Monthly Archives: January 2016

Where Jesus Walks the Earth

Midnight Jesus: Where Struggle, Faith, and Grace CollideAn amazing thing happened that night in the little town of Bethlehem.  Only a few understood.  They were told in advance of the event in which they were chosen to play key roles.  The few privileged to hear the announcement of the birth of a baby were aware that something unusual and marvelous had occurred, but what, they did not understand.

There was one, a pitiful, paranoid, little old man who was told of the event perhaps as late as two years after it happened.  Fearful of what it might mean for him, many innocent lives were brutally snuffed out at his command.

Prior to that night in Bethlehem, God was known only to his chosen people, the Hebrews.  He dwelt among them, at first in a tabernacle, and then in a temple built for him.  The few who were allowed to approach him did so with fear and trembling as did Moses on Mt. Sinai.

With the birth of Jesus, God himself entered history.  The God of the Hebrews was henceforth accessible to all.  Not only that.  As he went among his people telling them that the promised Messiah had come, he ministered healing to the physical and spiritual needs of those in need.

When John the Baptist sent one of his followers to ask Jesus if he was the Messiah, Jesus told the messenger, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them.”

Since the death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, Christians have followed his example. The Gospel is proclaimed throughout the world, and those suffering, whether followers of Jesus Christ or not, receive a cup of cold water in the Messiah’s name.

It is through human hands that Jesus touches those in need.  This is the theme of Jamie Blaine’s new book, Midnight Jesus: Where Struggle, Faith, and Grace Collide (Nashville, TN: W. Publishing Group, 2015).  It is a collection of vignettes that illustrate how the Lord reaches into a suffering world through the life of one who works in a psychiatric ward, answers a crisis hotline, and yes, even as a assistant manager of a roller rink.

As the reader goes with Jamie Blaine from one life in crisis to another, he cannot but be reminded of Mother Teresa who went out into the streets of Calcutta, India, seeking those who suffer unseen by the multitude surrounding them.  What compels Christians like Mother Teresa and Jamie Blaine?  Blaine explains it this way:

“Jesus said whatever you do for the least of my brothers and sisters, you do for me.  So when I go see the guy in jail who is crying and kicking the wall, I think, There’s Jesus.  And if he’s eating screws and he curses and throws his shoes at me, well, maybe it’s more like, Okay, that’s Jesus’ little brother.  Still.  Better be patient. Be kind.

“When I drive up at four in the morning to see some woman babbling to aliens and doing the tango hustle through her neighbor’s yard with tinfoil wrapped around her head and no pants on, There’s Jesus.  Or at least his little sister.  So find her some pants and bring her cold water.  Sit on the back steps and listen to whatever story she needs to tell.  Do the best I can to help her get from where she is to where she needs to be.  Because someday Jesus will meet me just outside the gate, and I don’t think he’s going to ask where I went to church or how many Bible verses I memorized.  He’s going to say, “Where were you when I was sick?  When I was in jail?  How about when I was hungry?  Where were you when I lost my mind?”  (pp. 196-197)

Waiting curbside with a drunk for a hospital van to come and pick the poor man up, Blaine hears the Gospel in the form he, the drunk, has tried to fit to his life:

“You ever just look around at life and wonder what in the world is goin’ on down here?”

“Sure.  Who don’t?”

“Exactly.  Even in the Bible, son.  Every one of them characters in that book wondered the same thing at one point or another.  If you ain’t ever really read it close, check it out seometime.  See for yourself.”

“All right,” I tell him.  “I’ll check it out.”

“Like, whose idea was all this?”  He holds out his hands like Moses before the sea and pivots from the Jiffy Lube to Taco Bell.  “I ain’t asked to be born.  Ain’t asked to die.  Sure ain’t asked to be judged.  I ain’t signed up for none of this.  But here I am.”

After a pause, he continues:

“Even Jesus Christ hisself wasn’t so sure sometimes, was he?”

Minutes pass as Blaine and the derelict wait for the van.  Blaine probes him about how many drinks he has drunk during the day.  “Just one,” he answers, then continues his sermon.

“So anyway, my point is, you see, maybe God said, ‘Well, before I judge ’em too hard, I might oughta walk a mile in their shoes.’”

“So he come down to earth as a little baby, fought with brothers and sisters and worked in the family woodshop.  Tried to go tell people the good news and his friends screwed him over and then—them religious folks kilt him.”

“And maybe, when Jesus got back to heaven he kicked off them shoes, looked at God, and said, ‘Dad, it’s rough down there.  Go easy on ’em.’”

When Blaine asks his companion, “How’d you come up with that?”  His reply is simple, but profound.  “I got lots of time to think.” (pp. 40-42)

After the hospital van picks the man up and drives off, Blaine is left reflecting on how truth is found in strange places.

Jesus continues his earthly ministry as his Holy Spirit embodies and empowers his followers who are his body.  But, as is seen in the Bible, he also uses “perverts and murderers, prisoners and women of ill repute,” the weak and foolish.

Midnight Jesus is not an inspirational book in the normal sense, but it does inspire.  It is not a theological study or a commentary, but it does compel the reader to think about his or her faith and commitment as a follower of Jesus Christ, the Messiah.  One cannot follow Jamie Blaine as he moves among the forgotten casualties of a fallen world without confronting the question Jesus Christ asks of us, “Where were you when I was . . . .”

This is a book that needs to be read.

 

 

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Al Capone and America’s Noble Experiment

My father and another man owned a small meat packing business in Freeport, Wisconsin during the 1920s and the Great Depression.  They, like so many small businesses, went bankrupt during the depression.

Freeport lies 133 miles northwest of Chicago.  My father delivered meat to various stores, etc., in and around Freeport and all the way to Chicago.  Some of Al Capone’s speakeasies in Chicago were among his customers.  My father never met any of the bootleggers or gangsters.  Probably the closest he ever came to one was when he went to see a movie on the evening of July 21, 1934 at the Biograph Theatre on the north side of Chicago.  It was the following night, in front of the Biograph Theatre, that federal agents gunned down John Dillinger.  Ironically, the movie playing was “Manhattan Melodrama,” a gangster movie featuring Clark Gable and William Powell.

America was at that time—1920-1933—conducting what was called a “noble experiment”—prohibition.  “National prohibition of alcohol . . . was undertaken to reduce crime and corruption, solve social problems, reduce the tax burden created by prisons and poorhouses, and improve health and hygiene in America.”  It failed in every area.  In fact, many believe that all prohibition did accomplish was to make organized crime big business.

Prohibition became the law of the land with ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution on January 16, 1919.  The amendment prohibited “the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all the territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes . . . .”  Mississippi was the first state to ratify the amendment (January 7, 1918).  The necessary number of states ratifying the amendment was reached, when Nebraska became the 36th of the 48 states then in the Union to ratify it on January 16, 1919.

Prohibition divided the nation into camps.  Those who supported prohibition were known as “dries.”  Those who opposed it were known as “wets.”  The dries were led by rural Protestants and social Progressives in both the Democratic and Republican parties.  They saw it as a victory for the improvement of public health and morals.  The wets opposed prohibition as an attempt to impose largely rural and Protestant values on urban centers with large immigrant and Catholic populations.

Although there was widespread support for the Eighteenth Amendment, at least initially, there was significant opposition.  The amendment left it to the federal and state governments to pass the necessary legislation to enforce the ban.  Congress acted by passing the National Prohibition Act, commonly referred to as the Volstead Act, over President Woodrow Wilson’s veto in October, 1919.

The Volstead Act went into effect at midnight on January 17, 1920.  The first documented violation occurred just fifty-nine minutes later, when $100,000 worth of “medicinal” whiskey was hijacked from two railroad freight cars in Chicago.

It was near impossible to enforce prohibition.  Most citizens simply ignored the law.  Prohibition did succeed in making lawbreakers out of ordinary, law-abiding citizens, while at the same time lowering respect for law in general.  Ordinary working-class people felt that they were being deprived of their occasional glass of beer or shot of whiskey by the upper classes that had easy access to as much as they wished to consume.

There was little enthusiasm among federal, state, and local law enforcement to enforce prohibition.  Congress provided funds to hire a mere 1,500 agents to prevent 125 million people from having a drink of liquor or a glass of beer.  A federal judge ruled that physicians could prescribe liquor for “medicinal” purposes, resulting in an average of 10 million such prescriptions per year.  Some doctors sold blank prescription books.

Even if violators were arrested, it was difficult to get a conviction.  Of 7,000 arrested in New York during given period, only 17 were convicted and none sentenced to jail.  Juries often refused to convict violators.  In San Francisco a jury drank up the evidence, thus forcing the judge to dismiss the case for lack of evidence.

Disrespect for the law reached the highest levels of government.  Both Presidents Woodrow Wilson and his successor kept private stashes of liquor in the White House.  One attorney general serving under Harding accepted bribes from bootleggers. An ingenious entrepreneur named George Cassidy was the unofficial bootlegger to Congressmen and Senators.  He made regular daily deliveries, as many as 25 a day, to House and Senate offices.  Cassidy wore a trademark green hat so that capitol police would recognize him and not interfere with his business.  He operated his enterprise for five years in the House grounds before transferring to the Senate office building for another five years.

Americans made folk heroes out of gangsters who risked their freedom to quench the public’s thirst for alcoholic beverages.  They weren’t gangsters so much as they were Robin Hood like defenders of the public’s right to drink what he or she pleased against a too intrusive government.  “I violate the Prohibition law, sure,” Al Capone admitted.  “Who doesn’t?  The only difference is that I take more chances than the man who drinks a cocktail before dinner and a flock of highballs after it.  But he’s just as much a violator as I am.”

It is impossible to speak of the Roaring Twenties and Prohibition without mentioning Alphonse Gabriel “Al” Capone.  “Only twenty-nine and at the height of his power,” writes journalist Nathen Miller, “Capone held a near monopoly on bootlegging, gambling, prostitution, and labor racketeering in the Chicago area.”

When Frank J. Loesch, reformer and founder of the Chicago Crime Commission, wanted to have an honest election in Chicago in November, 1928, he went to Capone and asked, “Will you help me by keeping your damned cutthroats and hoodlums from interfering with the polling booths?”

“All right,” answered Capone, “I’ll have the cops send over squad cars the night before the election and jug all the hoodlums and keep ‘em in the cooler until the polls close.”

Chicago police went through the streets the night before the election and rounded up known lawbreakers.  Seventy police cars cruised city streets on the day of the election.  Capone honored his word.  Loesch later recalled, “It turned out to be the squarest and most successful election in forty years.  There was not one complaint, not one election fraud and no threat of trouble all day.”  Chicago was Capone’s city.

Capone was a successful businessman, if also a gangster. The Office of the U.S. Attorney in 1925 estimated Capone’s annual income at $105 million, or approximately $1.5 billion in 2015.  He knew how to prosper in a free economy.   “I am like any other man,” he once said.  “All I do is supply a demand.”  Adam Smith discovered the law of supply and demand; Al Capone knew how to exploit it.  “Prohibition,” he said, “has made nothing but trouble.”  He recognized that there was a demand for a product that could not be obtained through legitimate channels.  Like a good capitalist, he became the supplier.  “When I sell liquor,” said Capone, “it’s called bootlegging; when my patrons serve it on Lake Shore Drive, it’s called hospitality.”

Capone did not believe that competition between criminal gangs should include murder.  “There was, and there is, plenty of business for all,” he said.  But a smile went only so far.  A smile backed up by a gun was sometimes necessary.  When rivals refused Capone’s peace terms, he simply had them gunned down.

Hymie Weiss, leader of the North Side Gang, rejected Capone’s peace overtures, he and several of his associates were gunned down in broad daylight.  Capone, who everyone knew ordered the hit, said that “Hymie Weiss is dead because he was bull-headed.”  Always conscious of his public image, Capone paid the medical expenses of an innocent bystander injured during the raid.  He also paid for damages done to shops in the area.

Capone made one fatal mistake as a business man; he failed to pay taxes on criminal income.  The Supreme Court ruled 1927 that even illegally earned income was taxable.  Capone was arrested and convicted of income tax evasion in 1931.  In addition to being sentenced to eleven years in prison, he was fined $50,000 plus $7,692 for court costs.  He also owed the IRS $215,000 plus interest in back taxes.

Capone was 33 and suffering syphilis, gonorrhea, and cocaine addiction, when he entered prison in May, 1932.  He was paroled in November, 1939 after serving just over seven years of his eleven year sentence.  His progressive mental decline resulting from syphilis was evident even before his release and retirement to his estate at Palm Island, Florida.  He died January 25, 1947. Only months before a psychiatric examination revealed that he had the mental capacity of a 12-year-old child.

A little known aspect of Capone’s life was his love of music.  He was a fan of opera and jazz.  He played the banjo and mandola.  While at Alcatraz he played banjo in the prison band, the Rock Islanders that gave concerts for inmates on Sundays.  He even wrote a love song, Madonna Mia, which was recorded in 2009.

Until next time, be good to all God’s creatures and always live under the mercy.

 

F. Scott Fitzgerald and the Making of the Jazz Age

F. Scott Fitzgerald was a key figure in the history of the Roaring Twenties. It was Fitzgerald, or “Scott,” as he was known to by his friends, who coined the term “Jazz Age” to describe the period. His best known novel, The Great Gatsby, first published in 1925, is a must read for anyone interested in America during the 1920s.

I have read The Great Gatsby several times and seen both the 1972 film version starring Robert Redford as Gatsby and the 2013 film version starring Leonardo DiCaprio.  The former is a classic that never disappoints, no matter how often viewed.  The latter is a paltry attempt to update a classic.  One would think that after many attempts Hollywood would learn that a remake seldom meets, much less exceeds the standard set by the original.

I am reading a number of books on the Roaring Twenties in preparation for an upper level American history class I will teach during the spring semester.  In order to get a “feel” for the era, I spent hours watching videos and listening to music from the twenties available on YouTube.  I decided to read some of the classic literature of the period, including a 1951 reprint of the original 1920 edition of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise.

This Side of Paradise is Fitzgerald’s first novel.  It is a coming-of-age story based on his early life.  He began writing it in 1917 shortly after accepting a commission as a second lieutenant in the army.  Joining the army was a ruse to divert attention from the fact that he was flunking out of Princeton University.  The finished manuscript, four chapters in length and titled “The Romantic Egotist,” was rejected by Charles Scribner’s Sons in 1918, but with the suggestion that he rewrite and resubmit it.

Scott undertook a frantic rewriting of “The Romantic Egotist” in 1919.  He was in love with a beautiful Southern belle, Zelda Sayre, member of a prominent Montgomery, Alabama family with deep roots in the Old South.  He was sure he would soon be a rich and famous author; he only had to convince her.    Only then could he win the hand of the fair Zelda.  She was not the sort of girl likely to marry a man with great dreams only.

On September 3, Scott fired off the typed manuscript to Max Perkins at Scribner’s and returned to his mundane job roofing freight cars at Northern Pacific Railroad.  This Side of Paradise was published on March 26, 1920.  The first printing of 3,000 copies sold out in just three days.  Eleven additional printings followed during 1920 and 1921 for a total of just under 50,000 copies.  It was a phenomenal success.

Scott telegraphed Zelda to join him in New York.  On April 3, 1920, barely a week after the publication of This Side of Paradise, Scott and Zelda were married in New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral, following which they set up housekeeping in an apartment on West 59th Street.

Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald became the poster couple of the 1920s. The romantic image we have of the Roaring Twenties as an era when life was one never-ending party, a dizzying swirl of jazz, flappers, bootleg booze, and gangsters is a creation of F. Scott Fitzgerald. In his fiction and the lifestyle he and Zelda lived, he created and gave life to the theme of a “Lost Generation” searching hopelessly for meaning in an existential world created by the horrors of the Great War.

The post-World War I era was a period of spiritual emptiness.  Western Civilization was in its “golden age” during the decade and a half before an assassin’s bullet struck down the heir to the Austrian throne on June 28, 1914 in the picturesque Serbian town of Sarajevo.  In the four years that followed, the glamorous fairytale world portrayed in the popular BBC television soap opera, Downton Abbey, was shattered by images of a troglodyte world of muddy, rat and lice infested trenches filled with frightened and hopeless young men waiting for the command to “go over the top” into the face of rapid-firing machine guns and near certain death.

Those who survived the “war to end all wars” could not forget the stench of rotting bodies scattered about “no man’s land,” some hanging silently on rolls of barbed wire, a smorgasbord for overweight rats.  They couldn’t rationalize it.  They couldn’t believe, as did many, that it was possible to go “back to normalcy,” that is, “Ye Good ol’ Days.”  They knew that what was lost could never be restored.  Unlike Scarlett O’Hara in that closing scene from the movie, Gone with the Wind, they knew there was no going back to Tara Plantation.   They sensed that at least for them, there was no future.

In their novels and poems T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, John Dos Passos, Hart Crane, and later Ernest Hemingway portrayed a postwar world that was a material and spiritual “waste land.”  Fitzgerald not only depicted it in his short stories and novels, especially This Side of Paradise and The Great Gatsby, he and Zelda lived it in full public view, like stars in a reality television show.  “Sometimes,” Scott once commented, “I don’t know whether Zelda and I are real or whether we are characters in one of my novels.”

Can one find anywhere in the literature of the 1920s a better description of the lost generation than these closing lines from This Side of Paradise?

Long after midnight the towers and spires of Princeton were visible, with here and there a late-burning light – and suddenly out of the clear darkness the sound of bells. As an endless dream it went on; the spirit of the past brooding over a new generation, the chosen youth from the muddled, unchastened world, still fed romantically on the mistakes and half-forgotten dreams of dead statesmen and poets. Here was a new generation, shouting the old cries, learning the old creeds, through a reverie of long days and nights, destined finally to go out into the dirty grey turmoil to follow love and pride; a new generation dedicated more than the last to the fear of poverty and the worship of success; grown up to find all God’s dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shaken…”

Amory, sorry for them, was still not sorry for himself – art, politics, religion, whatever his medium should be, he knew he was safe now, free from all hysteria – he could accept what was acceptable, roam, grow, rebel, sleep deep through many nights…

There was no God in his heart, he knew; his ideas were still in riot; there was ever the pain of memory; the regret for his lost youth – yet the waters of disillusion had left a deposit on his soul, responsibility and a love of life, the faint stirring of old ambitions and unrealized dreams.  But—oh, Rosalind!  Roaslind! . . .

“It’s all a poor substitute at best,” he said sadly.

And he could not tell why the struggle was worth while, why he had determined to use to the utmost himself and his heritage from the personalities he had passed…

“He stretched out his arms to the crystalline, radiant sky.
“’I know myself,” he cried, “but that is all.’”

The ordinary American knew nothing of the new world inhabited by the so-called Lost Generation.  They did not read the literary works of Fitzgerald, Dos Passos, Eliot, Hemingway, and a host of others that are covered in American literature classes today.  Their names and the titles of their novels are known to a select group of educated person today, either because they have seen a movie based upon one of the novels, or, perhaps much less likely, actually read one or more.

A cursory glance at the lists of bestselling novels in the United States during each year of the 1920s reveals that not one of the authors commonly included in a list of the lost generation is included.  That’s right, not even F. Scott Fitzgerald.  The popular authors of the twenties included Gene Stratton-Porter, Harold Bell Wright, and especially Zane Grey.

Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise sold approximately fifty thousand copies in 1920, while Harold Bell Wright’s The Re-Creation of Brian Kent, also published in 1920, sold close to a million copies.  Wright was the first American author to sell a million copies of a single novel, and the first to become a millionaire from writing fiction.  Five of his novels each had sales equal to one percent of America’s population at the time.

To illustrate further how different were the reading habits of the literate masses during the 1920s from those who read the works of the lost generation writers, I need only mention that the Tarzan novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs sold more copies than those of Stratton-Porter, Wright, and Grey combined.  Burroughs’ Tarzan adventures and other bestselling fiction were not considered serious enough to be included in the Publishers Weekly’s list of bestselling novels.

Was the decade of the 1920s really what is portrayed in the fiction written by Fitzgerald and his compatriots, or is the “jazz age” merely a bit of a self-appointed intellectual elite’s nostalgia for a mythical past no more connected to reality than the antebellum South found in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind?

Odd, isn’t it?