that communist infiltration lay behind the Buddhist protests. The Americans lost patience. On 1 November 1963, the CIA orchestrated a coup against the no-longer-useful Diệm. He was assassinated the following day.

For his extraordinary martyrdom, Thích Quảng Đức was deemed a bodhisattva — a human being who aspires to enlightenment not purely to free themselves from suffering, but to free other sentient beings from suffering as well. And that he did. His heroic act precipitated the end of Diệm’s oppressive reign, and the regimes that followed pledged to accommodate the Buddhists.

Thích Quảng Đức’s heart, which miraculously survived the immolation intact, has become a holy relic.

June 10, 1692 (Julian calendar/old style: a Friday)

On this date, in Salem Village in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Bridget Bishop, the first colonist to be tried in the Salem witch trials, was hanged after being found guilty of the practice of witchcraft two days earlier.

Examination of a Witch (1853) by T. H. Matteson, inspired by the Salem trials.

In June 1692, the special Court of Oyer and Terminer ["to hear and to decide"] convened in Salem under Chief Justice William Stoughton to judge the accused. The first to be tried was Bridget Bishop of Salem, who was accused of witchcraft by more individuals than any other defendant. Bishop, pushing 60 and known around town for her dubious moral character, frequented taverns, played shuffleboard, dressed flamboyantly (by Puritan standards), and was married three times. When the Salem goodwives were tasked with groping her for bodily disfigurements that might be a witches’ mark, they:

discovered a preternathurall Excresence of flesh between the pudendum and Anus much like to Tetts & not usuall in women

She professed her innocence:

I am innocent I know nothing of it I am no witch I know not what a witch is.

[Both of the above excerpts can be found in the proceedings against Bishop — and other witchcraft defendants — here.]

Nevertheless, Bishop was found guilty and executed by hanging on June 10. Thirteen more women and five men from all stations of life followed her to the gallows, and one man, Giles Corey, was executed by crushing. Most of those tried were condemned on the basis of the witnesses’ behavior during the actual proceedings, characterized by fits and hallucinations that were argued to have been caused by the defendants on trial.

June 1, 1965 (a Tuesday)

Martin Luther King, Jr. and Thich Nhat Hanh

Martin Luther King, Jr. and Thich Nhat Hanh

On this date, while exiled for speaking out against the ravages of the Vietnam War, Thich Nhat Hanh wrote to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., encouraging him to publicly denounce the war. “You yourself can not remain silent,” he said. The full text of the letter, which is as relevant today as when it was written in 1965, follows:

The self-burning of Vietnamese Buddhist monks in 1963 is somehow difficult for the Western Christian conscience to understand. The Press spoke then of suicide, but in the essence, it is not. It is not even a protest. What the monks said in the letters they left before burning themselves aimed only at alarming, at moving the hearts of the oppressors and at calling the attention of the world to the suffering endured then by the Vietnamese. To burn oneself by fire is to prove that what one is saying is of the utmost importance. There is nothing more painful than burning oneself. To say something while experiencing this kind of pain is to say it with the utmost of courage, frankness, determination and sincerity. During the ceremony of ordination, as practiced in the Mahayana tradition, the monk-candidate is required to burn one, or more, small spots on his body in taking the vow to observe the 250 rules of a bhikshu, to live the life of a monk, to attain enlightenment and to devote his life to the salvation of all beings. One can, of course, say these things while sitting in a comfortable armchair; but when the words are uttered while kneeling before the community of sangha and experiencing this kind of pain, they will express all the seriousness of one’s heart and mind, and carry much greater weight.

The Vietnamese monk, by burning himself, say with all his strengh [sic] and determination that he can endure the greatest of sufferings to protect his people. But why does he have to burn himself to death? The difference between burning oneself and burning oneself to death is only a difference in degree, not in nature. A man who burns himself too much must die. The importance is not to take one’s life, but to burn. What he really aims at is the expression of his will and determination, not death. In the Buddhist belief, life is not confined to a period of 60 or 80 or 100 years: life is eternal. Life is not confined to this body: life is universal. To express will by burning oneself, therefore, is not to commit an act of destruction but to perform an act of construction, i.e., to suffer and to die for the sake of one’s people. This is not suicide. Suicide is an act of self-destruction, having as causes the following:

– lack of courage to live and to cope with difficulties
— defeat by life and loss of all hope
— desire for non-existence (abhava)

This self-destruction is considered by Buddhism as one of the most serious crimes. The monk who burns himself has lost neither courage nor hope; nor does he desire non-existence. On the contrary, he is very courageous and hopeful and aspires for something good in the future. He does not think that he is destroying himself; he believes in the good fruition of his act of self-sacrifice for the sake of others. Like the Buddha in one of his former lives — as told in a story of Jataka — who gave himself to a hungry lion which was about to devour her own cubs, the monk believes he is practicing the doctrine of highest compassion by sacrificing himself in order to call the attention of, and to seek help from, the people of the world.

I believe with all my heart that the monks who burned themselves did not aim at the death of the oppressors but only at a change in their policy. Their enemies are not man. They are intolerance, fanaticism, dictatorship, cupidity, hatred and discrimination which lie within the heart of man. I also believe with all my being that the struggle for equality and freedom you lead in Birmingham, Alabama… is not aimed at the whites but only at intolerance, hatred and discrimination. These are real enemies of man — not man himself. In our unfortunate father land we are trying to yield desperately: do not kill man, even in man’s name. Please kill the real enemies of man which are present everywhere, in our very hearts and minds.

Now in the confrontation of the big powers occurring in our country, hundreds and perhaps thousands of Vietnamese peasants and children lose their lives every day, and our land is unmercifully and tragically torn by a war which is already twenty years old. I am sure that since you have been engaged in one of the hardest struggles for equality and human rights, you are among those who understand fully, and who share with all their hearts, the indescribable suffering of the Vietnamese people. The world’s greatest humanists would not remain silent. You yourself can not remain silent. America is said to have a strong religious foundation and spiritual leaders would not allow American political and economic doctrines to be deprived of the spiritual element. You cannot be silent since you have already been in action and you are in action because, in you, God is in action, too — to use Karl Barth’s expression. And Albert Schweitzer, with his stress on the reverence for life and Paul Tillich with his courage to be, and thus, to love. And Niebuhr. And Mackay. And Fletcher. And Donald Harrington. All these religious humanists, and many more, are not going to favour the existence of a shame such as the one mankind has to endure in Vietnam. Recently a young Buddhist monk named Thich Giac Thanh burned himself [April 20, 1965, in Saigon] to call the attention of the world to the suffering endured by the Vietnamese, the suffering caused by this unnecessary war — and you know that war is never necessary. Another young Buddhist, a nun named Hue Thien was about to sacrifice herself in the same way and with the same intent, but her will was not fulfilled because she did not have the time to strike a match before people saw and interfered. Nobody here wants the war. What is the war for, then? And whose is the war?

Yesterday in a class meeting, a student of mine prayed: “Lord Buddha, help us to be alert to realize that we are not victims of each other. We are victims of our own ignorance and the ignorance of others. Help us to avoid engaging ourselves more in mutual slaughter because of the will of others to power and to predominance.” In writing to you, as a Buddhist, I profess my faith in Love, in Communion and in the World’s Humanists whose thoughts and attitude should be the guide for all human kind in finding who is the real enemy of Man.

June 1, 1965
NHAT HANH