What Were They Thinking?

"What were they thinking?"

From the 15th into the 18th centuries, paranoia about witches in Europe and North America was at its peak. Estimates are that 40,000 to 100,000 people, mostly women, were executed, usually by burning, for being a witch.

Burning people because we thought they were witches? What were they thinking?

From the 16th into the 19th centuries, an estimated 12 million Africans were shipped as slaves to the Americas. About 5 or 6 percent of them were brought to what is now the United States where, by 1860, the slave population had grown to 4 million. Owning another human being? What were they thinking?

My grandmothers – and many of yours – were born in this country when women were forbidden to vote. Do you remember what you thought when you were a kid and first learned about these things? Probably you were in elementary school. Do you remember?

The basic history of the West, as presented in grade school, comes across as a story of progress: we have learned not to burn witches, not have slaves, that women as well as men have the right to vote. For me, in elementary school in the late 1960s, I remember that sense that we today are superior to our benighted ancestors.

That sense of progress and superiority I felt was nowhere present the evening I heard the word “napalm” on the evening news, reporting on the Viet Nam war.

“Dad, what’s napalm?”

I remember the calm way he answered: “It’s a gasoline jelly used in bombs. When the bomb goes off, the flaming jelly sticks to and burns things. People, mostly.”

He didn't seem bothered by this: he was so matter-of-fact. I was stunned.

(There are times when we are called upon to explain to children such awful things as napalm – or why millionaires pay so little in taxes. Along with explaining the facts, please tell them about your feelings too: that the existence of these things makes you sad – maybe angry or scared. They need to see that it matters to you.)

Moral progress isn't so clear. By third grade, I knew that we no longer burned people we thought were witches. Instead, we burned people we thought were communists.

The moral progress of our attitudes doesn't always match changes in practical realities. No one would speak in favor of slavery today, but human trafficking continues on every continent. Right here in Florida, immigrant farmworkers are locked up, cheated out of pay, robbed of their names, stacked 10 to a room.

Still, we can be glad of attitude change.

When my predecessor in Unitarian ministry, Rev. William Furness in Philadelphia, preached against slavery in 1836, roughly half his congregation was outraged and incensed. I have to admit that there’s something exciting and appealing about being so “out there” as a preacher that I would have to have body guards by the pulpit, or a pistol inside it, as Theodore Parker did.

But realistically I have to be glad that attitudes have shifted. Once, pretty much everywhere, a man understood that beating his wife and children was his husbandly and fatherly duty. Abuse and battering continue, but attitudes in the US and Europe, at least, have shifted from expecting it to accepting it to seeing it as a foible one joked about, to taking it seriously as a criminal transgression.

Homosexuality was once a hanging offense. In parts of the world it still is, essentially. US attitudes have removed it from being a crime, and same-sex marriage is now recognized in six states and the District of Columbia – and in 10 countries.

Torture continues, but its condemnation is much more widespread. Waterboarding was invented in the middle ages by the Catholic Church that now condemns it.

Lynchings were common in the US South, especially 1890 through the 1920s, though lynching of African Americans continued into the 1960s. Disturbing photographs show smiling, celebratory white faces at a lynchings. It was murder, and it was used to kill not just an individual, but to kill the spirits, to intimidate and oppress a whole people – and carried out in a party atmosphere.

What were they thinking?

And: what are we doing today, what practices do we tacitly accept or actively endorse, of which our great-grandchildren, looking back on the first and second decades of the 21st century, will ask: What were they thinking?

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This is part 1 of 7 of "The Future Will Judge Us"
Next: Part 2: "Baconnaise? High Heels? Bankers' Shenanigans?"

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