Saturday, June 28, 2014

The Ones Who Pave the Way

Today is another day when Garrison Keillor has put together an assortment of birthdays and anniversaries in this web posting that made me say, "Hmm.  Interesting how all of these have impacted my life."

Today is the birthday of Henry VIII, long ago.  You might say, "Why on earth would that birth in 1491 affect you?"  To be honest, I've been more affected by the birth of Henry's daughter Elizabeth.  You may remember her as one of the greatest rulers ever, male or female--at least, that's what I was taught long ago.  We could spend a pleasant evening debating who's the best ruler in history--maybe several evenings. 

But I'm most impacted by Elizabeth's support of the arts.  Would we have had a William Shakespeare and all those other great Elizabethan writers without her, without the culture she created that supported the arts?

Or perhaps I've been more impacted by her support of exploration of the New World, although we might give future British rulers, like Charles, more credit.  As a woman who spent much of her teenage years in and around Virginia, it's hard to escape her impact.

Henry VIII has influenced me in other ways.  I think of him as one of the fathers of the Reformation, even if he began as a "defender of the faith"--the Roman Catholic faith, that is.  Still, the man went on to create the Church of England, which has influenced me, and the literature I have loved, in many ways.

Today is also the birthday of John Wesley, another great Protestant figure.  Yes, I know I'm a Lutheran, not an Anglican or a Methodist, but it's impossible to ignore the greatness of these men.  I wrote more about Wesley in this post on my theology blog.  In our focus on Wesley as a religious leader, we're in danger of forgetting that he was also a social justice crusader, an ardent abolitionist.  He helped to lay the foundation for the movement that would change the world.

It's Rousseau's birthday too.  He spent much of his life thinking about issues of inequality, issues that impact us today as much as they did in his lifetime.  His works inspired the leaders of the French Revolution, which inspired so many of the British authors I love, before it all went terribly wrong.

We might even stretch and say that those ideas affected the gay men who decided they were tired of unequal treatment and who stood their ground during the uprising that came to be known as the Stonewall Riots.  I'm a woman who believes that oppression anywhere threatens freedom everywhere, so I would have cheered those men, had I been old enough to know what was going on.

It's also the birthday of Gilda Radner, who blazed a different trail, but who made the world a little bit more free.  I'm so grateful to all those 1970's era feminists who showed us a multitude of ways to be a woman.  We think of the 60's as an era that made great strides towards freedom, but I could make an even stronger case that the 70's made us all more free than the 1960's.  I mourned her early death, because she had such creativity and fearlessness.

Yes, I realize there is still much work to do.  Much of the world's women and homosexuals and people who are different in any kind of way are still under increasing threat as they face ever more difficult obstacles.  But I would argue that we've made strides I didn't think we would see in my lifetime:  Nelson Mandela not only released from prison but elected president of South Africa, East Europe shaking off the shackles of Communism, a president of mixed race for our own country, the fact that we're almost at the point where more women get college degrees than men--wow!

Yes, all it takes is the melting of one large enough ice shelf, and our attention will turn to survival of a completely different kind.  The apocalypse that haunts me is very different from those of the past.  But still, humans have shown great dexterity in dealing with those kind of crises--indeed, it is often those very crises, from the political dramas that Henry VIII and Elizabeth handled so deftly to the French Revolution to the human rights demands of the twentieth century, that change our lives so dramatically.

When you're tired of arguing about whether or not Elizabeth I was one of the world's greatest rulers, you can amuse yourselves at dinner parties by wondering what revolutions are changing the world for future generations right now, even as we may not perceive them doing that.  What young theologians are travelling hundreds of miles, like John Wesley?  What other ideas are inspiring those who would overturn our world?  What great characters, comic and otherwise, will young comedians create in response to all these changes?  And will any of it matter, as the seas rise and the continents burn?

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