Benito Juarez

March 21

March 21, the birth of spring, is also the birth of Mexico’s greatest leader, Benito Juarez.

On this day in 1806 Benito was born to poor Amerindian peasants in the mountains of Oaxaca. His parents died when he was three and Benito spent his youth working the corn fields and shepherding local flocks.

At age 12 he left the mountain village for the city of Oaxaca to live with a sister and work as a servant. There he learned Spanish (he spoke only Zapotec, and was illiterate) and thanks to the help of a Franciscan monk he befriended, gained entrance to a seminary school. He chose to go to law school rather than become a priest.

He worked as a lawyer from 1834 to 1842, as a judge for the next five years, and by 1847 he was Governor of Oaxaxa. However, in 1853 he spoke up against the corrupt government of dictator Santa Anna, and was forced to go into exile in the United States. There the former lawyer, judge and governor worked at a cigar factory in New Orleans.

When General Santa Anna finally resigned in 1855, Juarez was welcomed back to Mexico. The new government sought to abolish the military government and create a new federalist constitution. Juarez, who had helped to draft a plan for a liberal Mexican democracy during his exile, was selected as the country’s Chief Justice under the new liberal President Comonfort.

The honeymoon was short. Conservatives angered by the country’s new democratic direction launched a coup with the support of the military and the clergy. The Mexican War of the Reform was a time of schismatic rule. At first Comonfort tried to negotiate with conservatives, led by General Zuloaga. He agreed to dissolve the Congress and place Juarez and other liberal leaders in jail. However, when it became clear the conservatives were not going to stop short of anything but complete militaristic control of the country, Comonfort reinstated Congress, freed Juarez and other political prisoners, and resigned. Juarez became, by default, the interim president of Mexico. Since Zuloaga’s forces controlled Mexico City, Juarez moved his government to the state of Guanajuato (meaning “place of frogs”).

Juarez’s legitimacy was aided by the power struggle between Zuloaga and two other generals, each of whom took turns arresting and deposing one another and assuming military control. When the dust cleared, liberal forces marched back into Mexico City and regained the capital. Juarez became undisputed President in 1861.

Faced with a bankrupt economy, Juarez declared a moratorium on European debts. Spain, England and France responded by seizing the port of Veracruz. Juarez struck an agreement with Spain and England to repay Mexico’s loans, but France had other plans. They intended to establish a puppet dictatorship under Maximilian I.

Again Juarez took his government into exile, this time to the state of Chihuahua. Juarez could not get support from the United States, which was in the middle of its own Civil War.

Juarez sought, and got, support from Mexican-Americans in California (recently Mexico) and after the U.S. Civil War, Lincoln and other generals unofficially supported the Juarez government with weapons and men.

Maximilian was overthrown and executed in 1867, at which time Juarez became undisputed president for his fifth and last term. He would die while in office at the age of 66.

“It is given to men, sometimes, to attack the rights of others, to seize their goods, to threaten the lives of those who defend their nation, to make the highest virtues seem crimes, and to give their own vices the luster of true virtue. But there is one thing that cannot be influenced either by falsification or betrayal, namely the tremendous verdict of history. It is she who will judge us.

Benito Juarez to Emperor Maximilian

Teacher by Choice, Politician by Accident

February 5

Today is Chama Cha Mapinduzi Day in Tanzania.

tanzanian flag

Chama Cha Mapinduzi is the name of the ruling party of Tanzania. It means Party of the Revolution in Swahili. The party came to be on February 5, 1977 after the merging of Tanzania’s two major parties under the leadership of Julius Nyerere.

Nyerere was born in 1922 just east of Lake Victoria in what was then Tanganyika. He herded sheep and “led a typical tribal life” in the village where his father was chief of a small tribe.

He began school at age 12 and studied to be a teacher at Makerere University in Uganda. After teaching for three years he received a  scholarship to the University of Edinburgh.

Upon returning to Africa he taught English, Swahili, and history in Dar es Salaam. He was elected president of the Tanganyika African Association, which he had helped to form as an undergraduate at Makerere.

Under his leadership TAA transformed into the Tanganyika African National Union (TANU) a political force dedicated to Tanganyikan independence. As his reputation grew colonial leaders pressured him to choose between teaching and politics. Though he chose the latter, his supporters would call him Mwalimu, or “teacher,” for the rest of his life.

He traveled to New York to speak to the United Nations on Tanganyikan independence on behalf of the TANU, which became the most powerful political coalition in the country. In the late 1950s, Tanganyika won independence and Nyerere was elected its first president.

tanganyika's 1st president

As President Nyerere helped unite Zanzibar and Tanganyika, forming Tanzania. He was instrumental in combining the two parties of Tanganyika and Zanzibar to form the CCM, or Party of the Revolution

He was controversial for increasingly distancing himself and the country from Western and European governments and leaning more toward Communist China.

He introduced the concept of Ujamaa, or “familyhood,” as an economic movement, melding socialism with traditional tribal government. (Ujamaa is one of the seven values defining the holiday Kwanzaa in the U.S.

He stepped down from power in 1985, before it was cool for heads of state to voluntarily do so.

A few years before his death he gave an interview to Charlayne Hunter-Gault:

CHG: You mentioned the one-party rule in your country where you were president for four terms during which time you promoted the principle of “Ujamaa,” socialism, and you have acknowledged that it was a miserable failure…
NYERERE: Where did you get the idea that I thought “Ujamaa” was a miserable failure?
CHG: Well, I read that you said socialism was a failure…
NYERERE: A bunch of countries were in economic shambles at the end of the 70s. They are not socialists..You have to take in the values of socialism which we were trying to build in Tanzania in any society.
CHG: And those values are what?
NYERERE: And those values are values of justice, a respect for human beings, a development which is people-centered, development where you care about people. You can say ‘leave the development of a country to something called the market,’ which has no heart at all since capitalism is completely ruthless. Who is going to help the poor? And the majority of the people in our countries are poor. Who is going to stand for them? Not the market. So I’m not regretting that I tried to build a country based on those principles…Whether you call them socialism or not…what gave capitalism a human face was the kind of values I was trying to sell in my country.

He died of leukemia in 1999.

Four Chaplains: This Side of Heaven

“the finest thing I have seen or hope to see this side of heaven”

February 3

A priest, a rabbi, and two ministers set out to sea to fight the Nazis.

This is not a joke, but the beginning of a sad but inspiring story of four chaplains who are remembered today as, aptly, the Four Chaplains.

George Fox
George Fox

George Fox was the eldest, a 42 year-old WWI veteran who had become a Methodist Minister at age 34. He joined the Army Chaplain Service the same day his teenage son joined the Marines.

Alex Goode
Alex Goode

Alex Goode, a Brooklyn-born Rabbi in Pennsylvania, studied at Cincinnati and Hebrew Union College before earning a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins. He joined the Army Chaplains in 1942, leaving behind his wife and 3 year-old daughter

Clark Poling
Clark Poling

Clark Poling, was born in Ohio and grew up in Massachusetts and Poughkeepsie. He studied in Michigan and at Rutgers before getting his B.D. at Yale’s Divinity School. The young Dutch Reformed Pastor told his father, a WWI Chaplain, that he didn’t want to sit the war out in the shelter of the church. His father told him that in WWI chaplains had the highest mortality rate of all. “You just can’t carry a gun to kill anyone yourself.”

John Washington
John Washington

The fourth chaplain was Father John Washington. As an Irish Catholic Priest, he was the only unmarried, childless chaplain of the four. He grew up in a poor immigrant family and was even in a gang as a youth, but received a calling from God, and was ordained in 1935. The bespectacled Washington joined Fox, Goode, and Poling at the Harvard Chaplain School, and the four developed a strong friendship.

USAT Dorchester

In January, 1943 they boarded the U.S.A.T. Dorchester bound for Europe. With over 900 passengers, mostly soldiers and few civilians, the ship was 150 miles from Greenland when it entered the waters known as “torpedo junction”. During the voyage, the four worked together to ease the fears of the men. Priest, Minister, and Rabbi offered prayers to soldiers of all faiths, not just their own.

The evening of February 2, the Captain instructed the soldiers to wear their life vests. Most however didn’t take the warning to heart. On February 3, the Dorchester was struck by a German torpedo, killing about 100 men instantly.

The ship began sinking in minutes. In the chaos, most lifeboats floated away or capsized. The four chaplains directed the men, urged hope, established a sense of order, and helped men into the lifeboats. When the lifeboats were gone, the four chaplains handed out life vests to the men.

When the life vests were gone, the four chaplains, without hesitation, each removed their own, and gave them out to the men, thus ensuring their own demise.

The Four Chaplains sunk with the Dorchester, along with over 600 men. Survivors recalled the last thing they saw on the ship was the four chaplains aboard the sinking ship, still encouraging the men with prayer and song…

“Our Father, which art in Heaven, Hallowed be Thy name. Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done.”

“Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Elohenu, Adonai Echad.” [Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.]

The 8,000 chaplains of the U.S. military during World War II earned 2,453 high medals. Though none could receive the Medal of Honor because of its special qualifications, a medal was created as its equal specifically for the Four Chaplains.

John Ladd, a survivor of the Dorchester, recalled the actions of the four chaplains atop the sinking ship as “the finest thing I have seen or hope to see this side of heaven.”

For this reason, February 3 is celebrated as Four Chaplains Day among military members and interfaith groups across the United States. The Sunday nearest is remembered as Four Chaplains Sunday.


Indian Independence

August 15

The Twentieth Century witnessed over 140 countries gain independence. [35 of them in the years 1960 and 1991 alone]. But few, if any, stirred such emotion, involved so much conflict, changed and disrupted so many lives, inspired so many future leaders, and so fundamentally altered the world we live in, both politically and philosophically, as the independence of India.

A hundred-year struggle against imperialism and colonization came to a climax as Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru addressed his people on the eve of India’s long-awaited independence:

Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially. At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom. A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long surpressed, finds utterance.

Nehru during his Tryst with Destiny speech
Nehru's "Tryst with Destiny" speech

India found that, like so many other countries, while freedom and self-determination solved some ills, other problems were exacerbated. The partition of India into two separate, independent nations disrupted millions of lives and led to a bloody conflict that has not healed to this day.

Less than six months after independence, the Pakistani-Indian conflict would take the life of Mohandas Gandhi himself, the Indian former-lawyer who used civil disobedience to combat racial injustice in South Africa and who raised peaceful resistance to a new level to free his own countrymen in India. On January 30, 1948, Gandhi was shot by a Hindu radical, who was angry at Gandhi’s cooperation with Muslim Indians and Pakistanis.

Indian flag rises above Red Fort, Delhi

Despite the death of its greatest leader, the story of Indian independence showed the world that the principles Gandhi preached, concepts of non-violence and the power of peace, were not mere religious dogma, not words spouted by the powerful to keep the powerless meek and compliant, but were weapons capable of ending an Empire.

Swami Vivekananda was once asked by an Englishwoman, “What have you Hindus done? You have never even conquered a single nation.” To which the Swami replied…

That is true from the point of view of the Englishman…but from ours it is quite the opposite. If I ask myself what has been the cause of India’s greatness, I answer, because we have never conquered.

The gift of India is the gift of religion and philosophy, and wisdom and spirituality. And religion does not want cohorts to march before its path and clear its way. Wisdom and philosophy do not want to be carried on floods of blood. Wisdom and philosophy do not march upon bleeding human bodies…but come on the wings of peace and love, and that has always been so.

Swami Vivekananda Vedanta Lecture – Spirituality, the Gift of India