Today In Fact, 10 May

Today in modern history is the day that marks the beginning of eras.
Today in 1869, the continental United States was finally connected by
rail from East to West. This allowed the rapid transport of people,
goods and ideas across the USA. On this day in 1924, Edgar Hoover was
appointed as the head of the FBI. A closet cross-dresser and held
blackmail by the Mafia, Hoover kept his post for almost 6 decades
until his death in 1972. In 1954, Bill Hailey and the Comets released
“Rock around the Clock” today, the first number one bestselling
rock-n-roll hit in history. Outside of the USA, today in 1981,
Francois Mitterrand became the first socialist President of France and
today in 1994 Nelson Mandela was sworn-in as the first democratically 
elected President of South Africa.

On perhaps a more mundane note, in 1893 the US Supreme Court ruled
today that the tomato is a vegetable and not a fruit. This meant that
it was subject to taxes and tariffs applying to veggies.

In the world of ideas however this day marks two important birthdays
and one death.

Marcel Mauss was born this day in 1872. The nephew of Emile Durkheim,
Mauss is most famous for his book on gifts. No not a gift book per se
but a treatise on the idea and social use of gifts. Mauss argues
strongly that all gifts demand reciprocation. That there is no free
gift. Gifts, according to Mauss are social means to bind people
together, to create social cohesion. In many cultures gifts are given
in the expectation that they will be reciprocated. This argument has
implications for Christian theology and our ideas about philanthropy
and Corporate social development.

Talking of gifts, we also can mark the birth of Karl Barth, the Swiss
theologian and resister against Nazism. Barth had an odd relationship
with his wife and his assistant, Charlotte von Kirschbaum who probably
gave him many of his ideas but has been curiously ignored by many of
Barth’s followers. The big idea that Barth gave us was a reworking of
the Calvinist doctrine of election. That strange notion that God has
already chosen who will be saved and who will be damned even before we
are born and there is nothing we can do about it. Barth’s doctrine of
election involves a firm rejection of the notion of an eternal, hidden
decree. Barth reworks the idea of election by arguing that God has
chosen us by giving us his Son.

I’m not sure where this leaves those who would follow the arguments of
Mauss but we must, as an antidote of sorts I guess mark the death of
Walter Wink on this day in 2012. Wink was a loveable and outspoken
activist and progressive Christian. His big idea was that there are
powers and principalities at work in the world and that these govern
us with a malign intent. The task of any spirituality is to identify
and unmask these powers that lie behind our governance. Wink, a
pacifist and social activist argued that imperialists often operate
under the myth of redemptive violence. That the myth that somehow we
can be redeemed by struggle and war, is deeply embedded in our
discourse and thinking on civilization.

Well today for sure remember that it is a day for the start of eras,
perhaps even errors? Today might be as good a day as any to prove
Marcel Mauss wrong and honour Karl and Walter by electing to give
someone with no power a gift without hope any return. Perhaps then we
can call the tomato a fruit.

– Douglas Racionzer (you’ll find a full archive of Doug’s daily
musings at