Tuesday, February 4, 2020

What Will Our "Salvation Story" Look Like?

Joe and Rachel at the "Fiery Furnace" formation in Arches National Park, Fall 2017.

If we get out of this mess, will it be through our own doing? Or will it be through salvation by God?

Each year, on the day before Easter Sunday, many churches hold an Easter Vigil which includes stories of people's salvation throughout the ages with the help of God.

My favorite of those stories is always the one about the "the fiery furnace" -- and God's protection of the faithful Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego from the wrath of King Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 3:1-68). Of course, I also like the one about the Noah finally finding dry land after the flood; and I like the one about Jonah getting spit up by that whale after three days; and I like the one about the Jewish people escaping across the Red Sea with the Egyptians in hot pursuit.

But I think the reason I like the fiery furnace story so much is that it is simultaneously so surreal and so direct. It's a story of unbelievable horror -- and also of a horror that we have all faced every day since August 6, 1945.

I went through a different sort of fiery furnace experience, myself, during the summer of 2017. I was diagnosed with lymphoma and had to start immediate chemotherapy. I kept telling myself that it might feel like they were putting fire in my body, but I was going to come out the other end alive. 

Baptism by fire: first night of R-CHOP, June 2017.

Within six months, the lymphoma was under control and I was able to go to a reduced treatment regime. We even managed to go on some trips. I was struck by how far I had come in a short time when we we posed happily in front of a rock formation called the "Fiery Furnace" in Arches National Park, in Utah.

And I wondered: did I owe my salvation in that time of trial to God? Or to people? Or to both?

World nuclear arsenals are currently estimated at over 14,000 warheads. Will we achieve salvation from this existential threat? Are we waiting for God to do it for us? Can we do it without God? How are we imagining this story of salvation -- if there is one -- will go?

These are some questions that I will be thinking about on Easter Eve, April 11, 2020.

More: See Want to "Save the Planet"? What Might We Learn from the Way of Jesus?

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

The Woman at the Well: Important Conversations to Save the Planet

Conference for defense contractors

As an opponent of nuclear weapons, and as a proponent of nuclear disarmament, I am inclined to seek out people who think like me: other opponents of nuclear weapons, other proponents of nuclear disarmament.

Given an opportunity to travel to a meeting or conference or rally, my first question tends to be, "Am I likely to run into 'my people' there?"

It's a reasonable enough impulse. This is hard work. We all need to draw strength from others who are committed to the same cause. And, as a practical matter, it's important to be together in the same place from time to time, in order to make plans and coordinate efforts.

Recently, though, I've been thinking a lot about the story of the woman at the well (John 4:5-42). It's a story about what happens when people who are not very much alike have an encounter with each other. It's based on particular conditions that existed 2,000 years ago; but it's also about what's happening right here - now, today.

I notice three important things happening in the story:

* Jesus is talking to -- gasp! -- a Samaritan

* Jesus "tells her everything she's ever done"

* the two of them eventually get around to the main thing: the desire for "living water"

From this story, and from the Good Samaritan, I've heard many times that Samaritans were a group of people that Jesus' Jewish audience would have considered "off limits." I'm finally beginning to admit to myself that I probably haven't really understood this in the past. I thought, "Well, Samaritans did things like eat pork and Jews don't eat pork, so, yeah, they would have been considered outsiders." But since I don't really have strong feelings about eating pork, this is a pretty weak characterization.

It's beginning to occur to me that, to understand the depth of feeling about "Samaritans" that is intended in this story, I would need to think about a group that is devoted to living a life that is antithetical to the one I value. For instance - instead of opponents of nuclear weapons and proponents of nuclear disarmament, I should think about proponents of nuclear weapons and opponents of nuclear disarmament. I should imagine a conversation around the counter at the diner in Amarillo, TX, near the Pantex nuclear weapons plant.

Okay, but what does the "tells her everything she's ever done" mean? I used to think that it had something to do with psychic powers or the ability to read minds -- or, anyway, at least profound powers of deduction, like Sherlock Holmes.

I have now come to believe that it has a much simpler meaning. It refers to two people having a conversation, and one of them reflecting back to the other person what he heard her say. Is that so remarkable? Does that explain the joy with which the Samaritan woman reported to her neighbors about Jesus?

When you think about it, we are seldom such good listeners. When was the last time somebody listened -- really listened -- to what you were trying to say? Most of the time, most of us are two busy thinking about what we are going to say next to be able to listen to the other person. Sure, we listen -- but we're really just listening for the pause that will be our signal to talk.

I imagine the Samaritan Woman expected to be talked at -- and instead discovered to her surprise that she had been listened to.

The climax of the story, though, is the part about "living water." It comes at the wrap-up of the conversation -- it's sort of like the end of a meeting, where someone says, "Okay, so where did we end up?" The Samaritan Woman says to Jesus, in essence, Okay, I think we're done talking, so let's do what we need to do. You take your water and then I'll take mine. This is sort of the 1st century version of, Well, I guess we'll just have to agree to disagree.

Jesus says, Why do we have to stop being in conversation? Instead of "getting down to brass tacks" -- you take your water and then I'll take mine -- he suggests something that is perhaps less easy but also more fulfilling. I believe that what he was suggesting with the words "living water" (and what she heard in those words) was relationship -- the way of staying in connection with each other (and staying in connection with God) that includes communication in both directions and growth on both sides. And I believe that is what drew her in, and what sent her  out to tell other people.

I am an opponent of nuclear weapons, and as a proponent of nuclear disarmament. I don't know if I have the courage to go to a well where people are likely to think exactly the opposite of what I think. I don't know if I will have the patience to listen. And I don't know if I even really believe (yet) it's worth it to stay in relationship with them.

But I am pretty sure that if I want to follow in the Way of Jesus I am going to have to try.

More: See Want to "Save the Planet"? What Might We Learn from the Way of Jesus?

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Total Elimination of Nuclear Weapons: a "Hiroshima Centennial Call"

Remains of the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall,
explosion epicenter from the US nuclear attack on August 6, 1945.

This summer will be the 75th anniversary of the days in August, 1945, when the United States used nuclear weapons against Japan.

It is possible that, considering 2020 is the 75th anniversary, more people will mark this day than in ordinary years. But I fear that it will still only be a "blip" on the screen of most people, and will, in itself, not offer much help in the overall endeavor of ridding the world of these terrible weapons.

Perhaps the best way to make use of the 75th anniversary would be to call attention to something that is perhaps much more sobering: the 100th anniversary. Because there is a very real possibility that the 75th anniversary will give way to the 76th . . . and the 76th to the 77th . . . and on and on, until we find ourselves facing the Hiroshima Centennial -- one hundred years of a world living under nuclear terror --  and realizing we have still been helpless to guarantee that it will never happen again.

Thus, the real question becomes not "how will the anniversary be marked in 2020?" but "are we still going to be in the same situation twenty-five years from now?"

The time is now to issue a Hiroshima Centennial call for the total elimination of nuclear weapons from the world by 2045. And then work as hard as we can toward that goal. That would offer the hope of an anniversary recognition that all of us would be grateful to participate in.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

A Chicago Encounter With China: the "Golden Temple"

A little over twenty years ago, I started a newsletter called Chicago China Newslink. One of the topics I wrote about was a Chinese-themed pavilion that had been sponsored by a local industrialist and included in the 1933 Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago. Below are four articles about the "Golden Temple of Jehol." They are slightly edited from the original. In a subsequent blog post I will provide some reflections and updates on the topic.

"The Golden Temple of Jehol"
Century of Progress Exposition commemorative print

The Stuff That Dreams Are Made Of
Chicagoans Chase Elusive "Golden Temple of Jehol"

(originally published July, 1998, in Chicago China Newslink

What do you do with a temple that has been scrupulously copied from an original in North China, erected at world's fairs in Chicago and New York, then dismantled and shuffled between a series of warehouses in the U.S., and ended up languishing in storage in Sweden?

Rebuild it in Chicago! At least that's what Chicago architect Charles Gregersen says the current holders of the temple hope to do.

Gregersen is a specialist in restoring and conserving historic buildings, and he has traced in minute detail the journey of the "Golden Temple of Jehol," which was originally commissioned for the Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago in 1933.

"The temple is currently in the possession of a foundation in Sweden, disassembled and in storage. It was rescued from oblivion years ago by the Swedish foundation and its head, Max Woeler, and they had hoped to erect it as a museum," says Gregersen. "But those hopes seem to be fading." According to Gregersen, Max Woeler believes the foundation's best hopes of fulfilling the terms of its trust now lie in making the temple available to be rebuilt in some other location, such as Chicago.

The ideal location for the temple is somewhere on the Museum Campus, the site of the 1933 exposition, says Gregersen. "In fact, there is a triangle of land just east of the Field Museum that would be perfect," he says, continuing, "Don't forget -- this is the only remaining building of all those originally commissioned specially for the Century of Progress. Nothing could be more appropriate than restoring it to its original location."

With the renaissance under way in Chicago-based China activity, that plan seems all the more appropriate.

Little by little, the story of the temple is becoming known in business and cultural circles in Chicago. "Our committee has had the opportunity to learn a little bit about it, and it certainly is a fascinating story," says William Spence, a partner at Freeborn and Peters. Spence is the co-chairman of the committee of Chicagoans who are helping to build strong links between Chicago and the Chinese cities of Shanghai and Shenyang.

"Now, all that is needed is the money," says Gregersen. He cites estimates of $3 million for the cost of constructing a foundation for the 5,000 square foot temple and restoring its former condition.

And what of the original temple -- the one in China? It was reported to have fallen into disrepair, but Gregersen believes restoration is under way. The temple is ensconced in the central courtyard of the largest of a group of structures in the 18th century imperial summer retreat at Chengde (about 90 miles northeast of central Beijing), also known as Jehol.

"The Golden Pavilion of Jehol of which the Bendix Lama Temple of Chicago
is an absolutely faithful replica made in Peking by Chinese workers."
(Source: The Chinese Lama Temple Potala of Jehol exhibition booklet)

Recalled to Life
... and recalled to Chicago? How conservators on three continents are saving a piece of China's past

(originally published September, 1998, in Chicago China Newslink

The first time Swedish architect Max Woeler saw the original structure on which the "Golden Temple of Jehol" was based, in 1988, he was overwhelmed by a mixture of delight and melancholy.

Delight was inevitable for someone who had, like Woeler, spent the previous five years in a dogged effort to conserve what remained of the replica -- the pieces of the full-size re-creation of the original structure, which were in storage at the time in Stockholm. "It was the first time I had been to China, and I was filled with anticipation. There was a whole group of us, and we spent three weeks in China altogether, but the most exciting part, our real goal, was seeing the original pavilion, set within the high-walled enclosure perched in the ills of the old imperial summer resort area of Chengde [Jehol]."

At the same time, reaching that goal was bittersweet. According to Woeler, "The whole place was in a state of disrepair. The pavilion itself was dilapidated, rather run-down. None of the precious artifacts remained inside it. The area had been occupied by Japanese troops prior to WWII, and before that the warlords had sold off artifacts to buy weapons. But mainly, the problem was just the passage of time -- as if nothing had been repaired since the days of the emperors."

What Woeler saw in that moment seemed to confirm the prediction made by another Swede, nearly 60 years earlier. Sven Hedin, a famous explorer and the man who oversaw the production of the pavilion replica that later stood in Chicago, wrote in 1930, "In ten or twenty years [the original] will be nothing but a mass of ruins. When [it] has rotted away, the Western World will be able to rejoice that a faithful copy of it has been preserved." Hedin felt the structure [in Jehol] was "the most sumptuous, not only in Chengde, but in the whole of China." The replica was as sumptuous as the original. In fact, Hedin thought the replica had one advantage over the original: writing in 1930, he had commented that the surrounding walls were placed so close to the original pavilion that there was no way for a spectator to step back and get a full view of it. The replica, in contrast, was ideally situated. "In its new position in the land across the sea, this masterpiece of Chinese architecture will come into its own. There, it will be possible to see it standing alone against a background of leafy trees, and there the sinking sun will make the red colonnades glow like real gold."

Both the original and the replica were neglected for many years, but, by the late 1980s, people had begun to recognize the importance of preserving such treasures, and architect Max Woeler found that the goals of his Chinese hosts closely paralleled his own. "They were setting about to refurbish the original, just as I was trying to recondition the replica. We made a plan to work together -- to exchange technical expertise."

The refurbishing of the various structures in the Chengde complex was an enormous effort. Prof. James Hevia confirmed this after a 1991 visit to the original. He wrote: "At that time, the Potala was undergoing massive reconstruction. The center of the structure, where the Golden Pavilion stood, was completely closed off, while other portions were only partly accessible. It was clear, however, that the restoration staff had to rebuild parts of the structure from scratch." (from a pre-publication version of New Qing Imperial History: The Making of Inner Asian Empire at Qing Chengde)

The Golden Pavilion is 70 feet wide and 70 feet deep, and 60 feet high. (The replica and the original are identical in size.) Major repairs included replacing an elevated gallery in the walls surrounding it. The elevated gallery allows a closer view of some of the best parts of the pavilion, on the upper levels, but the gallery had been burnt down long before, probably prior to the wartime era.

But the intricate details, carved and painted on hundreds of wood panels, were as challenging as the expansive structural work. For the painting alone, there was a team of 70 craftsmen. At that time, there were no artisans left who knew these specialized crafts. Now, little by little, young people are learning these special skills again.

The Chengde restorations were completed in 1991. On a return visit, Hevia confirmed that a lot had changed: much of the restoration was complete, the entire site had been placed on the UNESCO world cultural heritage list, and "[its] new status as a global as well as national treasure seemed to be epitomized in part by the large crowds of domestic and foreign tourists, including large numbers of overseas Chinese . . . . [The] streets were bustling."

As for architect Woeler, since first becoming involved with the pavilion in 1983, he had spent one entire year tracking it down to a warehouse in Ohio, and then procured it for restoration, planning to put it up in a park in Stockholm.

Woeler set up a foundation to handle the massive project. First, the pieces of the pavilion replica had to be shipped to Sweden -- overall, it took nine forty-foot truckloads! Then preparations had to be made to refurbish key components, especially the beautifully painted surfaces and gold-plated copper roof tiles. In addition, a site was selected in a Stockholm park, and designs were drawn up to allow the structure to function as an exhibition hall, so that it could have a functional use, as well as serving as a symbol of growing ties with China and as an important cultural artifact.

All that was needed to situate the structure in Sweden was the final agreement on the land. Unfortunately, obstacles emerged, and bit by bit grew insurmountable. Woeler and his foundation were unable to bring the project to completion.

But Woeler hasn't given up. "It will really be like a phoenix, rising from the ashes," says Woeler, " -- when it finally gets built, that is!" Now his hopes have turned from Sweden back to the land that originally hosted the structure. "I think the pavilion should be brought back to America -- preferably Chicago!" he says.

A committee of interested Chicagoans has been formed to determine whether funds can be raised to bring the Golden Pavilion replica back to Chicago and erect it here.

Title page, The Chinese Lama Temple Potala of Jehol exhibition booklet,
with portrait of donor Vincent Bendix.

The Idea's the Thing
What inspired Vincent Bendix to create one of the century's great monuments to Chinese art and locate it in Chicago?

(originally published November, 1998, in Chicago China Newslink

Source note: Invaluable assistance for this article was provided by
Charles Gregersen, historic preservation architect
University of Illinois at Chicago: The University Library, Century of Progress Records
Mr. Pete Leatherwood, Director of Communications, retired, AlliedSignal/Bendix
Northern Indiana Center for History
King of Stop and Go by Menefee R. Clements
Family of Donald Boothby, Bendix architect

Vincent Bendix was a man who liked to make things. Even more, he was a man who liked to DO things, and do them in a BIG way. And if the things he made and the things he did caught people's attention, and captured their imagination, well, that was all right with him, too.

Bendix has been called "The King of Stop and Go," after two of his inventions which had an enormous impact on the auto industry: the Bendix brake and the automatic starter. Those two products were just the most important in a long list of products that he invented and/or commercialized, products ranging from carburetors, hydraulic steering, and u-joints, to aircraft wheels, brakes, and struts.

Bendix once said, "Business is only a collection of ideas, and you must keep getting a new idea." Bendix seemed to have an endless supply of ideas -- one former Bendix employee said Bendix "had more ideas than he had money to implement them" -- and those ideas went beyond just mechanics. It was Bendix who, in 1928, bought the Potter Palmer Mansion, together with a block of Chicago Gold Coast property, and planned to erect a $25 million dollar hotel there. It was Bendix who created the annual Bendix Transcontinental Air Race, which culminated with Gatsbyesque parties at his South Bend, Indiana estate. It was Bendix who bought a rather ordinary West Palm Beach mansion and turned it into an Italianate palace -- with the help, of course, of imported Italian palace builders.

But, more than anything else, history is likely to remember that it was Bendix who conceived and executed the erection of a magnificent Chinese structure on Chicago's lakeshore in conjunction with the 1933 Century of Progress Exposition -- one which was visited by over two million visitors. One of those visitors was Joe DeFilipps, today a Nebraska travel agent who in 1833 was an 8-year-old student at Washington Irving School on Chicago's West Side. "What I remember most of all was just how beautiful it was -- and how big!!" says DeFilipps. "When you're eight years old, a five story building looks like a twenty story building. And of course, I remember the golden roof."

Perhaps Bendix wasn't the only one who could have come up with the original idea. After all, in the 1920s, everyone was reading the headlines about China and the great archaeological discoveries made there by the Swedish explorer, Sven Hedin. It was natural to think about bringing those discoveries before the public.

Still, it was Bendix who, as a leader of the Swedish-American community (one who had, in fact, been recognized for his public service by the King of Sweden), was in a position to meet Hedin and learn about Hedin's ideas in person.

In the same way, the 1933 Century of Progress Exposition inspired scores of structures of a kind never seen before from contributors in Chicago and all over the United States, and from around the world, not just from Bendix. There were industrial exhibitions, concept pavilions like "The Future of Transport," pavilions of foreign nations, and more. The Century of Progress was as much about commerce as it was about entertainment and education. In large part, it was an explicit testament to the decade of economic development, especially in the automobile industry, that had made Bendix, himself, a rich man. By 1927, his plant was producing 26,000 brakes daily, and those brakes were used to outfit cars from Autocar, Willys, Hudson (& Essex), Marmon, Packard, Studebaker, to Lord's Lincoln and GMC's Oldsmobile. Not surprisingly, the most prominent pavilions at the Century of Progress belonged to Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler, together with exhibits by Goodyear, Firestone, and Sinclair, and the spectacular "Wings of a Century Pageant of Transportation" pavilion.

What was intriguing about the project Bendix conceived was that, although it was certainly intended as a publicity vehicle for him and his companies, it was a profoundly subtle and indirect publicity vehicle. While the auto and utility companies were using their exhibition pavilions as little more than glorified car and appliance showrooms, and the national pavilions held obvious benefits, both diplomatic as well as for trade and tourism promotion, Bendix's pavilion was intent on addressing some "better angels" of his public's nature. Bendix was flamboyant and loved publicity, but he also "preferred the soft sell over the hard sell," as one of his former employees put it.

Another important consideration in all this, beyond the Chinese theme and the idea of doing something big for the Century of Progress, was the money. Bendix wasn't the only one with automobile money in those days. Nor was he the only one funneling all that money into Gold Coast property development. However, some people's money started to dry up as the Roaring '20s gave way to the Depression '30s. The son of Bendix's architect, Donald Boothby, recalls his father saying, "To an architect, Bendix was a godsend -- it meant having a job at a time when jobs were very hard to come by." The senior Boothby, busily employed in implementing Bendix's architectural visions, was doing well enough to buy a new $3,900 Packard in the early '30s, and thought of his employer as a kind of Midwestern Medici.

Of course, even a Medici has to have influence as well as wealth, and, in the late 1920s, wealth didn't confer much influence until after it had been transformed through devotion to civic responsibility. In 1929, Harvey Warren Zorbaugh wrote in The Gold Coast and the Slum: A Sociological Study of Chicago's Near North Side: "The means by which members of the Four Hundred become the arbiters of the social world, get into the top dozen, are many and varied. One accomplishes it by managing a world's fair and taking a prominent part in notable civic movements ... One is frowned upon, a little, in more conservative circles if one does not take a part in the larger civic and social movements of the day."

Bendix seemed a step ahead of others in this respect, as well: his administrative partner in the Golden Pavilion venture was none other than Daniel Burnham (Jr.), son of the Daniel Burnham of "make no little plans" fame, and himself secretary of the entire Century of Progress project. Likewise, Bendix was living in the mansion whose renown stemmed from being the former home of the Impressionist art collection that eventually formed the core of the Art Institute's holdings; he filled it with a new collection, one consisting of precious artifacts from China, and rechristened it "The Bendix Gallery."

Bendix's imprint on this project was unmistakable: only Bendix could have done something which was at once so quixotic and at the same time so grounded in the nuts-and-bolts realities of manufacturing and construction.

In the first place, there was the procurement of the components of a pavilion in distant China. In hindsight, it is easy to say that Bendix's money was well-spent, considering the spectacular Chinese structure it bought. The man Bendix relied upon, Sven Hedin, was a generally-recognized authority and inspired great confidence. Still, in 1929, entrusting a third party to embark for warlord-run and bandit-infested North China with $125,000, knowing that you would hear nothing from him for months, took nerve.

Second, a superstructure needed to be supplied. Hedin copied and brought back reproductions of most of the intricate woodwork of the original temple. That left the structural elements -- foundation, supporting columns, and roof -- to be fabricated in the U.S.

Ah yes! That roof . . . .  The builders needed a way to re-create the gold-foil-coated roof for which the structure was so well-known. For a manufacturer like Bendix, the solution was obvious: he put his South Bend plant to work stamping out 25,000 copper roof tiles and plating them with 23-carat gold.

Finally, more than anything else, there was the management of the thousand-and-one details that go into any production of this kind. I like to imagine Bendix, in his offices on the 38th floor of the Bankers Building in the Loop (on the southwest corner of Madison and Clarke, just west of The Rookery), where he could look out to where workmen were laying the foundations of the Century of Progress pavilions. What were his days like? (The interior painting - can we get it done on time? What material will we use to pave the outside? How will admission work? How about postcard sales? Incense sales? How do we get the lighting just right?) I try to remind myself that, for someone like Bendix -- someone who had established his first manufacturing company in 1907, and had been churning through business ideas continuously ever since -- the day-to-day travails of an undertaking such as the pavilion were probably more refreshment than anything else.

Ironically, the greatest challenge for Bendix was to figure out what to do with the structure after the Century of Progress Exposition was over. Like every other exhibitor, he had agreed to abide by the Century of Progress Ordinance, guaranteeing that he would remove his structure, so that the lakeshore site could be returned in its natural condition to the South Park Commissioners. After much negotiation and request for extensions (some granted, some not), Bendix's organization in March, 1938, disassembled the structure and put it into storage. The Golden Pavilion had been created with the kind of care that goes into great and enduring buildings, and Bendix and others wanted to see it re-erected permanently. It was resurrected briefly for the 1939 World's Fair in New York, after which Bendix gave it to Oberlin College as part of a Center for Oriental Studies it was to build. It then went into deep hibernation. It passed to a series of trustees, principally other universities with interests in Asian Studies, but none could ever match Bendix's ingenuity at getting the structure erected for public display.

Bendix went on to other things. His Bendix Brake Company has had a glorious history in South Bend, Indiana; it is now Bosch Braking Systems (div. Robert Bosch Corporation). Other companies he founded included Bendix Aviation Corp. and Bendix Helicopters. According to one former employee, Bendix helped finance Amelia Earhart's ill-fated flight, was a part-owner of the original Washington Nationals (forerunners of the Senators), and helped build the original stadium at Notre Dame. Vincent Bendix died in 1945, with yet another grand project on the drawing board: "a popular type helicopter four-passenger sedan . . . to be ready for mass production after the war . . . . " Chicago skies are not yet full of family helicopters, but, with luck, they will once again soon be graced by the silhouette of Vincent Bendix's finest idea.

An imagined rendering of the Macartney mission.
(See description from Royal Museums Greenwich)

Noble Witness
Did the Golden Pavilion loom over the seminal event in Sino-Western relations?

(originally published April, 1999, in Chicago China Newslink

The Summer Palace of the Qing Emperors at Jehol was the site of perhaps the most important diplomatic encounter in China's history of engagement with the West. In 1793, Lord George Macartney traveled to China bearing messages from King George III to the Emperor of China. The Emperor's reply to those proposals contained what has become perhaps the most pithy statement of China's attitude toward the outside world: "We have never valued ingenious articles, nor do we have the slightest need of your country's manufactures." His reply went on to veto proposals for trading stations, warehouse locations, anchorages, and other aids to international intercourse. And so nearly two centuries of mutual misunderstanding was set in motion.

This encounter, along with its aftermath, is a staple of every history of China's interaction with the West. An often overlooked fact about this famous event, however, is that it took place not in Beijing but in the Imperial Summer Palace at Jehol -- the site of the original Golden Pavilion. This is not exceptional. Qing Dynasty emperors -- like any number of modern chief executives, who have discovered that, if they can rule from anywhere, why not rule from someplace they enjoy being? -- spent a very substantial portion of the year at the Jehol complex.

Sven Hedin devoted a chapter of his book, Jehol: City of Emperors, to the Macartney mission. He focused in particular on the not inconsiderable question of whether Macartney would kowtow to the Emperor, or if the Emperor would instead tolerate some lesser evidence of respect. The Chinese side had the foresight to be gracious and accept kneeling on one knee, probably reasoning that, as the ones who would make a record of the proceedings for posterity, they would have ample opportunity to spin the event. (Hedin wrote, "Court gossip asserted afterwards that the noble Lord had been so overcome in tghe presence of the mighty ruler that his legs gave way and he fell upon all fours. If he had refused to kowtow of his own accord, the presence of the Emperor obliged him to do so.")

The central business of the meeting was the transmission of a letter from the King of England to the Emperor of China, requesting a number of accommodations for the purposes of trade, as well as the presentation of a large quantity of official gifts.

[One of those gifts was described as "A clock resembling an astronomical instrument by which one can easily explain and reconcile the sun, moon, and stars in the heavens. It is useful in the study of astronomy and geography."  Was this instrument useful for navigation? Was it possibly related to the breakthrough marine chronometer (described in Dava Sobel's 1995 book, Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time)? It would be ironic if this was one of the "ingenious articles" which the Emperor later said he "did not highly value."]

Macartney's visit had to compete for attention with visits by other ambassadors, such as those of Burma and Mongolia, and it was wedged in-between numerous other court functions, as well. "On the Emperor's birthday, September 17th, the Ambassador received an invitation to a review at which Captain Parish estimated 12,000 officers and 80,000 troops were present." One wonders if this display of power made Macartney feel any trepidation for himself -- did he have second thoughts about his principled refusal to follow the court ritual of the kowtow? -- or for the future of the interactions between his own, very powerful, country and the one he was visiting.

Hedin observed that "it is interesting to compare the manner in which Qianlong received the King's envoy with the deference and obsequiousness with which, thirteen years earlier, he had received the Tashi Lama. For him the King of England was merely one vassal among hundreds, whereas the Tashi Lama had power over all the Lamaist lands which were under the rule of the Middle Kingdom. In the opinion of the Emperor, Tibet was of far greater importance than Great Britain." What might the role of the Golden Pavilion in the 1780 visit by the Tashi Lama have been?

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Chance Encounter: Good News About Connecting with God

(One of my goals for 2020 is to notice and amplify the diverse ways people share the Good News.)

Three years ago, in Berkeley, CA, I was working with members of a community organization made up of faith communities on a "Remember Our Names Black History Month Prayer Vigil."

We were setting up our materials -- banners, displays, literature -- in Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park, opposite City Hall in Berkeley. Two young men came up and started talking with us -- I supposed they attended the high school that is next to the park. We were partly grateful to be able to engage these young men in conversation about the purpose of the important event that we were preparing for -- never too early to start promoting! -- and we were partly distracted by the need to get everything set up before the main event began.

"Remember Our Names Black History Month Prayer Vigil"
(Photo: Mark Coplan)

As I worked to drape banners over a low wall and secure them in place, one of the young men talked to me. The first things I noticed about him was that he was smoking, he was dressed head to toe in some team colors, and he was a white guy. He was talking about some musician he liked -- some "rapper something" -- who had been on TV the night before and he was really relishing the glow of that event. He said that he, himself, had made a point to wear that performer's signature clothes -- he pointed to his hat, his shirt, his pants, and his sneakers. I have to confess that I thought this was a little silly -- he was so happy to be communing with the rapper guy in this way, and I didn't even recognize the name he kept mentioning.

I tried to listen respectfully, but I also remember thinking, "Hey, I'm trying to hang a banner here! I can't seem to figure out a place to tie it down. Did you notice that I could use a little help?"

But instead of coming to my aid, the young man pulled out his phone and says, "Here, I've got it on video, just watch this!" So here I am, an old white guy standing in the middle of a park squinting at this little screen on a phone being held by this young man all dressed in red and smoking a cigarette, listening to rap.

Now, as someone who is endlessly trying to get people to watch stuff that I think is interesting, I felt the irony of this situation. Here was someone who was trying to change my world by showing me this important video, and all I wanted to do was pry myself loose and finish hanging the banner.

(And anyway, didn't he see how important this vigil was that we were preparing?)

*     *     *

That night -- for reasons that I can't quite explain -- I remembered this exchange, and I wondered about that video. I wondered what had felt so meaningful to him. I remembered that it was a video of the previous night's Grammy awards, and so I searched for the video of "some rapper."

This is what I found: a performance by Chance the Rapper at the 59th Grammy Awards ceremony.

Please take a moment to watch ChancePerform on Vimeo.

Chance the Rapper: "The first is . . . . "

I wasn't expecting to hear these words:

The first is that God is better than the world's best thing

God is better than the best thing that the world has to offer

Magnify, magnify, lift it on high

 . . . and . . .

Exalt, exalt, glorify, descend upon the earth with swords

I wasn't expecting the camera to pull back, the stage lights to go on full, and white-robed gospel singers flanking the stage, singing and swaying exuberantly, doing a full-blown rendition of "How Great Is Our God."

"How great . . . is our God . . . "

Most of all: I wasn't expecting to see the huge crowd of music industry VIPs attending the Grammy ceremony joining in -- standing and waving their arms in unison as the choir sang.

And I wondered: who would dare choose to perform this song at that event in front of all those people?

And I thought: this is what it means to spread the Good News!

(You can read the full words here.)

*     *     *

Chance the Rapper's Grammy performance of "How Great is Our God" made me think about a lot of things. I thought about going to a friend's church in Chicago and seeing how that congregation used praise music like "How Great is Our God" to create a completely different feeling than I was used to during worship. I thought about other times, when we've incorporated popular music in our own worship, and how great the response was to that. But most of all I thought about the enormous power of music of all kinds to enable us to connect with God, and I wondered why I wasn't doing more to contribute to that. And I decided to change that.

*     *     *

And when it was all done, I realized that what had happened was that the young man all dressed in red and smoking a cigarette had run across me in the park, and had taken the time to give his testimony about a message of Good News that was life-changing for him, and that he hoped would be life-changing for me.

And it was.

Monday, January 6, 2020

Good News for 2020: "Fear not!"

A symbol of early Christianity: ichthys

During the Service of Lessons and Carols at St. John's UCC on Madeline Island yesterday, one of the readings had to do with the coming of John the Baptist. "Don't be afraid, Zechariah!" (Luke 1:13) Suddenly, I was reminded of something that happened years ago.

"Oh yes!" I thought. "The woman in Madison . . . . "

At an antiwar conference in Madison, WI, I sat next to a new acquaintance before one of the conference sessions. I noticed she wore a circular pendant with the outline of a fish. I recognized it as a Christian symbol, but I hadn't thought of her as a particularly "churchy" person. I was curious about what the pendant meant to her, so I asked her to tell me about it.

"It's a symbol of early Christianity," she told me. And then she added, "You know, for me, of all the things Jesus said, the most important is this: 'Fear not.' He says it in about 20 different situations." (See, for instance, Luke 12:32)

And at that moment, I realized she had seized a moment to testify to the Good News to me -- a person who may not have struck her as particularly "churchy." Years after

I was reminded of this moment during the Service of Lessons and Carols at St. John's UCC on Madeline Island yesterday. "Don't be afraid, Zechariah!" (Luke 1:13) "Oh yes!" I thought. "The woman in Madison . . . . "

Last night, my son sent a text with a sketch my 2-year-old granddaughter made.

Fish by Clem

Coincidence? Perhaps . . . .

(One of my goals for 2020 is to notice and amplify the diverse ways people share the Good News.)

Related post:

The Children Are Waiting

Saturday, January 4, 2020

Nuclear Power: a Snare and a Delusion for Illinois

(Originally published in October, 2014, as "Chicago, IL: Zero Carbon AND Zero Nuclear!" on the Zero Carbon Chicago blog.)

Just about every day when I open the newspaper, I see a full page ad from an interest group called "Nuclear Matters" suggesting that -- Good News! -- we have the solution to global warming and it's good, old nuclear energy!

Nuclear Matters lobbying campaign

It's very important -- for people in general, and for people who live in the Chicago area in particular -- to understand how vital it is at this moment to stand up against the possible resurgence of the nuclear energy industry.

"Nucleonics": Science is our friend

I was a high school student in the '70s, and was very proud to be able to not only study physics as a junior in high school, but to take an special advanced course called "Nucleonics" -- focusing on nuclear physics -- when I was a senior.  The course had been designed by a wonderful teacher in our school, Gertrude M. Clarke.

"Nucleonics" required us to do something very challenging: use the tools of science, including math and statistics, to understand phenomena that we couldn't see. This included labs involving the measurement of low-level alpha and beta emissions, as well as thorough study of the issues involved in epidemiology of radiation-induced sickness and disease.  My final project in the "Nucleonics" course involved measuring resistance to gamma radiation over the course of several generations of fruit flies.

Henry Moore, Nuclear Energy
This bronze sculpture on the campus of the University
of Chicago stands on the spot above Chicago Pile 1,
where Enrico Fermi and colleagues carried out the world's
first successful atomic chain reaction in December, 1942.
(Image from Philosophy of Science Portal)

Today I live in Chicago and from time to time traverse the spot where the very first atomic chain reaction was carried out by Enrico Fermi and his colleagues --  an event that was of tremendous interest to any student of "Nucleonics." When I look at the Henry Moore sculpture on that spot, I wonder if we as a society have really come very far in our understanding of the issues since that time.

Reflecting back over the years, what seems to me to be most significant about what I learned in "Nucleonics" is that there may be abundant scientific information on radiation and its effects, but of equal or greater importance is the difficulty that the vast majority of people have in visualizing what this information really means in their lives.

Illinois' special status: Nuclear Energy U.S.A.

Didn't know you were surrounded, did ya?
Chicago area nuclear plants (NEIS)
A case in point: according to the Chicago-based Nuclear Energy Information Service, "Illinois is by far the most nuclear state in the United States . . . . Illinois was also home to the first commercial power reactor . . . one of the first commercial power reactors to close prematurely . . . . ComEd’s two large PWR reactors in Zion, IL also had to close prematurely . . . . We also have the first and only commercial storage facility for high level waste . . . Besides the 3 plants which closed prematurely, Illinois currently has eleven operating nukes – far more than any other state . . . etc. etc."

Does the average person living in Chicago have any idea about the degree to which they are surrounded by nuclear plants here?

In recent days there was a release at a nuclear facility in southern Illinois. (See "Metropolis Radiation Site Emergency — Leak of Toxic Uranium Hexafluoride")

Chicago people need to know what we're up against. The company that calls the shots on energy in our neck of the woods, Exelon, has been trumpeting its role as a nuclear energy operator. (See "Exelon, politics and Illinois' low-carbon future" by Julie Wernau in the Chicago Tribune, August 15, 2014: "'What Exelon is suggesting here is, put all your eggs in the nuclear basket and just trust Exelon,' [said] Lee Davis, executive vice president and regional president for NRG Energy's east region" ) Put that together with the "Nuclear Matters" lobbying effort, and its clear that people in Illinois are going to continue to be exposed to more, not less, nuclear plant risk. Unless we do something about it.

"Our Whole World": The Magnitude of the Risk

I was a college student in 1979 when the partial meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant occurred.

I'm embarrassed to say that my clearest memory of that time was a comedy skit on Saturday Night Live. ("President Jimmy Carter (on call-in show): Hmm. Sounds to me a lot like a Pepsi Syndrome. Were there any soft drinks in the control room?") I'm coming to realize that often comedy is used to cover our distress about the direst emergencies in our society.

Map of radiation levels in 1996 around Chernobyl
(map scale is about 300 miles across)
I was a young father attending to a new baby boy when the Chernobyl meltdown occurred.  I think the vast majority of people in the U.S. failed to grasp the magnitude of that disaster, though it wasn't lost on people in Europe (especially Germany).

I recently watched a short film called The Door that made me realize, "My city could become off-limits -- a ghost town -- if there was a nuclear accident here!" (I strongly recommend this film for anyone who is having trouble imagining the potential impact of radiation on their own life.)

Today, right now, people in Japan continue to cope with the radiation release that occurred when the Fukushima nuclear plant melted down. It is startling that people in the U.S. can disregard this experience!

In 2011 and 2012 there were a pair of excellent conferences held at the University of Chicago -- The Atomic Age -- that illuminated the connections between all these issues.  The Atomic Age's website has an ongoing archive of related information.

Despite all the available information, people have a very difficult time properly assessing the risk to which they, themselves, are exposed!

People who are part of the movement to create a "Zero Carbon Chicago" also need to be part of the movement to safely put Illinois' nuclear era behind us.

Related posts

It's not immediately obvious how Chicago and Illinois can move quickly to get electricity in a zero-carbon (and zero nuclear) manner. But here are a few initial thoughts . . .

(See What If Chicago Started to "Think Different" About Electricity? on the Zero Carbon Chicago website)

There is a great deal of expertise in our society in assessing -- and insuring against -- risk. (At least of a certain kind.) At the same time, we all have personal experience of the prevalence of "risky behavior." I wonder if we need to do more to try to imagine the true consequences of our most risky behavior  . . . .

(See Stop engaging in risky behavior)

Other related links

October 29, 2014 - "Exelon behind pro-nuclear website in Illinois" by Julie Wernau in the Chicago Tribune: "Exelon Corp. has stepped up lobbying in its effort to have state legislators reward the company's six nuclear plants in Illinois for producing electric power without emitting greenhouse gases. Three of the plants could be closed because of competition from cheaper forms of generating power."